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Mosstradamus rides again - a look into 2011

Richard Moss | 16:18 UK time, Friday, 31 December 2010


Richard Moss as Nostradamus. Original image c/o PA Images.

Move over Nostradamus, and make way for Mosstradamus.

Welcome to 2011.

So what lies ahead politically for the North East and Cumbria in the next year?

Once again I have decided to be Mosstradamus (yes, I know it's dreadful but cut me some slack) and gaze into the future.

Last year I said 2010 would all be about elections and the economy (my, I was really sticking my neck out there).

But actually 2011 echoes that.

We don't have a General Election this year (assuming the Coalition holds together) but we have a huge set of local elections.

A third of the seats in the Tyne and Wear metropolitan councils, Hartlepool, Carlisle, South Lakeland, and Harrogate are up.

But there's also all-out elections in Middlesbrough, Stockton, Redcar and Cleveland, Darlington, and all the other districts in Cumbria and North Yorkshire.

It will be the first test of the new politics for all three of our main parties.

On the ground it may seem as if little has changed with Conservatives fighting Lib Dems across the region.

But the elections could be a real test for the coalition partners.

For the Lib Dems in particular, it could be a tough set of elections.

Polling in the North East at the end of last year suggested support for the party had slumped to just 4%.

If that is anywhere near right, the Lib Dems will certainly lose control of Newcastle.

They will hope that they retain the support of many tactical-voting Conservatives who have given the party their support to keep Labour out.

It will be interesting to see whether there are the same problems in a place like South Lakeland though where many Labour voters may have also voted tactically for them. The battle there is against the Conservatives.

A big loss of seats is bound to be bad for morale in local parties though, and could lead to more defections.

But it may also tie the Lib Dems closer to the Conservatives nationally, as the collapse of the Coalition could lead to electoral wipe-out. Many northern Lib Dems would really fear for the future of their party if they were to get too close.

The Lib Dems will also have to persuade the North to support a change from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote in a referendum being held at the same time as the local elections.

And what of the Tories? They have made progress in recent years to rebuild their local government base in the North.

But might being in government see them falling back in Carlisle, Sunderland, Stockton and North Tyneside? It will be a test for them.

Labour though will also face a challenge. They will be expected to make big gains, and anything less than a triumph in May might put pressure on Ed Miliband.

His brother meanwhile continues to be linked to almost every feasible international political job that comes along.

David Miliband may or may not be destined to become the UK's Washington ambassador, or a UN official. or the EU's Foreign Representative, but you can be sure the speculation on his future won't stop.

In fact the only fact speculators agree on is that he probably won't still be South Shields' MP by the end of 2011, even if the former Foreign Secretary insists he is here to stay.

For his party though, it's a year which could see the rebuilding of its local government base.

Labour will want to win Newcastle back, not just deprive the Lib Dems of a majority. They'd also hope to make gains in Teesside to prove the area has forgiven them for the Corus closure.

That brings us to the economy.

2010 has actually seen more benign conditions economically than had been expected.

Unemployment has generally fallen, and recent research suggested the region had weathered the recession better than almost any other part of Britain.

But can that possibly continue as job losses in the public sector kick in?

Durham University have predicted 50,000, with 20,000 of those in the private sector. They do also expect the economy to grow, but slowly.

If things are much worse than that though, and the dole queue grows more sharply, there may even be the danger of social unrest, with strikes also a distinct possibility.

There may be good news on jobs if the Redcar steelworks is taken over.

There may be some positive developments. A deal could well be done to reopen Redcar's steelworks, Nissan will begin manufacturing the electric Leaf at its Wearside works, and the Government may give the go-ahead for a train factory employing 800 people in County Durham.

We will also see the first money flow from the Regional Growth Fund.

It is supposed to help regions like ours that are dependent on the public sector, so people will be watching closely to see where the grants go, and what impact the new Local Enterprise Partnerships have.

But any private sector recovery will have to be rapid to mop up the thousands of people leaving the pay of the public sector.

Our councils in particular will have to think of radical solutions to cope with cuts.

They will be laying people off, but also working with other local authorities to share services.

Expect there to be howls of protest too as services and buildings valued by the public are closed down or cut.

That may prove to be the true test of the Government's Big Society ideas. They will be trialled in Eden in Cumbria over the next year but are the public really enthusiastic to run their own communities? We'll find out.

There is more reform on the way too. GP commissioning is planned for the NHS, elected commissioners could take charge of our police forces, many schools could end up leaving local authority control. All changes that lie further ahead, but all will be debated heavily this year.

It promises to be a fascinating 12 months.

But even if I am Mosstradamus, after last year's momentous events, it's hard to make too many predictions.

The end is nigh - Moss Missives 2010 review - part six

Richard Moss | 10:00 UK time, Thursday, 30 December 2010


Cat in Santa hat

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a cat in a festive hat.

The year is almost over, and so we reach the thrilling denouement of the Moss Missives 2010 review of northern politics.

It's been a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns, packed with action and the odd inappropriate picture.

So with a flourish and a Christmas kitten, it's time to plunge into November and December.


A car being dug out of snow

Snow joke. Wintry weather causes mayhem in November and December.

A campaign begins for the remutualisation of Northern Rock. Supporters argue restoring it to a building society is the best way of protecting jobs and benefiting customers, but the Government insists the nationalised bank will be sold off.

The High Court decides that Communities Secretary Eric Pickles acted illegally by scrapping regional spatial strategies and their housing targets. Therefore, they come back into force, but only until Mr Pickles can scrap them again.

Anger grows at the Church of England's plans to sell the 12 paintings by Spanish artist Zurbaran which currently hang in Auckland Castle. The Church may also decide to sell the Bishop of Durham's historic residence.

A year on from the West Cumbrian floods, Labour MPs criticise the Coalition's decision to cut the budget for flood defences during a Commons debate called by Workington MP Tony Cunningham.

The Transport Secretary Philip Hammond faces flak for failing to invest in the North East's road network during a visit to Tyneside. His delay is blamed half-jokingly on congestion on the A19 - a road the Government says it can't afford to upgrade significantly until 2015.

Schools in County Durham criticise government plans to end school sports partnerships. They say the decision is short-sighted in the run-up to the London Olympics, and with high rates of childhood obesity.

Martin Callanan

North East MEP Martin Callanan flying the flag for the Conservatives in Europe.

North East MEP Martin Callanan becomes leader of the Conservative group in the European Parliament just as some Tories express unhappiness at the Government's bail-out of Ireland.

Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron is elected as President of the Lib Dems promising to make sure the party retains its identity.

The Government announces plans to invest in the railway network, but delays a decision on whether to invest in the new trains that could bring 800 jobs to Newton Aycliffe in County Durham. It says it's looking at a rival bid. Hitachi, which is behind the County Durham plans, says it is disappointed.

A Durham University report estimates that government cuts will lead to 50,000 job losses in the North East and cost £1.8bn in lost economic growth. 20,000 of those job losses are predicted to be in the private sector.

Amazingly snow falls in winter. It is an unusually large amount and lasts for an unusually long time, but it causes the usual chaos on the roads.


Eric Pickles

It's fair to say that Eric Pickles was not the flavour of the month amongst northern councils in December.

