Monday, 21 July 2008

Protests grow

My blog piece last week about cars illegally entering the Skinnergate pedestrian area during the day has produced a considerable amount of support from other nearby retailers. Both the Northern Echo and the D&S Times (as their page 1 lead story) reported on the matter last week. Since then a number of traders in Skinnergate have been to see me to ask whether anything can be done to block the entry point until such time as the Council get the rising bollard fixed.

With the nice weather this week, one of the cafes in Skinnergate has put tables and chairs out in front of their premises, which is great. But then cars, taxis and vans are charging down the street, whizzing past the tables by a matter of inches. With the schoolkids on holiday, it's only a matter of time until someone gets seriously hurt. Another of the cafes (Three Squares) would like to put tables and chairs outside, but can't do so with all the traffic on the road.

Apparently cars are even coming into Skinnergate from the south as well: so we have cars travelling illegally in both directions! It's fun when they meet!

Yet no temporary barrier has been erected. Why not just use a crush barrier? Surely a couple of wardens could put it in place in the morning and remove it at 5pm.

I went out for just ten minutes this afternoon, on my way to the bank. Above are just a few of the photos I took (I took 12 in all - more than one a minute) - though given the amount of abuse I received, I doubt whether I'll do that again. The police don't seem interested and the Council are just waiting for the bollard to be fixed. At the rate I saw cars on the road today there must have been hundreds of cars along there in the course of the day.

Negative Subsidy

Darlington is hardly one of the wealthier towns in the country, yet each year the Government takes a proportion of our Council's income from Council house rents and redistributes it elsewhere in the country. Sometimes, and this year is a case in point, central Government just keeps a chunk of that money.

Now, compared to some local authorities, who pay millions of pounds a year to the Government from their Council house income, Darlington pays relatively little: this year it's projected to be £568,000. That's 3.9% of our total rental income of £14,730,00, or just over £90 per household.

This is called "negative subsidy" and Darlington has always been in this situation. The amount we pay is set by the Communities and Local Government Department and we have no control over this.

Darlington is the only authority in the Tees Valley to be in negative subsidy: Stockton, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Hartlepool are all beneficiaries of this scheme.

A couple of years ago, Darlington, which is a good local authority landlord providing a four-star housing service, was one of six authorities from around the country chosen to take part in a pilot scheme to look at coming out of the subsidy system, and become self-financing. Now it seems that Government has accepted that the subsidy system is not ideal and a major review is taking place. In the meantime, the pilot scheme has been put on hold.

Council house tenants, by and large, are one group who need every penny they can get. Yet in Darlington each Council household is effectively being taxed over £90 a year. I wonder what the residents of Rise Carr and North Riverside in my ward would think about that!

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Caffe Nero at it again

Thanks to Chris Close for bringing to my attention the fact that Caffe Nero is breaking planning laws by opening a new coffee shop on Horsemarket (pictured above), which would require A3 consent, in a unit formerly occupied by the longest closing down sale in the history of the universe, TY McGurk, which had A1 planning consent.

Chris has been busy and found evidence of a couple of past misdemeanours by our classically named newcomers. I spent a few minutes on Google and found even more.

It appears that Caffe Nero believe themselves to be above the law. Here in Bankside, here in Dulwich, here in Petersfield, here in Sidcup, here in Hertford, and here on the BBC are a few examples of their high-handed attitude towards local, democratically elected planning authorities.

Caffe Nero applied for planning permission in Darlington on July 8th, after they had started work on their new unit, for change of use from A1 to Mixed A1/A3. The Borough Council planning portal shows this application as "pending consideration", with a link to an on-line form for anyone who wants to object.

Now, I've nothing against Caffe Nero. I've never been in one, I prefer local local coffee shops and cafes rather than multinational groups. And this conversion, in a frontage already dominated by cafes, pubs and a pizza restaurant, might well be a desirable improvement on tatty old TY McG, but what happened to the concept of local democracy? Why have planning rules and a Planning Applications Committee if multinational companies can just march in and do what they like?

