Tuesday, August 26, 2008

On air with Princess Steph

One of the hazards of being a councillor is getting a call from Party HQ asking very politely if you'd be able to take part in a radio debate? And it's live. Oh, and in about half an hour.

Whilst I have turned down TV before when I literally know nothing about the subject matter, this slot was hung on a Tory report on teenage health in the North East, so I was able to draw on my knowledge as the previous portfolio holder for health and leisure.

I was up against the Tory PPC for Berwick, who trotted out the usual knocking copy, pretending that somehow government targets were responsible for teenage smoking and drinking in the North East.

Rather than snipe back with some easy political shots, I tried to keep my contribution as factual as possible, pointing out not only the high level cash and organisation coming from the Government, but also how schemes at a very local level are beginning to make a difference, like the healthy school initiative in Darlington. Education needs to reach the children, but parents have to be a key audience too.

And it was a pleasure to be interviewed by Stephanie Finnan - I'm in the demographic where Century Radio plays my kind of music, and I listen to Steph, Scott and Ben on the morning show regularly. Steph even rang me afterwards to thank me for coming on the show. What a princess!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

So who's not cheering on our athletes?

Tasha Danvers - a Great British Athlete

These are distracting times. I don't know about you, but I'm keeping an almost obsessive eye (via the BBC website) on our astonishing current 3rd position in the medals table. Frankly, it's giving me a nosebleed, and at any minute I'm expecting Russia to bag a hatful of golds in the women's tractor-pulling, and send us crashing down the rankings.

It's rather like the Football World Cup at Quarter Final time, or the Ashes. And on the very rare occasions when we get one over on the Aussies, there's always the pleasure of reading Down Under sports columns - especially those that take the post-colonial rivalry to exciting new levels of hyperbole.

Truly, the Great Bawl of China.

But wait, amongst this outpouring of shared national joy, one very small group of people seemed curiously unmoved. I refer of course to the British National Party and their fellow travellers.

Bizarrely, at a time when the national conversation is dominated by British success in the pool, the velodrome and on the track, the BNP site has nothing to say. If ever there was a time for flag-waving, this is it. Yet the BNP website is devoid of comment, save a surrogate thread bemoaning that the British award-winning dance group Zoonation will be performing at the Olympic handover ceremony in Beijing.

Being the BNP, of course, there's a gratuitous observation on the subsequent comment thread that Sports Minister Margaret Hodge has a Jewish heritage. Yet curiously, not a word about the most successful British squad in nearly 100 years. And all because some of the athletes don't conform to the narrow BNP racial steroetype of what it is to be British.

In a sense, you have to feel sorry for them, impotently trapped in their fading imperialist world whilst the rest of us celebrate achievement after achievment in China. It also serves to remind us however, just how apart the BNP's world view is from reality, and how hatred can blind.

Rebecca Adlington, Christine Ohuruogo, Chris Hoy, Germaine Mason, Victoria Pendleton, Joanne Jackson, Tasha Danvers - they're all fantastic Olympians and athletes the rest of us can be proud of. We can leave the BNP to their sad fantasy world.

Pedalling in a good cause

Haughton West resident Lynne Bibby is cycling the length of Hadrian's Wall this weekend to raise money for a Darlington school.

Lynne is part of group tackling the 172 mile route which includes pupils, parents, governors and staff from Carmel College. Their ride will take 3 days, over August Bank Holiday weekend, and will take them from Ravenglass on the West Coast of Cumbria, up to Silloth, by the Solway on Firth, across Hadrian's Wall to Haltwhistle, then down to Tyneside.

They're hoping to raise up to £2,000 for the College Development fund (the total is £430 at the moment). If you would like to contribute to this very worthy cause, you can do so here.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Flippin' like a pancake, poppin' like a cork...

Huge news from the BBC website today that the Banana Splits are getting what's being called a 'modern makeover' by the Comedy Channel.

We can, of course expect a souless rip-off of the late 60's/early 70' children's TV classic. But it did give me a thin excuse to raid You Tube for this wonderful clip.

