Wednesday, 31 December 2008

George Francis Train

Darlington has a rich and exciting history, thanks largely to the Quaker families who dominated the town for so long. One of the great joys of living here is that we can read all about their exploits in Echomemories, Deputy Editor Chris Lloyd's regular page in the Northern Echo. For those of you outside the area, and are links to Chris's essays.

Today's essay is about an eccentric American called George Francis Train, who allied himself with the Pease family and built a horse-drawn tramway to deliver customers from North Road Railway Station to and around the town centre.

I found this article particularly revealing for two reasons. First, Darlington Liberal Democrats proposed in our manifesto for the last local elections that the town should be provided with a bus station, and that an environmentally-friendly shuttle bus service should operate from there, serving various places around the town centre. Instead, as Chris himself pointed out recently, we have the lunacy (my word, not his) of hundreds of buses a day careering through the town centre which otherwise could be completely pedestrianised. George Francis Train beat us to it by 150 years.

The second thing which caught my eye was this quote from the Darlington Telegraph, which apparently was brave (or foolhardy) enough to be anti-Pease.

The Telegraph accused the Peases of "brow-beating insolence, misnancying arrogance and impudent contempt of all courtesy." I've made a note of this for the next Full Council Meeting.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

40 minutes to post a parcel. Post Office Ltd should be ashamed

Since the closure of Cleveland Terrace and other Post Offices around Darlington, queues at the main Post Office on Crown Street have grown to gargantuan proportions. No business that cared about its customers would require them to stand for over half an hour, just to post a parcel. It's absolutely appalling and yet they seem totally oblivious to the cost of their inadequacies in terms of stress and lost productivity. Post Office Ltd just doesn't give a damn!

Setting out today at 11am to post my weekly parcel to Will in Afghanistan, my colleague (if you think I'm going to queue up that long, you've got another think coming: I know what it's like) arrived back at my shop at 11.46. It's a two minute walk in each direction. You do the maths. Normally, the whole thing takes about half an hour, which is totally unacceptable anyway. Today, it took over three-quarters of an hour: that's a cost to me of over £5 in wages.

There were FIVE service points open. FIVE!!! So it wasn't as if they were manning the whole counter to try to serve customers properly. They only put five staff on duty at 11am one week before Christmas. Are these people stupid? Probably: they certainly don't give a damn about customer service.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Will's friend killed by 13 year old suicide bomber

Three Royal Marines from 45 Commando based in Arbroath died today in Sangin when a thirteen year old boy, pushing a wheelbarrow with a bomb in it, blew himself up. Will is in 45 Commando and on another day this could have been him out there on patrol.

How on earth do our Marines protect themselves against schoolkids determined to kill themselves and everyone else around them? What sort of brainwashing must these kids go through that makes them believe their destiny lies in self-destruction?

Gordon Brown, on a visit to Afghanistan today, said the work of our troops out there made our lives safer in this country. Well, maybe if we ever "win" this war, but with a seemingly unending supply of teenagers prepared to blow themselves up, and adults happy to strap bombs on them and push them out the front door, how many of our boys must lose their lives first?

Thursday, 11 December 2008

250 new homes on Corus site

Sandwiched between the Darlington-Bishop Auckland railway line and Whessoe Road, and falling into North Road and Harrowgate Hill wards, is the old Corus (British Steel) site. Corus still operate from one building there, but most of the site has already been cleared. It remains an eyesore, with an ugly high wall running for much of its length.

Today, St Modwen Properties PLC, "the UK's leading regeneration specialist", held a public exhibition in the Bridge Centre, showcasing their proposals for regenerating this land. Their plan is for 250 new family homes to be built there. There would be small play areas for younger children, pedestrian and cycle paths and links to North Park.

With Faverdale on the other side of the railway, the developers also envisage a link to the industrial park under the railway line.

The way St Modwen work is to apply for planning permission, carry out the basic structural work, and then sell off the land in parcels to housebuilders. They envisage homes on the site within two years.

Local schools, particularly Harrowgate Hill Primary School, would clearly come under considerable pressure from this development. There would also be traffic congestion implications for the already busy Whessoe Road in the approach to "the cut" under the railway line.

There is, however, a need for affordable family housing in the town, which this development will help to meet.

Friday, 5 December 2008

No ticket? You're not coming through here!

Temporary part time barriers at Darlington Railway Station, designed to prevent ticket fraud by ensuring that travellers accessing the platforms have a valid ticket to travel, are to be made permanent in the New Year. This is to be introduced right the way down the East Coast Main Line.

This means that only people intending to board the train will be allowed on the platform. No more touching scenes of tearful goodbyes or cheerful hellos, as young lovers part or meet. No more helping your old gran with her luggage onto the train back home. No more frantic waving to your friends on board as the train pulls in.

When I was a kid you could buy a platform ticket for a few pence to gain access to the platform. Then for many years it was a free-for-all. Now the heavy hand of bureaucracy has spoken and these scenes, so much a part of everyone's memories, as well as countless film scripts, will be no more.

As "Simon" from National Express "Customer Relations" says, "People will no longer be allowed on the platform without a ticket. This is going to be implemented on every station up and down the East Coast line. We do not have any plans to issue a platform ticket in the foreseeable future."

I think this is a real shame: they're taking half the fun and romance out of travelling by train.

On the radio again

Over to Middlesbrough this morning for a half-hour phone-in discussion on BBC Radio Tees with my old sparring partner James Wharton, Conservative PPC for Stockton South. The topic was voter apathy, about which probably as much has been written as any other political issue - without reaching any consensus as to why people don't vote or what can be done to get them to vote.

Most of the callers simply believed politicians can't be trusted and that they never deliver on their promises, so why should people bother to vote. These are easy shots to make because there's more than a glimmer of truth in them, but it doesn't help us to understand how to improve voter turnout.

The point I tried to make was that there are other measures of political involvement and participation and a healthy democracy than simply the numbers of people who turn out to vote every couple of years. I argued that people do get involved in politics when there is an issue which directly affects them and where they hope they can influence the views of decision makers. I argued for more devolution of power, responsibility and decision making so that ordinary residents can get more involved in making decisions about the area they live in. Until people feel engaged with the political process and understand the constraints under which local politicians in particular operate, then we will not see a return to the mass voter turnouts of the post war years.

One of the best moments, though, was when the presenter asked if we had more charismatic leaders, like Barak Obama, would interest in politics increase. James suggested that the Conservatives already had charismatic and forthright leaders, and cited David Davis as an example. I nearly choked on my metaphorical cornflakes. Mind you, the best I could come up with was Lembit Opik!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

One more statistic

Just before I went into the Cabinet meeting last night I received a phone call from Will, my son who is serving with 45 Royal Marine Commando in Helmand Province. He sounded pretty shook up, having just witnessed his first casualty in battle.

During November, five Royal Marine Commandos were killed in Afghanistan. Yesterday, Will's sargeant, who he was out on patrol with, had a leg blown off. Will was about 100 metres away at the time. Will's patrol group got this lad airlifted out, and then went in search of the Taliban forces who had attacked the patrol. It seems they got two of them, though, as is usually the case, the rest just disappeared.

My mind really wasn't on local politics after that conversation. But then, such is the nature of modern warfare, this afternoon came another phone call from Will. It seems his gran had sent him some tinned fish (!), but as everyone knows, you can't eat tuna without mayonnaise, so I have to head off to Sainsbury's to buy some mayo in a plastic bottle to send out! He also wants tinned mackerel, some Doritos and Nobby's Nuts, whatever they are.

It's just so surreal.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Shock, horror as Williams and Scott apologise

Cabinet this evening discussed the issue of the proposed sale of part of the Arts Centre to the Sixth Form College. At Council last week the Labour leadership came under fierce criticism for progressing this matter without bothering to inform or consult the local ward councillors.

At Cabinet, the Leader, Cllr Williams, and the lead member, Cllr Andy Scott, both apologised to the College ward councillors for not consulting them at an earlier stage. Furthermore, an amendment to the Cabinet paper added a period of consultation to the process.

Of course, some Labour councillors will try to present the initial failure to consult as merely an oversight. Yeh, as if! What this represents is a humiliation for the Labour leadership, who have been forced by adverse publicity to apologise. Their fictitious democratic credentials had been shown to be just that: fiction.

If the sale goes through, which would be a good thing for the Sixth Form College, though maybe not for independent arts in the town, at least now it will be done openly, democratically and with appropriate levels of participation by locally elected councillors.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

The mushroom tendency - kept in the dark and know!

A noisy row erupted at Thursday’s Full Council Meeting, with Tories and Lib Dems roaring their disapproval at remarks made by Cllr Williams, the Leader of the Council.

A deal has been cooked up by senior officers and councillors to sell off part of our superb Arts Centre, including the Youth Theatre, built just a couple of years ago at a cost of £300,000, to the Queen Elizabeth 6th Form College next door. With the recession in full swing, the Council is strapped for cash and sees selling off public property as the way to balance the books.

Conservative Cllr Ian Galletely, never shy of getting on his hind legs to have a go at Labour, complained, not about the decision to sell the land – that would wait until next week’s Cabinet meeting – but about the fact that the first time he heard about the scheme was from a neighbour who had read the Northern Echo. There had been absolutely no involvement nor consultation with ward councillors.

Ian’s speech was about the constitutional impropriety of this process. He was, however, told to shut up and sit down by the Labour Mayor. Eventually, he did resume his seat. The point had been made, however.

Then, when Cllr Williams rose to reply to Ian’s remarks, he said, “If I was the ward councillor, I’d have known about it”. This arrogant and supercilious remark enraged opposition members, who shouted their disapproval across the Chamber. As a Labour Councillor he would have known about it. It's the Lib Dems and Tories who are kept in the dark on this Council.

Unfortunately, the post-election promise by the Labour leadership to operate in a more open and inclusive way has been shown to be a short-lived fiction. In my ward, North Road, we can (and will) provide several examples from the past year where officers have completely failed to consult us or notify us about their plans for the ward. This is despite a promise earlier from the Chief Executive to my colleague, Cllr Fred Lawton, that we would be consulted about officers’ plans.

The gloves are off on this one. Most opposition councillors can recite stories from the past year of a failure to communicate or consult by officers. There appears to be an endemic assumption among some officers, at all levels, that Lib Dem and Conservative ward councillors can be disregarded when decisions about their wards are made. This is completely unacceptable. We will not give up on this issue.

When I was a young athlete, I won the Berkshire schools championship in my event, which meant I qualified for the All-England Schools Championships, held that year at Crystal Palace. I clearly remember the pep talk given by the senior teacher who was responsible for getting our squad together to go up to the Championships. “You may be representing a small county,” he said, “but you’re a county champion, just as much as the champions of the big counties like Yorkshire or Middlesex are. Some others may be more talented, but you’re all champions.”

Well, it’s the same with ward councillors: we are all directly elected by our residents to represent them in Council and we should all be equal in that respect and entitled to receive equal support and information from all officers. No matter what party we are from, we are all entitled to equal respect from officers. It is quite simply undemocratic and disrespectful to our electorate to withhold important information from opposition ward councillors.

The Labour Group seem determined to appear to be consulting with residents about some things (but not the new waste contract, for example) over the heads of ward councillors. They consult over issues they expect to be criticised for, such as cycling in the Pedestrian Heart. This means that criticism can be deflected by referring back to the consultation.

Big issues, like the new waste management contract, are not consulted on, because Labour have already decided what to do and do not anticipate much public interest, apart from pressure groups like FoE.

The arrogance of the Labour leadership, colluded with by some non-elected officers, is going to be a theme of our campaigning from now right through to the next local elections, you can bank on it!

Full Council (1)

Thursday evening was Full Council: usually a somewhat tedious rubber-stamping of Labour’s programme, with the occasional fairly innocuous bit of argy-bargy between the parties.

But Thursday’s meeting was different. When the Constitution Working Group met earlier in the year, one of its aims was to improve public access to the Council. In our discussions I pushed for Questions from the Public to be encouraged at the start of Full Council meetings, with the need to give only 24 hours notice of questions to be asked. Previously, the requirement was 10 days, I think – and the right of residents to ask questions was never advertised.

At last month’s AGM of Darlington Friends of the Earth, I told the Group about their right to ask questions in Council. They seized on this idea and on Thursday night came along with five questions, plus supplementaries, for Cllr Wallis, the lead member for the Environment and Climate Change.

This was the first time any member of the Public had ever asked a question at Council. We do often nowadays have speeches from the public at Cabinet Meetings, but never before at Council.

Cllr Wallis had clearly prepared and practiced his answers, which were lengthy and coherent. He didn’t convince his questioners that recycling (or down-cycling) through the new MBT plant was an improvement on kerbside recycling, but at least FoE got their day in court, they were welcomed and heard with respect and the Echo reported the event.
Friends of the Earth want to see as much as possible of our household waste collected at the kerbside for high-grade recycling. They view MBT processers as the necessary final stage of the waste management progamme, but only after as much as possible has been recycled from the kerbside. The Council's new contract with Wades reduces the range of items collected at the kerbside, instead relying on the MBT plant to process waste for low quality recycling.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

What a choice

On Sunday night I have a choice: spend a relaxing evening at home with a glass or two of a mellow red while catching up with a few tv programmes I've recorded - or go down to my business and spend the whole night re-calculating my prices and re-ticketing thousands of individual items, so that the Government can save the economy by allowing my customers to spend £5.18 instead of £5.29 on a bottle of vitamins. And I reckon it will take more than just one night to do the job.

