Saturday, December 07, 2013

Cosmopolitan Stockton

In celebration of Small Business Saturday and keeping my shopping relatively local I decided to buy only what I could get in Stockton town centre this afternoon.  I knew that I could get good quality meat for tomorrow’s dinner and decent potatoes to supplement the greens and carrots from the allotment.  What I didn’t know was whether I could get the other things I wanted.
For most of this year my trips to shops in Stockton, and for that matter elsewhere, have been very focused, generally rushed and not taking in anything about other shops around.  This afternoon I decided it was time to “Rediscover Stockton” as the Council’s slogan keeps encouraging me.
First on the list were some cards other than Christmas - people do have birthdays and anniversaries at this time of year too.  That was reasonably easy and fairly quickly achieved.  The butcher was straightforward too, and I even remembered to order the turkey for Christmas.  The greengrocer was a pleasure to deal with, discussing the merits of different items on the stall and selecting goodies for me from his very tempting display.  I couldn’t conjure up a need for cake from the bakery that’s opened since last I looked in the Castlegate centre, nor even a desire for a Wonka’s doughnut, but both stalls were doing a steady trade.  The fish stall had very depleted stock so late in the afternoon but I still had a choice of salmon, cod, sea bass and more.  I’m not sure I’d have had that choice in the supermarket, nor the chat about favourite recipes for them all.
As I walked round, looking at the displays and trying to weigh up what was best to take home with me, I realised another change since the last time I’d taken time to look and listen - the cosmopolitan nature of the crowd.  There were faces and languages from all corners of the globe as well as from all parts of the UK.  We’re a much more varied borough than we used to be.  It felt like being in a small city rather than a provincial market town and that surprised me.  Having been born and brought up here, worked as a volunteer and then a paid tutor in ESOL, I haven’t heard that wonderful comfortable mix before - I’ve been in too much of a hurry to feel my home town growing and changing round me for the last few years.
After all the mockery from some residents towards the Christmas decorations in the High Street it was interesting to hear a lady turn to her companion and say “Isn’t that bonny”, pointing to the “tree”.  And to be sure, in the dark it does look good with the lights chasing round the cone.
Further on, and people walking past the demolished Lindsay House and looking forward to the fencing being down and seeing the view.  One man said “It would be better if they planted a few trees”.  “They will” said his companion, “The council’ll want trees”.
And so past another cafe, a hand-made jewellery shop, traditional sweets, on to the Christmas market and the chance to buy a wreath made by the prisoners at HMP Kirklevington Grange and to envy those who have log fires and could have one of the lovely wrought iron log baskets they were selling.  A final stop for take-away Jamaican curry to take home for our meal and the afternoon had gone.  

An early new year resolution has been made - to make time more often to just wander and shop and enjoy rediscovering my home town and its new multicultural offerings.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Local Democracy

This afternoon I was at Municipal Buildings in Stockton to support Save Stockton South as they handed in their petition to the council.  This umbrella organisation of pressure groups has worked very hard over the last couple of months to get more than 2000 signatures on a petition calling on Stockton council to review its planning decisions, following some of the most inconsistent and ludicrous decisions imaginable.  The petitioners had made an appointment to hand in the petition to the Council's Head of Law & Democracy but were greeted by Cllr Bob Cook, Labour leader of the Council, who in turn presented the group with copies of a motion to be put to the next council meeting by the Labour group.  Their motion, obviously designed to placate the petitioners, calls on the council to ask the MPs for Stockton to lobby government for changes in the National Planning Policy Framework.  But as one of the campaigners said, they can't blame it all on the NPPF.

National policies have always taken precedence over local ones since the concept of Town and Country planning was introduced.  There had to be a local plan, but in conformity with the national policies and guidance.  Then the Labour government introduced what was supposed to be an easier system, more flexible and able to respond to changing local need.  The Local Development Framework was born, or at least was conceived.  The amount of consultation and response to each stage of consultation meant that the LDF became even more cumbersome than the local plan.  Stockton's LDF seemed to take longer than many because planning officers and senior politicians seemed to be in super-cautious mode.  Just as Stockton finally got the first document in place the housing market crashed, developers said they couldn't build the houses they'd expected to build and the housing section of the LDF had to be rewritten.  Enter the NPPF, giving a fairly short period of time to convert the LDF into a Local Plan or face the consequences.  Stockton was left with a set of planning documents which didn't accurately reflect the housing market in the area.  Consultations were ongoing.  Did they try to stop development while getting the policies right?  Not a chance.  Did they try to argue that having almost 5 years' supply of deliverable housing was OK while they sorted out where the rest would go?  Not a chance.

