Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Greetings

Here at Meadowfield Cottage, AJ's Christmas stocking is hung up, the Advent Calendar was cleared of chocolate on December 15th, and mysteriously the seasonal glass of Pinot Grigio left out for Santa has already been consumed (together with Rudolph's carrot).

So can I wish everyone who has been kind enough to visit this blog throughout 2008 a very Happy Christmas.

So bring on the bizarre presents for the chickens, the entirely vegetarian Christmas lunch (sigh) and of course another cracking episode of Dr Who.

Who said Christmas was for kids?!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ashcroft's Millions

I've heard from a couple of sources (one very reliable) that Darlington's Tories are now in receipt of "Ashcroft money".

This is the crude attempt by the Tory peer to "buy" Conservative victories in key marginals by splurging their parties with cash, in a way that neither Labour nor the LibDems can afford to match. He pulled a similar stunt before the last General Election.

If the rumour's true, then the first fruit of His Lordship's largesse is now dropping through Darlington's letterboxes. It comes in the form of a "newsletter" from our old friend Captain LeGrand.

Edward is pictured on the front cover with the town clock in profile in front of the open market stalls. He's on his own (again) but at least the Pedestrian Heart looks fine.

Now that we don't do class politics any more, it's surely right that the biography on the back glosses over the fact that Edward is the second son of a Yorkshire baronet with a stately pile to go with it.

Of rather more concern is Edward's maths. He reports that "several weeks ago" he accompanied Gill and Mike Cartwright on their bus stunt from Whinfield. Err, well that was on 17th June, according to Gill's own blogsite, which was actually 26 weeks ago. Is 26 "a few" now? I guess that explicitly reporting news from the summer would make Edward and his band of Darlington Tories look, well, out of touch.

Similarly, "Tackling Anti-Social Behaviour" features a picture of Edward and Cllr. Alex Nicholson dated 18th June on the Tories' own website. Even Edward, however, has to admit that the Post Ofice story happened "several months ago". From information on Mike Barker's and Mike Cartwright's blogs, I reckon that picture was taken in February!

And a sad postscript - just what happens to defectors who sign up to the Tory cause? Certainly for the benefit of the media, at first they're lionized. So when Nigel Boddy joined the Tories from the LibDems in November 2007, there were messages of welcome from David Cameron and M'Lord Bates, no less. Michael Bates said "Nigel is a well-respected figure in North-East politics, and is very welcome to join our party, which is dedicated to taking the region forward."

Ah, how long ago that sounds now. Leafletting is probably the least glamorous political exercise, and to get a communication out town-wide means it's all hands to the pump. No-one thought to call poor Nigel, however, who was reduced to leaving a rather pathetic message on the Darlington Conservatives' site offering his help in future deliveries.

If that isn't a cry for attention, I don't know what is. For goodness sake, Heather and Charles, pick up the phone and talk to the man! It is Christmas after all.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

ASBO's - Case Example

There's a lot of misguided criticism of ASBOs - usually from politicians too out-of-touch with their communities to appreciate how anti-social behaviour blights people's everyday lives.

On Wednesday I received an email about the successful prosecution of an individual who had created a great deal of distress and annoyance in Darlington town centre. I'll print it in full - it gives a flavour of the anti-social behaviour this character got up to, but also the penalties which have now been imposed.

Darlington Council's ASB Team successfully obtained a five year ASBO against Robert Joseph Fortune this morning at Darlington Magistrates Court. The ASBO was a joint application between the ASB Team and the North Road Police Beat Team, prosecuted by Darlington Council, and was made following concerns regarding the sustained behaviour of Robert Fortune, which was often sexual in nature, alcohol fuelled and considered alarming.

Roberts behaviour has caused the Police and Local Authority considerable concern for some time and was described as sexually motivated and predatory nature particularly aimed at young girls and in the town centre of Darlington. Evidence was gathering relating to Fortune's drunken and lewd manner and several complaints were made to Police and LA were submitted as evidence for the prosecution.

Despite several arrests, Fortune has continued to cause alarm to children and parents within Darlington and the decision was taken by the Police and ASB Team to pursue and ASBO to prohibit future conduct of this nature.

The 5 year ASBO against Robert Fortune prohibits him from engaging in the following activity throughout England and Wales:-

Engaging in conduct which causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to anyone.
Entering the Town Centre of Darlington - the Defendant is allowed to ride upon a bus upon the ring road.
Consuming any intoxicating substances whilst in a public place.
Using abusive or offensive language in public.
Carrying out any lewd or indecent acts in public.
Associating and communicate with any females under the age of 16 years.
Inciting or encouraging others to commit any act prohibited by this Order.

If Fortune breaches the ASBO he faces up to 5 years in prison and/or £5000 fine. Full publicity will follow in the form of posters which will be displayed in the banned area detailing the prohibitions.

That seems to me to be exactly the right response, and I'd like to congratulate the Rebecca Timmiss and the rest of the Council's Anti-Social Behaviour Team and the Police's North Road Beat Team for a job well done.

Christmas 2008 in Darlington - Update

1. Darlington Winter Wonderland - this weekend
THE Darlington Winter Wonderland is now on.
Visit the Winter Wonderland this weekend in the Market Square (Friday 12th - Sunday 14th, 10am - 5pm) for Christmas gifts and decorations along with fantastic fun, entertainment and shopping for all the family.

2. Last chance for ride on 'Darlington's Big One'
'DARLINGTON'S Big One', the giant ferris wheel in Joseph Pease Place, will close this Sunday evening. If you have not a ride on the ferris wheel yet, come along to the town centre this weekend.

3. Santa Specials at the Head of Steam - this weekend
SANTA Specials at Head of Steam, Darlington Railway Museum this weekend, December 13th & 14th, from 10am to 4pm.
Admission includes a mini train ride, Santa in his grotto, arts and crafts, face painter and children will receive a special Christmas gift. Tickets are £5.50 child, £3.50 adult for non- members, free adults and £3.50 per child for members. Some sessions are now fully booked, for further information or to book, contact 01325 460532 or visit the Head of Steam website.

4. Santa in the Park - Sunday December 21
TAKE time out from your last minute Christmas shopping and come to South Park for some festive fun on Sunday December 21.
Visit Santa for an early Christmas present and listen to Hummersknott Theatre group singing Christmas Carols and the Cockerton Prize Silver Band.
Join in with the Christmas craft activities we have to offer and see the magician and entertainers.
The cafe will also be open offering a lovely Christmas menu.
£3 to visit Santa including gift. Sunday December, 12.30pm - 3pm.
For more information contact the South Park team on (01325) 383099.

I cut and paste this from the Council's own bullietin, because I know from my tracking software that quite a few people stumble across this blog looking for information about Santa in Darlington and the like.

I've got some pictures and film from the 'Big One' taken at dusk last weekend, which I'll post as soon as I've managed to load the BlackBerry software onto this PC...

Manchester spat over TIF

I'm not sure anyone will have been surprised by the result of the Manchester referendum on congestion charging, announced yesterday - except perhaps the Yes campaigners.

The result was a thumping 79% No across the 10 local authorities which make up Greater Manchester. The turnout was a very respectable 53%.

I have decidely mixed feelings about congestion charging. When Darlington first became a unitary authority back in 1997, and I was elected Chair of the new Highways and Transport Committee, I attended several seminars on transport policy around the country. These were aimed at professionals rather than members, and I learned an enormous amount from them.

One session which always stuck in my mind was research from Bristol which looked at what measures would actually persuade drivers to leave their cars and move to public transport. It also considered how the inexorable drift to car travel could be staunched.

It examined all the then known techniques - such as higher car parking charges, reduced car parking spaces, greater availability of public transport and the like. All of these approaches (and this was theoretical research following in-depth surveys rather than based on practical evidence) showed that whilst these measures could slow down the increase in the number of journeys made by car, none would reverse it. Only one step would do this - congestion charging. And this would have to be congestion charging across the city, and not just forming a cordon around the city centre.

