Friday, 23 July 2010

On BBC Radio Tees again

At 7.15 this morning I was on the John Foster morning programme on BBC Radio Tees talking about the Special Cabinet meeting to be held next week. Cabinet will be considering proposed cuts of £2.6million: the first tranche towards the eventual expected target of £22million of cuts.

Should you be so moved, you can listen again here. Go forward to 1 hour 11m 30s.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Cockerton West by-election result

Today's Darlington Borough Council Cockerton West by-election, caused by the election of a former Labour Councillor to be our new MP, resulted in a hold for Labour, though a spirited Lib Dem showing squeezed the Conservative vote right down and produced a much closer result than most people expected.

The result, with the 2007 result in brackets:

Labour 388; 45% (515; 41%),
Lib Dem 347; 40% (263; 21%),
Cons 84; 10%
(308; 25%),
BNP 41; 5% (167; 13%).

The turnout was just 29%.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Heads show common sense

The Northern Echo's report on the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future includes case studies where local head teachers give their views. Longfield's Head, Keith Cotgrave, expresses his disappointment but insists that the work which has already gone into the bid will not be wasted. He makes the point that what is most important is what happens inside the school, with which he is very happy. A headteacher from Bishop Auckland makes a similar point.

Contrast this with the near-hysterical views of Darlington's Cabinet member for Young People: "A devastating, short-sighted, knee-jerk reaction. The long-term impact on education, community cohesion and the economy will haunt this Government for years to come." Oh, purleese. Calm down dear.

Much as I regret that Darlington will not be receiving the money it was hoping for to renovate three local schools, the crocodile tears being shed over this by some local Labour politicians somehow fail to move me.

The Labour Government left a huge black hole in our public finances: they simply did not have the funds to honour their school building spending pledges. By falsely raising the hopes of local children and parents by promising them new school buildings which they had no hope of providing, the Labour Party has shown us why they deserve their place in the political wilderness.

The Government's Building Schools for the Future programme was bureaucratic and wasteful. It was characterised by massive overspends, lengthy delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy: funnily enough, an accurate description of some of our local Labour Council's favourite projects!

Local Labour politicians complain about “not getting the money we were promised.” Yet we now know that this BSF money to Darlington was not promised, no contracts had been signed and the money simply wasn’t there.

The Labour government committed itself to spending money it did not have. Making unfunded spending promises and raising false hopes was dishonest and cynical. We now have a Coalition Government which is prepared to be open and honest about the difficulties we face and is prepared to do something about them.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Save the Forum campaign "extraordinary"

The power of an internet-based campaign! In just four days, the "Save the Forum" Facebook campaign has attracted just short of 2500 members while the editor of the Northern Echo has just tweeted that they have never had so many letters from the public on any issue. He's clearing a whole page in tomorrow's paper. "Extraordinary!" says Peter Barron, the editor.

With a huge town hall rally planned for next Tuesday evening before Cabinet meets, I imagine those responsible for declining a request for an £80,000 loan from the owner of the Forum to enable it to be turned into a community business might be regretting their original decision. Dave Cox isn't asking for a grant; he isn't asking for a loan on the back of which he hopes to make a profit, he's asking for an unsecured loan to enable the business to attract other funding so that it can be turned into a non-profit making social community enterprise.

The tide of opinion is definitely moving in support of the Forum. Will those at the top of the Council realise the extent of anger about this or will they plough on regardless? It would seem the latter. Deputy Council Leader Bill Dixon says it is "simply impossible" for the Council to make an unsecured loan to a loss-making business at a time when local government cuts are taking place.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Forum to close?

Within 24 hours, over 1600 mainly young people have joined the Facebook campaign to save the Forum music centre in Darlington. I only found out about this this afternoon and am not yet fully aware of the exact details of the financial reasons for its impending closure, though the blame is being laid squarely on the shoulders of the Council for deciding to withdraw financial support.
I cannot recall seeing any documents about this, but I'm sure, if such a decision has been made, there will have been a full and open democratic airing of the matter. After all, as well as the jobs of the staff and the owner, any decision which leads to the closure of such a venue will have a direct effect on many hundreds, if not thousands, of young people across the Borough. I've written to the Chief Executive asking her to point me in the direction of
the papers referring to this matter.

In the event that there has no democratic discussion, and I didn't just miss it, I have asked that councillors be provided with a full briefing as soon as possible.

I've been to the Forum a few times. It's a unique music venue which offers something quite unusual for Darlington: somewhere that young people seem happy to call their own. Events here attract much more support than the same things would at the Arts Centre, because at the Forum kids can relax and take ownership of the place. The Arts Centre, for all its great facilities and breadth of events, remains a Council-owned facility and, as such, is less inviting to a Forum audience.

The loss of such a facility in the heart of what the Council hopes will become our Cultural Quarter will be a severe blow to the hundreds of people who use the place, not to mention the owner and his staff. If no way can be found for the Council to support this music venue Darlington will be a lesser place. On the face of it, the sums required do not seem excessive in view of the return our community receives from it.

Many hundreds of young people in the town are going to learn more about real politics over the next few weeks than they will in years of classes at school. They're already learning how to lobby their MP, who is acutely aware from her own experience of the role this place plays in many peoples' lives.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

I can support this.

Yesterday’s budget was necessary, tough but fair. I didn’t join the SDP/Alliance/Lib Dems to cut the benefits of people who need them, or to increase regressive taxation. I didn’t get into politics to impose a pay freeze on public sector workers.

But sadly we have no choice: the financial mess Labour got us into has to be cleaned up. If Labour were in government, they’d have had to make similarly tough choices - though would they have had the nerve? They already had £23bn of cuts lined up for the coming year, so perhaps fewer crocodile tears from some of our local Labour politicians are in order.

The Budget takes necessarily difficult decisions in an honest and fair way, with Liberal Democrat values clearly ameliorating the worst excesses of Conservative dogma.

Key Lib Dem policies I campaigned for are well to the fore in this budget.

The £1,000 increase in the Income Tax allowance will mean that 880,000 low paid workers will be freed from Income Tax altogether. This is the first step towards delivering our manifesto commitment to ensure no-one pays tax on the first £10,000 they earn - Labour wouldn't have given you this.

The Budget introduces our promise of a new tax on banks, ensuring that they help to pay to clear up the mess they created.

Top earners will pay a full 10% more in Capital Gains Tax, with no loopholes or tapers or get-out clauses. This helps ensure those with the broadest shoulders take the greatest strain. It’s not as much as we’d have liked, but it’s more than the Tories wanted.

The budget guarantees a fair deal for pensioners, putting into effect the Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment to a “triple lock”, so that state pensions rise every year in line with earnings, inflation, or by 2.5%, whichever is the highest. Never again will pensioners be allowed to fall behind - Labour had thirteen years and didn't give you this.

The Budget establishes a regional growth fund and regional national insurance support to help create new businesses and jobs right here in the north east.

Tackling child poverty is central to the government’s approach. So while we have decided to cut child tax credits for those who can most afford it, we have increased tax credits for the poorest families and put up to £2b extra into child tax credits to help ensure children from the poorest backgrounds get a fair start in life - Labour had thirteen years and failed to eradicate child poverty.