Some approvals were given which, though not welcome, were expected.  Some refusals came which were very welcome and sometimes unexpected.  But then came the one that really put the cat among the pigeons - a proposal for a retirement village in the Green Wedge in the most tranquil part of the Tees Heritage Park.  Hundreds of objections, planning officer recommends refusal, planning committee agree with him and refuse it.   Developer goes to appeal and in the meantime submits a revised application, still not acceptable.  Again hundreds of objections, again planning officer recommends refusal as it's still considered unsafe by the Highway experts as well as being an intrusion into the green wedge.  But this time the planning committee approves it.  Where's the sense?  Where's the consistency?  Where are SBC policies?

Hence the petition.  Hence the fact that although the NPPF is not perfect and does need reform, the campaigners also want SBC to look at itself, look at how it makes decisions, and learn some lessons.  Thanks to the democratic process they're being forced to do that.  2500 people have demanded that the debate be held.  Now it's up to their elected representatives to listen.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Yarm Parking Proposals

This morning I sent in my objection to the Yarm Pay & Display proposals from Stockton Council, concentrating on the impact on Eaglescliffe.  I leave the consideration of the impact on Yarm to those who represent that ward.
My objection is given below:
I wish to register my objection to the scheme proposed for Yarm High Street on the following grounds:
The research done prior to drawing up the scheme has a fundamental flaw in that it did not look into the current pattern of use of the existing spaces. As a result any estimate of the impact of charging can only be a guess. There is no estimate of the potential impact on the surrounding areas such as Egglescliffe Village, Butts Lane, St Margaret's estate, South View and The Crescent in Eaglescliffe ward which I represent. These areas already suffer some displaced parking owing to there being insufficient long stay parking in Yarm centre.
There is no confirmed provision of extra Long Stay parking in this scheme yet the current Long Stay provision on Yarm High Street would be removed, making it very likely that this would be displaced into Eaglescliffe ward areas detailed above as well as areas south of Yarm High St.

Although residents of parts of Eaglescliffe were included in the original leaflet consultation some years ago there has been no further consultation with the residents of the areas most likely to suffer from the charges, nor any consultation with the ward councillors other than that which has applied to all SBC councillors.   

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Skate park update

This morning ward councillors and Stockton Council officers met on site in Preston Park to look at the development of the skate facility.  Although the initial drawings show the whole site being more or less filled it's more likely that only about two thirds of the available land will be taken up with the jumps etc.  The rest will be available for some landscaping and for what I've described as an outdoor visitor centre - an area which can include some explanatory boards, signs to the various areas of the park, perhaps some seating and some good trees to provide shade and variety in the landscape.
The crazy golf is certainly showing signs of old age, but by working with the person running it at present it now seems possible that a mobile crazy golf could be set up in summer to give even more variety to the activities on offer in the park.
We also looked at possible extra footpaths, particularly to give safe and level access from the woodland entrance used by many people who arrive by bus or walking from the station or from the southern part of Eaglescliffe.  At the moment there is a problem of visibility when returning from the park to that path, because of the trees and shrubs to the rear of Butterfly World, but some changes there could open up the view and make it both easier and safer to cross.
Changes to car parking are also being planned for the longer term, to enable a better flow of vehicles in and out of the park and to make it safer for pedestrians.  Watch out - the speed humps might grow!
The money available for the skate facility won't cover all the costs of other work of course, and ward councillors have agreed that looking towards using some of our ward budget would be a good way to help with the cost of footpaths and such like.  It was also suggested that Preston Parish Council might like to raise a precept for a year to help, but that might not be so popular.  I can understand people not wanting to pay extra for a facility which will be enjoyed by people from all over the North East region.
We'll have a better idea of costs when the plans are drawn up in the next few weeks, but speaking personally I feel excited that at long last a plan is being worked up which is realistic and affordable rather than the ones produced by consultants in the past which were neither without large amounts of outside funding.  I hope that the young people who've been consulted on the design will recognise their input when it's completed.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A week in the life of a councillor - a very personal view

