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.