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
> Bit of a suprise… everyone seemed to expect the French bid to win.
Virgin Trains and Stagecoach have won the franchise to run the East Coast mainline rail route, it emerged this morning.
The controversial takeover has seen the firms promise to invest £140m in the route over eight years, and will pay the government £3.3bn for the contract.
Rail Minister Claire Perry is expected to be at Newcastle Central Station today and the franchise, which covers the route between London and Edinburgh, has been publicly run since 2009.
The anticipated move was lambasted by Labour MPs in the North East, after the publicly-run Directed Operated Railways brought the line back into profit.
Ahead of this morning’s decision, Dave Anderson, Blaydon’s Labour MP, said:
“This shows the real contempt that this coalition feels for the people of the North.
“We have seen continuing failures by private companies in running our line over the period since privatisation until the public sector stepped back in and stopped the rot and we have seen increased punctuality accompanied by increased usage by the travelling public which has delivered the best economic performance of any UK train service.
“This counts for nothing in the world of Conservative dogma. It shows, yet again, that this Government will ignore the wishes of anyone as it steams ahead with its ideological attack on the public sector in our country.”
East Coast paid a record £235m back to the Government in its final full year in public hands – up 12% on the previous year. Proof, unions believe, that a private sector deal is politically-motivated.
Grahame Morris, Easington MP, dismissed the privatisation of the line this week as “right wing Tory dogma”.
He said: “This public-run rail franchise has generated over a billion pounds for the Treasury.
“If this is what a publicly-run train operating franchise can deliver, at a time when every penny counts, we should be looking at ways to bring privately run railways back into public ownership not the other way round.
“This is right wing Tory dogma being put ahead of the best interests of the service, consideration for passengers and the public finances.
“The public-run East Coast Main Line franchise has consistently been the best performing franchise when it comes to passenger and staff satisfaction, fares and profitability.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 27 Nov 2014
Parents have staged a protest over a council’s ‘history of horror’ cuts to services.
Children dressed as witches, ghosts and ghouls marched into a councillors’ surgery in Newcastle’s West End as part of a demonstrate over cuts to 20 Sure Start children’s centres.
Vanessa Cutter, from group Parents Against Cuts, said:
“Nick Forbes needs to attack Central Government and say to them, if you’ve got money to spend on redeveloping the city train station, then there should be money for Sure Start.
“The cuts that are being implemented are going to impact on so many families. The Sure Start centres are such an important resource for people. Parents Against Cuts is not prepared for them to close.”
Newcastle City Council’s Labour leader Nick Forbes needs to make a £5m reduction in funding for the service after its Central Government grant was reduced.
He is also contending once again with a significantly reduced revenue support grant from the Government which has previously led the council to cut libraries and arts funding.
Angry parents were hoping to confront Coun Forbes about the cuts but were greeted by his Westgate ward colleague Coun Geoff O’Brien.
Following the disruption at the surgery meeting at St Matthew’s Church, off Westgate Road, on Saturday Coun O’Brien blamed funding cuts from Central Government and said:
“I fully support the parents.
“The last thing we want to do is close down really good public services like Sure Start.
“I’m pleased they are protesting and there should be more people doing it across the country.”
Throughout September, the council consulted with families to try and come up with a new way of trying to maintain Sure Start Services with a reduced budget.
They have decided to pursue a model that would help 1000 vulnerable children, and spend £635,000 on targeted support services for children and families.
This means more children can be helped than was previously planned, however the future of all 20 current Sure Start centres is still under review.
Council projects like Newcastle Central Station come from a different source of funding, and it would not have been possible to transfer money to Sure Start.
Vanessa Cutter, who organised the protest, said many of the items used in the demonstration and fancy dress were used to represent services the city council has cut since 2010.
“We took along a paddling pool to represent money for the swimming pools being cut, we’ve took books to represent the cuts to libraries and bin bags to represent the bins that will be cut.
