Thursday, September 09, 2010

Proud Day for Darlington

The Rifles march into the Market Place, Darlington

Cllr. Nick Wallis | MySpace Video

A packed town centre today as The Rifles accepted the Freedom of the Borough in a special ceremony in the Market Place.

There was lots of cheering and clapping from the watching spectators - especially the school children in attendance. A day they'll remember for a very long time, and a fitting way to honour the sacrifice of our service personnel in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Residents unite to protest about company's antics

Around 40 residents from Rockwell Pastures and Albert Hill came together this morning to express their anger regarding Albert Hill Skip Hire Ltd in Nestfield Street.

We had decided to organise a mass walk by the river to have a look at the site for ourselves. Led by our local MP Jenny Chapman, we had an excellent turnout, especially given the cloudburst immediately before we were due to meet.

Jenny summed up the mood of the protestors at what we saw - there was still a shocking amount of waste piled high, with broken fences which presumably could allow children to enter whet is clearly a very hazardous place. After the walk, petitions were eagerly taken away by residents, keen to achieve the 1,500 signatures we need to trigger the first council debate under the new arrangements.

We've had 2 other pieces of good news; firstly, after pressure from the campaign, the Environment Agency has agreed to issue a number for residents to call about any concerns they might have - if the particular issue should be dealt with by the Health and Safety Executive or the Council, for example, then the phone operative will record the complaint and pass it on. This is a fine piece of joined up administration, which I applaud.

The number is 0800 807 060.

Secondly, the Council issued a new, tougher stop notice against the company on Friday relating to the company's operating hours and the height of the waste, I have been told. The maximum fine if a successful prosecution is achieved is up to £20,000! Maybe that will finally make the company's bosses think twice before operating at all times, as they do at present.

As Jenny told the protestors, both the company and the enforcement agencies need to knnow that local people are in this for the long-haul, and will not simply "go away" in time. The quality of life of too many people has been adversely affected for too long for that.

Friday, August 06, 2010

A walk by the river

Does this look like a scene from a responsible operator? (photo taken by a resident last Sunday)

The campaign against the activities of Albert Hill Skip Hire moves up another notch tomorrow morning, when local people will be taking part in a campaign walk along the riverside between Albert Hill and Rockwell Pastures.

Since the fire, residents have reported continued breaches by the company of the hours of operation set down by the council. Unasnwered questions remain, although I've been reassured by the extent to which the various agencies responsible for regulating companies like this one are now palpably working together. I'll have more on this shortly.

If you've been affected by the fire, or the previous transgressions by the firm, please do come along - we're meeting by the Hutton Avenue footbridge at 10am. The walk will be led by our local MP Jenny Chapman. The media (Tall Ships providing) have been invited along. It will be great to see you there!

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The last Sure Start?

Haughton Sure Start Centre - work begins

Cllr. Nick Wallis | MySpace Video

The Sure Start initiative was one of the last Government's projects that I was most proud of. It invested significantly in the families of children under 5, whilst enabling key workers (health visitors, social workers and the like) to work together rather than in their professional "silos".

One facility is being created in my ward in Haughton West - in the former children's home on Salters Lane South.

The Tories of course, never liked it, and had to be dragged away from a position of complete hostility before the last election. It's not clear what if any commitment they have to the initiative now.

That means that the Sure Start in Salters Lane South could be one of the last to be built - that would be a tragedy for those communities who haven't yet benefitted from such a facility, and not just in Darlington. It's vital that the pressure is kept on the ConDems to continue with this fantastic initiative.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Barmpton Lane Allotments Open Day

I spent a sunny lunchtime meandering around the allotments at Barmpton Lane, where the allotment association was having its annual open day.

It was very well attended, with stalls selling fresh fruit and veg, as well as a bric-a-brac tables and a raffle. It was good to see Whinfield Residents' Association represented (Eileen and Bev) as well as Haughton North local councillor Tom Nutt & family. Hundreds of pounds was raised for St Teresa's Hospice.

As a seriously rubbish food grower, it was helpful to learn from others exactly where I've been going wrong with the raspberries this year. And the onions. And the gooseberries.

And from a portfolio point of view, the work at Barmpton Lane is exactly in line with Darlington's local food agenda. There was fresh discussion about this at the Greener Theme Group earlier this week - we explored the lessons we can learn here in Darlington from Todmorden's "Incredible Edible" experience, and there will be a meeting next week to take the matter forward. After a really interesting chat with a local resident in Whinfield on Friday, there may even be a Haughton West ward angle, which I hope to explore with officers in the very near future...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Slash & Burn

It was a solemn, downbeat meeting of Cabinet this afternoon. We were contemplating the cuts necxessary to balance the books - cuts imposed in-year by the ConDem Coalition, and which were of necessity deep and difficult.

Chairing the meeting, Deputy Leader Bill Dixon made sure that everyone who wanted to speak had their opportunity - they ranged from residents who would be affected by the ending of the Dial-a-Ride subsidy (one of whom was on oxygen) to staff representatives, who spoke passionately about the services delivered by hard-working council staff, and how low morale is now.

It is of no comfort that the same debates, the same impossible choices, will be rolling out in every council chamber across the country.

Still, no doubt everyone who was there to have their say would have been reassured by a report today by the respected National Institute of Economic and Social Research that the Emergency Budget, which directly led to today's Darlington Cabinet decisions, was born of "political theatre" rather than actual financial need. Apparently, our ConDem friends thought it was important to send the markets a message that we were not going to go the same way of Greece (not, as the report points out, that there was ever any real danger of that).

The report also points out that the decision to place so much of the burden of reducing the deficit on spending cuts (rather than tax raising) may be an error too. It will drag growth right back down - maybe as far as a fresh recession.

Still, at least we've all got to enjoy the political theatre of George Osborne's emergency budget, eh? Maybe our local Tories and their LibDem apologists could explain that to the lady on oxygen, the DBC staff losing their jobs - and everyone else whose lives will be blighted by the cuts to come.

Five words

Five words. Just five words. How can something so small inspire a unique feeling of anticipation, contempt and dread? No easy task, you might think.

But a sub-editor at the Telegraph managed it today with the headline "Jeremy Clarkson joins Burqa debate." Although I hated myself for doing it, I had to read on.

Now the burqa debate is, as I needn't remind my literate, well-informed and overwhelmingly liberal audience, a sensitive issue - exquisitely so, one might say. With debate raging in France about banning the Muslim dress altogether, and one Tory MP refusing to meet with constituents who have the affrontery to turn up to his surgeries wearing one, passions are running high.

So what does Britain's leading social commentator have to say on the subject? The Telegraph quotes him on Sunday's Top Gear as stating (after Richard Hammond suggested that the burqa could dissuade men from ogling women as they drive),

“No, no, no. Honestly, the burqa doesn't work. I was in a cab in Piccadilly the other day when a woman in a full burqa crossing the road in front of me tripped over the pavement, went head over heels and up it came, red g-string and stockings. I promise that happened. The taxi driver will back me up on that.”

So that's that, then. And not sleazy at all, from the 50-year old jeans-wearing fool. It makes every penny of my license fee seem worthwhile.

Civic Accounting for Dummies

The first of what will be a miserable set of meetings in the months and years to come, as a special Cabinet meeting this afternoon considers the Council's response to the early ConDem Coalition cuts.

Matters aren't helped by our local Tories' wilful misleading of residents regarding the scale of the cuts to come. In public speeches, and on their own website, they claim that Darlington will "only" lose £22 million out of a total grant of £428 million by 2013-2014.

In fact, the total is much nearer to £50 million - leaving aside the £2.5 million being snatched this year; the estimates for the next 3 years are a reduction in grant of £10.2m in 2011/12 and a further £7.5m and £4.8ms in the years to come.

But these are cumulative figures, so the sums are £10.2 + £10.2 + £7.5 + £10.2 + £7.5 + £4.8 in terms of actual grant lost.

The council's controllable grant will have dropped £22.5 million from £107 million to £84.5 million in 2013/14, but in all, £50 million will have been stripped from the Council, and Darlington's economy.

Here endeth the lesson!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

"Boycott Albert Hill Skip Hire" say angry residents

Jenny Chapman addresses the packed meeting yesterday

Yesterday morning we held the residents' meeting in the aftermath of the Albert Hill Skip Hire fire. I estimate between 80 and 90 people were there, from both sides of the river.

