Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Expect the unexpected

Plans for opencast mining at Marley Hill are back on hold after a decision yesterday by Co Durham's planning committee to reject the application by UK Coal to extract one million tonnes of coal from a site south of the village. The situation is very complicated however as Gateshead Council has granted planning permission. The site is mainly in Gateshead but part of it crosses the border into Co Durham, hence the need for the application to be considered by both councils.

UK Coal now face three options: appeal, bring in a revised application or withdraw. As the person who led the campaign against the application, clearly my preference is for a withdrawal. I am not counting my chickens on that. A revised application could take another two years to get through the system if the recently rejected plan is anything to go by. My expectation therefore is that the company will lodge an appeal.

The rejection now puts the spotlight back on those Labour councillors in Gateshead who voted for this application. Eileen McMaster, who represents Lobley Hill and Bensham voted for the application. Were it to go ahead, 61 heavy lorries a day would pass through Lobley Hill. Gary Haley, who often likes to parade his green credentials, voted for it as well. It's time for them to answer for their actions.

Back to the Durham decision - I have to confess it came as something of a surprise. After Gateshead's decision and the recommendation by Durham planning officers to approve it, I was resigned to the application being given approval. After 27 years as a councillor in Gateshead, I need to learn to expect the unexpected.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The sight that greeted me!

I went to Marley Hill Community Centre on Thursday evening last week and was greeted by this sight when I arrived. Quite how this car managed to flip over so completely is not known by me. The police cleared the road within half an hour. By the time I left the community centre to deliver my Focus newsletters around the village, the car was gone and a workman from the council was sweeping up the last bit of debris.

eFocus for the Whickham area, number 88

Our latest edition of our email newsletter eFocus was produced and distributed last week. It led with the Marley Hill opencast story but also covered a number of other issues, including the Coalition's improvements to the A1 in Gateshead.

You can read eFocus on this link.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Focus on Sunniside

My latest village Focus has now been written, printed and delivered. Focus on Sunniside, Streetgate, Marley Hill and Byermoor was written after Gateshead's planning committee agreed plans for opencast mining at Marley Hill. We held this edition back to be able to report the news to residents.

I was planning to deliver my patches on Wednesday but I was in a planning appeal that day for much longer than I expected. I thought I would be there for about an hour to give my evidence. I was actually there from 10am to 5pm. As a result, my patches were delivered yesterday and took longer than anticipated as there were lots of people wanting to talk about the opencast decision.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Discovery Museum 80th birthday

I am a member of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums (TWAM) Joint Committee (something of a mouthful but as an historian it's one of my favourite committees). Within TWAM is the Discovery Museum which over the weekend celebrated its 80th birthday.

There was a birthday cake cutting ceremony at midday though I was not there long enough to enjoy a slice. I had to head off as I had people to see and allotments to visit.

I did however stay for Cllr Ged Bell's speech. (He is chair of TWAM). He's the one on the right! He made a valiant effort to compete with the Transformers. It was a bit of a losing battle as most of the audience was below the age of 10!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A1 upgrade exhibition

I headed down to Dunston Activity Centre on Friday evening to go to the Highways Agency's exhibition about the A1 improvements from the south of the Team Valley to the Metrocentre. This stretch of road, now one of the most congested in the UK, is to be upgraded to have 3 lanes in both directions. A separate slip road from the A692 at Lobley Hill to Askew Road (A184) will also be built within the curtilage of the existing A1 highway.

The total investment is nearly £100 million. This rather undermines the absurb Labour allegation that the Coalition is spending next to nothing on transport in the North East. Labour claim that the vast majority of transport money is being spent in London. They fail to mention that their figures are based on spending decisions made by Labour ministers when they were in government to back Crossrail.

The improvement to the A1 had been promised for years by the last Labour government but they somehow just never got round to delivering it. Work starts next month and continues until 2016.

