Thursday, June 28, 2007

Lamentations

The 3 saddest words in the English language?  "Come on Tim!"




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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Normal Service

Technical problems here have prevented me blogging over the last two days. All fixed now....just in time for me to set off for the Scottish National Swimming Championships to support James.

Just as well things are so quiet politically at the moment...

Back Sunday.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Malgre nous, le deluge


Mopping up continues round town after the pummelling the town took over the weekend.


Officers estimate that the level of rainfall in such a short period of time was a 1 in 50 year event (at least). Flooding which led to scenes like this above at the Woodlands Road/Bondgate junction were repeated elsewhere in the town centre and beyond. In Haughton West, water from Thompson Street East spilled into back gardens in Idaho Gardens again. I've contacted StreetScene on behalf of residents to get the gullies cleaned out as a matter of urgency.


Our Victorian sewerage system simply can't cope with these freak conditions, albeit that infrastructure in new housing estates may help in the longer term. I'd like to pay tribute to staff from Community Services who were working up until midnight on Saturday and on Sunday too distributing sandbags and clearing drains.


The major impact lingering on today I understand is on Crown Street and the library. The library was closed today, and will offer a limited service on Tuesday. It will fully re-open on Wednesday. Cockerton Library is open as usual.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Corporate Plan

Special Council yesterday to approve the Corporate Plan for next year. The document looks at the Council's performance against hundereds of Government indicators. It's a heavy read, leavened slightly by the "traffic light" approach. This shows at an instant, for example, that Darlington's performance regarding the number of people killed and seriously injured improved last year (indeed we are amongst the best in the country for that statistic) whilst the percentage of people satisfied with the bus information we provide declined.

You can download a copy for yourself here.

If you take your job seriously as a councillor, whether as part of the Executive or Scrutiny function, you have to plough through these stats. There are nuggets for any opposition councillor to explore publicly or in private with officers and the relevant Cabinet members.

Yesterday, to increase a sense of accountability, each Cabinet Members said a few words about their own portfolio area, and the challenges in the year to come. I missed the very first part of the meeting, but I caught Cllr. Heather Scott for the Tories stating that her group would be keeping an eye on our progress.

Otherwise there were practically no other comments from the opposition. I'll repeat the point I've made before - the Council led by Labour can become more open and transparent to its heart's content, but if the opposition want to sit gazing idly into space, then any democratic deficit will not be closed.

At least Cllr. Charles Johnson had a dig, stating that he was satisfied with the comments made by all the Cabinet Members ... except me! Apparently I send a cold shiver down Charles' spine when I speak. Not clear why, but I do have a habit of using those words scorned by certain Tories - "bus" and "bike"...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Leafletting

David, Andy and I are in the process of distributing our first leaflet since the election.

It's easy to get discouraged by the often-repeated "fact" that leaflets spend about 9 seconds in the hands of a resident before they're binned (or recycled). One likes to have lofty ideas that news about the community is somehow treated differently by residents than say the latest batch of pizza flyers, but I'm not so sure. Leaflets printed at the Town Hall now include pictures we supply to illustrate local stories, which hopefully makes them a bit more palatable.

In this leaflet, we're advertising a new service - an email newsletter from us about news and events around the town, but with a slant on Haughton West. The material will be non-political, in the sense that it won't be used to push the Labour Party, although there will be links to Labour-supporting sites. Newsletters should be produced on average once every two weeks.

If you live in Haughton West and you'd like to sign up, then please email me at nick.wallis@darlington.gov.uk (you can always unsubscribe if you change your mind).

Watch Out Ming...


...apparently Harold Saxon has been "working hard all year round", distributing his ever-popular Magister leaflets and campaigning against derelict Police Boxes.


With his unique sense of morality, Mr Saxon seems ideally suited to LibDem campaigning tactics. Even his poster's appropriately naff.


This Saturday's episode should be a cracker. There's a good background to the Master, for those unfamiliar with the character, here.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Bleak outlook for Cameron's Tories


Cherry-picking opinion polls that suit your political party is an irritating habit, and one that I'm not about to break now.


