Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Gaza, a reflection

Like many people in the UK and elsewhere I've read in newspapers and on line, watched on TV and listened to the radio reports as the latest battles between Israel and the Palestinians trapped in Gaza have unfolded.  I've not said very much, mainly because words fail me in the face of so much inhumanity and suffering.  I'm not a great poet or artist, able to articulate the emotions that swirl around at such times but that doesn't stop me thinking or praying for those involved.
The historic reasons for the conflict go back many decades and I've come to the conclusion that understanding them doesn't help resolve the situation that exists at this time.  Maybe the British government and the UN and the Jews and Arabs who lived in the Middle East 50 or 60 years ago could have done things differently, but they didn't and we have the history that developed from those decisions.
Successive governments in Europe and the USA perhaps could and should have done more to encourage good relations between the countries whose boundaries they helped to create, but they didn't and now the clock can't be turned back.
For sure, the situation cannot continue as it is.  To imprison a couple of million people in an area of land, cutting many of them off from their place of work, taking many of their olive trees and the land on which they grew food for their families, making it extremely difficult for them to carry on their normal lives causes pressures which eventually reach explosion point.  Restricting imports, restricting jobs etc doesn't lead to good relationships with the neighbours.
Hamas seems to have little regard for the welfare of the ordinary Palestinians who struggle to eke out an existence in an area whose natural resources are insufficient for the number of people crammed in there. Their leaders surely cannot believe that they have the power or the ability to remove Israel from the map, so I cannot imagine what goes through their minds when they fire off yet another rocket into Israel to kill or injure civilians.  To do it from areas where their own people are crowded together in cramped living conditions, knowing that the Israeli military response will be disproportionately harmful to Palestinian civilians, is just unbelievably cruel.
But the Israeli government,supported it seems by a majority of Israeli citizens, sees these responses as legitimate.  Somehow they seem able to believe that men, women and chilren whose only wish is to have peace, food on the table, shelter and friends around them, are terrorists who can justifiably be killed in order to defend Israel.  Almost 40 Israelis have died in the last few weeks and in return almost 900 Palestinians have died.  Where's the proportionality?  Where's the justice?  How can that be defence?
In most conflicts for the last hundred years or more, it seems that an end to fighting came about not because one side won outright, but because brave people held talks behind the scenes and eventually got to the point where official talks could start in the public eye.  I pray that there are brave people doing that right now in the middle east.  Israeli people need to be able to go about their work and play in safety, without fear of bombs or missiles.  But so do Palestinian people.  Both sides need to be able to grow crops, build industries, educate their young, take care of the sick, in safety.  Both peoples need to be able to trust their neighbours.  How to reach that point?  No doubt by taking very tiny steps at a time, and by having brave men and women who will lead the way.
Meanwhile we in the UK do not help matters by claiming or implying that the fault is all on one side or the other.  As in all conflicts and especially those with roots as old as this one, there are many shades of grey on both sides.  Cruelty is apparent in the disregard for human life on the part of the Israeli government and of Hamas.  A ceasefire is the first requirement, and then opportunity for humanitarian aid to the thousands of people suffering appallingly.
A hundred years ago this week Europe started out on what became known as the First World War.  It took over four years to reach ceasefire and another thirty plus to reach real peace between the main protaganists. How much longer for Israel and Palestine?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

What I might have said

Last Wednesday I missed the meeting of Stockton Borough Council.  This is not something I do frequently or lightly but because I'd been laid low by a bug of some sort Wednesday was one of those occasions.  The agenda consisted of approving the decisions made by Cabinet the week before (officially known as recommendations but the inbuilt majority of the Labour/IBIS coalition means they're guaranteed a safe passage), debate and vote on a motion put by a Labour member and listening to the cabinet member answer a pre-submitted question from a back bench member, rounded off by the leader giving a summary of the forward plan for the council.
On only one of these items would I definitely have spoken and it would have been to point out the economic illiteracy of the motion proposed.  At first sight the idea of a Financial Transaction Tax might be attractive - extract some money from those who spend their efforts on moving money around instead of doing a "proper job" so that it can be used to reduce the burden on the poor of society.  I've had people encourage me to support such a tax and indeed I read up on it because it did seem like a good idea at first.  I was very quickly disabused though.  What do financially literate people do when faced with a tax charge?  They find a legal way to avoid it, whether by establishing an office overseas or by transferring their business elsewhere.  Witness the outcry over Amazon and other such large corporate entities.  So introducing a Financial Transaction Tax in this country would levy taxation only on those who can't move their transactions elsewhere - it wouldn't raise much if anything in revenue and would take business out of the country and along with it the income tax paid by its employees.
That didn't stop the Labour councillors supporting their colleague of course, especially as the opening paragraphs were the real point of the motion - a bit of coalition bashing always goes down well with Labour in Stockton.
So the only real vote on Wednesday night was to lobby the government to introduce something which it won't touch.  Great example of democracy!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Proud to be a Liberal Democrat

