Wednesday, 31 December 2008

George Francis Train

Darlington has a rich and exciting history, thanks largely to the Quaker families who dominated the town for so long. One of the great joys of living here is that we can read all about their exploits in Echomemories, Deputy Editor Chris Lloyd's regular page in the Northern Echo. For those of you outside the area, and are links to Chris's essays.

Today's essay is about an eccentric American called George Francis Train, who allied himself with the Pease family and built a horse-drawn tramway to deliver customers from North Road Railway Station to and around the town centre.

I found this article particularly revealing for two reasons. First, Darlington Liberal Democrats proposed in our manifesto for the last local elections that the town should be provided with a bus station, and that an environmentally-friendly shuttle bus service should operate from there, serving various places around the town centre. Instead, as Chris himself pointed out recently, we have the lunacy (my word, not his) of hundreds of buses a day careering through the town centre which otherwise could be completely pedestrianised. George Francis Train beat us to it by 150 years.

The second thing which caught my eye was this quote from the Darlington Telegraph, which apparently was brave (or foolhardy) enough to be anti-Pease.

The Telegraph accused the Peases of "brow-beating insolence, misnancying arrogance and impudent contempt of all courtesy." I've made a note of this for the next Full Council Meeting.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

40 minutes to post a parcel. Post Office Ltd should be ashamed

Since the closure of Cleveland Terrace and other Post Offices around Darlington, queues at the main Post Office on Crown Street have grown to gargantuan proportions. No business that cared about its customers would require them to stand for over half an hour, just to post a parcel. It's absolutely appalling and yet they seem totally oblivious to the cost of their inadequacies in terms of stress and lost productivity. Post Office Ltd just doesn't give a damn!

Setting out today at 11am to post my weekly parcel to Will in Afghanistan, my colleague (if you think I'm going to queue up that long, you've got another think coming: I know what it's like) arrived back at my shop at 11.46. It's a two minute walk in each direction. You do the maths. Normally, the whole thing takes about half an hour, which is totally unacceptable anyway. Today, it took over three-quarters of an hour: that's a cost to me of over £5 in wages.

There were FIVE service points open. FIVE!!! So it wasn't as if they were manning the whole counter to try to serve customers properly. They only put five staff on duty at 11am one week before Christmas. Are these people stupid? Probably: they certainly don't give a damn about customer service.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Will's friend killed by 13 year old suicide bomber

Three Royal Marines from 45 Commando based in Arbroath died today in Sangin when a thirteen year old boy, pushing a wheelbarrow with a bomb in it, blew himself up. Will is in 45 Commando and on another day this could have been him out there on patrol.

How on earth do our Marines protect themselves against schoolkids determined to kill themselves and everyone else around them? What sort of brainwashing must these kids go through that makes them believe their destiny lies in self-destruction?

Gordon Brown, on a visit to Afghanistan today, said the work of our troops out there made our lives safer in this country. Well, maybe if we ever "win" this war, but with a seemingly unending supply of teenagers prepared to blow themselves up, and adults happy to strap bombs on them and push them out the front door, how many of our boys must lose their lives first?

Thursday, 11 December 2008

250 new homes on Corus site

Sandwiched between the Darlington-Bishop Auckland railway line and Whessoe Road, and falling into North Road and Harrowgate Hill wards, is the old Corus (British Steel) site. Corus still operate from one building there, but most of the site has already been cleared. It remains an eyesore, with an ugly high wall running for much of its length.

Today, St Modwen Properties PLC, "the UK's leading regeneration specialist", held a public exhibition in the Bridge Centre, showcasing their proposals for regenerating this land. Their plan is for 250 new family homes to be built there. There would be small play areas for younger children, pedestrian and cycle paths and links to North Park.

With Faverdale on the other side of the railway, the developers also envisage a link to the industrial park under the railway line.

The way St Modwen work is to apply for planning permission, carry out the basic structural work, and then sell off the land in parcels to housebuilders. They envisage homes on the site within two years.

Local schools, particularly Harrowgate Hill Primary School, would clearly come under considerable pressure from this development. There would also be traffic congestion implications for the already busy Whessoe Road in the approach to "the cut" under the railway line.

There is, however, a need for affordable family housing in the town, which this development will help to meet.

Friday, 5 December 2008

No ticket? You're not coming through here!

