Sunday, December 07, 2014

Cutting the ribbon at the bar

Marley Hill Community Centre held its Christmas market today. It went well. Indeed, it got a bit too busy in the cafe where we were, at times, run ragged as we served up burgers, sausages, tea, coffee, cake and so on. As a member of the management committee, my job was to organise the event. I've also taken the lead in arranging for the community centre to have a new alcohol license so today, the Deputy Mayor of Gateshead, Cllr Alex Geddes, arrived to cut the ribbon to open officially the bar.

Whickham Wind were on stage at 2pm to play Christmas tunes. Sadly, we had no Christmas tree to light. Last year we planted one in front of the community centre. And then it died on us. This was quite an expensive loss. Meanwhile in January this year, Cllr John McClurey and I planted a Norwegian spruce at the community centre. I had been growing it in a pot in my garden in London for years. The garden there already has lots of mature trees in it so there's no room for new ones. So it made the journey up to the North East as a passenger on the back seat of my Polo after New Year. The tree is only about 1.5 metres high but it is doing well in its new location. Give it a few years and it will be taller than the building. Before it gets to that height we will use it as the new Christmas tree for Marley Hill.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Santa Claus came to town

The Whickham Christmas Market was held today and Santa dropped in for a visit. (See photo above of me, Santa and Cllr Peter Craig in a cunning disguise.) Santa's visit was not a brief one. He was there for 4 hours, with a collecting bucket, persuading people to part with their loose change for Planting Up Whickham, the group set up to provide the Christmas decorations for the village.

The market went ahead in a marquee on St Mary's Green but I gave up my table there to allow another person to use it. Instead, my table, supporting our drive to self-sufficiency, was outside the shop we were using as a base and as Santa's grotto.

I brought the tables from Marley Hill Community Centre to the market last night. It took three journeys to get everything back there this afternoon. It meant I was late for milking the goat which had to be done in torch light this evening.

Tomorrow, we have another Christmas market, at Marley Hill Community Centre itself. We have the Deputy Mayor coming at 1pm to cut the ribbon to reopen our newly relicensed bar. Whickham Wind will be playing at 2pm. Preparations are just about ready. I'm expecting to do another torchlight milking!

Friday, December 05, 2014

Getting ready for the Whickham Christmas market

The Whickham Christmas market, organised by Lighting Up Whickham, takes place tomorrow so today I have been immersed in preparations. My main job was to collect the tables from Marley Hill Community Centre. It seems my Land Rover Defender, normally used for moving bee hives, goats and animal fodder, was the only vehicle big enough to transport 17 tables each 2 metres long. They are now in the shop in St Mary's Green which we are using for Santa's grotto. The market itself will be held in a marquee on the Green.

We held the first Christmas market in Whickham last year and it was a great success so we are hoping tomorrow will go just as well. It will be open from 10am to 2pm.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Battle for Blaydon Day 6 - the constituency meeting

I've been Blaydon candidate now for a whopping 6 days but today I had my first constituency branch meeting. Lots of talk about the Autumn Statement and highlighting the successes of Lib Dems in government. There was also a discussion about ward campaigns. Obviously I can't go into detail though Lamesley ward cropped up a few times. The meeting was over at 9pm and I headed home to finish some self-sufficiency filming I started in the morning which had to be put on hold to milk the goat and deliver yet more Focus leaflets.

Coverage of the Autumn Statement on the news continued. I watched an interview with Labour MP John Mann in which he attacked the government for not getting the deficit down and moments later said that the government should build up more debt to avoid cuts in services. I guess I'm not the only person who thinks Labour's contradictory position is undermining what little economic credibility they have but John Mann really takes the biscuit.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Battle for Blaydon day 5 - a policy blast from the past

Attention today was focused on Westminster for the Autumn Statement. There wasn't much left for George Osborne to announce, as most of the contents had already been announced by the PM and DPM from the edge of Stonehenge in a kind of pre-winter solstice dash to build roads and give more money to the NHS. Nevertheless, the stamp duty announcement took on the role of the rabbit being extracted from the hat. It was an interesting surprise for most people and a rather pleasant one for me. When I was working as a policy office for the Lib Dems in the last decade, I was the one who wrote the housing policy paper. That was where reforming the stamp duty system on house purchases was first proposed and today's announcement was very similar to what we proposed back then.

It's the second big policy that I wrote that has now been put into operation by Lib Dems in government. The other was the privatisation of Royal Mail. In the case of the latter, the final shape of the policy had some differences to what was carried out but the fundamentals were the same - that the liberalisation of the mail sector by the Labour government in 2006 meant that Royal Mail needed to be in the private sector to compete against the other private providers or face a slow death in the public sector, starved of investment.

What struck me about today's debate in the Commons was the unconvincing uturn performed by Labour. 4 years ago they were attacking the Coalition for trying to go "too far, too fast" in cutting the deficit. When it was clear that the initial plan to eliminate the deficit by the end of this Parliament would result in too much damage to the economy, the Coalition response was to be flexible and put the date back towards the end of the next Parliament. You would have thought therefore that Labour would have been saying well done, this is what they had called for. Instead, we now have the opposite. They are now attacking the Coalition for not cutting the deficit fast enough. It's a remarkable uturn made all the more incredible by Ed Miliband's forgetful conference speech.

Anyway, not all my attention was grabbed by the Autumn Statement. I had more focuses to deliver today, made all the more challenging by a frost that made some drives into ice rinks. I managed to avoid landing on my rear end when sliding down paths but it was a close run thing at times.

The Battle for Blaydon Day 4 - the sun comes out

In a sign that winter is approaching, tonight we are experiencing our first frost since the start of the year. I could see it forming up on my greenhouse this evening. It was cold enough to put a coat on one of my goats. I bought it from an agricultural supplier for £30, which is only £8 less than the total I have spent on new clothes for myself this year! I'm not one of these people who feels the need to buy the latest fashion or to replace clothing at the end of a "fashion" season. Indeed, one of my favourite t-shirts is one I bought in 1991. It's still in good shape so it can still be worn.

Back to the cold snap. I'm not complaining about the weather. Quite the reverse. It's a good alternative to wet weather. When it rains I can't work on my land and I can't deliver Focus leaflets. Today was sunny and cool, perfect Focus delivery weather. And it seems Focus was noticed by those who received it. I was at the Sunniside History Society buffet tonight and a number of people mentioned to me that they had read it. And with eFocus being sent out last night, a number of people at the meeting were happy to talk about the contents of that too, particularly my selection as prospective candidate for Blaydon. The consensus view was that the general election had too many uncertainties to be able to predict an outcome. Personally, I think seats could go all over the place. One person said this could mean that the personality of candidates could therefore hold more sway than usual. The question therefore is, will people vote for an eccentric, bee-keeping, goat milking, poultry farming, food-swapping, webcasting historian!?

Anyway, I had a rather pleasant buffet at the History Society but I was thoroughly beaten in the name-the-historic-building quiz. Sadly, some of the buildings I got wrong had previously been photographed by me! Back home and I made a start on replying to the rather large number of replies to yesterday's eFocus. This may take some time.

Monday, December 01, 2014

eFocus on Whickham - number 91

The latest edition of eFocus for the Whickham area of Blaydon constituency has just been finished and published by me. Only 9 more editions to go to get to 100. You can read eFocus on this link.

The Battle for Blaydon Day 3 - ipadded and refocused

I got my super new ipad from the Council last Thursday. On Friday it all went horribly wrong. No sign of emails or access to council documents. I had to be in the council this morning for scrutiny committee so I took my new gizmo in to the ICT officers who were a whiz at sorting out the mess I had caused (by using the wrong password). It waits to be seen how long it will be before I mess up the ipad again but I'm connected again to Gateshead MBC.

Back home and time to start delivering those Focus leaflets and using what persuasive techniques I can to get others to deliver as well. This is the first leaflet announcing my selection for Blaydon, under the heading "From the Good Life in Sunniside to Parliament." The first messages from residents arrived before I got home!

I bumped into a Labour member whilst delivering. He made a comment about my shoe leather being worn out. Very perceptive!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Battle for Blaydon Day 2 - the Focuses arrive

If my feet thought they were going to have a quiet week, they were rudely awakened to the reality of a large tonnage of Focus newsletters arriving at lunchtime. 2000 copies of my Sunniside Focuses just waiting to be delivered, sitting expectantly in my living room. It is the first leaflet to announce my selection for the constituency. Labour are missing so much by not bothering to produce newsletters here when we are outside the official election period. They must miss the exercise, the bracing autumn air, the worn out shoes and fingers chewed up by letter boxes! That's their loss!

This afternoon I met up with some of our councillors in Dunston and Whickham. Labour are proposing to make £1 million of cuts to leisure services in Gateshead but a third of these cuts will be in Dunston. This hardly seems fair. Having proposed these cuts, some in Labour are claiming to be opposed to them. This rather reminds me of the anti-cuts protest before the budget meeting earlier this year in Gateshead. Labour councillors were tripping over themselves to appear in photos of the protest to oppose the cuts and then rushed upstairs to the Council chamber to vote for them. Labour councillors in Gateshead regularly inform us in council meetings that Labour oppose cuts, in marked contrast to their leadership in London who say that if Labour were to win the election, the cuts would continue. Quite who to believe is a challenge. The rich, private school educated New Labour snobs of London, or the "socialist" brothers and sisters of Gateshead? Not a pretty choice!

Christmas markets next weekend

There will be two Christmas markets in the Whickham area next weekend which I am helping to run. The first is being hosted by Lighting Up Whickham on Saturday 6th December and will be in a marquee on St Mary's Green. Opening times will be 10am to 2pm. We will be using a shop on St Mary's Green as well for extra stalls and for Santa's grotto.

The 2nd is at Marley Hill Community Centre on Sunday 7th December from 12pm to 3.30pm. We have just got a new license at the Community Centre so the Deputy Mayor will be officially re-opening the bar at 1pm. Whickham Wind will be playing at 2pm. Sadly, Santa will be too knackered after the Whickham event to attend. The cafe will also be open.

I will be selling self-sufficiency produce at both markets. Alas, I have none of our honey left to sell but we've got lots of preserves, eggs and bacon, sausages and joints from our Tamworth pig.

Both markets were held for the first time last year. Both were a success and we are hoping they will again go down well with residents. Everyone is welcome to attend.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Battle for Blaydon Day 1: Mud

My first day as candidate in Blaydon constituency got off to a flying start - I was dive bombed by one of my hens who thought it would be great fun to fly in my direction from the top of the goat fence early this morning at feeding time. Mud, however, was the real story of the day. Our land is under lots of mud and the livestock churn it up in an attempt to recreate something more akin to the Battle of the Somme without the blood.

My new wellies are therefore proving their value. I got them on Monday. They were a birthday present. Practical presents make sense. My old wellies are in the bin. They weren't a good purchase. They lasted only a few months before they started disintegrating.

Ducks, goats, hens and quail were fed and I returned home to breakfast and a morning of writing Focus leaflets. This had not been the original plan but I got a message from Cllr John McClurey, our printing supremo, that he was on his way to the office at midday, which was now the deadline to complete the Sunniside Focus. I beat the deadline by 10 minutes!

Back to the goats this afternoon. Milking time at 3pm. More mud. I milk by hand so it means sitting on the milking bench next to Pinkie, our milking goat, who occasionally leaves muddly hoof prints on my favourite gardening trousers. If she doesn't do that, she leaves lots of mud on the stand for me to sit in. So terribly kind of her!

Then back home for some cheese making. We are still learning how to make cheese having had our milking goat for only 3 months.

It's now 8pm on a Saturday evening and I'm back on the laptop. It's the turn of eFocus to be written. I have too many photos to go into it. Time to do some deletes. There will be room for 2 videos I shot recently of local events. EFocus should be ready soon.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Selected to fight Blaydon

I now have the ideal excuse for not tidying the house for the next six months. Tonight I was selected as prospective Parliamentary candidate for Blaydon. And with the election clock ticking, the battle will be getting underway immediately.

Blaydon has no Conservative presence at all. They lost their last council seat here (to us) in 1988. UKIP have no active campaigning presence other than in one ward. The Greens have no active presence but field some local election candidates. Labour have held the constituency since 1935 and since 1997, the Lib Dems have been in second place. The current Labour MP is Dave Anderson, first elected in 2005. I quite like him as a person though his politics don't quite coincide with mine. He is on the left of the Labour Party but in the last Parliament, he never rebelled against his government, despite protestations of opposition made by him to some of the policies of Blair and Brown.

My council ward of Whickham South and Sunniside is in the constituency. I've held my ward for nearly 28 years. I was first elected in 1987 when the Conservatives were on a high, but not high enough to stop me winning my seat from them. I've held the seat ever since, each time with over half the votes cast.

So, with my background in self-sufficiency and webcasting, are the voters ready to adopt me as the food growing, goat keeping, bee buzzing, video making MP for Blaydon who will fight their corner? They will decide whether I'm heading to Westminster or heading home to do the tidying up!

What you can do with Black Friday

Have you seen the scenes of chaos and near riots in department stores today as crowds battle for special offers? Awful! This is not a good advert for consumerism. Thank goodness I abandoned commercial consumerism 5 years ago when I gave up paid work in favour of becoming self-sufficient. So, today, instead of fighting my way with debit card to the tills and elbowing my way back to the shopping centre car park, I'm off to the allotment to milk Pinkie, one of my goats, and to collect the eggs from my hens. And later I'll be doing some cooking in the kitchen - making goat cheese flans and then some goats milk and sprout soup.(We have something of a glut of goats milk at the moment!)

And then tonight I'm off to a Blaydon Constituency Lib Dem meeting which may result in an extra role for me. But more about that later.

Meanwhile, I have some thoughts as to what should be done with Black Friday.........

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Whickham Christmas lights - the video

You've seen the photos of yesterday's Christmas lights switch on in Whickham. Now see the video!

Christmas Lights switch on on Whickham

Tuesday 25th November was the day we chose for the Christmas lights switch on in Whickham. Cut backs means Gateshead Council no longer pays for the Christmas lights and tree in the village. Instead, Lighting Up Whickham, a voluntary group set up to raise funds for the lights, now pays for the lights and arranges the switch on. I am a member of the group but my job today was to be the photographer of the event (and wearer of a daft hat - see above, left to right, me, Cllr Peter Craig and Cllr Chris Ord.

The photos of the event can be seen on this link.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Swalwell Remembrance Sunday wreath laying

I attended the Swalwell Remembrance Sunday wreath laying to film the event for Councillors Chris Ord, Sonya Hawkins and Peter Craig. This is the video.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day and as usual, I attended the parade in Whickham. I also laid the wreath on behalf of residents of my ward, Whickham South and Sunniside. This year I was also able to get to Swalwell for the wreath laying service.

I have a full set of photos on this link.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Feeding the dog on action days

We held the next of our Blaydon constituency action days in Whickham North today. As is almost always the case when out delivering, my ward colleague, Cllr John McClurey, was accompanied by his labrador Coco. The dog's main job is to drool next to each person attending the action day when the lunch is being served long enough to be offered some food. Sandwiches, sausages, chocolate biscuits or crisps - they all get consumed so fast that they never have time to touch the sides. Today was no different, as Cllr Chris Ord discovered - see photo above.

The action day saw Swalwell delivered with the latest Focus and surveys delivered in Whickham. And back in HQ, a tonne of administrative jobs was sorted. I had to leave at 3pm to milk the goat and feed my hens.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Planting up Swalwell

Austerity cuts have meant the end for many flower beds in public locations throughout Gateshead. (Labour overlooks the fact that the cuts to flower beds started well before the 2010 general election.) Anyway, Swalwell residents and their three Lib Dem Councillors have not taken this lying down. Instead, they have taken on the job of planting up and maintaining the flower beds themselves. Most of the work has been done on the beds next to Holy Trinity Church.

Alas, I was persuaded recently to lend a helping hand by Cllr Sonya Hawkins who negotiated a load of plants from the neighbouring B&Q store. My job was to help plant them. Fortunately it took three of us only an hour to do. We were reasonably satisfied with the results.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

My vote in the Presidential election goes to....

I got back from a trip to London yesterday afternoon just in time to milk the goat, collect the eggs from our poultry and get to Gateshead group meeting before going to the Lib Dem Presidential hustings in Newcastle. All three candidates were there: Sal Brinton, Liz Lynne and Daisy Cooper. I have met Sal and Liz in my previous days as a policy officer in HQ. I have met Daisy once before when I did some filming for her before the 2010 general election outside Parliament. Sal mentioned to me her interest in my self-sufficiency activities.

I had gone to the meeting with a vague idea in which I would put the candidates. By the end of the meeting I had changed that order. My 3rd placed candidate moved provisionally to first. I have not yet made a final decision and I think all are capable of doing the job.

So, I shall be voting for all the candidates! As to what order I will place them, that's for you to guess and me to guard.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Prize winning in Gateshead

After the trouncing we gave Labour in Gateshead in the local elections in May, Gateshead Lib Dems have now won an award from the North East regional party. Labour had assumed they would win all but one of our seats on the council. Their campaign was a flop. They gained none of our seats and came close to losing one of theirs to us.

The award was announced on Saturday at the regional conference, held at the Jurys Inn hotel on the Gateshead Quays. Former Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore, presented the award.

Sadly I wasn't in the photo - I had to take the pictures!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Moving a chieftan tank through the streets of Newcastle

A chieftan tank has been parked outside the Vickers tank factory in Scotswood, Newcastle for years but Vickers recently wanted rid of it. They offered it to Tyne and Wear Museums (I am a member of the the Museums and Archives Committee) and we agreed to accept it and relocate it to the car park of the Discovery Museum. Some people impress the neighbours with an expensive, flash car on the drive. We now have a chieftan tank though sadly without an engine (or ammunition!) The move took place on Wednesday and it involved lifting the tank onto a gigantic lorry. Shuffling it into the Discovery car park was something to be experienced.

Anyway, this is the video I shot on the day of the move. Enjoy.

eFocus Whickham no.90

The latest edition of our monthly email newsletter was published last night via Mailchimp. This edition leads with the latest on Labour's greenbelt building plans but also features some of the work being done by volunteers (and Lib Dem councillors) on planting and maintaining up flower beds and verges in the area. Lots of other news as well. You can read the newsletter here.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Monday Morning Blog - Missing Conference

Some years ago, when I worked in London, I used to write a blog post on the train to London each Monday morning, hence the unimaginative title I used of "The Monday Morning Blog". It was a title that warned that I was about to blow off about something political. It's now five years since I wrote a "Monday Morning Blog" but I thought I'd reintroduce it. I won't of course, be sitting on a train when I write it. Instead I'll bash it out on my laptop at home, in between feeding my goats and heading to Hexham to get the coming month's supply of fodder for my livestock.

Today I am looking back at Lib Dem Conference last week, or rather, why I wasn't able to get there. I had booked a weekend pass and had hoped to go up to Glasgow on the Saturday morning and return on the Sunday evening. What got in the way of these political travel plans was my new goat Pinkie and the local history society.

We got Pinkie at the end of August. She is out first milking goat. In our roadmap to becoming self-sufficient, getting a milking goat was a key milestone. Until we had one, we would have a large hole in our self-sufficiency diet, filled by trips to the dairy section of the supermarket. I'm pleased to say those trips have now ended. Pinkie provides us with 2.5 litres of milk a day. We are not yet at the point where we are bathing in the stuff, but our milk lake is growing and cheese-making, yoghurt-making, soap-making etc are on the agenda. The need to milk Pinkie on the weekend of Conference meant I was staying in Gateshead rather than travelling to Glasgow.

The second reason for not going to Conference was the decision of Sunniside History Society to invite me to be their guest speaker at their monthly gathering on Tuesday 7th October. I chose as my subject "The Good Food Guide to Medieval Sunniside". The talk was actually about what medieval Sunniside and the surrounding area would have looked like in the 1340s as well as what people ate in the medieval period. Landscape and diet were closely linked then as people were largely self-sufficient. The talk seemed to go down well but it required a huge amount of research and long walks around the area to take hundreds of photos. Conference therefore had to give way to medieval food, village duckponds and feudal community ovens.

Had I been at Conference, I would have been tempted to say something about the daft decision to lock out any further airport runways in the South East of England. It seems that many in the party have simply not learnt the lesson of tuition fees. Personally, I thought the suggestion that Gatwick should be expanded was a bit wet but was nevertheless a suitable compromise. My preference is for a 3rd runway at Heathrow. 

Those opposed to a 3rd Heathrow runway claim such a development is environmentally damaging. My argument is that not building an additional runway is even more environmentally damaging. When I am at my house in South East London I can see dozens of aircraft at any time through the day circling over London waiting for their landing slots to become available at congested Heathrow. The amount of pollution from these aircraft is incredible. When flying low and slow, they drink fuel at an alarming rate for no appreciable benefit.

If the anti-runway policy makes it into the manifesto, and we are in Coalition with either of the other parties after the general election, the ghost of over-my-dead-body decisions will come back to haunt us.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Visiting the Dunston Staiths

The Jetty Project is an Arts & Humanities Research Council funded project led by Newcastle and Manchester Universities. It has created a temporary large-scale architectural artwork, “The Cone”, on the wooden structure of Dunston Staiths in Gateshead, a landmark Scheduled Monument and Grade II structure on the south bank of the River Tyne. The Staiths are the biggest wooden structure in Europe and are undergoing restoration. I was able to visit the Staiths to look at the restoration work last week though at the moment they are not open to the public. I filmed the above video whilst on the visit. Photos will follow in a later post.

If you visited the Gateshead National Garden Festival in 1990, you may recall walking along the Staiths which formed a significant feature of the show. Restoration has had to take place because of vandalism. A significant section of the Staiths was lost to arson a few years ago.

The Staiths are part of the coal mining heritage of the North East of England. They were built in the 1890s to load coal from the North Durham coalfield onto colliers to export from the Tyne.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Judging at the New Sands Allotment Show

I was judge today at the New Sands Allotments Annual Show in Swalwell. The show was held at the Sun pub. In the past I have swapped produce with some of the allotment holders and sold some of them ducks.

There were no individual competitions for different vegetables. Instead, each allotment holder entered a tray of produce and the judging was on all of the contents as a whole.

So congratulations to the winners and commiseration to those who did not come first, second or third. The contents of the boxes were sold after the show to raise funds for flower beds and planting in Swalwell.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Whickham Flower Show

When I am not wearing my self-sufficiency hat, I am wearing my local councillor hat. Alas, that restricts me (morally) when it comes to entering our local flower show. One of the sponsors of the Whickham Flower Show is Gateshead Council and were I to enter the competitions and win, it would look decidedly dodgy that the local councillor has won competitions put on by Gateshead Council. Nevertheless, I did visit the show on Saturday and took a stack of photos and video. The video is not yet edited but here are some of my photos. You can see more on this link.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Big Lib Dem win in Newcastle

We can look across the River Tyne to Newcastle today with a sense of achievement - the Lib Dems won a by-election to the City Council yesterday in North Jesmond ward. In one of the most hotly contested wards in the city, Labour had high hopes of picking up the Lib Dem seat but ended up seeing their vote nosedive.

In May we had a slender majority of 33 votes. Yesterday, victorious Lib Dem candidate Gerry Keating romped home with a majority of 391. The Lib Dem vote was up on May, Labour's vote collapsed to just over half their previous total. There was an interesting three way contest between UKIP, Conservatives and Greens to come last. In May the Greens and Conservatives had a modest vote with the former beating the latter by one vote for 3rd place. This time the Greens suffered a more horrendous collapse than the pitiful performance Labour clocked up. They ended up with only a third of the total they got in May. The Ukippers achieved 4th place, jumping ahead of the Greens only because the Green collapse was more substantial than that of UKIP.

The Lib Dems were returned with over half the votes cast. Well done Gerry.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The summer recess ends

For me, the Council recess ended today (Wednesday 27th). I was in Gateshead Civic Centre for the chair's meeting of the Corporate Resources Scrutiny Committee at 3pm. The agenda will be published shortly but there was one issue in particular that caught my attention. More about that once the agenda is in the public domain. The time of the meeting was not ideal for me however. I was filming a video today about pickling quail eggs (our quails produce nearly 400 eggs a month). The wonders of the editing suite will remove all trace of the gap in filming caused by having to head over the meeting.

3.5 million YouTube viewings

Hot on the heels of my Flickr stats, I am pleased to report that another viewings milestone has been reached. My videos on YouTube have now been watched 3.5 million times. There are 884 videos on my channel with a long queue of more waiting to be edited and uploaded. The most viewed video continues to be the one I filmed in a former Soviet submarine base deep inside a mountain in the Crimean town of Balaklava with 266,000 viewings.

In recent times however the most viewed video is one of my self-sufficiency ones, how to dry tomatoes, which typically gets about 4-5,000 viewings a month.

My next targets are to reach 4 million viewings and have 1000 videos uploaded to my channel. You can visit the channel on this link.

Monday, August 25, 2014

1.5 million viewings on Flickr

There is a Labour member in Gateshead who loves to sneer at my use of social media. Actually, there are lots of Labour members who sneer at everything I do, but one in particular springs to mind. So, especially for him, I'd like to announce another milestone reached. On Flickr, I have just clocked up 1.5 million viewings of my photos. My Flickr site is used nowadays mainly as a place to show my self-sufficiency photos though I also add local campaign photos in Blaydon constituency and travel picture to it. But it is the self-sufficiency pics that attract the most viewings. Typically, within a few days of posting them to the site, they have each had hundreds of viewings.

Anyway, if anyone (including the Sneering Socialist) really feels the need to look at my photos of hens, quail houses, goats and jam making, click on this link and enjoy!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Our next email newsletter

The latest edition of eFocus, our email newsletter to residents in the Whickham area of Blaydon Constituency was written on Thursday and published yesterday. It leads with the possible appeal by UK Coal against Co Durham's rejection of plans for opencast mining near Marley Hill. There are also articles about Planting Up Whickham, Whickham Front Street School rebuilding plans, Marley Hill community cafe and other issues. You can read the newsletter on this link.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Food swapping event

For some months now I have been working with the Green Branch of the Workers' Educational Association in Newcastle to set up a food swapping event. The aim is to encourage as much local food production as possible and give people the opportunity to swap their surpluses. The first such event went ahead on Sunday at the Station Masters Garden at Whitley Bay Metro Station and by all accounts was a success.

You don't turn up with a cash wallet. Instead, your "money" consists of food you have grown or produced. My wallet consisted on 2 boxes of jams and and a basket containing 15 dozen quail eggs. The eggs had gone within the first hour and we traded about two-thirds of our jam.

An exchange takes place - jam buys 3 pepper plants!

After an hour or so, we had "bought" quite a few vegetables, soft fruit, rhubarb, bread, cake, even other people's jam!

Back home and this was the final tally. There is probably going to be another event in September in Newcastle. I'll be there with my eggs and jam!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Pizza at the High Spen Hop Garden

The Hop Garden is a community allotment in High Spen in Gateshead. Volunteers run it and I have got to know some of them over the past year through my efforts to build up a food swapping network. Yesterday they had a pizza evening, complete with pizzas made in front of their pizza oven. Locally grown ingredients were included.

We were invited so we headed over at 4pm. The Hop Garden is a great project and a valuable way of involving schools and residents in growing food. Hopefully others will be inspired to follow their lead.

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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Long distance swarm recovery

Typical! The moment I go away an email arrives asking if I could recover a bee swarm that had formed up in a garden in Marley Hill, the next village up the road from Sunniside where I live. On Thursday last week I arrived at Newcastle Central Station and whilst waiting for my train to London to arrive, the email reached me. Fortunately, a person living near the garden is a former beekeeper and knew how to catch the swarm. David was not joining me on my trip so I called him to ask if he could collect the swarm. In the early hours of Friday morning, he collected the swarm which was in a skep which he then wrapped in a sheet and took to one of our apiaries where he had already set up a hive. I was on my way to Stansted airport when David's photo of the new hive arrived.

A day later and I was in Copenhagen. Another message arrived, this time from Hexham Beekeepers Association to local members. A bee swarm had formed up at Burnopfield. Could anyone collect it? I sent David a message about it but the reply came back that we had now run out of hive equipment. We don't know if anyone managed to collect the swarm.

Last week, before I went away, I had 3 visits to constituents to advise them on bumble bees in their garden. I anticipate there will be more calls from residents after I get back later today especially as I will be including an article about bees in gardens in the forthcoming eFocus.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

From shipping containers to CAB

Gateshead CAB June 14 2

I was contacted recently by Gateshead CAB who were seeking my advice on possible locations for an advice terminal they want to install in Sunniside. I suggested the Social Club could be a possible location but I also wanted to see what the terminal could do. On Friday, between attending the Gateshead Carers' Association allotment launch and annual council, I paid Gateshead CAB a visit to look at one of the terminals in action. It is quite comprehensive, covering everything from legal advice, tax, housing, health, money etc. There was even a link to DEFRA (useful for us hen, goat and beekeepers). I was also surprised at how small the terminal was. I've put the CAB in touch with the chairman of the club so hopefully some kind of arrangement will be made.

This was my first visit to the new CAB building since they moved from Regent Terrace. I was given a guided tour and was rather pleased to learn that the building was constructed from recycled shipping containers. An interesting and sustainable use of someone else's waste. That certainly gets a gold star in my book.

Gateshead CAB June 14 1

The wet look

Jonathan in rain Chase Park June 14

Somehow the weather has not been a fan of the Whickham Chase Park Fayre in the last two years. Last year the Fayre was cancelled at the last moment because the ground was waterlogged from the rain. This year the rain held off long enough to allow the Fayre to go ahead, and then it started raining. My colleague, Cllr Peter Craig, took this photo of me at the Fayre last week. The wet look seems to be back in!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Out and about: Winlaton Mill Community Centre Fayre

Jonathan at Winlaton Mill June 14

I had a short break from beekeeping and vegetable planting today to go to Winlaton Mill Community Centre Fayre. And as soon as I arrived, I saw the table selling plants. An opportunity to stock up on lettuces for transplanting cannot be ignored. Two trays of plants later, and a check around the other stalls and I was ready to go back home - I had news of another bee swarm I had to collect so staying for a cup of tea was out of the question.

Friday, June 13, 2014

More news from the annual Gateshead Labour group meeting

Mayor Neil Weatherley June 14

Gateshead's annual council meeting was held this afternoon. I had previously reported on the diminished fortunes of Paul Foy-The-Flop and Gary Haley, both responsible for the car crash style Labour campaigns in the local elections in Whickham. We had been reliably informed by sources within Labour's ranks that both had met with a big thumbs down when internal elections were held for positions on the Council. What I didn't know was the position each had stood for. Well, today we were able to fill in more of the picture. It turns out that Mr Haley stood for 4 or 5 senior positions and was knocked back on every single one of them. It seems he is as popular in his own group as he was with the voters in Whickham when he was rejected 5 times by them. He certainly has a knack of keeping up the losing streak.

Annual Council appoints the mayor for the year and this year it is to be Neil Weatherley, a tax collector. That shouldn't be held against him! We also discovered who the deputy mayor is  - Alex Geddes who easily beat Allison Chatto and Lee Holmes for the post when Labour cast their votes at their annual meeting recently. I couldn't quite pin down the actual voting figures but sources suggest Alex got over 30 votes, Cllr Allison Former-Debt-Collector-Chatto got about 10 and Lee Holmes got about 7.

Prize for the worst speech today goes to Foy-The-Flop. He nominated Cllr Weatherley for the post of Mayor but he stumbled through his speech, misread words, hesitated constantly and shook constantly. He did not exactly inspire his colleagues as someone able to fill a future leadership role within the Labour group.

One of the oddest things today was the inability of Labour to complete their nominations for their committee places. They have had three weeks to do this but Labour Leader Mick Henry announced that the final nominations were not yet settled. Just what Labour have been up to over the past three weeks is not clear.

Wearing a suit to the allotment

Suit wearing on the allotment June 14

Gone are the days when I wore a suit to the office. Indeed, gone have the days when I went to an office! Suit wearing for me is now a rare event. Most of the time I'm dressed in baggy trousers and a t-shirt to hangout down on the allotment and muck out the goats. Today however I was back in the suit to visit an allotment. Not my allotment of course. This morning I went instead to the official opening of the Gateshead Carers' Association allotment in Bensham. The official opening was done by Ian Mearns MP. A modest number of people there knew who I was - the "gardening councillor" and the "bloke with the quail eggs" seemed to be the most popular descriptions. A BBQ was held there as well though I could only stay for a couple of sausages before heading off to Gateshead for my next meeting.

Promoting the food network at Saltwell Park

Stall at Saltwell Park June 14

One of my life missions is to inspire people to grow more of the food they consume. For me, it's not just about talking about it. It's about doing it as well. That's one of the reasons I opted to take redundancy 5 years ago, so that I could concentrate on the good life here in Sunniside, growing my own food and keeping hens, ducks, quail, goats,bees and so on. We soon discovered that you cannot produce everything yourself but there are others out there who can produce what we can't and are happy to swap their surplus for ours. That's what the food trading network I am building up is all about.

On Wednesday, Gateshead Carers' Association held a fayre in Saltwell Park so I took a stall there to promote the network. It is based at Marley Hill Community Centre and on the last Sunday of each month, we hold a cafe and food swapping event. People can bring in their surplus fruit and veg and swap it for our eggs, preserves, tamworth pork and honey. Some of the produce is used in the cafe. If you don't have anything to trade, we take that old-fashioned thing called money instead.

So far we have traded for pheasant, wild duck and rabbits, venison, plants, beef, homemade soap, lamb, trays of apples, sacks of potatoes, frozen veg and so on.

On Wednesday, I took some of our recently hatched chicks to Saltwell Park. They are always guaranteed to attract people to my stall. Wednesday was no different!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Back to the Future at Beamish

Beamish Museum June 14 (11)

The recent news that Beamish Museum is to be awarded £600,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund to complete the bid for a further £10 million towards the cost of the next phase of the Museum's development was celebrated tonight at an event for business people. If all goes to plan, Beamish will recreate a 1950s town centre. The former Airey prefabricated homes carefully dismantled and moved from Kibblesworth will be rebuilt as part of the development. The other part of the bid is the completion of the 1820s section of the museum, including a coaching inn and windmill.

I went along to the event at the museum tonight. A 1950s caravan had been placed in the town and the front room of one of the terrace houses had been restored to what it would have been like in the 1950s, complete with a television showing the coronation. This all reminded me of one of my favourite films, "Back to the Future" in which Michael J Fox goes back to 1954 (admittedly a year after the coronation).

Assuming the museum is successful in its final bid for the HLF grant, the 1950s town should be completed later this decade.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Another bee rescue

swarm box June 14

I had another call today about bees in a constituent's garden. This time however it wasn't bumble bees. As soon as my constituent said there was a large cluster of them on a tree, I knew it was a honeybee swarm. I was around in minutes, complete with my smock, gloves and swarm box. Alas, this swarm decided it was not going to be straightforward capturing it. I shook it from the tree into the box but when I returned a couple of hours later, I found that the swarm had left the box and was sitting on the lawn as a perfect circle. I had never seen bees do this before.

bee swarm June 14

I had to put my gloves back on and scoop the bees up and drop them back into the box. This time, fortunately, it worked. At 9pm tonight I returned, found the whole of the swarm still in the box and took it to one of my apiaries where I had already set up a hive for it. By 9.30pm, the swarm was in its new home.

The constituent said that she had phoned the council before she phoned me. They charged her £76 for the privilege of planning to call out in a few days' time. I suggested she cancel the visit as the council does not deal with honeybee swarms (they would simply advise her, once they had seen the swarm, to call a local beekeeper who could possibly have been me anyway) and ask for her money back. I understand that was what she did. She was happy to save the money, the council was saved a wasted journey and I was happy to have recovered a swarm which hopefully will produce me some honey.

Self-Sufficient in Suburbia

Outside of politics I grow my own food and make webcasts about our activities. Our latest webcast, from February, is now on YouTube.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Foy the Flop and the joys of the secret ballot

An interesting piece of information came my way today. Following the results of the local elections in Gateshead, the Labour Leader of Gateshead Council, Mick Henry, appears to have been able to hold back the tide of those on his own side who wish to see their own promotion and the retirement of Mick and his mates. And the instrument of his success? Well, for most of us the secret ballot is something of a traditional part of the democratic process. In UK elections, it's been around since 1872. The Labour group, in an attempt to catch up with the modern world, decided to run their internal elections on the revolutionary basis of letting people cast their votes in secret. I understand from a reliable source that Mick Henry himself was the one who pushed for this great democratic innovation.

I had already heard the murmurings of discontent about the botched Labour campaigns in Ryton and Whickham North wards, both of which were being defended by Lib Dems. Ryton had been won by Labour in 2011 and 2012 with substantial majorities. The last Lib Dem seat in the ward was the prize on offer. Labour's campaign flopped and the Lib Dems held on. Topping Labour's target list however was the Lib Dem held seat of Whickham North where we were defending a majority of only 90. Labour poured in everything including the kitchen sink (though interestingly, we understand that those who were more interested in keeping things as they are in the Labour group made no appearances in the ward.) We held the seat last month - our majority went up to 300 and Labour's vote fell through the floor.

Labour agent and organiser for wards in Blaydon constituency was Paul Foy, "head" of office for Dave Anderson MP, a point he regularly makes at council meetings. Mr Foy therefore appears to be an influential and powerful figure in Labour ranks in Gateshead. He chairs the Labour group, his wife is a cabinet member, he runs Labour election campaigns, he's the boss in Mr Anderson's office. We are reliably informed that many on his own side do not wish to cross swords with him.

Cllr Foy's sidekick is Gary Haley, councillor for Dunston and Teams and a man with an unenviable record for running disastrous local election campaigns. I still look back with amusement on his three attempts to win my ward. He eventually moved on to Dunston Hill and Whickham East where the good citizens of the ward were equally unimpressed. Two failed attempts to get himself elected resulted in his jumping ship, this time to the strongly Labour ward of Dunston and Teams where a string of by-elections meant Labour were approaching the bottom of the barrel of candidates and were polishing up the scraper.

Cllr Haley was one of the key Labour campaigners in Whickham North in last month's election. Indeed, Lib Dem Cllr, Peter Craig, who was defending the seat, bumped into him on the day before polling day and said to him that he was spending a great deal of time in the ward. "Yes," Cllr Haley replied, "more time than I am in my own ward." (Cllr Haley may not wish to take his ward for granted in such a way in future - Dunston and Teams saw one of the biggest falls in the Labour vote in Gateshead, down 26%.)

Anyway, back to the Labour group meeting last week. It seems, according to our source, that the revolutionary principle of the secret ballot may have helped defeat the promotion prospects of Councillors Haley and Foy. We have not been informed of the positions to which either aspired (if anyone on the inside can tell me, please feel free to do so), but we are reliably informed that Cllr Haley in particular went down to a spectacular defeat.

So the Council Leader, Mick Henry, has survived for another year, thanks in part to the successful Lib Dem victories in all the wards we were defending which prevented the election of new Labour members who could have swung the balance within the Labour group. That, and the secret ballot. Nevertheless, he is by no means safe. He got a battering from some members of his group just before the budget. He could fall prey to another. The Labour group could provide us therefore with some interesting blood sports over the year ahead.

Fiona Hall's retirement party

Fiona Hall speaking at Baltic Gallery June 14

In between visiting constituents today about bee colonies, I went to the Baltic Art Gallery on the Gateshead Quays for Fiona Hall's retirement party. Fiona was elected very much against the odds in 2004 as the Lib Dem MEP for the North East and just as equally against the odds was re-elected in 2009. After 10 years in the post she decided to step down from the role at the European elections last month.

Angelika Schneider speaking at Baltic Gallery June 14

Among the speakers today was Angelika Schneider who, sadly, wasn't elected as our MEP last month. Lib Dems from across the region attended the event. At 5pm I had to leave as I had constituents to visit.

Gateshead Millennium Bridge June 14

Whilst the event was taking place, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge was raised. This is a sight worth seeing in its own right.

eFocus 86

My latest email newsletter to residents of the Whickham area was sent out on Friday evening. It contained reports on the local election results (2 holds for us in Whickham and a near gain from Labour), the Chase Park Fayre, Beamish Museum, the Derwent Valley Land of Oak and Iron project and other issues.

You can see the newsletter on this link.

Bee-ing busy

Sun Hill honeycomb May 14 1

Ever since I rescued three feral honey bee colonies from Sun Hill, the aged person's unit in Sunniside which is being demolished (the new building next door is now occupied by the Sun Hill residents), I have had calls from residents wanting to buy honey and asking for advice on bumble bee colonies in their gardens. Today, for example, I am visiting three different houses in the Whickham/Sunniside area to take a look at bumble bee colonies. Previously we have visited properties in Blaydon and Dunston. I am also getting messages from people via Facebook.

Many people have put up bird nest boxes only to find that instead of the birds moving in, it has been occupied by bees instead. My advice generally is to leave them alone. They will die out by the autumn. Typically, the bees will not bother you as long as you don't bother them.

Pollinators generally have suffered sharp declines in numbers over the past few decades and particularly in recent years, though last year saw a reverse in the decline. Numbers of bumble bees increased and the very mild winter meant that many more bumble bee queens have survived to set up nests this year.

Photo above - me last month with some of the honeycomb from one of the feral bee colonies I rescued at Sun Hill.

Getting a drenching

chicks at Chase Park Fayre June 14 3

Whickham Chase Park Fayre went ahead yesterday in the hope that the rain would hold off until after the event was over. Alas, it was not to be. As the opening announcement was made at midday, so the clouds opened up. It started as a light drizzle but then stopped for a bit. At about 2pm, the clouds decided to let rip. It was tipping down and there was no way the fayre could continue, despite the amazing efforts of the children's dance groups on the stage, entertaining the people huddled in the marquees and under umbrellas. (Fortunately the stage was covered).

During the period when there was no rain, my table saw brisk interest in our food swapping network and our 7-day-old chicks which we brought along. But as the weather worsened, I had to pack up the stall and head home to dry out.

Photo above: a selfie of me and the 7 day old chicks I took to the fayre.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Setting up the Chase Park Fayre

Chase Park Fayre preparations June 14 (13)

Tomorrow is the Whickham Chase Park Fayre so today I gave a hand to set up the tents, marquees, five-a-side football field and so on. I finished late this afternoon feeling as if I caught the sun. The weather forecast for tomorrow is not so good. Hopefully the rain will hold off until 4pm when we finish. Meanwhile, I am back home now preparing literature to go on the stall I will be running tomorrow to promote the community cafe and the garden and beekeeping  projects and local food trading network at Marley Hill Community Centre.

And I've also just finished the next edition of my email newsletter to residents, which will go out shortly. It features, among other things, tomorrow's fayre.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Police cadets' attestation

I got off the train from London yesterday afternoon, got home and had enough time to feed my livestock before having to change back into the suit to go to the attestation ceremony for the Gateshead police cadets. I was determined not to miss this simply because the cadets had given me a helping hand to plant some fruit trees I was given earlier this year for a community orchard we have started in Sunniside, my home village.

The police cadets in the Northumbria force first got underway in 2010. It is still early days for the project but it does seem to be going well.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Royal Garden Party

Buckingham Palace selfie June 14

I got back from a short visit to London this afternoon. I was down in the capital to sort out a number of tasks and to take up an invite to go to a royal garden party at Buckingham Palace yesterday. The invite was in recognition of my 27 years as a councillor in Gateshead. I was allowed to bring one other person so David came with me, though he came down to London and returned home on the same day - he had to get back to feed our livestock and get the poultry put away before the foxes treated them to their very own garden party. The train fares cost me an arm and a leg!

To get in to the Palace, we joined a long queue of people sporting mayoral chains, big hats and fascinators. No cameras were allowed in and phones had to be turned off. The national anthem at 4pm heralded the arrival of the queen, and the rain (which lasted about 20 minutes). Afterwards we were able to have a walk around the gardens. I did bump into two people I know - Mark Hunter MP and Don Foster MP. I think Don was there in some kind of official Whips' Office capacity though I didn't ask him what his role was (he seemed to be part of a group guiding Prince Philip through the crowds.)

And then it was time to leave. Everyone seemed to be getting out their phones to take pictures before leaving through the gates. So we snapped the above photo. It is my first ever selfie. David was suffering from a number of bee stings which he got on Sunday when doing a check on some of our hives. He was stung around the face, hence the slightly swollen eyelid.

If I were to achieve another 27 years on Gateshead Council, I shall be 77 when I reach that milestone. I wonder if that will result in a second invite!?

Monday, June 02, 2014

Cakes and casework

Sunniside Methodist Chapel's annual fayre sale took place on Saturday. I always visit it to buy plants for the garden and I'm always made to feel welcome. The cake stall is often a draw for me. The event however always results in my leaving the building with a bigger casework load than I had when entering it. Saturday was no different. As well as cakes and plants, I took home with me a list of issues about blocked drains and inconsiderately parked cars.

The cakes have now been eaten, the plants are now transplanted and the casework emails have been done. My job now is to sort out the big pile of petitions opposing opencast mining in the area that have arrived by post over the past couple of weeks.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Ryton Hirings

chicks at Ryton Hirings May 14

Last weekend we had no break from the election battle. On Saturday I had agreed to run a stall at the Ryton Hirings to promote the Marley Hill Community Cafe and the local food trading network I am gradually building up. The idea with the network is that people who have grown food in their garden or allotment and have produced more than they need can swap it for other people's surplus. We swap our preserves and eggs for other people's vegetables, fruit, game, fish, even homemade soap. Some of these are used in the Community Cafe. Running the stall meant I had no chance to look around the fair. However, our recently hatched chicks proved a hit with visitors. A steady stream of people wanted photos taken and there was quite a bit of interest in how we hatch and raise them.

On Sunday we then had the cafe itself to run. No rest for the wicked....

Station refurbishment - awaiting East Coast sale

Newcastle Central Station May 14 2

I had to pop over to Newcastle this morning, after a meeting at Gateshead Civic Centre, to pick up some rail tickets. For the first time I was able to go into the redesigned portico at the front of Newcastle Central Station. Once the taxi rank and drop off and pick up point for passengers (I am no longer having to do that every week to go to London thankfully), the portico is now enclosed and is a ticketing area. Network Rail have done a good job.

Newcastle Central Station May 14 1

The final improvement will come with the transfer of East Coast Trains to an owner committed to running a good, competitive service. Hopefully, the ghost of National Express and their botched handling of the line will be laid to rest. In my 10 years of travelling to and from London from 2000-09, I rate GNER the best. The service was well run, I rarely encountered problems and the tickets were reasonably priced. National Express were as disaster. Trains were cancelled on a regular basis. The service went down hill. East Coast Trains, the present operator, run a good service but prices of unregulated fares have risen considerably.

We await the decision on who the new operator will be - we will find out early next year.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How the projection and reality compare

As I have previously written, Whickham North ward in Gateshead was one of the Labour Party's top target council seats in the North East in the local elections last week. Despite a campaign that soaked up nearly every available Labour resource, including taking people from at least one ward which they were expecting to win but lost on the day, the Lib Dem defending councillor, Peter Craig, held on with an increased majority of 300.

It is fair to say that at 9pm on Thursday evening, we had a few jitters. We had the polling station turnout figures and in a raw state, we started to think that an increased turnout was taking place in the two districts where Labour's vote is more concentrated. We ran the figures by Connect and compared them to the other polling districts and the postal voter numbers. The two districts where we are stronger were performing much better but that was no different to the last elections. Those two districts always have higher turnouts. Was the small increase in the two Labour-leaning districts in this marginal ward meaning that Labour had succeeded in getting out their vote? After all, their entire campaign was all about energising their supporters to turn out. Had they succeeded enough just to slip ahead of us? The answer turned out to be No.

By the end of the verification the next morning I had enough presumptions and figures, including the actual turnouts in each district, and the total of returned postal votes, to work out a projected result. There was a gap of about an hour before the actual counts were due to begin so everyone shifted over to the cafe where we were able to work out the figures. My projected result is below (the actual results are in the first brackets, the results from 2012 are in the 2nd):

  • Lib Dem 1221 (1264) (1282)
  • Labour 904 (963) (1188)
  • UKIP 545 (445) (-)
  • Con 135 (144) (164)
Whilst generally, the projection is sound, the bit that was noticeably different to the actual result was the UKIP vote. We have some conclusions on this but we aren't going to share them with political opponents by publishing them here, other than to say that UKIP were able to make modest inroads in this election into layers of Labour vote which Labour should be concerned about being vulnerable, but they were not able to attract other groups of voters to the same degree. Hence the reason for detecting increased turnout in Labour areas but a lower Labour vote.

The conclusions we have drawn can only be taken as a small jigsaw piece in a bigger picture. Whickham North is a ward that used to be safely Labour but went Lib Dem first in 1992 and has remained Lib Dem ever since, sometimes comfortably so, sometimes as a marginal. It has been thoroughly worked by the Lib Dems for a generation and for the last few months by Labour. The ward therefore does not count as representative of the bigger picture, but is simply a part of what is an overall complicated political landscape.

One conclusion however that I am happy to share with Lib Dems and opponents alike is that where we have continued to work a ward, we have a much better opportunity of weathering whatever political storms the national situation throws at us. It doesn't always save us, but it not half helps!

Anyway, last Friday in the cafe we were able to relax a little after I finished working out the projected result. We could see the Labour people a couple of tables away. Their body language said they knew they had lost. A couple of hours later they knew for real.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Labour's thrashing in Whickham North and Ryton

Put aside party differences for a moment. Standing in an election in which you have a good expectation of winning but then coming second is not good for raising spirits. Months, for some people years, have been dedicated to the cause. Shoes were worn out on the streets, knuckles were chewed by aggressive letter boxes, life has been put on hold for ages only to come in as runner-up in a contest in which there is no prize for second place. I've been there myself (Hexham 1992).

So, my sympathies go to Labour's Chris McHugh in Whickham North here in Gateshead. He fought Labour's cause hard. He canvassed and delivered his election leaflets. He had all the resources his election team could put into his campaign. Labour MPs visited and announced the Lib Dems were going to lose there. Euro candidates came storming in to back the campaign. Certain Labour councillors seemed to have taken up temporary residence in the ward, such was the frequency of their appearances. The regional Labour party was taking an active interest. The ward was swamped on polling day with Labour members from Northumberland. This was a big operation for Labour - but sadly for Mr McHugh (though happily for us), it went horribly wrong. Far from seeing himself overturn a Lib Dem majority of just 90 from 2012, he was defeated by defending Lib Dem Councillor Peter Craig by 300 votes.

For Mr McHugh, this must have felt something like deja vu. In 2012 he was Labour candidate in the neighbouring Dunston Hill and Whickham East ward. We had lost two seats in the ward to Labour in 2010 and 2011. In the latter year, the Labour majority was 666. Labour expected to walk it. They were gutted by the sight of Lib Dem Cllr Peter Maughan being re-elected by a majority of 200. Alas, our own candidate this year, Kevin McClurey, was unable to follow up the win in 2012. Labour's defending Councillor held on by the skin of her teeth - at the count today her majority was only 78.

Politics in many ways is a brutal business. Once every four years we as councillors have, in effect, to reapply for our post and the interviewing committee consists of thousands of people. Sometimes, a person can be dumped from that post through no fault of their own (though sometimes the fault is very much their own). At the end of the day, that's democracy.

In Gateshead, I have now heard grumblings within Labour ranks about the extent to which the Labour Whickham North campaign soaked up resources at the expense of Ryton ward, another target for Labour. The ward had been won comfortably from the Lib Dems in 2011 and 2012. Labour were expecting the final seat to drop into their lap. Ryton Councillor Liz Twist was sighted many times in Whickham North. Whilst she was away from her ward, we were working it thoroughly. From being a long way behind in 2012, our defending Councillor, Christine McHatton, won with a majority of over 100 this time. Labour miscalculated badly on this, not that I'm complaining! Well done to the Labour campaign organiser who helped achieved this spectacular turn around in local political fortunes for the Lib Dems.