Friday, February 29, 2008

The Fairtrade Bus rolls into town

Today, almost half way through Fairtrade Fortnight, the Fairtrade bus travelled through Teesside heading for Sunderland. Middlesbrough Fairtrade group chairman, Bob King, had persuaded the organisers that there was enough time to stop and have photos taken near the Transporter Bridge and I'd arranged for the Deputy Mayor and Mayoress of Stockton to be there. A few delays and some hair-raising driving later and we were all assembled in the wind and cold for photos. The only person missing was the local press photographer! We duly took photos for our own use and to send on to the Fairtrade Foundation, and headed back to our cars. Stockton's mayoral car had gone, I was about to follow when who should race down the road but said photographer. So photos in the Gazette will be minus half of the "Chain Gang" sadly. Still, at least the Fairtrade Bus should get its picture in the paper.
I also discovered that the piece about our farmer visiting had been in yesterday, but still said banana producer and was very small. I just hope we get a good turnout.
For those who haven't read the earlier entries - Fairtrade cashew nut farmer, Queens Campus of Durham Uni at Stockton, 7.30pm on Monday. Hope to see you there - free coffee and biscuits, free admission, Fairtrade goods on sale. What are you waiting for?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Some you win and some you lose

A rollercoaster day today! The day started with a series of lengthy phone conversations, all needed but none of them planned for so the plans for the day began to slip behind time.
Then came a piece of unexpected good news - the appeal against the Planning committee's refusal to allow demolition and replacement of Wainstones in Leven Rd, Yarm was dismissed by the inspector. 3 cheers all round. Maybe at last the inspectors are waking up to the importance of gardens in suburbs.
Hard on the heels of that came news of a change of plan for our Fairtrade event on Monday. Jose, the banana producer, had to leave early to go home to deal with the aftermath of the flooding in the Dominican Republic. His place will be taken by a cashew nut farmer from El Salvador - very interesting because I know nothing about cashew nuts. Sad for Jose, but Juan gets the chance to see a country he might not otherwise have visited and we get to learn about a different product. Clouds and silver linings spring to mind.
This evening I went to a meeting of the Friends of Tees Heritage Park where I met the local CPRE chairman. He was hopping mad, because the owners of Wainstones have served notice on Stockton Council that they intend to demolish the building anyway! Because Stockton Planning Department were incompetent and didn't start the Local List when they said they were going to, there aren't any buildings on it so we'll really struggle to save Wainstones now. Campaigners are hoping that pressure can be brought to bear to get the list in place, but I'm not convinced the bureaucratic process allows the time to do that. I'll be asking tomorrow morning!
So, on balance, not a good day after all.
Tomorrow is a whole new day! And there's a petition to sign to help the campaign against this abuse of planning guidance, commonly known as garden-grabbing. S if you haven't already signed - go do it please.

Environmental Improvements

The council budget set last night included money to continue allocations to wards for the improvements identified as priorities by the residents there. At the same time we found out that, contrary to what we'd been told previously, we can carry forward the money we haven't spent this year.
The reason for not spending the money was that when we identified certain projects we were told that they were already being done, or some of the money was coming from another budget, or it simply couldn't be done. Now we may be able to do one or two bigger projects in the coming year by working with the Area Transport Strategy group to jointly fund road crossings. Meanwhile it's good to see all the bulbs we had planted growing strongly along Durham Lane and Yarm Road as well as being able to walk from Butts Lane to Stony Bank without plodging through mud and puddles. That particular piece of work needed a lot of input from a number of residents as well as councillors over several years but it was all worthwhile in the end.
Of course, if residents have suggestions for further improvements in the ward please let us know as soon as possible.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Budget is Set

After quite a debate tonight Stockton Council set its budget for the next municipal year, starting in April. There were two amendments proposed to the Cabinet recommendation. First of all, Ingleby Barwick Independents proposed using some of the reserves being kept for "pump priming" capital expenditure to add to what is already planned for spending on Romano Park. Although we sympathise with the people of Ingleby Barwick there's quite a lot being spent there and we didn't feel that it had more merit than several other possible capital projects around the borough. Certainly we would need a lot more information to persuade us than was on offer at Council tonight and we hadn't been given any prior notice of the proposal.
Thornaby Independents had given us warning of their amendment, mainly because they were proposing that money didn't need to be spent on the Cemeteries post which the Environment committee last year. They were proposing to save more money by not upgrading Christmas lights and a couple of other projects in order to spend over £1m on upgrading Park View Residential Home so that it can remain open. Whilst having some sympathy with their desire to maintain that home in the public sector we couldn't support an amendment which removed the post recommended by the committee I chair and agreed by Cabinet. The speech proposing the amendment was very clear and well delivered. But the debate became very heated and acrimonious as it progressed, and accusations were thrown around the chamber at high speed. For those of us not intimately involved it was an interesting debate to watch and listen to, and there are certainly some questions to be answered about the process of the scrutiny. Sadly, in all the emotion I suspect those questions won't be answered and no-one will be held accountable for the things which weren't done properly.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Carbon Footprints

A pleasantly satisfying task at lunchtime today - attending the opening of the newly restored Victorian Winter Garden on Preston Hall. As ward councillors last year John and I had written letters in support of the Lottery application, so it was good to see the end result. The photos show David Bellamy who performed the opening, and John & Alan admiring the result of all the efforts.
Environment Select committee heard almost the final pieces of evidence today on the subject of rubbish. The consultant employed to look into the ecological impact of how we deal with our rubbish came to report on the calculations of carbon emissions for different scenarios. The results were very interesting, showing that the carbon cost of transporting materials is a very very small part of the overall carbon cost of their life-cycle. The gut reaction of most people that sending lots of vehicles around collecting recycling material is more costly to the environment than putting the material into the energy from waste plant proved to be false. If materials like plastic bottles, made from oil, can be recycled efficiently into more high grade plastic bottles then it's worth going round and collecting them. Similarly with glass and metals. So those sceptics who think recycling is just another odd idea will have to rethink.
The last evidence will be received next week when the analysis of almost 3000 questionnaires is completed and we'll know what the general public in Stockton think. Then it's up to the committee to make recommendations to cabinet. And they won't be easy to agree - just watch this space.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Beaten by the Wind

Today should have been a Fairtrade Fun day in Stockton High Street to end school half term and lead into Fairtrade Fortnight. But everyone had reckoned without 50mph winds! The stalls were in danger of being blown away, the balloons were a definite no, and the insurance wouldn't cover the games and activities at that level of wind. Discretion being the better part of valour, the day was postponed. We don't yet know when it will take place because people had made all the arrangements for today and now diaries have to be linked up again, but watch this space.

ID cards - the video

Many people might be aware that Liberal Democrats have consistently opposed the Labour Government's proposal for ID cards. We know that the terrorists who bombed Madrid station all had ID papers. We know that the terrorists who bombed London all had valid papers. It's a nonsense to say that cards will stop terrorism. It's a nonsense to say that we need to spend £7,500,000,000 on producing them. And it's a nonsense to say that our information would be safe in the government's hands. This week Nick Clegg has produced a super short video detailing these points. If you agree, you could do worse than to sign the petition.
Let's put a stop to this here and now.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Go Bananas

The visit of Jose, banana producer from the Dominican Republic, draws closer. Queen's Campus of Durham University here in Stockton is hosting the evening. Their catering department along with 2 of their Fairtrade suppliers are sponsoring the refreshments. Invitations are going out all over the Tees Valley and we hope to fill the lecture theatre for the evening. For any reader who hasn't yet seen an invitation or a poster the details are as follows:
Venue - Ebsworth building, Durham University, Stockton
Date - Monday March 3rd
Time - 7.30 pm
Admission - Free, but there will be a stall selling Fairtrade goods from all over the world and the chance to enter a prize quiz.

This evening I finally got chance to watch the TV programme which I'd recorded earlier in the week showing 3 school children visiting India to see at first hand how non-Fairtrade cotton is grown and converted into garments, then to see the Fairtrade organic version. Their reactions to the working conditions spoke volumes. Seeing and hearing them debate the issues was inspiring. At the end of their visit they had succeeded in having sample shirts made - one in Fairtrade cotton at a rural workshop and one in organic cotton made in a factory which was aiming for an Ethical Factory certificate. Each one would cost under £5, but pay the workforce and the farmer a reasonable amount. The youngsters quite understandably asked, "if we can do it why not the big shops?" I know that when big shops are involved there are overheads which weren't costed into this exercise, but the young people were asking valid questions, and the run up to Fairtrade Fortnight is a very good time to air them.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Talking about Rubbish

This morning I had a mid-review meeting to discuss how we're getting on with the scrutiny of waste management. The results of the questionnaire have been very good - more than 2300 sent back so far, so we're going to be over the level needed to give us the comfort of a valid consultation.
The answers are proving really interesting - it seems that people are divided over the questions about whether collection patterns should change and if so, how, but hundreds of people have put in comments about all aspects of the collection, recycling and so on. The job of analysing the results is proving challenging in the time available but I'm sure it will get done.
There's going to be a real challenge to come up with recommendations which are based on the evidence we've collected and also are achievable with the available resources. Should we extend the kerbside collection to include plastic bottles and cardboard? If we do that will we be able to reduce the frequency of collection of residual waste? If so - when? If not, how do we pay for the extra vehicles we'll need and the people to crew them? Real challenges, with no easy answers.
This afternoon was Planning Committee, with a sobering report on the financial costs of losing a recent appeal. Hearts had ruled heads at the planning committee to some extent, with people voting against the officer's recommendations on a proposed development at Ingleby Barwick. Sadly, when the developer appealed to the Secretary of State, and the inspector heard the evidence he wasn't convinced and awarded costs against the authority.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Pizza & Politics

That was the title of an evening of food and debate yesterday. Eaglescliffe Lib Dems enjoyed a sometimes heated debate on the subject "Nuclear Power - the answer to global warming or hell on earth?" I don't know whether anyone changed his or her mind as a result but there was much passion on both sides and people certainly listened and learned from each other. Inevitably the discussion ranged over the alternatives for energy production and usage and the impact each of them has on the environment as well as the dangers inherent in every form of energy production.
It was good to share ideas like that instead of always concentrating on the immediate problems, important though they might be, like potholes and streetlights.
(The pizza wasn't bad either!)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Good News Day

We heard today that the young man who was deported to DRC yesterday is safe with his family. Although nowhere in the DRC can really be described as safe for someone who sought asylum over here, that's a lot better than past experience had led us to fear.
So, no thanks to this Government, at least he's safe for the present.
This morning I had one of the regular monthly meetings which is often not very interesting and leaves me wondering why I bothered. Today's was different though - one item on the agenda sparked a discussion about the need for more trees in our town centres. They look good, provide shade in hot sun and absorb some of the pollution from the air. We decided that a meeting was needed quite urgently to make sure that tree planting is going to be incorporated into the town centre regeneration schemes that are underway. Given that it's something I've been asking for since first being on the council in 2003 I was very pleased to find others just as keen.
At the council's cabinet meeting this evening it was agreed to put a proposal to Council to start on the process of refurbishing the Forum, at long last recognising its importance and making sure it's of the standard needed for the coming decades.

Fairtrade Fortnight approaches

As our preparations gather pace here in Stockton I've just been told about a really useful website. The price comparison site,, has put up a page for some of the main supermarkets showing what Fairtrade products are available and at what price. The list includes three of the big ones in this area (and if you try all 3 links there you'll find out which ones). There's also a supermarket blog which highlights how to shop for Fairtrade goods without breaking the bank, which is very useful for people who think that FT automatically means very expensive. Over the next couple of weeks it'll highlight Fairtrade special offers at the supermarkets. It's good to see this sort of information coming out of the Fairtrade niche into the mainstream.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Perspectives on Life

Two things happened on Sunday to bring me up short and make me think. First of all I had a phone call from Suzanne, supposedly relaxing on holiday, to tell me that a young Congolese man we have come to know while he's been seeking asylum here from unspeakable atrocities in his own country had been arrested and was facing deportation. Yet again, the power of the Home Office descends on a decent, law-abiding person who turns up for an interview with the authorities because they've told him he must. Detained over the weekend in a police cell, taken to Campsfield House and prepared for deportation. No matter that the safety of the DRC is questionable to say the very least. No matter that there are still judicial processes to be followed, that new evidence is being obtained. Just put them on a plane back to torture or worse. What kind of country have we become?
I'd just put the phone down from that call when it rang again. This time the message was closer to home but also very worrying. My mother in law was very ill -could my husband go straight away. Fortunately he was at home and could. She needed to go to hospital and so there was much coming and going to sort things out. Fortunately she seems to be on the mend and her story progresses more happily than the first one of the day. Once more, in an emergency, the NHS came up trumps.

I feel very lucky to live in a country where there's still enough freedom for me to be able to write this without fear of imprisonment or worse, and where the health service still manages to respond wonderfully to emergencies. But I feel desperately ashamed that the government which claims to represent me and speak for me on these things is sending frightened men and women back to certain danger and possibly death.
When will they listen to the small voice of conscience that's in every one of us and then act on it?

Friday, February 08, 2008

Aerobic Digestion - the future?

