Thursday, 23 June 2011

Telling it like it is: A Residents' Forum bites back

Mrs Angry has just returned from the very first meeting of the new Finchley And Golders Green residents' forum.

What an evening of entertainment it turned out to be.

Mrs Angry is still wiping away the traces of her smudged mascara, caused by laughing so helplessly as the meeting descended into chaos, with scenes of seething discontent from the mutinous residents, provoked by a ludicrous demonstration of iron fisted, One Barnet dictatorship by the new Chairman, a po faced antipodean councillor by the name of Reuben Thompstone.

This Forum was the first to be played by the new rules of engagement laid down by our Tory councillors in the recent constitutional 'reforms' which have effectively killed any process by which political issues can be debated by residents - or even opposition councillors - in what passes for the democratic process here in Broken Barnet.

According to the new rules, only a very limited range of issues may be discussed at any resident forum, and no questions may be raised at the meeting unless previously approved. If a matter is discussed, no resident may raise the issue for another six months. And to discourage attendance at the Forums, the already early starting time of 6.30pm has been moved to 6pm, thereby preventing workers and parents with young children from being able to take part.

When we arrived at the hall, we were given a sheaf of papers listing exactly what we, the residents, may or may not speak about at our meeting. In brief, we may not mention anything other than 'local, street based issues' - things like trees, refuse, pavements. We may not raise any matter relating to planning, licensing - fair enough, there are other meetings for those - ah and 'policy'. No matter of 'policy' can be alluded to - no political debate, no consultation in order to formulate policy. If an issue of concern that fits the narrow limitation of approved subjects happens to touch on the sacred ground of policy, it will be quarantined, and removed, like a virus on your pc. Ideas, and thoughts, and above all dissent: these are dangerous things in Broken Barnet, and must be controlled.

Councillor Thompstone and his willing accomplice, the complaisant Councillor Graham Olds, sat at a table with stern composure as we took our places. The chairman read out a summary of the new rules, and perhaps it was his accent, but the manner of his addressing the twenty or so residents reminded Mrs Angry of the governor of Botany Bay greeting the latest batch of convicts to arrive on the transport ships from England.

The residents were stunned into silence and Councillor Thompstone launched into the agenda, with the first item, a petition to save Hampstead Garden Suburb Library, with 422 e signatures and 2,125 in hard copy. For procedural reasons which were unclear, this was not being debated, and the proposer was not present, and so the Chair wanted to move on immediately.

A very sweet, very elderly lady, let's call her Mrs Green, who always attends these Forums, interrupted at this point. What are you saying ... exactly? she asked, in her wavering, but determined manner.

The unsmiling chairman replied tersely: Madam, you are not to interrupt ...

She persisted. But I don't understand ... this is not how we are used to doing things ... all I've heard from you is a lot of 'no s' to everything, and what we are not allowed to do ... but you, what are you going to do?

Mr Thompstone's face darkened. He was not happy. He moved on to the next item, a petition to save North Finchley library, 790 signatures. Again, the proposer was not present, and the Chair would have moved on again, but for a mother in the audience who objected to his haste and wanted to speak. She pointed out that anyone with young children would find it very hard to get to the Forum meeting at such an awkward time, and spoke about the library as a parent and local resident, and referred to the cuts in sure start facilities. No comment. We were then rushed on to the next issue, a plea to retain a lollipop team at a school, oops: treading on dangerous policy ground, so on we go and - Mrs Angry had had enough.

Can I just point out, she began ...

No, you cannot. You must not interrupt, said the councillor.

Mrs Angry ignored him ... That it is only 6.15, and you are already on item 5. This is ridiculous, there is no debate at all ...

Labour leader Alison Moore was in the audience and reminded the Chair that when the forums had first been introduced the intention was to listen to residents, and to the whole range of their opinions. Thompstone was not going to tolerate such wishywashy pandering to the populace, however. He informed us in no uncertain terms that the new forum rules had been decided by a council committee, and that was that.

Oh dear. This did not go down awfully well. Other residents raised their objections to the new format of the forum, and demanded to know what exactly they could discuss, and why must they have restrictions imposed on them. The chair tried to retain control by a humourless display of authoritarianism, silencing people and forbidding them to speak out of turn, which of course exacerbated the situation. By now, Thompstone's chin was jutting forward in a grimly determined manner, and he was becoming rather red in the face as he tried to hold back the tide of rebellion. His unfortunate tendency to speak to any resident as if he or she were some sort of impertinent pupil did nothing to improve relations.

Local resident and activist Julian Silverman had distributed a sheet amongst the residents and now stood to ask that the forum suspend the new regulations to allow as an emergency question about, ha: MetPro, safguarding, possible fraud, and the risks of proceeding with the One Barnet outsourcing programme with a council whose procurement processes have been revealed by the MetPro inquiry to totally out of control.

Reuben Thompstone refused to consider this.

Another resident proposed that we take a vote to see how many people wanted to consider the item, and of course almost everyone put up their hands. Democracy in action: and after all, it is our forum - but this holds no sway with the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, and he simply ignored the wishes of the meeting.

Could you please explain, asked Mrs Angry, how the format of this new forum is compatible with the concept of localism, and empowering the community, when in fact the effect of the new rules is to completely stifle any meaningful debate that residents might want to have?

Councillor Thompstone glared at Mrs Angry and simply refused to discuss her point. Which is a great shame, isn't it?

