Thursday, 8 December 2016

All Fall Down: Planning and Enforcement in Broken Barnet


Updated 9th December

In fact it seems the scale of lack of enforcement in Barnet is far, far worse than could have been imagined: since publishing this yesterday, the post has not only received record numbers of visits, but I have been sent many examples of similar cases, and many comments, some of which I am not publishing - yet. The anecdotal evidence is one thing, but there is evidence from the council's own records of a very serious problem in enforcement.

It seems that at November's Full Council meeting a Tory councillor, perhaps naively thinking the response would prove how well Barnet-Capita were doing in terms of enforcement, asked about the level of 'satisfactory outcomes' in regard to planning enforcement.

Councillor Brian Salinger:

Will the Leader please provide
members with a list of all planning
enforcement cases that officers
have handled in the last 2 years
advising which they consider to
have reached satisfactory outcomes
and which are still outstanding. Will
the leader ensure that the list shows
the dates on which the first
complaint about each of the

developments was logged?

Cllr Richard
Cornelius (Leader of

the Council)

The volume of cases means that this list will have to be supplied

separately to the councillor and published online.

Just look at the response, published separately.

It really is breathtaking, in terms of volume - and content. 

In the majority of cases the outcome is 'No further action'. 

And there are many cases still 'in investigation'.

The range of issues is extraordinary: from a house being built in a barn in Totteridge, to construction of an unauthorised building on Council Land without permission in my own road (one of several breaches), an unauthorised outbuilding in another property in Vivian Avenue - and a subdivided property across the road from our Tory MP. 

The figures need a closer analysis, when time allows, but even a cursory glance is enough to suggest that this is an absolute scandal: and catastrophic for the borough - the loss of control over development is having a massive detrimental impact on the quality of life of residents - and the value of their properties. 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
8th December

Writing this blog inevitably means that Mrs Angry receives quite a lot of emails from residents about a range of local issues, but increasingly, since the Capita contracts began, the most common subject of all such correspondence is in regard to ... planning.

Complaints about the way in which our council handles not only planning applications, but also the enforcement of breaches of planning and building regulations, are becoming more and more frequent, and this is rather worrying. 

Many people now are claiming that enforcement is simply ineffective, and believe that the best interests of developers are put before those of residents, as a matter of policy, and in practice. I have to say that I think this is pretty much the case, now, in Broken Barnet.

We know that more and more large scale developments are being approved, seemingly without restraint: and there would appear to be little care to ensure such developments are being considered within any overall policy of what is best for the borough. 

Huge housing schemes are welcomed with little or no insistence that it is affordable, or supported by adequate investment in schools, health care, traffic management and leisure facilities. Vital local services like libraries that support the burgeoning new population are being ruthlessly cut: sports venues are disappearing - and even parks are now vulnerable to development - something that should be unthinkable.

Apart from these larger schemes, however, there is also a growing perception that less and less management, regulation and enforcement of small scale development is in place: that too many inappropriate conversions, extensions and even new build properties are being allowed, with any breaches of planning permission or building control left unsanctioned. This, it is feared, is giving developers the idea that they can simply do whatever they like, without fear of enforcement by the council.

Take the example of the house shown in the pictures above. Or rather what was a house - this is what it looked like, until three weeks ago:




This is in Vivian Avenue: a nice, suburban road in Hendon - in a Labour ward. The property which stood on this site until recently was a perfectly sound, pre war detached house, in keeping with the rest of the road. In need of some renovation, but otherwise a nice family home.

It had been bought by local developers, however, who put in a series of planning applications, from September 2014 onwards, four of which were eventually approved - after four planning committee hearings - and despite numerous objections from neighbouring residents. Oh and some rather curious supporting comments. 

Utilising a step-by-step Oliver Twist 'Please, Sir I want some more' approach, the developers asked for more and more to be built on the site, and conditions were placed on approved schemes that seemed to protect the neighbouring residents and the locality. 

The latest approval, given earlier this year, after the very interesting supporting comments, and despite all objections, was for side and rear extensions to the property, and a basement, in order to convert it into seven self-contained flats, even though the second to last approval conditioned the extensions allowed to be for a single family home.

Approval was finally given in October: passed by Tory councillors Hugh Rayner, Brian Gordon,Val Duschinsky (present as a substitute) and shed enthusiast Cllr Maureen Braun using her casting vote. Labour members voted against.

Hoardings were erected around the property, and work began. The house was gutted internally. 

Neighbouring residents, unsurprisingly, were upset, and very worried about the impact of living next door to a property that had been built as a home for one family, but would now accommodate seven households. They were wrong to worry about that, however. What happened next was far worse than anything they could have imagined.

On November 17th, it became clear that something was very wrong: the house was disappearing, level by level, in rapid sequence: one neighbouring property had a window broken by debris flying over a boundary fence - thankfully no one was hurt, but this was by good fortune, as no warning had been given of what was happening. 

And what was happening was not an extension, or conversion, as the approval allowed, but - demolition.

No warning, and as far as the neighbours could see, no safeguards to ensure that the demolition was undertaken in a safe and considerate way.  Dust everywhere: was there asbestos on the site? Was there any risk from gas leaks? Were the utility companies informed? Had any risk assessment been made of potential hazards before the work?

What would you do, in such a distressing situation? You would probably ring the council, wouldn't you, and expect them to immediately come out, inspect the site, and close it down until thorough safety checks had been made?

But then this is Barnet, where Capita runs planning, and enforcement, as well as offering support to developers: yes, you might think there is a clear conflict of interest inherent in this arrangement, but that doesn't bother your Tory council.

Neighbours rang the council. Nothing happened. No one was particularly interested in the apparent breach of permission, or the health and safety aspects of demolition, it appeared.

