Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A salutary lesson

As I indicated in my first report to Council last week as Cabinet Member for Sustainable Environment and Climate Change, waste disposal will be high on the Council's agenda this year. The introduction of a new, revolutionary method of treating our household waste in 2009 will transform Darlington's performance on recycling.

Local LibDem councillor Mike Barker touches on this in his blog, in which he urges Darlington Borough Council to be "ambitious" in the choices it subsequently makes. I don't doubt for a moment Mike's commitment to the environmental movement, but it's worth taking a look at a nearby council to see how political strife can stymie the most well-meaning green initiative.

As was prominently reported in the Echo, last year Wear Valley District Council, then Labour controlled, decided to bring in so-called 'tweelie bins' - twin bins that would allow the Council to move from weekly to fortnightly collections. The environmental logic behind such a move was impeccable - fortnightly collections encourage householders to generate less waste. Perhaps naively, the controlling Labour Group at the time thought that they had all-party agreement for the move, in light of the support from the LibDems and the Independents over a two-year period.

I say 'perhaps naively', but given the LibDems' national reputation for duplicity, Wear Valley Labour Group should have guessed what was coming next. The LibDems brazenly campaigned against fortnightly collections in the subsequent election campaign, and the Council recently became hung. Now 15,000 tweelie bins are neatly stacked in a farmer's field near Crook at a premium cost to local Council Tax payers.

So what are the lessons for Darlington? New to the portfolio, I'm strictly agnostic on the 'black bag vs. wheelie bin' argument. I chatted to two residents in Killin Road on Monday whilst I was putting out our ward newsletter who could see clear advantages from the Council introducing wheelie bins. At the same time, the black bag system is much appreciated in terraced areas of the town, where space is at a premium.

Wear Valley provides a salutary lesson, however, as to how toxic this debate can become when political parties exploit a situation purely for short-term expediency.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

After Crewe

Alan Milburn chats to a local resident in Prescott Street today.

I see there's a jeering comment from David Davies on the Tories' Darlington Future website wondering how I'll spin the Crewe and Nantwich result?

Well, trying not to be too "pompus" (sic), I don't think I'll bother. It was awful. I could draw comfort from by-elections in the past that governments have lost heavily, and then gone onto win the subsequent General Election (Mid-Staffordshire, won for Labour in 1992 by Sylvia Heal being the most striking, on a 21% swing). There's no doubt, however, that the electorate in Crewe wanted to give us a good kicking, a mood echoed in the London Mayoralty poll and the recent local council elections.

Have I given up? Should Labour just crawl away into a corner and quietly die, as David clearly expects. Well, actually, no, and the reason for my glimmer of optimism lies in the tone of David's piece, and similar comments from David Cameron on Friday.

The Tories think they've got the next election in the bag. New Labour is apparently "dead". A full two years out from the final date at which a General Election must be held, Gordon Brown's position is irretrievable. The Prime Minister should apparently resign now. As Pvt. Frazer would have said, "we're all doomed".

I have to tell both Davids that triumphalist talk like this helps activists like me get out of bed in the morning, rather than pulling the sheets over my head in despair. The braying Tories are being drawn into a false comfort zone, which will end they believe in a landslide for them of 1997 proportions. In fact the analogies drawn with John Major's embattled regime, or the last lingering days of Jim Callaghan's Prime Ministership, are false.

Fundamentally, New Labour isn't divided now as the Tories were over Europe, or as old Labour was leading to the SDP schism. In both those cases, factions considered their own positioning to be more important that the wider good of their parties. There is absolutely no sense of that in New Labour. And we still have to hear what the Tories' programme for Government will actually be. Before 1997, Tony Blair produced policy after policy which both chimed with the public mood, and was carefully costed. The Tories haven't even started that phase of their development yet under David Cameron, and when they do, there will be plenty of opportunites to expose the Tories for what they are.

Finally, as we know, as General Elections approach, stratospheric opposition poll leads shrink, and the nerves set in. So for the time being, I'll push aside the pearl-handled revolver.

