Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Three commendations today! Two bus drivers who went out of their way (figuratively speaking of course) to make it easy for us to get a wheelchair onto their buses. I'm not putting any detail here in case any of their kind acts were contraventions of someone's rules, but suffice to say that we were very grateful and have sent in formal commendations to be passed on to their companies.
In between the journeys were a number of cheerful shop assistants and market stall holders who didn't assume that because someone can't walk they also can't think, hear or speak! And a lovely cafe in Stockton whose staff are so helpful that we now go every time we're near. Well done Joy and the team at Milligans.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Too Late!

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, or so my mother used to tell her. In Town & Country planning I've seen no evidence to the contrary over the last 7 years. Planning in Stockton has been governed by a mix of government policies and the Local Plan, written many years ago. About 6 years ago it was announced that we were going to have a new way of dealing with planning - the Local Development Framework. This was to be a portfolio of policies which would take a lot less time to write, would be renewed regularly and would allow us to respond more effectively to the needs of our borough. Rubbish is the most polite word I can use! After years of writing ponderous documents, consulting and rewording and reconsulting on them we finally had one agreed this year. We now have a core strategy. Well, great - but what about the other things we need? They're still going through the process.
Last week it was suggested that the Yarm & Eaglescliffe Area Action Plan, supposed to give us a way of stopping some of the inappropriate developments in Eaglescliffe (demolition of beautiful old buildings and replacement with blocks of flats), should now be dealt with as part of another huge document which might, if we're lucky be in force this time next year. Today we get a document on areas with special local character, such as parts of Yarm Rd in Eaglescliffe, Junction Rd in Norton etc. It too will be part of the greater Regeneration Development Plan Document! 5 years ago I was excited at the prospect of these documents coming into force. Now - it's too little too late. We have lost beautiful properties like Goosegarth. Copsewood has a housing estate where once it had tennis courts and lawn. The halt in such developments has nothing whatever to do with our supposedly better planning framework and everything to do with the slowdown in the economy.
The next time a Head of Planning tells me that the new system will be an improvement s/he will be greeted with a hollow laugh.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Day to Remember

This morning another church in Yarm marked a milestone but this one isn't quite such a happy one - the Anglican congregation celebrated the retirement of Simon, rector since November 2001. The parish has seen some changes in that time and no doubt will see more in the future. Meanwhile it was an occasion for sharing fellowship and wishing Simon and family well for the future, with a suitably decorated cake of course. As always at that church, there were plenty of willing hands to provide food, set out tables and make it so easy for others to share in the community. If the success of the church is in any way measured by the welcome for strangers in their midst, that church is successful!
This afternoon saw a different kind of community spirit - people drawn together in their love of football and their hopes for the England team. Sadly, those hopes were dashed. I'm no expert but even I could see that England were not playing like a winning team. OK, they were robbed of a goal by the referee not seeing it go in, but .... Enough said. Suffice to say that football is rapidly becoming the national joke rather than the national game. At least I don't have to worry about what time to ring people now - they won't be engrossed in the England match!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

As a follow up to yesterday's post - anyone who's on Facebook can leave their message on the memorial page that's been set up. Over 600 members - a tribute in itself.

This morning saw the launch of the next phase of the Tees Heritage Park at Preston hall - a chance to look at some of the ideas the artists have already, add ideas of our own and generally chat with people about the vision. The advertising banner talked about the team behind the dream - a lovely description. It seems no time ago since it was all just a dream, a hope perhaps but no more. Now the dream is going to become reality, a bit at a time but reality nevertheless. Though it is indeed the work of a team, one man stands out as having pushed the dream towards reality - Doug Nicholson. Well done Doug!
Sadly, I was so engrossed in conversation that I forgot to take any photos of the activity so you'll have to imagine people chatting over plans & photos, drawing their own ideas, discussing wooden totem poles with the artists and so on. I was caught up in discussions about the importance of the Park and the silliness of suggesting building a school there when our new conservative MP, James Wharton, arrived. There was a little bit of serious discussion of the future for schooling in Stockton South but also some very light-hearted banter about the coalition. People there were genuinely pleased that the 2 parties are working together, taking we hope the best from both approaches and then leaving other issues to fight over another day when the economy is in a bit better shape. It was hardly a statistically significant sample of the population but it was an interesting discussion nevertheless.
So no photos, but an indication that local politicians are human and that's got to be a good thing all round.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Today Egglescliffe School and the community lost an inspirational teacher. Tony Gears who led and inspired the drama in the school for many years died. When our eldest daughter was a young pupil in the school he produced an amazing show - Johnny Faustus. Children who were never going to consider themselves as actors were inspired to join the cast and give of their best. The result was a show as professional as many that grace the stages of theatres in the region. All through our contact with the school his name kept cropping up - producing shows, encouraging bands, recording a song for charity, the list could go on. He will be missed, deeply, by the school and the wider community as well as by his family. But he'll also live on in the confidence which so many young people have as a result of being encouraged to take part, in the memories so many parents and ex-pupils have and in the careers of those youngsters who were encouraged to follow their dream.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Freedom of the Borough

