Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Off on my travels again

With the winter nights drawing in, I'm about to embark on another round of meetings with community groups and parish councils around the Borough.

I tried this last year (when I held the Health & Leisure portfolio) as part of the Council's listening exercise, and it seemed to be well-received. It certainly helped me understand better some of the challenges faced by our community at first hand.

The 'peg' on which I intend to hold these visits is the introduction of the new waste collection service in April 2009. These will mean big changes for refuse collection in the Borough, and a step-change in improvement as far as our recycling rates are concerned.

Very kindly, last year almost all the groups I wrote to invited me along at some point, and I'm looking forward to meeting some old and new faces when I repeat the exercise now.

Waay-Haaay!! - The Great Tory Give-Away Continues


I've commented before on Darlington Tories' urge to promise big spending increases without having the faintest idea where the money's going to come from.

And today I read in the Northern Echo that local Tory bigwig Charles Johnson wants the Council to promise free swimming to all under 16's on the back of a national government initiative.

As you might expect, the Cabinet looked very carefully at the proposal, which would have provided money for a strictly limited period of 2 years. Whilst the scheme might work elsewhere, in Darlington it would add £175,000 to the Council Tax bill in each of those 2 years. And after that - well who knows. Presumably Charles is comfortable with the Council picking up the whole tab (£225,000 a year) then.

Of course everyone agrees that providing this service would be great for children and young people, but to propose it with out having the faintest idea where the money is coming from in the longer term is simply reckless.

Instead the Council will be working with the local PCT to prioritise spending for activities which young people themselves are asking for. Affordable and responsible. It's a shame the Tories can't say the same.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Monday Morning Smile



Thanks to regular correspondent Mike McTimoney for sending me a link to this YouTube variation on an old theme - and a bit of politics to boot!

Crisis in the Print Industry

There's some sobering news from the media that deliver the local news - Northern Echo editor Pete Barron has spelled out how difficult things are for local and regional papers in his blog and in his printed comment piece today.

And there is precious little individual consumers can do about it - as Pete spells out, regional papers are trapped between the Scylla of falling advertising revenues and (to a lesser extent) the Charybdis of the internet. Plummeting income is placing even the most well-established titles in danger.

In these grisly times, the Echo is having to lay off 17 members of its editorial staff, and close district offices in Barnard Castle, Redcar, Richmond and Stockton.

One would hope that the Echo is better able to weather these storms - after all, it has an exemplary track record as a campaigning paper, very far from the tabloid sleaze merchants which dominate some other areas. Pete is more thanm simply a local editor, but someone who has thrown himself enthusiastically into a myriad of local causes. For all that Darlington councillors (on both sides) can mutter about some perceived instance of bias, we are very fortunate to have a paper that takes accuracy and a non-partisan approach to the news so seriously.

And although sometimes I end up gurning at the breakfast table at some of his comments, there's no doubt that columnists like Mike Amos add to the colour of the area.

Yet ultimately the fate of papers like the Echo or the D & S Times won't be decided in Darlington, but many miles away. The Northern Echo is part of the Newsquest organisation, whose parent group is based thousands of miles away in the US. Likewise, the Sunderland and Hartlepool Echos are owned by a Scottish company. Ultimately, no amount of local sentiment or decades of service will sway the distant bean counters.

Let's hope that the Government's fiscal stimulus to the economy today provides some relief for these key local enterprises.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Carry on Sergeant

Amidst the wailing and gnashing of teeth at John Sergeant's act of hari-kiri on Strictly Come Dancing, I have to say I thought he did the right thing.

John's a shrewd political operator as well as a warm and witty guy - I suspect that BBC bosses had told him that he was easily topping the viewers' poll, and potentially could have knocked out some of the very serious contenders.

The national mood might well then have turned - it was evident after the last show that he was receiving the cold shoulder from the remaining contestants.

So "smart move, John" I thought - right up until this morning, when I read that this week John and Kristina were going to essay Sophie Ellis Bextor's Murder on the Dancefloor.

