Saturday, March 31, 2007

Plans and More Plans

This morning was the official launch of the Friends of the Tees Heritage Park. The Friends hope to be able to work with everyone concerned to protect the green areas remaining on the banks of the Tees between Yarm and Stockton. Backed by CPRE, Borough Councillors for Eaglescliffe, Ingleby Barwick and Thornaby, Parish and Town councils on both sides of the river and with lots of people from the communities all along the banks it got off to a good start. The steering group had already done much work but now it's over to the community to take it up and help. I've joined, along with fellow councillors and lots of local residents. If you want to join e-mail me and I'll send you the contact details of the treasurer.
After a quick lunch I went over to Orchard Estate shopping parade to see the exhibition by JG Land of their plans for the Allen's West site. The agents seemed to be receptive to suggestions and comments but we've seen that before and then been let down. However, I took the opportunity to suggest (just in case they do get approval of their plans) that they might consider some affordable sheltered housing for elderly people now that we've lost so many rented units in Witham House. We shall see just how much they've listened to the concerns of local residents about traffic and housing of types we don't need.

Friday, March 30, 2007

A Proper Perspective

After a very long irritating evening battling with some software which wouldn't behave itself, and having to work on the laptop because the desk top PC had a virus problem I went through a long and frustrating meeting this morning where certain members just didn't listen and tried to shout down others trying to have a proper discussion of things. It was all put into perspective by the news later in the morning that two friends have got very different but very serious health problems. Suddenly computers and meetings seemed unimportant.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Democracy Wins (I think!)

What a day Tuesday turned out to be. First of all the House of Commons report, confirming lots of things we'd heard in evidence in our Select Committee. Then a so-called Tripartite meeting of me as Chairman of the Children & Young People Select Committee, two officers from the Children, Education and Social Care dept (known as CESC) who have responsibility for policies relating to bullying and finally the Cabinet Member for Children & Young People who has the political responsibility for the policies. We were all supposed to agree the recommendations proposed by the committee last Friday, or modify them in such a way that they would be agreed. The people in the council who think that smooth working and consensus is all-important believe this is the best way forward. So discussions take place between "leaders" and everyone else falls in line.
At that meeting I thought that the assurances I was given about how the pilot of the software was going to be done were adequate - not brilliant but adequate. Fast forward 5 hours to the committee meeting. A Perfect Storm erupted. No way were those assurances adequate for some members of the committee. A democratic decision was taken - all schools and teaching unions should be consulted before the software was purchased to ensure that all were going to be on board with the system. The Scrutiny Officer was instructed to draft another recommendation and circulate it.
Wednesday dawned foggy and damp. I had arranged to take my mother to hospital for an early morning appointment. I emerged to e-mails on the Blackberry from councillors saying they approved the draft recommendation and from the SO asking me to ring him as soon as possible. The CESC officers couldn't accept the recommendation - it wouldn't work, the committee was asking the impossible etc. etc! Phone calls, e-mails and a further tripartite meeting set up for the half hour before the council meeting that night, except this time it was only bi-partite because the Cabinet Member couldn't get there in time. The Corporate Director couldn't agree the recommendation and I wouldn't take it out because the committee had made the decision to have it in. I said the debate had to take place at Cabinet over whether to accept or not. Certain elements not happy - this isn't the smooth presentation of a previously agreed report which they want to see. I am happy - the decision will be made in the open with the Cabinet member having to justify why he proposes whatever he proposes. Whichever way it goes he has to live with his political judgement - the most strident demands for the recommendation were from members of his own party.
Now I've found that the Cabinet member won't be there - he'll have to brief his colleagues in advance. Fun and games. I'm waiting to see which of his colleagues he trusts to speak for him!

After that it was the annual non-discussion of the Council plan before adoption. We're presented with reams of plans and expected to adopt. Most members don't even read them and there's no proper debate or discussion.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


This morning the report by the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee on bullying was published. They've produced some very strong guidance on what should be included in school policies which will be very useful in Stockton and reinforces what I hope Stockton's Select committee on children and young people will confirm at its meeting this afternoon. I'm hoping to get some publicity for Stockton' s report so that young people and their parents know that we didn't ignore their concerns.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Traffic Chaos and Tragedy

The day started with a shocking story. Parking problems near a local primary school have been at boiling point recently, with residents of one narrow estate road fuming at the parents who park opposite drives and even across them sometimes. Residents had contacted police and councillors about the problems, but a small number of inconsiderate parents still persisted in causing a problem. This morning we heard that one elderly resident had collapsed on her drive during the morning school run. We were told that it followed an argument over parking, and later heard that the lady had died. A post mortem will reveal the cause in time, but meanwhile there's a grieving family and a shocked community. Parents at all the schools in the ward keep telling us that they take their children to school by car because it's safer for them, but I wonder if now they'll stop to consider the potential danger to frail and elderly residents of the streets near the schools.

