Monday, November 30, 2009

Investing in our future

The approach of a political party to young people is always a test of their true values.

One of Labour's proudest achievements has been its investment in education - both in bricks and mortar, but also extra teachers too.

And here in Darlington, the Labour Council has been keen to work in partnership with national government to deliver the best facilities for young people. We've been ambitious for change, whether in the secondary (Hummersknott, the Education Village) or primary (Alderman Leach, North Road, Harrowgate Hill, Firth Moor) sectors.

Although notionally in a later 'wave' of local authorities, whose schools would be modernised in 2013, Darlington Council, together with our MP Alan Milburn, have been pressing for more rapid improvements. So it was great to learn today that Longfield, Hurworth and Branksome have all been fast-tracked for modernisation, with a £57 million grant from Government. A key argument Darlington has been able to deploy is our ability to complete school rebuilding projects on time - this meant the Government could be sure that wrangling wouldn't hold up the much-needed work.

For Longfield, which already has sports college status, it will allow the buidling of "state-of-the-art sports facilities" which are sure to make a big contribution of sports development in the town.

Rebuilding or modernising all of the Borough's maintained secondary schools was a key manifesto pledge of Labour at the 2007 local elections, and I'm delighted that we've been able to deliver on that promise.

Now maybe any local Tories would like to come on and list all the schools in Darlington that were renovated under the Conservatives between 1979 and 1997....?

Monday Morning Smile

Loads to catch up on. In the meantime, here's the latest classic from the Muppets. Enjoy!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday Morning Smile

Many in the Strictly audience will still be mourning the inexplicable departure of the wonderful Phil Tufnell (and the even more wonderful Katya Virshilas) at the weekend. Still, the highlight of Saturday night was clearly Chris Hollins' essay at the Paso Doble, which had our family in fits of laughter, when we could watch through our fingers.

Earlier in the series, Chris and Ola were described by Len as being like a couple of hobbits. Well, Chris was one mean, grumpy hobbit on Saturday night...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Spartan Fare

And all for just £3.50 a week...

Plenty of food for thought around the Darlo blogosphere at the moment on the subject of crime and anti-social behaviour. My fellow blogger and LibDem supremo Mike Barker ended a recent post on the subject with the taunt that "we have yet to hear from any Council or Labour politicians in the town." You might think that all we need now is for Harry Hill to jump on his desk and bellow, "Fight!!"

Except that I'm in no mood to take Mike on over this issue - I thought his observations posted after accompanying the police on a Friday night around the north end of the town were restrained and sensible. I'd encourage you to read what he had to say. The surest note he struck was the complexity of the issues facing the police and confronted by youths and young adults with scant respect for authority, often after having consumed a skinful of alcohol.

As someone who has seen the various policy levers being tugged over the years on this issue, I'm aware there is no "quick fix" to deal with this problem. As a ward councillor in the North East of the town, there have been periods when Springfield Park, or the area around Nightingale Avenue shops, or the old primary school have been inundated with problems - we'd then have a police crackdown, and the difficulties would go away for a while.

It does frustrate me, however, when opposition councillors simplify the issues to make a cheap political point. Over at HarrowgateHill Future, Gill Cartwright claims that the Labour Council has "buried its head in the sand" over the issue of anti-social behaviour and that reconfiguring the warden service has made residents less safe. She only grudgingly mentions the actual reason the "warden" model was abandoned - as portfolio holder Bill Dixon stated in Council, for all their commitment, wardens were little better than "Keystone Cops" with no actual powers to tackle unrest. I'm not sure, having listened to some of my residents' experiences and views, how far they were able to consistently provide a 'rapid response' service that reassured the community.

That brings me onto Sparta. Gill believes that a warden service should be provided by the Council free-of-charge. I appreciate the irony of our traditional political stances being reversed here, but I would question why local councils should be providing a Borough-wide security team when that is clearly the role of the Police? Does Gill also believe there should be Town Hall paramedics around the Borough, or should the council be committed to putting out, say, smaller fires? Of course not.

Although you wouldn't realise it reading opposition material, the council still does have an ASB team, but now it has a fresh focus. On Thursday I attended a very instructive meeting with councillor colleagues from the North Eastern side of the Borough, hosted by the Police, and which incorporated the Council's ASB team. The meeting showcased the new ways of working being adopted to tackle crime and disorder in our area, and how the community is central to the approach.

