Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lots of time on Parish Council meetings and business this week so far, and I hope it's all proving productive.  Work has started on the Memorial Garden at Egglescliffe, though rain delayed progress today.  The forecast for tomorrow isn't much better either.  There should be plenty of time to get it finished before Remembrance Sunday, though, so fingers crossed. 
Designs for Amberley Way play area are taking a bit longer to progress but we hope to have something by early November now. Then it'll be a case of consulting with the neighbours and the school children and choosing the best option.  I'm looking forward to that.
On ward business we've consultations ongoing on putting lighting columns on the Black Path from Lune Rd to Aislaby Rd.  So far we have historic requests for such lighting from people who walk down the path and now several objections to it from people who live nearby and suffer from anti-social behaviour.  We're now looking at other options to improve the path such as surfacing.  The less contentious matter of ordering some new daffodil bulbs for the stretches of Durham lane and Urlay Nook Rd which haven't yet benefitted was completed in next to no time in comparison.  If only everything was as easy as they are!  Dog waste bins are also popular suggestion for the ward community Participation budget.  But for some reason every time lighting a path is suggested someone else has very good reasons why it shouldn't happen.
At least I don't have to worry about Party leadership elections - I hope we won't be having one for some time. I was pleased that Labour's new leader didn't spend his first big speech on rabid attacks on other parties.  I don't suppose some of his own party were too pleased that he seemed to turn his fire on his predecessors, but that's their problem.  His is going to be reconciling the elements of the shadow cabinet when they're elected. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Thousands of words have been written about Ed Milliband's victory over his brother, with a remarkable degree of agreement - the electoral college system used by Labour is flawed.  The electoral college is split into 3 equally weighted sections which means that the vote of one MP is worth that of over 600 party members and more than 12000 members of affiliated organisations - where's the fairness in that? And yet, in the end, the affiliated organisations swung the decision.and now both the new leader and the membership have to live with the result. 

This morning the new leader said that he wasn't in thrall to the unions and that strike action should be a last resort.  He also said he wouldn't be opposing all of the coalition government's cuts, which will make a change from the last few months.  To have the Labour leader finally admitting that some cuts might be necessary will make a pleasant change.  But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating and I'm not holding my breath!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Pakistan Flood Victims

I spent the afternoon in Parkfield at a family fun day designed to raise funds to help the victims of the dreadful floods in Pakistan.  At the Lib Dem conference Nick Clegg talked about his visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan earlier and how flying over the floods brought home to him the scale of the disaster.  The area covered and the lack of infrastructure to cope don't bear thinking about.  A group of women in Parkfield had organised today's event and it certainly seemed to be a success.  I met lots of people I haven't seen for some time, years in a few cases, and was introduced to people I hadn't met.  People did seem to appreciate the fact that someone from outside the community had come along to support them.  For the first time in many years I sampled Kashmiri tea, and the vegetable samosas will be much appreciated later.
Much is made of the way in which British people pull together in times of adversity and it was certainly in evidence today.  First, second and third generation British muslims of Pakistani origin were working with people whose own roots might well go back to the Viking invaders or the Normans.  It really didn't matter - the need to help those devastated by the floods flattened any barriers there might be between individuals and groups.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Electric Cars - the future

Today's meeting of the Environment Partnership had another update on progress on electric cars in the North East.  It's good to know that the North East is still leading the way. The network of charging points is almost in place in Stockton and in some other parts of the North East but sadly our neighbouring authorities in the Tees Vally haven't really started on theirs.  They really do need to get a move on.
The new generation of battery electric cars will be on the market from January.  By this time next year there should be a full range including vans, cars and various utility vehicles.  With ranges of 50 to 100 miles they can easily cope with a day's driving round the local area and be charged up overnight.  With extra charging points round the area for top ups as needed they can also be used for longer journeys, and with a cost equivalent to getting 200 - 300 mpg from diesel they will certainly be economical to run. They will certainly start to make a difference to the cleanliness of our air in towns and to the carbon emissions for the borough, allbeit very slowly at first.
There's also some very good work going on to enable installation of many more photo-voltaic cells so that houses, council buildings and schools can all benefit as well as some small businesses.  Watch this space, or more precisely, watch the rooftops around the borough!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Home again

