Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Brand XXXX


It seems the Brand/Ross/Sachs story ("Wossgate"?) is finally moving to a conclusion.

I have to confess that initially my sympathies were very much with the baying mob - Sadie at the always-excellent Sadie's Tavern got it pretty much spot on, I thought. There's been plenty of mileage for The Daily Mash too here and here.

For me, one of the fascinating elements of the story was the fact that the broadcast took place on Radio 2. Radio 2!! Regular readers will know that I'm a Radio 4 & 5 man, and I haven't listened to Radio 2 since I had to, when it was my parents station of choice in the 1970's.

Now I don't want to get all "jumpers for goalposts" on you, but it was a very, very different station then. Weekdays were dominated by the likes of Jimmy Young, Waggoners Walk and John Dunn. The nearest it got to edgy humour was The Grumbleweeds. And on Sunday evenings, we entered the cultural timewarp that was Sing Something Simple. Offhand, I don't recall a potty-mouthed Charlie Chester boasting about his impregnation of Pam Ayres...

Still, in an appropriately low-key fashion, Brand has now resigned from his show. Clearly that isn't enough for the likes of the BBC-baiting Daily Mail. So now the true agenda has moved away from the offensive taunting of a gentle and much-respected actor, to Right's desire to punish a BBC it loathes.

I agree with a commentator on the Breakfast programme this morning - if the BBC now sacks Ross, it will be open season on any BBC actor or producer which offends the moral sensibilities of the Conservative 'moral majority'. BBC bosses should recognise the danger and stand firm. It's time to draw a line under the story and move on.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Waste Debate

On Thursday, I went along to the Darlington Friends of the Earth meeting at the Quaker Meeting House in Skinnergate.

It was convened by the FoE specifcially to give a presentation on recycling in Germany to councillors, in the context of Darlington Borough Council's own plans to overhaul domestic waste disposal next April. Of course I had a special interest in the debate, given my portfolio responsibility.

I counted 14 councillors present; 10 Labour, 3 Tories and a solitary LibDem. In all, about 40 people attended. People's contributions were listened to with respect, even when significant differences of opinion were aired.

On a positive note, I thought the presentation about recycling in Bremen and Bremerhaven was very illuminating. It demonstrates the strides made on the continent in this important area. Whilst we have lagged behind cities like Bremen, ambitious towns like Darlington are now striving to catch up.

It's fair to say that there wasn't a meeting of minds on the new waste contract. Darlington FoE don't believe that waste should be sorted for recycling at a processing centre (as will be the case for cans, for example, after next April) and instead feel that everything should be separated by the householder at the kerbside. So in Bremen, for example, we heard that each property has 7 recycling bins.

In my contribution, I pointed out that there were points of agreement between the Darlington FoE and councillors from all the parties in Darlington. There is a cross-party consensus, it seems to me, that climate change is a real threat and is having a demonstrable impact now on the environment. I pointed out that Darlington has a strong environmental record already (think of the twin Sustainable Travel Town and Cycling Demonstration Town initiatives, for example).

Therefore, I thought it was a shame that the FoE weren't able to acknowledge at all the enormous change for the better that the new waste contract represents, even given their reservations about some of the scheme's details. This year we will recycle about 25% of our household waste - next year that is projected to rise to 50% and we have ambitions to take the figure to 70% by 2020. The contract with Wades will revolutionise recycling in the Borough, and make us one of the top performing in the North East, if not more widely.

That's a remarkable increase. Given that material will be taken out of the black bags for recycling, it means that everyone in the Borough will be taking part in the scheme, whether they like it or not! Currently, about 50% of people in Darlington actively recycle, which means that a lot of material is going into landfill which could otherwise be reused.

Before I had to leave, FoE member Richard Grassick made a very useful contribution in which he pointed out that there certainly were areas where FoE and the Council could co-operate - on waste minimisation, for example. I completely agree - the "reduce" message is a key driver of our waste policy, and there are signs that this is bearing some fruit - the total tonnage of waste generated in darlington actually fell during the last quarter.

With councillors on the Environment Scrutiny Committee gearing up to meet with local supermarkets to see how they can help with the 'reduce, reuse and recycle' approach, I hope that last Thursday's meeting will be the beginning of a fruitful partnership that will advance the sustainability message in Darlington.

Stoke shows the way

Thanks to Dave Walsh and Jenny for pointing out to me that the residents of Stoke-on-Trent have voted decisively to ditch the office of elected Mayor.

