Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Rescuing bees and setting up a community beekeeping project

In my village of Sunniside, Sun Hill, the aged person's housing, has been replaced with a new building. The old one is now being demolished. However, we have known about a feral bee colony that has lived in the roof for over 7 years. I was able to persuade the Gateshead Housing Company, former owners of the building, and Keepmoat, the housing association that now owns it to let me go in to rescue the colony.

Three weeks ago, we checked out the empty building and the flat under the colony. We then had discussions with Keepmoat about removing the ceiling boards but were told we could not touch them. They were covered with artex which contains asbestos. For a while, we thought we would have to abandon our rescue bid. However, the demolition has now started and the ceiling boards have all gone. I visited the building this afternoon and was informed that there are 3 colonies, not one. I took a look at them (easy to do now that the ceilings have gone) and realised this was going to be a bigger challenge than we expected.

The above photo is of the of the rear of Sun Hill. The colony we were aware of is above the open windows. That colony looks to me to be the oldest and my guess is that the other two came from swarms generated by this one. This is what the older one looks like:

The following is a picture of one of the newer colonies:

Our plan is to move the colonies into hives and then temporarily rehouse the hives away from Sunniside until we are able to set up a community beekeeping project. My expectation is that we can get that up and running next year but we will need to bid for funding for equipment. At the moment I am planning to use up my spare empty hive equipment to house the colonies. I will then need to replace what I use as we will shortly be in the bee swarming season and will need equipment to house any swarms from our own hives.

So, if you are in Gateshead and are interested in taking part in a community beekeeping project, email me.

Rumblings of discontent in Labour's Gateshead ranks

A few visits to Gateshead Civic Centre are always enough to glean some hints about what's happening in the Labour party. That, plus one or two other sources have helped fill in an interesting picture. There are rumblings and grumblings in the ranks of the "socialist" brethren.

Firstly, I hear of moans about the normally safe Labour ward of Saltwell soaking up lots of time and effort following the sacking of their popular and widely liked Councillor, Joe Mitchinson. Secondly, there were rumblings of discontent about the need to bail out Labour in Dunston Hill and Whickham East ward where a letter to Labour supporters had to be delivered. Questions have been asked about the level of activity of the two sitting Labour councillors in the ward. Unhappy comments have been made about the fact that the first Labour election leaflet didn't even contain any photos of either of the councillors. "Socialists" are asking why they should turn up to help those whose own visibility is something of an issue.

Thirdly, not all "socialists" are unhappy about helping in Dunston Hill. Indeed, some take the view that the ward needs more help but is losing out in the battle of resources to the campaign in Lib Dem held Whickham North! The thinking is that, a Labour win in Whickham North could alter the power balance in the Labour group. Those happy with the status quo have not been seen in this key battleground ward.

And finally, holiday arrangements appear to have ruffled a few "socialist" feathers. A decision to head off for a couple of weeks in sunny Texas during the election campaign won someone no fans. And a key "socialist" activist in a marginal ward headed off to France recently, forgetting that they had an action day in that person's ward. A small number of helpers turned up. Alas, nothing could be organised for them to do and they returned home, waiting for the wanderer to return.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A UKIP leaflet cock-up in Gateshead

I have been let off from leafleting in Lobley Hill and Bensham ward on the grounds that our candidate, Dave Fawcett, has enough helpers to get his next Focus out. The good news comes with a sting in its tail. I am sitting opposite a pile of tabloids waiting to go out in Blaydon ward. A mere 750, many more than I would have been given to do in Lobley Hill. Ouch! I'm looking for volunteers to relieve me of the burden.

Meanwhile, I have in my possession a UKIP local election leaflet for Dunston Hill and Whickham East ward. This is the first time they have ever produced a local leaflet in the Whickham area. It was delivered with the advertising bumph for pizzas and chip shops. Alas, UKIP's inexperience shows. Their candidate tells all about her views on a variety of issues (one very long paragraph which is punctuation-challenged) and it is announced that UKIP are "working hard all year in Gateshead" - a claim which is backed up with no evidence at all (as there is none). Alas, there is no mention of the agent or promoter in the imprint. Oops!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Popularity ratings at the street surgery

Across the three Whickham wards, the 7 Lib Dem councillors hold a joint monthly surgery and today we decided to hold it outdoors in St Mary's Green, complete with table, yellow umbrella and some Lib Dem diamond corex posters. Those attending were me, Cllr John McClurey, Cllr Peter Craig, Kevin McClurey and Cocoa, John's labrador.

