Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Transport in Darlington - the next 15 years

Council strategies as dry as dust? Well possibly - but they do genuinely influence spending priorities and scheme development. Having a say at the time when strategies are put together really can affect DBC policies for years to come.

The Council has been consulting on the formulation of its Third Local Transport Plan, which will run from 2011 to 2026. The outline themes have been considered by a joint workshop comprising members of the Council's Environment Scrutiny Committee and the Local Strategic Partnership, and an open Talking Together event in November. Now the outcomes are being considered by members of the Greener Theme Group. A final draft will be approved by Cabinet in March.

The headline priorities which have been identified to date are as follows;

1. To share prosperity for employment, economic activity and sustainable development by providing and maintaining a reliable, predictable, efficient transport network.

2. To tackle climate change through quantified reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from transport.

3. To achieve better health and longer, active and independent lives for everyone by reducing the risk of death, injury and illness from transport, whilst providing active travel options.

4. To achieve a fairer society by enabling people to access jobs, education, training, health, food and green spaces.

5. To achieve a better quality of life for all by minimising the negative impacts of transport such as noise, air pollution and accidents on the natural environment, heritage, landscape and people.

Members are being asked;

a) whether they think the 5 outcomes are right?
b) whether there are any outcomes missing?
c) whether there is one that should be a priority?

If you have an opinion, email me, and I'll ensure your views are passed on.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Christmas Everyone!

The final present's been wrapped, and Santa's on his way!

Best Christmas wishes to you all from Meadowfield Cottage.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A whole load of grit!

Darlington's current cold snap, now dragging into day 6, has excited plenty of negative comment from the blogosphere. My blogging LibDem council colleague Mike Barker posts from the "front line" - apparently walkways in the Pedestrian Heart haven't been gritted or cleared for 5 days.

Mike's also been chatting to someone who's been chatting to someone in the Market Hall. There a DBC employee may have said that the reason why no gritting had been done since Friday was because the mobile gritter had been broken down for weeks - management ignored requests from a fortnight back to get the machine fixed. Shocking stuff. If it were remotely true...

In general, I tend to find opposition councillors rely on third hand nonsense like this, because doing the sensible thing (ie ringing up the relevant officer and checking the facts) delivers rather less lurid headlines.

So I spoke to Ian Thompson, the Assistant Director this morning about Mike's allegations. He told me that the gritting machine had been out on Thursday evening, but had broken down and went into the garage to be fixed. It was out on Friday, but again there was a problem with the salt spreader, and it was looked at once more. It was then out working quite happily on Saturday, Sunday and thereafter.

Ian makes the point too that for the brief periods when the mechanized gritter wasn't working, Street Scene personnel were out spreading grit by hand.

He adds that there were 8 staff hand-gritting on Friday, 4 on Saturday, 5 on Sunday and 8 again on Monday. Clearly, in a longer cold snap than we are used to, snow and ice continue to fall, so repeated work was necessary.

More generally, on the main highway network, the roads have been gritted and/or ploughed 17 times between Thursday and Tuesday am. Now that it has been several days where the snow and ice haven't dispersed, it's likely that the gritters will move into the main housing estates.

If Mike's after a scandal, then he might like to go to Middlesbrough town centre - no gritting or clearing of any kind in its pedestrianised area in evidence as of Moday, with Christmas shoppers slipping and sliding on compacted ice and slush. I have pictures, which I'll put up this evening.

Just sometimes, it's worth checking the facts and celebrating what our Street Scene staff are doing (and in pretty miserable conditions too) before running Darlington down again.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Housing Plans - Former Springfield Primary School Site

One recent success of the Labour-run Coucnil here in Darlington has been the successful bid for £3 million Government cash to construct affordable homes for rent in the town. At a time when property prices are still relatively high, it is intended to help more families access decent housing.

Earlier this year, a developer was granted planning permission for a scheme on a part of the old Springfield Primary School site between Salters Lane South and Belsay Walk. In the aftermath of the credit crunch, the deal fell through. The Council now plans to use some of that £3 million to build houses on the same site, using the existinbg permission. The properties will provide low-cost energy for the people who live in them, as well as generating low amouints of CO2.

We pressed for more consultation with local residents on the scheme, which consists of 16 apartments, 12 terrace properties and 6 semi-detached houses. We're delighted that this was agreed, and tomorrow, (16th December 2009) between 3.30pm and 7.30pm at the Education Village, local people can view the plans and leave their comments.

To publicise the event, we've distributed nearly 1,000 newsletters about the event in the vicinity - many thanks to our willing volunteers Alan and Colin who've helped get the letters out at very short notice.

We'll be going along too, of course, to hear what local people have to say.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Dealing with Darlington's Waste

MBT Plant Opening

Cllr. Nick Wallis | MySpace Video

On Friday, John Wades formally opened its MBT (Mechanical Biological Treatment) plant at Aycliffe Village - the facility which processes Darlington's household waste, and material from the Wade-operated Civic Amenity Site on Whessoe Road.

Together with representatives from the Council, the various contractors responsible for the plant were also there. Inevitably, there was ribbon, a pair of scissors and an Echo photographer - I'm prepared for the worst given the runaway success of the excellent Glum Councillors site which lampoons exactly this kind of shot.

Anyway, of much greater interest is the rapid prgress at the site - remember it was little more than concrete walls and floors in June of this year. Now, our recycling rates are improving rapidly, and in a facility where every effort is made to minimise landfill. I'll be going up to the plant again soon to record some of active processing of the waste.

It's Jenny!

Jenny Chapman was selected this afternoon as Labour's candidate for the next General Election.

I'm not sure the actual voting figures will be released, but I can reveal Jenny won comprehensively, ahead of Pat McCourt, Dan Whittle and Ash McGregor. All the candidates should receive credit for the positive nature of their campaigns - certainly, Darlington Labour Party has emerged stronger from the selection procedure.

Jenny will be a first-class candidate for Labour, with impeccable local credentials. Very bad news for any lingering Tory hopes next year!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Investing in our future

The approach of a political party to young people is always a test of their true values.

One of Labour's proudest achievements has been its investment in education - both in bricks and mortar, but also extra teachers too.

And here in Darlington, the Labour Council has been keen to work in partnership with national government to deliver the best facilities for young people. We've been ambitious for change, whether in the secondary (Hummersknott, the Education Village) or primary (Alderman Leach, North Road, Harrowgate Hill, Firth Moor) sectors.

Although notionally in a later 'wave' of local authorities, whose schools would be modernised in 2013, Darlington Council, together with our MP Alan Milburn, have been pressing for more rapid improvements. So it was great to learn today that Longfield, Hurworth and Branksome have all been fast-tracked for modernisation, with a £57 million grant from Government. A key argument Darlington has been able to deploy is our ability to complete school rebuilding projects on time - this meant the Government could be sure that wrangling wouldn't hold up the much-needed work.

For Longfield, which already has sports college status, it will allow the buidling of "state-of-the-art sports facilities" which are sure to make a big contribution of sports development in the town.

Rebuilding or modernising all of the Borough's maintained secondary schools was a key manifesto pledge of Labour at the 2007 local elections, and I'm delighted that we've been able to deliver on that promise.

Now maybe any local Tories would like to come on and list all the schools in Darlington that were renovated under the Conservatives between 1979 and 1997....?

Monday Morning Smile

Loads to catch up on. In the meantime, here's the latest classic from the Muppets. Enjoy!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday Morning Smile

Many in the Strictly audience will still be mourning the inexplicable departure of the wonderful Phil Tufnell (and the even more wonderful Katya Virshilas) at the weekend. Still, the highlight of Saturday night was clearly Chris Hollins' essay at the Paso Doble, which had our family in fits of laughter, when we could watch through our fingers.

Earlier in the series, Chris and Ola were described by Len as being like a couple of hobbits. Well, Chris was one mean, grumpy hobbit on Saturday night...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Spartan Fare

And all for just £3.50 a week...

