Thursday, 28 June 2007

Away for a couple of days - all hell breaks loose!

Hello from an internet cafe in Edinburgh. As I drove here yesterday the announcement came of Tony Blair's resignation as an MP. Sedgefield Constituency is merged with Darlington in the imaginatively titled Darlington and Sedgefield Liberal Democrats - of which I am secretary. What a time to be away. Even more worrying is that Nick Wallis is in Scotland too, quite possibly in the same city.
Anyway, thank heavens for the internet and mobile phones - the process of selecting a candidate is already underway. GTG - credit running out!
More posts when I get back at the weekend.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Saving the planet

Tonight's training session was on Development and the Environment. Unfortunately, the buffet served beforehand didn't have any chicken nuggets, but the fresh fruit salad was superb.
The presentation was suitably light, but sufficiently informative, and allowed plenty of time at the end for questions and discussion. One of the officers, by cycling, using buses, recycling and composting, avoiding air travel and adjusting his lifestyle in fairly simple ways, has reduced his impact on the environment, he reckons, by about 70%! He produces just one black sack of waste a fortnight for a household of three! An example to us all.
There were no Labour councillors present, with their down-trodden, we've got to do as we're told, attitude. The Conservative and Lib Dem Councillors, in contrast, were full of ideas and idealism. However, it is also clear that new members, for all their enthusiasm, are not convinced that the way the Council is set up, with an over-mighty cabinet and scrutiny committees controlled by the majority group, affords much opportunity for fresh-thinking or to influence the decision-making process.
We shall see how things develop, particularly as the Council's Constitution is rewritten. But if the new constitution merely pays lip-service to the notions of democracy, openness and participation, there will be strong opposition from non-Labour groups within the Council.

Does anyone know?

Less than a week until the official re-opening of the town centre, with loads of street entertainment promised, and most shops open on Sunday - with lots of special offers - but does anyone know about it?
The Council should have produced posters for all the shops to put in their windows. The scant details on the Council's website are hidden away several layers deep - why haven't they overlaid the home page with a special page advertising the weekend's events? What about the Echo: there was talk of a special advertising feature, but that clearly isn't happening. The tv ads are on, but why isn't there an overlay on the final shots announcing this weekend's special events?

Is the money running dry?
It's taken an age for handrails to be installed on the steps.
And has anyone wondered why they suddenly installed a load of bollards along the edge of what was the old High Row pavement? It's because they've discovered a lot of the shops on High Row have cellars which protude out under the pavement. So they've had to install bollards to keep delivery vehicles away from the shop front, in case they fall into a black hole!
It would be great to be able to move on and get trading successfully again, but you have to keep going back and looking at this bland and unexciting scheme the Labour Party has imposed on us and wonder at the way they've managed it from start to finish.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Another day...another flood

Water, water everywhere. Market Hall cellars flooded, half the Cornmill shut, M&S fighting a deluge, my shop in the path of a tidal wave, many roads in town must be the cricket season. Far worse than Friday: the heavens just opened.
Photos above from my walk home at the top of Duke St.
And still people were wandering in, wading past me and the staff with our mops and buckets, looking for a flapjack.
Oh well, at least there's you know WHO to look forward to tonight.
I blame the Master.
Monday update: Crown Street library is closed due to sewage problems caused by the flooding. I spent a happy (not) couple of hours on Saturday afternoon clearing out my cellar at home for the same reason. Not very nice! I know many others in my part of town had similar problems in their old Victorian cellars.
This is the first time in almost 25 years in the house that we've had this problem, which shows the intensity of the rainfall on Saturday lunchtime.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Delicious irony

To a Special Full Council Meeting today at 12.45. Why such a strange time, did they expect it to finish by 1.oopm?
My neighbour, Fred Lawton, and I chuckled as Cllr Williams announced with a straight face that Nick Wallis, the Cabinet member with responsibility for transport, was stuck in traffic and would be late arriving. Should have come by bike, Nick!
There was no sign that this unintentional humour had impressed itself on our Labour colleagues opposite. They were probably too busy preparing for the tedious succession of self-congratulatory speeches we had to endure from the Cabinet, as they introduced each section of the Corporate Plan by telling us how successful they are at meeting Government targets.

During the Meeting, increasingly loud claps of thunder could be heard from outside. When we re-emerged into the daylight I discovered that half the shops on Post House Wynd and Skinnergate had flooded because the Victorian drains had been unable to cope with the sheer volume of water. In my shop the staff filled five buckets with water which mysteriously bubbled up through my concrete floor; and that doesn't include all the water they brushed straight out the front door. Nightmare!

