Sunday, November 30, 2008

The latest In Touch newsletter from the Conservative candidate for the Stockton South Parliamentary seat is being delivered throughout the ward this week. This time I'm not angry but saddened by one of the articles in it. There's an implication though not an explicit statement that speed was a contributory factor in a serious road accident at the Sunningdale Drive/Yarm Rd junction in October. In the same article there's a repeat of the police appeal for witnesses and information Now it may be that speed was a factor, but there's been no evidence released to the public as far as I'm aware, no statement to that effect by the local police. If speed was not a contributer then imagine the distress caused to the families concerned if they read that article.
He goes on to use the accident as a hook on which to hang his campaign for Speed Indicator Devices on Yarm Rd. The Area Transport Strategy Steering Group, which has representatives of his party on it, has never had any suggestion made to it that such devices are wanted. No resident has approached any of the Eaglescliffe ward councillors with the proposal. The police, also part of the Transport Strategy group, have never suggested that there is a need. I'd be more than happy to discuss the possibility of assigning some of the funding available to them if there was evidence of need but as any lawyer knows, evidence is the fundamental requirement for a case to be made. Still, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Meanwhile, the Transport Strategy fund and the ward environmental improvement fund have both contributed to measures to improve road safety on Urlay Nook Rd and Durham Lane, both based on evidence from residents, police and consultants.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

I'm coming to terms, but slowly, with the awful news from Mumbai. Having spent time in the city in the 90s when my husband was working there, the places are all too familiar. I can't begin to imagine what it must be like for those who have family and close friends there. Fortunately our friends in India don't live in or near Mumbai so we don't have that immediate worry. But to see the hotel where we celebrated our silver wedding battered and burning, to see the cafe where we enjoyed freshly made mango juice with a flavour like no other - it's too much. Why? What makes young men in the prime of their lives plan and carry out such devastation? Until someone can explain to us we can't combat it. I don't know which wise person said "Know thine enemy", but s/he was so right. No amount of expenditure on arms or police or ID cards will stop the violence until we understand the cause and can tackle that.
The weather here this morning was grey and damp and not nearly as nice as yesterday, though probably no colder. As I hadn't done my veg shopping yesterday I decided that the Christmas market was worth a second visit. I'm so glad I did. Stall holders were keen to tell me how busy they'd been and that they have ideas to make it better next year. It did make shopping a lengthy expedition but it was worth it. And I came away with a lovely ready made Advent wreath instead of coming home to gather damp greenery and start work on one myself - cheating but in a good cause.
By the way, I was right yesterday - the fun fair was very busy. In fact I had to thread my way through the queue for the big wheel.

Friday, November 28, 2008

VAT Nightmare

If anyone doesn't believe that the temporary VAT reduction isn't going to cause untold misery in small businesses, especially retail ones, they should read Mike Barker's blog. A Darlington retailer who's also a councillor, he describes in graphic detail what the change means to him this weekend.
What a way to "save" the economy, Gordon.

Stockton Christmas Market

Between a hospital check up and a Regional update I took a bit of time to visit the Christmas market today. The sun was shining and the air was crisp and cold - perfect weather for wandering round and admiring the content of the stalls as well as buying a few little gifts for people. The craft stalls are in little wooden chalets, decorated with lights and greenery and really looking good. Our traditional market, reduced in size because people couldn't come for all 4 days, was busy and the stall holders were in good cheer. There was a stall selling hand made sweets - fudge and cinder toffee amongst them - at very reasonable prices, as well as some of our regular stands. The funfair rides weren't busy because most of the children who might have enjoyed them were in school but I guess they'll be busy tomorrow and Sunday.
As I walked back through the Parish Gardens to do some work in Municipal Buildings the smell of roast pork and sausages was beginning to drift out of the stalls where hot sandwiches were on offer and I decided that I couldn't resist a cup of hot chocolate to take back with me. The mulled wine was more festive but I didn't think it would fit well with working and then driving! The hot chocolate was all that it should be - creamy and luxurious. Definitely a treat. If you've chance to go, do visit it. I was told by more than one person that it was beautiful last night when the lights really showed up, but sadly I haven't been able to verify that yet. Maybe tomorrow evening, who knows.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Highs and Lows

