Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Rise Carr Walkabout

Out this morning for a walk around the small Rise Carr estate on Whessoe Road in North Road ward.

This estate has an air of neglect hanging over it, with broken walls, litter, graffiti, an abandoned car and unkempt flower beds and borders. Some photos I took this morning are here.

North Road ward lies within the central area as far as the Council's operations are concerned, and it is much smaller than other estates in town, such as at Branksome and Skerne Park. Unfortunately, as a consequence, it receives less attention than it needs.

Political support for the needs of this estate is lacking. Problems reported to Street Scene are just not being dealt with. The political priority in central area seems to be on maintaining the publicly visible areas, and ignoring places like Rise Carr.

We met several residents during our walkabout. It is frustrating for us and them that there are no community facilities for young or old in the area - something the Lib Dems have long been campaigning for. Problems with drainage, flooding, fly-tipping, and rubbish dumping have been reported to the Council - and not achieved a satisfactory response.

The residents of Rise Carr deserve better than this. I will be working hard to get the estate the care and attention it deserves. I wonder if the Cabinet member responsible would like to come on a walkabout with us, and see for himself the work that desperately needs doing there.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

To a Friends of North Park meeting tonight, where plans were made for the annual Fun Day in September.
The transformation of the Park is well underway. The area where the Multi Use Games Area will go has been cleared and the new perimeter fence is being erected.
The meeting also discussed the
plans for the new Community Garden, which are looking good.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Down to work in North Road ward

North Road ward stretches on both sides of North Road from the B&Q DIY superstore up to the Thompson Street crossroads. It has pockets of poverty and deprivation, with a large number of single-parent families and a transient population, an area of traditional terraced and semi-detached owner-occupied houses and a new estate of detached and semi-detached houses. There are residential homes and sheltered housing, primary schools, local shops and pubs, North Cemetery and North Park. It is a varied ward, with more than its fair share of problems and issues.

I have been working with our Lib Dem Councillors there for the past year or so, helping to produce our regular Focus newsletter. Now it's time to start working for the people who live there. Our first surgery since the election is next week, but already there are issues old and new to deal with.
Traffic problems beset some of the residential streets, as the Council's policy of speeding traffic flow along North Road, by limiting the number of access points to the road, forces drivers to seek short cuts through residential streets.
Leyburn Road has been particularly badly affected by the closure of the slip road from Thompson Street East onto North Road. After several months of pressure, it seems that we may have improved things for local residents by persuading officers to change the timing of the lights at this junction to allow more vehicles to access North Road without the need to look for a short cut down Leyburn Road.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

First Meetings with Officers

Officers from Democratic Services have been unfailingly helpful and scrupulously politically neutral.

An early evening meeting for new councillors with members of the Council's Management Team was interesting. The emphasis was squarely on what a good and successful Council Darlington had, which was largely due to the close working relationship between officers and councillors, and the inclusive nature of the Council, where councillors from all parties generally worked closely together for the greater good.

Well, after leading the campaign to scupper one of their pet schemes: the takeover of the town centre by Tesco, and having seen their anti-democratic approach to the Pedestrian Heart, Hurworth School and some planning issues; and in view of the mess they are making of public transport and education in the town, I am not in the mood to be socialised into their cosy world. The Labour Council has had no effective opposition from the Conservatives for many years. I have watched the gentleman's club which operated under the former Leader of the Conservative Group.

It is important, for the good of the town, that the Labour Council is strongly opposed: not in terms of personalities, which is Labour's approach in Council when they are questioned, but on the basis of a careful analysis of their policies and a detailed and effective scrutiny of their actions.