Ever-helpful Eric Pickles says councils should dig into their reserves to help soften the blow of cuts. Councils such as Hambleton, Stockton and Allerdale seem to carry significant surpluses, but others like Northumberland have already dug deep into theirs.

Middlesbrough Mayor Ray Mallon accuses the Government of a "financial declaration of war" against the North East because of unfair council cuts. He says they take no account of poverty and unemployment in the region.

When the cuts are announced, it emerges that northern councils have generally fared worse than their southern counterparts. Middlesbrough, South Tyneside, Hartlepool, Barrow and Copeland are amongst the hardest hit. Cumbria County Council, which looked to have done reasonably well, accuses Mr Pickles of using figures which have misled the public. They say their cut is much higher than listed.

Durham County Council announces it will be cutting £100m and 1,600 jobs.

The Government also announces plans for people power with communities given the chance to run council services and take over buildings. Newcastle will also get a vote on having a directly-elected mayor in 2012.

Student protest

Students march through Newcastle to protest against the rise in tuition fees.

Protests take place in Newcastle and Carlisle as MPs vote on plans to raise university tuition fees to £9,000. Lib Dems Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) and Ian Swales (Redcar) keep their pre-election pledge to rebel and vote against a rise in fees. But Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith votes in favour and helps the proposal pass through the Commons.

Former North Tyneside MP Stephen Byers loses his Commons pass for two years for offering to use his influence for payment in the "Cab for Hire" Channel 4 documentary.

The Government confirms it will close magistrates courts in Bishop Auckland, Tynedale, Gosforth, Guisborough, Alnwick, Blaydon, Houghton-le-Spring, Whitehaven and Penrith despite opposition from Coalition MPs such as Guy Opperman (Hexham), Sir Alan Beith (Berwick) and Rory Stewart (Penrith and the Border).

But there's at least a temporary reprieve for School Sports Partnerships as the Government decides it will extend the funding for them into next year.

So that's that for 2010.

I'll be back on New Year's Day with a look ahead to the political prospects for 2011.

But I'll take this opportunity to wish you a happy and prosperous New Year.

Not so mellow or fruitful - Moss Missives 2010 Review Part Five

Richard Moss | 10:00 UK time, Wednesday, 29 December 2010


David and Ed Miliband

The family soap opera of the year. David and Ed Miliband battled to become Labour leader.

John Keats may have called it the season of mellow fruitfulness, but politically autumn 2010 turned out to be about cuts, more cuts and a leadership contest that divided a party and a family.

So let's waste no time and get straight to the action in the latest installment of the Moss Missives political review of the year in the North.


Middlesbrough's Transporter Bridge

With the Spending Review imminent Middlesbrough emerges as the community most vulnerable to cuts.

One North East looked like becoming five as the region submitted mutiple bids for new Local Enterprise Partnerships or LEPs. Some saw the potential successors to regional development agencies as too small. Cumbria and North Yorkshire also tabled bids.

BBC research identified Middlesbrough as the most vulnerable community in the country to cuts. Experian said its dependence on the public sector and its high number of benefit claimants meant the town was going to find it hardest to cope with austerity.

A Cumbrian union official at the TUC Conference accuses the Government of waging a "class war" against workers. Craig Johnston from the RMT also backs a civil disobedience campaign.

Nick Clegg tackles northern concerns head on at the Liberal Democrat gathering in Liverpool. He says government policies won't lead to a repeat of the 1980s, promising the region help to get through the cuts.

Gateshead councillor Yvonne McNicol defects from the Lib Dems to Labour as the conference closes. She says the party has shown it is no longer concerned about the people of the North East.

The regional development agency One North East announces £33m of cuts. Casualties include tourism promotion, a plan to create a renewable energy village in County Durham and Newcastle's Science City project. The agency's chairman predicts the cuts will prevent the creation of 3,000 new jobs.

The Labour conference opens with Ed Miliband pipping brother David in the leadership contest. David won majorities amongst the MPs and party members but union votes swing it Ed's way. In a speech to conference David asks for an end to "cliques and soap operas".

Nick Brown

Ed Miliband's victory in the Labour leadership contest proves to be bad news for Nick Brown.

Ed Miliband puts a Durham care worker at the centre of his first speech as leader. He says it's morally unjustifiable for a banker to earn in a day what the care worker earned in a year. Brother David keeps the Miliband soap opera going by being distinctly unamused when Harriet Harman applauds the new leader's description of the Iraq war as wrong.

The soap opera reaches its conclusion when David Miliband announces he's quitting front-line politics. He will remain as MP for South Shields but he won't be standing for the Shadow Cabinet.

Nick Brown also becomes a casualty of the new regime as Ed Miliband asks him to step down as Chief Whip. The Newcastle East MP returns to the backbenches.


George Osborne

George Osborne promised his cuts would be fair but not everyone in the North agreed.

The Conservatives announce plans for a high speed rail link. Initially it'll only connect London and Birmingham but would then extend to Leeds and Manchester. Transport Secretary Philip Hammond says it could reduce the north-south divide because it could link into the existing East Coast Main Line and cut journey times from the North East to the capital.

Tory boy Archie Manners becomes a surprise champion of the region when he challenges Philip Hammond about the A1 from the conference floor in Birmingham. The 17-year-old hails from Hampshire but had been working for Berwick Conservative Anne-Marie Trevelyan during the election. David Cameron puts the Big Society at the centre of his conference speech.

Middlesbrough Mayor Ray Mallon accuses the Northern Business Forum of being fifth columnists as they change their mind about the Local Enterprise Partnership bids and call for one for the whole of the North East. Former Stockton MP, and Regional Growth Fund Deputy Chairman Ian Wrigglesworth also tells me that the North East's bid for five LEPs is a mistake.

Catherine McKinnell

Newcastle North MP Catherine McKinnell becomes Shadow Solicitor General just a few months after her election.

No North East or Cumbrian MPs make it into Labour's Shadow Cabinet. Tynemouth's Alan Campbell is made Deputy Chief Whip though. Several others from the region make it into the shadow ministerial teams including two of the 2010 intake - Newcastle MPs Catherine McKinnell and Chi Onwurah.

Former Darlington MP Alan Milburn tells me New Labour is not dead. The Social Mobility Tsar also warns the Government not to cut education funding as it emerges that university tuition fees could rise to £9,000-a-year.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox confirms that orders for two new aircraft carriers will go ahead to the relief of northern firms relying on the work.

The Spending Review reveals big cuts for councils and police forces in our region. Chancellor George Osborne announces an investment of £200m to help ports in the likes of Tyneside and Teesside manufacture offshore wind turbines. The Chancellor also names Cumbria and North Yorkshire as pilot areas for the expansion of high speed broadband into rural areas. Mr Osborne says the package is fair and progressive but a report by Newcastle-based thinktank IPPR predicts the spending review will widen the north-south divide.

Business Secretary Vince Cable says the Government has delayed a decision on plans to buy new trains. The investment could create 800 jobs at a new Hitachi factory in County Durham.

Mr Cable does though approve plans for two new Local Enterprise Partnerships in the region. Cumbria and Teesside get the early nod. A partnership involving the rest of the North East has to wait.