Photo above: Cllr Peter Maughan, me and Kevin McClurey at the A1 exhibition on Friday.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Flogging It

I had not previously seen BBC's Flog It programme but last year the programme makers contacted me and asked me to do an interview for them about the Angel of the North statue. So I dusted down my suit (which doesn't get worn as often as it used to), ironed my shirt, and headed over to Gateshead to do the interview. I then forgot about it until I was told by a Labour Councillor yesterday that she had seen me on the programme.

So if you really need to watch me, I'm about 19 minutes into the programme on this link.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Council meets at Gibside

Gateshead Council abandoned the Civic Centre today to meet instead at Gibside, the National Trust property in my ward which was once the home of the Bowes-Lyon family. Gibside is now a major visitor attraction in the North East. Though Gibside Hall is a shell, the early Georgian gardens are still there. The walled garden in particular is worth visiting. It had, until last year, been used as a visitor car park. Now it has been restored.

Whilst there I had a useful discussion with Mick Wilkes, manager of the estate, with both my local councillor and local food producer hats on. We talked about rural economic strategies, local food, honey production and farmers markets. I will be arranging to go back to continue the discussion soon.

As for the meeting itself, we had one incident in which there were general murmurings of content from Labour members about claims that somehow, a Labour victory at the general election next year will mean there won't be cuts. This was followed minutes later by an announcement by the Labour Council Leader Mick Henry that under Labour (according to Hilary Benn at the LGA conference) there would be cuts to local government, but that Labour's cuts would be "fairer". More murmurings of content from Labour broke out, even though this seemed to contradict the claim made moments earlier of no cuts. I don't know what Hilary Benn said, but it sounds like a statement that was designed to please everyone. And when a statement like that pleases everyone, it normally means it is too meaningless to please anyone once implemented.

Defeated on opencast plans

Sadly, I have to report that last night, Gateshead Council's planning committee approved UK Coal's application to opencast a site to the south of Marley Hill, in my ward of Whickham South and Sunniside. I have been battling this application for over two years and last night I spoke on behalf of residents opposed to the plans. I was joined by former Labour Councillor Pitch Wilson (speaking on behalf of the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England) and two residents. Speaking in favour of the application was a representative of Tanfield Railway. UK Coal spoke to support their plans as well.

There is one more hurdle UK Coal have to cross before they can go ahead. Part of the site is in Co Durham so the County Council needs to grant approval. This will take place later this month.

Much was made by UK Coal of their offer to clear up contaminated land on the site. The area also includes the site of the former Marley Hill Colliery which closed in 1984. The contamination comes from a chemical plant that operated in the 1920s. The area of contamination however is just one and a half percent of the land area of the application. Most of the site is countryside. The area of the demolished colliery has regenerated itself naturally. Much of it is now covered with trees which will now be lost. The level of contamination was also questioned. It has never been closed off to the public and no warning signs were ever placed there to tell people to stay away. And whilst removal of contamination is welcome, it has to be balanced against the loss of woodland and agricultural land across a much larger area. Furthermore, UK Coal have made a virtue out of a necessity - they need to remove the contaminated soil anyway to get access to the coal.

If UK Coal successfully navigate the final hurdle of Durham's planning committee, they will work the site for four and a half years. One million tonnes of coal and 100,000 tonnes of fireclay will be sent down the A692 through local villages to the A1, at the same time as the improvements to the A1 will be taking place.

Attention now switches to Durham County Council but I'm not holding my breath - the key battle was always going to be fought in Gateshead where most of the site lies.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Self-Sufficient in Suburbia

I stopped working for the Lib Dems five years ago. When I left Cowley Street, my aim was to become self-sufficient, to grow my own food and live off the small bits of land that we have. Since then we have gradually built up our food growing infrastructure. I filmed this video last month to show people where we are now. As you can see, we have lots of hens, ducks, bees and weeds!

