Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Milburn declines invitation

As Katherine Hannah announced twice on last night's drive time BBC Radio Tees programme, Alan Milburn, the high-earning, low-activity MP for Darlington, declined the BBC's invitation to appear on her radio prog. He wouldn't even give them a written statement about his decision to stand down at the next election. So I went on instead.

Katherine and I talked about Alan's surprise decision to quit Parliament just days ahead of the publication of full details of MPs' outside earnings - at a hastily called CLP meeting just one day after I brought the scale of his earnings and his lack of activity to the attention of the local electorate.

We also discussed the role of MPs, the prospects for the next General Election and voter turnout and fringe party voting at the Euro elections. You can catch the interview (at 4.52pm) on the Listen Again facility on the BBC Tees website.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Echo goes big on Milburn

Although the headline in today's Echo is, "MP 'not quitting over jobs scrutiny'", the subsequent articles, based largely around my letter published in the paper on Friday, various blog postings of my own, and an interview with Alan himself, should leave no-one in any doubt that the Echo clearly believes the second (and third, fourth, fifth and sixth jobs) scandal is at the heart of Alan's decision. They list his outside earnings three times in different articles this morning.

The expected clamp-down on Labour MPs' ability to rake in vast sums of money in outside earnings will hit our Alan so hard in the pocket that I'm sure this is a large reason for deciding this is the time to stand down. And, of course, after being at the centre of Government and so close to the action for so long, the thought of years in the wilderness in a rump of Labour MPs (assuming he were to be re-elected, which would have been unlikely, frankly) cannot have filled his waking hours with joy.

The Echo certainly believes MPs should be doing the job for which they were elected, not dallying with a variety of money-spinning outside interests.

To quote just one paragraph from the paper's Comment column this morning, "As part of the very necessary cleansing of Parliament's reputation, the country must be reassured that MPs are fully focused on working for the people who elected them, and that there are no conflicts of interest in their second, third, fourth or fifth jobs."

Alan's achievements are given appropriate coverage, especially his various fights for justice for local people and his work as Health Secretary to ensure that the scandal of year-long waiting lists for heart operations be ended. I remember all too clearly when the catalyst for this initiative, Ian Weir, died while waiting for his heart operation. It was just a few weeks before my wife died and my kids were at school (in the same class) as Ian's.

It's a shame that Alan's ability to "make a difference", as he describes it, has been tarnished by a later reputation around the town as someone who used his elected position for personal financial gain.

So, that'll be a "Yes" then

"It's too early to comment", says fellow blogger Nick Wallis when asked by the Echo if he'll be entering the race to succeed Alan Milburn as Darlington's Labour candidate at the next General Election.

Only too early, Nick, if you think Labour might lose. After all, who wants to be the candidate at the wheel when the local Labour machine and its bankrupt Government finally hits the buffers?

Only too early, Nick, if you think an early display of ambition will harm your chances.

Come on, old son, out of the closet with you. Your party needs a local candidate this time around. You'd love to be Darlington's MP, so just admit it now and make yourself the early front-runner.

Who dares, wins, Nick.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Seldom Seen Boy Bows Out

Just 24 hours after the Northern Echo published a letter from me criticising our high-earning, low-activity MP, (a letter which appears to have mysteriously disappeared today from the Echo's on-line edition) Alan Milburn announced this morning to the local Labour Party that he will not be seeking re-election at the next General Election.

Others can write his political obituary. While I have been highly critical of his performance as our MP over the past few years and his health service reforms have proved to be of dubious merit, there is no doubt that, rising from humble beginnings to hold one of the major portfolios in Government and playing an important role in creating the Blairite agenda, Alan made the most of his talents and will probably look back on his career with some satisfaction. At least, every time he left something he did so of his own choosing!

Attention now will turn to his successor. No doubt ambitious local and national candidates will already be getting that little knot of excitement and anticipation that comes at the start of all political battles. The internal machinations of the local Labour Party are a mystery to me, though I'm sure fellow blogger Nick Wallis, who has just proved his tenacity and resilience by spending his annual holiday being abused on the doorsteps during his quest for European glory, will be throwing his large hat into the ring. But what about former Milburn acolyte Jenny Chapman?

I'm sure we haven't heard the last of "Six Jobs", though unfortunately, I shall no longer be able to use that sobriquet in my pre-election leaflets. The publication next week of the full details of MPs' outside earnings would have been difficult for the local Labour Party to defend had Alan continued as their candidate. As always, Alan may have chosen the right time to leave the stage - though as someone who is 4 years younger than me, I can't see him retreating into domestic bliss or digging an allotment just yet.

I suspect the local electorate will look favourably on a local candidate this time, but which way will the local Labour Party sway?

