Monday, 28 February 2011

R.E.S.P.E.C.T- find out what it means to Lynne Hillan

And updated pm: see below.

Dear Mr Pickles:

I write a blog in the London Borough of Barnet, and was last week very pleased to read that you had issued new guidelines which support the efforts of myself and other citizen journalists to report and record council meetings, using a variety of new media. Personally I prefer to use notebook and shorthand, but I support the right of those who wish to film or record the meetings using such methods, especially as here in Barnet our council refuses, in contrast to the open policies of surrounding boroughs, to film meetings for the benefit of residents.

I am sure you will understand my fury this morning to read the following story in the online local paper:

Not only has the leader, Lynne Hillan, banned filming, she has insulted the citizen journalists and bloggers of this borough by stating that they are not 'respectable'. This article surely demonstrates yet again that this maverick Conservative council acts without real committment to the values and policies of the central party, and has no intention of obeying your instructions. Surely you realise the damage that is being done to the reputation of the Conservative party both here and nationally by the behaviour of this administration?

In the letter sent by Bob Neill last week, it was stated that to suppress filming, tweeting etc would be 'at odds with the fundamentals of democracy'. It is up to you now to defend the democratic process here in Barnet and take urgent action to deal with the disaffected leadership which seems so intent on defying your wishes.

Yours sincerely,

'Mrs Angry',,,

From: mrs angry

Dear Ms Hillan,

I have noted with amusement the remarks made by you in the local Times group newspaper this morning on the issue of residents reporting council meetings by the use of filming, tweeting and other new media sources.

You claim in this article not to have discussed the matter with party colleagues or officers, which would seem most remiss of you, if true.

It may perhaps be the case that, oh dear, you have also forgotten to read the letter sent to all local authorities last week by Bob Neill in which he clearly states:

"There are recent stories about people being ejected from council meetings for blogging, tweeting or filming. This potentially is at odds with the fundamentals of democracy and I want to encourage all councils to take a welcoming approach to those who want to bring local news stories to a wider audience. The public should rightly expect that elected representatives who have put themselves up for public office be prepared for their decisions to be as transparent as possible and welcome a direct line of communication to their electorate. I do hope that you and your colleagues will do your utmost to maximise the transparency and openness of your council."

I realise that a committment to the fundamentals of democracy is not something we neccessarily associate with the leadership of the present Conservative administration here in Broken Barnet, but I would have thought that you might wish to comply with the clearly stated instructions of Eric Pickles and Bob Neill in this matter, and desist from trying to prevent the filming of council meetings by any resident who wishes, in the absence of any council organised initiative, to extend the accessibilty and scrutiny of the democratic process. I believe that such accountability is a prerequisite of any move towards the oft mentioned Conservative principle of 'localism' and that no sensible Tory could possibly raise any objections to such a move. Admittedly the shortage of sensible Tories in Barnet may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle in this respect.

In your entertaining comments to the press, you have distinguished between 'respectable' journalists, and bloggers. I am of course very glad to see that you consider yourself qualified to be the ultimate judge of respectabilty. I cannot speak for my fellow bloggers, but I am able to assure you that I am indeed a NCTJ trained journalist, and as such prefer to report meetings by the use of notebook and teeline, but if I choose to abandon such 'respectable' methods and film or tweet I am pleased to note that I will be able to do so without fear of one of your black suited security men whispering in my ear.

Yours sincerely,

'Mrs Angry'

(Haven't had a reply, yet, sadly.)

Oh, and by the way, Queen Canute: the tide is rolling in ...

* and now blogger Vicki Morris reports a challenge on grounds including the Human Rights Act has been made in the form of a letter to the Leader: see her blog for further information:

** 10 pm : rumour has it on twitter that blogger Rog T has tried filming at a committee meeting tonight, was loudly told three times to stop at once, and then left.

Update: see film on his blog - marvel at Chair Hugh Rayner trying to shout him down. This is democracy, as we do it in our borough. Eric and Bob must be so proud.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Avenue House Update

On Thursday evening there was a meeting at Avenue House attended by around forty or more local residents, the manager of the estate, and three other trustees, including the Chairman of the Trust. Mrs Angry sent her trusty sidekick, Mrs X, to attend, and report back.

