This week with Brian 6 to 13 June 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including  culture wars, a new definition, a bag of snakes, an elderly Bentley, lurching right, local choice, scuttling away, another measure needed, vanishing wealth, a large loan, a few deadlines, the cheaper option, Alice’s concerns, guerrilla strimming, soil commandos, four predictions, two new chickens, strange fruit, a vocal letter, a heckler’s interruption and bowhead whales.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).

If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

The phrase “culture wars” is mentioned a lot but I realised that, if an alien asked me to define it, I’d be hard pressed. The phrase covers an increasing range of areas including gender and LGBQT+ issues, Gaza, the very existence of the state of Israel, racism, pandemic-related debates such as lockdowns and vaccines and (though less so than a few years ago) Brexit. Wikipedia, as one might expect, has a big section on it. The first paragraph which defines it, though only five lines long, has no fewer than thirteen terms that are themselves worthy of sections elsewhere – we’re talking phrases like “political cleavage”, “wedge issues” and “morality” which are, if anything, even more debatable or obscure.

[more below

• Wars

The Cambridge Dictionary’s version is “disagreements about cultural and social beliefs between groups, especially between people with more conservative opinions (= generally against social change) and people with more progressive opinions (= generally supporting social change).”

Though terser, this seems to come nowhere close to expressing the level of vitriol and animosity with which discussions on the subject are generally conducted. The term “discussion” here is a fairly arbitrary one as that implies someone listening to what the other person says and stating their own case as rationally and as objectively as possible, all with the aim of reaching if not agreement then at least some points of understanding.

I’ve therefore created my own definition: “an argument, usually about social and cultural matters and generally very heated, between two sides, both of which believe their point of view to be self-evidently correct, often characterised by a refusal to admit that the other point of view has any right to be expressed, or even exist at all.” Other definitions exist.

Whatever one you pick, I think we can all also agree that one must enter this world with as much care as Frodo and Sam employed when entering Mordor, and for much the same reasons. Any victory is likely to be Pyrrhic or ephemeral, will certainly be bloodthirsty and is unlikely to change anyone’s minds. The point may soon come when, for both sides, the wholesale slaughter of their opponents seems to be the only rational aspiration. Nuanced debate is impossible. Both sides have strong defensive positions from which their slings and arrows can be hurled.  As the battle rages, bystanders will be treated to volleys of different opinions, often predicated on such differing assumptions that it’s sometimes hard to believe that the two sides are talking about the same thing.

Many of these circumstances and states of mind perfectly describe life during an election campaign: which is, perhaps, why it’s no surprise that the Conservatives have recently decided to launch an offensive against certain aspects of perhaps the most divisive aspect of our culture wars, that of gender definition: specifically, as the BBC summarised it, a pledge “to rewrite the Equality Act so that protections it enshrines on the basis of a person’s sex apply only to their biological sex.”

I’m not going to say any more about this slippery bag of snakes because I don’t know enough about it, a fact I’m constantly reminded of when I find myself involved in a conversation about it.

The only thing I will add is that this specific legal change is unlikely to be the only goal. It seems likely that the whole tofu-eating woke-chatterati anti-growth conspiracy (as Liz Truss sort of put it during her mercifully brief period in office) is under attack. Whichever view you hold, you feel your side to be as men of Gondor, with stout hearts and bright swords shining in the sun; while arrayed against you is a seething army of slavering sub-human orcs for whom extermination is the only option. Which side are you on? Choose swiftly…

• Cars

The question of why this matter has been raised now seems easy to answer. The rise of Reform UK – which has probably recently been boosted by Nigel Farage’s announcement that he’ll stand in Clacton for the party he’s now leading – has caused the Conservatives to come up with policies that might appease disaffected voters. So far we’ve had national service, rip-off degrees (potentially any that aren’t STEM or likely to lead to fairly immediate high earnings) and defence, with the small-boats/Rwanda issue buzzing along like tinnitus in the background.