A case in point are some ASB problems we've had near the river. Prior to the PACT meeting last week, a resident who couldn't make the meeting asked me to raise some chronic ASB problems in the Inglewood Close area. That issue was then acknowledged at the PACT. As a result, members of the ASB team immediately leafletted the area pointing out to parents the problems some young people were causing to residents. As the police undertake patrols to try and flush out the problems, the ASB team will consider whether Acceptable Behaviour Orders, Parenting Orders, ASBO's or injunctions might be necessary. The team are also perfectly placed to liaise directly with Social Services, where necessary.

To me, that seems a much more sensible use of scarce resources than the "Keystone Cops" model favoured by Darlington Tories.

As for Sparta - well, we'll see. They've had a publicity boost from the regional and national press that would have cost tens of thousands ordinarily, so the company have certainly been given a fair wind. My view is that once patrols come up against some of the youths and young adults described by Mike in his blog, and are powerless to intervene, then residents will soon tire of handing over £3.50 a week.

The advice I'll be giving residents, if I'm asked, is to give the new approach a chance. I think the model can deliver safer communities for the people of Darlington, and still has a long way to develop and improve.

Friday, November 13, 2009

You better watch out! You better not cry...!

I'm aware from my software that around this time every year a lot of people visit this blog looking for information about Christmas activities in Darlington town centre. So here are the arrangements for Christmas in Darlington town centre in November & December 2009.

The Ferris Wheel returns to Darlington

From the 20th November until 13th December, 10am - 6pm, in Joseph Pease Place. £2.50 for adults, £2 for children under 12, & senior citizens. We went on it twice last year.

Christmas Lights Switch-On

Sunday 22nd November 2009 from 2.45pm. Dance and singing acts hosted by TFM breakfast show presenters. Special appearence by Santa "arriving in style" at 4pm along with his friends Chico and the Grumbleweeds from this year's Civic panto.

4.30pm lights - switch-on followed by spectacular fireworks finale.

Christingle Markets

The very popular Christingle Markets return on 26th November & 10th December 2009 from noon until 8pm to coincide with late night shopping. On the High Row. "Find some stocking fillers and unusual giftsand of course enjoy a glass or two of festive Gluehwein and seasonal entertainment!"

Festive Opening Times

Darlington's wide range of multiples and excellent independent traders are open as follows;

Late Night Thursdays: 19th November - 17th December 2009 8.30am - 8pm.
Sundays: 8th November - 20th December 2009 10am - 4.30pm.
Free car parking in all council-operated car parks on Sundays and after 6pm, and on late night Thursdays after 3.30pm.

Christmas Extravaganza Weekend

Saturday 12th December 9am - 5pm and Sunday 13th December 10am - 4.30pm.

Ice sculptures created as you watch of festive characters. Wood carvers, street theatre, pantomime charcters and the final of the 'Carols for Darlington'. competition. All to help you relax a little as the Christmas rush gets into full swing.

Don't forget Santa!

Santa will be popping up all over Darlington to listen to the good children of Darlington. He's at the Cornmill Centre on Saturdays and Sundays from the 28th November until 20th December, the Queen Street Arcade on Saturdays and Sundays from 5th December until Christmas Eve, at the Head of Steam, Darlington Railway Museum on Saturday and Sundays 5th & 6th December, 12th & 13th December & Saturday 19th December 10am - 3.30pm, and in South Park 20th December 10am - 3pm. (Booking essential for the latter 2 venues).

And Finally...

Children who want to write a letter to Santa can post it in the Tourist Information Centre, and if adults pay £1.50 to TI staff, a nice surprise will come back in the post. Children or adults must remember to print their names and addresses on the back of the envelope. (We used this service last year, and AJ loved the reply). Available until 11th December.

And Finally, Finally!

Don't forget this year's Christmas Panto, Aladdin, at the Civic, from Saturday 5th December 2009 until Sunday 17th January 2010. Tickets from the box office on 01325 486555 or via online

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Blogger Down!

I was genuinely disappointed to see that Rob Marchant, author of the Centre Left blog has pulled out of the Darlington PPC selection process at a relatively early stage.

Rob had pinned his hopes on winning the nomination of Darlington's Co-operative Party members, but this went instead to Dan Whittle. I hear that both Rob and Dan performed powerfully at the meeting.

