Sunday, December 22, 2013

My latest email newsletter to residents

This is edition 81 of my email newsletter, published today. Click here to read it.

Getting my Christmas exercise in early

On Thursday, Labour in Gateshead voted to remove large amounts of land from the local greenbelt and redesignate it as land for house-building (largely executive style housing). We have been fighting these plans for years. Labour tried to pull the wool over people's eyes, claiming until recently that the plans were a "myth". It was a claim that backfired spectacularly when one of the most affected wards, Dunston Hill and Whickham East, which Labour won by 600 votes in 2011, was won by the Lib Dems in 2012 with a majority of 300. We are hoping the same person who ran Labour's campaign then will be running it in the months ahead for the 2014 local elections.

Anyway, residents needed to be told about Labour's decision, so on Friday we delivered thousands of letters across the areas most affected in Dunston, Whickham, Ryton and Crawcrook. It was good exercise before Christmas. My job was to shift 1000 letters in Dunston Hill, along with my colleagues John McClurey and Marilynn Ord. We were finished by lunchtime. So lots of calories were burnt off before Christmas!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Whickham Christmas Market

Saturday saw the first Whickham Christmas market run by Lighting Up Whickham group which was set up to raise funds for the Christmas decorations in the village. The market was in a marquee which was provided free of charge by the Rotary Club.

Whickham Christmas Market Dec 13 1

My job was to book the stallholders, get tables from Marley Hill Community Centre to Whickham (that's them in my trailer in the photo above), promote the event and help set it up. I also had a stall selling my honey (which ended up selling out).

Whickham Christmas Market Dec 13 2

There was only room for 9 stalls in the marquee but it went up on time and opened at 11am. My colleague Cllr Peter Craig helped run the tombola and through the day we had a visit from the Mayor, Cllr Jack Graham

Whickham Christmas Market Dec 13 4

As this was a first event of its kind for us, we were on something of a learning curve. It was a great success however and we will be looking to repeat it in the future. Plenty of people come to the market and the stallholders reported brisk trade.

Whickham Christmas Market Dec 13 6

Pictured above: George Craig, Lorena Dayson, Cllr Peter Craig and me. All of us were part of the organising group.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mayoral switch-on in Marley Hill

Marley Hill Xmas Dec 13 9

Mayor of Gateshead, Jack Graham, was in Marley Hill on Sunday to switch on the Christmas tree lights at the front of the Community Centre. This was the first time we had had an outdoor tree at the centre and the first time we have run a Christmas event like this. My job was to organise the day, run the craft market and the cafe and generally make sure the whole thing held together.

We put the play equipment out at 9am to keep the kids occupied. Whickham Wind arrived at 3pm to play Christmas tunes and they were a particular hit with the children. The mayor did the switch on at 4pm. The whole day went very well. It looks like this will be an annual event from now on.

And as we were running the Allotment cafe throughout the day, people brought in produce to swap for our preserves. We got a good supply of apples, onions and leeks.

Marley Hill Xmas Dec 13 7

Marley Hill Xmas Dec 13 2

Marley Hill Xmas Dec 13 1

Thursday, December 05, 2013

My latest email newsletter

I sent out our latest email newsletter last night to over 1000 households in the area. It covers the Whickham Remembrance Day parade, Whickham's Christmas lights switch on, the Mayor coming to Marley Hill, my BBC self-sufficiency programme, Swalwell residents' group, the forthcoming Whickham Christmas market and much more.  You can view it on this link.

Decorating the Marley Hill Christmas tree

Marley Hill Christmas
lights Nov 13 2

The preparations for the switch on of the Christmas tree lights at Marley Hill Community Centre took a step forward yesterday when Councillors John McClurey, Marilynn Ord and I decorated the tree with the lights and tested them. Despite the blustery cold wind, we got the job done.

The Mayor arrives on Sunday 8th December at 3pm. Live music with Whickham Wind starts at 3.30pm and the lights are turned on at 4pm. Everyone is welcome. 

Meanwhile, we have even made a start with decorating the hall. The craft market and community cafe will be held there on Sunday as well.

The faces behind Balls

Having just watched the Autumn Statement, the activity behind Labour's Ed Balls caught my attention. Actually, it should better be described as lack of activity. Whilst Balls ranted and shouted in response to the Chancellor, the faces of his leader Ed Miniband, the deputy leader Lady Harriet and other Labour MPs in shot were glum and largely motionless. Whilst we have been spared the ear-busting screech of Harriet (listening to her is only marginally more preferable to fingernails clawing their way across a blackboard), it seems there was a lack of enthusiasm for Balls. This is all the more surprising given that I am used to Labour members madly cheering their own people, regardless of actual performance. Indeed, they would applaud one of their own members breaking wind! Perhaps the reticence this time was a genuine response to what was, generally, an unimpressive speech by Balls. My guess is that, as an economist, his enthusiasm for Labour's "economic policies" (what few they have) is moderated by his knowledge that they are unlikely to work.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Switching on the Christmas lights

Whickham Christmas Lights Nov 13 21

After all the preparations by the Lighting Up Whickham group, of which I am a member, the Christmas lights were switched on yesterday. I was there as usual as the official photographer (that's me above with Cllr Peter Craig who chairs the group). We began with switching on the lights at Rose Villa School and then a procession headed to Church Green where the Christmas tree lights were switched on. The whole event was accompanied by lots of singing though, thankfully (for the sanity of all in my vicinity), I was too busy taking photos to employ my vocal chords!

Whickham Christmas Lights Nov 13 19

Whickham Christmas Lights Nov 13 10

Whickham Christmas Lights Nov 13 9

Whickham Christmas Lights Nov 13 7

Whickham Christmas Lights Nov 13 5

Whickham Christmas Lights Nov 13 4

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Turning 50

Whilst the world was noting the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of Dr Who, I was celebrating my 50th birthday. Alas, the day was spent running the community cafe and craft market at Marley Hill Community Centre thought there was an appearance of a birthday cake, courtesy of David and my sister \Esther. Fortunately, only a fraction of the required candles was lit. I'm not sure if the fire insurance on the building would have covered it!

Friday, November 22, 2013

On the Lib Dem Parliamentary Candidates' Panel

After an absence of a decade from the Parliamentary fray, I have decided to throw my hat into the ring for the General Election in 2015. I am now back on the Parliamentary Candidates' Panel - the list of the great and the good who have the enviable job of being able to stand as Lib Dem candidates at the general election and turn themselves into bomb proof shelters whilst voters and opponents alike throw everything they can at us! My assessment day was on Sunday in Leeds and I discovered I had reached the grade on Wednesday when, ironically, I was standing in the rain in a queue to get into Parliament (for a meeting of the Lib Dem Parliamentary Candidates' Association). Of course, there is the little issue of actually getting selected for a seat. The selection fun will no doubt start at some point soon.

The last time I stood was in 2001 when I was candidate in Tyne Bridge, a constituency that straddled both Gateshead and Newcastle. In 2005 I did not stand as I was working in HQ and in 2010 I did not stand as I was setting up a business and trying to get my food self-sufficiency activities going. Now that those activities are done, I have been persuaded of the merits of going back into battle myself. Stickler for punishment that I am, I await the selection and Parliamentary battles that lie ahead with a sense of amused resignation as to the effort required to achieve the outcomes that are possible.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The next step for our community library

Land Rover at Gateshead Civic Centre Now 13

Our plans to set up a community library in Marley Hill Community Centre took a small step forward yesterday. Currently we have a large quantity of books in boxes which we store under the stage. It's a complete pain having to get them out, put onto tables and then put back under the stage. Then we discovered that Gateshead Civic Centre was giving away some surplus cupboards. We checked them out, found they were perfect for what we wanted and agreed to take two of them. The big task was getting them to the Community Centre. So yesterday, I turned up at the delivery entrance of the Civic Centre with my land rover and trailer. These are normally used for moving bee hives and goats so heavy duty cupboards was a bit of a new experience.

