Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Difficult Decisions

Planning committee this afternoon had one of those decisions that I wish we never had to make. An empty site on a busy road into Stockton, a discount retail chain wanting to build a supermarket on it, residents strongly in favour of it because they want to be able to buy things at a lower price than they currently can in the local shops, policies written relatively recently in an effort to sustain the town centre saying that this supermarket would be too big so close to the centre, the historic buildings officer saying that the building would detract from the listed building next door, but other people pointing out that on the other side is a modern car tyre business, local shop keepers pleading for their businesses - all arguments that can be clinchers in deciding a planning application, but here they just made it too difficult. After an hour or more of debate, listening to residents and questioning the applicants we decided that we'd defer the decision to give the applicants chance to come back with a more sympathetic design. Whether we should give more weight to the hopes for the Town Centre which would benefit the residents in the long term or to the desires of those residents to have what's in reach now is a conundrum for another day.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The "councillor" day started at 8.30 with a phone call about someone questioning work that has been done on the Park and Stride route for a local primary school. It carried on with e-mails about a mistake we'd made with a phone number on a leaflet and then with lots about the proposal from IBIS councillors to build a school on Preston Park to replace Egglescliffe comprehensive, and only improved when I got on to clearing some of the backlog of consultations and enquiries. The pile of unanswered mail has almost disappeared and the pile of filing is a bit lower now.
At the meeting of the Fairtrade Borough Partnership meeting we spent quite some time discussing our stalls at the Tristar Homes fun day in August and then at the Freshers Fair of Queens Campus of Durham University. A wine tasting later in October should complete the year's activities. Not content with that we're looking forward to spring and Fairtrade Fortnight next year. We also registered our disquiet at the fact that George Alagiah has been told by the BBC that his work as patron of the Fairtrade Foundation isn't compatible with his work as a BBC journalist. He won't give up all his work on Fairtrade but it does mean that he won't be associated in such a high profile way. We're all enormously grateful to him for what he's done and hope that we find another patron as capable as he is.
This afternoon's first task was to deliver some letters from our PPC, Jacquie Bell, to people who'd responded to her Credit Crunch survey. The results of the survey have gone to Vince Cable to help build up his detailed picture of what's happening around the country. It was good to see in those results the amount of support there is in the borough for Vince's economic strategies.
Time this evening to read some papers ready for tomorrow's planning committee meeting and to sort out some domestic issues before our holiday. Just another day in the life of a councillor.
Ward surgery didn't bring any new problems but did offer an opportunity to catch up with John on what's going on in the ward and in the council. Not what a ward surgery is designed for but useful all the same.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The rain stayed away from me today but I understand that's because I moved around - it certainly didn't stay away from the borough.
A friendly market trader noticed that I had a Liberal Democrat shopping bag and asked if I was a Lib Dem - must work harder on my political profile! He proceded to tell me that if only Vince Cable was chancellor we wouldn't be in this mess - couldn't disagree with him on that one, and then said that if Cameron has any sense when he's PM he'll appoint the blessed Vince as his chancellor - not sure that David Cameron will agree with that one.
England's cricket team seem to be redeeming themselves in this match so perhaps the age of miracles isn't completely past.

Friday, July 17, 2009

I was going to catch up on filing, visiting and helping to deliver leaflets in another ward today but the rain put paid to the latter and numerous phone calls to the former!
By early afternoon some of the issues from last night's Parish Council meeting had been satisfactorily resolved and we could move on to further planning. Meanwhile a resident called with questions around some building works but because the Planning website was misbehaving and the officer concerned wasn't available that's had to wait till Monday to be fully answered. The question of the council tax valuation of properties in Timothy Hackworth court is still vexing a number of the residents there. I hope they manage to sort out the problem. To my layman's eye it does seem as though their valuation is based more on where the building is located than on the facilities in their property. As we've been so short of sheltered accommodation in the ward it's a pity that when some is built (albeit not in the most suitable location) many of the possible purchasers are finding it too expensive to move there comfortably. Meanwhile of course we have lost the affordable sheltered housing of Witham House with no sign of it being replaced in the near future.
The good news of the day came when a colleague pointed out that Fiona Hall, recently re-elected as MEP for the North East, has been elected by her colleagues to lead the UK Liberal Democrat group in Europe. This gives Fiona a much higher profile in Europe and means that the North East's voice will be heard even more strongly. One of her UK Lib Dem colleagues, Sharon Bowles, has become chair of the Economic and Monetary Affairs committee, a very powerful committee in Europe, overseeing the regulation of the financial sector amongst other things.
And now that it's too late to go out delivering or visiting the rain has stopped -the joys of the British summer.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