Rob was the only candidate to date to use blogging as a way of engaging with members - though perhaps he was most successful in hearing from our '2 Ians' from Hurworth in another constituency entirely!

Rob was good enough to ring me at the start of the process to ask advice about starting up a blog here in Darlington as part of his push for candidature - I don't think I'm breaking any confidences when I tell you I explained that in my opinion, it wins very few votes indeed. Indeed, as you know, I spend an inordinate amount of time reading personally abusive comments from anonymous idiots.

In the longer term, however, I still think that blogging specifically and the internet in general can play a powerful role in communicating with residents about political issues big and small. I hope that whoever wins the nomination will take up Mike M's challenge issued to me and other councillors 3 years ago + to use the medium creatively.

I'm sure we'll hear abourt Rob again, but in the context of another seat, between now and the next General Election.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Springfield PACT

The first PACT meeting for Springfield last night was a well-attended and lively affair.

The police had advertised the meeting in local shops and meeting pl;aces, and we had promoted it via our newsletter and our e-newsletter (which I'm in the process of revamping). I guess there were about 20 residents there, of whom 15 lived in either Springfield or Whinfield.

As well as the police and the Haughton West ward councillors (Geoff Walker was there from Haughton East as well) Glenn Caley, one of the Council's Anti-Social Behaviour Officers was there too. He helped answer some inportant questions on how the agencies respond to the problems of disorder in Springfield and more widely.

The PACT agreed that the three priorities for Springfield would be the riding of illegal motorbikes around the ward; problems with anti-social behaviour; and speeding, especially on Thompson Street East and Hutton Avenue.

Some of the difficulties residents talked about weren't new - problems on Springfield Park and along the river go back years. At various times, there has been success in damping down problems, only for them to reappear at a later date. Understandably, there was some cynicism as to whether anything could change now. What was stressed over and over again (and it was really helpful that Bev Hutchinson, the excellent secretary of Whinfield Residents' Association was there) was that it is only when residents report individual incidents that resources will be targetted to address the problem.

So one resident reported regular examples of illegal motorbikes riding up and down Green Lane. The police however, knew nothing about it because no-one had rung in. As Bev pointed out, Whinfield Residents' Association had only managed to get action taken when members had laboriously phoned in each example of a local problem. The point was well-made.

Of great interest was the news that the police are piloting community speeding cameras were being piloted across Darlington, and could be trialled in hot-spots around Whinfield and Springfield. They will be operated by local volunteers, under the supervision of a police officer. That's likely to be introduced in the New Year.

I was also struck by the information relayed by Sgt. Daryl Edmunds about research undertaken with local kids as to their drinking habits; - they were asked whether they drank alcohol?; if their friends did?; and did they feel under any pressure to use alcohol themselves? In fact, the survey showed that a relatively small proportion of young people drank alcohol - a far higher proportion thought their friends did, however, and so young people felt under pressure to use alcohol too.

As a result, the police and members of the council's anti-social behaviour team have been going into schools to tackle these perceptions. Addressing outlets that might still be selling alcohol to young people via the Challenge 21 scheme will play a key role too. Helpfully, the myth that "there's nothing to do" for young people in the area was exploded. This is a really difficult issue, and something fellow Darlington bloggers have been commenting on recently - it's something I intend to return to here very soon.

Monday, November 09, 2009

PACT meeting tonight

If you're a resident of Whinfield, Springfield or Haughton, and you have a view about policing in our community, come along later this evening for the second PACT meeting in our area.

Standing for Partnerships and Communities Together, PACT meetings are organised by the Police, and are designed to allow members of the community to set the policing priorities for the area. At future meetings, the police will report back on progress against the issues set.

The first PACT meeting for Springfield (the southern part of our ward) will take place this evening at 6.30pm at the new Salvation Army building in Thompson Street East. PACT meetings are being designed to move throughout the Haughton area month by month, so in month one (October) it was in Whinfield, and in December it should be in Haughton village or Red Hall, and then back to Whinfield, and so on.

Also attending will be a representative from the Education Village, to say a few words about news about the school and take any questions.

You don't have to resident in a particular area to attend - so Springfield residents can go along to Haughton village meetings. The idea is to create a seamless set of meetings, rather than a single event that takes place in your individual community once every three or four months. If you see what I mean.

David, Andy and I have been concerned about the lack of visibility of the police on our streets in recent months - our beat officer has been seconded to other duties, leaving a hole in policing in the ward.

