Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pipes, Crack and more

This afternoon I went to ARC for an event organised jointly by Stockton Council's Drug Action Team (DAT) and Arts Development Team. Users of the DAT services had been working over a period of weeks with professional artists and members of the Arts Development service on creative writing and visual arts, using them to explore and come to terms with their feelings as they tried to move away from their ruinous lifestyle.
The writing was particularly moving and enlightening. I've heard it said and recognised the blindingly obvious truth that substance misuse is initially pleasurable. That's why people get hooked on it. If the first experience was unadulterated misery who would go back for a second go? The poems and prose on display today told the same story - Crack, Heroin and all the paraphernalia are simultaneously a best friend and a worst enemy. The fear of being attacked, the degradation of living in that way, the physical pain of needing the next fix, the emotional pain of knowing that the family and all around are suffering - these are all weighed in the balance against the blessed relief given by the drug.
One line of one poem struck me for its sheer practicality and as an indictment of the failure of "the system" to protect those trying to get out of trouble: entitled "survival guide" it started off"Change your doctor because people will try to sell you shit as you go in and out".
At present, all of the people taking part in the project are fighting to tip the balance of their lives towards normal. I wish them success. I hope that the DAT can find more ways of helping more people to make that step. I wish that more councillors had taken the time to go and see what was happening and to let the participants know that we support what they're doing.
The results of the project are going to be put into a magazine and circulated. I hope it changes the perceptions of those who read it and I congratulate those who were brave enough to take part in the project.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Feeling Cross!

One or two people in Eaglescliffe have, quite understandably, raised questions over recent months about the expenses and allowances paid to councillors. The questions are usually deceptively simple and the answers are anything but simple. Councillors come in all shapes and sizes from all sorts of backgrounds and with a wide range of personal wealth or lack of it. The system that's in place tries to cover for all the possible eventualities, giving an allowance which recognises that people give up a lot of hours to do the job and that if we're going to have councillors who represent the wide range of people in the Borough not all of them will be able to afford to do the job without some financial recompense. In order to be open and fair about the allowances the information is published annually by the council for all to see - what each councillor has had as an allowance and what expenses have been claimed for things not covered by the allowance. These range from travel to council meetings to attending conferences and trainings some distance away.
Contrast that with Westminster, where it seems that expenses were until very recently considered on a par with the exact location of our nuclear deterrent - something never to be revealed to mere mortals. Now that expenses are routinely being publicised by zealous campigners we find that an allowance originally designed to ensure that MPs for constituencies away from London could do their job properly by having a pied a terre in the capital is being abused to provide a second income for some Parliamentarians. But it's all within the rules they say! Well my view is that the rules need to be changed. Perhaps the government ought to build a hostel and house them all next to the Palace of Westminster. Being serious for a moment, I'm amazed that the broadband connection for the Home Secretary's family home should be claimed on expenses when the same government moves more and more information onto the internet and expects ordinary citizens to pay for their own broadband in order to access it! In this day and age it's quite common to run 2 or more computers from the same router at no extra charge. Are they trying to say that the family living in the house wouldn't have broadband if she weren't the Home Secretary?
This afternoon I chaired the monthly meeting of the Western Area Partnership Board. Under the heading "Area Partnership improvement plan" we discovered that the Central Area Partnership has been chosen to pilot a Youth Area Partnership. Very nice for Central Area young people, but the Western Area has been asking for this for years. We were the first of the area partnerships to appoint young people to the board with full voting rights. We were then copied by the other area boards. We've held meetings jointly with groups of young people, we've changed our meeting time and day to enable a youth club to host the meeting. And then we find that the thing we've been asking for is to be done elsewhere, but don't worry we were told "you'll be kept informed of what we learn from the pilot and if it's a success we'll hope to roll it out to other areas". Now excuse us, but the Western Area is a very different partnership to the Central Area, so who says that what works for one will work for the other? Members of the Board made it very plain tonight that we weren't happy at being treated like this and we want to give young people in our area a voice. Whether anything will change as a result we wait to see.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

