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.