Tuesday, 23 December 2008

An Early Election?

The train from Hexham to Newcastle was packed full of commuters and Christmas shoppers. I met Anne-Marie Trevelyan and others for lunch in Newcastle and there was much talk as to whether Brown will have an early election. We all agreed that with Mandelson now pulling the strings in Downing Street anything can happen. Brown’s famous sense of risk avoidance in matters political may be overruled by Mandelson. If Brown calls it on the earliest proposed date of February 26th 2009 then we will be ready for the fight. If it is not the spring then it will be either June 4th [when the European and local elections are held nationwide], at some date in the Autumn or May 2010. All agreed that Brown was displaying classic signs of the bunker mentality - involving a reluctance to admit anything he has ever done was wrong and an increased detachment from reality. I am torn between my desire for Brown to continue to do such a terrible job - thereby increasing the electorate's desire to get rid of him - and my genuine fear that he is doing untold harm to the economy and our long term prospects as a nation. You talk to businessmen and all agree things are going to get a lot worse in 2009 and that the cut in VAT has helped not a jot. I know from our family business that lending is the key: without bank lending being guaranteed we will struggle even more - on this issue Cameron has got it right for sure.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Halton Lea Gate Update

After a meeting with Sir Neville Trotter, former MP for Tynemouth, at his home in Newcastle, I headed back to Hexham where Peter Atkinson, MP, and I had one of our regular meetings.
In the afternoon I dashed off to Halton Lea Gate, to meet Stan Rowntree, vice chairman of the Hartleyburn parish council, and Ian Hutchinson, the Haltwhistle County Councillor, to discuss the opposition to the open-cast mine [see earlier post of the meeting Halton Lea Gate in November]. It seems to have very few environmental benefits and a multitude of drawbacks. Nick Kennan, chairman of the North Pennine Protection Group, was also there: he was very helpful in explaining the environmental problems it will bring. Nick is passionate about what he does and knows his stuff. This may not be a big story elsewhere but it is in Halton Lea Gate: and the struggle here is a microcosm of the environmental debate that is going on in England today.

There is no doubt we need to address alternative energy supplies, as oil and gas decine and climate change affects us more and more. But are we right to be digging literally within 100 metres of peoples back gardens and blighting the landscape that we are trying to promote as a tourist and environemental attraction for such poor reward? I know that you cannot visit this village and then see the damage that will be done to these peoples homes and way of life without feeling that this is not the right way forward.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Hexham Abbey Sunday Service

I went to the service at Hexham Abbey this morning.
I arrived a little late to see about 25 children gambolling across the lawn, like spring lambs at play, on their way to make their Christingle candles.
The church was packed and there was an interesting sermon from Audrey Elkington comparing the National Lottery to life – much use of the phrase “it could be you” and what it meant to all of us.
Shortly before the end of the service, in came all the children to the front of the church, where they lit their candles. At this Canon Graham Usher warned “and this is the part where the fire officer has given me strict instructions!” A collective intake of breath from all of the adults followed, but the lighting ceremony passed off without incident, and the children held their candles while we sang the last carol. You could not fail to be moved: a genuine sense of Christmas washed over everyone.
It was great to see all the families in church. Afterwards many stayed on for coffee and I got a chance to learn more about the Hexham Abbey visitor centre project from one of the Treasurers.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Hexham Chistmas Market

The young came for the visiting reindeer. The rest of us were on the lookout for Christmas bargains. The Hexham Courant must be the only newspaper to give its readers mulled wine before Christmas, but the day was freezing and we were most grateful to the paper.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Christmas Get Together

The chairman of the local Conservative Association, Bev Nelson, invited all the Conservative councillors in the area and everyone who was involved in the candidate selection process. The group was a collection of councillors from all over, including Bellingham, Ponteland, Allendale and Hexham town itself, with a great turnout and a good atmosphere. There is a real sense of the way forward within this group, and a determination to make the best of a bad lot - namely the demise of Tynedale Council and the birth of the new unitary council – with all its problems.

