Saturday, 15 December 2007

Will's Passing Out Ceremony







Yesterday was Will's Passing Out Ceremony as a Royal Marine Commando. What a great day!
A quick flight to Exeter from Newcastle the night before and we were at Commando Training Centre, Lympstone for 9am.

23 of the original 48 recruits in April had made it to the end. They were joined by 25 others from earlier troops who had been "backtrooped" due to injury.
In the Falklands Hall, the officers and training staff were introduced, with much Service humour, and then the successful recruits were introduced individually and each marched forward to collect the coveted green beret. Apparently the 32 week training had passed quickly for Will, due to his propensity to doze in his sleeping bag at every opportunity.
The top photo is a still from the video screen, then we have Will waiting to receive his green beret.
We then enjoyed a home-made film of 942 Troop through their 32 week training.
The action then moved outside, to the Parade Ground, where the Marine Commandos, as they were now permitted to call themselves, accompanied by the Marine Band, were presented to the VIP guests and did various marching manoeuvres.
The third photo shows Will on the left of the front row.
The outdoor bit, in temperatures just above freezing, lasted almost two hours, so it was a great relief to see the excellent food which had been laid on for lunch.
Then, in the afternoon, the families could meet the various officers and fellow Marines. The Marines held an informal presentation ceremony for their officers and trainers, and, aided by the well-stocked bar, a lively atmosphere was enjoyed by everyone.
The final photo above shows the Barker family taken during the afternoon.
Will flew back with us in the evening. He now has a three week break before being posted to 42 Marine Company in Arbroath from where he will be off to Norway in February and Afghanistan for a 6 month tour in September.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Sustrans wins!


As a member of Sustrans, I am delighted that their Connect2 project has won the Peoples' £50million Lottery Giveaway. This was a triumph of telephone-based electoral organisation of which Lord Rennard would be proud.


A couple of weeks ago I was phoned by a Sustrans volunteer to ask if I would vote for the project. Then earlier this week I received one of those text messages which are sent in spoken form to your home phone (there's probably some proper name for this process), then finally another personal phone call to make sure I'd voted.


The only drawback from my point of view is that none of the Connect2 projects touch Darlington. The nearest is a link path between Ingleby Barwick, Eaglescliffe and Yarm. Indeed, Darlington is one of the largest towns in the country not yet on the National Cycle Network map. There is a proposed route linking us to Stockton, from where there is access to the whole country by cycle routes, but as yet we are isolated, which is strange, since we are a Cycling Demonstration Town.


Wednesday, 12 December 2007

December Cabinet. No mince pies.

I sat in on Cabinet as the Lib Dem representative last night. Our Group Leader will hopefully be back in action in the new year, so my stint at the high table will be over. Three members of the Cabinet were absent, which perhaps didn't make a good impression on the 20 or so journalism students packing the public seats.
I wonder what they made of it. The whole thing was over in an hour.
I spoke on Climate Change, particularly on the need to get our messages about recycling, energy conservation and sustainable travel over to those "hard to reach" groups who so far have proved resistant to these messages. I suggested, in line with some recent research, that Governmental bodies were not necessarily the best medium for this message, and that innovative ways have to be found to get this important message out into the community.
Cllr Scott for the Conservatives spoke on a few agenda items, particularly following up her comments in the press about whether the new Council complaints system being installed was necessary. It seems designed to streamline the complaints procedure, and to ensure there are dedicated and trained staff available to deal with complaints.
The important thing here, I think, speaking as the owner of a small business which (very)occasionally gets complaints, is that the new system must be used as a means of improving the Council's service, not as a means of fobbing off complainants. Any customer-oriented business knows that a complainant is potentially a valuable customer for the future. If you take their complaint seriously and recompense them promptly and appropriately, you may win the customer over and retain their loyalty. If your procedures are designed to delay the process in the hope that they'll go away, you'll lose the customer for sure.
I hope the Council's training regime for its new complaints staff stresses the importance of taking all complaints seriously. At the moment there is no doubt that the response complainants get is varied and very dependent on who you speak to. All complaints must be dealt with promptly, efficiently and curteously, and there must be procedures in place to ensure that any weaknesses in the Council's performance highlighted by complaints are fed back to the department and individuals responsible, so that improvements can be made.
It is important that when anything goes wrong, or a complaint is made, that the first response should not be to find someone to blame. Under a positive management culture, things going wrong, like complaints, would be treated as an opportunity to improve by learning. It is hard to improve if employees are frightened of being blamed for their mistakes.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

It's Huhne in Darlington

At our monthly executive last night, our outgoing Chair, Ian Barnes (who has presided for three years over our most successful period in terms of membership gains and seats won), asked how everyone had voted in the leadership contest. The result: Huhne 9, Clegg 1. But as someone said, the majority of activists went for Huhne last time too...(PS I was one of the nine).

Saturday, 8 December 2007

You beauties!

Ok, so we rode our luck, but to beat Liverpool 3-1, after they had won five on the trot, scoring 22 goals in the process, was just magnificent. We played like the team we were last season. This is the first time I've seen Reading win this season. As the proud holder of a Northern Away season ticket, it's been pretty desperate so far, apart from a tenacious 0-0 at Old Trafford on the first day of the season. But with an away game at Birmingham next Saturday (the ticket's already arrived) our season could just be taking off.

Friday, 7 December 2007

British Gas Electric! You're 'aving a laugh!


Our saga begins long, long ago in a world far away: a British Gas Electric call centre. Back in the summer I was phoned at work by a consultancy working on behalf of One North East, offering a free business energy consultation, which I accepted.

A couple of years ago, I had installed a complete set of new, energy-efficient lighting in the business, using much less electricity. I had built up a significant credit with BG Electric, and had already negotiated a reduction in my monthly payments to allow for this. In addition, the consultants' survey showed I was actually being overcharged, such was the complexity of the various tariffs I was on.

So I contacted BG again and asked to be put on a simpler, more favourable tariff, or I'd switch to another supplier. BG didn't reply. I also asked BG to refund the amount I was in credit, which was about £2800. They agreed to do this, but still made no attempt to compete for my future business.

Two or three months passed, and despite a number of phone calls, no refund was received. In the end I threatened them with the Energy Watchdog. At this point I was transferred to a higher level: at last I was speaking to someone who actually sounded as if she could make some decisions. Up until then I'd been given various excuses for the non-appearance of my refund: "It takes a couple of weeks" became "It takes 28 days" became "It'll be done this week" became "There's a bit of a backlog" became "A cheque's in the post" became "You should have received it by now, I wonder where that's got to".

My new, elevated contact revealed the truth: BG transferred their accounts department overseas a few months ago, and the whole sytem was in meltdown with many angry customers chasing refunds or trying to close their accounts. Being unable to ascertain the whereabouts of my cheque for £2800, my new contact gleefully announced that she had authorised the repayment to me of my last two months payments, since my account was showing a credit balance of that amount (of course it was dear, my quarterly reading wasn't yet due, so there was no recorded electricity usage this quarter!). I pointed out that if these payments were refunded, I'd have no credit in my account when the next reading was taken, but she didn't seem to grasp this point.

