Thursday, March 29, 2007

Labour launches its vision for Darlington

Entitled "Ambition for Darlington - Ambitious for You" Labour's manifesto for May's local elections was launched today at a meeting of candidates and Party workers. We were addressed by Cllr. John Williams and MP Alan Milburn.

Alan pointed out how Darlington had changed since there has been a Labour Council and Labour Government - under the Tories unemployment was 9% and now it's 3%. Double-digit inflation and interest rates are a thing of the past. He contrasted Labour's ambitious document with the Tories, with its absence of ambition and a lack of policies to take Darlington forward.

So the document can be viewed on the internet, I've created a unique site for the document - its Darlington's Labour Vision.

The boy Dave

My friend Malcolm Redfellow (whose site gave me the Bullingdon Club pics of David Cameron) has emailed me these two candid snaps of the boy Dave. Sadly they're not of one the restaurants he and his chums trashed. Malcolm describes them as "Dave doing a Beckham in a skirt and Dave down in the dumps after being slaughtered in Stafford (1997).

I know - it's a bit childish - but they did brighten up my morning.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A long muddy walk

Springfield Park is a great resource for local people. Inexplicably, when the play area was built at the top of the field, a path was laid only to the Beauly Drive entrance to the open space. Parents with children going to and from Sparrow Hall Drive have to splash through the mud in wet weather.

We've been niggling away at this for years, and got some really good news today when we learned that the Council are proposing to lay a path to Green Lane from the play area. The play equipment will also be refurbished - now that the CCTV camera is up-and-running, there has much less vandalism here, and now is a good time for the swings and slides to get a makeover.

Officers are also suggesting that the play equipment nearby to the north of Sparrow Hall Drive be removed. In truth, the slide and swings here aren't well-used, and are a constant source of irritation to local residents, frequented as they have been by young people and adults drinking on a night-time. When I've taken AJ there on a Saturday morning, I've had to pick up broken glass first. With the refurbished play equipment in Springfield Park, no-one loses out.

These are just plans at the moment, and there will be consultation with local people in June 2007. If all goes well, the changes should be made by the end of the year.

Monday, March 26, 2007


The election campaign in Haughton West inched forward today when the LibDems announced their candidate, Nick Haithwaite, for the ward.

I know very little about Mr Haithwaite other than, ahem, he was until this afternoon the LibDems hopeful in Park West. Excitingly, the LibDem website has Sheila Dunstone standing in both Lascelles and Park West. Maybe the party is using cloning technology to rattle up candidates? Still I'm sure that both of them (or all three?) have been working "all year round"...

This rather underlines a basic political rule that it's unwise to unveil your candidate list until the party's overall strategy has been agreed. Or at least thought about. This is the second re-arrangement of the LibDems' candidate list to my knowledge, and it seems that Mike Reid rather than Mike Barker has been in charge, shouting "ruuuunnnn-a-rooounnnnd" at the hapless candidates.* In the LibDems favour, unlike the Tories, they do at least know the first name of their candidate.

I expect a more measured announcement from Labour about our candidates across the Borough later in the week.

*Runaround was a popular children's TV show in the late 1970's featuring Mike Reid. This kind of thing stays with you.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

End for the Tin Hut?

There aren't many non-residential buildings in Haughton West, but one looks like it's nearing the end of its days.

Springfield Mission Hall on the corner of Thompson Street East and Hercules Street is the subject of a planning application submitted by the Salvation Army. I used to get into trouble when I called it the "tin hut", but the green corrugated landmark may be about to make way for a contemporary replacement.

I'll blog on the details when I've had a chance to view the plans - they can be viewed at the Town Hall under reference 07/0202/FUL.

Newsflash - the Politics Show

John Buxton, Director of Development and Environment, will be on BBC1's the Politics Show today answering questions about Darlington's approach to promoting sustainable transport.

It should have been the lead member with responsibility for highways, of course, but the producers wouldn't have me on again so soon after my 'elected mayor' appearence.....