The mood was predictably very angry. The company (and its predecessors) have been making local people's lives a misery for as long as I've been a councillor in Haughton West. There was a palpable sense that the company has got away with murder, and used various ruses and trickery to evade proper scrutiny and enforcement. To a man and woman, the meeting wanted the company's operations to be stopped.

Our new local MP Jenny Chapman chaired the meeting (brilliantly, I thought). After resident after resident had spoken about the terrible impact of the fire on the communities, and the years of noise/dust nuisance - and lots of questions had been posed about the roles and responsibilities of the various agencies - we looked ahead and devised an action plan so this could never happen again.

Jenny had brought along a letter of apology from the company's MD which (completely unsurprisingly) the meeting formally refused to accept - after all, actions speak louder than words, and this company has broken every promise ever made to the statutory authorities and local people.

There was also unanimous agreement that we would not be using Albert Hill Skip Hire as individuals, and would encourage other Darlington residents to boycott the company. Other ways of applying financial pressure to the company to clean up its act were also discussed, which will be explored in the coming weeks.

There will be a big walk around the Skerne beneath the company to see what impact it is having on the local environment, and keep an eye on what's going on inside the plant. And most importantly, pressure will be applied to the agencies who are responsible for regulating the business - unanimously, local people want it shut down, although this may be legally difficult, as one resident who has worked for the Environment Agency told me afterwards.

On a very positive note, local residents were queuing up after the meeting to volunteer to be part of the steering group that will take the protest forward. And I had a very useful chat with Gill Cartwright, the Tory Councillor for Harrowgate Hill in ASDA yesterday (where all the best politics is done!) and we discussed how we could also involve the residents who suffered so badly from the firm's antics at 630 Whessoe Road.

It was sometimes a fraught meeting, but at the end there was a clear consensus for targetting the villains (ie the comapny) whilst applying polite but firm pressure to the regulating agencies. You can be sure we'll be keeping everyone updated, including on here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Cost of the Coalition

Full Council was dominated last night by a spirited debate about the robbing from Darlington of the Building Schools for the Future money by the ConDems. It was, shall we say, interesting to watch Tory and LibDem councillors opposite performing logic gymnastics as they tried to reconcile their support for the BSF campaign with a slavish defence of their Government's slash and burn approach to public spending.

I would imagine the debate would have been more heated still had councillors been privy to the news released by Durham Constabulary today that it is issuing 90 day redundacy notices to all of its 1160 civilian staff, which include its community support officers. The BBC website says that it is expected that 200 will lose their jobs.

To quote from the press release in full;

"Durham Constabulary, along with all other public sector bodies, is considering its budget for 2010/11 in line with the government’s comprehensive spending review which will be announced in the autumn.

"We expect that some jobs will go; how many depends on the outcome of the comprehensive spending review which reports in October.

"In preparation for this, all 1,160 members of police staff employed by Durham Police Authority are being issued with notices advising that their posts are being considered for potential redundancy and that the statutory 90 day consultation period has started.

"This does not mean that all 1,160 police staff posts will go. "It means that when we are in a position to consider where cuts will be made, the formal process will already have been underway for some time."

Assistant Chief Officer, Gary Ridley, said: “Despite undertaking a range of actions to save money, such as freezing recruitment, offering early retirement, voluntary redundancy and centralising functions within its HQ site at Aykley Heads, it is clear that compulsory redundancies need to be considered in light of likely future reductions in the amount of government grant the constabulary receives.

“We are working closely with the Police Authority and Trade Unions to try and minimise the impact on our staff whilst maintaining a service to the people of County Durham and Darlington."

From my perspective as a ward councillor, the community officers perform a valuable role in tackling crime and responding to concerns, and we will all be watching the situation closely. No-one should be in any doubt either of the importance played by civilian staff - they free up officers to work on the front line, and from my own experience politically and professionally, I kmow how they help keep the public safe, albeit not in a way many will appreciate on a day-to-day basis.

Another bleak day. But believe me, this is just a taste of what is to come over the next few months.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The "R" Word

Now and again, the previous Labour Government was accused of being some sort of Orwellian Thought Police by political opponents. I couldn't help but smile, therefore, when I attended a seminar recently in the North East, where senior civil servants were making presentations.

The event was technically very good, and I went along because of my portfolio interest - in my long and wearisome experience, events aimed at middle management professionals tend to deliver significantly more insight into difficult issues than those 'dumbed down' for councillors.

Anyway, the keynote speech was given by a senior civil servant, who explained apologetically at the start that he couldn't use the "R" word. Privately, I was bemused. The "R" word? Recession? Realignment? Rolph?. But you know how it is - I felt an idiot tapping the shoulder of the person next to me to ask what on earth the speaker was talking about.

Sure enough, on a couple of occaions, the officer stopped himself during the presentation and apologised, and soon all became clear - the "R" word is "Region" or "Regional".

I appreciate that the Tory bit of the ConDem Govermnent has a major problem about regions and regionalism (arising from their europhobia - but that's another blogpost). To actively ban civil servants from even using the word 'region' however, strikes me as lunacy, and the sort of 'thought crime' that Labour was often (unjustly) pilliored for.

This is all of a piece with the fact that it would seem that policy in the area concerned is virtually non-existent 2 months after the election. Banning civil servants from using perfectly good bits of the English language, however, would appear to be a replacement for policy development in the wacky world of our ConDem Government.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Albert Hill Update

It has been a miserable week or so for residents on both sides of the river, in the aftermath of the fire. Despite the best efforts of the fire service, the Environment Agency and the Council, I'm very disappointed that the company themselves have not played their part in helping with the situation. The latest problem has been the smell apparently generated by rotting material onsite - as far as I am aware, inert (ie non-organic) waste only should be handled there. We have continued to liaise with all the responsible bodies to try and get the mess sorted out as soon as possible.

Today we were informed that last Friday, the Environment Agency served an enforcement notice on Albert Hill Skip Hire under the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2010, requiring that by 23 July they:

(1) Remove from site all waste which consists solely or mainly of powder.
(2) Ensure that all non-hazardous waste is stored in a building or secure container and on an impermeable surface with sealed drainage OR remove such waste from the site.
(3) Enclose odorous waste in a sealed container OR remove such waste from the site OR take other appropriate measures to prevent or where that is not practicable minimise the odour.

Given the terrible impact the fire and smoke have had on the local communities in Haughton and Albert Hill, it is frankly appalling that the Environment Agency should have had to go to these lengths to make the company comply with existing rules governing the site.

As you may have seen in the Northern Echo, our new MP Jenny Chapman has joined up with us three councillors in Haughton West and the two councillors in Central ward (which covers Albert Hill), and a public meeting has been arranged for this Saturday at 10am at St James Church Hall in Barton Street. If you have an opinion about the company and its impact on the community, please do come along and have your say. This is not intended as a 'one-off' gathering - we fully intend to have futiure meetings as the company's response to the concerns - and those of the responsible agencies - becomes clearer. A well-attended meeting this Saturday will send a clear message that local people have had enough!

Finally, huge thanks to the residents locally who have volunteered to help put out notices around the area about the public meeting. It's made the task of telling as many people as possible about Saturday's meeting much, much easier.

Back in harness

First day back today after a week away in a narrowboat, travelling through Cheshire.

It's a holiday I can thoroughly recommend to anyone - the countryside was gorgeous, and steering the narrowboat on the elevated platform of the boat gave the impression of standing on one of those slow-moving escalators you find in airports - totally serene.

There is also a culture of comradeship amongst the boating fraternity which made the holiday a joy. Everyone was friendly, and more than prepared to help out when we (inevitably) ran into difficulties. We travelled from Anderton to Chester and back, via Nantwich. Only the occasional downpour, which left me soaked to the skin, blemished a great break away.

Although I had agreed not to take it with me, somehow the Black Berry found its way onboard, (ahem) which was just as well, given the ongoing problems in the aftermath of the Albert Hill Skip Hire fire...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Albert Hill Fire Update

I've just come off the phone from one of the senior fire officers dealing with the blaze at Albert Hill Skip Hire.

Firefighters have been tackling the blaze all night, and are now moving to an "offensive" phase which should lead to the fire being put out, although this could take a day or so.

The actions of the fire fighters may lead to way seems to be more smoke being generated - in fact a lot of this is steam. The fire brigade believe that most of the waste which has been burnt to date has been inert - ie the smoke should not have been toxic.

