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.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Armed Forces Day

Celebrations for Armed Forces week took place mainly today in Stockton.  Inevitably they were lower key than last year when we had soldiers exercising the Freedom of the Borough granted to them earlier in the year.  There was a huge turnout and a wonderful feeling of support in the town centre for that.  This year there were some display stands in Stockton centre but no ceremonial to watch.  The weather wasn't kind either - wet in the morning and threatening in the afternoon - so not many people made the effort to turn out.
There was a tea dance in the United Reform church hall but to be honest, if a number of residential homes hadn't taken residents to it there would only have been a dozen people there.  I don't know if that was a sign of low key publicity or lack of interest in ballroom dancing or some other reason.  I do know that the people I spoke to were disappointed.
Perhaps we need to take the risk in the borough of having our celebrations on a Saturday, working out how to do it without causing a problem to Stockton market.  Should we be radical and have it in Billingham or Thornaby?  Both have pedestrianised areas in the town centre and a leisure centre with a hall that could be used for dancing - or is that too radical?  By having it there might we get parades of cadets?  Or even the local TA?  Who knows, but I feel we've got to try something or it becomes such a low key event that it's not a decent recognition of our armed forces and the effort they put in on our behalf around the world.

Monday, June 20, 2011

More road safety improvements coming

The Western Area Transport Strategy steering group meeting is always interesting and always worth attending.  People from across Yarm and Eaglescliffe gather together with police and traffic engineers to decide on spending money to improve sustainable travel opportunities in the area.
Most of the projects this year are in Yarm ward, though a trial weight restriction on part of Durham Lane should reduce the HGV traffic through Eaglescliffe and Yarm while the school zone work round The Links school is designed to encourage children and their parents to choose walking to school as a safe and pleasant alternative to the car.  Let's hope it works.

Earlier in the day the new Environment committee agreed the scope of its review of the Care for Your Area service.  This is probably the best known part of the council, responsible for keeping the roads and pavements clean, the bins emptied, the recycling collected, the flower beds planted, the grass cut and so on.  How to save money on those services without having an impact on the overall cleanliness of the borough is going to tax minds over the coming weeks.  In the new political climate at Stockton the chair and vice-chair of the committee are Labour members, as is the Cabinet member so it'll be interesting to see how that works out.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

What a weekend.  Yesterday was spent with Lib Dem colleagues in discussions with the party leader and several other ministers, group leaders, council leaders and some well respected councillors from around the country, talking about the political situation, the nhs, the localism bill, banking reform and several other issues.  This morning was a much lower key event and yet also important.  Each year the newly installed mayor of Stockton takes part in a church service to celebrate that which is good about the borough and to dedicate him or herself to working for the borough.  Mayors from neighbouring authorities come to support and several organisations within the borough parade through the town centre, the proudest always being the standard bearers.  This year's mayor, Paul Baker, has chosen the Royal British Legion as one of his charities so perhaps that put an extra spring in their step.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

NHS changes

So, after all the leaks the report is published and we have statements from party leaders about what the changes to the bill will mean.  Predictably the Labour party, having said that the government needed to think again now says that it's a sign of weakness that they have thought again!  If that's the best they can do heaven help us.
Yes, the government has changed its mind on some of the changes.  It did that after an outcry from the public and from the Liberal Democrats who are fortunate to have in our membership some very thoughtful medical professionals who not only spotted the problems but could see a possible solution and put it to our party conference in March.  In order to do that they had to convince many other people they were right, and once it was put to the conference they had to convince hundreds of delegates to vote for it.  No wonder that Nick Clegg and the team could go back to parliament with confidence and insist on a pause for thought.  And no wonder that David Cameron seized the opportunity provided to him to do just that.
So now there's a better bill, probably still not perfect, but better.  And now there's the opportunity for proper parliamentary debate on something that is worth debating.
Let's hope that the end result is worthwhile too.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Care in the Community?

Having my mother in a residential care home means that I've followed the saga of Southern Cross with more than purely academic interest.  Fortunately her home is not managed by that company, but the whole sorry saga has highlighted the problems we have.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Southern Cross story (and I happen to believe that there's been a large degree of immorality in the decision making at times) we have a situation where thousands of people are living in some kind of sheltered environment because of age or disability.  The homes range from supported housing through to full scale nursing care and they are all labour intensive.  By its nature that's what care is - it's demanding, tiring and rewarding.  Care homes need staff who can cope with all manner of problems and frustrations, who care but when necessary are dispassionate, and who have the necessary skills to support their residents to live as happily as possible.  That's a pretty tall order.  If it were an easy, unskilled job then probably a lot more of us would take it on and our relatives wouldn't need to go into care homes!
So given all that, we do need a thorough look at how care is provided for when independent living is impossible.  Before the election Liberal Democrats talked of having a serious look at the possible ways before deciding on anything.  That discussion is ongoing, though of course much of what appears in the press is about how people pay without any of the surrounding thinking.  Meanwhile we have homes threatened with closure, people threatened with having to move house not through any choice they make but because the financial settlement says they must, and relatives worrying about when and how to tell their loved ones that there might be a problem.
Let's hope that the nation as a whole, everybody - not just MPs - can come to a consensus on how to pay for care in the future and how to manage the buildings in which the care is given so that we never have this sickening situation again.  That would be a sign that the nation has come of age and begun to accept the responsibilities that being part of society imposes on each and every one of us.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

North East Lib Dems

Lib Dems from across the North East came together today for the Spring Conference, delayed by the local elections, so perhaps better described as an Early Summer Conference.  Despite some losses in the council elections members were upbeat, keen to plan future campaigns and to get on with the job of representing people and campaigning on the issues that matter.
The achievements of the party in coalition mean that there was lots to celebrate, while acknowledging that there's still a long way to go and that many people are suffering as a result of the financial problems in the country.  There were young people there, newly joined since the general election, as well as some old stagers.  There was robust debate, including one on the need to ensure that scrutiny of executive decision making in councils is done properly, with genuine challenge.  There was general agreement that having an executive member and the chair of the scrutiny committee from the same party is unlikely to lead to constructive challenge.  While some councils, of all political colours, have accepted that and acted on it others have not.  Lord Shipley promised to take the issue back to the House of Lords on Wednesday when the localism bill is being amended. 
Being in government brings opportunities as well as challenges, and it seems that our representatives in both houses are very keen to take them up.
So now we're back to the grindstone but with a new spring in our steps and looking forward to the Federal conference in September.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Eagle Service Station

The decision of the Licensing sub-committee finally came out yesterday - no real surprise to anyone.  The committee decided to award the licence, but on condition that the owners can show after a year of operation that it really is primarily a convenience store rather than a petrol station.  There's a strangely quirky bit of English law which says that a fuel station can't sell alcohol but a shop selling alcohol can also sell petrol.  In the case of the Eagle Service Station the new owners could demonstrate the fuel sales for the last few months in which there were any, by getting the figures from Esso, but couldn't demonstrate the sales of other goods so they have been allowed to use average figures from other "similar" shops in other parts of the country which show that most revenue will come from the convenience store sales.
I suppose the answer, as one resident said, is for all the objectors to buy their fuel there but not use the convenience store.  If the fuel sales outweigh the other sales after a year the licence will have to be revoked!

Meanwhile, if the shop does reopen and starts to sell alcohol ward councillors will work with the police and others to keep anti-social behaviour to a minimum.
There will be CCTV on the premises but we are working to have some extra surveillance further away from the building to try to remove the possibility of legal sales to adults being passed on to under age drinkers off the premises.  There's no reason why a perfectly respectable residential area should suffer from an inappropriate development whether it's housing, licensing or anything else.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Friends of PrestonPark

The Friends of Preston Park has come a long way since the Protect Preston Park campaign last year.  Tonight's meeting looked at finalising our vision for the Park and Museum before publication.  That's not saying it's set in stone - far from it.  But the hope is that it will give a steer to the kind of developments and events that happen in the park.  The danger that it's a vision held by only a handful of people has been addressed to some extent by asking people to contribute at various events over the last few months.  There'll be another opportunity on Sunday June 19th when there'll be a stall at Yarm Gala.  If you haven't had your say yet on what you think the Park should offer please do go along and leave your thoughts there.  So far there's lots about play, railway heritage, the river, telling the story of the town and particularly the Eaglescliffe area, improving the cafe and the shop.  If you can't get along to the stall and just want to email me with your thoughts, do so. I'll pass them on.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

1000 Houses anyone?

It was only a matter of time before planning applications started to pop up again in the ward - not the householder extensions or the conservatories, nor even the odd house in a large back garden, but full blown in your face planning applications.
So Allen's West starts to move again.  An outline permission for up to 500 dwellings and various other bits and pieces was approved some time ago, conditional on some improvements to the road system in order to cope.  But now it seems 500 isn't enough and so an application will be made for more, the only question being how many more.  A scoping opinion has been sought on up to 1000 dwellings - what would be needed to convince the council that it was possible.  At a meeting today there was much talk of improvements to roads, looking after Great Crested Newts, leisure facilities, retail outlets, bus routes, schools etc.  Whether it goes any further remains to be seen but there's a lot of money tied up in that site and the developers aren't going to be able to leave it sitting there for ever.
The afternoon was much more positive - a pre-agenda meeting for the Area Transport Strategy meeting later in the month.  Discussing what extra information people will need in order to make informed decisions and choose between such things as traffic calming round schools and Speed Indicator devices on main roads was a well spent hour.  I look forward to the meeting when all the information can be considered and decisions made.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The last of the post-election thank you parties was tonight.  It's always good to say thank you for the help people give, not just at election time but all the year round in between elections.  The hundreds of people in Stockton who help with delivering Focus and other leaflets, those who work to raise the funds to pay for the campaign, and all the other members and supporters who contribute their bit during the year and step up the effort during the campaign - they've all been thanked now in one way or another.  Tonight was a chance for me to meet some of the new helpers in areas other than Eaglescliffe and to join in thanking them for ensuring that the work was done.
So now we look forward - to lots more work in the ward and in the borough of course, to the regional party conference this month and the federal party conference in September.  The federal one is causing some issues already as one of the problems of having the deputy prime minister attending is all the extra security which the police like in place.  I can understand their desire to be sure nothing can go wrong, but we are a Liberal Party and it doesn't sit well on our shoulders to have as much police vetting as is being demanded by West Midlands police.  A whole different meaning is given to the phrase "balance of power".

Friday, June 03, 2011

Witham House

We had notice today that the planning application for the new building is being submitted on Friday (tomorrow).  There's been confusion and disappointment surrounding the plans for the site almost since the day that it was transferred to Erimus Housing, now part of the Fabrick Group.
Briefly, Stockton council owned the house which was past its best structurally.  Government rules set by successive Labour and Tory governments meant it was difficult for the council to get the money to rebuild.  The answer that was reached was to transfer the assets i.e. buildings to a registered social landlord which could put in the investment needed.  Unfortunately for Eaglescliffe the best business plan anyone could come up with was to demolish Witham House and build flats for sale on the site, thus releasing money that could be used to refurbish the other sheltered housing schemes involved in the transfer.  Presumably good news for  the other schemes, but not for Eaglescliffe.
Some robust debate ensued with the Eaglescliffe councillors and we managed to get agreement that at least a proportion of the flats built would be for rent. 
Many delays later, all the residents had moved out in anticipation of work commencing but nothing happened.  Eventually Erimus demolished the house to avoid problems with vandalism.  Still nothing further happened.  We had meetings and heard sob stories of how the market had collapsed and now they were left having spent the money on the other schemes but unable to recoup it.  We suggested building some sheltered housing - they'd soon have filled it if it was marketed at the right price.  But no, only flats for sale would do.
Now we have the plans submitted.  Despite the consultation event there doesn't seem to be a significant change.  People will have the opportunity to buy a flat at a yet to be determined price, if they're over 55.  There'll be no garden worth speaking of, a shortage of parking spaces if all the flats are occupied, no communal space in which to meet up and have a cuppa together or a game of whist or bingo or a discussion with councillors about issues arising like there was in the old building.  "People want the costs kept as low as possible" is what we're told.  Well maybe that's so, but people also need to get out and see something other than their own 4 walls, and this doesn't offer much opportunity for that.
A sad loss for Eaglescliffe.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Eagle Service Station

My first experience of licensing committee was interesting but not very satisfactory.  A significant number of residents attended and wanted to speak.  Unlike planning committee, there were several pre-meetings going on with negotiations taking place right up to the last minute.  The applicant offered to reduce the time for the alcohol licence down to 7 in the morning till 11pm which is an improvement but the residents weren't happy with the idea of alcohol being sold there anyway.  All 3 ward councillors agreed that we didn't need or want another alcohol outlet in the area but I felt it important to say that if the committee did allow a licence they should make sure that the conditions included something to allow a check that the premises are definitely operating as a convenience store with fuel as an ancillary sale, rather than the other way round.
An offer from the agent's solicitor to talk to residents before the meeting was met with interest by some but anger by others.  Residents used to the openness of planning procedures didn't like the apparent secretiveness of licensing, with meetings of little groups of people going on around them in an effort to iron out the problems before the hearing.  I, too, found it very strange and felt uncomfortable.  I felt it was no wonder that people thought "it's a done deal". 
In the end, after a great deal of input from the floor, the licensing sub-committee adjourned and will make their decision in the next few days.  It seems that they want some further information or legal clarifications.  So we have to wait and see what happens.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Planning & Licensing

These are the two quasi-judicial committees of the council, making decisions about things that directly affect individuals and businesses rather than about policies that affect the whole borough or sections of it.  Stockton council, rightly in my opinion, insists that members should be trained in how to make these decisions properly in accordance with the law etc.  So today saw me sitting in a rather stuffy room with a couple of dozen other councillors being trained in Town & Country planning for the 9th year running.  I won't be sitting on Planning committee regularly but might occasionally substitute so training duly done.
Licensing on the other hand is something in which I have very little training, but the last few days have proved a steep learning curve.  The approach is very different - in this case it's perfectly OK to have meetings with the applicant in an effort to reach agreement before the committee sits.  And so tonight I went along to the Eagle Service Station in order to hear what the applicant had to say.  I discovered that they've reached agreement with the police on a licence for reduced hours (7 in the morning till midnight) instead of the 24 hours a day previously asked for.  But ward councillors and neighbours haven't been notified of that.  The applicant does seem genuinely interested in keeping problems away from his business so if the licence is awarded tomorrow morning we'll be trying to work with him and the police to try to make sure that problems don't arise from it.  It'll be an interesting experience to attend a licensing meeting for the first time, and to be able to represent residents directly.  Very different to 8 years on Planning committee.