Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Fairtrade needed more than ever

I'm saddened but not surprised to hear that the Geneva talks on World Trade have ended without an agreement. Europe and the USA simply refuse to acknowledge that our subsidies to farmers produce agricultural products at a price with which poor farmers in developing countries can't compete. All that China, India and other developing economies ask is Fair trade on a level playing field. They wanted to be able to protect their farmers too. But that couldn't be allowed could it!
At least for the thousands of producers around the world who are selling under the Fairtrade mark there is hope. They know they have a future. Unfortunately their neighbours may not be so fortunate. So don't just read this, make sure that you look for the Fairtrade mark when shopping and ask when you can't find it. It's the only deal in town at the moment for the poor producers of the world. We can make the difference with a little bit of effort.

Monday, July 28, 2008


I spent a substantial part of today in meetings of partnerships, discussing health, well-being (and how to define it!), some new ideas on regenerating the Tees Valley, and more on the exciting developments for play which I heard about last week. Perhaps the most worrying part of the whole day was hearing that the Primary Care Trust will no longer have any role in providing health care, but will spend all its time and energy commissioning such care from other providers such as GPs, dentists and hospitals. So the wheel turns full circle and procurement and delivery are separated. We just have to wait and see if this latest big idea for the NHS actually gives any better service than at present.
One ray of sunshine in all the meetings was the discovery that the PCT is now serving Fairtrade coffee and tea in all its offices - more producers will be able to send children to school, develop their farms and take control of their own lives to a greater extent thanks to that decision so well done all concerned.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The World comes to Billingham

Today the 44th Billingham International Folklore Festival opened under a glorious blue sky in Billingham Town Centre. The formal opening was preceded by a lunch for representatives of Stockton Council, the Festival organisers and sponsors and the performers. I was fortunate to be one of the council representatives and shared a table with representatives of the German group. This group comes from a village in Saxony and exists to preserve the culture of the Sorbian minority in that area. They give up a week of their holiday each year to attend a festival of folk music and dance somewhere. Their language is related to Czech and Slovakian but they also speak German. In school they learn English, though prior to the fall of the Berlin wall they learned Russian. I was interested to learn that whereas we keep alive the tradition of maypole dancing they have a tradition of maypole tossing!
The opening was performed by the principal of Stockton Riverside College who was keen to tell us about the exciting developments in Billingham to rebuild Bede College and maintain the 6th form provision there through their joint venture. The colleges have long been supportive of the festival and it was good to hear that the support will continue.
There were some unusual acts to watch in the opening concert, including a group of Renaissance Flag Throwers from near Rome (watch a little of their performance on the video clip) and the Sri Lankan drummers who seemed to be very young to perform with such aplomb. They're giving a workshop tomorrow morning in the town centre for children - a really good opportunity to share in the culture of one of the visiting groups. I almost wish I were a child again! When we lived in Billingham Town Centre many years ago it was a real joy to see the little performances which the groups would give at odd times of the day. It made the festival feel very much part of the town.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Glasgow East and all that

A week or more ago the Stockton South Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate, Jaquie Bell, said that she thought the SNP were on track to take Glasgow East from Labour. This wasn't a newspaper pundit looking at statistics, but someone who'd just spent several hours walking the streets delivering Liberal Democrat leaflets. In the early hours of this morning she was proved right. A sliver of a majority, but one less Labour MP in Westminster. I don't suppose many Labour supporters this morning are feeling uplifted by the beautiful sunshine streaming through the windows.
Back here in Eaglescliffe the schools have all closed now for the summer break. No doubt we'll see an increase in the number of complaints about ball games, trespassing and so on from some adults. Equally, there'll be complaints from some young people about the way grown ups talk to them and treat them. All I'll say here is: Please remember that we all have to share the streets. Good manners and tolerance on all sides help us to do that more happily.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wine, Plans and Markets