Apart from some contact with an officer on November 18th - the neighbours have heard NOTHING since. The building work continues, with what looks like pile driving, which would imply the foundations of a new building are being prepared. 

The site was secured fully with hoarding for three days: then that was removed and business continued as usual. Was it all a show for enforcement officers? No one knows, because no one has been updated as promised by the council. What are they doing?

Local Labour councillor Adam Langleben visited the site and raised the matter with the planners and was sent a routine enforcement acknowledgement letter a week later. The workers on site, apparently, had not seemed to understand what a councillor was: which is what you might expect, of course.

Rumour has it that there very few enforcement officers working for Barnet-Capita now. That would seem to be something of a problem - for residents, if not for developers. Perhaps this is why there is a perception by some residents that clear breaches are simply not being addressed and enforcement not sufficiently stringent.

It is reported that the council is taking legal advice in the case of Vivian Avenue, perhaps because the developer might think he can claim as one token wall has not been destroyed, there has been no demolition. If so, this to any reasonable person would make a complete mockery of the planning process - and it means any house in this borough, in any road, could disappear in the same way: yes, you could look outside your bedroom window one morning, and find the house next door to you was being knocked down, and there would be next to no support from Barnet Council.

Apart from the worry and disturbance from living next door to a demolition site, the prospect of an unauthorised new building next to yours raises serious concerns about the effect on the value on your own property which is likely to accrue from the loss of continuity in style of housing in your road. 

Well, then. This is not the first time this particular developer has, without planning permission, demolished an older suburban property, in a nice residential road, and replaced it with an modern building. His own home, which eventually, after two appeals, was given retrospective approval. His builder, unfortunately, as previously reported, has a history of Health & Safety breaches, including work on gas appliances for which he was not qualified.

Oh, and - this particular developer ... is connected with another series of posts in this blog: the story of Victoria Park Lodge.

The Lodge is a lovely Edwardian house, arts and crafts style, contemporary with the founding of the Park trust, by local benefactors: lived in for decades by the resident Park Keeper. See here and other posts for further details.




Residents outside the threatened Lodge in Victoria Park

The house in Vivian Avenue which has been demolished is owned by CDEG, one of the companies owned by the family of Mr Adi Friedman and his wife Birgit Friedman. The developer who acquired the Lodge, after a cash purchase, earlier this year, a transaction which has been the subject of an investigation by the council's external auditors, as a result of objections made by local taxpayers, in regard to, amongst other considerations,  whether or not the authority had power in law to sell what campaigners claim are legal restrictions that protect the park from sale and development, due to covenants created at the time of the park's endowment.

You may recall that during the summer, after submitting a highly unpopular application to build a block of flats on the site in Victoria Park, the property's new owners then made an application, later withdrawn, to demolish the Lodge. Thanks to the outcry from local residents and campaigners, this was withdrawn, and eventually, after much protest - and criticism of the way in which the planning department handled the process, for example allowing 'supporters' to be anonymous, while publishing full details of objectors, refusing to compel the applicant to reveal the advice given by Capita planning officers - the application for the flats was rejected.

It is pretty clear, therefore, that it is only by good fortune, or rather thanks to determined lobbying by local residents, that the Lodge is still standing. But for how much longer?

An application has latterly been submitted to hack away at two protected trees in the garden of the Lodge - and then, more worryingly, plans to install a 'loft conversion': in a property which we know the developer wishes to replace with a block of highly profitable flats.

Since the last post written about this very interesting story, more information has come to light about the sale, and the way in which Tory councillors came to approve the principle of sale, several years ago.

First of all came the revelation that on March 30th, the day of the sale by Barnet Council, the property immediately transferred ownership: from a Mr Gruber, who paid the cash upfront, to the Lodge Victoria Park Ltd, which is of course a company run by Mr and Mrs Friedman. No money, it would appear, was exchanged in regard to the second sale. This transaction only came to light when land registry records were updated, six months later. This is all perfectly lawful, of course - if somewhat puzzling.

Then emerged more information from the council side, about the curious case of the missing report which was the basis of recommendations to councillors deciding whether or not to put the Lodge up for sale. This was, it should be noted, long before the current developer was on the scene -  the years that have passed since the sale was approved in principle, and the sale that has now taken place reflect the difficulties that then ensued for the council, when they subsequently realised that there were legal difficulties due to the covenants attached to the park.

When the sale of the Lodge was approved, councillors had been advised by officers that it would be too expensive to renovate, and continue to use as council housing. (The family who used to live there very happily were evicted a few years ago, despite the shortage of social housing in this borough, and the property left empty until sale). It was claimed, on the basis of a report that no one can produce, that the Lodge would cost £100,000 to bring up to suitable standards of accommodation. 

The council has repeatedly been asked, by residents, and by local Labour councillor Ross Houston, for copies of the report that is supposed to have made this assessment - to no avail. It has been 'lost': no one is sure how this occurred. Oh, but then ... when resident Mary O'Connor raised the subject again at the last local Forum, we learned that there was a report, after all, which would be made available. 

All was not what it seemed, however. It was not the original report, that had mysteriously been lost. This was a NEW estimate, in which, by remarkable coincidence, it was found possible to arrive a total very close to the alleged £100,000 cost of renovation.

A great shame that before this new costing, no one had had a chat with the Lodge developer's representative who told residents in the summer that they had spent around £7,000 on the property, before renting it out. 

Last month Mrs Angry had extensive correspondence (copied to the auditor) with Ms Anisa Darr, currently 'Director of Resources' at LBBarnet, in regard to the mystery of the missing dossier. Ah - not missing, Mrs Angry. Just 'not available'. In the sense that say, Lord Lucan is not missing, but 'not available', do you see? 

