Sunday, December 30, 2007

The holiday draws to a close

It's been an unusual experience - almost a week of absolutely no politics or council work. Denis and I made a commitment that we'd take some time to do other things between Christmas and New Year this year. Nothing unusual in that, except that this time we agreed not to answer work-related phone calls, no blackberry, no work e-mail, just time to do the things we wanted to do together. It was strange at first but it's allowed recreation in the fullest and truest sense of that word. A walk in Riccal Dale on Boxing Day gave some beautiful views and was completed just as the light was failing, with the pheasants getting very annoyed with us for disturbing them as they settled for the evening.
Time with family and time at home doing things we've wanted to do for some months, and now we're ready to start again in the New Year, refreshed and revitalised till the next holiday!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Pakistan, Passion and Prayers

I was away for the day yesterday and only heard the news of Benazir Bhutto's death as we drove home. I was saddened and disappointed but it wasn't really a surprise (which made it even sadder). It's very hard for us here in cosy Eaglescliffe to understand or appreciate the passion which politics can arouse in people elsewhere. Pakistan is a country which was born from a struggle, had further problems leading to the division into modern Pakistan and Bangladesh, but has grown into a modern, mainly muslim, struggling towards being democratic nation. No, it isn't perfect but then nor is the UK nor anywhere else. Yes, it has some persecuted minorities and I and many others will work with agencies like Amnesty International to try to see that improve. It has a leader who seems very reluctant to hand over to anyone else but we've lived through that here in recent years! Thank God Tony it wasn't a military dictatorship. Its political parties don't yet have anything approaching internal democracy. And, sadly, it has a small minority of people who are prepared to commit murder to achieve their aims. I hope our government and others will support the people of Pakistan to put that right.
On the positive side there are thousands of people prepared to turn out to political rallies, march through the streets and try to persuade others to vote for their favourite candidate. That's a passion we've lost here (apart from when we tried to persuade Mr Blair not to join the invasion of Iraq and such single issue moments). Perhaps we should watch Pakistan and try to rediscover some of the passion without resorting to violence.
Meanwhile, my prayers are with the people of Pakistan and their relatives and friends in this country as they try to come to terms with yesterday's horrible event. The Bhutto family and friends are suffering a second tragedy through politics, but other families lost loved ones in yesterday's incident - ordinary men and women who went to hear a politician speak and were blown up in the aftermath of her death. Ordinary families who don't have a mother or a father or a brother or sister this morning, who maybe now are wondering who's going to earn the money for next week's food or clothes. Whatever Western leaders, including our own, say or do over these weeks, I hope they think long and hard before saying it so as not to make a tense situation worse.

Benazir Bhutto - rest in peace. May your country survive this tragedy and come out the other end stronger and more at peace with itself.

Monday, December 24, 2007

'Twas the Night before Christmas

There won't be many posts over the next few days as Christmas in this family is a time when work is put on one side and relaxation holds sway. Already one daughter and son-in-law have been to Midnight Mass and are greeting the Christmas dawn on the other side of the world while we have a couple of hours yet before leaving home for our celebration.
The wonders of modern technology make the world seem much smaller than it was, so we can chat and share video links around the world.
Of course it also means that we've no excuse for not trying our best to relieve the problems of those less fortunate than ourselves, both here and overseas, because we can't say we didn't know about them. So we have every opportunity to make Christmas live on in our hearts beyond December 25th, including not joining in the on-line sales starting at 00:01 on Dec 25th which I've just heard advertised on TV!! Is anything so important to possess that it can't wait a day or even two?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Afghanistan to Zimbabwe - trouble spots of the world

Today was the 3rd annual vigil held to remember those people torn from our community and repatriated to "safe" countries where many have disappeared or been imprisoned and tortured. This happens in our names because the government deems it to be the popular thing to do. In a church in central Middlesbrough people of many nationalities gathered to remember friends and to share hope for a better future. It was deeply moving, made more poignant by the news that came through earlier this week that the Democratic Republic of Congo has been declared "safe". No doubt January will bring a spate of enforced removals of Congolese asylum seekers - women, small children as well as men. Easy targets for the authorities - where can they run to , where can they hide? Who will stand with them and be counted? A sobering question for us all as Christmas approaches and we remember another family who had to flee persecution.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

End of Term Feeling

This should have been a quiet day, leading to the Christmas holiday closedown. But no! First of all I needed to understand one of the reasons for refusal of a planning application in the ward for a children's play centre. The planning officer concerned did explain it very clearly to me, and I can understand now why it happened though I have some sympathy for the applicant who is passionately enthusiastic and for the parents who would like to have a centre like that within easy reach. I'd like to think that a suitable site could be found for what sounds like an exciting opportunity.
Then it was time to go and spend some time with family before heading to Stockton Parish Church for the Civic Carol Service. This was a great chance to enjoy some traditional Christmas carols and readings marred by the freezing temperature in the church which has been without heating for some weeks now. It's a shame to see such a lovely building in such a bad state of repair but I know that things are moving, albeit very slowly. Roseworth School choir sang with great gusto and put us all to shame by apparently not feeling the cold at all. Their smiles told of the pleasure they get from making music and I hope it stays with them into their teens and beyond. Afterwards, at the reception in the Town Hall, I had the opportunity to catch up with one or two members of Stockton Male Voice Choir whom I used to see regularly when Denis sang with them years ago.
Cabinet was the last engagement of the year, and it included a report proposing consultations on the future of the last remaining residential home for the elderly in the borough. It's a fairly old building in need of some significant investment if it's to stay open. The people who have relatives there or who work there think it's a wonderful place, caring and home-like. So the council has to take a difficult decision - spend a lot of money on bringing it up to standard and making sure that the present residents are comfortable while the work is going on or close the home and try to make sure that the residents are found places that suit their needs elsewhere. There's to be consultation but also a review of all the evidence by the Adult Services & Health Select Committee to make sure that all evidence has been looked at and properly evaluated. I must admit that I'm glad I don't chair that committee. I wouldn't like to have a subject like that dumped on me at a moment's notice. Whichever decision is taken the people who currently live in the home will suffer disruption and that's going to be difficult for them, their families and the staff who care for them.
At least that's the last of the formal meetings for the year though there'll be e-mails I'm sure and phone calls. Now it's time to settle to the last stages of preparing for Christmas. Deck the halls with boughs of holly etc.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle

Today was the first evidence-gathering meeting of the Environment Select Committee review of Waste Management in the Borough. We had Dr Andrew Craig, a local expert who's been involved in formulating strategy at Tees Valley level and in the North East as well as having some input into national thinking on the subject. I think that everyone in the room learned something from the session and we had lots of our questions answered.
One question to which the answer was less than satisfactory was whether there are plans to make it easy for people to find out which products contain recycled material and which don't so that we can make informed choices when shopping. Toilet rolls are easy - clearly labelled so that we can make our choice. In fact, it seems to me that the paper industry is ahead of everyone on that - we can buy all sorts of paper products that are clearly labelled. But what about that jar of jam? Is the jar 100% recycled glass or 50% or zero? There's nothing on the label to tell us. Apparently there are no plans to make this common practice, and no plans on the part of government to help us at all. We have to do our own research and that is jolly difficult.
On the other side of the Atlantic, however, in California there's a whole website devoted to the subject of reducing waste, reusing it and recycling it including buying recycled products. There are links to companies producing jewellery from circuit boards, clothing from all manner of recycled materials, toys, furniture, building materials and many more. If a state of the USA can make that kind of effort can someone explain why the British government can't? (Rhetorical question - it's too near Christmas for philosophical essays)
We also approved the consultation programme for the review so watch out for questionnaires and opportunities to comment in the New Year.
In the New Year a small group will take on the job of looking into Vermin control in the Borough because we're suffering from a much increased rat population compared to 10 years ago and need to find ways to deal with it. This committee gets all the interesting jobs!
Nationally, I was pleased to see that the new party leader was getting generally positive comment in the press. Long may it continue.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Leadership Result

Nick Clegg is our new party leader. It was a close contest, and over 40,000 members voted in it, showing that we really are a party that's committed to democracy.
Nick represents a constituency in Sheffield so knows something of the challenges facing the North of England. He's made a good start by saying he'll include both Vince Cable and Chris Huhne in his top team. I look forward to seeing real progress now on the policies that need pushing home. We know we've got some really good policies, on the environment and devolution from Westminster particularly, but we need to get them embedded into the British way of life.
Go for it Nick - whichever candidate people voted for we're all behind you now in readiness for the next election.