Here are the Application details:

Ref No: 08/00586/CU
Officer: David Nelson
Application Type: Change of Use
Date Validated: 08 Jul 2008
Last Update: 08 Jul 2008
Address: Cafe Nero 9 - 10 Horsemarket DARLINGTON DL1 5PW
Applicant: Nero Holdings Limited : Caffe Nero 3 Neal Street LONDON WC2H 9PU
Agent: Brian Madge Limited : 20 Westmead Road SUTTON Surrey SM1 4JT
Proposal: Change of use from A1 (sports shop) to mixed A1/A3 use (cafe/shop)
Status: Pending Consideration Comment on application 08/00586/CU

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The Inspector knows best

Darlington Snooker Club on Northgate is to be turned into flats. Earlier this year it was announced that Derek White, the owner of the building, was to appeal against the decision of Darlington Council Planning Applications Committee to refuse him permission to demolish his motorcycle shop, above which sits the snooker club, and build a block of flats there instead.

Quite rightly, since Darlington has too many flats standing empty as it is, the Council supported the tenant of the snooker club, Peter Everett, and his loyal members, who argued convincingly that the club was a valuable local asset and that there would be no demand for flats.

Now a Planning Inspector from Bristol has decided that permission should be granted to replace the snooker club with a block of flats. Clearly local opinion and democracy count for nothing. This town will be the poorer for this decision. Decent people will lose their livelihood, local people will lose a sporting and social amenity, in return for which we get a block of flats that nobody will want to buy. This decision stinks!

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Oi! Where's our bollard?

Those of us who work in town have been taking our lives into our hands for the last couple of weeks because the bollard which rises and falls to block or allow entry to the Skinnergate pedestrianised area is broken, in the down position. All and sundry are driving into the pedestrian area where innocent shoppers continue to stroll around, trying to decide which charity or pound shop to go to, until they look up, startled, as a 4x4 zooms along towards them.

Apparently the bollards are maintained by a French company, so they'll have to finish lunch before they come over to fix it. In the meantime a temporary bollard has been used and slotted into a hole in the ground to block the road. The trouble is, in these days of high metal prices, someone's nicked it!

After the community carnival a couple of weeks ago, a large red plastic box was accidentally left on the road at that point. It'll probably still be there for next year's event. Unfortunately, it's full of sand and too heavy to move by hand, otherwise that would do the job until our French cousins get the bollard fixed.

I tried walking slowly pointedly down the middle of Skinnergate at lunchtime: unfortunately the next driver along bore a close resemblance in demeanour and attitude to a banned breed of dog, so, deciding that a contest between intellect and muscle invariably results in victory for the latter, I allowed him past.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

I'm confused

Last night's Cabinet meeting saw millions of pounds of expenditure approved on the nod, while a proposal from the Conservatives that £25,000 be allocated to rescuing the one remaining post office from the five recently earmarked for closure produced heated discussion complete with heckling from the cheap seats.

Now, to make life easier, most people categorise the Conservatives as the party of the free market, while Labour stands for management and intervention in the economy. Yet last night the Conservatives argued forcefully, in the shape of Cllr Coultas, for the Council to subsidise a private company (Post Office Ltd) to the tune of £25k pa. The Leader of the Council, meanwhile, retorted that the Labour Council could not intervene in the free market to prop up unviable enterprises (especially one in a Conservative ward!).

Of course, we also had to endure a succession of Cabinet members wittering on about good housekeeping and protecting the public purse (you know, the ones who have been responsible for a £4million plus overspend on two of their pet projects recently). There is no doubt that they could have found £25k if they'd wanted to; unfortunately the provision of community facilities outside their favoured wards is not something they rate highly.

I hope the students from the college who filled the public seats were impressed by the quality of debate in Cabinet and not confused about just what the Conservative and Labour parties really stand for in this town.

Meanwhile, Tory Toff Edward Legrand, PPC, a retired army officer from the shires, the local parliamentary spokesman for the Conservative party (the party of freedom) has repeated his demand that none of us should be allowed to drink outdoors. I'm confused. I need a drink - outdoors, preferably.