With my ward colleague, Cllr John McClurey, we got them into my trailer and eventually got them to Marley Hill. With Trevor, our caretaker, we got them into the building where we found we can fit another 3. So we will be asking for more spares. The library will be open on Sunday though we won't be using the cupboards. At the moment we don't have the clips for the shelves. So another episode of crawling about under the stage is forthcoming.

Labour's love-hate relationship with history

There was a time when Labour couldn't open its mouth without reference to something historical. Before 2008, no Labour statement was complete without a mention of a record breaking number of quarters in which there was continuous growth under the miracle-performing Gordon Brown. Post 2010 and history is no longer loved by Labour. Indeed it is a bit of a raw nerve for them. How many times do you hear Labour praising the work of the Blair/Brown governments? How often do you hear Labour members even utter the names of their two former leaders? Since 2010, I have listened to Labour councillors in Gateshead talk as if either history began when the Coalition came to office or, if history did begin before 2010, somehow the years 1997 to 2010 have been deleted from the Comrades’ collective memory. “The History of the World According to the Labour Party" is a book that is not yet written, so don't rush to buy it. And were it actually to be written at some point, look for it on the fiction shelves, rather than in the history section of your local bookshop.

As for which Labour "historian" who could be tasked with writing such an amusing fantasy, can I suggest Cllr Martin Gannon, deputy leader of Gateshead Council, rejected candidate for Blaydon and now office assistant for Ian Mearns MP? In Martin's New Labour days (an era that immediately followed his militantly socialist days with apparently nothing in between), he was always ready with the New Labour briefing, having a go at any Lib Dem spending plan and constantly sharpening his sword to lead the New Labour middle classes against those terribly leftwing Lib Dems.

Now, far from spending his energy on referring to his beloved New Labour government, he spends considerable amounts of time attacking us in council meetings for referring to the Blair/Brown years. Martin, like so many in Labour, wants everyone to believe that none of the current problems are anything to do with them. For Labour, all our economic woes are the fault of the Coalition. We should not be blaming Labour, so the likes of Martin claim. Indeed, at the last Council meeting earlier this month, we had a long rant from Martin in which he moaned about previous governments being blamed for too long by their successors for the problems they have to deal with.

Given that the deficit started under Labour and is one of the key issues being tackled by the Coalition, (indeed we are tackling it “too far and too fast”, according to Labour) it seems that historical facts are getting in the way of Labour’s absurd claim that no current problem is anything to do with them.

As for Martin himself, he is one of the Labour councillors for whom I have quite a bit of time. I enjoy the conversations we have together, even when he is likely to have a different opinion sometime in the near future on the subject about which we happen to be talking. He has however a great deal of historical baggage. Cheerleader for the militantly left in the 1980s and early 90s, then cheerleader of New Labour from 1994 to 2010. Pack that lot into a suitcase and he’d be well over the baggage limit to get his political career airborne. Given the swing to the left in Labour, a New Labour history is not something an aspiring "socialist" like Martin really wants highlighting. This may say something about Martin's views on the use of recent history in council debates.

So, for Martin's sake, I will avoid too many mentions of his days as the Champion of New Labour in Gateshead. I'd hardly want to wreck his standing with his group by doing so! And I will avoid any further praise for him as well. Positive mentions from me will hardly endear him to the tribal ranks of Labour. Indeed, any compliments by me about any Labour councillors in Gateshead are likely to be seen as the kiss of death by the Comrades of the Definitely-Not-New Labour Party.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Twisting and turning as Labour Councillor praises money speculator

Labour on Gateshead Council decided at the last Council meeting to move a motion calling for a financial transaction tax. It wasn't directly relevant to Gateshead and I suspect that some of the motivation for bringing it forward was more to do with profile raising in the Labour group (as it was with the other motions debated at the same meeting) rather than actually achieving any change in tax policy. We have picked up rumours of mutterings about the Labour group leadership. We hear of certain individuals who would be interested in filling the shoes of the Council Leader, were he to be accidentally run over by a vote of no confidence by the Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Socialist Revolution. But more about that on another day.

Mover of the motion was Cllr Liz Twist. Given that Labour in Gateshead blame the Lib Dems in government for every economic problem, especially the ones that started with them, it was refreshing to hear Cllr Twist blame instead the banks for the current problems. But then she started heaping praise on George Soros, the speculator who sparked Britain's collapse out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, and who made a fortune out of the UK's troubles. Cllr Twist was lavish with her praise for Soros and his support for a financial transactions tax.

Cllr Twist was an interesting choice to be Labour's self appointed expert on international finance. Her job in the office of David Anderson MP presumably gives her a great insight into the workings of the City and the activities of financiers. To be fair to Cllr Twist, I didn’t have a problem with what she said until she started praising Soros. And then it was downhill. Out popped the usual attacks on the Coalition. Apparently, the Lib Dems are standing in the way of a financial transactions tax.

Cllr Twist then resumed her seat and the debate began. Ron Beadle led for the Lib Dems, pointing out that she had failed to mention Gordon Brown (increasingly airbrushed out of history by Labour) had opposed such a tax when he was so brilliantly leading Labour and the economy to ruin. I couldn’t let the praise heaped on Soros go without comment. So in my contribution I remarked that I was surprised that Cllr Twist should want to use Soros as a hero of fair taxation, given how he had profited so greatly from his speculative activities. And Cllr Twist’s response to me in her summing up: “All I have to say to Cllr Wallace is that it takes one to know one.” There were stunned looks and sharp intakes of breath on our benches (and I suspect on Labour’s as well).

I took her to one side at the end of the meeting and asked her what she meant by her comment. She claimed it did not mean anything. I pointed out the difficulty of accepting that as the man she had likened me to was a speculator who benefitted from the misery of the nation and that she was describing me as the same as him. She continued to deny this and claimed what she said had come out wrong and she didn't mean anything by it.

Having given some thought to this, I have decided to take her at her word: what she says is meaningless. I shall remember that if she is ever to make another speech in Council.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

At the North East Lib Dem Conference

North East Lib Dem conference Nov 13 3

I attended the North East Lib Dem regional conference in Newcastle today. A good speech by Ian Wrigglesworth, recently ennobled, who talked about the need to raise aspiration in the North East. There was interesting praise for Ed Miliband on his decision to reform trade union funding (no doubt the local Labour dinosaurs will not be sharing in the praise). Ian also talked about how it would be nuts for the UK to leave the EU. Speculation about our future in Europe is damaging for business investment.

North East Lib Dem conference Nov 13 2
Other speakers included someone from Membership Dept in HQ talking about why our membership increased in the 3rd quarter. There was also a Parliamentary panel discussion focused on jobs with Lord Shipley, Ian Swales MP, Baroness Diana Maddock, Fiona Hall MEP, Angelika Schneider (prospective Euro candidate) and Alan Beith MP.

North East Lib Dem conference Nov 13 4   North East Lib Dem conference Nov 13 5   It was also Fiona Hall's last regional conference as MEP She retires at the next election so she was presented with flowers as a thank you from the region.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Whickham Remembrance Day Parade and Service

Whickham Remembrance Day November 2012 (6)

I attended the Whickham Remembrance Day parade this morning. My ward colleague Cllr John McClurey laid the wreath on behalf of residents of our Whickham South and Sunniside ward. A full set of our photos of the parade can be seen on this link.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Labour liked my amendment so much they decided to vote against it

Labour in Gateshead occupies a strange little world. If it's not proposed by them, they will vote against it, no matter how good an idea. It's petty, it's silly, it's completely unnecessary. But it's Labour to the core in Gateshead.

An interesting example of this can be found in the machinations of Thursday's council meeting. Labour's Paul Foy moved a motion calling for restrictions on payday loan companies. It heaped praise on Ed Miliband for his call for a levy on such lenders to support credit unions and poured venom on the Coalition for failing to tackle the issue. The motion called for a block on adverttising by payday lenders on council property and the chief exec to write to a few people about what Gateshead has done.