The text of his speech given after the result was announced follows:

My election as leader of this party marks a new beginning.
Today is about two things: ambition, and change.
Renewed ambition for the Liberal Democrats.
Renewed ambition to reach out to the millions of people who share our values, but have not yet voted for us.
It’s about renewed ambition for Britain.
Because we want to change politics, and change Britain.
I would like to thank Chris for the energetic and committed way he has campaigned in this leadership election.
We have been rivals in this contest. From today, we are colleagues again. I look forward to working closely with him for the good of liberalism in Britain.
I would also like to thank Vince Cable for the magnificent way he has led the party in these past two months.
There are few men who have excelled as an economist, a comedian and a ballroom dancer.
Finally, I would like to give my warmest thanks, on behalf of the whole party, to Ming Campbell. He took over the Liberal Democrats at a difficult time, and provided enormous stability and professionalism to the party. Without his work, building on the extraordinary achievements of Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown before him, the party would not have the bright future which it now does.

I am a Liberal by temperament, by instinct and by upbringing.
My own family was marked, scattered and reunited by the tragic conflicts of the last century.

I was taught from an early age that Britain was a place of tolerance and pluralism, with a history steeped in democracy and the rule of law.
I believe that liberalism is the thread that holds together everything this country stands for. Pull out that thread and the fabric of the nation unravels.

We are a people with a strong sense of fair play and social justice. An instinct to protect the environment for future generations. We are suspicious of arbitrary power, wary of government interference. We want to play an active, enlightened role in the affairs of the world.
And we have always put our faith in the power of ordinary men and women to change things for the better.
So why is Britain still not the liberal nation we want it to be?
Look around us:

Our civil liberties casually cast aside.

Gigantic, faceless and incompetent Government bureaucracies.

Security and opportunity in short supply, particularly in the poorest communities.

Families struggling to meet each month’s bills. Struggling to balance the demands of work, and the time for a real family life.

Above all, our politics is broken.

Out of step with people.

Out of step with the modern world.

That is why I have one sole ambition: to change Britain to make it the liberal country the British people want it to be.

I want a new politics: a people’s politics.

I want to live in a country where rights, freedoms and privacy are not the playthings of politicians, but safeguarded for everyone.

Where political life is not a Westminster village freak show, but open, accessible, and helpful in people’s everyday lives.

Where parents, pupils and patients are in charge of our schools and hospitals.

Where fine words on the environment are translated into real action.

Where social mobility becomes a reality once again, so that no-one is condemned by the circumstances of their birth.

Why have we stopped imagining a better society?

Look at what we’ve got.

The Conservatives and New Labour have governed in the same way. Top-down and centralising. I refuse to believe that the only alternative to a clapped out Labour Government is a Conservative party which has no answers to the big issues - environmentalism without substance, social justice without money, internationalism without Europe.

The challenge for my party is clear and simple: to define a liberal alternative to the discredited politics of Big Government.

I want to open up my party, open up Westminster, and open up politics for good.

To lead well, a leader needs to listen.

That’s why I will hold regular and public Town Hall Meetings.

That’s why I want to open up the Liberal Democrats to give people who support us, but aren’t members, a say on the big issues.

That’s why I will spend at least one day every week listening and campaigning outside Westminster.

That’s why I will set up a network of real families, who have nothing to do with party politics, in every region of this country to advise me on what they think should be my priorities.

If you once voted Lib Dem but think we’ve spent too much time focusing on ourselves.

If you once voted Conservative but don’t know what they stand for any more.

If you once voted Labour but feel let down after ten years of disappointment.

If you’ve given up voting altogether, but still care about the world we live in:

Then a newly united, energetic, optimistic Liberal Democrat party is there for you.

This is an unprecedented time of opportunity for liberalism in Britain.

If we are to grab this opportunity, my party will need to change.

We must start acting like the growing national political movement that we are. More professional. More united. More ambitious.

Liberalism is the creed of our times.

The old left-right politics has broken down. Labour and the Conservatives are mutating into each other, united in defence of a system which has let the people down.

Instead, we must start where people are, not where we think they should be.

In short, I want the Liberal Democrats to be the future of politics.

Because Liberal Democrats have the courage to imagine a better society.

To break the stifling grip of the two-party system for good.

To bring in a new politics.

Of politicians who listen to people, not themselves.

No more business as usual. No more government-knows-best.

I want today to mark the beginning of real change in Britain.

The beginning of Britain’s liberal future.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Rookery - again

Well, now it's official. There's an application to demolish the Rookery and build from new, apparently to the same design as the conversion that was approved. The story is that the foundations aren't up to standard. One wonders why that wasn't realised earlier! Residents who've known the building longer than I have tell me that there's been a problem with the foundations for years and it should have been underpinned. I've no idea of the whole story of course, but just on Christmas is not a time when people want to start thinking about fighting another planning application.
I spent some time this morning being briefed on the impact of the Government funding formula changes for Fire Authorities. In an effort to spread the funding more fairly round the country the government has changed the formula so that Cleveland, along with 2 other areas, loses out. Cleveland loses a much larger percentage than either of the others in spite of having more risky chemical and hazardous sites closer to people's houses than anywhere else in the country. In Eaglescliffe we're very conscious of having Elementis on our doorstep, but in parts of Billingham South they've got even more hazardous sites literally over the garden fence. They've produced a draft plan for consultation on how they can continue to do their work with serious reductions in funds, and I urge people to read it and comment.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

90 Not Out

This was the title of a show given last night at Stockton Photo-Colour Society by a resident of our ward, Ray Wallace Thompson. Ray has been taking photographs since 1936, and as a professional architect his eye for design was honed over the years. Now almost 91, he was given the opportunity by the Photo club to have an evening showing some of his pictures and telling some of his life story. He'd invited his ward councillors and the Mayor of Stockton as well as other guests and we were all made very welcome. Many of his photographs are available to see on line and are well worth looking at. I particularly enjoyed the ones of the Lake District but then I'm biased - I love that area too.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Heritage and Local List

Over recent weeks a number of people have asked about the local list which was supposedly going to be part of the SBC Conservation & Historic Buildings Folder in the local development framework. Last year a number of people spent many hours sending information through about buildings in this ward and neighbouring Yarm in particular, and then everything went quiet. We only discovered that nothing at all had been done with the information when we needed it to help preserve Wainstones. I've been making a fuss since then, along with a colleague from Yarm, and we've finally been told that acknowledgement letters will be sent out soon! Shortage of staff meant it wasn't prioritised. What that means is that we may well lose Wainstones if an appeal goes with the applicant. Local activists are fuming and I agree with them - we've been badly let down.

On top of that, the vandalised tree on Carnoustie Drive has now been completely removed. The excuse given by NWL is that the water main had collapsed, cutting off supplies from 20+ houses. I can't help but wonder if more should have been done when it leaked last year, and if that might have avoided this problem, but I shall never know and not being an expert means that I can't even make an educated guess. Now I'm in the position of having to chase for a replacement tree.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Water leaks and vandalism

Readers of Focus will remember last winter's saga of the water leak on Carnoustie Drive which took weeks to be sorted out and repaired. Some residents are only too aware that a month ago the problem started again. This time Northumbrian Water engineers came out very quickly to look at the situation. Over the last 4 weeks more and more water has poured down the drain instead of being available to come out of our taps. On Friday a big hole was dug and the flow rate increased dramatically. Today an even bigger hole was dug but still the water flowed.
Sadly, it seems that NWL employ someone who can only be described as a vandal. A protected rowan tree, minding its own business, was in the way of the digging equipment so was attacked with a saw. My neighbour was at home at the time and saw what was happening so rushed out to remonstrate. When he realised that he was getting nowhere he went in and phoned Stockton Council and was told that someone would come out as soon as possible. I have no idea whether anyone came out, but I'll be asking questions tomorrow about permissions in this sort of situation and trying to ensure that a replacement is planted. I believe at the moment that NWL should be prosecuted but I bet I find out tomorrow that there's a good reason why they can't be.
This was all the more ironic, considering I'd just spent 2 hours at a meeting of the Tees Valley Environmental Protection Group - councillors and officers concerned with making sure that residents of the Tees Valley have the best environment we can possibly ensure. We'd discussed air quality and noise pollution and contaminated land - very interesting and important. For once, some strategies that really do seem to make a difference in the lives of ordinary people, even if most of us didn't know they existed.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Inspection time

Probably my last encounter with inspectors today - an hour long interview as Chair of Environment Select committee, Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Chair of the Western Area Partnership Board. Quite an experience, but I think I managed to be fair to other councillors and senior officers while being honest about my experiences. Fortunately for Stockton Council's star rating he concentrated on the work of the Environment Select Committee and skated over other things quite lightly. It'll be very interesting to see the result of this 2 weeks of inspection - the regime is much more demanding than in previous years so all officers who understand the process are saying that we expect to slip off the top perch but obviously people are really hoping not to.
The afternoon was scheduled for Focus delivery but our phone wasn't working properly so I spent the afternoon trying to sort out that problem. Before I knew where I was it was time for ward surgery. This particular ward surgery was a real "warm glow " one - a couple who'd been helped by John taking up cudgels on their behalf came to thank him in person. As this ward surgery was at the venue furthest from where they live of the 3 venues we use, it was a particularly kind gesture on their part.
After ward surgery I'd arranged to meet Denis at our local vegetarian restaurant instead of cooking at home. A most enjoyable evening, and I was able to tell them that the CPA inspectors who'd dined there yesterday evening had been very impressed.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Back in the Land of the Living

After several days of a really rotten cold I feel almost human today. I took advantage of a dry spell between the showers to deliver a round of Focus leaflets. Although I don't always look forward to that job, especially in wet weather, I do find it useful to walk round streets which I wouldn't go along otherwise. Checking up on the state of the pavements and generally keeping an eye on the ward is one part of the job which is important but easily lost in the rush of other activities. Today's weather seemed to have driven everyone indoors and I didn't meet anyone wanting to have a chat about anything. A wave and a smile from residents sitting in their warm rooms kept me going though.
Christmas decorations are starting to appear inside and outside houses. I hope people are making sure that they're using the correct plugs and wiring for them all. We don't want fire to ruin Christmas for anyone. I must confess that this time of year is when I find myself in two opposing camps, environmentally. Part of me loves to see all the lights, to send cards and receive them, to give presents and receive them but the other part of me hates the waste of resources - the electricity being spent on extra lights, the beautiful cards and wrapping paper being thrown away after one use, the thought that however much time I've spent on choosing something that a person will really enjoy, actually I haven't got it right and the gift will languish on a shelf somewhere until it finds its way into the next charity bag.
That's why I love gifts that are given, not to me, but on my behalf to someone in need. If you follow all those links you'll get the idea. Two years ago my daughters "gave" me a well in a developing country. I was so thrilled I burst into tears. This year one of them has just sent me some "reverse book tokens" - a wonderful idea. I remember how much the library meant to us when we were in India for a time, and we were people who could afford to buy books. How much more it meant to those who couldn't own their own. It's a gift I'm proud to have received.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Not extremes of views but of ages today. I spent most of the daylight hours helping an elderly relative do some Christmas shopping - not very important you might think but to someone who only gets out of the house if someone takes her, it's very important. Sometimes we forget that losing the ability to do everyday things is one of the most upsetting parts of losing mobility. Not being able to carry a shopping bag nor to walk from one shop to another makes choosing surprise gifts for family and friends almost impossible. So, not something that's uniquely relevant to being a councillor, but definitely important.
A plea here, if any retailers should happen to read this: Designing a shop with wide aisles for easy access is brilliant, but filling those aisles with free-standing displays of easily damaged items is definitely not. We had to ignore 2 shops completely because we couldn't navigate the obstacle course.
In the evening there was a meeting of the full Council. Sometimes this is a fairly routine rubber-stamping exercise of receiving lots of minutes from Cabinet and committees which don't need any comment because it's all been said earlier in the process. Tonight's was different. Two questions from members of the public about issues dear to their hearts (Harold Macmillan and Tees Valley Metro) were followed by a number of questions on various matters from members of council. My colleague, John Fletcher, asked about the recent Tory leaflet which circulated in Eaglescliffe and worried a number of residents by claiming that the Council (and therefore us through Council Tax) would have to pay the costs incurred by the developer in the appeal over The Grange. The cabinet member responsible for planning matters reassured us that this is not the case - the appeal was a written appeal for which the council incurs no costs. We have enough problems without someone inventing phantom ones.
Then there were lots of issues raised about things in Cabinet minutes, followed by an emergency motion to be debated. The result of that is that Stockton Council has added its voice to the growing number objecting to the proposed transfer of 999 calls to Tyneside for the ambulance service. I was pleased that the meeting was a lively one, because one of the Youth reps on the Western Area Board accompanied me to the meeting as part of her time shadowing me as chair. Though I don't think it encouraged her to think in terms of being a councillor in the future, that wasn't the point. Few if any people are elected because they want to go to meetings - we're elected to do all the other things to make a difference and meetings are a necessary part of that.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Connect2 roadshow

People in Eaglescliffe and the surrounding area can see more of what the bid is about at a roadshow - Tesco, Eaglescliffe on Monday Dec 3rd, form 3 till 7. It's repeated outside Yarm Town Hall from 11-2 on Wednesday 5th. Do go along and see the details. You can read a little more online.
Whichever way you find out about it, do please vote. £600000 could come this way and it will be a big help in getting the bridges and footways that are hoped for.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Butts Lane Success!

Great news - Red tape has been cut and Stockton Council is planning to adopt the bit of land between the Churchyard and the Cemetery for maintenance and repair. Some of the ward Environmental Improvement budget will be spent on the initial improvements and then it's over to the Care for Your Area Team. Persistence has paid off and I hope that the work will be done soon before the winter weather really closes in.
Now there's just Railway Terrace .......

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Lib Dem AGM

Stockton Liberal Democrats held their Annual meeting at lunch time - an innovation which brought in a decent number of people. We enjoyed lunch while listening to Fiona Hall MEP talking about her work as a Member of the European Parliament. Whilst some may think that the European Parliament is a distant body Fiona pointed out several things in which she's been involved related directly to life here in the North East. Her most recent interest has been in the Northern Rock debacle, when she realised that because the bank has a branch in Eire in the Euro currency zone it could apply for a loan from the European bank. Taxpayers in the UK would not have to risk billions of pounds and there'd be no suggestion of unfair state aid. Fiona has written to the bank and to the Chancellor but had no action from either.
She also explained some of the complexities of the Economic Partnership Agreements being proposed between Europe and the African & Carribean nations. They've been very controversial but I confess to not having fully understood them. Fiona explained that for the very poorest nations the protection which is built in makes them helpful but for the less poor nations they do have problems and the countries concerned are understandably concerned. As a result they're refusing to sign at present. Fiona did say that people from Eaglescliffe and Yarm had been very active in lobbying her about the undesirable effects of the EPAs, so well done those people. You are making sure that our MEP thinks carefully about the issues.
All AGMs have a business section of course, electing officers and receiving reports, but we were fortunate to have a second speaker - our president, Jeremy Atkinson. Some Eaglescliffe residents will remember Jeremy as a councillor before I was elected. He was a hard act to follow as the saying goes. He delivered a thought provoking talk on modern life and how we behave towards the disadvantaged in our society, including refugees. I can't possibly say it as well as he so I reproduce the relevant part below:

I see the British economy today as a cruise ship.

A lot of us are able to enjoy the luxury of cruising – which is good news.

Some of those with us have borrowed the fare, which they can’t really afford, and others, who could easily afford the fare, hold their bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, and decide not to pay anyway. This is bad news.

Also, many disadvantaged are left behind, refugees among them.

They haven’t got the training, or are not allowed legally to join the crew, or they are still in the backs of container lorries, even in unseaworthy boats, trying to catch up.

Because of climate change there are a lot more icebergs about, and potentially a lot more refugees.

It seems to me that the Tories are happy to enjoy the cruise, but are inclined to niggle about the bar prices and the safety drills.

They don’t like intrusive government but are happy enough to welcome the life boat when the ship is holed by a northern rock

Labour know something is wrong, but can’t think what to do about it, except put the ship’s maintenance and communications out to tender and order the crew to use less fuel, and certainly never to waste money on registered post.