PS If you want to read about Darlington news in the new Echo (published in Darlington) today, you'll have to go through one page of national news, followed by four pages of "regional news", followed by four pages of "UK and national news", followed by four more pages of "regional news", followed by two pages of comment and letters, followed by one page of "regional news", followed by two pages of "features" , followed by two pages of "regional news" followed by two pages of "regional features" , followed by four pages of "The Great Yorkshire Show", followed by two pages of "regional news", followed by three pages of "entertainment and tv", followed by one more page of "regional news", followed by two pages of "business" followed by one more page of "regional news" until you get to one page of "Darlington news" on page 37.
Now I'm even more confused! Turn the lights out someone.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Echo relegates local news; Legrand pontificates.

I don't like the new layout of the Northern Echo. Darlington news, instead of occupying two facing pages in the front half of the paper, has been relegated to a single page in the back half of the paper. Now, most people don't venture this far: it's usually full of business news and photos of earnest looking sales executives and estate agents. Personally, I read the Darlington pages first, then I scan the front page, the editorials, Hear All Sides and have a look to see who's died. And that's it. My main source of news and comment in the media are the on-line versions of various newspapers (including the Echo).
That's how I came to miss the pronouncement from the Tory Toff, otherwise known as Edward Legrand, Conservative PPC for Darlington, that drinking alcohol in public outdoor spaces should be banned. Bloody 'ell, he'll have all the 18 to 25 year olds square bashing in the Market Place next.
My thanks to fellow blogger Nick Wallis for alerting us to this article, tucked away in the nether reaches of the Echo yesterday where few men venture.
If you stop people drinking outside, the lads and lasses who want to get tanked up and legless are going to do it anyway. They'll do it in the pub, where, at the moment, it's dry and warm. Banning outdoor drinking won't stop alcohol abuse: it'll just stop those of us who like to sit outside a bar or restaurant to eat and drink from enjoying this activity.
Vote Tory for authoritarian killjoy policies.
Note from the same article: Cllr Bill Dixon criticises calls for a blanket ban. Quite right too, Bill. In this weather some of us need an extra blanket.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Town Twinning Bike Ride to Mulheim: Day 3

Day three's ride took us through the heathland where our paras were famously dropped during Operation Market Garden in WW2, before their assault on the bridge at Arnhem: a bridge too far. A simple monument remains. Further along, the war cemetery for those who fell in the battle: many still in their teens.

On a misty, damp morning, these were moving experiences.

By lunchtime the sun was out and lunch was taken in various cafes in Arnhem.

Our afternoon ride took us across the non-existent border into Germany. Gradually the quality of cycle paths deteriorated and the car drivers became less considerate. Just like home! Our day's ride ended by the Rhine at Emmerich: an unattractive town, but one which has recently rediscovered the river on which it was built, with a delightful promenade of cafes and bars along the banks of the Rhine.

We ate (and drank) outside (a practice our local Tory PPC would put a stop to): very good food, big portions, plentiful lager and relaxed company.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Feethams Consultation

Oh dear! Having given us "cemetary" last week, today the Northern Echo's front page teaser says, "Feethams revamp: Plan for former Darlington football ground. Page 5." Yes, Darlo's former football ground was called Feethams, but this article is about the area covered by the old bus station and the Beaumont Street car parks. Such sloppy sub-editing does this venerable newspaper no credit.

And when you see the two "alternatives" shown on page 5, the plans look so uninspiring that the public's view is likely to be, "So what?" In fact, the plans shown in the Echo look boring, but try to imagine what it could look like, especially in the "mixed use" areas, where there are many possibilities for interesting small-scale ideas.

Our huge "Say No to Tesco" campaign, which gave rise to the exercise that has led to the publication of these alternative plans, showed that the people of Darlington wanted this area to be innovative and exciting with significant public space. What these plans reveal is a redevelopment largely based on huge car parks, offices and - despite Cllr Williams' promise that the area would never be used for that purpose - a supermarket.

What's more, John Anderson, who apparently is the Council's assistant director for regeneration, says, "Food retailing could feature in this scheme...whether that would be Tesco or Waitrose or whoever, it is up to those interested." Actually, it should be up to the people of Darlington.

When the consultation process starts, it's up to everyone to get involved and press for a regeneration of the area based on human-scale, mixed and publicly accessible developments.