Friday, 6 February 2009

Centros Canal Corridor Plans In doubt?

(Updated18/2/09): The Lancaster Guardian reports that the future of the £150 million scheme to transform Lancaster's shopping centre has been thrown into doubt after developers Centros would not confirm whether it would be represented at a planning inquiry - but campaigners against the scheme are still urging objectors to send letters to the Planning Inspectorate before its 9th March deadline.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Hazel Blears decided last month that Lancaster City Council’s resolution to grant planning permission for the controversial Canal Corridor North planning application, which centres on a major shopping development, should be tested at a public inquiry, which will take place later this year.

Now Centros, apparently reeling from problems with its projects elsewhere in the country, is concerned at the potential cost of the inquiry arguing the call-in will add dramatically to the cost and will delay their Castle View scheme.

"It's difficult to comprehend that decision in this economic climate," a spokesman for the company told the newspaper. "It goes against the Government's aim of getting the economy moving, and it puts a huge burden onto the developer."

Clearly, Centros had hoped the government would simply rubber stamp the development without any regard to objections raised by hundreds of locals, national organisations and other groups objecting to their plans, including local campaign organisation It's Our City, who have offered alternate suggestions for the land.

Counting the Cost of Planning Inquries

Centros executives have long railed against the British planning process on costs grounds. In July 2008, interviewd by the BBC's File on 4 for a feature on Urban Regeneration (PDF link), Centros Chief Executive Richard Wise argued the Government could do a lot more to help speed up the process.

"The single greatest killer to a council or a developer is time," he commented, "and delays are a very very major contributor to a lot of these schemes being delayed further and/or shelved. So if central Government wanted to look at this seriously, firstly try and give local government a little bit more power, because it’s the guys on the ground that know what works and what doesn’t within their towns and cities...

'...People do have a right to object," he acknowledged, "but what I’m trying to suggest to Government is that there is a really serious piece of work that central Government/local government can do looking at how can we make them shorter, and it would definitely mean that more of them went ahead, because the cost base would then be significantly lower."

Centros Miller, now Centros, unveiled its initial plans for the Canal Corridor in May 2006, which include shops, a department store and some green space. The Musicians Co-op would have its own new building and both the Dukes and the Grand could see additional features. A multi-storey car park is also part of the scheme.

Objections Still Need to be Raised

Campaigners against the Centros scheeme point out that anyone objecting to it should still send in letters of objection, which, unless there is a change of schedule by the Planning Inspectorate, must be received by them by 9th March.

Concerns include whether Lancaster really needs so much more retail space, issues over increased traffic, the destruction of some historical buildings and the potential for other uses for the site which whould be more sustainable and better reflect the needs of the local area, without damaging existing retail business in both Lancaster and Morecambe.

In July 2007, MVA Consultancy declared that Centros' Transport Assessment for the project as flawed in a number of ways and that, fundamentally, it did not present a clear analysis of current traffic levels or the future traffic volumes likely to be generated by the development.

Objectors point to the City Council's marginalisation of the expensive and comprehensive White Young Green Retail Survey which the Council commissioned and was published in 2006 and relegated its status to that of a background document. It's Our City notes that Council head of planning Andrew Dobson Dobson even sent a 'letter of comfort' to Centros' planning consultant in March 2006, assuring him in essence that the conclusions of the report, which among other things argued for a grocery store in the town centre, would not interfere with Centros Miller's 'retail growth options'.

Its Our City argues the Centros masterplan proposes a retail capacity far in excess of that recommended by the White Young Green report, resulting in greater potential profits for Centros Miller and a greater threat to local retailers.

Credit Crunch a blow to developer

Centros has been beset with problems over its planned developments elesewhere in the country. Already mired in controversy, it was announced its £500m transformation of Portsmouth's city centre had been put on hold indefinitely. Apparently struggling to come up with a design that gives a decent return on any investment -- the company went back to the drawing board in July 2008 -- local paper The News reported that Centros told council leaders they won't be able to build the planned Northern Quarter development by 2011.

This means compulsory purchase orders, which allow them to buy up property to make way for the development, a stage not even reached yet in Lancaster, will expire in 2010 before any work starts. After that, Centros will have to start applying for them again, which is likely to take years.

Neither is this the first development scheme Centros has backed away from. Last April, Centros, regared as one of the UK's leading urban regeneration and mixed-use property development companies, pulled out of a deal to build a £50 million shopping centre in Dumfries town centre, to the dismay of Dumfries and Galloway Council. Debenhams - a key store in the Lancaster plans -- was apparently a key partner in those plans.

18/2/09: In a brief statement, Centros told virtual-lancaster that they had no comment to make at this stage on recent developments. "We will make a statement about the inquiry at the appropriate time," said Centros spokesperson Steve Bryson.

• Any correspondence concerning the Canal Corridor application should be sent to the Planning Inspectorate at:- The Planning Inspectorate PINS SAC(B)Room 3/17, Temple Quay House, 2 The Square, Temple Quay, Bristol, BS1 6PN. Their telephone number is 0117 372 8918 and fax 0117 372 8181.

Links
It's Our City Campaign Site
Centros' Castle View Development Site
Council Regeneration Strategy documents on the council web site (PDF files)

Have You Found Our Cat?

Mysterious 'lost cat' posters are appearing round Lancaster town centre as part of a unique storytelling project organised by Lancaster LitFest. The posters form the first section of a three part story relating to the Storey Institute and, when read in order, tell a story of unrequited love between a pair of Lancaster people who have been separated and united by the Storey Institute at various points in their lives.

Some of the posters have been produced by a calligrapher and were inspired by The Storey Institute's history of teaching calligraphy and sign-writing.

In addition two blogs - Please Find Zigzag and Have You Seen This Cat - have been set up to record the story. Add them to your favourites now!

Among cats, of course, writers are considered some of the best breeds of humans to get, because writers already have civilized, catlike habits. Most writers don't like being disturbed, either and, as the cat Aristophenes relates on this web site to owner Robert Sloan, "they have an uncanny, almost feline, focus on their work that's very much like a hunter's patient stalk. They sit still for long periods of time, and have warm, comfortable laps. Quiet, undemanding intimacy is possible with a writer that a cat might not find with the more frantic types of humans."

As The Storey Institute undergoes building work, the stories have been commissioned from writer David Gaffney as part of the Building Sites project, which aims to engage the public with building renovations.

David will be performing six additional short stories by the writer at the Storey Institute on Thursday 19 March. He will also lead a small group of people round the newly refurbished building telling specially written tales relating to the building along the way.

• There are limited places available for this performance, so visit the David Gaffney's Storey Shorts page on the LitFest website to book your place.

Sabbat Run Extended at Dukes after Sell Out Success

Lancaster's Dukes Theatre has added an extra week of performances to the run of its Lancashire Witch play, Sabbat.

This unprecedented step has been taken due to more people booking tickets for the production than any other in recent memory.

“We’re thrilled to be extending the run of Sabbat," says Dukes Director Joe Sumsion. "This is the first time that The Dukes has done this and our ticketing information shows that locals and people from across the North West are seeing the production.

"The actors and creative team have made an exceptional new play inspired by Lancashire’s heritage and it’s a fantastic start to our 2009 season.”

"Together with much that is sensitively imagined to allow an early 21st century take, Sabbat is a great little play which does not shy away from complexities," wrote virtual-lancaster's Jane Sunderland in her review, while, writing for the national Guardian, Alfred Hickling said actress Amaka Okafor, who plays Jennet Preston who starts al the trouble on Pendle Hill, "gives a fiery account of the feral teen... I don't know if there are diabolical forces at work, but hers is a performance that seems truly possessed."

The extra shows run from Wednesday 25 to Saturday 28 February and include a Saturday matinee. Tickets can be booked from The Dukes Box Office on 01524 598500 or www.dukes-lancaster.org.

Opposite of Robot Gig at the YoHo

There's a great line-up to Opposite of Robot #10, which takes place at Lancaster's Yorkshire House later this month.

Lead act is The Winter Journey, a classically drilled Brit folk male/female duo from Manchester, who released their debut album This Is The Sound Of the Winter Journey As I Remember It on Timbreland Recordings in late 2008 to much acclaim. The Manchester Evening News declared it "an album oozing a warm-blanket intimacy." and BBC Introducing describing it as"an album of gentle joy that comes laden with tiny pieces of beauty."

Also playing are Ottersgear, the new project of super-talented Mike Kenney, band leader of One Chip Potato and the Transcendental Watermusicians and crazed fiddler with Dan Haywood's New Hawks; Joanne Levey, playing songs her father taught her armed only with voice and an autoharp; and Jo Gillot, a bright young singer-songwriter guitarist who's been wowing audiences lately.