For those of us of a certain age, Saturday mornings meant being glued to the TV chanting "Size....of an elephant!" and "One for all and all for one" at the screen during the show's classic cartoons. All together now, "Tra-la-la, la-la-la-la...."

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A bit of politics

I couldn't help but reflect on how different the town centre would be now, had the Tories won the Council elections in 1991 and thereafter.

Yesterday the Market Place was full of noise - from the Alpha 103.2 performance area to the funfair rides and the various food stalls. Well patronised cafes spilled out onto the pavement. Yet had the Tories had their way, the Market Place would still be an oily car park - a sad backwater and a ghost of its previous self.

It was the same as I wandered along West Row in front of the Indoor Market. Instead of happy sightseers, buses would have jostled for position. High Row would have remained a jumble of cars and planters, whilst shoppers would have had to dodge traffic as they negotiated the Bondgate/Prospect Place junction.

In short, we would have had a town centre frozen in the 1980's rather than fit for the twenty-first century. For nearly 20 years the Tories have played politics with the town centre rather than embrace change. Whilst some of that change was painful, it was essential if Darlington is to remain competitive with other towns in the area.

It was fantastic watching the children skipping in and out of the water feature. Without the Market Place and Pedestrian Heart schemes, this weekend's festival simply couldn't have taken place.

Darlington Market Spectacular

A packed High Row this afternoon.

God truly is a Quaker, as the sun shone on Darlington today in what has been a miserable summer.

The town was packed with visitors to the second Market Spectacular. Over 300 stalls lined the High Row, Northgate, spilling into the Market Place, and jostling with funfair rides for little ones on Church Row and Bondgate.

There were traders from across the EU, including France, Portugal, Romania and Germany. The smell of crepes and sausages mingled with the grim aftermath of the Kings Head fire, and as they filed past the barriers in Prospect Place, people stood and drank in the scene as they viewed the ruined upper floors of this familiar Darlington landmark.

Whilst there were plenty of stalls selling the exotic, I tried to seek out local producers too. So I bought some excellent lamb chops from the Burtree House Farm stand. Sandy and I were also hugely impressed with our lunch from Pastrini Delicacies - a local company specialising in West Indian food which caters for parties and events. The noodles and saltfish fritters were excellent. Search them out if you're going to the Market on Sunday or Monday - they're on East Row. Otherwise they can be contacted at patpoinen@aol.com or on 01325 251226.

Sit-Down Digging

James in a rare vertical moment, and the patch today.

Time for an update on progress at Meadowfield Cottage.

As I hinted in a previous post, one of our chief reasons for moving here was to try and live more sustainably. For us that means growing more of our own food organically, whilst reducing energy consumption and the like.

So one of my first jobs after the chaos of the move had subsided was to begin a fruit and vegetable patch. As you may have gathered, the cottage is old, and had an ancient plot to its side, which had become overgrown in recent years - mostly with grass and creeping buttercup (boo!). We're fortunate, however, to benefit from having the remains of an old orchard at the front, with cooking and eating apple trees and a plum, as well as what I think are some damson trees to the rear.

Sandy and James have put a lot of work in too - as I've tried to explain to James, clearing a plot of this size is one of the hardest jobs in gardening, but will be well worth it in the long run. A legacy of the fact that this is previously worked soil is that it is remarkably free of stones. Nevertheless, it's back-breaking stuff, and trying to pull every last piece of buttercup root out requires a high degree of dedication.

Being a typical teenager, James has developed an entirely novel approach to the task about half-an-hour in on the first morning. It's called "sit-down digging" and involves sitting on a plastic chair whilst wielding the fork to turn the soli over. You can probably imagine how effective this is....

I shouldn't cavil, though, because between the three of us we've managed to clear a plot 17'x17', and we're just starting on a second patch. Thanks to the generosity of our neighbours over the road, we've also managed to dig in 15 barrowloads of well-rotted horse manure - collecting it was an experience I won't forget in a hurry.

