Thursday, December 31, 2009

The End of the Year Draws Nigh

It doesn't seem like 10 years since we celebrated the dawn of a new millennium. Now we're at the dawn of another decade - will it see peace in the Middle East or is that a hope too far? Will there be fewer refugees seeking safety around the world?
On a personal level this year is ending better than it began, with many of the heartaches and headaches in the past. Although I needed to visit hospital this afternoon I don't envisage seeing in the New Year there this time.
So what will the new year bring? Nationally, a general election of course. For Stockton Borough Council a decision on how it operates in the future - with a directly elected mayor or with a leader elected by the elected councillors. For most of the Borough's young people the excitement of the final designs for MyPlace and for the new schools to be built or refurbished. For Eaglescliffe, Yarm and Ingleby Barwick a decision on where and how big to have the 3 schools in this area once money is available.
And all that will be against a background of initiatives and policies and strategies being churned out by whoever is in charge at Westminster which local government will have to abide by with reduced funding and increased responsibilities.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

200th birthday of Gladstone

Well, it would have been if he'd lived. He was the Grand Old Man of Liberalism and many of his sayings are as true today as they were 150 years ago. Most are at least thought provoking. In the light of David Cameron's appeal to Lib Dem voters this week I picked this out of all the sayings of Gladstone circulating round the blogosphere this morning:
"Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear."

Ponder and be warned!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

It's raining

The ice this morning was the worst I've known on our estate pavements. No-one on my route off the estate had cleared the pavement in front of their house and the result of yesterday's thaw, and last night's freeze was an ice rink. I had to give up trying to walk and return home, terrified I'd end up with broken bones in North Tees Hospital. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining about people not clearing paths. It's been a busy week and while the snow was crisp and deep it was lovely to walk on.
Now it's raining but the forecast is for freezing temperatures later in the night so if you're out, take good care.
Some Christmas traditions never die so it's back to my new jigsaw. Happy days!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Christmas tree is up and decorated. The cards are up. There's food in the fridge and there's been no more snow since lunch time. The forecast is for frost later in the night but for now it's warmer than it has been for days.
In a few hours we'll walk down to the Midnight Mass and Christmas will start.
I hope that it will be filled with joy and peace.
No more blogging or emails for a day or two, just family and friends.

Its snowing - again

The forecast for last night was spot on. I got up this morning to a fresh covering of about 4cm. AsI finish checking emails and sorting out the jobs for the day there's more snow falling - big soft flakes from a leaden sky. The first white christmas in many years is coming closer.
A message this morning from the leader of the council says that an extra salting run has already started at 8a.m. and a snowplough has been dispatched to the A67 in Yarm.
Drive carefully if you're out. Keep warm and enjoy Christmas whatever you're doing.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

It's almost Christmas

Two pieces of unwelcome news today. First of all our MP, from whom most of us hear only rarely, has written to everyone in Eaglescliffe again telling them, amongst other things, that their councillors haven't consulted them about the school/Preston Park issue. Her local knowledge is so good that she sent those letters even to the very councillors she's complaining about. She carries on with the same fairytale that £20m is available to rebuild Egglescliffe School - if only. Maybe the bearded man in red is going to deliver it down the chimney tomorrow night! She writes of some of the conclusions of Stockton Council's engineers who have yet to report to Cabinet, but maybe she's got a mind reader in her employment. We will find out when the report to Cabinet is produced in the spring.
Her office is now closed for the Christmas Holiday, but for councillors there's no closing down. We will read e-mails less often and we won't always be around to answer the phone but we will check for messages of all kinds and we'll respond to any really urgent ones as soon as we possibly can.
Thoughts of emergencies bring me to the second piece of unwelcome news - the Council received a severe weather warning this afternoon, predicting road surface temperatures below -5 again and a possible 5cm fall of snow at around 1a.m. Needless to say the council's gritters have been out again in the late afternoon and will go out during the night also. The crews are the heroes of the hour and we hope that they'll get some time off over Christmas.
Meanwhile thanks to all who've signed the petition - hundreds of you from all over the borough and beyond. You have shown how much Preston Park is needed.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

More comments and complaints about gritting or the perception that there hasn't been any have led to a further statement from council officers giving us the exact time at which the gritters went along Yarm Rd on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
At long last the roads are starting to clear, but there is still a long way to go. A gritting lorry came down Carnoustie drive today - a secondary route owing to it having a school on it. The school is closed for Christmas otherwise the rock salt might have been ground in effectively by all the parental vehicles going to and from the school. As it is, very little traffic = very little effect.
Salt bins are now being refilled which is good news for those on difficult corners and hills.
And for a little light relief I went to the Christmas party at a care home today - festive lights, music, Santa, food and drink. I don't know who enjoyed it the most, the staff, the guests or the residents. Suffice to say that the Yule log disappeared very fast and the coffee gateau wasn't far behind.
And just for a change I picked up a couple of sheets of completed petitions from one of the local shops.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Gritting, Salting, Freezing

All over the weekend there were complaints about the standard of gritting in and around the borough, and certainly the roads weren't particularly easy to drive on. Council officers have assured us that the gritters and snow ploughs were out and were covering our primary gritting routes - roads such as Yarm Rd, Durham Lane, the A67 were all gritted several times over the weekend. This is the message we sent out yesterday to those residents who sign up to have e-mail updates sent to them:
At 1053 on 20-12-09 a Stockton Council Officer wrote:
“Gritters have been out constantly noon yesterday, 4pm, midnight, 4am.
Richard Bradley is Duty Engineer this weekend and is awaiting today's
forecast. Road Surface temperatures were down to -10 degrees. Salt
effectiveness is reduced at -5 and below and at -10 the amounts needed
become economically and environmentally undesirable. That said we've had
80gms of salt down since yesterday. There is enough salt on the network
so any gritting today will have little extra effect.”
At 11.06 he added:
“Given the current conditions the salt bins are not our priority. They
will be refilled as resources allow.”
There is information about the Council procedures and policies at
which also has links to more details. You may find the website useful for seeing which
roads are blocked or difficult, If anyone knows of a better site for
local conditions please do let us know.

Not what any of us wanted to hear of course. We really wanted a magic wand to clear the roads and make the pavements passable but to leave the pretty picture snow in suitable places. It may be almost Christmas but this is Eaglescliffe, not Fairyland, and we have to be content with what we can achieve.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow, traffic & grit

The snow certainly came with a vengeance yesterday evening. I've never seen such huge agglomerations falling from the sky except when propelled by human hands. The result this morning was a walk to church which used my thigh muscles more than they've been used for a long time! It also resulted in some stunningly beautiful scenery, especially on the river banks. I've put one photo here but there are more to be found here.
Of course it brought problems on the roads, some more serious than others. Leven Bank closed, lorries having problems at the Yarm Rd traffic lights near to the Blue Bell, a 2 hour journey from Yarm to Ingleby Barwick are only some of the stories I've heard so far. Stockton Council's officer in charge of such things as gritting roads says that although the gritters were out regularly yesterday and Friday at times there wasn't enough traffic on the roads to mix the salt into the snow and make it effective and at other times the road surface temperature was down to -10C, at which point salt isn't effective anyway. It seems that circumstances conspired to spoil their best efforts.
On the other hand, people travelling to other Tees Valley towns said that they were clearer than Stockton so one does wonder just where the truth lies.
Either way, the forecast for the next few days is more snow and freezing temperatures so wrap up warmly, try to avoid using cars if possible and do use the grit bins which are at strategic points round the ward. At least until they're empty - they're not a priority for filling while major roads need grittting unfortunately.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The snow certainly slowed down traffic on Yarm Rd this morning. I'm told it was gritted last night but that there wasn't enough traffic on the road to mix the salt into the snow and melt it. Unfortunately the weight of things I had to carry meant that I couldn't use the bus so the car had to be used. I didn't see any sign of accidents so that was a relief.
The Christmas market looked very pretty with snow around and the sun sparkling on it but the sky was soon cloudy and threatening. Stall holders were cheerful despite a low footfall and things did seem to be picking up by noon when I'd finished my shopping. I found myself wishing I could stay and sample the hot food that was cooking - it smelled very appetising. The Jamaican food stall keeper also had his drum and was entertaining passers by as well as keeping an eye on his stall - great fun.
More domestic tasks this afternoon in preparation for Christmas, and only a few dozen comments on the Preston Park issue to deal with. I'm currently seeking clarification from Stockton Council officers of the true position on some of the claims being made by other parties. If they are right and we've been misled there'll be a huge row and that's not exactly the spirit of Christmas.
Meanwhile all 3 Eaglescliffe councillors will get on with responding to people's comments, passing on comments to the officers looking into the various suggested sites, and trying to counter misinformation.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Stockton Sparkles