Technology wasn't as well behaved as it might have been towards the end of conference, and I've no intention of writing now what I might or might not have thought at the time.  It's enough to say that I was reassured about some things which will prove really important to us in the North East - opportunities in the Green Economy, opportunities in carbon saving and so on.  These are the very things which we in the Tees valley and the wider North East region need to build our regeneration, and there were some very reassuring things said by ministers and others.
I was reassured also that the party's representatives in government are aware of the difficulties faced in local government even if they don't always agree with us on the way to resolve them.  But there again different people in different parts of local government don't agree with each other either.
Nick's Keynote Speech
Liverpool was a very good conference venue, the police were helpful and considerate & security seemed to work well though I've heard today of someone whose invisible disability made for problems in getting through the security.  I for one wouldn't mind going back there.
And just as an aside - I wouldn't describe any of the questioning of ministers including Nick Clegg as "hostile" so I'm not sure which conference the BBC and others attended.
Suzanne Fletcher spoke on housing benefit cuts and the need to ensure that the most vulnerable in society aren't made even more vulnerable by them. Stockton Lib Dems had worked with others in the North East to make sure that the subject was on the agenda and we were delighted that conference agreed with us on its importance.  The hard work now is to make sure that our coalition partners agree also.
Following that debate the whole Stockton contingent went out for a breath of fresh air and took a ride on the Liverpool Echo Wheel.  This big wheel was just outside the conference centre and a fine day gave us tremendous views down to the Welsh mountains, the sea and the Pennines as well as a new view of some of Liverpool's landmarks.
Having such a strong representation from Stockton meant that we could cover many different debates and fringe events as well as some of the excellent training sessions on offer.  I look forward to our next Members meeting to be able to share some of what we learned.
On a personal note I was more than happy to hear Vince Cable praise Teesside Uni as a good teaching University.  I spent happy hours studying there as it made the transition from Constantine College to a polytechnic and eventually to university.  It was innovative then and I believe it still is.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"They're human too."

Woken early by rain pouring down outside I decided to go to an early morning fringe meeting on the campaign to stop the indefinite detention of those seeking sanctuary here who for one reason or another have been refused. The policy if it can be dignified with such a name of the last government was to remove anyone who had broken the law, and to detain them until such time as they can be deported. It’s a very populist policy, but look a bit closer. What about those whose country of origin won’t take them back? Or won’t give them papers so that they can go anywhere else? How can they be deported? What if the “criminal offence” is trying to leave the country without papers? Or minor shop-lifting which would be dealt with by a caution for anyone else? Is deportation really the answer in those cases? And if it truly is the answer, what happens to those who can’t be sent away? They are then detained indefinitely while the UK Border Agency waits for regime change or peace or whatever is needed. Thousands of pounds a year spent on detaining someone whose home country might be at war or for some reason won’t accept them so they can’t go back. They cost the UK taxpayer thousands of pounds to keep them in an establishment which is a prison in all but name where they suffer depression and other emotional problems, often becoming suicidal. There would be an outcry if a dog was locked away indefinitely without access to its favourite people or possessions. Why should asylum seekers be treated as less than human, less even than a pet animal, just because they had the nerve to ask for sanctuary here on grounds which haven’t been accepted or who committed an offence while here? Of course some people will be refused – the nature of any asylum system means that criteria are set and those who don’t fulfil them can’t stay. And of course criminal offences should be punished appropriately. But that doesn’t make them less than human. That doesn’t mean they should be locked up without trial, without access to friends, without any idea of a date for the end of their sentence. As Reza, an Iranian who has survived this ordeal, said “Don’t forget they’re human. That’s all I ask. Don’t forget they’re human too.”

A large part of the morning was taken up with a consultation session on our strategy for the future – I wonder which other party would do that in a session open to the press? It was an excellent session – full of good, constructive comment on what we should do and say.

