Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Meanwhile, in LibDem La-La Land...

Many of us were profoundly disappointed when websites like LibDemWatch and FibDems ceased.

You know how it is - you have a nagging sense that many LibDems are basically bonkers, and when allowed a sniff of power promote all kinds of lunacy upon a hitherto unsuspecting public. Without the regular evidence on the net, however, we have been forced to pick up such scraps as we could - who can forget the LibDem plan to teach children how to graffiti on buildings, for example?

Good news, therefore from Newcastle that my NPF colleague Cllr. Nick Forbes has an excellent website which lays bare the incompetence at the heart of the LibDem administration there. Whether it's the LibDems' support for battery farmed eggs, or eye-watering car parking charge increases, or their slashing of the apprenticeship and training budget ot stopping church groups from collecting money, Nick's site has it all.

Nick is the excellent leader of the Labour Group on the city council, and his website should be a 'must read' for anyone wondering what it's like to actually be governed by the LibDems at local level. It's sobering stuff!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Gordon Brown at Warwick

A fresh development for this blog - now with video! (if I can get the technology to work).



Here's some of Gordon's speech to the National Policy Forum on Friday as he lays into Tory plans to cut services to the most vulnerable.


Monday, July 28, 2008

After Warwick


“The less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they'll sleep at night” - Otto von Bismarck.



There were no smoke-filled rooms at the weekend, of course, following the implementation of a previous manifesto commitment. It was certainly a manic exercise, as over 4,000 amendments from Constituency Labour Parties (CLPSs), affiliated Trade Unions and Socialist Societies, and groups such as Labour in local government were debated, shaping the policy which hopefully will form the basis of Labour's 4th election-winning manifesto.



Things became fraught, as you might imagine, particularly for the magnificent Party staff, who night after night were working without sleep to log agreed wording and update the agenda for the following day. At 2.45am on Sunday morning I signed off what I thought were the last of my North East amendment agreements and wearily headed off to my room, only to be called back to reconcile two final issues. by eagle-eyed staff.



My overriding impression of the process was very positive. My amendments from North East CLPs concentrated on the 'Sustainable Communities' document which included energy, sustainability, local government, the emergency services and transport. I found Ministers in discussions very open to reasonable arguments, and we made real progress in many areas. I was particularly pleased that lengthy conversations on elected mayors secured the pledge that Labour will not impose these on communities (a distinct policy difference with the Tories) and that consultation will take place on how areas which have the elected mayor system can get rid of them if they wish (a hobby-horse of mine).



So with goodwill on all sides, agreements were reached or amendments withdrawn where the case for change could not be made. The North East team of Simon Henig, Georgia Elliott, Nick Forbes, Liz Twist (pictured above) and myself, worked hard and we have a positive record of achievement to report back to the North East CLPs.



And so on Sunday to the final plenary session, where votes took place on those issues which could not be agreed. As you may have seen, there were decisions made which included whether to have a 100% elected House of Lords (I voted in favour), whether to have all fur products marked as such (ditto) and whether or not to have votes for those at 16 years (I voted against, for reasons I'll return to sometime).



What was striking was how marginalised the far left were during these votes. The heirs to the Bennite tendancy in the Party are now coalesced around the Grassroots Alliance, a group which does secure some members on the Party's National Executive Committee via internal elections. At Warwick, where they pressed for decisions to abandon Trident, for example, or overturn our academies policy in education, they lost overwhelmingly. In most votes, where 161 delegates were present, the Grassroots Alliance got fewer than 10 and in most cases around 5 votes.



It shows just how distant the far left is in Labour politics now from the mainstream, and that Gordon Brown leads a united party. Clearly with the economic outlook looking uncertain and potentially negative, the Party is suffering in the polls. Gleeful Tories are assuming some kind of 1997 meltdown in two years time. The difference I think is that we are now, and do not appear to be a divided party in the way the Conservatives did then, over Euurope and other issues. If the economic situation begins to improve, and with a coherent manifesto for the next 5 years in place, we are much better placed to stage a recovery.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Statement from Alan Milburn MP on Arriva's Recent Changes

Arriva's recent changes to bus routes in the Borough have caused widespread concern in the north end of town.

The breaking of link between Whinfield and Harrowgate Hill/North Road during the evening and Sundays has been particularly keenly felt.

(This is despite the Tories' desperate tactics to try and pin the blame on the Council. Of course, this was a commercial decision by Arriva over which the Council had no say at all).

Labour's Mark Burton in Harrowgate Hill has raised a huge petition against the changes, and we've been pressing Arriva too.

We've also all been in contact with our local MP Alan Milburn, who's had an urgent meeting with the bus bosses. He's issued the following statement today:

"In the last few weeks I have been inundated with complaints about changes to bus services made by Arriva in Darlington. These concerns have come from people in many parts of the town, especially in the Whinfield, North Road and Harrowgate Hill areas. Many of the people who are most affected by the changes are elderly and disabled people who rely on bus services the most.

