Friday, December 26, 2008

Love Food, Hate Waste

I wasn't planning on blogging during the holiday but just had to share this website with anyone who's bothering to read. According to this morning's newspaper a local district council is promoting the site to help people not to buy too much food for Christmas or more importantly, not to throw it away at the end of the festive period. I've just had a little look and found some interesting recipes for using up leftovers. Cranberry chocolate brownies anyone?
Of course, this year, if you only found out about it through that newspaper article it's too late to save money or food waste, but for anyone who's faced with cooking for a bigger than usual group of people it's got a super calculator for how much meat and veg to buy. Maybe next year it'll be promoted earlier. It may come into its own as the recession deepens and more people turn to cooking for themselves rather than eating out or buying ready made meals.
Now back to that Christmas Holiday!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The last council related meeting of 2008 was this morning, looking at progress on the various scrutinies that are taking place as well as a brief discussion of some of the pressures that are looming on the council's budget in the next couple of years. When people think about the credit crunch they perhaps don't realise the impact it might have on council services. Fewer planning applications means lower income from the fees, but we still have to maintain the planning service. General belt tightening means fewer people bringing cars into town and paying parking fees, but we still have to maintain the car parks. More importantly and much more sadly, worries about jobs and household income mean more stress in families, more demand for help with housing, more family breakdown, more children needing foster homes, more health problems. These aren't things that worry most people until they're personally affected, but they are very real effects of the economic problems in the country. And they have to be dealt with by the council, the health professionals etc without any increase in funds.
All isn't doom and gloom, though. The sun shone for a goodly part of the day, the washing dried out on the line and I found the Christmas present I'd hidden almost too well. On top of that the skips were removed from the open space in front of 661 Yarm Rd and the pedestrian route between Stoney Bank and Yarm Bridge was cleared in time for Christmas.
So now the Christmas dinner ingredients are all safely bought, presents are wrapped and all that remains is to take down birthday cards and put up Christmas cards.
A very happy Christmas to one and all and my best wishes for Peace in 2009.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas is Coming

I love the final preparations for Christmas: the carol services, the Advent candles, the cards and greetings winging back and forth around the world. On Friday we had the Civic Carol Service in Stockton and the Mayor had bravely decided to start out of doors. So it was that at 1.30 quite a gathering could be found around Dodshon's fountain in the High Street. The Mayor and Mayoress of Thornaby were there, wearing the chains so recently returned to Thornaby, as well as a number of councillors and council officers. But more importantly, by the time the band struck up the first carol, quite a number of non-council people had braved the damp and cold to stand or sit and sing. Several people passing by stopped to join in for a few minutes including a lady who used to attend an English class I taught years ago. For the first time to my knowledge a "civic service" really reached out to the ordinary residents of the Borough in a way that didn't depend on special invitations. A brave choice and a right one from our Mayor, John Fletcher.
After 3 carols and some prayers we walked over to the Parish Church where even more people were waiting and there sang more carols, heard again the timeless story of the first Christmas and received the Peace Light - a reminder of the need for peace in the world and a sign that we can all do our bit. A light shared is a light that grows and spreads - it cannot be dimmed.
Then it was time to finish off the shopping and preparing the house for the arrival of grandchildren to celebrate a Christmas visit with us. This meant putting up the Christmas tree, usually a Christmas Eve activity, but done early to fit in with the festive mood of a family weekend. It was a joyful weekend with a gathering of nearly 20 of the family on Saturday - with ages ranging from 5 months to 91 years the house was alive with conversation and laughter. Presents were exchanged, news was shared and a good time was had by all.
Today was much quieter! Time to catch up on case work and bits that needed doing for the Fairtrade Directory which is now well under way at the publisher. There was even time to read the papers for tomorrow's committee meeting and mark up the questions to be asked. Council work continues right up till Christmas Eve, but the number of meetings reduces in this period as councillors and council officers take time off to to do what they want to do over the Christmas period.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Grumpy Sheep and other tales

My first task today was a totally enjoyable one - attending the Foundation stage Christmas performance at Durham Lane School. The Grumpy Sheep baaed and grumped around the field until the birth of Jesus, the joy of the shepherds and wise men and the singing of the stars cheered her up and she became the Very Smiley Sheep. Parents wiped away tears of pride, the children sang their hearts out and the staff breathed sighs of relief that everything worked on the day. One more bit of the right sort of Christmas preparation, away from the bustle of 50% off sales on the High Street.
There was time for a bit of casework before going off to Planning Committee where the plans for the new building for Stockton 6th Form College were being considered. There had been lots of work over a number of months to address problems in the original plans but at last all seemed to have been resolved and the plans were approved. Sadly, the architect thought that going for a Very Good BREEAM rating was a plus point. I told him that excellent is what needs to be aimed at to combat rising energy costs and climate change. So many developers don't seem to have got the idea of investing now to save in the future. Let's hope this particular one sees the light before the building is completed.
Tonight I should have been joining with a group of friends to write cards to prisoners of conscience and unjustly imprisoned people in countries across the world. Sadly, my cough has returned and although I've no other significant symptoms of anything infectious I decided not to risk it. I shall write my cards at home and miss out on the good company and the mulled wine.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fairtrade Apprentices Set Out Their Stalls

Back in November I went to All Saints school in Ingleby Barwick for the start of their "Dragons Den meets the Fairtrade Apprentice" Day. Tonight was the finale - the successful groups set out their stalls and tried to make a profit by selling Fairtrade goods to parents and visitors. I was invited back to speak about the importance of Fairtrade.
A group of young students sang a song they'd written about making a difference by buying Fairtrade. Another group showed their skills with African drums and dance, which they'd practised on the day with the help of Melting Pot Arts. Yet more students performed extracts from dramas they'd produced during the day, stressing what a difference Fairtrade makes. At one point I was reminded of the opening line of "Little Women", a favourite book of mine as a child: "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents". At the end of their drama the workers got the best Christmas present possible - Fairtrade prices for their goods and fair working conditions.
I was impressed by the entrepreneurial skills of some of the teams. Buying Fairtrade ingredients and making Christmas gingerbread men to sell seemed to me to show a grasp of the value that can be added to goods. One or two teams had supplemented their offer by organic or ethically sourced goods where Fairtrade isn't yet available but they had clearly stated that on the stall. By the time I was leaving some stalls were selling out, the raffle had been won by a suitably supportive local resident, staff looked worn out and the students were still on a high. Well done All Saints, and I hope to be invited back when the school declares that it has achieved the goal of Fairtrade status.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Eaglescliffe Post Office

The Evening Gazette has picked up the story of the Post Office closure now, and the fact that over 4000 homes in the ward don't have a Post Office. About 20 people braved the cold wind on Friday afternoon to take part in a photo for the Gazette and to tell the reporter their tales of why they need an accessible post office. Yarm PO being overcrowded, difficulties with parking, problems with the buses all featured in their tales. One couple, unable to face the traffic queue and parking problem in Yarm had followed the Post Office's advice and gone to Ingleby Barwick. Once there they couldn't find the post office so they turned round and drove to Hartburn!
Meanwhile we're pursuing a couple of possible locations for a replacement though with little help from the Post Office.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Busy, busy

There's been a lot about Fairtrade in my diary this week, but the highlight was a visit to the Tristar Carbon Savers' meeting. Along with their commitment to saving on carbon emissions at work and at home they are interested in other ethical and environmental issues including Fairtrade. So along I went to tell them a bit about the work in the Borough and suggest ways they might get involved. My inbox has been fizzing ever since - they're so keen to come up with suggestions for Fairtrade Fortnight that we'll have a great time even if we only implement half of them. My difficulty is going to be to ensure that we only take on those things we can cope with. But watch this space for progress!
Today is the deadline for sending in the editorial items for the Borough Fairtrade directory which is to be published in February. It's the first time we've done a glossy, professional one and trying to make sure that catering establishments send us the right material on time has been an interesting exercise. It's coming in now and I'm hopeful that I'll get it all out on time tonight.
Wednesday evening and Thursday were taken up with the appointment process for the new Chief Executive of Stockton. There was a very strong field which we whittled down to a short list of 4 over a period of more than a month. They spent Wednesday being grilled by members, stakeholders including the local press, the PCT, Fire & Rescue, Police and voluntary bodies and having a long session with the Leader of the Council. Then all members were invited to meet them informally over a buffet supper. That gave an opportunity to see how they coped with meeting people for the first time without a structured agenda and proved very interesting.
Yesterday we had the formal interviews and the final decision to make. It wasn't easy but in the end I believe we chose the best for Stockton. The decision was unanimous, which isn't a bad sign when every party on the council except for the Billingham Independents were represented and they'd had their chance to feed into the process the day before. This isn't the place to express my views on the unsuccessful individuals. Suffice to say that it was a long tough process and we're all confident that we've got a good man in place. The remainder of the Cabinet who were not part of the interview panel have to ratify our decision but I can't see that they'll object.
So, congratulations Neil. It's very satisfying that we have such high calibre officers in the council who can stand against the best applicants in the country and win. It's probably very wicked of me to say the name before the official press release goes out but such things can be notoriously slow and all council members have been notified this morning. I'm sure there have been some comments over the breakfast table and that word is spreading fast especially as it wasn't marked confidential.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Another local service bites the dust

