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Archives for August 2010

Cuts dominate Nick Clegg's return to Tyneside

Richard Moss | 17:41 UK time, Thursday, 19 August 2010

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Nick Clegg answers questions in NewcastleThe last time Nick Clegg visited the North East he was angling for Lib Dem votes in Durham.

How quickly politics has moved on.

Today he arrived in Tyneside as a key member of a coalition government with the Conservatives.

In fact, with David Cameron on holiday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg arrived in charge of the country.

He was here to talk about the Government's green policies and to meet voters in one of his Town Hall-style gatherings.

But Labour greeted his arrival with derision.

They were keen to highlight his recent admission that he'd changed his mind about the need to make faster, harder cuts during the election.

They say he should apologise to North East voters for failing to mention that during his campaign visits to the region.

And they want him to explain why he's propping up a Conservative government intent on Thatcherite policies.

Nick Clegg though was prepared to tackle those accusations head-on.

During a speech in South Tyneside he rubbished suggestions that the current cuts would take the region back to the 1980s.

He accused his opponents of scaremongering, and said the cuts would not lead to the kind of destruction of communities seen then.

The speech was made at the launch of Operation Green - a plan to create 10,000 low carbon jobs in the North East.

Curiously though this was not a government plan but one belonging to the company Tedco.

I couldn't see any government role in the plan and indeed since Tedco has had funding from the Regional Development Agency One North East (soon to be abolished) they could even be accused of hindering it.

He did tackle that issue too.

The Government is proposing to replace the agencies with Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Nick Clegg said the North East could still opt for one covering the whole region (a kind of mutated development agency he called it), but his critics might point out that it won't have the same budget or powers.

He then moved his focus on to what he called the "quiet green revolution" the government was planning.

He announced one particular new proposal.

By 2012, he promised a Green Deal. Under the plan householders will get free advice on how to make their homes more energy-efficient.

They'd then be able to pay for insulation and other energy-saving measures gradually through their energy bills.

The Deputy PM then moved onto Newcastle College to be questioned by voters on higher education, benefits, the NHS, and the Regional Development Agencies again.

It was a thorough work-out, from which he emerged relatively unscathed, apart from forgettting that it was the Government and not the local health trust that put a stop to the new hospital at Wynyard in Teesside.

Inevitably, though everything seemed to come back to cuts. There was one particularly feisty exchange with a voter who accused the coalition of picking on the poor.

But Nick Clegg asked the audience in Newcastle to judge him after five years not 101 days.

I suppose that means he'll know he's in trouble in 2015, if cuts are still the dominant issue on the political agenda.

First 100 Days of Cameron's Coalition in the North

Richard Moss | 07:00 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010

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David Cameron and Nick CleggCoalition, cuts and controversy.

That's been a large part of the story of David Cameron's first 100 days as Prime Minister.

But what impact has Britain's first coalition for 65 years had on the North since May 11?

For a start, it has begun the process of removing the concept of "the region" from government.

First to go were Regional Spatial Strategies - the blueprints that dictated where houses and industry would be sited.

The regional offices in the North East, Yorkshire and North West are also going to be abolished.

And Regional Development Agencies are going, to be replaced by local enterprise partnerships.

During the election, it looked like the North East could have had a partnership embracing the whole region as a successor to One North East.

But Tees Valley now wants its own partnership, and the Government has made it clear that it isn't keen on any regional bodies surviving.

There may be more fracturing yet too as attempts to bring Northumberland, Tyne and Wear and County Durham together in one grouping don't look guaranteed to succeed.

Whatever the future is, it's not regional.

Then there's the impact on public spending.

The Building Schools for the Future programme was cancelled with immediate effect.

Head teachers throughout the North who'd been investing in plans, and delaying repair work have found their hopes of new buildings dashed for now.

The Government has promised to come up with another method of investing in school buildings but so far we don't know what it is.

Plans of the cancelled hospital at WynyardAnd then plans to fund a a new hospital in Wynyard in Teesside were also pulled.

The new building was one of a number of projects the Coalition said could not be afforded.

Private funding may yet rescue the project, but public support for the site was mixed.

A grant to fund a new electric car battery plant at Nissan in Sunderland was approved after some initial uncertainty.

