Sunday, September 28, 2008

Partnerships and Priorities

Far too much of today was spent sitting on not very comfortable chairs listening to people telling us how good their particular service is in Stockton. It was supposed to be about setting some priorities for our area but in fact was much more about hearing what was supposedly happening, and to be fair in lots of instances actually is happening. Then just when we were tired and wanting to get out into some fresh air we got to the bit about choosing priorities. Actually they're not priorities for action but for monitoring how well the council and its partners are doing in those matters. Being the "new kids on the block" in partnership terms of course the Western Area people didn't quite stick to the rules so we have set some priorities which we will be monitoring very closely. Residents of Eaglescliffe won't be surprised to know that positive activities for children and young people is one of them! And feeling good about the area is another which seems to us to cover absolutely everything that matters to people.
I managed to fit in a quick visit to hospital to seem my mother before heading to the Western
Area Partnership meeting at Long Newton. It's always good to go to the Wilson Centre and enjoy the hospitality there. It's a community centre which really is at the centre of its community. Several of us had spent the day at the other event so our brains were a little on the woolly side but we did manage some lively debate on employment in the area and various other issues. No major decisions though.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Money to Spend!

The Western Area Partnership Board doesn't usually have money to spend because that's not how things work. However, a new government initiative to focus funding on getting more people into work will mean a small amount of money targeted at our area. We're not talking about major projects here, but finding ways to help those who need a helping hand - maybe because they've been made redundant, are thinking about retraining but don't know what skills are needed, or maybe because they've graduated but now can't find work near to family and friends, or perhaps for some reason they've never found work since leaving school. I spent some time this morning mulling over ideas and criteria with council officers in preparation for meetings on Monday which will start to firm up some ideas. Exciting times, but also daunting because if we get it wrong there isn't a second chance with the money.
The second meeting of the day was to discuss recommendations from the last scrutiny review which the Environment committee did - Customer First, the council's customer service programme. It was a really constructive discussion with the cabinet member, officers and me all working on the recommendations to make sure they are clear and precise. Another hurdle out of the way so that we can move on to the review of animal welfare services and dog fouling - life on the Environment Select committee is certainly varied!!
This evening I had a report of anti-social behaviour not far from my own home so spent some time round there talking with the residents and finding out the details. It seems incredible but apparently there are people who drive to the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, park their cars with the music on full blast and proceed to drink beer and eat pizzas. The debris is then thrown up onto garage roofs or into gardens before they drive away at speed! What possible pleasure do they get from it? Phone calls to the police and Stockton's enforcement section have elicited promises of visits tonight so I hope they actually get some evidence or manage to put a stop to it. No resident should have their sleep disturbed like that and especially not elderly people who deserve our respect.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Public Involvement

The morning started brightly with a very positive e-mail from a young person from whom I'd asked advice on behalf of one of our young residents. That was followed by an e-mail from a resident with some ideas for a solution to the parking problem for Headlam Terrace, which I've passed on to Stockton Council engineers to consider. It always makes me feel good when residents come up with positive suggestions about problems instead of just complaints. Working together we stand a chance of solving issues.
Tonight there was a public meeting for the people of Stockton to meet the Chief Constable of Cleveland and senior Stockton Police. It didn't get off to a good start when the advertising/invitations that went out had 2 different times on. So the police and some residents had arrived at 6 whereas councillors had been invited for 6.30. There was a good discussion of some of the problems around Stockton and a chance to have an input into where the priorities should lie next year. One point made strongly was that if this was supposed to be a public meeting it needs to be better advertised next year!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Planning Committee

The latest planning application for The Rookery was before the committee today. This one is to demolish the building and then build something which looks exactly like the plans that were approved last year. The reason for demolition is that the foundations of the present building are very poor quality, confirmed by an inspection by SBC's building inspector. That news was upsetting to many of us who've argued for preserving the original building while allowing some development around it.
A resident again drew our attention to the problems associated with parking for those who live in or visit the properties on Headlam Terrace, something which is almost certainly going to get worse when development takes place. A councillor from another ward queried the lack of a Section 106 payment towards play space in the area so the decision was deferred for another 3 weeks in order to look at that issue. Meanwhile I need to look into what can be done for Headlam Tce residents.
There was much more controversy over the application in Thornaby related to the football facilities in Teesdale Park. I remember going on the site visit for the original application and not being too convinced by the half promises of the developer. Unfortunately it seems that I was right to feel uneasy because no-one seems happy with what has gone on since then. We're now in the position after yesterday's majority decision where the football club doesn't seem to have any chance of being saved by the building of a new club house in time, the residents are devastated at the thought of the increase in traffic and loss of green space while the developer has a piece of land with planning permission for housing in the middle of a housing slump. Lose, lose, lose situation. It's a long time since I've seen residents leave a meeting so angry.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Harvest time

