Saturday, 18 June 2011

A Vision for Aycliffe in 2030

The County Plan for County Durham is published, and out for consultation. Below, you will find my vision for Aycliffe in 2030. Could this be your Vision too? More and more people are saying that they agree with it.
I am hoping that it might form the basis of a more-or-less unanimous view, BY Aycliffe people, of what they want FOR Aycliffe in the next 20 years.
One thing I am certain of: if we don't ask for it. We won't get it.
If you agree, please tell the County Council.
You could email:
If you agree with me, all you need to say is: 'I agree with John D Clare's Vision for Aycliffe'.
If you don't agree, that's fine too -- just say where your vision would be different!

The thriving Industrial Estate has by 2030 become a regional hub for economic activity and the basis for EVERYTHING. It has grown substantially in every aspect – area, number of firms, number of jobs. Situated on the A1 corridor at the southern entrance to the County, it is nationally recognised as the warehousing base for the north-east region, and there is a constant flow of lorries in and out of the Estate. The manufacturing sector has survived through difficult times, and the Estate has also attracted a number of leisure providers (children’s play areas, bowling alley etc.). The number of jobs offered has increased to more than 12,000, and the Estate provides employment for people from all over South Durham. The Estate’s success has become a factor attracting firms to set up their regional headquarters on a thriving Aykley Heads business park in Durham.

A direct road link to Teesside has been established by the construction of a ‘Darlington northern by-pass’ direct-route link road cross-country from the A1M roundabout to the A66.

Aycliffe’s population has grown proportionately to the economic growth of the Industrial Estate. A number of discrete, private-housing areas have been built on the Children's Centre site. Surrounded by established woodlands and extensive ‘wild’ areas, they are healthy environmentally, and relaxing and attractive for the residents. The right-of-way has been reinstated to provide walking access into the Carrs.

Near the centre of town, there have been by 2030 significant housing developments. Through partnership working with Sedgefield Borough Homes, appropriate numbers of social housing have been provided for the less advantaged members of the community. They are within walking distance of the town centre, but a regular bus service provides sustainable access.
Even closer to the town centre facilities, large numbers of bungalows (including some sheltered housing schemes) provide homes for the older members of the community. The social services which support them are situated in offices in the Town Centre.

On the western outskirts of the town, on the Eldon Whins site, stand a limited number of executive houses. Again, they are intersected by extensive eco-areas. The established woodlands around about provide an atmosphere of luxury and tranquillity. To the north of the town, Washington Developments have established a successful high-quality hotel and golf club, along with a further number of high-quality houses.

The C35 has been upgraded, not to carry industrial traffic, but sufficiently to cope with the increased volume of resident and commuter traffic to the A689 and the A1M. The upgrade includes environmental measures to allow safe travel of wildlife across the road into the environmental areas of the town.

Although environmentally the town had already achieved a mature and ‘green’ aspect by 2011, the environment has by 2030 further matured and is now recognised as being one of the most physically beautiful towns in the County. A Town Council with enhanced powers protects the environment through increased oversight over planning, and by coordinating significantly-increased voluntary activity. Since the County Council gave it control over all the Council-owned environmental land on a long lease, the Town Council has administered a pro-active environmental policy which ensures sustainability. It is an active and critical member of the Tees Valley Biodiversity project.

With Council guidance and grant-aided investment, Aycliffe Village – the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the town – has begun to explore its potential as a tourist attraction.

The Town Centre by 2030 has become a place worth visiting. It has shed its ‘declining ‘60s new town’ feel and is open and architecturally-pleasing. Planners finally realised that they could never go back to the old ‘High Street’, and have developed a ‘retail-park’ form of shopping centre appropriate to the 21st Century.
A number of large and prestige retail outlets – including an electrical retailer and a furniture outlet – have built large stores, even though this involved demolishing substantial sections of the old shops. The Thames Centre has also been demolished, and the entire southern end has been roofed and turned into a shopping mall similar to the Cornmill in Darlington.
The town centre continues to incorporate a large open area on which a thriving market takes place every Tuesday.
Burn Lane has been upgraded to handle the increased traffic to this thriving retail-park-cum-shopping-centre.

Friday, 17 June 2011

A Job for the Town Council?

If you do not live in County Durham, you may not find this rant particularly relevant, and you may want to move onto other posts of more general significance.

HOWEVER, I do feel that this situation exemplifies a more general malaise in local government in recent years whereby - whenever there is a new initiative - town councils (in our case perfectly suitable for task) are ignored and a new, usually very expensive, standalone organisation is created from new to administer the function. It would have been so much cheaper, easier and faster simply to devolve the function to the Town Council. But, either by design or incompetence, there seems to be an intention nowadays to bypass the existing democractically-elected parish-level councils.

