Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Future of the Library Service

Amidst all the very difficult proposals the council is having to put forward as part of its budget between now and 2019/20, the future of the library service is amongst the most fraught.

The closure of Cockerton Library, the ending of the mobile library service and the relocation of the main library away from its historic site in Crown Street, are all emotive and difficult options for anyone who loves learning and literature in Darlington.

I wasn't surprised therefore that campaigning group Darlington for Culture announced they were against the plans, and at least one Facebook page has been set up to voice opposition.

In Monday's Echo, various distinguished authors also said they were against the plans, although the extent to which they were aware of (or indeed interested in) the wider context against which the budget is set, was not clear.

My Cabinet portfolio includes the library service. In the Echo piece, it was suggested by one of the authors that libraries were somehow a "soft target" for the council. This is not the case. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy – an independent body of finance professionals – estimates that 463 libraries across the country have closed since 2010. I’m proud that we have managed to stave off library closures in Darlington to this point.

The proposals which are currently being consulted on are driven by the Conservative Government’s extreme austerity agenda. By 2019/20, Darlington will be receiving £44 million less in real terms in Government grant, when compared with 2010/11. To put that into context, this year the Council’s total revenue is just £87 million. The scale of the challenge to cut budgets still further whilst protecting services is enormous.

The greater part of the council’s spending has to go on what are known as Statutory Services, in other words those functions the council is required to perform by law - protecting and meeting the needs of some of the most vulnerable in our community, including older people, disabled people and children, as well as services such as refuse and highways.

Yet the other services are no less important, and include parks and gardens, the Dolphin Centre, Street Scene and economic development, for example. In fact, these are the services which people in Darlington see most often, and which have high public satisfaction. To leave these services untouched requires £12.5 million every year. However, the council will only have £2.3 million left after the Statutory Services have been paid for – hence the need to find about £10 million of savings over the next four years.

It is in this bleak context that the proposals regarding the relocation of the main library are made. By moving the library to a purpose-built facility within the Dolphin Centre, savings amounting to £330,000 per year can be made. Crown Street is a much-loved venue, but the building does not provide all the facilities customers today demand.

Across the country, councils are responding to the Government’s agenda by concentrating services in a single building. In Darlington, by placing the library in the Dolphin Centre, a new generation of children and their parents who use the leisure facility will have better access to education and learning.

A new facility will enjoy improved sound-proofing. It will of course have reference and lending sections, and up-to-date IT facilities which people now expect of a modern library service, as well as better toilet, refreshment and access arrangements.

For many people, the library service is indivisible from the Crown Street building in which it is housed. I understand that. But if the council is to protect not only the library service more generally, but other much valued provision such as the Head of Steam railway museum, the beautiful South Park and school crossing patrols, then the savings that the library relocation will realise have to be made.

Nothing is set in stone, however, and the Council wants to hear your views. Regarding the library changes, there are public sessions on 23rd March 2016 between 2.30pm and 4.30pm in the Dolphin Centre, and between 6pm and 8pm in the Methodist Chapel on Cockerton Green. The Council also wants to hear from library users, and for them to help shape the new service, so it better meets the needs of the people of Darlington.

I would also like to meet people directly who have issues or concerns about this proposals – simply email me on to fix up an appointment.

In Monday’s piece, Philippa Gregory talked about the “grim austerity cuts this government has put in place” and she is right in this respect. Austerity is precisely why councils like Darlington are being forced to ‘think the unthinkable’ and radically change public service provision.

Unlike the authors however, who write fiction, councils have to deal with hard financial facts. The library proposals are a central part of that tough reckoning to survive.

This is a version of an article I have sent to the Northern Echo, asking that they consider publication in response to the various articles which were published on Monday.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Council's Budget II - What do the Figures Mean?

At the very heart of Darlington Council’s appalling difficulties (and those of every other Local Authority in the North East) is the scale of the Government grant that has been taken away since 2010 – cuts that will be compounded between now and 2020.

So here are the facts:

Between 2010/11 and 2015/16, DBC’s Government grant was cut in real terms by £37 million (a 47% reduction.) Councils are a “people” business, with a heavy reliance on staff to deliver the services. To date, 572 full-time jobs have been lost.

To achieve those savings, like other council’s DBC has tried to protect front-line services. There have been significant management savings, and the Xentrall collaboration with Stockton BC saves over £2 million a year in ‘back office’ efficiencies (operation of IT, payroll and the like.)

Still some high profile areas of Council spend have had to take a hit. People will think of the Arts Centre, but those savings have been realised across the Authority.

Between now and 2019/20, Tory Government cuts mean that a further £12 million will have to be saved. With efficiencies already squeezed dry, options are extremely limited.