The afternoon’s star session was questions to the Deputy Prime Minister. Holding our leaders to account in this way has been a feature of our conferences for a while, but there’s an extra buzz in the air when the leader of our party is also the Deputy Prime Minister of the UK. Readers might well have the impression from the media that he was subjected to hostile questioning, rebellion in the ranks and worse. All I can say is, don’t believe the media. There was robust and challenging questioning, yes, but that’s the point of holding someone to account. There’s no point in having carefully selected questions which allow the leader to point out all the good things s/he has done. We know them – what we’re doing is challenging to gain even more. So there was no rebellion and no hostility, but plenty of challenge.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bloggers and Presidents

Tonight brought the Lib Dem Voice Blog awards, now a highlight of the Lib dem conference for those of us who inhabit the blogosphere. I love looking at the short-listed blogs and the awards session is a chance to meet up with some of their authors. Maelo Manning, who made such an impressive speech at the age of 10 at our last conference, was one of the new bloggers shortlisted. She didn’t win but reaching the shortlist is quite an achievement. I also re-established contact with one of the people seeking nomination as Party President. Tim Farron and Susan Kramer both have well established campaigning styles and teams to get their campaigns under way. Jennie, on the other hand, is a grass roots activist who doesn’t have any of those advantages. I’m not making a decision yet on who to support. I think I really want bits of all of them, but even a Liberal Democrat can’t have that.

Children & Young People

This morning Conference business consisted of consultative sessions working towards policy development for the future. I spent my time at one on school governance, a very important subject at this time when the education system is being fragmented by the implementation of Conservative policy on academies and free schools (an argument which I assume we lost in the coalition negotiations). There were, of course, issues about school governance before the election but there are far more now! I can’t describe all the discussions here – we had an hour and a half to discuss follwed by half an hour of drawing it together – but there will be more at the next conference I’m sure and in the meantime if anyone has thoughts on how school governing bodies work and should work in the future do get in touch.

From there I went to a lunchtime meeting with Sarah Teather, minister for Children & Families, to discuss the implementation of the pupil premium, a Lib Dem policy being implemented from next April. The exact amount will be decided in the spending review but at least there’s a commitment to make a start. Sadly, the only way that’s been found so far to introduce it so quickly is to use Free School meals as a measure of deprivation related to the schools. We all know of families whose children don’t take Free School Meals despite being entitled to them. There are all sorts of reasons, stigma and ignorance among them. But it’s a start and there are plenty of Lib Dems around the country who will ensure that other way are developed over the next couple of years to make the targeting more precise. I’m looking forward to seeing the detail and seeing where the improvements will take place.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Off to Conference

Off to Liverpool today ready for the Lib Dem party conference. There are going to be many interesting debates and no doubt some controversy but tonight was all about meeting up with colleagues old and new, catching up on news and generally getting to know people. Amongst the interesting conversations was one about Mackie’s ice cream – what has ice cream to do with politics you might ask. It turns out that the dairy is wind powered, with 4 turbines on the hillside providing most of the power needs and selling the surplus to the grid The owner pays “compensation” annually from the proceeds to those residents who live within sight of the turbines. During the night when not producing ice cream they freeze water to produce those bags of ice cubes so loved by party organisers, which then fill the spare space in the lorries transporting the ice cream to the supermarkets. Winners all round! Except that at present he doesn’t seem to use Fairtrade sugar in his product, so a little campaign is brewing there I think. Nevertheless it was good to hear about such a worthwhile enterprise.

At last this afternoon my council email service was restored, though any sent during most of Wednesday are lost for ever. I can only suggest that you resend if there was anything important.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Yesterday one of the Council's servers crashed into oblivion and my email account along with those of half the council stopped working. Since early yesterday morning nothing much has reached me. It's a very strange feeling to go from having the Blackberry buzzing frequently through the day to having it absolutely silent except when the reminder for an appointment pops up. More seriously of course it means that messages aren't getting through but people don't know they aren't. There's no end in sight to the problem so anyone wanting to contact me should do it by phone or via the email address on this page.
Perhaps a bigger problem is that the council's services for children are being inspected at the moment by Ofsted, but many of the officers concerned can't be contacted by email, can't change their diaries, can't be part of meeting requests etc. I had a meeting this morning with two of the inspectors and not having been able to go over and refresh my memory on things we'd discussed and decided recently did give me some cause for concern. However, it seemed to go reasonably well and I hope we satisfied them that we were doing what we need to for the children in our care. I don't think anyone in the council is complacent about our services but I think we know where we need to do more, and we are trying to find the resources to do it.
However, we can but wait and see what they say at the end of the fortnight.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Black Path