Anyway, a credit for £1300 appeared in my account, followed, amazingly, a week or so later, by the long-lost cheque for £2800. It must be Christmas.

Then last week I received a letter from BG Electric telling me I owed them the previous month's payment, and to pay up immediately or risk further action. I phoned them up and was told that thousands of businesses had received this letter. Apparently, when they transferred their accounts department overseas they also changed everyone's account number. So when Direct Debit requests were sent out, the banks were refusing to pay up, because the account numbers didn't match up! They were having to send out thousands of new DD forms to all their customers. The threatening letters had been sent out automatically, but no-one thought to ask why so many were being sent out and that it might be advisable to stop the letters going out since it was BG's fault that the DD payments hadn't been collected.

As of today, no new DD form has arrived - and next week my new electricity supplier takes over. Bye-bye Britsh Gas Electric! The words piss-up and brewery spring to mind.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Proud dad!

This evening came the phone call I'd been waiting for. My son Will has successfully passed the 32 week Royal Marine Commando training course and been awarded his green beret. Today was the final test: a 30 mile yomp across Dartmoor in full uniform with backpack and gun - to be completed in 8 hours.
Will, as they say, barely troubled the scorers during his five years at Carmel. After working for a couple of years and building up his strength and endurance, he set off for Lympstone in Devon in the spring.
He'd wanted to be a Royal Marine Commando since the Royal Navy came to Carmel to meet the pupils when he was 13. Obviously I had reservations about his choice of career, but he was so determined, nothing would stand in his way. The change in him over the past 8 months has been remarkable - both physically and in his maturity.
So, next week we're off to Devon for his Passing Out parade, as he is formally accepted into the elite of the armed forces.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Tory PPC selection process

The closing date for applicants to be Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Darlington was last Friday. They have been very slow in choosing someone, though I understand part of the delay was caused by the fact that when the position was advertised earlier in the year, there were no suitable applicants!

But now they've got Nigel Boddy as a member, they won't have that problem this time. Nigel would make a superb candidate and I urge any Conservative members reading this to vote for him. The democratic process needs men of integrity and ability.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Full Council

Fellow Darlington blogger, Nick Wallis, has already commented on the Echo's absence from Council on Thursday. While Nick rightly uses their absence to criticise the paper for failing to support the democratic process, criticism could equally be levelled at the Labour Cabinet for their continuing refusal to allow any proper debate in Council. When I suggested in the last Corporate Governance group meeting that we should consider ways of strengthening non-executive councillors, including giving them a right of reply in Council, this was flatly rejected by the Leader of the Council. Apparently this was a Lib Dem idea, and not part of Labour culture or tradition, so wouldn't be considered. Until such time as Cabinet members have to defend themselves in full debate in Council, the press may feel justified in preferring to attend their own local awards ceremony on the same night than report on what laughingly passes for debate in Council.

The meeting was intermittently amusing, and not just because one of the Conservative Councillors appeared to be fast asleep and then started speaking at the wrong time when suddenly woken up! From the Labour seats, as always, Cllr Dixon betrayed his true vocation as a music hall entertainer, though to be fair, his reports are detailed and interesting and he does not try to avoid questions put to him, unlike one or two of his colleagues.

Two of the newly elected younger Conservatives made their full Council speaking debuts with speeches on subjects of personal or ward importance. I wonder how long it is until newly elected Labour Councillors are allowed to speak! As it is, they just sit there and put their hands up at the appropriate times.

Without the press being there, any points scoring or successful questioning would go unreported, so there was little incentive to reveal one's hand on certain issues. I repeated my criticisms made in Cabinet about the lack of ambition inherent in the recycling targets agreed as part of the new Waste Management Contract. I also urged Cllr Dixon to continue the campaign against the rogue car dealers on North Road. But a couple of other points will be dealt with outside of full Council. With no press to report them, why reveal our hands in Council, where questions and criticisms are just batted back or ignored?

One of the mildly amusing aspects of Council is to see the chief officers scurrying along, bent over, to whisper the "right" answers in the ears of Cabinet members when the opposition ask questions. So, not only do they not have to face any follow-up questioning, there's always an officer there to help them out when needed.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Milburn on his travels again


Alan's been off on his travels again. Our MP, who racked up the 17th highest expenses in the House, despite speaking in just ONE Commons debate in the past year and voting in just 62% of the divisions, has been off to Australia, advising Kevin Rudd, the Labor winner of the recent general election there. Well, Mr Bean has never been his best friend, and now Tony's gone he's a bit out on a limb.

It appears our Alan regards his Parliamentary salary as being only enough to warrant being a part-time MP, such is the amount of time he spends on his extra-curriculum activities.

I wonder if he offset his carbon emissions by making a payment to a sustainable energy project. I'm sure his Pepsico salary is more than enough to cover the carbon costs of his air travel to and from Australia!

Monday, 19 November 2007

Darlington PPC Hustings

The hustings meeting to choose a Parliamentary Candidate for Darlington took place this evening. The shortlist was myself, Robert Adamson, who was our candidate in the previous two General Elections, and John Harris, a councillor from Richmond who is married to Baroness Harris, a Lib Dem peer.
I am delighted to say I was selected by a clear majority on first preference votes. It will be a real honour to represent the Lib Dems in my local constituency. No doubt the Labour candidate will be our current absentee MP, Alan Milburn. Surprisingly perhaps, since it is only fairly recently that Labour won the seat, the Conservatives have not yet selected their candidate. Will it be another faceless city-type from London, or will they go for their new recruit, Lib Dem loser and defector, Nigel Boddy? We couldn't really get that lucky, could we?

Friday, 16 November 2007

No more smelly sacks


Ok, this may not be the most exciting photograph on this blog, but it represents my first individual casework success.


Back in July, at a coffee morning in the Havelock Centre, a resident of 9-12 George Short Close told me they had nowhere to store their black refuse sacks. It seems an old u-shaped brick shelter, behind which they used to store their sacks, was pulled down some years ago and nothing was ever provided to replace it. So all four residents had to store their black sacks inside their flats all week - which got a bit smelly, especially in summer.


The resident told me she had complained to two previous ward councillors (neither of them Lib Dems) but nothing had been done. When I contacted the Director she told me that they had received no complaints about this, but she would investigate and get it sorted out. What were those councillors doing?


Anyway, I called round this week and there was their new storage bin. The residents are very pleased with it. No more smelly sacks in their flats. Everyone's happy and I've got a nice story for our next Focus.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

A stroll around the Pedestrian Heart (1)







Strolling out from work at lunchtime today, even though we are in mid-November, people were sitting on the benches and steps in the new Pedestrian Heart, relaxing and enjoying themselves. I regret the loss of the traditional three levels and some of the classic features of the old High Row, but it's certainly more pleasant to stroll around that area now.
But there are things I don't understand and other things I don't like. Also, some rough edges that still need ironing out.
First, on several days of the week, black sacks are piled around the around one of the lamp posts. It looks bad. Where do they come from?
Second, why weren't NTL required to clean and repaint their cable boxes?
Third, can someone please tell me what this road sign means?
More exciting pics tomorrow!

