Monday, December 31, 2007

Those New Year Resolutions in Full...


This year, I've decided to raise my game as far as New Year Resolutions are concerned. So rather than mess about with the simply unachievable, this year I'm aiming for a spectacularly unlikely lifestyle change. I'm going to learn to love opera. Maybe even ballet too.

This seems to fit nicely with my Cabinet role which includes culture. There are, however, hidden perils for a native Bristolian such as myself.

To understand why, you have to understand something about the Bristol accent, known variously as 'Bristolese' or simply "Bristle". A variant of the standard West Country burr, Bristle makes speakers sound like they have a permanently blocked nose. Its unique feature is the "Bristol L", whereby natives add an 'l' on to the end of words ending with the letter 'a'. So Formica becomes Formical, a Ford Astra is a Ford Astral, films come from Americal and so on.

(As a youngster, I distinctly remember being confused about the fact that there were two different meanings of the word aeriel - there was your car aeriel, of course, and the areal in which you lived).

And so to the opera link. In the 70's, I can also recall BBC Nationwide sending down metropolitan reporters to accost unsuspecting Bristolians outside the Hippodrome, and ask them to read the opera poster outside. Invariably they said something like "The Carl Rosal Operal presents Carl Orff's "Carminal Branal" before the passer-by stopped and looked quizzically, wondering why the reporter was sniggering.

So I'll have to brush up my pronunctiation before attempting Toscal or Rigolletol. I'll keep you posted on how I get on.

A day at the races

More hard-earned cash goes west...

I guess we could have more extreme family Christmas rituals. Every year, about now, the Echo is full of half-naked madmen and women cavorting in the waves at Redcar, immediately before being carted off to hospital with hypothermia (they don't tell you that bit).

So three-and-a-half hours freezing at Sedgefield Races is probably getting off lightly. I'm not a racegoer, and coming away anything less than £20 lighter in the wallet I count as a success (excluding the hefty entrance money).

One of my uncles (who did know his horses) used to say dismissively that betting each-way was not proper gambling. So as my strategy involves putting said each-way bets on grey horses and those with nose bands (because they look cuter, somehow) I probably did well to leave just £9 down after a couple of unlikely thirds.

Finally, a note about Christmas left-overs. Whilst you were moaning about turkey sandwiches and turkey curry, spare a thought for those of us are meat eaters in predominantly vegetarian households. This year at the races I was treated to Quorn "Turkey and Cranberry-style" slices in my bread buns. Does life get any better...?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas is shrinking!

A very happy Christmas to one and all. We're well and truly settled in MSG now, and thanks for your kind thoughts and wishes as we went through that miserable patch getting set up.

It was no surprise to read that there was a last minute surge in spending just before Christmas. Retailers know they can rely on characters like myself - Desperate Dads - to wander round the shops buying gifts almost at random, guiltily spending ridiculous sums whilst promising themselves they'll be better organised next year.

This year I even managed to find myself in Past Times on the High Row. Past Times is a brand we can afford to pass 364 days of the year. Come Christmas Eve, however, with the clock ticking and the sweat running down our brows, even its faux Victoriana seems worth a second look, as we frantically puzzle what to buy that last "difficult" aunt or uncle. Then, they're lifesavers.

Which brings me to the incredible shrinking Christmas. The boys' Christmas stockings, of course, as are ample as ever. Presents for the stockings in contrast, have diminished in size markedly. Once, before the Fat Police stepped in, there could be a selection box or two. Annuals too were a popular staple, but they seem to be a thing of the 70's and 80's.

So last night Sandy and I sat down looking at a little pile of Top Trumps, games for the Nintendo and puzzle books worrying that they'd be lost in AJ's stocking. We needn't have worried, of course - AJ was just chuffed that Santa had been, eaten his mince pie, drunk his Pinot Grigio (ahem) and fed Rudolph the carrot.

So have a great Christmas everyone - I'll be blogging again before January looking back on a momentous year for Darlington.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

As easy as ABC

I learnt early on in student politics that mastery of the rules of debate was crucial to any wider success. In the Labour Party, anyone wishing to win a procedural argument need only speak airily of Citrine to stand a good chance of carrying the day.

This isn't the case for the knuckle-dragging brethren in the BNP, where they do things rather differently. Here's the Guardian's account of a recent meeting;

Tensions between modernisers and hardliners boiled over on Monday when it emerged that about 50 councillors and organisers had resigned and declared themselves to be the "Real BNP". That was followed by showdown meetings between Griffin and the rebels. At one, in the Gun and Dog pub in Leeds on Tuesday, a witness described how the meeting descended into chaos when one of the rebels smashed a glass and threatened to attack Griffin supporter Mark Collett.

I keep a weather eye on the BNP website (showering afterwards, of course) and there seems every chance that the fascist movement will suffer a split mirroring their divisions in the late 1970's and early 80's. It couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of evil thugs, of course.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Getting back online

Thanks for sticking with me - my full internet connnection should be back up and running on Friday.

As well as an update, I'll have news of an exciting new web-based politics show launching in the North East in the New Year. Keep watching.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Making a crisis out of a drama

For what seems like forever, we've been trying to move house (within the Borough boundary, of course). Finally, a sale and purchase were agreed, with the moving date set for this Thursday.

Then - catastrophe on Monday as we had to pull out of the house we were purchasing in Dinsdale, potentially leaving us homeless by the end of the week, with the sale of our property all agreed.

Fortunately, thanks to the staff at Countrywide Lettings, who proved extremely accommodating (boom, boom) we'll have a roof over our heads on Thursday. Our address will be;

1 The Beeches,
Middleton St. George,
Darlington DL2 1GD.

My home number will be 01325 335365 (as of Thursday pm). My mobile number will continue as at present.

Councillor duties in the ward and wider will of course continue as normal. In the absence of broadband at the house, however, blogging will become rather less frequent, although do keep coming back, as I'll try and blog from the Town Hall.

This wasn't what we wanted immediately before Christmas, but as I pointed out to James, there are many families who are genuinely homeless at this time of year, and we can be thankful for the position we're in. Hopefully, the tree will be up by Sunday!

Monday, December 10, 2007


I understand that Cllrs. Heather Scott and Charles Johnson took offence at the post regarding Full Council. On learning this, I took the offending material down immediately - I don't do character assassination, and that isn't what this blog is about. The post was simply intended to be light-hearted.

As I've stated before, if there is anything here which you find offensive, simply email me and I will sort.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Nominations for Tory 'sacrificial lamb' close

I see from the Conservative Home website that nominations for the Tory PPC for Darlington at the next election closed on Thursday.

The comments to the post are instructive - for all the huffing and puffing by the Tories in what has admittedly been a bad few weeks for Labour, they regard Darlington as a 'no hope' seat, on a par with Sedgefield and Middlesbrough (it's in 'tranche 5, phase 3' of their process) . Remember, for a long time Darlington was seen as a marginal seat, and keenly fought over by both the main parties. It's evidence of the mountain the Tories have to climb if they're to form a majority next time.

My sources suggest that a local candidate is favourite to get the nomination. Given the poor chances the party seems to think it has in Darlington, little wonder that they can't attract a talented young thruster from elsewhere.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Seeing Santa

To Hurworth this afternoon, where I was honoured to have been invited to open the Christmas Fair.

The Grange was packed, and everyone was in a festive mood. Ian, Michelle, Stan and all the other countless people who work behind the scenes had done a fantastic job, and money was changing hands left, right and centre.

At Council on Thursday, Heather Scott had cheekily raised my comment about having to go out of town for AJ to see Santa was somehow a vote of No Confidence in town centre businesses - pretty rich coming from a party which has consistently run Darlington down over the past 16 years in an attempt to gain easy political advantage. Don't forget it was recently-retired Tory Cllr. Sheila Brown who used to proudly boast that she never shopped in Darlington.

So I'm sure Heather will be relieved to learn that AJ met Santa this afternoon at the fair. In total, we spent about a tenner there, so no great black hole in town centre retailers' trade in the run-up to Christmas. I will be raising with officers, however, what we can do to coax Santa back to Darlington for 2009.

Finally, the organisers were kind enough to give me a nice bottle of wine for my troubles this afternoon (and Sandy some flowers). I guess in the current climate I will have to register that as a gift with the Town Hall first thing on Monday morning....

National Policy Forum

Up at 4.30am yesterday for the train to West London to December's NPF. The Party has got into the habit of being extremely 'cloak and dagger' about venues for meetings. On this occasion indeed, I was never formally told the precise location, so I set off hopefully for 'West London' guessing that we would stuck out at Heathrow again.

(As those of you with finely-tuned politcal antennae may have picked up, the Party is going through, ahem, some little local difficulties at the moment, so it was easy to forgive staff for the admin slip-ups).

There was a rather febrile mood amongst delegates - some I think had turned up just to see if anything else could go wrong. Harriet and Gordon spoke well, I thought, although in the private session afterwards, when he was blunter about the political challenges ahead, Gordon's manner was distinctly reminiscent of Tony - subconsciously I'm sure. Afterwards, Gordon shook a lot of hands - we were sitting in the front row, and when Gordon enquired of my colleague Nick Forbes where he was from, and he replied "the North East", Gordon looked as though he wanted to wipe his hand somewhere.

Still the announcement that we are pressing ahead with party funding reform was entirely sensible, I thought. Peter Riddell wrote in the Times that no progress is possible whilst investigations are proceedings, but the Government has to show leadership, and we can't allow the Tories to act as roadblocks to reform. And I think that the vast majority of people will be on the side of the Government when it presses for limits on spending both locally and nationally - no-one apart from the Tories wants to see further escalation of the funding 'arms race' that has driven all the parties to solicit funds from rich backers.

It's a shame that it's taken the Abrahams revelations to prompt it, but if proper arrangements for party funding, including regulated public support, comes from this week's events, then perhaps it will have been worth it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

There and back again

Time to move AJ's bedtime reading from books a little more challenging than the Thomas the Tank Engine tales I mostly read to him.

So at the weekend, we started J R R Tolkein's The Hobbit. It seems a very long time ago now, but I think I read it to James when he was about the same age. The very different response I got was instructive.

From what I can recall, James was spell-bound by the book, which was completely unknown to him. AJ on the other hand has played The Hobbit on James' PlayStation2. Consequently, after the first few pages, he was demanding to know where the goblins were, and was patiently explaining to me how Gandalf's staff works.

Chapter One, which readers of the book will know deals exclusively with a tea party hosted by Bilbo for the dwarves and Gandalf, seemed very hard work indeed. I'm sure AJ will settle down to the much slower rhythm of the novel, but for the PlayStation generation, classic works of fiction may prove to be something of a challenge.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Darlington a 'Santa Free Zone'?

...well, not quite, but I am baffled by the Cornmill's decision to abandon having a Santa sitting under the tree on the ground floor, as in previous years. From the comments made by the manager in today's Advertiser, the aim is to prevent having parents "milling around". Of course, having once queued with their little darlings to see St Nick, those same parents would often 'mill around' the Cornmill's shops and spend, spend spend.

Seeing Santa is as fundamental to Christmas as the Queen's Speech, family rows and bankruptcy. I'm sure I won't be the only parent who will be spending one less shopping day in Darlington town centre and instead taking my child (and custom) elsewhere.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Restaurant Review - The Waiting Room, Eaglescliffe

To leaven the political stuff slightly, I’ve been thinking for a while of writing occasional short restaurant reviews. Occasional because we don’t get out that much (kids etc). Short because I doubt whether regular readers of this blog, erudite and discerning though you are to a man and woman, are yet prepared to wade through 2000 words on what I thought of the duck pate.

So here goes with some reflections on The Waiting Room, where I went for Saturday lunch with Sandy and the boys.

The Waiting Room holds a particular affection for us because it is one of the only true vegetarian restaurants in the area (Sandy and the boys don’t eat meat). Since the demise of Mike Barker's excellent Bakehouse Hill cafe in Darlington and Priors in Barnard Castle in the mid-90’s, this has left it in a class all of its own. It's been a fixture in the Tees Valley since 1985.

Their website sets the scene; The Waiting Room serves really tasty, deeply satisfying food made out of full, wholesome ingredients... We change our menu with the seasons creating and developing our dishes with respect for what is naturally good for the time of year. We use much local and organic produce, including excellent organic wines, beers, teas and freshly ground coffee. A proportion of the vegetables we use are organic, and delivered on the day they are picked, from Larchfield Community Farm. We also use free range eggs, and organic bread and milk.

One of its USP’s is the “mixed portion” idea, whereby you are allowed to have two half portions of a main dish. With dishes as tempting as 'Big Field Mushroom Plait, with Roast Beetroot, and a White Wine and Tarragon Liquor' or 'Spinach, Feta and Mushroom Curry, with Potato Kibbeh', this is a real bonus. The restaurant itself, set in a side street, is unfussy, and has live music on a Saturday evening. The proximity to Eaglescliffe Station means you can enjoy a bottle of their organic wine or beer and get back to Darlington without worrying about who's going to drive.

Like the rest of the locality, alas, The Waiting Room has reacted to the gentrification of the area, and prices have risen accordingly (WAGdom is gradually advancing up from Yarm High Street). We have been going there for years, and for most of that time, its meals were priced almost criminally low. Still, the lunch menu had plenty of items ranging from £4 to £7. There's nothing on the evening menu above £10.50.

James had brown puy lentil chilli with tortilla, shredded lettuce, salsa, sour cream and cheddar, which believe me tasted better than it sounds. Sandy had a more conventional cashew, apple and carrot loaf with the WR’s trademark potatoes coated in sesame seeds, which she thought was surprisingly light and fluffy. AJ, as always had pasta in a tomato sauce, which he wolfed down.

I had the The Waiting Room Super Burger £5.50 billed as 'all natural, wholesome ingredients including fresh herbs, spices and beans - full of flavour and goodness – with salad – in an organic bun, topped off with chutney'. Now I’m not a veggie, so generally I would always rather have a hunk of cow than soya mix. It’s a measure of the Waiting Room’s skills that I never find myself pining for meat there.

Service was friendly, if a little slow. This may be because they seem to cook everything fresh on the premises, and there were no tell-tale “dings” from a microwave whilst we were there.

Giving in to temptation all too easily, we rounded off with a dessert. James sticky toffee pudding was exactly as it should be – dark and very sweet, with a rich sauce. Sandy and I had a chocolate roulade – an almost obscenely good combination of sponge, mascarpone cheese and solid dark chocolate chunky swirls.

With drinks, 2 coffees at the end, and a small ice cream for AJ, the bill came to £48 – very good value for money. It's a must for any foodie whether or not you think meat is murder.

The Waiting Room, 9 Station Road, Eaglescliffe. Tel. 01642 780465. Open Monday from 6.30pm. Tuesday - Friday 11.30am-2.30pm, Evening meals from 6.30pm. Saturday and Sunday 9am-2.30pm, Evening meals from 6.30pm. Website

Floury Baps

Two curious food-related snippets from page 15 of today’s Telegraph.

Firstly, “the celebrity chef Gary Rhodes has questioned the culinary talents of rival television cook Nigella Lawson, suggesting that her fans prefer her smile to her cooking.”
Her smile Gary?!

And then there’s a large picture of Heather Mills McCartney at Speakers’ Corner telling the world that we must seek out alternatives to cows’ milk to combat global warming. “There are many other kinds of milk available. Why don’t we try drinking rats’ milk and dogs’ milk?”

Why not indeed? I would imagine that milking a rat would be quite a fiddly business. That’s once you’ve found a bucket and milking stool small enough. And overcome the revulsion of the public. I do hope that Heather is getting better legal advice in her divorce from Sir Paul than she is from her nutritionists...

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bowling round Darlington

I was invited to my second meeting of Hundens Bowls Club this morning, in my capacity of Cabinet Member for Health and Leisure, to review progress regarding the keeping of the greens.

I first went back in the summer, when there was a lot of dissatisfaction from bowlers regarding various matters, including the state of the greens and the problems the various clubs around the town were having in attracting new members, and so ensuring that the sport does not die out.

