Saturday, January 31, 2009

Opencast meeting

I am on the bus now, leaving Newcastle to head home to Sunniside. I have just spoken at the meeting on opencast mining. It looks like a region wide group will be set up to fight the ever growing number of opencast coal applications. I said that any such group will need to have an alternative vision for energy that is not based on coal but is based on renewables, devolved power production and better energy efficiency instead. This was certainly taken on board.

The bus has had to take a detour. There appears to have been an accident in the Teams. Police cars and fire engines are charging all over the place.
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Friday, January 30, 2009

Speaking on opencast mining

I was recently invited to speak at an environment conference in Newcastle. The event is tomorrow and I have agreed to attend. I am speaking in the afternoon and have been given 10 minutes to speak and then answer questions. I have been specifically asked to speak about opencast mining.

Nearly 4 years ago I led a campaign against an opencast scheme in my ward. The proposal was to mine 400,000 tonnes of coal and fireclay from a site right next to a couple of villages and with a route for lorries right through the centre of a number of villages. The campaign resulted in a petition of 18,000 signatures being handed in to Gateshead Council, the largest ever in Gateshead. I also managed to run a strong media campaign and as a result of that, I continue to do media interviews. It has also resulted in the invite for tomorrow.

I will be speaking on how the campaign was run and how to get a positive result - in this instance the rejection of the application and the eventual abandonment of the appeal by the applicant. I do of course, have to write the speech now. Fortunately I am on the train heading to Newcastle so I have some time to use up.

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50th councillor elected in Newcastle after gain from Labour

Having blogged that we won last night in Fenham in Newcastle, taking Labour's last seat in the ward, I can now give you the vote:

Lib Dem 1049.
Labour 1025
BNP 836
Con 186

That means we have 50 councillors in the city. Not bad after 5 years of control and a majority substantially increased on the authority from when the Lib Dems first won it (back in 2004 we had 44 seats).

A bad result for Labour who opted for a 4 month campaign in the hope of appearing as the underdogs trying to claw back the Lib Dem lead. Had they gone for a shorter campaign, they would have gone to the polls at a time when Labour were doing better in the polls and were basking in the rather short lived glow of their victory in the Glenrothes by-election. Their tactical error raises further doubts about their group leader in the city.

As for the BNP I'm not sure whether they will be elated or devastated by the result. No doubt BNP readers of this blog will make their views clear. I guess it depends on which starting point you take. The rise in their vote from the last election will make them happy. If the starting point was their expectation as they went into the final stretch of the campaign, they will be disappointed - not that I would expect them to admit it. Nevertheless, there is a warning in the result for all parties.

And finally, the Tories. Yet again they have failed to register on the radar screen. Whilst a Tory recovery may appear to be taking place throughout the country, the reality on the ground in places like Newcastle and many other metropolitan areas is that the Tories are the distant 4th party. Remember, Fenham was a ward they held in the Thatcher period.

Back to lessons, at least for the Lib Dems. We were in the slightly unusual position of being the dominant party that is in control of the council. Strategies for defending records are different from going on the attack in areas where other parties are in control. Picking up the seat in the more difficult circumstances of not having the luxury of being in opposition is all the more remarkable even with such a small majority in the actual result. Nevertheless, we need to look closely at what worked, what didn't and what needs to be done to counteract opponents. And no doubt opponents will have views on that as well.

So well done Newcastle. And let's have more gains in the future!
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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Gain from Labour in Newcastle

Result just through from Newcastle Fenham byelection. A Lib Dem gain from Labour by a slender 24 votes, or there abouts. But the BNP were only about 200 behind. Tight result but a gain nonetheless. Well done to Newcastle who now have their 50th councillor. Newcastle before the elections were the biggest Lib Dem group in the country and are now the even biggest group.

Labour's glittering new and otherwise useless group leader in Newcastle, Nick Forbes, must be feeling the heat. Time for Labour there to get their 4th leader in 4 years!
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Beware of BNP by-election result

There is a by-election in Fenham ward in Newcastle today. Labour are defending the seat though it is a ward with a colourful political history.

Until the 80s it was a strong Tory ward but they lost to Labour and have since collapsed, as they have across the whole of Newcastle and Gateshead. Labour held the ward comfortably for 20 years and it returned 3 Labour councillors in 2004 despite their meltdown elsewhere in the city.