Plenty of food for thought around the Darlo blogosphere at the moment on the subject of crime and anti-social behaviour. My fellow blogger and LibDem supremo Mike Barker ended a recent post on the subject with the taunt that "we have yet to hear from any Council or Labour politicians in the town." You might think that all we need now is for Harry Hill to jump on his desk and bellow, "Fight!!"

Except that I'm in no mood to take Mike on over this issue - I thought his observations posted after accompanying the police on a Friday night around the north end of the town were restrained and sensible. I'd encourage you to read what he had to say. The surest note he struck was the complexity of the issues facing the police and confronted by youths and young adults with scant respect for authority, often after having consumed a skinful of alcohol.

As someone who has seen the various policy levers being tugged over the years on this issue, I'm aware there is no "quick fix" to deal with this problem. As a ward councillor in the North East of the town, there have been periods when Springfield Park, or the area around Nightingale Avenue shops, or the old primary school have been inundated with problems - we'd then have a police crackdown, and the difficulties would go away for a while.

It does frustrate me, however, when opposition councillors simplify the issues to make a cheap political point. Over at HarrowgateHill Future, Gill Cartwright claims that the Labour Council has "buried its head in the sand" over the issue of anti-social behaviour and that reconfiguring the warden service has made residents less safe. She only grudgingly mentions the actual reason the "warden" model was abandoned - as portfolio holder Bill Dixon stated in Council, for all their commitment, wardens were little better than "Keystone Cops" with no actual powers to tackle unrest. I'm not sure, having listened to some of my residents' experiences and views, how far they were able to consistently provide a 'rapid response' service that reassured the community.

That brings me onto Sparta. Gill believes that a warden service should be provided by the Council free-of-charge. I appreciate the irony of our traditional political stances being reversed here, but I would question why local councils should be providing a Borough-wide security team when that is clearly the role of the Police? Does Gill also believe there should be Town Hall paramedics around the Borough, or should the council be committed to putting out, say, smaller fires? Of course not.

Although you wouldn't realise it reading opposition material, the council still does have an ASB team, but now it has a fresh focus. On Thursday I attended a very instructive meeting with councillor colleagues from the North Eastern side of the Borough, hosted by the Police, and which incorporated the Council's ASB team. The meeting showcased the new ways of working being adopted to tackle crime and disorder in our area, and how the community is central to the approach.

A case in point are some ASB problems we've had near the river. Prior to the PACT meeting last week, a resident who couldn't make the meeting asked me to raise some chronic ASB problems in the Inglewood Close area. That issue was then acknowledged at the PACT. As a result, members of the ASB team immediately leafletted the area pointing out to parents the problems some young people were causing to residents. As the police undertake patrols to try and flush out the problems, the ASB team will consider whether Acceptable Behaviour Orders, Parenting Orders, ASBO's or injunctions might be necessary. The team are also perfectly placed to liaise directly with Social Services, where necessary.

To me, that seems a much more sensible use of scarce resources than the "Keystone Cops" model favoured by Darlington Tories.

As for Sparta - well, we'll see. They've had a publicity boost from the regional and national press that would have cost tens of thousands ordinarily, so the company have certainly been given a fair wind. My view is that once patrols come up against some of the youths and young adults described by Mike in his blog, and are powerless to intervene, then residents will soon tire of handing over £3.50 a week.

The advice I'll be giving residents, if I'm asked, is to give the new approach a chance. I think the model can deliver safer communities for the people of Darlington, and still has a long way to develop and improve.

Friday, November 13, 2009

You better watch out! You better not cry...!

I'm aware from my software that around this time every year a lot of people visit this blog looking for information about Christmas activities in Darlington town centre. So here are the arrangements for Christmas in Darlington town centre in November & December 2009.

The Ferris Wheel returns to Darlington

From the 20th November until 13th December, 10am - 6pm, in Joseph Pease Place. £2.50 for adults, £2 for children under 12, & senior citizens. We went on it twice last year.

Christmas Lights Switch-On

Sunday 22nd November 2009 from 2.45pm. Dance and singing acts hosted by TFM breakfast show presenters. Special appearence by Santa "arriving in style" at 4pm along with his friends Chico and the Grumbleweeds from this year's Civic panto.

4.30pm lights - switch-on followed by spectacular fireworks finale.

Christingle Markets

The very popular Christingle Markets return on 26th November & 10th December 2009 from noon until 8pm to coincide with late night shopping. On the High Row. "Find some stocking fillers and unusual giftsand of course enjoy a glass or two of festive Gluehwein and seasonal entertainment!"

Festive Opening Times

Darlington's wide range of multiples and excellent independent traders are open as follows;

Late Night Thursdays: 19th November - 17th December 2009 8.30am - 8pm.
Sundays: 8th November - 20th December 2009 10am - 4.30pm.
Free car parking in all council-operated car parks on Sundays and after 6pm, and on late night Thursdays after 3.30pm.

Christmas Extravaganza Weekend

Saturday 12th December 9am - 5pm and Sunday 13th December 10am - 4.30pm.

Ice sculptures created as you watch of festive characters. Wood carvers, street theatre, pantomime charcters and the final of the 'Carols for Darlington'. competition. All to help you relax a little as the Christmas rush gets into full swing.

Don't forget Santa!

Santa will be popping up all over Darlington to listen to the good children of Darlington. He's at the Cornmill Centre on Saturdays and Sundays from the 28th November until 20th December, the Queen Street Arcade on Saturdays and Sundays from 5th December until Christmas Eve, at the Head of Steam, Darlington Railway Museum on Saturday and Sundays 5th & 6th December, 12th & 13th December & Saturday 19th December 10am - 3.30pm, and in South Park 20th December 10am - 3pm. (Booking essential for the latter 2 venues).

And Finally...

Children who want to write a letter to Santa can post it in the Tourist Information Centre, and if adults pay £1.50 to TI staff, a nice surprise will come back in the post. Children or adults must remember to print their names and addresses on the back of the envelope. (We used this service last year, and AJ loved the reply). Available until 11th December.

And Finally, Finally!

Don't forget this year's Christmas Panto, Aladdin, at the Civic, from Saturday 5th December 2009 until Sunday 17th January 2010. Tickets from the box office on 01325 486555 or via online

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Blogger Down!

I was genuinely disappointed to see that Rob Marchant, author of the Centre Left blog has pulled out of the Darlington PPC selection process at a relatively early stage.

Rob had pinned his hopes on winning the nomination of Darlington's Co-operative Party members, but this went instead to Dan Whittle. I hear that both Rob and Dan performed powerfully at the meeting.

Rob was the only candidate to date to use blogging as a way of engaging with members - though perhaps he was most successful in hearing from our '2 Ians' from Hurworth in another constituency entirely!

Rob was good enough to ring me at the start of the process to ask advice about starting up a blog here in Darlington as part of his push for candidature - I don't think I'm breaking any confidences when I tell you I explained that in my opinion, it wins very few votes indeed. Indeed, as you know, I spend an inordinate amount of time reading personally abusive comments from anonymous idiots.

In the longer term, however, I still think that blogging specifically and the internet in general can play a powerful role in communicating with residents about political issues big and small. I hope that whoever wins the nomination will take up Mike M's challenge issued to me and other councillors 3 years ago + to use the medium creatively.

I'm sure we'll hear abourt Rob again, but in the context of another seat, between now and the next General Election.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Springfield PACT

The first PACT meeting for Springfield last night was a well-attended and lively affair.

The police had advertised the meeting in local shops and meeting pl;aces, and we had promoted it via our newsletter and our e-newsletter (which I'm in the process of revamping). I guess there were about 20 residents there, of whom 15 lived in either Springfield or Whinfield.

As well as the police and the Haughton West ward councillors (Geoff Walker was there from Haughton East as well) Glenn Caley, one of the Council's Anti-Social Behaviour Officers was there too. He helped answer some inportant questions on how the agencies respond to the problems of disorder in Springfield and more widely.

