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
A father has accused a local authority of “demanding money with menaces” after his daughter was unexpectedly hit with a council tax demand and given seven days to pay – or face court action.
Alan Thompson’s daughter Naomi was left in tears after receiving the letter from Stockton Borough Council.
At the time the single working mother, who receives housing benefit as she is on a low income, was in the process of having her claim re-assessed by the council due to a change of circumstances.
The 34-year-old was told to pay three separate sums totalling £474.72 with the council claiming she had been overpaid going back to December 2011. Panicking as she could not afford it, the money was paid by Mr Thompson on his debit card.
However after an investigation the council later determined Ms Thompson in fact only owed £23 and the rest of the money was refunded.
During her correspondence with the council Ms Thompson, of Elmwood Road, Eaglescliffe, received a letter containing 29 pages of calculations which her father, a former bank manager, said left them both flummoxed.
Mr Thompson, who lives in Middleton-in-Teesdale, was prompted to contact The Northern Echo to explain the situation his daughter had faced after reading a recent report about councils’ increasing use of bailiffs to chase council tax debts.
“At the time her account was under assessment so we assumed there was no case to answer until it had been verified what she did owe.
“One of the amounts demanded we did not even know about and when we asked for information on it they could not give us it.
“The staff I met also admitted they did not understand the system they were working with. There are some serious discrepancies here and I suspect lots of people may be getting a raw deal.”
Under the legislation governing council tax collection when a bill is issued in respect of a previous financial year, payment is due in full, rather than in instalments, and the recovery process can move straight to a final notice without the requirement to issue a reminder first.
Mrs Thompson said:
“I have no faith in Stockton Council, but these kind of errors seem to be happening all over.
“Fortunately I am in a situation where I have got people I can turn to, but a lot of people don’t, or they will just pay the money no questions asked.”
A Stockton Council spokesman said:
“Our collection policy is designed to be fair and consistent.
“People’s specific circumstances are also taken into account when details are provided to us.”
Source – Northern Echo, 13 Apr 2015
A shocking gap between the life expectancy of men and women in Stockton is being investigated by health chiefs.
It comes after a stark report last week revealed Stockton Borough now has the greatest inequality in male life expectancy in the country – and the gap has widened in recent years.
Though life expectancy is increasing as a whole, the gap between the most deprived and most affluent wards in the borough is increasing.
A man can now expect to live 16.4 years less in Stockton town centre – the most deprived ward in the borough – compared to a man in Eaglescliffe, among the most affluent areas.
But the gap for women is considerably less at 11 years.
Councillor Steve Nelson Stockton Council’s Cabinet member for housing and community safety, said:
“It’s not happening with women.
“Do we understand why men and women are so different?”
Peter Kelly, director of Public Health for Stockton and the author of the public health annual report for 2013/14, told a cabinet meeting that “it is very unusual there is such a gap”.
“With regard to women, we need to understand why the same hasn’t happened there – is it heart disease? Is it cancer?
“That’s a separate issue we are investigating.”
As reported, Mr Kelly’s health study revealed the life expectancy of men living in the poorest parts of Stockton has barely improved since the 1930s.
In stark contrast, life expectancy in areas like Eaglescliffe is as good as in the most affluent parts of the country.
Councillor Jim Beall, deputy leader of the council, said:
“We can dwell on that and say ‘shock, horror’, but on an average people are living longer in the borough.
“It is quite shocking information, it’s what we’re going to do about it that is the important question.
“We do something everywhere, but we do more where there’s more need.”
Council leader Councillor Bob Cook said:
“We have got a diverse borough – the worst wards are in the top 10% nationally, the affluent wards at the other end.
“It does show we have done quite a lot of work to bridge that gap, but quite a bit of work is needed to make sure deprived wards catch up.”
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 16 Feb 2015
Shhh…A giant game of whispers is planned across the whole of Stockton!
