Friday, 27 February 2009

Special Budget Council

Tonight was the annual Special Council Meeting called to approve the Cabinet's budget. It was a strange meeting: less confrontational than last year, as all three party groups acknowledged the severe economic and financial pressures the Council is working under.

Charles Johnson, leading for the Tories, speaking quietly but forcefully, praised Labour for producing a Conservative budget. Alan Coultas made his best speech yet in Council supporting Charles. As usual, Bill Stenson added a little light relief to the occasion, calling for the Civic Theatre to be shut down for part of the year to save money. Thankfully, he was gently repudiated by his party leader.

The debate on the Conservatives' amendment (to increase Scrutiny Committee's involvement in future budgetary decisions) was taken together with Labour's original motion to accept the Medium Term Financial Plan. This happened last year, but on that occasion it had been explained first that that is what would happen. Strictly speaking, according to the Concstitution there should have been two separate debates with the opportunity to speak twice. But Charles moved his amendment at the very start of the debate, thereby curtailing debate on Labour's budgetary proposals. Thereafter, Councillors simply spoke at random about both the budget and the amendment, which speeded up the whole process but also meant each councillor was only able to speak once.

I had expected to speak twice, on the budget motion and on the amendment. Trying to blend the two speeches into one did not make for a fluid speech, especially as, as usual, the boorish Deputy Leader of the Labour Group, Bill Dixon, was allowed to cat call during my speech - which I shouldn't allow to throw me off course, though it did.

I criticised the consultation process, which was quite clearly fixed to produce the answers the Cabinet wanted and which I felt was cynical and manipulative. I also looked forward to next year's budget and asked that not only should scrutiny councillors be involved in the long-term budget process, but that junior level and front line staff be involved in finding the efficiencies and savings which will have to be made. It is often the case that they know better than senior staff and councillors what actually goes on in their departments.

Next year, I suspect, will be even tougher than this year. The public will not accept another 3.5% increase, let alone the 4.9% planned. How the Cabinet achieve this will determine to a great extent how the parties line up as the next local elections approach.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Help, I'm lost!

According to the Echo today, our MP Alan Milburn has asked for more signs to be erected so that people from out of town can find the way to Darlington's Memorial Hospital. These may well be needed, but I hope no unnecessary expense will be incurred just so that our MP can find his way there without consulting his A-Z.

The report goes on to say that a "review" will take place and that the public would be consulted. Oh purleeese! I'm sure between them the Borough Council and the NHS Foundation Trust can find a couple of people who can have a look around and say yes we need some more signs, let's get some put up. Isn't it typical of the inertia that surrounds so much of local government that they feel the need to hold a formal review and public consultation - all for a few signs. Just get on with it!

After all, Alan will need to know where the hospital is so he can do a few photo shoots before the next general election. And just in case the review takes too long, here's a link to a map and aerial photo.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Could make you a little bit cynical

To no-one's surprise this evening, Darlington's Labour Cabinet agreed to a "last-minute" amendment to the Medium Term Financial Plan, commonly known as the Budget, when they agreed to recommend to Council that the proposed closure of the Mayor's Charity Shop be deferred to explore ways to keep the shop open; that the proposed closure of the South Park aviary be deferred in order to examine alternative options; and that, thanks to the discovery of a pot of gold under the Borough Treasurer's desk, the proposal to introduce charging for cycle and pedestrian training not be introduced.

This was an entirely predictable outcome of the consultation process. Just like last year, the Labour Cabinet is able to claim it listened to residents. At least this year we didn't have to listen to Cllr Williams intoning, "You spoke...we listened".

No-one seriously expected these three proposals to go through. The Labour Party still hopes to win the next local elections, and they aren't going to risk that by making unpopular decisions about closing the aviary and the charity shop and denying kids basic safety training.

So, not only can they now claim to be a listening Council, but, by concentrating debate on these popular but financially peripheral issues, they have managed to divert attention from the real issue of this budget process: how did they get the Borough into this financial mess and how are they going to get us out of it?

Monday, 16 February 2009


So, today's my birthday, but although I'm a shocking 55 years old (I know, I don't look it) I'm still three years below the average age for a councillor in this country. Reaching this age is mere luck and no particular justification for congratulations. However, there is one person in particular this weekend who deserves our congratulations: this year's Darlington Citizen of the Year, Robin Blair.

When AC and I were plotting the downfall of the Council's plan to sell off the town hall and replace it with a Tesco hypermarket, the first thing we did was go and see Robin to persuade him to be the public figurehead of the campaign. As the Market's staunchest champion he didn't need any persuading, and was the ideal man to front up the media aspects of our campaign.

Robin is a genuinely good guy and the fiercest champion of the Indoor Market. He always has time for a chat and has a wealth of stories and anecdotes about the Market and the people who have worked there over the years. He loves this town and its traditions. The fact that the award came as a complete surprise to him is typical of the man.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Fiona comes to town

Fiona Hall, our MEP, paid a visit to Darlington on Saturday morning to support the "Make Your Mark" promotion being run by the Markets Department of Darlington Borough Council. This is part of a national scheme. Budding retail entrepreneurs are invited to submit their business idea to a panel of judges. The winner gets a free market stall for six months, free advertising and business support.