Afterwards Angus Nelson cooked supper for Karen and I, Bev, and Allan Deane, the local area agent and his partner Jules. Both Jules and Karen and were putting in impassioned pleas for a dog for Christmas, but these were firmly vetoed by Allan and I.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

A Life Remembered

A very solemn and sad day, as my family gathered for the cremation and memorial service for my wonderful grandfather. All the family were there, from great aunts to grandchildren, and my dad read a wonderful memorial tribute. Myself and my brothers, Pete and David, and my first cousins Mark and Nick all gave readings.
It's amazing to think that he fought in the Second World War, built up a business through the great Depression, was old enough to remember coming to London at the end of the First World War and lived to the ripe old age of 102.
We held a wake for him, Irish-style, afterwards, and gave him a grand send off.

Friday, 5 December 2008

North East Economic Forum

I spent the day at the North East Economic Forum, which was a great event and brilliantly organised. There is a real sense of energy and a desire to overcome the recession here, that seems a little missing elsewhere – or is it just that the North East is more resilient? There were a host of speakers – among them high-ranking politicians such as Peter Mandelson, Vince Cable and George Osborne, who all speak well in their own way. Cable as the avuncular uncle, Osborne all industry and effort and Machievellian Mandelson by video link from Downing Street. Mandelson was very much the smiling assassin loving being back in the limelight. Of the other speakers Margaret Fay impressed in particular. She represents One North East, an organisation which does sterling work in difficult times.

The breakout sessions were good in parts and covered:
- Transport: the impossibility of the A1 being improved until it becomes part of the national plan was made abundantly clear. There is a tiny budget for regional road improvement and the A1 duelling will cost more than the annual budget for all the roads in the North East. It is a government decision pure and simple. Anne-Marie Trevelyan (our prospective candidate for Berwick on Tweed) is doing a great job with her “Dual the A1 Campaign”, but Geoff Hoon, Minister for Transport, is the man to decide this issue. And he pointedly ducked the question when it was put to him the night before. The safety, business, and economic case for improving the A1 is beyond dispute: it would also have a good side-effect in that it would bring trade and closer links between South Eastern Scotland and the North East.
- Tourism: Very interesting talks about Hadrian’s Wall, and the need for a tourism conference to try and bring all the different tourism organisations together. It’s a great shame that Hexham and rural Northumberland have such low revenue from tourism compared to other parts of the country – like coastal Northumberland or Cumbria – both of which have double our tourist revenue.
- Climate change / Environment: an interesting discussion and debate on wind farms. The offshore case for them is strong on a multitude of levels, but the inshore case is clearly flawed, particularly in an area like Northumberland / Hexham.
- Also had a good chat with the Journal journalists and the local man from Sky News.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Doorstepping Adam Boulton and Buffhoon at sea

It was the North East Economic Forum Dinner in Gosforth Park. It was an interesting evening notable for the number of key businessmen and women from the region all in the same place. It was also a good opportunity to meet the Federation of Small Business and key Chamber of Commerce representatives. Geoff Hoon gave the keynote speech. I know I’m partisan, but it seemed he didn’t answer a single question with a straight answer – ie with a simple yes or no – and I felt this style of evasion upset the room. He was all at sea on the quaestion about the A1. Hoon is known as Buffhoon by Private Eye which is harsh but fair. They say Transport is a brief held by either those on the up or those on the gradual slide down - it is sadly clear the way he is heading.
Wendy Morton (prospective parliamentary candidate for Tynemouth) and I approached Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News, over dinner and persuaded him to return and cover the general election in the North East. There are a number of great local stories here – and the political scene is changing dramatically. I believe Wendy is brilliant and will win in Tynemouth, where Labour’s Alan Campbell is clearly toast.
The technique of approaching someone who does not necessarily want to talk to you is called "doorstepping" - after the way in which journalists have to literally stand outside the unfortunate's home to get a quote. I am not sure Adam Boulton was expecting us when he was trying to eat his dinner but he needed to know and agreed to return with good grace!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Halton Lea Gate Mining Meeting