The PACT agreed that the three priorities for Springfield would be the riding of illegal motorbikes around the ward; problems with anti-social behaviour; and speeding, especially on Thompson Street East and Hutton Avenue.

Some of the difficulties residents talked about weren't new - problems on Springfield Park and along the river go back years. At various times, there has been success in damping down problems, only for them to reappear at a later date. Understandably, there was some cynicism as to whether anything could change now. What was stressed over and over again (and it was really helpful that Bev Hutchinson, the excellent secretary of Whinfield Residents' Association was there) was that it is only when residents report individual incidents that resources will be targetted to address the problem.

So one resident reported regular examples of illegal motorbikes riding up and down Green Lane. The police however, knew nothing about it because no-one had rung in. As Bev pointed out, Whinfield Residents' Association had only managed to get action taken when members had laboriously phoned in each example of a local problem. The point was well-made.

Of great interest was the news that the police are piloting community speeding cameras were being piloted across Darlington, and could be trialled in hot-spots around Whinfield and Springfield. They will be operated by local volunteers, under the supervision of a police officer. That's likely to be introduced in the New Year.

I was also struck by the information relayed by Sgt. Daryl Edmunds about research undertaken with local kids as to their drinking habits; - they were asked whether they drank alcohol?; if their friends did?; and did they feel under any pressure to use alcohol themselves? In fact, the survey showed that a relatively small proportion of young people drank alcohol - a far higher proportion thought their friends did, however, and so young people felt under pressure to use alcohol too.

As a result, the police and members of the council's anti-social behaviour team have been going into schools to tackle these perceptions. Addressing outlets that might still be selling alcohol to young people via the Challenge 21 scheme will play a key role too. Helpfully, the myth that "there's nothing to do" for young people in the area was exploded. This is a really difficult issue, and something fellow Darlington bloggers have been commenting on recently - it's something I intend to return to here very soon.

Monday, November 09, 2009

PACT meeting tonight

If you're a resident of Whinfield, Springfield or Haughton, and you have a view about policing in our community, come along later this evening for the second PACT meeting in our area.

Standing for Partnerships and Communities Together, PACT meetings are organised by the Police, and are designed to allow members of the community to set the policing priorities for the area. At future meetings, the police will report back on progress against the issues set.

The first PACT meeting for Springfield (the southern part of our ward) will take place this evening at 6.30pm at the new Salvation Army building in Thompson Street East. PACT meetings are being designed to move throughout the Haughton area month by month, so in month one (October) it was in Whinfield, and in December it should be in Haughton village or Red Hall, and then back to Whinfield, and so on.

Also attending will be a representative from the Education Village, to say a few words about news about the school and take any questions.

You don't have to resident in a particular area to attend - so Springfield residents can go along to Haughton village meetings. The idea is to create a seamless set of meetings, rather than a single event that takes place in your individual community once every three or four months. If you see what I mean.

David, Andy and I have been concerned about the lack of visibility of the police on our streets in recent months - our beat officer has been seconded to other duties, leaving a hole in policing in the ward.

Together with our ward colleagues in Haughton East and North, we held a very productive meeting with senior officers - Darlington Police are now re-organising themselves to provide a dedicated service across the North East side of the town which comprises beat officers, intelligence gathering and a PCSO presence. There will be cover across the 3 Haughton wards, meaning that we should not be lacking in beat officers again.

David, Andy and I are very supportive of the PACT process, and we want to see the new policing structure succeed. To this end, we have promoted tonight's meeting in our new newsletter (of which more later) and also put out a special e-newsletter to residents.

If you do live in the area, and can come along, it will be great to see you there this evening.

Saturday, November 07, 2009


AJ, the '2 Davids' (Alloway and Lyonette) & Angela on the High Row this afternoon.

At this time, with the news from Afghanistan and the US so bleak, it's doubly important that we remember across the generations the sacrifice our service personnel, and their forebears, have made in the name of freedom for this country.

That's why I took AJ down to the High Row this afternoon with other councillors and the Mayor, to offer poppies in return for donations to the British Legion, and why he'll be joining me tomorrow as we walk to the Cenotaph in the Memorial's grounds.

(True to form, AJ was a star "salesman", winningly offering people kind enough to make a donation a poppy and a pin the news "the pin's free of charge!")

Anyone who was a supporter of the conflict in Afghanistan, and who is not experiencing some agonies of conscience, is either a fool or wilfully blind to what's going on. I thought that the leader in today's Echo caught that mood rather well, although the accusation that the Government has been dithering seemed harsh, given our whole-hearted commitment to the NATO complement when compared to many of our partners.

For many, the case for intervention in Afghanistan seemed overwhelmingly strong, given the history of the Taliban and their central role in the 9/11 attacks. So too the continuing involvement appears almost inarguable, given the fragility of the Afghan and the Pakistani regimes. A 'Vietnam-style' pullout would leave a vacuum that the likes of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda would be swift to fill. And we wouldn't be back where we started - we would be in a far worst position than we were in back in 2002.

And yet the leader writer is right, we need to have some sense of when this mission will be brought to a close. The British people can't think that there is an open-ended commitment which is costing us and our families so dear in casualties and resources - what military historians are apt to call "blood and treasure".

What isn't always talked about is "Plan B" - because of course, there is an alternative, of sorts. If we withdrew summarily from Afghanistan and the Taliban moved back in and set up the terrorist camps once more, the world would respond. But it would probably involve high level bombing, flattening camps and villages suspected of harbouring terrorists alike. The risk to NATO service personnel would be (relatively) light. The cost to innocent Afghan civilians - thousands, maybe tens of thousands could be wiped away - would be far greater. Hatred of the West - the very thing Al Qaeda prizes above all else - would be fostered amongst the people of the region. And then once more, it would be our streets and communities that would be on the front line in a new stage of terror.

That's why the mission in Afghanistan - the 'nation building' - is so important. It tries to secure safety for us back here in the West by helping the Afghanis themselves construct a state robust enough to withstand the terrorists.

But as the coffins move through Wootton Bassett with awful regularity, we are all forced to confront what the cost of occupying a country to help them foster a democratic society truly is.

There may be a point beyond which the NATO allies say "enough is enough" and begin a withdrawal with our objectives only partly or perhaps not at all met. And I completely respect those people, including some of the families of troops killed or injured, who think we have passed that point already. Should that day come, however, let no-one imagine that there is a cost-free alternative to the current strategy.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Monday Morning Smile

No video this week - just a link to the Metro newspaper with a salutary story of the kind of thing that happens if you vote LibDem...

Hat tip: Bob Piper

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Darlington Firework Spectacular 2009

Lighting the Bonfire at Darlington's Firework Spectacular

James | MySpace Video

Darlington Fireworks 2009 - 'Moon River'

James | MySpace Video

Here are two brief Flip videos I recorded last night at the Fireworks Spectacular in South Park.

I thought it was the best display yet. The bonfire had a twist (as you can see) with a rocket theme built by local schoolchildren, and various fireworks incorporated into the pile to create a great effect.

The fireworks themselves were smashing too - posted here is the 'Moon River' section, featuring a specially-lit helium balloon.

Feedback I had after the event was very positive - particularly appreciated were the regular safety messages and the warnings about not drinking alcohol.

There were thousands in South Park to enjoy the display.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Night Scream

It's Halloween, and the Undead stalk the earth.

Try and enjoy this with me. (She still scares me 19 years on....!)

Hat tip: Tom Harris

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Taking to the streets

Pretty much all of today was given over to a ward health check and street surgery in the Morpeth Avenue/Hutton Avenue/Kielder Drive area of Springfield.

Part of our focus was on a proposed development of a bungalow for up to 3 people with learning disabilities, which could be sited on the site of garages between Kielder Drive and Hutton Avenue. We invited representatives from the builders, North Star/Endeavour, along to the surgery, and together we spoke to a number of residents about the plans.