A lot of the concern was directed at the way in which StreetScene had been rolled out in the parks, which it was felt had reduced the skilled attention required by bowls players. Today's meeting had a much more positive feel to it, with bowls players from around the town confirming that StreetScene managers now had a good grasp of the needs of the greens, and were listening closely to club members. There are still a number of points which I need to follow-up, however.

I promised to return at the start of next year's season, a critical time as far as green maintenance is concerned, to review developments once more.

Christmas Cheer

I couldn't make the switching-on of Darlington's lights yesterday (work commitments), but did manage to get these pictures later on in the evening.

The lights have been bought to complement the new Pedestrian Heart scheme, and include a new display for the Market Place. What do you think about them?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Nowt to Do"

Recently, I went along to a meeting on the development of the 'Youth Offer' here in Darlington.

The scheme has been prompted by the Government's Education and Inspections Act 2006. The intention is to ensure that there is comprehensive, accurate and accessible information regarding activity provision for young people aged between 13 and 19. Crucially, young people are going to be involved in designing, delivering and assessing that provision, in consultation with the private and voluntary sectors.

The meeting I went to was a stakeholder gathering, where representatives from various voluntary groups were present. Clearly, good progress has been made, and I was impressed by the wealth of information which has been brought together already - for example, at the Education Village here in Haughton alone, the following groups meet;

Kimchungdowkwon Martial Arts
Sukona Karate Club
Aikido Martial Arts
Darlington Swimming Club
Waterbabies Swimming
Haughton Volleyball Club
Darlington Junior Netball Club
Haughton Community Badminton Club
Body Attack, Body Vive & Body Combat
School of Rock & Pop Music
Socatots Childrens' Football
Sonya-Marie Academy of Dance

The vision of the Youth Offer here in Darlington is that never again will a young person be able to say that they have "nowt to do". A big ambition, but a worthy aim. I'm inherently suspicious of groups and political parties which say that they have the Holy Grail as far as youth provision is concerned, but are really peddling their own agenda. The Youth Offer initiative has the advantage of liaising with young people themselves about the services they want to see provided, rather than those which some adults think they need.

The Youth Offer is an important initiative - perhaps one of the most important ovre the next 4 years - an I'll blog about it again as it develops.

Loser defects to also-rans

Tory blogger Graham Robb has broken the news today that prominent Darlington LibDem activist Nigel Boddy has defected to the Tories.

Nigel seemed to be a shortlist specialist in the LibDems - he was last on the list for Sedgefield earlier this year and Hartlepool in 2004 but failed to find favour. Occasionally, he has managed to get selected as a candidate - but then he bombs. Google tells me that he was the LibDems' candidate in the Hartlepool seat in 2001, and a European candidate in 1999 and 2003, all without success.

In this year's Mayoral referendum, when for once the LibDems found themselves on the right side of the argument and the vote, Nigel even managed to fail once again, and was a leading member of the calamitous Yes campaign.

I have to say to Graham - if Nigel Boddy was going to defect to any Party, I'm really glad it was the Tories and not ourselves. With his track-record, you really should put him up in Darlington next time.... :)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Feathered friends

One of my new Cabinet responsibilities is trading standards, and as such I now receive rather apocalyptic officer emails regarding the latest danger to assail mankind.

Just in - bird 'flu (after the outbreak in Suffolk). For those of you confused by some of the wilder reporting of the story, here's a sober assessment;

Avian Influenza is a highly contagious viral disease that can probably infect most species of bird. The severity depends upon the strain of the virus and the type of bird infected.

Humans can only be infected by the disease through close contact with live infected birds. However, there is a concern that the virus may change (reassort or mutate) to emerge as a new virus that is transmissible between people, and capable of causing disease in people, birds and other animals.

The highly pathogenic H5N1 Avian Influenza strain involved in most of the Asian outbreaks during the past 18 months has shown the ability to jump the species barrier occasionally and cause severe disease, with high mortality, in humans. It has not shown the ability to move easily between humans.

Whilst it's DEFRA and the State Vetinary Service who take the lead in outbreaks, local councils have a key role to play too - from local emergency planning to co-ordinating other services and managing the highway and footpath network.

When I first became a councillor, I was told that the then Chief Executive kept a revolver in his desk drawer in case of civil emergencies. Let's hope current CE Ada Burns doesn't have to come out "all guns blazing" over this problem...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lest we forget

With broadband restored, there's time to blog on a few outstanding issues whilst I've been on an enforced leave of absence.

On Sunday I joined the main Remembrance Day service at Holy Trinity Church. The councillors assembled over the road at Walkington House, and then processed in order of seniority over to the church, followed by the Mayoral party, which included Alan Milburn, the deputy Lord Lieutenant and of course the banners from the various uniformed groups in the town.

Unfortunately, the service's timing went awry, and afterwards we lined up shivering in the cold with the band and the soldiers, waiting ages for the off. We comforted ourselves that it was at least better than 1991, when Rita Fishwick was Mayor, and the service overran significantly. Then the Mayor, the councillors and the representatives from the various forces had to strike up an undignified jog down Woodland Road to get to the cenotaph on time.

Not on Sunday, and it was good to see so many people walking along the road with us to the grounds of the old hospital. As always, the act of remembrance sent a shiver down my spine, as the banners were lowered, and fallen leaves brushed against us blown by a stiff wind from a clear blue sky. Around 15 wreathes were left, including, movingly, one for the 'Aycliffe Angels' laid by a very frail old lady.

Then the band marched off playing Colonel Bogey, and we could return to 2007, but still with thoughts of the millions who had made the ultimate sacrifice for those of us living today.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Service interruption

My tephone line is unaccountably down at the moment, so apologies for the impact on my blogging whilst I try and get it sorted out.

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Poppy Day

On the High Row this lunchtime selling poppies with the Mayor and other councillors.

Sandy, James and AJ joined in - James helped behind the desk whilst AJ rattled the tin and did what James calls his "cute bit". It was a good chance to begin to explain to AJ about wars and poppies and sacrifice.

We learnt from the Mayor about the correct positioning of the leaf on the poppy (at "11am" apparently) and we handed out loads of poppies. Citizens young and old queued up for their symbol of remembrance, which was good to see. And money, freely and generously given, accumulated in the tin.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

End of the Affair?

Another letter this morning from my friends at the Standards Board for England, following a complaint made against me by "Hylton Owen".

It was alleged that I "showed complete disregard for the rules" by using my mobile phone to give a progress report about the count to people not present. I see Hylton went to the trouble of getting witness statements from fellow Yes campaigners present at the count.

All for naught, I'm afraid, as the Standards Board has ruled that I was present at the Count in a personal capacity and not as a Councillor, the Councillors' Code of Conduct has no jurisdiction.

In fact, from memory, if I did use my phone at the Count, it was simply to contact work and inform them that I was on my way. I did however use my phone to blog remotely about the Count, to keep readers informed about progress. More generally, when the referendum campaign started, I had intended to blog on the issue via computers other than my Council laptop, to stay strictly within the rules regarding the use of Council resources.

I have to say that sometimes my enthusiasm got the better of me, and on occasions I did blog directly from my laptop (or my phone) about the campaign. A couple of weeks ago (before I got wind of the Standards Board complaint I should add) I formally wrote to the Chief Executive and apologised for this.

For all the huffing and puffing from members of the Yes campaign sore after their defeat, I hope that the ruling from the Standards Board marks the end of this affair. In so many ways, with the exception of a few bitter letters in the Northern Echo, it's clear that the rest of the town is moving on.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Springfield Post Office

Local residents will by now be aware that the Post Office on Thompson Street East has been closed for about a week now.

The counter in the shop is closed up, and the words "Post Office" have been taped up. The newsagent is open as usual, however.

I want to make it clear that the Post Office has not closed as a result of any nationwide programme. What we understand is that the previous post master had to retire owing to ill-health. The new owner of the shop at present seems unwilling to re-open the counter.

David, Andy and myself are on the case, and have approached both the Post Office and the new owners of the shop. We know how important the facility is to local people - we have been told that it was the sixth most popular Post Office in the town.

We'll keep local people informed as news becomes available.

"It's like fairyland!"

Darlington Fireworks Display on Saturday with Sandy and AJ. I now have Portfolio responsibility for this, so I approached the event with a few butterflies - the fireworks have gone so well in the past that everyone expects nothing less than a flawless performance.