It promised to be a tongue-in-cheek classic, and probably worth the license fee alone. 

So now I rather feel as if we've been robbed.....




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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I have a little list

Thanks to my friends at TWAFA (Tyne & Wear Anti-Fascist Action) for alerting me last night to the astonishing news that the BNP's entire membership list has been posted online, perhaps by a disgruntled ex-member.

Four of you have also helpfully commented on this via the previous "Small earthquake in North Road" post. It would seem there are 28 BNP members who give Darlington as part of their postal address, although this includes one poor 16 year old, who I'm sure now he wishes he'd given the racists a very wide berth when they knocked on his door.

One of you has also offered to post the names of the Darlington BNP members online via the comments section, and I have considered whether to do this within this post.

On balance, I don't think this would be sensible - whilst I don't doubt for a moment that this is a list of people the BNP thinks are or have been members, I'm reluctant to post the names myself because I'm sure it will include mistakes, including telephone numbers. I don't want anyone to be falsely accused as a result of some BNP bureaucratic cock-up. It could also breach Data Protection legislation.

Following the lead given by Lancaster UAF, I'm also not publishing a link to the site directly, but I would simply direct you to the Wikileaks site - always a worthwhile read!

This is the most serious setback the BNP have had in years, and we can only hope that a lot of these people will be shamed into leaving the party as a result of this disclosure. Being a member of the racist, Holocaust-denying party is no longer a dirty little secret.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Get on your skates

...or any other form of non-motorised transport that takes your fancy, and head down to Ashford this week, where a revolution in transport is taking place.

There the Council has transformed a 3-lane fast-moving one-way system into a 4-lane, well, "space" where no one form of transport has precedence over another.

So a pedestrian crossing the road has as much right to do so as, say, a juggernaught thundering from Dover. Needless to say, the engineers are gushing like a parents of a newly-born, "We accept it will take a bit of getting used to but we believe that ending segregation between cars and pedestrians will make roads safer and more civilised" says Richard Stubbings, the project manager at Kent County Council.

Reading the story in Saturday's Times reminded me fondly of my stint as the Highways portfolio holder. This is the kind of initiative that would be lauded as good practice, and would apparently meet all of our Local Transport Plan aspirations. For a while, I'd be caught up in the enthusiasm. Then the implications in all their gory details would become clearer as I thought it through. It would achieve the status of "very courageous policy", (after Yes Minister), and the idea would be binned. It would not be one of the initiatives which the Council took forward to consultation and possible implementation.

I would put this scheme in the "courageous" category. That seems curious, when there's another well-known example in London's Kensington High Street which has been running for several years. If pedestrians, cyclists, cars, buses and lorries can mingle there, then why not in Ashford?

The trial in Ashford, however, isn't a back street, or even a main thoroughfare, but the town's ring road. Darlington has piloted mingling different transport modes in its Pedestrian Heart, but these have all been non-motorised (with the exception of scooters for disabled people). Given its location, Ashford's scheme can expect to receive a substantial amount of through traffic from places where the rules of the road remain unchanged. The project will require signing of exceptional quality to be clear and unambiguous to everyone who uses the road daily.

It just needs one bloody minded pedestrian to observe, "they've got brakes, haven't they?" as they step into the road in front of an oncoming articulated truck,whilst the truck driver thinks, "They've got legs, haven't they?" for a collison to occur. And in these accidents, it's never the truck which comes off worst. Inevitably, schemes like this can attract this type of headline.

I have never been convinced that experiments which challenge the fundamentals of road culture can be trialled safely on a piecemeal basis. I wish the councillors and transport planners in Kent all the best, but I fear for this piece of utopian engineering.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Small earthquake in North Road...

Congratulations to Ann Marie Curry, who as expected won the North Road seat, vacated by Steve Jones' disqualification, for the LibDems yesterday.

