Saturday, 6 December 2014

Invitation to Tender for Northern Rail

News about the Northern Rail refranchise is eagerly awaited. Speculation yes, but here's the rub. Did you hear Julie Mills of the DfT at York on the 19th November say that the Invitations to Tender for Northern and TPE would be issued in December 2014? I thought I did. However (and subject to being proved totally wrong) it has been put to me that if such an ITT were to appear before Easter that would be an achievement. Why? Because in many places, including the Chancellor's autumn statement, very public promises about the demise of Pacers have been made. Yet hitherto the whole assumption of the Northern refranchise (remember the consultation) was that it was about achieving more growth (no longer standstill) for less taxpayer input. That always seemed a conundrum and it becomes sharper if you really intend to scrap Pacers. Whichever of the train leasing companies which is rebuilding one are not fools. There's considerably over 100 two car sets to destroy (if you count the 143/144s ( 92 class 142)). Replacing them, designing a local diesel train from scratch, it all costs money and no-one has yet really cut their teeth on the new diesel idea, although again Julie Mills spoke glowingly about it. The government are probably pretty pleased they have relet the East Coast (with expectations which raise some eyebrows). Northern is a whole different can of worms. A vast array of expectations have been raised, even Northumberland says it is pledging money to the Ashington Blyth and Tyne, which will need trains. Perhaps the mandarins are now stressing over the answers? Let a new government worry?

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Autumn Statement 2014

Naughtie v Balls Radio 4 c0745. Quite a decisive interview. Naughtie got out of Balls that the chancellor is de facto exactly where Darling planned to be if he had been chancellor. The reason: Britain cannot afford to be Britain. Austerity, the wage squeeze, cost of living crisis equals even with some growth not enough revenue to balance the books. Borrowing is at an historical low for cost; it rises and disaster looms again. Balls was perfectly competent on the cost of austerity, less happy to admit that the result is no different to where Labour would have got. Both the two political parties are caught. Balls could not explain how or why more borrowing can be funded. Osborne's hopes to eliminate the deficit with more growth AND CUTS require some pretty impressive assumptions (as do his tax cutting hopes). Do I have any bright ideas? Sadly no. History suggests complex societies are not guaranteed a bright future unless they crack sustainability. Just possibly (and it explains Osborne's interest) the Northern Powerhouse offers something. A resource broadly the size of London, if not bigger, ought to achieve the economic result of London. It does not and if it did perhaps we could all be more optimistic? A Northern Powerhouse will have to function with strong 21st century communications and so every Pacer needs to go for scrap and wires need to appear through the Tyne Valley.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Bishop of Liverpool and Christmas Cards

An Anglican bishop has got me out of bed this morning! Since he has had his rant in the Daily Telegraph, I will have mine. E Xmas greetings is the subject. I think all the Bishop achieves is to show how hopelessly out of date and ignorant he, and those who are like him in the Anglican church, are. 500 years ago he would have been saying the only proper way to communicate is with a vellum manuscript. In an age (and a day) where the PO announced the possible end of universal delivery, the seachange in communications has to be embraced. I love paper but it is immensely wasteful of time, resource and cost. With Christmas cards, which to my mind represent an over commercialised expression of sentiment of even less use than a railway timetable, it seems to me they would be the last area where a community leader would seek to justify allocating his time and money to processing 60 of the things a day between now and Christmas. His total is some 600. If an institution wished to proclaim how completely out of touch it is, I cannot think of a better move. I road tested this with my 14 yo daughter and she thought he was barking. Does anyone seriously imagine Jesus of Nazareth preferring stone tablets as a mean of proclaiming the gospel! A samidzat would be his style (the cheapest and most effective means of radical communication at any given time). And yes nothing is perfect, and Facebook's management must be responsible for supporting terrorism if they don't act. Libertarianism cannot work if it is a total free for all. Finally if you are a Facebook friend it is very unlikely you will get a posted printed Christmas card from me. I hope to create an appropriate e greeting. .

Thursday, 20 November 2014

A better railway for the North York 19th November 2014

Track back in my blog to 2010 and I was attending events about rail development in which the North East was being left behind. It has been a regular thread thereafter. Since then my drift has been that whilst the Northern franchise has in fact experienced growth on a standstill basis, for all the talk of devolution and rail spend, the North East has not gained much.

The track record of improvements since Sunderland Metro (a double edged sword in 2002) is exactly what? New trains for FTPE, James Cook Memorial Hospital Station, anything else? A lot of talk about re-opening the Blyth and Tyne and the Leamside (which has been lifted meantime).

So I found myself despatched to York last night for an evening event on the theme organised by the Campaign for Better Transport. There were a lot of people, some quite high powered. A senior civil servant Julie Mills stood in for the minister Claire Perry held at Westminster on a three line whip. The head of  Rail North David Brown chief executive of Merseytravel was a speaker. CEO's from Northern and Transpennine were likewise.