Today's Sunday Times has a YouGov poll which places Labour just 2 points behind the Tories. The papers reports that when asked about how they rated Brown and Cameron on a range of qualities, the Conservative leader came off second best on most. Brown was easily ahead on “sticking to his principles” (49%-19%); being strong (44%-11%); and being decisive (38%-12%). He also had a small lead on honesty (23%-18%). Brown won when people were asked who they would prefer to share a foxhole with in the face of enemy gunfire.


The Sunday Times conclusion? - "the Tory lead is back where it was when David Cameron took over as leader at the end of 2005. His honeymoon appears to be over while Brown’s may be beginning."

Friday, June 15, 2007

Darlington, County Durham?

All councillors received an email from local resident Adrian Jackson today regarding the "County Durham" tag at the end of our addresses.

Adrian is a proud Darlingtonian, and resents having to give "County Durham" as part of his address - he prefers to put "Borough of Darlington" when asked to state 'County' when he completes official forms. He wonders whether the former Cleveland authorities (Hartlepool, Stockton, Middlesbrough and Redcar & Cleveland) have similar problems? After 10 years of "independence" from the County, he believes that the Council should use the Town Crier to take the campaign forward.

This is, of course, a fraught issue. I was an active campaigner in the battle to win unitary status for Darlington in the mid 90's. It galled me that our town received so little from County Durham (just 4% of the highways spend, for example, when we had 16% of the population). I have to confess that as a result, I still tend to give my address as Darlington and the postcode, and leave the county off.

The debate has become muddied, however, because County Durham is both a ceremonial and an administrative area. The latter is a shrivelled ghost of its historical past - in the early twentieth century County Durham included Gateshead, South Shields, Sunderland, Hartlepool and Stockton as well as Darlington. Successive local government reorganisations have left an administrative rump covering Teesdale, Wear Valley, Sedgefield, Chester-le-Street, Derwentside, Easington and Durham City. Now, whilst Stockton, Darlington and Hartlepool remain part of the historic county (with a Lord Lieutenant appointed by the Crown), Sunderland, Gatehead and South Shields have been removed to Tyne and Wear.

In the 1960's, national government sought reforms which re-created local government in units which apparently made economic sense. Cleveland, Avon and Humberside and the like all seemed beaurocratically sensible, but suffered because they didn't chime with people's sense of local identity.

The County system itself is a mess. Created by the Anglo-Saxons, it was originally dynamic, with counties formed and reformed to reflect local realities. It ended up being pickled in aspic as a result of the Norman Conquest - faced with a significant language problem, the invaders found that they had to rely on existing structures through which to rule, and they became set. One of the ironies of the County system is that Rutland was due to be absorbed into Leicestershire immediately before 1066, as a unviable administrative unit. The Conquest saved it, and it lingers on today (pop. 33,000)

County Boroughs have further complicated the picture. Bristol became a City and County in 1373 following a charter from Edward III. County Boroughs, however, retain their existing county allegiances - so Bristol comes under the Lord Lieutenancy of Gloucestershire and Darlington, even after its "independence" in 1997, that of Durham.

On one level, this is a lot of flummery, and the old distictions should be swept away - it's fair to say that counties like Middlesex really only exist now because of the cricket team. However, a sense of place is important. It irritates me that the administrative Durham County Council calls itself "The Land of the Prince Bishops" when the original capital of County Durham was Sadberge, which is of course in Darlington. After all, it is the Mayor of Darlington, and not the Chairman of the County Council who receives each new Bishop of Durham into the bishopric on Croft Bridge.

For all they're scorned, road side boundaries are important. Darlington in economic terms looks to the Tees Valley (indeed working with our Tees Valley colleagues was a prerequisite of gaining unitary status). There are plenty of people in Darlington who still think of themselves as residents of County Durham, however.

At the end of the day, successive local government acts have allowed the likes of Middlesex and Cleveland to linger on, if poeple want to adhere to them. How can we square the circle of the administrative and historic Durham Counties? Answers on a postcard...

The Last Hurrah




I can't be sure that this was Tony Blair's last formal Labour Party function in the North East, but last night's special reception for the Prime Minister certainly felt like the dying embers of his time in office.


It was organised by Alan Milburn and Labour North in our magnificent new College of Technology on Haughton Road. There were friends from the Labour movement across the North East. Great atmophere (and great food too from the catering students).