I started today at All Saints school, Ingleby Barwick which was launching its campaign to become a Fairtrade school. What a launch! The whole school had been taken off timetable for a day - Year 10 to do a careers day and the others to do a Fairtrade "Dragons Den meets The Apprentice". They started by meeting a real live millionaire who talked about the things they need to consider when planning their business and then I followed with a talk about why it was important for each one of them to do their bit for Fairtrade. I used some of the slides left by Juan Luis Aviles when he stayed with me in Fairtrade Fortnight this year, and talked about the choices that the co-operative in El Salvador had to make between equipment for cracking nuts or sending the children to school. The students then went off to their groups to plan. There were goods to order, adverts to write, photos to take, profit margins to decide on etc. Some groups were learning a dance to be accompanied by African drummers; others were developing a drama to show to parents while others were producing masks inspired by African designs. At the end of the day there was to be a grand competition with groups bidding for money to put their business plan into action. I couldn't stay for that part of the event but I'm going back in December to see the result - 8 stalls set out to sell their goods to parents, other students, the public and anyone else who'll turn up and spend money. A really exciting idea, helped by having local business people willing to go and get involved with the young people and help them with advice as well as becoming the "dragons" for the later part of the day.
I look forward to them becoming a Fairtrade School next year.
Leaving there on a high I made the mistake of checking my e-mails before starting on anything else. The interim chief executive had been sent a letter informing him that Eaglescliffe Post Office is to close tomorrow - how's that for plenty of notice. It's supposed to be temporary until they find another person and premises but giving us 2 days notice doesn't strike me as a great commitment to the search. However, we'll persevere. We've a couple of ideas for a venue but nothing is going to work before Christmas now I dont think.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Good End to the Working Day

The day after the local press described how one of our local hospitals had lost a mass of patient data Norman Lamb MP revealed the full extent of the problems in the NHS with data as a result of investigations he's been doing. "We already know from the Information Commissioner that the NHS is among the worst offenders for data loss, reporting as many incidents as the entire private sector."
What an indictment! The NHS sees us at our most vulnerable and then loses chunks of our data. And they always reassure us that it doesn't matter - well if it doesn't matter why did they keep it in the first place? And why do they put it on memory sticks and CDs that can drop out of pockets and off desks into bins or worse.
This afternoon was planning committee day. There was nothing in Eaglescliffe ward today but still plenty of tricky and frustrating decision making to do. Why should a developer who's got permission for a good quality design be able to come back and reduce the quality to something that's just about acceptable? Why do developers think that student flats are the new route to riches? The block which was refused permission today not only contravened our new council guidelines by not demonstrating a need for more accommodation but also was a pretty awful design for the area. It looked like boxes - several boxes rather than one monolithic box but boxes nevertheless. Standing nearly opposite Thornaby Town Hall it really did look incongruous. I'd have loved to have seen an interesting building, reflecting the stature and elegance of the Town Hall but what we were offered was chunky and out of place.
At tonight's council meeting there were two really good items which brought out the best side of people.
First we had an item in all the vast array of minutes and reports which come to Council about the return of the Mayoral Chains to Thornaby. Cllr Mick Eddy who is also this year's Town Mayor of Thornaby took the opportunity to thank John Fletcher for his help in arranging that return. Although many others had to be part of the decision it was John who found the way forward when there'd been little or no progress for years. Mick thanked him beautifully and very eloquently on behalf of the people of Thornaby and the Town Council and for once other members of the council were quiet and let him speak.
Almost the last item on the agenda was a motion, proposed by the Mayor, that the council sign up to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights on its 60th anniversary. Alan Lewis spoke of the human rights of the Gurkha soldiers who lived and fought alongside British soldiers but then are denied citizenship if they retired before 1997. Sign the petition or write to your MP - let's get this sorted out once and for all.
After that Suzanne spoke very movingly about the plight of refugees on our doorstep in the borough of Stockton-on-Tees who have fled from abuses of basic rights like the right to live without being persecuted but then are seized in dawn raids and sent to detention centres to await deportation sometimes to countries which are not at all safe for them. Why it's deemed acceptable for children to be woken and bundled away from the only safe home they've known in raids that look just like the raids on suspected crack houses I'll never understand. But it happens and it happens here, under our noses.
So Stockton Council approved the Declaration and maybe, who knows, just one or two people might think twice about walking by on the other side next time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Western Area of the Borough has the benefit of Parish or Town Councils as a first tier of local government. From Kirklevington to Preston and from Long Newton to Egglescliffe the area is covered by Parishes of varying size but with one thing in common: the councils which they elect are genuinely local. To stand for election as a Parish Councillor one must live or work very near or in the area of that Parish. So when parish councils speak borough councillors are wise to listen. Whenever I chair the meetings of the Western Area Partnership Board I know that the people round that table truly represent the area - they are elected to do so and they take their responsibilities very seriously. We're fortunate to live in an area with so many people willing to be part of local democracy. That's why I get very annoyed when some complain about the cost of by-elections for these councils. If democracy is worth having it's worth paying for in my view. The right to put a mark beside someone's name and put the paper in the ballot box is something which my great-grandmother didn't have. I have met people who fought to have that right in their country. If we don't use it we'll lose it - we need to cherish our right to vote and use it whenever possible.
Tomorrow a panel is meeting to decide which of the bids for money from the "Spaces for Play" grant should be taken further. For most decisions of this kind I'd be involved as a member of the Borough Play Partnership, but on this occasion I had to stand back. Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe council has put in a major bid and I've been part of the discussions to formulate that bid. I couldn't be considered as having an open mind therefore! Obviously I hope that we'll be successful but I'm also aware that there's a number of other bids from the Western Area and other Parish councils have been active in putting them in. I really do hope that they are all successful - the people of this area deserve to have some super play spaces and their ideas have been really imaginative. Fingers crossed.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fair Taxes