I went to visit the new Go Outdoors store in Stockton this afternoon. I missed the official opening by the Mayor, and also the belly dancing exhibition. But I did see lots of lovely outdoor clothes and equipment making me want to go home and put on boots and Go. However, it was cold and windy and getting late so maybe another day! I was very pleased to see it so busy, which bodes wll for its profitability and therefore for the longevity of the jobs created. I was also pleased to see that the coffee machine in the corner stocks Fairtrade coffee, tea and hot chocolate. Now we just need the snack machine to stock some Fairtrade snacks and the cold drinks machine to stock FT cola and juice and they'll be perfect.
This evening we observed Earth Hour by turning off the lights and having just one candle burning. I was reflecting on whether it was a worthwhile action or just a meaningless gesture (both descriptions put forward by opposite sides on the climate change debate). I thought about the savings in electricity in those cities taking part - huge public buildings not being floodlit for an hour, MacDonalds' golden arches being dimmed, hundreds of thousands of people turning off the lights for an hour - and I decided that it was worthwhile on 3 fronts. It makes individuals like me think for a few minutes about the impact of my power consumption on the world. It makes a statement to those not yet thinking about it and perhaps encourages some of them to start thinking. Finally, but not least important perhaps, is that it actually saves power and slows the use of resources. That's got to be worthwhile surely.
I noticed on the list of participants that Hartlepool, Durham County, Gateshead and Newcastle councils all signed up to participate. Next year Stockton???

Friday, March 27, 2009

Vote Earth! Switch Off Your Lights For Earth Hour

Is it really a year since Earth Hour 2008? I don't feel as though much has changed in the intervening 8760 hours (or 8729 as I write) to improve things. Governments say the right words and do the wrong deeds. Most of us need constant reminders but then we resent being "preached at". So here's a fun way to do a bit of good - tomorrow night at 8.30pm, wherever you are in the world, have dinner in the dark. OK, light a candle or two so that you can see what you're eating.
Switch off the TV. Turn off the computer. No radio (unless you've got a wind up one). One hour of electricity saved across millions of buildings - could make the difference between life and death for someone somewhere. Maybe there'll be one less flood in Bangladesh than otherwise, or maybe one less hurricane somewhere, or???
Go on - you know you can do it.

Thanks and Congratulations

One of the last engagements of the mayoral year for the present mayor of Stockton was to present certificates to a number of organisations in the borough which have supported Fairtrade over the past year or more. The list included churches, cafes and Queen's Campus of Durham University as well as one of the small shops recently converted to a Co-op store. It was heartening to hear from their representative that they now have as regular customers many of the older residents of their neighbourhood so they're providing a much improved community facility as well as increasing the turnover of the shop and selling a wide range of Fairtrade goods. Win, win, win!
The certificates were presented in the Council Chamber and the mayor gave a very brief outline of its history, which seemed to interest everyone there.
The organisations represented were:
Elm Tree Community Centre
St Peter's Church, Stockton
All Saints Church, Preston
The Oakwood Centre, Eaglescliffe
Stockton Parish Church,
Norton Methodist Church,
St Joseph's RC Church, Norton
St John the Baptist Church, Egglescliffe,
Yarm Methodist Church,
St Mary Magdalene Church, Yarm
Fairfield Garage Co-op shop
Stockton United Reformed Church
Queens Campus, Durham University
Angie's Kitchen at The Five Lamps Centre, Thornaby
Friends of Ropner Park for the cafe in the park

The work done by these people month after month might seem quite small in the global scheme of things but it contributes to a huge movement, helping 7.5m people across the world to work their way out of poverty. From avocado growers to wine producers they are all better off because people buy Fairtrade products.
By way of an indication of how the Fairtrade mark is becoming better known I told people about the evening before when one of the staff in my local Co-op asked me where I got my Fairtrade badge from. The more usual question is "what's that badge for?".
Stockton-on-Tees Teaching Primary Care Trust couldn't send a representative so arrangements will be made to present their certificate soon.
Any readers in Stockton borough who know of places which sell or serve Fairtrade goods please do let me know. We want to celebrate their commitment.