And to indicate this, we had an excellent turnout on Albert Hill this morning when our MP Alan Milburn, the local Labour councillors and Party members knocked on doors and chatted to people about their concerns. In streets like Prescott Street, Grey Street and Bowes Court, we had a very good reception, picking up a few local complaints whilst Alan talked to some residents at length about national issues which touched them.

For sure, Crewe hasn't gone away, and Labour is in for some difficult days. The message for the Tories however, and indeed for the wider public, is that Labour isn't going to curl up and die, and will work to win back people's trust. Everything is still to play for.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Better protection at last for agency workers

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am on Labour's list for the European elections here in the North East. Consequently, on occasions, I will be blogging about more exotic European matters as the 2009 poll draws near.

I'm delighted to be able to report today that agreement has been reached today here in the UK on equal treatment for our 1.4 million agency workers after 12 weeks employment, thus ending a six-year deadlock. Labour MEP's have been at the forefront of the campaign to give these vulnerable workers better terms and conditions of employment.

Speaking from Strasbourg, Claude Moraes MEP Labour's Employment Spokesperson, and Stephen Hughes MEP, Socialist Spokesperson on Employment and of course our current Labour MEP here in the North East, said: "Labour MEPs have long fought for the protection of agency workers. Today's agreement is an important step towards giving vulnerable workers in the UK a fair deal at work."

"We welcome today's agreement on the protection of agency workers and now urge European Governments to finalise an agreement in terms of the key elements of good legislation in this area - a sensible and workable "qualifying period"; and equal pay and terms and conditions following this qualifying period. This agreement is vital for the rising numbers of UK agency workers."

"Labour MEPs are looking forward to comprehensive UK and Europe wide legislation going on the statute book as soon as possible."

"We sincerely hope this will pave the way to agreement on the European directive on agency workers at the next meeting of Employment ministers on 9th and 10th of June."

For me, this a matter of basic human rights, and it's monstrous that it has been considered acceptable to pay agency workers less, and treat them differemtly as far as holiday entitlement or their employments terms are concerned. I'm proud that a Labour government has finally corrected this injustice.

He's back and blogging!

Good news for those of us passionate about e-politics in Darlington as our local MP Alan Milburn has relaunched his website.

It's impressively put-together, and has a very nifty map showing where Alan has been working hard to represent local people around the town. There's even a blog, which at the moment has a link to his Northern Decision Makers interview.

There is an interactive feature too, where Alan invites comments, whether general or specific (on smoking and ID cards). That element's moderated at the moment, but maybe that will change in time.

This means that two of Darlington's PPCs for the next election have active sites, with Alan joining Mike Barker's well-written blog. That just leaves our military friend Captain Legrand for the Tories. As nothing has been seen of him in months save for a letter in the Echo, (postmarked Malton), surely it's time for him to take the plunge too?

Bus station consultation

The Council is consulting on the short-term future of the old Arriva bus station on Feethams. Plans have been formulated to demolish the building and replace it with a temporary car park with 266 spaces. This temporary arrangement is pending decisions on future development of the wider area.

You can have your say by clicking here and filling in the (ahem) very pithy questionnaire. Deadline for replies - 6th June 2008.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Lascelles Green Fair

I attended my first official engagement as Cabinet Member for Sustainable Communities and Climate Change (perhaps the most unwieldy portfolio title anywhere in local government?) when AJ and I went along to the Green Fair at Dodmire Junior School on Saturday.

It was extremely well-attended - at least 100 adults and kids were there supporting the initiative. Local allotment holders had a stall of fresh produce, and there were plants for sale too. There was face painting and badge making for the kids, and a free fruit stall.

There was lots of interest in how the Council and partners are taking forward the environmental agenda, and residents collected extra green boxes for cans and bottles, and sturdy bags for garden waste too. Officers were on hand to answer questions. About 15 children joined a member of the Groundwork team on a nature hunt to seek out and identify local flora and fauna.