Binge Drinking in Darlington

This morning, the latest set of health statistics on Darlington was published. While Darlington is better than the national average for homelessness, violent crime and road injuries and deaths, it is significantly worse than the national average on most other measures, such as income, childhood poverty, teenage pregnancy, life expectancy, healthy eating and early deaths from heart disease and strokes.
Many of these problems are not specific to Darlington and will reflect the region and its socio-economic profile. Indeed, on many of these measures we perform better than the regional average. This does not mean the Council, PCT and partners should be complacent, far from it. There is clearly a need for better education and incentives to encourage more people to take preventative measures for the sake of their health.
On two measures, however, I can see no good reason for Darlington to be so far below the national average. Binge drinking in adults and hospital stays due to alcohol are our worst two performance indicators. According to the figures, binge drinking is a major health problem in our region as a whole, not just in our town.
Why is this? Surely we can't still blame it on an historical culture based on work in heavy industry. Judging by Skinnergate on a Friday night, the problem is acute among kids who've probably never had more than a Saturday job in Sainsbury's.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Bulging thighs at the Arts Centre

Right, thought that might get your attention.

Last night, as part of National Bike Week, the Arts Centre, as part of its always excellent summer film season, showed Belleville Rendezvous, an innovative French/Belgian animated film following a hairy grandmother and her overweight dog in their quest to find her grandson, a Tour de France cyclist, who has been kidnapped and taken to the USA along with two other cyclists, to race on fixed rollers in an underworld gambling den - ok so far?
The film was introduced by Michael Hutchinson, a professional cyclist and world record holder, who is on tour promoting his new book about time trial racing, "The Hour".
This was my first visit to the Arts Centre since the foyer was refurbished. It looks really good now. The bar is where the ticket office used to be, and therefore easily accessible, and there's an art gallery where the food servery used to be, which is much more appropriate for an Arts Centre.
Two quibbles: the seats in the theatre are still uncomfortable (for me, anyway) and there is only one hand-pulled beer, which is tucked away at the back of the bar. It is the excellent "Old Speckled Hen" from my local brewery down south, but last night, although I got a half before the film, the much anticipated pint at the end (all that cycling works up a thirst!) failed to materialise because it was "off". C'mon Jenny: get another hand-pulled beer in there, please!

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Red Faces at the Grauniad

Everyone's favourite typo, The Guardian, ran a strange bit of fluff by a "staff reporter" this morning reporting that Gordon Brown has been in discussions with Ming Campbell, the Leader of the Lib Dems, about Liberal Democrats taking places in a future Labour Cabinet.
This unattributed report has been categorically denied by Ming and every other front bench spokesman who could get themselves on the airwaves this morning.
It won't happen - end of!
Gordon Brown is an old-style Labour centralist with a strong authoritarian streak, not to mention a penchant for bullying and control-freakery. How anyone could seriously suggest that our party would get into his ample bed, I can't imagine.
This story has been picked up by David Davies and others on the Town Liar, and given a Darlington slant. Interestingly, David, "The Darlington Tory", is flying a kite that the local Conservatives might be looking for places in a Labour Cabinet in return for forming a united front against the prospect of an elected mayor.
Well, Labour and the Tories have formed an unholy alliance in Stockton, which sensibly the local Liberal Democrats and Independents have kept well out of, so I suppose anything's possible!

Just don't hold your breath waiting for the Lib Dems to ride in to prop up any other party's ambitions in Darlington. We are a spiky, independent, liberal and democratic party with a clearly defined and unique set of policies; propping up the old parties is not on the agenda.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Vote Saxon!

Vote Saxon! Your vote could change the future.

More training

Yesterday's training session was about Children's Services. It was well presented and interesting, with some useful discussion stimulated by Cllr Alexandra Nicholson, one of the new Conservative councillors, who has a double interest here, since she is a teacher who appears likely to be giving birth at any minute!
It seems that one of the officers was at York University at the same time as me, though as far as I know, our paths never crossed.
The whole senior tier of management in this Department is new, having been appointed within the past six months or so, with one vacancy still to be filled. There have been major changes made in the organisation of the Department.
Refreshingly, the officers were quite open about the challenges facing this Department, with some of the key Government indicators showing Darlington at or near the bottom of national league tables in educational achievement and performance. This situation, of course, pre-dates the new regime there.
Unfortunately, as is always the case when interesting training presentations are made, time ran out too quickly, so we were only able to get a brief overview of the social services part of this Department.

