Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tooled up

Back again, after a long (semi-enforced) absence. Just to explain, I decided before Christmas to give up my old DBC line and laptop - a small saving for the council there which will undoubtedly make my Cabinet colleague Cllr. McEwan happy, but which will also allow me to use the internet for campaigning purposes.

Characteristically, it's taken BT weeks to get a broadband line up-and-running, but we've made it at last. By the weekend, I should have pictures and videos running smoothly again.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Community Speed Watch

We had an excellent and well-attended meeting of the Whinfield PACT on Monday evening.

One initiative which is now steaming ahead is the Community Speed Watch (CSW). Supported by both Durham Constabulary and Darlington Borough Council, CSW allows residents to work with the Police on the speed menace in our local streets.

Residents taking part will wear high visibility jackets, and will be accompanied by a police officer at all times. The tyeams will be operating matrices - equipment designed to monitor vehicles' speeds. Offenders wil have their registration plates recorded, and it will be for the Police to write to them to warn them about their behaviour. Repeat offenders may be fined.

The streets which will be targetted initially are those flagged by PACT meetings as having a speeding problem - so in Haughton West that will include Hutton Avenue, Wylam Avenue, Thompson Street East and Whinbush Way. Of course, depending on the success of the scheme, other streets may be targetted if PACT meetings feel that is necessary.

It was agreed by the PACT meeting that we would begin the initiative here in Whinfield, Springfield and Haughton in early February. The Police are now looking for volunteers (although there were no shortage of interested residents on Monday evening).

If you would like to help out, simply contact our local beat manager Jeff Summerhill on jeffrey.summerhill@durham.pnn.police.uk He can also be reached on 01325 60 60 365 x4122.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Fiscal Fibs

Regular correspondent on this blog, and our LibDem opponent in Haughton West next year Alan Macnab, had a grumpy letter published in yesterday's Echo about the Labour Group proposal that the DBC element of Couincil Tax be frozen for 2010/11.

Alan's letter is a classic of its type - full of half-truths and - let's face it, full-blown fibs - that chracterise so many LibDem utterances on most subjects. Let's look at Alan's letter in detail;

"It is indeed good news that Darlington Borough Council is proposing that Council Tax will not rise in 2011-11 - the first time a below-inflation rise has beenn levied since Labour came to power."

FIB!! In the first year of Darlington's existence as a unitary, Council Tax was actually reduced by 11.3%. My maths isn't what it should be, but that fact seems to be absent from his subsequent comparison between Darlington and other councils.

In reality, under Labour as a unitary authority, Council Tax in Darlington has risen by less than the average of all similar councils.

FACT. Darlington residents continue to benefit from paying the lowest total Council Tax in the North East.

"The Council also has a debt mountain of £80.8m, which will not be paid off until 2078-79, whilst its reserves are the absolute minimum it is allowed to hold."

WHOPPER!! The Council does not have a debt mountain. Local government financing is a complex subject, and it isn't easy to boil down the facts accurately into a blog (even less in a letter to the Echo). Here's my best stab at what's really the case...

The Council has a £143 million capital programme over the next 5 years. £117 million of that will come from Government grant. Another £10 million is supported borrowing, whereby revenue grant from the Government pays the financing costs.

DBC does invest in assets such as schools, highways, housing and regeneration. Like all councils, it borrows to fund some of these improvements, and most of the borrowing costs are paid for by Government grants.

Lets take a recent (and highly relevant) example. The Council has been sucessful in winning a bid for £57 million to rebuild 3 secondary schools in the Borough. As part of the deal, the Council will contribute £1.8 million. It is hoped that this will be funded through capital receipts, but if these can't be realised, then the money will be borrowed.

Is Alan's position really that £57 million of much needed expenditure on our schools be turned away from want of £1.8 million borrowing? As he signs himself the LibDem candidate for Haughton West, we shall have to assume that he is repeating the official party line on this matter.

I'm not sure this will be terribly popular in Hurworth, where the school is to be modernised, represented for the moment, of course, by 2 LibDem councillors.

In addition, the council's reserves are not "at an absolute minimum". Every year, the Council takes professional advice on the minimum reserves which should be kept. The figure is set at £6 million, and the Council currently has £8 million in reserve. Independent auditors (PWC on behalf of the Audit Commission) recently concluded that DBC's financial management is "robust" and "sound".

As a Labour Councillor, I'm proud of the services we deliver across the Borough, and the fact that we achieve good value for money in their provision. Residents' satisfaction in the recent survy stood at 79% - higher than the average for similar areas.

Whilst Alan and the LibDems try and fashion scare stories and myths about council financing, I'll be continuing to play my part striving for excellence in council services at an affordable cost for the people of the Borough.

Snow Stories (3)

I've just received an update from the officers regarding gritting around the Borough.

The Council has around 400 tonnes of salt in store, with more deliveries being received each day. About 200 tonnes can be spread each day if needed.

With further prolonged periods of snow and ice forecast, it is essential that salt stocks are preserved, in case some deliveries are not made as promised.

Salt will therefore be prioritised on gritting the main highway network and the town centre. This is in line with practice adopted by many other local authorities in the North East.

