Saturday, May 31, 2008

Raising Expectations

A few months ago the Environment Select committee which I chair produced its report on managing cemeteries and memorials. While carrying out the scrutiny we asked lots of people visiting the cemeteries for their opinion of what we currently do and how it should change. At the end of the review we wrote to everyone who'd given us their address telling them what had been decided. Unfortunately we didn't put in the letter that it would take months to draw up an action plan and then a long time to implement it because so much needed doing! As a result I've had a lady contact me now, complaining that she'd read the letter and the article in the press and acted accordingly, removing things from her husband's grave but the family with the next grave along haven't. As a result her husband's grave is suffering from the effects of some of the artefacts on this over-embellished plot. Why haven't we done what we said we were going to do and enforced our new policy? The explanation that it takes so much time to set the enforcement in place sounded like a feeble excuse to her, and I can't blame her. At times the council is like a huge tanker at sea - it takes an awful long time between deciding to change course and seeing it happen. Meanwhile people get frustrated and think we've forgotten or they're being mis-led. Fortunately the officers who worked with us on producing the new policy are among the best in the council and one of them is going to speak to the lady concerned and see what can be done in the short term until we've got the enforcement system up and running.
On a much brighter note a happy coincidence of timing of a visit and weather meant that instead of just collecting some Fairtrade goodies from a friend and dashing off again we sat out in the garden and had coffee (before dashing off to our respective next jobs). The birds were singing, the flowers were beautiful and just for half an hour the world seemed to be at peace.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Young People in Need

One of those humbling days today, when people who have a lot of needs also prove to have a lot to offer the rest of us. I had a meeting as Chair of the Western Area Partnership with a young man who doesn't let severe dyslexia hold him back. He's currently doing a degree but in his spare time is working on a number of projects as a volunteer. The one we were officially meeting to discuss is "Twisted Headlines", a project led by the YMCA to overturn the perceptions that young people are all knife-toting, anti social, badly behaved, loud mouthed etc etc. At present the project can't expand at all because there's a lack of funding, but the young people involved aren't deterred. They're busy collecting good news stories from the local press so that they can eventually use them in the creative ways they have in mind. He was hoping that members of the Partnership Board would join in collecting stories so that they gather a huge library of cuttings. I was able to say that we'd put it on the agenda of the next meeting. It seemed like a very small thing to do.
He also told me about work he's doing with Community Campus on homelessness. Again a very creative project is being planned if only they can get funding to carry it out. From what he told me it would involve some discomfort for those of us wh agreed to take part, but should give us an insight into the causes and consequences of homelessness for young people in the Borough. Because of his enthusiasm to tell me about the various things he's involved in the meeting lasted longer than we'd planned but it was worth every minute. He was pleased too that I could get the Cabinet decision from last week about using the Parkfield Hall site to put a purpose-built unit for homeless young people on, something which was news to him.
So a very productive hour in which we shared information on a number of issues of interest to us both. I hope it's going to be the start of a productive relationship.
Then this afternoon it was the bi-monthly meeting of the MALAP, the partnership which tries to ensure that children being looked after by the local authority get as many life chances as children being looked after by their birth or adoptive parents. The council is known as Corporate parent to these children and it's a role that some councillors and many officers take very seriously. We meet every two months to check on what is happening to "our" children, though we don't know them by name and this is not a meeting about individuals. Today we heard the alarming news that the number of young people in our care being placed outside the Borough has risen significantly in the last few months - lots of issues around the accommodation we can provide and lots of questions to be asked. The next meeting is going to focus completely on this topic with the aim of deciding some actions to take to improve the situation. The lighter moment was provided by the news that one of our children has won through the introductory stage of The X Factor, so who knows - we may have a budding star in our corporate family.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Farmers Come to Town

There was a mini Farmers' market in Stockton High Street today, organised entirely by the town centre manager rather than by a commercial organisation. She'd only invited a small number of people who fulfilled rather tight criteria and it seemed to have worked. There was a lovely array of meats, Yorkshire cheeses, pickles, preserves and an almost empty cake stall whose occupants said they'd bring twice as much next month! Everyone seemed to have had a reasonably successful day and were looking forward to coming back next month. One more small step in the regeneration of Stockton High Street.
I concluded yesterday that something was definitely needed. I'd made a long overdue appointment to have my hair cut but the stylist was busy and running late so I sat in front of a mirror which reflected a view of Stockton High Street. Alarmingly, no-one who walked across my field of vision over a period of 10 minutes looked happy! At first I thought it was just coincidence, but after a while I started watching continuously, actively seeking the happy people. They didn't exist! I saw sad faces, weary faces and angry faces but no smiling faces. Regeneration of Stockton needs to regenerate the people, based on my very unscientific survey on one warm Wednesday afternoon. There's a challenge for the Town Centre manager.