I'll blog again when more is known.
Cllr Nick Wallis
Cabinet Member Sustainable Environment and Climate Change
1. This mail and any files transmitted with it are confidential and intended solely for the use of the intended recipient. Unauthorised use, disclosure or copying is strictly prohibited and may be unlawful. If you have received this mail in error please notify the sender at the above address and then delete the mail from your system.
2. Any opinions expressed in this mail are those of the individual and not necessarily those of Darlington Borough Council.
3. Darlington Borough Council's computer systems and communications may be monitored to ensure effective operation of the system and for other lawful purposes.
4. This mail and any attachments are believed to be free of any virus. It is however the responsibility of the recipient to ensure that they are virus free. No responsibility is accepted by Darlington Borough Council for any loss or damage arising from the receipt of this mail or its contents.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Important information

This has been sent out early this evening about the aftermath of the Albert Hill fire;

Info in relation to fire at Albert Hill Skip Hire, Darlington.

County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service are continuing to deal with an incident at Dodsworth Street, Darlington. We understand that the Fire and Rescue Service are attempting to deal with this fire as quickly as possible by spreading the waste out, which may lead to more smoke, but that this process should reduce the length of time it takes for the fire to be safely put out.

Any smoke can be an irritant and as such, if people need to be outdoors, they are advised to avoid outside areas affected by any smoke and to limit the time that they spend in it. If indoors, to keep doors and windows closed wherever possible.

Any chemicals contained within the smoke may worsen existing health problems so people that have respiratory conditions such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema and asthma may notice these effects more than others and should ensure that they have any inhalers or other medication they use with them.

Some of the substances present in smoke in general can irritate the lining of the air passages, the skin and the eyes. Respiratory symptoms can include coughing, wheezing and breathlessness. If symptoms occur, people should seek medical advice or call NHS Direct 0845 4647.

I'm now out of the area on holiday, but you can contact me if there are further issues arising from this if you are being affected by the smoke. Otherwise, contact my ward colleagues David Lyonette on 464693 or Andy Scott of 253707.
Cllr Nick Wallis
Cabinet Member Sustainable Environment and Climate Change
1. This mail and any files transmitted with it are confidential and intended solely for the use of the intended recipient. Unauthorised use, disclosure or copying is strictly prohibited and may be unlawful. If you have received this mail in error please notify the sender at the above address and then delete the mail from your system.
2. Any opinions expressed in this mail are those of the individual and not necessarily those of Darlington Borough Council.
3. Darlington Borough Council's computer systems and communications may be monitored to ensure effective operation of the system and for other lawful purposes.
4. This mail and any attachments are believed to be free of any virus. It is however the responsibility of the recipient to ensure that they are virus free. No responsibility is accepted by Darlington Borough Council for any loss or damage arising from the receipt of this mail or its contents.

Off on our jollies!

A week break from blogging, and as my BlackBerry is staying firmly locked back here (Sandy's orders) some time off from Darlo stuff too.

Anyone who knows my practical skills will be alarmed to learn I'm skippering a narrowboat from Anderton to Chester and back. What could possibly go wrong?!

Hopefully nothing, but keep an eye on BBC News in case we get involved in a "spectacular"...

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Breaking News - Albert Hill Fire

A resident has just rung to tell me Albert Hill Skip Hire's facility over the river is ablaze. There have been explosions, and the flames are as high as the buildings. A source at the Echo has confirmed that at this stage, 4 fire engines are attending.

The plant is notorious locally for its dreadful environmental record, as I've blogged before on several occasions.

Today, however, we can only hope that no employees have been hurt, and that the brave fire officers from Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue manage to tackle the blaze unscathed.

More when I get it.


Thanks to Alan for sending me this pic.


Fire was started in a pile of rubble and rubbish, according to the Echo. There are still explosions going off according to local eyewitnesses. There are 50+ spectators on the other side of the river, who the police have tried to disperse with a loudhailer.


The Fire Service has reported that the situation is under control and the fire should be out within the hour, with damping down over the next 3 hours.

The shape of things to come

I repeat here the text of an email sent to all Darlington Borough staff by the Chief Executive yesterday;

This financial year

You will remember, you were updated last month about the loss of £1 million of grants. Cabinet will be meeting later this month to consider proposals to reduce the 2010/11 budget. Once proposals are fully developed they will be communicated to you.

Planning ahead for next year

Last month the Government announced its emergency budget and signalled significant reductions to public spending including an indication that grants to Local Government could reduce by 25% over the next four years.

We will not know the exact level of reductions or when they will happen until October this year, however, what is very clear is the level of savings the Council will have to make are far greater than we expected when we set the budget in February this year.

In February, we thought the Council would have to save a further £11 million, the figure now is more likely to be £22 million over the next four years, it is also likely that a major element of the saving will have to be made in the next financial year, therefore, we are starting to develop plans to save £11 million next year.

To put this into context our controllable gross budget is around £107 million, so we face a massive challenge. The approach we planned to transform the Council to become sustainable in the future as set out in the new business model remains, however, the size and speed with which we need to make savings means the emphasis of the approach will need to focus on large savings which will inevitably mean significant reductions to services as well as efficiency savings.

The challenge for the Council will be tough and we will keep you informed on a regular basis.

Making swingeing £1 million cuts in year will be no easy task, and the Council has no room for the usual consultations about budget changes. As you can see from the email, next year looks far more fraught, if the ConDem budget is to be believed. We are entering a period of cuts to public services unprecedented since the 20's, immediately before the Depression took hold. This is an ideological attack which owes more to the far right's desire to reduce the role of the state to a rump, rather than anything to do with the economic situation. The LibDems of course are fellow travellers, and it will it seems put up with anything if they can wangle a voting system which benefits them.

People in Darlington can be assured, however, that whatever the Coalition may throw at us, the Labour Council will make the right decisions to put the needs of residents first, especially those most in need.

A final note - I trust that this all puts into context the reason why the Council simply couldn't agree to consider waving goodbye to £80,000 (plus other benefits) via an unsecured loan to the Forum. No-one doubts the value the Forum adds to the town, and the Council has in different ways done a lot in recent years to help the enterprise. I hope that another way can be found to keep the Forum in business.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Coalition turns its back on Darlington's children

I'm not sure anyone was truly surprised by today's announcemnent that the Tories and LibDems are turning their backs on Darlington's schools, and refusing to honour the pledge of the last Labour Government to substantially rebuild Longfield, Branksome and Hurworth Secondary Schools.

There was solid community support behind the schools' bids, and even a cross-party consensus locally. As for the guff that Michael Gove came out with in the Commons to justify the cuts - that some schemes were delayed - in Darlington's case precisely the opposite was true. It was the Council's ability to turn round projects quickly and within budget - as demonstrated with other Building Schools for the Future Schemes - that was a key element in the previous decision to prioritise the Borough's remaining 3 unmodernised schools.

No matter. Gove's speech was always a figleaf for a Coalition that wants to push its own idealogical pet project of Free Schools, despite sound evidence that they just don't work.
The truly ridiculous thing is that the cost of maintaining these crumbling, outdated buildings will probably far outstrip the price of a fresh build over time. But hey, why let logic get in the way of right wing nonsense.

Dragging myself back to blogging

I can't remember feeling more less inclined to blog since I started back in 2006. And that's not overwork - though the usual pressures apply which I won't rehearse again.

Instead, I'm profoundly depressed and angry about the emerging political landscape, and the future for all of us. It's not just the duplicity of the Budget, when attacks on the most vulnerable were dressed up as progressive politics - it's the dawning realisation that those of us involved in community politics will be spending the next few years cutting valuable programmes that made a difference to people's lives, and seeing dedicated public employees thrown on the scrapheap of unemployment.

It's not what I came into politics for. Seeing the hope sucked out of communities will be a profoundly dispiriting spectacle. Still, it's important to plough on, to articulate Labour's progressive alternative. I don't believe this Coalition of chancers will survive anything like a 5-year term. We have to hope that their project to gerrymander British politics will ultimately fail, and a better programme - and governing party - will replace it.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Nailing the Coalition Lies

I'll be returning to the emerging true nature of Tuesday's Budget shortly - in the meantime I'm indebted to my friends at Liberal Demolition for this timely corrective on the record of the outgoing Labour Government.

Today George Osborne claimed that “having inherited from Labour the largest budget deficit in Europe bar Ireland, the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has been forced to take drastic action”.

The reality is that as a result of the prudent early decisions of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown we entered the recession with the 2nd lowest level of debt of any of the G7 countries. One of Labour’s key decisions was to use the £20 billion plus windfall from the 3G auction (the mobile phone spectrum) for debt repayments.