Stoke uniquely chose to plump for an "Elected Mayor and Council Manager" system back in May 2002. By common consent the experiment has been a disaster, and Stoke has the unenviable reputation of being a political basket case (it's the town where the BNP have 9 councillors, after all). The BNP were setting great store by their plan to win the Mayoral election in 2011, which thankfully has come to nothing. There's a no-holds barred piece by Patrick Barkham in the Guardian on Stoke politics here.

So where does this leave the elected Mayor movement? You might have thought in the can. After all, in the 9 Mayoral referenda held around the country since the heyday of the movement in May 2002, 8 have resulted in "No" votes (including Darlington last September).

In all, there have 37 referenda, with only 12 districts voting for an elected mayor (and now one of those has recanted). Elected Mayors have proved deeply controversial, introducing American-style politics into English local government - Stoke is the most prominent reverse to date, but there has also been a groundswell of opinion against concentrating power into the hands of a single individual in Lewisham, Doncaster and Mansfield too, which all voted "Yes" back in 2001.

It's a shame then that despite the consistently-expressed views of local residents, the barking boffins at the New Local Government Network (who are the sole cheerleadres for the idea) retain influence at Westminster. To be fair to the Government, they have acknowledged some of the deficiencies of the current scheme, and promised to create more of a level playing field, allowing a way back for towns like Stoke.

There remains one party alone wedded to this crackers policy - and that's the Tories. For reasons I can't begin to fathom, David Cameron has promised to impose elected Mayors on big cities with no local consultation. Like a lot of Conservative policy, this has received little nationwide attention to date, but this will change in the run-up to the next General Election.

At the Local Government Conference, even Tories were booing 'Dave' when he insisted on sticking to the policy. After Stoke, maybe it's time for him to reconsider.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Berwick




Stephen Hughes MEP and Labour PPC Alan Strickland with one of Saturday's Labour teams.

One of the exciting things about standing in the European Parliamentary elections is having a campaign area which stretches from the Tweed to the Tees.

So it was good to travel to Berwick on Saturday with Stephen Hughes MEP to talk about current developments in the European Parliament, as well as Labour's campaign in the run-up to the June 2009 elections.

Berwick has an active Labour presence, marshalled by their PPC Alan Strickland. I met Alan at this year's Labour Party conference, and was impressed by his dynamism. Introducing the discussion on Saturday, Alan told us about his recent experience fighting for better conditions for tenants in the constituency - there are some real abuses taking place, and local people are crying out for a champion. Neither the Tories nor the LibDems seem in the least interested, and Alan would certainly make a first-class constituency MP.

After the talk, we joined Alan and party members door-knocking in Tweedmouth. It was especially interesting for me to speak to a couple of people who had never voted Labour in their lives, but who are now thinking about supporting Gordon Brown after the events of the last few weeks.

We'll be back in Berwick as the campaign develops.

Eco Schools




Dodmire Infants and Nursery School

Last week I had a valuable briefing on the progress being made in Darlington on the Eco School initiative. I also attended a conference in Newcastle on assessing how councils can respond to the climate change agenda generally, and to the question of adaptation in particular.

To deal with the last one first - the way in which councils and their partners are being assessed is changing via the new Local Area Agreement system (LAA). Rather than prescribe how each council is judged, councils have the opportunity to select the criteria which are particularly relevant to the communities they serve. Partners like the Fire or Health Authorities have input into this too. The result is a medley of indicators, and one of those selected by Darlington is N188, or Adapting to Climate Change.

This refers specifically to how councils respond to the realities of climate change (floods, higher temperatures and the like). It contrasts with mitigation, which is how we can alter our lifestyles to at least counter some of the damaging changes taking place in the environment.

Still with me? Well, the conference in Newcastle, organised by One North East was very much aimed at Town Hall professionals, but as a lead elected member I found the material very useful. Like many councils around the North East, a lot of work is taking place on this key issue on an unco-ordinated basis, but the challenge of N188 will be to bring all this work together into a coherent policy-driven approach.

The Eco Schools meeting at Dodmire Infants and Nursery School was just as illuminating, but at a completely different level. This is a Government initiative to enable every school to be a sustainable school by 2020 - as the website says, "Eco-Schools is an international award programme that guides schools on their sustainable journey, providing a framework to help embed these principles into the heart of school life."