This informal approach helped allay some of the concerns local people had, and indeed threw up some creative ideas as to how the development could best meet the needs of neighbours as well as the future occupiers of the bungalow. There are svereal points that the North Star/Endeavour staff and ourselves as the ward councillors need to follow up, but fundamentally, local people seemed relaxed. I'm really grateful to the staff from North Star/Endeavour who came out "after hours" to help with the exercise.

Otherwise, there's probably several hours worth of reporting various problems to officers (and in one case, an issue I've already forwarded to Alan Milburn's office) on everything from the Haughton Road Throughabout to housing difficulties and grafitti in an alleyway.

There were complaints too from several residents about the quality of the bus service serving the area, which we'll be passing onto Arriva.

It should be said, however, that it was good to hear from one door to the next that there are no local problems affecting the household, and Springfield is a great place to be. That's how we'd like it to be for everyone!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

New Kid on the Block (2)

Labour's selection for a PPC here in Darlington is getting into full swing, so it's little surprise that one of the hopefuls should have launched a blogsite.

Rob Marchant, perhaps bravely, has started the unmoderated Centre Left blog. Regular readers will know how easily impressed I am, so it's good to see Rob taking a swing at the LibDems' opportunistic, windy stance on the 10:10 issue.

Rob was responsible for Labour's very successful campaigning software, but he assures me his campaign is about much more than IT.

More on the contest soon as matters hot up.

New Kid on the Block (1)

I see from spending way too much time again on the net that we have a new Tory blogger in Darlington. (Thinks: another Cameron lickspittle - wahaay!!) Welcome, then to Wilted Rose, written by 'Armchair Sceptic' (though I don't think it'll be rocket science to work out who's really responsible for it).

As the author tells us himself, he's "a Darlington-based ‘classical liberal’ unionist who is a social conservative, an evangelical Christian vegan Ulsterman, and who supports lower taxation, economic freedom, and business ethics - I am a member of the Conservative Party."

I don't think it's possible to cram more fun into a single sentence of the English language. Armchair Sceptic is at least able to consider issues beyond the narrow confines of Darlington - and unlike most local Tories he can actually spell!! - so a warm welcome to him anyway. I'll add him to my blogroll.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Monday Morning Smile

Watching the Armstrong & Miller Show on Friday for the first time, it became apparent that half the household was slightly mystified by one of the song sketches. "But surely" I asked Sandy, "You've heard of Flanders and Swann?" A blank look in response, so it was off to YouTube again and the inspiration for this morning's MMS.

In truth, I only came across F&S as a result of the obsession of a music teacher at school, who insisted on playing the duo's repetoire to the class, apparently after good behaviour. We had music lessons in a formerly derelict police station on Brandon Hill, which doubled as the arts facility - Handel, Bach and Beethoven forever since have conjured up in my mind the smell of wet clay. Anyway...

I've pasted their affectionate, tongue-in-cheek "The English are Best" here despite the current furore in politics more widely - it best represents the charm of live performance. If you hadn't come across them already, check out some of their other classics The Gasman Cometh, The Transport Song, Have Some Madeira M'Dear and of course The Hippopotamus Song. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Honouring their service

With Remembrance Day nearly upon us, it's fitting that the Council and Darlington Partnership is revealing that a ceremony is being planned for 2010 recognising the work of the 4th Mechanized Brigade, based at Catterick Garrison.

You can read the details here. The intention is to chart the progress of the brigade (which totals over 5,500 personnel) culminating in an event which Partnership chair Alasdair MacConachie promises will be "a special day full of colour, ceremony and civic pride."

I think this is an excellent idea, and I'm sure it will be strongly supported by residents across the Borough. There are good links between the Garrison and Darlington, and it's right that people should have a chance to show how much they appreciate the work of our Armed Services at this time of conflict. I'll post updates on the initiative as more information becomes available.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Great Opportunity?

Just back from Bath with the family. On the journey, I happened to catch an extended interview the PM did today with Real Radio. Inevitably, he was asked about Nick Griffin's appearance on the Question Time programme, which is kicking off shortly. He said that this was a "great opportunity" to put pressure on the BNP and expose them for who they are. Unfortunately, in the truncated news bulletins, this was shortened considerably to (and I paraphrase) "BNP leader Nick Griffin appears on the Question Time programme this evening. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said this was a great opportunity". Oh dear...

Almost every element of the BBC's decison to allow Griffin onto Question Time seems to have been mismanaged and poorly thought through. This is clearly a complex issue, but I'm not sure the BBC properly appreciated the extent to which their invitation represented for the racists a genuine "Rubicon" moment. I think it's beginning to dawn on Beeb executives now, as well as the rest of the political world.

To be clear, this is an issue on which I have some "form". As a student hack, I made a name for myself challenging my students' union's position of 'No Platform' - i.e. racists or fascists were barred from promoting their policies during debates. As a callow starter, for me, this was simply an issue about democracy - the best way to challenge the far right and deal with their obnoxious policies was via open debate. Preventing a public dialogue only served to undermine the credibility of the true supporters of democracy. It was an issue I cared passionately about, and my motion carried the day.

Now with twenty-five or so years experience under my belt, I see things a little differently. I apply to this matter my 'law of unintended consequences' test. An analogy is with the legalisation of drugs. I fully respect the views of those who think that all drugs should be liberalised as a matter of freedom of choice. Similarly, there is also a rational argument that says that the decriminalisation of hard drugs would weaken the drug traffikers, and at a stroke take the profiteering out of the trade. For me, however, the logical endpoint of allowing heroin or cannabisd to be legalised means that as a society we are quite content with seeing kids as young as 9 or 10 shooting up on street corners. For sure, that is not what the well-meaning proponents of legalisation intend. But if heroin or cocaine have the same legal status as alcohol or tobacco, you can be sure that out streets would be as awash with these substances. They would have gained a degree of acceptability currently denied, for all of the imperfections of the current law. A critical 'line in the sand' would have been crossed.

So it is with the BNP. I do not doubt for one second the uncanny ability of the far right to let slip its true face behind the mask. Nick Griffin likening the heads of our Armed Services to war criminals at Nuremberg was a ghastly slip on several levels - reminding us of the Nazi horror democratic societies fought at such cost during World War II, as well as the likely fate of nay-sayers in any (hypothetical) BNP government. Comparing himself to Churchill, as Griffin has also done recently, would be laughable were it not so offensive to a giant of a statesman who spent the best part of his life to warning the free world about the dangers of fascism, and then committing every sinew of his being to fighting its scourge.

Still, with their invitation onto Question Time, the BNP has crossed a rubicon all of its own. The BBC has signalled that it is now part of mainstream political discourse in this country. Executives at the Corporation have argued that the votes gained at this year's European elections have made their appearence inevitable. I beg to differ.

Are we ready now to welcome in the BNP into every debate we have as a society. When we talk about health, or education or defence, must there be someone there advocating that Muslims are stigmatised as terrorists, or that your nationality is determined by the colour of your skin? Are you ready for a teacher at your kids' school to be a BNP member and to question the Holocaust as a gigantic hoax? Are you ready for that? Because I'm not.

Question Time is about to begin. I have no doubt the panellists to a man and woman will combine to give Griffin the (verbal) working over his nauseous politics deserve. But don't be fooled into thinking that things haven't fundamentally changed for the worst afterwards.

Friday, October 16, 2009

East is East

Heading down to Bath today with Sandy and AJ to visit No. 1 son at university.

Its James' first term, so it will be instructive to see if he's found the library yet...  

Travelling down provokes some thought and discussion on the nature of regional identity.  This week, Radio 4 launched their new weather map.  Henceforward, weather information will be delivered on a regional basis.  Wales and Scotland are straightforward, of course, but some of the regional boundaries are a bit trickier - so for us, the North East apparently begins at the South Yorkshire/Derbyshire border. 

Its a fraught subject, of course.  I remember when I was little thinking the North began at Gloucester - Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle were just a jumble of names. 

