Tuesday, 29 December 2009

A bit more true grit

We know how poor Darlington Council's response to the snow has been, with minimal and ineffective gritting and no snow, ice and slush clearance for five days after the first snowfall in the town centre.

Following my recent blog posts the Council's performance improved in the town centre, though most residential streets remain treacherous. Thankfully, it hasn't snowed for a few days, though more is forecast later in the week.

But maybe the fact that the Council finally pulled its finger out and cleared the town centre pavements might just have been due to Arriva threatening to stop running their bus service unless the Council did something to make the pavements safe, after a dozen passengers were injured as they alighted the buses.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Tragedy at home of Euro MP

A fire at the Darlington home of Stephen Hughes MEP and his wife, Darlington Councillor Cyndi Hughes, has claimed the life of an 80 year old man, who the Northern Echo reports to be Cyndi's father. Stephen and Cyndi are lovely people and this is desperately sad news. On behalf of Darlington Liberal Democrats, I would like to offer our sincere sympathies to Stephen and Cyndi.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

More stories from the gritting front line

A friend who lives in Sadberge phoned Darlington Council to complain that the salt bin on their road was empty and to ask if it could please be re-filled. He was told by the Council that there was no salt available to fill up the rural bins. He was told, "The Town Centre takes priority, you know".

My friend asked the Council employee to repeat what he'd said, so he could record it. The salt bin was filled half an hour later!

What a shambles this has been. Try telling the shoppers and retailers in the town centre that they are the priority: we had to wait FIVE days for the town centre pavements to be cleared. And then they say they don't have enough salt to service the villages.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Gritting machine not repaired?

Speaking to traders in the Indoor Market this afternoon, it is clear there is much anger about the deplorable state the town centre has been in for the past few days. Here are two snippets:

1. When the decision was taken to pedestrianise much of the town centre, a retailer on the Town Centre Board asked what steps would be taken to ensure that the newly pedestrianised areas, which include many steps, ramps and slopes, would be kept safe during the winter months. The Town Centre Board was assured by officers that a hit squad would be available to descend on the town centre whenever conditions required it. Clearly that hit squad no longer exists.

2. A retailer in the Indoor Market, speaking this week with a town centre Street Scene employee, was told by that employee that the reason the town centre pavements, wynds and pedestrian areas were not cleared of snow and ice for five days was that the grit-spreader, which hitches up to the back of one of the mechanised street sweepers, was broken and unable to dispense grit and salt. It seems the breakdown was reported to senior staff a couple of weeks ago, but nothing was done about getting it repaired, despite the employee insisting again later that it needed to be repaired.

I simply report what I hear. But clearly there has been no clearing of pavements - so something went badly wrong.

Finally we're clear

Some five days after the first heavy snowfall, Post House Wynd has finally been cleared and gritted along with much of the rest of the town centre, which has been covered with snow and sludge for nearly a week. If it's possible for shoppers to stay away in droves, they have been over the past few days. It's really taken far too long to get this done. Many of the pedestrian routes into town, such as Duke Street, are still treacherous and completely untreated. The roads have been cleared for cars, but pity the poor pedestrian.

Post House Wynd has been particularly treacherous, with its downhill (or uphill) slope compounded by slippery cobbles and a sideways slope from the shops towards the centre of the Wynd where the drains run.

I cleared the snow and sludge from outside my shop after the first snowstorm, until a passing workman informed me I could be sued if someone slipped on the bit I'd cleared, but I couldn't be if I just left the snow and ice there. I'll have to make some enquiries about that!

Friday, 18 December 2009

You only need a plastic bag!

Yes, you...if you own a dog and let it crap on Thompson Street West in Darlington. The main walking route to Harrowgate Hill Primary must be one of the worst stretches of road in town for dog muck and litter. Earlier this week I, along with my fellow North Road ward councillors, received an anguished email from a resident of Leyburn Road, sent on behalf of many of the parents, asking us to get something done about the appalling state of the pavements in Thompson Street West.

This is an age-old problem here, though previous attempts to solve it were undermined by a former Independent Councillor for the ward, who lived in that street and who refused to accept that there was any such problem. Indeed, much like the current Labour leadership in the town accuses me of being "a disgrace" for bringing to Council's attention that there are issues which need addressing in the town, so the Independent Councillor accused his Lib Dem colleagues of "talking down" the ward by trying to get additional cleaning resources here.

At last, though, we seem to be getting some action here. My Labour opponent for the Darlington Constituency, Jenny Chapman, (a Labour Party colleague of the complainent's husband) also got involved and together we got Street Scene on the job. They counted thirteen piles of dog muck along the short stretch from North Road to Harrowgate Hill School! The mess was cleared up and washed down the same day.

Now we have to work with the environmental wardens to start educating and punishing those responsible. It really beggars belief that there are so many people who are just so lazy and anti-social that they can't be bothered just to take an old plastic bag with them to clean up after their dogs.

All this takes place right outside people's houses. In our Christmas Focus hitting the streets next week we have asked local residents to keep a look out and report any miscreants. It is really quite disgusting and no parent, pushing a pushchair and walking with young kids to school, should have to cope with this muck on our pavements.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Echo makes apiln

The Northern Echo, one of the great campaigning newspapers of the north and erstwhile home to Harold Evans, has achieved what is surely its greatest accolade: inclusion in the Angry People in Local Newspapers website. You'll have to scroll down to Friday, December 11th, for Paul Cook losing his car wheels. Can't help thinking if they had this website in mind when they took the photo! The comments on the stories are as good as the photos themselves.

Legrande stretches our credulity again

The recent selection of Jenny Chapman to be the Labour Party's candidate in Darlington means that there are now two truely local candidates for the seat, Jenny and myself. Conscious of his unwanted tag as the outsider, Edward Elgar, the Conservative Candidate, has this weekend been furiously delivering a glossy, full-coloured leaflet (even to Rise Carr, not known as a hot bed of Tory voters) in which he twice describes himself as "Local Conservative Edward Legard".

Well, if you live in Malton, North Yorkshire, I guess that might be true, but if there's one thing Capt Legrande is not, it's a local Conservative in Darlington.

Thankfully the Tories use such a small font, in an attempt to get as much mind-numbingly boring stuff as possible down on their glossy paper, that it is quite difficult for anyone to read this with anything less than the Hubble telescope. With their income in 2008 being almost £35,000, and no doubt rising even higher as their General Election appeal hots up, despite their tumbling membership, we can expect a blizzard of literature from the local Conservative Association over the next few months.