This morning delivering Focus in the Millfield area I stopped to chat with several residents out doing their gardens, all with one message - get it done before the rain! It made a change not to pick up any problems from people, maybe it's the sunshine effect. I did report one instance of obstructive car parking when I got home. Why people think it's OK to park on a pavement is beyond me, especially when leaving too small a gap for people with prams or wheelchairs to get through.
The rain did come this afternoon and "forced" me to sit in the car for 5 minutes listening to the end of an interesting item on the lunar landings of 40 years ago. I well remember deciding that I couldn't go without sleep entirely so went to bed late and set the alarm for 4a.m. in order to see the first moon walk. I was so excited and really thrilled that I managed to take some photos of the TV screen showing the walk. The grainy black and white prints are probably still in the loft somewhere.
This evening was the last meeting of Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe Parish Council before the summer recess. For once there was some very robust debate around the table. Genuine concerns about the plans for St Margaret's play area and what should be included will only be finally resolved when the detailed plans are drawn up. Our neighbourhood police called in, bringing news of the latest crime statistics for the parish. Once again anti-social behaviour reports around Durham Lane shops is our biggest problem. Two months ago we were told that the link for a CCTV camera wasn't suitable but that it should be improved within a month or so. I'm following it up now to see whether we can install a temporary camera and try to nip this problem before it gets any worse.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Halcyon Care

This afternoon I attended the official opening of the Halcyon Centre in Thornaby. This former infant school building has been transformed into a day care centre for adults over the age of 55 who have been assessed as needing such a facility. It's a relatively small scale operation, only 22 clients allowed on any one day, which covers Eaglescliffe, Yarm, Ingleby Barwick and Thornaby with the surrounding villages. Unlike some centres years ago this one is a hive of activity with arts & crafts on offer at times as well as all kinds of other activities. A 2 course meal is served every day and clients can even have a shower there if that's an appropriate thing for them.
The official opening was carried out by the Mayor and Mayoress of Thornaby, Cllr & Mrs Green, who were obviously proud to have this facility on their patch. Young families came to visit as well as older people and the children of some of the clients. There were raffles, tombolas, cake stall and more - all raising funds to further the extra work done there. The garden looked splendid thanks to the work done by, among others, some of the prisoners from Kirklevington Grange prison. The photos aren't brilliant because I forgot to pick up my camera so these were taken on a phone - not the best camera around!
A short bus journey back into Stockton took me to a complete contrast - Children & Young People committee as a substitute for Alan who's off taking tea with the Queen today. Most of the meeting was taken up with a scrutiny review of Child placements but right at the end were the progress reports on two scrutinies which I'd chaired when on that committee - Teenage Pregnancy and Bullying. I was really bitterly disappointed by the latter one. I feel as though hardly any progress has been made and we've let down another 2 years of children going through our schools. The best that the committee could do was to agree to bring an officer to a future meeting to find out what's going on - toothless or what? Meanwhile no doubt the good schools and youth clubs will protect our young people and the bad ones will go on allowing them to be abused.
The meeting went on so long that I caught the last of the frequent buses home, arriving at the stop a minute before the bus. Interesting to note that the 3 passengers on the bus were two councillors and a council officer!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Carbon Management

This afternoon's Environment committee produced some interesting facts but also raised some serious questions. For example, to produce a really top notch, carbon neutral school building might cost something like 7% more than to produce one that just scrapes through the new building regulations. It'll save lots more energy, but over a long period of time. Should we spend the extra £1m on that building, thus perhaps not being able to do something else? If so - what do we cut? Or do we settle for just getting by?
We had the usual problem of council officers who are immersed in their subject not being able to explain it in layman's terms but in the end came to an agreement about what information they can provide and how they'll do that. What we'll make of it remains to be seen. This review is proving very interesting but also very difficult to manage. Unfortunately money doesn't grow on trees - I'm sure Gordon Brown wishes it did.
The council's PR department did manage to work with the technical people to produce an interesting and useful press release. I hope the local press pick it up but in case they don't I reproduce the relevant parts below. Do read, learn and inwardly digest as my English teacher used to say.


