Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 draws to a close

It's that time of year when I reflect on the last 12 months and wonder about the next 12.  As I get older reflection seems to emphasise just how quickly the years pass.
This year has of course had its ups and downs.  Seeing the council seat which John Fletcher held for so many years slip away to another party was definitely a down.  And there have been others as the dire financial situation in the country has taken jobs from so many and hope from others. 
But there have been some good moments too - becoming a great-aunt 3 times in the same month as we celebrated 40 years of marriage was wonderful.  Holidaying with family and meeting up with cousins I'd not seen for almost 60 years was another high spot.  And there are many more happy family memories from 2011 to treasure.
Being able to witness our good friends Suzanne and John Fletcher having their long service to the borough recognised by being made Honorary Aldermen was the most enjoyable bit of the full council meetings this year, I'm sure, though of course not the most important.  That honour falls to those meetings where the council's budget and forward plans are set.
And what of 2012?  With luck there will be more joy with family and friends.  There will be much work around the ward dealing with the issues residents bring up.  There will be next year's budget setting process, and a need to look very carefully at all the implications of the council tax grant being offered.  There'll be the Olympic Torch relay and Fairtrade Fortnight and the 25th Stockton International Riverside Festival and no doubt much more.  So 2012 promises to be at least as busy as 2011. 
Best wishes to all of you for 2012.  In the words of the old toast: Health, Wealth and Happiness, and the greatest of these is happiness!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The season of Peace and Goodwill

As the December edition of Eaglescliffe's Focus leaflet hit the doormats around the ward I started to receive phone calls from people offering coats for the Donate a Coat appeal.  For those readers who don't live in the ward or don't read Focus, this is an appeal which the Salvation Army is making this year with Daybreak TV for warm winter coats to give to the homeless and otherwise vulnerable people who turn to them for help. Alan, Lesley and I decided that this year we were going to publicise the appeal and offer to collect them if people couldn't deliver themselves.  The results have been humbling - we have several bags of coats to take in to Stockton tomorrow thanks to the generous people of Eaglescliffe.
The news headlines this morning were dominated by the last US troops leaving Iraq, but by lunchtime that had been ousted by the death of Vaclav Havel, perhaps the best known citizen of the Czech republic.  A man who led his country to embrace democracy, look beyond its borders and become a fully functioning part of Europe - not a bad record for anyone!
Sadly, the news from further afield has not been so positive - still problems in Egypt as some people feel the military leadership is obstructing the passage to democracy with others thinking it's a benign influence bringing stability; even bigger problems in the Congo where people who have been returned by our government which claims that it's safe to return are being arrested and in some cases tortured.  Let's hope that having a first hand witness report on the situation encourages the government to realise that the country isn't yet safe to return refugees to.
So at a time when we celebrate the birth of a child who became a refugee with his parents the world presents a mixed picture.  Would that the generosity shown in the Donate a Coat appeal were shown right across the country and the world. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Are We Nearly There Yet?

This was the title of Durham Lane Primary's Christmas production.  Unashamedly celebrating the Christian festival, it also allowed children from 5 to 11 to show off their musical talents, their confidence in front of an audience, and their self discipline.  I don't know which child the man near me was waving to so energetically but well done to the child for not being distracted.
The story of the journey to Bethlehem was told in words and music with great enthusiasm but also with skill.
The Oakwood Centre again provided a super venue - the big screens and the video cameras enabled every child to have their moment of stardom, the seats are adult sized and comfortable, and the acoustics mean that children don't have to shout.  Plenty of car parking is the icing on the cake!
As always, Durham Lane school took the opportunity to raise some funds for Daisy Chain, a local charity which helps families cope with Autism and has special links with the school.  They showed a very moving video of two mums talking about the difference Daisy Chain made to their families.  I hope the collection at the end was generous.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Allen's West and Preston Park

Two sites, two planning applications, worlds apart.  The Allen's West application is for a housing estate the size of a village - bigger in fact than Preston is, with perhaps its own shop and some allotments, maybe some unspecified community facilities and potentially bringing with it a mass of traffic problems.  Of course, the traffic problems could be reduced by careful road changes and designing in the ability to use public transport including committing substantial sums to increase the frequency of bus services, improving footways and cycleways and ensuring that pedestrian access to the railway station is improved.  Will it happen?  Who knows.  Meanwhile if you want to comment you have until next Tuesday to get your comments in.  Go to,  then clicking on SEARCH and putting in the application number, 11/2842.

The newest application for Preston Park on the other hand is for a sculpture set into the landscape which will act as a "gateway" feature for the Tees Heritage Park.  Children from Preston Primary school spent a lot of time with an artist looking at the park and the river and working on expressing their thoughts and their vision in models.  He took those thoughts and ideas as a springboard for a design to submit for approval.  The first attempt met with considerable public approval but some aspects of it were not considered suitable by the council officers charged with managing the park and museum.  Much discussion later a second  design has emerged and that design has now been submitted for planning approval.  It's described on the offical notification as:
Application 11/3088 REV.
 This scheme is part of the Tees Heritage Park Arts Project.  The works will consist of ridges of stone sculpted landform radiating out from a central interpretation panel in cast iron and behind this a curved stone bench recessed into the hillside.

The application can be viewed by going to,  then clicking on SEARCH and putting in the application number, 11/3088 REV.  Comments are needed by Dec 30th and should be sent to , marked clearly with the application number for the attention of Mrs Fiona Bage.

There will be some issues around the maintenance of such a piece of sculpture in the landscape.  It's not something that's been done before in any of the Stockton Parks.  In my view it will be worth the effort.  It will add something to the park which we haven't had before and add to the unique qualities of Preston park in the North East.  But there's a lot of work to be done on it to get to that stage, and it'll be somewhat messy while it's being constructed.  Interesting times for the park.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Credit where credit's due

Politicians, like most people, enjoy being praised for doing things that people think are good things.  So getting a pothole filled when drivers have complained to us, sorting out a problem with drainage on a footpath, winning a fight in planning committee are all things we sometimes succeed in and enjoy being thanked - we're human after all.  Sometimes we don't succeed and then there's a feeling of despondency perhaps.  And sometimes a politician claims more credit than is really due, forgetting the efforts of the community towards the same end.
So it's timely,  as the subject is topical once more, to give great credit to Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe council (formerly known as Egglescliffe Parish Council).  The council is currently working with a group of young people in an effort to provide a facility in the parish for wheeled sport - BMX, skateboards, micro-scooters and so on.  Young people who choose them as a way of taking enjoyable exercise and learning new skills are in trouble, understandably, for using the ramps and steps provided for pedestrians, wheelchair users etc outside Orchard Shops.  The ramps and steps provide the best facility they've got, but while using them they cause problems and danger to the people for whom they're designed. 
Various people have talked about the issue over the last 12 months, not always in public and certainly not always in writing.  At a meeting of the parish council's recreation committee yesterday morning we had reason to go back through minutes of the committee and its predecessor committees to look at decisions taken over land in the parish..  It was interesting to note that in minutes as far back as 1995 councillors were bemoaning the lack of facilities for skate boarding and the danger in which young people were putting themselves and others by doing it in inappropriate places.  Councillors were trying to work with ward councillors even then to get something done.  So all credit to the parish council for perseverance and for having the vision lacked by many at Stockton Council and a timely reminder to newly elected people that this isn't something new and solutions don't come about just because it's mentioned in a leaflet or a letter - it's a long hard road to success. 
It would be interesting to know whether any of those young people who were petitioning the parish council back then are around now, and indeed whether any of their children are involved in the current discussions.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Another step along the Fairtrade road

I was invited this afternoon to attend a meeting of the school council at Ingleby Mill Primary School.  Unfortunately I was held up and arrived a little late so I missed the presentation done by the Yr 6 councillors to the others.  Apparently I missed a treat, but I was in  time to witness the children completing the school audit - where they are along the road to becoming  a Fairtrade school.  It's wonderful when the children start to make links to other subjects and think of things which the staff have forgotten about.
The most exciting part of the meeting was the draft action plan.  An outline drawn up by a couple of teachers was soon being questioned and fleshed out by the children.  I've a feeling that I'm going to be taking part in a sponsored walk on leap year day!  The theme of the coming 12 months in the world of Fairtrade is going to be Steps - taking steps, big ones, small ones, leaps, jumps, any kind of step to increase awareness of Fairtrade and to spread the word.  There were some mental leaps going on this afternoon, from pancakes with Fairtrade chocolate to sponsored walks, to biking to school and having a Fairtrade breakfast on arrival. 
But first of all they have to attend a governors' meeting and explain to them why it's important to become a Fairtrade school.  If any pupils can do it they can, I'm sure.  They're even going to have a go at persuading the cook to use some Fairtrade goods in school meals and their uniform supplier to use some Fairtrade cotton in their uniform. 
It was inspiring, exciting and humbling - what wonderful children.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Farewell to The Grange

