Tuesday, 30 October 2007
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
Tuesday, 23 October 2007
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
Thursday, 18 October 2007
Tuesday, 16 October 2007
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
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
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
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
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
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: