Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Oy! Where's our playground gone?

When the planning process for the new North Road Primary School got underway last year, local ward councillors were "kept informed" of progress. We were not invited to be actually involved in the process. However, the school is expressly designed to be a part of the local community, and used by the local community. So we complained about being excluded from the discussions about the facilities in the new school - particularly those which involve community use. Following that, the officers invited us to a couple of meetings, at which Fred and I made strong representations on behalf of the local community.

Grass Street Park, containing a motley collection of old-fashioned play equipment, but well used by local people, was to be swallowed up by the new school. New play equipment was to be installed across the road in a new, albeit smaller, play area in the corner of the new school playing fields. Bear in mind that this is the east side of North Road, an area of tight terraced housing with no other play areas.

At the last meeting we were invited to, the plans clearly showed the new play area in the corner of the school playing field, accessible from St Paul's Terrace.

We heard nothing more until the weekly list of Planning Applications was published on April 18th. North Road Primary was on the list. The following week, Fred and I queued up in the Town Hall to view the plans. Imagine our surprise to find that the play area had been omitted from the plans! Just dropped - completely. No wonder they stopped inviting us to meetings.

That's how things work in Darlington. Ward councillors, at least from the minority parties, are tolerated, so long as they don't rock the boat and have a suitably administration-minded attitude. Whoever took the decision to remove the play area from the final plans did not consult or inform the ward councillors. They knew damn well that we'd object.

It's just so infuriating and frustrating being an opposition ward councillor in Darlington. Even when decisions are taken that directly affect our ward, we are kept in the dark. Officers would have realised that losing that play area would be unacceptable to us. But did they ask, consult or inform? No! Even when they'd made the decision, did they get in touch and say, "Sorry, Councillor, we can't afford to replace the play area, it'll have to go"? No! Not a word.
Maybe they have plans to put it somewhere else, but I wouldn't bet on it. And if they have, why don't they tell us?
Enquiries are ongoing, but at the moment, being an opposition ward councillor in Darlington is like being a mushroom - kept in the dark and fed shit.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

"Gutter Politics", says Bob

Appropriately enough, since the topic of the day is a road (a road to nowhere, say some) Bob the Builder, otherwise known as Cllr Nick Wallis, in the Echo today accuses the Lib Dems of "gutter politics" for suggesting that he might bear some of the reponsibility for the £1.9m overspend on the Eastern Transport Corridor.

So, let's take a look at the facts:

1. Within a year of presiding over a multi-million pound overspend on the Pedestrian Heart, the Labour Council presided over a £1.9m overspend on the ETC.
2. The causes of these overspends was substantially the same: weak, ineffective leadership and management, a failure to hold contractors to account, a failure to implement appropriate contractual arrangements, a failure to allow sufficient contingency money and a failure to allow for basic requirements like moving services.
3. Cllr Wallis proudly states in his blog that responsibility for managing this budget rested with him.

My colleague, Cllr Martin Swainston, raises a legitimate question, "Why was Nick moved from his long-held role in charge of transport within three months of the scheme getting underway?"

Nick, instead of doing the decent thing and apologising to the Council Tax payers of Darlington for the repeated mistakes made by the Council, simply brushes the whole thing aside by accusing us of descending into gutter politics.
It just won't wash, Nick. Somebody, sometime, will have to admit responsibility. Somebody, sometime, will have to say sorry. Somebody's head must roll for this. Right up to the highest levels within the Council it seems as though this whole affair is being casually dismissed as someone else's mistake. A recently departed and affable senior officer is being whispered against by Labour people. Now that's gutter politics.
It's a quality job, Bob.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Organic kohlrabi in store

Low Leases Organic Farm, just down the road near Leeming Bar, was established some ten years ago by Rob McGregor, who with his wife, Elaine, left London for the green fields of North Yorkshire, determined to establish an organic farm. I came across them when they were just starting out, but, having tried to sell fresh organic fruit and veg in the shop about 15 years ago when there was no demand, I decided not to try again.

Now, however, the market has changed. The supply, range and quality of organic veg has improved greatly, and the demand is there. On a recent visit to natural food shops in Manchester (Unicorn Grocery) and Bristol (The Better Food Company), I was excited by the prominence given to fresh organics.

