Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Whilst in some of the rest of England, particularly in London and the East Midlands the party seems to be enjoying a mini-revival, things look bleak up here. The Conservatives actually lost ground in the municipal elections last year to Labour and the LibDems, and that trend looks set to repeat itself in 2007.
How else to explain the crushing lack of ambition in the list of announced Tory candidates for next May's poll? In 6 Labour wards, the Conservatives are fielding a single candidate (when 13 seats are up for grabs). In a further 4 Labour-held wards, (Lingfield, Eastbourne, Haughton East and Haughton North) no candidate has been announced, yielding potentially another 9 seats to us. And that doesn't take North Road into account, where the LibDems hold two and Labour one seat.
Take Cockerton East. This had three Tory Councillors until 1991. Labour took it then, and worked hard in what used to be a marginal Labour/Tory ward. Despite a massive Conservative effort in 2003, they made little headway and now seem to have given up on the seat altogether. Before the last poll, for example, the Tories were leafletting from October 2002. Aside from a tatty generic leaflet, nothing has been heard from the Tories on the ground this time, whilst Labour's team of Cllrs. Brian Thistlethwaite and Paul Baldwin, and new candidate Daniel Taylor have been working diligently with retiring Cllr. Don Bristow on behalf of local residents.
Of course, the LibDems will be contesting some of these seats, and I can only assume that the Tories are betting all their chips on repeating their alliance with them which they forged between 1987 and 1991 (the so-called "Do-Nothing Council") which paved the way for a pro-active Labour majority thereafter.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
(1) Weren't the 80's wonderful?!
(2) There's going to be a policy review!
(3) err... that's it.
Fortunately, there were no cats around for me to kick...
Leading figures from the bus industry, local authorities and the Traffic Commissioners were amongst the speakers, after a key-note speech from the Transport Minister Douglas Alexander MP.
I have to say that my opinion shifted somewhat after listening to the debate during the day. Previously I have been a staunch proponent of regulation of the industry - anyone with a passing knowledge of what we have been through here in Darlington will understand why. The slow haemorraging of bus services, particularly in the rural area and the West End, can only continue the slow decline of passenger numbers in the town. In London, the trend is in the opposite direction, where of course services are franchised.
There are other factors which help explain London's success, however, including significant amounts of subsidy paid via the GLA. There are success stories outside London where local councils and the bus operators have worked together without a regulatory framework - Manchester, York and Cambridge are examples. Perhaps wholesale regulation would introduce pointless red tape when better partnership working might be more successful. On balance, I'm prepared to see if the proposals in the White Paper can do the trick.
The camera should allay lingering concerns as to how the relative peace which has broken out whilst the Dispersal Order has been in force will be preserved when the Order finally runs out.
As I've blogged before, both Nightingale Avenue and Springfield Playing Field have been the targets of some of the most chronic anti-social behaviour problems over the past 5 years anywhere in Darlington. The partnership between residents, the Police and the Council has produced concrete action which the camera exemplifies.
Saturday, January 27, 2007
Of course, if it hadn't been for the Labour Government, there would have been no Dispersal Orders. They were brought about in the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003. And which party consistently voted against Dispersal Orders during the passage of the Bill? Why my old friends in the Liberal Democrats. Should the LibDems choose to stand a candidate in Haughton West in May's local elections, (and they haven't done so in recent memory) perhaps they will explain to residents why their party opposed this important measure.
Generating savings of £825,000, the LibDem ruling group hoped to shut the nurseries next year. Managers were sent round to "review" each facility - staff were said to be in tears when they learned of the proposals.
Commenting in the Newcastle Chronicle, mum-of-five Susan Bone, 33, from Elswick, said: "There are not enough places around for the young ones as it is. I would be absolutely devastated if I lost this place. I have five children so I really need it. I don't work so I can't afford private childcare." The plan would have cost 90 jobs, and robbed some of the most deprived communities in Newcastle of a vital service.
Fortunately, the city's Labour Group and Trade Union's exposed the shabby plans, which were being taken forward under the false pretext that they were required by the government. A climb-down swiftly followed.
Here in Darlington, as was the case in Newcastle once, LibDems present themselves as the defenders of local communities and the services they need. A glance 30 miles up the road should serve as a warning as to what can happen when LibDems get a grip on real influence.