None of this was particularly objectionable. I class myself as an economic liberal but I don't believe that living beyond your means is something that fits that ideology. So I am quite happy to back calls for restrictions on the activities of any lender that engages in irresponsible and unsustainable lending. After all, the failure to apply restrictions over the past few decades led to the banking collapse and those who lived within their means and put money aside have been amongst the hardest hit by the measures to restore the economy. That's not particularly liberal and but has been rather uneconomic for the people who did the right thing.

Yet Labour's motion lacked something. Firstly it tried simply to blame the Coalition for doing nothing to restrict payday lending  (somewhat unfairly as regulation has been tightened) and ignored completely the failure of the last Labour Government to tackle unsustanable lending for consumption. Indeed, there was a proliferation of such lending under Blair and Brown and they ignored all the warning signals. And secondly, it made no call on the government to do anything that would seriously tackle the problem.

So, my amendment added just a couple of words to the section attacking the Coalition by extending the attack to the previous government as well. And at the end, I added a paragraph calling for the restrictions placed on advertising tobacco and sponsorship by tobacco companies to be applied to payday lenders.

I usefully discovered a set of Early Day Motions from the 2005-10 Parliament which criticise the then Labour governments for failing to cap interest rates. All of them had been signed by Blaydon Labour MP David Anderson. And I also found a Parliamentary Question from Mr Anderson in 2009 asking when the then Labour government would cap interest rates. The answer was that this was a commercial matter for the lender - in other words, Labour in government were not going to intervene. The fact these EMDs and questions existed proved that the last Labour government did nothing. The problem was as real then as it is now.

And so to Labour's response to this. Cllr Foy - who just happens to work for Mr Anderson - announced he liked the call regarding advertising and sponsorship. He liked it so much that he was going to vote against it! Why? Because we were being "party political" by attacking the former Labour government. We were "trying to deflect attention" from the failure of the Coalition to tackle this issue, presumably by pointing to the failure of his own beloved New Labour government to do anything. This is all the more odd because our amendment took the party politics out of the motion by being equally critical of the Coalition and Labour. But the Brothers and Sisiters of the Order of Sanctimonious Socialism were having none of this. Every one of them voted against my proposal, even though their spokesman had said it was a good idea he wanted take forward.

The small-minded world of Labour in Gateshead. Petty, purile and silly. Opposition for opposition sake. Perhaps I should move a motion at the next full council meeting praising Miliband for adopting the Lib Dem mansion tax. That would really stump them in Gateshead!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Benefits discourage work - Labour councillor

There was an eyebrow raising moment at Gateshead Council cabinet on Tuesday last week when Cllr Peter Mole, in a rather tangential way, made reference to the difficulty people have taking on a job because they end up worse off than they would be on benefits. According to Cllr Mole, a former leading proponent of the left, a long procession of people have made their way over time to his surgeries to complain about this state of affairs.

So Peter, the question has to be asked, where have you been for the past few years? This issue of benefits and work is what the Coalition has heen tackling. And Labour have opposed every attempt at reform. Indeed, in July, Cllr Mole and the whole of the Labour group in Gateshead were pouring venom over the Lib Dems over the spare room subsidy. Now that Cllr Mole has realised there is a problem, can we now hear some support from him for the Coalition solutions?

Street surgery

We were marginally lucky with the weather on Saturday. We had drizzle rather than downpour when we had our street surgery in Whickham. We held it right on the border of two of the wards so councillors from both attended. Some areas were notified by leaflet though residents in our ward were told about it by email. The rain did not keep people away.
For some strange reason, all the issues raised with me were about gardens, goat-keeping and grass! There was also a suggestion that I put my goats on an embankment in the heart of Whickham village that is difficult to cut by machine. I'm sure my goats would oblige by munching their way through all the long grass! I took them to Marley Hill Community Centre on Friday where there is a great deal of unused land I want to turn into allotments and community gardens. They chomped their way through the weeds there - the first step towards creating a community garden now taken.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Visiting the new Sun Hill

Sun Hill Oct 13 6

When Gateshead Council proposed the demolition of Sun Hill Aged Persons Home in Sunniside in 2011 without replacing it, our campaign to ensure that a new facility was built hit the ground running. After a large number of meetings with officers, we got what we wanted: Sun Hill would be replaced, thanks to a housing grant from the Coalition Government.

Work started on the new building late last year on a site immediately next door to the existing Sun Hill. It is now approaching completion and the 17 residents of the old Sun Hill will move into their new flats in December.

On Wednesday, my two ward colleagues - Marilynn Ord and John McClurey - and I visited the new building. We came away very impressed.

Sun Hill Oct 13 3

Sun Hill Oct 13 2

You may just be able to make out the old Sun Hill behind the fence in the second photo above. Once the new building is occupied, the old one will be demolished. We are expecting that to start in March next year though there is a small job for me to do before that work can start. There is a feral honey bee colony living in the roof of the building and I am going to try to rescue it and use it as the start of a community beekeeping project. Gateshead Council transferred the ownership of the old building to Vela Housing Association last year (they are building the new Sun Hill though it will be managed by Gateshead.) Vela officers told me on Wednesday that they now think there are three honey bee colonies nesting in the roof. That could make the bee rescue operation a much bigger task than I contemplated when I first made the offer!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Report back on our public meeting

60 residents came to our public meeting last week at Sunniside Social Club about the proposals by Banks to build 255 houses to the south of Sunniside. The meeting was held because Banks, whose building proposals were dropped from the draft Gateshead local plan at the second round of consultation last year, have themselves sent a leaflet to everyone in the village raising the prospect of a by-pass for Sunniside.

At the meeting, Councillors John McClurey, Marilynn Ord and I explained our view the Banks Group's proposals for housing and a by-pass did not add up. Their proposed costs for building the road were too low. Furthermore, Banks only own about a third of the land over which they have proposed a new road. They have had no significant talks with the owners of the land over which the other two-thirds would pass. Without their cooperation, it is difficult to see how a by-pass could be built.

The building of a by-pass would be financed by contributions from the developers so were a new road to be built, the other sites over which the by-pass would run would also have to be developed. We estimate that instead of the 255 new houses proposed by Banks for their site, the total number of new houses on all the sites on the route could be in excess of 700 and possibly as high as 1000. This would fundamentally alter the nature of Sunniside from that of a large village into a small town.

Were that to happen, other infrastructure projects would be needed, particularly a school, and a contribution to the costs of these would be expected from the developers. This in turn could raise their demands for even more housing to be built.

The meeting discussed issues about traffic congestion and the lack of facilities to support the increase in the population were substantial numbers of new houses to be built. It was also pointed out that the Banks Group by-pass proposals did not include the villages of Marley Hill and Byermoor.

We explained to the meeting that proposals for housing on the Banks Group site had been rejected by the Council in 2012 but Banks would be able to present a case to the Planning Inspectorate in 2014 for that decision to be overturned. The meeting supported the view that Gateshead Council should be encouraged to stand by the decision to reject the Banks proposals and to put a case to the Inspectorate for the Banks site to remain as greenbelt.

We circulated a copy of a petition calling on Gateshead to retain the area owned by Banks Group as greenbelt and reject house-building plans. We need to submit the petition to Gateshead by Monday 21st October so time is quite tight on this.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Labour swipe at parental choice

Gateshead Council's all-Labour cabinet met yesterday and at one point it wandered off into a discussion about failing schools and parental choice. I sat at the back of the room as an observer and listened as Cllr Mick McNestry talked about how Highfield Primary School, seven years ago, had not performed well, but since then had turned itself around to become, according to Ofsted, an excellent school and was now oversubscribed. Parent had "voted with their feet", according to Mick. This was followed by a discussion in which some of the "socialist" comrades let rip about people exercising parental choice by moving their children to better performing schools. "Socialist" Catherine Donovan swung the boot the hardest at the right of people to choose for themselves and their children what they should and should not do. She raised the prospect of ending parental choice by forcing children to go to the local community school to ensure they all stayed open.

