Thursday, 24 January 2008

Talking Together

Last night was the second Talking Together roadshow event in the central area, this time in Albert Hill. The discussion forum, amiably chaired by Cllr Harker, had about 18 adults and a dozen children present. Some of the primary school kids asked questions first, which officers dealt with, in varying degrees of child-friendly language!

When the adults took over, the discussion heated up with a long list of complaints about traffic, play facilities, anti-social behaviour, roads and pavements, blocked gullies and the like. Tellingly, much as we heard at the previous event, there is a perception that areas like Albert Hill and North Road, dominated by small terraced housing, with a mixture of owner-occupiers and privately rented accommodation, suffer in comparison to the larger Council estates, like Skerne Park, in terms of community facilities.

Also of interest was the number of residents who complained that they had been in touch with "the Council" but had no response. It seemed that few, if any, said they had turned to councillors for support or help in getting answers from "the Council". Maybe we need to promote the role of councillors as "champions of their community" more effectively.

Monday, 21 January 2008

A Dragon on the treadmill

My first visit of the year to Bannatyne's Health Club on Haughton Road, as my aching muscles will testify. And who was the sweaty little chap on the treadmill in front of me? None other than our eponymous hero himself!

I thought of a few ideas to pitch to him, in the hope of getting invited on to Dragons' Den. Maybe a company to build roads, schools and Pedestrian Precincts for Darlington Borough Council: a guaranteed money spinner with minimal client involvement and the opportunity to charge millions more when things go wrong.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Will the last man out...

Last night was a Special Cabinet meeting. The first item on the agenda was the decision on the new concessionary bus fares scheme, which will allow the over-60s to travel anywhere in the country on local buses for free between at least 9.30am and 11pm. Unfortunately, Darlington's proposed variation of this scheme will mean free travel is being withdrawn before 9.30.
As the Leader said, if you're over 60 and have an early morning hospital appointment and need to travel by bus, just pick up the phone and re-arrange the appointment. Well, that's all right then, isn't it? Unless of course they all do that, which will still mean the Council has to pick up the tab for these journeys, which it says it can't afford!
Of course, one of the problems here is that the Labour Government was forced into this by complaints about its previous scheme which had meant that many bus travellers were being forced to pay, or being turfed off buses, when the bus reached the local authority boundary. Government, typically, has not provided adequate funds for local authorities to maintain their present schemes. Despite the fine words coming out of number 10 nowadays, there is no sign that central Government is paying anything more than lip service to the notion of local accountability and responsibility.
The second item on the agenda was the Cabinet's proposals for next year's budget, which are to go out to public consultation. Well, if last night's meeting was anything to go by, they're in for a rough ride - from their own staff!
Several officers spoke at the meeting: all with passion and commitment towards the services they provide. Particularly telling was a short, unscripted contribution from a young lady from the taxation department who said that money could be saved and some cuts avoided if employees switched off lights and computer screens when not needed - including overnight!
What is going on? In this day and age, with rocketing fuel prices, climate change and a financial squeeze on local government, we still don't have a culture of saving energy within the Council!
Another contribution was from Trading Standards staff who pleaded for the retention of their front line advice service. They said they could find the necessary savings by internal back-room re-organisation and the loss of just one job (which has been left unfilled since the summer anyway).
This raises the question, weren't staff consulted before all the worry and upset caused by the publication of these Cabinet proposals? I suspect, if their suggestions stand up to scrutiny, that the Cabinet will find some way to amend these proposals to save this service. Then they can claim to be the "listening" Council they say they want to be. Of course, they could have consulted properly BEFORE all the upset this has caused (as, of course, they could over Hurworth School and Tesco!).
For those who enjoy politics for its entertainment value, get along to Middleton St George this Saturday for the next Talking Together event. The proposed abolition of grants to the parishes will be the hot topic. Go Doris!

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Trading Standards staff appeal directly to Councillors

The Labour Council's plans for cuts in public services tonight received damning criticism from an unexpected source: Council employees themselves. All Councillors and senior officers have received an email from "Trading Standards Staff" appealing to Councillors to vote against the budget proposal to abolish the civil advice function of the Trading Standards Department. The abolition of this service will mean two Trading Standards officer posts will be lost.
In its budget proposals, the Labour party states that consumers will be able to use Consumer Direct for advice. In a supporting document, the "Trading Standards Staff" show how inadequate Consumer Direct advice has been in case studies and that Trading Standards are able to intervene on behalf of consumers in disputes with retailers and tradesmen, something which Consumer Direct cannot do.
The actions of "Trading Standards Staff" in going public with their opposition to Council cuts shows that all is not well within the Council. There is rebellion afoot. Let's see what tomorrow's Echo makes of this.

Here is the "Trading Standards Staff" summary document, defending their service:


There is no need for the people of Darlington to lose this valuable service.


- is a FRONT LINE service and has successfully operated in Darlington for over 30 years. including offering advice and assistance by TELEPHONE, E-MAIL and a dedicated DUTY OFFICER to handle all walk in complaints

- does CASEWORK - intervenes to SUPPORT, ADVISE and RESOLVE civil problems, reducing consumer detriment, making Darlington a fair town for consumers and traders.

- is important for SOCIAL INCLUSION. We provide help to sections of the community such as the aged, financially disadvantaged, physically disabled, mentally disabled, partially sighted etc; who would be unlikely to call Consumer Direct - no other organisation provides this service in Darlington. Without Consumer Advice these people have nowhere else to go

- had the second highest CUSTOMER SATISFACTION rating of all Unitary Authorities in 2006/7

- staff carry out ENFORCEMENT duties, UNDERAGE SALES projects etc.

ENFORCEMENT work will be COMPROMISED by the loss of the advice service

NEW LEGISLATION commencing April 2008 requires additional civil resources for injunctive action against rogue traders, particularly those who prey on the elderly and vulnerable.

Efficiency savings can be made AND the service can be kept intact, by making changes to non-front line provision within public protection. The modest saving made by cutting this service is disproportionate to the loss of this valuable service.


- is a CALL CENTRE, which after 2010 could be located anywhere in Europe

- IS NOT AN ALTERNATIVE to Trading Standards Consumer Advice - it provides only limited initial advice and does not provide the necessary level of advice or assistance to those who need it most.

- DOES NOT PROVIDE HELP to those who can’t cope with call centres or have access to the internet.

- is REMOTE – it does not provide face-to-face advice, it does not check paperwork and contracts, it does no investigation or negotiation

Council under cosh in Echo

The Darlington pages of today's Northern Echo are full of stories criticising the Council. The parishes are "outraged" at the Council's plan to end their grants to our rural communities: a decision I criticised last week in an article in the Echo. Cllr Williams, the Leader of the Council, responding to a completely justified attack by Ian Holmes and Brian Jones, among others, that this decision is a cynical political move against non-Labour voting areas, blusters, "This accusation of bias is nonsense and completely untrue. We spend millions in our villages every year." Well, you won't miss an extra £34,000, then, to re-instate their parish grants, will you Cllr Williams?!

I have a letter published, which continues the campaign to persuade the Cabinet not to accept officers' recommendations to abolish free bus travel for the over-60s before 9.30am. There are also letters from veteran Council baiters, Harvey Smith and John Antill.

Finally, my friend Peter Freitag rails against the aggressive nature of parking enforcement in the town, which the Council uses as a form of indirect taxation.

With the budget debates to come, disappointing Ofsted reports and the long-delayed but imminent publication of the report into the Pedestrian Heart overspend, the Labour Group - and in particular its Leader - are in for a rough ride.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Cabinet to cut free travel to hospital

