Sunday, 26 June 2011

Getting the Morpeth South blues...

Well - the Tories took the South ward from the LibDems in their first attempt at a Town Council seat after both parties put a huge amount of effort in, with three-four leaflets, a full canvas, County Councillors being wheeled out - and knocking up on polling day. More the sort of thing you'd expect in a marginal seat at a General Election than a byelection for a Town (parish) council. The Tories had nine people turn up at the (45 min) count. Since officially only one counting agent, candidates and candidates' partners were allowed to attend, you might infer that new Town Councillor Dave Herne is a bisexual bigamist [joke Dave! Don't set your legal advisors onto me!].
I didn't see much about what the Town Council actually is about in any of the other campaigns - but with the Tories' campaign mostly about car parking, the LibDems weren't helped when the LibDem County Council published their long-awaited car parking strategy a few days before polling day.
Ron did well - with a massive personal vote of 120 - but in the end, it was another case of people voting tactically against the blues or the yellows - and of the two - more people voted against the yellows.
I only hope now that we won't see County Council politicking being replayed in the Town Council, but with a two year campaign for the County elections [May 2013] now underway, I think we're in for a rough time on the Town Council.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

A geography of voting

To save money, there'll just be one polling station - at Storey Park Community Centre - for the Town Council byelection on 23rd June. So - will people travel the mile or so from Allery Banks or Southgate Wood to vote? I know in South Africa and elsewhere, people walk 20 miles and more to vote, and queue for hours or days - but, despite heavy canvassing by the yellows and blues, I suspect Morpeth South voters won't be readily inclined to pop down to the polling station before or after work or squeeze it into their daily routine.
So - if voting intentions are linked to house type or neighbourhood character, as most parties assume - then the parties favoured by the neighbourhoods nearest Story Park - High Church, Deuchar Park (?) - might do better.
On the other hand - a lot of people will have, and use postal votes - but then, are certain parties favoured by people with postal votes? Perhaps it would have been better to make to by-election entirely postal?
But - in an election, with a likely turn-out of 20-30%, a couple of score of loyal party voters could swing it.
I hope Ron Forster has a big personal following! Vote for Ron on Thursday!

Monday, 13 June 2011

Vote for Ron!

Town Council by-election in South ward on 23rd June - and there's a lot of interest with red, yellow, blue and green candidates, with particularly intensive campaigning from the blues who have never shown the slightest interest in the Town Council before. And of course, we are all saying that party politics has no real place in parish councils. The Independents (Chamber of Trade) did select a candidate - but he had to withdraw due to health reasons.
The huge interest is that this is the first local election in Morpeth since 2008 with the next scheduled elections not due until 2013 - unless there are more byelections as existing Town Councillors - who are just starting the fifth year of a six year term - drop by the wayside.

And these are interesting times: Northumberland CC is keen to devolve services - and Morpeth Town Council, as the biggest spending parish council in the county, is expected to take a lead in forming a local 'parish cluster, but without overwhelming neighbouring parishes. NCC are also routinely consulting parish councils as the voice of their local communities, Morpeth is under huge pressure from housing developers, and within the next two years - we're going to have both the Northumberland LDF Core Strategy (with designation of the Morpeth Green Belt) and neighbourhood planning under the new Localism Bill.

So - we've put up Ron Forster, who is probably the best known of the candidates through his (Sun)day job, and has a good track record in understanding and expressing community views. And - I'd suggest that the Greens also have a good track record in challenging and contributing to Town Council work without descending into party political bickering.

So - lets see what the voters in South ward think...

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Last Bite at the Cherry?

The Low Stanners supermarket plans are going to NCC Planning Cttee for a final decision in early June – and Morpeth TC are about to submit their final comments.
National planning guidance effectively means that we have to have two ‘big name’ supermarkets in Morpeth to ‘provide competition’ – the wide range of local shops, Iceland, M&S and Lidl count for nothing. But Dransfield have not yet announced who will be operating the new foodstore – so lighting and signage will be finalised ‘after the events’, any conditions regarding deliveries or range of stock and opening hours are likely to be challenged or ignored – and we won’t get anything like the community benefits that towns dealing direct with say Tesco or Sainsbury’s have got. And I’m thinking about the £10M shortfall in funding for the Morpeth Flood Scheme. Currently the only community benefit I can see offered is relocation of the vets to Whorral Bank!