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Big Fella's back!

Get yourself down to High Row tomorrow at 12.45pm for the unveiling of the newly-restored Joseph Pease statue. For me it's a hugely symbolic moment. On one simple level, the return of the statue indicates that the town centre is really getting back to normality. That end of the High Row will feel "right" again.

It means a lot more, though. Pease's statue, dating from 1875, symbolises the marrying of the old and the new in the newly-pedestrianised town centre. Just as some of the old railings have been retained, so Joseph's figure shows that you can move forwards whilst preserving the best of the past.

Pease personified the huge strides the town made in the early to mid-nineteenth century. I'm only stretching the point a little when I point out that today, as we're in the midst of the biggest school re-building programme since Victorian times, with a grand new College and new jobs being created by the thousand, that there is a confidence about the town that Pease himself would have recognised.

An email from the elected mayor campaign

I got this from Stuart Hill, the secretary of the referendum petition organisers this afternoon;

I am curious about the figure you mentioned as an estimated cost of an elected Mayor at last night's meeting of £250,000. Could you give me a breakdown of how you made up this figure or was it just a wild guess?

They sound rattled. In fact there's no mystery about my figures - each local election costs the people of the town £100,000, so it's fair to assume that the referendum in September and (God help us) the potential Mayoral election in May 2008 will total a combined £200,000. It is estimated that the cost of consultation that the Council by statute has to undertake in advance will be £50,000.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cycling Symposium

Darlington Bike Campaign's Symposium on Saturday was a success, wiith over 50 people attending.

The highlight for me was the presentation by Werner Brog from Socialdata, the international firm which has been tracking local residents' trip choices by mode since we became one of the UK's 3 Sustainable Travel Towns. I'll cover the latest findings in a separate post.

The Bike Campaign have produced a position paper on the future of cycling in Darlington which was chewed over by myself and Martin Swainston during a "politicians' slot". Speaking for Labour, I was able not only to cover our very good record on promoting cycling (Cycling Demonstration Town status, significant investment in cycling infrastructure, huge progress made on cycling in schools), but also the future, should Labour be re-elected in May. That included completion of the radial route work, the Skerne Valley way under the £5 Note bridge, and also a fresh push to increase cycling at secondary schools, using the good work at Hummerknott as a model.

Some of the demands of the Cycling Campaign I couldn't support (general cycling on pavements for example, and imposing a 20mph limit on all roads across the town) but we are moving in the right direction. I hope another Symposium is organised next year, to take the debate forward.

Mayoral Referendum - 27 September 2007

As you may have seen in this morning's Echo, Council voted overwhelmingly in favour of holding a referendum on whether to have an elected Mayor, on 27 September 2007.

Labour members had a free vote, although this didn't seem to be the case on the Tory side, where Heather Scott pledged that Concservative Councillors would be supporting Cllr. John Williams' motion.

For me, there was something of a dilemma. My views on elected Mayors are well-known, I guess. And as a couple of Councillors pointed out, through their own incompetence, the petition organisers managed to submit an invalid set of names (no mean feat when you consider they only had to collect 3,800 names).

Still, the rules laid down by Parliament mean that the petition organisers could simply have parked themselves on High Row to collect the extra signatures they needed. Flippantly, do we really want that bloke in the scruffy jeans with the megaphone frightening young children as he bawls out his message any more?

More seriously an automatic referendum would have had to take place in late August - immediately around the time of the Bank Holiday. Turnout would have been 15%, perhaps 25% if we were lucky. Last night I thought Councillors on both sides were being way too generous about the petition organisers - in my opinion they handed in the petition in late February precisely to achieve that outcome. They know their plan to create a single-person autocracy here in Darlington doesn't command support across the town, so their only chance was to have a Referendum when only the angry few would be likely to cast a vote.

By agreeing to a Referendum voluntarily, Council was able to rescue the town from that prospect, and set the Referendum date for September 27th, when the vast majority of people will be able to take part.