The first person to speak to us was Peter de Vere, Labour candidate in my ward. It was interesting to note that he wasn't out campaigning - instead he was on his way to the dry cleaners. Then we had a number of people who all seemed to be recipients of my email newsletter (which goes to about 1500 households) and were keen to talk about issues raised in the edition I sent out last week.

But the winner in terms of profile today was Peter Craig. It seemed everyone knew him and the issues and projects with which he is involved.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Police meeting

For the last couple of months we have been having discussions with the police in Whickham about how best to address a spate of burglaries in the area. We decided that it would be useful to hold a public meeting so the police could give residents an overview of what has happened and, very importantly, to explain to residents what they can do to reduce the likelihood of being burgled. The meeting was held last night in the function room of the Crown pub on Whickham Front Street. The police delivered a letter in the area most affected - Cornmoor Rd/Whaggs Lane/Millfield Rd/Broom Lane and I sent out an email to people on our newsletter list.

About 50 residents came to the meeting and the police gave a useful explanation of what people can do: don't leave tools around in the garden as the burglars are using them to break into houses; make sure sheds are locked and secured and possibly install a shed alarm; put up security lighting; install cameras and so on. This equipment can be bought quite cheaply and can act as a strong deterrent to burglars. People were also asked to report any suspicious activities by calling 101. The police are also keep to set up a neighbourhood watch scheme.

The councillors sat at the back of the room but I was on call to answer questions that related to the council - there was a reasonable number.

All-in-all, a useful meeting/

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Another Labour bust up in Gateshead

There appears to have been yet another bust up in the Labour party in Gateshead, this time in Saltwell, the ward of the Labour Leader Mick Henry, so my contacts inform me. Mick's ward colleague Joe Mitchison has been dumped as candidate. Joe is one of those people who you just can't help but like if you are not in the Labour party (though it seems that does not stretch to all Labour members themselves.) He is a friendly, jovial character who served as Mayor of Gateshead on three occasions. Alas, being a good mayor and a pleasant bloke was not enough to save him from deselection.

I now hear that there has been some unhappiness that Labour have put out a leaflet announcing that Joe has decided to "retire" from the council after many years of service. This airbrushing of history has not met with universal approval within Labour ranks where the rumblings of civil war over the leadership of the Labour group can be heard.

I am informed that those who pushed for Joe's deselection were underwhelmed by his not-overly-enthusiastic backing for the embattled and weakened Mick Henry who needed firmer support in his own backyard.

We are told that Mick's future is on a knife-edge. One or two deselections or seats changing hands could tip the balance. Will Joe's "retirement" be enough to keep Mick and the Labour "A Team" in power or will other changes elsewhere allow in the "B Team"? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of Gateshead Labour Bust Up!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Back on my former home patch in Swalwell

On Saturday, I was given a patch in Whickham North and Swalwell ward to deliver. It was the old terraces in Swalwell, my old home patch. Napier Road, in the middle of the patch, was where we bought our first home nearly 30 years ago. I was at university at the time and our house move took place only a couple of weeks before the start of the local elections that year that saw me elected for Whickham South. A large amount of the unpacking had to wait until after the elections! We lived there for over 15 years before moving to Sunniside.

Living in Swalwell meant that the whole of the old terraces became my delivery patch back then so returning to it yesterday to deliver 400 leaflets (in 90 minutes) brought back memories of campaigning there years ago. Whilst residents of the terraces come and go, households there have continued to receive Focuses for over 20 years. It's a good record and one that certainly cannot be matched by our opponents. Indeed, the most common point made by residents on doorsteps to us is that they know there is an election coming as, for the first time in ages, they have had a leaflet from Labour. "You only ever see Labour when they want our vote," people tell us. How true!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Accused of "grandstanding" but shaping the debate

When an application for opencast mining was submitted to Gateshead Council in 2011 at Birklands, in Lamesley ward, neighbouring mine, I was the councillor who put together the campaign to defeat the proposals. I wrote the petition and with Lib Dem colleagues, we delivered it to a large part of Lamesley ward and to my ward. I also arranged for the petition to go on-line. Labour were noticeable for their lack of interest in the issue. When I met residents, at least one Labour councillor was invited to the meetings. None appeared.