It’s been brought to my attention that another councillor is castigating me for not attending meetings earlier this week, saying that he’s sure people expect their councillors to attend meetings.  All I can say is that meetings are only valuable if we learn something or contribute something to them.
As a council group leader I attend a lot of briefing sessions with senior officers and pass on the information to my group.  At those briefings I can raise the questions that I want to, get answers and discuss them in some detail.  I don’t find it productive to sit through the same briefing being given for other councillors.  I do find it productive to respond to the phone calls and emails from residents with real concerns about their day to day life, and to go out and knock on doors to see whether those concerns are shared by many others.
As it happens, over the past week I've had meetings about transport, about the local library, about inconsiderate parking, about the changes to the electoral registration system which will have a huge impact over the next 3 years, about what’s happening in the surrounding area including the crime figures but also road safety concerns and the problems of the youth & community centre in a neighbouring village, discussions on the impact of some of the savings identified in the Cabinet recommendation on the budget for Stockton Council and whether to oppose any of them or suggest alternatives, plans for the summer event being organised jointly by the parish council and the Egglescliffe Area Residents Association, discussions on the impact of storm surges on sewers that are already at or near capacity, and more.
But much more importantly, in my opinion if not in the opposition councillor’s opinion, I’ve sat with a very frightened, sick relative, holding her hand and trying to bring a little comfort.  I’ve had meetings with health staff and carers.  None of this is a part of being a councillor, but it’s a part of being me.  And I hope it helps me to understand when someone else needs to be somewhere other than where I might have expected them to be.  It certainly helps me to understand when residents contact me with problems relating to sickness and disability.
And now, having said all that, I shall get on with chasing up the repair to the broken manhole, the two consultations that need to be carried out in parts of the ward and following up the problems with disability living allowance for a resident without family to help her.  All in a day's work for a councillor and not a formal meeting to be seen there.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Egglescliffe Library

Last night’s meeting of Stockton Council's cabinet approved the cuts in Library services that we’ve been expecting.  For the next 12 months or so Egglescliffe will be guaranteed at least 17 hours a week of opening.  That’s a reduction of 50% on our present opening hours, but at least there’s still a library.  It’s a sign of changing times that many people prefer to read from electronic gadgets rather than paper books, and those who like paper books often find that picking up a paper-back in the supermarket is preferable to a special trip to the library.
Egglescliffe library doesn’t have enough people using it for the amount it costs to run and maintain the building.  We’re in the situation of having a sizeable share of our population which uses cars to go most places, and perhaps Yarm or Stockton library is more convenient for them.  But we also have a significant number of older, less mobile people and young children for whom a trip to the Library at Egglescliffe is a lifeline.  
Stockton Council would like to cut their costs by finding a more suitable location.  Perhaps if they’d thought ahead they could have included a newer build on the new Junction Farm School extension but it’s too late for that now.  They had their sights set on the Allen’s West development but that’s at least 10 years away if it’s ever built.  
Meanwhile, use it or lose it is the catch phrase. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Area Transport Strategy

Twice a year a group meets with the rather grand title of Western Area Transport Strategy Steering Group.  It's made up of representatives from Preston, Eaglescliffe, Yarm, Kirklevington, Long Newton and surrounding areas - elected ward councillors, parish councillors, police and residents' groups.  At the first meetings some years ago the participants were asked to set some priorities for travel and transport in the area.  Each year Stockton Council allocates a budget to it and the money can be spent on any projects which will help towards those priorities.  Perhaps not surprisingly, road safety and the movement of HGVs through Yarm and Eaglescliffe have been high on the list for years.
Tonight's meeting allocated almost £45k - some to studies in order to see what if anything can be done to improve safety on Yarm Rd and the A67, mostly in Eaglescliffe but also in Western Parishes ward and a little in Yarm; a look at Long Newton lane to see what can be done to try to keep it as safe as possible bearing in mind the increasing amount of traffic likely to flow along there when new housing is built in Eaglescliffe; consultation on and possible installation of traffic calming in Muirfield Rd; the possibility of closure of a little used and poorly maintained road in Kirklevington parish, and a contribution towards a major scheme to help pedestrian access to Levendale School in Yarm.
Unlike some areas of the borough our budget was adequate for our needs, so there was no haggling needed, no arguments over who should have what in their ward.  As always in the Western Area meetings party politics seem to be left at the door and people in the room are willing to listen carefully, share ideas and support schemes in parts of the area they don't know or have any personal interest in.  Long may it continue so!
We also made a little list of things that need to be looked at and tackled outside of this budget - Network Rail to paint a fence at Allen's West, Vehicle activated signs to be serviced or replaced as their useful life draws to a close, and a bollard to stop inconsiderate parking.
In the autumn we will reconvene and hear more detail of some of the schemes, progress reports and decisions that might have to be taken in the light of the work being done between now and then.
If only all meetings were as productive as that.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Margaret Thatcher - a personal view

