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.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Breaking News - Steel Store Application Rejected!

I went along with residents from Rockwell Pastures to the Council's Planning Committee this afternoon to object to the application by Albert Hill Skip Hire to extend the hours of their operation.

As I blogged on Sunday, this factory has been the source of local complaints for years - about the level of noise, the chunks of wood that flew into public areas, the dust, and most of all the unsocial hours the plant works.
At the Committee meeting, two residents spoke powerfully against approval. A representative of the company attempted to blur the issue by suggesting that perhaps another factory on Albert Hill was responsible for all the problems - he also seemed to be stating that residents were delusional about the scale of the problem(!).

I spoke at the Committee too, and tried to rebut the (frankly specious) arguments being deployed by the site operator.

I'm delighted to say that the Committee unanimously rejected the application - the hours of operation will remain as they are. As ward councillors, we will be looking now to the Council's Planning Enforcement team to prosecute the company for breaches of the existing site operation hours, and Albert Hill Skip Hire can be sure that together with residents we will be pressing the Council on the level of noise and dust problems too.

David, Andy and myself have just got a letter round the estate explaining the outcome of today's meeting. As I understand that this company is linked to the "outfit" who operate the private tip on Whessoe Road, I have little doubt that enforcement will be beset with problems - at least after today, there is a little light at the end of the tunnel.

Council Magazines - the wider context

Below, I've posted an update about the debate involving Pete Barron's blog and mine featured at the online HoldtheFrontPage website.

Actually, that's a website which benefits from a closer read, relevant to this issue. What I hadn't gathered was that Pete's stance - sincerely held, I know - in the Northern Echo is part of a wider push by local newspaper chiefs up and down the country to call into question local authority publications. Just this month, the Newspaper Society - made up of "regional press industry leaders" wrote to Local Government Minister Rosie Winterton over the role of council newspapers, and particularly the competition they pose "for readers and advertising revenue." (My italics).

This is a hot issue, as we've already covered, in an industry battered by the recession and its impact on advertising revenues and dwindling readerships. HoldtheFrontPage reports places where council magazines are being closed down or merged, as Pete has mentioned, but interestingly also where they're being started up, in places like Thurrock. Perhaps understandably, the actions of LibDem-run North East Lincolnshire, which has withdrawn all recruitment advertising from the 2 local newspapers in favour of placing it in its own magazine, has attracted ire from the media bosses.

One theme that comes through from readers comments on the site (and it's read mostly by journalism professionals) is that regional media shouldn't be surprised at the growth of council magazines, when companies have chosen to slash editorial staff numbers (if that doesn't sound too tabloid-y). The Echo, to be fair, has resurrected its Darlington news page, but for a while recently we seemed to have dropped off their radar completely after changes to the organisation. But if there's no-one there to adequately cover stories, local newspapers can't be surprised if councils and other public bodies try to convey their messages in other ways.

One view that comes across regularly, both from commenters on this site and elsewhere, is that somehow council publications are "stealing" advertising revenue away from local newspapers. There may be some truth in that, but the allegation ignores just how much choice there is out there now for advertisers - not just radio and other publications, but more particularly via the internet. In an age where social networking sites can target very precisely potential (high-spending) audiences, little wonder that more traditional outlets are suffering - and the evidence suggests that local newspaper readership is, (without wanting to sound too cruel) dying off.

Anyway, I'll leave this debate for now with a quote from a commenter to HoldtheFrontPage which encapsulates a lot of what I've been trying to say rather nicely.