Low Leases were at last week's Farmers' Market in Darlington, so I arranged with them to start selling their produce in the shop. Although there has been no publicity about this yet, sales have been brisk. 15 years ago we were ahead of the market, now we are satisfying an obvious demand. With everything from carrots to kohlrabi, from purple sprouting broccoli to fennel, our range far exceeds that of any supermarket or shop in town.

And if you're ever in Bristol, seek out the Better Food Company. I love this store. They have their own market garden, an instore bakery and cafe and a great range of organic food. Their ethical approach is spot on. Good people doing a great job bringing good, affordable food to a relatively run-down part of their city.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Bob the Builder

I am reminded that the responsibility for the Eastern Transport Corridor was once in the hands of fellow blogger and Cabinet member, Councillor Nick Wallis. I'm sure Nick won't mind if I remind him of his boyish enthusiasm for his role here.

But he might not be so overjoyed when I remind him that he expressly stated that responsibility for ensuring the project came in on budget lay with him. Just in case you've forgotten what you wrote, Nick, here it is: "Overseeing the completion date and budget will be a key task." As all about us are trying to pass the blame on to officers who have left, or who were sick at the time, it's good to see that Nick accepts that budgetary responsibilty rested with him - and by implication, with his successor, Cllr Lyonette: it's a quality job, David!

Echo blames the Council. Lyonette under threat.

The headline in the Echo says it all: "£1.9m road overspend blamed on Council." After listing the appalling details of the independent report into the overspend on the Eastern Transport Corridor, the Echo reports that the Council has shrugged aside criticism, saying that recent structural changes have been designed to ensure that these mistakes don't happen again.

"There were no surprises in the report," says the Chief Executive. "The report has not identified any particular fault on the part of individuals. This project evolved over many years and many of the officers are no longer with the Council, so there is nothing to be achieved by a disciplinary investigation."

I won't bother to quote what Cllr Lyonette says: the one word he doesn't use is "sorry". He says it's not his fault and that it's a "quality job". It's a road, David: just a strip of tarmac on top of a mound of earth: were you expecting anything other than a quality job? Maybe you were, given the quality of some of the work in the Pedestrian Heart.

What is important is that - despite the Chief Executive saying a few months ago that this would not cost Darlington Council Tax payers any extra money - the Department for Transport has not yet agreed to grant more funding.

The report says that errors occured partly because of changes in personnel in the Council, and long-term sick leave, so that continuity was lost. Well, that wouldn't be acceptable in private industry. The people at the top would damn well make sure that the project progressed smoothly. Of course, in local government, it's not their money that's been wasted, it's yours and mine. The buck stops at the top, David. You are the weakest link!

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Council at fault in Eastern Transport Corridor overspend

The independent consultants' report on the overspend on the Eastern Transport Corridor has been released to the press before being shown to opposition party councillors on the Resources Scrutiny Committee! Late on Wednesday afternoon, local journalists were called in to see the Chief Executive of the Council, Ada Burns, to be spun on the report.

This is unacceptable and shows the manipulative approach of this Labour Council and its distain for non-executive councillors. Presumably the Labour leadership believed it could set the agenda for the news coverage of this report by spinning its line before the opposition parties even got a look at it.

Taken together with their devious and secretive approach to other developments in the town, and here I include North Road Primary School, of which more later, this Council's true colours show through its laughable claims to be open, listening and accountable.

The report itself, which Lib Dem and Conservative councillors obtained from the Northern Echo this afternoon, makes damning reading.

In brief, the report blames the Council for the overspend. Firstly, it criticises the Council for not going out to re-tender after significant delays in the start of the project were incurred due to the need to take measures to protect the great crested newt colonies on site. Secondly, it criticises the Council for failing to include all potential costs, such as those for the diversion of services, in its original budget. Thirdly, the contingency allowance was too small and was all swallowed up before construction started. Finally, the report is critical of the decision to allow the rasing of the height of a section of the road by 2 metres, without considering the effect this would have on people living nearby.

As usual, of course, the Labour leadership will deny responsibility and try to pass the buck to officers, though the report says that there is to be no disciplinary action. Considering that the mistakes made are similar in type (poor management control and decision-making, failure to allow for contingencies etc) to those which led to the overspend on the Pedestrian Heart, the Labour Cabinet should share the blame because of its arrogance in failing to heed and learn from previous mistakes.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Credit Crunch to hit Oval development?

