Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Greetings

Here at Meadowfield Cottage, AJ's Christmas stocking is hung up, the Advent Calendar was cleared of chocolate on December 15th, and mysteriously the seasonal glass of Pinot Grigio left out for Santa has already been consumed (together with Rudolph's carrot).

So can I wish everyone who has been kind enough to visit this blog throughout 2008 a very Happy Christmas.

So bring on the bizarre presents for the chickens, the entirely vegetarian Christmas lunch (sigh) and of course another cracking episode of Dr Who.

Who said Christmas was for kids?!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ashcroft's Millions

I've heard from a couple of sources (one very reliable) that Darlington's Tories are now in receipt of "Ashcroft money".

This is the crude attempt by the Tory peer to "buy" Conservative victories in key marginals by splurging their parties with cash, in a way that neither Labour nor the LibDems can afford to match. He pulled a similar stunt before the last General Election.

If the rumour's true, then the first fruit of His Lordship's largesse is now dropping through Darlington's letterboxes. It comes in the form of a "newsletter" from our old friend Captain LeGrand.

Edward is pictured on the front cover with the town clock in profile in front of the open market stalls. He's on his own (again) but at least the Pedestrian Heart looks fine.

Now that we don't do class politics any more, it's surely right that the biography on the back glosses over the fact that Edward is the second son of a Yorkshire baronet with a stately pile to go with it.

Of rather more concern is Edward's maths. He reports that "several weeks ago" he accompanied Gill and Mike Cartwright on their bus stunt from Whinfield. Err, well that was on 17th June, according to Gill's own blogsite, which was actually 26 weeks ago. Is 26 "a few" now? I guess that explicitly reporting news from the summer would make Edward and his band of Darlington Tories look, well, out of touch.

Similarly, "Tackling Anti-Social Behaviour" features a picture of Edward and Cllr. Alex Nicholson dated 18th June on the Tories' own website. Even Edward, however, has to admit that the Post Ofice story happened "several months ago". From information on Mike Barker's and Mike Cartwright's blogs, I reckon that picture was taken in February!

And a sad postscript - just what happens to defectors who sign up to the Tory cause? Certainly for the benefit of the media, at first they're lionized. So when Nigel Boddy joined the Tories from the LibDems in November 2007, there were messages of welcome from David Cameron and M'Lord Bates, no less. Michael Bates said "Nigel is a well-respected figure in North-East politics, and is very welcome to join our party, which is dedicated to taking the region forward."

Ah, how long ago that sounds now. Leafletting is probably the least glamorous political exercise, and to get a communication out town-wide means it's all hands to the pump. No-one thought to call poor Nigel, however, who was reduced to leaving a rather pathetic message on the Darlington Conservatives' site offering his help in future deliveries.

If that isn't a cry for attention, I don't know what is. For goodness sake, Heather and Charles, pick up the phone and talk to the man! It is Christmas after all.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

ASBO's - Case Example

There's a lot of misguided criticism of ASBOs - usually from politicians too out-of-touch with their communities to appreciate how anti-social behaviour blights people's everyday lives.

On Wednesday I received an email about the successful prosecution of an individual who had created a great deal of distress and annoyance in Darlington town centre. I'll print it in full - it gives a flavour of the anti-social behaviour this character got up to, but also the penalties which have now been imposed.

Darlington Council's ASB Team successfully obtained a five year ASBO against Robert Joseph Fortune this morning at Darlington Magistrates Court. The ASBO was a joint application between the ASB Team and the North Road Police Beat Team, prosecuted by Darlington Council, and was made following concerns regarding the sustained behaviour of Robert Fortune, which was often sexual in nature, alcohol fuelled and considered alarming.

Roberts behaviour has caused the Police and Local Authority considerable concern for some time and was described as sexually motivated and predatory nature particularly aimed at young girls and in the town centre of Darlington. Evidence was gathering relating to Fortune's drunken and lewd manner and several complaints were made to Police and LA were submitted as evidence for the prosecution.

Despite several arrests, Fortune has continued to cause alarm to children and parents within Darlington and the decision was taken by the Police and ASB Team to pursue and ASBO to prohibit future conduct of this nature.

