No reporter expects a warm welcome from politicians on the prowl for votes.
Especially not during this election, when the polls are so close that the phrase “squeaky bum time” doesn’t come close to describing the anxiety gnawing away at the heart of most candidates.
That said, the control exerted over the regional press during this time has been alarming.
The North East isn’t exactly the eye of the storm. It is home to some of Labour’s safest seats and that isn’t likely to change after tomorrow’s election.
The party machines calculate, perhaps understandably, it is only worth sending their high-profile folk to marginal constituencies, like Berwick Upon Tweed and Stockton South, where showing a well-known face could make a difference.
It is a state of affairs which has seen not one party leader venture into Tyne and Wear or County Durham since the dissolution of Parliament, bar Ed Miliband reportedly jumping off a train for a quick coffee in Newcastle Central Station.
But here’s an example of what it is like to cover the visit of a big hitter when they do grace us with their presence. On Tuesday, Baileys Cafe, in Alnwick, hosted one George Osborne for tea and cake as the senior Tory sought to drum up support for Berwick candidate Anne-Marie Trevelyan.
A press officer asked me what questions I want to ask. I said I didn’t know (a white lie, told after an experience with the Prime Minister’s PR, which I’ll come to later).
Mr Osborne arrived to the sound of cameras furiously clicking, ordered food and spent 20 minutes dining with a select group of local businessmen, all of whom appeared to be Conservative supporters. I don’t know this for certain, mind, but deduced as much from snippets of the conversation, which included “hopefully with Anne-Marie in Parliament” and lots of warm smiles.
Journalists were invited take pictures of Mr Osborne’s supposedly impromptu encountering of the public, after which he would take our questions.
The Chancellor disappeared for a huddle with his press team while myself and two other local journalists were told to wait at a table – a bit like being sat outside the headmaster’s office when you are caught chewing gum.
When Mr Osborne re-emerged, his press officer barked: “One question each.”
I was last in the go-round so pushed my luck by asking a second question, as did one other reporter, much to the annoyance of his press officer.
Note that these are questions without a follow-up, so in reality you are afforded nothing but the stock party line and little opportunity to get under the skin of what information you get. If I wanted to read a manifesto, I would have stayed in the office and used Google.
Disappointing, to say the least. The press officer said she understood, jotted down her email and told me to send her additional questions, a phone interview having been ruled out, for some reason. This email was not acknowledged until 11.35pm, almost 12 hours after the interview and well past our newspapers’ deadlines.
Another example, in April, David Cameron visited the Icon Plastics factory, in Eaglescliffe, to support Stockton South Tory James Wharton. I was asked to email six questions the night before, then on the day was put in a pool of six reporters and given just two questions. No follow-ups.
I was, again, told to email additional questions. Press officers assured me a week later they were “still trying” to get answers. I gave up.
All parties are guilty of this kind of behaviour, though it has to be said Labour’s Ed Balls and the Lib Dems’ Tim Farron found time to give us a phone interview when they visited.
This treatment of the press isn’t unfair on journalists. We’re used to no-one liking us all that much.
It is unfair on the people who read and watch our content; the same people, incidentally, whose vote decides whether or not these rather evasive politicians have this kind of power.
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 06 May 2015
Not one leader from any of the major political parties has visited Tyne and Wear or County Durham as part of the General Election campaign.
David Cameron is the only leader so far to even venture into ANY part of the North East since the dissolution of parliament.
He visited Northumberland’s Alnwick and Stockton, the two areas where his party has a chance of winning next month, but bypassed large swathes of the region.
Labour leader Ed Miliband – whose party is favourite to win EVERY seat in Durham, Tyneside and Wearside, most seats in Teesside and half of those in Northumberland – has failed to make a public appearance anywhere in the North East.
The Liberal Democrats are defending Redcar and Berwick-upon-Tweed, yet Nick Clegg has been nowhere to be seen.
Nigel Farage claims UKIP is targeting parts of Teesside and has a strong interest in Blyth, and yet the leader of the “people’s army” has not made a public appearance anywhere in the North East.
And despite evidence of a Green surge in pockets of the region, Natalie Bennett has not visited to show support for her party’s candidates, either.
The North East is widely-regarded as safe Labour territory and this may explain the lack of interest from the parties’ top politicians in campaigning in this area.
Nonetheless, voters will be disappointed when they compare the region to, say, the Greater Manchester area, where the parties are fighting a higher number of key marginals.
Nick Clegg has visited seats in Greater Manchester four times, David Cameron twice and Ed Miliband four times.
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 25 Apr 2015
The ukulele player who shot to stardom this week with a swear-filled serenade for David Cameron has called for political change.
East Londoner Robin Grey, who grew up in Gosforth, spoke out a day after expressing his dissatisfaction for the Prime Minister with an adhoc song in Alnwick, Northumberland.
The 34-year-old folk singer, maths tutor and charity worker was in Alnwick as part of a cycling holiday.
“I was cycling down the hill into Alnwick, having spent a while in Northumberland National Park, and I was cut up by a big blue Conservative Party coach – I couldn’t believe it.
“Then a lot of people got off with balloons and David Cameron was among them. It was so strange because it was just them, and no ordinary people.
“I was gobsmacked and took my bike over to the other side of the road. I thought, ‘what can I do?’ I didn’t have any eggs and didn’t want to get arrested. I could have shouted but that is boring.
“So I grabbed my ukulele and played the first thing that came to me.”
He proceeded to tell the Tory leader, who was attempting to drum up support for the party’s Berwick election candidate Anne-Marie Trevelyan with a 15-minute walkabout, to “fuck off back to Eton”.
“I consider myself to be an activist. The more I travel round the country the more I see what people have in common – they want to see change happen.
“I hadn’t rehearsed the song. I am used to picking up by ukulele in primary school and playing, and I have worked at the Edinburgh Festival too so it comes easily.
“I am amazed at how popular the video of my song has been. Looking back I probably could have come up with some better lyrics, like addressing him on the NHS, but at the time I knew I wouldn’t get another chance so I just kept going.”
“A security guard told me not to swear because there were children around so I did a cleaner second verse.”
“Change is needed and as more people start to get their information from less obvious routes and media sources, the ruling elites are losing control and cannot keep telling us what to do.
“After Alnwick, I headed up to Seahouses to my nanna. She was supportive of me making mischief and she knows it comes from a good place.”
With the help of his ukulele, Robin’s causes include the closure of tax breaks for corporations and the super rich, the re-nationalisation of the railways and utility companies, the provision of singing and music lessons for all schoolchildren, scrapping of bedroom tax, and a ban on fracking in the UK.
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 14 Apr 2015
A would-be MP was left red-faced after apparently parking up on double yellows as she launched her election campaign.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the Conservative candidate for Berwick, Northumberland, posed for pictures next to a van bearing a Tory party pre-election advert.
But in a snap taken by a political rival, the van appears to be parked over double yellow lines in the centre of the busy market town of Alnwick.
Mrs Trevelyan has now been reported to the local authority responsible for traffic and parking enforcement.
And Labour opponent for the Berwick seat, Scott Dickinson said:
“I know that Labour on the council have now implemented free parking for towns and now country parks despite opposition from Ms Trevelyan’s Conservative party, but that doesn’t mean she’s able to park her expensive poster van anywhere ignoring the rules that apply to ordinary people.
“She needs to be more careful about where she parks for her photo opportunity and while this must be an embarrassment for her campaign, I’m sure she’ll take it in good grace.”
Mrs Trevelyan had staged a media call outside her party’s Alnwick office last week.
It featured a van bearing a poster carrying the Tories’ campaign slogan “A recovering economy, don’t let Labour wreck it,” designed by international advertising agency network M&C Saatchi.
The van is being taken on a national tour at the outset of the general election campaign.
A Conservative spokesman said:
“We would point out that it was the Conservatives who led the campaign for free parking in Northumberland and just wonder if Scott Dickinson is lining up a new job as a traffic warden for after the election, we would be happy to provide a reference.”
A council spokesman confirmed the authority had been made aware of the incident but said a parking ticket could not be given based on photographic evidence.
“Our civil enforcement officers patrol on and off-street parking across the county.
“In order for enforcement action to be carried out our officers need to observe that a parking contravention is taking place.
“In the case of vehicles parked on double yellow lines an officer must carry out at least two minutes of observation to check if loading or unloading is taking place as this is allowed on a double yellow line.
“If there is no loading or unloading taking place then they will issue a penalty charge notice to the vehicle.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 09 Mar 2015
A town councillor from Alnwick has been selected as the Green Party candidate for the general election.
The decision to choose Rachael Roberts, 42, to stand for the Berwick constituency seat in May was unanimous.
Ms Roberts has lived in Alnwick for nine years and works as a guidance team manager and practitioner at Newcastle University’s careers service.
She has been a member of the Green Party for six years and was elected to Alnwick Town Council in 2011.