I needn't have worried. It was a perfect night, with just enough wind to clear the smoke from the whizzing rockets and so improve visibility. The Echo estimated there were 80,000 present, and certainly I don't think I've ever seen the Show Field so full.

Ever contrary, Sandy said she preferred the laser accompaniment of a few years ago - for me the 4 Catherine Wheels were a really nice backdrop to the display (enjoyment of laser displays can be very conditional on weather conditions).

I'va passed on my thanks to all the staff involved in what was a great evening for the whole of the town. It was particularly good that the 'no alcohol' rule was pretty universally adhered to. Now the planning begins for 2008!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The visiting fellow

To Loughborough University and the Sir Frank Gibb building (pictured) on Thursday, where I gave a talk to MSc students on the politics of local transport.

I was invited by Senior Lecturer Dr Marcus Enoch - our paths have crossed several times over the past few years as he has researched amongst other things the Bus Wars of the mid 1990's. Marcus originally comes from Darlington, and I was delighted to accept his invitation.

So I got a chance to talk for a whole hour on transport and local politics (imagine!) Fortunately, I was able to cannibalise a couple of officer presentations on the Local Motion and Cycling Demonstration Town projects, seasoned with a liberal sprinkling of my own anecdotes and quotes from Yes Minister. As always, it was the Q&A session at the end, which lasted about half an hour, which threw up some really chewy issues, chiefly the politics of road pricing (or is it congestion charging?)

Rising demand for transport is a consequence of a strong and prosperous economy, and increasing globalisation of markets for goods and services. Against that background, and despite planned transport spending of some £140 billion over the ten years to 2015, congestion is expected to increase by 25 per cent over the same period.

When I looked intensively at the subect of demand management back in the late 1990's, it seemed as if road pricing was the only sure-fire way of addressing the remorseless growth of traffic on our roads. I want to be clear - the North East in general and Darlington in particular would be entirely the wrong place for a discrete road pricing scheme. The Local Motion project shows, however, that real reduction in car travel can be achieved by providing people with information about the alternatives available. I think the Local Motion has been so successful in part, however, because of Darlington's ideal geography (tightly-knit and flat), so journeys under 3km could be targetted.

So where does this leave us regarding longer inter-urban journeys, for example? After the disastrous Edinburgh referendum in February 2005 (where on a 60% turnout residents voted 74/26 against a scheme) a number of councils are shying away from congestion charging - Leeds and Birmingham are two examples. Manchester and Cambridge still have plans on the books, 'though. As central government seems to be rowing away from road pricing at a rate of knots, it's difficult to see from where else leadership on this toughest of political tests will come.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Killing me softly

No posts for over a week, you may be muttering. Unfortunately, work and Council commitments have overwhelmed me over the past 9 days or so - such that on 2 nights last week, I was sending myself to bed at 8pm so I could wake up at 2am and work through the night. Then, crash out at 6am for an hour or so and up and off to work. A round trip to Loughborough on Thursday to give a talk on local transport policy probably didn't help.

It's not sustainable, of course. I collapsed into the car at Gosforth at 9pm last night after a Regional Board meeting and thought "this is crackers." I should have been in Manchester this weekend for part three of an intensive course on community leadership, but have cried off - if the long hours hadn't finished me off, the then alcohol certainly might.

Added to which, I have a serious weight problem which isn't responding to any diet known to man. As Garfield rightly says, of course, the favourite day of the week to begin a diet is tomorrow. However, I am supposed to be the Cabinet Member for Health and Leisure, and I hardly cut a convincing figure in that role at the moment. I sat through another uncomfortable meeting on Wednseday with a NHS bigwig talking with him about the obesity problem in Darlington very conscious that I'm hardly in a position to show local leadership on this key health subject.

Like most fat people, I'm very conscious about my weight, but I thought sharing the problem here might finally give me the momentum I need to make some fairly radical changes to my lifestyle. I know that if I don't do something now, I'll probably be dead in 10 years (if I'm lucky). That's no good for Sandy or the boys (or indeed me, for that matter).

So time to use my current situation to check out what the NHS locally can offer me as a resident, for instance. I'm conscious that blogging regularly on this self-obsessed subject will rapidly become tiresome, but it is something I'll return to fairly regularly as milestones are reached (or not as the case may be). First stop, a trip to my GP early next week.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Talking Together

I was double-booked on Wednesday night, so I had to dash from John Buxton's retirement event at the Dolphin Centre to the Talking Together session at Hurworth Primary School.

Firstly I should say a word about John Buxton - he has been a Director at the Council since the late 1980's. Together with colleagues like Cliff Brown, he played a central role in steering us from being a minor district council to a successful and ambitious unitary authority. For the last 10 years or so, John and I worked together closely together as Director and Lead Member - whilst toys were sometimes thrown out of the pram, I like to think that we achieved a lot together. It was instructive that his leaving do was packed with members of staff both past and present, as well as stakeholders and councillors from both the main political parties. He will be missed.

Then on to Hurworth with Chief Executive Ada Burns. As I've blogged previously, Talking Together is intended to give residents a chance to talk with and question officers from various Town Hall departments, as well as other public services. So whilst there were stalls for the Youth Service, transport section and sports people, for example, the Police and PCT were there too.

Given the event was on Hallowe'en. there was a good turnout from parents and their kids. These early Talking Together sessions have been planned very much with parents in mind, and there was a corner for children to get done up in suitably ghoulish make-up.

Perhaps less successful was the Q&A session (which I chaired). Only a few residents came through for that, and they may have felt rather intimidated by the phalanx of Council officers and other stakeholders sat with them. Still, we chatted for about half an hour, and it was good, I think, for the Chief Executive to have to answer some very direct questioning from two residents from Mowden about services in their local area.

These are early days as far as Talking Together are concerned, and no doubt lessons can be learned - more advance notice of the meetings, for example, and better publicity. From the reams of questions which I saw the officers taking away with them to answer more fully later, it seems there's is no lack of willingness from local people to engage with the process.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Christmas Dates for your Diary

There's a packed programme to attract shoppers to Darlington town centre in the Yuletide run-up. Here's the highlights;


Street entertainment – Breakdancing
Joseph Pease Place
Friday 26th October


Craft Fair
West Row
Friday 9th November

Farmers Market
West Row
Friday 16th November

Christmas Lights Switch On weekend
Town Centre & Market Square
Saturday 17th (throughout the day) and Sunday 18th November (2pm – 5pm)
On Saturday, the weekend starts with a great selection of street theatre and entertainment, including balloon artists, living statues, live music and stilt walkers; these will be from fixed locations and walkabouts throughout the town centre.

On Sunday, in the Market Square, the main event starts at 2pm with ‘Soulutions’, performing soul music with a festive twist, leading into the Switch On party at 2:45pm, where Alpha 103.2’s roadshow gets everyone in the festive mood.

Music and dance follows next with Darlington’s Darrien Wright performing a special dance routine and music provided by ‘Bubblegum Trash’, one of the regions promising new bands.

Also featuring is the final of the school’s Carol Competition. The carols will be played and voted on 103.2 Alpha FM and the top three schools will perform at the Switch On, with the winner chosen by a prestigious panel, which includes the crowd on the day.

Prior to the Switch On, another special guest, Santa Claus will arrive in style, in a superb vintage car, and finally the attractive new Christmas Lights will be switched on by our very own X-Factor finalist ZoĆ« Birkett, who stars as Snow White in this year’s pantomime at Darlington Civic Theatre.

Christingle Markets
Town centre
Thursdays 29th November & 6th, 13th December (12 noon until 8pm)
The Christingle Markets, supporting the late night shopping are ideal for some last minute Christmas gifts.


Craft Fair
West Row
Friday 14th December

Farmers Market
West Row
Friday 21st December

Winter Wonderland
Market Square and town centre
Thursday 13th to Monday 17th December
‘Winter Wonderland’ is a five-day market and Christmas Event Special, from 13-17 December. The Market Square and the town centre will really come alive, with a Victorian children’s fairground, a log cabin village selling a variety of Christmas goods and a wide selection of exciting entertainment, including carol singers, stilt walkers and delightful music brought to you from a variety of local bands.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Polling Station Blues

Regular correspondent Aeres has raised with me the disruption caused to schools at election time when polling stations cause them to close.

