Thursday, February 26, 2009

Voting LibDem - What's the Point?




Special Council this evening to finally consider the Cabinet's proposed budget for next year.

Everyone acknowledged that this was the most difficult budget round in living memory - and of course the challenges faced by Darlington Borough Council are no different to those faced by local authorities up and down the country. Still it was good that after listening to the public, and finding additional savings, the Mayor's Charity Shop, the South Park Aviary and the cycle and pedestrian training for schoolchildren could be saved pending further discussions. Although the opposition is loath to ever mention it, Darlington has a reputation for delivering excellent value for money, as evidenced by the assessment of the independent Audit Commission.

Tonight's debate centred on an amendment moved by the Conservatives - not about how money could be saved, but rather the mechanism for monitoring progress during the year. Conservative contributions were somewhat muddled - according to Cllr. Heather Scott this is because they are a democratic group, but anarchy seemed to reign. We had eveything from Cllr. Charles Johnson praising "a Conservative budget" to Cllr. Bill Stenson who wanted to close the Civic Theatre to keep the toilets open in Heighington.

Contributors like Cllr. Tony Richmond and Alan Coultas were heard in respectful silence. But with so little ambition or foresight on the Tory side, it wasn't hard to rebut their arguments. After all, as Cllr. Steve Harker for Labour pointed out, last year the Tories wanted to cut the Council Tax by selling land. That strategy we now know would have caused a financial meltdown for the Council. At this, one or two Tories shifted uneasily in their seats.

The Conservatives also spent some time trying to steal Labour's clothes. They wanted management of vacancies amongst Council staff, but amongst the 60 redundancies proposed in the budget, no less than 30 are currently-vacant posts - clear evidence of the measures the Tories claimed they wanted to champion. They went on to demand more innovative arrangements to save money - ignorant apparently of hook-ups like the Darlington/Stockton partnership which is saving Council Tax payers money on both sides of the border.

Light relief was provided as always, however, by the LibDems. Group Leader Martin Swainston angrily denounced the Labour administration for never following through on their promises. It took my colleague Geoff Walker, in a wonderfully understated speech, to gently point out that not only had Cllr. Swainston missed the Cabinet meeting when the budget was considered, but no fewer than all of the 6 scrutiny meetings devoted to the Council's finances - on the 12th January, the 15th January, the 19th January, the 22nd January, the 29th January and 10th February 2009.

So discussion of the Council's budget was limited to only Labour and Tory councillors, because the LibDems couldn't be ar**d to turn up. If this were more generally known, I wonder whether residents in Hurworth and North Road would be prepared to continue to return these clowns?

A small victory


As I blogged on Saturday, last week Andy and I joined DBC staff to tour the ward and draw up an action list to deal with troublespots around the ward.

One of the most frustrating issues to deal with has been the rutted corners on Salters Close - after rain they resemble ploughed fields. After nagging from ourselves and residents, a variety of solutions have been tried over the years. At one point posts were sunk into the ground to deter cars over-running, but the bin lorries simply knocked them over!

Now we've heard from Community Services that the corners are going to be re-configured, and the muddy eyesore at each corner will be a thing of the past. The work should be completed in April or May.

We'll be writing to residents soon to tell them the good news. It's the small but locally important victories like this that get me out of bed in the morning.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Monday Morning Smile


The more observant will have gathered that MMS is little more than me reminiscing about classic comedy clips from when I was aged around between 6 and 10.

So why break a winning formula? Time to look back at this classic from 1973...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mayoral Matters

To Hartlepool today, to speak at the Constituency Party's Annual General Meeting ahead of June's European elections.

The party in Hartlepool needs less encouragement than most to get out and campaign ahead of June 4th - they have elections for Mayor on the same day (as do North Tyneside).

Labour's candidate is Chris Simmons, who also spoke at the meeting. Chris is a natural communicator, and told us about the work he and Labour Group leader Jonathan Brash have been doing, visiting and more importantly listening to residents' groups around Hartlepool.

The current Mayor is of course former H'Angus the Monkey mascot Stuart Drummond. Stuart won the first Mayoral election very much on an 'anti-politician' ticket, and increased his majority four years ago by repeating the trick.

It isn't enough, however, to throw buckets of manure over other politicians in order to secure election. Effective elected Mayors also have to take decisions - sometimes tough ones - to take their community forward. It's here that Stuart has fallen well short. And unfortunately for him, it seems he's been rumbled.

