Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Harrogate in the Sun

I'm spending 3 days at the Local Government conference in Harrogate, with lots of opportunity to meet up with other councillors and officers from around the country and chances to discuss issues with exhibitors and see if there's anything they might offer in the way of help, advice, funding etc. So far I've managed some information on carbon reduction, ideas on planning and some information which might be of help in what we are hoping to do for young people in the area.
There's more to come and I'm going to suffer from information overload by the end of the conference but lots of notes will help sort it out over the coming weeks.
Meanwhile the sun's shining outside and it's far too nice to be indoors.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Two very different issues on my plate today, but both important.
This morning I took a call from a man who used to live in this ward but moved out of Witham House so that Erimus could demolish and build a new sheltered housing complex. 3 years later it's still standing there with nothing being done to it and he's angry that he moved out of Eaglescliffe to somewhere he didn't want to live and all for nothing. Sadly I couldn't offer him any consolation other than the fact that he's not alone.
This afternoon I chaired the meeting of the Environment select committee which is looking at Stockton Council's carbon management programme and trying to find ways to save even more carbon emissions and more money. There was lots of information to digest and lots of questions being raised. Our next meeting will be a long one I expect- looking into how schools contribute to the carbon emissions in the borough and how their contributions can be reduced. We plan to look at everything from building materials in new buildings through to retro-fitting insulation etc for older buildings, travel to school and many other issues.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Where has summer gone?

There might be a heatwave at Wimbledon this weekend but not up here. We've got rain, drizzle, more rain, sunny interval, more drizzle. The fog on the A19 was bad enough to lead to a series of accidents on Friday night. This is summer?
Meantime I see that Ed Balls still thinks the government can conjour money out of thin air and not have any spending cuts while paying back the national debt. Such is the failure of our education system under Labour that even well educated ministers believe in fairies.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Armed Forces Day

It was only this morning that I realised we've had an official Veterans Day in this country till now. I've obviously missed it in news broadcasts etc for the past umpteen years. Perhaps it's because I don't live in a town with a military base very near?
Although my own personal inclinations are towards pacifism I recognise that there are situations when this country is involved in war and I believe that the women and men who risk life and limb and mind to fight those wars deserve our support. Democracy means to me that however much I might disagree with the politicians who make the decision once it's made the personnel sent to do the job need the very best support we can give, both practical and emotional. That's why I'm pleased that Stockton's nice new flagpoles are flying the Armed Forces flag this week and why I'm glad that one soldier was to be presented with his Afghanistan medal today by the Lord Lieutenant of Durham in the dignified surroundings of the Town Hall.
I was told about Stockton Council's plans for today a couple of weeks ago and was disappointed that I was committed to being elsewhere so wouldn't be able to take part. As it was, at the last minute plans changed and I was in Stockton after all. So I took the chance to go to the Library to see the "exhibition of wartime memorabilia" which had been advertised as happening all week in the Library foyer. What a disappointment - the foyer was full of a very interesting exhibition about eye problems and Louis Braille, mounted by Blind Voice UK. Not a bit of military memorabilia to be seen. Eventually we tracked it down - a handful of photographs mounted on a couple of display boards in one aisle of the library with no sign to direct people towards them.
Denis had provided a digital copy of the photograph owned by the Museums service of the 225th Company Royal Engineers. He and one of the museum staff are trying to put names to faces on the photo - over 100 Stockton men who signed up to fight in the First World War. They were rapidly followed by two other companies which aren't as well documented. Denis' grandfather and two of his closest friends signed up and are there in the photo. Denis is in touch with descendents of 2 others, but that leaves a lot to be identified. Sadly, the book which had been put with the photo for people to write in if they thought they could help identify anyone has been stolen. So much for respect for the armed forces.
On a more positive note I heard some rare serious discussion of what the army is doing in Afghanistan now and why on BBC Radio 4. It's a pity that such discussion doesn't happen more often - we all need to try to understand what's going on there and why.
I also caught on radio a brief bit of Any Answers when a british muslim woman talked about why she wears a burkha when she leaves her house and the circumstances under which she removes her face veil. I wished I could have met her and had a much longer discussion with her. She answered questions clearly and her passionate commitment to Islam shone through. It was one of those radio gems which crop up occasionally and leave me wishing for lots more. I'd love a BBC producer to go and make a programme with her to explore some of the prejudices that exist on both sides of the divide over the wearing of such distinctive clothing. But I don't suppose I'll be that lucky.

