Monday, March 31, 2008

Spring in the Air

Today has been a lovely sunny spring day, the kind that lifts the spirits no matter what is on the agenda. The spring bulbs which we arranged to have planted as part of our small environmental improvements are looking wonderful - hosts of golden daffodils along roadsides, swathes of purple and white crocus and the green of the grass. A very visible sign of what some of the money was spent on, and I'm pleased with the result. I hope residents are too. The photograph of Durham Lane was taken by my colleague, Cllr Alan Lewis.
There was a meeting of the Fairtrade Steering Group today which gave a chance to reflect on the successes and disappointments of Fairtrade Fortnight in Stockton as well as starting to plan for the coming months. A stall in Preston Park during the Greener Living Roadshow on June 8th is the next event so watch this space for more details.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Earth Hour

Yesterday, 29th March, residents and businesses in 28 cities did what Sydney did in 2007 - turned off the lights for an hour at 8pm. Earth Hour started as a statement about one of the biggest contributors to global warming -coal fired electricity. Although turning the lights off for an hour won't save the world it does make the participants and observers think, and that's important. It helps people to make the little changes which will add up to the big difference.
You can sign up now for 2009, or check out your personal carbon footprint (on a much simplified 1 minute questionnaire) and then think about how to reduce it over the next few weeks or months. Personally, I rather like the occasional candle lit dinner to save electricity (though I haven't calculated how much carbon dioxide the candles produce!).
Seriously - why not give it a go. If enough Eaglescliffe residents want to join in we could register Eaglescliffe as a participating area for 2009.

Life, Research & Ethics

There's been a fair bit of coverage in the media recently of the proposals going before Parliament on embryo research. Those in favour of allowing such moves claim that we need to do this in order to find cures for diseases such as Parkinsons and Alzheimers. I have loads of sympathy with the sufferers of such diseases and their families. My own father suffered from both, living out his final year in hospital because there were no homes able to cope with Alzheimer's in the area at the time. His deterioration was heartbreaking for all the family and we will always be grateful to those nursing staff who did manage to show compassion and understanding to us during those months.
I spent yesterday visiting our daughter and her family, including the unborn but very active new grandchild. It was wonderful to be able to spend time with them, looking forward to the birth and enjoying the antics of their toddler daughter.
Then today, food for thought at church as a spokesperson for Life told of some of their work with men and women facing the trauma of life after abortion or unplanned, difficult and distressing pregnancies. She gave statistics on how many treatments for illnesses have resulted from Adult Stem Cell research, stem cells freely donated by people who can make that choice compared to those which have resulted from Foetal Stem Cell and embryo research. Over 70 conditions over the past 50 years from the former, including leukaemia being treated by bone marrow transplants, but none from the latter. Yet when the arguments for more and more leeway on the type of research allowed are advanced the successes of Adult Stem Cell therapies don't seem to make it into print. I don't take everything that someone tells me as gospel truth, but I do like to be given both sides of an argument and allowed to make up my own mind. Today made me wonder if we're being misled by some campaigners.
Of course, the question of when the embryo becomes a living being with a soul is one for a place other than a political blog! Worth pondering though - are we more than just a collection of cells?, more than an animal that's learnt to talk and walk upright?
At times like this I'm profoundly glad that Stockton Borough Council doesn't have to make these laws. We have enough problems trying to work out whether to expand the youth services or spend the money on vulnerable adults or roads or ......!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Allen's West

There's an application in now for outline planning permission for the Allen's West site on Durham Lane. The new owners of the site want to be able to build houses and a care home on part of the site and keep light industry and warehousing on the remaining part. Although they've produced an indication of what they'd like to put where, the only definite thing they're asking for at the moment is confirmation that a mixed use is acceptable and changes to the access. They're proposing a new roundabout and entrance for the industrial traffic at the northern end of the site and changes to the present entrance to make it suitable for the residential end of their proposal.
Last night, wearing our Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe Council (formerly known as Egglescliffe Parish council) hats Alan, John and I attended a special meeting of the E&EC to discuss the application. It's very difficult to discuss something when you know that there could and probably will be changes when it comes to a full application for the design, siting and landscaping of the buildings. The plans are quite long term because the first stage, if approved, is to make changes to provide suitable habitat for the wildlife which currently uses the site, including skylarks, great crested newts, dingy skippers and bats. The applicant admits that the changes will not be enough to mitigate the damage to the skylark habitat, but as it isn't a protected species I'm not sure how much impact that will have on the decision making process.

