Sunday, February 26, 2012

What's On Your Mind?

Sunday morning at church usually brings at least one comment or question on council matters as most people know I’m a councillor, though not for the ward in which I go to church.  This morning brought a bumper crop and served as a reminder of what ordinary people are thinking about.
First up was a question on a planning application – not one in Eaglescliffe ward, but in a neighbouring patch.  While not against new housing the resident was very concerned about the lack of infrastructure planning associated with the application.  Not being familiar with the detail of the application I couldn’t answer specific questions but did point him in the direction of Planning Aid and will send him links to Stockton’s planning policies.
Next was a very interesting conversation with a young person, perhaps still at primary school, who wanted to know why the Fairtrade stall had so much Traidcraft stuff on it.  I was able to explain that Traidcraft is a company which works with producers to get them ready to trade as Fairtrade producers and then supports them to grow and diversify when they’re ready.  As a result their produce is sometimes a bit more expensive than supermarket own brand Fairtrade goods but it’s for a very good reason and worth supporting.
Follow that by questions about where Stockton Council is with regard to Yarm Parking, to which I could only reply that the Labour/IBIS cabinet take the political decisions and council officers are instructed to carry them out.  They don’t consult me nor tell me every step they’re taking, so I know no more than the Town Council does about what’s happening at Stockton Council and no more than I read in the papers about what’s happening at Yarm Town Council.  I assume that Stockton Council is preparing the consultation with residents of the High St over how best to accommodate their vehicles but I don’t know.
Finally, a discussion with an employee of Cleveland Police about the forthcoming elections of Police Commissioners.  It seems that many rank and file officers think as the Lib Dems do – electing a Police Commissioner will do nothing to improve the force and might make matters worse but electing a Police Authority/Panel/Watch committee (call it what you will) to challenge the Police and ensure that resources are properly used would be a good move.  Meanwhile, accepting that elected commissioners are going to be a reality in November he felt that politicians should not be standing.  It’s surprising how many ordinary people I meet think that this system is going to be a mistake.

Friday, February 24, 2012

More good news

Another stage in the improvements to Eaglescliffe Station was completed today - the ticket office was officially launched.  Unfortunately it's not fully operational yet because the ticket machine hasn't been delivered despite being expected over a week ago.
The Shutter rolls up on the Ticket Office
Stockton Council invested in the refurbishment of the building in partnership with Chester-le-Track who will operate it.  Grand Central Trains have supported and encouraged, because their service is very popular from Eaglescliffe and they see this station as the hub for the Teesside area.  Very unusually for a train operating company they are investing real money in the improvements, specifically to the car park, and we hope to see them taking shape later in the year.
These improvments are the culmination of years of campaigning by Lib Dem councillors for the area - first as the wards of Egglescliffe and Preston, then as the combined ward of Eaglescliffe.  Jeremy Atkinson, Mike Cherrett, John Fletcher all played their parts.  In recent years the dawning realisation that oil won't last for ever and the atmosphere can't absorb unlimited amounts of Carbon Dioxide and Nitrogen Oxides has combined with that campaign to produce a willingness on the parts of politicians, business leaders and council officers to work on solutions.  We now look forward to the better waiting facilities and car parking that are planned, along with the campaign to get the pedestrian bridge reinstated to allow residents on the other side of the line more choice of trains than they can possibly get at Allen's West, including the option of a direct train to London.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Welcome Nifco

One of the country's top plastic moulding companies moved house officially today, though in practice like many house moves it's going to take a bit of time to complete.  Nifco's new factory in Eaglescliffe was officially opened by HRH the Duke of York who spoke warmly about the company's past record in winning work and training staff and about their future prospects.  With Cllr Alan Lewis I enjoyed meeting young men (yes, all men - come on girls!!) serving their apprenticeships with the company, an undergraduate trainee, Japanese trainees over here for a year, as well as long-established staff.  Having spent time with the MD last month we knew that he was proud of the training offered to staff and the loyalty of the staff.  Today we heard at first hand that the staff agree with him, talking of being offered other jobs but wanting to stay with Nifco because it's such a good company.