Cluster Bomb success

OK, it's not a perfect agreement. America and China aren't part of it yet. But campaigners, including those of us who signed on-line petitions and wrote to the Foreign Office, can feel a sense of relief today that the UK is going to stop using all versions of this horrendous weapon. Gordon Brown and his Cabinet stood up to the military chiefs and said NO! Well done Gordon. That's the kind of thing which makes me proud to be British. Let's have more of it, and quickly.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The importance of play

I spent some time today at a meeting about Play in the borough. Last year the council put together a Play Strategy, describing how we would try to make sure that children and young people will have access to suitable play areas and opportunities, including the chance to enjoy adventurous play and learn to manage risks. Nothing is ever easy of course, with many play areas being described as boring by the children who use them. A bid went in to the Big Lottery for funding to start expanding the opportunities and fortunately we've been successful. Some of it will go to Romano Park at Ingleby Barwick to help provide much needed play facilities on that play-deprived estate. Other money will help with two small projects in Thornaby and in Thorpe Thewles. The biggest chunk of money is going to an exciting scheme to provide a mobile play facility which can tour parts of the borough lacking in facilities and have a play leader to encourage the children to enjoy the equipment. I hope it will also encourage communities to take some responsibility to ensure that the project continues beyond its 3 year funding.
We also had confirmation of an award of Play Builder funding which is designed to enhance play areas. The detail of exactly what it can be used for hasn't been published yet but I hope that we can have some help towards enhancing St Margaret's Play area from it. No chance to make an application yet though!
I also managed to get across my point that someone from the Planning Department should be on the Play Partnership so that they're aware of what's needed in new housing developments. It remains to be seen whether they act on the information when they've got it or whether they say it's not covered by a planning policy!!!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Gordon doesn't get it

Listening to the on-going debate on whether fuel tax should be increased this year as planned, now that fuel is expensive, and whether the VED on older cars should be increased as planned, now that Labour isn't popular, I do wonder whether Gordon and his troops will ever get it where Green Taxes are concerned. (Mixing green and red produces the colour of mud - is that relevant?)
The whole point of raising fuel tax was to make people think about whether to use the car for every journey. It's meant to put the price of motoring up - get it? OK, there's been a shift of balance in the price of petrol and diesel and perhaps the Treasury needs to do some adjustment in the balance of the taxes so that buses and lorries aren't unduly disadvantaged, but that's not the same as changing direction totally. Flexibility is good, backtracking is not!
As for VED on older cars - since when was taxation in this country introduced retrospectively? Most people don't own older cars because they dislike new ones. They own them because that's what they can afford. People on lower incomes who can't get to work on public transport often want/need to be able to get to work in wet weather clean and dry enough to start work. Maybe they need to drop the kids at school on the way! If they could afford a shiny new, less polluting vehicle they'd probably jump at the chance. So what does the "labour" party do - penalise them. What happened to Gordon's favourite "hard working families"? How can it be fair to introduce this tax increase without providing the infrastructure to allow choice?
When it comes to public transport and sustainable development language takes on a whole new meaning. A bus service every half hour to one of the two centres near a proposed new development becomes "good public transport links". A walk of 1km along a busy road which only has a footway along part of it becomes "easily accessible". When will central government put its money where its mouth is, stop wasting money on ridiculous projects like ID cards and going to war in countries we've no right to be in, and start funding high quality rail and bus links as well as research and development funding for newer forms of transport. Sadly, not in my lifetime if the present regime continues, and as for the chances of my grand-children enjoying a decent quality of life .....
Come the revolution!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Caravans & Camping

