Sunday, January 27, 2008

Internet TV Debut

The first edition of Northern Decision Makers is in the can, and now out on the net.

The programme is the only internet-based show that deals exclusively with current affairs here in the North East. And rather than have presenters with covert political agendas, NDM has as its hosts two people who wear their politics on their sleeves.

Filming took the best part of the morning, but went remarkably smoothly. The show involves moving seamlessly between autocued script and ad-libbed question, which professionals make look easy but believe me is a tricky exercise. Fortunately, Graham Robb employs some seriously professional media staff at his Recognition firm, and we had the use of their new tv studio. Particular thanks go to the very patient camera people, and the producer and director Andrew Lambert.

Our guests on the first programme are transport expert Jonathan Spruce, and to review the North East political scene leading figures Michael Bates for the Tories and Cllr. Simon Henig for Labour.

Check it out for yourselves - the programme is only 20 minutes long, and can be found here. Graham and I would be delighted to have feedback, which you can either send to me via the messageboard below, or to Graham via his website. Next edition in February.

One Life

Recently, I joined the One Life scheme at the Dolphin Centre.

As Cabinet Member for Health and Leisure, I want to walk the walk as far as a healthier lifestyle is concerned. How effective are measures to help people deal with weight loss or probelms with exercise, for example?

So just before Christmas I got myself down to my doctor's, and perhaps not surprisingly, (ahem) was found to meet the criteria for a referral onto the scheme.

One Life is a partnership arrangement between the Council and the local Primary Care Trust (PCT). It offers a 12 week programme at the Pulse Suite in the Dolphin Centre, with a programme tailored to meet the particular circumstances of each participant. Exercise, diet and general lifestyle issues are all addressed.

I was particularly impressed with the standard of training and advice provided by the Dolphin Centre staff. All are qualified, and I was offered the kind of guidance and attention you'd be hard pressed to find at Bannantyne's or David Lloyds.

The only cost is the reduced entry fee to the Pulse Suite of £1.50 per session. You can read more about the scheme here. I'll keep you updated on progress.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mob Politics - Boris style

Older political hands are wont to bemoan the passing of the political meeting as an institution.

Not if the account of recent debate on London's Mayoral campaign in yesterday's Guardian is anything to go by. Very unpleasant stuff, and as the article's author says, it shows just how far Cameron and Boris still have to go to purge elements of their party in the capital.

Hat tip: Fair Deal Phil

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Gas on heat!

"Two divisions below but vastly superior in terms of both adventure and endeavour", was how the Independent described Rovers' heroics against Fulham in the Third Round of the FA Cup this evening. If we were slightly unlucky to come away from Craven Cottage with a draw (after leading twice), then from the radio commentary we thoroughly deserved the win tonight, after taking a flawless set of penalties.

You can read a match report, perhaps like me over and over again, on the Rovers official website.

Now for Barnet on Saturday....

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Tories select toff for Darlington

What is it about Darlington's Tories and the minor landed gentry? Back in 1997, they picked Peter Scrope, scion of the Bolton Castle family, to contest the seat. Peter of course is fondly remembered by Labour activists for his decision to tow a horse box around the terraced streets festooned with his placards. He also thought that putting a picture of Bolton Castle on his election literature was a great idea - as you can imagine that went down very well in the completely urban constituency.

Now I read on Darlington Future that they have selected Captain Edward Thomas Legard, formerly of the Life Guards. I stand to be corrected, but I'm assuming he's the one and the same character who tells me is the second son of Sir Charles Legard, 15th Baronet. It's good to see Dave Cameron's drive to make the Tory Party so much more representative of the public at large is bearing such fruit.

Mr Legard does have a political background too, however, and is a Tory councillor in Ryedale. He most recently hit the headlines there for helping to stymie a 33 year old scheme for a sports centre in Malton and Norton. Local campaigner Stewart Frank of Norton added: "It's an absolutely disgraceful decision. These people are supposed to represent our communities. I don't know how they can look at themselves in the mirror after this."

Anyway, the first thing Mr Legard should do is get the local Tories to spell his name right - or is he really Edward Legrand too....?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Northern Decision Makers

An exciting new tv internet programme kicks off this coming weekend, with the debut of Northern Decision Makers.

A monthly current affairs programme filmed especially for the net, it will take a specifically North East slant at the world of politics and public affairs. The first show promises to be a cracker, concentrating on transport and a review of the political landscape here in the North East, with upcoming key elections for the new unitary councils in Durham and Northumberland. Guests will include Tory North East champion and former MP Michael Bates, and Dr Simon Henig, politics academic and Labour deputy leader of Chester-le-Street Borough Council.

The show is being produced by Recognition PR, co-owned by Graham Robb, the Conservative's candidate in the recent Sedgefield by-election. Graham will be hosting the show with yours truly, (playing Michael Portillo to my Diane Abbott?). It promises to be a lively show - neither Graham nor I are short of opinions - and there should be plenty of debating points to chew over as well as the usual political banter.

Recognition's broadbandtv Channel can be found here. The show will go live on air soon after we've recorded it on Saturday.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Council Budget (4) - Parish Grants

A final word, for now, on the draft Council budget, and the proposed abolition of the subsidy to the parish councils, which totals £35,000.

As I've tried to show in previous posts, this is a difficult year for the Council making a balanced budget which protects and enhances services valued by the community. There's been quite a bit of misinformation around that somehow the Council has got into financial trouble (over Pedestrian Heart and the Eatern Transport Corridor, for example) and is now having to take "desperate measures". This is very wide of the mark - rather there have been growth items such as adult services and the Council's contribution to the cost of the new national concessionary bus scheme, for example, which have necessitated a long hard look at all the areas of Council spend.

The grant to the parish councils is discretionary, non-statutory spend. As far as I can see, there is only one other Council in the North East (Derwentside) which makes such a grant.

So it could be argued that the parish grant amounts to special treatment for residents in certain rural wards, denied to those which happen to live in the urban area - in Haughton West, Haughton North, Hummerknott and Mowden, for example, (represented by a medley of Labour and Tory councillors) there is no such support from the Council to residents' groups. Is that fair when residents in the rural area receive exactly the same Council services as those in the rest of the Borough?

Having said all that, this is a matter where the Council is consulting, as it is across the rest of its budget. For the consultation to be meaningful, however, we need to hear in what areas residents would reduce spending if some options are not to be progressed. If you would like to see all the options considered by the Cabinet, you can do so here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Council Budget (3) - Concessionary Bus Travel

There's been more heat and less light on the subject of concessionary fares and buses than practically any other budget item. It started with a strangely-written piece in the Echo last week, which described the Council as planning to "downgrade" its concessionary scheme to save £300,000. For good measure, LibDem Cllr. Mike Barker added to the confusion by claiming that the Pedestrian Heart overspend was somehow to blame (it isn't, as I've already blogged).

The first thing to say is that the change has been prompted by a huge improvement to the travel rights of some of the most vulnerable people in society. Let's not forget that until this Labour Government came to power, pensioners had to rely on the largesse of their local council as far as concessionary schemes were concerned. If they had the misfortune to live in a Tory authority, it was entirely possible that there was no support at all.

Coming to power, Labour was committed to introducing a national scheme which would iron out these anomolies. So in 2000, a half price off-peak bus travel statutory minimum concession was introduced in England for those aged over 60 and over and eligible disabled people within their local travel area. In 2006, this was extended to free off peak local bus travel after 9,30am and before 11pm weekdays, again limited to the local authority area.

When the latter came into being, the Council was able to extend the hours of operation. At this time, the bus companies were paid a block amount of cash to compensate them for the free journeys, which meant that they carried a financial risk if more people used the buses than was anticipated.

Now the Government has introduced the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and is allowing concessionaires to travel for free outside local authority boundaries. The statutory minimum scheme continues to exclude travel before 9.30am and after 11pm weekdays.

The Council will have to pay for all trips that are entirely within or start in the Borough, regardless of where the passholder lives. The Government is giving Darlington a grant of £482,000 to meet the costs. A further change is that the Council now has to reimburse the bus companies for each trip made, rather than give them a fixed amount as we have done in previous years (so the Council shoulders the risk).

The net result is that even with the Government grant, the Council finds itself having to find an extra £200,000 for the basic scheme (as above). As it is, next year the Council will spend in the order of £2.2 million on supporting free bus travel for pensioners. Allowing concessionaires to travel at any time weekdays would add perhaps another £300,000 to the budget. In this year, where the Council is working hard to keep the cost of Council Tax increase below 5%, this would have been a very difficult sum to find, and would have meant cutting important services.

Finally, in my experience as the previous Highways portfolio holder when the Government brought in the earlier schemes, I was frequently lobbied by pensioners and disabled people who told me that what mattered to them wasn't travelling before 9.30am, but rather the ability to go to nearby conurbations like Newton Aycliffe, Bishop Auckland, and Teesside (outside the Borough boundary).