Remember on their last leaflet, Edward was described as a "local Councillor", which again is only true if you live in Ryedale. By the time of the election he'll probably be slumming it on Charles's floor, so he can claim to be living in the constituency. Well, he wouldn't want to anything naughty like deliberately trying to mislead the voters, would he?

As always, the leaflet is titled "intouch". Sadly, this isn't possible, since the candidate's contact details cunningly omit any telephone number on which to contact him. And when they invite us to meet Eddie at one of his famous Q&A sessions in the town, they fail to tell us where any of them will be.

Still, never mind, for the blue rinse brigade the leaflet contains the usual photo of Edward in his favourite blue jumper taking a relaxing break from campaigning on a High Row seat (that's right, a seat on the pedestrianised High Row which the local Conservatives wanted still to be a road).

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Alan Milburn MP and the mystery of the Nigella Lawson measuring spoons


On March 23rd, 2009, Alan Milburn, who, among his six jobs, has been the Labour MP for Darlington since 1992, charged the taxpayer £760 for a miscellany of household goods from John Lewis, including four Siberian Goose Feather and Down Pillows, a Jamie Oliver saute pan and a set of Nigella Lawson measuring spoons (the mind boggles!).


On June 26th, 2009, Alan Milburn MP announced to his local Labour Party that he would not be standing for Parliament at the next General Election.


This represents a cynical and shameful exploitation of the Parliamentary expenses system. Clearly Mr Milburn is out to milk the taxpayers for every penny he can wring out of us before we see the back of him. Quite why, after 17 years in Parliament, Mr Milburn suddenly decides he can't live without a set of Nigella Lawson measuring spoons is beyond me.
We also pay £600 a year so he can watch Sky TV. Never heard of a Freeview box, Alan? Or do they have Nigella repeats on Sky?


You can see full details of his latest expenses claim here.
Hat tip: N MacF.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Now will Cllr Dixon listen? Oneplace report published.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have recently clashed in Council with the Cabinet member Cllr Bill Dixon over his ludicrous and unsubstantiated claim in the Northern Echo that Darlington was no worse than anywhere else regarding under age drinking and subsequent admission to hospital.

The publication today of the Oneplace (the website for the Comprehensive Area Assessment) report from the Audit Commission specifically highlights this issue as being something Darlington should be concerned about. Sadly, Cllr Dixon will no doubt continue to have his head firmly buried in the sand, thereby hindering effective action to tackle this problem.

To quote from the Oneplace assessment:

"There are big differences in the health of people in different parts of Darlington. The number of pregnant teenagers has fallen but is still too many. The number of children and young people admitted to hospital is far too high. This is in particular linked to under age drinking but is also for other reasons including unintentional and deliberate injury. The council, with its partners, has plans in place to tackle these areas but it is too early to say how successful they will be."

and

"...alcohol abuse issues remain particularly in relation to under age drinking. There are too many young people admitted to hospital for alcohol problems. Alcohol misuse often leads to anti social behaviour, crime and health problems."

Overall, Darlington Borough Council, while not doing anything badly, does nothing exceptionally well. Overall we are assessed as performing well, like most Councils in our region. However, the Labour Council has constantly been reminding us that, under the previous inspection regime, based as it was on meeting Government targets and ticking the right boxes, Darlington was a "Four Star" local authority. Under the new inspection regime which has a much broader remit and assesses the overall performance of the Council, we have slipped to scoring 3 out of 4 on most measurements but only two out of four on "managing resources".

Perhaps now we'll hear a little less boasting from the Council, a bit more realism, an acknowledgement that most areas of the Council's activities could and should be improved and that there's more to being an excellent Council than ticking the Labour Government's boxes.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Darlington's Film Event of the Year!


Tomorrow evening, Wednesday December 8th, sees the local premiere, in Darlington Arts Centre, of "Beauty and the Bike", a film shot, produced and directed by my friends Richard Grassick and Beatrix Wupperman from the Darlington Media Group. The film follows a group of girls from Darlington as they travel to the cycle-friendly town of Bremen in Germany and bring their experiences back with them to their home town.


Have a look at their website www.bikebeauty.org and also at their 8 minute trailer, which is on the website and also on YouTube.
If you get there early, there's an exhibition opening at the Media Workshop (drinks and food) at 6pm, with the film starting in the cinema at 7 p.m. There's another showing at 8.30. There are two special guests, Dr. Helga TrĂ¼pel, the Bremen Member of the European Parliament, and the Honorary Consul for Germany in the NorthEast, John Knight.


Tickets for the film (£3) are available at the Arts Centre Box Office, by phone and online.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Street Scene

Street Scene is the organisation within Darlington Borough Council that is responsible for street cleaning, refuse collections, parks and gardens and all that sort of thing. It was created a few years ago by merging together all these various responsibilities into one organisation where most of the workforce would be generalists, able to turn their hand to anything, be it shrub pruning or emptying bins.

It meets the "Streamlining and Efficiency" criteria which the Labour Group is so keen on, but opinion is divided about how effective it is.

What Street Scene does excel at is providing a quick and flexible response to Councillors' requests. When I arrived home from work on Thursday evening there was a message on my ansaphone from an elderly lady living in Askrigg Street who had slipped and fallen on a pile of rotten leaves which, perversely, had chosen her front gate and wall to pile up against. I went round to see her and indeed, there was a huge pile of sodden leaves stretching across the pavement with all sorts of other rubbish stuck in it.

I emailed Carol Carter at Street Scene and at 9.45 the next morning Council workmen arrived to clear up the leaves. That's what I call service.

However...all is not well in Street Scene. I get frequent emails and complaints from staff in the organisation who say it is badly managed, that the generalist agenda means skilled work is being done by people without sufficient training and experience and that the harder-working, and generally older, staff are given the worst jobs to do because otherwise those jobs wouldn't get done properly. There is also disquiet among the workforce about the use to which the information gleaned from the satellite tracking devices which every vehicle and cart has is being put.

It's difficult to know how widely these views are held, or whether it's just a disaffected minority which is complaining. Maybe the new flexibility of the organisation, replacing the old rigid demarcation lines, makes some employees, who preferred the certainties and structure of the old organisation, feel that things are now badly organised.

Residents' surveys carried out by the Lib Dems always throw up numerous complaints about street cleanliness, dog muck, refuse collections etc. Yet, at the same time, the Council's customer satisfaction surveys show a generally positive and improving picture here.

I guess a visible frontline service of this nature, battling against a culture in which, unlike places like Holland, for example, a significant minority seems to think it has the right to throw litter out of car windows, flick cigarettes and chewing gum onto the pavement, doesn't have to control its dogs and feels free to fly tip where it likes, is always going to bear the brunt of any residents' complaints.

I would be interested in hearing your experience of this service, either here or by email.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

It's The Age of Stupid, stupid


Darlington Friends of the Earth hosted a showing of the climate change documentary film, The Age of Stupid, at the Quaker Meeting House last night. Following what can only be described as an avalanche, or melting glacier, of publicity from FoE directed at councillors, half the cabinet turned up, while I and a number of members of the local Lib Dem executive were also there. Sadly, no-one from the Conservative group was present. Maybe they were at home booking their flights for next year's holidays in the sun.


The film lacks the weight and authority of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth, but makes up for this with passion and a wry humour. Shots from a battle between climate change protestors and NIMBY wind farm opposers in Bedfordshire were telling and also relevant to issues in the villages around Darlington.


One part of the film I was uncomfortable with was the portrayal of a young Indian entrepreneur who was setting up India's first budget airline, as the film's anti-hero. Quite unnecessarily, and done simply to try to portray the guy in a bad light, the film showed him shouting at a couple of his employees. The problem here is how we in the developed world, who have produced, and continue to produce, most of the greenhouse gases which are causing this problem, can cast this Indian businessman as the bad guy when all he's trying to do is provide his countrymen with the same service the developed world has been enjoying for many years. There was no mention made of the Labour Government's decision to build another runway at Heathrow!


Much as this film was successful in bringing its doomsday message to its audience, for as long as Jo Bloggs sees millions of others buying fast cars, jetting off on holidays and weekend breaks and buying food flown in from the other side of the globe, it is not reasonable to expect him to change his own behaviour. The "why should I bother when no-one else does" attitude will be impossible to break down, maybe until it's too late.


That's why, while those of us who care about this can each do our bit by changing our individual behaviour, and while Governments can impose macro solutions by investing in greener methods of energy production, the only way we will alter the behaviour of billions of individual people across the globe, which is what this film aims to do, is not by exhortation but by hitting us where it hurts: in our pockets. Green taxes, progressively and increasingly penalising those activities which contribute to climate change, will force people to alter their behaviour, especially if Jo Bloggs can see that it's being fair to everyone.

And now comes the party political bit:

The Lib Dems' taxation proposals published earlier this week include green taxes aimed at air travel. It's a start, at least. And it is the Lib Dems who lead the way in other aspects of the fight against climate change, as I'm sure you'll all want to read here.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Twitterer-in-residence




The big news of the day, judging by his appearances on national radio last night and this morning, is that Darlington has appointed the country's first "Twitterer-in-residence". Mike McTimony, a frequent contributor to this blog's comments' section and a leading light in the town's cycling fraternity, has been appointed to the £140 a year position.




No doubt the usual suspects will line up to mock this appointment, but I think it's great. The power of this sort of communication was seen recently when a huge campaign was generated in a matter of hours against the Daily Mail after its columnist Jan Moir made disparaging remarks about Stephen Gately's lifestyle soon after his death a couple of months ago.




What will Mike tweet about? Will there be any more news along the lines of "Darlington town centre was fairly full today, despite the rain", which had my favourite news presenter, Peter Allen on 5Live, in stitches yesterday? How will Mike maintain a political balance, or will he even bother with politics? Sadly, since I have so far failed to master this thing, having tried unsuccessfully to work out how to follow David "Bumble" Lloyd during this summer's Ashes series, I may never know.



By the way, if you're interested in all this sort of stuff, try logging on here. It's a fun, interactive website about Darlington and well worth shoving into your favourites list.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Nicely timed!

My understanding is that there is good news on the way today for certain schools in Darlington, courtesy of Schools Secretary Ed Balls who is dishing out £1bn to a few councils around the country to enable the rebuilding of run-down secondary schools.

The announcement is nicely timed for Jenny Chapman, cabinet portfolio holder for children's services, just before she faces the local Labour Party at their parliamentary candidate hustings on December 5th.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Labour tries to stifle democratic debate (2)

During the "debate" on the abolition of three discussion forums at last week's Council Meeting, the Labour leadership, supported by the Borough Solicitor, tried to stifle open debate in the Council Chamber. Rather than have debates on each and any amendment moved by members, the Borough Solicitor likes to get amendments moved straightaway after the mover of the original motion has spoken and to conduct just one debate covering both the motion and amendment. This means each councillor only gets one chance to speak in each debate, apart from the mover of the original motion, who gets two speeches. However, there is no constitutional requirement for amendments to be moved at the start of the debate.

That cunning plan didn't quite work last week, however, because the Mayor hadn't been properly briefed. After Labour had moved the motion to abolish these forums, the Mayor called Lib Dem Councillor Fred Lawton as the first speaker. Fred made his usual thoughtful, measured contribution. Then Gill Cartwright was called and instructed to move her amendment, which effectively ended debate on the original motion.

During the debate on the amendment, Fred Lawton, quite correctly, stood to speak. Immediately the Leader of the Council leapt to his feet, bellowing "Point of Order" because Fred had already spoken once. At first he was supported by the Borough Solicitor, who actually seemed to take over chairing the meeting from the mayor, as she instructed Cllr Lawton to "Sit down then!"

Fred, who, as a long standing trade unionist is thoroughly versed in the nuances of Lord Citrine's ABC of Chairmanship and correctly stood his ground, insisted on his right to be heard. He was, of course, perfectly correct. His original speech was before Gill's amendment was moved, so he was absolutely entitled to speak on the amendment too. Eventually the Borough Solicitor had to give way and Fred was allowed to speak.

The lesson for the future, if we want councillors to have more than one chance to speak, is to refuse to move any amendments until the end of the debate on the original motion, before the summing up by the mover of the motion. That way, everyone gets the chance to speak more than once. Not "streamlined and efficient" as Labour politicians like, but much more open and democratic.

Labour tries to stifle democratic debate (1)

The Labour Party in Darlington, shamefully, pushed through their proposal at last week's Council Meeting to abolish three consultative forums. As Cllr Dot Long said in support of their proposal, this is about making the consultative process streamlined and efficient. As I said in the Council Chamber, since when have efficiency and streamlining been part of the definition of democracy? Streamlining and efficiency appeal to bureaucrats and Labour politicians, of course.

As the discussion paper said, "Some members of the public regularly attend (forum) meetings mainly to pursue their own personal issues." Well, there you are then, we can't have ordinary members of the public expressing views the Labour Party disagree with, can we?

Feisty Conservative Councillor Gill Cartwright moved an amendment to refer the abolition of these forums to public consultation. Her party leadership called for a named vote on the amendment: the first one since I was elected. There was a complete split along party lines, with all Lib Dem and Tory councillors voting for the amendment. Inevitably, the vote was lost and a long-standing part of the democratic process in Darlington was consigned to history.