Mood music was good, the Twitter feed was lively, but what did we learn? The DfT is willing to work with Rail North as the franchise manager. People accept some new diesel trains are needed. Planning for growth is essential. That was all agreed. A sleugh of schemes in North West England are in train including major electrifications, Colne Skipton will likely re-open. The Todmorden West curve is a good thing. Trams are being built hither and thither in Greater Manchester.

What was in this for the North East? Exactly nothing on the table although today Northumberland County Council does announce it intends to commit £10 a million a year for each of the next three years to Blyth and Tyne re-opening.

The reason why the North East is not high in the pecking order is blindingly obvious. The civil servant said as much. It does not have a strategy, it has some disorganised wish lists. Neither ANEC nor the LEP have managed to set out a comprehensive rail development plan for North East England. No wonder my hopes that the work of Heaton depot forms a mini franchise for the area go no-where fast.

The challenge for our politicans is simple, they have to work together and fast to get up to speed with what is happening elsewhere in the North if we are not to be in the also ran category. Thankfully a good number of people from the North East had travelled. User groups from Morpeth, the Tyne Valley (three of us), Coastliners, a Northern Echo reporter, three local government officers, Alex Nelson of Chester Le Track were there. But not one North East politician I think. So if you want electric trains in the Tyne Valley, an expanded Metro, stations for Washington and Peterlee and Ferryhill, a local service north of Chathill connecting Belford and Berwick regularly to Alnmouth and Morpeth, the Ashington Blyth & Tyne, the end of the Pacer, an Oyster card for the North East, those who are our politicans at county and government levels are really going to have to start working together. Some are, our Guy Opperman MP is energetically pressing the case for rail investment in the North East. What other MPs should I add to that hall of fame? There are some candidates, Ian Lavery, David Anderson, maybe some others? But Nick Brown whose constituency covers Heaton depot. I did hear Nick Forbes leader of Newcastle City is about to join the Rail North board. Craig Johnston and the RMT were at the event (he asked a question in forum) flagwaving for the cause of the investment and the jobs it creates.

Things are changing I think for the right direction, but there is a long long way to go before I feel that what happens in the Humber Mersey axis happens in the York Berwick corridor. Regional Intercity was being touted. Liverpool Manchester going electric cited. Then think of our version Middlesbrough Newcastle with the city of Sunderland between. An hourly Pacer which then trots onto the Tyne Valley where even a Pacer's maximum speed is more than the line can handle.

The ITT was issued 26th February 2015

Sunday, 9 November 2014


Writing for Remembrance Sunday 2014
Still quiet subdued colours
Of a November Day.
How did humans choose to end
Their war in November,
My month?
My day is the first
Of this month,
All Saint’s Day
My birthday and Remembrance Sunday
Both remember the many
And not the select few.
My written view
Is that of the many
Moving off to War.
Below me is the railway
Along which many travelled
Never to return.
They made their unknowing
Last Journey.
Up the hill is the track
Of Hadrian’s Wall
Where violent civilised men
Defined a line between
Barbarians and Empire.
A border which my poetic hero
Of borders and living on the other side
W. H. Auden utterly understood,
He who did his best to circumvent
World War Two
But lived through
World War One
And went to the
Sino Japanese and
Spanish Civil Wars.
He who used the Pennine metaphor
To understand the Human Condition.
John Taverner’s “Fragments of a Prayer”
Plays from “Children of Men”
A future fantasy of triumph in defeat
Ever the Christian Story.
Our celebration this
Remembrance Sunday
Is unique.  Two of the church’s
Teenage children will be
Baptised this afternoon.
Jesus Christ will not be defeated.
One of those children is my daughter.
We stare death in the face and live.
That is our Gospel.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Who should run a library?

