Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Party Animal

It was Northern Night last night.  It has developed near-legendary status in the conference calendar, in part of course because we had a North East MP as our Prime Minister.

So you might feel that the mood was different this year.  It was, but not in the way you might have thought. 

The marquee was packed, and when Gordon Brown came in, he got a rapturous reception.  He spoke warmly and wittily for about 5 minutes and was cheered to the rafters.  It was an astonishing occasion.

It's my sense that the party is in a state of almost visceral loyalty to GB this week.  We don't much care for Tory tabloids telling us who our leader should be, and how Charles Clarke is able to walk round unmolested is beyond me.

Back to Northern Night, where I was on the door, gently separating guests from their cash in aid of the raffle.  There's no way one can retain a shred of dignity hawking tickets, so I just went for it. 

I can report that the likes of Margaret Beckett, John Prescott and David Milliband all gave generously.  And after a shameless performance by Gateshead MP Sharon Hodgson overseeing the auction, we raised over £1,000 for North East Party campaigning.

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Sun shines on Labour

It has to be an omen, it really does.

After a gloomy summer - economically, politically as well as weather-wise - suddenly in Manchester there's been a sea change.  The Sun's been beating down, lifting spirits, albeit making some of the fringe events rather sweaty affairs.

This is my fourth Conference and my second in Manchester.  Once upon a time, I would have had a relaxed time, moving around various training and fringe events, as well as listening to the key note speeches.

Not this time, however.  As a prospective MEP I've been shuttling between events, and I'm also helping out as a volunteer staff member with Labour North - helping North East delegates negotiate conference as well as practicing a few of the dark arts....

1. This mail and any files transmitted with it are confidential and intended solely for the use of the intended recipient. Unauthorised use, disclosure or copying is strictly prohibited and may be unlawful. If you have received this mail in error please notify the sender at the above address and then delete the mail from your system.
2. Any opinions expressed in this mail are those of the individual and not necessarily those of Darlington Borough Council.
3. This mail and any attachments are believed to be free of any virus. It is however the responsibility of the recipient to ensure that they are virus free. No responsibility is accepted by Darlington Borough Council for any loss or damage arising from the receipt of this mail or its contents.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Keeping us safe as climate change bites

One of my new responsibilities as Cabinet Member for Sustainable Environment and Climate Change is to represent the council (together with three colleagues) on the County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service.

At a meeting I attended last Thursday, we received a presentation from fire stations in the Wear Valley district. A key discussion point was how we respond to increased incidents of flooding across our area. Bishop Auckland Fire Station is equipped with a water bourne rescue craft, which serves the whole authority area.

Over the weekend of 6/7 September 2008, our Fire and Rescue control centre handled over 400 calls from distressed residents, many of these calls taken in support of Tyne & Wear and Northumberland Fire and Rescue Services. The Service also dispatched its High Volume Pump to assist Tyne & Wear in the Chopwell area as part of the National Mutual Aid Agreement.

There are in place regional agreements to pool resources when calamity strikes - as occurred in Morpeth 10 days ago. In a time when flooding was irregular and localised, this may have been sufficient. What many people do not realise is that Fire and Rescue Authorities are not tasked or funded to provide a response or rescue service to people trapped in floods. The reality of climate change has thrown this issue into sharp relief.

In June 2008, the Pitt Report was published, which reviewed the response to the 2007 summer floods. In recommendation 38, it concluded

“The Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role, underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty.”

With what resources and training are at their disposal, fire officers country-wide brave often-atrocious conditions to keep the public safe in flooded areas. Whilst creating a statutory duty on the Fire Service to provide flood rescue services would be expensive (about £300,000 for Durham and Darlington) it is simply essential, given the scale of devastation and disruption that this new risk of flooding presents to our communities. Last year, it is estimated that flooding cost the UK £3billion alone.

The Pitt Report has yet to be considered by the House of Commons, and the Fire Authority has written to all North East MP's asking that they support its recommendations as far as Fire and Rescue services are concerned. I fully support the initiative, and I will be writing to our local MPs Alan Milburn and Phil Wilson too. The recommendation should be agreed - the public, and our dedicated fire fighters, deserve nothing less.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

My work here is done

Type Lib Dems soft on crime into Google (searching the web) and see which is the country's top-ranking site....

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tonight on TV

Occasionally, just occasionally, there are advantages to being middle-aged and housebound, minding the kids, on a Saturday night.

Tonight is such a night, with the BBC's new Autumn season kicking off.