With no press present, Tony gave very relaxed speech - would he have cracked the joke about the lap dancing club in Consett if the Daily Mail had been there? - which touched on familiar themes - Labour's renewal, the utter irrelevance of the Tories, and the potential for the next 100 years to be a progressive century, but only if the Party is prepared to embrace continuing change.


A heartfelt round of appluase at the end.

Darlington Cycling Campaign


I had my regular meeting with members of the Darlington Cycling Campaign yesterday - cycling in the town centre and ensuring that cycling was incorporated into traffic management schemes were amongst the items discussed.


Thanks to Mike McTimoney, who has the picture above on the campaign's website as a novel solution for people who think only those on foot should be allowed in Darlington's new Pedestrian Heart...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ask Nick

A corrrespondent has pointed out that there's nowhere on the blog where issues can be raised publicly with me, unless I've happened to blog on them.

Unfortunately, that's the nature of blogger, and unless/until I change to a fancier format, there's no easy way to solve the problem. Of course, I can be emailed at any time via nick.wallis@darlington.gov.uk or by phone on 07960 247554.

As an experiment, however, once a week I'll put up an "Ask Nick" post, which people can use to raise general or specific issues which aren't on the blog via the comments, whether that's to do with my work as a ward councillor in Haughton West or as a cabinet member.

The only rule is: if you want me to take an issue up, you must leave your name and preferably contact details. Let's see how it goes.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy...


For all of you following the most watchable car crash TV in the spring schedules that is The Apprentice, news that Katie Hopkins has been fired by her day-job employers at the Met Office.


Katie has a stare that would transfix Medusa and an unpleasant patrician manner. Her casually-vicious asides have wound up (variously) northern men, fatties, orange women, people called Mavis and anyone who watches shopping channels.


Uniquely, her cv uses the marriages she has wrecked as an indication of her ruthlessness. Towards the end of the series, where Sir Alan turned the tables on her and prompted her to resign, I ended up rather admiring her single-minded scheming but that's probably not a good thing. Ask the wives of a string of 40-something blokes who should've known better, who met her in the flesh.


I was struck by her appearence with Adrian Chiles after the show when she left, when she thought that the booing from the audience was some kind of pantomime phenomenon. In fact, her duplicity is now fixed in the public mind, and she'll carry that for years to come. What the Sunday tabloids are apt to call "steamy alfresco shots" won't have helped.
Needless to say, Katie aspires to be a Conservative MP and admires Margaret Thatcher. But I guess we'd figured that out for ourselves....
Favourite Katie Quotes
“Whenever there’s an issue Kristina tries to cover her arse. It’s a shame she doesn’t do it a little better with the skirt she wears.”

“Kristina is a complete snake in the grass, a pain in the arse and frankly too orange to be taken seriously.”

(Of Adam) “When your best friends are Mr Pinot and Mr Grigio you want to watch it.”

“I’d like to be the one who secures Adam’s exit back to the north and his northern chums, where I do feel he rather belongs.”

Monday, June 11, 2007

Whinfield Residents' Association


Councillors Andy Scott and Chris McEwan demonstrate contrasting ways of getting to the meeting...


First meeting of Whinfield Residents' Association since the election at Whinfield Primary School tonight. After an update on improvements to Beech Wood, and the potential for an education centre there, members reviewed progress on the Skerningham Community Woodland project - if you would like to be involved, come along to the next meeting.


A new Interpretation Site and Countryside Events Outdoor Theatre are to be built here - this new feature is being built to help new groups to enjoy the community woodland at Low Skerningham. Set in a really lovely location, this new facility will give people a focus for community walks as well as allow a whole series of Countryside events to take place. It will also be the site of a community arts project which will be aimed at exploring the historical significance of the Ketton Ox, important for our area in particular and for Darlington as a whole.

We also had a report from our beat police officers. Most of the crime in the Whinfield area is related to ASDA (thefts and anti-social behaviour for example), but there have also been two thefts from garden sheds in the last three months. If you would like to purchase a shed alarm at an incredibly low price of £3 (they cost £20 in Tesco apparently) then contact any one of our beat officers PC Sally Suleiman (sally.suleiman@durham.pnn.police.uk), PC Jonathan Stoker (jonathan.stoker@durham.pnn.police.uk) or PCSO Eileen McElroy (eileen.McElroy@durham.pnn.police.uk) and leave your contact details. They will be able to take it from there.