Quite what her constituents feel about being forced by "socialists" such as Catherine Donovan to send their children to a failing school if that is the only school serving a particular community is still to be made clear. Highfield however seems to give a clue. Faced with competition from other schools, Highfield was forced to improve, to turn itself around. That means a better education for the kids attending that school. That is to be welcomed. And the improvement was clearly noticed and welcomed by parents who started to queue up to get their children into it.

We may find out soon what the residents of Cllr Donovan's Lobley Hill and Bensham ward think of her comments. The next Focus is being written already!

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

My 9 minutes of fame on BBC1

Six months in the making, 2 goats, 7 chicks, 2 bee swarms, 5 ducklings and 2 polytunnels later, and the BBC1 programme about me and self-sufficiency was broadcast last night. I wasn't allowed to see the programme before it was broadcast so I wasn't sure what footage they would use. However, the result was good and I very soon afterwards got messages from local residents saying they liked the programme.

If you want to see it, click here. It will remain on BBC iPlayer until next Monday.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Email newsletters

Over the last few days I have completed and sent out the two regular email newsletters I produce. The first, efocus, is about local news and the work Lib Dems do in the Whickham area of Gateshead and can be viewed here.

The second is about local food production and how we survive the challenges of being self-sufficient and growing our own food. It can be viewed here.

Anyone wishing to subscribe to either can email me. Just say which newsletter you want to receive.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Unveiling in Derwenthaugh

Butterfly Bridge info boards Sept 13 1

Last Saturday saw the culmination of a short project by various local history societies in western Gateshead which aimed to produce information panels about the historic crossing of the Derwent River at the site now occupied by the Butterfly Bridge. This area has had an important historical role on the Industrial Revolution and was the site in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of iron smelting and the early modern iron working industry. The site continued as a home for heavy industry until the 1980s. It is now a country park.

The history societies in Sunniside, Whickham, Swalwell, Winlaton and Winlaton Mill won Heritage Lottery Funding in the spring for the project to research and the history of the site and install three informaiton boards in Derwenthaugh. I had a very minor role to play, attending some of the research meetings (I am a member of Sunniside History Society). The information boards were unveiled on Saturday 21st September by the Mayor of Gateshead, Jack Graham. I acted as a guide on the day and over 100 people turned up for the unveiling.

There will be a DVD about the history of the site, made by Noel Adamson of the Sunniside History Society. My Dad, David, makes an appearance in the video. He talks about his memories of the Butterfly Bridge and Derwenthaugh area as a child. The DVD is not ready yet but should be available to buy shortly.

Monday, September 23, 2013


BBQ Sept 13 1

For the past 6 months I have been followed by the BBC as I aim to become self-sufficient and produce all my own food. We reached our target of becoming self-sufficient on 1st August. The last filming for the programme was on Friday evening at the Whinnies in Sunniside, where my allotment is. I hosted a BBQ, using some of the food we have produced recently. Everything was locally produced until Jimmy, a fruit wholesaler and retailer, arrived with boxes of tropical fruit! Jimmy is also featured on the programme.

BBQ Sept 13 3

The programme is called "Inside Out" and will be broadcast on BBC1 at 7.30pm on Monday 30th September. It is a regional programme but will be available on BBC iPlayer after the broadcast. The producer and editor is Maggie Latham - in the pink jacket in the photo above.

It has been an enjoyable experience for me to be involved with the programme and I am hoping it will inspire others to grow at least some of their own food.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

I'm already missing Conference

goats Sept 13 2

I won't be at Lib Dem Conference in Glasgow over the next few days. It is the first time since 1993 that I have missed Conference. 20 years ago I missed the gathering in Torquay as I was in the final stages of writing my PhD thesis and I had a deadline looming. This year, I am missing Glasgow because of completely different reasons. The photo above gives a hint of the reasons why. The two goats were bought by me on Thursday and are part of my drive to become self-sufficient. I am being followed by the BBC for a programme due to be broadcast shortly and the final week of filming is this coming week. The goats will have a cameo role in the programme which is about self-sufficiency. So, my Conference appearance this year had to be shelved so that I could fit in the filming and look after my new goats. It's quite an original excuse for missing Conference. I do however expect to resume my Conference attendance in York in March 2014.

It is fair to say however that I am missing Conference. A number of people have been in touch to ask if I am attending and bringing my cameras with me. My I hope to resume that service in the new year.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Beamish Museum - another attraction opens

Beamish Herron Bakery Sept 13

I was invited to the official opening at the new Herron Bakery today at Beamish Museum. I am on the joint committee that runs Beamish as a representative of Gateshead Council. This is one of my most enjoyable committees. Beamish is radically different from the traditional perception of museums (stuffy with lots of exhibits in glass cases). It has working exhibits, rebuilt towns and villages from the past and old forms of transport to get you around the site. The Herron Bakery is part of the Edwardian town centre and is based on a bakery from Annfield Plain. Products on sale in it are based on Edwardian recipes.

The £500,000 cost of creating the bakery were met from gate receipts. This is a museum that gets virtually no revenue funding from anyone other than the visitors paying to come to Beamish. And its popularity has made it one of the top visitor attractions in the North East (and in the country).

Alas, I could only stay for the speeches, not the sampling of the cakes and bread. I had to go straight up to Scotland later in the afternoon to pick up my two goats - they are part of our plans to become self-sufficient (more about that on

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Unveiling in Sunniside Park

Sunniside Park Sept 13 2

Sunniside Park today (Tuesday 10th September) saw the unveiling of the new sculptured park bench which was designed by children from Clover Hill School. The three ward councillors decided that we wanted a park bench in Sunniside Park as a way of starting to attract more people to use what is, in effect, the poor relative of other parks in Gateshead. We paid for the bench from our community fund and ensured that the children from the local school (many of whom walk through the park to get to school) were involved in the design. I suggested the Roman theme to it to help raise interest in the nearby Washingwell Roman fort.

The Mayor, Cllr Jack Graham, was on hand to conduct the unveiling, as were a number of children and staff from Clover Hill. Officers asked me to bring my cameras to get photos and video.

Photo above: me, Cllr Jack Graham (the Mayor), Cllr John McClurey, the Mayoress and Cllr Marilynn Ord.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Having my cake

I spent four days last week taking photos at the annual conference of the Royal Society of Statisticians in Newcastle. One of the exhibitors had a gigantic cake to celebrate 10 years of their magazine. They were running a competition to guess the weight of the cake. I was persuaded to have a go. Guesses had to be in grammes. As this was a statisticians conference, I could hear lots of people working out interesting formulas with lots of variables. References were made to the density of flour, the weight of eggs and the thickness of icing. I am no statistician so was reduced to comparing the size of the cake to a 20kg sack of wheat. After all, I'm familiar with sacks of animal feed as a poultry keeper. I therefore came up with a guess of 15kg. I added a few grammes, handed in my entry and headed off to take more photos.
On Thursday morning I collected a bottle of champagne as first prize in the competition! I was only 36g short off the actual weight. Not bad for a guess based on a sack of animal feed!

Alas, the prize I was told I had won this morning is less useful to me. In August I went to the Gilsland Agricultural Show and bought some raffle tickets. I was phoned this morning to be told I had won a prize of paint-balling tickets. I’ve only been paint-balling once before. It was about 10 years ago and it was with a certain Tim Farron, before he was elected MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale. It was one of the activities we tried out on his stag weekend. You weren’t allowed simply to run around a woodland and shoot up at your own friends. Instead, you had to take part in group activities with people you didn’t know that were run more like military campaigns. My abiding memory is of my getting fed up with people who worked in offices through the week but at weekends wanted to be little soldiers who took the whole experience far too seriously. I abandoned the mini-macho men after a while and returned to my car where I did something useful (I fell asleep!)
I suspect I will be looking for a good cause to which I can donate the tickets when they arrive.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Berlin trip

I have been in Berlin for a few days, visiting the historical sites and  apparently missing all the political action back home over Syria. I had wanted to visit Berlin ever since the Berlin Wall came down. The city has recovered from its disfigurement when the socialist government of East Germany turned the whole of their country into a giant prison in which every citizen was regarded as a potential enemy of the state (other than the socialist elite of course). It is odd to think that this appalling system of repression and government was in operation on our own international doorstep as little as 24 years ago.