The ‘Loudest Whisper‘ will be one of the main events planned for the Positively Stockton on Tees (Psst…) campaign to fight against negative publicity that Benefits Street may bring.
The second series of Benefits Street – filmed on Stockton’s Kingston Road on the Tilery estate – is due to hit our screens in just weeks.
Wildcats of Kilkenny frontman Mike McGrother is one of those leading the campaign.
“There’s an abundance of community pride in Stockton-on-Tees – it’s just not our style to go shouting it from the rooftops!
“But if we’re faced with a series that seeks to paint us in an unfair light on national television, we shouldn’t take that lying down.
“Through the Loudest Whisper event and all the other parts of the Positively Stockton campaign, we can dispel the myths that will inevitably be trotted out using the sense of humour, community spirit and understated manner people in our borough are renowned for.
“And it’s all for Comic Relief – our voices – though quiet, will be heard!”
It will take place over the two days of Friday, March 13 and Saturday, March 14 and will also raise money for Comic Relief.
A message will be passed from person to person, making use of human chains as well as all kinds of transport, from jet-skis and rowing boats to buses and bikes.
Details of the full routes that the whisper will take will be unveiled later this month but there will be opportunities for the public to get involved, as follows:
• Friday, March 13, 12.15pm at the Infinity Bridge, Stockton
• Friday, March 13, 5.30pm at the area near ARC and The Storytellers pub, Stockton
• Saturday, March 14, 12.20pm in Ropner Park, Stockton
• Saturday, March 14, 1.15pm at Preston Hall, Eaglescliffe
People across the region and beyond are being encouraged to show their love for the borough by sharing photographs, videos and stories.
To find out more about the Positively Stockton-on-Tees campaign and how to get involved visit: www.positivelystocktonontees.co.uk
Source – Sunday Sun, 15 Feb 2015
The Post Office today stands accused of cutting down its network “by stealth” as an investigation reveals 17 North East branches have been “temporarily closed” for more than a year.
A Freedom Of Information probe has uncovered huge gaps in the region’s Post Office service, with seven out of a total of 20 branches marked as ‘closed temporarily’, having actually been shut for more than five years.
The Communication Workers’ Union has branded the situation “ridiculous” and claimed Post Office chiefs are letting down communities in the region who rely on their local branch.
Dave Ward, CWU deputy general secretary, said:
“To have 17 post office branches closed for over a year is ridiculous. Every day those post offices are closed, local communities are going without essential services.
“Temporarily closing post offices is surely closure by stealth. The Post Office is being opportunistic and this is impacting detrimentally on customers and communities.
“Communities are extremely vocal about their support for their local post office but they’re being fobbed off.
“People want a professional and reliable service and the sooner the Post Office realises this and stops selling them off or surreptitiously closing them down, the better.”
Post Offices in Stamfordham and Matfen, in rural Northumberland, Orchard in Stockton’s Eaglescliffe, Roseberry Square in Redcar, and Aycliffe, Kelloe and Eldon Lane, in County Durham, have been marked as closed temporarily for the last five years.
Those closed for between three and four years include Stainton, in Middlesbrough, Newfield and East Rainton, both in County Durham, Grange Estate, in Stockton and Victoria Street, in South Bank, near Middlesbrough.
Branches in Cleadon Park, South Shields, Burnopfield, in County Durham, and Newbiggin-by-the-Sea and Stonehaugh, in Northumberland, were added to the ‘temporary closure’ list over a year ago.
On top of the 17 branches closed for more than a year, it can also be revealed that a further three branches have shut down within the last three months.
The Post Office denied claims it was mounting a closure programme by the back door and said its staff were committed to seeing branches reopen.
A spokesman said the Post Office network in the North East is “stable” and it was had no plans to permanently close branches.
Last month, the Forest-in-Teesdale branch reopened after it had been closed for more than five years.
A Post Office spokesperson said:
“There is no closure programme and the size of the Post Office network in the North East remains broadly stable as for example there were 489 branches open and trading in March 2014 compared with 491 in March 2011.