In line with Green Party philosophy, she says she is passionate about the need for change within national politics and wants to move away from the “negative campaigning seen at the moment.”
Having been active in her local community, Ms Roberts is also keen to bring decision making as close as possible to those it affects.
“I think we are seeing a Green surge because people are pleasantly surprised by Green Party policies, including scrapping tuition fees, bringing the railways back into public ownership, stopping the privatisation of the NHS, investing in decent jobs and building truly affordable housing.”
She is supporting Save Druridge, the campaign to protect the beautiful area of Druridge Bay against plans for an opencast coal mine.
The Berwick constituency Green Party said in a statement:
“In the run-up to the May election, voters in the Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency will see a new force in politics – a force that will be campaigning strongly for change and policies that work for the common good.
“This will be ably lead by Rachael who is already an experienced campaigner and a well-known local figure.
“Rachael and the local Green Party will be working hard to meet with constituents and hear their views.”
Source – Berwick Advertiser, 05 Feb 2015
The Duke of Northumberland’s business venture has been accused of “riding roughshod over the planning system and local communities to make a quick buck.”
Northumberland Estates is also “inundating the county with planning applications which are out of proportion to existing communities,” according to Julie Pörksen, the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Berwick.
The estates has defended itself claiming there is an identified need for 23,000 new homes in the county and that its schemes amount to only a fraction of that number.
It has also hit back at Ms Pörksen labelling her comments “inaccurate and inflammatory” and adding “a cynic might think there was a general election in May.”
Ms Pörksen spoke having attended a public meeting at Warkworth, called by residents who are concerned at the number of houses being proposed for their village – many by the estates.
In recent times we reported on similar scenarios involving the venture at Alnwick, Rothbury and Shilbottle.
The would-be MP has now criticised the estates for submitting excessive applications at a time when Northumberland County Council is still preparing the core strategy of its local plan, with that to ultimately provide guidance on development in communities.
She said: “In the absence of a core strategy for the county, Northumberland has become a free for all for developers.
“Northumberland Estates own a huge amount of land in and around many of our villages and towns and as a result hold a great deal of power over the future of communities such as Alnwick, Rothbury, Shilbottle and Warkworth.
“It is very disappointing that Northumberland Estates are not using their power responsibly and have chosen to inundate the county with planning applications which are out of proportion to existing communities.
“Sustainable development of housing stocks is needed in Northumberland as in some villages young people have nowhere to live, however the estates are not meeting this need but riding roughshod over the planning system and local communities to make a quick buck before the rules change.
“Greater consideration should be given to the impact of proposed developments so any development creates a positive impact on communities, schools, jobs and tourism, parking and traffic issues and the environment.
“I hope the estates will rethink their approach to Northumberland and that the county council will give fair consideration to the views of everyone who has made their views known in the planning process.”
Colin Barnes, director of planning and development at the estates, hit back:
“The council’s recently published local plan sets out a requirement for over 23,000 new homes in Northumberland in order to address problems of population decline, affordability, an ageing population and a lack of investment.
“Our applications meet only a small fraction of the housing which is needed.
“As a major local business and investor in the county we would happily explain the how planning system operates, which is both transparent and democratic, as the comments made are both inaccurate and inflammatory.
“A cynic might think there was a general election in May.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 22 Jan 2015
The Green Party has announced its intention to contest the general election in the Berwick constituency.
The Greens plan to put forward a candidate to stand in May after the forming of local branch of the national party.
A statement read:
“The Green Party are delighted to announce the formation of a local branch of the national party, to represent the interests of the Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency and to give voters in north Northumberland a wider range of choice than ever before at the forthcoming general election.”
The party has not had been on a general election ballot paper for the Berwick constituency since 1987 when Nigel David Pamphilion received 379 votes.
A group of people from the north Northumberland area met in Alnwick before Christmas and agreed to form a local branch of the national party, with the urgent aim to ensure that there is a locally-based Green Party candidate on the ballot paper in May.
The party’s next meeting is in Berwick on Saturday.
Source – Berwick Advertiser, 05 Jan 2015
A Northumberland MP has issued a renewed call for the county to be governed by separate urban and rural authorities in the ongoing row over the future of its civic base.
Hexham Conservative MP Guy Opperman has revived a debate which raged prior to the creation of a single unitary authority for Northumberland in 2009 in the continuing dispute over county council plans to move its base and decentralise services.