Bank Holiday weekends often bring caravans out on to the roads in large numbers as people decide to enjoy their break away from home. This weekend has brought caravans to us, as Travellers have set up camp on the grass verge near Hunters' Green. For the moment it's not a problem - 5 caravans only. Certainly I don't think it's worth taking any action over a holiday weekend, especially as we're woefully short of transit sites in the Tees Valley, including Stockton. However, if they're still there next week we will have to start the proceedings for moving them on. We're fortunate in Eaglescliffe that we don't get the large encampments which occur regularly in Thornaby and cause such problems with litter and worse.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Bits and Pieces

Today was a day for catching up on some of the bits which had been left behind - emails unanswered, phone calls unmade etc. Very often on such days the end result is not very satisfying, but today several things fell into place. A meeting of ward councillors, police and youth workers to discuss ways in which we might help both the residents and the young people who plague them by playing football in the "wrong" place is finally in the calendar. Having two lots of people who work different shift patterns makes it difficult to match their diaries but at last we've succeeded. It remains to be seen of course whether more pressing police business arises at the last minute.
The last empty slot for looking after the Fairtrade stall at the Greener Living Roadshow was filled by a volunteer (better than 10 pressed men!). I managed to gather the necessary information together to be able to make a reasonable response to a strong complaint from a resident about the Just 10 event in Preston Park. Add to that sorting a time for a meeting of the Lib Dem group on the council to discuss an issue on which we need to take a view, some filing and a few personal jobs like the shopping and washing, and a relatively productive day emerges!
I was pleased to be able to spend 5 minutes of the day signing a grant application for the Wilson Institute in Long Newton - not in our ward but within the area covered by the Western Area Partnership Board which I chair. The board has met in the Institute and so I know how good it would be to get funding to upgrade the heating, access and other things. I do hope their application is successful.

Crewe and Nantwich

Well, the by-election is over and the predictable result is in. People were cross with Gordon Brown's Labour party and decided to give them a bloody nose. How to do that? Change and vote for the party which came second last time. As a result they now have a Tory MP. Will life change for the people of that constituency? Not a lot! To parody an old saying, one MP does not a government make.
Well done Elizabeth Shenton and team. Keeping going in the face of such relentless yah boo, first past the post, negative campaigning takes a lot of guts. And to those who think it's not worth the effort, just remember - to get to a parliamentary majority you've got to start somewhere. The real losers are going to be the electorate of the UK next year or the year after. Until we get a fair voting system in this country the government is going to be chosen by about 8000 voters in swing seats. What kind of a mandate does that give anyone?
And speaking of democracy, what an excellent article by Nick Clegg in the Independent this week. For various reasons I didn't read it until 2 days after it was published but I was impressed and wished that more of that reasoned debate could be heard around the country. What are the other two parties afraid of? What have they got to lose, apart from their "majority"?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Road Safety Improvements

