Friday, June 26, 2015

Newcastle hustings meeting - leader interviews and speeches

This is the video I made for members of the Newcastle hustings meeting last week. It includes interviews with Norman Lamb and Tim Farron and their speeches.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Paying up front for energy should not cost more

At Gateshead Council Cabinet yesterday, there was a report about energy conservation and fuel poverty. I did point out that the report made very little reference to the environmental benefits of conservation but the main point of my contribution was the issue of prepayment of energy bills. I take the view that if someone is paying in advance for their energy rather than in arrears, it should not cost more for gas and electricity. Indeed, there is a good argument for saying it should cost less. Prepayment is part of living within one's means. It is about avoiding debt. It should be a standard part of the energy system. Sadly, energy companies charge customers on prepayment more.

In the near future, Gateshead Council, thanks to early legislation introduced by the Lib Dems in the Coalition, will become an energy provider when our district heat and energy system is up and running. A power plant will provide hot water and electricity to local consumers. My hope is that this will be rolled out to the whole of the borough, not just central Gateshead. I told the Cabinet that we need to allow for prepayment and have a pricing structure that does not charge higher bills for those paying upfront for their energy. This is an ideal opportunity to help people live within their means, a principle which is close to my heart. Expect me to continue pushing this point.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Visiting the Tanfield Railway

Tanfield Railway June 15 (24)

In my new role as deputy chairman of Sunniside History Society, I visited the Tanfield Railway on Sunday. It is the world's longest continuously running steam railway and is right on my doorstep. It terminates at Sunniside. The annual steam gala was taking place this weekend and a couple of steam locomotives were on loan to Tanfield which had previously had working lives in the Derwent Valley. Their permanent home is now in South Wales.

Tanfield Railway June 15 (16)

Tanfield Railway June 15 (5)

We were there to meet the director of the trust to discuss cooperation between the History Society and Tanfield. It looks like we will be arranging a visit by members in September and will be setting up a permanent presence at Tanfield.

You can see the photos I took on this link.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Newcastle Hustings Meeting

Filming at Newcastle hustings June 15

It was Newcastle's turn last night to host the leadership hustings debate. Over 200 members gathered at the Royal Station Hotel. I was there as well, complete with cameras. I'll edit the video I filmed shortly but the photos are now on flickr and can be viewed on this link.

Lib Dem leadership hustings Newcastle June 15 (21)

Lib Dem leadership hustings Newcastle June 15 (55)

Lib Dem leadership hustings Newcastle June 15 (57)

Lib Dem leadership hustings Newcastle June 15 (39)

Lib Dem leadership hustings Newcastle June 15 (43)

Both candidates spoke well but I am still torn between Tim and Norman. I know both. I know each is more than capable of doing the job. The ballot papers haven't arrived yet - they will be with us in a few days. So there is still time to decide.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Our latest email newsletter to members

Our latest email newsletter to Lib Dem members in Gateshead was published tonight. You can read it on this link.

Boundary changes creating interesting prospects

I attended a meeting of the Gateshead East branch of the Lib Dems on Tuesday evening in Heworth in my role as Leader of the Opposition on Gateshead Council. One of the items on the agenda was a review of the local elections held on the same day as the general election. The report showed, as expected, that our local vote was significantly ahead of our national vote. But the most interesting section of the report was the section dealing with the total votes cast in the constituencies proposed in the last Parliamentary constituency boundary review.

These new constituencies were, of course, not brought into being by the Coalition as we pulled the plug because the Conservatives reneged on Lords reform. But a review will go ahead in this Parliament ready for 2020 and, assuming the the Conservatives stick with the aim of reducing the number of constituencies to 600, the chances are that the Boundary Commission will at least start their review with the one carried out in the last Parliament. After all, the work has already been done and it will be easier to revise existing proposals, taking in to account recent population changes, than to start from scratch. So looking at the proposed boundaries for the Gateshead constituencies was quite an interesting exercise.