Yet Labour leaders on the council have accused him of an “attempt to divide the county for purely party political ends” and of being “prepared to turn down hundreds of jobs and decentralised services for his constituency.”
The county was once governed by Northumberland County Council alongside six district councils.
A referendum in 2004 saw residents voting for two unitary authorities for the county, along a rural urban split, rather than one.
Labour leaders at the county council then submitted a proposal for a single unitary authority.
However, the districts favoured the creation of two authorities, one for the urban areas of Wansbeck and Blyth Valley and one for the rural centres of Alnwick, Berwick, Tynedale and Castle Morpeth.
Yet the government in July 2007 chose the single authority option.
Mr Opperman has now proposed a public debate on the creation of two authorities for the rural and urban areas, amid his opposition to the county council’s plans to move its base from County Hall at Morpeth to Ashington and to create nine service hubs around Northumberland.
The MP suggested a new unitary authority covering the Hexham and Berwick parliamentary constituencies could take over services now provided by the county council.
He questioned why Ashington should benefit from a new £40m council base, a £20m sports centre and a £74m overhaul of the town centre, while his constituency is “losing out.”
> Possibly because Hexham is a much richer town than Ashington, which has a lot of catching up to do. Anyone who has visited both towns will know what I mean.
Mr Opperman furthermore claimed the recent abolition of free transport for students in post-16 education demonstrated the council’s current leadership “simply don’t have an interest in the issues in rural communities.”
The MP said: “Perhaps now that Labour are wanting dramatic change it is time to consider whether the current county council should be made into two unitary authorities, one urban and one rural.”
He added: “Hexham certainly has a lot more in common with Alnwick than it does with Ashington or Blyth. A rural Northumberland authority covering West and North Northumberland would give people back a council which worked for them, listened to their concerns and didn’t ignore them in favour of the urban South East.”
Responding, a spokesman for the Labour group on the county council said: “This is Guy Opperman’s latest political wheeze. “Last week he was arguing that Scotland and the UK are better together and this week he wants to split Northumberland up.
“Here are the figures, the county population is 47% in the South East, 27% in the West and 26% in the North.
“His half baked proposal would see more than 55% of the government’s grant disappear to the South East and would see the West having to make do with less than 25% of the current grant.
“His figures just don’t add up.
“This is his latest attempt to divide the county for purely party political ends.
“Residents will rightly note that he’s prepared to turn down hundreds of jobs and decentralised services for his constituency and yet he stays silent as his government slashes the county council budget by a third.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 26 Sept 2014
> Cat fight ! The ConDem coalition obviously doesn’t extend to Northumberland…
A parliamentary candidate in Northumberland has been accused of hypocrisy after claiming to be local to the county – but also to London.
Julie Pörksen, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Berwick, has been criticised by Conservative opponents after they discovered literature from when she ran for council in London describing her as ‘local’.
They say the claim is at odds with Mrs Pörksen’s assertions to be ‘local’ in the Berwick seat.
The candidate has defended her local credentials in the county, while her party has laid into the Tories accusing them of “silly attacks.”
Mrs Pörksen’s rivals took to social media to post a leaflet from 2010 when she stood for election for the Lib Dems at Pimlico, London.
The leaflet describes her as a “local mum” and “local resident.”
The Tories say the leaflet is at odds with Mrs Pörksen’s claims in the Berwick constituency, with her website describing her as “a key local campaigner” and press releases referring to her as “local” and “Northumbrian.”
They have also highlighted the fact she lives in the Wansbeck constituency, at Hepscott.
Richard Wearmouth, Conservative chairman for Wansbeck, said: “I am shocked by these revelations, Julie Pörksen has gone out of her way to portray herself as the “local” candidate for Berwick.
“Indeed, she and her colleagues based their campaign in the recent Longhoughton by-election on the fact that they were local campaigners and criticised the Conservative candidate for living just outside the ward even though he had previously lived in the ward for many years.
“The fact that it now emerges that Mrs Pörksen not only does not live in the Berwick constituency, but has recently campaigned for a London council seat describing herself as the ‘local’ candidate in Pimlico, leaves her open to the accusation of hypocrisy.”
Mrs Pörksen responded: “I grew up here in the Berwick constituency – many farming people know my father as a leading light in the local NFU.
“However, like many Northumbrians, the lack of local jobs forced me to look to move away.
“Moving back to Northumberland was the best thing I could ever do for my children and my family is in the process of moving to Rothbury where my children start school in September.
“I want to represent the area where I grew up and which I love in parliament to make sure that future generations aren’t forced to make the same decisions I had to, that there are well paid jobs and decent opportunities here for our young people.”
