Sunday, August 31, 2008

Post natal luxury down under

I've just been hearing about the latest trend in reducing pressure on post natal beds in hospital in Melbourne, Australia. For some insurance companies and some hospitals it's become cheaper to install a midwife in a luxury hotel and rent a suite for the new mother and her husband and baby and other children for a few days than to keep said mother and baby in hospital!! So for some mothers, choosing their ante-natal and post-natal care package now involves looking at hotel facilities. If it sounds incredible, it's not - it's really happening. It's a far cry from the British idea of choice in medical care, and I'm not sure what impact it has on those people who don't pay into such expensive medical insurance schemes.
Meanwhile I'm pleased to report on a much more mundane level that the planting in Larch Crescent has finally been done. Let's hope that's an end to the nightmare for the residents of ball games being played too vigorously in too small a space by young people old enough to know better and old enough to go across Yarm Rd and use the excellent facilities in Preston Park.

Saturday, August 30, 2008


A relatively minor piece of surgery has meant that I need to keep my leg up for some time each day for a few days so lots of opportunities to catch up on reading and to answer the phone. It's been a real treat to be able to read things properly instead of having to skim down them trying to spot the important bits hidden amongst the rest. I was also able to spend time on the phone instead of relying on e-mail in an effort to find out more detail of some work being done in the ward by a charity on rehabilitation of offenders. Yet another example of local residents not being given the whole story so the causing a great deal of worry. I've yet to find out whether the worry is justified or not, but at least I've had a lot of help from Council officers and hope to have an answer early in the week.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

690 Yarm Road

The appeal hearing was today. We won't know the result until about 6 week's time and I wouldn't like to guess which way the inspector will go. I do believe we got a fair hearing, but whether I or my colleagues there were sufficiently convincing remains to be seen. All I can say is that we did our best and I hope for the sake of the residents of the few houses in Croft Rd who will be affected that our best was good enough.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Young People Today

I spent the weekend at the annual conference of the Association of Interchurch Families, nothing to do with party politics you might think, but consider the sectarian divides in such places as Northern Ireland and it soon becomes obvious that in some places religion and politics mix with disastrous effect. However, this weekend was a particularly cheerful one as it marked the beginning of our 40th year so a celebration Dinner and Ceilidh provided a break from debate and discussion. Particularly heartening were the young members of the association - young people aged 14+ who organised a full programme of activity, debate and discussion for themselves and at the end of the weekend pricked the consciences of all the adults there by telling us their thoughts on climate change, Fairtrade and a number of other important topics and then handing to every family a "goodie bag" full of information on ways to live more simply so that others may simply live in the words of the CAFOD campaign. So the young people I met this weekend were thoughtful, worked hard and taught the adults a thing or two - how lucky I was!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Recycling Revolution

There was a briefing today for councillors about Stockton's recycling revolution which will happen as a result of the scrutiny review I chaired earlier in the year. As the officer doing the presentation said, some tough decisions were taken. My own personal inclination would have been to go further down the road to strong encouragement of reducing waste and recycling whatever we can, but in the end I had to compromise in order to carry the majority. I still believe we took decisions for the right reasons and I'm convinced they'll help in our aim to reduce, re-use and then recycle at least 40% of domestic waste in 2 years' time. Of course, that's only part of the story. The government doesn't set the council any targets for commercial waste so the council doesn't put any effort into encouraging recycling by those people. All the office blocks around the borough don't have any targets for recycling unless the company concerned has such a policy. How much waste paper is that? How many drinks cans and plastic bottles? Some might think the council should be doing something about it anyway, but that would mean using tax-payers' money on things which the government doesn't think sufficiently important to count towards anything. So when Stockton Council had to account for how it has spent the money it would be saying that some was spent on a service which the government didn't want and the people of the borough haven't asked for! Not a good idea - 4 stars down the drain! No chief executive or leader of the council is going to go down that route.
There has to be another way but can you imagine a Labour government, much less a Tory one, forcing industry or business to do something good for the environment? Not on their past record. So we have to rely on individuals putting pressure on their own workplace to improve.
Sadly, village halls and community centres fall under the commercial heading on this, so when there's a party there and dozens of cans and bottles are collected up at the end where do they go? Either the zealous organisers take them home and pretend that the party happened there or they go straight into the bin and to the incinerator or land fill instead of their precious material being recycled. Where's the sense in that?
Still, look on the bright side - houses across the borough will have cardboard and plastic recycling collections by next autumn, with the first lucky homes starting this autumn. The lucky ones include most of our ward apart from the farms, rural hamlets and those who are on the same collection round as them. I look forward to seeing the recycling rate in Eaglescliffe rocket and at the same time our residual waste amounts drop dramatically. If we can all become more aware of the need to reduce consumption we'll soon make a difference.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

How fortunate I am!

