Saturday, February 28, 2015

Conservatives join the fray in Blaydon

It seems that the Conservatives have now selected a candidate for Blaydon. Her name is Ali Griffiths and I understand she lives in Battersea. It brings the total of candidates to 5 in the constituency: Dave Anderson (Labour's sitting MP), Paul McNally for the Greens, Ali, or Alison, Griffiths for the Conservatives, Mark Bell for UKIP and me for the Lib Dems.

Dave Anderson is the only one I know or have met. He is pleasant enough to me on the times our paths have crossed. His politics aren't my cup of tea. He claims to be on the left of the Labour party and has attacked his own party's support for austerity. He is however quite harmless: he started the last Parliament carrying lots of left win baggage but never once voted against the Blair/Brown government. Despite the strutting and posturing, he turned out to be a New Labour poodle.

If it is the same person, Mark Bell was the UKIP candidate in my ward last year. He did not then live in the ward. He put out no leaflet and did not turn up for the count.

I know nothing of Paul McNally other than that he lives in the Derwent Valley and stood in Winlaton and High Spen ward last year (and did not win).

It is difficult to find much on Ali Griffiths. Most sites listing candidates (including the Conservative's own website as of last night) were still listing Blaydon as having no Conservative candidate. I've found a recently created Facebook site for her. I get the impression she is into skiing and someone has posted a comment looking forward to her going to Davos in Switzerland for a dose of skiing. Whether or not she has any genuine links to Blaydon is still to be discovered. Sadly for skiers, whilst we have lots of hills, the area lacks snow.

So Ali, welcome to the fray. And now that 5 parties have candidates in place, let the battle commence (though for the Lib Dems we've been battling away already for some time).

Friday, February 27, 2015

On the mend

On Tuesday night, Dad was taken to hospital suffering severe abdominal pains. I visited him on Wednesday afternoon at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead. He looked quite bad and I was a bit shocked by his condition. It turned out he had gall stones blocking his bile duct. I'm pleased to say that he underwent a procedure today and the gall stones have now gone. I couldn't visit him yesterday as I had meetings all day (including full council to set the council tax in Gateshead) but I was able to visit him today and he is looking better but still has some way to go to be fully recovered. I told him we'd let him off delivering the next Focus leaflet! He told me that the ambulance medic who was first to see him at his house in Whickham on Tuesday is a constituent of mine who quickly realised there was a family connection between his patient and his local councillor!

I took the above picture today. He will have a few more days in hospital before he can return home.

I'm the new Leader of the Pack

I'm pleased to announce on Monday, 2nd March, I will be the new Lib Dem Group Leader and Leader of the Opposition on Gateshead Council. Our current leader, Frank Hindle, told the group at the end of the Full Council meeting in December that he was stepping down and wanted a new leader elected before the start of the local election campaign. So on Monday 23rd February, we held the leadership election. I won and as I was the existing deputy leader, this post was vacated and the group elected Ron Beadle as the new deputy.

Judging by the above video I need to get a motorbike (I've already got the leather jacket) to be leader of the pack! Anyway, below is the news release now circulated to the local media.

Gateshead Council Leader of Opposition Stands Down

Frank Hindle, who has been Leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Gateshead Council since 2011 is to stand down from the post on Monday 2nd March.

The Low Fell Councillor announced his decision to his group in December so that there would be time to elect a new Leader before the start of the local election campaign.

On Monday 23rd February, the Lib Dem group elected Jonathan Wallace, Councillor for Whickham South and Sunniside, as the new Leader. Jonathan was previously the Deputy Leader.

In Jonathan’s place as Deputy, the group has elected Cllr Ron Beadle from Low Fell.

“It has been a great privilege to serve as Leader of the group and leader of the Opposition in Gateshead over the past 4 years,” said Frank. “These have been challenging years for the Lib Dems but we have held our ground.

“Last year we held all our council seats in Gateshead and came within 78 votes of taking another from Labour.

“But the current Parliament is about to end and the next one will face big challenges which will affect local government. I decided now is a good time to get a new team in place to take the Lib Dem group forward over the next five years.