When County Durham becam a Unitary Authority, it set up 14 'Area Action Partnerships' to 'work with local communities and key Partners to make sure local services meet local needs'.

After a year, County Council Scrutiny asked the public what we thought of the AAPs, and this was my answer:

I have five reservations about the AAPs.

1. Firstly, they are unelected. Although they include Councillors, ALL members on the AAP are unelected. Therefore, despite a formal process of selection of which I am aware, the underlying truth is that the members of the AAP are largely self-selected, and the danger is that sooner or later the AAPs will come to consist of people who do NOT represent the public, but who are there because they have a personal or corporate vested interest. Whether this is true of the people who are currently on the AAPs is irrelevant (actually, the people on GAMP are good people). The problem is that it is the membership PROCESS which is flawed. And where there are perfectly acceptable democratically-elected alternatives (e.g. Great Aycliffe Town Council and Middridge Parish Council) I cannot see why it was/is necessary to have the undemocratic AAP.

2. I am horrified that, last year, a £250,000 budget carried a £100,000 (40%) administration element. If the County Council had given a ring-fenced sum to a joint meeting of GATC and MPC, we could have applied that funding to any defined set of projects/areas with no admin costs whatsoever. One cannot help suspecting that the AAPs were set up as much to provide administrative jobs at DCC as to fund community projects.

3. I question the project-funding element of the AAP’s function altogether. Funding of what is an ever tighter budget at DCC is determined after a strict and comprehensive budgeting process. Yet then – erroneously in my opinion – the County Council hands out £3.5 million to the AAPs to spend in a random manner as they choose. What evidence is there that this spending matches County priorities … or negates them? To what scrutiny processes is this spending subject? The sum of £150,000 is paltry in terms of its ability to affect anything of substance, and the AAPs appear simply as bodies set up to keep local people entertained by letting them throw a little money around in their local area. To the extent that this is true, it is outrageous in a time of painful cuts in front-line services. And if it is not true, and that money is judged essential to spend on community-wished projects, why was it thought necessary to set up a separate body to undertake this – why did you not just give the money to GATC and MPC, along (if you wish) with a set of rules about the consultation/validation processes that had to accompany the grants? Your money would have been spent at least as validly and much more efficiently.

4. The AAPs were set up to form a link between County Council and Parish-level politics, as an assurance to those who were worried that local government would become too ‘distant’ when the District Councils were abolished. I see no evidence at all that the AAPs have made any contribution whatsoever to drawing County Council politics down to Parish level. If it argued that it has better involved local people in community issues (which is a clear aspect of your questionnaire), then I think you will incur the wrath of GATC, which has several well-developed and much more effective ways of involving the local community in decision-making. And if you argue that the AAP addresses County issues, I would question the extent to which that has been effective, or even true.

5. One element where there has been some movement on this – alarmingly, in my opinion – has been that the County Council has occasionally used the AAP system as its ‘consultees’ on various issues INSTEAD OF attending GATC (the County Plan is a case in point). And – whereas one might argue that, if the AAP exists, there is nothing to be lost in consulting this self-selected, potentially-partial body – when this is seen as an acceptable alternative to consulting the democratically-elected body of Councillors on GATC, then I am horrified.


The membership of GAMP are fine, willing community volunteers, exemplars of the Big Society, and I have only praise for their efforts and their intentions. But I cannot see a single thing that GAMP does which could not be done better, cheaper, more efficiently, faster, and more democratically by a partnership body drawn up by GATC and MPC.

Where an area has vibrant parish/town councils (such as Great Aycliffe/Middridge), the AAPs need abolishing, their functions need devolving to the parish/town councils, and instead an EFFECTIVE system of political cooperation, consultation and involvement needs developing between the County Council and the town/parish councils which will MEANINGFULY meet the promises made by the County Council to parish councils.

Why is Labour so silent on Welfare reform?

Yesterday, Tom Clark, in a wonderful article for The Guardian, argued strongly against the proposed Tory cap on benefits. ‘The nasty cap fits’ was his amusing A-head.

But his subtitle was more reflective: ‘The crude limit on family benefits does not make financial sense. But it works for the Sun.’

I cannot pretend to know what I am talking about when it comes to benefits. I think I share this with many people – even those who are on benefits themselves. I suspect that this is part of the problem, because it lends itself to a suspicion that there are people ‘out there’, who do know more than you, and who are therefore able to ‘work the system’.

What I DO know, however, was that – even after Tom Clark’s crusading piece – I was still left worryingly unconvinced by his argument.

I hope that isn’t because I’ve turned fascist in my old age – I don’t think so, anyway.

But I was not won over by his arguments – even by his startling claim that people on benefits will only have £3 per person per day to live on under the proposed cap of £26,000 a year.

I think my point would be that – whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter – what Labour needs to come to terms with is that it is the Tories, not they, who have won the public ear on this matter.

It is all about matching the public mood, isn’t it! In 1979, after a winter of discontent, Thatcher simply caught the mood of a nation which was fed up with strikes and inflation. The Labour landslide of 1997 swept in on a mood of ‘things can only get better’. These were not individual cognitive decisions by the electorate. ‘The nation’ had formed a collective view.

No amount of argument, reason – even blunt, incontrovertible FACTS! – could have swayed the nation at those points. It had made up its mind.

Unfortunately, I fear the same is true about Welfare.

When I was a young father with a growing family, just starting to make my way in my career, things were desperately hard. The five of us (plus dog) lived in a two-bed terrace in a back street in a pit village. Both my wife and I did moonlight jobs to make ends meet. We were very happy, but we lived frugally.

Nobody stepped in for me and said how dreadful it was that my income was capped, and that please could they give me some more so I could live in a house which wasn't overcrowded. The implicit view of the state, explicitly of my parents, and to be fair of myself, was that I’d made my bed and now I’d have to lie in it.

So I’m sorry to say that the Tories have won the propaganda battle here. Why should people on benefits be absolved from the ‘cap’ that constrains every working person – the need to live within one’s income? Why should people on benefits live in a world where the decision to have more children just causes the state to find you a larger house and more income … when the people whose taxed wages are paying for those benefits do not have that opportunity?

I don’t know much Tom Clark earns, but has he any idea how much £26,000 SOUNDS to hundreds of thousands of people who can never dream of having anywhere near that to live on. And if not they who are working, they must surely think, why someone else who isn’t?

It’s not fair.

Now I have lived long enough to be sure that it is not as easy as that, and I am more than happy for someone who does know what they are talking about to come along and prove that this is a most terrible misconception. But that is not my point. My point is that this is what ‘the nation’ has come to think, and Labour needs to realise that not only has this become the accepted argument … it is an argument that Labour now finds itself on the wrong side of.

And don’t think that support for the principle of a cap comes from the rich, alienated from real life by their upbringing and lifestyle – or even the middle classes, trapped in a thrift ethic which mortgages the present to secure the future. No – the Tory line on benefits exactly the mirrors the opinions of hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people – the ‘Sun readers’ whom Labour once represented.

I am conscious of a certain hypocrisy amongst working people in this matter. Your ‘working man’ is quite able to turn a blind eye when it is his daughter who has the live-in lover whom she hasn’t declared. And his wife complains bitterly about how hard her son’s family are finding it to cope now he has lost his job – ‘the Welfare’ will be all that’s mean and useless in that circumstance. But, even so, as to the principle, the Tories have won hands down.

I remember my surprise at the reaction, a few years ago, when ‘that’ family in a certain deprived area of the town held a Bonfire Night Party. Local working people looked on with outrage as the beer flowed, and firework after expensive firework went skywards, and not one member of that family had ever worked in generations, and the children ran out of control, and every penny of that party was paid for, either by the state, or by fiddle jobs.

Every day, in an admittedly right-wing press, people are reading of this family or that individual who have been getting thousands upon thousands from the taxpayer and promptly wasting it, or who have been diddling the social and apparently got away with it.

It has become immovably established in the public psyche that the system is too lax … and alongside this that the Labour Party supports a sloppy system which pampers the indolent.

And with justification? According to Tom Clark, some Labour MPs have opposed the cap, and the Labour leadership has temporised. When he was challenged to support welfare reform at PMQs on Wednesday, Ed Milliband was conspicuous by his silence.

For most people, that means simply ‘guilty as charged’.

WHY do we have this yawning gap in leadership on this issue?

‘Caring’ for the poor is not the same as allowing yourself to be made a mug of.

Wanting to take people out of poverty is not the same as pouring money into squandering pockets.

We can speak out fearlessly against the abuse of the system – in fact, the louder we condemn evident abuses, the more popular we will become with our traditional ‘working people’ supporters.

It is not out of order for Labour to condemn benefit cheats, and to demand that the system eliminates those anomalies which are forever getting into the newspapers, where some nightmare family has ended up living at megabucks to the taxpayer in a huge house in a swank neighbourhood. Nobody supports such things, and it will not do us any harm with the people who actually go out to vote to say so. Labour have not yet realised that – when they attack such things – they are things for which the Tories (not they) are now responsible!

