Monday, December 19, 2011

Revolting Labour councillors

It seems that there will be an announcement of a possible resolution of the public sector pensions dispute later today. The strike on 30th November was not supported by Ed Moribund, Labour's beseiged Leader. In an illustration of just how little notice Labour members on the ground take of their Leader, many of them joined demonstrations and picket lines. Indeed, the people who were thin on the ground at these public displays were the ordinary, non-activist staff most of whom did not vote for strike action. In Gateshead, a number of Labour councillors revolted against their Leader and relived the glory years of union militancy of the 1970s by joining the march from Gateshead to Newcastle. Here are some of them:

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Guerrilla gardening

In Gateshead each ward has a local community fund which can be spent on local projects, as long as it does not leave the council with an on-going revenue cost. The fund is not vast, about £40,000 per ward. In my ward, my two colleagues - Councillors John McClurey and Marilynn Ord - and I have put in requests for various schemes. One was to have daffodil bulbs planted on the grass verges leading into the village of Sunniside. This would create an attractive and (in theory) cost effective display on one of the main roads in the borough.

We were horrified therefore when the quote for the scheme came back at 80p per bulb plus a significant cost to plant them. When I first saw the quote, I asked the officers for a breakdown of the costs and an explanation as to why it was so high. The answer came back that there was a very high specification on the bulbs. I was wondering if the bulbs were due to arrive gold plated.

I then went on to the internet to look at some of the gardening websites I visit regularly and found bulbs on sale at 4p each, one twentieth of the price. By a remarkable coincidence, John phoned at the same time to say he was doing the same internet seach - and by a further coincidence we both happened to be looking at the same time at the same website. We reached the same conclusion - the costs of this were far beyond what was reasonable. We agreed to pull the plug on the plans.

Maybe we were influenced by the Big Society or just had a general compulsion to be community spirited but we decided to buy and plant some bulbs ourselves. Actually, to be honest, John bought the bulbs - a large sack of them for £40. We then put out a request to constituents for locations where people would like to see the bulbs planted.

Last week, John and I were joined by a green-fingered constituent and together we planted hundreds of bulbs around Sunniside and had some left over which John has given to Front Street School where the kids will be planting them.

So, the council came up with a quote of £2,000 to plant bulbs. We did it for £40.

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Above: me planting daffodil bulbs. Below, John doing the same.

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

A visit to the pharmacy

Whickham Pharmacy Dec 11

I went to Whickham Pharmacy on Wednesday, not because of anything to do with my state of health (political opponents will be delighted to know that I am in the best of shape!). The visit was on the invitation of the owner of the business, Mark Burdon. In the summer he contacted me to help with a planning application. At that point his shop was in a smaller unit but a bigger shop had become vacant on the other side of the road. He didn't need planning permission to move his pharmacy business into it but he needed to put in a planning application to change one of the upstairs rooms into a clinic. That's when the problem arose as incorrect rumours started to circulate as to what the purpose of the upstairs clinic was to be. The actual purpose is for cosmetic surgery such as administering botox. Mark therefore got in touch with me.

I agreed to speak to the other businesses in the area and I held a meeting at which Mark could meet the other shopkeepers to discuss their concerns. Mark then showed me the premises into which he was planning to move and explained the functions that would be carried out.

I had already applied to speak to the planning committee on behalf of the other businesses to raise their concerns so at the planning meeting, Mark's agent was able to allay the concerns of the other traders. The planning committee therefore voted unanimously for the application.

The move has meant the business has been able to expand, taking on additional staff and an apprentice. The new pharmacy is now open and Mark showed me and a colleague, John McClurey, around the new premises. John previously could not be involved as he is on the planning committee.

Whickham village has been feeling the strain for the past two decades of having the Metrocentre close by. The regular meetings I have with business people in the Village keep me up to date with the struggle this modest centre is having against the giants down the road. It is therefore good news to see one of the businesses expanding, taking on new staff and training young people.

Photo: me, Mark Burdon (who runs the pharmacy) and my colleague Cllr John McClurey behind the counter of the new Whickham Pharmacy.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Northern Democrat - December 2011

Northern Democrat No 60 December 2011

This is the latest edition of the Northern Democrat, the newsletter I produce for Liberal Democrats in the North of England.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

In case the Euro collapses and the economy goes up in smoke

A few weeks ago, I was invited to become a contributor to an American website, The editor of their self-sufficiency section was a reader of my allotment blog ( and wanted to include the material on their website. I would also be able to write to material specifically for the site. So I agreed to their request.

The following is the first article I have written specifically for the site. It's mainly for an American audience, hence the regular use of terms such as "here in Britain", nevertheless, it's as relevant to us "here in Britain" as it is to Americans.