The review of bullying in Stockton came a step nearer to completion when I had a meeting with the Cabinet member and the officers responsible for the strategies. We had a useful discussion of how the proposed software would be used and how it could be set up to take note of the concerns of committee members. I don't think that all of our concerns will be allayed but i hope that things have changed enough from what was said on Friday that we can now put in a robust but helpful report and start to really reduce the threat of bullying to children in our schools and ultimately outside of school.

At long last I had time to go and set up some software on Alan's computer so that we can all hold canvass data and check information. A bit of progress was made on the alternative website for the Mayor's blog while the election prevents it being on SBC website. Anyone wanting to see what's been happening in the past or check on links to the charities can still have a look. It's not as professional as the SBC site was, but we haven't got time for too much fiddling.

Then Alan and I took the opportunity provided by the sunshine to go and do some door to door surveys in Hunters' Green. We met some interesting people and it was good to know that they all received Focus regularly, thanks to our volunteer deliverers. It was also good to see how many of them have children who walk to school at least some days of the week, as it's not the nearest estate to the schools by any means.

The last meeting of the day was cancelled because so many of us couldn't be there for one reason or another, so a windfall time to do a bit of tidying and have a look at the manifesto for the election. A little silver lining to the cloud! Now that I've done the easy bits I need others to do the hard sections and then we can print it.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Elections Approaching

Another step on the way to election day came on Friday when I collected the paperwork for nomination to Egglescliffe Parish Council for Alan, John and me. Mike is valiantly seeing to the Borough Council paperwork and deserves a medal for it.

I spent part of the morning in a meeting about how we assess the performance of senior officers of the council. It's a very difficult subject - so many things that really matter to us are beyond their control like bus timetables and yet they have targets to meet! I hope we've set in motion a slightly more sensible system but it'll take time to see if it works. The officers do a great job and it seems hard at times to be looking for ways to challenge them to do even better, but that's what performance management involves.

Then it was time to sort through some papers and try to catch up on things I'd missed when not well earlier in the week before trying to sort out an IT problem for another councillor. The more I read the more I concluded that Ming Campbell was right - Gordon Brown has wasted a great opportunity in his budget. Then I read about how little of the Lyons Review seems likely to be implemented and I thought "How on earth do they expect Local government to work when they won't finance it and won't give us the freedom to listen to our electorate?" Except I wasn't quite as polite as that when I was muttering.

Time to produce a Focus leaflet and get it to deliverers before Easter! Much more satisfying than listening to Labour MPs telling us why we can't be trusted to do things.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Bad and the Good

Tuesday brought stories of young people congregating again near Orchard Shops, drinking alcohol and being nuisances to residents and passers by. Alan is taking that up with the police. We had complaints about people trespassing on the school playing field near Allens West, breaking through the hedge and fence, even being dropped off by adults in cars to do so! Mike has taken that up with the school who've been asked in the past to put up a better fence. The residents of the houses nearby are mostly elderly and are understandably unhappy with the situation.
Wednesday was Western Area Partnership Board, when our young members updated everyone on the Fashion Starz project which had been a huge success. 18 girls from the local youth clubs had worked for 7 months on a project, finding out about the history of fashion, photography, catwalk style, dress design and lots of other things. The culmination was a fantastic event on 10th March at Preston Hall which finished with a catwalk show of the clothes they had designed and made. The outfits and photos and the story of the project is on display in the Museum at the moment and everyone should go along and see what they achieved.
We then discussed the possibility of an environmental project to improve the gateways into the Western Area with planting of bulbs or flowers. The meeting took place at the Youth Club so that we could meet some of the members and ask their opinions. Alice led that session and showed that many of the young people would be willing to get involved in such a project. Unfortunately, and very annoyingly, we weren't allowed to put out a press release via Stockton Council about their involvement because it was deemed to be publicising councillors too near the election!!! So the youngest voting members of an Area Partnership Board are deprived of a bit of positive publicity because some councillors are involved as well. What a topsy turvy view of democracy is held in our legal department.

And then in the middle of the day we had the budget - what a swindle. Headline announcements that sound as though everyone's going to be better off, with the small print showing that this is a "tax neutral" budget - in other words increases for some to benefit others. Nothing significant for the environment, so yet again Labour fiddles while the world warms. I despair at times.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

175 years on

The celebration dinner for Durham University's 175th birthday was last night at the Queen's Campus in Stockton-on-Tees. Actually, as the site is on the South side of the River Tees, it's in Thornaby-on-Tees which is part of the Borough of Stockton-on-Tees. And if that's not complicated enough, the Queen's Campus is about 150 years younger than its parent university. So we celebrated the growth of the "baby" as well as the venerable age of the "parent".
It was my good fortune that the Mayor's Consort was unable to attend and I was invited in his place. I met Sir Kenneth Calman at his final event at this campus as vice-chancellor, Sir Fred Holliday (after whom the Holliday building is named), and heard of the vision which led to the foundation of Queen's and of the exciting vision for the future all while enjoying a superb meal.
The Mayor spoke of the good relationship that has developed over the last 15 years and of the things she hopes will develop in the future. I just hope that her successors continue the good work. If I can do anything to encourage it I certainly will. Unfortunately the weather forecast was spot on for the evening and the gale made the marquee seem a very dubious place to be, especially when a bulb from a chandelier crashed to the ground. Suzanne carried on with her usual determination and people listened and enjoyed what they heard, but Sir Kenneth decided that it would be safer to adjourn to the Rotunda for the rest of the speeches which were given without benefit of microphone and so were more difficult to hear from where I was standing.

No-one was injured and everyone seemed to have enjoyed the evening, even if I didn't win the signed Middlesbrough shirt!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

St Patrick's Day

I always feel a bit special on 17th March, thanks to my Irish mother, and this morning was no exception. Especially when the door bell rang and it turned out to be lovely flowers from my daughter in Australia. Coupled with a beautiful card from our other daughter in the Midlands they made me feel like a very special Mum indeed.
A quick update of the party website this morning and then I could spend the rest of the day on family and personal matters before I have to get ready to accompany the Mayor to dinner tonight. But more of that after I've been.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Better Day

Indeed a much better day all round. This morning on the radio someone informed me that I didn't have to beware for another year, because the Ides of March had passed! As I'm not called Julius Caesar I hadn't realised I should beware, but it made me smile anyway.
After breakfast a delightful resident rang to thank me for something I'd done - a fairly small thing for me but it had obviously meant a great deal to her. That's one of the joys of being a councillor - just occasionally being able to make a real difference to someone.
A cold but dry morning meant that I could finish off the delivery of Focus without being too frozen, and could feel virtuous about how many steps I'd walked before lunch.
Then it was off to the FairTrade Borough Steering Group meeting where it was confirmed that we have now reached our target for retail and catering outlets. Great news and we were all delighted that the application would go in by the end of the month. We talked with enthusiasm of ways to spread the membership of the steering group and to have the councillors and officers step back a little from directing things. We even started to suggest ideas of activities over the next 12 months. That was followed by a meeting with the catering manager of the Resource Centre to discuss widening the range of products they sell. They're having a vote at the moment for which recipe they're going to enter in the Fairtrade recipe competition. Anyone who's in Newtown in the next week or so - drop in, sample their excellent cooking and vote for your favourite (Vegetable Biryani or Mississippi Mud Pie or Pineapple, Mango and Orange Smoothie ...mmm)
Some time spent with colleagues discussing things that need doing in the ward, a bit of software installation on someone's computer and then home to cook tea. By this time it was damp as well as cold, so I was glad to get back into the warm house for the evening. Even more happy when the post didn't contain any unpleasant surprises and the answerphones didn't have any difficult messages.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The day didn't start well. I had a meeting at 9.15 for which the papers had been e-mailed earlier. They included a huge document with the comment that a hard copy would be sent out the next day. Consequently I spent an hour last night looking for it, and then another half hour this morning. Eventually I had to set off without it. Arrived at the meeting to be told that it hadn't come out after all! Grrrrr! So I wasn't in the best mood ever when comments were being made about disabled parking spaces being a waste of space if they were empty and other people had to park elsewhere than in the grounds. I'm afraid I got more upset than I would normally at a meeting and my contributions were a bit more terse than they would otherwise have been. I remain to be convinced that we'll be using venues in a more effective way as a result of our deliberations.
But a visit to my mother soon put things into perspective - she was waiting for the wheelchair mechanic to arrive to sort out a problem, but she's never far from a smile or laugh. Leaving her to wait for him, I went to do her shopping and that of my mother-in-law. Then back to Mum's for a salad lunch.
An SOS from the scrutiny officer led to a change of date for our scrutiny meeting next week. The bureaucracy associated with the present scrutiny arrangements strikes again! And then it was time for Cabinet, and the presentation of our report on Teen Pregnancies. Of course it was accepted unanimously because the recommendations had already been agreed with the cabinet member and corporate director. It's a farce really, but we have to go through it to get anything to happen.
That meant I was late for my next meeting - Durham Lane School Governors. Usually that only lasts about an hour and a half but today it lasted two and a half! Not that time was wasted, but there were really important things to discuss. I was sad that the vice-chairman had decided to resign through ill health. He's been a real stalwart of that meeting for as long as I've been there.
As a result of being held up at the end of that meeting I was then late for the Parish Council meeting, which by contrast was one of the shortest ever. We'd finished the business before our normal 8pm half-way stop for members of the public to contribute. Fortunately on this occasion there were no members of the public there so it didn't cause a problem.
By the time I was home and had something to eat I was too shattered to do anything very much, so an early night and loads of stuff to do tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