Normal service is resumed

After a mini-break, I'm back blogging again. Ans there's been plenty going on....

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Suddenly I see

Clarification today on the number of invalid entries on the Mayoral Referendum petition.

4736 signatures were submitted, but only 3808 were valid. The threshold of 3887 was not then reached, and the petition was 79 names short. The confusion seems to have arisen as some names were invalid for more than one reason. The report to the special Council next week has been re-issued.

There's been some fairly excitable speculation both here and on the Liar about the likely outcome of next week's vote. I intend to blog at the weekend on how I intend to vote and why.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Mayoral Petition falls SHORT...

...but the Referendum is likely to go ahead.

After a whole 12 months, the Mayoral Referendum campaign organisers handed in the petition, boasting that with over 4,700 names, they had easily crossed the finishing line of 3,808 signatures.

It's just been announced, however, that in fact they fell short by 79 names. The petition is therefore invalid. Whether or not to allow the Referendum to go ahead will be a decision for a specially-convened Council meeting, with there being the option for the Council to apply voluntarily for a Referendum to be held.

At the meeting, I understand that Cllr. John Williams will be urging all sides of Council to ask the Secretary of State that a Referendum be held. Labour Councillors will have a free vote on the issue, and I would hope that the other parties adopt the same position. Party politics shouldn't come into this.

It's astonishing that with a former DBC Chief Exective as one of their organisers, the Referendum campaigners still managed to cock-up the process, with so many names disbarred. Now at least Council will have the final say, and hopefully a sensible date set for the poll, probably 27 September 2007.

The organisers still seem some way short of being able to run that whelk stall...

Scammers at large

I received 2 telephone calls from tenants on the Lyonette Road estate last night concerned about visits they'd had from men from an unnamed company telling them that the Council was selling off its Council houses. The tenants would be able to buy their houses, however, for £6,000!

It's rubbish of course, but indicative of the lengths some characters will go to in order to make a few quid at the expense of others. I've put in a call to Trading Standards, and the Housing Department have agreed to circulate a letter to local tenants putting them straight about the Council's housing stock and how they can go about the right-to-buy if they choose.

I hope that as and when these "salesmen" return, we can catch them in the act!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Steaming Ahead

Well, it's not the most flattering portrait of the town we love, but this article about the prospects for property buying in Darlington from Friday's Times gives a real sense as to how Labour's drive to bring Darlington into the 21st century is impressing people well beyond our borders.

The key passage is: -

But at last Darlington is dragging itself out of the dumps. The main street, once a good place to get yourself run over, will soon have been pedestrianised at a cost of £6.5 million. Its spectacular hanging baskets must be the biggest in the North. A new £90 million shopping mall is being built and a vast and shining further education college is already open. Another £3.9 million has gone on restoring South Park with its Victorian fountain and band-stand. It is hoped that new business parks will bring 2,600 jobs. Even the Dragons’ Denstar Duncan Bannatyne, a North East self-made millionaire, has opened a new hotel and restaurant in town.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Wacky Geordie Fibs at it again!

LibDem-controlled Newcastle City Council have come up with a cunning wheeze to beat graffiti - teach kids how to use a tin of spray paint! They're forking out thousands of pounds to give Tyneside teenagers lessons in "graffiti art skills".

The sessions are run by a group which helped organise a controversial art exhibition featuring notorious graffiti vandal Inch. Council leaders say the aim is to dissuade young people from becoming graffiti vandals, but there was a warning that they could instead be making the problem worse.

Labour's Deputy Leader on the Council Nick Forbes said, "My fear is that the Lib Dems are simply funding the training of the next generation of graffiti vandals."

The serious message for Darlington residents is - no matter how hard the LibDems try to convince that they're suddenly serious about tackling anti-social behaviour, when given the chance, their initiatives show that their instincts are on the side of the the vandal and not local people.

Patricia Hewitt

Then a quick dash up to Durham City, where I facilitated a Labour Party Let's Talk session with Secretary of State for Health Patricia Hewitt.