Today was the big day when the Yorkshire Regiment exercised their freedom to march through the borough with standards flying, band playing and bayonets fixed. Several hundred people had turned out to cheer, to thank them for the job they do and to watch the spectacle.
The men, some looking so young they probably couldn't vote in last month's election, marched along the High Street to the Town Hall where the Mayor inspected the troops and then presented the Freedom Scroll to their commanding officer. He thanked them for the work they do and raised 3 cheers for them from the assembled crowd. The response from their commanding officer spoke of the symbolism of this Freedom parade - not that the bands and bayonets are important but that it shows support for the troops. Whether or not we believe that the war in Afghanistan is justified we respect the men who fight it for us - they do their jobin very difficult circumstances and we respect them for it.
After the parade the troops and the VIPs went off to a reception where I'm told that the soldiers expressed their gratitude and their pleasure at the reception they'd had in Stockton. Others, me included, went off to a Tea Dance. Excellent tea and cake provided by Tees Cuisine, music courtesy of a vast collection of suitable CDs, and a good time was had by all including people in wheelchairs who couldn't get up to dance but could enjoy listening and watching.
Well done all who organised the different bits from the solemn ceremonial to the fun of the dancing - an excellent afternoon and a fitting tribute to the armed forces of the country.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Budget - A tough one

Yesterday's budget was a difficult one. Before the election we campaigned on a platform of Fairness - Fair taxes among them. No-one, not the electorate nor any of the parties, expected to have a coalition government trying to cope with a deficit as bad as Labour left us. Interest of £80,000 per minute - yes, per minute - beggars belief. No wonder we ended up with a budget that's tougher than we hoped. But thanks to the coalition agreement the Liberal Democrats have managed to ameliorate the worst excesses of Tory policies. Several Lib Dem policies have come through almost unscathed:
  • Raising the point at which people start to pay income tax by £1000 this year, lifting thousands of low paid workers out of the tax bracket completely and helping thousands more ot pay less tax.
  • A new tax on banks to help clear up the mess they helped to create
  • A big rise in Capital Gains Tax for high earners, helping to put more of the burden on the highest earners
  • Linking pensions to earnings rises or price rises or 2.5% rise, whichever is the highest. Never again will pensioners be left behind as Labour did.
  • A regional growth fund to help areas like the North East develop new industry and reduce its dependency on the public sector for jobs.
  • Help for small companies setting out or expanding so that taking on new staff isn't prohibitively expensive
  • Cutting child tax credits for the better off and increasing child support for poorer workers.
All these are things we support wholeheartedly, and there are other things too which will come through in coming weeks.
The increase in VAT isn't something we wanted or campaigned for. But Lib Dem MPs looked at the books, saw the huge black hole in the country's finances and reluctantly agreed that it was unavoidable. By having a 6 month lead in time for the increase it avoids the risk of errors in rushing to implement it; some people will be able to plan their large purchases before the extra cost bites and as one young resident said "at least I can buy Chrissy pressies before it kicks in". I am very relieved that the extreme Tories who have in the past suggested VAT is applied to children's clothes or food or books haven't been listened to. In fairness to David Cameron I don't think those things were ever in his sights but sometimes leaders listen to the extremists in their parties. Coalition gives the opportunity to avoid that danger.
Mike Barker, Darlington Councillor and Lib Dem election candidate, has written a really good piece about his reaction to the budget - worth reading.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Armed Forces Week