I asked Arriva to meet with me so that I could put my constituents concerns on the table. The meeting which took place yesterday was useful and I hope productive. Arriva acknowledged that the changes they made have revealed real concerns among the travelling public. They assured me that they were listening carefully to those concerns. I asked them to look again at how the new services are operating and they have agreed to do so. Specifically, in response to many concerns about bus services in the North end of Darlington, they agreed to look at what could be done about Sunday and evening services.

Arriva have promised to come back to me as soon as possible with proposals. When they have done so I will come back to you. In the meantime I will continue to raise concerns with the company. I am very grateful to all the people, including local councillors, who have raised their concerns matter with me so far. Public pressure is important in persuading Arriva to get the right bus services for the local community."

This campaign will run and run, and we will be keeping local residents updated re progress.

Post Office to Open!

As most Haughton West residents will know, Springfield post office on Thompson Street East closed in October last year after the previous sub-post master retired.
Since then David, Andy and myself have been lobbying Post Office Ltd. to reopen this much-needed facility.

Discussions have been taking place with the owner of the shop on the corner of Springfield Road and Locomotive Street, and for a little while now the shop has has had signs up announcing it's opening soon.

We were told last month that consultation would nevertheless be necessary with residents before the post office could open, and we were about to write to    residents asking them to respond positively to save this vital local resource.

We learnt yesterday that in fact the re-opening will be going ahead anyway on August 21st.  No need then for a big consultation exercise.

That's great news, and we'll be supporting the new enterprise. It's a healthy development when branches in so many other places are having to close.

It needs everyone in the community to support the post office by actively using it, however.  Let's ensure that it's a success and remains in business for many years to come.




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By-Election News

No, not the classic mid-term result in Glasgow East, but (for me) the much more interesting result from the Simpasture ward by-election in Newton Aycliffe.

As I blogged earlier, I spent a little time in the ward working for our excellent candidate Malcolm Iveson).  The BNP threw the kitchen sink at the seat, including a visit by their leader Nick Griffin. 

Canvassing there on Saturday was interesting - not least because a car-full of BNP goons accelerated their vehicle at me as I was crossing a road - about par for the course for their mentality, I would have thought.

Still, the result came through last night, and it was a clear win for Labour by over 100 votes, I understand.

So the BNP have failed to pull the wool over the eyes of the voting public again, and the North East remains proudly a fascist-free zone.  Long may that continue!




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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Warwick

To Warwick today in my role as one of the North East CLP representatives to Labour's National Policy Forum.

We have a gruelling three days of policy debate and resolution ahead of us as we frame the proposals which will form the backbone of Labour's General Election manifesto.

As an NPF rep, I've been busy prioritising the amendments which have come from North East CLPs to the various policy documents.  My approach has been to ensure that all CLPs which have submitted amendments have had at least some of their points make it through to the final agenda. 

Also, where there's been clear support for a particular policy direction - for example on council housing, then again I've ensured that theses amendments have gone through, regardless of any personal views of my own.

We had over 500 amendments in the North East alone, which we had to fillet down to 150 to 180.  Now at the Forum itself, we will be considering 2,200 amendments from CLPs, affiliates and Socialist societies.

I guess this will be the event where my belief in party democracy will either be destroyed or entirely vindicated.  I'll keep you all updated...




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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Update

Well, we've been moved for nearly two weeks now, and finally all the boxes are empty. Broadband should be activated on Monday, and I'll recommence regular blogging then.

Still, it's been a busy few days, both on a ward level and also in respect of my Cabinet duties. Last week we held two coffee mornings at the sheltered accommodation premises in the ward, at Oban Court and Rockwell House. At Oban Court. most of the issues raised were around maintenance around the building, whilst at Rockwell House, there has been some troubling anti-social behaviour. I'll be having a further site visit with officers over the next few days to see whether it's possible to 'design out' the problems.

David and I also did a street surgery and some door knocking in the Littlebeck Drive and Riverside Way area. Again, there are problems with ASB on Rockwell Pastures and Martindale Road. Interestingly, one resident was very keen to tell me that the very last thing she wanted was wheelie bins (many of the houses in Littlebeck Drive have a steep flight of steps up to or down from their property). She was less than impressed to learn of the LibDems plans to foist wheelie bins and fortnightly collections of household waste upon an unsuspecting town. But more of that anon.

Finally, on Saturday, I joined colleagues in Newton Aycliffe to campaign for Malcolm Iveson, Labour's candidate in the Simpasture ward by-election. There's been another big push from the BNP here, including a visit from their Fuehrer Nick Griffin, but from the mood I picked up on the doorstep, the people of area aren't being fooled by the BNP's doorstep lies and evasions.

I hope to join the campaign again in the final push for votes on Polling Day this Thursday.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Good Life?

No blogging for a few days whilst we move (finally!) to a permanent address in the Borough.

The cottage we're buying will allow us to live more sustainably, and I have some plans which have my family alternately rolling their eyes or collapsing in a heap in laughter. I'll keep you all updated....

A revolution in waste management

Cabinet last night, where I took through a strategy to overhaul the Council's waste management from 6th April 2009.

Currently, through the green boxes, we recycle about 22% of our waste. That's about par for the North East, but woeful compared with a natioanl average of 38%. And of course, there are plenty of drivers for change - the threat of global warming and the need to conserve resources has produced European and Government-inspired targets to which we will have to adhere, most notably the escalating landfill tax that imposes a penalty for every tonne of waste sent to landfill.

Last year the Council retendered its waste treatment, recycling and disposal contract, which was won by John Wade's at Aycliffe. As noted by my fellow blogger Cllr. Mike Barker, Wade's have invested in a state of the art facility that will lead to substantial benefits for Darlington residents. I was able to announce the full details last night.

Green box collection will continue, but will focus on paper, glass and cardboard. Over the years a significant number of residents have approached the Council about their desire to have cardboard included as part of the doorstep recycling scheme again, and we have listened.

Residents will njow be able to put plastics and metals (cans etc) in their black bags - this is because they will be sorted at the plant, removed, and recycled, although this will be a developing process as far as the plastics are concerned. Because Wades will have a mechanical biological treatment plant, water will be driven off from the black sacks once theyu enter the process, and they will be "composted" which means the organic matter (kitchen waste and the like) will be broken down.

The end result will be that between 50% and 60% of Darlington's household waste will be recyled or composted. Just 40% should go to landfill - a significant improvement on the current position.

Together with the good news as far as cardboard and the environmental benefits are concerned, I was also able to recommend to Cabinet that we do not pursue wheelie bins and the fortnightly collection of household refuse, as some councils have adopted. I know from conversations in my own ward that opinion is divided on the merits or otherwise of wheelie bins - that certainly isn't the case as far as fortnightly collections of refuse is concerned, where there is local and nationwide opposition. I'm glad that my recommendation to rule out such a scheme for Darlington was accepted by my cabinet colleagues.

This is another, but very important step, in our Making Waste Work strategy which will be unfolding over the next few months - reducing and reusing as much of our waste will be key elements of strategy too.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Who's Nanny now.....?

It takes a politician with a rare sense of timing to issue a press release to coincide with the visit to town of a pop superstar.

Of course I'm referring to Darlington Tories' hapless PPC Edward Legard, who chose today's Echo as the vehicle for his call for a total ban on drinking alcohol in public. Not surprisingly, the Echo chose to lead with the only slightly more newsworthy visit of Watford's Reg Dwight.

So I only came across Capt. Legrand's piece on page 25. Still, let's not quibble about that, and see what he's got to say.

Edward would like to stop everyone in Darlington drinking in public. This is on the back of just two of his rare trips to the town.

Rightly, he's been slapped down by my colleague Bill Dixon. As Bill points out, the police themselves don't support blanket bans, finding them to be ineffective.

More pertinently, a total ban would wipe out at a stroke the emerging street cafe culture in Darlington. I'm not sure how the captain's call will be greeted by those who have worked hard to develop their businesses over the past few years.

But fundamentally, doesn't Legard's call run counter to the Tories' bleating for less interference by the State in people's lives? After sitting through Boris last week lecturing us on how compulsory car seats are some betrayal of Magna Carta(despite all the lives they save), I simply don't know where the Tories are positioning themselves now.

Can I suggest that before our Tory PPC sends out any more press releases on this subject, he takes the trouble to familiarise himself with what the Council, the Police and partner organisations do now to tackle alcohol-fuelled anti-social behaviour?

Like concentrating on ASB hot-spots. Removing alcohol from young people early in the evening. Targetting premises which might be supplying alcohol illegally to children. Working with the parents of the children and young people causing the trouble.

Who knows, it might even lead to a well-informed debate on the subject.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Nick & Dave Show


Thursday morning at the LGA conference was given over to set-piece speeches by the leaders of the Tories and the Libdems. There were plenty of contrasts and pointers for the future.

Firstly, "Dave". It was the first time I've seen Cameron 'in the flesh' so to speak, and he is a hugely polished performer. There's been some media chatter that ultimately he will be succeeded by Boris as party leader. The last 2 days demonstrated to me the gulf in class (ahem, politically speaking) between them - Boris simply isn't in Cameron's league.

He even tried to ape Blair by making some announcements that made the faithful squirm, including elected mayors for all major cities (whether the people want them or not).

Dave used the new buzz word "localism" a great deal, but for the most part it seemed to be a cover for the same old Tory ideology from the 80's. More power and resources for the voluntary and charitable sectors sounds fine in principle, but under the Tories last time that meant less money and reduced council services. So Cameron's hand-wringing over a broken society would have more resonance were the Tories not viscerally opposed to Sure Start, which has done more to transform the lives of some of our most disadvantaged families.



With all the parties trying to don the "localist" mantle, you might have thought that the LibDems would be ideally placed. Surprisingly then, Nick Clegg gave a muted and downbeat speech. He talked about the old LibDem shibboleths of local income tax and more accountability of PCT's, but that was about it.

The LibDems are facing something of an open goal at the moment as far as local government agenda is concerned - alas (to mix my metaphors) their policy cupboard seems to be bare.

Changing the rules of the game

As with many conferences, the most interesting time is generally spent at the fringe events picking up ideas and coming themes.


So yesterday lunchtime I attended a fascinating session on championing the green agenda. And in the afternoon, I went to a briefing on the Sustainable Communities Act 2007.


I have to confess, for a key piece of legislation, I was only dimly aware of its potential significance. A genuinely cross-party initiative, it "offers councils and communities an opportunity to put forward new thinking on how to meet the challenges of sustainability."


So what's all that about? Well, from October councils may use their citizens' panels to put forward ideas as to how services could be reformed and improved. This could be in relation to economic issues (the decline in retail diversity in the high street, for example), or to promote the social or environmental well-being of the area. Alongside the consultation, the Government will publish how public money (all public money) is spent across local areas - this is a ground-breaking initiative in itself.

The ideas for change might be on a local, regional or national level. I guess the closure of Post Offices would fit neatly here. An example given a yesterday's briefing was the management of railway stations, but it could also apply to almost anything - anywhere where local people feel their communities could be improved, including the transfer of functions from one organisation to another. In developing proposals, councils should have regard to a range of sustainability issues such as the local production of goods, local food, transport, energy use and so on.

Once all the ideas have been collected, they will be sent to the Local Government Association, which will prioritise them, and discuss them with the Secretary of State. And this will be very far from a black hole from which nothing will be heard again - the Secreatary of State is under a duty to assist. The successful proposals will then be implemented.

Councils don't have to participate in this process, but I very much hope that we in Darlington do. As well as listen to the Citizens' Panel, residents need to be involved from the start, perhaps through residents' associations, local community partnerships and parish councils. It's the start of a great debate from which local communities should emerge much stregthened.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Boris


Yes, camera phones give lousy quality.....


Top billing at the Local Government Association Conference in Bournemouth today was undoubtedly reserved for the new Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

The Tories, who are in a substantial majority here owing to their strength in local government, were all over him like a rash. I overheard two Conservative ladies giggling to each other that they would be sitting in the front row with their tongues hanging out. As you might expect, Boris does not have the same effect on me...

Boris famously resembles an Old English Sheepdog, which was fitting, as the speech he gave was a rambling shaggy hound story. Amidst the ums and ers, and the anecdotes that went nowhere, was a commitment to work with the London Boroughs. He also voiced his opposition to mandatory car booster seats. And that was about it, in 30 long minutes.

Of course the 'blue' element of the audience loved him, and I found myself smiling once or twice at his self-deprecating jokes. That approach has got Boris a long way in politics, but I found myself wondering, as Walter Mondale famously asked of Gary Hart in the 1983 Democratic nomination process, "Where's the beef?". Sooner or later, Londoners will tire of the bumbling clown approach if he isn't successful in tackling knife crime, for example, or addressing congestion.

I did have to admire his sheer chutzpah, however, in calling for elected regional government as an alternative to the Government's current plans to reform planning law. He did so, he told as, as the proud leader of regional government in the capital. I could only grimace, thinking of the role his Tory colleagues played a few years ago in thwarting the North East's opportunity to have an elected regional chamber of our own. Still, no-one ever accused Boris of being a slave to consistency.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Investing in play


You may have seen the temporary fencing erected around the play area at the top of Springfield Park.


This is the culmination of a long campaign by David, Andy and myself to improve the facilities here. Local residents have been complaining about the state of the equipment and the surfacing of the site, which has become tired and in need of an upgrade.


When the play area was put in, a link path connected it to Beauly Drive but not Sparrow Hall Drive. Parents taking their kids to the play area in wet weather from here would often find themselves with very muddy shoes afterwards! We've also been pushing for a path to complete the connection across the park.


As you can see, that's being built now. It will mean that residents from Whinfield Park can cross the playing field in wet weather to get to ASDA and Whinfield Primary. Together with the revitalised play area, it represents another significant investment by the Council in our community.


I'm off to the Local Government Association Annual Conference in Bournemouth now - back and blogging on Friday!