Friday, 29 February 2008

Ok, call me a snob, but...

Perhaps the finest retail location in Darlington, once occupied by the iconic Dressers book shop, right in the middle of our historic High Row, is changing from a Waterstone's book store to a Poundland Discount store. Purleeze!

This just gives completely the wrong message about how we, as independent retailers, want to see Darlington Town Centre develop. Obviously, having two Waterstone's stores trading 50 metres apart was unsustainable in the long run, but surely a shop of that size, in that location, could have been sold or let to a retailer which would do more to attract shoppers to the town centre than yet another "pound" shop.

My longer term worry is what will happen to the empty shops which will appear around the town as our smaller fashion stores relocate into the larger units in new Oval development when that opens in a couple of years time.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

North Road Primary: the pace hots up

The process of designing the exciting new £6.5million North Road Primary School continues apace. Today there was a series of meeting in the Town Hall, each looking at various aspects of the design. Although originally set up for officers only, I persuaded TPTB that ward councillors should be involved in the "Extended Facilities" meeting. I think it is important that a school which is being built with local community use in mind should have an input from elected representatives of the local community.

We have seen promises of community access systematically watered down in the plans for the PRU at Rise Carr, and were keen to ensure that the same did not happen at North Road. Certainly the provision of meeting rooms, a hall, changing, storage and kitchen facilities will be invaluable to local residents. As we, and councillors from Harrowgate Hill ward, repeatedly point out, the lack of community facilities in the north of the town is an absolute disgrace. At the moment, the Council are making all the right noises as far as North Road Primary is concerned.

We were concerned, though, about a couple of aspects of the plan. Firstly, the plan involves grassing over Pendelton Road South so that the school buildings and playing fields are linked. Pedestrians and cyclists, who currently have a straight route across the site, would have to go on a specially constructed detour around the outside of the site so that they do not clash with pupils walking across to their playing field. A survey will be carried out next week to see how many residents currently use that route.

Secondly, Grass Street park is being demolished to incorporate that area into the school grounds. The plan is to build a new, but much smaller, play area on St Paul's Terrace, on part of the school car park. We were concerned that the facilities here should be an improvement on the Grass Street play area. There seems to be some debate, shall we say, amongst officers about how much of the school building budget should be used to rebuild this facility and whether other departments should contribute.

You can see the stretch of Pendleton Road which is to be built over, and the tree-lined Grass Street park, on the photo above. The current school is in the top right hand corner of the photo. It is to be rebuilt across the road on the large field. New school playing fields are to be provided on the site of the current buildings.

It was interesting to be involved in a non-party political process directly affecting my constituents. All too often, as ward councillors, we only find out what "they" are planning when it is too late to have any realistic input.

One third of all pupils fail to get first choice school

Figures published yesterday for Secondary School admissions in 2007 show that Darlington last year was one of the poorest performers in the whole country at providing parents and pupils with their first choice of secondary school. While in nearby Stockton every single child went to their first choice school, Hartlepool managed 98% and Durham 97%, in Darlington only 66% got their first choice. Darlington languishes near the bottom of the national league tables, along with most of the London Boroughs.

Indeed, not only did one-third of parents not get their first choice school, 13% were sent to a school which didn't feature anywhere in their preferred options: the third worst score in the whole country!

One thing is clear, whatever the Council may tell us about improvements in secondary education in the town, parents last year voted with their feet and tried to keep their children away from the underperforming schools. There is clearly not enough space in the good schools, so many pupils and parents are being forced into schools they would rather avoid.

We hope to see a significant improvement in the 2008 figures.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

The frequency with which my fellow blogger, Nick Wallis, a Labour Party Cabinet member, attacks the Lib Dems on his blog, illustrates the success our small group is having in getting under the skin of the Labour Group.

I wouldn't normally bother to refer to his blog here, but his latest broadside so misrepresents the facts that I must grit my teeth and do so.

With regard to the Post Office closures issue, Nick claims that I said that "the Council did not oppose the closures". He is putting words into my mouth, so that he can knock them down, thereby hoping to conceal the truth of the matter: that these closures are a direct result of Labour Party policy and that the ruling Labour Group were not prepared for the closure announcements last week.