Unfortunately, she tells me, there were no other members of the board, or any of the local councillors present. This is very surprising. Avenue House is an enormously important local resource, and much loved by the local community. Apart from the historic house and outbuildings, including the controversially unused Bothy, the grounds, gardens, and play areas are a vital - and under appreciated - feature of the estate. One might expect the local councillors, Conservatives Eva Greenspan, Graham Old, and Daniel Thomas, to show some sort of interest in its welfare. Perhaps they did not receive an invitation. To be fair, we hear that Graham Old at least has done some leafleting on behalf of the appeal for funds from local residents.

It was clear from the start of the meeting that there was a lack of rapport between the management of the Estate and the majority of the residents present. The estate representatives were there to ask for money, and for fund raising ideas, but many residents were there to express their sense of disappointment with aspects of the way in which the estate is run, and to ask for a greater involvement in the management by the wider community.

At times the mood of the meeting, which took place in the large Victorian drawing room, watched over by a wary looking portrait of old Inky Stephens himself, threatened to crack through the very English veneer of barely repressed animosity into something a little less civilised, rather like a more than usually surreal episode of Midsomer Murder, or Rosemary & Thyme, an impression enhanced by the presence, amongst the residents, of a couple of locals who happen to be tv actors, with oddly familiar faces. Happily, the evening passed without bloodshed, or the discovery of a body in the shrubbery, but it was a close run thing.

After questioning one of the board about the involvement of the council in negotiations for extra funding: (apparently refused, in no uncertain terms), it became apparent to Mrs X that there has been an element of scaremongering in certain quarters. The council does not want to take back the estate and be lumbered with the responsibility. And guess what, dear readers? A naughty councillor was alleged to have stated at a social function, no doubt with a plate of canapes in one hand, that 'private schools were queuing up' to move in to the building.

This is a load of codswallop.

Yes, it is true that if funding is not urgently secured, the estate could end up reverting to the council. And we all know, don't we, that our shameless Tory council would be happy to flog off any of our heritage that isn't nailed down? But for such a major Grade 2 listed building and grounds, left by bequest to the people of Finchley, to be sold, and then allowed to become used as a school is a nonsense, and I do not believe for one moment that such an eventuality would be allowed. It may close, however, and could become a boarded up building, surrounded by inaccessible grounds. The truth is that our philistine council does not want to reclaim the estate, and will do what it can to evade any responsibility, other than give the financial help it needs.

What has happened at Avenue House is a perfect example of why the Big Society claptrap is such a fantasy, and totally impractical: you cannot expect well meaning amateurs to perform a professional function and take responsibility for such enormous projects, especially without any support or funding, in this case, from the local authority. It is unfair, and on a scale of this size, quite unreasonable.

That said, we all need now to support the management of the estate in the current crisis, and ensure that emergency funding is found from any available source. Pressure should be put on the council to assist: if there is no money available from local budgets then they can still be involved by helping the estate management to identify alternative sources, whether from local businesses, Lottery funding, or from some private foundation. Some of the trust members are under the impression that most local residents can easily afford regularly to donate large sums of money to solve the situation: if you can, then do so, and do it quickly, but most of us can't, and should not be expected to, especially in the current economic situation. It should also be said that the local community will expect greater openness and accountability for any financial support it is able to offer.

Despite the criticisms raised at the meeting by local residents, it must be acknowledged that the current administration has worked with little support to keep Avenue House going since 2002. It can't have been easy, and it is easy to criticise, and those that do must be prepared to help turn things around.

It was evident that everyone present really cared about the future of the house and grounds, and wanted to help secure the future of this unique historical property. The Friends of Avenue House group has been relaunched, and many of those present have volunteered to join and do their bit to help. This estate is our legacy, and we must all work to try to preserve and protect it : that's what Inky Stephens intended, and it is our responsibilty to make sure that we pass his legacy on to future generations.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Uprising: updated

Mrs Angry's special agent 'Mr D' eventually returned from the pub - with a slight headache, I imagine - and submitted to her his formal report from the Chipping Barnet Residents' Forum.

Mr D has the great misfortune to live in a CPZ zone, so is obviously very interested in the issue of the charge increases, as are the rest of the inhabitants of his road, of whom almost a quarter made the effort to attend this week's Forum. He tells me that most of those who attended were doing so for the first time and were truly appalled at the complete lack of democracy in the way in which the proceedings were handled, not to mention the apparent lack of knowledge by the Barnet Tory councillors on so many issues.