And it is a new full application, not a reserved matters application – so none of the conditions and mitigations agreed under the existing outline planning permission apply, and we’ll need to see that they are reconfirmed.

So a number of points I’ll be raising at the Town Council this evening:

Cotting Burn: The ecology report says that the construction of the bridges and the re-alignment of the Burn could be disastrous to its role as a wildlife corridor. The upstream two-way road bridge looks as though it carries several car parking spaces as well as the road width, so it will be a deep dark cavern underneath. Apart from measures to relocate crayfish during construction, there seem to be no mitigation measures proposed.
The runoff from the car parks – including oil, fuel, grit and salt in the winter – looks as through it will run straight into the Burn. There seem to be no traps or filters proposed – and the Burn is sufficiently small that ‘dilution effects’ will not be adequate,

Flood Risk: Although the developer cites OKs from the EA, I have not (yet) seen any direct documents giving the EA seal of approval.
Besides the obvious concerns brilliantly put by MFAG and others about the speed of major flooding and evacuation plans – it sees to me that the underground car park will flood slightly – or at least pond - every time it rains. It is 0.5m below Staithes Lane, which floods regularly. There is likely to be a flow of water in through the access road, maybe water swelling up through the ground when the water table rises etc. It will be perpetually dank and damp – and they admit that there will be danger of cars floating if water depth exceeds 300mm (1 ft). Even if the pumping system can cope, it will be operating near continuously at some times of the year.

Traffic: The underground carpark has 225 spaces incl 12 disabled ones. It will generate congestion at rush hour morning and afternoon. That’s one car every 24 secs! And the morning filling up of the longstay car park will coincide with the later part of the agreed delivery times. Comparison with existing traffic flows on Staithes Lane to the vets don’t apply because that is throughout the day, not concentrated in 90min morning and evening.
And even if HGV lorries only make deliveries early morning and evening – the vibrations they generate along Staithes Lane are likely to be severe.

The traffic report says that NCC Highways has deferred implementation of traffic light co-ordination, and the signalisation of the Bridge St roundabout – which was generally welcomed - as suggested in the outline planning application, because it might contribute to the ‘urbanisation of Morpeth’. As a result, Dransfield is offering no transport mitigation with the plan, and cannot be asked to pay for a subsequent scheme when NCC Highways gets its act together.

Travel Plan: I am surprised that the site travel plan does not include measures to encourage ‘linked trips’ ie people shopping both in the supermarket and in the town centre.

Environment Impact Assessment (EIA): The developers suggest that because no EIA was requested at the outline stage, they assume none is needed at the detailed stage. I’d have thought that the need for the EIA only really comes at the detailed stage.

Construction: a number of factors need to be taken into account
a) availability of car parking on the Dark Lane site during construction
b) construction noise – start and stop times and weekend working
c) light pollution during construction
d) timing of tree and building demolition – they say they’ll time it to avoid disrupting bats – and relocate the crayfish, but they also need to consider nesting birds, and riverbank wildlife

Signage: As with the filling station, there doesn’t seem to be any mention of advertising signage in the application. Obviously the detail of the signage will depend on the market operator, but it would be useful to lay down the basic specs now – rather than have to fight a retrospective planning application later. For a start – I’d like to know what sort of signage will appear on the road at Dark Lane, they certainly won’t settle for signage just on the building.

And Finally : Move of the Vet to the top of Whorral Bank
This is a separate planning application, but which is closely linked. I have three main issues:
a) the site is well outside any settlement boundaries. What guarantees are there that this is not a precedent for infill between the roundabout and Pegswood village, or ribbon development along the bypass. I’d like it spelt out that this is a discretionary exception and does set a precedent.
b) the nearest Pegswood-bound bus stop is the other side of the Pegswood village road, so people will have to cross both that and the bypass, or the roundabout – with a sick pet – to get to the vets. Not sure where the Morpeth-bound bus stop is (if any). Can we have some crossings or at least traffic islands?
c) There’s a nice SUDS water treatment site. I’m assuming it is good enough to treat vet waste. Can we condition and management and refurbishment plan? Given it’s location at the top of Whorral Bank, there could be a lot of ‘fall-out’ if it failed.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Alcohol Licensing in the Arcade

