Saturday, 28 March 2009

"Not born in Darlo? Then don't tell us what to do! And don't talk about ward issues in Council either!"

Council on Thursday night witnessed the latest nonsense from an increasingly desperate Labour Group. Sent out to savage the opposition parties, the Labour Group’s Rottweiler, Cllr Bill Dixon, shouted across the Chamber at Conservative Councillor Ian Galletley, “It’s our town, it’s our tradition and I’d thank you for leaving it alone!”

What prompted this xenophobic outburst? Well, Cllr Galletley, seconded by myself, had moved a motion that would require future ceremonial mayors to resign from other positions of paid responsibility during their year in office. Prompted by overtly political interventions by the current mayor, we were attempting to bring the role of Mayor into line with that practised in other local authorities, thereby to protect the position of mayor from accusations of political bias.

Unable to muster an intellectual argument between them (the best attempt being, “It ain’t fixed, so why change it?”) Labour councillors fell back on the standard response of those hemmed into a corner, using their hatred of “outsiders” to attack the rights of others to propose change. All communities, to a greater or lesser extent, can display elements of xenophobia at times of stress: I didn’t expect to see it quite so baldly on display in the Council Chamber. The true nature of Labourism in Darlington was there for all to see: if you’re not “one of us”, your views don’t count.

Another worrying comment from the Labour side came when I used my experiences in North Road ward, the ward I represent, to illustrate my concerns about the Labour Party’s abolition of our uniformed warden service: one of those front-line services, you’ll remember, which weren’t going to be affected by their swingeing budget cuts (yeh, right!).

The comment was made that, “We don’t usually discuss ward issues to this extent in Council. Surely there is somewhere better you could raise those issues.”

What absolute bollocks! I was using the experiences of the residents I represent to criticise a Labour policy. Without such concrete examples, any criticism, which is my right and duty as an opposition councillor, would be less effective. Furthermore, it is the Labour Government which wants to turn non-executive councillors into champions of the local communities in the wards they represent. That is exactly what I was doing. The attempt by Labour to denigrate the use of ward issues to illustrate a wider point shows the reality of their centrist, undemocratic nature.

Monday, 23 March 2009

It's Carlin Sunday

The tills are ringing nonstop downstairs as the good people of Darlington come in to stock up on Carlin Peas, also known as Maple Peas or Black Peas, in preparation for Carlin Sunday this weekend, the Sunday before Palm Sunday.

The source of the tradition of eating Carlin Peas on this Sunday appears lost in the mists of time, though a popular tale is that Carlins rescued the city of Newcastle from starvation during the civil war. Newcastle was a Royalist city in support of King Charles. A Scottish army crossed the border and swept south intent on capturing Newcastle and securing the coal supplies on behalf of their allies the parliamentarians. Newcastle, however, was no pushover and the city was put under siege. The siege of 1644 lasted from July until October. At one stage the supplies ran out and the people were starving. Just when thing were at their worst a Dutch ship saved them by evading the blockade and reaching the port with its cargo of carlins.
However, if you live in Carlisle a similar story is told there, and in Sunderland and Hartlepool, though in these places a ship was wrecked at a time of famine in the town, and the carlins were used as ballast on the ship. They were salvaged and kept the town alive. They are also eaten in parts of East Yorkshire.

The correct way to prepare and eat them is, of course, our way:

Soak overnight; boil for 20 minutes until soft but not mushy; fry in butter and serve hot or cold with salt, pepper and vinegar. In East Yorkshire they add sugar and rum instead of salt and vinegar. In the North West they boil them for longer with a ham shank and then mash them and eat like mushy peas.

What does seem to be the same in all these places is that the following day is known as Farting Monday.

In years gone by every pub and club would serve these peas this weekend and put them on the bar for their clientele to dip into. If you buy them to eat out you would get them in a newspaper cone, but if you're lucky enough to find them this weekend, I bet it'll be a polystyrene cup.

Police flood North Road

Following several weekends marred by increasing amounts of severe anti-social behaviour in North Road ward, spreading out from the Albert Road Bridge all the way up to the Burns pub carpark, this weekend has been quiet. On Friday night I spent a couple of hours riding around the ward, and the police were out in force. Two bobbies on bikes, two in an unmarked police car and a mobile HQ parked on North Road proved an effective deterrent to the rowdiness and crime we have had to deal with recently.
My colleague Fred Lawton wrote to the local police sargeant during the week, spelling out in no uncertain terms the problems the ward has been faced with recently. His letter is based on his experience. I could add emails, letters and phone calls I have received from residents of Pendleton Road.

Mr Xxxxxxx Xxxxxxx, xx George Short Close overlooks the Albert Road Bridge. He contacted us about a number of incidents. Last Saturday about 6pm, there was a gang at the bridge as usual. A car stopped on Albert Road and two young men, white, got out and delivered two large bags (alcohol ?) to the group, then drove away.
Mr Xxxxxxx said the problems at the bridge, and all down the path beside the river to Richard Court (where they climb on the large containers for the new kitchens and throw bottles), had restarted in January and now it is every Friday and Saturday. They are mixed gender groups.
Last Friday, a Warden visited the area at around 4.40. That is too early; they start gathering about 5.30- 6.00 and by 6.00 – 6.30 there is a crowd.

Mr Xxxxxx has a friend in Havelock Street. On the evening of 28/2 the wing mirror was ripped off her Vauxhall Corsa, parked behind the Havelock Centre. She found the mirror and did not report to police. On 7/3 both wing mirrors were ripped off and one was ripped off another car. She reported to the police.

Cllr Curry and I walked by the river yesterday. It is filthy as usual, with rubbish, cans, broken glass and polythene bags. There are a lot of Netto bags and some Lambrini bottles, so can they be checked? There is obvious evidence of substance misuse; plastic bottles with holes burned in, cut up plastic bags with stained bottles inside. Some cut down trees have been dumped in the river and with old pallets next to them they are obviously part of their playground but are starting to block the river with built-up debris.

Down at the bottom of the path, where the way through the bridges is walled up, there is a pile of needles and cases, which should be removed urgently. There are strips of pill holders; a lot of Zydol 50mg.

Mr Xxxxx, of xx Edmund Street told us of the very large gang on Monday 16/3. The police were out in force to clear them away, for which all the residents were grateful. Neighbours have a story that a gang from Haughton are arranging fights with NRC.

Most of this is not new to you. I write to thank you for starting to visit the area more often but also to ask you to continue to do so, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. This is not a bunch of youngsters just enjoying themselves. We now have evidence of illegal drinking with a car delivery service, substance and medical pills misuse, serious injected drugs misuse, criminal damage to vehicles and property and alcohol fuelled gang warfare. Not to mention the destruction of a lovely riverside environment.

What is continually said to us is that this has just started again after an eighteen month break. People say that the break was because of a regular police presence on Friday and Saturday nights for a prolonged period. If the police can manage to relentlessly visit this area, they will hopefully be successful again.

How long will the police continue to patrol the ward in force on Friday and Saturday nights? The Council's cost-cutting decision to abolish the uniformed warden service and leave the control of anti-social behaviour to the police has taken away a re-assuring warden presence which local older residents in this part of the ward used to appreciate.

We have asked officers for a briefing on the decision to abolish the warden service. North Road ward seems to be a magnet - a meeting point for feral youths from across the north end of town. Our local residents shouldn't have to put up with this sort of behaviour on their own doorsteps. The police have responded to our requests for help this weekend and we'll continue to put pressure on them and the Council's hardpressed and under-resourced front-line personnel to keep this menace away from North Road ward.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Ward Walkabout

Last week the Street Scene co-ordinator for our area, Carol Carter, came on a ward walkabout with us. North Road is a large and challenging ward, so we only managed to walk about a quarter of the ward: another visit is planned. We wanted to show Carol the problems which Rise Carr faces, and also the fly-tipping problem which nearby streets and green spaces suffer from.
While we were out we came across a load of tree cuttings dumped in front of some garages (top photo). Carol phoned in to Street Scene HQ, only to be told that tree cuttings had been found dumped at half a dozen sites around town that day. Presumably this is a business trying to avoid paying waste disposal charges.
We wanted to show Carol the environmental improvements which we worked hard to achieve in Rise Carr. The Council's work looks good, but already a few anti-social residents have dumped supermarket trollies and copious amounts of litter around the place. The grassed areas are already being destroyed by bike riders.