Friday, June 08, 2007

World's first passenger railway uncovered





Down to the work on the Eastern Transport Corridor, where the road-building team have painstakingly uncovered part of the old 1825 Stockton to Darlington trackbed.


About 5 feet below the surface of the bridleway is a line of dressed stone which probably carried the railway line at some point after 1825. Broken stones with drilled holes containing fragments of wood and metal represent the earliest phase of the railway, which was taken up and replaced by the dressed stone now in situ.


Archaeologists will be digging trenches on Tuesday and Wednesday to explore the remains further, and make better sense of what's been discovered.


This represents a pivotal moment not only in the history of the town, but also of the Industrial Revolution as a whole. Whilst much of the trackbed will have to be preserved and reburied, I hope that we can incorporate some of it into a display on the cyclepath along the Eastern Transport Corridor. Now it's over to the archaeologists to tell us what we have here.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Is there enough to do in Haughton for kids?

Firstly, thanks to all the young people who've posted about the fair today. I've read all the comments - even the rap lyrics...

I'm very sorry that the fair had to go - I'm sure that it would have been just as good as the Northallerton and Yarm fairs that some of you have mentioned.

Unfortunately, it was simply in the wrong place. It was too close to people's houses, and parking would have been a nightmare. If we'd known about it sooner, we could have helped to sort something out.

Councillors sometimes end up listening only to some groups in society, and in this case, I'm sorry that we talked only to local residents and didn't think to talk to young people as well.

I've got the message loud and clear that you feel that there's not enough to do in the area, and that the fair would've been great. It's about to go now, and there's nothing that's going to change that, but maybe you could tell me by commenting below what you think would be good for kids in our part of Darlington? Then we can turn this into something good for the area. How can the Council listen best to young people around here? We've got the MUGA in Whinfield, and there's the Dolphin and Eastbourne Centres, but what else would help?

Breaking News...

After further discussions with DBC officers this morning, Mr Crow has decided not to proceed with the fair on Haughton Road. All of the equipment will be packed away and the vehicles will leave at the weekend.

I understand that Mr Crow wants to operate a fair in June 2008, and will begin talking to the Council about a suitable site. He wants to honour the 3000 free ride tickets he issued, when he returns.

The 7 Haughton ward councillors made their opposition clear to this fair on this site, and we're delighted with the outcome. Not a single resident told me that they thought this was good place to hold such as event. A big vote of thanks to the Town Hall officers and the Police who worked very hard on this difficult matter.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Masterly inactivity


A curious article in yesterday's Echo, ostensibly a puff for the LibDems in North Road. Apparently the Rise Carr area of the ward resembles nothing less than downtown Beirut.


Cllr. Fred Lawton comments, "Over the last few years, it has become a quite shabby-looking area, particularly around the William Street end. The beds and the borders have become unkempt and filled with rubbish, and bricks are missing. They have suffered from a lack of regular maintenance. Residents say they haven't been looked at for two years."


So which party has continuously represented North Road for the last 20 years? Why, my friends in the Liberal Democrats. Just what have Fred and co. been doing year after year as the area has declined and become, apparently, a sink estate?


It would appear that residents in Harrowgate Hill and Haughton East had a narrow escape in May. To stay on the right side of the advertising regulations, the LibDems may want to revise their "working all year round" boast...

A new era


The new-style Cabinet met yesterday evening, containing two new Cabinet members (Cllrs. Veronica Copeland and Jenny Chapman) but also the leaders of the Tories and LibDems, together with the Council's sole independent (Cllr. Steve Jones) and the lead Scrutiny councillor (Cllr. Ian Haszeldine).


To rewind, prior to the Local Government Act 2000, key decisions were taken by Councils in a series of Committees. These had representatives from all the political groups on the Council, but were whipped, so in effect decisions were largely determined in advance of the meeting. Parliament felt that this system was too cumbersome, leading to slow decision-making.


The new system created Cabinets formed from representatives of the majority party, with their decisions and the wider activitities of the local authority held to account via Scrutiny Committees made up of the rest of Council, strictly unwhipped.