Last Thursday night in a surrogate role on behalf of my wife Fiona I attended a debate by CILIP North East . The motion was "This house believes a volunteer run library service is better than no service at all". Four people voted for the motion of whom I was one, fourteen voted against and there was a non voting panel of five. So 23 people had assembled in Newcastle on Tyne to debate this important subject. There's a message there. Now had the motion been "This house believes that any library without a chartered librarian responsible for its provision is no library service at all", I would have voted for it.
Perhaps arrogantly I think there is a ready made answer to the whole issue and it is one that requires the Library profession to make a radical change, certainly those within it engaged in local authority funded libraries. The answer comes out of the experience of the last fifty years of the railway industry, There was an inherent mistake in the opening motion. It was to put the emphasis on the word "volunteer" and not to use the word "professional". In so doing it threw the focus onto job protection, unionism and politics. This is entirely misconceived. For all sorts of clear reasons, the world of public library provision is changing radically just as the railway industry was forced too in the 1960s.
On Thursday night, you could pickup the sense that people felt a library service was only "safe" and "effective" in the hands of paid employees. I would suggest few industries are as safety critical as running a railway. And rafts of legislation and accreditation have arisen at every level on the railway to certify that everyone involved should know what they are doing. That legislation operates not on the basis of paid/volunteer but on the basis, are you a public railway or not? As the public network contracted in the 1960s, a new type of railway appeared. That run by locally based groups, often all or part volunteer led. But such railways were/are not exempt from the operating legislation. It took British Railways something over a decade to get comfortable over this, but to its credit, the entire railway industry, now part privatised and very diverse, has.  Quite rightly the core Network today is fully employee led. However volunteers do function even within that in two areas. One is the marketing and promotion of designated Community Railways. The other is in the operation of heritage trains over the main network. These are both complex areas of operation, especially the second, yet the whole panoply of professionalism has been applied. So when a North Yorkshire Moors train runs over Network Rail to Whitby and Battersby, considerable volunteer input is involved, but every function is fully professionally accredited. The interworking of Network and heritage operations occurs in several places throughout the UK. It has done so since the Bluebell Railway and British Railways shared Horsted Keynes station from 1960. It happens regularly at Grosmont, Sheringham, Swanage to mention a few.
Beyond the interworking of the Network and the heritage sectors, there is a now vast area of independent heritage railway operations unconnected to the Network. Some random examples, the Snowdon Mountain Railway (never a part of British Rail), the South Tynedale Railway at Alston, the lengthy and wholly isolated Llangollen Railway running from there to Corwen. The list would bore you. All of these are regarded as statutory railways, just as there are statutory libraries. They all have to perform professionally and they all are subject to exactly the same HSE inspections as the main Network.Had this change not been made,a very considerable number of communities in Britain would have no rail service at all. I name a few CONNECTED to the national network thereby: Dartmouth, Swanage, Minehead, Grantown on Spey, Pickering, Haworth, Rawtenstall, Holt, Bridgnorth and Bewdley.
Over 60 years, this partnership, has first been created and then made to work in one of the most safety conscious of British industries. It is very rare on the railway network, you hear people second besting the employee and the volunteer, they are all professionals. That is the lesson that Britain's Library profession will have to learn now in the 21st century, if it is not to become a dinosaur.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Greater Manchester

In 1986 my first curatorial job was abolished by Mrs Thatcher. It was with West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council. I profoundly disagreed with her policy then. Much of my life since then has been spent under the shadow of how to progress the Northern cities. Today the governing coalition is cementing a major step in writing that wrong. All credit to Greater Manchester for achieving this. The problem for me is that Prudhoe borders Tyne & Wear. TW was always too small and too full of Newcastle and Sunderland warring. Steps are being taken to rise above this, there is a North East Combined Authority sort of getting into gear. But it does not include Tees Valley and I will suggest until it does it will never have the clout it needs. I will also suggest a city like Glasgow would do well to learn from Manchester rather than hope that a shift to hard left Nationalist politics will resurrect its fortune.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The fight is not worth more than a relationship

Today, as I am not infrequently, I was worshipping in Stocksfield Baptist Church. Some slight added significance as our daughter will be baptised there in a few weeks. I was slightly anxious in advance as the sermon was to be on Samson. The preacher was Mark Bonington from the King's Church in Durham. Matters got off to a bad start for me since a newsletter from The Christian Institute was staring at me from a chair in front. (Rather relevantly my wife intervenes at this point and says "The Kingdom is not won in a law court".) I have several issues with The Christian Institute. The assumption it makes of itself that it represents all Christians is rather presumptive when I rather guess the Orthodox and Catholic Christian might have something to say? At times the issues it raises like the persecution of Christians in the Middle East are matters of great moment. At other times they strike me as pure folly. The story of the Ulster Bakers is one such. And this was staring up at me. In a province renowned for its ability to see community willingly setting onto neighbouring community, and with myself nursing a long standing Ulster Unionist heritage, to read a tale of how a volunteer LGBT activist and Asher's bakery are squaring up to a legal battle raised my hackles. I cannot conceive how Jesus would wish his followers to argue about cakes, still less clog up the Ulster legal system with caselaw on the matter. Both sides strike me as cracked. To them the fight is worth more than the relationship. Why should a progressive body of gay campaigners feel there is anything to gain by taking this on? And why do Christians find themselves incapable of solving the situation outside a law court. Just bake the cake and get on with it.

This mindset was an unfortunate preparation for Mark Bonington's sermon. In truth he did not preach an outrageous sermon and indeed it was quite time controlled. For instance there was only one finally before the final finally. The text was the story of Samson and Delilah (not a Tom Jones' song it was pointed out, although was not Tom Jones brought up in Welsh chapels?). It did not go well from my viewpoint. The dangers of nagging women were brought up.  The actual exposition of the text was perfectly straightforward, that God achieves his purpose even when man frustrates and abandons his God.

But what went wrong was what was unsaid. Samson, Delilah, the Jews and Philistines is a contemporary story of nations unable to relate and content to be proud of disproportionate gore. That which the authors of Judges are proud of is exactly what the Middle East conflict suffers from in 2014. The preacher did point out that the setting of the story was Gaza and then failed to mention one syllable of the idea that thousands of innocents died in Gaza this summer at the hands of God's people. I cannot conceive of Jesus standing in front of us and not having anything to say on the linkage.

