Friday, June 27, 2008

Head of Steam Events

Although it's not in my portfolio any more, I thought I'd give a quick plug for some forthcoming events at the Head of Steam - Darlington Railway Museum over the coming summer months.

Local author John Rothwell is giving a talk this Sunday, June 29, about his new book 'Legends of the Ebor Street Gang'. The book, which has a railway background set in North East England, is the story of the generation of youngsters born during the Second World War who grew up in the 1950s, became the rock and roll generation of the 1960s and went on to dominate the second half of the twentieth century. Museum admission is free for those attending the talk, which is being promoted by the Head of Steam and Darlington libraries as part of 2008 Year of Reading. Northern Rail Activity Room, 2pm.

Head of Steam guided tours weekend 2 & 3, 9 &10, 16 & 17 August, follow an actor in costume telling the story of their life. Tours are offered on the hour every hour.

Teddy Bears' Picnic Monday August 25, 10am-4pm. Bring along a teddy and enjoy a picnic. Activities include face painting, games, Punch & Judy and a mini zoo with rabbit, guinea pig, mice, domestic rat, corn snake, four foot boa constrictor snake, big Chinese water dragon, Monitor Lizard, bearded dragon, frog, hairy tarantula, cockroaches, millipedes, giant African land snail, and scorpion. Normal museum prices apply.

Remember, you can buy an annual family pass (allowing free access for up to 2 adults and 2 children for a whole 12 months) for just £15. Bargain!

Northern Decision Makers - Greg Clark MP

In this edition special guest is Shadow Minister for the Tees Valley Greg Clark MP. He is joined on the sofa by award winning Northern Echo journalist Chris Lloyd. In the second part of July's Northern Decision Makers our guest is Alistair McColl, Chief Executive, Business Link North East.

So are the Cameroons just a pale shadow of New Labour? Are they simply apeing Blair's successful "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" mantra? Listen to Greg's interview and decide for yourself!

Darlington Community Carnival

It's Carnival time, with the Community event in its 26th year here in the town.

2008's theme is ‘Festivals of the World’. The carnival parade will be processing through the town centre at midday tomorrow, Saturday 28th June. It will arrive back at Stanhope Park where there will be entertainment from local bands, street theatre, charity stalls, children’s entertainment and lots more.

You can also book tickets for the evening event - Offf the Wall are playing at the Arts Centre . Tickets are available from the Box Office on 486555 @ £5 each, with all the proceeds going to Family Help.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Tea with the MYP!

Emily addressing the meeting, with the Head of Youth Services Mervyn Bell

To the Council Chamber this afternoon, where Darlington's newly-elected Member of the Youth Parliament Emily Christer gave a presentation about her aspirations for her two years in office. You can see Emily's Youth Parliament profile here.

She gave a remarkable speech for someone who is just 16 years old, and she's clearly got "the bug", wanting to be a political correspondent when she leaves college.

It wasn't hard either to see how she had won the election - Emily had based her manifesto on the results of her comprehensive survey amongst young people in the town. Top of their priority list was a cafe where young people could go in the town centre; a radio station run by and for young people; cheaper prices to get into leisure facilities in town, like the Dolphin Centre and the cinema; more positive reporting of young people in the media and better signposting of all the activities which are on offer for young people at present. Emily has based her programme on that ambitious agenda.

Her presentation was very well-received, and officers and Children's Services lead Cllr. Chris McEwan are already working with Emily and her team to see how the agenda can be taken forward. As portfolio holder for Sustainable Development and Climate Change, young people are a key group I want to engage with, as we develop our response to the reality of climate change. Having an active and enthusiastic MYP is a firm foundation on which to begin.

Highway matters

The Haughton Road/Salters Lane South junction today.

Two pieces of good news today. The Council will shortly be consulting on its plan to improve traffic conditions on Haughton Road, from the junction with the Eastern Transport Corridor to the Stockton Road/Whinfield Road roundabout.

With the soon-to-be opened Eastern Transport Corridor predicted to take traffic away from this stretch of road, which includes historic Haughton Green, there is an opportunity to improve the layout of junctions and boost road safety.

Of particular relevance to residents in Haughton West are the plans to install a mini-roundabout at the junction of Salters Lane South and Haughton Road (near to St Andrews Church). This should help to alleviate the long traffic queues which build up on Salters Lane South at peak times. Traffic planners don't believe that this measure will increase the number of cars using Salters Lane South as a rat-run, because of the traffic calming already in place.