We look forward to working with them on whatever's needed to help their operation succeed.

A nice touch was the fact that the plaque unveiled was made by another successful local firm - Creative Glass.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Stockton and the Olympics

Councillors were treated to an upbeat and enthusiastic briefing this afternoon on the events in the borough associated with the olympics.  It was almost enough to inspire me to take up a new sport - almost but not quite!  Those who know me of old will know that sport and me don't mix.
Nevertheless I might well be inspired to go and watch other people taking part.  There are rowing and cycling events, events for school children and for grandparents, and celebrations like the torch being carried through the borough on a Sunday afternoon in June.  So there should be something for everyone, even if it's just a good excuse for a picnic in the park.  There'll even be a big screen in the town to watch the olympics on, while enjoying your picnic!

It was all very welcome after a couple of hours of wrestling with the question of the council budget for the coming year and the painful question of whether the council should accept the grant being offered by government to keep council tax to zero this year and then hope we can cover the gap next year, or to reject the grant and put up the council tax this year so that we know we have the money in the budget for the future.  This year there are two opposing views on the council, both wanting support from other groups for their proposal.  Suffice to say at the moment that we are looking at all the options and will decide how to vote when we've seen all the figures.  Neither view will stop SBC having to cut back further on services, and if the suggestion made by the chancellor that public sector spending will have to fall further after 2014 is carried through some of those cuts will be very visible and definitely not be popular.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Democracy in Action?

Democracy is supposed to be government by the people or by their directly elected representatives, elected in a free election.  In the English system of local government, or councils, such elections take place every 4 years so the question arises of how to keep those directly elected representatives in touch with their electorate between elections.  This is a question that exercises the minds of people who care about democracy working well, in all parties and none.  At present one aspect of it is the subject of debate within Stockton council.
Traditionally councillors have held ward surgeries - setting aside an hour or so in a specific place each week or month so that members of the public can bring along their concerns, complaints, compliments or whatever.  All Stockton Councillors hold such surgeries.  In Eaglescliffe we have two per month - one on the 3rd Tuesday at either Egglescliffe Parish Hall or Egglescliffe community centre and one on the first Friday at Trinity Methodist Church. None of them are well used, apart from occasionally when there's been a controversial issue such as a planning application which most people oppose.  Over an average 12 month period only a handful of people approach us in this way.
Over the same period

  • we send emails to hundreds of people a month, giving information, encouraging participation in consultations or asking for views on things that are happening in the area.  
  • We send out Focus leaflets to every home in the ward, thanks to the army of volunteer deliverers to whom we are indebted.
  • we carry out resident surveys, knock on doors to consult on specific issues, walk and cycle round the streets chatting to those we meet
  • we answer the phone to those who ring us with problems, concerns and even compliments either for council staff or us
  • we use this blog, facebook, twitter and the Stockton Lib Dem website to keep in touch
  • we use "street surgeries" in fine weather, dropping a note to let people know on what day and at what time we'll be in their street.
Add to them the informal contacts when at the school fair or the shops or the hairdresser or wherever it might be, and we do wonder whether asking the council to pay for the venue for a ward surgery and all the attendant costs of making the bookings, putting the times on the website etc are worth it.  Would our time be better spent in some other way?