A day after the Post Office closed its host for several years, Martins Newsagent, also closed. It's fallen victim to the inexorable rise of the supermarket as stockist of newspapers, magazines, chocolate bars and birthday cards. But they don't stock the variety of magazines, nor do they take special orders, nor deliver them to the door in all weathers. Unfortunately our paper this morning was delivered to the wrong door so I didn't even get chance to say thank you to the boy who has faithfully delivered it over the past year. I'm not sure where I'll get my paper now, or even if I'll get one at all as my two main times for looking at it are first thing in the morning before I'm dressed and last thing at night before sleep.
I spoke with more of the traders on Stockton market today and heard that they hadn't enjoyed the Christmas market at all. They did have constructive suggestions for improvement though and I've passed them on to our party representative on the Markets Forum so that they can be properly discussed at the next meeting. There are definitely some lessons to be learned if it's to be a better event next year. And that includes making sure the publicity is clear - these people told me that customers weren't expecting the usual market stalls but were searching for the "Christmas stalls".

Friday, December 05, 2008

Eaglescliffe Post Office RIP

Our Post Office closed today at lunch time and although Post Office Counters say it's only temporary till someone else takes it on in suitable premises the options for that are few and diminishing. So residents are faced with the choice of travelling down to Yarm which is already busy and has long queues or into Stockton High St which always seems to have huge queues or driving (if they can) to one of the more outlying offices. It's hard on those pensioners who have a Post Office Card account. It's hard on people who need to have something weighed to get the correct stamps. These are things which the supermarkets don't offer, yet their sales of newspapers and sweets have put the newsagent out of business. Is it the fault of the supermarket or of the shoppers who choose to shop there? I leave it to you to apportion blame. Either way, we've lost our post office and the supermarkets aren't interested in giving up some of their space to accommodate one.
If by any remote chance someone reading this would like to know more about how to take over this successful Post Office the information is available on line or? Post Office doesn't actually give any other way of applying, and just like when the Station Rd office was being closed, it only seems to advertise on the website. It took me almost 5 minutes to find the relevant site so no-one's likely to spot the advert by mistake! Service to the community? I think not.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Partnership Working

Today saw a good example of partnership in action. Earlier in the year Stockton Council decided, much to my surprise, that a small amount of money would be allocated in the Western Area to help with employment related issues. We were told that we could be quite creative in how we handled it but it needs to be spent by the spring of 2011. The Western Area Partnership Board set up a working group to make some recommendations - two Borough Councillors representing the 2 complete wards in the Area, a Parish councillor with experience of representing the community for many years on panels relating to health matters, and a community member representing a group which spans the whole area.
The group was supported by officers from Stockton Borough Council who have a lot of experience of handling funding across the Borough. The second meeting was yesterday and thanks to an idea taken from another area we came up with what we hope will be a really useful way of working in our area, supporting people who are starting to struggle with debts including mortgage payments but also the debts incurred probably by trying to have the same kind of family Christmas they had last year even though this year money is tight. By all sitting round the table and talking frankly about the area in which we live and the problems that some people will experience over the coming years of the recession we were able to leave party politics and cross-community issues to one side and come up with a really inclusive plan.
When I put it to the full board at last night's meeting it was welcomed by all, including those from villages which sometimes struggle to have their voice heard at Borough level. So the officers will now put together invitations to tender for the project and we move forward in January all being well.
At the same board meeting we heard of a rare success story from the Youth Service, with the youth club workers in Eaglescliffe going out to talk to older teenagers who didn't attend the youth club with the result that they're now part of the club and applying for funding from the "Playing Out" fund to access sports training and encourage other young people to take part in active play. The number attending has almost doubled - a real achievement especially as this is young people wanting to take an active part instead of hanging around outside. Well done Chris and others. There was also good news about the numbers attending the other clubs in the Area so perhaps we're going through that part of the cycle where young people want to belong to clubs, or perhaps the clubs are now providing the sort of activities the young people want. Only time will tell.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The latest In Touch newsletter from the Conservative candidate for the Stockton South Parliamentary seat is being delivered throughout the ward this week. This time I'm not angry but saddened by one of the articles in it. There's an implication though not an explicit statement that speed was a contributory factor in a serious road accident at the Sunningdale Drive/Yarm Rd junction in October. In the same article there's a repeat of the police appeal for witnesses and information Now it may be that speed was a factor, but there's been no evidence released to the public as far as I'm aware, no statement to that effect by the local police. If speed was not a contributer then imagine the distress caused to the families concerned if they read that article.
He goes on to use the accident as a hook on which to hang his campaign for Speed Indicator Devices on Yarm Rd. The Area Transport Strategy Steering Group, which has representatives of his party on it, has never had any suggestion made to it that such devices are wanted. No resident has approached any of the Eaglescliffe ward councillors with the proposal. The police, also part of the Transport Strategy group, have never suggested that there is a need. I'd be more than happy to discuss the possibility of assigning some of the funding available to them if there was evidence of need but as any lawyer knows, evidence is the fundamental requirement for a case to be made. Still, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Meanwhile, the Transport Strategy fund and the ward environmental improvement fund have both contributed to measures to improve road safety on Urlay Nook Rd and Durham Lane, both based on evidence from residents, police and consultants.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

I'm coming to terms, but slowly, with the awful news from Mumbai. Having spent time in the city in the 90s when my husband was working there, the places are all too familiar. I can't begin to imagine what it must be like for those who have family and close friends there. Fortunately our friends in India don't live in or near Mumbai so we don't have that immediate worry. But to see the hotel where we celebrated our silver wedding battered and burning, to see the cafe where we enjoyed freshly made mango juice with a flavour like no other - it's too much. Why? What makes young men in the prime of their lives plan and carry out such devastation? Until someone can explain to us we can't combat it. I don't know which wise person said "Know thine enemy", but s/he was so right. No amount of expenditure on arms or police or ID cards will stop the violence until we understand the cause and can tackle that.
The weather here this morning was grey and damp and not nearly as nice as yesterday, though probably no colder. As I hadn't done my veg shopping yesterday I decided that the Christmas market was worth a second visit. I'm so glad I did. Stall holders were keen to tell me how busy they'd been and that they have ideas to make it better next year. It did make shopping a lengthy expedition but it was worth it. And I came away with a lovely ready made Advent wreath instead of coming home to gather damp greenery and start work on one myself - cheating but in a good cause.
By the way, I was right yesterday - the fun fair was very busy. In fact I had to thread my way through the queue for the big wheel.

Friday, November 28, 2008

VAT Nightmare

If anyone doesn't believe that the temporary VAT reduction isn't going to cause untold misery in small businesses, especially retail ones, they should read Mike Barker's blog. A Darlington retailer who's also a councillor, he describes in graphic detail what the change means to him this weekend.
What a way to "save" the economy, Gordon.