Labour tell us that many of the functions of these forums are carried out by the theme groups on the Darlington Partnership, so they are no longer needed. But the membership of these theme groups is selected by the Labour leadership: need I say more?

Unfortunately, Labour have become so entrenched as the party of government in Darlington that they believe only their views count.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Good news for Leyburn Road

Ever since I was elected we have been lobbying the Highways Department for effective action to be taken to solve the problem of rat-running and frequent congestion down Leyburn Road in North Road ward by drivers trying to shave a few seconds off their journey time down North Road. The situation was improved but not resolved by altering the timing on the traffic lights at the junction of North Road and Thompson Street East.

This morning Fred and I had an excellent meeting with Andy Casey, a young Highways Engineer who, having been with the Council for just a year, has not yet been infected with the "Ward Councillors shall be the last to know" virus.

His proposed solution, to which I suggested one amendment, should, we believe, solve this problem by encouraging traffic to use the uninhabited Fitzwilliam Drive instead of Leyburn Road. Until Cllr Lyonette signs the plans off, they cannot go to public consultation but we hope this will be done soon and that, if approved, work can be completed by next summer.

My suggestion was for a further slight remodelling of the junction of Fitzwilliam and Leyburn to help reduce the problems experienced in the south part of Leyburn Road where cars frequently and illegally turn left from Fitzwilliam Drive.

Residents of Leyburn and Pendleton Roads will be fully consulted and have the opportunity to comment on the plans.

Ray of light in bad tempered Council meeting

Last night's Full Council Meeting was the most bad-tempered I can remember, though more about this later. The one ray of sunshine was Cllr Nick Wallis announcing, two months after he had rejected my call for the Council to sign up to the 10:10 climate change agreement, that he had in fact just signed the Council up to 10:10.

This was a remarkable about-face and Nick is to be congratulated for admitting that he had changed his mind in the intervening period, though maybe the threat of the Lib Dems bringing our own motion committing the Council to 10:10 had something to do with it.

I did, of course, welcome his action and expressed the hope that he would follow my lead in other matters over the coming months.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Darlington Credit Union Launched


Last night was the launch party for the Darlington Credit Union, painstakingly pieced together over two and a half years by merging together the four existing credit unions in the town. Much of the credit for this must go to my friend Cllr Alan Coultas who chaired the steering group. The Credit Union is now large enough to employ a full-time salaried co-ordinator, another good friend of mine, Tony Brockley.


A fair smattering of the great and good of Darlington were there, including the Chief Executive of Darlington Borough Council, Ada Burns, and the High Sheriff of Durham, Alasdair MacConachie. Both made nice short speeches, while Alasdair also handed out a number of certificates to volunteers from the four unions, in recognition of their years of service.


Inevitably the hot favourite (you'll know why if you've seen the final short list of unknowns up against her) for the Labour Party nomination to be their Parliamentary Candidate, Cllr Jenny Chapman, was there briefly, speaking on behalf of the Leader of the Council.


Maybe you're wondering where the photo comes into this. Well, after the formalities and presentations, three actors from Newcastle presented an interactive play, recounting the lives of two people who had run into debt, giving the audience the opportunity to intervene in an attempt to alter the course of events as the play went on. It was good fun and the audience entered into the swing of it.


Credit Unions are very much more widespread in countries like Ireland and the USA. We certainly need this new venture in Darlington, to provide people, particularly those suffering from financial exclusion, with access to low cost financial services and to help them avoid the clutches of loan sharks.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Successful AGM tops successful year

Last night Darlington and Sedgefield Liberal Democrats held their AGM at Darlington Cricket Club. We had an excellent turnout in the driving rain, everyone was in very good spirits and the cricket club bar had a good evening.

During this year we have had the fastest growing membership of any Lib Dem local party in the region with a one-third increase since last year's AGM. This is due partly to our relentless Focus delivering to parts of Darlington hitherto untouched by grassroots Liberalism and partly to our work in Newton Aycliffe finally showing results since we assumed responsibility for the Sedgefield constituency a couple of years ago.

We also elected a new Chairman last night: Councillor Malcolm Dunstone brings his cheerful personality to the position. I expect a renewed emphasis on embracing and involving our members and a continued drive to increase both our membership figures and the number of local government candidates in the run up to 2011.

A number of new members were elected to our Executive and as Regional Conference Reps, though, apart from Malcolm assuming the chair, our other officer positions remain unchanged, as you will be able to see on our website later today.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Cllr Bill Dixon: suitable for purpose?

Darlington seems to be on the BBC every day at the moment. This morning it was the news that Chambers night club are to slash the price of all drinks to 69p every Thursday. Both Bill Dixon, the Cabinet member for neighbourhood services and community safety, and Colin Shevills, director of Balance, have condemned this promotion: and quite right too! The night club's advertising says, "Are you Broke? All drinks only 69p".

Of course, I have to be careful here. The last time I criticised a drinks promotion some jumped-up Labour councillor accused me of using the Council Chamber to advertise the nightclub in question, bless him! And the time before that, half the supporters of Darlington Football Club turned on me for criticising their club's happy hour policy.

As the BBC said this morning, and as Colin Shevills confirms, Darlington has the highest level of under-18s in the whole country admitted to hospital for alcohol-related reasons. This sort of promotion, aimed specifically at students, will do nothing to help improve that sad statistic.

Bill Dixon, however, has his own analysis of the situation. Just as he says people who are worried about anti-social behaviour in the town have been watching The Bill too much, so now he says we're no worse than anywhere else for alcohol-related hospital admissions, it's just that we have more accurate figures on who is admitted to hospital and for what!!!

This is just plain nonsense. All data relating to alcohol-related hospital admissions is routinely collected across the country. There's even a National Indicator for it. Take a look here, Bill:

http://www.nwph.net/alcohol/lape/pctProfile.aspx?reg=q30

Or you could take a look at page 7 in this report:

http://www.darlingtonpct.nhs.uk/Bdocuments/uploaded/Item20-AlcoholMay09.pdf

Sadly, Cllr Dixon's comments about the causes of the fear of anti-social behaviour and his dismissal of official figures for alcohol consumption in the town make him no longer suitable to be charge of the Council's policies on these important matters.

300 or 30?

Last week, Fearless Francis Jones told the Northern Echo that he already had 300 people from Skerne Park signed up and paying £3.50 each a week for the services of his private police force. Yet today we learn that, despite the huge national and local media coverage given to Sparta Security, the true figure is just 30!

