View more tweets

A Farewell to Neville’s Cross

The site has been very quiet the past few weeks, mainly because I have been extremely busy trying to get Liz Brown and Elizabeth Scott elected as successors to myself and Grenville Holland the face of a really strong challenge from the Greens.

In the end we succeeded and I am massively pleased to have two really capable women in Liz Brown and Elizabeth Scott replacing us as the Lib dem Councillors for the Neville’s Cross division of Durham County Council (DCC).

My decision not to stand for re-election in 2017 was actually taken in the autumn of 2012. Having first been elected to DCC in 1985, I had Lib Dem Group Leader there since 1989 and the plan was to stand for one last term in 2013, step down as Group Leader immediately afterwards, and then retire this year, which is how it has turned out.

I have been extremely fortunate in many ways. Leaving on my own terms, certainly, but most of all having had the privilege of serving the Neville’s Cross division on Durham County Council since 1985. The boundaries have changed a couple of times during that period as has much else. Durham is a very different place than it was 32 years ago.

When I first got elected I had 1,950 doors to leaflet and knock on, now it is over 3,100 and will rise to over 3,500 when the new estates at Mount Oswald and the former Police HQ sites are completed. Not many areas in County Durham have seen an increase as large as that. Indeed, the increase in housing has been a major concern of residents over the past 10 years or so, particularly as the houses that have been built have not been affordable for the vast majority of people in the area.

The other big change over the period has been the size of the University in relation to the City. I came to Durham to work in the University in 1976 when there were just 4,000 students. By the mid 2020s, the expectation is that the number will be over 21,000 (it is now around 15,000). This has impacted mainly on the City Centre division (formerly Elvet and now Elvet & Gilesgate) and on Neville’s Cross, causing massive concerns among residents over the imbalance that it has caused within the local community.

The failure of the City and County Councils to get to grips with the relationship between the University and the City has been one of the main failings of local democracy in recent decades, something that all city centre councillors have been campaigning on for many years. The new interim policy on student housing is a big step forward, but it is not perfect and really needs further thought and development as the Council has a second go at creating a  Local Plan for County Durham.

As I said at my final Council meeting in March, I have have really enjoyed my time as a councillor and mainly from being able to help individuals deal with their issues. Standing up in full Council and making speeches is all very well, but the real reward is standing alongside local people and groups as they grapple with the local bureaucracy. I haven’t been able to solve every problem (and it is a foolish politician who promises to be able to do so), but even when I couldn’t sort something out, I got the impression that people appreciated being listened to and taken seriously.

So farewell to Neville’s Cross (at least as one of it’s elected representatives). I am confident that I am leaving it in good hands with Liz and Elizabeth.


Durham City goes for a parish/town council

The County Council is having a second go at creating a Parish Council for the area of the City covered by the Elvet & Gilesgate division, the Neville’s Cross division and part of Durham South division.

This time they are conducting a consultative poll of all registered electors rather than the one-vote-per-houshold attempt they tried four years ago. The letters have gone out now and responses need to be in by 6 March 2017.

I have had some queries about whether this is a good idea, and my view is a very definite YES!

With the abolition of the former district council, I believe that the voice of the City is being lost against the shear size of the County and its Labour-run council. A Parish Council can give us our voice back, and have a much louder say on many issues, particularly planning.

If you want to know what a Parish Council is empowered to do, then the LocaGov web site has a pretty comprehensive list. One thing a new local council could do, for instance, is to reopen a Tourist Information Centre in the City.

There is also talk of a Town Council, but in legal terms these are the same as a Parish Council in all but name. A Parish Council can decide to call itself a Town Council, which in Durham’s case is probably the right thing to do.

People also ask what this has to do with our centuries-old Mayoralty, which at the moment has been hijacked by Labour at County Hall and (temporarily) combined with the Chairmanship of the County Council, which in my opinion (and others I have spoken to) has downgraded the office. The Mayoralty is currently run by the Charter Trustees who are the councillors elected in the old Durham District area. At the moment Labour has a majority, but that could change after the coming local elections in May.

The point is that the Charter Trust arrangement will only be wound up when all the original City of Durham District is covered by parish councils. This current exercise is a start, but that still leaves quite a bit to deal with including Newton Hall, parts of Framwellgate Moor and of Gilesgate. Sorting this out is a battle for another day, but half a loaf is better than no bread, as they say.

Finally, there is the issue of cost. It is true that setting up the parish council will be a cost on the council tax of just over £34 a year for a Band D property, but, ask yourself, is 66p a week really that much to strengthen the voice of the city and perhaps do things the Council Council is unable or unprepared to do?


The tale of a horse called Brexit

Once upon a time there was a horse that was owned by a consortium of 100 people, each with a share, but only 72 had voting shares.

There was a big argument going on about the future of the horse, and a ballot was called of those 72 who could vote with the result that 27 said sell it and get a new horse, 25 said keep it and 20 abstained.

So acting on the result, the leaders of the group went to the market to see what replacement horses were available. They looked them all up and down, looked at their pedigrees and, of course, examined their teeth.

The leaders then reported back to the shareholders that, unfortunately, in spite of the vote to sell,  the horse they currently had was in much better shape than all the available alternatives, which were all very doubtful nags.

Some of the people who voted to sell said, “Let’s shoot our horse, then any alternative would be better than a dead horse”.

Those who voted against selling, said, “Before we do that, we must have another vote; it would be madness to put ourselves into a worse situation than before just for the sake of it”.

Then a small boy spoke up. He had a share but was too young to vote, and he said, “Whatever you do, I won’t forgive you if you shoot the horse. That horse is my future and you have no right to make me poorer than I am.”

I don’t know what happened then.

And the name of the horse? I don’t know that either, but it wasn’t Brexit. That was the name of the alternative horse that the pro-sellers were going to give the new horse that they would buy.

[If you think this might be relevant to something currently happening, you may like to know that of the population in the UK at the time of the referendum on EU membership, 27% voted to leave the EU, 25% voted to remain in the EU, 28% were ineligible to vote, and 20% could have voted but did not.]

TAs – is this not victimisation?

In advance of the Teaching Assistants’ strike next week, councillors at Durham County Council have been sent a briefing note today on the background to the dispute, and it sets out clearly how those who have accepted the Council’s offer will be dealt with much better than those still in dispute.

Briefly, those TAs who are accepting the Council’s offer (mainly GMB and Unite members) will have their contract varied from 1 April 2017 and will get a “two year compensatory payment … for the move from whole time to term time” working. Effectively this is pay protection for two years but there appears to be the possibility of it being paid either as a lump sum or in monthly payments.

On the other hand those not accepting the offer (mainly Unison and ATL* members) will be dismissed and re-engaged on new contracts from 1 January 2017 with only a one year compensatory payment. [* ATL is not formally recognised by the Council in spite of it bing a mainstream teaching union, but that is another issue.]

I find this situation totally unacceptable. Whatever the right and wrongs of the core issue of working hours and equal pay, if such an arrangement was being proposed by a private employer with non-union members getting favourable treatment over union members, say, the Labour Party and the Trades Unions would surely be shouting “victimisation” from the rooftops.

So why are we here anyway? Simply because the comrades in the unions and the Labour Group at County Hall have been in an over-cosy relationship for donkey’s years.

The issue could have been dealt with and settled when the Council was going through job-evaluation to solve the equal pay issues that had been devilling local government for so long. This is how TA contracts were dealt with at nearly every other council in the land,

Why wasn’t it? Because the unions in County Durham for some reason asked for it to be kept out of that process. Now the problem has come back to bite them, and with the unions divided on how to act, Labour has resorted to the kind of behaviour that they condemn in others. Isn’t that normally called hypocrisy.

Telephone Box going cheap

I have just had an e-mail from BT to the effect that the telephone box in Lowes Barn Bank is to be decommissioned (it was only used for 19 calls – less that one a fortnight – over the pas year).

Apparently BT allows parish councils or registered charities to “take ownership of the kiosk for just £1 thereby protecting the heritage of the community”.

As we don’t have a parish council, is there any charity out there that would like to take up this offer? The only problem is that the deadline for bids is 4 October 2016.

If anyone is interested, they should contact Durham County Council at clearly quoting the telephone number of the box ( 0191 386 2521).

Durham – City of Cranes

It looks like Durham will have an extended period as a city of cranes.