The Government expects me to do this because, from December 1st, I have to charge VAT at 15% instead of 17.5%. If I don't get it all done overnight, the instructions from Mr Geoff Lloyd, the VAT Director, tell me my employees who operate the tills must calculate the new price manually. The instructions are helpful: they must take the existing retail price and multiply that by 7 and divide the result by 47. The new answer must then be subtracted from the retail price. They must then add 15% to the new price. And that assumes that they know which items are sold with VAT at 17.5%, which have VAT at 5% and which have no VAT.

Well, that's alright then. I'm sure my customers won't mind waiting in ever-growing queues while we carry out these manual calculations so that GB can save the economy.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Only a matter of time

Have had a break from blogging for a week: catching up with real work and ward work after spending so much time during the North Road by-election bringing the democratic process into disrepute by communicating with the voters (link here November 12th).

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine who works for the Northern Echo told me their advertising revenue had fallen by 70%. And today we see the inevitable consequence: the announcement of job losses at North of England Newspapers. I do hope this is enough to ensure this newspaper's survival.

While some local Labour Councillors would prefer it if Liberal Democrats did not communicate and interact with the electorate (it makes things so messy when there's more than one message out there) we will continue to do so: and I sincerely hope as well that the Northern Echo will survive the current economic crisis and continue to do a superb job of reporting on local news and holding those in power to account.

Although I manage to get my name in the Echo with some regularity (always available with a quote) my main contact with them was before I was elected, when I was part of the Say No To Tesco campaign. The editor, Peter Barron, was determined that this issue would be comprehensively covered and he put his organ right out there at the front of the debate. In this, and in so many of its own campaigns over the years, the Echo has proven itself to be an essential part of the life of this town. Not many towns of our size can support a daily local newspaper. We need it.

The Echo has a great mix of experience and youthful enthusiasm amongst its reporting and editorial staff. Without them, the democratic process would be the poorer.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Convincing Lib Dem victory in North Road

Tonight's result in the Darlington Borough Council North Road Ward by-election was a convincing win for the Lib Dems, losing just a handful of votes to the Independent candidate, a former Lib Dem councillor in the ward.

The result in full:
Anne-Marie Curry (Lib Dem) 561 (50.8%) (-4.2%)
Labour 262 (23.7%) (-0.0%)
Conservative 115 (10.4%) (-1.0%)
BNP 106 ( 9.6%) (-0.3%)
Independent 60 ( 5.4%) (+5.4%)
Turnout 24%
Figures based on top placed candidate from each party in May 2007.

Just 519 votes were cast on the day: 53% of those who voted did so by post.

The result is a vindication of the hard work put into the ward by Cllr Fred Lawton and myself. We are absolutely delighted that Anne-Marie will be joining our team, which will be all the stronger for her presence.

Darlington Liberal Democrats campaigned hard to win, with four leaflets, blue ink letters and a full canvass and polling day operation. Thanks are due to our friends in Redcar, and DF and CFW, for their help during the campaign and to all our members and supporters who delivered and canvassed in inclement weather on cold, dark evenings.

One Labour councillor complained that our strategy of delivering one leaflet each week during the campaign was excessive and brought the democratic process into disrepute. How stupid some people are! The Labour Party actually got their first leaflet out before us - no doubt aware before we were that Cllr Jones was about to be expelled from the Council. I imagine that a few days canvassing in the ward was enough to tell them they couldn't win, so they ran just a token campaign thereafter.

Of course, Labour would prefer it if voters' view of the world was informed by the "Town Crier". It must be so annoying for them that we deliver Focus so that our local residents are better informed about local affairs.

No, what brings the democratic process into disrepute is not the Liberal Democrats delivering a leaflet once a week during an election campaign: it's the Labour Party stifling democratic debate by refusing to devolve any decision-making to ward level and insisting that only they know best what the people of Darlington want.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

BNP deliver third leaflet

The BNP have delivered a third leaflet in the North Road by-election: two more than either Labour or the Conservatives. This one gives me a mention.

Apparently, "Mike Barker, the Lib Dem Councillor for North Road, said he is against BNP policies." What I actually said to the BNP guys who struck up a conversation with me when we were both out delivering last week was, "I think BNP policies are appalling." I know, a bit twee, but, together with "ludicrous", it's a word that tends to leap into my brain quite frequently when I'm describing one or other of the fringe candidates in this by-election!

Anyway, if you're going to quote me lads, get it right! Here's one for your next leaflet, "Mike Barker, Lib Dem Councillor for North Road ward, thinks the BNP is a racist organisation led by a bunch of thugs who should go back under whatever stone they crawled out from." You have my permission to quote me in full.

The full quote about me, if you can be interested in what this bunch have to say, is, "Mike Barker, the Lib Dem Councillor for North Road ward, says he is against BNP policies. This means that he is in favour of immigrants who have never paid a penny into our country getting benefits and houses, agrees that Europe should make 80% of Britain's taxes, is against firm action on crime and strict laws to deal with criminals and thinks that high taxation is worth paying".

Their leaflet also claims Rise Carr has "scores of immigrants from Africa and Asia"; it says the residents of North Road are "working in dead end jobs flipping burgers" because foreign imports have destroyed local industry, and it describes the Pupil Referral Unit as "a borstal". Worst of all, it describes the Lib Dems as "liberal" - oh no, sorry, you got that right, John.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Council to start commercial waste recycling

I have asked in Full Council, at Town Centre Traders' meetings, and on this blog, that Darlington Borough Council match its commitment to increased household domestic recycling with a commercial waste recycling service. My business produces huge amounts of cardboard waste, as do most retailers, and it is annoying to see it carted away to landfill every week.

Now, from December 3rd, the Council will be providing a collection of clean paper and cardboard for recycling - and it's free! Local businesses received letters from the Waste Minimisation and Recycling Officer this morning. I've already signed up for it and I hope everyone else does too. I shall do my bit by mentioning it to the other traders in the Wynd when they come in for their lovely, freshly-made, home-made soup at lunchtime!

Thank You Mr Foster

Blogging has been a bit light recently due to our North Road ward by-election. We've got three leaflets out so far with a week still to go, targetted letters to all postal voters and 75% of houses canvassed despite the dark damp evenings.

