Tuesday, 29 December 2009

A bit more true grit

We know how poor Darlington Council's response to the snow has been, with minimal and ineffective gritting and no snow, ice and slush clearance for five days after the first snowfall in the town centre.

Following my recent blog posts the Council's performance improved in the town centre, though most residential streets remain treacherous. Thankfully, it hasn't snowed for a few days, though more is forecast later in the week.

But maybe the fact that the Council finally pulled its finger out and cleared the town centre pavements might just have been due to Arriva threatening to stop running their bus service unless the Council did something to make the pavements safe, after a dozen passengers were injured as they alighted the buses.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Tragedy at home of Euro MP

A fire at the Darlington home of Stephen Hughes MEP and his wife, Darlington Councillor Cyndi Hughes, has claimed the life of an 80 year old man, who the Northern Echo reports to be Cyndi's father. Stephen and Cyndi are lovely people and this is desperately sad news. On behalf of Darlington Liberal Democrats, I would like to offer our sincere sympathies to Stephen and Cyndi.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

More stories from the gritting front line

A friend who lives in Sadberge phoned Darlington Council to complain that the salt bin on their road was empty and to ask if it could please be re-filled. He was told by the Council that there was no salt available to fill up the rural bins. He was told, "The Town Centre takes priority, you know".

My friend asked the Council employee to repeat what he'd said, so he could record it. The salt bin was filled half an hour later!

What a shambles this has been. Try telling the shoppers and retailers in the town centre that they are the priority: we had to wait FIVE days for the town centre pavements to be cleared. And then they say they don't have enough salt to service the villages.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Gritting machine not repaired?

Speaking to traders in the Indoor Market this afternoon, it is clear there is much anger about the deplorable state the town centre has been in for the past few days. Here are two snippets:

1. When the decision was taken to pedestrianise much of the town centre, a retailer on the Town Centre Board asked what steps would be taken to ensure that the newly pedestrianised areas, which include many steps, ramps and slopes, would be kept safe during the winter months. The Town Centre Board was assured by officers that a hit squad would be available to descend on the town centre whenever conditions required it. Clearly that hit squad no longer exists.

2. A retailer in the Indoor Market, speaking this week with a town centre Street Scene employee, was told by that employee that the reason the town centre pavements, wynds and pedestrian areas were not cleared of snow and ice for five days was that the grit-spreader, which hitches up to the back of one of the mechanised street sweepers, was broken and unable to dispense grit and salt. It seems the breakdown was reported to senior staff a couple of weeks ago, but nothing was done about getting it repaired, despite the employee insisting again later that it needed to be repaired.

I simply report what I hear. But clearly there has been no clearing of pavements - so something went badly wrong.

Finally we're clear

Some five days after the first heavy snowfall, Post House Wynd has finally been cleared and gritted along with much of the rest of the town centre, which has been covered with snow and sludge for nearly a week. If it's possible for shoppers to stay away in droves, they have been over the past few days. It's really taken far too long to get this done. Many of the pedestrian routes into town, such as Duke Street, are still treacherous and completely untreated. The roads have been cleared for cars, but pity the poor pedestrian.

Post House Wynd has been particularly treacherous, with its downhill (or uphill) slope compounded by slippery cobbles and a sideways slope from the shops towards the centre of the Wynd where the drains run.

I cleared the snow and sludge from outside my shop after the first snowstorm, until a passing workman informed me I could be sued if someone slipped on the bit I'd cleared, but I couldn't be if I just left the snow and ice there. I'll have to make some enquiries about that!

Friday, 18 December 2009

You only need a plastic bag!

Yes, you...if you own a dog and let it crap on Thompson Street West in Darlington. The main walking route to Harrowgate Hill Primary must be one of the worst stretches of road in town for dog muck and litter. Earlier this week I, along with my fellow North Road ward councillors, received an anguished email from a resident of Leyburn Road, sent on behalf of many of the parents, asking us to get something done about the appalling state of the pavements in Thompson Street West.

This is an age-old problem here, though previous attempts to solve it were undermined by a former Independent Councillor for the ward, who lived in that street and who refused to accept that there was any such problem. Indeed, much like the current Labour leadership in the town accuses me of being "a disgrace" for bringing to Council's attention that there are issues which need addressing in the town, so the Independent Councillor accused his Lib Dem colleagues of "talking down" the ward by trying to get additional cleaning resources here.