Hmm. Ms Darr said:

As has been previously stated and confirmed, the original estimate by Barnet Homes is not available.

As per the response to Cllr Houston’s members item 

(http://barnet.moderngov.co.uk/documents/b28381/Responses%20to%20Cllr%20Houstons%20Members%20Item%20Questions%2001st-Sep-2016%2019.00%20Policy%20and%20Resources%20Commit.pdf?T=9)

it was confirmed that a revised estimate was undertaken to determine the estimated value of works required to bring Victoria Lodge into decent homes standards for residual use.

This was a desktop estimate and in order to complete this exercise decent homes methodology, age of the building and a schedule of rates from our framework of service providers was used. The estimate was completed by an Estates lead within my team and did not involve getting quotes from contractors. Similarly on-site inspections from building services team would only be required, on any of our assets, once a decision to progress the works, on the initial estimate, had been made. 

I have included the link to the rather revealing responses to Cllr Houston's questions, but as you will see, for some strange reason, it no longer works, and the document is no longer in the public domain. Curiouser, and curiouser. Is there something in it they don't want us to see? Is it the other offers that were made for the property? Details that should not have been published? Not to worry, chaps: we kept copies anyway.

The new desktop estimate, belatedly produced at the end of this summer, when the campaign to save the Lodge was in full swing, was created without any assessment or quotation by builders, or tradesmen, fortunately manages, somehow, to stretch to the £100,000 figure given to councillors when the sale decision was made. 

There is, however, no evidence that the authority can offer to prove that there ever was a report based on any previous assessment of cost of renovation, in fact: there is no audit trail, nothing. One might reasonably suspect, therefore, that it is entirely possible that the £100,000 figure was total fantasy, and that councillors, not for the first time, and not for the last time, were ... misled.

Other misleading information would appear to be a failure to investigate the background to the covenants and restrictions that are meant to protect the park from development: and frankly it might well be that the developer who bought the Lodge did so under the impression that he would be able to get permission to build flats on the site. Was he also ... misled? Or does he have reason to think he can ignore the covenant?

Let us repeat this one more time: whatever the arguments over the legality of the sale of part of the park, there is no doubt about this covenant in regard to the Lodge site: no building may be erected there other than accommodation for a park keeper, a cricket pavilion, or a bandstand. In other words, as the council's own lawyer admitted, he may well have been sold 'a white elephant'. And to be quite clear - now the site is only of any value with the Lodge intact.

The Lodge is now let to tenants on some casual basis: yet a neighbour was informed by someone associated with the building that this was still council housing, which clearly it is not. Rubbish is regularly accumulating around the periphery of the site: one might ask why the landlord would want the site to be so untidy and unappealing. Hard to think of a reason, isn't it?



Over in Hendon, almost opposite the Town Hall, another part of our built heritage is being demolished, after standing neglected for some time: the White Bear, an historic and architecturally pleasing pub, standing on a site which has been the location for an inn for centuries, and is - was  - surrounded by eighteenth century houses. After public outcry a couple of years ago, when demolition and development was first planned, councillors rejected the application. Once campaigners thought they had won the argument and focus shifted, the plans were quietly approved.

This sort of example is happening all over the borough: developers, large and small in scale, unchallenged by regulation or enforcement, ripping up our built heritage, our green spaces,: essential features of what our Tory council likes to promote as a borough that is a 'successful city-suburb'. 

Even our most historic properties are not safe, like the former Church Farmhouse Museum, just around the corner from the White Bear, and at the back of the Town Hall, the heart of the oldest part of Hendon: put up for sale, like the Lodge, pointlessly, as offering nothing to developers because of the restrictions of its Grade 2* listing - so left to decay and stand as a crumbling symbol of everything wrong with the unprincipled, moribund state of Broken Barnet. And the Town Hall itself, as reported in the previous post, also listed, is being carved up inside, in order to accommodate valuable office space.

The limited protection offered by listing can only ever apply to a handful of properties. Throughout the borough now, we are increasingly seeing the loss of buildings, homes that should be retained as they are, integral to their local architectural context, part of our joint history, all through lack of a well directed and properly enforced system of planning, and simply because there is a fast buck to be made, somewhere, for someone. Such development does not address the serious housing crisis in this borough, providing low rent accommodation or affordable housing for those on modest incomes: they are targeted at overseas buyers - as in West Hendon, and even - preposterously, at the other end of the scale - in the case of the flats unsuccessfully proposed to replace the Lodge in Victoria Park.

As far as the Tory councillors and Capita are concerned, developers may do more or less what they want - and there is little you can do about it. Don't be surprised if you wake up one morning and find a pile of bricks where once there was a house next door to you. And if you don't like the idea of that prospect ... please remember not to keep voting for the people who allow such wanton destruction.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Quite significant changes: or, Barnet library services cut to shreds, staff sacked - Merry Xmas from your Tory councillors




Barnet Council - Shame on You:   Pic courtesy Barnet Press and the Barnet Society

Last night Mrs Angry went to the Town Hall, to the General Functions Committee, to watch the Tory councillors give their final approval to the sacking of half of Barnet's library staff, and to a series of devastating cuts that will mean the virtual destruction of the library service in this borough.

Although the formal approval had not yet been given, earlier that day many members of library staff had already been told they had lost their jobs. 

Some of those who wanted redundancy were not offered the option, which seems curious. And rather worryingly, it would appear that those chosen for the push include individuals who are of an ethnic minority, with a disability, or long term health problem - and older women. This may or may not be representative of the general workforce: but it underlines the difficulties that these employees now face, just before a bleak Christmas, and New Year, in regard to their future livelihoods, and the chances of re-employment: low paid workers, with families to support, mortgages or rent to pay.