You can read Nick's nonsense here.

You can read the truth here.

Just for the record, here is the email sent to the Chief Executive on behalf of the Lib Dem Group by Cllr Fred Lawton back in October 2007:

From: Councillor Lawton
Sent: 22 October 2007
To: Ada Burns
Subject: Post Office Closures
Ada I've just read an article in the LGA magazine "First" about Post Office closures. I've always thought that becoming involved in the campaign against closures was a personal or a Party issue. The article points out that Councils and community leaders have responsibilities towards the most vulnerable people and communities. So perhaps all the councillors and the Council should be working together on this issue.
Have we been told, as DBC, what proposals there are for the closure of Post Offices within the Borough boundaries? If so, is that list available please? Are we, as a Council, responding to any proposals put forward and how are we doing that? Is there an officer on the Council who is dealing with this? Do we have an official line on the issue or is each proposed closure being dealt with individually?
I'd be grateful for any information you are able to provide.

We understand this was passed on within DBC, but no reply was received until we sent a reminder this January.

Liberal Democrats in Darlington were urging officers to take non-partisan, all-party action, on behalf of vulnerable people and local communities, way back in October 2007. Reading Nick's blog, you'd think the only people doing anything here are Labour councillors.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Post Offices to close?

Hopetown Post Office, on Brinkburn Road, is one of the five Post Offices within the Borough threatened with closure in the consultation document published by the Post Office on February 12th. Two others, Cleveland Terrace and Milbank, are in the urban area, and two in the villages (Heighington and Hurworth Place). The top photo above is the Cleveland Terrace Post Office, with protest banners slung outside. Below, I am discussing the closure plans with Hopetown postmaster, Stuart Clarke.

Typically, when this "breaking news" was reported to the Cabinet on Tuesday evening, Cabinet members were told that three were closing, which should confirm everyone's views about the importance with which our villages are viewed by this Labour Council.
As I said in my letter published in the Echo last week, and as you can see in the Post Office consultation document, Darlington Council failed to respond to Post Office requests for stakeholders to make representations in advance of the publication of the document, though seven other neighbouring Councils did.
I do not know whether any of these post offices can be saved, but the potential loss of these valuable community facilities, which my colleague Cllr Fred Lawton warned the Council about back in October 2007 (in an email which was not even acknowledged until January 2008!) would be regrettable.

Targets, ID Cards and Climate Change

The continuing stupidity of the know-all Labour Government and its ever-growing list of targets is revealed in this report from the Observer.

And for those Labour politicians still in love with their outrageous plans for ID Cards,
tune in to BBC1 tonight for a drama where Government surveillance, backed up by rigid enforcement of ID Cards, creates a chilling society of the near future.

And...for those of you yet to see
"An Inconvenient Truth", which I don't think has yet been shown in Darlington, Friends of the Earth are showing the film in the Friends (the other lot) Meeting House, Skinnergate, soon.
Full details to follow. Update: full details in the first comment below; thanks, Mike.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Stick your foreign games up your ****

Back from Goodison Park, having watched Reading slump to their seventh consecutive defeat and slide inexorably into the relegation places. The Reading fans (officially number 13 on the team sheet) told the Premier League what we thought of the ridiculous plan of playing an extra competitive game each season in America or the Far East by putting new words to the old song.

Goodison is a throw back to traditional football grounds: uncomfortable wooden seats in a wooden stand, stanchions blocking the view, cheerful scouser stewards who don't enforce the pathetic no standing rule, a "hit the crossbar" competition at half-time, the teams running out to the theme tune from Z Cars. The Peoples Club, they call themselves.

Last year, Rocky was the guest of honour (no, I can't remember why, but his latest film had just been released) when we played there and got a good draw. This year we played well, but lacked the incisiveness of the Everton strikers Johnson and Cahill up front. Ah well, things weren't so bad in the Championship.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Cycling in the Pedestrian Heart

This month's Cabinet meeting includes a report and recommendations on cycling in the Pedestrian Heart. The report is lengthy and well researched - but the recommendation is a fudge.