There is nothing weak in saying that Welfare DOES need reform but that the Tories are doing it all the wrong way.

There is not even anything wrong with saying that people ought to work for a living. This is the argument, surely, for more jobs in the public sector – that we will not pay someone to sit at home on the social, but we will give them a job in government services so they can earn themselves a living. Our core support comes from millions of people who do just that – work for a living. They will LOVE it if the Labour Party was to decide that everybody ought to labour.

A few years ago, Labour realised that it had got on the wrong side of the immigration debate, and that – whatever it actually did – it needed to ‘talk tougher’ on immigration.

Is it possible that the same is true now for Welfare?

On Wednesday I had the great privilege of watching part of the debate on the Welfare Bill. The focus was the retiming of benefit applications, and how it would affect people who had long-term, incredibly unpredictable diseases like cancer. The Labour Party was brilliant – unanswerable. The Tories either sat in uncomfortable silence or rose to agree. The Liberal woman who tried to support the Bill made a complete fool of herself. It was an example of opposition at its best – seeking out errors and injustices in the proposed legislation.

But it is a side of Labour that few people will ever see.

All the public see is an embarrassingly silent Labour leadership who look equivocal on Welfare reform and who certainly don’t have ‘a stance’ on the issue.

For this, as with so many things, we need a POLICY!

I cannot say what that policy should say – I don’t think it should be a case of ‘guessing the public mind’.

Why hasn’t the Party opened up a debate, so that it can discuss through with its supporters what we feel about this, and develop a policy which is consistent, fair and reasonable … and which we can then tell people about?

Thursday, 16 June 2011

A capitalist solution to the wind farm problem

I’ve got another of those ideas that will ‘save the world’ – or at least solve the renewable energy crisis.

Background? Well, they’re about to put in a planning application for a huge wind farm, next to my town. It will be bigger than my town! I’m against it.

My wife’s friend, however, it totally FOR it! She thinks that the white concrete monstrosities are elegant, and that the turning blades enhance the beauty of the countryside – she’d have one on the other side of Aycliffe too, if she could.

Her views have caused a little bit of friction, if I’m honest.

Now, however, I have had the idea which will solve this problem once and for all!

To understand it, you’ll need to know how these wind farms are subsidised.

The government doesn’t pay the subsidy. Instead, for every MegaWatt of renewable energy produced, it issues a ROC (a ‘renewable something-or-other certificate). The producer sells the ROC to the electricity company (the current price is about £50 per ROC).

The electricity company HAS to buy the ROCs, because they have to give a certain number of them to the government at the end of the year. And thus they pay, not only £45-per-MW for the electricity, but an extra £50 for the ROC.

And who stumps up the extra £50 – WE DO, of course! Because the electricity company simply puts up our prices to cover the extra expense.

Renewable electricity costs the consumer double that of non-renewable electricity.

So, what’s my idea, then?

My idea is an idea for a capitalist world.

It’s an idea which fits in absolutely with the current government’s philosophy of ‘less government’.

It’s an idea which states that the reason all this renewable energy stuff is going wrong is because the government has interfered with the free market economy.

It’s an idea which gives me, the consumer, my human right within the free market to make a choice, and by my choice to determine how the market functions.

The problem with the current system is that – having been forced by the government to buy the ROCs – the electricity companies are allowed to bundle up the renewable and non-renewable electricity together, and sell them together, and charge for them together, and therefore to hide the extra costs of the renewable energy in with the cost of the non-renewable.

If it was a greengrocer hiding rotten tomatoes in amongst the good ones, Trading Standards would stop him.

So let’s stop the electricity companies doing that too.

As a consumer. I ought to have the right to decide whether I want the expensive renewable electricity, or the cheaper non-renewable electricity.

The two kinds of electricity ought to have different prices, and I ought to be able to decide what proportion of the two I want.

· My friend who loves the wind farms, she’s going to choose 100% renewable energy, isn’t she! She LOVES wind farms, and thinks we need to save the environment, and thinks the extra cost is worth it, and so I’m sure she’d love to pay double for ALL her electricity, bless her.

· Me? Well, I’m a public-spirited person, and I’m prepared to ‘do my bit’ – I’ll stump up for the 11% of renewable energy that we’re supposed to be using, and I’ll pay double for that 11%.

· And I suppose there will be a lot of mean-spirited Neanderthals who don’t care about the environment, and will just use coal-electricity at the cheapest price, and let ecology go hang.

We all know what’ll happen, of course!

Almost NOBODY will plump for the double-price electricity.