The Christmas market opened today. Bitterly cold winds didn't deter the stall holders and I managed to snap up a couple of different presents for those hard to buy for people who don't want anything. Santa's elves were working hard, taking the children in to see Santa in the Parish Gardens. There were hot drinks and hot pies with toppings so varied I thought some of them were fruit cakes from a distance!
No photos today because I was too disorganised to take a camera out, but there should be some tomorrow, snow permitting.
The little flurries of snow during the day settled to something a bit more long lasting in the evening and the walk along to Egglescliffe village to the annual get together of Parish Councillors and spouses was a crisp and cold one. The walk back was even crisper and colder, but it did work off some of the naughty buffet we'd eaten!
Even at a social event like that I was being asked by people to explain the situation with the school - no, there hasn't been a planning application, no there isn't money for a bridge, no there isn't any money for the rebuild of Egglescliffe school at the moment, yes we do think Egglescliffe school is a brilliant school and we do want it to have wonderful buildings to go with the wonderful teaching and yes if the council owned a plot of land right in the middle of the catchment area wouldn't it be lovely.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Cheer

Never mind the first ever cold planning committee (did someone forget to pay the heating bill in the library?) nor the petitions and all the letters still arriving about Preston Park, nor the fact that we'd forgotten to buy the tree in the midst of all the activity of the last few days. This evening was one of the most important events in the life of a small but important part of the council. Tonight children in foster care came along with their foster carers and families to the Christmas party. It's a long time since I've been to a disco with such loud music. The flashing light patterns were a long way from the twirling coloured ball of my youthful dances or even the early disco lights of children's parties in the seventies and eighties. These were a sight to behold.
There were balloons, cakes, quiches, pizza, sausages, sausage rolls, sandwiches, crisps - the tables were almost groaning under the goodies on them. Then of course there were the children. I'd have loved to fill this blog with photos but it wouldn't be appropiate. Tiny babies through toddlers to teens, some in fancy dress costumes, some in their party outfits. There were young foster parents, old ones and middle aged ones. The excitement of the children as they won prizes in games, the thrill of seeing Father Christmas arrive, the pride in their fancy dress costumes - I could go on for ever. I was called upon to help with judging the fancy dress competition. We thought it would be really difficult but in fact there were 3 which stood out as having been home made. I have a picture in my mind of the family working on them together - a tinsel christmas tree, mother goose and the cutest little shepherd boy imaginable. And then there was the King - making such an effort to walk round keeping his crown intact on his head. Lots of runner up prizes of course, including some for slightly older children who had helped little ones.
And why is it so important? Because the Council is the corporate parent of those children. Councillors and officers have a joint responsibility for them. They're not in care because they're naughty nor because theyr'e being punished. They're in care because for some reason their birth parents can't care for them. That more often than not leaves them hurting, vulnerable and in need of love. As corporate parents we can't give them the love at first hand, but we can support the social workers and the carers who do give it. That's why, in the midst of all the busy preparations for my own family Christmas, it was important to go to celebrate with the children the fact that someone loves them this Christmas, maybe not the person they'd most like it to be but someone at least who gives them love, shelter and care. If that's not the spirit of Christmas then what is?
So no photos but lots of pitures in my mind. And a deep sense of gratitude and pride that in our borough there is a social work team which holds all this together and a small army of foster carers who enable children to have a family, however temporary. Thank you one and all!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas is coming

This afternoon I was invited as chair of the Fairtrade Borough Partnership to attend the carol service at Queens Campus of Durham University and then to be part of the lantern procession over to the Town Hall for further carols and refreshments. The first issue to be resolved was transport - using a bus to get to Stockton for 4 would be OK but getting home again after 7? Not so easy, so on a rainy evening the car won.
I hadn't realised that the chaplain is a priest I've known since he was a young curate but not seen for some years so it was good to be able to catch up with him. The university had invited some residents from the nursing homes nearby as well as other Thornaby residents. So there was a good mix of people there and my lack of singing ability was nicely hidden by the orchestra and choir leading the singing.
The service started with the sharing of the Peace Light, a light brought by a long and not particularly easy route from Bethlehem as a reminder to us to bring peace to the people we meet and to pray for peace in Bethlehem and beyond.
A moving and thought provoking talk from the Dean of Stockton set Christmas and the carols firmly in context. What's the difference between an angel and a fairy? One brings a message of hope and one takes your wishes, one brings joy and the other brings fun. Hope and joy last through all manner of hardships but fun and wishful thinking don't. Happy Christmas one and all!
After the carol service we joined the college for dining, and then prepared for the procession. I'm afraid that our table were the rebels and encouraged by the Mayor we changed the route of the procession to walk over the Infinity Bridge. Despite the predictions of some we didn't get lost and we did enjoy fabulous views of the lights along the river.
At the end of the Ecclesiastes bridge we were met by the Mayor and mayoress with a handful of councillors and council officers. Tees Valley Youth Choir were waiting for us at the Town Hall and sang carols beautifully. If angels have voices they were being imitated tonight.
There was a cake to be cut, jointly by the Mayor and the Vice-Chancellor, and then drinks (including non-alcoholic mulled "wine") and food for all.
A truly festive occasion, full of all the good things in life - friendship, music, conversation, and working together.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Moving on

There was great excitement at today's meeting of the Recreation committee of Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe council. The meeting was held at Stirling House in Thornaby, home of the Stockton council officers who deal with parks and green spaces. Today was the day that the tenders for work on St Margaret's play area were to be discussed. Out of 11 initial expressions of interest 6 designs had been submitted. We had the job, working with council officers, of deciding on which ones should go through to the next stage of consulting with the young people of the area. Already the school council of the Links primary have had a look this afternoon and chose their favourite after much discussion. We looked, tried to imagine what a 5 year old would feel and what a 15 year old would feel when faced with the different designs; tried to imagine a child going there for 10 minutes on the way home from school and going for an hour or two on a Saturday afternoon. Was there enough play value, enough scope for imagination to run riot? Was there enough to keep the older ones amused so that they didn't feel the need to play over-vigorously on the smaller equipment? How much maintenance would the surface need? Would the equipment survive the winter?
At last there were 3 designs which seemed to fulfil most of the requirements we had. Ideally we'd like to take the best of all of them but as they come from different suppliers as well as different designers that won't be possible so now it's down to the children of the area to come up with their favourites. The officers are trying really hard to get into al the schools in the area as well as the youth club to see what the young people say. On 7th January they'll bring the results of those consultations to the Parish Council and a final decision will be made so that the order can be put in.
Meanwhile petition signatures continue to pour in, mainly from Eaglescliffe but also from other parts of Stockton including Ingleby Barwick. I do wonder whether there's as much support over there for the idea as is being suggested. Perhaps people over the other side of the river can see that in the current economic climate a bridge is unlikely to be built so children would still have to be bussed off the estate and they'd have lost a park which is visited by many of them.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gaudete Sunday

Rejoice is the theme of church services today - look back and repent, look forward with hope. But even at church people wanted to talk about the Park and the school. Surely there are other places to build was the chorus. People who don't live in Eaglescliffe but use the park regularly for their leisure wanted to be sure it wasn't going to be spoilt. It takes a long time to explain over and over - time I could have spent on wrapping Christmas presents if only I'd had time to shop for any!
As I walked home in the early evening I was struck by how few festive lights there are outside houses on my route this year. Maybe because there's still almost 2 weeks till Christmas, but I had the feeling that they went up earlier in the past. Perhaps the credit crunch is having an impact or maybe it's people cutting their carbone footprint from choice or maybe it's just my imagination.
I heard the most bizarre story of climate chaos this morning - a friend tells me that her son, working on a cruise ship in the Caribbean for his first ever Christmas away from home, has had snow! The first in the memory of most people there - if that's not climate change what is?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Opening of the Wilson Centre