“I am however looking forward to continuing as an active member of the council – and to building up my general election campaign to be next MP for Gateshead.”

Cllr Jonathan Wallace said, “Frank has been a great Leader over the past four years. I am determined that the Lib Dems will continue to punch above our weight and increase our strength in Gateshead.”

Cllr Ron Beadle said, “We have denied Labour their hope of creating a one-party state in Gateshead. Over the coming years I will be working with Jonathan to ensure the Lib Dem group on Gateshead Council holds Labour to account whilst growing our support across the borough.”



Photo above: Deputy Leader of the Pack Ron Beadle, me – the new Leader of the Pack, Frank Hindle, standing down as Leader, after the group elections on Monday.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The next Blaydon leaflet arrives

Our next leaflet for delivery in Blaydon arrived today. The printer dropped them off at my ward colleague Cllr John McClurey's shop in Newcastle and at 2pm I took the land rover over to pick them up. It was the only vehicle big enough to carry them all. They are now back at my house where they are being put into their patches.

Note the cardboard was not thrown out. It's going back to the allotment where, in wet weather, we will put it on the paths to try to keep the mud at bay. Note also the pallet on which theleaflets came is on the roof rack. For good lifers like me, pallets are sought-after resources. This one will be dismantled and used in making a goat house. Waste nothing!

2.5 million Flickr viewings

This is one of those moments when we feel the need to show off how big our statistics are! I've just been on my Flickr site and found that my photos have now been viewed 2.5 million times. If anyone feels the need to check out the 7900 pictures on the site, please feel free to click on this link.

Out greening the Green party

Sadly for the Green Party, the media spotlight looks set to burn off their green shoots of growth and turn their little green garden into a desert. Even more sadly for those who genuinely believe in putting environmentalism at the heart of our own lifestyles, there is little that is environmentally sustainable about Green Party policies. Their spend, spend, spend approach may be attractive to those on the left who are clueless when it comes to economically and fiscally sustainable policies, but borrowing lots of cash to spend now is simply a way of taking resources away from the future. And that seems to be completely at odds with a stance that says we should reduce our environmental damage now so that we don't dump big environmental costs on the future.

Anyway, given my self-sufficiency based way of life, just on that alone, I bet I could out green any Green candidate the Green Party cares to stand against me

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"The cost of living crisis is a cliche" claims top Labour councillor

At Gateshead Council cabinet this morning, the budget report was considered. Labour are going for a 1.95% council tax increase, after four years of freezing it. Opposition Leader Frank Hindle, Cllr Ron Beadle and I were there on behalf of the Lib Dem group. As usual, some Labour members blamed us for every problem. For many in the Labour Party, history began in May 2010. All problems have arisen since then, not before then, they try to claim.

So after we were accused of causing increased suicides and mass unemployment of young people (which rather ignores the fact there are over 200,000 fewer young people out of work compared to when Labour left office) Labour Deputy Leader Cllr Martin Gannon pitched in with his comments. Martin has an amazing ability to force opposites together. Back in the 80s he was militantly socialist and then in the 90s became more New Labour than Blair himself. Somehow he survives as a rainbow "socialist" warrior taking up contradictory positions as each decade goes by.

"The cost of living crisis is a cliche," he announced. In the recent past he has normally attacked the Coalition for the "cost of living crisis". Today however he was voting to add to it. Perhaps he was just trying to admit, without saying it, that things are not any where near as bad as Labour makes out. My guess is that Martin's words may come back to haunt him.

Whickham eFocus no. 93

Our latest edition (no. 93) of our email newsletter for the Whickham area was published last night. When I was turning my mind to what the contents should be earlier this month, I was struggling to come up with suitable stories that would, in a printed newsletter, be the page leads. And then suddenly, 3 big stories came along in quick succession: the end of plans for opencast mining at Marley Hill; rebuild for Whickham School and scaling back the cuts to Dunston Leisure Centre. 

Lib Dem training

Sunday saw some of our team (myself included) head to Newcastle for a training session for candidates and agents. I'm not sure why I went for the agents' bit but it was useful nevertheless. We also did training on using social media and motivating volunteers.

Afterwards I headed to Whickham. My ward colleague Marilynn Ord had delivered 200 survey forms in the morning and it was my job to collect the replies left in letter boxes in the evening (from 6pm onwards). I gathered in 31. I expect some will also be returned by post. Volunteers at our next action day (this Saturday) will put the results into our database (whilst the rest of us will be canvassing or delivering).

Sunday, February 22, 2015

UKIP target in Gateshead

It seems that UKIP are now beating Labour for activity in the ground war in the Gateshead ward of Lobley Hill and Bensham, though we are well ahead of both in terms of the literature we have put out. It does however seem that this ward is something of a UKIP target though it is also a ward in which we are interested. Labour have held the ward for decades but their vote came down with a thud last year. 10 years ago we nearly won it ourselves though after 2010, Labour's position recovered until last year when it went into freefall.

UKIP have now delivered an addressed letter to each household in the ward. I came by a copy this morning. Quite what the impact of both Lib Dem and UKIP literature will be is yet to be seen. It could be that the novelty of UKIP has worn off but they retain a goodly part of the vote they got last year. There is nothing in their literature to indicate they are involved in local issues. On the other hand, our literature clearly demonstrates that we are actively campaigning on what is important to residents. We have recently won the battle against opencast mining which, if approved, would have sent 60 heavy coal lorries a day through Lobley Hill. As it turns out, Labour in Gateshead backed the plans. Despite this, the plans have been rejected and there is to be no appeal.

Having local councillors who can demonstrate a record of year round activity is a key selling point for us in the local elections and we can clearly demonstrate this in Lobley Hill and Bensham ward. UKIP and Labour on the other hand will struggle. So with the battle for the local and general elections heating up, this ward is one to watch. And who knows, UKIP's presence, dragging down the Labour vote, could help us.

Another campaign day in Blaydon

We had another campaign day today in Blaydon constituency. Some of us were stuffing envelopes for our next direct mail delivery, some of us were canvassing, and some of us (me included) were doing both. We were in Dunston this afternoon for canvassing which threw up a few interesting points: those who receive our email newsletter were much more likely to vote for us and to do so at both the local and general elections; for the first time in ages, no one mentioned my self-sufficiency activities; and a former Labour branch officer we found was not impressed with Ed Miliband. No surprise there!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Marley Hill Pancake Cafe

Last night we held a pancake cafe in Marley Hill Community Centre. It was one of a number of events we are organising to make fuller use of the building. We held a similar event there last year which was modestly successful. Last night, we were run off our feet for 3 solid hours. The main hall was full of kids using the play equipment. The bar was opened up (we have a new license) but when all the tables were in use we had to set up additional ones, and everyone coming in seemed to have a great time.

The event was mainly for young families - and many turned up. However, there was a full age range of people there. And they consumed more pancakes than we care to mention! This is definitely an event to repeat next year.

We used eggs laid by our hens to make the batter but unfortunately, we are not yet able to use our goats milk for anyone other than ourselves. We will be registering soon with environmental health so that we can be inspected and, assuming we come up to the required standards, we will begin selling our milk and cheese. In the meantime, pancakes in the cafe had to be made using milk purchased from the local supermarket.

The aftermath!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Lottery bid for Chase Park

Friends of Chase Park in Whickham, with the help of Gateshead Council, have been developing a bid for £1 million of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The bid is due to be submitted in early March. If successful, it would be a fantastic boost to the park and to Whickham generally.

If the bid is successful it would result in new features including:
  • WiFi capability in areas of the park
  • New picnic benches and street furniture
  • Gardens, community planting areas and a community orchard
  • Interpretation Boards
  • New trim trail and green gym equipment
  • A refurbished park space for children
  • A new sports area space and exercise equipment for all to use
  • Art installations

With timescales extremely tight Gateshead Council have created online questionnaires for community groups, primary and secondary school aged children to complete. The questionnaires can be accessed through the following links:

All of these projects would be available for community groups to use and to participate in their creation. The project would also include a development worker for the park who would link with education establishments and community groups.

