Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Frustrations, frustrations

A dry evening yesterday gave the opportunity for Alan, John and I to go out and survey a couple of streets in the ward. We do this from time to time because it's a good way to speak to residents who don't usually contact us, to find out what their concerns are and their views on a number of issues. Last night we covered Hindhead, Holywell Green and part of Monmouth Drive. We also spoke to three polite and interested young men who were about to play football but stopped to ask what we were doing and then to complete a survey themselves.
The return rate was very good, with people completing them for us to call back in half an hour and others agreeing to drop them through my letterbox. So far we've had a good lot back. What's frustrating is the number of people who respond with quite a serious issue and don't put their contact details on so we can't follow it up with them. Sadly, a number of people referred to bad language from young people and to damaged fences & gardens as a result of football games.
Following up on that issue will take a bit of time but at least the person in charge of the youth service in our area is willing to meet us and discuss how to take things forward so I'm waiting to hear from other people whether they'll come and join in the debate.
This morning I saw another side to the relationship of young people with their community. Teesside High School Roseberry House had arranged a coffee morning and cake stall to raise money for two very good causes - a leukaemia charity and Stop the Trafik, which aims to stop People trafficking. The girls had done a great deal of the organising themselves and were justly proud of their work. They'd baked cakes and arranged a tempting choice of coffee, tea, chocolate and juice - all Fairtrade which made it even better. They'd told parents and put out 500 flyers around the area. Sadly, only about a dozen people made the effort to visit. Other girls from the school made short work of the cakes and they raised a good amount of money but that wasn't the only point of the morning. Such a lot of effort and only a handful of adults could be bothered.

Planning Committtee this afternoon produced another lot of frustrations. First of all my colleague Julia Roberts discovered that a retrospective application in her ward which is causing a lot of angst wasn't going to be determined this afternoon because it didn't have all the right documentation. A change in the rules had caught everyone on the hop! The application in Eaglescliffe for warehousing on land near Elementis on Urlay Nook Rd was deferred at the last minute because a road safety issue had been spotted by the engineers who'd missed it until the morning of the committee meeting! That despite having lots of comments from residents about the road safety issues. The process for determining whether the demolition of Wainstones was going to be carried out properly wasn't clear enough for most of us to be happy with it. Some probably thought deferral would save the house. I'm not so optimistic but I do want to be sure that everything has been done properly. I don't want to be half way through the demolition when someone discovers that we should have looked at the bat surveys. The decision on what to include on the local list was also open to a great deal of discussion but we did eventually get agreement that the minutes of the meeting and the assessment of each building would be made public. I'm less convinced that the process of information/consultation now is clear. There seemed to be some doubt as to what exactly is going to happen but I think (hope) that the doubt was because some members of the committee weren't understanding the answers they were being given at times.
So not the best meeting in the year!
Happier news on a personal front was discovering when I got home an email from someone who turns out to be a very distant relative in New Zealand - the joys of the internet!

Monday, April 28, 2008

I can, can you?

Can you survive without your computer for a whole day? That's the question being posed for Saturday. What will people do without a computer? What will happen in the world if millions of people just don't switch on? I've decided to be part of an experiment to find out. So no e-mail, no searching for distant relatives, no playing word games with friends around the world. Just good, old-fashioned time spent with family. Wow! I'll let you know whether my world falls apart.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A rather odd day yesterday, which left me disinclined to write anything last night. The morning was spent cramming in family things which usually run on into Thursday afternoons so that I could spend the afternoon at a family funeral. Not someone to whom I was close, but nevertheless an important part of family life. I was struck by a story which I heard many years ago but had forgotten - that this lady was taken on a plane trip over Stockton, seeing Ropner Park from the air soon after the war at a time when many people hadn't seen a plane on the ground, let alone thought of flying in one. She had an adventurous spirit which didn't leave her until her last few years.
With the funeral safely over it was time to go to the Cabinet meeting to present the report on Wastes management and recycling which the Environment select committee had produced. Thanks to much work before the report was finalised the recommendations were accepted in full so the next stage is to approve an action plan and get things moving. I also sat through the rest of the meeting so that I could see what was said and whether there were any changes to the recommendations in other reports. I was pleased that the recommendation to allocate some funding to the Western Area Partnership Board to combat unemployment (or worklessness as it's now called) went through. It's the first time that this area has had such funding and it will need to be very carefully targeted to make the most of it.
Even during a day like that e-mail is never far away, thanks to modern hand-held equipment, so I discovered that the planning application for 690 Yarm Road has gone to appeal. The appeal will be decided by way of a public hearing, rather than written submissions so that will require a lot of work on my part. I know I can rely on support from my fellow ward councillors but it was also nice to get a message of support from a neighbouring councillor.