It starts off with the much-anticipated 6th series of Strictly Come Dancing. This will include ITV's political correspondent John Sargeant, described by The Times' Caitlin Moran as looking like "Rebrandt in Lycra". Whether this series can match the pulchritudinous (one for Mike there) heights of last year (Kelly Brook, Alesha Dixon, Gabby Logan and Penny Lancaster Stewart, oh, and some blokes as well) remains to be seen.

Then it's on to Maestro - The Winner's Finale. For the last 5 weeks, Maestro has been gripping tv, as we've watched a hotchpot of celebs learning how to conduct an orchestra. It was an introduction to reality tv for the cultured middle classes, although whether Classic FM listeners are ready for Big Brother 12 yet, I have my doubts. (In a rare low-brow slip, the BBC aren't clear whether its a Final or Finale).

The series was worth watching if only for the car crash first episode when Peter Snow's rendition of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (above) left me with tears rolling down my face.

And my favourite use of the word maestro in comedy.....?

"When I tell people I work with Colin Sell, they often ask me "how is the maestro?". Well, Colin tells me that it's failed its MOT again, but should be back on the road by next Tuesday". Humphrey Littleton

Which brings me seamlessly onto I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue on BBC4 tonight at 10.30pm (can you see what I did there?). The only completely filmed edition of the show, and another chance to pay our respects to the late, great Humph.

Friday, September 12, 2008

£49,000 - the cost of local Tory incompetence

Regular blog readers will recall that I got into an exchange of words recently with Tory Councillors Mike and Gill Cartwright over the Arriva bus changes.

I suggested that pressure should be applied to Arriva to reverse the decision. They should meet the cost of restoring services and not Council Taxpayers. I was then excoriated by the Cartwrights, who demanded that their Harrowgate Hill residents couldn't wait, and the Council should "dig deep" into its pockets now. Gill Cartwright even accused me of naievety in believing that Arriva would make any changes without heftry Council subsidies.

Our online spat even made the Echo.

Of course, we now know that the pressure applied to Arriva, including by our local MP Alan Milburn, forced Arriva into a partial rethink. Service has been restored of the 6a and 6b on a Friday and Saturday night, and on a Sunday. There are also better links into the Harrowgate Farm development as well.

So had the Council followed the Tories' demands, it would have been local residents who would have paid for the changes, and not Arriva. I've now had this costed by the officers, who believe that had the Council tendered for the changes, it would have had to shell out about £49,000!

Increasingly, the Tories will say anything to grab a few headlines - Darlington residents should be aware that these glib demands and promises come with price tags attached.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Blogger Down!

Every once in a while, blogs can get inundated with hostile/obscene/defamatory comments. Darlington Councillor seems to find itself in that position at least three times a week.

For other bloggers, however, this can be a new and unnerving experience, and I was sad to see Mike Barker's blog is now only readable "by invitation only".

As I'm sure most will be aware, Mike has incurred the wrath of Darlington FC fans after criticising the club's drinks promotion policy online and via the media. A particularly virulent thread has started up on the Forum of the Darlington Rivals site.

Entirely in character, Mike tried to take his message (and build a few bridges) by answering fans' complaints on that thread, but 130 or so angry fans' posts and 4,000 views later, he presumably gave that up as a bum job. As a disinterested observer, I particularly noted the comment from one fan;

This Barker bloke is full of his own importance read his blog, he is a self publicist. He is part of that town lier crew who complain about everything to do with Darlington...If they hate the town and its folk so much why dont the leave and go back to Reading of wherever they came from.

...presuming, of course, Reading will have them. There were some other choice observations about the Liar and its contributors, which I daren't repeat here.

Locking the blog in response, however, does seem pretty drastic. From their comments, I don't think the Darlo fans are going to go away, and some are even talking about picketing his shop.

As I see that LibDem MEP Fiona Hall and the LibDems nationally have received protests, I do hope that Mike hasn't been ordered to take down his site by some Cowley Street supremo. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Mike's views on Darlington FC, blogging in Darlington is all the stronger for his presence, and I hope that this matter gets straightened out soon.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Darlington - a great place to do business

Lingfield Point

Wednesday's Financial Times had a fascinating piece about the relative competitiveness of towns and cities around the country.

It arose from a survey by the Centre for International Competitiveness at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, and came just weeks after a Conservative think-tank recommended abandoning attempts to regenerate northern cities and promoting migration to the south.

Professor Robert Huggins, who has compiled the index since 2000, said further migration to the south would only accentuate existing problems. "Our research strongly suggests that urban development in the UK is achieving a significant degree of success."

