Sunday, 25 May 2008

A big hole in the ground

On Friday, together with half-a-dozen other councillors, I climbed into a mini bus for a quick journey up North Road to visit John Wade's recycling centre at Aycliffe Quarry near the A1M.

John Wade has won the new contract to handle our waste and recycling when the current contract with Durham County Council expires next year.

Planning permission has just been applied for to build the series of seven tunnels in which Darlington's waste will be aerobically digested, so as yet there's nothing to see, except a promotional video from the German manufacturers. There is, however, a pretty impressive hole in the ground, watched over by the biggest seagulls I've ever seen.

From a PR point of view, this was a successful visit. The commitment and enthusiasm of the company for the recycling agenda was evident. Gone are the days, which we've all seen in photos and film, when bin lorries simply dumped their entire contents onto an ever-increasing pile of windswept rubbish.

As, my first photo above shows, the centre is constantly busy with a steady stream of lorries and vans bringing waste to the site. This is then taken to the appropriate area for processing, either straight to recycling, or, if it's mixed waste, offloaded to be picked over by "grabbers", which try to extract the larger recyclable items. The remainder then goes to the landfill site: the hole in the ground from which the limestone has already been quarried. This is carefully contructed using peat-lined plastic membranes to seal all the rubbish in.

The new system will see the mixed waste being put into one of a series of tunnels where the waste will break down in a matter of a couple of weeks into an inert mass which will be landfilled. However, before it is put into the ground, machines will extract from it all the plastics, metal and glass for recycling: a far higher percentage than the grabbers manage at the moment.

This system raises some important questions which the Council says it will consult on.

Because the new system can extract all the glass. metal and plastic for recycling from our waste, will there be any point in continuing to collect it seperately from the kerbside? An interesting psychological point here, though: people like to put their bottles, cans and plastics out for recyclng: it makes us feel we're doing our bit.

The new system cannot extract paper and cardboard in a clean enough form to recycle, so perhaps cardboard should be added to paper for kerbside recycling. Also, green garden waste can be put into one of the tunnels for making into real compost: perhaps we should introduce a separate green waste collection.

It will be interesting to see the public's reaction when consultation starts, and how ambitious the Council is to go beyond the bare minimum it can get away with.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

A new Council year begins

Thursday evening saw the first Full Council of the new year, with our new mayor, local lad Ian Hazeldine. There was little of interest or controversy on the agenda, though former Tory leader Tony Richmond, perhaps remembering Veronica Copeland's hesitant response to my question to her a year ago when she took over the Environment portfolio, mischieviously asked her what her top five priorities would be in her new Adult Services Portfolio. Of course, she was completely thrown by this, and promised to let him know in due course!

I welcomed Nick Wallis to his new Environment Portfolio (his third within a year) however long this job lasts. No matter how many jobs Nick puts between himself and his Transport days, to me he'll always be Bob the Builder, who promised to bring the Eastern Transport Corridor in on time and on budget.

I asked Nick if he would look at Trade Waste. With no access to the Whessoe Road recycling site and no kerbside recycling collections, businesses in Darlington - and especially retailers in the town centre - have no means of recycling the huge amounts of cardboard, packaging and food waste which we generate. At a recent meeting of independent retailers, held in the Town Hall, there was much indignation that we were refused access to the Borough's recycling facilities. Business wants to be part of the Green Agenda, but this Council does nothing to help us.

There are two cardboard compactors in the Indoor Market, and virtually all their waste is recycled, so why can't independent businesses in the town centre have access to this facility too?
Cllr Wallis replied that there had been progress in this area during the past year (not that I've noticed any!) and that he would be happy to meet a delegation from independent traders to discuss how they can contribute to the greening of Darlington.

If I won £2.7million on the lottery...

...I wouldn't tell the whole world about it on the front page of the Northern Echo! Especially as his ex-wife is laying into him big time in the comments section of the on-line edition of the Echo. I hope his win brings him some happiness, but why invite envy and greed by teling your story to the local press? Addition 27/05/08: most of the comments in the on-line Echo have been removed this morning.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Milburn V Brown?

Yesterday, three different people told me that Alan Milburn, MP for Darlington and Pepsico, would be challenging Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership after the expected meltdown in Crewe and Nantwich. Now, what came first, the rumours in Darlington or the rumour on Political Betting? Maybe there'll be something in this morning's papers.

Co-incidentally, AM has launched a new website, showing him in fine thrusting form, hand in pockets, hips lunging forward like some ghastly re-incarnation of Alan B'stard.

