Monday, August 31, 2009

Tracing Roots

Denis and I decided to go out this afternoon and try to find a little bit of his past. We know that several generations ago an ancestor was the miller at Bowes. This was in the days of watermills which were commercially viable in today's parlance. So we set off under grey skies to follow the footpath along the side of the Greta towards Mill Race Falls in the hope of finding some traces of the old mill. Foolishly I didn't change from my crop trousers and walking sandals which had served me well during the morning! I walked very carefully in an effort not to catch my legs on nettles. Unfortunately, going up the hillside back to Bowes I almost tripped and stung my arm instead. A small price to pay, though, as the walk was through beautiful countryside and we did indeed find traces of the old mill. There's something rather special about standing in the spot where an ancestor worked over a hundred years ago and to know that the landscape hasn't changed all that much - more sycamore trees, a modern tractor in the distance, but nothing very much.
We wandered up to the church where some of the children in that family had been baptised before rain stopped play and we headed East again.
A pleasant use of the bank holiday, and another little holiday from politics.

Hospital v. Prison

I've been reading reports of the Bournemouth University research on nutrition in hospital. I'm sorry to say that it came as no surprise to me to see the conclusion: "Hospital patients don't consume enough. If you are using food as a means of treatment then it's not working."
I've never experienced prison food so I can't comment on that particular comparison, but I have had a great deal of experience over the last couple of years of the food provided to elderly relatives in our local hospital. A serving of soup seemed to be about a couple of tablespoonsful in the bottom of a bowl, already going cold. Something advertised on the menu as "Chicken Curry" turned out to be a dark brown mess which the patient couldn't face putting in her mouth. Perhaps even more depressing is the fact that the menu didn't change week by week so that for long stay patients there was a predictability which induced boredom. Add that to being expected to order hours in advance or to eat what someone else ordered the day before because they've gone home and you've been admitted - enough said.
I'm not even going to get into the debate about whether staff have the time to spend with the patients who need encouragement and help to eat and drink.
Some years ago in another local hospital there was an experiment on hospital nutrition. For a short period of time funding was made available to offer the "little and often" approach to food. The 3 main meals of the day were offered in a choice of small or large portions. Between meals there were snacks brought round at regular intervals - fruit, cereals, scones, little sandwiches, crackers & cheese. Patients could eat when they felt like it and staff would help and encourage. Patient recovery times were found to improve. The project made its way onto the BBC Food Programme on Radio 4. Then it disappeared. Nothing more was heard of it and the meals reverted to the old style. Those researchers must be really fed up when they read today's reports. Why spend money on research which produces positive results if you're not going to do anything with the results?
The NHS has many wonderful qualities and our family has benefitted many times, but on this there's been little improvement for the last decade or more. Something for the managers to think about?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Where's the waste?

There's a lot of talk at the moment about the need to save money in order to pull the country out of the recession. Much of it centres on how we can save in the public sector (councils, schools, hospitals etc) but there's rarely much detail. Sometimes there's a general "cut the top heavy management" proposal, but no-one suggests which managers.

So - Liberal Democrats came up with a rather radical suggestion. Why not ask the people who work in the public sector where they see waste? Teachers, librarians, social workers, nurses, doctors, road sweepers - anyone who works in th public sector is being asked where they think money can be saved. All the results will be put together to see where a change in policy or a tightening or easing of regulation would help to save money. It will feed into the manifesto for the general election and into our policies for years to come.