He points out that the school attended by his child has been closed twice this year (for the local elections and the referendum). He adds;

Surely if the council is committed to increasing school attendance it should be reconsidering whether the school is the only suitable building in the area with which to house a polling station? Although my daughter attends Whinfield, we actually live on 'the other side of the railway line' meaning that our polling station is a portacabin on Glebe Road. As we are able to vote perfectly well in such base surroundings surely the people of Haughton could vote somewhere else and not disrupt the education of their children? On the flip side it may even be good politically and enphasise the message that 'education matters'.

I think that's an entirely valid set of points. The Council is currently in the throes of a review of polling districts and polling places. Comments have been received - not surprisingly, the issue highlighted by Aeres was raised by a number of people. You can see the officers' initial responses to the consultation here. If anyone would like to comment of the feedback, then they can do so by emailing This will inform a report to Full Council next month.

There are, of course, no easy solutions. I understand that Redcar and Cleveland took the decision a couple of years ago to not use schools as polling stations at all, preferring portakabins, but are now having to reconsider as securing access for disabled people has proved a real problem. Portakabins are also expensive (£2,000 for a day's hire each) and in Darlington they are then fitted with a special ramp so everyone can use them, (costing another £2,000 a time).

Feedback from staff who staffed the portakabins during the referendum was that they were very cold, as the doors had to be always open. They also can't take account of tellers from the various parties. They tend to lack toilet facilities.

It should also be remembered that it isn't the Council which closes schools, but the headteacher concerned. Now the Council is looking to work with affected schools to see whether it would be possible to use some of the premises as a polling station whilst ensuring that the rest of the building stays open. In the long-term, that may be the most effective way of keeping more kids at school (and their parents at work) on polling days.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bus station update

As you may have seen from the Northern Echo, plans are being pulled together to demolish the derelict bus station in Feethams.

And not before timne, you may feel. The bus station has been closed for at least 10 years, and since then first United and then Arriva have been using it purely as a garage. Although the garage is owned by the Council, Arriva have had a long lease which pretty much allowed them to do as they wished with the building.

So although the Council(and many passengers) were very disappointed that the bus station closed in the 1990's, there was nothing practically that could be done about it. It's positive, however, that Arriva have now agreed to be bought out, and the eyesore will be demolished.

What will replace the bus station is still very much a matter for discussion, although with some of the Beaumont Streetv East car park about to disappear under a new office building, in the short term some more temporary car parking may be necessary.

The site itself may have important archaeological remains beneath - a former Borough Engineer showed me drill samples taken over the years which suggested a layer of crushed wood a few feet below the surface. Whilst you may think that nothing could have survived the buidling of the bus station, in fact the floor is a concrete floor resting on pillars driven into the marshy soil.

Victorians speculated that Darlington was originally a Saxon burgh, which would have included a wooden pallisade around it. This could have built at Feethams, where some amateur archaology in the nineteenth century suggested there were remains of interest.

I'll be keeping a watching brief on this as events unfold.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Entirely a matter for you...

Still, say what you like about our dear centre party, they do provide a rich vein of material for the satirists. So raise one last glass to Ming, and revisit this classic.

Another knifing

Little wonder the figures for knife crime are worsening when the LibDems insist on stabbing their leader in the back every 18 months or so.

I found tonight's BBC News more than a little bizarre - no personal appearence by Ming or even a written statement, just an unctuous little speech from party President Simon Hughes (a real "pass the sickbag" moment that John Junor himself would have relished).

So what did for Ming? Was it his age? His leadership style? Neither, in my opinion - at 65, Ming was certainly not too old. Certain LibDem briefers are whispering to the press that he would have been 69 at the time of the next General Election - well, yes, and they knew that when they elected him. Reports I read about LibDem internal workings suggested that they were getting their act together after the drift of Kennedy's leadership.

In fact, Ming had to go because as a party LibDems seem to be almost genetically incapable of showing loyalty in the face of adversity. All of the nonsense about Ming's age could have been brushed aside if senior members of both warring factions at the head of the party had made it clear they were behind him. Instead, you had the incredible sight of Nick Clegg openly speculating about standing for leader at the LibDem conference recently. Neither the Labour nor Tory memberships would have stood for such naked opportunism from an apparent high-flyer within their ranks.

Before he became leader, Ming was a hugely respected figure not only in the Commons, but across the country too. It takes a certain kind of malign genuis, possessed only by the LibDems I think, to turn that gift to dross.

Let's get it on!

A quick glance at the list, compiled by Channel 4's Location, Location, Location, shows that no less than 7 of the top 20 worst towns in the country have elected Mayors. Joining Middlesbrough are Newham (3rd), Mansfield (9th), Hackney (12th), Stoke (13th), Doncaster (15th) and Hartlepool (20th).

The programme's website reveals that Middlesbrough was previously the 6th worst place last year and 5th worst place in 2005. Ray Mallon did warn the people of Darlington that elected Mayors have the power to "bring a town to its knees" but I don't suppose this was what he had in mind. All of the top 20 places to live have Leader and Cabinet arrangements - make of that what you will.

Ray's responded by declaring that Channel 4 and its researchers are enemies of the town - "and I treat enemies accordingly" whatever that means.

There is of course only one way to sort this out - Locations's own Phil Spencer and Robocop himself in a Celebrity Deathmatch. Let's get it on!!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Comedy of Errors

My "rural rides" as Mike Barker styles them, ground to an embarrassing halt last night, when I was due to go to Low Dinsdale Parish Council for 7pm.

Stupidly, I hadn't written down a venue in my diary, but had a vague idea that it was being held in the Reading Room in Neasham. Not so, informed a man when I got there - to get to the meeting I had to cross the river, go along what we call the French road (the tree-lined avenue straight out of Secret Army) and the parish hall is beyond a farm.

I set off, but couldn't find any hall before the hamlet became open countryside. I returned home dispirited, only for Sandy to tell me brightly that she knew exactly where the parish hall is - about half-a-mile beyond where I had given up.

So one more journey out (by now it was 7.20pm) - I completely missed it the first time, and only on the way back from Girsby picked it out of the gloom - completely shut up. So either the parish councillors had given up on me and conducted their business early, or I'd got the date as well as the venue wrong too.

So this is by way of a sincere apology to the Council - I'll try and get back there for another month (if they'll have me!)

Quote for Today

"I haven't reported my missing credit card to the police because whoever stole it is spending less than my wife."

Ille Nastase

Friday, October 12, 2007

Tory revolution, part 3

"Tories' challenge on council reform: do you mean it?" screams the headline in today's Darlington and Stockton Times.

The story contains the news that Darlington Conservative Group has designated key members to "shadow" Cabinet members in their portfolios. For example, Heather Scott, the Group Leader, will be my opposite number on health and leisure.

"Wow" thinks the average reader, "these Tories are getting serious about opposition at last."

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Being rather long in the tooth, I can recall that the Tories have appointed shadows on at least two other occasions since the instigation of the Cabinet system. Each time we were promised forensic opposition, and each time the Tories seemed to forget about it after a few weeks (bless 'em).

We'll see if the initiative this time lasts beyond Christmas...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Duty of Care

To North Road Community Partnership this evening (eventually, after a mix-up over venues).

During a good, wide-ranging discussion, one of the members made a series of serious allegations regarding the operation of a care home in the area (I'm not going to name it here at this stage). The concerns were based on the experience of a staff member at the home.

As I promised I would do, when I came back I checked out the regulatory structure now for care homes - since 2004, this has rested with the Commission for Social Care Inspection. I have emailed them this evening with a list of the concerns.

Dealing with accusations is never easy - in this case the information I passed on was third-hand. At the end of the day, however, allegations of abuse have to be checked out, and I have given the CSCI the contact details which should help them talk to the staff member concerned. The alternative, as has been painfully apparent in the news from Maidstone today, is in effect to collude with the systematic neglect of very vulnerable people.