For as long as I've been a member of Egglescliffe Parish Council (now known as Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe council) people have asked from time to time if we could have some lighting on the black path from Lune Rd to Aislaby Rd. This year we are looking into using some of our Community Participation budget to provide that lighting. Engineers have looked at how many columns would be needed. We've had the costings and decided we could afford it. So now we're consulting with those who live nearest to the path. Tonight some of them came to ward surgery to protest against the whole idea. They told us about low level anti-social behaviour, litter problems and groups of young people drinking alcohol near the one light that is anywhere near the path. So would more lighting attract more people or would it drive them away? Would improving the light levels encourage more people to walk up and down the path in the winter or would it just encourage more anti-social behaviour?
Answers would be very welcome! Meanwhile we'll continue to consult the residents, the police and the lighting experts.

Regions, sub regions and more

The not very well informed debate continues on how the North East can have a regional voice and a way of handling things at regional level that really are better done that way. The Tees Valley is developing quite a strong voice now, thanks to the various councils working together to make sure that those things which need to be done at that level are done really well, and to local MPs especially the new ones of different parties making sure that the area is mentioned as often as possible as they try to make their mark at Westminster. The government has asked local areas to set out how they can work together to ensure that businesses and public sector bodies have the best possible chance to attract new investment into their areas. Stockton and the other local councils were already doing a lot together and were quick to make the case for doing more. But we all recognise that some things can't be done on such a small local scale and need to be done across the whole of the North East, so we worked with other councils in the North East to put forward proposals for that too.
Sadly, some regional press and business figures choose to interpret that as the Tees Valley breaking away from the rest - how wrong they are. But, just as you can't make a horse drink the water to which you've led him so you can't make people believe what you tell them. It's very frustrating.

Monday, September 13, 2010

I spent the morning wearing my Fairtrade Speaker hat - with year 5 and 6 pupils at North Ormesby primary school. The teachers in those two classes now teach everything as cross-curricular topics, so planning lessons is an adventure for them, a step into the unknown as the children spot areas which can be studied further to uncover new areas of knowledge and understanding. I was asked to help them develop skills in listening and taking notes on the effect Fairtrade has on producers. The questions and discussions led to ideas for maths lessons on estimating, measuring and counting big numbers (how many cocoa beans to you think would cover a table?), a survey to be done and graphs to be drawn to answer various questions about supermarket sales, some work in science on the differences between artificially produced smells and the natural smell of chocolate and where Burkina Faso is, to name but a few.
Spending time with children who are so interested in the topic is always a pleasure, and to see how teachers were taking suggestions from the children and turning them into lesson ideas in seconds shows just how far education has moved from the days when I was at primary school! Whatever the future holds for those children I hope it gives them continued opportunities to develop the enquiring minds they have at present.
Back in the world of politics it was time to circulate to members a message from Sarah Teather's department asking for thoughts on the best way to provide for children with special educational needs in the future. For a change, this isn't a minor political party working up a policy and knowing that it won't be implemented. This is a Lib Dem government minister consulting on something which will become policy. It takes a bit of getting used to, I don't mind admitting.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Stranger than fiction