Since then, of course, one city - London- has successfully implemented a congestion charge (I get grumpy and throw things at the TV when Durham's single toll road is described as congestion charging). To try and encourage the rest of the country, the Government has waved significant amounts of cash as highways authorities in the form of money to improve public transport, called TIF (Transport Innovation Fund).

And now this has been decisively rejected for the second time - Edinburgh had a similar poll in 2005, where the majority against was only slightly lower. The Manchester proposal had built into it significant improvements in public transport (the perceived poor quality of which drivers often say dissuades them from taking the bus) and still the vote was a big "No". So, what can we learn?

Firstly, I despair of any town, city or indeed conurbation voting yes. Take Darlington - I went on record repeatedly when Cabinet Member for Highways as saying that congestion charging would be wrong for Darlington. Even if Darlington were part of a wider bid with authorities in the Tees Valley, it would place us at a significant economic disadvantage compared to Durham City, Sunderland, Newcastle and York. Without a level playing field across the whole region, I cannot see how it would not hurt the Borough's economy.

Even then, however, I'm not sure that a Yes vote could be achieved. London's congestion charge was introduced after all on the back of Ken Livingstone's Mayoral victory, and not a city-wide poll. So, at the risk of being howled down for a lack of democratic principles, I believe that having referenda in advance of congestion charging has to be abandoned. Residents should be given the chance to see what effect road tolling has, for 6-12 months say, and then vote on the continuation of the scheme. At the moment, the fear of the unknown is killing any chance of progress.

Even then, I couldn't see a scheme simply for Darlington or the Tees Valley going ahead. It will require road pricing across the country. That of course will require huge investment in public transport across England when the Government's finances are already, ahem, hard-pressed.

Of course, since then Darlington has been at the forefront of a new approach - investing in public transport infrastructure whilst at the same time working intensively with residents to explain the transport choices they have. At a time of economic growth, it led to significant decrease in the number of car journeys, whilst walking and cycling in particular boomed.

So as we enter an economic downturn, with reduced traffic on our roads, and after this referendum result, don't expect to hear too much about road tolling as a national priority. The problems of congestion, especially in the big cities and on the major arterial motorways won't go away, however, but that may be for the next generation of transport planners and politicians to sort out.

Friday, December 12, 2008

New Play Money for Darlington

Good news for Darlington, with the Government injecting around £1.2 million into play equipment into the Borough, with £45,000 additional revenue costs.

This is part of the labour Government's Playbuilder initiative, and will allow a minimum of 22 play spaces to be developed in the area over 2 years.

I'll blog on this further, as potential sites for the equipment are identified.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Oliver Postgate RIP

Listening to the comments on Radio 5 Live this morning, there seems to be something of a national consensus that a little bit of our collective childhood has died with the passing of Oliver Postgate.

I barely remember Pogle's Wood on TV, but can vividly recall the mounting excitement every Friday when I was 5 years old waiting for my children's magazine Pippin Post to be delivered - Pogel's Wood featured in it, as well as the weekly hunt for Baby Moonbeam through the pages. (You probably think I'm going off my rocker, and alas there seems to be nothing on the net about this ahem seminal publication).

Plenty has been written about the quality and influence of the likes of Ivor the Engine and Bagpuss. Certainly The Clangers transported the nation's children at 5.40pm every evening to a safe and magical place that sharply contrasted with the grown-ups' News which followed straight after.

For me, however, the most abiding memory of these programmes and of Postgate himself was the beautiful, lyrical quality of the narration. Postgate often spoke in a reserved fashion, but whilst he could bring characters readily to life, it was in the longer descriptive passages (in the Clangers, for example) where his poetry lifted the programme to a different level.

A few years ago, when I started reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to James, I was conscious that I was mimicking someone, but I couldn't place who. Then it came to me - the natural voice of Tolkein's prose (perhaps after the Noggin the Nog sagas) was Oliver Postgate. He influenced my generation in so many subtle ways.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Monday Morning Smile

I feel sorry for the current generation of young people. James insists on listening to the relentlessly thumping Galaxy FM in the car - music bafflingly referred to as "Rhythmn and Blues". Humourless, vaguely sexualised and often glorifying gang culture.

So in 30 years time, he won't be able to look back on kitch classics like this from his youth and shudder...

Friday, December 05, 2008

Welcome, Comrade Bloggers!

Two new Labour blogging sites to report here in the North East. Firstly, Malcolm Clarke from Lanchester has just started up a blog which looks like it will provide some interesting reflections on both local and national politics. You can see his blog here.

Then my colleague Cllr. Simon Henig, Leader of Durham County Council, has also started up a blog - perhaps the only council leader in the country to do so?

It's a brave and welcome development - not least because Simon has been fairly scornful of the potential impact of the internet in politics, and blogging in particular. As a ward councillor in Chester-le-Street, he's told me in the past that he receives no complaints/comments from residents via email. Separately, the Echo's Pete Barron reported on Simon's aversion to blogging here.

I guess that as the new leader of a big rural council with diverse communities, Simpn has calculated (correctly in my opinion) that a blog will promote transparency, allowing residents to see what he has been doing on their behalf, but also provoke some debate too. It's a great way to communicate directly with the people he represents without the sometimes distorting filter of the press or the propaganda of other parties.

Since the blog started at the end of October, the blog has received several messages. Simon's also taken the trouble to reply to some of the queries (and received some appreciative feedback in response).

Simon has floated the ambition of all 126 Durham County Councillors blogging. And if only a fraction take up the idea, then that will represent a massive stride for online politics here in the North East.

My only reservation would be that Simon is using an "official" County site, rather than something under his own direct control via the likes of Blogger or WordPress. No doubt this has the benefit of handing over some of the site admin to officers, rather than fiddling with technical stuff as the rest of us do. It severely constrains what can be blogged about however, and renders impossible any debate between parties, which can be very enlightening for residents confronting new or unfamiliar issues.

Still, at a key time for the County, as the lingering districts disappear, it should be a valuable source of information for residents straight from the horses mouth. I wishSimon (and Malcolm) all the best.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Date for your diaries

January 09 already starting to fill up? If you can, do come along on 27th January to the Arts Centre at 1pm, where Holocaust Memorial Day will be marked in the Borough.

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) commemorates the tragic loss of life in the genocides of World War II, in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. HMD is held on 27th January, the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Berkenau.

The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) exists so that we learn the lessons of the past to build a better future now. You can see their website here.

On the front page this month is a piece on Kristallnacht, which took place in Nazi Germany over a two-day period in November 70 years ago. The translations of eye-witness accounts are chilling, and an important reminder as to where the politics of race hate lead.

Fittingly, the theme of this year's ceremony will be "Stand up to Hatred".

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Northern Decision Makers - Credit Crunch Special

This month's Northern Decision Makers has been recorded, and is now available online.

We've tweaked the format, as you will see, asking Northern Echo Deputy Editor Chris Lloyd to set out the key issues, before moving onto the debate with the guests.

This month on the couch we have Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland and a former Treasury official, and John Elliott, respected local business leader and (infamously, from my perspective) chief architect with Graham of the defeat of the Regional Assembly proposals. They aren't short of opinions...

You can see the programme here.

Setting the record straight

Over the past week, there's been far more heat than light around the subject of the QE 6th Form's College's proposed extension into the back of the Arts Centre.

The matter boiled over at Council, when opposition members got the wrong end of the stick of some comments made by Council Leader John Williams.

Happily, this evening's Cabinet meeting, where the matter could be discussed in an informed way, was a much more satisfactory affair. You can read the paper which went to Cabinet here.

We start from the principle that Darlington has one of the most successful 6th Form Colleges in the country, but one which is severely constrained by the historic site it occupies. The College would like to expand, providing a first class education for more of the Borough's young people. At the same time, the rear of the Arts Centre is run down, and the building needs money spending on it.