Raising gender identification is for the Tories to put down another marker that they’re tough on such matters; at least as tough as Reform. Indeed, Sunak seems intent on turning the Conservative Party into something that Farage would be happy to lead, as he may yet get the opportunity to do. It’s as if the PM were at his own expense adding features to his elderly Bentley that he knows will be to the liking of a notorious local car thief before obligingly leaving it on the street with the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition.

Of course, the political lurch to the right (which Labour has followed) is at least as much a result of the concerns of the electorate as it is an invention of the parties. The Lib Dems and the Greens are now the most left-wing parties but, as mentioned last week, the vagaries of our election system mean that neither will get a number of seats that remotely equates to the votes they receive.

Reform, on the other hand, will probably get no seats at all but has indirectly dominated the campaign, No other small party has managed to get any serious attention. This is depressing considering that two very serious issues – the future of our water companies and climate change – have been largely ignored by the two main parties. If the latter issue in particular can’t get any electoral traction now, you wonder if it ever will.

Meanwhile, one wonders what policy initiative might be next. The return of capital punishment? Compulsory fox hunting? Invading France? The last of these was for centuries a proven way for monarchs to unite the country behind them, with a pop at Scotland often thrown in for good measure. You’ll know if Farage thinks this is worth bringing back by seeing whether Sunak decides to suggest it.

• Deadline

Candidates who want to nominate themselves for the election need to have done so by 4pm on Friday 7 June – so, not long now (or, depending when you’re reading this, too late). A number of parties were caught on the hop by Sunak’s unexpected announcement last month, The Independent reporting that the Conservatives still had 191 out of a notional 650 seats (the party doesn’t put up candidates in the 18 Northern Irish constituencies) unselected. Labour had about 100 unselected on 22 May.

Leaving matters late has advantages for the party HQ, if you subscribe to the Machiavellian idea that all of them despise the idea of letting local parties make the choice. There’s a lot of argument about whether a local MP is intrinsically a good thing: but a lot of this depends on how you define “local”. Born in the constituency? Brought up there? Living or working there now? Those with local credentials understandably play them up.

However, most electors probably want an MP who, wherever they came from, understands Westminster’s greasy ropes and is able to lobby effectively for local funding (probably the most effective thing a backbencher can accomplish). Local parties want to reward people who’ve put in the hours in local councils and campaigns. National parties want candidates who can win the seat, whatever the cost. These motivations will not always produce the same candidate.

The desire by Labour forcibly to re-integrate Diane Abbott shortly before the deadline may be an example of this: the party wanted her to stand, but on its terms. Fazia Shaheen’s even later defenestration in Chingford and Woodford Green, where Iain Duncan-Smith is defending a slim majority, will probably leave the berth open for a central nominee.

Even more eye-catching, certainly in the opinion of the local party, was the parachuting of Richard Holden into Basildon and Billericay. Tory John Baron won in 2019 with a majority of over 20,000, so making it a pretty safe bet. The BBC reports that the local party was expecting a list of three names to choose from – one might wonder if it had planned to put up any itself – but was told recently that “you’re just getting the one”. The fact that he’s the Conservative Party Chairman seemed to have cut no ice with the locals. “What has he done for Basildon and Billericay?” Richard Moore, the Chair of the local Conservative association asked. “Nothing.”

Many local parties will find that they’ve had similar choices imposed on them before the deadline. How successful this has been will be judged when the results are announced on 5 July. If Richard Holden wins, he’ll doubtless become the beau of the Basildon and Billericay Tories. If he loses, he’ll scuttle away, never to be seen in the area again.

• Wealth

In an election where a number of assumptions about political and economic certainties seem to be pre-determined, it was refreshing to read, not for the first time, that an alternative to GDP, the traditional method of measuring economic success, was being discussed during a general election campaign.

The Green’s co-leader, Adrian Ramsay, is quoted on the BBC website as saying that GDP is “a blunt instrument” to measure the state of an economy. He added that a “wider range of economic measures” should be reflected when deciding what policies to pursue. “GDP doesn’t tell us about how unequal our society is or whether public services are working, or measure impacts on the environment,” he added. “We need to have a wider range of economic measures which are about health and happiness, prosperity, jobs and public services.”

