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.