Barluga Deli moving into the Arcade and the Corbridge Larder cafe moving into the bus station have both put in for alcohol licenses, Corbridge Larder wanting both at table and off-license sales. Both are looking to serve alcohol from 8am through to 9pm or 9:30pm. I've got two main concerns which I've put through the Town Council....

i) why do they want to serve alcohol at 8am - do they expect people to order a full English breakfast and a glass of Chablis? I'd be happier if they waited till the 'sun was over the yardarm' - say midday at the earliest
ii) they both refer to the Sanderson Arcade security (beadles) and CCTV in their applications. Now - as far as I'm aware - apart from M&S, these are the first alcohol licenses in the Arcade - and I'm not aware that the beadles have had the appropriate training for dealing with drunks. And - again, as far as I'm aware - the beadles and CCTV finish at around 8pm to 9pm - so they are not going to provide closing time cover
- and that is particularly concerning if we have an off-license open to 9:30pm in the bus station which stays open - unstaffed till 11pm. I'd have thought it would become a magnet for drinkers who - for one reason or another - can't or don't want to drink in pubs or at home.
Hope the NCC North Area licensing committee thinks this through...

And another thing, so far as I'm aware, Corbridge Larder have not put in a planning application from change of use (from CMDA offices). Either an oversight - or they think that a retrospective application will be easier to get. if they already have the license. Licenses are much easier to get than planning permissions and are, I gather, often used as a 'back door' approach. As it is - I'm already concerned that the handful of cycle racks (a nod to an original planning condition) have been removed and aren't likely to be put back.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

There are no (other) alternatives (on offer)

AV doesn’t give people an extra vote, it just allows people to express 2nd and 3rd choices to be applied if their 1st choice doesn’t get many votes. So for example, a Labour voter in Berwick who wanted to keep the Conservatives out could vote Labour 1st choice and LibDem 2nd choice (this is hypothetical), rather than having to vote LibDem tactically straight off. With first-past-the-post, you have to choose – either vote with your heart or vote tactically, with AV you can do both.

AV isn’t proportional because you only get one MP, and they can’t be part-Tory, part-Labour, part-LibDem or whatever. In proportional systems, you get several people elected in a constituency, so you can have a mix of Tory, Lab, LibDem elected in proportion to the share of the vote. However it is better than FPTP. It has to be better to have an MP who is 2nd or 3rd choice of over 50% of the electors than one who is 1st choice of just 27% and no way of knowing who the other 73% would have settled for.

Yes, the other side of AV (and of proportional systems) is a strong likelihood of a coalition government – and I’d be the first to admit that the current government is not a good advert for coalitions. But, coalition governments have worked well in Germany, France and elsewhere (less well in Israel or Italy where the threshold for getting elected to parliament is too low) – and a significant number of our local authorities are run by coalitions. Northumberland CC would be doing better with a coalition rather than a minority administration.

I've written elsewhere about how campaigning with coalitions in mind would (IMO) lead to less negative campaigning and clearer policy arguments - and will probably do so again.

So, on May 5th don’t vote ‘No’ to punish the LibDems (they aren’t worth it!) and don’t vote ‘No’ because you want a more proportional system than AV (because if the Noes win, we’ll be stuck with FPTP for decades) – only vote ‘No’ if you truly believe that FPTP is the best possible electoral system for the Westminster Parliament – otherwise vote ‘Yes’.

News from SENRUG

SENRUG’s next public meeting will be on Thursday 21st April, 19.30 at Morpeth Town Hall. The guest speaker is Neal Smith, Head of Communications, East Coast Trains.

East Coast is significantly increasing the number of services to and from Morpeth from the 22nd May timetable change. It will now be possible to get to London from Morpeth by 09:40 each weekday, and to return at 18:30. I guess it'll be important to use these new services if we want to keep them.

Times of local trains are changing slightly as well and there will now be an hourly pattern throughout the day, with the long gap in southbound services between 09.32 and 10.50 eliminated. But the morning peak hour train at 08.32 from Morpeth moves to 08.49, though there will additionally be a retimed CrossCountry service at 08.14. So still only a 35 minute gap. There'll also be a better distribution of morning services to Newcastle rather than the current situation where the 07.49 (NT) and 08.02 (XC) arrive at Newcastle at virtually the same time. From 22nd May Morpeth will have services to Newcastle at 06.35, 07.07, 07.54, 08.13, and 08.49.