Note to Alan, next time you speak to whichever of your assistants writes this thing, make sure she finds out the names of the people you've spoken to before she presses the "post" button. Go here and click on the Google pointer hanging over the Football Club. You'll find that Alan paid an interesting visit there to make his 2007 Christmas card (bit late Alan, or do you visit the town so irregularly that a year old visit counts as news?). During his visit he met local kids and XXXXXX. I'm sure XXXXXX will be very impressed.
Addition, Saturday 24th: AM's assistant has now remembered that it was Dave Penney, Darlington's manager, that he met at the stadium. Well done, dear.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

A four star business

The Health Warehouse has been awarded four stars for "Very Good Food Hygiene" by the Environmental Health Department, as part of the Tees Valley Food Hygiene Awards. This was our first inspection since the scheme was launched.

We are inspected, without notice, every 18 months or so. An Environmental Health Officer inspects the premises, observes our food production methods and inspects our paperwork. The latter is very important, as it ensures that everything we produce has a detailed history from raw ingredients, through the baking process, to storage and sale. Emma Wall, who has worked for me since she was a 16 year old Saturday girl many years ago, is in charge of the bakery and is extremely conscientious and hard working. If only I'd put a new light bulb on the first floor landing and mended the flickering fly zapper we might have got five stars.

You can see the results for every business in Darlington by following the link above. Unfortunately, there is no discernible order in the list, so you might have to scroll down a long way to find the place you're looking for. One thing you might notice is how many Indian and Chinese Takeaways have just one or two stars. Yet there is no excuse for this: the Government produces a DVD for all businesses in dozens of languages, explaining what needs to be done. The paperwork isn't onerous, it just requires a bit of training and thought to get it set up right in the first place.
I have been dealing with our Environmental Health Department for 23 years now. They have a policy of advice and encouragement rather than wielding the big stick. They are always helpful and understanding and do a very good job, so I'm obviously very pleased that the Council's plans for cuts in this Department in its original budget were recinded.


As a fully paid up member of the Apostrophe Protection Society, with my camera always loaded and ready, I offer you three examples from Darlington of all that's best in the world of punctuation. In order to avoid overload, I have not been to the Indoor Market this week.
Perhaps the sandwich shop on Post House Wynd could tell us just how many northeasts there are in this country.
Well done Poundland, but the little chap seems to be a bit weighed down by the stress of being in the high class surroundings of High Row.
Finally, well done to the educationalists in Darlington Borough Council for their deliberate mistake. Luckily, I imagine punctuation does not feature highly on the curriculum at the PRU.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Big Hitter to move to Environment

The papers for tomorrow's Annual Council meeting arrived on my doormat last night.
Cllr Nick Wallis, one of the big hitters in the Labour Group, is to move to the Sustainable Environment and Climate Change Portfolio. Cllr Veronica Copeland moves over to Adult Services while Cllr Andy Scott joins the Cabinet, replacing Nick Wallis at Health and Leisure. Cllr David Lyonette continues his less than impressive job in charge of transport.
Obviously I'm not privy to the inner machinations of the Labour Group, so why Nick was moved within a year of taking over at Health and Leisure I don't know. I hope it's because Cllr Williams recognises the importance of the Environment brief and wants someone with a bit of clout to take it by the metaphorical scruff of the neck, something which Veronica, lovely lady though she is, failed to do.
I hope it isn't because they want a big man to defend their weak record on environmental issues. I hope they're not proposing to downgrade the kerbside recycling collection in favour of slinging everything into the big tunnels being built by John Wade to handle our waste: a system which effectively produces neutralised landfill, even though it can officially be classified as recyling. I hope we'll see a really aggressive and innovative approach to our environmental commitment. I just wonder what they're thinking here.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

All five Post Offices lost

All five Post Offices within the Borough which were earmarked for closure are indeed to close, the Post Office announced this morning.
Quite how Crown Street, which already suffers from horrendous queues for much of the day, will cope with the extra business I can't imagine. Cleveland Terrace Post Office was a hub of the local community: a community about which the Labour Government and its Post Office bosses seem to care little.
The loss of little Hopetown Post Office will be a real blow to the elderly and disabled people living nearby as well as the manager, who sells virtually nothing else from his shop.

Similarly, little Croft Post Office in Hurworth Ward is a lifeline for the elderly residents living nearby. So much for local MP Phil "Is Hurworth in my area?" Wilson's "fight" to save post offices in his Sedgefield constituency.
A sad day for many people in Darlington who fought a good fight against overwhelming odds.

Goodbye to the Premiership

Well, next season we'll be back playing competitive football, and hopefully winning lots of games in stadiums full of real fans, taking part in an exciting league, unlike the almost pre-determined results in the Premiership.

