Friday, February 29, 2008

Northern Decision Makers II

We're getting all set to film the second episode of Northern Decision Makers, which I'll be presenting with the Tories' Graham Robb. Viewing figures for the first show exceeded all expectations, nearly hitting the 1,000 mark.

Guests include Martin Callanan, the Tories North East MEP and Cath Purdey, the Chief Executive of Hartlepool Housing. It should be a great show, and I'll post when it's live on the broadband tv Channel

Labour's Top 50 Achievements

Thanks to fellow Labour blogger Luke Akehurst for bringing this list to my attention.

The Party has published this list of Labour's Top 50 achievements since 1997 - a useful reminder:

1. Longest period of sustained low inflation since the 60s.
2. Low mortgage rates.
3. Introduced the National Minimum Wage and raised it to £5.52.
4. Over 14,000 more police in England and Wales.
5. Cut overall crime by 32 per cent.
6. Record levels of literacy and numeracy in schools.
7. Young people achieving some of the best ever results at 14, 16, and 18.
8. Funding for every pupil in England has doubled.
9. Employment is at its highest level ever.
10. Written off up to 100 per cent of debt owed by poorest countries.
11. 85,000 more nurses.
12. 32,000 more doctors.
13. Brought back matrons to hospital wards.
14. Devolved power to the Scottish Parliament.
15. Devolved power to the Welsh Assembly.
16. Dads now get paternity leave of 2 weeks for the first time.
17. NHS Direct offering free convenient patient advice.
18. Gift aid was worth £828 million to charities last year.
19. Restored city-wide government to London.
20. Record number of students in higher education.
21. Child benefit up 26 per cent since 1997.
22. Delivered 2,200 Sure Start Children’s Centres.
23. Introduced the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
24. £200 winter fuel payment to pensioners & up to £300 for over-80s.
25. On course to exceed our Kyoto target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
26. Restored devolved government to Northern Ireland.
27. Over 36,000 more teachers in England and 274,000 more support staff and teaching assistants.
28. All full time workers now have a right to 24 days paid holiday.
29. A million pensioners lifted out of poverty.
30. 600,000 children lifted out of relative poverty.
31. Introduced child tax credit giving more money to parents.
32. Scrapped Section 28 and introduced Civil Partnerships.
33. Brought over 1 million social homes up to standard.
34. Inpatient waiting lists down by over half a million since 1997.
35. Banned fox hunting.
36. Cleanest rivers, beaches, drinking water and air since before the industrial revolution.
37. Free TV licences for over-75s.
38. Banned fur farming and the testing of cosmetics on animals.
39. Free breast cancer screening for all women aged between 50-70.
40. Free off peak local bus travel for over-60s.
41. New Deal - helped over 1.8 million people into work.
42. Over 3 million child trust funds have been started.
43. Free eye test for over 60s.
44. More than doubled the number of apprenticeships.
45. Free entry to national museums and galleries.
46. Overseas aid budget more than doubled.
47. Heart disease deaths down by 150,000 and cancer deaths down by 50,000.
48. Cut long-term youth unemployment by 75 per cent.
49. Free nursery places for every three and four-year-olds.
50. Free fruit for most four to six-year-olds at school.

You can comment or join Labour here: http://www.labour.org.uk/top_50_achievements

Clear Blue (and Red) Water

Council wound up tonight with a vote on how best £400,000 of environmental improvements should be allocated. It was an excellent debate on all sides, and was very revealing - for the LibDems, perhaps a little bit too much so.

In the light of comments made, Labour proposed that money be set aside, to be spent under the authority of the relevant Director. In response, Cllr. Mike Barker moved that instead the money should be divvyed up equally between individual councillors themselves. Interestingly, the Tories and LibDems, who supported each other's positions all night, concurred on this proposal too, and doughty Conservative campaigner Cllr. Doris Jones seemed to have a speech ready to endorse the plan.

In having my two penni'worth, I pointed out that whilst councillors should take a lead in providing community leadership, the Council should be listening to all sections of the community when deciding how to spend Council Tax payers' money, including partners like the Local Strategic Partnership, residents' groups and the voluntary sector. Councillors don't necessarily always know best. Darlington's Labour Council hardly requires a homily from the LibDems on accountability, given that we devised the Let's Get Cracking scheme which placed millions of pounds of Council spending on roads and pavements into the hands of local people themselves.