It's not an area I know particularly well, so it was very good of Cllr. Jackie Maddison to show me round Lascelles and Eastbourne Parks. A huge amount has been achieved here over the last few years by the ward councillors working together with the local Community Partnerships and Residents' Groups, including brand new allotments (with a nature area), play areas and a cafe. There's still lots of ambition to achieve more, however, and it's all a testimony to what strong local partnerships really can achieve.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

On the move (sustainably)

As you may have seen in the Echo, I "survived" the recent reshuffle, and now have portfolio responsibility for Sustainable Environment and Climate Change.

(Full marks, by the way, to the LibDems who managed to gull the Echo into spinning their line on the changes without a shred of evidence).

In a little-commented change, my ward colleague Andy Scott now joins the Cabinet, taking over from me at Health and Leisure.

I've held some initial briefing meetings this week as I begin to get to grips with my new area of responsibility. Clearly, it's a key area - I was interested to see some reasearch from the Local Government Association which showed that 74% of people thought that climate change was happening, and could be attributed to human activity. The poll also found;

  • 63% of residents were aware of their council taking positive action to tackle climate change.

  • 76% of people agree or strongly agree that local councils have a key role to play in combating climate change, and 77% think it is part of their role.

  • Women are less likely to be in favour of incentives to encourage people to reduce their emissions – but are more likely to support penalties to combat this.

  • More people would be likely to vote for a candidate in local elections that had policies to combat climate change (62%) than in a general election (61%).

  • 70% believe climate change should be one of the top five priorities for their council.

With some big decisions in Darlington coming up on waste and waste disposal, DBC needs to demonstrate just how seriously it is taking this issue. I'll be taking on the excellent work of my predecessor Veronica Copeland in spearheading the "reduce, reuse and recycle" campaign. And today, it's off to Lascelles Green Fair, to support their initiative.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bringing Life back to the Denes

Mayor Marian Swift (top) and the new climbing tower and slide in the Denes (below).
Campaigning in the Denes last year, a number of residents told me that they were concerned about the state of the Denes. (For those of you who don’t know Darlington, the Denes is a green valley divided by the Cocker Beck which runs for over two miles from central Darlington over to the Cockerton in the west).

Security and lack of play provision were two of the commonest complaints.

In fact, work was already underway to transform matters. CCTV cameras have been installed in two places. And as Cabinet Member now for Health and Leisure, I’ve been monitoring progress on the design of a new large play area, which was opened by the Mayor and local ward councillor Marian Swift on Saturday.

Pardon the vernacular, but it’s a bit of a stonker. Costing £170,000, the equipment is designed for children of all ages, and includes a zip line.

I took AJ along – I like the fact that the enormous climbing tower and slide, which was fine for children aged up to 11, was also very accessible for AJ aged 6. The swinging disc (in the background in the first picture, top right) looks certain to be a winner with older children. There's a good amount of space for kids to run around - it should help to prevent little ones in particular getting bumped over accidentally.

The whole area was heaving with families. The play area is a testimony to the Friends of the Denes, who helped with the design, chaired by local Pierremont councillor and Cabinet colleague Steve Harker.

(I should also mention the crucial role being played by Groundwork (of which I’m a Board Member) who facilitated the community involvement and brought the project to fruition).

There are some finishing touches on the way - a giant slide that will take children from the top of the bank at the bottom of Greenbank Road and deposit them in the play area. Benches for parents to sit and watch are planned too.

All-in-all, another practical example of the Council's significant investment in play for children, and our successful partnership work too.

Top Deck

Top Deck's entrance at Parkgate Chambers

On Friday evening, together with Cllr. Chris McEwan the Council’s lead on Children’s Services, I went along to the Top Deck Project in Parkgate.

We’d been invited by regular contributor to this blog Ian Holme, whose mother is a volunteer there. We wanted to see for ourselves what services the facility offers, and whether there are any wider lessons for the Council as we map out services for young people.

