Saturday, January 31, 2009

Beside the Sea with Friends

A day away from the ward today, discussing plans for forthcoming elections with other party members. We chose to go right away from our homes, from our phones and our computers and do our thinking by the seaside in Redcar. During the morning session the view of the sea was beautiful and very calming. By the afternoon the wind was getting up, the sky was greyer and the sea was definitely rougher, but still beautiful.
It was good to spend the time together thinking about the future. Knowing that others share the same Liberal Democrat values and want to spread them is always inspiring.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I laughed till I cried

There haven't been many funny moments in the last 4 weeks but thanks to my daughter on the other side of the world this produced one. Only read it if you have tissues at hand (or no sense of humour).
On a more serious note the possible improvements to the footpath between Yarm rd and West View Terrace moved slightly nearer today.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Today I'd a real hotchpotch of meetings. The first was about scrutiny reviews and how they're progressing as well as the future work programme. There seems to be a consensus in the council that the next 12 months is a time for examining all of our services and seeing where we can make savings so that we don't need to have big cuts in essential services or big job losses. It won't be easy to make those decisions but they'll have to be made unless there's a huge economic turn round. The reduction in interest on money invested until needed runs into millions and that would have paid for some of our services.
At lunch time the Fairtrade Partnership met though there had been some confusion over the date of the meeting so a few people didn't make it. We were lucky to have Cllr John Fletcher, mayor of Stockton there. He wasn't there in his official capacity but it did make it easier to discuss our plans for Fairtrade Fortnight with him there instead of others having to guess what he might think. I could pass round the proofs of the directory and they were very well received. I'm looking forward to the launch on February 28th.
The third meeting of the day was about progress on the recommendations from the scrutiny reviews of cemeteries and memorials. A great deal has been done and the new leaflets available from Bereavement Services are very attractive and easy to understand. Apparently some of them are flying off the shelf faster than the staff can replace them. Particularly popular are ones on arranging your own funeral and on alternative coffins. It's good that people are starting to think ahead and plan for their death. It does make it so much easier for those left behind. Some of the work out in the cemeteries is behind schedule, partly because of the weather and partly because we didn't realise just how long it would take to do some of the things. However, we hope to get back on track over the summer. The feasibility study on whether Stockton should have its own crematorium is ready to come to the Environment committee and I was pleased to see in the report that the quality of the experience for the mourners was discussed, including longer time slots than are currently available at Middlesbrough being suggested as desirable now. There's still a lot of work to be done before any decisions are taken but at least something has started moving.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The quarterly meeting of the Health and Wellbeing partnership today spent some time trying to work out how a new strategy could avoid repeating what is already in other strategies! If we didn't spend so long writing strategies maybe we'd have more time to implement them, or is that wishful thinking?
A serious question to which we found no easy answer is how to change the habits of the increasing number of obese people in the borough in order to improve their health. It seemed to us unlikely that government initiatives such as free swimming sessions would help much because those who want to swim will use them and those who don't but perhaps need the exercise most won't. Lots of education in all sorts of guises seems to be the answer as long as it's properly targetted but it's expensive and time consuming to deliver such help and not always possible to get it to the right people. It was interesting to hear just how much is being done though.

This evening the Western Area Partnership had a very interesting presentation on the work being done around the River Tees corridor to ensure an accessible enjoyable green corridor through the borough. Fingers were crossed all round the table for the success of the lottery bid to get some funding to start the ball rolling at Preston Park.
Then we had another very interesting discussion as part of the scrutiny review of Neighbourhood Policing, Neighbourhood watch and CCTV. The question of whether people know who their Neighbourhood PC and PCSO was received with some bewilderment. It was obvious that the message hasn't penetrated the community far beyond councillors and some well established groups. It was also clear that the plethora of numbers given out to contact the police is a deterrent in some instances. It'll be interesting to see the report when it is completed.

Deep Cleaning?