It has taken me some time to write anything about the life or death of Mrs Thatcher since her death was announced last week.  Unlike many who have spoken loudly in praise or condemnation I lived through her premiership.  I saw at first hand the changes that took place and I wept at some of them.
I cringed on the day she first entered 10 Downing St as its rightful occupier when she quoted the prayer of St Francis, not because the prayer doesn’t contain laudable sentiments, but because it sounded as though she saw herself as some kind of messianic figure who was going to bring peace and harmony to a disturbed world.  A bit of humility at the size of the task in hand would have been more to my liking.
I wept when privatisation of one national utility after another was carried out.  I could not then, and cannot now, understand why making a profit for shareholders should automatically make a body more efficient.  I am convinced that with the right approach and the right people in place it should be possible to run state-controlled industries efficiently but with the best interests of the country at heart.  Now we’re in a position where no ordinary person knows quite where our electricity, water, gas come from nor who controls our transport; where fragmentation rather than co-ordination seems to be the order of the day and where global shareholders are more important than the British citizens who need and use the utilities.
I didn’t like the way that the right to buy a council house was introduced, with no corresponding mechanism for building replacements.  The legacy of that is all around us now, with property owning seen as the only real way to have a home, and affordability a joke in wards like Eaglescliffe.
I hated the confrontational attitude to the rest of Europe, and I’m still not convinced that the lives lost in the Falklands war were in any way justified.  Sure, the residents of the Falklands might not have enjoyed being under Argentinian rule but were they really at serious risk of death or torture?
So at the end of her life what do I feel?  To be honest, not a lot.  It’s a long time since she was Prime Minister.  Her legacy isn’t changed by her death.  Living out her last months in an expensive hotel room seems a sad reflection of her life - no such thing as society?  Yes there is, but it seems that in death as in much of her public life she wasn’t part of it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Wheeled sports at Preston Park

The first consultation with probable users of the proposed skate park was today.  For the first time this month the weather was spring like, which was just as well considering the amount of kit set up outside and the number of people of all ages watching the demonstrations.  Lots of young people tried out the jumps themselves, at times perhaps surprising themselves at what they could achieve.

It's about 20 years since I first became aware of a desire in Eaglescliffe for such a place, and it's taken a long time and a lot of personnel changes at Stockton Council for it to be taken seriously.  For too long we were told that skate boarding or BMX was only a passing fad.  Patience is a virtue we're told.  We've certainly been able to practice!

The skills that these young people demonstrated today have to be seen to be believed - not just amazing physical strength, courage and coordination but sharing, cooperation, courtesy, helping those less skilled.  All really useful skills for life.  As one mum of 4 young boys said, it's so much better for them than spending all day with computer games.

And one 80 year old said she wished they had something like that where she lives because she so much enjoyed watching them.
The next stage is to get some proposed designs from skate park builders and to let people see them and comment on them, before one is chosen and the building starts.  This time next year we'll be looking forward to the opening.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Shape of Schools to come

Yesterday I was one of a group of councillors taken on a tour of the new North Shore Academy.  The school holds a particular interest for me, not just as the first completely newly built secondary school in the borough for a number of years, but also because one of the schools which closed to form the new academy was the one at which my husband had been among the first to gain his school leaving certificate shortly after it opened as Roseworth Secondary Modern School.
Main hall & dining space
Something like 40 years later the old school has seen its last pupils.  The furniture is being moved into the new building and after an extended Easter break of 3 weeks the staff and pupils will follow it.
Gym, with mirror wall
School design has come a long way in 40 years.  This school has no hidden corners where errant pupils can avoid supervision.  I has a huge ground source heat pump to warm the building via radiators in winter and a large array of photovoltaic cells on the sports hall roof to provide some of the electricity needed.  Although the school is very well insulated and will not need a lot of gas to top up the heating it will need a great deal of electrical power to feed all the computers and other technology.  Every teaching space has the facility for using laptops or desktop computers.  White boards are screened from the sun so that they can be better seen.  CCTV watches staircases and open spaces even when teachers are otherwise engaged.  There are big open areas as well as individual classrooms so that staff can choose the best environment for the kind of lessons they are teaching.  There's a wonderful technology suite with up to the minute woodworking tools and machines.  There's drama space and a recording studio, a music suite and comfy dining area.  Certainly people can't blame the building if teaching and learning doesn't happen.
Adjoining the school is MyPlace, the youth and community centre for the borough.  People using that area during the day are securely locked out of the school, but the school can use parts of it and securely lock out the public.  In fact it's hard to tell which parts of the building are for community use and which are solely for the school's use.
I'll be interested to go back in 2 or 3 years' time to see how the spaces are actually being used, as opposed to how the architects think they'll be used.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

National Apprenticeship Week

More than 2600 people were on an apprenticeship last year in Stockton-on-Tees thanks to the Liberal Democrats in government. That is a huge increase of 111% compared to the last year of Labour’s government.