Long Newton residents can be justifiably proud of their new community centre. 7 years of hard work have paid off and a drab, draughty though well used centre is now bright, airy and warm with internet connection and ground source heating. From a meeting to discuss selling off the land for building to this is a huge achievement for any community. I was honoured as the chair of Western Area Partnership to be asked to referee one of the bids they made for funding and delighted when it succeeded. Earlier in the autumn they had a week of celebration in the community as part of which we had our monthly meeting in the newly refurbished hall. Today was the formal grand opening with Dari Taylor MP unveiling a plaque. Sadly, she chose to turn the occasion into a political one.
The vice-chairman of the Parish council spoke first about the hard work and dedication of the people who've achieved the transformation. Then Rev Norman Shave who was curate there when the initial bids were going in and early work being done spoke about the centre being at the heart of the community and everyone working together for the things that matter to them. Dari Taylor started by saying some of the same things but then turned to the importance of education and gave all the arguments she put in her letter, as well as saying several times that she wanted the people to be involved in the decision making, that it's not up to councillors to make the decision, that there should be a precautionary principle applied to pylons, that Preston Park might not be ideal but no-one has suggested anywhere better and that there's £20m waiting to be spent and it needs to be spent wisely! Towards the end a number of people behind me were saying "Oh come off it Dari". I did say to a couple of people that the £20m wasn't for Eaglescliffe but it wasn't the right place or occasion to start asking people to sign the petition!

After she'd unveiled the plaque we were invited to go to the hall where the WAPB meetings take place for refreshments whereupon Dari said "I paid for them but they're not on expenses" and then went on at length about how she doesn't have a moat or a duck house and because 18% of MPs had broken the rules they were all tarred with the same brush and isn't it dreadful. At that people really were getting restive and muttering.

All that doesn't stop me celebrating the achievement of the community. The photo shows Nora Rosser, one of the leading lights in the campaign and their representative on the Western Area Partnership Board. She and all the committee deserve every congratulation.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Memorial Garden Plans

Egglescliffe war memorial, built with public subscriptions to commemorate those who died fighting in the world wars, was refurbished and brought back to a fitting state a few years ago by the Parish Council. Since then efforts have concentrated on the land next to it. This was originally bought in order to provide a memorial garden but then turned into an allotment. Some years ago it was brought back to open space but the other works weren't done because funding wasn't available. In recent years the council has been brave enough to ask the residents for a little extra on their council tax and no-one has complained to us. As a result we now have the funds to go ahead and finish off the garden, over 50 years after it was first conceived.
A path beside the memorial will allow a little more hard surface to stand on for Remembrance Sunday and will also provide a way to go dryshod to the fence and enjoy the wonderful view. At the end of the path we hope to have a stone plinth with an interpretive board giving a brief history of the memorial and garden and pointing out the direction of Northern France & Belgium where many of those named lost their lives. A further bench donated in memory of someone who loved this area, some paving round the benches to allow their use in wet as well as dry conditions, planting of low shrubs will all contribute to a worthy memorial
Today that dream moved a step nearer when the recreation committee met on site with Stockton Council's urban design manager in order to talk about any possible issues before submitting the planning application. With good luck we should have all the works completed in time to be enjoyed as a tranquil seating area in summer and a fitting memorial to those of the parish who gave their lives for their country.
A rather better way to spend an hour than worrying about political point scoring. This is really making a difference to something which local people want and have paid for out of their own taxation. Local decisions about local expenditure - real democracy.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Photos in the Park

It sounds idyllic but it was work. The photographer from the local paper came to take photos of people who want to keep the Park as a park. They don't have a united view on where the school could go, but they certainly are united in where it shouldn't go. I had to spend a lot of time explaining that this wasn't a planning application, that a decision hasn't yet been taken and that the study of different sites really is a genuine study.
It's very hard for people to understand that just because an MP says it's a good idea doesn't mean that it's a done deal.
In the photo are some of the residents who were happy to have photographs used on political leaflets and the like - there are many more who prefer to stay out of the limelight in that way.
I hope that the report being prepared by the SBC officers produces a suggested site which is acceptable to all parties even if it isn't anyone's first preference. The staff, students and parents need some certainty on what's going to happen. If we don't get that, we don't stand a chance of getting the funding for the rebuild and we desperately need that.
After an hour in the park there was just time for some personal jobs before an update meeting on the issues surrounding children, young people and social care in the borough. There are ongoing problems across the country with recruiting staff following the tragic case of baby Peter in London and so existing staff are having to cope with increased workloads. Add to that the fact that we're expecting Ofsted to descend at any time and it's a recipe for a stressed workforce. Unfortunately for social workers the Christmas break often means an increase in problems rather than a decrease as families try and fail to be something they're not.
Peace and Goodwill? I wonder.
But then I read a Christmas letter from friends overseas and remember that, as my mother would say, there's always someone worse off than yourself. Imagine having children in your care run off and murder someone - it doesn't bear thinking about.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The plot thickens

Our MP wrote to people who'd responded to her letter with a long epistle, part of which said that the petition she presented to Parliament suggested moving Egglescliffe school to Preston Park. Tonight one of the IBIS councillors showed us a copy of the petition form, which didn't mention either Egglescliffe school or Preston Park. Something strange is going on. Who is telling the truth? or put another way, who's telling nearest to the truth?
The last full council meeting before Christmas tonight was followed by the traditional hospitality from the Mayor - drinks and nibbles. It was a pleasant end to a hectic day with members of all parties mixing and chatting. It was particularly good to see two councillors who've suffered serious health problems recently back with us, not fully restored to health but at least capable of taking a full part in proceedings again. Something of the Christmas spirit rubbed off as even the questions were relatively good natured today.
I even found time today to locate our Christmas card list and count up how many cards we still need to buy! Now all I need is a bit of shopping time and we'll be organised.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The truth, the whole truth and ?

Today a resident showed me a response from our MP to her objection to the school in the park issue. According to Ms Taylor she was hoping to engage people in debate. There's a first! She also claims to have secured the funding for the school rebuild. It's a pity that no-one has told Stockton Council that. In fact the government department concerned specifically told Stockton Council that Egglescliffe, Conyers and All Saints are excluded from the funding.
Meanwhile more and more people are joining in the outcry, signing our petition and offering to help in the campaign. We haven't got the financial resources of the larger parties but we have got a lot of people who recognise that over the years Liberal Democrat councillors in Eaglescliffe have kept them informed about what's going on and can be trusted to do their best for the area.
This evening's meeting of Stockton's Local Strategic Partnership heard that although crime figures for the area have dropped dramatically over recent years and Stockton is the safest place in the old Cleveland County to live we can't have top marks from the inspectors because we're not reducing the crime in an innovative way!! No wonder the police representative on the Partnership despairs.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Busy Busy

There hasn't been a lot of time for thinking about a blog this past week. The online petition was getting signatures even before we told people it was there. Letters and emails have continued to stream in. We can't go into a shop or even to church without being approached. The issue of saving the Park for posterity has united the people of Eaglescliffe in a way that hasn't been seen for years.
In the midst of all that hubbub there hasn't been a lot of time to think about other things.
Although my letter to the Echo was published in the newspaper it wasn't put up on the online version so I can't provide a link. The Darlington & Stockton Times made the story front page news on Friday and they published my letter inside.
Thursday evening's Parish council meeting had also discussed the matter although unfortunately I had to leave early as I was travelling down to the Midlands to help with a house move the next day. All weekend, between unpacking boxes and amusing the grandchildren I was receiving and responding to emails on the subject. Now I see that Dari Taylor says today that she was trying to open up a consultation, something I haven't done!! Quite what she thinks our regular Focus articles are I don't know. But of course she doesn't live in Eaglescliffe so can't be expected to know what's going on. Perhaps if she did a little consultation of her own and asked her own party members in the area how many times they've been asked for their views? Too much to ask.
And in case anyone is wondering - the house move passed off without major disasters though with lots of stress.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Hands off Preston Park petition

Today we've launched our online petition against the suggestion promoted by Dari Taylor and Ingleby Barwick Independent Society (an unholy alliance) to put Egglescliffe School in Preston Park. No-one wants the children of Ingleby Barwick to be denied accessible school places but it must not be at the expense of the Green Lung of Eaglescliffe, a tourist attraction for the whole region and the centrepiece of the proposed River Tees Heritage Park.
In response to IBIS' claims that there is money in a pot waiting to be spent on a bridge they might like to contemplate the real cost of building a bridge across a river of that width, navigated by sailing craft as well as by motor vessels. Even if all the money from the Sustrans Connect2 project were to be spent on the bridge it would hardly build a wooden pontoon. They really need to take a reality check.
If anyone would like a paper copy of the petition to take to people without ready internet access just let us know.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Hands off Preston Park