The morning started with a continuation of last night's awful news about the plane crash in Madrid which made me, along with many other people I guess, reflect on how easily such things wipe out lives that should be full of fun and joy and promise. Although I know that statistically I'm safer on a plane than on a bike it's somehow more worrying when the mode of transport isn't in my control. Irrational maybe, but I wouldn't mind betting that a lot of people think in the same way. Having just returned from holiday after a flight lasting over 9 hours and with a niece currently on holiday in Spain the horror struck me more directly than perhaps it would have done at other times.
Then I picked up the morning paper and found myself gripped by a feature article about a family who eventually fled the horror that is Zimbabwe and have started a new life in Australia but are still worried sick about parents left behind in Harare. The enormity of the decision they took and the love the writer has for the country of her birth shone through the article.
I did find time today to look up more detail of an interesting housing development about which I read yesterday. Staiths South Bank in Gateshead is a new development on an old, contaminated site - what everyone would recognise as a brownfield site. Wimpey very bravely gave an architect who'd criticised their previous developments around the country the challenge of designing this one and what a design - ultra modern apartment buildings, more traditional houses, open public spaces designed with people in mind. They don't just look good, they actually work. One has a table tennis table in the centre with floodlights - imagine that in Eaglescliffe! No-one has individual wheelie bins or blue boxes, but there are communal bins shared between 15 or 20 houses. Residents have praised the system for making them more waste conscious and for giving them another opportunity to meet and "pass the time of day". I know that works - I see it when I visit a relative in flats in Stockton which have a recycling centre outside. I've seen it work in France and in Australia. No reason at all why it couldn't work on new developments here. I've sent the details to our planning department and the regeneration section to see what they say!
On a more down to earth note, we've now submitted requests for our Environmental Improvements budget for more bulb planting along Durham Lane and Yarm Road, replacement of a tree in Preston Lane and surfacing of the footpath from West View Terrace to Yarm Road. The latter may not be possible because the ownership of the land has never been traced whenever someone's tried to do something in the past but we live in hope. Meanwhile if Eaglescliffe residents have further thoughts on what might be possible in the ward we hope you'll let us know.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ups and Downs

The day started with a briefing session in preparation for the planning appeal hearing on 690 Yarm Road, taking place next Wednesday in Stockton Town Hall. Two senior planning officers went through all the procedures with me and discussed what the main arguments will be. Cllr Beaumont came along too, as she went on the committee site visit and realised at that point just what the impact would be on the residents of the few houses on Croft Rd at the rear of the site. She's going to come along to the appeal and speak on that, for which I'm grateful. I couldn't go on the site visit, so although I know the area I can't speak about what the committee saw on that day.
Last night I called on a couple of the Croft Rd residents and asked if they would mind my asking the inspector to come and look from their property. Appeal inspectors aren't consistent in which aspects of an application and local plans they place most emphasis on so we can only marshall the best arguments we can and hope for the best.
From that to a more up-beat meeting - Stockton Borough Fairtrade Partnership. We had good representation from Durham University this time as well as from the Co-op and very positive discussions on how to promote Fairtrade in the Borough. Plans for the wine tasting on October 17th are moving on, as well as for re-validating our Fairtrade Borough status. If any local readers know of shops other than the supermarkets which stock Fairtrade goods please let me know, as well as any cafes, restaurants or pubs which offer Fairtrade food or drink. We were delighted to hear that as well as the Co-op taking over the Sommerfield chain and thus broadening their Fairtrade offer they have also taken over the newsagent at Wynyard, meaning that Wynyard now has a place to buy Fairtrade coffee, tea, chocolate and biscuits on the doorstep.
Disappointing news came in the afternoon, with the decision to cancel the Summer Show planned for the weekend at Preston Park. Heavy rain has left the ground in no state to cope with masses of vehicles and people even if it stays fine for the rest of the week so there was no alternative but a cancellation. Some events will go ahead on the car parking space and inside the Hall, including
Olympic Flag raising – the ceremony to mark the countdown to the London 2012 Olympics will take place outside Preston Hall Museum on Sunday 24 August at 1:30pm. The flag will be raised by gymnast Craig Heap, who competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and was twice gold medallist in the Commonwealth Games. There'll also be people on hand with information on how to get involved in sports of all kinds in the borough.
The Daisy Chain SCAD will take place in the car park while the rowing machine competition will be in the Hall on Sunday at 1.
Arc in the Park will now be in Arc at 8pm on Friday and Saturday which will no doubt be a relief for those who don't like to hear the music from evening events drifting across to their houses.
The museum will be open as usual all weekend but parking will be very limited so if you can possibly use a bus or walk or catch the train to Eaglescliffe station and walk from there, please do.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Getting Back to Normal