Opposite of Robot #10 will take on Sunday 22nd February 2009. As usual, it's at the Yorkshire House, Parliament Street, Lancaster. £3 entry, doors 8.30pm. Web: www.myspace.com/oppositeofrobot

Leader Gone but Council Budget Woes Remain

Following the resignation of Roger Mace, the Conservative leader of Lancaster City Council after failing to come up with a budget (see news story and statement), other political groups on the cabinet now have to come up with a budget before the cabinet meeting on 17th February.

"We're faced with trying to set a budget in two weeks after the previous leader failed to do so in nine months," warns Green Party cabinet member Jon Barry (pictured), who narrowly lost out to leadership of the Council to Labour's Abbott Bryning in a vote at Full Council on Wednesday.

"Most groups on the cabinet lost confidence in Coun Mace's ability to set the budget some time ago," he added. "I have made a preliminary attempt at a budget and I will be talking with other groups and officers in the next week to pool ideas and to try to come to a consensus.

"It won't be easy, but we owe it to the district to sort out the mess we have been landed with," says Jom, echoing Bryning's comments on the budget crisis following the announcement of a 4% council tax rise (see news story).

The Council faces numerous financial woes which will mean cuts to services over the coming months that are unlikely to be popular.

North West firms urged to sign up for government contracts

Small companies in the Lancaster and Morecambe area are being encouraged to sign up to the government's business website to take advantage of thousands of public sector contracts -- and a meeting in Manchester has been set up to help develop business tendering skills in March.

More than 123,000 companies have already joined the supply2.gov.uk website, which provides details about government contracts for small businesses.

On average, more than 3,000 contracts are advertised on the website every month, and the North West has the highest number of opportunities in England outside of London and the South East.

"Every year the government spends many billions of pounds on public sector contracts," expains Beverley Hughes, Regional Minister for the North West, "and it's vital that we're able to help small and medium sized companies in the North West take advantage of them.

"In the current economic climate, this is more important than ever and I hope even more local companies will sign up to the site.

"Small and medium sized businesses can often offer the public sector better value for money than larger companies as they have smaller overheads, local knowledge and great flexibility."

Companies which have signed up to supply2.gov.uk receive advice on the best way of accessing government contracts, and a free daily email alert notifying them of relevant new opportunities.

• Local businesses can find out more about how to apply for government contracts at a 'Developing your tendering skills' roadshow at the Ramada Hotel in Manchester on 12 March. More information about the event is available on the supply2.gov.uk website.

Council Tax Rise Set at 4%

Lancaster City Council has set its increase in Council Tax for 2009/10 at 4% -- but there are warnings of more service cuts ahead to achieve it.

In real terms, the rise, which is in line with government guidelines means residents will pay an average of an extra £7.13 – or 14p a week – to the city council from April 2009.

The increase sets the council’s budget for 2009/10 at £23.999 million -- but further work will now take place to find the savings necessary to achieve a balanced budget.

The final revenue budget will be set by Council on March 4.

“Keeping next year’s Council Tax increase to no more than 4% has long been an ambition of the council and I’m pleased that it could be agreed," commented new Council leader Abbott Bryning. “To achieve it there is still much work to do on the budget and it is clear that the council will have to make savings in areas it would otherwise wish to maintain or expand.

“But I am confident that by working together we will be able to find the savings and efficiencies which are necessary to achieve a balanced budget while maintaining a range of value for money services.”

Savings are necessary due to higher than expected costs for the council in areas such as concessionary travel (as there has been significantly more take up than provided for in the Government grant), and an increase in rent at Lancaster Market.

The recession is also having an impact, with increased expenditure in maintaining regeneration sites, reducing income and significantly reduced investment interest.

As a result, the council has had to make a number of tough choices and decide to reduce services it might otherwise wish to maintain.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Job Cuts at Guardian, Visitor?

Johnston Press is to move the Lancaster Guardian and Morecambe Visitor's sub-editing and picture desk to Blackpool, after halving the numbers needed.

We also understand there is a freeze on replacing reporters who have left in the last 12 months at both papers.

