Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mourning and Memorials

I spent a great deal of time today in discussions about the best way to move forward on planned changes in our cemeteries across the Borough. When I chaired the scrutiny review into managing memorials in the cemeteries it became obvious that for many reasons over the years the council policy of having only a headstone and vase on a grave had not been kept to. As a result the graves which only had grass weren't looking tidy because the maintenance was so difficult going round other graves with lots of objects on. Some people put breakable things on and then got upset when they were damaged either by other visitors or by the weather. Some put soft toys on and the squirrels played with them and moved them, upsetting for everyone. The committee heard from loads of people, agonised for hours over what to do and came up with a set of recommendations. The cabinet accepted them and now the council staff are trying to put them into practice.
Most of the recommendations have gone through without any problem. The safety of existing headstones has been checked and unsafe ones have been secured. The flower beds are beautiful. The railings round the Garden of st Francis, where babies who die before they reach 1 month old are buried, look lovely as does the planting in there. Now we're up to the really hard bit - most people want the grass replaced with fresh turf and the area tidied up, and would like a part of the grave to be available for personalisation - planting, placing personal items and so on. But for some families that's just not enough - they want the whole grave area to be personal to them. Trying to find a way to please both groups of families is proving to be a task of Herculean proportions and is going to take a very long time to resolve. Yesterday we did manage to identify an area where everyone is in favour of, or at least accepting of, the new council policy and would like us to just get on with it. So that part can be done while we continue discussion with the others. I foresee a long time on this yet, but it's well worth doing when it's such a sensitive area.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Politics Isn't all Bad

Working with other Liberal Democrats in the area campaigning across the Borough to get Fiona Hall re-elected has been a really positive experience this weekend. Despite the dreadful goings on in Westminster many people are prepared to think about the issues that really matter to them, and who is best placed to help resolve them. The Liberal Democrat message that we can do our bit to help the environment, reduce carbon emissions and slow the rate of global warming at the same time as creating new opportunities for jobs and investment gets a positive response across the borough. Fiona has worked very hard to help the Tees Valley access the help that's available to get those jobs. She's been furious when she discovered how much the Labour government has denied the North East and our residents have agreed.
Fiona will continue to work for us if she's re-elected, working from within a strong grouping of Liberal Democrats across Europe, unlike candidates who stand for election to an institution which they are committed to destroying. Where's the sense in that?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

African Drumming in North Yorkshire

Last night we took a night off from local and European politics and family worries thanks to an SOS phone call. Justice First needed help to transport drummers and drums to Ampleforth for a fund-raising social there. A trip to Middlesbrough first, to collect our 3 passengers and 3 drums. Waiting for our passengers to arrive at the designated meeting point we watched hundreds of students beginning their celebratory evening at the end of exams, all wearing their specially designed Final Fling T-shirts. It brought back happy memories of completing our courses at the same university, then Teesside Polytechnic. What a long way it's come in the intervening years and what a high standard it achieves now in its speciality subjects.
With Jose, Patrick and Rosie plus 3 drums safely on board we set off for a drive across the moors to the little village of Ampleforth. The church had organised a social evening as a fund-raising effort for Justice First and the hall was packed. A good number of students from Ampleforth College had made the trip from a mile up the road and it was something of a surprise to find that the college is now co-educational. One of the Benedictine priests told me that it was certainly better for the boys to have the girls there. He couldn't comment on whether the girls would have done better elsewhere!
The evening was a wonderful mix of music, film and words. There was the chance to hear about the real difficulties faced by people seeking asylum - fleeing their own country, arriving here and finding that they don't have the necessary evidence from their own country. As though anyone running for his life with bullets whistling round him stops to ask for a sworn affidavit from the pursuers!
A film made by students at the university told the story of Joseph who, hiding in his bedroom, heard his father being beaten and then shot by militia. Discovered, he managed to pull himself free, jump out of a window and run for cover with bullets whistling past him. In his own words "I must have run until I passed out".
There were other stories too, and the young people sat as quiet as mice through them. They were absolutely engrossed in the stories and I hope that the impact stays with them as they reach the age of voting on these and other issues. Like us, they sat entranced when the musicians sang a song in memory of all their friends and compatriots killed, injured, disappeared in the fighting in the Congo. And even today I sit slightly guiltily using this laptop, thinking that some of the components may well have materials that came out of DRC via Rwanda or some other neighbouring state, materials which fuel the instability and the conflict in Congo.
Those same young people were the first on their feet to dance to the exciting rhythms of the drums but they certainly weren't the last. By the end of the evening almost everyone in the room had been up for at least a minute or two of dancing. Videos of my contribution are banned!
All too soon it was time to load up the car and start on the journey back. Lightning and thunder accompanied us for part of the way but fortunately the rain held off.
A very good evening that made me very glad I answered the phone when I did and could respond to the plea for help. The reward far exceeded the effort of responding. My one regret was forgetting to pick up my camera and only having a phone to take snaps on. I'm sorry to say that the settings weren't right so the photos aren't very good at all.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The rain didn't daunt Stockton Lib Dems today as several turned out to help Fiona Hall MEP in Eaglescliffe, knocking on doors, meeting people and talking about the election to come on June 4th. It was good to see so many people prepared to give up time and to get wet in order to make sure that residents had the chance to talk about the issues concerning them. Sadly, the recent scandals about MPs and their expense claims have made many people think they shouldn't vote for anyone because all politicians are corrupt. Those MPs have a lot to answer for, in bringing politics at all levels into disrepute. At least today some of our residents had chance to discuss issues with a politician who cares passionately about the things that really matter to people - the environment, jobs, the world economy etc.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

