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:

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

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?