These measures will ensure that the burden of deficit reduction is shared fairly by everyone.

This Government is being honest with people about the road ahead. Of course there are things in the budget I don't like. There are things in there that Lib Dems campaigned against, like the VAT rise. But that’s because this is a coalition based on compromise which sees the party most people voted for mix policies with the Lib Dems. It’s how coalitions work.

The alternatives are worse. Labour would not have reformed the tax system nor tackled the culture of overspending in government.

I don't like cuts and extra taxes, who does? I don't like the VAT increase, not least because it will harm my business, competing with off-shore internet-based supplement companies.

But without the VAT increase, public services would have been truly decimated, or our spiralling and unsustainable debt interest payments would have continued.

The Coalition has been open and fair. We now all know where we stand. We have a realistic and credible plan to get Britain’s economy back on track.

A couple of tough years, with more tough choices to come, is something we will just have to grit our teeth and get on with. Rather this than the economic and financial meltdown Labour's policies were pushing us towards.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Appropriate use of Council money?

Yesterday, two glossy magazines landed on my doormat, possibly delivered together. One was the Council's Town Crier magazine, the other was an independent advertising glossy called "darlington TODAY" (sic). I don't remember seeing this magazine before, though this is issue 21. Maybe that's because I live in Central ward and the target market appears to be people who might send their kids to private school.

What do I find in "darlington TODAY", in amongst the articles and adverts for private schools, private health clubs, interior designers and hotels: seven and a half pages of adverts for Labour-controlled Darlington Borough Council!

All the usual stuff about what a great job Street Scene is doing and about what fun it is to cycle in Darlington nowadays (as a cyclist and a Council Tax payer, I hadn't noticed either of these assertions to be true).

Is this what our Labour Council thinks is an appropriate use of tax payers' money? Seven and a half pages of adverts in a glossy magazine aimed at the affluent parts of the town?

We have our Labour MP and Council Leader both appearing elsewhere in the media over the past few days wringing their hands about the impact on local government of the Coalition's plans to cut the deficit, and yet they go and waste our money advertising in magazines like this! Since when did local councils decide that an appropriate use of Council Tax payers' money was to fund expensive PR and advertising campaigns telling me how wonderful they are?

Friday, 11 June 2010

Strong line up for Cockerton West announced

The contest to replace Jenny Chapman MP as councillor for Cockerton West ward on Darlington Borough Council will be a four-way fight with the BNP putting up against the three main parties.

The Lib Dem candidate will be Cockerton West resident Brian Jefferson, former teacher at Branksome School, in the ward, and currently Chair of GOLD (Growing Older Living in Darlington). Brian is the only candidate who lives in the ward.

The Labour Candidate will be Jan Cossins, Chair of Cockerton East Community Partnership and shortlisted last year for one of the town's community service awards. The Conservatives will be represented by David Davies, former UKIP candidate and husband of Conservative Councillor Kate Davies. The BNP candidate is Paul Thompson (not the guy with the flooring business!).

A strong line up for only the second by-election since the 2007 local elections.

Friday, 4 June 2010

By-election called

Following the election of Cllr Jenny Chapman to be the new Labour MP for Darlington, a by-election has been called to fill the vacancy caused by her resignation as councillor for Cockerton West ward. The by-election will be held on July 8th.

This is only the second by-election to be held during the current four year term of this Council, which is now in its final year. It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, the existence of a Coalition Government will have on voter perceptions of both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.

The Liberal Democrats have already held a competitive selection to choose our candidate. Four local members applied to represent the Party, among them Cockerton West resident, former Conservative Councillor and Chair of Growing Old Living in Darlington, Brian Jefferson. The selection sub-committee has made its recommendation to the Executive Committee and an announcement about who is our candidate will be made shortly.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Merrick + Headline = Scare

The Northern Echo's front page headline and story today about reductions in local police budgets is journalism at its most sensational. Despite "Durham Police Authority promising that its front-line service will be protected" the eye-grabbing headline reads "Budget cuts will hit police numbers", which is quite clearly not what the article below says.

North Yorkshire Police say there will be no effect on front-line staff. Durahm Police say there will be no effect on front-line staff. Cleveland Police say there "could" be an effect though they will "try not to affect the service to the public".

Yet we have a scare-mongering headline clearly designed to suggest that the numbers of police on the beat where you live will be cut. And the Leader inside repeats fears about a decline in community policing.

Nowhere in the article does it mention the deficit and the desperate need for the new Government to take action to reduce this - to avoid our country following Greece into economic and financial meltdown. Nowhere in the article does it say that the actions being taken by the Coalition have been necessary because of the grotesque way in which the Labour Government ramped up the deficit in order to buy votes.

The result in Thirsk and Malton, showing a sizeable swing from Labour to both the Coalition parties, shows that the electorate are not stupid. They realise the Labour Government got us into this mess and the Coalition has to take firm action to get us out of it. By allowing Rob Merrick free reign to write scare stories about Coalition policies is out of tune with public opinion and is, frankly, poor journalism.

Monday, 24 May 2010

OK to wear England Football shirts

Following a typically baseless story in The Sun a couple of weeks ago that a local authority in London was advising pubs to ban football supporters wearing England shirts during the World Cup, reports have been coming in to councillors in Darlington of people on the street being threatened with a £30 fine for wearing an England shirt in public, and of a pub being told by the local police that they were banned from displaying an England flag.

Durham Constabulary have this morning issued a statement which says that football shirts will not be banned and nor will England flags. Well, that's cleared that one up then. We now have official permission to wear whatever shirt we like, though personally I'd like to know whether this extends to wearing a Reading shirt on High Row.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Blink and you'll miss them

Two small sentences caught my eye in the new Coalition Programme for Government which will be of interest in Darlington.

In amongst all the grand plans we see this:

"We will allow councils to return to the committee system, should they wish to."

and this:

"We will impose tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers."

There is no doubt many local councillors, particularly among the Conservative ranks, view the Leader-Cabinet-Scrutiny model as far too centralised and undemocratic and many of them pine for the days when a vote in Committee or in Council actually meant something.
Could be an interesting debate if power changes hands next May. Would the local Tories actually propose the tearing down of the Cabinet system if they get their hands on a bit of its power?

Personally, I don't have a big problem with the Leader-Cabinet model. What does annoy me is the lack of information and lack of consultation which comes from some departments within the Council. Ward councillors from all parties complain about officers not keeping them informed about things which are happening in their ward and not consulting them about proposals for their ward.

It's all very well promoting ward councillors as "local champions" but in some Council departments in Darlington there is a culture of "officers know best" or "it'll make our lives a lot easier if we don't tell the ward councillors about this." This is particularly galling when many of these officers do not and never will choose to live here. For them, Darlington is just the next step on their rise up the local government ladder. They think they know best because their professional rule book tells them what to do.

It doesn't always work like that on the ground, as they sometimes find to their cost. Involving ward councillors throughout would help avoid the time consuming, costly and undemocratic mistakes which are sometimes made.

