Thursday, 29 November 2007

Milburn on his travels again

Alan's been off on his travels again. Our MP, who racked up the 17th highest expenses in the House, despite speaking in just ONE Commons debate in the past year and voting in just 62% of the divisions, has been off to Australia, advising Kevin Rudd, the Labor winner of the recent general election there. Well, Mr Bean has never been his best friend, and now Tony's gone he's a bit out on a limb.

It appears our Alan regards his Parliamentary salary as being only enough to warrant being a part-time MP, such is the amount of time he spends on his extra-curriculum activities.

I wonder if he offset his carbon emissions by making a payment to a sustainable energy project. I'm sure his Pepsico salary is more than enough to cover the carbon costs of his air travel to and from Australia!

Monday, 19 November 2007

Darlington PPC Hustings

The hustings meeting to choose a Parliamentary Candidate for Darlington took place this evening. The shortlist was myself, Robert Adamson, who was our candidate in the previous two General Elections, and John Harris, a councillor from Richmond who is married to Baroness Harris, a Lib Dem peer.
I am delighted to say I was selected by a clear majority on first preference votes. It will be a real honour to represent the Lib Dems in my local constituency. No doubt the Labour candidate will be our current absentee MP, Alan Milburn. Surprisingly perhaps, since it is only fairly recently that Labour won the seat, the Conservatives have not yet selected their candidate. Will it be another faceless city-type from London, or will they go for their new recruit, Lib Dem loser and defector, Nigel Boddy? We couldn't really get that lucky, could we?

Friday, 16 November 2007

No more smelly sacks

Ok, this may not be the most exciting photograph on this blog, but it represents my first individual casework success.

Back in July, at a coffee morning in the Havelock Centre, a resident of 9-12 George Short Close told me they had nowhere to store their black refuse sacks. It seems an old u-shaped brick shelter, behind which they used to store their sacks, was pulled down some years ago and nothing was ever provided to replace it. So all four residents had to store their black sacks inside their flats all week - which got a bit smelly, especially in summer.

The resident told me she had complained to two previous ward councillors (neither of them Lib Dems) but nothing had been done. When I contacted the Director she told me that they had received no complaints about this, but she would investigate and get it sorted out. What were those councillors doing?

Anyway, I called round this week and there was their new storage bin. The residents are very pleased with it. No more smelly sacks in their flats. Everyone's happy and I've got a nice story for our next Focus.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

A stroll around the Pedestrian Heart (1)

Strolling out from work at lunchtime today, even though we are in mid-November, people were sitting on the benches and steps in the new Pedestrian Heart, relaxing and enjoying themselves. I regret the loss of the traditional three levels and some of the classic features of the old High Row, but it's certainly more pleasant to stroll around that area now.
But there are things I don't understand and other things I don't like. Also, some rough edges that still need ironing out.
First, on several days of the week, black sacks are piled around the around one of the lamp posts. It looks bad. Where do they come from?
Second, why weren't NTL required to clean and repaint their cable boxes?
Third, can someone please tell me what this road sign means?
More exciting pics tomorrow!

Cabinet Last Night

Yesterday evening I attended my first Cabinet meeting, deputising for our group leader. The leaders of both the opposition groups and the independent councillor are all invited to attend, with speaking rights. Also present were five senior Conservatives in the public seats and two members of the public.
The Chair, Leader of the Council John Williams, asked the two members of the public if they wanted to speak and what they wanted to speak on. He explained one or two points from the agenda and then re-arranged the agenda to allow them both to speak early, rather than wait around to speak, which was helpful.
Both members of the public spoke eloquently, calmly and persuasively - and also responded to what cabinet members and officers said in reply. One gentleman talked about 20mph zones which are being introduced and complained about the use of ugly, damaging road humps used to enforce them. The other gentleman spoke about the new Eastern Transport Corridor which has gone way over budget.
They were listened to respectfully, although I don't suppose they got the answers they were looking for.
I spoke about the proposed 20mph zone in the Fitzwilliam Drive area, which was withdrawn from the scheme following public opposition. I was able to point out that the rejection of the scheme was not an objection to 20mph zones per se, but rather a protest vote about the traffic chaos in the Fitzwilliam Drive/Leyburn Road area. I told Cabinet that local residents wanted an end to the traffic jams and chaos outside their front doors before they could be persuaded to approve of a 20mph zone. The Cabinet Member did not respond to this.
I also spoke about the Talking Together roadshow and the poor attendances so far, particularly at the Q&A sessions. I suggested that this might be due to a lack of belief among residents that the Council actually mean what they say and doubts about whether promises will be kept. I pointed out that we had been promised community use of parts of the new PRU building at Rise Carr School, but that gradually these opportunities for community use were being designed out or downgraded. How could people trust the Council to keep its promises?
Cllr McEwan didn't mention Rise Carr, but he repeated his support for the new North Road School to have decent community facilities and offered to meet me to discuss them.
Finally, I spoke about the new waste management contract. Both the leading bids include a commitment to achieve the government's 50% recycling rate, but I suggested that this was too conservative, that we should have been aiming for a much higher rate and a much improved kerbside recycling scheme. I am anxious that the Council does not use the achievement of this Government target as an excuse not to do even more. I also asked whether the Council had consulted the Public Register which holds details of Environment Agency inspections of both the leading bidders. I was told that they hadn't.
My suggestion that the closeness of the two leading bids was such that Full Council should be given a presentation by both companies before a final decision was made was met with a mildly sarcastic comment about the revolutionary nature of this proposal from the Lib Dems. I took that as a "no".
Most of the Conservative Councillors in the public seats were also allowed to speak as often as they wanted to, though one of them may have wished he hadn't when he had to be told to sit down by his own colleagues.
A more entertaining two hours than I had been expecting, mainly due to the interventions from the public seats.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Talking Together