It’s increasingly worried me that GDP is a measure of growth, and thus of consumption, and thus also of waste. I concede that it’s empirical and comparable, which makes it convenient. For at least a century, democracy has worked because governments have promised to provide us with ever-increasing wealth. The idea that this can continue indefinitely is increasingly unsustainable. For political parties to be honest, and to avoid a crisis in democracy as well as in the environment, they need to agree that some other way of measuring our progress is needed.  The Green Party has at least started this process. Honesty is, however, rarely rewarded at the ballot box.

The UK is sixth on the global list of GDP. However, many might feel that this ranking is irrelevant. Even though our taxation levels are at record levels, our health and social services are in disarray, our local councils are struggling to make ends meet, our rivers are full of sewage, our railways are chaotic, our arts have had their funding slashed, our housing is in an affordability crisis, our landscape’s biodiversity is being destroyed, our cities are choking and our recent response to the climate emergency has been pathetic. For pretty much every one of these problems, the response has been “there’s no money.” Where’s it all gone?

• Heat

One aspect of the election on which most of the parties have been very silent on is that of climate change. Perhaps they believe that the whole thing’s just too much of a downer. Also, as mentioned above, what many people want to hear at an election is the promise of how government policies will make them richer, not poorer.

If so, then the politicians are seriously missing a trick. The most recent newsletter from the East Garston Eco Group points out that “It’s now cheaper to save the world than to destroy it.” Achieving net zero will cost less than one percent of our GDP but the effects of climate change are already costing us over one percent, a figure that’s set to triple by 2050. So, it’s not only the right option but, increasingly, the cheaper one.

• UK100

We’ve recently received a communication from the organisation UK100. This describes itself as “a cross-party membership organisation that supports the most ambitious councils to go further and faster on their Net Zero and Clean Air targets. Local authorities have a unique leadership role in tackling the climate crisis. UK100’s role is to foster collaboration.

“We facilitate knowledge-sharing between members, partnership-building and provide leadership and outreach mentoring. To accelerate action, we believe in bringing together the most influential local leaders across the country to learn together and agree on priorities for legislative and regulatory change while empowering them to engage with national decision-makers. UK100 members have pledged to deliver a Net Zero future that delivers for people and planet.”

You can click here to see if your local council or councils (some areas have a two-tier system) have signed up. In the area we cover, West Berkshire, Vale of White Horse, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire (but not Swindon) have already done so. We offer an open invitation to any participating councils to let us know what  areas for improvement they’ve identified and what projects or initiatives they’ve launched or are planning to as a result of their membership.

• And finally…

• The Post Office Inquiry is back at work after its half-term trip to the3 seaside or wherever they all went: and first up was former POL Chair Alice Perkins. Once again, we learn that people who were in a position to dig deeper failed to do so. She made the point that Horizon was but one of the many matters she had to deal and that hindsight is a wonderful thing. However, the sheer number of cases, press articles, alarming reports and questions from concerned MPs must surely at the time have rung more alarm bells than they did.

One revealing part of her testimony looked at some handwritten notes she’s made during a dinner meeting with Paula Vennells in March 2012. This appeared to be, effective, a dictated summary of the Post Office’s unquestionable orthodoxy on Horizon matters, perhaps with the intention that Alice Perkins went away and learned them by heart. Many others appeared to have absorbed the same message all too well.

• The Inquiry also revealed that the government had given serious consideration to sacking Paula Vennells in 2014, five years before she resigned. Alice Perkins is quoted by the BBC as saying that she had concerns around that time that Vennells was “relying too much” on her executive colleagues for both IT and legal knowledge and there was “too much passing on of other people’s views” when she talked to the board. “What she was relying on were words that other people had written for her, rather than her own words.”

It’s hard to know what’s worse: a CEO who many felt was not up to the job being allowed to say in-post or a Chair who shared these concerns and failed to act on them.

• I can only imagine what it must have been like on the Normandy beaches on D-Day eighty years ago today, at the start of probably the largest single military operation the world has seen. Keeping the whole thing secret was a major achievement. The anniversary has produced some harrowing stories and recollections from the dwindling band of survivors as well as some fascinating tales of previously unsung heroes. This article from the University of Bangor looks at how commandos were given a crash course in wetland soil science and then secretly got over to France to take samples in order to check that that the ground could support the weight of the tanks and other equipment.