This afternoon was taken up on Parish Council business, trying to ensure that if the Allen's West development gets approval it's on the best possible terms for the area while not taking away from the fact that the Parish Council has registered its objections to the application.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Plans and more plans

St George's Day, and the English flag was flying proudly from a number of buildings in the spring sunshine.
I spent part of the morning discussing with senior council staff the difficulties we face over planning enforcement. When someone builds something for which they should have asked permission but didn't it seems to take forever to put it right. The council is also only allowed to take "reasonable" action. Eaglescliffe residents will remember the furore over 12/15 Station Rd which was extended by small incremental applications over a period of time and eventually was built bigger than the last permission allowed. After protests by local residents and ward councillors it eventually went to committee to decide whether to enforce reducing the size and the advice from the legal experts was that it wasn't a big enough variation to warrant such enforcement. Although I disagreed I was out-voted and the monstrosity still stands. Other residents will recall the problems of Riverside Lodge motorcycling, and the inability of enforcement to stop the activity while an assortment of applications went through the system. It seems as though enforcement is only effective quickly when the offender has made a genuine mistake and is willing to put it right. If the offender is pushing at the boundaries of what is legal or permissible the legal process is so slow that residents can be forgiven for concluding that it's non-existent.
More frustration in a meeting about progress on local transport issues. The cycleway from Kingsmead to Cleasby Way is still not completed because the process of acquiring a tiny strip of land from the industrial site next to it is taking, quite literally, years. I now have another promise that it will be chased up, but I've given up holding my breath. There is lots going on in the background in Eaglescliffe at the moment:
  • Station Rd and the surroundings are the subject of a study to see what needs to be done to make it a really attractive welcoming area to people getting off the train and walking into our area as well as to make it easier for residents to live there and others to shop there.
  • The detailed work on the Preston Park bid is going on, looking at how to ensure that the traffic going in and out of the Park doesn't cause problems for pedestrians also wanting to move about the area and for the traffic flow along Yarm Road. Traffic lights at the entrance to the park is one possibility being examined.
  • Safer crossing of Yarm Rd for people wanting to access the park is being looked at, and this will help those on the Park side of Yarm Rd wanting to access Preston Primary School I hope.
  • Safer routes to schools is an on-going study with some traffic calming near our schools possible as well as some parking restrictions for those busy times.
  • More work is being done on preparing school travel plans and also on monitoring how successful they've been in encouraging more youngsters to travel other than by car.
All these things will be presented to the Area Transport Strategy meeting next month at which Parish Councils and Community groups are represented so if you're a member of a community group or residents association in Preston, Eaglescliffe, Aislaby, Elton, Long Newton, Yarm, Kirklevington or Castle Leavington and your chair hasn't had an invitation do let me know. There is a budget available for helping these schemes along, and its up to that group to decide how best to spend it. It's small in roadworks terms - £25,000 - but sometimes a bit more can be found from ward budgets so it can stretch to quite a lot of work. In the past it's funded improvements to pedestrian safety at Silver St on Yarm High St, cycle lane on Spital bank, dropped kerbs in Station Rd, Eaglescliffe, improvements to the bus stop near Allen's West on Durham Lane to name but a few items.
Following that session I had time to nip upstairs to catch up on a couple of items for the Fairtrade Borough Group before going home for a very late lunch. It was worth the delay to hear that there's a catering company based here in Eaglescliffe who try to use all organic or Fairtrade or locally sourced produce for their catering. It's a family business and they even have an allotment to grow some of their own organic produce. How good is that? We'll certainly be adding them to our list of caterers in our directory.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Money reared its head again this morning when I had a meeting with a member of the Independent Remuneration Panel. This is the body which recommends levels of allowances for Councillors, trying to take into account all factors including how much time we spend doing things as a councillor, how much responsibility we take on over and above our ward and basic committee work and local expectations and attitudes. They had one try last year but the council couldn't reach agreement on some of their proposals so we asked them to try again, listening to what came out of the various discussions over the year. We shall see what happens this time, but one thing's for sure - Stockton Councillors get a lower allowance than almost any other equivalent council and the work we do doesn't get any easier.
At lunch time it was Fairtrade Borough group meeting with a very small turnout of committed people. It's proving quite difficult to get people to meetings at the moment and yet we need more help than ever to fulfill the plans we have.
Today we spent some time planning for the stall we intend to have at the Greener Living Road Show in Preston Park on June 8th. If you're in the area do pop in and see what's on offer - lots of things apart from Fairtrade. The range seems to run from wind turbines to hybrid cars and healthy walks - something for just about everyone I think.
A real contrast later in the afternoon when I paid a visit to Challoner House in Yarm. This was a residential home for elderly people until quite recently but is now being converted into a community centre. It was strange to walk into somewhere which is being hired out for meetings and community activities and see the bookcase still in the corner, full of books. Strong, high seated armchairs and china ornaments around the room all spoke of its previous life and looked so nice and clean that I fully expected a resident to walk in at any moment. We'll be able to use it for some of our Western Area Partnership board meetings, taking the meetings out into the heart of one community they're supposed to serve.
I hope the centre is a success for the people who live around that area, because it's in a lovely setting and would be tragic to lose.
After that the sun called me out into the garden to do the weeding that didn't get done at the weekend. My compost bin is now nicely filled so I need to let it rot down a bit before putting any more in - what a good excuse for a bit of pruning of the bramble! That's the only sort of garden waste which goes in the green waste bags from this household - even if we shredded it the result would be full of thorns and not very user friendly.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Scrutiny starts