Tonight the "Talking Together" roadshow came to North Road ward. As a vehicle for stakeholders to meet it was useful; as a vehicle for public engagement it was much less successful.

Representatives from the police, PCT, Groundwork, Streetscene, Community Partnerships and public transport had set up display stalls in the hall. Local ward councillors, council officers (including the Chief Executive) and two Cabinet members were there too - but very few local residents.

At the hour-long question-and-answer session there were just six residents present: somewhat outnumbered by councillors and officers. I knew all but one of the residents: all well-known, hard-working community activists from the area who are involved in local residents', tenants' and friends' groups. Maybe there were three or four others in the exhibition hall - but that was all.

As Cllr Bill Dixon, the Cabinet member chairing the Q&A sessions said, it's early days and the Council is still learning how best to organise and publicise these events. While there may well be improvements which could be made, and as these events become more established the attendance may improve, I do have a couple of fundamental concerns.

First, will "ordinary" residents ever attend in significant numbers if these events are seen as talking shops? Maybe "Talking Together" was a bad choice of title for this reason. As one of the community activists said, it's actions that count, not words.

Second, if "ordinary" residents fail to attend, will this be used by those on the Council who oppose devoluton of decision-making to Area Committees to suggest that local people are not interested, so why devolve power? This would be a mistake. Local residents do get involved when their personal interests are affected, and if they believe their involvment will have beneficial consequences. If "Talking Together" is seen as just a talking shop, they won't attend. This does not mean they would not get involved if there are genuine local decisons to be made and money to be spent on local projects. If "Talking Together" fails, this does not mean that Area Committees with devolved powers would also fail.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Waste Management Contract

Later this week, officers will be reporting to councillors the details of the new Waste Management Contract which has been negotiated, replacing the one we have with Durham County Council.
As befits a Council which now professes to be open and consultative, there has been no openness or consultation at all with us or the public about what we would like to see included in this major aspect of DBC's operations. How we increase recycling, reduce waste and deal appropriately with what's left is a vitally important decision. Cabinet will be considering the report next week. Thursday will be our first view of what they propose. We'll be holding them to account if it's not up to scratch.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Immigration on the agenda

As David Cameron seeks to capitalise on the Government's embarrasment about just how many economic migrants there are in this country, and how many of "our" jobs they're taking, and a Tory PPC speaks out in support of Enoch Powell's views, I thought I'd share this with you. The headteacher of North Road Primary School in his report to governors last week, wrote:

"Did you know that we are an increasingly cosmopolitan school? In addition to our predominanly White British pupils and our large Romany contingent we have Polish, Lithuanian, Czech, Greek Cypriot, Chines, Philipino, Hungarian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Vietnamese ethnic groups, plus many children of mixed race. We receive support for EAL from our LA "Language for Living" service and are buying in resources to help these pupils. The pupils are fully included in the life of the school. They bring with them new cultures and a richness of language and experiences that enhance our school".

Well written, David.

Last week was my first governors' meeting, which was lengthy and dominated by consideration of a huge number of papers and policies which makes one wonder just how much teachers' time is taken up with this sort of thing, rather than teaching. Still, I'm sure the parents of our primary school girl pupils will be pleased that we've adopted the Council's policy on providing education for school-age mothers!

I was surprised to learn that every incidence of racial abuse or unpleasantness among our pupils is fully recorded and reported on. Thankfully there are very few in our school, and I do wonder whether it's the pupils themselves speaking, or if they're just repeating something they might have heard at home, without understanding what their words mean.
Overall, not having been involved in education since I left school myself over 30 years ago, I was surprised at just how much paperwork, policies, programmes, targets, reviews, statements, forms, evaluations, standards and duties seem to be involved in the job of teaching!