Monday, 21 February 2011

AV: Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick

The similarities between the AV Referendum and the ill-fated North East Regional Assembly Referendum are uncanny, and do not bode well for the Yes campaign:

i) in both cases, the Cabinet is/was divided between Yes and No camps
ii) neither Referendum offers/ed the Yes campaign what it really wants/ed
iii) both are/were about quite complicated matters that need/ed an impartial explanation - but all explanation is/was being/een left to the campaigners, with the result there is/was a lot of misinformation flying around.
iv) both are tied to unrelated issues (reducing number of MPs, unitary local government) which will only muddy the water - and will be/was brought in whatever the referendum result

And if people do vote No - there'll be no way to distinguish between the 'No, we want to keep FPTP' and 'No, we want something better than this'

It isn't looking good for the Yes campaign...

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Pre-empted but not defeated

The ‘Plan A’ response to the news that the EA were unlikely to find funding for the Morpeth Flood Alleviation Scheme (see previous post) assumed that the EA Board would not be making their final decision until their March meeting, and that there was time to lobby them. Unfortunately, in the words of our local EA contact:

“The Environment Agency's Board meet each month and we were advised that they would be discussing the indicative allocations at their February meeting but, due to the number a schemes without funding and the representations that had been made, that the final allocation would probably not be agreed until the March meeting. As it happened the Board agreed the allocation at the February meeting. Therefore the final sanctioned list has now been published. The final approved allocation for 2011/12 does not include funding for Morpeth.”
In other words, the lobbying campaign has been pre-empted, and as the EA contact explains:

“At the moment we have not received any scheme allocations beyond the 2011/12 financial year because of Defra's consultation on funding reforms to start in April 2012.

“So at the moment we are facing at least a 1 year delay to the project due to the lack of funding in 2011/12. However, we are currently exploring options to try and secure some level of funding in the 2011/12 financial year to at least continue with some of the planning and design work so that we are ready to start on site if grant funding did become available.”

That is – they are looking for £500k to bring the scheme through technical approval and planning approval, so if and when funding becomes available, they can start work straightaway.

Meanwhile, the Town Council has responded to the Defra funding reform consultation - which is mainly about Government only part-funding schemes and the local community coming up with the rest. And the campaign is continuing to lobby – both looking for a political change of mind (and we know the Government has ‘contingency funds’) and to keep awareness of the Morpeth Scheme live.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Chasing the money

So – funding for the Morpeth flood prevention scheme which politicians of all colours (not just Nick Clegg) assured us was safe – has been deferred. But Morpeth is going to fight the decision (apparently)

As I understand – EA flood protection funding has been cut by 27% for 2011-12, and with existing contractual commitments – they are left with only £19M uncommitted funding for the whole country, and first call on that is for statutory functions such as maintaining reservoirs.

Meanwhile – though the whole Morpeth Scheme costs £17M – allocation of £4M for 2011-12 will see the technical preparations, planning permission etc completed and work started on the ground. And starting the work next year is critical because the Government is consulting on new funding arrangements to start in 2012-13 which would require a significant community contribution to the cost. If we don’t get the scheme started next year, then whatever happens it won’t be funded fully by Government.

So Plan A is to lobby the EA Board (chaired by Lord [Chris] Smith) ahead of their meeting in March to fully fund the Northumbria Regional Flood Defence (NRFC) programme – the top priority of which will be the Morpeth Scheme

If this fails, then we are told that £500k will cover the costs of completing the details of the scheme, gaining planning permission etc so that work on scheme can start as soon as funding becomes available. So Plan B is to raise that £500k either from the NRFC local levy (they have discretion over a c£2M pot ) or from other sources. And the NRFC meet to confirm their programme, informed by the EA Board’s funding decisions in April.

And finally – though it is possible for the work on the scheme to be phased, it is not a good idea to break up the overall scheme since the business case for separate elements of the scheme is weaker than that for the full integrated scheme.