After a morning spent discussing various campaign issues with the rest of the group it was time to head to Stockton for the first meeting of the Environment Select committee of the new municipal year. This was the moment of truth when members were confronted with the fact that our new topic for scrutiny had been decided for us by the Executive Scrutiny committee from a list proposed largely by officers of the council. So much for member led scrutiny in our much vaunted excellent authority. We have the dubious privilege of scrutinising Customer First, Stockton Council's programme to ensure that the customer (whether residents, businesses or other departments within the council) will get the best possible service. It's going to be difficult - people are now realising that when John Fletcher stood up at meetings and protested that the changes being introduced would mean that ordinary councillors would have little or no say over what their committee scrutinised he was right. At the time people scoffed and said he was being awkward. Well he was vindicated and I'm glad we as a group agreed with him, even though we weren't as vociferously supportive as we could have been. I suspect that even we didn't really believe it was going to be as bad as it is.
So, the blind leading the blind comes to mind. None of the councillors really know in detail what the programme involves and as long as it works we're not that interested. It's the result that counts for us. Do our residents get good service? So all we want now is to get through it as fast as possible so that we can get on to something interesting!
Moan over - the sun was lovely this afternoon and the towels dried quickly on the line. Let's keep focussed on the important things in life!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Preston Hall

Preston Hall museum is in many ways the cultural centre of our ward, even though geographically it's right on the edge. A cold spring afternoon was an ideal time to pay a visit and look at what's changed since I was last there. The way that collections are displayed has changed a great deal over recent years and even months, though there's still a way to go. The latest exhibition being organised is about Stockton at work, with exhibits relating to shipbuilding, railways, leather, pottery, schools and more. There's much interesting information on the general background to the industries but I found myself wanting more about the individual artefacts - when was that photo taken? When was that poster printed? Just where was that found? and more! I know that the exhibition isn't finished and some of the questions might be answered later, so I'll be going back and meantime asking the staff about them.
One very interesting item to me, in the light of recent planning applications, was a picture of the Vinegar brewery and sauce factory which used to stand on the banks of the river at Eaglescliffe (on the right as one approached Yarm Bridge). In the background of the picture is a windmill - presumably the mill which used to be in the grounds of The Grange on Urlay Nook Road, soon to be demolished to make way for flats thanks to the Government's policy of allowing gardens to be dealt with as brownfield (previously developed) sites. Although I've been told many times that a mill existed there it had gone before I became aware of the building and this was the first time I'd seen a picture where it was just there, in the background as the normal thing - not in any way a tourist attraction or centre of attention.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Family History