The good weather we had in Bournemouth seems to have followed us up here so today was in part a day to catch up on pruning the apple tree and harvesting its fruits. The crab apples are chopped and boiled ready to extract the juice and make apple mint jelly for the winter - one of the things I really love about autumn is preserving the harvest of the garden for the dark months ahead.
First, though, there was some work to be done - buying in some wines for our Fairtrade Wine Tasting evening on October 17th. It's at St John's Living Well in Stockton and tickets can be had for a minimum donation of £3 so if you live in Stockton please get a ticket and come along. In common with most areas of Stockton although it's very easy to use public transport before 7pm it's less easy for getting home afterwards.
However, the wine will be excellent and we'll be telling you where to buy more of the ones you like! You'll also have the rosy glow of knowing that the workers in the vineyards and the wineries aren't being exploited.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Back in Harness

Conference is over and the queues for the terminals provided by Microsoft proved just too much of a barrier to blogging while there. Standing in a queue in order to stand at a terminal was not my idea of relaxation so it was a case of doing a quick check of emails and then handing over to the next person.
Suffice to say that the debates were very high quality, as they always are at our conference. Knowing that conference is setting the policy of the party makes sure that everyone takes the debates very seriously. On top of that there were some really good fringe meetings enabling us to discuss everything from nuclear power to economics to child welfare and fairtrade. I took part in a really interesting discussion on Islam and how it's perceived by some to be a threat to this country. It was a privilege to hear Islamic scholars debating the issue and to be able to join in the discussion. And of course Bournemouth is a lovely place with a beautiful walk from where I was staying to the Conference centre. The early morning sun on the sea was an inspiring sight.
Of course the world economic situation was never far from the front of discussions in the conference hall and the bars. Vince Cable seemed to gain in stature every day as other parties grappled to say something sensible about it. I don't pretend to understand the markets but I do know that Vince was warning of problems over a year ago and sadly, his warnings have been shown to be valid. I just hope that the measures being taken in London and New York settle nerves and get things back onto an even keel. Everyone needs the markets to be more stable than they have been recently for the sake of pensions, housing and everything else that's affected.
Meanwhile yesterday was a day of meetings - planning the scrutiny review of dog fouling and animal welfare, Environment Partnership response to a government consultation on renewable energy production and then the Parish Council. Today having just one meeting, all be it in Gateshead, seemed like a rest!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Conference time again

I took advantage of our direct train link with London yesterday en route to Bournemouth to our Party conference. Absolutely superb service and I thoroughly recommend it. It seems rare to be able to say this about trains in the UK but everything ran to time and I had a seat on every train including the Underground.
There was time for a pleasant walk in the twilight along the sea front and some photos before a meal and sleep in preparation for the morning's session.
This morning I went to a consultation session on our policy for the natural environment - lively debate including on just what we mean by natural in this context and I look forward to the results coming to next Autumn's conference as a policy paper.
This afternoon we passed a super policy on involving citizens in democracy - Giving Citizens a Voice in Parliament. The slightly dubious idea of a citizen's veto on legislation was defeated but the rest of the policy is superb. Lots of very good ideas about how to get people involved and make Parliament more responsive.
Meanwhile of course the ward continues to throw up issues and so I've spent time replying to e-mails from constituents on a number of things. Planning applications don't stop arriving just because some of us go away! We're now being asked to consider whether a Tanning salon is the right use for the old "Yarm Auto Parts" building near the Cleveland Bay. Some might think any use is better than it standing empty but of course there are parking issues as well as the ongoing problem of enforcing the appeal decision that it should be returned to its former appearance. Watch this space is an ongoing maxim for Eaglescliffe.

Thursday, September 04, 2008


I heard on the radio this morning a sad tale of a young soldier who'd been refused a room at a hotel because the management said that soldiers weren't welcome. I don't know any more about the circumstances of that individual case. What struck me was that sometimes the people who are risking their lives to carry out the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are being treated as though they made the political decision to start the campaign. They didn't - it was the Labour Prime Minister who took us into those wars on the coat-tails of the US president. Now, in September 2008, the campaign in both countries is to try to get to the point where the people of those countries feel safe and secure enough to go about their ordinary lives and rebuild their infrastructure from the debris of wars. An example was given in the news yesterday of the 6 days of fighting which it took to get a vital turbine to a dam in Afghanistan so that electricity generation can build up and people will have some of the basics we take for granted. At the end of the 6 days the officer in charge said it was the first time in 20+ years in the army that he'd needed to use every single resource available to him to achieve a goal. That included soldiers, missiles and helicopters.
I recently finished reading "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini. If you haven't read it I recommend it - the voice of ordinary Afghans seems to leap off the page, full of hope but also of desperation. I have a particular interest because the first asylum seeker I ever met came from Kabul and was followed by several more, all with harrowing tales but also with a great love of their country and hope that one day they'd be able to return and live in peace. Let's give our armed forces the support they need to help both Iraq and Afghanistan to that stage. And let's make sure that no future government can send them into conflict on such flimsy grounds as the last one did.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Stockton Tories show true colours