The 5 year ASBO against Robert Fortune prohibits him from engaging in the following activity throughout England and Wales:-

Engaging in conduct which causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to anyone.
Entering the Town Centre of Darlington - the Defendant is allowed to ride upon a bus upon the ring road.
Consuming any intoxicating substances whilst in a public place.
Using abusive or offensive language in public.
Carrying out any lewd or indecent acts in public.
Associating and communicate with any females under the age of 16 years.
Inciting or encouraging others to commit any act prohibited by this Order.

If Fortune breaches the ASBO he faces up to 5 years in prison and/or £5000 fine. Full publicity will follow in the form of posters which will be displayed in the banned area detailing the prohibitions.

That seems to me to be exactly the right response, and I'd like to congratulate the Rebecca Timmiss and the rest of the Council's Anti-Social Behaviour Team and the Police's North Road Beat Team for a job well done.

Christmas 2008 in Darlington - Update

1. Darlington Winter Wonderland - this weekend
THE Darlington Winter Wonderland is now on.
Visit the Winter Wonderland this weekend in the Market Square (Friday 12th - Sunday 14th, 10am - 5pm) for Christmas gifts and decorations along with fantastic fun, entertainment and shopping for all the family.

2. Last chance for ride on 'Darlington's Big One'
'DARLINGTON'S Big One', the giant ferris wheel in Joseph Pease Place, will close this Sunday evening. If you have not a ride on the ferris wheel yet, come along to the town centre this weekend.

3. Santa Specials at the Head of Steam - this weekend
SANTA Specials at Head of Steam, Darlington Railway Museum this weekend, December 13th & 14th, from 10am to 4pm.
Admission includes a mini train ride, Santa in his grotto, arts and crafts, face painter and children will receive a special Christmas gift. Tickets are £5.50 child, £3.50 adult for non- members, free adults and £3.50 per child for members. Some sessions are now fully booked, for further information or to book, contact 01325 460532 or visit the Head of Steam website.

4. Santa in the Park - Sunday December 21
TAKE time out from your last minute Christmas shopping and come to South Park for some festive fun on Sunday December 21.
Visit Santa for an early Christmas present and listen to Hummersknott Theatre group singing Christmas Carols and the Cockerton Prize Silver Band.
Join in with the Christmas craft activities we have to offer and see the magician and entertainers.
The cafe will also be open offering a lovely Christmas menu.
£3 to visit Santa including gift. Sunday December, 12.30pm - 3pm.
For more information contact the South Park team on (01325) 383099.

I cut and paste this from the Council's own bullietin, because I know from my tracking software that quite a few people stumble across this blog looking for information about Santa in Darlington and the like.

I've got some pictures and film from the 'Big One' taken at dusk last weekend, which I'll post as soon as I've managed to load the BlackBerry software onto this PC...

Manchester spat over TIF

I'm not sure anyone will have been surprised by the result of the Manchester referendum on congestion charging, announced yesterday - except perhaps the Yes campaigners.

The result was a thumping 79% No across the 10 local authorities which make up Greater Manchester. The turnout was a very respectable 53%.

I have decidely mixed feelings about congestion charging. When Darlington first became a unitary authority back in 1997, and I was elected Chair of the new Highways and Transport Committee, I attended several seminars on transport policy around the country. These were aimed at professionals rather than members, and I learned an enormous amount from them.

One session which always stuck in my mind was research from Bristol which looked at what measures would actually persuade drivers to leave their cars and move to public transport. It also considered how the inexorable drift to car travel could be staunched.

It examined all the then known techniques - such as higher car parking charges, reduced car parking spaces, greater availability of public transport and the like. All of these approaches (and this was theoretical research following in-depth surveys rather than based on practical evidence) showed that whilst these measures could slow down the increase in the number of journeys made by car, none would reverse it. Only one step would do this - congestion charging. And this would have to be congestion charging across the city, and not just forming a cordon around the city centre.

Since then, of course, one city - London- has successfully implemented a congestion charge (I get grumpy and throw things at the TV when Durham's single toll road is described as congestion charging). To try and encourage the rest of the country, the Government has waved significant amounts of cash as highways authorities in the form of money to improve public transport, called TIF (Transport Innovation Fund).

And now this has been decisively rejected for the second time - Edinburgh had a similar poll in 2005, where the majority against was only slightly lower. The Manchester proposal had built into it significant improvements in public transport (the perceived poor quality of which drivers often say dissuades them from taking the bus) and still the vote was a big "No". So, what can we learn?