The Grange was a lovely old house, one of the oldest in Eaglescliffe, and was home to a family which really made the house into a family home.  When our children were growing up there were always children living at The Grange, and more children visiting them, always welcome, always safe and though maybe I'm looking back with rose tinted memories, but they always seemed happy.  The children grew up and moved to their own homes and eventually it was time for the family to relinquish the old house.  Everyone hoped that another family would come to live there and have as much joy in growing up there.  Alas, it was not to be.  The buyer turned out to be a developer who simply wanted to knock it down and build as much as he could sell on the site.  The first application was refused and refused again on appeal.  The next application was again refused but this time granted on appeal.  Still nothing happened - no-one lived there and no demolition either.  Tiles came off the roof, weeds grew up in the garden, the fence was breached numerous times.  The old house grew ever sadder and more derelict. 
Another planning application came in and eventually approval was given for a smaller development than before - houses instead of flats.  Still nothing happened.  Still young people broke in and used it as an adventure playground from time to time.
Last weekend my colleague Cllr Alan Lewis discovered that primary school children as young as 7 or 8 had been playing there, Stockton Council officers had been notified but nothing was done.  On Monday Alan took the matter up and by yesterday he had a commitment from the owners to proceed with the demolition.  The enforcement officers with whom he dealt acted swiftly and decisively and we're very grateful to them that this weekend there's proper fencing up and the building will go next week.
I'm sad to see  a once fine family home left to get into such a ruinous state - a family could have lived in it for the past few years while the planning permissions were sought and finance sorted out for the work.  Instead it turned into an eyesore so that eventually almost everyone wanted to see it gone.
So, farewell to the Grange.  I won't go and see it demolished - I'll remember it as it was when the children were growing up, and I'll still hear the echos of the laughter no matter what is built on the site in the future.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

More cars, more pedestrians

Following yesterday's post I've been asked about the legal position on parking and also what is being done to help solve the problems.

In Stockton the council is responsible for enforcing parking restrictions in most cases. The main issues we have in our estate roads are parking partly on the pavement and parking on bends or junctions or across someone's drive.
Drivers often park with 2 wheels on the pavement because they think that it gives more space on the road for other motorists to pass and therefore is safer or better.  However, there are 2 problems with that approach.  First, the surface of pavements is not reinforced for the weight of the vehicle so damage is caused.  The damage isn't visible immediately but builds up over many months.  Repair costs money which is paid by all tax payers, not just the motorists concerned.
Second, a pavement is designed to be wide enough for someone in a wheelchair or someone pushing a pram to go along comfortably.  If a car is parked partly on the pavement the access for those pedestrians is obstructed.
The council's enforcement officers will take action if someone is parked causing an obstruction such as leaving too narrow a gap on the pavement thereby forcing wheelchair users or people pushing prams to leave the footway and walk on the road.
Although the Highway Code says that motorists should not park on bends or in such a way as to obstruct the use of a dropped kerb or the driveway of a house, we all know that if 50 cars are collecting children from a primary school on a modern housing estate they will end up doing all of those things.  Most residents accept a bit of give and take in these situations but sometimes some drivers can be so thoughtless in their parking that people get really angry. 
Tomorrow Alan Lewis and I have a meeting scheduled with a council enforcement officer to discuss the situation we saw yesterday and see if we can come up with an action plan to improve the situation.  That will give us a better idea of what might be possible outside the other schools in the ward where similar problems are experienced.

That doesn't resolve the issues around youngsters being out on roads on their scooters and skateboards while drivers don't expect them to be in the road. We are trying to find a way of funding some provision for them to enjoy those wheeled activities safely and getting them off the roads and off the front of the shops, but that's going to take a bit of time.
It also doesn't resolve the issue of people who drive at legal but inappropriate speeds on estate roads - 30mph might be legal but it doesn't mean it's sensible.  Unfortunately we can't get the speed limit reduced without lots of speed bumps or build outs or other physical means of slowing down the vehicles - expensive beyond reach even if everyone agreed it was a good thing on all of our longer roads.

So I'm not offering platitudes, nor easy answers.  It is difficult but Alan Lewis and I are doing what we can.  If anyone has any helpful suggestions that we haven't yet tried please do get in touch - we'll see if they can be tried.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Cars, schools and pedestrians

Sometimes I wonder if primary schools have built-in magnets which attract cars to park as near as possible before the school opens in the morning and closes at night.  The idea of parking an extra 100m away and walking a little seems to be alien to so many parents these days that it's causing real problems.  It's not new this year but it also isn't any better.
Just over a week ago Carnoustie Drive had 3 speed humps and some school time waiting restrictions put in.  Today parents who do walk to school almost erupted at Alan and me as we walked down the road at 3.15, looking at the pavements half covered by cars parked with two wheels on them, cars parked on corners so that seeing round them was difficult for other drivers, even one car parked with a child asleep in the baby seat and parent nowhere to be seen, presumably on the other side of the road waiting for another child to come out of school. Whatever happened to the Highway code, to common sense and to good manners?  We'lldo what we can of course but it's going to take a rethink on the part of some parents before the issues are resolved.  Meanwhile people have to walk on the road if they're pushing a pram or a wheelchair, children take their lives in their hands crossing between parked cars, and several people are describing it as an accident waiting to happen.  No-one we spoke to seemed to think the school zone was an improvement at schooltime though the slowing down of cars during the remainder of the day was much appreciated.
Only time will tell whether efforts to reform people's parking habits will be successful.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Preston Park

Yesterday and today I've been involved in a series of meetings about the Park and the Hall, the developments going on right now and the vision for the future.  They've been in turn confidential, robust, comforting and exciting.  The way in which the story of the Hall and Park will be told in the museum when it reopens, the ideas for celebrating harvest in the kitchen garden, the new settings and opportunities for weddings in the Hall, emerging plans for celebrating 200 years of the railway in Eaglescliffe, the gateway to Tees Heritage Park - all have been part of the discussions but there's been much more too. 
Years ago when I was first elected the relationship of ward councillors to council officers over the park seemed to be almost constant conflict.  It's taken hard work on both sides to reach the point we're at now, but it's been well worth the effort, and now we have a more or less shared vision which is developing in exciting ways - new ideas for events and for activities in the heart of our community.
Preston Hall & Park is the jewell in the crown of the borough, and long may it remain so.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Government by Cabinet

For the first time since the election I attended a cabinet meeting tonight, sitting in the row of seats labelled "Public Gallery".  I attended fairly regularly for the last 4 years because there were usually important and/or interesting things being discussed and there really was some discussion.  Tonight was a step back in time.  There was a really important item on the agenda tonight.  Following a serious cut in funding available for services for our youngest children council officers have been reviewing the services to see how best to cope.  They've tried really hard to work out how to target the services to the most needy and they've done a good job.  But then almost every cabinet member had to speak on it, saying how wonderful the report was and adding their two pennorth.  And so it went on - no debates, no discussion, just back patting and agreement that Stockton is the best council in the country thanks to the wonderful people running it!
The one debate was sparked by me asking how they made a decision on which person to appoint as a school governor - the choice being between a ward councillor and a school nomination.  Apparently councillors are to be preferred every time because they've shown a commitment to getting involved.  And of course I had misunderstood completely the role of a council appointed governor - there's no need to report anything to council at any time because Ofsted monitor every school.
So in an hour of my life which I'll never get back I learned that the Labour council is wonderful, the council officers are excellent and councillors are the best school governors.  Wow!

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Amberley Way and Allen's West

Spent the morning in discussions about play areas.  First of all a site visit to Amberley Way with the artist who worked with the children of Durham Lane School on designing a play sculpture - the right wood has finally been sourced and the orientation was finally decided on today.  Now everything can be ordered and work can start when the workforce are ready.  Plans are being drawn up to involve the school children in the publicity for the start of the work.
Then a discussion about the provision of play areas at Allen's West if the new development goes ahead.  The developer is suggesting several small play spaces, no bigger than what we have at Leven Close and equally close to housing.  So far there seems to be nothing in their indicative outline for older children to enjoy without causing real problems for the people living in the nearby houses.  Fortunately the Stockton Council officers concerned seemed to be on the same wavelength as the Parish Councillors - no scrappy bits of leftover land, but properly thought out and designed facilities for the hundreds of children and young people who will eventually live on that site.  Whether the developer takes any notice and whether our planning officers make him remains to be seen.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Good News & Bad News

I find it very difficult to understand how a government, especially one with a Liberal Democrat heading up DECC, can suddenly pull the rug from under so many people who were planning to do their bit to boost the renewable energy generation in this country.  Solar panels make a lot of sense to householders who plan to stay in their property for 10 years or more and can afford the initial outlay.  Many of us thought that the Feed In Tariff had been set very high and would need to come down more sharply than originally indicated.  But we certainly didn't expect what amounts to a breach of contract in my eyes, if not in the eyes of the law.  To halve the rate at 6 weeks notice, when some reputable companies are now quoting 8-10 weeks delivery for a good quality installation, is patently not fair.  It's penalising those who've needed time to work out the finances, who've chosen a supplier who can't install at the drop of a hat.  Considering that this was going to be the greenest government ever I'm not impressed. 
So what's the good news?  Well, thousands of pounds being invested in businesses in our area through the regional growth fund.  PD Ports, Johnson Matthey, Tioxide, Darchem, Able UK and more - all submitted bids for investment.  Once through the due diligence stage that'll safeguard jobs in some and create new jobs in others - excellent news on top of the first round successes.  So the government gets some things right - pity it can't get the environmental stuff right too.  Because, as Chris Huhne is so fond of telling us, Green Investment produces jobs.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

More Skateboard talk

Following our chat with the young people yesterday about where they can play on their BMX and microscooters the Parish Council's recreation committee agreed informally to progress to a meeting with interested parties.  Thinking that Stockton Council's youth service might at least be an interested party I contacted them to ask if we could hold the meeting one evening when the local youth club is meeting so that any who are interested could come along.  The response?  A phone call to say "I understand you want to be involved in our consultation on skate boarding"!  No, say I, I want to provide a facility. 
Ah, we're doing a borough wide consultation on a strategy
Well, the young people in Eaglescliffe don't need a strategy - they need a facility
Well they could be part of our consultation on the strategy.

Eventually I had an agreement that the Parish can use the room for the meeting we want to hold, but I'm not holding my breath.  I might be wrong but I wouldn't be at all surprised if when that officer's boss comes back from holiday the room is no longer available as we're trying to step outside the borough wide strategy.  Watch this space.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Around and About the Ward

Alan and I spent the morning walking round the areas of what used to be council housing in the days when such a thing existed in Stockton.  Doing it with a Tristar officer, the PCSO and some Stockton Council officers means that even when a problem is spotted that doesn't relate directly to a Tristar property we have people with us who can do something about it.  So pavement parking, a couple of trip hazards, some weeds needing treatment, litter, all noted and will be sorted out.  It was also a chance to catch up with officers on a couple of projects waiting for action, like Leven Close play area.  And of course for a little chat with some of the residents who popped out to speak to us.
This afternoon was spent consulting with the residents around Marion Avenue, Elton Lane, Aspen and Rowan Rd about the speeding cars, the short cut to Butterfield Drive and the safety of  school children and other vulnerable road users.  We now have two possible ways forward and will ask Stockton Council's engineers for their professional opinions of both before taking them back to our Community Participation Budget group to decide whether we can have the money for implementation of the best one.  It's been a long process but we hope will produce a good result in the end.
Walking back from there we took the chance to talk to the young people about the lack of provision for wheeled sport activity in the ward and what they'd like to see.  Again, some good suggestions and we'll move forward with them now.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Eagle Service Station

This afternoon was the launch day for the new Nisa-Today store at Eagle Service Station.  I was rather surprised to be invited along, having opposed the award of a liquor licence, but even more surprised when I found that I was invited to cut the ribbon at the opening.  It was a good opportunity to find out how the business is going and if there were any issues needing attention.  The shop certainly looks better organised and better stocked than previously, with some surprisingly competitive pricing.  I hadn't realised till today just what a big organisation Nisa is nor that it's a retailer-owned company with no large shareholders. 
We had a chat about the possibility of offering some Fairtrade products other than Cadbury's Dairy Milk, and perhaps doing a promotion during Fairtrade Fortnight.  I look forward to developing that discussion further.  I also had a look at their CCTV system which is very modern and looked quite impressive.  I haven't heard any complaints since the shop opened and I hope that continues.  16 cameras certainly means that they have the shop and the forecourt pretty well covered.
Children were enjoying being photographed with the giant teddy bear as well as having their faces painted and balloons made into all manner of shapes.  All in all, a fun afternoon.
The licensing committee of Stockton Council agreed that after 12 months of trading they'd want to see the figures to show whether the shop or the fuel has the greater sales, and if it's fuel then the liquor licence has to go - a garage can't sell alcohol but an off-licence shop can sell petrol.  Strange legal quirk, but true.  It'll be interesting to see the balance at the end of a year.  Meanwhile it seems that the owner is trying to be a good neighbour to the residents.  Let's hope it continues that way.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Allen's West Development

Public consultation day on the proposals for the Allen's West development.  I'm sad to say that there seemed to be a bit of misinformation being spread by the developers.  The proposal seems to be for over 850 houses and a residential care home or nursing home or extra care facility.  There is an indicative arrangement of housing which doesn't provide for very much play or amenity space - not a lot of communal space or ways to encourage a sense of community.  There's no sign of anything like a community centre and they seem to have convinced Stockton Council officers that it's better to extend an already existing school half a mile or more away than to build a new one which could be the centre of community activity.  On top of that they are claiming that thousands of jobs will be created in the construction and the supply chain, but are saying that the work will take about 20 years to complete the building.  That sounds more like a few hundred jobs lasting 20 years than thousands of jobs at any stage. 
They are also claiming that Stockton will benefit from the New Homes Bonus but I suspect that's exaggerated too - I'm trying to get to the bottom of exactly what can be expected if the development goes ahead over a 20 year time frame.
I worry that the site will be developed by a succession of different builders and we will have problems for years of getting the "unproductive" work done like finishing roads and public open spaces.  We had it on Kingsmead which is a lot smaller development and we don't want those problems on Allen's West. 
Now we just need to wait and see if they take any notice of comments people made or if the same plans go in with the application.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why are our schools free if poor country children have to pay?

That was the question from one child this morning during a discussion on Fairtrade and its impact on the families who benefit.  Why don't we share our money with the poorer countries?  was another.  Very profound questions and not ones that could easily be answered.  They were super children whose willingness to think about the subject really did exceed that of many adults.  The school had centred its harvest festival on Fairtrade with great ingenuity - there were poems on pineapples and oranges, songs about cauliflowers and bananas, a brilliant rewrite of "Sugar sugar", interesting facts about apples and tea - in fact masses of information which really meant that I didn't have to say much.  They'd said it all, and in a way that showed they understood many of the issues. 
At council tonight it was the turn of adults - the council reaffirmed its commitment to Fairtrade and I had the opportunity to remind people that it isn't just in council that it matters but in everyone's lifestyle.  I'm not sure that all the adults were as keen as the children were this morning.
Before the council meeting we had a presentation from Eastern Ravens on the Young Carers Aloud project, an effort to give young carers in the borough a real voice and to convince the professionals dealing with their families to listen to them and included them in the decision making process.  It was heart wrenching to hear stories of children as young as 5 helping their parents who couldn't cope for various reasons - physical illness, mental illness, physical disabilities, learning difficulties - different for every family but all real, all needing help.
The highlight of the council meeting was the first item when 4 long serving but now retired councillors became Honorary Aldermen of the Borough.   Suzanne and John Fletcher were amongst them and I didn't have words to adequately sum up what they have contributed to the borough during their combined 54 years of service - the change in how councillors address each other in meetings, the changes to how members of opposition parties are given information, the extra openness and transparency, the way in which people are treated when they have dealings with the council - none of them big things that can be pointed to in the way that a major cabinet decision or important report can be highlighted, but so very important.  And how to describe the work they did in their wards without making it sound as though no-one else can ever take over from them?  The hours and hours spent resolving problems for individuals, which no-one else knows about.  And the work they did to further the cause of Fairtrade in the borough, and which they continue to do, which seems to have gone full circle from where I started.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Allen's West Crossing

Good coverage this morning by BBC Tees for the campaign to make the crossing safer.  Network Rail say that it fulfils safety requirements.  As Alan Lewis said "If it does then all I can say is that national safety standards need looking at". 
Stockton Council have promised a gate on the South East side to prevent children running up the slope straight onto the line.  We're going to keep pressing for more than that so that more children can walk safely too and from school.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Where does our plastic & cardboard go?