We will continue to work for improvements in Rise Carr, and also to get access to the community facilities promised to us in the old Rise Carr Junior School (now the Pupil Referral Unit). A few anti-social residents make life harder for the majority of decent people, but it is important that this does not give the Council an excuse not to make the time and effort to continue the good work we've started in this part of the ward.

Mixed results

It seems no sooner do we get a notorious fly-tipping black spot in North Road ward cleaned up than it gets dumped on again. This spot is along the back of Cricket Field Row, a large field at the end of the road into Morrisons supermarket. It's only half a mile from the tip, but that doesn't stop people driving to this field to dump their rubbish. There is a warning sign, but it's been cunningly placed at the far end of the field, where no-one can actually see it. You can see it in the top right hand corner of my photo - not that it would stop this activity even if it was ten feet high.
As the top photo shows, in another corner of the field my ward colleagues Fred and Anne-Marie have managed to get the hugely overgrown shrubs, which provided a convenient hiding place for late night teenage drinkers, cut right back. A long-covered cycle path has re-emerged into the light at the same time. Local residents are very pleased with the result.
The constant struggle to keep the ward clean, in the face of anti-social activity and an under-financed Street Scene organisation, takes an awful lot of local councillors' time. It's great when we can report back on our successes, but not long before some other problem area appears which needs sorting out.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

BNP on High Row

Today is a lovely sunny day in Darlington. I'm at work in Post House Wynd. Just round the corner on High Row the BNP have set up a stall, and have tied a Union Flag to the High Row steps. There are about ten of them handing out leaflets.

I was alerted to this by a friend of mine who is a pharmacist on duty today in Rowlands Chemists, outside which the BNP are distributing their nasty literature. My friend is from India.

I have spoken to a senior officer at the Council who in turn has established that they have no permission to set up tables on High Row. The CCTV control room and the police have been informed. Whether anyone actually moves them on is doubtful, though a football supporters' march is due to set off from the town clock in a few minutes time, marshalled by the police, so we'll see if anything happens then.

It's all very distasteful on such a lovely day.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

The right way to build a stadium

After two years travelling to Anfield and Old Trafford, the relegation of the mighty Royals to the Championship has meant my trips this season have been to more mundane venues, such as Tuesday night's match at the new Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster.

Three points means our quest for automatic promotion is back on track. Bizzarely, Sir Steve Coppell has signed Dave Kitson and Glen Little on loan from the clubs to which we sold them last summer. And it was the Ginger Ninja who struck a glorious winner on Tuesday.

But for me, one of the most interesting aspects of the trip was my first chance to see the new stadium, opened in 2007. Especially with Darlington FC going into administration, and no-one seemingly interested in buying the club, seeing how much better they've done things in Donny really brought home the lunacy of George Reynold's white elephant of a stadium in Darlington.
The Keepmoat Stadium was built by Doncaster Council. It forms part of a sports complex with indoor and outdoor facilities, including an excellent athletics stadium. Rovers rent the use of the stadium from the Council. They share it with the local Rugby League Club and Doncaster Belles, the ladies' football team. The stadium is also used for community events and concerts. It is a manageable size, just right for a town like Doncaster.

Judging by all the signs and posters about the local community which appear around the stadium, the Council are clearly proud of their investment and have made the complex into a real community asset. In contrast, Darlington FC is stuck with a ludicrously over-sized and expensive to run stadium in which the wider community has no role.

Tellingly, no statement has been made by the Council about the club going into administration. A belated letter from the Leader to a resident about this matter is rather lukewarm in support for the club. All very different from Doncaster.

Lib Dem Councillor in the stocks

Of course, I was really keen to do this myself, but Anne-Marie Curry got there first. Ever the gentleman, I acknowledged her right ahead of me to put her head in the stocks set up on Joseph Pease Place by the Darlington Market traders for Red Nose Day. Courteous to a fault, I took this photo. Sadly, I failed to get one with a wet sponge in her face, so you'll just have to imagine it.

The Mayor, Ian Hazeldine, and the Deputy Mayor, Jim Ruck, also took their turns in the stocks representing the Labour and Conservative Parties. They took a thorough soaking, I'm sorry to say. Well done to all three of them. I was devastated at having to get back to work before the water ran out.

Anyone heard of Youtube?

I couldn't get to Harrogate this year, but was assured that Nick Clegg's speech on Sunday was excellent. So, I thought I'd watch it on Youtube. But if it's there, I can't find it. In fact, the only stuff about the Harrogate Conference I can find on Youtube is Jonathan Wallace's entertaining video diary of the weekend (including a toe curling singalong known as the glee club, purleese!) and the short film shown as a taster before Clegg's speech.

Sure, you can watch the speech on Nick Clegg's own website and the Lib Dems' website, but how many ordinary voters visit those sites, compared to the millions who browse on Youtube?

Barack Obama's success has shown the value of using the internet as a means of political communication, and we have many bloggers and tweeters in our ranks, but how about communicating with real voters. Jonathan's videos get a huge number of viewings; perhaps someone at Cowley Street could ask him about using Youtube as a means of poltical communication. The Conference, including both Vince Cable's and Nick Clegg's speeches should have been on Youtube within 24 hours; by the time someone gets round to putting it up they'll be metaphorical chip wrappers.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Diaries scrapped

At last month's Full Council Budget Meeting I pointed out some of what I thought were unnecessary costs the Council incurs in supporting Councillors. For instance, virtually everyone has a computer with internet access these days before they're elected to the Council, so why does the Council give us a brand new laptop and pay for a separate phone line to be installed and maintained?

I've given my laptop back and cancelled the phone line. Now I have a cute little gizmo which I keep on my key ring which gives me a constantly changing six figure password which I use to access the Council's email and intranet services from my home and work computers. I understand the Leader of the Council has given his laptop back too. I think almost everyone else could too.

But now they've gone a step too far: they're taking away our diaries too!!! Now this is most distressing. It's time to storm the barricades. I like ostentatiously flourishing my Councillor's Diary and competing with Fred to see who's got the most meetings filled in (he always wins). Now I'll have to buy one from Smiths and fill in all the meeting dates and times myself - by hand. God, the things I do to help save the Council another £1000.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

North Road Community Partnership AGM

This evening was the North Road Ward Community Partnership AGM. It was good to be able to get to this meeting because I've had to miss a few recently: Tuesday seems to be my busiest day of the week for meetings. The usual dedicated members were present, with one sad exception: vice-chair Sandy Moore died a couple of weeks ago, and his cheerful ruddy face was missed.

Jenny Chapman, the cabinet member with responsibilty for community engagement, attended as guest speaker. Ever the consummate politician, Jenny avoided the thankless task of trying to make pro-Labour political statements and instead gave an interesting presentation about the socio-economic make-up of the ward. Even so, our always-vocal residents gave her a testing time, which she dealt with in good humour.

As I've said before, and as those present themselves now seemed to be agreeing, as they were unable to fill the committee places with North Road residents, the CP needs to find ways to engage and involve more local people. There were only four hard-working residents from North Road ward present. The Partnerships were set up to benefit the residents of the most deprived wards in town and we need to get more people from North Road ward involved. But I said that at the first meeting I attended almost two years ago, and we haven't managed it yet.

And although the Partnership does a lot of good work, I also think it needs to spend less time concentrating on youth issues and anti-social behaviour and look at other groups within the community, such as the isolated elderly, or the newly and long-term unemployed, who we might reach out to. It also might like to look at minor environmental improvements around the ward, which would be to the benefit of all residents.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Post House Wynd aka Charity Alley

Post House Wynd, like so much of Darlington town centre, and indeed town centres across the country, is suffering. Businesses are closing, shops lie empty. The overall feel of the town centre is depressing and uninspiring at the moment. The LGA has recently called on the Government to allow local authorities more powers to make use of empty shops. That would certainly help.