When you arrive at the Town Hall now, you are immediately reminded of the state of things here, in Broken Barnet, as you step into what was the foyer of a lovely municipal building, now with hoardings dividing the entrance, as they carve the space up for offices. This Town Hall, built in 1900 to a design by T H Watson, is a Grade 2 listed building, in 'pre-Renaissance manner'. Now we live in a state of annexation by Crapita, it is only fitting, however, that what should be the focus of architectural pride in our borough is being assaulted and humiliated in this way: profit before heritage, for Barnet Tories, every time. Profit before anything, in fact: honour, decency, justice.

To one side of the former foyer stood possibly the most pathetic Christmas tree imaginable, trimmed in corporate coloured tinsel. The fairy had fallen off, apparently: probably died of shame - or jumped.



As we moved upstairs, we passed a display of untouched copies of our Tory councillors' propaganda rag, 'Barnet First', whose cost of production is paid for, despite the demands of 'austerity' , by you, and me, and all the council tax payers of Barnet - written, no doubt by the team of spin doctors whose ranks have just been expanded, again despite the cuts in our services, by six new PR posts: at a cost of £800,000, in the run up to the next local elections.

The meeting began, as is the norm now, in Capitaville, with more new faces sitting at the Committee table: Mr Lemon, the HR lead officer, who spoke in a whisper, as if he could hardly summon the will, or was present at a funeral - which in a way it was. 

An item came up first about the recruitment of a new CEO. The previous one, you may recall, left 'by mutual agreement' after the election day fiasco earlier in the year. Richard Cornelius, who had been left with egg on his Mr Punch like face, made his only spirited contribution of the evening, keen to express the view that the new successful candidate should have to perform his electoral duties whilst taking annual leave, as we should not have to pay him to do whatever it was he was supposed to do, ie perform his electoral duties. Which is supposed to include doing it in such a way that the right registers are available at the Polling Stations, but it didn't really matter that they weren't according to the investigation ordered by the Leader, as we learned everyone who was responsible was on a 'journey', on which we must 'wish them well'. (Mr Travers went on a journey then, and has never been seen since.)

Libraries. Here we go.



Chipping Barnet Library, closed for 'refurbishment' ie gutting & shrinking (even though the planning application hasn't been approved yet) ... What's in it for you, reader? F*ck all, now.

Three officers took their places at the tables, two from library management, Florence Armstrong,  and Hannah Richens, accompanied by Duncan Tessier, the Assistant Director for Children's Services who spent the evening avoiding reference to the impact on the borough's children of being barred from our lovely new DIY, self service, unstaffed, shrunken libraries.

Mr Tessier, who earns around £95,000 a year, told us, in hushed tones, that it was necessary to cut the jobs of half the low paid library staff in Barnet, in order to make savings of £2.2 million.

Quite significant changes, as he put it, with admirable understatement. Well: admirable if you are not one of those losing your job, or a resident dependent on access to a local library where there are trained staff to help you.

Savings of £2.2 million. And spending £6 million to carve up the libraries, shrink the space, cull the book stock, turn them into DIY self entry staffless rooms. Plus, they are spending £12 million plus on new libraries, which we do not need, but will be run on the same principle - the principle that a professional library service can be run with volunteers shuffling around a few dog eared paperbacks on a trolley in a room they call a library.

Savings of £2,2 million, when we have so many private consultants, interim senior officers and agency staff working for the council, hidden behind a screen of 'commercial sensitivity', and a bill of - £20 million a year. A bill which earns Crapita an extra gainshare payment profit?

Savings of £2.2 million, when they hand out half a million quid for no reason to the national RAF museum (which has just announced they have been given another £4 million from lottery funding)?

Savings of £2.2 million, when they have just spent nearly £1 million, as mentioned above, on six new spin doctors, to manage the Tory council's 'reputation'?

But then of course spin doctors are so much more valuable, and contribute so much more to our community than library staff, don't they?

Barnet Unison secretary John Burgess came to address the Committee. He was given three minutes to speak on behalf of staff about to lose their jobs. Every second was monitored, and he was allowed not one moment longer. 

John tried his best to reason with the unreasonable: to no avail. The Tories were absolutely uninterested and did not engage with him in any way. Not one councillor, when invited to do so by the Chair, had any question for him. 

One expects that from the Tories, of course, but to see the Labour councillors remain silent was absolutely infuriating. 

This meant that staff were deprived of the opportunity for their representative to enlarge on the limited speech he had been so grudgingly allowed, and raise important points on their behalf. It also meant, of course that the Labour councillors: leader Barry Rawlings, former leader Alison Moore, and more junior councillor Ammar Naqvi, made another political blunder, and gave up the chance to hold the Tories to account. 

Last week Labour also failed to challenge the £12 million splurge on library construction & modification costs as hidden in a list of expenditure put to P&R for approval.

John was obliged to sit down, cut short of any further chance of comment.

Now Labour councillors decided to ask polite questions of the officers. Alison Moore wanted to know ... about travelling times for staff once the remaining ones were working at new libraries. 

She murmured that she did wonder- and of course this had probably not occurred to any of them before, Mrs Angry concluded, if what might be in store was 'death by a thousand cuts'.

Well, yes. Now that you come to mention it. Well spotted.



No future ... but maybe anarchy in Chipping Barnet

Leader Barry Rawlings asked, in a thoughtful way, how they would measure the success (or not) of the cuts. 

Probably by the outcome of the next election, Mrs Angry suggested, unasked, as she wrote GOD HELP ME, underlined, in her notebook. 

The officers thought the accomplishment of savings would be the mark of success.

Cllr Rawlings now wondered, philosophically, if that was how people will judge what is a good library?

Mr Tessier wanted us to remember no libraries had closed, and there would still be a 'professional' service. Mrs Angry pointed out that what will remain will not be libraries and he had sacked almost all the professional librarians.

