Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent Sunday

In the rush and hurry of life it's good to have times set aside for quiet reflection. For Christians Advent is such a time, leading up to Christmas. 4 Sundays before Christmas we start to really consider what it means - not jolly gents in red suits, not reindeer nor snowmen nor robins; not overspending on presents nor overeating nor even family get togethers. Christmas is about God with us - a challenge but also a comfort. And since this blog is about life as a councillor and political activist rather than about the rest of my activities I'll leave it at that. I'll just say that making the Advent wreath with my grand-daughter this weekend brought back memories of years ago doing it with her mother. Lighting that first candle before eating our lunch together was a timely reminder that there's more to life than the location of schools, selection of Parliamentary candidates or even the council budget!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Our MP speaks

Usually our MP doesn't have a lot to say that's of any great interest but she's really excelled this time. A letter has gone to many if not all Eaglescliffe residents extolling the virtues of the IBIS idea of building Egglescliffe School in Preston Park. One can only assume that she thinks the votes of Ingleby Barwick residents are more important or useful (or easily bought) than those of Eaglescliffe voters. Either that or it's a cunning ploy to swamp the phone lines and e-mailboxes of the 3 ward councillors with protests!
Either way, Eaglescliffe residents are not impressed.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

This evening's cabinet meeting had a very full agenda and much of it was interesting or important or both.
There was wifi in schools, three select committee reports including the Environment one which I presented, school standards, a review of voluntary sector funding, budget pressures, economic climate and how to choose the best form of executive arrangements for Stockton.
All the controversial stuff had been sorted out in advance of course by the Labour/Tory coalition as is their way. One of the most interesting items to us as councillors, though probably not to most residents, was the item on future executive arrangements. At present Stockton Council elects a leader each year at the annual meeting. Naturally, that person is the leader of the largest group or the leader of some other coalition which commands a majority vote. The government thinks that the council would be better if that person was elected for 4 years at a time or if we had an elected mayor instead. After the next election (2011) Stockton has to change to one of these. In August the cabinet was happy to recommend that the way to decide between them was to have a referendum. Now, in November, apparently a referendum is too expensive so we'll have a postal consultation instead and then the council will decide, based on the result.
I'm not particularly wanting to have a referendum. I think it is expensive and I also think that the issues are quite likely to get mixed up with general election issues and the overall dislike of politicians following the parliamentary expenses scandal, but I am amazed that we have a cabinet so wally that it makes one decision in August and goes back on it in November. Yet another proof that the only reason Stockton is such a good council is because good officers do the necessary decision making. If we had this sort of decisiveness over such matters as finance and road sweeping nothing would ever get done.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hope and Despair

I started the working day at St Marks Elm Tree primary school in Stockton where pupils and staff have decided to become a Fairtrade school. The children have had lots of good ideas and I was invited to lead their assembly, explaining to them all the value of buying Fairtrade goods. A technical hitch meant they didn't have the pictures to look at on the screen but nevertheless I think we managed reasonably. I look forward to being able to celebrate with them the achievement of Fairtrade status.
This afternoon was back to earth with a bump - planning committee. The committee meeeting wasn't the problem, except for a developer who seemed to have no concept of fitting a design in with the surroundings. No, the problem was the update session afterwards. The government's new bright ideas on how to speed up the planning process: don't consult with people who might slow things down, introduce new wishy washy descriptions to give appeal lawyers a field day and cost local authorities a fortune, publish guidance about consultation that finished months ago ... Need I go on. Suffice to say that no-one, officers or members, was happy with what is happening and none of us has the power to change it.
One young councillor tried to say that things would change after the next general election but his older and wiser colleagues just shook their heads in despair. We all recognise that the priority after the next election for the government of whatever colour will be the economy and details of local democracy and accountability will just be put on the back burner.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Memorial Garden again

At today's meeting of the Parish Council Recreation Committee we moved several steps nearer to fulfilling our dream for the garden. Tenders had been received for doing the landscaping works and we debated them and chose which one to accept. Bulbs are being planted in the next few days. We've arranged a meeting on site with Stockton Council's Urban Design team to try to iron out any problems before we apply for planning permission. Everyone has a sense of at last being able to achieve what successive councils and local residents have wanted.

