Monday, February 24, 2014

Decision time in Stockton

Wednesday this week sees two Stockton Council meetings which will make decisions that have a real impact on residents of the borough.
On Wednesday afternoon the Planning Committee meet, in public, in the Jim Cooke Conference room, reached through Stockton Library.  The agenda is a full one, with two lots of housing at Ingleby Barwick, a car park at Billingham and an update report on the 5 year housing supply as well as a couple of smaller items.  The issues around whether to approve housing at Low Maltby Farm on the outskirts of Ingleby Barwick are major.  How much do we value our green spaces?  How can the resulting traffic be managed?  Where will the children of those families go to school?  Who will provide the services needed for those families like doctor, shops, dentist, community spaces etc?  On Wednesday afternoon all these issues and probably more will be aired.  Objectors will have the chance to address the committee, as will those in favour.  The committee will debate what they've heard from the planning officer and both sides in the public speakers.  I hope the councillors who know the area well will add in their local knowledge.  At the end of the debate there will be a vote.  If the vote follows the recommendation of the planning officers the application will be refused because the impact on traffic and highway safety is deemed too high.  The applicant would then have the right of appeal to the Planning Inspectorate or could decide to submit a revised application which doesn't have the same degree of impact and see if that is approved.  That's the democratic process for planning.

Later on Wednesday evening the full council will debate the budget for the coming year.  We already know that the recommendation of the cabinet will be approved unless a number of Labour or IBIS councillors are suddenly unable to attend the meeting.  Other groups might propose amendments but none of us are big enough for those amendments to be agreed.  That's democracy!  I know which meeting I'll enjoy most.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Cosmopolitan Stockton

In celebration of Small Business Saturday and keeping my shopping relatively local I decided to buy only what I could get in Stockton town centre this afternoon.  I knew that I could get good quality meat for tomorrow’s dinner and decent potatoes to supplement the greens and carrots from the allotment.  What I didn’t know was whether I could get the other things I wanted.
For most of this year my trips to shops in Stockton, and for that matter elsewhere, have been very focused, generally rushed and not taking in anything about other shops around.  This afternoon I decided it was time to “Rediscover Stockton” as the Council’s slogan keeps encouraging me.
First on the list were some cards other than Christmas - people do have birthdays and anniversaries at this time of year too.  That was reasonably easy and fairly quickly achieved.  The butcher was straightforward too, and I even remembered to order the turkey for Christmas.  The greengrocer was a pleasure to deal with, discussing the merits of different items on the stall and selecting goodies for me from his very tempting display.  I couldn’t conjure up a need for cake from the bakery that’s opened since last I looked in the Castlegate centre, nor even a desire for a Wonka’s doughnut, but both stalls were doing a steady trade.  The fish stall had very depleted stock so late in the afternoon but I still had a choice of salmon, cod, sea bass and more.  I’m not sure I’d have had that choice in the supermarket, nor the chat about favourite recipes for them all.
As I walked round, looking at the displays and trying to weigh up what was best to take home with me, I realised another change since the last time I’d taken time to look and listen - the cosmopolitan nature of the crowd.  There were faces and languages from all corners of the globe as well as from all parts of the UK.  We’re a much more varied borough than we used to be.  It felt like being in a small city rather than a provincial market town and that surprised me.  Having been born and brought up here, worked as a volunteer and then a paid tutor in ESOL, I haven’t heard that wonderful comfortable mix before - I’ve been in too much of a hurry to feel my home town growing and changing round me for the last few years.
After all the mockery from some residents towards the Christmas decorations in the High Street it was interesting to hear a lady turn to her companion and say “Isn’t that bonny”, pointing to the “tree”.  And to be sure, in the dark it does look good with the lights chasing round the cone.
Further on, and people walking past the demolished Lindsay House and looking forward to the fencing being down and seeing the view.  One man said “It would be better if they planted a few trees”.  “They will” said his companion, “The council’ll want trees”.
And so past another cafe, a hand-made jewellery shop, traditional sweets, on to the Christmas market and the chance to buy a wreath made by the prisoners at HMP Kirklevington Grange and to envy those who have log fires and could have one of the lovely wrought iron log baskets they were selling.  A final stop for take-away Jamaican curry to take home for our meal and the afternoon had gone.  