Then in 2006 Labour lost a seat to the Lib Dems. In 2007 they held on though only by a slender 4 votes and a similar number of recounts. And in 2008, Labour lost again to the Lib Dems. It is the Labour seat in the ward that is being fought over in this byelection, sparked by the death of the Labour councillor. Labour opted for the long campaign. The seat became vacant in September so the battle has lasted 4 months. Presumably Labour thought of themselves as the underdog and wanted more time to claw back what they regarded as the Lib Dem lead.

Into this battlefield rode the BNP. From what I had heard, they have thrown everything into the contest, or so it seems. I have seen concerns about the rise in the BNP vote on one Labour blog and I know what our own people are telling me. With just this one seat to focus on, their vote is going up. Watch out for a possible upset tonight.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

French Google Earth and other stories

There is a barely known island in the Indian Ocean called Mayotte. It is a French dependency and I visited it in December 2007 and shot a few videos there which made their way onto my Youtube channel. In the past few days, I have spotted an interesting increase in the number of viewings they are getting. So I checked out what was happening and discovered that they are featured on the French version of Google Earth. If you go to the satellite image of Mayotte, you can see the island peppered with images of my videos! Let's just hope all those French speaking people who are viewing them can speak English. I'm not sure if my O'level French is up to doing a translation!

Talking of electronic communications, I went to the Parliamentary Party meeting this evening at the end of which, one MP amusingly feigned surprise that I wasn't on the allotment or preserving food. Seems as though people on Facebook at least are following our attempts to become self-sufficient.

And talking of that, we have bought or are in the process of buying equipment to help us achieve our aim of providing most of our own food. One of the purchases was a new, large food processor which came with an eye watering array of attachments. I tried it out last night though it took me most of the evening to assemble it and get it working. Fun times ahead however. On learning of the acquisition of the new equipment, expectations of an increased supply of home made food have gone up in Cowley St.

Back to electronic communications. I finished the next edition of North East Democrat on Monday. This is the email newsletter I produce for Lib Dems in the region. I always send it to in addition to people on my media list. As a result, I discovered that journalists do pass it on to each other. One Chronicle journalist emailed me to ask to go on the circulation list. She'll end up getting my eFocuses as well!

Anyway, my train journey is about to end and I am heading off for the pub quiz. We haven't won so far this year. Hopefully tonight will see an improvement.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

The Monday morning blog - time to reform the Lords

The Sunday Times entrapment of 4 Labour peers has again highlighted the need for Lords reform. Whether or not the 4 people in question are guilty (and if there is a case, we should let the legal system deal with them, rather than have trial by media) the fact is that a chamber that consists of unelected and unpaid life members (okay so they got a comfortable allowance) breeds a situation in which cash changing hands to change legislation is more likely to happen.

Attempts to reform the Lords have gone on for a century. The Parliament Act of 1911, which curtailed the powers of the Lords to reject legislation agreed by the Commons (and took away financial powers) was the started of botched attempts to change the real nature of the upper house. A century later and though the Commons has voted for substantial reform, nothing has been done. To borrow a phrase from Labour, they are a do-nothing government on this issue. Let's hope that changes.

Anyway, I am on the train to London now, just crossing the Tyne as we leave Newcastle. It's a slightly later train than normal. Should be in London in 3 and a half hours.
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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Small business survey launched

We launched the North East Liberal Democrats' survey of small businesses yesterday in Gateshead. The aim is to survey 5,000 businesses. As usual, I was on hand to do the photos and interview the participants for the regional video newsletter I do.

You can also see the video:
The photos is of me, Fiona Hall MEP and my ward colleague John McClurey in whose shop we launched the survey.

Video gaffe - always switch off the phone before you start filming

I always tell people to switch off phones when I interview them on video. Trust me to forget on Saturday when we were shooting the video for the launch of the small business survey in the North East. Here's the offending clip.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Launching the small business survey

We are launching a survey of small businesses across the region tomorrow, Saturday. It is part of a survey that is being carried out across the country by Liberal Democrats, under the direction of the Parliamentary Business and Enterprise Team. (Guess who wrote the original!?)