Also unfortunately, Mark Burton was not in fancy dress
Today it's Community Strategy and tomorrow it's Corporate Services. Then on Friday there's a Special Meeting of the Full Council at 12.45pm. And that lot doesn't include all the evening meetings councillors have to attend, either in their ward or in their respective local parties.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Darlo on tv

The 30 second tv adverts for Darlington town centre will be on tv for the next couple of weeks. If you want to see it, the first few showings on ITV Tyne Tees are:

20 June, 4.40pm
20 June, 6.58pm
21 June, 9.55am
22 June 1.28pm
22 June 10.28pm
23 June 8.45pm

In all, there are 20 showings booked until July 1st.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Picnic at Hanging Rock?

Not much rain today, so time for a short but strenuous walk from Pinchinthorpe up to Hanging Rock. Here you can sit on the flat top of the rock as the ground disappears beneath you, with tremendous views over Guisborough and Redcar out to sea in one direction, and back out over the moors behind you. Decided not to take a picnic...

Fathers' Day present: "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini, in hardback. For anyone who hasn't yet read his first novel, "The Kite Runner", get down to Ottakars on Saturday, while you're enjoying the street entertainment in the town centre. If you like a great story passionately written, this is for you.

Matthew came home from his job with the Children's Society in London, to borrow a suit en route to a wedding in Newcastle. Will has next weekend off from his training to be a Marine, though it's a long journey from Devon to Darlington on Friday evening, only to have to turn round and make the return journey on Sunday morning. Judging by the sticky kitchen floor, Kate must have had some friends round on Saturday night, while I was away. Children!

Friday, 15 June 2007

A sad passing

At last week's meeting of the North Riverside Residents' Association, I sat next to Terry Percival, a deacon in the Traditional Anglican Church (a breakaway from the C of E). He barely stopped laughing and chuckling throughout the meeting - a really infectious character who worked hard in the local community, held church services in the Havelock Centre and was well loved and respected. I only met him once, but took to him immediately.
Then, on Thursday morning, when I went along to the over-60s club at the Havelock Centre, I discovered that Terry had just died from a heart attack. He was only a couple of years older than me and his sudden death has come as a shock to local people. His funeral is at 11.15 on Wednesday at Darlington Crematorium.
Added on Tuesday, June 19th: there is a nice article about Terry in the Echo

Community Partnership

Yesterday I attended the monthly meeting of the North Road Community Partnership. As a meeting point for professionals from various agencies, such as community workers, the police, youth workers, councillors and others, to discuss various issues pertinent to the ward, it is useful.
But local residents are in a minority. As presently constituted and operated, on the evidence of this meeting, Community Partnerships are not organisations which offer a democratic input into the Council. At the end of the meeting, I suggested some ways in which local people might be encouraged to participate in this organisation, so that it is less dominated by the professionals.
A well-publicised meeting with Council officers about Leyburn Road traffic problems last year produced a big turnout of local residents. We need to have more issue-based meetings like these, which local residents will find relevant and attractive.

Opening on Sundays?

The grand opening of the Pedestrian Heart in Darlington takes place on the weekend of June 30/July 1. There will be, we are promised, fun for all the family in the town centre! This is also the weekend of the Community Carnival with their procession through the town, so Saturday should be a good day. We certainly need it: trade has been very poor in the town for a couple of years with all this work going on, increased competition from other centres and the internet and rising interest rates. I don't like the design of the Pedestrian Heart, but it's time to put those issues behind us now and get the people back in town, spending their money!

For only the second time in over 20 years, my shop, The Health Warehouse on Post House Wynd, will open on the Sunday (July 1) from 10 to 4. The Council would like all shops in town to open permanently on Sundays, but I and many other independents are unwilling to go down that route. It's ok for the chain stores, they can employ unskilled students and part time staff and rotate their permanent staff to cover Sundays. It's different for independent shops which are generally smaller and don't have that flexibility.

I have no intention of working on Sundays, so why should I expect my staff to? We all have families and other commitments. Many of the people who work for me have been here for years and I have no intention of asking them to change their lives to accommodate Sunday trading. I know I'm losing money: Saturday is no longer the exceptional day in the week it used to be, because many people choose to shop on Sunday instead, but I think quality of life, for my staff as well as me, is more important than an extra few grand on the bottom line.

PS I would love to put a link on here so that you can read all about what's planned for the weekend, but with two weeks to go, the DBC website doesn't seem to have anything at all about it!