These figures are a big boost for apprenticeships and young people in our borough which comes as National Apprenticeship Week is underway, aiming to raise awareness and celebrate the successes of the apprenticeship scheme.

Apprenticeships are a brilliant way for young people to learn the skills and get the experience necessary for a successful career but successive recent governments have pushed university education at the expense of apprenticeships.

Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government have promoted and invested heavily in apprenticeships because they are one of the most effective ways of helping young people get jobs. Apprenticeships also allow us to build a stronger economy, with a highly-skilled and flexible workforce.

Apprenticeships rely on employers making opportunities available.  Where they do, as in Nifco, the company benefits as well as the young person.  Someone who serves an apprenticeship doesn’t just know the theory of the job but understands how to put it into practice in that workplace.

National Apprenticeship Week is another opportunity to celebrate the success of our apprentices and for businesses to see how valuable apprentices can be to them.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Fairtrade Fortnight -busiest yet in Stockton

The last fortnight has seen more events and activity on the Fairtrade front than ever before in Stockton.  It wasn't all organised by the Fairtrade Borough Partnership but we were involved in many of the events.
Of course the planning started before Christmas and it's been great this year to have support from sections of Stockton Council which previously haven't been involved. We've had a competition between schools to produce artwork using the packaging and wrappers from Fairtrade items. The imagination shown by some of the children is amazing, as is their wider thinking around the construction of their sculptures.  For example, I wouldn't have thought of eating the fruit from the banana, stuffing the skin with yellow tissue paper, spraying it with hair spray and wrapping it in the plastic bag it came in to stop it going black and smelly.

The Rediscover Stockton shop on Stockton High Street has provided a lovely display space for the results and they're staying there for another week or two to give people the chance to see them.  On Thursday the Mayor visited and selected the winning item, a farmer watering his crops, constructed entirely of Fairtrade wrappers.  It must have taken a great deal of thought and work and is a worthy winner.  Now I'm waiting for the school to let me know how many children were involved so that we can produce their certificates and prizes.
Meanwhile a stall on Stockton market gave a chance for people to buy some Fairtrade items that aren't readily available in local shops as well as getting information.  Being able to man that stall for two days was great.
All Saints Church at Hartburn was full last Friday for a talk from three people who'd been on "Meet the People" tours to meet the people who make some of the products sold by Traidcraft.  Tours of Vietnam and Sri Lanka were described with the aid of slides and samples of the crafts produced there. Fascinating and well worth hearing.  It made us even keener to go on such a tour when eventually I retire!
On Monday the turnout was less impressive but those who heard Paul Chandler, CEO of Traidcraft, talk about the work of Traidcraft and the challenges for the future were enthusiastic and attentive listeners and had plenty of questions afterwards.  Strangely, the samples of Fairtrade wine didn't find many takers!  I'm sure the university will find a use for the bottles they had left.
A Fairtrade coffee morning at Norton library, Big Brew at Preston Park and the annual Fairtrade cafe at Egglescliffe CE primary all drew good numbers of people and we hope some of them learned more about Fairtrade than they knew before.  At the very least they enjoyed some Fairtrade drinks.
The one sour note of the fortnight was the failure to have a motion in support of Fairtrade passed at Stockton Council.  Despite attempts to communicate with the Council leader we had no response on the proposal from the Partnership until the day before Council when a very basic motion was proposed.  I didn't have time to contact all the members of the partnership but those who did read it and respond weren't happy at all.  As a result I withdrew our motion and made a public invitation to the Leader and relevant cabinet member to come to a meeting of the partnership and discuss the problems they see with our motion.  I've now sent them the list of partnership meeting dates and await their answer.
Other than that, though, it was a very successful fortnight and well worth the effort of organising the events.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Ingleby Barwick Free school

Stockton Council's planning committee today had the unenviable task of determining the planning application for the Free school for Ingleby Barwick.  It's a very strange process, completely contradicting the principles of the Localism Act.
Local people want more school places in Ingleby Barwick - fact.  Many councillors across a range of parties agree with them.  Ingleby started with a wonderful master plan but for whatever reasons, long before I became involved, the master plan fell into disarray and disuse.  Hundreds upon hundreds of houses were built, but the infrastructure for education and recreation wasn't there.  Over the years primary schools were built but it's less than a decade since the first secondary was built and even before it was built it was under size and over budget.
Campaigners had hopes for the Building Schools for the Future programme, but it was never planned to deliver for Ingleby and its withdrawal left them no better but no worse off.  When Michael Gove announced his "Free School" initiative they jumped at it and started to prepare their bid.  As the bid progressed through its various stages the divergence of this policy from those of the localism act became apparent.
The government has said that Ingleby Barwick should have a Free school.  It doesn't provide the land on which to build it, but if the land is made available then the capital for the actual building will be made available.  Who has the necessary amount of land going spare?  A landowner on the edge of the town who also wants to build houses on his land which is in the green wedge.  He sees a golden opportunity - donate the land for the school in return for permission to build houses in the green wedge.
So a planning application goes in, not for a school but for a school with 350 houses.  Those 350 houses will contain children.  Recent experience in Ingleby Barwick indicates that they will produce about 90 extra primary age children.  There aren't 90 extra places in the whole of Ingleby.  So the campaigners say, never mind - we'll apply to build a primary school as well if that's what's needed!
In theory the local council is the local planning authority and can decide on its own policies and then see if the application fits into them or not.  But here we have the government minister saying that the school is needed and will be allowed, though not commenting on whether the site is suitable.  Of course the education minister doesn't have any say on the housing element.  The planning committee is told that they must look at the matter in light of planning policies, regardless of the need for the school.
On the day, everyone on the committee seemed to feel that if the school application had come alone it would probably have been approved - a school building surrounded by playing fields and with suitable landscaping could be accommodated in the green wedge because the need for the school places is so strong.  But only one person felt it was acceptable to have 350 houses in the green wedge as the price for that land and she represents one of the Ingleby Barwick wards.
Interestingly, the Tory councillor for Eaglescliffe couldn't make his mind up and didn't vote. There's not a lot of point in sitting on that committee and then not casting a vote and not explaining why.
Now the application will go to appeal and be decided by an inspector or even the secretary of state, but Stockton Council has stuck to its policy on Green Wedges and I'm pleased.  I just wish the houses hadn't been the price for the school.  If Michael Gove really believes that Ingleby Barwick deserves a school he should have allocated funding for the land on which to build it.  It's cheating the people who've worked so hard to tell them that they can have a school but they have to provide the land.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Investing in Tobacco

On Wednesday 23rd January Cllr Julia Cherrett proposed a Lib Dem motion calling for the Council to encourage the trustees of the Teesside Pension Fund to look at their investments in tobacco companies.  This is the fund which carries the pension investment of thousands of public sector workers and councillors - generally not big investments for each individual but a significant sum in total.

As Julia pointed out, the responsibility for public health becomes the council's in April this year.  It seems somewhat hypocritical to invest millions in the tobacco companies to enable them to continue to expand and encourage even more people across this borough and the rest of the world to take up a life-threatening and addictive habit.

So what did the Labour group do?  They decided that they would send the matter to the committee which is looking at tobacco control in the borough, conveniently forgetting that it was a senior Labour member of that committee who'd suggested it needed to be a motion to council in the first place!  Julia chairs that committee and had brought the subject up during a committee meeting.  It seems that Labour councillors have very short memories when it suits.

Unfortunately for them, they seem to have forgotten to check with the MP for Stockton North whether he was doing anything that might be affected by their partisan politics.  So the MP is seen calling for a rethink of the investments on local TV and pointing out in the local paper that the work on improving public health is in conflict with investing in tobacco companies.

Lib Dems agree with him, on this and on other campaigning messages about cutting down on smoking and its bad effects.  We have supported votes at council calling for plain packaging on cigarettes, moves to make taxis smoke-free and more.  We didn't mind who proposed them - if they're good policy we'll support them.  What a pity his own party couldn't be open-minded enough to support a move started by another.  And what a pity that so many of the Independent councillors followed Labour in voting to delay action while a committee debates the matter, takes evidence and brings a recommendation to cabinet.

Julia has written an open letter to the Stockton North MP, expressing our support for the campaigns to reduce the harm done by tobacco.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Teesside Air Show to restart?

A group of enthusiasts is trying to resurrect the air show which used to delight thousands of visitors when I first lived in Eaglescliffe, and annoy those who didn't enjoy it.  The noise of low-flying aircraft, the train being full of people heading to the airport rather than to Darlington or Middlesbrough (yes, the train did stop at the airport several times a day!), the cars parked on the A67 verges with people more interested in their binoculars or picnic than in the traffic trying to drive along the road - these all irritated some.  But thousands enjoyed the spectacle and some would like to restart it.
If you're interested there's an appeal for help in today's Northern Echo.
As the wintry weather continues remember that Stockton Council's updates on gritting, road problems, school closures etc are on Facebook and Twitter

