Sunday, January 30, 2011

Runnymede and Grizedale Forest

I read today that Tim Farron MP was going to join the protest at Grizedale against the sell-off of our forests.  I'd just been reading about the situation which arose in 1921 when the Liberal-Conservative coalition government decided to raise a bit of money by selling off Runnymede.  A huge protest was held on the site during the League of Nations conference and the government backed off.  However, the danger wasn't completely gone until the generosity of one family saved the most important meadow in the country, buying it and then eventually bequeathing it to the National Trust to care for in the name of the British people.
Sadly, I don't think there's such a rich benefactor waiting in the wings to save our forests so it's going to be up to each and every one of us to do what we can to ensure that they don't go into private hands.  Previous governments have "sold the family silver", let's not allow this one to sell the back garden as well.
ps For those whose memory of history is a bit lacking - Runnymede is the meadow where negotiations between King John and the barons came to a conclusion and Magna Carta was sealed (not signed - that apparently is a popular misconception)

Friday, January 28, 2011


Not my homework for the day, but a very interesting concept which I intend to explore further.  Asset Based Community Development is a way of identifying the strengths of a community and then using them to develop the community.  It was just one of the many topics which came up in conversation at tonight's annual "Town and Gown" dinner - a chance to cement further the relationships between the Borough Council and the University.  As always when the borough hosts the dinner Tees Cuisine produced an excellent meal, the silver was beautifully polished and the Town Hall really came into its own.  A photo can't capture the wide ranging conversation of course, but does show off a bit of the silver.
One topic of course was the cuts to spending and the impact on both the borough and the university.  Both were fairly upbeat about meeting the challenge and not letting the cuts ruin everything, difficult though that will be.
There was some discussion of the Tees Valley Music Service, inevitably given the amount of press coverage generated in the last few days.  This is one of those precious services which do so much for so many children and young people that it's hard to imagine life without it.  Unfortunately the government hasn't yet announced whether we'll get any funding towards it and if so how much so the resultant uncertainty is causing real problems.  I'll wirte about it all at some point, but enough to say that it had great support round the dinner table tonight.  If fine words paid the bills the music service wouldn't have any problems at all!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Another consultation

Stockton Council is consulting on the Environment Development Plan Document over the next 6 weeks till March 14th. This is the document which will incorporate policies on green spaces and conservation areas, among other things.  For people in Eaglescliffe, fighting against developments that ruin the character of the historic areas, it's going to be a very important document and needs to have all the safeguards we can get in there.  So, go to Stockton Council's website and have your say.  It might make a lasting difference to Eaglescliffe.
In the meantime the debate about the Yarm & Eaglescliffe Area Action Plan is on the agenda again at Western Area Partnership next week.  Let's hope we can reach an agreement on the way forward.

Who's on the moral high ground then?

There seems to be a somewhat strange idea in David Cameron's mind as to what constitutes transparency, fairness and honesty in government.  Vince Cable has responsibility for deciding on the Murdoch bid for BSkyB taken from him because he expressed open hostility to the takeover.  David Cameron wines and dines senior figures from the Murdoch empire but claims to be completely impartial in decisions around not just the takeover but whether to push for a better investigation of all the phone tapping allegations which are filling the air between public figures and the Murdoch empire.
I for one would rather the decision was taken by someone who is open about his views than someone who tries to hide behind the excuse that these senior figures are constituents.  Believe me, Mr Cameron, most constituents don't expect to be invited to parties at their MP's home. 
One cross-party initiative that really would help this country would be for all politicians to ignore the comments from the press for a year.  If the sky falls in, then go back to pacifying the press barons.  If it doesn't - whoopee.  We might have a more open, transparent way of doing government for the future.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Cycle route to Egglescliffe Comp (and Tesco)

There's a proposal to improve the cycle route to the school from Newsam Road.  The idea is to take out the steps which lead from the footpath/cycleway down to Aspen Rd and convert them into a slope, and then to add some safety features at Elton Lane and at the entrance to the school.  The plans are on Stockton Lib Dems website if you'd like to look.  We need comments by Thursday Feb 3rd please.
There might be some concerns about having a slope down to Aspen Road, especially in icy weather, but we have in the past had requests for such a slope to make it easier to get to Tesco on mobility scooters and with prams and wheelchairs.  Let us know what you think.

