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!

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Filming the Council?

My thanks to my friend Mike McTimoney from the Darlington Cycling Campaign for pointing me towards the blog of Matt Davies, a Lib Dem Councillor in the London Borough of Haringey. Mike and Matt were at uni together.

Here is a link to Matt's post referring to Haringey's webcast of all their Council Meetings, which anyone can watch online. What a great idea. I've suggested to Mike that he emails Cllr Williams to suggest this as an addition to the ideas being put forward for opening up the Council to greater public scrutiny and involvement.
Elsewhere on Matt's blog is an interesting post on the attempt of a local school to achieve foundation status, against the wishes of the Labour controlled Haringey Council.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Tories slapped down in Council

The proposal from Darlington Conservatives this week that Scrutiny Committees should all be chaired by opposition councillors was given short shrift by Labour Leader, John Williams, in full Council. Unfortunately, the Conservative proposals had been prepared by Alan Coultas, who was absent from Council. Cllrs Scott and Johnson presented the scheme in a rather lacklustre way - almost as if they realised what was coming from Labour.

Cllr Williams rubbished their scheme, asking how many majority Council Groups gave the Opposition parties such positions. He accused the Conservative Council Deputy Leader, Cllr Johnson, of "sour grapes" because, despite winning the popular vote, they had failed to take control of the Council in May. Cllr Williams ridiculed the Tories for booking their post-election committee room to organise their Cabinet, even before the votes were cast. He told the Tories to wise up and accept that the Council was still controlled by the Labour Party and they'd better get used to it.

Such are the rules in place, which prohibit proper debate in the Council Chamber, that the Conservatives were not allowed to respond to this.

We in the Liberal Democrats support many of the Conservatives' ideas for change within the Council: including giving Scrutiny Committees more power to question Cabinet members and a greater role in the formation of policy. In my speech on Community Engagement (to be blogged on later) I mentioned in passing that we supported these ideas and was critical of Labour Councillor Ian Hazeldine, who asserted in the Echo that there was nothing wrong with the Scrutiny system and that it should be a non-aggressive, non-political system. I thought his comments to the press were dismissive and unhelpful, since his party leader had been commending the idea of a full debate on any ideas for constitutional change.

Cllr Hazeldine, who was chairing the meeting in the absence of the mayor, took the opportunity to have a pop at me and Charles Johnson. Clearly, as a Scrutiny Committee chair himself, and therefore as recipient of several thousands of pounds of Council Tax payers money, he should have declared an interest and probably been barred from speaking on the subject - but, as a new Councillor, I wasn't certain about the protocol and kept to my seat. It would have been interesting though, raising a point of order with the Deputy Mayor against the Deputy Mayor himself!

Frankly, as I mentioned previously in a training session, I have still to find anyone who can give me any examples of how Scrutiny, in its current guise, has influenced the policy-making process - apart from the single issue of bringing the lack of breast-feeding facilities in the town higher up the political agenda. Cllr Hazeldine sarcastically mentioned this (nodding knowingly as he did so to his chums on the Labour side). Just as new councillors on the Labour side aren't allowed to speak in Council, I get the impression they don't like new councillors from any party speaking up. Tough - I'm beginning to enjoy it now! Had they really been gossiping about a point I made in a training session?

Harry Potter Mania

My youngest daughter, Kate, and best friend Aimee, ensconced themselves in front of the tv on Friday night to watch (yet again) the four Harry Potter films on DVD. Then at 11.30 they set off into town to join the hundreds of other fans queuing to buy the seventh and last book in the series.
Arriving home at about 1.30am they both got stuck into their new books until falling asleep. Since waking after just a few hours sleep, they've stayed in Kate's bedroom all morning, emerging, with great reluctance, for a bowl of Raisin Wheats to keep them going(though Aimee wouldn't even break for that, so engrossed is she in the story). I don't expect to see either of them again today until they've finished their books.

What a phenomenon this is. I read half a dozen pages of the first book a few years ago, thought it was badly written and never bothered with it again. But obviously I'm in a minority (of one in our household). One thing's for sure: there are going to be a lot of fans with a void in their life now there are no more HP books to look forward to (a bit like us West Wing fans!).

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Tories to finish fourth?