The region misses out on money for road improvements as none are approved in the region. A plan to upgrade the A19 junctions either side of the Tyne Tunnel is shelved for at least five years, and no plans are announced for improvements to the A1 north of Newcastle.

The Government does approve plans for new nuclear power stations at Sellafield and Hartlepool but rejects two other West Cumbrian sites.

Dancing with Santa and Rory Stewart

Richard Moss | 10:00 UK time, Friday, 24 December 2010


Season's greetings.

The Moss Missives Review of 2010 will resume after the extended Christmas weekend, but in the way of an extra treat check out some top festive dancing by one of the region's MPs.

Penrith and the Border Conservative MP Rory Stewart has a brain the size of a planet, he's walked through Afghanistan, he's tutored royalty, but sorry Rory, you aren't a groovy mover.

Top marks for being game, bottom marks for technique.

Hope you all have a fantastic Christmas.

Video credit - Filmed by Sam England. Copyright 2010.

It's the one that you want - Moss Missives 2010 Review Part Four

Richard Moss | 10:00 UK time, Thursday, 23 December 2010


Cliff Richard and Olivia Newton John

John Travolta and Olivia Newton John in Grease. All right it isn't them. I would have had to pay for that. It's Cliff, but he is with the lovely Olivia.

As John Travolta and Olivia Newton John famously told us summer days drift away. But they weren't around to see the new coalition government in action.

Parliament's usually massive summer recess was cut back, and the Government continued to announce new policies even when we were all supposed to be on holiday.

The Labour leadership contest also continued apace (a slow pace if we're honest).

So there's no let up then as we enter the Moss Missives 2010 Review Part Four. Ah, for those summer nights.


Rotten school window

Dozens of schools were left counting the cost as the Government scrapped plans to refurbish their buildings.

It's bad news for dozens of schools in the region as the Government announces the scrapping of Labour's Building Schools for the Future campaign. Several who had been looking forward to new buildings are now told that there will be a new way of funding work at a later date (we're still waiting).

David Miliband continues to be the candidate to beat in the Labour leadership race, adding the backing of many constituency Labour parties to his posse of MPs.

Raoul Moat shoots dead his girlfriend's new partner, and wounds a policeman as he leads police on a chase across Tyneside and Northumberland. Public interest is so massive that he becomes a cult figure for some. Even Gazza turns up before Moat takes his own life. David Cameron tells the Commons that nobody should have sympathy for someone who was a "callous murderer" and presses Facebook to take down a Moat tribute page.

The Government announces that Eden in Cumbria will be one of the pilot areas for its Big Society plans. That delights Penrith and the Border MP Rory Stewart and constituents who have already taken over a village pub.

The Government chooses next May for a vote on reforming the electoral system - something which will see the North East and Cumbria lose parliamentary seats.

Lord Mandelson's memoirs finally put the "guacamole" urban myth to bed. He denies ever mistaking mushy peas for the avocado dip in a Hartlepool chippy. Shame.


Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg is questioned on cuts as he returns to Newcastle.

Oops. They said he'd make an impact but Penrith and the Border MP Rory Stewart doesn't quite make the one he wanted during an interview with the Scottish Sun. He reportedly calls some of his constituents "primitives" who hold up their trousers with twine. He apologises but says he was trying to make a valid point that there are real pockets of poverty in a seat which can look as if it's affluent.

Former Northumberland County Council manager Trevor Doughty causes a commotion when he re-emerges at Cornwall County Council weeks after "retiring" from Northumberland with a £400,000 payout. Eric Pickles condemns the payout, but it proves to be perfectly legal.

Former Darlington MP Alan Milburn is called a "collaborator" by John Prescott after accepting a role as the Coalition's Social Mobility Tsar. He will produce an annual report assessing what the Government's policies have or have not done for social mobility.

The NHS in the North East announces it's shedding 500 jobs. It's the first stage of a reorganisation that will see the end of Primary Care Trusts.

Nick Clegg returns to the region for the first time since becoming Deputy Prime Minister. He announces plans to help people insulate their homes, but a question and answer session in Tyneside is dominated by concern about cuts as one questioner accuses his government of picking on the poor.

Moss Missives 2010 Review Part Three - Tales of the Unexpected

Richard Moss | 10:00 UK time, Wednesday, 22 December 2010


David Cameron and Nick Clegg

Who would have thought it? David Cameron and Nick Clegg enter 10 Downing Street together.

Previously in the Moss Missives 2010 Review...election day was looming; Nick Clegg was the sensation of the campaign; David Cameron seemed to be turning certain victory to defeat; Gordon Brown was insulting voters; the Emmerdale vicar was on the election trail; and my Election 2010 bag and I were nearly in a fight.

And so we come to two of the most momentous months in politics for decades.

Abandon all assumptions and prepare for the unexpected. It's Coalition Time!


New Lib Dem MP Ian Swales is congratulated as he pulls off the shock by the campaign by winning in Redcar.

The final push sees the North East and Cumbria targeted by the main party leaders as the election remains on a knife-edge. Gordon Brown is heckled on a visit to Sunderland. Sadly the reason for the heckle remains as vague as Labour's plans for cuts. Nick Clegg fares better in Redcar, although I discover the local Lib Dem battle bus has an out-of-date tax disc. I again sensibly play down any expectation of them winning in the town.

Nick Clegg pops up again in Durham, and then marginal Carlisle becomes the focus for the last 24 hours. David Cameron visits a chippy in the city, while Gordon Brown spends part of his final day at the Eddie Stobart HQ. He looks more relaxed than at any other time in the campaign as he heads home for the results.

And so the nation decides...not to decide. A hung parliament emerges as the result of the election. There is sensation in Redcar as Lib Dem Ian Swales overturns Labour's 12,000 majority to unseat Solicitor General Vera Baird. The Lib Dems though fail to win target seats in Newcastle and Durham.

The Conservatives overtake the Lib Dems to reclaim second place in the North East. They win seats in Carlisle and Stockton South, but fail to shift Labour in top targets Tynemouth, Copeland and Sunderland Central. They narrow Sir Alan Beith's majority in Berwick, but fall further behind Tim Farron as he turns Westmorland and Lonsdale into a safe Lib Dem seat.

After days of negotiations, Gordon Brown resigns and David Cameron becomes head of a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Richmond's William Hague becomes Foreign Secretary but no other MPs from the North East and Cumbria make it into government.

David Miliband shocks the nation by revealing his snack of choice is not a banana.

David Miliband declares he will stand to be the next Labour leader. He launches his campaign in South Shields promising to replace New Labour with Next Labour. His campaign website reveals his snack of choice is a Twirl.

The concept of "regions" is given its marching orders by the new government. Regional Spatial Strategies are scrapped with immediate effect. Regional Development Agencies like One North East will go in 2012.

Westmorland and Lonsdale Lib Dem MP Tim Farron announces he'll stand to be Vince Cable's replacement as the party's Deputy Leader.

At last, Conservative Anne McIntosh becomes the 650th MP elected as the delayed Thirsk and Malton poll takes place.

Four of the North's new MPs are named among the 50 parliamentarians to watch by Total Politics magazine. Newcastle Central's Chi Onwurah is at 37, Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) makes it to 33, and Wansbeck's Ian Lavery is in at 14. Penrith and the Border's Rory Stewart is the top northerner though, making it to number 3.

News emerges of a possible deal for Corus to sell the Redcar steelworks to Thai company SSI.


June started with taxi driver Derrick Bird killing 12 people in West Cumbria.

The month starts with news of a series of shootings in Cumbria. Taxi driver Derrick Bird drives from Whitehaven to Boot killing 12 people, and injuring 11 before shooting himself. A debate about gun control begins.

News of the shootings gives David Cameron's first PMQs a strange atmosphere. The North's Labour MPs challenge him though on the scrapping of One North East, the review of a grant to Nissan in Sunderland, and the potential sale of Northern Rock.

The Prime Minister visits Whitehaven to meet Copeland MP Jamie Reed and some of those injured by Derrick Bird.

Northern nominations pile up for David Miliband as he becomes the first candidate for the Labour leadership to get the 33 nominations needed to make it on to the ballot paper. He and the other four candidates appear at hustings in Middlesbrough and Newcastle.

It's revealed that "golden goodbye" payments to the North's retiring MPs could cost around £1m. North Tyneside's Stephen Byers is amongst those given the maximum of almost £65,000.

Stuart Drummond

No more monkeying around. Hartlepool Mayor Stuart Drummond is shortlisted for an award.

Former monkey mascot turned Hartlepool mayor Stuart Drummond is shortlisted as one of the World's best mayors.

The first cuts start to be made. Around £8m is taken from police budgets across the region. The forces in Northumbria and Durham have talks about a merger. But the biggest casualty is plans to build a new hospital at Wynyard in Teesside. The Coalition says it can't afford the £464m cost. The Future Jobs Fund is also stopped.

After a review of spending commitments the Government confirms it will be paying a grant to Nissan to help it develop electric cars. A £350m modernisation of the Tyne and Wear Metro is also approved.

George Osborne's emergency budget angers unions in the North, who call it a declaration of war on the region because of likely public sector cuts. The Chancellor though offers National Insurance breaks to businesses outside the South East, and announces plans for a Regional Growth Fund to help areas dependent on the public sector.

Copeland MP Jamie Reed compares media coverage of the Derrick Bird shootings to Hillsborough in a Commons debate.

The Epic Moss Missives Review of 2010 Part Two

Richard Moss | 10:00 UK time, Tuesday, 21 December 2010


Inflatable Santa

Did you know it was Christmas soon? The perfect time for a review of the year.

And you thought it couldn't get more exciting.

Here's the second installment in the now almost-legendary Moss Missives review of the political year in the North East and Cumbria.

And we've reached the election build-up. Wonder who will win?


John Prescott and his battle mini-bus

John Prescott is as large as life, even if his bus is a bit smaller.

In my first visit to Redcar since the mothballing of the Corus plant, I find some dangerous disaffection amongst Labour constituents of the town's MP Vera Baird. But I shrewdly discount the chances of the Lib Dems winning the seat from her.

The North East regional parliamentary committee criticises Corus for not seriously looking for a buyer for the Redcar site. It urges the Government to consider offering a subsidy to any potential buyer.

John Prescott is the big draw at Labour's regional conference in Sunderland. The former Deputy Prime Minister is as large as life still but his transportation has been downsized to a battle mini-bus. He remains unrepentant about his vision for regional government in the North East.

Northern Rock announces some good news - losses of £250m. It doesn't sound great but compared to a £1.4bn loss in 2008, it's a huge leap forward. It also announces bonuses of £14.9m, but the bulk go to staff earning less than £25,000 a year.

There's disappointment as the Government announces plans for for a high speed rail link that will stop in Birmingham. There's a possiblity of extending it to Manchester and Leeds, but only a long-term aspiration for it to reach the North East, and no plans for it to head into Cumbria.

Ashok Kumar

Teesside MP Ashok Kumar died aged just 53.

Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP Ashok Kumar is found dead at his home in Teesside. Aged just 53, tributes pour in from his colleagues and constituents. Gordon Brown describes him as "a warm and incredibly generous man" and "a tenacious campaigner" for Teesside. He was the region's first Asian MP.

Channel 4 shows footage of North Tyneside MP Stephen Byers touting himself to lobbyists as a "cab for hire". He's suspended from the Labour party, and an inquiry begins. You know it's bad when Lord Mandelson says your behaviour is "grubby".

North Durham MP Kevan Jones falls foul of the formidable Joanna Lumley. After questioning Ms Lumley's long-term commitment to the Gurkhas, he's accused of smearing the former Avenger. Not wise. He's subjected to a torrent of abuse on Twitter, and issues an unreserved apology.

Tony Blair returns to Trimdon Labour Club to make a speech backing Gordon Brown. Most of the focus is on the depth of his tan, rather than the substance of his speech.


Nick Clegg visited Tyneside twice in April as support for his party surged.

We're off. The 2010 election is called, with May 6 confirmed as polling day at long last. John Prescott returns to the region as the first big-hitting visitor in his mini-bus, heading for the crucial battleground of Carlisle. I parade a fetching election-themed bag in Look North's coverage which leads to comparisons between myself and Dick Emery.

Deselected MP Frank Cook resigns from the Labour party and announces he will be standing as an Independent in Stockton North.

Nick Clegg decides to lovebomb the North East with two electioneering visits. His aides get their geography confused on the first though, relocating The Sage Gateshead to Newcastle. He gets prickly when asked about former Newcastle East candidate Greg Stone, but is also asked about his party's attitude to coalition. On his return his green credentials come under question as he jets in and out of Tyneside, and leaves his the engine of his campaign bus running during the entire visit.

Election 2010 bag

My natty Election 2010 bag was THE fashion accessory in April.

Meanwhile, Mr Clegg's prefomance in the first two debates leads to a surge in Lib Dem support. One local newspaper poll predicts his party will win the City of Durham, Blaydon, three seats in Newcastle and even Hartlepool.

Labour turn to celebrities to rescue their ailing campaign. Eddie Izzard turns up in Durham, and the vicar from Emmerdale (!?) turns up almost anywhere he's asked to.

The National Union of Students arrive in Gateshead for their annual conference. One delegate tells me students prefer to exercise power through seats at the table rather than sit-ins these days!

The death of UKIP candidate John Boakes forces the postponement of the election in Thirsk and Malton to after the election.

David Cameron catapults the region into the centre of the election campaign by telling Jeremy Paxman that the size of the public sector in the North East is "unsustainable". The Conservatives say he wants to see the private sector grow; Labour say it's clear he wants to cut jobs and services in the region. Mr Cameron arrives in Stockton to rubbish that idea.

The Tories do promise to reclassify the A1 north of Newcastle as a "road of national significance". They promise that could bring an upgrade closer, but don't promise an upgrade.

My attempt to introduce some Newcastle United supporters to the city's parliamentary candidates almost ends in a stand-up fight in one of the city's hostelries. Not between the politicians and fans who are well-behaved, but between me and a heckler!

The incredibly unoriginal Moss Missives 2010 Review - part one

Richard Moss | 10:00 UK time, Monday, 20 December 2010


Christmas kitten

In a shameless attempt to give my review of 2010 a wider appeal I've appropriated a picture of a cute Christmas kitten.

How time flies when you're having fun. It barely seems a moment since I was writing the Moss Missives Review of 2009.

It was rapturously received (well I liked it), but of course life never stands still, and I always want to push the blogging envelope.

So I've been scratching around for a more original idea, a ground-breaker, an agenda-setter. Something which will catapult me to the pinnacle of the blogosphere.

And so....I can proudly announce....that....I couldn't think of one.

So here's the Moss Missives Political Review of 2010 in the North East and Cumbria, part one. (If it ain't broke, why fix it).

Tangled with tinsel and smelling vaguely of turkey, it's your Christmas treat from me to you.

Like so many festive gifts, you'll have forgotten all about it by the end of January. Enjoy.



Someone's fridge featured in January's political stories, but it wasn't hers.

The year starts off with news of a plot against PM Gordon Brown (remember him). There are the usual rumours that North East Blairites Alan Miliburn and Stephen Byers are involved. But actually the ringleaders are political rottweillers Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt. Not surprisingly then it fizzles out. David Miliband in particular kills off hopes of a coup by professing his loyalty to Brown although his pledge comes after several hours of silence and speculation.

Lib Dem hopes of unseating the PM's great mate Nick Brown in Newcastle East are dealt a blow when their parliamentary candidate Greg Stone resigns. Mr Stone was caught out posting inappropriate comments on the web about some of his political rivals. Durham's Roberta Blackman-Woods was described as "sour-faced", and Gateshead and Washington's Sharon Hodgson "thick". But of course it's Greg who ends up looking "rather silly" and "red-faced". (my words)

Lord Mandelson announces big cuts to higher education. The Russell Group of universities (which includes Newcastle) talks about the sector being "brought to its knees". I also speak to students in Durham who are disappointed that the Lib Dems are now only pledging to remove tuition fees over six years rather than straight away - ah more innocent times.

Conservative Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley moves to reassure North East voters that the NHS will be safe in Tory hands. He promises a health premium for poorer areas during a visit to Sunderland Royal Hospital.

Tyne Bridge Labour MP David Clelland announces he'll be standing down at the election. He had endured some bad headlines on expenses, but says it was the death of one of his colleagues (Leicestershire MP David Taylor) that focused his mind. Meanwhile, the party selects education adviser Pat Glass as their candidate for Durham North West. It's the seat vacated by Hilary Armstrong.

It's revealed that several of our politicians are appealing against demands to repay parts of their expenses. Stockton North's Frank Cook appeals against a proposed repayment of the £600 he claimed for a fridge. Sir Alan Beith (Berwick) and Chris Mullin (Sunderland South) are also on the list of appellants. Baroness Quin (the former Gateshead and Washington MP) also appeals against a repayment for a bathroom she installed just before leaving the Commons. David Clelland wins his appeal against a demand to repay part of his mortgage.

There's a temporary reprieve for the Corus steelworks in Redcar as it emerges it will stay open until at least the end of February while a buyer is sought.


Gordon Brown

In the locker room: Gordon Brown went back to school in February as he brought his Cabinet to Durham.

Sounds like good news for Durham as Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg arrives in the city promising to put extra bobbies on the beat. The bad news is that it will be paid for by scrapping ID cards - something which could lead to dozens of job losses at the Passport Office in Durham. Oops. Labour accuses Clegg of the first election year gaffe.

Figures released by Sir Thomas Legg reveal that the region's MPs have had to pay back almost £40,000 in overclaimed expenses. Darlington MP Alan Milburn's repayment of £11,600 in mortgage interest makes up a big chunk of that. He admits he's embarrassed by it. 24 others also settle their bills.

Baroness Quin. Sir Alan Beith and Frank Cook win their appeals against repayments though, as does (partially) Chris Mullin. There's some embarrassment as it emerges Chief Whip Nick Brown was yet to repay almost £700 for excessive cleaning claims. He promises to make good straight away.

Shadow Business Secretary Ken Clarke comes to the region and pays a private visit to a former shipyard on the Tyne which hopes to manufacture offshore wind turbines.

New research for BBC Newcastle highlights the vulnerability of the North East to public sector cuts. It reveals that 67,000 more people work in the region's public sector today than in 1998.

Nick Clegg returns to the North East to announce plans for £400m of investment to make our ports centres for green energy. He pays a public visit to a former shipyard on the Tyne which hopes to manufacture offshore wind turbines. Something which upsets Labour, who see him as gatecrashing their pet project.

Corus announces the mothballing of the blast furnace in Redcar. Stockton South Labour MP Dari Taylor accuses her own government of letting the area down. She says they should have nationalised it. But the Redcar MP Vera Baird says a deal to sell the plant could still be done.

The Cabinet meets in the North East for the first time, decamping en masse to Durham Johnston School. Corus dominates the visit though with Lord Mandelson going to Redcar, and the PM defending the Government. Gordon Brown becomes the third major politician in a month to visit a former shipyard on the Tyne which hopes to manufacture offshore wind turbines! (Note to politicians - time to use some imagination).

Labour picks two new candidates. Local councillor Mary Glindon is picked for Stephen Byers' North Tyneside seat, and NUM President Ian Lavery is selected for Wansbeck. The Lib Dems pick city councillor Wendy Taylor as Greg Stone's successor in Newcastle East.

Government accused of misleading public on council cuts

Richard Moss | 15:45 UK time, Wednesday, 15 December 2010


Cumbrian scenery

Looks serene but Cumbria is facing big cuts in its council services.

On the face of it Cumbria County Council looked like it had got away lightly in the cuts announced this week.

But the local authority says the figures published by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles give a misleading impression.

As I mentioned earlier this week, it's because his figures are based on the reduction in council spending power.

So that takes into account extra money which local government will get for social care, and other services. It does not represent the like-for-like reduction in government grants.

So in reality the cuts in the government grant are much larger than the average 4.4% reduction in "spending power" that the Government has talked about.

In fact it's estimated the cut in grant is closer to an average of 10%.

And so Cumbria says a figure which shows its spending power was being reduced by just 1.9% does not reflect the reality of the cuts the county council will have to make.

In fact they calculate their grants from the Government were £227.5m last year but go down to £192.8m next year. That's a reduction of more than 15%.

So the council says it will have to make deep cuts of more than £27m.

It's not the only council that is painting a grimmer picture than the Government. Some of the Cumbrian districts say they are also losing more than expected.

And Durham County Council says the settlement means it will need to make cuts of £100m and shed 1,600 jobs.

The Government believes councils can protect front line services by cutting red tape and pursuing radical options (sharing services with neighbouring local authorities etc).

But most councils disagree saying cuts on such a scale will hit the services the public value.

As local authorities get into their budget detail in the New Year, we'll find out who's right.

North councils suffer in cuts, but it could have been worse

Richard Moss | 11:37 UK time, Tuesday, 14 December 2010


Eric Pickles

Eric Pickles announces the details of council cuts but includes extra help for the worst-hit.

Our councils have discovered then just how much they'll have to cut in the next two years.

Many are now facing tough choices and difficult discussions. Hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will have to be found in the next two years.

But although it won't be much compensation, the cuts could have been even worse for some of our councils.

The Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announced that no council would face a reduction of more than 8.9% in their spending power.

To do that he's had to give transitional grants to some of our local authorities that would have faced even higher cuts.

South Tyneside, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Copeland and Barrow all face the maximum 8.9% reduction. (Sunderland also comes close to hitting the maximum with a reduction of 8.88%).

But they would have faced bigger cuts without Mr Pickles' transitional grant.

South Tyneside, for example, would have seen a 10.5% cut in spending power had it not been given a £3m grant to bring the cut down to 8.9%. Hartlepool would have also have faced a double digit cut without the transitional help.

For some though it's only a marginal improvement.

Ray Mallon

Middlesbrough Mayor Ray Mallon is angry at cuts to his council's budget.

I can't see Middlesbrough Mayor Ray Mallon being overjoyed that transitional relief of £300,000 has reduced cuts in his town from 9.12% to 8.9%.

And today he's said the cuts could "put Middlesbrough back a generation".

This help then may prove to be little comfort for authorities that will still have to find significant savings.

And Labour will accuse Eric Pickles of hitting the North East and Cumbria harder than other parts of the country.

A map published in The Guardian shows northern councils losing more than the south. And some of the figures bear that out too.

Using the Secretary of State's measure of spending power (which takes into account the cut in grant plus the extra money councils are getting to provide social care), 15 of the councils in the North East and Cumbria face cuts of above the national average of 4.4%. That rises more if you include the districts in North Yorkshire.

Many of them, like Middlesbrough, South Tyneside and Hartlepool, are in the poorest areas.

The unitary councils in Durham and Northumberland have also been handed above-average cuts (6.73% and 5.64% respectively).

But the two traditional shire councils have escaped relatively lightly. North Yorkshire's spending power has gone down by 2.05%, Cumbria's by 1.91%.

District councils in those areas have not done so well though. All face above-average reductions.

Some eyebrows will be raised about the settlement in Tyne and Wear though. All of the councils in the old metropolitan area face cuts to spending power of at least 7.89%, except one.

That exception is North Tyneside - the only one run by the Conservatives.

Co-incidence perhaps, but Labour will be quick to make political capital out of it.

So far though there is divided opinion amongst councils politically.

South Tyneside's Labour leader Iain Malcolm says he's "devastated", but the former Lib Dem leader of Newcastle Lord Shipley says the settlement is better than expected.

And Northumberland Conservative councillor Wayne Daley says saving 5p in every pound in Northumberland is far from catastrophic.

Councils though will have to considering doing things differently to protect the front-line as much as possible.

Let me know what you think of the settlement and what you think councils should do.

Here's a full league table of the cuts to "spending power" in our councils and fire and rescue authorities:

8.9% - Barrow, Copeland, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, South Tyneside.
8.88% - Sunderland.
8.39% - Redcar and Cleveland.
7.89% - Gateshead.
7.84% - Newcastle.
7.56% - Allerdale.
7.34% - Stockton.
6.69% - Durham.
6.57% - Scarborough.
6.42% - Eden.
6.32% - Hambleton.
6.08% - Ryedale.
5.83% - Richmondshire.
5.64% - Northumberland.
5.58% - Cleveland Fire.
5.52% - Harrogate.
5.21% - South Lakeland.
4.69% - Tyne and Wear Fire.
4.38% - North Tyneside.
3.55% - Darlington.
3.08% - Durham Fire.
3.31% - York.
2.05% - North Yorkshire.
1.91% - Cumbria.
0.94% - North Yorkshire Fire.

The Localism Bill - Pickles' people power versus council cuts

Richard Moss | 13:05 UK time, Sunday, 12 December 2010


Homes in Newcastle

Communities will be offered new powers by the Government, but they will also have to cope with council cuts.

The Government has always insisted that its localism and Big Society agendas have nothing to do with cuts in council funding.

Rather oddly then, they have decided to make big announcements in both areas on the same day.

Just as the Government publishes its Localism Bill to show how it'll hand more power to communities, it'll also be revealing the details of the deepest cuts to council budgets in 30 years.

Critics will see a link between the two, with people forced to take over services or watch them cut to shreds by local authorities.

The Government still rejects that reasoning. Instead, they will be hoping headlines about their plans for people power will help to drown out the groaning from councils bemoaning their financial fate.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles was on the Politics Show talking about plans to give local people and organisations the power to buy public buildings.

People will also get the chance to question how services are run and take them over in some circumstances.

And voters will get a bigger say on planning decisions and where houses should go.

There will also be moves to put more directly-elected mayors in charge of our cities.

There are cheerleaders for the plans in our region.

Penrith and the Border's Conservative MP Rory Stewart believes his constituents are at the forefront of the Big Society. They're already looking to run services and take over buildings.

The question is can the Coalition convince communities in urban Labour-voting areas to embrace the ideas too?

And will people's power to decide where houses go just lead to a rash of nimbyism, and a crisis in the house-building programme?

There's also some doubt about public enthusiasm for elected mayors in our region at least.

Voters have had the chance for years to push for mayors in cities like Newcastle, but there's been precious little evidence of a popular campaign.

Indeed, the last time any of our communities had a chance to vote for an elected mayor was in Darlington. People there overwhelmingly voted against.

A campaign to push for a mayor in Sunderland also fizzled out through lack of interest.

But with participation in council elections so poor, it's clear something needs to be done to make voters feel they do have a say over what goes on in their areas.

Many of our councils though will feel that what the Government's giving with one hand, it's clawing back hand over fist with the other.

We already know that local authorities will lose a quarter of their government funding over the next five years, but they are about to find out all the grisly detail through the announcement of the settlement for individual areas.

Hundreds of job losses have already been announced in Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Darlington, Cumbria and Northumberland, and others councils will no doubt reveal even more cuts in coming weeks.

We do also know there will be pupil premium for schools which may help some classrooms in the north.

But many northern councils will be looking for evidence that the Coalition will offer them more protection than wealthier areas in the south.

If it isn't forthcoming, some won't be shy of criticising the Government.

Middlesbrough's Independent Mayor Ray Mallon has already accused the Coalition of declaring "financial war" on the North East.

And so many of our councils may end up being only too happy to offer voters the chance to fund and run services that they can no longer afford to support.

The day after - what damage has the tuition fee vote done?

Richard Moss | 14:25 UK time, Friday, 10 December 2010


Student protest in Westminster

Students set fire to rubbish outside parliament as MPs vote to raise tuition fees.

I could sense the tension as soon as I arrived in Westminster for the tuition fee vote.

The police presence was building up long before the students arrived.

Initially, everything seemed calm, but with police and protesters enclosed together for so long, trouble seemed almost inevitable, and dragged on well into the night.

There were some surreal moments during my day in Westminster.

Frank Carson

It's the way he tells them - comedian Frank Carson pops up outside parliament in a surreal moment.

At one point the Irish comedian Frank Carson came out of the Commons and started performing in front of our camera.

I must admit I thought he was dead, but clearly rumours of his demise were greatly exaggerated.

I also spent my lunchtime in a café next to snoozing ITN newsreader Alistair Stewart.

But any good humour outside parliament quickly evaporated.

I wasn't one of those filming in the melee, but after the votes, I ended up with one of the Lib Dems who did decide to break his pledge to oppose a rise in fees.

And just below Sir Alan Beith's office you could see the violent clashes between students and police.