It was Labour's Cllr. Dot Long, however, who beautifully crystalised the arguments. She pointed out that whilst Labour's Council, through its draft Sustainable Community Strategy, wanted to tackle inequalities in the most deprived wards, the Tories had a fixation on fairness which meant treating wards like prosperous Hummerknott just like deprived Park East or Lascelles. I think there was probably some consensus on this point between the Tories and Labour, who were very comfortable with their respective positions.

So where did this leave the LibDems, who proposed the idea in the first place? Looking increasingly glum as the debate developed, I thought. If the LibDems have any values at all, they are around equality, but at the same time, they like to think of themselves as champions of the underprivileged (at least when faced with a Labour-controlled Council). Being a LibDem councillor, of course, means never having to take tough decisions which might prove unpopular, so how to square this circle? There was no answer from the LibDems on this point, and they slunk away rather sadly at the end of the meeting.

Interestingly, when I challenged him afterwards on the issue of social justice, veteran LibDem councillor Peter Freitag told me that he wouldn't have suggested that the money be split equally between wards, and that would have suggested some weighting to take account of deprivation levels. Peter's a wise old fox, and some of his colleagues would have done well to listen to his advice in advance of the meeting.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

14p a week

That's the amount Darlington Councillors were bitterly divided over this evening as Labour's Budget plans were approved.

As you've probably seen in the Echo, after the most comprehensive listening exercise we've ever conducted at Budget time, there were substantial changes to the proposals for the revenue account next year. Whether it was on pest control, or the environmental health service or the Parish Grant, Labour listened and made changes.

On top of that, as Cllr John Williams outlined in his introductory speech, Darlington is independently rated as a 4 star Council, and was recently judged as 'excellent' for delivering value for money services. We still have the lowest Council Tax in the North East, whilst continuing to deliver a high level of care to vulnerable adults and disabled people for example, at a time when most councils are providing 'last resort' services only.

The plans include £108 million of capital to be invested over the next 4 years, including the rebuilding of Hummerknott School and North Road Primary, £6 million on sheltered housing accommodation and £3 million each year on highways.

The major debate was between Labour and the Tories, although as I shall blog later, there was a fascinating frisson at the end in the wake of a LibDem amendment.

For the Tories, Cllr. Charles Johnson's speech was as much about damage limitation as anything. In response to Labour's draft budget, the Tories had initially come up with a plan which magically involved restoring cuts whilst reducing Council Tax by making some airy-fairy promises about reducing waste. When Town Hall officers said that the Conservatives' proposals were in effect so vague as to be meaningless, Charles endured a torrid time at Cabinet when he not only refused to answer questions about their plans - he wouldn't defend them either.

Fortunately, by the meeting this evening the Council's financial position looked a little rosier, so the Tories could afford to ditch the most of their earlier proposals. That still left Charles arguing somehow that whilst a 4.9% increase as planned by Labour was monstrously iniquitous, somehow his own party's 3.9% was a model of prudence.

Labour's listening blitz left the Tories trying to work themselves into a lather about the Council Tax increase which rang hollow. As Cllr Steve Harker pointed out, the difference between Labour and the Tories' plans amounted to 14p a week as far as the rise in Council Tax was concerned. The debate ended not with a bang, but a whimper.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Supporting our Post Offices

As you may have seen in the Echo, the Royal Mail plans to close 5 Post Offices in the Borough - at Hopetown, Cleveland Terrace and Pierremont Crescent in the urban area and Heighington and Hurworth Place in the rural area. You may have also seen (on an, ahem, less well-informed site) that the Council did not oppose the closures - as you might expect, I've checked this out, and been told this by the Chief Executive;

We've done some more back tracking of correspondence from the Post Office about the change programme. We can find no record of having been forewarned or consulted previously on the Post Offices earmarked for closure in the papers received last week. We have had correspondence inviting general views and I've got a reply here from March last year that says that Darlington BC would not support PO closures.