Stockton Christmas Market

Between a hospital check up and a Regional update I took a bit of time to visit the Christmas market today. The sun was shining and the air was crisp and cold - perfect weather for wandering round and admiring the content of the stalls as well as buying a few little gifts for people. The craft stalls are in little wooden chalets, decorated with lights and greenery and really looking good. Our traditional market, reduced in size because people couldn't come for all 4 days, was busy and the stall holders were in good cheer. There was a stall selling hand made sweets - fudge and cinder toffee amongst them - at very reasonable prices, as well as some of our regular stands. The funfair rides weren't busy because most of the children who might have enjoyed them were in school but I guess they'll be busy tomorrow and Sunday.
As I walked back through the Parish Gardens to do some work in Municipal Buildings the smell of roast pork and sausages was beginning to drift out of the stalls where hot sandwiches were on offer and I decided that I couldn't resist a cup of hot chocolate to take back with me. The mulled wine was more festive but I didn't think it would fit well with working and then driving! The hot chocolate was all that it should be - creamy and luxurious. Definitely a treat. If you've chance to go, do visit it. I was told by more than one person that it was beautiful last night when the lights really showed up, but sadly I haven't been able to verify that yet. Maybe tomorrow evening, who knows.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Highs and Lows

I started today at All Saints school, Ingleby Barwick which was launching its campaign to become a Fairtrade school. What a launch! The whole school had been taken off timetable for a day - Year 10 to do a careers day and the others to do a Fairtrade "Dragons Den meets The Apprentice". They started by meeting a real live millionaire who talked about the things they need to consider when planning their business and then I followed with a talk about why it was important for each one of them to do their bit for Fairtrade. I used some of the slides left by Juan Luis Aviles when he stayed with me in Fairtrade Fortnight this year, and talked about the choices that the co-operative in El Salvador had to make between equipment for cracking nuts or sending the children to school. The students then went off to their groups to plan. There were goods to order, adverts to write, photos to take, profit margins to decide on etc. Some groups were learning a dance to be accompanied by African drummers; others were developing a drama to show to parents while others were producing masks inspired by African designs. At the end of the day there was to be a grand competition with groups bidding for money to put their business plan into action. I couldn't stay for that part of the event but I'm going back in December to see the result - 8 stalls set out to sell their goods to parents, other students, the public and anyone else who'll turn up and spend money. A really exciting idea, helped by having local business people willing to go and get involved with the young people and help them with advice as well as becoming the "dragons" for the later part of the day.
I look forward to them becoming a Fairtrade School next year.
Leaving there on a high I made the mistake of checking my e-mails before starting on anything else. The interim chief executive had been sent a letter informing him that Eaglescliffe Post Office is to close tomorrow - how's that for plenty of notice. It's supposed to be temporary until they find another person and premises but giving us 2 days notice doesn't strike me as a great commitment to the search. However, we'll persevere. We've a couple of ideas for a venue but nothing is going to work before Christmas now I dont think.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Good End to the Working Day

The day after the local press described how one of our local hospitals had lost a mass of patient data Norman Lamb MP revealed the full extent of the problems in the NHS with data as a result of investigations he's been doing. "We already know from the Information Commissioner that the NHS is among the worst offenders for data loss, reporting as many incidents as the entire private sector."
What an indictment! The NHS sees us at our most vulnerable and then loses chunks of our data. And they always reassure us that it doesn't matter - well if it doesn't matter why did they keep it in the first place? And why do they put it on memory sticks and CDs that can drop out of pockets and off desks into bins or worse.
This afternoon was planning committee day. There was nothing in Eaglescliffe ward today but still plenty of tricky and frustrating decision making to do. Why should a developer who's got permission for a good quality design be able to come back and reduce the quality to something that's just about acceptable? Why do developers think that student flats are the new route to riches? The block which was refused permission today not only contravened our new council guidelines by not demonstrating a need for more accommodation but also was a pretty awful design for the area. It looked like boxes - several boxes rather than one monolithic box but boxes nevertheless. Standing nearly opposite Thornaby Town Hall it really did look incongruous. I'd have loved to have seen an interesting building, reflecting the stature and elegance of the Town Hall but what we were offered was chunky and out of place.
At tonight's council meeting there were two really good items which brought out the best side of people.
First we had an item in all the vast array of minutes and reports which come to Council about the return of the Mayoral Chains to Thornaby. Cllr Mick Eddy who is also this year's Town Mayor of Thornaby took the opportunity to thank John Fletcher for his help in arranging that return. Although many others had to be part of the decision it was John who found the way forward when there'd been little or no progress for years. Mick thanked him beautifully and very eloquently on behalf of the people of Thornaby and the Town Council and for once other members of the council were quiet and let him speak.
Almost the last item on the agenda was a motion, proposed by the Mayor, that the council sign up to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights on its 60th anniversary. Alan Lewis spoke of the human rights of the Gurkha soldiers who lived and fought alongside British soldiers but then are denied citizenship if they retired before 1997. Sign the petition or write to your MP - let's get this sorted out once and for all.
After that Suzanne spoke very movingly about the plight of refugees on our doorstep in the borough of Stockton-on-Tees who have fled from abuses of basic rights like the right to live without being persecuted but then are seized in dawn raids and sent to detention centres to await deportation sometimes to countries which are not at all safe for them. Why it's deemed acceptable for children to be woken and bundled away from the only safe home they've known in raids that look just like the raids on suspected crack houses I'll never understand. But it happens and it happens here, under our noses.
So Stockton Council approved the Declaration and maybe, who knows, just one or two people might think twice about walking by on the other side next time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Western Area of the Borough has the benefit of Parish or Town Councils as a first tier of local government. From Kirklevington to Preston and from Long Newton to Egglescliffe the area is covered by Parishes of varying size but with one thing in common: the councils which they elect are genuinely local. To stand for election as a Parish Councillor one must live or work very near or in the area of that Parish. So when parish councils speak borough councillors are wise to listen. Whenever I chair the meetings of the Western Area Partnership Board I know that the people round that table truly represent the area - they are elected to do so and they take their responsibilities very seriously. We're fortunate to live in an area with so many people willing to be part of local democracy. That's why I get very annoyed when some complain about the cost of by-elections for these councils. If democracy is worth having it's worth paying for in my view. The right to put a mark beside someone's name and put the paper in the ballot box is something which my great-grandmother didn't have. I have met people who fought to have that right in their country. If we don't use it we'll lose it - we need to cherish our right to vote and use it whenever possible.
Tomorrow a panel is meeting to decide which of the bids for money from the "Spaces for Play" grant should be taken further. For most decisions of this kind I'd be involved as a member of the Borough Play Partnership, but on this occasion I had to stand back. Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe council has put in a major bid and I've been part of the discussions to formulate that bid. I couldn't be considered as having an open mind therefore! Obviously I hope that we'll be successful but I'm also aware that there's a number of other bids from the Western Area and other Parish councils have been active in putting them in. I really do hope that they are all successful - the people of this area deserve to have some super play spaces and their ideas have been really imaginative. Fingers crossed.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fair Taxes

The much leaked Pre Budget Report that was really a budget finally happened. Here was an opportunity to really sort out some of the country's finances and put things on a fairer footing for the future. So what does Labour do? Reduces the top rate of VAT for 13 months and gives out a few pounds here and there, coupled with a warning that in a year or two most people earning a living wage will have to pay more tax on a number of fronts to recoup the money.
And what does the VAT reduction do? Does it reduce the fuel bills for those heading into fuel poverty? No, because heating and lighting energy is only subject to 5% VAT anyway. Does it reduce the weekly grocery bill? Not likely as basic food is zero rated. Does it reduce the cost of clothing your rapidly growing children? No chance - their clothes are zero rated now. So who does it help?
Well, if you were thinking of importing a Porsche to drive sedately round Eaglescliffe you'll now get it cheaper. If you are planning on buying that nice new TV for Christmas it will be a bit cheaper. If you eat out at restaurants or eat in on take-aways, they'll go down a bit.
Real help? Fair taxes? Not on your life - this is a Labour government remember.