While I was enjoying thought provoking speakers my hard-working husband was busy at home putting on wall-paper - there really isn't any justice is there. He did stop in time to go to Billingham and use the concert tickets which were a birthday present.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Slice of Life

The Slice of Life event at Newtown Community Resource centre was designed to suggest changes people might want to make to their lifestyle. Most displays were about personal health and fitness but there were other stalls and one was the Fairtrade Borough stall - we had information about what Fairtrade is and talked to people about why it's important. It was really impressive just how many people recognised the Fairtrade mark and knew a little about what it represents. We also had items on sale so that people could sample or stock up - an interesting and useful day. The photo shows the stall setting up almost complete.

Cemetery Policy moves nearer

There was some tough questioning at last night's cabinet, especially on the recommendation to employ a member of staff to enforce some of the other recommendations. Understandably there was some unease about the budget implications at a time when belt-tightening is going to be the order of the day. In the end the report was accepted in full and, unless the decision is called in for some procedural reason, things can move ahead. It will be up to officers now to come up with a workable action plan, and I don't envy them that task.
One cabinet member did acknowledge that this review had been a poisoned chalice which the committee had handled very well. I feel that it's not as poisoned as the one we now have to deal with - the Council's waste management strategy.
One small snippet which almost slipped through un-noticed was that there is to be a consultation with young people in this area on what they see as the priorities for the area. Previous events in Billingham and Thornaby have led to the plans for the Youth Cafes so it will be very interesting to see what results from our area one. I've asked for the date of it because I think it's important that ward councillors know what's happening. Also, at last night's Parish Council meeting, we racked our brains about how to engage with the young people in the parish and find out what they want in our play areas. It would be helpful if the Borough Council's consultation could include some questions on that theme.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Just catching up on some work before going out this morning when the phone rings. A call from a council officer to let me know that an inspector will be sitting in on the Cabinet meeting tonight at which I "will be centre stage presenting your report. Don't worry about it, I'll be there so if you want anything just say. Do you need a briefing note?" Honestly, if I can't present a report to Cabinet (the 3rd I've presented!) without someone holding my hand I shouldn't be a chair of a committee in my opinion.
Rant over - I shall go and get on with my jobs!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Trees, Housing and other things

The morning started with my first meeting of The Tees Community Forest board which only meets 4 times a year so isn't a very onerous undertaking. I soon realised that there is a budget implication in this as in so many other things which just seem to happen. The Tees Valley councils put in money each year to allow for workers to look after the forest, explore new possibilities and undertake some education work. However, the money is not enough to keep the forest going and budget pressures on council tax mean that it could be cut next year.
The nearest pieces of community forest to us in Eaglescliffe are Coatham and Preston Park (Quarry Wood). Anyone feeling adventurous and prepared to try a serious bit of sponsored activity can go on a sponsored adventure and raise funds for the forests at the same time. The website has the details.
It was a bit of a rush to get from that to the planning committee meeting, stopping en route to buy some fruit for lunch because I'd forgotten to bring some out of the house with me this morning. The only decision on the agenda was on the house which we'd visited yesterday, not built in accordance with the approved plans. When I arrived it was to find that since then even more questions had been raised and so it was agreed to defer the decision until plans have been submitted showing what has actually been built. The site visit had shown some deviations even from the amended plans! After that the agenda was all about the annual monitoring report, which gave the committee the opportunity to ask questions before it goes to Cabinet tomorrow. It paints a reasonably positive picture of performance, but changes in how planning will be funded by central government give rise to real concerns. The whole system is swinging in favour of the SE of England and not taking account of regional spatial strategy decisions which were taken just last year. I see some conflicts arising between different bits of legislation and guidance in the future.
Then we had a seminar on affordable housing - an issue very dear to the hearts of many people in this ward. How do our children afford a house in Eaglescliffe to be near to parents when they set out on adult life? An "entry level" house in Stockton costs over £82,000 but there aren't many, if any, available in Eaglescliffe at that price! The council is trying very hard to get developers to put 15% of new housing in that category but it's an uphill battle. Affordable rented housing is just as difficult to provide here, but we keep trying. It's important not just for those families with young people wanting to "fly the nest" but for all of us - Eaglescliffe needs young people as much as it needs old people in order to be the kind of strong, mixed community which thrives and supports everyone in it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mud, glorious mud

This morning started with a very rushed update meeting on how the annual canvass for the electoral roll is going - well but not complete yet. Just under 92% of forms have been returned which means that up to 8% of people in the Borough wouldn't have a vote if an election were called next year. If you're one of them, or if you want to check and make sure that you are on the register contact the Electoral Registration team at Stockton.
Then it was time to brief and be interviewed by the reporter from our regional newspaper about the Cemeteries review. The report goes to Cabinet on Thursday so there should be some coverage in the papers. We're hoping for positive reports, showing the benefits of what is being proposed but of course can't tell with the press until it's actually in print. The next session was with BBC Tees, including an interview in the rain at one of the cemeteries - getting wet and cold on this subject is becoming a habit!
The Fairtrade steering group met at lunchtime to plan some future events - watch out for a wine-tasting evening in late January or early February once we've got the venue finalised. There's a great range of Fairtrade wines out there and we're going to sample some of them. I had to race away at the end of the meeting to get to a site visit in preparation for tomorrow's planning committee. Unfortunately, it really was a building site so my shoes ended up caked in mud and needed serious work on the grass verge in the rain before I could get into the car and go back into the town to clean my shoes a bit more thoroughly and prepare for tomorrow's meetings before going to a briefing session about the Stockton-Darlington Partnership.
Then it was back to Eaglescliffe for a ward surgery, with a very difficult problem to try to start and resolve. The last meeting of the day was the finance committee of the Parish Council, and then home by 10pm to have a belated evening meal. The joys of being a councillor!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Resource or Rubbish?

This afternoon I chaired the first meeting of the Environment Committee on the Review of Waste Management. An hour and a half wasn't bad for such a broad topic, and at the end of it we'd agreed the scope and the project plan. We aim to have carried out a comprehensive review of Stockton's handling of waste from households by the end of March next year, so lots of hard work between now and then. We want to know what's collected, where it goes and how much it costs as well as what residents would like to happen and what theat might cost. As a borough we don't have a problem with landfill targets because we have the Energy from Waste plant at Haverton Hill but we do have a problem with recycling targets and the amount of rubbish generated. Of course, because the rubbish goes to the EfW plant it's also a resource! It's going to be a huge challenge to meet the targets set by central government for recycling and reduction of waste, especially as we have an increasing population in the borough and the targets are set on 2002 figures. There'll be a lot of public consultation so do watch out for it and join in if you live in the borough.
This evening's meeting was of Western Area Partnership board and included a lengthy discussion on play areas in the borough and in this area in particular. Again there's going to be a public consultation to determine what people want in the area so watch out for that and make sure your voice is heard.
I reported on the Connect2 bid for cycle and footways to link Ingleby Barwick, Eaglescliffe, Yarm and Thornaby. The voting for the winning bid for the lottery funding starts next week, 26th Nov online and on December 7th by phone after the TV programmes start (11pm for 4 evenings on ITV1). Please do vote for the Sustrans bid - it's a massive £50m bid for 79 communities across the country whereas its rivals are much more local bids. Our share would be about £600,000 to go towards improving our links with more paths and bridges over the Tees and Leven. If successful it will mean that people from Eaglescliffe can very easily get to Ingleby Barwick and enjoy the new park being developed there, as well as safely get to work there or in Thornaby for example without using a car.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Time Flies ....

Almost a fortnight since my last post - tut! I do have an excuse though, or at least a series of them!
First of all, we celebrated a very special birthday for my mother early in November and that took some time to plan and organise. All worth it when she saw my cousins from Ireland and from Wearside whom she hasn't seen for far too long. We followed the big celebration with a day out for her at the Herriot Centre, well worth a visit if you're interested in either veterinary matters or the TV shows.
Then a very busy couple of days, finalising the report of the Environment Select committee on Memorials in Stockton's cemeteries and starting the work on the new review into Waste Management as well as catching up on some ward work and having a frustrating time trying to get a new phone line into the house. Before too long, though, it was time to go off on holiday for a short break in Brussels via Eurostar. What a super train - sadly we went just before the departure point moved to St Pancras but we hope to try it again with an even easier and shorter journey.
The only downside of the break was a fall on the way home, resulting in a sprained wrist and a consequent inability to do much typing. That's my final excuse - it's getting better and I hope to be back to normal soon.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Environmental Improvements?

