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.