Friday, 25 May 2007

My first two Council Meetings - and a maiden speech

My first Council meeting is Annual Council: a formal meeting where the new mayor is sworn in and we all get to eat some nice food afterwards. It's very nice for friends and relatives, who cram into the public gallery, from where just about all they can see is the Mayor's podium.
From a political point of view, perhaps the most interesting event is the make-up of the Labour Cabinet. A newly-elected Councillor, Jenny Chapman, is made a member of the Cabinet, responsible for Leisure Services.
Jenny, who often visits my shop, has always seemed to me to be a very nice person, who has no doubt benefitted from being part of a Labour family (her mother is the new mayor). I do wonder, however, quite how enthusiatic some of the longer-serving but overlooked Labour Councillors are about her being appointed to Cabinet over their heads.

The next day there is a special meeting of the full Council, to approve changes to the Constitution and the Code of Conduct, and also to approve the details of the Referendum for a directly elected mayor.
Political constitutions are of great interest to me. My degree subject was Political Theory and Government and I've been fascinated by political and governmental organisation ever since (sad, or what?). So, having read the documents for Council, and having a strong commitment to delegation and devolution of power, I decided this was an opportunity to make my maiden speech.

I wanted to speak out in favour of the establishment of Area Committees: groups of Councillors from neighbouring wards who have spending, administrative and scrutiny powers delegated to them.

Although the Leader of the Council had publicly stated that he wanted a new, more democratic culture in the Council, these proposed changes to the Constitution contained no such references. I checked with the Borough Solicitor that I would be permitted to speak about this, and was assured that it would be in order. So I prepared a few choice words and phrases.

The debate started with Councillor Williams introducing the paper by saying that these were interim proposals (I didn't know that!) and that he was intending to bring before Council at some time in the future proposals for a new Constitution which was more open and democratic (I didn't know that, either!). This was not what I was expecting to hear. I wanted to criticise Labour for producing revisions to the Constitution which included no reference whatsoever to openness and democracy.

So I had to change the whole direction of what I wanted to say and abandon my carefully crafted words. Having decided to get my maiden speech out of the way at the first opportunity, however, I put my hand up and was called to speak by the mayor.
I acknowledged the Council Leader's promise to produce a new Constitution in the near future and went on to ask whether he would consider the introduction of Area Committees as part of this. I explained briefly what Area Committees were, and sat down. At last my heart stopped thumping loudly against the wall of my chest!

When he replied, Cllr Williams said that Area Committees were possible - anything is possible. My short speech and Councillor Williams' response formed the basis of a significant article in the Echo and the Advertiser, in which Paul Cook, the reporter, took a giant leap and effectively suggested that Area Committees were going to be introduced. We shall see!

Although my short speech was listened to by councillors without interruption, there were several examples of the boorish behaviour that I have come to expect from certain members of the Labour Group, in response to a speech by Conservative Councillor Ian Galletley (who the councillor who will be next year's mayor insisted on calling Cllr Go Lightley - my, how the Labour Group laughed at this witticism) and a question put by our own Cllr Malcolm Dunstone.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

More offers!

Following the election result, the Leader of the Council, John Williams, stated publicly in the Echo that a new approach was required by the Labour Group and Cabinet. He said they had learnt their lesson from some humiliating public defeats (my phrase, not his!) and wanted to re-direct the Council towards a more open, responsive and democratic culture.

As a first step towards this, John Williams has announced that the Leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Groups, as well as the Labour Chair of the Resources Scrutiny Comittee and the Chair of the Darlington Partnership, who is not a Councillor, would be invited to attend meetings of the Cabinet with the right to question members of the Cabinet.

Martin Swainston has accepted this offer on our behalf, but frankly, we don't trust the Labour Party one inch when they claim to have discovered democracy and openness. So far their "concessions" are little more than window-dressing: the one-party control over Cabinet and the Scrutiny Committees has not changed at all.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Dividing up the jobs

Our first meeting of the new Lib Dem Group. We've been allocated one seat on each of the five Scrutiny Committees, so that makes things relatively easy. I ask for Public Protection and Community Partnerships Scrutiny, which I'm delighted to get. It covers many of the areas I know something about, and also oversees waste management - a very important issue in the near future.