The work on The Gates to create a cinema and student accommodation is getting into full swing and we can shortly expect two cranes to dominate that part of the skyline. Actually it will be three initially as the third will be needed to erect the main pair. Then there will be the demolition of Milburngate House with more cranes likely to appear as it is redeveloped.

Incidentally, I am shocked by the news that planning permission has been given for 23-hours-a-day working on The Gates, which lies less than 100 metres from many residential properties. Yet again it seems that developers in Durham City have more rights than residents.

The “Durham bad road dream” goes on

When you thought that the light was appearing at the end of the Durham City tunnel, the tunnel just gets lengthened, especially if you are a bus user.

The gas works on Neville’s Cross Bank are now ended and traffic is flowing freely again, and the tail-backs from the Duke of Wellington lights are a thing of the past. It looks like the works at Leazes Bowl are in their final fortnight so that the new Scoot system will be in place sometime in October with the promise of improved air quality in the City Centre. But…

As these works end, a major refurbishment of North Road is to start that will impact heavily on bus users. The the stretch from Neville Street to Milburngate will be closed for up to 21 weeks from the first weekend in October (although it will be reopened to traffic for December for the Christmas period).

This is going to cause significant problems for the bus network and for taxis. No buses will be able to run the length of North Road, and those that normally do will have to circle through the bus station and come back out onto the viaduct roundabout. I follows also that there will be no bus stops in Milburngate.

I currently have no information on taxis, but with the closure of the North Road taxi rank, it would make sense for there to be a temporary one in Milburngate, where u-turns are relatively easy.

Maybe 2017 will be free of major roadworks, but then it is an election year.


Student accommodation update for Durham City

Yet another application has arrived for purpose built student accommodation (PBSA) in Durham City. This time it is on the former Nelson’s Yard site at the end of John Street and is for 60 student beds.

Interestingly this site had a previous planning application granted for a similar development around 8(?) years ago, but it was never progressed. I admit that the site is one of the handful of real eyesores in my Neville’s Cross division, so a good quality development would normally be welcomed there, but please, not another PBSA.

Durham City is crying out for non-student accommodation, especially in the city centre. While it may be a difficult site for families with children, it would work really well for young professionals or retirees being close to the city centre and the main bus/train stations. Surely a development of flats for such as these would be a much better idea both for the local community and to help the year-round sustainability of the City centre.

This application brings the total of new PBSA built, in construction or planned to over 4,400 since 2012 (full details can be seen at my related web page).

Evidence is also accumulating that the demand for these beds is not there.

The Village @ The Viaduct is just ending its second year of occupation, has only been half full over both years and is still advertising vacancies for this autumn.

The Chapel Heights web site today (23 August) shows 72 (36.5%) out of 197 rooms still to let for 2016-17. St Giles Studios (on the former DLI pub site) is advertising vacancies as is Elvet Studios on Green Lane, although in both cases actual numbers are not immediately available.

The reason for this looks clear to me, and it is price. Too many of these new rooms are priced at around £10K a year and the bulk of students are not going to pay that when they can find decent HMO accommodation for half that.

Developers keep putting the argument that these PBSA will force lots of HMOs back into family occupation, but they never back this up with real evidence that it has happened anywhere else. Indeed, there is evidence that it has not happened in other cities (Sheffield City Council housing officials said as much at a recent conference on student accommodation issues held in Durham).

Somebody is going to catch a big financial cold as a result of all these PBSA in Durham City and big loser will be the City itself. The planners could easily have seen this coming but the political leadership at County Hall under its perpetual Labour administrations has been totally absent.

More problems on Neville’s Cross Bank

The Neville’s Cross Bank gas repairs are causing problems apart from traffic as I discovered from a resident over the weekend.

She reported that the household/garden waste from Neville’s Cross Villas had not been collected for two weeks due to access problems for the bin wagons. Having spoken to council officers yesterday, I am hoping that this will be finally sorted today with a solution agreed for the many weeks duration of the works.

I do have to ask, however, why it has taken two weeks to sort out this issue. As soon as the bin men found that they could not get the access they required, a message should have gone back up the line to alert managers about the problem so that action could have been planned and the situation explained to residents within a couple of days.

Residents calling County Hall were only being told that there was an issue between the gas company and the bin men, but not how the problem was going to be resolved. As my resident said, they do all pay their council tax and so expect the bins to be collected properly.