Thursday, January 31, 2019

"Secret" cameras and democratic rights

GMBC notice of recording Jan19

Last night, I attended Gateshead's planning committee where a decision was to be taken on whether or not to allow in principle up to six houses to be built on Chase Park, Whickham. I will discuss that issue on another post. I am not a member of the committee but was there to film this section of the agenda. In the meantime, let us look instead at the claims of someone else who attended the meeting: Labour's Cllr Chris McHugh.

Cllr McHugh, head of office for Blaydon MP Liz Twist, raised objections to my filming the meeting after the vote was taken on the planning proposals. He seems to have overlooked the fact that filming council meetings is a democratic right enshrined in law. He was told by one of the officers that anyone can film a meeting. Cllr McHugh concluded that I should have informed the chairman in advance.

As it turns out, just before the start of the meeting I chatted to the chairman about various pleasantries. I said nothing about filming the meeting but since I was standing next to him holding a video camera and a very large and obvious tripod while engaging him in conversation, explaining that I was there to record proceedings was somewhat unnecessary.

Interestingly, a notice on the door to the meeting (see above) states that people are welcome to record the meeting. Nothing about needing to inform the chairman in advance! Perhaps Cllr McHugh should read what is in front of him before he wastes people's time with his whinging.

And so we move on to this morning and Cllr McHugh has had time to come up with another silly claim to deflect attention from what he had done over the Chase Park proposals. This time he splashes a claim across residents' Facebook sites that I was somehow "secretly" recording the meeting! The deflection attempt failed. There are countless comments by residents unhappy with his support for the Chase Park proposals.

But a thank you to Chris is appropriate - thank you for giving us a new story about Labour being unhappy about opening up the council to democratic scrutiny by giving residents the opportunity to see elected representatives in action through the medium of video.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Momentum backing Venezualan chaos

Momentum banner Jan 19

On Monday evening I was in Whitehall and spotted a loud but relatively small demonstration. As I walked passed, I heard the speaker attacking "Western colonialism and imperialism" and there were shouts of "Hands off Venezuela". Yes, a demonstration in favour of the socialist government of Venezuela and their reckless destruction of a once rich economy with some of the world's largest oil reserves. I take the view that everyone is allowed to support whatever political outlook takes their fancy but I can't help believing that those in the demonstration were somewhat deluded. One million percent inflation and the devastation of the Venezuelan economy however seems not to have woken the demonstrators from their delusions. But there again, many of the demonstrators were holding Momentum banners. And if you are ever in search of a bunch of deluded people, Momentum should be your first port of call.

Taking the biscuit

council tea and coffee no biscuits Jan 19

A few years ago I made quite a bit of noise about the need to stop providing biscuits to councillors in meetings of Gateshead Council. At the time, the council listened and acted. I instantly made myself unpopular (or even more unpopular depending on a councillor's view of me) when the biscuits disappeared from meetings. After a year of so, suddenly biscuits made a reappearance at meetings. So I started to make a fuss again. And hooray! It now appears the biscuits have gone again. I have attended lots of meetings in January and each one was a biscuit free zone. Chew on that everyone!

Snatching defeat from the jaws of defeat

I was in Westminster last night for a meeting so I was around when the votes on the Brexit amendments started to come in. Well, we all know what happened. Theresa May scraped through on the Brady amendment, thanks to a temporarily reunited Tory party and, as I predicted last year, a group of Brexit-backing Labour MPs. We were, of course, previously told that her deal was absolutely final, non-negotiable, totally impossible to change, cross my heart and hope to die etc etc etc. Now in survival mode, Mrs May went for her own jugular by backing an amendment that trashed all her previous claims. Having been defeated once, she now leads the cavalry charge against her own plans. Given that the EU are still making it clear that they are standing by loyal and supportive EU member Ireland, and that the existing exit deal was negotiated along the lines of Mrs May's very own red lines, it is difficult to see what "alternative arrangements" could be agreed upon in the weeks we have left that would be acceptable to the EU.

It is likely that she will get next to nothing more from the EU unless she makes a major concession. That looks unlikely. She has snatched defeat from the jaws of defeat. What a record to have!

