Saturday, September 29, 2007
Friday, September 28, 2007
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.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
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.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
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.
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
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.
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
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 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...
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
On Monday night I attended a meeting of Eastbourne Partnership. Since May, the Council has been making a concerted effort to open up and listen better - hence opposition councillors can now attend Cabinet meetings and probe reports, for example.
One initiative I'm keen to pursue is getting around as many Partnership and Parish meetings to listen to the views of members on the Council, especially as far as health and leisure are concerned. This isn't a "one-off", and I'm looking forward to returning in the future to report on progress. At a time when I've just taken up a new Cabinet portfolio, it's particularly helpful to listen to the views of residents now.
Although a bit depleted by holidays, the meeting in Eastbourne was very useful. As I walked in to Maidendale House, it was good to see the MUGA being used by a group of young people playing football. Martin Landers, who works there, is doing some fantastic work on the estate setting up mini football leagues for children of different ages.
Otherwise, there was a lively discussion around the services the Council offers to young people. We also began to wrestle with the problem of tackling under-age drinking, and I left after an hour with plenty of food for thought. Next - on to Bank Top, North Road and Hurworth!
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Collect 30+ 5 and 6 years together, and they sort of achieve a critical mass all of their own. After 30 minutes they were smearing themselves with mud and within an hour, they'd formed their own primitive community. Only parental intervention prevented the sacrifice of the weakest just before the jelly and ice cream.
Seriously, AJ had a great time. The one advantage of having so many kids along to a party is, of course, loadsa presents! To give you an idea just how many, AJ gave up opening them after about 10, and wants to open the rest tomorrow.
You will see from the cake that there was a theme to the party, which may or may not have had some (paternal) parental influence. I, I mean AJ, was especially delighted when a Cyberman helmet was unwrapped - unaccountably I can't fit it on my head. Still, the instructions have given me food for thought.
Apparently, "Wearing the Cyber Head restricts what you can see. Never play with the Cyber Head near or around steps or stairs." I guess that's the Cybermen's galactic domination plans buggered then.
Also "Use of the Cyber Head for anything other than safe fantasy role play is not recommended." What can they have in mind....?
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Friday, September 07, 2007
Thursday, September 06, 2007
The anchor, Peter Sissons, described John Prescott throughout the slot as "Two Jags". Now yes I know that's his popular nickname, but I expect a senior BBC presenter to show him the courtesy of calling him by his proper name at least once.
Anyway, on my high horse, I fired off a complaint to the BBC. And here's the reply;
I understand you felt it was inappropriate for Peter Sissons to refer to John Prescott as 'two jags' on BBC News 24.
We are always delighted to receive feedback, both positive and negative, from our viewers. Your comments will be fully registered on a daily log, which is made available to our programme makers and senior management. Feedback of this nature helps us when making decisions about future BBC programmes and services and your comment will play a part in this process.
Nothing less than Sissons kissing a picture of Prescott's arse on live TV would have been enough for me of course, but I really do wonder why I bothered, given the pathetic response.
In Middlesbrough, for example, it was clear that Ray Mallon would stand, which certainly contributed to the overwhelming Yes vote in the referendum there.
The Yes campaign realise this, and I understand they've been scurrying around over the past few weeks trying frantically to persuade plausible figures to declare that they would run as independents - alas for them, to no avail.
Only one person, to my knowledge has formally announced that he will run as an independent - the sane and rational Chris Close has declared on the Town Liar this morning that he will be a candidate.
I hope this is something that the Echo pick up on - anyone who wants an insight into the kind of Council and the kind of Darlington we would have under Close's stewardship only needs to look at the outpourings of bile and spite which characterise his posts on the Liar. Council officers with whom he's had run-ins are called liars or criminals (or worse). Just today, Cllr. Ron Lewis, the widely liked Tory Councillor for Mowden has attracted Close's ire (for reasons that are not immediately clear to me). Close writes;
RON LEWIS - TORY HAS ALREADY 'VOTED' WITH THE 'OPPOSITION' - THE COUNCIL BUT THEN HE GOT THE SAME SORT OF ALLOWANCES THE ROBSON GOT. THAT AMOUNT OF MONEY WOULD HAVE ALLOWED ME TO RUN ADVOCACY FOR TWO AND A HALF YEARS. AND BELIEVE ME WE DO A LOT MORE THAN RUNNING AROUND WITH A TOILET CHAIN AROUND OUR NECKS
It's easy to dismiss Close as a bonkers maverick, but he has caused real hurt to a lot of people in the town. And remember, in Hartlepool the monkey mascot got elected. Something for us all to think about on the 27th....
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
After some preliminaries on the Mayors in Middlesbrough and Hartlepool, Ian attacks a letter from Frank and Stella Robson, which made a case for keeping our ceremonial non-political mayoralty. He suggests that their support is entirely due to the money they received as allowances when they served as Mayor.
Now this kind of stuff may go down a storm with my good friends on the Liar - councillors are a bunch of parasitic leeches feeding off the public, you know the sort of thing - but I'm not sure how it will play "out there". If I were the Yes campaign, I think I'd stick to the arguments rather than smearing some respected figures in the town.