The much leaked Pre Budget Report that was really a budget finally happened. Here was an opportunity to really sort out some of the country's finances and put things on a fairer footing for the future. So what does Labour do? Reduces the top rate of VAT for 13 months and gives out a few pounds here and there, coupled with a warning that in a year or two most people earning a living wage will have to pay more tax on a number of fronts to recoup the money.
And what does the VAT reduction do? Does it reduce the fuel bills for those heading into fuel poverty? No, because heating and lighting energy is only subject to 5% VAT anyway. Does it reduce the weekly grocery bill? Not likely as basic food is zero rated. Does it reduce the cost of clothing your rapidly growing children? No chance - their clothes are zero rated now. So who does it help?
Well, if you were thinking of importing a Porsche to drive sedately round Eaglescliffe you'll now get it cheaper. If you are planning on buying that nice new TV for Christmas it will be a bit cheaper. If you eat out at restaurants or eat in on take-aways, they'll go down a bit.
Real help? Fair taxes? Not on your life - this is a Labour government remember.

Budgets, budgets

Hardly a glimmer of good news today. First of all a sombre discussion about the pressures that are looming on the Council's budget. How to continue to fund the extras that Stockton Council and other local authorities provide on the free bus pass for over 60s, the pass introduced by the government with a great fanfare but only designed to work after 9.30 in the morning. That's a fat lot of use if your hospital appointment is at 9 or even 10 unless you live very near to the hospital on a direct bus route. And of course that's only one example of when older people need to use a bus before 9.30. So Stockton and other Tees Valley councils decided to put money into providing a pass which works all day, every day But that costs money and these days with rising electricity and gas bills and falling interest rates the Council is in the same position as many households - it's belt tightening time. So what should we cut back on? Bus passes for older citizens? Social workers for vulnerable children? Road mending? Pavement sweeping? Street lights? Litter bins? Difficult decisions lie ahead and whatever is decided will hurt someone.
That was followed by a meeting of the Environment Select committee at which we had a presentation of a seemingly very good action plan to reduce the numbers of rats and pigeons infesting the borough - not a huge problem in most parts of the borough but visible and irritating in some parts. The action plan sounded great till we realised that it could only be implemented if there was a bit of spare cash to fund it - not likely in the present economic climate. So the chances are that it's going to be a tinkering with the problem because we can't afford the full blown action plan.
However, there's always someone worse off than me, as my mother would tell me. So, as the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights approaches (10th December for those who like to know these dates) I encourage you to support the campaign to help retired Gurkhas to have the same rights as the people they served alongside in conflict zones around the world. It's something that Liberal Democrats have been supporting for over a year now and it was heartening to see the High Court give a boost to the campaign last month. Let's get it sorted out by Christmas!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Joy to the World

...... or at least to Stockton High Street.
I'd spent a worrying few days while my mother was very poorly, but she was feeling a little better today and others in the family were sitting with her so Denis and I took time off to watch the switch on of the Christmas lights. I always think that we start to celebrate Christmas too early and with too much spending of money but that seems to be the way of the Western world today. The Mayor and Mayoress hadn't been too well for the last couple of days either so I was relieved for them and for all the families braving the cold when the early morning snow covering disappeared and the afternoon seemed set to stay dry. The fun fair in the High St struck me as loud and a bit discordant but it was obviously popular so who am I to deny pleasure to others. As darkness fell the steam bus drove into view, it's plume of steam catching the lights from the fair rides and shop fronts. To a loud cheer the Mayor disembarked along with the celebrities who were to press the switch. John looked splendid in his robes and chain - at least as festive as Santa. But the big cheers weren't for the Mayor and Mayoress - it was the TV and football stars whom people had come to see. The crowd counted down, the switch was pressed and the High Street took on its magical Christmas garb. Fireworks completed the show and the crowds dispersed. Happy children, happy parents, and some relieved organisers who'd worked very hard behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running of the entertainment and the switch on.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tales of Community

This morning Stockton Town Hall was open for anyone to pay a small sum and have a cup of coffee or tea with the Mayor and Mayoress and a tour of the building. This wasn't because the Mayor needed something extra to help with the household bills but to raise funds for his charities for this year - Daisy Chain and Justice First. I took the opportunity to go and have my cuppa but with a secondary motive too. A relative of my husband was Mayor of Thornaby in the early 1950s and as my husband is tracing his family history I had made arrangements to photograph the chain which he would have worn.
The Thornaby chain became part of Stockton's regalia following local government reorganisation and has been worn by the Deputy Mayor of Stockton for some years. There have been people in Thornaby who felt that the chains should have been returned when Thornaby residents voted to have a Town Council several years ago but there have always been reasons why it couldn't happen. This year the Mayor of Stockton-on-Tees (Eaglescliffe councillor John Fletcher) has worked with the Town Mayor of Thornaby (Councillor Mick Eddy) to find a solution and this afternoon the chains were to be handed over formally into the safe-keeping of Thornaby Town Council. Before that happened, with the help of the Stockton Mayor's Attendant, I obtained the photographs for the family history record. Both the Mayor's and the Mayoress' chains have the names inscribed on the backs of the links and now they're recorded for posterity. The chains have gone back now to the community which treasured them for so many years, still part of the Borough's heritage but very much part of the heritage of Thornaby (or South Stockton as it was once known).
I left the Town Hall with my precious photographs and called at a nearby market stall for some veg when I bumped into a former student and friend whom I haven't seen for a few months. Her husband was very keen to tell me that he was voted a Community Champion for his work in Stockton in trying to help the Asian communities in central Stockton. It was lovely to catch up with them and to be able to add my congratulations.
All in all, a day of being reminded of the importance of community in our lives. We ignore it at our peril and it's right that we celebrate the diversity of our communities and the fact that Stockton Borough is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Beauty on the Doorstep

It's easy to take for granted the beauty on our doorstep but Friday brought a reminder of how precious it is. Taking an elderly relative out for a rare trip away from her usual limited area we detoured to see the sea.
I've often said to people from outside the area that we're very fortunate here to have industry on our doorstep to provide employment while the coast and hills are so easily accessible by bus or car or bike for recreation.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Post Office Card Account