David, Andy and myself would like to know what residents think, and we're pleased that a consultation exercise is being planned, whcih should include letters being sent in the area, and an exhibition. People should be able to see the plans online and comment there too. I'll blog on this again when more is known about consultation, and we'll also publicise the scheme in our next ward newsletter.

Secondly, we have been pushing for some time to have speed monitoring equipment installed on roads where residents feel there is a real problem. Yesterday, the speed survey equipment was put in place on Hutton Avenue, Littlebeck Drive and Wylam Avenue. It will in situ for 7 days, and we hope to get the results back by the middle of July.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Walking on...

A bizarre letter in this morning's Echo from Cairngorm estate resident Christopher Wardell. Anyone who reads 'Hear All Sides' regularly will know that not having a great deal that's sensible to say has ever deterred Mr Wardell from putting pen to paper. I think the polite term for someone like him is "prolific correspondent".

Anyway, this morning we were treated to the following;

I recently had a hand-delivered letter posted through my letterbox, explaining tht my "local Labour councillors" would be conducting a walking surgery in the cul-de-sac where I live. All I had to do to grab their attention was to turn the letter around, and place the "Stop" sign in the front window.

I hope I baffled Councillors David Lyonette, Andrew Scott and Nick Wallis with my own handmade sign bearing the words: "Keep on Walking".

None of these councillors got my vote, so why should I waste my time talking to them, as the Labour Party never listens to what the public says?

Thanks for the letter, though. It has helped rekindle my interest in abstract art.

So there you have it. Don't engage in public consultation, and you're attacked for not listening. Try and communicate with local residents and that's slated because Labour doesn't listen anyway. Damned if we do, and damned if we don't.

In fact, this is the 10th year that we've run street surgeries in Haughton West - we were amongst the first to do so in the North East. In all honesty, Mr Wardell's cynical dig is the first complaint we've ever received - otherwise residents have always told us how pleased they are that we are trying to make it as easy as possible to get to grips with local problems.

Neither can we conduct street surgeries (or any other element of our representational role) only for those who voted for us. Explicitly, elected representatives have to work for the whole community, regardless of party affiliation, and we are proud to do so.

I guess the final indignity for Mr Wardell is that we never even saw his piece of "abstract art". Maybe he can reprise it for our next walking surgery on the estate...

Friday, June 20, 2008

Street Surgery - Cairngorm Estate

Today, together with ward colleagues Cllrs. David Lyonette and Andy Scott, I met a number of residents on the Cairngorm Estate (off of Wylam Avenue).

At lunchtime we knocked on doors enquiring whether there are any problems which residents want sorting out. It sounds unco-ordinated, but I've found people very appreciative when we call - there's a dispiriting expectation that politicians only knock when there's an election in the offing.

In the evening, we conducted our formal street surgery, and called on those residents we hadn't seen at lunchtime, who had put the previously-distributed Stop Signs in their windows. Issues that we'll be taking up include problems on the footpath which leads from Hambleton Grove to Springfield Road, and enquiries about Arriva's new bus routes. Older people we spoke to were very happy with the changes to the concessionary bus travel scheme announced yesterday.

As you can see from the photos, AJ joined me in the evening, and charmed everybody. The state of the bus stop at the bottom of Wylam Avenue, and the litter-strewn plant bed between Danby Court and the rear of properties on Quantock Close, (which somehow always seems to get neglected), will be top of my list of things which need sorting!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Breaking News on Concessionary Bus Travel

There's some important breaking news on concessionary bus travel in Darlington. The announcement also has implications for the 5 Post Offices targetted for closure by the Royal Mail in the Borough.

Ever keen to ensure the maximum return on Council Tax payers' money, officers have managed to save an extra £200,000 on DBC's insurance bill. The savings have been achieved by effective financial management, including risk management policies and retendering insurance cover.

This is in line with the Council's reputation for achieving value for money - Darlington Council has been awarded the highest marks in this category by the independent Audit Commission.

The figure would meet the cost of allowing Darlington concessionary pass holders to travel free-of-charge all day, every day on local bus services. As I blogged recently, my survey of 100 councils in England shows that nationwide only 1 in 4 have made this level of provision.

At the same time, the Post Office have given their final response to the Council's enquiry about the cost of taking over the threatened post offices in Cleveland Terrace, Croft (Hurworth Place), Heighington, Hopetown and Milbank.

The Council has been told that under no circumstances will the Hopetown post office be allowed to remain open (owing, apparently to the potential impact on other branches nearby). The Post Office will allow the other post offices to remain open, but only if the council hands over around £120,000 annually.