To Infinity and Beyond

That was the theme of the celebrations surrounding the official opening of the Infinity Bridge, the latest bridge over the Tees in Stockton. At present it leads from the University to not very much, but eventually it will lead to the new developments on the North Shore of the river. Whatever happens on North Shore, the Infinity Bridge is a thing of beauty and worth looking at for that.
The celebrations culminated in a magnificent firework display, including a "waterfall" of stars from the bridge into the river. The sound and light performance before the fireworks was superb and the free runners making their way to the top of the arches before lighting their flares was a heart-in-mouth few minutes.
A wonderful engineering achievement, fully justifying the derivation of the French term for engineer which comes from the same root as genius.
The one disappointment of the evening was that the wind was too strong for the reflection in the river to complete the picture, but there'll be plenty of time for that as infinity stretches ahead.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Bananas again

Fairtrade bananas of course. Though today we weren't eating them, not in public anyway, but drawing together our submission for an award for the most imaginative way of promoting Fairtrade bananas during Fairtrade Fortnight. It was a bit of a trip down memory lane to go back over the planning and the detail of the event together, and a real eye opener to realise that we'd probably reached several thousand people at one level or another during the 24 hour period. Now I have to draw together the evidence and parcel it up for dispatch next week. Fingers crossed - we might win!
It was also a slightly sad occasion because the representative of Middlesbrough is leaving her present job and will no longer be part of any plans for future Tees Valley events. I look forward to meeting her successor.
Later in the day I went to ARC to follow up on our plans for our next Fairtrade event - wine tasting on June 11th. If you're in the Stockton area get in touch and buy a ticket - it'll be well worth it.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Difficult Decisions

Last year I chaired a scrutiny review of memorial policy and other aspects of our cemeteries. It wasn't an easy subject but it was very much needed. The old policy had been disregarded for a long time for all sorts of reasons, some good, some less so. One of the conclusions of the committee was that a proportion of each grave should be allowed for personalisation - family could plant low plants, place decorative objects or just leave it grassed to suit their own wishes. The rest of the grave would then be turfed and maintained by the council's workforce.
The first area for this to happen would be the burial area set aside for babies. It would tie in with the refurbishment of the garden, including attractive border fencing and planting. The plans looked lovely. The first stage of the work improved the borders of the garden and general planting. The next stage was to be the tidying of the graves. Sadly, a small number of parents are finding it hard to cope with the new policy and so much of today was taken up with a meeting to discuss the way forward. No-one wants to upset people who've had such a tragedy in their lives and it is taking a great deal of time to resolve the differences.
There are many problems in the way scrutiny is done in the council and how it's followed up, but on this occasion the cabinet acceptance of the recommendations has remained solid. The cabinet member is working with the council officers and I'm being included as part of all the discussions. It's good to report a success once in a while.