Sunday, February 27, 2011

One day to go

Or more precisely, just under two hours to go till Fairtrade Fortnight 2011 kicks off.  This year's theme is "Show your Label".  I could add "and do so with pride".  Whether it's buying a Fairtrade banana or a jar of coffee or a Fairtrade cotton dress or going the extra mile and buying your loved one a Fairtrade and Fairmined gold ring - do it with pride and with love.
There are so many varieties now of Fairtrade goods that there's no excuse for not at least trying some of them.  Apples, bananas, cotton .... right through to Zaytoun Olive oil, there's something for everyone.
Why bother?  Well, for a number of reasons but mainly because it's only right. There are something like 450million small-holder farmers producing just about enough of their goods to feed and clothe a further 1.5billion dependendents.  If all of those farmers get a fair deal - a fair price and a bit of support to build up their infrastructure - their families and communities are no longer dependent on aid and no longer tempted to turn to undesirable crops such as opium.  They have a better life, we have a better life, everyone wins. 
I accept that is a very simple way of describing it, and there are shades of grey everywhere, but this is a blog not a text book.  For more information go to the Fairtrade Foundation and have a look at what's there.
Over the next fortnight in Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool there will be all sorts of ways to get involved.  On Wednesday you can go and find out about sustainable living and Fairtrade at the Stockton Riverside College, Teesdale where there's an exhibition from 10 till 4.  Do go along and have a look - they'll also have electric cars to see

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Best Thing to have happened to the country!

That's what was said to me on the doorstep today, by a resident describing the coalition.  This isn't a Lib Dem voter, but someone who could see the mess the country was left in by Labour and the need to reduce our deficit drastically.  A deficit that's so huge the numbers become meaningless.  The debt this country has incurred because we've lived beyond our income for so long means that we're paying out £400 for every £300 we bring in.  That can't go on, but it's not going to be at all easy to put it right.  Just to bring the numbers down to some kind of meaningful level - the interest we're paying on our debts would build one new primary school per hour this year!  What a cruel hoax to play on the country, Mr Brown, to tell people that you're being prudent with our money while all the time you were racking up this unimaginable debt.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

More tears

Today in New Zealand.  Yet again our TV screens and newspapers are filled with images of destruction and devastation, this time from an earthquake.  As one old lady said to me "How does the bible say the world will end?"
It's almost enough to make me believe we're living through the end of the world, at least as I have known it.  Meanwhile those of us watching can only hope and pray that the death toll isn't too high.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bloodshed and tears

It's been a strange couple of days.  On the one hand I've had an absolutely lovely time with family here from Australia.  On the other hand every time I hear a bit of news I hear that someone else, or some dozens or even hundreds, have been injured or killed in the Middle East, not in a fresh outbreak of the gulf wars nor in Israeli -Palestinian clashes nor any of the other ongoing hostilities, but in revolutions against dictatorships.  Yet again the efforts of oppressors to silence their opposition are failing because the technology available to so many people allows pictures and messages to get out of even the most strangling blackout.  I'm so grateful to the people who make the equipment and keep the signals working against all the odds.  Tonight I watched a few minutes of Al-Jazeera and was struck by the chaotic nature of rebellion.  The reporter was calmly trying to explain and tell the story but the pictures were constantly changing and he was getting so many bits of information pushed at him that the story was disjointed.  That made it more real, more immediate, than the more measured and careful tones of the BBC or ITV. 
When I was teaching English I taught a number of students who were temporary immigrants from Bahrein and from Libya.  They all returned home when their husbands' training here was finished and many of them had young children.  9 years or more later I can't help wondering if any of those young men and women are out on the streets - are any of them victims of the horrifically violent response from the government?  I shall probably never know, but I pray that they are safe.  And I pray that their countries will become the open democratic countries the people seem to want.  It won't be an easy road, but surely western and eastern democracies alike can support them to find the form of democracy that suits them, their culture and their temperament.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