I haven't seen any comment from Peter Barron, the editor of the Northern Echo, about the second quote. He has been engaged in a long-running campaign against the unfair, as he sees it, competition for advertising revenue presented by the Council's colourful monthly Town Crier (or Town Liar) magazine.

What these "tougher rules" will be is not spelt out, but I would expect there to be widespread support for this measure from everywhere outside the ruling Labour Group.

Update: Peter Barron either reads this blog or he's got enough time on his hands to read the coalition's programme - or both. About an hour after I published this, he has blogged about it. Read Peter's on-line blog

Annual Council and Mayor Making

Last night was Darlington's Mayor Making ceremony in the Town Hall. Definitely one of the high points of the year with abundant good will and civic pride.

The outgoing Mayor, liberal-minded Conservative Jim Ruck, has been a popular and successful mayor, carrying out his civic duties, as was said by his sponsor, with a beam on his face.

The incoming mayor is chosen strictly by seniority defined by the number of years spent on the Council (and, amongst those elected in the same year, by lots drawn at the first Council Meeting after their election). For the coming year, the Mayor will be Councillor Bryan Thistlethwaite.

Bryan is a Labour Councillor who has represented Cockerton East (a Conservative target ward, so it's lucky for him that he crept in this year!) for 19 years. I don't know Bryan at all, but apparently he was a skilled engineer with BT. The delight and pride on his face and those of his family members was plain to see. He took the Chair with confidence, as might be expected of someone raised in the trade union movement.

I'm sure he will enjoy his year. In case you were wondering, following the North Road by-election, I have risen from 53rd and last to 52nd in terms of seniority. I don't expect the chains of office will ever hang around my shoulders!

One interesting by-product of yesterday's ceremony: at the reception afterwards, senior Labour Councillors took it in turns to bend the ear of one of my ex-Labour Lib Dem colleagues, telling him he'd always be welcome back in the Labour Party, now that we are in coalition with the Conservatives. They got nowhere, of course.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Regional offices to be downgraded

Next week I expect the Government to announce a major reorganisation of One North East, Government Office North East and the Homes and Communities Agency. I understand that significant numbers of staff employed by these organisations are to lose their jobs, perhaps following the merger of their responsibilities.

£57m BSF money frozen

One of the themes of my General Election campaign here in Darlington - a campaign, by the way, which produced an increase in our vote from 7,000 to 10,000 (23.4%), against the general trend elsewhere - was that voting Conservative and getting a Conservative Government would lead to the withdrawal of our promised £57m Building Schools for the Future money for the rebuilding or renovation of Longfield, Hurworth and Branksome schools.

Although many cherished Lib Dem policies have made it into the Coalition's platform, on education it seems to me that the Conservatives, with their plans for "free schools", hostility to the BSF programme and continued support for University tuition fees, have taken the lead. The Guardian reported yesterday that the Building Schools for the Future programme has been frozen pending review.

I could not support this policy if, indeed, the Coalition Government decided to withdraw this funding. We would effectively have a two-tier school system in the town, at least in terms of bricks and mortar. We know that the education provided by these schools is good and that buildings do not a school make, but with parents across the town seeing some pupils learning in bright new well-equipped classrooms with the most up-to-date equipment, while others struggle on in a range of outdated and temporary accommodation, it will certainly seem to parents that some pupils have a built-in advantage.

No doubt our new MP is making our case. I have written to both Sarah Teather and David Laws urging them to use their best endeavours to ensure that projects already in the pipeline are allowed to complete their course.

Friday, 30 April 2010

The Darlington Debate

A couple of clips from last night's Darlington Parliamentary Candidates' hustings are now on the Echo's website: including my put down of the Conservative candidate, who seemed to be saying that the Hunting Act should be repealed because it was badly drawn up and had taken a long time to go through Parliament.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Support from ex-Labour Party member

I have been sent a copy of a resignation letter to the Labour Party by one of its long-term members in Darlington. In his letter, this gentleman remembers the vibrant, exciting times when he campaigned to help get Alan Milburn elected as the town's MP.

I will not detail his reasons for quitting here because some of them are personal and relate to his treatment by the local labour Party, but he ends his letter:

"Some of our Councillors give me the impression, being councillors, as if they have touched the sky, achieved the ultimate, though not all. Mike Barker, Lib Dem, he is very down to earth and a popular councillor, many Darlingtonians log on to his blog.

"I feel I should vote for Mike Barker and not for Jenny, because he is mature, level-headed, polite and courteous, he puts forward his arguments very cogently and above all he is a successful businessman who understands the problems of local businessmen and traders, their concerns and issues related to the town's economy and jobs: what has Jenny to offer to them?"

Thursday, 22 April 2010

GP surgery full

I understand from a phone call from the daughter of an elderly couple, that their local GP practice in town cannot take them as new patients, even though they only live a couple of minutes walk away, because "priority is given to people who live on the other side of town."

I'm writing to the PCT about their policy for admittance on to GP lists, the apparent inadequate supply of GP services in our town and their proposals to improve matters so that elderly people can be guaranteed a place on a local GP list.

I'm sure "people on the other side of town" do not enjoy the hassle of having to travel across town to see a GP either. Despite all the money the Labour Government has been pumping into the NHS, it seems that the legions of health service managers who have been appointed can't even ensure that elderly people can see a GP near where they live.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Today's Echo full of Lib Dems

Today's edition of the Northern Echo is full of stories about or including the Lib Dems, including the results of a regional poll conducted largely before last week's Leaders' Debate which, even then, showed Durham City falling to us. Now I think they'd have to add at least three more seats to that one.

There is also an article, complete with an artistic photo of me on my knees, about vandalism in West Cemetery. This is a most upsetting story which has been dragging on with no effective solution from the Council or the police. Here is the article from today's on-line version of the Echo: definitely the paper to read for daily local coverage of the General Election:

More vandalism attacks at Darlington cemetery

A GENERAL election candidate has called for more to be done to tackle vandalism and theft at a
Darlington graveyard after another spate of incidents.
Liberal Democrat Mike Barker said Darlington Borough Council and the police have failed to protect the graves at West Cemetery despite repeated complaints from grieving relatives.
Graves have been vandalised, flowers and mementos have been taken and a headstone was even stolen since the trouble began a number of years ago.
A Facebook group calling for CCTV to be installed at the site has attracted more than 8,000 members, but the council claims the equipment would not work.

Mr Barker said he has received complaints from people who had their relatives graves targeted over Easter. "Every week it seems that memorials are damaged, flowers, flower baskets and other mementoes stolen", he said. "Over Easter, lights, flowers, pots, baskets and soft toys have all been stolen. Relatives of people buried in West Cemetery are angry at the apparent unwillingness or inability of both the police and the council to protect their loved-ones graves.
Despite meetings with council staff and the police, no action has been taken by the authorities to deal with this."

Mr Barker said he will arrange a meeting with the cemetery manager to discuss what action can be taken to stop the problems. He added that people are considering getting in touch with the private security firm
Sparta Security to police the site.