However, blogging this morning is easy: I offer you, straight from the pages of the Northern Echo, a letter which appears in today's edition. And no, since I know what some of you will be thinking, whoever Stuart Foster is, he's not a member or known supporter of the Liberal Democrats. He is though, remarkably perceptive:

"I recently received some propaganda from the Conservative Party regarding the North Road Ward by-election in Darlington on November 13.
It would appear that the party’s candidate, George Jenkinson, has been inaccurate concerning the departure of Independent councillor Steve Jones.
Mr Jenkinson states: “This byelection is being held because one of the men elected last year as a Liberal Democrat has not attended the council in six months, so has been thrown off.”
In fact, Mr Jones stood in the last borough council election as an Independent after being thrown out of the Lib Dems.
As Mr Jenkinson seeks to represent the North Road ward it surprises me that he was unable to campaign for support by stating how he would tackle the issues that are relevant to those he seeks to represent.
I am dismayed that he has preferred to use smear tactics against the Lib Dems, which are clearly untrue.
The ward’s present Lib Dem councillors, Fred Lawton and Mike Barker, have worked consistently on North Road issues and their dedication to the area is apparent all year round – not just at election time, which incidentally is the only time I hear from the Conservatives."
Stuart Foster, Darlington

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

"I don't know what they're doing there"

As America takes us all on a giant and exciting leap into the unknown, so David Dimblebore brings us all down to earth with a bump. Sometime after 5am, it had been a long night, the crowds started gathering outside the White House - spontaneously, unlike the Blair's orchestrated gathering back in 97. People in America needed to get out on the streets and celebrate - to be with other people - to share in the enormity of what they had just done.

So what does Dimblebore say? "I don't know why they're gathering there. Nothing's going to happen there." You just don't get it, do you David?

Friday, 31 October 2008

"I'm a Councillor..." The verdict

Gallomanor, the company that organised "I'm a Councillor, get me out of here", have sent us their evaluation of this year's event. I have copied it below.
As you can see, Darlington kids and councillors were the hardest working of all the participating Councils and together we did "stupendously well".

Much of the credit for this goes to Paul Dalton from Democratic Services.

No doubt one Labour Councillor in particular will have something sarcastic to say about the fact that I gave the best answer to the cookie question. For the record, as far as I can remember it, my answer to the question, "Do you like cookies?" was:
"I love 'em. In fact, I make them and sell them in my shop...and flapjacks and cakes and cookies and strawberry scrunches and cookies and flapjacks, stop , I can't go on, I'll have to go and eat one now." It must have been that answer that provoked his anonymous attack on my performance in this event.

Event Evaluation 2008
Darlington Borough Council
Key facts
Event: I’m a Councillor, Get me out of here!
Purpose: Improving the relationship between young people and local government

Dates: 6-17th October 2008 (to coincide with Local Democracy Week)

Participating Councillors:
Cllr Chris McEwan 46%
Cllr Jenny Chapman 24%
Cllr Mike Barker 17%
Cllr Kate Davies 10%
Cllr Cyndi Hughes 2%
Cllr Gill Cartwright 0%
Winner: Cllr Chris McEwan

1) Statistics

Your Council Ranking (out of 21)
Registered users 498 1st
Votes cast 562 1st
Questions asked 524 5th
Votes per user 1.13 5th
Questions per user 1.05 17th
Log ins per user 2.78 5th
Page views 13,479 1st
Live chat, lines by students 11,115 1st
Live chat, lines by cllrs 1,618 1st

2) Commentary
Darlington did stupendously well this year. As you can see from the statistics, you had more young people registered, more page views and more said in live chat than any other council. Often you’ve got more than double the average activity levels – nearly five times the average for chat by young people. When you consider that this was Darlington’s first year of taking part, and that your population is a fraction of many of our councils, it’s even more impressive.
Frankly, we can’t praise you highly enough. We are certain that much of this success was down to the dedication and organisation of the staff responsible for the event at the council. As an example, in the run up to the event Gallomanor needs various information from councils – logos, names of competing councillors, etc – Darlington was usually the first to supply this, always in correct formats, etc. Staff were always good-humoured, organised, paid attention to details, took responsibility and knew what they were talking about but were also willing to
learn from our experience.

The success in Darlington must also be partly due to the sterling efforts of councillors, who were committed, cheerful and down-to-earth and did a great job of communicating with young people at their level, without patronising them. And of course, teachers and young people themselves put in a lot of effort. We wish all councils were like you!

The young people of Darlington were fiery and made sure their personalities shone through in the chatrooms and in their line of questioning. The same can be said for the councillors too though! The councillors notably had fun, and worked well together to act as a team. We saw in Darlington some of the most adoring fans emerge over the fortnight and the finalists had a lot in their inbox to, in their own words ‘make their heads grow big.’

It was almost certainly local facilities that were of biggest priority for the young people of Darlington. Not only was there demand for more youth clubs in ‘Darlo’ but for ones with the right music, facilities and clientele. Students protested that whilst they recognised investment in such schemes in the past, they just weren’t cool enough, or they were full or ‘undesirables’. What became apparent was that the council needed to provide different services and facilities for different types of young people. There was an obvious frustration that different identities are not recognised in the current council provision.
Sadly too there was a lot of concern in Darlington about safety. Rather than objecting to a watchful eye, young people were calling for more, better CCTV.
Many wanted to share their stories of feeling scared and various confrontations. It
certainly gave the councillors food for thought.

Some students thought of different insightful questions. Username ‘Pickles’ asked Cllr Cyndi Hughes (of American origin) how she felt about the BNP ‘saying all people who came to england should go back to where they came from.’ A regular in the chat-room Zachri made sure he asked all the councillors whether they liked cookies. When asked by the moderators why he had chosen to vote for Cllr Mike Barker- Zachri simply stated he had given the best answer to the cookie question!
Maybe something to think about for their future manifestos!

Analysis of the result

Cllr Chris McEwan romped home to victory in Darlington. He won with a large share of the votes, because we are told, he promised the young people things that they wanted such as the scheme ‘small trees’ and cheaper bus fares on Saturdays.

Jenny Chapman was the runner up and was not short of her own admirers. As username ‘Jenny Lover’ so enthusiastically puts; “Dear Jenny. Your views are amazing I take in everything you say... your the best Councillor. I would follow you on your ideas everywhere you go. Your my idol!”
Jenny had been especially committed to the event, spending a great deal of time in the chat room engaging warmly with students, patiently answering their questions and showing an interest in their opinions. We feel sure that this commitment has paid dividends in terms of how those young people feel about the council and whether they feel included and valued in their community.

3) What was the breakdown of questions asked in your council?

Question Category % National Average

About you and being a councillor 32% 24%
Crime and Anti-social behaviour 13% 11%
Education 13% 10%
Transport and the Environment 7% 13%
Youth Issues 3% 8%
General 11% 16%
Local Facilities 23% 17%

4) Which schools and youth groups participated?

Schools/youth groups with more than ten registered users:-
Hummersknott School 145
Hurworth Comprehensive 136
Education Village 118
Branksome Comprehensive School 35
Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College 18

Schools/youth groups with fewer than ten registered users:-
Carmel RC
Harrowgate Hill Primary
Heighington Primary
Springfield Primary
Darlington Youth Service

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Council to "defer" almost £2m capital spend

Darlington Borough Council's Cabinet meeting next week will be asked to approve the "deferment" of £1.723million of capital expenditure in the current financial year. You will recall that the Council recently went £1.9million overbudget in building the little-used Eastern Transport Corridor.