Bristol is usually classed as being in the south west.  No-one would argue, however that south Gloucestershire, however, has very little in common with Cornwall, say.  It was these type of complexities that helped bedevil the whole Regional Assembly debate.

These place settings can have an iconic hold over us.  I vividly recall being very homesick when I first came up here (to go to university) and looking very wistfully at the road signs marked "To the South".  Now I can't wait to get back to Darlo, albeit the signs on the M42 round Birmingham marked "To the North East" always make me smile.  Stotties in Solihul anyone?

And then there's accents.  For me, the North begins at Yorkshire (just as the North East begins at the Tees).  The Nottingham accent, however, always sound distinctly 'Northern' to me.

Which brings me neatly back to James and university.  It's a quirk of fate, that at the same age I made the journey 300 miles north from just outside Bath to Durham - and James has made a mirror-image passage in the opposite direction. 

It has taken me the best part of 20 years to stop pronouncing 'Bath' with a long 'A'.  James,  however, naturally pronounces it with a short 'A', and scoffed at me when I said he would soon be saying Bath as if it were spellt  'Baarth'.  We shall soon see....
Cllr Nick Wallis
Cabinet Member Sustainable Environment and Climate Change

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Whilst I was off "busy" last week, a really good debate developed on the 'Food Fair' thread between Mike Barker, Alan Macnab and James Doran. It covered the fair itself (of which more anon) but also fleshed out some points on the merits, or otherwise, of council magazines.

Mike commented ruefully at one point that my blog was no place for LibDem policy to be discussed. I beg to differ - this blog is exactly the place to forensically examine LibDem policy. And as all we know about what local LibDems would do after a fantasy election victory is their promise of wall-to-wall wheelie bins, it's well worth the time and effort.

Mike gives us some tantalising glimpses into our LibDems' communication strategy. They wouldn't get rid of a council publication. But it would be "less boastful". It also wouldn't be "glossy". Neither would it take business away from the Echo. That leaves some important questions unanswered, and perhaps Mike would like to fill some of the gaps.

(1) What does "less boastful" actually mean? I think that having the Town Crier as an upbeat, but always accurate, publication is part of its appeal. Is Mike honestly telling us that a LibDem rag would be positively gloomy about council services here in Darlington? Whilst I would imagine that a town run by Martin Swainston wouldn't exactly be a barrel of laughs, would anyone really want to read it?
(2) Would the publication still be monthly? What does Mike think it would cost? How would it be paid for without the input from local and regional advertising?
(3) Would the paper incorporate contrary views from opposition councillors. One of Mike's candidates in 2011's local elections Alan Macnab thinks it should. Does Mike agree? How does Mike think that would go down with the Echo, whose job it really is to reflect the cut and thrust of local political debate?

James I think makes some telling points about how "local" newspapers really are in an age of transnational conglomorates. I can make a case that the Town Crier, which is after all non-profit making and run from the town, is genuinely local and (via local elections) genuinely accountable to the people of Darlington.

And of clear relevance to the whole debate is what the people of Darlington actually think (and not the usual bunch of nay sayers who write to the Echo week in, week out). This year's Community Survey shows that reading of the Town Crier rose to 87.0% from 83.2%. Agreement that the Town Crier keeps people well informed of Darlington Council news and information rose to 86.5% from 79.5% in 2008. Impressive stats.

And to assist, the Community Survey this year was based upon completed questionaire interviews with 1,024 adults living in the Borough, taken across all wards, with age and gender quotas applied.

Mike at least has the good sense to recognise, as most councils do, that having a newspaper or magazine is essential to good communication with residents. If I were a gambling man (which I am), I think following a LibDem victory what we would see is a cynical rebranding exercise, with a change of name and style, but basically the Town Crier reborn. Hardly the dramatic change which Mike is now intimating.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Making it easier to contact us

Last Friday, David, Andy and I undertook a very successful street surgery in the Springfield area. As I guess I've bored you with before, we were the first councillors I think in the North East to pioneer the street surgery model, which I picked up at a Labour Conference years ago. Street surgeries always go down well with residents, who appreciate that we come to their door to respond to problems and complaints.

Putting out the notice also gave us a chance to promote our new surgery at the Salvation Army building in Thompson Street East. For some time now, we've been running with a surgery jointly with colleagues in Haughton East and North at Asda in Whinfield, but have been looking for another venue in Springfield for residents who don't want to travel that far. The splendid new church which replaces the old green hut is an obvious venue, and the Salvation Army have been hugely welcoming.

So additional surgeries will now be held on the second Wednesday of the month between 6pm and 7pm - our first will be on Wednesday 14th October.

Asda surgeries will continue as normal.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Pedestrian Heart

The Echo, has been running hard with the report dealing with solicitors Ward Hadaway's advice on the EC Harris 2007 report regarding the Pedestrian Heart scheme.

As you might imagine, Tuesday's Cabinet meeting was dominated by an intial debate about the matter. I think it's fair to say that there was no meeting of minds, although I was faintly surprised that the Echo gave so much headroom to Mike Barker's silly "resignation" call to Council Leader John Williams. Labour members, in contrast to the Tories and LibDems, wanted the relevant all-party Scrutiny Committee to look at this issue and report back.

The Tories and LibDems, however, were happier with snap judgements and name-calling.

Risibly, the Tories are maintaining that they alone had the business acumen to bring forward improvements made by the Resources Scrutiny Committee last time. That claim was thwacked into touch at Cabinet by my colleague Ian Haszeldine. And as Bill Dixon had to remind everyone, the now-notorious NEC contract, which apportioned a 90/10 split between the Council and the contractors on cost overruns, was approved by a committee which included Labour and Conservative members. For sure, lots of hard questions were asked by councillors, but in the end they received the reassurances from the officers advising them.

The Council has been at pains to stress previously that mistakes were made, and every effort taken to improve standards of working. As paragraph 17 of the covering report from the officers notes, "The Council has previously and on numerous occasions acknowledged that this project has not been well managed. Significant changes have been made as a result of this project to the Council's process for handling capital projects."

I have been following this issue closely in the Echo, and I can't see where they have reprinted the Council's response to the 10 questions they posed in an edition last week. This may simply be an oversight on my part, but anyway, in the spirit of openess, here they are again;

Q1. Why does the council have so little correspondence and paperwork on a major town centre redevelopment scheme costing more than £6m? Is it normal practice not to keep files recording the authority's involvement in critical decisions (paragraph 1.5 of the report)?

The report details records were not fully maintained as part of the project management processes - we have been open about this and addressed it through new robust procedures.

All major capital projects (over £75k) are now managed by experienced staff - and records are maintained and reported to elected members and senior managers on a regular basis.

Q2. Why did the authority not finalise and execute a signed contract with the project's lead consultant, Gillespies (section 5)?

The sequence of events around the contractual arrangements are detailed in the report - ultimately, although contracts were not formalised this does not mean Gillepsies were not responsible for their element of work.

Q3.Turning to the New Engineering Contract (NEC). Who was responsible for drawing up the terms of a contract described in the report as "extremely low risk" (for the contractor) "with very limited incentive for efficient working"?

Again, the project management is cited as a weakness, and with the evidence and records available, we acknowledge this was not the most appropriate contract.

Q4. Why was the painshare/gainshare split of the NEC arranged so that the authority shared 90% of any savings or 90% of any additional costs? As the report says, the two percentage figures are frequently different, being favourable to the employer by placing overrun costs predominantly at the contractors risk (para 4.5). Why did this not happen?

Again, the project management is cited as a weakness, and with the evidence and records available, we acknowledge this was not the most appropriate contract.

Q5. If, as the report says, the authority hoped to bring the contract in under budget by omitting non essential areas of work if necessary, the decision to begin work on peripheral areas in October 2005 made this highly unlikely to happen. Who took the decision not to adhere to the planned critical path for the works through the main pedestrian area? Why was this decision taken? If the authority was concerned about disruption in the run up to Christmas why did the work start at all? Why did the authority ignore the advice of Birse and the consulting team that work not start in October 2005? (para 3.4)

Whilst Gillespies maintain it was our decision, we are not in a position to dispute it. However, throughout the project there was always the very genuine motivation of wanting to minimise disruption to traders - and this may have been a driver.

