Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Hear All Sides?

A sure sign that the opposition are rattled is when they try to shut you down.

This blog has played a modest part in highlighting just a few of the serious flaws of the elected Mayor system. Cue the letter in yesterday's Echo from Jean Jones, Chair of the Darlington Tory's Women's section, questioning whether I should have the audacity to post on the Referendum Campaign from a Council-owned PC.

This blog does not rely on support from officers, and is clearly a collection of my own opinions. I will be taking advice nonetheless as to what machines I can use to alter the blog - fortunately I have access to at least two other computers, so the clumsy attempt by Referendum supporters to gag me on the subject of the elected Mayor is doomed to failure.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Grown-up politics

Through the wringer at lunchtime on The Politics Show, interviewed by Richard Moss about the prospect of an elected mayor for Darlington.
My interview was preceded by a piece about Middlesbrough mayor Ray Mallon, and I watched his interview with his political agent. I've seen Richard's interviews often enough to know that he doesn't take any prisoners, but as he pinned Mallon on his record on crime, I was thinking "bloody hell" as I contemplated my turn.
Although there were a few interruptions and challenges, I tried to get across my key message that an elected Mayor dangerously concentrates power in one individual, at a time when local government is trying to act more pluralistically. The debate so far in Darlington, such as it's been, hasn't begun to properly consider this point, or indeed the fact that in at least 4 places in England where there are elected Mayors, residents are collecting signatures to return to the Cabinet and Scrutiny model!
In the three minutes allotted there wasn't time to talk about the loss of our 140-year-old ceremonial non-political Mayor if the proposal goes through, but this can be done at another time.
Elected Mayors are another gimmick of americanized politics shipped into the UK, and frankly their time has been and gone. After Monday, when the petition finally comes in, the debate proper can begin.

The Politics Show

12pm - 1pm today. Live interview from Middlesbrough on the elected mayor issue. Hopefully it won't be car crash TV...

Friday, February 23, 2007


A classic picture splashed over today's papers - the Sun has the caption, "I suppose a hug is out of the question?"
Perhaps a litle more thoughtfully, Greg Davis, the manager of the estate project in Manchester that everyone's favourite chameleon was visiting said, ""I love that picture," adding that it showed the "stark contrast" between the world of public school-educated Mr Cameron, and that of a state school teenager on an inner city estate.
The individual, or "tagged thug" as the Sun winningly calls him is Ryan Florence. He said, “The only drugs I do are weed and a bit of cocaine, but I don’t tell my mum about that.” Or was that David Cameron....

A little known part of Darlington...

Early morning call this morning from Tyne Tees looking for an interview on "People Power". The prompt seems to have been the Independent front page this morning which hightlighted the overturning of the Tesco proposal last year.

By the 10.30am the crew were having second thoughts, but by then they'd interviewed inter alia Stuart Hill (Secretary of the Elected Mayor campaign) and Robin Blair who I understand has recorded comments on the referendum for Sunday's Politics Show.

I had a bit of a stampy-footy, pointing out that the elected Mayor lot have dominated the debate so far, and some counterbalance was necessary (albeit that I would speak in a personal capacity). To be fair to the producers, they weren't looking for direct comment on the mayor thing, but a general piece on residents not settling for simply what's on offer any longer. I got a couple of minutes in front of the camera, and a chance to talk about DBC empowering people through the Tesco consultation last year and the ongoing Let's Get Cracking campaign.

It may or may not be on Tyne Tees news tonight. See if you can spot which bit of Darlington the interview was shot in (the camera angle was chosen very deliberately...)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Tees Valley Metro

At a lively meeting of the town's Transport Forum last night (which I chair) some important questions about the Tees Valley Metro were asked.

As I've blogged before, the Tees Valley Regeneration have submitted a bid to government for £141.9 million to create a "world class" metro system for the Tees Valley. A typical journey from Darlington to Saltburn would take 45 minutes – 11 minutes faster than existing trains - and that is with five new stops serving major regeneration and employment sites, including Durham Tees Valley Airport.

An important issue raised last night however was the future of the Darlington to Bishop Auckland line. It has suffered from chronic under-investment in the past, and could be put at risk if the suggested Tees Valley Metro scheme stops at Darlington. An extension to Bishop Auckland could help address many of the congestion issues on West Auckland Road and North Road.
We'll do what we can to ensure that the Bishop Auckland to Darlington element isn't forgotten as plans develop.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Noisy Neighbour

Action is being sought from the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency as a factory on Albert Hill is creating a nuisance by operating outside of prescribed working hours.