That odd mix describes today's meeting round. First up was a planning session for the Fairtrade Wine tasting which is being planned for October 17th - put the date in your diary now if you're within reach of Stockton on that evening. There'll be lovely Fairtrade wines to taste, some nibbles to snack on and fun all round.
This afternoon the planning committee had to decide on a number of applications, including the Allen's West outline application. The report from the Planning Officer was heavy going and then there were presentations by the applicant and some of the objectors followed by a lengthy debate. Today's application was solely for the means of access and the principle of mixed development, neither of which was contentious. The problems arise with the indicative master plan for the housing, and the height of the buildings fronting onto Durham Lane, the distance of the SW corner of the site from the road - evidenced by the plan to put a cycle store at the bus stop!, and the traffic impact. Sadly, this is another example of the developer being able to demonstrate on a computer model something that goes against everyone's gut feeling and local knowledge. But we know from previous appeals that the inspector will only look at the computer modelling. Reluctantly I felt I had no choice but to support the outline application while making it very plain that I did not regard the SW corner housing nor the 15m high flats on Durham Lane as acceptable for the future reserved matters application.
We had an interesting application outside of this ward, which eventually was refused. The applicant wanted to put up small studio flats in an area which allowed them to be relatively low cost starter homes. The design was modern and completely different to the 1930s housing on the other side of the road, but as it was replacing a horrible old commercial building with no architectural merit at all I thought the modern ones were an innovative solution. I actually thought it might regenerate the area a bit and bring some younger people into it. However the majority of the committee disagreed and felt that it was out of keeping with the area so the applicant is faced with either an appeal or a redesign.
Fortunately the Markets Forum was pretty positive. At last the issues around the Christmas Festival and the Stockton Riverside Festival seem to have been resolved and things are progressing more smoothly. I just hope that it continues that way.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Building Schools for the Future in Eaglescliffe

The long slow process of BSF grinds on, with the next stage going before Stockton Council's Cabinet tonight. Residents of Eaglescliffe will know that I'm often critical of how the council consults residents, often seeming to treat consultation very superficially. This consultation has been different. Many changes have been made to the proposals after residents across the Borough voiced their concerns, worries and objections. For Egglescliffe school the big positive is the fact that the 6th form will stay with the 11-16 section of the school, continuing that special character which is a part of an 11-18 school. The staff, parents and governors are happy about that. The other change is that the school will shrink slightly in size because the school at Ingleby Barwick will expand to reduce the number of pupils needing to travel off the estate. That will reduce the associated traffic problems. However, there are still concerns around the new site - what about the pylons at one end of the site? What will happen to the present site? It has now been identified as a potential housing site though the school and many residents think it's needed for sporting facilities. I raised this at Cabinet tonight and I've been promised a full answer on how much land is needed for playing fields, tennis courts and the like. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic process of such documents means they grind on while such questions are asked and answered.
Recycling revolution: Cabinet tonight approved the action plan for implementation of the new recycling and waste management arrangements, following the review I chaired earlie in the year. Cardboard and Plastic recycling will start with those areas which undertook the trial and then be rolled out to other areas in 2 stages, with everyone having the extra collection by October 2009. At the same time as the extra recycling is introduced the collection of side waste will cease. It will be a few days before ward councillors find out which roads will be included in each stage so if you're impatiently waiting for the cardboard to be collected please be patient for a while longer.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Mayor Strides out

Today was the first day of the Mayor's sponsored walk, raising funds for his charities (Daisy Chain and Justice First) by walking the Teesdale Way from one side of the Borough to the other. It dawned bright and clear but turned to rain in the afternoon. The walkers were undeterred however, and can be seen here emerging onto the worst part of the walk - the bit that goes through a housing estate up to the main road Preston Park because the Golf Course is out of bounds to hikers. A last minute hitch had prevented my joining them, so I walked a couple of hundred metres to film them instead. Despite the rain they looked very cheery, and John even took his coat off so that his Mayoral chain T-shirt could be seen. Now that's real dedication. He was supported by River Tees Ranger Bob Campbell, leading the way and ensuring that no-one got lost or left behind.
Tomorrow they walk from Preston Park to Stockton and then to the Middlesbrough boundary so if you want to join them turn up, equipped with good footwear, waterproofs and a picnic for lunch at Preston Hall at 10 a.m.
The life of the ward goes on and new planning applications include one for the erection of a new clubhouse and changing facilities for Preston Cricket Club and Yarm Rugby Club, following the fire earlier in the year. They're also going to install CCTV so perhaps that'll help to deter vandals in the future. The club has had more than its fair share of problems in the past.
It's good to see the new footway at last going in on The Avenue outside the McCarthy and Stone development. They really did leave it to the last minute, with the first residents due to move in very soon.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Climate Change and Other Things

