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mean that pupils at those three schools – one of which is in Cllr Cartwright’s ward - will continue to be educated in outdated buildings that are no longer fit for purpose.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