The residents of another road affected by the increases had submitted a petition, signed by the overwhelming majority of the householders. The organiser asked a council officer a very naughty question, as Mr D puts it:

" Which budgets will suffer if these CPZ increases are not voted through?

'Education', said the officer.

Oh dear. 'No more questions', said the resident, very happy with the answer which shot the Council in the foot. He stood up again to ask Cllr Rutter to minute that answer. I don't think it will survive editing."

Because of course, citizens, parking revenue is strictly ringfenced to revert to the highways budget, and government guidelines make it absolutely clear that parking may not be used for income generation for other purposes. Ah, but hang on: is there not already a huge surplus in the parking account? Oh, and er: why has the Highways budget itself just been dramatically slashed, by the way, does anyone know? Anyone?

Further questions were asked about the comparators used to set the parking charges: no one knew the answer. Ah. Funny, that. Could it have any connection with the fact that government guidelines, as quoted by an official at the Department replying to an enquiry, originally to Grant Shapps, by Mr D also clearly state:

“Charges should be set at levels that encourage compliance with parking restrictions. If charges are set too high they could encourage drivers to risk non-compliance or to park in unsuitable areas, possibly in contravention of parking restrictions. In certain cases they could encourage motorists to park in a neighbouring local authority area which may not have the capacity to handle the extra vehicles. In commercial districts this may have a negative impact on business in the area

The official who answered this letter recommended that Mr D take the matter up further with the Leader of Barnet Council. Mmm. Good luck with that, then.

Back to Mr D's account:

"More questions about why 5% of residents had to pay to repair potholes for 100% of the residents. Mr D stood up again. He is becoming a thorough nuisance. He said I have an idea. Why not spread the £2.5m increases across all the residents of the Borough and call it something like, oh I don't know, lets say Council Tax ..."

Ah ... He continues:

"Mr B had slowly been fizzing and then he came up to the boil. No one knows anything, he said, what's the point of these forums if you can't have your say, and if the people on the panel don't know anything? Why don't we have a vote on who is in favour of the increases, and who isn't, and then we can get on to other matters? Oh no, that's not on the agenda, says Cllr Rutter hastily moving on to the next item. The poster says you can: "Have your say" shouted out Mr D - oh no you can't, was the unsaid response. "

Amongst the long list of other issues raised Mr D noted the following:

"There was another question about wasted money. The cost of Pledgebank. The answer carefully fails to mention the actual cost of Pledgebank which was of course "excellent value for money" and hopefully the answer will come out in due course. Don't hold your breath."

Ah yes: Pledgebank, from the same insightful team who brought us the marvellous Barnet 'Ideas' website, admitted by the council, eventually, to be sneakily planted with One Barnet friendly suggestions by the council itself. Now then: how many pledges have we got? Er ... one, two, three ... four. And all still waiting to get enough support to get them off and running. Well: four potential pledges? Result. Another wonderful use of our money, wouldn't you say, citizens?

Now, do you really think that the sort of people who went to the Barnet Forum and were so disgusted by the whole performance are really the type of residents whose support the Barnet Tories can afford to lose? No: they can't. And the damage done is not just by the effects of the charge increases but by the attitude of the councillors to their electorate in the handling of the whole business. Well, no: their attitude to the electorate, full stop. They are completely out of touch with reality, and setting fire to their own political careers. Most of them are too stupid to realise, and the rest of them don't give a shit anyway.

Look what the admirably forthright Barnet Press says in this week's editorial:

"Increasingly, Britain's politics is dominated by pathetic specimens who, if they have an independent thought in their head, have evolved an incredibly effective system of repressing it to follow their master's voice.

The almost total lack of accountability to constituents for the vast majority of councillors in Barnet, as witnessed by those who packed into the cabinet meeting last Monday and also expressed their letters on this page, show that local democracy is fading into a farce."

If the Tory councillors read this, and the many similarly toned letters and comments from residents, and not feel a rising sense of panic, then they are even more idiotic than we imagine. And they should not just be worrying about the strength of feeling here in Broken Barnet. damage they are causing is not just to their own parochial political chances, but to the greater detriment of the Conservative party as a whole.

