Sunday, December 31, 2006

2006 and all that

Thanks to everyone who has taken the trouble of reading and sometimes commenting on my meanderings this year. The site has now had over 4200 hits since I started in August, and over 2500 since 10 November, which isn't bad going for an essentially parochial blog here in the North East. The Clustrmap suggests we've had hits from Lima to Tokyo and from Los Angeles to Manila (with the vast majority in Darlington, of course). On one day in December the blog had 50 visits from individuals and 110 hits in all (although this was probably due to the pull of Mike Barker's Health Warehouse "luxury hand-made mince pies" as the quiz's prize...)

I've updated the links section to include key blogs such as Harry's Place, Kerron Cross, Tygerland, Tom Watson MP and the right-wing (but required) Iain Dale's Diary. Check out the Provisional BBC Blog too (thanks to Antonia Bance for recommending it) which gave me a chuckle today.

2006 has been a good year for Darlington too. The town received funding for the congestion-busting Eastern Transport Corridor. The superb renovation of the Dolphin Centre was completed, whilst the work to Arts Centre proceeds. More jobs came to the town, and the nationally-recognised Education Village was opened by the Prime Minister. Darlington College have a state-of the-art new site on Haughton Road, and the wrappings began to come off the Pedestrian Heart scheme in the town centre. The Council remains a 4 star authority, recognised as one of the best in the country. It's the strongest position the town has been in for a generation.

On a personal note, given the date I've had to consider New Year's Resolutions. I thought about laying off the LibDems for a while, but decided against it - after all as WC Fields instructs, "Never give a sucker an even break". In the end, I've decided to join my eldest son James and become a vegan at least until my resemblance to Homer Simpson has diminished. Anyone spotting me hovering by the cold meat counter in ASDA has my permission to call security...

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Policing in Darlington

Time for a new poll, and with crime and anti-social behaviour high on the list of people's priorities, time to consider Durham Constabulary's recent reforms which stripped Darlington of its status as a Basic Command Unit.

Sounds trivial? Well the result in 2004 was to amalgamate the Borough's policing units with those across south Durham. That's why now if you have a problem, you no longer ring the Police Station on St. Cuthbert's Way, but instead are put through to a call centre in Bishop Auckland. Residents across Darlington have recounted stories of their phone calls to this number going unanswered. Darlington is the only unitary authority in the North East which doesn't have its own BCU.

So were the Police right to pool resources across South Durham? Or should decisions about policing in Darlington be taken closer to the people whose lives are affected by them? Have your say.

Latest Mini-Poll Results

Thanks to everyone who voted in my latest mini-poll "What issues should dominate Darlington's local elections next May?" The top three were;

Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour 25%
Congestion 19%
Open Government 11%

...with the likes of jobs and prosperity, protecting the environment and the town centre each attracting between 6% to 8%.

I agree that crime and ASB, and which party is best equipped to deal with it, will play a key role in May's poll. Two other points; firstly the relatively low position accorded to the town centre. The Tories will continue to try to talk down the town centre to garner a few cheap votes between now and May (they did it in 1995 too) but the positive comments the Pedestrian Heart scheme is already receiving as areas are unveiled will see them off. They will risk looking sour and negative.

Secondly, no votes at all for roads and pavements. This has been a hot issue before, but the £23.5 million spent on on highways maintenance by Labour since 1997 (including the Let's Get Cracking initiative) has now transformed what was a poor situation. There's still work to do, but with the enormous progress, the issue has dropped down the list of residents' concerns.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Stepping back in time

Whilst trying to work out for myself where the apostrophe in "Mechanics Yard" should be placed (see Pedestrian Heart Update below, and yes, you're right, I have way too much time on my hands) I came across Durham County Council's GIS mapping service.

Although we are now part of a Unitary Authority, the County still hold important archives, including historic maps. If like me you love local history, simply click on the "launch GIS now" icon and then click on the "search" key (top right hand corner of the page). Under 'keyword' enter your postcode. This takes you to a map of your immediate area in 2001. You can then follow the development of your locality through maps in the twentieth and nineteenth centuries. Personally, I found that altering the scale from 2500 to 3500 gave greater clarity. It's a cracking service and well worth a try.

(By the way - it would appear that it is in fact Mechanic's Yard - sorry Mike!)

Bumper Christmas

Supporters and detractors alike will take what they can from this morning's Echo story about Chiristmas takings in Darlington town centre.

Both the Queen Street Shopping Centre and the Cornmill reported a sharp rise in footfall, despite the Pedestrian Heart works.

In the 2 weeks before Christmas 75,000 people visited Queen Street and in the week running up to Christmas this increased to 100,000 although the manager there felt that it had been affected by the works in the past.

The Cornmill Centre described business over Christmas as "brisk." Cornmill manager Susan Young said, "It's difficult to say whether the Pedestrian Heart project has had an effect on our trade or not. Our footfall last week was up on the same week last year, and a lot of retailers are reporting record takings. It would be unfair to blame any loss of business on the Pedestrian Heart project."

She added, "The footfall on Boxing Day was up 18% on last year, and we had 210,000 visitors last week, which is 22% more than the year before."

Darlington Tories have consistently talked down the health of Darlington town centre to try and extract some political advantage during the inevitable disruption of the Pedestrian Heart works. In the light of these figures, maybe now would be a good time for them to reassess their position and get behind the town.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

To Hull in a handcart

More grisly news from my Humberside colleague Cllr Gary Wareing's blog regarding the beleaguered LibDem administration there.

After running up a £5 million deficit, LibDem bosses are taking increasingly desperate steps to balance the books. In the summer, a mass campaign was necessary to stop the Liberals scrapping universal free school meals for primary school children (introduced by Labour). Local people have also had to take to the streets to save a popular swimming baths.

Now the LibDems are targetting the elderly - "tighter controls" will result in 1 in 4 of the most vulnerable members of society leaving care.

And an interesting echo of politics here in Darlington, one cut the LibDems did make was to close a local youth club. No doubt they were promising the earth before they were elected....

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Friendly fire

I suppose Labour Party members will have to get used to candidates for the leadership/deputy leadership taking lumps out of each other over the next few months. Dragging the Party down too in order to boost their chances however is unforgiveable.

Somewhere within MP John Cruddas' news item this morning is a positive point about the need to significantly increase Labour Party menbership. Shame then he had to give the Labour-hating media a free hit by suggesting that on current trends there would be no LP members left by 2013.

It's a crackers statistic, as Hazel Blears had to point out in rebuttal on BBC news this morning - in fact LP membership has stabilised over the last two years. The last time I heard year-on-year membership figures for Darlington CLP, our numbers were actually up.

John Cruddas seems to be a hard-working and likeable MP whose central message about building from the grassroots is essentially correct. Maybe he can make that point in the future without handing ammuniation to the opposition.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Bristol Fashion






Before heading back yesterday, we found time to visit Brunel's Great Britain in Bristol docks.

Last time I saw her, she was little more than a rusting hull with a replaced deck.

The transformation now is hugely impressive, particularly below, bringing back to life an icon of Victorian engineering.

The ship has contributed to the renaissance of Bristol docks in more ways than one. In 1970, when she was towed triumphantly up the Avon, she was placed in a dock that was on the line of one section of dual carriageway planned to crash through the western side of the city centre. Bristol City Council planned to create a series of "lagoons" in the docks area - little more than short-hand for filling them in with concrete after comprehensive demolition.

The return of the Great Britain helped convince the city that there was after all a future for the docks. The road plans were abandoned, and now the docks bring tens of thousands of visitors to the city every year.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Virtute et Industrial

Off to Bristle for a couple of days to see family - back on Christmas Eve.

In the meantime Mike Barker has given a rhyming clue on the "comments" section of Pedestrian Heart Update to the Christmas Quiz - it's not been won yet, so the pies are still up for grabs. We'll sort out the winner when I get back.

Don't call Time Team





Chris Lloyd in Wednesday's Echo metioned the discovery of a line of "unusual boulders which appear to be part of something that once stood on the site" uncovered by the Pedestrian Heart work next to the Market on West Row. Chris speculates that they could be the foundations of a cottage that stood by the butchers' shambles and the old tollbooth. (Typically, there's no link from the Echo website to the article).

John Buxton the Director of Development and Environment at the Town Hall took some snaps, but as Chris notes, the archaeologist wasn't very impressed with the remains. As promised here are a couple of pictures, so you can see why!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas Prize Quiz

OK so its not the annual King William's College spectacular in The Guardian, but Mike Barker has set a Pedestrian Heart-related question, with the prize for the correct answer being a pack of Health Warehouse hand-made luxury mince pies. Click on comments under "Pedestrian Heart Update" and join in the fun!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Pedestrian Heart Update






Before Crimbo, time for another stroll around the PH works. As you can see, a lot of progress has been made since I took my last set of snaps on November 9. The steps and paving have been completed in Blackwellgate in preparation for the Life Pulse sculpture. People are getting used to wandering safely in the middle of what were bus- and car-dominated landscapes - previously shoppers still clung to the old pavement line.

Works continues along High Row south to lay more paving and open up more areas around Post House Wynd. Construction of the curved planter around the exhibition space is expected to be complete in early January as is the road tie-in between Prospect Place and Bondgate. This includes the pavements either side of the road on the corner of Bondgate. Over the Christmas period, temporary tarmac will be used to fill in holes to allow as many areas to be walked on as possible.

The Echo had an interesting piece by the ever-readable Chris Loyd today regarding reddish stones uncovered during the work near to the Market. Apparently there are photos, and if I can get copies, I'll post them here.

Praise indeed

Today's Echo leader was fulsome in its praise for the revamped Dolphin Centre (see Wow factor) below. It said,

"Darlington Borough Council is an example of a North-East local authority which has invested heavily in leisure and is to be congratulated on the first-class job it has made of upgrading the Dolphin Centre. There have been inevitable frustrations for customers and staff while work has been carried out on the £5m facelift, but it has been well worth waiting for."

The piece notes that change can be painful, and that the Pedestrian Heart project has posed difficulties for traders but now "we look forward to the day when the work is finished and Darlington can compete regionally as a shopping destination with something different to offer."

Amen to that.

Hurworth hots up

Just as the mercury plummets, so the political temperature in Hurworth may be about to rise still further.

I understand that Peter Foster, the Tory Councillor unceremoniously dumped by the Conservatives is considering standing as an independent in May. That's bad news for the Tories and the LibDems, who are busily tearing lumps out of each other in an increasingly bad-tempered contest.

With the two parties squabbling over who provided a bin outside the VG shop (yes really) an independent candidate might just come through the middle...

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Duke Street Traders' Action Group

I went along to a positive meeting of the DSTAG steering group this evening, called to discuss the Council's proposals for taxi ranks in Duke Street.

We recently published a traffic order for a number of new ranks across the town - since the inception of Pedestrian Heart we have been working with the taxi trade to increase the number of spaces around the town centre. The two ranks proposed for Duke Street seem to have attracted almost universal disapproval, however.

Traders fear that taxi ranks along Duke Street could attract late night trouble from drunken revellers. Local residents apparently share their concern. Two members of the taxi trade were also present, who told me that the hackney carriage drivers (who work the ranks) in fact also didn't want the proposed ranks on Duke Street, and wanted instead a longer rank on nearby Barnard Street.

Things are rarely this straightforward to sort out (though this could be the exception), but tonight's discussion will provide a useful basis for discussion over the coming weeks.

We also talked about the needs of traders on the "fringe" of the town centre. Duke Street, Grange Road and Coniscliffe Road have a number of independent traders who add enormous value to the shopping experience in Darlington. I'll certainly be happy to go back and talk to them again about matters of concern.

Top of the pile


Christmas is a time when the Civil Service churns out announcements, so it was doubly pleasing today when we received confirmation about our Local Transport Plan (LTP's). This is the mechanism by which Highway Authorities like Darlington receive money for road schemes and the like.

The Government has been assessing how successful our first 5-year Local Transport Plan between 2000 and 2005 was. Its judgement is that it was excellent - Darlington is the only local authority in the North East with this rating. The letter commented;

"Particular areas of strength include road safety, the journey to school and parking, and we are pleased to see road safety and school travel clearly embedded within a range of themes and initiatives. The focus on physical measures to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists, coupled with extensive targeted education, training and publicity has helped you to meet road safety targets, whilst delivering local targets to increase cycling and walking across the borough.

There is a clear commitment to making a difference to the school journey, and your approach to cycle training is particularly robust. Partnership working is a strength, and we are pleased to see that you have developed strong and effective partnerships with a wide range of organisations. "


Our current LTP has been classed as "good" (there were no better scores in the North East again).

As a result, Darlington Council will receive an additional £226,000 for 2007/08 and an additional £686,000 over the period of the second Local Transport Plan (2006-2011). I'm delighted with the assessment, which is the fruit of significant effort by officers and our partners over the years.

Monday, December 18, 2006

T Minus 41

Great news from the Department for Transport today when it was confirmed we had finally got the green light for the Eastern Transport Corridor.

There were times when I thought the road would never be built. Two years ago, almost to the day, we were told that our funding for the road had been lost. At the time we were in the midst of a protracted legal battle with one of the landowners of property which the road was due to cross who claimed he had planning permission to build a retail park on his site. The conflict cost us precious months. Infuriatingly, two days after the announcement was made that the money had been lost, we comprehensively won our case in the High Court.

The last two years have been spent pursuing the financing via regional funding. Town Hall officers have worked long, long hours as we built our bid, and sorted out the land purchases and complex traffic orders. Our local MP Alan Milburn played a key role too, lobbying for the road.

The start date for work - January 28 2007. Completion will be in 2009.

Wow factor





The CLP's Christmas Party was held in the newly-refurbished Dolphin Centre on Saturday. I was stunned by the transformation, and went back for these snaps today. Months of hard work have paid off, and the main body of the building is unrecognisable - it's all glass, chrome and polished wood. Get along there - believe me you'll be wowed too.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Ch-ch-changes

Blogging's never easy this time of year, but this site showing how Cameron's apeing Blair should add some winter fu-uel-el.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Demon Booze

Good coverage in today's Echo for the launch of a crackdown on under-age drinking. Working together, the Police, Council and 200+ retail outlets are looking to reduce the incidence of teen drinking. Henceforward no-one who looks under the age of 21 will be served without proof of identity.

Every community in the Borough is blighted by anti-social behaviour fuelled by drink. In my ward, local people and councillors have complained about one or two rogue businesses who turned a blind eye, and allowed kids to stock up. An off license sold openly to children - indeed one resident told us how she saw girls in school uniform buying Bacardi Breezers first thing in the morning.

No-one should doubt how difficult this problem will be to crack, however. At some outlets retailers have been bamboozled by young adults buying alcohol, which they then hand on to children congregating nearby. And when the Police do take action, they've told me of instances where the parents of returned children have admitted giving drink to their children, and can see nothing wrong in that.

Perhaps the most bizarre example was in Belsay Close, where local people suffered from ongoing problems associated with Springfield School Playing Field. Older children and adults collected on the field to drink. One resident told me how he'd seen a white van pull up in the street, and the young adults were passed a "slab" of beer from the back in exchange for cash. Fortunately, the Dispersal Order seems to have put paid to this kind of behaviour.

On a positive note, the Echo story demonstrates how the community in Darlington is coming together to tackle the scourge of under-age drinking. At the end of the day, however , the solution lies with the families concerned.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Nasty Party

The Darlington Conservative Future website has never lived up to its proclaimed mission to stimulate debate about the future of the town, being little more than a back-slapping exercise for our local opposition.

What to make then of the most recent posting by "Dave" Davies, one of their candidates for Pierremont, who criticises the Tory Council leadership for not referring John Williams to the Standards Board. He says,

"But it was done by an individual, when it should have been we Conservatives that pushed this through.Too much nicey, nicey is going on. If we want to win, it is time fight." (sic)

My fellow blogger LibDem Mike Barker anticipated trouble for the Conservative leadership if the "braying" Tory candidates he met in the Council gallery got elected in May. It looks like the mutterings and recriminations have started 5 months ahead of schedule...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Down the Line

Got a call yesterday whilst on the train returning from London - would I like to do a live TV interview on Tyne Tees television at 6pm on the bus announcement from the Town Hall forecourt?

Darlington had been chosen of course because of our well-advertised problems in the mid-1990's during the bus wars. My heart sank, however when I found out I would have to do it "down the line" - ie wired up looking directly into a camera with no reporter present.

This is easily the most challenging way to do live TV. Last time I was interviewed like this, the earpiece kept slipping out, and I lost contact with the studio until a few moments before the interview began. When you start worrying about the hardware, you forget the key points you need to make, and the interview can go badly.

This time however, the technician and the cameraman were great, and I managed to get my key messages across, despite the light in my eyes, the biting wind and the chavs on bikes hollering.

