Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Comment Moderation

I'm off to Manchester for a couple of days - until Friday, then, I've turned comment moderation on.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Monday Morning Smile

It's never good when one MMS follows the other, and I'll be posting on this shortly.

Still there could only be one MMS this week, and so I give you Robert Webb's strangely compelling turn on Comic Relief: Let's Dance, which deservedly won the contest.

Whatever you may think of this, I think we can all agree that Robert makes a mighty fine Jennifer Beals....

Monday, March 09, 2009

Monday Morning Smile

Not so much a smile, more a leery grin, as we welcome The Saturdays to MMS.

Remember, Red Nose Day is this Friday, 13th March. Let it not be said I don't do my bit for charidee.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

They come over here....

Easily the funniest story of the week has to be the BNP's launch of its European campaign in London. The witless fascists used the iconic image of a WWII Spitfire, oblivious that the markings identified it as a plane flown in the 303 squadron by Polish fighters.

The BNP want all Eastern European workers to be barred from Britain. Curious then, as the Unite against Fascism website notes, that they should choose an image from the Battle of Britain, where 1 in 5 pilots were non-British. During the Battle of Britain, Poles shot down 203 Luftwaffe aircraft, or 12% of total German losses.

As one comment on the Facebook site I bet we can find 1,000,000 people who loathe the BNP observed, the BNP's slogan has to be "Coming over here, taking our Spitfires, winning our war. Bastards."

You can see the original story here. This is the first and last time this blog shows a picture of Nick Griffin. Or indeed has a link to the Daily Mail.

Friday, March 06, 2009

A 4 Star Authority "Improving Strongly"

That's the independent Audit Commission's Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) assessment of Darlington Borough Council's performance and prospects. It's recognition of the dedication and talent of Council staff across the authority, and at every level.

The Council achieved the highest rating in the Benefits, Housing and Use of Resources (Value for Money) categories. Darlington, together with Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and South Tyneside are the only councils in the North East to achieve this top rating

The CPA summary said;

Darlington Borough Council is improving strongly. It can demonstrate improvements in each of its top three priorities: improving the local economy, raising educational attainment and promoting inclusive communities. Improved attainment at GCSE has been particularly notable, rising from 60 to 69 per cent gaining five A* to C grades. The number of pupil exclusions has reduced dramatically, albeit from a high level. The Council has made a significant contribution to strengthening Darlington’s economy, particularly in terms of jobs and wage levels. Performance in housing and adult social care remains strong and crime has continued to reduce. The council manages its resources effectively and value for money remains excellent. The Council has successfully developed with partners a new Sustainable Community Strategy. Its ongoing implementation provides a basis for excellent partnership working. Planning for further improvement is robust. The Council has sufficient capacity to implement its plans. As a very small council, it has actively sought ways to increase capacity though improved working with the voluntary sector and a partnership with a neighbouring council to deliver back office functions.

And because you won't read anything about this on either the local Tory or LibDem sites, I'll simply point out that the Council has achieved this level of performance and sense of direction under the political guidance of a Labour administration.

As always, there's no resting on our laurels, with so many challenges ahead, particularly in delivering first class services at a time of economic hardship. This, however, is a firm foundation for the future.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Clamping Alert

It has to be said that I wander into ASDA on Whinbush Way without paying much attention to the signage that the company has put up around the car park. Had I done so, I would have seen that ASDA now threaten anyone who parks illegitimately in bays reserved for disabled people or those with children, with a £60 fine.

I'm often inclined to write these messages from supermarkets off as simply paying lip service to good manners - but no, I've learned that a local resident without a blue badge who parked in a disabled bay recently did indeed get his car clamped. Money had to be handed over to get the vehicle released.

Clamping is a very emotive issue. When I was doing my stint as Cabinet Member for Highways and Transport, I wouldn't entertain their use in public car parks or in resident parking bays - clamping has an appalling reputation owing to the behaviour, I have to say, of some councils and private operators down south. It's an exercise that tends to wind drivers up, when there are plenty of statutory powers open to the local council to fine drivers who don't pay for tickets, for example.

Supermarkets, which don't have the legal framework available to local authorities, are an entirely different matter. I fully support what ASDA are doing, and hope that other supermarkets follow their lead. It makes my blood boil when I see fit and healthy people skipping lightly into a supermarket having parked in a bay for disabled drivers. I often find myself wanting to challenge them, but you never know how these confrontations are going to end.

I've contacted ASDA's PR people, who've told me that when the scheme was first trialled in Liverpool, the number of free spaces increased by 60% for disabled people and those with children. All money from the fines goes to the baby charity Tommy and Motability, the national disability charity.

When surveyed, apparently 4 out of 5 ASDA shoppers agreed with the policy. So do I, and it's only the minority lazy and thoughtless drivers who will object. We'll be mentioning ASDA's initiative in our next newsletter, so no-one can say that they've not been warned!

Restaurant Review - The Stables Bar, Coatham Mundeville

"If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all", or so I was taught when I was younger.

Anyway, large swathes of the political blogosphere would be emptied if this approach became commonplace. And I would find that I had literally nothing to say about our visit at the weekend to The Stables, part of the Hallgarth Hotel comnplex.

Now we have very fond memories of The Stables - we often used to go there for an excellent Sunday lunch when friends and relatives came to stay. Our last visit was sometime ago, however (AJ was only just out of a high chair, I seem to remember) so we thought it was time to pay the place a visit again.

From what I've read in the press, the place has changed hands several times since then, and recently the parent group has run into trouble, although fortunately for staff this seems to have been resolved.

When we arrived on Saturday evening, the bar was pretty much deserted, which should have been a warning sign. We ordered a bar meal, and waited and waited and waited...