Back in June I described the Labour Government's latest threat to the Post Offices of this country. I know that some of you sent in postcards as part of the campaign.
On Monday of this week the Liberal Democrats led an Opposition Day debate on the future of the Post Office Card Account. An Early Day Motion calling on the government to support the Post Offices by keeping the card account with them had been signed by 47 Labour MPs, though not our MP for Stockton South despite her crocodile tears when the Long Newton one was closed. But when faced with the prospect of voting for the same thing in a parliamentary debate they refused and instead voted for an amendment which heaped praise on the government for what it had done for the Post Offices!! They were joined by the Labour faithful, including the MP for Stockton South, thus ensuring that the motion was defeated.
Yesterday, however, the government finally did the decent thing. They listened to the thousands of voices crying out for the card account to be retained at the heart of communities and extended the contract to the Post Office for a further 5 years. So congratulations, Gordon and cronies. At last you've done something right. What a pity you ever put hundreds of sub-postmasters and mistresses through sleepless nights worrying over their livelihood. What a disgrace that you worried thousands of pensioners about who'd help them with their pensions when they had to go somewhere else. Perhaps before you have any further bright ideas about the Post Office you should spend some time doing what I do most Thursdays - stand in a Post Office queue and listen to the Postmaster greet his customers by name, ask after the family, remind them that they usually buy stamps this week or pay the rent or whatever. Then you might see what you were planning to take away.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Renewable Energy

That was the subject of tonight's Environment Partnership meeting, and very interesting it was too. This particular partnership is one of very committed people, some of them appointed by the council and others from organisations large and small with an interest in the environment. So there are residents alongside representatives of industry and not-for-profit organisations, charities and council officers along with just two councillors - the cabinet member for the environment and me as chair of the Environment committee.
Everything discussed is very practical so tonight we heard about efforts being made by the council to reduce energy use as well as to use more renewables - simple things like putting draught excluder round windows and turning the thermostat down a degree in council buildings. Bigger things like having street lights that dim in the middle of the night so that energy is reduced while still keeping the borough's streets safe. Exciting things like assessing whether solar thermal panels can contribute to heating the swimming pools in the borough, whether the heat generated by cooling the ice rink can be used to warm the water in the swimming pool or heat the theatre in the Forum. Projects that have already happened like fitting a ground source heat pump into Conyers school as part of building a new extension and incorporating them into new primary schools. But we also heard of insoluble problems - the new primary school which can't put in such a pump because of the web of utilities running under the site, and the grey water recovery system which was installed in two schools in County Durham and still doesn't work. It's assumed there's a design fault but we can't keep a school on hold until it's resolved so we aren't installing one. I can't help but feel that there's something wrong here - over 50 years ago a relative in rural Eire built a new house and because there was no piped water on the farm he put a collection tank on the kitchen roof and collected rainwater to flush the toilet and wash floors etc. No fancy pumping mechanisms, just simple systems, and it worked for many years. It meant that only one trip a day was needed to the well to collect drinking water. If he could do it then surely it's not beyond present day developers?
Wind turbines occupied part of the discussion, with the consensus being now that only turbines of 100KW or greater are worth erecting for electricity production. Anything smaller is really an educational tool which sometimes produces a bit of power. We have a school in the borough which got planning permission over a year ago to erect a large turbine but then found that the only company which manufactures them at the price we had been quoted only sell them in blocks of 10 or more! Sadly, 10 turbines would leave no room at all for playing fields or the school building, so a big rethink is going on!!
We heard about the efforts of a private sector business to move toward renewable energy which needs a very long term view in a time of economic downturn. How does one persuade the shareholders to look at the 50 year life span of a building when they're used to thinking in terms of a 2 year maximum for a return on investment?
There was much discussion about ways in which people could work together, ways in which the council could offer a lead and a very positive feel at the end of the meeting that there were ways forward.
Just the sort of meeting that I enjoy being part of - a common aim and a determination to share ideas on how to get to the goal.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Work and Play

The morning started with the first meeting of a small group from the Western Area Partnership to discuss more detail of how we should spend our money from the Communities Fund. It's a new experience for us to have any money to spend so though it is only a small amount we want to be certain that it's spent in the best possible way to help people in our area. It's aimed at helping people into work, something which isn't a problem for the majority of people in our area but is a big problem for a smallish number. We realised that one part of the area had 16% unemployment which is quite staggering in a part of the borough usually labelled as affluent. It was good to sit round the table with these figures and be able to talk about doing something positive. We're looking at the possibility of organising an event to bring together potential employers, unemployed people, training providers and benefits advice. It feels particularly appropriate at this time of economic downturn.
Then a walk in the autumn sun to look at the grass area in Larch Crescent. Residents tell us it's still the venue for teenagers to kick a football about, damaging gardens and generally being a nuisance. The shrub bed planted earlier this year now is a challenge to kick the ball over. Again it was a discussion of partners on how to deal with the problem - residents, housing officers, councillors, people responsible for planting and maintaining such areas all wanting to work together to make life more bearable for the people who live round there.
This afternoon's meeting of the Play Partnership heard lots of positive updates on bids for money that have gone in to government and on some that have been successful. Plans for the mobile play facility that is the result of lthe spring's successful lottery bid sound really exciting - a vehicle with hooks along the side so that slides and ropes can be attached! Facilities inside for cooking as well as playing whatever the weather. And masses of exciting equipment just ready to be off loaded and played with. The only problem is going to be that we'll only have one and it has to go round the whole borough so children will only get to play on it once in a while. Still, it'll be a marvellous experience when it does arrive in a locality.
After that I went to a training session on the importance and impact of design in planning. It wasn't just about building design but also about design of spaces and how the buildings relate to each other and to the space around. It was very interesting to have the discussions and I was sorry that I had to move on before it quite finished in order to get to my nect venue: Arc.
This was the annual awards night for the children being looked after by the local authority whether in foster homes or in residential care. It's always a good night, good to see so many young people who've come through the traumas that brought them into the care system Good to see their achievements being recognised. And good to see the relationship they have with those who work for them and with them.
And finally, a quick bite to eat before the Local Party meeting. Much to discuss and some very positive things happening, including the preparations for the European Parliament election.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


A morning seminar that was much shorter than expected meant that I was in Stockton High St at 11 this morning. It seemed appropriate to mark the 2 minute silence at the cenotaph rather than in some random shop doorway, so I made my way there. A group of primary school children had been brought to join in, there were men who had survived war and others who'd had relatives involved. Quite a large number in fact, paying our tribute to the people who've lost their lives or their loved ones to war.
Then, tonight, browsing for a few minutes around the world wide web I discovered that my Great Uncle, whom I never knew, had been a gunner stationed at Newcastle for a year before being sent to join the newly formed Tank Corps and fighting across and among the trenches of the Western Front. He survived and came home to his wife, though what happened to them then I don't know.
Between those two events I was fortunate to be able to accompany the Mayor of Stockton to a very thought provoking lecture on the role of engineers in combating climate change. What's that to do with Remembrance? Only that the man elected as chairman of the local branch of the Institution of Civil Engineers couldn't be there tonight - he was otherwise engaged with the army in Iraq, serving a tour of duty. I hope he's safe tonight.
His replacement as chairman welcomed us and explained the situation. It reminded me that many years ago the teenager who eventually became my husband was contemplating joining the army as an engineer. He was warned that engineers didn't have an easy life in war - they build the bridges that enable others to get to the front line was one comment. In the end he decided that army life wasn't the career he wanted and so we didn't experience the worries, pain and separations which might have been our lot.
It was good to hear an engineer talking about using timber and stone where possible in place of steel and concrete - reducing the carbon footprint of a building at a stroke by keeping the carbon captured in the timber in place and by not having to generate huge amounts of power to manufacture the modern replacements. His one big complaint was that the timber harvested in this country isn't being laid down to season properly and so hardwoods in particular are being imported - increasing their carbon footprint. I look forward to that changing in the future.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Forward Planning

Every month or so the leaders of political groups on the council get together and go through the main items which are coming up over the next 12 months. Mostly it's just routine stuff - we all know that the budget has to be considered at certain times of the year for example. But it's also a chance to talk about less routine stuff and to see what's likely to come up in the future. Today's little gem was a policy on naming and numbering streets - apparently we need such a policy and we don't have one! Ward councillors will be consulted soon. I can hardly contain my excitement.
At the moment when new housing is built in our ward we are asked for suggestions for street names or told that a developer has suggested something and asked if we agree with it. That's enabled for example our railway heritage to be commemorated in the street names on Kingsmead. Whether having a policy will enable us to name or number any better remains to be seen.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Remembrance Sunday

This year, for the first time for a lot of years, a wreath was laid at Preston war memorial on behalf of the Borough and it was my privilege as a ward councillor to lay it. It was the first time I'd been to the service there as my more usual venue for remembrance is at Egglescliffe or representing the Liberal Democrat Group in Stockton centre.
During the church service leading up to the Act of Remembrance a serving officer spoke of his experience in Iraq in recent times and of the comfort and support given to members of the forces by their padres. But the words which struck me most strongly were those with which he started: "Until a few years ago Remembrance Sunday was about history. Now it's about the present. Almost everyone knows someone who's been affected by the recent conflicts". How right he is. So many people now knows someone who's serving in one of the conflict zones of the world, or has met a refugee from a conflict zone. It does help us to see something of the reality of war.
Only a handful of survivors of the fighting in 1914-18 are here to see the 90th anniversary of the end of that war. It was "the war to end all wars", and yet there hasn't really been peace since it ended. Human mistrust, greed, fear, pride, hunger - all contribute to ongoing conflicts. We fight over ownership of the world's resources instead of learning to share them. We fight because we're frightened that the other person will strike first. We fight because we perceive the other as wronging us or our friend. Turning the other cheek and loving our neighbours seem very remote concepts. Yet if we don't learn to do that we're going to fight ourselves to destruction sooner or later.

Some years ago on holiday in France we stopped for a break on our route and realised that we were in the region of the Somme, scene of so much bloodshed in 1916. I looked out over low lying marshy ground and the horror of trying to fight there with the equipment and clothing available then hit me. Several years later on another holiday we stumbled across a war cemetery - row upon row of gravestones for French and German soldiers. Countless hundreds of graves - one of the most moving sights ever for me. And then further along the road, small plots - half a dozen Canadian airmen here, a handful of another nationality there - all carefully tended, some by local people others by their own countrymen, but all immaculate. Small acts of Remembrance taking place every week as grass was cut, shrubs were trimmed, headstones were cleaned.
Those brave men and women who gave their lives in the great wars of the last century, many of whom lie buried in "foreign fields", will have died in vain if we don't do something more positive about living in peace. There's a hymn chorus which says "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me". Maybe that's the kind of action that should flow from the Act of Remembrance. A decision to work towards peace, at whatever level we function - at home, at work or in national government.
On Tuesday, the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day, we have the chance to stand together in silence and ponder just what we have done with the legacy of that war and what we should do in the future to make a fitting tribute to the fallen. Or do Laurence Binyon's famous words only apply at 11am on November 11th each year?
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

President Elect

Ros Scott has won an overwhelming victory in the election for our next party president. This is a role which doesn't get a great deal of publicity outside the party but is important to members. There were 3 candidates, but Ros took over 70% of the vote, so a truly overwhelming victory. She takes over from Simon Hughes on January 1st.
That news came through when I was in the middle of trying to catch up on a combination of tidying up the house, filing and responding to letters. Pretty mundane stuff, but that's life some days.
Next June we have elections to the European Parliament, really important at a time when we have such a difficult global economic situation and a new President in the USA so if you think you might not have time to go to a polling station to cast your vote why not apply now for a postal vote. It will arrive at least a week, probably longer, before election day and you'll be able to complete it and post it at your convenience.

