Saturday, 15 December 2007
Thursday, 13 December 2007
Wednesday, 12 December 2007
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
Saturday, 8 December 2007
Friday, 7 December 2007
Wednesday, 5 December 2007
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
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
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
Monday, 19 November 2007
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
Wednesday, 14 November 2007
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
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
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
"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
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
Tuesday, 23 October 2007
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
Thursday, 18 October 2007
Tuesday, 16 October 2007
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
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
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
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
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
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:
Tuesday, 2 October 2007
Friday, 28 September 2007
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.
Thursday, 27 September 2007
Wednesday, 26 September 2007
Friday, 14 September 2007
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
Friday, 10 August 2007
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
Friday, 3 August 2007
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.