The OECD figures for G7 countries for the calendar year 2009 give general government net financial liabilities as a percentage of GDP as:

Japan – 108.3%
Italy – 101.0%
United States – 58.2%
France – 50.6%
Germany – 48.3%
UK – 43.5%
Canada – 28.9%

The OECD figures for 2010 show that the UK’s general govt net financial liabilities as a percentage of GDP is 53.5. Lower than the Euro zone average of 59.5.

Other EU countries which have higher levels of debt are:

Italy – 104.1%
Greece – 97.8%
Belgium – 83.3%
Portugal – 64.3%
Hungary – 60.1%
France – 57.2%

Labour put the country on a steady footing to weather the recession. Because of this the budget deficit could have been reduced at a steady pace, without the risk to future growth and without the raid on the most vulnerable in our society. Instead The Coalition has opted to slash public services and hike up taxes in a direct attack on hard working families in this country.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On bombshells

Has there been a bigger U-turn than that performed by the LibDems on VAT?

I have to say that my private thinking was that the ConDems wouldn't dare hike VAT precisely because of the above shot from the General Election. Which either goes to show what a lousy political pundit I am, or the extent to which many of us continue to underestimate the LibDems sheer, brazen cheek.

In truth, the LibDems know that VAT, like all sales taxes, is regressive, and hits the poorest hardest. Introducing it in a single slug after Christmas will not only depress sales, but also push up inflation. Elsewhere...

*Child benefit, the universal benefit payout received by all families, will be frozen for three years.

*Tax credits, brought in by the previous government to help working families and people on low incomes, will be cut for households with a combined income of more than £40,000.

*Other changes to family-centred benefits will see the health and pregnancy grant abolished in 2011.

*The Sure Start maternity grant will be restricted to only the first-born child.

As always, my old mate Hopi Sen has done some spot-on reasearch amongst the budget pages - he's found that "the Office for Budgetary Responsibility projects lower growth, higher unemployment and higher inflation as a result of this budget. Yummy. It even states that it expects the output gap to be greater at the end of this It’s pretty rare for a government to come out and say that this is what it’s budget will do."

The real pain is yet to come, however, with the 25% reductions in departmental budgets. Believe me, if the reductions are anything like that in local government, services will be worse than decimated. And here's why:-

Education accounts for 40-45% of local spending. Yet the ConDems have said that education spending will be protected in the Comprehensive Spending Review. So that will leave councils trying to find a net 40-50% savings in the remaining (non-education) budget. And remember, some services rightly have to be protected by law (Social Services and the like). There is the real prospect that local services we have come to value, which are an intrinsic part of our everyday life, will disappear rapidly. Trust me - this isn't scaremongering.

We've always known that Tories have dreamt of hacking away at the State until there was little left. What no-one could have predicted was that it would be the LibDems - the cuddly, inoffensive slightly barking LibDems - who would be complicit in the deal.

Liberal Democrats - be warned. Labour will be coming after you to account for the havoc your Coalition is about to wreak on services that protect the weak and vulnerable. For the decision to allow public services to take the brunt of the pain rather than troubl;e the rich and ask them to shoulder their share of the burden. Whether you're a LibDem MP, a councillor or just a local candidate - expect to see the picture above on election literature time and time again. I hope you have some half-decent answers for the communities your Government is about to attack.

Tackling ASB - Update

PACT meetings, which bring the Police, the Council, other partners and of course the community togather, have been a great initiative by Durham Constabulary. We've given their Springfield, Whinfield and Haughton meetings our support as ward councillors. Indeed, I think I'm right in saying that Springfield PACT meetings are amongst the best attended anywhere in the Borough.

The last Springfield PACT agreed that one of its priorities for our local beat team would be dealing with anti-social behaviour problems in Wheeldale Close/Riverside Way, and also Hambleton Grove/Springfield Road. You may recall that we put out an ASB survey in Wheeldale Close/Riverside Way recently, which got a great response.

Residents in Hambleton Grove too have suffered from problems associated with the footpath which runs up to Springfield Road. We organised a site visit there with local householders and Street Scene to see what could be done about the litter and how deterrents to ASB could be developed (prickly bushes and the like).

Rather than leave the issue for three months until the next Springfield PACT, I was delighted that our local Police beat team agreed to join us for a street surgery last Thursday, covering both Hambleton Grove and Wheeldale Close. We got a great response in both streets, with lots of residents wanting to talk to our local beat manager PC Jeff Summerhill and PCSO Liz Harley.

There were some contrasting points made, but that's the nature of community politics. One person's lively behaviour can have a real impact on others' quality of life. After 2 hours of talking and listening, I think that everyone came away with a better understanding of the varying perspectives locally.

To ensure that there were some concrete results, the Police have subsequently met with the Council's ASB team, and put out a joint letter around Wheeldale Close tonight. The police are also looking at a restorative approach with young people, and how to get communication going with them too.

Tackling anti-social behaviour in our communities is never as easy as grabbing some easy headlines in the local paper - it's about the hard slog of listening to local people to identify exactly what the difficulties are, and then forging the relationships to deal with the issues collaboratively. I remain hugely impressed by the constructive attitude taken by Darlington Police across Haughton.

Sauce for the Gander

Budget Day today. And we have been promised austerity measures amidst the rumblings of doom by our new ConDem Coalition Government.

Specifically last night (via Radio 4) I learnt that Council Tax was going to be frozen. And this morning peeple who earn less than £10,000 are going to be taken out of the tax system altogether. Sometime.

I mention this because before Labour budgets, the Tories and LibDems useed to get very aerated that announcements, especially Budget measures, were being leaked to the press, rather than being heard by the House of Commons first. Tory MP's in particular would pronounce sonorously at the drop of a hat about this outrage to the "Mother of Parliaments". And now that ConDem bums are on seats, they comport themselves in exactly the same way. I had to smile.

The furious leaking, which is of course all about the management of expectations, was doubly ironic becuase the ConDems had used exactly this excuse to scupper an EU plan whereby Governments would have shared budget plans in advance of their public announcement. That seemed an entirely sensible bit of 'peer review' to me, which might have benefitted good decision-making around the Union. The Tories, who cannot agree to anything that comes out of the EU without major therapy, however, soon put a stop to the scheme.

Elsewhere, I thought there were more straws in the wind with the announcement yesterday that key NHS targets were being abandoned by the ConDems. No longer will patients have the right to be seen by a GP in 2 days, or in A&E within 4 hours.

So what's that all about. An infusion of localism, as the Tory Minister responsible was trying to make out? Or dropping key targets that will soon become undeliverable as the NHS is squeezed? I'll let you decide. Frankly, I don't know how LibDem MP's in particular can look themnselves in the mirror at the moment. As Andy Burnham correctly observed, it takes power away from patients, and hands it back to the administrators who think they know best.

This still feels like a period of "phoney war" which will begin to come to an end this afternoon with the Budget, and then will be exploded with the announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review in the Autumn. That's when Tory aspirations to slash the work of the public sector will be realised, under the pretext of defecit reduction. Believe me, it will a very miserable period indeed.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Gove snubs Darlington's BSF Delegation

For those of us who love consensus (and that includes most members of the public) Darlington's political parties have shown admirable restraint by agreeing to work together on the Borough's Building Schools for the Future bid.

Cllrs. Williams, Scott and Swainston, for Labour, the Tories and LibDems respectively, requested a meeting with the Minsiter to press Darlington's case for the much-needed investment.

The stakes are high - £42 million high, to be precise, the cost of remodelling the outdated Branksome, Hurworth and Longfield schools.

The first fruit of the spirit of co-operation has received a dusty answer from the Coalition, however. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State, has said that he is just too busy to bother himself with this at the moment. Well, ok, what a civil servant wrote was "unfortunately, owing to pressures on his diary, the Secretary of State is unable to meet with you at present." But you get the idea.

It's a shame, because it's good to see the local political establishment, in the shape of the 3 parties, together with schools, parents and pupils working together to a shared objective.

Elsewhere, more evidence has emerged of the Coalition's antipathy to the North East in the recently announced cuts to education spending. ANEC (the Asssociation of North East Councils) states that the Department for Education’s grant reduction to local government is to be taken from the Area Based Grant (ABG) in 2010/11, which amounts to £311 million.