Back to earth when I got back home though - keeping the family's priorities straight AJ and Sandy had been watching Blue Cow rather than ITV...

Bobbies on Bikes?

Down to London yesterday with the Chief Executive to give a presentation to the Transport Minister on our progress with the Cycling Demonstration Town initiative.

We were able to give good news about developments in Darlington, with rising numbers of people using bikes around the town. Projects such as that linking the town centre and South Park, which I blogged on below, are now well underway.

It was also interesting listening to progress from the other 5 towns allocated cash. In several, the Councils are working with the Police to get officers out of Police cars and onto bikes. This means they are better placed in town centres to chase and apprehend crminals who also use bikes to get away - there's a good example of this in Southend. They also set an example too, of course, of good ridership which serves to promote cycling more generally. It's a virtuous circle.

I learned after the meeting that Durham Constabulary are out of step again, apparently refusing to introduce the initiative on "health and safety grounds." I can't imagine what those would be - I hope they reconsider and we will continue to raise this with them.

Bus Wars

The impact of the Tories disastrous decision to deregulate the bus inductry outside London in 1986 continues to haunt us.

Here in Darlington, follwoing the entrance of a small operator trying to cream business from United (now Arriva) triggered a massive over-reaction from the larger company flooding the streets with buses. Darlington became a national cause celebre for all the wrong reasons. The result was that the Municipal bus company DTC was driven out of business by Stagecoach which ran free buses around town until the dirty deed was done, costing the local community over £1 million in lost sales. It was the bleakest period in my political career. The penalty for Stagecoach? - a slap on the wrist from the Office for Fair Trading.

Since then things have settled down, but deregulation continues to fail. Bus operators are free to withdraw from services that serve those most in need of public transport. Up and down the country, towns and villages have been hit as they see their bus services disappear. Little wonder then that bus patronage figures outside London are continuing to slide. Councils feel that they have a gun to their head, and step in to save at least part of the service - here in Darlington our bus subsidies have more than doubled over the past four years. Often we end up paying the same bus companies large subsidies to run on routes they themselves were operating a few weeks previously. At the same time, bus industry profits continue to swell.

In that context, the Government has launched a White Paper Putting Passengers First which seeks to redress the balance between the bus companies and local communities. There's been extensive coverage in the Echo over the last two days, albeit that the front page yesterday was a bit overcooked. This isn't a return to the pre-1986 status quo, nor is it the London franchising model (which works) where passenger numbers are bucking the trend and rising steadily. It is however, a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Mea Culpa

I've removed my previous posting on LibDems in the Blogosphere as it contained a quote which caused offence. Apologies for that.

Nick.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Street Surgery


Spent Saturday morning walking around the southern part of the ward with my fellow Haughton West Councillor Andy Scott. Andy had previously distributed street surgery notices in Kielder Drivem Meldon Close, Hutton Avenue, Bamburgh Place, Alnwick Place and Mossbank Grove.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the time of year, things were quiet, although tree damage to footpaths was raised. Traffic congestion was also mentioned by 2 residents - we were able to give a positive update on progress with the Eastern Transport Corridor proposals, which were well-received.

Finally, the lockable gates to the garages on Hutton Avenue have been badly-vandalised recently (see pic). I've emailed the officers to ask for this to be repaired as a matter of urgency - the area was prone to fly-tipping before we had the gates installed.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Voting early and often

Thanks to everyone who took part in my last mini-poll on the parties' likely spending pledges over the next few months. Some people enjoyed it so much they voted again and again and again, sometimes over the course of a day (sad or what?). Consequently, the voting ended up being skewed 76% Labour, 13% Tory, 8% LibDem and 3% BNP. At least it drove up my hit rate.

The new poll isn't directed at party political voting, but rather the issues which should dominate the poll. Get voting!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Progress on the River Skerne

I'm delighted that things are already beginning to move following my complaint to officers about the Skerne at the southern end of the ward (see Skerne Valley below).

The grafitti should be cleaned off the bridge tomorrow. Clearly resolving problems with the footpath will take longer, but I've had a helpful email from Rob George the Principal Countryside Rights of Way Officer who is looking at a series of options to deal with the problems on the path.

Notice boards for the nature reserve are also being investigated.

A Journalist Writes

I got this today from Owen Amos, a reporter on the Echo's Darlington newsdesk.

Someone has just forwarded me a link to your blog, drawing my attention to this... I wrote both stories you referred to. The Mayor's car figures were provided by the communications unit. There was no mention of FoI in the story. The car park fine figures were released under FoI. However, after they were obtained, I was told the communications unit could have provided them. Therefore, FoI deliberately wasn't mentioned (I can forward you a copy of the story if you don't believe me!). As you say, mentioning "FoI" implies to some people the council has something to hide. I just thought I'd clear that up. Hope all is well.

I did get rather hot under the collar about some recent reporting, and got the impression that an FoI was used on the Mayoral car story when the headline used the word "revealed" (all too often touchy politicians get cross at reporters when actually a sub-editor has dashed off a headline). I'm delighted to set the record straight by posting Owen's comments to me in full. Normal service is resumed.

Damp squib

I went along to the meeting organised by the Mayoral Referendum Campaign this evening at the Quaker Meeting House in Skinnergate. On reflection, I rather wish I'd stayed at home and wrapped presents.

Turnout was poor - I counted 37 people in the audience, of whom at least 12 were "the usual suspects" (I count myself in that number by the way). Councillors or candidates in May's poll made up a sizeable proportion of the audience. This after a full page advert in a recent Northern Echo (and how much could that have cost?)

The panel was made up of a member of "Unlock Democracy", a campaigning front for the New Politics Network, who are unashamed cheerleaders for the elected Mayor principle; the Mayor of Hartlepool Stuart Drummond; and representatives from the three main political parties in Darlington.

My Labour ward colleague Cllr. David Lyonette addressed some of the dilemmas and doubts about the new system, drawing on dissatisfaction with elected Mayors where they have been created elsewhere in the country. Cllr. Tony Richmond for the Tories sat on the fence, I thought, pledging that a hypothetical Tory ruling Group after next May would do things very differently. Ian Barnes for the LibDems was more thoughtful, however, suggesting that the current system could be tweaked to widen public participation without the need to sweep away our ceremonial non-political Mayor. Ian also looked how an elected Mayor might work for Darlington too, so he gave a balanced address.

I chipped in at the end - in a personal capacity as neither the Labour Group nor the Constituency Party has expressed a view on an elected Mayor one way or the other.

Tellingly, when the meeting closed, I didn't see anyone go up to the front to sign the petition - not because there was any shortage of referendum supporters in the sudience, but I guess as just about everyone who backed the idea had already put pen to paper. With so few genuinely uncommitted people in the room, I don't think many minds were changed one way or the other.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Killing Speed

I got a pleasant warm glow this evening when two transport-related stories led the Advertiser front page. (If I just played bridge, it could've been a clean sweep....)

I've covered the cycle path story already (nice of the Echo to catch up). Of equal significance, however, is the news about Labour's 20mph initiative.

The evidence is clear - slower vehicle speeds lead to fewer accidents. Those which do occur are less likely to lead to fatalities or serious injuries.

In a £250,000 set of schemes, 20mph zones will be rolled out across the town, subject to local consultation. In some places, like Coombe Drive in Red Hall or Oakwood Drive in my ward, the infrastructure to ensure low traffic speeds (speed cushions and the like) are already in place, so creating a 20mph zone is simply a matter of consulting and advertising an Order. Elsewhere, such as Eastbourne, Lascelles and Northgate, traffic calming will need to be installed.

Darlington already has an excellent record on road safety. These measures will help drive down needless fatalities and injuries still lower.

Residents' Parking - Stanhope Road

Cabinet yesterday, where I saw through the final elements of the Stanhope Residents' Parking scheme.

This has been an unbelievably long process. For those who say that the Council doesn't listen, I advise them to look at this as a case example - we have consulted and consulted again, radically changing the scheme several times as we attempted to accommodate the views of as many people and local businesses as we could.

In the end, the two remaining outstanding issues were the traffic orders outside the Ken Warne shop/Post Office on Cleveland Terrace, and waiting restrictions on the junction of The Woodlands and Milbank Road. Ken Warnes were still unhappy with the final traffic orders outside the shop, but I know that we have tried to accommodate both the needs of the Post Office but also the interests of local residents who have to live there 365 days a year.