First thing to say – it’s a hugely impressive club. Run under charitable guidelines, and staffed for the most part by dedicated volunteers, Top Deck provides a “youth club” type environment for children and young people.

It’s open Monday to Friday during the evening until around 10pm. On a Saturday mornings during the holidays, younger children can also go along and play.

It has pool and table-tennis tables, and a cafĂ© for hot and cold snacks. You don’t have to be a member to go – it operates on a drop-in basis. At very popular times, it can accommodate up to 50 young people, although when we were there, there were about 10 young people on the premises.

We were shown round by Morag Coates, the co-founder and co-ordinator of the project. Chris had a chat with her about whether the Council can help Top Deck, in the field of publicity for example.

So what did we learn? Well, principally, that phenomena like Top Deck are almost impossible to reproduce institutionally by a body like the local council. Top Deck has an air of complete informality that a public body would struggle to match. It relies on the support of volunteers, and as we know, recruiting staff to work on a Friday and Saturday night is particularly difficult.

So there’s no magic template that would allow Top Deck-style facilities to mushroom around the Borough. Where they do materialise, of course, the Council should do all it can to nurture and support the project concerned.

Finally, in a very revealing aside, Morag told us that like the Council’s own youth clubs, Top Deck has discerned a trend of declining numbers of young people using it over the past three years. This is simply down to young people’s preferences.

So the call for more static youth clubs as a panacea for all ills from a few opposition members is frankly futile – as I suspected. Youth clubs have their part to play, of course, but they have to be just one element in a very broad range of services, whether those are offered by the Council or the private or voluntary sector.

The Council has recently embarked on a large consultation exercise with young people to find out what services they would value, spearheaded by Click in the Park. Rather than be told by the middle-aged what they should put up with, I’m glad the Labour Council is fashioning its provision around what kids actually want.

Monday, May 05, 2008

A rare bird "first" for Darlington

The Golden Oriole found in Darlington, and one of the town's Black Poplar trees

Exciting news for wildlife lovers in Darlington.

My colleague Cllr. Andy Scott was walking by the Skerne in Rockwell Pastures late last week, and came across what he took to be an escaped caged bird in some distress.

He took it to the Ramshaw Rescue Centre, who identified it as a wild Golden Oriole. This is exciting stuff - they are very rare in the UK and previously have been confined to the south. This is the only sighting of the species this far north.

The bird was quickly returned to full health by the excellent staff at Ramshaw, and has been released again at Rockwell Pastures. Not being a 'twitcher' myself, I had to resort to Wikipedia for more information about the Golden Oriole, and there was a clue there about what the bird was doing in Darlington - apparently they like to nest in Black Poplar trees, and of course Darlington is a haven for this tree species, which is itself one of the most endangered in Britain.

Since the 1990's Darlington Borough Council has been working with partners to boost numbers of the Black Poplar at various locations in the Borough, together with generally improving the habitat for wildlife - Rockwell Pastures is just one example of that. The Golden Oriole find is one spectacular example of how that work is now paying off.

Friday, May 02, 2008

French Market

For those of you who haven't seen the publicity, or weren't in town today, the French Market is back until Sunday.

Lots of things to buy, or maybe just browse and look at the great produce on show. The Pedestrian Heart looked fantastic today, and town was packed.

Who's Your Daddy?

I generally avoid asking questions to which I don't know, or might not like, the answer. So it was a mistake to scratch an itch tonight that had been bothering me for some time.

AJ has been chatting away at breakfast about how wonderful and funny Jeremy Clarkson is. This is all the more galling as I'm no 'petrolhead' myself, proof of which is that I drive a 2002 Hyundai Accent 1.3, a car which has yet to feature on Top Gear (unless it was one of the vehicles launched at a caravan in a quarry in one of the show's more nihilistic episodes).

So I casually asked AJ whilst we were watching the show tomight - "AJ, who would you prefer as your Daddy - Daddy, or Jeremy Clarkson?" "Jeremy Clarkson" he fired back.