The small environmental improvement budget continues to cause headaches. Just when we think that something is sorted out a problem arises. First of all, we get no answers to the, admittedly difficult, questions around Railway Terrace and the "Butts Lane Triangle". No-one wants to take responsibility for the decisions we want taking so we're no further forward with trying to improve the surface of either of them.
Then on Thursday at a Parish Council meeting we were told that the bulb planting had been way below standard, with not enough soil over them so that the turf is lifting away and the bulbs being exposed in parts. What a criminal waste of money and time planting like that. I'm still waiting to hear what is going to be offered as a remedy for that.
Today we had the proposed plans for the streetlight on the footpath from Finchfield to Birchfield Close, showing a proposal for not one but two lights. It struck us as a bit of overkill so it's back to the drawing board on that one. At a time of trying to save on energy it seemed perverse to suggest two on such a short stretch of path so watch this space!
Let's just hope that the dog waste bins go in smoothly.
Today we've requested some soft planting over the ugly retaining wall over the BT access point opposite the Cleveland Bay. Surely there can't be anything too complicated to go wrong on that?
In the middle of everything I had a really lovely weekend celebrating my mother's birthday - a surprise party which included some relatives who haven't been to Teeside for years. A wonderful family celebration.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Proud to be a Liberal Democrat

I'm increasingly ashamed to be "represented" by the government of this country. Today's reason? The state visit of the king of Saudi Arabia. This is a country which is home to one of the most distorted forms of Islam, where cruel and degrading punishment is handed out to those convicted on the flimsiest of evidence. Those who doubt should try reading reports from Amnesty International.

Then I caught up with yesterday's news and saw that Vince Cable, our acting party leader, had rejected an invitation to be part of the fauning on someone who has as bad a human rights record as many countries our PM villifies. Well done Vince. Principles do matter and there are times when they are too important to ignore just so that we can do a bit more trade in oil and arms. It's a pity Brown and Cameron seem to have lost sight of that.

On the home front we had a piece of good news today - Railway Terrace does have electricity supplies suitable for street lights. All we have to do now is work out how to get the surface improved and an access to the remainder of the road network of the borough and we might be partway towards resolving the problems for the residents of one of our oldest streets.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Inconsiderate Drivers and other things

Yet again today a disabled resident rang with a plea for help in keeping dedicated parking spaces available and maintained on local car parks. This particular one was at Sunningdale Drive shops, but in the past the same complaints have been made about Orchard Estate and Yarm High Street. In the latter the disabled bays can be enforced but on privately owned shopping parades we're up against a brick wall and the only hope is people behaving well. These bays are provided for the benefit of people who find walking even comparatively short distances difficult or impossible, but some drivers seem to think they're there as short stay spaces for all comers. Please, if you drive to the shops or the library, leave the disabled spaces for those who really need them.
This afternoon the Environment Select Committee approved the report on Memorials in Cemeteries to go to Cabinet next month. The recommendations are designed to balance health and safety concerns with the real need of bereaved people to commemorate their loved ones after burial or cremation. I hope that everyone will agree we have got the balance right and support the council's officers in carrying out the new policies. I've done what I can to encourage other political groups to be supportive, now only time will tell.
Our next scrutiny will be almost as emotive but in a different way - we will look at Waste Management in the Borough, including recycling. Knowing how many problems have been caused in other boroughs by this topic I can see that another difficult one lies ahead. Still, what's life without a challenge!
Still no word on the Butts Lane triangle, so more chasing is going to be necessary for that one tomorrow. Another challenge I suppose. I can put it with Railway Terrace - not a word on that either.
More positively, the youth worker for our area has reported a positive session with people working on the plans for Preston park which seems to show a willingness to listen to young people. Now all we need is to see it really make a difference and we'll know that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Skateboards, Youth Cafes and more

Daylight hours on Thursday were almost entirely taken up by a training session on the new Code of Conduct for Councillors and what will happen if we are accused of breaching the code - scary in parts, it has to be said.
I always try to sit in on Cabinet meetings to hear what's being said and to ask questions or make points if appropriate before the decision is taken by the Cabinet. On Thursday I discovered that the reason for there not being any move towards providing a Youth Cafe in Yarm or Eaglescliffe or the surrounding area is that in a consultation done 2 years ago most young people who replied wanted it in Central Stockton or Billingham or Thornaby or Ingleby Barwick. The first one was opened earlier in the year in central Stockton and I had no problem with that. But it seems that yet again the young people of our area are missing out. I don't know why they didn't respond in the same numbers as the young people in other areas, but I know that they need the facility just as much. Now we have to wait to see whether any funds become available and if so whether we have to do battle with other parts of the borough like Norton.
Having pushed to have a skate park in Preston Park I was pleased to see that the mobile one was due on Friday so I made a quick detour into the park en route between other jobs to see how it was being used and have a chat if possible with some of the young people there. Two disconsolate young men were the first I saw and the reason for their unhappiness - the trailer carrying the mobile equipment had broken so the session couldn't take place. As that was the last one for this year at least, they were bitterly disappointed. Another good reason to have a permanent park set up.
And if any manufacturers of greetings cards happen to read this - quite a lot of people live to be 90 nowadays and their children would like to be able to buy them a nice card please to acknowledge that fact!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sobering reading

Yesterday was a particularly frustrating day in relation to e- communications - no need to go into detail here but suffice to say that if anyone was waiting for an e-mail or phone call yesterday evening I apologise. However, before things went totally wrong I'd come across this blog written by a young Iraqi woman now living in Syria. Actually, my life is a doddle and may I never forget that fact when frustrations set in.

Monday, October 22, 2007

All the consultation has been done now on the footpath from Finchfield Close to Birchfield Close, and no-one was against the idea of having a light installed. One or two were a bit concerned about people hanging about "under the light" but as one lady pointed out - there's a light at one end of the path which has a convenient garden wall to sit on and no-one causes problems there so why should they in the middle of the open space. For better or for worse the form has gone in now, so that the costs can be worked out. Then we'll see how much we have left for anything else and we can chase up replies on the Butts Lane triangle and Railway Terrace.
This evening's Western Area Partnership Board meeting was taken up with a consultation on the Building Schools for the Future programme. Every house in the ward should have received their booklet by now and we hope that everyone will respond. The options in this ward are limited, because Egglescliffe is such a good school and can't therefore be closed or reduced in size except if parents stop sending their children to it. Similarly Conyers in Yarm has to stay in existence. Egglescliffe desperately needs new buildings and the proposed site is the Allens West playing fields, with the 6th form and some sporting facilities remaining on the present site. Of course that depends on getting the cash from central government and on planning permission being granted. Both bridges to be crossed after the consultation has finished, so watch this space.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunny Sunday

What a glorious autumn morning! I walked down to Yarm, as I usually do on Sunday morning, to go to church and my spirits were lifted at every corner it seemed. The early morning sun, a hint of mist, autumn colours, a squirrel eating an acorn - Keats knew what he was talking about when he wrote "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness". In Yarm High Street the Care for your Area Team were doing their usual Sunday morning clear up, but this time they had reinforcements because last night was the last evening of Yarm Fair. I don't really enjoy the Fair at the "adult" time of evening because I find the music that's played at every ride deafening, but I used to enjoy taking the children to the early evening sessions - quieter and great fun. Now I'm waiting for our grand-daughter to be old enough to take. I'm still impressed by how the huge rides fit into such compact wagons for transport, and at the other end of the scale the little horse-drawn caravans which are still used by some of the travellers. Now they're on their way to the next town and the next fair - they'll be back next year. One of the old traditions which lives on in the Borough, not liked by some but then we can't please all the people all of the time.
This afternoon I had to make time to get out into the garden and trim all the awkward bits off the holly and other shrubs so that they can go into the last of the Green Waste collection for this year. We compost most of the green waste in our garden and kitchen but holly twigs really don't go down well, nor laurel nor ivy nor buddleia nor any of the other shrubs which colonise our little front garden. Anything that's not pruned now will have to wait until next spring.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Starters Orders

Well, the leadership contest is well and truly under way even though nominations haven't yet closed and no-one is yet officially nominated. Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg have hit the ground running as the saying goes. Strangely, considering that we've just had an extremely good conference which set our policies very clearly for the future of Britain and in which both Chris and Nick were very active and committed to those policies, the BBC seemed to think that there should be policy differences between the two candidates. Why would there be? There will no doubt be differences of emphasis since one has been more involved in the production of our environmental policies and the other of our policies on policing, justice and crime. But significant differences of policy would be very strange indeed.
Over the next few weeks I'm sure all members will be inundated with e-mails suggesting we support one or other of the candidates. Certainly our local radio station wanted me to come out for one almost as soon as the contest was announced. I declined, and I shan't say anything here about which way I'll vote either.
Nearer to home, and more important for residents of Eaglescliffe, the Small Environmental Improvements Budget is slowly being spent. A consultation on whether to have a lighting column by the path that links Butterfield Close and Finchfield Close has had a very positive response with people ringing and e-mailing their agreement. The bulbs are being planted around the Yarm Road, Urlay Nook Rd and Durham Lane areas and dog waste bins have been ordered for near to Hunters' Green and near to All Saints Church. Unfortunately we've made no progress so far on That Triangle, near Egglescliffe Cemetery and St John's Church. We'll keep on trying.

