BBC BLOGS - Moss Missives

Archives for April 2011

The last post for the Moss Missives - but I live on

Richard Moss | 14:18 UK time, Tuesday, 26 April 2011


Richard Moss at a street party

Street party ahoy! I get the sausage rolls out to celebrate the opening of my new web pages.

Yes, it truly is a momentous week.

History in the making. A new start.

Possibly even worth marking with a street party.

I'm talking of course about the opening of my new webpages (I gather there might be be a small chance of confusion with some other social event in Westminster Abbey).

You can find the new pages here.

They come complete with a new picture of me (to hurl abuse at), and a new funky layout.

All the contributions from the BBC's correspondents are getting the makeover.

Nick Robinson

Nick Robinson: Not important enough to be used as a hapless guinea pig.

I seem to have got in ahead of Nick Robinson and Robert Peston, presumably because I am more important and not because I'm seen as a hapless regional guinea pig.

Like so many makeovers, everything will look different, but in fact the core of it will remain the same.

I'll still hope to offer some incisive, pithy and occasionally irreverent insights into the political goings-on in the North East and Cumbria.

And normal service will resume there almost immediately, so hopefully you won't have to adjust too many bookmarks etcetera.

But of course with every beginning, there has to be an end.

And I'm afraid the name "Moss Missives" hasn't survived the cut.

To be honest, we did try and bury it some time ago but nobody could think of anything better.

So from today these pages will be preserved in aspic as a memory of what used to be - still accessible, but never updated.

To all of you who have read/commented upon/swore at the Missives, I offer a heartfelt thanks.

Hopefully, you'll follow me to the brave new world. I'll be the one in the top right hand corner trying to look enigmatic.

David Cameron goes on cuts offensive during North East visit

Richard Moss | 17:39 UK time, Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Comments (1)

David Cameron

The Prime Minister came to Darlington to persuade North East voters to elect Conservative councillors.

A year ago, David Cameron was trying to persuade the North East to vote for a Conservative government. (That didn't completely go to plan).

Twelve months on and he was back in the region to convince voters to elect Conservative councils.

But the message to an invited audience in Darlington was very similar. Good government, he said, costs less under the Conservatives.

And this was very much a Prime Minister on the offensive.

Cuts could well be the Tories achilles heel in these elections. Voters in council polls usually punish the sitting government - and the cuts have given David Cameron's opponents plenty of ammunition.

But the PM tried to turn cuts to his party's advantage.

Conservative councils, he said in his speech, were cutting waste not front line services.

Contrast that, he pointed out, with Labour councils, who he accused of damaging services while leaving executive pay alone.

He pointed the finger at Sunderland Council too, highlighting trips had taken to the United States.

He said the authority spent £25,000 to fund seven trips to Washington DC, for what the council described as "friendship agreement activities".

"Or what the rest of us call a party," he added.

That's a charge firmly denied by Sunderland Council though.

It says the trips were about attracting inward investment and jobs to the city.

And it says many of the people who went were business representatives and not councillors.

The council says the agreement has already seen one US company invest in Sunderland, while similar visits have helped generate thousands of jobs.

And Labour says the PM can't complain, given that his recent congtroversial trip to the Middle East was also about attracting overseas investment into the UK, and generating business for arms companies.

Labour's Newcastle North MP Catherine McKinnell also accused Mr Cameron of "not living in the real world", saying it was the pace and scale of government cuts that were causing councils problems.

She said communities were being damaged by the Coalition.

And what of the Lib Dems?

The PM was keen to take credit for the investment he said the Government had put into the North East from the Regional Growth Fund, and enterprise zones.

That's something the Lib Dems would like a slice of the credit for too.

But their Redcar MP Ian Swales says it's also important for voters to focus on local issues. He says if they do that, they will see that Lib Dem councils and councillors are delivering well in communities across the North East.

David Cameron and Daniel Dennis

12-year-old Stockton schoolboy Daniel Dennis plucks up the courage to ask the PM about cuts to the Tees Valley music service.

Mind you, there was no getting away from cuts for the Prime Minister.

As he left Darlington, he was approached by 12-year-old Stockton schoolboy Daniel Dennis. Not old enough to vote, but bold enough to ask about cuts to the Tees Valley Music Service that provides him and other children with lessons.