There were about 40 people there from around Durham and the Tees Valley. I spent an hour-and-a-half trying as tactfully as I could to break into discussions and move things on so Patricia could listen and respond to everyone there.

Patricia has an easy, conversational style which doesn't come across on TV. She dealt with the obvious flashpoint issues of Bishop Auckland and Hartlepool Hospitals, but also with issues as diverse as the role of the private sector in the NHS, community access and dentistry.

The issue which came up again and again was transport to health facilities, and Patricia promised to take this back to the Department.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Buses on Red Hall

Up to Red Hall at lunchtime for a well-attended meeting with local residents, the ward councillors and representatives from Stagecoach.

For some time the local ward Councillors Chris McEwan and Geoff Walker, together with the local Community Partnership, have been lobbying hard regarding public transport on the estate. No service links Red Hall with either ASDA or Morton Palms, or indeed Haughton Green where the nearest Post Office is based.

At the meeting, local residents spoke of the dislocation this causes. They also pointed out that the community needs accessible vehicles, whether for disabled people or parents with pushchairs.

I was able to share that the Council has now tendered for a service that will run three times a day during the week linking the estate with Whinfield and Morton Palms. The bus will be low-floor, and the service will begin in July. Stagecoach said that whilst they don't have any immediate plans to convert their service to low floor, they are moving in that direction (by 2015, all buses will have to be accessible).

The news about the Council-supported service was very well-received. It was understood that it will need to be supported by local people, however, or it will go the way of previous attempts to provide accessible bus services on the estate. I hope to go back to review the position with the community in the autumn.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Life on Cameron's Mars

Patrick Mercer's enforced "resignation" this afternoon was hardly an isolated example of grassroots Tory racism.

On Tuesday the excellent Labour Swindon MP Anne Snelgrove called for the resignation of a Tory Fire Chief, Jerry Willmott, who allegedly emailed to a colleague, " "I see the rig is evening dress, are we going back to 'Mess Dress' and medals? (I would have thought that with this mob in charge of the country we would have been required to wear dreadlocks and multi-coloured woolly hats or nightshirts and tea-towels) Cheers." He is now the subject of a Standards Board enquiry.

It also follows another Tory Councillor facing a disciplinary hearing after saying to an Asian woman that a youth worker should intervene before another member of the group was "married off to some illiterate man from back home".

The easy saloon bar racism of the Tory grassroots gives the lie to Cameron's make-over of the Conservative Party. On the day that John Inman died, it's a reminder that the Conservatives' social values remain stuck firmly in the 1970's.


For a couple of hours this evening David, Andy and myself "blitzed" Springfield together with our local MP Alan Milburn.

Knocking on every door in Gilsland Crescent, Warkworth Way, Furness Street, Otterburn Close, Ajax Street and most of Hercules Street, we picked up several issues which we'll be taking up with the Council (or in Alan's case, with various Government departments).

We got a good reception from local residents, and distributed a lot of our survey cards which have gone down very well in the ward.

Reprieve for the White Horse?

Interesting item in today's Echo that the White Horse Hotel may not be for the wrecking-ball after all.

The owners report that the bar and restaurant may be about to re-open, and that they are in discussions with "a third party".

I understand that Mark Burton, one of Labour's candidates in May's election, was the source of the story, after posting the news on his excellent harrowgatehill website. He's quoted at the end of the story. Constructively Mark is encouraging local people to use the bar and restaurant, and was never one of those to try and exploit the closure for political purposes. His website includes some interesting observations by the pub's owners.

Bad news I fear for the Tories' candidates in the ward, who have predicated their entire campaign on the White Horse being a pile of rubble come May. More cannily both Labour and to a lesser extent the LibDems have invested heavily in bread-and-butter work around the ward.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Tackling Low Pay

More than a million workers, two thirds of them low paid women will benefit from a rise in the National Minimum Wage from £5.35 to £5.52 an hour from October, Alistair Darling Labour’s Secretary of State for Trade and Industry announced today.