The deadline for completed surveys is Friday 27th February.

Monday, February 16, 2015

My old school to be rebuilt

It never ceases to amaze me how often Labour attack the leadership of the Conservatives and Lib Dems for having too many with public school educated backgrounds. And too often these Labour class warriors themselves enjoyed the benefits of public school education. People such as Tristam Hunt and Chris Bryant have rather wilted under the media spotlight recently when attacking others for their public school education whilst, ahem, having their own public school education highlighted by the media for all to see.

Personally, I don't give a damn what school you went to. After all, it is not your decision but rather that of the parents or the local educational system. But Labour's very own posh boys aren't going to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Anyway, the point of this post is not Labour toffs pretending to be socialists, rather it's about my old school. Sadly for Labour they can't paint me as a public school boy. I went to my local comprehensive, Whickham School, back in the 70s and early 80s. The school is a very successful one. It's one of the reasons people want to move to the Whickham area. The buildings however are showing their age. The school was built for 400 pupils in 1960 and had grown to more than 4 times that number when I was there. Over the decades, more buildings mushroomed over the site. As they age, so the maintenance problems multiply. The school needed rebuilding.

And that is now set to happen. The school is one of 277 to go in the next wave of the Priority School Building programme announced last week by Nick Clegg. Excellent news.

Photo above - Cllr Chris Ord, me and Kevin McClurey outside Whickham School, giving the news of the rebuild the thumbs up.

A bit of family history whilst campaigning

Wallace Avenue in Whickham is a small street of just 4 houses but it is linked to my family history. It was named after my great grandfather Henry Wallace who was the first chairman of Whickham Urban District Council back in the late 1890s. He was also the first county councillor for Whickham on Durham County, back in 1889. There is another street named after him in Dunston though it is outside Blaydon constituency. Anyway, Kevin McClurey and I decided to have an impromptu photo call at the entrance to Wallace Avenue on Sunday afternoon whilst campaigning. One for the campaign photo album.

A few photos from Saturday's Action Day

We had another action day on Saturday in Blaydon constituency. We shifted 3000 direct mail and 3000 Focuses in the morning. In the afternoon we were canvassing. The most interesting point we found during the door-knocking was the lack of enthusiasm for Labour amongst people who had voted Labour for years. Miliband just isn't cranking up the support. Meanwhile, as expected, there was a strong local vote for us. Also in the mix: we found one Labour member who votes Lib Dem locally, a Green voter and even a Conservative (whose party has not yet found a candidate for Blaydon).

Pictured above: Dave Fawcett back in HQ (Cllr John McClurey's house) adds recent survey replies to Connect with Luke Armstrng, our local organiser who is faced with a choice of eating chocolate biscuits or delivering hundreds of letters.

Above: my bag of leaflets and letters. Below: me on the border of Whickham North and Whickham East, heading through to join our canvass team elsewhere in the constituency.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Opencast appeal disappears

For over two years I have been fighting plans to opencast a site in my ward to the south of Marley Hill village. UK Coal (now Harworth Estates) had wanted to extract a million tonnes of coal from the former colliery site and surrounding countryside. Last June, Labour in Gateshead backed the plans and voted them through. That was not, however, the end of the story. The proposed site crossed into Co Durham as well so Durham County Council had to take a decision on the application as well. And they rejected it.

Time has now run out for Harworth Estates to appeal. And residents are beginning to ask why the Labour Party in Gateshead were such enthusiastic supporters of the plan.

In my 28 years on Gateshead Council, I've fought 4 plans for opencast mining in or next to my ward. So far I've won four and lost none.

Photo above - me, Kevin McClurey, Cllr Marilynn Ord and Dave Fawcett at the handing in of the petition I ran against the Marley Hill opencast plans. And below, part of the area proposed for opencasting but now saved.