It's been a great three years, from our record-breaking 106 points in the Championship in 2005/06, to our eighth place in the Premiership in 2006/07, to our relegation to an 85th minute goal at Fratton Park last weekend. Little Reading, who I first watched at ramshackle Elm Park at the tender age of nine in 1963 against Peterborough, made it to the big time on a shoestring budget and for a while made the Premiership a little less boring.

I offer two photos from my last visit to the Mad Stad in the Premiership. I couldn't make our final home game against Spurs, but here are two photos from my seat at the previous game, our home defeat against Fulham which effectively sealed our fate.

If you look closely, you can just pick out the rainbow which appeared inside the stadium as a torrential downpour gave way to bright sunshine. It appears to be ending in the Directors' Box, which is presumably where the Premiership pot of gold disappeared to.

Post Office announcement imminent

Despite our local consultation starting a week before that in London (the fate of whose Post Offices was announced last week) the Post Office website this morning still showed no sign of a decision. News reaches me, however, that one, and presumably all, the local Post Offices have already been told their fate - and in the particular case I've been told about, it's closure. Publication of the full report must be imminent.
8.30am addition: I see from this morning's Echo that the announcement will be made at 10am today.
Meanwhile, the queues in the Crown Street Post Office reached to the door yesterday. God knows what they'll be like soon. And don't those "People's Post Office" tv adverts just make you want to throw up?
Interestingly, an old-fashioned glossy leaflet from the Conservatives is being delivered with one of the free newspapers. It features the invisible man, North Yorkshire toff and Sandhurst educated PPC for Darlington, Edward Legard. Yet again, they print the same photo that appeared in the Echo of Edward outside one of the Post Offices. So I thought I'd show you two of mine.

Friday, 9 May 2008

The nation holds its breath

Sunday afternoon, 3pm, Pride Park: Reading start the most important game of their Premiership journey since last Saturday's game against Spurs. We need to do better in our game than Fulham do away against Pompey (c'mon 'arry!). Frankly, for most of this season we've been crap and don't deserve to stay up, but it's been fun going to Anfield, Old Trafford and Goodison and I'd prefer that next season than going to Carlisle, Doncaster and Blackpool. Some would say it's better watching them do well in the Championship than waiting for the occasional win in the Premiership, but I think it's great to be mixing it with the big boys. C'mon u RRRRRZZZ!

Meanwhile, in a fit of self-destruction, Darlington manager Dave Penney invited ex-Boro and England supremo, Steve McClaren, to take training earlier this week, in preparation for the play-offs. I thought you wanted to win promotion, Dave. At least it hasn't been raining this week, Steve.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

It's back!

Following a small campaign by myself and fellow North Road ward councillor Fred Lawton, plans for a children's play area attached to the new North Road Primary School have been re-instated. But it was the Echo that told us - not the officers!
Fred spoke strongly in the Children and Young People's Scrutiny Committee for the re-instatement of the play area, a speech which was picked up and reported in the Echo.
Yesterday afternoon, Paul Cook from the Echo phoned me to say he had received a press release from the Council saying that officers had decided to include a new play area on the site of the existing Grass Street Park.
Of course, being of the mushroom (kept in the dark...etc etc) tendency, Fred and I, the ward councillors campaigning on this issue, were not informed or consulted by officers either before the play area was dropped, or before it was re-instated. In fact, we still haven't heard anything at all from the Council about this. The Echo (as with the EC Harris report on the Eastern Transport Corridor) was told about it first. If Paul hadn't rung us, we still wouldn't know about it.
I am very pleased that the Council has seen sense and re-instated that play area; they certainly wouldn't have done if Fred and I had not spoken up about it. But I continue to be very disturbed at the way in which some Council officers, no doubt encouraged by their political masters in the Labour Cabinet, continue to ignore ward councillors.
We are elected to be Champions of our communities, but are systematically ignored when decisions about our wards are made.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Damp squib

This afternoon's meeting of the Council's Resources Scrutiny Committee, which had as an agenda item the consideration of the consultants' report on the £1.9m overspend on the Eastern Transport Corridor, turned out to be a damp squib. Opposition councillors called for a Task and Finish Review Group to be set up to look at the matter in more detail than was possible this afternoon. With only slight hesitation, the Chair agreed. And there, despite the Conservatives' attempts to debate the report at today's meeting as well, the story ends - for now.
There will now be an all-day meeting next Friday, held in private, at which the report will be discussed.
Perhaps the only item of interest to report is that, in contrast to the Resources Scrutiny meeting about the overspend on the Pedestrian Heart, which the Leader of the Council attended, and proceeded to dominate, at today's meeting the Leader was absent. Cllr Lyonette, the Cabinet Member with responsibiity for transport, did attend. If I was him, I'd be very worried that the Leader chose not to attend.
Ever felt you've been hung out to dry?