Today was a day off council work! I'd booked some time ago to attend a Family History Day with my husband, organised by Cleveland Family History Society. We're both interested in our roots and have been doing some research. This was an opportunity to hear some interesting talks on wider aspects, and very enjoyable too. Strangely, it also turned into a chance encounter with one of his more distant relatives and with an old school friend of mine whom I haven't seen for several years since we were both at a reunion. Altogether a good day, if nothing at all to do with Eaglescliffe ward.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Power to the People

Real grass roots politics is to be found in the Parish councils which exist in parts of the country. Egglescliffe and Eaglescliffe council covers the old Egglescliffe ward area and used to be known as Egglescliffe Parish Council. Although no-one stands for election to it on Party grounds, some are members of political parties, and I was a member of the Parish for years before being elected to the Borough.
One of the big differences between the Parish council and the Borough council is that once a year the Parish has an assembly when the council reports to the residents on what it has done on their behalf over the last year and sometimes on what it hopes to do in the future. Last night was such a meeting. It was lively, interesting and engaging and if the Borough council had the courage to learn from the Parish we would have more interest and enthusiasm for politics. Residents came, listened, challenged and debated with councillors over issues which concern them. It was hard work in preparation and execution, but by golly it was worth it!
An hour earlier I'd been at a really difficult meeting to draw up the scope of the review which the Environment Select committee is going to be doing. Because of a new system of spreading the work load we're not doing anything related to the Environment but we're looking into "Customer First" which is a scheme within the council to try to ensure that customer service is first rate and that if problems arise they're dealt with effectively. It was difficult, not because there are lots of problems, but because the chair and vice chair of the committee knew nothing about the reason for being asked to look at the question and so took a long time to work out what could be done by the committee. It won't be anything like as interesting as the last two reviews but I suppose we can't always have the really interesting ones!
Sadly, because this meeting lasted a lot longer than expected, the diet went out of the window and a quick call to the local fish & chip shop replaced cooking a healthy meal!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Building with Hemp

I'm a great fan of hemp fabric - soft, absorbent, comfortable and makes fewer environmental demands in its production than cotton. Now I've discovered a new use for the plant - no, not the one that hippies have known about since time immemorial!
It seems that hemp can be used to make bricks. Mixed with lime it produces blocks strong enought to build with, but a lot less energy is needed for this process than to make concrete. So if the building trade can be convinced of their suitability we could be seeing a lot more of them. I'd read of an experiment some years ago to use hemp in building a super-energy-efficient house but I'd forgotten about it until reminded this week by reading, somewhat late, an article on a brewery built from hemp. It sounds absolutely brilliant and well worth thinking about if you've got a building project in mind. After all, if the building material you use is such a good insulator that you don't need to heat the building in the middle of winter, think how much you'd save on fuel bills over a few years! It's almost enough to make me wish I were building a new house.
I also read of a school which is using innovative technology for its heating and has won the accolade of Britain's most eco-friendly school. How I wish that it were a Stockton school. I'm certainly going to be taking the information into discussions on Building Schools for the Future. I don't see why we can't learn from another council, especially when it's such an environmentally aware council.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Crunch Time on Email