• The European Championships start in Germany next week with both England and Scotland represented in the 24-team tournament. As to who will win, it’s hard to look beyond the usual suspects: the hosts, France, Italy and Spain, with Croatia as dark horses. Mind you, I’m almost always wrong about such things.

• The Cricket T20 World Cup is already underway with many of the matches taking places in, of all places, the USA. This isn’t quite as odd as it seems when you remember (if you ever knew) that the world’s first ever international cricket match took place between the USA and Canada in 1844. Mind you, for some unaccountable reason they’ve become a bit fonder of baseball since then. Let’s see if this competition can change a few minds…

Across the area

• £25m

I mentioned last week about the £25m which West Berkshire Council had recently borrowed from the Public Works Loan Board. This attracted some questions, partly because the sum was large but also because of the short repayment period (about 15 months), these normally being about that number of years. The uncertainty was caused by the fact that two people asked questions about this at the recent Executive meeting, neither of which were answered fully.

I spoke to a senior WBC officer about this on 4 June who assured me that WBC, like all councils, had an underlying need to borrow from a variety of sources (including sometimes from each other) for a range of reasons. This is the first loan that WBC has taken out from PWLB for some years which might, it was suggested to me, explain the interest. As for the short repayment period, this is because WBC expects interest rates to fall in the next 12 months. If all the principal sum can’t be repaid next summer then the remainder would be-financed. I was assured that this was 1quite normal.

Loans from PWLB cannot just be used for anything. Capital projects are fine (though no longer ones that are designed as speculative investments designed soleyto produce income). They can also now be used for projects which are “transformative” – see the LGA website for more on these. They cannot be spent on areas such as salaries and normal day-to-day expenses. It was confirmed to me that all such conditions would be followed and the correct accounting practices followed to record these.

Whether or not the people who have asked the questions “why so much?” and “why now?” will be satisfied is another matter. More detailed answers to their points are expected to be supplied as written answers. If we learn anything further we’ll let you know.

• Election details

The following information was supplied by West Berkshire Council. However, much of this refers to national laws and so is equally applicable wherever you live.

With polls opening in just five weeks, you should register to vote now if you’re not already on the electoral register. Registering to vote takes only a few minutes and can be done online. You can also vote by post in advance of polling day or nominate someone to vote on your behalf (a proxy vote) with more information about how to do this available on WBC’s website.

This will be the first general election where voters are required to show photo ID. Information on accepted forms of photo ID can be found on the Electoral Commission website where you can also apply for a free Voter Authority Certificate if you don’t have another acceptable document to show.

It will also be the first time residents elect Members of Parliament for the new constituencies of Newbury, and Reading West and Mid Berkshire. We’ll be administering the elections for both constituencies.

Your polling station may have changed since you last voted so please check the venue on your polling card or check it online nearer to polling day.

  • The deadline for registering to vote is Tuesday 18 June.
  • Applications for postal votes must be received by Wednesday 19 June at 5pm.
  • Applications for Voter Authority Certificates must be received by Wednesday 26 June at 5pm.
  • Applications for proxy votes must be received by Wednesday 26 June at 5pm.
  • Polling stations will be open on Thursday 4 July from 7am to 10pm.

Click here for an article in which we talk to Nigel Lynn, West Berkshire Council’s CEO, about the duties, responsibilities and headaches of being a Returning Officer, a job he’w fulfilling for both the Newbury and the Reading West and Mid Berkshire constituencies.

• Caring for the carers

Carers Week is an annual campaign to raise awareness of caring, highlight the challenges unpaid carers face and recognise the contribution they make to families and communities throughout the UK. It also helps people who don’t think of themselves as having caring responsibilities to identify as carers and access much-needed support. This year’s theme is called “Putting Carers on the Map”.

The most recent WBC Residents’ Bulletin says that “a staggering 82% of carers surveyed by Carers UK said the impact of caring on their physical and mental health would be a challenge over the coming year, with nearly 60% adding that being valued as a carer would improve their wellbeing.”

