Sunday, March 30, 2008

Misery loves company...

First half goal mouth action that led to the awarding of Darlington's penalty. it was as well that I took James along with me to a very wet, blustery Arena yesterday to watch Darlo get thumped by Bradford City.

It was a curious game. After a shaky first 10 minutes, Darlington were well on top during the first half, spurning a series of unchallenged headers on the Bradford City goal.

We knew it was all-change for the second half when the referee came out in a yellow shirt rather than the green one he'd worn previously. Curious because Bradford were playing in orange shirts with red stripes, and it became almost impossible to distinguish him from one of their side. All became clear, however, when the referee's decisions effectively made him Bradford's 12th man.

This then became 12 against 10 when Darlington's Richie Foran was sent off, admittedly for the sort of tackle that precedes a story-line on Casualty.

Bradford then seemed to score goals at will, and Darlo were a shadow of the first half side. On that performance, Darlington will have to resign themselves to the play-offs rather than an automatic promotion spot.

The final irritation of the afternoon was my continuing annoyance that Darlington don't have a separate area for families to sit in. I was therefore relieved that I didn't have AJ with me as the man sitting in front stood up repeatedly to shout obscenities at the Bradford players, the referee etc. Although, as he had what appeared to be his 6-year old son with him, who thought his father's antic hilarious, perhaps a family section would have been no protection at all.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Free and Fair?

The poll results from Zimbabwe will be coming in, as Aeres has kindly pointed out to me in the comments below, by Monday. Thanks to Tom Watson MP for drawing attention to the Sokwanele Civic Action Support Group site, which brings together pro-democratic supporters from across the political spectrum in that benighted country.

The site's front page is a mixture of hope and despair, with contemporary accounts of what has happened as people have turned up at polling stations to try and overthrow Mugabe's tyranny. Check out the interactive map too, which shows just what a formidable task the divided opposition have in turning out the old dictator - Zanu-PF have a whole raft of dirty tricks at their disposal.

Spick & Span

Thanks to the members of our local StreetScene team, who have responded to the request by local residents in Belsay Walk, which we supported, for a thorough litter-pick of the site of the former Springfield Primary School.

They've done a great job!

Head of Steam

The final leg of my travels yesterday was to the Head of Steam project in North Road to keep an eye on progress. I know that some people have been concerned that the 'old' title of the museum was being lost, but in fact the Council is incorporating that into the name of the new venue - Head of Steam - Darlington Railway Museum.

AJ joined me for a lookaround. All the major building and decoration work has been completed, and the trains set on the rails. Over the next few days, the work to put up the information boards and install the interactive displays will be undertaken. The centre is due to be formally opened on Friday, and the general public can come in for a special free day on Saturday between 10am and 4pm.

Entertainment for the weekend includes live music, street theatre, South Durham dog agility, stiltwalking, face painting, wall climbing, actors and story tellers, workshops and mad science shows. You can also see the spectacular Tornado steam train, built in Darlington, before it heads off to Loughborough for main line testing.

Head of Steam - Darlington Railway Museum preserves the wealth of material that will interest anyone with a passion for the history of the railways, but now combines this with lots to do for families who simply want to browse. Some innovative ticketing arrangements will encourage families to come back again and again. I can't wait for next weekend!

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Borough Collection

After the conference at the King's Church Centre, it was straight off to the Arts Centre where I chaired the first meeting of the Borough Collection Steering Group.

The Council's art collection is stored in a secure room in the building. After a report from Resources Scrutiny Committee, officers have been busy cataloguing the pieces of art we have, and their condition. Watsons, our local auctioneers have been brought in to provide more information about the pictures, and their value for insurance purposes. They've evidently done a fine job.

Over the next few months, the job of cataloguing will be completed, including the pictures at Central Hall and the Town Hall. We're also working on a policy that will ensure that some of the more valuable paintings, such as a Graham Sutherland oil and some important local scenes, get displayed more prominently. There are a number of pictures which are the town's 'Crown Jewels' which I want to see restored to their full glory.

I then hope to take a report back to the Scrutiny Committee for their consideration. I suspect at that point there will still be some questions where their input will be particularly helpful - for example, what to do with the significant number of pictures that the Council has been given over the years which Watsons politely described as "potboilers"? They are of little or no value, and have no local link whether by artist or subject.

One piece of good news is that the Council's oil paintings are to be recorded and will be included in the database of the Public Catalogue Foundation, and in time available for view on the internet. I'll blog on this further as more information becomes available.

The King's Church Centre

To the King's Church Centre this morning, to open a conference for members of the voluntary sector on the law relating to health and safety and food hygiene, organised by the Council's environmental health team. It was good to see so many people there.

Afterwards, I was kindly given a tour of the building. You probably know it as the former NAAFI on Whessoe Road. The project is an excellent example of the great work church members do day in, day out to support the people of Darlington.

As well as having an impressive worship hall, the Centre has a furniture re-use scheme - basically, they will collect donated furniture for nothing, which they then make available via their warehouse for no more than £10. I know from my days as a field social worker that schemes like this are a lifeline for those most in need, particularly hard-pressed families. The only items they can't deal with are electricals.

They are also part of the Christians Against Poverty scheme, whereby people with unsustainable debts can receive support. The organisation provides a debt councselling service, together with practical assistance, negotiating with the credit agencies to find a way forward for the individual concerned. You can read more about their work here. The CAP office at the Centre is closed at the moment, but they are hoping to get it up-and-running again soon.

I hope in the future you will consider giving their furniture scheme your support - I certainly will. You can contact them on 469884.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Don't have nightmares...

Via my colleague Cllr. Mark Burton, who is on the Police Community Consultative Group, I have the most recent crime stats for the East section of Darlington, which includes Haughton West.

They are;

Anti Social Behaviour; 9820 (down 10.9% on last year) - per head of 1000 pop 237.
Violent reported crime; 399 (down 10.1% on last year) - per head of 1000 pop 16.4.
Violence against a person; 365 (down 6.2% on last year) - per head of 1000 pop 15.
Burglary of a dwelling; 117 (down 15.2% on last year) - per head of 1000 pop 11.2.
Burglary other; 174 (down 28.7% on last year) - per head of 1000 pop 18.4
Vehicle crime; 445 (down 34.8% on last year) - per head of 1000 pop 18.3.
Theft of a motor vehicle; 126 (down 2.3% on last year) - per head of 1000 pop 5.2.
Theft from a motor vehicle; 319 (down 42.3% on last year) - per head of 1000 pop 13.1.
Vehicle criminal damage; 309 (down 37.0% on last year) - per head of 1000 pop 12.5.
Vehicle interference; 33 (down 29.8% on last year) - per head of 1000 pop 1.4.

Anti Social Behaviour (ASB) is still one of the most reported types of incidents to the Police. Darlington has received a total of 31,760 incidents of ASB for the year to date (April 07 to January 08).

This is broken down by section, (but not by ward area) as follows;

Darlington Centre had 5,092 incidents (319 per 1000 head of population).
Cockerton had 7,175 incidents (238 per 1000 head of population).
North Road had 9,673 incidents (381 per 1000 head of population).
East Area had 9,820 incidents (238 per 1000 head of population)
ASB is a name given to a wide range of low-level crime, which can affect the quality of life for whole communities. This can have a demoralising effect on residents who live in these areas. The following are examples of ASB; intimidating gatherings of young people in a public place; intimidation; alcohol and solvent abuse; drug abuse; riding motorcycles on footpaths or public open spaces; large gatherings of youths on skateboards/roller blades; littering; graffiti; verbal abuse; criminal damage; noise nuisance, begging and assault.
Whole Town - April 2007 through to January 2008;

Anti Social Behaviour; 31,760
Violent reported crime; 1,571
Violence against a person; 1,429
Burglary of a dwelling; 374
Burglary other; 550
Vehicle crime; 1,218
Theft of a motor vehicle; 346
Theft from a motor vehicle; 872
Vehicle criminal damage; 916
Vehicle interference; 92

So what deductions can we draw from these dry statistics? Clearly, ASB is easily the number one problem in Darlington, dwarfing other reported crime. Anyone who has been following the difficulties residents recently experienced in the Belsay Gardens area of Haughton West here will be aware of that. At the same time, the Police and the Council's wardens have developed a proactive response when a particular area is the focus of ASB, which certainly seemed to be effective in dealing with the problems we had in Springfield. I know that our local MP Alan Milburn is working with the Police on this matter.

We should also acknowledge, however, the significant success the Police have had in driving down crime, both locally here in Haughton and town-wide. Across every indicator of local crime, the figures are well down on last year - in the case of vehicle related crime and burglary, significantly so.

I would hope that in the next 12 months the Police redouble their efforts to sort out their communication problems, addressing the difficulties residents continue to have ringing the 0845 6060 365 non-emergency number. That will do a great deal to underpin confidence in Durham Constabulary across the town.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ward Health Check

So what's this then? Does it involve Dr Wallis whipping out his stethoscope (ahem).

No, no - it's simply a fresh approach to an old communication tool. In Haughton West we were the first to try out street surgeries in Darlington, although they've become commonplace now in some other wards across the town.

But whilst a handful of residents usually respond, we don't get to talk to the vast majority of residents during sessions. The Ward Health Check, then, is simply about proactively contacting more people to see if there are any local issues which need sorting.

David, Andy and I tried it yesterday lunchtime with our local MP Alan Milburn on the Whinfield Park estate. We covered about half the houses, and got a really positive response. Particularly pleasing was the fact that everyone who was on the internet was happy to sign up to our fortnightly Haughton West e-newsletter, which next week will have its 4th edition.

We hope to have a Health Check in every street in the ward in the next 12 months.

Scamnesty update

Hundreds of residents sent in copies of the hated 'Focus leaflet' scam...

Seriously though, as I blogged last month, Darlington Borough Council took part in the recent Office of Fair Trading awareness campaign to help combat mass marketing scams. During the campaign, scams including bogus lotteries, prize draws and miracle health cures were targeted. We also launched a "scamnesty" in the Borough, when we asked residents to drop off suspicious mailings in special bins around the town.

We had a really strong response to the initative, and we've passed the evidence collected to the Scambusters Team at the Office of Fair Trading to try to help prevent other people being scammed. Officers have calculated that the value of 'winnings' from the scam mailings recovered during the scamesty in Darlington was more than £78 million.

As well as dealing with the scams themselves, I'm sure this has been a valuable exercise in raising awareness of letter and email scams, particularly amongst the more vulnerable in our society.

Newsletter of the Year

Mark receives his award from Minister for the North East, Nick Brown MP.

It's been a while since I blogged properly, so apologies to Cllr. Mark Burton in Harrowgate Hill that I failed to post on his success in winning the 'Newsletter of the Year' at the Labour Party Regional awards in Sunderland.

Competition amongst the various Constituency Labour Parties is stronger for this award than any other, so it was a real feather in Mark's cap, as well as some reflected glory for Darlington CLP too.

For those of you who haven't seen Mark's Little Red Rosette, you can do so here. I've been shoving newsletters through letterboxes all over the country for the best part of thirty years, and Mark's newsletter is the most professional and informative that I've come across. It's completely unlike a traditional flyer from a politician, and all the better for it. Mark's setting the bar very high for the rest of the Labour Group here in Darlington.

Saltburn, this morning

Chasing seagulls.

Mind you, it was still several degrees warmer than our last summer holidays in the Western Isles....

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Exclusive Alan Milburn Interview

The latest Northern Decision Makers programme is now live on the Broadband tv channel. We've given over the entire show to an exclusive interview with Alan Milburn, MP for Darlington and leading player in the Tony Blair administration. Alan turns down many interview requests from mainstream shows like the Today programme and Newsnight, so this booking was quite a coup for Graham and myself.

The questioning ranges over the current state of British politics, and Alan's legacy as a reforming Secretary of State for Health. The subject matter was so interesting that we allowed the show to run for 40 minutes rather than the usual 20, and so have split the programme into 2 on the site. As I'm sure you know already, Alan is a class act, who is doing some important thinking on what should be Labour's future policy direction, and it is a criminal waste that he is languishing on the backbenches.

As always, your comments and suggestions are welcome. We incorporated some viewers' questions into Alan's grilling, so look out for those. Many thanks to Recognition PR's production team, including producer Andrew Lambert, who have done a first class professional job once more with the filming and editing.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


After watching the Manchester United/Portsmouth hightlights tonight, I have a strong sense that Harry Rednapp has done a sulphurous deal with Mephistopholes to guarantee Pompey the FA Cup this year. Little wonder that 'Sralex' was choking on his chewing gum after Portsmouth implausibly survived chance after chance created by Tevez et al.

But with Barnsley heroicly overturning Chelsea, it rather raises the stakes in the other two Quarter Finals tomorrow. Genuinely, any of the surviving clubs could lift the trophy in May.

As a life-long Bristol Rovers supporter, the feelings this situation provoke veer between the agony and the ecstasy. Being brought up on the east side of Bristol, it was almost inevitable that I would be a Rovers fan in football and Gloucestershire in cricket. For the most part, that has meant reconciling myself to a lifetime anticipating (and receiving) mediocrity. Rovers have played most of their time in what was League Division Three, with occasional forays into the second tier of football. Gloucestershire, the club of Grace, Jessop and Hammond, have never won the County Championship in modern times.