If you work in the public sector please go to the "In the Know" website and have your say. We're the only political party asking the right people so do take advantage.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bank Holiday Weekend

The sun's shining at the moment though it's a wee bit breezy out there and not very warm yet. Preston Park is the place to be in Eaglescliffe today. Stockton summer show takes place all weekend. There's something for everyone - sheep shows, dog show, circus, trapeze acts, falconry, theatre, craft stalls, food, drink and flyball demonstrations. If you don't know what flyball is, now's your chance to learn. Admission for the day is £3, but concessions cost £2, children under 5 are free and there's a discount voucher available for adults. And of course, while there you can visit Preston hall museum and wander round the rest of the park enjoying the wildlife, the wonderful views over the river and much more. Go on - go to Preston Park and spoil yourself for a day. The number 7 bus stops outside the Park and on Sunday and Monday there's a Park & ride scheme from Stoctkon.
The show lasts all weekend so there are 2 more days after this to enjoy it and the Park & Museum are there all year round.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Being personal

Nothing at all to do with politics in this post, just congratulations to people who've done well. To all the people who've achieved the grades they wanted in today's exam results - Congratulations to you all. A special mention goes to the two young people I know, my nephew Mark and the daughter of my fellow ward councillor, Hayley. I saw how much effort went into getting those grades and you deserve every mark. Good luck in 6th form both of you.
Excitement also when our daughter rang to say that they've had an offer for their house which they tried to sell just as the market was slowing down and so have had a very frustrating year. Fingers crossed that this turns into a sale and they can get the extra space they need for their family.
And the sun has shone for most of the day - what more can any woman ask?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reading articles in the press and hearing on radio mention of Ramadan in all kinds of different contexts has led me to really miss my teaching job for the first time since retiring. Not the paperwork and endlessly trying to reconcile the requirements of a scheme of work with those of the students wanting to be able to live confidently in this country you understand, but the sharing with those students of the festivals and feasts which mark the passing of the year. Ramadan seemed to me to draw out the best in people who sometimes didn't observe the traditions of their faith during the rest of the year. Ramadan in the middle of winter meant breaking the fast at the end of our class around 4pm, with students and staff bringing in contributions to share with everyone whether Muslim or not. I was always saddened that our Lenten fast didn't bring the same sense of celebration. We have so much to learn and share, and we waste so much time in hurting and fighting.

I spent the afternoon in discussions about carbon management in Stockton Council, trying to balance what is possible technically with what is possible financially and what's desirable environmentally. As a council we have a duty to lead and encourage the people and communities of the borough but we also have a duty not to squander the financial resources at our disposal. There are more talks to be held before we can produce final recommendations for Cabinet to take forward over the coming years.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why is it that when you want someone to phone they don't and when you want a bit of peace and quiet the phone never stops? Not entirely true of course. Today we had a lovely long conversation with a daughter the other side of the world, sharing thoughts in a way that e-mails and letters don't allow. But I've also spent considerable time over the past few days trying to get hold of people to make arrangements, leaving messages, calling back and getting nowhere. Meanwhile I've fielded enquiries as to whether my Sky TV package is satisfactory (I don't have Sky TV); whether I'd like to change my car insurance company (certainly not to a company which calls me on a Sunday afternoon). Nor, while I'm chuntering, do I need any more broadband, central heating or other items on offer from random call centres around the world. I keep reminding myself that it's not the fault of the person on the other end of the phone - she or he is doing a job. But I could cheerfully strangle their bosses!
Today brought a bit of sanity with the monthly meeting of the Fairtrade Borough Partnership. A number of decisions made and some sharing of responsibilities for them. Couple that with sharing some good news from actions carried out over the past few months and the world seemed a better place already.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Quality of Mercy is not strained

Or perhaps it is. I've listened with care but growing annoyance to the torrent of comment on the release of Al Megrahi. I don't doubt that there have been some discussions on trade and suchlike in the background. Trade underpins international relations and has done for as long as I can see in my limited studies of history. But it's not the whole story, I'm sure. Life is more complex than that. Scotland's justice minister had an unenviable job and he carried it out wth dignity. Whether he did it with integrity is between him and his Maker. One part of Kenny McAskill's statement stood out to me: Mr Al Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die. In the middle of a carefully argued statement that comment spoke volumes.
I was frustrated by people describing Al Megrahi's homecoming as " a hero's welcome." What I saw looked more like a family welcoming home a long-lost relative. Leave aside the posturing of Gaddafi's son, and a few zealots. The others at the airport looked to be celebrating a long awaited homecoming. Perhaps we in the "developed" world forget how important family, tribe and nation can be.
My heart goes out to those in Scotland and beyond who thought that the appeal hearing might bring some understanding of what happened and why on 21 December 1988. Now, there's always going to be the feeling that there's more to be told and it may not come out in our lifetimes.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