The first event of Armed Forces Week was the raising of the flag today on Stockton Town Hall and Municipal Buildings. The Chairman of Regeneration & Transport committee adjourned the meeting for 20 minutes so that we could attend the ceremony. We joined veterans, senior council officers and councillors and a number of residents for a brief but moving ceremony. Lt Col Heron reminded us of the link across 70 years between the rescue from Dunkirk and the service personnel returning from Afghanistan, Iraq etc now. The Royal British Legion standards were lowered, the bugle sounded across the High St and the Armed Forces flag was raised. It will fly all week as a reminder to all who pass by.
Walking into the Shambles there's the opportunity to spend a little time reading about and reflecting on the role of the armed forces and particularly the 225th Co of the Royal Engineers, formed in Stockton during the first world war. Do go and see if you are in Stockton.
And do go to Stockton Town Centre on Thursday at 2pm if you possibly can to witness the Freedom parade of the Yorkshire Regiment - it'll be a sight worth seeing.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Community Spirit

This morning was a very special morning for the parishioners of St Mary & St Romuald in Yarm. For 150 years there has been a church on that site, a place for the Catholics of the area to gather in worship and community. Today the Bishop came to celebrate and Mass was followed by coffee and cake in the Parish Hall. People who don't usually linger stayed and chatted, news was exchanged, children played and the community celebrated - not with a bang but with friendship and sharing.
Outside Yarm Gala was getting underway - another and very different community celebration. The Yarm Charities Fair was a long standing event in Yarm but beginning to look a little tired. Yarm Regatta had disappeared from the calendar some years ago. Newly elected members of the Town council decided to do something about it and this is the result, now an established event drawing interest from round the town and from Eaglescliffe too. Some like to remind us that the Council is now mainly from one political party, but I think this event is less about political party than about being part of the community and prepared to show leadership - a character trait which is not the sole prerogative of any one group! This particular band of Conservatives deserve congratulations on the community leadership they've shown on this, and I for one hope that it's now sufficiently established to survive whatever changes the electorate visits on the Town Council next May.
It was good to see the Protect Preston Park group collecting yet more petition signatures and fund-raising with their tombola stall. I even won a prize! They've now collected over 6000 signatures from far and wide. I'm really looking forward to the announcement that building a school in the Park isn't an option so that the group can move forward with establishing protection for the Park in the long term. Grassroots politics is what keeps the world worth living in!!
It took a long time to walk home as I kept meeting people walking down to the gala who wanted to stop and tell me about issues or discuss the economy - not my usual Sunday morning fare but there we are, such is the new interest in things at the moment.
And the final bit of community spirit? This afternoon with staff from a care home, trying to decide on ways to keep their residents in touch with family and friends across the world. Could they set up a computer with Skype and someone to help? Could they establish some more links to the community outside the doors for those with no family or friends near by? One thing's for sure - it won't be for lack of thinking about it, and though there aren't any easy ways they'll keep trying.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Interesting to note that our Labour MP for Stockton North, former cabinet member for Children & Young People and still ward councillor for Billingham East Ward in the borough has been on his feet in the Commons, asking questions and making his maiden speech, generally raising the profile of Stockton. Ian Swales, newly elected Lib Dem MP for Redcar has also been in there, raising the profile of the Tees Valley and asking for the Green Investment Bank to be based here in the region. Advice surgeries have been set up and advertised. Meanwhile here in Stockton South our MP has visited, made comments in the local press and gone again. I haven't seen any advertising of where to contact him or see him, but perhaps that's because it's been advertised in places I haven't looked.
Interesting times.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The cuts which were well predicted prior to the election are gradually being announced and are starting to hit our area. Today we had the news that North Tees & Hartlepool Hospital won't get the new building that had been planned and almost promised. The need/desire for a new building was on the agenda when I was first elected to SBC 7 years ago and it's never been satisfactorily resolved. This project was going to be a huge building at Wynyard, requiring some major road improvements before it could open. It wouldn't have been easy to reach by public transport without some big changes to the timetables and routes. However, now it's back to the drawing board. How to deliver modern medical care in the area? Will we still get the health centre that's planned for Billingham? We wait to see.
I had a meeting this afternoon to consider the next review being undertaken by the Environment select committee. We'll be considering whether we can deliver services like car parking, blue badge administration, urban design etc more efficiently or even if we need to deliver them at all! I think I know what the answer to that last question will be, but efficiencies - that's another matter. It will have to look at the situation round car parking in Yarm as well as all the other town centres - no easy task! Still, this committee never gets the easy jobs.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Mayor's Sunday