A couple of weeks ago a reader of this blog contacted the Department for Communities and Local Government to express his fury at the proposed 'reforms' to the constitution that the Tories are trying to sneak past our noses, and which, if passed, will effectively prevent the discussion in council meetings of any major issues by the vast majority of councillors, and reduce what should be the process of democracy in this borough to a totalitarian rubber stamping machine almost entirely powered by the political flatulance emitted by the likes of Brian Coleman.

This reader mentioned that he had only read about the proposals by following the local blogs. There was much chortling down the phone at this point: the political assistant who had taken his call assured him that they were all very well acquainted with the Barnet blogs.

The same department last week received more than one complaint about the ludicrous treatment of residents present at the Barnet Cabinet meeting who had tried to use their phones to tweet or film the proceedings.

And now, as we know, this week, the department for Communities and Local Authorities, in the guise of Eric Pickles and Bob Neill, have taken the unprecedented step of issuing all local authorities with lengthy instructions intended to force them to show some respect for citizen journalists, bloggers, and tweeters who attend council meetings. The new guidelines clearly oblige local authorities to assist residents to engage in the democratic process using the methods of their choice.

This was the greatest slap in the face that the petty Tory dictators of Barnet Council could possibly have had from the big boys in their own party. It was a deliberate act intended to send a clear message to the lunatic fringe here in Barnet who are dragging their party into the gutter, and trying to take us with them. The Conservative party sees the damage caused by the antics of such maverick councils, and wants to put a stop to their pantomime performance.

In trying to persuade local authorities that they should open up their black hearts, and shower we bloggers and tweeters with new love, Pickles' letter tried to invoke the memory of Margaret Thatcher, blessing her sainted memory as the woman responsible for making council meetings acessible to the general public. To most of us, of course, the idea of Margaret Thatcher as some sort of folk hero dedicated to the rights of the common man is a difficult concept to accommodate.

I think Frances O'Grady, the Deputy Secretary of the TUC, put things in a better perspective. When she attended the anti-cuts rally at the Artsdepot here in Finchley recently, she commented in her speech that Barnet was a window on Cameron's Britain. This is the birthplace of Thatcherism, she said: let it be the place where Thatcherism is finally put to rest.

Here in Broken Barnet we have the last survivors of the glory days of Thatcherism, rounded up into a genetic outpost like the last few Neanderthals, outdated, outnumbered, and doomed. It's not just a question of greater intellect, but an ability to organise and build a society: instead of a superior ability with flint tools, we network, and use social media.

It's only a matter of time until they are extinct, and the rest of us take over.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The People's Uprising, Broken Barnet style

Last weekend saw the inaugural annual conference, at the four star Sandbanks Hotel in Poole, of Forums Unlimited (FU), - a Broken Barnet initiative dedicated to encouraging residents' engagement with their local community representatives, created with the aim of fully embracing the council's stated desire to forge a new relation with their electors. This new relationship is, on the side of residents at least, going to be challenging and rigorous in its relentless drive for greater efficiency, and committed to delivering better opposition - at no expense whatsoever. Well, not that much.

Mrs Angry was obviously too busy to engage in much of the conference activity, spending all her time in the bar, or in calming aromatherapy sessions in the hotel spa, but for those who could be a**ed, there were plenary sessions, and workshops, helping residents to acquire new skills in suburban warfare: civil disobedience for the downtrodden masses of Hampstead Garden Suburb, 'heckling with confidence' voice training for council meetings, and a self help group for residents who have emailed Councillor Brian Coleman - and received a reply. All in all, a useful and inspiring weekend, and the £1,000,000 grant we hope to receive in funding from Councillor Ramsbottom's new Big Society Fund will be greatly appreciated.

Last night, in fact, some of FU's star pupils attended the Barnet area Residents' Forum, seizing the opportunity to test some of their new found skills. Rumours abounded that certain Cabinet members were refusing to attend unless guaranteed a police escort, or that Forum chairs had been told to take a hard line with any troublesome question makers. And as the evening progressed, it seems, from the reports given by her spies at the debriefing session, that many of the residents who had packed out the meeting became infuriated by the lack of direct response to perfectly straightforward questions, and eventually left in disgust. (Mrs Angry hopes that this was not just an excuse to clear off down the pub, and will be asking questions later.)

Never mind. Today marks something of a watershed in the history of the residents' resistance movement, and help has arrived courtesy of the kindness of strangers: a Mr Eric Pickles, no less.

At last week's tumultuous Cabinet meeting, Mrs Angry had noted a councillor monitoring the activities of residents in the public area. At one point, senior officers were alerted to something, and shortly afterwards, a member of the public was approached in relation to his use of a mobile phone.

He was allegedly threatened with expulsion from the public gallery at the Barnet cabinet meeting, for attempting to make a short film of proceedings on the phone. Mrs Angry believes that a complaint was made to Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and now look: a very interesting development this morning ...

According to a statement, Eric Pickles has announced ( and please note this will be the only instance where the name of Margaret Thatcher will be allowed in this blog with no accompanying insult):

"Fifty years ago, Margaret Thatcher changed the law to make councils open their meetings to the press and public. This principle of openness needs to be updated for the 21st Century. More and more local news comes from bloggers or citizen journalists telling us what is happening at their local council.

"Many councils are internet-savvy and stream meetings online, but some don't seem to have caught up with the times and are refusing to let bloggers or hyper-local news sites in. With local authorities in the process of setting next year's budget this is more important than ever.

"Opening the door to new media costs nothing and will help improve public scrutiny. The greater powers and freedoms that we are giving local councils must be accompanied by stronger local accountability.

"We are in the digital age and this analogue interpretation of the press access rules is holding back a new wave of local scrutiny, accountability and armchair auditors."

Ha bloody ha, Ms Hillan, Mr Coleman and all the rest. Well ... here's one citizen journalist looking forward to her reserved seat, and free One Barnet novelty biro, at the next council meeting, anyway.

But there is more: Hugh Muir in the Guardian Diary has a rather amusing item today.
He comments:

'Revolution in Egypt, unrest in Bahrain, and citizens rise up in Libya. People have had enough. 'Tis the spirit of our times. "If the downtrodden citizens of Egypt can rise up against an appalling dictator, why cannot we downtrodden citizens of the borough of Barnet rise up against our appalling dictator and get rid of Brian Coleman forthwith?" writes resident and would-be revolutionary Larry Ross, in the Barnet Times. "I and thousands of others would be happy to join in any demonstration outside his house." But Larry, don't you know that Brian, the free-spending municipal Tory they all love to hate, would merely make good his escape by taxi – all the way, perhaps, to the Conservative safe haven of Hammersmith and Fulham. You, poor Larry, would foot the bill.'

Well, if someone is thinking of purchasing a one way ticket to Venzuela right now, Mrs Angry is more than happy to chip in: how about you, citizens?

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Couldn't care less: Growing Old in Broken Barnet update

There are certain blogposts in the Broken Barnet archives which still have a particularly high number of reads, many months after they were published. One of these is 'Growing Old in Broken Barnet', - dealing with the distressing issue of the standard of care in this borough for elderly people who require residential accommodation - and in particular, elderly residents with dementia. It was extremely difficult to write about, as it was based on my own experience of my late father's time in hell - in one of the homes used by Barnet. And I think the reason so many people read this post is because so many of us have elderly relatives who may be in need of residential care and we all worry, and we are right to worry, about their vulnerability should they placed in a home with less than adequate standards of care. I suppose many worry about their own futures too.

I've been intending to write this post for a while now because of the latest developments relating to the home I was writing about. I've put it off, frankly, because I hate thinking about it.

The care home in which my father was treated so appallingly is now owned by a large international company. Although the company had not then taken it over, members of management staff and others present during his time there were taken on with the home, and the prevailing standards continued, throughout several inspections by the body then responsible, the CSCI. The manager who had been so antagonistic to my brother and myself, when we tried to raise concerns about our father's awful care, was promoted within the new company.

The inspection reports, still available online to read, clearly show that despite constant criticism of the same failings in care and the state of the home itself, no real action was taken to protect the well being of the wretched residents, many of whom have severe stage dementia. Even the repeated flouting of statutory requirements was allowed to continue. Why?

Because the councils which use this home for placements, ie Harrow and Barnet, were apparently happy, despite years of such reports, to allow their most vulnerable residents to be left in such conditions, and perhaps were more worried about losing the ability to find placements than pursuing a more rigorous scrutiny of conditions within such places - until such time as Harrow was obliged to launch their investigation.