We elect our officers: Martin Swainston will make an excellent leader, with the experience of Peter Freitag as his Deputy. Our Group meetings will be chaired by Malcolm Dunstone, while I am secretary, responsible for group cohesion, contacts with other party groups as well as our internal organisation and administration.

At the end of our second Group Meeting, the Leader of the Council poked his head around the door. They had just finished the Labour Group meeting. Cllr Williams wanted to offer us the Vice-Chair of the Environment Scrutiny Committee. Malcolm Dunstone has already been assigned that Committee, so he becomes the Vice-Chair of a Council Scrutiny Committee.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

New kid on the block

Within five minutes of being elected for the first time, officers from the Democratic Services Department of the Council pounce on me, thrusting a welcome pack in my hands, including a huge document that turns out to be the Constitution of the Council. People I've never met before call me Councillor Barker: very unnerving!
I sign something - God knows what - and now I'm a Councillor.

The Count goes on for some time, with several recounts in wards the Conservatives would have won if they had any idea how to run an election campaign. After several hours it is clear that, despite having their majority slashed in wards which they usually win without trying, the Labour Party has retained an overall majority.

A real opportunity to throw them out has been lost. The Lib Dems have increased to 5, from 1 just three years ago. In addition, Steve Jones, standing as an Independent Liberal Democrat, was also elected. The Conservatives really lost a golden opportunity. As a party which wants to retake power in Westminster, they showed that, in our region, they cannot even muster enough candidates to fight across the Borough, and they failed to support those candidates who could have won new seats. They do not come across as a united local party. I really don't think they've yet read the first paragraph of the Conservative Central Office's Guide to Winning Local Elections.

Monday, 21 May 2007

The Count

Friday, May 4th: after standing for Council several times before, at last I've been elected! The Count, delayed until Friday morning, threw up a few surprises: notably the election of Peter Freitag as a Lib Dem Councillor, 30 years after he last served on Darlington Borough Council, and the abject failure of the Conservative Party to win enough seats to take power from Labour.

Peter Freitag, with nearly fifty years service to the Liberal Party and its successors, was elected along with two sitting Labour Councillors to represent Park East ward - the ward (with slightly different boundaries) which he represented for 6 years back in the Seventies. Peter wasn't even watching his count - none of us were. It was a Conservative Councillor who told me he'd been elected. Sensing a wind-up, I went to check for myself - then rushed round to tell Peter. He was genuinely shocked, but absolutely delighted. Having held national, regional and local Party posts, with a wealth of experience, Peter will be a great asset to the Liberal Democrat Group.

The Conservatives were expecting to win enough seats to remove the Labour Party's overall majority. They'd already been talking about the allocation of seats in the Cabinet. Yet their campaign was weak; their literature poor. They offered no coherent or impelling message - and they worked in a haphazard and untargetted way. Getting new councillors elected in Cockerton East, Harrowgate Hill and Pierremont - yet failing to win all the seats in any of these wards - cost them the victory they were expecting.

Here are some photos from our election campaign

Sunday, 20 May 2007

New Councillor - New Blog

In Darlington there's a Labour Blog, a Tory Blog: now there's a Lib Dem blog.
This will be a blog devoted to telling you about grassroots politics in a Northern Market Town. What do ward councillors do? Can they make a difference for their ward?
The Council is run by the select few from the Labour Party who form the Cabinet...but is there anything a new backbench councillor from a minority party can achieve in Council?
What do I want to achieve as a Councillor?

One priority must be to work hard in the interests of the residents of North Road ward. They've been lucky to have Liberal Democrat Councillors for many years now, fighting their corner. This hard work must continue.

The other priority must be to promote and advance Liberal Democrat policies and principles in the Council. Strong opposition to the Labour Cabinet is essential: constructive, intelligent, thoughtful, but firm. Neither minority party has offered effective opposition to Labour until the last year or so. Now, with new councillors and new leaders in both parties, and a narrow Labour majority, the opposition parties have to stand up and be counted.