Thursday, January 25, 2007
After a fairly standard exchange on the subject, Andrew Neil asked the Roman Catholic contributor where this was all going. He replied that catholics have had a jaundiced view of Parliament since the Reformation, and he didn't rule out disobedience by the faithful.
Blimey. Elizabeth I famously said that she wouldn't "open windows into men's souls" (ie Catholics could hold their own beliefs as long as they weren't too open about it) but the State certainly took a dim view of any direct challenge to its authority. After centuries of persecution, Roman Catholics were accepted as loyal Britons only in the early Nineteenth Century, and the laws against their religion repealed.
Does the Roman Catholic Church really believe that its stance on homosexuality is worth undermining Parliament, and turning the clock back 450 years? If it does, then any support it might have will quickly evaporate, including from members of its own lay congregation. Somehow I don't think 21st century Britain is ready to be governed by the Duke of Norfolk again.
(For a wickedly-accurate lampoon of the Roman Catholic Church's stance by the way, check out this post on the Provisional BBC site).
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
The Council did consult with groups representing disabled people as part of the preparation work for PH, principally Darlington Association on Disability. Of course, the final scheme had to take the needs of all town centre users into account, although safety was at a premium.
Specific changes were made as a result of this consultation - for example kerbs on Tubwell Row were lowered following the recognition that they posed a trip hazard, especially for those with visual impairments. Access to Abbots yard car park was altered following a response to comments from people with visual impairments. There are other alterations which were made in response to general disability issues but would also benefit visually impaired people, such as the changed design to accommodate a crossing point on Houndgate to ensure safety for all users near the bus stop.
As people move through the scheme, there will be a clear delineation between pedestrianised area and where there are traffic movements. Work still has to be done to make sure that this principle is extended to the 'gateways' to the PH area in Northgate and Blackwellgate, for example. The Council is continuing to work with DAD to ensure the scheme is safe.
It was a rehash of the old cyclists vs. disabled people potboiler, hung on the peg that cycling is going to be allowed in the Pedestrian Heart zone after a six-month trial once the work is complete. This is very old news, and it's a shame the Echo used it as an opportunity to run a "row" story involving the town's growing number of cyclists.
In fact, the issue which was the spark for this was more interesting, but perhaps a bit technical for an Advertiser splash - some of the signing has been confusing for cyclists in the PH zone, and it is taking a little time for the new Orders to be processed. You can read Mike McTimoney's accounts here and here on the Bike Darlington website, which helpfully includes clarification from Town Hall officers.
I am confident that it is and will continue to be safe for cyclists and pedestrians to share the Pedestrian Heart area. This works well in several towns and cities around the country. The clinching argument for me was simply to look at the accident clusters around the ring road, particularly near or on the roundabouts, which involved cyclists. If Darlington is serious about improving road safety and promoting cycling, allowing bikes to share the PH area makes sense, providing that cyclist ride responsibly. Many months after the shared use scheme began, no accidents have been reported to me.
It would appear that wires have been crossed between the Police and residents, and the Order hasn't been renewed - it runs out on 28 January 2007 - but the Police are actively considering an extension.
For the reasons I outlined in my previous post, the three ward councillors will be backing the extension, and I'm delighted the Police are taking this pro-active stance.
Monday, January 22, 2007
It was good to see Clive Owen, the Council's former Chief Executive from the 1990's, back again after an illness.
Otherwise, it seemed a fairly rag-bag affair, with a man in a pair of jeans hollering at passers-by through a megaphone about the campaign. Judging from the looks of people subjected to the noise pollution, he wasn't impressing many. The team had an old trestle table with news articles stuck to it. They made the Socialist Worker newspaper sellers look like a class act.
The exception was Jan Mazurk, one of the Tories' candidates in Hurworth. Jan and I probably agree on almost nothing (including the issue of an elected Mayor for the town) but she is a dilligent and effective campaigner. She did me the courtesy of giving a straight answer to my question about the number of signatures the campaign now have - a couple of hundred short apparently.
Jan's frankness is in stark contrast to the bull which has come out of this interminable campaign. On 28 February 2006 they claimed to have "many" of the signatures they needed when they launched. In April they said they would have the names "by the end of the month." Four months later, strangely, with no petition in sight they told the Echo they were halfway there. This has become a farcical soap opera. I even offered Jan (jokingly) to sign the damn thing myself, to help put us all out of our misery.
