Thursday, 26 June 2008

Oh deer, Echo forget about ghosts

A schoolboy error in today's Echo, with the headline, "Council is criticised over terrible state of cemetary."

Note to Echo sub-editors: in order to spell it correctly, simply remember that late at night all the ghosts come out and go "eeeeeeeee"!

This does, though, lead to a depressing story, which follows on from a similar report earlier in the week about North Cemetery, about the poor state of maintenance in our cemeteries since Street Scene started. Grass is strimmed and left to rot where it lies: often on the headstones of loved ones. Pride in the job has been lost.

No-one any longer believes the blandishments from officers or Council leaders that Street Scene is maintaining its horticultural standards. We can all see how the town's floral displays, flower beds, cemeteries and gardens have deteriorated markedly over the past couple of years.

Go out and talk to some Street Scene workers: morale is low, skilled horticulturalists are emptying bins, standards are falling. Our town once proudly stood head and shoulders above all others by winning national awards for its flower displays and horticultural work. No longer.

Just take a stroll down High Row and look in the planters (photos above): nettles, thistles and weeds proliferate and fight for space. All very depressing.
Update: Thursday evening. Walking along High Row this evening, I notice that the planters have been weeded and a compost mulch added!!

Developer moves to allay fears

Discovery Properties, the developers of The Oval shopping centre (please, Echo, stop calling it a mall: this isn't the USA) have moved to reassure us that their development is still "quietly progressing" with a new target opening date of late Spring 2011, Apparently their website is down because "we've changed our operator".
As someone who has always supported this development, I am very pleased to be able to report this, though I reserve the right to retain a degree of scepticism about the likelihood of them achieving that target.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Town Twinning Cycle Ride to Mulheim: day 2

Our second day dawned bright and sunny as we set off for our first experience of cycling in Holland. Amazing! Right of way (impeccibly observed by motorists) for cyclists at roundabouts and road crossings; dedicated cycle paths beside all the main roads; minor roads narrowed to a single lane to allow for cycle lanes.

We had no maps, though one of our team thought he knew a little place that sold them. When we found it, it was closed, so we headed off for Amsterdam mapless. This was to become the norm!

After a couple of hours we were in Amsterdam, which was pretty hairy for virgin continental cyclists. Thousands of cyclists flying around, one of whom sent Tom Nutt crashing to the pavement, all on their sit-up-and-beg bikes.

Everyone seemed to cycle: gorgeous girls, businessmen, students, mums with babies in tow, pensioners: the bicycle in Holland is a classless and ageless mode of transport.

We had an outdoor lunch sitting beside a canal, then found the Central Station, with its multi-story bike park, and an information centre selling maps!

Back on the road, we left the city behind and charged through Hilversum, Baarn and Amersfoort, heading towards our destination of Lunteren. Attractive towns and villages, but no time to stop and wander.

After 65 miles we had no idea where our hostel for the night was, nor even what it was called. Eventually, after several wrong turnings, we found it. A bit basic would be a generous description.

Back into town for a drink we found a pizzeria with a couple of tables outside. A long, tiring day ended satisfactorily.

An interesting sideline: most of the houses in this sleepy town had their curtains wide open with lights blazing inside. Apparently, in this part of Holland it is important that the neighbours can see in, to make sure you're behaving yourself!
Photos: Top, Tom Nutt surveying the luxury of our hostel accommodation in Lunteren. Middle: an unexpected gem in Amersfoort. Bottom, the cheese display in a wonderful cheese shop and bakery where some of us bought our take-away lunch in Amsterdam.
Distance covered after 2 days: 115 miles.

"Website Disabled"

News reaches me that one of the businesses which was due to be compulsorily purchased by the Council in order to clear the way for the new Oval shopping development has withdrawn from the purchase of its new site because the compulsory purchase is not going ahead. Furthermore, try visiting the Oval's website and you get the message, "Website disabled".
As I understand it, Debenham's involvement in the scheme was dependent on the project starting this spring, in order to be open in time for Christmas 2010. Clearly that ain't gonna happen.
The wider development of the town centre, including the "town centre fringe", potentially a very exciting area full of possibilities, is predicated by the successful completion of the Oval. This, however, appears indefinitely delayed.
This comes on top of property developers pulling out of sites in North Road and Harrowgate Hill. The recession is now biting hard. The only shop that appears busy in town is the new Poundland shop on High Row. Mind you, when you see some of their £1 offers, it's obvious why they're so popular. Frankly, in business terms, I haven't seen the town so quiet in 23 years of trading.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Town-Twinning Cycle ride to Mulheim: Day 1

Determined to cycle all the way from my front door, I negotiated the A66 to get to Sadberge just 10 minutes after our projected start time of 7am! This tardiness was to become the norm: always the last down for breakfast and generally taking up the rear on the cycle paths. Sandy Wallis also arrived by bike, the rest by car! The top photo shows the whole team, including our essential back-up crew.