Aluminium cans
This afternoon the Environment committee had the opportunity of a site visit to the plant at Hartlepool which deals with the cardboard and plastic recycling we put out in our white bags.  It was a noisy but fascinating visit.  Seeing the cardboard & plastic, mixed with paper and cans from other authorities that don't do kerbside sorting, being shaken and blown about to separate out the various kinds of material confirms yet again the ingenuity of mankind.  An infra-red plastic detector which then blows the plastic bottle up into one conveyor while letting the heavier cartons go down into another looked a bit like something James Bond might have had a use for.

The noise is deafening in parts of the plant and ear defenders are needed, but it's all in a good cause.  The final stage is a manual separation of things that have ended up in the wrong place (machines can't do everything) and that section of the plant seemed to be staffed by mainly if not entirely Polish workers.  Safety notices were in Polish as well as English, showing at least a recognition of some responsibility for the staff.
The finished products are baled up and sent to recycling plants that need that resource or can further refine it - cardboard and paper to the paper mill, aluminium to the smelter, drink cartons to a plant which can separate the cardboard from the plastic from the foil in them, plastic bottles to a specialist plant that can separate the different kinds of plastic and so on.  Brown cardboard is separated from other kinds as it's stronger and can be reused to make cardboard whereas the lighter card goes to make such things as tissues.  Clear polythene is more valuable than coloured carrier bags and gets packaged separately.  So it goes on - each material being packaged up to be taken to the appropriate market place. 

So putting that cardboard and plastic in the white bag is worth it - the material is used again.  But please don't put in the light, crinkly plastic that doesn't recycle - do look for the recycling mark on the containers.  That way the material produced is of the highest quality and gets the best price, with a consequent impact on our council tax!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Education, education, education

That could have been the title of the Members Policy Update earlier this evening - presentations on developments in the 3 phases of education.  A whistle stop tour of the compulsory 5-16 stage left us breathless but with a sense that at the moment schools in Stockton are working together remarkably well despite the best efforts of successive governments to introduce ever more variety of type and governance.  Maybe we're old fashioned in Stockton but heads and governors seem to like to feel part of the big family of schools, even when able to go off and do things independently.  Whether that will continue if the Free School at Ingleby Barwick goes forward who knows?  Only time will tell.
At the stage which used to be called 6th Form there's a wide range of bodies providing education - we have two hugely successful 11-18 schools which provide not just for young people in their traditional catchment area but for a wider range once they're over 16.  We have a very successful 6th form college, providing a wide range of courses and seeing growth in the number of young people wanting to study science and maths.  We have a further education college on two sites, one providing a more traditional academic approach than the other and so catering for a wide range of students.  Then there are numerous organisations providing teaching and learning in the workplace for modern apprentices and trainees in a variety of fields.  As was pointed out by the head of the 6th form college - in  Stockton you can study every subject except agriculture, and for that you only have to go to Guisborough!
And then there's the university sector - Durham's Queen's campus in Stockton and Teesside in Middlesbrough.  I guess I'm biased as a former student but I do admire Teesside's commitment to developing courses which bridge the skills gap in the area while at the same time they manage to provide some top quality computer related engineering courses. 
But what was really refreshing today was the upbeat approach of the Vice Chancellor of Teesside Uni, pointing out the good aspects of the current government's approach to funding.  The fact that students don't start paying back till they're earning £21K or more, and that there are grants and fee waivers for lots of students from poorer backgrounds to help them to access the courses.  As he pointed out, the alternatives could have been far worse.  It was relatively easy to fund free higher education when only 8% of young people went to university.  Now with over 40% it's not possible to keep it free, and this system means people pay less per month than under the current system.  As he said, students do understand when it's properly explained.  It's their parents and grandparents who worry at the thought of debt.
There are some flaws in the new funding ideas, some parts not properly thought through.  It's sad but true that every government iniative ever seems to have bits like that and this government is no exception!  There are some worrying times ahead for the sector but there are rays of hope as well.  It was refreshing to have them pointed out by someone who's not a politician but knows what he's talking about.

Number 87 Bus

Alan was approached by residents asking for an extension to the route of the 87 bus and has had a positive response from the bus operator:
From 30th October the bus will go along Urlay Nook Rd to the Hunters Green Roundabout meaning that it stops at Valley Gardens again.  This is the earliest date on which the change can legally be made.

It's nice to have a positive response from a bus company.  The letter finished by saying "We hope this will make the residents of Eaglescliffe happy"

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Council Tax Freeze

So George Osborne has managed to find an underspend in Whitehall of £800million has he?  Is that on top of the cuts which he expects all public services to find?  If so, has he really thought about what £800m could do for the country?  An average saving per household of £72 in a year, or a little over £1 a week will hardly be noticed in most of those homes.  Being able to afford an extra loaf of bread in the supermarket won't exactly be a huge boost to the economy or save many jobs.  But imagine investing that money in a handful of UK companies in an area like the North East - maybe companies producing solar panels so that we don't import so many from China and Korea?  Maybe companies producing insulation for solid walled houses, bringing the price of the goods down to affordable levels for more people?  Maybe even invest some of it in social housing to make sure that solar panels and top quality insulation are available to those properties too?  Jobs are created here in the UK, fuel poverty is decreased because more people can benefit from better insulation and more affordable renewable energy and so those people can spend more of their money on other things and the whole economy benefits.
But I'm not an economist and I didn't go to the right sort of school or university so perhaps I'm just a naive dreamer who doesn't understand the way things work.  I do know that the ideas being floated at the Lib Dem conference on how to invest any extra funding didn't include freezing council tax, and I wonder how come £800m can be found in a fortnight!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Human Rights?

Eric Pickles seems to think that it's a basic human right to have my bin emptied every week. 
Millions of people in poor and developing parts of the world would welcome the basic human rights of clean water, enough food, shelter and safety.  Those rights are violated for many every minute of every day.
A little further along the scale of rights might come the right to be cared for humanely when sick and especially when incurably sick.
The Coffee Stall from the Staircase
It was these latter rights that were being celebrated and encouraged today in the foyer of Municipal Buildings as Stockton Borough Fairtrade Partnership organised a coffee morning to raise funds for Macmillan Nurses.  The event also commemorated Allison Trainer, a Thornaby councillor who died last year after a long illness.  Fairtrade coffee and snacks were provided and people made donations to the Macmillan funds.  Councillors and staff going about their daily work could take a few minutes to help some of the most vulnerable in society, here and overseas, while enjoying delicious coffee and nibbles.  For the sweet toothed there were biscuits and fruit bars while for the more savoury tooth there were chilli and tamari flavoured apricot kernels - all the flavour of almonds without the problems of nuts!  What more could anyone ask?
So tell me honestly Mr Pickles - which of these is really a right?  A weekly bin emptying or a meal on my plate or care in my last days?  Do you really have to think about the answer?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Kids Count

That's not just a statement of fact, it's the name of an organisation which aims to ensure that young people have a voice in tackling the issues and problems faced by young people.  They aren't affiliated to any one political party but attend party conferences to ensure that the young people really do have a voice.  This year at the Lib Dem conference they had two aims - to bring their organisation to our attention and to launch their campaign for safer driving.
Kids Count was described by members of its board (aged from 14 to 24) as raising the aspirations of you young people and as giving kids a platform from which to be heard.  The young people who spoke hadn't come from privileged backgrounds but spoke with clarity and confidence - a tribute to the support they'd had from the organisation.  They talked a little of their backgrounds but much more about what they thought was important in helping resolve issues.
Their campaign for safer driving is aimed particularly at younger drivers, encouraging young people to think about the effects of drink and drugs on their ability to drive safely.  They hope to roll it out nationwide in the autumn and I for one hope they succeed.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Being councillor for Eaglescliffe does bring variety to life.  Having spent a part of the morning being Lib Dem group leader in a meeting discussing, among other things, the possibilities for wheeled sport in the borough and the difficulties of planning enforcement I spent the early part of the afternoon with Alan Lewis and council officers trying to decide on the best way to resolve an issue around overgrown vegetation.on open space, ways to improve quality of life for some residents and then sorting out an uneven footpath.  The rest of the afternoon was spent on putting the finishing touches to the plans for a coffee morning next Friday which will promote Fairtrade and raise funds for Macmillan Nurses. 
Variety is the spice of life!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Joined up thinking?

