Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What a difference 4 years makes

I can't help reflecting on the Boxing Day Test match of 4 years ago - my first visit to our elder daughter's new home and as a treat she'd bought tickets for the 3rd day of the Test match.  Sadly, the day was cut short by England's lamentable performance.  The shout from my neighbour in the stand to one of our fielders who'd missed what looked like a fairly easy catch if only he'd made the effort to get down to ground level "You're allowed to get your blouse dirty you know" summed up the feelings of the spectators.
This year it's the turn of the Australian supporters to feel demoralised, humiliated, frustrated, as their team only just managed to get to a 4th day of play in this hugely symbolic match. Are there parallels with political parties and general elections?  Some perhaps.  It does strike me that some sections of the media in particular think they can predict the results of an election in 4 years time from the results of this year's.  All I can say is, would they have predicted this Ashes series from the result of the previous one?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The photos

 For some reason best known to this site (and completely unknown to me) the photos have uploaded on their sides.  The Paris big wheel looked beautiful at night and I'd love to be able to share the smells and sounds of the Christmas Market along the road nearby.
Hot mulled wine, sausages, candy floss and much more mixed to give that very special atmosphere.
I was interested (councillor hat on) to see that the carousel nearby was being enjoyed by all generations of families and was provided free by the Mairie of Paris (the local government of the city).  A big sign told everyone that this was a Christmas gift from the Mairie and wished everyone happy Christmas.  It occurred to me that we do quite a bit of free entertainment in Stockton at different times of the year and perhaps we should make it more obvious how it's funded. Though of course such things will be less frequent as cuts have to be made.

These Christmas trees were made from recycled plastic bottles by an artist.  If people were inspired they could buy a kit containing the basic structure and instructions on how to put it together and then create their own version in the run-up to Christmas.  I didn't try to bring a kit home, fearing for my luggage allowance, but I'm sure there's an enterprising artist in our area who could come up with something similar for next year?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A European View

Denis and I took a few days off politics over the weekend and visited Paris.  The reasons for the choice of city and the timing are not for the blog but we were very relieved on Friday when we arrived at Newcastle Airport for our flight to find that it was leaving on time unlike the ones to Amsterdam which were cancelled thanks to the bad weather there.
We had snow in Paris but it didn't stop us wandering the streets and the Christmas markets, enjoying mulled wine and hot chestnuts and soaking up the atmosphere.  It was interesting to see how well wrapped up the locals were - boots and warm coats, scarves, hats and gloves were everywhere.  Even teenagers were sensibly dressed.  I couldn't help but contrast it with Yarm on an evening where hardly anyone seems to wear a coat whatever the weather.
The local TV news had quite a bit of coverage of the weather disruption to holidays but the press front page news was of problems in Africa and other international events.  The weather was relegated to the middle of the newspaper, again a huge contrast to what I'd left behind.
Of course I wasn't totally out of touch with the UK.  The wonders of modern technology meant that my colleagues could keep me up to date with what was going on in the ward and the borough, and we could still plan our activities even though miles apart.
Photos will follow when I can upload them.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Humanity at last!

Wonderful news this morning as the closure of the "Family Unit" at Yarls Wood detention centre was announced along with the end to detention of children over the next few months.  This is a Lib Dem policy being put into action by the coalition government.  It's not a "sexy" policy, it doesn't appeal to the extremists but it is a right policy, a good policy.  No-one claims that all the parents seeking asylum here should be granted sanctuary just because they have children but we have said over and over again that there are ways to keep adults under close supervision which don't involve locking them up with their children - imprisoning children for the perceived sins of their parents.
I do think this awful practice would have ended a lot sooner if we'd subjected the inventors of the policy to the treatment, just for a month.  The cries of their children as they were separated from their friend and their few treasured possessions surely would have softened the hardest heart, wouldn't it?
Today, though, I just want to give thanks that this step along the way has been taken.  A slightly more humane asylum system is the result.
And it all happened on the day the Peace Light came from Bethlehem to Stockton.  How appropriate is that?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fairer Votes

It's refreshing to be part of a campaign that's not linked to any one specific political party, nor to a local single interest, but which spans all parties and those with no party links and which is about something as fundamental as voting reform.
This afternoon a small group gathered in Eaglescliffe to hear about the campaign across the North East region and how we can be involved.
When we were knocking on doors during the general election a number of people said that they really didn't know which way to vote - they really wanted to vote for a smaller party's policies (and in Stockton South there were plenty to choose from) but they were frightened that by doing so they would allow a victory for the big party they didn't want.  It was a genuine dilemma for a number of people and when I pointed out that it's possible to have a fairer system which would allow people to rank the candidates rather than just pick one, and have those preferences taken into account, the reaction was amazing.  I've never had anything so positively received on the doorstep! 
Next May we have the chance to change things for ever - to say Yes in a referendum and to sweep away complacency and laziness.  MPs would have to work harder - to cover all their constituency and not just those people most likely to vote for them.  It would mean that no MP could be elected on less than half the votes.  The only people to lose from a Yes vote are the lazy MPs who don't deserve to be in Westminster anyway including those who are arrogant enough to live miles from their constituency, not be available for their constituents and yet draw a full allowance and expenses for doing the job.  To my thinking, there's no reason not to vote Yes!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Funding Higher Education

The dust is settling a little, the accusations about behaviour during demonstrations are bouncing round the media and conversations up and down the land, and one thing strikes me above all else:  The focus of the public "debate" has been entirely on the rise in tuition fees.  Yet this package is about so much more than that.
There's been some discussion of the rights and wrongs of shifting the burden of paying for education from parents supporting their offspring while at university to graduates paying for it after they leave, but the decision on that shift was taken back in the 90s when Labour introduced tuition fees, having said that they had no plans to do so.  They then introduced top up fees, having said they wouldn't.  So the shift in emphasis on how higher education is funded has been established for more than a decade now under Labour.
Liberal Democrat party policy is to phase out Tuition Fees.  Not enough people voted Lib Dem to get a Lib Dem government, but the country did get a coalition government including Lib Dem ministers.  Some Lib Dem policies are being implemented (on pensions, on early years education, on ID cards, to name just 3) but not all - some Tory policies are being implemented (on Free Schools for example) but not all.
Lord Browne recommended no cap on fees - let universities charge whatever they think the market will stand.  Lib Dems pushed for a cap and got it, albeit at £6000 as the norm.  Under exceptional circumstances universities can charge £9000 per annum but they've got to ensure community benefits and support for students from low income families.
Students whose family income is low enough to qualify them for free school meals will have their first year fees paid by the state.  If they go to a university that charges £9000 the university will have to pay their 2nd year fees.  So for the common 3 year degree those students will only pay £9000 tuition fees.
Part time students who currently have to pay their fees before they start to study will now be able to pay them back through the graduate contribution in the same way as full time students.
Maintenance grants are going up for students from low income families.
No-one will start to repay their loans until their income is £21k per annum which is a lot better than the £15k at present, and it is going to be index linked following pressure from Lib Dem MPs.
These are good things to come out of the response to the Browne report and they are being missed, either deliberately or accidentally, by most of the people shouting about fees including members of the Labour party, not least the leader of the National Union of Students.
I'm not a tax expert and I don't know whether a graduate tax would work better.  I suppose that in truth we'd all like everything to be "free", i.e. paid for from general taxation, but without taxation going up to fund it!  But we have to accept that the number of people of working age in the country is not as high a proportion of the population as it used to be, a higher proportion expect to go into higher education, and the money has to come from somwhere.  Fees paid back from earnings seems as fair a way as any to me. 
Last week I spent some time with people involved in Higher Education and all of them agreed that a rise in tuition fees was disappointing but inevitable, but they did feel very sorry for the students of today compared to those of 50 years ago who went to university, with tuition funded by the state and maintenance grants available to all who needed them.  A golden age perhaps?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Carols at Christmas