My favourite places visited were the DDR Museum which has recreated a restaurant used by the socialist elite, complete with the same recipes (as a food historian this was living history to me) and fragments of the Wall around the city.

Berlin is now a tolerant and open city, a far cry from 1933 to 1989 when oppressive regimes were in place. Indeed, its openness now puts in the shade many other western, democratic capitals.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Lighting Up Whickham

Lighting Up Whickham is the name of the community organisation set up to boost the vitality of Whickham village and to raise money for local improvements, particularly Christmas lights. Our latest meeting was held last night when we formalised the arrangements we put together last month for ensuring money was raised for the flowerbeds on Church Green. That was so successful that we were able to plant out all the beds rather than have them grassed over.

One of the main reasons for the meeting last night was to set the date for next year's community festival and decide on its theme. I had previously suggested an Edwardian theme to fit in with the commemorations due next year of the outbreak of the First World War. The organising group decided to go with this. A provisional date of 5th July 2014 has been set.

Another of my suggestions was adopted - a Christmas market. The aim is to bring more shoppers into the village centre to use local shops as well as visit the market. We are doing this on a zero budget. We have been offered a marquee by the Rotary Club and we can borrow the tables from a local community centre. Rotary will provide a Santa. I will contact the crafts people on the list I have for the monthly Marley Hill Community Centre craft market I run. The provisional date for this is 14th December.

And sticking with the Christmas theme, we have set 25th November as the day we will switch on the Christmas lights. So plenty of activity coming up to keep me busy!

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Self-sufficiency begins today

When I left Cowley Street  in 2009 to pursue a life of self-sufficiency, a sort of 21st century version of "The Good Life" in Gateshead, we knew we would have to set a date from which we would no longer buy food from shops. Well, that day arrived today, 1st August 2013. From now on, our food has to be grown by us, foraged for from wild sources, or traded with other local food growers. There are some minor exceptions. Some things we cannot produce ourselves such as tea and coffee. Though we will use alternatives some of the time (eg mint tea - even better when I add some of my honey) we will trade wherever possible with a friendly shop keeper (one is lined up) for our honey, jam, eggs and so on. Some things we will be producing at some point in the future - such as milk when we get out goats and wheat for flour were we to get the land we need to grow it - will need to be purchased now though we will strictly limit their use and use alternatives where possible. Our experience of living on a wartime diet for two weeks as an experiment in 2011 will certainly help us. I will be writing up our experiences each day for the next month on my allotment blog: The BBC has been following us since March to see how we get on as we build up towards the point where we become self-sufficient. More about that on another day but the programme will be broadcast in September.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

3 million YouTube viewings

I've just reached another YouTube milestone. My videos have now been viewed 3 million times. To be precise, 3,000,555 times. Most of the material I upload to the channel is about self-sufficiency and sustainable local food production. These, by far, generate for my the most advertising revenue. However, I also upload videos about local issues and about travel (I am in the middle of editing footage I filmed in June whilst in Germany and I have hours of material that still needs sorting from a visit I made to Portugal in December last year).

There is an interesting section on the analytics page of YouTube which shows that over the past month, the total time my videos were viewed was 79 days and 11 hours.

If you feel the need, you can view the channel at

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Labour MP on the wrong road to nowhere

There's nothing new about Blaydon Labour MP David Call-Me-Dave Anderson spitting venom at the Coalition Government. So let's take a look at Mr Anderson's latest attack. He lays into the Government for agreeing to upgrade the A14 in Cambridgeshire, claiming, " was noteworthy that the Government recently found £1.5bn to upgrade the A14 from Huntingdon to Cambridge and two years ahead of plan. Sadly, it's not the only example of how the North East is being let down by a metropolitan elite in London."

The purpose of Mr Anderson's statement seems to be an attempt to promote a them-and-us divide, this time between North and South. His whole article is an allegation that the Coalition backs the South, at the expense of the North, a claim which is drivel and rubbish. He lists various transport schemes that have been given the go-ahead in the South whilst the North is left "in the slow lane". He then highlights the congestion on the A1 that runs though his own patch. His only hint he makes that the Government has given the go ahead to the upgrade of the A1 in Gateshead is a passing reference to there being "no firm start date". (The work is actually due to start in 2014, two years before work starts on improving the A14.)

I noticed that, back in 2008, there was an EDM about the A14. It stated:

This House is alarmed by the 52 deaths on the A14 in Cambridgeshire in the last 10 years; notes with concern there have been 12 serious accidents on the trunk road this year causing two fatalities; is concerned at the delays and spiralling costs of long-proposed improvements to this lethal highway; congratulates the Cambridge News on its A14 - We Need Action Now campaign; and calls on the Government and Highways Agency urgently to commence the upgrading of the A14 to full dual carriageway and near motorway standard throughout Cambridgeshire to prevent more accidents, deaths and injuries.

And who signed this EDM? Yes, you guessed it! None other than Mr Anderson himself. Consistency is not his strongpoint.

After dinner speaker

This was a first for me - on Thursday I was the after dinner speaker at the Whickham Rotariams' gathering. In the upstairs function room of the Bay Horse pub (an establishment that brings back interesting memories of my 6th form days) I gave a talk about self-sufficiency, bee-keeping, hen-keeping, jam-making and so on. I spoke for about 40 minutes and the presentation seemed to go down well, given the range and scope of the questions I was asked at the end. I rather enjoyed it.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Visiting Groundwork

The Central Nursery is just outside my ward, next to Watergate Park in Gateshead. Until recently, it produced the vast majority of the bedding plants for the borough. It is now closed and Labour are very keen for this greenbelt site to be used for house-building. There is an on-going battle to ensure this area remains greenbelt in the Local Plan. Whether or not it is used for housing, the site is secure as a horticultural centre for the next five year as the environmental charity Groundwork has been granted a lease until 2018.

The charity contacted me last week and invited me to visit the site and talk to them about ideas for promoting local food production, gardening and allotments. It was another event at which I was wearing more my allotment guru hat than that of local councillor.

It was a useful visit. We discussed a range of ideas and I suggested renting out parts of the greenhouses and polytunnels on the site in the way allotments are rented out to local residents. I also suggested they get someone to put beehives on the site, look at setting up craft and food markets and set up a herb garden.

Groundwork are keen to talk to anyone with ideas on how the Central Nursery could be used for horticultural activities. The person to talk to is Geoff Dawson and he can be contacted on

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Aladdin's cave

We dubbed it Aladdin's Cave but actually it was a lock up garage in the Team's area of Gateshead, packed full of equipment that had been used during the National Garden Festival, hosted by Gateshead in 1990. This treasure trove of equipment was being cleared out but what was on offer would be perfect for the community cafe I run at Marley Hill Community Centre. The cafe raises funds for the Community Centre, and this fundraising is now all the more important as the centre is undergoing a community asset transfer. The community association will have to stand on its own two feet and raise the funds needed to keep it going from its own activities.

I picked up Pat, one of the committee members this morning and drove her down to the garage where, with my ward colleague, Cllr John McClurey, we sorted through crockery, cutlery, cooking utensils and a range of cooking equipment which will be ideal for the kitchen in Marley Hill. Fortunately both John and I each brought our land rovers which we filled. This equipment, which has lain unused for 23 years, will now be put to good use.

The judges arrive tomorrow

lavendar bed Church Green Jul 13

Tomorrow the Northumbria in Bloom judges arrive in Whickham so tonight a group of us met to do a final tidy up of the centre of the village. I was given the job of watering all the flowerbeds planted last week. As a beekeeper I couldn't help but spot the huge number of bumble and honey bees on the big lavendar bed on the centre of Church Green. I have 4 hives in Whickham but there are at least two other beekeepers in the area, so I have no idea whose bees were foraging on the bed. Nevertheless, it was good to see a garden display that not only looked good, but was bee-freindly as well. That is not often the case with the flowers that now populate people's gardens. They may look good to humans, but they are often useless for the bees.

