Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Twilight Zone



Full Council this evening, to finally put the Council's budget for 2010-11 to bed. I got such a strong sense of deja vu from the very familiar and tiresome poses struck by the opposition that I thought I was entering (nee-nee nee-nee, nee-nee nee-nee) The Twilight Zone.

The Labour Group had worked hard in preceding months to try and square important circles - recognising that residents needed relief from a DBC Council Tax rise this year in the teeth of a dreadful global recession whilst at the same time protecting front-line services. And whilst some employees were understandably unhappy with some of the efficiencies which potentially impact upon pay and conditions (although I believe negotiations continue), the Cabinet did all it could to minimise job losses.

Not everything was right first time, and we were correct to listen to representations and row back on several proposals for some fresh thinking.

So what does an opposition do? If I've learnt anything about their tactics over the years, the main objective seems to be to rubbish the achievements of the ruling group whilst saying nothing (or next-to-nothing) about what they would have done if in power. And I can see the sense of this approach - why court unnecessary unpopularity? Better to say nothing - or very little - and hope the controlling group attract all the (negative) attention.

And so it proved this evening. There were thoughtful contributions, I thought, from my blogging colleague Mike Barker (even if I completely disagreed with his analysis) and from Tory Alan Coultas. Otherwise, it was very thin stuff indeed.

The point I tried to make (before being very courteously ruled out of order by the Mayor Jim Ruck) was that however much the Tories may pretend to the contrary, they do have an agenda, and it's being followed by Conservative Councils up and down the country. It's a theme I'll return to again here. There are lines in the sand between Labour, striving to protect front-line services and facilities for all, and the slash-and-burn approach adopted initially in London Boroughs by the Conservatives, but increasingly outside it too. And residents deserve to know about it.

And so a rather bad-tempered Budget Round ended for another year. Expect the temperature to be even more fraught in 12-months time, as the local elections loom.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Final Four in Gateshead

Not so long ago, Eddie Izzard played the villain in a new adaptation of the Day of the Triffids. It was a compelling performance, with Izzard starring as Torrence, a charming sociopath who stopped at nothing to become the UK's leader.

I think we were meant to shiver, repulsed by the ruthless character. Actually, my response was - brilliant! Eddie Izzard as our unhinged PM. What's there not to like?

I drag this memory back simply because I heard Labour's shortlist today for the Gateshead seat - in the final four is leading Labour blogger and good friend Hopi Sen.

Hopi, as I think I've remarked before, is one of the good guys in politics. He served his apprenticeship up here as a staff member with Labour North, and was universally popular. His blog, a mixture of self-deprecating humour and fizzy political wonkishness, is required reading for anyone serious about UK politics. In one of his more brilliant posts, he has already anticipated how he would govern as a absolute (though dissolute and idle) ruler. Just wish I could find the link...

Hopi would certainly liven up North East politics. Alas, all is not straightforward, and his competition includes local councillor Ian Mearns and Nick Forbes, the leader of the Labour opposition on Newcastle City Council.

Nick in particular would be a fearsomely good MP - able, articulate with a strong background in policy. As a successful local councillor leading the fightback against the city's woeful LibDem administration, he can point to a strong record in representational politics. He's also one of the few Labour politicians in the North East to take the internet seriously.

I suspect more than a few hands in Gateshead Labour Party will hover over the ballot paper with candidates as strong as Nick and Hopi in the final 4.

Vlog Interview with Ed Milliband


Interview with Ed Milliband

Cllr. Nick Wallis | MySpace Video


To Gateshead and the Hilton Hotel this morning for a breakfast meeting of Labour's North East Business Forum. The keynote speaker was Ed Milliband MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. He gave an excellent tour d'horizon, and then answered questions from businesspeople and academics.

He was good enough to spare a few minutes afterwards to record a vlog interview with me. Given my portfolio on Darlington Borough Council, it was a real pleasure to chat with him this morning.

Out with Jenny




You can't fail to have noticed that the opening exchanges of the General Election have begun in earnest here in Darlington.

That means canvassing. And lots of it. Activists tend to divide into two simple bands - those who can and those who can't stand it - something to do with not knowing who (or what) you'll meet on the other side of the door, I think.

Me - I love it. So it was a pleasure to join Jenny last Saturday and Sunday when we knocked on doors in Cockerton East's Darrowby Drive and in my own patch on the Whinfield Park estate.

I thought we got a great response in both areas, and Jenny chatted to lots of Labour supporters - including one potential new member on Whinfield Park who really, really can't stand David Cameron.

I recorded some video with Jenny on Oakwood Drive, but unfortunately, the Flip's batteries were low, so the static spoilt the film (does Peter Jackson have these problems?)