And the electricity companies won’t be able to get rid of their renewable electricity, and will have to sell it at a loss, pretending that it’s non-renewable.

And there’ll be some pretty tough talking between the government and the companies.

And something will get sorted out to solve the problem.

At the moment, because they have found some idiots who are prepared to go on paying for inefficient turbines and massive subsidies, there is no compulsion for the government and the companies to sort the problem out.

Giving us our right as consumers to make a choice will allow the market to exercise its proper function, and – trust me – when they are making millions of pounds loss, the companies WILL find a solution.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

New Labour – power, pragmatism and the place of socialist principles

I am proud to have known Tony Blair. I found him to be honest and up-front. He was a brilliant communicator and persuader. I was no more to him than someone who stood at the back of the crowd and applauded, but I am proud to have been part of that era. My wife and I still keep and treasure the Christmas cards we received from him.

Although he did not invent the idea, of course, it is from Tony Blair that many of us have our understanding of ‘New Labour’.

Labour in the 1980s was unelectable. Full of dinosaurs, extremists, fantasists and militants, it had become a national laughing stock (of which scorn poor old Michael Foot unfairly took the brunt).

And so it was that the pragmatists came to power within the party. Led by John Smith and then Neil Kinnock, their argument was that – as long as the Party continued to alienate the middle class by espousing loony-left principles – it would never get into power to be able to implement moderate-left principles.

I think we fail to cut enough slack to those moderates who fought that bitter battle – to whom we owe the Labour Party. If they had not won, the Labour Party would not exist today.

The crux of the matter, of course, was Clause 4. It was not just a promise to drop nationalisation; it was a promise to business that business was safe in our hands. And indeed, it turned out to be more-than-safe – under New Labour business experienced a boom which ran so uncontrolled that it ended up in worldwide financial meltdown.

It is hard to understate how deeply this strand of pragmatism of New Labour runs in the Labour Party today.

It is presumably why we have a Labour leadership which has decided to make its pitch to the ‘squeezed middle class’ (by which it means people earning up to £100,000 a year!) – a leadership which complains when the Tories remove benefits from families earning £50,000 a year – a leadership which thought it was acceptable to double (from 10% to 20%) the tax paid by someone on £7000, but declined to raise the tax rate paid by people on £149,000.

Visit any Labour Party branch in the north-east and you are likely to find someone who will tell you that, unless we get elected in the south-east, we will never have a Labour government again. There is a terror in Labour ranks of saying anything which might upset the middle classes of the south-east.

So that is the orthodoxy – but how valid is it?

I have my doubts.

Firstly, I would question how important it was to getting elected in 1997 that we sucked up to the middle classes. I am sure it helped, but do you really think that that was what brought Tony Blair into Downing Street? Do you not think it was much more the 18 years of Tory right-wing rule?

And not just that the Tories were bankrupt, corrupt and divided. During those Thatcher years there had been a pronounced shift to the left in the British public. It had been proven to them that right-wing politics bring social suffering. People who had stood firm against the miners’ strike had marched for the miners when the pits were closing. And that leftwards swing was so strong and so permanent that – even faced with a Labour government which was bankrupt, corrupt and incompetent itself in 2010, the electorate struggled to turn completely against it.

Just because we won when we were making a pitch to the middle classes does not mean that we won because we made that pitch – and it most certainly does not necessarily mean that making our pitch to the middle classes is the way to win again.

Labour did not win over the middle classes in 1997 because it pandered to their wealth and greed; they voted Labour because they saw in Labour a socially-better alternative.

Secondly, are there not working-class people in the south-east? Why are we not making a pitch to them?

And thirdly, are you sure that the way to get elected is to abandon all our socialist principles and espouse pragmatism? There is a difference between tempering your principles with pragmatism, and abandoning them altogether.

Much of the hand-wringing that is going on in the Party today is wondering why we don’t seem to appeal to young people any more. Are you sure that this is not because they no longer see the Labour Party as a repository of principles? Instead, I am sure they see the Labour Party as old-fashioned and irrelevant. Name one meeting you have been to in the last year which a young man would have come out of with his head and his heart on fire.

I think we ought to regard it as a humiliation that it was the Lib-Dems who were regarded as the party of principles at the last election – and now, seeing as they have thrown away that reputation, is it not time for us to be stepping into the breach?

Nobody is suggesting we reinstate Clause 4. Nobody wants to go back to unilateral nuclear disarmament, or a higher income tax rate of 83%.

But don’t tell me that pursuing Tory-policies-only-slower will ever get us elected.

It is time to look to our roots, and to start advocating what we really believe.