This week's announcement that Liberal Democrat members of the Coalition government are going to be pressing the Conservatives to agree to changes in the Spare Room subsidy (Bedroom Tax) is very welcome.  It's been a long time coming - last Autumn our federal conference agreed a motion which then became party policy to do just that.  Many of us in the front line of local politics knew it wasn't working as intended.  We'd heard from some of our own members about the worry of being reassessed every year to see if their disability entitled them to another year of help.  Imagine having that hanging over you as well as coping with a disability.
The thing that other parties don't seem to get about our party is that we genuinely are democratic.  That motion was based on the evidence in front of the members. We knew that the policy needed to change.  But we also knew that simply stating our party policy wasn't enough to change government policy, where two parties have to agree.  So setting up a review was the right and proper way to go about it.  The report was completed and presented to ministers this week.  It provided the evidence needed.  Now we need the Conservatives to agree to the changes which Liberal Democrats agreed last autumn.
The basic idea of the removal of that subsidy was fair but, and this is crucial, only if there was a real opportunity to move into a smaller property and only if exemptions were fair and carefully thought through.  After a marriage breaks down there is usually a need for both parents to keep in contact with their children and that includes having somewhere for them to sleep on their nights or weekends with the absent parent.  An electric wheelchair needs somewhere to be charged up overnight.  The son or daughter in the armed forces needs to be able to sleep in a bed when they come home on leave to visit parents.  Some medical conditions mean that a couple need two separate bedrooms in order for both to have a night's sleep.  Just some of the examples of the flexibility needed in such a policy.  More were given at our conference.
The review and the report give the government the opportunity to change the policy to make it work much better.  If the Conservatives won't agree in the lifetime of the coalition then it will be a manifesto commitment from the Liberal Democrats next year.
And that's why I'm proud to be a Lib Dem this week - a member of a party which looks at the evidence and is prepared to change its policy to make it fit for purpose.  No stubborn ignoring of the facts, no sweeping them behind the chair.  This need for a policy change was recognised by us last year. North East Lib Dems led the way on it, with Suzanne Fletcher from Stockton and Julie Porksen from Berwick giving moving speeches.  We also knew that we needed independent review to convince our coalition partners and set that in train.  Now we have the report and are acting on it.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Preston Park

In yesterday morning's rain the ward councillors for Eaglescliffe were shown round the site of the skate park being built.  Since the original plans were developed some modifications have been needed owing to the fact that a sewer which runs under the park had been positioned wrongly on the map.  This seems to be a common feature of maps in Eaglescliffe!
As it's never a good idea to pour tons of concrete on top of something that might need to be accessed for repair or maintenance the skate park was moved a few metres.  That's necessitated a rethink of the paths round it and to it.  When the detail is worked out we'll share it with residents of course.  Work on the skate park is a few weeks behind schedule, partly as a result of having to reposition the design and partly because of the weather.  The metal constructions are being created while waiting for suitable conditions for pouring concrete.
Work on clearing some of the overgrown vegetation behind Butterfly world will start in mid June and is being carried out by volunteers from Cummins in Stockton for which we're very grateful in this era of reduced budgets all round.  Clearing away the overgrown hedge and the undergrowth will mean that visibility is improved round that bend in the roadway to the overflow car park and pedestrians crossing over to and from the path through the wood will be safer.
Following the tour of the site I made a rapid transition from wellies to smart shoes in time for the launch of the exhibition "Tees Valley Remembers" in Preston Hall.  This is a project led by Hartlepool Borough Council which shows the impact of the 1914-18 war on the people of the 5 boroughs in the Tees Valley, alongside the contribution of those boroughs to the war effort.  There are stories of individuals and little groups, posters, paintings and displays representing the bombardment of Hartlepools, the Shell Shop in Darlington and much much more.   In a small space an amazing amount of information is included.  I was particularly pleased to see that part of Stockton's story is the story of the 225th Field Co, Royal Engineers which was brought to the attention of the organisers by my husband when he was researching his grandfather's story.  His grandfather is portrayed there in one of the photographs taken before they left for France.