On Milbank Road, the Police were unhappy with protecting this junction with double yellow lines. Conseqquently, officer advice in the report was to not go ahead with restrictions here. Over the weekend, however, I received a well-argued letter from a resident of The Woodlands who pointed out the road safety problems there at present. Cllr. Tony Richmond, one of the Conservative ward councillors backed up the argument with me subsequently. After talking further with the officers, I was pleased that I could set the Police objections aside, and proceed with the original lining as planned. Another small example of the Council listening and responding to local people.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Cycling moves up a gear

You may have seen the workmen digging up the pavement at the bottom of Feethams.

This is phase one of an ambitious scheme to link the town centre with South Park. In the next 4 weeks the Leadyard to Feethams element will be completed. By March, the completed route, which will include a new dedicated crossing for cyclists and pedestrians across the ring road (replacing the existing lights) will be in place. Cyclists will be able to travel along Victoria Road Back Lane, and then over Victoria Road to Bedford Street, and then on to the park..

This is part of our Cycling Demonstration Town project. Latest figures show that cycling in Darlington's schools is 5 times the national average.

As I may or may not say in the Echo over the next couple of days, "The latest work on the ring road is just part of a visionary scheme that will see excellent facilities provided for people who want to walk and cycle in safety in Darlington."

Monday, December 04, 2006

Fishing with the Echo

Criticising journalists is something I don't enter into lightly I'm becoming increasingly worried, however, by the way in which some Northern Echo journalists are going about their task.

There have been a spate of stories recently which have been been based on Freedom of Information requests made to the Council. The latest was on Saturday, when one reporter "revealed" that the Council spends £10k a year on the Mayor's car. This follows hard on the heels of similar "revelations" about the Council's car park income.

So why the concern? Well, any Echo reporter could simply ask the Council's Communication Unit for the figures and they'd be supplied. After all, the figures are in the public domain, and form part of the Council's budget which is scrutinised then passed every year. Clearly that wouldn't be too "sexy" so journalists have taken to getting the information via FOI requests. This gives the air that somehow the information is secret and has had to be dragged out of the Council.

I've written before about the conspiracy culture which affects some people in the town. This trend in journalism is helping feed it, I'm afraid (unintentionally, I'm sure). If information is refused, then the Echo would be quite right in submitting an FOI, and making a song-and-dance about the outcome.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Skerne Valley




The Skerne at the ward's southern boundary was transformed in 1994. Then a partnership consisting of the EU, Northumbrian Water and the Council returned river meanders to what then little more than a long drain running through a drab open space. The River Restoration Project was part of a Europe-wide initiative, and the results continue to inform river planning today.

The area has now matured. Swans, kingfishers and dragonflies can now be seen in the midst of an urban environment. Even in the depths of winter, the area looks stunning. It's something local people are rightly proud of.

That isn't to say that some tlc isn't needed from time to time. Grafitti on the bridge needs to be cleaned off, and flooding on parts of the footpath make it difficult to negotiate for walkers. The information board has been missing for years, and really needs to be replaced. I'll be raising these points with officers on Monday.

To Walworth Gate, by bike, in a gale...



As part of the latest diet and fitness regime, I got the bike out and headed for Archers Ice Cream Parlour (pictured left) this morning.

The farm is on one of the Council's suggested cycle routes. From Haughton, most of the trip is off-road, using purpose-built cycle paths - in turn the Skerne Valley Path, North Park, Faverdale Black Path and the old Barnard Castle railway line past Branksome (top).

The weather was atrocious, with driving rain thudding into my waterproofs, bringing back long-repressed memories of school rugby on an exposed hill-top in Failand. Still the coffee was good when I got there, when I was joined by Sandy and AJ (middle, scoffing carrot cake).


The cycle paths were in great nick and well-signposted. I'm particularly pleased with the new route along the old Barnard Castle line, which is wide and well-lit. The only tricky elements for relatively inexperienced cyclists (like me) are the places where the route crosses North Road near Zetland Street and then Whessoe Road at Elmtree Street. At both locations we should have purpose-built cyclist and pedestrian light-controlled crossings in the next 9 months.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Big Night Out

Just back in from Darlington Labour Party's Annual Dinner at Darlington FC, attended by 260+ guests.

This fundraiser has become a firm fixture in the calender, raising thousands for our campaigning effort round town. It was good to meet several new members tonight, as well as colleagues from the trade union movement.

Our guest speaker was David Blunkett. David was good value, mixing politics with the more light-hearted stuff. He ended with the old story, but none the worse for that, of George Brown, Harold Wilson's deputy PM and Foreign Secretary, who like Hobbes was "fond of a dram." George, tired and emotional, approached a magnificently-dressed figure in purple at a function in Peru, and asked for a dance. "There are three reasons why I will not dance with you," came the reply. "One, you are very drunk. Two, they are playing my national anthem. And three, I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima."

Monday, November 27, 2006

Another win for pensioners

One measure in the Queen's Speech which has received little attention affects a significant proportion of Darlington residents.

Labour has already given pensioners and other concenssionary travel recipients free off-peak travel within each local authority area (in Darlington, the Labour Council went one better and stumped up for free travel all day).

Now the scheme is going national. Concessionary travellers will be able to go anywhere by bus between 9.30am and 11pm weekdays, and on Bank Holidays. This will cost £250 million a year.

I agree with Secretary of State Douglas Alexander when he said, "The extra £250 million the Government is investing in free bus travel from 2008 will give even more freedom and independence to millions of older and disabled people." Here in Darlington pensioners will be able to travel to all the nearby conurbations free-of-charge.

This represents a genuine transport revolution, which will resonate for generations to come. It's another measure which makes me feel proud to be a member of the Labour Party.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

To Hull and back

So how do LibDems comport themselves when offered a sniff of power? Check out my Hull colleague Cllr. Gary Wareing's blog for a nightmarish account of Humberside politics.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Government Inspector

On Thursday, I was interviewed by an inspector from the Government's Audit Commission. Each Council is rated by the Commission following a Comprehensive Performance Assessment - in Darlington we have been found to be improving well, and delivering a four star performance (the latter is the best rating possible). You can see the Audit Commission's various reports on Darlington here.

There's never any room to rest on our laurels, however, and the inspector was here specifically to look at our "Direction of Travel" - broadly what improvements have we made over the past 12 months?

We were able to tell the Inspector that Darlington in 2006 looks very different. The Darlington Education Village is now open, integrating secondary, primary and specialist schooling all on one site. Darlington College has also opened in an iconic building in a prominent part of town, with an increased intake and a focus on health and inclusion. The Dolphin Leisure Centre refurbishment is nearing completion, as is the Arts Centre. With the pedestrianisation of the town centre and the proposed development at Commercial Street, the Council continues to deliver against its economic regeneration strategy. The contribution of the local authority’s social care services in maintaining and improving outcomes for children and young people has been assessed as ‘outstanding’ by CSCI/Ofsted. CSCI found within Adult Social care that ‘this has been another year of change and improvement. Developments introduced over the past three years are now providing improved outcomes for people’.

And that's just in one year. It's a good record, and gives a solid campaigning base for next May. The results of the inspection should be available in February.

Everything you wanted to know about energy policy....

Up to Durham City last night to speak to the well-attended CLP (Constituency Labour Party) about the Partnership in Power process, which is the way Labour debates policy, and then goes on to form our manifesto at the subsequent General Election. I'm one of the four National Policy Forum representatives for the North East CLP's.

I'm finding a renewed interest in having policy forums around the North East since the process was reformed after the 2005 General Election. A real effort is being made to support CLP's as they hold policy discussions, and now Policy Commissions (which are the engines of the process) can receive submissions on issues of current concern and then debate them with Ministers.

Last night, there was also a discussion of energy policy, on which I do not profess to be an expert at the best of times. As I'd managed to leave my notes at home, however, I'm not sure delegates left the meeting any the wiser....

Red Hall Street Surgery

I joined Darlington MP Alan Milburn and local ward councillors Chris McEwan and Geoff Walker this morning in a street surgery on the Red Hall estate.

It was a busy surgery, with issues of speeding traffic, grafitti and roads and footpaths raised.

We got a good reception - Chris and Geoff work hard with residents on the estate, and their regular newsletter is well-received.

After that, it was on to Red Hall Community Centre, which gave Alan his first chance the improvements. Costing over £400,000, they have transformed the Centre. It's due to be formally opened early next month.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Spirit of Burke...in Darlington?

...well, perhaps it's a slight exaggeration to say that the shade of the great orator and Bristol MP was stalking our Council Chamber tonight, but there were some good contributions on both sides. It's in stark contrast, frankly, to my experience over the last 8 years , where Council after Council I'd leave shaking my head as the Tories wouldn't have asked a single question of Cabinet Members, and I'd be home in time for East Enders.

