Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Northumberland Culture and Customer Service Portfolio highlights in December 2012

The flag of Northumberland

I thought people might like to see the monthly report I ask from the officers in the portfolio I am the executive member for on Northumberland County Council. Here are the highlights for December:

December Highlights for Customer Relations and Culture Portfolio

Our Facilities

A variety of planned improvement works started and took place during December, including:

·         Preparation for the new integrated facility for Seaton Delaval at Astley Community High School. This included a special ‘book buy’ to purchase new stock specially tailored for the local community. The integrated facility opened successfully on 2 January, 2013. 
·         The Library and Customer Information Point at Amble being relocated to the Tourist Information Centre on Queen Street to allow building works to create a new integrated facility to take place at the current ‘library’ site.
·         Building works for the new integrated facility at Cramlington; plumbing, foundation and technical works were completed in the lead up to Christmas.
·         New internal and external signage being fitted at Morpeth Tourist Information Centre.
·         Rutherford’s department store ‘dressing’ Morpeth Town Hall free of charge for Christmas, resulting in a large number of couples saying how “spectacular” the building looked for their special day. 

Contact Centre

A total of 21,213 calls were received. 76.6% were answered within 20 seconds.  3.9% were abandoned against a target of 5%.

The Fire and Rescue Service completed its first month of delivering the Council’s ‘out of hours’ contact centre service with no major concerns raised.

Blue Badges

All completed applications were processed within the 5 working day target. 


118 weddings took place compared with 79 in December 2011.

Resident’s survey

The results of the North East Residents’ Perception survey were released. This showed that 49% of people in Northumberland feel well informed. Representing an increase of 10% since the last full Place Survey in 2008, this is a significant rise. Ipsos Mori called this a ‘wow’ moment in their presentation on the results.

Library Initiatives

As part of the national campaign to get more people using the internet, libraries helped 270 people get online during the first week of December 2012, booking bus tickets to London, undertaking job searches, filling in job applications, finding a long lost relative and tracing a family tree.

A survey to find out what customers think about the new mobile library routes introduced in April 2012 ended on 19 December. The results of the survey will be available in February 2013.

Local Democracy Campaign

Planning for a local democracy campaign with branding, online and printed material took place. A big push in the New Year will be focusing on voter registration (particularly among young people) with a drive to encourage more people to become parish councillors.

Creative People and Places

The Creative People and Places programme gathered views from 1,700 people living in South East Northumberland to inform the development of its business plan for a 3 year artistic programme (which needs to be submitted to the Arts Council in February for approval). Views were gathered via a questionnaire that was made available at public facilities, including libraries and GP surgeries, and online.

Woodhorn was asked to take the national lead in managing the Creative People and Places network and is bidding for a further £170,000 to fund this work.

Arts Venues

Queen’s Hall Arts Centre (QHA) hosted the D’Oscars 2012. This Learning Disability Film Festival included short films and a number of workshops and projects to develop skills and encourage self-expression. Representatives were drawn from as far afield as Hexham, Haltwhistle, Dilston, Blyth, Saltburn, Carlisle, Aspatria and Australia.

QHA delivered its first ever pantomime in December. Audience numbers exceeded targets and the show, The Adventures of Robin Hood, received rave reviews.

The Beautiful Berwick Town Team and Berwick Visual Arts were awarded funding from the Arts Council to develop a pilot project to help identify if there is demand for a permanent print facility in Berwick-upon-Tweed.


Kielder Water and Forest Park was awarded £100,000 Arts Council funding to support a project to develop new audiences through digital technologies and rural landscapes.

Northern Film and Media (NFM) briefing event

An event was held in early December to encourage location filming in Northumberland. Involving partners, landowners, Council officers and NFM, the economic benefits of location filming and the successes achieved for the county were outlined.

North East Tourism Awards

The North East Tourism Awards will be held at the Sage, Gateshead on 31st January 2013. ‘Gold’ award winners will be automatically entered into the national tourism awards organised by Visit Britain. Highlights from the shortlist include:

·         Corbridge TIC (visitor information category)
·         Woodhorn Museum and Archives (sustainable tourism category)
·         Kielder Water & Forest Park (best tourism experience category).

Customer and Cultural Services team members were involved in recruiting judges and managing the judging process for six of the 14 categories.

Portas Projects

Customer and Cultural Services team members supported the work of both the Newbiggin and the Berwick Portas Town Teams during December. Both have developed plans for their projects and tourism has been identified as a priority action in both. The Newbiggin plan is further advanced with many of the tourism aspects of the plan nearing completion. A new brand and marketing campaign have been developed and will launch, along with a new Visit Newbiggin website in mid-February. Improved visitor signage will be installed by the 31 March.

South East Northumberland Section 106 Panel

South East Northumberland Section 106 Panel met in December and awards were made to Newbiggin Town Council (refurbishment of the Skate Park); Blyth Cricket and Rugby Club (development of a second Rugby pitch); Cramlington Learning Village (creation of a cycle speedway track and cycle hub); and Ellington and Linton Parish Council (safety surface Linton Village Play area), benefitting around 2,000 residents of all ages.

Leisure Capital Programme

The results of the conditions survey, commissioned as part of the Leisure Review work, indicated that there was an immediate requirement for works to be completed at a cost of £960,000. Funding has been secured to tackle these urgent works at the earliest opportunity. This money is in addition to the £1.7 million already being spent on leisure infrastructure.

Bedlington Leisure and Gallagher Park

The Gallagher Park steering group took place on 12 December. The meeting was very well attended and discussed the spending of newly secured SITA funding.

A further meeting of the Bedlington Leisure steering group is planned for January where BVAL will present a business case for a community leisure facility using the vacated sports facilities from the current Bedlingtonshire High school build.

Ashington Community and Leisure Facility

An application was submitted to the Sport England Iconic Facilities fund in December for £942,000. The new facility is projected to increase participation in sport over the coming years from 300,000 participants in the first year of opening to over 415,000 in year 5. Existing user numbers are approximately 160,000. A decision will be made on the fund in March 2013.

The planning application for the new facility was considered and agreed by the Council’s Central Planning Committee on 8 January 2013.

Leisure – The Way Forward

A Leisure Review Overview and Scrutiny Task Group and the Council’s Risk Appraisal Panel (RAP) gave their views on the way forward for leisure provision during December. This informed the content of a delegated decision, which was also signed.

Awards and Quality Standard Achievements

Wentworth Leisure Centre was runner up in the APSE performance network’s best performer award for sports and leisure.

Ashington Leisure Centre scored 100% in the Institute of Qualified Lifeguards (IQL) assessment which took place on the 11 December. This is a fantastic result and improves on last year’s excellent score of 93.94%. The assessor summary stated they were “a very passionate and pro-active team”.

Our online resident’s magazine Northumberland News has been shortlisted in the Local Public Services Excellence Awards for best publication. The Awards are organised by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and recognise the best communications and engagement work across the public sector. More details can be found here:

Monday, 14 January 2013

Book Review: The 50 days that Changed Europe by Hanneke Sieblink

50 Days that changed Europe: the cover
Europe is very much in the news in Britain but instead of being a celebration of it being 40 years since we were allowed into the biggest single market in the world, media attention is focussed on whether we should have a vote on whether we should be in the European Union or not.

I have always had a love of Europe, which for me is the cradle of democracy, of human rights and of capitalism and progress. As a Liberal Democrat, I always enjoy meeting Liberals from around Europe and learning about how they are doing and how they interpret a common political philosophy to the economic and political realities of their countries. Not to mention the fact that the Scandinavian Liberals are incredibly good drinkers!

Four years ago, I stood for the European Parliament and this exposed me to the actual institutions of the European Union, namely the Commission and the Parliament. I have to say the rational consensus style of policy making appealed to this UK citizen used to the braying of the politicians in the House of Commons. It also led me to seek out more about why Europeans were so keen on this union that my domestic media told me was such a terrible idea and which seemed so controversial in my own country.

