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.