Indeed, Fearless has raised the possibility that he might withdraw the service unless at least 70 people sign up. So, far from being the public service he's presenting it as, in fact it's just a money-making exercise which will be withdrawn if it doesn't turn a profit.

He continues to sow fear by suggesting in the Echo today that Sir Ian Blair himself would sign up if he moved to Skerne Park and was burgled and had his back door kicked in. Well, frankly, Francis, I don't see how your service, "patrolling the neighbourhood, driving around at 3mph, looking out", is going to stop any burglaries. Unless the local villains tend to stroll around in masks wearing stripy jumpers with a bag of swag over their shoulders, that is.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Lib Dems in Newcastle show how it should be done

This is how you deal with neighbourhood crime problems - not by paying for a private police force.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Darlington's Private Police Force top BBC story

Getting ready for work this morning with the tv tuned in to BBC news, who should I see appear on my screen: none other than Fearless Francis Jones, patrolling the streets of Darlington in his "Street Safe" hi-vis jacket.

The BBC has picked up the Darlington private police force story and made it their second lead in the morning's news bulletins, as a number of current and former senior police officers make their views known. Sir Ian Blair, never one to shy away when there's a microphone or camera nearby, said there should be no role for the private sector in patrolling our streets. Simon Reed, vice-chairman of the Police Federation, also speaks out, saying there could be confusion of roles and a lack of accountability.

The comments from the public on the BBC website already number over 500 and climbing rapidly (1.30pm). Whether he anticipated this or not, Francis Jones has certainly stirred things up a bit and put Darlington in the headlines, though perhaps not for the sorts of reasons we might like. I don't like seeing Darlington portrayed as somewhere with "lawless streets" where residents have to pay out of their own pocket to get protection from rampaging youths.

It really is time we heard some positive stories about crime and policing in Darlington from the police and Council. This is becoming a bad PR story for our town.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Opinion divides as Fearless seeks to expand private police force

Following the report yesterday about Fearless Francis Jones's new private police force in Darlington, the comments section in the Northern Echo is divided about his suitability for such a role and the need for such a service. Perhaps the majority view expressed there is favourable, however, as is a letter published in today's Echo from a local resident.

But while some residents are clearly keen on this and while the local police inspector does not seem concerned about the emergence of a private police force in the town, many of his officers are less enthusiastic. I understand that Fearless Francis has approached local pcso's and Community Partnerships asking for an invitation to attend local PACT (Police and Communities Together) meetings to explain what services he can offer local communities. My understanding is that these requests have been turned down.

Local community police officers and pcso's that I spoke to last night felt that a heavy-handed private response to reports of kids hanging out in parks and on the streets could simply have the effect of driving these kids around the town and remove the opportunity for youth workers, the police and anti-social behaviour officers to carry out constructive work with them.

Nobody wants crime and anti-social behaviour on our streets and I've seen enough of it in North Road to know the intense anxiety it can cause to many people. But I still believe this is for the police and the Council to deal with, taking appropriate action according to the specific circumstances, not for a private police force to do, seeking payment from vulnerable people to simply move kids on without support from the professional services.

Conservative Councillor Gill Cartwright says this on her blog:

"Clearly, Sparta security have seen a gap in the market and filled it. I will follow them with interest and I would be very interested in getting feedback from people who use the warden service. I think though that people should be getting this service through the local authority and not have to pay privately."

We have yet to hear any public comments from the Council or Labour politicians in the town.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Fearless Francis's private police tackle "lawless streets"


The Daily Mail, not a rag I have any time for, last week called Skerne Park in Darlington a "crime-ridden estate" where "private police" were being paid by local residents to patrol their "lawless streets." Today, the Echo carries a piece by Jim Entwhistle who has been out on patrol with Fearless Francis Jones, the former boxer and night club bouncer turned born-again Christian who heads up Sparta Security, who are providing the new private police force. It seems Fearless Francis used to have his pick of the women going into the town's nightclubs, places apparently "full of drink, drugs and evil things". But he turned his back on that for Jesus.

Nowadays Fearless Francis charges local residents £3.50 a week each to "look after" their property and reassure people it is safe to leave their homes at night. According to one resident, "Francis has a fearsome reputation - I have heard of him taking on three blokes at a time. More than that, he is a lovely bloke who will look out for us."

The emergence of this private police force on our streets could be seen as a consequence of the Council's short-sighted decision to take the town's ASB wardens off the streets and replace them with office-based staff. We know the police are the best equipped and best-trained people to deal with these problems, but we also know they just can't respond to every call. They don't have the manpower, as we saw a couple of weeks ago in Springfield Park.

Where there's a vacuum, you can be sure someone like Fearless Francis will spot an opportunity and step right in. There is no doubt, as I know from North Road, that residents miss the wardens. Limited though their powers were, they provided a reassuring presence, particularly for elderly residents.

I do find this development worrying for two reasons.

In a generally peaceful town like Darlington the fact that there are some people who feel so unprotected in their homes and businesses that they are prepared to pay for private protection reflects poorly on both the Council and the Police. Maybe, as Cllr Dixon is fond of telling us, people have no reason to feel scared: it's all down to watching too many episodes of The Bill. But the fact is that some people do feel intimidated and in need of greater protection and clearly the authorities are not succeeding in meeting this need.

I have been out on patrol with the Police, and previously with the wardens, and I've had a number of meetings with the Anti-Social Behaviour team, and there is no doubting the sincerity and professionalism of their officers and their wish to provide a good service. So, why do so many people think that service is not being provided?

But secondly, it is worrying that a private police force can roam our streets at night, breaking up groups of kids who may be gathering peacefully. Will Fearless Francis and his private police have the training to deal appropriately with the young people they come across? We don't want decent, law-abiding kids to be targetted by a group of former night club bouncers roaring around the streets in their white vans. The police can act appropriately. Do these security guys have the training to act appropriately in each different situation they'll come across?

And what about kids they do find who have been drinking or are in some sort of trouble? What will they do then? The police would take them into Gladstone Street to be seen by youth workers and anti-social behaviour officers - for their own protection if necessary. Fearless Francis will just be moving them on. And since they have no powers of arrest, and no back-up from trained personnel, they can only achieve this by intimidation.

Our streets should be made safe at night, but at the same time they shouldn't be patrolled by private police forces. I don't think this is what we want to see on the streets of Darlington. But neither do we want a continuation of the levels of anti-social behaviour which have provoked this response. This is a tricky situation, and I am concerned that so far there appears to have been no response whatsoever from the Council about what is now happening on our streets at night.

The police had this to say:

"We have no issue with Mr Jones starting up a business at all. The only concern we have is that members of the public should be aware that Sparta employees do not have the same powers as a police officer or police community support officer.
"In fact Mr Jones' security staff, although trained, can only react to an incident in the same way as a member of the public could."