I'm an ex journalist and when I left newspapers I spent four years editing North Somerset Council's magazine, North Somerset Life. Let's get one thing straight: council mags, newsletters, whatever you want to call them, are not designed as a replacement for the local Press. However, their rise in popularity has coincided with a sharp demise in the newspaper industry, so people are jumping on the bandwagon and saying councils are out to ruin local journalism, which is plain wrong. The publications exist to promote council services and values and are edited, by and large, by ex journalists like me who apply the same levels of balance they would have done for a Press story. I agree it's unlikely a council mag would ever feature a protest on its front page, but not because it's trying to suppress news, it just isn't relevant to what the publication exists for. The reason so many councils are adopting this approach of communication is because it works, and has been proven to work. How many newspapers do you know which have carried out extensive customer satisfaction surveys to make sure what they're publishing is what people want to read? Not many. Yet councils go to great pains to make sure their readership finds the content of these publications useful and informative. The point about how much these things cost is also, in my view, a nonsense. Dig a bit deeper and you'll find most are self-funding, or at least partly self-funded, through the various council services advertising with them rather than the local Press. By doing this they reach a larger audience for less money, saving taxpayers' cash which would otherwise have gone to the local paper, which is what this is really about.


The debate between myself and Pete Barron has now made it onto meedja guru Roy Greenslade's blog at the Guardian. A quick scan of his blog shows that Roy is no fan of council magazines, and he gives me short shrift. The towering nature of his analysis is only slightly undermined, I feel, by the fact that he calls me "Nick Willis" throughout. But, hey, journalists (even former editors of the Mirror) are busy people...

Actually, rather like the HoldtheFrontPage site that Pete brought to my attention, the piece is well-worth looking at for the thoughtful comments made about Roy Greenslade's piece below it. They bring 2 new elements to the debate which Pete and I haven't touched on yet - firstly, the malign process that has seen local newspapers cease to be that in all but name, as they've been sucked up into faceless media conglomorates. Secondly, there is a tendancy for local authority communications teams to draw in the best and most ambitious local journalists, leaving their former newspaper employers. Are councils asset-stripping, with their superior financial muscle? Or is the fault of media groups who have slashed and burned budgets, making working conditions less than appealing to the brightest and best?

Finally, over on his blog, Pete tells us that Radio 5 Live are interviewing him about this debate tomorrow morning. Somehow, the call from the BBC hasn't quite made itself through to me yet...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Town Crier - Facts and Figures

As you may have seen, Pete Barron has responded to my defence of council magazines in general, and the Town Crier in particular. Several of you have left comments too. I'll try and cover the major points;

(1) Firstly, what are the costs of a magazine like the Crier? It's a 32-page magazine, produced monthly. It cost £162,517 to design, print and distribute in 08/09. The Town Crier carries advertising from external companies and organisations. The revenue from this totalled £77,546 in 08/09. The remaining £84,971 cost of design, print and distribution, was made up with money from council departments, which need to promote their services to the public. That means the design, print and distribution of The Town Crier costs the Borough’s 40,000 households around £2 a year each - or 17p per copy. (No need for an FOI Alan - I was happy to dig out and publish the costs).

(2) Darlington Borough Council surveys show 64.8% of residents say their prime source of council news in Darlington is The Town Crier and 79.5% said it kept them well informed of Council news and information. I appreciate that some of people who've responded here have a historic beef with the Crier (you know who you are, Ian and Ian!) but actually most Darlington residents like what they get.

(3) Take the figure of £84,971 which is made up from internal advertising from council departments. That money would very likely be spent on advertising anyway - perhaps in the Echo, perhaps in the Herald, or via radio advertising. So it's money that would be spent in any case. The question is - is it best spent in The Town Crier? I would argue that the figures speak for themselves - advertising in The Town Crier means they reach every household via a credible information source. The Echo can make a case for attracting council advertising cash, but it has nowhere near the penetration of The Town Crier. I don't know whether it will be commercially confidential, but I would be interested to know how many of its 'Darlington' edition the Echo sells every day.

(4) Bluntly, The Town Crier would not be so successful in attracting external advertsing revenue if it lacked credibility - businesses simply wouldn't be so keen to use it pages to promote their product. The health of The Town Crier can be measured in its ability to gain the confidence - and cash - of local businesses. Plus, it does win lots of awards.

(4) The Council has a duty to keep residents informed about the services available to local residents. So in this month's Town Crier, for example, there is a double spread devoted to feedback on the consultation about civil parking enforcement. The Echo certainly wouldn't have run that piece as a story in anywhere near the detail that the Crier had. The alternative would have been to pay the Echo to run - where only a fraction of the residents would have seen the piece.