When I listened in to the public consultation I heard a lot of people saying that they would be happy to have some housing on the site if it would enable the jobs to be retained on the other part of the site, but that they were worried about the traffic that would be generated. That seems to be reflected in what the applicants have reported as a result of their consultations. The Parish Council has expressed a number of concerns about the sustainability of the proposals, especially some of the housing which is a long way from the railway station and the bus stops and even further from the shops. The bus service along Durham Lane (which they sometimes call Durham Road!) is described in their application as being "6 per hour" when in fact it hasn't been that frequent in living memory and is currently only 1 per hour in each direction.

At the moment my feeling is that something can be done in terms of mixed development but that what is being proposed is unsustainable in the long term and needs to be reconsidered. However, as always, I reserve my final opinion until the matter comes to Planning Committee.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Talking Rubbish

The final meeting of the Environment Select Committee was yesterday afternoon, with the agreement of the final report on Waste management and Recycling as the main item on the agenda. We'd agreed to start with a presentation of a summary of the rationale for the review and the evidence we'd received for all interested councillors before we went on to finalise our recommendations. Unfortunately an error in sending out the invitation meant it was timed for half an hour after the meeting was due to start so there was a very quick re-arrangement of the agenda to cover some items before other councillors arrived. We had almost an hour of presentation and questions, all good and valuable. It showed that we were right in our judgement of the importance of the issue to ward councillors and to their electors. As a result of that discussion and further discussion in the committee we slightly amended one of the draft recommendations to allay some of the worries being expressed.
Although it meant that I spent over 3 hours on the meeting and finalising the report afterwards I believe it was time well worth spending. The scrutiny committee took a lot of evidence which enabled us to make a very well informed set of recommendations to move the service up the several notches needed to achieve the demanding targets being set by government for 2010 and beyond. We listened to the public and realised that many people are willing to accept change if it's explained properly and doesn't cause them too many problems. Now we look forward to convincing Cabinet next month that this is the way forward and then seeing the changes gradually introduced.
When looking at the results of the public consultation we realised that the response rate from some areas was significantly higher than the average. I knew that Eaglescliffe residents had been encouraged to respond by us as ward councillors, and that might have accounted for some of our higher than average turnout. I discovered yesterday that in one of the other wards the same thing had happened, though neither of the ward councillors was on the committee and the ward is as different as possible from ours. I'm very grateful to those councillors for promoting the consultation as vigorously as they did in their ward, and to others who did the same but haven't mentioned it to me. I'm very pleased that so many people responded and gave such full answers.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Pretty Pictures

As promised, just a couple of pictures to brighten up this page: Melbourne Harbour from the Observation platform of the Rialto Tower, and the iconic red rock of Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock by white settlers) seen early in the morning soon after dawn.
And now it's back to work in Eaglescliffe and the Borough of Stockton.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Rest & Recuperation

Even councillors are allowed a holiday sometimes so this week we've been far afield spending time with our daughter and son in law. We don't see them very often so it's really good to spend time together and see their new flat and a new part of town. We've seen interesting places and enjoyed some good weather. When I'm back home I'll upload some pictures, but meanwhile I'm very grateful to Alan and John for looking after the ward and meaning that I don't have to worry about it. It's one of the benefits of the multi-member ward system that residents don't have to do without a councillor at any point in the year. If there's a single member representing a ward it's much more difficult to take time off without it having an adverse impact on the ward.
So I shall enjoy the rest of my holiday with a clear conscience and hope to return after Easter refreshed.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