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Pelaw and Heworth Action Day

Fewster Sq Lib Dem street stall Jan 19 (1)

We had a very positive action day in Pelaw and Heworth today. Lots of surveys delivered and doors knocked on. And a large delegation of residents visited our street stall in Fewster Square (just outside the ward). I think we all came away feeling happy with the progress we are making in the ward.

Whickham eFocus 112 just published

Our latest eFocus for the Whickham area, edition 112, was published tonight. The lead story is an update on Labour's proposals to build houses on Chase Park. Also included: defibrillator installed at Whickham Library, Sunniside Chapel table top sale and closure of Fellside Road for maintenance.

You can read eFocus on this link.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Planning visit to Chase Park

On Thursday Gateshead's planning committee carried out a site visit to Chase Park in Whickham where the Labour party want to allow house-building. With the park under threat from development, this was always going to be a controversial proposal by the council.

I attended as one of the Whickham councillors and captured the visit on video.

Labour's transphobic motion deferred

On Wednesday last week, I was sitting in a meeting when an email arrived with the agenda for Gateshead's full council meeting on 24th January. I decided to scroll through to the motions. There were two from Labour and one in particular caught my attention. This was about gender self-identification. You can read the motion at the end of this post.

The proposer was Cllr Leigh Kirton, a Labour member of Gateshead Council I cannot recall speaking at a meeting before. As I read further into this (for Labour) typically essay length motion, it became obvious that this was not a motion supportive of the trans community. Indeed, though dressed up with attempts at supportive language, it was quite hostile. It contained an open attack on the concept of self-identification and demanded no change to the current law without a mountain of hurdles to cross.

Self-identification is the next major reform of the law as it affects the LGBT community (and especially trans people). It has been proposed by the Conservative government. Labour nationally support it. But Labour in Gateshead seem to want to put themselves to the right on the Conservatives on this matter.

Occasionally I expect Labour in the North East to be resistant to change. They are the establishment party here and too many people in Labour's ranks in the region join to keep things as they are, not improve matters through reform and change. Nevertheless, I was still taken aback by the tone of the anti-trans motion. At Lib Dem group meeting that evening, all our members shared my views.

The group agreed that we contact LGBT groups in the region and bring their attention to the motion. I was asked to speak to Gateshead Council Labour leader Martin Gannon to ask him to consider withdrawing the motion. If not, we would vote against at full council. When I got through to Martin the next day, he was quite adamant that the motion would not be withdrawn.

And then the proverbials started to hit the fan. Labour in Gateshead were under attack in the local media. The national LGBT media were knocking at Labour's door demanding an explanation. LGBT organisations were rightly angry. Labour LGBT were demanding answers.

On Tuesday this week we picked up on social media that Labour had decided to "defer" the motion. This was confirmed to me by Martin Gannon when I phoned him. Quite what is meant by "deferred" is unclear, but I suspect Martin will bury this motion and never let it see light of day again.

To some extent, I was surprised Martin ever allowed this motion to get as far as it did. He is on most issues (but not all), relatively progressive. But I suspect he has a council group that has elements that at times are out of control. Part of that comes down to the fact that Labour in Gateshead has a large council group - 54 out of 66. We are of course doing our best to solve that problem for them.

But Labour in Gateshead are now damaged by this issue, and deservedly so. And they have only their own ineptitude and narrow-mindedness to blame. Shame on them.

The motion, now "deferred":

Councillor Leigh Kirton will move the following motion:

This Council believes that, in line with current law, all marginalised groups in our society should be fully protected in ways which ensure freedom of self-expression and protection from harassment, and accords them respect, privacy, safety and dignity.

Current Government proposals to amend the Gender Recognition Act would allow anyone to self-identify as their chosen gender. Under the present Act a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria is required to change gender, as well as living as your chosen gender for a two year period.

Amending the GRA could impact upon current provisions of the Equality Act 2010 in relation to the rights of women and those who have already reassigned their gender.

Council believes that the general public, especially those affected by the proposals, has the right to discuss them and confirms that any request for use of public buildings for such purposes will be allowed.