I heard a snatch of a radio programme that I don't usually listen to today and found myself laughing aloud. The comedian said (not a verbatim quote so forgive me if you heard the original) "We've put so much effort into causing global warming and what do we get? Cold, wet miserable July". He went on to suggest that we all find another appliance to turn on and warm the world up a bit more! Warped humour, I know, but it suited my mood at the time. I'd managed to find a little dry slot to go out and pick the raspberries which desperately needed to be picked but my legs were wet and cold from the wet foliage rubbing on them. On days like this it's good to remember that global warming doesn't turn us into Stockton on the Riviera, but has disastrous consequences for some of those who can least cope with them. Our wet miserable July is a small problem in comparison.
Today the formal letter came out giving notice of when the appeal will be heard against the refusal of permission for 14 apartments at 690 Yarm Rd. The hearing will take place at 10:00 on 27th August at Stockton Town Hall. I hope for the sake of the residents of the road behind the site that we win the appeal. I'll certainly do my best on the day.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Catching up

A day with only one meeting was the un-looked for bonus of the strike by some council staff. Several meetings were cancelled and so there was a chance to catch up on some phone calls and emails as well as doing a little of the filing and reading which has piled up over recent weeks.
The one meeting which did take place was of a small group of school governors who meet about once a term to discuss innovations in school governance, future training events and to share ideas on how to encourage more people to become governors and to be active and confident in the role. It was interesting to hear the views of some other school governors on the changes taking place in Stockton Council over the next couple of months. After a period of relative stability there is to be a new Chief Executive, a new Corporate Director of Children's services, a new Chief Adviser for schools and several other changes in areas which have an effect on our schools and children's services. Exciting and challenging times ahead as we all strive to ensure that our priorities are put in front of the new management team.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I had a very interesting conversation with a local stamp collector today who told me that there is an increasing problem for stamp collectors with modern post offices. The post office likes to use sticky labels showing the postage paid rather than sticking stamps on parcels and letters, so increasingly he finds them reluctant to sell an entire sheet of stamps to him. It seems to be part of the drive to efficiency over personal service everywhere and the world is poorer for it.
The Fairtrade Borough Group met at lunch time and as usual we all want to do far more than we have the resources to achieve. Oh for more people with the time to commit to spreading the word. We will have our stall at a Family Fun Day in Thornaby later in the month, as well as a wine tasting event later in the year, but we could do so much more with more time and hands.
The council papers that awaited me at home brought me back to earth with a bump - the agenda for next week's planning committee includes the Allen's West development with a recommendation for approval. I need to read the report very thoroughly before Wednesday afternoon. There are lots of suggested conditions in there and if the application is passed those conditions will be vital to keep the impact on current residents as low as possible.
This application highlights the big problem with planning - it's not really planning but reacting to other people's plans. For the council to have make plans for housing or employment or leisure developments takes 3 years of consultation and refinement and reconsultation, but developers can put in their plans at any time and within 3 months the council has to decide what to do about it (less time if it's a smaller application). Residents and councillors find that very frustrating and I know that some planning officers do too.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Week's A Long Time