Firstly, I despair of any town, city or indeed conurbation voting yes. Take Darlington - I went on record repeatedly when Cabinet Member for Highways as saying that congestion charging would be wrong for Darlington. Even if Darlington were part of a wider bid with authorities in the Tees Valley, it would place us at a significant economic disadvantage compared to Durham City, Sunderland, Newcastle and York. Without a level playing field across the whole region, I cannot see how it would not hurt the Borough's economy.

Even then, however, I'm not sure that a Yes vote could be achieved. London's congestion charge was introduced after all on the back of Ken Livingstone's Mayoral victory, and not a city-wide poll. So, at the risk of being howled down for a lack of democratic principles, I believe that having referenda in advance of congestion charging has to be abandoned. Residents should be given the chance to see what effect road tolling has, for 6-12 months say, and then vote on the continuation of the scheme. At the moment, the fear of the unknown is killing any chance of progress.

Even then, I couldn't see a scheme simply for Darlington or the Tees Valley going ahead. It will require road pricing across the country. That of course will require huge investment in public transport across England when the Government's finances are already, ahem, hard-pressed.

Of course, since then Darlington has been at the forefront of a new approach - investing in public transport infrastructure whilst at the same time working intensively with residents to explain the transport choices they have. At a time of economic growth, it led to significant decrease in the number of car journeys, whilst walking and cycling in particular boomed.

So as we enter an economic downturn, with reduced traffic on our roads, and after this referendum result, don't expect to hear too much about road tolling as a national priority. The problems of congestion, especially in the big cities and on the major arterial motorways won't go away, however, but that may be for the next generation of transport planners and politicians to sort out.

Friday, December 12, 2008

New Play Money for Darlington

Good news for Darlington, with the Government injecting around £1.2 million into play equipment into the Borough, with £45,000 additional revenue costs.

This is part of the labour Government's Playbuilder initiative, and will allow a minimum of 22 play spaces to be developed in the area over 2 years.

I'll blog on this further, as potential sites for the equipment are identified.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Oliver Postgate RIP

Listening to the comments on Radio 5 Live this morning, there seems to be something of a national consensus that a little bit of our collective childhood has died with the passing of Oliver Postgate.

I barely remember Pogle's Wood on TV, but can vividly recall the mounting excitement every Friday when I was 5 years old waiting for my children's magazine Pippin Post to be delivered - Pogel's Wood featured in it, as well as the weekly hunt for Baby Moonbeam through the pages. (You probably think I'm going off my rocker, and alas there seems to be nothing on the net about this ahem seminal publication).

Plenty has been written about the quality and influence of the likes of Ivor the Engine and Bagpuss. Certainly The Clangers transported the nation's children at 5.40pm every evening to a safe and magical place that sharply contrasted with the grown-ups' News which followed straight after.

For me, however, the most abiding memory of these programmes and of Postgate himself was the beautiful, lyrical quality of the narration. Postgate often spoke in a reserved fashion, but whilst he could bring characters readily to life, it was in the longer descriptive passages (in the Clangers, for example) where his poetry lifted the programme to a different level.

A few years ago, when I started reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to James, I was conscious that I was mimicking someone, but I couldn't place who. Then it came to me - the natural voice of Tolkein's prose (perhaps after the Noggin the Nog sagas) was Oliver Postgate. He influenced my generation in so many subtle ways.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Monday Morning Smile

I feel sorry for the current generation of young people. James insists on listening to the relentlessly thumping Galaxy FM in the car - music bafflingly referred to as "Rhythmn and Blues". Humourless, vaguely sexualised and often glorifying gang culture.

So in 30 years time, he won't be able to look back on kitch classics like this from his youth and shudder...

Friday, December 05, 2008

Welcome, Comrade Bloggers!

Two new Labour blogging sites to report here in the North East. Firstly, Malcolm Clarke from Lanchester has just started up a blog which looks like it will provide some interesting reflections on both local and national politics. You can see his blog here.

Then my colleague Cllr. Simon Henig, Leader of Durham County Council, has also started up a blog - perhaps the only council leader in the country to do so?

It's a brave and welcome development - not least because Simon has been fairly scornful of the potential impact of the internet in politics, and blogging in particular. As a ward councillor in Chester-le-Street, he's told me in the past that he receives no complaints/comments from residents via email. Separately, the Echo's Pete Barron reported on Simon's aversion to blogging here.