While the Wynd still has a few great independent shops: the Silver Shop and three other jewellers, the Darlington Camera Centre, the Health Warehouse (ahem), the computer shop and a couple of good cafes, we have lost several others over the past few months. There are now five empty shops in the Wynd. A year ago there were none.
The number of charity shops in the Wynd is growing: we already have four (Barnado's, Cancer Research, Help the Aged and British Heart Foundation), and now I understand the unit formerly occupied by Simpsons Sports is to become a new branch of Shelter. That will mean five charity shops all grouped together in the middle of the Wynd.

It's better than the shop lying empty, I suppose, but in the long run I don't see the proliferation of charity shops here, and throughout the town centre, as a good thing.
Charity shops have changed enormously in recent years and many big name charities are now competing directly with small businesses. The new style chain charity shops are more like businesses with the buying power of a major retailer.

Many charities like Oxfam are now aggressively competing in the commercial market place, employing professional staff selling a range of new goods. They have dispensed with the volunteer led shops selling cheap donated goods. Yet they still keep their costs down by benefiting from generous tax breaks, such as the 80 per cent mandatory business rates reduction. Meanwhile smaller businesses have to meet overheads such as rent, rates, paying decent wages and corporation tax.

Recently, a group of MPs warned that unless high street shops are protected they will have disappeared by 2015. Charity shops are now adding to that pressure. Small businesses must be supported and protected by the Government locally and nationally. They are already feeling tremendous pressure from the supermarkets, out of town shopping centres and the relative expense of parking in town.
The definition of charity shops should be changed. Those which sell new goods and employ professional staff should pay full business rates and corporation tax on profits.
The continued loss of local independent shops would take away much of what makes Darlington an attractive centre for shopping.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Seen in the Pedestrian Heart 2

As someone who has a business in the town centre, I see a lot of what goes on there. From time to time I spot problems - broken slats on the benches, rubbish bins not emptied, planters needing attention - which I report to Street Scene. I would be annoyed if one of the Central ward councillors came to North Road and started reporting problems, but I reckon the town centre belongs to all of us, and if the Labour Councillors aren't going to report problems, then I will.

A couple of weeks ago, BT removed their phone boxes from High Row. Presumably they reckon most people use mobile phones now. What we have left is two ugly, dirty boxes. The grey one has always been there, but, unless the green one was hiding behind the phone boxes, I don't remember seeing it before. And the space where the phone boxes were has been filled in with nasty looking tarmac. I think BT should be asked to lay proper flagstones in this location, and those boxes need repainting: this area really looks a mess as it is.

Since the phone boxes were removed, a split sandbag has been left on the ground. I can't imagine where it came from, but I thought, on this occasion, I would see if anyone took it away. During the past couple of weeks many Street Scene staff, councillors, officers and residents must have walked past this, but not thought it necessary to remove it.

We now have a red and white cone marking the spot! What's going on? Is there a top level conference taking place to decide what to do with the sandbag? Has a message been sent to BT asking if it belongs to them? It's a mystery. Surely someone could just sweep it up and take it away! I have contacted Street Scene to ask them if something can be done to get this spot tidied up.

Seen in the Pedestrian Heart 1

Sometimes cyclists do themselves no favours - and I say this as a member of the Darlington Cycling Campaign. One day last week the bike shown in the photograph was chained to the top of the only handrail down the steps at this point (sorry, the angle doesn't show the steps!). Any disabled or elderly person would have had to negotiate this bike, or walk quite a way to the next set of steps where there was an unobstructed handrail, to get up or down the steps.

The bike was there for at least two hours. It's not some chav's bike: it's an expensive Dawes town bike, presumably owned by someone who would normally consider themselves a responsible individual.

This is why we need a detailed Code of Conduct for cyclists in the town centre, because then all selfish cyclists, like this chap, could be warned, with a clear written statement of what is and is not permitted within the Pedestrian Heart.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Four stars

Some good news yesterday. The Audit Commission has announced the results of the latest Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) of Local Authorities. Yet again Darlington is assessed a 4-star Council. A result in marked contrast to nearby Redcar and Cleveland, where the new Labour administration has plunged the authority to two stars from the four held when the Lib Dems held power in alliance with the Conservatives.