After an excellent day yesterday clearing out everything from broken suitcases to worn out blankets the loft looks remarkably tidy. Would that the office looked the same!
Today, apart from various domestic chores, there was time for a very productive meeting with some of the campaign team for Stockton South. Listening to radio reports on the election in Afghanistan makes me wonder how we can reach a happy medium - the enthusiasm of the Afghan people to take part in a democratic process which most British people find uninteresting here but without the violence and threat of violence that mars elections there. Meanwhile let's hope that whatever the result when the counting is over today's process has been sufficiently transparent to allow most people to accept the result and get on with building the peace.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I started the morning at a meeting of the Recreation Committee of the Parish Council, discussing the results of the most recent stage of the consultation on St Margaret's play area. Lots of positive feedback from people about the plans along with some understandable concerns about the possibility of attracting more anti-social behaviour and excitement on the part of the young people about the prospect of a more exciting play area coming soon. After years of struggle it feels good to be involved in such a positive project.
Somewhat less positive were comments from a visitor to Stockton who thought that the investment in the barrage and the riverside hadn't been used to the best advantage. One of the big issues for the borough is how to regenerate at a time of recession, and the riverbank is one of our biggest assets so these comments were apposite and I'll be passing them on.
Meanwhile I had to comment on a letter which will be going out soon to all electors in the borough and which, at least in the form I've seen it so far, is almost incomprehensible. No doubt eventually it'll be put into English rather than jargon, but why it's produced in jargon in the first place is beyond me.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Day Off

The weather forecast wasn't wonderful but the residential home where my mother lives had organised a trip to Whitby so we duly packed up raincoats and set off. How wrong could the forecast be? Beautiful blue sky, little white clouds, hot sunshine. Add that to fish & chips by the sea and it was a tonic for us all, not just the residents. The gulls were disappointed - we ate all our lunch ourselves.
This evening I decided to do a little more on my family history, still intrigued by the great uncle whom none of the family seems to know about. To my surprise I find that he had become a bus driver. So between leaving school and joining the army during World War 1 he had been a tailor then a bus driver then a livery stable proprietor. He became a gunner in the RFA then in the Tank Corps, then came home to his wife after the war. At his death he was a retired coal miner but I wonder if he did any other jobs in between.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Credit Crunch again

I had a meeting this morning as chair of the Western Area Partnership board to check on progress on our project to lessen the impact of the credit crunch in our area. We know that we're fortunate in this area compared to some, but nevertheless there are people facing redundancy or short time working and in some ways, especially emotionally, it can be harder to be in that position in an affluent area than in a deprived area where many more people understand your situation. Which is not to denigrate at all the problems faced in deprived areas - not at all.
The little bit of money which was allocated to the Western Area is to fund a support and advice package for people in this area, but it's been slower to start than I'd expected. We hope that it will now launch in September and people of the Western Area will be able to access the support and advice which they need to cope with the difficulties caused by the recession and so won't get into unavoidable problems.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

St Margarets Play Area

Today was the last day of consulting with children attending the playscheme and parents & other interested adults on the plans for the upgrading of St Margaret's Play area. Plans have been on display at Butts Lane school during the playscheme for the last 3 weeks and today I made time to go along and hear what people were saying. There's been surprisingly little comment from people but today made it all worthwhile. As one neighbour of the park was commenting on the likelihood of antisocial behaviour another two, agreeing that there was a likelihood of some bad behaviour, suggested a simple re-design of one part of the park, swapping a few features about to make the dark corner less attractive to youths as a drinking den at night. Simple, and so positive. One mother of young children recalled her teenage years visiting the same park, gathering in the same corner and could share what would help to encourage teenagers to congregate a little further from the houses. Also she was a great advocate for the idea of a Multi Use Games Area and thought we should spend the money on that first!
There were children's suggestions in plenty too, so lots for us to discuss at our Recreation Committee meeting next week. I'm really looking forward to seeing the results in spring next year.