The PM promised to get back to him.

But David Cameron will hope the people who can vote in the region took in his message.

Although the polling stations don't open until 5 May, this is a critical week in the campaign as people begin filling in their postal votes.

It seems unlikely that the Conservative will make sweeping gains here this time round, but the PM will hope his intervention can win over some of the waverers.

EU Commissioner confident North East won't lose euromillions

Richard Moss | 15:16 UK time, Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Comments (1)

Johannes Hahn

EU Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn came to Newcastle to talk about European funding.

There's been a lot said in recent months - by me amongst others - about the North East missing out on up to £180m of European grants.

It's money from the European Regional Development Fund which is designed to create jobs and help the local economy.

But any company or organisation getting a grant needs to match that money to release it.

In the past, much of that so-called "match funding" has come from councils and the regional development agency One North East.

With public sector funding much harder to find because of cuts, and regional development agencies facing abolition, those sources are not as plentiful.

And so there has been concern from Labour, and amongst some figures in business, that without matching funding companies will not be able to release much of £180m. The North East will then lose out on vital jobs.

I spent some time at the European Parliament in Strasbourg last month investigating the story. What I ended up with was claim and counter-claim, with some anecdotal evidence that some firms were struggling to find funding.

So it was with interest, I went to a news conference with the EU's Regional Policy Commissioner in Newcastle.

Johannes Hahn has been in the city for the last two days to attend a regional studies conference at the University.

European Parliament in Strasbourg

Concern about the fate of the North East's grants had spread to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

So was he concerned that EU money was likely to go unspent in the North East?

The answer - a resounding no.

Instead he was confident that the money would be spent, and he didn't anticipate the North East would lose out on any of that £180m.

He said 78% of the funding was already committed, and with two years of the current programme to go, he did not believe there would be a problem finding a home for the rest of the money.

Mr Hahn said the UK had done well to find private sector sources of match funding.

Perhaps then he would be worried by the UK Government's decision to abolish the regional structures that have overseen European grants in the past - the regional development agencies and civil servants?

Again, he didn't seem unduly concerned.

He did describe the changes as "interesting" and "an experiment" but did not anticipate a huge problem.

He has had meetings with government ministers to talk about when they will have a replacement system in place.

But he said that as long as that structure was up and running by July this year, there should be no problem. He has no reason to believe that won't be the case.

That left quite a few disgruntled journalists, as tension between the EU Commissioner and the UK government would have made good copy.

It might also put the row about EU funding to bed for now.

It's possible the Commissioner may be proved wrong, but to date tjere seems to be little concrete evidence that the North East will miss out on a large slice of its European funding.

North universities choose to go for big tuition fee hikes

Richard Moss | 11:11 UK time, Friday, 15 April 2011


Students protest about fees at Newcastle University

Students at Newcastle University protest about a rise in tuition fees which will see many charged £9,000-a-year for their courses.

The picture on tuition fees in the North's universities is becoming clearer, and so far it seems students will have little or no change out of £9,000-a-year.

It probably wasn't surprising that Durham and Newcastle chose to charge the maximum £9,000.

They are both long-standing and popular universities, ranked amongst the best in the country. They can be pretty sure they won't take a hit in terms of applications.

But the Government might have hoped to see the newer universities and former polytechnics charge less to offer the older institutions some competition, and give options to poorer students.

Teesside University has obliged to a certain extent, but an annual fee of £8,500 doesn't represent much of a discount.

Graham Henderson

Teesside University Vice Chancellor Graham Henderson says he can justify annual tuition fees of £8,500.

The Vice Chancellor, Professor Graham Henderson, says there will be extra help on offer to poorer students who will struggle with the fees, but the headline figure may well deter some.

Teesside can argue that it also has a good reputation as a recent winner of the University of the Year, but its decision reinforces the impression that most of our universities plan to charge closer to £9,000 than £6,000 per year.

York, Cumbria, Northumbria and Sunderland have still got to announce their decisions, but with so many Vice Chancellors choosing to go towards £9,000, the incentive for them to offer a much lower fee is disappearing.