The Sunday of the year when the newly appointed mayor dedicates himself to the service of the people of the Borough and the people of the borough are invited to pray for their town and the people who live and work within it.
Each year there's a march past of representatives of uniformed organisations within the borough, led by retired members of the armed forces. This year they were followed by sea cadets but for some reason no Scouts or Guides or other groups. Perhaps the civic office needs to think afresh about how people are invited and encouraged to take part or we're going to end up with no-one marching past! The veterans aren't getting any younger though they do manage to show the rest of us up, year after year, for how smartly turned out they are.
As usual, the Mayor's chaplain preached at the service and a very thought provoking sermon it was. One thought to take away - good is often done quietly but evil shouts. How to stop people thinking that evil is taking over and winning? Shout more about good things. It sounds so easy, yet how many newspapers will lead with a good news story? How many TV bulletins start with good news? Doom and gloom gets shouted from the rooftops and becomes a self-perpetuating story.
I'm getting gloomy now so I'll stop and go find some good news to smile about! The joy of grandchildren for instance - happy thought to finish on.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Regional Conference

The morning started with the news that Angela Darnell, Head of Egglescliffe school, was awarded the OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list. She is quoted in the press as saying that the award isn't just for her but for the whole school, and that's typical of her. She's a strong leader who knows the value of her team. Congratulations Angela and all at the school, now and in the past, who've helped to get it to the high standard it is at and to maintain it there.

Today was the spring conference of the North East Lib Dems - perhaps a little nearer summer than spring but we did have an election to deal with first! It was a really useful and interesting day, with updates from our MEP, Fiona Hall, on the view from Europe of the coalition government and the way in which some of the more extreme views in the Conservative party are being moderated by coalition working. We heard from John Shipley, soon to be Lord Shipley, and from Diana Maddock about what's going on in the House of Lords and what will be happening there soon. Sir Alan Beith filled in further background on how things are working out in the Commons and the tensions which will inevitably lie ahead. It's not often we see both Sir Alan and Diana on the same platform answering questions about how the Lib Dems will deal with the same issues in the Commons and the Lords.
But of course conference isn't all about sitting and listening to others and there was plenty of opportunity to discuss campaigning with people from other areas, to share stories of the election gone and look forward to the election to come next year.
And of course to compare notes on which local party saw the biggest membership increase this year! There is certainly no truth in the Labour story that Lib Dems are leaving in droves. We are still getting new members, right across the region. It's good to see that so many of them are young people too, bringing all their energies to the campaign.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Egglescliffe Memorial Garden

For many years the Parish Council cherished an ambition to have beside the War Memorial a garden to complement the setting. Over the last year things have moved on and now, with plans drawn up, planning permission obtained and a contract almost ready to be signed for the work there are just 2 bits of the jigsaw to finish. The design of the interpretive plaque needs to be finalised in detail and the horrible rusty lamp-post that's currently plonked fairly randomly in the grass needs to be moved and substituted for a smart new one which will take a lower energy lantern. I had a meeting on site today to discuss what kind of lights are available and might work and a series of phone calls to set up other meetings. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that the work can all be completed before Remembrance Sunday.
On the way back from the War Memorial I took the chance to have a look at the play area at St Margarets without lots of children playing on it - noting that although the grass has been cut it will need some work with smaller equipment to keep the grass near equipment short, seeing how the wood shavings have survived the rain and half term, and various other issues ready for our meeting next week.
A couple of people have mentioned some anti-social behaviour but on the whole the reaction to the play area is positive. When we get the wooden equipment resited it should be even better.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Case of the Missing Dog Dirt Bin!