For what it's worth, I think the campaign blew the only chance it had by not being organised enough to trigger the referendum before the local elections in May. They could have capitalised then on any dissatisfaction that was in the air. Whatever the result, the elections should clear the air, and the Referendum, probably three months later, will seem an expensive irrelevance.
Saturday, January 20, 2007
Friday, January 19, 2007
As a rule it's a good idea to avoid posting on subjects you know little or nothing about ... as this clearly doesn't apply to popular culture, however, here's my two penniworth on the latest Celebrity Big Brother news.
It's reported tonight that crowds will be kept away from greeting the evicted guest tonight (in all liklihood the loathsome Jade Goody) because the producers Endemol want to ensure she is not harmed - they apparently have a "duty of care."
Yet day after day the same production team have sat back whilst one of the guests has been subject to racist bullying at the hands of three others. Where was the duty of care for Shilpa Shetty then? As has been widely remarked, Endemol and Channel 4 abrogated their responsibility to her because the ratings are all that matters to them. Frankly I'm surprised that Endemol didn't arrange to have a lynch mob waiting - the ratings would have gone through the roof. As the late John Junor used to say at the end of his Daily Express pieces, "Pass the sickbag, Alice!"
My favourite comment on Big Brother? - Sandy Tostvig tonight on Radio 4's The News Quiz, "Not many people know that Peter Bazelgette, the producer of Big Brother, is the great-grandson of Joseph Bazelgette, who built the capital's sewers. The family must be proud that once again they're acting as a conduit for all the shit coming out of London."
Apparently a facility was provided by the Firthmoor Community Association a few years ago, but this finished owing to a lack of revenue. Bill Dixon tells me that it was run by members of a Hell's Angels Chapter - consequently no-one dared create any bother there or nick equipment!
I've spoken to the relevant Director Cliff Brown - we don't provide a facility like this at the moment, but it is something that will be investigated. It might be that better promotion for the Trials Club in Dalton which Ian White mentions in his comment is the way forward, or for the Council to do something ourselves. It could serve to give law-abiding residents somewhere to ride their machines, whilst I'm afraid enforcement will always be necessary for anti-social types who flout the law and cause misery for people using our parks.
By the way - the Wardens confiscated a bike recently, and this will probably end up in the crusher...
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
The area around the shops has been plagued with anti-social behaviour for years, and together with residents we were at our wits ends trying to combat the problem.
The Council joined forces with the Police, however, and an initial three-month Dispersal Order was made which ran until the middle of this month. Groups of people causing trouble could be moved on, and prevented from returning.
Generally it seems to have worked well, although I have have had to ring the Police once on behalf of a resident in Daryngton Close recently when youths were congregating again. It certainly makes sense to renew the Order again for a further three months - it's just a shame the Police couldn't tell us about it.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
With the heady excitement building in the run-up to the launch of Darlington Tories' manifesto (sic) time for a picture taken from their website of their new dynamic Council leadership getting all pointy in the town centre.
The judging panel will be made up of John Bull, Julian Clary and the late Benjamin Disraeli. No prizes I'm afraid - just the warm glow of satisfaction for the winner.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
After blogging several times about the scarily-inept LibDem Council in Hull, I set foot in the city today with my youngest AJ.
In what passes for male bonding in our household, AJ and I often get on a train at a weekend, and usually travel to York, where we spend the day peering at steam engines at the Railway Museum, and then push buttons maniacally in the excellent York Model Railway.
Today we took our journey that bit further, and went to Hull to visit The Deep, the award-winning aquarium next to the Humber. I was pleasantly surprised by Hull - it has a fine Old Quarter and a vibrant pedestrianised shopping area (although the architecture naggingly reminded me of Billingham). Hull mixes old and new confidently, with one shopping arcade stretching out on a pier into the docks being particularly eye-catching.
Even with a Force Nine gale whipping off the North Sea, The Deep is excellent value and well-worth a visit.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
After months of waiting for the legals to be resolved, the CCTV camera has finally been installed in Springfield Playing Field.