Cabinet Last Night

Yesterday evening I attended my first Cabinet meeting, deputising for our group leader. The leaders of both the opposition groups and the independent councillor are all invited to attend, with speaking rights. Also present were five senior Conservatives in the public seats and two members of the public.
The Chair, Leader of the Council John Williams, asked the two members of the public if they wanted to speak and what they wanted to speak on. He explained one or two points from the agenda and then re-arranged the agenda to allow them both to speak early, rather than wait around to speak, which was helpful.
Both members of the public spoke eloquently, calmly and persuasively - and also responded to what cabinet members and officers said in reply. One gentleman talked about 20mph zones which are being introduced and complained about the use of ugly, damaging road humps used to enforce them. The other gentleman spoke about the new Eastern Transport Corridor which has gone way over budget.
They were listened to respectfully, although I don't suppose they got the answers they were looking for.
I spoke about the proposed 20mph zone in the Fitzwilliam Drive area, which was withdrawn from the scheme following public opposition. I was able to point out that the rejection of the scheme was not an objection to 20mph zones per se, but rather a protest vote about the traffic chaos in the Fitzwilliam Drive/Leyburn Road area. I told Cabinet that local residents wanted an end to the traffic jams and chaos outside their front doors before they could be persuaded to approve of a 20mph zone. The Cabinet Member did not respond to this.
I also spoke about the Talking Together roadshow and the poor attendances so far, particularly at the Q&A sessions. I suggested that this might be due to a lack of belief among residents that the Council actually mean what they say and doubts about whether promises will be kept. I pointed out that we had been promised community use of parts of the new PRU building at Rise Carr School, but that gradually these opportunities for community use were being designed out or downgraded. How could people trust the Council to keep its promises?
Cllr McEwan didn't mention Rise Carr, but he repeated his support for the new North Road School to have decent community facilities and offered to meet me to discuss them.
Finally, I spoke about the new waste management contract. Both the leading bids include a commitment to achieve the government's 50% recycling rate, but I suggested that this was too conservative, that we should have been aiming for a much higher rate and a much improved kerbside recycling scheme. I am anxious that the Council does not use the achievement of this Government target as an excuse not to do even more. I also asked whether the Council had consulted the Public Register which holds details of Environment Agency inspections of both the leading bidders. I was told that they hadn't.
My suggestion that the closeness of the two leading bids was such that Full Council should be given a presentation by both companies before a final decision was made was met with a mildly sarcastic comment about the revolutionary nature of this proposal from the Lib Dems. I took that as a "no".
Most of the Conservative Councillors in the public seats were also allowed to speak as often as they wanted to, though one of them may have wished he hadn't when he had to be told to sit down by his own colleagues.
A more entertaining two hours than I had been expecting, mainly due to the interventions from the public seats.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Talking Together

Tonight the "Talking Together" roadshow came to North Road ward. As a vehicle for stakeholders to meet it was useful; as a vehicle for public engagement it was much less successful.

Representatives from the police, PCT, Groundwork, Streetscene, Community Partnerships and public transport had set up display stalls in the hall. Local ward councillors, council officers (including the Chief Executive) and two Cabinet members were there too - but very few local residents.

At the hour-long question-and-answer session there were just six residents present: somewhat outnumbered by councillors and officers. I knew all but one of the residents: all well-known, hard-working community activists from the area who are involved in local residents', tenants' and friends' groups. Maybe there were three or four others in the exhibition hall - but that was all.

As Cllr Bill Dixon, the Cabinet member chairing the Q&A sessions said, it's early days and the Council is still learning how best to organise and publicise these events. While there may well be improvements which could be made, and as these events become more established the attendance may improve, I do have a couple of fundamental concerns.

First, will "ordinary" residents ever attend in significant numbers if these events are seen as talking shops? Maybe "Talking Together" was a bad choice of title for this reason. As one of the community activists said, it's actions that count, not words.

Second, if "ordinary" residents fail to attend, will this be used by those on the Council who oppose devoluton of decision-making to Area Committees to suggest that local people are not interested, so why devolve power? This would be a mistake. Local residents do get involved when their personal interests are affected, and if they believe their involvment will have beneficial consequences. If "Talking Together" is seen as just a talking shop, they won't attend. This does not mean they would not get involved if there are genuine local decisons to be made and money to be spent on local projects. If "Talking Together" fails, this does not mean that Area Committees with devolved powers would also fail.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Waste Management Contract

Later this week, officers will be reporting to councillors the details of the new Waste Management Contract which has been negotiated, replacing the one we have with Durham County Council.
As befits a Council which now professes to be open and consultative, there has been no openness or consultation at all with us or the public about what we would like to see included in this major aspect of DBC's operations. How we increase recycling, reduce waste and deal appropriately with what's left is a vitally important decision. Cabinet will be considering the report next week. Thursday will be our first view of what they propose. We'll be holding them to account if it's not up to scratch.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Immigration on the agenda

As David Cameron seeks to capitalise on the Government's embarrasment about just how many economic migrants there are in this country, and how many of "our" jobs they're taking, and a Tory PPC speaks out in support of Enoch Powell's views, I thought I'd share this with you. The headteacher of North Road Primary School in his report to governors last week, wrote:

"Did you know that we are an increasingly cosmopolitan school? In addition to our predominanly White British pupils and our large Romany contingent we have Polish, Lithuanian, Czech, Greek Cypriot, Chines, Philipino, Hungarian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Vietnamese ethnic groups, plus many children of mixed race. We receive support for EAL from our LA "Language for Living" service and are buying in resources to help these pupils. The pupils are fully included in the life of the school. They bring with them new cultures and a richness of language and experiences that enhance our school".

Well written, David.

Last week was my first governors' meeting, which was lengthy and dominated by consideration of a huge number of papers and policies which makes one wonder just how much teachers' time is taken up with this sort of thing, rather than teaching. Still, I'm sure the parents of our primary school girl pupils will be pleased that we've adopted the Council's policy on providing education for school-age mothers!

I was surprised to learn that every incidence of racial abuse or unpleasantness among our pupils is fully recorded and reported on. Thankfully there are very few in our school, and I do wonder whether it's the pupils themselves speaking, or if they're just repeating something they might have heard at home, without understanding what their words mean.
Overall, not having been involved in education since I left school myself over 30 years ago, I was surprised at just how much paperwork, policies, programmes, targets, reviews, statements, forms, evaluations, standards and duties seem to be involved in the job of teaching!

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

"Scrutiny" Committee

On my bike today for a ride up to Whinbush Way for the new Neighbourhood Services Scrutiny Committee. A small, crowded room, with no space for local residents to squeeze in, even if they'd wanted to - so why did we drag 20 or so people up there instead of a comfortable room in the Town Hall?

The meeting itself could have been really interesting, but the agenda was too long and the reports too detailed to be properly considered. The problem was compounded by this Scrutiny Committee starting its meetings at 9.30 am. Those of us who work have to take half a day off, and then some left early to get back to work. If we met in the late afternoon, say 4pm, most people could do their day's work and get to the meeting, which could go on as long as needed, without half the councillors looking at their watches all the time.

The long and detailed reports on crime, anti-social behaviour and youth justice deserved far more time for proper consideration. Perhaps the main thing which came across was that, although the published figures showed a strong downward trend in crime and ASB, there was much scepticism about the figures. Everyone who spoke said the figures did not match their experience in their wards; there is non-reporting of crime and ASB; why was the reporting period April to September 2007 against April to September 2006? Why not full annual figures?

So diverse was the agenda in such a short time that we also had time (or not!) for reports on CCTV in bus shelters, service planning, housing and climate change. As well as all that, there was still time for Cllr Gerald Lee, who is a steadfast defender of the interests of his rural constituents, to question the Council's decision to remove wardens from its sheltered accommodation and provide cover from a central control room.

I left with a feeling of dissatisfaction: potentially interesting reports were skimmed through because there was just not enough time. This isn't "scrutiny" as I think it should be.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

"So, where do you go to, my lovely?"


The Rt Hon Alan Milburn, MP for for Pepsico, Lloyds Pharmacy and, occasionally, Darlington, is revealed to have attained his rightful place at the top of at least one league table. No, obviously not for making the most speeches in the House of Commons (he's only made two in the past year!). And no, obviously not for voting in the House of Commons (he's only voted in 63% of the votes in the past year!).


No: our Alan, that selfless spokesman for the people of Darlington - despite his obvious distaste for mixing it with his fellow MPs in London - is top of all the MPs in claiming for rail expenses (almost £16000 in the past year), and equal first in claiming his living away from home expenses.


Where on earth does he go that costs over £300 a week, 52 weeks a year, in rail fares? He obviously doesn't spend his time in Westminster. Does Pepsico hold its board meetings in Penzance, or Aberdeen? Is he a closet train spotter, roaming the network searching for that elusive diesel engine last spotted in a sidings in mid Wales? Is he a fan of Thomas, or Bertie ("I can't smell a smell", said Bertie. "Can you smell a smell, Thomas?" "No, I can't smell a smell. We'll have to ask the Fat Controller.").
As Peter Sarsted sang, "So, where do you go to, my lovely?" I thought he resigned from Government to spend more time at home - well, he certainly doesn't spend more time in Darlington.


Here's the link to the latest annual report of MPs' expenses:




And here's the link to his Parliamentary record, where the figures are repeated:


Empty shops


Walking through the Queen Street arcade yesterday for the first time in a while, I was shocked at the number of empty shop units: 8 out of 24.

I have a job vacancy in my shop at the moment, and among the usual mix of east European and Asian immigrant applicants were employees from Adams, one of the main stores in the Cornmill Centre. It seems Adams is to close in a couple of weeks. I understand the rent and rates in that unit are too high, given the squeeze that the high street retail trade is under.

News also reaches me - confirming a prediction reported several months ago by Nick Wallis - that landlords are trying to maximise rent levels in the town, now that the Pedestrian Heart is complete. If landlords are successful in their increased rent demands it will be a short-sighted move. Retail business in Darlington is still weak. Competition from out of town supermarkets, major centres like Newcastle and the Metro Centre, and on-line retailers, is squeezing the traditional high street retailer.

The new Oval development (pictured above), on which work will start next year, is a big gamble. Is our town big enough to sustain the large fashion chains that are supposed to fill it? If it works, it will help our town compete with other retail centres in the region. If it doesn't, we'll just have more empty shop units.

Landlords have to realise that they must temper their demands for ever increasing rents in order not to put their tenants under excessive financial pressure.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

North Road Primary Consultation

The public consultation process concerning the new North Road Primary School started last week with an open evening at the school for parents and local residents. Facilitated by a charity, the British Council for School Environments, the children and teachers had already taken part in a number of workshops to find out what they liked and disliked about the current school and what they wanted to see in the new school, which is to be built across the road.
Their efforts were on display at the open evening, which was attended by about 30 or 40 parents and residents, plus me and fellow Lib Dem Fred Lawton. The facilitators seemed happy with this turnout. In their experience these events attract anything from 2 people up to 100 or more. My guess is that more people will express their views when there's an actual plan to look at. That's certainly when some residents whose houses back on to the field on which the new school is to be built will get involved!
The range of ideas was really impressive, though whether having the school on wheels so that it can move around can be budgetted for I'm not sure. The kids disliked the toilets in the current school, and the lack of green space on the site. The teachers were looking forward to having a lighter, brighter, more co-ordinated environment.
The school, of which I am a proud new governor, strongly led by its excellent head, David Ackroyd (who did his training there thirty years ago), has performed wonders in its Edwardian buildings, but desperately needs facilities worthy of the 21st century.
It was refreshing to have a consultation process that started with a blank sheet of paper, and in which the building's users were consulted from the very beginning. Quite a contrast to the way local authorities usually consult.
At a Feethams Working Party meeting a couple of weeks ago, I suggested to the consultants who are leading the regeneration planning that they might like to hold a consultation event early in the programme of redevelopment, rather than when plans were quite well advanced. I was told that consultations at the "blank sheet of paper" stage were not useful, because "you get a lot of unreasonable requests which can never be achieved". Well, North Road Primary isn't going to be built on wheels with a swimming pool on the roof, but it is still worthwhile consulting at the "blank piece of paper" stage, otherwise you end up with a consultants' vision, like the High Row scheme, rather than one based on user and public preferences.

Friday, 19 October 2007

30,000 plastic carrier bags


That's how many my shop gave away last year. Today's Shoptalk column in the Northern Echo, written by the ever-readable Sharon Griffiths (wife of Mike Amos and mum to Owen), features an article about our campaign to wean our customers away from the plastic bag.

Unfortunately, the article does not appear in the Echo's on-line edition, so I'll reproduce the article here:


"Time to bag an eco opportunity"


"Congratulations to Mike Barker of The Health Warehouse in Darlington, who is trying to encourage his customers to use fewer plastic carrier bags.

"Last year the shop gave away almost 30,000 free bags. Nationwide we use 17 billion a year and they take over 100 years to decompose. The best alternative, of course, would be if we all did what our grannies did and took our own bags when shopping.

"Failing that the alternatives seem to be bio-degradable plastic bags, which still take two years to decompose (and leech plastics into the soil and water table), compostable biobags which contain no plastic and decompose completely, but cost at least 4p each or longlife cotton bags which the shop currently sells at cost price (40p) with a donation to Friends of the Earth. Or they and other shops could charge for carrier bags and concentrate our minds a little.

"The Health Warehouse is currently surveying its customers using a questionnaire to see what they should do. A town in Devon has already banned plastic bags. The WI is trying to wean us off our dependency.

"Despite all the crack of dawn queues for the designer "this is not a plastic bag" bag from Sainsbury's, I don't think I've seen a single one being used. Probably all being flogged on eBay.

"The world survived before plastic carrier bags were invented. It might be tricky to do so now, but we could at least try."


On the basis of questionnaire returns so far, I think we shall be replacing our plastic bags with non-plastic compostable bags, but we shall have to charge the cost price of 4p and 9p for each according to the size, with our cotton bags still available for a bargain 40p. If we don't charge for the carrier bags it will cost us over £2000 a year!

This is a two-way thing: it's not just us shopkeepers who cause the problem, it's you shoppers who don't bring your own shopping bags with you. The supermarkets, of course, will never be weaned away from giving away all these plastic bags, unless legislation is brought in to require alternatives to be provided, or a tax is put on plastic bags. Small initiatives like mine make a statement, but will have no impact at all on the supermarkets.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Into the bunker


Last night, as part of the councillors' training programme, I went on a visit to the CCTV control centre. Located in the bunker under the Town Hall, accessed by an anonymous door in the rear of the building, we entered a twilight world of flickering monitors arrayed around two sides of a room, controlled by three operators equipped with joysticks, buttons, microphones and a refreshingly laid-back group mentality. I guess there's not much they haven't seen over the years.

First, we had a very interesting discussion with two senior administrators, much of which went over my head as the techies in the group discussed the relative merits of the various systems available. Then, into the control room itself, through a system of doors and locks, presumably dating back to when this area was to be used as a command centre when the Russians dropped their bomb on Teesside. Unfortunately, their 2-1 victory in the football earlier in the afternoon had inflicted more damage than Mr Kruschev ever did on the town.

Excitingly, while we were there, a message came through from one of the pubs in town that a girl had complained that a group of lads in the pub had mugged her and stolen her purse. Immediately the operator swung into action. A group of lads and girls piled out of the pub and were seen on the pavement outside. They split into two groups, 5 or 6 girls who headed for the Market Place and 5 lads and a couple of girls who headed in the opposite direction.

Following them on their journies across town, from camera to camera, and in constant radio contact with the local police. the operator was able to direct police officers on foot and in a patrol car, to the exact location of the suspect groups.

I don't know whether there were any arrests, but, if they'd wanted to impress a group of visiting councillors, it couldn't have been done much better than that.

At the same time, I did have a sense of unease - particularly about the talking cameras. There is something so Big Brother about a voice booming out at someone for dropping some litter. Is it just taking the surveillance society one step too far?

Earlier in the evening, apparently, one of the operators had felt it necessary to use the speakers to ask a group of skateboarders to move on from the Pedestrian Heart. While we were there, he was keeping an occasional eye on a couple of BMX riders in front of the Pease statue. As he said, "They built the biggest playground in Darlington when they built the Pedestrian Heart". While there are large notices in the room reminding the operators of their responsibilities under human rights and privacy legislation - and the operators themselves were very aware of their duties in this respect - I am concerned that having someone sitting in a bunker under the Town Hall using a loudspeaker to move skateboarders on, or tell people to pick up litter, is a little over the top, and needs to be watched (no pun intended) carefully. We need to be very careful before applying this more generally.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

And another one bites the dust

So, now we have yet another living former Lib Dem leader from Scotland.
The perfunctory nature of his letter of resignation makes clear the bitterness in Ming's heart over his treatment by his colleagues. Ok, this time there was no ominous knock on the door from the men in grey suits, but if ever a man was damned by faint praise, it was Ming Campbell over this past weekend.

I didn't put him number 1 two years ago: it's hard to find many active members who did. His elevation was due to the mass membership of the party looking for a cool head, an experienced, mature leader at a time of crisis. They got that, but one good speech without notes from Cameron, a tumble in the opinion polls (not reflected in local government or parliamentary by-election results by the way) and all of a sudden experience and maturity count for nothing. Public presentation, youth and vigour are everything, or so the press would have us believe.

Did those who should have supported him more simply bow to pressure from our great national newspapers? Was the constant stream of ridicule becoming a flood they could no longer ignore?
As I left Brighton a couple of weeks ago, everyone was saying what a good speech Ming had made: his best yet. Everyone seemed happy to get behind him and work hard for the party. But, as they say, a week is a long time in politics...and image is everything.

Who will the members go for this time? No-one would bet against Clegg or Huhne, but I hope some outsiders throw their hats into the ring, too.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Website of the week

Following my reference to William Cobbett's "Rural Rides" in an earlier post, I have to share with you one of my favourite websites, which I only discovered last week.

Vision of Britain is a most wonderful resource for historical data: maps, census returns, historical documents and so much more, all linked to your home town. It is the website of the Great Britain Historical GIS Project ("GIS" stands for "Geographical Information System").

Be careful, you could spend more time browsing around on here than you can really afford!

Here's the link to the William Cobbett page

Here's the link to the Index

Here's the link to the Darlington page

Friday, 12 October 2007

A disturbing story

A clash of meetings last night meant a choice between the North Road Community Partnership and the Public Protection Forum. I chose the former, which turned out to be a challenging meeting - though not for me, for a change.

Nick Wallis, Cabinet member for Health and Leisure, attended the meeting as part of his peripatetic listening journey. Not quite William Cobbett's "Rural Rides", but with Hurworth one day and North Road the next, Nick is certainly seeing the variety of life that is Darlington Borough.

Having a cabinet member at our meeting stimulated much discussion as local residents took the opportunity to tell Nick about their experiences of various aspects of health provision in the town. Particularly harrowing was the description given by one of the residents about her daughter's experiences working in a local privately-run care home. Her description of the conditions in which residents were left, particularly overnight, was very disturbing.
Nick was thoughtful and sympathetic and left us with his promise to investigate these allegations speedily and thoroughly.

Worryingly, these accusations are similar to those made over the years by Chris Close, from "Advocacy in Darlington". I hope we get a thorough investigation of these allegations, for they are too serious to be brushed under the carpet. As another local resident said, they amount to nothing less than abuse of the individual.

The full story behind the Council's attempt to evict "Advocacy in Darlington" from its premises in the town centre may be revealed in court today, but if allegations like those heard last night are true, it would be shameful if the town lost one of the organisations which exists to defend the rights of the vulnerable.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Corporate Governance Working Party

The second meeting of the Corporate Governance Working Party took place on Tuesday lunchtime. The first meeting a couple of weeks earlier had been a real shambles. This time, at least we had an agenda and some papers to look at, though they hadn't been sent out until late on Monday afternoon.


The terms of reference for the working party were agreed, though there was no use of words like devolution or empowerment, as I pointed out. These concepts were probably a step too far for some senior members from both the old parties. Time will tell whether the Labour Group are concerned merely to promote the appearance of openness or whether they're prepared to go so far as to actually devolve decision-making to communities and their elected representatives.


The planned "Talking Together" sessions were discussed. To be held four times a year in various places in each of the five Streetscene areas, these will be opportunities for the public to drop in and meet ward councillors, cabinet members and officers. There will also be activities for all the family, to encourage a better attendance.


As a starting point, these should be useful events, though I fear that if people start attending and then no notice is taken of their complaints, or if all decision-making continues to be exercised centrally, they will wither away through lack of public interest.


As part of these events there will be a one hour "Question Time" session, chaired by a cabinet member, with ward councillors and officers on the panel. I suggested that it should be the caninet members who should be on the panel, with ward councillors being seen as champions of their local communities, rather than on the panel taking the criticism for things they don't have any real power over.
The cabinet members present on the working party then said this wasn't the idea at all: one said it would be a "round table" event, the other said everyone would just sit around in the room with officers, cabinet members and councillors spread around amongst the public.


So why did they describe it as being like "Question Time" with a panel, then? I don't think the committee understood where I was coming from. Perhaps they don't watch BBC1 at 10.30 on a Thursday night.
I guess they just want to see how these things develop naturally, though clearly the early thinking is a bit woolly.



The main item for discussion was the conduct of Planning Application Committee meetings. The proposal was to split off the non-contentious householder applications and have them dealt with by a smaller panel in a more informal setting.


This would free up the main PAC to deal with the more contentious applications. These meetings would allow more members of the public, ward councillors and parish councillors to speak, and give them longer to do so. Objectors and applicants would have a final right to reply and members would be able able to question any objectors present. I suggested that the process should also include the right for the public to directly question officers, but TPTB weren't prepared to include this. Apparently this would happen automatically as part of the process.


This represents a big step forward for Darlington, which traditionally is a closed, centralised Labour authority. Indeed, although there are younger Labour councillors like Cyndi Hughes and Jenny Chapman who both sit on this working party and who are genuinely thoughtful, open-minded and eager for change, the Labour Group still contains its fair share of the "we know best" brigade. You can actually hear them muttering "Oooo nooo, I don't think we want to go down that road".


Overall, though, I think the Labour leadership needs to be given the benefit of the doubt so far. Their backwoodsmen will need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new world of open consultation and empowerment - and so will some officers, who do not involve ward councillors in their decision making until it's too late to influence their thinking.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Locking horns?

Last week's Full Council typified much that is wrong with the way that institution operates. Hopefully the newly-formed Corporate Governance Working Party will get to grips with this, but more of that anon.
My fellow Darlington blogger, Labour Cabinet member Nick Wallis, described last Thursday's Council as Labour and Conservatives "locking horns". Well, up to a point.
Cllr Heather Scott repeated the Conservatives' demand for Scrutiny Committee Chairs to be divvied up between the opposition parties, this time arguing on the basis of what might or might not have been recommended as good practice at some conference in London earlier that day.
Labour Councillor Ian Hazeldine, a sometime reader of this blog and defender of the status quo, who had also attended said conference, presented a different interpretation of what had been recommended at that conference. And there the debate ended. Both protagonists had made their only comments, no more debate was allowed.
It is so frustrating to sit in Council and know that no matter how important or interesting the subject, no worthwhile debate can ever take place because each member is allowed to speak only once, and no further discussion is permitted once the Cabinet Member has answered (or in some cases, not answered) the questions asked and the points made by opposition councillors.
I know some individual Labour councillors share the opposition parties' desire to reform the rules of engagement in the Council Chamber, but whether the Executive will voluntarily open themselves up to greater questioning and more effective opposition remains to be seen.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Short-listed

Having spent the first half of the weekend preparing for a snap General Election, I then spent the second half of it not preparing for said election. Luckily, this meant I could watch three mighty sporting encounters without feeling guilty that I really should be designing a canvassing leaflet or going off to Durham to stuff some postal vote application forms in envelopes.
Gordon's pathetic cop-out also meant that the normal selection process for a PPC for Darlington could continue with the planned short-listing meeting at the weekend. On Sunday evening I heard from Penny Reid, the returning officer, that I was one of those shortlisted, so now I'll have to produce an A4 leaflet to be sent to all members, and prepare for hustings.
The sporting encounters? Well, obviously, Reading keeping a clean sheet against Derby after shipping seven last weekend, England's mighty victory against the whinging Aussies and France turning over the All Blacks. If the underdog continues to rule this World Cup we could have an England v. Argentina final. Now that would be fun!
Even more fun than this, perhaps:
http://youtube.com/v/l22kHO5jdRU

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Euro Hustings in a remarkable building











Off to Stockton Town Hall on Saturday for the 10am stop on the Lib Dem Northern Region Euro Hustings roadshow. In the midst of General Election fever we still have to look ahead to 2009 and select our team for the European elections.



The photo shows Fiona Hall MEP, Neil Bradbury, Chris Foote-Wood and Simon Reed, with Doreen Huddart, appropriately enough as the Candidates' Committee Chair, bathed in celestial light from the window behind.



All four candidates, though remarkably diverse in terms of age, experience and personality, handled the questions well and would be a credit to the party if chosen for our list.



The hustings were held in the Council Chamber of Stockton Town Hall: a remarkably compact (estate agents speak) room laid out in the 1880s with a dark wooden raised bench for the mayor, cabinet and senior officers, with a shallow arc of wooden benches for the councillors. There is a tiny balcony for any member of the public intrepid enough to venture up. I assumed that this was merely an historical relic, but no, Stockton Council still meets here.

Friday, 28 September 2007

No Ray Mallon here!


The result of the referendum for an elected Mayor was:
No - 11,226 (58.4%)

Yes - 7,981 (41.6%)
Turnout was 24.7%
The proposal to have an elected mayor is therefore lost.


So, after all their petitioning and campaigning, the small group who wanted to impose an elected autocracy on us persuaded less than 8000 people out of over 75000 to vote for their proposal. But now is the time that the Labour Group needs to realise that, just because people don't want a Ray Mallon for Darlington, it doesn't mean they don't want change.

The task of the Liberal Democrats now is to hold the Labour Council to its word. To ensure that the Constitution Working Party and eventually the full Council introduce genuine devolution, openness and democracy, both inside the Town Hall and outside in the wider community.

I believe the town wants this. The Labour Council has been arrogant, dismissive and autocratic, but the town saw through the "Yes" campaign to its true purpose, which was to effect political change through constitutional reform.


The task now is to ensure that constitutional reform is introduced which allows for real involvement in the decision-making process by people in their local communities. It must also make it easier to hold the Executive to account.


The other question now is, how much of the Local Government White Paper 2006 will eventually make its way onto the statute book, and will we be presented with a traditional Council Leader who has mayoral-style powers, or will there be directly elected executives?