And it's been a very long week for me indeed. Our second grand-child's arrival in the big wide world took a bit longer than we'd expected at the beginning of the week and I've seen rather more of the national road network than I'd hoped. But all's well that ends well and she's a beautiful baby (of course!) Many, many thanks to the rest of the Liberal Democrat group for keeping things going so well in my absence.
As some may have read elsewhere a large part of the council meeting on Wednesday evening was taken up with the debate on councillors' allowances. This is a very thorny issue and no-one is ever completely happy with how it's handled. The role of a councillor has changed hugely over the last 25 years, with more and more responsibility for major decisions, needing more and more training. And that's on top of the things which are always there and important to the residents who elect us, like trying to keep the streeets safe, clean and tidy. Years ago I knew councillors who could do the job in their spare time while working full time and fulfilling family responsibilities. This is becoming less common now. People find they need to take time off work for meetings but employers are less willing or able to pay them for the time off. People find that they can't get promotion at work because of the time taken up by council work. Many councillors only stand for election after retirement when they feel they've got time.
The whole process of establishing what Stockton Council's allowances should be for the next 3 years started last year and finally reached a conclusion on Wednesday. A big increase, yes, phased in over 3 years. So it costs the taxpayers less than the Independent Panel's recommendation would have done, but recognises the work done by councillors and puts Stockton much closer to other similar councils. Predictably, some people have been very angry about it, but others have been supportive and understood why it was necessary. Equally predictably the Labour leader made a lot of fuss about the rises being too high. There is of course, an option open to each and every councillor who doesn't want all of the rise - gift aid it as a donation to a charity of your choice. There's a number of local charities which would be very glad of the extra income.
I was very pleased that the amendment proposed by the Liberal Democrats was accepted - that allowances to cover care of dependents while the councillor is at a meeting should be paid as the full cost of any necessary care, instead of the fixed sum which was being proposed that would not have covered nursing care. This is very rarely needed but there are times when a councillor has a dependent spouse or child who needs special carers and this should be taken into account.
Sadly, the local media have contributed to the furore without helping to have an informed discussion.
Meanwhile, other things jog along. The low frequency of buses along Durham Lane is a source of much disappointment to residents on Orchard Estate, but there's no sign of improvement at the present.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Wedding Congratulations

I know that this isn't anything really to do with Eaglescliffe ward, except that it involves two residents of the ward, but it involves one person well known to many in this ward so the story and photos are here for all. Cllr Julia Roberts who represents Elmtree ward and my former Eaglescliffe colleague, now Preston Parish Councillor Mike Cherrett married this afternoon. It was supposed to be a really quiet wedding with only their two sons as witnesses, but their council colleagues and friends were quite sure that Julia would want us to see her in her wedding outfit after the ceremony. Consequently, we pulled up outside the register office after the appointed starting time for the ceremony, ready to congratulate them. But, sitting on the wall outside were the witnesses! Had we missed the wedding? Had they actually gone off and done it somewhere else without even their sons? No - the young men were taking advantage of some fresh air and sunshine while the preliminaries were going on indoors. Much relief all round. Then we were spotted through the window by the Bride-to-be and much to our surprise were invited in to witness the ceremony too.
It was a beautiful, simple ceremony and hardly a dry eye in the house. I hope they enjoy many happy years together.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Waiting for the Phoenix

In the week that the NHS celebrates its 60th birthday Eaglescliffe Health Centre bit the dust. The demolition squad moved in and the building is no more. Councillor Suzanne Fletcher took these photographs when out with her trusty camera looking for something else entirely.
Residents haven't been deserted by the doctors, nurses, physiotherapist, health visitor and countless other professionals who work in the centre - the temporary one is actually so nice and modern that it made the old permanent one look even more tatty! The designs for the new centre looked great on paper so I look forward to the Phoenix arising from the ashes of the old one later in the year.

Meanwhile, at a meeting of Durham Lane Primary School governors we heard a report on the progress being made in setting up integrated services for children and young people in this area which should help with ensuring that the risk of children "falling through the net" is minimised, that families in need get all the help they need when they need it and that schools get the support they need to support their pupils. It was an encouraging report even though everyone admits that there's a long road to be travelled. Meanwhile it was good to be able to offer congratulations to the school on winning the First Annual Tennis Challenge Trophy of the Tony Blair Sports Foundation. For young people who've only been playing for such a short time it was a fantastic achievement. For the community it's a great indication of what happens when a school is open enough to let in outside help to encourage a new sport. Let's hope these young people are the first of many in Eaglescliffe to take up active sport and continue to enjoy it into adult life.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Planning Committee

The agenda for today's meeting was particularly heavy, containing as it did the draft Strategic Housing Land Allocation Assessment. This document, 2cm thick, contains an assessment of every conceivable plot of land in the Borough capable of having more than 10 dwellings put on it in. It then tries to assess whether they're likely to become available and if it might be possible to develop in the next 15 years. It's been a mammoth task to produce and of course it contained plots which some of us would rather not see developed. There's no guarantee that they will end up with housing but there's a feeling of unease when the possibility is there on the page in black and white.
It includes the sites of the schools which may be moving or closing under the proposals for Building Schools for the Future, something which we in this ward were assured would not happen when we had early discussions on the subject. However much council officers protest that it's prudent and necessary to put the sites in there because they might become available but that nothing's decided, one can't help but feel that there's been some economy with the truth along the way.