This afternoon was the first carol service of the season - Queen's Campus of Durham University.  There's a tradition that after the service and evening dining the university processes with lanterns across the river to the Town Centre and is greeted by the Mayor and Chief Executive of the Council at the Town Hall.  It's a very enjoyable and picturesque event but this year the procession had to be cancelled thanks to the snow and ice.
Nevertheless the Mayor and Mayoress joined the carol service and evening dining so the link between Town and Gown wasn't lost completely.
I enjoyed being able to relax and contemplate the Christmas story with the aid of a mix of traditional and modern words and music.  One hears so many carols and Christmas tunes crackling over loud speaker systems in shops at this time of year that I for one just shut them out.  So to sit and enjoy well performed music and to join in the singing of traditional carols in that setting was a real treat.
It was especially so when I'd spent a part of the morning, yet again, on the thorny question of recommendations from the Environment Committee on Car Parking.  I believe we've got a good set of recommendations now which stand a fighting chance of getting cabinet approval next week but it's taken a great deal of work to get there.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

School roofs & Asbestos

A couple of comments on the report that Asbestos was found in the collapsed roof at Junction Farm School led me to get further information from Stockton Council Officers.  Rather than post as responses to the individual comments I'll put them here where they might be more visible to all:
There was some asbestos within the roof void of the collapsed ceiling at Junction Farm, however this was encapsulated and presented no risk to any users of the building, which is the case in many schools and public buildings. However in order for the roof to be removed and ultimately replaced, the classroom had to be sealed off and all the asbestos removed. This will allow normal construction activities to begin in replacing the roof.
It is unfortunate that the school had to close, especially after having to close due to the weather conditions recently, however the safety of the children and staff remain our priority.

The Council does regularly inspect all buildings and schools and keep records of condition, including where asbestos is present. Clearly it is an ideal objective to remove all asbestos where possible but health and safety guidance requires that the Council has a management plan for where asbestos is known to be present. Therefore where asbestos is contained within the fabric of a building but it is encapsulated it can remain. Such areas can then be removed when maintenance programmes allow. The safety of building users and staff who carry out maintenance are always the first priority.

Obviously the mention of Asbestos worries people but I hope this is reassuring.
The schools are all open now except Junction Farm where it's hoped the repair work will be completed later in the week.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

School Update

Egglescliffe Comprehensive School is open as usual tomorrow, Monday, following satisfactory inspections of the roof and ceillings.  No excuses for staying away!
Stockton Council's website has no updated information for Durham Lane, Egglescliffe CE or The Links primaries so parents will need to wait till tomorrow to find out the situation.  Meanwhile Junction Farm Primary teachers will be posting work for pupils on the learning platform, so the time off school isn't just a holiday in the snow.

Meanwhile the forecast is for very cold weather for most of the rest of the week so there won't be significant thawing for a few days at least. 

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Importance of Teaching

This is the title of the new white paper on education published last month.  I'm just getting round to reading it, not because I'm not interested but because it's 95 pages long and I haven't had that much time.
At first sight it says a lot of good things - teaching should be a higher status job, schools should have freedom to innovate in order to find better ways of raising the achievement level of their students, a desire to decrease the achievement gap between rich and poor children. But there seem to be some gaps too.  There's a statement that good schools can become academies but they'll be required to support weaker schools.  But where's the policing or the enforcement?  Not in this paper as far as I can see.  Local Authorities are going to ensure there's a good supply of high quality school places but without control over schools or admissions policies how can that work?
There's going to be more freedom for schools and teachers over how what's taught and how, yet more information on attainment and standards and inspections which sounds like a lot more assessment and league tables by another name to me.
I'll continue to read it and see what else is in there but so far it's a bit of a disappointment - some good ideas but some very woolly thoughts too.
C+ so far Mr Gove - please do better.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The temperature last night fell to -14 in Eaglescliffe - as cold as Moscow.  No more significant snow fell and so the gritting of the roads seemed to work.  I don't know if it's because people know more this winter about how the rock salt works and how the council prioritises things but I've had far fewer complaints than last winter.  In fact I've had a number of compliments and expressions of thanks to the crews who are working round the clock.
The greenhouse indicated just how wise we were to have brought in the last of the chilli harvest last week.  Now safely deseeded and sliced they sit in the freezer waiting to be used.
The weather took its toll on one of our primary schools overnight.  Junction Farm school roof partly collapsed, leading to the closure of the school and then the closure of 8 others with the same roof construction as a precaution.  Engineers will be working all weekend and into Monday and Tuesday if necessary to ensure that they're all checked thoroughly so that we can be qutie sure the schools are safe for the children and the staff to continue working in them.  Parents are asked to check the council website or the individual school websites to see the up to date situation.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Still more snow, and the garden is truly beautiful.
Today I chaired the final meeting of the Environment Committee as we agreed the final wording of the recommendations on The Built & Natural Environment.  One good and positive thing to come out of this review is the plan for a simplified way of applying for a Blue Badge for people with disabilities.  As long as the change is handled carefully it should be one of those rare situations where everyone wins at least something - the applicant should get a badge more quickly and more simply than now, the process should save the council some money in administration costs and GPs won't have to carry out assessments for something which really isn't very productive for them.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Snow and Snow

More snow fell during the night, making the garden particularly beautiful this morning, though not exactly helping the free movement of traffic.
My first task after breakfast was to cancel a meeting of the Western Area Partnership tonight in order to avoid people having to drive out to Long Newton in the dark, snow, ice or whatever else the weather decided to throw at us.  Lots of phone calls later it was too late to set off for my first meeting of the day but just time to squeeze in an extra visit to cover for someone who was snow-bound.
The most important session was a meeting to thrash out the detail of recommendations coming from the recent review carried out by the Environment committee.  Trying to decide on savings to make is never easy and this was no exception.  There are several stages to go yet before they are finalised and none of them is going to be easy either!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Two council meetings in one night

A special Council Meeting was held before the routine one tonight in order to consider the Cabinet recommendation for Stockton to have a Leader elected for a 4 year term who would then choose his or her Cabinet, rather than the alternative of an Elected Mayor who chooses a cabinet.  This discussion has rumbled on for 12 months or more with councillors arguing over which is better and consultation with the public.  The consultations with the public indicated a majority for the Leader rather than elected mayor, but not by a huge majority.  Cabinet duly recommended that to council.  All along the way, Independent Associations and Societies on Stockton Council have proclaimed, some more loudly than others, that an elected Mayor is the only way to ensure openess, democracy etc.  Strangely, when it came to council approving or otherwise the recommendation they were silent, allowing it to be nodded through without dissent.  So much for their "matter of principle".
The routine Council meeting had,  apart from the usual business, a badly worded motion from the Labour group condemning the coalition government's fiscal policies and proposing that Stockton Council should write and protest about them to the Prime Minister.  It was a lively debate, though much of it wandered off the subject and descended into a general rant about how dreadful Conservatives are.  What saddened me was how many councillors didn't read the motion.  To condemn the whole Fiscal policy on the grounds that it hurt the poorest was to condemn the increase in the threshold for income tax, the index linking of pensions, the extra help towards fuel bills for the elderly, the increase in the child element of tax credits and so on and so on.  But blindly, they voted for the motion and against all these positives.  And not just Labour, but the leader of the Billingham Independents and both of the Ingleby Barwick Independent councillors for Ingleby Barwick East, one of whom is chair of the Children & Young People Select Committee.  How they could vote against help for the low paid is beyond me.
Suzanne Fletcher made very clearly the point about coalition being compromise and no-one wanting to be in the position we are in now, but we need to move forward to get out of it and how Lib Dems will continue to work for the people who need us to do that.
After losing that motion a second one on specific grant cuts and their unfair impact on the North East, including Stockton, was passed unanimously.  And that one stands a chance of being heard, because the same message is going from most of the councils in the region along with the regional Lib Dems. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Good News from Nifco

Local company. Nifco, has been looking for land on which to build a new factory for over a year now.  In the midst of the recession they have been quietly winning orders for the plastic components they manufacture for the car industry, gradually working up to 7 day weeks in order to fulfil their order book and are currently just about at bursting point.  The present plant is on a good sized site but is so badly laid out that a large part of the site is wasted.  With a full order book they can't just stop production for a year while they demolish and rebuild so a new site was needed.  Tonight they showed us where and what they have in mind.
For some time Stockton council officers and councillors have worried that if a suitable site couldn't be found they'd have to move elsewhere with a loss of jobs here and also the loss of a respected local business, albeit Japanese owned.  For some years now it's been locally managed and very successfully too. 
A site has been found, between the Oakwood Centre and Durham Lane Garage.  The plans have been drawn up and the companies in that area, along with residents at the far end of Kingsmead have been consulted.  Stockton's highway engineers don't see a particular problem with the relocation, local companies are keen to see a profitable business in the area, local residents don't live near enough to be affected so it seems like a win/win situation.  The design is a reasonably attractive office front on a well insulated and clean looking factory building.  Some landscaping at the front will help it to look as attractive as a factory can and will give a bit of a lift to that stretch of Durham Lane.
Unless some strong planning reasons emerge for not granting permission they should be starting work at the end of March and have the building finished in the Autumn.  Fitting the machinery etc will take a little time after that and some time in 2012 we should see production well established on the new site and the old one closed down.  Many people will still be able to walk or cycle to work, albeit different people to now.  Some will be able to travel by train to withing 10 minutes walk of the factory and some no doubt will drive there.  Most importantly, over 200 jobs will remain in this area and the skills which have been developed will stay here.
It's nice to have a good news planning story for a change!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It's all in the design

Two Aldi supermarkets on the Planning Committee agenda today, along with the control building for the Seamer wind farm and some technical reports and protocols. Enough to keep us going for 3 hours!
Earlier this year the residents of the area of Stockton near Yarm Lane convinced the planning committee that the site proposed for a small supermarket was not so near the High Street that it would have a detrimental impact on revitalising the Town Centre and that they needed the shop for their area.  The committee quite rightly said that the design needed to be of a standard to suit the site, next to a lovely old building on one side though admittedly next to a pretty ropey garage on the other.  After much discussion and modification of the plans approval was granted.  Imagine how cross we were to find that they had come back with an application for a small change in the layout and a big change in the design of the frontage.  Again much discussion, this time with planning officers, and an amended plan came in at the last minute to reinstate the missing detailing and give us again a building worthy of the setting.
Residents were understandably cross - they thought they were going to get a shop as soon as the plans allowed, instead of which they're still waiting for the first brick to be laid.  let's hope we have no more silliness from the developer and that they have their shop by next summer.
Aldi's application for Billingham took much longer to determine.  Is the site on the corner of Finchale Ave an out of town site or an edge of town site?  It all depends of course on where you measure to, but the statement from the developer that it was only 20m from the Town Centre did seem to stretch the boundary of the town centre somewhat.  I came to the conclusion that their problem is that the Town centre isn't somewhere people drive past, so the shops in there aren't immediately visible to passers by.  They didn't seem to get the point of a town centre - people actually go to the centre and then often visit several shops and venues in it.  They don't drive there for one shop and go away without at least noticing that others are available.  Rightly, the committee concluded that there are possible sites in the Town Centre which would fit well with Aldi's needs for car parking and delivery slots and would contribute to the vitality of the town centre.  So the Finchale Ave site will stand empty for some time longer, which is sad but better that than succumb to the attractions of short term gain and live to regret it in the long term as the town centre struggles for viability.  I've seen it happen with Tesco in Eaglescliffe.  I don't want to see it happen to Billingham just as the green shoots are sprouting there.
The control building for the wind farm was a much more difficult one.  When the turbines were originally approved, back in July last year, the control building was shown on the south side of the Hilton to Seamer road, near to the hedge.  Now we're told that NEDL don't want it there and it has to be significantly bigger and on  the higher ground on the North side of the road.  My question is quite simple - if it has to be that size now, why was it shown as smaller previously.  Such equipment doesn't usually grow in size - electronics tend to become more compact over time.  NEDL must have known the size two years ago.  Why come up with something bigger now?  Similarly, why decide now that they can only connect at this higher point when last year they said that it was more probable they'd do the connection south of the road?  It all smacks of not doing your homework and made me, along with others on the committee very uneasy. 
Imagine a small bungalow on a hillside and being told that it's OK cos it'll be partly hidden by the rising ground in front of it, and from the other side it'll be hidden by the hedge which will be planted but then being told by someone else that the hedge won't be planted because that's in a neighbouring authority and they won't allow it!  Confusion reigns.  In the end the committee decided by a very slim majority that the visual impact of the new building was unacceptable and rejected the application.  We await further developments!
Such are the joys of planning committee.  It was good to go from that to the Council's Be a Councillor evening and meet people who really want to make a difference for their own local community - make sure the pavements are mended and the roads are swept and there are enough lights and police and so on.  Nothing to do with laws and guidance and strategies - just good old community involvement.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Working towards Independence

Two completely different events today, but with a link of sorts. 
I started with a meeting at Kirklevington Grange Prison to discuss the possibility of the prisoners making some signs and benches for the Parish Council - signs for St Margaret's Play area and benches for a variety of spots round the parish.  St Margaret's is suffering from a small number of thoughtless dog owners who don't keep their dogs on leads and in some cases let them foul the play area.  The hope is that some signs will serve as a reminder of the behaviour expected.  The prisoners make the signs and the benches while learning a skill and gaining a qualification which will help them to stay on the right side of the law in the future.  At the same time they pay back something into community which was injured by their crime.  My only regret on the visit is the ban on cameras means that I couldn't photograph any examples of the work they've already done for other places.  The quality was superb.  I look forward to being able to have the signs up in Eaglescliffe.
This afternoon Stockton's Governor support service had organised a full 7 hours of training with a "market place" to show the services available to help governors to help their schools.  The Fairtrade Borough Partnership had been given the chance to show what being a Fairtrade School involved and so, armed with a presentation on the journey taken by our first school - St Cuthbert's - we were there, ready to talk about the impact that Fairtrade schools have on the producers in the developing world.  Buying Fairtrade products here helps farmers and producers there to gain independence, move away from needing aid and live lives of dignity and productivity.
So there is a link, in my interest and in the end result of the two schemes.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

We will remember them

The Act of Remembrance in Stockton is a chance to remember those who have died in conflicts around the world since 1914 and an opportunity to resolve afresh to do our best to bring peace.  The simple act of silence introduced and ended by the lone bugler, short prayers and the laying of wreaths is held out of doors at the memorial.  The service that followed was held in the newly decorated and warm Parish Church.  The sermon was preached by Derek Rosamond and reminded us that the "peace" which followed the 2nd World War has actually resulted in only 26 days without a major conflict.  Millions have died in wars and millions more are left bereaved or injured in mind or body.  It's a sad indictment of our human race - greed, envy, dishonesty and more causing so much death and destruction.
In the midst of it, we pause for a few minutes on the Sunday nearest to Armistice Day and remember.  And then try to learn the lessons.

At the end of the service comes the parade when Stockton High Street is closed to through traffic for the short time it takes for representatives of the Armed Forces to march down the High Street, Standards flying, and salute the representatives of Queen and Borough.  

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Planning Application for The Grange

The Grange on Urlay Nook Rd was a wonderful family house, much loved by the family which grew up there while my own children were growing up here.  The house itself is quite a landmark on the road out to the Airport though sadly for the wrong reasons now.  The new owner has let it go to wrack and ruin while applying for, and winning approval for, planning permission to knock it down and build higher density housing there.  Having gained the permission he still hasn't developed the site, instead putting it on the market and leaving the roof to disappear and the garden to turn into a wilderness.
Now we have been notified of a new application, this time for Town Houses.  Neighbouring residents have been notified and the architect is consulting before submitting a formal application to Stockton Council.  If you live near and haven't had a leaflet do get in touch and I'll get a copy to you.