As many residents of Eaglescliffe know John, Alan and I send out e-updates of news between our Focus leaflet deliveries. I've worked on the council's computer system up to now because that meant that I could forward any queries that arise from them to council officers and keep track of the responses more easily. Late last year my original council laptop finally had to be replaced and ever since then the email list has given me problems. Yesterday I decided enough was enough. Trying to send out an update and getting back more failure notices than I've had hot dinners this year meant drastic action was needed. Consequently the entire list has been transferred to my personal account and future updates will go from there.
If you're a resident of Eaglescliffe ward and want to be kept up to date with such things as road works, planning applications, what's going on at Preston Park and other short notice events just send an email to the address on the left and I'll add you to our list.
If you're not a resident of Eaglescliffe then this is probably the most uninteresting blog entry you've read!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Thornaby Issues

The council day was dominated by a special meeting of Executive Scrutiny committee to hear two requests for call in of Cabinet decisions. This is quite a technical procedure to allow front line councillors to question whether the Cabinet has acted properly in coming to a decision. So it can't change the decision but it can ask cabinet to look again in the hope that it might change. In the past this was difficult because Labour a majority and so not only held every cabinet seat but also most of the committee seats. Now we have a Labour/Tory cabinet so there are two parties looking at whether they should be giving blind support to their members on cabinet!
The two issues being looked at were both Thornaby ones - the closure of Parkview Residential Home and the sale of Thornaby Town Hall. Both are very contentious.
Parkview is the last residential home in SBC hands. It hasn't had as much investment in the past as needed to keep it at the high standard it was originally in building terms. That, we're told, is because the council agreed a policy in 2000 of moving towards Homes for Life - providing aids & adaptations as well as working with the builders of new housing to ensure that people can stay in their own homes until they need nursing care in which case they can go into a nursing home. There's also a "halfway house" known as Extra Care, delivered in partnership with housing associations. This is all very well, but to the people associated with the home at Parkview it feels like betrayal. The question that had to be answered yesterday was "did the cabinet carry out its decision making process after proper consultation, with due regard for human rights and in an open and transparent way?" In the end it was obvious that the real question which couldn't be answered is "can we ever agree on a definition of proper consultation?". The cabinet member (Labour) is strongly of the opinion that everyone was consulted. The senior officers agree - they held lots of meetings with interested people. The interested people disagree - they feel that they were presented with a take it or leave it proposal. The alternative to closure wasn't fully explored and neither officers nor cabinet member had any intention of doing so because it would conflict with the council's policy. Never mind the fact that Homes for Life can't be delivered yet because there isn't the funding to give everyone the adaptations they need and the developers are still building houses as I write which don't have doors wide enough for wheelchairs, don't have electric sockets and switches at an accessible height for all and so on.
At the end of over 2 hours I was left with a very uncomfortable feeling that the process, followed according to the letter of the rules, hadn't really served the people of Thornaby at all well. It was obvious that the cabinet wasn't going to change its mind and I couldn't see any point in referring it back just to prolong the false hopes in the minds of the people.
By the time we'd finished that item we were 5 minutes past the closing time of the meeting and still had the Thornaby Town Hall issue to discuss. Sadly, I had to give my apologies - having foolishly believed the timing given, I'd arranged to take my elderly mother, who'd been ill this week, her lunch and it wouldn't wait any longer. Again, I was later told, after all the arguments were put the voting went against the call in so that decision stands as well. A truly iconic building, in the best sense of the word, which should have had money spent on it years ago has been left to go to wrack and ruin almost. Long before I was on this council the Liberal Democrats, led by Cllr Suzanne Fletcher, proposed not spending as much money on Holy Trinity church in Stockton and using some of it on Thornaby Town Hall. The then Labour administration voted against that and it fell. Sadly, at least one of those Labour members is now a member of Thornaby Independents but seems to have forgotten about the chance to stand up and be counted all those years ago. But such is politics. We all make mistakes from time to time. The art is to learn from them.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A Marathon