I'll do another video interview with Jenny soon, so for the meantime, you'll have to make do with a picture of one of our teams on Saturday not at all freezing on Darrowby Drive...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

William flies in

I wouldn't normally promote a video interview with William Hague, even one recorded by distinguished Echo Deputy Editor Chris Lloyd. This is a very special video, however, for several reasons;

(1) Edward Legard (true to form) sits uncomfortably and says nowt throughout.
(2) Hague's answers are unbelievably stilted. Did Chris record this at 5am?
(3) For the wonderful 'cameo' appearance by leading Darlington Tory Charles "Chuck" Johnson at the start of the interview. Classic!

Unortunately, I don't know how to get a live feed of the interview to this blog - if anyone does, please tell!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

One of our candidates is missing (2)

He's rich. He's posh. He doesn't get to Darlington all that much...

Another chapter in the short but entertaining political career of Edward Legard this evening, when his much vaunted Q&A with the citizens of Darlington was cancelled at short notice. Apparently, without William Hague to hold his hand (clash of commitments apparently) Edward didn't think it was worth the petrol money to toddle up from Ryedale.

Remarkable. Talking to Labour's PPC this evening after the announcement (Jenny was in the vicinity, by the way, so got to talk to several disgruntled residents who were turned away) we both agreed that had the "name" not materialised for a Labour event, we would certainly have proceeded. Not to do so would be frankly discourteous.

This latest misshap has led one prominent local Twitterer to wonder aloud whether it was Labour who in a malicious twist selected Captain Legwarmer? We can only plead "not guilty" - the Tories picked him all by themselves!

Setting the Budget for Darlington

It was Cabinet last night, and a chance to consider the responses to Labour's draft Budget proposals for 2010/11.

As you may have seen in the Echo, there was a demonstration outside organised by the Trade Unions unhappy with some of the suggested savings around overtime, Bank Holiday/Sunday working and essential car users allowance. On behalf of the Cabinet, Bill Dixon (who chaired the meeting in John's absense) and Resources and Efficiency Portfolio holder Chris McEwan went down to listen to what employees had to say, and respond to their criticisms. That accorded the protestors (who also spoke at the meeting) the proper respect.

At the meeting itself, representatives from the Darlington Story Sack and Toy Library organisation and the Early Years Inclusion Service thanked the Cabinet and councillors generally for the changes made - in the case of Story Sack, £60,000 of funding has been guaranteed to allow them to look for more money, whilst there will be further discussions outside of the budget proposals on the Early Years Inclusion Service.

At this point, I have to respond to my blogging LibDem colleague Mike Barker, who alleges that these were never true proposals in the first place - instead in a move that would have made Machiavelli himself blush, the Labour Cabinet threatened cuts in the knowledge they would be withdrawn. How heartless, says Mike.

And that's right. If there was a shred of truth in it. The idea that the Cabinet would cause needless worry by proposing false cuts is a monstrous charge and completely without foundation. I sat in during all the budget discussions, and no-one once suggested any such tactic - indeed if they did, I think they would be out of the Cabinet and the Labour Group pronto.

IMO, it says more about the LibDems, and the character of the administration they would lead, that Mike can even come up with such a suggestion. Value-free politics are, after all, the preserve of the Liberal Democrats.

That leads me into the freezing of the Council Tax this year. On that Mike came close to adopting a position, when he lauded the 3% increase set by North Yorkshire County Council. Certainly, some of the union members present criticized the Labour Cabinet, stating that a standstill budget took money away from the workforce.

Now Mike and the LibDems may have wanted to jack up the Council Tax by as much as they think they could have got away with this year, had they been in control (though you can bet they won't move an amendment to that effect on Thursday week). Labour has increased the Council Tax in previous years, when the circumstances dictated. As I said in my contribution, however, in a year when there is so much financial pain out there, it was incumbent on any responsible council to tax only where absolutely necessary, and not just to pile up balances to meet future problems ahead.

Away from the Town Hall bubble, many Darlington families have been hit by the Credit Crunch and the world-wide recession. Households where there might have been two wage earners now may have just one. Pay has been cut and hours reduced, especially in the private sector. People on fixed incomes, like pensioners, have seen their savings attract next-to-no interest whilst rates have been so low. A Council Tax freeze, was morally the right ambition in these circumstances for the town, and I'm proud to be part of a Cabinet that (subject to Council approval) has delivered it.

We project that in 2011/12, Council Tax will rise, but by just 1%. Darlington still has the lowest Council Tax in the North East, and this year is I think the only authority in the region standing by its residents in these difficult times by fixing a 0% increase. At the same time, we deliver first-class front-line services. That is just as it should be.