"And if it was between Daddy and Richard Hammond?" "The Hamster" he replied, showing an impressive grasp of the programme's argot for a 6-year old. "And Daddy and James May?" I asked weakly. I think you can see where this was going.

"What about if you had to choose between Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May?" I asked. "Now that is a tricky one" AJ said, not making me feel any better by the length of time he took to weigh up the various candidates. "Definitely Jeremy Clarkson - he knows all about fast cars."

Taking pity on me, however, he added - I suppose I could have two daddies - you and Jeremy Clarkson". Honour was restored.

A close-run thing

So the new unitary Durham Authority will be Labour-controlled - but it was tight.

On a positive note, in Chilton, where together with colleagues from Darlington I had been campaigning, Labour's Brian Avery and Christine Potts decisively beat the BNP by 650+ votes. It was another miserable night for the BNP in the North East, with no breakthrough anywhere. Credit should go to the Bishop of Durham and other community leaders who had the courage to stand up publicly to the racists and name them for what they are. It was my perception on the doorstep that the "in your face" BNP campaign actually helped to motivate Labour supporters to go out and vote.

Elsewhere, however, some good friends (and good councillors) went down. Vince Crosby in Aycliffe West lost by 26 votes. Ken Manton, the former leader of the old County, went down in Bishop Auckland Town, and George Burlison was defeated in Framwellgate Moor. David Taylor-Gooby, who is a colleague on the National Policy Forum, lost in Peterlee West and Phil Graham and Neil Stonehouse were defeated in Coundon.

I got to know George when working at Aycliffe Young People's Centre, and I'm sure he'll be back. Ken would have continued to play a leading role in the new authority, and he certainly will be missed. I'm particularly disappointed at the result in Coundon, however. It's a community I know quite well, from my days as a children and families social worker, and it has complex problems. Neil (leader of Wear Valley DC) and Phil were first class advocates for local people, working very hard to bring investment to the area. Had Labour's rulebook been different, Phil would have been my hot tip to deservedly succeed Derek Foster as MP for Bishop Auckland. Now he's off the Council.

To finish more positively, rather like in Darlington last year, if the motley crew of independents, LibDems and Tories can't turn Labour out this year, when we are at our lowest ebb for 2 generations, one wonders if they ever can. I'm sure the Party will respond with vigour to these results.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Camerons' BNP Shame

The Wheatsheaf pub in Chilton this afternoon.

Not the Tory Leader this time, but the brewing giant which owns amongst others, the Wheatsheaf in Chilton.

I was in the ward at tea-time helping with the effort to maximise the vote for Labour's 2 excellent candidates. I stood open-mouthed when I saw that the Wheatsheaf's windows were festooned with BNP posters. I understand that they had been up all day, so it wasn't the case that some far-right sympathisers had slapped them up at the last minute. It would appear that the management have far right sympathies, and are flaunting that fact.

But what of Camerons, the titular managers of the pub? Tonight, I've sent the Managing Director the following letter;

Dear Sir,

I was astonished that the Camerons-owned pub in Chilton was today actively promoting the British National Party in the Durham Unitary elections.

BNP posters and leaflets decorated the windows. The sympathies of the management could not have been clearer.

Of course it is not unusual for some pubs and clubs to be associated with mainstream parties in the UK. As you will be aware, however, the BNP is not a mainstream party - it was spawned from the Neo-Nazi Right in the 1980's. Leading members have denied that the Holocaust occurred, and advocate a "racially-pure" Britain. Their policies are openly racist, stating that non-white people can never be British.

At a time when North East community leaders, including the Bishop of Durham Tom Wright, our Premiership football clubs and Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson are all urging the electorate to reject the politics of hate, I am very surprised that Camerons is allowing its premises to be used in this way.

I hope that you will take this matter up, so the sorry sight of a Camerons' pub promoting the racist far right will not be seen again. I look forward to hearing what action the brewery intends to take.

Yours faithfully, etc.

I'll post again on this when I receive a reply...