The launch will be taking place in a small business in Gateshead: a shop owned by my ward colleague, Cllr John McClurey. Leading the survey in the North East will be Fiona Hall MEP and she will be supported at the launch tomorrow by Carol Woods, our candidate for Durham City, and Cllr John Shipley, Leader of Newcastle City Council.

I'm doing the photos and video. Watch this space......

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My latest on National Express

As I am sitting here on a National Express train, heading home after 10 days in London, I thought I would have a post about one of my favourite subjects: National Express! The Journal reported recently that the company is considering introducing a £1 charge for seat reservations to discourage people from booking seats who subsequently don't occupy them. They allege this is something of a problem.

Quite how it is a problem is not explained. If someone books a seat on a train from Newcastle to London and then decides to get a different service, that seat does not stay vacant all the way to London. Someone else very rapidly claims it. In fact, on a busy service, if you have no seat and all unrserved seats are filled, all you have to do is wait for the train to leave the station and find a vacant reserved seat which was supposed to be filled by a passenger from the station at which you have just boarded yourself.

I get the impression however that the proposal is just a wheeze to rake in more cash from passengers. Fares have just gone up well above inflation. Now other charges are being introduced. Let's hope they don't start charging for taking luggage or breathing the on board air!

I notice that Tyne Bridge MP Dave Clelland has backed the seat reservation proposal.
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Monday, January 19, 2009

On the other side of the camera with Nick Clegg

On Saturday I took photos of members with Nick Clegg (if you have your photo taken it will be on the Lib Dem Flickr site soon). But at the end I ended up being on the other side of the camera for a change. This is the picture.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

At the LSE conference

I am at the LSE to do photos with Nick Clegg and members. The session is now finished. Format was the usual one we use for conference photo ops. There was an invasion of staff at the end of the session to have pics taken and I suspect there will be plenty of them appearing on Facebook soon.

But forget politics for a moment. Seems as though some people here are far more interested in my food growing and making exploits! Talking of which, I've just had a message from David who is working hard on the allotment, shovelling more of that manure! And here I am stuck in London!

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Yak and Yeti

Normally at this point I would be on a train heading home to Gateshead but not tonight. I am in London over the weekend to do photos with Nick Clegg at a one day conference at the LSE. So I am in Crystal Palace now, instead of being on a train.

So to fill in the evening, I am out for dinner in a new restaurant in the Crystal Palace Triangle called the Yak and Yeti. Well worth going to. The only drawback was that I was eventually defeated by the vegetable jalfrezi. It was super hot. I hate food waste but I had to leave a small bit or otherwise I would have spontaneously combusted!

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Let the train take the strain

Despite my regular outbursts against National Express, I continue to be a great fan of rail travel. Indeed, some of my anoyance with National Express and their service cancellations is the concern that poor service simply encourages people to switch to using the car instead.

We have as a nation become accustomed to using the car. And whilst some rail passengers may switch to other modes of travel if problems arise on the trains, too often motorists accept all the drawbacks of driving, especially congestion, rather than switch to other means. In other words, it takes a great deal to encourage people to leave the car at home and take public transport instead. And this was brought home to me earlier this week by an article in The Journal, our regional morning newspaper in the North East.

There are major roadworks now taking place on the A184, a major road linking the A1 to central Newcastle and Gateshead. The Journal interviewed a driver who said she normally takes an hour to drive from Durham to Newcastle. Now, due to the roadworks, she was having to add another 30 minutes to her journey.

This struck me as odd as the journey from Durham to Newcastle by train is only 12 minutes. And there is no hassle at Newcastle in trying to find a parking space, no problem with getting stuck in congestion, no burning up expensive fuel stuck in the traffic, and far less pollution. 12 minutes by train compared to 90 minutes by car. I know which I prefer.

And for your information, I am writing this on the train!

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Now Gordon is going to save the world from cancer

Gordon Brown, Saviour of the World, is on a new mission to protect the population of the planet Earth from impending disaster. Having cured the banks of imminent death and destruction, Flush Gordon wants to turn his hand to stamping out cancer, so claims The Sun in one of the most sycophantic and stomach churning articles I have read in a newspaper.

Speaking about the impending presidency of Obama, Flush Gordon said, “There has never been a time that cooperation between the two countries and the rest of the world is more necessary.” (How about during the First and Second World Wars?)

