Thursday, March 31, 2011

How many lives is a jar of olives worth?

Strange question you might think but it did occur to me to wonder as I listened to Mark Thomas tonight at ARC.  Mark is a comedian with a political conscience and unlikely to be enjoyed by someone of extreme right wing views.  Last year he set out to walk the length of the Separation Barrier between Israel and Palestine, to meet people, try to understand them, and come back to tell us about it in a sometimes amusing sometimes serious way.
The Set, ARC, waiting for Mark to appear
Except that, as he was quick to point out, the Separation Barrier doesn't actuall go between Israel and Palestine but is built and being extended entirely on Palestinian land and it snakes round settlements, often significant distances inside Palestine.  The end result is something which is roughly twice as long as the boundary between the two states.
Also in places it has holes in it so it doesn't actually separate.  And there are ways to get across it without going through the checkpoints, such as in the basket of a crane on a building site or hidden in a rubbish waggon.  So it doesn't stop determined terrorists, who would just go by sea if they couldn't do it any other way unfortunately.
As in most conflict zones there are thousands of people for whom the only way to survive is to try to eke out a living locally.  In Palestine that usually means Olive trees.  These are amazing trees which grow so slowly and live so long that most of the ones bearing fruit were there long before the current human residents were even thought of, before some of their parents were thought of.  And those bent, twisty trees produce a precious fruit that can make all the difference to a family.  Zaytoun is a cooperative which brings together small farmers to give them a stronger voice in the market place, helps them to produce goods which are wanted outside Palestine and for which people will pay a price commensurate with the quality.  Now Fairtrade accredited as well, they sell not just olives but beautiful olive oil as well as sun dried tomatoes in olive oil.  Now they're branching out into other products to reduce their dependence on olives - almonds, dates, couscous and herbs.  All helping to make the difference, helping to put food on their plates and a smile on their faces.
But the harvest isn't achieved without pain.  We heard from Mark, who witnessed it at first hand, about the demonstrations that take place every Friday in an effort to get an Israeli court order implemented to remove the barrier round one settlement; about the tunnel under the road which is used by children to get from home to school - a good idea you might think until you find out that in wet weather the sewer overflows and its contents run through that same tunnel, but "it's OK" because the architect designed in a step at the side for the children to walk on so they didn't have to walk in the sewage!  We heard about the children who come down the hill to school between two Israeli settlements where the settlers come out and throw stones at the children as they pass, unless the army sends an armoured car to protect them, which it does some days and not others.
Hence my thoughts about blood and olive trees.  By buying the produce from Zaytoun we can help a little - we can support some farmers to be able to eke out a living in the midst of conflict.  And by talking about it we can raise awareness that not all Palestinians are terrorists, just as not all Israelis are Zionists.  Sadly there are enough on both sides of that barrier to make it very difficult indeed to imagine a political solution being achieved.  And all the while children grow up thinking it's right to throw stones at other children, thinking that everyone on the other side of a huge barrier is evil.
We need every statesman and woman to put every effort they can into finding a way to dismantle hundreds of years of antagonism.  But every great leap starts with a little step.  Perhaps buying a jar of Palestinian olives could be that first step.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Elementis, Going down slowly

Ward and parish councillors were invited to Elementis today to see for ourselves how the demolition is going.  The most interesting part was a time lapse photo sequence showing some of the work going on.  The delicate way in which a huge machine carves up the steel structure and chops it into small pieces was amazing.  By the time we'd been able to look round the site and ask all our questions we could come away content that the process we always hoped would never happen is at least happening in a clean and safe way.  And although we'd rather the skills on the site were still those needed to produce chromium products, the site is still being worked by very skilled operatives.
Planning committee, on the other hand, heard of the frustrations felt by villagers at Hilton who've tried in vain to get answers to some of their questions about the wind turbines and associated infrastructure near their village.  Why is it that a company can get permission for building a control building in one place then realise that they need it in another?  Why do they know that the turbines will be OK but then need a 10m mast to monitor the wind?  Why does national grid want the turbines to be refused permission then change their minds?  Why does National Grid write a policy then support turbines that don't conform to the policy?  Every answer seems to produce more questions.
I don't fundamentally disapprove of wind turbines though I don't think they're the most efficient renewable generators on the shelf, but I do disapprove of companies which give an impression of incompetence, however mistaken that impression might be.
No doubt at the next planning meeting we'll have the partial answers and still be none the wiser.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Vision and Reality

The last Western Area Partnership meeting tonight before the election, and very poorly attended it was too.  A shame because there were some very interesting things on the agenda.
The vision for Stockton Town Centre was first up, and provoked lots of questions and comment from people representing an area which has "become cynical about Stockton High Street" in the words of one.  If you want to see for yourself the proposals are on the council's website and there's the opportunity to comment on them too.  It's far too complicated to go into here but for those who say that they never go because it's got nothing to offer them, here's the chance to say what you'd like to see there.  Of course it all depends on money, and cooperation and partnership etc etc but the vision is a starting point.
The next item was one of much more solid realism.  Some time ago the Western Area board was asked to spend some money (not very much) on improving the chances of people looking for jobs.  A large part of what we decided was to work with Tees Achieve and Tristar Homes to get some taster sessions for adult learning and to find out what courses people would like to help them develop skills and confidence to help in job hunting.  Tonight we had a report on progress, and very heartening it was too.  Several people had done basic IT courses and there are more on offer.  Some have done food hygiene and first aid, while others are tackling confidence building and now we have a request for sign language.  At the same time as helping people develop the skills these courses have opened up a small community centre to a wider community and broadened its use, thus supporting a community resource which is sorely needed in the area.  Maybe a little oak tree is starting to grow from the acorn that funding provided.
And it was really good to leave the meeting in daylight and go back up to join the campaign team who'd been slogging round the streets while I attended the meeting so that we could all enjoy a delicious meal together.  The icing on the proverbial cake!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

End of another era?

Census day today, and I can't help wondering what people will make of the data and documents in 2111 when they are opened to public view.  When the rules about keeping the census forms secret for 100 years were written it would be inconceivable that people entered on them as young children would still be alive when the 100 years were up.  Now, I wonder how long we'd have to set the rule to ensure that the babies being entered on this one are all dead by the time it's public?  150 years?  200 years?  Who knows?
It's probably the last time data will be collected like this, as there are so many other ways to collect the data needed for planning services to the population of an area.  Sad for genealogists but practicalities outweigh emotions!

It's also the day the clocks went forward and I wonder for how many more years we'll do that.The pressure from London and the south east to have BST all year round is growing stronger all the time.  Never mind us poor souls up here in the North, and further north in Scotland, who'll have darker mornings for longer in the winter.  I remember the mornings in the experimental period of BST in winter - watching the sun rise from the lab window at Teesside Poly having travelled there in the dark.  Not particularly attractive as a prospect especially as it didn't give us a light evening - there just aren't that many hours of daylight in winter!
Meanwhile the seedlings are coming through - tomato and 2 varieties of chilli so far -  and that's a sure sign that spring has sprung.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Let there be light...

....and heat and power.
All Saints church in Preston-on-Tees became the first church in the diocese of Durham to install Solar panels in an effort to provide at least part of its electricity needs.  By feeding the power generated into the National Grid and being paid for it, the church reduces the electricity bill and its carbon footprint.  Everyone wins!
At lunch time today the system was officially unveiled following a brief service of praise and thanksgiving.  A buffet lunch gave everyone the opportunity to chat and find out more, including some of the young people from local schools.
The photo shows the public display panel with the total energy that's been generated since mid January when the panels were installed. No doubt in the middle of summer I'd need a much faster shutter speed in order to capture the rapidly changing numbers.
The parish now hopes to act as an encouragement to others to follow the same path to energy and carbon saving.  Community Action for Energy Eaglescliffe (CAfEE) will be holding another day on April 20th to encourage the local community to come along and find out about ways of saving a bit of their own heat, light and power - why not join them if you're in the area?
The evening was spent in the company of other Lib Dems and friends at our Quiz night.  For once I was on a team which almost won - pipped by one point by the MP of the month and his family!  A thoroughly enjoyable evening which just set us up nicely for the remainder of the election campaign.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Grange

Stockton Council's planning officers have refused permission for the development of 10 Town Houses on the site of The Grange on Urlay Nook Rd.  They agreed with local residents and the ward councillors that it represented an overdevelopment of the site, out of keeping with its surroundings and with too little amenity space for the size of the houses.  No doubt the owner will appeal and meantime the existing permission for apartments still stands.  So one cheer is the best I can do for this one, but one cheer is better than none.

Three cheers though for the lady and her young daughter who want to start cleaning up and looking after a verge and some of the open space on Leicester Way, and to the Care for Your Area staff who are trying to ensure it can happen.  Ward councillors met with them yesterday afternoon and by this morning the first actions had been taken.  Definitely three cheers all round.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The End of an Era

The political news of this week for Eaglescliffe is that John Fletcher, ward councillor for 24 years, is retiring.  John has been a superb councillor, caring for Egglescliffe and then the extended ward of Eaglescliffe, like a master gardener tends his patch - nurturing good things, doing his best to weed out the bad.  When I was elected almost 8 years ago it was John who showed me the important bits of being a councillor and helped me to avoid some of the pitfalls.  John's attention to detail is legendary and will be missed.  We are very fortunate that Lesley Lewis has agreed to stand for election as a Lib Dem.  She will be a great asset to the team and I look forward to working with her.
John's wife, Suzanne, is also retiring from the borough council.  She has represented Elm Tree and then the extended ward of Bishopsgarth & Elm Tree for nigh on 30 years, and I hope they both have a long and happy retirement.  Of course we won't let them retire completely - they're still Liberal Democrats after all and we'll have plenty for them to do as we build up to the next European and General elections as well as locals.  John hopes to be re-elected to the parish council on which he has served for even longer than the borough.
Of course today wasn't only about politics - no day ever is, and today included the sad experience of a funeral.  Maureen Morton was a lovely lady who gave much of her life outside her family to young girls in Guiding.  Her Brownie pack always had a waiting list, she was so popular, and no leader whether young or old was ever refused a listening ear when needed.  Sadly, illness took hold and she died before experiencing old age.  The full church this afternoon was a testament to how well loved and respected she was.

Some positives

I'm not a member of Stockton Council's cabinet - that's reserved for Labour & Tory members at the moment.  I do attend most meetings, partly to keep an eye on what's going on and partly because that means that sometimes I can make comments or suggestions that make a difference, albeit quite a small one.
Tonight's agenda was a long one but a couple of things are worthy of note.  First of all the report on a review of admin staff in the council - a horrible job done really well and with care.  Horrible because the inevitable outcome was going to be loss of jobs and that means loss of people's livelihoods.  But done well because at the end of it the officer leading the review, the committee checking it and the unions representing those staff all agreed that it had been done with care and sympathy.  Although even the voluntary redundancies are traumatic they are less so than compulsory ones and to end up with only a handful of the latter is a tribute to all concerned.  Of course the local press don't come along and report when a union rep stands up and pays tribute to the considerate way in which the review has been carried out - only bad news seems to sell papers.
The other thing worthy of note is the economic climate in the borough - not good but a lot better than in some other places and apparently improving though slowly.  To help it on its way was the enterprise strategy presented tonight.  It's not often that I welcome yet another strategy but this one I did.  7 years ago I suggested that the borough needed a plan to ensure that more people started their own business, whether it's as a window cleaner or a rocket scientist.  For too long we've relied on large employers and now even a large employer doesn't employ thousands on a site.  Multi-million pound industries work with a hundred or two people and lots of high tech equipment so we do need lots of smaller businesses to employ people.  At last we have a strategy to do just that.  It pulls together all the things that have been happening and gives something for people to point to as the way forward.  Fingers crossed that everyone does their bit!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

From sewage to fertiliser

As chair of Stockton Council's Environment committee I attend meetings of Environmental Protection UK, and today's meeting was held at Northumbrian Water's Bran Sands site.  A presentation on how the site operates and then a tour were both very interesting.  It's a site which takes re-use and recycle to the extreme!  Being built on top of a capped landfill site it doesn't have waste water draining away but has it all collected and reused.  Sewage sludge is brought in tankers, mixed with water to make exactly the right balance of solid and liquid, heated to kill bad bacteria, cooled to the optimum temperature for good bacteria to work on it, dried out to form a top quality soil conditioner.  Heat from the process is used to apply heat where needed.  Biogas produced by the digestion produces about half of the power needed on the site.  Water is reused and recycled almost ad infinitum.  The product is used to fertilise fields and helps to keep down the cost of producing rape seed oil and barley in particular.
The weather was cold and misty, so photos were uninspiring, but there's one here just to give a feel for the scale of the plant.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Beauty all around us

In the midst of all the work I took an hour to walk out in town with my mother, enjoying the spring sunshine and flowers.  This tree, laden with catkins so full of pollen that to touch them sent a cloud floating away on the breeze, stands happily a few metres from a busy road and is apparently unaffected by the traffic.

The Conference I didn't attend

I didn't go to the Spring Conference in Sheffield this year.  Much as I love conference, being amongst fellow Lib Dems and having real debate leading to real policy, this year I felt I'd had enough time away from our local campaign thanks to a wonderful 2 weeks with our family.  However, there's a good account of what happened on Suzanne Fletcher's blog so do read it to see what really went on.
I did take the opportunity to read the transcript of some of the speeches and watch some bits on video and I could see that yet again conference was an example of real democracy.
I particularly liked Tim Farron pointing out to those who accuse us of being Tories by "getting into bed" with them, that he gets into bed with his wife regularly but that doesn't make him a woman!  Well said Tim.  Coalition is negotiated agreement, not absorption.
Meanwhile, back here in Stockton we got on with doing all the things in the ward that needed doing. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Census and other things

An interesting member seminar tonight for councillors to hear about the census, how the information is used and why it's important.  Actually for councils it's probably outgrown its usefulness - there are other ways of gathering the necessary information which are more immediate and more useful for planning housing, schools, etc than the census.  But for those of us interested in family history and the social history of the town it's sad to think this is the last time that people would be writing on forms the kind of personal information that's proved so fascinating when the 1911 census became available to us.  To see an ancestor's handwriting from 100 years ago, to realise just how close the family lived to each other and to wonder why one moved away to start a new life and new job in another town - that thrill will be lost to our descendents.  And that's why I'm making sure that not only is our census form completed by hand but it's photocopied and put into our family archive file before it's sent in.
The Friends of Preston Park held their first committee meeting under the new name tonight, putting in place all the arrangements for the AGM next month.  Some of the original committee are standing down though others are willing to be re-elected.  There's plenty of opportunity to be elected if you live in Eaglescliffe and are interested and a paid up member so get in touch with them.  This next year is going to be an interesting time as we try to make sure that the vision of the community is enshrined in the plans for the park - make sure your voice is heard.  If you don't get involved you can't complain that the Park isn't being developed in the way you'd like.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Cars of the Future

Today's sustainable living day at Bede college in Billingham was a really good opportunity to share the importance of Fairtrade with students and staff - some good interesting discussions and very probing questions.  I did take a little time off from the stall though and try out an electric car.  Stockton Council has been carrying out trials on an electric car for a few months now - driving it about town and up to Newcastle and back.  All the information about mileage and speed and power consumption is fed back to the manufacturer to improve the next model.  As more charging points are springing up round the country it will become easier to drive further, topping up the charge over a lunch stop for instance.  Meanwhile they strike me as the ideal town car - if the first 6000 miles of driving cost £60 in electricity that seems to me a good deal cheaper than the petrol or diesel would be for that distance.
There's one drawback in my eyes, or should I say ears - they're verrrrrrry quiet!  As a driver it was hard to guess my speed because there's no engine sound to go by.  I realised just how much I use that sound to help me when driving.  In the electric car I had to keep checking the speedo!  And if it's so quiet for the driver - how does the pedestrian or the cyclist hear the car coming?  We might learn to be thankful for the drivers who play loud music if we have more electric cars on the road.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Denis and I have had a lovely few days off politics spending time with family.  Grandchildren have a way of absorbing attention and ensuring that we concentrate on them. 
Today is back to normal with a bang - non stop meetings from morning till night, but all interesting in their different ways.  Of particular interest to Eaglescliffe ward is the possibility of having a weight restriction on part of Durham Lane, except for access of course.  This, coupled with the one already in existence, is aimed at reducing the number of HGVs travelling through Eaglescliffe and Yarm en route to the A19 and A1.  Everyone accepts that lorries need to deliver to businesses in our area but there's much less support for them driving through, often late at night when the noise and vibration are so much more noticeable than during the day.  Western Area Transport Strategy group decided at our last meeting to try to pursue the idea of a weight restriction but had very little response to our consultation.  Today's meeting was a further effort to encourage the hauliers to meet with borough and parish councillors to discuss the issues and try to resolve them.  In the event not everyone invited turned up but they can't claim not to have had the opportunity to make their point.  
The proposal will be considered at the June meeting of the Transport strategy group and a decision taken.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Chances for Change lost.

Last night the Labour/Tory Cabinet's budget was passed unchanged by Stockton Council.  We proposed two things:
First of all a transition fund to allow the youth clubs which are going to have funding withdrawn to stay open for a few months while they look for other sources of support or funding to carry on the work they're doing and perhaps be able to do it in a different way.  We proposed using some of the budget put aside for schools in difficulty - presumably the same schools that we were told 2 years ago were doing really well by the then cabinet member, now MP for Stockton North.  We lost the vote but won the argument - the Leader of the council did say that transition arrangements would be put in place without using that fund.
The second amendment seemed like a no-brainer.  We proposed that in light of the current economic climate we should ensure that next year there is a full review of allowances with an emphasis on seeing whether the amount spent on special responsibility posts could be reduced.  We accept fully that councillors need a decent basic allowance in order to ensure that as wide a cross section as possible of people can stand for election.  Some people lose benefits, some lose time from work that isn't paid, some lose the chance of promotion, some searching for work find that employers won't entertain the idea of employing a councillor.  But it seemed to us that there is no excuse for making staff redundant in the name of efficiency while continuing to have over half of all councillors eligible for extra responsibility allowances ranging from £3750 to £28000.   The two arguments put against such a review were:
1 From the Leader of the council - we had a full review 2 years ago and shouldn't be looking at changing things now.  If an independent panel looked at how the work of officers has increased over the intervening time they'd probably recommend something different to what we expect.
2. From the leader of the Thornaby Independents - he couldn't support our amendment because the Lib Dems in government supported the cuts.
The logic of both defeated me but seemed to be agreed with by most of the council - only the Lib Dems voted for the Youth Club transition fund and we were joined by one Thornaby Independent for on the Allowances vote.  Such is Stockton Council's way.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Man from Del Monte ....

... has taken leave of his senses.  Individually wrapped bananas to sell at service stations?  Why does he think nature/god provided the banana with skin?  So not only is Del Monte one of the real bad guys of world trading as far as fair prices for growers goes, now they're going to add to the waste disposal mountain by unnecessary wrapping on bananas.  When is the madness going to end.