And the universities who have revealed their fees say they need as much income as possible from them to sustain the services and teaching they offer students.

But of course the National Union of Students is less impressed.

It's been holding its annual conference in Gateshead this week, and delegates there were quick to talk about working class students being put off from applying to university.

The Government argues that for many students will benefit from a higher income threshold for repayments, and smaller monthly payments spread over a longer period.

So who's right? The Politics Show has been to Dyke House Sports and Technology College in Hartlepool to see whether 15-year-olds there are rethinking their plans to go onto higher education.

You can see the results on 17 April at 2pm on BBC1.

The Alternative Vote and the curse of the Yes campaign

Richard Moss | 09:58 UK time, Thursday, 14 April 2011

Comments (2)

Eddie Izzard

The Yes campaign has used celebrities like Eddie Izzard to campaign for the Alternative Vote.

Once upon a time, the Yes campaign started with high hopes and encouraging polling data.

But then as the weeks wore on, that good will and support began to evaporate.

They became dogged by concerns about costs. Voters were confused about what was on offer.

The end result - a huge defeat in a referendum.

That was seven years ago, and the vote was about whether to have an elected regional assembly in the North East.

But for supporters of the Alternative Vote, I can see some worrying parallels with the current vote about changes to the electoral system.

Here's five:

Inflatable white elephant

The No campaign's inflatable white elephant made life very difficult for supporters of a North East regional assembly.

1) In 2004, the assembly on offer to voters had such weak powers, it was hard to sell it to the public. The No campaign used an inflatable white elephant to sum up that feeling. The Yes campaign admitted it wasn't all they wanted it to be, but insisted it was a staging post to something better.

In 2011, many within the Yes campaign would prefer a purer Proportional Representation system and admit the Alternative Vote isn't all they'd want it to be, but insist it could be a staging post to something better.

2) In 2004, the No campaign attacked the idea of an assembly as a costly distraction from the real problems facing people. They talked about the need for an expensive new building to house it even though the Yes campaign say there wouldn't need to be one.

In 2011, the No campaign attacks the idea of the Alternative Vote as a costly distraction from the real problems facing people. They talk about the need for expensive vote counting machines even though the Yes campaign say they wouldn't be needed.

3) In 2004, the Yes campaign used celebrities to try and sell their case. The No campaign used politicans and business people.

In 2011, the Yes campaign has been using celebrities to sell their case. The No campaign have used politicians and business people.

4) In 2004, the Yes campaign was so tied into the political establishment, it struggled to turn its fire on the politicians of the time to persuade voters the current system was broken.

In 2011, the Yes campaigners appear to be so tied into the political establishment that they have struggled to turn their fire on the politicians of the time to persuade voters the current system is broken.

5) In 2004, the Yes campaign started out with a poll lead, but as soon as the public began to think in more detail about the issue, that reversed.

In 2011, the Yes campaign began with a lead, but recent polling suggests public opinion might be moving the other way.

I am sure the Yes campaigners would take issue with some of those points.

I suspect public hostility to the Alternative Vote is not anywhere near as venomous as the opposition to the regional assembly became. Polling is uneven too, and there are still three weeks of campaigning to go.

But in the North East at least, I sense a similar atmosphere.

It's purely anecdotal, but this week I watched a debate at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington.

When they came to vote, the students rejected the Alternative Vote by more than three-to-one - and this amongst an audience that you might think would be receptive to change.

But then the curse for most yes campaigns in referendums is the challenge selling change to a public who often feel safer sticking to the status quo.

There is a key difference with 2004 though. Seven years ago John Prescott was humiliated as voters rejected the regional assembly he'd championed.

This time though he's on the side of the No campaign. He'll be in the North East this week to outline his opposition.

The question is will he be on the winning or losing side this time round?

* The Politics Show will be debating the merits and demerits of the Alternative Vote and First Past the Post on 17 April at 2pm.

Thousands of jobs to flow from North East Growth Fund grants - but 50 bids miss out

Richard Moss | 00:00 UK time, Tuesday, 12 April 2011

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Nissan car production

Nissan's Wearside car plant is among those to get grants from the Regional Growth Fund.

The Government says it'll create thousands of jobs and play a key part in rebalancing the economy away from its dependence on the South and financial services.

Labour says it's a poor substitute for Regional Development Agencies, and will only produce a fraction of the growth the country needs.

But at least we now know where the first tranche of money from the Regional Growth Fund is going.

The fund is there to create private sector jobs in areas currently dependent on the public sector.

That should have helped the public sector-heavy North East, and on the face of it the region has done well out of the fund.

The region had 14 successful bids, which is 28% of all those awarded.

That's more than any other region in the country.

In comparison, London and the South East got nothing despite submitting more than 50 bids.

Five of the successful North East bids were in Teesside.

They include £15m to help the Cleveland Potash mine in Boulby.

Potash mine

The Cleveland Potash mine has got £15m to expand and create jobs.

It will use the money to mine deposits of polyhalite which lie beneath the potash. It's a mineral which can be crushed and used as a fertiliser, and in some manufacturing processes.

The firm plans to mine the material and process it at a plant in Teesside.

Lotte Chemical Uk has got £6.7m to build a new polyethylene plant at its Wilton site. It'll create 55 direct jobs, and 300 more in construction. It'll also safeguard 200 more.

Nifco in Stockton has also been awarded £1.65m to help it develop its business supplying car parts. In particular, it'll be looking to expand its supply of parts for electric vehicles. It hopes to create 128 jobs and safeguard 158 more.

AV Dawson in Middlesbrough have got £1.2m to develop a terminal at Teesport to handle the biomass which will be eventually used to create fuel and food.

SSI, the new owners of the Corus steelworks, has got £1.65m towards training its new workforce.

Other winners were Bridon International, a steel wire rope manufacturer in Wallsend, Chirton Engineering, Connor Solutions, who manufacture electronics in Sunderland, Seaham chilled seafood supplier Cumbrian Holdings, Duco in Newcastle, Durham County Cricket Club, Nissan, Proctor and Gamble, and Turbo Power Systems in Gateshead, who are looking at innovative ways of charging electric vehicles.

In all, the Government says the North East's successful bids will create or safeguard 5,216 jobs directly and 8,367 indirectly.

And the successful bids are generally involved in manufacturing, with a bias towards green technologies.

They have also all gone to private companies. Infrastructure projects have not been successful.

That suggests the panel that's making the awards wants to see direct evidence that new jobs will be created. That's far easier to quantify with a new manufacturing plant than it is with a road project or perhaps a conference centre in Gateshead.

And a total of 53 North East bids were rejected in this first set of awards, although they will be reconsidered again in a second round.

Labour then has been quick to pour cold water on it.

It says the £400m given out by the Regional Growth Fund is peanuts compared to £2.2bn paid out in grants by Regional Development Agencies in the final year of the Labour government.

They say there are far more losers than winners, with many projects vital for economic growth missing out.

One Teesside Conservative MP is delighted though.

Stockton South's James Wharton said: "The government is putting its money where its mouth is and investing in private sector growth in this region, I am delighted so many local bids have been successful."

The arguments about the merits of the fund will continue. There's no question there's less money around than there was under Labour, but the Government will argue that it's better targeted.

Pity poor Cumbria though. There were seven bids from the county - none of which appear to have been successful in this first round.

BBC puts councillors in Carlisle city centre 'hot seat'

Richard Moss | 11:32 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011


Carlisle Castle

Carlisle is the first place to see councillors placed in the "hot seat".

What would happen if you took three local councillors, put them on stools and plonked them in a town or city centre?

The correct answer hopefully is increased engagement with the current local elections.

We are about to find out whether that is the case as we do it for real as part of Look North's coverage of the poll.

We start in Carlisle on Monday 11 April.

The leaders of the three main party groups on the city council will be placed "in the hot seat" on stools in the Market Square between noon and 2pm.


One of the "hot seats" waiting for a councillor to sit on it!

They will be available to answer questions from the public on anything related to the local authority.

And all of it will be filmed to appear on Look North later in the week.

I will be chairing the first event, and hopefully helping the public to get answers.

I have no idea what kind of interest we'll generate, or what people will want to know.

It is not the controlled environment of a studio or the stage-managed picture opportunity of a political visit.

But then that's the point - we want this to be driven by the concerns of the voters rather than the agenda of a journalist or a politician.

What is it that matters to you and what could influence your vote? Do you just want to know why you should even bother taking an interest?

It's perhaps one answer to the talk of a disconnection between politicians and the public.

The next stops after Carlisle, will be Darlington on 18 April and Newcastle on 25 April. My colleague Mark Denten will be overseeing those.

Hopefully for two hours at least the local elections will be alive and obvious in the heart of those communities.

Labour look north for local election gains

Richard Moss | 17:12 UK time, Thursday, 7 April 2011


BBC local election logo

The nominations have closed, the party activists are pounding the streets and the leaflets are being pushed through the doors.

The local elections are upon us, and there's a lot of council seats up this time. Around 700 across 20 councils in the North East and Cumbria.

And there is the potential for some change.

The same seats were. That was in 2007 when we had an unpopular Labour government, and the Conservatives in particular were doing well nationally.

You might then expect there to be a reversal of fortune this time.

Governments traditionally take a kicking in local elections, and as this one is in the middle of the biggest public spending cuts in living memory, there's not a lot to sell.

Labour's position in the polls also looks a lot better than four years ago.

But a look back at the 2007 results might cast some doubt on that.

The Conservatives made some advances in Sunderland but there was precious little progress elsewhere.

Generally in 2007, the Labour vote held up well in the region, so there may be less scope for gains than you might first think.

Nevertheless, Labour lost ground in every local election in the first decade of the 21st Century, so the party will hope it can make up some of that ground and rebuild its local government base.

Some of that might well be at the expense of the Conservatives. The party fought hard to get itself back into good positions in councils such as North Tyneside, Sunderland, Darlington, Allerdale and Stockton.

But this year will be a test of how shallow that recovery was. The party's failure to ever gain a foothold back in Gateshead and Newcastle is evidence of a job not even half-done.

And what of the the Lib Dems?

Traditionally, local elections represent a real opportunity for the party. In the past they have snatched Newcastle and the now abolished City of Durham.

But this time the national polls suggest they are in for an incredibly tough time.

Defending government policies is not something activists are used to - some of they may not even want to this time round. But their party may well pay a heavier price than the Conservatives for being in office.

So where are the key battlegrounds?

The biggest tear-up will certainly be in Newcastle.

Labour needs to win four to remove the Lib Dem majority, six to win control.

As the Lib Dems lost six seats last year even before being in government, it will be a tough fight.

Labour will also be looking to regain overall control in Stockton where they need seven seats. They may well hope to defeat some Tories, but it will also be crucial that they unseat some of the Independents who have thrived in the area over the last few years.

York is another council in Labour's sights. They need to win six seats to end Lib Dem control, a more challenging nine to take over completely.

In Cumbria, Allerdale looks ripe for retaking, with only two gains needed to take control.

Carlisle is another target. Labour need four seats to gain control, but with only a third of the council up for grabs this time, that could be tough.

The party will also be looking to unseat Conservatives in North Tyneside and Lib Dems in Gateshead.

Man enters polling station

The council seats being contested this year were last up in 2007.

For the Conservatives, it will be a matter of protecting what they have got.

Last year, they lost seats in both Sunderland and North Tyneside and they'll want to avoid that this time. The same holds for Carlisle.

The Tories have been keen to talk up their chances in Darlington - a council where they made decent strides four years ago. But in reality again it may be about avoiding losses rather than making major gains.

The Lib Dems will be desperate to defend Newcastle - although they may have to rely on Conservatives voting tactically to keep Labour out. They will hope voters spend longer studying their local record of holding council tax down rather than national policies.

But they will also want to hold onto the councillors they have gained over the last decade in Redcar and Cleveland, especially as they now hold the parliamentary seat.

There will be a couple of intriguing Lib Dem-Conservative to watch for in South Lakeland and Harrogate. It'll be interesting to see if the party suffers as much there as it might do where Labour is its main rival.

The fate of the smaller parties could be an interesting sideshow too.

Many have benefited from protest votes in the past decade - Labour will hope to mop those up this time.

The BNP appears to have retreated. The party is fielding no candidates in Sunderland - a city where they had regularly put up someone in all 26 wards.

UKIP have already seen their council gains in Hartlepool wiped out, and may struggle to get them back.

It may be the Greens who emerge as the most likely smaller party this time. They will hope to benefit from any disillusionment with the Lib Dems.

So too will the Liberal Party who are standing more candidates than they have in the past.

And there are a host of Independents defending their seats and trying to gain ground in other areas.

At the height of the expenses crisis, they may well have been seen as the future, but does the same still hold true now?

And what will be the big issues?

It's hard to get away from cuts, and the threat people may feel to their standard of living.

But voters will have to decide who they blame for that - the Coalition parties, the previous Labour government, or even the council leaderships implementing cuts.

There will always be very local issues too though. The Conservatives and Lib Dems will certainly hope to trade on any disillusionment with the leadership of Labour councils.

And there's one final contest which could get lively - the Middlesbrough mayoral election.

Ray Mallon is going for a third term but will face opposition from Labour's Michael Carr, the Lib Dems Chris Foote-Wood, and Christopher Cole-Nolan for the Conservatives.

Not everything Mr Mallon has done has been popular - there have been some problems with regeneration. But his profile in the town remains as high as ever, and it is surely his election to lose.

* The Politics Show will be looking at the challenges facing the Liberal Democrats and hosting a debate between the main parties in the race for Newcastle City Council on 10 April at 12.15pm.

Charities hunt for new money as public sector funds dry up

Richard Moss | 12:12 UK time, Friday, 1 April 2011

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Julie Statton and son Connor

A Barnardo's scheme for disabled children helped Julie Statton and Connor build a better life, but it's now become a victim of funding cuts.

Two years ago Julie Statton was in despair.

She was struggling to cope with her son Connor's Asperger Syndrome - a form of autism.

But then she was offered some support from Barnardo's.

She and her husband were put on a training course, and offered advice on ways of dealing with Connor's behaviour.

The result was life-changing. Before getting the help, she says she felt like she was in a tunnel with no end.

But now the family is thriving, and eight-year-old Connor's confidence has grown enormously.

She was devastated then to find that the scheme was coming to an end.

Barnardo's has lost grant funding from Gateshead Council, and its Disability Access and Inclusion Support Service in the borough is coming to an end.

The council says it just can't afford to fund a non-statutory service at a time when it needs to cut £30m from its budget.

And this is not a good week if you are running a charity, or one of the people benefiting from its services.

The end of March is the end of the financial year, and the end of an era for many as the grants they have relied on for years dry up.

Councils have now implemented their cuts and for many that meant cutting the aid they give to charities.

The Government says councils should look to cut back office costs before hitting charities, but councils say the scale of the cuts leaves with them no choice.

Hartlepool playbus

Hartlepool's playbus is off the road because of a lack of funding.

Hartlepool Families First is another victim of this new age of austerity.

For 20 years, its playbus has been serving communities in and around Hartlepool.

It provided a safe place to play in areas which were often isolated and deprived.

But now it's off the road as the charity as all its funding sources have dried up.

It's been trying for six months to find alternatives but for now it has no choice but to park the bus while it continues the search for new money.

And less than half a mile away, another Hartlepool charity is also getting used to a large reduction in funding.

The Belle Vue Community Sports and Youth Centre has lost almost half of its million pound budget.

Yet there's more optimism there.

It's also received £100,000 from the Government's Transition Fund.

That money is there to help charities who have lost public funding, but recipients also have to show how they will wean themselves away from their dependence on councils and other public bodies.

The charity also provides support for families and training in the community, and it's now bidding for contracts from the NHS and the private sector to make up for the shortfall.

But that is not a model that all charities will be able to follow.

And although the region saw one big act of private philanthropy this week - the £15m donated to save the Zurbaran pictures - will there really be a string of rich people willing to keep local charities running?

If not some fear there may be other consequences.

Julie Statton believes she would have struggled to cope without the help she had from Barnardo's.

She fears families with disabled children will reach crisis point without the support she benefited from. And that could see more money being spent on tackling the consequences of those crises such as marital breakdown and ill health.

She says that could cost the public purse far more than the money being saved by cutting grants.

The Government and councils will have to hope she's wrong.

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