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".