All week Stockton Borough Council is offering advice and top tips on how to make a small change in your life to help make a big difference to the environment.

And of course, saving energy also saves money.

Each home in the UK produces approximately six tonnes of Carbon Dioxide each year. That’s practically the weight of a whole elephant!

The average resident in Stockton each has a carbon footprint which is equivalent to 4.3 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide - the weight of two rhinos.

Insulating your home is by far the best way to make your home more energy efficient. Cavity wall and loft insulation, which can cost as little as £99 each, can start you off saving on your heating bills straight away.

While some people may see this as a cost, it’s really a very reasonable investment as the price can often be recovered in just one year. If you are on certain benefits, or over 70 years old, you can have cavity wall and loft insulation installed free of charge.

To find out more visit the Small Change Big Difference road show or log onto

The road shows, which runs from 10am – 2pm, will be at the town centres of Billingham on Monday, Stockton on Wednesday and Thornaby on Thursday.

Top Tips for Energy Saving

  • Wash wise – try to wash a full load in dishwashers and washing machines – two half loads use more energy and water than a full load.

  • Wash at 30°C - today’s washing detergents are designed to work best at lower temperatures.

  • Give your oven the day off – slow cookers use the same amount of energy as a light bulb. A microwave uses 10 minutes of energy for every 40 minutes used by a conventional oven.

  • A fridge can use 20 per cent of the energy used in your home – make sure it is well maintained and running efficiently. Replacing your old freezer with a new energy efficient model will save you money. A new ‘A’ rated energy efficient model uses nearly a third of the energy of a 10 year old model.

  • Computers – when replacing consider a laptop which uses 70 per cent less energy than a desktop computer. Not changing yet? Why not invest in an energy saving mains controller or ‘powerdown’ unit which automatically switches off the monitor, printer, scanner etc when the computer is switched off.

Anyone in the Stockton Borough who wants to find out about how much energy they are using can borrow an energy meter for one month from their local library. Part of our ‘Watt’s Going Down’ scheme to encourage lower energy usage, the meter simply connects to the electricity meter in the home and provides a read out of the cost of energy used.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Elementis Update

The first meeting of the day was at Elementis in order to follow up some of the questions raised by its imminent closure. I went along not really expecting anything but wondering what the company would say. In the event I was pleasantly surprised at just how much they were prepared to say and to share with us, and also surprised at the amount of work which will go into shutting the plant down. They're talking of 3 years at least to be able to clean the site and shut down safely, so no "cowboy" operation here. As a chemist by training I'm impressed, as a ward councillor I'm highly relieved. There's also a commitment to helping the redundant staff to find new jobs. For some it might be the start of an exciting and interesting new career but for others it will be the start of a longer than expected retirement and for others perhaps a spell of unemployment or not very satisfactory employment while waiting for the jobs market to improve. I'd like to hope that no-one is unemployed but that might not be realistic in this economic climate.
Unfortunately the remaining meetings of the day weren't nearly so positive. Best not to say anything lest I say more than I should. Suffice to say that housing and me aren't getting on too well today.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

I had a meeting with fellow ward councillors, traffic officers and residents today at Aislaby to discuss possible solutions to the parking and speeding problems which the residents had identified at the Parish Meeting a few weeks ago. I say residents, but it was actually one resident and his dog, though he does chair the Parish meeting. Of course today there wasn't a parked car to be seen and the traffic through the village was very sedate. We did find out that a speed survey is already underway in response to concerns so when the results of that are known it'll be decided whether anything needs to be done.
Later, at cabinet, there was quite a discussion about whether or not the South of the Borough, including Eaglescliffe, should have more facilities for sport and active leisure with most people seeming to agree that yes, we should have more in an ideal world but there isn't any money and all the usual excuses. That's always followed by a reassurance that our concerns will be looked at. No doubt they'll then be put into a strategy and consulted on and by the time we've done all that we'll be past caring. Or am I being cynical?
Later still we discovered via the wonders of email that the process being used to make one of the most important and far reaching decisions the council will make this decade might have been fatally flawed. It's a good job the broadband cables don't react to the wrath of the councillors using them.
I need a holiday - a long one!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Play Area is coming!