A Great Place to Live

Yesterday morning I discovered that North East England is in the top 30 "must visit" places in the world, according to a Lonely Planet Guide. It ranks alongside Mumbai and other (to us) exotic places for its wonderful countryside, historic architecture sitting alongside modern icons like the Sage, and amazing events including SIRF.
Well done, us!
Meanwhile we continue to struggle at home with the broadband connection. Last night I took turns with my husband listening to muzak while waiting in a queue to speak to a human on our provider's helpline - not the broadband support line because that wouldn't connect, but the general help line followed by the accounts helpline followed eventually by the support line by the miracle of internal transfer. 90 minutes on the phone! An engineer will come later in the week to check the system. Don't hold your breath.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Last night's council meeting started with a series of award presentations. We try to do these at full council in recognition of the fact that the whole Borough celebrates the achievements, even though sometimes people have already had the presentation somewhere else.
First up was St Michael's RC school from Billingham. Yet again they won the Youth Parliament Debate award. For this they have to establish a mini parliament with government and opposition, then hold a debate and a vote. The whole thing is filmed and sent off for judging. St Michael's consistently produces quality debates for this competition and this year they added to their trophy collection. The cabinet member for Children and Young People had double reason to be happy, as the school is in the ward he represents.
The next group was the Care for Your Area team who won the Northumbria in Bloom and the Britain in Bloom trophies for the borough. Unlike many such things elsewhere, it's a small number of operatives who come along and receive the accolade from the council rather than just the managers. A huge round of applause for them as they carried off the vase and the glass lily.
Just occasionally someone serves as a councillor for a very long time, and this year Joan Wade retired after 24 years on Stockton Council. She came back last night to receive the award of Honorary Alderman of the Borough - well deserved.
The final award was to my very good friend and former leader of our group, Suzanne Fletcher. When Suzanne was mayor last year she worked very hard but we didn't know that there was something called "Mayor of the Year", run by the Co-operative Bank. Suzanne was entered in the competition and came second - a huge achievement. Her certificate was presented last night also, to much applause all round.
After all that, the normal council business of receiving minutes from committees and answering questions on them seemed even more mundane than usual.
Back home, the problems of connecting to the internet had still not resolved themselves so we have our intermittent access and have to make the most of it until we can get it sorted. As the helpline isn't working that could take some time.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

This morning started with a meeting of all the chairs of scrutiny committees along with some other members to ensure a political balance, discussing the topics which are being scrutinised at present and how they're progressing. It was an opportunity to get home the message to all political groups that some of the recommendations of the Environment committee will not be universally popular and that officers will need support in implementing them.

Then on to an important but very different meeting - the Fairtrade Borough Group. This was the first meeting since we had our celebrations of achieving Fairtrade status and it was good to see a number of new people come along, all with different skills and interests to bring to the pot. We decided that we will have enough help to be able to man a stall at two events in November and to serve refreshments at one in early December, so great progress there. We also decided to organise a Fairtrade Winetasting event in January next year, so those people interested in wine tasting should watch out for tickets going on sale. I felt as though we made lots of progress and it was a very worthwhile meeting.

Once home, I had the task of recording a brief interview for the local BBC radio station on the subject of the leadership - inevitably wanting me to say where my preference would lie but I hope I answered honestly and clearly - I'm not going to try to influence other members by having my preference broadcast across the whole of the Tees Valley.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day

Two posts in one day can only mean one thing - two important things on one day. Today is Blog Action Day, on which bloggers across the world write about one issue. As the website says: One issue. One day. Thousands of voices.
So, what should I say about the environment? Well, I can't say anything profound that hasn't been said better by someone else somewhere else. But it so happens that today I spent almost 4 hours in meetings related to the Stockton Council Environment Select Committee. We weren't discussing global warming or saving the polar ice caps or anything huge like that. We were discussing the management of cemeteries in the Borough, and more precisely the management of the memorials within those cemeteries. So what's that to do with the environment you may ask? Well, not all memorials are the traditional stone headstone type - some are plastic flowers, or windmills or solar lights or conifer trees or miniature fencing or almost anything else. When these items are on the graves the grass cutting becomes very difficult and then other people's graves can suffer because they look untidy and ill kept. So the problem of how to allow people to erect memorials to their loved ones' memories but at the same time keep a pleasant environment for all to go and remember in peace and relative comfort is a difficult one to solve. Add to that the desire to make the cemetery a pleasant and peaceful place to visit, the need to use land as efficiently as possible but not to make people feel that there's no space, even when there isn't very much, and we have a big problem which is not easy to resolve. Should the environment of our cemeteries be uniform, with neat rows of headstones and nothing else? Should there be a free for all with anything allowed? Or should there be something in the middle, probably pleasing no-one fully?
After almost 4 hours of discussions we have some proposals to put to the cabinet member and corporate director on Wednesday, and if they approve then to publicise and hope that all councillors will give support.
So, not the environment on the grand scale but an environment nevertheless, and an important one for many, many people.

The End of a (very short) Era

This evening Ming Campbell resigned as party leader. He's suffered an awful lot of ageism over the two years of his leadership, particularly from some elements of the media but also it's true from some elements of this party. During our conference last month I had the interesting experience of being in the hall while Ming answered questions from delegates and supplementaries from Sandi Toksvig and then of being in the radio studio while the political editor of one of the tabloid press was interviewed on what his paper would be saying the following day. I did not recognise the conference he had attended! I saw a leader who could answer the set questions as well as one would expect, but who also answered the supplementaries with clarity and confidence, as well as relaxing into a little light-hearted repartee with Ms Toksvig. I then heard it said that the day had been a disaster for Ming Campbell who'd admitted to being a failure! I think it was at that point that I realised just how little chance he stood against the tabloid pack, and how soon we were likely to have a new leader.
As a party we didn't cover our collective self with glory in the course of the last leadership election and I hope sincerely that this one will be a better reflection of the quality of our party.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Weekend Off

I confess to having taken the weekend almost entirely away from Council work or politics - a fairly rare event. But it was high time we caught up with our rapidly growing young grand-daughter and her parents, as well as being time to celebrate a family birthday. So Friday found us heading down the motorway towards the midlands. A thoroughly relaxing weekend was topped off today by a pleasant meal and then a walk in the unseasonal weather, enjoying Wollaton Park. A little way into the grounds we spotted a deer, placidly cropping the grass. Further round, our attention was drawn by the sound of magnificent stag telling the world where he was. In no time we were near enough to photograph him and watch him rubbing his antlers in the grass before lying down for a while. An amazing experience.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Wainstones & South View