The factory, JW Recycling (formerly Just Wood), overlooks the Rockwell River Restoration scheme and housing in Springfield. Residents have complained to us about the noise, which can go on into the evening. Company staff have also been seen collecting items from outside the fence before leaving the operation.

The factory has a long history of causing a nuisance to local people, most recently in the summer of last year when a wood-chipping machine sent fragments hurtling into the popular riverside area. Cllr. Andy Scott gave evidence to the Health and Safety Executive which resulted in the company being served a Prohibition Notice regarding the operation of the machine.

We have contacted officers at the Town Hall, and they have told us that the matter will be taken up with the company, and that the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency will also be contacted.

This is a long-standing problem, and local people need to know that the company will stop its anti-social methods of operation.

Cameron "slumping" outside London

The so-called "Cameron Effect" which the London chattering classes seem to assume as a given isn't working outside the capital.

As I've already blogged, the Tories made no progress in the local elections here in the North East in 2006, and there's little evidence that that's going to change this year.

Far from being an asset, David Cameron has been rumbled by the electorate, and could be a bigger liability to the Tories than any of his three predecessors.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Another one bites the dust?

Darlington Tories' rather threadbare list of candidates has been further diminished in Cockerton East, it would seem.

The leaflet I was shown yesterday had the name of only 2 candidates on it - the third, listed on the local Tories' website as David Hammond, was absent. By my reckoning, that takes the Conservatives down to 30 announced candidates for next May. Only 23 to go...

Unusually, the leaflet gives only the telephone numbers of the candidates (Kimberley Summers and Alexandra Nicholson) and not the addresses. Could this be because one of the pair's residence is at Dalton-on-Tees, which isn't even in the Borough?

Remarkably, the leaflet was dated February 200. My well-thumbed copy of Gibbon says that Septimus Severus was Emperor at the time. It would appear the Tories are exchanging Roman for Victorian values. Or Charles Johnson's photocopier's on the blink...

Doing the rounds

Walking round the Nightingale Avenue area over the last couple of days delivering letters about the Dispersal Order extension and the forthcoming CCTV installation allowed me to spot some other problems that need sorting too (pictured above). I've emailed the pictures to the Town Hall for a quick assessment. The churned verge is on the last bend at the southern end of Rockwell Avenue, and there is another equally bad example in Salters Close. I know I've reported these several times before, and hope to get a positive result this time.

It was also good to chat to residents about other matters too, including housing issues and difficulties with some pupils from the Education Village climbing over fences at lunchtime. We've already had a very helpful response from the school management who are taking the problem very seriously.

Happy gas!

Middlesbrough 2 - 2 Bristol City
(Middlesbrough win 5 - 4 on penalties).

Nuff said!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Here we go...

Reliable sources suggest that the Elected Mayor petition will be handed in later this week, probably Friday. Expect an Echo splash tomorrow.

Clearly the petition organisers want a low turnout, as the timing of the handing-in makes a mid-August vote more rather than less likely.

Dispersal Order gets results

Saturday's Echo has a piece about one 15-year old who was stopped in his tracks by the Dispersal Order in Nightingale Avenue.

The story dispels a number of myths. Firstly that there is pro-active policing around the town (he was arrested twice in Nightingale Avenue under the Dispersal Order powers and then again in Yarm Road). Secondly, the Police do take anti-social bike riding seriously, and this was one of the charges to which he has now pleaded guilty.

In Yarm Road, he was found to be carrying a knife. Whatever sentence the magistrates impose, I'm sure he's learnt that causing bother for residents in Springfield is very likely to land him in court.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Method in their madness?

Confirmation in the comments on my previous post that The Referendum Campaign have the required number of signatures to trigger a poll.

I've been working under the assumption that it was the lack of enthusiasm for the idea of dumping our ceremonial Mayor and their own disorganisation that explained why it was taking them so long to get the names together. I wonder if there isn't another explanation, however...

Once the referendum has been handed in, as I understand it, the timetable starts immediately which leads in 6 months time to a Borough-wide ballot. That time will be needed to check the names, for a draft constitutuion to be agreed by the Council to be put to the electorate, and for the publicity to be sent out informing the public of the choice before them. Given that everyone's attention will be on the local elections running up to May, that time will be needed in full.

That means any referendum will probably be held in ... mid-August! Easily the worst time of the year for a poll of this importance, and almost guaranteed to have a crashingly-low turnout. Given the obvious lack of enthusiasm for an elected Mayor amongst the population, I wonder if the campaign organisers think that a very low turnout isn't their best chance of slipping their proposal through?

