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.

 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.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Darlington Labour reject 10:10 appeal

Yesterday was Full Council. I spoke a few times, including one speech (see below) calling on the controlling Labour Group to sign up to the 10:10 commitment to reduce the Council's carbon footprint by 10% in 2010. I have signed as an individual, and I've also signed up my business. Optimistically, I actually had high hopes that Labour would support my call. The Labour Cabinet member for climate change, Cllr Nick Wallis, has himself signed up to 10:10 and, of course, Ed Miliband called on all Labour Councils to do so in a Conference speech earlier in the week.

However, it was not to be. Nick thought the Council already had an effective carbon-reduction programme, working with the Carbon Trust to reduce our carbon footprint by 11% by 2011. He felt that yet another initiative would muddy the water and confuse residents about just what we are trying to achieve.

I actually think that 10:10 is already becoming a major initiative which people will recognise and want to get on board with. Darlington may become one of the few Councils across the country not to sign up to it. What message will that give our residents?

I shall monitor the national situation over the next couple of months. If 10:10 gets as big as I think it might, Council may have a Lib Dem motion to vote on in November.

Here's what I said in Council:

"There is a new grassroots global political protest about global warming, known as This number comes from the most recent research which shows that, above the level of 350 parts per million C02 in the atmosphere we can’t have a planet similar to the one on which civilisation developed or to which life on earth is adapted.

"Unfortunately we’re already past that point, at 390 parts per million C02, and this is rising by 2% annually. That’s why the Arctic is melting and why the world’s climate is changing in front of our eyes.

"That's why there is a new campaign in this country: the 10:10 commitment, where individuals, businesses and organisations make a commitment to reduce their carbon footprint by 10% during 2010. I have signed up to it, so has my business and so too has Cllr Wallis.

"Many Councils across the country have also signed up to 10:10, among them Hartlepool, Lewisham, Warwickshire, The Wirral, Southwark, Lambeth, Camden, Nottingham, Manchester, Oxford, Coventry and many, many others.

"At the Labour Party Conference this week, Ed Miliband issued a call for all Labour Councils to sign the 10:10 pledge.

"Can I ask Cllr Wallis whether he will carry out the necessary discussions with officers and colleagues with a view to bringing to a future meeting of this Council, or Cabinet, a motion which we can approve which commits this Council to sign up to the 10:10 pledge? Bearing in mind though, that this would not just mean supporting the principle of 10:10, it involves making a commitment to achieve that target."