Ms Taylor's letter has provoked as much comment as the most horrendous planning applications used to. So far not one has been to tell us what a good idea it is. Could it be that she's gained the votes of Ingleby and lost those of Eaglescliffe? Only time will tell. Meanwhile her comrade in arms for Stockton North had the grace to look a little embarassed at what had happened.
Meanwhile the campaign gathers pace. Stockton council officers and members will soon see that it's not only the people of Ingleby Barwick who feel strongly.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent Sunday

In the rush and hurry of life it's good to have times set aside for quiet reflection. For Christians Advent is such a time, leading up to Christmas. 4 Sundays before Christmas we start to really consider what it means - not jolly gents in red suits, not reindeer nor snowmen nor robins; not overspending on presents nor overeating nor even family get togethers. Christmas is about God with us - a challenge but also a comfort. And since this blog is about life as a councillor and political activist rather than about the rest of my activities I'll leave it at that. I'll just say that making the Advent wreath with my grand-daughter this weekend brought back memories of years ago doing it with her mother. Lighting that first candle before eating our lunch together was a timely reminder that there's more to life than the location of schools, selection of Parliamentary candidates or even the council budget!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Our MP speaks

Usually our MP doesn't have a lot to say that's of any great interest but she's really excelled this time. A letter has gone to many if not all Eaglescliffe residents extolling the virtues of the IBIS idea of building Egglescliffe School in Preston Park. One can only assume that she thinks the votes of Ingleby Barwick residents are more important or useful (or easily bought) than those of Eaglescliffe voters. Either that or it's a cunning ploy to swamp the phone lines and e-mailboxes of the 3 ward councillors with protests!
Either way, Eaglescliffe residents are not impressed.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

This evening's cabinet meeting had a very full agenda and much of it was interesting or important or both.
There was wifi in schools, three select committee reports including the Environment one which I presented, school standards, a review of voluntary sector funding, budget pressures, economic climate and how to choose the best form of executive arrangements for Stockton.
All the controversial stuff had been sorted out in advance of course by the Labour/Tory coalition as is their way. One of the most interesting items to us as councillors, though probably not to most residents, was the item on future executive arrangements. At present Stockton Council elects a leader each year at the annual meeting. Naturally, that person is the leader of the largest group or the leader of some other coalition which commands a majority vote. The government thinks that the council would be better if that person was elected for 4 years at a time or if we had an elected mayor instead. After the next election (2011) Stockton has to change to one of these. In August the cabinet was happy to recommend that the way to decide between them was to have a referendum. Now, in November, apparently a referendum is too expensive so we'll have a postal consultation instead and then the council will decide, based on the result.
I'm not particularly wanting to have a referendum. I think it is expensive and I also think that the issues are quite likely to get mixed up with general election issues and the overall dislike of politicians following the parliamentary expenses scandal, but I am amazed that we have a cabinet so wally that it makes one decision in August and goes back on it in November. Yet another proof that the only reason Stockton is such a good council is because good officers do the necessary decision making. If we had this sort of decisiveness over such matters as finance and road sweeping nothing would ever get done.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hope and Despair

I started the working day at St Marks Elm Tree primary school in Stockton where pupils and staff have decided to become a Fairtrade school. The children have had lots of good ideas and I was invited to lead their assembly, explaining to them all the value of buying Fairtrade goods. A technical hitch meant they didn't have the pictures to look at on the screen but nevertheless I think we managed reasonably. I look forward to being able to celebrate with them the achievement of Fairtrade status.
This afternoon was back to earth with a bump - planning committee. The committee meeeting wasn't the problem, except for a developer who seemed to have no concept of fitting a design in with the surroundings. No, the problem was the update session afterwards. The government's new bright ideas on how to speed up the planning process: don't consult with people who might slow things down, introduce new wishy washy descriptions to give appeal lawyers a field day and cost local authorities a fortune, publish guidance about consultation that finished months ago ... Need I go on. Suffice to say that no-one, officers or members, was happy with what is happening and none of us has the power to change it.
One young councillor tried to say that things would change after the next general election but his older and wiser colleagues just shook their heads in despair. We all recognise that the priority after the next election for the government of whatever colour will be the economy and details of local democracy and accountability will just be put on the back burner.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Memorial Garden again

At today's meeting of the Parish Council Recreation Committee we moved several steps nearer to fulfilling our dream for the garden. Tenders had been received for doing the landscaping works and we debated them and chose which one to accept. Bulbs are being planted in the next few days. We've arranged a meeting on site with Stockton Council's Urban Design team to try to iron out any problems before we apply for planning permission. Everyone has a sense of at last being able to achieve what successive councils and local residents have wanted.

Safeguarding Adults

Amongst all the general casework - pavement parking, dangerous driving, etc was an excellent seminar on safeguarding vulnerable adults in our community. We hear a lot about children and how we need to look after them but sometimes forget that we have adults who need a lot of care also. The big difference that makes for difficulties is that adults often have the mental capacity to make a decision to opt out of help. We wrestled with case studies which illustrated the kind of decisions that have to be made by police and social workers on a weekly if not daily basis - is someone who chooses to live in a dirty uncomfortable home really making a proper decision? Is the carer abusing the cared for person or vice versa? Emotional blackmail is also a form of abuse! At the end of the session I think all councillors were heartily relieved that we aren't the people who have to make the decisions but also were happy that the professionals involved in Stockton are doing a good job. They need more resources to deal with an increasing number of referrals but that's for the budget setting meetings!

Monday, November 23, 2009


John, Alan and I had a meeting last week about the BSF issue in Eaglescliffe. Eaglescliffe's problems are inextricably linked to those of Yarm and Ingleby Barwick because so many children from the latter go to the other two schools. This is partly parental choice but mainly because there isn't a school big enough in IB to take everyone.
We had a very good and frank exchange of views with officers and are reassured that they understand the pros and cons of the various suggested sites in Eaglescliffe for a rebuild of the school. We await now the outcome of their comparison of sites and assessment of which one(s) should go forward for further investigation or consultation.

Memorial Garden moves closer

Plans for a memorial garden next to the war memorial in Egglescliffe village have been on and off the Parish Council agenda for about 50 years, but are finally moving close to fruition. Today a group of us went to talk to a Stockton company about producing an interpretive feature to explain some of the history of the memorial and help to appreciate the wonderful view from the area next to it. With good luck and a following wind we should have a much enhanced area before Remembrance Sunday comes round again.
One of the really exciting things about this project is how much of the work is being given to local organisations, helping the local economy and making the area better. Win win win!!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Credit Help

Eaglescliffe, Yarm and the other parts of the Western Area Partnership Board's responsibility are traditionally seen as fairly affluent and not in need of the kind of help and advice which is readily available in some less affluent parts of the borough. The credit crunch and recession have seen that perception change and at long last we've succeeded in getting recognition that there are people in need in this area too.
Last year Stockton Council's cabinet agreed with Western Area councillors that there should be some funding for this neck of the woods and a small amount was allocated to the board to help deal with the problems of helping people to get back into work if they lose their job at a time when the job market is shrinking. The board decided to use the fund to enable the Tees Credit Union to work with the Citizens Advice Bureau to set up collection points in the area, to improve the accessibility of advice and to help with small loans so that people don't get into a spiral of debt by trying to pay off exorbitant doorstep lenders. After some hiccups and delays the new Collection points have been established in Eaglescliffe Village Hall, Yarm Library and at Challoner House for the benefit of people at that end of Yarm. These are very welcome and should have been the subject of a leaflet distributed to every household in the area. However, I haven't received one at my house. If any readers from the Western Area have received it I'd be pleased to hear from you.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Amsterdam again