My complaint has been acknowledged by the CSCI, and a named Regulation Inspector assigned to the case. I'll keep you all posted on developments.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

On my travels again

Down to Hurworth last night, where the Parish Council had kindly agreed to take me up on my offer to say a few words and discuss issues of importance to the village.

At the start of the meeting, Ian Holme, a regular contributor to this blog, was made vice chair of the Council. It was also good to meet Ian White, and renew my acquaintance with Peter Foster and Alan Gibson who both had previously been Borough Councillors (Alan in particular was a shrewd operator in the Tory cause).

After my spiel, questions ranged from financial support for the Grange to the planning conditions attached to the recently-passed Snipe House Farm development. I'm now busy getting replies back to the issues raised.

I'll be down in Hurworth again on 31st October to chair the "Talking Together" meeting. ‘Talking Together’ is the initiation of an ongoing process of informal area-based engagement to be established in each of the five street scene areas (South West, Central, Northwest, South East, North East). The ‘Talking Together’ events are informal events lasting two and a half hours. Services across the council together with the Primary Care Trust (PCT), Police and CVS will have exhibition areas to interact with the public to:

· Inform the public about the standard of services being delivered in their area
· Consult them about priorities and service improvement
· Inform and consult on other developments specific to that locality or borough.

The last hour of the session will be in the form of a Question and Answer session giving opportunities for the public to question a panel, chaired by a Cabinet member. The panel will also include Ada Burns, the Council's Chief Executive, the police and PCT. It is also hoped that local councillors will be in attendance at events and be part of the panel.

‘Talking Together’ is a pilot and if successful will be held quarterly in each of the five street scene areas at different venues in wards within the street scene areas to ensure all wards get to host a meeting.

Okay, so I cut and pasted the last 4 paragraphs from an officer's letter, but you get the drift. I don't know whether the Talking Together initiative will form the basis of a final locality-based consultation model, but the Council really is making every effort to listen to the views and concerns of residents around the town.

Aldermen of the Borough

On Tuesday evening, Full Council made former councillors Cliff Hutchinson (Labour) and Sheila Brown (Tory) Honorary Aldermen, who both retired at the last election.

Between them, Cliff and Sheila served on the Council for 84 years, representing Cockerton West and Hummerknott respectively. There's a piece in the Echo here.

The office of Alderman goes back to the Anglo-Saxon period, although since 1972, the title has been purely honorary. There is only one other Honorary Alderman of darlington at present - former Council Leader Jim Skinner.

For the ceremony, the Chamber and the public gallery were packed with many family members and well-wishers. It was one of those occasions which I think Darlington does particularly well - tributes were paid by councillors to both individuals, including from members of the opposing parties (Tony Richmond's warm and moving contribution on Cliff Hutchinson was a high point).

So whilst we may tear lumps out of each other in political debate and at election time, we never forget that the person opposite is a human being, and we show appropriate respect. That's how politics should be.

Darlington Assembly

Last Friday I went along to Darlington's Assembly - the meeting of the Local Strategic Partnership that brings together the private, public and voluntary sectors in the Borough.

Over 200 people attended to hear final feedback from the Enquiry Groups - the 6 teams examining the key issues facing Darlington.

There was a really positive mood in the sessions I attended - a lot of the cynicism in the air over recent months seems to have blown away, helped by the hard work undertaken by the chairs of each of the Groups. These people weren't the "usual suspects" but individuals who had been somewhat sceptical of the LSP process. Their conclusions commanded widespread support.

Of particular interest to me were the recommendations from Enquiry Group 6 on Health and Leisure, chaired by Pete Barron. You can see some of the key recommendations from the Group here. It's horrifying that men in Lingfield ward on average can expect to live to just 69 - well below the national average - but in Park West the age is 82.

The findings will form the basis of my work as a Cabinet member over the next 12 months, and I will ensure that each report I make to Council leads on the progress that we are making, working together with partners in the Borough.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

October Council

Full Council this evening, with Labour and the Tories locking horns during a two hour session.

Two highlights for me - firstly Tory new boy Alan Coultas lauding the Pedestrian Heart scheme, and in particular the changes which have been made to the Open Market. Alan made the comments genuinely, earning a snarl of disapproval from fellow Conservative Ian Galletley. After all, it was less than 6 months ago that the Conservatives were basing their entire election campaign on what a disaster the town centre has become.

Just as they miscalculated over the pedestrianisation of Skinnergate and the Market Place in the 1990's, the Tories will come to regret trying to exploit for short-term political gain the Pedestrian Heart issue. Labour will not shrink from reminding them and local residents how it was the Conservatives who continually sneered at the scheme.

Then there was a surreal hiatus in proceedings when the leaders of the three political groups, together with Independent Councillor Steve Jones, lined up for a picture after signing a new protocal. From our position to the rear of the shot, Labour Councillors were treated to the intimate, almost loving embrace in which LibDem Peter Freitag held Tory Heather Scott. I would imagine Heather's face was a picture.

And they say that Tories and LibDems make uneasy bed-fellows... :)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Alfreton Town of Political Blogging

This is a local blog for local people...

Iain Dale has been producing a series of lists over the last few weeks ranking British political blogs. I scanned the details as closely as everybody else - a semi-respectable 132nd in the top 500 for this blog.

Perhaps unsurpisingly, Iain's own ranking is #1. So if he's the Arsenal of political blogging, it means I'm languishing two-thirds of the way down the Conference North.

To be honest, I'm probably far too parochial to ever break into the big time, where hits total tens of thousands every day, rather than hundreds. Still, it's best to blog about what you know, and it's good getting local feedback on Darlington issues from readers of this blog.

Iain's list is part of a book he's produced on UK political blogging. It's a shrewd target audience - bloggers are about as likely to buy books about themselves as the British Union of Narcissists. Time to log onto the Politicos Bookshop website...

Monday, October 01, 2007

Tories' Catch-22

A small but important finding in yesterday's Observer poll. When asked "which team would you trust in an economic crisis?" 61% went for Brown and Darling and just 22% for Cameron and Osbourne.

The Tories could respond by relegating the economy as an issue in the coming General Election, but daren't cede that crucial battleground from the start. In contrast, to talk up some British economic malaise (as oposition parties generally do at election time) will play to one of Labour's chief strengths, reminding people that if there are problems in the future, Tory toffs Cameron and Osbourne don't look like they could cut the mustard.


Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Wensleydale Railway

The station at Leeming Bar, the view of Pen Hill from the line near Redmire, and AJ at Leyburn Station

On Saturdays, the Blackberry is locked away, the laptop is shut, and we have a Family Day Together. This is a Good Thing. Obviously.

So time to re-acquaint myself with Sandy and AJ, after spending more time with Alan Charlton and thousands of leaflets over the past few weeks. We went to Leeming Bar to catch the 10.35 to Redmire on the Wensleydale Railway.

At £25 for the three of us, the cost was pretty steep, but this is volunteer-run railway, which by rights shouldn't exist at all. During the journey we bought a solitary £1 raffle ticket, and then felt rather miserly as the genial guard explained that the money would go towards the £2.5 million needed to reconnect the railway with Northallerton and the East Coast Mainline. Heavens knows how much it will cost to complete the western link to Garsdale and the Settle to Carlisle line.

So if you come up trumps on the Lottery this weekend, spare them a thought. The website, with a timetable and information about the Association, can be found here.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Glad, confident morning again

I came back from work today belting out Transvision Vamp and Cutting Crew hits on the iPod - it feels like a large monkey, which may or may not have been a football mascot, has been lifted off my back. Here's some final thoughts on the referendum campaign;

Firstly the No campaign. I have to say that there wouldn't have been a No campaign without the leadership of Alan Charlton. Becuase he is independent of any party, Alan was able to bring together the members of all three political groups into something like a fighting team. This was probably the first time that this has happened in Darlington for a generation, and Labour, the Tories and independent councillor Steve Jones worked particularly hard at short notice getting letters delivered. Alan also mastered his brief immediately, and for someone with no tv experience, was a star in front of the camera. I have a massive amount of respect for what he achieved in so short a space of time.