If the Referendum campaigners think that their cause is genuinely popular, they'll hold off submitting their names until mid-March, thereby allowing a September poll when many more people will be able to vote. The decision they take will be very illuminating.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Fresh blow to Mayor campaign

My hapless friends at the Darlington Referendum campaign suffered a further embarassing setback when their website crashed today, apparently permanently.

After spending a year - yes a whole year - trying to cobble together just 4000 names on their petition, they seem to have lost the only consistent vehicle for their propoganda.

I'm guessing here, but I think this is what's happened;

(1) the domain name darlingtonreferendum.org expired yesterday. It had been registered by Tory Harrowgate Hill hopeful Mike Cartwright.

(2) This wasn't a problem in itself, but unfortunately the main server for the site had suffered a catastrophic failure a week or so ago. The entire site therefore was lost.

(3) The site was re-registered early on Thursday morning, but without back-up, all that visitors to the site get is a nice picture of a poppy field and adverts for real estate in Arlington, USA.

The Referendum Campaign cabal have spent 2006 lecturing the Council, via their website, that "Darlington isn't getting the organisation or the leadership it deserves". This would be stinging criticism if it didn't come from a tin-pot group who couldn't, ahem, provide the retail support for a whelk stall.

Of course if I've got this wrong, I'd be happy for someone from the campaign to provide a correction.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Man 'Flu

I'm dying from bronchitis, or H5N1 or both.

Unfortunately Sandy isn't showing any sympathy, and has packed me off to bed with two Day Nurse tablets muttering darkly about "man 'flu".

Anyway, I should be back fighting fit at the weekend.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Pedestrian Heart from above

I see from the Darlington Future website that my Tory friends are complaining about the latest phase of the works. As they correctly surmise, new areas have been opened to speed up progress.

I thought a bird's eye view might give a better clue as to what's going on, so I took these snaps from the clock tower.

The first picture shows the scene around Binns. A large area has been finished now, and inside the barriers work is well on the way. The second picture shows the foundation work to the water feature.

The next two pictures shows the large area which has been opened up to the north of Post House Wynd, and foundation work completed. By proceeding in this way, it allows the paviers to make more rapid progress, taking perhaps months off the completion date. That will be good for the overall cost of the scheme, and good for town centre businesses. I'm sure they want to see the work completed as soon as possible too. The only people to be disappointed? - the Tories of course, but characteristically they only want what is bad for the town centre to boost their flagging chancxes in May.

Frankly, their's is a shameful position.

Britain's Nuclear Future

Saturday's debate at the NPF on the Government's Defence White Paper was as expected a feisty affair. Secretary of State Des Browne didn't take any prisoners (is that a good or a bad thing in a Defence Secretary?) but at least it was clearer afterwards where the lines of the argument have been drawn.

Senior members of the Grassroots Alliance tried to dominate the discussion, but their contributions were mostly very weak - to suggest that as the West's possession of nuclear weapons hadn't protected it from the atrocities of 9/11 and 7/7 we should not renew our arsenal in the future was poor logic, and easily swatted away by Browne. Equally he was dismissive of the multilateralist delegate who thought that our position as a world power would suffer if we did not replace Trident.

Browne made a cogent case regarding the importance of submarines as the method of delivery, and contemptuously dealt with the LibDem argument that we can somehow stave off the decision indefinitely.

The key passge seemed to me to be, "It is very difficult to predict how the global security environment is likely to develop over the next 50 years. But global uncertainty and tensions are increasing and we cannot guarantee we will not face a nuclear threat in 20-30 years. Now is not the right to move from our current multilateral stance to total unilateral disarmament. To decide now not to maintain our deterrent would be gamble with the nation's security - a gamble we are prepared to take."

Sunday, February 04, 2007

End of the Pier Show

Saturday's National Policy Forum was a strangely muted affair, and we were all done by 3.15pm. As the next NPF isn't until May or June, this was possibly Tony's last turn before standing down as Leader.

It was another masterclass, particularly after the press had left. It focussed on advice to the Party not to abandon the centre ground of politics, the coalition of the compassionate as he called it, which has secured Labour the three historic General Election victories. Labour renewal can't rely on traditional forms of political discourse, but has to reach out into the community and become a stakeholder party. We must be as relevant in Dorset South and Harlow as we are in our heartlands.

Again it was impossible not to be struck by his forensic political genius. Answering a question on nuclear power and global warming, he dealt with the politics first, demonstrating how Labour's policy has posed real problems for Cameron's Tories.
He wound up by drawing on analogies from the 1980's and 90's. He recalled how the Tories looked in a terminal mess in the mid-80's at the time of Westland and other ministerial scandals, and yet went on to win the General Election less than two years later - because they believed they had the right policies for the country (regardless of the reality). Likewise, between 1995 and 1997 as Opposition Leader, he never felt wrong-footed by Major on any issue of policy because the Tories had given up taking the tough decisions necessary to convince the country or themselves that they should continue to govern.