The final result was;

CURRY (LibDem) 561 (51%)
VASEY (Labour) 262 (24%)
JENKINSON (Tory) 115 (10%)
HOODLESS (BNP) 106 (9.5%)
JONES (Independent) 60 (5.5%)

Commiserations to John Vasey, who would have made an excellent local councillor for the ward. I'm sure his time will come again.

Last night's result was remarkably similar to the 2007 election, when the votes are aggregated to take account of parties which did not stand a full slate. The outcome then was;

LibDem 55%
Labour 23%
Tories 12%
BNP 10%

So the LibDems actually lost ground, and Labour was the only party to increase its share of the vote. Thinking about the wider battle between Labour and the Tories ahead of the General Election, it's also significant that Labour polled more than double the number of votes of the Conservative candidate.

And that tootling noise you can hear? Well, that's the sound of the LibDems merrily blowing their own trumpets. Regular readers of this blog will know that LibDems collectively have many faults. Plainly excessive humility is not amongst them...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

North Road News


"Don't worry Cap'n - I have a cunning plan!"

The North Road by-election ends tomorrow - any kind of debate between the parties has been drowned out by the usual LibDem Sturm und Drang. Frankly, this number of leaflets from one party brings the whole process into disprepute. Still, we'll see the result on Thursday night.

The by-election has been considerably enlivened, however, by the entry of Darlington's newest double act - local taxi driver and Conservative candidate George Jenkinson, and this blog's old friend Captain LeGrand, the town's Tory PPC.

I don't think we've seen the like since Baldrick teamed up with Hugh Laurie's Lieutenant The Honourable George Colthurst St. Barleigh in Blackadder Goes Forth, to teach the bally Hun a lesson!

Alas, Captain Legard has been seen wandering the streets of North Road alone in his quest to drum up support for his trusty retainer. This never looks good, but it mirrors a report I was given from a couple of months back, where Legard was working the High Row with only his son for company.

A touching family scene, perhaps, but hardly a picture of a local Tory party united behind its PPC.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The World at your Feet


A quick plug for the return of International Day celebrations here in Darlington this Sunday.

Organised by Darlington Communities, this is a free and friendly day for people to enjoy and learn about different cultures. There will be drumming, hair braiding, arts & crafts from our Polish and Asian communities, traditional British crafts, storytelling, dancing, singing workshops, a Bangra band, Thai, Chinese and Bollywood dancers and food from around the world.

Everyone is welcome to this FREE event on Sunday 16th November 1 - 8pm at the Forum Music Centre, Borough Road. For further information please contact Joanne Scott on 388457 or norman Maltby on 358794.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Sackful of Santas?

Regular readers of this blog may recall that this time last year I had a Victor Meldrew moment when I learned that there was to be no Santa in the Cornmill for Christmas 2007. Via the comments column, may of you agreed that this was an own goal for the town.

So I'm delighted to announce that Santa (magically, of course) will somehow be in 3 separate Darlington town centre locations in 2008 at the same time - The Cornmill, The Market Grotto and Queen Street. Naturally, there won't be 3 different Santas, because as every 5-year old knows, that would be wrong and just plain silly.

It looks like Santa will start listening to all the good boys and girls from the beginning of December - your best chance of catching him at several of the locations will be on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Children wanting to write to Santa can drop off their letters at the Tourist Information Centre in the Dolphin Centre - it will cost £1.50 to get a reply, and letters need to be posted by 12th December.

There's plenty more going on too: -

November 23rd. Christmas Lights swith-on, 3pm - 4.30pm. New lights will be on show for the first time, covering the town clock and the historic yards.

November 27th & December 4th from 12pm to 8pm. Christingle Markets to coincide with late shopping days on Thursdays.

December 11th - 14th. Winter Wonderland Market. A great time to pick up all your Christmas essentials. The 4-day event will see a double marquee in the Market Square filled with stalls and entertainment, including carol singing.

As more news about Christmas in Darlington becomes available, I'll post it here.