PPS I've now found a link:

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Halford, Psychologists and Rigoletto

News came through yesterday that Reading's young player, Greg Halford, is moving to our part of the world for £3m to play for newly-promoted Sunderland. Good luck to him, and thanks for the money, Roy. The greatly anticipated publication of the Premiership fixture list is due today, of course. For me, the big question is when we'll be playing Newcastle, Sunderland and the Boro up here, since I don't think I'll have so much spare time next season to get to many games in Reading (14 hour round trip on the train) as I did last season.

Yesterday afternoon we had a superb training session with a psychologist, showing new and experienced councillors how to get the most out of the Scrutiny process. It was all fascinating stuff and certainly warranted a full day, or two half days, rather than a three hour session. There was good and helpful interaction between the councillors present.

Then in the evening it was off to see Rigoletto at Newcastle Theatre Royal. A great night out. While we are lucky in Darlington to have the Civic and the Arts Centre, the Civic in recent years has gone the way of much of the West End, with a staple diet of musicals and second-rate drama featuring second-rate tv and soap actors.
When I first moved to Darlington almost 25 years ago, the quality of production at the Civic was much higher (or do I have rose-tinted spectacles?). It seemed to me that there was never any problem filling the theatre for top notch productions, including ballet and opera. Nowadays, these offerings are few and far between. Nevertheless, the Civic seems to have found its niche, and the Theatre Royal and Sunderland Empire (for Birmingham Royal Ballet) are not far away. The Arts Centre, just across the road from me, is a great asset which hopefully will be even better after its recent refurbishment.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Northern Region Conference

Off to the Northern Region Liberal Democrats' Summer Conference on Saturday at Gateshead Civic Centre. During the morning session I was part of the panel of speakers in our review of the local elections.
Across the Region, the Lib Dems secured 182 seats with 24% of the votes cast, well ahead of the Conservatives with 116 seats and 19% of the votes. We comfortably retained control of Durham and Newcastle and were the largest party in Berwick.
The main talking point of the afternoon session was the appearance of Boris van der Ham, a Dutch Liberal MP, on stage with our own Fiona Hall MEP and John Shipley, Leader of Newcastle City Council, in a presentation and debate about Energy Efficiency.
Also during the day, a motion was debated about the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act, where MPs recently and deplorably, voted to exempt themselves from the FoI Act. Conference unanimously deplored the actions of these MPs and urged the Lords to vote down this self-serving and anti-democratic proposal.
We also heard a speech from the Chair of the English Liberal Democrats and from the English Party Membership Development Officer.
Finally, the day ended with my announcement of the details of this year's Regional Awards Scheme, which I set up last year to reward good practice in Focus design and production, electoral and political campaigning, individual achievement and membership and recruitment.
The success of last year's inaugural Awards Scheme has apparently led to the English Party considering establishing a similar Scheme for the whole country.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Training begins

The Council arranges many training events for elected members, especially the new ones. Yesterday it was an introduction to the Chief Executive's Department. I would have liked to know more about the dynamics of this Department: especially the way the Policy Unit operates, but no doubt I'll find out about that in due course. There's certainly no shortage of training opportunities!
This evening we had an excellent presentation about the history and future of economic development within the Borough. It contained some information I hadn't heard before and explained clearly how the plans for developing various projects around the Borough came about, and had lots of interesting aerial photos.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Come off it, Nick!

Nick Wallis has posted a comment on his blog about the Rise Carr article in the Echo yesterday - effectively blaming the Lib Dems for the state of the area because we have had councillors there for the last 20 years (note to Nick: you had a Labour Councillor there from 2003 to 2007).

Of course, the important thing is who controls the purse strings: and that's the Labour Party. That's why huge amounts get spent on the big Labour-voting estates and Rise Carr gets ignored. A former Labour Councillor said to me last year, "It's no good asking for money to be spent in North Road: it'll always be at the back of the queue. The Labour leadership see it as a Lib Dem ward and therefore don't want to spend money there." Of course, I'm sure that isn't true, but then I'm just an innocent abroad.

There is no estate office, no tenants' association, no community centre or facilities, no urgency to get important repairs and landscaping done. This issue is long-standing. Repairs and improvements have been asked for for many years, but now the residents are fed up with waiting. The fault lies with the political leadership in the Council, for whom Rise Carr has no importance.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

North Riverside Residents' Association

To the monthly meeting of the North Riverside Residents' Association this evening in the Havelock centre. The area covered by the Association lies between Gurney Street and the river, on the opposite side of North Road from Morrisons.
My photo shows Sandy Moore, the vice-chair of the Residents' Association, with the equipment he uses to produce his talking newapaper.