What nice people live in Eaglescliffe!  I've said that before but it hit me again this week. A number of people have been asking about the council's budget and any cuts that might be happening, usually after reading horror stories from elsewhere.  When we explain that yes, Stockton has had a cut in government grants much bigger than we expected and yes, we're making cuts but we've been planning for 2 years and so it's not as bad as it might be, then people are really interested to know more.  Most people are saying that they understand and they appreciate the efforts we councillors are making to keep services going.  And when we can point to bits of judicious investment and improvement, like Stockton Central Library closing for a major refurbishment, or Preston Park getting a new play area, people are genuinely pleased.
Talking of Preston Park, the application for planning permission went in this week for the new adventure playground.  The Park website has pictures and plans - go to the bottom of the page and there are several links.  All I can say is that I wish I was many years younger!
On a much smaller scale is the Parish Council's proposal at Amberley Way.  Local children worked hard to help plan this and there was a very good consultation session hosted by Durham Lane School.  On Thursday afternoon we had the pre-start meeting on site, discussing with the company working times, safety fencing and delivery times.  Sadly, the drainage on the site is poor, but to fix it would cost more than the play equipment so we hope that some improvement will be possible but it certainly won't be an all weather play area.
Later still in the afternoon was the mini fair held at Durham Lane Primary in aid of Macmillan Nurses.  This was organised in memory of a member of staff who died recently and the children showed their appreciation of her by running stalls and generally being as helpful as they could be.  I couldn't stay till the end so I don't know how much they raised, but I hope it was lots.  I certainly got some very good books in readiness for the grandchildren's next visits but missed out on the cake stall which was sold out in next to no time. 
When we have under 12s who will put so much effort in to a good cause like this and staff who will put in the extra time after a busy day at school there's something right in the world.  Which takes me back full circle - what nice people live in Eaglescliffe.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Not voting

Residents of Eaglescliffe ward might have noticed that recently we've been doing quite a bit of canvassing opinion, not just about which way you might vote in the council elections coming up but also about preferences for green waste bags, what's good and bad about the area and our voting system for MPs.  Opinions have varied enormously, except for one thing:  What's good about Eaglescliffe invariably includes the good schools, the Park and it being a good place to bring up children.  People don't want to see that spoiled.
But then I look at voting intentions and see a disappointing number of people who say they won't vote. I think back over the history of this country and reflect that only 100 years ago I wouldn't have been able to vote, along with all other women.  Only in 1928 did all women over 21 get the right to join the men in the polling station queue.  To get to that point a small number of women suffered horrible pain and imprisonment and even death - yet there are people today who think that voting is too much trouble or not worth doing.  What a short collective memory we have.
Across the Middle East at the moment similar battles are being fought - people, ordinary people, want to have a voice in how the country is run. 
So, if we want Eaglescliffe to remain a green and pleasant place to live with good schools and a beautiful park what do we do?  Stay at home and hope someone else votes for the right people and the right policies?  Or rouse ourselves and have our say?  Is it too hard to put a cross in a box on a ballot paper?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Planning matters

Ward surgery tonight was unusually busy with a number of people worried about the possibility of 1000 dwellings going up on the old MOD site, Allen's West.  As always, it's not so much the fact that more building would happen as the effect on traffic.  Local people know that the traffic on Durham Lane can be horrendous, but when we say to council officers that there's a problem we always seem to get the same answer - the road can take more vehicles.  The problem is Yarm High St which can't be resolved by anything a developer in Eaglescliffe does, or that's the story.  Understandably, Eaglescliffe people do treat that with a degree of scepticism.  However, the whole discussion led on to a very interesting discussion on the possibility of producing a Community Plan under the umbrella of the localism bill.  And from that came the idea that more people need to be involved in having a voice in the area, including the Parish Council.  So one or two different people might stand for election in May and some new ideas might come forward, and all because a developer is proposing something which seems completely out of character in the area and isn't wanted by many of the people living here already.  Such is community politics.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Parking in Yarm