An early new year resolution has been made - to make time more often to just wander and shop and enjoy rediscovering my home town and its new multicultural offerings.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Local Democracy

This afternoon I was at Municipal Buildings in Stockton to support Save Stockton South as they handed in their petition to the council.  This umbrella organisation of pressure groups has worked very hard over the last couple of months to get more than 2000 signatures on a petition calling on Stockton council to review its planning decisions, following some of the most inconsistent and ludicrous decisions imaginable.  The petitioners had made an appointment to hand in the petition to the Council's Head of Law & Democracy but were greeted by Cllr Bob Cook, Labour leader of the Council, who in turn presented the group with copies of a motion to be put to the next council meeting by the Labour group.  Their motion, obviously designed to placate the petitioners, calls on the council to ask the MPs for Stockton to lobby government for changes in the National Planning Policy Framework.  But as one of the campaigners said, they can't blame it all on the NPPF.

National policies have always taken precedence over local ones since the concept of Town and Country planning was introduced.  There had to be a local plan, but in conformity with the national policies and guidance.  Then the Labour government introduced what was supposed to be an easier system, more flexible and able to respond to changing local need.  The Local Development Framework was born, or at least was conceived.  The amount of consultation and response to each stage of consultation meant that the LDF became even more cumbersome than the local plan.  Stockton's LDF seemed to take longer than many because planning officers and senior politicians seemed to be in super-cautious mode.  Just as Stockton finally got the first document in place the housing market crashed, developers said they couldn't build the houses they'd expected to build and the housing section of the LDF had to be rewritten.  Enter the NPPF, giving a fairly short period of time to convert the LDF into a Local Plan or face the consequences.  Stockton was left with a set of planning documents which didn't accurately reflect the housing market in the area.  Consultations were ongoing.  Did they try to stop development while getting the policies right?  Not a chance.  Did they try to argue that having almost 5 years' supply of deliverable housing was OK while they sorted out where the rest would go?  Not a chance.

Some approvals were given which, though not welcome, were expected.  Some refusals came which were very welcome and sometimes unexpected.  But then came the one that really put the cat among the pigeons - a proposal for a retirement village in the Green Wedge in the most tranquil part of the Tees Heritage Park.  Hundreds of objections, planning officer recommends refusal, planning committee agree with him and refuse it.   Developer goes to appeal and in the meantime submits a revised application, still not acceptable.  Again hundreds of objections, again planning officer recommends refusal as it's still considered unsafe by the Highway experts as well as being an intrusion into the green wedge.  But this time the planning committee approves it.  Where's the sense?  Where's the consistency?  Where are SBC policies?

Hence the petition.  Hence the fact that although the NPPF is not perfect and does need reform, the campaigners also want SBC to look at itself, look at how it makes decisions, and learn some lessons.  Thanks to the democratic process they're being forced to do that.  2500 people have demanded that the debate be held.  Now it's up to their elected representatives to listen.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Yarm Parking Proposals

This morning I sent in my objection to the Yarm Pay & Display proposals from Stockton Council, concentrating on the impact on Eaglescliffe.  I leave the consideration of the impact on Yarm to those who represent that ward.
My objection is given below:
I wish to register my objection to the scheme proposed for Yarm High Street on the following grounds:
The research done prior to drawing up the scheme has a fundamental flaw in that it did not look into the current pattern of use of the existing spaces. As a result any estimate of the impact of charging can only be a guess. There is no estimate of the potential impact on the surrounding areas such as Egglescliffe Village, Butts Lane, St Margaret's estate, South View and The Crescent in Eaglescliffe ward which I represent. These areas already suffer some displaced parking owing to there being insufficient long stay parking in Yarm centre.
There is no confirmed provision of extra Long Stay parking in this scheme yet the current Long Stay provision on Yarm High Street would be removed, making it very likely that this would be displaced into Eaglescliffe ward areas detailed above as well as areas south of Yarm High St.

Although residents of parts of Eaglescliffe were included in the original leaflet consultation some years ago there has been no further consultation with the residents of the areas most likely to suffer from the charges, nor any consultation with the ward councillors other than that which has applied to all SBC councillors.   

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Skate park update

This morning ward councillors and Stockton Council officers met on site in Preston Park to look at the development of the skate facility.  Although the initial drawings show the whole site being more or less filled it's more likely that only about two thirds of the available land will be taken up with the jumps etc.  The rest will be available for some landscaping and for what I've described as an outdoor visitor centre - an area which can include some explanatory boards, signs to the various areas of the park, perhaps some seating and some good trees to provide shade and variety in the landscape.
The crazy golf is certainly showing signs of old age, but by working with the person running it at present it now seems possible that a mobile crazy golf could be set up in summer to give even more variety to the activities on offer in the park.
We also looked at possible extra footpaths, particularly to give safe and level access from the woodland entrance used by many people who arrive by bus or walking from the station or from the southern part of Eaglescliffe.  At the moment there is a problem of visibility when returning from the park to that path, because of the trees and shrubs to the rear of Butterfly World, but some changes there could open up the view and make it both easier and safer to cross.
Changes to car parking are also being planned for the longer term, to enable a better flow of vehicles in and out of the park and to make it safer for pedestrians.  Watch out - the speed humps might grow!
The money available for the skate facility won't cover all the costs of other work of course, and ward councillors have agreed that looking towards using some of our ward budget would be a good way to help with the cost of footpaths and such like.  It was also suggested that Preston Parish Council might like to raise a precept for a year to help, but that might not be so popular.  I can understand people not wanting to pay extra for a facility which will be enjoyed by people from all over the North East region.
We'll have a better idea of costs when the plans are drawn up in the next few weeks, but speaking personally I feel excited that at long last a plan is being worked up which is realistic and affordable rather than the ones produced by consultants in the past which were neither without large amounts of outside funding.  I hope that the young people who've been consulted on the design will recognise their input when it's completed.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A week in the life of a councillor - a very personal view

It’s been brought to my attention that another councillor is castigating me for not attending meetings earlier this week, saying that he’s sure people expect their councillors to attend meetings.  All I can say is that meetings are only valuable if we learn something or contribute something to them.
As a council group leader I attend a lot of briefing sessions with senior officers and pass on the information to my group.  At those briefings I can raise the questions that I want to, get answers and discuss them in some detail.  I don’t find it productive to sit through the same briefing being given for other councillors.  I do find it productive to respond to the phone calls and emails from residents with real concerns about their day to day life, and to go out and knock on doors to see whether those concerns are shared by many others.
As it happens, over the past week I've had meetings about transport, about the local library, about inconsiderate parking, about the changes to the electoral registration system which will have a huge impact over the next 3 years, about what’s happening in the surrounding area including the crime figures but also road safety concerns and the problems of the youth & community centre in a neighbouring village, discussions on the impact of some of the savings identified in the Cabinet recommendation on the budget for Stockton Council and whether to oppose any of them or suggest alternatives, plans for the summer event being organised jointly by the parish council and the Egglescliffe Area Residents Association, discussions on the impact of storm surges on sewers that are already at or near capacity, and more.
But much more importantly, in my opinion if not in the opposition councillor’s opinion, I’ve sat with a very frightened, sick relative, holding her hand and trying to bring a little comfort.  I’ve had meetings with health staff and carers.  None of this is a part of being a councillor, but it’s a part of being me.  And I hope it helps me to understand when someone else needs to be somewhere other than where I might have expected them to be.  It certainly helps me to understand when residents contact me with problems relating to sickness and disability.
And now, having said all that, I shall get on with chasing up the repair to the broken manhole, the two consultations that need to be carried out in parts of the ward and following up the problems with disability living allowance for a resident without family to help her.  All in a day's work for a councillor and not a formal meeting to be seen there.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Egglescliffe Library

Last night’s meeting of Stockton Council's cabinet approved the cuts in Library services that we’ve been expecting.  For the next 12 months or so Egglescliffe will be guaranteed at least 17 hours a week of opening.  That’s a reduction of 50% on our present opening hours, but at least there’s still a library.  It’s a sign of changing times that many people prefer to read from electronic gadgets rather than paper books, and those who like paper books often find that picking up a paper-back in the supermarket is preferable to a special trip to the library.
Egglescliffe library doesn’t have enough people using it for the amount it costs to run and maintain the building.  We’re in the situation of having a sizeable share of our population which uses cars to go most places, and perhaps Yarm or Stockton library is more convenient for them.  But we also have a significant number of older, less mobile people and young children for whom a trip to the Library at Egglescliffe is a lifeline.  
Stockton Council would like to cut their costs by finding a more suitable location.  Perhaps if they’d thought ahead they could have included a newer build on the new Junction Farm School extension but it’s too late for that now.  They had their sights set on the Allen’s West development but that’s at least 10 years away if it’s ever built.  
Meanwhile, use it or lose it is the catch phrase.