The application took nearly three years to go through the planning process, a delay which lay with the applicant's slow approach to providing all the information needed for the planning system to take a decision. Months ago I put my name down to speak at the planning committee as an opponent of the application. At the end of March, the planning officers informed everyone that they were recommending rejection of the application.

I was one of the first to arrive for the planning committee meeting. I had been phoned in advance by officers to be told that I could not speak as the ward member as the site of the application was not in my ward, even though the biggest impact was on my constituents. I was speaking therefore simply as an objector. Lamesley Labour Councillor Christine Bradley was to speak against the application as ward member. She told me before proceedings started that her comments were going to be focused on the applicant offering inadequate financial compensation to the community.

The officer presented their report about the application, outlining the reasons why it should be rejected. He explained that the transport route was acceptable and therefore was not being included in the list of reasons for recommending rejection.

As ward member, Cllr Bradley was first objector to speak. I was next. My comments focused on the inadequate transport route and the impact on local roads of the 70 heavy lorries a day that would go through villages in my ward. I said clearly that I disagreed with officers about the transport implications.

Planning committee members discussed a number of issues but most time was spent on the transport issue. It seemed that members, having heard my comments, shared my concerns. The rejection of the application for the reasons presented by the officers was approved but for one important exception. Labour Councillor Paul Foy moved that the transport problems be added to the list of reasons for rejection. This was agreed by the committee.

Later that day, my ward colleague Cllr John McClurey, informed me of an interesting conversation he heard before the planning committee meeting was held. A Labour councillor had loudly suggested to colleagues that I was "grandstanding" by planning to speak to the committee as the officers had already recommended rejection. John then intervened and pointed out that my name had been down to speak against the application long before the officers had made their recommendation. It was interesting to note however that this same Labour Councillor did not make the same criticism of Cllr Bradley. Was this one rule for Labour, one for the rest of us?

Given that my comments were confined entirely to the transport issue which the officers had indicated were not a reason to reject, it would seem that there was good reason for me to speak at the meeting, even with the recommendation to reject being on the table. And the committee agreed with me - a point demonstrated by their decision to add transport concerns to the list of reasons to reject.

So, who had accused me of "grandstanding"? - none other than Cllr Foy himself, the person who moved that transport concerns be added to the reasons to reject! Nice one Paul!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Left on the shelf

One of my proposals for Marley Hill Community Centre was to set up a community library and 2nd hand book shop. We have no money at all to create this venture so we are completely reliant on donations of books and equipment. We were given 5 large cupboards by Gateshead Civic Centre and have received a number of books from residents (including a good part of my collection of history books). The Civic Centre also gave us some spare shelves though they were not made to fit the cupboards they gave us. So on Friday, Cllr John McClurey and I took electric saws and drills to the community centre and cut the shelves to size. The before and after pictures can be seen above and below.

We have now run out of brackets for the remaining three cupboards. John will make some more. We are not sure yet when we will open the library in its own right but the cupboards will be opened as part of the Easter Monday events in the Community Centre on 21st April.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Tree planting at Marley Hill

In December we had a permanent Christmas tree planted at the front of Marley Hill Community Centre. And then the storms came and partly blew the tree over. So this afternoon, my ward colleague, Cllr John McClurey, and I reset the tree. I brought up a couple of 2 metre high posts which I hadn't got round to using to fence in my livestock. With the help of a pile driver I borrowed from a friend, we installed the posts which now keep the tree upright.

In London we had a Norwegian spruce in a large pot which we never got round to planting in our garden there. The last time I was there with the car, I brought the tree back home to Gateshead so that it could be planted in the grounds of Marley Hill Community Centre. We did that job this afternoon as well. It is only about 1.5m high but give it a few years and it will be big enough to be decorated at Christmas.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tim Farron in Newcastle

My old university friend Tim Farron MP was back on his old Newcastle stomping ground yesterday. We went to Newcastle University together in the late 80s. Tim ended up doing a year as the students' union president. I went off to try to get elected to Parliament. A generation later he got to Parliament and became Lib Dem President whilst I ended up taking early retirement (at 46) from the rat race to keep hens and goats (and make food videos!) 