I got the best gift I could want from the in-laws at Christmas, a gift voucher for Waterstone's (I refuse to drop the apostrophe like they have done!) so I could buy myself a book that is unlikely they would pick for me. It's "the 50 Days that changed Europe" by Hanneke Siebelink, a Dutch writer who was an economic advisor to the US Mission to the EU for 10 years. Her aim is to give the reader a snappy and easy to read book on a very dry subject, the development of the body we now call the European Union. It covers all the important events from French foreign minister Robert Schumanns historic call for binding the economies of Europe together to stop another war in 1950 to the current day. She does this in 50 snappy chapters of two or three pages each  which detail each of the 50 most important days in the unions development. Whether you think you are anti or pro EU, you really need to understand why we are where we are. This is a really accessible book that will help anyone understand the European Union.

What it does for me is reinforce the bravery and breathtaking vision of the 6 European nations that founded the union. After the war, bitter enemies put their differences aside to create a free trade zone and customs union. They recognised though that the model of a purely free trade zone was not enough and by pooling sovereignty things which worked better when done in a common way across the whole area could be done much easier. This is a revolutionary concept and one which the EU has been scared to talk about in recent years but one which has stood the test of time.

From a British perspective, it is amazing that on almost every strategic call on the EU it has had to make, the UK seems to have got it wrong and had to come back to the cap in hand once the rules have been set by the other countries. The UK was invited to attend negotiations on the European Coal and Steel Authority, the first institution. We didn't even show up. The European countries wanted the UK then but had got used to life without us when we applied to join and France vetoed our membership for a decade. When the EEC was founded in 1955, Britain said "The future treaty which you are discussing has no chance of being ratified; and if it was ratified it would have no chance of being applied". It was ratified and it was applied. We had no influence on its wording.

Also fascinating is that in 1974, Britain felt that it couldn't argue for what it wanted in terms of the development of the European Parliament because Harold Wilson didn't want to cause negative headlines just before the forthcoming referendum on membership in the UK. One wonders if history will repeat itself if the UK is again distracted by a referendum. Also interesting is how scared by German reunification Thatcher was and how badly she got it while other more visionary politicians realised that you couldn't stop it and that Germany had massively moved on since 1945.

A fascinating book then and one I would recommend anyone who wants to understand the European Union and not just repeat tired old clich├ęs that they read in the UK press.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Fact Checker: The latest Tynedale Tory newsletter.

I received "The Tynedale and Ponteland Chronicle" a week ago in my mail. This is the Tories latest leaflet in the area. It is almost exclusively a Lib Dem knocking sheet. Funny that they focus on local Lib Dems so much as according to the 1st page article they have "collapsed".

Most of the articles reveal a very strange outlook on the world. So here's my take, article by article.

"Are the Lib Dems pushing for Two Tier?" (Page 1). The paper alleges that residents are outraged that the Liberal Democrat County Council is pushing for two tier education across the whole county like has happened in Blyth and Bedlington.

OK. Northumberland is not a Lib Dem county council, we are a minority administration and the Conservatives and Labour groups could overturn our decision at any time. They have done so occasionally and as a result, its fair to say that the Lib Dems have not always been able to push our agenda through fully. To my memory no motion has ever been put forward by the Tories in council on education. In fact I can't remember any councillor mentioning two tier education in full council over the past 5 years. Under Labour before, it was discussed all the time because they had an explicit plan to abolish three tier schools. Lib Dem councillors in Northumberland have been clear that there will be no change unless parents demand it or the government force our hand. No clamour for two tier education has come forward in Tyendale. In Bedlington and Allendale we have had an issue. Middle schools in those areas have repeatedly failed their OfSTED inspections. The government has refused us permission to restart those schools with new management. We either close them and transfer the children to first and high schools, essentially creating two tier schooling or the parents create an academy that is a primary school. So the government is forcing us to go two tier or nothing. We've consulted on both options and called on Guy to lobby Tory secretary of state Michael Gove on this. He refused to do so. The Journal gave a reasonably balanced article on the "row" here.

