Thursday, January 31, 2008


Gale force winds and icy cold sleet reminded us today that winter can still have traditional weather. There's snow forecast over the next few days so the winter woollies can come out.
All the more appropriate then, that the EU has been debating global warming and in particular the sale of items such as patio heaters which are now so popular but are also very wasteful of non-renewable energy. Our local MEP, Fiona Hall, supports the idea of banning such things but I'm not so sure - as a Liberal I'm not in favour of bans unless there's no other way to resolve a problem. I'm also not sure that it's appropriate for the EU to be micro-managing things to such a degree. Better for European and national bodies to set targets and policies to achieve them and then leave it to the more local level to implement them appropriately. I'm pleased that B&Q have already decided not to sell any more. I'm sure that education is the way forward rather than banning.

3 small steps

Sometimes it's not the big gestures which get things done but the little conversations and debates behind the scenes. That's what's been happening this week.
First of all there was the first meeting of the new Health and Wellbeing Partnership for the borough - a mix of councillors, council officers, health professionals and community representation. As part of a discussion on community cohesion I suggested that the Borough's markets could be a big help to people trying to have a healthy diet. They sell fresh fruit and veg at a reasonable price in whatever quantity people want to buy, so if they also had posters which helped us to choose a good balance or leaflets with cooking instructions it might be a good help. To my amazement this was taken up as "a really good idea" all round the table. Then yesterday when I mentioned it in the context of a discussion about the market again it was seized on, so watch out for something happening in the next few months on the markets.
Some time ago the Fairtrade group suggested having FT cotton bags available on the market, printed with the FT logo and the market logo. It seemed to get lost in the system. Yesterday I found that it was being discussed and again it's getting a favourable hearing as an easy way of promoting the market. It was also part of the Lib Dem campaign to reduce the number of plastic bags being used and I found that was also being taken seriously!
I've also suggested in one or two forums in the past that locally sourced food should be used when possible but been told it wasn't possible. Yesterday I was told that the costs and practicalities of doing this for civic catering were being looked at - wow!
Meanwhile, we are spending a lot of time looking at the budget for the coming year and trying as always to get a quart out of a pint pot. It seems that every year the government gives us more things we have to do with less and less money, and residents find it harder every year (along with councillors) to understand the complexities of the budget.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Fire Service Cuts

At tonight's council meeting the Liberal Democrats had put down a motion supporting the Fire Authority's need for proper funding. The government has changed the rules about how their funding is calculated and as a result there'll be cuts in services unless more money can be found from somewhere. Before the motion was debated there was a presentation from the Fire Service about the issues, followed by the chance to ask questions. No-one asked a question but several labour people and the Tory leader spoke in support of the service. That meant of course that they didn't have to speak in favour of our motion - such is the petty nature of some council meetings.
In the end, the motion was carried unanimously. Even the Labour group leader put his hand up when he realised that he'd be the only one not supporting it!
On the way home we were a bit surprised to find cars swerving in the road in front of us until we spotted the two-seater settee in the middle of the road, whereupon Alan also swerved and I called the police. I hope by now it's been moved. Sadly I didn't have my camera to record the surreal scene.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Have Your Say

This was the invitation to representatives of the secondary schools of the Western, Eastern and Central Areas of the borough today. I went along to the event, organised on behalf of the Children's Trust Board, to listen to what the young people from the Western Area had to say. It was well worth spending the time. The young people had a lot of sensible suggestions about things which could be done to improve life for them and other young people in the borough - some of them long term and some fairly short term. I took the opportunity at the break to ask them specifically about the play areas and play facilities in Eaglescliffe. They suggested some football goal posts on St Margarets play area.
It was interesting that one of them said he plays football with his friends on what he called the field at Hindhead! He said that people get upset when their ball goes in the garden, but pointed out that the grass is a bit small for a decent game. He also complained that some adults pop the football instead of giving it back. It was very interesting to hear the other side of the problem. He was quite resigned to the idea of having some trees planted there because he acknowledged that it wasn't really a good place to play.
I was very encouraged by the positive response to a suggestion of having a Western Area Youth Forum so I went straight back to municipal buildings and e-mailed the person who's going to be in charge of the Integrated Service Area covering Eaglescliffe to ask for his help in setting it up. His answer was that he's just getting to grips with the new job ready for the Integrated Service Areas being fully operational in April. He's going to come to the Partnership board in march to give us an update on progress so I'll be asking about it again there if nothing's happened in the meantime.
It was also good to see them enjoying the last workshop of the day which was on street dancing. Some of them went off clutching information to get in touch and do more. Great fun, but far to energetic for my joints at the moment.
Later there was a briefing for Group leaders on the recommendations that have come out of the initial consultation on Building Schools for the Future, but it's confidential for now so more of that later.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Hindhead Open Space