Friday, November 07, 2008

This afternoon I attended a meeting of a multi-agency partnership which I really enjoy. It's the group which tries to make sure that we as a council fulfil our role as corporate parents to those children who come into the care of the local authority for any reason. Most of these children cope with their difficulties with a lot of support from very caring social workers, teachers, foster parents, youth workers, extended family and others. Sadly there is a small number who don't cope so well and who need a great deal of extra help to achieve a stable lifestyle. This partnership of council staff from many different disciplines, elected members, police and others aims to ensure that we do our best for our corporate children. It's not easy but it's heartening to hear some of the good news stories and it's a very important though small part of the work of the council. A large part of today's discussions centred on those few children and young people in our care whose behaviour leads them towards the criminal justice system. It was good to hear about the restorative justice approach being used successfully with them.
We also had some discussion on how to help young people with complex needs into employment or training. This is especially pertinent at a time of economic downturn of course. Some very interesting ideas were put forward and will be looked at further.
At the end of the meeting the chairman had one item of "any other business" - he asked us if we had achieved anything in the meeting. Were we taking away anything positive? That's not something that's often asked at the end of meetings where a lot of talking has gone on, and it was useful to be able to affirm that we had indeed achieved something and that positive decisions had been taken.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Global warming & other things

Those who know me well know that I prefer cool weather to hot, but even I enjoyed some unseasonal warmth earlier this week. On holiday some miles further south than here (and over the channel) we enjoyed a picnic sitting under the oak trees with the sun beating down from an almost clear blue sky. This was November, but felt more like September or even May. There was real heat in the sun but the obvious autumn colours and leaf fall didn't sit comfortably with the temperature. Strange weather indeed.
This morning, back in Eaglescliffe, it's grey and wet so I feel much more at home.
A number of comments from residents on our latest Focus leaflet article on recycling lead me to clarify a little here as well as all the personal responses I've made:
A printing error lost the last 2 lines of the item on Green Waste collections. They don't stop completely, but stop in November when most green waste stops anyway and then start again in March.
The no side waste policy isn't just something decided on out of thin air - the pilot scheme showed that once cardboard and plastic were collected separately the amount of side waste reduced to almost nothing. Large families and people with medical problems which lead to significant extra waste disposal needs can contact the council to discuss special arrangements. At Christmas every effort will be made to clear waste as soon as humanly possible - no-one wants to see rubbish bags littering the area. I'm more than happy to discuss with people any problems they might have, and I've been doing so both in person and by email over recent days.
Liberal Democrats have been asking for reductions in packaging to be made mandatory - it's not fair to ask people to pay for the cost of packing up things that don't need packaging and then to ask them to pay for the cost of removing the packaging through their council tax. A real double whammy which is beyond our power as local councillors to stop. However, join our campaign - write to Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for the Environment, food and rural affairs
Tell him that you want the government to take stronger action to force manufacturers and shops to stop putting unnecessary packaging round things and to make them take it back for reuse and recycling when we don't want it. If you've the time, buy your fruit and veg on the market using your re-usable cotton shopping bag (you have got one haven't you?). Feel good about putting a part of the profit into the pocket of local retailers and not using up the world's precious oil resources on plastic wrapping.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Day of Celebration

Having returned from a few days' holiday, doing no casework whatsoever (thank you Alan and John!), I have the temerity to take today off as well. The reason for this is not that I wish to commemorate the misdeeds of Guy Fawkes nor the misdeeds of the government of the day which led him to do what he did. Nor is it that I've decided to celebrate the result of the election in the USA though I admit to a profound sense of relief this morning that we don't have to cope with the McCain/Palin world vision. I reserve judgement on whether Obama can achieve the changes I'd like him to in American foreign policy and relations, but I will allow myself a glimmer of hope that Palestine and Israel might get real help to live as neighbours, even grumpy occasionally angry neighbours. But today's cause for celebration is that my mother has a birthday - so as little council work as I can get away with while I go and share the day with her. A celebration indeed!