Together with our ward colleagues in Haughton East and North, we held a very productive meeting with senior officers - Darlington Police are now re-organising themselves to provide a dedicated service across the North East side of the town which comprises beat officers, intelligence gathering and a PCSO presence. There will be cover across the 3 Haughton wards, meaning that we should not be lacking in beat officers again.

David, Andy and I are very supportive of the PACT process, and we want to see the new policing structure succeed. To this end, we have promoted tonight's meeting in our new newsletter (of which more later) and also put out a special e-newsletter to residents.

If you do live in the area, and can come along, it will be great to see you there this evening.

Saturday, November 07, 2009


AJ, the '2 Davids' (Alloway and Lyonette) & Angela on the High Row this afternoon.

At this time, with the news from Afghanistan and the US so bleak, it's doubly important that we remember across the generations the sacrifice our service personnel, and their forebears, have made in the name of freedom for this country.

That's why I took AJ down to the High Row this afternoon with other councillors and the Mayor, to offer poppies in return for donations to the British Legion, and why he'll be joining me tomorrow as we walk to the Cenotaph in the Memorial's grounds.

(True to form, AJ was a star "salesman", winningly offering people kind enough to make a donation a poppy and a pin the news "the pin's free of charge!")

Anyone who was a supporter of the conflict in Afghanistan, and who is not experiencing some agonies of conscience, is either a fool or wilfully blind to what's going on. I thought that the leader in today's Echo caught that mood rather well, although the accusation that the Government has been dithering seemed harsh, given our whole-hearted commitment to the NATO complement when compared to many of our partners.

For many, the case for intervention in Afghanistan seemed overwhelmingly strong, given the history of the Taliban and their central role in the 9/11 attacks. So too the continuing involvement appears almost inarguable, given the fragility of the Afghan and the Pakistani regimes. A 'Vietnam-style' pullout would leave a vacuum that the likes of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda would be swift to fill. And we wouldn't be back where we started - we would be in a far worst position than we were in back in 2002.

And yet the leader writer is right, we need to have some sense of when this mission will be brought to a close. The British people can't think that there is an open-ended commitment which is costing us and our families so dear in casualties and resources - what military historians are apt to call "blood and treasure".

What isn't always talked about is "Plan B" - because of course, there is an alternative, of sorts. If we withdrew summarily from Afghanistan and the Taliban moved back in and set up the terrorist camps once more, the world would respond. But it would probably involve high level bombing, flattening camps and villages suspected of harbouring terrorists alike. The risk to NATO service personnel would be (relatively) light. The cost to innocent Afghan civilians - thousands, maybe tens of thousands could be wiped away - would be far greater. Hatred of the West - the very thing Al Qaeda prizes above all else - would be fostered amongst the people of the region. And then once more, it would be our streets and communities that would be on the front line in a new stage of terror.

That's why the mission in Afghanistan - the 'nation building' - is so important. It tries to secure safety for us back here in the West by helping the Afghanis themselves construct a state robust enough to withstand the terrorists.

But as the coffins move through Wootton Bassett with awful regularity, we are all forced to confront what the cost of occupying a country to help them foster a democratic society truly is.

There may be a point beyond which the NATO allies say "enough is enough" and begin a withdrawal with our objectives only partly or perhaps not at all met. And I completely respect those people, including some of the families of troops killed or injured, who think we have passed that point already. Should that day come, however, let no-one imagine that there is a cost-free alternative to the current strategy.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Monday Morning Smile

No video this week - just a link to the Metro newspaper with a salutary story of the kind of thing that happens if you vote LibDem...

Hat tip: Bob Piper

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Darlington Firework Spectacular 2009

Lighting the Bonfire at Darlington's Firework Spectacular

James | MySpace Video

Darlington Fireworks 2009 - 'Moon River'

James | MySpace Video

Here are two brief Flip videos I recorded last night at the Fireworks Spectacular in South Park.

I thought it was the best display yet. The bonfire had a twist (as you can see) with a rocket theme built by local schoolchildren, and various fireworks incorporated into the pile to create a great effect.

The fireworks themselves were smashing too - posted here is the 'Moon River' section, featuring a specially-lit helium balloon.

Feedback I had after the event was very positive - particularly appreciated were the regular safety messages and the warnings about not drinking alcohol.

There were thousands in South Park to enjoy the display.