The exhibition is designed as a touring exhibition and will travel round the Tees Valley to a number of different locations but can be seen for a few days at Preston Hall.  Well worth a visit.  If you miss it there, watch out for it arriving later in the year at the Resdiscover Stockton shop in Stockton High St.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Greed or Stupidity?

Tonight's meeting of Stockton Council produced some of the least credible arguments ever heard in that council chamber.  One of the agenda items was on the subject of members' allowances.  Over recent years the council has had to reduce its expenditure significantly and that has led to redundancies and cuts in services.  In 2011 the Liberal Democrat group suggested that the special responsibility allowances paid to vice-chairs of committees should be reviewed as part of an effort to reduce the overall amount spent on Councillor allowances.  In 2012 we tried to amend the budget in order to save money on all the SRAs.  Our move was not supported by the Labour group and we were told it wasn't a budget decision.
Councillors' allowances are recommended by an independent panel but then the council decides which of their recommendations to accept.  Last year the panel met and amongst other recommendations proposed abolition of the allowance for vice-chairs except in the rare circumstance where a chair is unable to attend for a prolonged period and the vc has to take over their role.  The panel made this recommendation because most of the councillors they had spoken to said it was a good idea.  Cabinet met in March and considered the report, recommending to council that the report be noted and that the proposals be considered.  That recommendation was part of the agenda papers for tonight.
Ten minutes or more into the meeting, a paper was brought into the chamber and distributed which claimed to be the cabinet recommendation to council.  When pressed as to which meeting of cabinet this recommendation had been made at, the head of law and democracy said it was a motion.  When pressed about which cabinet meeting had decided to put the motion the leader of the council said it was from him and the labour group.  Chaos is too polite a word.
The major change to the panel's recommendations was to keep the SRA for vice-chairs, thus removing at a stroke over £26k of savings, and announcing that the cabinet could probably be reduced by 2 members with a consequent reduction in select committees.  All this would only be implemented after the election next year.
A conservative move to defer a decision in order to give time for councillors to discuss it properly and understand exactly what was being proposed was defeated by a combined vote of Labour and Ingleby Barwick Independents.
The one UKIP councillor managed to get onto his feet before me or the BIA councillor present, all of us wanting to propose that the SRA for vice-chairs be removed.  That proposal too was defeated.  The excuse given by one Labour speaker after another was that we needed to get on with the job of saving money.  Not one of them could explain how paying a group of people over £26k per year saved money.
So I ask myself - are Labour and IBIS councillors too stupid to realise that paying out money is not saving money?  Or are they so greedy that they can't bear the thought that half a dozen of them might not get a few thousand pounds a year extra next year?  or is there a third explanation for their behaviour that escaped the rest of us tonight?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Decision time in Stockton

Wednesday this week sees two Stockton Council meetings which will make decisions that have a real impact on residents of the borough.
On Wednesday afternoon the Planning Committee meet, in public, in the Jim Cooke Conference room, reached through Stockton Library.  The agenda is a full one, with two lots of housing at Ingleby Barwick, a car park at Billingham and an update report on the 5 year housing supply as well as a couple of smaller items.  The issues around whether to approve housing at Low Maltby Farm on the outskirts of Ingleby Barwick are major.  How much do we value our green spaces?  How can the resulting traffic be managed?  Where will the children of those families go to school?  Who will provide the services needed for those families like doctor, shops, dentist, community spaces etc?  On Wednesday afternoon all these issues and probably more will be aired.  Objectors will have the chance to address the committee, as will those in favour.  The committee will debate what they've heard from the planning officer and both sides in the public speakers.  I hope the councillors who know the area well will add in their local knowledge.  At the end of the debate there will be a vote.  If the vote follows the recommendation of the planning officers the application will be refused because the impact on traffic and highway safety is deemed too high.  The applicant would then have the right of appeal to the Planning Inspectorate or could decide to submit a revised application which doesn't have the same degree of impact and see if that is approved.  That's the democratic process for planning.

Later on Wednesday evening the full council will debate the budget for the coming year.  We already know that the recommendation of the cabinet will be approved unless a number of Labour or IBIS councillors are suddenly unable to attend the meeting.  Other groups might propose amendments but none of us are big enough for those amendments to be agreed.  That's democracy!  I know which meeting I'll enjoy most.

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.