The national Guardian reported on Johnston's plans to centralise the subediting and picture desk operations of its five north-west newspaper divisions, putting 12 jobs at risk overall on Monday. The company, confirming the plans, also said the cuts, which follow an editorial review, would be discussed with staff.

The publisher is developing two centralised sub-editing units, in Preston and Blackpool, to produce titles including the Chorley Guardian, Lancashire Evening Post, Burnley Express and the Blackpool Gazette.

The changes come in addition to Johnston's plans to centralise operations in other parts of the country, including Northern Ireland.

This is a further erosion of our local newspapers, following the closure of the Lancaster and Morecambe Citizen by owners Newsquest last December (see news story).

Singing out "Over the Sands"


Tomorrow, Friday 6 February, sees the third annualOver the Sandsevent at the Central Methodist Church, Morecambe.

Over the Sands” is attempting to revive the spirit of the Morecambe Choirs Festival (in spirit, at least), which was a favourite of Edward Elgar and which had its heyday during the first half of the 20th century. The organisation has raised over £2000 for charities since starting at the end of 2006, helping the families of the cockle pickers who died tragically in Morecambe Bay in 2004 in 2007 and Saint John’s Hospice at Lancaster in 2008. This year, profits will be donated to the The Alzheimer’s Society (Lancaster & Morecambe).

The concert will present four choirs of different styles and traditions, the production illustrating the rich diversity of the active choral tradition in the North-West.

• The event starts at 7.30pm at the Central Methodist Church, Morecambe. Tickets £7 per adult, £1 for children under 11 if accompanied by an adult. More info: www.overthesands.org.uk

Roger Mace: Full Statement

Councillor Roger Mace, who resigned as Leader of Lancaster City Council yesterday, has issued the following statement regarding his reasons and his view of the state of the Council's Cabinet body, and warning of the potential of both more cuts to Council services and a large rise in council tax next year, which we publish here in full:

“ENOUGH IS ENOUGH”

Carping and bickering in Cabinet has got worse in recent weeks. The cohesion between groups that existed in the first 16 months of my leadership has broken down. Cabinet's fractiousness and the renewed tendency for political point scoring has made it impossible to negotiate consensus. Consensus can only be obtained from willing participants in a negotiation process. Willingness on my part is no longer being reciprocated. The situation appears irretrievable in the short term.

In the local elections in May 2007, the electors gave no Political Party a majority. So with the support of other Parties I undertook the Leadership of a five group proportional representation cabinet comprising two Conservatives, two Labour, two Greens, one Liberal Democrat and three Independents (actually Morecambe Bay Independents). I chair the Cabinet, and am Leader of the Council, but neither I nor the Conservative Group can control the decisions made in either place.

It was obvious to everyone, including myself that this was always going to be difficult, but it was a challenge I willingly accepted in the hope that by working together we could improve, even if in a modest way, the quality of life that the Council can offer to the people of Lancaster and Morecambe and the smaller towns and villages in the other parts of the District.

I am proud of the achievements to which I have contributed, particularly

• the restructuring of the Lancaster District Local Strategic Partnership (LDLSP) which has meant that the Partnership is better able than before to tackle effectively the needs of the District,
• the emergence of the Sustainable Community Strategy which has meant that the needs and aspirations of the District are better articulated than before,
• the work on the development of a Community Engagement Framework for the LDLSP which will help facilitate improved engagement with our communities by the key partners within the LDLSP,
• the publication of the Faber Maunsell Report offering practical ideas for the development of the transport infrastructure in the District, additional to the benefits to be provided by the construction of the Heysham-M6 Link,
• the introduction of the "Street Pride" scheme which has contributed to developing a sense of community cohesion within neighbourhoods in the District, and
• the inclusion of significant pledges from the local Conservative manifesto for the May 2007 City Council election in the Council’s Priorities for 2008-9.

In other respects, I have been deeply frustrated by the lack of progress in a number of areas: not least in reducing the losses in running Lancaster Market a reduction of which, in normal circumstances, would have successfully kept Council Tax rises within reasonable limits.

I have been shocked by members’ apathy towards the issue I raised in my annual report to Council last April, namely the need to develop financial arrangements for the new Morecambe Town Council that would be fair for all areas of the District, whether inside the new Morecambe or outside it. Solving this issue required a new way of minimising the potential for double taxation of parished areas. In time, the financial arrangement by which residents in parishes pay the City for a share in services they don't receive from the City will be more widely seen as unfair.