Budgets, budgets

Hardly a glimmer of good news today. First of all a sombre discussion about the pressures that are looming on the Council's budget. How to continue to fund the extras that Stockton Council and other local authorities provide on the free bus pass for over 60s, the pass introduced by the government with a great fanfare but only designed to work after 9.30 in the morning. That's a fat lot of use if your hospital appointment is at 9 or even 10 unless you live very near to the hospital on a direct bus route. And of course that's only one example of when older people need to use a bus before 9.30. So Stockton and other Tees Valley councils decided to put money into providing a pass which works all day, every day But that costs money and these days with rising electricity and gas bills and falling interest rates the Council is in the same position as many households - it's belt tightening time. So what should we cut back on? Bus passes for older citizens? Social workers for vulnerable children? Road mending? Pavement sweeping? Street lights? Litter bins? Difficult decisions lie ahead and whatever is decided will hurt someone.
That was followed by a meeting of the Environment Select committee at which we had a presentation of a seemingly very good action plan to reduce the numbers of rats and pigeons infesting the borough - not a huge problem in most parts of the borough but visible and irritating in some parts. The action plan sounded great till we realised that it could only be implemented if there was a bit of spare cash to fund it - not likely in the present economic climate. So the chances are that it's going to be a tinkering with the problem because we can't afford the full blown action plan.
However, there's always someone worse off than me, as my mother would tell me. So, as the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights approaches (10th December for those who like to know these dates) I encourage you to support the campaign to help retired Gurkhas to have the same rights as the people they served alongside in conflict zones around the world. It's something that Liberal Democrats have been supporting for over a year now and it was heartening to see the High Court give a boost to the campaign last month. Let's get it sorted out by Christmas!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Joy to the World

...... or at least to Stockton High Street.
I'd spent a worrying few days while my mother was very poorly, but she was feeling a little better today and others in the family were sitting with her so Denis and I took time off to watch the switch on of the Christmas lights. I always think that we start to celebrate Christmas too early and with too much spending of money but that seems to be the way of the Western world today. The Mayor and Mayoress hadn't been too well for the last couple of days either so I was relieved for them and for all the families braving the cold when the early morning snow covering disappeared and the afternoon seemed set to stay dry. The fun fair in the High St struck me as loud and a bit discordant but it was obviously popular so who am I to deny pleasure to others. As darkness fell the steam bus drove into view, it's plume of steam catching the lights from the fair rides and shop fronts. To a loud cheer the Mayor disembarked along with the celebrities who were to press the switch. John looked splendid in his robes and chain - at least as festive as Santa. But the big cheers weren't for the Mayor and Mayoress - it was the TV and football stars whom people had come to see. The crowd counted down, the switch was pressed and the High Street took on its magical Christmas garb. Fireworks completed the show and the crowds dispersed. Happy children, happy parents, and some relieved organisers who'd worked very hard behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running of the entertainment and the switch on.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tales of Community

This morning Stockton Town Hall was open for anyone to pay a small sum and have a cup of coffee or tea with the Mayor and Mayoress and a tour of the building. This wasn't because the Mayor needed something extra to help with the household bills but to raise funds for his charities for this year - Daisy Chain and Justice First. I took the opportunity to go and have my cuppa but with a secondary motive too. A relative of my husband was Mayor of Thornaby in the early 1950s and as my husband is tracing his family history I had made arrangements to photograph the chain which he would have worn.
The Thornaby chain became part of Stockton's regalia following local government reorganisation and has been worn by the Deputy Mayor of Stockton for some years. There have been people in Thornaby who felt that the chains should have been returned when Thornaby residents voted to have a Town Council several years ago but there have always been reasons why it couldn't happen. This year the Mayor of Stockton-on-Tees (Eaglescliffe councillor John Fletcher) has worked with the Town Mayor of Thornaby (Councillor Mick Eddy) to find a solution and this afternoon the chains were to be handed over formally into the safe-keeping of Thornaby Town Council. Before that happened, with the help of the Stockton Mayor's Attendant, I obtained the photographs for the family history record. Both the Mayor's and the Mayoress' chains have the names inscribed on the backs of the links and now they're recorded for posterity. The chains have gone back now to the community which treasured them for so many years, still part of the Borough's heritage but very much part of the heritage of Thornaby (or South Stockton as it was once known).
I left the Town Hall with my precious photographs and called at a nearby market stall for some veg when I bumped into a former student and friend whom I haven't seen for a few months. Her husband was very keen to tell me that he was voted a Community Champion for his work in Stockton in trying to help the Asian communities in central Stockton. It was lovely to catch up with them and to be able to add my congratulations.
All in all, a day of being reminded of the importance of community in our lives. We ignore it at our peril and it's right that we celebrate the diversity of our communities and the fact that Stockton Borough is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Beauty on the Doorstep

It's easy to take for granted the beauty on our doorstep but Friday brought a reminder of how precious it is. Taking an elderly relative out for a rare trip away from her usual limited area we detoured to see the sea.
I've often said to people from outside the area that we're very fortunate here to have industry on our doorstep to provide employment while the coast and hills are so easily accessible by bus or car or bike for recreation.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Post Office Card Account

Back in June I described the Labour Government's latest threat to the Post Offices of this country. I know that some of you sent in postcards as part of the campaign.
On Monday of this week the Liberal Democrats led an Opposition Day debate on the future of the Post Office Card Account. An Early Day Motion calling on the government to support the Post Offices by keeping the card account with them had been signed by 47 Labour MPs, though not our MP for Stockton South despite her crocodile tears when the Long Newton one was closed. But when faced with the prospect of voting for the same thing in a parliamentary debate they refused and instead voted for an amendment which heaped praise on the government for what it had done for the Post Offices!! They were joined by the Labour faithful, including the MP for Stockton South, thus ensuring that the motion was defeated.
Yesterday, however, the government finally did the decent thing. They listened to the thousands of voices crying out for the card account to be retained at the heart of communities and extended the contract to the Post Office for a further 5 years. So congratulations, Gordon and cronies. At last you've done something right. What a pity you ever put hundreds of sub-postmasters and mistresses through sleepless nights worrying over their livelihood. What a disgrace that you worried thousands of pensioners about who'd help them with their pensions when they had to go somewhere else. Perhaps before you have any further bright ideas about the Post Office you should spend some time doing what I do most Thursdays - stand in a Post Office queue and listen to the Postmaster greet his customers by name, ask after the family, remind them that they usually buy stamps this week or pay the rent or whatever. Then you might see what you were planning to take away.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Renewable Energy

That was the subject of tonight's Environment Partnership meeting, and very interesting it was too. This particular partnership is one of very committed people, some of them appointed by the council and others from organisations large and small with an interest in the environment. So there are residents alongside representatives of industry and not-for-profit organisations, charities and council officers along with just two councillors - the cabinet member for the environment and me as chair of the Environment committee.
Everything discussed is very practical so tonight we heard about efforts being made by the council to reduce energy use as well as to use more renewables - simple things like putting draught excluder round windows and turning the thermostat down a degree in council buildings. Bigger things like having street lights that dim in the middle of the night so that energy is reduced while still keeping the borough's streets safe. Exciting things like assessing whether solar thermal panels can contribute to heating the swimming pools in the borough, whether the heat generated by cooling the ice rink can be used to warm the water in the swimming pool or heat the theatre in the Forum. Projects that have already happened like fitting a ground source heat pump into Conyers school as part of building a new extension and incorporating them into new primary schools. But we also heard of insoluble problems - the new primary school which can't put in such a pump because of the web of utilities running under the site, and the grey water recovery system which was installed in two schools in County Durham and still doesn't work. It's assumed there's a design fault but we can't keep a school on hold until it's resolved so we aren't installing one. I can't help but feel that there's something wrong here - over 50 years ago a relative in rural Eire built a new house and because there was no piped water on the farm he put a collection tank on the kitchen roof and collected rainwater to flush the toilet and wash floors etc. No fancy pumping mechanisms, just simple systems, and it worked for many years. It meant that only one trip a day was needed to the well to collect drinking water. If he could do it then surely it's not beyond present day developers?
Wind turbines occupied part of the discussion, with the consensus being now that only turbines of 100KW or greater are worth erecting for electricity production. Anything smaller is really an educational tool which sometimes produces a bit of power. We have a school in the borough which got planning permission over a year ago to erect a large turbine but then found that the only company which manufactures them at the price we had been quoted only sell them in blocks of 10 or more! Sadly, 10 turbines would leave no room at all for playing fields or the school building, so a big rethink is going on!!
We heard about the efforts of a private sector business to move toward renewable energy which needs a very long term view in a time of economic downturn. How does one persuade the shareholders to look at the 50 year life span of a building when they're used to thinking in terms of a 2 year maximum for a return on investment?
There was much discussion about ways in which people could work together, ways in which the council could offer a lead and a very positive feel at the end of the meeting that there were ways forward.
Just the sort of meeting that I enjoy being part of - a common aim and a determination to share ideas on how to get to the goal.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Work and Play

