Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The morning started with a meeting of Environmental Protection UK Northern branch on which I represent Stockton Borough Council. This meeting was at the Hartlepool Power Station and included a guided tour. Security was impressive, but took up so much time that we didn't see as much of the power station as originally planned. The view from the top outside was beautiful but as no cameras are allowed on the site I can't share it with readers.
I didn't realise till today that there is a dedicated Police force for defending nuclear installations and that they are armed and not under the control of the local police. I can see the logic but it leaves me a little uneasy.
An hour to read some papers ready for a meeting next week before a short meeting about the Western Area partnership board and then a member seminar. Local residents might have seen some of the publicity surrounding a young girl and her mother who were seriously let down by Stockton council and other agencies like police and probation services. This afternoon there was an opportunity for councillors to discuss the issues and ask questions of the Director of Children's Services. Serious, sensible discussion and again a sense that although things had gone seriously wrong in the past lessons have been learned and we can be reasonably hopeful that the same sort of thing won't happen again.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ethics of Progress

At the end of a fairly average day of council work, family matters and campaign work it was good to get out to something completely different. In the theatre at ARC Jon Spooner of Unlimited Theatre spent an hour explaining some of the complexities of Quantum physics to an audience, some of whom hadn't studied science in any shape or form for many years. It was interesting, challenging, funny and thought provoking. As technology races ahead how do we encourage/allow the curiosity which leads to new inventions but keep the technology focused on "good" uses? How do we encourage youngsters to see science as an exciting interesting subject? Unlimited Theatre has certainly got part of the answer to that latter question.
Even more interesting than the main production was the second half, when interested people were invited to return to the theatre to continue the conversation. There were questions on how the theatre and science came together, questions on the development of language to express what elegant mathematics can show, and much discussion between members of the audience on some deep and complex questions of physics.
Definitely an evening that was different, an evening to remember, and one to provoke questions about how watchful we need to be, how near to paranoia we need to go in order to make the best possible use of new technologies. There was also convincing proof there if proof were needed that the best weapon against misuse of technology is a highly techno-literate population. If everyone understands then it's harder to fool the population at large. Science teaching needs to be more exciting, more interesting and more accessible if we are to achieve that, and that's a challenge for schools and colleges now. It's also a challenge for governments to stop micro managing the curriculum and let the good teachers teach.
Meanwhile I'm trying to imagine a quantum computer!

Protect Preston Park

Last night's meeting finished just too late to even think about blogging by the time I'd responded to phone calls, eaten and written a few emails! The new steering group is well and truly formed now and campaign ideas were buzzing round the room. It's not going to be easy for the committee to coordinate it all but I'm sure they'll have a good try and the campaign will be a success - it's got to be. The Park is too precious to lose.
So watch out - it won't be me leading on anything but the troops are out on the ground!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday always acts as a reminder that Lent is almost over and Easter almost here. I'd like to think that the wind might warm up slightly before next Sunday though!
This morning brought a bit of a discussion of the fact that Middlesbrough council had turned off the lights on the Transporter Bridge last night as part of Earth Hour. What had Stockton done? Well, the answer is nothing, not a single solitary gesture, despite being asked by me and provided with all the information to enable easy action. Maybe next year they'll play catch up, though I seem to recall the cabinet member for the environment saying that we wouldn't take part in such gestures. I wasn't feeling well at that particular council meeting so I could be wrong of course.
All of which reminds me that it's about time we did a quarterly check on how our group energy saving competition is going.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Life in this household has been a bit hectic over the last few days. Suffice to say that yet again I've seen more of the inside of hospitals than I wished to, but things are improving.
Earth Hour is over and I must say I felt a little lonesome, the only house as far as I could see that was in darkness and on my own as it clashed with a concert for hubby. Never mind, the gesture was made. It's just a pity that Stockton Council didn't join in, turning down my suggestion that we should switch off some of our "iconic" lights.
People tell me that our MP, Ms Taylor, is still claiming that the school can be built on the overflow car park in Preston Park, that it's the best site for the children from Ingleby, and now a new one - there's to be a full consultation in the summer and she hopes all will take part. That letter has only gone to people in IB so perhaps it's only there that the consultation will happen.
Meanwhile of course the Tory leadership has indicated that there'll be no guarantee of funding for those schools where "financial closure" hasn't been reached by the election. That means all of Stockton so we could have spent thousands of pounds getting this far, setting up the academy sponsors, upsetting those who love their present school with all its faults, and not have a thing to show for it. Such commitment to education could only come from the Tories.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Carnoustie Drive School Zone