It was also positive to see the competitive but good-natured way in which the debate developed. As I've commented elsewhere, I believe some of the cycnicism about politics here in Darlington has been generated by the non-existant nature of the opposition. With no effective questioning voice, the democratic process inevitably suffers. Now at last the Tories are "up for it" - albeit that they continue to focus on their own narrow political advantage rather than what's in the best interests of the Borough.

Remarkably, the Echo sent along two reporters and a photographer tonight. I suspect they were licking their lips having been promised mass civil disobedience in the town by the Tory spinmachine as Cllr. Ruck (see previous post) was dragged kicking and screaming from the Council Chamber. It didn't happen, and I was happy to bring a jovial Cllr. Ruck back into the Chamber when the debate and vote had been completed.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Tesco's Proposal Binned at Council

A strange, strange "debate" at Full Council tonight.

We were in the somewhat unusual position that Council members from all the voting blocs wanted to throw out the Tesco proposal to build a superstore and flats in the town centre. After unprecedented consultation, the people of the town had given a thumping thumbs-down to the idea (perhaps the first big reverse Tesco has had nationwide in some time).

So what was there to discuss? Well, unfortunately for the Tories and the LibDems, the Labour ruling group was doing exactly what it had promised and was listening to the settled will of residents and taking the lead in rejecting the scheme. That of course was the opposite of what Tory Group Leader Tony Richmond wanted 6 months out from local elections, so it was entertaining to watch him agree with every clause in the resolution moved by John Williams whilst trying to squeeze some political advantage out of the situation. The LibDems (bless 'em) weren't much better, with Fred Lawton arguing against the idea of "appropriate" consultation. So what was Fred advocating - inappropriate consultation?

There was also the sideshow that was Conservative Cllr. Jim Ruck's self-imposed exile from the decision. Jim is hugely liked and respected by members of Council on the Labour side, and he left the Chamber muttering "Cllr. Ruck has left the building" which got a good laugh. Attempts by the Tory spin-machine to turn Jim into the "Linden Avenue One" however seemed thin stuff and I'm surprised that the Echo fell for it.

The result? A unanimous vote in favour of the original motion moved by Cllr. John Wiliams, which rejected the Tesco proposal, made clear that a major supermarket development in the town centre (including the area outside the ring-road) would not be acceptable, and which empowered the Town Centre Board to look at proposals for the future. Members of the "Say No to Tesco in Darlington." campaign have been invited to join the process, including my fellow blogger Mike Barker, who got a name check from the Leader. (And Mike - that's the only link you'll get off me!)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

CCTV in Springfield Park - Part III

I've been checking up on progress regarding the installation of CCTV in Springfield Park - the officer update this evening has the frustrating news that the owners of Northgate House are only likely to sign the agreement with the Council to allow their property to be used to relay signals from the camera to the CCTV control room in early December. So now officers "anticipate having the cameras up and running in early January 2007 at the latest."

This legal delay is incredibly frustrating, particularly of course for residents around the park itself. Together with ward councillors Andy Scott and David Lyonette, I will be doing everything I can to ensure that the installation date is brought forward.

Through the Letterbox

An Arriva booklet came tonight - with localised and helpful information for Whinfield, Firth Moor and Cockerton on routes and travel times, together with three discount vouchers for tickets.

Small beer? What am I blogging about this for? Well, it's a direct and welcome bit of publicity for bus services in the town. All too often it feels like the Council is having to do all the work promoting sustainable transport. To be fair, Arriva do try, although Stagecoach particularly seeming happy to sit on their hands and manage a gently declining number of passengers.

In the greater scheme of things - a few leaflets and worthy Council press releases are dwarfed by the relentless advertising juggernaut of the car industry, where every break on peaktime TV is anchored by a ad telling us that cars equal freedom/sex/social status. That's our "car culture".

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

More Great Education News

You should read in The Northern Echo tomorrow (today!) that Darlington Council has been confirmed as one of just 23 local authorities across the country to get a share of the Government's £150m Primary Capital Programme (PCP) Pathfinder initiative.

The Council will invest the £6.5m it receives from the scheme in creating a
new North Road Primary School. The old Victorian buildings will be pulled down and replaced with state-of-the-art facilities for the children and staff. The money will be available from March 2008.

When the North Road scheme is finished, it will mean a third of Darlington's 24 primary schools are in new accommodation. In the north end of town, this includes Harrowgate Primary School and Springfield Primary Schools.

The news follows the announcement on Friday that the Education Minister is backing the £20 million Eastbourne Academy proposals.

None of this would have happened without Darlington's Labour Council working with the Labour Government to transform pupil's education in the town. It's days like this that make me dead chuffed to be a Labour Party Member and Councillor.

Friday, November 17, 2006

One-and-a-Half Cheers for the LibDems??

Dunno who the LibDem spokesman in today's Echo was, but it would appear that at least on some transport matters, a consensus is emerging.

Like Labour, the LibDems agree that car parking charges are necessary, whilst they should be structured to encourage people to browse in town centre shops. For that reason the Labour Council recently introduced its "third hour free" strategy in short stay car parks. We are also promoting "pay on exit" car parking in new developments. It would seem that LibDems also support our Park and Ride approach, although we may differ on details.

Of course, there should be a health warning to go with the LibDem announcement. They're sticking with their "revamped" bus station idea, when spending any money here would create a white elephant for Council Tax payers as the bus companies have made it clear they won't use it. And where would the money come for a a complete Park and Ride network? We have set aside £1 million for a single Park & Ride scheme in our Local Transport Plan which will run over the next 4 years. A complete network from scratch would break the bank.

The party who are seriously out of step, however, are the Conservatives. Their free car parking policy would cause massive congestion throughout the day without generating any extra trade for the town. They have consistently rubbished the Council's attempts to promote greener alternative forms of transport in the town. They recently were sceptical about Labour's Park and Ride initiative.

Nationally, the Tories are pretending that they believe in a green future for the country. At grassroots level however, it's clear they are as old-fashioned as ever. It's a case of say one thing, but do another.

For voters in next May's elections who are concerned about the environment and the legacy for our children the message is clear - Darlington Conservatives have nothing to offer you.

Bike Darlington

Very useful meeting this afternoon with members of the Darlington Cycling Campaign, together with officers. I'm not going to steal their thunder by reporting the discussion in detail - no doubt they can report back at an appropriate time via their Bike Darlington website. I try to meet regularly with groups which take a keen interest in transport in the town, to listen to their comments and concerns.

We're about to enter an exciting time for cycling in Darlington over the next few weeks as a raft of schemes leave the drawing board and are constructed on the ground. Getting safe routes around and across the ring-road will be particularly important at Russell Street and Victoria Road. Our statistics have already shown a big increase in cycling take-up over the past twelve months - with these new links I'm sure that using the bike will become even more popular.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

ASDA's Petrol Station Scheme Thrown Out

Good news from Planning Committee this afternoon, where ASDA's proposal to re-site its petrol station at its Whinfield store from the south east corner of the car park to the north west was thrown out.

Objections came from local residents, and from Whinfield Primary School. The proposal would have adversely affected children attempting to get to school across the northern section of ASDA's car park, which would have become the sole entry and egress point for store traffic.

Particular congratulations should go to Cllrs. Tom Nutt and Veronica Copeland, who worked hard with residents to demonstrate why the scheme was unacceptable. I'm delighted with the decision.

Ashleigh Trevarrow - MYP's Blog

Ashleigh is Darlington Member of Youth Parliament. She's just started up her own blog here.

All too often, it is adults who impose their solutions on young people regarding youth services. In contrast, Ashleigh intends to update her blog regularly with information about what she is doing for young people in the town as well as her involvement in regional and national events. She will be commenting on issues relevant to young people and asking people who log on to e-mail their views on everything from youth activities and transport to education and health. As well as e-mailing comments to the blog, young people will be able to use the TextVibe service to have their say.

It's worth checking out.

Early Bird

Up first thing on Wednesday for a live Radio Cleveland interview regarding the Pedestrian Heart project. The interview was preceded by a 'vox pop' on High Row - one elderly person was very complimentary about the new benches and the look of the steps, another less so. Matthew Davies commented posititively about the look of the scheme during his questions.

From my observations, people are taking stock of the newly-unveiled steps, and then looking afresh at the artist's impression of the finished work on the billboards. It's just my gut feel, but ot seems like the new layout and street furniture is impressing. With the switching-on of the Christmas lights on Sunday, the town centre is really beginning to perk up.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Kerching!