Tim was in town to launch the North East Lib Dem European campaign. I met up with him at a "pizza and plonk" party in High Heaton in Newcastle last night. Quite an good event. I rather enjoyed it. I then had to leave before the end to get home and close up my hen and duck houses before the foxes arrived.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

First battle won in opencast campaign

Last week I was one of the objectors who spoke against plans to extract quarter of a million tonnes of coal from Birklands, in the neighbouring ward of Lamesley. A late change in the application saw the route for the lorries change to the A6076 (Stanley Road) and A692 (the main road through the villages in the south of my ward). The route also went through Lobley Hill and on to the A1.

The application has been with the Council since 2011 but the applicant had taken their time to come forward with the information required to reach a decision on their proposals. In that time, we have been campaigning in the areas affected by both the previously planned and the new routes - Kibblesworth, Lobley Hill and Sunniside/Streetgate. A week before the application came before the planning committee, we learnt that the -planning officers were recommending refusal.

At the committee meeting itself, I made the case that the transport route was totally inadequate and would impact severely on local villages and settlements. Interestingly, the officers had not recommended refusal based on the transport route. Instead, they reported that other planning policies would be breached by the application sufficiently to be grounds for rejection.

Once the speakers were finished, the committee members debated the application and sure enough, the biggest discussion was about the transport route. The result was that in addition to the reasons to reject outlined by the officers, members of the committee added inadequate transport route to the list. The application was then rejected.

So, the first battle in the campaign has been won but there are more battles ahead. The applicant has a right of appeal and there is a bigger application at Marley Hill on which a decision is expected in May. So the campaign to stop opencast mining on the doorsteps of our local communities is continuing.

Friends of Chase Park fair

Friends of Chase Park in Whickham invited me to bring some of my animals to their first Easter fair which was held on Saturday 5th April. Bill Quay Community Farm was invited as well and we shared the "animal" gazebo together. BQF brought rabbits and Welsh Harlequin ducklings (I have some eggs of this breed which I bought from BQF last month in my incubator which are due to hatch next week). I brought 21 quail chicks which hatched last month. All the animals were popular with visitors.

The fair was due to open at 1pm. I was there at 11am and for a time we thought it was going to be a washout - literally as the rain was quite heavy. However, by 1pm, the rain had stopped and the visitors started arriving.

I sold some of my eggs and jams, enough to make a small donation to the Friend's coffers. I was also able to promote the Marley Hill Community Centre monthly cafe and craft market.

The next Chase Park event is the annual May Fair (being held in June this year!) I am likely to be there again with livestock as well.

My colleague Cllr Peter Craig helping to dismantle the gazebos and tents at the end of the event. Peter helped to set up Friends of Chase Park a few years ago.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

My last day on the Beamish Museum joint committee

One of my favourite outside committees on which I serve on behalf of Gateshead Council has been the one that runs Beamish Museum (or more officially the North East of England Open Air Museum). Alas, it is now coming to an end and new management arrangements are coming into effect. Though I will miss it, the reforms to the way it is run are a sensible way forward, even if I am not directly involved.

The museum is nothing like the stereotype of carefully displayed exhibits behind glass screens. It is hands on. It's all about experiencing past ways of life, not looking at it from a distance. Beamish contains a pit village, a railway workshop, a regency farm, a 1913 town centre, a Victorian railway station and a World War Two farm. People are carried around the huge site by trams, steam trains and steam powered buses.

Another significant feature is that the Museum pays for itself. It does not rely on revenue funding from the local councils of the region which set up the Museum in the 1960s. During the recent austerity years, even though it costs to get in, visitor numbers have been going up and are at record levels.

There are lots of lessons other museums can learn from Beamish.

I took the photo above of the inside of one of the trams on Friday, after the last meeting of the joint committee. It was still early at the time so there weren't many visitors in the museum at that point. In addition, the weather was awful - the one drawback of being an open air museum.

New attractions continue to be opened. Unfortunately, I missed the official opening of the pit pony stables on Saturday as I was attending the North East Beekeepers' Convention. And there is more to come. The next phase will see the recreation of a 1950s suburban area, and after that, a 1980s suburb will be built (to which I could donate lots of furniture, equipment and clothes from my own house - but only after I've finished using them myself!)