Why did Jesus walk this earth? Surely it was to say that the fight of the sword was not worth more than the duty of creating relationship imposed upon the Children of God. The problem of the Old Testament is exactly the problem of Gaza today. People who believed that their faith in God did not give them a message of grace and liberation to those who they met, but instead entitled them to dispossess and kill. When you adopt an ethos of this divine entitlement you liberate a cancer and that has been the story of the Middle East since the West's support of Zionism in the 1920s (actually for rather longer with the occasional intermission).  I have no objection to Jews living in Palestine. I am sure Jesus would say all communities should live at peace and grace in the Holy Land. But do you see Jesus saying that it is fine to live on land without legal title to it?

All these thoughts swirled through my hand as the pretty unpleasant tale of Samson's denouement was described. Gouged eyes, bound to a grindstone, he manages in death to kill more than he killed in life including the little boy who he got to advise him about pillars. And of course the immediate advent of Delilah is a tale of a pretty woman who is a prostitute and waylays Samson. Yes, let us get it in for the sex workers along the way.

In the end, I did preach myself a sermon, not the sermon of the preacher, but my own sermon that linked the story of Samson, to the story of Gaza in 2014, the LGBT community and the bakers of Northern Ireland and my utter conviction that religion has to abandon nutterdom. Period. I go to the church, for the people, for the amazing work done for the church's children, for the enthusiasm, for the love, for the evangelical faith, we have good news to offer. But I don't go to have my fears re-inforced, my tribe vindicated. In conclusion for any sermon on the story of Samson and Delilah to be preached in 2014 and not to mention the Arab Isreali conflict of this year is to be marked a fail. It is at the level of Mr Milliband being unable to bring himself to mention the national deficit in his leader's speech at party conference. The duty is to preach a gospel about how grace and faith in Jesus is a tool for overcoming seeming irreconciliable enmity. And on this very day Ian Paisley's memorial service in the Ulster Hall proved that point.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Alan Henning

Alan Henning has been murdered so we must pray for him, his family and his murderers. What else must Britain do? The prime minister vows to use all necessary means to bring the murderers (and behind them ISIS) to justice. At I quote a letter, the tenor of which is both: much of this conflict is totally ununderstandable but then even so the West is ultimately to blame. Two matters are present here, the complicated philosophy of causality and the urgent need of what to do. On causality the letter is very persuasive, ultimately however it is appeasement. These events take place on the border of a NATO member. They take place on lands where for a 100 years Britain or France has been deeply involved (and that is putting it simply). To fail to respond extremely forcibly to such murderous barbarism is to invite the movement to expand and ultimately work on our own streets. In the past this sort of insanity was present, it is not new. It happened in the 19th century. At those times we had the power to project. If you compare this to Khartoum, you would build a railway, assemble ships, march in a relieving force. It is hard to think Britain can do this now. ISIS essentially claim 8 Tornados "caused" them to murder Alan.

So what do I think needs to happen. At a deeper level we need to accept that the ease with which certain Islamicist groups resort to disproportionate violence has to be tackled. It has been there for a long time. To say that Salman Rusdie (himself with a Muslim background) was one victim is to hardly go far back in history. Islam says it is a religion of justice, its adherents (and I am sure many agree) must then insure all its member behave with great justice, and not pervert justice into barbaric inhumanity.

And since history suggests we are in this for the long haul. We need to re-arm, I think every military commentator I have heard, has said that only a well trained Western style army can get in there with any speed and wrest back the communities involved. It is a very unpleasant prospect and I assure you I would be the world's worst soldier despite my father's example. But if we will not do this and ISIS prevails, initially their barbarism will be both writ across the Middle East and as our own British nationals show, it will be exported back to us in person. The murderer was British. It is astonishing. Like the recent referendum this suggest deep unsettlement with our national British identity.

So the bottom line, if ISIS is to be consigned to history, expect an expansion in Britain's armed forces despite all the recent cost cutting. Not just to work in the Middle East but there is also the rather forgotten matter of the Nigerian girls, a former colony and one with a large British community with us. My brother is married to a Nigerian. We are responsible and we should act there too, if Goodluck Jonathan would let us.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The neverendum lives

Unfortunately its the neverendum again! Last week Salmond said he accepted the democratic verdict, that was it for a "generation" and he resigned his jobs. Possibly the laws of fecundity are different north of the Border but this week it is a different story. Buoyed by the most amazing recruitment success in history which followed the SNP defeat (not kidding) AS now announces how it all hinges on next May. Be certain that if the SNP "win" next May, they will succede. It is very simple, either the SNP are voted out next May by the Scots or the Union collapses. Sounds extreme, please don't take my word for it. I am sure the Nationalists who follow this will confirm it. In turn everything will hinge on the Labour party reversing recent performance. There's a chance they will do this. A lot of folk may feel the SNP are pissing them around. Gordon Brown may be back on the trail clunking fist and all. But just before anyone moans about the undemocratic nature of the SNP strategy, bear in mind how Devo Max landed in the referendum campaign. So in short whichever way you feel, it all hinges on next May and that is assuming Devo Max is clearly being delivered by then (and English MPs for English votes IMHO). Personally I hope the wise people of Scotland will realise what is happening and give the SNP an electoral drubbing, otherwise change the flag after all. 