I couldn't move on to matters nearer home without mentioning a few of the things which particularly struck me as interesting in the city.
Bikes of course - it's a very flat city with the biggest hills being the occasional speed bump, so cycling is a sensible and relatively easy way to get around quickly. Dedicated cycle ways on most roads, dedicated traffic lights at busy junctions, very expensive car parking and congestion problem is almost solved - thousands of people on bikes! And these aren't mountain bikes or flash racing bikes. They're workaday objects, many quite rusty, many with interesting boxes and other contraptions for carrying loads including children and apparently without gears.
Prices - the conversion rate of the pound to the euro is so bad now compared to a few years ago that it makes shopping in the euro zone quite expensive for us. Another good reason to have joined the euro several years ago.
The number of restaurants serving food from the four corners of the globe - for a relatively small city it's very cosmopolitan. Greek, Indonesian, Thai, Italian, Argentinian, French, Chinese, Brazilian and Dutch all in one small area and then more as we moved further afield.
The flower market - bulbs of all kinds on sale at very reasonable prices. Tulips of course were very popular but we could have had anything from tiny snowdrops to huge amaryllis. It was fascinating to see them. And alongside them were the hemp seeds. Now I happen to think that hemp is a very attractive plant and the fibres make lovely soft fabrics, but sadly the leaves also make an illegal substance so I thought I'd better not bring any seeds back with me.
I also wanted to visit the Anne Frank house and so we spent a morning there. Suffice to say that it was as interesting as I'd expected and reinforced the feelings which I'd had when reading the book many years ago.
Something rather different was a visit to a well known spirits company, complete with the opportunity to try smelling the different ingredients for numerous liqueurs and to sample a cocktail at the end. I'd always thought that Genever and Gin were almost the same thing but I learned the differences on this tour. Not that I like either of them, but it's always good to learn. I also discovered that it's possible to enrol in a course to learn how to mix cocktails with the necessary dramatic touches which apparently convert it into an art form. You're never too old to learn!
And of course no visit anywhere is complete without my spotting something to do with Fairtrade. I was surprised and delighted to see the Fairtrade Cookbook translated into Dutch and taking pride of place in a little bookshop window. It has a special place in my heart as one of the recipes originated in the kitchens of the Newtown Resource Centre right here in Stockton,

Holiday Time

Having had a few days off and then several days of catching up it's now time to reflect on the past week. The blog will catch up over the course of a few days I fear.
On Thursday morning we flew (yes I know - Carbon Footprint!) out to Amsterdam from Durham Tees Valley (aka Teesside) Airport. The reasons for flying were complex and not to be gone into here. I know that carbon offsetting isn't the best answer to global climate chaos but in my opinion it's better than doing nothing.
Amsterdam is a city neither of us had visited before other than to fly through the airport or in Denis' case to go to meetings at an office block on the outskirts. This was an opportunity to see something of the city itself. It's not a large city and the main parts of it can be walked round in a day. Visiting some of the interesting buildings and taking time out to stand and stare meant that we could fill 4 days quite nicely.
The journey from the airport to the city was very easy - ticket machines which took cash, easy to read direction signs (thank goodness the Dutch use English as their second language) and regular express trains which per kilometre work out a lot cheaper than the trams which provide the public transport in the city centre.
Amsterdam obviously subscibes to the school of doing things early - the Christmas lights were on, the skating rink in full swing in the Liedseplein and the shops were full of encouragements to buy presents.
I found the number of Irish pubs interesting. Are there a lot of ex-pat Irish people there or are the Dutch exceptionally fond of Guinness? Who knows? I do know that one of them was very conveniently situated to allow a cosy drink enjoying the music from the skating rink before going back to the hotel for the night.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Treat spoiled

Today the staff of my mother's care home had booked a wheelchair accessible bus to take residents to Middlesbrough for lunch and a look around the shops. This is a rare treat because most of them are too frail to go often, it's an expense for which funds have to be found and it's dependent on volunteers from families or staff to push the wheelchairs. Sadly, they were let down by the bus providers. The bus arrived at 1015 instead of 10 and the driver announced that he was picking them up from Middlesbrough at 1.15 instead of 2.30. After much argument with his office the time was extended to 1.55, but as a result of all the time spent on the phone the bus didn't leave until almost 10.40. So a day out for the residents turned into a somewhat stressed rush. It shouldn't have happened and complaints are being followed through so at this stage I won't name and shame.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Alcohol Abuse

Today's meeting of Stockton Renaissance Partnership received a report on the Alcohol Abuse Reduction Strategy for the borough. It's frightening to think that Stockton has the worst problem in the Tees area and that the North East has the worst problem in England. Fortunately the team working on a strategy for improvement seems to hae a pretty good idea of what needs to be done.
Of course they can't do anything about the law which allows sale of alcohol almost on people's doorsteps all hours of day and night. Just this week our local "neighbourhood" store applied for and had to be granted a licence to sell alcohol until midnight. This is the company which claimed before opening the shop that it would be responsible, community minded etc. So 100m from houses they consider it appropriate to sell alcohol from 6 in the morning till midnight, daily. Who is the abuser of alcohol now? The addict buying his or her last bottle of the night or the company which deliberately opens late in order to sell it to them?
I really hope that Stockton's strategy helps to reduce the number of people with an alcohol related problem and to reduce the number of families being damaged by those problems. I really wish that the lawmakers who don't listen to their own chief medical officer's advice and continue to allow cheap alcohol to be sold on any street corner or shopping parade could be made to spend some time with the police, the doctors, the nurses and others who have to pick up the pieces. Then maybe they'd think twice about the laws before they pass them.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Carbon Saving

This afternoon's special meeting of the Environment committee went fairly smoothly. We now have hammered out a set of recommendations which should meet with cabinet approval and should help to drive up the carbon efficiency of the council's operations. The devil of course will be in the detail, in this case the action plans which will be brought forward in order to implement the recommendations.
The one issue which might still lead to some internal argument is the future positioning of the Energy Advice Centre. This little gem is the council's secret weapon - so secret that many residents apparently can't find it - and it needs to move to where it can be seen and easily accessed. If we're serious about helping people to reduce their own carbon footprint we need to have the advice right in front of noses.
Meanwhile the weather has turned colder and winter is approaching rapidly so heating is being used more often and for longer, standing at bus stops is less attractive and the temptation to use more fuel of one sort and another is growing. Get thee behind me Satan!!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Remembrance Sunday

Again this year it fell to me to lay the Borough Council wreath at Preston War Memorial. Its upkeep is shared between Preston and Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe Parishes so there are wreaths laid by both Parish councils as well as the church and members of the Guiding and Scouting movements. A young man played both The Last Post and Reveille beautifully and the whole occasion passed in a suitably reflective mood. I went past again later in the day when the autumn sun had disappeared behind grey clouds and the red of the wreaths was the only splash of colour. A reminder that for a short time at least a crowd of people of all ages had gathered there to remember the fallen.

Seeking Asylum

On Saturday evening we had a wonderful dinner at a fund-raising event in aid of Justice First. The efforts put in by this organisation are Herculean and much appreciated of course by those who seek their help. I don't argue in favour of having no policies on immigration - we need a proper system of encouraging those who have skills and talents to offer at all kinds of levels to come here and share them with us in the same way that some of our citizens go off to other countries to use their skills. But that's a completely different policy area to that of refugees and asylum seekers. Someone whose political or religious beliefs or ethnicity or tribal loyalty or sexual orientation or anything else means that they are persecuted in their home country needs a safe haven. I've written and spoken regularly of the people I've met who've left everything to get to safety. The man who fled Afghanistan because he believed that his very intelligent wife and daughter should be using their skills just as much as he and his son; the last surviving son of a family wiped out in the bombing of Kabul; the business man from Baghdad who'd upset Saddam's cronies once too often; the young Turkish Kurd who'd watched helplessly as his wife was raped and murdered while he lay wounded in the hill above the village; and countless more. These are people who need help and support and who might hope one day to go back to their homeland and help to rebuild it in peace. These are the people who sometimes don't have papers or evidence of how they've been treated when they arrive here. These are the people who are so traumatised by their treatment and their losses that they can't tell their story straight away. These are the people who need our help and who sometimes have to turn to Justice First when all else fails.
The dinner was in the Chinese Community Centre in Middlesbrough, Harmony House, a splendid building in the heart of the town. Supporters of Justice First had worked all day and for weeks before planning and preparing. It was wonderful to see the young people from St Andrews youth club acting as waiters. Some looked as though they'd been doing it all their lives. As well as local supporters who'd bought tickets there were a number of people there who are currently waiting for decisions on their asylum claims and it was lovely to be able to share the meal with them, relax and enjoy an evening and hear some of their stories of what they're doing in Teesside while waiting for a decision. Some of them had offered their skills to the Auction of Promises which closed the evening, reminding us that even in the most adverse circumstances we all have something we can offer to others. No doubt I'll be writing later about the things we bought when we've arranged the details and can enjoy them!