A sharp-eyed resident reported the fact that a bin has gone missing from Preston Park - one specifically designed for the deposit of dog waste. It hasn't just corroded and been removed or been hit by a vehicle and needed removing. It has disappeared. Alan Lewis reported it and now a new one is on order but meanwhile the mystery remains - who would take such a thing? As Alan says, it's not something you can pick up and carry away.
On the subject of bins, we now have a number of requests for bins of various sorts in the ward and we're looking at all of them as part of our Community Participation Budget. People have also requested better lighting in some places and more flowers on the main roadsides. As the council's budget is reviewed for next year this fund might come to an end, but we'll be fighting to maintain it as it's the only bit of the budget where ordinary people and ward councillors can decide the priorities. A bit of real democracy.
I note with interest that we're all going to be asked to say where we think public services could be cut. It's an admirable suggestion except that most people don't know much about which services are carried out by whom and at what cost. With so much partnership working going on now the lines are blurred between councils, police, fire and health services. And who will stand up for the people who need the most help and maybe can't make their own voices heard?
On a brighter note it was good to hear Ian Swales (Lib Dem MP for Redcar) make his maiden speech yesterday and sing the praises of the area. He even managed to mention Parmos and Lemon top ice cream!

Monday, June 07, 2010

Beginning to surface tonight after a 48 hour summer cold which has left me looking a bit like Rudolph and feeling thoroughly sorry for myself.
On Saturday the council e-mail system went down and we now know that not all messages sent in that time have found their way in once it was mended so if you sent something and are wondering why you haven't had a response please resend it!
Meanwhile there's lots to think about as more policy initiatives pour out of Westminster - will Ingleby Barwick parents and supporters succeed in getting a new-style school for their area? Will Egglescliffe and/or Conyers take the proferred Academy route? Will Stockton manage to get its roads mended after the ravages of the winter weather? Will the play bus ever work the way some of us thought it would? No answers yet but lots of questions!

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Down memory lane

A combination of lucky chances took me to Murton today on what should have been a brief visit to check on a headstone in the churchyard - my great great grandfather's to be precise. It was too nice a day to leap straight back into the car after seeing it and photographing it so we just had to wander further up the hill. Imagine my surprise and delight to find my great grandfather's headstone up there, and then a great uncle and then another. It's amazing how well some of them have survived - well over 100 years old and looking as if they were erected in the last decade. A tribute to the craftsmen who selected and then carved the stone.
I'm afraid we then played hookey a little further, as I realised that the house I first remember my grandparents in wasn't far away. Was it still standing? Absolutely, and what's more it had a splendid new fence and hedge and was obviously home to children enjoying the garden as much as I had all those years ago. Mind you, I don't suppose anyone in the house goes out each morning and washes in the water from the rain butt as Grandad did even if he had to break the ice on it first! The house now sports double glazing, satellite dish and a garage. The pit at which he was overman is now a retail park and open space. The coal heap at the road end is gone and there wasn't much sign of prize leeks growing. But the bricks and mortar looked achingly familiar and fond memories came flooding back. Happy days!
Back home to an email about anti-social behaviour last night, but it's not clear whether the person reporting it has told the police or just waited until tonight to email us about it.

Friday, June 04, 2010

No, I haven't been hibernating but there certainly hasn't been time for blogging this week. This half term "holiday" was set aside for helping family with house decorating (hubby) and keeping the grandchildren amused and out of the way (me). The net result is two beautifully finished rooms, 4 exhausted adults and 2 children who appreciate their parents more than they did! Granny can't quite summon up the same energy and apparent enthusiasm for endless repetitions of familiar games! St Margaret's play area was a huge hit with both children, as was Castle Eden Walkway (or Wynyard Woodland Park as I must learn to call it now). We are so fortunate to have beautiful countryside on the doorstep and successive councils which have made the effort to provide access.
Today has been a day for a massive catch-up on emails and papers that arrived during my little family break. Two people complaining about the new play area - one having suffered antisocial behaviour and the other considering that we've installed something too big for the park. I've asked the police to visit more often in an effort to curb the ASB. As for the other matter - lots of children and families seem to be enjoying it. There's more work to be done on moving the wooden equipment and on getting the landscaping right but by the summer holiday it should be fully functioning.