As I blogged back in September, residents both on the Moray/Muirkirk and Whinfield Park estates have been plagued for years by anti-social behaviour in the park - at times there were up to 200+ young people and adults there on a Friday or Saturday night, and the presence of alcohol made the situation a whole lot worse. The camera will I'm sure help deter large groups congregating here and causing a nuisance, as well as protect the play equipment form further vandalism.
The camera is digital, and beams high quality pictures back to the CCTV Control Room day and night (it is infra-red). Residents whose properties back onto the playing field can be reassured that camera operatives won't be peering into their bedrooms - the technology means that windows appear like mirrors on the Control Room screens, and nothing can be seen.
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Two residents at our ward surgery on Saturday flagged up an ongoing problem with motorbikes riding on open space around the ward.
Last year a dog was killed on Springfield Playing field by one hooligan on a motorbike. It could easily have been a child. The problem has re-surfaced here, and is causing real concern to local residents.
A similar problem exists on Rockwell Pastures at the southern end of the ward.
This is firmly a Police matter, and they have a special unit on motorbikes which can apprehend these characters and potentially confiscate the bikes. I have written to the local Police and asked that resources be targetted to clamp down on the problem again.
In an unguarded moment on the Town Liar, Graham says,
"I predict Labour will say either that our proposals are unworkable, or that they are lack detail. Neither will be true. The detail is not possible without more knowledge - something which the secretive cabinet system denies to any but the intimates of Labour's ruling cabal. "
So there you have it - the manifesto will be light on ideas, heavy on rhetoric and by the looks of it uncosted.
I had to smile at Graham's explanation as to why the manifesto will be short on detail. He isn't of course a Councillor, so he may not know that the Town Hall's finances can be scrutinised every year at Budget time. Opposition Councillors can ask questions at any time regarding the operation of Council services. The facts are there Graham if your colleagues wanted to find them.
Consistently, the Tories in opposition have preferred to shy away from asking hard questions about Council finances, preferring to leave that to Labour. History it would seem will repeat itself in their damp-squib manifesto. It doesn't look like it will be any sort of platform for May.
Monday, January 08, 2007
Amidst the (admittedly gob-smacking) revelations about the local Tory leadership debacle in Saturday's Echo was a piece of news of greater importance to the future of the town.
The Cornmill has been sold for £84.5 million to Moorfield Real Estate Fund, who has said that it will be a long-term investor in the shopping complex.
Explaining the decision to buy the Cornmill, Marc Gilbard the Managing Director said, "The Cornmill Shopping Centre is located in a town that is undergoing major regeneration and revitalisation."
"The pedestrianisation of the high street is due to be completed shortly and the proposed extension of the nearby Queen Street shopping centre will bring considerable benefits to the town centre."
Whilst the Tories are desperate to run down the town centre, investors are expressing their confidence in its future. It's another example of underlying strength of the town centre after the recent improvements.
Saturday, January 06, 2007
The truth is in this morning's Northern Echo - Cllr. Richmond was forced out because his wife Sue is standing for Labour in the local elections.
Tony and Sue got married last February, but as they told the press just before Christmas, they were well aware of each other's political affiliations when they began their relationship, and had dealt with it. Politics was the one thing they couldn't agree on and didn't talk about.
Local Tories were intolerant of the situation, however, and Cllr. Richmond's fate was sealed. I find it genuinely astonishing that in the 21st century, the Conservatives are still stuck in the morality of the 19th, unable to handle the fact that a wife should be able to have different political affiliations to her husband. Tony's chief opposition in his College ward was after all the LibDems not Labour, and Sue will be fighting North Road for Labour where the incumbents are two LibDems and one Labour Councillor.
I guess there must have been some unease in senior Party circles which is why Graham Robb tried to cover up the truth with a bland press statement.
The facts are out, and now the Tories look a shabby, reactionary lot. The one person does emerge with some honour from all of this is Cllr. Peter Foster. Peter has come in for some stick elsewhere on the net, but on Friday he did himself proud, resigning from the Tory Group after the farce on Friday. His prediction that the Tories are now in for a period of civil war bodes ill for their chances in May.
Friday, January 05, 2007
The fact is that their group has been badly-split for years, and councillors like Charles Johnson have been itching to depose Tony, but have lacked the majority will to do so.