Temporary part time barriers at Darlington Railway Station, designed to prevent ticket fraud by ensuring that travellers accessing the platforms have a valid ticket to travel, are to be made permanent in the New Year. This is to be introduced right the way down the East Coast Main Line.

This means that only people intending to board the train will be allowed on the platform. No more touching scenes of tearful goodbyes or cheerful hellos, as young lovers part or meet. No more helping your old gran with her luggage onto the train back home. No more frantic waving to your friends on board as the train pulls in.

When I was a kid you could buy a platform ticket for a few pence to gain access to the platform. Then for many years it was a free-for-all. Now the heavy hand of bureaucracy has spoken and these scenes, so much a part of everyone's memories, as well as countless film scripts, will be no more.

As "Simon" from National Express "Customer Relations" says, "People will no longer be allowed on the platform without a ticket. This is going to be implemented on every station up and down the East Coast line. We do not have any plans to issue a platform ticket in the foreseeable future."

I think this is a real shame: they're taking half the fun and romance out of travelling by train.

On the radio again

Over to Middlesbrough this morning for a half-hour phone-in discussion on BBC Radio Tees with my old sparring partner James Wharton, Conservative PPC for Stockton South. The topic was voter apathy, about which probably as much has been written as any other political issue - without reaching any consensus as to why people don't vote or what can be done to get them to vote.

Most of the callers simply believed politicians can't be trusted and that they never deliver on their promises, so why should people bother to vote. These are easy shots to make because there's more than a glimmer of truth in them, but it doesn't help us to understand how to improve voter turnout.

The point I tried to make was that there are other measures of political involvement and participation and a healthy democracy than simply the numbers of people who turn out to vote every couple of years. I argued that people do get involved in politics when there is an issue which directly affects them and where they hope they can influence the views of decision makers. I argued for more devolution of power, responsibility and decision making so that ordinary residents can get more involved in making decisions about the area they live in. Until people feel engaged with the political process and understand the constraints under which local politicians in particular operate, then we will not see a return to the mass voter turnouts of the post war years.

One of the best moments, though, was when the presenter asked if we had more charismatic leaders, like Barak Obama, would interest in politics increase. James suggested that the Conservatives already had charismatic and forthright leaders, and cited David Davis as an example. I nearly choked on my metaphorical cornflakes. Mind you, the best I could come up with was Lembit Opik!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

One more statistic

Just before I went into the Cabinet meeting last night I received a phone call from Will, my son who is serving with 45 Royal Marine Commando in Helmand Province. He sounded pretty shook up, having just witnessed his first casualty in battle.

During November, five Royal Marine Commandos were killed in Afghanistan. Yesterday, Will's sargeant, who he was out on patrol with, had a leg blown off. Will was about 100 metres away at the time. Will's patrol group got this lad airlifted out, and then went in search of the Taliban forces who had attacked the patrol. It seems they got two of them, though, as is usually the case, the rest just disappeared.

My mind really wasn't on local politics after that conversation. But then, such is the nature of modern warfare, this afternoon came another phone call from Will. It seems his gran had sent him some tinned fish (!), but as everyone knows, you can't eat tuna without mayonnaise, so I have to head off to Sainsbury's to buy some mayo in a plastic bottle to send out! He also wants tinned mackerel, some Doritos and Nobby's Nuts, whatever they are.

It's just so surreal.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Shock, horror as Williams and Scott apologise

Cabinet this evening discussed the issue of the proposed sale of part of the Arts Centre to the Sixth Form College. At Council last week the Labour leadership came under fierce criticism for progressing this matter without bothering to inform or consult the local ward councillors.

At Cabinet, the Leader, Cllr Williams, and the lead member, Cllr Andy Scott, both apologised to the College ward councillors for not consulting them at an earlier stage. Furthermore, an amendment to the Cabinet paper added a period of consultation to the process.

Of course, some Labour councillors will try to present the initial failure to consult as merely an oversight. Yeh, as if! What this represents is a humiliation for the Labour leadership, who have been forced by adverse publicity to apologise. Their fictitious democratic credentials had been shown to be just that: fiction.

If the sale goes through, which would be a good thing for the Sixth Form College, though maybe not for independent arts in the town, at least now it will be done openly, democratically and with appropriate levels of participation by locally elected councillors.