Then it was time to go home, have a quick meal and hurry out to meet with Lib Dem colleagues from the borough and the region to discuss plans for the European Parliamentary election on June 4th. Fiona Hall MEP is seeking re-election and she's done such good work in the Parliament for the North East that we're all keen to ensure success. She's encouraged investment in renewable energy and green technologies in the North East, she's campaigned to cut waste from the EU budget, and worked on cutting red tape as well as on such practical matters as forcing mobile phone companies to stop charging us an arm and a leg for using our phones in another country. A campaigner we don't want to lose!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The day started with a meeting to discuss Member Development - or how to train a councillor. Unlike well behaved dogs we don't always learn the lessons which are taught and there are constant efforts on the part of well meaning officers to encourage us down the "right" path. I did take the opportunity today to congratulate one department (Planning) on producing some very good training and suggested that others should consider taking a leaf out of their book. Unfortunately I and others also had to point out that the quality of some training is so poor that people not only don't learn but are put off training for some time.
The second item on the agenda was the snappily titled "New Executive Arrangements". The Westminster government has a real bee in its bonnet about local government and the need for "strong leadership". As a result we are being forced to consider only two choices for a change to happen in 2011. Either we have an elected mayor who then chooses a cabinet to work with him/her or we choose a leader of the council as we do now but s/he has a 4 year term instead of the present 1 year term. Change for change's sake I fear. We had a lengthy discussion about how to go about choosing and eventually decided that it would become a council vote on whether to go for a referendum or to make a choice as a council. Watch this space!
This evening's council meeting, all about the council plan and service improvement plans, provided a moment of light relief when a fellow councillor noticed in the papers that we would have an improvement strategy for "hard to reach" employees. When she asked me if I knew what they were I replied "The ones at the top of the ladder". Schoolgirl humour which gave us a moment of light relief from strategies and statistics. I hasten to add that we also asked some important questions and were given some important assurances about some services such as those for our most vulnerable residents.
And all that was achieved without being able to send a single e-mail by blackberry because of a fault with the server - technology isn't quite indispensable though we'd have got some things done a lot quicker with it working.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I started the day with an argument (or robust discussion depending on your point of view) about how a scrutiny committee can best spend its time. More specifically, how the Environment Select committee of Stockton Council should spend the next few months in an effort to do our bit for improved efficiency. The outcome of the discussion is yet to be decided but has been escalated to a higher level.
By contrast the library service was wonderfully organised and helpful about distributing our Fairtrade Borough directories around the borough. Which was good because I then went to the Fairtrade Borough Partnership meeting and could report that happy fact, along with reporting the successes of Fairtrade Fortnight. It was interesting to have two new people present and to have the good news that the catering in ARC is being taken over by a company which is committed to using Fairtrade and locally sourced products as far as possible in their menus. Yippee - it's only taken 5 years but at last we'll have a Fairtrade caterer in the centre of town with a good public profile.
Tonight I attended a meeting of a very different kind - planning the celebrations for the 150th birthday of the Catholic church in Yarm. Although it's over the river and in a different diocese to Eaglescliffe many people from this side of the river go down to Yarm rather than through to Stockton.The celebrations will be varied and I'm sure very enjoyable. We also discussed plans for a possible new church hall - exciting stuff but lots of detail to be worked out before it gets even to the planning stage let alone the building going up.