A couple of years ago we raised concerns with MPs John Mc Donnell and Andrew Dismore, in relation to the continuing poor standards in this home. Mr Mc Donnell was already involved in the issue, and had raised in parliament the concerns his own constituents had brought to his attention, and Dismore was then the local MP. I have to say that this was an example of Andrew Dismore's virtue as a constituency representative: he certainly took our concerns seriously and followed through by trying to do something about it.

I have discovered that after such concerns were raised, Harrow Social Services launched a Safeguarding Adults investigation into this home. The home then offered a voluntary embargo on further placements, for a limited period, anyway.

I consequently made enquiries about the investigation, and was told that local councils were about to resume placements in the home following an inspection by the new body, the CSQ, last year, which had rather surprisingly, resulted in a two star rating. This is despite the fact that the report is full of criticisms and still with outstanding statutory requirements, and as the inspectors themselves point out, the home had such a low rate of occupancy at the time of their visit, the assessment was made in articial circumstances and is therefore arguably misleading.

The inspection was based on visits which although unannounced, were expected, and on feedback from a pitifully few number of residents and relatives. Obviously due to the nature of the residents' dementia, they are largely unable to contribute, and only four questionnaires from relatives were obtained. From their comments there was evident disatisfaction with the state of the home, still not redecorated despite agreement to do so, and criticisms also about interaction from staff. The report highlights problems with the poor maintenance and decoration of the home and grounds, administration of medicines, the management of pressure care, gaps in training of staff, including first aid, the management of laundry, the cleanliness of carpets, the impersonal state of bedrooms, the lack of suitable tvs for residents etcetera etcetera: all issues which were raised by us years ago, and still recurring.

Private Eye magazine, incidentally, has featured a number of articles on this very issue, and suggested that there may well have been pressures on the new inspecting board which might explain the haste to award a rating which would enable further placements.

Last summer, however, our shiny new Coalition government decided to stop awarding quality ratings. There will apparently be, eventually, a different way of monitoring the standards of care in these homes. If you look, you will see there is no report on the home where my father was incarcerated published after April of last year, despite the recent history of concerns. That is nearly a year ago. What has happened in the meanwhile? Well, the home is open once more to new residents. That's all I can tell you.

I would like to think that a new inspection system might mean a far more rigorous set of minimum standards and, more importantly, a truly effective system for enforcing compliance. I wish I didn't think that the companies who run the largest number of homes will use their influence to minimise the impact on their profits. I truly hope that no elderly person will ever again have to undergo the horrific experience that my father had to suffer, but I don't believe that is true.

A few days ago I had to walk past the home where my father spent the last, worst, year and a half of his life. I could hardly bear to look up at the windows. I still feel so distressed at the thought of what he had to endure. I can't bear to think that there are still people in there living in more or less the same conditions that he did, but I fear that there are. And when I sit in council meetings and listen to Sachin Rajput and his Tory Cabinet colleagues pontificating about the need to make savings from the services that are meant to protect our elderly relatives from such indignities, I feel nauseated, and wonder how they will feel if ever their own parents have to suffer in this way.

Last week, the subject of our borough's use of residential homes was in the news again.

Traces of the potentially lethal Legionella bacteria has been detected in the water supplies for two care homes in Barnet, prompting calls for a full inquiry from local trade unions. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to the effects of legionella, and of course many members of staff have been put at risk as well.

Staff and residents in Apthorpe Lodge in Nurserymans Road, New Southgate, and Dell Field Court in Etchingham Park Road, Finchley, were sent letters last week explaining the situation. Both facilities are run by Freemantle Trust, who were subcontracted by Catalyst Homes, whom Barnet Council are due to pay an enormous sum of around £6m following arbitration after a dispute about their care contract.

You might wonder how legionella has managed to get into the water supply in any council used facility: there should, you might think, be a system in place to prevent any such contamination, and it must be established as a matter of urgency how any such system failed in these two cases, and if there are any more cases waiting to be detected.

This issue raises serious questions, yet again, about the ability of the borough to maintain control over the management of care when it is transferred into the private sector. When our most vulnerable citizens are handed over to the care of contracted services, who is going to make sure their best interests are being served? Who is going to ensure that the standard of care comes before the profit margin, and the need to cut costs?

The current Tory administration in Barnet likes to claim that the present agenda of savage cuts in spending is necessary in order to target resources at those who need it most. The placement and monitoring of the standards of care given to a large number of elderly citizens in residential homes might be expected to qualify as a priority of concern, in the list of those who need it most. If you believe this is the case in Broken Barnet, I think that you are mistaken, and probably living in the wrong borough.

Because this is how we do things now, in Broken Barnet. And if you don't like it: get out now, while you can.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Inky Stephens and a blot on the Big Society Landscape

*Updated 26th February: see later blog

When I was a child, and yes, this was long, long ago, in the antedeluvian, Janet and John days, when we made our own entertainment, I had a toy post office, which I absolutely loved: with a little red enamelled post box, toy town stamps, envelopes, forms, rubber stamps - and a miniature bottle of Stephens ink, all packed into a cardboard mock up of an old fashioned village post office. I loved this set so much, in fact, that - oh dear, this is sad - I didn't want to open it up, use it, and spoil its pristine condition.

Unfortunately, my older brother decided one day to vandalise the box, rip it open, steal the ink and use it for his John Bull printing set. I think he was printing messages to throw out of his bedroom window: Help: I am a prisoner in a post war nuclear family, in the suburban wilderness of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, and I want someone to remove my little sister, so that I can resume my blissful previous existance as an only child ... Or something.

My brother then threw the bottle on the fire to see if it would explode, or melt. He denied doing it, as he still does, as recently as last Sunday, even though, readers, I saw him do it. My parents didn't believe he had done it, of course, because he was so well behaved, unlike Mrs Angry. He is still very well behaved, which is why he doesn't read this blog, (or so he claims) ...

Anyway: I was vividly reminded of this scandalous event one day, a year or so ago, when, on impulse, and frankly, to get out of the rain, I nipped into Avenue House, here in Finchley, and found myself wandering around what must surely be the only ink museum in the world, tucked away in the recesses of one of the dark Victorian rooms. Bottles of Stephens ink, pens, blotters, more bottles of Stephens ink. (Not my tiny bottle, please note). And more pens. Don't get me wrong, I love pens: I still write with a fountain pen, in fact, so that people can read my scrawl, and because I love the process of writing with ink flowing out of a nib. And I love weird little museums that celebrate the offbeat interests and obsessions of our eccentric nation.

Why is there an ink museum in Finchley? Because, of course, Avenue House was once owned by Inky Stephens, of the Stephens Ink family. When he died, he left the house and gardens to the people of Finchley. The Grade 2 listed house is a large, rambling building, with many rooms decorated with heavy, late Victorian detail, and the grounds include a unique collection of exotic trees planted in the nineteenth century, gathered from around the world, and a rounded landscape of little hills, allegedly the landscaped deposits of earth dug for the nearby LNER railway. There is an old gardeners' bothy, and a secret walled garden, dragged back from the wild, but still annoyingly unaccessible. The site has a curious earlier history as a property held by the Knights Templars, in fact: like the former Manor House just down the road, relics of Finchley's distant past, much more ancient than many realise.

In 2002, the Avenue House estate was handed over to a body of local people, who were then made responsible for maintaining the house and grounds, letting the rooms for meetings, events and so on: you can hold weddings and parties in some of the rooms. Lots of local bodies and societies use the house for events, in fact, including, from time to time, our entertaining local Residents' Forum.

Since the estate was handed over to a local voluntary body, a trust, there have been some serious issues which have caused controversy and ill feeling, and doubts about the suitability of the new arrangement. There was, notably, a bitter dispute between the Avenue House board and the Finchley Arts Centre Trust over an abandoned use of the Bothy, left unresolved in 2008, and after a ten year restoration project. Last year, a loss of funding to some of the bodies who use the house resulted in a statement from the estate that it faced grave financial problems. And then, suddenly last week, rumours began to circulate that Avenue House was going to close.

Some local residents have now received flyers from the trustees saying that if they do not receive donations from them, the house will close at the end of March, and the property handed back to the council, which will result in the house being boarded up, and the grounds given only minimal maintenance in order that some access can continue. What a shame.

