Tuesday, 30 October 2007

"Scrutiny" Committee

On my bike today for a ride up to Whinbush Way for the new Neighbourhood Services Scrutiny Committee. A small, crowded room, with no space for local residents to squeeze in, even if they'd wanted to - so why did we drag 20 or so people up there instead of a comfortable room in the Town Hall?

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

"So, where do you go to, my lovely?"

The Rt Hon Alan Milburn, MP for for Pepsico, Lloyds Pharmacy and, occasionally, Darlington, is revealed to have attained his rightful place at the top of at least one league table. No, obviously not for making the most speeches in the House of Commons (he's only made two in the past year!). And no, obviously not for voting in the House of Commons (he's only voted in 63% of the votes in the past year!).

No: our Alan, that selfless spokesman for the people of Darlington - despite his obvious distaste for mixing it with his fellow MPs in London - is top of all the MPs in claiming for rail expenses (almost £16000 in the past year), and equal first in claiming his living away from home expenses.

Where on earth does he go that costs over £300 a week, 52 weeks a year, in rail fares? He obviously doesn't spend his time in Westminster. Does Pepsico hold its board meetings in Penzance, or Aberdeen? Is he a closet train spotter, roaming the network searching for that elusive diesel engine last spotted in a sidings in mid Wales? Is he a fan of Thomas, or Bertie ("I can't smell a smell", said Bertie. "Can you smell a smell, Thomas?" "No, I can't smell a smell. We'll have to ask the Fat Controller.").
As Peter Sarsted sang, "So, where do you go to, my lovely?" I thought he resigned from Government to spend more time at home - well, he certainly doesn't spend more time in Darlington.

Here's the link to the latest annual report of MPs' expenses:

And here's the link to his Parliamentary record, where the figures are repeated:

Empty shops

Walking through the Queen Street arcade yesterday for the first time in a while, I was shocked at the number of empty shop units: 8 out of 24.

I have a job vacancy in my shop at the moment, and among the usual mix of east European and Asian immigrant applicants were employees from Adams, one of the main stores in the Cornmill Centre. It seems Adams is to close in a couple of weeks. I understand the rent and rates in that unit are too high, given the squeeze that the high street retail trade is under.

News also reaches me - confirming a prediction reported several months ago by Nick Wallis - that landlords are trying to maximise rent levels in the town, now that the Pedestrian Heart is complete. If landlords are successful in their increased rent demands it will be a short-sighted move. Retail business in Darlington is still weak. Competition from out of town supermarkets, major centres like Newcastle and the Metro Centre, and on-line retailers, is squeezing the traditional high street retailer.

The new Oval development (pictured above), on which work will start next year, is a big gamble. Is our town big enough to sustain the large fashion chains that are supposed to fill it? If it works, it will help our town compete with other retail centres in the region. If it doesn't, we'll just have more empty shop units.

Landlords have to realise that they must temper their demands for ever increasing rents in order not to put their tenants under excessive financial pressure.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

North Road Primary Consultation

The public consultation process concerning the new North Road Primary School started last week with an open evening at the school for parents and local residents. Facilitated by a charity, the British Council for School Environments, the children and teachers had already taken part in a number of workshops to find out what they liked and disliked about the current school and what they wanted to see in the new school, which is to be built across the road.
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

30,000 plastic carrier bags

That's how many my shop gave away last year. Today's Shoptalk column in the Northern Echo, written by the ever-readable Sharon Griffiths (wife of Mike Amos and mum to Owen), features an article about our campaign to wean our customers away from the plastic bag.

Unfortunately, the article does not appear in the Echo's on-line edition, so I'll reproduce the article here:

"Time to bag an eco opportunity"

"Congratulations to Mike Barker of The Health Warehouse in Darlington, who is trying to encourage his customers to use fewer plastic carrier bags.

"Last year the shop gave away almost 30,000 free bags. Nationwide we use 17 billion a year and they take over 100 years to decompose. The best alternative, of course, would be if we all did what our grannies did and took our own bags when shopping.

"Failing that the alternatives seem to be bio-degradable plastic bags, which still take two years to decompose (and leech plastics into the soil and water table), compostable biobags which contain no plastic and decompose completely, but cost at least 4p each or longlife cotton bags which the shop currently sells at cost price (40p) with a donation to Friends of the Earth. Or they and other shops could charge for carrier bags and concentrate our minds a little.

"The Health Warehouse is currently surveying its customers using a questionnaire to see what they should do. A town in Devon has already banned plastic bags. The WI is trying to wean us off our dependency.

"Despite all the crack of dawn queues for the designer "this is not a plastic bag" bag from Sainsbury's, I don't think I've seen a single one being used. Probably all being flogged on eBay.

"The world survived before plastic carrier bags were invented. It might be tricky to do so now, but we could at least try."

On the basis of questionnaire returns so far, I think we shall be replacing our plastic bags with non-plastic compostable bags, but we shall have to charge the cost price of 4p and 9p for each according to the size, with our cotton bags still available for a bargain 40p. If we don't charge for the carrier bags it will cost us over £2000 a year!