Down the back lanes, through the villages, the rain steady, some of the cyclists less so, we eventually arrived at the southern end of the Castle Eden Walkway at Wynyard, already feeling a bit damp! Luckily the rain meant the path was free of walkers, so our progress north was uninterrupted by the need to avoid those on foot. This is, in better weather, a picturesque, if rather narrow, path heading north the length of County Durham from Stockton.

In South Hetton we spied a Church Coffee morning! Bliss! Hot drinks, home made cakes and bemused but friendly locals in a steaming but warm Church Hall. Photo 2 shows Tom and Doug dripping gently.

Eventually we made Sunderland, where Leader Tom Nutt led us on a short cut straight across the city and up the coast to meet the South Shields to North Shields Ferry. This is a small boat chugging determinedly to and fro across the Tyne: well used by pedestrians and cyclists.

Still raining non-stop, the good people at the North Shields Ferry Terminal made us stand for an hour in the cold and rain, queuing to get on the ferry to Holland. Photo 3: "Let us on, then!"

Eventually, at 4.30pm, we boarded, tying our bikes to some railings on the car deck. Unlike my last ferry trip, across to France at the height of the season, our ferry was less than half full, and much the better for it.

The bar was the first of many such establishments on our journey to benefit financially from our party's willingness to part with cash in exchange for alcoholic sustenance.

Luckily, each of our four berth cabins had only two people in, so there was room to dry clothes, have leisurely showers and sleep well on a smooth crossing.

Distance cycled: 50 miles.

Friday, 20 June 2008

At least it's not T**co

Bugger! The new sponsors of my beloved Reading FC are to be Waitrose, the supermarket chain I blogged about critically earlier this week. Now I'm going to have their name emblazoned on my replica shirt. Not only that...I'm going to have to eat their food at halftime. Give me strength!

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Post Office Ltd makes an offer

Post Office Ltd has indicated to Darlington Borough Council that it will keep four of the five post offices which are due to close next month open, IF the Council provide a subsidy of £25,000 to £30,000 each per annum. Hopetown will definitely close. An officer's report will go to Cabinet next month.
Now, I was told that Milbank and Cleveland Terrace post offices were profitable anyway, and that these closures were intended to maximise the profits of Post Office Ltd by driving yet more business through the already congested Crown Street branch.
So these subsidies from the Council would not be to subsidise unprofitable, failing branches, but to protect the overall profits of Post Office Ltd! I don't believe it's the Council's job to line the pockets of Post Office Ltd.
I can't see our Labour Cabinet forking out up to £120k per annum to maximise Post Office Ltd's profits - especially as there are no local elections for three years and all four branches are in Lib Dem or Tory wards!

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Waitrose: a wolf in sheep's clothing?

Last year, the press carried warnings about Waitrose's ambitions: here, in the Guardian, for example. Last month, Waitrose,the food retailing arm of the John Lewis Partnership, announced plans to open up to 100 smaller format stores in market towns up and down the country.
Apparently, these will "reflect the ambience of the traditional grocery shop." How sweet: how very Waitrose.

Ok, so Waitrose have a deserved reputation for treating their suppliers fairly: and they're really nice people who share their profits with their workers, but this move exposes a clear ambition to push directly into the domain of the independent food retailer. As the Federation for Small Businesses says: " other supermarkets, it does seem hell bent on doing everything the butcher, baker and florist does in the local high street".

The only difference between supermarkets is the name and the scale. At their heart they're all the same: they want more customers and they don't care who gets wiped out to get them.
Now, does anyone know a market town which just happens to have a plot of land available for redevelopment? Ah, yes. That would be Darlington, wouldn't it?