At the time that wasn't possible, but now thanks to the Labour Government it is. For that reason, I'm sure that once pensioners and others realise how they can travel anywhere by bus free of charge, after 9.30am weekdays and at any time weekends, then those happy with the change will greatly outnumber those who aren't.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Cabinet in the Community

Getting Cabinet meetings out of the Town Hall was a key feature of the Labour administration's drive to open up the Council and engage better with local residents.

This evening we held our first meeting 'out on the road' at Holy Family Primary School in Prior Street, Cockerton. It was an occasion that few of those attending will forget.

The meeting coincided with a 'Talking Together' event, and was clearly well-attended from the number of cars jamming the side streets, and the packed gallery at the meeting.

Thinking laterally, an officer had taken 2 + 2 and made 4,000 by devising an introductory session where Cabinet members would be grilled by 7 and 8 year olds attending the school. Throwing, unscripted, politicians and young children (watched by their proud parents) into dialogue was an act of pure genius. It went something like this...

Questions ranged from 'what will you do about climate change?' to 'how will you stop motorbikes spoiling our parks?.' Whilst some councillors and senior officers instinctively replied as if they were addressing an adult, others tried (with varying degrees of success) to deconstruct their answers so they would be intelligible to a 7-year old.

The highlight for me was the first question, which was "why can't we have bigger pizzas at lunchtime?" and the Leader, chairing the meeting, promptly decided this was for me, with the Health portfolio.

It's fair to say that I gave a less-than-convincing answer as I waffled on about healthy eating, 5 portions of fruit and veg a day etc, and asked about the current mealtime arrangements. In stepped Cllr. McEwan, who manfully offered to help out, and began patiently explaining to the child in detail how they should seek out members of their school council, encourage them to conduct a survey, and then feedback the results to teachers.

At this point there was silence. Then one of the children piped up, "But we are the school council." Hilarity all round, whilst Cllr. McEwan asked that someone take the shovel off him, so he could stop digging.

In all seriousness, this was easily the most challenging Cabinet meeting I have attended, with members and officers questioned in detail not only by the children, but also by residents and opposition members too. It established a firm foundation on which to build for future sessions.

The Council Budget (2) - Setting the Scene

It might be helpful before discussing various issues raised in the press and elsewhere to look more broadly at the Council's Budget, and the conext this year.

Next year, the Council is on track to spend over £2 million. Council priorities aren't plucked out of the air, but are shaped by the strategies and consultations that have taken place in the recent past. The Council doesn't work year-to-year, but instead tries to construct its budget over a 3 year period, so proper planning can take place. It is true to say that there is an overspend this year of £1.5 million, but that is more to do with exceeded budgets in Adult Services (a problem country-wide) and nothing to do, as I have indicated, with the Pedestrian Heart scheme.

In constructing the budget, the Council is looking both to improve existing services, whilst also striving to make efficiency savings. Next initiatives such as Street Scene, the merging of certain backroom services with Stockton and the energy review will save Council Tax payers a projected £1.039.

Still, with those savings, there is a likely overun for 2008/09. Consequently, the Council will have to make some difficult decisions as to where to reduce or eliminbate spending altogether. For the first time, not only have costed proposals for reductions been published, but also cuts which the Cabinet rejected. So charging a flat-rate £1 in Council car parks on a Sunday for example (bringing us into line with Middlesbrough) was rejected, as was in my portfolio area closing the Eastbourne Sports Complex and halving the spend on the annual fireworks display.

At the end of the day, the final budget will be reflected in the response we get from members of the public. The budget does have to balance, however, and Council Tax is currently projected to rise by 4.9%. It's unlikely the Government would allow us to make any increase beyond that level, so that is not an option.

If you would like to see the budget proposals for yourself, and comment on the proposals, you can do so here. (This is very informative, and explains the whole thing far better than I have). Alternatively, you can come along and speak directly at one of the 6 Talking Together events scheduled to take place over the next few weeks;

Tuesday January 15, from 5pm to 7.30pm, at Holy Family RC Primary School, Prior Street, Cockerton. (See you there!)
Saturday January 19, from 10am to noon, at St George's CE Primary School, Neasham Road, Middleton St George.
Wednesday, January 23, from 6pm to 8pm at St. James' Church Hall, Allan Street, Albert Hill.
Wednesday, January 30, from 6pm to 8pm, at Whinfield Primary School, Jesmond Road.
Saturday, February 2, from 10am to noon, at All Saints' Church, Ravensdale Road.
Wednesday, February 6, from 6pm to 8pm, at Heathfield Primary School, The Broadway.