This afternoon's planning meeting set a record for length. I was at the meeting room in the Library just after 1 because I knew there would be update reports to read before the meeting. There were so many, and some were so involved, that it was almost 1.30 before I'd finished studying them. Then the meeting started. Lots of members of the public were there. This is one of the things I like about planning committee - after years of campaigning by Liberal Democrats on the council, much of it long before I was elected, the public have the right to speak on applications. A planning officer presents a report summarising the relevant policies and material planning considerations then the applicant and public have the right to speak. It makes some meetings last a long time but at the end of it at least we have heard all sides of the argument. The chairman is very good at ensuring that fairness prevails, even if he's a bit brusque about it sometimes.
This afternoon we had a very difficult one to start with. A man who trains racing greyhounds has converted a barn into kennels, laid a road, put down concrete bases for pens and made a number of other changes to a piece of land on Aislaby road, outside the village. He says he didn't know that he needed planning permission to do these things but as he'd already applied for and been refused permission to do something similar elsewhere in the Borough a few years ago that seemed unlikely. Our policies are very clear about development in the countryside and this didn't fit the bill. Sadly, he's wasted a load of money on doing all this work when he should have waited to get permission first. A lesson for us all there. I hope he's learned it now.
There were 11 applications on the agenda, but only 3 in our ward - the application to put 5 houses at the rear of Copsewood went through. I think most people would agree that 5 would be better than the 7 he currently has permission for. The application to put a warehouse on the unallocated triangle of land near Elementis Chromium also went through, after much discussion of why it should be allowed and what the traffic situation would be. As I said in the committee meeting I'm much more worried about the traffic for the pending application on the site nearby. That one will generate much more than a removals firm could ever dream of.
By the time we'd dealt with a tricky one in Thornaby for student flats, a difficult one in Yarm for a golf course and several other lengthy ones we were beginning to wonder if we should have taken our tea with us! At 5.20 the meeting finally ended. I'm afraid that I was too shattered to do much more than finish off our Focus leaflet tonight. Worth the effort though - individual residents had been given the chance to say their piece and to see that "the council" listened to them. Even when we didn't agree with them we could still make little changes that would give them slightly more peace of mind. Tiring, but one of our better meetings.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Partnership Working

The word partnership is a much overused word in local government. There are times when it seems that everything is supposedly done in partnership with someone else but more often than not the benefits are hard to identify. This morning was not one of those occasions. As a member of Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe council (formerly Egglescliffe Parish council) I chair the recreation committee. This is not a council that has active party politics. Everyone is there with the good of the Parish at heart and mostly with no party affiliations at all so it's quite different to Stockton Council.
Unusually for a Parish in Stockton-on-Tees this one provides and maintains play equipment on 4 play areas. For years we've acknowledged that the play equipment wasn't as good as it could be but we always shied away from putting up the Council Tax to pay for more. This year we decided that we would bite the bullet. We also decided that we needed some help to plan the play areas properly and then we'd have a plan to work to over the next few years. This morning I had a meeting with another member of the committee, the clerk and two officers from SBC who have the expertise we lack. It was a long and very useful meeting, at the end of which we had confirmed that partnership really can be useful when both sides approach it with a "can do" attitude. As a result we'll have something concrete to report to residents at the Annual Parish Meeting next week.
This afternoon saw the site visit to Aislaby Road to look at the works that have been done and now are the subject of a retrospective planning application for a greyhound training premises. The application has been the subject of a huge amount of correspondence, some of it distinctly dubious. For example I discovered that someone had written apparently in my name but giving an address in another part of Eaglescliffe. That piece of correspondence has now disappeared from the website. A councillor who usually sits on the planning committee has fettered his discretion by writing in favour of the application. The leader of the labour group, who has said many times in the past that we don't need site visits and they're a waste of money, came today along with his deputy leader. All of which leads me to think that there's going to be an interesting meeting tomorrow.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Politics and Sport