Although some tentative discussions have taken place, initiated by the 6th Form College thgemselves, it required this evening's formal decision to kickstart meaningful consultation. Very unfortunately, the local ward councillors weren't privy to the early discussions, and both the Leader and portfolio holder Andy Scott apologised to Ian Galletley and Tony Richmond for the oversight.

Of course, as the press coverage has made clear, a future extension to the 6th Form College could affect the youth theatre, the garden bar, and the media workshop group amongst others.

Nothing has been decided, and any scoping will have to consider how facilities might be reprovided and improved if the extension proceeds. No-one should lose sight of the prize, however, of an expansion of our excellent 6th Form College.

The debate tonight was much more measured - both Ian Galletley and Heather Scott made thoughtful contributions and asked questions - the College ward councillors have linked in with the management of the 6th Form College, opening an important line of communication as far as they and their residents are concerned.

The dog that didn't bark, yet again, was the Liberal Democrat group contribution. Martin Swainston was happy to sound off in the paper alleging that the Council was using the sale to "balance the books" (rubbish, by the way) but typically, when the matter is actually debated, Swainston didn't even bother to turn up. He was subbed (yet again) by my blogging colleague Mike Barker, who sat on his hands and stayed mute.

No doubt in the future, if there's easy slurs to be made, or cheap headlines to be grabbed, the LibDems will be at the front. Don't expect anything sensible or constructive from them, however, on this key issue for the Borough.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Off on my travels again

With the winter nights drawing in, I'm about to embark on another round of meetings with community groups and parish councils around the Borough.

I tried this last year (when I held the Health & Leisure portfolio) as part of the Council's listening exercise, and it seemed to be well-received. It certainly helped me understand better some of the challenges faced by our community at first hand.

The 'peg' on which I intend to hold these visits is the introduction of the new waste collection service in April 2009. These will mean big changes for refuse collection in the Borough, and a step-change in improvement as far as our recycling rates are concerned.

Very kindly, last year almost all the groups I wrote to invited me along at some point, and I'm looking forward to meeting some old and new faces when I repeat the exercise now.

Waay-Haaay!! - The Great Tory Give-Away Continues

I've commented before on Darlington Tories' urge to promise big spending increases without having the faintest idea where the money's going to come from.

And today I read in the Northern Echo that local Tory bigwig Charles Johnson wants the Council to promise free swimming to all under 16's on the back of a national government initiative.

As you might expect, the Cabinet looked very carefully at the proposal, which would have provided money for a strictly limited period of 2 years. Whilst the scheme might work elsewhere, in Darlington it would add £175,000 to the Council Tax bill in each of those 2 years. And after that - well who knows. Presumably Charles is comfortable with the Council picking up the whole tab (£225,000 a year) then.

Of course everyone agrees that providing this service would be great for children and young people, but to propose it with out having the faintest idea where the money is coming from in the longer term is simply reckless.

Instead the Council will be working with the local PCT to prioritise spending for activities which young people themselves are asking for. Affordable and responsible. It's a shame the Tories can't say the same.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Monday Morning Smile

Thanks to regular correspondent Mike McTimoney for sending me a link to this YouTube variation on an old theme - and a bit of politics to boot!

Crisis in the Print Industry

There's some sobering news from the media that deliver the local news - Northern Echo editor Pete Barron has spelled out how difficult things are for local and regional papers in his blog and in his printed comment piece today.

And there is precious little individual consumers can do about it - as Pete spells out, regional papers are trapped between the Scylla of falling advertising revenues and (to a lesser extent) the Charybdis of the internet. Plummeting income is placing even the most well-established titles in danger.

In these grisly times, the Echo is having to lay off 17 members of its editorial staff, and close district offices in Barnard Castle, Redcar, Richmond and Stockton.

One would hope that the Echo is better able to weather these storms - after all, it has an exemplary track record as a campaigning paper, very far from the tabloid sleaze merchants which dominate some other areas. Pete is more thanm simply a local editor, but someone who has thrown himself enthusiastically into a myriad of local causes. For all that Darlington councillors (on both sides) can mutter about some perceived instance of bias, we are very fortunate to have a paper that takes accuracy and a non-partisan approach to the news so seriously.

And although sometimes I end up gurning at the breakfast table at some of his comments, there's no doubt that columnists like Mike Amos add to the colour of the area.

Yet ultimately the fate of papers like the Echo or the D & S Times won't be decided in Darlington, but many miles away. The Northern Echo is part of the Newsquest organisation, whose parent group is based thousands of miles away in the US. Likewise, the Sunderland and Hartlepool Echos are owned by a Scottish company. Ultimately, no amount of local sentiment or decades of service will sway the distant bean counters.

Let's hope that the Government's fiscal stimulus to the economy today provides some relief for these key local enterprises.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Carry on Sergeant

Amidst the wailing and gnashing of teeth at John Sergeant's act of hari-kiri on Strictly Come Dancing, I have to say I thought he did the right thing.

John's a shrewd political operator as well as a warm and witty guy - I suspect that BBC bosses had told him that he was easily topping the viewers' poll, and potentially could have knocked out some of the very serious contenders.

The national mood might well then have turned - it was evident after the last show that he was receiving the cold shoulder from the remaining contestants.

So "smart move, John" I thought - right up until this morning, when I read that this week John and Kristina were going to essay Sophie Ellis Bextor's Murder on the Dancefloor.

It promised to be a tongue-in-cheek classic, and probably worth the license fee alone. 

So now I rather feel as if we've been robbed.....

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I have a little list

Thanks to my friends at TWAFA (Tyne & Wear Anti-Fascist Action) for alerting me last night to the astonishing news that the BNP's entire membership list has been posted online, perhaps by a disgruntled ex-member.

Four of you have also helpfully commented on this via the previous "Small earthquake in North Road" post. It would seem there are 28 BNP members who give Darlington as part of their postal address, although this includes one poor 16 year old, who I'm sure now he wishes he'd given the racists a very wide berth when they knocked on his door.

One of you has also offered to post the names of the Darlington BNP members online via the comments section, and I have considered whether to do this within this post.

On balance, I don't think this would be sensible - whilst I don't doubt for a moment that this is a list of people the BNP thinks are or have been members, I'm reluctant to post the names myself because I'm sure it will include mistakes, including telephone numbers. I don't want anyone to be falsely accused as a result of some BNP bureaucratic cock-up. It could also breach Data Protection legislation.

Following the lead given by Lancaster UAF, I'm also not publishing a link to the site directly, but I would simply direct you to the Wikileaks site - always a worthwhile read!

This is the most serious setback the BNP have had in years, and we can only hope that a lot of these people will be shamed into leaving the party as a result of this disclosure. Being a member of the racist, Holocaust-denying party is no longer a dirty little secret.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Get on your skates

...or any other form of non-motorised transport that takes your fancy, and head down to Ashford this week, where a revolution in transport is taking place.

There the Council has transformed a 3-lane fast-moving one-way system into a 4-lane, well, "space" where no one form of transport has precedence over another.

So a pedestrian crossing the road has as much right to do so as, say, a juggernaught thundering from Dover. Needless to say, the engineers are gushing like a parents of a newly-born, "We accept it will take a bit of getting used to but we believe that ending segregation between cars and pedestrians will make roads safer and more civilised" says Richard Stubbings, the project manager at Kent County Council.

Reading the story in Saturday's Times reminded me fondly of my stint as the Highways portfolio holder. This is the kind of initiative that would be lauded as good practice, and would apparently meet all of our Local Transport Plan aspirations. For a while, I'd be caught up in the enthusiasm. Then the implications in all their gory details would become clearer as I thought it through. It would achieve the status of "very courageous policy", (after Yes Minister), and the idea would be binned. It would not be one of the initiatives which the Council took forward to consultation and possible implementation.

I would put this scheme in the "courageous" category. That seems curious, when there's another well-known example in London's Kensington High Street which has been running for several years. If pedestrians, cyclists, cars, buses and lorries can mingle there, then why not in Ashford?