“There is a natural churn in the network and there can be occasions when Post Office branches do temporarily close for reasons beyond our control, and in these cases a branch will only remain vacant for a period where no suitable premises or an applicant for the role of postmaster has been identified, and we always work hard to restore the service.
“If a Post Office is temporarily closed it is not included in the numbers of open and trading branches.
“Post Office Ltd is engaged in the largest investment and modernisation programme in its history, which marks a commitment to no more branch closure programmes.
“Examples of cases where we have successfully restored post office services in the North East after periods of temporary closure include Forest-in-Teesdale, Normanby, Gunnerton, Blackhall Mill, Bede Trading Estate and High Grange.”
Closed for 0-3 months
Crookham, TD12 4SY
High Street, NE8 1EQ
Pittington, DH6 1AT
Closed for over a year
Burnopfield, NE16 6LX
Cleadon Park, NE34 8PL
Stonehaugh, NE48 3DY
West End Newbiggin, NE64 6UY
Closed for over two years
Shotley Bridge, DH8 0HQ
Closed for over 3 Years
East Rainton, DH5 9QT
Grange Estate, TS18 4LT
Victoria Street, TS6 6HT
Closed for over four Years
Stainton, TS8 9AG
Newfield, DH2 2SL
Closed for over five Years
Aycliffe, DL5 6JT
Eldon Lane, DL14 8TD
Kelloe, DH6 4PD
Matfen, NE20 0RP
Orchard, TS16 0EH
Roseberry Square, TS10 4EL
Stamfordham, NE18 0LA
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 02 Jan 2015
A major new campaign has been launched to hit back against any negative portrayal of Stockton from the controversial show Benefits Street.
The Positively Stockton-on-Tees campaign is a light-hearted response to what is expected to be a less than flattering portrayal of the borough when the Channel 4 series airs next year.
And people across the borough and beyond are being encouraged to show their love for Stockton by sharing photographs, videos and stories.
A new website – http://www.positivelystocktonontees.co.uk – and social media accounts have been set up to kick-start the campaign.
The decision to film the second series of Benefits Street in Stockton caused widespread outrage, with some accusing Channel 4 of using “poverty tourism” to chase ratings.
The first series made stars of some of its cast but was described by critics as “poverty porn”.
After the story broke , Middlesbrough FC fans at the Riverside Stadium unveiled a banner reading “Being poor is not entertainment”.
But despite the fierce local and national criticism of the show, Channel 4 chief executive Ralph Lee said the broadcaster’s output would not be “censored”.
He defended the channel’s right “to tell the stories of some of the distressed parts of our society”.
Leader of Stockton Council, Councillor Bob Cook said:
“We did everything in our power to persuade the producers of Benefits Street to turn their attentions elsewhere. Sadly, you can’t win them all.
“What became clear, though, was that lots of people agreed with us that this is not a good thing for the borough.
“So, we’ve decided to focus our energies on turning a negative into a positive. We’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to respond to a series like Benefits Street is to celebrate, with good humour and quiet confidence, all that is great about our fine borough.”
The campaign will give people the opportunity to share their views on what they love about Stockton.
The council will support the campaign, but now want to “hand it over the public”, said Cllr Cook.
“This is a borough-wide campaign for the whole of Stockton-on-Tees. We’re delighted that our local media – The Gazette, Northern Echo and BBC Tees – are in agreement with us and have agreed to unite in their support of us.
“Whether you’re from Stockton, Billingham, Yarm, Eaglescliffe, Thornaby, Norton or Ingleby Barwick, we’d love you to get involved.”
Benefits Street is expected to be aired in March 2015 and the Positively Stockton campaign – also known as “Psst…” – features a major event that same month.
Billed as The Loudest Whisper, the event on Friday, March 13, will see a whispered message passed around the borough – starting and ending in Kingston Road – where the series is being filmed.