Alas, I will miss the judges tomorrow. Though last year I accompanied them on their tour of the area, tomorrow I have a meeting with Groundworks who have asked me to visit them to talk about allotments, gardening and food growing.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Planting in Whickham

Austerity has meant the end of council funding for flowerbeds in Whickham, Gateshead. So rather than seeing Church Green, at the heart of the Village, fully grassed over, residents, organised by Whickham North Councillor Peter Craig, raised the money (so far about £1800) to buy plants and then organised a group of volunteers to plant out the beds. I did some planting and watering (the rose from my watering can was lost on one of the beds!)

The display now looks great and has put the Village into great shape for the arrival of the Northumbria in Bloom judges later this week.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Angelika in Whickham

Angelika Schneider Jul 13 6

Lib Dem prospective Euro candidate for the North East of England, Angelika Schneider joined us on the campaign trail in Whickham this evening. We started with a meeting in Sunniside and then went down to Whickham. Fiona Hall MEP is retiring at the next election. Hopefully, Angelika will be taking her place in Brussels.

Pictured above: me, Angelika, Cllr John McClurey and Cllr Marilynn Ord

Bill Quay Community Farm BBQ

The recent handover of the lease of Bill Quay Community Farm to the BQ Farm Association was celebrated last night with a BBQ and a short presentation on the plans for the farm. I was invited as a councillor rather than as the farm's volunteer beekeeper (or purchaser of their Tamworth pigs). Indeed, most councillors who also attended opened conversations with me by referring to the last pig that I bought from the farm (I got it last month).

The farm is no longer to be funded by the Council but the Farm Association has a business plan in place to raise the cash needed. There are great ideas to expand commercial activities, become a bigger centre for education and create new space for people to hire for private functions.  The need to stand on their own feet and raise cash from their own activities has generated new ideas that will add more value to any visit to the farm. I'm looking forward to seeing them come to fruition.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Card carrying members of the "working class"

If you believed what some in the trade unions and the Labour party claim, there is an army of "working class" people with a uniform outlook on life, all wanting "working class" MPs representing them in Parliament. But just who are these "working class" people? Judging by what some in the Labour movement suggest, such a clearly defined class exists almost to the point of having its own constitution and membership cards. Principles of the organisation include propagating "class war" (whatever that is). The trouble is that the idea of a uniform "working class" is drivel, spouted by so-called "socialists" with no real political agenda worth considering. Indeed, it is precisely that absence of a sensible and realistic political agenda within the Labour party post 2010 that has opened the door for the first time since the early 90s to those pushing the "class war" agenda.

If Unite are the modern day militants, their tactics show an interesting arrogance. It is alleged that Unite members have been signed up to Labour, some possibly without their knowledge as voting fodder in candidate selections. Presumably Unite has operated on the basis that these members, as card carrying members of the "working class", would all vote uniformly for the anointed Unite candidate (sometimes a well paid union official whose job hardly defines them as "working class".)

Labour's selection procedure is their own business, no matter how much we can stand back and enjoy the entertainment generated by their shenanigans over Falkirk. Yet, if those who shout loudly in the Labour Party about needing "working class" MPs examine the record of those Labour MPs with a union background and who refer to themselves as "working class", they may be rather disappointed by the record of some of them under Blair and Brown. Whilst many talked the talk of the "class war", they certainly didn't walk the walk. Snuggling up to the City, increasing taxes on the lowest paid workers and keeping tax on wealth at a low level isn't exactly what the so-called "class war" was meant to do.

Volunteering to be as busy as a bee

One of the other hats I wear (and literally I do wear a hat, or at least a hood and net) is that of beekeeper. I first started keeping bees two years ago as part of my drive towards self-sufficiency. With my partner David we are the volunteer beekeepers at Bill Quay Community Farm, a role we picked up more by accident than by design.

David and I started with three hives in 2011. At the start of June 2012 we were down to two, by the end of that month we went up to 8 as the mad, wet weather encouraged the bees to go onto swarm overdrive. All hives survived the winter and we now have 10 after capturing a couple of swarms last month.

I am one of Gateshead Council's representatives on the joint committee that runs the open air Beamish Museum. Last year the museum director reported that Beamish was setting up a beekeeping project. Last week at the committee meeting, the director made no mention of the bees during his report so I asked about the state of the project. It appears to be going well and I found myself volunteering my services to help out. So whilst the majority of the museums volunteers turn up to dress in Edwardian or Georgian costumes and drive steam trains and trams, I can see myself turning up in beekeeping smock and wellies!  Mind you, if I were offered the chance to drive a train or tram, I'd grab it faster than you can blink!

That was the year that was

Hitler had just occupied the Rhineland, the Brits were blissfully unaware of the affair of the new King. Edward VIII, with Wallis Simpson and Americans were gearing up to re-elect Franklin Roosevelt as President. That was the summer of 1936 but that year is so far back in time that most of us were born well after it. So well done to Andy Murray, the first British man to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry in the summer of 1936. Events like this do tend to bring the historian out in me!

I saw the match in a pub in Crystal Palace. I am down in London as over the weekend I went to the Smallholder and Self-Sufficiency Show in Ardingly in Sussex. (My video of the show is at I don't normally follow tennis but this was set to be an historic occasion. The circumstances now are a bit better than the time I watched Virginia Wade win the women's title in 1977. Then I had just gone through a serious road accident and was recovering in the children's ward of Newcastle General Hospital. As I was stuck in bed, the entire ward and staff sat with as we watched the match. At least I had a legitimate reason for not being at school!

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Whickham Community Festival

Whickham Festival June 13 (19)

Saturday saw the second annual Whickham Community Festival. organised by a group called Light Up Whickham. The group aims to bring more people to Whickham Village centre to boost business vitality and to raise funds for the Village's Christmas lights. I am a member of the group and am pleased to say that my proposal for the theme for this year - a medieval fayre - was taken up. It was my job, with Cllr John McClurey last Thursday, to put up the bunting and on Saturday itself, I ran a stall to promote Marley Hill Community Centre and the produce I sell at the Allotment Cafe I run there once a month.

As we were having a medieval village duck pond (actually a pick a duck paddling pool for kids, sadly minus the ducking stool I suggested we could use!) I brought down to Whickham my ducklings, which are now a month old. They were the stars of the festival, in a cage next to the "pond". We nearly didn't get the cage there. It was bigger than we thought. We eventually found a way of squeezing it inside our Defender.

The festival was a success. Lots of people came along and lots of cash was raised for the Christmas lights. Everyone went away happy at the end of the day. Alas, my plans to dress as a medieval monk came to nothing as I simply ran out of time to make a costume.

Whickham Festival June 13 (6)

Councillors Marilynn Ord and Peter Maughan who ran the raffle.

Whickham Festival June 13 (12)

Councillor Sonya Hawkins in medieval dress.

Whickham Festival June 13 (18)

We reckon Cllr Peter Craig's outfit was Georgian, not medieval!

Whickham Festival June 13

Sales of my homemade jam paid for the Marley Hill Community Centre table!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bill Quay Community Farm lease agreed

Gateshead Council Cabinet's agenda yesterday was extensive but one of the key items for me was the lease for Bill Quay Community Farm. I am the volunteer beekeeper and I also buy Tamworth pigs from the farm. Previously the farm was run by Gateshead Council but, as with community centres, budgets have been cut and the institutions are being transferred under leases to voluntary groups. The farm is now to have a 25 year lease at a peppercorn rent which will start on 1st July. The task the Bill Quay Farm Association is taking on is a huge one but there is every confidence that the future of the farm is secured.

Though my beekeeping activities at Bill Quay are known by some cabinet members, I mentioned in passing when the item was being debated that I also buy pigs from the farm. This brought a few amusing comments from cabinet members until I said the last one I bought went to slaughter over the weekend! We will use the pork at our Allotment Cafe at Marley Hill Community Centre this Sunday.