I've also received an update from the Durham and Darlington Fire Authority - it is using its vehicles to support ambulance crews access snow-bound residents in distress. Trained drivers from the Fire Service will meet the ambulance crews where driving conditions have become too hazardous for ambulances and take them incidents in 4x4 vehicles.

The Service has 16 4x4 vehicles available for use throughout Durham and Darlington. In addition, the 7 new fire appliances recently introduced into the fleet are fitted with anti-skid technology. This has resulted in the service safely attending 287 incidents since the 18th December 2009, when the snow first hit the region.

A worrying trend is that the number of raod traffic collisions has almost doubled from 37 last year to 67 this year, primarily due to the hazardous driving conditions. DDFRA is advising drivers to do the following;

Drivers should carry a shovel, warm clothing and a fully charged mobile phone.

In the current waether, it is best that you avoid any unecessary journeys.

If your journey is unavoidable, take extra care when driving, keeping your speed low to allow for additional braking distances and dissiculty in manoevrring yiour vehicle if confronted with an emergency situation.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Setting the Budget

Most years, councillors and officers are accustomed to say that this has been the most difficult budget-setting round that they have encountered.

No-one involved in local government country-wide will, however, have experienced a more challenging set of circumstances that the ones we face at present. A near perfect storm of the credit crunch, the economic downturn and reduced revenue streams means that 2010/11 will pose very serious questions for council finances - and matters aren't going to get any better in the next 3 - 5 years.

As you may have seen from yesterday's Echo, Darlington is taking the lead amongst North East authorities and publishing its budget proposals first. You can view the paper going to Cabinet on 12th January 2010 here.

Now it's time for the people of Darlington to have their say; the key proposals upon which the consultation is based is as follows;

Proposal One: Freeze Council Tax

The Cabinet is very much aware of the financial challenges many residents and businesses in Darlington are facing and, in light of this, proposes NOT to increase Council Tax this year.

Proposal 2: Balancing the budget

Due to the increasing gap in levels of future funding and the increasing demand in services, members of the Cabinet and officers have developed a number of key proposals to further reduce spending whilst maintaining effective services.

These include:

investing an additional £1.4 million in social care to pay for the increase in demand for services;
schools receiving a 3.1% increase in funding in line with an increase in Government grants;
driving efficiencies of £4.7 million across the Council and its services.

Proposal 3: Invest in Darlington

Whilst the Council must find savings, it is also important to invest in the Borough. These investments will be made using capital budgets which we compete with other local authorities to secure from Government.

Over the next four years, the Council proposes to invest £143 million through capital schemes, this includes £10 million on roads, £82 million on schools, £19million on regeneration.

You can email the Council directly with your views here, or go online to the forum here. Alternatively, you can attend the special Talking Together event to discuss the oproposals on Monday 25th January 2010, starting from 5.30pm, at the Dolphin Centre.

Draft council budgets have been consistently re-shaped in previous years as a result of input from residents and staff, so it's well-worth taking an active part in the consultation process. I'll keep you updated as progress develops.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Snow Stories (2)

I think we knew before we heard that it was the coldest December for 10 years, with the promise of more on the way next week.

Local councils have been following through well-rehearsed gritting and plouging routines since before Christmas - with more or less success. There has been a temptation in recent years, with milder winters, to cut or slash gritting budgets and reduce the total mileage covered. I'm pleased to say that this has been a trend that Darlington has more or less resisted, although there are some examples nearby of big councils doing precisely the opposite, and coming in for heavy criticism as a result.

During that very brief thaw, however, another problem was beginning to come to light. The prolonged freeze seems to have created damage to the road infrastructure across the town. Where there were potholes waiting to be repaired, then the impact of the ice and salt has often made things far worse.

The 2 photos above illustrate the point. The lower photo is of the road surface at the junction of Wylam Avenue and Thompson Street East in my ward. Recently, two residents raised the problem with us here and on Thompson Street East itself, and we duly took up the issue with the Council. We were promised patching for Wylam Avenue (within 20 days), and some more structural work on Thompson Street East, where the problems are more deep set.

Of course, the bad weather will have set back the work, but when I visited Wylam Avenue on Friday, the holes were bigger, as the edges had begun to break up. The top photo is of Barnard Street in the town centre yesterday afternoon. A whole chunk of asphalt has come away as the ice has melted.

Once the cold spell is over, I suspect councils up and down the country will have to review their response to prolonged cold weather, to assess whether changes will have to be made. This will have to be in the wider context of global warming, of course, where the broader challenges we face, as far as roads and pavements are concerned, centre on the damage caused by flooding and very hot summers.

Snow Stories (1)

Ward Surgery this morning, which for reasons too complicated to explain, was spent for the first 45 minutes in a freezing cold ASDA car park.

At one point, we were visited by a two residents of Oban Court, the sheltered DBC accommodation block across Whinbush Way. They asked whether we could contact someone at the Council to have the paths around Oban Court gritted? The path down to the bus stop was particularly treacherous.

With no-one from Street Scene probably able to respond until Monday, we resolved to do it ourselves. So here's my record of our efforts, in my first and what may turn out to be my cheesiest photo of 2010.