The proposed Oval shopping complex in Darlington may be delayed due to the international credit crunch, said both the Leader of the Council and the Director of Development this morning, at the public Town Centre Forum meeting. Councillor Williams said he was "worried" about the effect that the squeeze on credit might have on the scheme. He admitted that it was taking much longer than planned to get the finance in place.

Frankly, I find it astonishing that this scheme, which has been talked about and planned for several years, still doesn't have its funding in place! The privatisation of this large area of the town centre leaves us at the mercy of property developers and the international money men.

With the Pedestrian Heart now almost complete (when are the snagging works going to be finished, by the way?) and an enlivened Town Centre Management, it would be a great shame if the finishing block of a fashion-oriented centre, with a multi-screen cinema, were to be delayed any longer.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Living in Fear

On Wednesday evening, Cllr Fred Lawton and I held one of our regular surgeries in Morrisons on North Road. Three local residents - angry and frightened - came in to tell us about the Anti-Social Behaviour they are suffering from in the Riverside/ Havelock/ Albert Road Bridge area. Earlier in the week, the local Street Champion had been in touch about the same problem.

So, after surgery, Fred and I walked over there. On the way, we saw a small group of under-age kids drinking cans of lager outside the Londis shop on North Road. On arriving at Albert Bridge we saw perhaps 20 or 30 youths congregating in the area, drinking alcohol and generally being rowdy. Because we knew that this could escalate into something much worse for local residents if this was allowed to continue throughout the evening, Fred called the wardens, who responded immediately. Three wardens arrived in a van, which they parked on Albert Road.

The wardens approached the group and managed to confiscate some of the drink, but the kids broke up into smaller groups, while other, younger kids appeared as if by magic to join in "the fun". They started hurling abuse at the wardens, confronting them directly. Their language was foul, their body language intimidating and frightening. Eventually the police were called and the kids dispersed, no doubt to re-form somewhere else later. Their ages ranged from about 12 up to about 16. Their behaviour and language was absolutely disgraceful.

Frankly, I was amazed at how calmly the wardens dealt with the situation, which I thought was both unpleasant and intimidating. Ordinary residents would be well advised to keep well clear of situations like this, which is very upsetting. I spoke to a couple of elderly residents in the area who warned me to keep away from the gang. They clearly felt threatened in their own homes.

I despair when I see the behaviour of these kids. They had absolutely no respect for authority or the feelings of other people. They were taunting the wardens because they knew they couldn't touch them. One wonders what their home life is like if they think it is acceptable to behave like that.

At the North Road Community Partnership Meeting on Tuesday, the police gave a report to the group. It was apparent from that meeting, from telephone calls received by me and Fred and from our experiences since that meeting, that parts of North Road ward is plagued by unruly young people.

Morrison’s car park and the grassy area behind the service road to the neighbouring small trading estate has become the nightly playground of drinking, smoking, urinating, rioting, wrecking young people.
The elderly residents – and the younger ones too – of North Riverside Estate are terrified to go out at night. Gangs of fifty or sixty youngsters gather near the Havelock Social Centre, so that people are frightened to go near, or more often down under the Albert Road Bridge, which they have made their filthy gathering place.

Apparently a man was assaulted earlier in the week by the youths when he was on the bridge taking pictures of the river. On Wednesday evening, while the wardens were dealing with the problem under the bridge, their van parked on Albert Road had its wing mirrors kicked off!

At the end of last week youths blocked the road at the junction of Whessoe Road and Longfield Road. A lady driving down the road at 11pm had to get out of her car to move the obstacles. She was abused by the youths standing by. What a terrifying experience.

We need a multi agency approach to tackle this issue of unruly, disrespectful, destructive young people. We need investment in the provision of community facilties in the north end of the town, so that the good kids in the gangs can enjoy themselves in a way that does not terrify the adult population. We need sticks as well as carrots to do this job. The controlling authorities, wardens and police, can’t cope. Otherwise why does everyone, yes EVERYONE, we speak to say that when they ring the police they never come.
Perhaps Councillor Dixon, who stated in Cabinet and repeated in Council that the fear of crime would fall if people stopped watching "The Bill", should come and spend the evening in North Riverside Estate. He could turn the tv off and look out the window!

A depressing and worrying week in North Road Ward.

Green (and red and pink) Bag Day

Yesterday, we stopped giving away free plastic bags in the shop. Last October I blogged about a survey I was conducting among my customers. The overwhelming view was that customers, even those who relied on our free plastic bags, would prefer us to stop giving away 30,000 bags a year and instead look for environmentally friendly alternatives.