Planning committee this afternoon, with huge public interest. Yesterday afternoon several members of the committee had been on a site visit to Wainstones in Leven Road in our neighbouring ward of Yarm. The owners want to demolish the house and build 5 detached houses in the grounds. It became clear on the site visit that, yes - 5 houses will fit, but with such tiny gardens that children will have insufficient space to play and let off steam, that there'd be a temptation to chop down hedges and trees in years to come because they would cast huge shadows over the gardens and that generally it wouldn't be within the character of the area. Reading the inspector's report on the previous failed appeal it was obvious that the developer, and sadly our planning officers, thought the objections had been overcome but actually they hadn't. When the objectors spoke, clearly and concisely, they won over almost the whole committee.
The latest in a series of applications relating to 1 South View in Eaglescliffe was later on the agenda. This site already has 2 permissions granted, both involving demolition - one for a huge 6 bedroomed house and one in outline for 2 houses. Now they wanted to build 7 apartments. The only thing to be said in its favour was that the design wasn't the bog-standard apparently mass-produced design of many applications. It had some character. Sadly it was far too big and involved losing almost all of the amenity space in the garden. We were told by officers that because there wasn't enough amenity space a sum of money would be paid towards improvement of amenity space elsewhere. As I pointed out, this wouldn't help the people living in the flats. The agent had said that the flats weren't designed for families but for upwardly mobile young singles or perhaps mature couples. I couldn't see them walking up Butts Lane to St Margaret's to enjoy a barbecue for Saturday evening, or a pre-dinner drink on a summer Sunday. I'm getting really fed up with applications like this where flats are built which mean people don't have anywhere to enjoy a bit of green space. In a city centre they may be acceptable because it's a different life style. But in a suburb bordering on a village - enough's enough in my opinion.
More importantly, road safety issues are present. Calculations based on the available data and using the software recommended for these things say that the access would be safe. But a resident of the new houses behind the site described how he and his family have been involved in one accident and numerous near misses coming out of their access. This one would be even nearer the junction. I don't know how we convince the powers that be that the software doesn't work in these cases. Part of the problem is that the hedge would need to be removed to give the correct visibility splay and it is still there. What's more, the residents don't want it removed.
No doubt there'll be an appeal or another application for something else, but everyone will remain vigilant.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Spending Your Money

How difficult is it to spend £10K of tax-payers' money? Easy do I hear you say? You'd be wrong, so wrong. This evening I chaired a meeting of the Western Area Transport Strategy Steering Group which met to discuss allocation of £25000 to projects in the Western Area which would improve road safety or traffic flow or otherwise improve highways. At the last meeting 4 items had been identified as worthy of further investigation. Tonight we heard the results of those investigations:
Changes to the sequencing of pelican crossing lights in Yarm High Street probably wouldn't achieve any improvement so no money to be spent there.
Dropped kerbs in Station Rd, Eaglescliffe to facilitate the route from Yarm Road to the station and the shops - cheaper than expected at £2300
Improvements to the bus stop and footpath on Durham Lane - £9000
Gateway improvements on Long Newton Lane - cheaper than expected because no vehicle activated signs are allowed on there.
Result - we can have the three schemes but we still have £10500 to spend. Three further ideas had been suggested but two of them weren't supported by evidence of need or by the ward councillor! So, still £6500 to spend. Eventually we'd exhausted all the ideas in the room and still not spent it so as a result the engineers have 3 pages of questions to investigate before e-mailing round the answers for us to decide whether to spend more on Station Road to make a real gateway to the station or to have a study done of the possibility of fitting in a pedestrian crossing on Urlay Nook Road or to replace a bus shelter if anyone knows of one that's needed. Almost 2 hours spent and at the end still not a final decision. It's sad that land ownership issues stop us doing some of the things we know residents would really like and that earmarking for transport issues means we can't spend it on facilities for getting young people away from areas where they cause a problem with their footballs.
Still, can't have everything and at least we'll get the new bus stop on Durham Lane at last.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Family Matters

Just a week after we heard of his death, and a fortnight before what would have been his 80th birthday we buried my last remaining uncle today. He'd enjoyed his life on the whole, and his children, grandchildren and other relatives and friends were out in force to remember him and celebrate his life. Until the Pastor mentioned his service in the Navy in Malta I'd forgotten about the cuddly dog he brought back from there. At a time of shortage in this country it was a rather exotic thing - pale yellow and as soft as could be. It survived until eventually, in the hands of my youngest brother its neck split open and the stuffing began to come out. Strange how memories come back when the person concerned dies. As the Pastor said - that's how they live on our memory.
It was a very calm, mild morning and we were able to spend some time outside afterwards talking to cousins and exchanging phone numbers and e-mail addresses, along with promises not to lose touch.
After lunch and spending time with my mother, now the last of her generation on either side of our family, the world of council e-mails intruded. A message to say that my mailbox was full needed to be dealt with as soon as I got home. Two messages with 3MB of photographs on them were the culprits and soon deleted.
Unfortunately I could then read that after all the work, we're still no nearer getting anything done on the Butts Lane Triangle (the patch outside the gates of Egglescliffe Church Yard and the footpath leading to Stoney Bank). Because it's not adopted highway it's not going to be easy but we won't give up yet. A happier message suggested that 2 out of the 3 dog waste bin sites we'd suggested had been approved, so people on Hunters Green should soon have one and also one near All Saints Church on Dunnottar Avenue. Success for some!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

So, No Election then

It seems that Gordon Brown has decided not to risk losing his parliamentary majority just yet. I'm sure that I'm not alone in my distaste for the posturing of the last few weeks. If he genuinely wanted the chance to show the British people that he's developing policies that are going to make a difference in the country he should have said that a month or more ago. Instead, he's caused council staff up and down the country to be taken off jobs that need doing for the local people in order to get ready in case an election was called, working out which things had to be finished and which could be put on one side. A total waste of their time and tax-payers' money. The sooner we get a proper constitution with a fixed parliamentary term the better.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Stand with the Burmese Protesters

I don't usually make time for blogging in the middle of the day but this is so important, here goes. There's a huge on-line petition to try to get the Chinese government to exercise whatever influence they have over the Burmese dictators to stop the violent oppression and exploitation of that country and its people. The petition reads:
To Chinese President Hu Jintao and the UN Security Council:

We stand alongside the citizens of Burma in their peaceful protests. We urge you to oppose a violent crackdown on the demonstrators, and to support genuine reconciliation and democracy in Burma. We pledge to hold you accountable for any further bloodshed.

You can read more and sign by going to the link above so please, please go there and read it even if you don't feel for some reason you should sign. At least make it an informed decision.
Thank you.

Railway Terrace

Last night's ward surgery brought residents to raise yet again the question of how we can get a road surface and street lights onto the oldest street in the ward. When the rail company built the houses for their workers over 100 years ago they didn't provide for motor cars. Now of course, most residents have a car and would like to be able to park outside their house. Unfortunately for them the road can't be adopted because the access to it lies over the Railway Car Park and an adopted road has to be connected to other adopted roads in the network. I'm going to continue with investigations into whether anything at all can be done to the road surface but as it's taxed better brains than mine over the years I don't promise miracles.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Graves, Trees and other things

A visit to Carlisle cemetery occupied most of yesterday - morbid some of you may think but actually very important as I lead the review of Stockton's policy on such things. Carlisle has some of the same problems which we have, but has dealt with them more firmly than we have so they are smaller scale now. They also have a wonderful selection of memorials available to people who don't want a traditional grave - burial with a tree as your "headstone", growing a great wood for future generations to enjoy; memorial plaques on walls or in a mock sheepfold or on a sculpted feature; casket type mini-catacombs for cremated remains and other ideas too. We gained a huge amount from the visit and will try to incorporate at least some of the ideas into Stockton's cemeteries in the future.
One of the more unusual things is that when trees die back they aren't removed, but the dangerous bits are taken off and the top of the remainder is carved into something fitting for that area. So amongst some mature trees we saw The Owl. I'm not sure whether we'll start that in Stockton but you never know.
Nearer to home there was some good news for those who hope to see the triangle outside Egglescliffe Churchyard gate on Butts Lane improved so that it doesn't become a paddling pool every time there's heavy rain. Engineers have looked into what needs doing and are preparing an estimate of costs. If it can be covered by our Small Environmental Improvements Budget we'll be delighted.
The spring bulbs for planting along Yarm Road and Durham Lane are ordered so we look forward to seeing them planted soon.
Possible locations for 3 new dog waste bins are being investigated on Urlay Nook Rd near Egglescliffe School, near All Saints Church and near Hunters Green. More news on them when locations are finalised, but at last things are moving ahead.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Election Fever still haunts the press and media, though I suspect that most of the electorate of this country would rather just get on with their lives. The sooner we have a written constitution with a fixed Parliamentary term the better. This "will they, won't they" business does no good to the economy or the blood pressure. One thing is sure - if the general election is called for November many people will be disenfranchised because they'll have filled in the forms to be included on the new electoral roll but won't be on the old one which will still be in operation in November (because they've moved house perhaps). I don't see the need for an election - Gordon Brown along with other Labour MPs were elected on a manifesto for 5 years, not as followers of Tony Blair. We don't have a Presidential system in this country despite some recent PMs trying to make it otherwise.
In the meantime I've tried to catch up on some work while waiting in for a parcel which I missed on Friday. It was a lovely crisp autumn day and I should have been outside but it couldn't be helped. I did manage to fill in the form to get some more dog waste bins in the ward so perhaps it wasn't all time wasted. Also, courtesy of the internet, I had a conversation with our daughter in Australia and heard what she'd been doing. So definitely not all wasted. We edged a little closer to arranging our holiday out there next year.
For most of the day I seemed to be doing things which don't really seem to have an impact on the everyday life of Eaglescliffe - completing a form for the Audit Commission about partnership working in Stockton for instance. These are things which have to be done but do seem to take up an inordinate amount of time for the good they do.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Burma - You're in our prayers