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

There are more sensible ways to spend an afternoon than travelling around in the weather we've had today.  We haven't had anything like as bad as some parts of the country, even locally, but it's been tricky enough at times.
This afternoon we had a briefing for members of planning committee along with Ingleby Barwick, Thornaby, Eaglescliffe and Yarm councillors and planning officers on the latest developments in the traffic modelling for the areas of new housing development.  Three Eaglescliffe councillors duly travelled to Norton to find out what was being predicted as a result of the developments taking place in the area.  None of the Yarm councillors was there.  Only one of the Ingleby Barwick councillors attended and none of the Thornaby members.  Three members of planning committee and the cabinet member for regeneration and transport made up the remainder of the attendees.  8 councillors out of the 25 invited.  Granted that some are at work during the day it was still a poor attendance for what sounded like a pretty useful and important session.
As it turned out, the work that's been done so far was of least interest to the ward that was best represented!  The concentration of effort so far, understandably, has been on the traffic which would be generated by building an extra 735 houses on Green Lane.  The answer seems to be "Too much".  The developer there is probably going to have to scale back significantly on what they're planning if they want to get permission.  However, who knows the vagaries of the planning committee.  We'll have to wait until the February meeting to see what happens.
The work on the Eaglescliffe traffic will have to wait until later in the process because the Urlay Nook development isn't coming to committee just yet.

None of which helps in fighting the application for Yarm Independent School's extension into the river bank land below Egglescliffe village.  That one won't be won or lost on traffic generation but on the environmental impact of the development - is Tees Heritage Park sufficiently important to the borough or no?  Tomorrow afternoon will bring the answer.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Budget Highs and Lows

The time is approaching when Stockton council, along with every other council in the country, has to set its budget for the next 12 months.  The story being told by the officers who are expert on such calculations is that the budget gap is going to get wider each year for the next few years and that it's going to be increasingly difficult to find ways to cut costs.  More services will have to be trimmed or cut out completely, and the only questions are about how to do it smoothly.  For this year the reserves can be used to soften the blow but there won't be reserves left to do that in future.
I'm not so pessimistic as that.  I don't believe that even Mr Pickles can imagine that people don't need services like street cleaning.  He's going to have to come to his senses and leave local authorities the ability to do what local people need them to do.  The difficulty is knowing when he'll come to that conclusion.
Meanwhile there's some really good news.  Before the general election the Liberal Democrats did some deep thinking about how to improve the life chances of children whose backgrounds don't give them the opportunities which most can benefit from.  The conclusion was that the best way to break the cycle of deprivation was to concentrate efforts on their education and especially in the early years.  One of our flagship policies in the general election campaign was the "Pupil Premium" - extra money to go direct to schools where children most in need were on the register.  The school could decide how best to spend that money as long as it made a difference to the children most needing that help.
When the coalition agreement was negotiated that policy was included - extra money for the schools to make a difference.   Despite severe pressures on the budget across the country schools have seen that money increase each year.  In 2013/14 schools in Stockton will receive almost £4.8m extra to give children that chance - to make the opportunities fairer.  Some will employ extra staff, some will buy new equipment.  Some schools get only a few thousand pounds because they don't have serious levels of deprivation to cope with.  Others will get over £100k because they have a lot of children from poor homes.
In Eaglescliffe, as we reported in Focus before Christmas, the primary schools will share £45000 and the comprehensive school will get over £60,000.  We need to make sure that it's being sensibly spent and that the young people are seeing the benefit!

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Good news - bad news

Despite all the wet weather over the last few months the play equipment at Kingsmead has been successfully installed and the grass is managing to grow back.  There are some horribly squelchy patches but nothing that a few days of wind and sun won't solve.  The equipment is obviously very attractive because despite the safety fencing being erected round some of it still to let the grass recover further people have removed the fencing and obviously been playing with enthusiasm.  At the moment it's not very attractive except at the weekends because there's not enough light when the young people come home from school, but by the Easter holiday the grass should be established and the young people of the estate should get the play value they've waited for.
The shrubs will be trimmed back and the shrub beds tidied.
Well done Egglescliffe & Eaglescliffe Council - another successful investment in play.
Later in the day came the bad news - Stockton Council's planning officer has recommended approval of the extension of Yarm Independent school onto the banks of the Tees below Egglescliffe Village.  That tranquil zone of the Tees Heritage Park will be changed forever if this goes ahead, and the evening was spent with the committee of the Egglescliffe Area Residents Association agreeing the way forward in order to put the arguments as clearly as possible at Planning committee.  It's not going to be easy to persuade the committee to go against the officer recommendation but we'll give it our best shot.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

This coming week sees a number of interesting meetings on the timetable.  Tomorrow Alan and I concentrate on being Parish Councillors looking at the positioning of traditional toddler swings on St Margaret's Play Area as well as looking at the issues around flooding on that ground.  The excessively wet weather last year has exacerbated problems all over the ward, but we are thankful that our flooding is relatively small scale and only affects the open spaces - no-one had to evacuate their house in Eaglescliffe as becks broke their banks!