So where did the day go?

I started with all sorts of good intentions - a very clear list in my mind of what needed doing, including some long overdue housework. But 'twas not to be. First off, a very pleasant distraction in the form of a chat with hubby on the other side of the world courtesy of that miracle of modern technology, Skype. Then our Focus leaflets arrived from the lovely people who count them out into rounds for our deliverers. So the letter which needed to go in each envelope then had to be added, the envelopes sorted into batches for each of us to take, and my colleagues contacted.
By then it was time to go to my first meeting - a look at the council's forward plan with other group leaders. No surprises there this time, thank goodness.
A quick dash to the High Street for something to eat and then it was Planning Committee. I don't think I've ever been quite so confused by a planning application as I was by two of the agenda items this time. Some really difficult decisions to make, and I still don't understand some of the evidence despite officers trying very hard to explain. The meeting lasted so long that I had to leave before the end and still was late for my next one. The only really bright spot in the whole proceedings was being able to look at a revised application for something that was turned down last year, remember the site visit we had, and bring that experience into the debate. At the end the overwhelming opinion of the committee was the same as mine - that this application was not a sufficient improvement and should not be allowed. It was a domestic application with a big impact on just one property, but it's good to be able to look after the interests of an individual from time to time.
Then on to SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education) where the new chairman and vice-chairman brought a breath of fresh air to the procedings thanks to their "chalk face" knowledge of the subject. As a result I came away thinking that for the first time since I became a member two years ago, SACRE is about to become a proactive body in Stockton.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Mea Culpa

What a long time since I blogged! Honestly hadn't realised how long it was. But I'm not going to offer excuses - just tell you a few of the things that have happened in the meantime.

On a personal level - I had a wonderful Christmas and New Year visiting first one daughter and her family, then the other. Highlights included our granddaughter's first Christmas and visiting a country we'd never seen before.

My fellow councillor, Mike Cherrett, decided to retire at the forthcoming election but fortunately a local resident and Liberal Democrat activist, Alan Lewis, decided that he would like to stand for election. Alan is already part of the Focus editing team, an integral part of the printing team, and hopes very much to become a ward councillor for Eaglescliffe.

The planning application to demolish the Grange on Urlay Nook Road and replace it with flats and houses was rejected by Stockton Council planning committee because the new design was still deemed to be out of proportion with the dwellings on Valley Gardens. The applicant said he would lodge an appeal so we are waiting for the notice of that.

Riverside Lodge motorcross activities have occupied a good deal of time, with Stockton Council deciding to take enforcement action against the owner. A further planning application has now been submitted so residents and councillors are again going through the process of commenting on it.

Stockton Liberal Democrats have completely revamped their website so that it is easy to keep up to date and also contains regular updates of national Lib Dem news. It's good that several of us can now update instead of the previous situation of relying on one person who often was out of the country. We're not perfect but we're better than we were at the job.

The Council budget was set at the end of February - a very disappointing evening when Labour councillors turned out in force to vote for the cabinet's recommended budget and opposition parties couldn't muster enough numbers to vote through our alternative. As a result nearly a quarter of a million pounds is being spent on changing the way the public contact the council, but there was no money for an out-of-hours noise service to deal with the complaints people make about noisy parties, loud music, etc. Money was slashed from the budget for supporting victims of domestic violence and homelessness. There was no funding for dealing with stray dogs, nor with the wild horses which occasionally have to be caught and looked after - not things that happen every day but very important when they do.

And that's enough for today. If you want to know more have a look at our website - all the Focus leaflets are on there and also the news items from the ward and around the borough.