End of term report

It felt like the end of term at today’s final council meeting of this four year electoral cycle.

It started off in jovial mood, with jokes cracked and some councillors taking selfies, but soon we moved into “questions from AAPs”. This is where a council officer from one of the area action partnerships reads out a question, only to have a cabinet member read out a very long answer which has almost certainly been written by another council officer. It’s a tedious process with very little informational value (and even less informational value). It is probably most effective as a risk free form of anaesthesia.

The mood that followed was low key, but with a surprising amount of sweetness and light around. I was lulled into believing that perhaps the disallowing of my motion to rescind the sacking of teaching assistants really was because it was too political at such a sensitive time. Perhaps we were really going to have a meeting where councillors would speak only of fluffy kittens and spring flowers.

I even mentioned that I felt a little unnerved by the accord and harmony within the chamber.

I hope that wasn’t what kicked it off, but I can’t help feeling that I must be to blame. Shortly after I had spoken supportively about why the council had to have a meaningful seat at the table when the NHS was making plans for health and social care, an inflamed Labour councillor (he mentioned that he hadn’t been planning to speak but had been provoked by Lib Dems and Conservatives holding supportive opinions since they were solely responsible for all the ills of the world) launched into a carefully prepared political speech.

After that it was downhill all the way as normal service (aka the bear garden) was resumed. In what was clearly a wholly non-political debate about an alleged government “raid” on the  Mineworkers’ Pension Fund tempers frayed, councillors bayed and the rhetoric ramped up.

The irony is that, despite the slanging match, we nearly all voted the same way. That of course is entirely typical of politics. We may share a view, or even values, but will defend to the last our right to abuse our opponents for sharing those views.

So term ends, but no holiday happens. Instead we’ll be out there inflicting local politics on you all until May 4th. I suppose the big question is, which bears will be in the garden after May? That’s in the lap of the voters.

 

History offers more hope than despair

In a world which many people think is going to the dogs, I found the following graph really helpful:

the-world-is-getting-better-small

If it encourages you too, you might be interested in the source of it: A history of global living conditions in five charts. It contains a lot of very interesting detail as well as convincing arguments as to why we really need to know the facts.

So as we move towards the challenges of 2017, I can think of no better starting place than celebrating the advances our wold has made in the last 200 years.

£110m penalty payments dwarf £3.8m which made TV news

The TV cameras whirred as DCC’s cabinet voted to convert its £3.8m loan to the Durham County Cricket club into preference shares.

They were being packed up by the time the cabinet prepared, “on the nod”, to agree to giving banks and financiers a £110m windfall as part of a refinancing package. (Durham county’s contribution to the windfall is £12m.)

That’s the nature of TV news. Is it media-sexy? Can we present it easily in pictures?

A run of the mill, contractual exercise where nobody seems to lose isn’t news. But it ought to be. Because behind every run of the mill county council contractual exercise there is one over-riding question. Has this contract been drawn up in the best interests of the people of County Durham?

That’s why I intend to pursue my questions around the whole “value for money” and “due diligence” issues in the choices which were previously made to enter this PFI contract.

You can read more in yesterday’s blog.

WMD – Weapon of Mass Dismissal – and the importance of Challenge

The Chilcott Report is full of it, the failure of politicians to challenge the intelligence which misled them into believing that Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction. Apparently the information they were given was partial, omitting key caveats, and swallowed too easily.

I don’t pretend it’s on a par, but the willingness of Durham county councillors to reach for the Weapon of Mass Dismissal against it’s own teaching assistants on the basis of partial information still disturbs me.

So does the fact that I have twice been refused access to the Corporate Management Team’s report(s) which led to the the deployment of DCC’s WMD.

It’s now almost three weeks since I appealed that refusal, and I’m on a countdown till I get DCC’s response because I cannot take this case to the Information Commissioner until I have exhausted DCC’s appeal process (and my own patience).

Is there anyone out there who thinks that in a climate of contrition Durham County will suddenly recognise the importance of challenge, and full information, in the process of reaching sound decisions? That they’ll let me have that report? Probably not.

Is there a lawyer out there who thinks there may be a case against Durham County Council for making a decision to sack all its teaching assistants only to re-engage them on lower pay, this whilst deliberately and consciously suppressing information necessary for a sound decision to be taken? Just possibly. And if there is, I want to find them.

Standards in Public Life

Chair2

Today I visited the former North site of Consett Academy (aka Blackfyne).

A local sports club had asked if they could look round and salvage anything of use to them, and I invited myself along to see if I could see anything that would be of use to local community groups. A bit too late as it turned out – on arrival we were told that today was the last day anyone would be allowed into the building before it goes into lockdown ready for demolition, and everything left would simply be skipped and destroyed.

A lot of stuff had gone already, but there were still a number of serviceable desks, filing cabinets, tables, some chairs etc. It was frustrating to have no time to get in touch with community groups. And then I saw this chair. At least I could salvage that, I thought, for my own use and make a donation to the Chairman’s Charity. I was kindly given a lift back home with it by one of the sports club members and fired off an email to check if my plan was OK.

It wasn’t. There is no protocol at the County Council that could enable such a transaction. All materials worth salvaging would already have been taken for redeployment within the council or, if not required, offered to suitable parties. Anything left on site would therefore, by definition, not be serviceable.

But there’s the rub. This chair is in almost mint condition. In that case (though of course it it unthinkable that it could have slipped through the net) it would have to be returned to the council for redeployment. I shall be doing that next week.

This leaves me with three thoughts.

  1. It’s good to know that people in elected positions cannot take advantage of those positions.
  2. It’s a crying shame that perfectly serviceable desks, chairs and tables will be disappearing into landfill rather than finding homes with hard-pressed community groups.
  3. If there’s an uncomfortable local government officer out there who would benefit from a Topstar D-86863 operator’s chair they should put their bid in now. I expect to return it to Member support on Monday.

You are the eyes and ears of the community

An email from a local resident alerted me to the cutting down of trees between Bramwell Terrace and the allotments to the rear. It’s quite a secluded spot and as such it would be easy for County Hall never to hear of it.

Bramwell Tce 2

At present I don’t know whether County Hall was already aware of it and whether all the correct protocols are in place for the protection of the environment. I don’t know whether those protocols are adequate. I don’t know whether our officers will react with speed and vigour if this is unauthorised. That’s all to be discovered. But the incident still reminds me yet again of how important it is that local people feel connected to the democratic system whose purpose is to put them in control of the powers that be.

Fortunately, important though this particular matter is, it’s nothing like the seriousness of what the media has been full of in the last few days – blind eyes turned to child abuse at Rotherham and the BBC – but the principle is the same. The corrosive effects of cynicism, the paralysis of embarrassment at being thought stupid, lethargy, all work to undermine our contribution to society, and with it society itself.

So a big thank you to all those of you who keep in touch. You are the eyes and ears of our community.

Christmas Cheer

I’m a bit of a crazy mixed up kid. Bah Humbug some days and soft as clarts on others.

A big thankyou therefore to young people in Consett for putting me into the Christmas spirit several times just recently.

A striking example was the “end of course” presentation by Team 28 on the Princes Trust at Consett YMCA. They had just completed their 12 week course, and were buzzing with it and what they had achieved.

Talking to some of the course members I was knocked out by what two of them said to me. “This course has saved lots of people,” was the comment of one of them. I had to double check – had she actually said that? She had, and went on to tell me a little of her story – homeless and hopeless she had found purpose and self-esteem on the course many years ago. Eight years later she had gone through it again as part of team 28, and the smiling and self-assured young woman I met was a very good advertisement for a course which offers itself with these words, “If you’re unemployed, unexcited and unsure of your future, we have something to get you going.”

The other powerful message after that presentation was from Sean Zima (he gave me permission to use his name) who had gone on the course, looking to raise his prospects and also to put himself in a position where he would be able to have a tattoo lasered off his neck in order to make himself eligible for his ambition – to join the Marines. Their rules exclude anyone with a visible tattoo. His enthusiastic participation in the course has already achieved the first goal (he told me it was £45 per square inch for tattoo removal) and I’m convinced the course can only have helped with the bigger ambition.

I came away encouraged and heartened for the Christmas season, which was exactly the same sensation I got from the Consett Junior School Carol Service at Christchurch. The children were much younger than the Princes Trust team, much shinier faced and Christmas-cardy, but they had the same buzz as they sang some of the newer carols and looked out for and waved to parents, grandparents and friends.

Before both of these I had also had a great afternoon with my friends at the Consett Churches Detached Youth Project who had cooked and served lunch to a party of senior citizens. The banter had been great fun, and the self assured young bingo caller had entertained us all. Having got the idea of rhyme in his calling we particularly enjoyed “I need a wee, twenty three”. The older folk must have enjoyed it, as they organised a whip round for the project and its young people.

There really is no room for Bah Humbug when there’s so much great stuff going on around you.

Is this the right bus?

Because there’s no destination sign on the front, and no fares published.

That’s how I feel about the new “Combined Authority” to be created across the two county councils of Northumberland and Durham, and the five unitary councils of Tyne & Wear, about which you are all being consulted. And I’m only a little clearer after attending tonight’s focus group at Crook.

The Combined Authority will be new body, separate from the councils which create it, and running alongside them. It will comprise the leaders of seven councils and one (non-voting) representative of business interests It is intended to enable better co-ordination of economic policy across the region, and better co-ordination of the transport infrastructure, than if each local council goes on “doing its own thing”. That should make us all better off.

The other big advantage argued for the scheme is that this new body will have more clout and coherence than the individual councils when it comes to arguing its case at Brussels or Westminster. That should enable it to access more grants and funding for economic development.

If  these things come to pass that will be great, but there are also risks and I worry that we may sleep-walk into some of them:

Political risk: With the leaders of the seven councils all being Labour, where will the voice of those communities which traditionally don’t vote Labour (especially rural communities) be heard? It’s essential that there’s a proper scrutiny process which includes councillors from other groups to hold the Combined Authority to account. There’s no detail about this in the documents, and without it there’s a real risk that decision making will be shrouded in secrecy.

And don’t be deceived by website statements like, “It is not about local councils giving up power to another body”. The paper sent to government makes it very clear that a reason for not just pursing further co-operation between councils on the existing model was that that would mean decisions having to be referred back for authorisation. Clearly, in the case of a Combined Authority that will not be necessary. It will have powers.

Centralising risk: Giving greater power for “strategic thinking” to just seven leaders increases the risk that some areas will be “forgotten about” in the process. For instance, the transport section includes High Speed Rail, East Coast Main Line, franchising of local rail services, aviation connectivity and the role of our ports and strategic road network. All great, but magnets that are sited nowhere near you!

Competitive risk: Because this combined authority does not include Teesside, it cannot represent the North East as a whole, and there has to be a risk that energy will be expended in competing within our region, and competing delegations to Westminster and Brussels. That’s particularly awkward when a large chunk of European funding has been specifically awarded to Durham and Tees Valley, the only “transitional areas” in the North East deemed to need additional funding. It won’t be ideal if we are on opposite side of the “border” of this Combined Authority.

So should we get on the bus? I’m told it’s the only one available, and if we don’t get on we’ll just be stranded. I guess in that case at least we’ll be out of the rain. But I’m going to let both the county council and the Secretary of State know my concerns. I want to be sure there’s an inspector on the bus, just in case the driver is not as reliable as we’ve been promised.

Please visit the county’s consultation page here and chip in with your views.

When is Good News Bad News?

When it suggests that things are improving under the coalition government, it seems.

At this morning’s Economy and Enterprise Scrutiny meeting we were told that there had been a “small” fall in youth unemployment in the county. At a 22% fall over the last twelve months I didn’t think it was that small. And I thought it was really good news, despite the fact that there are still far too many young people without jobs

We were also told that there had been a “small” rise in the percentage of people in a job last quarter, though for the number of people employed to rise by 2% in just three months (4,800 more people in jobs) is actually pretty encouraging, and I expect that 4,800 are really happy about it.

We all know that everything isn’t rosy – and certainly not for those people still trying very hard to get into work – but there’s something wrong when we can’t take any pleasure in what Good News there is.

And just to keep balance, here’s a fact we we should all be really worried about. The proportion of Job Seekers Allowance claimants claiming for one year or more rose from 34.54% last quarter to 36.12% this quarter, although the actual number of long term claimants has fallen from 4,970 in June to 4,740 in September.