The word on the street is that the Conservative vote in Sedgefield is tumbling as the Lib Dem squeeze tightens. Though is seeing them finish behind the BNP necessarily a good thing?
Here in Darlington we get a constant stream of leaflets to deliver in Hurworth and MSG: over the weekend there were three leaflets and an envelope to every house, and it'll be daily from now on. I loved the leaflet with photos of village names from the Durham ex-mining villages headed, "How many Conservative voters do you think there are here?"
Willie Rennie (pictured) the Dunfermline by-election winner has been here to encourage the troops, and today we have Charles Kennedy: still hugely popular!
I am hugely impressed by the enthusiasm and dedication of our young team working in Newton Aycliffe. Neil Trafford is staying with me: he leaves the house about 8am and doesn't get back til after midnight. I've also had a couple of MPs staying with me. So far I've had that Andrew Stunnell and that Norman Lamb in the back of my house. Norman was brave enough to sample my new organic Goji Berry muesli for breakfast: a bit chewy, but he won't have been hungry again for a while! Both really nice, interesting blokes, too.
Sunday afternoon and evening were spent delivering in constant rain, but last night we were in a pre-Council Group meeting when the latest cloudburst descended on us. I bet a few leafletters got thoroughly soaked by that one.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Some photos from Ming's visit to Hurworth School

Top: the media scrum as Sir Menzies Campbell arrives at Hurworth School, in Sedgefield constituency.
Second: Ming meets the children in an art class.
Third: Ming, with local Lib Dem Councillor Martin Swainston, meets parents from Hurworth School who fought for its survival.
Bottom: Greg Stone, Martin Swainston and Ming Cambell.
An excellent visit to Hurworth School with considerable media interest. Ming Campbell was able to hear at first hand from the Head, local councillors, parents and students about the campaign to save the school, and the exciting plans they have for the future.

Council Procedures and Conventions

Photo of the Town Council in session in the old Town Hall

Last night was the final new members' training session before the Full Council meeting next Thursday (and how annoying is that: on by-election day).

Surprisingly, a number of long-standing councillors attended, including one previous mayor.

While the officers' presentation stuck to the nuts and bolts of procedure in the Council Chamber, there was a lively discussion amongst the councillors present about the need (or otherwise) for reform.

It seems that Darlington has lagged behind modern thinking in terms of engaging the electorate in the Council's activities. The emphasis in the Constitutional reform which will be taking place this year will be on opening the Council up to the community and encouraging community involvement in the activities of the Council. I shall be speaking on this subject when it comes before Council.

Much of the discussion last night, however, prompted by Alan Coultas, a new Conservative councillor, was about the need to change the way in which Council meetings are conducted, to allow genuine and open debate and questioning of Cabinet members. The fact that each member can speak once only on any given agenda item, and that no further debate is allowed after the Cabinet member has responded does not allow for a free-flowing debate in which the Cabinet can be held to account.

The Labour Councillors present defended the current system, blaming the opposition parties for not using the various other means at their disposal (such as putting motions before Council or initiating call-ins by Scrutiny Committees) to challenge the ruling group. The Conservative councillors (and me) belied their party name by calling for reform of the current system to enable a free-flowing debate where Cabinet members can be held to account. This seems unlikely to be part of the Labour Group's reform strategy, however.

Certainly, last night, and when I have discussed this outside the Council with Labour Councillors, their view has been that this would just lead to long-winded Council meetings going on late into the evening - much like in the old pre-Scrutiny days. Well, that's tough: if it makes for a more democratic and challenging Council, then the Labour side are just going to have to wait a bit longer for their bedtime cocoa.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Leaflet after leaflet

And the show goes on. Despite the best efforts of the Labour bully boys, the Lib Dem campaign in Sedgefield continues to build up a head of steam. The quality and variety of our leaflets, newsletters, tabloids and glossies is superb.

Here in Darlington we're delivering to Hurworth, Middleton St George and various odd spots around the south of the constituency. Yesterday I delivered in Aycliffe Village, around The Green, which a lovely area you just wouldn't expect to find a few yards off the A167. Old cottages and houses cluster around, dominated by The County, where, as a notice outside proudly announces, Tony Blair entertained Jacques Chirac for dinner.

Yet just a mile away, in Newton Aycliffe, the Labour Council and the local MP have allowed the town centre to decline so dramatically. They should be thoroughly ashamed of their record in the constituency - perhaps that's why their campaign is so negative and defensive, having little more positive to say than that their candidate was born in the constituency.