It's the first time I have ever done an interview where I could hear a near-riot going on in the background.

So why did the Berwick MP decide he could vote with a clear conscience for a rise in fees to £9,000?

He told me he thought it was the best available deal for his constituents - more progressive than the current system, and fairer to students from low income households in Northumberland.

And he insisted this was not someone sacrificing his principles for political reasons.

As a backbench Lib Dem, Sir Alan Beith had no ministerial ties. He was free to vote as he wanted, so he says he made his decision because it was the right package.

And even some of the Lib Dem rebels spoke supportively of the proposals.

Westmorland and Lonsdale's Tim Farron said the deal was a good one.

But he said he had to stick with his pre-election pledge to vote against a rise in fees.

So what damage has this whole affair done to the Lib Dems?

Well, at least on the surface relations between their MPs seem good.

They firmly believe this is a one-off rebellion, and that they will now return to being loyal members of the Coalition.

Student march in Newcastle

Students march through Newcastle, but polling suggests they're not the only ones turning away from the Lib Dems.

But the evidence is that it's not just students who are now turning away from the party.

An analysis of IPSOS Mori polls held between June and November suggests the Lib Dems are polling at around 15% nationally.

Not terrible perhaps, but dig deeper into that data and you expose really worrying news for the party in in the North East.

A breakdown by area puts Lib Dem support in the region at just 4%.

That's a 20 percentage point drop in their performance at the general election.

It suggests fewer people in the North East now support the Lib Dems than in any other region.

It would lead to electoral catastrophe if it's borne out by actual voting in next May's local elections.

It also suggests the party might struggle to sell the Alternative Vote to people in the referendum which is also being held in the spring.

Just how keen will people in the North East be to support a change which might make the Lib Dems permanent partners in successive coalitions?

Sir Alan Beith says he's not worried by the poll. He's seen even lower Lib Dem ratings during his long career.

But many party members may now begin to wonder just what the long term impact of being in coalition will be.

This week's vote poses questions for the other parties too though.

With so much focus on the Lib Dems, it's easy to forget that the Coalition is actually dominated by the Conservatives.

How damaging might this week be for them?

That may depend on whether Labour can make them pay for it.

It will be a test for Ed Miliband, who also has to convince students and voters that his plan for a graduate tax would be significantly fairer.

We'll be hearing from our Lib Dem MPs and talking to Labour and the Conservatives on this Sunday's Politics Show at 12pm on BBC1.

Which way will our Lib Dems jump on tuition fees?

Richard Moss | 14:10 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010


Student protest

Students march through Newcastle to campaign against a rise in tuition fees.

It's perhaps the biggest test so far for the Lib Dem commitment to coalition.

Which way will their MPs jump when they are forced into a vote on raising tuition fees this Thursday?

The evidence so far is that they will be jumping in several different directions.

While some of those in government look likely to support the changes, there are Lib Dems determined to honour their election pledge and vote against a rise in fees.

We have two such refuseniks in our patch.

Lib Dem Deputy Leader and Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron has made it quite clear he will be voting against.

As early as October, he nailed his colours to the mast saying: "I will not vote to leave 18 year olds going to university next year from the South Lakes incurring up to £30,000 of debt.

"I am Westmorland's man in Westminster, not the other way round, and to me our communities come first."

And Redcar's Ian Swales has also said he'll be opposing the lifting of the tuition fee cap.

He says he has discussed the proposals with the Business Secretary Vince Cable, and is happy that he's done much to make them fairer.

But he won't be supporting them.

He says: "This scheme is more progressive with 20% of students expected to be better off than they are now. However I can't support raising the fee cap up to £9,000 per year."

Student banner

A banner at a protest in Newcastle makes clear what many students think about any Lib Dem support for a rise in tuition fees.

One of our MPs though says he has yet to make up his mind.

Berwick's Sir Alan Beith is still deliberating which way to turn.

But his website shows he had little doubt in October 2009.

In a news release from then, he condemns Conservative plans to raise the cap on tuition fees to £7,000.

He said: "Students now face the prospect of serious levels of debt when they graduate from university, which could be with them for life, and the Conservatives want to put them under even more pressure.

"Labour and now the Tories just want to get as much money as they can from students who are already having to work harder than ever to stay at university.

"The choice is clear: only the Liberal Democrats will end the unfair system of top up fees for university students and bring back free education."

Sir Alan also signed the now infamous pledge not to vote for a rise in tuition fees.

What a difference a year makes. Of course, he won't be the first or last politician to have a change of heart if he does decide to vote in favour.

But he is coming under pressure now from some in his party to stick to his pledge.

Lib Dem parliamentary candidates like Carol Woods (City of Durham) and Wendy Taylor (Newcastle East) recently signed a petition asking their MPs to reject the rise.

But one former colleague of Sir Alan Beith says he will be supporting the plans.

Phil Willis was the Lib Dem MP for Harrogate until May and was the party's education spokesman for many years.

Indeed, he was instrumental in including the pledge to scrap tuition fees in the party's 2001 and 2005 manifestos.

But now Lord Willis of Knaresborough, as he is now, has told me he will support the rise.

He says time has moved on, and that it's now unfair to expect hard-pressed taxpayers whose jobs may be at risk to pay more taxes to support students.

Instead, he wants to see the rise stimulate more debate about the quality of education on offer to undergraduates.

The former head teacher hopes the rise in fees will lead to more demanding a better education than they get now.

So one party, and seemingly several opinions.

It's extremely unlikely though that this disagreement will be fatal to the Coalition. Tim Farron has gone out of his way to say his decision does not undermine his support for the government in any way.

But its repercussions for his party may be felt for some time beyond Thursday.

Mallon accuses Coalition of declaring war on the North East

Richard Moss | 13:53 UK time, Sunday, 5 December 2010


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Ray Mallon's not a man to mince his words.

And the Middlesbrough Mayor made it quite clear on the Politics Show what he makes of the Coalition cuts to council budgets.

"A declaration of financial war on the North East" is how he put it.

That's because he believes the north's councils will be hit harder than those in the more prosperous south.

Middlesbrough has been doing some number-crunching to make the point.

The council calculates the Government's plans will see Middlesbrough Council lose £277 per head of population.

That will be a far higher figure than some prosperous parts of the south, and cost hundreds of jobs.

Middesbrough calculates that Elmbridge in Surrey - which includes wealthy commuter towns like Esher - will in comparison only lose £57 per head.

It's all because councils in deprived areas like Middlesbrough are the most dependent on government funding.

In countrast, places like Elmbridge get a higher proportion from the council taxpayers, so will suffer less from the 28% cut in the government grant.

North East councils are also losing out because of the Government's decision to end extra money streams like the Working Neighbourhoods Fund which has helped many of the region's local authorities.

Independent Ray Mallon says that's grossly unfair, and he says it's time the Government started listening.

He says in the past David Cameron has told him that the Conservatives need to show they care about the North East, but as far as he can see there is no empathy in evidence at all.

He's convinced the cuts will see a widening of the north-south divide.

And even some within the region's Tories agree.

Ken Lupton, the Conservative leader of Stockton Council, says the current plans for council cuts will hit the region harder than the south, and he agrees with Ray Mallon that it's unfair.

