Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Patio Heaters and Chelsea Tractors

The latest edition of Northern Decision Makers is now available online. This month, Graham and I interview Fiona Hall, LibDem MEP for the North East, and respected political commentator Chris Lloyd from the Northern Echo.

The second half of the programme is given over to an interview with Vinay Bedi, divisional director of Brewin Dolphin, the UK’s largest client portfolio manager, looking after a whopping £21 billion of investments. He's very good, and puts both Graham and I in our places as we trot out our opposing political lines regarding the credit crunch.

Our favourite bit of the show occurs between 7 minutes 30 sec and 10 minutes 30 sec - check it out for yourselves.....

Welcome aboard

Yesterday we had easily our most successful Citizenship Ceremony in the Council Chamber at the Town Hall. We were celebrating 19 Darlington residents joining the British family as full citizens.

The Chamber was awash with golds and azure blues and greens and reds as some people had come in the dress of their countries of birth. There were babies and children there too, some gorgeous tots in their Sunday best. Residents becoming British citizens swore or pledged an oath to the Sovereign - I (name) do solemnly and sincerely affirm that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law.

Then the Citizenship Oath - I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen. Then everyone received a certificate from the Mayor, (and a nice new touch this) a book on historic Darlington. Finally, we all stood for the National Anthem.

As I may have remarked before, people who sneer at these ceremonies as being somehow empty gestures should come along and see one for themselves. The Chamber was packed with the families and friends of the new citizens, and lots of photos were taken of citizens with the Mayor Cllr. Marian Swift in her chains of office, or County Durham's new High Sheriff Paul Townley, in his full regalia (breeches, frock coat, sword and all). The High Sheriff gave a very informative little speech during the ceremony, and I chipped in too with some observations about British values.

The new citizens hailed from all over the globe, from India, Bangladesh, Iraq and the Philippines to name but a few. Chatting to some of them afterwards, they had an eclectic mix of professions, including an engineer, a chef and a nurse.

A recent survey of people who had gone through the Citizenship Ceremony in Darlington produced an incredible 100% satisfaction rate (the feedback for the other services provided by the Registery Office were extremely good too). It's another Council service which is going from strength to strength.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Humph, RIP

As I may have mentioned before, I spent a weird adolescence listening almost exclusively to Radio 4 rather than BBC or commercial music stations.

So whilst I blink vacantly at a lot of late 70's and 80's pop culture references, I did gain a huge amount too - especially from the drama and comedy. From Earthsearch and Lord of the Rings to Radio Active, Injury Time and Weekending, the output was simply superb.

My favourite show of all, of course, was and is I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue, "chaired" by Humphrey Lyttleton, whose death was announced yesterday. I've been meaning to try and get along and see a live recording of the show for a few years now, but kept putting it off - encouraged by Humph himself, who seemed ageless. And now I've missed my chance.

Still, there's years of classic episodes to treasure, particularly before the untimely death of Willie Rushton. The best part of the show was often the introduction, where Humph, in a deadpan manner, would tell us about the city in which that episode of the show was being recorded - often getting away with jokes more risque than anyone else would try. And here's the best of the lot: -

"Nottingham is a fine city with a fascinating history. It's well documented in official records that the city's original name was 'Snottingham', or 'Home of Snots', but when the Normans came, they couldn't pronounce the letter 'S', so decreed the town be called 'Nottingham' or the 'Home of Notts'. It's easy to understand why this change was resisted so fiercely by the people of Scunthorpe."

Friday, April 25, 2008

Spring wander

On a perfect spring evening on Wednesday, I joined other members of the Friends of Skerningham Community Wood for a walk around the site.

More than 12,000 trees have been planted, including oak, ash, birch, willow and hazel. The woodland also provides a home for the rare black poplar, which has been grown from cuttings by pupils in Darlington. This adds to another 9.5 hectares planted three years ago by the neighbouring landowner. The woodland covers the old quarry site and farmland in an arc with the Skerne forming the northern boundary.

Half-way round our walk, we stopped at the newly-constructed Amphitheatre - nothing very Roman, but simply a lovely place to watch performances in the summer, and for the most part to stop and have a picnic.