Useful coverage in this morning's Northern Echo following my attack on the Tories' reckless free car parking pledge last week.

If followed through, an incoming Conservative administration next May would have to jack up Council Tax by a full 8%, or make £2.4 million of service cuts straightaway.

As importantly, it would destroy all of the work to make using buses attractive in Darlington. Many people choose to use a bus to get into town, and if they felt they would be better off using the car, we could see a mass switch from bus to car without a single extra visitor to the town centre. Think what that would do to congestion.

Time for a new poll (bottom right-hand side of site), and with lots of "motormouth" new opposition candidates trying to please the electorate out there at the moment, a chance to vote for the Party you think will make the most reckless spending commitments before next May.

I fear that the Tories already have an unassailable lead, given Cllr. Johnson's £2.4 million pledge on free car parking today. The Cartwrights, Tory candidates in Harrowgate Hill, have also been demanding that the Council cough up what I estimate to be £1.25 million for a youth club on North Road (and those are the capital costs alone). So that makes a grand total of £3.65 million and we're still 6 months away from the elections!

If you see any pledges in any parties' leaflets, please email me I'll keep the running totals updated.

Those Fib Dems (again)

Just to underline that LibDem tactics are unscrupulous country-wide, check out a post from London blogger Gary Chick-Mackay here.

I think it's probably time to take down my poll on how to describe LibDem lies in Full Council now - unfortunately, the runaway winner was "complete and utter b*llocks" which I don't suppose the Mayor will be very happy with either. I guess we'll have to settle with "Lib Fibs".

I'll put up a new poll tonight.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

An Elected Mayor for Darlington?

The petition to trigger a referendum in Darlington on whether or not to abandon our traditional ceremonial Mayor for a politician drags on. As always there are arguments on both sides (and the policy is of course a Labour Government initiative, apparently to help revive municipal democracy).

What I find objectionable about the campaign here is the excessive spin employed by the petition organisers. In today's Echo, they stated that they had 2,600 of the signatures needed to trigger a town-wide ballot - see http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/newsbyedition/darlington/display.var.1017061.0.campaign_group_steps_up_its_fight_for_elected_mayor.php

Really? On the Referendum Campaign's own website ( http://www.darlingtonreferendum.org/media.htm) they helpfully have a series of links to previous Echo stories where they have made the following claims;

- in Feb 06 they said they had collected "many of the 3900" signatures necessary to force the Referendum.
- in April 06 they were predicting that they would have collected the names by the end of that month.
- in August 06 they said they had 2000 signatures, and so were half-way there.

For a group of people who get so worked up about local government in the town in Hear All Sides on a regular basis, they seem rather free and easy with the facts themselves. I think what we can ascertain is that in a town where the "Say No to Tesco" campaign successfully signed up over 11,000 people in a matter of weeks, progress on the Referendum has been very hard going indeed.

Europe Matters

Up to County Hall in Durham today for a European Forum organised by Labour MEP Stephen Hughes. It was attended by 70+ members.

Stephen is a first-class MEP (who happens to live in Darlington), but is now Labour's sole European representative in the North East. It was galling in 2004 when his fellow Labour MEP Mo O'Toole lost her seat to LibDem Fiona Hall. Whilst Fiona is an adequate self-publicist, she is by all accounts an ineffective operator in Brussels. The people of the North East deserve better.

I chaired a fascinating workshop entitled "No Frontiers - Sustainability, Energy and the Environment in Europe". With lead speakers who included Anna Colombo from the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, and former Labour MEP Dr Gordon Adams, it was a lively session. Meetings like this are vital as Labour activists build up their effort to win at least two seats here in the North East in 2009.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Double Take





Some snaps taken today of the fast-developing progress at Binns' Corner on the Pedestrian Heart scheme.

And the double take? Well, as I was walking along Prebend Row, I passed Alan Coultas (one of the front men of the No to Tesco campaign) apparently deep in conversation with Tory MP and weight-loss guru Ann Widdecombe, reviewing the scheme.

Of course, it could have been my new medication kicking in :), but if anyone out there could explain the sighting, I'd be grateful.

StreetScene Gets the Job Done

A characteristic problem emailed to the three Haughton West ward councillors yesterday concerned Springfield Playing Field - the absence of football pitch markings meant that the Springfield team who play there, in the Northern Echo League, could be in real problems. Their next home fixture is on Saturday.

Fortunately, officers from StreetScene responded immediately, apologising for the oversight. The pitch markings will be in place for the next game.

On the subject of the playing field, we have been chasing the installation of CCTV, which has been dogged by legal problems (see Springfield Park CCTV on September 26). The latest update is that the wrangles should be resolved and the camera up within three weeks.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Coincidence?

Just after 10am Tuesday, local LibDem Secretary Mike Barker let slip here that Pierremont was one of his parties' key targets in the forthcoming May poll. There were no details on the LibDems' local website of any activity in the ward by the party, however.

At 10pm I pointed out that no-one had seen a LibDem leaflet in the ward since 2003, and questioned the legitimacy of claims that the LibDems had taken any interest at all in the ward over the last 4 years. (See comments under 'Scraping the Barrel'). Pierremont has three excellent Labour Councillors Steve Harker, Patrick Heaney and Marian Swift, who have worked and leafletted hard since they were elected.

Miraculously, the LibDems' website is now giving out the names of their candidates for next May, and stating that unfortunate residents can expect another tedious 'Focus Survey' that we've seen elsewhere in the town where LibDems try to pretend they are campaigning "all year round".

Somehow, I don't think that local residents will be that easily fooled.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Scraping the Barrel

One news story which hasn't received much attention was Saturday's release by Cllr. Charles Johnson. the Tories Spokesman on Resources on the Council and Chariman of South Durham Conservatives, tucked away on page 9 of Saturday's Echo.

After all the razzamatazz about the "Tory Women" selected to fight certain key seats, it would appear that the Conservatives are having as much trouble as ever finding candidates. According to the article, the Tories have once again had to resort to advertising in "a local magazine" (West End News?) for candidates. Worse, Charles can only promise that they are planning to stand "at least one candidate in each of Darlington's wards."

I would have thought a party hungry for power would have been contesting all 53 seats next May - Labour certainly will. The Tories have been quite effective in making a lot of noise lately, but it would seem they don't have the troops to match the propaganda.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Down Town

A few pictures taken this lunchtime of the Pedestrian Heart scheme which you won't see on the Conservatives' website...



(1) The new steps emerging below Binns



(2) Saturday working to get the job done. This will be one the new planters on the High Row.



(3) Blackwellgate, looking towards Skinnergate.



(4) One of the new benches on Blackwellgate.



(5) A busy Northgate, looking towards the King's Head.

November's Ward Surgery

Busy Ward Surgery in ASDA this morning, together with fellow Haughton West councillors Dave Lyonette and Andy Scott. Tom Nutt from Haughton North and Chris McEwan from Haughton East were there too.

Issues included dropping-off points for taxi drivers in town; the ASDA planning application; cycling in Haughton; housing grants and CCTV in Springfield Park.

Holding our surgery in a supermarket foyer (we were amongst the first Labour Councillors in the country to so so) has proved a great success - plenty of people just pop over for a chat, even if they don't have a complaint. I'm now in the process of getting emails fired off to the relevant Town Hall officers to address the problems.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Meeting the Minister


Government Minister Tom Harris MP at Heathfield School today

After that, it was a quick dash to the station to meet Tom Harris MP, Minister for Transport, off the train.

Tom came to review our progress as one of England's 7 Cycling Demonstration Towns. He was joined by Philip Darnton from Cycling England, the body which has overseen the initiative. For Darlington, that has meant £1.5 million over three years.

We visited the new College building on Haughton Road, and saw the model of the new cycle/pedestrian bridge over the railway which will be in place in early 2007, together with the continuation of the dedicated off-road cycle route down Haughton Road to Borough Road. A series of presentations followed, rounded off by a visit to Heathfield School, where the teachers, parents and pupils have achieved near-miraculous results in just a year. No-one cycled to school then - now 70 pupils use their bikes regularly. Tom unveiled a mosaic about cycling designed and made by the children.

Everyone seemed happy with what we had to say. We're on the verge of a step-change in Darlington in terms of cycling infrastructure as work begins over the next few months not only on Haughton Road, but also cycle links across the ring-road in two places at Russell Street and near Victoria Road. Safer routes to get cyclists along the town's busy radial routes are in the offing.