But our police forces took an immediate hit with millions cut from their budgets.

Job losses in the public sector have also started.

Workers in Durham's passport office were the first to go - their departures caused by the Coalition's decision to scrap ID cards.

But this week we have also been told of plans to make more than 500 staff in the North East's NHS redundant.

The administrative staff are going from the regional health authority and eight Primary Care Trusts.

The Future Jobs Fund is also being stopped, and housing benefit cuts are in the offing.

All this does sound a bit grim, but then the Government argues that all this is necessary to set the country and the region on the path to a brighter future.

It's not yet clear though just when and how new private sector jobs will be created to mop up people leaving the public sector.

And of course, even though there have been a bewildering array of announcements over the last 100 days, we are still in the early stages of this Government.

October brings the Comprehensive Spending Review, and more details on the cuts to come. Local authorities and all public sector organisations are likely to feel the pain.

But we may also yet see investment. A decision on funding for the dualling of the A1 may come in the autumn.

And then there are the political implications for the parties in the region.

Recent polls suggest Liberal Democrat support is haemorrhaging - one Sky News Poll released to mark the 100 days even suggests it's at 8%! Others have put them at around 16%.

There are important local elections next year, and the chances of the Lib Dems holding onto their control of Newcastle are slim if the current polling is reflected in local opinion.

The Conservatives will also want to build on the slow but steady progress they'd made in Sunderland and North Tyneside before May 2010, so will await the verdict of voters nervously.

And Labour need to find ways of reviving their support. Yes, they still hold the vast majority of seats in the region, but their share of the vote was the lowest since the Second World War in the North East.

It's possible the party's new leader will be the South Shields MP. If that's the case David Miliband will have to think of ways of reviving his party as well as mounting a credible opposition to the Government.

'Collaborator' Milburn becomes coalition mobility tsar

Richard Moss | 11:57 UK time, Monday, 16 August 2010

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Alan MilburnAlan Milburn was never a likely winner of a popularity contest in the Labour party, but his name will certainly be mud for many members now.

The former Darlington MP's appointment as the Government's new Social Mobility Tsar has aroused the anger of some already.

Lord Prescott has labelled him a "collaborator" alongside John Hutton and Frank Field.

And leadership contender Andy Burnham called his decision "a kick in the teeth" during a visit to the North East at the weekend.

He said: "Alan Milburn is putting his ego and his own social mobility above the people he used to represent here in the North East, the very people who will be hit hardest by the ConDems' brutal cuts to public services." Ouch!

But my dealings with Mr Milburn in the past suggest he has a thick enough skin to withstand such slights.

In fact, knowing him, he'll probably quite enjoy them.

So what is he up to?

His critics would say this is about feathering his own nest, trying to breathe some afterlife into his career.

But actually social mobility is Alan Milburn's passion.

I spent a day filming with him a few years ago where he was outlining his vision of a future for the North East.

We started the day shooting outside his teenage home in Benwell in Newcastle.

It's one of the poorer areas of the city, and he wanted to emphasise how important it was for people to have the same opportunity he'd had to rise from relatively humble beginnings.

During the day he spoke about the mystery of why social mobility has declined in past the 20 years at the same time as more people from wider social backgrounds have gone to university.

It was that passion which led the last government to ask him to produce a report on ideas to break that pattern.

The fact that his report was largely ignored may have given him more motivation to accept a role with the new administration.

But what do the Coalition get out of it?

It certainly wrongfoots Labour, but this seems to be an appointment sought by the Liberal Democrats (Nick Clegg will make the formal announcement on Wednesday).

Some Conservatives are not so keen, especially as this is now the third Labour grandee appointed to look at crucial policy areas (Frank Field is advising on welfare reform, Lord John Hutton on pensions).

They may well calculate that he's unlikely to be entirely baggage-free. Many on the right see Grammar Schools as the answer to social mobility - something Mr Milburn has already rejected.

For many in Labour, it will confirm what they already thought of the former Health Secretary.

He was seen as a disloyal plotter against Gordon Brown.

But others may be dismayed that they'll now struggle to take advantage of one of the more interesting and original thinkers in the party.

'Retired' council boss takes payoff and walks into new job

Richard Moss | 10:08 UK time, Friday, 13 August 2010

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Trevor DoughtyWhen Trevor Doughty retired from Northumberland County Council few people took much notice.