Still, with a bit more work, we're well-placed to sow some cabbage before the end of the month, and to begin planting in earnest in the spring.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Kings Head Fire - Update

There has been a major fire at the King's Hotel (known to everyone as the King's Head). Fortunately, I understand there have been no casualties. (Thanks to Darloguy at the Town Liar for the picture).

The Echo has the story here. I've spoken to the Council's Chief Exec this morning - senior officers have been working with the Fire Service and the Police all night actioning the Borough's emergency plan, so for example, there could be a smooth evacuation of guests to other venues.

As of 10 minutes ago, the fire was still burning, although the Fire Service is working hard to damp down the flames. Further investigations can then take place on the structure of the building.

As you might imagine, Priestgate is closed. The key message is - Darlington town centre is still very much open for business. Shops around Priestgate maty be affected, but fortunately owing to the Fire Service's excellent work, the Cornmill was spared. Clearly there may be some disruption getting into town, but if you're planning a visit, you should go ahead.

Darlington's Market Spectacular, which is due to start today featuring 300 stalls with goods from around the world, is proceeding as planned.

I'll provide more updates when I get them.

Update 12.20pm

Recovery work is continuing to proceed well - the Cornmill shopping centre is open, as is the Cornmill car park. The fire is 90% extinguished, and a review will shortly take place as to whether Priestgate can be re-opened.

The focus of the work is now on assisting the people who were moved to the Blackwell Hotel, and the structural integrity of the building. This is likely to continue over the weekend.

Update 6.40pm

So far, it hasn't been possible to re-open Priestgate whilst the fire has continued to burn, and so the Fire Service has needed to have its hoses etc in situ. It is hoped that Priestgate will be open tomorrow, as will the area around Northgate which has been closed off for the removal of loose tiles.

Everything is being done to reunite guests with their personal belongings where possible, and staff at Blackwell Grange have been very helpful. Inter-agency work seems to have gone well, which has allowed the Market Spectacular to proceed.

Finally, although the top floor was gutted, the building is structurally sound and as soon as it can be made weathertight then it would be possible to work towards partial re-opening - there is no timescale on this or detail on the owners intentions at this time.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

We're all gannin' "darn sarf!"

"Ee were a grand baker, were our dad..."

A remarkable piece in today's Telegraph about a report from David Cameron's favourite think-tank Policy Exchange.

Apparently the Tory boffins have concluded that it's all too hopelessly ghastly "oop North", and the best that can be achieved now is for us to leave our whippets and pigeons behind and decant to London, Oxford and Cambridge.

Let's leave aside for a moment whether those cities would want three million extra housing units, a sizeable proportion of which would have to be in the green belt. Particularly as we still keep coal in the bath.

And, difficult though it may be for southern policy wonks to understand, actually the vast majority of us love living in the North, having a quality of life which far exceeds the miserable South East.

What's telling is what this report says about the metropolitan Tories' instincts towards the great former industrial cities. Cameron's Notting Hill set had ambitions to make significant political progress in the North and North East, but generally have failed to make their mark. Ironically, Sunderland, picked out in the report as one of the places we should be fleeing from, has one of the healthier Conservative groups. This report has given my Labour colleagues plenty of ammunition to use against hapless Tory candidates at the next elections.

For as the introduction to the report states (thanks to Iain Dale for this)

"Ministers in the current Labour Cabinet overwhelmingly represent inner city areas. A future Cabinet, perhaps more representative of suburbs and the wealthy South East, may not have the same commitment to high levels of regeneration funding, particularly if economic circumstances demand a squeeze on public spending."

So vote Tory, and see the plug pulled on regeneration schemes across the North, or in fact anywhere which hasn't bought into Cameron's slick brand of Conservatism.

Policy Exchange has, I think, rather let the cat out of the bag.


More misery for David Cameron and local Tories in the Northern Echo's leader column this mroning. It concludes,

"Mr Cameron was left with no option but to distance himself from the report. compiled by what has been widely reported as his favourite think-tank. After all, the "abandon the north" message is hardly in keeping with his new, all-inclusive, cuddly form of Conservatism.