The Olympic torch arrived in London this weekend, avoiding the chaos that is still T5 but unable to control the weather or our precious freedom of speech. Several things struck me as I listened to he news coverage at lunch time:
  • My initial feelings of disgust at the way this country was apparently pandering to the Chinese government over the disregard for human rights in Tibet has slowly been tempered by a feeling of deep sympathy for the athletes involved. Their entire lives over recent years have been geared to being able to compete in the Olympics. They didn't make the decision to award the games to China. Now they're being villified in some quarters for taking part. I thought of how proud I'd be if one of my children had been asked to carry that torch, and how difficult they would have found it to be in that situation, trapped between a rock and a hard place.
  • I listened to quotes from the Dalai Lama asking that people don't boycott the Games, but let the athletes get on with what they do best.
  • I heard Sir Steve Redgrave condemn in no uncertain terms the human rights abuses and beg our politicians and businesses to stand together against them. He pointe dout that sports boycotts of South Africa had little impact on Apartheid but economic sanctions brought it to an end. (with action by people in the country of course!)
  • I listened to Joanna Lumley begging our politicians and athletes to use every opportunity to make it clear to China that these abuses must stop.
  • I thought "what a difference to the state visit when Mr Blair was in power". Remember the closed off roads, the avoidance of crowds or protests at all costs. At least this time the protesters can make their point in full view of the world's TV and radio. Perhaps that message will get home to some in power in China - in a true democracy peaceful protest is not met by the threat of guns or imprisonment.
And then I thought "What am I doing about all this?" I'm not an athlete, and anyone who knows me knows I never was so refusing to take part in the games or the torch parade isn't really an option. I'm not a business woman doing deals in China so I can't withdraw from that. I'm not in Parliament, potentially choosing whether to sign some kind of concordat or trade treaty with the Chinese government so I can't refuse to do that.
I am, however, a member of Stockton Borough Council which has a cultural link with Beijing relating to our International Riverside Festival. So I can ask that the Leader of the Council makes it clear in conversations with the Chinese delegation that we don't approve of the human rights record of China. So too can all residents of Stockton borough and all who come and enjoy the Festival. I can write to the Chinese embassy and tell them what I think, and so can everyone who reads this page.

Friday, April 04, 2008

A day of non-stop meetings today, starting at 10 with one at Preston Hall. A group of officers concerned with the work in the park and the hall meets regularly with ward councillors and representatives of the groups with an interest in the park like Butterfly World and the Teesside Small Gauge Railway group. This is an attempt to make sure that things happening in the Park and Hall are co-ordinated and that the impact of events on neighbours is minimised. We saw photo-montages of the huge marquee which will be erected soon for the Hope event. This is an event open to anyone which is being organised by local churches and although it will involve hundreds of people it shouldn't be too disruptive. We'll be watching to make sure the traffic management plans work as promised.
From there I headed North to Newcastle for the second meeting of the Regional Fairtrade Group. Representatives of Fairtrade groups from all over the North East met to finalise plans for the tour of George Alagiah who will be in the region on Friday May 9th. He'll talk to groups around the region to spread the word about Fairtrade. The weekend following that there'll be a Fairtrade market and a huge Fairtrade Angel Cake in Baltic Square in Newcastle as part of the EAT! festival being held in Gateshead and Newcastle. The whole festival sounds wonderful and well worth a visit. I came away with some thoughts of ways we might progress in Stockton and with promises of shared expertise from others in the group.
As that meeting finished I had an hour to get home for a meeting with John and Alan about issues round the ward, including the problem of ball games on grass areas that are too small. At the moment it seems to be insurmountable but we'll keep working on it. We also had to deal with a phone call from a local news reporter about the problems that might arise from the extra traffic generated by the proposed development of a business park at the Airport. All I could say was exactly what I've said before to residents: we'll be watching the detailed planning application to try to ensure that the traffic issues are fully considered.
The afternoon finished with ward surgery at Trinity Church. Very often no-one comes to our ward surgeries - most people ring us or e-mail us rather than wait for a ward surgery. However, tonight we did have a couple who came with a number of issues to raise. One is the perennial problem of dog poo - not a nice subject but definitely not nice when it's on the grass verge outside your house day in, day out. Why people who take dogs out on the streets can't clean up after them is beyond me. It's hardly difficult and most owners do it perfectly well. Sadly, it only takes one to spoil a road for people. We've asked the dog wardens to patrol that area for a while and look forward to them catching the perpetrators. A fine of up to £1000 can be incurred - not a small amount. We also had our area Anti-social behaviour officer at the surgery and it was useful to be able to talk about what can be done to help with the young people playing football until such time as we can find other places for them to go.
So a long day but a varied one, and some good discussions and decisions taken. And I even got home in time to take some phone calls from family. A good day indeed.