As a snack, for a first course Sandy had a goats cheese filo tart and I had garlic bread. Mine consisted of two slices of toasted, buttered bread that remarkably had no taste of garlic at all. Sandy's tart was charred on the top and the filo was rock hard - maybe it had been microwaved? Being British we gritted our teeth, and ploughed on.

The main course was worse. Sandy ordered a jacket potato with cheese - the cheese savoury mix was slimy and we were both sure the coleslaw was off. Sandy left it all. I had a beefburger, which was the wrong side of pink in the middle. I ate mine, and (sparing you the gory details) suffered for two days afterwards.

I had already ordered a single cheeseboard to share between us - slabs of processed cheese and a few biscuits which would have been tolerable if not priced at a whopping £5.90.

Anything positive to say? - well the staff were lovely, and when we complained about the main course, the waitress did what she could, and we were given a free round of drinks.

Otherwise it was simply the worst, the most overpriced bar meal either of us could remember. If this was Mike Amos' Eating Owt column, he'd likely round this review off with a witty observation about closing stable doors - I can only advise you to steer well clear.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Will he stay or will he go?

"Seldom Seen" or just "Busy"?

Cabinet this afternoon, which will be an opportunity for LibDem Group leader Martin "busy" Swainston to make his first appearance since the controversy over his non-attendance at Council budget meetings.

Or perhaps not. Over on his blog, fellow LibDem councillor Mike Barker has suggested that Martin has far too much to do in Hurworth to trouble himself with holding the Labour Executive to account at the Town Hall. He makes a broader charge that Council meetings are a waste of time anyway, and LibDems are far better working in their wards.

Ward work is essential for any dedicated local representative, of course, but I think it's foolish for the LibDems to leave the role of opposition to Labour regarding Council business entirely to the Tories. Local people will soon begin to question what on earth is the point of electing LibDems, if they only do half the job?

So it's over to Martin. If I were a gambling man, I would imagine that Martin has to show his face this afternoon, but second guessing LibDems is always a perilous occupation.

On the agenda are items which include Children's Services capital programme, and discussion of spending of £1.5 million at Hurworth Primary School. If Martin isn't interested in anything else on the agenda, maybe that might tempt him along?


No apologies for absence were proferred at Cabinet, so we don't know why he wasn't there, but once again Martin Swainston missed Cabinet. This time, his place was taken by newly-elected Cllr. Ann-Marie Curry.

So it was left to the Tories to probe on the report regarding the refurbishment of schools in Hurworth...

Monday, March 02, 2009

Monday Morning Smile

Frankly, quite enough has been written about the so-called "hilarious" Cambridge Footlights, and how it launched the careers of many of our most respected comedians.

Far less is known, however, about the equally seminal Stud-Ents revue group which literally dominated Durham University's comedy circuit in 1985 and 1986. Alas, the planned shows at the Edinburgh Fringe never quite got off the ground (or indeed out of Durham) and so the group faded out of existence, years before they might have hit the mainstream. Or not, as the case may be.

Yes, dear reader, I was a member of the 6-strong Stud-Ents, recruited probably because of my willingness to stand in front of fairly sizeable audiences and do silly voices. Frighteningly, we wrote our own material. Our group ensemble in the second section of the show was a skit on Star Trek. As I think about my "alternative" Dr McCoy, I'm gnawing my fist even as I write (which is no mean feat).

I mention this ancient history simply by way of a prelude to The Firm's 1987 Star Trekkin' hit, which I suppose did it far better than we did (I see they also came up with the 'Captain's Log' visual joke). Anyway, enjoy.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

All Change at the Civic Amenity Site

Tackling overflowing bins - which help to create litter - is one of Wades priorities.

Of course, the day-job(s) continue, and on Friday I met with Wades and an officer at the Civic Amenity Site (CAS) on Whessoe Road. I'm still learning not to call it "the tip".

As part of their contract with DBC, Wades are taking over the management of the site from Premier in April. They have impressive plans to improve the service offered to residents.

Wades have bought the next-door parcel of land, on which they intend to build a waste facility for commercial users - so no longer will businesses have to make the journey up to Aycliffe to dispose of their rubbish.

Otherwise, Bruce Whitley and his team have come up with a raft of improvements for the facility for residents: - instead of sorting through the waste in the bins, staff will be dedicated to helping residents who have come to drop off waste, and also keeping the site clean and tidy. Signage will be improved; the site wil be reconfigured to make it easier to separate recycling materials into their relevant groups; and there will be better facilities for wood recycling.

It will represent a step change in the service provided, and will provide a further boost to the Borough's recycling drive. More information as it becomes available.

On the European Trail

Corus' Redcar Site on Wednesday.

A busy week campaigning, culminating in a very successful Labour European Forum in Sunderland.

Included on the itinerary was speaking to residents in Trimdon, and a visit to Corus' Redcar site, where I spoke with union officials about the economic downturn.

This was a very useful meeting, and a good opportunity to discuss Labour's international approach to tackling the credit crunch. There was a strong consensus that the Tories' strategy of sit back and do nothing would have left the country in a truly parlous state. In the Q&A afterwards, we also considered issues such as the dangers of protectionism, beating the BNP, how the EU can help with re-training of workers made redundant, and the pros and cons of the Euro.

I rounded off the week at the Sunderland Glass Centre at our last big region-wide party meeting before June 4th. It was a packed event, with over 80 representatives present from Berwick to Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. Our keynote speaker was Caroline Flint MP the Minister for Europe, and we were also joined by Anna Colombo, Secretary General of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament.

The meeting was chaired by Julie Elliott, Labour's newly-selected PPC for the new Sunderland Central seat (the Glass Centre is in her patch). Her team is already up and running, and this will be one of the many constituencies I'll be visiting (several times!) between now and June 4th.