The message will be passed from person to person using human chains as well as all kinds of transport, from horses and rowing boats to buses and bikes.
The event, which will also raise money for Comic Relief, is being organised by Wildcats of Kilkenny frontman and proud Stocktonian Mike McGrother.
“There has been an assumption from the producers of Benefits Street that we’re a community that needs to be given a voice,” he said.
“To present this as ‘factual’ television designed to engineer some kind of social benefit is a bit arrogant I think.
“There’s an abundance of community pride in Stockton – it’s just not our style to go shouting it from the rooftops. But if we’re faced with a series that seeks to paint us in an unfair light on national television, we shouldn’t take that lying down.
“Through the Loudest Whisper event and the Positively Stockton campaign, we can dispel the myths that will inevitably be trotted out using the sense of humour, community spirit and understated manner people in our borough are renowned for.
“And it’s all for Comic Relief. Our voices, though quiet, will be heard!”
The new campaign also has the support of Stockton’s MPs.
Alex Cunningham, Labour, in whose Stockton North constituency Benefits Street is being filmed, said:
“There is much for us to be positive about our borough from the talent and resilience of our people to the powerhouse of the local council and other organisations doing their best in difficult circumstances to create jobs, improve our town centres and make life better for us all.
“It is tremendous that our community is reacting in such a positive way.
“Doubtless Channel 4 will claim our campaign would never have happened but for their unwelcome intrusion into our community, but they will be wrong again – there have been many positive initiatives over the years promoting our success, which is perhaps why the borough is seeing its population grow and why it was voted one of the best places in the country to do business.”
James Wharton, Conservative MP for Stockton South, said:
“If you look around you in Stockton you see things getting better – more jobs, more investment, a town and community proud of its past and looking to its future.
“We need to talk up what makes us great and this campaign is a brilliant addition to that. Benefits Street will show what they want, we will show the truth and talk up Teesside.”
To find out more about the Positively Stockton-on-Tees campaign, and how to get involved, visit: www.positivelystocktonontees.co.uk
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 28 Nov 2014
A petition against Benefits Street being filmed in Stockton has gained more than a 1000 signatures.
The campaign was started on change.org by two Stockton mums Charlotte Hall and Di Hewitt little over a week ago and has been shared across social media.
In total 1,409 people have signed the petition on the site – which is the world’s largest petition platform – against the show being filmed on Kingston Road at Tilery, Stockton.
They took to Stockton High Street today to collect yet more signatures.
Their Twitter account @StocktonSaysNo also has more than 500 followers – and Twitter users have joined discussion of the topic using #NoBenefitsStreet.
Once the pair have finished collecting signatures they will be delivered to both Channel 4 and the production company Love Productions.
Social worker and mum of two Di, who lives in Eaglescliffe, said:
“Through my work, I’m impressed by the strong community spirit in the North- east and feel that it is important that outsiders see this rather than negative stereotypes.
“I’m not originally from Stockton, I moved up from the East Midlands 22 years ago and think that Stockton is a fantastic place to live and raise children.
“I want my kids to feel that Stockton is a good place to live and work and that there are endless opportunities for them.”
Carer and mum of two Charlotte, from Stockton, said:
“I was born in Stockton and have lived here all my life.
“Only a few weeks ago after enjoying SIRF and attending the 1245 Sunflowers events I was saying how far Stockton has come and how there’s so much to get involved in.
“I don’t want to see that hard work ruined by our town being associated with a stigmatising programme like Benefits Street.”
Chris Flanagan, from Stockton, said on the petition page:
“Sixth best place to live one week…Benefits Street the next!”.
Emma-Bliss Harding, from Norton, said:
“I live in Norton and heard they were filming at the duck pond which is near my house.
“I don’t want the area that I love in displayed in a bad light.
“This programme is nothing but negative.”
Hayley Garland, from Stockton, said:
“We are proud of our town, our heritage, arts, culture and thriving independent shops.
