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.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Pink Clock

Darlington's Town Clock has gone pink. Despite its role as a traditional meeting place for those on a date, the new pink colour, which shines out through all the viewing windows in the tower too, is not, as some Twitterers suggest, a Valentine's Day tribute.

No, it's to encourage support for the Cancer Research Race for Life. Darlington's Race, in South Park, will be on Sunday June 13th. I used to sponsor my daughter, back in her Carmel days when she used to run the event with her friends, in memory of her mum. Now, if there are any under-18's who are looking for some sponsorship this year, you only have to ask!

I have also signed up to Cancer Research's "Cancer Commitment". I have received a number of emails from Darlington residents asking me to sign up to this Commitment and I have been more than happy to do so.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

It's a Labour budget, Jim...but not as we know it.

That's what I should have signed off with in my speech to Cabinet last night. But maybe the Star Trek reference would have been lost on the justifiably angry Darlington Borough Council staff and unions who crowded into the public seats and stood up around the room.

While even Conservative controlled North Yorkshire is going for a 3% Council Tax increase, the Labour Group in Darlington, mindful of the marginal status of both their Parliamentary seat and their Council majority, opted for a Council Tax freeze this year. An election gimmick, an election bribe, but, as the union rep, Alan Docherty, said, "I'm wondering just what constituency it is you're going after." Certainly, as he implied, this was a budget which would appeal more to voters in the affluent west end of town than to ordinary working people in the traditional Labour areas.

The Conservatives were not going to speak at Cabinet: after all, this was, as I said, a Conservative budget. However, when I'd spoken, Charles Johnson for the Conservatives really had to speak up and somehow managed to square the circle by saying that if the Conservatives' budget proposals over the previous two years (ie. lower Council Tax increases then) had been followed, there wouldn't have had to be a freeze and redundancies now.

I asked why it had been thought necessary to inflict such stress and anxiety on service providers and users of the Early Years Inclusion Service and the Storysacks charity. Both services were saved, as I'd always said they would be, but why was it even necessary to include these cuts in the first place? Other services are to be reviewed over the coming year, with a view to making efficiency savings in subsequent years. The same should have been the case with these two services: they didn't deserve to have their future squeezed into an emotional couple of weeks of public negotiations, just so that the Labour leadership could claim to be a listening council by saving them.

I also pointed out that the burden of these cuts was being borne by the staff at the bottom of the pyramid: the lowest paid staff who actually provided the services. I repeated what I'd said last year, that the staff on the front-line often know best about how to improve their service, or make useful efficiencies, and they should have been taken along with the process throughout the year, not found themselves bearing the brunt of the cuts without proper consultation.

And so we go forward to Council for the budget to be approved. The Labour Party hasn't got so many friends left in Darlington that it can afford too many evenings like yesterday.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

An afternoon in Northgate, but no sign of Robin Hood

Out in Northgate ward this afternoon with our excellent local Focus team, bubbling with enthusiasm and working hard towards 2011. The recent ward survey showed many problems in what is one of the most deprived wards in the town. Our guys, who have lived all their lives in the ward, are already taking action on some of these issues.

Years of Labour control over the Council and in Government and yet the huge disparity in opportunity and achievement, life expectancy, health, employment and income between wards like Northgate and the affluent west end of the town is as wide as ever.

The people in the ward I spoke to have just about had enough of Labour and their grand vanity projects. There is a strong undercurrent of disillusionment. The task now is to make sure that translates into Lib Dem votes rather than no vote at all. One thing is certain, compared with 2007, there are far fewer people expressing undying loyalty to Labour. Their vote is soft...very soft.

I see on her Facebook page that for some reason our young Labour candidate seems keen on getting myself and the Tory guy to sign up to the Robin Hood Tax on banks. I'd love to be able to support it, I really would. I've even ticked some box somewhere to show my support for the principles behind it, but can someone explain to me how a tax on transactions will benefit our economy?

As I understand it, in most years this level of penalty, since it does not relate to profits, would actually drive the banks into the red and would therefore reduce the country's income from taxation. Indeed, to pay it the banks would have to use the government's bail-out money! And furthermore, a tax on transactions in this country would surely lead to the multinational banks conducting their business elsewhere with a consequent loss of taxation income and employment here.

It seems to me to be a simplistic proposal based more on a desire to punish than on a pragmatic understanding of the way the banking sector works. More sensible, surely, would be tighter regulation over the activities of the banks and their bonus structure, rather than a sledgehammer, one size fits all, approach which could actually do more harm than good.

Friday, 12 February 2010

First Stop 10th Anniversary Dinner

Last night was the long-awaited tenth anniversary celebration of the founding of First Stop, the organisation which cares for the homeless in Darlington. It was also, as Steve Rose said, the first time the three main Parliamentary Candidates for the town had gathered together under one roof.

I had a nice chat with Jenny, but sadly Edward dashed away as soon as the formal part of the evening ended - well, fair enough, it's a long drive home.

The highlight of the evening undoubtedly was the presentation by three clients of First Stop who told their stories and how First Stop had helped them.

Also, the challenge laid down by Cllr Bill Dixon to the three candidates to find the town's polar bear which disappeared when the town museum was converted into the First Stop headquarters. So if anyone knows, please tell me...

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Second Cabinet climbdown in 24 hours

Today just gets better and better. I've just received a jubilant phone call from Jeff Crawford, husband of one of the Early Years Inclusion Team members, to tell me that the Director of Children's Services is to recommend to Cabinet that the proposal to downgrade the Early Years Inclusion service be dropped from the budget.

A full review and consultation with all interested parties will now take place to secure an appropriate future for the service.

This is tremendous news - though, as I said before: did they always intend this? Was it just an Aunt Sally? Who cares now: the result is the right one both for this service as well as for the Storysacks charity.

Cllr Fred Lawton and I have been lobbying hard for the retention of both these services and we are delighted that these short-sighted and harmful proposals have both been withdrawn.

The distress that these proposals caused is deeply regrettable. The Labour Cabinet should be ashamed of itself for putting parents and staff through such emotional turmoil over the past few weeks. The original plan to withdraw this important front-line service from the children of this Borough showed a callous disregard for this vulnerable group. It should never have been proposed.

Old style political knockabout at QE

This morning was the annual Question Time debate for councillors at Darlington's Queen Elizabeth 6th Form College in front of an audience of bright, knowledgeable sixth form politics students. This was the third time I'd done the event and this time I was up against Gill Cartwright for the Conservatives and Jenny Chapman for the Labour Party.

Questions covered subjects like party discipline and voter turnout right through to the economy, higher education and foreign aid.

Things got off to a slow start but livened up considerably as the questions opened out into matters of policy. The three of us, I think, enjoyed the opportunity for some traditional knock-about, which is largely lacking in the Council Chamber. By the end, hands were shooting up all over the place as the students really started to get into the swing of it.

It was a very enjoyable morning. Hopefully they'll organise another one during the General Election campaign.

Cabinet U Turn over toy library.

Last week I visited the Darlington Storysacks and Toy Library from which the Labour Cabinet's budget proposals would have withdrawn financial support. I am delighted to learn from the Echo this morning, therefore, that the Council has announced it will in fact continue to support the excellent work carried out by the charity.

I think the advice Fred and I were able to give them was helpful in achieving this result. Sadly, the Labour Party's Parliamentary Candidate supported the Cabinet's original proposal to withdraw funding.

It really makes you wonder why the Cabinet ever thought it would be a good idea to lose this service, just to save a relatively small sum of money. Did they ever really intend to force it to close?

The charity will be supported for another year, to give it time to find alternative sources of funding.

This afternoon I received this email from Storysacks:

"On behalf of the Trustees of Darlington Storysacks and Toy Resources charity I would like to say a very big thank you for the interest you have shown and the support you have given us. We were delighted to read the brilliant news in the Northern Echo. We are still waiting to hear from a DBC spokesperson giving us details but expect we will hear soon."

and this from a Storysacks supporter:

"Also good news about Storysacks funding thanks for advice you gave to Jane."

It's been a good day, today.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Milburn - it's the final countdown.

Three months. That's how long we have to put up with Alan Milburn as our MP. In fact, were he not standing down in disgrace, I think I would still be typing exactly the same thing.

The revelation that he's been asked to repay £11,000 in over-claimed expenses on his second home mortgage will come as no surprise to his long-suffering constituents who have had to put up with an MP who doesn't live here, is rarely seen here unless there's a photo opportunity standing under a pigeon dung encrusted railway bridge, who rarely votes or speaks in Parliament and who has five other jobs.

That's the last time I shall write the odious words "Alan Milburn" on my blog. It is though, one more time than you'll find the words written on anything written or published by the local Labour Party, who have been exquisitely silent about their former golden boy. Where is the condemnation fom the local party leadership or Parliamentary candidate? Have they no sense of shame or embarassment?

Good riddance. Days of Hope - give me strength!

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Labour should be ashamed

Yesterday I visited the Darlington Storysack and Toy Resources charity, based at Corporation Road School. It is faced with possible closure, and certainly a massive reduction in the service it can offer, thanks to the Labour Cabinet's proposed budget cuts.

Funded by a grant of £75,000 per annum, the charity which runs this superb service faces the complete removal of their subsidy following this year's budget, though alternative funds of £20,000 have been found from elsewhere in the Council's budget. Still, losing £55,000 per annum means that all five staff face redundancy. At best they will have to limp along with one member of staff, unless they can find alternative funding.

The charity provides a variety of important services to children, families, childcare providers, schools and support agencies in Darlington. It provides a popular, non-threatening method of encouraging parents and carers to share stories and participate in valuable play learning experiences with their children. The charity aims to provide excellence in the personal, social and emotional development of children throughout Darlington and to promote communication, language, literacy and mathematical skills. The commitment of staff and volunteers is recognised by everyone who comes into contact with them: professionals, parents and carers.

They have a huge library of games, toys and story-telling props which are loaned out to parents and to many Council and voluntary organisations. They go into Children's Centres and Schools and run play events and story-telling.
In the photo above, you can see just a small selection of the numerous toy boxes the charity holds. Meanwhile, I am being introduced to the delights of The Night Pirates story. Sadly, I chickened out of donning a pirate hat.

The current Labour government has put millions into programmes such as ‘Every Child a Talker’ and ‘Every Child a Reader’, yet only a few schools in Darlington enjoy these benefits. The charity has filled this gap by working collaboratively with multi-agency professionals to make and develop resources to support these initiatives. They have been used by numerous schools and nurseries in the public, private and voluntary sectors.

But the Labour cabinet haven't given them time to look for alternative funding. Instead of doing the sensible thing, which would have been to ask them to make some efficiency savings, perhaps by encouraging greater involvement by volunteers, and to have worked with them over the course of a year, say, to try to find alternative funding, the charity were simply told a couple of weeks ago that their funding would be removed following the budget.

Just like the Early Years Inclusion Service, this proposal should be lifted out of the budget process. Time should be given to allow the charity to develop alternative sources of funding. Just to cut them adrift now makes no sense.

Heartless, uncaring, macho, bullying. Darlington nu Labour's finest hour. Yet again, disadvantaged children bear the brunt of Labour's electioneering budget cuts. I hope their councillors, and even some of the Cabinet, are squirming with embarassment.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Shock as Durham Police revealed to be biggest losers

Durham Constabulary has lost more officers, as a percentage of its total, than any other force in the country. Between March 2005 and September 2009 Durham Constabulary slashed its number of police officers by 193, that's a whopping 11.1% of its 2005 total (1738 down to 1545).

All our ward surveys show that crime and anti-social behaviour is one of the most important concerns for local residents. With police numbers tumbling in the Durham Constabulary area, residents are right to be concerned about how well protected they are by an overstretched police force. With only one in a hundred crimes ending with a conviction in court, it is time for things to change.

Liberal Democrat plans for the police would put 3,000 new police officers on the beat across the country: making funds immediately available by scrapping the illiberal and unnecessary ID cards scheme.

The best way to cut crime is to catch the people who commit crime and set them on the straight and narrow. Labour and the Conservatives prefer instead to posture on penalties, but that’s not much of a deterrent if there’s little chance you’ll be caught.

We will also make the police work better and more effectively. We will cut police red tape and give local people a bigger say in policing in their area. And we will reform the police too, with new fitness tests and action to attract the very best professionals to this vital area of
public service.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A service too important to cut

The Darlington Early Years Inclusion Service has been the subject of two special Budget consultation sessions over the past couple of days. I've been to both, to try and find out what the real issues are here.

The Council's proposal is to replace the eleven-strong team who provide concentrated, personalised support to a number of disabled and disadvantaged pre-school children, mainly during term time, with a team of three "advisors" providing a fifty two week of the year support service to nursery school staff and other professionals who come into contact with these children.

Not surprisingly, the existing, highly trained, staff are up in arms about this, faced as they are with imminent redundancy from jobs they love. Parents and grandparents have also packed into these consultation sessions. Their personal stories about the superb service their kids receive from the present team should be heard by all Labour cabinet members and councillors before the final decisions are taken about this service. The personal service these children receive just cannot be provided by non-specialist staff under the guidance of "advisors".

The Director of Children's Services says this is not about saving money: it's about widening the inclusion principle to many more children in many different settings. But, after the first year when redundancy payments will cancel out the proposed salary savings, there will be savings for the Council. And, since this debate is taking place as part of the budget process, it inevitably leads parents and staff to see this as primarily a cost-cutting exercise.

We in the Lib Dems, who, apart from the Labour Cabinet Member who attended one of the consultation events, have been the only councillors present at these events, believe this is a service that should be protected. Surely no-one who has heard the testimonies of parents and staff could feel otherwise.

Our position is that this issue should be removed from the budget debate. There needs to be more time for all interested parties, including school heads, teachers and governors, as well as staff and parents, to contribute fully to a debate on the future of this service.
In a caring, civilised society, if we have the capacity to support these kids so that they can reach their true potential, we should do so, even if, at first glance, it represents poor value for money compared to more universal services. The value of the service to these individual children over-rides this, I believe. Some way should be found to support the existing provision, while also looking at ways "inclusion" can be extended to more children in more settings. And the first step is for this proposal to be removed from the Budget process.

Time is running out

For several years the natural health industry in this country has been engaged in a running battle with the European Commission to defend the rights of UK consumers to continue to buy higher strength vitamins and supplements. It seems now that a decision is imminent: a decision which could lead to the closure of independent health stores across the country, the loss of many small manufacturing companies and the denial of consumer rights.

Historically, consumers in Britain have enjoyed the right to buy vitamins and minerals in food
supplements at higher strengths than in many European countries. Such restrictions as there are have been imposed on the basis of safety. No supplements can be sold in this country at unsafe levels. The industry is well-regulated and controlled. There is no risk to health in any products currently available.

Why then does the EC want to force all European countries to adopt a uniform strength level for food supplements. Simply to create a single market, a level playing field: to remove any barriers to trade.

The EC could propose high permitted levels for vitamins and minerals in supplements, like those levels we are already familiar with in the UK, or it could set very much lower, restrictive levels. Were the EC to set lower restrictive levels for vitamins and minerals, this would outlaw many hundreds of safe and popular higher potency products that have been available to consumers for many years, with no evidence of any harm whatsoever, and that are accepted as properly manufactured and safe by the British regulators.

Over 700 health food stores could close and 4,000 jobs would be lost in the UK.

France, Germany and several other European Union Member States are pushing hard for low dose levels to be set when the process moves forward in the next few months, and the United Kingdom is one of only a few countries pressing for higher levels. We will simply be out-voted in the European decision making process.

Consumers for Health Choice (CHC) believes that the British Government can do and must do much more to argue our country's case in Europe if consumers are not to be denied access to higher potency supplements of their choice

CHC have intensified their campaign in recent weeks because the European Commission will bring forward in the very near future its long-awaited proposals for maximum dose levels for all vitamins and minerals in food supplements.

All the signs point to those figures being set at restrictive levels which could threaten the continued availability of many higher potency dietary supplements; the future of many specialist retailers and manufacturers is at risk.

CHC are asking everybody who cares about freedom of choice to visit their web site and download a letter or postcard to send to their local MP. These postcards can also be obtained from your nearest health food shop.

You can find out more and help the CHC campaign by visiting their website: