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!