Sunday, 30 November 2008

The mushroom tendency - kept in the dark and know!

A noisy row erupted at Thursday’s Full Council Meeting, with Tories and Lib Dems roaring their disapproval at remarks made by Cllr Williams, the Leader of the Council.

A deal has been cooked up by senior officers and councillors to sell off part of our superb Arts Centre, including the Youth Theatre, built just a couple of years ago at a cost of £300,000, to the Queen Elizabeth 6th Form College next door. With the recession in full swing, the Council is strapped for cash and sees selling off public property as the way to balance the books.

Conservative Cllr Ian Galletely, never shy of getting on his hind legs to have a go at Labour, complained, not about the decision to sell the land – that would wait until next week’s Cabinet meeting – but about the fact that the first time he heard about the scheme was from a neighbour who had read the Northern Echo. There had been absolutely no involvement nor consultation with ward councillors.

Ian’s speech was about the constitutional impropriety of this process. He was, however, told to shut up and sit down by the Labour Mayor. Eventually, he did resume his seat. The point had been made, however.

Then, when Cllr Williams rose to reply to Ian’s remarks, he said, “If I was the ward councillor, I’d have known about it”. This arrogant and supercilious remark enraged opposition members, who shouted their disapproval across the Chamber. As a Labour Councillor he would have known about it. It's the Lib Dems and Tories who are kept in the dark on this Council.

Unfortunately, the post-election promise by the Labour leadership to operate in a more open and inclusive way has been shown to be a short-lived fiction. In my ward, North Road, we can (and will) provide several examples from the past year where officers have completely failed to consult us or notify us about their plans for the ward. This is despite a promise earlier from the Chief Executive to my colleague, Cllr Fred Lawton, that we would be consulted about officers’ plans.

The gloves are off on this one. Most opposition councillors can recite stories from the past year of a failure to communicate or consult by officers. There appears to be an endemic assumption among some officers, at all levels, that Lib Dem and Conservative ward councillors can be disregarded when decisions about their wards are made. This is completely unacceptable. We will not give up on this issue.

When I was a young athlete, I won the Berkshire schools championship in my event, which meant I qualified for the All-England Schools Championships, held that year at Crystal Palace. I clearly remember the pep talk given by the senior teacher who was responsible for getting our squad together to go up to the Championships. “You may be representing a small county,” he said, “but you’re a county champion, just as much as the champions of the big counties like Yorkshire or Middlesex are. Some others may be more talented, but you’re all champions.”

Well, it’s the same with ward councillors: we are all directly elected by our residents to represent them in Council and we should all be equal in that respect and entitled to receive equal support and information from all officers. No matter what party we are from, we are all entitled to equal respect from officers. It is quite simply undemocratic and disrespectful to our electorate to withhold important information from opposition ward councillors.

The Labour Group seem determined to appear to be consulting with residents about some things (but not the new waste contract, for example) over the heads of ward councillors. They consult over issues they expect to be criticised for, such as cycling in the Pedestrian Heart. This means that criticism can be deflected by referring back to the consultation.

Big issues, like the new waste management contract, are not consulted on, because Labour have already decided what to do and do not anticipate much public interest, apart from pressure groups like FoE.

The arrogance of the Labour leadership, colluded with by some non-elected officers, is going to be a theme of our campaigning from now right through to the next local elections, you can bank on it!

Full Council (1)

Thursday evening was Full Council: usually a somewhat tedious rubber-stamping of Labour’s programme, with the occasional fairly innocuous bit of argy-bargy between the parties.

But Thursday’s meeting was different. When the Constitution Working Group met earlier in the year, one of its aims was to improve public access to the Council. In our discussions I pushed for Questions from the Public to be encouraged at the start of Full Council meetings, with the need to give only 24 hours notice of questions to be asked. Previously, the requirement was 10 days, I think – and the right of residents to ask questions was never advertised.

At last month’s AGM of Darlington Friends of the Earth, I told the Group about their right to ask questions in Council. They seized on this idea and on Thursday night came along with five questions, plus supplementaries, for Cllr Wallis, the lead member for the Environment and Climate Change.

This was the first time any member of the Public had ever asked a question at Council. We do often nowadays have speeches from the public at Cabinet Meetings, but never before at Council.