Towards the end of October last year we were invited to let the post office know of plans for regeneration schemes, bus/road schemes that could affect Post Offices in our area. It was an information request, not consultation on potential closures. It is not easy to see how the regeneration plans we have would have impacted upon the closure proposals we've received.

I conclude that the Council has responded to previous consultation programmes from the Post Office, has expressed the view that closures should be avoided, but has also only last week received detail on the latest programme and the timetable for this to be responded to.

So that's that cleared up. And I'm pleased to tell you that local Labour ward councillors Brian Thistlethwaite and Paul Baldwin in Cockerton East, and Marian Swift and Steve Harker in Pierremont are campaigning against the closures as they affect their wards. But how can we all make our voices heard? A good place to start is the petition organised by Sue Allan-Hooks on the No. 10 website which reads as follows;

The Royal Mail plans to close 37 Post Office branches in the Tees Valley and North Yorkshire as part of a nationwide money saving review of the network. Many people will be adversely effected including the elderly, the disabled, those facing financial hardship and those without a bank account. Please show your support for your local Post Office branch by signing this petition by 26 March 2008.

You can sign the petition by clicking here.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Home advantage

I've been chewing my finger nails and generally annoying work colleagues all morning, but now I'm out of my misery - home against West Brom in the Quarter Finals.

Prayers to the Almighty said yesterday at Durham Cathedral clearly had some effect, as the best Rovers could hope for was a home tie. With their reputation as the best footballing side in the division, however, I'm sure West Brom will show a stack more resistance than woeful Southampton did on Saturday. Still, we can keep on dreaming!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Street Surgery - Belsay Walk area


Cllr. Andy Scott chats to a local resident.


On Saturday, Andy, David and myself completed our first Street Surgery of 2008 as we walked round Belsay Walk, Belford Gardens, Corbridge Crescent and Alnwick Place.


Residents could raise any issue they liked with us, of course, but naturally the focus was the anti-social behaviour that has been plaguing the area recently. The three of us have been liaising closely with the Police and Wardens lately, and I was really pleased to learn that the Police had a car parked in Belsay Walk for most of the evening, and so when a gang of youths turned up, they were able to deal swiftly with the situation.


The local Inspector has promised me that there will be an intensive effort to nip these problems in the bud over the next 4 weeks. We will see then if the partnership effort has borne fruit.

Doing business in Darlington

A final word on the Best of Darlington Awards - the prestigious Citizen of the Year award was won by Alan Noble, the founder of Noble Self Drive, who also won the Contribution to Business prize.

Alan's company Northgate plc now stretches across Europe, operating from 30 locations in Spain and approximately 90 sites in the UK, with a modern fleet of nearly 130,000 vehicles employing more than 3.300 people and with a turnover of £525 million.

Northgate's base is firmly in Darlington however, and Alan in his acceptance speech made it clear that would not change. So what did this very successful entrepreneur have to say about doing business in Darlington?

"Darlington is a great place to do business, with a very pro-active local authority, which has been extremely helpful and supportive of Northgate, especially when it was a much smaller company."

"I have always found that if you engage properly with local authorities, they will bend over backwards to help, and Darlington is a wonderful example of that."

"For the continued economic stability of this town, we need new businesses to establish themselves here and take advantage of the significant infrastructure that the town has. So my message to any company - small, medium or large - is; come and see for yourself.."

"I guarantee you will not be disappointed."

A timely corrective to all the cynicism about Darlington's 4-star Council that we read day-in, day-out from the same old characters in Hear All Sides in the Echo.

Best of Darlington Awards



The Echo's Pete Barron hosts the awards, and Groundwork's proud nominees


On Friday evening, I went along to the Best of Darlington Awards at Darlington College as a guest of West Durham and Darlington Groundwork. It was a sumptuous night, and for someone who had previously only read about the results via the Echo, I found it surprisingly moving.