Tomorrow, Ming Campbell tours the constituency, with more MPs to come every day from now own.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Council work goes on

By-election campaigning is fun - but there is still much to learn about being a Councillor, and plenty of interesting work to do there.
Yesterday, the Environment Scrutiny Committee organised a conference for councillors from all scrutiny committees about climate change. Starting at 10am it was planned to continue until 3.30pm. All councillors were invited: about 10 of us started the day, but only about 7 made it through to the end. Apparently 8 others had said they were coming, but didn't turn up.
It was a shame that others were unable to attend, particularly as officers and experts from outside the Council had made such an effort with their presentations. Cllr Copeland, the Cabinet member with responsibility for much of this area, was present throughout the day.
At least those of us who did attend - a good mix of all three parties - were passionate about the subject. The main aim of the day was to find topics which relate to climate change which could be suggested to the various Scrutiny Committees for their consideration, as well as to learn more for ourselves about the subject.
What is apparent is that, at long last, climate change has been brought right to the top of the political agenda. Local authorities have a major role to play, through the planning system, as social landlords, and by setting an example, in helping to combat this problem.
There is also the need not just to change our behaviour to help reduce the release of greenhouse gases so that future generations do not suffer the appalling consequences of climate change, but also to take action to ameliorate the worst effects of climate change which are already happening.
While our actions today can help to reduce the problem in the future, there is nothing that can be done to reverse what has already happened. An average temperature increase of at least 2 degrees centigrade will be with us for generations. The extremes of weather which we have experienced over the past few years will continue, and get worse, so ways have to be found to adapt, so that we can cope effectively with extremes of temperature and rainfall.
The task now, for those of us from all three parties, is to ensure that the lessons of today's meeting are taken forward into every committee and into cabinet, to ensure that all decisions are made with consideration of any effects there might be on climate change.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Photos from HQ

Pictures of the Campaign HQ in Newton Aycliffe taken by Jonathan Wallace. Top: candidate Greg Stone with visiting MP Andrew Stunnel; middle: Carol Woods, Parliamentary Candidate for Durham, at work with the clerical team; bottom: some of the thousands of leaflets being delivered today.
There is so much to do to get our message across in just two weeks, so, if you support the Lib Dems and want to join in the fun, go to the campaign website to find out how YOU can help

On the campaign trail

If there's one thing Lib Dems love - it's by-elections. As the third party, normally we tend to get less news coverage than the other two parties, but by-elections give us the opportunity to get our message across directly to the electorate.
So this week, party members and organisers from across the country have been streaming into Sedgefield constituency. Tens of thousands of leaflets have already been delivered, while canvassing teams are spreading out across the constituency.
The overwhelming message I got on the doorstep yesterday in Newton Aycliffe was the huge disappointment felt by lifelong Labour voters at being let down - for example over Iraq and by the Government's mishandling of the NHS. They're also wondering why Labour's campaign is already turning petty and negative - clearly that's to be their tactic, when they have so little to boast about.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Now I've seen it all

Rubbish Bags. Fashion handbags made by a Fairtrade Co-operative using discarded juice cartons! Shall I stock them?

Techie error

Ooops, this week's posts have disappeared. That'll teach me to try new ideas. Will try to catch up later.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Delivering leaflets in the rain

Back from holiday on Friday night in time for the official celebrations to open the Pedestrian Heart. Fairly constant drizzle made it a rather damp occasion, and unfortunately drove most of the stalls at the Community Carnival into the Arts Centre. This also meant no live music in Stanhope Park, which was a shame.
The Carnival procession did not seem as long or grand as in previous years. It's a real pity that the Health and Safety police have decreed that floats on the backs of lorries are not allowed. Professional carnival artists provided some colour and put on a good show in the town centre, while the kids from local community centres processed enthusiastically in their excellent home-made costumes, despite the rain.
Then, in the afternoon, over to our campaign HQ in Newton Aycliffe, where members are begining to gather to fight the by-election campaign. I squeezed in an hour's leafletting in the pouring rain - oh, the joy of being a Lib Dem activist. We may only have just over a couple of weeks to fight this campaign, but it's already off to a flying start.

Scared Labour rush poll

The Labour Party has called both the Sedgefield and Ealing Southall by-elections for the earliest possible date: July 19th. Having lost a number of seats to the Liberal Democrats over the past few years, and nearly losing rock-solid Hartlepool to us, Labour has decided to rush through these elections to stop us gaining any campaign momentum.
Surprisingly, although they knew about this long ago, Labour does not have a candidate yet: and apparently won't be selecting until Wednesday. The Tories have appointed Graham Robb, a PR consultant from Darlington.
All Liberal Democrat approved parliamentary candidates, were emailed details of the application procedure overnight on Wednesday/Thursday - to be returned by 10am on Friday morning.
Local party members, appointed by our local executive, carried out a short-listing from those who applied. The full local party membership will vote to choose our candidate at a hustings on Tuesday evening. The shortlist contains very high quality candidates from the northern regon, including local members. Whoever we choose will be an excellent candidate.