Just think, you could have had this:


Thursday, 27 September 2007

Not exactly rushed off their feet


Voting in the great Darlington Mayoral Referendum is under way. A rare opportunity for voters to directly influence the way they are governed. By 8.10am, when I cast my "no" vote at St Augustine's Parish Centre (scene of some great STARS pantomimes over the years) just two other people had voted. This in an area with a traditional high turnout.
Friends from Stockton tell me the various independent groups on their Council, including a bunch of renegade Lib Dems who were happy to be supported by the party in order to get themselves elected, are banding together to call for a similar referendum in their fair borough. If this goes through, it would mean all four local authorities in the Tees Valley would have held referendums for a directly-elected mayor, and, depending on the results, could all have such mayors within a year.


Wednesday, 26 September 2007

A third way?


The Echo's public meeting about the issue of an elected mayor last Friday raised some interesting questions, both in the meeting and in the bar afterwards.



The most important question, of course, is why there is only one hand-pulled beer on offer in the Arts Centre. Only a few years ago, those of us living nearby were actively discouraged from drinking there unless we were attending an arts event. At least now we can go in for a drink if we want to. Unfortunately, the place has all the atmosphere of an airport departure lounge. Now, since the revamp, at least the bar is accessible, albeit with a huge pillar down the middle of the serving area - but the chance to create a warm, inviting environment where the cultured citizens of the West End can drink good beer and wine, maybe with some tapas or interesting salads and snacks, has been lost.



Ah well, at least the post-meeting conversation between members of all three political parties and observers like Chris Lloyd from the Echo was interesting.



It centred on a question raised towards the end of the meeting, where someone asked whether there was a third way - to improve the governance of Darlington without giving all power to an elected mayor. It was a question Alan Charlton was unable to answer, but the Liberal Democrats have been arguing in Council for a third way, as proposed in our manifesto for the recent local elections.




Our proposals, for which I shall be arguing in the Constitution Working Party, are for a devolution of power, including a realistic budget, to Area Committees composed of the elected councillors for groups of wards across the town. Reconnecting with the electorate is vitally important if our democracy is to be re-invigorated. Giving local people a direct line into decision-making where they live - including planning applications - is crucial to this.




At the same time, the way in which the Council operates also needs to be addressed. Proposals for webcasting the Council, holding State of the Borough debates, encouraging citizens to address meetings of the Council etc are all useful. There also needs to be the opportunity for genuine debate at Council and for the Scrutiny process to be able to challenge officers and executive councillors more effectively.




The question is, if there is a "No" vote tomorrow, will the Labour leadership return to its old, closed, autocratic way of operating, or will it genuinely embrace a new openness and democracy. Speaking to more open-minded Labour councillors, they tell me there are still some in the Labour Group who oppose devolution and openness and that the very words "Area Committees" are likely to have them reaching for the garlic.

Elected Mayor - You Decide!


So, at last the whole tedious rigmarole about whether we should have an elected mayor in Darlington comes to an end tomorrow with our referendum. It may have gripped the political chattering classes, but the average resident has been barely moved by the whole saga.

It took the campaigners a year to collect the signatures required, and even then they were short!

Just this morning, as I sat in my office wondering whether to do some work or write some stuff for the next North Road Focus, a couple of the ladies who work for me stuck their heads round the door. "What's all this about an elected mayor, then? We haven't been told anything about it." The leaflet from the Council, the articles in Town Crier, the letters in the Echo, the roadshow...all failing to communicate the essential message that tomorrow the good people of Darlington can go out and vote for, or hopefully against, a major change in the way we run our town. I predict a low turnout.

Friday, 14 September 2007

We want our money

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f09ec422-6294-11dc-b3ad-0000779fd2ac.html

All day long, the branch of Northern Rock at the end of Post House Wynd has had a long queue of people outside, desperate to get their money out. It's been like that for 6 hours now. God knows how much has been withdrawn or what the effect on the bank's liquidity has been.
Customers of ours who work for other banks on the High Row have been rushed off their feet all morning with people marching in waving their Northern Rock cheques, looking to open new savings accounts.
Clearly the Government's message that there's nothing to panic about isn't getting through.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

By felucca to Thebes


Back from my hols: to Egypt with my favourite travel company, Explore Worldwide adventure travel. Journeying by train and felucca, a small traditional wooden sailing boat (photo above as we wake up one morning on our boats) we explored Cairo, Aswan and Luxor (ancient Thebes) visiting all the popular historical sites such as the Pyramids, Sphinx, Karnak and the Valley of the Kings.
But the highlight was definitely tacking slowly up the Nile from Aswan to Luxor with our small group of 19 independent travellers and couples divided between three feluccas. Sleeping on the deck, washing in the Nile, drinking Liptons Yellow Label tea in a glass made with Nile water: simple pleasures, long remembered.

Politically, the security situation in Eygpt meant that our visits to places such as Abu Simbel had to be done as part of a convoy of buses and cars speeding along perfect roads through the desert starting at 4am, guarded by armed Egyptian police outriders. In Cairo we were protected by a plain-clothed security guard with a sub machine gun! Not what I was expecting.

On the felucca, however, the only danger was that our laid-back two man Nubian crew would forget the British requirement for a brew-up every couple of hours, or falling asleep in the shade of the canvass and waking up in a full 40 degree centigrade sun. Bliss!
The grinding poverty of much of the country was disturbing, of course. The constant attention from hawkers and street traders at every stop, at all the ancient sites and in every town and village became a real annoyance, once the initial curiosity had worn off (after about 5 minutes!).

Other highlights: early evening tea and cocktails with my four fellow independent travellers on the terrace of the Winter Palace in Luxor, Tutankamun's mask in the Cairo Museum and his tomb in the Valley of the Kings (visited by donkey), an evening meal in a Nubian village, the beautiful Philae Temple, away from the tourist sites exploring the backstreets of the Islamic Quarter of Cairo .

Less endearing parts of the trip: the sanitary facilities on overnight Egyptian trains and the Pyramids and Sphinx (not, as I thought, in glorious isolation in the desert, but a dirty, litter-strewn site on the edge of suburban Cairo where hawkers are a constant annoyance)

Overall, as always with Explore, a great holiday.


Friday, 10 August 2007

Catching up with paperwork

Yep, I thought that title would get you reading. With the Council in recess, and very few meetings, there's finally time to catch up with all the filing, sorting out and throwing away of stuff which has been accumulating steadily in my Inbox and on my desk at home. Time too to take a look at casework and issues around the ward and discuss with my friend and colleague, Fred Lawton, what we do next in some of our local campaigns.

I have been able to sort out a few problems for local residents during my first three months, which is really pleasing. Back in May I posted on here about the variety of complaints we received at one of our surgeries. Since then I have received more problems to sort out. Residents phone me, email me or stop me when I've been cycling around the ward. I think I should buy a bright yellow jacket with "Liberal Democrat Councillor" emblazoned on the back for when I'm out on my bike.