It was the proposed Gateshead West constituency that grabbed most attention. It contains all 3 of the wards we held on 7th May - Whickham South and Sunniside (my ward), Whickham North and Low Fell. Also included is Dunston Hill and Whickham East which already has one Lib Dem councillor and which Labour held by a mere 23 votes in May. Other wards which help our cause are in the proposed constituency. In the hazy days of the Blair/Brown years, we were within 50 votes of winning Lobley Hill and Bensham ward. In those same years we also held Winlaton and High Spen.

Add the local election votes up across the proposed constituency and you get the following:

  • Labour 21,194
  • Lib Dem 10,155
  • Conservatives 5,456
  • UKIP 5,636
  • Green 2,649
  • Others 181
In a bad year for Labour, a strong Lib Dem candidate, lots of resources, constant activity, and a solid dose of imaginative thinking, the proposed Gateshead West constituency could be an interesting one to watch! What would also be interesting to watch would be the battle for the Labour nomination. My expectation is that David Anderson, Labour MP for Blaydon, will retire in 2020. He will be 66 by then. I am told that a certain individual is keen to replace him. Meanwhile, Ian Mearns will be on the lookout for a new seat with the dismemberment of his Gateshead constituency. He could try to be selected for the new constituency that joins up eastern Gateshead with Jarrow but may find it difficult to dislodge the South Tyneside Labour establishment.

So, interesting times ahead.

On Radio Newcastle

I was a guest on the Anna Foster programme yesterday (17th June) talking abut self-sufficiency and how I am doing in my plans to produce all my own food. You can hear the interview on this link. My bit starts about 39 minutes into the programme.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Visiting the Central Nursery

Gateshead Central Nursery June 15 1

On Saturday, I visited the Central Nursery on Whickham Highway. It was temporarily leased by Gateshead Council to Groundwork for five years. The charity runs a number of activities from the nursery and on Saturday it was the host for a sale of plants and timber furniture made from recycled wood. The event was run by Butterwick Trees, a community interest company.

Gateshead Central Nursery June 15 2

We restocked our supply of plants for our greenhouse.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Monday Morning Blog - avoiding one party states

I have written previously about the need for Lib Dems to be prepared to engage with the issue of elected metro mayors. The Government, whether we like it or not, is pushing ahead with them. The model is not one that sits comfortably with our own policies and principles. The danger is that what is proposed could result in the perpetuation of one party states. Here in the North East, Labour control all 7 councils in the combined authority. They are the establishment here. If the members of the combined authority are to scrutinise the elected mayor, it will mean Labour are scrutinising Labour. Hardly likely to be rigorous and to hold the mayor to account. The issue for Lib Dems is, how do we improve the model? An assembly of about 10 members, elected on a proportional basis, would, in my opinion, help counterbalance the mayor, ensure opposition voices are heard and avoid cementing into power one party states.

Lib Dems have to be realistic. If we want devolution to places such as the North East, elected mayors are the only way we are going to get those powers. If we stand out wholeheartedly against them in Parliament, we will have very little influence on the final form they will take. If we engage with the debate however, we will stand a better chance of building a system that avoids creating one party states.

Lib Dems are not the only party that needs to consider our position on elected mayors. Labour in the North East cannot bring themselves to have a considered view. Strangely enough, Labour would be the favourite to win the position of elected mayor of the region. The issue within Labour ranks is where in the Labour party should power lie? The existing Labour establishment is dominated by the local government base. An elected mayor would see their power reduced. No wonder Labour council leaders are cool at best on the issue.

Step forward however Mr David Anderson, Labour MP for Blaydon. His grasp on the issue is interesting to say the least. He thinks the creation of an elected mayor in the North East is a conspiracy by the Conservatives to seize control of the region. In Parliament on 8th June he made the rather whacky claim:

The Chancellor ... said that we can have semi-devolution if we sign up to elected mayors. We know what that is about: it is about giving mayors from the Tory party a chance to rule parts of the world that do not want Tory rule, and would never, ever vote for them in local elections. 