Cllr Rawlings wondered now if they should not go down the route of 'community hubs, still with a library at the heart of them'. 

Mrs Angry really was very angry, at this point. Bad enough the Tories rubbishing libraries: but one would hope to see an opposition passionately, furiously defending the primary importance of libraries in their own right, properly resourced and staffed by trained staff. But then we have to remember that, quite incredibly, the Barnet Labour councillor who is their library spokesperson actually put in a personal bid to run a community/training hub type partnership library. 

Throughout all the 'debate' about this item, the Tory councillors sat very quietly, avoiding eye contact, or indeed any involvement - at least as much as possible. 

Richard Cornelius, who became a councillor because of his own sense of fury over the closure of his local library in Totteridge, knows perfectly well what he is doing to our library service, but does it anyway. He insists on the demands of 'austerity', but refuses to admit the monstrous and rapidly increasing level of profligate spending on the Capita payments, which are completely out of hand, and fails to see the flagrant hypocrisy of spending tax payers' money on spin doctors for his own administration's political benefit, rather than on vitally needed, properly trained library staff and properly resourced library services for residents.

Deputy leader Dan Thomas was clearly bored throughout the whole meeting, and spent much of it looking at his phone. He now stared straight ahead and spoke in his usual icy cool manner about the wonderful benefits of the ravaged library system. 

Well. Mrs Angry has warned Cllr Thomas before of the political fall out from the library cuts. She predicted he would lose the GLA election because of his association with what is a toxic subject for Tories: and lo, and behold, he did lose.

And here comes a new warning of what is to come, as the reality of what has been approved begins to sink in with ordinary residents, many of whom have no idea what is in store, or the scale of it. Look at this story in the local Barnet Press yesterday, and on the Barnet Society's website: and see why the Tories should be quaking in their boots.

Look at the photo at the beginning of this post: these are the people Barnet Tories need to vote for them, if they are to retain control of this council. 

This photo is taken in Chipping Barnet, once the natural heartland of Tory support. 

These are not what the Tories like to imagine are 'the usual suspects': local political activists and campaigners. 

These are ordinary residents outraged by what is planned for what was the finest library in this borough: and this before the real face of what is to be done has been seen.

As one woman says in the Barnet Society story: 

I’m an inveterate book buyer, and I like owning books, but many parents can’t afford to do that for their children. I have always loved coming to the Chipping Barnet Library, seeing the students using computers, and people reading the papers. How can our local council put all that in jeopardy?

Because Barnet Tory councillors are clearly not library users, or readers, or interested in culture, and education, and access to information, or matters of social inclusion,  - they simply do not understand the vital importance of libraries and imagine most residents feel the same. This is a gross miscalculation. 

As the woman quoted in the Barnet Society report suggests, even those who can afford to buy books, or may not use libraries themselves, understand their importance for those who do. 

Libraries, like the NHS, are essential to the continuation of what this country is, at its best - or what it once aspired to be: a civilised society, offering hope and support to those who need it, when they need it. 

And Barnet Tories are going to find that their own political survival will be put in jeopardy by their actions in taking away that support from those who need it most, by the anger expressed by others who, unlike our elected representatives, are capable of caring about the well being of others less fortunate than themselves.

Merry Xmas, Councillor Cornelius.




Thursday, 17 November 2016

A Mid Course Correction, or: Communicating the Journey We Are On - the Barnet Crapita contract, and a three year 'review':


Arriving in the committee room on Tuesday night, before the Performance & Contract monitoring meeting, Mrs Angry noted that senior officers from Crapita had already staked out their territory in what is supposed to be the public gallery, seating themselves in carefully chosen places, manspreading on a corporate scale - and watching one of the Labour councillors filling up a bottle of water from the now you see it, now you don't, water cooler. 

Now you see it, now you don't, because - yes, you guessed it, Crapita removed the water from the public gallery, not so long ago - why? Because it was free, and there must be no such things as a free glass of water, in Capitaville. Mrs Angry protested, and it was returned, eventually. But she warned the councillor she was being watched by the men from Crapita, and should probably expect an invoice, any day now. For the water, the cost of sending an invoice, and a gainshare payment for issuing an invoice. Kerrching.

The Chair of the committee came in and asked Mrs Angry where fellow blogger Mr Reasonable was, clearly hoping he wouldn't turn up, follow up his awkward questions, or speak to the committee. Here was Mrs Angry's own opportunity for profit: Please tell me, she begged, how you have come to the conclusion, as expressed in the local paper, and by your acceptance of these reports, that the Crapita contracts are ... 'a success'? 

He looked bemused. To be fair, it doesn't take much to bemuse Cllr Finn, which is why he has been put in charge of rubber stamping the approval of Crapita's contractual performance. Mrs Angry tried again. You say the contract is a marvellous success, because we save £6 million a year. Yes, he beamed, we do. But ... we are paying many, many times that amount back to them, in extra charges, and gainshare payments, so it isn't a net saving, is it? 

He looked flustered. 

And it is dishonest of the council not to give residents the true picture, is it not? And isn't the truth that you and your Tory colleagues will never admit you have made a mistake in signing up for these contracts, simply for political reasons?

His mouth opened and shut. Then he resorted to desperate measures. From manspreading, to mansplaining, and all in the course of five minutes. Lucky Mrs Angry. He would taker her out for coffee some time, and explain how economics and the market work. Hmm. Had plenty of interesting offers in my time, Councillor Finn, but that goes straight to the top of the list. No thanks. Although: for a silly woman such as me, it might be a good idea. After all: what do I know about such difficult matters? And good to see that although our Tory councillors are too busy and/or lazy to read all the reports given to them before crucial council meetings, they have plenty of time to patronise the lady bloggers of Broken Barnet.