Rachel Francis has a number of relatives buried at the site. She said she plans to send out a newsletter to ask people who have had their loved ones graves damaged to get in touch.
"There has been a number of incidents and memorial stones have been damaged quite badly, she said. On a weekly basis property is stolen from graves up there.
When we were up there the other day an old lady came over and told us she has had things stolen from her grand-daughters grave. It can not go on."

A spokeswoman for the council said: The council works closely with the police and families and has met with them to discuss these issues.
Where an increase in vandalism or thefts has occurred, the police have stepped up their patrols. The council has also painted the cemetery walls with anti-vandalism paint and has erected warning signs. The installation of CCTV cameras has been discussed as an option but is not seen as a practical or effective deterrent to the problem.
It is always distressing when any amount of vandalism or theft occurs at the grave of a loved one and we are keen to work with families and the police to stamp out what is one of the most insensitive forms of crime.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Labour resorting to "vote yellow get blue" scare in Darlington

Labour in Darlington are panicking.

I've just had a phone call from a life-long Labour voter saying three Labour canvassers, including someone called "Jennifer, I think", and she thought one of the others was the MP (but surely they wouldn't let him loose on the electorate would they?) had been browbeating her saying if she switched to voting Lib Dem it would just let the Conservatives win.

She's voting for us anyway. She didn't like their attitude. Nor do I, though it's entirely to be expected. A bland campaign based on telling voters their candidate is from Darlington and steering clear of policy or performance, is unravelling and they have nothing to fall back on than scare stories.

As I told this lady - and as I'll tell her when I go and see her this evening - if you vote Lib Dem you get a Lib Dem MP.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

It's not just on the doorstep...

Peter Barron, the highly respected editor of the Northern Echo has tweeted this evening:

"Lost count of the number of people who've said to me that they're going to vote Lib Dem in the past couple of days. Getting interesting."

It certainly is, Peter.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Oh dear...blushing Tories

Living in Darlington and wondering why you haven't had a leaflet from the Conservatives since the election was called? Wonder no more.

Following so soon after Darlington's Conservative candidate delivered thousands of pre-election leaflets to villages in the Sedgefield Constituency, my spies in the Darlington Royal Mail office tell me the Tories have now had to bin thousands more leaflets destined for a Royal Mail free delivery because they spelt Conservative "Conervative"!!!

A reprint has been ordered, but their leaflet campaign has been badly delayed.

Would you trust this lot to run the country? They couldn't organise a wotsit in a brewery.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Street Scene and North Park

When we come to prepare our manifesto for next year's local elections in Darlington, I shall be pressing for that document to include a promise of radical changes to Street Scene for major improvements in its performance.

Here is one local resident's view of the mess that is commonly known as Street Scene in Darlington:

"(Despite their claims) the Council do NOT litter pick in North Park four times a week - they may pick up the litter from the playground area but they certainly do not do the rest of the park because I can take photos to show the same bits of litter in the same place for weeks on end.

(Despite their claims) the Council do NOT empty the litter or dog-poo bins twice a week.

The Council have not yet contacted me to arrange any kind of meeting on site - and I do not believe they will, because in my opinion they do not like confrontation. [Quite a lot of residents have said the same thing, "They want to just go on behaving in exactly the same way as they always have - acting with a complete disregard for anyone else's opinions or thoughts, making illogical decisions, ignoring the fact they do not have qualified/competent higher level managers and far too many "under-managers" thereby leaving insufficient money to pay people to do the actual physical work". There appears to be about 7 layers of management before the person-on-the-ground who is actually delivering the services to the residents.]

"After over a year of my living here and the park being kept really nicely, the Council in its wisdom introduced Street Scene in 2006, which is when I started reporting incidents. This system has never worked properly throughout the entire Borough - ask any member of the public and they will say the same thing, "Since they brought this in the area is nowhere near as clean as it used to be".

"Prior to Street Scene each man had his own job, did it well and was justifiably proud of it. Now they're all just "told what to do and where to go" and they have no sense of "a job well done" at the end of their day. There were (I believe a lot have now resigned) qualified gardeners looking after all the glorious flower beds etc throughout the Borough - they now have to pick litter or dig graves or do whatever else one of their innumerable managers tells them they have to do. There were men who were quite content to keep our streets clean of litter but who now find themselves planting trees - I have been assured that all the men are "horticulturally trained" - well perhaps they were trained, but one day of training does not a gardener make!!!! And even if they had as much as one day's training, that doesn't mean that three months later they have remembered what they were taught!

"The emptying of the bins got so erratic that I even resorted to sending one of the managers a map of the park - having marked on it where all the bins were (because there were always several bins left unemptied, which consequently overflowed within a few days).

"The Council wastes thousands of pounds each year because men are not doing a particular job properly - e.g. last year planting ten baby trees and 20 shrubs in the park. Anyone who knows anything about gardening knows you dig a hole a couple of inches bigger than the pot a tree/shrub comes in, you put feed into that hole, you water the root ball before placing in the hole, when the hole is filled in the tree gets a thorough watering. None of that happened. All the soil was shaken off the roots and they were planted in approximately 3" of soil and were not watered in. Hence the 10 year olds came along and within a few "wiggles" found themselves like Britain's Strongest Man because they could fell a tree with their bare hands!

"Needless to say this proved great entertainment and so they went round demolishing the rest. Annoyingly this behaviour was seen by adults who said and did nothing! What few shrubs are left standing are actually dead, through neglect! So the amount of money spent on either buying in, or growing (not to mention a whole year's growing season) has been wasted. The Council also wastes hundreds of thousands of pounds paying for too many layers of management which are not fit for purpose."

As Liberal Democrat ward councillors we have been saying for four years that the decision to turn skilled workers into generalists, together with the introduction of a top-heavy, technology-dependent management structure, has ruined this service.

The litter and mess both in the town centre where I live and work and in many of the streets I've been canvassing over the past week are unacceptable. The problem lies not with the men who do the work: it lies with the politicians who endorsed the introduction of the generalist culture and who have pared the service down to the bare bones.

One week down, three to go

Little time for updating this blog: there's an election on, you know: thousands of leaflets to deliver and doors to knock on, over 200 emails, and growing hourly, from voters and pressure groups to reply to (not to mention Churches Together's list of 58 questions!). However, a few highlights from our first week of full-on canvassing:

knocking on the door of an elderly lady who helped run the Chester-le-Street and Berwick by-elections many years ago; a former councillor and election agent for the Liberal Party (now I know the simple trick that won Alan Beith that election!);

the higher than usual number of people who claim to be undecided at the moment;

canvassing a lady who was still upset that I sold my veggie restaurant twenty years ago (I promised her the soups we make in my shop kitchens are to the same recipes);

one of our excellent sixth form students who spent twenty minutes diligently making notes to help a lady with a casework problem;

the number of people in one particular hitherto solid Labour ward who said they hadn't seen the Labour Party in years.

Sunday, 11 April 2010


Spotted in a disabled parking bay. Well, it is the one nearest the road, so all the passers-by will get to admire his posters.