BTW the paper story is slightly different to the online and includes a tweet from Jim Sillars which makes the gameplan utterly clear as does the Facebook page 45 which now has 163,000 likes.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Union Lives!

A night that has thankfully made me proud to be British. The true victors of the night are our democracy and the people. Reflect that the four nations of the islands were up for allowing one of the nations the process by which they might choose to leave peacefully. In a fantastic turnout in Scotland, one which leaves no room to dispute the clarity of the results, the Scots have clearly said that, notwithstanding the challenges we all face (and we in Northumberland know all about this), they do not wish to become foreign to us. We can remain British. Narrow nationalism, we go our own way, has no place in these islands and the Scots have reaffirmed that. Proud patriotism, proud to be Scots and British has been reaffirmed. Going forward there is an incredible task. Westminster will now have to rise to the challenge. No-one has yet said there needs to be a Federal capital on the Irish Sea! I anticipate much change still to come but I do hope I never need see an independence referendum again and I note the commitment by the SNP to accept the result. I also note and thank everyone from many viewpoints who have come forward and argued the case on my Facebook timeline in the last few months. And since I joined him on the campaign trail for a day, I pay tribute to our Guy Opperman MP who from the position of being a close Border neighbour worked tirelessly with his colleagues in the Yes campaign because his constituents did not wish to see their friends and colleagues in a foreign land.

Some links   Ewan Morrison use of the Trotsky parallel in his piece I found rather telling.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

HMS Plymouth

Do you want to know why Britain sleepwalks (loud sort of sleepwalk) to dissolution? I have always been a maritime enthusiast. I grew up very literally with a Norfolk wherry called Albion (get it?), my sister was born on one. So when I hear of how Peel Ports has aided and abetted the destruction of a Falklands veteran which at public expense should have been lovingly retained and used as an educational icon of Britishness, then I cannot be surprised at what might happen next. Ship preservation is expensive. The Scots government last year offloaded from my old museum the clipper ship City of Adelaide / Carrick. But the costs are a bargain compared with destroying the union and the British brand.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Verge of the Vote

Very nearly there now #indyref. I am looking beyond a No vote. This situation did not happen overnight. Learning more about Thatcher and the SNP in 1979 has made clear to me, that the Union has been going astray for decades and that this is largely down to Londoncentric Thatcher values. Years before, Scotland had been a (different type of) Tory heartland.  The resulting erosion of British pride has led to the logical outcome: I am Scots alone and I vote yes.  The HUGE question if there is a No is whether this situation can be recovered. I don't think simple Devo Max does it (and it will lead to situations in England and elsewhere not yet really thought through, it has been a tactic of desperation from No). Are we all ready to face up to a true Federal solution for these islands and a new Federal parliament located on the Irish Sea in North West England? Here is my prophesy: unless we are, the Union will end sometime. And if I am wrong and Yes wins, it is finished tomorrow.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Nigel Farrage

Today Nigel Farrage is in Scotland. I am sure there will be howls of anguish. Indeed I find signing up to UKIP beyond me. However if you are concermed for fair debate, it is worth trying (if possible) to listen to this contribution broadcast on Radio 4 at 0710. I will try to summarise it. Firstly he acknowledged that UKIP's own policy has changed. He accepted they had made the Westminster mistake that every government has made since the rejection of Gladstone's Home Rule Bill for Ireland (well I lament the loss of some of Ireland to the Union). He set out his total support for devo max and for a federal settlement for the entire Union and made clear that devolution has to involve English regions (and that the numerically large number of English do need to be thought about). He then suggested that had Alex Salmond a sensible plan for an independent Scotland with its own currency there would have been a credible prospect to vote on and if the Scots wanted it, then Farrage could not stand in their way. However what is on offer is a breath-taking prospect of abandoning the core elements of independence by either allowing RUK to dictate Scottish financial policy (with no Scottish central bank or currency) or jumping over to the Euro. Switching one set of "governors" for another. And become a very minor member of Europe rather than having the negotiating force of the UK. I have to hand it to Mr Farrage. He can put the issues very clearly. He suggested that since the UK outside Europe will be just about its largest trading partner, it would be they who would have to agree a trade deal. Europe will need the UK whether the UK is being governed from Brussels or not. This whole debate is about the right level of government across nations. I remain as I have been throughout a staunch Unionist believing that our union of four nations across one geographical group of islands has been a great sucess (on balance, not perfect but Great). I am not going to buy the Anti Imperialist line and would remind everyone our Commonwealth Games came to Scotland this summer. I hope it will again whatever happens next.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Border Controls