So how is that being put into action? Well, 27 schools in Darlington have paper recycling facilities, for example. And schools across the Borough are at varying stages of progress in gaining the prestigious Green Flag award via the Eco Schools scheme, which symbolises excellence in the field of environmental activity.

At Dodmire Infants and Nursery, we had a presentation from the children themselves. They talked about saving energy and turning off electrical appliances, for example, or growing their own produce on the school's allotment. They've also forged links with a school in Sierra Leone. They could answer quite complex questions too, suggesting that the work had really taken root. It was an inspiring afternoon, and I'll be monitoring progress to see how we can enthuse all schools in Darlington to take up this great project.

Mwah! Mwah!

People with right leaning politics often seem suceptible to conspiracy-theory stuff. Like the idea that The Northen Echo is full of closet socialists. My Tory colleague Cllr. Mike Cartwright hints at this in his most recent post.

So I'm not sure Mike's fears will have been allayed by Pete Barron's laugh out loud anecdote from Friday's Mayor's Ball....

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Trailblazing to....Stockton



Defying the grim weather predictions, about 40 cyclists bravely set out this morning to 'christen' the new National Route 14 cycle route between Darlington and Stockton.

Sandy, AJ and I joined them, with Sandy doing all the hard work with AJ on the tagalong.

It was my first chance to use the new bridge over the A66 which had a far gentler gradient that I'd been expecting. We then followed the bridleway to the roundabout on the A67 outside MSG and travelled up the cul-de-sac road that eventually joins the Low Newton bypass route. There's a bit more work for Stockton BC to do here to link the 2 sections, which should be completed in the next year or so - it was still perfectly passable.

Sandy and AJ had headed home by this time (tackling the hill outside Sadberge without stopping, which is no mean feat) and a few others turned back - those remaining carried on through Long Newton, Elton and Hartburn. The cycle route to Stockton town centre was well-marked and travelled through off-road open space - where we did cycle on the roads, they were for the most part quiet and perfectly usable by the most cautious cyclist.

The route enters Stockton town centre via Dovecot Street, although the pedestrianised area itself is, I'm afraid to say, not open to cyclists (some work there for colleagues in Stockton). As you can imagine, we turned a few heads as the massed band of cyclists with banners and flags flying entered the town.

I then headed on to the Tees Barrage - in all the journey took me about 2 hours, and could be managed by anyone. Well worth a try.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Contest threatens to become a circus

I can confirm that the following are standing in the North Road by-election;

Ann-Marie Curry (LibDem)
John Hoodless (BNP)
George Jenkinson (Tory)
Steve Jones (Independent)
John Vasey (Labour)

Steve's candidacy has provoked some inevitable spluttering incredulity. Over at the Northern Echo, Pete Barron in his blog has said that Steve's decision to stand makes his blood boil. The front page of today's Echo carried an uncompromising headline "Ludicrous" and pointed out that not only would the by-election cost £11,000, but 2 schools would have to be shut for the day to accommodate polling.

Mike Barker for the LibDems is also spitting feathers. He hopes that Steve will heed the Echo headline, and withdraw before Wednesday. Some hope.

I have to say that beneath Mike's outrage, there's more than a little hint of fear. Remember, despite the bad publicity that Steve attracted last time, when he was national news and for all the wrong reasons, he still comfortably came second, sandwiched between Fred and Mike (now there's an image to conjure with). Not everyone reads the Echo, and I've always got the impression that Steve is personally well-liked around the ward. The LibDems would be far happier spinning half-truths about Labour alone in the contest in their Focuses, and having to attack Steve too could make them look shrill and negative.

Steve's candidacy, in which he and Labour's John Vasey are genuinely local people, throws the contest wide open. We're starting way, way behind the LibDems in this race (the difference between our leading candidate and Mike Barker in 3rd place for the LibDems last time was over 430 votes). Still, I shall be trudging up Eldon Street with a renewed spring in my step in the coming weeks.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

November in Lansdowne Street

All sorts of Darlington-related polling news to tell you.

Firstly, as you may have seen from my colleague Mike Barker's site, three councillors have been 'evicted' from the "I'm a Councillor get me out of here" event.

It was good to see that lots of Darlington councillors applied to take part (including me) but only 6 could be successful. I understand that the remaining candidates have been inundated with questions and points from schoolchildren from around the Borough, so the initiative has certainly captured the imagination of children and young people. Unfortunately, access to the site as a guest is pretty temperamental.