But the storm which has blown up by Policy Exchange has served as a reminder of the way regions such as the North East were shamefully neglected under previous Conservative administrations - and how a decade of regeneration under Labour has made a tangible difference.

Indeed, Mr Cameron's comment during a visit to Carlisle yesterday that "Conservative Party policy will continue the good work of regenerating cities right across England" sounds suspiciously like an endorsement of the Government."

Update (2)

Final word - there's a long, worthy piece by various outraged northern writers in the Guardian today - Stuart Maconie quoting Tennyson, you know the sort of thing.

However, can I recommend the always excellent dailymash which has definitively nailed the story...

Monday, August 11, 2008

Whose hands in whose pockets?

My fellow Darlington bloggers and Tory councillors Mike and Gill Cartwright appear to lead a charmed life as far as exposure in the Northern Echo is concerned. Journalists seem to fall over themselves to print their opinions in full. And as a bit of a 'media whore' myself, I appreciate the Cartwrights' strategy.

Despite the old dictum, however, not all news is good news. And I wonder if Mike and Gill will regret their local lead item in today's Echo, where they instruct DBC to "put its hand in its pocket" and stump up tens of thousands of pounds to immediately replace the service recently withdrawn by Arriva which served two of their estates?

Now not wanting to sound like a crusty old Tory myself, but that is the Council Tax payers' pocket which the Cartwrights want the Council to raid, never mind the hundreds of thousands of pounds we pay to Arriva at the moment to provide rural and non-profit making routes. It follows Darlington Tories' similarly knee-jerk reaction to the post office closures.

In both cases, rushing in with local state subsidies would send a distinctly dubious message to the likes of Arriva and the Post Office. By all means, Arriva, slash bus routes around the town on the basis that they're not commercial - the Council will step in to replace them. We'd soon get the reputation of being a 'soft touch'.

Better by far to apply pressure on Arriva to reinstate these routes on a commercial basis, at nil cost to Council Tax payers. That's the approach which the Labour Council and our local MP Alan Milburn have adopted.

The Tories are fast becoming the party with apparently limitless cash to fund their pet projects. Traditional opposition tactics, to be sure, but not ones that in the long-run inspire confidence amongst the public.

Speeding in Haughton

Speeding is a problem in a number of streets around the ward. After being approached by local residents, we asked for speed surveys to be undertaken in Hutton Avenue, Littlebeck Drive and Wylam Avenue. Some of the results are back now, and we've had the following response from the Police;

Wylam Avenue

Total traffic flow - 24,564 vehicles

Total above 30mph - 7974 (32.45%)

Total above 35mph - 2879 (11.72%) Prosecution bracket

Total above 40mph - 716 (2.91%)

Given the ACPO prosecution policy I am unable to progress this matter further. You may however be interested to know that excess speed in a northerly direction is in excess of the southerly direction by a ratio of 3 to 1it would therefore be interesting to know where the counter was located to give this large imbalance in the figures.

Littlebeck Drive

Total traffic flow - 8,534 vehicles

Total above 30mph - 239 (2.80%)

Total above 35mph - 45 (0.53%) Prosecution bracket

Total above 40mph - 12 (0.14%)

As above I am unable to progress this complaint further given the non compliance data supplied and the ACPO guidance.

So in Littlebeck Drive, around 3% of vehicles travelled faster than 30mph, and less than half of one percent went above 35mph. In Wylam Avenue, however, a third were travelling faster than the speed limit, and 12% were speeding in excess of 35 mph.

The Police’s response is that they will not support any traffic calming measures in either location, based on national guidelines. Whilst this is perhaps understandable in Littlebeck Drive, we feel there are strong grounds to tackle speeding in Wylam Avenue, beginning perhaps with speed enforcement work.

We are pressing for this, and for the survey on Hutton Avenue to be completed as soon as possible.

Where madness leads...