Cllr Wallis had clearly prepared and practiced his answers, which were lengthy and coherent. He didn’t convince his questioners that recycling (or down-cycling) through the new MBT plant was an improvement on kerbside recycling, but at least FoE got their day in court, they were welcomed and heard with respect and the Echo reported the event.
Friends of the Earth want to see as much as possible of our household waste collected at the kerbside for high-grade recycling. They view MBT processers as the necessary final stage of the waste management progamme, but only after as much as possible has been recycled from the kerbside. The Council's new contract with Wades reduces the range of items collected at the kerbside, instead relying on the MBT plant to process waste for low quality recycling.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

What a choice

On Sunday night I have a choice: spend a relaxing evening at home with a glass or two of a mellow red while catching up with a few tv programmes I've recorded - or go down to my business and spend the whole night re-calculating my prices and re-ticketing thousands of individual items, so that the Government can save the economy by allowing my customers to spend £5.18 instead of £5.29 on a bottle of vitamins. And I reckon it will take more than just one night to do the job.

The Government expects me to do this because, from December 1st, I have to charge VAT at 15% instead of 17.5%. If I don't get it all done overnight, the instructions from Mr Geoff Lloyd, the VAT Director, tell me my employees who operate the tills must calculate the new price manually. The instructions are helpful: they must take the existing retail price and multiply that by 7 and divide the result by 47. The new answer must then be subtracted from the retail price. They must then add 15% to the new price. And that assumes that they know which items are sold with VAT at 17.5%, which have VAT at 5% and which have no VAT.

Well, that's alright then. I'm sure my customers won't mind waiting in ever-growing queues while we carry out these manual calculations so that GB can save the economy.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Only a matter of time

Have had a break from blogging for a week: catching up with real work and ward work after spending so much time during the North Road by-election bringing the democratic process into disrepute by communicating with the voters (link here November 12th).

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine who works for the Northern Echo told me their advertising revenue had fallen by 70%. And today we see the inevitable consequence: the announcement of job losses at North of England Newspapers. I do hope this is enough to ensure this newspaper's survival.

While some local Labour Councillors would prefer it if Liberal Democrats did not communicate and interact with the electorate (it makes things so messy when there's more than one message out there) we will continue to do so: and I sincerely hope as well that the Northern Echo will survive the current economic crisis and continue to do a superb job of reporting on local news and holding those in power to account.

Although I manage to get my name in the Echo with some regularity (always available with a quote) my main contact with them was before I was elected, when I was part of the Say No To Tesco campaign. The editor, Peter Barron, was determined that this issue would be comprehensively covered and he put his organ right out there at the front of the debate. In this, and in so many of its own campaigns over the years, the Echo has proven itself to be an essential part of the life of this town. Not many towns of our size can support a daily local newspaper. We need it.

The Echo has a great mix of experience and youthful enthusiasm amongst its reporting and editorial staff. Without them, the democratic process would be the poorer.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Convincing Lib Dem victory in North Road

Tonight's result in the Darlington Borough Council North Road Ward by-election was a convincing win for the Lib Dems, losing just a handful of votes to the Independent candidate, a former Lib Dem councillor in the ward.

The result in full:
Anne-Marie Curry (Lib Dem) 561 (50.8%) (-4.2%)
Labour 262 (23.7%) (-0.0%)
Conservative 115 (10.4%) (-1.0%)
BNP 106 ( 9.6%) (-0.3%)
Independent 60 ( 5.4%) (+5.4%)
Turnout 24%
Figures based on top placed candidate from each party in May 2007.

Just 519 votes were cast on the day: 53% of those who voted did so by post.

The result is a vindication of the hard work put into the ward by Cllr Fred Lawton and myself. We are absolutely delighted that Anne-Marie will be joining our team, which will be all the stronger for her presence.

Darlington Liberal Democrats campaigned hard to win, with four leaflets, blue ink letters and a full canvass and polling day operation. Thanks are due to our friends in Redcar, and DF and CFW, for their help during the campaign and to all our members and supporters who delivered and canvassed in inclement weather on cold, dark evenings.

One Labour councillor complained that our strategy of delivering one leaflet each week during the campaign was excessive and brought the democratic process into disrepute. How stupid some people are! The Labour Party actually got their first leaflet out before us - no doubt aware before we were that Cllr Jones was about to be expelled from the Council. I imagine that a few days canvassing in the ward was enough to tell them they couldn't win, so they ran just a token campaign thereafter.

Of course, Labour would prefer it if voters' view of the world was informed by the "Town Crier". It must be so annoying for them that we deliver Focus so that our local residents are better informed about local affairs.