Schemes which will go include £400,000 of unspecified environmental improvements, £700,000 on a new Skerne Park Community Centre, £159,000 on various town centre improvements and several other smaller projects.

The effects of this will vary and in some cases will mean on-going repair bills will increase, which will put further pressure on the Council's Revenue Budget.

This Council has not covered itself in glory over the past few years when it comes to controlling its capital budget, with several examples of over-spends and wastefulness. Some chickens coming home to roost here, methinks.
However, it behoves all individuals, businesses and government organisations to carefully review their expenditure in the current economic climate. I do not envisage any improvement for some time, unless, of course, Gordon Brown decides to pump money into public projects in order to re-stimulate the economy in a desperate bid for votes in 2010.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Make a Difference Day

Today is Make a Difference Day, when community volunteers across the country take part in projects in their neighbourhood. It's Britain's biggest volunteering day of the year.

Cllr Fred Lawton and I went along to join in a riverside litter pick in the North Riverside area of the ward: an event organised by the North Road Community Partnership. We took our by-election candidate, Anne-Marie Curry (pictured above), along to meet the local volunteers. Unfortunately, none of the other by-election candidates turned up, even the Independent candidate, who is also the Chair of the Community Partnership. But then he's only managed to attend one CP meeting in the last six months (one more than the number of Council meetings he managed).

While we were filling our plastic bags with rubbish, I had a quick chat with the Labour candidate, John Vasey, who was out in the estate with a couple of councillors delivering leaflets. I like John, but I couldn't help thinking that, as fast as we were collecting rubbish, he was shoving more through letterboxes.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Dinner with Lembit

Taking a break from canvassing, writing and delivering leaflets in our North Road ward by-election, I went with some colleagues from Darlington Lib Dems on a short jaunt along the A67 to Yarm, for a "hot fork buffet" with Lembit Opik.

Readers who are not part of the Lib Dems will not be aware that we are in the midst of a Presidential election campaign. Lembit is one of the candidates, together with a couple of people I hadn't heard of before, though one of them, Baroness Ros Scott, has been very successful at getting delegates at Conference to wear badges supporting her.

Lembit is a real star, pitching his speech just right for his local audience, raising spirits and inspiring us all to get out there, painting in primary colours, as he puts it. My vote is going to him. With Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Vince Cable providing superb leadership of the Parliamentary party, we need someone with Lembit's personality and drive to lead the party in the country.

My photo shows Lembit with our North Road ward candidate, Anne-Marie Curry, and in Question and Answer action at the Parkmore Hotel.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Well done, Chris

Although the Darlington page of the Big Vote website still does not show the local result, I can reveal to an impatient world that the duly elected winner of "I'm a Councillor, get me out of here", and Youth Champion for the coming year, is bookies' favourite Cllr Chris McEwan.

Since Chris is also the Borough's Play Champion and portfolio holder for Children's Services he has rather cornered the market.

Most of the secondary schools in town participated with great enthusiasm, though it's a shame that neither Carmel nor Eastbourne Academy joined in. I'd be interested to know how many kids voted: it must have been in the hundreds. One chat room session had 45 kids all online at the same time (and then wondering why me and Jenny, the two councillors online at the time, found it difficult to keep up!).

One sad Labour councillor tried to make political capital of the fact that the Labour councillors in the event did better than the Tories. He also took the opportunity, on a publicly available website, by quoting one of his Labour colleagues anonymously, to personally criticise my performance, (for reasons I still cannot fathom, other than that the person who broadcast them is an intellectual bully). He was in a minority, however. What he failed to understand was that the point of the exercise was not for one party or other to win, but for 13 and 14 year old kids to participate in and learn about the political process. In that respect, it's a bit like youth football, where the purpose of taking part should be to enjoy the experience and learn the skills required to play the game well, rather than to win at all costs and by whatever means.

I am certain that many young people, and the participating councillors, gained a great deal from the experience. Hopefully some way can be found to enable these kids to continue to play a part in discussing youth provision in the town. It will be of benefit to us all.

Friday, 17 October 2008

"Ludicrous" screams the Echo

Front page lead story, huge "Ludicrous" headline: today's Echo lays into Steve Jones for his decision to stand again in the by-election he caused.

"Totally ludicrous" were my words to Paul Cook last night when he phoned me about it, and totally ludicrous it is. Steve must have a hell of a thick skin. He probably doesn't realise what some of the Council's officers and councillors are saying privately about his decision to seek re-election.

Well, if I was Steve, with a headline like that about me, I'd think twice about standing. He has til next Wednesday to withdraw his nomination. He can continue to represent his constituents as Chair of the North Road Partnership and Chair of the Friends of North Park. But he obviously isn't interested in attending Council meetings, so why is he wanting to be elected as a councillor again?

Update: My friend Alan Macnab has posted this elsewhere, but I thought it was so good that I'd reprint it here:

The fact is Mr. Jones failed to attend a single Council meeting for six months and as a result he was disqualified from being a Councillor. He must have known the rules about this. I am sure that if he had broached the subject at his job interview with his prospective new employer some arrangement could have been found between them and Darlington Council to allow Mr. Jones to attend Council meetings.
All employers are legally required to give employees reasonable time off for public duties. Employees in this position will normally make the time up by coming into work earlier or in other ways. Darlington Council bent over backwards to contact Mr. Jones in the intervening period and he did not contact the Council. Therefore he was rightly disqualified as a Councillor.
The fact that Mr. Jones is standing for Council so soon after being disqualified and because his actions caused the by-election in the first place is extraordinary, it does make a mockery of the democratic process and is a flagrant waste of public money.
Not only that, it deprives children of a day’s education, employment for teachers and support staff in schools used for the election, working parents their wages which they can ill afford to lose in this present economic climate and for employers the loss of money and production as a result of employees being absent.
Perhaps Mr. Jones should consider these facts and then decide what he wants to do.

Out of the jungle

Well, I didn't make it to the final day. Eviction from "I'm a Councillor, get me out of here!" came five minutes early yesterday at 2.55pm.

It had been a hectic day in the jungle, with two long chatroom sessions booked by the Education Village and a number of informal sessions where students just logged on themselves to see if anyone was there. At one point there were kids from a number of different schools in town all chatting on line with each other, me, Jenny and the moderators.

I wish you could have seen some of the chatroom conversations: some were just pure fun while occasionally we caught a glimpse of the vulnerability and awkwardness of some of the kids. At the same time, others were so confident, clued up and interested in the world around them.

