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.