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!

Tory to Defect to the LibDems?

One of the interesting sideshows at last week's Full Council meeting was watching Cllr. Bill Maybrey, the Councillor deselected by the Tories for Middleton St. George, leaving deep in amicable conversation with the LibDems Martin Swainston.

Bill Maybrey has a good reputation as an effective Councillor around the Town Hall (as does his running mate Cllr. Doris Jones) so the Tories' decision not to pick him as their candidate again seemed inexplicable to many of us.

Now the decision may come back to haunt them. We know that the LibDems are snapping at the Tories' heels in Hurworth, where rumours suggest that Tory Councillor Peter Foster was made to stand down (whatever he later said in the press). LibDem leafletting now in MSG seems to have induced fresh panic in Tory High Command. The odds seem to be shortening on Bill swapping sides for May's local elections.