“We are looking at Nick Forbes’ history of horrors and set up a Halloween party in his surgery.”
Newcastle City Council has announced it must save £90m over the next three years on top of £151 already cut since 2010. It’s reduction in funding from Central Government has been significant with less money coming in to the revenue support grant, while cost pressures, particularly of an ageing population, continue to rise.
Vanessa said she has used the Sure Start centre in North Fenham for her children Freya, seven, Isabelle, five, and Niamh, two.
“Surely Nick Forbes’ job is to fight the Government. He talks of this £38m that has been chopped from the budget but we want to see him fight,” she said.
A city council spokesperson said:
“We know that people would prefer there to be no cuts whatsoever and we feel exactly the same way. However, the removal of government grants and the overall financial position of the city council, has left us with no alternative but to make savings in every area of our work.
“Our consultation presented people with three options but, once we collected and analysed the views of 5,000 people, a fourth option emerged. Earlier this week, our Cabinet approved the creation of new and innovative Community Family Hubs, incorporating Sure Start Children’s Centres, and with intensive support to families. The hubs would focus on those 30% of communities with the highest level of deprivation – the widest level of coverage the council can afford. At the same time the council will also continue to invest in other services targeting families with other particular needs.
“Detailed planning of how these hubs and other services will be configured, and where they will be located, will be discussed in a further phase of consultation before the council agrees its final budget position in March 2015.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 25 Oct 2014
Whitehall officials have been accused of trying to delay £760m of North East investment in a bid to find ‘election ready only’ spending projects.
Businesses and council leaders have jointly submitted a plan for growth as the region looks for a share of the Government’s £10bn local growth fund.
But after months spent compiling a wish list of jobs projects, including new railway lines and regeneration sites, ministers have now tried to force local enterprise partnerships to pick just a few priority schemes.
Cities minister Greg Clark has been told he risks setting back long term economic growth, with the leader of Newcastle Council Nick Forbes among those suggesting the move looks like an attempt to find an election boost.
If the Government insists on only funding schemes which are almost ready to go it would hand itself a list of ‘shovel ready’ projects that prioritise ministerial photo opportunities, city leaders have said.
Mr Forbes was among those who challenged the Government over its cash policy at a meeting with Mr Clark.
He said: “I raised the concerns when I met with Greg Clark last week. The Government haven’t just set a virtually impossible timetable for bids to the Local Growth Fund, they’ve changed the goalposts several times.
“Asking us, at the last minute, to prioritise schemes that are ‘shovel ready’ implies they are more concerned with projects that can be announced in the run-up to the election rather than those in the longer term interest of the region.”
The North East local enterprise partnership has refused to go along with the Government request, saying that it is wrong of the Government to ask businesses to spend months putting together a list of projects only to then change the criteria and ask for a new list with no clear indication as to how projects will be judged.
The region’s strategic economic plan will for now remain unchanged. Under the partnership’s preferred option, the Government would put £70m into a North East pot and let the region get on with building roads and clearing space for new firms. It would add to other cash for a North East Development and Investment Fund, handing the region £245m over five years to major developments.
If successful, the partnership says the overall plan could pave the way for an 11% increase in employment by 2024, suggesting some 10,000 jobs a year could be created.
Some £23m of local transport improvements are requested, including addressing traffic issues on the A185 and A19, work on the Lindisfarne Roundabout in South Tyneside and a Central Station Metro refurbishment.
Another £25m is asked for to pay for projects such as improvements to the A1 Scotswood Bridgehead, more work on the A19 near the Silverlink junction in North Tyneside and new funds to clear the way for roadworks behind Newcastle’s Central Station.
From 2016 onwards another £125m of funding is requested to help pay for the likes of a reopened Ashington, Blyth and Tyne railway, a new relief road for Durham City Centre, a link road for Newcastle Airport and Gateshead Town Centre regeneration.
Source – Newcastle Journal 12 May 2014