Categories included Contribution to the Community, Carer of the Year and Neighbour from Heaven. In catergory after category, there were life-affirming stories that made you proud to be a citizen of the Borough. Take Carer of the Year Leanne Suddes, who since the age of 18 had been the carer for her step-brother Shane after the death of their mother, went on to have a son JJ with Down's Syndrome, and then her husband suffered a serious injury at work. She has gone on to have other children, and has coped magnificently too with JJ's complex needs. Audrey Laz was the worthy winner of Contribution to the Community for her tireless role in the Bank Top Community Partnership and Growing Older Living in Darlington (GOLD). And Lynn Airey who has been a tower of strength for her next door neighbour Margaret Greenhalgh.


Time and again I thought to myself "blimey, I wouldn't have liked to have been the judges" as nominations pitted equally worthy nominees against each other. In a couple of categories, I rather felt for the runner-up - Peter Woodmansey who used to work for the Council as a litter-picker and now in retirement continues to keep the streets of Eastbourne spotless because he can't bear to see rubbish gathering. And in Academic Excellence perhaps inevitably Charlotte Clewlow from Hurworth won, with her astonishing record of 12 A*'s at GCSE, but I thought Callum Davidson's achievement was no less remarkable, as he turned round his life after a turbulent home life which led him being placed in care. Still, everyone who was nominated had reason to be justly proud.


All in all, a humbling experience, and one which I hope to repeat next year.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

All set...

I've got my blue and white bobble hat on, and a mug of Bovril and a Pukka pie ready for half-time. AJ's learnt the words to Goodnight Irene so we're ready to go!

Update 14:25

Full time - Bristol Rovers 1 Southampton 0

Yessss!!

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Seldom Seen Kid II


Have you seen this man?


As you may have seen in Hear All Sides, the LibDems are making an ongoing fuss about the "death of democracy" in the Town Hall. Darlington LibDem supremo Martin Swainston wrote an ascerbic letter to this effect recently after he got into a bit of a pickle at Council.


Martin's claim would have a bit more weight if he himself chose to take up the opportunity to hold the Executive to account when he has the chance.


Since the last local elections, as part of our drive to open up Council business, there has been a standing invitation to the leaders of the opposition groups to come along to Cabinet and grill Cabinet members on the presented reports. The Tories, in the guise of Cllr. Heather Scott, and independent member Cllr. Steve Jones are almost always there, and when Heather can't make it, she sends along a colleague. At our last Cabinet meeting, she asked searching questions on a range of key issues which were before us.


And Cllr. Swainston? Of the 9 Cabinet meetings which he could have attended since May 2007, he has been to just 2! On three occasions another LibDem has stepped in, so there have been 4 meetings where the LibDem chair has been yawningly empty.


Rather like their vacuous boasts in Focus leaflets that they campaign "all year round", LibDems in Darlington are an opposition group in name only as far as the practical work of the Council is concerned. They seem happy to leave this to the Tories, which is not I suspect what their voters intended when they put a cross against their names last May.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Wugging

Have you heard of wugging? I hadn't, until I received an email from an old friend from City of Durham CLP Vin McIntyre, who I first met when I joined the party back in the late 80's.


Vin is a committed activist in the Palestinian cause, and is a trustee of the Durham Palestine Education Trust. The Trust, founded in 1983, aims to aid the social and economic development of Palestine by raising money to finance 2 scholarships each year at Durham University for young Palestinian graduates to do Masters degrees. The skills and experience they gain here benefits hundreds if not thousands of other Palestinians on their return home. You can see more about them here.

They have no corporate sponsors so they must raise £22,000 a year by individual subscriptions and their own fundraising efforts. In just over 2 years, they have received nearly £3,000 from Everyclick.com, a search engine like Google but one which donates 50% of its advertising revenues to charities, in proportion to the use made of Everyclick by each charity’s supporters. It's called wugging - web use giving - and, so far, Everyclick has given away £400,000 to charities - just for their supporters searching the web!

Vin points out that only a handful of charities in Darlington seem to have cottoned on to the opportunities for wugging. It's early days clearly, but Darlington First Stop has 7 fundraisers who have raised £7, Age Concern which has 4 wuggers and has raised £7, DAD which has 2 fundraisers and has raised £2 and St Teresa's Hospice whose 9 fundraisers have gathered £36.