This morning's meeting to put the draft recommendations from committee to the Corporate Director and the Cabinet member went very smoothly and was over in 45 minutes. So now all that needs doing is to write a report! Fortunately it's not my job to actually write it, having agreed what should go in it. In a fortnight's time we'll run the meeting as an open seminar to start with and then the formal committee meeting to finalise the report. All being well it'll go as smoothly as yesterday's - good discussion and then consensus.
The rest of the day was spent on family things, until it was time to go to a meeting of Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe council. The meetings of the Parish council are so different to those of the borough council - no party politics, just 13 members and an officer wanting to get the best for the people of the area. Sometimes we disagree on the way forward but not nastily. Still, it wouldn't do for all the world to be the same would it.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The first meeting of the day was at 9 to discuss a number of issues with the Corporate Director of Neighbourhood Services. There was an update on the Local List, which is moving forward at long last but it's probably too little too late for some buildings. Then there was time for a quick chat about some of the possible recommendations from Environment Select, just to make sure that I wasn't going to propose something impractical or unachievable.
At 10 it was time for the meeting of the Select Committee. We had an update on the consultation - more than 3000 people had responded to the survey and the responses have been analysed by wards, age groups & ethnic groups so we've got a really comprehensive picture of public opinion. We had some animated discussion about possible recommendations and agreed that no one solution fits all areas so we'll need to look at various methods of storage and collection of material for recycling and disposal. We accepted the fact that, whatever our views on the energy from waste plant at Haverton Hill the new government performance indicators do not encourage using "waste" to make energy. We are going to have to massively improve our recycling rate and reduce the amount of rubbish we produce, and fast.
At the end of 2 hours we had 11 recommendations and 3 further points we wanted to make. We also decided to put down a marker for 2009/10 that we will want to scrutinise performance on our carbon reduction strategy when it's been in place for a year and to look at our own waste - how is the council treating things it no longer needs. Rubbish or recycling? We may also wish to look at how the council's partners are dealing with the same issues.
There was just time to do a few more jobs, write a couple of letters and deal with a host of e-mails before council tonight. Some very good questions were asked, and not all were answered but Alan Lewis asked about the council doing something to encourage owners of private car parks like the ones at Sunningdale shops and Orchard shops to enforce the proper use of disabled parking bays. He was told that thanks to his question council officers would now look into this!
Sadly, not such a positive outcome when John asked for an answer to his question about the Police Authority which he'd asked ages ago. The answer was long and read in such a way by the council's representative, Cllr Kirton, that no-one could understand what was being said and in the end the Mayor had to ask him to do it as a written answer.
Our motion on saving post offices was well proposed by Suzanne and seconded by Alan. Everyone was supportive though the Labour members for Parkfield tried to claim that it was nothing to do with the government and that Dari is working away behind the scenes to save Oxbridge post office. Crocodile tears again! In the end it was carried unanimously.
The same result followed for the motion introduced by the Labour group condemning the huge pay rise for the board members on the North Tees & Hartlepool NHS Foundation board. John spoke about the lack of transparency demonstrated by their treatment of a constituent on whose behalf John had asked a question and also pointed out that the members had accepted the jobs on the current pay scale only a year ago.
All in all, a long council meeting but not a bad one at all.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Cashew nuts & Liberation