Interestingly, young people have chosen to send for an early bath the two Tory councillors, fellow blogger Gill Cartwright and Kate Davies from Pierremont. Gill and Kate are two of the most aggressive younger councillors amongst the Tories' 2007 intake, so their rejection may not be good news for the Conservatives' long-term prospects in the town.

It leaves my Labour Cabinet colleagues Jenny Chapman and Chris McEwan up against LibDem Mike Barker. I wouldn't like to call it, but I note that with characteristic political skill, Mike is already lowering expectations over on his blog.

And if that weren't enough, the three main parties are hurriedly gearing up for a by-election in North Road ward, following the disqualification of independent councillor Steve Jones for non-attendance. Like my colleague Mark Burton, I liked Steve, and always found him to be a good ward activist, although (ahem) I did play my part in breaking the news that he had signed the BNP candidates' papers in the ward contest back in 2007.

The two frontrunners, the LibDems and Labour, are both standing candidates who were unsuccessful in Harrowgate Hill last time - Anne-Marie Curry for the LibDems, and seasoned former councillor John Vasey for Labour. I see from the comments on a previous thread that the LibDems are pretty cocky about victory in the seat.

With Labour picking up in the polls, and the LibDems crashing, I wouldn't be so sure. There's also going to be a surprise candidate to mix things up - I can honestly say the very last person I would have thought of as an entrant in the poll, but one who may cause Mike B et al just a few headaches....

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A new recruit

For some time now, Northern Echo journalists have been dipping in and out of blogging, mostly displaying the same sort of enthusiasm for the art that I have for the gym.

All that's changed now, with editor Pete Barron starting up his own blog on the Echo site. Pete's managed an obscene level of 10 posts in 4 days already, which is just showing off, frankly. Where does he find the time?

In all seriousness, Pete is a very welcome addition to blogging in the town - his level of commitment to various causes around the Borough is exemplary, and his hard work has guaranteed that the Echo can truly badge itself as a paper at the heart of the community it serves.

His blog is going to be required reading, so I've added a link on my blogroll.

European Parliament visit






I spent two days this week on a candidates' visit to the European Parliament in Brussels.

It was a chance to talk to colleagues about their developing campaigns, as well as meet key people in the European Socialist Group, as well as our own Labour MEPs.

Stephen Hughes is our hard-working Labour MEP here in the North East, and he's standing once again with Fay Tinnion and myself. After narrowly missing out last time, when Mo O'Toole lost, there's every chance we can recapture that second seat back again from either the LibDems or the Tories. As someone who was on the Party's list, but not a candidate last time (it's a long story), it's clear that we are far better prepared for this campaign than 5 years ago. Together with Stephen and Fay I've tweaked the national campaign to maximise resources here in the North East, and had a very good reception from a number of party members who are raring to go.

We have a positive message across a range of key issues, from the economy to climate change, energy security and combatting terrorism. It's in marked contrast to the disarray amongst the Tories, and the embarrassing spectacle that is UKIP in the European Parliament.

Whilst we spent most of the two days holed up in meetings, we also saw the Parlaiment in action, albeit first thing in the morning when there were few there. It started to fill up later on as the first vote was taken...

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Iceland

I'm in Brussels for a couple of days visiting the European Parliament as Labour's campaign for the elections in 2009 moves up a gear.  I'll blog more on this when I get back.

Following news in today's press that several councils had large sums tied up in Icelandic banks (which they may not get back) I have checked this morning and can confirm that Darlington Borough Council had no deposits there.

UPDATE

There's some gallows humour on Ebay today (Friday), where someone has put Iceland up for sale.

Badged as a "Unique opportunity to buy a Northern European country" it says that "Iceland will provide the winning bidder with - a habitable environment, Icelandic Horses and admittidly a somewhat sketchy financial situation...PLEASE NOTE: GREENLAND AND Björk ARE NOT INCLUDED IN THIS AUCTION!"

Bidding started at a 99p start price and without reserve, although if you are thinking about it as a Christmas present for one of those relatives who has everything, be warned that this has now risen to £10 million.

Monday, October 06, 2008

After the fire



One of my more important jobs during my blogging hiatus was to visit Darlington Fire Station for a briefing on current operations.

As a newly-appointed member of County Durham and Darlington Fire Authority, getting to know my local station (becoming a "member champion" in the jargon) is a key task.