Frankly, I don't think that this is an offer which the council can take seriously, and I'm afraid that it is indicative of the company's attitude that the Hopetown branch was taken off the negotiating table completely.

As you can see from the Council website, Council Leader Cllr. John Williams has tonight issued a statement which expresses his disappointment at the Post Office's approach. It's very positive news, however, that owing to good financial management, a windfall is available which will allow free travel for concessionary bus travel to be fully extended. The Council has been listening to the views of pensioners, for example at Talking Together events, and this announcement is the result.

John will recommend to Cabinet on 8th July that we take forward the free travel initiative. If approved, the change will come into effect on 21st July.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Grass grumbles

I spent yesterday morning on 'site visits' with residents who wanted to raise specific issues with me around the ward. First stop was Glamis Road, where the state of the grass cutting is a problem - there are quite a few patches where the grass has been left uncut around the Sparrow Hall estate, and frankly the verges look a mess.

Then it was off to Regal Drive, where overgrown bushes and potholes around the Kingsway were highlighted. The tarmac on the Kingsway was laid in 1998 by the new unitary council on top of the concrete surface, which had caused grumbles for many years, although the County had refused to act when they were the highway authority. Potholes and fissures have begun to appear, so it's time for some remedial action.

Finally, I called in at Lyonette Road to hear about a housing problem. The it was off home to send emails off to the officers about the problems, and mail out the 8th Haughton West E-Newsletter. If you live in Haughton West, and would like to receive this update on news about our community and wider issues in Darlington, just email me at

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sliding down the greasy pole

Like many today, not least amongst the Tories' High Command, I was scratching my head at David Davis' baffling resignation from the Commons.

After it was clear that Mr Davis wasn't the victim of some lurid tabloid expose - in his neck of the woods I guess it it would be sucking the toes of a model whilst wearing a Hull City shirt - other explanations had to be considered.

Was it really a surfeit of principle? Or simply an overweening ego that drove Davis to torpedo all of the Tories' carefully constructed plans? Trying to work out what was going on, Prince Metternich's comment on the wily French statesman Talleyrand came to mind. Talleyrand had a legendary reputation across Europe for subtle signals and crafty strategies that outfoxed his opponents. On learning of his death, Metternich asked, "What does he mean by that?"

Davis, of course, ain't no Talleyrand. He's a much less complicated populist politician. He knows there's a vociferous minority of people out there who subscribe to the Daily Mail's analysis that the country is going to Hell in a handcart, and that politicians to a man and woman are venal bloodsuckers. Striking this ultimate anti-political pose he must think that his political star is going to rise.

Me, I'm not so sure. Firstly, I'm always suspicious of politicians who wave around the 13th century Magna Carta as if it is some trump card in any 21st century debate. The 1215 document, let's not forget, was a barons' charter and never meant to espouse freedom for the masses. And throughout our history, when the need arises, balances are struck between freedom and security - internment during World War Two is a recent example.

Secondly, whilst Davis trots out a familiar list of supposed monstrosities loathed by the likes of the Liberty pressure group of well-paid lawyers, and the insufferable Henry Porter in the Observer, I don't think he's got the British people with him. Eradicate the DNA database? - which has convicted scores of murderers, paedophiles and rapists who otherwise would have got off scot-free? Rip out CCTV? It would appear that Davis is seriously out of touch if he thinks that there's a mass movement to trash the cameras which have significantly reduced crime in our town centres, especially after dark. In my ward, the cry has been for more cameras, and not fewer.

It also takes a perverse genius to resign your seat on one of the few issues at the moment where the Labour Prime Minister has a commanding lead over the opposition. Little wonder, then, that David Cameron, (subconsciously quoting Yes Minister?), damned Davis' stunt as "courageous" and "personal". What does it say about the Tories' chances at the next election, for example, when the man who was Shadow Home Secretary has so little faith in his party's chances that he can't hold on for a couple of years when he would presumably be in an ideal position to repeal the 42-day limit.

Famously, another 19th century statesman, Disraeli, remarked on becoming Prime Minister that he had, "climbed to the top of the greasy pole." Davis will of course hold onto his seat. But by his rash resignation today, he has in the long run doomed himself to a slippery exit.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Biking for bling - in a good cause

Some of the cyclists at North Shields this morning. Back row: Mike R & Mike B. Middle row: Tom, Helen & Sandy. Front row: Glynis & Dot.

