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?

Monday, October 04, 2010

How to save money?

This morning's news was dominated by talk of cuts in child benefit for those earning enough to pay the higher rate of income tax, saving enough money (the government hope) to be able to invest in sorting out the benefits system into something that's fit for the 21st century without causing hardship to those who inevitably end up slipping through the various safety nets around.  If it can be done it will be quite some achievement for relatively little pain, but the jury's out until the nuts and bolts are worked out and put into action.
This afternoon was spent at the Environment committee of Stockton Council discussing how the borough's car parking might be made to bring in a bit more revenue in these cash strapped times.  Talking of income of £50,000 and then having to invest some money in different signs and advertising the changes sounded very small compared to the millions being discussed this morning.  But then I remember the wise old saying "Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves" so perhaps it's worth persevering with a few thousand here and there after all.  I'm looking forward to us not spending a fortune every year on printing out loads of information for one set of government inspectors after another, to say nothingof the hundreds and hundreds of hours people spend on making sure the information is in exactly the right format.  Meanwhile the council has to start publishing expenditure over £500 - what would you think if entry after entry said "getting ready for the inspectors"? Don't answer, it's probably not repeatable.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Special Education Week

I don't know who designated this as Special Education Week and it doesn't really matter.  What matters is that Special Education is given the resources needed to ensure that those who learn differently, perhaps struggle to learn because they and their teachers have yet to find the right learning style for them, or maybe struggle because of a condition such as Down's Syndrome can achieve their full potential.  That's a big ask, and it might be some years before it's fulfilled but let's at least make a start.  Let's ensure that resources don't disappear in the rush to cut the country's debt.  There's currently a consultation being run by the coalition government's Department for Education.on the future of SEN.  Anyone interested can join in on their website.  Meanwhile we can all remember that learning difficulties aren't infectious, nor do they mean that people affected can't be hurt by unfeeling or unthinking comments.