Q6. Why did the authority opt to replace the gas pipe in its entirety rather than immend the scheme? Does the authority acknowledge that choosing this course of action when the pipe did not require immediate replacement meant the cost could not be shared with a public utility, which would have significantly off-set the cost to taxpayers?

Again, records are not clearly maintained. However, the pipe would have needed replacement in 25 years, and at its exceptionally shallow depth, would not have allowed the steps in the design of the project to be delivered safely. Therefore, the decision to replace the pipe was taken.

Q7. If the authority opted to replace the pipe to avoid further disruption at some point in the future why did it not include such work in the original plan, thereby preventing a cost overrun when it had agreed a 90% painshare split?

Again, this refers to a regrettable sequence of events whereby the initial contract had weaknesses and in hindsight was not appropriate to the project.

Q8. How closely were council members involved in these decisions and how often were they briefed? Who was aware of the problems?

Decisions were brought to Cabinet - these have been documented already publicly and fully - in the press and in Council business and are detailed in the report.

Q9. Why did the council opt to spend more money on a report by Wardhadaway when its legal case was so weak? Did the council's legal department offer a view of the chances of a successful claim? If not, why not?

It was a recommendation by Resources Scrutiny Committee to review the Pedestrian Heart scheme to establish whether there was merit in pursuing the contractors for costs. The total costs were £40,000.

Q10. What new measures are in place to ensure this does not happen again?

Key changes have been made, as described.

Busy, Busy, Busy!

A big week, which has included a key Cabinet meeting, chairing a Talking Together event on revnewable energy, lots of leafletting and a major street surgery in Springfield on Friday, so apologies for not posting until now. And that's before AJ's all-day chess tournament in Newcastle on Saturday!

Thanks especially to James, who has helped keep the debate on the Food Fair and the Echo/Town Crier going against stiff odds.

Regular contributor Paul Cain wonders whether this is some special avoidance technique hoping that the issue will "move on". Nothing quite so cynical, Paul, and I hope my later comments will address some of the points of concern.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Darlington Food Fair 2009

Darlington Food Festival - Paul Rankin

Darlington Food Festival 2009 - the Marquees

With Sandy and AJ, I went down to the Food Fair in the Market Place this lunchtime.

It was a great event, and a real showcase for the excellent local and regional producers we have in this part of the North East. The big draw was a series of demonstrations by "TV chef" Paul Rankin - his technical prowess seemed to be going down very well with the healthy crowd.

We brought back cheese, oil and biscuits. I got some sublime smoked veal sausages from Archers in Walworth (just don't tell Sandy...!)

This isn't a universal view of the event, however - my blogging colleague and LibDem councillor Mike Barker lays into "council bean counters" because adults had to pay £3 to get into the fair. For good measure, he supposes that the council will "lie" about the numbers of stalls and people attending. Apparently, Darlington residents "won't pay money for events like this."

Strong stuff. As regular readers will have gathered, I don't like using the "l" word. Even about the FibDems.

Anyway, rather than rely on what Mike or I say about the event, I shot some film so you can all make up your own minds. My conversations with stall holders were for the most part different, and more positive, than Mike. But then, I'm a Labour politician, so I must be lying.

What I do find hard to stomach is being lectured by a senior opposition councillor about council "bean counters". Putting on the event isn't cheap. The marquee has to be hired, the staff engaged, the publicity printed and the celebrity engaged (without all of this, it would simply be another monthly Farmers' Market, and wouldn't have attracted stall holders from across the region).

I don't know how the finances of the Food Fair worked out exactly, but in these difficult times, DBC staff were simply trying to put on a great event without imposing too much strain on council finances. Not good enough for the LibDems, who presumably would have wanted a budget-busting free event costing tens of thousands. And they then would have been the first to line up and slag us off for "wasteful" expenditure come year end.

As a late, great Fleet Street journalist would doubtlessly have said, "Pass the sick-bag, Alice".

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Speed Cameras - Darlington's own 'Elephant in the Corner'

Last night was the first full PACT meeting for Whinfield, held at the primary school. PACT stands for Partners and Communities Together, and is a Durham Constabulary initiative to bring together representatives from the emergency services, the local authority and members of the local community to decide local priorities.

The 5 ward councillors representing the area (Tom and Veronica for Haughton North, myself, David and Andy for Haughton West) publicised the meeting via our various letters and newsletters. The Police too had posters up around the area. And in truth, for a first meeting, turnout wasn't too bad.

It is up to the PACT to prioritise key issues which will be taken forward and a report-back held at the next meeting. A big talking point which was raised early on by local people was speeding on Barmpton Lane and Salters Lane South.

These are important, relatively long link roads for estates in the area, but there the similarity ends. Barmpton Lane has no traffic calming and has been plagued by complaints of speeding for years. Salters Lane South on the other hand, has extensive traffic claming in the form of chicanes and traffic 'cushions'. And yet still, some mindless idiots apparently insist on speeding there.

The latter road is a very good example of the simple truth that if a driver is not bothered about the risk s/he poses to the community or indeed themselves, and aren't interested in damage to their vehicles, they can race to high speeds in built-up areas on almost any road. For the vast majority of drivers, the excellent traffic claming scheme on Salters Lane South is a mental prompt which reminds them that speeding here (a road which serves four estates and the Education Village) is not only illegal but effectively constitutes anti-social behaviour. A few are prepared to ignore the obvious, however.

So here the Council have done their bit, but what of the Police? When drivers ignore traffic calming, what is there left? Residents of course fall back on enforcement - drivers' fear of a heavy fine and at least 3 points on the license. The PACT meeting last night heard from residents asking where is the speed enforcement on Barmpton Lane? And the answer (with all respect to Jonathan and Rebecca, who do a fine job patrolling our streets in Haughton and Whinfield and fronted the meeting) was that it seems there has been little if any response.

Almost alone amongst the 43 constabularies in England and Wales, Durham has set its face against speed cameras. Feted by the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, petrolheads and the Daily Telegraph, Durham has no fixed speed cameras. Otherwise the force relies upon a single mobile speed camera unit for the whole of the County - the Constabulary's own website tells us that currently, it may be seen in North Road or McMullen Road in Darlington - 2 in 13 sites around Co. Durham. Is that a real deterrant? I'll let you decide.

Contrast this approach with our neighbouring police areas in Cleveland and Northumbria, who have a distinctly less tolerant attitude towards speeding traffic, with speed cameras on high risk roads. I appreciate that many drivers think this approach is overkill. You might feel differently if it was your child who had been mown down by a speeding car. Is Durham enlightened in its softly-softly approach? Or is it wilfully turning a blind eye to the menace of speeding in our communities?

I post this simply because I don't feel there has been a proper debate in Darlington about traffic and speed. It may be the the greater majority of the Borough's residents agree with Durham Constabulary and don't want to see speed cameras targetted on those roads which have the worst speed-related accident record. I simply don't know.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not beating a drum here for the proliferation of static speed cameras as a some panacea for the speeding problem. But can a Police force with a single white van with a camera in the back serving nearly 600,000 people really claim to be serious about speed? Listening to the frustrations of residents last night makes me think that the Police need to be open to a genuine discussion with our communities about this issue. If the PACT process can do that, then it truly will have earned the respect of the people it serves.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Monday Morning Smile

I caught some of the commentary from the Singapore Grand Prix yesterday. With the drivers pressing special buttons to gain momentary advantage, I was reminded of this classic cartoon show from the 70's.

Nick's Monday Morning Quiz

Without watching the clip first, how many drivers and their cars can you name? Bonus points for getting their numbers right too!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In Memoriam

You know how it is. You've finally wrestled your Cabinet report to Council into some sort of shape. You know that newsletter isn't going to write itself. But still you end up browsing YouTube for bits and pieces.