The latest addition to the extended family arrived yesterday morning, in the lift en route to the maternity ward of their local hospital. Father has now recovered from the shock of being the emergency midwife and mother & son are doing fine!
Hearing that story reminded me that every work of fiction has a grain of truth in it somewhere!
Last night we went to Ripon to a concert as part of the Ripon International Festival. John Williams and John Etheridge made music on guitars together and individually which held a full house spellbound. There aren't words to describe the music - if you ever get the opportunity go hear them yourself.
The venue was Holy Trinity Church, near the centre of Ripon, which is amazing also. A fairly old church building has been renovated and adapated for modern worship. Now it boasts "The Arches" which might have been called the Crypt in another church, opened up to be fully accessible by very clever and expensive building techniques, and in use almost all day every day if the notice board is to be believed. This seems to be a real community church, whose congregation of 200 is about one third under the age of 18 and is growing. They are obviously committed to their community and the community seems to be committed to them - fundraising must have been a huge challenge!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Salute to the Brave

Today it was the turn of The Rifles to exercise the Freedom of the Borough granted to them last year. Their losses in Afghanistan have been heavy and residents of the borough and beyond turned out to welcome them and thank them. This was a very different parade to that of the Yorkshire Regiment earlier in the summer. The Rifles don't fly colours and as an infantry regiment didn't parade armoured vehicles. Somehow, that emphasised the dangers they face. There are photos on the Council's site and as I forgot to take my camera that's where you'll have to look.
Afterwards, at the reception, it was striking to hear such articulate young men talking about their life in the army, the training camps, the work in Afghanistan and so on. A professional army is certainly different from a conscripted one.
It was obvious from conversations that the soldiers recognise that even those of us who think that the "war on terror" is one of the biggest political mistakes of the past 50 years support the work they are trying to do now to bring it to an end and recognise that they can only do what the politicians decide they must.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

So you want to be a councillor?

Tonight's council meeting would have given would-be councillors a snapshot of the wide range of concerns dealt with by those elected to represent their area. The Mayor reminded us that his entry in the River Rat Race had been an opportunity to sponsor him for his charity fund, and that he'd raised £400 so far.
As it was the first meeting of the full council since her untimely death there was an opportunity to pay tribute to Allison Trainer who had finally succumbed to cancer in August. The tributes were genuine and heartfelt - to her as a person and as a champion for the people of Thornaby.
There were members of the public present to ask formal questions about housing in Thornaby and get answers from the Cabinet member for housing. He promised that the work they want will be scheduled as early as possible next year - let's hope that he's right for their sakes and that meanwhile the approaching winter isn't as severe as the last one. This chance to put a formal question to the council is there at every meeting and it's a pity more members of the public don't take advantage of it.
Then it was time to move on to accepting, amending and questioning the minutes of all the committees which do work as part of the council. There were some good and useful questions raised, including one by my colleague John Fletcher on how soon the winter maintenance plan for the roads will be agreed, as winter is fast approaching. A slightly complacent response that we should have it in October is worrying. John will keep on asking and reminding, in an effort to ensure a smooth response once the frosts start to bite.
Occasionally Cabinet makes a recommendation which council has to approve in order for it to be implemented. Tonight the controversial one was which form of governance Stockton Council should adopt. We have to change - either to have a leader who is in post for the full length of a council (4 years at present) or to have a directly elected mayor. All the arguments have been put several times in consultations and in each case a majority response has come in favour of having a leader and cabinet, retaining the civic mayor. However, some members of council still think that a referendum would have produced a different result and argued for it. The debate was robust and not particularly well structured but in the end the Cabinet recommendation was approved.
The Labour group had put down a motion condemning the VAT rise and ranting against the coalition government. We put down an amendment which recognised the need for the rise but the Independents all chose to support Labour - opportunistic opposition. No mention was made by either Labour or Independent speakers of how they would have cut the deficit nor of how they would protect the people of Stockton, but then as John pointed out, they have the luxury now of being in opposition and being able to let others sweat to clean up the mess they left behind. They conveniently ignore all the good things which Lib Dems won in the budget, including the triple lock on pension rises which ensures that the state pension goes up by the highest of 3 indicators rather than keeping it artificially low as previous Labour and conservative governments have.
Towards the end of council meetings members of council can also have questions answered by the relevant cabinet member as long as the right notice has been given to allow them to get their answers sorted out. The sting in the tail usually comes in the form of a supplementary question which is not submitted in advance. Tonight's questions weren't particularly illuminating as they were about things which are public knowledge anyway, but one did give the cabinet member for children and young people the opening she wanted to list GCSE successes - quite irrelevant to the question and she was shouted at loudly for doing it!
Finally the leader gives a summary of the significant things that have happened in the area recently which impact on the borough and we can all go home.
So, a good cross section of what might can go on, but I'm glad that not every meeting includes everything or we'd all be exhausted!

