Friday, July 30, 2010

There was a fascinating programme on BBC2 last night which I sat and watched to the end. Those who know me well know how unusual that is:). I stumbled across 5 Days that Changed Britain when looking for something to keep the brain active while ironing. I'm so glad I did. It was an unusual programme in that the presenter did very little interpreting, letting the words speak for themselves. I came away with a couple of very distinct impressions: First of all how unbelievably incompetent Labour were at negotiation. They admitted freely to going in to the room to discuss coalition without any sort of "game plan", no idea of what they wanted and how they would try to get it. No wonder they got the country into a mess. Secondly, Nick Clegg isn't as green as he's cabbage looking to quote an old Northern saying. He certainly had a fair idea of what he wanted for the party and for the country and made decisions on how to balance the two. He might not have made the decisions which some of his party would have made but we'll never know for sure as no-one else was in the position he occupied. And thirdly, David Cameron is ambitious, clever and devious - so no surprises there! Well done BBC2 for a good, thought provoking programme.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

If anyone asks what does a councillor's day consist of perhaps today was a good example. Start with sorting out papers for a series of meetings before setting off to the first one. A lengthy session on the targets for everything which the council is meant to achieve, including some completely beyond the council's control, and whether or not we are reaching them made me grateful again to the coalition government that it is removing some of them! As one councillor remarked today, we don't need a target to reduce road accidents - we know we want to reduce them! And what a waste of time to have a whole lot of councillors sitting round scrutinising the work that lots of officers have done in working out how near to all the targets we are, when most people agree that the targets can't ever tell the whole story or anywhere near it about how good or bad life is in the borough.
Half an hour of catching up on emails and messages before the Fairtrade Partnership meeting. Plans are just about completed for the Tristar Fun Day in Preston Park on 12th August - if you're in the area pop into the park and see what's going on. The Fairtrade stall will have information, sales and samples as well as a prize quiz to try. The next big event will be the Wine Tasting in October and after that we started discussing Fairtrade Fortnight for next year - and so the year goes round!!
The afternoon's meeting was related to the closure last year of Elementis Chromium in Eaglescliffe. The remaining staff wanted to update the Ward and Parish Councillors on progress. We hear so much about companies not caring for their surroundings, their neighbours or their employees that it's refreshing to have a company which is taking such care over the clean up of such an old site. Its still very sad to have lost so many good jobs but it was somewhat comforting to hear of the high percentage of people who've moved on to other employment, and a great relief to know that the clean up is in such good hands.
A couple of personal visits and then home to a series of phone messages and emails about everything from street name signs to party policy. And after that it's time to start cooking a meal! Such is a councillor's day, or at least on this occasion.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Two comments today on St Margaret's play area. First a resident congratulating the Parish Council on getting such a brilliant refurbishment of the park. She thought it wonderful and is really thrilled that her daughter has such a good park to go and play in. Later in the day came a message from a resident near the park - why does the enforcement van patrol the area at 5.25pm when everyone's home having their tea, but not come out at night when there is a problem? I have asked the same question of the enforcement team and I await the answer with interest.
Meanwhile a couple of hours of sorting through papers left in piles since May has nicely filled a blue bag!
A little stint in the garden produced a bowl of luscious cherries just crying out to be eaten. The ripe morello cherries cooked down well with some brambles and apple for pudding tonight, and the last of the raspberries will be eaten tomorrow - I do love harvesting at this time of year.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Joy unbounded

Yesterday was dominated by the birth of our first grandson, so politics took second place alongside the ward and many other things. The joy of a long awaited birth is enormous for all the family and this particular family is spread far and wide so the joy circled the world, quite literally. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology he was scarcely half a day old when we had our first photos and only a little over 30 hours old when we saw him on a video link. There are many drawbacks to the world of technology but this wasn't one of them!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tomatoes as far as the eye can see


About 5 years ago the planning committee of Stockton Council gave permission for a Tomato plant to be built. It was to use state of the art technology to recycle water, collect rainwater for use, take waste energy from nearby chemical plants for heating and waste carbon dioxide from them for feeding the plants. Today members of the planning committee went to look at the plant in operation and to see if it was living up to its claims at the time.
Hectare upon Hectare of tomato plants, stretching into the distance, producing crops for 11 months of the year, all carefully tended by a combination of computer controlled heating, lighting, ventilation and feeding with skilled human trimming, harvesting and then packing means that supermarkets are selling tomatoes grown in Billingham for a large part of the year. So about 100 people have jobs, some full time and some just for the summer, the tomatoes don't travel miles across the sea to get here and the flavour is wonderful. We know - we sampled some.
They even have their own hives of bees to pollinate the crops. Sadly at present the bees are imported from a Belgian company but there is apparently an English company starting to produce these little portable hives. At the moment they are considered prohibitively expensive by this company but maybe in the future it wil be British bees also working in the glasshouses, who knows.
For some reason unknown to the staff beautiful ferns grow out of the Rockwool on two rows of cherry tomato plants. No-one understands why it happens in those rows but it doesn't seem to affect the tomatoes so the ferns are left to grow on undisturbed. I did suggest selling them as a sideline - I'm sure they'd be very popular, but it's probably too much hassle to set up such a side production.

Friday, July 16, 2010

I was in Gateshead this morning for a meeting of the North East Regional Fairtrade Forum. We discussed Fairtrade Fortnight for next year and how we might mark it in the region in order to gain maximum publicity and impact. As the discussion went on an idea began to emerge of a way to link activities around the region and everyone became more and more animated and excited by it. I'm looking forward to sharing the ideas with Stockton's group at our next meeting and hoping to take it forward to a really good event.

This afternoon I was taking someone for a chest x-ray and had the opportunity to see at first hand the lung department at North Tees - a very long walk from the main doors but a lovely, light and airy looking place when we got there and much easier to move around than the general x-ray department. It shows what can be done with care and thought when designing a "new" part of an old hospital.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Play Partnership this afternoon brought some disappointing news. Last month we'd been told by the new government that the ringfencing was being removed from grants such as Play builder from which Stockton has benefitted so much and which gave part of the funding for the St Margaret's Play area. The Parish Council is well on the way with planning improvements to Amberley Way play area and were promised £10,000 towards the cost of that from the PlayBuilder fund. Today a letter has arrived from the minister saying that unless work has actually started they will be asking for the money back! I know that there are really important big projects which are desperately short of cash thanks to labour's mismanagement of the country's finances over recent years but I can't help being very disappointed that the hopes of the children from Durham Lane school and beyond will be more difficult to fulfill now.
I reported briefly to the Parish Council tonight and we are all agreed that Amberley Way play area is important and we will do our level best to get the funding sorted out and do the improvements those children so richly deserve.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I spent the morning delivering our regular Focus leaflets around a part of the ward where our volunteer deliverer couldn't do it this time. I enjoy the chance to really walk parts where I don't usually go - every little twist and turn of a small road leading to nowhere other than those houses. These quiet corners don't often produce problems but like the quiet children in a classroom that's no excuse for ignoring them.
A frustrating interlude with ICT equipment not working as it should and then off to a meeting that was nothing to do with being a councillor but everything to do with being a person. It was refreshing to hear someone talk about their vision for making things better and the limitations of budget and resource that slowed down the achievement of the vision without any party political overtones. It was a genuine discussion about ways we could achieve more. I just wish there were more meetings like that.
This evening's council meeting was somewhat less good tempered. Before it started the Mayor showed the gifts which had been given by the Yorkshire Regiment on their march through the town in June. One was made from a Russian shell case - no doubt we'll hear the rest of the story at some point!
The Protect Preston Park group had brought their 7200 signature petition to present and had assembled a good number of supporters outside to greet councillors as they arrived. They were noisy and it obviously upset some people who think that council meetings are all about quietly rubber stamping cabinet decisions.
The two representatives handed over the petition and the Mayor broke with protocol to ask if they wanted to say a few words. David Winship spoke with dignity and conviction and I thought it added to the occasion. Meanwhile other supporters sat upstairs in the gallery to watch and yet more sat in the committee room where they could hear the procedings though not see them. They had a superb map showing the distribution of signatures but weren't able to take it into the council chamber.
The rest of the council meeting seemed to be a competition to see who could say the most - the Labour Leader having a go at my attitude to the budget under the guise of speaking to a cabinet minute, numerous people jumping up to add their twopennorth, the chair of the Children & Young People committee telling us what a wonderful meeting they'd had, speeches and questions going on for longer than usual. There was the usual Labour/Tory stitch up to ensure that our nomination for a member of a charitable trust didn't get elected. The motion expressing disappointment about the removal of the funding for the new hospital was passed unanimously and unsurprisingly. We'd all like to have better health facilities, the only issue is how to pay for them. However, the council is now committed to working with all possible partners to bring the Momentum project back on track and that's all to the good.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Children are Wonderful

Today was all about children, or at least the interesting bits were. St Margaret's play area has been a popular play park for children for at least 30+ years and the play equipment was beginning to get a bit past its best with items being removed when they gave up and not replaced with similar equipment. Two years ago the Parish Council really pushed the boat out and decided to ask the Council Tax payers of the parish to fund a complete refit of the area. Two years and a boost from Lottery Play builder money later and we have a play area to be proud of. This afternoon wasn't the best weather it could have been but that didn't deter the children who brought along their parents and grandparents. The Links School sent their choir, who sang beautifully about their dream that has come true in the play area they were celebrating, and then about building community. A brief speech from the Chairman of the Parish council, thanking people who'd supported and helped during the project, and then it was time for the children who were our "celebrities" for the day to cut the ribbons. Four pairs of scissors poised, four ribbons to cut, and the press photographers urging the crowd into cheers and counting down to the cut - a wonderful atmosphere and great to be part of it. There have been some worries along the way and there's still work to be done to make sure that it's sustainable over the long term, but we'll get there and meantime there were some lovely comments from people of all ages.
From the teenagers who said it's brilliant even if it is designed for 3 year olds!
The grandmother who said her grandchildren (aged 2 and 4) love it and spend as much time as they can there.
The parents who said it was worth waiting for
The children who said it's fab but asked why some people write on the wood and leave litter
The dog walker who said she's watched it develop since January and is surprised at how little vandalism there's been so far but hopes the police will keep an eye on it.
It's definitely worth the work and the heartache at times and we will keep an eye on it and we will encourage people to walk to it rather than bring a car round!
When that was over I walked across to Durham Lane Primary for the Key Stage 2 (Juniors to me) performance. Their musical skills are growing year by year and to see the confidence of those children is amazing. 11 year olds singing solos in front of a hall of strangers and a few family is quite an achievement. This isn't a specialist music school, but a school where music is recognised for the value it adds to the lives of all the children, whether they sing or play an instrument or just enjoy listening (though there aren't many of them it seems). To see so many children enjoying performing song and dance routines is just amazing. Well done to all the children, staff and parents who do so much to encourage that confidence in each other and the children.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Congratulations St Cuthbert's

The first school in the Borough to achieve Fairtrade Status - St Cuthbert's primary school. What an achievement. Staff, governors and children have worked really hard and considerations of Fairtrade and what it means are now embedded in that school's life. This morning's celebration was typical - a coffee morning/tea party in school just before the Family Learning class with parents bringing in home made cakes baked with Fairtrade ingredients, children serving them, the kitchen staff helping out with biscuits, the parish priest, police, Tristar and Family Learning staff all there as part of the school family, celebrating. The guest of honour was the Mayor of Stockton-on-Tees who is a supporter of Fairtrade and spoke from the heart about the difference those young people are making. The only disappointment of the day was that the big banner hadn't arrived in time but the press photographers were there and we hope the story will feature in both the Gazette and the Echo in the not too distant future.
Many of the children come from families which don't have a lot of money to spare and live in an area of the borough where academic achievement traditionally isn't high but the sense of achievement for those children today was worth more than any Ofsted report.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Cuts and Extra money

The papers are full of the cuts being made by the coalition government at the moment but the extra money being found for important things hardly gets a mention.
£1 billion for areas like ours which are very heavily dependent on public sector jobs, to help with steering the economy into a broader area. Stockton is preparing to bid for money to help with small enterprises - not huge companies with household names which come and go at the whim of boards of directors hundreds or even thousands of miles away, but small companies that give jobs to one or two or ten local people and have a stake in the community.
Thousands of people taken out of paying income tax by raising the level at which we start to pay tax.
The earnings link restored for pensioners, removing years of unfairness started by Conservatives and prolonged by Labour.
Extra funds for child tax credit so that parents on low incomes get extra help to cope.

But for some reason it's considered better to cover front pages with cuts, spread gloom and worry. It was good to hear the vice-chair of Stockton Renaissance Partnership tonight say that the people of Stockton are resilient and will pull together to get Stockton through these hard times. Pride in Stockton is something to foster and nurture this year and for the future. Together we can do it - improved living for our poorer families while encouraging the better off to do their bit for the good of the whole. Now that needs true leadership! And that's the challenge for us as councillors - to provide that leadership.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Greener Living

The Greener Living Roadshow moved to Ropner Park this year to give the front field at Preston Park more time to settle after the drainage work and grass repairs. The new venue was a challenge - not as visible nor as frequently used as a venue for events. Nevertheless a steady stream of people found it, came and had a look and enjoyed the displays. As always the Fairtrade Borough Partnership was represented with a stall and we certainly had lots of interest - lots of directories taken and quite a few small items sold. We even had a couple of people wanting to know more about the partnership.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Last night I attended a meeting of the committee of Protect Preston Park, not as a voting member, but because I could help with some of the protocols round presenting their petition to Stockton Council. It's really satisfying to see how residents have taken on the task of organising that group, running fund raising events, raising awareness and preparing for the future preservation of the park. Already they're working with the Park management on their events. In the future I see a very strong Friends of Preston park group emerging and the park & allotments going from strength to strength.
This morning was a chance to meet with ward colleagues and share where we're up to on the issues we've all been dealing with. Email is wonderful but sitting round a table and talking about things is also a big part of being a team.
This afternoon I went to one of the meetings which I enjoy most as a councillor - the Multi-Agency Looked After Partnership - commonly known as MALAP! This is the partnership which tries to ensure that the children and young people in the care of the Local Authority are properly looked after. In law we are their corporate parents - we have taken on the responsibility of parenting them because for some reason their biological parents can't. At every meeting there's something to learn and something to question and try to improve. Today's was a particular challenge - 2 young people from the Children in Care Council came along to the meeting to tell us about what they've been doing and to tell us where we can improve what we do for them as well as how we can find out more about what they are thinking and doing. It was an excellent session and though the meeting lasted almost two and a half hours it certainly never became boring.
Ward surgery followed by a meal at the Waiting Room - a very pleasant end to a busy day.