The proposed cut to the ABG by a standard percentage of 24% will amount to a reduction of £19.982 million in the North East, which equates to £39.14 per child, compared with an England average of £28.92 per child - a reduction of over £10 per child more and an extra £5.2 million across the region.

Reacting to the announcement Cllr Paul Watson, Chair of the Association of North East Councils, said: “Such reductions and disparities in funding appear to run counter to the Coalition Government’s commitment to fairness, the need to address and eradicate child poverty across the country and measures aimed at reducing regional disparities. We are, therefore, concerned that the level of in-year reductions being proposed will place an even greater burden on children in areas facing higher levels of deprivation.

“We all recognise the need for the Government to make efficiency savings in the national interest and are willing to work in partnership with Government to achieve these. What we must avoid, however, is spending reductions having a disproportionate impact on this area of the country. All councils in the North East will have difficulties in achieving the level of in-year reductions we now face, which will have a significant impact on service delivery."

Indeed. The Northern Echo's headline about Cameron targetting the North East for 'special treatment' before the election is now looking particularly prescient.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Building Darlington's Future

Facebook is assuming an increasingly important role in community politics. Now a great new site has been created, spearheaded by our local MPs Jenny Chapman and Phil Wilson, pushing for the rebuilding of Branksome, Hurworth and Longfield Schools to be honoured by the Coalition Government.

There's also a petition too - if thousands sign, maybe that will help shift opinion down at Westminster.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

It Starts

Remember the LibDem statements before the election that an early slashing of public expenditure might hurt the recovery?

Hollow promises, and local authorities, with Fire and Rescue and Police Authorities, are now digesting the first of what I guess will be several raids on community services.

There will be £1.2 billion of cuts to local government this year alone.

In Darlington, £2.5 million is being stripped from the local authority. This amounts to the following;

Education: £756,000
Supporting People: £114,000
Road safety £43,000
Home office £16,000
Total £929,000

In addition, the Council, together with its partners in health, the emergency services and the voluntary sector, had been awarded £1,800,000 by the last Government for good performance - this money would have been invested in further service improvement. That has been cancelled by the Coalition.

The people of Darlington are also losing £380,000 in transport capital cash.

The cuts aren't ring-fenced - in other words savings could be made in other areas to make up for the shortfalls in cash - but the priorities of the Coalition are clear. Education, roads and services for vulnerable adults are all under attack.

There is an urgent need for social housing across the country - the Housing budget nationally is losing £146 million. It's not yet clear what the effect here in Darlington will be.

It's too early to say what the impact on services here in Darlington will be, and the Council and partners will have to crunch through the figures.

I haven't been blogging regularly for a couple of weeks, and for the most part have been sitting open-mouthed at the brazen affrontery of some of the statements coming out of the new Government. For all their posturing, this is most certainly going to be the most cycnical and value-free Government this country has experienced since the mid-Victorian era.

Making hurried cuts mid-year is always hard - the absence of detailed planning means that these cuts can bite hardest. Residents can be sure that whatever the LibDem/Tory coalition may decree from Westminster, Labour locally will do everything it can to protect the services residents value most.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Prerogative of the Harlot

I have to say I'm not surprised to learn of David Laws' resignation this evening - though emphatically I'm not celebrating. As soon as David Cameron pledged higher standards for MP's in the Coalition, the die was cast for anyone who fell short. The unfortunate truth for Mr Laws is that his transgression would have cost him a Cabinet job in the last Government, so it certainly did for him now.

The whole episode raises some important questions about the press in Britain today. In the last few weeks we've has the News of the Screws 'Fake Sheikh' doing over poor Fergie, and immediately after the election the Mail on Sunday holed England's World Cup bid below the waterline with its sting on Lord Triesman.

Now the Daily Telepgraph, bastion of the old Right in the Tory Party, has nailed its colours to the mast by finishing the career of easily the most talented LibDem to sit in Cameron's cabinet. Anyone who thinks this was purely an act of investigative journalism needs to take a reality check. The Telegraph has been trawling round MP's expenses for over a year now. It beggars belief that this information has only come to them now. Instead, they've waited until Laws was nicely esconced into his role as Chief Secretary to the Treasury before running a story that has done a lot of damage to the Government's short-term credibility. If I were a Parliamentary LibDem right now, especially in Government, with a secret I'd rather not let my constituents (or family) know about, I'd be getting worried.

What should the response of the public be to this thoroughly unpleasant development in our jornalism. Over on his blog, Pete Barron addresses the issue via Newcastle United's response to the Triesman debacle. Newcastle have banned the Mail stable from its matches. Pete says he has doubts about the wisdom of the Mail's story, but thinks Newcastle's action is folly. he compares it with George Reynolds barring the Echo from Darlington's games in the past.

This is a fraught issue. Of course meglomaniacs like Reynolds had to be challenged when they responded to even minor criticism in that way. But the Mail On Sunday wilfully destroyed the career of a decent public servant and did untold damage to England's bid on the basis of a private conversation that was never meant to be repeated.

Politicians, of course are in a no-win situation when it comes to the operation of the press, and the national print media knows it. Quite rightly, the British public would react violently against anything which smacks of muzzling the press. Even the relatively-moderate idea of a statutory Press Commission, with real teeth to punish transgressions, has never got off the ground.

So the question back to Pete has to be - if you are aggrieved by a partisan or destructive piece of journalism in a particular paper, how should you respond? I don't know how many Liberal Democrats buy the Daily Telegraph, (not many, I guess) but my sense from the comment thread on Conservative Home tonight is that quite a few moderate Tories will be considering whether to renew their subscriptions.

In the 1980's, when it was at the height of its baying right wing ascendancy, the Sun ran a notorious piece blaming Liverpool fans for the tragedy at Hillsborough. The city of Liverpool responded, almost to a man and a woman, by boycotting the paper. It was a supreme act of collective action. Ever since, the Sun has trodden on eggshells when the issue has been raised.

It seems that in today's journalism, the one language proprietors understand isn't right or reason, but the bottom line. If Newcastle United feel strongly enough to start a commercial war with the Mail stable, then good on them I say. They (and we) have precious few other ways to let our disgust be known.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Unfortunately, I had to give my apologies for Council last Thursday. It was doubly unfortunate, however, as according to my blogging colleague Gill Cartwright, I missed

"the group hug between us [and] the Lib Dems before we went into the chamber and rumours of joint group meetings!"

From her experience of the NHS, Gill can't see what the problem is with the ConDem tie up at national and presumably now at local level. Maybe I'm showing my naievity here, but I'm staggered that the 2 parties here are contemplating a formal arrangement in advance of the next local elections.

Particularly for the LibDems, closing off options by formalising a relationship with the Tories at this early stage seems very brave. Mike Barker has spent a deal of time and effort establishing his party as a distinctive third voice in local politics. He will appreciate what his smaller party has to lose from being irrecoverably linked with the town's right wing group.

I guess local LibDem and Tory parties will respond differently to the coalition around the country - it seems here in Darlington they may effectively work as a single entity. Quite how the electorate respond is anyone's guess.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Radio Silence

Well, it's been over a week now since the election, and three days since Dave n' Nick's gooey tryst in the Downing Street garden.

With their parties now finally wielding power after 13 long years in the wilderness (65 in the case of the LibDems) you might have thought that their various representatives here in Darlington would be fizzing with excitement about the new Government.

Alas, not. I guess we can forgive Mike Barker, who must be recovering from the strains of the campaign (as well as the jaw-dropping deal his party has done with the Tories). And Mike has found time to make some ultra-loyal comments on one comment thread here about his party selling-out its principles for a few Cabinet seats. Nothing yet on the Darlington LibDem website, though.

Meanwhile, the 'Feedback' section of the Darlington Future website is if anything going into reverse, having deleted the most recent (pre-polling day) entry. I see that Edward's own site has used my election night Facebook clip of the declaration (which is absolutely fine, by the way) and a nice brief goodbye note from the man himself.

From the silence, you might have thought that Darlington's Tories and LibDems were embarrassed and/or confused about what to say or think about their new chums in Government. They might want to turm their minds to what on earth they are going to say to local voters next time they meet.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Big Trouble in Littlebeck Drive

Darlington MP Jenny Chapman interview after door-knocking in Hau

Cllr. Nick Wallis | MySpace Video

We had our first door-knocking and street surgery sessions today since the General Election.