And there's evidence that the work is bearing fruit. Despite the cynicism from some quarters, cycling is taking off in many of Darlington's schools. Our automatic cycle counters around the town are showing big increases in the number of bikes coming into the town centre. When the infrastructure is in place, achieving a true cycling culture could well be on the cards.

Tackling Anti-Social Behaviour in Springfield

The team reviewing the garages at the back of Nightingale Shops

Early meeting this morning with my colleagues Andy Scott and David Lyonette as we toured anti-social behaviour hot-spots with the Police and representatives from the Council's ASB team and the Fire Service.

Previously, Andy had distributed street surgery notices around the Nightingale Avenue and Belford Gardens areas, so it was a chance for everyone to learn first hand from residents how the Dispersal Order (made for an initial three months) is working.

The Order, which came into effect on 27 October, is the town's first. It's in direct response to the unacceptable levels of harrassment and ASB which local people have had to endure over the last few years, both in Nightingale Avenue and around the now-demolished Springfield Primary School.

Statistics show that since April 2005 alone, the Police were called out 210 times, and the Council's wardens on 131 occasions. As a ward councillor, I know that represents a fraction of the incidents which have taken place, as local people became despairing of calling the Police, feeling that their calls went unanswered.

The Dispersal Order represents a real breakthrough, and it appears to be working. Police and Community Support Officers have the power to break up unruly gangs, and troublemakers can be excluded from the area.

We were really pleased to learn that rather than simply rely on the Order, all the agencies will work in key areas around the ward in a concerted fashion at the end of November. This could include getting rid of grafitti, working with young people identifying activities they would like to take up, and simply reassuring residents that their concerns are being addressed.
We'll be asking local people what they think, so the programme is best tailored to meet residents' needs.

A few missing links...

....bottom left. Firstly to the thoughtful Bike Darlington site, and also the Council's own Town on the Move pages, which showpieces all the initiatives to promote healthy travel alternatives around town.

Transport Forum

On Monday evening, I chaired the always well-attended Transport Forum.

It brings together representatives from organisations across the spectrum who, broadly, have a commercial or user interest in transport in the town. The bus companies are there, together with the rail companies and the airport. Individual local charities are represented. Some people are there to advocate for their members - Darlington's Cycling Campaign have begun sending members, which is very welcome, and Darlington Association on Disability is always there. Growing Older Living in Darlington and now the Parish Councils and community groups in the town also have a strong presence. It makes for lively, sometimes spikey but never dull debate.

Monday was no different. It was the first time that Labour and the Tories have crossed swords on car parking for a while - the Council's car parking proposals (including making the third hour free in Darlington's short-stay car parks and introducing "pay-by-text") were well-received.

The most stimulating debate was probably around the Tees Valley Councils' plans to significantly improve public transport over the next few years. The proposal which attracted most interest was the light rail initiative, which will take trains off of the Darlington to Middlesbrough line and replace them with trams. These can run more frequently, and have the potential to link Darlington railway station, a site in east Darlington possibly around Morton Palms, the airport (providing a regular rail link at last) and Teesside. You can see the report for yourself (together with the other agenda items, including the proposal for a car club in the town) at http://www.darlington.gov.uk/Democracy/Political+Management/Meeting.htm?id=482

Anyone group with an interest in transport in Darlington can join the Forum - meetings are very open, and representatives are encouraged to submit agenda items highlighting areas of concern or interest for consideration by the whole meeting. For more information contact the Council's Democratic Services' section via linda.todd@darlington.gov.uk or drop me a line.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Pedestrian Heart and Binns

Jet-lagged, I walked around the town centre at 2am on Saturday to check-up on progress on the Pedestrian Heart scheme.

It was good to see more of the Northgate/Prospect Place area completed and opened up. Work on the steps in front of Binns also seems to coming along well. The contractors are focussing on this area, so that the "Binns corner" will be finished by mid-November.

Not reported in the Echo as far as I can see is this piece in the Journal regarding the sale of the Binns' building in Darlington. No need to panic - the store has a 40 year lease until 2039, so they will be in Darlington for many years to come. Of interest were the comments of the estate agents marketing the property;
Greg Davison, investrnent agent at DTZ in Newcastle, said: "It is in a good location for House of Fraser in terms of the demographic they are trying to get to. The key thing about the property and the reason for buying it would be the improvement that is taking place in Darlington town centre.

"One of the criticisms of Darlington in the past has been the amount of buses and traffic in the town centre." Mr Davison said the council's £6.5m plans to shut off to traffic much of the town centre, from Blackwellgate to Northgate next to Queen Street Shopping Centre, was expected to boost rental values. He said: "Prime Zone A rents within the town are just under 9100 per sqft. We expect the Pedestian Heart scheme to lead to considerable rental growth as the improvements to Darlington's retailing offer are seen to boost the catchment levels and retail spend per capital for the town."

The 1930s property, which includes storage space behind the main store at Mechanics Yard, are let to House of Fraser on a 4o-year lease expiring in luly 2039. The lease includes five-yearly upward-only rent reviews. The luly 2009 rent review will lead to a minimum rent increase of the lower of £870,000 per annum or the open market rent at the time.

Mr Davison said buyer interest so far had been received from private investors and property funds despite an anticipated increase in interest rates next month. He said: "Any well let retail investment is always going to be popular. The market is stilI strong in terms of demand."
It seems there's plenty of good news regarding Pedestrian Heart, although you might not read it in the letters page of the Echo at the moment.

Real Boost for Town Centre Parking

Back after a two-week break, and it was good to see our car parking story making the Echo's front page this morning.

I've been working on a package of proposals for several months now that will assist town shops in what is a difficult time for retailers not just locally, but nationally too (with the rise of internet shopping, for example).

Through our town centre partnership, local shop owners have been telling us that they believe more should be done to allow shoppers to browse in town beyond one or two hours.

To this end, at November's Cabinet, I'll be proposing that the third hour in Darlington's Council car parks becomes free - so you'll pay 80p for one hour, and £1.60 for 2 to 3 hours. That will make it considerably cheaper to park in Darlington than Middlesbrough for example, where 3 hours parking costs a princely £3.

Looking ahead, we're also bringing in "paying by text." It sounds complicated, but in reality is quite straightforward;

(1) should they wish to use the service, a car park user registers their name, mobile phone number, car registration and credit card details with the Council.
(2) when in a council car park, they purchase a number of hours car parking by text via their mobile phone.
(3) when their time is about to expire, a text is sent to their phone warning them. Should they choose, they can extend their stay by purchasing extra units of time, again via their phone.

Of course this system won't be for everyone, so the pay and display element will remain for those who want to continue to use the existing payment method.

The Council will also require that when new multi-storey car parks are built on its land (for example at the new Commercial Street development) then pay-on-exit systems are installed.

Finally, in the run-up to Christmas, short-stay car parking will be free every Thursday from 3.30pm, and on Boxing Day and New Year's Day. Parking will remain free on Sundays (to take the Middlesbrough example again, there is a charge for parking on Sundays).

All-in-all, it's the most comprehensive package of measures we've proposed since we refurbished all the tatty, crime-ridden car parks we inherited from the Tories in the early 1990's. I believe it will give a real shot in the arm to local businesses at a key trading time.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Thanks

Many thanks to everyone who has either read or posted on this blog so far - the site has had 667 hits to date which is great in such a short space of time.

I'm off for a couple of weeks now, returning on 30 October. Any comments in the meantime will remain "moderated" but I'll deal with them when I get back.

Best wishes,

Nick.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

LibDems in the Mire

I was momentarily diverted from easily the best headline in today's Times "Hunt master 'paid for sex, checked wife's underwear and admired Hitler' " (check it out at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2399777,00.html), by news that my good friends in Darlington's LibDems may have reach deep into their pockets.

Before the last General Election, the LibDems took £2.4 million in a donation from a company which was "entireley fraudulent and had never traded" according to a High Court Judge. The company's owner Michael Brown is currently starting a two-year jail term for perjury.

The cash almost entirely paid for the LibDems' posters and advertisements during the campaign. If the Electoral Commission forces the party to surrender the gift, says the Times, "each member will be come liable for a share of the debt." I reckon that's about £35 each.

I'm not for a moment suggesting that Labour and the Tories don't have their own problems with party funding - they do. This story should however prevent another bout of moralising from the LibDems that they are somehow "whiter-than-white" when it comes to donations. The imperative now is for all the parties to agree a consensus on political funding which is transparent and which commands the respect of British voters.