Shooting Stars

Last night we went up to the North Yorkshire moors to look at the night sky. Once a year the planet goes through a cloud of dust and bigger debris and some of it turns into "shooting stars". For a more techie explanation see one of the more erudite sites on the subject! Suffice to say that a fair number of people gathered to watch as amazingly bright lights shot across the black night sky. Between these highlights there was plenty of opportunity to see stars which are invisible in the brightly lit streets of Teesside and to watch the moon rising majestically through the wispy cloud.
The sheep looked somewhat non-plussed at these intruders into their late evening rest, and I wondered what the residents of the scattered cottages thought of the number of cars going up what's probably a deserted road at that time on most nights.
I wasn't quick enough with my camera but there's a super photo here

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

No meetings today so a chance to catch up on a few other things. The to do pile has decreased, the ironing pile has increased and the pot plants look a little less wilted. I like days like this!
I didn't like hearing on the news that Aung San Suu Kyi has been sentenced to even more time in detention. It wasn't a surprise, considering the past history of the Burmese military junta but it is disappointing none the less. I'm still enough of an optimist to hope for a miracle one day. Meanwhile I've signed a petition calling on the UN to hold the military junta to account for the crimes they have committed against their own people. I encourage readers to do the same. If in doubt about the politics behind today's decision the BBC has a relatively impartial look at what's going on.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Cash in the Attic?

Not in this councillor's attic there isn't, but emptying it today in readiness for laying new insulation was revealing in other ways. The battered old roasting tin which I thought I'd binned years ago turned up in a cardboard box. Anyone want an old rucksack with external frame? Or a hifi set with a dodgy volume control and a damaged amplifier? Or a cabinet for holding such a hifi system? Or an empty cardboard box which once held a DVD player? You get the idea! I foresee many trips to Haverton Hill and the feeding of the civic amenity site.

50 years and going strong

Today my friends and Lib Dem colleagues, Suzanne & John Fletcher, celebrate a total of 50 years of continuous service on Stockton council. That's quite an impressive achievement in itself. Looking back over all the things, small and not so small, which they've changed in that time is even more impressive. Nagging away until recycling is now part of the borough's life style, there's a proper set of criteria for pavement repairs, the public is allowed to speak at planning committee meetings, members of the public can ask question at full council meetings, are just some of the general ones. The problems that have been resolved in their wards would fill more than this blog. And then there's the encouragement (empowerment in today's jargon) of local residents and party members and the lives they both lead in communities outside Stockton Council.
Congratulations and best wishes for the future were shared last night with friends and colleagues at a celebratory party. Well done both!

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Patient Choice?

A saga of inefficiency labelled as choice:
A problem with a creaky shoulder becomes more acute so eventually hubby makes an appointment to see a doctor. He waits a week for an appointment, very willingly, because he wants to see a particular doctor for whom he has a great deal of respect but who happens to be on holiday. Doctor looks at shoulder and discusses options, deciding eventually to refer for physiotherapy. Hubby comes home expecting an appointment to arrive soon.
Letter arrives some days later from the local PCT with a series of instructions from which we eventually deduce that he needs to ring the musculoskeletal assessment unit, and use the password on the letter to arrange an appointment. Hubby telephones, gives the password and is told that there's at least a 3 week waiting period and he will receive an appointment in due course by post.
Why oh why couldn't they just make the appointment there and then even if it is 3 or 4 weeks in advance? Or, why not the old system of an appointment card arriving and it being his responsibility to keep or change the appointment as appropriate? Where is the efficiency gain in this system I ask?
Rant over. It's a lovely sunny morning and I'm going to make the most of the day before going to spend an evening enjoying the company of fellow Lib Dems and supporters tonight.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Two related issues came up today at ward surgery, both to do with the school zones and traffic calming schemes being proposed near The Links and Junction Farm. The new school zone signs on Carnoustie Drive aren't to everyone's liking it seems, while the small length of waiting restriction now doesn't please those who want it to be bigger.
Meanwhile speed bumps near Junction Farm school are worrying some people concerned about people with osteoporosis and brittle bone disease. It seems as though nothing about these schemes is going to please everyone. Let's hope that after all the angst people feel it's a bit safer to let children walk to school rather than being taken in a car.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Tristar Open Day