Both Fiona and myself listened to the overnight news with some incredulity. If the next tactic of No is very late in the day to offer a "timetable", it hands the victory to the SNP. They either win outright or they can say narrow victory lads but look what we achieved, better luck next time. In the last 10 days of the campaign and No looks totally on the back foot casting around for an idea.
To both our minds, the SNP campaign has been marked by a whole string of lies and bullying (one tactic being to accuse No of bullying and lies). I hear today Sturgeon plans to campaign on the NHS! That which they have been responsible for since 1997.
It is probably a good idea we are not in any position of authority. A shock like the appearance of "trialled border controls" to emphasize how serious this might be? Or the deployment of a royal message? On my Facebook timeline  the Yes campaigners simply do not believe the reality of Fermanagh I experienced in the 1990s and which I evidence with maps and photos (Aghalane A road bridge near Belturbet 1995 is the photo).  21 Scottish border crossings would be much easier to manage.
All along Yes have said we will get our own way, we will have the EU, we will have the pound, there will be no border impediments, and now in the last length, No appears to be confirming just that with the "timetable"!  There is (as there was 300 years ago) a soft and a hard side to this. The south is a vastly larger economic entity through which most of Scotland's own economic activity has to pass or inter-relate (e.g. banking), if Scotland cannot see it needs to be within that in order to influence matters, then perhaps some evidence of the cost of separation has to be "seen".  The border controls.   However I can well imagine this will not be seen as a practical route and so as of this morning, I am very fearful ths UK is history. It is why months ago I was saying a real gamechanger is needed: Liverpool, new capital of a Federal British Isles. Leave Westminster for the English.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Gilsland Station reaches the House of Commons

It is possible that we will be able to reflect on this evening at some point in the future and say this is when it happened.  The moment when the Gilsland Station campaign went electric, literally. Transport in Northumbria (stretching Northumberland somewhat) has been a real cinderella. Campaigns like Leamside and Ashington Blyth and Tyne seem to go round and round in circles measured in decades. How can we underplay the achievement of Hexham's present Tory MP Guy Opperman  in securing an adjournment debate this evening? Many subjects were mentioned including needy road projects like the A1, A66 and A69 whose dualling I would not contest. But Ovingham and Wark Bridges also got their space.

For me I focus on trains and so tonight did the debate. These are headlines. Guy was invited to meet with the Electrification Task Force within the House of Commons and present the case for the Newcastle & Carlisle. This is potentially a huge move. Whether you have a starter project to run electric trains from Newbiggin to Metrocentre or Hexham, or whether you understand this is the only cross country railway for 100 miles each way north or south and hence its electrification is just a basic piece of national strategy, there is no underplaying that invitation.

Everyone has to grasp that opportunity. And here is an aside, only one Labour MP bothered to turn out. Thankfully he did ask about Ashington Blyth and Tyne and thankfully Guy did agree it was needed and it needed connecting to the Tyne Valley. The evidence from Merseyside, through Manchester and in Rail North is that progress comes to those who work together. Did Labour shun this debate? What a pity if they did. Luminaries like Sir Alan Beith and Rory Stewart and John Stevenson turned out. I don't take political sides, I am sure all people in Northumberland want their MPs to get together and to get transport sorted out, dual the A1, re-open the AB&T and electrify it and the Tyne Valley to form a whole. That would be progress.

In that picture Gilsland suddenly flowered. The study has been done, get the capital paid for and it will wash its face. A station actually sat on the core central section of the Hadrian's Wall World Heritage Site with major sites in easy access, and more or less on the Pennine Way. Gilsland will seem marginal to most but it literally straddles Opperman and Stewart's border. Proving that rural investment can beat borders is so important.  Now hear this, Claire Perry the Transport Minister who responded in a generally positive vein (and we all know the wriggle room her department is leaving itself over Pacers which had their space in the debate) PROMISED to visit Gilsland in 2015. That is saying to everyone involved there is all to play for here.


(the 9th of December 2013, Blaydon Labour MP David Anderson celebrates more trains calling at Blaydon Station and has to endure the Pacer, a bus on rails, a 30 year British Leyland National owing nothing to anyone mounted on a freight wagon underframe, David was not in the chamber tonight)

I have a challenge for the Labour party politicians of Northumberland. For Gilsland to go forward (since the platforms are in Northumberland) the county has to place the project high in its transport planning scores for it to work through the GRIP process. An officer called Stuart McNaughton needs political authority to push Gilsland. If the Labour party desire they can more or less kill Gilsland, small project that it really is. That would though say: this is how we do business in the North East. It is a way to get nowhere. The politicians of all colours in Northumberland should enthuse about both Gilsland and Ashington Blyth and Tyne together and not run them against each other. Do that and there is no Connected Up Northumberland let alone a connected up North. So for those who were not in the chamber last night, I very much hope they still get the message. Guy Opperman achieved a huge amount for a lot of the North this evening. He should be applauded and that includes people like Heaton depot MP Nick Brown (where was he?). And in applauding, these Labour politicians should be quite entitled to have Guy's wholehearted support and lobbying skills to take the trains back into Newbiggin.