Our result is a testament to the staff of the Council who work very hard to provide decent services and keep the Council at this high level.

Unfortunately, the CPA does not tell the whole story. In fact, CPA is being abolished as of the end of this month, to be replaced by something better. Being graded “Excellent” in a flawed process is better than being graded “Poor.” But the process is indeed flawed, and we shouldn’t get carried away.

The CPA is, as the title suggests, quite a comprehensive way of assessing services. But the way that it does so is very much to do with performance statistics, which can mean the targeting of resources to meet targets and tick boxes rather than to respond to what citizens on the street actually want. It’s a flaw which has long been evident yet never been properly corrected.

I wonder if the Commission would have the same view if they lived here and had to deal with the problems ward councillors deal with every day: litter un-swept, graffiti un-cleaned, and roads and pavements un-repaired? I doubt it. The people who work for Street Scene are not to blame. When we report problems, in general, they could not be more helpful and cheerful, and the problems usually get sorted out. But a better service would mean these problems wouldn't arise in the first place. These problems aren’t to do with bad staff, they're to do with lack of resources and not listening to local people. And CPA doesn’t have anything to say about that.

CPA does not concern itself with customer satisfaction. It relys on tri-annual surveys rather than mystery shopping or the experience of Councillors. The process has also been far too heavily weighted to national priorities at the expense of local ones, and has put adherence to government wish lists ahead of proper local scrutiny.

These weaknesses are evident. For a Council to be declared “excellent” just a week after it cuts services and raises taxes is crazy. Everyone knows about the overspends and delays on major vanity projects. And we have the highest primary school pupil-teacher ratio in the region, by far. I could go on...

There is nothing about this in the congratulatory press releases released by the Council yesterday.

Everyone is pleased that targets have been hit and the veneer of “excellent” assured. I live in Darlington and I love it. I am a proud and strong supporter of local government and what it can do. The more Councils that can describe themselves as excellent, the better. But it would be better still if they actually were excellent!

The reality is that things are far from excellent, and that even this pretend excellence of CPA will not be maintained if staff cuts continue, if local priorities continue to be ignored, and if services continue to be cut.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

A story about eggs

Once upon a time there was a young farmer and his wife just outside Darlington who decided to try organic egg farming. They bought the hens, invested in new huts and copious amounts of space for the hens to run around in. They fed them only the finest organic food with no artificial colours to make the yolk more yellow or routine use of antibiotics to keep the chickens laying longer.

The Soil Association approved their eggs and kept a close eye on them. Local shops stocked their eggs and all the customers said how lovely they were: the shells were strong, the yolk was yellow and the taste and freshness were unrivalled.

Then along came the Government and said, "If you're going to carry on producing organic eggs, you'll have to buy some new equipment to grade and stamp the eggs. You can't just sell them to people, you know."

But the young farmer didn't want to buy all this extra equipment and take on all the extra form-filling, record-keeping and administration: he just wanted to produce lovely organic eggs for local people to enjoy. So he spoke to a much larger company nearby who produced free-range and battery eggs because they already had all the equipment he was supposed to buy.

This larger company agreed to buy all his organic eggs and do all the grading and stamping and record-keeping and distribute the eggs to local shops. The problem was, this meant the price went up a lot.

Then came the recession and people stopped buying organic eggs and bought cheaper eggs instead. So the larger company was buying fewer and fewer of the young farmer's lovely organic eggs. Eventually the young farmer found that the fall in sales, the extra costs of the feed, the lower production rates of organic hens and the large amount of land needed to produce organic eggs meant he wasn't making a profit any more. So he stopped being an organic egg farmer.

And that's why, if you come in my shop today, we don't have local organic eggs on sale any more.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

A ride around the Borough

On Sunday mornings I like to cycle around North Road ward, looking out for any problems to report to Streetscene. This Sunday I took a circuitous route to the ward to try out some new cycle paths. From the Yarm Road retail park, over the Eastern Transport Corridor and Haughton Road, along the riverside path to North Park. Apart from a short stretch crossing North Road, all on cycle paths.