The parking of cars in Yarm seems to have been a problem ever since I've lived in Eaglescliffe and it doesn't get any better as the years go on.  Many people work in the centre of the town and travel to work by car, perhaps because public transport isn't adequate for them, perhaps for other reasons.  I don't know whether anyone has ever done any serious research into why.  Many more people pop into Yarm for a period of time during the day to do something.  They might need half an hour to go to the bank or pick up some dry cleaning.  They might need a couple of hours to shop or more if they want to visit the hair dresser or the dentist or one of the many businesses there as well as the shops. 
Some years ago a disc parking system was introduced on most of Yarm High St so that people could park for 2 hours free then move on.  The rest of the High St and surrounding streets were left for long stay.  This worked quite well for a time but increased car use has meant that for some time it's been inadequate.  More parking tickets are issued in Yarm than anywhere else in the Tees Valley, because more and more people ignore the 2 hour limit. Traders and residents alike have said something must be done. 
In November 2009 Stockton Council's cabinet accepted that there was a huge problem and that land for long stay parking could only be bought or leased if there was some money - not rocket science you might say.  The only 2 ways of getting money were seen to be from developers when they get permission to build more housing and by charging for parking.  Council officers were sent away to find solutions in consultation with the Cabinet member responsible.  No-one, not the Town Council nor the Tory councillors at SBC, argued with the logic.
Last year the officers and the cabinet member agreed that one way to provide some medium stay parking was to use 2 small car parks in the town which currently have no charges and make them pay & display with the option of staying longer than 2 hours.  At the same time they said they'd put yellow lines on some parts of side roads, including where there are currently Keep Clear signs which are regularly ignored.  Consultation notices were duly put up around the town. The result was an outcry and Yarm Conservatives joined in.  So something which was the result of a decision taken by the Tory led council was suddenly unacceptable when the detail was revealed.
In November last year I chaired a review of parking across the borough looking for efficiencies, improvements and different ways of doing things in order to cut costs.  The cuts which the Tory secretary of state for communities and local government imposed on Stockton Council were so big that cuts to services or extra charges are inevitable.  We agreed that the principle of charging in Yarm was acceptable but that it should be done as part of looking at charges across the borough and that the money raised should be put towards the cost of leasing some land for long stay parking which officers had identified as available if money could be found.  We also said that the parking should be reconfigured so that there were fewer hold-ups caused by vehicles trying to reverse out into the stream of traffic on the High St. and so that disabled parking bays were clearly marked and easy to reach. 
Unfortunately, some people have chosen to muddle the two pieces of work.  Nothing recommended by the Environment committee review has yet come to pass.  The action plan has only just been approved.  But the consultation which has caused such upset is from the previous work, nothing to do with me or the Environment committee.
It's worth pointing out that Yarm Tories managed to deselect the one Yarm Councillor who voted against the Environment committee recommendations, though not against the original decision in 2009 that funding for long stay parking would come in part from parking charges.  Perhaps, as they didn't disagree with that recommendation, what they really want is lots more housing built somewhere in Yarm town centre so that developers can fund the long stay parking needed? 

Saturday, February 12, 2011


I was so sickened by David Cameron's speech the other day on his distorted view of multiculturalism that I couldn't even have a conversation about it, let alone write about it.  I thought of all the wonderful people I met when teaching English to people coming to Stockton from all over the world; people whose first language was French, German, Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Punjabi, Kurdish, Czech, Pashtun, African languages whose names I've forgotten, and many more.  I remembered them wanting to know about our customs and how to behave in different places.  Lessons were based on how to talk to teachers about the children's progress and problems, how to shop in supermarkets and on market stalls, how to buy bus tickets, why there are so many different Christian churches in the town, what the Mayor does, how to politely ask a girl to dance at a night club, how to invite someone to join you for coffee and so on - not just the language but the customs were seen as important because without exception these people wanted to be part of Stockton's family.  They didn't want to lose their own culture and language but they wanted to gain a new one.  Many of those people are still in Stockton, still  working and learning and playing in Stockton.  I wonder how they felt if they saw the headlines engendered by David Cameron's speech?  And I wonder how many of the small minority of bigoted people in stockton felt vindicated and supported in their position?
For those who can bear to read more I've reproduced below something written by a Lib Dem in London on her view of multiculturalism there, written much more eloquently than I could ever do:

Last Thursday, generations of Chinese in Soho welcomed the Year of the Rabbit in time-honoured traditional ways. Yet we didn’t hear David Cameron demonise Chinatown as a ‘segregated community’ living ‘apart from the mainstream’. On the contrary, the annual lion dance spectacle has become an essential fixture in London’s calendar, enjoyed by people from many different cultures.
The Oxford dictionary defines multicultural(ism) as “of or relating to or constituting several cultural or ethnic groups within a society”. Note the word “within”. Yet there’s a growing tendency to rubbish multiculturalism, treating it as synonymous with the failed Labour policies referred to in David Cameron’s speech. This is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
When I first came to the UK in the early 1980s real parmesan cheese was hard to come by. Nowadays you’ll find it in virtually every corner shop, somewhere near the hummus, bagels and microwave naan. A trivial example, certainly, but over the past few decades British eating habits have evolved out of all recognition. ‘Modern British’ cuisine is a product of multiculturalism – and I’ve yet to meet anyone who wants to turn back the gastronomic clock.
When people feel welcome, they integrate. My children learned traditional English nursery rhymes not from me but from an Algerian-born volunteer at our local Sure Start. They played with children of Iraqi, Somali, Russian, and Brazilian parentage, while mums in hijabs swapped toddler war stories with mums in skin tight jeans. Some multicultural mums were friendlier than the native West London Sloanes.
Multiculturalism makes London a dynamic and fascinating place to live as well as a magnet for global talent. There are now so many French children in Hammersmith & Fulham that the Tory Council recently set up a bilingual French/ English primary school… State sponsored multiculturalism, Prime Minister?
Positive examples of thriving multiculturalism on our doorstep never seem to make it into big political speeches. Multiculturalism is invariably portrayed as a problem that needs fixing, rather than an enriching everyday reality – and indeed a competitive economic advantage in a complex, globalised world.
Dealing with hate-filled extremists urgently requires a different approach to that taken by Labour. However, constantly framing wider discussion of multiculturalism against the negative backdrop of Islamist extremism misses the huge contribution that cultural and ethnic pluralism has made to modern British life.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

That Letter

The BBC is full of the fact that, apparently, Lib Dem leaders have attacked Government cuts. I signed the letter which went to The Times, on behalf of Stockton Lib Dem councillors.  We were not calling for no cuts, but for time to implement them properly instead of the front loading which Eric Pickles seems to think is so easy to cope with.  The letter has been well and truly misrepresented so for those who are interested in the truth it is reproduced below:

Sir, Local government is playing its part in tackling the country’s deficit and advancing the Coalition’s aims of localism and the Big Society. But local, and central, government are being let down by the Communities and Local Government Secretary who appears unwilling to lead the change that’s so desperately needed. Local government has made efficiency savings of 3 per cent in each of the past eight years — in stark contrast to the runaway spending of central government under the previous administration. We’ve also been planning for further saving since the true state of the economy became apparent six months ago.
What has been delivered is a difficult cuts package across all government departments but clearly the most severe is to local government. These cuts will have an undoubted impact on all frontline council services, including care services to the vulnerable.
Rather than assist the country’s recovery by making public-sector savings in a way that can protect local economies and the frontline, the cuts are so structured that they will do the opposite. The local government settlement will take a major hit in this coming financial year and further, smaller, cuts in subsequent years. This front-loading means councils do not have the lead-in time necessary to re-engineer services on a lower-cost base and ease staff cuts without forced, expensive redundancies. Inexplicably, local government is also being denied the opportunity to spread the cost of reorganisation and downsizing over several years — at no cost to central government — which just makes even bigger in-year cuts inevitable The Secretary of State’s role should be to facilitate necessary savings while promoting the advance of localism and the Big Society. Unfortunately, Eric Pickles has felt it better to shake a stick at councillors than work with us.
Local and central government should be united in a shared purpose. Instead of chastising and denigrating local authorities through the media, the Government should deploy all its efforts to help councils minimise the impact on vulnerable communities and frontline services.
We would be delighted to discuss with the Secretary of State how we could take on the difficult challenges shared by all levels of government and would prefer to do this than continue with the gunboat diplomacy which is the current order of the day.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Children, Young People and Education