To close: a Prudhoe station upgrade was also on the floor as an important project to undertake. Peter Nevin: be pleased!

To see the debate go to

To read a transcript of the debate go to

Saturday, 9 August 2014


“The far interior of our fate, to civilise and to create”.
The bi-sexual poet W. H. Auden wrote those words in his poem New Year Letter 1940 as the world around descended into chaos and darkness. Attached to those words was a pen portrait of his Eden, the hills and mines on my backdoor in the North Pennines.
For me this has for nearly 20 years been a seminal influence on my thinking. Just now I have been far away from the North Pennines and from Auden and lounging in some other similar and lush culture. The family spent a fortnight at Fort Belan beside the Menai Strait in North Wales. The sun smiled. A true fortnight’s delight. The Tour De France was on and we had managed to see this at the Grinton hill climb before going away. Then the Tour was followed by the Commonwealth Games. Humanity at its best, true internationalism. Humans can achieve great good. From the 1920s onwards the Welsh architect William Clough Ellis was doing this at Portmeirion. A landlord who did not spend money on a selfish display of oppressive extravagance like Penrhyn Castle at Bangor which we also visited, but one who took a Welsh hillside and estuary and created a fantasy all can visit and stay in. I’ve stayed at Portmeirion in December 1986. And whilst Clough created his fantasy, world history has come and gone. Portmeirion has seen off the Nazis and the Communists. Will it see off the atrocities of the Middle East?
For while we were away, almost cut off from Wifi and with limited 3G and with me positively not facebooking, the world was tearing itself apart in Gaza and Irak. The cradle of civilisation, the Biblical town of Nineveh, all witnessing to 21st century terror.
Clough was an atheist but more than that he was a tolerant eclectic human full of warmth. I warm to him. I bought his own text on his village (also well known to fans of Number 6). We saw his work in several other places including the Lloyd George Museum. It was there we read of Lloyd George’s views on Palestine.
Oh dear, if he were alive today would he wish to change his sentiments? He expressed the view that the inhabitants of Palestine had no reason to complain about the arrival of Jews. I wonder what made him think he was qualified to give that opinion? I wonder whether ISIS or whatever it calls itself would have had the potency and traction it has gained without the fuel the West’s engagement with the Middle East since the time of Portmeirion’s creation has provided. Hammas springs from Yassah Arafat, a secular revolutionary. It is much “safer” than the religious edge now alive in Syria and Irak.
For me Portmeirion, its creator, his friends like the Keating’s and their modest house now with the National Trust at Play yn Rhiw testify to a quiet quality which is quint essentially British. I was away from the SNP debate whilst away but have been rather relieved that in the Salmon/Darling debate, Darling won. Britishness is about unity in diversity, it is not about judgement, exclusivity. It is about Commonwealth and the Queen’s opening message for the Games was unusually forthcoming in her assertion that we are greater together than divided.
I have enjoyed our fortnight’s summer holiday, a true holiday, lots of seaside ice creams, tea room like the end of Bangor pier, beaches at Porth Dinllaen (never been there before), plenty of uses for the National Trust card, back at home and back to work. The cares of the world will impinge. What will I do? Thankfully after a couple of lean years, we have work flowing again, So I will work and I will pray, and some will laugh at that.  But short of taking up arms, agitation, advocacy, charity and prayer, stand as they always have as the most most of us will do. And to do even that we need to be inspired. Holidays help to inspire and so can faith.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

16-18 Travel in Northumberland: the Teenage Tax on 6th form & College students

Time to blog about about the Northumberland issue of the moment. 16-18 student travel costs and something I thought did not impact on me (yet), but I was wrong. I shall try for some history. Some way back under the last Liberal led admin, Northumberland enacted a new policy which said we will provide free travel to education for 16-18 year olds, both to locations in the county, and (subject to some constraints I suspect) without (that is important because Carlisle College, Newcastle College and others come into this). This presumably coupled into the idea that the norm that you go out to work at 16 has been well hammered:

Society has said
you stay in education
until you are eighteen.
Society then
had better help
pay for you
to get there!

Large rural
Shrugs them off.

The Labour party who with independent support now run Northumberland determined to undo this. They ran a consultation earlier in 2014 about making students pay up to £450 a head per year. When the finished proposals were published, this figure had become £600 p/a. Instant outrage because this was perceived as targetting rural parents. It being supposed that if you live in Guide Post and attend a high school in Ashington, the cost being nothing like four students from Berwick who want to go to the county's only agricultural college at Kirkley Hall. Somewhere into this was also injected the idea that no arrangements at all would be made if you chose 16-18 education outside the county. Additional to this is the idea that the county has conveyed that schools now have to arrange all of this through monies they have. The county in effect is totally ditching the organisation of 16-18 scholar travel.

I hope I have that right. Months of god almighty row have followed.  Try and  .

After the July county council meeting was cancelled for lack of business which does seem pretty odd bearing in mind how much non Teenage stuff came first in the meeting when it did take place, the Tory group demanded a meeting. With very bad grace, the Labour/Indy admin allowed this and the meeting took place on Friday past. The Tory motion was defeated 30/34. Along the way the two Independent councillors for Ovingham and Stocksfield (both I sense to be rather Tory places) enabled this to happen by voting with the administration. The Stocksfield councillor argues, along with the administration, that the motion as tabled by the Tories was in fact unlawful.

You can sense the difficulties in all of this. Some would say Labour were trying to score a political point by saying look what happens when we have to make all the cuts the government forces on us. Others (and the parents seem central to this) feel the south east Northumberland centred administration was trying to penalise what they perceive as the Liberal and Tory voting fringes. If so I find that quite appalling. And as this example taken from the Parents against website shows I suspect it is totally counter productive: " I live in the South east of the county in Ellington and my children travel to Ashington high. The school are informing parents to go to the NCC website to find the guidelines. I can't afford the £25 a week that it will cost for my son to go to the sixth form and I don't want him going to Northumberland college so not sure what he is going to do".

I feel the whole issue shows the funding double whammy Northumberland faces. One of England's most rural counties gets one of the worst per head inputs from government. A rural county spends more to deliver a service, this transport being a case in point. When that rural county then focusses its attention onto its urban South East core, there is a double whammy.

We got dragged into all this when just over a week before the vote, we learnt very accidentally that our 416 bus our fourteen year old uses, was being cancelled. There was an outcry and the decision has been deferred for two terms. Along that way, this categorically showed me that whatever the policy rights and wrongs, the implementation was in chaos. Downloading the implementation to the educational establishment was leaving those ill prepared, lacking in personnel and briefing.

I very much suspect the county has not done the investigations into the application of the policy prior to applying it. Instead a sense of a proxy war between providers like Northumberland College and Newcastle College is suggested. The former has announced free travel for all 16-18 year olds including those in Tyne & Wear. That will be an interesting bill to sustain. At a meeting in Prudhoe last Tuesday, I heard Councillor Paul Kelly from Ovingham explicitly say that this was all about preventing students leaving the county in order to drive up provision in the county. That is virtually Stalinist and in relation to Northumberland's geography and resource profoundly unrealistic.

In Tynedale it is almost impossible for many students to reach the Ashington campus of Northumberland college. Scores travel in by train to Newcastle College. Look at this bus timetable for the Carlisle College service. How do you think the teenagers of Halton Lea Gate are going to feel about this abandonment by the county?

I think that come the autumn the issue will be far from silent. I also prophesy that many more than just the 16-18 years olds are affected. Where-ever a bus (like our 416) had younger children sharing a service with 16-18 there is likely to be a knock on effect. At the West Area Committee Meeting last Tuesday, I raised this question. I could see eyebrows raise as people pondered it. The county senior officer could do no more than promise me that an answer would be forthcoming. Not so far, although the question was minuted.

It is really really sad and divisive that it has come to this. Northumberland faces many challenges and a them/us urban/rural split is not helpful. I really do sense an aggression and a refusal to work to productive solutions from Grant Davey, the council leader. You can make your own judgements by studying his words. One of the examples the council cited as a bad result of the existing policy leaves me open handed. It is those students in Berwick wanting to get to Kirkley Hall in the same county. What are we to do? Don't we want farmers in Northumberland from Northumberland. Have we gone completely crazy?

If you read this and can tweak my details, correcting any blatant error of fact or providing some amplication, I shall be pleased to consider same and make alterations.

SCUTINY: In various places there has been debate about why the decision was not "called in". From my perspective I found this an interesting read

This says "Hi Pamela - any one of the councillors could have called-in - not just the conservatives. There was a very good reason it was not called in though and I repeat why it was not here: Allison,

"Calling In" is when the relevant Scrutiny Committee formally ask the Policy Board to reconsider a decision. Some people have been given the misleading impression that had the decision been called in it would have been debated on and decided by Full Council this is not the case.

This decision went to the Scrutiny Committee before the Policy Board made the decision. The Conservatives voted against the Policy, Labour for and Anne Dale abstained.

We won that round and the Scrutiny advice was for them not to make the decision they did. Such a decision however is not binding upon the Policy Board and was therefore ignored.

We have lost faith with the current Scrutiny process as it is dominated by Labour (where in most councils as part of good practice the Chairmen of the Scrutiny Functions are usually opposition Councillors).

If we had called in the decision (something that can only be done by members from the Scrutiny committees) then it would have just gone back to the Policy Board and been ignored again.

It was always our intention to raise this at full Council at 2nd July as the only way to bring the opposition maximum publicity and publicly hold the Policy Board accountable for its decision.

One of the members of the Scrutiny Committee Councillor Dale could have called in the decision or voted against it at pre-scrutiny- she did neither.

Kind Regards

David Bawn County Councillor Morpeth North"