Monday, March 23, 2009

I spent the afternoon at Teesside High Prep school as part of their International week. Discussing Fairtrade with young people aged 9 to 11 I was struck again, as I often am, by the depth of their questioning, their thirst for knowledge and justice. A group of girls expressed their disappointment with a local Town Council which had listened to them and received a petition asking them to promote Fairtrade in the town but then apparently done nothing. We discussed ways of influencing the democratic bodies in the area and they resolved to "have another try".
The school council is committed to forming a steering group to encourage the school on its way to Fairtrade status and two girls have taken on the job of co-chairing that group. I've promised to go in again and discuss with them what support they'd like from the Borough partnership.
Other young people, preparing to move on to the senior school in September, spoke of a desire to encourage young people there to think more about Fairtrade while others talked of lobbying their local shops to stock more goods.
A host of enthusiasts, a pleasure to be with and a joyous way to spend the afternoon.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting Teesside High School's Prep school for the first time. Their splendid new entrance tells everyone approaching "You have the right to be happy", a very positive way to start the school day. I was there to finalise arrangements for my contribution to their International week next week, when I'll spend an afternoon helping the children and any parents who attend to understand a bit more about Fairtrade. The school has been interested in Fairtrade for some time and has now decided to make the push towards becoming a Fairtrade school. Excellent news.
During the afternoon I attended my first meeting for a while of the Positive Contribution and Economic Wellbeing Partnership - quite a mouthful! The council is involved in many partnerships and this one is about enabling young people to make a positive contribution to their community and take part in education or training or employment or any combination of them. For once yesterday we weren't receiving reports and nodding wisely, but were having a real discussion about how to make sure the young people of the borough have the best opportunities we can provide even in a time of economic difficulty. I was sorry to have to leave before it finished in order to get to my next meeting, also very important and interesting. Three good things in one day - wow!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It's been a busy couple of days with interviews for a new Corporate Director of Development and Neighbourhood Services, Stockton Renaissance, Ward surgery, meetings about the Western Area Partnership and links with the other areas, and Play Partnership Board. Add to that the continued distribution of the Fairtrade Directory and some "normal life" and there aren't enough hours in the day.
The Development and Neighbourhood Services section of the council deals with Planning, Bins, Recycling, Roads, Footpaths, Environmental Health, Stray Dogs, Animal welfare, Cemeteries, Supporting businesses, Flower beds and countless other things which have a significant and often visible impact on our lives. Finding the right person to head it wasn't easy - more than 20 people applied and we could only appoint one of them. Not for the first time we wished that we could take a bit of one and add it to another to make an even better fit for the job! But Bionic man is still the stuff of fiction so we have to settle on one and hope that we've made the best choice. I'm sure we have in this case and that the new man will do an excellent job at a difficult economic time.
At Renaissance we'd the other end of the scale in a sense - a presentation about the work of the Asylum Support Team in the council and some of the other groups which help asylum seekers and refugees in the Tees Valley including Justice First, one of the charities being supported by the Mayor this year. It was a refreshing change from the slick presentations usually delivered by officers who've done it countless times before. This was in part delivered by a young woman seeking asylum after dreadful experiences in Iran and being thwarted at every turn by the bureaucracy of the UK system. Her English wasn't perfect and her story wasn't smooth and well rehearsed. She was a human being speaking of inhuman treatment and how she copes while she waits and prays for the legal wheels to grind, oiled only by human kindness and charity.
At the Play Partnership meeting this afternoon I heard that the allocations of funding from Playbuilder funds is almost settled so it should only be a couple of weeks before groups like Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe council find out if they've been successful in their bid for help towards the cost of upgrading St Margarets play area. Fingers crossed.
And in between between us in the ward we've tried to resolve issues around street lighting, parking, HGVs travelling on the section of A67 they're not supposed to venture on to, broken glass on footpaths and so ad infinitum it seems. And the sun shone in a blue sky for most of the time that I was indoors!
This is the variety of a councillor's week and it's what makes life so interesting.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Africa comes to Eaglescliffe

For the last fortnight the children and staff of Durham Lane Primary School have been studying Africa. The whole school has been enjoying stories, art, music, dance, drama, reading, writing, maths, gardening and a host of other activities. This afternoon the school doors opened to let governors and parents see some of the results. Yet again the school exceeded my expectations. The standard of artwork is amazing. I know that my last art report from school (quite a lot of years ago) said "Tries hard but gets nowhere", so I'm probably not the world's most erudite art critic but I know what speaks to me. Some of the art on display today was certainly worth a thousand words.
There were pieces of written work which brought tears to my eyes as well as pieces that made me smile.
Each classroom had a model African hut in it, and in the reception class the baby doll was sleeping peacefully inside! At the other end of the classroom two boys had created their version of an African landscape in the sandpit, complete with zebras drinking from the waterhole.
Outside there were garden bags, proudly shown off by the young children who'd made them and sown seeds in them. They told me that they're going to sell the vegetables to raise money to send a cow to a village in Africa. I've promised to buy some if that idea comes to fruition.
I was delighted to see a stall selling Fairtrade goods, organised by a Teaching Assistant, with tea and chocolate coming from different African countries.
The children had also run a tombola stall to raise funds to sponsor a child in Africa.
The whole thing was a wonderful example of how with hard work, good will and imagination the whole primary curriculum could be brought to life. I know how much research and planning goes into a project like this and the staff can be justly proud of their achievements. I'm sure those children will remember much more of what they've learned about a diverse and fascinating continent than I do having spent a term studying a text book and an atlas years ago.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