On Tuesday Stockton Council's Local Development Framework Steering Group meets.  This group looks at proposals for planning and development in the borough and offers comment as well as political steer on the proposals.  On Tuesday we'll be looking at the preliminary results of the consultation that was undertaken last year on where new housing developments should go.  Unsurprisingly perhaps some land owners and developers have re-submitted land which was discounted after the first consultation.  Some have even submitted new pieces of green space.  Sadly, no-one seems to want to submit brownfield sites.  Should we be surprised?  Sadly, no.

Later in the week I'm heading to London to meet with a couple of government ministers to discuss some issues of importance to us in the region.  More on that after the event.

Meanwhile, don't forget - Christmas cards can be recycled in the cardboard & plastic collection if you've no better use for them.  Real Christmas trees will be collected on the same day as waste this week, and will be shredded and composted for use on the flower beds in our parks and public spaces.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Life is gradually getting back to normal after the Christmas and New Year holiday period.  The email inbox is filling up again and the phone ringing with queries of one kind and another.
Having had it confirmed that the last 12 months have been extremely wet in this part of the country, it's no wonder that there are complaints about potholes, water-logging, standing water and so on.  Alan Lewis and I follow up on each and every complaint but it sometimes takes quite a time to get answers and then they're not always what we want to hear.  Cuts in the roads maintenance budget across the borough don't make it any easier to get things done quickly.
In no time at all there will be meetings within the council to decide on the budget for the year 2013/14.  Stockton Council has for many years worked on a rolling 3 year financial plan, thus doing away with the old system of suddenly spending up money in February and March so that it wasn't lost when April came.  That's enabled the council under whichever leadership prevailed at the time to have a planned approach to the budget.
That approach is being made more difficult at the moment by the heavy cuts that have been needed to cope with the national deficit - a deficit which the local Labour party seem to forget was racked up during their party's 13 years in government and which was described in the famous note from their Treasury Secretary to the incoming one "Sorry, there's no money left".
There are going to be some tough decisions to make over the next couple of months, but I'll be in there with the other Lib Dems fighting to keep the best of what we've got and to stop any silly party politics causing problems for residents like are happening in some parts of the country.  At least Stockton's Labour party hasn't followed Derby's in proposing a charge for the collection of recyling!  To be fair to them I don't think it would enter their thinking in any serious way.  Nor do I think they're going to follow Newcastle's Labour group in suggesting that the Arts aren't worth supporting.
On a more cheerful note, we should see the official re-opening of Preston Hall Museum in the next couple of months.  Although visitors have been enjoying it for almost 6 months now it hasn't had its formal opening, so now that the Olympics and royal jubilee are over it could be Preston Hall's turn for a moment of glory - watch this space for details!

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

New Year

2013 dawns bright, sunny and cold in Eaglescliffe.
My hope for individuals is that good health prevails over bad, and that friendship and love triumph over prejudice and hatred.
My hopes for Eaglescliffe
- that the planning officers and committee of Stockton Council will see the value of the tranquil stretch of the river bank that winds along the edge of Egglescliffe and not approve the planning application which threatens to change its character for ever.
- that the residents' organisations which have sprung up recently will prosper and work closely with elected members of the Parish and Borough Councils to develop the community spirit which is undoubtedly present.
- that our children and young people have the safe access to play and school which they deserve and need.
- that all our residents are respected, regardless of age or any other part of their life.
My hopes for the Borough of Stockton-on-Tees are that regeneration continues to show results, that businesses continue to start up and to succeed, and that employment opportunities are seized upon for the good of all.  I'd like to hope that the parties in control at the Council would stop trying to score points on national issues and concentrate instead on how to get the best results locally, which could sometimes be better achieved by working with the opposition, but that might be a hope too far.  We shall see.

Nationally, I hope that the government and particularly Mr Pickles, start to listen to the Local Government Association which is a cross party organisation and let local councils have the time and resources to do the job they do best - listen to local people and provide the services they need.  There's no way that Westminster based politicians can frame rules and laws to cover every tiny detail of what goes on locally and they shouldn't be wasting their time trying.

So a happy, healthy and hopeful 2013 to one and all.