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website: including my put down of the Conservative candidate, who seemed to be saying that the Hunting Act should be repealed because it was badly drawn up and had taken a long time to go through Parliament.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.