Regular readers of this blog will have become used to BNP apologists leaving comments to the effect that their party members are simply misunderstood "ordinary Joes". They don't have an extreme bone in their body, and mean no harm to anyone. At least, not anyone white that is.

Those who've actually come into contact with BNP activists will of course know differently. To see where the twisted logic of race hate leads, can I recommend this piece on the excellent Lancaster Unity site about a prominent Cleveland BNP activist. As the introduction to the piece notes, "BNP activist and speaker Alan O’Reilly says Catholics will be deported under a BNP government; declares Catholics to be the enemies of Britain and Christianity; believes Islam, the European Union and eastern European immigration are Catholic plots to destroy Britain; and, that Catholicism was behind communism, World War I & II and the Nazi regime".

So next time the BNP suggest that their views are about as offensive as your dear old nan, remind them of the wacko, but distinctly dangerous Mr O'Reilly.

Well Done Jo!

The household was up even earlier than usual this morning to cheer on Jo Jackson and fellow GB swimmer Rebecca Adlington.

Jo is from Richmond, and sometimes trains with Richmond Dales ASC, where James also swims. I never cease to be impressed when I watch James, Jo and the other dedicated young people trudging into the complex at 6.30am morning after morning to pound up and down the pool for an hour-and-a-half.

The British achievement in getting a gold and bronze in the 400m freestyle was immense, and an indication as to just how far swimming in this country is progressing. As the BBC website notes, Jo's third place in a time of 4:03.52s meant Team GB had matched their entire medal haul in the pool from Athens 2004 in one race.

Never forget though, amidst all the chatter about swim suits and other paraphrenalia, that their stupendous performances are built on the back of long hours in the pool and the gym week after week from a very early age.

Jo and Rebecca thoroughly deserve their place in thbe sun, with maybe more to come from both swimmers in the days ahead.

Friday, August 08, 2008

LibDems soft on crime - again

Newcastle LibDems wanted to teach young people how to spray paint graffiti.

The LibDems rarely miss an opportunity to prove that leopards never change their spots.

By pledging to remove the possibility of a gaol sentence for young people convicted of breaching an ASBO, the Lib Dems have forfeited the right to be taken seriously on the subject of anti-social behaviour (ASB).

Will the Lib Dems never realise that sometimes prison is the right solution for serious offenders?

Labour meanwhile is giving police and communities new powers to tackle ASB, investing in neighbourhood policing and modernising our criminal justice system. The Government has put aside almost £100m for measures which will cut youth crime in the short term and prevent it in the long term. Labour's policies are working and we've seen a reduction in the frequency of juvenile re-offending of 17.4% between 2000 and 2005.

The Lib Dems opposed Labour's measures against Labour's tough anti-social behaviour measures, against Labour's measures to break up teen gangs, against measures to restrict the sale of graffiti spray paint to teenagers, against sending teenage criminals to court and against jail sentences for drug possession.

It's a sorry record, and should be a warning to residents in Darlington about how low down tackling ASB would be in any LibDem-influenced administration.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Just William

Northern Decision Makers' latest offering is now online. It features an interview with Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague. Amongst other issues, William is challenged about the Tories' dastardly policy on cutting Sure Start projects and their commitment to Labour's new school build.

Joining Graham and I on the couch was the Northern Echo's Deputy Editor Chris LLoyd, who asks a great question about David Milliband's leadership potential, given William's own experience of leading one of the country's two major parties early. As always, your comments are welcome.

Very belated thanks

... to our anonymous benefactor who has kindly sent another DVD (with an exciting heritage) of Dr Who episodes to AJ and myself. Needless to say, heads have been buried in cushions at the scariest bits (sometimes AJ's too).

Like, Totally Ready to Lead!

I haven't blogged recently on the US Presidential elections, but thought you might be impressed with this intervention by Paris Hilton. Prompted by John McCain's attack ad comparing Barack Obama to a range of celebrity airheads, Paris has brought out this video - she, like totally gets my vote.

See more funny videos at Funny or Die