The morning started with the first meeting of a small group from the Western Area Partnership to discuss more detail of how we should spend our money from the Communities Fund. It's a new experience for us to have any money to spend so though it is only a small amount we want to be certain that it's spent in the best possible way to help people in our area. It's aimed at helping people into work, something which isn't a problem for the majority of people in our area but is a big problem for a smallish number. We realised that one part of the area had 16% unemployment which is quite staggering in a part of the borough usually labelled as affluent. It was good to sit round the table with these figures and be able to talk about doing something positive. We're looking at the possibility of organising an event to bring together potential employers, unemployed people, training providers and benefits advice. It feels particularly appropriate at this time of economic downturn.
Then a walk in the autumn sun to look at the grass area in Larch Crescent. Residents tell us it's still the venue for teenagers to kick a football about, damaging gardens and generally being a nuisance. The shrub bed planted earlier this year now is a challenge to kick the ball over. Again it was a discussion of partners on how to deal with the problem - residents, housing officers, councillors, people responsible for planting and maintaining such areas all wanting to work together to make life more bearable for the people who live round there.
This afternoon's meeting of the Play Partnership heard lots of positive updates on bids for money that have gone in to government and on some that have been successful. Plans for the mobile play facility that is the result of lthe spring's successful lottery bid sound really exciting - a vehicle with hooks along the side so that slides and ropes can be attached! Facilities inside for cooking as well as playing whatever the weather. And masses of exciting equipment just ready to be off loaded and played with. The only problem is going to be that we'll only have one and it has to go round the whole borough so children will only get to play on it once in a while. Still, it'll be a marvellous experience when it does arrive in a locality.
After that I went to a training session on the importance and impact of design in planning. It wasn't just about building design but also about design of spaces and how the buildings relate to each other and to the space around. It was very interesting to have the discussions and I was sorry that I had to move on before it quite finished in order to get to my nect venue: Arc.
This was the annual awards night for the children being looked after by the local authority whether in foster homes or in residential care. It's always a good night, good to see so many young people who've come through the traumas that brought them into the care system Good to see their achievements being recognised. And good to see the relationship they have with those who work for them and with them.
And finally, a quick bite to eat before the Local Party meeting. Much to discuss and some very positive things happening, including the preparations for the European Parliament election.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


A morning seminar that was much shorter than expected meant that I was in Stockton High St at 11 this morning. It seemed appropriate to mark the 2 minute silence at the cenotaph rather than in some random shop doorway, so I made my way there. A group of primary school children had been brought to join in, there were men who had survived war and others who'd had relatives involved. Quite a large number in fact, paying our tribute to the people who've lost their lives or their loved ones to war.
Then, tonight, browsing for a few minutes around the world wide web I discovered that my Great Uncle, whom I never knew, had been a gunner stationed at Newcastle for a year before being sent to join the newly formed Tank Corps and fighting across and among the trenches of the Western Front. He survived and came home to his wife, though what happened to them then I don't know.
Between those two events I was fortunate to be able to accompany the Mayor of Stockton to a very thought provoking lecture on the role of engineers in combating climate change. What's that to do with Remembrance? Only that the man elected as chairman of the local branch of the Institution of Civil Engineers couldn't be there tonight - he was otherwise engaged with the army in Iraq, serving a tour of duty. I hope he's safe tonight.
His replacement as chairman welcomed us and explained the situation. It reminded me that many years ago the teenager who eventually became my husband was contemplating joining the army as an engineer. He was warned that engineers didn't have an easy life in war - they build the bridges that enable others to get to the front line was one comment. In the end he decided that army life wasn't the career he wanted and so we didn't experience the worries, pain and separations which might have been our lot.
It was good to hear an engineer talking about using timber and stone where possible in place of steel and concrete - reducing the carbon footprint of a building at a stroke by keeping the carbon captured in the timber in place and by not having to generate huge amounts of power to manufacture the modern replacements. His one big complaint was that the timber harvested in this country isn't being laid down to season properly and so hardwoods in particular are being imported - increasing their carbon footprint. I look forward to that changing in the future.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Forward Planning

Every month or so the leaders of political groups on the council get together and go through the main items which are coming up over the next 12 months. Mostly it's just routine stuff - we all know that the budget has to be considered at certain times of the year for example. But it's also a chance to talk about less routine stuff and to see what's likely to come up in the future. Today's little gem was a policy on naming and numbering streets - apparently we need such a policy and we don't have one! Ward councillors will be consulted soon. I can hardly contain my excitement.
At the moment when new housing is built in our ward we are asked for suggestions for street names or told that a developer has suggested something and asked if we agree with it. That's enabled for example our railway heritage to be commemorated in the street names on Kingsmead. Whether having a policy will enable us to name or number any better remains to be seen.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Remembrance Sunday

This year, for the first time for a lot of years, a wreath was laid at Preston war memorial on behalf of the Borough and it was my privilege as a ward councillor to lay it. It was the first time I'd been to the service there as my more usual venue for remembrance is at Egglescliffe or representing the Liberal Democrat Group in Stockton centre.
During the church service leading up to the Act of Remembrance a serving officer spoke of his experience in Iraq in recent times and of the comfort and support given to members of the forces by their padres. But the words which struck me most strongly were those with which he started: "Until a few years ago Remembrance Sunday was about history. Now it's about the present. Almost everyone knows someone who's been affected by the recent conflicts". How right he is. So many people now knows someone who's serving in one of the conflict zones of the world, or has met a refugee from a conflict zone. It does help us to see something of the reality of war.
Only a handful of survivors of the fighting in 1914-18 are here to see the 90th anniversary of the end of that war. It was "the war to end all wars", and yet there hasn't really been peace since it ended. Human mistrust, greed, fear, pride, hunger - all contribute to ongoing conflicts. We fight over ownership of the world's resources instead of learning to share them. We fight because we're frightened that the other person will strike first. We fight because we perceive the other as wronging us or our friend. Turning the other cheek and loving our neighbours seem very remote concepts. Yet if we don't learn to do that we're going to fight ourselves to destruction sooner or later.

Some years ago on holiday in France we stopped for a break on our route and realised that we were in the region of the Somme, scene of so much bloodshed in 1916. I looked out over low lying marshy ground and the horror of trying to fight there with the equipment and clothing available then hit me. Several years later on another holiday we stumbled across a war cemetery - row upon row of gravestones for French and German soldiers. Countless hundreds of graves - one of the most moving sights ever for me. And then further along the road, small plots - half a dozen Canadian airmen here, a handful of another nationality there - all carefully tended, some by local people others by their own countrymen, but all immaculate. Small acts of Remembrance taking place every week as grass was cut, shrubs were trimmed, headstones were cleaned.
Those brave men and women who gave their lives in the great wars of the last century, many of whom lie buried in "foreign fields", will have died in vain if we don't do something more positive about living in peace. There's a hymn chorus which says "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me". Maybe that's the kind of action that should flow from the Act of Remembrance. A decision to work towards peace, at whatever level we function - at home, at work or in national government.
On Tuesday, the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day, we have the chance to stand together in silence and ponder just what we have done with the legacy of that war and what we should do in the future to make a fitting tribute to the fallen. Or do Laurence Binyon's famous words only apply at 11am on November 11th each year?
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

President Elect

Ros Scott has won an overwhelming victory in the election for our next party president. This is a role which doesn't get a great deal of publicity outside the party but is important to members. There were 3 candidates, but Ros took over 70% of the vote, so a truly overwhelming victory. She takes over from Simon Hughes on January 1st.
That news came through when I was in the middle of trying to catch up on a combination of tidying up the house, filing and responding to letters. Pretty mundane stuff, but that's life some days.
Next June we have elections to the European Parliament, really important at a time when we have such a difficult global economic situation and a new President in the USA so if you think you might not have time to go to a polling station to cast your vote why not apply now for a postal vote. It will arrive at least a week, probably longer, before election day and you'll be able to complete it and post it at your convenience.