Friday, June 26, 2009

We have a bathroom!

OK, it's not exactly earth shattering nor political but it is quite important to me, and to hubby. Right on time the work was completed and the finished article was handed over to us. I mention it here because so much is said and written about poor workmanship and "rip off Britain" that I feel it's worthy of note when someone takes a real pride in their work, does a good job on time and within budget. It may not be a multi million pound contract but it's of great value to us. So well done Andy and Simon and a huge thank you for being so careful and doing such a good job.
In among today's post was a carefully hand-written envelope which of course I opened before any of the formal typed ones. Inside was a beautiful piece of artwork inviting me to a performance of Pepys Show at Durham Lane School next month. It's one of the perks of being a governor that we get these invitations but I've never had one which was also a work of art. I shall certainly be going along to find out what the show is about. I know I'll be in for a treat of music and acting far better than one might expect from primary school chldren.
The business part of the day consisted of meeting with colleagues to discuss some of the important issues facing us in the borough over the next few weeks and running through to the general election. There are lots to keep us busy over the summer and beyond and to give our new younger members things to get their teeth into.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Spending Money and other problems

Who'd have thought that spending money could be so fraught with difficulty? For years Liberal Democrat councillors argued for having a budget to be spent in each ward according to what local people wanted. When we finally got it we found it hedged with restrictions so that we couldn't actually have quite a lot of what people wanted. Nevertheless we've managed in Eaglescliffe to do most of the things people asked for in the first couple of years, including some which we'd been told previously were impossible like surfacing the area between the church gate and the cemetery at Egglescliffe and improving the path from West View Tce to Yarm Rd. This year we've had a number of requests which we're probably not going to be able to satisfy, not because there's not enough money to do everything (though there isn't) but because one person's meat is another person's poison. One wants tarmac instead of grass while his neighbour wants the grass improved. One wants parking and another doesn't. One wants roundabouts improved while another doesn't. We can't please everyone and so it goes on. One good thing about having the budget and publicising it is that lots of people are getting involved in making suggestions on how to spend it - real local democracy which is what Liberal Democrats have argued for over years. Give power to the people and we'll use it well. If only the Westminster Government could believe that, what a different country it would be.
This week I've also been involved in putting together a bid for funding for some work to be done to the Parish Council land near the war memorial at Egglescliffe. In 2006 we had some plans drawn up for making that into a Memorial Garden but then the funding applications didn't work out and the work was never done. This week we decided to look at doing some smaller scale work such as laying the hedge and planting up low shrub beds on the slopes to the memorial as well as a plaque recording the history of the memorial. There's the possibility of grants towards that sort of work if we can get some community involvement in the project.
Meanwhile if you live in the area and know anything about hedge laying please get in touch!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The meeting of Western Area Partnership Board tonight had a presentation from the North East Ambulance Service on their application to become a Foundation Trust, seeking support from the public for the application. We saw a DVD of the ambulance service's work and were given a nice glossy booklet about it. Then the board spent half an hour or more questioning the two representatives at some length. There were issues about how people could "advise" the trust, questions about whether going to a business model would take away from the public service model, questions about what right the trust have to exclude "vexatious individuals" from membership and more. At the end it was pointed out that although an erratum slip was included, changing two of the questions in the light of previous consultations there was still another question which didn't make sense! There was no answer to the question of how much this exercise is costing - money which might otherwise have been invested in the ambulance service, except that the government has decreed that such Foundation trusts are the best way to go so who are we mere mortals to object.
The consultation document and questionnaire is available online and anyone with an interest in the NE ambulance service should read it and answer the questions - if you don't make your voice heard you can't complain that it isn't working the way you want.
Most of the rest of the meeting was taken up with a consultation from SBC couched in such jargon that most people round the table didn't know what they were being asked! It took rather a long time to get to the point of comprehension.
At the end of the evening the highlight was the agreement of some of the young people who'd sat through this session to meet up with us and discuss the best way to be involved in shaping the future of the area for young people. Watch this space.

