Friday, October 24, 2008

High winds and hot air

Today we had a special meeting of Stockton's Planning Committee with just one item on the agenda. A big item, though, in more ways than one - the proposed wind farm on the borough boundary between Hilton and Seamer. The pre-application period for this was characterised by a deluge of correspondence from both the developer, telling us how much the country needs renewable energy, and by the opposition, telling us all the drawbacks of this site, that the developer didn't know what he was doing, that wind turbines are intrinsically dangerous, ugly pieces of machinery. There were public information meetings, well attended, and more letters to members of the planning committee. This continued of course after the application was submitted. So, with such a high level of public interest, a special meeting was convened rather than try to fit it into a regular agenda.
The afternoon started for the committee with a site visit. It was a beautiful day, clear and sunny. The wind was certainly strong enough to have generated a fair amount of electricity had the turbines been functioning. As it was, we stood in the middle of a field on a slight rise in the ground and admired the view over to the Cleveland Hills, Roseberry Topping standing proudly to the fore. To the North we could see as far as the wind turbines at Greatham near Hartlepool and then on the horizon were the ones near Seaham Harbour. We looked at where the proposed turbines would stand in this field and neighbouring ones, tried to gauge their height compared to the pylons already there and the recently erected wind monitoring mast, and tried to estimate whether the visual or noise impact on the housing we could see would be significant. As we travelled in the coach officers from the council were pointing out to us problems with access during the construction phase, where entrances might be sited and where difficulties might arise as well as possible ways to overcome them.
Then it was back to the Baptist Tabernacle for a warm cuppa before the meeting. A large number of people had come along to hear the debate, and many of them registered an interest in speaking - 10 objectors as well as a couple of supporters. The report from our planning officers was long and detailed, pointing out that government policy is in support of renewable energy but also pointing out that in this case there were serious concerns about the access especially for abnormal loads. The developer made no effort to address these concerns but simply reiterated the need for wind energy. The objectors raised lots of issues which had some relevance but weren't sufficient to refuse the application on. In the end it all came down to the fact that in order to get the turbines to the site there would need to be serious destruction of some old hedging and trees, a removal of the recently installed traffic calming in Hilton village, and some difficult manoevres on country roads. The committee couldn't see how these could be reinstated, especially when the lifespan of the turbines is only 25 years so there would need to be removal of at least some parts at that time and perhaps new bringing in. No time for a hedge to grow back to its 100 year old status! I felt sad that Stockton's first application for a wind farm had been brought in on such a poor site and said so in the committee. I really do think there must be places which are more easily accessible by the size of vehicle needed and I hope developers keep looking.

An MP came to call

So Lembit Opik came, after negotiating awful traffic and weather up the A1. He was held up, so were other people but in the end we managed a bit of campaigning in Yarm and a very pleasant constituency dinner.
We now have lots of signatures on our petition against ID cards - a waste of money on a bit of plastic which won't stop anyone committing a crime though if it survives the terrorist explosion it's supposedly designed to prevent it might tell us who committed the atrocity. Liberal Democrats say we should have better policing - more police out on the streets where they can see what's going on, as well as all the technological back up they need behind the scenes. All the ID cards in the world wouldn't have stopped Jean Charles de Menezes being shot the way he was, because no-one asked him to identify himself. With this government's record so far on data storage and IT systems I don't trust them to keep my biometric data safe.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

An MP comes to call

Tomorrow we have a visit to the area from Lembit Opik MP. Lembit is hoping to become the president of the Liberal Democrats later this year and so he's much in demand as a speaker around the country.
Today was spent in a whirlwind of final arrangements while trying to do all the other things that needed catching up on in the ward. Unfortunately, after a couple of fine days ideal for outdoor campaigning and delivering of Focus, tomorrow is forecast to be wet and windy - waterproofs out I think.
I had a very interesting meeting with some residents tonight who are extremely concerned at what they see as undue pressure being put on members of the planning committee at Stockton to agree with officer recommendations. This perception of the lack of openness and the extra pressure was what prompted a coalition to throw out the recommendations from cabinet. Now it's important that whatever procedure is introduced to try to cut down the number of adverse appeal decisions is transparent. Much more work to be done on that front.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Our Children's Future