At a meeting of the Environment Partnership tonight there was discussion of two things which linked up in my mind: possible housing sites and the green infrastructure of the borough.  Stockton's core strategy adopted last year was written during the height of the housing boom.  At that time there was great hope that contaminated land could be cleaned and good modern housing built on it.  Sadly, since then, the costs of such remediation have risen compared to the probable income from sale of the housing.  The brownfield sites are likely to stay undeveloped for years.  So new housing is likely to be built on green land.  At present there's a consultation on which green land it should be!
I suggested that if the brownfield land was to be left undeveloped it should at least be made to look a bit pleasanter as it's at the heart of our borough.  It seems that it just might happen, though not in the way I'd envisaged.  Willow coppicing might be an answer to giving the owners a little bit of income while they wait for the market recovery.   So we might find the "Green Blue Heart" of the borough becoming a bit greener in the next couple of years, rather than having brown scars across it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Relentless Realism

With a strong yellow thread of idealism peeking through - that was the tone of the Liberal Democrat conference for me.  Last year in Liverpool there was a sense of unreality about being in government after so many long years.  This year there was an acceptance that we're in government and it's hard.  There are many, many things we'd like to do.  Our Liberal Democrat heart wants to spend money to help people who are suffering in the recession.  It's hard knowing that the money isn't there.  And it really, really hurts when the money that is there is being badly administered in some areas, causing more misery.  Stories of people having to have food parcels because benefits have been cut against the rules are doubly harrowing when you have ministers in that department.  We know that ministers don't oversee everyone who works on everything to do with their responsibility across the country, but it still feels wrong that it happens on our watch and many people worked hard over the course of the conference to get that message across.
Fringe meetings were busy, with people from many organisations lobbying ministers as well as Lib Dem activists like me, reminding them that Stockton and the Tees Valley needs time and support to nurture private sector jobs to rebalance our economy.
There were also lots of opportunities to pick up ideas for good, cost-effective ways of engaging with people and doing things differently which we'll be exploring more in the future. 
So yes, it's going to be tough for some time yet.  A combination of Labour profligate spending promises and a global downturn left the national purse well and truly empty.  It's hurting, and it's worse for some than for others.  I want the rich and the investment banks to pay their fair share to put things right.  I want the cushions that exist for the poorest to be properly implemented, not the mess they are at the moment.  But I don't want us to take out a new mortgage on the future, on top of what we're paying already. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Conference update

The weekend draws to a close and what are the highlights?  Too many to list but among them has to be the new Lib Dem policy on Education Credit, building on the Pupil Premium once resources are available.  It will provide a wrap-around support service for the most vulnerable children and their families, helping with parenting skills, with providing computer access and high speed broadband, and much much more.  Page 22 of the Conference Agenda has the detail if you're interested, but the motion was amended to remove the reference to Academies and to add in the children of Armed Forces personnel and of gypsy and traveller families who suffer educationally from moving around as the family moves, and in the case of Forces children have the added stress of knowing that a parent is away from home involved in war somewhere.  I'm delighted to have this policy in our arsenal ready for when the finances become available.
Debates on Employment support and on the harm caused by drug offences were excellent and good policy has resulted.
Tim Farron of course was inspirational.
And first thing this morning was the session on whether police accreditation is necessary or desirable as a precursor to attending conference.  There were excellent speeches on the wrongs of the system adopted this year - the people who haven't attended because of it.  Their voices are sadly missed and I hope we'll hear them at Gateshead next March.
And then tonight, we heard that Stockton had come 2nd in the Penhaligon award - of no interest to anyone but our members but we're very proud of what we've achieved in the past year to enable that.  Huge congratulations to the local Executive for the hard work.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why I'm a Lib Dem

Preparing to go to our party conference at the weekend I've been reading some of the motions for debate.  We are in interesting times as a party.  For many years in opposition we set our policies at conference safe in the knowledge that we were unlikely to be called upon to put them into action.  For the last few years there has been a gradual change towards setting policies which just possibly might be put into action in a coalition situation.  Last year that became reality.  We have a real chance to make a difference for all the people who voted for us.
Some things haven't worked out - the tuition fees debacle was nothing short of disastrous for the party.  The real improvements in the system have been lost in the public eye, drowned under the headline £9000.  But, many many other things have worked out - restoring the index linking of pensions which was resisted by both Labour and Tory for years; the pupil premium is helping schools to support disadvantaged pupils; low paid people are paying less income tax, many of them paying no income tax at all now; ID cards have been scrapped with all the intrusive data collection that went with them; the Green Investment Bank is on its way; Casino banking is being reined in.  The list goes on.
So why am I particularly feeling proud to be a Lib Dem as I head off to conference?  Because even with the pressures of being part of a governing coalition there are still motions designed to set policies which are right, not populist.  A policy to deal with the harm caused by drug abuse and dependency calls for evidence based medical, psychological and social services.  This doesn't mean just locking people up and forgetting about them - it means actually finding services that stop the harm.  That won't suit the "hang 'em and flog 'em" brigade but it makes me happy to be a Lib Dem.

Harvest Home

A break from party politics as we try to cope with a glut of apples the like of which has never before descended on the Rigg kitchen.  Our crab apple tree fruited heavily and early so dozens of jars of chutney, pickle and jelly filled the cupboards.  Then the tree which produces multi-purpose juicy green apples also fruited heavily, rapidly followed by the trees at the allotment.  The allotment is newly acquired and has what might be the remnants of an old orchard on it.  The gales of the last two days have just about cleared the trees before we had chance to think about picking and storing.  So now we have many kilos of windfall apples.  They won't keep, the cupboards are full of jars from the early work, the freezer is filling with cooked apple in readiness for apple sauce and puddings in the winter.  We're eating baked apple, stewed apple, apple puddings of one kind and another, and still the pile seems to get no smaller.
The neighbours have all had enough apples for their needs - their own trees are also cropping heavily.  So, knowing that some local people read this blog - here's your chance to help us out.  Drop me a line and I'll deliver a bag of mixed windfall apples to your doorstep.  And I won't even ask for your vote in return!  (To the anonymous comment leaver who takes things very seriously - that is not a serious comment so please don't waste space to accuse me of trying to buy votes.)

Friday, September 09, 2011

Kingsmead continued

Yesterday's consultation was a great success - lots of residents of all ages came to look at the proposals and make their comments.  As a result there will certainly be some changes to the proposals.  The Parish Council recreation committee always said that the views of the residents nearest to the site are very important and most of those people made the effort to come and look and tell us what they thought.  We also had loads of children from all round the estate, often with parents in tow.  All ages from 3 upwards were sharing their ideas so we've got masses of comments to go through and sort out a final proposal from.
The ward councillors ended up with several bits of casework related in a peripheral way to the play area as well as some discussions to be had with the police about further work in the area.  A very useful, if very tiring, 4 hours.  Thanks to everyone who came - you've given us plenty to think about!

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Kingsmead Play Area

As residents of Egglescliffe parish will know Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe council has a programme of refurbishing the play areas in the parish.  So far St Margaret's has been completed, Amberley Way phase 1 is complete and now it's Kingsmead's turn.  When the estate was built the developers were responsible for providing play equipment.  Sadly for the children of Kingsmead that was at the height of worries on safety so the equipment provided was fairly dull for anyone over the age of about 8 or 9.  Over a number of years ideas have been put forward but money wasn't available.  All that is changing now.  The Parish council share of the Council tax went up significantly a few years ago to enable these improvements.
Tomorrow afternoon between 2.30 and 6 there will be a gazebo by the current play area.  Plans for proposed changes will be on view and residents on the estate have had letters delivered asking them to come and look and comment.  Unlike too many "consultations" this is not a cut and dried scheme.  We genuinely want to know if we've got it right after listening to parents, young people and others.  Is the balance of equipment right for all ages?  Is there a need for a space for ball games to be played safely and is our suggestion of where it can happen the right one?  Will the layout encourage people to take their dogs elsewhere for their toilet needs?  Come and let us know.

Monday, September 05, 2011

When is affordable not affordable?