So, according to Mr Anderson, the Conservatives can't get elected here in the North East so to get past that problem, they create, ahem, another elected post! It seems Mr Anderson is starting off his 3rd Parliament in an entertaining manner!

Stargate surgery

My colleague, Cllr Christine McHatton, has been ill recently. She is recovering now but I agreed to do her surgery at Stargate Community Centre on Saturday. It was expected to be a quiet surgery though I did have one person in - to discuss cycling issues. Inevitably the conversation got on to my self-sufficiency lifestyle. I have plans to get a bike so that I can be free of the need to get the bus or use the land rover especially for short journeys such as those to the civic centre. Sadly, I haven't got round to getting the bike yet but I have worked out the route I will take to the council HQ once I have my 2 wheels. The Tanfield Railway cycle route goes past Sunniside down to the Teams so half the journey can be done off-road. Most of the rest of the journey can be done on minor roads with only the last section on a busy main road.

Now that I have had the conversation with Christine's constituent, my determination to get a bike has been reinvigorated. Hopefully, within a few weeks, I'll be on my bike.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Journal unimpressed by Labour leadership hopefuls

The Newcastle Journal is part of the Trinity Mirror Group and is therefore in the Labour camp. It follows the internal machinations of the Labour party to a degree that is irritating to people like me who are not Labour supporters. In a region that is currently predominantly Labour, the Journal is arguably part of the establishment in the North East. It's views therefore on the Labour leadership candidates are of some interest.

The Journal wants David Miliband back. That is not going to happen. It's editorial on Friday, 12th June, lamented his absence from Parliament. His decision to head to New York was taken as "his continuing presence in the Commons was something that would not help Ed Miliband or the Labour party." This decision was "all for nought." The editorial goes on to say, "[it] is a pity, because it does not feel like the candidates on offer in this leadership battle - though all of them are worthy - are just a little bit second best."

Kind of says it all.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The video I filmed of Charles Kennedy in 2009

On the day of Charles Kennedy's funeral, I thought I'd post this video I shot in September 2009 when he spoke at the party conference rally. Entertaining, engaging, inspiring, amusing, concise. He is an enormous loss to the nation and to the Liberal Democrats.

There is a time to sell and a time to wait

I have no problem with the nationalised banks going back into the private sector. The gradual winding down of the public holding in Lloyds Banking Group is the right approach. The shares are being sold at a profit to the taxpayers, the people who have had to bail out the banks. Putting them in tranches for sale means the market is not flooded with shares and therefore the price is maintained at a reasonable level. Unlike an initial flotation, in which the price has to be set at a level which reflects the overall value of the company, the likely dividend and trading prospects, all of which involve guestimates, selling shares in an already quoted company means there is a benchmark by which the sale price of the shares can be judged. In the case of RBS, which the Government are planning to sell, the benchmark is the price paid by the Labour government in 2008.

I've played the stockmarket for 30 years. In that time, the underlying principle is that I'm in for the long term. Shares are held for many years, some I have had for decades. Sadly, some of the bank shares I have are worth a great deal less than I paid for them. I certainly won't be selling them until their value has  recovered and even then, if the dividend income is reasonable, I will continue to hold on to them. It seems to me that selling shares at a loss when there is a good expectation of a recovery in the price is the wrong long term decision. In 5 or 10 years' time, the value of the shares is likely to exceed the cost paid for them. Indeed, the growth in their value is likely to be greater than the cost of servicing the public sector debt that could be eliminated by the sale of the shares, especially as interest rates are currently so low and will continue to remain low for some time to come.

Reducing the National Debt is absolutely the right thing to do but using short term solutions to long term problems makes solving the long term problem harder.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Meeting new members

Gloucester Gateshead June 15

We had a Gateshead Lib Dem get together for new members last night at the Gloucester pub, next to Gateshead Civic Centre. A useful social event and the chance to speak to some of those who had joined the Lib Dems since the disaster of the general election. We have a couple of other events for new members in the weeks ahead. The next is a buffet at Marley Hill Community Centre.