I have sourced five alternatives: a cotton bag selling for 95p, a biodegradable and recyclable polyethylene "Green" bag for 95p, a strong paper bag with handles for 15p and in a couple of months time, the new jute bag which stallholders in the Indoor Market will be launching, which will retail at just over £1. Finally, for a short period, until my customers have got used to bringing their own shopping bags, we shall sell a biodegradable plastic bag for 5p. I intend to phase out the biodegradable plastic bag in a few months. Although biodegradable plastic degrades within 2 years (as opposed to 200 years) it is still plastic and can still cause litter and environmental problems.

The response from customers yesterday seemed ok, in general. There were some complaints. Indeed, our very first customer of the day, having spent £20.58, refused to pay for any sort of bag, even the 5p bag, and insisted that one of my staff help her carry her shopping, unbagged, all the way to her car park!

It is really exciting that the Indoor Marker traders are going to be doing the same soon. At an informal meeting of independent shopkeepers in the town last year, I suggested that the independent trade should lead the way on this issue and promote a Darlington-wide green bag alternative. The response from the posh shops in Grange Road was, putting it politely, unenthusiastic. They refused to countenance giving up their large plastic fashion bags which primarily serve as moving advertising boards. I think they will soon be in a minority in the town, though whether the big supermarkets will pay anything more than lipservice to the whole idea remains to be seen.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Cycling to Germany

To help celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darlington's twin town, Mulheim, being awarded its Town Charter, in June of this year a group of 20 cyclists from Darlington will ride to Mulheim, meeting up with cyclists from other twin towns across Europe to ride into Mulheim together.

For reasons which made it seem like a good idea at the time, I will be one of our 20 cyclists.

If anyone is interested in finding out more about this, contact Councillor Tom Nutt (thomas.nutt@darlington.gov.uk) or Greg McDougall (greg.mcdougall@darlington.gov.uk) who is organising and leading the group.

Any of my kind readers who would like to sponsor my efforts, leave a message!

The schedule is


3RD to 10TH JUNE 2008

20 cyclists ride from Darlington to Mulheim via Newcastle/Amsterdam ferry, a distance of over 200 kilometers. Route will be,

Day 1 Darlington to Newcastle

Day 2 Amsterdam to Lunteren, Holland.

Day 3 Lunteren via Arnhem to Niemegen.

Day 4 Niemegen via Emmerich to Xanten.

Day 5 Xanten to Mulheim. On this day they will be joined by cyclists from
Mulheim and its other twin towns, and it is hoped 200 cyclists can
enter the town together, one cyclist for each of the 200 years. The idea
for this event came from Darlington, and our cyclists will be raising
sponsorship for a fund to assist young people who would not otherwise
have the opportunity of international experiences.

Days 6 to 8 In Mulheim and return journey by coach & ferry.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Darlo get go-ahead for expansion

Despite the best efforts of some unambitious, unimaginative Conservative councillors, Darlington Football Club was given planning permission yesterday for a major expansion of facilities around the Darlington Arena. And quite right too!

The new sporting, leisure and hotel facilities will benefit the town. We should also enjoy having a successful football club and hopefully this scheme will generate enough income to support it. Take a look at the best club in the country - Reading FC. Just like Darlo, we moved to a brand new purpose built 25,000 seater out-of-town stadium a few years ago. But John Madejski had the foresight to surround the stadium with training, leisure and hotel facilities, which is what George Houghton wants to do. It paid off for Reading and I'm sure it will be good for Darlington too - the town as well as the club.

According to the Echo, some Tories objected because the football club hadn't produced a viable business plan and because there were other hotels in town. Now, as far as I know, neither of these are legitimate grounds for refusing planning permission, so what were the Tories playing at? It would be kind to suggest they were simply making a political gesture. It is more likely that this is a classic case where Nimbyism meets lack of ambition and a reluctance to embrace dynamic change.
Clearly, if the club starts to attract more fans, there will have to be improvements to access to the ground. In Reading there is a constant stream of cheap buses to and from the ground from various pick-up points on match days and a park and ride scheme linked by buses to the ground. Only the idiots (those who like to miss the last ten minutes of a game so they can avoid the traffic) travel to the ground by car. Darlington will have to do some work on this, especially if they get promotion this season.