Flush proudly proclaims that he and Obama, working together, could “find ways of wiping out deadly global diseases, such as cancer.” Presumably this will be done by the two of them sitting in a room and talking.

If you have a strong constitution and feel the need to see what Brown had to say about how he is going to show Obama how to end death and disease from the cabinet war room, you can read it here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

John Reid MP – from Leninist activist to private security industry consultant

There is something deeply uncomfortable about the way Labour government members retire from the Cabinet to the backbenches and then take on a well paid position as consultants to the industry which came under the control of the ministry they recently led.

The latest to make the move is John Reid. The former Defence Secretary has just picked up a plum job as a consultant to G4S Security Services, with a credit crunch busting payslip of £50,000. Last year G4S bought out private security company ArmorGroup, which was involved in mine clearance, convoy protection and ‘kidnap and extortion insurance’ in Iraq.

Dr Reid has certainly made an interesting transformation from Leninist PhD student to New Labour businessman, specialising in Iraqi security. Presumably there is a big need for the services of these private security companies in Iraq, following the illegal invasion which turned into the biggest foreign policy disaster since Munich.

I wonder, however, what Labour MPs think of Dr Reid’s profiting from the security industry. Perhaps the following early day motion initially proposed in January last year, gives an indication:

This House is concerned by the exponential growth of private military and security companies (PMSCs) since the invasion of Iraq; is disturbed by the substantial rise of reported incidents of civilian killings and human rights abuses by PMSC guards in Iraq who remain unregulated and unaccountable; further notes that problems posed by proliferation of PMSCs were highlighted in a Green Paper in February 2002 that originated in a request from the Foreign Affairs Committee but that, six years later, there is still no United Kingdom legislation regulating PMSCs; believes that self-regulation by the industry is not appropriate in this instance; and urges the Government to bring forward legislative proposals for the control of the PMSC sector as an urgent priority.

Proposer of the motion is none other than David Anderson, MP for Blaydon constituency where I happen to live. It was signed by 92 MPs in total, 53 of whom were Labour.

You can read more about Dr Reid’s consultancy on:

Up to my neck in the brown stuff

This got quite a flurry of interest and amusing comments when on Saturday I announced on Facebook that a large tonnage of manure had been delivered for use on our allotment. So we have spent a large part of the weekend shovelling the stuff into wheelbarrows and spreading it on the land. We had originally estimated 3 tonnes of the stuff had turned up. We now think it is about 5 tonnes.

Since we are aiming to be as self-sufficient in food as possible, having a well fertilised stretch of land is important. Nevertheless, the shelves of Sainsburys as a source of food did have a certain amount of appeal when we were in the middle of shovelling all that brown stuff. And there's still plenty of work to do to get it all onto the land. But that is for another weekend.
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The Monday morning blog: National Express starting the year as they intend carrying on

I would have been hopping mad had I been booked on the 7.40am train from Newcastle to London today. This is the fast service to London and the one National Express loves to cancel. And today, yet again rather than bother themselves with putting on the scheduled service, National Excess has cancelled the service they regard as optional. The train arrived as scheduled from Edinburgh and at that point was withdrawn from service, complete with all the passengers on board, and then converted to the slow service leaving at 7.52am (the service on which I am booked). The seat reservations for the 7.52am have been cancelled which means it's a free-for-all as passengers race to get what seats are available.

In December, on the first anniversary of National Excess getting the franchise, they claimed in the Journal that everything was improving and going well. Frankly, National Excess couldn't run a Hornby trainset, never mind a real one. It seems however that they are starting the year as they intend carrying on.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Heading home at last

At last, at last, I am heading home. Having been away since Xmas Eve, it will be good to get back to Gateshead. I am on the train just leaving Kings Cross now. No National Express screw ups tonight. And unusually, I am on the early train.

I am hoping to spend the weekend sorting photos and video and tidying my office at home, though I suspect we will need to do some work on the allotment as well. But tomorrow starts with a photo shoot with some of our councillors in Whickham. 9.15am. The timing wasn't my idea!

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I've made it into the pages of an international travel guide!