Monday, 9 November 2009

Stung into action

Labour's three Cabinet members who represent Haughton West ward have been stung into action by our newly formed Focus Team. This weekend the first edition of Labour's Haughton West Community News hit the doormats, complete with grainy photos, "Working for you all year round" and "Tell us what you think". I guess we should be flattered that they've produced a near carbon copy of a Focus leaflet.

Sadly, although one of the photos shows Andy Scott (probably, hard to tell with his back to the camera), surveying the Springfield Park play area, presumably after the local Lib Dems got the Council to clean it up a couple of weeks ago, there is no-one pointing in any of the photos and no-one looking glum. They'll never get into Glum Councillors if they carry on like this.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Targetting under age drinking

Last night I was out on the streets of Darlington, in a police van most of the time, looking for underage drinkers. Three teams were out around town last night: one covering the town centre area, one covering the east and one the north and west. I went out with two constables and six pcso's, including our North Road team.

After what can only be described as a heart attack inducing fuel stop for pizzas, chips, kebabs and pitta breads we piled into the van at Gladstone Street and headed for the anti-social behaviour hot spots, from Mowden shops, back up through Northgate, North Road and Harrowgate Hill.

At the 5pm briefing the teams had been specifically tasked with finding under-age drinkers and bringing them back in the vans to Gladstone Street. The strategy is to keep them safe and off the streets, but also to put them and their parents in touch with youth workers and anti-social behaviour officers.

After a quiet start, when we just cruised the streets and back alleys stopping the occasional small group of teens clutching tell-tale white plastic carrier bags, the radio messages started coming in and we dashed off to deal with reports of anti-social behaviour in Albert Hill, North Road and Cockerton. Whenever we came across groups of kids who looked as if they might be carrying booze we would stop and carry out quick searches of bags and clothes. Whenever the officers found any alcohol, as long as at least one person in the group was under 18, it was all tipped away down the nearest drain. Then after a bit of friendly banter with the kids and warnings that we'd be around all evening, both them and us went on our respective ways.

One group of young Polish kids aged about 15 or 16 were drinking outside one house. They claimed the adult living there was supplying them with booze. What the police found was confiscated, but nothing was found in that gentleman's house to link him with the kids' drinking.

A number of youngsters, boys and girls, were brought back in the van to Gladstone Street. Their parents were called in and they were all interviewed by a youth worker and a member of the Council's anti-social behaviour. All the kids will be called in again in a week or two for a fuller interview aimed at finding appropriate means by which the team might try to alter their drinking behaviour.

Two lads, aged 16 and 17, were well gone after 6 to 8 cans of lager each. But for one of them, when interviewed, it was apparent that the whole process was actually reinforcing his street credibility. It proved his toughness to his peers on the street that he'd been brought in by the police. And for a couple of young girls, caught drinking on the streets of North Road ward, the whole thing was just a joke. Maybe the further work with some of these kids will be effective, but it was clear that they felt they had to drink, either to prove their toughness, or because they didn't believe they could be having a good time unless they got drunk.

I'm not sure that lectures on liver damage and warning about future job prospects if they keep getting involved with the police, were having much effect. But they can't just be left out there on the streets, where they are exposed to potential danger and where they can prove an annoyance to local residents. The police and youth workers are battling against a sub-culture of drinking for which this country, fuelled by a drinks industry which glamourises alcohol and targets drinkers with its cheap lager, wine and alcopops, has a sad reputation.

The team work between the various agencies, and the humour and understanding shown by the police, was impressive. It was a good operation, but I don't know whether it will prove enough to actually alter the behaviour of the young drinkers we found last night. The agencies are battling against a culture and an industry with far more muscle than we have.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Cabinet Signals Climbdown on Throughabout


Darlington Council's Cabinet last night signalled a climbdown on the Haughton Road Throughabout, that ridiculous mess of a road junction at the end of the Eastern Transport Corridor which has caused endless delays and frustration for drivers and local residents.


Both myself and Heather Scott, the Conservative Group Leader, had trenchant questions ready for the Leader, but before we could get our hands in the air, Councillor Williams called on Cllr Chris McEwan to ask a planted question on the subject. Chris said that he had noticed a big improvement in traffic flows during the past week while the lights had been turned off for road repairs and the road reverted to a normal roundabout. He asked whether officers would look again at this issue.


The officer replied that a study would be conducted over the next month or so, using appropriate computer generated traffic flow charts, to see whether turning the lights off permanently would be beneficial.


And that's as near to a climbdown and admission of error as you're going to get. Expect the junction to be converted back into a normal roundabout before Christmas.


Of course, the Labour Councillors were chortling delightedly when they overheard Heather telling me she had just been about to ask the same question. As Cllr Dixon said, "There are no prizes for coming second, Heather." I reckon Bill will find that to be very true in May 2011.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Sock it to 'em, Rob

Among those hopeful of picking up the Labour nomination for the constituency of Darlington is the techie whizz kid from London, Rob Marchant, the "common sense" blogger, who hit the columns of Hear All Sides this week, where he no doubt felt at home.

His blitz on the dwindling ranks of the Labour Party membership (Rob kindly tells us they have 216 members - I bet that admission has endeared him to the local party membership secretary!) in the constituency through the Echo and telephone canvassing no doubt has them reeling, though one member apparently promised to vote for him because he took the trouble to phone him up (don't always believe what they tell you on the "doorstep" Rob!). Rob also thinks they have 28 councillors: has someone resigned recently?

His blog is clearly aimed at the rank and file of the local Labour Party rather than their elected leaders, containing as it does questions about inadequate facilities for young people in the town, traffic congestion and the need for economic stimulation, all things the local Labour leadership have been responsible for, and apparently failing at, on the Council for many years.

Keep it up, Rob. I'm looking forward to next week's postings on Centre Left, containing, as it surely must, searching questions about the Eastern Transport Corridor and Pedestrian Heart overspends and the appalling education record over which Labour presided for so long.

His plea to his questioners on his blog that they stick to "the issues" from now on rather than try to find out more about him as an individual will likely fall on deaf ears. A blog, if nothing else, reflects the personality of the writer and is so much more than a vehicle for discussing the minutiae of policy or "issues". People want to know about YOU, Rob. They will want to know whereabouts on the Mowlam-Milburn axis you fall, not the latest details of Labour policy on economic regeneration.

Firework Spectacular

Somewhere in the crowds at this year's spectacular Darlington Firework Spectacular, my fellow blogger Nick Wallis experienced the event through the small lens of his camera. This year's event was themed on space and the planets and featured Darlington's very own helium filled balloon bobbing around erractically.