The views at various points are glorious - the hills to the north are called "The Welsh Mountains" locally, David Lyonette told us, and he should know, having played there as a child.

You can access the woodland from Glebe Road to the west and Barmpton Lane to the east (the old quarry entrance). Read more about the Tees Forest initiative, which maintains the woodland here.

Alternatively, if you would like to be a part of the team that helps develop this wonderful resource, you could becaome a Friend of the Skerningham Community Forest - drop me a line if you would, and I'll pass your details onto the co-ordinator.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tackling Disorder in Springfield

Regular blog readers will know that fighting anti-social behaviour in and around Springfield is one of our top priorities.

I think a good working partnership has developed now with the Police and the wardens, and no longer do we have to struggle to make people aware of the problems faced by local people, particularly on a Friday and Saturday night.

Certainly the CCTV cameras are helping, but more needs to be done. Whilst the old school playing field on Salters Lane South remains undeveloped, however, it will continue to act as a magnet for trouble.

(The good news is that despite what you may have read in an ahem local daily newspaper, the scheme to build on the footprint of the old school is still very much alive and certainly hasn't been "mothballed" - I've had this confirmed again by senior Town Hall officers earlier this week).

Anyway, this weekend saw another entirely welcome push by the Police to get a grip of things in the locality. The Police crew bus was initially parked in ASDA's car park, and the idea was that any young person found to be intoxicated or causing any anti-social behaviour would be escorted to a senior officer and their parents would be called and asked to pick up their son/daughter. There were several PCSO's on bikes and foot, Police officers on foot and other Police officers in a vehicle.

Later, there was a group of youths in the old Springfield School site that scattered when they saw the Police approach them, however 6 youths were stopped and their details taken. The Police then did a search of the area and found 5 litres of Lambrini and some Vodka and coke which was confiscated.

After 10pm, ASDA called the Police regarding a group of youths that were causing annoyance, and when the Police arrived the group were quite difficult and one female was taken home- the names of the rest of the group were taken and joint interviews with the Police will be carried out.
I'm also told that appropriate enforcement action will be taken against the group of youths found in the old Springfield School site earlier in the evening.

Tactics are constantly evolving to deal with the problems locally - certainly the Police feel that by confiscating alcohol early, the area was much quieter later on as a result. The authorities have our full backing and I'm sure the local community for their continuing efforts.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Fighting the BNP in Chilton

Ten years ago or so, voting for the BNP was a dirty little secret that few were prepared to disclose.

On the very odd occasions I came across someone who I thought might be a BNP supporter, they would generally be evasive about their voting intentions. From their splentic comments about hanging or immigrants, however, they would leave me in no doubt that they were one of the few people in the ward who backed the far right.

That truism is breaking down, and if you doubt me, go up to Chilton. In the midst of the Durham Unitary election campaign, the BNP have made this their target seat, and flooded the ward with leaflets. I counted maybe 10 houses with BNP posters in windows in the area I canvassed in today. So what's going on?

It's fair to say that a small clique of the far right have been active in the area for years - from what I have been told the National Front were a presence at one time. And yet this isn't a community that has somehow been "forgotten" by mainstream politics - it was a pleasure to work for Labour's local candidates Brian Avery and Christine Potts today because so many people I spoke to not only knew them, but had been helped personally by them too. Labour are campaigning from a position of strength. The village has benefitted recently from a complete make-over following the construction of the long-needed bypass.

When you talk to some people who are potential BNP voters, they generally couldn't give a reason why they might vote fascist - simply that they were disaffected. I didn't detect that there was some growing support for the BNP's repellant policies, simply that some people wanted change. They could equally have voted Tory or LibDem if those parties seemed likely winners.

And yet there is a huge amount at stake here, because as we know, a BNP success in the Chilton seat will be feted by that party as evidence of growing support for their programme. One of our activists told me about a conversation he'd had with a BNP supporter in West Cornforth, who'd told him that Hitler was right when he gassed the Jews. Like all parties of the far right, they seek to marginalise and stigmatise minorities who they like to blame for all of society's ills. Their politics remain as noxious in the 21st century as they were in the 1930's and 40's.

There's a huge amount at stake in places like Chilton this May. I will going there to campaign again before polling day.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Whessoe House

To Brinkburn Road on Friday evening to convene a site meeting regarding the state of the now-derelict offices adjoining the Darrowby Drive estate.

My portfolio as Cabinet Member for Health and Leisure includes responsibility for environmental health. So when I was contacted by local councillor Alex Nicholson about ongoing problems on the site, I pulled together a site meeting which involved the local councillors, Council officers, and representatives from the Police, Fire Brigade and the Warden service.

It's fair to say that the scene at the offices took me aback - the substantial four-storey building has been comprehensively trashed by youths, with virtually every window smashed and debris lying everywhere. Residents on the nearby Darrowby Drive estate have clearly put up with a great deal.

Worse, it's clear that organised criminals have been systematically stripping the Whessoe building and the adjacent vacant Studio complex of metal and wiring for scrap.

Positively, the meeting heard that the owners of the site are taking the problem seriously, and have installed permanent security personnel. A substantial temporary fence is going to be erected around the perimeter soon. In the meantime, we agreed to press the company to install CCTV on the building to either catch or deter potential vandals and thieves. The relevant legal notices have been served promptly by the officers to ensure that the building is made secure. The Police and wardens will respond very promptly to reports of break-ins and trouble.

The message I tried to get across via the Echo this morning was that this site is not a playground - it's a death trap, something the fire officer confirmed. Local parents need to be aware of what their kids are doing when they're out, and dissaude them strongly from visiting the building. A few years ago we had a tragedy at the Cattle Market with children fooling about on the roofs there, and I would hate to see something similar repeated on this occasion.

Haughton West E-Newsletter No 5

The latest edition of Darlington's only regular councillor e-newsletter went out today, on behalf of David Lyonette, Andy Scott and myself.

We want to keep local people updated about things that are going on around Darlington in general, and Haughton West in particular. The newsletter isn't particularly political, but focuses on practical things like forthcoming events and issues where residents may want to have their say.

If you live in the ward, and would like to receive a copy of the newsletter, just email me here.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A really good start

Another pic from the Head of Steam opening last week.

I got the attendance figures on Friday for the first week of the revamped Head of Steam - Darlington Railway Museum.

Nearly 4,500 people came through the doors during the free weekend, and the comments from visitors were very positive. We've had over 5,000 people visitors now (bear in mind that it closes on Mondays). I'm really pleased that over 100 individuals or families bought annual passes - for only £10 a year for single or £15 for family annual membership, you can come as often as you want during the year, and they represent great value for money.

A host of free children's activities and workshops will continue throughout the Easter school holidays, involving spring crafts, Piggy Bank building and Roman Soldiers. Get yourself along!

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Some of the campaign team (Phil Wilson MP second from the right) out in Middridge village on Saturday morning

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may have formed the opinion that there is nothing I like better than sinking my teeth into the pale white hides of Liberal Democrats. Politically speaking, that is. And for the most part, you'd be absolutely right.

But there is another class of politician for whom I reserve a special and particular contempt. They are so-called Labour Independents.

To be clear, I have nothing against genuine independents, although at the district and county level they sometimes are politicians who 'dare not speak their name' - left-leaning in Tory areas and the mirror opposite in Labour territory. Where overtly flying your political badge would be tantamount to hari-kiri.

No, the characters I'm referring to are people who were happy enough to accept the Labour shilling when selected and sit as Labour councillors, but who suddenly discovered a deep contempt for the Party when local members had the temerity to conclude that they were rubbish, and duly selected someone else. They then spend all their time slagging off Labour in the local press. It's scant consolation that they normally get found out by the electors in the fullness of time. In the intervening period, they damage the Party and IMHO bring politics into disrepute. I loathe them.

Anyway, rant over. Just to the north of us, in Newton Aycliffe and Shildon, there's a nest of them, who came back into my consciousness after this ridiculous story in the Echo recently.

So I intend to spend some time with colleagues over the next few weeks assisting with the Labour effort. And it was a pleasure to be out on Saturday in the Greenfield Middridge area to help my old friend Brian Stephens and long-standing local councillor Dorothy Bowman.