The journey the Council and the Farm travelled to get to the final outcome has been long and at times uncertain but the outcome is a good one. Congratulations to all concerned from both Bill Quay Farm and the Council.

"Political elite" Labour MP and foreigner bashing

A Westminster Hall debate yesterday on Royal Mail privatisation has just caught my attention. As one of the people very closely involved with the Lib Dem policy of reforming the postal services industry and part privatising the Royal Mail, I am obviously pleased that our plans are being put into action. It made all those late nights slaving over a hot laptop and phone calls at midnight from Norman Lamb MP (then our Trade and Industry spokesman) worthwhile!

Yesterday's debate saw a contribution from David (call me Dave) Anderson, Labour MP for Blaydon, who interestingly described himself as part of the "political elite". Mr Anderson's first intervention in the debate involved a bit of foreigner bashing, raising the spectre of UK assets being sold to "foreign companies". This produced the response from Katy Clark, the Labour MP who called the debate, that foreign ownership "is not in the public interest." There was no justification for this and no evidence was put forward to support this claim. Perhaps the two "socialist" comrades could justify their Little England approach.

This bit of foreigner bashing is all the more interesting as two of the biggest manufacturers in our area, Nissan and Komatsu, are Japanese owned. I doubt the people who work there and who are Mr Anderson's constituents would share the view that foreign investment in businss and services in the UK "is not in the public interest."

Monday, June 24, 2013

At the Low Fell Fayre

Low Fell fayre stall June 13

This was a first for me. Low Fell Fayre is an annual event and the three councillors for the ward - Susan Craig, Ron Beadle and Frank Hindle - are heavily involved in running the event. I was asked if I wanted a table in the marquee at the fayre on Saturday 22nd. I agreed to have one and found myself positioned between the Gateshead Food Bank and the lady selling hand painted ornaments.
I used the opportunity to promote the Allotment Cafe which I run once a month in Marley Hill Community Centre as part of the Sunday in the Centre events. The next is on 30th June. I also handed out flyers about the Community Centre and encouraged people to join us next Sunday. On sale were a few of the jams I make that are also sold at the craft market we run alongside the market. So hopefully a bit more business for the Community Centre was drummed up.

BBQ for constituents

The last minute cancellation of the Whickham May Fayre resulted in boxes of burgers needing a home. I ended up with one which I put straight into the freezer after helping organisers to take down the marquee and other tents. It was the first time the May Fayre has been cancelled in 20 years but the rain had left the ground in Chase Park, venue for the Fayre, waterlogged. It was very much luck of the draw - this year has been relatively dry but one of the few periods of heavy rain happened to coincide with the Fayre. Last year, which broke records for rainfall, saw the Fayre go ahead.

I now need more space in my freezer as my Tamworth pig went to slaughter over the weekend. So, the box of burgers needed to be used up. As I did not want to eat my way through 40 burgers myself, we decided to have a free BBQ for residents of villages in our ward instead. On Friday we hired Marley Hill Community Centre. Cllr John McClurey brought up his BBQ and we opened the bar as well. Promotion of the event was entirely by email. I sent a message to a few hundred constituents who live in Sunniside and Marley Hill. We got a good response but we were particularly pleased that whole families came along. Some of them set up the kids' play equipment which kept them occupied for some time in the main hall. The appeal of the snooker and darts rooms also pulled in residents. What we discovered by carrying out this event is that there is a demand for a venue where adults can socialise and their kids can play during evenings. This is giving us ideas to get the community centre more widely used on Friday and Saturday evenings.

We have a meeting of the management committee tomorrow so we will discuss how we can run similar events on behalf of the community centre, rather than simply as events put on by us as councillors for our constituents.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A1 meeting

The A1 in Gateshead is one of the most congested roads in the UK. This is not a motorway status road but the need to improve it has been an issue for over a generation in Gateshead. I remember it cropped up in 1990-91, in my early years on the Council. The need for improvements has grown ever stronger and this stretch of the A1 now carries three times more traffic than it was designed for.

The Coalition announced in December that funding was being made available for the upgrade to take place. On Thursday, we got to see the plans for the first time. At a meeting in the evening with the Highways Agency (after my allotment meeting), we learnt that the road from the south of Lobley Hill to the Dunston junction will be upgraded to three lanes from the current two. In addition, there will be a separate lane in each direction for local traffic to travel between the Lobley Hill and Askew Road junctions. Local traffic mixing with A1 traffic is one of the biggest causes of congestion and accidents so separating the two is a significant step forward.

Work is due to start in 2014 and be completed in 2016. The Coalition are investing £60 million in the work. So, after decades of congestion, it looks as though the reputation of this road as being Tyneside's longest car park is about to end.

Meeting allotment holders again

Earlier this year, when Gateshead Council proposed a rise of 230% for the allotment rents, a modest tsunami of allotment holders got in touch with me about the severity of the rise. My support for the allotment movement is well known here so the fact people from across the borough contacted me was no surprise. To cut a long story short, the decision on the rent rise was deferred whilst consultation was carried out. I hosted a meeting for allotment holders a couple of months ago so that I could feed their responses into the consultation exercise.

We had expected a decision to come to the council cabinet in June and the last June meeting is on 25th. However, when I looked at the agenda for the meeting (it was available on Wednesday) I found there was no report about allotment rents. I had called a meeting of allotment holders for Thursday 20th June before
I went on holiday and it was too late to cancel it on Wednesday when I read the cabinet agenda. So the meeting went ahead anyway.

As well as discussing the various rent rise scenarios, we also considered how we can set up a Gateshead wide society to promote local food growing, allotments and gardening. We will return to this at a future date but people are keen on the idea and want to push ahead with it.

As I was able to report to the meeting that the allotment rent rise decision will now come to cabinet on 11th July, we have agreed to meet again on the 11th. Hopefully, by then we will also have a set or proposals for creating the local food growers' group (for which we do not yet have a name - though suggestions were made to my by email after the meeting by various people who attended.)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Self-Sufficient in Suburbia - May 2013

When I gave up my job in 2009 at Lib Dem HQ, I headed back to my house in the North East of England to grow my own food and become self-sufficient. Each month I produce a video about how we are getting on. This is the latest video, covering May, slightly late due to being on holiday last week. Lots about beekeeping, our hens and ducks, odd weather and crop planting.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Get your shed together

Some of us have long argued that allotments are great for improving a person's physical health, but what about mental health? There are now one million single older men in the UK and many can fall victim to loneliness and mental health problems. Men's Health Week takes place on 10th-16th June and one project in particular in Gateshead aims to address the issue of loneliness and mental health issues in older men.

There's nothing fancy about this scheme. It's not about expensive treatments. It's not about highly paid consultants being called in to address problems. It's simple and in many ways quite traditional. It's about the power of talking, about getting people to enjoy time together. Gardeners and allotment holders are being encouraged to paint their sheds and simply invite people round for a tea and chat. It is a simple solution that can go a long way to addressing the problems of loneliness.

The person behind "Get Your Shed Together" is Gateshead's artist in residence, Gilly Rogers. She came to the Whinnies in Sunniside, my home village where I also have an allotment. I interviewed her on Monday about shed painting and what she wants to achieve but I have included below the material she sent me.

My thanks to officers at Gateshead Council for putting Gilly in touch with me. It seems that anything related to allotments in Gateshead will end up being brought to my attention.


‘Get Your Shed Together’ is a new initiative aiming to raise awareness of the health risks caused by isolation, especially for older men.

Shed owners of Gateshead are invited to give their shed a makeover and show how they can be fun and sociable spaces.

Take part in this project by decorating a shed and turning it into a welcoming place to sit and chat with a neighbour or friend. You can choose to paint your shed or fill it with different things you like, maybe it’s just a table and chairs or a pair of curtains - maybe it can be transformed into a mini exhibition space? How creative can you be in adapting your shed?

The idea for the project is to get as many people as possible decorating their sheds and inviting someone to share a chat, in the lead up to and during Men’s Health Week, 10 – 16 June.

