Friday, January 29, 2010

The Stars at Night

This month's meeting of the Environment Partnership was held in the Planetarium at Wynyard Woodland Park. It's the first time I've been into the building and I found it fascinating. But even more interesting was the presentation and discussion on the problem of light pollution. It led seamlessly into a debate on ways of saving energy in street lighting and domestic security lighting and thus saving both money and carbon emissions. There were some amazing lighting examples on display. A full scale street lamp which uses 18 watts but is brighter than some of the currently used lamps was just one example. Like all new technology these things need thorough testing before being banked on to provide any answers and I hope that the tests do show that these low energy lights are the way forward.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Area Action Plan

The Preston Park saga rumbled on through the day with contributions on radio from the Conservative Parliamentary candidate and an IBIS councillor this morning then an item on the local TV news tonight.
Meanwhile I'd a meeting this morning to discuss issues around safeguarding children and vulnerable adults in the borough in the light of recent inspections. I'm reasonably confident that the vast majority of people are as safe as can be in Stockton but we can never say "it'll never happen here" and these things have to be looked at and scrutinised carefully always.
Tonight was the "stakeholder" meeting to discuss options for the Yarm & Eaglescliffe Area Action Plan. Back in July 2007 we had the first meeting and expected the document to work its way through the system quite quickly. How wrong can you be? Pressures of work in the department meant it waited until now to get to the next stage. But just like last night it was important to put acrimony and history to one side and work to get a suitable solution for the future. This time the questions are round how to define the character of the area, how to conserve the good while encouraging the economic growth areas like Durham Lane Industrial Estate and Preston Farm, how to keep the open spacious feel but have some affordable housing for the young and the elderly. Again, it was good to be able to share our thoughts and concerns without it being an election issue or us against them in any way.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hands Off Preston Park

The morning started at what my teenage daughter used to call "silly o'clock" in order to get to the BBC Tees studio this morning. There'd been an interview with Dari Taylor earlier in which she repeated the untruths that Eaglescliffe councillors had never consulted with our constituents and that the school would fit onto the overflow car park in the Park. I was able to point out just how frequently we do consult with our residents and to say how important the park is to the area.
The meeting of the Fairtrade Borough Partnership heard some very interesting information about the Town Pastor scheme and I'll write more about that another day. Today's main focus was the public meeting tonight.
People started to arrive from 530. By 545 it was obvious that we were going to have a full house. By 6 there were people standing all round the room and having started procedings we had to stop to make space for people standing outside to get in so I reckon there were at least 200 and maybe 25o in the room.
The meeting was chaired by Inspector Ian Garrett, Neighbourhood Police Inspector for the whole area involved. He did a wonderful job of keeping people in order, making sure that everyone had their say and that people were clear about the purpose of the meeting.
There were lots of really good informed comments, lots of people saying how disgusted they were with Dari, and an enormous strength of opinion that Preston Park is absolutely the wrong place for a school.
The mayor of Ingleby Barwick explained very clearly how the present situation had arisen and made a quiet but passionate plea for support. He was well received and from talking with him at the end I think he accepted that Eaglescliffe people want the best for the children of Ingleby as well. One of the IBIS councillors spoke and tried to explain their position but it was difficult as so many people wanted to ask him questions and make comment. He did manage to make himself heard to say that they don't want a school in Preston Park but do want a second one in Ingleby Barwick.
The vast majority of people in the room were very much opposed to the idea of building in the Park and there was a strong feeling that the present site is quite good enough.
The news of the Facebook group of over 1600 people and some of the comments being made on there was well received too.
It was wonderful to see so many people in a public meeting on a cold January evening. It's not the end of the campaign but it was certainly a milestone.
It was also good to be able to demonstrate to the people of Eaglescliffe and the wider area that when there's something on which we agree the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives can work together and share a platform. That fact didn't go unremarked by the people there. The Conservative candidate stated his position very clearly and at the end of the meeting Alan Lewis read out a message from Jacquie Bell stating her support for a secondary school in IB but her opposition to a school being built in Preston Park.
Now we have the job of sorting through all the comments and suggestions and making sure that the BSF team have all the information they need to see that the proposal has no public support at all.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Campaigns galore