We were joined by Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson, and my team knocked on almost every door in Middridge. Despite some rather *ahem* challenging national polls at the moment, we got a very good reception, and I only found one person who said they were definitely voting for an opposition candidate. Certainly, Dorothy Bowman has been an excellent hard-working Councty Councillor, attested by everyone who spoke to me.

It was a really positive morning.

Monday, April 07, 2008

On my (European) travels again

The news is out on Labour Home and a few other blogsites now, so I can finally announce that I'm delighted to have been selected as one of Labour's 3 candidates for the North East in the 2009 European elections. I'll be fighting for every vote with our excellent Labour MEP Stephen Hughes, and Fay Tinnion, who contested the 2001 General Election campaign in Richmond against William Hague.

In fact the selection was back in February, so I've had to keep it under wraps until now. The Party's gender rules dictated that I could only apply for the third placed seat on the list (there are 3 North East MEP's), but I was delighted to be able to secure this spot, particularly given the fierce competition this time round.

I was selected for the fourth placed seat in 2005, but this disappeared during the campaign when the North East lost a seat owing to the enlargement of the EU, so this time at least I'll make it onto the ballot paper.

The result back in 2005 was a sickener for Labour here in the North East, after we narrowly lost Mo O'Toole's seat to the LibDems. I'll be spending the next 14 months or so working hard to ensure that we take that seat back. And whilst it will require a small (well, enormous) psephological earthquake, I might even get elected too!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Standing on the shoulders of giants

The new Head of Steam preserves the best of the old displays, with lots of new features.

Friday was an incredibly long day - the press launch of Head of Steam - Darlington Railway Museum, rounded off by a return trip to see a client on the west coast.

It started formally at 7.30am, with a live Radio Tees interview from Head of Steam, together with Mike Crawshaw, the Council's Head of Cultural Services. Mike and his team have done a near-superhuman job in getting the premises ready on time for the launch date, and staff were hard at work into the night all last week putting the final touches to the displays, and clearing up.

Then an interview for the BBC local news, as we began to meet and greet the guests. Amongst those coming were our partners without whom the work on Head of Steam couldn't have been completed - the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, MLA North East, the Railway Heritage Trust and the Northern Rock foundation.

Then onto the speeches - I spoke last, and tried to stress how fortunate we are that we have this facility in Darlington. Of course, that is down to the foresight of the Stockton and Darlington founders, and the architect of North Road station John Harris. They established Darlington as the birthplace of passenger rail. There was also a time in the 1960's, however, when North Road station was semi-derelict and the Bishop Auckland line was post-Beeching drifting to closure.

As Chris Lloyd pointed out in this week's excellent Echo Memories column, it was only the vision of local businessman Herbert Wolfe and the Borough Councillors of the time which saved the buidling in 1969. It became the Railway Museum in 1975. We owe them a great deal.

Time moves on, and the museum urgently needed a refit - not least because the roof was in a parlous state and threatened the whole project with closure once more. It's important that the museum appeals not just to the committed railway enthusiast, but people of all ages. Hence the new HoS is chock-full of things for children of all ages to do. The initial response from our partners at the launch was universally positive.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Viva voce

It's a sad fact that at 42 I still occasionally have nightmares about sitting exams for which I'm completely unprepared - in the dream it's usually maths, where we had a particularly sadistic master pupils nicknamed "ratface".

It's fair to say that I had a bad night's sleep on Monday, after frantically cramming before meeting the CPA inspector at the Town Hall for my grilling.

Every council is assessed independently by the Audit Commission, who award stars based on the performance of the council, and the services it provides to local people. This process is called the Comprehensive Performance Assessment and as you can imagine, is taken extremely seriously by councils and their staff.

Darlington is currently a 4 star authority, which is "improving well". We were proud to receive that judgement, but no council can afford to rest on its laurels. The CPA inspectors are back in town again now, interviewing officers and councillors, and talking to key partners. A huge amount rests of the outcome of their assessment, so it was as well to be prepared, and I had thought through examples of where the council is working hard with partners like the PCT, and how we can show tangible evidence of where we are delivering on our ambition.

Although there were a couple of questions which surprised me, generally, I thought the hour-long interview went OK. We'll find out the final outcome of the CPA in May.