(5) Pete, in my opinion, is on stronger grounds when he says that what isn't necessary is a publication which paints a rosily inaccurate picture of reality. This links in with comments from Ian and others that The Town Crier is nothing more than a propoganda sheet, parroting the views of the ruling Labour Group.

(6) On the latter point, I think legally council publications have to reflect the policies of the council as a whole. That doesn't mean they should be party political - patently The Town Crier isn't, and indeed there's legislation rightly prohibiting that. It would be odd and confusing though, to take an example close to my heart, if The Town Crier ran a piece denying climate change, and urging residents to recycle less. Providing constrating arguments simply isn't what council publications are about - again, as I've said, they're about keeping local residents informed about local services.

I appreciate that this has become a Crier vs. Echo ding-dong, when in my opinion, both publications can live happily side-by-side. For sure, there is a duty on the Council not to try and run the local media into the ground (and as I've stressed, the Echo isn't the only show in town) by denying it substantial slices of private and council revenue. The anonymous contributor is right - councils are at a massive advantage in terms of financial capacity, and that would a gross misuse of their pecuniary muscle.

Furthermore, I completely accept, of course, that the Echo isn't one of those local rags which runs relentlessly negative pieces about the local council - I've always found it to be fair and mostly accurate, even when it's giving the council a kicking.

To take the matter forward, however, in the age of new media (and this blog is a very humble example) traditional print media has to recognise that it can't control the dissemination of information in a way it did 30 years ago. The Town Crier is a very obvious example of a "new kid on the block" in printed material, but perhaps it's online that the Echo faces its greatest challenge.

Councils like Darlington will use the internet too, but increasingly there will be multiple sources of local information, and the blogosphere is just one example. The real challenge to historic titles like the Echo and the D & S will come not from council publications, but from the internet. The print media's response to that - in imagination and scope - will really determine what survives and what falls by the wayside.


Thanks to Pete Barron for pointing out that this debate, featuring Pete's blog and mine, has made it to the online " - the journalism industry's national website. I get slightly more shrift from commenters there than I have done here, so far!

Having it both ways

Northern Echo editor Pete Barron aimed a broadside yesterday in his column at council-produced publications. Pete argued that local councils, instead of "wasting" hundreds of thousands of pounds producing glossy magazines, should instead be trusting their local rags to disseminate news. Pete quotes with approval councils like Doncaster, where the eccentric Mayor has banned the council magazine.

Pete makes some interesting points, and indeed this is a tension that is replicated up and down the country. I'm sure that as the belt tightens on local council finances, those local authority magazines with big budgets will inevitably go to the wall.

With all deference to Pete, however, I'm not sure it's that simple. A key point is that a lot of local newspapers, do not operate like the Echo which is broadly fair in its treatment of news stories. It's a bum rap if whatever you do, no matter how well, the local paper slags you off as "loony left" because of the general political bias of the media group. It's precisely the one-eyed nature of a lot of the local press that generated the growth of council magazines, because local authorities wanted to talk directly to their residents, and avoid the hostile spin continually imposed by media.

Some councils, of course, do everything they can to minimise the burden on local council tax payers. So in Darlington, the Town Crier carries adverts from lots of local businesses, which offset the production costs. Pete doesn't mention this angle in his piece, but I'm guessing this hurts the local newspaper industry at a time when advertising revenue is at a premium. The media in general relies on advertising income, particularly when readership across the board is in slow decline.

To follow Pete's line of argument, however, local councils can't win. They're damned if they have a council magazine with significant costs to the tax payer, and damned if they try to offset those costs with advertising revenue.

Where I would completely agree with Pete is that it is in the interests of local democracy to have a strong, independent local press. Councils should do what they can to support local media, especially at a time when print newspapers are under such pressure. At the same time, local papers have to accept that councils have the right to communicate directly with their residents, and not always have to have their news reflected through the prism of the paper.