The day started with a meeting at Durham of the Regional Fairtrade Forum, hearing of lots of big exciting events that are going to happen in Durham, Newcastle and Sunderland for Fairtrade Fortnight. Although I don't think that Fairtrade really should be a council run thing I do envy those areas which have a someone paid to organise events at this time of year. Instead of a handful of volunteers trying to do half a dozen jobs each they have someone whose job is to organise these things.
Never mind, we'll do our best with the resources we have and try to get the message out into the communities of Stockton.
Before that finished I had to leave to get back to Stockton for a meeting of the Health and Wellbeing Partnership. This is a partnership between various parts of the NHS in the borough and parts of the council along with community sector and bodies like the police and fire brigade. When such partnerships work they are a very good way of getting work done for the well being of the people of the borough but when they don't work they're worse than a waste of time. Fortunately I think today's meeting showed the partnership is working. There's a real willingness to share ideas and to get the best out of the resources available. Of course, like so many good things these days we find that something's been funded for two years when the results won't really be seen for perhaps 10 years. How on earth do you assess whether something has worked in a year or two? And how can we even contemplate failure when what's at stake is the mental health of our children and teenagers.
As part of the meeting we had a whistle stop tour of the health strategy for the Tees valley and were told that we consume 9million units of alcohol over the govt guidelines in this area, smoke 9 million cigarettes and carry around 2500 tonnes of excess fat! A horrible thought. No wonder we need so many plans and strategies for improving our health. I did think that a sizeable proportion of those cigarettes end up on the pavement in Yarm on Saturday night judging by the amount being swept up on Sunday morning when I walk down there.
Later in the day there was a meeting of the ward councillors for Eaglescliffe to discuss the meeting tomorrow night and finalise arrangements followed by Western Area Partnership board, with discussion on whether to have a policy for regulating A boards in Yarm and Norton High Streets and a very interesting presentation on Financial capacity training from the CAB, also known as Stockton District Advice and Information Service. The staggering rise in debt enquiries and people being helped confirmed us in our view that putting our small funds into that service for the people of the Western Area was a very good idea.
And finally home, to complete preparations and to eat and to catch up with my husband, last seen 12 hours earlier!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Budget Pressures

Usually at about this time of year councillors are faced with a list of bids from services within the council for spending of the little bit of "headroom" money available. When all the things which have to be done are accounted for and all the things which our residents tell us are really important and must not be stopped are added in there's usually a few thousand pounds left for something new or different. We listen to the council officers telling us why their idea should get funding for a year or two and then we go away and think about which ones we are going to vote for.
Not this year. This year we listen to how councillors and council officers have managed to identify efficiency savings in order to save us having to cut back on frontline services. We hear how financial woes are pushing more and more families into the arms of social services and how the recent severe winter weather is going to affect our already stretched road maintenance budget. We are told that area transport plan budgets are being cut by central government. On top of that we know that we need to keep the increase in council tax down as low as possible but also that people really don't want us to spend less on things like emptying bins, recycling, services for disabled people. How do we know? Simple - we asked. Our Viewpoint surveys asked people which services they thought should reduce if we have to cut spending. The answers were - not much. It seems that the people of Stockton Borough are reasonably satisfied with the value for money they get. So we'll carry on trying to tighten the corporate belt without the effect showing on services. And we'll hope that the economic situation improves in the not too distant future.

Fairtrade Big Brew

In the midst of all the work related to Preston Park and Egglescliffe school I've been trying to catch up on the plans for Fairtrade fortnight.
This year's theme is about swapping - buying a Fairtrade product instead of an unfairly traded one. Here in the North East we're concentrating heavily on tea, with the Traidcraft Big Brew campaign. Anyone in Stockton Borough who'll be organising or taking part in a Tea Dance in the last week of February or first week in March should get in touch. We'll have some free samples for them.
Sadly, in the middle of all the filing I've been doing I've put a notebook away and now can't find it. As it has lots of notes in from meetings before Christmas I'd quite like to find it.

Miracles and other things.

Finally, at 930 this morning, the council computer decided to work as it should. Mark from IT support sat down in front of it and bingo, before he had chance to lay a finger on it, the screen was showing exactly what it should show, no more and no less. The calendar was no longer muddled with the inbox, the scroll bars were back and the myriad of other problems had disappeared. I must confess that I'm pleased I sent him a picture yesterday of what it looked like or he'd never have believed me.
So then it was down to catching up on the things that hadn't been done or had gone missing during the last few weeks of problems and in between e-mails and phone calls trying to file away the mountain of paper which had accumulated. But to do that meant I had to sort out the papers and files on the shelves that had got into a terrible muddle, and to do that I filled the recycling bag and so had to get out another one and that filled up the floor so actually the room doesn't look any tidier than when I started!
Meantime more phone calls and emails about the Park/school issue and some planning to do for the public meeting we've arranged for Tuesday evening. It's going to be very interesting and possibly very full. I'm pleased we have an independent chairman for the evening and I hope that people will feel that they've been listened to and also been given as much information as there is available at present.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Petition Presented

As reported in the Evening Gazette tonight's council meeting was the moment when the work of the last few weeks came to its culmination. The petiton against siting Egglescliffe School in Preston park was presented by 2 members of our local community, Stella and Cynthia, supported by former ward councillor and now Preston Parish Councillor Mike Cherrett. When we arrived at the Town Hall we were told that the petition would be passed over to the Mayor by one of the council officers so there'd be no opportunity for a photo of the hand over. As it turned out, the mayor did come down and receive it from Stella but the photo is while waiting for the meeting to start.
Later in the procedings John Fletcher had put down a question for the cabinet member responsible for BSF to answer, asking that the misinformation contained in the MP's letter to our constituents be corrected. He didn't put it in quite those terms of course and the cabinet member didn't actually say at any point that he agreeed or disagreed with either side, but he did make clear statements of what is happening which didn't always correspond to the contents of our MP's letters. He agreed with John that factual information is important and that the council should make every effort to ensure that it's available.
That was followed by a lengthy prologue and short question from an IBIS councillor about the petition and how it would be verified. We're more than happy for the council's officers to verify addresses and names. I've made sure that as far as I'm able to verify everyone who signed the petition is a real person. I'm also convinced that a petition of over 2500 names shows that there is little public support for Preston Park as a site for a school. Whatever site it ends up on, a good staff can make a good school but Preston Park can't be recreated in bits scattered around Eaglescliffe.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Community Engagement

That's usually a buzz phrase that ticks a box in Council agendas but today I had a really interesting meeting on the subject. I chair the Western Area Partnership Board which has places on it for community representatives. There are some real problems about how to help these representatives to feed information back to the community and to find out what the community is thinking about issues. I'm sure it's not unique to Stockton but it's something which we want to address. So today there was a meeting of Area Partnership chairs with people who provide secretariat support and people who support the community representatives.
There was a good deal of honest discussion and some excellent suggestions of ways to do things better. We all accepted that it wouldn't be easy but we're all determined to work hard to improve.
As far as the Western Area goes, I'm hopeful that the engagement of the community in the fight to keep Preston Park free of buildings is going to help to get some engagement over other issues that also affect us though not quite so immediately perhaps. The Green Infrastructure Strategy might not sound so important, but when you realise that its about the green spaces in our borough and linking them up, making sure they're not built over, then it becomes rather more interesting to ordinary people. That's part of the challenge - translating the council jargon into people friendly words! Don't hold your breath - it won't be easy.

Monday, January 18, 2010

It's been a long time since I blogged anything but that's not because nothing's happened. On the contrary it's because I haven't had time to blog. The possibility that a school might be built on Preston Park has galvanised the people of Eaglescliffe like nothing I've known in my years on the council. Over 200 on line signatures and over 2000 on paper in the space of 4 weeks from all over the area, collected not by us canvassing for them but by concerned residents going round their friends and colleagues & taking them to work, by local small shops and businesses having them on their premises and of course by us publicising it.
We have had phone calls and emails galore, and not a lot of time to think in between them. The local press is interested and has reported the issues more or less fairly.
I want to say again here, loudly and clearly, that the objection is not to Egglescliffe School having a new building but to it being on Preston Park. There have been many untruths and half truths spoken and one day I'll have time to go through them all and sort them but one thing stands out - Preston Park is known and loved far beyond the boundaries of Eaglescliffe and Ingleby Barwick and more than 2000 people are willing to put their names into the public arena to say that. Well done and thank you to all concerned.
Meantime I'm surprised and delighted to see that there's now a Facebook group on the subject, run not by us but by people who would on most other topics be our political rivals. It just shows that co-operation is possible between political groups when the cause is just.
The petition itself will be presented to Stockton Council on Wednesday at 7pm so if you live locally and you've still got a sheet of signatures hidden away somewhere now's the time to return it please.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Golf Courses ARE useful after all!

This morning I decided to walk home from church the long way round and enjoy the riverside path while the snow was still hard - it's going to be awfully slushy and muddy as the thaw gets under way properly. Walking up past the golf course at the end of the walk I could hear shrieks and shouts of pleasure and wondered what on earth was going on. I soon spotted the cause - children of all ages from 3 to a lot older than that enjoying sledging and snow boarding on the golf course. Now I'm one of those who can't see the point of golf so I apologise to all those who consider it a fine sport/leisure occupation. I'm pretty sure that the people who look after the grass on the course will be less than happy too. But all I could see were loads of people of a very wide age range thoroughly enjoying themselves on slopes of varying gradient, man-made and natural, out in the fresh air and not harming anyone. I was taken back over 50 years to my childhood doing the same thing in the nearby farm field and probably wreaking havoc with the pasture land but getting lots of fun and exercise out of it.
Foolishly, I decided to rest after my exertions by sorting through dozens of petition sheets and trying to get some semblance of order into them. When I stood up again every muscle in my legs protested - walking in the snow must have exerted them more than I'd realised.
Later I heard the news that someone had drowned in the river at Stockton, trying to save his dogs. What a tragedy for a family somewhere.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes

There have been lots of compliments for Stockton's waste and recycling collection teams over the past couple of weeks as they've coped with horrible road conditions as well as icy and snow covered bins, boxes and bags, all without missing a single collection round. They reached the dizzy heights of a mention on a phone in programme on BBC Radio 4 this week! Heroes one and all.
The cold spell has brought out the best in many people - people taking hot fresh meals in for their elderly or sick neighbours; people digging away the snow from other people's paths; children sharing sledges with others so that everyone can enjoy the fun; countless people helping to move stuck cars and so it goes on.
We've had text messages from our house insurance company to remind us not to leave the house to freeze if we're going away, and that started me thinking about old style public service announcements on BBC TV and radio - little reminders about leaving the heating on low if going away for a few days, tips on driving in snow and ice - the kind of thing which years ago would have been commonplace. I'm quite surprised we haven't had any, or perhaps we're so cynical now that if they were produced we'd assume the government had an ulterior motive?

Friday, January 08, 2010

Dog owners beware

Yesterday a neighbour's dog, enjoying playing in the snow, ventured too far out on the ice on the Tees, fell through and drowned. Today I took an hour off with Denis and walked down to the Teesdale Way to look at the river - almost completely covered in ice. There were still dog-owners letting their dogs play off the lead and I couldn't bear to watch in case one went too far.
I was glad of my walking poles on the steeper bits of the slope - 2 legs good, 4 legs better to quote a certain book.
The rest of the day was taken up with much more mundane things - letters from residents about the school/park controversy, queries about gritting - still happening but only on priority routes in all probability, and clearing snow from the drive and the footpath in front of the house. By the time I got back from ward surgery tonight the drive and path were covered again and more snow was falling. The event I was planning on attending tomorrow had been cancelled and so I don't have to set off at 0830 to brave the weather - there are some bonuses!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Is the North East a Colony of London?

I had an interesting conversation this evening with someone who'd been part of the Respond project some years ago in Stockton. An Australian who had been part of some of the work had commented that a large part of the problem in the North East of England was that it was ruled as a colony from London. She saw many of the same attitudes in that relationship as she had experienced in Australia/England relationships years before. Thinking about it, I could see immediately what she meant. We are constantly told that if our local government behaves, does as central govt wants then we can have more freedoms and flexibilities to do what we want. Except that we never do get those freedoms to listen to our residents and do what they want. We're always told that we have to work harder, do more and spend less but what does central government do? Gets the country into the biggest mess for donkey's years and then tries to pretend it wasn't their fault.
Later in the evening I heard the weather forecast on radio. "Heavy snow is affecting large swathes of the UK and is also disrupting traffic in Northern England..." Proof positive that we're just a colony on the edges?
Meanwhile our MP has written to people who've replied to her previous missives with another dismissive letter claiming that the people of Eaglescliffe have not been consulted on the Building Schools for the Future programme. She seems completely unaware that Stockton Council did a full consultation on the original ideas and that Liberal Democrat Focus leaflets have asked people's opinions over and over again. She lives in a different world to most of her constituents.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Serious matters today - a report on Domestic Violence services in Stockton. There was a lot of serious discussion about what we do well and what we do less well in Stockton for people who are victims of violence in the home. Mainly they're women and children though there are some men who suffer too. The main conclusion was in one sense good - we don't want to cut the amount spent on the service but we do want to make that money do as much good as possible. In another sense it was a sad conclusion because it recognised that in the present economic climate there is an increased risk of domestic violence and we will probably need to help more people than at present. If you know of anyone in the borough who needs that help then the details of how to get help are here.
More snow this afternoon meant that the salting resources had to be concentrated on the roads again so no further pavement salting. It also meant that what is usually a pleasant walk over to meet up with John and Alan was definitely a cardio-vascular workout.

Monday, January 04, 2010

A Bit on the Side

of your wheelie bin, that is!
When the Environment select committee reviewed Wastes Management we recommended that when plastic and cardboard was being collected for recycling no side waste should be collected from households (with an exception over the Christmas/New Year period if needed). A report to the committee today claimed that this was working well and my own observation is that there is a lot less waste put out in Eaglescliffe than there used to be. Immediately another member of the committee said that he'd not seen much reduction in his ward. So we ask for more information and some evidence of what's happening across the Borough as a whole.
We move on to discuss anaerobic digesters and food waste collections and we need more information and evidence of progress in discussions.
I begin to wonder why we're having this meeting, the second one recently when we ended up with more questions than answers, but then reflect that every time we discuss the issues we have different questions. That's part of what makes scrutiny work - we ask questions for which the answers haven't been carefully prepared in advance. And sometimes we get interesting answers! Now we look forward to the review of collections to be done in April when everyone's had the cardboard and plastic recycling for at least 6 months.
Meanwhile we do our bit to reduce our own carbon footprints by turning off the boiler when everyone's got a cup of coffee and hurrying out as soon as the meeting finishes so that the lights can be turned off (in my dreams!)


Over the last few days I've heard that we have lots in common with David Cameron and his Tories and that we share ideals with Gordon Brown and Labour. We must be getting something very wrong!! Or has Westminster become such a smoke and mirrors place that those two can't see through their own spin?
Maybe I should invite them to Stockton to see how they could work together in a joint administration for the good of the country? Then the civil servants could get on with running the country and Gordon and Dave could put out press releases saying how good they are at everything.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, snow and ice continue to cause problems on estate roads and pavements. Last night walking to and from a freind's house was a joy - crisp snow deep enough that the underlying ice wasn't a problem. But that's because I'm reasonably able to walk like that. We're getting a steady stream of complaints now from people who can't get out while the paths are snowbound. It's not easy - SBC doesn't have the number of people who'd be needed to go round and clear and grit the paths, especially as fresh snow keeps falling. People who have cleared in front of their houses have had to do it several times in the last fortnight.
The weather hasn't stopped people signing our petition against building the school in Preston Park - completed sheets keep rolling in and on-line signatures pop up day and night. If you haven't yet signed and you care about Preston Park being kept as a green lung for Teesside and especially Eaglescliffe, you know what to do.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year to all.
Last night's fresh snow fall makes the gardens look pretty but the roads and pavements treacherous again. Yesterday's weather update from the Council Leader said:

The forecast is advising of possible snow accumulations of between 2 and 7 cm. between now and tomorrow morning. Gritting routes will be completed at 4.00pm today, 2.00am tomorrow morning and crews will be on standby for an 8.00am run if necessary. Ploughs are fitted and ready to be deployed. Road surface temperatures are forecast to fall below -4 so ice is likely to be a continuing problem.

Crews will be deployed gritting town centre areas, car parks and re-filling salt bins where necessary. On Sunday crews will be deployed to apply salt at school entrances if this becomes necessary ready for schools reopening on Monday.

Saturday is the last day of the holiday refuse collection catch up and resources will be deployed to ensure that this work is completed.

Gone are the days when all the men on the dole queue were employed to shovel snow off the pavements in town centres, and I'm not advocating that those days return. We do need to think carefully about our priorities and how we reconcile the need to keep the traffic moving for business and industry as well as personal ease with the need to help people to live independent lives. Having needed the emergency services on Christmas Day I was very relieved that the roads were clear, but having not been able to walk off the estate two days later I have every sympathy with those who want pavements done too.

The pavements in town centres are an obvious priority I suppose in that people who can get there by bus or car can then do their shopping, banking and so on. But how to clear the thousands of miles of pavement there must be in the rest of the borough? Sensible suggestions will be passed on to the officers who will be reviewing the Council's response to this exceptional snow problem later this month.