Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What a difference 4 years makes

I can't help reflecting on the Boxing Day Test match of 4 years ago - my first visit to our elder daughter's new home and as a treat she'd bought tickets for the 3rd day of the Test match.  Sadly, the day was cut short by England's lamentable performance.  The shout from my neighbour in the stand to one of our fielders who'd missed what looked like a fairly easy catch if only he'd made the effort to get down to ground level "You're allowed to get your blouse dirty you know" summed up the feelings of the spectators.
This year it's the turn of the Australian supporters to feel demoralised, humiliated, frustrated, as their team only just managed to get to a 4th day of play in this hugely symbolic match. Are there parallels with political parties and general elections?  Some perhaps.  It does strike me that some sections of the media in particular think they can predict the results of an election in 4 years time from the results of this year's.  All I can say is, would they have predicted this Ashes series from the result of the previous one?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The photos

 For some reason best known to this site (and completely unknown to me) the photos have uploaded on their sides.  The Paris big wheel looked beautiful at night and I'd love to be able to share the smells and sounds of the Christmas Market along the road nearby.
Hot mulled wine, sausages, candy floss and much more mixed to give that very special atmosphere.
I was interested (councillor hat on) to see that the carousel nearby was being enjoyed by all generations of families and was provided free by the Mairie of Paris (the local government of the city).  A big sign told everyone that this was a Christmas gift from the Mairie and wished everyone happy Christmas.  It occurred to me that we do quite a bit of free entertainment in Stockton at different times of the year and perhaps we should make it more obvious how it's funded. Though of course such things will be less frequent as cuts have to be made.

These Christmas trees were made from recycled plastic bottles by an artist.  If people were inspired they could buy a kit containing the basic structure and instructions on how to put it together and then create their own version in the run-up to Christmas.  I didn't try to bring a kit home, fearing for my luggage allowance, but I'm sure there's an enterprising artist in our area who could come up with something similar for next year?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A European View

Denis and I took a few days off politics over the weekend and visited Paris.  The reasons for the choice of city and the timing are not for the blog but we were very relieved on Friday when we arrived at Newcastle Airport for our flight to find that it was leaving on time unlike the ones to Amsterdam which were cancelled thanks to the bad weather there.
We had snow in Paris but it didn't stop us wandering the streets and the Christmas markets, enjoying mulled wine and hot chestnuts and soaking up the atmosphere.  It was interesting to see how well wrapped up the locals were - boots and warm coats, scarves, hats and gloves were everywhere.  Even teenagers were sensibly dressed.  I couldn't help but contrast it with Yarm on an evening where hardly anyone seems to wear a coat whatever the weather.
The local TV news had quite a bit of coverage of the weather disruption to holidays but the press front page news was of problems in Africa and other international events.  The weather was relegated to the middle of the newspaper, again a huge contrast to what I'd left behind.
Of course I wasn't totally out of touch with the UK.  The wonders of modern technology meant that my colleagues could keep me up to date with what was going on in the ward and the borough, and we could still plan our activities even though miles apart.
Photos will follow when I can upload them.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Humanity at last!

Wonderful news this morning as the closure of the "Family Unit" at Yarls Wood detention centre was announced along with the end to detention of children over the next few months.  This is a Lib Dem policy being put into action by the coalition government.  It's not a "sexy" policy, it doesn't appeal to the extremists but it is a right policy, a good policy.  No-one claims that all the parents seeking asylum here should be granted sanctuary just because they have children but we have said over and over again that there are ways to keep adults under close supervision which don't involve locking them up with their children - imprisoning children for the perceived sins of their parents.
I do think this awful practice would have ended a lot sooner if we'd subjected the inventors of the policy to the treatment, just for a month.  The cries of their children as they were separated from their friend and their few treasured possessions surely would have softened the hardest heart, wouldn't it?
Today, though, I just want to give thanks that this step along the way has been taken.  A slightly more humane asylum system is the result.
And it all happened on the day the Peace Light came from Bethlehem to Stockton.  How appropriate is that?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fairer Votes