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A large part of today revolved around a family funeral, not someone close to me but a member of the family nonetheless. It was a particularly poignant funeral as the manner and cause of death were so similar to my own father's nearly quarter of a century ago. I'm not going into detail, suffice to say that as so often happens, the funeral gave the chance not only for the very sad last goodbye to a much loved and respected man but also many opportunities to meet anew people not seen for too long. And in doing so, to learn new things about the person we thought we knew.
RIP Arthur

Monday, September 06, 2010

Good news for those wanting to start up small businesses. Today the National Insurance Holiday for small business start ups in our region comes into effect. It might just make the difference for someone contemplating a start up. Another good policy from the coalition government. Help for the regions which most need it!
I spent some time today looking through and discussing plans for spending a very small budget in the Western Area (Yarm, Eaglescliffe, and part of Western Parishes wards) for helping people who want to get into jobs. Some taster sessions from Tees Achieve on such topics as computer skills, first aid, crafts and more are going to be offered alongside some work on helping people to manage their finances, find suitable housing and ensure that they have the right advice on tax and benefits. I hope we get a good take up when the plans are finalised.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Youth in Harmony

18 years ago a newly appointed music adviser to Cleveland County Education Authority asked why we had a youth orchestra but not a youth choir. He promptly set about forming such a choir. Today he said goodbye to their successors, handing them on to their new conductor at a superb concert in The Sage, Gateshead.
At that time, 18 years ago, I was involved in helping with the Cleveland Youth Orchestra as the proud parent of first one then two members. The orchestra was going from strength to strength and went on annual tours in Europe, giving concerts and seeing something of life in places they probably wouldn't visit on family holidays. It was agreed that the new Youth Choir would accompany the Orchestra on their next tour and so bigger and broader tours were born. There have been many changes since then - of personnel, of local government structure and funding - and this blog is not the place to document all of them, but the choir continues.
John has left two legacies to music in the this area of the Tees Valley. At one end of the spectrum is the Youth Choir which now produces music of which a standard which approaches that of professional choirs and which is a fertile ground from which a steady stream of professional singers emerges. At the other end is the firm commitment to the vision that everyone can sing - they just need help to find their voice. If both of those legacies are built on then music in the Tees Valley will continue to give great pleasure to many and will continue to be a force for good in the lives of many children.
At their concert in the Sage John introduced and congratulated all the leavers and new starters for this year, and the choir thanked John and his wife Audrey with the gift of a photograph of Roseberry Topping taken by local photographer Joe Cornish whose daughter also happens to be a talented singer and member of the choir.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Excellent day spent with fellow Lib Dems on campaigning and election planning. Get a group of Lib Dem activists together and the room buzzes. It's always good to be able to host such events for people from round the Tees Valley here in our ward. We are lucky to have such a range of facilities on our door step.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Dog waste bins, street lights, daffodils

Just a few of the things which we ward councillors discussed today. We have a small budget for such things to be spent in the ward and this month we need to make firm decisions on how to allocate the funds. Some things are easy - a dozen or more people have asked for a dog waste bin on one footpath so as long as we can establish a suitable location that's an obvious contender. Others have asked for more flowers along the roadside verges - another obvious contender. There are also proposals for extra street lighting, CCTV coverage of potential areas of anti-social behaviour and for tree planting. There are more ideas than we can possibly fund but we're looking at how to make the best possible use of the money available. We'll be consulting on the detail of some schemes in the not too distant future.
Children in the care of the local authority were the subject of this afternoon's meeting with some very positive news on some aspects of their care, and the very welcome addition to the partnership of one young person in care. Getting the best possible results for our young people is one of the most important jobs the council does, and our role as "corporate parents" to young people whose birth families can't do that parenting job is so vital to those youngsters.