Friday, 19 June 2009

We pay for "Six Jobs'" Tax Advice

The partial publication of MPs' expenses reveals that Darlington MP Alan "Six Jobs" Milburn claimed £963 for a firm of Chartered Accountants to prepare his self-assessment tax return. The rest of us manage to do this ourselves without the help of Chartered Accountants. After all, as the Government keep telling us, "Tax doesn't have to be taxing!"
Now, because I own a company, I need an accountant to produce my accounts and balance sheets, and as part of this service they also produce my returns for Corporation Tax and Income Tax. I pay a bit less than Six Jobs does for this service. But that's the point: I pay for it. I really can't see any justification for the taxpayer paying for this service for an employee of Pepsico, just because he happens to have a second job as an MP!

Clearly, since Mr Milburn has six jobs, he needs an accountant to sort out all his money and make sure he gets the appropriate tax advice and help.

But why does the taxpayer have to pay for it? What a bloody cheek! If he just concentrated on being an MP and just did that one job, he wouldn't need this expensive advice, would he?

Thursday, 18 June 2009

National Express PR machine puffs into action

I had a phone call yesterday from National Express. Paul Cook from The Northern Echo, having read my post a couple of days ago about the latest plans to install permament "gatelines" at Darlington Bank Top Station, is planning on running another story, following up on the ones I also inspired last year about people being unfairly refused access to the station platform to say goodbye to their relatives.

The gentleman from National Express was keen to assure me that, despite evidence to the contrary, the company's policy had not changed and that there has never been any barrier to non-travellers accessing the platforms, as long as they obtained a temporary ticket from station staff.

But...the National Express website still says non-travellers will not normally by allowed on to the platform.

And...as we know from anecdotal evidence in Darlington from, among others, the mother of a soldier going off to fight in Afghanistan and a Labour Cabinet portfolio holder on Darlington Borough Council who was refused access to help her elderly mother on to the train, whatever the PR guy says, on the ground, staff at Darlington Station have not been universally helpful in this matter.

The key test here is not what the PR department says is the company's policy, it's what the staff who have to implement that policy are instructed to do, and how they carry out those instructions that counts. The jury is still out on that one.

So, if there really will be free access to the platforms, how will National Express stop people hopping on trains and taking a free ride, which is the reason why these "gatelines" are being introduced.

The answer is that all the temporary tickets will be numbered and will be accounted for by staff, who will know if someone does not return through the gates from the platform. All people passing through the gates will be monitored by CCTV, so there will be photographic evidence of anyone who goes on to the platform but doesn't come back through the gate. There will be no way out of any other station along the line without a valid ticket. And there will still be a full complement of ticket inspectors on the trains.

With all these measures in place, it will be extremely difficult, it seems to me, for anyone to travel without a valid ticket. So there is no reason why National Express staff should refuse to supply a platform ticket to non-travellers.

I look forward to their website being updated to reflect this policy and also to evidence from the ground that the policy is being successfully communicated to station staff.

The power of blogging!

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

We're all doomed; death by powerpoint.

A quick stroll across Stanhope Park to the Arts Centre last night to pay £10.50 see former BBC Weather presenter and manager Helen Young giving a talk entitled "Climate Change: Debunking the Myths". Ms Young is a nice, jolly lady who, from the back of the theatre, could be mistaken for Kate Winslet. Unfortunately, the talk seemed to just go over all the old ground about climate change, was presented with somewhat less style and sex appeal than Al Gore managed in "An Inconvenient Truth", and barely touched on the real debate now: how the hell we do anything about it in the short "window of opportunity" which we now have available to us - apart from turning the taps off when we clean our teeth.

But then, this was a Royal Geographic Society lecture, which reminded me why I found geography the most boring subject at school. With sometimes impossible to read Powerpoint slides courtesy of the Met Office, Ms Young's target audience appeared to be a class of myopic 12 year olds. Unfortunately, they would probably have already been taught about this in a more entertaining way by their own geography teacher.

One thing's for sure, the temperature at the back of the Arts Centre theatre confirmed the message about global warming and was sufficient to send at least two of my near neighbours fast asleep.

The most interesting bit was when a member of the audience, desperate to get away from climate change, asked Ms Young if BBC weather presenters had a real map on the wall behind them and if not, how they knew where to point. The answer was....nah, you'll have to find out for yourself.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Partial climb down by National Express?

Last year I blogged about National Express's plans to install ticket barriers at stations on the East Coast mainline, banning all but travellers with tickets from the platforms. Part of that post said,

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

My story was covered in the Echo, which produced a number of letters from aggrieved travellers, including one from a mother who had been denied access to the platform to say goodbye to her son who was off to fight in Afghanistan.

Now National Express have produced a briefing document outlining its plans for Darlington Bank Top Station.

Despite what was said back in December, it seems that National Express have relented and decided that they will issue platform tickets - free of charge - for those who need to have access to the platform, but who do not intend to travel. This includes train spotters, who were previously going to be banned.

The document states:

"Platform passes for “Meeters and Greeters”, Rail and Heritage Enthusiasts
At all stations where permanent gatelines are installed, we will introduce a policy where platform passes will be issued to people who have a genuine reason to join or assist relatives, friends or colleagues on a platform. We do not intend to charge for these passes – unlike the platform tickets which were sold in the past. These passes will also be issued, at the discretion of station staff, to people who wish to view Darlington Station or who are train/rail enthusiasts."

The key phrase here is "at the discretion of station staff". I shall be writing to National Express to ask that they issue guidelines which ensure staff operate a liberal and helpful policy here. The National Express website still says this, when dealing with the proposed gate installations:

"Platform access
If you do not have a valid ticket for travel then under normal circumstances you will not be allowed access to the platform."

I'll report back on any response I get.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Phew! Well done Fiona and Frank!

Having spent the evening at our count in Darlington, where we were beaten into fourth place by UKIP, as we were in neighbouring Stockton, despite retaining our share of the vote, I dashed home to catch the results on TV, worried that Fiona Hall might lose her seat to UKIP.

As it turned out, Fiona retained her share of the vote across the region and the UKIP surge was insufficient to win a seat. The collapse in the Labour vote benefitted mainly UKIP, but thankfully not enough to seriously challenge Fiona.

The Darlington result includes the Conservative-voting villages from the Sedgefield Constituency, so it is difficult to identify clearly how this result would translate into a General Election result in Darlington. The probable result, based on tonight's figures, would be a narrow Conservative victory, with "Six Jobs" Milburn becoming "Five Jobs". However, with politics in such a state of flux, we shall be redoubling our efforts in the constituency, going for those Labour votes which went to UKIP this time.

Clearly, although it is two years until the next local elections, the Labour Party will lose heavily in 2011 based on these results.

For the record, the party figures in the Borough of Darlington were:
Conservatives 6775
Labour 4739
UKIP 3783
Lib Dems 3480
BNP 1779
Greens 1446
English Democrats 534
Socialist Labour 357
No 2 EU 270
Christians 264
Pro Democracy 108
Jury Team 97

Saturday, 6 June 2009

St Modwen development rejected

The Planning Applications Committee accepted officers' recommendations and rejected the proposed redevelopment by St Modwen of the Corus site on Whessoe Road. The officers had asked for 75 "affordable" units on the site (out of a total of 250), while St Modwen had offered none.

St Modwen claim they had been unable to progress pre-Committee discussions with officers due to key people on both sides being away on holiday over the half-term period. They also say the decision on this project was brought forward to the earliest possible date so that the Council could tick the appropriate box in terms of speed of handling planning applications. They asked for the decision to be deferred to the next cycle of the planning committee to allow time for more discussions to take place.

A senior Labour councillor on the committee spoke in favour of rejection and the committee voted accordingly.

There must be more to this than holidays and ticky boxes getting in the way. There is clearly a fundamental disagreement between officers and developers here. After all, proposing that there should be NO affordable housing (albeit that there's not exactly a shortage of affordable housing in that part of town which has row upon row of cheap housing available in the terraces off North Road) is guaranteed not to be acceptable to officers and doesn't sound like a good basis for starting a negotiation.

I hope St Modwen will bring a new plan back to the Council, and get their discussions completed well before the planning cycle gets under way. I may have missed something here, but why can't planners and developers sit down and thrash this thing out in general terms - what would be acceptable to the Council on the one hand and what the development could sustain financially on the other hand - and bring forward a project that satisfies both parties?

It is in everyone's interest that this land is redeveloped, so why was this scheme brought forward in a form St Modwen must have known would not be acceptable? And why are we talking about this in confrontational terms? Both parties - and representatives of the local community - need to sit down and sort this out before they get locked into a formal planning process.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Surge in demand

A friend of mine tells me this website is experiencing higher than normal activity at the moment. Think I might get one for AM.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Everybody's talking about it

After plodding the streets delivering leaflets on Sunday morning, I carried on walking on Sunday afternoon, though sans leaflets. Inspired by a tv documentary during the week about Hadrian's Wall, I took myself up there for the first time since the kids were small and could be easily amused by a 1900 year old pile of stones.

Chesters Roman Fort was built to guard a bridge over the North Tyne. It has a well-preserved riverside bath house, which is shown in this photo. Chesters has a superb location and easy access to good local walks, on one of which I set off. Hot and sweaty, after a while I stopped at the excellent village pub in Humshaugh. A group of locals were sprawled around on the benches and tables outside the front door, arguing about...you've guessed it...MPs expenses and what needed to be done to clean up politics.

If nothing else, at least this affair has got people talking about politics again.