It was great that our new Labour MP Jenny Chapman was able to join us as we chatted to residents in Inglewood Close and Martindale Road. We targetted these streets (together with Littlebeck Drive) after receiving fresh complaints about the operation of the waste disposal facility in the factory opposite Rockwell Pastures on Albert Hill. Resident after resident told us about the factory operating outside the permitted times, and about the wood dust it spews into the atmosphere. Understandably, residents who have children with lung complaints were particularly anxious.

As I write this, a series of emails are on their way to officers in the Environmental Health and Planning Enforcement teams. Jenny's on the case too, and we'll all be looking for speedy action to deal with this rogue operator.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Regional Roundup

With David Cameron now having been photographed smirking on the steps of Downing Street, that finally brings to an end the post-election horsetrading. Before the moment completely passes by, time just to reflect on the election results here in the North East.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I am a huge fan of Dari Taylor, the defeated MP for Stockton South. She was and is a genuine grassroots campaigner, who was an inspiration to ordinary members of the party like me. Ashcroft money, the national swing and some backwash from Corus did for her on Thuirsday, however - the people of Stockton have lost someone special. She can be proud of her record as an MP, however.

The shock of the evening was in Redcar, where Vera Baird lost her seat to a LibDem. They had been swarming all over the constituency for a while, notching up several local by-election wins, but in the end it was Corus that cost her the seat - desperately unfairly, given that together with Dari and the late Ashok Kumar, Vera worked tirelessly to try and save the works and the thousands of jobs that went with them. We were in office, however, and the easiest thing for residents to do was give Labour a kicking.

Senior LibDems in the region must have breathed a sigh of relief at the Redcar result, because it distracted attention away from a miserable night for them elsewhere. Roberta Blackman-Woods' victory in Durham defied many of the pundits, and owed everything to good old-fashioned street campaigning. The LibDems were incredibly confident about taking Durham City - hence Clegg's photocall there before polling. Given the very negative, personal campaign the LibDems in Durham ran against Roberta, I doubt whether victory tasted sweeter anywhere else in the country.

It was a similar story on Tyneside, where Labour more than held on. Those of you who saw the second Northern Decision Makers will recall that my fellow "legend", LibDem Durham County councillor David Stoker "called" Newcastle North for his party a whole 2 weeks before votes were actually cast, such was his confidence that the LibDems had it in the bag. In Tynemouth, Alan Campbell comfortably saw off the Tories in a seat that was Cameron's number one North East target. Revenge for the untimely defeat of our excellent Mayoral candidate John Harrison in North Tyneside last year.

A word too about the local council results - polling for these was held on the same day in Tyne and Wear and Hartlepool. Labour made impressive gains against the LibDems in Newcastle and against the Tories in North Tyneside. Coupled with the parliamentary results in Newcastle, Blaydon and Durham City, there is a real sense that Labour has begun to learn how to match and turn around LibDem campaigning tactics, at least in those areas.

For a while, the momentum seemed to be with the LibDems in places like Durham, Newcastle and Gateshead. Labour was licking its wounds. Coming to terms with local election losses is never easy - I always liken it to the bereavement process. Denial, anger, depression all can set in. Without getting all social work-y on you, there's no guarantee that you move seamlessly from one stage to another before finally reaching acceptance. The process can take months or years.

I mention this because I get the sense now that Labour across Tyneside and in Durham has now dealt with its setbacks, and is ready and willing to take the fight back to the LibDems. Results like those of Roberta were just the inspiration Labour needed. It might be an uncomfortable few years for North East LibDems now they've shacked up with Cameron's Tories.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Levers of Power

So farewell, then, Gordon. In truth, you were a brilliant Chancellor but an ill-starred PM. Your double act with Tony Blair defined the political landscape from the mid-90's, and left the opposition struggling to catch up. But whereas Tony was always sprinkled with a bit of stardust, your feet were firmly on the floor.

I've always thought that Gordon's greatest crime was not to be a media player - he never came to terms with the limelight that 24/7 news politics now seems to entail. The simplest devices we councillors use to communicate with residents seemed sometimes to escape him. His mix of high principles and a driven personality were better suited to the politics of the 1840's rather than the early 21st century. He is a good man, too good perhaps for the TV age.

Matters seem very finely balanced tonight, after Gordon fell on his sword in the interests of his party and his country. On one level, it's cliffhanging stuff, reminiscent of an episode of the West Wing. The Tories are very publicly wooing Nick Clegg and the LibDems with the offer of a referendum on the AV voting system. Some in my party are saying we should let them get on with it, and what Labour needs is a spell in opposition. I think they're crackers. So, presumably does Gordon, which is why he brought forward his resignation announcement to today.

In truth, whilst there is a chance that Labour can retain power with the LibDems and the Nats, we should take it with open arms. There is too much at stake. It was on that basis that we fought the election - that the Tories would not only imperil the economy, but inexorably turn the clock back, robbing some of the most vulnerable in our society of hard-won gains. Opposition is impotence. However imperfect a coalition would be - and believe me, the idea of cosying up to Alex Salmond fills me with dread - it would be 100 times more preferable to watching the Tories unravel the reforms we have spent 13 years bringing about.

Do I think a grand coalition is possible? Yes I do. Is it likely? Probably not. Nick Clegg is from the economic liberal wing of his party, and instinctively would want to deal with Cameron rather than Labour and a coalition of the left. Still, scroll forward 48 hours, imagine George Osbourne rather than Alistair Darling loose in the Treasury, and appreciate what's at stake.

Friday, May 07, 2010

All shall have prizes

I've managed to grab a few hours sleep. It's been a remarkable 24 hours, with the ramifications of the poll result country-wide still being played out in Westminster. But what about here in Darlington? As Chris Lloyd notes on his excellent Echo blog, all three candidates from the major parties seemed positive after the result last night. And here's why.


There were some grim predictions from colleagues about the size of Jenny's likely majority - I had a £1 on 2,780 in Tom Nutt's sweepstake, and wasn't a million miles away.

10 days ago, I was even gloomier (though I always tend to see "the glass half-full" at election time), but in the last few days there were tangible signs of the Labour vote firming up appreciably. In football-speak, a win's a win, but in this election, with a new candidate and a very difficult national backdrop, a majority of over 3,000 is a good result in what has always been a marginal seat.

Moreover, Jenny was an extremely strong campaigner, and I was genuinely surprised just how many people she had helped who I came across in my own patch, given her relative youth and short time on the Council. It made campaigning for Labour so much easier - for all the sneering from some opposition circles that Labour overplayed the "local" nature of our candidate, in fact it really did make a difference on the doorstep.

Finally, we can be confident that Jenny's impressive start will continue as she gets to work, which will help continue to re-energise Labour in the town. It was a very happy post-count party afterwards for Labour supporters.


I spent quite a bit of the last couple of years mocking the Tories and their candidate on this blog for the torpor of their campaign. And in truth they squandered the advantage they had with a candidate in the field, especially in the hiatus for Labour after Alan Milburn stood down. I also wonder whether had they not selected so early (for example after rather than before the expenses scandal broke) they might have looked harder for someone local to contest the seat. Up against 2 councillors with impeccable Darlington credentials, Edward was always at a disadvantage and that told on the doorstep.

There was ample evidence in the last few weeks, however, that the Conservatives and their candidate Edward Legard got into their stride. Edward is to be commended for finally pushing the local Tories out of their West End "comfort zone" and into Labour's territory, perhaps for the first time in 15 years. From what I hear, they were pleasantly surprised by the reception they received.

Until February, I wondered whether any Tory constituency organisation would look at Edward again, given the hopelessly complacent nature of the Tory effort to date. Having seen him now at the Darlington Churches Debate and after the Declaration, I think he's grwon appreciably as an aspiring politician. Whether he sticks around to fight Darlington again (as Tory activists were speculating afterwards) remains to be seen - somehow I doubt it.


Mike Barker fought a typically feisty, insurrectionist campaign which played to his and his party's strengths. The LibDem vote wasn't squeezed as happened elsewhere in the North East, despite the clear evidence that Darlington is returning to its traditional role as a key Labour/Tory marginal. He is easily the most impressive thinker and campaigner in the local LibDem ranks - without him they'd return to being an irrelevance hereabouts.

It was a shame then that Mike spoilt the positive aura he'd built-up (in my opinion anyway) by bunking off to Durham City on polling day. For me, if you tell voters that your party has a real chance of victory, and that voting LibDem is not a "wasted vote", you have to spend the rest of the campaign behaving if that's true, even if the majority of your local supporters (understandably) are ordered away to the likes of Durham City. I thought Mike let down those people who believed him and did vote LibDem on the day. If they'd been aware that in fact the LibDems knew they never had a prayer here (as I and others pointed out) the LibDem vote would have been far smaller.