Secondly, I did get annoyed towards the end of the campaign when the media tried to style a No result as the 'status quo' option. As I tried to explain to the Echo today, I don't think that 'no change' was on offer to the people yesterday - the Council has heard the concerns of residents that it hasn't always seemed to listen well enough, and is reforming accordingly. Both sides were promising change then - the question was whether concentrating power in the hands of a single individual could be compatible with introducing greater openess and accountability into local government - you know my views on this, and I'm really pleased a majority sided with the No campaign.

As for the Yes campaign - well, I was able to chat cordially to several of their members this morning, including my old sparring partner Peter Jones, and Harvey Smith, and both sides were trying to respect the other, although I hear there was an ugly outburst from one of the Yes people after the result became clear. A fundamental wekaness of their campaign was that it was almost entirely negative - because they were driven solely by a desire to remove the current Council leadership, they didn't seem particularly concerned with the practical implications of having an elected Mayor. They thus became easy meat for the No campaign, which had done its homework about the weaknesses of the system country-wide. In the end, I think that people picked up on this fundamental weakness in the Yes campaign's psychological make up, and it helped swing opinion our way.

Finally, I think that I'm prouder than I've ever been in politics that I've been part of a campaign which preserved our 140-year-old ceremonial mayoralty. Someone in the Yes campaign told me that they couldn't understand why we were mentioning this issue in our material - well, it was because we genuinely believed that Darlington stood to lose a great deal if events in Middlesbrough and Hartlepool were repeated here. I shall be raising a special glass to the Mayor at this year's Ball.

So now we can reverse Browning's maxim, and start to govern properly - it's dispelled the big grey cloud of uncertainty that was hanging over us after May's victory. I hope that as we reform, and as the town continues to move forward, even those who voted Yes today may feel that the result was the right one.

Scores on the doors

Yes: 7,981 (42%)
No: 11,221 (58%)

I'm at work at present - I'll blog on the result and its implications tonight.

I've had to go to work, but the latest I've had from the count from 2 sources is that it looks like a narrow No.

Counting is ongoing - observers suggest that boxes from Hummersknott and Red Hall (albeit on a small turnout in the case of the latter) have Yes majorities; North Road and the rest of Haughton East are with the No's. Still far too close to call.

Counting begins

Well, we're off. About 10,000 postal votes and 9,500 polling station votes were cast. About equal nos. Of Yes and No people are here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Big Day

Well, it's all over. Counting the referendum ballot papers begins tomorrow morning at 9am.

I'll be blogging from the early part of the count tomorrow morning, although I have to leave before 10am. Unless the result is very close, it should be clear by then who is likely to emerge victorious.

Making your mind up

Having problems deciding how to vote today? Maybe the Northern Echo's Leader can help....

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Putting the 'Blue' into Blue Peter

Following the great kitty-naming scandal? Nope, nor me. I had vaguely gathered, however, that BBC producers were reluctant to call the moggy "Cookie" owing to some link to childhood obesity.

I was put straight, however, by a letter in this morning's Times. I quote;

Sirs, The reason Cookie is considered to be a risque name for a cat is that it is short for "cooking fat", which is, of course, a spoonerism. Glyn Jones, Devon.

I don't know what's more shocking - that Blue Peter producers should be caught lying or that they - surely the custodians of all that is good, and decent and (let's be honest) middle class in our society - are familiar with such filthy word play.

Standards Board

Regular readers may recall the recent spat between Chris Close and myself over one of his more offensive posts on the Town Liar. Close then chose to complain to the Standards Board for England.

I have now received the Decision Notice from the Standards Board: - it reads as follows;

The complainant alleges that Councillor Wallis referred to him as a "bonkers maverick" on his web blog, in response to a comment made by the complainant on another website.

Officers note from Councillor Wallis' web blog and subsequent link to the complainant's web blog that there appears to be an ongoing difference of opinion between the two. It is recognised that a divergence of political opinion may occasionally flare into controversial comments and remarks, which are considered objectionable by parties against whom they are directed. However, though it may relate personally to the complainant, it is noted that the remark relates to complainant's personal political views, which he is entitled to express.

In the circumstances the Standards Board for England has decided that the allegation should not be referred to an ethical standards officer for investigation. Having taken account of the available information we do not believe that a potential breach of the Code of Conduct is disclosed. We have made no finding of fact.

So there you have it. Two things immediately spring to mind;

(1) As I think I've observed before, if you revel in libelling Town Hall officers, headteachers and the like, it helps if you have a thick skin yourself, when inevitably some criticism comes back your way. I was disappointed that the Echo never covered the fact that the only person who suggested that they would make a very fine elected Mayor for Darlington was Chris Close himself - a development which if publicised would have greatly assisted the No cause.

(2) On a more serious note, I remain irritated at the process the Standards Board adopts in dealing with complaints. As a basic right, I think I should have been informed when Close's complaint was first received. The Standards Board would say that this leads to delay, and that the more unlikely complaints can be weeded out at the earliest stage (and indeed it seems to have taken them about 5 minutes to work out that Close's allegation was garbage). Still, I know that many councillors are uneasy with this element of the process.

Tyne Tees News tonight

A TV crew were in Darlington today doing some filming in advance of tomorrow's referendum. After some standard campaign material (interviews with Alan Charlton and Stuart Hill) they asked for some shots of us surveying opinion in the town centre.

In a small way, it was heartening that the first two people we approached said they were definitely voting No, because of the cost of the extra layer of decision-making, and because it puts too much power in one person's hands.

I haven't the faintest idea what the result will be on Friday morning (and from some of the comments left by their sympathisers on this blog and the Liar, the Yes camp seem pretty cocky), but I do feel that the twin messages of the No campaign have been communicated effectively. The higher the turnout, the better our chances of success, I feel.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A reply to Alan Macnab

Alan, who is a Haughton West resident and a LibDem candidate at last May's local elections, posed a series of questions to me in a previous thread (as well as on the Town Liar) regarding the aftermath of a possible "No" vote on Thursday. To do Alan's points justice, I'm creating this separate thread.

Two things before I start; the No campaign doesn't have a homogenous view on the future of Darlington politics - it simply brings together people of all parties and none who think that an elected Mayor would be a disaster for the Borough. Equally, whilst I am a member of the Labour Group, these are my own opinions, and shouldn't be taken as expressions of Party policy.

During the three days which remain before the referendum, are you prepared to:

(a) bring in more of the opposition parties and the people into the government of the Borough?

Ans: No. Local government in the Leader and Cabinet model deliberately mirrors Westminster's "first past the post" system. I'm not aware of any controlling group which voluntarily shares power after an outright election victory. So, the LibDems have control of Durham City and Hull City Councils, for example, but certainly don't parcel out Executive seats there on the basis of the proportion of seats won.

And neither should they - the system of election militates against this. If we had PR in local government, as is the case in Scotland, then the situation would be completly different. Then most Councils, including Darlington, would be hung, and parties would have to do deals. To see how impractical this is now, you only have to follow through the logic - a majority Tory Council appoints a Labour member as Cabinet Member for Transport, say. The Tory manifesto says that they will cut car parking charges and promote car travel. What does the Labour Cabinet member do? - if he follows through Labour's own priorities, then he can be sacked instantly by the majority Tory Group on the Council. If he follows Tory policy, then he will be perceived as a renegade to the Party position on which he stood for election. It's what I call "the tyranny of the numbers." There is an inescapable logic to one party rule under the Westminster model.

Would things be any different under an elected Mayor? I don't think so. Mayors have a bit more freedom than Group Leaders to appoint members of other parties to their Cabinets, but ultimately, the vast majority of elected Mayors are party political animals. The best analogy is with Gordon Brown's new government - he has appointed Baroness Williams and Lord Lester as advisors. Does that mean that the government is truly a partnership between the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties?

(b) allow opposition parties to chair the Scrutiny Committees;

Ans: Not sure. This is a more interesting proposition. I'm not sure how far controlling Groups voluntarily give the opposition carte blanche to run scrutiny committees - it's my impression that most (of all political hues) do not. Of course, the controlling group can take all the scrutiny chairs and vice chairs if it wishes. Scrutiny should work on a non-political basis, of course, so in a sense it is irrelevant who chairs the meetings.

I don't know enough about how Chairs of Select Committees in Westminster are appointed, but there may be some interesting lessons here. Certainly as far as I know, there are members of all three parties who chair Select Committees. Are they appointed on the basis of the proportion of seats won?

