Friday, September 30, 2011

Human Rights?

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

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Kids Count

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

Friday, September 23, 2011

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

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Joined up thinking?

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

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Relentless Realism

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

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Conference update

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

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why I'm a Lib Dem

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

Harvest Home

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

Friday, September 09, 2011

Kingsmead continued

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

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Kingsmead Play Area

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

Monday, September 05, 2011

When is affordable not affordable?

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

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Local Food

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

Friday, September 02, 2011

Allen's West History

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