The lessons for the party are clear. As I've said before, we'll miss him more than we realise when he's gone.

Every little boy's dream...

Before setting off for London on Friday, time to perform the start of work on the Eastern Transport Corridor for the press.

Together with images of people holding huge cheques and sporting cheesy grins, pictures of councillors in diggers at the start of building projects are the cliched staples of the local press.

Still, I have to confess I felt a real buzz when I got behind the wheel of this monster. Give me a chequed shirt and a utility belt and I am Bob the Builder.

Seriously though, the road should be completed in the spring of 2008.

Friday, February 02, 2007

May's Election Result...

...well, according to Indigo Public Affairs, who issue their predictions before each set of elections. They have a good track record - last year they got nearly 70% of the majorities right, compared with 62% achieved by the respected Tony Travers.

Indigo predict that Darlington will be a "Labour Hold". Nice to hear, but on balance I think we'll continue with our campaigning across the town. In other local contests, Durham City is predicted to go to "No Overall Control" (from the LibDems, although they think Labour will lose Middlesbrough to NOC). Otherwise no change in North Eastern Councils. Across the country they think the Tories will win 13 and lose 3, which would hardly be the progress David Cameron must be hoping for. Labour will gain 3 and lose 7, whilst the LibDems should gain 8 and lose 1.

"Just a bit of fun" as Peter Snow used to say, but predictions from an outfit with a track record of accuracy.

Defence of the Realm

Down to London later this evening for February's National Policy Forum (NPF).

Unimpressively, no paperwork has been sent out for the day, but it's been heavily trailed that we will be debating the future of Britain's nuclear deterrent.

The Government announced that it was seeking a replacement for Trident (which ends its useful life in 2024) back in the summer. Both Tony and Gordon have publicly stated that they believe that we should invest in a new generation of deterrents, so there shouldn't be too much nonsense over the decision.

There will of course be a passionate debate - not only because a replacement system will cost anywhere between £12 and £25 billion, but because many of my party colleagues are vehemently opposed to nuclear weapons on moral grounds. I respect their stance (I've had helpful emails from Compass and CND) but in a world where nuclear weapons are proliferating, and countries like Iran and North Korea are actively seeking to obtain them, it seems an odd time to relinquish our "bargaining chip" at the table.

Since 1997, the Government has made good progress decommissioning weapons where that's been in the national interest. Labour has withdrawn and dismantled our maritime tactical nuclear capability and the RAF’s WE177 freefall bomb, and significantly reduced the operational status of our nuclear weapons system. Normally, only one Trident submarine is on deterrent patrol at any one time. It has a maximum of 48 warheads on board, and is normally on several days ‘notice to fire’. Its missiles are not targeted at any country. We've reduced our maximum number of operationally available warheads to fewer than 160. We have reduced the maximum number of operationally available warheads by nearly half, and not conducted a nuclear test explosion since 1991. We ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1998 and ceased production of fissile material for nuclear weapons and other nuclear explosive devices. We support the proposal for a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty and call for the immediate start of negotiations in the Conference onDisarmament in Geneva.

On this issue, I've never seen the logic of the unilateralist line. Still I'll listen to the contrasting arguments tomorrow.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Technical Problems

I'm aware that there are problems opening some links on the site - I've reported this to Blogger. If you can email me at nick.wallis@darlington.gov.uk if the problems are persisting (or simply to reassure me that they've gone away) I'd be grateful.

Ward Matters

An update on a couple of issues which I've posted on recently;

(1) Rockwell Pastures Footpaths. On 6 December, I reported that there were some problems around the River Restoration Project. The grafitti was cleaned up quickly, but the work on the footpaths was going to take longer - there was a flooding problem in places on the southern side of the Skerne where there is a concrete path. There are also longer term problems on the northern side of the river, where aggregate was used, which can get very boggy in the winter months.

I now understand that not only will the ponding problem be fully reviewed, but a scheme is being drawn up to provide a permanent surface north of the river. The path is very popular here, both with people walking the dog and also potentially cyclists, so a decent surface I'm sure will be well-received. Nothing's confirmed yet, so I'll post again when I hear more.

(2) Motorbikes riding illegally on public open space. I've been contacted by our beat bobby Sally Suleiman, who has logged the problem with the Police motorbike unit in Durham, although it's not clear when they're next In Darlington. In the meantime, an officer in Cockerton who has access to an off-road bike, will be giving the area attention. As Sally points out, the new CCTV camera in Springfield Park should help deter idiots riding here in future.