Friday, November 07, 2008

This afternoon I attended a meeting of a multi-agency partnership which I really enjoy. It's the group which tries to make sure that we as a council fulfil our role as corporate parents to those children who come into the care of the local authority for any reason. Most of these children cope with their difficulties with a lot of support from very caring social workers, teachers, foster parents, youth workers, extended family and others. Sadly there is a small number who don't cope so well and who need a great deal of extra help to achieve a stable lifestyle. This partnership of council staff from many different disciplines, elected members, police and others aims to ensure that we do our best for our corporate children. It's not easy but it's heartening to hear some of the good news stories and it's a very important though small part of the work of the council. A large part of today's discussions centred on those few children and young people in our care whose behaviour leads them towards the criminal justice system. It was good to hear about the restorative justice approach being used successfully with them.
We also had some discussion on how to help young people with complex needs into employment or training. This is especially pertinent at a time of economic downturn of course. Some very interesting ideas were put forward and will be looked at further.
At the end of the meeting the chairman had one item of "any other business" - he asked us if we had achieved anything in the meeting. Were we taking away anything positive? That's not something that's often asked at the end of meetings where a lot of talking has gone on, and it was useful to be able to affirm that we had indeed achieved something and that positive decisions had been taken.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Global warming & other things

Those who know me well know that I prefer cool weather to hot, but even I enjoyed some unseasonal warmth earlier this week. On holiday some miles further south than here (and over the channel) we enjoyed a picnic sitting under the oak trees with the sun beating down from an almost clear blue sky. This was November, but felt more like September or even May. There was real heat in the sun but the obvious autumn colours and leaf fall didn't sit comfortably with the temperature. Strange weather indeed.
This morning, back in Eaglescliffe, it's grey and wet so I feel much more at home.
A number of comments from residents on our latest Focus leaflet article on recycling lead me to clarify a little here as well as all the personal responses I've made:
A printing error lost the last 2 lines of the item on Green Waste collections. They don't stop completely, but stop in November when most green waste stops anyway and then start again in March.
The no side waste policy isn't just something decided on out of thin air - the pilot scheme showed that once cardboard and plastic were collected separately the amount of side waste reduced to almost nothing. Large families and people with medical problems which lead to significant extra waste disposal needs can contact the council to discuss special arrangements. At Christmas every effort will be made to clear waste as soon as humanly possible - no-one wants to see rubbish bags littering the area. I'm more than happy to discuss with people any problems they might have, and I've been doing so both in person and by email over recent days.
Liberal Democrats have been asking for reductions in packaging to be made mandatory - it's not fair to ask people to pay for the cost of packing up things that don't need packaging and then to ask them to pay for the cost of removing the packaging through their council tax. A real double whammy which is beyond our power as local councillors to stop. However, join our campaign - write to Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for the Environment, food and rural affairs
Tell him that you want the government to take stronger action to force manufacturers and shops to stop putting unnecessary packaging round things and to make them take it back for reuse and recycling when we don't want it. If you've the time, buy your fruit and veg on the market using your re-usable cotton shopping bag (you have got one haven't you?). Feel good about putting a part of the profit into the pocket of local retailers and not using up the world's precious oil resources on plastic wrapping.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Day of Celebration

Having returned from a few days' holiday, doing no casework whatsoever (thank you Alan and John!), I have the temerity to take today off as well. The reason for this is not that I wish to commemorate the misdeeds of Guy Fawkes nor the misdeeds of the government of the day which led him to do what he did. Nor is it that I've decided to celebrate the result of the election in the USA though I admit to a profound sense of relief this morning that we don't have to cope with the McCain/Palin world vision. I reserve judgement on whether Obama can achieve the changes I'd like him to in American foreign policy and relations, but I will allow myself a glimmer of hope that Palestine and Israel might get real help to live as neighbours, even grumpy occasionally angry neighbours. But today's cause for celebration is that my mother has a birthday - so as little council work as I can get away with while I go and share the day with her. A celebration indeed!

Friday, October 24, 2008

High winds and hot air

Today we had a special meeting of Stockton's Planning Committee with just one item on the agenda. A big item, though, in more ways than one - the proposed wind farm on the borough boundary between Hilton and Seamer. The pre-application period for this was characterised by a deluge of correspondence from both the developer, telling us how much the country needs renewable energy, and by the opposition, telling us all the drawbacks of this site, that the developer didn't know what he was doing, that wind turbines are intrinsically dangerous, ugly pieces of machinery. There were public information meetings, well attended, and more letters to members of the planning committee. This continued of course after the application was submitted. So, with such a high level of public interest, a special meeting was convened rather than try to fit it into a regular agenda.
The afternoon started for the committee with a site visit. It was a beautiful day, clear and sunny. The wind was certainly strong enough to have generated a fair amount of electricity had the turbines been functioning. As it was, we stood in the middle of a field on a slight rise in the ground and admired the view over to the Cleveland Hills, Roseberry Topping standing proudly to the fore. To the North we could see as far as the wind turbines at Greatham near Hartlepool and then on the horizon were the ones near Seaham Harbour. We looked at where the proposed turbines would stand in this field and neighbouring ones, tried to gauge their height compared to the pylons already there and the recently erected wind monitoring mast, and tried to estimate whether the visual or noise impact on the housing we could see would be significant. As we travelled in the coach officers from the council were pointing out to us problems with access during the construction phase, where entrances might be sited and where difficulties might arise as well as possible ways to overcome them.
Then it was back to the Baptist Tabernacle for a warm cuppa before the meeting. A large number of people had come along to hear the debate, and many of them registered an interest in speaking - 10 objectors as well as a couple of supporters. The report from our planning officers was long and detailed, pointing out that government policy is in support of renewable energy but also pointing out that in this case there were serious concerns about the access especially for abnormal loads. The developer made no effort to address these concerns but simply reiterated the need for wind energy. The objectors raised lots of issues which had some relevance but weren't sufficient to refuse the application on. In the end it all came down to the fact that in order to get the turbines to the site there would need to be serious destruction of some old hedging and trees, a removal of the recently installed traffic calming in Hilton village, and some difficult manoevres on country roads. The committee couldn't see how these could be reinstated, especially when the lifespan of the turbines is only 25 years so there would need to be removal of at least some parts at that time and perhaps new bringing in. No time for a hedge to grow back to its 100 year old status! I felt sad that Stockton's first application for a wind farm had been brought in on such a poor site and said so in the committee. I really do think there must be places which are more easily accessible by the size of vehicle needed and I hope developers keep looking.

An MP came to call

So Lembit Opik came, after negotiating awful traffic and weather up the A1. He was held up, so were other people but in the end we managed a bit of campaigning in Yarm and a very pleasant constituency dinner.
We now have lots of signatures on our petition against ID cards - a waste of money on a bit of plastic which won't stop anyone committing a crime though if it survives the terrorist explosion it's supposedly designed to prevent it might tell us who committed the atrocity. Liberal Democrats say we should have better policing - more police out on the streets where they can see what's going on, as well as all the technological back up they need behind the scenes. All the ID cards in the world wouldn't have stopped Jean Charles de Menezes being shot the way he was, because no-one asked him to identify himself. With this government's record so far on data storage and IT systems I don't trust them to keep my biometric data safe.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

An MP comes to call

Tomorrow we have a visit to the area from Lembit Opik MP. Lembit is hoping to become the president of the Liberal Democrats later this year and so he's much in demand as a speaker around the country.
Today was spent in a whirlwind of final arrangements while trying to do all the other things that needed catching up on in the ward. Unfortunately, after a couple of fine days ideal for outdoor campaigning and delivering of Focus, tomorrow is forecast to be wet and windy - waterproofs out I think.
I had a very interesting meeting with some residents tonight who are extremely concerned at what they see as undue pressure being put on members of the planning committee at Stockton to agree with officer recommendations. This perception of the lack of openness and the extra pressure was what prompted a coalition to throw out the recommendations from cabinet. Now it's important that whatever procedure is introduced to try to cut down the number of adverse appeal decisions is transparent. Much more work to be done on that front.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Our Children's Future

A day of almost non-stop meetings today with very little chance to eat in between.
The first two were very useful and important - a Parish Council Recreation Committee meeting to discuss how to take forward our bid for funding for our play area improvements and then on to an update on Building Schools for the Future.
The Parish meeting was very encouraging and also daunting - hundreds of children from all our schools had completed questionnaires telling us what they wanted us to provide. Everything from litter bins to skate parks, dozens of different ideas, all sensible, all worth pursuing even if we can't get them all in our Parish area. Lots of work needs to be done now on filling in the forms to make the bid our children deserve.
Building Schools for the Future was also informative but also full of aspirations, dreams and wishes. If we really can achieve the vision it'll be wonderful but underlying everything are real concerns about whether the funding will be enough, whether we should be planning to move children around from one base to another and at what age this is appropriate, whether some of the pieces of land identified for new build really are the best sites for schools. Many questions yet to be answered and a long road to travel.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Well, I had my meeting and I think that democracy in Stockton might just have inched forward slightly, though very slightly. Enough said - it's too technical and in the background to worry most people.
It was good to hear that over 90% of people in the ward have returned electoral canvass forms or their electronic equivalent. If you're one of the people who hasn't yet done it, do it quickly please. You can download the form now!
This evening I went to the second half of the compulsory planning training which any councillor who wants to sit on planning committee either regularly or as an occasional substitute has to undertake. It's about making sure that we understand the rules governing planning - not about stifling debate but trying to make sure that the decisions are in accordance with policy and that they're reached in a transparent and honest way. Not always easy in the heat of the planning meeting so it's good sometimes to sit and debate at a training some of the difficulties.