At last, though, we seem to be getting some action here. My Labour opponent for the Darlington Constituency, Jenny Chapman, (a Labour Party colleague of the complainent's husband) also got involved and together we got Street Scene on the job. They counted thirteen piles of dog muck along the short stretch from North Road to Harrowgate Hill School! The mess was cleared up and washed down the same day.

Now we have to work with the environmental wardens to start educating and punishing those responsible. It really beggars belief that there are so many people who are just so lazy and anti-social that they can't be bothered just to take an old plastic bag with them to clean up after their dogs.

All this takes place right outside people's houses. In our Christmas Focus hitting the streets next week we have asked local residents to keep a look out and report any miscreants. It is really quite disgusting and no parent, pushing a pushchair and walking with young kids to school, should have to cope with this muck on our pavements.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Echo makes apiln

The Northern Echo, one of the great campaigning newspapers of the north and erstwhile home to Harold Evans, has achieved what is surely its greatest accolade: inclusion in the Angry People in Local Newspapers website. You'll have to scroll down to Friday, December 11th, for Paul Cook losing his car wheels. Can't help thinking if they had this website in mind when they took the photo! The comments on the stories are as good as the photos themselves.

Legrande stretches our credulity again

The recent selection of Jenny Chapman to be the Labour Party's candidate in Darlington means that there are now two truely local candidates for the seat, Jenny and myself. Conscious of his unwanted tag as the outsider, Edward Elgar, the Conservative Candidate, has this weekend been furiously delivering a glossy, full-coloured leaflet (even to Rise Carr, not known as a hot bed of Tory voters) in which he twice describes himself as "Local Conservative Edward Legard".

Well, if you live in Malton, North Yorkshire, I guess that might be true, but if there's one thing Capt Legrande is not, it's a local Conservative in Darlington.

Thankfully the Tories use such a small font, in an attempt to get as much mind-numbingly boring stuff as possible down on their glossy paper, that it is quite difficult for anyone to read this with anything less than the Hubble telescope. With their income in 2008 being almost £35,000, and no doubt rising even higher as their General Election appeal hots up, despite their tumbling membership, we can expect a blizzard of literature from the local Conservative Association over the next few months.

Remember on their last leaflet, Edward was described as a "local Councillor", which again is only true if you live in Ryedale. By the time of the election he'll probably be slumming it on Charles's floor, so he can claim to be living in the constituency. Well, he wouldn't want to anything naughty like deliberately trying to mislead the voters, would he?

As always, the leaflet is titled "intouch". Sadly, this isn't possible, since the candidate's contact details cunningly omit any telephone number on which to contact him. And when they invite us to meet Eddie at one of his famous Q&A sessions in the town, they fail to tell us where any of them will be.

Still, never mind, for the blue rinse brigade the leaflet contains the usual photo of Edward in his favourite blue jumper taking a relaxing break from campaigning on a High Row seat (that's right, a seat on the pedestrianised High Row which the local Conservatives wanted still to be a road).

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Alan Milburn MP and the mystery of the Nigella Lawson measuring spoons

On March 23rd, 2009, Alan Milburn, who, among his six jobs, has been the Labour MP for Darlington since 1992, charged the taxpayer £760 for a miscellany of household goods from John Lewis, including four Siberian Goose Feather and Down Pillows, a Jamie Oliver saute pan and a set of Nigella Lawson measuring spoons (the mind boggles!).

On June 26th, 2009, Alan Milburn MP announced to his local Labour Party that he would not be standing for Parliament at the next General Election.

This represents a cynical and shameful exploitation of the Parliamentary expenses system. Clearly Mr Milburn is out to milk the taxpayers for every penny he can wring out of us before we see the back of him. Quite why, after 17 years in Parliament, Mr Milburn suddenly decides he can't live without a set of Nigella Lawson measuring spoons is beyond me.
We also pay £600 a year so he can watch Sky TV. Never heard of a Freeview box, Alan? Or do they have Nigella repeats on Sky?