Residents of Carnoustie Drive can be forgiven for being a little confused over the proposals for traffic calming and parking restrictions in the area. First Stockton Council consulted on installing speed bumps along Muirfield Rd, Carnoustie Drive & Sunningdale Drive along with parking restrictions on several roads near The Links School. When responses indicated little support for the speed bumps nor for some of the parking restrictions a second consultation was carried out which had fewer speed bumps and much smaller parking restrictions. Again, there wasn't enough support so a further letter was sent to residents saying that the speed bumps would not be progressed but the School Zone would be put on a list for possible funding. However, the School Zone was not defined and no map of this final proposal was produced.
Some people thought that meant all speed bumps were removed, others thought that the ones near the school would be retained while at least one Parish Councillor thought that a 20mph speed limit would be introduced also! It turns out that the middle line is the right one - there would be 3 speed humps as well as waiting restrictions near the school.
One resident has objected to the speed bumps, pointing out that speeding is not a problem, but others seem to support them. The final decision will now be taken by the Appeals and Complaints committee of Stockton Council, meeting on March 31st. We await the outcome with interest.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tory Threat to Schools

Not only have the Tories announced that almost anyone with the time & inclination will be able to open new publicly funded schools in competition with those already in existence but now Stockton's hard won funding for new and refurbished secondary schools is being threatened. According to an article by leading ToryNick Gibb in the respectable Times Education Supplement only those schemes that have reached the point of signing the contracts will be funded. All others will go into a melting pot. So Stockton, which has invested thousands of pounds of YOUR money in doing the preliminary work will lose out. Our scheme was only accepted in outline late last year and the final contract won't be signed till December this year at the earliest. Thus, no guarantee of funding! Thousands of pounds potentially wasted and masses of angst about which schools might close suffered in vain. No nice new school for Norton, no wonderful refurbishment fo rBishopsgrth and so on.
I know as much as anyone that whatever government comes to power this year it's going to need to save some money and reduce the national debt. But at the expense of education?
If you want real change with sensible costed policies, vote Lib Dem. Vince Cable knows what he's talking about and knows what's needed for this country.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Protect Preston Park

It was another busy day today, starting with an assembly on Fairtrade for Egglescliffe CE primary school, followed by Planning committee (which lasted over 3 hours) and then just time to nip home and collect the things I needed for the meeting at All Saints.
About 180 people almost filled All Saints Church to make suggestions on the next moves and to volunteer their services to organise. There were suggestions ranging from cheap and simple placards to carry in the park through to organising Easter Egg hunts and marches. It was heartening to see how many people wanted to include the residents of Ingleby Barwick to show that it isn't an us against them situation. People wanted to be sure that we were trying to find a solution and not just being nimbys and they wanted to know that the school would be happy with the outcome. While we can't guarantee that, we can guarantee that we'll support efforts to find a sensible solution to the problem of having the children concentrated in a different area to the school places.
So, community politics at its best with at least two political parties agreeing on the way forward on the park, whatever else we might disagree on (and there are plenty of those things), and lots of people of different political leanings coming together to fight for what's right.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sad news day

News of two deaths today overshadowed all the good work going on. Ashok Kumar, MP for nearby Middlesbrough East and East Cleveland, was found dead today at his constituency home. Although a staunch Labour man he was by all accounts a good constituency MP and a good man. He'll be missed not only by his own constituency but by a number of people in the Tees Valley of all parties and none who worked with him on things that really mattered to the people of the area.
Later this evening we heard that a much less famous person had died. Andrew had been a brilliant worker in Stockton Liberal Democrats in the nineties, working hard and narrowly missing being elected to council, helping to write our manifesto and then helping a new candidate to come very close to toppling a very safe Labour councillor. When he moved north he was a big loss to the local party.
Put against two relatively young men losing their lives so suddenly and unexpectedly, spending a couple of hours working on the election campaign and then spending nearly two hours in a seminar on Building Schools for the Future slipped into perspective. Not that the latter weren't important and interesting, just that they don't stack up against the loss of two lives.
I was going to write more about Sunday at the conference today but enough to say that if you want to watch Nick Clegg's speech it's here.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Digital Economy, Creativity and Piracy

Having an early morning debating slot usually means that the hall at conference is relatively empty, especially on the last morning as people have to check out of hotels, see to baggage etc. But not this morning when we debated an emergency motion calling for proper freedom on the internet. Child pornography and other serious crimes are already covered under other legislation but the Digital Economy bill seeks to block websites on the basis that their content might be copyright. We had a speaker who has suffered from piracy of his music files pleading against blocking such sites. We had people who understand the law far better than I do pleading similarly. Perhaps most telling was the description of the climate of fear such legislation produces in ISPs when we heard about someone posting a piece of writing by John Stuart Mills, long past its copyright days, and then writing to assorted ISPs telling them they were breaking the law and should take the site down. Only in one country did they do this - Britain. Only here were they so afraid of litigation and too lazy to check the facts. Heaven help us!
By a quirk of timetabling the next item was on making our voting system fairer. Again, lots of people with very wide experience all coming to the same conclusion - Gordon's offer of a referendum is too little too late. We need proper proportional representation and we need it now.
I came home to an email asking me to support the Sanctuary pledge and to watch a TV programme I've never watched before - tomorrow, Monday at 9pm on Channel 4 Secret Millionaire will show someone who was so moved by the plight of people seeking sanctuary here that he's putting some of his millions into a support project. A fitting end to the weekend.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Hallmark of a Civilised Nation ...

…is that we offer refuge to those fleeing war and oppression. So said Chris Huhne MP in this morning's first debate.
A day to be proud to be a Liberal Democrat. Which other party, small or large, would spend time at a conference this close to an election to debate and pass a motion on preventing the detention of children who are seeking sanctuary here from some of the worst horrors we can imagine? Hearing again the story of children being snatched from their homes in dawn raids, taken in prison-type vans to a “detention centre” aka a prison, being searched, being forced to carry an ID card at all times, torn away from friends, schools and medical care, and treated as criminals because their parents thought that they’d be safer in the UK than at home makes me almost ashamed to be British but then I hear about organisations which help, like our own Justice First and I listen to my party debate intelligently and passionately better ways to deal with the undoubted difficulties posed by some people seeking sanctuary here and I know that at its best, Britain is still a wonderful place to live. We just need Liberal Democrat policies in action, rather than being debated.
We had another excellent debate on our proposals for a Fair Start for all children. Recognising that in some families poor parenting, low aspirations and poverty make it unlikely that the children will arrive at school ready to learn means that we need to do more for those children when they get to school. We also need to build on the good things that are there already like the SureStart centres which have provided excellent support for some families. But the really good policy in there is the pupil premium idea – not the redistribution proposed by the Tories which will see a lot of schools in Stockton South lose out, but a genuine new fund that will put £2.5bn into schools every year, depending on the number of children coming from deprived backgrounds. The schools will decide how to spend it to improve the outcomes for those children, the schools will improve and more people will want to send their children there. It’s the perfect way to break the downward spiral which leads to failing schools.

To complete the package there was our Youth Policy – Free to be Young. The policy paper is colourful and written in accessible language. More importantly, it’s been road tested by young people, written after masses of consultation with them, and approved by them. The youngest speaker at conference, 10 year old Maelo Mannings, summed up our policies approved today: Liberal Democrats are great for children, great for young people. We’re not bronze, we’re gold! I couldn’t put it better myself.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Off to Birmingham by train to the Lib Dem spring conference. In some ways it felt like a bit of a cheat – going off to conference when others are out pounding the streets campaigning but on the other hand I did want to have do some things that can only be done face to face.
The opening rally of the conference was all it should be and we all really enjoyed it. From a rally looking forward to the next Parliament I went on to a fringe meeting looking back at the history of the Liberal Party in the 1960s and the influence of the Young liberals. I was intrigued to discover that when I was a Young Liberal in Stockton, enjoying political debates and social evenings, there were other Young Liberals in the country who were in contact with the Parliamentary party and were instrumental in formulating party policy. I don’t think that could happen in this day of the internet – everyone would be furiously emailing , tweeting and updating Facebook!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Earth Hour approaches

Only 16 days to go! Are you going to switch off your lights at 8.30pm on Saturday March 27th to show your support for Earth Hour? I am.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Protect Preston Park

This is the new logo for the group which has grown out of the original protests over our Labour MP's suggestion that Eaglescliffe residents should back her in supporting a move of Egglescliffe school into Preston Park.
Next Wednesday will see the launch meeting of the group, formation of a committee and all the necessary bits of organisation needed to carry it on for as long as it takes.
The Facebook group has been renamed and relaunched accordingly and other community groups are involved. Power to the people!

I spent the morning at a conference about bringing a different kind of power to the people - electricity and heat from relatively small local plants to housing, commercial and industrial properties. ESCos or Energy Service companies vary from big private sector organisations to small community organisations but they all seek to provide the best deal on heating with or without power for both the provider and the consumer. There are lots of legal complications to setting one up but there are some potential advantages too and those of us who were there from Stockton came away feeling that we needed to examine the pros and cons much more closely. One thing's for certain, decentralised energy is the way of the future and if we don't get it right on our big projects like the North Shore development and BSF school building we are missing our only real chance in the next 25 years to get any significant improvement in Stockton's carbon consumption.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Is this really caring?

I'm one of the very fortunate people of my age to have both my mother and my mother-in-law still living and enjoying some degree of independence. Apart from all the joys of having them still around this gives me an insight into the services available to our elderly population. Like most services, they're patchy. When they're good they're very good and when they're bad they're rotten to paraphrase the old nursery rhyme.
There's an entire area of service to the elderly which is often labelled "care". We hear of care homes, nursing care, personal care, carers etc etc. But it's becoming obvious to me that care is being squeezed out of the caring professions. Staff are being told by managers that it's inappropriate to hug someone in distress, that a good-night cuddle is abuse, that touching should be kept to the minimum necessary for safety and health. No matter that the elderly person likes to be cuddled, welcomes physical contact - no. The bureaucrats know best. Why oh why do the many have to suffer because the few abuse their position. Have these faceless beings ever needed reassurance, ever felt lost or lonely? Have they ever thought that good managers will ensure that contact is appropriate?
Thank God there are some carers who are prepared to risk the wrath of the faceless ones in order to make elderly people feel comfortable, loved and cared for in their last months and years. In return they have the satisfaction of knowing that they truly are carers. Long may they live.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Fairtrade finale

OK so Fairtrade Fortnight doesn't finish till tomorrow but yesterday afternoon's assembly at St Cuthbert's primary will take some beating. Each class explained what they'd done in the fortnight, ranging from filling a toy supermarket trolley with Fairtrade goodies to a persuasive writing exercise. I was almost in tears listening to the letters written to supermarket managers telling them why they should stock more Fairtrade goods. Those children have certainly got the message and their teachers have taught them well the power of the pen. Michael Foot would have been proud to know them!
And then the Fairtrade song - a new twist on old favourite "If you're happy and you know it" (shout Fairtrade was the fun and noisy bit) - written by the children of the Fairtrade committee. They'd sung it outside the supermarket earlier in the week. I'd have loved to have seen the passers-by. I'm really looking forward to their celebration when they achieve Fairtrade school status. I know I'm going to be invited.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Leven Bridge update

Divers have confirmed that the Leven river bed under the bridge has been eroded following the heavy rainfall of the past few weeks. As a result it seems that the bridge has moved slightly, not enough to cause collapse but enough to damage the road surface and to need a remedy sooner rather than later. As a result the bridge will be closed for at least 8 weeks. Meetings are being arranged to discuss the long term problems for the bus services which usually run over the bridge. The children who make the daily commute from Ingleby Barwick to Conyers and Egglescliffe schools are putting up with even longer days and hundreds of adults are finding their daily journey to and from work has lengthened. The silver lining is that no-one was killed or injured, thanks to swift action to close the bridge.
This morning I had a trip down memory lane to St Cuthbert's primary school for a Fairtrade coffee morning. A good number of parents and grandparents of the children were there and the helpers were enthusiastically encouraging people to change to Fairtrade goodies. There was tea and coffee on sale to help them make the switch as well as chocolate to taste. There were old acquaintances to renew too, and I look forward to seeing them all again when the school declares its Fairtrade status which can't be too far off now. In the near future, I'm going back tomorrow to see a penalty shoot out with Fairtrade footballs.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Some really good sessions over the last few days on campaigning, both Party political and small p political. Fairtrade Fortnight continues apace with the Big Swap campaign going well. Over half a million swaps have been registered so far. If you've swapped to Fairtrade for something this week do go to the site and register it. Let's do our bit to get to the million mark.
Yesterday the campaign to save Preston Park moved to a different level with a meeting of some of the key people involved. That's real community politics - people from varied walks of life sitting round a table and planning how to achieve something that really matters to people. Lots of good ideas not only for the next few weeks but for months and years to come. Who knows, it could also lead to some new councillors in years to come? When people get this fired up anything can happen.
Today's campaign team meeting put some finishing touches to plans for the General Election, whenever Mr Brown decides to call it.
Of course, Stockton doesn't have elections for councillors this year, so work has to go on as usual. Reviews of efficiency in all departments carry on and this morning we had a meeting to agree the next round to be carried out by members. Everything from Tourism to Street furniture are featuring this year. Should be interesting to see how much we can manage to save without cutting important services.