Later on in the meeting, staring as Mrs Angry often does, due to her feeble, wandering woman's mind, at the feet of the senior officers called to the table, she could not help but notice that one of them was wearing a pair of eye-wateringly high stiletto heeled, black patent shoes, with the tell tale red soles of Christian Louboutin: very expensive, impossible to walk in - any further than a few rows in a committee room, anyway - and a daring expression of swagger rarely seen in any meetings of the London Borough of Broken Barnet. Wasted on the councillors of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, of course, but - a statement of sorts ... perhaps a warning. And useful material for Mrs Angry's purposes.

Clearly our senior officers (who come and go at a dizzying rate of speed) are now paid very handsomely for their endeavours. But it occurred to Mrs Angry, who of course being a mere woman does not understand economics, or the market, but can grasp the basic principles in terms of, say - buying shoes, that telling residents you are saving £6 million a year, while spending maybe ... £50 million a year on extra charges ... is the equivalent of feeling smug and telling your mother that you spent £6 re-heeling your old boots from last year to make them do for another twelve months, then going out the next day and blowing £500 on a pair of Louboutins. 

(This is a real example from the Miss Angry school of economic thought, in fact: although she favours Manolo Blahnik, as rather less - well: you know ... and even more expensive).



The level of payments to Capita, up to April 2013, pic courtesy Mr Reasonable



Well: we've put it off as long as possible, but now we must relate what happened at the meeting. 

With a look of resignation, and even sadness, on his open, honest face, Mr Reasonable (or Cllr Dix, as the Chair accidentally referred to him ...) sat wearily at the table and attempted to extract some sort of intelligent response to his questions. He knew it was a waste of time, as the officers who compile the answers don't give a monkeys about the points he raises, and nor do the Tory councillors - those that can understand what he is banging on about.

Mr Reasonable queried the process and basis of comparison used in the three year contract review, and the scope of oversight over the next few years. 

Why had the reports used the Agilisys contract as a point of comparison, when the cost of this had jumped from a projected £2 million spend to an astonishing £7.1 million? There was a response, but not a reply - one that made any sense. 

Why are council tax collection rates lower than they were in 2012/13? Not bovvered: it's guaranteed over a four year term, so Capita will generously top up the money missing as a result of their own inefficiency. 

Oh, and - remember that £16 million we paid Crapita as an upfront capital investment, at the beginning of the contract, instead of, as we had been told, being given £16 million as upfront capital investment from Capita? S'all gone now, see, spent on IT, and stuff, and now they want another £9 million. Why? Where did the £16 million go? Well, this story varies, every time you ask the question. This time, we were told it went on 'replacement of the council's HR and finance systems'. Not on the library IT, clearly, which so catastrophically failed, earlier this year. 

At one point Mr Reasonable gently reminded the Chair that his knowledge of contractual matters, comparisons, benchmarking etc was based on his own experience of many years in business consultancy. Would he like to name the company he worked for, asked Cllr Finn, in a rather narky tone of voice. No, smiled Mr R: not really. This was a shame, as Mrs Angry knows that Mr Reasonable used to work for one particularly high profile firm where his tea boy ... was one of our local Tory MPs ...

Speaking to the committee, he urged the councillors, if they had not already done so - and by the look on their faces ... they had not already done so - to watch the most interesting BBC documentary, 'Who's Spending Britain's Billions', by Jacques Peretti, on the subject of outsourcing and consultants, and how they are milking our public services for all they can get. Blank faces. Ok. Next: have any of the councillors looked at what their own officers had to say, in the course of the contract review? More blank faces. What you on about? 

The Chair asked Mr Reasonable to explain. He pointed out that they seemed to have overlooked a most interesting document, amongst the collection of papers sent to them in preparation for tonight's contract review. Really one has to wonder if anyone in the room, other than Mr Reasonable, had bothered to inform themselves of anything other than the outline of the reports in question. The Tory councillors didn't properly scrutinise the 8,000 page contract, of course, but then one or two mewled like babies, after voting to approve the deal, that they hadn't been allowed to. And so why should they bother to scrutinise the scrutiny handed to them by officers and Crapita of ... the performance of officers and Crapita, after three years of the contract being in place?


Part of the Capita contracts, carried in triumph through the Town Hall after approval, largely unread by your Tory councillors

The findings from the internal interviews with staff, in regard to the CSG Capita contract, are most interesting. Here are a few excerpts:

Both directors and staff raised issues with basic systems and processes, which are
perceived to be complex, slow and not user friendly.

Transparency of costs, additional charges and project spend, and assuring value for money is being delivered, were consistently raised as concerns by directors and staff.


Meetings with Directors and Assistant Directors:


Transparency of costs, additional charges and project spend were raised as key

concerns. It was felt that CSG are often reluctant to go above and beyond the
requirements of the contract without additional charges. Directors reported that the
council needs to be more confident that solutions suggested by CSG, particularly for
projects and capital spend are best value.

Concerns were raised that CSG has a disproportionate focus on the delivery of

process and KPIs over outcomes, creating a more contractual rather than
partnership relationship between CSG and the council. Directors noted that many
KPIs are not relevant and their reporting does not reflect actual service performance.

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera: in fact the whole document is a catalogue of serious concerns, which the councillors should have seen, read and investigated before arriving at this meeting. Frankly, it is an indictment of the state of governance in this borough that they did not bother properly to inform themselves, and inspect all the material included in these reports. 

The only positive observation in the staff report is that they are said to 'acknowledge' that savings have been made. That savings have been made is true only in the sense that the limited area of core savings are guaranteed; but beyond that fenced off area is a whole world of seemingly unlimited expenditure, courtesy of the contract variations which allow Crapita to pump more and more money out of the deal, to the extent that the core savings are negligible, when seen from the perspective of net expenditure.