The story in full can be found at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,17129-2400012,00.html

Tories' Stomach-Churning NHS Stance

I've had to go and lie down in a darkened room after reading the Tories' recent pronouncement on the NHS, locally and nationally.

For sure, the ridiculous proposal from the Memorial's management to close one of the elderly care wards deserves censure, particularly when that could occur in advance of the spread of 'flu this winter. And let me say at the outset that I don't doubt for a moment the sincerity of Tory Councillor Heather Scott when she condemned the plans, together with Labour Scrutiny Chair Cllr. Marian Swift and Labour Cabinet Member Cllr. Bryan Thistlethwaite. You can read more on the Echo's website at http://www.thisisthenortheast.co.uk/search/display.var.956107.0.watchdog_slates_hospital_boss_over_closure_decision.php

The reason why this is being given massive prominence by local spinmeister Graham Robb on the local Tories' website is nothing to do with the well-being of older people, however. Nationally, the Conservatives are trying to rebrand themselves as an NHS-supporting party, believing that the British people may develop collective amnesia regarding their disastrous neglect of the service whilst they were in office. Robb, who is never knowingly off-message, is simply trotting off the Party's national line.

Lest we forget, the Tories don't believe in the National Health Service. They voted against all of the extra investment Labour has made in the NHS which has paid for more doctors, more nurses, more operations and that has sharply reduced waiting times. And today, their spending plans would mean cuts to Labour's investment in the NHS. The only words the Tories know when it comes to the NHS are cuts, cuts, cuts.

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt got it right today when she described the Tories' "policy" on the NHS as "dishonest and confused." You can read her statement in full at http://www.labour.org.uk/index.php?id=news2005&ux_news[id]=dishonestandconfused&cHash=eced8b8d71

Pass the Rennies, someone!

Monday, October 09, 2006

The continuing scandal of children in the looked after system

A welcome initiative today with the launch of a Green Paper to tackle the scandal of poor educational achievement of children in the Looked-After system. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/6031689.stm

The article does create a sense of deja vu, however - in 2005 the Government launched its Every Child Matters programme, which included a focus on children in care.

I spent 7 years working in children's residential homes in the 1990's (not in Darlington). Most practice was good, and members of staff had a real commitment to the children and young people in their charge. It was rare, however, for young people to emerge with any qualifications at all. In part, this was because of the nature of clients who were placed in children's homes - many had been thrown out by their parents owing to conflict at home, and generally most had already missed large amounts of schooling prior to being acommodated. Helping these children come to terms with the rejection they had suffered, stabilise their lives as well as promoting regular school attendance, proved a very difficult task.

Real change will only come when there is substantial investment in services to support families and prevent break-ups. Some children will always have to be looked after by the state owing to parental incapacity or harm. There are many more children in care even today, however, who really shouldn't be there.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Roadworks Report - Haughton West

A brand new service! These are the potential hotspots in and around the ward over the next week;

Salters Lane South, Darlington, from Whinfield Road to Morpeth Avenue.
Replacement of beacon post
08/10/06
Half day
Road Closure – diversion signed
DBC, Street Lighting with CE Electric

Whinbush Way / Atholl Close / Killin Road, Darlington
New electricity supply
02/10/06
2 weeks
Carriageway & footpath restrictions
CE Electric

A167 Durham Road, Darlington, from 40/60 Signs Beaumont Hill to Ketton Farm.
Carriageway surfacing & accommodation works.
18/09/06
4 weeks
Carriageway & footpath restrictions
DBC, Highways

Longfield Road, Darlington, from Percy Street to Whessoe Road.
Cable works
02/10/06
4 weeks
2 Way Traffic Lights as required
CE Electric

Lib Fibs?

Following the ongoing controversy regarding the correct "parliamentary" language to use in Darlington Council meetings concerning lies told by the LibDems, I thought it might be helpful to the Mayor if I ran an online poll (bottom right of this page).

For the more Conservative-minded, I have even included a quote from the late great Alan Clarke, MP.

Vote early, but unlike some online polls, you can't vote often.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Nailing the Lies on the Liar

This will I guess be my first and last post providing a link to my sane and rational friends at the Town Liar site, but there is a remarkable couple of posts there today by Phil Williams, son of Cllr. John Williams, the Council Leader.

John comes in for a massive amount of stick from the occasionally delusional two or three characters who post there regularly, usually under multiple identities. Without getting into the politics, Phil rebuts the lies and smears one by one, and pays homage to John not just as a politician but also a father. They're posts any dad would be proud to read. Check them out. http://townliar.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=147&sid=1ba81423dc9c9b33db92b00604afc91f

True Face of the Far Right

Check out the Guardian piece today regarding the website Redwatch, and the intimidation and violence meted out against those who dare to stand up to the far right in British politics. The article nails BNP members as giving active support to the sickening campaign. http://www.guardian.co.uk/farright/story/0,,1887102,00.html

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Putting residents' parking needs first.

Political knockabout aside, I've spent quite a bit of time today putting the finishing touches to the Council's imminent review of the town's Residents' Parking areas.

Residents' Parking has been a great success since Labour began the programme back in 1992. Commuter and shoppers' parking used to blight local people's lives, making parking impossible sometimes even in their own streets. The scheme now covers most of the roads around the town centre, with another zone planned in the Southend Avenue/Polam Road area, together with a zone around the new College in Haughton Road and Borough Road.

Residents and councillors responsible for the existing schemes have pointed out, however, that some fine tuning is urgently needed. Zones designed ten years ago need updating. Is the balance right between residents' and commuter/shopper parking, for example? What about provision for visitors?

We're also exploring whether the Council should abolish the annual fee for passes (currently £25). No-one likes paying for passes, although if made free, it could lead to many more passes being issued. which could have an impact on the number of spaces available during the day.

To seek people's views, questionaires are being distributed to people living in existing areas. It's another example of the Labour Council listening to what people have to say about the issues affecting their own lives, and then making the necessary changes. Questionaires have to be back by 27 October 2006. I'll post updates regarding progress with the review.

Monkey for Haughton West?

Was I the only person baffled by George Jenkinson's comments in the Echo this morning?

George has been selected to stand for the Tories in Haughton West, apparently against me. It seems to have escaped the Tories' notice that there are in fact three councillors for the ward, myself, David Lyonette and Andy Scott. Maybe they can pressgang two more unfortunates before next May.

Warming to his theme, George felt able to say,"No-one really challenged the ward last time." That may come as a surprise to his two erstwhile Tory colleagues Leslie Smith and Terence Wilkinson who as I recall ran a strong campaign in 2003. They were joined by independent Carol Lambird and the BNP's Nigel Nevison, so there was hardly a lack of choice for voters.

George finished off by stating, "If a monkey can win in Hartlepool, why can't a monkey win in Darlington?" Good point, George, but actually the winning Mayoral candidate in Hartlepool was a man in a monkey suit. Or maybe George is saying he has simian characteristics himself? I can understand how opposable thumbs would be useful when driving a taxi, but a prehensile tail...?

What on earth's going on at the Echo?

The Tories must be laughing into their linen hankerchieves today after suckering the Echo into printing regurgitated news about their list of candidates.

Within the last two weeks, the paper covered the announcement that the Cartwrights and Janet Mazurk will be standing for them in May. I was gobsmacked therefore that the story has been rolled up again, and printed as the lead local story this morning. The only "new" piece of information was about my old friend George Jenkinson (about whom more anon).

This follows the singular reporting of last Thursday's Council meeting by Owen Amos.

I say - move Tory spinmeister Graham Robb's desk into the Echo's newsroom now and lets be done with it!

Monday, October 02, 2006

ASDA submits Feethams "sketches" - Exclusive!

This afternoon ASDA contacted the Northern Echo to tell them that they had submitted "sketch proposals" to the Council as a rival to the Tesco proposal.

Remarkably, ASDA hadn't bothered to tell Council officers, and the sketches were languishing in the post room. You will all have to make up your own minds how serious this proposal in fact is.

I haven't seen the sketches, but apparently they show a similar scheme to the existing plans from Tesco, albeit with the omission of the petrol station and a repositioning of the residential area. There is no accompanying financial, engineering or architectural information. If and when this is forthcoming, Council officers will of course be happy to talk to ASDA.

The Tesco consultation should proceed. The ASDA proposal looks very similar, and the uncertainty about the future of the town centre needs to be resolved one way or the other.

Incidentally, some people's opposition to the Tesco proposal is based on their fear of the company's aggressive history - I would imagine plans from ASDA/Wallmart will also excite discussion, given that company's track record in the US.

Remember - you read it here first!