Then, finally, the Council’s Resources Scrutiny Committee will be reviewing the proposed budget on Tuesday, January 29 at the Town Hall. Residents can attend the meeting and comment on the budget.

A Cabinet meeting on February 19, at 5pm, in the Town Hall will consider all of the public responses and residents can also attend this meeting.

Finally, a meeting of all councillors will consider the Cabinet’s proposed budget on February 28 at 6pm, in the Council Chamber at the Town Hall. Residents can ask questions at that meeting – contact Lynne Wood on (01325) 388287 to find out how to do so.

The Council Budget (1) Fibs foul up again

Before addressing some of the key features of this year's budget, time for a bit of knockabout, albeit with a very serious purpose.

As you may have seen in yesterday's Echo and fron his letter in today's edition, LibDem blogger, councillor and now PPC Mike Barker has attacked the Council for having to make savings in key areas owing to the overspend on Pedestrian Heart.

That's simply not true. Yes, the Pedestrian Heart scheme overan, but the cost was met out of the budget, not the revenue account, which is funded by a mixture of local Council Tax and government grant. The overspend meant that the Council simply had to take from the pot which finances capital projects - over the four year period that the Pedestrian Heart scheme ran, the extra cash amounted to no more than 1 - 2% of the entire capital budget. That puts it, I think, into perspective.

So there is no link between the revenue budget and this year's Council Tax, and the Pedestrian Heart scheme. Period. It makes me want to kick the imaginary cat, because deeply misleading comments like that serve only to bring the PH scheme into disrepute at a time when it's enjoying a lot of public plaudits. No doubt that was the intention.

Now, knowing Mike as I do, I'm prepared to believe that this is cock-up rather than conspiracy, and he simply isn't aware how capital projects are financed. It doesn't mitigate the fact that residents have been misled - I got an angry email this morning about the PH overspend and the revenue budget. Mike has to understand, that being a PPC means that he will be taken very seriously, and so there is extra reason for him to get his facts straight before he starts throwing mud.

I'm sure in the light of this Mike will want to send a letter to the Echo correcting his mistake and apologising for the confusion he's caused. I look forward to reading it with interest.

Monday, January 14, 2008

2008 US Presidential Matching Quiz

Thanks to Chris and Glynis Abbott for pointing me in the direction of this quiz, which matches your personal political outlook with that of the Democrat and Republican Presidential hopefuls. My results are below.

Some knowledge of US political administration is helpful to make sense of all the questions. As it happens, Hillary is my pick for the Democrat nomination, although if pressed, I'd go for John McCain over Rudi Giuliani for the Republicans. Alas, my early favourite for the Red States ticket (Fred Thompson - purely because I love him on Law and Order) is fading fast...

80% Hillary Clinton
80% Barack Obama
79% Joe Biden
76% Bill Richardson
75% Chris Dodd
75% John Edwards
72% Dennis Kucinich
66% Mike Gravel
51% Rudy Giuliani
46% John McCain
37% Mike Huckabee
34% Mitt Romney
24% Tom Tancredo
24% Fred Thompson
19% Ron Paul

All Change

After several years plying our trade at ASDA's store in Whinbush Way, Haughton's 7 Labour ward councillors have moved our Surgery to the mobile library in the supermarket car park.

We were amongst the first councillors in the country to strike up an arrangement with a supermarket in this way, and the relationship has proved very successful for both sides. I'd like to publicly thank ASDA for hosting us so kindly over the years.

Unfortunately, owing to a change in layout at the front of the store, there's no longer any room for ourselves and the Police to sit and meet residents on a monthly basis. In a stroke of inspiration, Cllr. Chris McEwan suggested that we use the mobile library as a venue close by, and so we held our first surgery there on Saturday.

A lot of people seem to have got the message that we've moved, and David, Andy and myself were given several issues to follow up. Our next surgery is on Wednesday 2nd February between 10am and 11.30am, but there's no need to wait til then - simply email one of us (I'm on or ring me on 07960 247554. Andy and David's details can be found here.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Skerningham Community Woodland

Late notice, I'm afraid, but there's an important meeting tomorrow night at Whinfield Primary School at 6.30pm regarding the Skerningham Community Woodland and the setting up of a 'Friends' group.