Need to get a yellow hat

Why do I always forget, after all these years, that I need to wear a hat the first day the sun shines each year? Sadly, I'm not convinced my long-serving blue floppy Durham County Cricket Club hat (with the built-in headphones to receive Test Match Special) is quite what the good people of Darlington expect to see on their Lib Dem candidate standing on their doorstep.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Urgent Ward Meeting

On Thursday afternoon the three Lib Dem North Road ward councillors held an urgent meeting with officers from Darlington Children's Services Department concerning industrial contamination on the site of the new Northwood School playing fields in our ward.

We only very recently discovered that a problem existed when, on a ward walkabout, we noticed that the level of the new school playing fields being constructed on the site of the old North Road School was considerably higher than the surrounding area. We asked the site supervisor about this and were told it was to seal in chemical waste which had been found on the site.

We requested an urgent meeting with Children's Services. Having listened to their explanation we are re-assured that the contaminated soil has been dealt with in accordance with the requirements of the Environmental Health Department, though we are not happy that, as elected ward councillors charged with representing the interests of our constituents, we only discovered this from workmen on the site.

We have asked to be provided with a full analysis of the contamination on the site, since we were not provided with this during our meeting. At the time of writing, this has not been provided.

It seems that there is contamination of the soil on the site of the new school over the road, at "fairly low levels". This has been dealt with by capping with a layer of topsoil.
However, unexpectedly, it was discovered during the demolition of the old school to make way for the new playing fields, that there was contamination on that site of up to 100 times the levels found across the road. These levels of chemicals, including dioxines, were found to be at levels which are potentially harmful to human health.
It seems most likely that, when the school was built in 1906, waste from slag heaps was used as a foundation for the buildings. Since then it has been safely sealed in beneath the school buildings and tarmac playgrounds. Officers stress that, because the contamination was sealed in beneath concrete and tarmac, there has been no risk to peoples' health.

The cost of removing and disposing of the huge amount of contaminated soil could have run up to £780,000! Careful analysis and consultation with the Environment Agency, Sport England and the Environmental Health Department was undertaken and a more cost-effective method of dealing with the problem was agreed.

The contaminated soil has been left in place. Then a geotextile membrane has been laid, on top of which is laid a thick layer of crushed stone. Then another geotextile membrane will be laid before the whole lot is covered with a thick layer of topsoil. All the agencies concerned are confident that these measures will seal the contaminants.

As ward councillors we believe we should have been informed about this as soon as the problem was discovered. After all, it can only be a matter of time before a parent asks why the playing fields are several feet higher than the surrounding area - just like we did.

Officers are content that this information may be made public. We have been assured that we will be kept informed about any future developments and officers have admitted that they have learnt from this episode that, in future during development projects, ward councillors will be kept in the loop at all times, especially where problems arise that directly affect their constituents.

As Liberal Democrats we believe in openness and transparency. As ward councillors we believe it is our duty to ensure that officers keep us informed about things which affect local residents. We have decided, therefore, that this information should be made public.

Although, as far as the Council is aware, the slag heap waste was spread only over the site of North Road School, we have asked the Council to test samples of soil in the surroundings areas too.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

And your policies are...?

The Labour Party's candidate in Darlington has produced a leaflet showing her in a red dress alongside three grey silouettes with the headline: "Not all politicians are the same." No, that's true: some of us have radical policies for a fairer Britain while others think it's what colour dress you wear that counts.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Darlington Churches Together

Darlington Churches Together have sent me a lengthy document posing a wide range of moral and political questions, the answers to which will be published on-line for all to see.

This is an excellent initiative. Their preamble states, "We believe that our elected representative should be a man or woman of integrity, who is accessible and passionate about Darlington, whose judgment is shaped on the basis of principle not by the party whip, and who can be trusted to remain true to principle".

Presumably they didn't insist on this from Alan Milburn MP five years ago.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Actionable potholes

While not usually keen on directing you to Labour Councillors' blogs, if you haven't yet caught up with Ian Hazeldine's masterpiece of homespun philosphy, I urge you to read this post on potholes. From the first sentence to the last, it is truely a masterpiece of the genre.

Ian shows a healthy willingness to point up the absurdities of local and national government administration. Read and enjoy. Sadly, Ian's blog lacks one thing: a photo of him on his haunches pointing at said pothole.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Letter printed

I don't often venture onto the "Hear All Sides" page of the Northern Echo, but Gill Cartwright's letter last week claiming that the Lib Dems' perceived "silence" about BSF "speaks volumes" provoked me to put pen to paper.

My letter has been published today, and here it is in its original form, which is slightly different to the printed version, once the sub-editor got his hands on it:


I can assure Councillor Gill Cartwright that, unlike the Conservative Party, who are committed to slashing investment in new school buildings, the Liberal Democrat policy is for an extra £2.5 billion to be invested in our schools.

We will do this by cutting wasteful and unnecessary government programmes such as the proposed replacement of the Trident nuclear weapon system, the controversial ID cards scheme, the Eurofighter project, the Child Trust Fund and hugely-expensive Government IT schemes.

As I said at the recent Full Council meeting, although the Building Schools for the Future programme, like so many Labour schemes, is wasteful and bureaucratic, we fully supported the Council’s bid for £57m of BSF money to rebuild Hurworth, Longfield and Branksome. We won that money and we want that money for Darlington!

A Conservative Government would mean that pupils at those three schools – one of which is in Cllr Cartwright’s ward - will continue to be educated in outdated buildings that are no longer fit for purpose.

The Conservatives are, understandably, keeping quiet about the true nature of many of their policies. When they do let slip the truth, however, we see them in their true colours: tax cuts for their rich friends, chronic under-investment in our children’s futures and no commitment to closing the achievement gap between rich and poor children.

Yours sincerely
Cllr Mike Barker
Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for Darlington

Monday, 22 March 2010

Sticking out of the letterboxes in Park East...

Yet another Cashcroft glossy Tory leaflet hits the doormats in Darlington. From it I learn that I am "tainted by town hall politics," and have "not served my country with distinction." Strangely, Capt Legard completely fails to mention that he too is a local councillor, albeit in North Yorkshire.

His military career does, as usual, get extensive coverage. Capt Legard appears to believe that the only way one can serve is by joining the army.

The leaflet also uses a bar chart to illustrate an article about election results in Darlington. The problem is, though they don't actually tell us this, the bar chart shows the election result for the Euro elections last year for whole of the UK! What relevance is that to Darlington?

Oh, and "If you vote Yellow, you will get Brown." Actually, if you vote Yellow, you'll get ...ME!!!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Time for a name change?

Most people, including one of the Darlington Labour Party bloggers, think PACT in Darlington stands for Police and Communities Together, which, since PACT meetings are all about local residents meeting the police and agreeing priorities in their local ward or neighbourhood, would seem to be logical.

In fact, however, it stands for Partners and Communities Together (not Partnerships either, Nick!). This is, as one would expect from a Council which embraces local government jargon speak to a degree which borders on the obsessive, typically obscure. How many ordinary citizens know what "Partners" in this context means anyway?