Darlington's intrepid cyclists are back from Mulheim, including my wife Sandy. It seems they had lots of adventures...

Tom's asked me to put this on the blog;

"The purpose of getting sponsorship was to set up a special fund to assist young people from Darlington who might otherwise be excluded from international experiences. This might include any indivdual or group who are not able to make the full contribution. Raising funds like this has already helped many young people from the town to have foreign travel when they otherwise may not have been able to go, and broaden their horizons."

It's not to late to add to the sponsorship money raised by the team - you can do so by contacting Darlington Partnership on 347773.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Tax, Toffs & Terrorism

The latest Northern Decision Makers is now online, featuring an interview with Phil Wilson MP, the successor to Tony Blair's County Durham constituency. There's some feisty debate on motoring taxes, and pretendy-butlers in the Sedgefield by-election...

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Wheatsheaf, Chilton

Regular readers of this blog will know that it is not my intention to cause needless offence.

Consequently, I have today taken down all of my posts from 19th May 2008 onwards regarding the letter I received from Camerons Brewery relating to its tenanted public house the Wheatsheaf in Chilton, and the display of BNP material in its windows during May’s local elections. I have done this after receiving a letter from the brewery’s solicitors advising me of the Brewery's concerns about my comments and requesting that they be removed. As you might expect, I have taken expert legal advice myself. My lawyers are satisfied that I was entitled to publish what I had stated.

I accept that Camerons Brewery does not have any particular political inclinations. I also accept that neither Camerons nor Mr Soley have done anything to suggest that they condone racism and it was never my intention to suggest that either the brewery or Mr Soley are racist. However, in view of Camerons concerns that my comments might be interpreted in that way, I have decided to remove them from this blog.

It does not in any way change my views on the BNP. I shall continue to campaign against this abhorrent political institution.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Free Bus Travel - in Perspective

Darlington Tories are trying every trick in the book to keep the issue of free travel for pensioners in the public eye - even resorting (a bit desperately, I thought) to a convoluted story in the Echo recently about how Gordon Brown was somehow to blame for the recent hike in world oil prices recently.

Because, as you know, I have way too much time on my hands, I thought I'd do an internet survey to see how other local authorities across the country are responding to this issue. Remember, the Government brought in a national scheme which funded councils to provide free off-peak travel (i.e. after 9.30am and before 11.30pm Monday to Friday, and all day at the weekend) for pensioners and disabled people anywhere in the country on local services.

I looked at the internet sites of 100 borough and district councils in the east, south-east and south of England across 11 counties (East Sussex, Surrey, Kent, Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, West Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall). Given the high proportion of pensioners who live in many of these areas, I thought that these councils' response to the issue would be especially interesting. Most now, of course are Tory-run, with some in No Overall Control and a smattering in the hands of the LibDems or independents. This is what I found;

Over half (54) have adopted the Government minimum scheme, a version of which we have here in Darlington (we allow free late travel Monday to Friday).

13 allow free travel after 9am, 7 after 8.30am and just over a quarter (26) have gone for the free 24/7 scheme.

So what does this tell us? Well, it would appear that Darlington's approach is mirrored by the majority of councils in the country. Like Darlington, they too are juggling budgetary pressures, as they strive to provide value-for-money services which meet the needs of their residents.

Darlington, then, is not only far from unique in its approach to concessionary travel - it is very much in the mainstream. Maybe press coverage in the future might reflect that fact.

Off to Mulheim

On Tuesday, I waved goodbye to the interpid cyclists pedalling their way furiously to Darlington's twin town in Germany, Mulheim.

One of the participants is my wife Sandy. If you remember the weather on Tueday, you'll appreciate that they arrived at North Shields to get the ferry after a gruelling first day looking like drowned rats. They've made good progress since then, and today have reached the bridge at Arnhem.

Also on the trip are three councillors - Tom Nutt, Dot Long and Mike Barker. The trip is designed to raise funds for our burgeoning town twinning links, not just with Mulheim and Amiens, but maybe further east too, and all the cyclists have been busy raising thousands of pounds for this very good cause. Tom Nutt continues to do magnificent work helping our town twinning initiative to go from strength to strength.

If you'd like to sponsor Sandy, Tom, Mike or Dot, contact Darlington Partnership on 347773.

Darlington Councillor passes the 50,0000

Well, I'm back after a short break. And I pleased to say that this blog has now passed 50,000 hits since I started in August 2006. TThanks to all readers, regular or otherwise, who keep me posting, particularly by leaving comments. Even the anonymous ones...