UPDATE

30th November. Hurworth Christmas Fair, The Grange, Hurworth. A "proper" village fair, with lots of stalls, lovely hot refreshments and Santa (TBC)

6th December - 18th January. Darlington Civic Theatre's giant pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk comes to town, starring Ian Reddington (Coronation Street's Vernon), Boogie Pete, (Pete Hillier from CBeebies) and the hilarious Charlie Cairoli. Tickets are from £11 - £18.50, make sure you don't miss out, book your tickets NOW on 01325 486555.

(NB Nick's note - I'm guessing that's Charlie Cairoli jnr - the 1970's TV clown legend died in 1980).

Monday Morning Smile



Back to the 70's again, for this classic from Benny Hill. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Remembrance Sunday - Darlington 2008




(1) A view from the procession from Holy Trinity Church to the Cenotaph (2) Crowds observe the 2 minute silence (3) Wreath-laying.

Ninety years on from the calling of the Armistice in 1918, pictures from today's Remembrance Day Service in Darlington.

Regular attenders at the Cenotaph commented afterwards that this year's observance was particularly well attended. The sacrifice of our armed services is as relevant now as it was during the global conficts of the twentieth century.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Final Thoughts







A truly remarkable speech. The skilfully edited highlights were compressed into a still lengthy 8 minute excerpt on Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday morning, and it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I can't recall being so affected by a piece of political theatre via the radio since Neil Kinnock's "I warn you" speech before the 1983 General Election.

Listening to Obama in Illinois, you can see how he's moved millions into coming together as part of a nation-changing progressive coalition. Messianic? Perhaps. But America has an uncanny knack of throwing up visionary leaders at times of national peril - from Washington to Lincoln and then FDR and Kennedy.

I had intended to put together a piece on how Obama's victory has reshaped the political map of the US set in stone since Johnson's Civil Rights Act lost the South for the Democrats in the mid 60's - but I see that Hopi has done that far better than I could.

So amongst the acres of newsprint on the result, perhaps time to indulge in that antithesis of 'proper history' - the what-if. What if Hillary and not Barack had won the Democratic nomination? Would we be toasting another Clinton as the 44th President of the United States?

I'm not so sure. John McCain's heroic story was a powerful antidote to the campaigning brilliance of the Clintons - he had spent years building up a reputation as an independent operator whilst Bill and Hillary were the classic Washington Beltway act. I also doubt whether McCain's team would have felt impelled to make the disastrous mistake of putting Sarah Palin on the ticket had Barack lost in the primaries - after all, the mere idea of a Hillary Presidency was enough to motivate the Republican Conservative base into frothing action, and that would have left the way clear for McCain to select a far more telling VP candidate - like Joe Lieberman. Hillary would have found herself on the wrong foot throughout.

I've always liked and respected McCain, particularly after he stood up to Bush and the Rovian forces of darkness in the 2000 primaries. It took a particularly evil campaign to finish him off, when push polling that implied that McCain's adopted Bangladeshi-born daughter was an African-American child he fathered out of wedlock.

So it's good that McCain pretty much emerged from the 2008 election with his honour intact. However, selecting Palin holed his reputation for sound judgement below the waterline, and effectively the Presidential election finished then as a competitive exercise.

It seems likely that Palin will play a divisive role in Republican politics for years to come - and add to the gaiety of the nations. Tuesday night's result leaves the Republicans in the wilderness just as 1997 marked the beginning of a long period of Tory banishment, from which they have yet truly to emerge.

On Duty with Green Watch

On Wednesday evening, I joined Darlington Fire Service's Green Watch as they prepared for the busiest time of their year - Bonfire Night.

Fellow Fire Service Board members Cllrs. Doris and Brian Jones came along too, as did Jono, Alpha's roving reporter and news presenter. It's fair to say we had an eye-opening experience.

Arriving at 5pm, the first hour or so was unnaturally quiet in Darlington, although we could hear the calls pouring in for crews elsewhere in the County via the comms system.

Then the first call came in - to open space on Meynell Road behind Morrisons on North Road, where it was reported that there was a bonfire started by children. We accompanied the crew in one of the Fire Service's landrovers.