I work in Post House Wynd and walk (and cycle) through the Pedestrian Heart several times a day. Apart from the occasional teenage joyrider weaving in and out, I have yet to witness any problems arising from cycling in the PH. Clearly, though, there is a perception, particularly among the elderly and the disabled, that cyclists pose a threat to them.

The Cabinet is being recommended, therefore, that:

(a) The trial period for cycling within the town centre is extended to November 2008.
(b) A Disability Impact Assessment on cycling in the town centre is carried out.
(c) An educational programme on responsible cycling is carried out.
(d) Inter-generational work with older people is carried out on concerns about cycling.

The report states that,
"Stakeholders and other interested parties will be invited to take part in intergenerational
work to assess and address the disparity in perceptions and views between younger and
older people."

Excuse me! How exactly are they going to do that? Get teenage cyclists in a room with a bunch of elderly citizens and "explore their issues"?
More work, more research, more expense, more jargon. Well, at least it looks as if the long term future of cycling in the PH is secure.

Who knew?

The Northern Echo reported this morning on the General Teaching Council's reprimand for the former Head and Deputy Head of Eastbourne School, who falsified pupil attendance records in 2005. Quite why it has taken three years for this to come to light I can't imagine, but it is one more depressing chapter in the sorry history of Eastbourne School, which has consistently failed its pupils.

Dithering and weak political leadership over several years contributed directly to the downward spiral of this school, rated at the time as one of the worst performers in the whole country. Ms Pemberton dragged the school out of Special Measures, but the intolerable pressure on her to achieve results and meet targets seems to have produced this critical failure of judgement.

The censuring of Ms Pemberton and Mr Rushton raises the question of just who knew about this, has there been a deliberate cover-up in the Council, and are the rumours about pay-offs and gagging orders true?

I have written to John Williams, the Leader of the Council, and Chris McEwan, Cabinet Member for Children and Young People and demanded answers to the following questions:

Did Councillors know about this manipulation of attendance figures and, if so, why did they choose to keep quiet?

Do the Leader of the Council and the responsible Cabinet Member accept responsibility for the intolerable pressure under which the Head and Deputy Head were placed to achieve results despite inadequate political and administrative support, which resulted in their regrettable actions?

Did Ms Pemberton or Mr Rushton receive pay-offs for leaving Eastbourne School? If so, what was the size of these pay-offs and what conditions were attached to them? If there were any pay-offs, were any Councillors aware of them?

These questions have been copied to the Echo as part of a press release.

No response yet!

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Just like tortoises

Computers, just like tortoises, need plenty of time to hibernate. If you leave them on all the time they cost a small fortune in energy consumption and lettuce. Using Windows XP, and even better in Windows Vista, you can adjust the power settings on your pc and laptop so that no unnecessary energy is consumed and you can wake it up whenever you want to without re-starting it.

So why isn't this automatically applied to the Council's computers? A couple of weeks ago, I reported on a young employee in the Taxation Department who addressed Cabinet about the money (and energy) being wasted by lights and computers being left on when not in use.

At Council last week I made the above point to the Leader of the Council, who was taking questions on Cllr Copeland's portfolio in her absence. He didn't actually answer this specific point, but yesterday a Council internal publication came out asking for energy-saving ideas: so I gave them this one. Let's see if they follow it up.
Oh, and according to the BBC Breakfast programme this morning, if your tortoise wakes up early from its hibernation due to global warming, you can just put it in a box in the fridge.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Why no budget briefing?

Some of the subjects that Councillors are offered briefings on are somewhat esoteric. Yesterday there was a briefing on the Eastern Transport Corridor, which, given that it's almost complete, must have been mainly about the effect on traffic flows when the link to the Haughton Road is built. No need for a briefing: the answer is absolute chaos on all roads coming into town from the north and east.
But the big political decision of the year, the budget, with Cabinet proposing an inflation-busting 4.9% Council Tax increase and significant job and service cuts, is not being briefed on.
Now, we aren't all experts on the minutiae of local government finance, so why aren't officers offering a briefing on the budget proposals? I really can't imagine!