Sarah Teather MP & Baroness Joan Walmsley

Swan on the moat - 2 minutes of relaxation between sessions

Peter Belotti, Simon Hughes MP & Baroness Joan Walmsley
I've just spent an exhausting 24 hours in Nottingham with other Lib Dems who are passionate about education and children.  Discussions ranged from how we protect our vital children's services from cuts, given the local government funding settlement agreed by the Tory Secretary of State, through new and exciting ways to encourage parents to help their children develop their potential, to whatever glimmers of hope people are managing to find in our increasingly fragmented education system.  Ministers, teachers, governors, councillors, education advisers, keen Lib Dem education experts and members of the House of Lords team all came together to talk, argue, develop policy proposals and share good ideas from around the country.  Exhausting, stimulating, frightening, challenging, hopeful and inspiring - what a weekend. 
I've certainly come back with some thoughts on things we might do differently in Stockton and which wouldn't cost a lot of extra money -  just a bit of innovation and lateral thinking.
It was also interesting to hear from around the country of how people are reacting to the coalition government.  Despite the best efforts of the media it seems that many people are like those in this borough that I've talked with - keen to see politicians getting on with the job rather than trying to score political points off each other and though not happy with the cuts most are willing to concede that "something had to be done" and to give the government a chance to get it right.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Globe will rock again

Great news that agreement has finally been reached on bringing The Globe back to life.  It's well over a year since we first heard that there was a chance and negotiations have been going on ever since.  I first went to the Globe to see pantomimes as a child when Head Wrightson used to take over the theatre for an afternoon for the families of their employees.  Later I watched big name stars there, as well as widescreen cinema.  Even later it closed and converted into a bingo hall and finally into an empty and sad building.  But now there's the chance of a new life, not just for The Globe but for the whole of that end of the High Street.  If the theatre reopens, along with the development of a bistro next door it'll start a chain reaction at that end of town.
And yet last week we heard councillors claiming that the town centre is dead.  No gentlemen, the phoenix is rising albeit slowly.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

A Good Death

That was the title of a presentation this evening on the kind of care which makes a difference in the last few weeks or months of life.  There were some sobering statistics.  In just 100 years we've moved from dying at an average age of 46 from infectious disease, childbirth or accidents to dying at an average age of 78 from cancer, organ failure or dementia.  60% of us would rather die at home than anywhere else yet only 20% of us do.  In fact 60% die in hospital after a relatively short stay.
There was much discussion around the idea of Compassionate Communities - a recognition by most people there that the way to ensure a good death, in a place where we are content to be, free of pain with friends and families nearby, is not to spend more and more money on hospitals and treatments.  The answer lies in some big changes in how society works, how we support people as they become more frail, less able to cope and perhaps less able to decide for themselves what they want.  We need to find ways to enable people to do things for others without too much red tape, but with enough to make sure people are safe. 
I'm old enough to remember sending for the woman who lived down the road when someone died.  She did the "laying out" which these days is done by the undertaker.  Why shouldn't we pop next door or down the road to see if someone is OK?  Maybe arrange with neighbours that we'll take turns doing it?  Perhaps invite an elderly neighbour in for a meal occasionally, or take a meal in to them? 
This is our challenge - in the midst of economic belt tightening, to begin to create the Compssionate Communities we need.
Prior to that challenge was a more short - term one, otherwise known as planning committee!  Today's agenda had some very difficult items to decide on.  Should we agree to a batch of big, exclusive, expensive houses outside the limits to development on an unsustainable village just because the people who can afford those houses want them there?  Will they really bring such amazing spending power to the borough that we should ignore our planning policies?  Then on to a small scale development which would only affect one other house - who's rights are more important?  A site visit yesterday enabled a properly informed decision on that, whereas we deferred the decision on a wind speed measuring mast at Seamer because we didn't feel we had the right information - quotes from letters but not the whole letter, claims and counter claims about technical matters.  And then there was the parking application which sounded more like a neighbour dispute dressed up in planning terms.  And so it went on, and on.  Out of the window went my plans to catch up on some emails before the seminar.  Instead I was only just at the town hall in time. 
But then, at home, some good news about various issues around the elections, following a busy evening last night.  As one person said, it's amazing what happens when 3 women put their heads together!