Yesterday was spent in a flurry of preparation for the evening while trying to catch up on countless other things that needed doing. I set off in plenty of time to pick up Juan and Jana from the station, but parking problems (not being willing to shell out £9 for the privilege of parking for 15 minutes in an all day spot) meant that I had to run to the platform when the train arrived so they descended from the train and couldn't see anyone there to meet them. However, we were soon on our way through the rush hour build up of traffic to get to the house for a warm drink and a brief rest before setting out for the university.
Jenny (seen above with Juan) had already set up a wonderful array of Fairtrade goods for sale. I was only sorry that I didn't have time to browse and look at the new items available now. Suzanne and John had collected the fruit donated by our local ASDA - well done them for supporting Fairtrade Fortnight so positively. Some of their other practices (or those of their parent group) could probably do with reform but that's another campaign for another place. The university had printed a wonderful poster with the event on, the coffee was hot and welcoming, and everyone wanted to welcome our guests. The techie stuff worked wonderfully so no worries on that front.
We heard from Chris Eddowes who with her husband is living the challenge of surviving on just local and Fairtrade goods this fortnight. She told of the difficulty of finding out what supermarkets stock, with no-one being able to produce a list of Fairtrade goods until a friend who works in one of them protested and forced the issue. But she also shared with us the pleasure of Fairtrade Easy peel oranges which apparently are just like the ones she'd enjoyed in Mediterranean countries. And she told us of rediscovering the flavour of local, free range chickens. The thing she was missing most was tomatoes, but one of the audience pointed out that locally grown ones are available at the moment, thanks to a hothouse system established on an old industrial site at Billingham.
Juan shared some of the history of Cashew growing in El Salvador, and the difficulties of earning enough money to build up the infrastructure of his area. We saw photographs of the fruit growing on the trees and video of the very simple machine they've bought with their fairtrade premium. It opens the nuts quite carefully, instead of having to break them open with a stone, so now they get a much higher percentage of whole nuts which get the top price at market. We also saw video of the women painstakingly peeling the outer layer from the nuts using tiny knives. They work an 8 hour day doing that. Between the tree and going into a bag the nuts have to be fried in vegetable oil to separate them from the fruit, opened, baked to remove a toxic element, peeled, separated by hand into whole, halves and bits. No wonder they're one of the more expensive nibbles we can buy. Even with the premium for Fairtrade and the premium price they can charge in Germany for being organic they still sat have to choose between building up the infrastructure by, for example, buying another machine for shelling and things that we take for granted like educating their children. What a heartbreaking choice to have to make - improve the business to make it more sustainable for future generations or educate the present generation. So to help them get more quickly to the point where they can afford both, watch out for Liberation brand cashew nuts and buy them!
After the presentation there were so many questions that there was only just time to finish with a passionate plea to support those businesses which support the development of new Fairtrade initiatives across the world, such as Traidcraft. Without their work the whole project will grind to a standstill because the supermarkets won't do the development work. That would mean putting up their prices, and we can't ask consumers to pay a fair price can we?? Or am I to be accused of being cynical? I just get so frustrated when people look for the cheapest all the time without counting the cost, and I get even more angry when I find myself being tempted along the same path. Get thee behind me Satan was never more needed than when supermarket shopping!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Mothering Sunday

Is it really the 4th Sunday of Lent already? It's no time since Christmas, or so it seems. Yet 3 weeks today is Easter. Mothering Sunday is a great tradition, largely lost in the commercial world of Mother's Day, but still lurking in the background and giving a base to that modern version. Children may not trek home to see mother from wherever work has taken them but they still keep in touch. So I have a card and flowers to remind me that my children still care, despite being far away. And I had the opportunity to have lunch with my mother and mother-in-law, something which doesn't happen often. I relish these moments, knowing that there probably won't be many more years of this privelege.
Today's treat had to wait until I'd done the Fairtrade stall at church, but that's no great hardship when there are willing helpers and people really want to buy Fairtrade things, talk about what difference it's making to producers, and enjoy a cup of coffee and a chat. We hung bunting round the railings outside to encourage people to pop in. We then had an interesting job getting it down as the wind had impaled some of it on the top of the railing! I was told while doing it that people had heard the event tomorrow mentioned on local radio this morning, so that was a huge relief. Also, they got the producer right so the correction sent on Friday had got through.
Later today I heard that the West Coast mainline has been closed so I hope Juan and Janna have succeeded in moving around the North West as they needed to.