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.