The trial in Ashford, however, isn't a back street, or even a main thoroughfare, but the town's ring road. Darlington has piloted mingling different transport modes in its Pedestrian Heart, but these have all been non-motorised (with the exception of scooters for disabled people). Given its location, Ashford's scheme can expect to receive a substantial amount of through traffic from places where the rules of the road remain unchanged. The project will require signing of exceptional quality to be clear and unambiguous to everyone who uses the road daily.

It just needs one bloody minded pedestrian to observe, "they've got brakes, haven't they?" as they step into the road in front of an oncoming articulated truck,whilst the truck driver thinks, "They've got legs, haven't they?" for a collison to occur. And in these accidents, it's never the truck which comes off worst. Inevitably, schemes like this can attract this type of headline.

I have never been convinced that experiments which challenge the fundamentals of road culture can be trialled safely on a piecemeal basis. I wish the councillors and transport planners in Kent all the best, but I fear for this piece of utopian engineering.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Small earthquake in North Road...

Congratulations to Ann Marie Curry, who as expected won the North Road seat, vacated by Steve Jones' disqualification, for the LibDems yesterday.

The final result was;

CURRY (LibDem) 561 (51%)
VASEY (Labour) 262 (24%)
JENKINSON (Tory) 115 (10%)
HOODLESS (BNP) 106 (9.5%)
JONES (Independent) 60 (5.5%)

Commiserations to John Vasey, who would have made an excellent local councillor for the ward. I'm sure his time will come again.

Last night's result was remarkably similar to the 2007 election, when the votes are aggregated to take account of parties which did not stand a full slate. The outcome then was;

LibDem 55%
Labour 23%
Tories 12%
BNP 10%

So the LibDems actually lost ground, and Labour was the only party to increase its share of the vote. Thinking about the wider battle between Labour and the Tories ahead of the General Election, it's also significant that Labour polled more than double the number of votes of the Conservative candidate.

And that tootling noise you can hear? Well, that's the sound of the LibDems merrily blowing their own trumpets. Regular readers of this blog will know that LibDems collectively have many faults. Plainly excessive humility is not amongst them...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

North Road News

"Don't worry Cap'n - I have a cunning plan!"

The North Road by-election ends tomorrow - any kind of debate between the parties has been drowned out by the usual LibDem Sturm und Drang. Frankly, this number of leaflets from one party brings the whole process into disprepute. Still, we'll see the result on Thursday night.

The by-election has been considerably enlivened, however, by the entry of Darlington's newest double act - local taxi driver and Conservative candidate George Jenkinson, and this blog's old friend Captain LeGrand, the town's Tory PPC.

I don't think we've seen the like since Baldrick teamed up with Hugh Laurie's Lieutenant The Honourable George Colthurst St. Barleigh in Blackadder Goes Forth, to teach the bally Hun a lesson!

Alas, Captain Legard has been seen wandering the streets of North Road alone in his quest to drum up support for his trusty retainer. This never looks good, but it mirrors a report I was given from a couple of months back, where Legard was working the High Row with only his son for company.

A touching family scene, perhaps, but hardly a picture of a local Tory party united behind its PPC.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The World at your Feet

A quick plug for the return of International Day celebrations here in Darlington this Sunday.

Organised by Darlington Communities, this is a free and friendly day for people to enjoy and learn about different cultures. There will be drumming, hair braiding, arts & crafts from our Polish and Asian communities, traditional British crafts, storytelling, dancing, singing workshops, a Bangra band, Thai, Chinese and Bollywood dancers and food from around the world.

Everyone is welcome to this FREE event on Sunday 16th November 1 - 8pm at the Forum Music Centre, Borough Road. For further information please contact Joanne Scott on 388457 or norman Maltby on 358794.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Sackful of Santas?

Regular readers of this blog may recall that this time last year I had a Victor Meldrew moment when I learned that there was to be no Santa in the Cornmill for Christmas 2007. Via the comments column, may of you agreed that this was an own goal for the town.

So I'm delighted to announce that Santa (magically, of course) will somehow be in 3 separate Darlington town centre locations in 2008 at the same time - The Cornmill, The Market Grotto and Queen Street. Naturally, there won't be 3 different Santas, because as every 5-year old knows, that would be wrong and just plain silly.

It looks like Santa will start listening to all the good boys and girls from the beginning of December - your best chance of catching him at several of the locations will be on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Children wanting to write to Santa can drop off their letters at the Tourist Information Centre in the Dolphin Centre - it will cost £1.50 to get a reply, and letters need to be posted by 12th December.

There's plenty more going on too: -

November 23rd. Christmas Lights swith-on, 3pm - 4.30pm. New lights will be on show for the first time, covering the town clock and the historic yards.

November 27th & December 4th from 12pm to 8pm. Christingle Markets to coincide with late shopping days on Thursdays.

December 11th - 14th. Winter Wonderland Market. A great time to pick up all your Christmas essentials. The 4-day event will see a double marquee in the Market Square filled with stalls and entertainment, including carol singing.

As more news about Christmas in Darlington becomes available, I'll post it here.


30th November. Hurworth Christmas Fair, The Grange, Hurworth. A "proper" village fair, with lots of stalls, lovely hot refreshments and Santa (TBC)

6th December - 18th January. Darlington Civic Theatre's giant pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk comes to town, starring Ian Reddington (Coronation Street's Vernon), Boogie Pete, (Pete Hillier from CBeebies) and the hilarious Charlie Cairoli. Tickets are from £11 - £18.50, make sure you don't miss out, book your tickets NOW on 01325 486555.

(NB Nick's note - I'm guessing that's Charlie Cairoli jnr - the 1970's TV clown legend died in 1980).

Monday Morning Smile

Back to the 70's again, for this classic from Benny Hill. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Remembrance Sunday - Darlington 2008

(1) A view from the procession from Holy Trinity Church to the Cenotaph (2) Crowds observe the 2 minute silence (3) Wreath-laying.

Ninety years on from the calling of the Armistice in 1918, pictures from today's Remembrance Day Service in Darlington.

Regular attenders at the Cenotaph commented afterwards that this year's observance was particularly well attended. The sacrifice of our armed services is as relevant now as it was during the global conficts of the twentieth century.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Final Thoughts

A truly remarkable speech. The skilfully edited highlights were compressed into a still lengthy 8 minute excerpt on Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday morning, and it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I can't recall being so affected by a piece of political theatre via the radio since Neil Kinnock's "I warn you" speech before the 1983 General Election.

Listening to Obama in Illinois, you can see how he's moved millions into coming together as part of a nation-changing progressive coalition. Messianic? Perhaps. But America has an uncanny knack of throwing up visionary leaders at times of national peril - from Washington to Lincoln and then FDR and Kennedy.

I had intended to put together a piece on how Obama's victory has reshaped the political map of the US set in stone since Johnson's Civil Rights Act lost the South for the Democrats in the mid 60's - but I see that Hopi has done that far better than I could.

So amongst the acres of newsprint on the result, perhaps time to indulge in that antithesis of 'proper history' - the what-if. What if Hillary and not Barack had won the Democratic nomination? Would we be toasting another Clinton as the 44th President of the United States?

I'm not so sure. John McCain's heroic story was a powerful antidote to the campaigning brilliance of the Clintons - he had spent years building up a reputation as an independent operator whilst Bill and Hillary were the classic Washington Beltway act. I also doubt whether McCain's team would have felt impelled to make the disastrous mistake of putting Sarah Palin on the ticket had Barack lost in the primaries - after all, the mere idea of a Hillary Presidency was enough to motivate the Republican Conservative base into frothing action, and that would have left the way clear for McCain to select a far more telling VP candidate - like Joe Lieberman. Hillary would have found herself on the wrong foot throughout.

I've always liked and respected McCain, particularly after he stood up to Bush and the Rovian forces of darkness in the 2000 primaries. It took a particularly evil campaign to finish him off, when push polling that implied that McCain's adopted Bangladeshi-born daughter was an African-American child he fathered out of wedlock.