So, always keen to be at the forefront of new ideas and proposals, I suggest that PACT from now on should stand for Police and Communities Together: logical, understandable and sensible. Ah, so that's why it won't change.

Friday, 19 March 2010

New kid on the block

Councillor Ian Haszeldine, the combative and respected Labour Councillor for Lingfield ward, former mayor and proud lifelong citizen of Darlington, has started a blog. It's called Lingfield Matters and promises to be a ward-based blog dealing with local community matters. Check it out.

Tory axe hangs over £57m BSF money

As I said in Full Council last night: Darlington's hard won £57m from the Building Schools for the Future programme has an axe hanging over it if the Conservatives win the next General Election. Unless final contracts have been signed by May 6th, the Conservatives have made it clear that these schemes cannot be guaranteed.

We know the Conservatives intend to divert money away from capital investment programmes in education to fund the surplus places it needs to kick start its free school movement. Now, through the Times Education Supplement, we hear from the Conservative Party's Shadow Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, that in the event of a Conservative Government being formed after the next General Election, the completion of new BSF schemes will only be guaranteed if "Financial Close" has been reached.

If the final contracts aren't signed by the time of the election, there is no guarantee that the Conservatives will honour the existing arrangements. Now, Darlington's acceptance into the most recent wave of BSF funding streams happened last November. I understand from officers, and it was confirmed in Council last night, that the time scale from there to final contracts being signed will typically be about one year, which clearly takes us past the date of the next General Election.

The BSF programme has been hugely bureaucratic and inefficient, but the fact remains that Darlington has succeeded in winning £57m from it - and we want that money. We have three schools in desperate need of rebuilding or renovation: Hurworth, Branksome and Longfield. Parents of children at, or soon to start at, one of these three schools should be aware that there is a Conservative axe hanging over theses plans. If they, quite understandably, want to show their opposition to what the Labour Government has been doing, but at the same time want to protect the redevelopment of these local schools, there is only one choice: they have to vote Liberal Democrat.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Cycling Campaign Meeting

This Friday night at 7.30 in the Media Centre at Darlington Arts Centre, the Darlington Cycling Campaign have an open meeting with leading cycling campaigner Karl McCracken as the guest speaker.

Go here for more details.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Chair of GOLD quits Tories, joins Lib Dems

Brian Jefferson, former Conservative Borough Councillor and currently Chair of GOLD (Growing Old, Living in Darlington) has quit the Conservative Party and joined the Liberal Democrats. He has pledged his support to me as the Lib Dem Parliamentary Candidate for Darlington.

Brian writes, "I decided to leave the Conservative Party because the local association imported a candidate to be the town's MP. I firmly believe that MPs should have lived in the town they seek to represent for at least two years before an election. Local needs can best be represented by a local person.

"Mike Barker meets that criteria. His local knowledge, backed by his business involvements, typifies those who, in the nineteenth century, built a thriving Darlington.

"Nationally I believe Nick Clegg has a superior support team who are not influenced by "big business" nor puppets of the trade unions. After long, careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that the Lib Dems would be good for Darlington and good for Great Britain."

Naturally, I am delighted to receive this endorsement from Brian. We are already working together in Cockerton West ward, where Brian lives. Brian has a deep knowledge of Darlington and is involved in many groups in the town, particularly GOLD. He is a well-known and well respected member of the community. He shares the Lib Dem commitment to grass-roots politics and will be a formidable member of our local team.

The Five Pound Note Bridge

Here's a view of the Five Pound Note Bridge, Darlington's iconic bridge over which Locomotion 1 travelled, a sketch of which appeared on one version of the £5 note, that you don't often see. No, not because I'm in the picture! It's because the archway to the left of the photo is usually bricked up, so it's normally a tortuous scramble to get to this point.

For my cycling readers, by the way, that's the arch through which the proposed cycle path running parallel to North Road right into the town centre will pass, if the Council ever manage to purchase a strip of land owned by Magnet, which is 100 metres further on downstream.

Fred and I were there because we'd been told that the wall across the archway had been removed and a temporary metal gate erected to replace the brick wall had been thrown into the river. And indeed it has. We have yet to find out why the wall was removed.

The main gas pumping station for the town is away to my left and two huge gas pipes cross the river at this point, while other smaller pipes carry the gas north and south along the riverside. You can hear the gas wooshing along the pipes.

This is a little corner of Darlington that most people don't see. Sadly, evidence of serious drug taking lies spread across the ground. It'll take a lot of effort to turn this stretch into a cycle path, but, if the money's there, it'll certainly be worth it.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

What's their excuse this time?

In today's Echo the Conservative agent in Darlington said the failure to include an imprint on the recently delivered Tory leaflet was a mistake made by the printer. So what's their excuse this time? The Advertiser has a wrap-around four page advert for the Tory candidate (Ashcroft's money being to put to good use, it seems). Yet again, there's no imprint. No "printed by...", no "published by...".

I wonder which laws of the realm I can get away with? Ah, no...I'm not a Conservative in Darlington, so I'm not above the law.

200 words not to use

Now you're talking my language! Wouldn't it be wonderful if Darlington Borough Council acted on the LGA's suggestion and ceased using these 200 words and started writing in plain English.

The ones I really hate are "Quick win", "Stakeholder", Sustainable Communities", "Third Sector", Step Change", Place Shaping", Funding Stream" and Benchmarking". No DBC report is considered complete without the use of at least two of these horrible words.

In fact, I believe, somewhere in the darkest recesses of the Town Hall, there's someone employed in an office lit only by a single unshaded light bulb whose job it is to ensure that no report leaves the building unless it does indeed contain a fair smattering of this nonsense jargon.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Now it's Labour's turn!

In the past couple of weeks in Darlington we've had local government officers using Council equipment and paper to produce a flyer promoting the Labour Party's General Election candidate to teachers at a training event, and we've had the Conservatives distributing - and continuing to distribute despite warning - an election leaflet for their candidate which doesn't contain a legal "Published by..." imprint.

Now Labour are at it again. The latest edition of the Little Red Rosette, Mark Burton's excellent community newsletter promoting himself as a Labour Councillor in Harrowgate Hill, carries a full page advertisement for Jenny Chapman, the Labour Candidate, plus two other pages devoted to an interview with her and another photo on the front page. Since the candidate took part in an interview for the purposes of this publication, she would have known that this was going to be distributed in Harrowgate Hill ward, as, presumably, did her agent.

Yet nowhere does a legal imprint appear. This is a Labour Party publication, advertising and promoting the election of a Labour Party candidate and, as such, the following rule applies:

"Election material must carry an imprint with details of the full name and full postal address of the printer and promoter of the material. The name and address of any person on whose behalf the material is being published must also be included if this person is not the promoter."

The requirement in the first sentence above is adhered to and the leaflet states that it has been published and promoted on behalf of Mark Burton. Yet, since a significant proportion of it promotes Jenny Chapman, by law her name and a contact address should also have been included.

Don't the Conservative or Labour Parties know electoral law, or are they so arrogant that they think it doesn't apply to them. I don't suppose any action will be taken against either party, but the law is there for a good reason, and even the Labour Party are not above it.