In housing terms the answer is When it's in Eaglescliffe (or Yarm, or Wynyard ....)
When developers are applying for permission to build more than a handful of houses in Stockton they have to provide a percentage of "affordable" dwellings as things stand at present.  (In their infinite wisdom Conservative led government are changing that!).  However, the definition of affordable has always been set as a percentage of the market price locally.  And that's where the problem comes in this ward.  As young people trying to get their first independent home, low paid workers and elderly people looking to move into something smaller for their old age all know the market value in Eaglescliffe is rather higher than the average in the borough.  Take 80% of that and you're still paying more than you would in many other wards for a full price home.  As a result, many young people find they have to move away from the support network of family and friends in order to have their own home.
Developers wanting to build in Eaglescliffe don't like having to provide affordable homes.  They want to maximise the sale income, understandably.  There is a provision in the Stockton policy designed for small developments which allows the developer to pay a contribution towards some affordable housing elsewhere in the borough instead of providing it in situ.  This has been used by at least one developer in Wynyard who argued that to put one or two affordable homes in a development of houses costing about £1m would be silly because the development wasn't within reach of  public transport, shops or schools.  My argument was that in that case no houses should be built there, but it was overuled.  Now a similar suggestion is being floated for one in Eaglescliffe - let's use the money to fund some really affordable housing in central Stockton rather than some not quite affordable ones in Eaglescliffe.  I for one will be fighting that if it becomes a serious proposal.  Unless we're going to turn into a ward full of well paid professionals and people stuck in their too big house because selling it would mean they had to move out to another area we need some affordable housing here, and I will keep on arguing that case in planning and anywhere else it comes up.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Local Food

We hear quite a bit about food miles and the impact on the environment of transporting food half way round the globe each day, so it was good to be able to go over to the Community Centre yesterday and buy food grown in local people's allotments and gardens.  Many people who grow their own veg or fruit find that "everything comes at once" from time to time.  How many cabbages can one family eat in a month?  This year seems to have been particularly good for apples and plums round here.  Egglescliffe Community Centre decided last year to try having an Autumn Fair and allowing local people to bring along their excess produce to sell or swap.  It was a success and so it was repeated this year.  Volunteers ran a cafe, something missing most days from Orchard shops, and fruit and veg were sold.  I was a bit late so there wasn't much left, but I came away with some superb plums and a bunch of turnips.  Who knows, now that we are finally the happy tenants of an allotment, we might be taking a table at the sale next year?

Friday, September 02, 2011

Allen's West History

Several people made the effort to go to the offices at Allen's West site today to share their knowledge of the history of the site.  Of course the history of its ownership and the outline of what went on there is  documented but there are gaps and for some reason this site seems to have a lot of rumours and half stories surrounding it, perhaps because during and immediately after the 2nd World War there was a degree of secrecy and therefore mystery surrounding it.
The site was used by Lord Nuffield's Ministry of Aircraft Production to recover valuable materials from scrapped (wrecked) aeroplanes.  Needless to say some of the processes probably wouldn't pass modern regulations with respect to the chemicals used and extracted.  As a result many people are convinced that there are parts of the site so contaminated that it can never be lived on.  There are all manner of rumours about what might be buried there - engines, motor bikes and more.  The archaeologists  will no doubt sort the wheat from the chaff before any planning application can be submitted, but I have the feeling that nothing will stop the developers putting in their applications.
The next community consultation will be the serious one - when the proposals are unveiled.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Renewable Energy Quandaries

There's a planning application at present in the ward that's proving just a tad controversial.  Teesside High School wants to generate some of its own power - very laudable.  In doing so it wants to educate the pupils about the need for energy conservation and about renewable energy - again, very laudable.  So on the roof of the school they want to install some solar panels - very good idea.  So far so good - what's the quandary?  Where's the controversy?  Well, they also want to install a wind turbine, a 15m high mast, down towards the river bank.  This is the very same river bank that's part of the Tees Heritage Park, so much part of Stockton Council's strategy for tourism, green spaces, biodiversity etc.  And here's the problem - how can anyone seek to encourage in pupils a love of their planet, a caring attitude to the natural world, a desire to reduce their carbon footprint and yet encourage them to think that planting a huge concrete base with a 15m turbine on it in the middle of the Tees Heritage Park is a good thing?  Just how much wind is there down there?  How much power is going to be generated?  And at what cost in the visual amenity of the Park? 

Friday, August 26, 2011

MOD memories

Do you have stories to tell of what happened on the MOD site at Allen's West during the war?  Did you work there soon afterwards and see the changes that happened?  If you're in the Eaglescliffe area next Friday, Sept 2nd, then the industrial archaeologists looking at the site would love to hear from you.  As local residents will know from our Focus leaflets there is a planning application being prepared for even more housing on that site.  Before it can be finalised the agents are holding an event to collect the history of the site.  From 10 till 4 on Friday Sept 2nd, Allen's West site office is the place to take your stories and memories and share them with archaeologists.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tees Valley Enterprise Zone

At last the months of hard work have paid off - the Tees Valley has its enterprise zone, announced today.  Of course some will complain that it's being called Tees Valley, but to be honest I don't care what it's called as long as it helps to bring some much needed enterprise and employment to the area.  The real triumph of the people who've been working on it for so long is in convincing the civil servants that a zone is not necessarily a point in space.  The Tees Valley's zone is made up of several locations across the area, some of which will benefit from being able to offer help with capital investment and some with reduced business rates.   Stockton will have 2 such areas immediately - one at Belasis Park to build on the successful business presence already there and one at the Eco Park at Billingham.  Eventually, part of North Shore will also benefit.  All in all, a very good outcome for the Tees Valley and the Borough, enabling us to encourage businesses to come in and provide jobs and spending in areas of need. 
So another good government policy takes effect.  Well done to all the people who've worked so hard to make sure it happens.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Can Liberalism Survive?

Gladstone said “Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence.  Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.”
The reaction to rioting over the last week has shown one thing more than any other – the majority of those aspiring to be opinion formers and leaders in this country tend towards conservatism.  Distrust of people tempered by fear seems to sum up the reactions of most politicians, journalists and Facebook pundits.  It even seems to me to have reached over into the courts.  I am not for one moment suggesting that magistrates or judges are all supporters of one political party – far from it!  But that sense of not trusting the people, being afraid of what they will do, seems to have coloured the sentences meted out this week.  A month ago someone who stole bottles of water from a shop with no previous convictions or contact with the legal system would probably have been cautioned, might have been fined, and would have gone on his way a wiser and a contrite man.  This week he’s possibly facing a custodial sentence. What has changed?  Yes, we need justice.  But we also need mercy and we need to ensure that the punishment really fits the crime.  I was impressed by one person I heard interviewed in the street by a local radio journalist.  When asked what should be done to those who caused damage and mayhem he said “Make them clean it up.  Make them pay back to the community for the damage they’ve done.”  He saw that the community didn’t benefit from these people being locked away, but they would benefit from the clean-up operation being carried out.
It’s relatively easy for me to remain a Liberal – my home wasn’t damaged or even remotely threatened.  My family are all safe.  I haven’t, as far as I know, got any direct involvement with anyone involved in any of the cities affected.  I’m not a councillor in one of those affected areas wondering what on earth I do now to start to rebuild the community.  I’m not an MP for one of those areas wondering what this is going to do to my credibility and my votes next time.  But I believe that gives me, and others like me, a responsibility – to keep Liberalism alive.  To show that trusting the people most of the time is the best way, but that in order for people to be able to respond to trust we all need to know where our  boundaries are and what our responsibilities are.  Being part of a liberal, democratic society is a two-way thing.  We all have a responsibility for making it work, for looking out for each other, lending a hand and not expecting “them” to do it all.  And sometimes we do have to be prudent – we don’t automatically trust every stranger we meet to look after our house, our children or our money without some kind of checks.  We don’t assume that everyone is a saint.  But please, don’t let us go the other way and assume everyone is a criminal with the worst possible intentions without doing some kind of check first.  And let’s not send so many people to prison for relatively small offences that we lose the ability to have proportional sentences for those who really need to be locked away from the rest of society for a very long time.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Living with a busted boom

We hear a great deal about the economy these days, unsurprisingly, and more particularly about whether or not the British Government is going the right way about dealing with our national debt.  I'm not an economist and I don't claim to know the best way to deal with a debt so huge that the interest repayments on it are unimaginably high.  I do have an instinct that we've got to do something about reducing it, but it worries me that doing so seems to mean hurting some of those least able to protect themselves from the impact but also least to blame for the problems. 
I've just spent two weeks in Ireland, visiting family and having a wonderfully relaxing holiday.  But throughout the time there I was reminded regularly of the problems that come with tackling the national finance crisis too late.  People talked of the government perhaps bulldozing half built housing and returning the land to agriculture because no-one could afford to finish the buildings nor to buy them if they were finished.  I was told in one parish that10 young people emigrated to Australia this year and tried to imagine 10 young people from Egglescliffe just going like that, all in one group - the loss to the local community and the heartache for the families, knowing that they wouldn't see them again perhaps for years.  I talked with small B&B owners struggling to keep their businesses going while the government quango which now owns many bigger hotels offers rooms at cut rates to recoup some of the bank bail-out money.  And so it went on. 
No, I'm not an economist.  I don't understand how global money markets work.  But I do understand that some people made and are still making decisions on that scale with no apparent regard for the human consequences, whether it's the B&B owner in Ireland, the redundant council worker in England or the starving refugee in Somalia.  Man's inhumanity to man goes on.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Great Academies Con