So it's good that McCain pretty much emerged from the 2008 election with his honour intact. However, selecting Palin holed his reputation for sound judgement below the waterline, and effectively the Presidential election finished then as a competitive exercise.

It seems likely that Palin will play a divisive role in Republican politics for years to come - and add to the gaiety of the nations. Tuesday night's result leaves the Republicans in the wilderness just as 1997 marked the beginning of a long period of Tory banishment, from which they have yet truly to emerge.

On Duty with Green Watch

On Wednesday evening, I joined Darlington Fire Service's Green Watch as they prepared for the busiest time of their year - Bonfire Night.

Fellow Fire Service Board members Cllrs. Doris and Brian Jones came along too, as did Jono, Alpha's roving reporter and news presenter. It's fair to say we had an eye-opening experience.

Arriving at 5pm, the first hour or so was unnaturally quiet in Darlington, although we could hear the calls pouring in for crews elsewhere in the County via the comms system.

Then the first call came in - to open space on Meynell Road behind Morrisons on North Road, where it was reported that there was a bonfire started by children. We accompanied the crew in one of the Fire Service's landrovers.

When we got there, we found a big blaze of what looked like rubbish and broken pallets. There were about 50 people around it - many of them seemed to be children and young people, although there were some adults in one corner. The fire engine had beaten us there, and had ascertained that there were adults present - the Fire Service's risk assessment procedure is only to intervene if there are no adults at the scene, or if there is alcohol being drunk, or there is an evident fire threat to the community. In this case, it was felt safe to leave the bonfire alone.

We left to try and find the second bonfire reported in Hartington Way, off of Brinkburn Road. We couldn't locate it, so returned to Meynell Road, where by this tiume youths were setting off fireworks via an impromtu "mortar" device fashioned out of scrap. Fresh wood was being scavenged and transported on a B&Q trolley. I shudder to think what would have happened one of the rockets had fallen over and shot into the crowd.

We were then called to a report of a fire in a skip in Cleveland Terrace. By the time we got there, the attending crew had put the fire out (it was a very minor blaze, apparently). Because of communication problems, a fire engine had also been diverted to the call from Newton Aycliffe, and they arrived 10 minutes later. They then got a call to attend a bonfire in Ferryhill, which was obviously going to take them far longer to get to from Darlington.

During the evening, we heard a report of a house fire in Easington. As the night wore on, it became clear that it was a serious blaze, with possibly people trapped inside the buidling. Four tenders, with more on the way, were there by the time we finished.

So what did I learn? Well;

(1) Informal bonfires are a real menace, diverting crews away from serious blazes to what are often small but annoying fires on open space where crews can't intervene. It would compound an already fraught situation if crews were dealing with nuisance fires such as these when a house fire blaze was reported, as happened in Easington on Wednesday. Serious injury or even death could result.

(2) I shall be asking the Council's Chief Executive to ensure that we liaise with the Fire Service next year to mount a campaign to remove informal bonfires as they are constructed on public open space. Street Scene already do a fine job helping in this way, but I would hope that with better publicity, residents could help identify more potential bonfires next year.

(3) Fire crews are in a real Catch 22 when they attend blazes such as the one we saw at Meynell Road. If it had been necessary to intervene, there was every chance the crowd might have turned nasty - however I understand the Police will only attend if the crews themselves are under attack! Fire fighters already have a difficult and dangerous enough job to do without coming under attack from a barrage of stones.

(4) I have to say that if I had been a resident, or one of the ward councillors, I would have been annoyed when no action was taken regarding the fire and fireworks at Meynell Road. Understanding the crews' dilemma now, I see things a bit differently. Again, some publicity would help residents understand when the Fire Service can and can't intervene.

(5) Communications between crews and HQ seem to be an issue. November 5th, of course, is a particularly hectic night, but with one frequency only available to crews. it was very difficult to pass on information about fires which had been dealt with - understandably, the priority was for HQ to rely news of fresh outbreaks to the nearest crews.

Apparently, this situation will be improved somewhat when the new Regional Command Centre is working, but it is an issue I will be watching nonetheless.

Finally, just to thank everyone for putting up with me, and providing a thoroughly instructive evening. I now have a far better awareness of the work of the brave fire crews than I did at the start of the evening.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Monday Morning Smile

It's Monday morning. Again. And it's cold. But I defy you not to smile at this classic sketch from Eric & Ernie...

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Welly Washing

After all the recent rain, South Park was a sea of mud. Fortunately, we'd taken our wellies, and afterwards plodded back to the car, which I'd parked in Abbots Yard.

En route, a communal event was taking place on High Row, as anyone who had been in South Park and was wearing wellingtons washed them off in the water feature.

We splashed around too, and had great fun. Another service provided courtesy of your thoughtful Labour Council!

Ooooh! Aaaah!!

Darlington Fireworks Display 2008 Pt. 1

Darlington Fireworks Display 2008 Pt. 2

Tens of thousands of people were the audience in South Park last night for the annual Fireworks Display.

Creating the annual event was one of Labour's first initiatives when we came to office back in 1991 - it's been a huge success, and has spared parents like me the danger of having to purchase our own fireworks, at the risk of incurring a burn (or worse). It's probably the one event every year which brings the Borough together as we all stamp our feet, try and avoid the light sabre sellers, and watch the show with the kids.

I thought the display last night was one of the best I could remember - as they exploded, lots of the fireworks made interesting patterns across the sky in concentric circles or even red hearts.

It was a perfect evening for the display, with no rain, a breath of wind and clear skies. So do choreographed firework displays and mobile phone video recorders go together? I'll let you be the judge....

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Here come the girls

They're finally here - our 4 chooks are safely installed in the henhouse and run.

To start us off, we've bought 4 pullets - 2 Rhode Island Reds and 2 Light Sussexes. I understand they should be laying in 4 weeks or so.

Sandy and James have been away at a swimming training camp this week, so I've been left to install the chickens and look after AJ's freshly-acquired pet rabbit. It's a flop-eared dwarf, which AJ's called (with a 7-year old's characteristic mindset) Fluffy. Fluffy is still a bit nervous of us. The intention was to keep her in a hutch outside, but that good intention was soon abandoned, and feeling sorry for her, she was installed in the outhouse.

So before and after work this week, I've been tending to the livestock. Much of that has been spent mopping up after Fluffy - just how much wee can a tiny dwarf rabbit produce?!

The next job is to name the chickens, and that's where you all come in. Your suggestions would be very welcome - but remember - AJ is going to be the final judge so keep all contributions clean!

Darlington Rotary Club

Yesterday I was delighted to attend one of the regular lunches organised by the Rotary Club in Darlington, at their regular venue in the Dolphin Centre. I had been asked to speak about waste disposal in the Borough.

The club have some fantastic old possessions, inluding a ceremonial chair and gavel, which only looked slightly incongruous in the Dolphin Centre's Studio Room. As you all probably know, Rotary do a fantastic amount of work raising money for good causes world-wide - the Darlington branch is one of the largest in the North East.

I spoke for the allotted 20 minutes, and then took some interesting questions on wheelie bins vs. black bags; green waste; and how the Council might be able to offer further help to small businesses during this downturn.

It was a really good session, and has given me some points to take back to the Town Hall to address next week.

The Sun Says...

Whilst waiting at the barber's this morning (not, as you will have guessed, for myself) I flicked idly through The Sun, and found this excoriating leader column.

TORY George Osborne attacks Gordon Brown’s plan to borrow money for a spending spree to lead us out of recession.

He says future generations will be saddled with higher taxes to pay for it. True. But what is the Shadow Chancellor’s alternative?

He wants lower interest rates. So do we all.

He talks vaguely of taxes being cut when things look up.

But where is the detail?

Since the financial crisis broke, the Conservatives have looked uncertain.

One of Britain’s biggest problems is wasteful public spending.

Until we get it down we have no hope of serious tax cuts.

What expensive projects would Mr Osborne axe? Which pointless government departments and cosy quangos would he close?