People Power

Having spent Sunday happily playing with grandchildren and collecting photos of play equipment in their new park in readiness for the design being done on St Margaret's Play area I realise that I didn't get round to sharing any thoughts on the Lib Dem councillors' conference on Saturday. If you're interested you can read about a super day on Suzanne Fletcher's blog. Suffice to say from me that it was a very useful day and I came away with some ideas for ways to do things better in Stockton.
While in Sheffield I spotted an imaginative use of a phone cable box in the city centre which reduces the amount of clutter by combining signage with a necessary but usually ugly piece of "street furniture".

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Friday off (almost!)


A whirlwind morning which included driving for the first time for a month in order to fit everything in - public transport just wouldn't work for the timetable I had. Then packing, making sure the house was safely locked up, and I was off to the station for the train to Sheffield. I was going with others of the Lib Dem council group from Stockton to a conference organised mainly by councillors for councillors, so some real grass roots politics for a day. To make sure that the brain was working properly on Saturday we'd opted to go down early and enjoy a relaxing evening in this great city (especially so since it has a Lib Dem council of course).
I was down in Sheffield last autumn for the Fairtrade Campaigns day and was impressed then by the lovely water features with their imaginative use of steel on which so much of Sheffield's past greatness was founded. It was no different this time - still a stunning welcome to the city when leaving the station. Outside the hotel was the Peace Garden though it wasn't very peaceful on Friday afternoon with dozens of young people having great fun running through the water spouts. There were no objections as far as I could see - they were enjoying themselves without harming anyone else.
I went with Alan to look at the City Hall, a splendid building with marble interior. Talking to one of the civic officers it was obvious that there's great pride in the building and how it's used but a sense of disappointment that so many tall buildings are being allowed in the vicinity, dwarfing what they felt should be the most important building. I could see what he meant. The very hotel in which we were staying was one of the culprits.
The evening started with a welcome drink in the Winter Gardens, with a brief visit from the local MP who also happens to be leader of the Liberal Democrat party. He spoke with great enthusiasm about Sheffield and the way in which it's changing and improving with a Lib Dem council, about the need for such delegation of real power to people and the need for Fair Voting systems to allow real representation.
Follow that with a super meal and we were all ready to get on with the next day's agenda, renewed and refreshed.
And in case anyone is thinking otherwise - it was all paid for out of our own pockets - travel, accommodation and conference costs. No expenses claims here - it wouldn't be right to have such things funded out of the tax people pay for services.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pedestrians rule OK?

Today was another of those all too rare opportunities to see the NHS at its best - a doctor giving the impression to an elderly patient that there was all the time in the world to listen to her concerns while skilfully steering the conversation to answer the questions she needed to ask, a really meaningful consultation discussion about possible treatments (including do nothing different) and everyone seeming to come out feeling that things were better than they had been. Yet again I'm reminded that the NHS is not a system but people and when people are allowed to do the job they want to do they do it as well as they can and other people share the benefits. Why oh why do successive governments think they can solve all the problems by tinkering with systems?
This afternoon's meeting was at a venue which is not easily accessible by public transport but has such awful car parking problems that it's not worth trying to take the car either. I opted for the bus to Stockton High St and a walk from there over the bridge across the river and through Teesdale. It was a pleasant walk if a longish one. My point about car parking was made when as I sat down in the meeting room with my water and my papers all out ready to start the chair rushed in and apologised to me for not stopping to give me a lift - he'd passed me but on the other side of the road and it wasn't safe to stop. He'd then spent so long finding a parking spot and walking from it that I got there a good 3 minutes before him! I did pick up a couple of interesting points to share with colleagues at the next Western Area Partnership meeting but the afternoon went down hill when the train home from Thornaby was delayed by over 5 minutes which gave time for the rain to start at Eaglescliffe and me to get thoroughly wet walking down from the station. It's summer in England - whoopee.
Before the formal parish council meeting tonight there was a discussion with Stockton's town centre manager about the problems caused by the proliferation of A-board advertising. The whole discussion did seem to be about consulting on a new policy being developed until he said that the policy was already drafted but might need a few little tweaks following the consultation! Yet again a meaningless consultation from Stockton Council. The fundamental issue of whether or not to allow such boards wasn't really being considered, just how they should be regulated. So those who struggle with eyesight problems, those whose mobility is such that they need a wheelchair, those who push prams around the streets, will still have to struggle but they'll have the "consolation" that the obstructions are licensed. So that's all right then.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Yarm & Green Spaces