When we got there, we found a big blaze of what looked like rubbish and broken pallets. There were about 50 people around it - many of them seemed to be children and young people, although there were some adults in one corner. The fire engine had beaten us there, and had ascertained that there were adults present - the Fire Service's risk assessment procedure is only to intervene if there are no adults at the scene, or if there is alcohol being drunk, or there is an evident fire threat to the community. In this case, it was felt safe to leave the bonfire alone.

We left to try and find the second bonfire reported in Hartington Way, off of Brinkburn Road. We couldn't locate it, so returned to Meynell Road, where by this tiume youths were setting off fireworks via an impromtu "mortar" device fashioned out of scrap. Fresh wood was being scavenged and transported on a B&Q trolley. I shudder to think what would have happened one of the rockets had fallen over and shot into the crowd.

We were then called to a report of a fire in a skip in Cleveland Terrace. By the time we got there, the attending crew had put the fire out (it was a very minor blaze, apparently). Because of communication problems, a fire engine had also been diverted to the call from Newton Aycliffe, and they arrived 10 minutes later. They then got a call to attend a bonfire in Ferryhill, which was obviously going to take them far longer to get to from Darlington.

During the evening, we heard a report of a house fire in Easington. As the night wore on, it became clear that it was a serious blaze, with possibly people trapped inside the buidling. Four tenders, with more on the way, were there by the time we finished.

So what did I learn? Well;

(1) Informal bonfires are a real menace, diverting crews away from serious blazes to what are often small but annoying fires on open space where crews can't intervene. It would compound an already fraught situation if crews were dealing with nuisance fires such as these when a house fire blaze was reported, as happened in Easington on Wednesday. Serious injury or even death could result.

(2) I shall be asking the Council's Chief Executive to ensure that we liaise with the Fire Service next year to mount a campaign to remove informal bonfires as they are constructed on public open space. Street Scene already do a fine job helping in this way, but I would hope that with better publicity, residents could help identify more potential bonfires next year.

(3) Fire crews are in a real Catch 22 when they attend blazes such as the one we saw at Meynell Road. If it had been necessary to intervene, there was every chance the crowd might have turned nasty - however I understand the Police will only attend if the crews themselves are under attack! Fire fighters already have a difficult and dangerous enough job to do without coming under attack from a barrage of stones.

(4) I have to say that if I had been a resident, or one of the ward councillors, I would have been annoyed when no action was taken regarding the fire and fireworks at Meynell Road. Understanding the crews' dilemma now, I see things a bit differently. Again, some publicity would help residents understand when the Fire Service can and can't intervene.

(5) Communications between crews and HQ seem to be an issue. November 5th, of course, is a particularly hectic night, but with one frequency only available to crews. it was very difficult to pass on information about fires which had been dealt with - understandably, the priority was for HQ to rely news of fresh outbreaks to the nearest crews.

Apparently, this situation will be improved somewhat when the new Regional Command Centre is working, but it is an issue I will be watching nonetheless.

Finally, just to thank everyone for putting up with me, and providing a thoroughly instructive evening. I now have a far better awareness of the work of the brave fire crews than I did at the start of the evening.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Monday Morning Smile



It's Monday morning. Again. And it's cold. But I defy you not to smile at this classic sketch from Eric & Ernie...

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Welly Washing


After all the recent rain, South Park was a sea of mud. Fortunately, we'd taken our wellies, and afterwards plodded back to the car, which I'd parked in Abbots Yard.

En route, a communal event was taking place on High Row, as anyone who had been in South Park and was wearing wellingtons washed them off in the water feature.

We splashed around too, and had great fun. Another service provided courtesy of your thoughtful Labour Council!

Ooooh! Aaaah!!



Darlington Fireworks Display 2008 Pt. 1



Darlington Fireworks Display 2008 Pt. 2

Tens of thousands of people were the audience in South Park last night for the annual Fireworks Display.