Opencast, new schools and quail feed

Today I am attending an allotment bbq (raising funds for cancer research), then going to a meeting about council reorganisation, after that it's a meeting about designs for the new Front Street Primary School in Whickham, and at 6pm I will be representing residents at Gateshead Council's Planning Committee to oppose opencast plans in my ward. At some point I need to fit in a trip to Boldon in South Tyneside to buy feed for my quails and ducklings. And I need to write my speech for the planning meeting! All in a day's work.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Opencast D-Day tomorrow

Tomorrow, Wednesday 16th July, Gateshead's planning committee will be taking its long awaited decision on the Marley Hill opencast application. UK Coal want to extract one million tonnes of coal from a site to the south of Marley Hill which they want to work for four and a half years. The application was submitted two years ago. Since then I have led the campaign to have the application rejected. 1000 signatures on our petition have been handed in (see photo above).

Sadly, we learnt last week that planning officers are recommending approval, though the final decision rests with the councilors on the planning committee. Tomorrow I will be representing residents opposed to the application when I speak at the committee. Fingers crossed that the decision will go the right way.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Whickham Community Festival - the photos

I am a member of a group called Lighting Up Whickham which raises funds for the Christmas lights for Whickham. We organised our third community festival on Saturday and this year we chose the Great War as the theme, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. I was there selling my preserves and eggs and promoting the community cafe we run at Marley Hill Community Centre.

A special request from the group was made to me to bring my ducks to put next to the hook a (plastic) duck game. I also brought our 10 day old ducklings which were on my stall - and which proved very popular.

As a member of the organising group, taking part in the zumba was compulsory!

The full set of photos from the Festival can be seen on this link.

We are already considering plans for a Christmas market in St Mary's Green. And we will need to decide the theme for the 2015 festival as well. I have some ideas but will run them past the organising group first.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Putting up the bunting

On Tuesday, at the meeting of the Lighting Up Whickham Group - the group has organised the Whickham Community Festival which is being held tomorrow - it was decided that I would do the job of putting up the bunting. This hardly came as a surprise. This is the third annual festival we have held and at the previous two, somehow I got the job of climbing lamp posts and trees to put up the bunting. The job was done this morning. We had less than I expected so we got through it quicker than expected.

Events kick off at 11am and go on until 4pm. I will have a stall promoting the local food swapping network I am setting up. The organising group also asked me to bring some of my ducks along for the hook-a-duck competition. (Hook a plastic duck, not a real one!) They were a big hit at last year's festival when the theme was medieval Whickham. The "village duck pond" was set up (sadly without a ducking stool) so as a duck pond needs ducks, I brought some of mine along. This time I'll bring my rare breed Welsh Harlequin ducks, plus some 10 day old khaki campbell ducklings (the ducklings will be in a box on my stall).

The theme of this year's festival is the commemoration of the outbreak of the Great War, 100 years ago. I'm digging out some suitable clothes to wear. Given the age of some of my clothes, they could be counted almost as the genuine World War One costume!

My next email newsletter, eFocus no. 87

Just published so it's hot off the laptop, my latest email newsletter to residents across the central part of Blaydon constituency. The circulation list for the Whickham edition of eFocus is now about 1800. The finishing touches were made this morning when I took the final set of photos - putting out the bunting for the Whickham Community Festival.

Issues covered include the Festival, Marley Hill opencast application, the local Air Cadets and Coalition investment in the Tyne and Wear Metro. Your can view eFocus on this link.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Kevin's thank you party

In the May local elections in Gateshead, Labour's campaign was little short of a car crash. At council meetings earlier this year, Labour had publicly promised to reduce our numbers on Gateshead. The election results wiped the smug grins off their self-righteous faces. Labour went down to defeat in the three seats they thought they could win from us. (We were defending 4 - my ward of Whickham South and Sunniside was the only one not on their hit list as Labour had trashed and burned their chances of winning there a decade ago after a disastrous performance by their candidate at the time.) This May, all our Councillors were returned with increased majorities.

Indeed, it was the Labour Party that came closest to having their numbers reduced. We were within 78 votes of winning Dunston Hill and Whickham East ward from them. Our candidate, Kevin McClurey, held a thank you BBQ on Saturday evening for those who helped in the campaign. About 20 people were there, and more unable to attend sent their apologies.

The campaign for next year has already begun. The Dunston Hill Thank You Focus has already been printed and delivered.