X marks the spot

contrails over Sunniside June 15 1

I snapped this photo this morning whilst feeding the livestock. Aircraft contrails over Sunniside. Or a gigantic vote. I could have done with it on polling day in Blaydon constituency!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Making it to the giddy heights

I was asked to go to the committee meeting of Sunniside History Society last night. Little did I know that people there had plans for me! I left the meeting as the new deputy chairman! And I ended up suggesting a list of tasks for me to carry out, including setting up a email list for the society, producing a newsletter and putting on trips to places of historical interest.

One of these days I will learn to delegate......

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Goats in Gateshead

Bill Quay Goat Show June 15 (17)

I visited Bill Quay Community Farm on Sunday. They were hosting a goat show. I have 3 goats myself but I went to the show to chat to other goat owners, not to show any of my livestock. I also took the opportunity to have a look at the piglets born that morning. Their arrival had been announced to the world by Twitter that morning.

Bill Quay Farm piglets June 15 (1)

Bill Quay Farm is no longer run by Gateshead Council. A trust was set up to take on the running of the farm and it seems to be going well. Long may that continue.

Bill Quay Farm piglets June 15 (3)

Monday, June 08, 2015

No longer bridging the gap

A1 improvement works June 15 (6)

This is the Chiltern Gardens footbridge across the A1 at Lobley Hill, Gateshead. Or at least it was. It was demolished on Friday evening and into the early hours of Saturday. I popped down to Lobley Hill on Friday to snap a few photos of the bridge before it went. It had to go to make way for the improvements to the A1 taking place on the section of the road from the south of the Team Valley to the Metro Centre.

A1 improvement works June 15 (8)

A1 improvement works June 15 (5)

The work is on schedule to be completed in 2016 (hopefully!)

The Monday Morning Blog - how will the EU referendum play with the Conservatives and their opponents?

Harold Wilson had a referendum on the UK membership of the then Common Market not because he had discovered a new principle of public engagement in a major decision about the future of the country, but instead to hold his warring party together at the top. Pro and anti could still be good mates as they were allowed to campaign on opposite sides rather than battle to have the Labour party opt for either yes or no. That meant the battle was transferred out of the Labour party and into the nation as a whole. 40 years on and another referendum looms. This time, David Cameron has, in effect, told the Tory anti-Europeans in government that they must travel with him on his ship or jump overboard.

The referendum will in effect be about the principle of membership of the EU. The details of any renegotiation will be of secondary importance. That may be helpful to Cameron who may come back from his negotiations with changes that are somewhat limited and need to be spun as major concessions. For most Tory Eurosceptics, nothing short of a withdrawal is acceptable.

So where does all this leave the Conservatives? The starting point is that they are currently the dominant political party. The key UK-wide opposition parties on the other hand have been significantly weakened by the election last month. Can the Conservative coalition of pro and anti Europeans hold together over the next two years if senior figures of the anti side are restrained from speaking against Cameron's side? Will the demand to speak out on Europe result in resignations? If that does happen, the divisions that dominated the Tories in the 1990s will be back in play.

If however, Cameron comes back with a renegotiation, however minor, and wins a referendum, with or without the backing of his anti-Europeans, his dominance over his own party will be complete. Sadly for him, he has already announced he will not lead the Tories into the 2020 election. Maybe the Tories will do a UKIP style rejection of his retirement though I think that is unlikely. It will mean the Conservatives will go into the next election with a new leader but one who could benefit from a Cameron referendum victory.

Cameron, having crushed Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP in the 2015 general election, could have started another long period of Conservative rule. And in such a scenario, the anti-European headbangers will have been crushed as well. It makes the mountain opposition parties need to climb even harder to negotiate.

It is of course a high risk strategy for Cameron. If it goes wrong, if he comes back with nothing, and the referendum is lost, he will rapidly be out of office, the Tory right will be in control and we will be out of the EU. Not a pleasant thought. If the high risk strategy works however, the opposition parties will face a rejuvenated Conservative Party led from the centre ground. It may be the centre right but nevertheless, it's still the centre ground. If Labour opts for the comfort zone of Andy Burnham, just as they did with Ed Miliband, the Tory dominance could last for many years.

Friday, June 05, 2015

"We can't blame the Lib Dems anymore"

Angela Douglas is one of the ten members of the all-Labour cabinet in Gateshead. She has spent the last five years sneering at the Lib Dems in government. On Tuesday, on the cabinet agenda, up pops something the all-Conservative government is pushing. Angela didn't like it. And she liked even less the fact that the finger of blame could not be pointed at the Lib Dems. "We can't blame the Lib Dems any more," she moaned. How true, though frankly, I wish we were still there, pushing the liberal agenda in government and blocking the excesses of the other parties.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Charles Kennedy RIP

Kennedy audio clip Mar 05

It is still difficult to comprehend the news of Charles Kennedy's death this morning. I got the announcement within seconds of turning on the radio. The less news is expected, the more shocking it is. He is a loss not just to the Lib Dems, but to the nation and to the pro-European movement. He would undoubtedly have played a major role in the forthcoming EU referendum.. In a world of colourless politicians, he was an inspiration.

Kennedy conference Mar 05 no 1

I first met him at the Buxton SDP conference in 1984. I was staying at a campsite with about 12 others in a caravan and tent (I provided the tent!) and he visited us with the BBC to interview us about the joys of slumming it at conference. Our paths crossed more often when I worked for the party.

Kennedy May 05

Sadly, inspiring colourful people too often have flaws and for Charles, it was his battle with alcohol. I was in the press conference at Cowley Street on 5th January 2006 when he admitted to the world he had a drink problem and announced he was putting his leadership to a vote of the membership. Days later, he announced his resignation. It was a sad end to his leadership. And while other senior figures in politics often don't go quietly, Charles did not use his backbench position to attack the leadership or the party.

Kennedy visit Apr 05 no 1

So farewell Charles and thank you. You will be missed.

Monday, June 01, 2015

The Monday Morning Blog: Metro mayors - the only show in town

Some years ago, the idea that a Conservative Government would be leading the battle to deliver some degree of regional elected government would be regarded as laughable. Now, they are out in the lead on this issue. Okay, the structures proposed for super-cities may not be the model we love but metro mayors are the only show in town. It would be absurd for the North East to resist devolution because we don't like the model while other areas of the country go ahead. It seems that if we want to be left behind, refusing to go to the only show in town would yet again leave our region stuck going nowhere fast.

In the North East, minus Cleveland which sadly has decided to go its own way, we already have a combined authority, an undemocratic body made up of the 7 council leaders. In addition there are 2 police and crime commissioners, a variety of health bodies, 3 fire authorities, the Local Enterprise Partnership and a list of other unelected bodies. There seems to be no logical reason for letting these bodies continue separately and unaccountably, each in its own silo, at a time when they need to be joined up and working towards an agreed plan to build while ending the waste of duplication.

The metro mayor model has lots of imperfections but it is a great deal better than the status quo. It will be the only opportunity we have for some time to come to get powers transferred to the region and get decision-making joined up. Rejecting it because it does not include every full stop, comma and punctuation mark of hundreds of pages of Lib Dem policy on this issue will mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Liberal Democrats in the North East need to consider how we move forward on this issue. Yes, we can put forward proposals that are different or that aim to improve what the government puts forward, but ministers are clearly committed to the model.

Lib Dems need to be at the forefront of the call for devolution. It is a principle that is at the core of Liberal Democracy. We need to be canny with our arguments but we need to be realistic. It's time to campaign for devolution in the North East (again) and to talk to the government about the model they have on offer. Without the devolution settlement on offer, our region will continue to be fragmented and in the ineffectual hands of Labour council bosses - the same bosses prone to political tantrums and rows which have held the region back.