I can see some possible advantages of this over the previously approved plans - not so dense, not so overbearing on the houses of Valley Gardens.  But there are some possible disadvantages - the fronts look very different to the present house and we worked hard to get the other plans to reflect the frontage of the present house, though not fully successfully.  There are question marks over the elevations other than the front and one or two other things.  If you've got thoughts let one of your ward councillors know.
As always, we won't make a binding judgement at this stage - planning committee is the place for that - but knowing what residents are thinking does help us to represent those views and contributes to forming our views.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Plunged into darkness? I think not!

There's been a fair bit of fuss today on the airwaves about councils cutting back on street lighting.  Our local BBC radio station stirred up a great deal of discussion, mostly ill informed.  Comments like "How would you feel if the street lights were turned off?" don't actually help anyone.  Stockton Council has no plans to turn off lights but it does use modern technology to allow the lights to be dimmed in the wee small hours of the morning.  The amount of dimming is such that it makes a significant energy saving but isn't detectable by the human eye.  So no health & safety issues but a saving of carbon emissions and eventually cost.  What could be more sensible?  But to listen to the radio presenters you'd think we were heading for a WW2 blackout.  Suzanne Fletcher managed to ring in and say what had happened in her ward, which was a pilot scheme to test out the new technology.  When no-one noticed and no comments were received it was rolled out across the borough.  But in the half hour I heard, hers was the one sensible voice.
I thought the BBC was supposed to be a public service broadcaster - if I want sensational drama I'll go to another news provider.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Preston Hall Museum & Park

The official opening of the new jetty was postponed today after forecasts yesterday of gale force winds today.  Actually I think the gales came early - certainly sounded like a gale in the early hours of the morning.  This afternoon's wind was strong and bitingly cold so it wouldn't have been much fun standing around in the open, or taking a celebratory trip on the Teesside Princess either.
The regular meeting of the Preston Park management committee did take place, though, snug & warm in the new meeting room.  It was good to hear that some trolleys will soon be available for people who want to take canoes or other small craft down to the river to launch.  It seems that some people thought that the nice new path to make life easier for wheelchair users and pram pushers was actually a road for access to the river.  A combination of enforcement and the availability of the new trolleys should ensure that pedestrians are safe again.
The museum will close at 4pm on Sunday 22nd November and reopen in February 2011 with a refurbished interior and refreshed displays.  For these last few days admission is free so if you're in the area do pop along and see the exhibitions. 
For the rest of the winter the Park will be open as normal but the Hall will be undergoing a transformation inside.   I'm looking forward to seeing the results next year.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Stealing Labour's Deal

An interesting situation seems to have arisen this week.  For years Lib Dems (and perhaps Tories for all I know) have complained that Labour took our ideas and regurgitated them as their policies. This week it seems perhaps the coalition has turned the tables.  Ian Duncan Smith said that peope who are unemployed long term will be expected to do 4 weeks of work experience as a way breaking the habits of unemployment.  Shrieks of outrage from some people including the Archbishop of Canterbury who believes that it will drive people into despair but from Labour - very little.  Why?  Because it was their policy anyway.  It's nothing new.  The Flexible New Deal involves, would you believe it, a 4 week stint of work experience.  So what I'd like to know is why, when Labour announced it last year there was no fuss but when the coalition announces it this year there are demonstrations and front page articles?  Media bias?  Selective amnesia?  Who knows - I certainly don't.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Remember, remember

the 5th of November - the anniversary of the infamous gunpowder plot which almost destroyed Parliament and exactly 6 months before the referendum which could fundamentally improve the way Parliament is elected.  No more "safe seats" with MPs who don't have to listen to their constituents, no more worrying about "wasted votes".  Voting Yes on May 5th next year will mean that we get an MP who is supported, at least as 2nd choice, by more than half the people in the constituency.  It will mean that people can express their first choice without fear of wasting their vote because if their first choice doesn't win their second preference vote kicks in. 
And just by the way, 5th November is also my mother's birthday and that means more to me than either of the other 2!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

This morning's meeting at Memorial Garden was rather a damp affair, typical of November I suppose.  The path is complete, the ground has been reseeded, the benches positioned nicely on their new paved areas.  We agreed to have some further planting between the memorial and the new path, filling in that triangle.  We also agreed that the litter bin would be cleaned and painted to remove the mossy greenery from its sides.  Once that's done the only thing we're waiting for is the new lamp column.  I hope it's done before Remembrance Day but it's looking less and less likely now.
The snapshots give some idea of the improvements that have been made.  People walking past commented on what an improvement it is but also pointed out that we need to maintain it in good condition.  That's going to be part of the Parish Council's responsibility and will be done.  This garden is intended to be a place of peace and reflection, and a fitting addition to the war memorial.
This evening I was delighted to be at the first all-member meeting of the Protect Preston Park group.  This group grew out of the public meetings and protests over the idea of building a replacement for Egglescliffe school in the Park and on the allotments.  The battle to stop the school has been won, but the battle to have the Park protected for the future is not over.  The council has not acknowledged that the status of the Park is a factor in rejecting the idea of building - their whole argument was around technicalities like whether a bridge could be provided.  The group will continue to fight that battle, but now it's working alongside the staff who manage and care for the Park and Museum all the year round. 
I was asked to say a few words tonight, along with James Wharton MP who worked with us on the campaign, Doug Nicholson of the Friends of Tees Heritage Park whose inspiration and success encouraged campaigners and Nick Smith, Preston Park manager.  As I said tonight, I have long cherished a hope that there would be a group of people who would work for the park, nurture it and care for it and now I dare to hope that there is.  It's not going to be easy to maintain momentum because people think that the battle is over, but I hope that lots of people will support the Heritage Lottery bid for the Kitchen Garden and Orchard, and when that's successful we'll see lots of interesting events around that.
Meanwhile, if you're in the area, do visit the museum in the next fortnight before it closes for major refurbishment on from Nov 23rd.  Then you'll have to wait till next Autumn to see it revealed in all its new glory.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Good work men!

I walked back from posting letters in Yarm today (I do miss our post offices in Eaglescliffe) via Memorial Garden and St Margaret's.  Memorial Garden is looking really good - thanks to the workers from the Shaw Trust and despite the efforts of the local rabbit population to destroy the planting.  I'll take my camera tomorrow and put some photos on here.  I hope people do find it an improvement on Remembrance Sunday and for years to come.  I look forward to seeing it in summer.
The old, rotted adventure trail has come out of St Margaret's play area and the ground has been levelled.  Tomorrow the wooden train will be installed, giving another item for smaller children to play on.  Tree planting should happen in the next few weeks.  There will be more work to be done over the coming years in that area, but it's already proving popular.

The Parish council has had a small number of adverse comments about the play equipment provided.  If you've got comments do let us know.  We've had a number of positive comments too, and they have also been recorded.  As we set the budget for next year we want to make sure we learn from the experience of this year.
This afternoon the Recreation Committee of the Parish Council met to look at proposals for Amberley Way play area.  This is much smaller of course and is mainly used by children under 12 and we wanted that to be reflected in the choice of play equipment.  Five companies sent in designs, but only two were really thinking about the nature of the area and the age of the children.  Those two companies came up with some very interesting designs so after a great deal of discussion we've asked for some tweaks to one of them and then we'll put the two designs on display and ask the children and neighbours for their comments before making the final decision.  By next Easter we should have a revamped play area there. 
And all this is possible because residents of Egglescliffe Parish were willing to pay a few pounds a year on their council tax - thank you one and all.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Green Waste Collections have stopped

Walking through the ward today I noticed a few houses had put out green waste sacks.  Sadly for them, the collections stopped for the winter last month.  Any green waste now has to be home composted, taken to the site at Haverton Hill for composting or as a last resort, put in the green wheelie bin.  The final dates were clearly laid out on the leaflet that came out in spring and they've been the subject of notices on the website and sent to the press, but there are alway a few people who don't keep the leaflet or have moved into the property over the summer. 
Collections will start again in the spring, but meanwhile if residents of the borough have any comments on the green sacks that were introduced this year I'd like to hear them.  The enviromment committee will be trying to assess their use in readiness for next year's season.

If you have half an hour to spare, Preston Park is looking particularly beautiful at present with the trees in full autumnal splendour.  This snap doesn't do them justice, but it was starting to rain so I'm afraid I wasn't going to wander round too much.  Go and see them in real life - they're so much better.
For all the rain and the fact that it was during school time the park was still being well used - radio controlled cars on one field, dogs being exercised on another, small children in the playground and one or two serious looking walkers doing at least part of the Teesdale Way.
Long may it remain so.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Crunch Time approaches

We're half way through a 3 year programme of reviewing all council services to see if they need to be done, if they can be done with less money or if they can be done better with the same money or should they be transformed into a different kind of service ..... or some mix of these.  The Environment committee is engaged in a review of the Built & Natural Environment - ranging across car parking, blue badges, school crossing patrols and urban design.  We've had evidence from Stockton Council officers and from Sunderland City Council who've just transformed their Blue Badge operation.  We've got pages and pages of facts and figures and now comes the time when councillors have to agree on recommendations to go forward to Cabinet.
Some serious questions have arisen - should disabled people have free parking or is it enough to have designated spaces near to shops, offices etc?  Should we continue to have free car parking in some shopping centres of the borough but not in others?  Are school crossing patrols really necessary?  How do we make sure that we maintain the expertise we've built up in small specialist teams when funding is so short?
We've had evidence that crossing patrollers are sometimes the eyes and ears which can alert other services to children who are experiencing problems.  We've heard about the worries over keeping our town centres active and vibrant during recession - if people have to pay more for parking than they do at present will they stop going to the centres? Should we try to sell the services of our specialist teams to other authorities who haven't got that expertise?  What happens if they're so busy on a piece of work for a client that they can't do the necessary policy development work in Stockton council?
So far we've more questions than answers - these are just a few of the questions we've posed over recent months.  But over the coming weeks we have to sift the answers we've been given and make sure we check all the angles before coming to our conclusions.  At the end of the process we need to save money but ensure we're still able to meet our obligations, not just the bare minimum legal obligations but those we have towards the residents of the borough who have a right to expect a council that's giving them real value for money in all senses of the phrase.
Watch this space.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

So, did you remember to put your clocks back last night?  The birds in our garden didn't, so the dawn chorus rang out at 5 this morning.  Thanks birds!
Good to see this morning the progress being made on Memorial Garden.  I look forward to the finished article being ready for Remembrance Sunday.
Next week sees the start of work on moving the wooden equipment in St Margaret's play area, soon to be followed by some tree planting in that bottom corner to reduce the bogginess and to give some greenery and a little bit of sound deadening for the houses backing on to the park.
The road surfacing on Carnoustie Drive has been worth the wait I think.  From a patchwork of potholes and patches we now have a smooth black expanse.  Well done SBC for timing it during school holiday week and getting it finished on time.
We've also had a fair number of fireworks going off in the neighbourhood and I'm sure we're not alone.  I don't want to ban fireworks from home - many people get a lot of pleasure from them, but I do wish that the anti-social people who let them off days before bonfire night would think again and refrain.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Happy Birthday

Today's memorable moment was going to celebrate her birthday with a neighbour.  Her battles with illness are known to those who know her, but she would never make a song and dance about it, and typically her birthday celebration wasn't for her, but for the Holistic Care centre at James Cook hospital. It's a wonderful centre, the kind of thing we all hope we'll never need but are jolly grateful for if we do need it, so please visit the website and see the services it offers. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

Today was one of those non-stop days when at the end I'm exhausted but can't point to a single concrete achievement.  Which is not to say that nothing got done, just that nothing was done to conclusion.
I started with reading a load of papers which I'd previously only skimmed but someone else had spotted a big problem hidden away in them. 
An hour of meeting and discussing another set of problems caused by efforts to solve other problems - if only we had unlimited funding to provide all the services our young people want and need, but we haven't so we end up trying to work out which are wants and which are needs, how much they cost and whether they can be done more cheaply by someone else and if so will it be as good, and so we spend hours agonising and of course there aren't any easy answers because every young person is different.
Then it was off to Newcastle for the regional Fairtrade Forum meeting to discuss possible plans for Fairtrade Fortnight next year.  3 months ago we had thought we'd worked out an idea of how we'd approach it across the region. But just a couple of days ago we were approached to do something entirely different which will be great if we can get it to work but will need sponsorship from some big companies so lots of discussion about how to go about organising that, and whether we can do it across the region or just in one or two areas.  So much excitement and interest but no decisions as yet.
4pm on Friday is not the time to try to drive out of Newcastle - everyone else is doing the same it seemed, so no time to go home before my next appointment.  This was a Halloween party at a residential home for elderly people.  Lots of music and children in fancy dress, apple bobbing, lucky dips, drinks & hot dogs, even a bit of dancing - some of the residents have more energy than I have by 8pm! 
And finally home, to a meal cooked for me by Denis - much appreciated by then.  A few e-mails, a leaflet to start on and the day's work is finally over, some 15 hours after it started.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Eaglescliffe Lib Dem councillors finally sat round the table last night with members of Ingleby Barwick Town Council and ward councillors for Ingleby Barwick and Yarm to talk about schools.  The next stage of the application for a "Free School" will go in within a week and we shall see what comes out of that.  The current request is for a 600 place school to complement All Saints.  Meanwhile Stockton Council is working on an assessment of all its school buildings to see where improvements, expansions or reductions in size are needed.  At the end of that I hope that the council will be in a position to put a strong case for the funding needed to rebuild Egglescliffe along with other important or urgent work which needs doing on other schools.  It's a real shame in my view that the route for increased places in Ingleby Barwick seems most likely to be the Free School one, but it's not the first time I've disagreed with a policy of the Westminster government and I don't expect it to be the last. 
Yesterday evening I think that other people round the table accepted that nothing I've said or done about schools in recent months means that I don't think Ingleby Barwick families deserve to have secondary school places near at hand. As the famous advert says "It's good to talk".
This afternoon came another piece of good news for the area - the Tees Valley Local Enterprise Partnership has been given the go ahead by government.  That means not only a recognition by central government that we do have a serious partnership here of businesses and public sector bodies who are keen to work together but also that we can now seek financial support to get the investment coming into our area.  It's also good that Vince Cable seems to have recognised the need for a North Eastern body to deal with such things as strategic investment into the whole region and European funding.  Things are looking up.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ray Wallace Thompson RIP

I found out today that Eaglescliffe has lost another of its real characters.  Ray Wallace Thompson retired from a career as an architect in Local Government  in 1979.  I first met him in the late 1990s and spent many hours over the past decade discussing photography, politics and life.  Ray reminded me frequently that the "grey" vote is important, but he also believed in giving young people opportunities to progress and make the most of themselves.  He got to where he was by hard work and thought everyone should have the chance to do the same.
In recent years his health had begun to fail but it was only very recently that he stopped driving out with friends to enjoy his beloved Yorkshire.  His photographic skills were amazing and brought him recognition and awards from the UK and the USA and beyond.
Ray often told me of his first electric guitar, purchased at a time when such things were the prerogative of pop stars on world tours.  He made the move to digital photography when it was in its infancy and loved the new techniques it gave access to.  His library of pictures was vast and last time I saw him he was in the process of trying to thin it down and give material to people and places where it would be appreciated.    He had so many that I never had chance to look at and now probably never will.
Ray will be missed, by his new friends as well as old.  Rest in Peace Ray.  

Monday, October 25, 2010

Green Jobs

Not jobs for little green men but jobs created in renewable energy and energy reduction.  The announcement of support for British ports in developing off shore wind turbines is welcome in an area with a significant port and local authorities willing and able to work together to maximise opportunities. Fiona Hall MEP has welcomed the announcements today and pledged that she will do all she can to help bring such jobs to the North East. 
I can't make any better comment than the message sent by Chris Huhne MP today:
Today we are taking a key step on the road to a more prosperous, fairer and greener Britain. We’ve announced support for wind turbine manufacture at Britain’s ports – opening the way to a major expansion of the country’s offshore wind industry.

The last week has been tough. None of us came into government to make cuts. Throughout the spending review, as Liberal Democrats and as a Government, we’ve had to make some difficult decisions. We believe they are necessary to stabilise Britain’s economy and eliminate the massive deficit in the public finances.

As Liberal Democrats in Government we can set the course for economic recovery – encouraging green growth as we move to create a truly sustainable low-carbon economy. The Coalition Government is working on our plans for a Green Investment Bank, we’re investing £1 billion in the first carbon capture and storage demonstration project and investing more than £800 million in renewable heat. And we will be implementing Liberal Democrat plans for a Green Deal to ensure energy saving in every home – cutting energy, cutting carbon emissions and cutting energy costs for families - as well as creating jobs around the country.

We need world-class infrastructure to support our economic growth. Even in the face of such pressure on public finances, we will prioritise the areas that will help us dump the deficit and bring low-carbon jobs, manufacturing and skills to the UK.

So today we have committed £60 million to support offshore wind manufacturing infrastructure at port sites. I am delighted that three global firms – GE, Siemens and Gamesa – have responded by outlining proposals to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in opening new wind turbine factories in the UK, creating thousands of jobs and providing clean energy for Britain’s homes and factories.

Working with Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and Danny Alexander on the green recovery has reminded me of the difference Liberal Democrats are making in Government. There is much more to do but I am determined that we will deliver on our pledge to make this the greenest government ever.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Don't write off the Lib Dems yet

That's not just my view - it's also the view of Sholto Byrnes, writing in The New Statesman. There's a tendency in the British media to act as though only the two "big" parties have the right to share in government so it's good to see an article with a bit of perspective and common sense.
Meanwhile, back in Eaglescliffe, Protect Preston Park is going ahead with its plans for the member evening on Nov 4th.  If you're not already a member and want to get involved in the next exciting phase of work for the Park email the membership secretary
Work is also progressing well at the Memorial Park next to Egglescliffe War Memorial, though some pesky little creature did dig up a whole lot of newly placed plants the other day - both inside and outside the safety fence.  Rabbits are the top suspects but others might know differently.
The detail of how the Comprehensive Spending Review will affect Stockton Council's plans is slowly emerging and it's a bit of a mix - some better than expected and some as bad as we feared.  Councillors and council officers are all determined to do the best we can with whatever we have so watch this space.
Details of how it will affect individuals are harder to come by, as so many things were announced in the budget as well as during the last few weeks.  Some take effect almost immediately, others later this year or next year.  I suppose we'll just have to wait and see how it goes.  One thing's certain, bodies like Citizens' Advice Bureau are gearing up to help as much as possible if people think they're heading for financial difficulty.  It's really important to ask for help before the crisis comes.  We don't want to get to the point of people being homeless or ill because they're not getting all the help to which they're entitled.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tonight's full council meeting started with a mix of happy and sad items.  Tributes were paid to Norman Teasdale from all sides of the council, people who'd known him as a teacher, those who'd worked with him as a councillor and perhaps most telling of all a story from one councillor who never actually met Norman.  Mick told of a young man coming up to him to ask if it was true that Norman had died.  When asked why he was so interested the young man explained that Norman had been the only teacher who cared and without him this young man would perhaps have ended up in prison.  That's a real tribute.
There was a tribute to the borough too from The Rifles, thanking us for the welcome they had experienced when receiving and exercising their Freedom of the Borough.  We're often told that a smile costs nothing and these men and women had very much appreciated the smiles, cheers and warmth of their welcome.  However much we regret or disagree with the war in which they're engaged I'm sure we all want them back safely and are proud of the way in which they carry out the political will of the country.
Parks & Green Spaces Award
We went on to celebrate the achievements of various services in the council. An officer who till tonight had only been a name on emails warning us of road works etc.was commended by utility companies for the way in which he deals with them when doing work in this borough.  We ward councillors appreciate the way he keeps them up to scratch with signing work correctly and cleaning up after themselves. I thought it was particularly gratifying that this award went to a person who had been recognised by different utility companies as being exceptionally good at his work.
Then it was on to a series of awards for growing things - Parks & green spaces, Northumbria in Bloom and finally the European crown of Entente Florale.
Council of the Year award
And last but by no means least, the APSE award for the best council services - not an easy award to win but judged by people who look at other councils up and down the country so they know what they're looking at.
All very cheering as we look forward with some degree of trepidation to the budget settlements which will come in detail over the next few weeks.
Questioning by Suzanne Fletcher led to the discovery that we do monitor previous regeneration schemes, but some doubt over what exactly is monitored.  If it's only the things which go wrong that's less useful than also monitoring the things that work well over a number of years.  Either way, we are promised more detail so we might find that a lot more is known about what's gone well and badly in the past and can use them to learn from for the future.
Discussion on the state of the river bank on the Thornaby side of the Tees showed again the problems left behind by the Teeside Development Corporation.  It probably did some very good work but it also left some messes - bits of land not being properly maintained by the owners presumably because the need to do so wasn't put into the contract strictly enough.  As a result, Stockton is still trying to chase up companies to do their bit, years and years after it should have been sorted out.

The leader of the council did make a brief reference to the CSR at the end of the meeting but I decided I needed to read the detail more closely before I could make any comment, save to say that I'm glad the Tees Valley major bus scheme is going ahead after all the preliminary work that's gone into it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Norman Teasdale RIP

Norman was a teacher in Billingham when I started my teaching career.  He cared about the young people he taught, tried to encourage them in self discipline but wasn't afraid to impose it when needed.  I got the impression that most of the young people respected him and felt he dealt with them fairly.
I came across him again at the count for the the Stockton Council election in (I think) 1999 when we reminisced a little while waiting for boxes of votes to be opened.  4 years later I joined him as a Stockton Councillor, albeit a long way apart on the political spectrum.
We proved to be allies in a scrutiny of the council's facilities for outdoor pursuits for children - experience of going to outdoor pursuits centres when teaching gave us an insight not shared by many of the other committee members. 
We also disagreed profoundly at times but one thing's certain - Norman always spoke his mind!  I don't think he would have enjoyed carrying out the efficiency reviews we're doing at the moment.  Retirement came at the right time for him.
RIP Norman

ICT problems

For reasons best known to them the Telecoms company responsible for providing Internet access to Stockton Council's buildings disconnected it yesterday morning.  For 24 hours no emails could get in or out, no website was available and communications became a little difficult to put it mildly.  If you sent emails to the council yesterday it's best to resend them as they're probably lost in cyberspace.
Who needs cyber enemies when we've got friends like this provider?
I spent much of the afternoon at St Margaret's play area, first of all discussing with colleagues the removal of one piece of equipment and installation of another, and then picking sloes from the hedgerow.  They really are beautifully ripe at present and it's a very good crop so if you want your sloe gin for Christmas this is the week to go and pick half a kilo or so! Or more of course if you want more than one bottle.
After that it was time to go up to Billingham to have a look at what's planned for the new energy from waste site being proposed.  This is a waste gasification plant, producing gas which then drives turbines to produce electricity some of which is used to continue the process and some to sell into the national grid.  The company call it renewable energy but I prefer to describe it as recycled energy.  The plans are interesting and don't look as though they'll cause any problems - the road network is already there, already used by waste trucks going to the landfill site and not near any houses.  The waste being used would be diverted from landfill so it sounds like wins all round.  I look forward to seeing the Environmental Impact Assessment in December.  Meantime it doesn't mean we can stop recycling and reusing - that's much more important than gasifying what's left.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Yarm Fair is over for another year.  Sunday morning is always a minor miracle after the fair - the rides which are so busy at 11pm on Saturday are already partly dismantled by 9a.m. on Sunday.  Horses are tethered on the pavement ready to be hitched to the caravans.  The council refuse vehicle is in the High Street emptying bins and by lunch time all is clear.  This morning the sun was shining and melting the early morning frost as the men were working.  There was still the faint smell of woodsmoke in the air - almost romantic.
Walking home after church gave me the opportunity to have a good look at the work carried out so far on the Memorial Garden.  The foundations of the path are in place and the setting for the first seat is there.  All in all, it's looking good.  I did take some photos but a slight technical hitch means I can't post them on here! 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Anonymous Comments

I'm pleased that so many people are interested in reading this blog and commenting on it, but I'm saddened by the number who feel it necessary to hide behind the screen of anonymity.  I have decided to put down today some of my thoughts around the issues of Egglescliffe School and Ingleby Barwick school places which I have previously written on here, spoken about in Council meetings and in public meetings as well as in Focus leaflets & face to face conversations.  Once this is written I have no intention of responding further to anonymous comments though I'm more than happy to have reasonable discussions with people who aren't hiding.
Egglescliffe school is currently a very successful school in a building which hinders rather than helps its success.  The building will need to be replaced within the next decade as it is coming to the end of its useful life.  At the moment the buildings are on the main school site, along with the all weather pitch which can be used for hockey, football and other games.  The athletics track is on a site at Allen's West, reached by walking from the school.  That track is used in summer term for athletics practice & competition.
The school takes pupils mainly from Eaglescliffe but with a significant number also from Ingleby Barwick and some from other areas including Yarm & central Stockton.  As far as I know, no independent research has been done to ascertain how many of the Ingleby Barwick families would choose Egglescliffe over a school in Ingleby if the choice were available.  Some people contend that all IB families would always choose a local school.
Ingleby Barwick needs more secondary school places.  I have always said that and will continue to say it until such places are provided.  I have no strong feelings on whether they should be provided by building a new school or by expanding the present provision.  I am personally not convinced by the rhetoric which has prevailed over recent decades on education which has encouraged ever bigger schools with wider and wider curriculum spread.  I think that a well run smaller school, sharing some facilities with other schools can work very well, especially when modern technology allows sharing over distances.
Where I differ from Ingleby Barwick Independents Society councillors and some other residents is over the issue of "Free Schools" which are not free of course.  There's no such thing as a "Free" School.  The idea of Free Schools was promulgated by the Conservative minister for Education, Michael Gove and supported by most Lib Dem MPs in parliament as part of the coalition agreement.  However, at the Liberal Democrat Federal Conference in September 2010 the party's opposition to so-called "Free Schools" was reaffirmed and this is party policy.  Like some other party policies it is not coalition policy, just as some Conservative policies are not coalition policy.  That's the nature of coalition - compromise.
The funding for these new kinds of schools has to come from existing budgets.  There is no money tree in the back yard.  If the funding pattern is the same as that for the academies there are serious questions about the amount of money which would be needed by the school and where it would be found.  The obvious answer is from the allocation to the Local Authority for such matters.  When a school is outside the Local Authority framework there are no economies of scale on such things as HR, to mention just one problem.  Will the school be obliged to share in the education of children with special educational needs in the borough?  These and many other problems will need to be addressed but there is far too much to write about in one blog article.
As for questions of where Egglescliffe School should be rebuilt - again I've talked about this in the past.  If places can be provided on Ingleby Barwick for significantly more of the children who live there then Egglescliffe school can be smaller than at present.  A rebuild on its present site would be possible, not easy but definitely possible.  The push to build on the playing fields at Allens West came  from people who told us that it would be too disruptive to move into temporary accommodation then move back into the new build.  It would be disruptive and that can't be denied.  But I'm sure it could be done and if the new building were of good enough standard it would be worth the disruption.
However, before any of this can happen the borough has to have the capital to build the new school.  The beauty of the cancellation of the BSF programme is that the council is now free of the restrictions of BSF and can look at all of its buildings, their age, their quality, their suitability for purpose and their size in relation to where the children of the borough live and want to be educated.  A sensible order of priority can then be drawn up for the borough and funding applied for.  On these criteria new secondary provision at Ingleby surely would be high on the agenda, along with new buildings for Ian Ramsey and Egglescliffe schools to my knowledge.  Whether they are more of a priority than new buildings to replace old Victorian primary schools is a discussion for another day. And I hope that any thoughts of building on Preston Park have been firmly scotched once and for all.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Victory stage 1

Tonight Stockton Council's cabinet has set the council back on the right track after wasting resources for 6 months on looking at an option for building Egglescliffe School in Preston Park.  Following the demise of the BSF programme the council is now looking at what the Labour government should have let it do in the first place - looking at all the school buildings we have and their fitness for purpose.  By February we should have a condition report on all the schools in the borough and know which ones need most urgent replacement so that when funding becomes available the council is ready to go.
We also have to contend with the application for a so-called Free School in Ingleby Barwick.  The councillors leading on that application keep describing it as costing the authority nothing, not seeming to realise that the money has to come from somewhere and the only likely source is the council's school funding.  If millions have to be spent on a new building in Ingleby Barwick it won't be available for the rest of the borough, and it's no good telling me that the borough will save money on transporting children off the estate. They don't spend that much on buses!
Meanwhile, the Park is safe for the time being and we now have time to ensure that there's proper protection in the borough's Core Strategy so that no-one but no-one can ever again propose building on it. The Protect Preston Park group will now work towards that, along with councillors and together we'll succeed.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Meeting People

Out knocking on doors to talk to residents about local issues yesterday I met a wonderful woman who's bringing up a family alone and far from her extended family who thought that Eaglescliffe is the best place there is to live, that Preston Park is a beautiful asset and that Egglescliffe school is the best school in the area.  She has no complaints, has such a positive outlook on life and what's more supports the Alternative Vote as a fairer option than First Past the Post.  I left feeling quite uplifted.
Tonight I was with other local Lib Dems at one of our members meetings.  A really good discussion ranging across lots of issues (including of course tuition fees) with people who share the same values and want to talk seriously about things.  No-one is happy with the tuition fees situation but no-one is walking away.  We all recognise the difficulty of funding higher education and the problems there are with any method devised.  Better brains than mine are no doubt grappling with how to move forward on it now, and if they're not coming up with a good solution we'll all be bitterly disappointed.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Building Schools in Stockton

The report to Cabinet for this coming Thursday makes sober reading.  Not a single replacement building for a secondary school in the last 30 years means that Stockton's secondary school estate is showing distinct signs of age.  Some are rapidly nearing the end of their useful life and most could do with a bit of an update.  It's a great pity that the BSF process was so bureaucratic.  If Labour had just had the courage to trust elected local authorities at least some of our schools would have been underway now.  As it is, we spent a huge amount of money on jumping through government hoops and have nothing but a lot of ideas to show for it.  The money spent would have gone a long way towards refurbishing a school.
But every set back is also an opportunity and now we have the opportunity to use the best ideas out of the previous work and look at the entire borough, not leaving out the Yarm-Eaglescliffe-Ingleby triangle. The council can work out what's needed most and where as well as possible ways to achieve it and then as soon as there's any whiff of money available a bid can go in and we hope to get enough to get on with the action.  Certainly now that the fetters of BSF are off we in Eaglescliffe can push for the necessary investment in a replacement building here to cater for the needs of children in the 21st century, and not just children from 9-4 but the out of school hours activities that help to make a real community.

Meanwhile Yarm Fair approaches - the High St is closed tomorrow evening from 5.30 till 9 to allow the caravans, rides etc to get into the High St and parked up ready for the next day.  The showmen will spend Wednesday assembling and testing their rides and the Fair will open on Thursday.  Although it causes some traffic disruption and a few people complain about it many more appreciate the tradition of having the Fair on the High St rather than shipped off to Preston Park or some such place. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fairtrade in Guisborough

Churches Together in Guisborough united tonight at St Paulinus' church to celebrate Harvest Festival, and to thank God for the work done by people across the world to produce all the things we need and those which make life more pleasant and enjoyable for us.  As part of the evening I was asked to talk about the impact of Fairtrade on the lives of the producers.  I don't think I've ever had such an easy talk to prepare - given all the resources of the Traidcraft Speaker network and the personal experience of meeting and talking with a cashew nut producer last year. Talking about the choice facing Juan Luiz and his colleagues of whether to buy nutcrackers or send their children on to college education I could have heard a pin drop.  Describing the life of a pineapple plantation labourer in Costa Rica working for the big producers was easy after reading so much about it this week.  Afterwards the wonderful people of Guisborough gave very generously to Traidcraft Exchange to help with the work of developing more Fairtrade products and producers.  Some of them also talked about what they already do to support Fairtrade - Guisborough was the first Fairtrade town in the area.  It sounded to me tonight as though there's still a great deal of support there.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Battle is almost over

 Rejoice with me:
Stockton Council’s Cabinet will meet in public in Stockton Central Library at 1630 on 14-10-10 to consider a report on the future strategy for building work on schools. 
Among the recommendations from Officers is onethat the strategy should not include any further work on option D2 of the four options proposed for investigation to deal with the demands for pupil places in the South of the Borough”.
“To rebuild Egglescliffe School on a site in Preston Park…D2…depended on government funding being made available for a footbridge linking the park to Ingleby Barwick, a prospect that seems highly unlikely in the present climate.  During the feasibility work undertaken, the location of the proposed bridge also raised significant engineering issues.  In addition to this, any additional traffic from a community school facility could not be accommodated without significant upgrading of the road network, which would not be in keeping with the current access or be acceptable onto a principal road such as the A135 Yarm Road.  To locate a school within the area of the park would also require the re-location of the existing allotments. These matters pose significant legal, logistical and financial challenges and taken together with the envisaged technical difficulties have led to a view that option D2 should no longer be considered.”

In other words Stockton's Cabinet is being recommended by officers who were tasked with carrying out the studies to drop the Preston Park option for Egglescliffe School.  All the indications are that they will accept that recommendation.  Thank you to all who signed the petition and especially to those who took the campaign forward in the Protect Preston Park group.
As ward councillors we now have 2 aims - to ensure that the Park is protected for posterity and to ensure that a replacement building for Egglescliffe school is built on a suitable site.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Time to celebrate?

Stockton Council’s Cabinet will meet in public in Stockton Central Library at 1630 on 14-10-10 to consider a report on the future strategy for building work on schools.  Among the recommendations from Officers is one that the strategy should not include any further work on option D2 of the four options proposed for investigation to deal with the demands for pupil places in the South of the Borough”.  “To rebuild Egglescliffe School on a site in Preston Park…D2…depended on government funding being made available for a footbridge linking the park to Ingleby Barwick, a prospect that seems highly unlikely in the present climate.  During the feasibility work undertaken, the location of the proposed bridge also raised significant engineering issues.  In addition to this, any additional traffic from a community school facility could not be accommodated without significant upgrading of the road network, which would not be in keeping with the current access or be acceptable onto a principal road such as the A135 Yarm Road.  To locate a school within the area of the park would also require the re-location of the existing allotments. These matters pose significant legal, logistical and financial challenges and taken together with the envisaged technical difficulties have led to a view that option D2 should no longer be considered.”

Simplified, this means that Cabinet are being recommended to drop the idea of building the new school in Preston Park. It's too soon to celebrate yet but we are now very, very hopeful.  
But this is only the first step on a long road - Egglescliffe school needs a new building fit for the 21st century and Ingleby Barwick needs more secondary school places.  Now that the distraction of the park is out of the way (we hope) perhaps efforts can be concentrated on solving those problems.  We will certainly be doing our bit.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Planning or reacting?

This afternoon's planning committee was a real disappointment to a number of residents who felt that we should be stopping developments that will affect them.  Stockton 6th form college, disappointed last year by the ineptitude of the Learning & Skills Council which first allocated them money for a new building then realised they didn't have enough money and withdrew the offer, has managed to find other funds to build an extension instead.  It will give them some much needed new science labs but it will also take the building nearer to some housing.  Residents fear loss of privacy as the lab windows will be facing their houses.  The architects had come up with a landscaping bund as a partial answer and we spent some time yesterday on a site visit discussing with residents, officers and the college staff what sort of planting could be put in, where the footpath should go and so on.  Today was decision time and the view of the committee was that the safeguards which were being insisted on would be sufficient.  The residents were very disappointed, but that's what we do - weigh up all the evidence and make a decision.
Then it was on to a site in another part of the town.  This site had planning permission for some building but the owner had decided to build something else.  With the foundations apparently laid we were then presented with a planning application for sheltered housing.  Unfortunately, although there was car parking provided there was so little amenity space that planning officers had deemed it necessary to insist on a payment towards amenity space elsewhere.  I pointed out that the guidance on that sort of payment was developed for higher density housing for younger people who don't want to look after gardens etc, but this housing is for elderly relatively frail people who can't walk over to the park or wherever the money is spent.  They need the gardens on site - not hundreds of metres or even more away.  The committee agreed and the plans were refused.  No doubt there will be an appeal but I'm comfortable with the idea of fighting it.

And then on to another partially retrospective application - this time for more windows in a house to be able to open up the loft and convert it to bedrooms.  Only 2 neighbouring houses were affected and there were measures possible to mitigate the problems but the frustration of councillors, residents and officers at the way people build something different to their original permission and then apply for planning permission to regularise the situation was palpable.  Life on planning committee would be so much easier if it really was allowed to plan rather than to react to what people have already done.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Child Poverty = Family Poverty

A large part of today seemed to be taken up with consideration of poverty in one form or another.  A conversation this morning with someone whose reaction to the statement on future child benefit changes was to feel it was hugely unfair on those poor single parents earning over £42K who were being unfairly targeted.  My response that my sympathies were with the women for whom child benefit is their main or sole source of income was met with a blank look.  But I'll never forget when I was teaching having a child in my tutor group whose mother was in that position.  His father drank away most of the household income but once a week when he was sleeping off that drink she could get the Family Allowance as it was called then, and buy some food for the children and herself.  Eventually she couldn't do it any longer and when her son went home from school one day he found her in the kitchen with her head in the gas oven.  So, much as I'd like it to be a universal benefit, if it comes to crunch time I'd rather see it removed from someone who has a decent income than from my pupil's mother.
This evening started with a special meeting with representatives of many different groups to discuss how Stockton Borough should tackle the problem of child poverty in this day and age.  There are still far too many children in the borough living in families who can't afford to do the things that most people take for granted - take an occasional trip out to a leisure centre or cinema for instance, or buy enough fruit for everyone to have some each day.  After years of "interventions" we're still nowhere near to solving the problem.  So is the answer more of the same or something very different?  Lack of cash has to concentrate the mind but it was difficult to work out things that could be done in those circumstances. 
We heard from Thrive, a group working in some parts of the Borough empowering just such people to fight back and get themselves established on the path out of grinding poverty. We listened to people who had taken those steps and are now helping others to take them.  We heard about the value of the Credit Union in giving the chance of loans at a more affordable rate of interest.  Then it was our turn, in groups, to look at ways in which poverty could be tackled in the borough.
I was part of a group discussing the advice and guidance available to families, especially trying to help them avoid being taken in by companies offering loans at exhorbitant rates to buy even the most basic goods such as washing machines.  By the end of the session we had some ideas but they needed a lot more work and a lot more partners sitting round the table to thrash out detail.  I hope the work is done but I don't have the power to ensure that it is.  All I can do is rely on others carrying on with the same enthusiasm as they showed today in the hopes that at least some families can be saved from this grinding poverty.
As one of the speakers said, quoting Proverbs "The poor man is hated even by his neighbour but those who love the rich are many.  He who has no respect for his neighbour is a sinner, but he who has pity for the poor is happy".  The question for all of us in that room was, which are we?