There are 116 charities listed with a Darlington link, so if you're interested, there's plenty of choice out there. As you can see from the sidebar, henceforward I'll be supporting the West Durham and Darlington Groundwork Trust (of which I'm a Board Member) when I need a search engine. The Groundwork Trust do great work in Darlington, helping bring environmental projects to fruition whilst empiowering local communities.

If you're interested in supporting Groundwork too, or maybe picking a charity of your own, go to Vin's Durham Palestine Education Trust site here, and put 'Darlington' in the search box at the top of the page. You can take it from there!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Seldom Seen Kid


Have you seen this man?


Has there been a less-auspicious start to a PPC's career than that of the Tories' Darlington candidate Edward Legard? The Yorkshire baronet's son, who the Darlington Future website in a delicious Freudian slip called Edward Legrand, hasn't been heard of since he was selected last month. Nothing in the Echo, or even the rural Tories' house weekly, the dear old Darlington and Stockton Times.


In contrast, the LibDems' Mike Barker is making a lot of noise - spouting a lot of nonsense, as one might expect, but still raising the profile of his party.


So what's up? One of my colleagues reports that Captain Legwarmer has been spotted in Darlington in the company of a senior local Tory, who appeared to be faintly embarrassed about his new PPC. That can't be right, can it??

Ward Matters



Rubbish in the open space behind Salters Close, and broken glass in Springfield Park.

A bonus from the publication of first Haughton West News has been that it’s prompted a number of residents to get back in touch regarding problems in the area. As a result, I’ve been out to inspect fly-tipping and general environmental mess in the open space between Salters Close and Daryngton Close, and had another look at the play equipment in Springfield Park.

The latter is due to be refurbished by July, but we’re asking that this date is brought forward. Given the amount of broken glass I saw when I visited today, the cleansing regime will need re-examining too.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Haughton West News No 1

At no expense, and only about 6 months late, the first email newsletter for Haughton West residents was sent out yesterday.

David, Andy and myself want to keep local residents updated about things that are going on around Darlington in general, and Haughton West in particular.

The newsletter won't be particularly political, but will focus on practical things like forthcoming events and issues where local people may want to have their say. It's being sent to residents who at some point have shared their email address with us.

If you live in the ward and would like to receive a copy (they will coming out fortnightly, on average) then email me at nick.wallis@darlington.gov.uk.

At the moment, the newsletter is going to about 40 residents - I'd like to think that I've got that number up to 100 by Christmas.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Upskilling


A regular reader of this blog has written to me (going to impressive lengths to conceal their identity, by the way) to share their frustration at the press' handling of the recent story that companies can now give accredited vocational qualifications. The reader says;


I was furious at the way the Government and McDonalds was attacked for the training programmes idea last week. I also saw your link to a web TV programme and when I looked saw that there was another programme on the same site by the LSC which explains how the training policy being followed by the Government can work for business: http://www.broadbandtvchannel.co.uk/clip.asp?clipid=247


The whole issue was distorted by foes of McDonalds used to attack the credibility of a very sensible proposal - that training be undertaken that really reflects the needs of business and that the monopoly of educational institutions in awarding NVQs should be broken. We need more debate on this issue.


Well, I certainly agree that we need a debate, and that it should be conducted in a more grown-up way than the trivialising nonsense we read last week. The courses will impart skills equivalent to an A-level in restaurant management as far as MacDonalds are concerned. It's part of a government drive to increase the options open to students and young workers, boosting the use of apprenticeships to provide more on-the-job skills and training.


I have to say that I thought the matter could have been handled better by the Government - civil service spin doctors must have realised that as soon as MacDonalds was mentioned, satirists and others were going to have a field-day. Frankly, there's so much snobbery about this particular firm, that any sensible discussion was inevitably going to be drowned out. In fact other employers like FlyBe and NetworkRail have signed up too, but you wouldn't have thought so from the coverage.


Holding back the news that MacDonalds were part of the scheme, whilst highlighting the other firms involved, would have generated a good deal more light and a lot less heat on this important topic.

Scamnesty


We're all familiar with emails from exotic parts of Africa, promising us untold riches if we grease the wheels and help in the illegal transfer of funds. And maybe we've been sent letter telling us that we've somehow won a foreign lottery, but a registration fee is necessary to realease the money.