A visit to the hospital this morning confirmed that the radial knuckle (elbow) is mended nicely but there's some inflammation of the tendons so the arm is still in need of a little tender loving care! Gentle stretching exercise is prescribed so if you see my arm waving in the air I am definitely waving not drowning.
A leaflet arrived through the letter box today about parking in Yarm. It's a topic of great interest to many people in this ward whether or not they park there, because one of the biggest causes of congestion in Yarm High St is people looking for parking spots. Although there are no new suggestions in it for some reason it had to be kept confidential and not mentioned to Eaglescliffe councillors until the public leaflet was ready and the display was being set up. As a result we couldn't let people know in time for today's exhibition in Yarm. There's a number of suggestions being made and it's worth looking at them and making comment. None of them will completely solve the problems but it's a serious effort to make a difference so please do have your say. If you haven't got a leaflet there's a section on the Council website about it so you can see what's being suggested there.
There was a drop in session for councillors this evening to discuss the various plans and strategies that are developing at the moment for all our green spaces around the borough. Although there was nothing new in there it was helpful to be able to see how everything is starting to link together. I've only been a councillor for a few years but in that time I've been frustrated on occasion by the fact that the right hand didn't seem to know what the left hand was doing on open space and green areas. It must be much worse for people who've been involved for much longer.
At last every bit of green is being recognised as having some value, whether it's in someone's garden, beside a road or part of a big park. That doesn't mean that we never remove green areas, but it does mean that we consider their value in relation to other values and make a more informed decision, or at least I hope that's what it will mean. It's certainly beginning to make a little bit of difference in planning committee meetings. It also means that green spaces and play areas are planned differently now, aiming to let young people take risks which a couple of years ago were frowned on - there's nothing new under the sun is there? Now we encourage them to climb trees etc. without doing a risk assessment first!
The session was also useful because I could make some enquiries about how things are progressing with the Parish Council's work on the Play Areas and remind some relevant officers of promises that have been made of further help for us.
There's an on-going consultation on our green spaces and what we want from them so if you haven't already done so please go to the website and have your say.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Nick Clegg - the radical

I couldn't believe I'd heard it the first time, but having listened twice and read it on news websites and seen it on TV news I now believe that Nick Clegg actually confronted the Trident question face on and didn't fudge. Two years after a cracking good debate at conference and a messy resolution we have a leader with the courage to say "I've changed my mind. Times have changed." Even if I didn't agree with him on saying we wouldn't support spending the money on a replacement missile I'd have to admire his courage in saying that he'd changed his mind.
I am, however, one of those people who cannot see a moral justification for using warheads which have an effect far beyond their immediate point of impact. At the age of 12 I wrote a passionate, carefully researched, essay on why nuclear war could never be justified and whilst I've changed my mind on many things since that age I still believe what I wrote then.
Now if only Brown & Cameron would change their minds on fair voting systems and on letting local government get on with local things ....................!
I fear the age of miracles isn't with us yet, though.