In Chris, Labour has an excellent candidate who would make a first class elected Mayor. He talked about his priorities to boost leisure and improve access to public transport for all residents. He recognises the pressing need to deliver an efficient council operation. Most importantly, rather than rely on press gimmicks, Chris will concentrate on positive action. He wants Hartlepool to be a destination and not a departure point.

I wish him well, and look forward to working with him and the rest of Labour's team in the run-up to June's elections. You can see Chris' website here.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Trimdon


Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson with the the team in Trimdon

I haven't had a chance to blog about the European campaign since Christmas, but work is well under way by Labour across the North East. I'm concentrating my work in the southern Durham and Tees Valley area - in the last few weeks I've been out with MPs Ashok Kumar in Hemlington, Dari Taylor in Bishopsgarth and yesterday (for the second time) Phil Wilson in Trimdon.

Yesterday was one of those days which makes you say "polls, schmolls". Virtually every house we called at had long-standing Labour supporters who were slightly surprised we were even asking how they'd be voting at the European elections.

Canvassing with Dari was a similarly positive experience. Given the national news background, I'd been expecting doom and gloom from residents - whilst there was a little of that, I found that people have really tried to understand the economic situation - they've had to, as their jobs, and those of friends and family could be at risk. Consequently, there was none of this "recession made in Downing Street" nonsense peddled by the Tories - residents understand that this is an international and not a purely GB situation, and the toxic role played by the bankers too.

So in what is apparently a LibDem ward, we got some really good feedback, and I even managed to recruit a new member! Today I'm off to Hartlepool, as the party there spearheads its Mayoral and European campaign ahead of June 4th.

Troublespots



Flytipping in the cut between Salters Close and Wren Avenue.

First thing on Wednesday morning, Andy Scott and I joined DBC Housing and StreetScene staff as we toured Haughton West identifying areas for action.

It was a thoroughly useful session - some of the problems (like the rutted corners of the green in Salters Close) are long-running, which we've been trying to get sorted for years.

Travelling round on a wet February morning, ponding was especially apparent, and one resident stopped us to point out the flooding to the north of Sparrowhall Drive. This was a complaint that Andy is already dealing with, and there are similar longstanding problems on Rockwell Pastures.

Otherwise, we identified the need for StreetScene litterpicks in Ajax Street, Bamburgh Place, Belford Gardens, Lyonette Road, behind the garages in Hutton Avenue, Salters Close, and the Wren Avenue/Lyonette Road and Lyonette Road/Whinfield Road Cuts. In addition there was grafitti on the wall at Danby Court where it borders Martindale Road, and a carpet dumped in the lane between Ajax and Hercules Streets.

It was good, however, to see how local improvement schemes have dealt with previous troublespots - like the garage block behind the shops in Nightingale Avenue, now well-lit and resurfaced. Local action really can produce results.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Feeding Back


Last night, I was out with Harrowgate Hill Labour Councillor Mark Burton and our MP Alan Milburn, door knocking in the Mayfair Rd area about the good news regarding the bus service.

Mark and Alan have worked hard on this issue together with local residents. As I blogged on Tuesday, the Council has agreed to support the residents abandoned by Arriva by tendering for a supported bus service to the area. Although it will be a little time before the tenders are received from the bus companies, we're all hoping for a positive outcome.

Mark has worked hard to stay in touch with local residents, and put out a newsletter immediately before the Cabinet meeting on Monday. Feeding back is just as important too, and so we knocked on doors in the streets around Mayfair Road explaining what had happened, to local people. The importance of the public transport link was brought home to me when talking to a very elderly gentleman who had slipped and been badly bruised recently on the ice when negotiating the slope that leads up to North Road - previously he had had access to buses virtually on his doorstep.

We covered 5 streets, and residents across the affected area will be getting a letter from Alan on the subject. It was a very positive hour-and-a-half.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Northern Decision Makers - Debating the Credit Crunch

The latest edition of Northern Decision Makers is now online. It features an interview with Ashok Kumar, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and Kevin Rowan, the Head of the TUC here in the North East.