These scams have become so commonplace, my reaction has been to shrug and move on. With Cabinet responsibility for Public Protection, however, I've had my eyes opened to just how much damage these frauds do to some of the most vulnerable members of society. In Darlington in the last few months, we've had reported;

· A letter claiming the recipient has won the Spanish lottery, but asking for money and bank details before the prize can be released;
· A letter saying the recipient has won a prize, but must call a premium rate number to claim it;
· A company calling someone who has advertised their car for sale and persuading them to pay for more advertising - but the advert never appears.
That's why I was happy to launch the Scamnesty initiative in Darlington this week. It's a nationwide campaign to raise awareness about the common scams and how to spot them.

Residents can bring examples they've been sent, and Trading Standards officers will investigate, or pass the complaints on to the relevant authorities where necessary.

For more information and advice about Trading Standards, call Consumer Direct on 08454 040506.

Monday, February 04, 2008

French letter

Several months ago, readers of the Times debated via its letters page what defined a person as being either high or low-brow? One clever reader said that this was easy - someone who is low brow goes straight to the correspondence at the bottom right hand corner of the Times letters page reserved for "short funnies". This was of course where that letter was printed.

I raise this simply to confess that I too skip all the worthy missives from bishops and retired generals and make for the funnies. And today I was rewarded with this;

Sir, It is only right to draw attention to Miles Kington’s French Navy pun, surely the finest Franglais pun ever coined, and a worthy epitaph for the man (obituary, Feb 1 ).

The French Navy, he claimed, had adopted a new, uplifting slogan, to spur its seamen on to valour and glory in France’s hour of need. “To the water! The hour has come!”. Or, in French: “A l’eau. C’est l’heure!”

Yours etc.

That had me chuckling all the way to the car park...

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Talking Together


The Talking Together roadshow trundled into Whinfield Primary School this week. Attendance was very good, and with the Council actively consulting on next year's budget, a delegation of residents from Sadberge and Bishopton came along to voice their concerns about the removal of the council-subsidised bus service.


During the Q & A session, queries were also raised about a bus station for Darlington, and the Council's activity programme for young people. Of particular relevance for me as a ward councillor were complaints about the activities of the company that operates the wood chipper on Albert Hill. I have been responding to concerns about this recently from another resident, but it would appear that matters are not getting any better.


Director Paul Wildsmith, whilst acknowledging that a lot of work had already gone into trying to deal with the problem, promised to review the issue personally from an officer perspective. I'm sure that this will be an issue I will be returning to again in the near future.

ASB in Springfield

Fresh reports have been sent to me of further anti-social behaviour problems in Springfield, and in particular in the Belsay Walk and Corbridge Crescent area of the ward.

I've emailed the Police and the wardens, and given that there have been drink-fuelled difficulties on the site of the old Springfield Primary School again, I've asked for feedback from the Council's CCTV operators. as the camera in Nightingale Avenue was sited to deter problems in the vicinity.

In the meantime, David, Andy and myself will have a street surgery in the area to listen to the views of other residents. After a lot of hard work by all the agencies dealt with this problem last year, we don't want past difficulties creeping back in 2008.

Cat poo


Cats! Aren'tchasickofem?! A Killen Road resident is, or at least of the "little messages" they leave behind. He has reasonably asked me why councils put so much effort into targetting dog mess, when cats cause just as much frustration, leaving multiple deposits in our back gardens.


Of course, as he accepted, the phrase "herding cats" was coined specifically because it's in their nature to roam and not respect boundaries. Still, I have a lot of sympathy with his suggestion that the Council could perhaps use the Town Crier to remind cat owners of the distress their animals cause to those of us who aren't moggy-lovers.


Whether cats can be drilled to balance precariously over a toilet seat (above) I'm not sure. As an alternative, why not visit this company's site, with its Ultrasonic Cat Deterrent (lets out a scream when a cat goes past) or the Scarecrow Water Jet Pack (shoots a jet of water at the little blighters). They sound like effective deterrents and family garden entertainment all rolled into one!