Friday, 28 September 2007

No Ray Mallon here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just think, you could have had this:

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Not exactly rushed off their feet

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

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

A third way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elected Mayor - You Decide!

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

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

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

Friday, 14 September 2007

We want our money

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

Saturday, 8 September 2007

By felucca to Thebes

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

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

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

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

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

Overall, as always with Explore, a great holiday.