I guess that as the new leader of a big rural council with diverse communities, Simpn has calculated (correctly in my opinion) that a blog will promote transparency, allowing residents to see what he has been doing on their behalf, but also provoke some debate too. It's a great way to communicate directly with the people he represents without the sometimes distorting filter of the press or the propaganda of other parties.

Since the blog started at the end of October, the blog has received several messages. Simon's also taken the trouble to reply to some of the queries (and received some appreciative feedback in response).

Simon has floated the ambition of all 126 Durham County Councillors blogging. And if only a fraction take up the idea, then that will represent a massive stride for online politics here in the North East.

My only reservation would be that Simon is using an "official" County site, rather than something under his own direct control via the likes of Blogger or WordPress. No doubt this has the benefit of handing over some of the site admin to officers, rather than fiddling with technical stuff as the rest of us do. It severely constrains what can be blogged about however, and renders impossible any debate between parties, which can be very enlightening for residents confronting new or unfamiliar issues.

Still, at a key time for the County, as the lingering districts disappear, it should be a valuable source of information for residents straight from the horses mouth. I wishSimon (and Malcolm) all the best.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Date for your diaries

January 09 already starting to fill up? If you can, do come along on 27th January to the Arts Centre at 1pm, where Holocaust Memorial Day will be marked in the Borough.

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) commemorates the tragic loss of life in the genocides of World War II, in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. HMD is held on 27th January, the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Berkenau.

The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) exists so that we learn the lessons of the past to build a better future now. You can see their website here.

On the front page this month is a piece on Kristallnacht, which took place in Nazi Germany over a two-day period in November 70 years ago. The translations of eye-witness accounts are chilling, and an important reminder as to where the politics of race hate lead.

Fittingly, the theme of this year's ceremony will be "Stand up to Hatred".

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Northern Decision Makers - Credit Crunch Special

This month's Northern Decision Makers has been recorded, and is now available online.

We've tweaked the format, as you will see, asking Northern Echo Deputy Editor Chris Lloyd to set out the key issues, before moving onto the debate with the guests.

This month on the couch we have Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland and a former Treasury official, and John Elliott, respected local business leader and (infamously, from my perspective) chief architect with Graham of the defeat of the Regional Assembly proposals. They aren't short of opinions...

You can see the programme here.

Setting the record straight

Over the past week, there's been far more heat than light around the subject of the QE 6th Form's College's proposed extension into the back of the Arts Centre.

The matter boiled over at Council, when opposition members got the wrong end of the stick of some comments made by Council Leader John Williams.

Happily, this evening's Cabinet meeting, where the matter could be discussed in an informed way, was a much more satisfactory affair. You can read the paper which went to Cabinet here.

We start from the principle that Darlington has one of the most successful 6th Form Colleges in the country, but one which is severely constrained by the historic site it occupies. The College would like to expand, providing a first class education for more of the Borough's young people. At the same time, the rear of the Arts Centre is run down, and the building needs money spending on it.

Although some tentative discussions have taken place, initiated by the 6th Form College thgemselves, it required this evening's formal decision to kickstart meaningful consultation. Very unfortunately, the local ward councillors weren't privy to the early discussions, and both the Leader and portfolio holder Andy Scott apologised to Ian Galletley and Tony Richmond for the oversight.

Of course, as the press coverage has made clear, a future extension to the 6th Form College could affect the youth theatre, the garden bar, and the media workshop group amongst others.

Nothing has been decided, and any scoping will have to consider how facilities might be reprovided and improved if the extension proceeds. No-one should lose sight of the prize, however, of an expansion of our excellent 6th Form College.

The debate tonight was much more measured - both Ian Galletley and Heather Scott made thoughtful contributions and asked questions - the College ward councillors have linked in with the management of the 6th Form College, opening an important line of communication as far as they and their residents are concerned.

The dog that didn't bark, yet again, was the Liberal Democrat group contribution. Martin Swainston was happy to sound off in the paper alleging that the Council was using the sale to "balance the books" (rubbish, by the way) but typically, when the matter is actually debated, Swainston didn't even bother to turn up. He was subbed (yet again) by my blogging colleague Mike Barker, who sat on his hands and stayed mute.

No doubt in the future, if there's easy slurs to be made, or cheap headlines to be grabbed, the LibDems will be at the front. Don't expect anything sensible or constructive from them, however, on this key issue for the Borough.