Then across North Park, under the railway and on the newly resurfaced path to Faverdale. It was a great ride. There are some good cycle paths around the outskirts of town. The problem is, that's not where most people want to ride.

Radial routes around the Borough are fine for the leisure cyclist, but until the Council make it as easy for people to ride to and from the town centre, cycling will be a less important means of transport than it could be.

I took a few snaps on my ride: not all good! Swans on the Skerne, grafitti on a cycle path sculpture (in Haughton West ward - tvm for correction, NW), a thoughtlessly parked car in North Park and the newly laid cycle path to Faverdale.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Marines on patrol

I haven't mentioned Marine Barker's activities in Afghanistan recently, but for the benefit of my friends and relatives who read this blog, here's a photo of Will's patrol group. Will is front right. You wouldn't want to argue with this lot.
A number of his comrades in 45 Commando have died in the past few weeks. Will should be home in little over a month.

Attending Meetings

A certain amount of hot air has been generated, both inside and outside the Council Chamber, about my friend, Lib Dem Group Leader Martin Swainston, and his failure to attend Resources Scrutiny Committee meetings called to consider the annual budget.

Now, most of the councillors on Resources Scrutiny are retired. Indeed, across the whole Council, the great majority of councillors are retired, unemployed/mothers at home, or public employees with guaranteed rights to take time off for Council duties. Councillors like myself and Martin, who work full-time in the private sector, are few and far between. Furthermore, at the present time, Martin's company is under threat of severe down-sizing due to the effect of the recession.

The Council's Scrutiny Committee meetings are timetabled for the benefit of officers and the majority of councillors who do not work or who, because of the nature of their work, are entitled to take time off work during the day for public duties. The Scrutiny Committee I sit on meets in the morning. This is massively inconvenient for me and anyone else who works full time in the private sector. Luckily, I only have a two minute walk to get to the Town Hall, but I then have to take two or three hours off work at a busy time of day. Resources Scrutiny meets in the afternoon.

I reckon no more than one-fifth of councillors work in the private sector. This does mean that the Council is unrepresentative of its electorate. Younger professional people in particular are under-represented. This is most unfortunate. Much as I respect many of our retired councillors, I believe the elected Council misses the energy, ideas, creativity and alternate viewpoint that would come from having more young private-sector professionals in its number. It's little wonder they show no enthusiasm to stand for Council when they stand to be criticised if they can't attend all the meetings open to them.

Now, last week I had a request from another organisation for a meeting between myself and Martin, with two of their representatives. I contacted Martin and asked him to give me some evening dates when we could meet these people. For the benefit of those people who criticise Martin for not attending Scrutiny meetings, here is part of his email reply:

"(In the next three weeks) I'm free the following nights 4th, 11th, 14th, 16th, 18th and 19th March on an evening after 17:30, I can't do any other nights due to Council commitments, parish council, school groups and rural partnerships etc"

So, of 19 dates (excluding Sundays) available in the first three weeks of March, Martin has Council commitments (mainly in his Hurworth ward) on 13 of them (14 now).

As opposition councillors, we can achieve far more by actively representing our ward constituents than by attending Scrutiny Committees with their built-in Labour majorities. Very few of the recommendations to come out of the Resources Scrutiny Committee meetings on the budget were included in the final Cabinet recommendations to Council (and those that were, such as rescuing the South Park aviary, the Mayor's Charity Shop and cycle and pedestrian training for kids were going to happen anyway).

Other recommendations from Scrutiny were included in the Conservative Group's amendment to the budget, but these were voted against by the Labour Group. Indeed, the Chair of Resources Scrutiny, the mayor, spoke in Council against the Conservatives' amendment.

I question the value and contribution of much of the work done by Scrutiny Committees when they all have a built-in whipped Labour majority. I am dubious of the value of opposition councillors attending Cabinet meetings when everything has been agreed before the meeting.

Given this, and that there is much to be done in our wards, I think most people will agree that councillors whose time is limited should not be criticised for putting the interests of their ward constituents before attending pretty meaningless Scrutiny meetings.