A gentleman from Hampstead Garden Suburb had a long and complex question about a traffic issue caused by a local school. He was at times interrupted by the Chair: have you finished? Is that your question? All said in a particularly charmless, high handed way. The lack of humility, and courtesy, that Tory councillors in our borough show towards their electors, speaks volumes about their attitude to their own positions, of course. We elect them, we pay their allowances, but we must do as they say, and abide by the rules that they set to facilitate their governance of us.

A resident called Mr B stood up to speak about his question, which sounded rather dull, frankly, a problem of blocked access in a cul de sac. But how wrong can you be? I will have to paraphrase as much as I can remember, because I was laughing too much to take full notes.

Mr B stood at the front, his back to the councillors and council officers, and let forth, slowly building, in a performance surely worthy of Olivier or Gielgud, delivering to the assembled residents of Broken Barnet a monologue of sheer brilliance, spitting with fury, and dripping with splenetic disdain. It started calmly enough with road signs, and emergency services, painted lines and warning notices, bollards, and stanchions, and ended up with cry God for Harry, England, & St George, via a searing indictment of the utter contempt shown by the councillors for their voters: and as for that fool, councillor Brian Coleman, who had the nerve to inform him categorically that he would not be able to have any lines painted because the paint would cost thousands of pounds (maybe he was thinking of asking Damien Hirst to tender for it, suggested a sniggering resident at the back) ... who on earth did he think he was, who was he? Nothing but an arrogant popinjay ... (imagine the hoots of laughter and applause) or maybe, maybe more like a creature out of Gormenghast (Mrs Angry was howling with laughter, by now) ... turning to the councillors present this evening: how dare they remain sitting whilst insisting that every resident stand when they address them (no, not Mrs Angry, in case you're wondering). You, chairman, should stand to attention when a resident is speaking. How dare they speak to us as if we were badly behaved children, and they were the governing board of the school? We are their masters, and they are our servants!

Mr Bailey received not one but two ovations for this magnificent address, and deservedly so: it was simply the best speech, the finest, most eloquent piece of invective I have seen aimed at any members of the miserable bunch of small time dictators that masquerade as our elected representatives.

Thompstone had blown it, and he knew it.

When the meeting wrapped up, Lord Palmer came over to say hello to Mrs Angry. Did you know, she said, poking him in the arm, there's film of you and me on youtube now ...? For a fleeting moment, a look of panic slipped over his face. The MetPro meeting, she explained. Ah yes. We talked about the forum, and the ridiculous, shameful new rules. Monroe mentioned ruefully that he had just been in the House of Lords debating the localism bill. Ha, said Mrs Angry, have the Tories worked out what it means yet?

Because here in Broken Barnet, they certainly haven't, have they?


Rog T said...

Well, you see fine though your account of it is, this is why we should always carry a handy video camera, so we can record these dolts for posterity. Talking of which, over at the Barnet Eye we have some rather tasty footage of the Metpro Audit, featuring none other than your co-start and leading man..... Lord Monroe Palmer and a cameo appearance from Non Stick Nick Walkley

baarnett said...

Another fine piece of writing, isn't it Rodney?

creme de la menthe, Mrs A, creme de la menthe.

hanlemic said...

Amazing stuff. Reuben Thompstone appears to have gone to the same school of charmless antagonism to residents as Barry "the price of an ice cream" Evangeli.

Mr Mustard said...

The finest piece of Barnet OneSpeak - "Residents' Forums" - my foot. Perhaps Mr Bailey might like to start a blog ?

Mrs Angry said...

hmm Rog, had bb with me but can only tweet a bit and write, can't manage filming as well ...

hanlemic, I think you mean Barry 'takes the biscuit' evangeli, no?

the objectionable attitude of these councillors is staggering: Mr B is right - how dare they patronise residents in this way, and show so little respect? Just appalling.

Mr Mustard said...

Do you suppose the Councillors have to draw straws for the dubious pleasure of chairing these farces. Was there any security there ?

Mrs Angry said...

the former chair Dean Cohen, who is a nice enough guy, was hanging around afterwards, and Mrs A yelled come back Dean, all is forgiven, in his direction - he was at least polite and easy to play with ... no security, but I might take an escort of seacadets next time, if Evolution Emergency Response has another double booking: good idea Mr Mustard ...

hanlemic said...

Mrs A

Evaneli's ice cream comment pre-dates the biscuit incident. It's from last July's Chipping Barnet forum.

Barry's brusque quip was that the hike in councillor's allowances would cost "No more than the price of an ice cream a week."

I'm sure Mr Hope the Bugler and Mr Reasonable will recall his stunning performance in the chair that night.

Mrs Angry said...

aha ... yes that rings a bell now you mention it ...actually, you've reminded me of an idea for the blog I've been saving up: must get around to it.

Obviously Mr Evangeli has a sweet tooth, and a need for no stop there, Mrs Angry, with your half cocked Freudian analysis ...

Cneifiwr said...

Being a sheep shearer (that's what cneifiwr means in Welsh), my mascara did not run, but I loved the report.

Of course, here in Wales the police would have been called to deal with the troublesome public. My own council (good old Carmarthenshire) has even been reported approvingly by the Chinese state media for the way it deals with pro-democracy activists.

Da iawn chi, Mrs Angry! (well done).

Mrs Angry said...

Thanks,Cneifiwr: I don't see why sheep shearers shouldn't wear mascara, if they want to: has your local council forbidden this too?

Mrs Angry is well known to the police of Broken Barnet, and they would not dare approach her, at least without riot gear and a round of tetanus boosters ...