On this day in 1714 George Ludwig of Hanover became King George 1st of Great Britain & Ireland. It was under George that the real power in government transferred from the King and advisers to a Prime Minister and Cabinet. Seems quite an auspicious day to go to a meeting to discuss how the constitution of Stockton council is working, or not, to promote real democracy in the borough.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Catching up

After the wine tasting on Friday of course there's a great deal of tidying up of loose ends, and that became today's job. Accounts to update, spare bottles to put away, empties into the recycling box ready for Tuesday's collection. The collectors are going to think we've had a wonderful party!
I can just about see the dining table now and the floor is almost clear, so the job must be nearly done.
There was also time to send photos of the evening to those who'd asked for them, and to file copies in our records ready for our renewal application.
Now it's time to finalise the listings of suppliers - caterers and retailers - for our nice shiny colour directory to be published next February. So if you know of a supplier in Stockton Borough and you think I might not know them - get in touch quickly. Tomorrow might be too late.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Stand up against Poverty, Then sit down to enjoy wine

Two opportunities for me today to take part in the Stand Up Against Poverty campaign - an effort to get a record number of people to stand up and be counted. First of all, I was in Stockton at 1 so could join the mayor, council staff and a handful of councillors outside Municipal Buildings. Then this evening at the Fairtrade Wine tasting, we did it again. Everyone stood while the Mayor read the declaration. After which we sat down and enjoyed trying out some Fairtrade wines.
The evening was a great success - over 50 people tried 6 different wines. Everyone seemed to find at least one they liked, and some enjoyed all 6! The prize was eventually won by the team which included the mayor but I don't know if that's a reflection on his wine knowledge or the people he chose to sit with! There was a mix of people from different ages, different backgrounds and different parts of the Borough all having a fun evening. I'm sure we'll have to do it again. I can't close without mentioning that it wouldn't have been possible without generous sponsorship from Sainsbury's at Whitehouse Farm and the North East Co-op. Both organisations are big supporters of the Fairtrade movement and well worth supporting.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

End of an Era

Tonight was the last Parish Council meeting for one of the longest serving parish clerks in the Borough. Helen Rennison has served the council and through it the people of Egglescliffe Civil Parish for 22 years. In all the time that I've been a member of that council she has consistently worked unstintingly more hours than she was contracted to do if she saw that an issue was urgent. She will be missed by all, but especially by those of us who chair committees because Helen has made that job so easy.
The new clerk is settling in and no doubt we'll soon be relying on her as much as we once did on Helen.
I don't usually write about Parish Council matters here because that council resolutely steers away from party politics, but on this occasion I'm going to break my own rule! A letter went to residents of a large part of the civil parish about traffic calming in the vicinity of Muirfield Rd and Butterfield Rd. The scheme involves speed humps on a number of roads but also, nothing to do with traffic calming, extensive parking restrictions at the beginning and end of the school day. The letter says that this was approved by the Parish Council. At last night's meeting everyone on the council agreed that the parking restrictions had not been discussed, let alone approved, and that the council would write to the Community Engineer to protest at the letter. So, for residents of Egglescliffe Parish who received that letter - please don't be angry with your Parish Council. The parking wasn't their idea!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Long Day!

The day started well enough with a meeting about the programme for the Western Area Partnership for the next couple of months. Zoe brought down the graffiti canvas which has been produced showing the Board's responses to the issues raised by the young people earlier in the year. It looks good and we're going to arrange to have them both on display in libraries so that people can see and read them.
Then it was on to the Council's Forward plan - a necessary but not very exciting meeting to go through the programme for the coming year and discuss any slippage in target dates, any extra consultation which needs to be done and so on.
Time for a quick dash to Norton to deliver an important package then back to Stockton ready for the planning committee. This afternoon was a marathon - starting just after 1 reading update reports and trying to get clarification of some of the issues in advance. There was a long report and longer debate on the new Energy from Waste plant at Haverton Hill. Eventually it was approved, and I was pleased to hear that SITA are hoping to have contracts to supply not just power to the grid but heat to neighbouring companies.
The very long saga of an unauthorised development in another part of the borough finally came to a conclusion today, or at least I hope it did. I hope the developer now complies with all the conditions and completes the job properly.
The Urlay Nook Rd industrial & warehousing development took a very long time to decide. There was a good debate, with lots of good points made by a resident who spoke and by members of the committee but in the end there just didn't seem to be a sustainable planning reason for refusing it. I'm cross that the council decided last year that the land wasn't needed for industrial use but the consultation process needed to get that change of classification accepted is so long that in the mean time the owner could put in plans, have them refused, modify them and come back and get them accepted. There's no sense in us spending time debating the merits of the classification then being told that the change can't take effect yet because we haven't consulted enough.
The Rookery demolition was deferred until the applicant can show to the committee firm evidence that the economics of underpinning aren't viable. That followed a long debate on a particular part of Stockton's policy which says that demolition in a conservation area can be allowed if the building can't be repaired economically (my paraphrase). I don't hold out a lot of hope for its preservation but at least I'll be sure we've done all we can within the present law.
There were over 10 more applications to consider, thankfully not all as lengthy to debate as these, but all important to the people involved and all deserving of careful consideration. By the end of the meeting, over 4 hours after I'd arrived at the library, everyone was pretty tired but it wasn't the end of the day for members - full Council met at 7.
Often the council meeting is very quick and non-contentious because issues have been ironed out at various committees and other meetings, Cabinet has taken a decision and everyone is more or less in agreement with it. On this occasion there were two items which needed a vote.
The first was a good example of a member (John Fletcher, a fellow Eaglescliffe councillor and this year's mayor) working with another member who is also mayor of Thornaby Town council, to find a way through a maze of red tape and bad feeling so that the chains which were worn by the mayor of Thornaby in the days before unitary authorities were invented could be safely returned to Thornaby. This issue has been a sore point between Stockton and Thornaby councils since the latter was formed as a Town Council some years ago. Thanks to John's analytic and logical thinking and persistence on the part of both members the final hurdle waa crossed last night with a vote in favour. I look forward to the handover on the Victoria bridge!
The other issue was more technical but in some ways more important. At times the planning committee refuses an application even though planning officers have recommended that it be approved. Sometimes that's on a balance of fairly subjective views on design or amenity. At other times it's because the committee knows that it's the last thing residents want but under present planning laws it can't be refused. Nevertheless in the heat of the moment we can't bring ourselves to approve it. If the applicant goes to appeal the inspector grants the latter kind as a matter of course, and we win some of the "on balance" type. In an effort to stop the "democratic wishes" kind of refusal the planning officers had proposed a protocol which would mean such decisions weren't taken immediately but sent to review by the Head of Planning and the Corporate Director of Neighbourhood Servicies with a solicitor who would then come back to the planning committee 3 weeks later and advise again on whether or not to refuse it. Many of us thought this process gave the impression of officers putting undue pressure on members. If it happens in the open, in a meeting, everyone sees and hears. When part of the deliberation is behind closed doors it leaves a bad feeling on the part of the people who end up on the losing side and the reputation of the council suffers with its residents.
A lengthy discussion by email and face to face meant that members of every party but Labour supported an amendment to get a rethink on that, despite the Tory leader siding with Labour. A follow up amendment which I proposed to tidy up a really badly written recommendation even got some Labour support - the first time I've known that on something which was not agreed in advance with their leader. A triumph for Democracy on Democracy day.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Traffic Calming and School Parking