A Tale of Two Governments

A govemment makes a decision and a million people walk through the capital to protest about it. The decision is implemented. Years later public pressure forces an enquiry - to be held in secret and not to apportion any blame but to see if we can learn any lessons.
A government makes an announcement of the election result and a million people walk through the capital to protest about it. 2 days later the "Guardian Council" says that it is prepared to recount votes in contested areas.
Which country has a democratic government?
Simplistic - yes. Not the whole story - I agree. But I do wonder, increasingly often, about where the Mother of Parliaments has ended up. Certainly not sitting at the head of the table nor even at the fireside offering wise counsel to her offspring.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Another scorching hot weekend - what's happened to the great British summer? The BBQ's been used more so far this year than in the whole of last year.
An encouraging moment at the market yesterday when one stall holder whom we've been trying to encourage to stock Fairtrade bananas complained that now we've really started something and as soon as he gets a box they sell! I'm instructed to get there first thing on a morning if I want to confirm that he's selling them because he can only get one or two boxes at a time. I regard that as something of a success story. I suggested that he keeps his eyes open for other fruits and expands his choice over the year. We shall see. He's a great character and very much part of Stockton Market. Long may he thrive.
The English strawberries he had on sale were small, juicy and bursting with flavour. Absolutely superb and a lot cheaper than the water-fattened ones in a supermarket not too far away. I love the soft fruit season. I'm watching the raspberries and cherries swelling nicely in the garden - not too long now before we can eat them.
Meanwhile residents continue to contact us about the issues that concern them - the uncertainties over the bus services, the perceived unfairness of having a service every 10 minutes during the working day on one part of the ward but only every hour on the other part, and so on. The next meeting of the Public Transport Users’ Forum for this Borough meets on 11th July from 10 a.m. to 12 noon in ARC, Dovecot Street, Stockton, with John in the chair. This is the opportunity to get the latest information and make your voice heard.

Friday, June 12, 2009

I started the day with a trip using 2 buses to get to the Education Centre in Norton (formerly William Newton Girls School). The meeting was about scrutiny of policies and decisions in council and was a regional get together to share ideas on the best way of doing things. It had some interesting parts and was worth attending. I also managed to catch up with the council officer supporting the Carbon Management scrutiny over lunch and talk through some of the issues we need to explore. It's the first time I've been asked for a tour of the building - one member had 3 schools about to close in his area and he wanted to do something imaginative with the one in his ward so wanted to see how this had been utilised. Another member wanted to look at the Energy from Waste plant at Haverton before going home, having heard so much about it. So now we know what Stockton's famous for!
For the first time in 3 weeks the bus which I caught to start the journey home was late. That's not a bad record considering how many buses I've used since breaking my arm. As it was a hot sunny day I used the time as heat therapy for the aching ligaments!
During the afternoon we managed to choose a new garage door and sort out a number of things in and around the garden before repairing to our local restaurant for a weekend treat.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

I can see the desk top!

One very short meeting today meant that I had some time this afternoon to tidy and file. My usual reluctance to do this was added to by the difficulty of working one-handed recently, so there was even more to do than usual. A solid hour's work means that a window sill and part of the desk top are now cleared, dusted and only have on them the things that are meant to be there - a phone, a radio, a modem - the important things in life.
I also had time to do some research as part of the scrutiny review of Carbon Management in the council. All in all, a good day.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Planning Committee did indeed approve both of the big applications this afternoon, with some requests for some thought at the detailed stage of North Shore about renewable energy, insulation, public art, public transport and road safety. The next steps will be interesting but may well take several years.
Gordon Brown has announced his next big idea - he'll think about possibly letting people have a fairer voting system but not until the next election is over. David Cameron says no way - why go for a fairer system when the present one works as he wants it. Strange how reluctant Westminster politicians are to let people have any power.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Inspirational Developments

There were 2 Planning site visits this afternoon and both were described thus. I make no comment here about how they fit with Stockton's planning policies but both were certainly significant applications. First we went to Yarm School to see how they propose to improve their facilities having been refused permission last year for a greenfield site. The present application has a very innovative theatre design, modern play areas, a newly unified early years section and more. It's a very ambitious project for what is undoubtedly a very ambitious school. I was interested to hear that several pupils are already training as part of the British elite squad for rowing in hope of being selected for the Olympics. Whatever the outcome of tomorrow's planning committee such excellence should be celebrated in the Borough.
The second visit was to see a presentation on the North Shore proposals and to view the site from the vantage point of an office over the river in Thornaby. Looking down from a 3rd floor window made it relatively easy to see how the plans would sit on the ground. Again, a lot of variables to be considered and no guarantees that funding will come forward but a lot of aspirations to improve that area of Stockton and make the most of a fantastic riverside site.
Tomorrow's planning committee meeting should prove interesting.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Swine Flu

