I will hold the council to account

Last week’s Highway Committee decided that you will all be safer with the new speed limits I described in the last post.

I attended the committee to express my concerns, and those of people who I had spoken to, but my arguments fell on deaf ears. Instead they preferred the arguments of council officers who assured them that the new speed limits would result in lower speeds overall.

By 8 – 5 they voted to get rid of the 30 mph signs as you approach Consett on the A692 and replace them with 40 mph signs. There will then be new 30 mph signs on Villa Real Road, Sherburn Terrace, and just before the coast to coast cycle crossing at the entrance to Leadgate.

The decision is to be reviewed in nine months’ time, and in the meantime I will be seeking views on the effects local people are experiencing from these changes.

A chink in the curtains – or what the butler saw!

As a result of the argument I made, Press (1 member) and Public (none) were allowed into cabinet today for one of the previously “secret” items I wrote about on Sunday – the refinancing of County Durham’s debt in respect of 3 PFI schools.

And what a peep it was! To re-finance the £43 million still owing on these school buildings, Durham will have to pay eye-watering early redemption penalties of around £12 million to the banks. That’s not a misprint. It’s not a mis-placed decimal point. It’s really £12 million. And despite that the county council still expects to save money on the new deal!

That begs the question. What sort of lousy deal was it that allowed the council (which says it is “common for this debt to be refinanced”) to be so badly stitched up that this common practice has turned out to be an ultra-expensive practice? What sort of a deal was it that allowed the county’s finance “partners” (who put the deal together) to write into the contract their share in any additional profit if they were subsequently to arrange a replacement deal?

An appalling deal in my view, and what adds insult to the injury is that now we’re paying lawyers and accountants at least another £68,000 to check out whether we should indeed hand this windfall to the banks and financiers.

I accept that this refinancing may be the right thing to do now because it may still save the council some small amount of money over the next twenty years. I’m pleased that the county’s political leadership agreed to the issue being discussed in public rather than behind closed doors. But I’m convinced that the complacency which I heard at cabinet this morning, the same complacency which allowed this deal to happen in the first place, remains a real threat to the financial well-being of County Durham.

If you want to read the report in full, you can find it here.

The Black Hole that is County Durham

Durham’s “energy reduction project” produced the blackness that now consumes the many people who walk and cycle between The Grove and Consett Town Centre.

I was incensed that my representations on that were unacknowledged and almost certainly unconsidered before the heads had been taken out of the streetlights.

In September I received more proposals to take the lights out along the Consett Bypass. I responded, asking for acknowledgement as well as a very specific question. I’ve had no response.

Now I have another “consultation” about taking the lights out between Consett and Medomsley.

It’s hard to be motivated to respond when whatever you send is ignored. It’s not as though I’ve objected on every occasion. Sometimes the lights are not that significant, but I think most people recognise that the decision on the road to the Grove was a bad one. And people who remember a fatality close to Berry Edge Farm will be equally dubious about proposals to remove the lights along the road to Medomsley.

Country streetlights

Earlier this year, walking through Durham’s wonderful countryside, I came across and photographed this stretch of 22 street-lights linking a village with a sewage works (above). I don’t want their lights removed, but I would like answers to the question I have asked about how many lights have been removed from each division in the county council.

Lock-down at County Hall

Last Wednesday at County Hall a journalist asked me if I would like to comment on a decision, as she put it, to privatise a part of the local council’s social care provision. I couldn’t. I didn’t know whether it was true, or what had happened behind closed doors at a meeting of the county council’s cabinet a week earlier.

Press and Public had been excluded from the meeting, and the report excluded from the public domain with two legal reasons given: possible effect on industrial relations, and legal opinion being quoted.

You can read the journalist’s story here.

As soon as I had heard about this I sought access to the papers, which I had to sign for and which I have read, but am prevented from releasing or discussing anything in them by virtue of paragraphs 4, 5 of Part 1 of Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972.

I then raised with Legal Services my view that it is a circular nonsense to publish a Key Decision on the council website as “The Cabinet approved the recommendations contained in the report” when the report itself cannot be read. A week later I am still awaiting a meaningful response.

I wrote to the Chair of the Adult, Wellbeing and Overview and Scrutiny Committee, copied to the Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny board to request that the report be presented to the committee. A week later I am still awaiting a response.

What a way to run a council.

Today’s Council Meeting

When you go to a council meeting you usually have a pretty good idea of what will happen, and certainly don’t expect any motion you or any other opposition member has put to be passed, but you can never be quite sure what tactics will be used in the process.

As you know, last month the tactic was to filibuster and prevent my and my colleague’s motions being debated. This month, we knew that could not happen to my motion (thought it could have happened to Mark Wilkes’ Motion on the DLI Museum) because the constitution gave me the absolute right to move the motion this month – it was top of the list – and so I wanted to use it to say what I felt had to be heard. I very much hope it was also what teaching assistants wanted to be said. I posted the speech earlier, but it’s here if you haven’t already read it.

I was ably seconded by my colleague, Amanda Hopgood, and then Alex Watson, before Councillor Jane Brown replied on behalf of the Cabinet. Her approach (in addition to branding me as cynical and hypocritical) was to put an amendment which effectively destroyed the motion, safe in the knowledge that the Labour group would force it through and effectively hi-jack the motion. That’s the way the game is played at County Hall. Actually I think it was played outside the rules because the constitution outlaws “negativing” a motion, (i.e. turning it to the opposite meaning from the one it orginally had) but I got all the legal help I would expect at County Hall when the constitutionality of the amendment was challenged. I can only say that a passing journalist expressed his surprise that the amendment had been in order

I’ll leave you to decide whether the amendment “negatives” the motion.

The original motion read: “This council calls upon its cabinet and officers to withdraw the current proposals under the Review of classroom based staff, and instead engage with school governing bodies and subsequently trades unions to address the issues it seeks to resolve.”

After mangling it with the amendment it read: “This council calls upon its cabinet to request officers to brief governing bodies on the latest position with regard to the current proposals under the Review of Classroom Based Staff.  Ultimately any decision on this issue will be made by Full Council.”

A few jibes later and the matter was done and dusted, the Labour Party’s rewritten  version of the motion was voted through, and we were ready to move on to the motion on the DLI. But before we get to that, Let’s consider what has been achieved so far.

I know a lot of teaching assistants hoped that a sudden reversal of the council’s position would occur, but that was never going to happen. However, I believe change is happening.

If the current proposals had been seen by the Labour Group before they were sent out to headteachers and staff, they would never have seen the light of day. As well as being unfair and unreasonable, they are political dynamite. I’m pretty confident that the officers who arranged for them to go out knew that, and in putting out the proposal you have seen, officers skewed the decision making process. However, by the concerted efforts of teaching assistants in putting their case to councillors and the media, some of that ground has been won back. My motion played it’s part in that, and forced some unpalatable truths to be heard about the unfair nature of the proposals, the low pay of many teaching assistants already, damage to schools and the whole appalling widening of the gender pay gap. Now the real decision making has to take place – Just how far is the Labour Group willing to push its leaders and its officers in search of compromise? I’ve enough respect for many Labour councillors to believe that there is a very vigorous debate going on behind closed doors (I’m told some even tried to persuade their colleagues that the group should vote for my motion), but the proof of the pudding will be in exactly what they bring back as the “real” proposals to be decided by the council.

The moral therefore is – keep up the pressure. There are some willing ears listening even amongst people who have stone-walled in response to letters and emails. When the final proposals come back to council there will be nowhere to hide. Every vote will be named and counted. So keep up the pressure.

And now back to the very important issue of the DLI Museum. Things started better on this one. With two cameras in the chamber, and a mountain of bad publicity arising from last month’s filibuster, the council was not going to make the same mistake twice. When suspension of standing orders was proposed to allow time for the debate, the leader graciously assented.

Again, the original motion to delay the closure of the Museum to enable full consultation and the exploration of all possible options was proposed and seconded. I was fully on side with the motion. It made good sense to me that in a world where we consult on everything from the siting of bus stops to the closure of libraries, from whether I object to the discontinuance of a school crossing patrol on the defunct Blackfyne School site to changes in youth service provision, it makes sense to consult on closure of the DLI Museum because there might be ideas, groups or even funders who would get behind some different way off running it. Once that case had been made, however, it was Groundhog Day. Councillor Foster for the Cabinet moved an amendment that also mangled the motion out of all recognition. It backed the closure programme and the other (temporary) initiatives which are proposed. In fairness there were some excellent and impassioned speeches from all sides, but I’m not sure that any of the veterans who attended will have been convinced that they will benefit from swapping the very concrete museum they have now, for an all singing all dancing prospectus of future excellence. The probably learned at their mother’s knee the old saying; “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.

 

Dirty Tricks – Another Dark Day in Labour run Durham

Today’s council meeting was everything you would hope never to see in a democracy.

Everyone knew that there were three motions for debate, the first one a general one in support of Trade Unions, the other two issues of deep personal concern to many people in this county – the savage pay cuts proposed for teaching assistants and the ending of the DLI Museum.

Everyone also knew that, unless the council voted to extend the time for debate from thirty minutes, all three debates could not take place.

In the end, predictably, it was worse than that. The Labour Party, having voted as one not to extend the time for debate, had lined up a queue of speakers each using their three minutes to run the clock down. Buoyed up with bravado as they were cheered and applauded by their own side they talked, grinned and joked their way through the process. It was only as they left the chamber, eyes to the ground, that they conveyed the shame and embarrassment they really felt at betraying all of those voters who entrusted them with the task of putting democracy into action in this county.

Many of their voters have been teaching assistants. Many of their voters have served their country in the armed forces. All of their  voters have trusted them to make the arguments behind the decisions the council makes. Simply to decline to argue the case, to refuse to hear the voice of the teaching assistants and the veterans, is contemptuous of those people. It’s contemptuous of their friends and their families. It is contemptuous of the whole electorate.

I have no doubt the Labour Party in Durham will continue to take the electors of this county for-granted, and use the power they wield for the sole purpose of protecting that power.

It’s up to the rest of us, those who know how they really operate, to expose them until everyone in County Durham can see through the ragged clothes that were once worn proudly by the standard bearers of ordinary people. Two years ago I was hopeful that the new blood in the Labour ranks would drive change from inside. As I watched them today, however, joining in the charade with apparent enthusiasm, I knew that change would not come from within. It will have to be forced upon them.

Next Wednesday’s Council Meeting

The waters have muddied.

When I sent in my motion to council calling for the withdrawal of the proposals which would cut teaching assistants pay, I had hoped that councillors would have a clear and straightforward debate on the rights and wrongs of the case.

I expected that sending the motion in a full two weeks in advance of the final date allowed would mean it would be first to be debated. Unfortunately it isn’t . It’s second, and that matters.

Under changes to the constitution made a couple of years ago, the time for debating motions was cut to just 30 minutes. Each debate often lasts at least 30 minutes, which means that a motion listed second is unlikely to be allowed. A motion listed third has little or no chance of being debated.

The council does, however, have the right to “suspend standing orders” and allow longer for debate. So what are the chances of that happening?

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that if councillors are asked to suspend standing orders and vote not to, it will be a clear signal that they have no intention of listening to the case for scrapping these proposals on teaching assistants (or indeed reconsidering the future of the DLI Museum which is the subject of the third motion).

It’s ironic that the motion to be debated first, put by the county Labour Party itself, is in defence of the right to strike. It will be even more ironic if, in order to prevent the teaching assistants’ case from being heard, they were to use up the whole half hour extolling the need for workers’ protection and arguing that “harmonious industrial relations are achieved by meaningful engagement” whilst ensuring neither protection or harmony happens in County Durham’s schools.

I hope that cynicism will be confounded, and that standing orders will be suspended to allow all three motions to be debated. I’m sure all people of goodwill hope that.

Here’s the full set of motions listed for debate, in the running order in which they appear on the agenda:

Motion 1: Councillor J Brown to Move

Council believes:

  • The right to strike and protest are fundamental rights which should be respected in a free and democratic society;
  • The Conservative government’s bill will undermine constructive employment relations across County Durham and that harmonious industrial relations are achieved by meaningful engagement and not additional legal restrictions to trade union members;
  • The government’s Trade Union Bill is part of a disturbing trend to erode civil liberties and inhibit the right to speak out or protest against the government;
  • The Conservative government’s Trade Union Bill is a politically-motivated attack on trade unions and could have negative consequences for working people across Country and in society.

Council resolves:

  • To write to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills stating the council’s opposition to their Trade Union Bill and to participate in any consultations;
  • Support the Northern TUC and civil liberties groups in campaigning to defend the right to strike and oppose the Trade Union Bill;
  • Continue to value the importance of meaningful workforce engagement and representation through trade unions in County Durham.

Motion 2: Councillor O Temple to Move

This council calls upon its cabinet and officers to withdraw the current proposals under the Review of classroom based staff, and instead engage with school governing bodies and subsequently trades unions to address the issues it seeks to resolve.

Motion 3: Councillor M Wilkes to Move

Council recognises the importance County Durham residents place upon the heritage of our County and in particular of the immense sense of pride and honour the community has in the Durham Light Infantry.

Council further accepts the need for our World Heritage City to provide excellent public art facilities for both the public of County Durham and for the benefit of tourism.

Council notes the significant public concern about the announcement of the closure of the existing DLI Museum and Art Gallery site. Council further accepts that many residents believe there should be consultation on the proposals with the general public, families of veterans, as well as more substantial consultation with all members of this Council.

Council therefore agrees to delay the closure plans to allow for a public consultation, and to allow for the consideration of all possible alternatives which may be put forward, including those which the Council may not have previously been aware of.

 

95% unemployment courtesy of County Hall

In this county which claims to be “open for business” there’s one area where the council slams the door on people wanting to earn a living. That’s people who want to become taxi drivers.

In the first four months after they introduced their new “tougher” Knowledge and Locality tests, Durham County Council reduced the number of applicants who got through to just 5% – a swingeing cut from the 65% plus who used to get through. Now I’ve nothing against improving standards, but I’ve never come across such a remarkable tightening in a testing procedure and I’m not at all convinced that this test will improve standards.

The first rule of assessment is that assessments must be reliable and valid. I doubt if this is either.

As an ex-student myself I wouldn’t know how to revise for a locality test of which one section requires candidates “to identify a number of areas not located within County Durham from a list of ten towns or villages”. And it would terrify me with such a wide range of potential places to read that “The pass mark for this section is 100%.”

That’s just one of five sections on which you have to get 100% to pass.

Now take a look at this map. The red squares represent the places to and from which would-be taxi drivers will be expected to describe routes.

Taxi test map

Is it just possible that this rather random selection might favour residents of one part of the county over another? I wouldn’t want to be a driver from Stanhope undertaking the test. It’s not a lot better for Consett drivers.

For me it’s particularly disturbing that I posed questions to officers about the pass rate in April, and in the two months since then no change has been made in the test.

I raised a question regarding this at today’s council meeting, but I wouldn’t bank on that resulting in change.

If you’re looking for a new career I don’t recommend taxi-driving in County Durham. Can I recommend Nuclear Physics? It will probably be easier to get into.

 

Not giving up

Grove lights

Councillors Dereks Hicks, Alex Watson and I met together with John Hinds of the Grove Residents Association and a lighting expert, Steve Fullerton, to consider alternative solutions now that the council has removed the lampposts on the A692 between Consett and the Grove.

We’re bitterly disappointed that the council has rejected our reasoned arguments, arguments simply reinforced by the number of pedestrians and cyclists who passed us as we talked about the situation.

We’re going to have to be realistic – the council is not going to put back what it has just taken out – but there has to be a way to look after local people. That’s what councils and councillors are for, and we’re not going to give up until we find a solution.

No way to run a council

At yesterday’s full council meeting Labour councillors voted, whenever the law allows it, to give work to its internal Direct Services Works Department and other internal departments which offer services for sale, even if it the work could be better done by a local business at a lower price.

This is newly written into the constitution of the County Council (remember Ed’s tablet of stone?) stating that council departments have to consult “service providers” within the council rather than asking anyone else what they would charge for a job, and then have to use the council service provider if they say they can do the work within budget. And all that is to happen without ever asking what anyone else would have charged.

That begs a few questions.

Who set the budget, and how did they set it? Was it, by any chance, done by asking the council’s own provider what they would charge and then setting the budget accordingly?

Where is the quality control in the process? When most of us buy services we aren’t just interested in the price.

How does it fit with the other bits of the constitution which talk about the way jobs are ordered being fair, transparent, offering value for money and showing the highest standards of integrity?

A few weeks ago Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Amanda Hopgood challenged this in the all-party committee that considers the constitution, but Labour members insisted on writing it into the constitution. Yesterday one of our councillors, Mark Wilkes, called for a vote on it. All Labour councillors backed their Cabinet to keep it so it stays in. Mark tells me, however, that some of them approached him in private afterwards to say that he was right!

The trouble is, the process does real damage to local people. When the council pays more than it needs to on one thing, it has less to spend on others. That means that pricey jobs mean less to spend on other important services such as highway repairs, care of the elderly, children’s services, youth services or any other important work.

The simple argument that is made is that it protects council jobs. The other side of that coin is that it prevents other people from doing them and so having jobs themselves, and results in council-tax payers getting a raw deal.

People won’t be surprised by this. They may be surprised that the council is brazen enough to write it into its constitution. Pass it on, and we’ll find out.