I'm sure that appearing behind a nom de plume made it easier for some of the kids to express themselves, without fear of personal humiliation or being laughed at.

It's been a real eye-opening experience and I hope the Council get involved again some time, so that other councillors can enjoy it to.

Congratulations to Jenny and Chris. I would have put them first and second at the start of the exercise. But when I heard their plans: for a £6m youth centre near The Forum, a mini-Glastonbury in South Park, Darlington's own version of Tall Trees and an amusement complex at Feethams, I knew the rest of us were sunk!

Good luck to both of you on the last day. I hope you find time to do some of your "proper" work today! And good luck with turning those plans into reality.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Another young death

The news tonight that a 21 year old soldier has died in Afghanistan sends a shiver down the spine of all of us with sons fighting in that country. Will is the same age, just a couple of weeks into his first tour with the Royal Marines.

Yesterday I got his first letter home, full of the sort of stories any father wants to hear (not!), Apparently, while on guard duty, an rpg whizzed over his head, exploding 100 metres behind him. And then he was riding shotgun in the last vehicle in a convoy when it came under attack. Will told me he let loose at anything that moved.

And, in this modern age, despite being at war in a far country, Will and his colleagues still get to go on Facebook and keep in touch with home. It's a strange world!

It beggars belief

Former North Road Independent Councillor Steve Jones, thrown off the Council recently for not bothering to attend any Council meetings for six months, is to stand again in the by-election he caused!!

Steve, expelled from the Lib Dems in May 2007 for supporting a BNP candidate in the local elections, must have the hide of a rhino. The cost of this election to the Council is estimated to be £11,000. On top of that, hundreds of parents of pupils at North Road Primary School are going to have to take time off work to look after their children because the school must close for election day. The Pupil Referral Unit at the Phoenix Centre will also close for the day.

How Steve Jones has the nerve to stand for election again, having shown what he thought of the people of North Road by not representing them for six months, when he was perfectly fit and able to do so, is beyond me.

I hope the people of North Road ward ask him what facilities they have lost because of this waste of tax payers' money. I hope the parents of local school children ask him to repay their lost wages on November 13th. And I hope the voters of North Road show what they think of him by giving him a derisory vote.

Why, then is he standing again? Obviously it has nothing to do with the £7,000 a year he lost when he was expelled from the Council, so it must just be that he loves his Council work.
But why, I hear you ask, do you have a photo of Police Station 11 in the Nania District in a Far Eastern country at the top of this article? Well, if you type "Beggars Belief" into Google Images, the first image that appears is this photo. No, I don't know why either, any more than I understand what's going through Steve Jones' head.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Pants to Poverty.

Today is Blog Action Day, the day in the year where bloggers are encouraged to post about a specific subject. This year the theme is poverty.

Bloggers around the world are today posting earnest comments on poverty, so I thought I'd stick to the theme but give you something different: Pants to Poverty.

Here's a bit about these guys:

The Pants Story
Well, it’s been a crazy, beautiful, exciting, inspiring and gorgeous journey so far! We started out as the young people’s group from Make Poverty History in 2005. Remember Live8? That massive rally in Edinburgh? Remember the white band that 8 million people bought? Well that’s where we began.

and if you want to know the rest of story, check it out

Hanging on in there!

Each day, as the clock ticks remorselessly round to 3pm, the butterflies start their daily exercise in my stomach. For 3pm is the time we get to hear who has been evicted from "I'm a Councillor...Get me out of here!"

So far, I've survived three evictions. Leaving us this week have been Gill Cartwright and Kate Davies for the Conservatives and Cyndi Hughes for Labour. Now, though, I'm up against the big two: Labour Cabinet members Chris McEwan and Jenny Chapman.

Jenny is the Chair of Newblood and really knowledgeable about youth issues. Chris is the portfolio holder for Children and Young People, so knows everything that's going on. He also has a block vote from the EV, where his daughter's at school!

Still, there's nothing Lib Dems like more than an election, and I've had a great time doing this. School visits and Question Times, live online chatrooms, interactive question and answer sessions. It's been really informative as well as great fun.

Go and have a look: Log on as a guest and scroll down to Darlington. There are dozens of answered questions on each person's page. Some are quite painful to read, particularly about bullying. Others are just hilarious. They all get an answer, though.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Candidate Chosen for North Road Ward by-election

The results of this evening's selection meeting to choose a candidate to fight the North Road Ward by-election have been announced on the Darlington and Sedgefield Lib Dems website here.

Echo reverts to original format

Hooray! The Echo has reverted to carrying two pages of Darlington news in the front half of the paper. I teased them some time ago in this blog here and here about their new, convoluted layout and it's pleasing to report that they appear to agree with me that it just wasn't working.

And while I'm on the subject, as my friend Nick Wallis has already pointed out, there's a new kid on the blogging block.

Shame our MP (or his PA) couldn't keep it up!

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Street Scene under the spotlight

After insisting for a couple of years that the Street Scene revolution, based around creating "generalists" in the workforce and downgrading the importance placed on specialist horticultural skills, was working well and that the town was benefitting from the new regime, it appears that the Labour leadership has finally admitted what we've been telling them all this time: Street Scene isn't doing the job; residents are fed up and the town looks dirty, uncared for and unloved.

Walk through the town centre any day and see the sad floral displays, the overflowing waste bins, the rubbish and fag ends blowing about. Visit residential areas and see the unkempt flower beds and grassed areas.

Sure, Street Scene is pretty good when it comes to responding to problems. But being good at putting out fires is not much help when incendiary devices are exploding all over the Borough.

In walks around North Road ward I have often been able to chat to Street Scene workers. There's no doubt they feel undervalued and de-motivated.

The problem lies not with the staff, but with the Labour leadership who pushed the generalist philosophy through as a cost-cutting exercise.

Now the Leader has announced that a review of Street Scene will be conducted at the highest level in Council. Neatly, and with political astuteness, this review has been announced just as the Neighbourhood Scrutiny Committee has started its review of Street Scene. By the time Scrutiny gets round to reporting, the Leader's review will be long finished and (hopefully) improvements in Street Scene will have been implemented. Scrutiny's work will be out-of-date.

Realising this, the chair of the Neighbourhood Scrutiny Committee, Conservative Councillor Doris Jones, offered to merge the two reviews into one, an offer rejected by the Leader at Cabinet last week. "She's cute, Doris, I'll give her that", said Cllr Williams.
Whatever changes to Street Scene the Leader's Review recommends, Scrutiny's work will be a minor historical footnote, unless its review is delayed and amended to take account of these changes.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

"Your Ideas Needed on How to Save Money"

This headline appears in October's edition of The Flyer (or "the flyer") the glossy in-house magazine produced by Darlington Borough Council for its employees. This magazine is always full of happy smiling faces, with photos of DBC employees winning awards, having babies, getting married, telling us about their hobbies or their jobs.

This month's magazine contains a call to arms, though, for DBC staff to come to the rescue of our cash-strapped Council. The article reads:

"The Council like, everyone, (their use of commas, not mine, which makes it sound like a teenager, like, addressing a large crowd, init) is feeling the impact of the credit crunch and this means we need to adjust our financial plans. Our lack of land sales and increasing energy and food costs are just some of the pressures we are facing.

"The Council has started its service and financial planning process and it is already clear that we will have to make significant savings to balance the books - this is where you come in.

"Paul Wildsmith, Director of Corporate Services, said: (their inappropriate use of a colon) "We would like all employees to give some thought to how savings can be achieved. Clearly big savings would be great but the old saying, "every little helps", comes to mind so all savings ideas are welcome no matter how small. I am sure you will have plenty of great ideas we can consider and I look forward to seeing (their use of the wrong physical sense) what you have to say.

"Send your ideas to"

Well, since this magazine is available on the DBC Intranet at the click of a button, they can start with this glossy magazine. When front-line services are under threat, expensive in-house publicity should be first on the list for the chop.

The invitation is there, so why don't we all join in. All ideas for cutting waste can be emailed to the above address.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Someone can't count!

They're at it again!

Remember how the Council claimed there were "over 300 stalls" in the Market Spectacular earlier this year, when in fact there were less than 60?

Then they said there were "around 100 stalls" at last weekend's first Darlington Food Festival. Well, if 25 is around 100, they were right: but it isn't.

Now they say "25000 people visited the Food Festival". If so, there would have been one person entering the marquee every 2 seconds constantly from 10am to 5pm on both days. Thank Heavens I only spent half an hour there on the Saturday, it must have been sheer bedlam the rest of the time, with a quarter of the town's population squashed and trampled underfoot. I'm surprised we haven't heard about this from the hospital.

Ok, give 'em some leeway: it was a very good Food Festival. Read what other bloggers said here and here.

I bought quite a few things, though not as much as one Labour portfolio holder who was persuaded to part with over 100 nicker for a saucepan. Good to see they're doing their bit to help stave off the recession.

The ostrich, goats' cheese and red onion marmalade pie was the culinary highlight for me. And some gorgeous seeded wholemeal bread from Richmond was wolfed down within a few hours. I also found two new suppliers who I'm hoping to persuade to supply my shop.

Let's hope they do it again next year; I might even invest in a stall myself: though they'll have to get a marquee four times as large, just to get all this year's stalls and shoppers in!

Monday, 6 October 2008

"I'm a Councillor..." begins

Today was the first day in the two week "I'm a Councillor...Get me out of here" on-line popularity contest for schools and local councillors. You can visit the site. This link will take you there:

Then just log in as a guest (it can take up to a minute at busy times) and have a look around. For some reason the first page you see is that for Coventry City Council, but just use the drop-down menu to locate Darlington's pages.

Once there you can read the six local councillors' manifestos, personal profiles and the answers we give to students' questions.

Today many of the questions appeared to come from Longfield School: I was sent general questions about being a councillor, questions about anti-social behaviour, CCTV and youth facilities in the North Road area, and about the North Road by-election.

It's been a really interesting start to the event, but my enthusiasm to log on at work to see if any more questions had arrived meant I did get a bit behind with my real work today!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

"One mixed up chick"

Thursday night's Full Council meeting veered from party political bickering and rudeness to laughter, through to the surreal sound of Cllr Doris Jones, erstwhile scourge of the Labour Group, being applauded by members of the Labour Cabinet.

And the "mixed up chick"? Well, regular readers of this blog will recall that I moved an amendment at this year's Budget Council which would have devolved responsibility for spending £300k on minor environmental improvements to ward councillors. The amendment was ridiculed by the Stalinist tendency in the Labour Group, who all voted against it.

The recent White Paper, "Communities in Control", published by Hazel Blears, includes a commitment to give ward councillors localised budgets that they can target on ward priorities. I asked Cllr Chapman, the portfolio holder for communities and engagement, if, in the light of her Government's commitment to devolved budgets, she had changed her mind on the issue. She didn't say yes and she didn't say no, but she did say, to general amusement, that if she agreed with everything Hazel Blears said, she would be one mixed up chick.

Perhaps I'll try again at next year's budget. After all, eventually the "we know best" Darlington Labour Group is going to have to embrace modern local politics with genuine power and responsibilities being devolved to communities and their elected representatives. Though it might take a change of leader following their defeat in the 2011 local elections to achieve this.

And why was Doris the darling of the Labour Cabinet? Well, Bill Stenson, the eccentric Tory Councillor, was, so far as it is possible to interpret his speeches, highly critical of Labour for their failure to keep our drains and gullies clear. Now, this is a real problem across the Borough, but it does appear that, following an excellent report by a Task and Finish Group led by Tory Councillor Doris Jones, a new servicing and manning regime for our gully cleaner will mean it is better able to cope with this problem.

Doris got on her hind legs and laid into Bill, her Tory colleague, who probably wished he'd read his Council papers a bit better over the summer. As Doris brought her remarks to a close, senior Labour Councillors broke into spontaneous applause: a somewhat bizzare sight.

Other highlights from Council:

Cllr Chris McEwan gave an excellent speech, apologising for the secretive nature of his officers' report on individual school achievements and assuring Council that he was, and always has been, fully commited to openness.

Cllr Alan Coultas laying into Cllr Bill Dixon for his off-the-cuff, and inaccurate, remarks in Cabinet about Cleveland Terrace Post Office. Cllr Dixon dismissed the attack with a flick of the wrist: which I thought was an entirely inappropriate response to Alan's attack, particularly as Council had just heard Cllr McEwan showing grace and humility in his remarks.

The silence which descended on a suddenly thoughtful Council Chamber following an impromptu speech I made calling on the Council to do everything possible, in concert with partners and voluntary organisations in the Borough, to help local residents to cope with the worst effects of the economic crisis in which many of them will lose their jobs, their homes and fall into fuel poverty. I also called on the Labour Group to recognise the financial pressures local residents will be under this winter and not to impose another 4.9% Council Tax increase on us all in the Spring.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

North Road Independent Councillor leaves the Council

Former Lib Dem Steve Jones, the Independent Councillor for North Road ward, has not attended any Council or Committee meetings for six months. He is therefore deemed to have ceased to be a Councillor. A motion before Full Council tonight will declare a "casual vacancy" in the ward.

Steve is a former Lib Dem Councillor who resigned from the Party following the revelation in May 2007 that he had signed the nomination papers of a BNP candidate: news which even reached some of the national dailies.

A by-election must be held within 35 days. This will be a real headache for Democratic Services since the new electoral register is due to be published on December 1st and all new voters in the ward need to be brought forward onto the existing register so that they can vote in the by-election.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

"I'm a Councillor...Get me out of here!"

Starting next Monday, running for two weeks, Darlington is participating in this year's "I'm a Councillor...Get me out of here!" competition. There is no suggestion yet that this involves anything to do with eating live insects or having to guess which one is Ant and which one is Dec.

Six Darlington Councillors, three Labour (all very senior), two Conservatives (newly elected) and me, do battle over t'interweb to be crowned Youth Champion of Darlington. We've all written personal profiles and manifestos, which you can read here (just log in as a guest). You can find out all sorts of interesting things: guess who has a power/speed boat licence, for example.

We have to answer questions from pupils at the participating schools, and go into chat rooms to talk with them in real time. There are also school visits planned. One Councillor gets voted out at the end of the first week and then one each day during the second week. It's going to get brutal!

Saturday, 27 September 2008

The Performing Right Society: even more annoying than utilities salesmen!

Over the past three months or so I have received at least a dozen letters at work from The Performing Right Society Ltd. Every letter tells me I must pay for a licence if I want to play recorded music either to my customers or to my staff - even if it's just in the staff room or kitchen. The thing is - I don't!

I looked into this a while ago and for a small business like mine it would have cost over £400 a year to play a radio in the staff areas alone, and a lot more if I played music in the public areas. So we all work hard, distracted only by the gentle sounds of intelligent and sociable conversation.

The letter, replete with large bold letters, for those who need to be SHOUTED AT to make sure they get the message, tells me I have to PHONE and tell them if I don't play music, or they MAY CONTACT ME AGAIN.

Why should I? It's like the police sending me a letter telling me I mustn't break the law, but could I please phone them to tell them I'm not!

Monday, 22 September 2008

It was clearly in!

Not that I'm biased or anything, but, as my photo shows, and as any fool can see, the ball was clearly in.
Thanks to Lux from Hob Nob Anyone?

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Rise Carr Social Club: developer's consultation

Yesterday afternoon, from 3 to 6.30pm, I attended the consultation exercise held in the foyer of the old Rise Carr Social Club building. The owners plan to develop 20 flats and bedsits within the building, for rent. A representative from the architects' firm was there, together with a freelance planning consultant, Mike Cox, who used to be Chair of Housing on Middlesbrough Borough Council.

Many local residents attended: younger residents helping the more elderly along and everybody seeming to know everyone else. It was clear what a good community spirit there is in Rise Carr despite, or perhaps because of, the perception that "the Council never does anything for us round here". Which, apart from the investments made in North Park in recent years, is substantially true.

I had expected there to be objections based on increased pressure on car parking in Eldon Street and Lansdowne Street. And indeed there was. However, being able to see the full colour plans and internal drawings for the scheme, the residents had more pressing complaints: that of a lack of privacy which would be caused by having new windows at first and second floor levels knocked into the north, east and south walls of the building. I was invited into one resident's house and it was immediately apparent just how intrusive windows in the north wall would be: looking straight into the gardens, kitchens and bedrooms of the residents at the top end of Lansdowne Street.

The developers said they would raise the sills of the offending windows and install obscured glass up to half the height of the windows, in an attempt to protect residents' privacy.

Other comments from residents concerned the need for a gate to prevent unwanted access to the rear of the building, which would be exposed by the new scheme. There were also concerns about where rubbish bins were to be stored - something the architects didn't appear to have considered!

Some people were concerned about the type of tenant who might be attracted to these units and the potential for noise. Some thought there were too many units proposed in a relatively small space.

Generally, people wanted the club replaced before it deteriorated physically and became a magnet for anti-social behaviour. The preferred option would have been demolition and its replacement with terraced housing to match the rest of the street. Failing that, some residents would have been happy with the removal of the top story from the building, to bring it to a more sympathetic height.

The developers were given plenty of food for thought and were left in no doubt that the local residents expected to see their concerns reflected in the final plans for the site when they go before the Planning Committee. Otherwise there will be objections and I shall be happy to support the residents.

Tellingly, however, at one point the planning consultant said the dvelopers would be quite happy to go to appeal if necessary, and "win it there": a recognition of what we have seen elsewhere recently, with the Snooker Club and Skipbridge appeals, that local feeling counts for nothing when the inspector from Bristol arrives in town.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Coffee in Darlington - and the world

A couple of months ago I blogged about Caffe Nero flouting planning regulations when it opened its new shop on Horsemarket. Well, someone has just left a comment on that post, and you'll all miss it because who's going to scroll back two months just in case someone else has posted something? The comment was from Annabel Townsend, and she's got a blog called "Doctor Coffee".

Always keen to publicise other Darlington blogs, I shall add "Doctor Coffee" to my links on the right. This blog is written by a young Sheffield Uni Doctoral student from Darlington. She writes (at great length) about everything you could possibly want to know, and plenty you didn't know you wanted to know, about coffee, barristas and fishnets.

Bel also blogs about food. One of her posts makes the same point that I have made several times in Council and elsewhere about the lack of commercial waste recycling in Darlington. And here she is blogging about supermarkets and the market in Darlington. It's all good stuff, but give yourself a good chunk of time to read it!

Sunday, 14 September 2008

North Road catch-up (4): Pendleton Road

As a ward councillor, I sometimes get asked to sort out some small problem that really doesn't need me to take action: but I'm always happy to help out where I can. Perhaps the complainant doesn't know where to turn for help, or perhaps - and this is a real indictment of "local democracy" - he or she thinks no-one in authority will take any notice of their complaint, so they turn to the ward councillor to sort things out for them.

One such problem arose recently in Pendleton Road. There is a small building there belonging to Northern Gas Networks. I know that because there's a plaque on the door saying so. As you can see, one of the walls beside the steps had fallen down and was potentially dangerous - young children play around the area.

A local resident contacted me to ask if the wall could be repaired and if the rubble which had spread around could be cleaned up. This resident also told me that the street sign at the end of the road, and the signs indicating the cycle path, had been stolen from their posts, as you can see from the third photo above.

I went to investigate, spent a couple of minutes tidying up the rubble and phoned Northern Gas Networks on the number shown on the plaque. NGN confirmed over the phone that it was their problem, thanked me for bringing it to their attention and promised to get it sorted out. A couple of weeks later the wall was repaired and my neat pile of rubble removed, though, as you can see, they came with one coping stone short! I've phoned them again...

As for the missing street signs: here we have a slightly different story. I emailed the Highways Department, and, as is often the case with this particular department, got no response whatsoever.
So, after a week, I asked Democratic Services (the Council Department which, among many other things, assists councillors in their duties) to repeat my request to Highways. This time, a reply was received, promising to get new signs made and installed. So far there has been no action on site, but no doubt there will be soon! Otherwise, just like the resident got in touch with me, so I shall get in touch with Dem Services and get them to crack the whip!