On Wednesday last week, Gateshead's planning committee considered a proposal in principle (PIP) for up to six houses to be built on the former depot and stable block in Whickham's historic Chase Park. Gateshead Council are keen to sell this part of the park for housing. Members of the Lib Dem Focus Team are equally determined not to allow this to go ahead.
The business entrance to the park is part of the site that is likely to go up for sale in the near future if the PIP is approved. The historic gateway there has just been restored and the single track lane has an awful junction with Rectory Lane. The precedent for building in the park will also be set and there are fears that this will be the start of the slippery slope.
Dunston Hill and Whickham East Lib Dem Councillor led the battle at the committee meeting. Peter spoke against the proposals. The result is that the committee decided not to take the decision at that moment but instead to have a site visit. The decision will then come back to the next committee meeting.
(Video above: Cllr Peter Maughan calls on the planning committee to reject the Chase Park plans.)
On Tuesday 8th January, Sunniside History Society held its first meeting of the year. The speaker was Jane Lowes, an author who had researched the fascinating life of Sarah Marshall, who was raised in Seaham in the 1880s but who emigrated to Australia as part of a programme to boost the number of women in the Australian colonies. There was also a detailed explanation of the events surrounding the Seaham pit disaster in 1880.
Our next meeting is on Tuesday 5th February at 7pm in Sunniside Club when the speaker will be Clive Bowery who will give a presentation about the Durham Light Infantry in the First World War.
Earlier this week I attended an advisory group at Gateshead Civic Centre about the council's housing strategy. The old strategy finished at the end of 2018 but during that year, I banged on about the need to get the new strategy in place. From May onwards I raised it at every full council. I got a variety of responses from the cabinet member for housing, Cllr Malcom Brain, as to why the new draft strategy was not materialising, including a claim by him that he was waiting for "ideas from officers" on what to include. I always though politics was supposed to be the other way round - politicians with ideas seeking the advice of expert officers on how to implement them. As the year wore on, the excuses became thinner and thinner until, by October, a draft went to cabinet and approved for consultation with the implementation date being 1st January 2019.
I asked questions about how members could be involved given the tight timetable to bring the consultation responses back to cabinet in December when the final strategy would be signed off. As a result, it was agreed a members' advisory group would be held on 9th January. It then emerged that the strategy would not go to cabinet in December but would go instead in March, getting us round the problem I had raised of giving members a say on the strategy 9 days after it went into operation. Cllr Brain's management of the housing strategy has been somewhat shambolic, though he did try to blame me at the December full council meeting for the delay in implementing it because of my perfectly reasonable request that members have a say on the strategy before rather than after it is implemented!
Anyway, when I ready the draft strategy in October I was concerned about how woolly the document was. This was a point to which I returned on 9th January. In addition, I made the following points:
The mixed market approach is the right one but there is still too much focus on home ownership. The key focus instead should be on providing sufficient homes. Tenure is of secondary importance.
Is the strategy future proof? I'm not sure it is. I've been saying for the past 8 or more years, since work started on rewriting the local plan, that we have lots of family homes in Gateshead but a large number are occupied by elderly individuals or couples who have lived there for decades. Many of them would happily downsize to a smaller property in their existing community but can't because there is nothing available. The Council's local plan requires 60% of new houses to be "family" homes. I think this figure is too high. Building housing for older people actually frees up family homes and allows for a better match between the individual and the home in which they live.
Is the strategy Brexit proof? Given that most building materials and a significant amount of skilled construction labour comes from the EU, how do we cope once Brexit (hard or soft) has cut us off from materials and manpower? The strategy does not address this.
And finally, there is no mention of the future of the council's high rise blocks. Most of our voids are in them. People in the social sector want to live in houses not high rise flats. Maybe it is time to sell off some of the blocks to the private sector (which is able to attract appropriate tenants) and invest in building homes instead. I also made the point that we as a council should also be present in the private rented sector to ensure there is a supply of good quality rented housing that also gives Gateshead a rental income that can go into local services.
Gateshead was all set for a yellow vest (pest?) demonstration on Saturday. I was reliably informed that a bunch of conspiracy theorists and followers of the far right would be gathering on the Sage car park and then the massed ranks of yellow pests would march on the Civic Centre to call for street lights to be turned off and unspecified "corruption" to be addressed. Alas, things did not go according to plan. There weren't enough yellow pests gathered to fill a parking space, never mind a car park. Nevertheless, the massed ranks of 15 individuals headed south towards the Civic Centre only to find one of their ring leaders arrested as they paraded through the traffic on Gateshead High Street. Apparently drivers weren't too happy that the road was being invaded by people who claim the 31,000 lamp posts in the borough are all part of a terrorist plot to kill people (I kid you not!)
As a result of the chief yellow pest being taken into custody, I understand the protesters performed a uturn and headed back north to cross the river to Newcastle police station at Forth Bank. On the public pavement, speeches were made. Alas, no members of the public were there to listen to their ludicrous conspiracy theories.
On Saturday morning I was called at 5.15am by a friend who I had taken to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital on Friday evening. He was in a state of distress so I had to jump into the car and head over to calm him down and keep him company. I thought I was about to miss the canvassing we had planned for Dunston Hill in the morning. Fortunately, after 3 hours of doing my caring role, I was able to get away to do the door-knocking. I'm pleased I got there. We were doing a survey and we had a very positive response. No negative comments and a thoughtfully large number of people who recognised me, even though this is not my ward!
Pictured above - me with some of the survey replies from residents of Dunston Hill.
This was the last photo I took of Paddy Ashdown, back in September 2012 at his book signing session at Lib Dem conference in Brighton.
I have some fond memories of Paddy from the early 1990s when I was Lib Dem candidate in Hexham. He visited on a number of occasion. I remember one visit in particular when his office had instructed that during his tour of Tyneside and Hexham, he had to have a rest break. My parents' home in Lobley Hill was the chosen venue. Mam didn't quite get the purpose of Paddy's stay. She cooked and baked a vast array of food even though his next stop was Hexham for the constituency dinner. He was terribly nice about it!
A bit later, in 1998, Paddy came to Whickham when we were campaigning to stop Labour stripping Chase Park of its play equipment (a campaign we eventually won). One of our councillors, Colin Ball, was there and mentioned the name of a friend who lived in Paddy's Yeovil constituency. Paddy knew who Colin was talking about and was able to mention the times he had met the constituent in question. His memory for the details of his constituents and constituency was hugely impressive.
2018 was a good and bad in parts. The bad bits were the paralysis of the political system by the Brexit chaos. On the plus side, personally it was a challenging but constructive year for our self-sufficiency project.
Anyway, we saw in the new year on the Tyne Bridge, watching the fireworks. I captured the whole display on the above video.