I'm amazed

I'm amazed at the bravery of people who speak out against injustice even though they've known family members to be hurt or killed. I feel humbled when I see people on TV in far off countries who will risk all for democracy or human rights, but when I meet such a person face to face words often fail me. This week I met such a woman - Iraqi, formerly a university lecturer in Baghdad, she lost her husband when he was kidnapped and murdered. She lived in fear of losing her own life and eventually fled here to relative safety. But did she just hide away and live a quiet life in safety? No - she chose to improve her English, develop her knowledge of the law and her IT skills and to start a campaign for safety for a group of Iraqi women who are, she says, worse off than she is. These women are in jail and are subject to rape by prison guards, often in extremely brutal ways and shaming circumstances. Their fate is made worse by the fact that rape is still seen as something that only happens if the woman lets it or encourages the man. In those circumstances it's very hard to report the crime to the police or to family. Very few people will support a raped woman. The extent of the use of rape is difficult to prove of course, when women are too frightened to report it. But there is evidence around on blogs and other internet sites, if one is prepared to listen.
So this lady is doing what she can over here in England - organising a petition and talking to groups of people who'll listen to her about what is happening. She is hoping that her local MP will take it up through Parliamentary channels and bring pressure to bear on the authorities in Iraq to protect women, some of whom are in prison on what to us would seem fairly minor charges. If you agree that women should not be raped just because they're in prison then writing to your MP asking him or her to add their pressure would be a real help.
Our son-in-law also amazed me this week, being incredibly brave in a different way, by joining in The World's Greatest Shave for the Leukaemia Foundation. So the Foundation is over 2000AUSD better off and Pete has to grow his hair back to a decent state in time for 2 weddings in the next few months!
This morning was the Mayoress' coffee morning, another fund raising event for the Mayor's charity fund. The number of people coming through the door was very encouraging. Apart from enjoying a cup of Fairtrade tea or coffee they spent money on raffle tickets, tombolas, cakes, books, bric-a-brac and naming soft toys. The teddy bear was very popular but a some people needed a little more encouragement to try for the giant gorilla! The photos show some of the activities. The cake stall was briefly manned by the "top team" of the Council Leader and Chief Executive, thus proving that they can do more lowly tasks when called upon! The leader of the Labour group did sterling work in the kitchen and clearing away dirty cups. All in all, it was hard work for a morning but I'm sure that a good amount of money was raised so Daisy Chain and Justice First will benefit.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Building Schools for the Future??

This afternoon there was an update session for councillors on this very important topic, but with not much news to update! It seems that the minister concerned, Ed Balls MP, reads every submission document personally and as he's not been in his office recently the pile has built up. Until he reads the Stockton document it can't be signed and sealed so no-one can say publicly who the potential co-sponsors of our 2 academies are. No-one knows when the documents will be signed so no-one can discuss where the buildings might go, and so it goes on. I couldn't have invented a more frustrating system if I'd been asked.
Meanwhile the money for the South of the Borough schools to be refurbished or rebuilt won't be available until some time in the dim and distant future when all the people currently worrying themselves silly about it wil have left school or ceased to be parents of school age children or retired from the council or the schools concerned. I have uncomfortable visions of Egglescliffe school ceasing to exist because the buildings have crumbled away in the intervening time.
There again, we might have a change of government and the whole idea go back into the melting pot and we have to start all over again. There's got to be a better way of allocating government spending than all this bidding for money. But I'm just a local councillor - what do I know.
I do know that the spring bulbs we've had planted over the last 2 years are giving a beautiful display this month along verges and on grassy islands. Thank you to all the people who suggested places for them.
We're also moving nearer to getting street lighting and surfacing on the path from Yarm Rd to West View Tce and getting better lighting on the path parallel to Yarm Rd leading to St Andrews Close and Wentworth Way. Next winter should see great improvements on those two paths. We still haven't got a solution to lighting the railway bridge at the end of Newsam Rd but we're working on it.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The day started with the disappointing news that several schools and community centres in the Borough have decided not to provide space for a polling station for the European Parliament election in June. This is becoming an increasing problem and I'm becoming more convinced than ever that we'll need to turn to the supermarkets and such places in the future. It's sad that our public bodies don't see supporting the democratic process as part of their civic duty but it seems to by a sign of the times. Inevitably if we end up with polling stations in supermarkets we'll get even more complaints from our smaller retailers that everything's going to the big guys. But we do need to provide places for people to cast their vote, so anyone who lives in Stockton and knows of somewhere that would be willing - get in touch. It might be somewhere we don't know about.
I spent a part of the afternoon in Nightingale House, starting with a tour of the Bereavement suite. This has two functions. There's a comfortable room where bereaved families, or people preparing for the death of someone with a terminal illness, can discuss possibilities with a sympathetic member of the bereavement staff. They can explore possibilities without any pressure from funeral directors or friends or anyone else and the hope is that people will be able to decide on the kind of funeral which best suits them. The other room is a display room for a number of alternative coffins and containers for cremated remains. The traditional wooden coffin contains glues and varnishes which are not particularly good for the environment and an increasing number of people want something less damaging. There are plain cardboard coffins which can be personalised or left plain, printed cardboard coffins, woven wicker ones and now papier mache. The wicker ones are made in the south of England at present but I'm sure it won't be long before we have a firm in the north coppicing willow for this purpose. The papier mache ones can be finished with a top layer in coloured tissue paper and then decorated or you can go the whole hog for a real bling funeral - gold leaf finished coffin with a feather lining in a choice of colours. So there really is something for everyone. My personal favourite was the papier mache acorn designed to hold cremated remains for interment. It's attractive enough to be used as an ornament in any house, and far too nice to be buried!
Seriously, I encourage everyone to think about this seriously and make some decisions while fit and healthy and able to do it.
The committee went on to discuss the possibility of having a new crematorium in Stockton. One of the issues with the facilities currently available outside the borough is the increasing number of people who need a larger coffin which won't fit into the cremator. I'm not sure if that's an incentive to lose weight or not.
We also agreed our final report on Dog Fouling and Animal Welfare which will go to cabinet in April. All in all, a busy meeting and a very interesting one.
When I returned to the computer I found a photo showing the end of the bananan skins from Friday. They'd all been collected up and taken to the Shaw Trust in Fairfield. There they've been added to the compost heap and the photo proves the point.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Dog Fouling, Animal Welfare & Crematoria