Hat tip: GC


Later this week we reveal which leading voluntary organisation activist and former Darlington Councillor has defected to the Lib Dems in support of me.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Stop it now.

My blogging colleage, Labour Councillor Nick Wallis, has called on the Tories to stop distributing their latest leaflet which carries a "Printed by..." but not a "Published by..." imprint. I suspect Nick is saying this tongue in cheek, but actually he's right. If there are thousands of these leaflets stacked up waiting to be delivered, the Conservatives must withdraw them immediately and destroy them. All literature during an election period in support of a candidate must carry details of its publisher (the candidate's agent) and the address at which he can be contacted.

If the Conservatives continue to distribute this leaflet from now onwards, having been alerted to their mistake, further action should be pursued by the Returning Officer.

On a related matter, I understand Durham Fraud Squad are to conduct an interview with a complainant concerning earlier allegations of electoral misconduct in the constituency.

Sloppy work Edward

The latest election leaflet from Edward Legard, the Conservative candidate for the Darlington constituency, arrived with the pizza menu leaflets on my doormat this evening. Sadly, for a party which got its nickers in such a twist when a flyer in support of Jenny Chapman, the Labour candidate, was distributed without an election imprint to teachers recently, this lastest effort from Capt Legard also does not include the necessary "Published by..." imprint.

Edward's agent, Charles Johnson, whose name should, according to election law, appear on this leaflet, has his photo on the leaflet - but no imprint. I trust prosecution will follow and in this case justice will be seen to be done. String 'im up, I say.

Interestingly, it appears from a Tweet from Peter Barron, editor of the Northern Echo, who lives in Hurworth, that this leaflet has been delivered in that fair village. I commend Charles' keenness to spread the Conservative message far and wide. Sadly, though, Hurworth lies in the Sedgefield Constituency. You just can't trust these pizza menu leafletters, Charles. Should have used your own members, like we do.

The leaflet doesn't shy away from tarring Jenny Chapman (or "Mr Milburn's former Personal Assistant" as Capt Legard calls her) with the Milburn brush. I know Jenny would love to point out in her leaflets that Capt Legard is an out-of-touch outsider - maybe this will provoke her to become just a little bit personal.

But the crowning point in the leaflet, for me, is the steady inching forward of Capt Legard's claim to be local. You'll remember I pointed out that, in his first leaflet, Edward said he was a "local Councillor", which is only true if you live in Malton. And in his second leaflet he was a "local Conservative", again, only true if you live in Rydale. Now, in his third leaflet, Edward says, " Ordinary people in Darlington, myself included..." Two points here: Edward, as the son of a baronet, hardly qualifies as an "ordinary person" and secondly, the one place he's not from is Darlington. The use of the word "included" is a subtle, though entirely illegitimate, attempt to cast him as a Darlingtonian.

Like I said, he'll be kipping on Charles' floor soon.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Visit to Stroke Unit

On Tuesday I paid a visit to the Acute Stroke Unit at Darlington Memorial Hospital. With its long-term future still in doubt, due to the need to meet Government targets of 24/7 acute stroke care across the country, which may lead Health Trusts to seek a concentration of services in regional centres, it was really good to be able to talk to the consultant and ward sister responsible for providing stroke care on the ward.

I'm assured active steps are being taken to recruit specialists to the unit, though there is, apparently, a shortage of stroke specialists across the country. The point was made that a stroke specialist would want to be able to concentrate his work in his specialism, which might mean seeking employment in a larger centre, rather than a small 8 bed unit like ours.

However, DMH does have a dedicated and well-trained nursing team, who moved en-bloc from Bishop Auckland when their acute centre closed, and also a strong research base, thanks to its senior consultant. So, perhaps we make up for in quality what we lack in size.

I had a press and public relations officer, a senior administrator, the consultant and sister all tied up looking after me, so I'd like to say thank you to them all for taking time out and being so helpful. It was a most interesting visit.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Pure co-incidence

I undertand there is absolutely no connection between the rare appearance in the town centre today of cleaners wielding high pressure hoses and the visit to the town tomorrow of John Denham, Secretary of State for Communities, Local Government and Chewing Gum Removal.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Interesting snippets

Following last week's Council Meeting to consider next year's budget for Darlington a couple of mildy interesting things happened.

First, down the Quaker, I discovered that the original proposed budget was not shown to or discussed within the Labour Group before it was published. It was the work solely of officers and the Cabinet. As an only slightly-the-worse-for-wear Labour councillor told me, "If we'd have known about the plans for the Early Years Inclusion Service it would never have got in the budget in the first place".

I suppose I should have realised this, but nevertheless it does show how closed and centralised Labour in Darlington is. Sadly, if those in power spend too long without effective criticism from within, they become detached from reality and lack understanding of what rest of us want. We saw that four years ago when the Labour Cabinet and senior officers wanted to foist a giant Tesco store on the town. Nothing much has changed it seems.

The second development followed a sentence in my speech where, as an aside, I suggested that Cabinet's plans for increased income when the recession ends would be put in jeopardy if the Conservatives won the General Election and George Osbourne's plans for immediate public sector cuts plunged us back in to recession.

At the Best of Darlington Awards the next evening, I sensed a slight frostiness from the senior Conservatives present. And then one of them said, "You stabbed us in the back last night, Mike".

Gosh, how exciting! I have to say, though, it will do the Lib Dems no harm at all to have a line in the sand drawn between ourselves and the Conservatives. We share a common opposition to the Labour Party, and may sometimes come together in Council to criticise Labour, but we are an independent political party with our own platform and approach to politics. We may be the smallest party in the Chamber, but we are not in anyone's pocket. Just as our support will have to be fought for at Westminster in the event of a hung Parliament, so locally we will continue to fight for what we believe in - which will often not necessarily be what the Conservatives believe in.

Damp squib?

Well, the Echo has published details of the Conservatives' complaint about the Council's conduct in apparently distributing literature in favour of the Labour Party's candidate at the forthcoming General Election.

While the Council is right to be investigating this seriously, it would appear to be an example of thoughtlessness by Council officers rather than a blatent attempt to promote Jenny Chapman's candidature. They should have known better and I trust the Borough Solicitor will be issuing guidance to officers on the correct approach to adopt to political matters in the future.

Sadly, the Echo did not use the best bit of the quote I gave them, "With so many Labour voters moving over to support the Lib Dems in this election, Jenny Chapman needs all the help she can get." And it also gave the Echo an excuse to print yet another colour photo of Jenny, their favourite pin-up girl.

A belated review of last week's Budget Council

Last Thursday's Special Council meeting in Darlington to agree the budget for the coming year started off slowly but then became much more deliciously bad-tempered as the evening progressed. Indeed, I wondered if everyone had gone to sleep when no hands went up in the air following the Mayor's call for debate.

It seemed that the Tories, as the official opposition, were waiting for someone else to start the ball rolling: an act of unnecessary self-effacement confirmed later by their strange decision to abstain during the named vote.

So it fell to me to start things off. My speech dealt with four issues: the quite unnecessary decision to put the future of the Early Years Inclusion Service into the budget process. Since we have been assured that the proposed cut to this service was not an Aunt Sally (put up for debate simply so the Cabinet could later prove its "listening" qualities by later withdrawing its threat to the service) I pointed out that the situation was in fact much worse: the Labour Cabinet really did intend to cut the service, leaving our most vulnerable children and their parents without the support they have been used to.

I went on to show support for those front-line staff threatened with redundancy or with having their take-home pay cut because of various changes to terms and conditions of their employment, such as a proposed ban on premium time payments for working on Bank Holidays, including Christmas Day. I suggested that it was the front-line staff rather than managers and directors who were bearing the brunt of the Council's cost-savings.

Thirdly, I pointed out that the budget was contradictory: for example, the Chief Executive's Department is budgeted to increase its income from planning application fees by £40,000 in 2010/11 as the economy recovers, yet other Departments are planning on making savings in staff costs by laying people off because of the recession and its effect on building and development. They can't have it both ways: only one of these conditions can apply.

And finally, I pointed out that many things within the budget were dependent on developments outside the Council's control.

I concluded, "Mr Mayor, what we have here is a budget where the lowest earners providing front line services are to bear the brunt of cost savings, where the Cabinet thought it appropriate to put staff, parents and children quite unnecessarily through a lot of stress and anxiety for relatively small savings which clearly, since they were reversed, didn't need to be in the budget in the first place.

"We have a budget which has so many internal contradictions that one wonders whether anyone actually read it all from start to finish. "

And a budget which is reliant for so much of its proposed savings on factors outside the control of the Council that really one has to say that this budget has been produced on a wing and a prayer."

When I sat down, members of the public in the gallery above applauded, which was nice, if unexpected.

Lib Dem Leader Martin Swainston also adding his bit to the debate, calling for an independent, outside review of the Council's management structure to determine the potential for cost-savings in the middle and upper levels of management.

As Labour Councillors queued up to taunt the Conservatives so the Tories bit back and the meeting became increasingly bad-tempered.

Labour's budget was passed on a named vote, which allowed Labour to continue to taunt the Conservatives for not having the courage to take a firm stand on the matter, because they all abstained.

I understand the bad temper overflowed into the Members' Room afterwards, though by that time I was well on my way to the Quaker for a pint.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Trouble brewing

This weekend, possibly Monday, a major row between the Conservative and Labour campaign teams in Darlington is expected to hit the pages of the Northern Echo. The Conservative Party's Regional Office has formally complained to Darlington Borough Council about public support being given to Jenny Chapman, the Labour candidate, from within the Council.

I am an outsider looking in, and I haven't seen the offending publication, but I understand that a flyer in support of Jenny was produced using the DBC logo, using DBC equipment, by DBC employees, without the legal imprint, and was circulated to teachers at a training day by the training organisation within the Council. I understand the complaint has caused serious concern right up to Chief Executive level and that the police have been informed that an investigation is taking place within the Council.

Like you, I'll just have to wait for the Echo to hit the streets to get the full unsavoury story.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Serious about recycling?

Having up to now provided a free cardboard recycling service for businesses in Darlington, the Council has announced that, from April, there will be a charge of £4.78 + VAT per collection. That's almost £250 a year if, as most businesses do, cardboard is put out weekly. This is being done "to ensure economic viability in readiness for the coming financial year".

I suspect, with trade as poor as it is in the town centre at the moment, many businesses will not pay that amount.

At the same time, the Council is to introduce a free commercial paper and cardboard drop-off facility at its recycling centre on Whessoe Road. So those businesses who still want to recycle, but baulk at the idea of paying £250 a year for the privilege, can at least drive their cars or vans into work, load up and drive up to Whessoe Road instead.

There's only one thing to say this morning...

...bring on the Villa! Steve Webb, Frank Skinner, Eric Clapton, Adrian Chiles...your boys took one hell of a beating!

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Facebook Campaigning

I have, at last, created a Facebook election campaign page: Mike Barker 4 Darlington. Now I need lots of fans...

Latest plans for Harrowgate Hill Junior School

Yesterday the three North Road ward councillors met with officers in the Town Hall to be briefed on the latest plans to deal with the chaos in the back lane serving Harrowgate Hill Primary School.

At the moment there is total confusion there at drop-off and pick-up times as cars attempt to drive in both directions along the lane, park in restricted areas and block residents' rear gates. Councillors and School Governors are united in fearing that one day an accident involving a child will occur here.

After what seems like years of campaigning, the Council has finally agreed that something must be done. However, the proposed solution has stirred up a certain degree of opposition.

The Council's plan is to build a new car park away from the back lane in the nearby corner of North Park. Access would be from Whessoe Road. A new entry gate into the school would be provided in the nearest corner of the school grounds. Parents and children would have a walk of 100 metres or so from the car park to the new gate. It is hoped that this will draw cars away from the back lane, especially if new road markings and enforcement under the new Civil Parking Enforcement regime, due to be introduced later this year, is effective.

However, this solution is not to everyone's liking. Although most parents and local residents are happy with the plans, The Friends of North Park are not happy about losing a chunk of flat, usable land within their park. They have every justification for holding that position. The park is there for the pleasure of the people of Darlington, not for the provision of car parking for a PFI school. The Friends believe alterations to the staff and visitors' car park within the school would provide a solution.

Discussions continue, but this has dragged on for so long and now we have a commitment from the Council that something needs to be done we mustn't lose this opportunity. It's going to cost money, and at the moment there is some. Who can say this will always be the case. I hope somehow that we can reach a solution which pleases, or at least doesn't displease, everyone.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Trouble afoot

Allegations involving misuse of Darlington Borough Council equipment and resources, and potential breaches of electoral law, have been made by one of my political opponents concerning actions taken by supporters of the other. Expect to read more about this as the week goes on.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Fair Trade Shame

Darlington has lost its status as a Fair Trade town. As one of the biggest Fair Trade retailers in the town, I sat on the original Steering Group, under the leadership of the Council, which worked hard to gather together the information required to achieve that status. Shops, restaurants, cafes, public offices, schools: all were contacted and many persuaded to sell or supply Fair Trade products. By the end of 2006 we achieved the target for the number of Fair Trade outlets in each category required to gain Fair Trade Town status.

However, having achieved that status and milked it for all the publicity it could get, the Council has failed to maintain that status. I now discover that a renewal application has to be made after one year and again every two years after that. Darlington Borough Council has failed to do this.

Having taken the lead in pulling together the original bid, the Council should have continued to do the appropriate work required to maintain that status. It seems it did not.

Now a new Steering Group is being formed under the leadership of Pat Buttle, a former mayor of this town and prominent trade unionist, charity worker and all-round pocket dynamo. I have said I will join the Group and help regain our Fair Trade status.

Fair Trade Fortnight starts on Monday, February 22nd. This year's theme is
"The Big Swap".

I'll be decking the shop out with Fair Trade banners, posters and stickers as usual. The Fair Trade Foundation is looking for one million and one swaps: buying a Fair Trade product instead of your usual brand in your shop or supermarket.