Saturday, November 07, 2009


The last few days have been a cause for remembering different things with grateful thanks to different people. First of all my mother reached the grand age of 92 having flirted with death several times in the last 12 months but now in the words of her grand-daughter seeing the birthday photos "she looks as well as she did 10 years ago". Many thanks to the staff at her care home for the TLC they lavish on her day after day.
Yesterday marked 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember not quite believing my eyes and ears when it happened, waiting for the catch and being a bit stunned when it didn't happen. Then the following summer my daughter was part of a group of Guides at a large camp in (West) Germany. She was told roundly and firmly by her hosts not to refer to it as West Germany any more "We're all one country now". How strange it sounded to us who'd grown up with two halves all our lives to have teenagers telling us that it was all one. How difficult it was to get used to saying it and writing it on envelopes at Christmas. Now of course there's a whole generation who don't know what the fuss is about and that brings problems of its own - how to remember enough to make sure it doesn't happen again while looking forward and building for the future.
That same difficulty arises every November as we approach Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day. How do we ensure that the sacrifices made by people 90 years ago aren't forgotten or, even worse, minimised by the knowledge and understanding we now have of wrong decisions taken by commanders or the fact that politicians didn't learn the lessons. We can look now at the world and see many of the same kind of mistakes being made but it doesn't take away from the heroism on the spot of the people doing their job under incredibly dangerous circumstances. But how do we as politicians ask the awkward policy questions, ensure that the strategies are correct and based on proper evidence and decision making without it sounding as though we're denigrating the work of the armed forces? Nick Clegg tried it yesterday but journalists want instant sound bite answers and despite his efforts they were reducing it to one line at the end.
The arguments around the wearing of poppies seems to be even more dippy this year. Why do some people think that they're being bullied into wearing one? Surely what's important is that in some way each and every one of us makes an effort to ensure that those who've suffered in the armed forces are properly looked after no matter what we think of the politics which sent them into the war in the first place? Whether we do that by donating to the poppy appeal is irrelevant as is whether we wear the poppy having made the donation. Even less relevant is whether we wear the poppy in the "right" way for heaven's sake. If we ever reach the point where there's so little conflict in the world that we've got time to worry about whether the poppy leaf is up, down or sideways I'll be the first to rejoice.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Trees, Roots and Branches

We had a busy ward surgery this evening for a change. Two related problems came to light and probably neither of them has an easy solution. Clifton Avenue and Ashville Ave both owe a great deal of their character to the mature trees which line the roads. However, over the years of their growing they've had a deleterious effect on the pavements and sometimes on the walls of gardens and even garages. As a result some have been cut down and not replaced, upsetting those residents who live in those roads because they like to look out on trees. Meanwhile the unrestrained root activity of others make the pavements very uneven and inaccessible to wheelchair users. We need to have some discussions with the Council's arboricultural experts to see what if anything can be done to enhance the appearance of the roads while improving accessibility.
Riverside Lounge also came up - the length of time the development is taking and the amount of debris littering the area is a frequent cause of complaint and tonight was no exception. Once again it's a case of seeing what can be done within the laws relating to planning and development which all seem to be stacked in favour of developers.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Preston Park Update

This afternoon's meeting of the Preston Hall & Park Management Committee was dominated by positive news for a change. Phases 1 and 2 of the refurbishment of the museum are under way. Taking advantage of the winter months with their lower visitor numbers some of the work on the park is about to start. The main field drainage will be the biggest most obvious work to be undertaken and should be completed around Christmas. Then comes the big challenge of protecting the newly sown grass while it gets established. Harriss fencing is too expensive to erect all round the field for three or four months and would detract from the visual amenity of the park too much, especially now that the Hall is such a popular venue for weddings so a combination of other methods will have to be used including extra surveillance and asking the community to help protect their future enjoyment by not using the field until it's declared to be up to standard.
Over the same few months there will be work done to make a new path to the river bank, less steep than the present one though still a formidable slope for wheelchair users, given the contours of the land.
The Museum will be closed on Mondays for the foreseeable future to allow the staff to move items, clean and do the myriad tasks behind the scenes which are needed in preparation for the major refurbishment work during 2011.
There's a real sense of anticipation and excitement as people begin to see the fruits of years of planning and working to obtain funding for projects and even though there's going to be major disruption at times and we didn't get the funding for the big schemes in the park there will still be a very visible improvement to our local tourist attraction.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Parking Problems

Surprise, surprise - the problems which we predicted with parking at Timothy Hackworth Court have materialised. When the plans for this sheltered housing scheme were submitted those of us with some local knowledge said that there was insufficient parking included. Ah, said McCarthy & Stone, you won't need that much parking because residents will give up their cars when they move in. You'll see - it's happened in all of our other establishments. We had anecdotal evidence that this wasn't the case and that they were having to offer inducements to people to give up their cars but it wasn't acceptable in the planning decision making process. Although the Planning Committee refused permission the Planning Inspector allowed the scheme to go ahead. 42 apartments with less than 20 parking places. Already there are problems. It seems that the grasscrete which was put down to protect the trackbed of the original Stockton to Darlington railway line was not laid properly. As a result it had to be replaced last week, meaning that many residents couldn't park anywhere in the grounds for parts of the day while the work was going on. Now it seems they want to replace it with gravel which can't possibly protect the trackbed in the same way or it would have been used in the first place as the cheaper option. There are only 17 flats occupied at present - heaven help us when all 42 are filled.
Meanwhile the question of parking a couple of hundred yards away at the station hit the Gazette tonight. While SBC officers have been working away quietly trying to get the best possible deal for passengers and for the residents of Station Rd and nearby streets as train services are becoming more popular and the Metro development draws ever nearer our illustrious MP decided to gain a bit of publicity by "calling for better parking". Is there an election coming up shortly I ask?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Season of mists etc?

No mists here for the start of November, just torrential rain. The torrents hitting the windows woke me early and they continued till lunch time. I'm not usually envious of people in sunnier climes but friends jetting off on Friday to Spain certainly had the better deal this morning. At least the water table has been topped up.
It made us very glad our carport had been installed so that we could load up the car without getting too wet but unloading in Yarm for the monthly Fairtrade stall was a wet experience. Although fewer people came in for coffee than often do, it was still a good morning and well worth the discomfort.
Coming home and being able to catch up on personal e-mails was a treat - it brought news that the Fairtrade shop in Middlesbrough is likely to open in a fortnight. It won't be in quite the same spot as in recent years but will still be in Dundas Arcade, opposite Boyes.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Congratulations NEDL

Last night saw the end of a very pleasant few days spent with our daughter, son-in-law and grand-daughters. Despite having to fit in visiting mothers/grandmothers/great-grandmothers in care home and hospital we managed to spend time sight seeing in Whitby, shopping in Newcastle, eating out and lots more. A thoroughly enjoyable time which always makes the council blackberry seem much less interesting or important than usual.
We saw them off on their journey home and went to visit said elderly relatives - no problems, just an hour catching up on what they'd been doing and making sure that all was well. Homeward bound there was the prospect of a quiet second half to the evening, perhaps a glass of something soothing, perhaps a good book or a dvd to watch. How wrong could we be? We were greeted by our neighbour walking along the road checking to see whose lights were still on as theirs had gone off then come on again at much reduced power. No streetlight on the corner - we opened our door to find that we had the same problem. No freezer, no fridge, no oven, no lights (low energy bulbs didn't cope with reduced power). A call to our supplier produced advice to turn off all appliances "just in case" and to wait for the arrival of "someone". In 30 minutes or so he was at the door and soon produced the news that the supply was dangerous and should be turned off completely. Whoopee! Candles aren't that good for reading by and don't really keep you warm. Laptops only work for a short time on their batteries especially if, like mine, it was almost run down anyway. Modem and phone didn't work so no internet anyway. The dark ages descended and my warm bed called, especially as I was starting with a cold.
This morning we had a full crew out before 9, tests done, road digger called out and a temporary supply rigged up for us using another neighbour's connection. By 2pm all was fixed and the only evidence of a problem is the deep hole immediately outside our neighbour's house and the fact that our fridge, which was living on borrowed time, has given up and refused to come back on. It's defrosting itself quite well at the moment and I'm about to look at nice new ones.
So well done NEDL for a prompt service. Now we look forward to the hole being filled up and the pavement reinstated.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

