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.