How would he keep the wheels turning as the slump drags down families and businesses?

The Tory poll lead is slipping because voters don’t think Mr Osborne knows better than Mr Brown how to steer us off the rocks.

This crisis gave the Tories a golden chance to seize the initiative.

But so far, they have let Labour make all the running.

Whew! - powerful stuff, and from a newspaper and proprietor that Cameron thought was in the bag as far as the next General Election was concerned. Although I don't agree with all of The Sun's analysis, they are spot on as far as the inexperience and dither which has to date characterised the Tories' response to the global economic crisis.

To suggest slashing borrowing at the outset of the recession, as George Osbourne did recently, would lead us inevitably into the slump that the Labour Government is working so hard to avoid. Osbourne's clearly learnt nothing from the lessons of the 1930's and is offering a very dangerous prescription for the country's future.

With all the polls showing the Tories' lead over Labour now down to single figures, the bets are well and truly off as far as the next General Election are concerned. Something to wipe the smug smirk off the faces of Messrs. Cameron and Osbourne this weekend.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Brand XXXX

It seems the Brand/Ross/Sachs story ("Wossgate"?) is finally moving to a conclusion.

I have to confess that initially my sympathies were very much with the baying mob - Sadie at the always-excellent Sadie's Tavern got it pretty much spot on, I thought. There's been plenty of mileage for The Daily Mash too here and here.

For me, one of the fascinating elements of the story was the fact that the broadcast took place on Radio 2. Radio 2!! Regular readers will know that I'm a Radio 4 & 5 man, and I haven't listened to Radio 2 since I had to, when it was my parents station of choice in the 1970's.

Now I don't want to get all "jumpers for goalposts" on you, but it was a very, very different station then. Weekdays were dominated by the likes of Jimmy Young, Waggoners Walk and John Dunn. The nearest it got to edgy humour was The Grumbleweeds. And on Sunday evenings, we entered the cultural timewarp that was Sing Something Simple. Offhand, I don't recall a potty-mouthed Charlie Chester boasting about his impregnation of Pam Ayres...

Still, in an appropriately low-key fashion, Brand has now resigned from his show. Clearly that isn't enough for the likes of the BBC-baiting Daily Mail. So now the true agenda has moved away from the offensive taunting of a gentle and much-respected actor, to Right's desire to punish a BBC it loathes.

I agree with a commentator on the Breakfast programme this morning - if the BBC now sacks Ross, it will be open season on any BBC actor or producer which offends the moral sensibilities of the Conservative 'moral majority'. BBC bosses should recognise the danger and stand firm. It's time to draw a line under the story and move on.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Waste Debate

On Thursday, I went along to the Darlington Friends of the Earth meeting at the Quaker Meeting House in Skinnergate.

It was convened by the FoE specifcially to give a presentation on recycling in Germany to councillors, in the context of Darlington Borough Council's own plans to overhaul domestic waste disposal next April. Of course I had a special interest in the debate, given my portfolio responsibility.

I counted 14 councillors present; 10 Labour, 3 Tories and a solitary LibDem. In all, about 40 people attended. People's contributions were listened to with respect, even when significant differences of opinion were aired.

On a positive note, I thought the presentation about recycling in Bremen and Bremerhaven was very illuminating. It demonstrates the strides made on the continent in this important area. Whilst we have lagged behind cities like Bremen, ambitious towns like Darlington are now striving to catch up.

It's fair to say that there wasn't a meeting of minds on the new waste contract. Darlington FoE don't believe that waste should be sorted for recycling at a processing centre (as will be the case for cans, for example, after next April) and instead feel that everything should be separated by the householder at the kerbside. So in Bremen, for example, we heard that each property has 7 recycling bins.

In my contribution, I pointed out that there were points of agreement between the Darlington FoE and councillors from all the parties in Darlington. There is a cross-party consensus, it seems to me, that climate change is a real threat and is having a demonstrable impact now on the environment. I pointed out that Darlington has a strong environmental record already (think of the twin Sustainable Travel Town and Cycling Demonstration Town initiatives, for example).

Therefore, I thought it was a shame that the FoE weren't able to acknowledge at all the enormous change for the better that the new waste contract represents, even given their reservations about some of the scheme's details. This year we will recycle about 25% of our household waste - next year that is projected to rise to 50% and we have ambitions to take the figure to 70% by 2020. The contract with Wades will revolutionise recycling in the Borough, and make us one of the top performing in the North East, if not more widely.

That's a remarkable increase. Given that material will be taken out of the black bags for recycling, it means that everyone in the Borough will be taking part in the scheme, whether they like it or not! Currently, about 50% of people in Darlington actively recycle, which means that a lot of material is going into landfill which could otherwise be reused.

Before I had to leave, FoE member Richard Grassick made a very useful contribution in which he pointed out that there certainly were areas where FoE and the Council could co-operate - on waste minimisation, for example. I completely agree - the "reduce" message is a key driver of our waste policy, and there are signs that this is bearing some fruit - the total tonnage of waste generated in darlington actually fell during the last quarter.

With councillors on the Environment Scrutiny Committee gearing up to meet with local supermarkets to see how they can help with the 'reduce, reuse and recycle' approach, I hope that last Thursday's meeting will be the beginning of a fruitful partnership that will advance the sustainability message in Darlington.

Stoke shows the way

Thanks to Dave Walsh and Jenny for pointing out to me that the residents of Stoke-on-Trent have voted decisively to ditch the office of elected Mayor.

Stoke uniquely chose to plump for an "Elected Mayor and Council Manager" system back in May 2002. By common consent the experiment has been a disaster, and Stoke has the unenviable reputation of being a political basket case (it's the town where the BNP have 9 councillors, after all). The BNP were setting great store by their plan to win the Mayoral election in 2011, which thankfully has come to nothing. There's a no-holds barred piece by Patrick Barkham in the Guardian on Stoke politics here.

So where does this leave the elected Mayor movement? You might have thought in the can. After all, in the 9 Mayoral referenda held around the country since the heyday of the movement in May 2002, 8 have resulted in "No" votes (including Darlington last September).

In all, there have 37 referenda, with only 12 districts voting for an elected mayor (and now one of those has recanted). Elected Mayors have proved deeply controversial, introducing American-style politics into English local government - Stoke is the most prominent reverse to date, but there has also been a groundswell of opinion against concentrating power into the hands of a single individual in Lewisham, Doncaster and Mansfield too, which all voted "Yes" back in 2001.

It's a shame then that despite the consistently-expressed views of local residents, the barking boffins at the New Local Government Network (who are the sole cheerleadres for the idea) retain influence at Westminster. To be fair to the Government, they have acknowledged some of the deficiencies of the current scheme, and promised to create more of a level playing field, allowing a way back for towns like Stoke.

There remains one party alone wedded to this crackers policy - and that's the Tories. For reasons I can't begin to fathom, David Cameron has promised to impose elected Mayors on big cities with no local consultation. Like a lot of Conservative policy, this has received little nationwide attention to date, but this will change in the run-up to the next General Election.

At the Local Government Conference, even Tories were booing 'Dave' when he insisted on sticking to the policy. After Stoke, maybe it's time for him to reconsider.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Stephen Hughes MEP and Labour PPC Alan Strickland with one of Saturday's Labour teams.

One of the exciting things about standing in the European Parliamentary elections is having a campaign area which stretches from the Tweed to the Tees.

So it was good to travel to Berwick on Saturday with Stephen Hughes MEP to talk about current developments in the European Parliament, as well as Labour's campaign in the run-up to the June 2009 elections.

Berwick has an active Labour presence, marshalled by their PPC Alan Strickland. I met Alan at this year's Labour Party conference, and was impressed by his dynamism. Introducing the discussion on Saturday, Alan told us about his recent experience fighting for better conditions for tenants in the constituency - there are some real abuses taking place, and local people are crying out for a champion. Neither the Tories nor the LibDems seem in the least interested, and Alan would certainly make a first-class constituency MP.