This afternoon there was a meeting of the Recreation Committee of Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe Parish Council with 2 agenda items. The first was to receive the outline plans for our refurbishment at St Margarets' play area. Very exciting and we're looking forward to hearing residents' views during the consultation. Plans will be on display at the Playscheme in July and August, in our notice boards and perhaps in one or two shop. We'll have letters to go to houses very near the park so that those people know what's going on. We hope the press wil help to publiise it and we hope that lots of people will say their piece.
The second item was to complete the application for funding for work to be done on the memorial garden at Egglescliffe. Fingers crossed now - we hope to get up to £1700 to help with the planting of shrubs, a memorial tree and another bench.
I like it when money comes in and we can fulfil residents' wishes and aspirations.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Monday morning, a Focus leaflet to produce, an article to write for our newsletter to party members, a few bits of casework to finish up and a meeting with colleagues to discuss some issues. Just another day in the life of a councillor. This particular day was broken into by an unexpected and very pleasant chat with our daughter on the other side of the world, so not all work!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Celebration Time

The first Sunday of the month means Fairtrade stall at the church coffee morning. We only manage once a month but there's now a group of regulars as well as those who pop in occasionally. It's almost impossible to predict what will sell on a particular day. Some months everyone seems to want coffee and biscuits. Other days it's chocolate or tea. This week several people wanted snacks to eat while travelling which wouldn't make their fingers sticky and wouldn't melt in the heat like chocolate - Paradise Fruit mix and Geobars to the rescue!
This evening was spent celebrating Fiona Hall's re-election as our MEP for the North East. We were blessed when the weather changed for the better shortly before people were due to arrive and we could barbecue and eat outside. Fiona called in for an hour between campaigning in Dormanstown and driving home to Northumberland. Fairtrade Cola and wine, along with locally produced sausages and assorted other foods and drinks made for a very convivial evening.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Home again and time for a more detailed account of the last 3 days. The council's economy drive turned out to be a bit of a pain when the hotel we were booked into proved not to have a restaurant or even a breakfast room attached. The breakfast was delivered in a plastic bag to the floor outside the bedroom door. Or at least it was on the first morning. On the second morning it just didn't materialise at all. The content of the plastic bag was worthy of a photographic record. Fortunately I'd already decided that I was going to an early bird session on planning at which breakfast was provided - a selection of hot items, lots of fresh orange juice, coffee and fresh fruit. Definitely worth getting out of bed for.
The session on planning was useful and interesting, but would have been even more useful 2 years ago - c'est la vie!
The conference proper had a session with Michael Parkinson talking about dignity in old age and how every one of us has a responsibility to treat people with dignity and respect whatever their mental state. He talked with humour and pathos of his experiences as his mother developed dementia.
A fringe meeting with Sandi Toksvig, billed as a Question Time style evening, was more disappointing as lots of pre-prepared questions were put to a panel and there was little time for spontaneous contributions from the audience. It did, however, produce a few excellent moments and gave a name to be watched for in future - Amina Ismail from Liverpool hopes to be a councillor after the next elections there and has been shadowing the leader to find out what's involved. If she's not in a leadership role in 5 years I'll eat my hat. The title of the evening was "A woman's place in local government" and I concluded that Amina's was at the top.
That was followed by a very pleasant meal with colleagues from Yorkshire and Sussex, sharing ideas, hopes and concerns about the next couple of years.
And at the end of all that it was still so hot that I needed a shower before I could settle down to sleep, only to be woken by the ongoing noise from the Rock Bar over the road - the joys of the Harrogate Travelodge.
Thursday's early bird meeting was in a different venue and there wasn't such a good selection for breakfast but nevertheless the fresh juice was very welcome and the bacon sandwich was a rare treat.
A session on inland waterways was relevant to the river both in our ward and in the centre of Stockton. The workshop on climate change was less interesting, but was followed by a talk from Vince Cable, measured and convincing as ever. Why aren't the banks which were bailed out by the taxpayer helping the economy by supporting small and medium businesses more? Why is the government in such a hurry to sell them back to private ownership before they've put right the wrongs which led to their being taken over in the first place.
There followed a session on protecting the most vulnerable in our society - young children who can't protect themselves. The first part of it was full of statistics and had me wondering why I was there rather than doing something useful but the second part, from Martin Narey of Barnardos was excellent. He dared to go against the current view that keeping a child in a family is always the best thing for the child and suggested that at times a well run residential home can be much better for some children. His illustrations included the story of a child with severe behaviour problems who had over 40 foster placements in under 3 years - what earthly good was that doing for the child? It was a very challenging talk and will colour my thoughts on the care of children for some time I think.