There was always another way, of course. At primary school, even in my end of town, those kids who wanted to support a winning (rather than their local) team went for the hated City or Somerset in cricket, rather than Rovers and Gloucs. It's a phenomonem more familiar now, given the apparent number of committed Manchester United/Arsenal/Chelsea supporters worldwide. So whilst I like to see Darlington FC do well, just as I look out for Grimsby Town results (where I got married), it's Rovers' scores that really matter.

And now we find ourselves a heartbeat away from Wembley. 25-1 sounds implausible, and I have a sinking feeling that West Brom are going to turn us over, (when I was previously convinced that we would beat Southampton). The sense that we will never have a better chance of lifting the Cup itself will never be stronger, however. Sunday 6pm is no time for an FA Cup Quarter Final, but we can only hope for the best.

Friday, March 07, 2008

I am dying, Egypt, dying...

Man 'flu again, I'm afraid.

Hopefully, I should up and blogging again soon.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

FibDem Clones

The vote on whether or not to have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is taking place in the Commons today. Fittingly, Darlington LibDem PPC Mike Barker has posted his thoughts on the Darlington LibDem website. He writes;

"This opinion poll shows huge support for the Liberal Democrat view that people should be given a real say on the big issue of British membership of the EU. People clearly reject the narrow vote that the Conservatives are offering."

Stirring stuff. Now let's see what Derek Deedman, LibDem County Councillor for Bramber Castle in Sussex has to say on the matter;

“This opinion poll shows huge support for the Liberal Democrat view that people should be given a real say on the big issue of British membership of the EU. People clearly reject the narrow vote that the Conservatives are offering."

Wow - it's identical - what are the the odds on that happening? Mike goes on;

"It's time for the Westminster establishment to stop being so cowardly over Europe and have an open debate with the country. The Liberal Democrats would relish the opportunity to put the case to the British people for our wholehearted commitment to the EU."

And here's LibDem Cllr. Mike Cox from Hillingdon making a disturbingly similar point;

"It's time for the Westminster establishment to stop being so cowardly over Europe and have an open debate with the country. The Liberal Democrats would relish the opportunity to put the case to the British people for our wholehearted commitment to the EU."

Taking a template press release and then simply cutting and pasting local details onto it was the kind of thing that brought Labour into disrepute in the late 90's, with cries of 'spin' and 'control freakery', so it's good to see my friends in the LibDems are just as Machiavellian now as we were then. Unfortunately, Mike rather gave the game away when he dramatically gave our local MP a sex change and wrote, "It's still not too late for himto change her mind and join our campaign to give people the real choice on Europe that they want."

Memo to Mike - if your campaign is going to consist of regurgitated press releases from Cowley Street, at least mix it up a little - I will be watching :)

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Northern Decision Makers II - Online Now

Our second edition of Northern Decision Makers is now up-and-running on the broadband tv site - you can see it here. It includes a fairly spikey set of exchanges between myself and Tory MEP Martin Callanan, and a good discussion with Cath Purdy on housing.

As always, comments and suggestions are very welcome.

Sedgefield's General Committee

It was an honour to be invited up to Sedgefield Constituency Labour Party's General Committee last Saturday and speak about my ongoing role as one of the North East's representatives on the National Policy Forum (NPF).

The policy-making process through the NPF is apporaching a key period now on the road to constructing Labour's manifesto for the next General Election. After 2 rounds of consultation with party members and affiliated organisations, a draft is being pulled together to which CLP's will be able to submit amendments, and have them all democratically debated and voted upon.

Nothing quite like it has happened before, so now CLP's like Sedgefield will be gearing up to discuss the 6 policy documents and have their say in May and June of this year. The marathon NPF meeting will take place over a gruelling three days in July.

Saturday was also a chance to revisit old friends at Trimdon Labour Club. Every time I've been to Trimdon over the past 18 months or so, it was for a set piece event as the dying days of Tony's Prime Ministership drew to a close.

Police cordons, helicopters and a media scrum were omnipresent. Trimdon became the centre of the British political universe. As I left on Saturday, there was just an old lady walking her dog on the village green. The village has returned to an almost eerie normality.


For no other reason that when I saw the picture it made me think, "blimey" here's a shot of Olympia the giant snowwoman, taken yesterday. She towers over the town of Bethel, Maine, US. The name honors Maine's senior Sen. Olympia Snowe. Bethel claimed the record for world's tallest snowman in 1999. That snowman was dubbed Angus, King of the Mountain, in honor of then-Gov. Angus King. Olympia rises 122 ft. and one inch, which beats the old record of 114 feet.

Makes you wonder where they got the carrot from...