Some of the issues I've dealt with:

A communal garden in William Street which I reported as being badly overgrown has been tidied up by Streetscene.

A young lady with two children whose mother asked us to find out if her daughter would be allocated a suitable council house soon has now found suitable private rented accomodation nearby. Not an entirely satisfactory outcome, but at least she now has a place of her own near her mother's house. The policy of successive Governments in discouraging the building of decent low-cost public housing to rent is now putting great strain on the more affordable end of the housing market. The new Prime Minister's announcement of increased house building is welcome, but too little, too late, for many people.

Some residents in George Short Close have had to store their black refuse sacks in their flats all week because there was nowhere secure outside for them to leave them away from attack by cats and rats. I contacted the Council, and following a site visit, residents have now been promised a suitable container where they can put their bags.

A resident who lives on North Road who was constantly battling against traders advertising cars for sale right outside her home no longer has this problem, thanks to a quick phone call to the mobile number displayed on these particular vehicles. The wardens have been targetting this area, and there have also been two successful prosecutions against traders on North Road for advertising cars for sale a short distance apart. However, the problem persists along the length of North Road. The legislation is just too weak to be completely effective against this nuisance. We'll keep on fighting them, though.

Several other individual complaints and problems: for example, about anti-social behaviour, the condition of some roads and pavements, overgrowing trees and broken down raised flower beds and borders are being actively pursued with hard-pressed Council officers.

And now I'm off on holiday.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Book of the week


One of my favourite radio slots is Simon Mayo's book review on Radio 5 on Thursday afternoons. Earlier this year his reviewers raved about "Salmon Fishing in The Yemen", the debut novel by Paul Torday. I spotted it on Waterston's shelves as I was looking for books to take on holiday to Egypt next week and bought it as part of a 3 for 2.

Unfortunately, it'll be finished before then, as I just had to read it now. It is quite superb, and for us politicos, its satirical treatment of the Blair-Campbell era, government bureaucracy and UK-Middle East relations gives this hilarious book its edge.

A quiet, unassuming government scientist and fisheries expert, Dr Alfred Jones, is persuaded by his political masters to lead a project to bring salmon fishing to the wadis of The Yemen. His quest to achieve the seemingly impossible, and the pathos of his relationships with the two women in his life, provides the perfect, if unusual, setting for this feelgood comedy - and it doesn't weigh as much as Alistair Campbell's Diaries!

Huhne and Chaplin


Sipping my Sunday morning cup of Darjeeling, I'm watching BBC News 24 Sunday, where Peter Sissons has just handed Chris Huhne an opportunity to endorse the continuing leadership of Ming Campbell: which he patently failed to take.

Asking him whether this was going to be a long summer of discontent for Ming Campbell, Chris sidestepped the question, saying that after our excellent by-election results the pressure is actually on David Cameron. No mention of Ming in his reply.

The next article on the programme is about Charlie Chaplin, with the lovely Richard Briers. I've never been a fan of the silent movie stars, but maybe I'll have to take another look.
Next up is Tory MP Chris Grayling, who at least proves that being follicly challenged is no bar to progress in politics. When Chris Grayling is asked whether David Cameron is struggling as Tory leader, unlike our Chris he launches into a defense of his leader.

And finally, before I venture out nto this glorious sunshine, this blog has been ranked 23rd= among Lib Dem blogs: I'm sandwiched between Duncan Borrowman, Lynne Featherstone MP and Chris Keating. I feel like Reading FC, playing with the big boys!

Friday, 3 August 2007

As if to make my point...

Today's Echo carries two pro-elected mayor letters, including one from the husband of one of our Conservative Councillors, who signs himself as part of the "Mayor for Darlington Group". I wonder if anyone will send in a letter arguing against the points made by these writers?

In our "Say No To Tesco" campaign, every piece of pro-Tesco publicity or comment was immediately countered by someone from our team, either by writing to or by contacting the local paper. But, as far as I know, there is no organised campaign team for a no vote, so it's down to unorganised individuals to put their heads above the parapet.

A good friend of mine with a very popular stall in the Indoor Market tells me his customers are overwhelmingly in favour of a directly elected mayor. Eight weeks from today they'll be counting the votes...tick tock, tick tock.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Sleepwalking and shooting yourself in the foot.


Last week, in a friendly chat with one of our Labour councillors, he expressed the view that we were "sleepwalking towards a directly-elected mayor". Maybe it's because of the holidays, but so far, apart from a press article about the historical role of our traditional mayor, there has been very little heard from the "no" campaign. Is there even going to be a "no" campaign?


Most councillors (particularly Labour councillors, who fear losing their power to a non-Labour mayor) are opposed to the idea of a directly-elected mayor in Darlington, so, with the referendum less than two months away, you'd have thought they would have borne this in mind in yesterday's Planning Applications Committee. But not a bit of it!


The main argument being put forward by the supporters of a directly-elected mayor is that he or she would be more responsive to the wishes of the electorate. Among other cases, they quote the case of the White Horse Hotel and the support of Labour Councillors - against the wishes of local residents - for plans to redevelop it.


So, yesterday, when local residents vociferously opposed plans to create a new riverside path through their neighbourhood, what do the Labour Councillors on the Planning Committee do? They vote against the wishes of local people and approve the new path! Given the opportunity to delay the decision while they made a site visit, they decided to plough on regardless. Local opposition was flagged up well in advance of the meeting: they had the opportunity to placate local opposition, but pushed ahead anyway.


This is just the sort of Council decision that gave the petition group its impetus. Talk about handing your opponents a loaded gun!
Postscript: as is pointed out in the comments below, I haven't specified where this path is to be built, so here's a link to the Echo story.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

The sun's shining


This morning the sun shines on Darlington, but we're in the middle of the traditional "factory fortnight", which is usually the quietest time of the year at work, and so it is this year. There just aren't the shoppers around.

Wandering around town, I spoke to retailers who have units on the front of the Covered Market, facing onto West Row. And here comes the sort of dilemma which someone is going to have to sort out quickly and tactfully. The outdoor market stalls have been moved to West Row from the Market Square, to take advantage of the wide open spaces of the Pedestrian Heart and bring the stalls into the main area of footfall. This should help these traders, and also, we thought, attract more passing trade to the Covered Market and the attached retail units.

But today we have complaints from the retailers on West Row that the market stalls are blocking their shops from view, and that trade is suffering. They're meeting Council officers on Monday, and hopefully a compromise can be reached where bigger gaps are left between the stalls to allow shoppers to see through and get easier access to the Covered Market.

Some good news today on the personal front: number two son has successfully completed the first half of his basic Royal Marines training down in Devon and has been awarded a new colour of belt, so can go forward to complete his training by December. And the first tickets for the forthcoming Premiership season have arrived. I'm a Northern Away Season Ticket holder for Reading FC, and this morning my ticket for the first game of the season, away at Man United, arrived. So after picking up three points there, it's home to Chelsea in the second game, so by the end of August we should be top of the league!