Two difficult planning applications helped to prolong the meeting. One in Ingleby Barwick had several of us wishing we could do something to teach wayward developers a lesson but unfortunately planning committee doesn't have that in its remit! As a result the developer will be selling a house which has some quite severe changes in level in the garden and has less daylight in the kitchen than most people would want. The neighbours have to put up with a house which is higher than it should be and has an imposing gable wall facing their properties. All because the builder didn't comply with a basic requirement at the outset - to get the levels agreed before building. It's not rocket science, but some of these companies just think they can ride roughshod over the council and the neighbours.
The second tricky one was in our ward. 502-506 Yarm Rd is better known to long-standing residents as MPG. We were told today by the chairman of Preston Parish Council that it has been there for 70 years. I can vouch for the last 30 of them! Today it serves not just as a filling station but as a corner shop for local people. Sadly the economics of life today mean that the owners want to demolish it and build flats. Because I've been tied up with personal things over the last few weeks I hadn't spent as long studying it as I might have done. When I came to study the report on the agenda for today I was saddened to see that, despite lots of things which were obviously wrong on it, the planning officer had recommended it for approval. Eventually we agreed to defer it to see if a better design can be achieved. I'd like a lower density but I don't know whether that will be possible. I'm just not sure how popular 1 bedroomed flats will be, and I know that local people are worried that if they don't sell it will become a derelict eyesore. The garage isn't a thing of beauty but perhaps better the devil you know? I did permit myself a wry smile at the thought that the flats would be considered sustainable because shops are accessible by bus, but in order to build them the local convenience store would be demolished. Such is life in the planning world these days.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Escape To Safety

This morning I was invited to visit The Norton School for the opening of the exhibition “Escape to Safety”. This is a multi-media exhibition demonstrating the experience of people seeking asylum in the UK. It takes students on a journey from a war-torn part of the world to Heathrow and eventually to a detention centre. Using an MP3 player and headphones each person moves through the exhibition which is set up in a large trailer. Hearing the stories and seeing the pictures and other items in such confined spaces really brings home some of the desperation which drives people to put up with such terrible deprivation in order to seek freedom and basic human rights.
A story from Afghanistan reminded me of the students I taught who’d fled that same regime for those same reasons. Nowrooz, whose house was flattened in a bombing raid while he was at work and who had to leave, assuming that his wife was buried under the ruins. And then I started to think of others and wonder where they are now. The Kosovan whose name I won’t print here who just wanted to be able to go back and help rebuild his country but couldn’t because his village wasn’t there any more and his friends and family had scattered to the four winds. The young man from Sierra Leone who couldn’t go to school because of the fighting but whose friend risked his life to teach him what he had learned before the school closed. The very first refugee I met from Afghanistan who’d paid a fortune to be transported to London with his family only to be deposited in Kiev and told that he was in London. The Turkish Kurd whose wife was killed in a bombing raid on their village and who was shot as he tried to locate her body.
I could go on and on, each story an individual tale of pain and suffering, but each person sustained by a belief that England is the land of the free, the land of safety where people are kind and tolerant. And then there’s the fresh pain when it becomes obvious that the truth isn’t quite as rosy as that. When immigration officers don’t or won’t make allowances for the trauma someone has suffered. When newspapers print untrue “facts” and people read and believe them.
Today’s exhibition reminded me of why I enjoyed teaching those refugees and asylum seekers English language and culture. It reminded me that there are times when I don’t do enough to support now that I’m not teaching and meeting them every day. And it made me determined to do more to support those who do have the time and the skills to give practical help.
Thank you Hilaire and RAPT for inviting me. Well done Norton School for spending the time to help students to understand the issues. Egglescliffe school did the same in the spring. Two different schools serving very different communities but both trying to help their young people to be better global citizens.