It was a feisty session, with Ashok in particular giving as good as he got. You can see the show here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Budget Setting


Members of the Public attending the Talking Together Session on the Draft Budget in the Dolphin Centre

Yesterday's Cabinet considered the Council's budget for next year. For local authorities, this has been the toughest budget process in living memory - the credit crunch has created a "perfect storm" for councils which have relied upon accrued interest to balance the books.

The economic downturn has hit income generating outlets in leisure and the arts too. This has had an impact across the authority - car parking income is lower, for exazmple. And at the same time, when inflation generally is a lot lower, services for adults are costing more, in part the result of our ageing population.

So it's good news here in Darlington that there is a emphasis on achieving value for money in all that the Council does. That's why we're recognised by the independent Audit Commission as delivering excellence in this important sphere - we are one of only two unitary authorities in the country to have gained 4 stars as a high performing low cost council. Efficiencies this year across all departments will total £2.6 million, rising to a projected £4.9 million in 2012/13. In total since 2004, the Council has saved £10 million, which has both preserved key services, and helped keep the increase in Council Tax lower than it might have been.

Still there were some hard choices in this year's draft budget, including the closure of the Mayor's Charity Shop, the demolition of the aviary in South Park, and the alteration to school cycle training such that sessions would have to be paid for by parents.

Owing in the main to the finding of further efficiencies and increased revenue, these reductions were stayed, or in the case of the cycle training, eliminated altogether. Discussions will now continue to find an agreed way forward as far as the Mayor's Charity Shop and the aviary are concerned.

On the same agenda, supported bus travel was considered. As a result of the failure of competition, councils like Darlington have found their budgets for essential services rocketing in recent years as the big bus companies have withdrawn from more and more routes. The Council's Environment Scrutiny Committee had considered the issue, and recommended several additional routes for consideration, benefitting communities in Springfield and Whinfield, Harrowgate Hill and Blackwell. As I pointed out to Cabinet, it was only because of the savings achieved elsewhere that we could accept these recommendations and seek tenders to implement them.

If you wait for the opposition to puublicly acknowledge the Council's canny approach to budgeting, you'll only grow old and disappointed!

Tories' Local Power Grab

There's more than a whiff of cynical power play about David Cameron's announcement today that if elected the Tories will "open out" local government.

The centrepiece of the plan is compulsory referenda in England's 12 of England's cities on the question of elected Mayors. This is apparently because Boris in London has been such a huge success (sic).

Leaving aside the mockery that Boris is making of the London Mayoralty, it's not difficult to see why the Tories have selected these cities for a potential shake-up. It can hardly be because elected Mayors have been such a resounding success - regular readers of this blog will know my critique of the office - placing overweening power in the hands of an individual runs directly counter to the best traditions of English local government. Elected Mayors have been a failure - spectacularly so in places like Stoke and Doncaster. Little wonder they have been rejected in 25 out of 37 referenda held to date.

No, the Tories have been converted to the cause of elected Mayors only because they have so little influence in the larger cities at present. With little prospect of that changing anytime soon, elected Mayors offer the Tories the chance of winning instant power. No need, then, for the slog of building up to control ward by ward. An elected Mayor could deliver some of the larger cities to the Tories in an instant - or at the very least disturb established Labour or Liberal Democrat administrations.

It's an astonishing fact that as far as I could see via the councils' various websites this morning, in none of the 12 cities named by the Tories do they have outright majority control - the figures are;

Birmingham: 49 Tory councillors out of 120.
Bradford: 37 out of 90.
Bristol: 13 out of 70.
Coventry: 27 out of 54.
Leeds: 22 out of 99.
Leicester: 8 out of 54.
Liverpool: 0 out of 90.
Manchester: 1 out of 96.
Newcastle-upon-Tyne: 0 out of 78.
Nottingham: 7 out of 55.
Sheffield: 0 out of 84.
Wakefield: 23 out of 63.

Little wonder then, that none of the true Blue shire counties are being set up for the Mayoral treatment...

Monday, February 16, 2009

Monday Morning Smile.



From an altogether more innocent era. "Git yer clothes on Ethel!"

What Ho!


Having single-handedly alienated what little there ever was of an audience by not blogging for a month-and-a-half, here's one last go to get the thing started again. In my defence, what with ward duties, Cabinet role, European candidacy, work (and family, mustn't forget family) things are insanely busy.

Still, I promise, PROMISE to blog regularly from now on. And to start things off...