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.