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.


james said...

Your post on the issue of alcohol misuse made clear the institutional blocks facing effective action, but what more can be done practically?

That's what I found so strange about the question and answer session in the full meeting of council. I don't recall it being an argument about policy.

Mike Barker said...

Hi James,

The dispute in Council wasn't about policy (many of them aren't, actually!). It was about Bill's direct contradiction in the press of all published research and of the views of the local PCT and the head of Balance, the alcohol action office located in Darlington.

The leadership of the Labour Group find it difficult to admit there are problems in the town. Indeed, I understand from my sources within the Labour Group that Bill's attack on me in Council for daring to point out that this is a problem area also happens within Labour Group meetings, where any suggestion from Labour Councillors that there are problem areas or that action may be needed to tackle some particular problem is routinely met by the leadership with accusations that the Councillor is "talking down" Darlington.

The Labour Group is ruled with a rod of iron, and no suggestion of any problems or concerns is allowed to be uttered in public (and, it seems, not even in private).

The policy currently being pursued by the Council and its partners to deal with the scourge of under-age drunkenness may or may not have the desired effect. But if the senior councillor responsible for implementing the Council's responsibilities in this area refuses to admit that we have a problem, and in doing so undermines the people at the coal face doing the real work, it makes finding and implementing an effective solution so much harder.

Armchair Sceptic said...

I also noted at the Council Meeting that Dixon (not of Dock Green, clearly) used one named source to justify his (weak) argument. Yet another dodgy dossier, a Labour speciality.

Dixon's unwillingness to admit that there is a big, big problem of underaged drunkenness suggests that he is not taking the problem seriously. Which may lead to it worsening if he has indeed undermined the professionals who are trying to tackle it.

Mike Barker said...

Hi A.S.

The named source was Claire Sullivan, Consultant in Public Health, the author of this paper:

I refer you to paragraph 3.

Now, I couldn't possibly suggest that Bill just made it up on the spur of the moment and that he actually hadn't spoken to Claire Sullivan about it, that just wouldn't be an acceptable thing to say about a fellow councillor, but I found it strange that he had no figures to back up his assertion that Darlngton was no worse than anywhere else: which is certainly not what Ms Sullivan's report says.

Bill also said he had cleared his statement with the head of Balance before he made it. I wonder how the conversation went:

"Hi Colin, it's Bill Dixon here. Look bonnie lad, I'm going to go in the Echo tomorrow and specifically deny your assertion that Darlington has a particular problem with under age drinking and hospital admissions. Is that ok?"

"Why that's no problem, Bill, you're the boss. Respect! You tell 'em what you like. I'll just try and pick up the pieces afterwards."

Yeh, right.

james said...

Mike: The phrase "ruled with a rod of iron" conjours up some pretty lurid images... From what I could understand of the argument, you said it was getting worse, he said it was getting better. But seriously, what practically can be done to reduce alcohol misuse amongst young people? Does it even matter? Is this just theatre?

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes....

James. Alcohol misuse amongst young people is a very serious problem. Not only are they damaging their health they are also damaging their education and chances of finding and keeping a job. It also affects their families. Alcohol misuse doesn't just stop it carries on into adulthood.

There was a study I forget where which gave statistics on the number of young people in Darlington who come into schools with hangovers after the effects of alcohol misuse and imagine trying to teach young people with hangovers.

It also costs us the taxpayers through hospital admittance and treatment for alcohol abuse. Again treatment is long term.

There is also a cost to the taxpayers in cleaning up the mess they leave behind them. The guys from Streetscene who are called out at the weekend are paid time and a half for Saturday working and double time for cleaning up the mess on Sundays. You could also include in there the cost of CCTV and CCTV monitoring station people who watch this happening and alter the police.

There are costs to the police as well who are called out to deal with the incidents and may have to divert from another incident.

When Springfield Park children's play area was trashed a few weeks ago - broken glass right the way across the play area. You can also factor in the loss of amenity for the children and their parents who use the play area which had to be taken out of use and the effects on the community of such incidents which can be very demoralising.

So yes it does matter. It isn't theatre. The new administration which will take control of Darlington Borough Council in 2011 will have to address this issue and come up with workable solutions.

james said...

I am well aware of the problem, Alan. But what are the "workable solutions"?

This is the question that people would be interested to know the answer to...

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes......

Apologies James I didn't mean to suggest that you were not aware of the problem.

The police ran a very successful project on a Friday evening in Branksome called the West Side Project which resulted in a considerable reduction in anti social behaviour among young people. Unfortunately the project had to be stopped because funding ran out. I am not saying this is the answer, but it may be and the ideas which the police have should be taken on board.

The issues are very complex. The agencies - police, youth service etc who have to deal with the consequences are battling against a culture where some young people think that a good time equates to getting drunk coupled with the fact that there parents in this Borough who do not care what their young people are up to on a weekend evening.

I stood in Harrowgate Hill ward at the last local elections where young people were on the streets at night. They were not drinking alcohol, nor getting into mischief. The Lib Dem candidates in the ward asked the young people to complete a questinnaire which asked them what they would like to see in the ward to stop them hanging around the cold and wet street corners.

We had an excellent response. The majority of young people did not want to be on the streets. They said that they were on the streets because everything was closed to them on a Friday evening which is true. They wanted somewhere to go at night with a roof over their heads where they could meet their mates and play the games they wanted to play and not be too regimented. They viewed the youth club as like going back to school and they did not want that.

I think we need to engage better with the young people to try to find out what they want.

Mike Barker and I went out on patrol with the police one Friday evening. We viewed a successful rave which was keeping young people off the streets where no alcohol was served and it finished at 9.30 p.m. when they went home too exhausted to do anything else I suppose. I am not saying this is the answer, but it could be part of it.

We also viewed young people being taken into the police office who were caught drinking alcohol and the work being carried out by the police and the youth service to try to prevent this happening.

There is no quick fix to this, but there is a need for solutions to be found and yes let's widen the search for answers and learn from other authorities who have successful projects to keep young people safe and healthy.

james said...

Have these observations been made to Cllr Dixon?

I understand that the police in Darlington have carried out similar surveys and the same theme was uncovered.

A focus on policies rather than personalities is what engages people.

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes....

James. I seem to recall the evidence from Harrowgate Hill were made at a residents meeting which discussed anti social behaviour in that ward about three years ago.

Mike has blogged about our patrols with the police. I have added here my experiences which were similar to Mike's.

james said...

Would minimum pricing make an impact?

"An influential committee of MPs will next month urge the government to bring in a minimum price for alcohol in an attempt to reduce drink-related deaths, injuries and accidents.

"The move, by the House of Commons health select committee, will reopen the debate around a measure which the BMA and the chief medical officer support but the prime minister, Gordon Brown, opposes. Imposing a minimum price of 50p a unit of alcohol wherever it is sold could save 3,000 lives a year, curb binge drinking and make drink harder to obtain for those on lower incomes, the MPs say."

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes....

Minimum pricing might be a positive step and part of the action to reduce underage drinking.

I hate to sound negative, because I am not negative, but no matter how hard the police and council work to curb this problem and they are working very hard young people will still obtain alcohol. Could a black market selling cheap alcohol arise if there is minimum pricing? I don't know.

There has to be a whole host of measures introduced at the same time as minimum pricing if that is the route to follow.