A brief mention for the BNP, if only because they were completely marginalised here. Unlike the European elections, almost nobody mentioned them on the doorstep to me - I don't think I saw a single BNP activist at the count for the first time ever. After the catastrophic result in Barking for Griffin (where they also lost all 15 of their council seats too - a great result), and beset by factional strife, they are truly on the way out. Fantastic news about the ugliest party of my generation.


Mike has come on to comment that he was only in Durham for the last couple of hours of polling day apparently. I'm happy to clear that one up.

Darlington 2010 - the Declaration

I'll be blogging on some thoughts on the campaign, here in Darlington and more woidely around the region, presently.


Labour 16,000
Tories 13,000
Libdems 10,000


Jenny Chapman is elected!

Thursday, May 06, 2010


Parties' sources suggest that voting between Labour and the Tories looks much closer now. Declaration in 15 minutes.


Provisional turnout figure 63% - I have to say that's lower than I expected.


About 60 DBC staff are busy counting the votes around the sports hall in the Dolphin Centre. Its been announced that turnout for postal voters was 86.7%.

Several sources from different parties have been speculating that the Tories and LibDems are neck and neck for second place - still very early days.

Tick Tock

Half-an-hour til polls close, my friends - so if you have just come in from work, please do go and vote.

I've spent the day taking numbers and chatting to residents on the polling station at St Bede's Primary School in my ward, when I haven't been out knocking on doors reminding people to vote for Jenny.

My overriding impression from the day has been - it's been bloody cold!. Still it was great 'knocking out' the vote, especially when Jenny joined us this afternoon.

It's almost suicidally dangerous making predictions this close to the count, but my strong sense is that Labour's vote firmed up appreciably in the last few days before polling, and that Jenny should be our new MP.

I'm off to the count now though, and will be blogging from there (within the Electoral Registration Officer's guidelines, of course) so do stay tuned for early impressions of what the various parties are saying.

I'll be taking my Flip video with me, and hope to have some exclusive film from proceedings which I'll put up tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Wise words from Bill

A good start

David, Andy and I gave our sore feet a rest last night and went along to the Springfield PACT meeting.

It was probably the best meeting to date - I counted around 35 residents there. The meeting was dominated by talk about anti-social behaviour in various locations, including Hambleton Grove/Springfield Road, which I'll blog on specifically later. The police reported on some success they've had with their motorbike team visiting the area. Speeding remains an issue, and residents were encouraged to take part in the initiative. There will be Community Speed Watch session on Wylam Avenue and Thompson Street East this Friday.

I guess a few people came along too for the first meeting of the reformed Springfield STAR, which followed the PACT. There was a lot of enthusiasm amongst people who remembered how the previous residents' association had worked to get it going again, and a number of local residents signed up to help with the enterprise.

We're solidly behind the STAR, and will give it our full support. More news here as it happens.

Monday, May 03, 2010

PACT Meeting tomorrow

In the midst of the General Election campaign, usual ward business continues as normal.

Tomorrow evening at 6pm, the lastest Springfield PACT is being held. The venue is the new Salvation Army building on Thompson Street East. Again, it's a chance for the police to report back on the local priorities set by residents at the last meeting - they include anti-social behaviour, illegal motorbike riding and speeding at various locations around Springfield.

If you have an issue that you want raised, please do come along. Alternatively, email me and I will ensure that the matter is considered at the meeting.

After the PACT has concluded, there will be the first meeting of the reconvened Springfield STAR. This was the residents' and tenants association which lost momentum several years ago. Now Executive Committee member Alan Robinson, together with several other local residents, is keen to get it going again. It would be great to have an active residents' association in the southern part of the ward again.

So if you live in Springfield and want to have your say, please do come along tomorrow evening.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Northern Decision Makers - Live!

Yup, we're going live at 4pm. You can see Graham, David and myself, all ably chaired by Chris Lloyd from the Northern Echo in our final Northern Decision Makers of the campaign. And I promise not to cry... here.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Darlington Churches Debate

Although they have been hawking their wares before some exotic audiences before now (most recently local estate agents) tonight was potentially the defining moment for Darlington's 3 hopeful PPCs (together with UKIP representative Charlotte Bull) at the traditional Churches Debate.

I estimate over 200 people packed themselves into the school hall at Polam to listen to Jenny, Mike, Edward and Charlotte. This is the first election since the 1983 by-election when none of the main parties are fielding a sitting candidate, so the stakes are high. The debate ran for 2 hours. For me, these were the highlights;

Edward responding to a question about what he would do for young people by responding he would make voting compulsory for the under-25's. Not a policy to rouse the nation's teenagers out of bed anytime before lunch.

Mindful of Gordon's predicament, Jenny cracking a joke about not wanting to be wired up after problems with the sound system.

Edward accusing Jenny of going on "frolics" not mentioned in Labour's manifesto, before setting out on a jaunt of his own by suggesting he supported the re-regulation of the bus industry.

Mike engaged in a tortuous form of words when responding to a question about future VAT rises - faced with the awful possibility that might actually be part of the next Government, LibDems are finally having to give responsible answers to sensible questions!

All the candidates pledging they would spend 100% of their time on working for the constituency. (I think this got the biggest cheer of the night).

On balance, I was impressed by all the candidates. Edward was a bit too sure of himself, and heavy-handed on the politics (he rather misjudged the auduence in this respect, I thought). Mike and Jenny scored heavily in their contrasting styles, whilst Charlotte probably helped explode the stereotype some of us have of UKIP members being a bunch of gin-swilling golf club bores.

Needless to say, I felt that Jenny gave the best all-round performance, but there was something to cheer for the supporters of each of the main parties. Roll on May 6th!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Straws in the Wind

I can't remember any election in the last 20 years in which first-time voters may play such a pivotal role as 2010.

They're a key demographic for all the main parties - so the outcome of today's mock election at our QE 6th Form takes on particular significance. It has been reported to me that the results were as follows;

Labour: 61 votes (52%)
LibDems: 30 votes (30%)
Tories: 20 votes (18%)

That suggests that Jenny Chapman has a clear lead amongst younger voters, with the LibDems easily outstripping the Tories. Interesting times!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Northern Decision Makers - Election Special 2

The latest Decision Makers, featuring Graham Robb for the Tories, David Stoker for the LibDems and myself for Labour has been recorded and is ready to view now. You can see the programme here.

Ably compered (referee'd?) by Chris Lloyd the Assistant Editor at the Northen Echo, there's some good knockabout. Remarkably, LibDem David Stoker is confident enough to 'call' Newcastle North for his party before a ballot has even been cast!

Although I engaged in a bit of gallows humour at the end of the programme, we had our best night canvassing this evening on Kingsway in my ward. Loads of positive responses for Labour. That's how I like it!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Vote Yellow...

Around Darlington, the Liberal Democrats are busy telling disillusioned supporters of both the main parties that it's safe to "lend" them their vote. My blogging colleague Mike Barker boldly states (in response to what was originally a national Tory line) that if you vote yellow, you get yellow. But is that really true?

The results of the last election here in Darlington were as follows;

Labour: 52.3%
Tories: 26.1%
LibDem: 18.5%
Others: 3.1%

So the LibDems, whilst improving on their 2001 performance, still trailed in a poor third.

For Mike to overturn Labour's majority requires an 18% swing from Labour to the Liberal Deomcrats - that would put both parties on or around the 34/35%. But the further Labour's vote is driven down, the closer the Tories get to the winning post too.

Enormous swings do occasionally happen in constituencies at General Election time - usually because of local factors. Nationally, the polls are only showing something like an 8.5% swing from Labour to the LibDems. So even if things are slightly better for the Liberal Democrats here in Darlington, (and I'm not sure they are) they are going to fall well short of the votes needed to pass the winning post - but they will drag Labour's vote down to a level where the Tories are within striking range.

One thing is clear from the doorstep - Labour waverers may be flirting with the Lib Dems (or not voting at all) but one thing they definitely do not want to see is a Tory MP or (God forbid) a Tory Government. So the question I'm asking them (very nicely, of course) is, "Are you feeling lucky?" Plenty take a look over the precipice, shudder, and tell me they'll be voting Labour on May 6th.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Dad's Army Gambit

I spent Monday evening walking and chatting round the ward - this time in the Hercules Street area. David and I bumped into a couple of LibDems canvassing too - I'm sure Mike will report on his blog that the people of Springfield were thronging to the LibDem banner...