Safeguarding Adults

Amongst all the general casework - pavement parking, dangerous driving, etc was an excellent seminar on safeguarding vulnerable adults in our community. We hear a lot about children and how we need to look after them but sometimes forget that we have adults who need a lot of care also. The big difference that makes for difficulties is that adults often have the mental capacity to make a decision to opt out of help. We wrestled with case studies which illustrated the kind of decisions that have to be made by police and social workers on a weekly if not daily basis - is someone who chooses to live in a dirty uncomfortable home really making a proper decision? Is the carer abusing the cared for person or vice versa? Emotional blackmail is also a form of abuse! At the end of the session I think all councillors were heartily relieved that we aren't the people who have to make the decisions but also were happy that the professionals involved in Stockton are doing a good job. They need more resources to deal with an increasing number of referrals but that's for the budget setting meetings!

Monday, November 23, 2009


John, Alan and I had a meeting last week about the BSF issue in Eaglescliffe. Eaglescliffe's problems are inextricably linked to those of Yarm and Ingleby Barwick because so many children from the latter go to the other two schools. This is partly parental choice but mainly because there isn't a school big enough in IB to take everyone.
We had a very good and frank exchange of views with officers and are reassured that they understand the pros and cons of the various suggested sites in Eaglescliffe for a rebuild of the school. We await now the outcome of their comparison of sites and assessment of which one(s) should go forward for further investigation or consultation.

Memorial Garden moves closer

Plans for a memorial garden next to the war memorial in Egglescliffe village have been on and off the Parish Council agenda for about 50 years, but are finally moving close to fruition. Today a group of us went to talk to a Stockton company about producing an interpretive feature to explain some of the history of the memorial and help to appreciate the wonderful view from the area next to it. With good luck and a following wind we should have a much enhanced area before Remembrance Sunday comes round again.
One of the really exciting things about this project is how much of the work is being given to local organisations, helping the local economy and making the area better. Win win win!!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Credit Help

Eaglescliffe, Yarm and the other parts of the Western Area Partnership Board's responsibility are traditionally seen as fairly affluent and not in need of the kind of help and advice which is readily available in some less affluent parts of the borough. The credit crunch and recession have seen that perception change and at long last we've succeeded in getting recognition that there are people in need in this area too.
Last year Stockton Council's cabinet agreed with Western Area councillors that there should be some funding for this neck of the woods and a small amount was allocated to the board to help deal with the problems of helping people to get back into work if they lose their job at a time when the job market is shrinking. The board decided to use the fund to enable the Tees Credit Union to work with the Citizens Advice Bureau to set up collection points in the area, to improve the accessibility of advice and to help with small loans so that people don't get into a spiral of debt by trying to pay off exorbitant doorstep lenders. After some hiccups and delays the new Collection points have been established in Eaglescliffe Village Hall, Yarm Library and at Challoner House for the benefit of people at that end of Yarm. These are very welcome and should have been the subject of a leaflet distributed to every household in the area. However, I haven't received one at my house. If any readers from the Western Area have received it I'd be pleased to hear from you.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Amsterdam again

I couldn't move on to matters nearer home without mentioning a few of the things which particularly struck me as interesting in the city.
Bikes of course - it's a very flat city with the biggest hills being the occasional speed bump, so cycling is a sensible and relatively easy way to get around quickly. Dedicated cycle ways on most roads, dedicated traffic lights at busy junctions, very expensive car parking and congestion problem is almost solved - thousands of people on bikes! And these aren't mountain bikes or flash racing bikes. They're workaday objects, many quite rusty, many with interesting boxes and other contraptions for carrying loads including children and apparently without gears.
Prices - the conversion rate of the pound to the euro is so bad now compared to a few years ago that it makes shopping in the euro zone quite expensive for us. Another good reason to have joined the euro several years ago.
The number of restaurants serving food from the four corners of the globe - for a relatively small city it's very cosmopolitan. Greek, Indonesian, Thai, Italian, Argentinian, French, Chinese, Brazilian and Dutch all in one small area and then more as we moved further afield.
The flower market - bulbs of all kinds on sale at very reasonable prices. Tulips of course were very popular but we could have had anything from tiny snowdrops to huge amaryllis. It was fascinating to see them. And alongside them were the hemp seeds. Now I happen to think that hemp is a very attractive plant and the fibres make lovely soft fabrics, but sadly the leaves also make an illegal substance so I thought I'd better not bring any seeds back with me.
I also wanted to visit the Anne Frank house and so we spent a morning there. Suffice to say that it was as interesting as I'd expected and reinforced the feelings which I'd had when reading the book many years ago.
Something rather different was a visit to a well known spirits company, complete with the opportunity to try smelling the different ingredients for numerous liqueurs and to sample a cocktail at the end. I'd always thought that Genever and Gin were almost the same thing but I learned the differences on this tour. Not that I like either of them, but it's always good to learn. I also discovered that it's possible to enrol in a course to learn how to mix cocktails with the necessary dramatic touches which apparently convert it into an art form. You're never too old to learn!
And of course no visit anywhere is complete without my spotting something to do with Fairtrade. I was surprised and delighted to see the Fairtrade Cookbook translated into Dutch and taking pride of place in a little bookshop window. It has a special place in my heart as one of the recipes originated in the kitchens of the Newtown Resource Centre right here in Stockton,