Fairtrade in the sun today - the Tristar Open Day in Preston Park was blessed with fine weather all day but round noon the sun was extremely hot. We had our stall for the Fairtrade Partnership set up, with samples of chocolate very kindly donated by the Co-op at Roseworth along with a luscious looking chocolate cake as a prize for the winner of our quiz. Stopping the samples melting in the sun was quite a challenge! At one point I wished I had some cornflakes to make chocolate crispy cake! I was surprised by the number of children who preferred to sample the dark chocolate rather than white or milk - we have more sophisticated children than adults when it comes to chocolate if today's sample was anything to go by.
There was quite a lot of interest and a pleasing number of people who recognised it as something associated with their church or school or local co-op. Only one person who spoke to me thought Tesco had started the movement and I soon corrected her!
All in all, it was well worth getting hot and sticky for a few hours. Next year we'll make sure we have even more cool boxes and ice packs and a gazebo for shade. Then it'll probably rain.
It was good to hear that one Norton school is going to do a full term next summer on Fairtrade and related topics. Also good to know that so many of our chldren have at least some idea of the ethics of Fairtrade.
It was also good to see Tristar homes giving so many of their tenants a really good fun day out. Coaches were laid on for those who didn't want to or couldn't drive or catch a bus. There was tea & coffee along with fruit for the children. The climbing wall, bouncy castle, go-karts and so on had a steady stream of people enjoying them and the burger van did a good trade. I also heard a number of people talking of going to visit the museum while they had the chance, so a good day all round. Congratulations to all the Tristar staff who played a part.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Building Schools for the Future

Today we had confirmation that all 3 RC schools in the borough will be in the current wave of BSF funding. The planned federation of St Michael's in Billingham, St Pat's in Thornaby and Our Lady & St Bede's in Stockton has enabled them all to be in the same funding wave. That's good news, especially for St Pat's which desperately needs some investment in its buildings. However, it leaves Egglescliffe, Conyers and All Saints out on a limb as the only 3 schools in the borough which won't benefit from this funding. What the government is thinking of, cutting 3 schools off from what's happening in the rest of the borough, is beyond me. But so is much of what this government does.
So what next for Egglescliffe school? Well, nothing much at present. A study will be undertaken to look at a variety of sites which have been suggested for building a replacement school when funding becomes available. One of those sites is Preston Park, and so far I haven't found anyone living in Eaglescliffe who's happy with that. One of course will be the Allens West playing field site which suffers from the problem of the pylons at one end and therefore the overhead cables which alarm some people. I've heard other sites suggested but I'll wait to see which are proposed in the Cabinet report next month.
Given the shortage of money in government coffers now that it's been spent on propping up banks and fighting an illegal war in Iraq it seems unlikely that the BSF programme will continue beyond this wave so another means of financing the rebuild will need to be found and that won't be easy.
Meanwhile plans are progressing for the general election. For most voters there's nothing much to an election - a date is announced and they vote (or not) then wait for the result. For the council officers and members there are decisions to be made about where to count the votes, where to store the postal votes as they come in, how many people are needed for all the different jobs and so on. Planning is ongoing now for an election in May to coincide with the local elections which happen in some areas, though not in Stockton. Before that we have the annual canvass of the borough to produce the electoral register and already plans are being made for conducting the 2011 census. There's never a dull moment in Electoral Services.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Back to Earth