“Take your sensationalist TV somewhere else!”
Christine Thompson, from Stockton, said:
“My hometown is starting to get back on its feet and I fear that this will be a big backward step.”
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 04 Sept 2014
Better rail links between Middlesbrough and London could generate almost £6m a year in extra revenue to the town’s economy.
Vital improvements are needed to the town’s rail links, which are the “poorest rail service to London of any city” in the UK except for Bradford, according to a new report.
The review by the Middlesbrough Council‘s highways and transportation manager Derek Gittins “conservatively estimates” the introduction of a direct Middlesbrough to London service every two hours could generate upwards of £5.8m a year in extra revenue.
Of the largest 20 cities and towns in the UK outside London, only Bradford and Huddersfield – which has no service – don’t have a better service to London than Middlesbrough.
Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald is among those who has campaigned for rail improvements, saying it is an “extremely important issue for the region”.
A Middlesbrough Council executive meeting heard that in 2013/14 there were 1.37 million passengers at Middlesbrough railway station.
In the last five years rail improvements have been made to stations across the town including new lifts at Middlesbrough station and better waiting facilities at Marton, Gypsy Lane and Nunthorpe.
A new station behind James Cook University Hospital has recently opened to serve the hospital, new housing developments and sports village and to ease congestion on Marton Road.
The bids from rail operators to run the East Coast Mainline franchise from March 2015 have been submitted to the Department for Transport.
Contained within the invitation to tender is an option to include a direct train service from Middlesbrough to London.
Eaglescliffe, Hartlepool and Darlington are the closest stations to Middlesbrough which currently have a direct link to the capital.
The Department for Transport has established a joint Electrification Task Force with infrastructure manager Network Rail to study options for further electrification in the north.
The executive agreed to support the drive for improved rail services for Middlesbrough and the wider Teesside area, specifically for a direct service to London; improve connectivity via the North Transpennine route; and support the case for electrification.
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 24 July 2014
Stockton councillors have been accused of “lining their own pockets” after voting not to cut special allowances that would have saved the authority around £26,000 a year.
But the Labour leader of the authority Councillor Bob Cook defended the decision to keep the £3,350 allowance paid to committee vice-chairs – saying they had an important role within the council.
An independent panel which looks into councillors’ allowances had proposed, among other recommendations, the scrapping of the vice chair’s allowance.
The special responsibility allowance (SRA) of £3,350 is paid to vice chairs on top of the basic councillor’s allowance of £9,300.
But at this week’s full council meeting Cllr Cook put forward a motion with the Labour group to keep the vice chair allowance.
A Conservative move to defer a decision to give time for councillors to discuss the motion properly was defeated by a combined vote of Labour and Ingleby Barwick Independents.
UKIP, Lib Dem and Billingham Independent councillors proposed the scrapping of the vice chair SRA, but that was also defeated.
Maureen Rigg, Lib Dem councillor for Eaglescliffe, said: “The excuse given by one Labour speaker after another was that we needed to get on with the job of saving money.
“Not one of them could explain how paying a group of people over £26k per year saved money.”
James Wharton, the Conservative MP for Stockton South, accused the ruling Labour group of “lining their own pockets” at a time when the council has had to reduce its expenditure significantly, leading to redundancies and cuts in services.
“The ruling Labour group in Stockton Council is running a £7.5m surplus, is increasing residents’ council tax yet again and complains about having to make difficult decisions cutting back services,” he said.
“Most residents will be absolutely disgusted to hear this decision.”
But Cllr Bob Cook defended the motion, saying if you were going to have vice chairs then they should get extra responsibility payment.
“Along with the chair of a committee they work as a team,” he said.
“If the chair can’t be at the meeting you have the vice-chair to cover.”
He said councillors took another step towards achieving the authority’s pledge to reduce members’ allowances by 15% by April 2015 at the meeting, agreeing to freeze the basic allowance and reduce all SRAs from 2015/16.
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette 02 May 2014