The Tees Valley Forest project has been involved in land around Skerningham Manor, and that this has been planted as a community woodland for public benefit for sometime now. As part of North East Community Forests, they own and manage part of this land for public access. Skerningham is of course a stone's throw away from Haughton and Whinfield, and very accessible.

In conjunction with DBC's countryside team they are proposing to form a 'Friends' group to help develop the site with community support and input. Anyone interested in being part of this exciting project is very welcome!

You can see more about the Tees Forest initiative here.

Culture Hub

A new website providing information on sports, leisure and arts facilities in Darlington has been launched. The Darlington Culture site includes information on the Dolphin Centre, Eastbourne Sports Complex and Stressholme Golf Centre. There are also details on the latest events at the Civic Theatre and Darlington Arts Centre, with the option to book tickets on-line. Log onto the Darlington Culture site by clicking here

Friday, January 11, 2008

What did you get for Christmas?

Sexual health workers from the local Primary Care Trust (PCT) were in the Cornmill this lunchtime raising awareness about Chlamydia.

Chlamydia is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). It often has no symptoms and can cause infertility in both men and women if left untreated. Chlamydia can be detected with a simple urine test and is easily treated with antibiotics.

In my role as Cabinet Member for Health and Leisure, I was delighted to go along and support the campaign. PCT staff are obviously doing a great job, and they told me that a number of young people they'd spoken to that day were going to get themselves tested after chatting to them. As a part-time taxi driver, sorry, transporter of my 16-year old son, I became aware of the campaign through being made to listen to Galaxy FM morning, noon and night.

I had a nagging doubt that a picture of me next to a big poster asking "Have I got it?" may come back to haunt me. Still it makes a change from being endlessly snapped next to road machinery...

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The dreaded weed

On a day when it was revealed that two-and-a-half bottles of wine a week (note: - not a night) could "save your life" comes important news about cannabis. The Times had a front page lead story today suggesting that the Government is going to press ahead and re-classify cannabis as a Class B drug, despite pressure from its own advisory group that would like the drug to be decriminalised.

I have to say that I'm old-fashioned on the subject of cannabis, taking the view that by eventually reducing the legal status of cannabis to that of tobacco, say, we would have to become accustomed to children getting stoned much in the way that some 10 - 12 year olds routinely try out tobacco now. I've always thought that that prospect would be unacceptable to the vast majority of people in this country.

My social work practice over the last 16 years has reinforced my opposition - I've worked with teenagers and young adults who've had their mental health shattered by exposure to cannabis. Depression, bipolar syndrome and schizophrenia can result. Medical research backs this up.

So for me, a reclassification can't come soon enough. What do you think?

Take to the Streets

Big Bren was in town today. It's not often that Darlington Partnership has a celebrity guest speaker, but Brendan Foster CBE had an important proposal for the assembled great and the good.

Everyone knows that Brendan is the moving power behind the phenomenally successful Great North Run, and the initiative has blossomed into other events like the Great North Walk, which Darlington has hosted for the last two years.

Now Brendan and the company Nova are putting together a truly audacious scheme to get 2 million people in the UK active by the time of the British Olympic Games in 2012. We learnt that one of the myths of the Olympic Games is that hosting nations somehow become healthier - in fact activity levels tend to go down after Games are held. The Government wants to see a 20% increase in physical activity over the next 5 years.

So last year over 510,000 school children took part in the Great School Run, which comprised a series of activities culminating in a series of mass races. This year, the organisers are hoping for 700,000 taking part, and it is possible that Darlington will host one of the legs.

The presentation to the Partnership had been organised by Pete Barron, Northern Echo editor, following a meeting with Brendan in Newcastle. Pete explained to Brendan the work of the LSP Enquiry Groups here in Darlington, and the outcome of the Health and Leisure group in particular, which had as its ambition that Darlington be the healthiest town in the country. Brendan was evidently impressed, and the idea developed that Darlington could be an "exemplar" town for Brendan's Take to the Streets initiative. It will require up to 6,000 residents to sign up to a healthier lifestyle, perhaps through the medium of mass events, like the 10k road race or the Hell O' Th' North cycle event.

It's an exciting initiative, and one to which the Partnership unanimously agreed. In moving that we take the idea forward, Council Leader John Williams stressed that all elements of the Partnership, private, public and voluntary would need to play their part.

As the relevant Cabinet Member, I'll have a key role seeing these plans into action, which will be a substantial challenge ovre the next 12 months. Darlington already has gained national recognition for its ability to change behaviour for the better through its Local Motion campaign on transport, and I feel sure the community can rise to this challenge too.