In a series of features on Darlington group leaders, local democracy reporter Gareth Lightfoot talks to Labour councillor Stephen Harker about his time in opposition.

IT was a “perfect storm”, says Councillor Stephen Harker, leader of the Darlington Labour group.

“We had a fairly long manifesto. People liked large chunks of it.

“But I think in the end the election got fixated on national issues.”

Read more: What Darlington's Conservative council think they've achieved since winning power in 2019

Looking back to May 2019, he believes a blend of these and local issues led to Labour losing control of the borough council.

“It wasn’t the best year of my life,” he says.

What has it been like in opposition? “It is a new experience. I guess it’s frustrating if I’m honest.

“I can see all these issues and I can see they’re not being resolved.

“And I don’t see a local authority that is being particularly vocal about the problems we face to its own Government.”

Read more: Who is Jonathon Dulston? The new council leader for Darlington

To the charge of Labour not listening when they were in power, Cllr Harker asserts: “I dispute that.

“You may have talked to lots of people. But at the end of it, you have to make a decision about what you believe to be the right thing to do.

“Sometimes you make a decision that a group disagrees with and often you’re then accused of not listening.

“You’ve got to take it on the chin.”

The Northern Echo: Cllr Stephen Harker. Picture: Sarah Caldecott.Cllr Stephen Harker. Picture: Sarah Caldecott.

He cites the Crown Street library closure controversy, which he says became a “running sore” until he decided to ditch it.

“We clearly weren’t winning over hearts and minds,” he says.

He does not think the Conservatives are faring any better at listening: “We’ve seen example after example where they haven’t done that.

“People thought that Skerningham would be consigned to the bin, and they didn’t do that.

“I think the Conservatives are going to feel the pain of that in 2023.

“We probably did lose seats because of it. We no longer support it in its current form.”

Read more: Darlington local plan including Skerningham development is PASSED

Cllr Harker says he now realises the enduring strength of feeling over that development, heard residents’ voices and voted against the Local Plan.

He says politics has become focused on slogans with little substance, like “levelling up”.

“I don’t yet see the real long-term sense of those changes coming into play,” he adds.

He agrees the £22m Towns Fund and Treasury jobs are good for Darlington, and sees the “real prize” as showing London decision-makers what life is like here.

“But they do not fix things, the issues that people are facing.

“The gap between the best off and the worst off has widened.”

Read more: How Durham County Council is tackling kids buying tobacco and botox

He volunteers for the Bread and Butter Thing – “a cracking scheme”, he says, but “a clear indication that people are struggling. It shouldn’t be something to be proud of.”

Speaking of issues of poverty, wage levels, life expectancy and health inequalities, he maintains we are seeing the long-term results of austerity cuts, particularly in deprived communities, since 2010.

He says: “It is becoming increasingly clear what we were saying 10 years ago, the dire warnings about those cuts, are coming to fruition.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Stephen Harker. Picture: Northern Echo.Cllr Stephen Harker. Picture: Northern Echo.

“People see these huge financial problems and they’re not being given genuine proper long-term solutions.”

He says of the Government's latest cost of living package: "One has to acknowledge on one level it's a generous offer.

"But it's not fixing the problems. It's tiding people over.

"People are going to be breathing a sigh of relief at the moment but it's a temporary solution."

Read more: Storm Arwen - Councillor says County Durham 'totally abandoned'

What of the current council? “All they’ve got is what they’re being given by national Government and it isn’t enough.

“We are still hampered by a lack of funding and a lack of certainty about what’s going to happen in the longer term.

“In some respects we’re just like many families – we’re just about managing to do the things we need to do.

“Unless the Government does something about how local government is funded, there will have to be further cuts to balance the books.”

Read more: Darlington levelling up optimism - 'We won't give up'

He has been accused by previous council leader Cllr Heather Scott of being “negative”.

He responds: “Just saying to somebody ‘you’re being negative’ isn’t having a discussion about what’s wrong with this town and how we can fix it.

“If talking about people’s problems is being negative, what are we supposed to do? Brush them under the carpet and pretend they’re not here?

“Unless we talk about them locally, Westminster’s not going to know we feel there’s a problem that they need to deal with.

“Local government has to get the message across.

“There are things we need to do locally, and can do locally, to help people now.”

Tomorrow: Liberal Democrats

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