Over the next few weeks and months, you will probably read a lot about Councils and their ‘Statutory services’. This relates to those things that councils have to do by law. We estimate that there are 1,300 “legal requirements with which councils like DBC have to comply.

Why is this so important now? Because Government grants (which will probably have been phased out altogether by 2020) plus Council Tax barely meets those legal requirements. They include key elements of Children’s and Adults Services (child protection, children in care, school transport for example) some maintenance of the highways, a bin collection, a library service (but to what level is not said), planning. There are some others.

What isn’t ‘Statutory’ is a much, much more extensive list. Regrettably, it includes council services which are at the very heart of our community, and about which people immediately think of when they imagine what a local council “does”.

Working with families and children in need, support for the voluntary sector including charities, leisure (the Dolphin Centre and Eastbourne Complex), much of the library service, the maintenance of parks, gardens and open spaces, museums (like the Head of Steam). Even lollipop men and women aren’t required by law. Councils don’t have to provide them.

Of course, DBC (like the vast majority of all councils) wants to provide these services to a good standard. That’s why they’re there in the first place – because they have been demanded by local communities.

But now, the impact of austerity is so overwhelming, that they are almost completely unaffordable. Locally-raised Council tax and Government grant dwindling to nothing, simply doesn’t bridge the gap.

So this draft budget which is now out for consultation only provides for those ‘Statutory’ services. Because of the hard work done over the years, there is an additional £2.3 million to allocate to the most vital services. The Council’s Cabinet is suggesting that some provision for the most needy be included, that school crossing patrols be protected, that our town’s heritage be preserved by continuing to invest in the Head of Steam museum, that at least some of the cuts to Street Scene not be made. Also there is money for economic growth, because we must continue to bring good quality jobs and investment into the town.

A lot has to change, however. Somehow, enough has been found to keep the Dolphin Centre, but only by including within it the new library (moved from Crown Street) and incorporating a Children’s Centre. The news today has been dominated by the particular impact on the Covered Market.

How should we feel about this carnage? First and foremost, we should be angry! Bloody angry!! The Tories have no love for local government, they know that councils tend to take the blame when Government cuts have to be delivered locally, and they are cynically exploiting that. It is grotesquely unfair. Key services which the neediest in our society rely upon are suffering. Key local facilities are disappearing, and all because Westminster Tories don’t give a toss about anyone north of the Watford Gap.

Yet somehow, we should remain hopeful too. Darlington is still a great place in which to live, and in which to bring up a family. The Feethams multiplex/hotel/restaurant/multi-storey care park development shows that the town centre is on the up. Highly-skilled jobs and investment continue to come into town. Darlington will survive this terrible period.

Of course we should protest! Sign the petition to Government created by Peter Barron demanding that the Government reassess its terribly unfair spending formula for Darlington. Lobby our MP to give her the maximum authority when she challenges Government Minsters. Write letters. March.

But take time to look at the Council papers too, and have your say on the proposals. Should the Council continue to invest in the Dolphin Centre, school, crossing patrols, economic development and the railway museum, or should they cease and other priorities be found?

Sounds like an impossible choice? It is – but that’s the inescapable reality facing Darlington between now and 2020. Unfortunately, there’s no place to hide.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Darlington Borough Council Budget 2016

Just as I did back in 2014, I'm resurrecting my blog for the purposes of getting some points across regarding the Council's draft budget, which will be announced over the next few days.

Things were really tough in 2014, but now they are truly horrendous. The Tory Government has carried on where the Tory/LibDem hybrid left off, and is targetting local council spending for the heaviest of the cuts - presumably they continue to bank on people blaming their local elected representatives for the deterioration in council services, rather than Whitehall and Westminster, where responsibility truly lies.

As a starter for 10, here is DBC Leader Cllr. Bill Dixon's overview of the budget, which you will be able to see in March's edition of the One Darlington magazine:

"I appreciate that the budget proposals in this magazine, and available in full on our website, don’t make for easy reading. We have had to make some tough decisions in the past months to ensure we can continue to provide the services that we think are most valued by you, our residents.

This means we have retained the Dolphin Centre, a library service and aspects of the Borough’s heritage, alongside the essential services that protect the most vulnerable in our society.

Most people in the Borough do not use most council services but I know you care deeply about those services that you do use and, in some cases, rely on. It has been a juggling act as the money we get from Government has been reduced by £13m, which is a significant amount, but we have tried to ensure a core offer that has value for the majority of residents.

The reduction in funding from the Government amounts to a tax on local councils but it is important to remember that these cuts only effect local council spending, they do not affect the aspirations of the town.