I've been following the protests in Burma with increasing concern over the course of the week and spent time over breakfast reading the coverage in yesterday morning's newspaper. I was almost in tears as I read it. We take voting and free speech so much for granted that many of us don't even bother to vote. In Burma young and old alike were out on the streets, peacefully protesting against not having those rights. What was the reaction of the military leaders? To send out the guns, shooting indiscriminately and killing goodness knows how many people. I have a particular interest in Burma, having taught a student from there many years ago. When she was preparing to return she was very worried and insisted that if we wrote to her we put Myanmar rather than Burma on the address because she said that if a letter arrived with Burma on it would indicate that they were not "loyal" and would cause trouble and possible imprisonment. I wrote to her, and so did several others but none of us ever heard from her again. Every so often I wonder if she's OK, but when there's news like this week's I fear for her and others like her.
I just hope and pray that the visit from the UN special envoy does some good, but it seems that nothing affects the military junta for the good.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


I spent Friday morning in a meeting of North East Liberal Democrats, discussing various political issues. Part way through the morning I received an e-mail from Stockton Council's PR department with the result of the Darlington referendum on having an elected mayor. A pretty comprehensive victory for the No campaign was greeted with relief - such votes on the whole are a distraction from the main job of councillors to represent the people who elected them.
The afternoon was taken up with a meeting to examine the issues and possible solutions so far in the scrutiny of policy and practice on memorials in our cemeteries. There are new issues every time we take evidence from someone. Now the problem is - if we allow some extra memorialisation on lawned graves who is going to be responsible for removing them if the grave needs to be reopened for a second or third burial is to take place in the plot. We still have the problem of who should "police" any rules - there doesn't seem to be an obvious person or service at the moment. And of course there are budget implications for any changes.
Time for a quick tidy up at home before a really enjoyable network was re-established in the flesh. My husband grew up with a cousin living very near in both age and housing. They were almost inseparable until his cousin's family moved away to the south of England in the days before internet, phones in almost every house or family holidays to further away than Whitby. As a result contact became much more spasmodic so this was the first time in many years they'd actually met up. It's amazing to me how some relationships survive this sort of distance and others disappear under much less stress. Seeing them together it was as though they'd never been separated. The jokes flew, the laughter, the conversation were all as they had been years ago. We eventually managed to load ourselves into the car to go and meet the rest of the family for a meal. It was an opportunity also to catch up with our nephew and his plans for his career. It seems no time since he was a toddler getting into trouble for examining things too closely for their and his safety - switching things on and off, pulling bits out to see if they would go back in! Now he's planning to be a civil engineer.
So, different sorts of networking during the day, all worthwhile but only one producing side-aching laughter. Perhaps just as well otherwise I might not have survived.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Thursday already?

On the home front we now have our lovely wooden floor but have yet to choose and fit new skirting boards so some of the furniture is still in other places. However, we have brought back our comfy seating so at least we don't have to try to relax sitting round the dining table! I even managed to catch up on some reading and filing while the work was being done.
Around the ward we've made decisions on where to have spring bulbs planted this autumn so we should have swathes of crocus, hosts of golden daffodils and mixed tulips appearing next spring. I'm sure residents will let us know what they think of them at the time.
We've had some discussions about the playing of inappropriate ball games on some of the medium sized plots of green in the area, especially at the moment on Hindhead, but without reaching any solutions. It's a real tragedy that the handful of young people who misuse the school playing fields and vandalise the buildings have led to all youngsters being deterred from using them to kick a ball about. We'll keep working on it but I don't hold out a lot of hope at present.
I spent a sizeable part of Tuesday evening and yesterday as part of a panel of members selecting a manager for the Stockton Darlington Partnership. This is one of those obviously sensible ideas which has only just become appropriate - the two boroughs are neighbours and both need to upgrade their ICT systems, make even more cost savings to keep within government targets and keep costs down for the Council Tax payers, and at the same time improve the services which the people of the two Boroughs get. The answer is to share some of the services which no-one sees but which keep the front-line services working - things like ICT, Design & Print, HR services. Work has been going on in the background for a couple of years, trying to see whether two different authorities could work together like this and earlier this year it was agreed that we could. Yesterday a Partnership Manager was appointed to take the vision into reality. It was a very difficult decision to make with some very good candidates and we're all left feeling that we'll only know for sure whether we chose the right one after a couple of years. For the sake of all the residents and staff I hope we did.
Later in the day, catching up on the e-mails which needed dealing with, I spent an interesting half hour chatting with the leader of the Labour Group about the regeneration projects in the borough and especially about the delays being caused by the local Urban Regeneration Company. I'm not au fait with all the details but it sounded to me as though the sooner ministers make a decision about funding channels to the city region the better.
The really good news of the day came late in the evening. An e-mail from the director of Neighbourhood Services told me that Stockton had won Best City in the Britain in Bloom awards. Yippee and congratulations all round! However, the results aren't on the RHS website yet so I can't get hold of any details except that I know we were awarded Silver Gilt, ahead of London Borough of Brent and Dundee who both got silver awards.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The weekend flew by in a haze of housework and furniture removal in readiness for the twin joys of seeing relatives we haven't seen for years and having a new floor laid in our main living room. The house is now reasonably presentable apart from the rooms which are storing the furniture we moved!
This afternoon started with the kick-off meeting for the Environment Select committee's next scrutiny, trying to work out what the scope of the review should be and what information we need gathered together. We'll be looking at the Borough Waste and Recycling strategy, trying to determine the best way of moving forward over the next 5 years or so. Which of the kerbside recycling collections are worth carrying on; which if any should be dropped or increased; should we move to fortnightly collections of residual waste; what's the total environmental impact of the strategy we have at present and how can it be reduced? Lots of interesting and challenging questions which the review will attempt to answer in order to come up with a policy fit for purpose. There'll be a need for a lot of engagement with press and public to keep everyone informed of any proposed changes and also to try to gather evidence of any problems people are having.
Three of us went straight from that to the meeting of the Select Committee to hear evidence from the memorial masons and the Funeral Directors on what memorials they think are suitable for our cemeteries and any problems they've had with the present arrangements. They are certainly outspoken on what they want to be allowed and what Stockton Council should be doing but some of their evidence raised questions rather than answered them and didn't always ring true with other evidence we have had from other sources. However, they did raise one good point - that if anything other than the headstone is to be allowed we need to be clear about how it's going to be removed when a grave is needing to be reopened to add a body and also whose responsibility it is to remove it.
The third meeting of the day was the Western Area Partnership Board which has agreed to move to monthly meetings now that our agendas seem to be of increasing length. Tonight's meeting had very little opportunity for discussion but still lasted over 2 hours. We agreed that in October we'll put in an extra meeting to discuss the Building Schools for the Future programme especially as it applies in the Western Area. We also heard from our young representative, Alice, that the youth club in Yarm has moved premises and is now at Layfield Primary rather than Conyers. The Crime Reduction Partnership reported that crime in the Western Area is significantly lower than elsewhere in the borough which is lower than in similar boroughs in the country so we ought to feel much more secure than perhaps we do. Maybe we need to spend some more effort on improving perceptions as the perception seems to be that crime is getting worse.