A day of almost non-stop meetings today with very little chance to eat in between.
The first two were very useful and important - a Parish Council Recreation Committee meeting to discuss how to take forward our bid for funding for our play area improvements and then on to an update on Building Schools for the Future.
The Parish meeting was very encouraging and also daunting - hundreds of children from all our schools had completed questionnaires telling us what they wanted us to provide. Everything from litter bins to skate parks, dozens of different ideas, all sensible, all worth pursuing even if we can't get them all in our Parish area. Lots of work needs to be done now on filling in the forms to make the bid our children deserve.
Building Schools for the Future was also informative but also full of aspirations, dreams and wishes. If we really can achieve the vision it'll be wonderful but underlying everything are real concerns about whether the funding will be enough, whether we should be planning to move children around from one base to another and at what age this is appropriate, whether some of the pieces of land identified for new build really are the best sites for schools. Many questions yet to be answered and a long road to travel.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Well, I had my meeting and I think that democracy in Stockton might just have inched forward slightly, though very slightly. Enough said - it's too technical and in the background to worry most people.
It was good to hear that over 90% of people in the ward have returned electoral canvass forms or their electronic equivalent. If you're one of the people who hasn't yet done it, do it quickly please. You can download the form now!
This evening I went to the second half of the compulsory planning training which any councillor who wants to sit on planning committee either regularly or as an occasional substitute has to undertake. It's about making sure that we understand the rules governing planning - not about stifling debate but trying to make sure that the decisions are in accordance with policy and that they're reached in a transparent and honest way. Not always easy in the heat of the planning meeting so it's good sometimes to sit and debate at a training some of the difficulties.


On this day in 1714 George Ludwig of Hanover became King George 1st of Great Britain & Ireland. It was under George that the real power in government transferred from the King and advisers to a Prime Minister and Cabinet. Seems quite an auspicious day to go to a meeting to discuss how the constitution of Stockton council is working, or not, to promote real democracy in the borough.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Catching up

After the wine tasting on Friday of course there's a great deal of tidying up of loose ends, and that became today's job. Accounts to update, spare bottles to put away, empties into the recycling box ready for Tuesday's collection. The collectors are going to think we've had a wonderful party!
I can just about see the dining table now and the floor is almost clear, so the job must be nearly done.
There was also time to send photos of the evening to those who'd asked for them, and to file copies in our records ready for our renewal application.
Now it's time to finalise the listings of suppliers - caterers and retailers - for our nice shiny colour directory to be published next February. So if you know of a supplier in Stockton Borough and you think I might not know them - get in touch quickly. Tomorrow might be too late.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Stand up against Poverty, Then sit down to enjoy wine

Two opportunities for me today to take part in the Stand Up Against Poverty campaign - an effort to get a record number of people to stand up and be counted. First of all, I was in Stockton at 1 so could join the mayor, council staff and a handful of councillors outside Municipal Buildings. Then this evening at the Fairtrade Wine tasting, we did it again. Everyone stood while the Mayor read the declaration. After which we sat down and enjoyed trying out some Fairtrade wines.
The evening was a great success - over 50 people tried 6 different wines. Everyone seemed to find at least one they liked, and some enjoyed all 6! The prize was eventually won by the team which included the mayor but I don't know if that's a reflection on his wine knowledge or the people he chose to sit with! There was a mix of people from different ages, different backgrounds and different parts of the Borough all having a fun evening. I'm sure we'll have to do it again. I can't close without mentioning that it wouldn't have been possible without generous sponsorship from Sainsbury's at Whitehouse Farm and the North East Co-op. Both organisations are big supporters of the Fairtrade movement and well worth supporting.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

End of an Era

Tonight was the last Parish Council meeting for one of the longest serving parish clerks in the Borough. Helen Rennison has served the council and through it the people of Egglescliffe Civil Parish for 22 years. In all the time that I've been a member of that council she has consistently worked unstintingly more hours than she was contracted to do if she saw that an issue was urgent. She will be missed by all, but especially by those of us who chair committees because Helen has made that job so easy.
The new clerk is settling in and no doubt we'll soon be relying on her as much as we once did on Helen.
I don't usually write about Parish Council matters here because that council resolutely steers away from party politics, but on this occasion I'm going to break my own rule! A letter went to residents of a large part of the civil parish about traffic calming in the vicinity of Muirfield Rd and Butterfield Rd. The scheme involves speed humps on a number of roads but also, nothing to do with traffic calming, extensive parking restrictions at the beginning and end of the school day. The letter says that this was approved by the Parish Council. At last night's meeting everyone on the council agreed that the parking restrictions had not been discussed, let alone approved, and that the council would write to the Community Engineer to protest at the letter. So, for residents of Egglescliffe Parish who received that letter - please don't be angry with your Parish Council. The parking wasn't their idea!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Long Day!

The day started well enough with a meeting about the programme for the Western Area Partnership for the next couple of months. Zoe brought down the graffiti canvas which has been produced showing the Board's responses to the issues raised by the young people earlier in the year. It looks good and we're going to arrange to have them both on display in libraries so that people can see and read them.
Then it was on to the Council's Forward plan - a necessary but not very exciting meeting to go through the programme for the coming year and discuss any slippage in target dates, any extra consultation which needs to be done and so on.
Time for a quick dash to Norton to deliver an important package then back to Stockton ready for the planning committee. This afternoon was a marathon - starting just after 1 reading update reports and trying to get clarification of some of the issues in advance. There was a long report and longer debate on the new Energy from Waste plant at Haverton Hill. Eventually it was approved, and I was pleased to hear that SITA are hoping to have contracts to supply not just power to the grid but heat to neighbouring companies.
The very long saga of an unauthorised development in another part of the borough finally came to a conclusion today, or at least I hope it did. I hope the developer now complies with all the conditions and completes the job properly.
The Urlay Nook Rd industrial & warehousing development took a very long time to decide. There was a good debate, with lots of good points made by a resident who spoke and by members of the committee but in the end there just didn't seem to be a sustainable planning reason for refusing it. I'm cross that the council decided last year that the land wasn't needed for industrial use but the consultation process needed to get that change of classification accepted is so long that in the mean time the owner could put in plans, have them refused, modify them and come back and get them accepted. There's no sense in us spending time debating the merits of the classification then being told that the change can't take effect yet because we haven't consulted enough.
The Rookery demolition was deferred until the applicant can show to the committee firm evidence that the economics of underpinning aren't viable. That followed a long debate on a particular part of Stockton's policy which says that demolition in a conservation area can be allowed if the building can't be repaired economically (my paraphrase). I don't hold out a lot of hope for its preservation but at least I'll be sure we've done all we can within the present law.
There were over 10 more applications to consider, thankfully not all as lengthy to debate as these, but all important to the people involved and all deserving of careful consideration. By the end of the meeting, over 4 hours after I'd arrived at the library, everyone was pretty tired but it wasn't the end of the day for members - full Council met at 7.
Often the council meeting is very quick and non-contentious because issues have been ironed out at various committees and other meetings, Cabinet has taken a decision and everyone is more or less in agreement with it. On this occasion there were two items which needed a vote.
The first was a good example of a member (John Fletcher, a fellow Eaglescliffe councillor and this year's mayor) working with another member who is also mayor of Thornaby Town council, to find a way through a maze of red tape and bad feeling so that the chains which were worn by the mayor of Thornaby in the days before unitary authorities were invented could be safely returned to Thornaby. This issue has been a sore point between Stockton and Thornaby councils since the latter was formed as a Town Council some years ago. Thanks to John's analytic and logical thinking and persistence on the part of both members the final hurdle waa crossed last night with a vote in favour. I look forward to the handover on the Victoria bridge!
The other issue was more technical but in some ways more important. At times the planning committee refuses an application even though planning officers have recommended that it be approved. Sometimes that's on a balance of fairly subjective views on design or amenity. At other times it's because the committee knows that it's the last thing residents want but under present planning laws it can't be refused. Nevertheless in the heat of the moment we can't bring ourselves to approve it. If the applicant goes to appeal the inspector grants the latter kind as a matter of course, and we win some of the "on balance" type. In an effort to stop the "democratic wishes" kind of refusal the planning officers had proposed a protocol which would mean such decisions weren't taken immediately but sent to review by the Head of Planning and the Corporate Director of Neighbourhood Servicies with a solicitor who would then come back to the planning committee 3 weeks later and advise again on whether or not to refuse it. Many of us thought this process gave the impression of officers putting undue pressure on members. If it happens in the open, in a meeting, everyone sees and hears. When part of the deliberation is behind closed doors it leaves a bad feeling on the part of the people who end up on the losing side and the reputation of the council suffers with its residents.
A lengthy discussion by email and face to face meant that members of every party but Labour supported an amendment to get a rethink on that, despite the Tory leader siding with Labour. A follow up amendment which I proposed to tidy up a really badly written recommendation even got some Labour support - the first time I've known that on something which was not agreed in advance with their leader. A triumph for Democracy on Democracy day.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Traffic Calming and School Parking

I realise that I've written very little recently, but it's not because nothing's been happening. On the contrary, too much has been happening and not all of it political or council business.
Amongst other things I've been involved in organising the Fairtrade wine tasting event happening on Friday evening this week at St John's Living Well. It promises to be a fun night and there are still a few tickets left for a very light-hearted evening tasting wine and deciding what we like, or not as the case may be. An added bonus is that the Mayor of Stockton is going to be there.
The big issue for residents of parts of the ward at the moment is the proposed traffic calming and parking restrictions. Some months ago Egglescliffe and Eaglescliffe council (formerly known as Egglescliffe Parish Council) raised concerns with Stockton's community engineer about the speed of traffic on some estate roads, especially Butterfield Drive, Seymour Grove , Muirfield Rd and Carnoustie Drive. These were roads which had been the subject of complaints for years. There was a lot of discussion about speed and about the other problem of cars parking near to the primary schools in the area. The engineer went off and came back with suggestions.
Seymour Grove - it's not sensible to do anything at the moment because it's going to need a major resurfacing job and that's the time to put down road markings or speed bumps.
Butterfield Drive - put in speed bumps on Butterfield Drive and on Greenfield Drive from the junction with Butterfield to the junction with Durham Lane.
Carnoustie/Muirfield - put in speed bumps on Muirfield Rd, Sunningdale Drive and Carnoustie Drive.
However, he has also proposed that there should be school start and finish time waiting restrictions near to the Links School and Junction Farm School. These would be in force from 8.30 till 9.30 each school morning and from 2.30 - 4 pm. It's these that are causing some considerable concern from people worried about parking problems just moving further into other roads and from people living on the roads concerned who won't be able to park outside their own homes for a couple of hours each day. For example, how does someone with mobility problems who doesn't qualify for a blue badge park find a parking spot away from their house and then walk back to the house?
Over 1000 letters have gone out to the people living on these two estates and I'd urge anyone with views of any sort, for or against, the suggestions to send back the response sheet. The schemes won't go ahead unles 70% of those who reply are in favour. It's no good discussing it at the pub or the school gate and then not sending back the form. Do put pen to paper or fingers to keyboards. We've already had copies of comments sent by some people, and there have been some very good points made.