The divisive effect of Council’s failure to tackle the underlying problem in a timely way will be more apparent when Council Tax demands for 2009-10 reach residents, and the Council Tax differential between parished areas - including the new Morecambe parish - and Lancaster residents comes to be more widely recognised. When residents in Morecambe notice they are paying more Council Tax than Lancaster residents, perhaps Council's decision last December to reject the Conservative proposal for a Community Governance Review in 2010-11 will be reversed.

I did not take on the role of Leader to sanction decisions made by others to the disadvantage of any of the communities in our District. I did not take on the role to do hatchet work on local jobs and services on behalf of a Central Government which has conspicuously failed to fund adequately the extra activities it has forced District Councils to undertake - most significantly the concessionary travel scheme for the over 60s.

One aspect of the current situation is that some councillors are persistently unwilling to recognise the roles and responsibilities set out in the City Council’s Constitution. The Constitution is clear that the role of Leader is to coordinate the Cabinet’s preparation of draft proposals for amending or updating the Council’s Budget and Policy Framework. I have been doing that work for the 2009-10 Budget since January of 2008.

In the context of the difficulties likely to arise in relation to the forthcoming Budget, you may have noticed that today’s report to Council [Editor's note - PDF docuent] does not illustrate how a tax increase not greater than 4% might be achieved. Statements presented to members show that the level of unidentified savings still needed to achieve the required result remains substantial.

Systematic weakness always comes to light in times of crisis. There is for example no corporate time recording system in place across the Council to enable information to be readily produced for members to show how staff time is used on the various roles, functions, activities and projects for which staff are responsible. Time allocation is an important component of total cost, but without information as to the staff time involved in the activities that members are required to review as part of the current Budget exercise, it is neither clear precisely what resources would be released or costs saved by any activities the Council decided to reduce or to cut, nor clear how future resource allocation can be directed by members towards priorities and away from non priorities.

By way of another example, there has been no system for members to exercise effective control over the size of the Council’s establishment – and Cabinet has not implemented effectively the qualified freeze on new or replacement appointments that all Group Leaders agreed on 24 October 2008 to consider “as a matter of urgency.”

The constitutional position is clear. As Portfolio Holder for Finance, my role is to take any individual cabinet member decisions as required within my portfolio, and to present relevant reports to Cabinet and Council. I have fulfilled that role. Budget recommendations from the Cabinet to the Council are the responsibility of Cabinet as a whole: they are not the responsibility of the Portfolio Holder for Finance. In the absence of clarity that a balanced Revenue Budget can be agreed with a tax increase not greater than 4%, or that sufficient feasible options will be on the table between which members could exercise choice to arrive at such a position – or at a higher or lower increase in Council Tax than 4% - I am unwilling to commend to Council a report that I was unable to support in Cabinet [see Recommendation 5 within Item 9 in the Agenda for Council on 4 February 2009, which reflects the first approved recommendation within Cabinet Minute 120 of the Cabinet meeting on 20 January 2009].

In these circumstances, I have resigned as Portfolio Holder for Finance and as Leader of the Council to enable me to defend the interests of communities in my Ward against decisions made by others which I believe are to the detriment of the District as a whole.

For the sake of clarity, I confirm that the resignation just described does not apply to my membership of the Cabinet, nor does it apply to my portfolio responsibilities, other than those relating to the Finance Portfolio.

The Conservative group in the Council has tried to work with others but will now have to carry on its battle for a cost effective and efficient Council in the role of Opposition. We hope to convince electors that the real changes that are needed to improve our district can only come through their support at the ballot box for Conservative policies provided by a Conservative controlled Council. Then they can test our promises against our delivery because then they will have given us the majority on the Council to carry them out.

Councillor J. R. Mace
Leader of the Conservative Group
Lancaster City Council

4th February 2009

Leader of the Council May 2007 – February 2009

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Bryning new Council Leader after Mace Quits

(Updated with corrections, comment from Jon Barry, 5/2/09): Labour councillor Abbott Bryning is the new leader of Lancaster City Council after Councillor Roger Mace resigned the position during today's full Council Meeting.

Mace cited continual sniping and political point-scoring among some of his cabinet colleagues as reasons for his departure.

After discussing options, various councillors were proposed for new Leader, with Labour councillor Abbott Bryning duly elected after Morecambe councillor Evelyn Archer was knocked out in first round of voting, followed by Green Party councillor Jon Barry in the second.

Bryning won the postion by 25 votes to 24, the Tories all voting for him, returning the favour of Labour voting en masse for Roger Mace the first time round.

Had Jon Barry been elected, he would have been the first Green leader of a council anywhere
in the country.

Mace (pictured right), a retired Senior Lecturer in Accounting and Finance who became Leader of the Conservative Group on the Council in April 2006, had previously stated his hope to see "more co-operation between councillors of different groups" during his term of office. (He has since publshed a full statement citing his reasons for resignation, see news story)

Mace has been the representative of Kellet Ward on Lancaster City Council since 1999 and is a City Council representative on the Court of the University of Lancaster.

Recent months have been turbulent for the Council, reeling from the crisis caused by the Icelandic bank shortfall, the closure of amenities such as Morecambe's Dome and the future of Lancaster Market, all issues touched on in Coun Mace's final Leader's Report (PDF format) delivered to today's meeting.

Abbott Bryning's election as council leader will not be met with universal approval among local voters.

Bryning, these days a councillor for Skerton East after being booted out of his long-held seat in Bulk Ward by disgruntled voters, not only supports Centros' plans for the Canal Corridor which resulted in the loss of his seat in 2007, but also fully supported the controversial re-developemnt of the Kingsway site, citing it as a "quality development" after the government decided not to "call in" the decision to give planning approval back in 2004.

After the building of an eight-storey block of flats was given the go ahead in 2007 he'd changed his tune, telling the Lancaster Guardian that "I have been concerned about this site for many years and what we would end up with."

Morecambe residents will know he was one of six councillors who voted to close the Dome in late 2008, which remains an unpopular decision despite the huge annual loss it was making.

In October 2008, Bryning stated he had "a wholly open mind" about the Canal Corridor development proposals and "would consider the applications in accordance with the Protocol on Planning Procedure contained with the Council's Constitution."

As a councillor, Bryning has said he hopes to see positive gains for the area across Lancaster’s “city, coast and countryside” economy, achieved through public and private sector co-operation and goodwill and to encourage civic pride in the City’s traditions and heritage.

Jon Barry has contested Coun Mace's reasons for his resignation as Leader. "The real reason Roger Mace resigned was because he failed to come up with a budget," he told virtual-lancaster. "This is the first time I have ever known this happen. He is now trying to blame others when it was his fault and he should be brave enough to reognise that.

"He has now left the district in a complete mess and the rest of us will have to try to pick up the pieces as best we can."

Masters of the House Event cancelled

Lancaster City Council has announced the Masters of the House Sing the Musicals show which was due to take place at The Platform in Morecambe on 7th March has unfortunately been cancelled.

All advance ticket holders have been contacted and offered refunds or tickets for alternative shows.

Drink Can Spoil Romance, Health Chiefs Warn

Don’t let drink spoil the romance of Valentines Day. That's the urgent message the Health Protection Agency (HPA) North West wants to get across in the run up to 14th February, urging young people not to let drink spoil the romance of the day.

They're right, it seems, to be worried: research published last year by the World Health Organisation revealed teenagers in Britain get drunk more often than any others in the western world.

“Alcohol and drugs can affect our sexual health by reducing our inhibitions, leading us to take risks that we might later regret," says Dr Lorraine Lighton, Regional Sexual Health Lead for the Agency.

“Valentines Day is traditionally a time of romance and meeting new partners. Being romantic is about showing the other person that you care about their wellbeing. You can show consideration and respect for your partner by using a condom during sex, especially if this is a new partner or a casual relationship. However alcohol can cloud decisions and make it harder to keep to safer sex messages.

“Sex should be enjoyable and fun," she continued. "Safer sex means having sex with fewer partners, always using a condom, especially with new or casual partners, and being aware that alcohol and drugs may lead to you taking risks with your health.

“Anyone having unprotected sex outside of a steady relationship may be at risk of a sexually transmitted infection. If you feel that you are at risk, it is important to be tested.”

One of the findings of the WHO survey, Young People's Health In Context (PDF precis), published last year, was the rate of alcohol use by teenagers in the UK was more than double compared to the USA.

However, responding to some of the alarmist coverage of the study, which covered over 162,000 young people aged 11-15 years across 35 countries in the national press, Doctor Candace Currie, who conducted the research, said: "This report is not about league tables. It's about reaching a greater understanding of young people's behaviour and how other factors such as experiences at school and home, and relationships with friends and family influence this."

Across Europe, the survey found that about half of 15-year-old boys drink weekly in Denmark, Malta, the Netherlands and the UK. Weekly drinking among 15-year-old girls is especially high in Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

In Review: Sabbat

The Story of the Trials of the Pendle Witches
The Dukes, Lancaster
Writer: Richard Shannon
Director: Amy Leach
Designer: Miriam Nabarro

With its root in historical fact, together with much that is sensitively imagined to allow an early 21st century take, Sabbat is a great little play which does not shy away from complexities. Richard Shannon’s script is to be commended for raising questions which it rightly refuses to answer. Where does witchcraft end and herbalism begin? Sympathy for those who may have practised witchcraft and witchcraft itself? ‘Possession’ and mental illness? What did those accused of witchcraft really believe about themselves? What was the role of poverty, illness and lack of education in an inward-looking community in these people’s practices? How much of the trials were actually about displaced anti-Catholic feeling? If Jennet (based on a real character) is an unreliable witness, can we trust Alice Nutter (who really existed) completely? What do these trials tell us about those men who prosecuted these women, and indeed 17th century masculinity more widely? For almost as disturbing as the magistrate Roger Nowell’s fascination by and indeed attraction to the women he accuses, together with fear of their powers, is his stated view of his wife Judith as a child in need of protection (when she questions his judgement, that is).

The four actors: David Acton (Roger Nowell), Hannah Emanuel (Judith Nowell), Christine Mackie (Alice Nutter) and Amaka Okafor (Jennet Preston) are all excellent, and there is real dynamism between them. There are many intense scenes between different pairings, and these work extremely well in a small, intimate space like the Round. The actor who really shone for me was Christine Mackie, whose Alice Nutter was suitably dignified, mystified (at the accusation levelled at her), angry and despairing in turn.

Amy Leach (who last year won a prize at the Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards for her production of Dr Korczak’s Example at the Royal Exchange) is also to be congratulated on her direction of Sabbat, for professionalism and imagination. Two scenes really stand out: when Judith Nowell gives birth to a much-wanted but in the event still-born baby boy (done without words from the actors), and the hangings at the end. Both of these are highly sensitive, highly effective, and strikingly simple.

It’s a good walk up Pendle Hill, and this play may increase the number of hill climbers who make it to the top. But if you don’t, the sound effect of the Pendle wind in this production isn’t at all a bad substitute.

Jane Sunderland

Sabbat runs at The Dukes, Lancaster, until Saturday 21 February 2009, 8 p.m. (except Sunday 8 February and Sunday 15 February). Extra performances Wednesday 4 February, 10.30 a.m.; Wednesday 11 February, 2 p.m.; Saturday 14 February, 3 p.m.; Saturday 21 February, 2 p.m.

Tickets: £5 - £15.50 (concessions available)
Box Office: The Dukes, Moor Lane, Lancaster LA1 1QE. Tel: 01524 598500. E-mail: tickets@dukes-lancaster.org
Web: www.dukes-lancaster.org

Pendle witches: useful websites
Pendle Witches feature on HistoricUK.com
Pendle Witches feature on the Moorhouse Brewery web site
Pendle Witches feature on Information Britain

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Help Gaza Relief Efforts

Do you want to do something practical and concrete in response to recent events in Gaza?

Then help fill a van that will be leaving Lancaster on 12th February to travel overland to Egypt!

Local man Gareth Matthews is joining the Viva Palestina convoy of vehicles that will be leaving London on 14th February (www.vivapalestina.org) and is collecting children's clothes, children's toys/books, mens clothes and warm blankets/duvets (womens clothes will be purchased in Egypt).

Viva Palestina is the response of ordinary people from across the UK organising and showing solidarity with the people of Gaza. The volnteer team behind the project say response to the convoy has been overwhelming, with people from Scotland to Devon offering their services, clothes, medicines and money. "We now have over 20 vehicles including a fire engine, ambulances and a boat!"

Gareth also needs to raise approximately £3000 to cover the cost of fuel and travel expenses. To make donations please contact Gareth (after 7.30pm any evening) on 0759 4966948 or Alys on 07813 800540 alysjenkinsATyahoo.co.uk