It's a debate that will certainly continue.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Monday Morning Smile

Time for some classic Python, and the "What have the Romans ever done for us?" scene from "Life of Brian".

I heard this deployed very effectively in the mid-80's as a riposte at what had been a very dull student union debate about disaffiliating from the National Union of Students. As the tweed-wearing Tory student worked up to a rhetorical flourish, he asked, "What has the NUS ever done for us?" There was a pause, and a wag at the back shouted "Aquaducts". Collapse of audience and effectively the end of the debate.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Planning matters - the Old Steel Store, Albert Hill

Being a local councillor can be a frustrating business. Some issues can be dealt with quickly and efficiently, leaving residents happy. Other problems can drag on, however, causing frustration for all concerned.

This Wednesday is a case in point. The Council's Planning Committee will consider an application from Albert Hill Skip Hire Ltd to change the hours of operation of their business which at first sight seems to have little to do with me as a Haughton West Councillor - the factory is after all in Albert Hill. In fact, the operators of the site have been causing misery to local residents in Haughton West for years - you can see some of the history here.

Town Hall officers have done all they could to address the problem, and by changing the status of the operation in September 2007, the operators were brought under relevant environmental legislation, including set hours of operation. As the officers' report to the Committee on Wednesday makes clear, following continuing complaints from local residents and the ward councillors, the company have continued to flout the operating hours set. After an investigation by Environmental Health, the operators have no choice but to apply for the times to be varied.

Their proposal is that they be allowed to work 6am to 9pm Monday to Friday, 7am to 4pm on a Saturday and 8am to 12pm on Sundays and Bank Holidays.

Not surprisdingly, the application has generated letters of objection from the Rockwell Pastures estate, which is most affected by the noise from the factory. The Skerne Valley, which is between the houses and the factory, can seem to magnify the echoing sound. The proposed hours are totally unacceptable. Helpfully the CPRe has also put in a strongly-worded letter.

I have done the same, and will be going along hopefully to speak on Wednesday.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

New blog for your lists

Despite the efforts of inviduals from all parties, political blogging is still a bit thin on the ground here in the North East. I'll continue to advertise blogs representing all shades of political opinion in my bloglist, and not be sectarian. Unlike most LibDems. **Sigh** - I just can't help myself.

Anyway, I've just added Richard Moss' site to my blogroll - Richard is one of the best-informed political journalists in the North, and his new blog looks like it's going to hit the right balance between hard politics and soft gossip.

Being interviewed by Richard is a bit like being briskly jostled in a crowd of grumpy commuters for two-and-a-half minutes. He takes no prisoners and has no favourites, and his blog should be required reading for anyone wanting to be in the know about politics here in the North East.

Spending more time with my family. And my residents. And my boss!

There are about 20 different rumours flying round Darlington and the North East in Labour Party circles regarding the forthcoming selection for PPC (Prospective Parliamentary Candidate) to replace Alan Milburn.

They're richly entertaining but mostly baloney - it's way too early to know who will emerge as Labour's challenger for the 2010 campaign. I am going to have to disappoint fellow blogger Mike Barker, however, in confirming that I won't be throwing my hat in the ring.

After a gruelling European campaign, including the short campaign which used up all of my annual leave, I really can't devote the kind of time to the race necessary - particularly when the selection may not take place until November. I owe it to my family to pass the opportunity to run, and I'm conscious that it has been (ahem) some months since I got a leaflet out around the ward. Finally, like many at the moment, I'm having to work stupid hours just to get the job done (7 days solid this week, for example). So I'll have to pass.

Having said that, it is of course entirely possible that the party members of Darlington would have blown a gigantic raspberry at me. We shall never know.

At the end of the day, you have to do what's right for you and your family, and that means I'm going to sit this one out. Fortunately, I know that there are several talented and dedicated potential candidates out there testing the water, and I'm sure that we will finish with a seat-winning candidate at the end of the process.

And I'm back.

After a long break. For reasons that will become apparent. Still, I've turned comment moderation off, so let's party!