What do they have in common? They're all on the agenda for tomorrow's meeting of the Environment Select Committee. The review of Dog Fouling and Animal Welfare is drawing to a close and the recommendations and report should be finalised tomorrow afternoon. We'll also be following up on previous reviews into cemeteries and memorials.
The meeting is being held in Nightingale House, also known as the Register Office, where the new Bereavement Suite will be open for us to see beforehand. We'll be able to see the selection of receptacles for cremated remains which are on display to help people make their choice, as well as some of the less traditional coffins. We didn't realise that Fairtrade coffins exist until too late to get one in for display but who knows what might come in the future? The Bereavement suite is the latest improvement in such services for the people of Stockton and while it might be a taboo subject to some, death is the only certainty in life for all of us and needs to be planned for in the same way as all the other significant events.
Meanwhile, my preparation consists of reading several reports before tomorrow's meeting! And if anyone wants to see even more photos of the Go Bananas for Fairtrade events in the Tees Valley go to Flickr and enjoy.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Spring Conference

Am I the only Lib Dem Blogger not at Harrogate? It seemed that way when I glanced down Lib Dem blogs a few minutes ago. I'd have liked to have been there, especially as there's a focus on education this time, but circumstances prevented it.
The decision to continue our commitment to education being free at the point of delivery pleased me - it's one of the many things which is distinguishes us from the other two major parties. Clear blue water is widening, and I for one am happy with that situation.
I had an interesting experience when a resident commented on the star rating of Stockton vs other Tees Valley authorities - the first time I've known anyone outside the council show any interest. He commented on the fact that Stockton isn't deemed to be "improving strongly" this time but he was very happy when I said that our star rating might go down in the future because the council is considering whether ticking government boxes is the best use of tax-payers' money. Perhaps the money is better spent on delivering services which our residents really want. That particular resident registered his approval of the idea so I hope he's not unique.
I'm beginning to see the floor and other surfaces in the house today as the posters, leaflets and other things associated with Fairtrade Fortnight are being tidied away. I hadn't realised just how far they'd spread! But I wouldn't have had it any other way - the Go Bananas Event was worth every bit of mess it created.

News from Zimbabwe

I was so engrossed in the escapades of our banana yesterday that I didn't hear any other news. This morning's paper alerted me to the fact of Morgan Tsvangirai's car crash yesterday and the devastating loss of his wife. It's one more tragic twist in the life of people in that country. I don't suppose the truth of the crash will ever be known because the political background means that views are polarised even before the investigation begins and no-one will believe the evidence that doesn't support their view. Meanwhile people continue to become ill and die from easily preventable causes if only the political will was there to put a solution in place.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Go Bananas for Fairtrade - Stockton did!