One of the successes of Stockton Council's mini-devolution of budgets has been the Area Transport Strategy budget. £25,000 goes annually to each of the Area Partnerships to spend on transport related matters which otherwise wouldn't make it onto the priority lists. Tonight was the 3rd annual meeting in the Western Area to agree our spending priorities and hear a progress report on last year's spending.
The dropped kerbs in Station Road, Eaglescliffe, are in place so it's now possible to go with a wheelchair or pram from Yarm Road to the station and to the shops en route. The bus stop on Durham Lane near Cleasby Way is finished and in use. The gateway feature for Long Newton to improve safety through the village now that the A66 junction is functioning is almost complete and the link road to Elton is almost open. One small issue is proving difficult - what kind of speed hump to have on it! The bus companies can't accept a hump right across the road because of the jarring on the spine of their drivers crossing it. A local farmer says he can't accept a cushion because of the stress it places on some of the wheels on one of his pieces of equipment, despite the NFU not objecting. Stockton Council's appeals and complaints committee heard evidence from both sides and decided to ask the community engineer to review the situation again. If tonight is anything to go by he'll be reporting no change to the next meeting of the committee!
Last year we spent part of our money on two studies in Eaglescliffe - one on Urlay Nook Road to look at safety for pedestrians crossing especially young people going to and from school, and one on Durham Lane to see whether there had been any improvements as a result of the actions taken a few years ago on advisory speed limits and other markings.
Urlay Nook Road turned out to be interesting, with young people being observed walking along the length of it until they spot a safe gap in the traffic and then crossing. There have been no injury accidents on that stretch of road but parents perceive it as unsafe. As a result of the study we decided last night to use some of the fund along with some from the ward councillor community improvement fund to pay for some extra signage to remind motorists to be careful and some dropped kerbs at the point with the best visibility to encourage people to cross there. Everyone agreed that it seemed to be a good compromise so I hope the young people who first asked for a safer crossing point agree with us.
The Durham Lane study was also instructive but left us feeling disappointed. There has actually been a slight increase in accidents on that stretch of road, although the seriousness has slightly decreased on average. However, the one fatality was one too many and we were all very keen to reduce the likelihood of a repeat. After a lot of discussion of other factors and taking into account the planning application for Allen's West which will be determined in the next few months, we agreed that the way forward was to formalise the speed limit so that police can enforce it and to reinforce it with solid white lines to deter the overtaking which has been a feature of some of the injury accidents along there. Mindful that the biggest increase in accidents has been in people losing control at night we also decided to put reflective posts along the road edge on the bends so that the angle of the bends is more obvious. That means that the total budget for this year is being spent in Eaglescliffe ward.
Sadly, no representatives from Yarm or Kirklevington councils were present, nor any of the Conservative ward councillors representing those people, so if there are new concerns in those areas they were not raised. The issues already raised for those areas couldn't be properly discussed because there was no-one with the local background knowledge to facilitate the discussion.
We also had a discussion on the bus service for Long Newton and Elton, with a frank response from the Arriva representative present. It didn't bring much comfort to the representatives of those two villages but at least he was honest about their thinking and didn't hold out false hopes to them.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Youth of Today!

How often when we hear that phrase it's a sign of exasperation because the young people haven't behaved in the way which an older person expects. Last night was rather different, and a few preconceived ideas were shaken away.
Some weeks ago young people from local secondary schools were consulted about what they thought of the Western Area (Preston, Eaglescliffe, Yarm, Kirklevington, Long Newton, Elton and surroundings). A graffiti artist produced a canvas of their thoughts and last night I had the privilege of presenting it to the Board. Some things on it really hit home: these young people wanted more help for parents of children with problems, more activities to do as a family rather than split into teenagers, adults, toddlers etc. They saw some of the problems of the area as being the drug dealers who hang around certain places, the play areas which flood so that they can't be used after heavy rain, the lack of places to have exciting rides on their bikes and the lack of places to safely leave their bikes when they arrive at their destination like the swimming pool or the museum.
These were ordinary children, aged from 11 to 16, from ordinary homes in our area. Some of them probably wear hoodies. Some of them probably swear from time to time. Some of them probably don't look very tidy to many adults. But they certainly cared as passionately for their area and their fellow citizens as any of the adults I know.
A group of slightly older young people came along to the meeting, not knowing that this was on the agenda, but wanting to experience a Western Area Partnership meeting for themselves. They had the chance to speak up about what they thought of the ideas on the canvas and what we might do for youngsters in the area.
At the end of the agenda item all the board agreed that we needed to have a way of moving forward on these things. That it isn't good enough to come back again next year and say the same things. We are now committed to trying to get some things moving and to report back on progress. I'm sure that the young people will hold us to account.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Making a Difference

The day started with a seminar on possible future arrangements for Local Government. Most people aren't too bothered about how the council works as long as it does. But the Labour government seems obsessed with the idea of changing it - should we have an elected mayor like some of our neighbours or would the risk of a single-issue candidate capturing the imagination for a day be too great? Or maybe a Council leader in place for 4 years instead of 1? But then what if he or she started doing things which the rest of us felt were wrong? Or perhaps there's some other form of governance that we haven't thought of yet? Over the next 2 years Stockton council has to decide what it would like and then consult with people to see if they agree - slightly back to front perhaps? On the other hand, if we had an open consultation would anyone know what it was about? Meanwhile, as councillors, we'll continue to do our best for the people whom we represent, trying to get things done for our residents in the best way possible.
This evening was about making a difference in another way. I went with my husband to St Nic's in Durham where we enjoyed an international buffet supper followed by a concert by Gareth Davies-Jones, who despite his Welsh name, hails from Bangor in Co Down and now lives on Tyneside. He's a wonderful guitarist who uses his talents as a player and a singer to encourage people to think about trade justice. One thing he said struck me as worth sharing with a wider audience: "If you think that what you can do is too small to make a difference, you've never shared a bed with a mosquito!". It's not an original quote but I'm afraid I can't remember to whom he attributed it.
The buffet used Fairtrade products where possible and the proceeds went to support Uhuru, a Kenyan charity working with Street Children. So, good food with good music for a good cause - what a fantastic way to spend a Friday evening. Sadly, I left my camera at home and so have to make do with a photo taken on a phone - I'll learn one day!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Maths of Government