My first candidate interview by students

Today was a first in more ways than one. It was my first interview by students as candidate for Blaydon. And it was the first time I have met up with people to discuss politics in a Pret a Manger! The two students I met were from St Thomas More School in the constituency and they are putting together an article about the various candidates and parties for a school publication. There is no Conservative candidate yet in Blaydon so they interviewed the Conservative candidate for Newcastle North instead. They are yet to meet up with Blaydon Labour MP Dave Anderson.

It was quite an interesting and challenging experience which lasted for two hours! I was grilled on a variety of issues from (inevitably) tuition fees to gay rights and equal marriage. Hopefully they found what I said useful and interesting.

Meanwhile, my inbox has been flooded with emails about HSBC and tax avoidance by the rich. At the last count there were over 60. They are all the same wording but no explanation as to which organisation they are from though we can make an educated guess. Nevertheless, they are all residents of the constituency so I will be putting together a response to each.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Lady Penelope’s Pink Mystery Machine

Labour have been slated today for taking onto the road a pink van to attract the female vote. Variously described as patronising and sending out the wrong message, to me it looks like a cross between Lady Penelope’s pink Rolls Royce and the Mystery Machine, the van from Scooby Doo. Whether it will work in attracting the votes of women or not is yet to be seen. I would have thought putting that awful Harriet Harpoon in charge of it probably means the road to socialism will be scorched with skid marks from hand brake uturns brought on by the need to abandon unrealistic policies. There will, of course, be lots of socialist pot holes ready to wreck the suspension of the vehicle. And watch out for the road to socialism being permanently blocked by an overturned milibandwaggon.

I wonder what colour I should paint my Land Rover for the election? It’s usual colour is natural mud with a hint of goat poo. That could certainly help me get the “good life” vote! The photo above however shows it in a surprisingly clean condition.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Guest speaker at the 41 Club

Last week I was the guest speaker at the Whickham and District 41 Club, an organisation for ex-Round Tablers over the age of 40 (which means I easily qualify!) I was recruited to speak by a Whickham resident who had bought some of my free range eggs and was keen that I share the story of how I became (nearly) self-sufficient. So I headed down to the Gibside Arms in Whickham for a dinner and then attempted to set up my rather ageing laptop to give a powerpoint presentation. Alas, we could not get the laptop to link in to the projector, so I had to wing it instead. This seemed to go down rather well. Half an hour of questions followed at the end. Tony, the person who asked me to do the talk, is married to one of my former junior school teachers. He said she remembered me well. Given I was at the school 45 years ago, I either did something seriously good, or seriously bad, to be remembered so vividly after such a long period of time! Hopefully it was the former!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Bees and sardines

It may be the middle of winter but today the sun was shining strongly, a situation which brought my bees out in large numbers. The 6 hives I have at my main apiary were all busy. I saw them whilst feeding my poultry after Gateshead Council's cabinet meeting this morning (thankfully a short agenda) and before heading back to Gateshead for another meeting (on the leisure services review).

After that meeting, I again returned home, milked the goat, and then had to head off to Whickham for a meeting of the Lighting Up Whickham group which assigned tasks to various individuals for the Whickham Community Festival on 4th July. My jobs are to organise the baking and preserves making competition and to bring along some of my livestock for people to see. As one of my goats is expecting in late May, I'll bring along the mother and kids so to people can have a go at feeding them.

From the Lighting Up Whickham group, I headed straight back to Sunniside for a meeting of the Washingwell History Project. This was something I kickstarted a couple of years ago and we are now going through the process of applying for a Heritage Lottery Grant to carry out the work of recording the history of the Washingwell area.

So, 4 meetings in one day, all packed in like sardines. Thankfully, I can get on with some work tomorrow. My diary is free of meetings. Hooray!

Monday, February 09, 2015

Sunniside sunset

I captured this photo from my allotment on Saturday evening, just after milking the goat. An amazing sunset. I spotted other residents of the area had posted up photos of it on Facebook as well though their pictures don't include the edge of a quail house and goat paddock!

Blaydon campaigning weekend round up

We are deep into preparing our next mailshot in Blaydon constituency. On Saturday evening, Cllr John McClurey hosted an envelope stuffing event which resulted in over 3000 letters being prepared for delivery. Note the partially hidden bottles of wine. David and I brought along 2 bottles of our homemade plonk. It seemed an opportune moment to test out our Chateau Sunniside 2013.

I had to take a break from envelope stuffing to head down to the Whickham part of my ward. We are currently carrying out a survey of residents' views on a 20mph zone being introduced for the whole of Whickham. So far we have surveyed the relevant parts of Dunston Hill and Whickham East and Whickham North wards. Now we are rolling the survey out across the affected areas of my ward.

Last Saturday I delivered 400 surveys and got 80 back from doors. This Saturday I delivered 300 and got back 50 and yesterday I delivered 180 and got back 30. I still have over 1000 to deliver in my ward. As yet I don't have any figures for the number returned by post or for how many have been collected in the other two wards.

We are having another big campaign day next weekend and one of the jobs to do for those not going out canvassing will be to add all the survey replies to the database.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Smoking out the other side

When we submit a motion for debate at Gateshead Council supporting something positive that the Coalition has done, Labour often move an amendment which wrecks the motion and makes claims of the Lib-Dems-eat-your-babies-for-breakfast variety. A couple of times recently, they used "information" they happily acquired from the Taxpayers' Alliance website to back up their claims that the Coalition spreads famine, pestilence and plague. Their opposition for opposition sake recently led them to attack the Coalition's decision to bring in free school meals for infant aged children. During the debate on our motion welcoming free school meals last autumn, they attacked the Lib Dems for taking away child benefit from the wealthiest parents and for raising the same benefit for other parents below the rate of inflation. Sadly for Gateshead Labour's sanity, a couple of days later, Ed Balls, in one of those rare moments when he could actually remember what he was talking about, announced that were Labour to win the General Election, child benefit rises would be below the rate of inflation!

But yesterday, sanity did prevail. For the full council meeting, we submitted a motion welcoming the announcement that there will be a free vote in the Commons on plain packaging of cigarettes and calling on the borough's MPs to vote for the change. On Wednesday, we had a message from the Labour Leader Mick Henry asking if the motion could be a joint one. We were happy enough to do that as long as we moved it. That meant I was able to hand them the task of seconding the motion. Whilst it saved me the task of writing a formal speech, I still spoke in the debate, welcoming the move but pointing out it was only one step along the road towards tackling smoking.

My colleague, John McClurey, moved the motion. He is a retailer but has extensive experience in tackling smoking and is a spokesman for anti-smoking campaigners. He brought along a number of plain packaged cigarette boxes to show people what they would look like. Many contain uncomfortable pictures of the effects of smoking.

The only fly in the ointment was Labour's Cllr Steven Ronchetti. The last time he spoke in council on smoking he attacked the smoking ban for what he perceived as the negative effects on pubs (he is a publican!) He said that though he would be voting for the motion, he wanted plain packaging to be delayed until after legal challenges had been completed in Australia. He seemed to be well briefed.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

LGBT History Month at Newcastle's Discovery Museum

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums in partnership with UNISON, Community Hubs Network and Newcastle City Council held an event to celebrate LGBT History Month on Monday at the Discovery Museum. As a member of the TWAM joint committee I was invited and popped in to look at the history display and listen to a number of speakers who talked about how laws and attitudes about sexual orientation have liberalised over the past 60 years.

Sadly, I was only able to stay for an hour as I had livestock to feed and a goat to milk back home.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Our latest efocus in Whickham

This was meant to go out last night but I came back from collecting surveys last night with a painfully swollen foot which necessitated a hot bath to kick start the recovery process. For those numerous Labour hacks in Gateshead who follow my every move, I'm pleased to say the recovery is now complete and I will be back out on doorsteps again in the next day or so.

Anyway, this link takes you to edition 92 of our email newsletter for the Whickham area. It leads on leisure service cuts, funding for the Swalwell Swifts and the Washingwell History Project (with which I am involved). My first Parliamentary column is also included, looking at funding for mental health.