It's refreshing to be part of a campaign that's not linked to any one specific political party, nor to a local single interest, but which spans all parties and those with no party links and which is about something as fundamental as voting reform.
This afternoon a small group gathered in Eaglescliffe to hear about the campaign across the North East region and how we can be involved.
When we were knocking on doors during the general election a number of people said that they really didn't know which way to vote - they really wanted to vote for a smaller party's policies (and in Stockton South there were plenty to choose from) but they were frightened that by doing so they would allow a victory for the big party they didn't want.  It was a genuine dilemma for a number of people and when I pointed out that it's possible to have a fairer system which would allow people to rank the candidates rather than just pick one, and have those preferences taken into account, the reaction was amazing.  I've never had anything so positively received on the doorstep! 
Next May we have the chance to change things for ever - to say Yes in a referendum and to sweep away complacency and laziness.  MPs would have to work harder - to cover all their constituency and not just those people most likely to vote for them.  It would mean that no MP could be elected on less than half the votes.  The only people to lose from a Yes vote are the lazy MPs who don't deserve to be in Westminster anyway including those who are arrogant enough to live miles from their constituency, not be available for their constituents and yet draw a full allowance and expenses for doing the job.  To my thinking, there's no reason not to vote Yes!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Funding Higher Education

The dust is settling a little, the accusations about behaviour during demonstrations are bouncing round the media and conversations up and down the land, and one thing strikes me above all else:  The focus of the public "debate" has been entirely on the rise in tuition fees.  Yet this package is about so much more than that.
There's been some discussion of the rights and wrongs of shifting the burden of paying for education from parents supporting their offspring while at university to graduates paying for it after they leave, but the decision on that shift was taken back in the 90s when Labour introduced tuition fees, having said that they had no plans to do so.  They then introduced top up fees, having said they wouldn't.  So the shift in emphasis on how higher education is funded has been established for more than a decade now under Labour.
Liberal Democrat party policy is to phase out Tuition Fees.  Not enough people voted Lib Dem to get a Lib Dem government, but the country did get a coalition government including Lib Dem ministers.  Some Lib Dem policies are being implemented (on pensions, on early years education, on ID cards, to name just 3) but not all - some Tory policies are being implemented (on Free Schools for example) but not all.
Lord Browne recommended no cap on fees - let universities charge whatever they think the market will stand.  Lib Dems pushed for a cap and got it, albeit at £6000 as the norm.  Under exceptional circumstances universities can charge £9000 per annum but they've got to ensure community benefits and support for students from low income families.
Students whose family income is low enough to qualify them for free school meals will have their first year fees paid by the state.  If they go to a university that charges £9000 the university will have to pay their 2nd year fees.  So for the common 3 year degree those students will only pay £9000 tuition fees.
Part time students who currently have to pay their fees before they start to study will now be able to pay them back through the graduate contribution in the same way as full time students.
Maintenance grants are going up for students from low income families.
No-one will start to repay their loans until their income is £21k per annum which is a lot better than the £15k at present, and it is going to be index linked following pressure from Lib Dem MPs.
These are good things to come out of the response to the Browne report and they are being missed, either deliberately or accidentally, by most of the people shouting about fees including members of the Labour party, not least the leader of the National Union of Students.
I'm not a tax expert and I don't know whether a graduate tax would work better.  I suppose that in truth we'd all like everything to be "free", i.e. paid for from general taxation, but without taxation going up to fund it!  But we have to accept that the number of people of working age in the country is not as high a proportion of the population as it used to be, a higher proportion expect to go into higher education, and the money has to come from somwhere.  Fees paid back from earnings seems as fair a way as any to me. 
Last week I spent some time with people involved in Higher Education and all of them agreed that a rise in tuition fees was disappointing but inevitable, but they did feel very sorry for the students of today compared to those of 50 years ago who went to university, with tuition funded by the state and maintenance grants available to all who needed them.  A golden age perhaps?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Carols at Christmas

This afternoon was the first carol service of the season - Queen's Campus of Durham University.  There's a tradition that after the service and evening dining the university processes with lanterns across the river to the Town Centre and is greeted by the Mayor and Chief Executive of the Council at the Town Hall.  It's a very enjoyable and picturesque event but this year the procession had to be cancelled thanks to the snow and ice.
Nevertheless the Mayor and Mayoress joined the carol service and evening dining so the link between Town and Gown wasn't lost completely.
I enjoyed being able to relax and contemplate the Christmas story with the aid of a mix of traditional and modern words and music.  One hears so many carols and Christmas tunes crackling over loud speaker systems in shops at this time of year that I for one just shut them out.  So to sit and enjoy well performed music and to join in the singing of traditional carols in that setting was a real treat.
It was especially so when I'd spent a part of the morning, yet again, on the thorny question of recommendations from the Environment Committee on Car Parking.  I believe we've got a good set of recommendations now which stand a fighting chance of getting cabinet approval next week but it's taken a great deal of work to get there.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