In the midst of news programmes on radio trying to make sense of the "draft Queen's speech" and the 10p tax cut compensation package I heard the following comment from a certain minister: "Repossessions are increasing but they're still at a record low". Which school did she go to? And this is the government that lectures teachers about not getting children to the "right" level of numeracy. I'm old enough to remember when being able to point out the error in such statements was part of our arithmetic lessons.
I was interested tonight to be able to visit Thornaby Methodist Church which is bucking the trend seen in many churches and actually increasing the number of families involved in the life of the church. The minister and the congregation are reaching out to the local community in very imaginative ways and everyone is benefitting. Unfortunately I had worn a skirt rather than trousers so didn't feel brave enough to go in and sample the amazing soft play area which has just been installed. Add to that a cyber cafe in construction and an assortment of training, drop-in sessions and meetings already available and I could see that here was a church truly putting itself at the heart of its community. It was heartening to see that here was a minister with vision and passion who had inspired his church members to be brave in doing what they knew was right for the people of the area.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


I listened to a phone message left yesterday for me, pointing out the grammatical error in a Focus article on the new Mayor! Mea culpa. I wrote that particular article and did indeed slip into a common error, so I hope readers will forgive me. The lady who so politely pointed it out to me didn't leave a contact number or name so I can't apologise to her personally.
I had an unusual experience this morning in having everyone else in a committee meeting sympathise with me! The sympathy was too late because they should have spoken up at a previous forum when their views would have changed what happened. As it is, the Environment Select committee is stuck with reviewing something which none of us want to review and which won't help the people of the borough one little bit, all because not one other group would agree with us at the crucial moment. Yet again the Liberal Democrats are proved right, but it's not much consolation.
The Fairtrade group meeting at lunch time was much more positive, with some good ideas on how to move forward. Possible links with the embryo multi-faith forum and with the Local Strategic Partnership were suggested, as well as a way of approaching one of the big businesses in the borough. Really positive results from a relatively brief meeting. Of course, if any Stockton resident reading this is interested in being part of the group, do get in touch.
Then it was another change of hat to go to a meeting with the new Integrated Service Area Manager for the south of the borough. This is someone who's going to oversee all the services for children and young people in Thornaby, Ingleby Barwick, Yarm, Eaglescliffe and the villages surrounding them. We discussed the main issues for the Western Area (Eaglescliffe, Yarm, Kirklevington, Long Newton etc), including the difficulty of finding premises for a Childrens' centre in Eaglescliffe and of finding suitable places for young people to kick a ball about without upsetting the neighbours. Both are huge challenges and won't be solved overnight but at least we're talking about them and trying to find a way round. The one thing which might happen more easily is developing some way of allowing young people to have a voice in the area. We had a very successful day in Norton with some youngsters from Egglescliffe and Conyers schools but we need to be able to have regular communication with youngsters from all round the area. One or two ideas were floated and will be discussed further. It's all so painfully slow though. I've been trying to do this kind of thing for about 4 years and it's still only at the discussion stage.

These things pale into insignificance when viewed against the news from China and Burma of people trying desperately to help those who are suffering from two huge natural disasters. It was very humbling to catch a snippet on the TV news of a business which had collected what sounded like a paltry sum to western ears, but had bought water and cake and taken it to the disaster zone to distribute. Ordinary people doing what they can - that's what makes a difference.

