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.