I did not enjoy this Monday morning. Knowing that the holiday is at an end is one thing. Knowing that there were papers to be read for this afternoon's meeting and not really time to read them was bad. Finding out that I couldn't even download the papers because the laptop wouldn't connect to the council system and I couldn't even try to read them on a minute hand held screen because that system wasn't working either was the final straw. And that was all before 0830.
The IT problems have now been resolved but anyone who sent emails to me over the weekend might be well advised to resend them as they may not have made it to my mailbox. Perhaps I should be thankful for small mercies because I still had several hundred to contend with when I could finally access a computer screen.
Monday afternoon did provide some interesting insights into the workings of IT in the authority as the Environment committee grappled with ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the authority while keeping the IT systems working and fit for purpose. The new computer room and servers should help, as should the "Campus Stockton" approach being taken now to school IT but there's still a long way to go. It was more disappointing to hear from one of the council's architects about the costs and other problems associated with ensuring that our new buildings are as energy efficient as possible. To hear that we can't reach the goals we would like to set because of budget caps is realistic but depressing. Now it's up to the committee to decide what we want to recommend as the way forward for the council. Weighing in the balance the savings to made over 30 years against high costs now meaning that something else has to be left out of the programme is another judgement of solomon moment.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

R & R

Home again after a week of rest and relaxation in Dorset. Our wonderful holiday house had no mobile phone reception, no internet connection - bliss for a week. I know I wouldn't want to live like that for ever but it did mean that work couldn't intrude on our evenings and only when we went out of the village quite a distance during the day did anyone have any chance to contact us, apart from the two close relatives who had the number of the payphone in the house.
It meant all the more time to spend seeing the world through the eyes of a 3 year old whose pleasure at watching the deer browsing in the field at the bottom of the garden was a joy in itself. Having breakfast looking out on a wildflower meadow with a pair of roe deer feeding, then an evening meal watching the swallows swooping and gliding to catch their evening meal - what more could we ask? With a Wendy House in the garden, and walk in wardrobes for hide & seek it was paradise for children as well. We even got to watch master thatchers at work on the house next door.
The choice of area had been made largely so that I could visit the Tank Museum at Bovington. Not my usual choice of holiday visit but in researching my family tree I'd discovered a great-uncle who'd served in the Tank Corps in the Great War. He was the only one of several brothers who'd served in the forces because the others were all miners and so were needed there. I'd never known that this person existed and nor had my cousin so I was intrigued to know what I could about his life. The Tank Museum staff had already helped me with a transcript of the war diary of the battalion in which he served. Now I wanted to see the kind of machine he'd been in and the life he'd led as a member of the Tank Corps. I found it interesting that part of the daily rations was 1/50 ounce of mustard - not what I'd have considered an essential to daily living. I presume it went with the 3/4lb of meat per day! I did find myself wondering just how much of the daily official ration they actually got when it was so hard to get supplies to the front line troops and perhaps at times hard to know where the front line was in all the chaos of a battle prior to our modern communications systems. Unexpectedly, I found that I could climb up and sit in just the model of tank he'd served in, and have explained to me what he'd have done and how cramped they were in there. Prior to being called up to the army he'd worked with horses in a livery stable. It must have been horrible for him to go into a noisy, oily, fume-filled, overcrowded tank and drive across the battlefield knowing that if his tank were hit all the spare ammunition that was under his feet would explode and blow him to kingdom come. I think I came close to understanding why he didn't want to talk much about his experience when he was discharged, why he wasn't quite part of the large but close-knit family back home in Murton. Those experiences must have changed him for ever, and he was the only one to have had them. He couldn't share the jokes, memories and worries of the miners and they couldn't share his memories.
On a lighter note we took the opportunity to visit Chesil beach in a wind so strong we struggled to stay upright, Lulworth cove where the rain spoiled our picnic but then the sun allowed us to enjoy one of the best icecreams ever, Dorchester where it rained so hard that the road was like a river and we waited almost an hour in a Tea Shop for a sandwich to be made, Weymouth for excellent fish and chips, and enjoyed a Dorset Cream Tea in the open air at a Farm shop. At least, those who like cream did - for the others it was warm Dorset apple cake with local ice cream. The diet starts tomorrow!