This morning the Environment Select Committee went to look at the Aerobic Digester which is part of the waste management system for Easington District. It's an amazing system - from rubbish in a wheelie bin to useable compost in under a month! By stirring the mix and pumping in air it composts most of the biodegradeable material and all that's left is an inert mix with metal, plastic and small amounts of glass and other hard materials which can be removed and recycled or reused. Because Easington has to send its waste to landfill the digester has made a huge difference to its waste management costs and achieving targets for recycling. In Stockton the benefits wouldn't be the same - most of our waste goes to the Energy from Waste plant, but if a carbon emission tax is ever imposed the balance of the calculation might change. Either way, it was very interesting to see it happening and to be able to discuss the possibilities for the future.
It was also encouraging to hear that already over a thousand responses to the questionnaire have been received. If anyone living in Stockton borough is reading this and hasn't completed it please do so as soon as possible. In fact, why not follow the link and do it now!

What cost Home Safety?

I discovered this week that it's only just become illegal to install a gas cooker in a flat unless it has a flame detection device fitted. It's still not illegal to sell them for houses, and the only cookers that have them seem to be at the very expensive end of the market. I'm horrified that people can buy a gas cooker which could kill them and their neighbours - if the flame blows out the gas just keeps on coming out. Someone with no sense of smell could switch something on, generate a spark and blow the house to pieces. Yet our law-makers don't see this as a priority.
Meanwhile, Focus is printed and well on the way to being delivered to every home in the ward. It's always interesting to see where the first comment comes from as they drop through the letter boxes. For once this time, it was a comment on recycling rather than on planning which arrived first. The planning ones followed soon afterwards though, as people realised the scale of the application which has gone in for an industrial estate. The thought of all the HGVs going past Hunter's Green estate fills residents there with dismay. I have no idea whether planning permission will be granted but I do know that if it is I'll have a lot of disappointed people.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Fairtrade Fortnight approaches

Two really good meetings today - the sort that make a difference. (Two not so good ones as well but we'll gloss over them). The Fairtrade group met at lunch time and although we were missing a number of our usual members we had a fruitful run through what we've planned for Fairtrade Fortnight. The Town Centre management team have planned a fun Fairtrade event for Feb 22nd in the High Street. Then on Feb 29th the Fairtrade bus is coming through the borough and on 3rd March we have a banana producer from the Dominican Republic coming to visit. Lots of details to tidy up but it's exciting and positive.
This evening I went to the Youth Assembly and talked with them about Fairtrade. Again, quite a few missing but some genuine enthusiasm to be involved and offers of help at the events coming up. Also some good ideas about other things we might do to spread the message, so again an exciting an positive meeting.
Now I just have to re-read the papers for tomorrow's discussions on the budget!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Lib Dem Children & Young People Conference

Every year at about this time the Lib Dem parliamentary education team gets together with those of us who lead on these issues on councils around England and Wales. Some are executive members, others chair scrutiny committees, others are spokespeople for small groups like ours, but we all have an input into the thinking of the MPs and Lords who try to keep Liberal Democrat ideals alive in Parliament. Friday evening and Saturday were intense and stimulating and well worth the journey to Nottingham through rain and sleet. Interesting talks led to animated debate which went on through dinner late into the night and started up again over breakfast. A really important policy review is coming up and I look forward to it.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Tees Heritage Park

It's almost a year now since the Friends of Tees Heritage Park had its formal launch and the idea has grown from the vision of a handful of dreamers to something being treated seriously by SBC officers, British Waterways and other august bodies. The idea of preserving and enhancing the river corridor from Yarm down to Stockton, opening it up to people to enjoy in a variety of ways is gathering momentum.
Imagine having easy access for walking along the riverside from Yarm and Eaglescliffe to Stockton and beyond, having vibrant restaurants and pubs at the town centre river front, being able to launch small sailing boats and canoes easily at interesting points along the river, easy access for fishing at other places. All of this would be enhanced by leaflets and boards highlighting some of the wildlife and the industrial history of the area. That's the THP concept. Now all we need is a name which conveys all that but doesn't imply that it's a park with play equipment or a boring old-fashioned history lesson. (sensible) Suggestions welcomed here!
At last night's meeting of the committee there was a lively discussion on the merits or otherwise of having Tees as the first word in such a name. Let me know what you think - does Tees make you shudder with memories of the river in its dirty post-industrial uncared for state, or does it make you think of the barrage, water sports and cruises on the Teesside Princess or fishing at Eaglescliffe or Thornaby or .....?
There was also a lot of discussion about the need for care when constructing the new footpaths and cycle ways associated with winning the Connect2 lottery money, so that they're properly looked after for years to come and also properly policed.