The E-Campaign



2010 will undoubtedly be the first e-election we've seen here in the UK. And the candidate who's making all the running on the internet here in Darlington is Labour's own Jenny Chapman, who has her own website, and a growing band of followers too on Facebook.

You can see Jenny's website here (with a sneak preview of her intro leaflet, which hasn't even come from the printers yet!), and request to join up to her (420+) Facebook supporters here.

You can even follow her on Twitter too - twitter.com/jennychapman

Friday, February 12, 2010

Green Awards 2010

This year, the Council has launched Green Awards for achievements in the preceding 12 months. Categories include Sustainable Transport, Greener Communities, Good Design and Tackling Climate Change.

Yesterday, together with the chair of our LSP's Greener Theme Group, I judged the entries - 10 in all. It's something of a truism, but the entries, from organisations ranging from the public to private and voluntary sectors, were uniformly excellent, and any one of them could have won the category for which they were entered. It was a nightmare picking the winners.

Who got what, of course, is a state secret, but we're hoping to announce the results in a small ceremony the next LSP Greener Theme Group on 29th March at 4.30pm in Bondgate Methodist Church.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lessons in history

This blog has once or twice gently pointed out that Tory candidate and North Yorkshire toff Edward LeGrand is, ahem, not the busiest politician we have ever seen. Months at a time have gone by since his selection in January 2008, when the town has had neither sight nor sound from him.

When Spectator's Notes in the dear old D&S Times picked up the theme, Cpt LeGrand reacted like a scalded cockerel. His letter on Friday, entitled My Record, lists the many things that he has been up to "in recent weeks and months".

Which would be absolutely fine, were we not able to check some of this stuff up, via Google and indeed this blog. So here's the same list of Laggard's 'achievements', this time with the dates appended;

Campaigning against post office closures - February 2008
Setting up a Darlington Job Club - March 2009
Meeting residents plagued with anti-social behaviour - June 2008
Campaigning against the withdrawal of free bus travel for pensioners - June 2008.

Clearly, time takes on a different quality when you're a Tory!

I could go on. With the General Election almost upon us, Edward is, finally, beginning to stir himself into action, and attending the odd meeting. Unfortunately, the overall impression he has left in the 2 years he has been a PPC - frankly that he is a part-time candidate in a no-hope seat for the Tories - has stuck, and it can't be shifted now. In the battle for second place, LibDem Mike Barker has been a far more energetic and clever PPC, leaving the Tories looking like also-rans.

Edward Legard's letter is curious in another respect. He states that "whether through family connections; work or from the time when stationed in Catterick, I have known Darlington all my life and am ideally placed to represent its interests within the North East."

The trouble is that when candidates pledge their undying and non-transferable love for a constituency like this, we can check their background. And as an anonymous commentor on this blog has pointed out via a newspaper link, Edward was apparently also "ideally placed to represent the interests" of Sunderland Central back in July 2007.

Less a devoted suitor, and more, well, a carpet bagger, I guess. Presumably the Tories in Sunderland wanted a more active candidate in what is a genuinely marginal seat for them?

Labour's PPC Jenny Chapman, of course, is properly local to Darlington, and hasn't schlepped around other constituencies looking for a berth.

Finally, as if to prove that the Tories' ill-starred candidate just hasn't got any luck at all, there's a cruel twist on Wikipedia. Some loyal Tory hack - maybe Edward himself? - has been trying to put an biography of our favourite aristo on the site, only to have it deleted three times by site moderators. The reason - he is a "non notable local politician."

Ah, Edward - I know exactly how you feel!

Monday, February 08, 2010

Springfield PACT

Our second Springfield PACT meeting this evening - again a good turnout, with around 15 residents coming out on a cold winter's evening.

One of the PACT's priorities is tackling anti-social behaviour in the area. We spent a good while discussing problems in Riverside Way and Wheeldale Close - the police and the council's ASB team were already aware of the problem, and residents in Wheeldale Close reported that disturbances had ceased in the last 2 weeks. Perhaps inevitably, in adjacent Riverside Way, youths are now starting to cause problems.

A feature of the area are the number of snickets that were incorporated into the estate's design. These must have seen like a great idea back when the houses were planned, but certainly on and off for the last 20 years or so, they have acted as a focus for ASB.

This isn't a problem confined to Haughton West or indeed Darlington - whether it's cuts or back lanes or alleys, the 'out-of-the-way' areas of where we live can be the source of major problems. Closing them off, which is the response residents generally think is most sensible, is however a very different matter.