School roofs & Asbestos

A couple of comments on the report that Asbestos was found in the collapsed roof at Junction Farm School led me to get further information from Stockton Council Officers.  Rather than post as responses to the individual comments I'll put them here where they might be more visible to all:
There was some asbestos within the roof void of the collapsed ceiling at Junction Farm, however this was encapsulated and presented no risk to any users of the building, which is the case in many schools and public buildings. However in order for the roof to be removed and ultimately replaced, the classroom had to be sealed off and all the asbestos removed. This will allow normal construction activities to begin in replacing the roof.
It is unfortunate that the school had to close, especially after having to close due to the weather conditions recently, however the safety of the children and staff remain our priority.

The Council does regularly inspect all buildings and schools and keep records of condition, including where asbestos is present. Clearly it is an ideal objective to remove all asbestos where possible but health and safety guidance requires that the Council has a management plan for where asbestos is known to be present. Therefore where asbestos is contained within the fabric of a building but it is encapsulated it can remain. Such areas can then be removed when maintenance programmes allow. The safety of building users and staff who carry out maintenance are always the first priority.

Obviously the mention of Asbestos worries people but I hope this is reassuring.
The schools are all open now except Junction Farm where it's hoped the repair work will be completed later in the week.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

School Update

Egglescliffe Comprehensive School is open as usual tomorrow, Monday, following satisfactory inspections of the roof and ceillings.  No excuses for staying away!
Stockton Council's website has no updated information for Durham Lane, Egglescliffe CE or The Links primaries so parents will need to wait till tomorrow to find out the situation.  Meanwhile Junction Farm Primary teachers will be posting work for pupils on the learning platform, so the time off school isn't just a holiday in the snow.

Meanwhile the forecast is for very cold weather for most of the rest of the week so there won't be significant thawing for a few days at least. 

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Importance of Teaching

This is the title of the new white paper on education published last month.  I'm just getting round to reading it, not because I'm not interested but because it's 95 pages long and I haven't had that much time.
At first sight it says a lot of good things - teaching should be a higher status job, schools should have freedom to innovate in order to find better ways of raising the achievement level of their students, a desire to decrease the achievement gap between rich and poor children. But there seem to be some gaps too.  There's a statement that good schools can become academies but they'll be required to support weaker schools.  But where's the policing or the enforcement?  Not in this paper as far as I can see.  Local Authorities are going to ensure there's a good supply of high quality school places but without control over schools or admissions policies how can that work?
There's going to be more freedom for schools and teachers over how what's taught and how, yet more information on attainment and standards and inspections which sounds like a lot more assessment and league tables by another name to me.
I'll continue to read it and see what else is in there but so far it's a bit of a disappointment - some good ideas but some very woolly thoughts too.
C+ so far Mr Gove - please do better.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The temperature last night fell to -14 in Eaglescliffe - as cold as Moscow.  No more significant snow fell and so the gritting of the roads seemed to work.  I don't know if it's because people know more this winter about how the rock salt works and how the council prioritises things but I've had far fewer complaints than last winter.  In fact I've had a number of compliments and expressions of thanks to the crews who are working round the clock.
The greenhouse indicated just how wise we were to have brought in the last of the chilli harvest last week.  Now safely deseeded and sliced they sit in the freezer waiting to be used.
The weather took its toll on one of our primary schools overnight.  Junction Farm school roof partly collapsed, leading to the closure of the school and then the closure of 8 others with the same roof construction as a precaution.  Engineers will be working all weekend and into Monday and Tuesday if necessary to ensure that they're all checked thoroughly so that we can be qutie sure the schools are safe for the children and the staff to continue working in them.  Parents are asked to check the council website or the individual school websites to see the up to date situation.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Still more snow, and the garden is truly beautiful.
Today I chaired the final meeting of the Environment Committee as we agreed the final wording of the recommendations on The Built & Natural Environment.  One good and positive thing to come out of this review is the plan for a simplified way of applying for a Blue Badge for people with disabilities.  As long as the change is handled carefully it should be one of those rare situations where everyone wins at least something - the applicant should get a badge more quickly and more simply than now, the process should save the council some money in administration costs and GPs won't have to carry out assessments for something which really isn't very productive for them.