So far this week I've had an update meeting with the Corporate Director of Neighbourhood Services who's now been in post a couple of months and describes himself as being in sponge mode at present - soaking up all the information he can on what's happening in the area. He had some interesting and hopeful updates on such things as the regeneration of our town centres and was keen to hear from me about Fairtrade in the Borough. So nothing unexpected in the first such meeting but also nothing to make me think that we'd made the wrong appointment.
Today was the first meeting of the Fairtrade Borough Partnership since the awards ceremony in London. Early plans discussed for Fairtrade Fortnight - with a main focus on tea it will be very different to the banana events this year.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


The clocks went back last night/this morning and the usual bleating is heard from those, usually resident in the south of these isles, who want us to stick with BST all the year round. Why, I ask myself? Why do we have BST at all these days? How many farmers and labourers need that extra hour in the summer evenings to gather in the harvest or get home from work? Here in the North East of England we have few farmers cutting hay by hand or digging up potatoes with spades. Mechanisation is the name of the game. At this time of year, just when the mornings are getting depressingly dark, we have the joy of rising again to bright daylight for a few more weeks. Whoopee I say! Evenings are when it should be dark and we can sit indoors in the warmth and enoy those activities that seem right for winter evenings.
I am old enough to remember the experiment in the 60s with keeping BST all year. Setting off for college in the dark, watching the sunrise glow still in the sky during first lecture of the day, then going home in the dark at the end of the day - no fun at all. It might work further south where the hours of daylight are a little longer, but not here.
Meanwhile, we're still harvesting the last of the tomatoes - I don't know if that's a sign of climate change or not as I didn't make a note of the last harvest in recent years. It just feels later than usual.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The News, A Fortnight Late

Yesterday's Hartlepool Mail finally printed the story of our Fairtrade Fortnight award. It doesn't matter that it's late of course - the important thing is to keep the Fairtrade message in the public eye.
To that end I've just spent an hour working on our Partnership website as another little item in the campaign armoury. Also it made for a nice break from sorting out what is allowed to go back into our nicely floored out and clean loft. It's still not finished of course but the next couple of charity bags to drop through the letterbox will easily be filled.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bede 6th Form College

Tonight I had an opportunity to tour the new college, just over a month since it opened. It was fascinating to see what has been created - a stunning new building with a great deal of thought given to maintaining what was good about the old one (a feeling of being full of busy students, a sense of a small college where people know each other) while introducing state of the art facilities and exciting interesting teaching spaces. There are lots of features which will help to keep the energy used in the building down to a minimum - solar panels to pre-warm water before it's heated, natural ventilation in all the classrooms, motion sensor light switches in classrooms, automatic shut-down of computers when the building closes for the night, clever use of the thermal properties of the building materials to help maintain a pleasant working temperature and so on.
It was good to hear that they now have concerns that the A level chemistry course might be over-subscribed next year, that physics is still popular along with geography and biology. The newer courses in media related studies, film, photography, music technology and so on certainly have some wonderful equipment and all the staff we met are wonderfully enthusiastic.
Stockton Council's head of regeneration was certainly impressed with the possibilities there and had only one regret - that it isn't right in the town centre, helping to build up the footfall there!
I could only marvel at the contrast between the new building and the old Stephenson Hall which previously occupied the site and in which I started my teaching career all those years ago.

Secret State Setback

Just caught up on the rest of yesterdays news and realised that the much-needed Liberal Democrat amendment to the Coroners Bill was passed in the Lords last night. It shows how important it is to have an independent second chamber, one that looks carefully at the small print of proposed legislation and does something to correct the sneaky things that this Government tries. A clause to give the right to a government minister to stop an inquest (in public) and replace it with an inquiry (in secret) if there is sensitive information involved sounds as though it's straight from Orwell or worse. But no, this is a serious attempt by a political party in this country to hide the facts if they might damage the reputation of a public body like the police or nhs.
The government's response? "We'll take it back to the Commons" where of course the backbenchers elected as lobby fodder by our First Past the Post unfair voting system will push it through. Another nail in the coffin of transparent public service.
My father was so proud of the Labour party when I was growing up. It was the party of working people, standing up for them against the Tory Tyrants. I'm glad he's not here to see it now, rushing to outdo the Tories in how reactionary it can be.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Carbon Reduction on track in Stockton

At full council tonight the Tory Cabinet member had put a motion on the agenda supporting the 10:10 campaign. Sadly, she'd forgotten to arrange for someone to second it. We'd already decided that I was speaking on the motion and that we of course would support it. After all, all the Lib Dem group are already signed up to the campaign along with other members of the party all over the country. That gave me the chance to second the motion and to thank her for saving me the effort of writing it!
We knew that the result of the Parliamentary debate on the same subject was due at about 7.15 so Denis was primed to watch the BBC Parliament channel and send us the result as soon as he saw it. In plenty of time before my speech the disgraceful result came through - a Labour majority of 70 saw off a motion in support of something their very own Milliband had supported at its launch. Fine words not worth the paper they were written on when it came to the crunch.
I did get a certain amount of pleasure in announcing the result during our council debate and seeing those Labour councillors who know something about climate change (not many of them it seems) look suitably embarrassed.
Stockton's motion was carried and so the council is now committed to signing up as individuals and to encouraging businesses and our communities to do the same.
First steps are being taken and more will happen as the year progresses. Stockton Lib Dems are having a competition to see who can cut their emissions the most during the year - watch this space!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Democracy in practice

At tonight's ward surgery we had 3 young people, accompanied by a youth worker, who came to find out just what goes on. I'd warned them that sometimes we don't have anyone come to the surgery and then we use it as a time to catch up on information we need to share and decisions we need to take. Tonight started like that, and the young people sat with us while we debated how to move on after our consultation on possible parking bays on Cedar Crescent. We concluded that we need some further information from Stockton Council's enginneers. The young people decided that we had done the right thing in consulting and then taking action on what we'd heard.
One resident who did venture in through the rain tonight was more than happy to have the young people sit in on her discussion with us. The state of the surface on a footpath near her house was the main concern. John was able to explain something of how the repairs and resurfacing of footways and highways is prioritised and we promised that we'd find out where in the hierarchy that particular footway sits at the moment. Sadly, many of the tarmac footways in Eaglescliffe were constructed at around the same time and are now all showing their age but the budget won't allow resurfacing of them all at once so the area is going to look a bit tired and shabby.
There won't be any increase in our budget from central government while the Brown-Darling gang are borrowing record high amounts. How can any country claim to be an advanced economy when it's running on borrowed funds? How can it be reasonable to borrow nearly 60% of our Gross Domestic Product? And now it's not them who'll suffer the consequence but every child growing up in Britain today who won't have quite as good an environment as they could have had if the people in charge hadn't let them down.