I haven't been to this meeting before, so decided to sit back and listen to what people had to say.

There was an excellent turnout of local residents and a lively discussion. Among the topics discussed were the state of the river and the need for it to be cleaned out, dog dirt, garden maintenance, litter, thefts from gardens, production of a newsletter and a talking version of it, a photography competition and a Christmas competition.

There were so many ideas, suggestions, initiatives and complaints. So much, however, depends on the Association persuading the Council to take action. People like this, who care deeply about the area where they live and are prepared to put themselves out in the interest of the local community, deserve to be listened to and to have the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the decisions made about the area where they live.

The Lib Dems' plans for Area Committees would allow local groups like this to have a real input into local decision-making. They would be empowered and encouraged to take responsibility for their local area. They know best what is needed where they live!

Rise Carr in the Echo

The Northern Echo picked up my story on here about our Rise Carr walkabout. Owen Amos went on his own walkabout and then interviewed me and Fred afterwards. We stressed that our fight was with the political leadership on the Council, which has neglected the interests and rights of the people who live in Rise Carr.
While Street Scene is still not working properly, we believe this to be due to a lack of political will and the failure to put sufficient resources into it. A weekly litter pick, ignoring the overgrown, weed-infested flowerbeds, broken walls, dumped trolleys and tyres, is just not good enough.
You can read the article by Owen Amos here.

Friday, 1 June 2007

My first ward surgery

10am in the North Road entrance of Morrison's supermarket, we set up our table and chairs, stick up our notices around the store and wait for business. Would anyone come?

Yes, is the answer: eight local residents keep us busy for the whole hour and a half.

First up was a lady complaining about overgrown hedges and dog mess on a local footpath. We promise to take up the matter with Street Scene.

Then a lady comes over with a problem in Skerne Park. We take her name, address and phone number, make a note of her problem and promise to send the details over to our councillor in Park East, who can help her out.

Then a regular attender comes over to point out that the Council still haven't done anything about a blocked gully and sunken road beside a bus stop. This causes flooding and buses splash the water over those in the queue. We then have a long conversation about buses and bus stops across the town. Some pavements have now been raised up and some haven't. This gentleman seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the bus stops of Darlington.

Our fourth visitor is an elderly gentleman who lives in William Street, where we went on a walkabout on Wednesday. We'd missed his communal garden, which is hidden away behind a fence. Apparently the Council haven't been there for two years and the three spindly rose bushes are being swamped by weeds. I add it to the list of jobs that need doing in Rise Carr.

Then we have a lady from Westmoreland Street complaining about the poor state of the back lanes, which have potholes and ruts, and also about the speed at which buses and vans travel down the street, partcularly as many kids play on the pavement here. Maybe these streets would benefit from being added to Cllr Wallis's 20mph scheme. The trouble is, this requires speed bumps and ramps, and not everyone likes them. In principle, however, traffic in residential street like these should have more restrictions placed on their speed.

Next we hear a complaint about cars being offered for sale on North Road, which looks untidy and also blocks the access of one of our residents, who needs space outside her house for social services transport to park up when they collect and return her husband. We know there is new legislation available to deal with this problem, which is one we are faced with the length of North Road. Cllr Harker has promised in the past to take action against these traders, but so far there doesn't seem to have been any action. We promise to chase him up about it and also see if some sort of No Parking sign would be possible outside her house (though previous requests along these lines have fallen on deaf ears in the Council).

A lady from Lock Street comes over to tell us about a fall she had recently, caused by a poorly maintained pavement in front of her house. Apparently someone at the Council promised her that the paving flags would be replaced by tarmac in April 2007, but nothing has been done yet.
We promise to find out what's going on.

Then a lady asks whether we can do anything to help her daughter and two young children get a council house in the North Road area. So far she's been offered two properties: one across town in a rundown area and one nearby in Rise Carr. Neither were acceptable, however, so she's still waiting. There's really nothing we can do to help her: there's a points system and rules to adhere to, but we promise to write to the appropriate department and ask them to look at her case to see if something suitable locally can be found, and what the likely timetable is.

And so ends my first surgery. I have my first four pieces of casework: now I've got to negotiate the unfathomable bureaucracy of Darlington Borough Council to find out who to approach about these issues. I'll let you know how I get on!