And that's how I came across this recording of the old Radio 4 theme, which played every morning before 5.50am between the closing of the World Service and the start of the Today programme, from 1978 until 2006.

It's easy to mock the people who wrote in their thousands when Mark Damazager, the station's controller, declared that he was axing the theme. Don't these people have anything better to complain about? But I was really cross when the theme went. It seemed to me it was a needless change - just how many "news briefings" do Radio 4 listeners need?

The theme was personally important to me as a constant reference point. Of course I didn't listen to it everyday - it's a bit naff, and the composition isn't great - but it was always there. I first heard it when I was studying for school exams, and fruitlessly got up very early in the morning for last minute cramming. And every now again I'd come across it - taking James to swimming, or getting up early for work. And it was a reassuring point of continuity in a changing, confusing world.

It's gone now. But if you appreciated what it represented, enjoy it one more time with me.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Darlington Gro-Zone

Darlington Mayor Jim Ruck opens Gro-Zone at Lingfield Point
Presentation at the Darlington Gro-Zone

On Saturday morning, together with Sandy and James, I went along to the launch of the Gro-Zone at Lingfield Point. Most of the people attending had expressed an interest in joining up.

Gro-Zone is a collaboration between Marchday Holdings, who operate Lingfield Point, and Darlington Friends of the Earth. The launch was supported too by Darlington Borough Council. Basically, it's an attempt to provide space for people keen to grow their own - with Darlington Council's own allotments over-subscribed, it's a great idea.

Around 1,000 square metres are available. There aren't any fixed ideas yet on how the scheme will develop, but it might include communal space. The soil is poor, apparently (unsurprising given it was once industrial land) so large bags may be used to grow fruit and vegetables. John Wades, who partner the Council on waste disposal, have kindly agreed to provide topsoil.

It's a great initiative, and one I'm happy to promote. The videos show Peter Roberts from Friends of the Earth introducing the morning, and then our own Mayor Cllr. Jim Ruck ceremonially planting a plum tree to launch the scheme. The second video has Eddie Humphries from Marchday saying more about the idea.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Shooting the Messenger

I suppose I wasn't entirely surprised to read in Saturday's Echo that Darlington's Tories would scrap the Town Crier should they ever wield power in the Council Chamber again. My fellow blogger and Echo editor Pete Barron has lauded their stand today.

I'm afraid it's a classic bit of opposition short-termism. The LibDems in North Yorkshire (where the council controlled by the Tories has a council magazine)are saying something similar.

Still, no doubt Heather thinks this will curry a bit of favour with the Echo and its campaign to tell the people of Darlington what we're allowed to read. Two notes of caution, however.

Firstly, the Tories in Darlington (or indeed the opposition anywhere where newspaper bosses are looking to close down council-run publications) shouldn't kid themselves that should they bend a knee to the campaign, matters will stop there. The quote from the local newspaper bosses was telling - they object to any competition from local authorities on the grounds that it strips them of potential advertising revenue and readers. Expect the next assault to be against council websites.

I'd be very sorry to see the Town Crier go. But as that would happen under the aegis of a Tory-run council, I'd have decidely mixed feelings. Seeing the Tories bin a well-respected, award-winning magazine which communicates effectively with Darlington residents and goes through every door - frankly it would be their administration which would suffer as a result.

If they felt they could best communicate an important change to local council services - like those recently to waste collection in the Borough, for example - via a story on page 45 of the Northern Echo read by a fraction of residents, where their comment was jostling for space with an attack from an environmental group - good luck to them.

If I were still on the council, I'd shake my head - and make the most of the opportunity.

Tour of Britain - Darlington Stage

Tour of Britain 2009 - Darlington Stage

Start of the Darlington to Gateshead leg of cycling's Tour of Britain from the Pedestrian Heart on Sunday 13th September 2009. Features special impromptu interview with prominent cycling campaigner Mike McTimoney (thanks, Mike!)

You can see some only marginally less professional coverage on ITV4 this evening.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Breaking News - Darlington to be "Open" in Labour Selection Contest

"Breaking News" - insofar as I can't find it anywhere else on the net - Labour's National Executive Committee ruled this afternoon that the selection proces in Darlington will be open to men and women. Conversely, the shortlist in Durham North West, where Hilary Armstrong is standing down, is to be "all women".

The BBC's Richard Moss posted on his blog a little while ago about the competing demands amongst various North East Constituency Labour Parties for "open" status. It seems like it came down to a straight choice for the NEC - was it to be Darlington or North West Durham that was going to select from an all-women shortlist?

Quietly, I was always fairly confident that Darlington would be 'open'. Local sentiment strongly supported that outcome, but I doubt that was a deciding factor. More likely is the understanding in the Party that where where women MP's stand down, they will be replaced with women candidates. Although there have been 2 or 3 seats where this hasn't happened, for the most part the consensus has held. To have thrown this principle in the bin could have risked opening up uncertainties in those other places where female Labour MP's are retiring. That would have produced many more headaches for the NEC in the the future.

Having said all that, I wouldn't have objected had Darlington been an "all women" shortlist. No-one who is remotely interested in fair representation in Westminster can be happy with a situation where just 20% of MPs (128) are women, 81 years after the success of the women's suffrage movement.

The figures are stark. Of those 128 MP's, 98 are Labour, 17 are Tories, 10 are LibDems and 3 belong to other parties. The graph above tells its own story - it's only since Labour adopted a policy of promoting women-only shortlists that the Party began to address the discrimination in its selection procedures. The Tories and LibDems are still bumping along the bottom.

So I strongly support the mechanism the Party has adopted. I start from the reality that had I been an ambitious female Party member in the North East at anytime between 1901 and 1992, I probably wouldn't have had a prayer getting selected as a PPC - in some areas that goes for standing for councillor too. Without the mechanism of women-only shortlists, Labour's record on female representation would be as shameful as that of our opponents right now.

Still, Darlington is to be an open fight. And with several very talented contenders limbering up - male and female - it promises to be a fascinating contest.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Look North tonight

Catch it if you can - there are interviews with Pete Barron from the Northern Echo and me on the great "Council Magazine" debate.


It seems the piece didn't run this evening because the interview with Pete Barron had to be postponed - a great shame because the Echo editor had put some slap on specially.

Monday Morning Smile

Ah, the joys of parenthood! 10 years ago, it meant sitting down with James in front of the TV at an unearthly time on a Saturday morning watching the Chuckle brothers.

Now, half a generation on, AJ and I roll around at the antics of Dick and Dom - very much the postmodern Chuckles, I feel.

Our viewing wouldn't be complete without a game of Bogies - if you haven't watched it (this is a special with Rupert Grint from Harry Potter), then sit back and enjoy. Finely calibrated to appeal to the 7-year old mind. And the 44-year old mind too.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The post wot I wrote...

Grim news from the Tories' own Darlington Future, where a recent contributor takes to task the exotic spelling and grammar the site seems to attract.

On a bleak afternoon, it's only the wildly-inaccurate version of the English language deployed by Darlington Tories that frankly keeps me going. Who can forget regular contributor Phsyco, for example? The haphazard use of capitals by 'Dave' Davies? The single-transferable commas of Enero?

Darlington Future's feedback section is a constant reminder to us all never to click 'submit' when angry and drunk - or at least after one sweet sherry too many down at Number 22. For heaven's sake, Mr Editor - leave well alone!

Bag it, Box it, Bin it - are you ready?

Tomorrow - Monday 7th September 2009 - is the big day! From then, the Council's new collection system will start, which will see recycling levels increase significantly across the Borough.

What do you have to remember? - it's simple;

(1) Your collection days for household waste (weekly) and recycling (fortnightly) remain the same.

(2) In your green box, put glass. In the blue bags, leave cardboard and paper. Everything else (including cans and plastics) goes into black sacks.