Monday, May 12, 2008

I had a meeting this morning to discuss the agenda for the Western Area Partnership Board meeting next week. The most important item on the agenda is the feedback from young people who went to a consultation event earlier in the year about what they want to see happen in the area. Just before the meeting started I checked my council emails to make sure there wasn't anything I needed to deal with quickly. I was slightly amused to see, flagged as important, a message telling me that this is National Condom Week. It did go on to give some useful facts about where to get more information if any young people I was working with needed it and I was very pleased that the council and its partners in the health service were taking the topic seriously.
I was also pleased that a week after I first reported the issue, something seems to be being done about the generator at the new medical centre site on Muirfield Rd. This is running all night, keeping residents awake, even though no work was going on and there is good street lighting around the area. It seems that the Environmental Health officer has been in discussion with the site manager to see how the noise can be reduced. Sadly, what they propose will take until later this week to implement!

A Proud Mum

I know this is primarily a political blog but it's also about me and in this case my wonderful daughters who both completed sponsored races to raise funds for Breast Cancer research this weekend.
One, expecting our second grandchild, walked in unseasonably hot weather in the Midlands on Saturday and the other, not having done any running for some time, ran in rather colder weather in the Southern Hemisphere on Sunday.
Well done both of you. I'm truly proud of you.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Candidate chosen

At a constituency meeting in Stockton at the weekend a new Parliamentary candidate for Stockton South was chosen. Jacquie Bell has a long association with this area and we're looking forward to working with her on the things which have to be changed at national level - there's only so much that the local council can do as those of you who want us to stop certain types of planning applications are well aware.
Jacquie knows only too well the issues that really concern people on a day to day basis, including health, education and having the right kind of support available at difficult times in our lives. I'm sure she'll be an excellent advocate for the people of Stockton South.
The only downside of the meeting was that I realised I'd picked up my camera and left its memory cards in various other places so I'm waiting for colleagues to share photos so that I can post one here. Watch this space as they say!

Friday, May 09, 2008

Fairtrade Challenges

The highlight of today was a meeting of representatives of towns & cities across the North East at Durham to hear from George Alagiah, patron of the Fairtrade Foundation. He's probably better known for his day job as a news presenter and war correspondent on TV, but George is passionate about Fairtrade as a way out of conflict for the world. He pointed out that most conflict ultimately boils down to arguments about the distribution of resources and if that's done fairly then the reason for conflict disappears! Put like that it sounds simple but of course it isn't. Fairtrade helps about 7 million farmers and producers at present but there are still a couple of billion who need help. He also answered the criticism that Fairtrade stops people developing and expanding their range of produce because they're guaranteed a minimum price for what they're already producing. He went and asked Nicaraguan producers what they thought of that idea and they told him in no uncertain terms that the Fairtrade guarantee allows them to innovate and try new products, knowing that they've got a guaranteed income from the basic crop they produce. Those growers have diversified because of Fairtrade, not in spite of it.
George laid before us the challenges facing us over the next few years as activists and campaigners and left us feeling reinvigorated to do more.
The afternoon also gave us a chance to meet up with campaigners from around the Tees Valley and decide on our next move together, so a very worthwhile afternoon.
I know that other people went to listen to George speak at Hartlepool and no doubt will write about it in due course so I'll look forward to hearing what he said to motivate those who were not already involved.
Add to that a bit of filing done and some other jobs completed, and it was a very successful day.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Faith & Belief