You can see full details of his latest expenses claim here.
Hat tip: N MacF.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Now will Cllr Dixon listen? Oneplace report published.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have recently clashed in Council with the Cabinet member Cllr Bill Dixon over his ludicrous and unsubstantiated claim in the Northern Echo that Darlington was no worse than anywhere else regarding under age drinking and subsequent admission to hospital.

The publication today of the Oneplace (the website for the Comprehensive Area Assessment) report from the Audit Commission specifically highlights this issue as being something Darlington should be concerned about. Sadly, Cllr Dixon will no doubt continue to have his head firmly buried in the sand, thereby hindering effective action to tackle this problem.

To quote from the Oneplace assessment:

"There are big differences in the health of people in different parts of Darlington. The number of pregnant teenagers has fallen but is still too many. The number of children and young people admitted to hospital is far too high. This is in particular linked to under age drinking but is also for other reasons including unintentional and deliberate injury. The council, with its partners, has plans in place to tackle these areas but it is too early to say how successful they will be."


"...alcohol abuse issues remain particularly in relation to under age drinking. There are too many young people admitted to hospital for alcohol problems. Alcohol misuse often leads to anti social behaviour, crime and health problems."

Overall, Darlington Borough Council, while not doing anything badly, does nothing exceptionally well. Overall we are assessed as performing well, like most Councils in our region. However, the Labour Council has constantly been reminding us that, under the previous inspection regime, based as it was on meeting Government targets and ticking the right boxes, Darlington was a "Four Star" local authority. Under the new inspection regime which has a much broader remit and assesses the overall performance of the Council, we have slipped to scoring 3 out of 4 on most measurements but only two out of four on "managing resources".

Perhaps now we'll hear a little less boasting from the Council, a bit more realism, an acknowledgement that most areas of the Council's activities could and should be improved and that there's more to being an excellent Council than ticking the Labour Government's boxes.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Darlington's Film Event of the Year!

Tomorrow evening, Wednesday December 8th, sees the local premiere, in Darlington Arts Centre, of "Beauty and the Bike", a film shot, produced and directed by my friends Richard Grassick and Beatrix Wupperman from the Darlington Media Group. The film follows a group of girls from Darlington as they travel to the cycle-friendly town of Bremen in Germany and bring their experiences back with them to their home town.

Have a look at their website www.bikebeauty.org and also at their 8 minute trailer, which is on the website and also on YouTube.
If you get there early, there's an exhibition opening at the Media Workshop (drinks and food) at 6pm, with the film starting in the cinema at 7 p.m. There's another showing at 8.30. There are two special guests, Dr. Helga TrĂ¼pel, the Bremen Member of the European Parliament, and the Honorary Consul for Germany in the NorthEast, John Knight.

Tickets for the film (£3) are available at the Arts Centre Box Office, by phone and online.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Street Scene

Street Scene is the organisation within Darlington Borough Council that is responsible for street cleaning, refuse collections, parks and gardens and all that sort of thing. It was created a few years ago by merging together all these various responsibilities into one organisation where most of the workforce would be generalists, able to turn their hand to anything, be it shrub pruning or emptying bins.

It meets the "Streamlining and Efficiency" criteria which the Labour Group is so keen on, but opinion is divided about how effective it is.

What Street Scene does excel at is providing a quick and flexible response to Councillors' requests. When I arrived home from work on Thursday evening there was a message on my ansaphone from an elderly lady living in Askrigg Street who had slipped and fallen on a pile of rotten leaves which, perversely, had chosen her front gate and wall to pile up against. I went round to see her and indeed, there was a huge pile of sodden leaves stretching across the pavement with all sorts of other rubbish stuck in it.

I emailed Carol Carter at Street Scene and at 9.45 the next morning Council workmen arrived to clear up the leaves. That's what I call service.

However...all is not well in Street Scene. I get frequent emails and complaints from staff in the organisation who say it is badly managed, that the generalist agenda means skilled work is being done by people without sufficient training and experience and that the harder-working, and generally older, staff are given the worst jobs to do because otherwise those jobs wouldn't get done properly. There is also disquiet among the workforce about the use to which the information gleaned from the satellite tracking devices which every vehicle and cart has is being put.