Lib Dems, and probably others in education, have been saying for an age that the idea of Academies was not a good one.  Splitting some state school provision off from the local authority in whose area it resides is divisive and costly.  Michael Gove and his Tory pals have tried to accelerate the programme of change by applying pressure in all kinds of ways.  Now the truth about the cost of the switch is out, in the government's own consultation paper.  I could write a length but Peter Downes has done it so much better than I could so I'm just going to suggest that people read his piece.
Meanwhile we have to wait to see whether Ian Ramsey school is going to get funding for a much needed rebuild or if teaching will have to continue in temporary classrooms ad infinitum.  What kind of message does that send about the importance of education, Mr Gove?
One ray of sunshine shone this week in school provision for Stockton.  The funding for the North Shore Academy has been announced along with the flexibility to use the lottery funding for the MyPlace youth facility to create a unified centre that will be both an excellent school and a great out of hours provision for the young people of the borough.  Now all we need is adequate transport to get the young people there and back safely and the funding to staff it for the hours that the young people need it.  Another lot of creative thinking and head scratching I think!!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Oh dear, I have been a bit lax about this blog recently, haven't I.  In an effort to make amends herewith a mega catch-up:
Last weekend was time off, visiting our daughter and her family to celebrate a birthday.  Young children are so enthusiastic about everything - it's a really relaxing way to spend the time.  There's no time to think about work!
Monday was taken up with meetings looking at ways to save money in the council's services.  How can we save money in the department dealing with the regeneration of the borough without delaying that regeneration? And that's just one of the questions asked during the course of the morning.  During the afternoon the question turned to the section dealing with emptying bins, collecting recycling, planting out flowers and cutting grass, putting up market stalls, and many more day to day jobs around the borough.  Does anyone want there to be less of any of those things?  Probably not.  Can we save money but still do the same amount of  work?  Not very easily!  Everyone has examples or urban legends of workmen who turn up somewhere and don't do any work, but I'm reasonably convinced that there aren't many genuine examples of that these days in this borough. Certainly not enough to save a million pounds!

Tuesday's meetings were about spending money for a change.  The Western Area Partnership has had a small amount of money to spend on helping people to get into employment or stay in employment in difficult times.  We've spent some over the last couple of years on helping people to access credit through the Credit Union & helping others to get back into training or education with courses in IT and first aid being particularly popular.  Now the last tranche is going to be spent on helping some of the young people who are struggling to get work.  Decisions were taken on how to find the right courses to attract the young people who aren't getting help any other way.  Working together with officers from different parts of the council and using the experience of the councillors from the world of work we hope we've got the right sort of combination. 
The second meeting was Parish Council Recreation Committee, deciding on the next stages in the refurbishment of our play areas.  Spending thousands of pounds on equipment and its installation means that the young people of the area are getting really modern play areas while a handful of local people keep their jobs while installing it.  Not a huge contribution to the local economy but every little helps.
Wednesday was my first opportunity to catch up on phone calls and emails from residents on all kinds of subjects.  Discussions on the problems of Housing Association tenants getting what they want from their landlord, signs to indicate where a private footpath starts and a public one ends, dangerous driving, inconsiderate parking, the Dog Control Area in Preston Park, Fairtrade and more took up most of the day.  It's a long time since I've spent almost an entire day on phoning and emailing like this!
So there we are, caught up!  And we've had a sunny day too.  What more could anyone ask?

Friday, July 15, 2011

This morning I went with my colleague, Cllr Alan Lewis, to meet the new Neighbourhood Policing Inspector at Thornaby.  It was a chance to air problems which people have brought up with us over the last few months and discuss possible solutions.  We were assured that crime is still very low in our ward and that we have neighbourhood policing is working well.  The most recent flurry of criminal activity has been metal thefts, including lead from bay windows so we were asked to remind people to be aware and keep eyes and ears open.  Many of the problems we discussed have no easy solution, as we all know.  Inconsiderate parking which causes problems for other road users or for pedestrians or cyclists but isn't actually illegal - we've probably all suffered at some time or another and many of us might have been guilty occasionally.  But there's probably no way of stopping it completely.  Nevertheless we did have some thoughts on ways to help people think before they park, so we'll see how it works out.

Later in the day came further updates on the closure of Southern Cross and the welcome news that so far as the council knows at the moment there should be no residents needing to be moved in the borough.  I can't help wondering, though, if the long-term fallout from this episode is going to be the closure of some of the older, more expensive to heat and light, homes and a "consolidation" of places.  On paper that's probably a good thing - increase the occupancy rate in a modern, energy-efficient, easy to clean building.  But for people who've had to make their home in a residential or nursing home the prospect of a move to a new one can be the last straw.  With all its imperfections it's home.  The staff are friends and genuinely care about the residents in most cases.  If ever care and sensitivity were needed this is it.  Let's hope that not too many people are hurt in the process of sorting out this awful mess.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Clouds with silver linings?

The past week's revelations over News International have gone from bad to worse and produced reactions varying from incredulity to revulsion and more.  So much has been said, so many column inches written and perhaps not surprisingly some of the most accusatory have been from those who were happy to court the favour of the moguls who could change the course of British parliamentary politics by what they wrote.  Some day someone with a more intimate knowledge of the workings of the press over recent decades will be able to analyse where the balance of influences tipped over.  But maybe, just maybe, now is the time when the British people and particularly the Parliamentary Politicians, will gather the collective willpower to be able to wrest the balance back to where it should be.  Back to having really strong investigative journalism that works within the law and doesn't seek to obstruct the police.  Back to having a variety of newspapers and their online equivalents which favour different parties and give different slants on the news.  Then we might be able to look back and say "These clouds did have a silver lining.  Some good has come out of the evil that's been going on".
Whilst the News International affair has taken up most of news bulletins for the past week and looks set fair to do so for a while longer, there's another more personal problem unfolding for many.  Southern Cross has finally had to admit defeat and cease trading.  It's business model was one which provoked more feelings of incredulity in many people, me included.  The idea of selling off care homes then leasing them back to operate them seemed strange to say the least.  The fact that landlords could then put the rent up seemed to take Southern Cross by surprise, but when you sell your assets to off shore companies with no interest in or commitment to care, what should you expect?
Now some of their landlords, those that are in the business of providing care, are going to take the homes back under their wings.  Those homes are guaranteed to stay open for now at least, but one does wonder for how long?  Or will those energy efficient new homes stay open and some of the older ones be closed?  There does seem to be a surfeit of places in care homes at present, though not always in the locations people want.  There's also a major question of how care can be provided in the future.  The government is looking at it, but it's something that everyone of every age should be having their say on because one way or another it's going to affect most of us in the future.  The Dilnot report has been published.  Most people agree with some but not all of it.  We all need to make those views known so that the government can make an informed decision about which way to go.  Maybe, just maybe, they can get it right and in years to come we can look back on the scares about Southern Cross and other homes providers and think "Some good came out of it.  Now we've got a sustainable system that's fair".

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Being a Governor

The highs and lows of being a primary school governor played out today in the space of an hour and a half.  I started the morning with a class of children doing a piece of writing.  Yesterday they went on their school trip to a local woodland area and spent what sounded like a very happy day exploring the woods,  searching for creepy crawlies (aka mini beasts), pond dipping and following a sculpture trail as well as eating their lunch in an old railway carriage.  This morning they spent time talking about what they'd done and then writing an account of the trip.  Concentrating hard on putting a space between words, getting full stops and capital letters in the correct places and trying to use a variety of vocabulary was easier for some than for others but by the time I was leaving they'd all got something down on paper - a few words for some, a couple of pages for others. 
The children really felt they'd achieved something as they proudly showed off their best sentences, or managed to spell a word they'd struggled with.  Their teacher was pleased with the efforts they were making and with the progress they'd made through the year.  I enjoyed observing and taking part in what they were doing.  It brought back memories of my own children at that age and it seems to me that the encouragement to use a variety of different language to describe similar things comes at a younger age than it did for them.
But then to the low point - going along to the staff room and hearing about the appalling marking of this year's writing SATs.  Hearing about the inconsistencies, the low marks, the heartbreak for the teaching staff who know that the children's writing is worth much more than it's been given, made me feel angry and helpless.  Angry because a whole group of children will get lower marks than their work deserves; angry because those lower marks will reflect badly on the school; angry because the marks will probably bring down an OFSTED inspection with all the unnecessary stress that brings, but helpless because nothing I or any other governor does will make it better.  The one crumb of comfort is that it's a national problem.  Schools everywhere are complaining about the marking this year.  So it's not just our school, but that doesn't help those lovely children who worked so hard nor those dedicated and now devastated staff who supported and educated those children. What a way to end the term.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Social Care

15 months ago I, along with many other Liberal Democrats round the country, stood on doorsteps answering questions about what we'd do if we became the government in May.  I confess that at the back of my mind was the thought "I wish!  We'll be lucky to be in a position to have some influence on what the new Tory government does".  How wrong could I be.
One of the questions that came up a lot was about funding for long term care of the elderly.  I kept saying that if elected we'd set up an independent comission to look into the best way - we'd listen to representatives from all parts of the "care industry" and then we'd make some decisions.  But I also said that I thought the decisions would be difficult ones because quality care isn't cheap and we have an increasingly aged population.  I felt that some of the answer would have to be that people worked for longer, now that medicine and good nutrition means that most will live longer than their parents did.  Some of it would have to be finding a way of saving over our working lives, whether through taxation or insurance or a combination of the two, and some people wouldn't like the answers that were reached.
This week we will be able to read the Dilnot report in full, though there have been hints over the past week.  The big challenge for the government now is whether the Conservative Chancellor can be brave enough to make the investments that will be needed while the long term changes are coming into force.  Can the Lib Dems in government, and especially Paul Burstow, do enough to ensure that what happens is what Dilnot recommends and not a half way house that does no-one any good.
I've seen at first hand the impact of cost cutting on care homes - staff hours cut, food quality reduced.  I listened to a care home owner on radio who had taken the local council to court after fees were frozen at an uneconomic level and his home was threatened with closure.  He won his case so the local authority now has to pay more, but of course that means that something else somewhere will get less.  These decisions can't be taken in a piecemeal fashion - they've got to be part of a bigger debate.  At the moment we have homes being paid not much more than £400 per week to care for people from the public purse and homes being paid more than £700 per week to care for people from their own purse.  That' s a vast range and we have to ask how much it costs to give people a decent standard of living, with nutritious food freshly cooked and served, a garden to sit out in the fine weather, and someone to talk to when they need it.  And having answered the questions about how much, the big one is "where does it come from?"
One thing's for certain.  By the time I'm that age I'll expect to have to fund a significant part of the cost myself, and that means some careful investment of savings over the next few years.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

A bit of good news

Hidden amongst all the doom and gloom on the economy recently have been the stats on new apprenticeships.  Those who know me well know that I'm a strong advocate for the value of education and training post 16 which does not lead to a university degree.  Don't get me wrong - university degrees are good things generally, but so are other kinds of qualification.  It doesn't take a degree to maintain a vehicle in good running order, repair its bodywork or make sure that its engine is functioning well.  A degree doesn't help one to lay bricks in the correct way to ensure that a house built today is still standing in 50 years time.  Those and many other skills are learned through a combination of "on the job training" and training centre or college study.  Apprenticeships are the backbone of the skilled workforce we need in Britain.  An engineer or an architect can design the most beautiful, imaginative, innovative structure in the world, but it's those who've gone through an apprenticeship, learned "their trade", who will make it a reality.  In the words of the old song "You can't have one without the other".
So the news that more than 10,200 new apprenticeships have been started in the North East up to April this year following the coalition government's commitment to improving training for young people was very welcome indeed.  As is the fact that the local press has helped that in the Tees Valley by running its own publicity campaign to encourage companies to give young people a chance.
So yes, times are tough.  Yes, lots of people are losing jobs and others are finding it hard to get their first one.  But in the middle of it all is a bit of good news and we should celebrate the fact that in our region thousands of young people are getting the training they need to be able to earn a decent living and contribute to the economy of our region.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Making (low key) history

For the first time in the history of the modern Stockton Borough Council tonight's meeting started with a debate triggered by a petition.  It should have been a momentous occasion but instead it was low key and to be honest, not very interesting. 
Billingham House is a 1960s concrete block, liberally laced with asbestos, now standing empty and derelict.  To cut a long story short, it was acquired by its present owners over 10 years ago.  Since then promise after promise of demolition has been broken.  Stockton council has been involved in trying to force a resolution but to no avail.  A regeneration company is involved now but still no resolution in sight.  The High Court will decide in August on what should happen.  Meanwhile the developer has organised a petition against demolition, claiming that by creating lots of office space more jobs will come to Billingham.  The petition was duly presented to the council and so tonight's "debate" was triggered.  The developer stated his case.  He showed a video of a regeneration project they've just completed and tried to use that as an argument for not demolishing Billingham House.  He seemed to have missed one significant detail - the building they regenerated was a beautiful old building with lots of character.  Billingham House is a concrete monstrosity which local residents want rid of.  The "debate" consisted of councillor after councillor standing up to say that they agreed with the cabinet member who spoke first.
At the end the mayor read his pre-prepared summation and we moved into the main business of the council 45 minutes later than we would have done.

In September we'll have a debate triggered by a petition asking that the regeneration of Stockton Town Centre doesn't move the market.  Now that will be a debate!

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Character of our area

A very interesting situation is developing in the Western Area of Stockton Renaissance.  In Yarm and Eaglescliffe there have been for some years a number of vociferous people who've opposed the indiscriminate "development" of large old houses and gardens into blocks of flats/luxury apartments.  At the height of the development boom we seemed to fight one battle after another, no time to draw breath between them, as one property after another was threatened.  Though it was a handful of people who made the running there were always lots of others in support.  We won some and lost some - Witham Lodge, subject to vandalism and arson, was demolished and replaced by flats.  So was The Garth.  Copsewood was saved from demolition but had a mini development built in the grounds.  Garages became flats and houses.  The Grange stands going to wrack and ruin.
But then the recession hit and developers realised that housebuyers didn't grow on trees.  The flood slowed to a very slow trickle.  Sighs of relief sounded, though mixed with warnings that this was only a lull.
Stockton Council started a Yarm & Eaglescliffe Area Action Plan, designed to protect and enhance the character of the area and to channel development to those parts where it was most suitable.  But it got bogged down in detailed discussions about exactly where the boundary should go and what should be allowed or encouraged.  All went quiet until a report to cabinet suggested that there was no need to continue as the points were all covered in bigger documents that carried more weight.  Everything stopped.
Earlier this year we realised that work had also stopped on these bigger documents because even more important ones needed to be revised.  As a result some people in our area became very very anxious and annoyed.  The Western Area Partnership Board debated the issue and decided to collect signatures on a petition asking the council to reconsider the matter.  Fired with enthusiasm the members of the board went off to collect signatures.
Months later, the number of signatures collected is much smaller than anticipated.  It seems that because there are no immediate developments threatening houses next door or nearby people are unwilling to get involved.  A long term strategy holds no interest for them.  Members of the board are contemplating different ways of getting the necessary decisions taken in Stockton Council.  Questions about what exactly is this character that we're so keen to preserve and how much development is acceptable or even desirable are being raised again.  The debate is going full circle.
Meanwhile in Long Newton the Parish Council is looking at how to do a Neighbourhood plan for their parish setting out their vision for the future.  Actually, they're getting on with it while the rest of us still debate.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bank Shares for All?

The Centre Forum pamphlet which started all the hoo-hah has rather more detail of the proposed scheme than most newspapers.  What Nick Clegg and other Liberal Democrats are supporting is the idea that once the shares in nationalised banks rise to a price which will cover the cost to the taxpayer of the bailout the remaining profit should be distributed to the people whose taxes bailed them out in the first place.  As always, it's more complicated than that, and the full thinking is in the pamphlet produced by the think tank experts. 

Nick Clegg said, “Taxpayers’ money bailed out the banks. It’s only right that the taxpayers should be given a stake in those banks and a chance to benefit from their future success.”

Mr Clegg has written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ask him to look at the shares plan. The plan has been backed by several other senior politicians.

The blueprint to hand over shares to over 45million adults in the UK has been drawn up by a top city firm and was first launched by Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams in March.

The plans will ensure that the Treasury will get its money back from the banking bailout, but any profits will go directly to the 45million shareholders. If the shares return to previous values of just a few years ago, each person could gain over £1000.

Mr Clegg added, “The British people rightly feel let down by the past behaviour of the banks. With this plan they would own a piece of the banks, have a voice in how they were run and benefit from their future success.” 
Sounds good to me, as long as the publicity surrounding any such deal makes it clear to everyone that we're talking long term here unlike the short term gains that many made on the old privatisations.