Since the Annual Meeting of the council earlier this year it has been decided that a Cabinet of 8 is not big enough and Stockton needs 9. Wheels had to turn slowly but finally a 5th Labour member of the cabinet was appointed in July. As a result there was a vacancy for a committee chair to be decided tonight. Looking at the membership of the committee it seemed obvious that the best person for the job was the current vice-chairman, Cllr Lynne Apedaile. She was persuaded to let her name go forward in part by the Conservative leader of the council who suggested to her that his party would support her. The Liberal Democrats were prepared to support her election in the interests of having a good scrutiny committee functioning. Yesterday I was approached by the Labour leadership seeking our support for the Labour candidate who wasn't even a member of the committee and would need to be appointed to it. He hasn't a clue about the scrutiny review of services for adults which is currently partially completed. But Labour assumed that anyone they put up should get the post. I was told by some Tories that their leader had told his group that he wanted them to support Lynne. For the first time since the election last year I felt that perhaps we were going to see common sense prevail over party political expediency.
Sadly, today that hope was dashed. I was told with great glee by the Labour leader that he'd sorted the problem out and they didn't need our votes. At the end of the planning committee meeting he and the deputy leader of the Conservatives were deep in conversation and behold - we arrived at council to the news that they wouldn't be supporting Lynne after all. At least one or two of them had the grace to look embarrassed.

On the bright side, the planning committee came to a reasonable decision on Bishopsgarth Cottages, agreeing that there should be a meeting of the applicant, the ward councillors and officers to try to reach a better compromise than the one which was on offer today. Let's hope that good sense prevails. The application and its predecessors have already taken up a huge amount of time for officers, planning committee and ward councillors.

My question at Council about how many plastic carrier bags the council and its partner organisations (such as the NHS and Tristar) handed out at recent events was met by a half answer - they don't actually know in detail but the number given out by the council this year is less than last year was the gist of it. I pointed out that in the last few weeks there have been bags handed out by the council containing prizes for a competition - photograph prominent in the local press! SIRF handed out hundreds of blue plastic rain ponchos which will no doubt end up in land fill or even worse, hanging from trees and hedges after being discarded. And all this at a time when we're asking our residents to reduce their waste in order to help us meet very challenging targets on waste reduction. Joined up thinking??

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

This afternoon I was able to attend a preview of the Autumn collection of Fairtrade crafts from Traidcraft. The company has come a very long way since the early days when crafts were pretty amateurish and only bought by enthusiasts whose high principles overcame their aesthetic considerations. The items in this Autumn's catalogue wouldn't be out of place in top of the market stores around the country, beautifully designed and finished. I ordered quite a few items for the stall at church and some for presents in readiness for Christmas.
We were reminded of the importance of dedicated Fairtrade companies such as Traidcraft which invest heavily in the development of new products and in support for producers as they work towards becoming accredited with the Fairtrade Foundation. We were also reminded that although the amount of Fairtrade goods sold in this country has increased enormously over the past few years we need to increase it much more if people in developing countries are to really reap the benefits.
An interesting statistic: It's been calculated that increasing trade in Africa by 1% would lift 128million people out of poverty! That's quite a lot of money if we just look at it as a block, but if each of us bought one or two more things from African sources (especially Fairtrade things) we'd start to make that difference.
And when we came out there was an added bonus - we'd missed the rain while we were in there.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Waste, waste, waste

I spent part of the day answering queries about the changes to Stockton council's waste management collections coming soon - plastic and cardboard to be collected for recycling so no need for collections of extra waste left beside the wheely bin (side waste) and no need for community skips which fill up with mixed waste that has to go to land fill because it can't be separated economically.
I've got a question down at council for Wednesday evening about how many plastic bags are being given away by SBC and its partners, hoping that the cabinet member will be spurred into trying to reduce the number. There are some really good services who don't give away such things but others seem to compete for who can give the biggest!
There's been a very interesting experiment by a BBC correspondent trying to do without any new plastic in the life of her family for a month. Read her conclusions - there may be some new ideas for how you can reduce your usage, who knows.
Late this afternoon I found that the carefully planted shrubs on Larch Crescent haven't covered enough of the ground and have only driven the football nearer to the very people they were designed to protect! More work needed I fear.
Some of us are keen to see the local shops we have maintained and we support them as much as possible. If you're one of those people you may be interested in a petition on the Government's web site by the Federation of Small Businesses. As fuel prices rise, car tax increasingly reflects the pollution caused by driving and time is short I think more and more of us may be looking towards local shops for at least some of what we need. But we may find they're not there unless we support them now.