Reading and West Berkshire Carers Partnership have arranged some free events for unpaid Carers in West Berkshire. Click here for more information.

• Guerrilla gardening

There have recently been a couple of cases of guerrilla gardening – or, more specifically, guerrilla strimming – in the district. These were on patches of ground (a road verge near a junction and a playground) which had not been mowed by West Berkshire Council. Certainly in the latter case this was because a contractor had missed one of the appointed cuts. In both instances, residents took matters into their own hands and set to work themselves.

Increasingly, local councils are quite rightly giving over some and to wildflowers and general re-wilding, though this cannot trump their statutory duties to make sure sure that roads are safe and that facilities can be accessed and used. Where this doesn’t happen the temptation to do the job oneself can be irresistible but, in these litigious times, it’s worth remembering the adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

If you see an area that clearly should be being maintained but isn’t being, our suggestions are (1) that you visit your council;’s “report a problem” page (WBC’s is here); and (2) that you tell your local town or parish council. between them they should be able to work out who’s responsible and takes the necessary action.

• Residents’ news

Click here for the latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council.

News from your local councils

Most of the councils in the area we cover are single-tier with one municipal authority. The arrangements in Oxfordshire are different, with a County Council which is sub-divided into six district councils, of which the Vale of White Horse is one. In these two-tier authorities, the county and district have different responsibilities. In all cases, parish and town councils provide the first and most immediately accessible tier of local government.

West Berkshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to sign up to all or any of the wide range of  newsletters produced by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to see the latest West Berkshire Council Residents’ Bulletin (generally produced every week).

Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Vale of White Horse Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by the Vale Council.

Click here for latest news from the Vale Council.

Click here for the South and Vale Business Support Newsletter archive (newsletters are generally produced each week).

Click here to sign up to any of the newsletters produced by the Vale’s parent authority, Oxfordshire County Council.

Wiltshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Wiltshire Council.

Click here for the latest news from Wiltshire Council.

Swindon Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Swindon Council.

Click here for the latest news from Swindon Council.

Parish and town councils

• Please see the News from your local council section in the respective weekly news columns (these also contain a wide range of other news stories and information on activities, events and local appeals and campaigns): Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area

• Other news

Click here for details of the orchard campaign, launched last year by Veoilia and West Berkshire Council.

• A motion presented in March to give people who’ve been in care greater protection was approved at a meeting of West Berkshire Council’s Executive on 23 May.

• West Berkshire Council has announced that Stagecoach is adding more bus journeys to the route connecting Newbury and Basingstoke. Service 32, formerly known as The Link, will now operate on Sundays/bank holidays for the first time, with extended evening hours Monday to Saturday, and additional peak time options on weekdays.

• West Berkshire Council has been rated as “Good” for its performance in ensuring people have access to adult social care and support following a recent assessment by the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

Click here for a statement from West Berkshire Council concerning its recent peer review.

• West Berkshire Council is continuing to assist the local community through the Household Support Fund until autumn 2024. The funding “aims to support households who would otherwise struggle to meet essential housing costs to help them with living costs.” Read more here.

• The examination of West Berkshire Council’s local plan is now under way. Click here for more information about this including (in annexe A) the day-by-day timetable. You can also click here to see the recordings of the sessions (these were briefly unavailable earlier this week but I’m now assured that these have returned and will remain).

The animals of the week are the two new rescue chickens we got last week who, whenever they lay an egg, set up a crazy chorus, with which the other two join in, which John Cage would have been proud to have composed.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.

ws area sections (links above) for further details.

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And here’s my vote for the Song of the Week. At election time, it’s worth remembering some struggles that really made a difference. What better example than Strange Fruit, this version by Billy Holiday.

• And for the Comedy Moment of the Week. Still with the election in mind, there might be a certain amount of heckling to come: and here’s Fry and Laurie sketch in which Heckling Stops the Show.

• And finally, for the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What is the only letter in English that is never silent? Last week’s question was: What mammal has the longest average life expectancy? The answer is the bowhead whale which can live (if not harpooned first) for over 200 years.

For weekly news sections for Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area  please click on the appropriate link

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