What, asked Mr Reasonable, is your strategy going forward

Because, he pointed out, that is entirely missing from this review

Response? Yep. More blank faces. He sat down, with a sigh.

Time to look at the contracted areas of service delivery. Ah - first up: 

Telephony. 

Here is Kylie to tell us about it.

Telephony. Such a mellifluous, harmonious sounding word for something so ... so f*cking awful : the crap Crapita phone system, as anyone who has been lost in the labyrinthine hell of this 'service' will testify. 

Consider the other week, for example, when it took six minutes queueing just to get to someone on the switchboard, only to find - after much effort - that the operator did not know who the Monitoring Officer was, denied there was such a post, or any need for such a post (might have a point, actually) and ... oh, why bother to continue? Or mention the endless dead ends, the disconnnections, the difficulty in making any complaint - or indeed, in the lowest circle of hell, making a complaint about the handling of a complaint.

But Kylie was feeling upbeat. 

She declared it was all 'really quite positive'. Yep. There was a - aha - 'a really positive direction of travel'. Hoorah. Although - oh: hang on: 'there are always challenges to keep us on our toes'. Good, good. Wouldn't want you to get bored, and we all like a challenge, don't we?

One of the ways we accentuate the positive, in Capitaville, is by ... well, this sort of thing, as Kylie explained. Instead of worrying about answering the phone in 60 seconds, apparently we, ie Crapita, now recognise that ... well, they can't be *rsed, because that would entail hiring too many operators, and training them, and a loss of profit, and so they 'emphasise a positive outcome' instead. 

In other words, look, here is Mrs Angry waiting in a queue for six minutes just to get the switchboard to respond, but we did in the end, and that ... that is a positive outcome. Target reached.

Moving on now to the awful Website, which was supposed to be less awful by now, but appears still to have challenges keeping Crapita on its toes, and looking for positive outcomes. The webforms, for example.

What, asked the Chair of the committee which oversees a contract that includes millions of pounds in payment to Crapita for IT services, is a 'webform'?



Mrs Angry looked on in disbelief. 

Let me take you out for coffee, Councillor Finn, and womansplain your website to you, and how it is supposed to work. Then tell me again what a success the contract is. 

A discussion about adult social care then, and the revelation of a huge overspend, due, as the Labour councillors pointed out, to the selfish council tax obsession of the Tories, hellbent on cutting or freezing for political purposes even though they know they have less money to spend on such vital support services.

Highways. 

Up to the table comes the man from Crapita. How's it going, asks the Chair? A lot better, we hear. Phew. That's ok then. Oh, hang on: it may not actually be better, but they are 'a lot better at communicating the journey we are on'. 

People may not be happy with the roads and pavements, in other words, but they will be bound to feel grateful to Crapita for sharing with them, and describing their journey, won't they?

When things go wrong in Broken Barnet - well, no: they do not go really go wrong, and no one is ever to blame - rather people are, like those involved in this year's election cockup, according to the 'investigation' merely, yes: 'on a journey, and we wish them well'. One of the senior officers involved in the election organisation, in fact, has gone on a journey on a one way ticket, destination unknown. 

This is the way the world ends, in Broken Barnet: not with a bang, but a whimper, as officers quietly disappear into the void, never to be seen again. Until they turn up somewhere else as a consultant, that is.

Highways now, we heard, are run on a new basis, of having ideas about stuff, and sort of organising them a bit. 

System driven messages, tracking every single job. Every single one: just imagine! How clever. Ward walks. Door knocks. Really? To be fair, we did have someone from Crapita knocking on the door the other week, on a Saturday, in fact, trying to snoop on a neighbour they thought was avoiding council tax, and expecting Mrs Angry to denounce them. A hint of what is to come, now we are back living in the nineteen thirties.

All sorts of wonderful things are happening in Capitaville HQ. A number of 'experts' were now advising Jamie Blake, (a senior officer on a six figure salary, responsible for the disabled travel card cancellations & other brilliant schemes), which Mrs Angry remarked, uncalled for, from across the room, was a very good idea, and better late than never, and she might tell you which officer sat behind her Laughed Out Loud at that point, but perhaps she had better not.

On to another subject of great interest to all, especially the Labour councillors, who go on about it all the time, ie tarmac. Crapita approves the use of a new flexible type of pavement, we heard. 

Mrs Angry tried not to think about the comic possibilities of this announcement, but it was hard. Well, not hard, flexible. 

Will it become Rutted, worried the Labour councillors? 

Mrs Angry tried not to think about the now permanently queenly Tory Cllr Lisa Rutter, who, in her head, was never deposed as Mayor, and the comic possibilities of her being used to assess the new surface, and its flexibility, but failed, and laughed quietly to herself, picturing the scene. 

Waste. 

Of time. Veteran Tory Cllr John Marshall, another of Mrs Angry's aged admirers, who has been a politician since the age of dust collectors, dung heaps, and chamber pots, is worried about waste disposal, twenty first century style, ie recycling: food recycling. How can we get people to do more of it?

The man from Crapita tried hard to use the opportunity to say the only solution was fewer collections, but his pitch was spoiled by Tory Cllr Zinkin boasting that clever foxes in his ward, ie Childs Hill, the poor man's Hampstead, were now able to formulate some sort of recycling strategy of their own, open the food bins, and help themselves to leftovers. Yes: very clever. No doubt they also know what a webform is, and have read all the reports on the Capita contract.

Web improvement.

Back comes Kylie, still very cheerful. Her positive, Pollyanna like spin on the truly terrible search engine was that it was 'not unhelpful to customers'. 