His departure in March was part of cuts designed to save money.

But now he's been seized upon as an example of public sector excess.

The reason - his retirement appears to have been both lucrative, and brief.

On 31 March this year he took early retirement at the age of 54 from his job as Director of People at Northumberland County Council.

He left with a £400,000 payout including his annual salary of £140,000 and a £266,000 top-up to his pension pot.

And then on 12 April, his retirement ended as he accepted a job as the new Director of Children's Services at Cornwall County Council.

He's now earning between £110,000 and £140,000 in his new post.

The emergence of those figures now means he's hit the headlines, and attracted the attention of the Government.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is on a mission to curb public sector excess, and he says such payouts are wrong.

Eric Pickles MPHe said: "It's not right for people to retire from the public sector with a huge pay-off then cash in with another six-figure salary elsewhere at the taxpayers' expense."

And the reaction in Northumberland has been equally outraged.

The council is desperately short of money. It has to save £10m this year. There could be 1,000 job cuts.

So the trade unions think Trevor Doughty's payoff would have been better spent on saving jobs and services.

They are also worried that it will be used as more evidence of gold-plated public sector pensions.

Tony Martin from Unison says his members won't be getting big payouts if they lose their jobs. Most can only hope to retire with a pension of around £5,000 after 40 years' service.

They don't want Trevor Doughty's case to be used to attack those kind of pensions.

But Northumberland's Conservative group leader, Peter Jackson, does believe the rules must be changed to prevent the same thing happening again.

He believes large public sector pensions need to be tackled, and he does not see why council taxpayers should have shell out for generous settlements to people who can go on to now earn six-figure salaries.

But actually, the council says the deal will save taxpayers' money.

They say the payments were part of Trevor Doughty's contract, and were approved by councillors and auditors. They have no control over what he does once he leaves.

But they do say the management restructure which saw his departure is saving £1.2m a year. And one of the only ways to persuade highly-paid managers to leave is to offer early retirement packages.

And Trevor Doughty?

I have e-mailed him, but as yet there's been no response. He signed a confidentiality agreement when he left Northumberland so perhaps that's not surprising.

Cornwall though think they are getting good value for money out of him.

The job they offered him had been vacant for seven months, their children's services heavily criticised by Ofsted.

They think they're getting a good deal from finding an experienced manager.

I suspect not all council taxpayers in Northumberland will agree.

And with the Government reviewing public sector pensions, the payout for Trevor Doughty may be amongst the last to hit the headlines.

Redcar's shock election winner steels himself for the future

Richard Moss | 16:21 UK time, Wednesday, 11 August 2010

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Ian Swales MPIt was one of the shocks of election night - if not THE shock.

A rock-solid Labour majority annihilated; a high profile minister unseated.

Lib Dem Ian Swales must have been floating on air when he discovered what a remarkable result he'd achieved in Redcar.

His 22 per cent swing was the largest achieved in England, and turned a 12,000 Labour majority into one of 5,000 in his favour.

But if that was a bewildering night, what has he made of life since?

Not only an MP, but one unexpectedly sitting on the government benches.

I've just caught up with Ian Swales, who openly admits he's ready for a holiday (he says he's barely had more than one day off since January).

He's honest enough to suggest that he wasn't banking on becoming an MP in May, even though he had hopes of a shock.

And then of course he barely had time to take that in before being catapulted into the centre of the dramatic five days in Westminster that gave birth to the Coalition.

All of a sudden, he was deciding the future direction of his party and his country.

He firmly believes it was the right choice - you'd hardly expect him not to - even if it may sit uncomfortably from time to time.

But what about the thousands of traditional Labour voters who defected to him last May?

I didn't find it too tricky last May to find Swales supporters who felt they hadn't voted for him to see the Tories in government.

Equally, I found others prepared to give the "new politics" a go, and Ian Swales insists that's still the case.

He says at most 20 people in the town have told him they're disappointed with the Lib Dem decision to join the Coalition.

Ian Swales campaigns in RedcarMany more, he claims, have given him and the new government their whole-hearted support.

He says only one local party member has left to his knowledge, while many more have joined.

But he says the party will also have to fight to keep its distinctive character.

He would like to see a robust and independent party conference in September - one which is prepared to challenge Coalition policies as well as mark the party's successes.

Moreover, he believes it has to begin to develop new policies, consistent with Lib Dem philosophy.

But of course, one issue above all others still hangs over his own constituency.

Redcar's blast furnace is still shut.

Efforts continue to find a buyer for the Corus plant, and a deal with a Thai company could yet bring steelmaking back to the town.

He's guarded about how close that deal might be, though hopes it will happen.

He has always rejected the idea that he was just the beneficiary of a steel protest vote, and similarly he does not think he'll be judged solely on whether steelmaking returns to Redcar.

Instead, he's dedicating much of his time to finding ways of diversifying the local economy and attracting in new investment.

He cites as a major success removing the barriers that were preventing the location of a biomass power plant in his constituency. It will create hundreds of jobs, and provide £500m of investment.

There are tough challenges ahead though. The Redcar constituency may have fallen out of love with Labour in 2010, but will it be permanent?

If cuts hit the area hard, will Ian Swales be able to defend them?

Labour will go on the attack relentlessly, believing Redcar is naturally theirs.

But of course there have been a number of "one election wonder" Lib Dems who have turned their surprise gains into safe seats by hard work, and delivering the goods.

Ian Swales has some way to go before he can become the next Alan Beith or Tim Farron, but as he prepares to draw breath before the challenges of the autumn, he's determined to prove that the Redcar constituency was right to turn to him.

Rory Stewart: a tale of twine, trousers and poverty

Richard Moss | 16:13 UK time, Monday, 9 August 2010

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Rory Stewart MPYes, I know I've been away a long time. Aren't I entitled to a break?

Actually I fear that I'm now blogging purely to myself as all the readers will have jumped ship, so here's hoping there's some meaningful human contact out there (or as meaningful as it can get on the web).

So what have I missed?

There's been more talk of the cuts ahead, some of them real, some of them speculative.

The Labour leadership contest is still meandering along apparently to eternity.

In fact, it's as if I haven't been away!

Apart from one particular story.

Just before I went on leave I wrote about the Penrith and the Border MP Rory Stewart.

My words in that blog: "The jury's still out on whether Rory Stewart can make the kind of impact he made outside parliament."

Within days he was making quite a big splash, but not the one he would have chosen.

I'm talking about what you could call "Twinegate" of course, with the new MP quoted talking about his constituents as "primitives" who tie up their trousers with twine!

Now, he denies he put it quite that way, but did say he regretted using the words.

Not perhaps the best way to build a relationship with his Cumbrian constituents, particularly as he had no links with the county before becoming one of its MPs.

But knowing Cumbrians well, I suspect they soon got over any slight.

Actually, as someone who grew up there, I know Cumbrians can be far ruder about each other than Rory Stewart's apparent quotes.

When I was at school, people who came from the farming community were often known as "yakkas" - similar I suppose to the way hillbilly is used in the southern United States.

But actually that comparison also highlights what Rory Stewart was trying to get across with some rather ill-advised language.

I don't find it hard to imagine that there are still farmers in Cumbria who may use twine to hold up their trousers.

Cumbrian landscapeRural Cumbria can look affluent at first glance, but hidden within it are pockets of severe poverty.

The area Rory Stewart represents has a lower average income than the rest of the county.

That's due to low farm incomes and poverty-level agricultural wages.

It's an area which does have serious problems - and not just the classic one of affordable housing.

Drug use is more widespread than you'd expect and suicide rates are higher than the national average, particularly amongst young men.

I think what Rory Stewart may regret is that headlines about twine and anecdotes about children being run down by tractors (apparently they don't bother with hospital treatment in Cumbria) obscured the point he was trying to make.

And that's a vital one in future months.

Communities like Penrith and the Border have to make a case that services cost more to deliver in rural areas, and that Cumbria therefore needs some cushioning from cuts.

I'm sure the area's MP will recover from his first brush with notoriety.

When I met him, I gained the impression he was genuinely enthused by the area, and had a real affection for Cumbrians.

So, instead I suspect his constituents are more likely to judge him by what he delivers for the area, rather than a few colourful quotes in a newspaper article.

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