Beyond that, however, I wanted to thank the officers personally for their sterling efforts during the fire at the Kings Head Hotel last month. That there were not serious injuries or worse; that the building not completely gutted and the fire contained was a testimony to the skill and the bravery of the fire fighters on duty that night. That the Summer Market Spectaculoar was able to go-ahead the following morning almost completely unaffected was remarkable, and a testimony to all the emergency planning undertaken by the emergency services together with the Borough Council.

As I indicated at the subsequent Fire Authority meeting, it's a shame that the bravery displayed on the night, in particular to rescue two Chinese guests, was not picked up by the media at the time. I was assured that there will be an opportunity for the full account of the night to be told to the press.

Out of the same Fire Authority meeting came the news that Northumbria Water refused to allow fire fighters to alter the water pressure in the pipes serving the town centre, which was requested to help tackle the blaze. Fortunately, resourceful crews were able to tap the nearby River Skerne, but as my Tory colleague Doris Jones pointed out at the meeting, what would have been the consequences had this source not been available?

I understand that Scrutiny will be receiving a briefing from CDDFRA on the Kings Head fire, and I'm sure this issue will be explored in greater detail then.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

A whiff of sulphur




Regular transatlantic reader of this blog Paul Cain has asked me via the comments for my thoughts on the return to frontline UK politics of Peter Mandelson. I gather from Paul's comments ("a day of infamy") that he's less than impressed.

Certainly large swathes of the right-wing press have been reacting rather like a maiden aunt who's been goosed by the gardener.

For me, I thoroughly welcome the return of one of the "big beasts" of the New Labour project. Let's not forget Mandelson was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing in the investigation into his second Cabinet resignation. And unlike Jeffrey Archer, to whom Paul compares him, he's hardly been cooling his heels at Her Majesty's Pleasure since - in fact he's been a highly effective and respected Trade Commissioner at the EU.

I suppose we should have seen this coming since Conference. The visceral loyalty displayed there to the Prime Minsiter was led by some highly unexpected figures - not only was Mandelson sitting in the front row for Gordon's speech, but on the fringe 'blasts from the past' like Alistair Campbell and Derek Draper were beating the drum not only for party loyalty, but also taking the fight back to the Tories.

There's an excellent summary of the history of the Brown/Mandelson 90's feud by Andrew Rawnsley in today's Observer. At the end of the day, however, Mandelson in political terms is a strategic and tactical genius - anyone who needs reminding of the crucial role he played in the early days on New Labour should have a look at the excellent Soundbites and Spin Doctors by Nick Jones, which covers the period.

There's an argument in politics for taking the steps that your enemies would wish you didn't. If I was David Cameron this morning, I'd be a little less smug about my party's prospects at the next election.

Darlington Food Festival



There's plenty of time today to get yourselves down to the Market Place for the Food Festival.

Sandy, AJ and I went down yesterday - the town centre was packed, despite the Autumn chill. The food tent in the Market Place (video'd above) was heaving and trade seemed to be brisk.

The weekend is a showcase for our local and regional producers - everything from bread, cheese and pickles to dairy products and food with a more exotic touch. As my colleague Cllr. Andy Scott says in the programme introduction, the message is very much about taking a healthier and environmentally friendly approach to buying and cooking food.

Today, as well as the usual supporting acts of bands, face painters, jugglers, balloon makers and the like, Lesley Waters from Ready Steady Cook and This Morning will be giving demonstrations in the food tent at 12pm, 1pm and 2pm.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Decision Makers - Reshuffle Special



The latest Northern Decision Makers is now online - this edition features an interview with Iain Wright, MP for Hartlepool who is still (I think) a Minister for Housing. Iain turned in a typically feisty performance, and had some interesting reflections on the return of his town's former MP Peter Mandelson.

Iain had agreed to the interview weeks ago, and we weren't to know that recording would take place in the midst of Gordon Brown's reshuffle. An anxious time for all ministers, and fair play to Ian, he continued with the filming whilst waiting to hear his fate. Theatrically, we asked Ian to put his mobile on the table during the interview and .... - well watch the film and see for yourselves.

Stress Bunny

I know, I know, it's been a while - after Conference the commitments just piled up, but I'm just about on an even keel again.

So I've not had to commit thousands of words on the finer points of my my second Labour Conference speech (which went ok, and gave me a chance to talk up the town); or Gordon and the plotters; or last Thurdsay's Council meeting; or a quite surreal meeting with the Fire Brigade's auditors.

Still, there's plenty to reflect on, beginning with...