He has accepted the level recommended by the independent Low Pay Commission which will also mean increases from £4.45 to £4.60 for 18-21 year olds, and from £3.30 to £3.40 for 16-17 year olds.

Today's announcement means the minimum wage has gone up by almost 30% more than inflation since it was introduced in 1999, with the number of jobs increasing by almost 2 million in the same time. Since October last year the minimum wage for adults, combined with Working Tax credits and other benefits, has guaranteed an income of at least £268 a week for families with one child and one full-time worker.

Too few people remember what it things were like just ten years ago under the Tories. Then workers could be paid as little as 35p an hour, cleaners £1.30 an hour and security guards £2.25 an hour.

The announcement means the minimum wage has gone up by almost 30% more than inflation since 1999, with the number of jobs in the economy increasing by almost 2m in the same period.

As suspected

A damning letter in today's Echo from a Mr Barker. He writes "Myself and my wife are firmly against an elected mayor for Darlington. As an ex-resident of Middlesbrough, I personally fear the consequences of having a local despot. My wife Linda signed the petition for a mayor because she was told that it was a petition against a mayor. I just wonder how many have been similarly misled?"

Indeed. Did the petition organisers spell out that the cost of consultation and the referendum/election of the Mayor would set the town back at least a quarter of a million pounds? Or that the plan concentrates power in the hands of just one person, as feared by Mr Barker? I guess not. It'll be interesting to see if there are any further conned residents like Mr Barker writing to Hear All Sides.

Shurely shome mishtake?

Good news for the LibDems in Hurworth - the Tory's latest leaflet boldly states, "We are fast approaching May 4th when the local elections are to be held."

Well only 24 hours out, girls. I don't suppose Martin Swainston and Malcolm Dunstone will mind if the Tories are chasing votes on the Friday...

On the bike 2

These pictures show (1) progress on the "hole-in-the-wall" scheme that will allow cyclists crossing the ring road at Russell Street to access the town centre via the back of M&S and East Street. Finally, (2) and (3) pictures of the completed cycleway (minus the lining and signing) which takes cyclists off-road the length of Yarm Road between the McMullen Road roundabout and the A66, and then over to the layby at Morton Palms and (4) the completed cycleway on the McMullen Road/Haughton Road junction.

I would hope that perhaps next year, we could put a dedicated crossing in here, so cyclists will be able to go straight over to the Skerne Valley path.

On the bike 1

I spent Sunday morning travelling round the town to take a view on progress at our various cycling schemes.
This first set of pictures show (1) Haughton Road, where a cycle and bus lane are being installed. With the completion of the new cycle/pedestrian bridge in the summer, cyclists will be able to travel from the College safely to the town centre, using Borough Road and Brunswick Street.
(2) and (3) are of the work on the ring-road towards Victoria Road. This key cycle route will eventually connect the town centre and South Park.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The picture they tried to suppress

David Cameron's supporters are going to extraordinary lengths to suppress a picture of him with fellow members of the elite Bullingdon dining club whilst he was a student at Oxford.

The Daily Telegraph described it thus, "The Bullingdon modus operandi is to book a restaurant under a false name, smash it up, and throw large amounts of money at the upset owners — a form of behaviour which dates back to Victorian times." Sounds like a few ASBO's would have sorted them out.

Now the offending picture of Cameron has been "withdrawn", and in desperation the BBC has had a rather fuzzy impression drafted. No such inhibitions here. Check out the Malcolm Redfellow site (where I got the picture) for a full breakdown of those also in the frame.

As Peter Hitchins told Newsnight, "I think it tells us something about David Cameron that he doesn't much want us to know, that he is not the ordinary bloke that he claims to be. That he is actually much grander and much more aristocratic than he has made out."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Ward and Street Surgeries

Most of Saturday has been given over to our monthly ASDA surgery, followed by a street surgery on the Kingsway and Locomotive Street, and the emailing of the subsequent complaints and requests.

