BBC BLOGS - Moss Missives

Archives for January 2011

Charity warns cuts could cause more child poverty

Richard Moss | 09:11 UK time, Sunday, 30 January 2011


Child playing football

The Government says it will eradicate child poverty by 2020, but can they do that in an era of cuts?

The last government made some bold pledges on child poverty.

It would be halved by 2010, eliminated by 2020.

But although genuine progress was made in Labour's first two terms, everything rather slid away in the third, and the first child poverty target was almost certainly never reached (the figures for 2010 still haven't been released).

Now the new government has renewed that second pledge to eliminate child poverty within nine years.

But what chance have they got of achieving that in a climate of cuts and retrenchment?

After all, Labour failed to reach its targets at a time when spending was relatively high.

It's an issue which is very important to our region.

There are a range of statistics, but broadly one in four children in the North East are regarded as living below the poverty line.

That figure rises to one in three in areas like Middlesbrough and Newcastle.

Only London has higher rates in England.

One organisation is warning that unless the Government rethinks its cuts, the situation will only get worse.

Barnardo's logo

Barnardo's says council cuts will damage its efforts to help children and families.

Barnardo's says it's projects all across the region are facing problems - often because of cuts in council grants.

It tries to support the most vulnerable young people and families and the charity fears the cuts will leave a legacy of increased poverty.

It's even concerned that projects which aim to get young people out of prostitution will be hit.

Barnardo's fears a short-term concentration on cuts will actually cost more in the long-term by making more families reliant on the state.

Of course, that's a charge the Government denies.

It says it has concentrated on measures which will lift people out of poverty.

The Coalition says the lifting of the basic tax threshold, the pupil premium, and the reform of the welfare system are all designed to lift people out of poverty.

And in the long term, it believes the best way of tackling poverty is to put the economy on a sound footing.

Of course, with the economy shrinking in the last quarter, this isn't the best week to make that argument.

And Labour will be seeking to highlight every cut that hits the most vulnerable.

You can watch the Politics Show debate the issue at 12pm this Sunday on BBC1.

Blockbuster or turkey - could Localism Bill save your cinema?

Richard Moss | 09:43 UK time, Friday, 28 January 2011



The people of Penrith will have to buy their local cinema to save it.

It could be a movie plot. A town finds out its cinema is closing. Local people take to the streets in protest. Then out of nowhere - some fresh hope.

They're told they can save their cinema - but only if they raise £750,000 in three months to buy it themselves.

That's the situation facing the people of Penrith.

The Cumbrian community found out a few weeks ago that the current cinema owners were planning to shut it down and sell the building.

It certainly mobilised people. Around a thousand took part in a march through the town.

And they are keen to take over the picture house. They believe a community-run cinema is the answer.

Rory Stewart

Conservative MP Rory Stewart believes the Localism Bill will help communities in his constituency.

Their local Conservative MP, Rory Stewart, is also keen. He negotiated the deal that is now on the table from the owners, Graves Cumberland, who initially showed no interest in dealing with the community.

But in the future it might not need an MP's intervention.

Under the Government's Localism Bill, councils will be able to make a list of "community assets" in their area - including local cinemas, pubs and the like.

Their owners would then be legally obliged to offer the community time to mount a bid before making any decision to close, demolish or change a building's use.

It's effectively similar to what has eventually happened naturally in Penrith.

But there is a hitch.

What it doesn't do is give the community first refusal. So the owner will not be obliged to sell it to the community, but just listen to their bid.

Labour say that is not enough. They think communities will struggle to compete with other bidders, especially with so little money available in grants from councils and other public sector organisations.

Rory Stewart admits he would also like to see the legislation toughened up on that score, and aims to push for that as it goes through the Commons.

But he says the Bill still will offer communities much more of a fighting chance than now.

Marching protestors

Around a thousand people marched through Penrith to campaign against the cinema closure.

And what happens in Penrith may test out that theory.

The community are hopeful they can mount a successful bid. But it will be an uphill task.

Three months is a short time to raise £750,000, and the community also has to try and come up with a plan on how they will run the cinema.

In reality, they would have wanted much longer, and better terms.

But if they do pull it off, there is a model to work on.

Hexham's cinema came perilously close to shutting five years ago.

Local people saved The Forum by buying out its lease, and forming a community trust to run it.

It's attendances are now well up, and its making a profit.

And the Trust has been able to access grants that a private company would never have been able to get, and has reinvested the profits in the local area.

But Hexham was given time and financial help to achieve its goal - luxuries the people of Penrith don't currently have.

And it is unclear whether the Localism Bill in its current form would also offer a town like Penrith much more hope.

So the Bill might be a forthcoming attraction worth watching, but not necessarily a blockbuster.

North MPs help win inquiry into heating oil 'profiteering'

Richard Moss | 15:34 UK time, Tuesday, 25 January 2011


Domestic oil delivery

The price of domestic oil deliveries like this one increased by around 50% in December.

We all know that the price of heating our homes seldom seems to fall, but one group of householders has had a particularly tough winter.

They are the millions of people who use oil for heating.

Most live in rural areas, and have little other choice because of the lack of mains gas.

That can make them vulnerable because although Ofgem regulates the prices of mains gas, no such regime exists for heating oil.

It's a big issue in the region because that applies to large parts of Cumbria, Northumberland, North Yorkshire and County Durham.

Prices in December are thought to have risen by around 50%, with some paying almost double the rates they once did. That is potentially crippling, considering it was one of the coldest winter months on record.

And some people have had problems even getting deliveries. (My parents who live in Cumbria almost fell victim to that at Christmas).

Perhaps it's not surprising then that MPs on all sides have begun asking for action.

The Durham North West Labour MP Pat Glass tabled an early day motion in parliament asking for an investigation into what she sees as anti-competitive behaviour by domestic heating oil suppliers.

Her motion asks why there has been more a steep rise in the cost of domestic heating oil (kerosene) at a time when its price in the commodity markets has only risen by 10%.

And it accuses the companies of exploiting the vulnerable by hiking up prices.

Guy Opperman

The Hexham MP Guy Opperman says some of his constituents are forced to choose between heating and eating.

It's an issue which has also been occupying the Conservative MP for Hexham, Guy Opperman.

He's warned that many households are being forced to choose between "heating and eating" because of rising prices.

And research in his constituency found that competition in his constituency was very limited.

Although it looks as if there are a number of companies to choose from, Mr Opperman found that 10 of them were actually owned by the same parent company - Irish-based DCC Energy.

The Westmorland and Lonsdale Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron has also called for action to regulate the market to protect his constituents. He also says customers using bottled gas an alternative have faced similar problems,

And the Government seems to be listening.

The Energy Minister Charles Hendry has asked the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the market for domestic heating oil and bottled gas and report back before next winter.

The suppliers have denied profiteering but have welcomed the review.

For the moment of course a review won't necessarily lower the prices on offer to consumers, but as a shot across the bows it might just focus the minds of some of the suppliers.

Councils consult public on cuts but are they serious?

Richard Moss | 09:30 UK time, Sunday, 23 January 2011


Road grit being moved by a digger

Durham County Council has protected its road-gritting budget after consulting the public.

The evil budget-setting days have now arrived for our councils.

They don't have to warn of savage cuts and job losses any more, they are delivering them.

Both Durham and Newcastle Councils meet this week to outline how they'll save tens of millions of pounds and cut hundreds of jobs.

But some of our local authorities want us to help them.

They have been consulting their council taxpayers to find out which services they should protect and which ones they should cut.

Durham County Council says it's cancelled a cut to its winter road-gritting budget because the public told it they wanted that service maintained.

Middlesbrough Mayor Ray Mallon is also touring draughty village halls and community centres to gauge opinion.

Cumbria County Council has also been consulting on what to do.

But is this really born of a desire to empower people, or just a fig leaf that will make little difference to the decisions?

You could argue that we elect politicians to take decisions like this, and they already have a public mandate to make them on our behalf.

I certainly don't recall many councils asking what people would like to see more money spent on in the days of plenty.

There is also a danger that we as the public may understandably prioritise the services and jobs that are most visible to us, while writing off some of the less obvious, even if they might be just as important.

And it's one thing to decide you can live with the library budget being cut in a consultation, quite another to find that means it's your local branch that will shut.

There is a danger then that this could become a buck-passing exercise with politicians covering their backs.

It may be far easier to face down protests if you can say it was the public's choice to cut particular services.

The reality is that all our councils will be making painful decisions over the next few years, which no amount of public consultation can disguise.

It is probably better that they do find out what we think, but you have to suspect that most decisions will still be taken by councillors in committee rooms up and down the region.

You can catch more on this story on the Politics Show at 12 noon on Sunday on BBC1 or after the programme via the BBC iPlayer.

MP wins Iron Maiden support in ticket tout bill battle

Richard Moss | 14:06 UK time, Friday, 21 January 2011


Iron Maiden

Rockers Iron Maiden are looking to a Wearside MP to tackle ticket touts.

Usually politicians are happy to win the support of their constituents or colleagues, but one North East MP has gained the backing of Iron Maiden and the Arctic Monkeys this week.

It's all because Wearside's Sharon Hodgson has decided to take on the scourge of music fans and artists - the ticket tout.

She's drafted a Private Members' Bill which is designed to prevent touts snapping up tickets and then offering them up at stratospheric prices to genuine fans.

The Washington and Sunderland West MP wants to put in place a system of fines for anyone caught selling on a ticket at more than 110% of its face value.

Attempts to beat touts in the past seem to have floundered and tickets for most popular events usually end up being resold on various websites at premium prices.

Sharon Hodgson points to the recent scramble for tickets to see Take That at Sunderland's Stadium of Light

Tickets with a face price of £55 disappeared almost immediately only to reappear online within hours at £1,000-a-pair.

Sharon Hodgson

Sharon Hodgson says touts exploit artists and fans.

On her website, Sharon Hodgson says: "The fact of the matter is that a few people are making large amounts of money by exploiting the hard work of people involved in the live entertainment industry and the passion of fans, whilst contributing nothing to either."

And those sentiments and her bill seem to have struck the right note (pun of the day) with the music industry.

The managers of Iron Maiden and the Arctic Monkeys have both voiced their support for Ms Hodgson.

Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood said he was "delighted" the bill had been tabled.

He said: "Something really has to be done about the plague of secondary ticketing.

"This is becoming a blight on anything and everything which involves people genuinely wishing to buy tickets at the intended price for popular events, be it music, sport or theatre."

Some of the websites that re-sell tickets are not so chuffed though. They say it could cause problems for genuine fans who have bought tickets only to find they cannot go.

But Sharon Hodgson says her bill will also compel the Government to work with promoters and ticket agencies to find a fair method of re-selling tickets in genuine circumstances.

Of course, as with almost every Private Members' Bill, it has almost no chance of becoming law. That would require government support.

But the Wearside MP has succeeded in raising the issue, and unusually getting herself onto the pages of Music Week rather than just the Sunderland Echo.

And after all it can't harm your street cred to be feted by some of Britain's top bands.

Eric Pickles' patented cure for insomnia

Richard Moss | 13:36 UK time, Thursday, 20 January 2011


Eric Pickles

Eric Pickles has hit on the perfect way to send you off to sleep.

Eric Pickles may not be flavour of the month with our councils at the moment, but credit where credit's due, he seems to have hit on a failsafe cure for insomnia.

I certainly found myself nodding off today when I began combing through the newly-published records of our local authorities' expenditure.

It's Mr Pickles' push for transparency we have to thank for the tsunami of data that's now being posted by councils.

By January 31, the Communities and Local Government Secretary wants all local authorities to come into line and publish itemised lists of any spending abopve £500.

Some have already complied, and there are links to their lists from the department's website.

So for your delectation and edification, I have already discovered that Allerdale Council in Cumbria spent around £1,300 on toilet cleaning in October last year.

The Grumbleweeds

Could The Grumbleweeds now be emptying Darlington's bins?

I've also found out that comedy group The Grumbleweeds were paid £5,392 by Darlington Council (presumably to appear at the local theatre rather than empty the bins, or reorganise social services).

And I've uncovered that Hartlepool Council seemed to spend around £3,500 on aerial photography for last year's Tall Ships festival.

Oh, and did you know that Middlesbrough Council spent more than £3,000 on buying new library books last December.

Are you still awake? Nodding off? Pull yourself together. We've only got to M in the list of councils, there's still half the alphabet to go.

Just imagine what I went through to unearth those gems for you.

Actually, I didn't spend that long because I just couldn't face it, and that is perhaps the point.

Transparency is very laudable, but I wonder just who is going to have the time and inclination to go through such a pile of information.

I have always fancied being the man to uncover a Watergate-style scandal in our councils, but when you consider that one month's expenditure by Durham County Council covers 374 pages, I would have to dedicate my whole career to forensically examining just a year's worth of data.

And even then, how obvious would a scandal be?

Let's say I believed a council leader was paying his brother sweeteners, I'll probably never know as details of inidvidual names are kept confidential by many of the local authorities.

There are also countless entries that prompt further questions, but again who has the time to follow all those up?

Then there is the potential expense. The Government insists it's a simple cost-free process, but the Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman begs to differ.

She tackled Eric Pickles in parliament this week, saying Durham County Council believes it'll use up the time of two full-time staff members to collate the data.

But Mr Pickles insists this is the right thing to do, and I suppose if you want the information it is there now.

Or at least most of it is.

So far in our region Allerdale, Barrow, Copeland, Darlington, Durham, Hambleton, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Richmondshire, South Lakeland, Stockton and Sunderland councils have published the information.

But Cumbria, Carlisle, Northumberland, Gateshead, South Tyneside, Redcar and Cleveland, and North Yorkshire have yet to comply.

Eric Pickles can't force them to, but I am sure they won't be top of his Christmas card list if they don't meet the deadline of 31 January.

Anyway, I must go, I've just discovered that you can also now look online at what our fire services have been spending too. Perfect timing for my afternoon snooze.

Why changes designed to help savers could hit the low-paid

Richard Moss | 12:52 UK time, Wednesday, 19 January 2011


Financial adviser and client

The Kensington Society has called on the homes of its clients for 100 years but its future could now be under threat.

For the last century, the Kensington Friendly Collecting Society in Middlesbrough has been helping people on low incomes save money towards their funerals or a rainy day.

Typical life insurance plans cost a few pounds a week, with the premiums collected in person by the Kensington's army of doorstep staff.

But now new rules which are supposed to help investors could force the Kensington and similar mutual societies out of the market.

It all stems from the Financial Services Authority's desire to improve the advice on offer to us all.

They want all advisers to be qualified to a degree-level standard.

It's all well-intentioned stuff, aimed at avoiding some of the mis-selling scandals of the past.

So what's the problem? The FSA also wants to class the Kensington Friendly Society's doorstep collectors as financial advisers and force them to get that degree-level qualification too.

That means people who typically collect life insurance premiums of between £2 to £5-a week from the low paid will need the same expertise level as someone advising the wealthy on minimising their capital gains tax.

The Kensington believe that's effectively using a proverbial sledgehammer to crack a nut.

The Society says it couldn't afford the time and money to train staff to that level. In any case, it says anyone that qualified would quickly want to move on to more lucrative employment.

So bad news for the Kensington, but also potentially bad news for the millions of people who use similar small mutuals.

The Kensington has 10,000 clients in Teesside. They are all on low incomes. Most have never saved with anyone else, and would be unlikely to save and invest if those products weren't available conveniently on their doorstep.

They're not the kind of people welcomed with open arms by banks, and cannot afford to pay for financial advice.

So the Society believes the rules could see such people forced out of the market, and prevent them saving.

I met one client, Jim Teasdale, who says as much. He and much of his family have life insurance with the Kensington, and say it gives them priceless peace of mind.

Tom Blenkinsop

Middlesbrough South MP Tom Blenkinsop is worried that the low-paid may find it harder to save.

The plight of Jim and others is now worrying some MPs.

The Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP Tom Blenkinsop has raised the Kensington's case in parliament.

He fears the disappearance of doorstep-collecting mutuals like the Kensington will add to the financial exclusion of millions of low-earners.

Instead of saving to pay the bills, he fears more people will be forced into debt and into the arms of loan sharks.

The rules are out to consultation at the moment, and so there is hope that mutuals like the Kensington could yet win an exemption.

But if the FSA doesn't have a rethink, rules which are supposed to help savers could actually hit the people who need to save the most.

David Cameron sets out vision for a new North East

Richard Moss | 18:26 UK time, Friday, 14 January 2011


David Cameron

David Cameron outlines his vision of the future for the North East economy to an audience of workers at Greggs Bakery in Tyneside.

In days of yore Prime Ministerial visits to the North East would often be accompanied by acts of largesse.

An announcement of new public sector jobs here, a government grant there.

But there was none of that when David Cameron came to the region.

He didn't really come with anything new to offer.

He talked again about the Regional Growth Fund, national insurance breaks, and corporation tax cuts.

But there was nothing gimmicky.

Instead if there was a message, it was this: the Government will help you, but only if you also help yourselves.

Perhaps that's not surprising in an age of austerity.

David Cameron has precious little in the way of money to offer given the current state of the Government's coffers.

But it also represents the kind of philosphical shift his government wants to pursue.

You get a good indication from his choice of venues.

First there was Newcastle's Centre for Life.

He toured there to discover the latest developments in genetics and bioscience, but also to find out how they might be used to generate new businesses and jobs.

Then he moved on to the HQ of bakery giants Greggs - a home-grown North East success story.

And in front of an audience of staff, he made his vision clear.

The Government wasn't there to create jobs, but to make it easier for businesses create them.

Politicians effectively need to step out of the way.

So the North East needs more businesses like Greggs. Starting small, but becoming big.

Low taxes, and cuts to red tape then are the answer, not government ministers picking winners.

But of course, the Government can harm as well as help.

Labour critics were keen to point to cuts that have damaged plans to make Newcastle a Science City.

Funding shortages at the regional development agency One North East, have led it to cut investment in plans to develop a former brewery site as a science park.

County Durham is also still waiting to find out if the Government will confirm the investment in new trains needed to persuade Hitachi to open a factory employing 800 people. (The PM promised an announcement yet again within weeks).

And of course public sector cuts will also hit the private sector.

A recent Durham University study estimated that the cuts will lead to 50,000 job losses in the North East in the next five years.

And 20,000 of those will actually be in the private sector, as around £1.8bn of growth will be taken out of the economy.

The Government insists it had no choice but to cut that public sector investment, and that the alternative of getting deeper into debt would be far worse.

Labour again disagree. Maybe we'll have a better idea of who's right the next time the Prime Minister comes to the region.

* The Politics Show will be discussing the state of the region's economy and gauge the grounds for optimism at 12pm this Sunday on BBC1.

David Miliband likely to be Sunderland's latest signing

Richard Moss | 15:40 UK time, Wednesday, 12 January 2011


In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

It sounds like the kind of signing that would excite any football fan - an intelligent, cultured left winger who's been compared with Wayne Rooney.

But Sunderland supporters could be excused for feeling slightly deflated by the news that their latest recruit was likely to be the former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband.

The South Shields MP looks set to join the club's board as Vice Chairman.

There are few details about his likely role yet but both club and politician have confirmed they want it to happen.

According to the club, the Chairman Niall Quinn approached the MP about it after his defeat in the Labour leadership contest.

An official appointment may have to wait up to three weeks though as it has to be vetted by the parliamentary authorities because Mr Miliband is an ex-minister.

It's rumoured he'll be paid £50,000 annually for a role that looks to be amabassadorial.

So what's going on here?

Firstly, this is a role I can imagine that would excite David Miliband.

He is passionate about his football; although Sunderland fans might be slightly disgruntled to know his club of choice is Arsenal (preferable to Newcastle at least).

His playing pedigree is a little limited though judging by the footage I have found of him playing in a charity football match in 2002. Apparently, as a young man he was goalkeeper but on this occasion he appeared to be occupying the midfield.

He seemed to lack a bit of pace, and although regrettably we have no shots of it, he apparently scored an own goal in the match at St James's Park.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

But there's no question he will enjoy being involved in a game he loves.

The money might also be appealing - remember this is a man who's lost a ministerial salary. But I doubt it was a major motivation.

After all this is a man who recently earned £25,000 for one speech, and could have earned far more in many other jobs.

But I suspect there's another bonus here. Against many people's expectations, David Miliband does appear intent on remaining as South Shields' MP.

He and his political allies have always insisted that he loves being the town's MP and would be loath to give it up.

It is easy to be cynical about such claims when you recall that David Miliband was parachuted into the constituency in 2001 with no local connections.

But all of his recent attempts to diversify his career seem designed to allow him to remain as an MP.

He clearly would have had to leave South Shields to become ambassador to Washington or a UN official.

Presenting TV programmes, or teaching part-time will allow him to keep his main job though, and working with Sunderland will actually allow him to pursue other interests and, if anything, deepen his ties with the region.

But is there a longer game here?

In his own words David Miliband has left front-line politics "for now", but he remains an ambitious man.

The only way he can hope to be Labour leader in the future realistically is to remain as an MP.

And I also think he's known for some time that there was something missing from his political image.

He's been renowned as a formidable brain, respected for his grasp of policy. But he has failed to show much of the common touch.

What could be better for that image than being associated with football - the game of the people.

If this job helps with that, I can imagine it might be another motivation for Mr Miliband.

And what do Sunderland or his constituents get out of it?

The Sunderland fans I spoke to had mixed views. Some welcomed the news. Others didn't see what he could really contribute, and questioned whether he'd be worth £50,000.

The club I suppose will get a recognisable face and someone with good international connections.

As you can see manager Steve Bruce has been bigging him up, but until we get more detail about his role it's hard to say much more.

His constituents will though be entitled to wonder just how much time he'll spend on South Shields, and how much on his other activities.

But remember this is a man who was until recently Foreign Secretary.

It's hard to imagine presenting the odd TV programme or acting as a cheerleader for Sunderland FC will eat up more of his time.

There may be some though who are unhappy. His constituency includes both Newcastle and Sunderland fans. In the past Mr Miliband has been keen not to show any allegiance for that reason.

But given parliamentary approval, it seems David Miliband will soon be firmly in the red-and-white camp, and apparently committed to the North East for some time to come.

Why Darlington's drinkers may save your local pub

Richard Moss | 09:12 UK time, Tuesday, 11 January 2011


A pint of beer

Campaigning drinkers from Darlington may have ensured that more local pubs stay open.

If you go down to your local this evening, you might want to raise a glass to drinkers in Darlington who seem to have struck a blow for pub-lovers.

The town's branch of the Campaign for Real Ale has used people power to persuade the Government to act against a legal loophole which has closed hundreds of pubs.

They've been campaigning for years now against the use of "restrictive covenants" by brewers and pub chains.

Campaigners estimate these covenants lead to the closure of between 100 and 120 pubs a year, many unnecessarily.

They are frequently used when pub chains shut one of their properties down. When the building is sold on, the chain inserts the covenant to prevent any new owner reopening it as a pub.

They can do almost anything they like with it - except retain its original use.

The pub chains have used them to restrict competition. So if they own half a dozen pubs in an area, they could shut two, slap covenants on them and ensure that their remaining four keep all the local trade.

It's something which has angered the Campaign for Real Ale for some time. They say it effectively denies communities the chance to retain pubs they value and love.

The branch in Darlington has been particularly concerned about it.

They've seen one pub converted into a guest house and café, another turned into flats, and in a third case a local businessman came close to buying his local before finding out the covenant would prevent him keeping it open.

But last year CAMRA members decided enough was enough enlisted the support of some of their local Lib Dem councillors.

They then took the battle to the council chamber and got cross-party support from their colleagues for a campaign to ban restrictive covenants.

The council then decided to use the Sustainable Communities Act to bring the issue to the attention of the Government.

Under the act, councils can petition ministers on issues which affect the well-being of their community.

Bob Neill

Pubs Minister Bob Neill is taking action against restrictive covenants.

Newcastle and Ryedale in North Yorkshire also petitioned about the same issue.

And it does seem the Government is listening.

The pubs minister (doesn't that sound like a great job) Bob Neill has ordered a public consultation to see if the covenants should be outlawed.

It will look at the damage they have done to communities up and down the country.

It fits in with the Government's desire to give people a chance to save vital community assets such as their local pub.

Under the Localism Bill, they'll be able to put their local on a "most wanted" list, giving them time to find ways of keeping it open. Something that would be impossible of course if it has a restrictive covenant placed on it.

There may be some way to go until covenants are banned, nevertheless it's just possible that your pub might just have a brighter future now thanks to Darlington's ale-lovers. Cheers!

The man aiming to mastermind Labour victory in Oldham East

Richard Moss | 16:26 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011


Iain Wright and wife Tiffany

Iain Wright and wife Tiffany celebrate victory at the Hartlepool by-election, but can the MP also deliver a Labour win in Oldham?

It might be taking place on the other side of the Pennines, but the North East is playing its part in this week's Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election.

Several MPs from this region spent some of last week on the campaign trail there ranging from Sedgefield's Phil Wilson and Wearside's Bridget Phillipson for Labour, to Hexham Conservative Guy Opperman.

But one of our MPs has spent weeks there.

Hartlepool's Iain Wright is acting as Labour's Campaign Manager for Thursday's poll.

The MP sounds like a natural choice for what's a crucial contest for the party.

He won his seat in 2004 in a similarly bruising and high profile by-election. That was caused by the departure of sitting MP Peter Mandelson to Brussels; this time it's another high-profile departure - the ejection of former minister Phil Woolas that has caused the contest.

There are strong similarities between Hartlepool and this week's contest. Iain Wright also had to fight a strong Lib Dem challenge, and cope with a media circus.

I well remember some surreal moments in Hartlepool town centre, where TV crews would be jostling cheek by jowl with one of the long string of candidates contesting the seat.

It won't harm his career any then if he can use that experience to help Labour hang onto the seat.

In Hartlepool, the party went strongly for the Lib Dem candidate and effectively ignored the Tory.

Labour aimed to portray the Lib Dems as soft on crime - an issue they believed was crucial for working class voters in Hartlepool.

Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg's party faces a fierce contest as he campaigns in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election.

This time, of course, they have been focusing on the Lib Dem support for cuts.

And although Iain Wright isn't from Lancashire, I'd guess the concerns of the community in Oldham East are not dissimilar to the kind of issues he has encountered in Hartlepool.

But there's another complication in Oldham East and Saddleworth.

While the Conservatives looked no-hopers from the start in Hartlepool (they eventually finished fourth behind UKIP), they started within touching distance of Labour and the Lib Dems in this contest.

Of course, there have been doubts about how rigorous a campaign the Tories have been fighting against their coalition partners.

A poor result this time may lead to some unhappiness in the party at letting the Lib Dems have a clear run as Labour's main opponents, but Tory support is still likely to hold up better than it did in Hartlepool.

The polls suggest at the moment that Iain Wright will help to deliver a comfortable win for Labour, but you don't need to be a politician to know that there's only one poll that counts.

The full list of candidates (in alphabetical order) is: Debbie Abrahams (Labour), Derek Adams (British National Party), Kashif Ali (Conservative), Peter Allen (Green Party), David Bishop (Bus-Pass Elvis Party), The Flying Brick (Monster Raving Loony Party), Loz Kaye (Pirate Party of the United Kingdom), Stephen Morris (English Democrats), Paul Nuttall MEP (UK Independence Party), Elwyn Watkins (Liberal Democrats).

Does David Cameron's push for regional growth stack up?

Richard Moss | 11:42 UK time, Friday, 7 January 2011


David Cameron and Lord Heseltine

David Cameron and Lord Heseltine find out about plans for regeneration in Merseyside.

David Cameron has been trying to spread some New Year positivity by talking about what his government's planning to do to encourage growth in England's regions.

In a visit to the North West he painted a vision of an era of entrepreneurial growth which could rebalance the nation's economy away from overdependence on London and the South East.

The Prime Minister's certainly talking a good game, but what did he have to offer?

Much of it we had heard before - the benefits on offer from the £1.4bn Regional Growth Fund and the potential for Local Enterprise Partnerships to lead economic recovery in their areas.

But there were some new announcements.

The Government has plans for a a New Enterprise Allowance scheme to help people on benefits start their own businesses.

Individuals will be able to get up to £2,000 to help budding entrepreneurs get off the dole.

It's being trialled in Merseyside initially before being rolled out to the rest of the country before the end of the year.

The Government believes it could create 40,000 new businesses by 2013.

Unsurprisingly, it's been welcomed by the Stockton South Conservative MP James Wharton.

He's hoping it and other measures could create the new businesses the North East desperately needs and has historically struggled to create.

And the New Enterprise Allowance is similar to the kind of help the Thatcher government gave to jobless people in the 80s.

Its Enterprise Allowance benefited thousands of people, including Creation Records founder and Oasis discoverer Alan McGee.

Of course critics might suggest it would not have been necessary had there not been mass unemployment, but it was a scheme which did at least have some sort of legacy.

Michael Heseltine and Margaret Thatcher

A whiff of the '80s - Michael Heseltine and Margaret Thatcher in their political pomp.

And there is more than a whiff of the '80s about the rest of the Cameron government's plans for growth too.

Lord Heseltine - the man who was tasked by Thatcher to revive run-down cities - is now in charge of the Coalition's Regional Growth Fund.

It will soon begin doling out money to areas affected by public sector cuts.

Labour though is dismissive of all this as window-dressing. They claim it's all hopelessly inadequate in the face of savage spending cuts.

They point out that the Regional Growth Fund will only provide £1.4bn of funding over three years - a third of what the now-doomed regional development agencies were spending under Labour.

The PM did though also have something to offer the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPS) that are replacing the agencies.

The Government will provide £4m of funding to help them out. But that's spread over four years and LEPs will have to bid for the funds for particular projects.

And although the Prime Minister was quick to praise the new LEPs set up in Manchester and Merseyside, there are still parts of the country waiting to get one.

While Teesside's and Cumbria's are up and running, the rest of the North East is still waiting to have its LEP approved even thought there are just weeks left to bid for cash from the Regional Growth Fund.

Some of the region's leaders certainly don't understand why they're being made to wait for approval when it's the part of the country that's most dependent on the public sector, and the most vulnerable to cuts.

North Labour MPs line up early in AV referendum battle

Richard Moss | 14:43 UK time, Wednesday, 5 January 2011


Yes to AV campaigners

Campaigners in favour of the Alternative Vote begin their campaign on Gateshead's Millennium Bridge but many Labour MPs will oppose them.

2011 has barely begun and I am already getting a steady stream of e-mails from campaigners supporting or opposing a change in our voting system.

I doubt whether May's referendum on switching from First Past the Post to the Alternative Vote has inspired much public interest yet (perhaps it never will), but it's certainly exercising the minds of our politicians.

As 2010 ended, a whole stream of Labour MPs announced they would be opposing the change.

That includes many from the North East.

In all, 14 have already said they'll campaign against the Alternative Vote or AV.

They are: Dave Anderson (Blaydon), Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough), Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley), Jenny Chapman (Darlington), Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central), Pat Glass (NW Durham), Mary Glindon (North Tyneside), Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow), Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland W), Kevan Jones (North Durham), Ian Lavery (Wansbeck), Ian Mearns (Gateshead), Grahame Morris (Easington), and Phil Wilson (Sedgefield).

What's striking is how hard it is to define this group as they come from all wings of the party, and range from veterans to newcomers.

Might they be united by self-interest? Perhaps they are worried their safe seats will suddenly become vulnerable under AV?

A deeper analysis shows there is little substance in that argument.

Julie Elliott MP

Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott is one of the North East Labour MPs who will campaign against AV.

A study published last year suggested that if AV had been in place in 2010, Labour would have lost Newcastle North and Durham City to the Lib Dems, but they would still have won all their other seats, and kept hold of Stockton South.

And so all of those from the North East currently signed-up would still have been MPs.

You have to conclude then that they are genuinely opposed to change rather than thinking about saving their own skins.

Having said that of course many might also be relishing the possibility of embarrassing the Lib Dems and undermining the Coalition by securing a no vote.

But might they also embarrass their own leader? Ed Miliband has committed himself to campaigning for AV.

It does raise the curious possibility of Labour MPs working with their Conservative counterparts but against their own leader.

He won't be entirely without support in the North though.

Just before Christmas, a list of Labour figures wrote to The Guardian to back AV.

They included the Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman, and York's Hugh Bayley.

Several former northern MPs also signed up, including Lord Mandelson, Baroness (Joyce) Quin, and Chris Mullin.

Former Newcastle Council leader Lord Jeremy Beecham also signed the letter.

More MPs will almost certainly follow, and Lib Dems Sir Alan Beith, Ian Swales and Tim Farron will of course be campaigning in favour.

But I can't imagine the support of this or that politician holding much sway with the public.

Understandably then so far the Yes campaign has been keen to avoid looking too party political. It wants to become a people's campaign for "fair votes" even if in reality it will rely a lot on Lib Dem activists.

It has several events planned in North East pubs in the next few weeks to try and gather foot soldiers.

Expect them to continue to do that as long as the Lib Dems' popularity ratings remain so consistently poor. But also expect the No campaign to try and expose any links to Nick Clegg's party.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.