As a result of the Borough-wide publicity for the new scheme, we've had lots of requests for extra green boxes, which is great news. The more people who participate in the recycling scheme, the better!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Wind farms - some thoughts

The Walkway Wind Farm at Wynyard, when it was under construction

I suspect that the planning application submitted by Banks Ltd for a wind farm to the north east of Barmpton will attract a lot of interest - and not just in the village itself.

The role of the Council, of course, is not to take sides for or against the principle of wind farms when dealing with applications, but to ensure that the proposal is dealt with fairly and in accordance with established planning rules and guidelines. Local residents need to be heard, and so it is helpful that the company have scheduled a fresh round of consultation sessions in the rural (Sadberge) and urban (Harrowgate Hill) areas.

Anyone who's taken a passing interest in the issue will know that passions run high on the matter - wind farms are either gigantic white elephants, sucking in public subsidy whilst making a neglible contribution to the country's energy needs, or they're part of the only solution to the energy crisis avaiable.

As I'm not on the Planning Committee, I can publicly declare where I stand on the matter. I'm all for wind farms. I believe that wind, wave and solar technology will play a key role in replacing our reliance on fossil fuels in the future. At the same time (and this is where I part company from some in the environmental movement), I agree that an expansion of the nuclear energy programme is essential if we are to bridge the gap between the current energy production mix, and a time when renewable technology has moved ahead and can provide for all of our needs.

Personally, I don't agree with the argument that condemns wind farms as blots on the landscape. I respect people who hold this view, but I find wind turbines striking and attractive additions to the landscape. Given the proliferation of static, dull, intrusive electricity pylons across our countryside, I can't see how wind farms detract.

Still there are other, more tangible arguments about winds farms, currently being played out in local communities the length and breadth of the Great Britain. It's important that planning authorities retain the confidence of their residents in dealing with applications about wind farms, whatever the outcome. So I was pleased that plenty of training has been laid on for Planning Committee members about the issues that characterise these applications, and on Tuesday members visited the Walkway site near Wynyard to hear how a neighbouring planning authority dealt with the issue, and to see for themselves up close what these turbines are actually like. Given my portfolio, and interest in this matter, I joined them.

It was a chance to explore issues such as how far turbines should be sited away from houses. Noise and light flicker are also important considerations.

Helpfully, it was a very blustery day, and the turbines were operating at their maximum capacity. You could certainly hear the machinery from 300 metres - but it was a swishing and not unpleasant sound. As we walked underneath one of the turbines, we watched the shadows of the sails against a nearby wood as the sun moved from behind the clouds.

I can't speak for members of the committee, who had contrasting thoughts and questions, but I came away with a sense of the complexity of these matters - what is appropriate and right in one site will be unacceptable elsewhere. Not just the proximity of houses, but the extent to which there is background noise (from a nearby road, for example) and even in which direction houses' windows face could all be critical considerations.

I understand that the application for Barmpton is being formally lodged by Banks next week.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009


How we can take action collectively and individually to combat climate change is at the core of my council portfolio. Reducing our carbon footprint is something that many of us aspire to - but vague good intentions are easily broken. As a local authority, Darlington Borough Council is working with the Carbon Trust to identify ways that carbon emissions can be cut (saving residents cash too). Bringing together the great work being undertaken in many of our schools, hospitals and workplaces, however, could give a real sense of progress, and help foster confidence that we can make a difference.

That's why I was very pleased to see the launch of the 10:10 campaign today. Fronted by some of the (ahem) usual celebs, it does allow however individuals and groups, be they in schools, workplaces or the community in general, to publicly pledge to changing our way of life now. Sometimes, the promises made by governments can seem a very long way off, and allow us to delay decision-making to another day. Unfortunately, the planet cannot wait.

Over the past year, my family have tried to find ways of reducing our carbon footprint, and I think we've been moderately successful - we've cut energy consumption, grown quite a bit of own produce, and reduced water consumption. I'm conscious that I could do far more, however, and through the blog will try and record my triumphs and disasters as I strive to shave another 10% off my carbon footprint.

If you'd like to join me - sign up. It's dead easy, via the Guardian website. There are some good tips on how you can make small changes to various aspects of your lifestyle to make a big difference too. And if you do sign up - tell me, and keep me informed of your progress via the comments - I'll be really interested to see how you get along.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Monday Morning Smile

"They're goin' back!!"

It's at around this time of August, year-in year-out, that I begin to carol the first few lines of Andy William's song, recalling the classic 1990's Staples' ad. It drives the kids nuts.

So, unless you're a kid - or a teacher - enjoy!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Breaking News - Wind Farm Application in the offing at Barmpton

Generic Picture of a Wind Farm

Word reaches me that Banks Developments are on the verge of submitting a planning application to the council for a wind farm, comprising of 10 turbines at Moor House, to the north-east of Barmpton village.

Although it's villagers who are most likely to have comments about the application, residents from the 3 Haughton wards may wish to have their say too - the area is popular with people out for a walk.

Positively, Banks are holding 2 consultation sessions - at Sadberge Village Hall on Monday 14th September 2009 between 3pm and 7pm, and at Harrowgate Hill Workingmen's Club on 15th September 2009 between 3pm and 7pm. I understand that Banks' project team will be at hand to put forward their up-to-date plans, and answer any questions.

Make sure you get along to one of these meetings if you want to know more.

BNP take (another) caning in Darlington

After losing to an independent in July, the BNP were on the end of another thrashing on Thursday night in Whessoe Parish.

Contesting the 2 seats were John Hoodless from the far-right party, and fellow Darlington blogger Gill Cartwright and her daughter.

I don't have the numbers to hand, (I'll update this post when I get them) and I can't find them anywhere on the net, but I understand that Gill and her daughter polled well in excess of 100 votes each, whilst Mr Hoodless bumped along the bottom with fewer than 20.

Interestingly, although she's a Tory Borough Councillor, Gill stood as an independent candidate, on the basis that overt party politics don't belong on parish councils. It would seem that the good people of Whessoe thoroughly agree with that principle. After these two poll reverses, I wonder if the BNP now have finally got the message - the people of Whessoe don't want the politics of race hate and extremism on their parish council!


The result was;

Cartwright G 135
Costin L 116
Hoodless J 18

(From HarrowgatehillFuture)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Council Magazines - a Final Word?

Thanks to everyone who's taken the trouble to post comments about this issue, regardless of the angle you were coming from. I think between myself and Pete Barron, your comments and the other sites which picked up on our discussion, we managed to cover the key points.

I simply mention now that over at the Independent, Paul Evans has written an online piece which (more or less) comes to my defence, so thanks to him for that. He makes some interesting points about the development of really local journalism in Ireland, which may be relevant as our local titles struggle for direction. Alas, I'm still Nick Willis. Maybe it's time for another name change... ;)


Not one of mine, for once, but the Echo's. They ran a piece this morning about one of the potential candidates for Alan Milburn's seat, Roger Baker, in terms that suggested he had already been chosen as PPC.

Quite naturally, my fellow blogger and LibDem candidate for Darlington Mike Barker picked up on this, and wrote a mischievous piece about the death of democracy in the Labour Party, blacks arts of spin, yadda yadda. Mike's favoured candidate for the position, it seems, is my Cabinet colleague Jenny Chapman, although I'm not sure how much authority Mike carries in Darlington CLP...

Anyway, very helpfully, Pete Barron has blogged this evening explaining that it was all an editorial mistake, and the piece should simply have read that providing there's an open shortlist, then Roger will seek selection. No doubt there will be a suitably prominent correction in the Echo's Darlington pages in the morning.

In fact, having talked to at least three of the possible hopefuls looking to fill the vacancy left by Alan Milburn, I can verify that no-one yet has confirmed they will be standing, although entirely sensibly, several people are "taking soundings" locally.

Between now and November (if that's when the selection is) there are likely to be plenty more rumours swilling round, so it will be good if we don't get any more false reports like this one that has party members choking over their cornflakes. As an observer to the proceedings, I shall of course be taking a close interest - I'll be blogging on women-only shortlists soon.