I thought this year's event was exceptionally good, with booming music from Holst to Star Wars via Bowie and Neil Armstrong which complemented the firework display perfectly.

The crowd was well behaved and appreciative, though unlike Nick, I didn't hear anyone praising the safety announcements, but there you go: I obviously hang out with a more reckless crowd!

I don't remember seeing so many fairground rides and hot food takeaway stalls before, so there was plenty for teens and families alike to enjoy as well as the 25 minute firework display. This also meant there was less of a crush on the way out, as many young people stayed on to enjoy the rides rather than surge for the exits.

Will this event survive the cull of Council services to come over the next couple of years?

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Revolutionary new school nears completion


Last week the three North Road ward councillors were given a guided tour of the new North Road Primary School, to be re-named Northwood Primary. The photo above is inside the new school hall.

With living walls, sedum roof, biomass boiler, brown water recycling and just about every carbon reduction device you could think of, this will be a remarkable change in environment (as you can see in the photo below which shows both old and new schools) for children and teachers alike.



The school is on target to open in January. The site is a hive of activity - yet strict rules (even the mobile phones of both workers and visitors have to be turned off on site in case their ringing causes a distraction and hence an accident) have meant that there has not been one single accident during the whole construction phase.


Here is a selection of photos taken on the day.



First: the outdoor steps leading up from the playground to the first floor outdoor corridor and classrooms. The roof is green because it is covered with living sedum plants, which provide natural insulation, aid water run off and look green!



Second: looking back from the wildlife pond area across the playground. The pond area will have outdoor teaching areas and the obligatory newts, both of whom are currently being cared for off-site.



Third: the sloping roofs, all planted up with living sedum: a sloping design which is continued in the flower beds in the playground. You can see that the walls are all clad in hardwood.



Four: the existing North Road Primary School seen from the new school playground, a lovely looking Edwardian building no longer suitable for modern educational practice. The old school will be pulled down and the land used for new school playing fields. The new biomass boiler is the silver object at right centre. The taller building on the far right, clad in angled wood planks, is the school hall.



Five: myself, Anne-Marie and Fred with hard hats, high vis jackets, gloves and boots outside the main door exit on to the playground.



The outdoor corridor at first floor level. The vertical windows to the left are for the classrooms. The windows below are skylights for the main ground floor corridor below. Wood cladding everywhere.



Your three ward councillors standing in front of one of the living walls.



The main ground floor corridor.





One of the living walls. Nearer the ground are edible herbs, higher up are ferns and other green plants.












Politics.co.uk

politics.co.uk carries reviews of some 750 political blogs. This is what they say about this one:

"Posing the question of "just what can opposition councillors achieve" the answer, for Mike Barker at least, appears to be: quite a lot.
He's certainly a very active councillor, constantly attacking Labour's control of his beloved Darlington.
His blog is a little persistent in its sniping, with not much light relief from the barrages and broadsides, but this is a minor quibble.
Like lots of other Lib Dem councillors, he's got the art of blogging down to a tee."


So, in an attempt at providing some light relief, my next posting will include a photo of your North Road councillors in big boots and hats standing in front of a real living wall of herbs and other plants in the new North Road Primary School.

Tough decisions to be made

The Council has published its proposals for a new business model to help it cope with the tough financial climate we find ourselves in. The relevent Cabinet paper can be viewed here.

Basically, the new business plan has to cope with the possibility of a very low Council Tax increase next year (officers are even contemplating the possibility of a zero increase being allowed by the Government, with a General Election due next Spring), and a significant reduction in the grants we receive from central government from 2011-12 onwards, perhaps as much as a 10% cut in our grant.

Our existing Medium Term Financial Plan is based on a 4.9% Council Tax increase next year and a 2% increase in our central government grants from 2011 onwards. You don't need a calculator to work out that, in the very worst case being contemplated, the overall reduction in our income, compared to our existing plan, could be over 15%!

How does the Council propose to deal with that? Well, the detailed decisions will be incredibly difficult to reach and will have to be made by the politicians, but at this stage officers are planning a three-pronged approach.

1. Out-sourcing many Council services to other public sector bodies, the voluntary sector or the private sector.
2. Working together with other Councils in the region to achieve economies of scale in the provision of services.
3. Cutting services.

One thing's for sure, although officers are determined that Darlington will retain its individuality, the Council will look very different in the years to come from how it looks now and there could be a significant reduction in the number of directly employed Council staff and in the services they offer.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Play area out of action all weekend







Over the weekend I took a phone call from our Focus Team editor in Haughton, Alan Macnab. While out walking his dogs in Springfield Park he saw that the whole of the surface of the play area there was covered with broken glass. I went up on Sunday morning to meet Alan at the park. It was apparent that dozens of glass bottles (an empty 24-bottle lager case could also be seen) had been deliberately smashed and strewn across the whole play area. There were also a number of empty cans, takeaway food containers and plastic bags.




Local people out in the park told us the trouble had occurred on Friday night. Alan and I phoned the Council's emergency number and Street Scene came out and cleared the area.




Apparently, according to the locals, this is a regular Friday night event. Under-age drinkers gather in Springfield Park play area leaving the detritis of their session for unsuspecting youngsters to step on in the morning.




As it happens, the vandalism was so extensive - and so deliberate - that the play area was out of action most of the weekend.




The Council tell us that the events of Friday night were picked up by the CCTV camera which monitors the park. The police were informed. Apparently, there were 90 incidents reported to the police on Friday night. Clearly, since the police failed to visit the scene, they are under-resourced on Friday nights. And since the Council disbanded the anti-social behaviour team warden service, there is no-one else but the police to deal with this sort of incident.




Yet, at the last Council meeting, Cllr Dixon assured the Council that, although he didn't know how many police are on duty in the town on a Friday night (!!), there were enough to do the job. Clearly this isn't so!




And why, if the trouble was picked up by CCTV and reported to the police, was nothing done by the Council to clear the mess up until we reported it on Sunday afternoon? The play area was out of use for most of the weekend. Why didn't the CCTV control staff report the problem to Street Scene? Why weren't the Environmental Wardens informed? Don't different parts of the Council talk to each other over the weekend? Why didn't the local Haughton Councillors know about what had happened in their patch and get something done about it? What has happened to the "regular patrols" which are supposedly carried out in Springfield Park?

Monday, 19 October 2009

Darlington Labour's rejection of 10:10 looks more ridiculous by the day

The Liberal Democrats in Parliament are to table a motion this Wednesday which would commit the whole of the public sector to sign up to 10:10.