Meanwhile if you want tickets or more information about the wine tasting don't forget to get in touch.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Fairtrade Campaign Day

It's not often that two of us from Eaglescliffe get ourselves up and out on a Saturday morning before 8 but today was one such occasion. Suzanne Fletcher and I had decided to forego a lie in so that we could go to Sheffield for a Fairtrade Foundation campaign day. The venue was Sheffield Hallam University, a Fairtrade university and a very good venue for such an event. A few minutes walk from the railway station, and very accessible.
At Darlington station we met up with Shabana from the Middlesbrough Fairtrade group so the journey down was spent discussing some of the things that might happen in Teesside. The day itself was crammed with opportunities for meeting other campaigners, workshop sessions to discuss all sorts of topics and presentations from various people. There was far too much to write about here. On the train home I typed up 3 pages of notes from the day to share with others in Stockton!
A few highlights here though:
70% of people in the UK now recognise the Fairtrade mark - better than many leading brand names!
In the 20 minutes of a presentation about the Co-op's involvement in the movement 400 children around the world died because of poverty - and you don't have to be a genius to realise that they didn't live in the developed world.
Fairtrade cotton clothes retailers have to be able to demonstrate that the whole of their supply chain is meeting certain minimum standards like freedom of association for the workforce, basic wages, no child labour before they're allowed to use the Fairtrade mark on the clothing. It doesn't mean that the supply chain is all fairtrade but it should mean that the workers are getting a basic minimum of rights. There's work ongoing on how to ensure that the manufacture of the garments is done with higher standards but that will take some time. The representative of one small clothing company described how she'd found this audit trail very educational as well as hard work.
There isn't nearly enough Fairtrade chocolate in this country. We heard via the wonders of the internet from two members of the Kapua Kokoo co-operative in Ghana who produce the cocoa beans for Divine Chocolate and the Co-op's own brand. Less than 10% of their production is sold on the Fairtrade market yet the premium from those sales is making a huge difference to the lives of the families involved - educating the children, empowering the women, providing clean water for all the families. At the end they had one question for us: "Are you buying our chocolate?" We need every newsagent and every petrol station mini-shop to offer Fairtrade Chocolate as one option - it's such good chocolate that once people taste it they'll buy more!
We heard about a campaigner who celebrated her 60th birthday by taking a giant Fairtrade banana on a bus tour of libraries, schools and shopping centres in her neighbourhood using her free bus pass. She generated loads of publicity locally!
And so the day went on - lots of inspiration and lots of ideas. The art now is to enthuse others before the buzz wears off!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Play time

Amidst the more mundane and routine meetings yesterday was one on new initiatives for play in the borough. It's become obvious over the last 12 months that finally people like central government advisers and safety experts have concluded that children need adventure and that falling over etc is a learning experience and not something to be avoided at all costs. So there's quite a lot of money available for groups to bid for to have play spaces which allow that adventure in a relatively safe environment. Stockton has been awarded some of that money and although the first year's allocation is being used on things which were already planned there's some available for new projects for next year and the year after. Today the Parish Council Recreation committee met to discuss how to go about bidding for some of that money to help with the plans we have for our play areas. Incorporating some elements of natural play and adventure into Amberley Way and St Margarets would go a long way towards helping our young people enjoy being out of doors and active. Fingers crossed!

The less fun, but necessary part of the day was the planning training which occupied the twilight spot from 4 till 6. Part of the requirement for councillors to sit on the planning committee is that we keep up to date with the issues around fettering discretion and declaring interests, keeping within the laws and codes of conduct and generally making sure that we are not only doing things properly but making it clear to the public that we are doing them properly. This element of training is taken very seriously by committee and officers alike. There are other aspects of training on which we disagree, but that's an issue for another day.