Council calls upon the Government to:

  • Conduct a full public consultation accessible to all, not just through an online document, on how self-identification would impact upon women only services, facilities, sports and spaces.
  • Defer any change to the Gender Recognition Act until a review is carried out into the application in practice of the exemptions named in the Equality Act (2010), which allow for discrimination on the grounds of sex in certain situations, such as positive action to improve the representation of women in public life, or when recruiting for jobs which require a man or woman for reasons of privacy and decency.
  • Research the impact of self-identification upon data gathering – such as crime, employment, pay and health statistics – and monitoring of sex-based discrimination such as the ‘gender’ pay gap.
  • Oppose the principle of simple self-identification unless checks and balances are in place to mitigate possible detrimental implications for women in terms of safety, dignity, privacy, participation in public life, and political representation.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Low Fell Focus no. 26

Lib Dems in Low Fell ward in Gateshead have just published edition 26 of their eFocus newsletter. Issues covered include:

  • Information sessions about extra bin trial in Low Fell
  • Pathway to be reopened
  • Supporting the Low Fell Ukes
  • New Environmental Team comes into force
  • Road markings on Durham Road
  • £1,400 for bollards!

You can view Low Fell eFocus on this link.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Chase Park decision delayed

On Wednesday last week, Gateshead's planning committee considered a proposal in principle (PIP) for up to six houses to be built on the former depot and stable block in Whickham's historic Chase Park. Gateshead Council are keen to sell this part of the park for housing. Members of the Lib Dem Focus Team are equally determined not to allow this to go ahead.

The business entrance to the park is part of the site that is likely to go up for sale in the near future if the PIP is approved. The historic gateway there has just been restored and the single track lane has an awful junction with Rectory Lane. The precedent for building in the park will also be set and there are fears that this will be the start of the slippery slope.

Dunston Hill and Whickham East Lib Dem Councillor led the battle at the committee meeting. Peter spoke against the proposals. The result is that the committee decided not to take the decision at that moment but instead to have a site visit. The decision will then come back to the next committee meeting.

(Video above: Cllr Peter Maughan calls on the planning committee to reject the Chase Park plans.)

History Society report back

Jane Lowes (January 8, 2019)

On Tuesday 8th January, Sunniside History Society held its first meeting of the year. The speaker was Jane Lowes, an author who had researched the fascinating life of Sarah Marshall, who was raised in Seaham in the 1880s but who emigrated to Australia as part of a programme to boost the number of women in the Australian colonies. There was also a detailed explanation of the events surrounding the Seaham pit disaster in 1880.

Our next meeting is on Tuesday 5th February at 7pm in Sunniside Club when the speaker will be Clive Bowery who will give a presentation about the Durham Light Infantry in the First World War.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Gateshead's housing strategy - better late than never

Earlier this week I attended an advisory group at Gateshead Civic Centre about the council's housing strategy. The old strategy finished at the end of 2018 but during that year, I banged on about the need to get the new strategy in place. From May onwards I raised it at every full council. I got a variety of responses from the cabinet member for housing, Cllr Malcom Brain, as to why the new draft strategy was not materialising, including a claim by him that he was waiting for "ideas from officers" on what to include. I always though politics was supposed to be the other way round - politicians with ideas seeking the advice of expert officers on how to implement them. As the year wore on, the excuses became thinner and thinner until, by October, a draft went to cabinet and approved for consultation with the implementation date being 1st January 2019.

I asked questions about how members could be involved given the tight timetable to bring the consultation responses back to cabinet in December when the final strategy would be signed off. As a result, it was agreed a members' advisory group would be held on 9th January. It then emerged that the strategy would not go to cabinet in December but would go instead in March, getting us round the problem I had raised of giving members a say on the strategy 9 days after it went into operation. Cllr Brain's management of the housing strategy has been somewhat shambolic, though he did try to blame me at the December full council meeting for the delay in implementing it because of my perfectly reasonable request that members have a say on the strategy before rather than after it is implemented!

Anyway, when I ready the draft strategy in October I was concerned about how woolly the document was. This was a point to which I returned on 9th January. In addition, I made the following points:
  • The mixed market approach is the right one but there is still too much focus on home ownership. The key focus instead should be on providing sufficient homes. Tenure is of secondary importance.
  • Is the strategy future proof? I'm not sure it is. I've been saying for the past 8 or more years, since work started on rewriting the local plan, that we have lots of family homes in Gateshead but a large number are occupied by elderly individuals or couples who have lived there for decades. Many of them would happily downsize to a smaller property in their existing community but can't because there is nothing available. The Council's local plan requires 60% of new houses to be "family" homes. I think this figure is too high. Building housing for older people actually frees up family homes and allows for a better match between the individual and the home in which they live.
  • Is the strategy Brexit proof? Given that most building materials and a significant amount of skilled construction labour comes from the EU, how do we cope once Brexit (hard or soft) has cut us off from materials and manpower? The strategy does not address this.
  • And finally, there is no mention of the future of the council's high rise blocks. Most of our voids are in them. People in the social sector want to live in houses not high rise flats. Maybe it is time to sell off some of the blocks to the private sector (which is able to attract appropriate tenants) and invest in building homes instead. I also made the point that we as a council should also be present in the private rented sector to ensure there is a supply of good quality rented housing that also gives Gateshead a rental income that can go into local services.
So, I said my bit. We shall see what comes of it.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Yellow Pest flop in Gateshead

Gateshead was all set for a yellow vest (pest?) demonstration on Saturday. I was reliably informed that a bunch of conspiracy theorists and followers of the far right would be gathering on the Sage car park and then the massed ranks of yellow pests would march on the Civic Centre to call for street lights to be turned off and unspecified "corruption" to be addressed. Alas, things did not go according to plan. There weren't enough yellow pests gathered to fill a parking space, never mind a car park. Nevertheless, the massed ranks of 15 individuals headed south towards the Civic Centre only to find one of their ring leaders arrested as they paraded through the traffic on Gateshead High Street. Apparently drivers weren't too happy that the road was being invaded by people who claim the 31,000 lamp posts in the borough are all part of a terrorist plot to kill people (I kid you not!)

As a result of the chief yellow pest being taken into custody, I understand the protesters performed a uturn and headed back north to cross the river to Newcastle police station at Forth Bank. On the public pavement, speeches were made. Alas, no members of the public were there to listen to their ludicrous conspiracy theories.

Better luck next time!

Monday, January 07, 2019

Door knocking in Dunston Hill

Dunston Hill survey Jan 19

On Saturday morning I was called at 5.15am by a friend who I had taken to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital on Friday evening. He was in a state of distress so I had to jump into the car and head over to calm him down and keep him company. I thought I was about to miss the canvassing we had planned for Dunston Hill in the morning. Fortunately, after 3 hours of doing my caring role, I was able to get away to do the door-knocking. I'm pleased I got there. We were doing a survey and we had a very positive response. No negative comments and a thoughtfully large number of people who recognised me, even though this is not my ward!

Pictured above - me with some of the survey replies from residents of Dunston Hill.

Friday, January 04, 2019

My last photo of Paddy

Paddy Ashdown book signing Sept 12 (10)

This was the last photo I took of Paddy Ashdown, back in September 2012 at his book signing session at Lib Dem conference in Brighton.

I have some fond memories of Paddy from the early 1990s when I was Lib Dem candidate in Hexham. He visited on a number of occasion. I remember one visit in particular when his office had instructed that during his tour of Tyneside and Hexham, he had to have a rest break. My parents' home in Lobley Hill was the chosen venue. Mam didn't quite get the purpose of Paddy's stay. She cooked and baked a vast array of food even though his next stop was Hexham for the constituency dinner. He was terribly nice about it!

A bit later, in 1998, Paddy came to Whickham when we were campaigning to stop Labour stripping Chase Park of its play equipment (a campaign we eventually won). One of our councillors, Colin Ball, was there and mentioned the name of a friend who lived in Paddy's Yeovil constituency. Paddy knew who Colin was talking about and was able to mention the times he had met the constituent in question. His memory for the details of his constituents and constituency was hugely impressive.

Paddy, you are sadly missed.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Low Fell eFocus

The Lib Dem Focus Team in Low Fell have just published their latest eFocus. Key issues covered include:
  • Some Low Fell residents to get extra bin
  • Lighting column improvements
  • Concerns over drug debris
  • Last chance to have your say on Council's planned budget
  • Happy New Year from the Focus Team
  • Can you help the Focus Team?

Kissing goodbye to 2018

2018 was a good and bad in parts. The bad bits were the paralysis of the political system by the Brexit chaos. On the plus side, personally it was a challenging but constructive year for our self-sufficiency project.

Anyway, we saw in the new year on the Tyne Bridge, watching the fireworks. I captured the whole display on the above video.