Visiting our local hospital the other day I saw a yellow sign on the main thoroughfare through to the wards "Warning. Deep Cleaning in Process". I could see no sign of any cleaning happening, deep or otherwise but I could see loads of people walking too and fro en route to and from the wards, restaurant, X-ray etc. It set me to wondering just what it meant and whether it does any good. I found that the Lancet had an article when the idea was first brought in which says:
"Brown also plans to double the number of hospital matrons, to check on ward cleaning and accost doctors wearing long sleeves. They would be better employed making sure doctors, nurses and visitors wash their hands properly, the proven way to stop hospital-acquired infections."
Strangely enough, my own non-scientific research supports this. Walking into the ward over the last 3 weeks and making sure that I wash my hands properly I've been passed on numerous occasions by medical staff ignoring this simple procedure. I've seen doctors go from one bed to another without washing hands. And unsurprisingly, I've seen someone go in with one infection and end up with a totally different and unrelated one.
I also had a nurse tell me that they're so busy covering their backs now they haven't time to do the things that really matter. That's what happens when politicians interfere in medicine, setting targets, telling people what they have to do today, instead of making sure that the basics are in place and being checked on regularly. No-one wants to go back to the stiff starched uniforms and hands red raw from scrubbing with carbolic soap but there's a half way house which is healthier than what we've got at present.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Great excitement and relief for me today when I checked and "signed off" the proofs for our Fairtrade Directory. I know that some Fairtrade towns have had them before but this is our first and it's exciting! I just hope that it encourages lots of people to buy and use the products as well as more shops, cafes etc to get involved. It'll be launched in Fairtrade fortnight (Feb 22nd - March 7th) so watch out.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Town and Gown

On Friday evening I was at the annual Town and Gown dinner. This is a small scale dinner, an opportunity for political group leaders on Stockton Council, senior council officers and senior membes of Queen's Campus of Durham University to meet in a relaxed atmosphere and discuss issues of mutual interest. The event began 3 years ago when Cllr Suzanne Fletcher was mayor and has already led to better and closer working together. This year it was again the turn of the mayor and council to host it and the Town Hall was the venue. I must admit that the long conference tables of the committee rooms are more suited to a dinner than to a committee meeting! The table was beautifully laid out and the food was excellent, provided by the civic catering section, Tees Cuisine. There was much useful sharing of ideas about student accommodation, events we might share together, ways of working more closely in the future and the benefits which might come to the town if the university's proposals for a new style of medical teaching facility come to fruition.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Another sad decision

A couple of planning committee meetings ago we heard an application to demolish The Rookery on the basis that the foundations were substandard. The planning committee asked why underpinning or some other means of strengthening the foundations wasn't being considered and asked for evidence that it wasn't possible to save the building before making a decision. I thought it was quite obvious that if the proof were to be provided the committee had no option but to grant permission whereas if the building is capable of being saved there's no need for demolition. Rather than provide the proof the applicant appealed against the fact that the council hadn't made a decision. As a result, today's committee meeting had to determine what it would have decided on the evidence available. Not that it makes any difference to the decision except that the inspector might take it into account when making his decision. I couldn't be there because I needed to be at the hospital with my mother. My colleague, Cllr Julia Cherrett, substituted for me and after much debate the decision was made in favour of allowing demolition by the casting vote of the chairman.
So another landmark is likely to bite the dust unless the appeal inspector makes a very exceptional decision. Sadly, I fear that the new build won't take place but that demolition will be followed by another application for something cheaper to build and therefore probably not in character with the area. However, maybe I'm being too much of a pessimist.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Honours for Fairtrade Campaigners

Congratulations to Bruce Crowther and Sophi Tranchell, both awarded MBEs in the New Year Honour.
Sophi is Managing Director of Divine Chocolate, the Fairtrade chocolate company while Bruce pioneered the idea of the Fairtrade Town and still supports people up and down the country trying to bring Fairtrade to the forefront of the public consciousness. Well done and well deserved congratulations to both.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Bouquets and Brickbats

This morning's newspaper reported that the Chairman of VisitBritain has castigated Britain's hotels for the poor standard of service they provide. Grumpy staff and dirty rooms were just two of the things mentioned. His point was that this poor service is putting jobs at risk, not only in the hotels themselves but in tourist attractions which need people to visit them. In typical british fashion the newspaper then went on to invite its readers to send in their own stories of hotels from hell. I couldn't help wondering if it wouldn't be more constructive and interesting to collect the stories of hotels from heaven? I was reminded of the lovely little B&B in the Lake District where a stroll in the garden to watch the birds feeding was a wonderful start to the day, where breakfast was plentiful and well cooked, where the bathroom even contained spare toothbrushes and shaving kit, and the comfy chairs in the room were ideally positioned to watch the sunset through the bay window. Not a grump in sight and certainly not a grubby towel!
So how about it? Instead of complaining about the bad examples let's praise the good ones to the hilt. I'm sure I'd feel better surrounded by people talking about how good something is.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