Holiday Time

Having had a few days off and then several days of catching up it's now time to reflect on the past week. The blog will catch up over the course of a few days I fear.
On Thursday morning we flew (yes I know - Carbon Footprint!) out to Amsterdam from Durham Tees Valley (aka Teesside) Airport. The reasons for flying were complex and not to be gone into here. I know that carbon offsetting isn't the best answer to global climate chaos but in my opinion it's better than doing nothing.
Amsterdam is a city neither of us had visited before other than to fly through the airport or in Denis' case to go to meetings at an office block on the outskirts. This was an opportunity to see something of the city itself. It's not a large city and the main parts of it can be walked round in a day. Visiting some of the interesting buildings and taking time out to stand and stare meant that we could fill 4 days quite nicely.
The journey from the airport to the city was very easy - ticket machines which took cash, easy to read direction signs (thank goodness the Dutch use English as their second language) and regular express trains which per kilometre work out a lot cheaper than the trams which provide the public transport in the city centre.
Amsterdam obviously subscibes to the school of doing things early - the Christmas lights were on, the skating rink in full swing in the Liedseplein and the shops were full of encouragements to buy presents.
I found the number of Irish pubs interesting. Are there a lot of ex-pat Irish people there or are the Dutch exceptionally fond of Guinness? Who knows? I do know that one of them was very conveniently situated to allow a cosy drink enjoying the music from the skating rink before going back to the hotel for the night.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Treat spoiled

Today the staff of my mother's care home had booked a wheelchair accessible bus to take residents to Middlesbrough for lunch and a look around the shops. This is a rare treat because most of them are too frail to go often, it's an expense for which funds have to be found and it's dependent on volunteers from families or staff to push the wheelchairs. Sadly, they were let down by the bus providers. The bus arrived at 1015 instead of 10 and the driver announced that he was picking them up from Middlesbrough at 1.15 instead of 2.30. After much argument with his office the time was extended to 1.55, but as a result of all the time spent on the phone the bus didn't leave until almost 10.40. So a day out for the residents turned into a somewhat stressed rush. It shouldn't have happened and complaints are being followed through so at this stage I won't name and shame.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Alcohol Abuse

Today's meeting of Stockton Renaissance Partnership received a report on the Alcohol Abuse Reduction Strategy for the borough. It's frightening to think that Stockton has the worst problem in the Tees area and that the North East has the worst problem in England. Fortunately the team working on a strategy for improvement seems to hae a pretty good idea of what needs to be done.
Of course they can't do anything about the law which allows sale of alcohol almost on people's doorsteps all hours of day and night. Just this week our local "neighbourhood" store applied for and had to be granted a licence to sell alcohol until midnight. This is the company which claimed before opening the shop that it would be responsible, community minded etc. So 100m from houses they consider it appropriate to sell alcohol from 6 in the morning till midnight, daily. Who is the abuser of alcohol now? The addict buying his or her last bottle of the night or the company which deliberately opens late in order to sell it to them?
I really hope that Stockton's strategy helps to reduce the number of people with an alcohol related problem and to reduce the number of families being damaged by those problems. I really wish that the lawmakers who don't listen to their own chief medical officer's advice and continue to allow cheap alcohol to be sold on any street corner or shopping parade could be made to spend some time with the police, the doctors, the nurses and others who have to pick up the pieces. Then maybe they'd think twice about the laws before they pass them.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Carbon Saving

This afternoon's special meeting of the Environment committee went fairly smoothly. We now have hammered out a set of recommendations which should meet with cabinet approval and should help to drive up the carbon efficiency of the council's operations. The devil of course will be in the detail, in this case the action plans which will be brought forward in order to implement the recommendations.
The one issue which might still lead to some internal argument is the future positioning of the Energy Advice Centre. This little gem is the council's secret weapon - so secret that many residents apparently can't find it - and it needs to move to where it can be seen and easily accessed. If we're serious about helping people to reduce their own carbon footprint we need to have the advice right in front of noses.
Meanwhile the weather has turned colder and winter is approaching rapidly so heating is being used more often and for longer, standing at bus stops is less attractive and the temptation to use more fuel of one sort and another is growing. Get thee behind me Satan!!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Remembrance Sunday

Again this year it fell to me to lay the Borough Council wreath at Preston War Memorial. Its upkeep is shared between Preston and Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe Parishes so there are wreaths laid by both Parish councils as well as the church and members of the Guiding and Scouting movements. A young man played both The Last Post and Reveille beautifully and the whole occasion passed in a suitably reflective mood. I went past again later in the day when the autumn sun had disappeared behind grey clouds and the red of the wreaths was the only splash of colour. A reminder that for a short time at least a crowd of people of all ages had gathered there to remember the fallen.

Seeking Asylum

On Saturday evening we had a wonderful dinner at a fund-raising event in aid of Justice First. The efforts put in by this organisation are Herculean and much appreciated of course by those who seek their help. I don't argue in favour of having no policies on immigration - we need a proper system of encouraging those who have skills and talents to offer at all kinds of levels to come here and share them with us in the same way that some of our citizens go off to other countries to use their skills. But that's a completely different policy area to that of refugees and asylum seekers. Someone whose political or religious beliefs or ethnicity or tribal loyalty or sexual orientation or anything else means that they are persecuted in their home country needs a safe haven. I've written and spoken regularly of the people I've met who've left everything to get to safety. The man who fled Afghanistan because he believed that his very intelligent wife and daughter should be using their skills just as much as he and his son; the last surviving son of a family wiped out in the bombing of Kabul; the business man from Baghdad who'd upset Saddam's cronies once too often; the young Turkish Kurd who'd watched helplessly as his wife was raped and murdered while he lay wounded in the hill above the village; and countless more. These are people who need help and support and who might hope one day to go back to their homeland and help to rebuild it in peace. These are the people who sometimes don't have papers or evidence of how they've been treated when they arrive here. These are the people who are so traumatised by their treatment and their losses that they can't tell their story straight away. These are the people who need our help and who sometimes have to turn to Justice First when all else fails.
The dinner was in the Chinese Community Centre in Middlesbrough, Harmony House, a splendid building in the heart of the town. Supporters of Justice First had worked all day and for weeks before planning and preparing. It was wonderful to see the young people from St Andrews youth club acting as waiters. Some looked as though they'd been doing it all their lives. As well as local supporters who'd bought tickets there were a number of people there who are currently waiting for decisions on their asylum claims and it was lovely to be able to share the meal with them, relax and enjoy an evening and hear some of their stories of what they're doing in Teesside while waiting for a decision. Some of them had offered their skills to the Auction of Promises which closed the evening, reminding us that even in the most adverse circumstances we all have something we can offer to others. No doubt I'll be writing later about the things we bought when we've arranged the details and can enjoy them!

Saturday, November 07, 2009


The last few days have been a cause for remembering different things with grateful thanks to different people. First of all my mother reached the grand age of 92 having flirted with death several times in the last 12 months but now in the words of her grand-daughter seeing the birthday photos "she looks as well as she did 10 years ago". Many thanks to the staff at her care home for the TLC they lavish on her day after day.
Yesterday marked 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember not quite believing my eyes and ears when it happened, waiting for the catch and being a bit stunned when it didn't happen. Then the following summer my daughter was part of a group of Guides at a large camp in (West) Germany. She was told roundly and firmly by her hosts not to refer to it as West Germany any more "We're all one country now". How strange it sounded to us who'd grown up with two halves all our lives to have teenagers telling us that it was all one. How difficult it was to get used to saying it and writing it on envelopes at Christmas. Now of course there's a whole generation who don't know what the fuss is about and that brings problems of its own - how to remember enough to make sure it doesn't happen again while looking forward and building for the future.
That same difficulty arises every November as we approach Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day. How do we ensure that the sacrifices made by people 90 years ago aren't forgotten or, even worse, minimised by the knowledge and understanding we now have of wrong decisions taken by commanders or the fact that politicians didn't learn the lessons. We can look now at the world and see many of the same kind of mistakes being made but it doesn't take away from the heroism on the spot of the people doing their job under incredibly dangerous circumstances. But how do we as politicians ask the awkward policy questions, ensure that the strategies are correct and based on proper evidence and decision making without it sounding as though we're denigrating the work of the armed forces? Nick Clegg tried it yesterday but journalists want instant sound bite answers and despite his efforts they were reducing it to one line at the end.
The arguments around the wearing of poppies seems to be even more dippy this year. Why do some people think that they're being bullied into wearing one? Surely what's important is that in some way each and every one of us makes an effort to ensure that those who've suffered in the armed forces are properly looked after no matter what we think of the politics which sent them into the war in the first place? Whether we do that by donating to the poppy appeal is irrelevant as is whether we wear the poppy having made the donation. Even less relevant is whether we wear the poppy in the "right" way for heaven's sake. If we ever reach the point where there's so little conflict in the world that we've got time to worry about whether the poppy leaf is up, down or sideways I'll be the first to rejoice.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Trees, Roots and Branches

We had a busy ward surgery this evening for a change. Two related problems came to light and probably neither of them has an easy solution. Clifton Avenue and Ashville Ave both owe a great deal of their character to the mature trees which line the roads. However, over the years of their growing they've had a deleterious effect on the pavements and sometimes on the walls of gardens and even garages. As a result some have been cut down and not replaced, upsetting those residents who live in those roads because they like to look out on trees. Meanwhile the unrestrained root activity of others make the pavements very uneven and inaccessible to wheelchair users. We need to have some discussions with the Council's arboricultural experts to see what if anything can be done to enhance the appearance of the roads while improving accessibility.
Riverside Lounge also came up - the length of time the development is taking and the amount of debris littering the area is a frequent cause of complaint and tonight was no exception. Once again it's a case of seeing what can be done within the laws relating to planning and development which all seem to be stacked in favour of developers.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Preston Park Update

This afternoon's meeting of the Preston Hall & Park Management Committee was dominated by positive news for a change. Phases 1 and 2 of the refurbishment of the museum are under way. Taking advantage of the winter months with their lower visitor numbers some of the work on the park is about to start. The main field drainage will be the biggest most obvious work to be undertaken and should be completed around Christmas. Then comes the big challenge of protecting the newly sown grass while it gets established. Harriss fencing is too expensive to erect all round the field for three or four months and would detract from the visual amenity of the park too much, especially now that the Hall is such a popular venue for weddings so a combination of other methods will have to be used including extra surveillance and asking the community to help protect their future enjoyment by not using the field until it's declared to be up to standard.
Over the same few months there will be work done to make a new path to the river bank, less steep than the present one though still a formidable slope for wheelchair users, given the contours of the land.
The Museum will be closed on Mondays for the foreseeable future to allow the staff to move items, clean and do the myriad tasks behind the scenes which are needed in preparation for the major refurbishment work during 2011.
There's a real sense of anticipation and excitement as people begin to see the fruits of years of planning and working to obtain funding for projects and even though there's going to be major disruption at times and we didn't get the funding for the big schemes in the park there will still be a very visible improvement to our local tourist attraction.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Parking Problems

Surprise, surprise - the problems which we predicted with parking at Timothy Hackworth Court have materialised. When the plans for this sheltered housing scheme were submitted those of us with some local knowledge said that there was insufficient parking included. Ah, said McCarthy & Stone, you won't need that much parking because residents will give up their cars when they move in. You'll see - it's happened in all of our other establishments. We had anecdotal evidence that this wasn't the case and that they were having to offer inducements to people to give up their cars but it wasn't acceptable in the planning decision making process. Although the Planning Committee refused permission the Planning Inspector allowed the scheme to go ahead. 42 apartments with less than 20 parking places. Already there are problems. It seems that the grasscrete which was put down to protect the trackbed of the original Stockton to Darlington railway line was not laid properly. As a result it had to be replaced last week, meaning that many residents couldn't park anywhere in the grounds for parts of the day while the work was going on. Now it seems they want to replace it with gravel which can't possibly protect the trackbed in the same way or it would have been used in the first place as the cheaper option. There are only 17 flats occupied at present - heaven help us when all 42 are filled.
Meanwhile the question of parking a couple of hundred yards away at the station hit the Gazette tonight. While SBC officers have been working away quietly trying to get the best possible deal for passengers and for the residents of Station Rd and nearby streets as train services are becoming more popular and the Metro development draws ever nearer our illustrious MP decided to gain a bit of publicity by "calling for better parking". Is there an election coming up shortly I ask?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Season of mists etc?

No mists here for the start of November, just torrential rain. The torrents hitting the windows woke me early and they continued till lunch time. I'm not usually envious of people in sunnier climes but friends jetting off on Friday to Spain certainly had the better deal this morning. At least the water table has been topped up.
It made us very glad our carport had been installed so that we could load up the car without getting too wet but unloading in Yarm for the monthly Fairtrade stall was a wet experience. Although fewer people came in for coffee than often do, it was still a good morning and well worth the discomfort.
Coming home and being able to catch up on personal e-mails was a treat - it brought news that the Fairtrade shop in Middlesbrough is likely to open in a fortnight. It won't be in quite the same spot as in recent years but will still be in Dundas Arcade, opposite Boyes.