There was very good news for us - the second biggest riser in competitiveness since 2006 is Darlington, where we have sharply improved the skills of our workforce and raised the number of business start-ups per 1,000 inhabitants by more than 10 per cent. The report noted that new businesses include Argos, employing 600, and Infoserve, which employs 185 people on helping small businesses market their services online.

Working with the business community and Government agencies, our Labour Council has helped bring forward important new opportunities for new business at Morton Palms, Faverdale and Lingfield Point. £1 million has been invested in small business development as a result of the BAT/Rothmans legacy.

It's a strong platform for the future.

Sadberge Energy Saving Project

On Wednesday evening, I spent an inspirational hour or so at Sadberge Parish Hall listening to the progress that the Energy Saving Project has made.

Attended by about 40 people, there were presentations on various project elements. Villagers who have taken part have done so not just to save the planet - it makes great financial sense too to monitor and reduce unnecessary energy usage.

Every household in the village received a questionnaire about that household's current energy profile, which achieved a very creditable 35% return. The project has 10 energy monitors which can plot usage during the day, and also pinpoint how much energy is taken by individual appliances. Deals have also been struck with local window and insulation companies to provide great value for those looking to install double glazing or loft insulation.

Feedback from residents who have used the monitors demonstrates that it has certainly changed their pattern of use - for example, although I always turn my PC and printer off at night, I have never thought to unplug the gang unit to which the cables are attached - these use electricity 24/7 unless they too are unplugged.

With a grant for £500, (the cheque was presented on the evening) more monitors can now be purchased.

This is a great initiative which has brought together the Parish Council and the Energy Saving Trust. Representatives from MSG were also there on Tuesday night to see what they could learn. This is a trail-blazing project, and very much a trial, so it can't be rolled automatically to other areas at this stage.

As the relevant portfolio holder, however, I'm looking into organising a presentation for councillors around the Borough about the project to see what other communities can learn however, and how also we can encourage residents to link into the Energy Savings Trust.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Liberal Demolition

Just as I was bemoaning the lack of a national site that brings together the collective lunacy of LibDems in local government, Gateshead's Jonathan Wallace draws my attention to Liberal Demolition.

Whilst the main site is admittedly focussed (if you'll pardon the pun) on unsavoury goings on in far-away Streatham and Lambeth, the newsletter has some astounding revelations.

Can it be true that LibDems in Islington are distributing pro-drugs materials to teenagers outside schools? That LibDems in Hull have scrapped Labour's ground-breaking policy of allowing free school meals for all? Or that LibDems in Edinburgh have slashed budgets devoted to some of the most vulnerable in the city?

The main Lambeth Liberal Democrat Watch can be found here.

Two Years Young

Err, there's no cake. And I'm not called Ashwin....

It hardly seems like yesterday, does it, but this blog is now two years old.

In truth, it seems to have been part of my life for much, much longer. Despite the brickbats from my many anonymous friends, I've come to really enjoy blogging, as it allows me to set my own online agenda. And it's been a fascinating time to reflect on politics here in Darlington, through the Tesco debate, Labour's 2007 local election victory, and of course the historic No vote in the Mayoral Referendum.

(Of course, you've also had to wade through my thoughts on matters as diverse as local restaurants, Dr Who and the Banana Splits...)

I've been assisted in no small part too by the fact that Darlington now has a vibrant online political scene. With active councillors from all three parties blogging regularly, a forum for debate has been created outside of the walls of the Town Hall. Whilst Gill and Mike Cartwright, or Mike Barker and I might have vigorous exchanges of views from time to time, no-one can be in any doubt as to where our respective parties stand. Those who have weak arguments tend to get found out in the dynamic of debates during an exchange too. Although of course we may disagree as to who's winning and losing the argument, people who read our material inevitably will make up their own minds independently.

From what I can see, Darlington has the most active online political community in the North of England. And that's something to take some pride in.

Blogging's a democratizing force too. Believe me, there have been times when I would happily have taken an online meat-cleaver to some posts, but it remains the case that anyone can leave a comment here which will be read straightaway. I've probably deleted fewer than 10 grotesquely offensive comments in the past two years, not bad when you think that thousands of comments have been left.

So thanks to everyone again who's taken the trouble to read the blog, and more so if you've left a comment - it helps make this blog what it is. Biggest plaudits to those who actually leave their (real) names - for the most part those comments have ten times the credibility of the anonymous posts.

Here's to 2008-09...