Tuesday, November 27, 2007

There and back again

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Darlington a 'Santa Free Zone'?

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Restaurant Review - The Waiting Room, Eaglescliffe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Waiting Room, 9 Station Road, Eaglescliffe. Tel. 01642 780465. Open Monday from 6.30pm. Tuesday - Friday 11.30am-2.30pm, Evening meals from 6.30pm. Saturday and Sunday 9am-2.30pm, Evening meals from 6.30pm. Website http://www.the-waiting-room.co.uk/

Floury Baps

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bowling round Darlington

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

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

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

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

Christmas Cheer

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

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

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Nowt to Do"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loser defects to also-rans

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Feathered friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lest we forget

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Service interruption

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

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Poppy Day

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

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

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

Thursday, November 08, 2007

End of the Affair?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 05, 2007

Springfield Post Office

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

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

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

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

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

"It's like fairyland!"

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The visiting fellow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Killing me softly

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Talking Together

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

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

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

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

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

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