"MP is big kid at heart". This is a rare shred of truth in the Chronicle - his approach to politics is infantile!

"Progress on Rural Broadband .. in the Slow lane" While its true that there are counties ahead of Northumberland in roll out of rural broadband, Northumberland has done very well in terms of the amount of money it has got. Mr Opperman criticised the county for not bidding to be a pilot authority but many of the authorities that did failed and are now behind Northumberland. We have a well thought out plan and it is being rolled out. Guy "reveals that rural broadband will not be rolled out by Mays elections" it was never planned to be done by then.

"what an amazing two years its been" - apparently the "conservatives have raised personal allowances". In fact that is one of the main Liberal Democrat successes in the coalition. Guy and his chums have prioritised cutting the higher rate of tax for millionaires, a policy Guy does not mention.

"local resident leads fight against over development" Apparently the local Conservative candidate for Stocksfield is leading on the plans to develop homes for Riding Mill. Actually the real leader has been the Conservative, now Independent councillor Anne Dale. She has resigned from the Tories after the Conservative councillor Ian Hutchinson (see Guy proudly standing with him on page 3) was found guilty of bullying her by the conservative led council committee on standards at Northumberland. Anne was stripped of all committee posts by Conservative group leader Cllr Peter Jackson (the man photographed in the shadows on page 3!). The Courant reported on the decision here.

"Shock at suggestion Council may "Swap" green belt" - No actual evidence is proferred here. Their supposition seems to be that the councils is fighting to add green belt around Morpeth and developers want to build around Ponteland. The two aren't connected and there has been no support from the council for the Ponteland development. So the Lib Dem administration appears to be under attack for wanting to get more green belt. Not surprising because its the Tories that have massive developers in their ranks.

Brand New NHS Hospital for West Northumberland - Apparently this is due to local councillor Ian Hutchinson. I sit on the Northumberland Care Trust that made the decision. Cllr Hutchinson has never lobbied us, been to our meetings or was ever mentioned in any report on the great new hospital that is being built in Haltwhistle. I can only presume that the quote that "I don't mince my words" is more of a reference to Cllr Hutchinsons bullying antics towards fellow tories (see earlier), which saw him forced to resign as chair of the West area planning committee by other councillors.

"New High School is on it's way" The government only gave enough money to build small schools in Prudhoe, Bedlington and Alnwick. The money for all the support roads etc has to come from the schools and the council. The council has found the money to fund this but its a combination of loans and grants. Apparently the council should put it in all grants. This is piling up debt on the school. The debt of these loans pales into insignificance compared to the main building costs of the school, which is funded by a Pfi loan to the school. So central government should be commended for loan financing but not the council?

The last comment in "chronicle voice" is close to my heart. As portfolio for leisure on the council, I am proud to have pushed through library and leisure centre improvements. The chronicle voice says "how can the Liberal Democrats afford £20m on a new leisure centre for Ashington but say there is no money to cut the grass?". The answer is that Ashington will just be brought up to the standard already enjoyed in Prudhoe and Hexham. Building the new leisure centre and library will mean millions more people will use the Ashington centre, meaning we can save over £1m a year on subsidies to the leisure centres. That will save the council millions. The plans have been supported by all parties, including the Tories. No opposition was ever put forward.

The Tories have one councillor in South East Northumberland, where the local population would never elect a Tory in a month of Sundays and Labour have one councillor outside of the South East, in Amble. Only once party has good representation across the whole county, the Lib Dems. I'm proud of our record in the county over the past five years, in very very testing circumstances. In most neighbouring areas, libraries have closed, leisure centres have closed and there have been reductions in bin collections etc. In Northumberland we have built more facilities and made savings without having too much impact on peoples lives.