Halton Lea Gate is a windswept village on the edge of the Cumbrian border and near the Pennine Way. The countryside around it has a rough raw beauty. Salmon can be found in its river. The people there are warm, tough but friendly. However when roused their passion is ferocious and they were clearly universally opposed to the plan to mine for coal on a site just behind the village. The Council had organised a meeting to hear objections and allow the developer to make his representations and allay fears. With emotions running high, the develper was not winning any popularity contests.
The village hall was packed with around 250 people, with late attenders literally standing out in the soft rain straining to listen to the debate: everyone was there from the village. I sat at te back near one of the leaders of the opposition, Stan Rowntree.
As a councillor I have listened to many of these meetings. As a lawyer I have read the arguments; and as a campaigner I have put my case with passion in the past. Today I just tried to listen and learn.
There seem to be no environmental benefits, a multitude of reasons to object to the plan and very little economic benefits. It will produce three years of hell for residents, and poses potentially serious health risks. And all for around nine days of coal supply for a power station. It’s not that people are against an open-cast mine – but a mine with such bad access, barely 50 yards from many people’s back doors, in an area of outstanding natural beauty, where we are trying to encourage tourism, seems to make little sense. It should be opposed on strict planning grounds.
The best laugh of the night came when the developer tried to suggest that the risk of coal dust being blown over the homes, childrens play area and the village in general, was slight as it was not that windy.
Amidst the laughter and snorts of derision [Halton Lea Gate is probably the windiest place in all Northumberland] we all listened to the howls of the wind outside.
The excellent local councillor Ian Hutchinson opposes this plan. He was way laid with man flu but is doing sterling work on the village's behalf.
The Courant wrote an interesting report on the meeting.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Artistic Licence

To Newton to a great evening organised by Christine Hanley and her team at the art gallery, Fifiefofum. I fell in love with a wonderful sculpture of a horse, but it was a little beyond my price range at several thousand pounds!

Thursday, 20 November 2008

What the Papers Say

The Hexham Courant is the essential reading for all locals so we wait with bated breath for its report on the selection.

Overall I though the Courant’s piece was balanced and fair. I’ve had a drink since with Brian Tilley, its politics writer, and I’m sure we can work together. Brian is famous for his blog Hextol – we will have to try and outperform the master! This will not be easy as he has a justifiable mass following.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Wendy Morton

I headed east to meet Wendy Morton, who is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Tynemouth. Wendy is amazing: a pocket dynamo who has been making huge inroads into the lead of her absentee opponent Alan Campbell. She will win when Brown finally goes to the polls.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Home Sweet Home

Moved into my new home in the lovely hamlet of Aydon, just outside Corbridge. The central heating is a little temperamental, but nothing a few extra duvets and a decent fire can’t cope with. I’m surrounded by boxes of my worldly goods, and everything is a little chaotic, but the welcome was warm and the neighbours wonderful. Had dinner with one of my oldest friends who lives a mile so away at Styford.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Selection Day

Ponteland Memorial Hall is a big brick built hall on the outskirts of Ponteland. It was to this that 6 nervous applicants came on an overcast Saturday in November for the final selection as the Conservative Candidate for Hexham. All of the candidates are good - with lots of real world and political experience. I drew the final interview of the six – which added the challenge of trying to distinguish myself when the selection panel had already heard from five others and could well be thinking that it was time for a cup of tea (or a large gin). But I gave it my best and I know that the response was good: it is very rare in political speeches that people really laugh; it is also rare for a speaker to get a real feeling of warmth from such an audience, who do not know you that well: on this occasion I got both which was amazing. The voters were from across 1100 square miles of Northumberland and were numbered in their hundreds. After that we were off and running with a speech and a multitude of questions on everything from the economy to wind farms, from schools to social care. Sir David Kelly asked the questions as the moderator. After 30 minutes the grilling was over and I went outside for some fresh air to wait.
Slowly the other candidates appeared and we milled around nervously chatting and waiting for the decision of the voters. Eventually Sir David Kelly appeared with Allan Deane and the Chairman of the Association, the wonderful Bev Nelson. He spoke briefly, thanking us all, before announcing that I was the clear winner. I was stunned and elated, and really quite humbled at the task which awaits me; I shook hands with the unlucky other 5 and wished them well for the future – we are all on the same side. But there was no time for reflection, and it was back into the hall where Peter Atkinson, MP, made a wonderful speech of congratulation and welcome. Then Richard Dodd whisked about 20 of us away for lunch in a nearby pub. I had come out without any money so had to borrow £20 from Richard. Then it was straight off to do press and media with Peter Bould, the North East Conservative’s amazing press officer. And only then was I finally able to ring my family and friends who had been waiting on tenterhooks. My Dad was almost speechless – possibly for the first time in his life!