Friday, February 29, 2008

Clear Blue (and Red) Water

Council wound up tonight with a vote on how best £400,000 of environmental improvements should be allocated. It was an excellent debate on all sides, and was very revealing - for the LibDems, perhaps a little bit too much so.

In the light of comments made, Labour proposed that money be set aside, to be spent under the authority of the relevant Director. In response, Cllr. Mike Barker moved that instead the money should be divvyed up equally between individual councillors themselves. Interestingly, the Tories and LibDems, who supported each other's positions all night, concurred on this proposal too, and doughty Conservative campaigner Cllr. Doris Jones seemed to have a speech ready to endorse the plan.

In having my two penni'worth, I pointed out that whilst councillors should take a lead in providing community leadership, the Council should be listening to all sections of the community when deciding how to spend Council Tax payers' money, including partners like the Local Strategic Partnership, residents' groups and the voluntary sector. Councillors don't necessarily always know best. Darlington's Labour Council hardly requires a homily from the LibDems on accountability, given that we devised the Let's Get Cracking scheme which placed millions of pounds of Council spending on roads and pavements into the hands of local people themselves.

It was Labour's Cllr. Dot Long, however, who beautifully crystalised the arguments. She pointed out that whilst Labour's Council, through its draft Sustainable Community Strategy, wanted to tackle inequalities in the most deprived wards, the Tories had a fixation on fairness which meant treating wards like prosperous Hummerknott just like deprived Park East or Lascelles. I think there was probably some consensus on this point between the Tories and Labour, who were very comfortable with their respective positions.

So where did this leave the LibDems, who proposed the idea in the first place? Looking increasingly glum as the debate developed, I thought. If the LibDems have any values at all, they are around equality, but at the same time, they like to think of themselves as champions of the underprivileged (at least when faced with a Labour-controlled Council). Being a LibDem councillor, of course, means never having to take tough decisions which might prove unpopular, so how to square this circle? There was no answer from the LibDems on this point, and they slunk away rather sadly at the end of the meeting.

Interestingly, when I challenged him afterwards on the issue of social justice, veteran LibDem councillor Peter Freitag told me that he wouldn't have suggested that the money be split equally between wards, and that would have suggested some weighting to take account of deprivation levels. Peter's a wise old fox, and some of his colleagues would have done well to listen to his advice in advance of the meeting.


Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes..

Are the so called deprived wards really deprived? What is the meaning of deprivation? Why are they deprived? Why can't they pull themselved up by the bootstraps? What's stopping them?

My view is some wards get more attention than others and that is wrong and yes the money should be distributed between the wards equally.

miketually said...

A ward-based view is probably over-simplistic as there are pockets of deprivation on some more prosperous areas/wards of the town, and vice-versa.

Whinfield (Haughton North) isn't deprived, but there are some council flats on the estate.

Springfield (Haughton West) probably would count as deprived, but my estate wouldn't, although there are a lot of pensioners who require care in their homes.

Haughton East contains Haughton village (£0.5 million houses), the cathedrals estate (£0.25 million houses) and Red Hall (£80,000(?) houses, but mainly rented).

Mike Barker said...

As is often the case when you blog after midnight, much of this is pure bollocks.
I may have a glum-looking face - that's the way I was born - but I can assure you we were far from "glum" last night; and certainly didn't slink away sadly.
There was never any likelihood that the Labour Group would accept our amendment, so the result was as expected. Both ourselves and the Conservatives left the meeting on a high: the opposition parties are now offering genuine and hard opposition to your plans and you are being forced to up your game as a result.
Labour in Darlington is stuck in a time warp where the "we know best" attitude prevails. As I pointed out in my speech - which you congratulated me on in the Chamber - all the leading local government organisations, a huge number of Councils of all political persuasions across the country, and Hazel Blears, your responsible Cabinet Minister, have all said it is time to re-invigorate local democracy by devolving some neighbourhood level decision-making, including spending decisions, to ward councillors, working together with their local community groups and residents.
That is what I was arguing for. Labour wants to retain all decision-making at Cabinet level. You just can't bring yourselves to admit that local councillors, working together with local people, might know better than you about what environmental improvements are needed in their wards.
One key message that came out of the Talking Together events in Albert Hill and North Road was the clear perception by local residents (in these deprived wards) that they were suffering in comparison with Labour's favourite area (eg Skerne Park) when it comes to the allocation of resources. My scheme would have seen these deprived areas benefit to the same extent as your favoured council estates.

Ian White, said...

Is it me (and Im by no means an expert on this) but don't the more affluent areas pay more into the "kitty" yet always seem to loose proportionatly in the share out of these funds?

Whilst Im not saying things are that simple affluent areas also have problems and should be treat fairly, its seems to me that its the same old places that tend to benefit from any scheme going, (to say the majority were Labour controled would be cynical as only 99% are) like I said Im not an expert and could be wrong!

But a fairer system is needed!

Darlington Councillor said...

Thanks for that Mike and Ian (I'll come back to your point later, Ian). Very revealing posts from both Alan and Mike, I think.

Alan is of course a prominent LibDem in the Borough, and was one of their key candidates at the last local elections. So when he promotes the idea that deprivation is some kind of myth and that the poor should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" no doubt he speaks for many LibDems in the town. Alan - as always you post with candour, but you've rather given the game away.

Because Mike's post echoes Alan's candid opinion. Interestingly, Mike says that residents in his ward feel that too much money is spent in places like Park East. Resources are spent here because these communities desperately need support, and Labour in Darlington won't flinch from targetting resources to address chronic deprivation, and that will continue to include wards like Central and North Road.

Clearly that's not the message Mike's giving residents in his patch, but I wonder whether the LibDem Councillor in Park East is sending out a similar line? Will he campaign for resources to be directed away from Skerne Park so they can be spent "fairly" in Park West or Hummerknott? I bet he won't because Peter knows how this money is needed.

Peddling one line in one part of town whilst giving a completely contrary message on the other is standard LibDem practice, of course, but it's interesting to see the beginnings of it here in Darlington.

miketually said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
miketually said...

"don't the more affluent areas pay more into the "kitty" yet always seem to loose proportionatly in the share out of these funds?"

That's the idea of the welfare/tax system: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

(Previous comment deleted, because I messed up the formatting.)

Darlington Councillor said...

Absolutely, Mike - it's a sound Labour principle.

I'm not surprised, given their value base, that the Tories don't share it and want funds spread out around the town regardless of need. The revelation has been that the LibDems also take this point of view.

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes....

I agree with the Mike T and Mike B. There are pockets of deprivation in all parts of the Borough - town and villages.

I wasn't suggesting that you should take all the money away from one area where there appears to be chronic deprivation, but as Ian White rightly says a fairer system needs to be devised.

There was a report in the Northern Echo this morning. Heighington have been trying for ages to get better sports facilities in the village, but it has not been possible. The kids of Heighington are equally deserving of excellent sporting facilities as anywhere else and everything should be done to help them.

miketually said...

I think the ideal of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" falls down a little when it becomes "from each community according to its ability, to each community according to its need".

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes again....

I would like to clarify my question why communities cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

What I meant by the question was there is a danger that the
Council concentrates resources in one or two areas which results in an overdependance on the Council for everything and prevents, inhibits or works against community action to improve those areas and at the same time other areas which have a legitimate claim to funding lose out.

Firth Moor is a good example where the regeneration of the area was led and inspired by a resident whose name escapes me, and the community. I greatly admire this gentleman. He was sick to death of his area going down and down and he led the recovery.

Communities can pull themselves up by the bootstraps by the Council empowering communities to do so. That's what I meant.

Justice said...

Where is the £2million plus promised by Wimpeys to allow them to build 233 houses on the old Cleveland Bridge site?

Where is that money?

Why are the District Auditor, the Police and also the Ombudsman investigating that 'promise' reneged on by them and allowed by people like you, Nick?

Is this a new labour achievement?

Corruption of the highest calibre?

ian holme said...

I note the topic of the debate was 400k for "envionmental improvements", could you please explain what is meant by this title?

If you are refering to improvemnt to greenspaces and community facilities, surely these are aspects which are of equal importance to all, regardless of apparent levels of "deprivation".

I fully appreciate that the labour party will always target where it perceives the need is most. However you must also remember that you are a Borough Council, rather than a town council, with huge range of social issues, not all of them easily identifiable with the term "deprivation".

The earlier example of sports facilities at Heighington is spot-on. That area cannot be seen as deprived, yet it lacks some basic facilities most urban areas take for granted. Surely this should be regarded as deprivation too?