So – let’s tet out there and start lobbying…

Monday, 24 January 2011

Goalposts moved above the floodline

Update from NCC councillor to Town Council

"It was confirmed at the Northumbria Regional Flood Defence Committee that the Morpeth scheme has not scored sufficient points on the Outcome Measures to be included in 11/12 allocation DEFRA's budgetary landscape has changed to the extent that the OM required score of 5 (which Morpeth scheme comfortably achieved) to 14.
This could hardly be more disappointing, especially coming on the back of over 2 years-worth of reassurances.

"The whole committee and officers were devastated and there is a clear determination to progress a suitable scheme for Morpeth.

" The responsibilities and funding landscape around flooding is also in the throes of change. The new Floods & Water Management Act allocates responsiblity to local authorities (NCC) to lead on flood-related matters ('Lead Local Flood Authorities') but with EA retaining responsibility for coast and main watercourses. It also proposes changing the way funding is allocated with fewer schemes receiving full-cost funding and most will be dependent on local discretion - the replacement for the NRFDC (Regional Flood & Coastal Committee) will have more responsibilities and enhanced decision-making (which at the moment is largely restricted, in practice, to allocation of the local levy-funded - relatively small - schemes).

" How this will play out in practice is unknown, but we should share the EA's determination to see this interregnum and the new system as an opportunity."

Not good news then - and it also leaves the Dransfield foodstore application with two dilemmas i) is it really safe without the promise of comprehensive flood defences and ii) their 'community obligation' was to build the flood defences (bund) along the river edge of their site - will that still hold?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Maintaining the Link

Mark Dransfield is coming to town next week: he’s meeting as many local groups and interested parties as he can over 11th-12th Jan before he puts in the full application for a supermarket on the Dark Lane site. As I understand it. he’s hoping that if he gets permission by Feb/Mar and have builders on site in Jun/Jul for a twelve month build. He says he’ll be announcing the supermarket operator in February – but the strong rumour is that Morrison’s will cross the road, and Waitrose will move into current Morrison site.

It all rather dashes any hopes that follow-through on the outline application would be delayed, but I guess proof is needed that the Dark Lane site is viable to head off appeals over the two edge of town applications. So it’s all to do with mitigation now, and that falls into several themes:

Staithes Lane residents: are not happy about having car parking at the level of their bedroom windows, light pollution, delivery lorries using Staithes Lane – especially late at night and very early morning – and access for long stay car parking. Some residents are also worried about the loss of the Red Bull which would be demolished to give wide enough access to Staithes Lane for the delivery lorries.

Environment: It’s not clear how the proposed re-alignment and partial culverting of the Cotting Burn will maintain its role as a wildlife corridor.
The Wansbeck itself is also an important wildlife corridor, and the riverside walks are a major Morpeth attraction which would be marred by the delivery area of a supermarket backing onto the river. I’m particularly concerned that the trees along the river on both sides of the footpath will be lost. A lot of money has been spent through the Castle, Woods and Water (liveability) programme making the river walk attractive – lets try to avoid throwing all that away!
Then there’s the flood risk: there’s going to be a massive new area of tarmac and concrete – take a walk along Staithes Lane, downstream along the river and back down to Dark Lane from Tommy’s Field to get an idea of the size of the site. Burnside Terrace nearly got flooded from runoff from Lidls and the bus station in 2008, and Staithes Lane got runoff from three directions. Then deep concrete foundations so close to the river must disrupt groundwater flows. It isn’t enough to managing flooding on site, building must be designed not to exacerbate flooding elsewhere.

But the main thing, perhaps, is will the new supermarket damage or support town centre shopping? The real distinction between edge of town and town centre supermarkets is whether they generate ‘linked shopping trips’ with people going to both the supermarket and town centre shops. Obviously Mark Dransfield has an multimillion pound interest in promoting town centre shopping, so he’s going to try to make it work, but I have my doubts. The current Morrisons supermarket is just about managing it. However, I cannot see people parking on the far side of Dark Lane and shopping in a supermarket sited roughly where the vets is now then walking up to the Sanderson Arcade let alone the Market Place to do further shopping. To all intents and purposes, the new site is an edge-of-town site, and having the supermarket right at the back of the site makes this even more so. Maybe we just have to hope that shoppers at the current Morrisons site (whoever is running the supermarket) will increase their ‘linked trips’.