During Men’s Health Week, Gateshead Council’s Artist in Residence, Gilly Rogers, will be in Gateshead with her pop-up shed, chatting to people and encouraging everyone to take part in the project, which she hopes will evolve into an annual event. Watch out for updates about venues where you can join us on the Our Gateshead website.

We need you to help by simply being a good neighbour. Social isolation and loneliness is increasing and is affecting people’s health. For the first time the numbers of lone-dwelling older men has reached around one million. Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to raised blood pressure, poor physical health and mental ill-health including depression, suicide and dementia. Loneliness can contribute to a higher risk of disability, poor recovery from illness and early death. Health professionals consider the health risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and obesity.


Find out more on

Become part of our network by contacting Gilly or emailing photos of you with friends or family in your decorated shed to

So please start decorating your shed and have fun!

We are waiting to hear from you.

Monday, June 03, 2013

My nest egg hatches

duckling in incubator June 13

When we lost two of our ducks at the start of May to foxes, we put some of our ducks eggs into our incubator to try to recover the loss. 28 days later and this morning, after letting out the ducks and hens, I returned home to be greeted by this scene. Our first duckling had hatched. As I write this, there are five ducklings in the incubator. Two eggs are still to hatch.

The ducklings will be making star appearances soon when I take them to the Low Fell Festival on 22nd June, the Whickham Community Festival on 29th June and Marley Hill Community Centre craft market on 30th June. I have a stall at the first two events to promote the craft market. The ducklings will be appearing at the craft market as well, There will be a competition for kids to name them. We did this at the Easter Marley Hill market in March when we took the hen chicks we had hatched the week before. The winning name was Malt Easter (the prize was a box of maltesers).

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Hedge Funds and Digging Deep

A useful email arrived from the GVOC (Gateshead's umbrella body for voluntary organisations) on Friday which included a link to a section on the Woodland Trust's website which offers community groups free woodland kits. One of the large kits contains enough wild fruit saplings to create a hedgerow 120m long. This is ideal for one of the projects we have set up in our ward.

Last year Gateshead reduced the areas where grass cutting would take place as part of the plan to save £30 million. One of those areas is a grassed area on Kingsway in Sunniside. It is a large area, at least 120m long and in some places nearly 100m wide. The area had not previously been used for anything in particular. It is rarely used by residents. Fifty years ago it was expected to be used for housing but that was a plan that never happened. When we were told that the site was no longer to be cut, my initial response was to suggest we look at ways of planting the site as a wild flower meadow. Officers said they would not have a problem if I decided to do a bit of guerilla gardening to plant herbs that anyone could then pick. In the end however, we opted to set up a community orchard on the site, an idea put forward by my ward colleague John McClurey.

We got funding from the Council's local community fund and from various tree-planting funds to put in the first 40 fruit trees last autumn. Local Environmental Services dug the ground. Children from one of the local schools did the planting and a recent check shows all the trees have survived the winter. They fill only one small corner of the site. Our plan is to get funding for more trees and gradually fill the whole area with fruit trees. Anyone in the village can donate and plant a tree (we already have expressions of interest).

I am keen that we plant a wild fruit hedge along the side of the site that fronts onto the road so when I saw the Woodland Trust offer, I realised it fits the bill for what we want to do. So shortly I will be putting in an application. Get your shovels and spades ready people!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Centre stage

My ward colleague, Cllr John McClurey, and I headed up to Marley Hill Community Centre this morning to make our first delivery of books to the library we are setting up there. A Land Rover load of books was deposited by us under the stage in the main hall. We will find out whether or not this experiment in recycling 2nd hand books will work soon. We booked the date of the first two library sessions. The first will be on Sunday 30th June at the monthly craft market I run at the community centre. The second will be held on Friday 12th July, from 9am to 1pm. We will have the cafe open at both events.

The space under the stage was the best place to store the books for the time being but ultimately we want to get some shelving and have the books kept permanently in the dining room which we are looking to refurbish (we are expecting a report on this soon).

I called into Sun Hill, the aged person's unit in my village, last week to deliver some cakes left over from our cafe at Marley Hill on 19th May. As a result of this, I offered the services of John to take Sun Hill's residents in his Land Rover to forthcoming events at Marley Hill Community Centre. So hopefully they will want to come to our library and cafe on 12th July as well as the craft market and cafe on 30th June.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Becoming a librarian

Five libraries in Gateshead are becoming voluntary - ie the Council will no longer staff them but volunteers will run them instead. Gateshead will still provide the building and books, but the labour will be provided by people in the community. In Marley Hill, one of the villages in my ward, we seem to be going in a different direction. The village has no library but at the Community Centre, my proposal to set up a second hand book library was agreed at the management meeting on Tuesday.

It will work as follows: people will be asked to donate books; on the days we open the library, our cafe will also be open; people can read the books whilst consuming coffee and cake; if they like the books they can buy them and take them home and once they have finished reading them, they are welcome to donate them back to the Community Centre. The aim is to get more people through the doors of the building as well as to raise funds.

We already have our first donation of books. Two large boxes arrived from Whickham Rotarians yesterday at my house. They collected them at their shop in Whickham and have an unending supply. We can have as many as we can take. As yet, however, we haven't set the date for the first library sessions – that’s one of the jobs I need to sort over the coming days.

On delivery of the books yesterday, I was inspired to start sorting through my own books to filter out the ones that can be donated. As a result, Marley Hill library is going to have a fantastic history section!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Creating new allotments

We could be in the fortunate position in Gateshead of being able to reverse the fall in the number of allotments. Two years ago the Council decided to get rid of 100 plots, nearly 10% of those in Council ownership. That's the background against which I am working.

I am a trustee of Marley Hill Community Centre and we are in the process of undergoing a community asset transfer. The building is owned by the Durham Miners' Welfare Association and is held in trust by Gateshead Council. The community asset transfer will mean the building is leased to the community association. However, a large amount of land to the rear is also owned by the Welfare Association but held in trust by the Council. It is open green space but otherwise is not used. Once or twice a year the Council cuts a path through it. It would be an ideal location for allotments and community gardens.

I spent a couple of hours walking over the site a few weeks ago and worked up in my mind a few ideas for using the site. I then discussed these with officers from the Council who are looking into the legal aspects of the transfer as the Miners' Association have conditions on what can and cannot go on the land. Last night at the Community Centre management committee meeting we discussed the proposals further and it was agreed that I take the project forward by drawing up more specific plans for the site.

As well as allotments, I will be looking to include community gardens and smaller beds for people who can't take on bigger plots. I am especially keen to get community groups involved. If the project goes ahead, it will help to address demand for allotments in the area and create a great asset for the area.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The Lib Dems' Battle of Stalingrad

Yesterday - the day of the nail-biting Eastleigh by-election. It seems events had done everything they could to ensure we lose it. High profile former cabinet member Chris Huhne resigns as MP to spend time at her Majesty’s pleasure, thus sparking the contest in this marginal seat where we won by just 500 votes in 2005. And this week, we have done our best to feed as many negative front page headlines to the media as possible in the form of the Chris Rennard sexual harassment allegations (which came as news to me last week when I first heard them despite being a former member of staff with access to all the rumours at the centre.)

So with everything going against us, we went into our own Battle of Stalingrad where there was a ground war to be won or lost. It appears that it was fought street by street, house by house, sucking in vast armies of activists battling it out. After midnight, Lib Dems at the count were openly predicting a victory so I decided to stay up for the declaration which arrived at 2.20am. And yes, we won. And UKIP grabbed 2nd place. The Tories sank to 3rd place and Labour languished in 4th place. There were a few amusing moments when Labour spokespeople attempted to claim that the result showed a triumphant move forward for Labour who were now poised to grab lots of seats in the South. Clearly, the likes of Chuka Ummuna and John Denham were there to provide entertainment rather than serious comment.

Back in 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad marked the turning point of the ground war in Europe. There was not a smooth journey to Berlin in May 1945 but the direction of travel of the war. was clear. So is Eastleigh our Stalingrad – a hard won victory and the start of a two year bumpy and difficult journey towards the final and successful election battle? Time will tell.