That's a charge rejected by the Conservative MP for Stockton South James Wharton though.

He says the Government is giving the North East extra help to allow the private sector to grow.

He believes the council cuts are being applied in percentage terms equally across the board, and the North East is losing no more than other parts of the country.

And the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles told the Politics Show he will look to see what he can do to help councils who've lost funding from the Working Neighbourhoods Fund.

And it's true the Government has yet to finalise exactly how each council will be affected by the cuts. There may be some room yet for finessing the figures.

But the Coalition clearly has a lot of explaining to do to convince politicians like Ray Mallon that the North East is being treated fairly.

There is a political imperative here as well. Cut harder in the south than the north, and Mr Pickles might find even more of his own party on his back.

Different tactics used in battle to revive northern high streets

Richard Moss | 14:16 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010


Plans for the redevelopment of Gateshead.

The future for our town centres? A giant Tesco will dominate plans to redevelop Gateshead.

A year doesn't go by without some damning report about the state of our high streets.

But people who live and shop in many of them probably don't need telling that they have been in decline for many years.

Some are scarred by empty shops, others have become characterless clones dominated by chain stores.

So what's the solution?

A trip to two towns in Tyneside and you'll see two different approaches.

Gateshead's shopping centre has been in a seemingly relentless decline for years now, squeezed between Newcastle and the Metro Centre.

But at last something is happening.

The dilapidated developments of the '60s and '70s - including the infamous car park from the film Get Carter - have been demolished.

In their place will come new modern-looking shops, and student accommodation.

The idea is to inject life back into the town centre. The new shop units will attract people during the day, while it's hoped the students will generate life after dark.

But it's all built around a giant Tesco.

That may well draw shoppers in, but some feel the development is a mistake.

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) advise councils and the government on design.

And they have some pretty damning things to say about the Gateshead plans.

They say they look monolithic, bulky and badly-designed.

And moreover they believe they're more geared towards benefiting Tesco than the wider town centre.

Down the line they fear the development could create the same problems as the '60s shops - a load of concrete but not a lot of life.

The demolition of a 1960s car park in Gateshead

The demolition of the Get Carter car park in Gateshead - a legacy of an earlier redevelopment of the shopping centre.

Gateshead Council disagrees though. It's decided to ignore CABE's objections and press ahead.

But across the Tyne there is evidence of another approach.

Whitley Bay town centre has had its share of problems over the last decade too.

But it appears to be undergoing a revival.

North Tyneside Council has hired in a retail consultant, given grants to businesses and even dressed up empty shops in fancy fake fronts to make the area look better.

Their real secret weapon though is the townspeople themselves.

Many of the shops are now let to local independent traders rather than national chain stores.

That's created a distinctive feel, and led to a rise in trade. Empty shop units have been cut by a third in 12 months.

Whitley Bay

Whitley Bay town centre is thriving thanks to small local independent traders.

The town centre manager John Fleet believes local traders offer customers a better experience, but also avoid the town depending on firms with no stake in the community.

He says local traders are more likely to stick with Whitley Bay and guarantee a long term future for the high street.

North Tyneside believes it's a model other smaller towns can follow.

So two different towns, two different councils, two different approaches.

But of course it won't be the local authorities who decide the fate of these attempts to revive our high streets, but shoppers voting with their feet and wallets.

There'll be more about this on the Politics Show at 12pm on BBC1 this Sunday.

Inside Out will also be looking at our high streets and the fate of the former Woolworth's stores at 7.30pm on Monday on BBC1.

Eric Pickles says councils should raid reserves to cope with cuts

Richard Moss | 14:20 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010


Eric Pickles

Eric Pickles says it is time for councils to spend what they have saved.

In around a fortnight's time our councils will find out just how much (or how little) money they will be getting for the next few years.

It's a fair bet that our local authorities will be less than chuffed with what they get and many won't be shy in saying that.

So perhaps we should not be surprised that Eric Pickles has got his retaliation in early.

The Communities and Local Government Secretary has said councils should dig into their cash reserves to help themselves out.

And just to make his point, he's published a list of all the money held in reserve by local authorities in England.

The national figure is eyewatering - £10bn in total.

And the North East and Cumbria's 25 councils also hold what sounds like a huge amount in reserve - around £637m.

Mr Pickles says now is the time for councils who've built up substantial reserves to stop squirreling away money and start spending it.

He compares them to householders who have to dig into their savings in tough times.

And the figures he's released also show some large variations in reserves amongst the region's councils.

On the face of it, it might sound like Middlesbrough and Hambleton in North Yorkshire hold similar levels of reserves (around £11m in both cases).

But actually that's misleading because Middlesbrough is a much bigger council than Hambleton.

Therefore, it's best to compare the reserves to the council's annual spending (or revenue expenditure) is held in reserve.

So while Middlesbrough only holds the equivalent of 4% of its revenue expenditure of £274m in reserve, Hambleton holds 93% because its annual spending is just £12m.

And some of our other councils do seem to have different approaches to reserves.

While Northumberland has a a very low level of less than 3% of revenue expenditure, Stockton has the equivalent of 23% of its annual spending tucked away.

Eric Pickles believes councils with reserves above 5% of their revenue expenditure should be digging into them (that's 20 out of 25 councils here).

But that message has not gone down well with most local authorities.

Some in the region - even those run by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats - say the idea is a non-starter.

They point out that reserves are there for emergencies and contingencies and they're advised to hold them as good financial practice.

Councils like Northumberland have drawn on them in the past to help cope with the cost of flooding, others have used them to settle equal pay claims from workers.

And while many councils say they may draw on their reserves this year, they insist that will be nowhere near enough to compensate for the cuts they're expecting.

It's also money you can only spend once, and so even if a council used its reserves to prop up a service this year, it would just have to be cut the year after.

But of course what's really going on here is the first salvo in a battle between government and councils.

You can make up your own mind whether Eric Pickles has a valid point in highlighting the level of reserves.

But one thing's for sure - Mr Pickles isn't going to just quietly accept the blame for the council cuts to come.

If you want to know the situation for your local council, I have collated a league table for the North East and Cumbria.

The percentage represents how big a proportion of their annual revenue expenditure is held in reserves. The figure in brackets is the actual amount of money each council holds.

Hambleton 93% (£11.2m)
Harrogate 56% (£16.1m)
Allerdale 43% (£7.6m)
Scarborough 40% (£9.8m)
Copeland 38% (£6.4m)
Eden 38% (£4.2m)
Barrow 26% (£4.7m)
Stockton 23% (£74.7m)
South Lakes 22% (£3.7m)
Carlisle 18% (£3.7m)
Richmondshire 18% (£1.6m)
Sunderland 16% (£85.8m)
Gateshead 11% (£40.6m)
Durham 10% (£92.9m)
Hartlepool 9% (£17.9m)
Cumbria 8% (£8.2m)
Darlington 8% (£13.5m)
North Tyneside 7% (£23.1m)
Redcar and Cleveland 7% (£20m)
South Tyneside 6% (£17.2m)
Newcastle 5% (£28.1m)
York 5% (£13.5m)
Middlesbrough 4% (£11.1m)
North Yorkshire 4% (£4.4m)
Northumberland 3% (£14.9m)

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