I'd speculate that Cllr. Peter Foster's resignation from the Tories last night gave Charles the numbers he needed to throw Tony overboard, although the timing seems bizarre. What sane party throws itself into the turmoil of a leadership election less than 5 months before polling day? What message do the Tories think this sends to voters?
It's interesting that the website flags up Cllr. Heater Scott as the likely replacement Leader. If I were Heather, I wouldn't get too comfortable in that position - if as I expect the Tories make little if any headway in May, she can expect Cllr. Johnson step forward to pick up the pieces...
As trailed in my earlier blog, it would appear that Peter is going to stand as an independent in May against the Tories in Hurworth. In today's Echo he said that he feared that the Conservatives would "self-destruct" before the elections.
That takes the Tories down to 13 on the Council, after losing one of the Hurworth seats in a by-election in 2005 and the two resignations. Can things get any worse for them?
They're a fresh, dynamic team, and will add a great deal not only to their wards but also to the Council as a whole if they are elected next May.
Labour's New Year launch leaves the Tories and LibDems trailing. The LibDems are still scrabbling around for candidates in key seats such as Hurworth, whilst the Tories haven't even begun work yet in wards they have to win if they are to have a sniff of a chance in the spring.
Thursday, January 04, 2007
I for one can't wait. Town Hall Conservatives' attempts at policy formulation have bordered on the risible to date. Take car parking - last September they were supporting "free car parking sales days," without specifying how often they would occur, in which car parks or how much that would cost. Then within days they did an about turn led by Cllr. Charles Johnson and were backing free disc parking across town, again with no supporting detail, or any appreciation of how the policy could wreck years of work to tackle congestion.
The Tories will have to raise their game significantly if they are to have any credibility in May. I'll have my slide rule ready...
Fallon is of course the arch-Thatcherite who was MP for Darlington between 1983 and 1992, when he was comprehensively beaten by Labour's Alan Milburn.
It seems an odd choice by local Tories - reminding the people of Darlington of everything they disliked and then rejected about their party in the 1990's would hardly seem to be a great start to their campaign. I guess it reinforces the view that grassroots Tories in the town are still very much wedded to the past. Scarcely a party able to take the town forward after May.
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
Cruddas recently tried to whip up panic over Labour's membership figures, which currently stand just below 200,000 to boost his Deputy Leadership chances, and had to be slapped down by Hazel Blears. Rentoul points out however that at the end of John Smith's well-regarded leadership, membership stood at 254,000. For sure membership soared in the late 1990's as a result of Labour's popularity in opposition and the Tories' disastrous record, but once the change in government had been achieved, many of these newly-recruited members drifted away, job done.
That doesn't mean that I'm relaxed about the current state of Party finances, or the pressing need to recruit more members. It is important to retain a sense of perspective, however, when candidates for office make self-serving statements which cast the Party in a poor light.
"I reckon the "tunnels" are in fact the old bakehouse built around 1820. They extended some way under the Market Place and were closed by an 1875 Act of Parliament which banned bakehouses which had been excavated beneath public thoroughfares. I have been told that they stretch underground to the edge of the pavement (if memory serves me correctly, there is/was a phone box on the corner of the pavement in the Market Place). In fact, the reason the pavement is so uncommonly wide here is because of the underground remains - or so I am told.
"I've found that most stories of tunnels tend to be just stories. I am always told that the town centre is built on shifting or running sand - I believe the Pedestrian Heart works have confirmed this, and one of the reasons the old High Row was always tumbling towards the Skerne was because of it - which I doubt would support the existence of tunnels."
On the much-debated apostrophe for Mechanics Yard (sic), Chris comments,
"It was named after the Mechanics Institute and its forerunners, so I think it is plural. But does it need an apostrophe at all if it was just a yard that was habitually full of mechanics rather than them possessing it in any way? All of which brings me to another highly important puzzler: does Darlington have a Market Place or a Market Square?"
In the light of Chris' comments, and advice from Town Officers on the cost of taking up the flags, re-engraving and then re-siting them again, I think it's probably best if Mechanics Yard remains unadorned by any punctuation. That brings this issue to a close. Chris emailed me the two relevant articles from Echo Memories about these issues, but I'm afraid there wasn't room to publish them here - if anyone would like them, I'd be happy to email them on.