After the talk, we joined Alan and party members door-knocking in Tweedmouth. It was especially interesting for me to speak to a couple of people who had never voted Labour in their lives, but who are now thinking about supporting Gordon Brown after the events of the last few weeks.

We'll be back in Berwick as the campaign develops.

Eco Schools

Dodmire Infants and Nursery School

Last week I had a valuable briefing on the progress being made in Darlington on the Eco School initiative. I also attended a conference in Newcastle on assessing how councils can respond to the climate change agenda generally, and to the question of adaptation in particular.

To deal with the last one first - the way in which councils and their partners are being assessed is changing via the new Local Area Agreement system (LAA). Rather than prescribe how each council is judged, councils have the opportunity to select the criteria which are particularly relevant to the communities they serve. Partners like the Fire or Health Authorities have input into this too. The result is a medley of indicators, and one of those selected by Darlington is N188, or Adapting to Climate Change.

This refers specifically to how councils respond to the realities of climate change (floods, higher temperatures and the like). It contrasts with mitigation, which is how we can alter our lifestyles to at least counter some of the damaging changes taking place in the environment.

Still with me? Well, the conference in Newcastle, organised by One North East was very much aimed at Town Hall professionals, but as a lead elected member I found the material very useful. Like many councils around the North East, a lot of work is taking place on this key issue on an unco-ordinated basis, but the challenge of N188 will be to bring all this work together into a coherent policy-driven approach.

The Eco Schools meeting at Dodmire Infants and Nursery School was just as illuminating, but at a completely different level. This is a Government initiative to enable every school to be a sustainable school by 2020 - as the website says, "Eco-Schools is an international award programme that guides schools on their sustainable journey, providing a framework to help embed these principles into the heart of school life."

So how is that being put into action? Well, 27 schools in Darlington have paper recycling facilities, for example. And schools across the Borough are at varying stages of progress in gaining the prestigious Green Flag award via the Eco Schools scheme, which symbolises excellence in the field of environmental activity.

At Dodmire Infants and Nursery, we had a presentation from the children themselves. They talked about saving energy and turning off electrical appliances, for example, or growing their own produce on the school's allotment. They've also forged links with a school in Sierra Leone. They could answer quite complex questions too, suggesting that the work had really taken root. It was an inspiring afternoon, and I'll be monitoring progress to see how we can enthuse all schools in Darlington to take up this great project.

Mwah! Mwah!

People with right leaning politics often seem suceptible to conspiracy-theory stuff. Like the idea that The Northen Echo is full of closet socialists. My Tory colleague Cllr. Mike Cartwright hints at this in his most recent post.

So I'm not sure Mike's fears will have been allayed by Pete Barron's laugh out loud anecdote from Friday's Mayor's Ball....

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Trailblazing to....Stockton

Defying the grim weather predictions, about 40 cyclists bravely set out this morning to 'christen' the new National Route 14 cycle route between Darlington and Stockton.

Sandy, AJ and I joined them, with Sandy doing all the hard work with AJ on the tagalong.

It was my first chance to use the new bridge over the A66 which had a far gentler gradient that I'd been expecting. We then followed the bridleway to the roundabout on the A67 outside MSG and travelled up the cul-de-sac road that eventually joins the Low Newton bypass route. There's a bit more work for Stockton BC to do here to link the 2 sections, which should be completed in the next year or so - it was still perfectly passable.

Sandy and AJ had headed home by this time (tackling the hill outside Sadberge without stopping, which is no mean feat) and a few others turned back - those remaining carried on through Long Newton, Elton and Hartburn. The cycle route to Stockton town centre was well-marked and travelled through off-road open space - where we did cycle on the roads, they were for the most part quiet and perfectly usable by the most cautious cyclist.

The route enters Stockton town centre via Dovecot Street, although the pedestrianised area itself is, I'm afraid to say, not open to cyclists (some work there for colleagues in Stockton). As you can imagine, we turned a few heads as the massed band of cyclists with banners and flags flying entered the town.

I then headed on to the Tees Barrage - in all the journey took me about 2 hours, and could be managed by anyone. Well worth a try.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Contest threatens to become a circus

I can confirm that the following are standing in the North Road by-election;

Ann-Marie Curry (LibDem)
John Hoodless (BNP)
George Jenkinson (Tory)
Steve Jones (Independent)
John Vasey (Labour)

Steve's candidacy has provoked some inevitable spluttering incredulity. Over at the Northern Echo, Pete Barron in his blog has said that Steve's decision to stand makes his blood boil. The front page of today's Echo carried an uncompromising headline "Ludicrous" and pointed out that not only would the by-election cost £11,000, but 2 schools would have to be shut for the day to accommodate polling.

Mike Barker for the LibDems is also spitting feathers. He hopes that Steve will heed the Echo headline, and withdraw before Wednesday. Some hope.

I have to say that beneath Mike's outrage, there's more than a little hint of fear. Remember, despite the bad publicity that Steve attracted last time, when he was national news and for all the wrong reasons, he still comfortably came second, sandwiched between Fred and Mike (now there's an image to conjure with). Not everyone reads the Echo, and I've always got the impression that Steve is personally well-liked around the ward. The LibDems would be far happier spinning half-truths about Labour alone in the contest in their Focuses, and having to attack Steve too could make them look shrill and negative.

Steve's candidacy, in which he and Labour's John Vasey are genuinely local people, throws the contest wide open. We're starting way, way behind the LibDems in this race (the difference between our leading candidate and Mike Barker in 3rd place for the LibDems last time was over 430 votes). Still, I shall be trudging up Eldon Street with a renewed spring in my step in the coming weeks.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

November in Lansdowne Street

All sorts of Darlington-related polling news to tell you.

Firstly, as you may have seen from my colleague Mike Barker's site, three councillors have been 'evicted' from the "I'm a Councillor get me out of here" event.

It was good to see that lots of Darlington councillors applied to take part (including me) but only 6 could be successful. I understand that the remaining candidates have been inundated with questions and points from schoolchildren from around the Borough, so the initiative has certainly captured the imagination of children and young people. Unfortunately, access to the site as a guest is pretty temperamental.

Interestingly, young people have chosen to send for an early bath the two Tory councillors, fellow blogger Gill Cartwright and Kate Davies from Pierremont. Gill and Kate are two of the most aggressive younger councillors amongst the Tories' 2007 intake, so their rejection may not be good news for the Conservatives' long-term prospects in the town.

It leaves my Labour Cabinet colleagues Jenny Chapman and Chris McEwan up against LibDem Mike Barker. I wouldn't like to call it, but I note that with characteristic political skill, Mike is already lowering expectations over on his blog.

And if that weren't enough, the three main parties are hurriedly gearing up for a by-election in North Road ward, following the disqualification of independent councillor Steve Jones for non-attendance. Like my colleague Mark Burton, I liked Steve, and always found him to be a good ward activist, although (ahem) I did play my part in breaking the news that he had signed the BNP candidates' papers in the ward contest back in 2007.

The two frontrunners, the LibDems and Labour, are both standing candidates who were unsuccessful in Harrowgate Hill last time - Anne-Marie Curry for the LibDems, and seasoned former councillor John Vasey for Labour. I see from the comments on a previous thread that the LibDems are pretty cocky about victory in the seat.

With Labour picking up in the polls, and the LibDems crashing, I wouldn't be so sure. There's also going to be a surprise candidate to mix things up - I can honestly say the very last person I would have thought of as an entrant in the poll, but one who may cause Mike B et al just a few headaches....

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A new recruit

For some time now, Northern Echo journalists have been dipping in and out of blogging, mostly displaying the same sort of enthusiasm for the art that I have for the gym.

All that's changed now, with editor Pete Barron starting up his own blog on the Echo site. Pete's managed an obscene level of 10 posts in 4 days already, which is just showing off, frankly. Where does he find the time?