Today's Environment committee received an update on Cemetery and Memorial inspections and it was good to see that people with loved ones buried in Egglescliffe Cemetery are generally keeping to the rules.  As a lawned cemetery it isn't designed to have a large area of planting or other memorials for each grave, but to have a headstone (if wished) and a small area for planting, vases or other such tributes.  Over 80% of the graves in Egglescliffe stay within the rules with the remainder having just a few things outside the designated area.  When the committee studied the policies and visited cemeteries here and further afield one of the complaints from people was that if other people had too much planting or other material on their grave it was difficult for other people to tend the graves next to them.  It's also difficult for the grass cutters to keep the place looking as tidy as we would like.  A very difficult and emotive subject but one we do need to be able to discuss openly.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Today was not a happy day.  When I visited my mother this morning it was noticeable that the atmosphere in the home wasn't nearly as cheerful as usual.  The reason was soon obvious - a much loved longstanding resident had died and neither staff nor residents could disguise their sadness.  This was the staff at their best - sharing their sorrow and consoling the residents with a hug here, a squeeze of the hand there, sitting and chatting with someone else, just doing what came naturally to them.  You can't put a value on that behaviour and it means a lot to know that such caring is there.
This afternoon's meeting was about play provision and the cuts that will happen because various grants aren't available any more.  Yet at the same time there are opportunities for other grants to do different things like refurbish play areas.  Such is the world of lottery funding.
And then came Cabinet.  I'm not a member of the council's cabinet which takes most of the decisions on running the council, and this was one of those occasions when being an observer was quite enough.  In an effort to avoid more compulsory redundancies than absolutely necessary it's been proposed that perhaps the redundancy packages should be a bit less generous than they have been.  That's not to say they are particularly generous at the moment, certainly not by comparison with the high profile figures who hit the news from time to time.  Our staff currently get 2.2 weeks pay for every year they've worked for the council, not the kind of payout which is going to provide a comfortable few years till the economy picks up.  So a proposal to cut that to 2 weeks pay is a worry to those who are under threat of redundancy, but might give a lifeline to someone else.  Definitely the judgement of Solomon needed!  Calls for a general invitation to volunteer for redundancy were countered with claims that we need to do it service by service to ensure a skills match.  Eventually cabinet agreed to consult on the proposed changes.  We knew they would of course - all their disagreements are aired at pre-agenda meetings and reports are tailored to ensure they can be agreed.  At least at the Parish council meeting this evening there were no budget decisions to take, just lots of technical discussion about standing orders - dry but important.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Save our Cheque

Council tonight passed our motion calling on our MPs to lobby for and support David Ward's bill in Parliament to stop the abolition of cheques.  Until this issue came up I didn't even know there was such a thing as The Payments Council, but it seems to be a kind of union of big banks which has decided that we shouldn't use cheques any more as they cause too much work or they're inconvenient or they aren't secure - take your pick of excuses.  Can you imagine Christmas without cheques winging their way to grandchildren, nieces, nephews, the Salvation Army, Crisis at Christmas, hundreds of other worthy causes etc?  Apparently we're all going to start using Paypal and other such internet based systems.  Tell that to the thousands of people who have never accessed the internet!
Cllr Alan Lewis did an excellent job of proposing the motion, pointing out that although it's a Lib Dem initiative it isn't at all controversial and he hoped everyone would support it.  There must have been something in the water because not only did everyone agree to support it but one Conservative and one Independent actually stood up and spoke in favour of it.
In celebration Alan then wrote a cheque for the Mayor's benevolent fund - a very worthy cause indeed.  Unfortunately the mayor left the building so quickly after the meeting that he didn't get his cheque and it will have to be taken in to the office!  Could the footbal match involving his attendant's favourite team have anything to do with their haste?  I really wouldn't know.
A meeting earlier in the day with a senior council officer was spent in discussing where we are with the planning documents needed to ensure that Eaglescliffe doesn't go through another spate of garden grabbing.  We're not safe yet but there's another weapon in the armoury now, which hasn't been widely publicised but we'll soon change that.  Western Area Partnership meeting should be interesting.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Virtual Wall

Councillors receive many invitations to attend openings, launches, AGMs, seminars, conferences and more.  Some of them look frankly dull or irrelevant.  Others look really interesting but are at the wrong time or in the wrong place (don't get me started on expensive day conferences in London with no option for a web-link involvement).  One such is for later this week - the official launch of The Stockton Wall.  It's a virtual wall with information on living and working in Stockton, designed for young people but there are bits of interest to people of all ages.  Sadly I can't be at the launch owing to pressure of other work but do have a look - you might be inspired.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Planning for the Future

Planning committee this afternoon had to consider two fairly large proposals, both of which claimed to be linked to job creation, regeneration and various other good sounding things for the future prosperity of the borough.  First up was a new supermarket in Billingham Town Centre.  I remember that Town Centre being new and fresh when I was studying at "the Tech".  We lived in a flat above one of the shops when first married.  It has a special place in my affections so watching it deteriorate over years has been sad.  To see the new owners managing to encourage new tenants into shops and now proposing a new food store is exciting.  I just hope that Stockland continue to invest not just funds but their energy and enthusiasm into the regeneration of the centre and I look forward to seeing the new store open and trading.
That was a unanimous and fairly easy decision. 
The second one was more difficult.  Teesside Retail Park is a legacy from previous planning regimes about which the least said the better.  It seems to be successful as both a retail centre and a place to go for a meal out, though why one would want to go for a meal to an out of town shopping centre is beyond me.  I'm told that part of the restaurant trade is related to the cinema and bowling alley in the neighbouring Leisure Park.  Be that as it may, the thing which was less successful and is now derelict was a Fitness club.  Today the land owners and developers came to plead the case for a hotel, pub/restaurant and Nandos restaurant to replace it.  We were told it would create 60 Full time equivalent jobs, that the local town council was in favour, that ward councillors thought it a good plan and that we should grab it with both hands.  On the other hand we were told that it was against our core strategy, that each element could be accommodated elsewhere nearer to the town centre, that we need to encourage development nearer to the town centre and not expand the out of town offer.  So planning committee were left to make the decision - grab some investment now in the wrong place or turn it away and aim to get better in the future.  For me there was something intrinsically undesirable about building a pub in a place which needed people to use cars to get there.  It also seemed wrong that we spent 3 years producing a core strategy only to suggest disregarding it when someone came along with a proposal falling outside it.  The debate was detailed and lengthy, and a close vote went against the application.  Only the next few years will show if we were right or wrong.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Civil Liberties

It's been so many years since there was a government which improved on Civil Liberties in this country that I have to pinch myself when I think of what's happening now.  It's early days, and some promises are yet to be fully implemented but we have no more threat of ID cards, detention of child asylum seekers being ended, the awful DNA database being reduced, sentencing of criminals taking account of rehabilitation and restorative justice as well as punishment, and control orders being reformed.  There's a long way to go, not least in convincing people who've been told for over 12 years that the only way to be safe is to have more and more liberty taken away from innocent as well as guilty people. 
Nick Clegg's speech today made it clear that more is to be done but also how far we've come.  I'm still pinching myself.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

It's not all doom and gloom

Contrary to what readers of the national press might think, here in Stockton bins have been emptied on schedule, recycling has been collected, major roads have been gritted, grit bins have been filled for residents on tricky areas of side roads, paths in front of housing with a high proportion of elderly people have been cleared of snow and ice.  The staff who work in those areas have excelled themselves for the second year in a row.  I've had phone calls and emails of congratulation and thanks which I've passed on to the managers and I've had very few complaints this year.  I think that's partly because an even better job has been done than last year but also there's been a lot more easily accessible information on what's happening and why, so people could understand.  How many other councils sent emails to all councillors and put messages on Twitter and their website and Facebook page every time the gritters were going to start a run?  Well done Stockton Borough Council.
Equally, the poll ratings for Liberal Democrats are not as bad as they're made out to be.  They were lower in the early months of the Lib Dems when part of the SDP still hung on as a separate party.  Yes they're low and no party likes low ratings.  But the local elections in May are just that - Local.  They're about who can do the best job for the ward and the borough, not about who runs the country.  Lib Dem councillors here in Stockton continue to do just that - working for the people who elected us and trying to make sure their voice is heard, whether it's about getting a pavement repaired or fly-tipping removed or fighting an unsuitable planning application or making sure there are play facilities for the children of the area - I could go on!
Rant over, back to work.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year

Not much blogging this last few days as we've spent all our time with family. 
When I was a child I remember waking to the sounds of Auld Lang Syne being sung by the men out in the street before they first footed carrying their lumps of coal across the threshold, cutting the Christmas cake and being rewarded with a silver coin.  The traditional blessing of "Health, Wealth and Happiness" rang round the cul-de-sac.  Today's organised celebrations with fireworks in city centres round the world, apparently vying with each other over how much explosive material can be consumed in peacetime seems a million years from those days.  Am I getting older and looking back through rose coloured glasses?  Perhaps.
I do know that it's a time for counting blessings and reflecting on how fortunate I am.  Fortunate to be living in an era when the click of a mouse brings family on the other side of the world into our living room.  Fortunate to have enough money to buy the food we need and a few luxuries besides.  Fortunate to have family who can come and stay and who still love us enough to do so.  A roof over our heads, mothers who are still alive, friends to visit, and so they go on.  We are very fortunate indeed at the start of the new year.