After many headaches, big and small, it all came together at noon today. Stockton went Bananas for Fairtrade. The Town Crier, one of the council's Democratic Services officers, came out to help encourage a crowd to gather. The sun shone, the wind didn't blow, helpers arrived. Curious passers-by learned something of what the Fairtrade premium means to the producers. The balloons looked good in the sun and people bought tickets for the balloon race to help the Mayor's Charities. Just after 12 the countdown to banana distribution started and within 10 minutes we'd distributed and seen eaten 200 Fairtrade bananas, courtesy of ASDA store at Portrack. The skins were duly collected up for composting by Doreen from The Shaw Trust. The balloons were released by the mayor with the help of a member of the events team, who had previously checked with DTV airport that all was well for the release.
Then the giant inflated banana set off on its travels round the Tees Valley. A walk up Stockton High Street to the mayoral car, a short drive to Stockton Station and we were welcomed by Chris Benson of Northern Rail. The banana had its own seat all the way to Hartlepool and had its ticket checked twice. It also had its photograph taken by a young lady whose sister had gone to school today dressed as a banana, much to the despair of her mother who thought it a crazy idea. When a giant banana appeared on the train it was too good an opportunity to be missed for setting her mother's mind at rest that other people were just as crazy!
A successful handover at Hartlepool Station to Cllr Carl Richardson, chair of Hartlepool council, and then it was back to Stockton on the next train.
The Mayor and Mayoress went off to their next engagement and I went to a meeting about children in the care of the local authority. We have a corporate parenting responsibility and this meeting helps to ensure that we fulfil it to the best of our ability.
A busy ward surgery rounded off the day as a councillor but I took the excuse of being very busy for a few days to avoid cooking a meal this evening. Instead I went with my husband to the award-winning restaurant in our ward which features in our Fairtrade Directory. A good way to end Fairtrade Fortnight.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Towards the end of a mini Era

Tonight was John's last formal council meeting in the Town Hall. It was a peaceful affair with no rants or major arguments but a number of very important questions raised and either answered or answers promised. As more co-operation is planned in our "city region" we need to know exactly what is being set up and what is being done in our name.
At the end of the meeting a Thornaby councillor who has caused his fair share of rowdy moments in the council chamber over the year stood up and thanked John for being so fair and a real gentleman. It was a lovely gesture which only Steve could have done in that way, took everyone by surprise and was much appreciated by the mayoress, sitting next to me, and I'm sure by the mayor also. Quite a lot of people stayed behind afterwards to have a drink and nibbles - more than have stayed at other times during the year.
John's last full council meeting will be a less formal affair at the education centre when there are lots of presentations and questions to officers about the performance of their sections. And then we move on to the Annual meeting and the appointment of a new mayor and deputy. It'll seem strange not to have a mayor or deputy in the group - Suzanne and John have made history by being the first couple to have served consecutively and so for 4 years the group has had the mayoralty associated with us. The end of a mini-era indeed.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


One could have been forgiven for thinking that someone had dialled the emergency number tonight at Stockton Town Hall. The mayor, Cllr John Fletcher, held a reception for representatives of the emergency services to thank them for their work in the borough. As leader of a political group on the council I was invited and very much enjoyed meeting the members of the health services, the police and fire services. I was pleased to hear people from the hospital talking about patient centred care with the same determination as there was at the Momentum consultation all those months ago. It was interesting to hear that the views of professionals don't always coincide and that some consultants don't want to see services delivered out in the community because they fear that standards will drop. There's a huge lot of trust and bridge building to go on before everyone can have, for example, their pre-operative assessments near to where they live or work rather than having to go to a hospital for them. If the people I met there are anything to go by it will happen though.
I suspect it's one of the most rewarding parts of being mayor, to be able to recognise the unsung heroes in this way and it seemed to be appreciated.
Driving home afterwards I was surprised to see the security fencing round the new health centre had been damaged and partly flattened by the wind. The security men were trying their best but it seemed to me and my fellow councillor that there was a danger of a serious problem on the road. A phone call to the council security centre made sure that someone came out and assessed the situation better than I could.