At the moment, Labour voluntarily gives up one chair and one vice-chair to the opposition. This is an area where the Scrutiny review of the democratic system over the next few months may be able to provide a lead.

(c) devolve power and funding to properly elected community foras which represent the people and are independent of political control or influence.

Ans. This is another massive issue. At the moment, there are Community Partnerships in some parts of the towns, and in others, there may be residents' associations. In the rural areas, of course, there are the parish councils, but there are swathes of the town with no community structures at all. Using the areas created by the new StreetScene project, more consultation skould take place with local people on key issues. The first priority I think has to be that a level playing field is created and all residents have a forum where they can raise issues.

I have to say, however, that trying to create residents' associations which are "independent of political control or influence" sounds like a pipe dream. For example, I know that in the LibDems' book of campaigning tricks, creating Residents' Associations with party followers/sympathisers is a key precursor to taking a ward. Didn't the LibDems try to do something like this in Harrowgate Hill before the last election, Alan, where you were a candidate? Political parties will always try and maximise support locally, and where Resident Associations exist, they will do that openly or covertly.

(d) hold state of the Borough debates where members of the public can receive warts and all reports on what the council are doing, what has gone right, what has gone wrong and allow people to question the political figures and chief officers on any manner of subjects without prior conditions.

Ans. It sounds like the "State of the Borough debate" idea is getting a bit out-of-hand. Again, I think that this is an interesting idea, but why should residents have to wait a year before senior officers and Cabinet Members can be questioned? At the moment, residents can ask questions at Full Council meetings, but have to give a lot of notice. Getting this straightened out, with more publicity so residents know their rights might be best.

(e) allow the opposition parties and community groups to contribute to the Town Crier.

Ans. It's always been my understanding that there are fairly strict rules preventing Council publications being used for political purposes. That's why you don't see non-Executive Labour Group members in the Crier, any more than you see members of the opposition. Cabinet members are featured, becuase the Crier exists to explain and promote the policy of the Council. I've always thought it would be a remarkable (if rather confusing) Town Crier which had pages devoted to slagging off the Council.

Promoting the work of community groups might be different, however. Again it's an interesting idea which will need to be explored legally as well as practically.

I don't know whether my amswers make it any more or less likely that you'll vote No, Alan - bear in mind, however, that whilst the Yes campaigners have promised the earth if an elected Mayor is created, I've tried to give an honest appraisal of the ideas you've proferred.

Echo says vote "No" on Thursday

A major filip for "No" campaigners this morning with the Northern Echo leader column recommending readers to reject the elected Mayor proposal later in the week.

Pete Barron, the editor chaired the debate on Friday, of course. I can also reveal that the Echo had separate meetings with both the "Yes" and "No" sides a couple of weeks ago. I went along with Alan Charlton, and we were given a thorough grilling by Pete, Chris Lloyd and Dave Roberts regarding the rationale of the "No" position. I believe Stuart Hill and Clive Owen batted for the "Yes" side.

I don't think either camp can describe the Echo as having been partisan one way or the other over this matter, which is why their endorsement for a "No" vote at this time is particularly important. It's a recommendation with a rider, of course - Darlington Labour Group has to continue to open up the workings of the Council, and make better use of the many talents available.

But fundamentally, the leader asks (and I paraphrase) "are things so broken in Darlington that we have to take the huge risk that an elected Mayor represents?" I agree with the Echo that the answer has to be "No".

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Politics Show (again)

Up to the Arts Centre at lunchtime, this time for a slot on the BBC's Politics Show.

First time round in February, I was given a grilling by the formidable Richard Moss. This time, the piece took the format of a debate between myself and Yes campaigner Stuart Hill, moderated by Mark Denten. With the time available cut and then cut again as a result of the national element of the programme over-running, however, our contributions were pretty brief.

We were given a strict 30 seconds each to present our respective cases, and unforgiveably, I had to be cut short. Stuart stayed within his time slot, but only by reading his text from under the table - I'm not best placed to judge how that came across. In the ensuing melee, I just wanted to communicate two of our key themes; that elected Mayors cost a shed-load of money, and that they concentrate power in the hands of a single individual.

I was certainly happy was with the introductory film. I don't know who is masterminding the Yes campaign, but having Shirley Winters, described in the film as a Yes campaigner, complaining about crossings in the Pedestrian Heart seemed pretty small beer to me when considering the enormity of the decision we will take as a Borough on Thursday. In contrast, I thought Martin Swainston came across really well. It was also great to see the clip of Lady Godiva with a straggling line of Yes campaigners again - it nicely framed the image of the Yes campaign as a few people doing strange things in the Market Place.

Is Darlington ripe for a Soviet-style revolution, as the film was asking? We'll find out on Friday when the votes are counted.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Great Debate

To the Arts Centre last night for the Northern Echo-organised debate on the Elected Mayor issue.

The Yes campaign were handing out flyers outside the meeting, and I privately cursed myself for not thinking of doing something similar. Given the high number of Yes campaign members and "fellow travellers" in the audience, however, I'm not sure that it would have made any difference.

The debate was chaired very fairly by Echo editor Pete Barron, who appealed at the start for active members of either campaign to declare their allegiance before they asked a question. Noticeably, two prominent Yes people (Shirley Winters and Nigel Boddy) flouted that rule.

I thought that both Alan Charlton and Stuart Hill spoke well for their respective campaigns. I was sitting with friends from the Labour Party, and we all had to smile when Stuart claimed that he wasn't a politician - Stuart was Labour's candidate in College in 1995, when we had a real chance of taking the ward off the Tories. Stuart was a useless candidate, who went AWOL for most of the campaign, and he never got selected for a winnable seat again. College has remained Tory ever since.

On the whole, the academic on the panel gave a balanced account of the elected Mayor experiment, although as I have become completely anoraky on the subject over the past year, I winced when he made some fairly basic factual mistakes. I was pleased to hear him say however that recent research indicates that elected Mayors, "haven't invigorated turnout or democracy."

The evening was dominated, of course, by Middlesbrough Mayor Ray Mallon. Ray stayed true to his expressed comments in his Echo column that an elected Mayor has immense power. If any town elected a Mayor minded to abuse that power, "he'll bring the town to its knees." He added that Darlington was facing a judgement call, "but it's all about the personality" which is one of my fundamental worries about the position.

There were quite a few of my Council colleagues there from all three parties, and I could imagine a collective thought bubble with the words "bloody hell" rising up as the true scale of Mallon's ego became apparent, and they thought about having someone like him in Darlington Of course, his self-belief is one of his best assets for a lot of people, and the position of elected Mayor tends to attract very macho characters. When someone in the audience asked him "so what do you do on an average day?" Ray was off on his favourite subject, and probably would have been talking now if Pete hadn't interrupted him.

He is, however, a very able man, and the best elected Mayor in the country by a mile. As a canny politician, he plays the "I'm not a politician" line beautifully. I hadn't known until recently that remarkably, the Mayor of Middlesbrough lives in Darlington, and he was very complimentary about the town, so we must be doing something right.

Not surprisingly, given the make-up of the audience, there was a majority at the end for the Yes's. The only vote that counts, however, takes place on Thursday...

The Final Week

The TV cameras came to town on Thursday, filming the intro for Sunday's Politics Show, the North East component of which is coming from Darlington.

At very short notice, a good gathering of No supporters turned out, as we unveiled two campaigning posters - one has an image of Hartlepool's H'Angus with the slogan "It's not so funny when it's your money". The other is a 'sits vac' ad for an elected Mayor for Darlington, with a fat cat and the likely whopping salary he'd earn.

Afterwards, we did some surveying of shoppers as to their voting intentions next Thursday. Two things came from an admittedly fairly limited sample - firstly we didn't meet anyone who was intending to vote "Yes". Secondly, we were struck by just how many people didn't live in Darlington. Despite the problems of the past year with Pedestrian Heart, the town centre is once again a popular destination for shoppers from outside the Borough. Results from the Community Survey suggest that satisfaction with the town centre amongst Darlington residents is at an evcellent 81%.

You can see the Northern Echo coverage of the No campaign event here.