In case the Euro collapses and the economy goes up in flames

It seems that the crisis in the Eurozone has dominated the news here in Britain for the past 18 months. One meeting of European ministers after another does nothing to alter the fundamental problem that the crisis exists because of debt. We have to go through the pain of paying down the debt before we are out of the woods on the Euro.

Britain isn’t a member of the Eurozone. We still have the pound. Yet we are at the mercy of the markets. The world’s two greatest currencies, the US dollar and the Euro, may not be legal tender here in Britain but what happens to them, and especially to the US and European economies, affects us directly. If the Euro really has been holed below the waterline by the debt iceberg and sinks, it will drag us down as well even though we are on a different currency ship, so large is the Euro. And likewise, when the budget crisis came close to crippling the US government earlier this year, we felt the cold chill here in Britain as well.

So, will the Euro collapse? It’s unlikely in my view. Countries like Germany don’t sit back and let their currencies and economies go to the wall. Nevertheless, we need to be prepared just in case the unlikely becomes a reality.

There is, however, one reality we need to prepare for. India and China have a third of the world’s population between them. They are developing rapidly. They are building up huge trade surpluses and sit on trillions of Euros and dollars they have earned from the West which we in turn have financed through debt.

Both countries now have the wealth and foreign currency to pay for the improved lifestyles that so many want. Standards of living for a growing part of the populations of both countries are increasing. Middle class, westernised habits are creeping in to daily life, such as higher meat consumption, car ownership, possession of large quantities of consumer goods.

The considerable increase in the price of food in the last few years is a warning that the emergence of China and India will increase competition for global resources in the years ahead. The days of cheap commodities such as wheat and oil are fading. Okay, I accept there are other factors driving higher prices as well, such as extreme weather conditions damaging crop production. Nevertheless, the growing economic power of China and India will not go away.

This was one of the driving factors that made me rethink my lifestyle two years ago. I had worked in London for nearly 10 years. Then the opportunity came along to return to my home on Tyneside in the North East of England where we have a little bit of land. This was the life changing moment when I decided I was going to grow my own food and become independent of the food supply chain.

If the economy goes up in smoke, the Euro sinks or the Chinese and Indian’s outbid us for the world’s food supplies, I should be ready. We aren’t self-sufficient yet but we are getting close. We live on the urban fringe and are able to demonstrate that self-sufficiency in or close to an urban area is possible.

But it’s not just about me. In showing it is possible to become self-sufficient and independent, I want others to follow. That’s why I keep a blog ( and we make programmes about how we are getting on. The latest covers how we coped with October. So if you want to see how we do self-sufficiency in the North East of England, view the video:

Strikes blamed for Miliband popularity slump

Ed Miliband's decision to oppose the recent public sector strike whilst trying to look as if he backed the unions appears to have won him no friends. A survey by Labour List has found his popularity (or lack of it) has plummeted since the day off taken by public sector workers. Only 26% rated him as excellent or good. Remember, this is a survey of genuine Labour anorak wearers so these are people who will, by nature, be favourable to David's kid brother. 41% think his performance has been poor or very poor. In July, Miliband was rated as excellent or good by 59% of people in the survey Labour List carried out that month.

Labour List explains:

"The explanation for the slump seems to be linked to Miliband’s handling of the November 30th strikes. LabourList readers were overwhelmingly supportive of the strikes, with 83% backing the action. Meanwhile only 25% believe that Miliband handled the strike well, compared to 67% who think he handled it badly."

The problem with Miliband is that though he wants to appear reasonable, centrist and considered and seems to want to avoid upsetting anyone, few in his party are interested in following his lead, if indeed, "lead" is the right word. Labour members rather like being in the comfort zone of opposition. They don't have to defend hard but sensible decisions and they can posture as "socialists" after having had to suppress their more militant tendencies since Blair successfully launched his Occupy Labour bid in 1994.

Labour members have eagerly raised 2 fingers to their leader's pronouncement that this strike was a mark of failure he could not support. They joined marches and picket lines (most of the actualy workers on the other hand were shopping or taking the kids to the cinema). It seems Little Ed has a party that wants to head off in a direction he knows will not return Labour to power. And Labour members themselves seem to want to leave him behind.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

This Labour candidate should explain herself

Elaine Dobson is the Labour candidate for Lib Dem held Whickham North in Gateshead, the neighbouring ward to mine. She has stood a number of times before and has an impressive record of defeat at the polls, including in my own ward when she stood as Labour candidate in a by-election in 2008.