Crime's down but problems are up!

Last night Borough and Parish councillors from the south of the Borough (Thornaby, Ingleby Barwick, Yarm & Eaglescliffe) met with police for an update on neighbourhood policing and a general chat about problems in their area. The numbers of recorded crimes are down in almost every area, though generally people think they're worse! A real effort at communication needed there. For some reason the Ingleby Barwick Independent councillors didn't attend so the Parish council representative was left to represent the entire area.
Unfortunately for the Eaglescliffe councillors the meeting was dominated by Thornaby's problems. Two of the Thornaby wards were represented and they do have to contend with serious problems which makes our area seem like a real haven in comparison. But that meant that we didn't have the opportunity to explore ways we might work to reduce the very real problems we have with anti-social behaviour which isn't yet of a criminal nature. We're going to have to pursue that tack in separate meetings. It really is irritating to us that we have 5 primary schools and 1 secondary school in our ward and the young people don't seem able to use the fields to play football unless it's as part of an organised, supervised match.
One useful element of the evening was the opportunity to update the chairman of Preston Parish Council on the situation with possible bridges over the Tees. Although the Ingleby Barwick councillors and the Friends of River Tees Heritage Park see it as very important to have a footbridge to Preston Park the residents of Preston have some justifiable worries about whether there'd be any policing of the area at night or whether this would just be a short-cut for trouble makers. I have brought this to the FTHP committee meetings in the past because although the Park is a resource for all the Borough to enjoy and needs to be as accessible as possible we also need to ensure the safety and well being of the residents nearest to it.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Mr Mayor - Cllr John Fletcher

Today was the big day - officially the Annual Meeting of Stockton Borough Council, unofficially known as Mayor-making. This is the meeting each year when appointments to positions within the council are made, starting with the Mayor, deputy mayor (who usually becomes mayor the following year) then going through cabinet, committees and outside bodies such as the Airport consultative panel and the Markets Forum. The role of Mayor is a civic role in Stockton, not an elected one as in Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and London. The mayor chairs council meetings and represents the borough at civic occasions but she or he also works very hard during the year to raise money for their chosen charities, often giving a big boost to local causes. For many years in Stockton the ruling political group decided who would be mayor but when the council became more politically balanced three years ago the rules were changed. The role of mayor is now offered to the longest serving councillor who hasn't already held the office, a change which allowed the first ever Liberal Democrat Mayor 2 years ago - Suzanne Fletcher, councillor for Bishopsgarth & Elmtree and a resident of Eaglescliffe. This year it was the turn of John Fletcher, the first elected representative of Eaglescliffe to hold that office.
Alan Lewis and I are delighted that John is able to be mayor. It means that we'll have to do our fair share of the work in the ward now, of course! Seriously, John will do a very good job as mayor and though he'll continue to represent the people of Eaglescliffe I hope they'll understand if sometimes it's Alan or me who answers a query rather than John.
John's chosen charities are Daisy Chain, which many Eaglescliffe residents will know of because the founder had strong links with Durham Lane School and the school still supports the charity regularly. For those who don't know it - Daisy Chain works to provide support and respite to families who have a child with autism and is currently fund raising to build a Day Centre on their site. They only need £500,000 so why not get in touch and buy a brick or two for them?
John's second charity, which will receive 25% of what he raises, is Justice First which is based in Stockton and works with people who are seeking asylum in this country but whose applications have been refused. Often this is because they cannot prove that they would be in danger if they went back home. Just imagine leaving your homeland in secret, fearing for your life and then being asked to prove that you are in danger. How can you do that? Yet that's what asylum seekers must do. Justice First helps them to find legal representation and medical help if needed to deal with the aftermath of their trauma. At times it also has to help with emergency support - food or clothing or shelter. For these people a little goes a long way - money to help with legal fees, a smile and a friendly word, the knowledge that people care.
For those who want to know more about life as mayor, John will be writing about his experiences on his blog. Unfortunately, thanks to the restrictions around the office of a civic Mayor in Stockton, John's blog won't be updated immediately he writes articles but will take a day or two so please be patient. It's not his fault that bureaucracy slows things down!