The Darlington Labour Group's portfolio holder for Climate Change has already rejected my call on him at the last Council Meeting to sign Darlington up, despite Ed Miliband urging all Labour Councils to join, and despite the fact that 50 Councils have already done so, with more joining every day.

Sadly, the Labour Group in Darlington look more and more out of touch with public sentiment on this, as on so many other issues, though I suspect the real reason for his rejection of my call was because it came from a Liberal Democrat. They do think they know best, this Labour bunch. As I said to them in cabinet, they've simply been in power so long that they think they can do no wrong and they see no need to act on proposals from outside their own little clique.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Other stuff at Cabinet

As is always the case apart from at budget time, Cabinet is where all the interesting and important stuff is decided: though, of course, nothing is really decided there, it's just a run-through in public of decisions already made. It does, though, give the opposition parties the chance to air their views and hopefully get some publicity for ourselves and also for members of the public to address senior councillors and officers.

These opportunities were well illustrated at Tuesday's Cabinet.

First up on the agenda was a petition from residents of Albert Hill calling on the Council to do something to stop the opening of a residential half-way home for psychiatric patients in their street. Unfortunately, since under planning law there was no change of building use involved, the operators of this home did not have to apply for change of use planning permission so there were no grounds on which the Council could object to these plans.

Two women from the area addressed the Cabinet, a process which one of them admitted was daunting. Nevertheless, they both spoke eloquently and passionately - without notes - and argued their case extremely well. The Leader of the Council and Chief Executive both listened sympathetically and responded accordingly. In the end, though, to their obvious disappointment - "So you're not going to do anything to help us, then?" - the women had to accept that the Council was unable to help.

Cllr Nick Wallis tried to sooth their anger by suggesting that the Council might propose something next year as part of the Sustainable Communities Act process which would call for legislation to increase local authorities' rights to intervene in this sort of proposal. Unfortunately for the Labour Group, much of the women's anger was directed at their Labour ward councillors who, they said, had done nothing at all to support or help their residents.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, I do believe it is unacceptable that the only recourse which local people have in a case like this is the gathering of a petition. There should be legislation which guarantees local people's rights to be consulted when changes like this are proposed in local communities.

The value of speaking in Cabinet for the opposition parties was well illustrated by the massive local press coverage my call for Cllr Williams to resign over the Pedestrian Heart scandal received.

During the meeting I also spoke about plans for the Council to make land available at Blackwell Meadows for Darlington College to build two new sports pitches to replace those which would be swallowed up by the new Central Park University buildings. I pointed out that the town was short of playing pitches and that more was needed than just a like-for-like replacement. I also asked that the Council use its best endeavours to ensure that the College's football pitches were made available for wider community use.

I also spoke in support of changes to the Council's cycling strategy which should finally see the completion of the cycle route running from the town centre right up to Harrowgate Hill. I welcomed the imminent completion of the John Street link, not least because it will make my rides up to North Road ward both safer and more enjoyable. I also welcomed the proposal to introduce forward stopping lines for cyclists at some junctions, though I pointed out that this should have been done already at the Greenbank Road/Woodland Road junction when that was re-designed last year. I asked that the Darlington Cycling Campiagn be consulted about which junctions should be selected for these improvements.

There was also discussion about the Food Festival, which I might blog about separately!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Leader rejects my resignation call


Darlington Borough Council's Cabinet met on Tuesday evening. As reported by Lauren Pyrah in the Echo yesterday, Councillor Williams rejected my call on him to resign in the face of the damning consultant solicitors' report into the Pedestrian Heart fiasco which was leaked to the press last week.


The Pedestrian Heart scheme went £780,000 over budget. Then the Council spent a further £40,000 on a secret report which told them they had no grounds to seek any compensation for this overspend.


The Council drew up a wholly inappropriate contract with Birse which meant the Council was responsible for 90% of any overspend and which gave Birse no incentive to work efficiently.


There is no trace of any contract ever having been agreed with Gillespies, the architects and project managers.


Most of the relevant paperwork was never kept or has conveniently disappeared.


Officers rejected advice from professional experts during the course of the project on several occasions. Anecdotal evidence is available that junior officers put pressure on the lead officer (now "retired" from the Council) to accept this advice, but were angrily sent packing.


The Council misled the public by claiming that the overspend was directly attributable to the discovery of a gas main running across the site: a claim that, disgracefully, was repeated again at Cabinet. The consultant's report says on this point: "The account which we have been given, principally by Gillespies, does not confirm the accuracy of the above assumption and suggests that in many respects the actual incident is a red herring of limited financial significance".


The Council then tried to keep the solicitors' report secret and away from public scrutiny.


So, a multi-million pound project using tax payers' money became a comedy of errors in which the Council was revealed to be an amateurish shambles.


Now, either senior councillors were unaware of what officers were up to, in which case why do they get paid so handsomely for ther extra responsibilities; or they were complicit in what officers were doing, or they were directing what officers were doing.


Whichever of these is the case, it is simply unacceptable that no political head has rolled. The Leader/Cabinet model allows for clear decision-making, but also for responsibility to be identified. There has been a catalogue of cock-ups over the past few years: The Pedestrian Heart, The Eastern Transport Corridor, Tesco, Hurworth School...the list goes on.


Yet no elected member has ever accepted responsibility for any of these fiascos. It's simply not good enough. On Tuesday night I accused senior councillors of having been in power for so long so that they believed that only they knew best. The arrogance of power had led directly to these mistakes and someone had to pay the price.


I called on John Williams to resign as Leader of the Council.
His response was, ''I will gladly resign as leader of this council when the majority of councillors in this council have no confidence in me. I don’t understand that to be the case." Sadly, this just shows how out of touch Labour Councillors are with the sentiments of the town's population.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Council spoil Food Festival

This is just the second year we have held a food festival in the town, but trust Darlington's Labour Council to cause considerable anger amongst the stall-holders and traders, who themselves paid very high prices for their stalls, by adding a £3 entry fee at the gate. Many people have simply turned away. Why pay £3 to just look at food stalls? And with cookery programmes on every channel every day, why would people want to pay this money to see a "celebrity" chef I haven't heard of make some food on a gas burner?





Last year it was fun, exciting and had a real buzz as people packed in. This year the bean counters have taken over and spoilt the show. Don't expect any criticism to appear in the Town Crier though. As usual the Council will lie about the number of stalls and the visitors, just as they do with their Continental and Speciality Markets where they routinely claim 300 stalls when actually there are less than 100.





What they don't realise is that people aren't fools. The good people of Darlington won't pay good money for something like this and they won't believe the Council's hype about it either.