The day's meetings started with a good discussion with the Town Centre manager and one of her staff about what might be done in terms of Fairtrade promotion in the Borough over the next year. It was very useful to be able to exchange thoughts about what could have gone better this year and to realise what a gulf of understanding there'd been between us on what each had capacity to do. It should mean that next year is much better organised.
We chose our meeting place so that Suzanne Fletcher and I could leave to go upstairs at 3 to the Faith & Belief in Stockton event. For some years now, ever since the Western Area Partnership Board came into being, I've argued that the churches in the Western Area were as much a part of the community as the community groups and residents groups and so they should have a place on the Board. I've been told, usually politely, that this wasn't what the local strategic partnership was about! Today, we finally had a meeting with all faiths & belief systems invited, to hear about what happens regionally and in our neighbouring borough. Out of that we hope to have a group which will be much more part of the thinking in the borough, including the LSP. So not yet a miracle but perhaps a little seedling and I like to think that my harping on about it has played a little part.
A bonus was the fact that one of the very interesting stalls was run by the Muslim community in Thornaby and I was given a copy of an English Translation of the Koran as well as some other literature about Islam. I had such a long and interesting conversation with the gentleman running the stall that I didn't get to all of the others!
The bad thing of the event was that Stockton council was giving away plastic carrier bags to hold your goodies! Plastic - I ask you! The Arc had good recycling boxes but they would have needed bigger ones to hold what was given away this afternoon.
And then it was on to council - lots of questions, some interesting and some less so. Suzanne Fletcher asked about the Area Bus Forums which had been promised and we were told that they would be discussed at the Area Transport Strategy meetings, but I hadn't been told that when I had my briefing as chair!
We had a debate about some possible corrections to the minutes of one of the committees, as well as some quite lengthy questions on other minutes. John handled it all very well in his first meeting as mayor, but it must have been a real headache for him. I'm just glad it wasn't me in the chair.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Despondency, Challenges and Hope

I spent the morning in a meeting with colleagues, catching up on progress, or lack of it, in a number of fields. Problems with the planning process in Stockton don't go away and in fact seem to grow. Meeting venues are no more accessible than a year ago. The Bus Users' Forum was a flash in the pan because the council needed to tick a box in order to put in a bid for something. And so it goes on. We've had a year now of the new Tory leadership in Stockton and nothing much seems to have improved - still too much bureaucracy and not enough action for people.
We decided on what we needed to do next to move things forward and left to get on with being councillors.
The afternoon was taken up by a routine hospital appointment for my mother, over a bit sooner than anticipated so there was time for an unplanned visit to a supermarket with her to stock up on a few extra bits of shopping. Another accessibility issue here - the disabled parking bays are wider than normal parking bays but not separated by hatching as in most places now. Consequently if someone parks right over near the line it's difficult to get out into a wheelchair in the adjacent space.
The early evening was taken up with a meeting of Stockton Renaissance, the local strategic partnership. The agenda didn't look terribly interesting - several things which I'd already seen in other places, but there was a very interesting presentation on the Environment and Regeneration partnership of the LSP. They are extremely busy working out how best to spend the latest round of government money which is coming to help combat unemployment in the borough. The chairman also gave us some upbeat statistics on unemployment and business start ups in the borough - both significantly better than the national trend. Sadly, the rate of business failure is still too high, but there was a real ray of hope in his presentation. Of course, having got all the people who are relatively easily employable into work, we still have a big skills shortage and the people left out of work don't have the skills, nor in some cases the ability to aquire them. That's the big challenge of the future, along with how to retain the graduates from the two universities on our doorstep.
How we cope with these challenges in the next year or two will make or mar our borough for the next generation. Frightening thought!
And so home, to emails and phone calls that had been stacking up during the day. Some of them tricky, some straightforward, all worth while. The best of all was from a young person wanting to get more young people involved in the democratic decision making processes in this area! Hallelujah!! While there are people like that around there's hope for the world.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Healthy Eating?

I discovered something today which others may have known for a long time - such foods as frozen pizza, frozen chips and milkshakes are zero rated for VAT, while fruit juice and fruit smoothies are rated at 17.5%. This is because apparently the former count as food while the latter count as luxury! I don't very often buy any of them, but for a government to be wringing its hands and weeping crocodile tears over obesity rates to perpetuate a system put in place years ago is just another example of the hypocrisy which surrounds successive Labour and Tory governments.
So, if you think that fruit juice should be moved down into a 5% rate go and sign the petition and lets see if Gordon Brown really does listen! Interestingly, the supermarket chain which is backing this move is ASDA, not always known for its sense of responsibility for the nation's well being. Well done them!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

I did. Did you?

Well, 24 hours without a computer (or Blackberry) wasn't a bad experience at all. In fact it was a fun day of family activities. A trip to visit our daughter and her family, work in the garden and playing with our lovely granddaughter. What more could a computer have brought?
Of course, I'm not naive enough to be unaware of the benefits I gained from other people's computers - the traffic lights that worked, the shops that were open and well stocked, the radio programmes I enjoyed, the clean water that flowed from the tap when I needed it to name but a few. But it was good to be able to enjoy the time without one myself.