Alan and I started this morning in the pouring rain at the open space between Hindhead and the end of Hazel Slade. Older teenagers have been playing some pretty rough games of football on this grass for months now and making life miserable for the residents of this little road through their rudeness and foul language. Most of us don't want the open space to disappear but we also don't want this situation to continue. The decision this morning was to have some trees planted on the space, leaving room for younger children to play but hopefully stopping the serious games which ruin garden hedges and fences as well as wearing the grass and upset the neighbours. Fingers crossed on that one.
This evening I was invited to a meeting with a Conservative MP to discuss what can be done in the next Parliamentary term over what's become known here as Garden grabbing. The local CPRE representative is hosting the meeting and I look forward to an interesting discussion. Whilst I'm unlikely to agree with many Tory policies I'd be more than delighted if they put our wishes into practice on this one.
On Saturday, while I was enjoying my grand-daughter's birthday party, stalwart Liberal Democrats were at a conference in London discussing issues which need to be covered in our manifesto for the next election. Tonight I found this interesting account of what went on in one session. I look forward to seeing the results of the deliberations. We know that the main policies will be the ones agreed by the party conference because that's how our party does things, but there's still room for a lot of influence by the new leader.

Recycling Hiccups

Just a slight drawback to the recent frenzy of ridding the house of the mountain of paper which has accumulated over recent years. Several carrier bags as well as the blue bag went outside on Tuesday morning ready for our ever-willing collectors. Unfortunately, one of the bags went out in error as I realised when one of the men knocked at the door to return the plastic box of money which had been at the bottom of the bag! The things he couldn't return because they'd already gone into the wagon were the important forms and accounts documentation which had been ready to go their rightful owners last night! Oops doesn't quite do justice to my reaction. I now have the job of explaining and trying to salvage what can be from the mess.
The Christmas tree was duly collected yesterday as arranged but only after the wagon had been down the road once! I'll be interested to see the report on the new system and its efficiency.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Setting Priorities

A big meeting of all the "partners" and "stakeholders" of Stockton Renaissance to propose priorities for our local plan for the borough last week. This is hugely important and very difficult for most people to influence, but I tried to do my bit. One of the areas of debate was employment, with lots of work going on (funded mainly by central government grants) to get into employment those few hundred people who are unwilling or unable to get a job without a lot of help. This ranges from people with disabilities who need help to convince an employer that, for example, just because their legs don't work as well as most doesn't mean their arms or their brains don't right through to those who've grown up surrounded by unemployment and don't see any prospect for change. I tried to get something in about an employment issue that's been brought to my attention in Eaglescliffe - that of young people who want to work and have the qualifications but then can't get a job in this area because the jobs available don't use their qualifications. I'd like to see more of a drive to get more high skill jobs into the borough but we shall see whether anything is done. All the regeneration of buildings is fine, but if we don't regenerate the communities too we'll be back to square one in no time.
Meanwhile thanks to those of you who responded to the questionnaire on this site on affordable housing in Eaglescliffe - a pretty even split of opinion showed up.

Friday, January 11, 2008

What are we worth?

There's quite a debate around the council at present on the subject of the allowances paid to councillors. These are meant to cover us for the time we spend on council duties and activities to make sure that people of all income levels can be elected and it isn't just open to those with well paid jobs who can take a day off when needed for a meeting or those who are retired and have a good pension. For example, in the four days of this week so far I've spent about 25 hours on being a councillor, something I couldn't have done if I'd needed to be at work during the day.
An independent panel is established to look at allowances and the work involved and make a proposal about how much the allowances should be, and they've just reported that Stockton's councillors get less than in any other similar council, in many cases by a large percentage. So now the debate is - should we get a big increase to bring us in line with equivalent authorities or do we soldier on with low allowances and not seem to be greedy? I've known at least 2 people in recent years who've been elected when out of work and then been worse off because their allowance reduced their benefits and they couldn't get a job because they needed time off for meetings. That's not the way to make the council representative of all strands of our borough's population. Or do we try to bring ourselves in line with similar authorities and hope that a wider range of people will be willing to give up the time in the future?
As you can see, it's a big question with no easy answers and whatever we decide will upset some people.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Recycle those Trees

Although the 12 days of Christmas aren't over yet I know that for many people the return to work on 2nd January signals the end of the festive season so a reminder that this year Stockton Council is trying a different system for recycling real Christmas trees - phone o1642 321959 to arrange a day for collection. The trees are chipped and composted to produce soil improver for the parks and gardens which the council looks after.
On a sadder note, we returned from an enjoyable evening with friends last night to an e-mail from a couple we know in Nairobi. They and their families in other parts of Kenya are safe at present but David wrote:"The security situation has deteriorated rapidly since the results of the general elections were announced on the 27th. What has followed is unprecendented orgy of violence, looting, destruction, killing and maiming owing to disputes in the very closely contested presidential elections. Some of the worst volence was seen in Nairobi, and Western Kenya as well as Mombasa which is where Joyce comes from, thank God her family is safe.
We have to constantly remind ourselves that we are not watching CNN or BBC World...we are caught up in this mess... sleep is disturbed by machine Gun fire, neighbourhoods don't feel safe anymore..."peace on earth to men of good will" which we just sung on Christmas...we need it !
Our country which has been hitherto been a model of democracy and a haven a of peace in a volatile region now needs all the prayers if only to get leaders soften up to each other."
Once again we were reminded of just how fortunate we are here - we may not have the best system in the world but we certainly don't have the worst. We need to make sure we don't lose those precious freedoms we have in this country.