A day without formal meetings meant I could catch up with what happened while I was away, including the arrangements for appointing a new chief executive for Stockton Borough Council. Although many people think of the Council as something quite small and local it also resembles in many ways a large business. The chief executive has to make sure that all the services, whether very visible like waste collection or invisible like housing benefit payments, run smoothly and give the best value for money to Council Tax payers. At the same time all the partnership working which is such a big feature of public service today has to be worked on and then there's relationships with other councils and the government in Westminster. So it's not an easy job at all and we need someone who can keep up the present standards and make sure that they give results for everyone in the Borough - a tall order! So the recruitment process has to be very carefully arranged.
I've been asked about my comment on the sugar cane industry in Jamaica so I thought I'd elaborate a bit. Sugar was a major product in Jamaica in colonial days and even until relatively recent years. Sugar cane was grown all over the lowland plains and the product was exported to the UK and other countries. Unfortunately for Jamaica and other Caribbean islands their customers began to produce more and more sugar from beet so the demand for cane declined. As a result sugar plantations gradually closed and the land was used for other things. On the Northern coast of Jamaica that has frequently meant hotels and housing which in turn has placed high demands on the water supplies to the towns and villages. As a result new water mains are being laid at a furious rate in order to bring more of the precious liquid from the hills to the plains. Sadly, much of it is used simply to make hotels and their surroundings more green and beautiful, though as these hotels provide good job opportunities with desirable steady wages the local people I spoke to seemed to be content with the situation. What was really humbling was their reaction when I expressed some regret that our use of sugar beet had reduced their agricultural job opportunities. "But it's good for your country and you've got to look after your people" was the common response. No acrimony, no envy - just acceptance that this is how trade works round the globe. It made me glad that Fairtrade sugar is cane sugar from Jamaica, amongst other places, and that we can buy that as well as beet sugar to support our own farmers.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Holidays are a time for refreshment and recreation, and my last week was no exception. We travelled to Jamaica, somewhere we never thought we'd see, for a family wedding. During our stay I heard at first hand about the devastating effect of American powdered milk being dumped on the market (Jamaican dairy industry largely destroyed), the effect of the drop in sugar cane sales as more countries have learned to produce sugar from beet and the indomitable Jamaican spirit finding new ways to build the economy. Tourism is now the biggest industry, which is frightening when you consider how fickle it is. I enjoyed the company of the Jamaicans I met and realised just how proud of their country they are, 6 years after independence was won. National and local heroes are celebrated everywhere and the pride and interest in local government has lessons for us. People know just who to blame because the roads are full of potholes in places! It seemed at times as though I was here in Eaglescliffe. However, we don't get quite such stunning scenery around Eaglescliffe I'm afraid.
Although we were staying with the wedding party in a coastal resort I took every opportunity I could to get out and see some of the "real" country, including a horse ride up in the mountains through the rainforest. I declined the many offers of "smoke" or "a visit to Charlie" - I can honestly say that I don't even feel tempted by such things.
Coming home was a gentle let down, as John Fletcher had done such sterling work in the ward in my absence that nothing seemed to need urgent attention. I found that the amended plans for 502-506 Yarm Rd had been passed, as were those for the refurbishment of Splash in Stockton town centre.
Our plans for planting on Larch Crescent are at last near to being implemented but it's irritating that they've taken so long when we've known for at least 2 months what we wanted to do there. It means that the residents around there have had to put up with a further 6 week school holiday with inappropriate ball games taking place there.
We've now been told that there's likely to be a shortage of bulbs to plant for next spring so if we want to get more colour round the ward next spring we need to get our order in quickly. Any residents reading this and wanting to suggest somewhere for spring bulb beds you need to get in touch quickly.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Having taken the weekend off to spend with family, including our new grand-daughter, today was back to work with a vengeance. The morning started with a meeting about what the Environment Committee should review next and decided after some debate that problems of dog fouling should be looked into. It's one of the topics on which councillors get a lot of complaints and it won't be easy to come up with any sure ways of improving things but we'll try.
I discovered last week that the spam filter used by the Council's IT system has occasionally trapped items which are genuine e-mails, not spam at all. Today I found out that one which had been copied to me but not reached me had also not reached the intended recipient. As a result no action had been taken on something which was fairly urgent and the resident concerned had no idea that we didn't know about it. So if you've sent anything in the last couple of weeks and not had a response don't hesitate to resend it. The IT department are looking into the problem now.
The planning application for 502 Yarm Rd (ex MPG petrol station) has been resubmitted with revisions to address some of the issues raised at committee last month. They will be considered at the committee, next Wednesday. Unfortunately a fault on the planning website has meant that I haven't been able to look at them!