No, what brings the democratic process into disrepute is not the Liberal Democrats delivering a leaflet once a week during an election campaign: it's the Labour Party stifling democratic debate by refusing to devolve any decision-making to ward level and insisting that only they know best what the people of Darlington want.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

BNP deliver third leaflet

The BNP have delivered a third leaflet in the North Road by-election: two more than either Labour or the Conservatives. This one gives me a mention.

Apparently, "Mike Barker, the Lib Dem Councillor for North Road, said he is against BNP policies." What I actually said to the BNP guys who struck up a conversation with me when we were both out delivering last week was, "I think BNP policies are appalling." I know, a bit twee, but, together with "ludicrous", it's a word that tends to leap into my brain quite frequently when I'm describing one or other of the fringe candidates in this by-election!

Anyway, if you're going to quote me lads, get it right! Here's one for your next leaflet, "Mike Barker, Lib Dem Councillor for North Road ward, thinks the BNP is a racist organisation led by a bunch of thugs who should go back under whatever stone they crawled out from." You have my permission to quote me in full.

The full quote about me, if you can be interested in what this bunch have to say, is, "Mike Barker, the Lib Dem Councillor for North Road ward, says he is against BNP policies. This means that he is in favour of immigrants who have never paid a penny into our country getting benefits and houses, agrees that Europe should make 80% of Britain's taxes, is against firm action on crime and strict laws to deal with criminals and thinks that high taxation is worth paying".

Their leaflet also claims Rise Carr has "scores of immigrants from Africa and Asia"; it says the residents of North Road are "working in dead end jobs flipping burgers" because foreign imports have destroyed local industry, and it describes the Pupil Referral Unit as "a borstal". Worst of all, it describes the Lib Dems as "liberal" - oh no, sorry, you got that right, John.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Council to start commercial waste recycling

I have asked in Full Council, at Town Centre Traders' meetings, and on this blog, that Darlington Borough Council match its commitment to increased household domestic recycling with a commercial waste recycling service. My business produces huge amounts of cardboard waste, as do most retailers, and it is annoying to see it carted away to landfill every week.

Now, from December 3rd, the Council will be providing a collection of clean paper and cardboard for recycling - and it's free! Local businesses received letters from the Waste Minimisation and Recycling Officer this morning. I've already signed up for it and I hope everyone else does too. I shall do my bit by mentioning it to the other traders in the Wynd when they come in for their lovely, freshly-made, home-made soup at lunchtime!

Thank You Mr Foster

Blogging has been a bit light recently due to our North Road ward by-election. We've got three leaflets out so far with a week still to go, targetted letters to all postal voters and 75% of houses canvassed despite the dark damp evenings.

However, blogging this morning is easy: I offer you, straight from the pages of the Northern Echo, a letter which appears in today's edition. And no, since I know what some of you will be thinking, whoever Stuart Foster is, he's not a member or known supporter of the Liberal Democrats. He is though, remarkably perceptive:

"I recently received some propaganda from the Conservative Party regarding the North Road Ward by-election in Darlington on November 13.
It would appear that the party’s candidate, George Jenkinson, has been inaccurate concerning the departure of Independent councillor Steve Jones.
Mr Jenkinson states: “This byelection is being held because one of the men elected last year as a Liberal Democrat has not attended the council in six months, so has been thrown off.”
In fact, Mr Jones stood in the last borough council election as an Independent after being thrown out of the Lib Dems.
As Mr Jenkinson seeks to represent the North Road ward it surprises me that he was unable to campaign for support by stating how he would tackle the issues that are relevant to those he seeks to represent.
I am dismayed that he has preferred to use smear tactics against the Lib Dems, which are clearly untrue.
The ward’s present Lib Dem councillors, Fred Lawton and Mike Barker, have worked consistently on North Road issues and their dedication to the area is apparent all year round – not just at election time, which incidentally is the only time I hear from the Conservatives."
Stuart Foster, Darlington

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

"I don't know what they're doing there"

As America takes us all on a giant and exciting leap into the unknown, so David Dimblebore brings us all down to earth with a bump. Sometime after 5am, it had been a long night, the crowds started gathering outside the White House - spontaneously, unlike the Blair's orchestrated gathering back in 97. People in America needed to get out on the streets and celebrate - to be with other people - to share in the enormity of what they had just done.

So what does Dimblebore say? "I don't know why they're gathering there. Nothing's going to happen there." You just don't get it, do you David?