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


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.


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."