Markets are the lifeblood of Darlington's retail offering and this scheme aims to help future entrepreneurs make a success of their business idea, while encouraging the continued development of the retail mix in the Covered Market.
The top photo shows Fiona with me and Cllr Martin Swainston. The bottom photo shows Fiona with a young lady from the "Make Your Mark" campaign, Alan Draper, Darlington's rep on the National Market Traders' Association and Peter Wilson, Darlington's Markets Officer.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

New school - new name

Last night, North Road Primary School Board of Governors finally grasped the nettle, after a consultation process involving staff, parents and children, and voted to change the name and uniform of the school when we move to the eco-friendly new buildings across the road next January.

The two remaining traditionalists among the governors were finally won over to the change of name after being reminded that, sadly, just as our national flag has arguably been tainted by its association with the BNP, so our school's name is tarnished, in the eyes of some of the children at least, by association with the notorious North Road Crew.

The new name for the school will be Northwood Primary.

And we are ditching the maroon colours, which the kids hate apparently, for a nice eco-friendly green. Here, though, this being a committee, we were unable to agree on what shade! Some liked the darker bottle green, which is used by two other schools in the town, while some preferred emerald green, which is much brighter and would be unique in the town, and which I suspect was favoured by the medieval inhabitants of Sherwood Forest.

Our solution will be to hang up a sweat shirt in each colour in the entrance area and ask the parents to vote for one or the other.

And after nearly three long hours (considerably longer than any Council or Cabinet meeting) we all went home.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009


Last night was Cabinet, on which I sat as a non-voting representative of the Lib Dems along with Heather Scott for the Conservatives, the Labour Chair of Resources Scrutiny and Alastair MacConachie, Chair of Darlington Partnership. Cabinet attracts more interest from the public than Council, mainly because, apart from the budget, it is Cabinet where all formal power within the local authority resides.

There are always speeches and contributions from "the floor" from councillors and residents, as well as from me and Heather. The atmosphere is relaxed and quite informal. Chaired by the Leader of the Council, the strict application of Standing Orders which governs debate in Council is absent from Cabinet. Residents and Councillors are encouraged to speak - often at considerable length - and even allowed ripostes. Contributions are heard in respectful silence though, as Cllr Gill Cartwright knows from her repeated efforts to support the bus users of Harrowgate Hill, not necessarily without comeback from the Chair.

The only potentially contentious issue on last night's agenda was the decision, finally, to approve the continuation of the right to cycle in the pedestrian areas of the town centre. There were several speeches from the floor from the Darlington Cycling Campaign, the Darlington Association for Disability and two councillors.

I said that the Lib Dem Group was inclined to support the right to cycle in the town centre, though I asked Cabinet to take action to exclude illegal car drivers from the pedestrian areas. As I said, "If some people think that cyclists and pedestrians don't mix, then a lot more people will think that cars, cyclists and pedestrians don't mix."

I also spoke in the discussion about a new strategy for young people aged 11 to 19. I picked up on the fact mentioned in the report that 21% of 11 year olds in Darlington are clinically obese, a figure some way above the national average. Adding in those who are simply overweight brings us to 30%. Yet nowhere else in the report was there any mention of what action could be taken to tackle this problem. I asked Cabinet to consider adding obesity to the list of targetted interventions in the report.

Unfortunately, if you read the Northern Echo, you won't know any of this, because they had no reporter present.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

New waste management scheme delayed

Well, it is Darlington Borough Council, so what would you expect? From the people who brought you the wonders of the Pedestrian Heart (delayed), the Eastern Transport Corridor (delayed) and North Road Primary School (delayed), we now have New Waste Management Contract (delayed).

They should take a leaf out of Stagecoach's book. Lengthen the train journeys so that more arrive on time.

I got a first inkling of this at last week's AGM of the Town Centre Traders' Association, where the recycling officer reported that the new recycling contract would start in the summer. It was supposed to start in April. Then, at Council last Thursday, fellow blogger Cllr Nick Wallis announced that the new waste and recycling facility being built by John Wade would not be ready until "sometime in the summer". So, until then, the existing kerbside recycling regime will continue.

Cllr Wallis blamed it on delays in the planning process. Hmmm. I really don't think so! Planning permission was granted back in November 2008 by Durham County Council. Now, since these are pre-fabricated structures, which we were told on a trip to Wade's landfill site early last year would only take a matter of weeks to bolt together, I can't see any reason for the delay.

Looks to me like someone's cocked it up - again! But then again, it is a DBC Labour Council project isn't it.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Consultation "a little bit naughty", says Labour Councillor!

Sainsbury's want to extend their edge of town centre Darlington store with more car parking, a petrol station and a customer restaurant. Seems a good idea to me: cheap supermarket petrol near the town centre and more free car parking just across the ring road for the town centre shoppers. I shop there once a month, for pet food mainly. I prefer to use the market and farmers' market (and my own shop) for everything else.

Councillors, shoppers and local residents have been sent an invitation by Sainsbury's to attend a consultation event this Friday and Saturday.

A local Labour Party ward councillor, who personally I like very much, is quoted in the Echo today, saying, "I think that Sainsbury's is being a little bit naughty in guaging community views first." Excuse me! What can she mean? I suspect she's been quoted out of context. Perhaps she meant that ward councillors should have been consulted first. Or is she suggesting the bureaucrats in the Town Hall haven't been consulted yet. I don't know. But it's the real Labour Party all over, isn't it: consultation, but only on our terms. They just don't get it, do they?