An hour-and-a-half at ASDA allowed the Labour Councillors from the three Haughton wards to spend time chatting with residents about a variety of matters from road repairs to taxis in the town centre. We were joined byPC Jonathan Stoker, one of Haughton's beat officers and our new PCSO Eileen. Amongst other problems, ASB in Atholl Close was raised with them.

Afterwards, a couple of hours schlepping round Springfield on the street surgery. Long-term problems on the estate have mostly been addressed, such as road resurfacing and the erection of a decent fence around St Bede's playing field, which was attracting ASB on some evenings. Today, residents raised with me flooding problems behind some garages, street cleansing, cracked pavements and overgrown council borders, and I've emailed the relevant Town Hall officers.


Full Council last night, where easily the most impassioned question asked of me was by Tory Middleton St George Councillor Doris Jones regarding the traffic calming work the Council has undertaken around the re-built St Georges CE Primary School.

Doris read out email after email from a series of residents unhappy with the scheme. She asked me if I would have a site visit to look at the situation for myself?

I told her that firstly I would request a full breakdown of what consultation had been conducted regarding the proposals, and the responses the Council had received. I would expect that the school, the Parish Council, local residents in the immediate area and the local Councillors would have been consulted, and I want to know if that was followed through. I was happy to give Doris a commitment that I will meet her and a representative from the school once that information is to hand, hopefully in no more than 10 days time.

As it happens, I had been speaking with parents on Tuesday who send their children to the school - they told me that the traffic calming work, whilst effective, has led to a knock-on problem outside the local shop, where parents and children are now having difficulty crossing.

I intend to report to Councillors fully at the next Council meeting.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

That LibDem manifesto in full...

It had the gestation of a procrastinating elephant, but Darlington LibDem's manifesto was finally delivered this afternoon.

There's already been some fairly standard criticism on the Liar from my LibDem-hating Tory friends in Hurworth, along the lines of non-affordability. Well, yes, but that kind of goes with the territory. A well-grounded, fully-costed LibDem manifesto would be an oxymoron. If they weren't wishy-washy idealists with their heads in the clouds, we wouldn't love 'em for who they are.

It presents a powerful contrast with the Tory's earlier effort. That was policy-lite, of course, with a Cameroonian slant that hilariously no local Conservative is signed up to.

No-one can accuse Mike Barker of policy-lite. The manifesto is constipated with policy. Nothing escapes Mike's gimlet gaze. Accepting that much of it is unaffordable (without swingeing budget cuts elsewhere), there are some other truths that shine through.

Firstly (and whisper it softly) it's very Darlington New Labour. Mike can't say that of course, but in paragraph after paragraph their manifesto pays homage to Labour's achievements and aspirations. Most of the passage on education for example suggests policy initiatives where Labour has already got the bit between its teeth. Better language teaching? Hummerknott is making great strides here, and more primary schools are starting to teach foreign languages. The need for an Education Review Group? Labour has asked the Local Strategic Partnership how we can build on the achiements to date. Improved vocational learning? Labour's SkillsPlus initiative, in partnership with Darlington College, is a national exemplar. I could repeat the exercise with whole rafts of text on transport and the environment.

Perhaps more worrying, however, are the bloopers in the document which suggest that the LibDems have a fundamental misunderstanding of how local government works. They want, for example, a return to the Committee system to open up local government. Darlington can't do that, because the law prevents us. So when Mike writes, "We favour a return to the Committee system" is that cynically drafted to mislead residents, only for an incoming LibDem administration (!) the wriggle room to blame the government for their inability to fulfill a manifesto promise? Probably not. More likely, the standard of current LibDem Councillor is so poor in Darlington, that the LibDems just haven't a clue what can and can't be achieved.

Mike writes intelligently and with passion, but the manifesto is badly-flawed. Unlike the Tory's effort, however, at least it provides the basis for a debate.