Reading the papers going to Cabinet, I noticed that the planned implementation of the new national concessionary bus fares scheme, which allows for free travel anywhere in the country for the over-60s between 9.30am and 11pm, was to be discussed by Cabinet. The proposal from officers was that the scheme be implemented in Darlington and that the Borough should take advantage of the rights which local councils have to extend the scheme for their area by allowing free travel until 12 midnight.
However, at present, Darlington allows free travel before 9.30am. This concession was to be withdrawn - to save money.
I spoke to the Echo and sent them a press release which said that this was wholly unacceptable because it meant that elderly residents needing to visit Darlington Memorial or Bishop Auckland General would have to pay the full adult fare in future, whereas at the moment they travel free. I called on the Cabinet to reject officers' proposals and to continue to allow free travel to the over 60s before 9.30am. I envisaged a headline something like: " Lib Dem Councillor calls on Cabinet to save free travel for over 60s." Or, "Lib Dem Councillor slams new charge for the sick to get to hospital."
Instead, the headline was, "Plan to withdraw free early bus travel" and a couple of sentences from my press release - together with a quote from the Conservative Leader, who had nothing to do with the story - was stuck on at the end of the article. You wouldn't have known it was my story! Also, the article made no mention of the main point: that it is hospital patients in particular who are to be disadvantaged by this.
Cllr Lyonette, the Cabinet member responsible, is quoted as saying they will be seeing how it goes and collect information about how many people want to use the extended scheme. What nonsense! The information is out there already: just find out how many over-60s currently use the buses in Darlington before 9.30am. That's your answer! Indeed, the paper going to Cabinet on Wednesday states clearly that 10% of all concessionary bus travel in Darlington takes place before 9.30am.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Watch out Wardell!

The doyen of the "Hear All Sides" page, Christopher Wardell, had better watch out. Today I had two mentions in the Echo: a letter on ID cards and the publication of part of a press release on the budget proposals going to Cabinet next week.

Here is the text of my letter on data loss ID cards:

"Following the recent loss of CDs containing personal information on child benefit claimants, Liberal Democrat research has revealed that 37 million items of personal data went missing last year.
"Most of it was lost by Government, although councils, NHS trusts, banks and insurance companies were also responsible. This shocking record means we need a total rethink on data protection laws and an immediate end to plans for identity cards.
"Surely no one can any longer have faith in the Government's ability to handle personal data. There is simply no way that any democratic government can expect an unwilling public to accept having their personal data stored in what would be the world's largest database when they aren't confident that database will be safe.
"The Lib Dems' new leader, Nick Clegg, has already pledged to disobey any new law and refuse to sign up for an identity card - and so do I.
"Identity cards achieve nothing except to extend the Government's control over us as individuals."
Councillor Mike Barker, Parliamentary Spokesman, Darlington Liberal Democrats.

Here is a link to one of the many press reports on the Lib Dem research mentioned in my letter.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Community Partnership

Off to Longfield School this evening for the North Road Community Partnership. A smaller than usual turnout, which was a shame since we were treated to a visit by not one, not two, not three but four members of Durham Constabulary's finest. Indeed, had they known, the local ne'er do wells could have had the run of the ward.
The presence of two police officers and two PCSOs led to an interesting discussion on domestic violence. It seems that North Road ward has the highest official rate of recorded domestic violence in the whole South Durham area! Why would that be? The high level of private rented accommodation or the relatively transient population? Is North Road used as a dumping ground for "problem families"? The members asked me to find out, which I will try to do tomorrow.
Apparently, the assumption is that only around 10% of cases of domestic violence are reported, which means that during the month of December there were around 80 instances of domestic violence in our ward. Getting victims to come forward is difficult: often the violence shown to them is so persistent that the victim believes she (or he) is the cause of the problem and that they, not the perpetrator, is at fault.
Members of the CP were anxious to find ways to highlight this issue and to ensure that potential victims are made aware of sources of help and support.
The meeting was also disturbed to learn that the proposed new Community Garden in North Park, on which they and the Friends of North Park expended much time and energy, has fallen victim to the Council's financial cutbacks - about which more anon!

Monday, 7 January 2008

Back to politics

This is my first post for three weeks. Christmas and New Year was a busy period at work - the couple of weeks up to Christmas are always the busiest two weeks of the year, as shoppers buy far more than they really need! At home, with all the kids back here, the holiday period was pretty hectic.
The ward work didn't stop though. I had a message on the ansaphone on Christmas Eve when I got home from work at about 5pm from a constituent with a whole list of complaints about the Council. I also had a ward surgery on the 27th. Then, on New Year's Day, my ward colleague, Fred Lawton, had to sort out a flooding problem in a Council house on our beat.
It's also been an opportunity to catch up with reading, and to bring the local party website up to date, which I had neglected since the Sedgefield by-election.
So refreshed and re-invigorated (it says here) your local Lib Dem Parliamentary Spokesman returns to the fray!