Now, of course, I don't know if anything is going on - but then we didn't know about the Tesco negotiations for years, did we? But now that Waitrose has made its ambitions and strategy public knowledge, hopefully if any formal discussions take place, we'll be kept informed.

Believe me: nice people and nice shops they might be, and I'm sure the good people of the West End will welcome them with open arms, but if Waitrose open in our town centre you can kiss goodbye to any plans there might be to make the Indoor Market into a specialist food-oriented destination. In fact, you might just kiss goodbye to those very businesses we campaigned so hard to protect when Tesco loomed over us a couple of years ago!

Back in the saddle - or not

Back from my great cycle trip to Mulheim with the Darlington Town Twinning group (of which more later), and having needed another week to catch up with everything at home and at work, I'm back in the blogosphere. And tonight, having got the bug, I'll be back in the saddle (unless it's pouring with rain) taking part in a gentle evening ride out to Walworth as part of Darlington Cycling Week. At least three other intrepid Mulheim cyclists will be taking part. But what will make it different from last week's trip is that at least one person on tonight's ride will know the way!

If there's anyone out there who fancies it: meet at the Dolphin Centre at 6.30pm. Bring your bike and some lights.
And here's one photo from our trip: a multi-story bike park in Amsterdam!

Monday, 2 June 2008

"'Ere mate...what'll you give us for an old school?

Browsing the properties for sale websites, as you do, I came across this a few days ago. This building used to be Harrowgate Hill Infants' School on Thompson St West, on the border of Harrowgate Hill and North Road wards. It is up for sale with a guide price of £1 million.
When it was closed down a couple of years ago, despite a campaign by local people and your Lib Dem ward councillors for the building to be retained for community use, the Labour Council, desperate for money to shore up their crumbling finances, sold it off with indecent haste.

The property developers who purchased the building and land, applied for and were granted planning permission for the conversion of the school and the building of a new block to create a total of 32 new apartments.

No work has ever been done on the site, which is deteriorating, much to the annoyance of local residents. Now the property developers have put the site back on the market for £1million.

Oh yes, what I forgot to mention is that the Council flogged it to them for just £590,000 last year! So, if they get their million, the developers, who have done nothing with the site except apply for planning permission - from DBC, of course - will walk away with a cool profit of £410,000!

Quite simply, this stinks! This building and land was a community asset, owned by the community and used for the education of generations of local children. The building should have been retained for the use of the local community. But what is even more disgraceful is that the Council was so desperate to get rid of the building as quickly as possible - before an effective local campaign for its retention could be mounted - that it was happy to accept a bid which appears to be little more than half its true market value.

This Council has played fast and loose with our money. First it costs us £2.3 million by overspending on the Pedestrian Heart. Then it costs us another £1.9 million by overspending on the ETC, affectionately known as the Road to Nowhere. Now it has lost the local community not just a valuable asset, but upwards of £400,000 by selling off HH Infants School on the cheap.
Did the Council seek professional advice on what the site might be worth? Or, just like the ETC, did they go ahead without getting expert knowledge and advice? Yet again, the Council has been taken for a ride. When is this going to stop?

How many more stories of their financial incompetence will be uncovered? How much more wriggling will the Cabinet have to do? When is an elected Cabinet member ever going to accept responsibility for this incompetence?

"People told us...we have listened"

The title of this post is extracted from the blog of fellow Lib Dem Les Bonner, from North East Lincolnshire. He refers to his Council's decision to extend free bus travel for the elderly and disabled to pre-9.30am - something Darlington BC says it cannot afford.

Of course, "You spoke...we listened" is also one of John Williams's recent catchphrases: except that in Darlington it only applies to things he agrees with anyway.

As Les says,

"The scheme is of significant benefit to many deserving people and also supports the council’s CO2 emissions and climate change policy by getting more people to use public transport as an alternative to using cars."


Sunday, 1 June 2008

The craziest parking bays in town?

Take a look at this photo of Eastmount Road. Newly installed parking bays on the left of the photo, on the approach to a right hand bend, narrow the road to a dangerous width. And remember, 100 metres further on is a Reg Vardy car showroom, visited by large, wide, car transporter lorries.

As I was standing there, these two cars tried to squeeze through the gap: just look how close the car heading towards me gets to the parked cars on the right.

If it hasn't already happened, someone's treasured car is going to be damaged here soon.