Back in the autumn of 2007, when the election-that-never-was was happening, Mrs Dobson edited a leaflet which was delivered in both Whickham North and my ward. I wrote about it at the time on my blog (12th October 2007). In summary, Labour claimed Lib Dem run Newcastle set up a recycling scheme, then immediately abandoned it, wasting millions in the process. The problem with the story was that it was a complete work of fiction. It was completely made up.

Though I wrote to Mrs Dobson at the time and asked her to withdraw the claims she had made, she didn’t even bother to acknowledge my letter.

It seems Mrs Dobson’s difficulties with actual events have made a reappearance over the past few months. So here’s a story about a tangled web of intrigue spun by Mrs Dobson.

Back in May, a planning application was submitted to install a very large phone mast on an estate in Whickham North. Mrs Dobson sent a letter to residents telling them about the application and advising them on how to make comments on the application. She avoided making any commitment either for or against.

Mrs Dobson was not exactly a quick starter. Her letter went out a month after our Focus Team (minus Cllr Chris Ord who is on the planning committee) had delivered letters and collected a large number of signatures on a petition opposing the application.

The application came before the planning committee in late June and was approved, on the casting vote of the chairman. I represented residents to speak against the application. I was joined by Focus Team member and local resident Sonya Hawkins. Mrs Dobson was not present, nor had she sent in any objections.

Later the same day we had delivered our Focus newsletters to the estate to tell residents the news.

Weeks went by and the mast was installed. To the horror of residents, it stands like a huge, green-coloured chimney only metres from people’s homes. And so another letter to residents is produced by Mrs Dobson.

In this letter, she states, “As you know, I opposed the application to install this mast at this location.” This came as news to everyone so we checked again and found that she had made NO objections to the application to planning officers.

There is also something remarkably arrogant about her dealings with residents. “As you know,” she began. Who on earth does she think she is to make the assumption that everyone knows both who she is and her opposition to the mast, especially as she had not informed people of her opposition. She must have a rather inflated view of herself.

Her letter then goes on to claim that “I have raised this [the appearance of the mast] with the Planning Department at Gateshead Council.” A colleague checked out this claim. He was informed that the Department had not received anything from her.

Mrs Dobson rounded off her letter with, “If you would like to speak to me about this in the meantime, please give me a call on the number above.”

That seems a reasonable way to finish a letter. Isn’t it nice that she is giving people the opportunity to speak to her? Except....the phone number was not above. Now was it below or even in between. There simply wasn’t a number on which she could be called. Nor did she include her home address or an email.

My guess is that residents had one of two responses to this: Mrs Dobson is either incompetent or is taking the piss.

I saw Mrs Dobson briefly on Remembrance Day. The procession was just beginning to assemble. Labour’s candidate for Dunston Hill and Whickham East was there as well and my attention was focused on him and Yvonne McNicol, Labour councillor for this latter ward. Mrs McNicol was giving the latter candidate a helping hand to gatecrash the councillors’ area of the procession. I pointed out to Mrs McNicol that as the councillors represent the mayor, turning a Remembrance Day parade into a party political stunt was completely inappropriate. She sent him packing after I said I would be taking this matter further.

At least Mrs Dobson had by then disappeared from my view. Nevertheless, she needs to explain why there is a significant mismatch between her claims and her actions (or lack of them). If she bothers to give an explanation, I’m happy to publish it.

Blue shirts

This made me laugh! According to Labour Councillor John Eagle at Gateshead Council's last meeting, I am "a Tory" because I was wearing a blue shirt and tie. When I say "laugh", I mean laugh at Labour, not with them, as Labour descends even further into the shambolic mess that is their comfort zone. Cllr Eagle is, shall we say, not amongst the best when it comes to public speaking. That characteristic was clearly on display at the last meeting.

The debate we had on Labour's proposals to solve all economic problems by
waving a magic wand was the opportunity for Cllr Eagle to spit more venom at the
Lib Dems and I was, yet again, the target. "I used to remember the times Cllr
Wallace turned up for council meetings wearing a yellow tie to show his party
colours," claimed Cllr Eagle. "Now he's turned up wearing a blue shirt and blue
tie! That makes him a Tory."

I have to say that as that seemed to be the main point he wanted to make, then
he is in danger of being seen as joker rather than politician. As for his
allegations, it is fair to say that I have worn yellow ties (and blue ties) in
the past, and I continue to wear ties of both colours now. I also have a rather
attractive range of pink ties, some multi-coloured ones but alas, no red ones. I
appear not to be alone in the absence of red however. I looked across the
chamber at Labour councillors and saw barely a red tie at all. Indeed, as I was
able to point out in an intervention, the Labour leader and deputy leader of the
council were wearing blue shirts. And indeed, so was Cllr Eagle himself! "But
I'm wearing a trade union tie!" he replied. Well, that made all the difference!