Everywhere I look I see new private sector development and investment coming into the town, from the new cinema complex to Central Park, and as long as people continue to see a future for the town it will thrive. Darlington’s biggest asset has always been its residents and as we see services we have relied on being sadly cut, now is the time for us all to step up and think what we can do for our community, however large and small.

By working together and helping each other I am confident Darlington will remain a great place to live, work and visit.

I want to hear your views on the proposals but it is important to understand that this is a realistic offer of services given the resources we have. Sadly we can only play the cards we have been dealt, not the cards we would like to play."

I'll be posting more over the next few days, to try and make sense of the numbers and what the proposals actually mean.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Everest Challenge

Amidst the endless cut and thrust of Darlington politics, a clear theme has been running since 2010 - the challenge of meeting the horrendous cuts to the Local Authority budgets imposed by the Coalition, and the impact on services in the Borough.

The unfairness of how these cuts have been apportioned - with the North East and metropolitan areas suffering most - has been widely commented. For a small unitary authority like Darlington, however, the cuts are particularly tough. The Council has had to go back to the drawing board, and look at every single service it provides. With the so-called Statutory services (the ones the Council has to provide by law, such as Adult and Children's care) accounting for such a significant prpoprtion of DBC's budget, other provision, such as Street Scene, leisure and the arts inevitably have come under massive pressure.

So amidst the accusations and anguish as the Council has taken really tough decisions about the Arts Centre, or Street Scene, or indeed the Market toilets, it's easy to forget the global figures that are driving these decisions in the first place. So to set the context, here are some of the key statistics that explain not only whey the Council has cut so hard, but the enormity of the decisions to come...

(1) Since 2010 when the Coalition came into being the Council will have had its government funding reduced by £21.1m by 2015/16. This is a cash reduction which is equal to a real term reduction of £31.6m when inflation is taken into account, or 39%.

(2) By 2019/20 the reduction in grant is projected to be £29.2m in cash terms and £48.1m in real terms, a real term reduction of 54%.

(3) The real term loss of £31.6m by 2015/16 in significant in the context of DBC's anticipated net revenue budget for 2015/16 of £80.1m

(4) Due to the loss of government funding the Council has reduced annual spending by £25.6m between 2010 and 2014/15 and has plans to deliver a further £10.6m in savings by the end of 2016/17. Between 2016/17 and 2019/20 a further £10.341m of reductions will be necessary.

(5) Budget reductions have meant the loss of 564 posts, comprising of 198 compulsory redundancies, 224 voluntary redundancies and 142 deleted posts.

(6) Over 60% of the net budget is spent on social care.

Senior Management Costs

(a) In 2010 the Council had 24 Directors and Assistant Directors

(b) In 2014/15 DBC has 14 Directors and Assistant Directors, and has taken responsibility for Public Health during that period, representing a net reduction of 11, or 46%.

(c) Assistant Directors have had a pay freeze for 5 years, in 2014/15 they will receive a 1% rise.

(d) Directors and the Chief Executive have had a 6 year pay freeze up to 2014/15.

(e) Some Assistant Directors and Directors have had incremental progression within their grades during this period which is exactly the same as for all staff.

(f) Restructures of Senior Management have led to new amalgamated jobs being created so during the period some Assistant Directors as individuals may be paid more than 5 years ago because they have a new larger job.

(g) Over the 5 years since 2010 an estimated £2.7m has been taken out from the cost of management

Key DBC HR Facts

(a) Total Pay bill 2013/14- £48.5m
(b) Average salary 2013/14 - £23,885
(c) Number of employees (excluding schools) at March 2014 – 2,158
(d) Number of full-time staff (excluding schools) at March 2014 – 1,557
(e) Percentage reduction of full-time staff since 2010 – 33%
(f) Percentage of staff living in Darlington - 62%
(g) Senior management costs as a % of gross budget - 0.77%

I fully appreciate that it's difficult to understand why services are being remorselessly cut when Council Tax is going up, or why some big salaries at the top of the management tree get attention at a time of austerity. I hope these figures give a more complete picture.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Arts & Culture in Darlington - Fighting Austerity

To London today, to the Guildhall no less, to speak at the New Local Government Network’s conference on the arts in an era of austerity.

Clearly a lot has happened since my blog “took a break” in 2010, with Local Authority finances under enormous pressure from Government cuts. I’ll be blogging separately about how this works separately, but needless to say, arts and culture have taken a battering across the country.

Here in Darlington, we’ve had the very sad closure of the Arts Centre, but also the opening of The Bridge Centre for the Visual Arts, the successful Stage One bid for the Hullaballoon (which will be the only bespoke children’s theatre outside London), and a further bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the refurbishment of the Civic Theatre, where all our fingers and toes are crossed.

Why were Darlington representatives invited to speak at the conference? In effect, we find that we are are lab rats for the impact of austerity on local government. NGLN is a think-tank with some interesting, not to say provocative views on the future of local government. As its Director said succinctly today, Darlington as a small North East unitary authority is like “the canary in a mineshaft” – what happens to us today will signal the fate of mainstream local government in a few years time.

The arts in Darlington were one of the NLGN case studies in its booklet "On with the Show - Supporting Local Arts and Culture." I was delighted to be speaking alongside John Dean from Darlington for Culture. The case study identified how the two organisations – DBC and DfC - once bitterly opposed over the closure of the Arts Centre – are now working together to secure the best future for the arts in the Borough.

DBC no longer dominates the arts and culture in the town, nor seeks to. It is one crucial player amongst many committed to the cultural sector in the Borough.

The fall-out from the that excruciatingly difficult decision over the Arts Centre has barely abated – John and I joked about not being on each other’s Christmas card list – but as John explained, since then Darlington for Culture has made the decision to move from a campaigning organisation focused on one issue, to a group playing a much broader role, creating festivals and events, supporting artists and generating volunteers for the operation of the arts (whilst still being a "critical friend" of the Council).

Now Darlington for Culture sits alongside others including Teesside University, Darlington College, the Arts Council for England, the Northern Echo and Theatre Hullaballoo with the Council, as founder members of the Creative Darlington Board. It distributes the £100,000 of legacy Council funding each year towards supporting individual artists and their projects; and events such as the Festival of Thrift, which attracted 27.000 people to Lingfield Point last year.

Afterwards, it was good to chat to people from different parts of the country interested in how we're trying to make change for the better in Darlington in terrible financial times.

I ended my bit with the observation that whatever horrors face local government in the next 6 years – and make no mistake for some councils it will be an existential crisis – the changes we have made to arts and culture funding and organsiation will survive whatever the Government can throw at us. It is a durable legacy for the next 20 years +.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Kiwis are Coming to Darlo!

Some great news today that the Darlington Arena (the home of Darlington Mowden Park RFC) has been selected as a home base of one of the 2015 Rugby World Cup teams. And not just any old side - probably one of the most iconic teams in world sport - reigning World Champions the All Blacks!

This is a huge coup for the rugby club and the Borough. Having the All Blacks in town will give a real boost to the local economy, and raise profile nationally and internationally. I'm most excited about the endless possibilities we will have to encourage more people, young and old, into sport as the Kiwis roll in.

It says a great deal for the ambition and vision of Darlington Mowden Park that they have been successful in attracting one of the Blue Riband teams in world sport. It's a remarkable achievement for the club, which is the only grass-roots side in the country to be hosting one of the top flight teams.

I went along to the press conference today, and was told that when the scouts came from New Zealand, they took one look at the facilities on offer and were certain this is where they wanted to be.

It was telling that Debbie Jevons, the CEO of England Rugby 2015 was at the press conference to make the announcement. She even brought along the Webb Ellis Trophy, which you can see above.

It's also a tribute to Mike Crawshaw, Marion Ogle and the team at DBC who supported the club in making the bid. The Council will be working intensively between now and October 2015 to ensure that we fully realise the potential of the All Blacks' visit as a community.

Already, there's heady talk of having a crack in South Park at the Guinness Book of Records' "largest Haka', which was set in Ngaaruawaahia, Waikato, New Zealand in 2008 - 3,264 participants. Surely we can do better than that Darlo?!

Back in the Saddle

After the best part of 4 years away, I've decided to give this blog another spin round the block.

I reluctantly stopped in 2010 after a major rethink on priorities. Blogging was great fun, and led to lots of lively debates in the comments, as well as generating some news stories both local and national.

I wasn't clear however that I was getting 'bangs for my bucks' in terms of the time I was investing in Darlington Councillor. Specifically, it didn't get good readership amongst the people I was representing in Haughton West, which is after all why I'm in local politics in the first place. I decided to put all my efforts into my e-newsletter, which is now delivered to over 400 households in the ward.

Now feels a good time to give blogging another go, however. We're less than 9 months from 'meaning of life' local and national elections, whilst local government faces an existential crisis with further massive cuts on the cards if the Coalition is re-elected.

I intend to keep the blog unmoderated, so please play nicely! I expect a higher class of comment from you all than I read in the Echo story comments most days.

I will have to have a good clear-out of links to blogs that are no more too. As far as I'm aware, there's a dearth now of political bloggers in the North East, but if you know of any (from whichever party - I try to be ecumenical) do let me know. With Facebook and Twitter, is there any role now for blogging? I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

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.