This is a two-way thing: it's not just us shopkeepers who cause the problem, it's you shoppers who don't bring your own shopping bags with you. The supermarkets, of course, will never be weaned away from giving away all these plastic bags, unless legislation is brought in to require alternatives to be provided, or a tax is put on plastic bags. Small initiatives like mine make a statement, but will have no impact at all on the supermarkets.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Into the bunker

Last night, as part of the councillors' training programme, I went on a visit to the CCTV control centre. Located in the bunker under the Town Hall, accessed by an anonymous door in the rear of the building, we entered a twilight world of flickering monitors arrayed around two sides of a room, controlled by three operators equipped with joysticks, buttons, microphones and a refreshingly laid-back group mentality. I guess there's not much they haven't seen over the years.

First, we had a very interesting discussion with two senior administrators, much of which went over my head as the techies in the group discussed the relative merits of the various systems available. Then, into the control room itself, through a system of doors and locks, presumably dating back to when this area was to be used as a command centre when the Russians dropped their bomb on Teesside. Unfortunately, their 2-1 victory in the football earlier in the afternoon had inflicted more damage than Mr Kruschev ever did on the town.

Excitingly, while we were there, a message came through from one of the pubs in town that a girl had complained that a group of lads in the pub had mugged her and stolen her purse. Immediately the operator swung into action. A group of lads and girls piled out of the pub and were seen on the pavement outside. They split into two groups, 5 or 6 girls who headed for the Market Place and 5 lads and a couple of girls who headed in the opposite direction.

Following them on their journies across town, from camera to camera, and in constant radio contact with the local police. the operator was able to direct police officers on foot and in a patrol car, to the exact location of the suspect groups.

I don't know whether there were any arrests, but, if they'd wanted to impress a group of visiting councillors, it couldn't have been done much better than that.

At the same time, I did have a sense of unease - particularly about the talking cameras. There is something so Big Brother about a voice booming out at someone for dropping some litter. Is it just taking the surveillance society one step too far?

Earlier in the evening, apparently, one of the operators had felt it necessary to use the speakers to ask a group of skateboarders to move on from the Pedestrian Heart. While we were there, he was keeping an occasional eye on a couple of BMX riders in front of the Pease statue. As he said, "They built the biggest playground in Darlington when they built the Pedestrian Heart". While there are large notices in the room reminding the operators of their responsibilities under human rights and privacy legislation - and the operators themselves were very aware of their duties in this respect - I am concerned that having someone sitting in a bunker under the Town Hall using a loudspeaker to move skateboarders on, or tell people to pick up litter, is a little over the top, and needs to be watched (no pun intended) carefully. We need to be very careful before applying this more generally.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

And another one bites the dust

So, now we have yet another living former Lib Dem leader from Scotland.
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

Website of the week

Following my reference to William Cobbett's "Rural Rides" in an earlier post, I have to share with you one of my favourite websites, which I only discovered last week.

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

A disturbing story

A clash of meetings last night meant a choice between the North Road Community Partnership and the Public Protection Forum. I chose the former, which turned out to be a challenging meeting - though not for me, for a change.

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

Corporate Governance Working Party

The second meeting of the Corporate Governance Working Party took place on Tuesday lunchtime. The first meeting a couple of weeks earlier had been a real shambles. This time, at least we had an agenda and some papers to look at, though they hadn't been sent out until late on Monday afternoon.

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

Locking horns?

Last week's Full Council typified much that is wrong with the way that institution operates. Hopefully the newly-formed Corporate Governance Working Party will get to grips with this, but more of that anon.
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


Having spent the first half of the weekend preparing for a snap General Election, I then spent the second half of it not preparing for said election. Luckily, this meant I could watch three mighty sporting encounters without feeling guilty that I really should be designing a canvassing leaflet or going off to Durham to stuff some postal vote application forms in envelopes.
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

Euro Hustings in a remarkable building

Off to Stockton Town Hall on Saturday for the 10am stop on the Lib Dem Northern Region Euro Hustings roadshow. In the midst of General Election fever we still have to look ahead to 2009 and select our team for the European elections.

The photo shows Fiona Hall MEP, Neil Bradbury, Chris Foote-Wood and Simon Reed, with Doreen Huddart, appropriately enough as the Candidates' Committee Chair, bathed in celestial light from the window behind.

All four candidates, though remarkably diverse in terms of age, experience and personality, handled the questions well and would be a credit to the party if chosen for our list.

The hustings were held in the Council Chamber of Stockton Town Hall: a remarkably compact (estate agents speak) room laid out in the 1880s with a dark wooden raised bench for the mayor, cabinet and senior officers, with a shallow arc of wooden benches for the councillors. There is a tiny balcony for any member of the public intrepid enough to venture up. I assumed that this was merely an historical relic, but no, Stockton Council still meets here.