Cllr Eagle loves to make "speeches" (I use the word carefully) in Council meetings, lambasting the Lib Dems. He seems to hate the thought of Lib Dems in government and he used his most recent "speech" to call on us to leave the Coalition. Presumably, he is all in favour of letting the Tories rule all by themselves. Cllr Eagle's call for a Tory only government is not something I support.

Nevertheless, let's take Cllr Eagle's announcement that the colour of a person's shirt expresses the political views of the wearer at face value. Wouldn't it be funny to see him wearing something dayglo orange! He would look like a walking advert for the Lib Dems! Now, if only I had such a photo of him dressed in such a way......

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How useful, just found the above photo taken at last week's public sector strike and march last week. Cllr Eagle is in the centre wearing dayglo orange and, ahem, blue.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Unison boosts Clarkson DVD sales

There is little about Jereny Clarkson I like. Indeed, I'm trying to find anything in his high-octane, petrol propelled promotion of carbon guzzling technology with which I could agree, and so far, I've found nothing. He is a person who promotes himself by shock value. He thrives on making controversial and offensive statements. They get him noticed and he therefore increases sales of his programmes and DVDs. He must be rubbing his hands with glee about Unison's response to his comments yesterday about shooting strikers.

Unison should have dismissed it as the ravings of an over-the-top right winger. They should treat him as someone who makes noises as he does to compensate for something otherwise lacking in his life. They should not act as if his comments are a surprise. Think of all the additional sales all the publicity will bring for the DVD he was promoting on television yesterday. The cash till must be ringing in Clarkson's ears. Calling for his sacking simply added petrol to the fire of publicity.

One final point however. I think it rather unwise of Unison to call for the summary sacking of a person. Whatever happened to disciplinary procedures and employment law that gives employees threatened with dismissal the right to put their case? I would have thought that was something Unison would want to protect, not throw out of the window. Unless, of course, Unison take the view that those with a different world view to their own have no right to job protection.

Photos from Public Sector Unpaid Day Off Demo

The Prime Minister described yesterday's strike as a "damp squib". Though I don't support the strike and I think it was more a case of chest-beating by the trade union leaders who want to parade as the leaders of the Labour movement, filling the void left by the Labour Leader Ed Moribund, the fact was that a large number of public sector workers did fail to turn up for work. Whilst the levels of support claimed for it by the union bosses are well off the mark, so was Cameron's description.

I hear that many reluctant strikers used the strike as a day off to go Christmas shopping at the Metrocentre. I know of one who didn't want to strike, voted against it, but felt obliged by the closure of the council he works for to remain away from work. He went with me to Durham instead to buy chicken food for my hens!

Yesterday I went to Gateshead to take photos of the start of the union procession. I was surprised that the Council had willingly allowed its property to be used as the gathering point of the march. Nevertheless, the march assembled in Gateshead Civic Centre car park. As the photos below show, it was not crowded.

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People were shipped in from all over the place to boost numbers. As the photo below shows, they came from as far as Manchester. I saw coaches from the Borders and Teeside as well.

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And so the March heads off to Newcastle.

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This dog tried to make a point:

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Hopefully the protester who held this poster managed to get out of the way before the vehicle went past (was it driven by Jeremy Clarkson?)

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Wherever there is a protest, "Socialist Workers" latch onto it.

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I thought this was meant to be a protest against creating sustainable pensions. (I also saw people protesting against violence in Syria, a very noble cause but not relevant to the issue. Nevertheless, it helped to boost numbers.

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Hexham Labour Party decided not to follow the advice of Ed Moribund and turned up with a banner containing an essay. I could take their message more seriously if Hexham Labour Party hadn't run such a vile, homphobic campaign against me when I was Lib Dem candidate in the constituency in 1992.

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This guy brought his fishing rod.

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The impression I have is that the union activists and enthusiasts were the vast majority of people on this demonstration. Where were the ordinary union members, those reluctantly on strike? They were treating it as an unpaid day off and were making the most of it to beat the Christmas queues in the shops. The North East has a higher than average proportion of the workforce in the public sector. Even though people were shipped in from as far as Manchester, the question has to be asked, why only a few percent of the public sector taking part in this demonstration?

The unions have a reservoir of support within their own ranks but yesterday's action has already drained some away. There are only so many times people will be prepared to lose a day's pay. It's interesting to note that the union bosses won't call an all out strike, just "days of action". If they have any sense, they will reach an agreement with the government before their reservoir has drained.