A local Lib Dem spokesperson added: “When people vote next May, they aren’t going to be swayed by silly attacks.
“They will ask themselves who will fight for us – a former city corporate financier whose local party receives funding from a Russian businessman, and whose party wants local workers to get paid less than those down south; or Julie who was brought up here and will fight for local people to get the A1 dualled, health services in Berwick improved and make sure our new school gets built in Alnwick.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 02 Aug 2014
Councillors who have forced a debate on a decision to cut school transport have been told it could be “unlawful” to reverse the proposals.
The row over transport for post-16 students in Northumberland reached new heights, with Prime Minister David Cameron wading into the row and all three political parties in the county taking highly-charged potshots at each other.
The council’s Labour administration said a meeting on Friday to discuss the plans would cost £80,000 – a figure rubbished by their rivals – and blamed the coalition Government for forcing £130m of cuts on the authority.
It also emerged that councillors had been sent a letter from council’s lead executive director Steve Mason, in which he warns that a motion from the Conservative group to reverse the decision could leave the council open to a costly challenge in the courts.
Post-16 education transport charges were scrapped by the Liberal Democrats when they ran the council in 2008.
But Labour recently approved plans for a £600 travel charge for students attending their nearest educational establishments where public transport is not available.
Students who can travel on public transport would have to pay the full cost of their journeys. Exemptions would apply to young people already in post-16 education, those with special educational needs and those from low-income backgrounds who attend their nearest school or college.
Council bosses say they were forced to bring back charges as they have to remove £32m from the authority’s budget in 2014/15 and a further £100m over the next three years.
But parents, pupils and politicians from rural areas of the county have accused the council of discriminating against families in such areas, with over 1,200 joining a Facebook group and a protest staged outside an Alnwick school last month.
They had planned a similar protest at a full council meeting earlier this month, only for the authority to cancel it citing lack of business – a move they said would save £18,000.
The council’s Tory opposition demanded an extraordinary meeting, with more than the five councillors required to force such a course of action signing an official request.
The extraordinary meeting was scheduled for Friday, with Labour bosses claiming it would cost £45,000.
Party leaders have now claimed the council’s accountants have put the cost to the taxpayer of Friday’s meeting at £80,000.
Council leader Grant Davey said: “The cost of the extraordinary meeting has skyrocketed and we’ve had to audit the cost.
“It now stands at nearly £9k each for each of the signatories of the motion put forward by their leader Coun (Peter) Jackson. Northumberland Tories have very serious questions to answer – how can they justify calling a meeting that will cost taxpayers £80k while this council has to find £130m in cuts over the next four years? This is a scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money.”
Coun Jackson hit back, saying: “It is absolute rubbish. The £45,000 was misleading and was a lie and how they can claim that it is even more than that is beyond me.”
His party had tabled a question to Friday’s meeting demanding a breakdown of the costs when they were put at £45,000.
Coun Jackson said he could not see how the meeting could cost more than £1,000 and added: “You have got to question the administration at County Hall, how they think it is going to cost them £80,000 to have a meeting with 67 people.”
The Journal has seen a confidential letter to members from the council’s lead executive director for corporate resources, Steve Mason, in which he warns of the risks of supporting the motion from the Tories, requesting the authority’s policy board reviews its decision to bring in charges.
In it, Mr Mason expresses “concern” about the passing or debating of the motion on the basis that decisions delegated to the policy board can only be taken by policy board and that it would be “unlawful” for full council to undermine that position.
His letter claims it would be “counterproductive” to discuss a matter the policy board has already determined as reopening the matter “increases the risk of challenge against that decision in the courts.”
Mr Mason says: “I would ask then that you bear this advice in mind when considering and voting on the motion.”
Coun Jackson responded: “It is just another example of bullyboy tactics from the county council.
“We are convinced our motion is entirely legal. We are asking the Labour-run policy board to reconsider its decision. There is nothing illegal about that at all.”
Meanwhile, rumours that the headteacher of the Duchess’s Community High School in Alnwick, Maurice Hall, has been put on gardening leave having distributed literature produced by opponents of the transport charges, have been dismissed.
The Journal reported how Mr Hall had apologised to parents for his actions, while rumours abounded that he he had been put on gardening leave as a result. But school governor Ian Walker said Mr Hall is currently off work for personal reasons and said it was an “unfortunate coincidence” that the literature issue had come at the same time.
Source – Newcastle Journal, 09 July 2014