In all seriousness, Pete is a very welcome addition to blogging in the town - his level of commitment to various causes around the Borough is exemplary, and his hard work has guaranteed that the Echo can truly badge itself as a paper at the heart of the community it serves.

His blog is going to be required reading, so I've added a link on my blogroll.

European Parliament visit

I spent two days this week on a candidates' visit to the European Parliament in Brussels.

It was a chance to talk to colleagues about their developing campaigns, as well as meet key people in the European Socialist Group, as well as our own Labour MEPs.

Stephen Hughes is our hard-working Labour MEP here in the North East, and he's standing once again with Fay Tinnion and myself. After narrowly missing out last time, when Mo O'Toole lost, there's every chance we can recapture that second seat back again from either the LibDems or the Tories. As someone who was on the Party's list, but not a candidate last time (it's a long story), it's clear that we are far better prepared for this campaign than 5 years ago. Together with Stephen and Fay I've tweaked the national campaign to maximise resources here in the North East, and had a very good reception from a number of party members who are raring to go.

We have a positive message across a range of key issues, from the economy to climate change, energy security and combatting terrorism. It's in marked contrast to the disarray amongst the Tories, and the embarrassing spectacle that is UKIP in the European Parliament.

Whilst we spent most of the two days holed up in meetings, we also saw the Parlaiment in action, albeit first thing in the morning when there were few there. It started to fill up later on as the first vote was taken...

Thursday, October 09, 2008


I'm in Brussels for a couple of days visiting the European Parliament as Labour's campaign for the elections in 2009 moves up a gear.  I'll blog more on this when I get back.

Following news in today's press that several councils had large sums tied up in Icelandic banks (which they may not get back) I have checked this morning and can confirm that Darlington Borough Council had no deposits there.


There's some gallows humour on Ebay today (Friday), where someone has put Iceland up for sale.

Badged as a "Unique opportunity to buy a Northern European country" it says that "Iceland will provide the winning bidder with - a habitable environment, Icelandic Horses and admittidly a somewhat sketchy financial situation...PLEASE NOTE: GREENLAND AND Björk ARE NOT INCLUDED IN THIS AUCTION!"

Bidding started at a 99p start price and without reserve, although if you are thinking about it as a Christmas present for one of those relatives who has everything, be warned that this has now risen to £10 million.

Monday, October 06, 2008

After the fire

One of my more important jobs during my blogging hiatus was to visit Darlington Fire Station for a briefing on current operations.

As a newly-appointed member of County Durham and Darlington Fire Authority, getting to know my local station (becoming a "member champion" in the jargon) is a key task.

Beyond that, however, I wanted to thank the officers personally for their sterling efforts during the fire at the Kings Head Hotel last month. That there were not serious injuries or worse; that the building not completely gutted and the fire contained was a testimony to the skill and the bravery of the fire fighters on duty that night. That the Summer Market Spectaculoar was able to go-ahead the following morning almost completely unaffected was remarkable, and a testimony to all the emergency planning undertaken by the emergency services together with the Borough Council.

As I indicated at the subsequent Fire Authority meeting, it's a shame that the bravery displayed on the night, in particular to rescue two Chinese guests, was not picked up by the media at the time. I was assured that there will be an opportunity for the full account of the night to be told to the press.

Out of the same Fire Authority meeting came the news that Northumbria Water refused to allow fire fighters to alter the water pressure in the pipes serving the town centre, which was requested to help tackle the blaze. Fortunately, resourceful crews were able to tap the nearby River Skerne, but as my Tory colleague Doris Jones pointed out at the meeting, what would have been the consequences had this source not been available?

I understand that Scrutiny will be receiving a briefing from CDDFRA on the Kings Head fire, and I'm sure this issue will be explored in greater detail then.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

A whiff of sulphur

Regular transatlantic reader of this blog Paul Cain has asked me via the comments for my thoughts on the return to frontline UK politics of Peter Mandelson. I gather from Paul's comments ("a day of infamy") that he's less than impressed.

Certainly large swathes of the right-wing press have been reacting rather like a maiden aunt who's been goosed by the gardener.

For me, I thoroughly welcome the return of one of the "big beasts" of the New Labour project. Let's not forget Mandelson was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing in the investigation into his second Cabinet resignation. And unlike Jeffrey Archer, to whom Paul compares him, he's hardly been cooling his heels at Her Majesty's Pleasure since - in fact he's been a highly effective and respected Trade Commissioner at the EU.

I suppose we should have seen this coming since Conference. The visceral loyalty displayed there to the Prime Minsiter was led by some highly unexpected figures - not only was Mandelson sitting in the front row for Gordon's speech, but on the fringe 'blasts from the past' like Alistair Campbell and Derek Draper were beating the drum not only for party loyalty, but also taking the fight back to the Tories.

There's an excellent summary of the history of the Brown/Mandelson 90's feud by Andrew Rawnsley in today's Observer. At the end of the day, however, Mandelson in political terms is a strategic and tactical genius - anyone who needs reminding of the crucial role he played in the early days on New Labour should have a look at the excellent Soundbites and Spin Doctors by Nick Jones, which covers the period.

There's an argument in politics for taking the steps that your enemies would wish you didn't. If I was David Cameron this morning, I'd be a little less smug about my party's prospects at the next election.

Darlington Food Festival

There's plenty of time today to get yourselves down to the Market Place for the Food Festival.

Sandy, AJ and I went down yesterday - the town centre was packed, despite the Autumn chill. The food tent in the Market Place (video'd above) was heaving and trade seemed to be brisk.

The weekend is a showcase for our local and regional producers - everything from bread, cheese and pickles to dairy products and food with a more exotic touch. As my colleague Cllr. Andy Scott says in the programme introduction, the message is very much about taking a healthier and environmentally friendly approach to buying and cooking food.

Today, as well as the usual supporting acts of bands, face painters, jugglers, balloon makers and the like, Lesley Waters from Ready Steady Cook and This Morning will be giving demonstrations in the food tent at 12pm, 1pm and 2pm.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Decision Makers - Reshuffle Special

The latest Northern Decision Makers is now online - this edition features an interview with Iain Wright, MP for Hartlepool who is still (I think) a Minister for Housing. Iain turned in a typically feisty performance, and had some interesting reflections on the return of his town's former MP Peter Mandelson.

Iain had agreed to the interview weeks ago, and we weren't to know that recording would take place in the midst of Gordon Brown's reshuffle. An anxious time for all ministers, and fair play to Ian, he continued with the filming whilst waiting to hear his fate. Theatrically, we asked Ian to put his mobile on the table during the interview and .... - well watch the film and see for yourselves.

Stress Bunny

I know, I know, it's been a while - after Conference the commitments just piled up, but I'm just about on an even keel again.

So I've not had to commit thousands of words on the finer points of my my second Labour Conference speech (which went ok, and gave me a chance to talk up the town); or Gordon and the plotters; or last Thurdsay's Council meeting; or a quite surreal meeting with the Fire Brigade's auditors.

Still, there's plenty to reflect on, beginning with...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Party Animal

It was Northern Night last night.  It has developed near-legendary status in the conference calendar, in part of course because we had a North East MP as our Prime Minister.

So you might feel that the mood was different this year.  It was, but not in the way you might have thought. 

The marquee was packed, and when Gordon Brown came in, he got a rapturous reception.  He spoke warmly and wittily for about 5 minutes and was cheered to the rafters.  It was an astonishing occasion.

It's my sense that the party is in a state of almost visceral loyalty to GB this week.  We don't much care for Tory tabloids telling us who our leader should be, and how Charles Clarke is able to walk round unmolested is beyond me.

Back to Northern Night, where I was on the door, gently separating guests from their cash in aid of the raffle.  There's no way one can retain a shred of dignity hawking tickets, so I just went for it. 

I can report that the likes of Margaret Beckett, John Prescott and David Milliband all gave generously.  And after a shameless performance by Gateshead MP Sharon Hodgson overseeing the auction, we raised over £1,000 for North East Party campaigning.

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