The bug arrived on my doorstep today, causing the closure of Teesside High School for a week. 3 youngsters returned from their half term break carrying the infection but fortunately seem to be recovering well according to the NHS bulletin. For those people confused by the inability of the NHS to pinpoint the school's position accurately - it is in The Avenue, Eaglescliffe and not in Yarm! Exam pupils are coping with even more separation between desks than usual and all pupils and staff are being offered anti-viral medication. I've seen no evidence of panic and the whole operation seems to be running smoothly.
What's more, I now "know" the full name of the bug! In case anyone is interested it's influenza A type H1N1

Aislaby & Newsham

Tonight was the annual meeting of the two smallest parishes in Eaglescliffe ward. Neither parish has a hall or a pub nor any other public meeting place other than the open air of the village green and so they assemble in the neighbouring parish. Tonight the discussion included the vexed issue of development control. The village is deemed unsustainable with respect to public amenities and transport. That's generally welcomed because it should prevent any large scale developments but what about one or two houses in a gap between others? Should a line be drawn and no further development at all be permitted or should small, sympathetically designed properties be allowed in certain circumstances?
Those in the room seemed to favour the latter but of course that wasn't the whole population at all. Other issues were raised about road safety and about recycling, both of which I'm following up. All in all a very interesting meeting and very different to the annual meetings of the bigger councils.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Fiona Hall Re-elected

Today dawned grey and threatening, matching the mood of Stockton Lib Dems. Stories and rumours from verification sessions around the region sounded gloomy. Waiting for the count to start at 6 some of us were occupied by the Fairtrade stall at The Greener Living Roadshow in Preston Park. Although the rain held off it was quite cold and not as many people came this year. Nevertheless we did have some interesting conversations with people. We vwere also treated to the spectacle of some very interesting veicles, including a bike for 5 - otherwise known as a conference bike.
Tonight was nailbiting but the advantage of being in a small region is that we declare fairly early. The relief when Fiona was re-elected! The champagne came out and we toasted her in style. Tomorrow there's time for all the analysis but tonight it was sufficient to enjoy the moment.
I'm sorry Wales missed out and I'm very disappointed that the BNP gained a seat in our neighbouring region - lots of heart-searching to be done by other parties there I think.
But tonight, in the North East, I'm going to enjoy the rosy glow.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Customer Service

It's no fun when the phone and the internet (and thus Skype) give up for no apparent reason in the middle of a Friday afternoon. A call on another phone to our provider of both services produced a friendly voice with some sensible questions, quickly folloed by an appointment for an engineer to visit this morning.
This morning, mysteriously, things were working again but they still did a thorough check of the line and followed up a couple of hours later with a call to check that everything was OK. Full marks for service!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Die is Cast

I've spent the day working with other Liberal Democrats in Eaglescliffe, encouraging people to cast their vote for our MEP. All the door-knocking is over for now, all the delivering, all the phoning. Tonight the numbers of votes are checked or verified to make sure that none have been lost and then they'll be locked away securely until Sunday afternoon. It's frustrating to have to wait so long but it's only fair that the countries which vote early don't announce results before others have cast their vote,
Meanwhile the problems continue to mount for Gordon Brown. At this rate I might start to feel sorry for him, but not yet!

Monday, June 01, 2009

European Parliament elections

Firstly I must apologise for the paucity of blogs over the last 10 days or so. There were several reasons including breaking my right arm (yes I am right-handed) and having both daughters and their families here to stay at the same time - an event last enjoyed almost 3 years ago. I trust that I'm forgiven for spending some time enjoying their company and the unusually consistent weather.
I havn't been entirely idle politically though - how could I with the Euro elections coming up?
I find it sad that so many politicians of other parties are trying to use this election as a message to Gordon Brown about the abysmal state of the country. That's for the General election when it comes. This one is about who does the best job of representing the North East in Europe. Fiona Hall, the Lib Dem MEP, has worked amazingly hard to help the NE build on our strengths, access support and funding and to shape european policies to help new NE industries such as renewable technologies.
A vote for the Lib Dems in this election really does count because of the fairer voting system used. I hope eveyone will take the opportunity to cast their vote wheter by post or in person and keep that strong representation in Brussels.