Creating the annual event was one of Labour's first initiatives when we came to office back in 1991 - it's been a huge success, and has spared parents like me the danger of having to purchase our own fireworks, at the risk of incurring a burn (or worse). It's probably the one event every year which brings the Borough together as we all stamp our feet, try and avoid the light sabre sellers, and watch the show with the kids.

I thought the display last night was one of the best I could remember - as they exploded, lots of the fireworks made interesting patterns across the sky in concentric circles or even red hearts.

It was a perfect evening for the display, with no rain, a breath of wind and clear skies. So do choreographed firework displays and mobile phone video recorders go together? I'll let you be the judge....

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Here come the girls


They're finally here - our 4 chooks are safely installed in the henhouse and run.

To start us off, we've bought 4 pullets - 2 Rhode Island Reds and 2 Light Sussexes. I understand they should be laying in 4 weeks or so.

Sandy and James have been away at a swimming training camp this week, so I've been left to install the chickens and look after AJ's freshly-acquired pet rabbit. It's a flop-eared dwarf, which AJ's called (with a 7-year old's characteristic mindset) Fluffy. Fluffy is still a bit nervous of us. The intention was to keep her in a hutch outside, but that good intention was soon abandoned, and feeling sorry for her, she was installed in the outhouse.

So before and after work this week, I've been tending to the livestock. Much of that has been spent mopping up after Fluffy - just how much wee can a tiny dwarf rabbit produce?!

The next job is to name the chickens, and that's where you all come in. Your suggestions would be very welcome - but remember - AJ is going to be the final judge so keep all contributions clean!

Darlington Rotary Club


Yesterday I was delighted to attend one of the regular lunches organised by the Rotary Club in Darlington, at their regular venue in the Dolphin Centre. I had been asked to speak about waste disposal in the Borough.

The club have some fantastic old possessions, inluding a ceremonial chair and gavel, which only looked slightly incongruous in the Dolphin Centre's Studio Room. As you all probably know, Rotary do a fantastic amount of work raising money for good causes world-wide - the Darlington branch is one of the largest in the North East.

I spoke for the allotted 20 minutes, and then took some interesting questions on wheelie bins vs. black bags; green waste; and how the Council might be able to offer further help to small businesses during this downturn.

It was a really good session, and has given me some points to take back to the Town Hall to address next week.

The Sun Says...

Whilst waiting at the barber's this morning (not, as you will have guessed, for myself) I flicked idly through The Sun, and found this excoriating leader column.

TORY George Osborne attacks Gordon Brown’s plan to borrow money for a spending spree to lead us out of recession.

He says future generations will be saddled with higher taxes to pay for it. True. But what is the Shadow Chancellor’s alternative?

He wants lower interest rates. So do we all.

He talks vaguely of taxes being cut when things look up.

But where is the detail?

Since the financial crisis broke, the Conservatives have looked uncertain.

One of Britain’s biggest problems is wasteful public spending.

Until we get it down we have no hope of serious tax cuts.

What expensive projects would Mr Osborne axe? Which pointless government departments and cosy quangos would he close?

How would he keep the wheels turning as the slump drags down families and businesses?

The Tory poll lead is slipping because voters don’t think Mr Osborne knows better than Mr Brown how to steer us off the rocks.

This crisis gave the Tories a golden chance to seize the initiative.

But so far, they have let Labour make all the running.


Whew! - powerful stuff, and from a newspaper and proprietor that Cameron thought was in the bag as far as the next General Election was concerned. Although I don't agree with all of The Sun's analysis, they are spot on as far as the inexperience and dither which has to date characterised the Tories' response to the global economic crisis.

To suggest slashing borrowing at the outset of the recession, as George Osbourne did recently, would lead us inevitably into the slump that the Labour Government is working so hard to avoid. Osbourne's clearly learnt nothing from the lessons of the 1930's and is offering a very dangerous prescription for the country's future.

With all the polls showing the Tories' lead over Labour now down to single figures, the bets are well and truly off as far as the next General Election are concerned. Something to wipe the smug smirk off the faces of Messrs. Cameron and Osbourne this weekend.