This meant that Cabinet meetings in Darlington have been commendably brief, but the Executive has lacked the critical voice when decisions have been taken that was present under the old Committee system. As part of Labour's drive to open up the Council, oposition councillors, together with the Chair of the Darlington Partnership now sit on Cabinet and can comment freely.


Last night, both Cllr. Heather Scott for the Tories and Cllr. Martin Swainston for the LibDems showed no restraint in subjecting each item to a series of questions and observations, although I think it would be fair to say that no fundamental objections were raised by either.


These are the first steps on a long road towards greater transparency for the political management of the Council, but last night, we made a good start.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

On the up


Interesting piece here from the Newcastle Journal about the economic transformation of Darlington, and the rosy prospects for the future.


Some of the stats were new to me - did you know that Darlington is the fourth largest shopping destination in the North East?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Crow's Fair



My phone hasn't stopped ringing this evening with residents concerned about the sudden appearence of a "funfair" on the corner of Haughton Road and McMullen Road.


In fact, when the 7 Haughton Councillors saw what was taking place on Sunday, we agreed to chase this matter up first thing on Monday morning as a priority.


We now know that the funfair is renting the land having sought none of the permissions from the Council which are necessary to operate. We received the following email from the Assistant Dircetor this afternoon;


"I am of the view that if the fair goes ahead it will cause serious disruption for local residents, particularly from the perspectives of noise, parking and traffic congestion, and probably public disorder.


Having taken legal advice we are hoping to seek an injunction through the courts and I am now arranging for officers to put together witness statements that will support the application for injunction."


The Haughton Councillors are working together to ensure that this legal push is receiving support from the highest levels. I'll blog further as the matter develops.

Bucket of warm spit?





Gordon joked he was merely the warm-up act for the next event, which was the Deputy Leadership hustings, with Hilary Benn, Hazel Blears, Jon Cruddas, Peter Hain, Harriet Harman and Alan Johnson addressing the 200-strong audience and then taking questions.
I have to say that I wss impressed with all the candidates - even Jon Cruddas, who was far less the identikit Compass groupie I had imagined. After strong performances all round, I would imagine most people in the room would be happy with any one of them as second-in-command to Gordon - no mean feat considering there are six candidates standing. They would all be effective deputies who would ensure that the position remains a crucial part of the Party's make-up.
What was most encouraging was the constructive, not to say comradely way spirit in which the debate was conducted by the candidates. We were told that Labour has put on 1,000 members a month since the deputy leadership process began. The Tories should be concerned that the open process has reinforced to the public that Labour remains the party of the future.
As you can see right however, I'm supporting Alan Johnson's campaign. I've had first-hand experience of Alan through my work on the National Policy Forum, and he has been a shrewd and imaginative Education Secretary - quite an achievement in a notoriously difficult brief. Alone with Hazel Blears, Alan has not been afraid to 'tell it like it is' during the campaign, and has not pandered to some of the old shibboleths as one or two others have done. Finally, and for me crucially, with a Scot leading us into the next General Election, I feel we need a counter-balance - an effective campaigner who can reach out in the crucial south and south east of the country. Alan fits the bill.
I'll be numbering my ballot; 1) Johnson, 2) Blears, 3) Benn, 4) Hain, 5) Cruddas and 6) Harman. The papers will be sent out to Party members on Wednesday.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Blogging for Gordon



To Newcastle this lunchtime for a speech by Gordon and the Deputy Leadership hustings.

Gordon got a genuinely warm welcome in what has been after all Tony's backyard. He clearly has been working on his speaking style (which can't be any easy thing after so many years at the top of politics). Pacing the stage, by turn he was passionate and committed and occasionally very funny. Like Dr Johnson's dog on its hindlegs, the surprise wasn't that he told the jokes so well, but that he could tell them at all.

There was far less of the "great clunking fist" in evidence, albeit with a middle passage which was the usual recitation of stats about the economy. I guess old habits will die hard.

Tony's speeches at events like this were political masterclasses. In one policy area after the other, he would show how it was important to steer a line which put the Tories where they didn't want to be, as well as appealing to the instincts of the British people. As an exercise in political theatre, they were peerless performances.