Alan Lewis and I are happy to go on holding ward surgeries if Eaglescliffe residents want us to do so.  But if you genuinely think resources would be better spent in some other way we'd listen to you with interest.  So do let us know what you think.
A plea, though - if you comment on this posting please say where you're from.  If you'd rather email directly then please do.  Interesting though views from outside the ward might be, it's the people of Eaglescliffe who need to decide this one.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Our Airport, DTV or Teesside

After months of uncertainty over its viability and wondering whether we'd even have an airport in the Tees Valley in a few months' time, Friday's announcement of the sale of Shares to Peel Investments brings some relief.  Sadly, it doesn't bring the certainty we crave.  The airport is undoubtedly of great value to some people in the area.  We know for instance of businesses in the borough who find the ability to fly their staff anywhere in the world from an airport on their doorstep a huge advantage.  There are holidaymakers who enjoy the convenience of flying from a local airport, but there are far more who complain that they can't fly to where they want to go.
So what can we expect now?  I don't know, I'm not on the inside of Peel Investments and I have no way of knowing what their plans are.  I do know what I hope for.  I hope that they will work with KLM to promote the international possibilities for flights from Teesside; I hope they will look for other possibilities for commercial flights to broaden the opportunities for holiday travel at reasonable prices; I hope they'll work seriously with the local authorities to develop uses for the remainder of the site in order to supplement the income and increase the viability of the site as a whole; and I'd like them to stop calling it Durham Tees Valley - it has nothing to do with Durham and everything to do with Teesside.  Let's not put obstacles in the path of tourists finding us!
And at some point in the not too distant future I'd love all the necessary bodies to agree and act on putting a rail link nearer to the terminal building instead of so far away that it's a struggle to see the terminal from the platform and certainly too far to walk with luggage.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Station Rd Waiting Restrictions

As rail travel from Eaglescliffe station has grown in popularity the station car park has been increasingly filled by commuters' cars, with a reduction in the space available for people working in and visiting the businesses on Station Rd.  A proposal from Stockton council for a residents parking permit scheme was rejected by residents who did not believe that there was a significant problem yet.  Some businesses have expressed a desire to have some restrictions on long-stay parking so that their customers can come and go freely so Stockton council are again consulting, this time on whether to introduce such restrictions.  Some residents are concerned that this would mean they couldn't park near their homes during the day.  As ward councillors Alan Lewis and I are passing on all comments and suggestions to the officers conducting the consultation.  The plans are available on the Stockton Lib Dem website and comments need to be completed by Monday.

Meanwhile the new ticket office is progressing well and should soon be in operation.  The next phases of improvements will include the car park, providing more spaces with a better lay-out.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Northern Lights and other things

OK, I confess that I've had another holiday, this time to celebrate (albeit a little late) hubby's retirement.  We've just returned from a short break to Finnish Lapland in a little village near the Russian border.  In fact, the road sign at the only major junction in the area pointed towards Murmansk.
Like all good holidays, in my estimation at least, there was some relaxation, some effort and some learning.  Part of the learning was about relations between the neighbouring countries.  World Wars have a nasty habit of ending with as many problems as they started with, and relations between Russia and Finland seem to have been a casualty of the last one, at least so far as people in Lappi are concerned.  The loss of a part of their precious country still hurts and the change to the way of life of the native people of the area is irreparable.  The reindeer herders are now settled in houses, guiding the reindeer to the areas they can reach rather than following the reindeer through the wilderness.   Borders are more rigid than they were 100 years ago, and lifestyles have had to change to suit the lines drawn by politicians.
Interestingly, we were told that the people who have the most difficulty in obtaining visas to cross from Finland into Russia are the British!
More light-hearted learning came when we visited a reindeer herder and saw some of the animals at close quarters.  It turns out that Rudolph is female (or perhaps a castrated male) - Disney eat your heart out.  Those lovely antlers only remain on the females during winter!
Learning to work with a husky team wasn't as easy as it looks, though great fun.  Driving a snow-mobile is hard work and demands concentration and skill.  I know many a Guide leader who'd love to have a supply of bone-dry wood like we had for those few days.  Shave a few bits off, strike a match and behold the fire is blazing!
But the best bit was definitely seeing the Northern Lights, even if we did brave -41 degrees to do it.  Never again will I complain of cold weather here.  Photos don't capture the effect, but here's one anyway.  An almost full moon meant that the landscape showed up well on the photos too.

A magnificent sight, and well worth travelling that distance for.

Now, back to work!