I realise that I've written very little recently, but it's not because nothing's been happening. On the contrary, too much has been happening and not all of it political or council business.
Amongst other things I've been involved in organising the Fairtrade wine tasting event happening on Friday evening this week at St John's Living Well. It promises to be a fun night and there are still a few tickets left for a very light-hearted evening tasting wine and deciding what we like, or not as the case may be. An added bonus is that the Mayor of Stockton is going to be there.
The big issue for residents of parts of the ward at the moment is the proposed traffic calming and parking restrictions. Some months ago Egglescliffe and Eaglescliffe council (formerly known as Egglescliffe Parish Council) raised concerns with Stockton's community engineer about the speed of traffic on some estate roads, especially Butterfield Drive, Seymour Grove , Muirfield Rd and Carnoustie Drive. These were roads which had been the subject of complaints for years. There was a lot of discussion about speed and about the other problem of cars parking near to the primary schools in the area. The engineer went off and came back with suggestions.
Seymour Grove - it's not sensible to do anything at the moment because it's going to need a major resurfacing job and that's the time to put down road markings or speed bumps.
Butterfield Drive - put in speed bumps on Butterfield Drive and on Greenfield Drive from the junction with Butterfield to the junction with Durham Lane.
Carnoustie/Muirfield - put in speed bumps on Muirfield Rd, Sunningdale Drive and Carnoustie Drive.
However, he has also proposed that there should be school start and finish time waiting restrictions near to the Links School and Junction Farm School. These would be in force from 8.30 till 9.30 each school morning and from 2.30 - 4 pm. It's these that are causing some considerable concern from people worried about parking problems just moving further into other roads and from people living on the roads concerned who won't be able to park outside their own homes for a couple of hours each day. For example, how does someone with mobility problems who doesn't qualify for a blue badge park find a parking spot away from their house and then walk back to the house?
Over 1000 letters have gone out to the people living on these two estates and I'd urge anyone with views of any sort, for or against, the suggestions to send back the response sheet. The schemes won't go ahead unles 70% of those who reply are in favour. It's no good discussing it at the pub or the school gate and then not sending back the form. Do put pen to paper or fingers to keyboards. We've already had copies of comments sent by some people, and there have been some very good points made.

Meanwhile if you want tickets or more information about the wine tasting don't forget to get in touch.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Fairtrade Campaign Day

It's not often that two of us from Eaglescliffe get ourselves up and out on a Saturday morning before 8 but today was one such occasion. Suzanne Fletcher and I had decided to forego a lie in so that we could go to Sheffield for a Fairtrade Foundation campaign day. The venue was Sheffield Hallam University, a Fairtrade university and a very good venue for such an event. A few minutes walk from the railway station, and very accessible.
At Darlington station we met up with Shabana from the Middlesbrough Fairtrade group so the journey down was spent discussing some of the things that might happen in Teesside. The day itself was crammed with opportunities for meeting other campaigners, workshop sessions to discuss all sorts of topics and presentations from various people. There was far too much to write about here. On the train home I typed up 3 pages of notes from the day to share with others in Stockton!
A few highlights here though:
70% of people in the UK now recognise the Fairtrade mark - better than many leading brand names!
In the 20 minutes of a presentation about the Co-op's involvement in the movement 400 children around the world died because of poverty - and you don't have to be a genius to realise that they didn't live in the developed world.
Fairtrade cotton clothes retailers have to be able to demonstrate that the whole of their supply chain is meeting certain minimum standards like freedom of association for the workforce, basic wages, no child labour before they're allowed to use the Fairtrade mark on the clothing. It doesn't mean that the supply chain is all fairtrade but it should mean that the workers are getting a basic minimum of rights. There's work ongoing on how to ensure that the manufacture of the garments is done with higher standards but that will take some time. The representative of one small clothing company described how she'd found this audit trail very educational as well as hard work.
There isn't nearly enough Fairtrade chocolate in this country. We heard via the wonders of the internet from two members of the Kapua Kokoo co-operative in Ghana who produce the cocoa beans for Divine Chocolate and the Co-op's own brand. Less than 10% of their production is sold on the Fairtrade market yet the premium from those sales is making a huge difference to the lives of the families involved - educating the children, empowering the women, providing clean water for all the families. At the end they had one question for us: "Are you buying our chocolate?" We need every newsagent and every petrol station mini-shop to offer Fairtrade Chocolate as one option - it's such good chocolate that once people taste it they'll buy more!
We heard about a campaigner who celebrated her 60th birthday by taking a giant Fairtrade banana on a bus tour of libraries, schools and shopping centres in her neighbourhood using her free bus pass. She generated loads of publicity locally!
And so the day went on - lots of inspiration and lots of ideas. The art now is to enthuse others before the buzz wears off!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Play time

Amidst the more mundane and routine meetings yesterday was one on new initiatives for play in the borough. It's become obvious over the last 12 months that finally people like central government advisers and safety experts have concluded that children need adventure and that falling over etc is a learning experience and not something to be avoided at all costs. So there's quite a lot of money available for groups to bid for to have play spaces which allow that adventure in a relatively safe environment. Stockton has been awarded some of that money and although the first year's allocation is being used on things which were already planned there's some available for new projects for next year and the year after. Today the Parish Council Recreation committee met to discuss how to go about bidding for some of that money to help with the plans we have for our play areas. Incorporating some elements of natural play and adventure into Amberley Way and St Margarets would go a long way towards helping our young people enjoy being out of doors and active. Fingers crossed!

The less fun, but necessary part of the day was the planning training which occupied the twilight spot from 4 till 6. Part of the requirement for councillors to sit on the planning committee is that we keep up to date with the issues around fettering discretion and declaring interests, keeping within the laws and codes of conduct and generally making sure that we are not only doing things properly but making it clear to the public that we are doing them properly. This element of training is taken very seriously by committee and officers alike. There are other aspects of training on which we disagree, but that's an issue for another day.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Partnerships and Priorities

Far too much of today was spent sitting on not very comfortable chairs listening to people telling us how good their particular service is in Stockton. It was supposed to be about setting some priorities for our area but in fact was much more about hearing what was supposedly happening, and to be fair in lots of instances actually is happening. Then just when we were tired and wanting to get out into some fresh air we got to the bit about choosing priorities. Actually they're not priorities for action but for monitoring how well the council and its partners are doing in those matters. Being the "new kids on the block" in partnership terms of course the Western Area people didn't quite stick to the rules so we have set some priorities which we will be monitoring very closely. Residents of Eaglescliffe won't be surprised to know that positive activities for children and young people is one of them! And feeling good about the area is another which seems to us to cover absolutely everything that matters to people.
I managed to fit in a quick visit to hospital to seem my mother before heading to the Western
Area Partnership meeting at Long Newton. It's always good to go to the Wilson Centre and enjoy the hospitality there. It's a community centre which really is at the centre of its community. Several of us had spent the day at the other event so our brains were a little on the woolly side but we did manage some lively debate on employment in the area and various other issues. No major decisions though.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Money to Spend!

The Western Area Partnership Board doesn't usually have money to spend because that's not how things work. However, a new government initiative to focus funding on getting more people into work will mean a small amount of money targeted at our area. We're not talking about major projects here, but finding ways to help those who need a helping hand - maybe because they've been made redundant, are thinking about retraining but don't know what skills are needed, or maybe because they've graduated but now can't find work near to family and friends, or perhaps for some reason they've never found work since leaving school. I spent some time this morning mulling over ideas and criteria with council officers in preparation for meetings on Monday which will start to firm up some ideas. Exciting times, but also daunting because if we get it wrong there isn't a second chance with the money.
The second meeting of the day was to discuss recommendations from the last scrutiny review which the Environment committee did - Customer First, the council's customer service programme. It was a really constructive discussion with the cabinet member, officers and me all working on the recommendations to make sure they are clear and precise. Another hurdle out of the way so that we can move on to the review of animal welfare services and dog fouling - life on the Environment Select committee is certainly varied!!
This evening I had a report of anti-social behaviour not far from my own home so spent some time round there talking with the residents and finding out the details. It seems incredible but apparently there are people who drive to the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, park their cars with the music on full blast and proceed to drink beer and eat pizzas. The debris is then thrown up onto garage roofs or into gardens before they drive away at speed! What possible pleasure do they get from it? Phone calls to the police and Stockton's enforcement section have elicited promises of visits tonight so I hope they actually get some evidence or manage to put a stop to it. No resident should have their sleep disturbed like that and especially not elderly people who deserve our respect.