In truth, unless you are stuck up a pole in the middle of the desert, things aren't easy for politicians of any stripe right now - the mood seems not to have shifted one iota from the visceral anger that erupted during the European elections over MPs' expenses. Then there was a general recognition that politicians from all the Westminster parties were implicated to a greater or lesser extent, and that is still the case today. Many times residents vented their anger with me about fairness - whether about MPs or benefit seekers or other groups. "You're all the same" goes the refrain. Still, I'm not reaching for my tumbler of whisky and pearl-handled revolver just yet.

How to respond to the astonishing rise in popularity of the LibDems is taxing both the main parties right now. To some extent, the question is most acute for the Tories and David Cameron - having seen his 20 point plus lead squandered, Cameron must be coming under intense pressure from the hard right of his party who would dearly love a "bash the immigrants/welfare scroungers" agenda to shore up his core vote. Cameron is not a complete fool however - he must kmow that tacking off in that direction, even given the current mood, would be a suicidal move. Even beating the old familiar drum of anti-Europeanism carries huge risks - it is the LibDems after all who want at some stage to have an "in or out" referendum (a policy I think isn't completely daft, but which does carry huge risks with the national interest) which would appeal to some Tory/UKIP floaters.

Labour is presented with some different problems. Labour and the LibDems have a fraught but complex relationship, as the recent brilliant post by Hopi Sen sets out. To suggest however, that Labour strategists are relaxed about the current state of the polls, in which Labour are running third, can't be right - and if it is, those strategists should be quietly taken out of the room and shot. Polling around Michael Foot's level of popularity back in 1983 is hardly planning for success.

Over on his blog, Mike has suggested that Labour in Darlington are panicking - nonsense of course, but as I shall blog shortly, there is real truth in the "Vote Yellow Get Blue" line here in Darlington. Instead, rather than "Don't Panic", another refrain from Dad's Army might be more apposite - if there's one thing we've come to learn about the LibDems over the years, it's that "they don't like it up'em!" Willing to tell half-truths and campaign negatively to their hearts content in contests around the country (and I exempt Mike from this, by the way), they are notoriously thin-skinned when attacked themselves.

The Tory-supporting press have already got to work on this, pointing out LibDem crackers policies on crime and justice, and drugs reform for example. Lord Mandelson is busy pointing out that Nick Clegg wants to restrict Working Families Tax Credit - a line which brought 2 Labour supporters back into the fold on Monday night in discussion with me.

My personal favourite, which I don't think has attracted a great deal of attention to date, is the LibDem policy that children as young as 16 should be able to not only enter sex shops and buy hardcore porn, but be able to take part in hardcore porn themselves. Don't believe me? - have a look at the article from the Independent here. I needn't tell you that pornographers (and worse) would be queuing up to take advantage of that change and exploit potentially vulnerable young people.

So here's a challenge to Mike - I'd be happy to go onto the High Row with him and talk to 10 voters currently uindecided about whether to vote LibDem or not, and see how they feel about the LibDems after learning about that little gem. How about it, Mike?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Survey Results

Tied up with the election, I didn't manage to blog on the results of our survey on anti-social behaviour in Riverside Way and Wheeldale Close in the ward.

It would appear that anti-social behaviour is a problem experienced by a number of residents in the area, although positively, more householders told us that this was not the case for them – especially at the upper and lower ends of Riverside Way. 13 households told us they had contacted the police or the council, and again it is good to report that their experiences were broadly positive. At the same time, there was a strong feeling that police patrols in the area should be stepped up.

The survey was triggered by the problem caused by the snickets that exist around Wheeldale Close and Riverside Way, reported at the last Springfield PACT meeting. There was support for their closure by a majority of over 3 to 1, although strong opinions were also voiced against their removal.

The other principle problems described by residents were in respect of illegal motor and quad bikes on the open space by the Skerne, and road safety concerns.

We have passed the results of the survey to the police, the Council’s Anti-Social Behaviour team and the Planning Department and asked for their comments. We have also reported the other issues to the relevant council officers, and asked for action.

When we have the feedback, we will be writing to the residents again with the outcome. Quadbikes and illegal motorcyclists come up again and again around the ward as issues of concern.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Northern Decision Makers

Not sure what to think about the Leaders' Debate last night? Perplexed as to who's up and who's down as General Election campaigning hots up? Then simply sit back and enjoy the revived Northern Decision Makers as Graham Robb (for the Tories) myself for Labour and LibDem Cllr. David Stoker from Durham County Council chew the fat, all ably compered by Chris Lloyd from the Northern Echo. You can see the programme in full here.

(The bit where Graham and David tear into each other probably presages the Cameron/Clegg spat to come in the next Leader's Debate.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Neighbourhood Watch Audit - the Results

In our last Haughton West Community News, we wrote about an audit of Neighbourhood Watch across the ward, and we asked the local police for their help. Neighbourhood Watch is one of the best front-line defences we have against crime, and it helps everyone feel that bit safer. It’s a great way for all of us to look out for our neighbours, especially those who might be vulnerable.

We now have the results – many thanks to Vicky Ord at Darlington Police for her assistance.

There are 23 members of Neighbourhood Watch across the ward (to put that in context, there are about 4,200 adults and 2,500 properties in Haughton West). Not a great figure, but by no means the worst apparently in the town.

Rather than list all the streets which don’t have a Neighbourhood Watch Co-ordinator, it is quicker and easier to list those that have. So here they are;

Balmoral Road, Cairngorm Drive, Beauly Drive, Cragwellside, Danby Court, Glamis Road (has 2!), Hardwick Close, Hercules Street, Hutton Avenue, Idaho Close, Inglewood Close, Largo Gardens, Leven Gardens, Littlebeck Drive, Mendip Grove, Moray Close, Nightingale Avenue, Rockwell Avenue & Sparrow Hall Drive.

By our reckoning, that means that around 57 streets in the ward have no active Neighbourhood Watch presence.

We’d encourage everyone to think about joining up to the scheme – or re-joining, if you once were a member and for whatever reason have drifted away. It is not time-consuming, and is one small way we can all do something for our community as well as ourselves.

As you may have seen in the Echo last month, Francis Jones, the self-styled community protector who runs the for-profit Sparta set-up, had the front to describe his two-bit organisation as the Neighbourhood Watch for the 21st Century. I beg to differ - I think people are still community minded enought to look out for each other - Neighbourhood Watch is more relevant than ever, and we don't need Jones' Keystone Cops outfit in our streets.

If you are interested in joining up to Neighbourhood Watch, simply contact Vicky Ord, the Community Liaison Officer for the Police, who is based at the Central House Annex in Gladstone Street. Her direct line number is 346832, mobile 0781 3675733. Vicky can also be contacted by email – her address is

If you do sign up and you live in Haughton West, please let me know, so we can promote progress via our newsletters. We will be reminding everyone about Neighbourhood Watch when we circulate our Street Surgery Notices in future.

NEWSFLASH - after circulating a version of the above post in our Haughton West e-newslketter, one resident has already come foreward to give his name as a co-ordinator. Let's see if we can't get 9 more people signed up by the end of the summer!

Palybuilders - Have Your Say

In our recent newsletters, we’ve been keeping local residents informed about the Playbuilders scheme – a pot of money secured by the Council to substantially upgrade play facilities in the Borough. We argued that Springfield Park deserved to share in the cash, and were delighted when the Council accepted our arguments. David, Andy and I have also been arguing for years that a new play area was necessary south of Whinfield Road, and again this has been agreed by the Council.

Consultation is being led by the Groundwork organisation – they have already begun by knocking on doors of properties overlooking the playing field in Whinfield Park. The response from local residents was very positive - no one was against the play area, and families came to the door with their children because they all wanted to have their say.

There were some comments about anti-social behaviour issues but most of the parents were saying why should they let the older ones ruin it for their children? We completely agree.

Groundwork are now holding a free play and consultation sessions during the Easter holidays to give children, young people and adults the chance to speak with them. If you live in the area, why not get along and let them know how you would like to see money made available for play provision in our community. We've put out 600 letters around the ward promoting the work.

The sessions will take place today, Tuesday 13th April 2010 between 11am and 2.30pm on Springfield Playing Field, and on Thursday 15th April 2010 between 11am and 2.30pm on on Rockwell Nature Reserve (by the river) – it would be great to see you there.