Monday, October 19, 2009

General Election Count

After consultation with councillors and likely candidates the decision has been taken to count the votes immediately after the polls close on whichever Thursday is chosen by Gordon Brown. There had been a suggestion to count on Friday morning with some good arguments on both sides.
The huge number of postal votes now used and the fact that people can still take their postal vote to the ballot box at a polling station means that the final verification of the postal votes can't happen until after the polls close. The verification requires special equipment and it all has to be set up somewhere. There are fewer people now willing to be trained to work at the count and at all the jobs which need doing during polling day, so some people have to both work at a polling station and then at the count. That doesn't make for accurate counting which will be important if the result is a close one. Logic then seems to favour Friday, especially if lots of other places are doing it on the Friday.
BUT there's a magic about the count on the night after a hard day trying to get every single supporter out to vote. I remember waiting with bated breath outside Stockton Town Hall for the announcement of the result in the sixties and the disappointment that my favourite hadn't won, even before I could vote. Even now, when the count is so much bigger and takes so much longer there's something about going home after the campaign, freshening up and heading off to see the result unfold before our eyes.
So, I'm sympathetic to the people who have the difficult job of finding the staff to operate what could easily be a 20 hour day, especially if Stockton South ends up being a close call. I hope that they can find enough volunteers to make it a good experience for all. And I hope that those with postal votes have pity on the workforce and post them in plenty of time!
But I look forward to seeing the results unfold. I just hope the phone doesn't ring at 8 on the morning just after I've gone to sleep!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

As always on the Sunday morning after Yarm Fair I was impressed by the speed with which the rides are packed up to travel off to the next venue. Huge amounts of steel and other materials are packed into small spaces and trundle off. I'd hate to pay the fuel bill for some of those juggernauts! Already Care For Your Area staff were cleaning up behind them and Yarm High Street was beginning to return to normal. It's disruptive but it's a long standing tradition and I for one don't want it to die out. I know that many residents feel the same though some understandably would like it to move elsewhere.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Be a Councillor, part 2

The second session of "Be a Councillor" was this morning at the Town Hall. Amazingly, one person had not previously realised that the building is the Town Hall! It's common to have people who've never been inside the building because it never used to be opened to the public except for special occasions. But to meet someone who's lived in the borough for many years and didn't know what the building is - that shows how far we have to go in opening up the council, its buildings and its procedures to the residents of the borough.
Apart from that the morning went much as expected with a handful of people genuinely interested in what was being said, though some admitted they just wanted to know more about the council and how it works but not to be a councillor.
Going in to Stockton on the bus proved to be an unrealised hope. I'd thought that at 9 in the morning Yarm Fair wouldn't have a significant effect but something did. After waiting 15 minutes for a service that runs every 10 minutes I began to think I was going to have to go home and get the car when a neighbour pulled up and offered a lift. So I arrived at the town hall bang on 9.30, carbon footprint strategy intact.
Nice fresh veg bought from the market and home on the bus for lunch.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Catching up

Yet again I had cause to be glad to be part of such a supportive group this week. I don't know what the lurgi was that struck me down but spending 2 days in bed while others stepped into the breach at an hour's notice makes me really appreciate the team.
This morning I was fit to go to Newcastle to the regional Fairtrade forum which was inspiring, despite arriving a little late. You'd think I'd remember about temporary traffic lights in my own ward wouldn't you!
Fledgling plans for next Fairtrade Fortnight were soon in place and we all left with a number of ideas to share with our own steering groups and partnerships and discuss further before the next regional forum in November. Well worth the trip to Newcastle, though I confess that I couldn't face the early start needed to do the journey by train.
Sadly, the uplift was punctured slightly by a series of emails about the review of carbon management which I thought was completed. It seems that some people don't like our recommendations and there could be some argument next week.
However, that was countered to some extent by the news that Dave Hodgson was elected mayor of Bedford. What were the Tories doing? Surely they should have won that one?
A meal for hubby's birthday at our favourite restaurant completely restored the good feelings of the morning - and no emissions to get there as we walked.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Be A Councillor

Stockton Council's efforts for Democracy week have centred on encouraging people to think about being a councillor. Word was sent out through various networks and the press and last night about 8 adults turned up to hear what is involved and to talk to political groups about what they do. Two teenagers came along also, interested in shadowing councillors to see more of their work.
Almost 3 hours was a long time, especially as the previous 2 hours had been in a hot stuffy room listening to a presentation on what residents think of the borough, but it was worthwhile because the people who turned up were genuinely interested.
There's a repeat on Saturday morning so if anyone thinks they'd like to attend do get in touch for the details. No commitment is being sought at this stage - it's all about finding out for yourself and getting your questions answered so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not to give it a try.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Grand Central not quite so grand

Sad to say, although it's wonderful that we have a train stopping at Eaglescliffe and going straight to London, it didn't quite live up to its claims on Saturday evening. The seat reservations had been duplicated so many people were in the position of finding that someone else also thought the seat was reserved for them. Fortunately the train wasn't full and so everyone got a seat but it wasn't very pleasant at the start of the journey.
The advertised Free Wifi didn't exist and there was nothing on the train to explain why. Having a lot to catch up on after being in Brussels and then leaving early for London that was a real inconvenience. Also no power point for the laptop despite having that advertised on the website. I was lucky to get a table as not every seat had one, let alone a Board game embedded in the surface. An email of complaint produced an apology and a statement that the Wifi etc should be fitted in a month. All I can say is it's a good job I've got more to do than pursue Trades Descriptions and other such matters.

Fairtrade Supporters Conference

It would take more space than there is here to describe all that happened yesterday, but I'll do my best to pick out the highlights.
On a very personal note, before even arriving at the conference, there was one of the best breakfasts I've had in a long time with lots of fresh fruit and decent coffee served by cheerful staff.
Arrival at the conference itself meant being greeted by friendly welcoming members of the Fairtrade Foundation team and being shown exactly where everything was and what to do.
The first session was a plenary discussion chaired by George Alagiah of the BBC, former patron of the foundation, between Douglas Alexander MP, Secretary of State for International development and Harriet Lamb, Executive Director, Fairtrade Foundation.
The theme of the day was Fairtrade in relation to sustainability and climate change.
George Alagiah pointed out in his introduction that aid is a relatively modern invention but trade is as old as mankind, obvious but often forgotten.
Douglas Alexander described being brought up in a family committed to Fairtrade, drinking Campaign coffee because it was the right thing, not because it tasted good, and now as a government minister being completely committed to promoting Fairtrade as part of the solution to dangerous climate change. He announced the government grant of £12m to the foundation as a sign of the commitment the DfID has to Fairtrade as part of the solution to poverty. His personal commitment was obvious and it was pleasing to see someone so obviously in the right job in government. I have never applauded a Government minister so enthusiastically.
Harriet Lamb talked of the time it takes to develop a product/group to Fairtrade certification. E.g. Zaytoun Olive oil took over 5 years. This kind of commitment needs a lot of investment. Much of the investment comes from the fees paid by producers for certification so the Fairtrade movement is self sustaining but larger investment needs large donors. She welcomed the announcement by the government of £12m grant to the Fairtrade Foundation which will allow much more of the development work to be done working with the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation.

In the course of the discussion examples of rules made in the developed world which make trade difficult and unfair for developing countries were given. The one that hit me hardest and which I wished I’d known about a few days earlier when at the European Parliament was that all bananas entering the EU have to be washed! Why??? Health and Safety apparently! As a result water that should be used for drinking is being used to wash the bananas.

After that came the presentation of awards. Groups from all over the country were recognised for their achievements in Fairtrade Fortnight. Interestingly, both the winner and the runner up in the Most Imaginative campaign category were in the North of England - Scarborough and Tees Valley. Our trip round the Tees Valley with a giant inflated banana had really impressed the judges. Shared Interest had contributed money to give cash prizes this year so we have a base on which to build next year's campaign.
The photo was taken by Moe Kafer.
Workshops on different subjects followed and I was pleased to find out that a group of producers in the DRC are working towards achieving Fairtrade certification for their coffee despite the dangerours political situation in that country.
During the afternoon plenary session I was made aware of something I didn't know was happening in this country (where have I been for the last few weeks?). ASDA has initiated a banana price war, cutting their price 6 times in 6 weeks. At 39p a kilo for loose bananas there's no way it's sustainable and someone is suffering. In the short term it's not the consumer who's saving money nor the shareholder who's getting profits from the increased footfall in the stores. The first people who suffer are the producers who are paid less and less. Thank God for Fairtrade which guarantees a fair price to the grower. But as Renwick Rose of the Windward Islands Farmers pointed out, even Fairtrade growers will suffer because the supermarkets that aren't committed to Fairtrade will just stop buying their produce. He had a revolutionary solution which won't be adopted - pay some of the increased profits back to the farmers who grow the bananas!
There was much more debate about sustainability and climate change but I'll close with the comment from Sophi Tranchell of Divine Chocolate: "It’s down to you. Everything you do and buy makes the world the way it is.” Do we want a world run entirely for the benefit of the few, destroying the lives of the many or will we make the necessary changes?
A Thank you presentation to George Alagiah for his support during 7 years as patron rounded off the plenary session, before we went off to taste wine and chocolate and ask all the burning questions that hadn't been answered in the day. A completely spontaneous standing ovation for George expressed everyone's heartfelt gratitude for all he's done. Tammy Stewart-Jones of Thanet Fairtrade group made the presentation on behalf of all campaigners, old and new.