I started the day with a very useful meeting on our plans for a Go Bananas event for Fairtrade Fortnight. It looks as though we'll get good support from Stockton Council's events team this year along with the town centre management team. It's so refreshing to work with people who are used to listing all the people who need to be involved in something and thinking about how to get the press interest that we need. I hope it all comes to pass! Now I have a list of people to speak to or email and get their agreement to doing things and the promise of another meeting in a couple of weeks.

There was just time for a quick visit to Municipal Buildings to check on e-mails and print off papers for a meeting on Friday before returning home to do some work there. I walked into the house to the sound of the phone ringing - a local radio station wanting an interview on the report published by Lib Dem MP Julia Goldsworthy on the number of people being taken to court for non-payment of Council Tax bills. As she says, it's really important that councils distinguish between those who can't pay and those who won't pay. It's also important for those who are paying, even when it means going without something else, that everyone who possibly can pay does. Otherwise the bills have to go up for the rest and it becomes a vicious circle. Either that or service levels go down, and not many people would be happy with that solution.

Stockton Council does have a policy of pursuing non payment and if necessary taking people to court. Although no-one would claim that it's a perfect system it's certainly not a bad or nasty system.

Of course, if only the local taxation could be based on income rather than one asset (a dwelling) it would be much fairer. But only the Liberal Democrats promote fair taxation so we won't get it for a few years yet.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Just a thought

I came across this thought for the day while looking for something else entirely, such is the serendipity of the world wide web:
" The average woman would rather be beautiful than smart because the average man can see better than he can think. "
I couldn't possibly comment!

I'd like to hope that the men and women at the forefront of politics in the Middle East are not average by that definition and are thinking very hard and very creatively about how to establish peaceful co-existence for all the inhabitants of that troubled region. It's fairly easy for me to look at history and say "If only they hadn't done that" or "If they'd done that then this wouldn't have happened" but given the situation today I have no idea how to get out of it. The leaders involved need to have the courage and the faith to take steps which no-one else can force upon them. All we can do is pray, hope and support those who are managing to get humanitarian aid to those in need.

Monday, January 05, 2009

What a start!

The first call of the new year from a constituent came this afternoon. Obviously some local dog owners didn't make it their New Year Resolution to clean up after their dogs. This resident told me that he's put up his own notices near the pile of dog dirt on the path between Hazel Slade and Brae Head, but still the piles appear and grow. Do these people ever stop to think about the school children using this "safe" traffic-free route home from the primary school? Or the older students travelling in the other direction from the Comp? Why should they have to look down at where their feet are going - time enough for that when they're old and need to be wary of trip hazards.
So please, dog walkers, pick up after your animal. And if you see a pile of dog dirt, please report it to Care for Your Area (391959) and let's keep Eaglescliffe clean in 2009. Meanwhile, I've asked for some extra patrols by the enforcement officers in the area. Dog dirt isn't only unsightly and a health hazard, though that's bad enough, it's also an offence punishable by a fine.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

It's not rocket science!

Once more I've had the opportunity to observe the NHS in action in recent days. Sitting for hours in a hospital while someone you love is waiting for treatment gives an unrivalled opportunity, though not one that I'd wish on even my worst enemy.
I've got 3 New Year Resolutions that would improve the NHS no end, and not cost a penny:
1. Train managers to manage people and work properly rather than to tick the target boxes
2. Give all ward staff a little notebook and pencil so that they can write down requests from patients as they're made. At each shift change they could then pass on those which hadn't yet been answered. That might avoid an hour's wait for a commode, a drip which isn't checked for hours, and maybe even avoid a five hour wait to see a doctor on admission. Who knows, patients might get treatment in a timely manner and even feel better quicker.
3. Be honest when answering the phone. Don't say breezily "She's fine" of someone who 6 hours earlier had breathing difficulty, acute abdominal pain and serious dehydration. It doesn't help!

It's hardly rocket science - honest, well managed and caring health care is what we pay our taxes for.