That is always a bonus, in a search engine, isn't it? Not to get in the way of searching for something, even if you can't serve any purpose. Not unhelpful, the search engine, but one might argue it is still not ... helpful, exactly. Stuck between two possibilities, caught in a state of inertia, like a Tory councillor.

Mr Reasonable poked Mrs Angry in the arm, and woke her up, and showed her a photo on his phone, of the Barnet website, earlier that day:



A less than positive outcome, but keeping Crapita on its toes

IT update now, with two officers, one of them the urbane Mr Brett Holtom, outsourcing's answer to Tom Cruise, who was flown in on a charm offensive, as ambassador for the church of Crapita, after the catastrophic library IT crash, which left the system out of action for months, and irretrievably lost a huge amount of vital data, raising huge questions about the risk to other IT systems used by the council, supposedly maintained by Crapita.

It had been 'quite a challenging year', he explained, with masterly understatement. 

According to his linkedin profile, he has quite a challenging role: roles 'Account Director at Capita local government, Operations Director at Capita IT Enterprise Services, Partnership Director at Capita'. What, all at the same time? 

'Following the disasters',' declared Brett smoothly, with apparently no sense of concern that there had been any disaster at Barnet, let alone a number of them, 'Following the disasters ...' yes? They had done stuff. 

Checked things. Thought about improvements. New project processes. New teams. And introduced something that sounded to Mrs Angry like 'death boards': hopefully not a list of local bloggers to be chivvied into an early use of their (pre-used) discounted Crapita graves at the Easycrem Crapitorium, as guaranteed in the CSG contract.


We do feel, said Tom Cruise, with a winning smile, that we are making progress, and are back on course. 



The man from Crapita: 'following the disasters ...'

Marvellous. Only taken three years, and an apocalyptic IT failure to get you there. And that is what we are paying for, making progress, on our journey, rather than arriving at a good place, is it not? Better to travel hopefully, than to arrive.

Labour's Arjun Mittra asked politely if, following this acknowledged disaster, we could please have our money back, ie some form of compensation.

There was a look of studied incomprehension on the faces of the men from Crapita. And the Tory councillors agreed there was no need for any repayment, just because we had paid them to undertake a service which had failed so dramatically, and with such serious consequences. 

Mrs Angry thought wistfully how different things would be, if Tory councillors were held personally accountable for the failure of contractual performance, and entered into a happy reverie on the subject of surcharges, and jail sentences.

As for the final views on the review of Capita's contractual performance? Labour's Geof Cooke pointed in vain at the number of commitments not delivered: how Key Performance Indicators do not measure the real state of service delivery; that the service credits which follow any acknowledged failure are miniscule in scale; the Chair then stepped in to silence any reference to actual figures, which were contained in the blue papers, in the exempt part of the meeting.

Finally it was time for Councillor Zinkin, the only Tory present with a modicum of political nous (from their point of view) and able to pull things together, and find a way to explain their decision to continue with the contract, in the face of all common sense. 

As the 'partner relationship manager' sat at the end of the table, resting his eyes, Zinkin, who is a nice enough chap, but clearly rather naive, told us the contracts were intended to save money, which they had, and although Mr Dix had gone on about the extra charges, well, he didn't think it had been proved that we were paying any more money than we would have done anyway, and yes, some things worked well and some less well, but you know, looking forward, we must focus on making things better, and look on this point as 'a mid-course correction' ... He looked over at Mrs Angry and smiled. Mrs Angry mouthed a less than polite word in return, smiling back, and wishing she could impose some sort of mid course correction on the Tory councillors.

Please understand this, reader. It is quite simple. 

Let us repeat it: the Crapita contracts are returning in one hand a nominal and small amount of 'savings' on a limited number of guaranteed areas. Beyond that, due to the variation opportunities hidden in the detail of the massive contract, most of which went unnoticed by your doltish Tory councillors, Capita is able to make vast extra profits from other charges - the spurious renewal and cancellation of some disabled travel passes came about this way - as well as demand whopping financial rewards in the shape of gainshare payments. 

As for the claim that there is no proof we are paying out for things we do not need, at a higher rate than normal: why are we paying out so much money, and an increasingly large amount, for consultancy and agency fees? Capita makes gainshare profits from these rising costs, of course.

As Mr Reasonable points out here, this financial year we are now likely to see the bill for interim and agency costs to rise to a staggering £20 MILLION.

How much of the council's work is now being done not by employees on modest salaries, but through hidden and unaccountable agency and consultancy arrangements, and at much greater cost? That bill gives you an idea, and directly challenges Cllr Zinkin's defence of the contract renewal. It also shows how extravagant the council can be, at the same time as cutting your library service to shreds, for a relatively tiny amount of financial benefit.

Why is there so much criticism amongst Barnet's own officers about the contractual performance - and why, Tory councillors, didn't you read that report, before making the decision to carry on as normal? 

And why don't any of these Tory members, many of whom privately have as many qualms about this as anyone else, ask such questions, in public? 

Because they lack the courage to do so, and care more about being re-elected than standing up for what is right, and what needs to be said. Those that know what is wrong remain silent, and those who don't too easily accept the excuses put before them at the committee table, over and over again. 

We are now on the run up to the next local elections: extra PR staff have been paid for, until then, to 'manage the council's reputation', at a cost of £800,000, and at a time when vital services are being ruthlessly cut, on the pretext of austerity. 

Nothing in Broken Barnet matters as much to this shameless Tory administration as retaining power, and nothing, but nothing - not truth, nor scandal, nor injustice - must get in the way of that, whatever the cost, literally, or metaphorically, to the people whose best interests they are meant to represent, and safeguard. 

Not to worry: only another seven years of this journey we are on together, Barnet and Crapita.

Enjoy the ride.