It's difficult to know how widely these views are held, or whether it's just a disaffected minority which is complaining. Maybe the new flexibility of the organisation, replacing the old rigid demarcation lines, makes some employees, who preferred the certainties and structure of the old organisation, feel that things are now badly organised.

Residents' surveys carried out by the Lib Dems always throw up numerous complaints about street cleanliness, dog muck, refuse collections etc. Yet, at the same time, the Council's customer satisfaction surveys show a generally positive and improving picture here.

I guess a visible frontline service of this nature, battling against a culture in which, unlike places like Holland, for example, a significant minority seems to think it has the right to throw litter out of car windows, flick cigarettes and chewing gum onto the pavement, doesn't have to control its dogs and feels free to fly tip where it likes, is always going to bear the brunt of any residents' complaints.

I would be interested in hearing your experience of this service, either here or by email.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

It's The Age of Stupid, stupid

Darlington Friends of the Earth hosted a showing of the climate change documentary film, The Age of Stupid, at the Quaker Meeting House last night. Following what can only be described as an avalanche, or melting glacier, of publicity from FoE directed at councillors, half the cabinet turned up, while I and a number of members of the local Lib Dem executive were also there. Sadly, no-one from the Conservative group was present. Maybe they were at home booking their flights for next year's holidays in the sun.

The film lacks the weight and authority of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth, but makes up for this with passion and a wry humour. Shots from a battle between climate change protestors and NIMBY wind farm opposers in Bedfordshire were telling and also relevant to issues in the villages around Darlington.

One part of the film I was uncomfortable with was the portrayal of a young Indian entrepreneur who was setting up India's first budget airline, as the film's anti-hero. Quite unnecessarily, and done simply to try to portray the guy in a bad light, the film showed him shouting at a couple of his employees. The problem here is how we in the developed world, who have produced, and continue to produce, most of the greenhouse gases which are causing this problem, can cast this Indian businessman as the bad guy when all he's trying to do is provide his countrymen with the same service the developed world has been enjoying for many years. There was no mention made of the Labour Government's decision to build another runway at Heathrow!

Much as this film was successful in bringing its doomsday message to its audience, for as long as Jo Bloggs sees millions of others buying fast cars, jetting off on holidays and weekend breaks and buying food flown in from the other side of the globe, it is not reasonable to expect him to change his own behaviour. The "why should I bother when no-one else does" attitude will be impossible to break down, maybe until it's too late.

That's why, while those of us who care about this can each do our bit by changing our individual behaviour, and while Governments can impose macro solutions by investing in greener methods of energy production, the only way we will alter the behaviour of billions of individual people across the globe, which is what this film aims to do, is not by exhortation but by hitting us where it hurts: in our pockets. Green taxes, progressively and increasingly penalising those activities which contribute to climate change, will force people to alter their behaviour, especially if Jo Bloggs can see that it's being fair to everyone.

And now comes the party political bit:

The Lib Dems' taxation proposals published earlier this week include green taxes aimed at air travel. It's a start, at least. And it is the Lib Dems who lead the way in other aspects of the fight against climate change, as I'm sure you'll all want to read here.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009


The big news of the day, judging by his appearances on national radio last night and this morning, is that Darlington has appointed the country's first "Twitterer-in-residence". Mike McTimony, a frequent contributor to this blog's comments' section and a leading light in the town's cycling fraternity, has been appointed to the £140 a year position.

No doubt the usual suspects will line up to mock this appointment, but I think it's great. The power of this sort of communication was seen recently when a huge campaign was generated in a matter of hours against the Daily Mail after its columnist Jan Moir made disparaging remarks about Stephen Gately's lifestyle soon after his death a couple of months ago.

What will Mike tweet about? Will there be any more news along the lines of "Darlington town centre was fairly full today, despite the rain", which had my favourite news presenter, Peter Allen on 5Live, in stitches yesterday? How will Mike maintain a political balance, or will he even bother with politics? Sadly, since I have so far failed to master this thing, having tried unsuccessfully to work out how to follow David "Bumble" Lloyd during this summer's Ashes series, I may never know.

By the way, if you're interested in all this sort of stuff, try logging on here. It's a fun, interactive website about Darlington and well worth shoving into your favourites list.