Going back several years, we were able to tackle the problem effectively through closure - the cuts from Mendip Grove onto Martindale Road, from the field behind Belsay Walk onto Belford Gardens, and the snicket between Wheeldale Close and Littlebeck Drive are cases in point. Now however, the legal advice is quite clear - the legislation makes closing these footpaths very difficult indeed.

There have been changes in the rules governing the closure of alleyways, however, and it was agreed that now is the right time to have another look at what the community wants to do with the cuts around Wheeldale Close. In concert with the police, the Council's ASB team and local residents, we will start by circulating a questionnaire in the affected streets to gauge local opinion. It will help ascertain exactly what the problems are, and how local people would like the authorities to respond.

Once we've liaised with all the local partners on a draft letter, they should be delivered to local households by the beginning of next week. We'll be reporting back to residents on the results at the next PACT meeting.

Can't live with him, can't live without him

Both the local Tories and LibDems are getting into a big tizz over Alan Milburn, and the latest expenses revelations.

In today's Echo our old chum Edward Legwarmer, Bart. fulminates against Alan, and demands that Labour's PPC distance herself from her old boss.

Meanwhile over on his blog, Mike Barker is positively spitting about the MP. He rails against what he terms his poor record as a constituency MP, and says he will never mention Alan's name again.

Of course, it's hardly surprising that Alan was unpopular with opposition apparatchiks in the town - he was after all a phenomenally successful advocate for Labour. It wasn't a shady conspiracy that installed him as our elected representative, but often thumping majorities over the Tories and LibDems accorded by Darlington residents in 4 successive elections. Residents liked Alan, and they liked what Labour delivered both locally and nationally.

For all the complaints that he was never around, I think a lot of people appreciated that a "big hitter" like Alan, who had the talent and character to hold Cabinet office, did the town good by raising its profile and being an adept Westminster operator. Without Alan's influence and hard work, often behind the scenes, Darlington would not have gained several big ticket projects that have benefitted the town since 1997.

Yes, he moved from Darlington to live in Northumberland. But that was hardly a state secret kept from the voters - I recall at least one Tory leaflet I think from 2001 which had an activist standing forlornly in Alan's village with a made-up sign indicating the number of miles to Darlington. And still residents voted for him in their droves. It must have driven the Tories and LibDems nuts.

Still, time moves on. Alan has clearly sensed that, and is standing down to pursue other projects. I wish him well. That's no good for the opposition, however, who would dearly love, for the first time, to be facing Alan as a candidate at the General Election. Unfortunately for them, they've got Jenny - talented, approachable and a great communicator for Labour's values.

So expect the opposition to continue pretending they're up against Alan rather than Jenny. Also be prepared for ongoing character assassination against Alan which will be mostly unfair and personal. I don't suppose it will bother him one bit. And neither will the voters be kidded from realising that in Jenny, Labour have a new and exciting PPC who will be a first class MP for the town.

The Labours of Hercules


Cleaning the coop

Cllr. Nick Wallis | MySpace Video


You thought being a ward councillor and Cabinet Member for Sustainable Environment and Climate Change here in Darlington was one long glamour call? As a family we are trying to live that little bit more sustainably, so here's how I spent this Sunday lunchtime...

Sunday, February 07, 2010

All you ever needed to know about the Climate Change debate....

Okay, so it's not chock-full of stats and graphs, but this piece says more about the state of the Climate Change debate than a shelf-full of worthy papers.

Printed in today's Observer, it's an exchange of emails between the paper's science and technology editor Robin McKie, and Dr Benny Peisner, Director of the climate change sceptic thinktank the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Whilst Robin returns time and time again to the science underpinning man-made climate change, and the overwhelming number of leading scientists who support the theory, Dr Peisner's ripostes are all rhetoric and evasion.

Well worth a look. I thought the article highlighted the vacuity of the 'denial' approach to climate change in telling terms.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Community Speed Watch in Action!



Between lots of jobs today, I joined PC Jeff Summerhill and PCSO Liz Harley, together with local resident Alan Robinson, as we tried out the Community Speed Watch equipment for the first time in the ward. Jeff's interview is well worth watching - if you would like to take part in this initiative, then contact him at jeffrey.summerhill@durham.pnn.police.uk

And if you live in Haughton, Springfield or Whinfield, do try and come along to our next PACT meeting this Monday, at 7.30pm in the new Salvation Army building on Thompson Street East.

Kingsway/Balmoral Road Street Surgery



A minor triumph on the Kingsway - Dave and Dean had been around for a long, long time.

To the Kingsway estate and Balmoral Road/Killin Road areas this lunchtime and evening for one of our regular street surgeries.

I took the picture of the cleaned wall this afternoon to let residents know about a service provided by the Council. When I was delivering our Haughton West calenders between Christmas and the New Year, I spotted this graffiti which was long overdue coming down.

It had been scrawled on a resident's back wall - what a lot of people don't realise is that the Council's Street Scene team will remove graffiti from private property, but only with the owner's written consent. So I knocked on the door, the resident was more than happy to give her details, and within a matter of 10 days Street Scene had done a marvellous job, and the area looked that bit more spruce. Given the appalling weather conditions at the time, and the other calls on their time, it was great that our local Street Scene team responded so promptly.

Anyway, there were plenty of issues residents wanted to raise with us today. I think we managed to knock on almost every door on the Kingsway, Regal Drive, Monarch Close and Earl Close at lunchtime, and chatted generally issues that needed tackling. This evening, we focussed solely on those residents who had left the "Stop" signs in their windows, and who wanted to see us specifically.

The state of the roads in and around the Kingsway came up several times. So too did what I call "good neighbour" issues - where the thoughtlessness of a few are causing difficulties for others. Parking here is a case in point. There isn't always a council solution - I only wish there were - the answer lies in giving others around us just that little bit of consideration in our everyday lives.

So plenty of emailing to the officers and, in one case, the Manager of the Cornmill with a helpful suggestion from one disabled resident, before bed.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

100,000 strong

A quick glance at the web counter shows me that today this blog passed the 100,000 hits mark.

Admittedly, as I haven't exactly been a prolific blogger since I started back in August 2006, I've rather coasted rather than surged through the 100,000 point. It's a milestone nonetheless.

In truth, when I began blogging, I was hoping to create a significant audience amongst the residents I reporesent in Haughton West - the blog was intended as a new way of allowing 2-way communication for local people.

And whilst I know some residents do occasionally look at my burblings, I'm afraid it has never really taken off in that regard - the monthly e-newsletters I send out to around 100 households on behalf of the 3 of us in the ward probably are much more effective.

Neither has blogging taken off in the North East in a way I expected back then. Whilst my colleagues Simon Henig and Nick Forbes do have their own websites in Durham and Newcastle respectively, truth to say blogging hasn't really developed as a means of communication and debate amongst either Labour or Tory politicians. Only the LibDems seem to have taken it to their hearts, though whether it is really delivering results for them is hard to say.

Here in Darlington, we have a good micro-blogging community. Whilst the occasional postings of Mike Barker, the Cartwrights and myself can scarecely be described as a Socratic dialogue, we do occasionally make the Echo - indeed I'm surprised that more of my colleagues haven't appreciated that well-written blog posts easily generate news stories, as Mike clearly does.

So it's a case of onwards and upwards. Just as Obama and his use of email helped define the 2008 US elections, we'll see how, if at all, the internet will influence voters here in Darlington in 2010. In what promises to be an increasingly-tight election in national terms, who knows what effect the internet may have on the result in the North East.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

One of our candidates is missing!

This week's D&S Times will have made uncomfortable reading for my colleagues over at Darlington Conservative HQ.

The Spectator's Notes column - a wry take on the week's news from an authoritative source at the paper - devotes half the column to the mystery of Darlington's own Disappearing Man - or "where is Edward Legard?"

An old friend of this blog, of course, it seems Captain LeGrand introduced himself to the D&S Times source 6 months ago, but as the columnist observes, "since then we have seen neither hide nor hair."

The column goes on to wonder why he has been so absent? Imagining that the Tories have a cunning plan is indeed a possibility, but it is so fearsomely obscure that even Baldrick would have had a migraine trying to fathom it. Complacency, wonders SN? Perhaps. Possibly a thoroughly useless candidate? Or maybe, there was a clue in the annual returns the local party filed which were unearthed by my blogging colleague and LibDem PPC Mike Barker - Darlington's Tories have a falling, ageing membership, and whilst they may have a few quid in the bank, there just aren't the activists anymore to support sustained activity.

All very perplexing. Just as mystifying as why one anonymous source was determined that I should see this webpage. For the life of me, I can't imagine why.

In truth, the Tories have wasted a year when they might have made hay. They've given Labour the space to select a top-drawer, local candidate who is re-energizing the campaigning effort and determined to lead from the front. Taxi for Captain Laggard!

Monday, February 01, 2010

Hopeless

This is awful - after finally getting broadband rigged up, I get laid low by a pretty serious case of man 'flu, and then spend precious blogging time watching Law & Order: UK and chuckling at the classic Angry People in Local Newspapers site.

Actually, what I'm really putting off is dealing with the dead mouse in a trap underneath the sink. So time to blog again!