Well sort of. Schmap is an on-line travel guide. They have a page on Newcastle and asked if they could use one of my photos of the City's St Nicholas Cathedral which is on my Flickr site. If you have nothing better to do, follow the link:,-1.62344&bottomright=54.95347,-1.59933&i=105505_7.jpg

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Brown bypasses North East on the day Nissan announces 1200 job losses

Gordon Brown will not be coming to the North East as part of his current tour of the nation in which he looks at the problems of the recession. The region is not sure whether they should feel relieved or insulted. I suspect it is a mixture of both.

However, the Brown tour to other parts of the country goes ahead on the day one of the most successful private sector employers in the North East, Nissan, announces 1200 job losses. A further 300 jobs are going in a regional business that provides parts to Nissan.

This is a serious blow to the region. Many of my constituents work at the car plant. Northern Rock has already shed a huge number of jobs over the past year. Small businesses are feeling the pinch, and as with the rest of the country, all our Woolies stores have closed.

And yesterday, I took delivery of the jobseeker allowance figures for Gateshead, showing the claimant count went up in all 22 wards in November.

This is going to be a difficult recession. My fear is that we are only at the start of it.

Does Newcastle City Council have a Conservative councillor after all?

It seems a daft question to ask as no Conservative has been elected to Newcastle City Council since 1992. However, listening to Labour Group Opposition Leader Councillor Nick Forbes, I can be forgiven for thinking his briefings come straight from Conservative Central Office.

In early January, Lib Dem run Newcastle announced plans for a council tax rise of 2.9% which would pay towards helping residents and businesses of the city through the recession. The Council will take advantage of loans at low interest rates to invest in homes and businesses.

But Cllr Forbes has attacked the plans, claiming, people are "in a better position than the council when it comes to deciding how to spend their money."

So this begs the question, what does Cllr Forbes think of his own beloved government’s decision to borrow to invest in projects that aim to create jobs and get Britain through the recession?

Judging by what Cllr Forbes has said about Newcastle, I can only assume he is joining with the Tories to attack his own government’s investment plans.

But no, Cllr Forbes is certainly not that consistent! Whilst he takes the view that it is terrible that the Lib Dem run Council should be borrowing to invest, late last year he sang the praises of the government from the rooftops for allowing £400 million of taxpayers' money to be invested in the Tyne and Wear Metro. He claims that "the additional investment in public transport is a boost for the region’s economy and jobs at a difficult time."

In February last year, Cllr Forbes laid into the Lib Dem council, claiming there was not enough council housing. Given that much of the new Council investment is to go into housing, his attack on the investment plans don’t quite square with his previous posturing.

Not very consistent, are you Nick?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Happy New Year from National Express

I received a promotional email from National Express today, offering me 20% off some types of advance purchase tickets. All I had to do was put in a special code when I booked on line. Given the large amount of my income I hand over to this company each year, I decided that I should take advantage of the offer.

Pity therefore when I went onto the site, all I got was the following message: "Sorry, we can't connect to the National Reservation System. Currently, we can only sell flexible tickets and not discounted Advance Purchase tickets. We are also unable to make any seat reservations." After numerous attempts, I gave up.

Happy New Year from National Express.

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Nearly the wrong trousers

It is a rare event but it has just happened. I left Cowley St in the early evening. The reason - to get my trousers back! I got a new suit a few days ago but the trousers were too long. So they went to a tailors yesterday and were ready at 5pm today. The problem was that at first they couldn't find them and kept offering me the wrong trousers. Eventually they turned up. Problem solved. I am now heading back to the flat.

It's bad news at Marks and Spencer. Store closures and redundancies. I worked as a trainee manager with M&S in the early 90s. They used to make big profits then though I very much doubt that that had anything to do with me! They went through a major revamp a few years ago after profits slipped badly. Seems as though they may have to do the same again.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go

Well, I am heading off to work for the first time this year. No, I'm not on a National Express train coming down from Newcastle. I have been in London over the weekend so I am currently on the local service going into Victoria. The train is largely deserted. Seems as though the xmas break is longer for a great many people.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

My first video with 100,000 viewings

Start the new year with a bang, well sort of. I have just checked YouTube and found that I have blasted my way past another YouTube milestone. The video I shot in a former Soviet secret nuclear submarine base in the Crimea in the Ukraine two years ago has now had 100,000 viewings.

If you really want to, you can see the video on the following link: