Monday, October 31, 2011

Good News & Bad News

I find it very difficult to understand how a government, especially one with a Liberal Democrat heading up DECC, can suddenly pull the rug from under so many people who were planning to do their bit to boost the renewable energy generation in this country.  Solar panels make a lot of sense to householders who plan to stay in their property for 10 years or more and can afford the initial outlay.  Many of us thought that the Feed In Tariff had been set very high and would need to come down more sharply than originally indicated.  But we certainly didn't expect what amounts to a breach of contract in my eyes, if not in the eyes of the law.  To halve the rate at 6 weeks notice, when some reputable companies are now quoting 8-10 weeks delivery for a good quality installation, is patently not fair.  It's penalising those who've needed time to work out the finances, who've chosen a supplier who can't install at the drop of a hat.  Considering that this was going to be the greenest government ever I'm not impressed. 
So what's the good news?  Well, thousands of pounds being invested in businesses in our area through the regional growth fund.  PD Ports, Johnson Matthey, Tioxide, Darchem, Able UK and more - all submitted bids for investment.  Once through the due diligence stage that'll safeguard jobs in some and create new jobs in others - excellent news on top of the first round successes.  So the government gets some things right - pity it can't get the environmental stuff right too.  Because, as Chris Huhne is so fond of telling us, Green Investment produces jobs.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

More Skateboard talk

Following our chat with the young people yesterday about where they can play on their BMX and microscooters the Parish Council's recreation committee agreed informally to progress to a meeting with interested parties.  Thinking that Stockton Council's youth service might at least be an interested party I contacted them to ask if we could hold the meeting one evening when the local youth club is meeting so that any who are interested could come along.  The response?  A phone call to say "I understand you want to be involved in our consultation on skate boarding"!  No, say I, I want to provide a facility. 
Ah, we're doing a borough wide consultation on a strategy
Well, the young people in Eaglescliffe don't need a strategy - they need a facility
Well they could be part of our consultation on the strategy.

Eventually I had an agreement that the Parish can use the room for the meeting we want to hold, but I'm not holding my breath.  I might be wrong but I wouldn't be at all surprised if when that officer's boss comes back from holiday the room is no longer available as we're trying to step outside the borough wide strategy.  Watch this space.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Around and About the Ward

Alan and I spent the morning walking round the areas of what used to be council housing in the days when such a thing existed in Stockton.  Doing it with a Tristar officer, the PCSO and some Stockton Council officers means that even when a problem is spotted that doesn't relate directly to a Tristar property we have people with us who can do something about it.  So pavement parking, a couple of trip hazards, some weeds needing treatment, litter, all noted and will be sorted out.  It was also a chance to catch up with officers on a couple of projects waiting for action, like Leven Close play area.  And of course for a little chat with some of the residents who popped out to speak to us.
This afternoon was spent consulting with the residents around Marion Avenue, Elton Lane, Aspen and Rowan Rd about the speeding cars, the short cut to Butterfield Drive and the safety of  school children and other vulnerable road users.  We now have two possible ways forward and will ask Stockton Council's engineers for their professional opinions of both before taking them back to our Community Participation Budget group to decide whether we can have the money for implementation of the best one.  It's been a long process but we hope will produce a good result in the end.
Walking back from there we took the chance to talk to the young people about the lack of provision for wheeled sport activity in the ward and what they'd like to see.  Again, some good suggestions and we'll move forward with them now.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Eagle Service Station

This afternoon was the launch day for the new Nisa-Today store at Eagle Service Station.  I was rather surprised to be invited along, having opposed the award of a liquor licence, but even more surprised when I found that I was invited to cut the ribbon at the opening.  It was a good opportunity to find out how the business is going and if there were any issues needing attention.  The shop certainly looks better organised and better stocked than previously, with some surprisingly competitive pricing.  I hadn't realised till today just what a big organisation Nisa is nor that it's a retailer-owned company with no large shareholders. 
We had a chat about the possibility of offering some Fairtrade products other than Cadbury's Dairy Milk, and perhaps doing a promotion during Fairtrade Fortnight.  I look forward to developing that discussion further.  I also had a look at their CCTV system which is very modern and looked quite impressive.  I haven't heard any complaints since the shop opened and I hope that continues.  16 cameras certainly means that they have the shop and the forecourt pretty well covered.
Children were enjoying being photographed with the giant teddy bear as well as having their faces painted and balloons made into all manner of shapes.  All in all, a fun afternoon.
The licensing committee of Stockton Council agreed that after 12 months of trading they'd want to see the figures to show whether the shop or the fuel has the greater sales, and if it's fuel then the liquor licence has to go - a garage can't sell alcohol but an off-licence shop can sell petrol.  Strange legal quirk, but true.  It'll be interesting to see the balance at the end of a year.  Meanwhile it seems that the owner is trying to be a good neighbour to the residents.  Let's hope it continues that way.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Allen's West Development

Public consultation day on the proposals for the Allen's West development.  I'm sad to say that there seemed to be a bit of misinformation being spread by the developers.  The proposal seems to be for over 850 houses and a residential care home or nursing home or extra care facility.  There is an indicative arrangement of housing which doesn't provide for very much play or amenity space - not a lot of communal space or ways to encourage a sense of community.  There's no sign of anything like a community centre and they seem to have convinced Stockton Council officers that it's better to extend an already existing school half a mile or more away than to build a new one which could be the centre of community activity.  On top of that they are claiming that thousands of jobs will be created in the construction and the supply chain, but are saying that the work will take about 20 years to complete the building.  That sounds more like a few hundred jobs lasting 20 years than thousands of jobs at any stage. 
They are also claiming that Stockton will benefit from the New Homes Bonus but I suspect that's exaggerated too - I'm trying to get to the bottom of exactly what can be expected if the development goes ahead over a 20 year time frame.
I worry that the site will be developed by a succession of different builders and we will have problems for years of getting the "unproductive" work done like finishing roads and public open spaces.  We had it on Kingsmead which is a lot smaller development and we don't want those problems on Allen's West. 
Now we just need to wait and see if they take any notice of comments people made or if the same plans go in with the application.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why are our schools free if poor country children have to pay?

That was the question from one child this morning during a discussion on Fairtrade and its impact on the families who benefit.  Why don't we share our money with the poorer countries?  was another.  Very profound questions and not ones that could easily be answered.  They were super children whose willingness to think about the subject really did exceed that of many adults.  The school had centred its harvest festival on Fairtrade with great ingenuity - there were poems on pineapples and oranges, songs about cauliflowers and bananas, a brilliant rewrite of "Sugar sugar", interesting facts about apples and tea - in fact masses of information which really meant that I didn't have to say much.  They'd said it all, and in a way that showed they understood many of the issues. 
At council tonight it was the turn of adults - the council reaffirmed its commitment to Fairtrade and I had the opportunity to remind people that it isn't just in council that it matters but in everyone's lifestyle.  I'm not sure that all the adults were as keen as the children were this morning.
Before the council meeting we had a presentation from Eastern Ravens on the Young Carers Aloud project, an effort to give young carers in the borough a real voice and to convince the professionals dealing with their families to listen to them and included them in the decision making process.  It was heart wrenching to hear stories of children as young as 5 helping their parents who couldn't cope for various reasons - physical illness, mental illness, physical disabilities, learning difficulties - different for every family but all real, all needing help.
The highlight of the council meeting was the first item when 4 long serving but now retired councillors became Honorary Aldermen of the Borough.   Suzanne and John Fletcher were amongst them and I didn't have words to adequately sum up what they have contributed to the borough during their combined 54 years of service - the change in how councillors address each other in meetings, the changes to how members of opposition parties are given information, the extra openness and transparency, the way in which people are treated when they have dealings with the council - none of them big things that can be pointed to in the way that a major cabinet decision or important report can be highlighted, but so very important.  And how to describe the work they did in their wards without making it sound as though no-one else can ever take over from them?  The hours and hours spent resolving problems for individuals, which no-one else knows about.  And the work they did to further the cause of Fairtrade in the borough, and which they continue to do, which seems to have gone full circle from where I started.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Allen's West Crossing

Good coverage this morning by BBC Tees for the campaign to make the crossing safer.  Network Rail say that it fulfils safety requirements.  As Alan Lewis said "If it does then all I can say is that national safety standards need looking at". 
Stockton Council have promised a gate on the South East side to prevent children running up the slope straight onto the line.  We're going to keep pressing for more than that so that more children can walk safely too and from school.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Where does our plastic & cardboard go?

Aluminium cans
This afternoon the Environment committee had the opportunity of a site visit to the plant at Hartlepool which deals with the cardboard and plastic recycling we put out in our white bags.  It was a noisy but fascinating visit.  Seeing the cardboard & plastic, mixed with paper and cans from other authorities that don't do kerbside sorting, being shaken and blown about to separate out the various kinds of material confirms yet again the ingenuity of mankind.  An infra-red plastic detector which then blows the plastic bottle up into one conveyor while letting the heavier cartons go down into another looked a bit like something James Bond might have had a use for.

The noise is deafening in parts of the plant and ear defenders are needed, but it's all in a good cause.  The final stage is a manual separation of things that have ended up in the wrong place (machines can't do everything) and that section of the plant seemed to be staffed by mainly if not entirely Polish workers.  Safety notices were in Polish as well as English, showing at least a recognition of some responsibility for the staff.
The finished products are baled up and sent to recycling plants that need that resource or can further refine it - cardboard and paper to the paper mill, aluminium to the smelter, drink cartons to a plant which can separate the cardboard from the plastic from the foil in them, plastic bottles to a specialist plant that can separate the different kinds of plastic and so on.  Brown cardboard is separated from other kinds as it's stronger and can be reused to make cardboard whereas the lighter card goes to make such things as tissues.  Clear polythene is more valuable than coloured carrier bags and gets packaged separately.  So it goes on - each material being packaged up to be taken to the appropriate market place. 

So putting that cardboard and plastic in the white bag is worth it - the material is used again.  But please don't put in the light, crinkly plastic that doesn't recycle - do look for the recycling mark on the containers.  That way the material produced is of the highest quality and gets the best price, with a consequent impact on our council tax!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Education, education, education

That could have been the title of the Members Policy Update earlier this evening - presentations on developments in the 3 phases of education.  A whistle stop tour of the compulsory 5-16 stage left us breathless but with a sense that at the moment schools in Stockton are working together remarkably well despite the best efforts of successive governments to introduce ever more variety of type and governance.  Maybe we're old fashioned in Stockton but heads and governors seem to like to feel part of the big family of schools, even when able to go off and do things independently.  Whether that will continue if the Free School at Ingleby Barwick goes forward who knows?  Only time will tell.
At the stage which used to be called 6th Form there's a wide range of bodies providing education - we have two hugely successful 11-18 schools which provide not just for young people in their traditional catchment area but for a wider range once they're over 16.  We have a very successful 6th form college, providing a wide range of courses and seeing growth in the number of young people wanting to study science and maths.  We have a further education college on two sites, one providing a more traditional academic approach than the other and so catering for a wide range of students.  Then there are numerous organisations providing teaching and learning in the workplace for modern apprentices and trainees in a variety of fields.  As was pointed out by the head of the 6th form college - in  Stockton you can study every subject except agriculture, and for that you only have to go to Guisborough!
And then there's the university sector - Durham's Queen's campus in Stockton and Teesside in Middlesbrough.  I guess I'm biased as a former student but I do admire Teesside's commitment to developing courses which bridge the skills gap in the area while at the same time they manage to provide some top quality computer related engineering courses. 
But what was really refreshing today was the upbeat approach of the Vice Chancellor of Teesside Uni, pointing out the good aspects of the current government's approach to funding.  The fact that students don't start paying back till they're earning £21K or more, and that there are grants and fee waivers for lots of students from poorer backgrounds to help them to access the courses.  As he pointed out, the alternatives could have been far worse.  It was relatively easy to fund free higher education when only 8% of young people went to university.  Now with over 40% it's not possible to keep it free, and this system means people pay less per month than under the current system.  As he said, students do understand when it's properly explained.  It's their parents and grandparents who worry at the thought of debt.
There are some flaws in the new funding ideas, some parts not properly thought through.  It's sad but true that every government iniative ever seems to have bits like that and this government is no exception!  There are some worrying times ahead for the sector but there are rays of hope as well.  It was refreshing to have them pointed out by someone who's not a politician but knows what he's talking about.

Number 87 Bus

Alan was approached by residents asking for an extension to the route of the 87 bus and has had a positive response from the bus operator:
From 30th October the bus will go along Urlay Nook Rd to the Hunters Green Roundabout meaning that it stops at Valley Gardens again.  This is the earliest date on which the change can legally be made.

It's nice to have a positive response from a bus company.  The letter finished by saying "We hope this will make the residents of Eaglescliffe happy"

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Council Tax Freeze

So George Osborne has managed to find an underspend in Whitehall of £800million has he?  Is that on top of the cuts which he expects all public services to find?  If so, has he really thought about what £800m could do for the country?  An average saving per household of £72 in a year, or a little over £1 a week will hardly be noticed in most of those homes.  Being able to afford an extra loaf of bread in the supermarket won't exactly be a huge boost to the economy or save many jobs.  But imagine investing that money in a handful of UK companies in an area like the North East - maybe companies producing solar panels so that we don't import so many from China and Korea?  Maybe companies producing insulation for solid walled houses, bringing the price of the goods down to affordable levels for more people?  Maybe even invest some of it in social housing to make sure that solar panels and top quality insulation are available to those properties too?  Jobs are created here in the UK, fuel poverty is decreased because more people can benefit from better insulation and more affordable renewable energy and so those people can spend more of their money on other things and the whole economy benefits.
But I'm not an economist and I didn't go to the right sort of school or university so perhaps I'm just a naive dreamer who doesn't understand the way things work.  I do know that the ideas being floated at the Lib Dem conference on how to invest any extra funding didn't include freezing council tax, and I wonder how come £800m can be found in a fortnight!