What we got from Gordon however, were several significant reminders about his father and the lessons that were instilled in him as a child, and the values-based politics he espouses as a result. I got a sense too that he will be much more interested in the practical workings of policy, which maybe has been lacking to date, and will bode well for further reforms.

It would seem that the public have begun to rumble just how insubstantial a figure Cameron is. Today, Gordon made a perfect start.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Cracking Stuff


Time to fill a gaping void in this blog by reflecting on tonight's Doctor Who, the second part of a two-parter The Family of Blood.


First thing to say - whilst I was dangerously obsessed by the programme in my childhood, and the books in particular, I don't go to conventions, or dress up as a Cyberman, or spend quality time thinking about Leela. Well, not so much lately, anyway.


Since the series returned, and in particular from David Tennant's time as the Doctor, however, the writing and the production have simply been getting better and better. As someone raised on the old 4-parters with Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, I've had a nagging doubt that trying to cram stories into single 45 minute episodes has meant that too much plot development has been lost. Less of the wandering round gravel pits in Bedfordshire for sure, but at what cost to the narrative? That being said, episodes like Father's Day in the first series were supreme pieces of story-telling.


The two-parters, like tonight's, are a case in point. Episode one was brilliantly paced, with the conceit of making the Doctor truly human a masterstroke. The scarecrows were in the best tradition of everyday items which become objects of fear - certainly enough so for AJ, who found a by-now familiar niche behind an armchair.


Episode Two had the thrills and spills at the start, but was taken to some unexpected places (with the Doctor and Martha saluting a WW1 war veteran at Rembrance Day at the close). The rhythms were completely different and very satisfying. For sad gits like me, there were also some echoes of past episodes in the almost-throwaway fate of the Family (the Claws of Axos and the Five Doctors came to mind).


There are some ugly rumours that the Fourth Series will be the last, and that Russell T Davies is ready to pull the plug on the Doctor. We'll see, but for me, the idea that the series could be allowed to decline as the BBC let it in the late 80's would be a travesty. Maybe it will be time to go out on a high, and for the series to be regenerated again in a few years time.

Regional Board

I had my first meeting of Labour's Regional Board last night in Gosforth since the local elections. Regional Board brings together representatives from the sub-regions, the affiliated trade unions and socialist societies to help give the Party a steer here in the North East.

We receive regular reports from the Director of Labour North Fiona Twycross, Stephen Hughes MEP and Dari Taylor MP on behalf of the Parliamentary Party.

Clearly I can't blog about internal Party discussions, but a presentation on the local election results here in the North East was very revealing. Nationwide, this was probably one of the best results the Tories have had since the 1970's, yet once again they performed poorly here, and couldn't repeat any of the spectacular gains they made elsewhere. The North East is still very much a battleground between the Tories and the LibDems to see who is second to Labour, with the outcome by no means certain. The independents remain weak, and once again the BNP failed to win a single seat. Although the LibDems made some gains, there's real evidence that Labour is beginning to drive them back in Durham City (where our vote was up 5%) and in Newcastle, where they lost a net 2 seats to us.

Overall, an encouraging picture as we embark with a new Leader and Deputy Leader of the national Party.

Ward Surgery



ASDA ward surgery this morning with colleagues from all three Haughton wards, together with Eileen McElroy, our Police Community Support Officer.


Whilst after 16 years it's difficult summoning up the enthusiasm I had when I first became a councillor, getting casework sorted is one of the most satisfying elements of being a local elected representative. As always, it was good to talk to friends as they came in to shop.


One issue that was raised with me and Eileen was the continuing problem of mini-motorbikes being ridden illegally, not only on open space, but also on-street too. We were told that Hercules Street is a regular rat-run first thing in the morning.


As I've blogged previously, we have a standing request in with the Police to get the motorcycle unit down from Durham and target the area. This will include Red Hall, which is also a troubled hot-spot. Eileen advised that it would be good if residents could keep a diary of dates, times and locations where they see bikes and quads being ridden illegally, and then pass the details onto her - her email address is eileen.McElroy@durham.pnn.police.uk


Those caught are given a warning. If they then re-offend within 12 months, whatever they are driving anti-socially will be confiscated.