Monday, November 29, 2010

Snow and Snow

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Two council meetings in one night

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

Friday, November 19, 2010

Good News from Nifco

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It's all in the design

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

Working towards Independence

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

Sunday, November 14, 2010

We will remember them

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

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

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Planning Application for The Grange

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

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

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Plunged into darkness? I think not!

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

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Preston Hall Museum & Park

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

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Stealing Labour's Deal

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

Friday, November 05, 2010

Remember, remember

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

Thursday, November 04, 2010

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

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Good work men!

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

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

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Green Waste Collections have stopped

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

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

Monday, November 01, 2010

Crunch Time approaches

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