I wandered around the grounds today, to see how things were. As you enter the park, you are confronted with a large noticeboard, informing you that in 1918, the house and gardens were left by old Inky Stephens for "the use and enjoyment always of the public". Underneath this is a notice from the trust telling you you may quietly enjoy the grounds, and then three pages of A4 pieces of paper listing grumpy regulations controlling what sort of fun you may have, including eleven different types of nuisance you may not cause. I couldn't see anything about indecency in the bushes or peeing on the roses, so there might be some scope for antisocial behaviour, if you are so minded, and ladies, you might have to pee on the roses, (I was tempted) as the loos were all locked, and a terse note left on the shut up cafe tells you you can only use the indoor loos in certain circumstances: probably with written permission from Inky Stephens. The Bothy is all boarded up and covered with DANGEROUS STRUCTURE notices, the secret garden too. Elsewhere, ugly orange netted plastic fencing is ringing off abandoned areas of the grounds and casts a jarring visual note. The fabric of the house shows visible signs of crumbling at the front, and there is a general air of decline and fall. What a waste.

But let's think about this more carefully.

The Tories want us to believe that as part of the Big Society, funding should be withdrawn from social and cultural activities, and the running of such services given over to the voluntary sector. Here in Barnet, we are going to lose the Church Farmhouse Museum, and the Barnet Museum, because the philistines in the Tory cabinet would rather sell the buildings for development, and cut all funding, than support the only two borough venues which are dedicated to preserving and exhibiting our local heritage. They tell us that in Big Society style, volunteers can easily take over the running of these museums, and manage them without support from the council.

I think it is quite clear from what has happened at Avenue House that this is simply not possible. It is too heavy a burden. Whatever the good intentions of the people who have given their efforts and energies to keeping the estate going since 2002, the hard truth is that it cannot survive without professional administration, and, more crucially, proper funding. It can generate revenue, but not enough to be completely self sufficient.

If the trustees of Avenue House give the lease back to the council, this will be a shame. It need not be the end of the story, however. With support, and careful management, the financial health of the estate could improve, and perhaps it might even provide an opportunity to expand the use of the buildings. Why not move the Barnet Museum to the house, and expand the museum so as to present a more ambitious presentation of the history of the borough? Some of the material in storage, and some of the borough's unseen artworks, now languishing in the archives, could be on permanent view. You might even, sshh, charge a small entrance fee to generate income ... it wouldn't replace the excitement of the ink museum, of course, but even so ...

When Inky Stephens left his house and gardens to the people of Finchley, he must have expected the local borough to take responsibility for his estate: it is surely their moral duty to step in now and take an active interest once more. I do realise that morality is a difficult concept for some of our councillors, so let's approach it from a purely pragmatic direction. This issue is right at the core of the dilemma of the Big Society: if you want it to succeed, you have to continue to help people help themselves, and this includes giving the appropriate financial support, rather than implementing ideological spending cuts and pretending you are empowering the community you claim to serve.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Feel the Love: a Valentine's night massacre

So: Valentine's night, and where was Mrs Angry? Sat in a council Cabinet meeting, gazing dreamily across the room at Brian Coleman, Andrew Harper, Richard Cornelius, Daniel Thomas, Sachin Rajput, sigh ... oh and Melvin Cohen, although you might not have noticed as he had apparently taken a vow of silence throughout the evening, to the audible annoyance of several of his constituents. And Helena Hart, and Joanna Tambourides. And Lynne Hillan, or Madam Leader, as she is known.

In fact Madam Leader is Madam Mao to Coleman's Mao Tse Tung. And in the One Barnet Cultural Revolution, of course, the party activists don't really believe in all the dogma, but must pretend to, in order to survive being sent to life long exile in the paddy fields along with the rest of their hapless colleagues.

There are dangerous mutterings amongst the stooped figures in the paddy fields, however, and certain revolutionary heroes would do well to mind their backs in the weeks and months ahead. Mrs Angry's lips are sealed, of course, as she doesn't want to spoil the fun. But Comrade Chairman Coleman perhaps ought to be a little concerned at what history may have in store for him. How will it all end, we wonder?

In the meeting room last night, space had been made for a large number of members of the public, and the room was overflowing with maybe 150 people or more, all bristling with discontent, by the time seven o'clock came.

Enter the councillors. Ah, look: in keeping with the mood of the times, Brian Coleman is dressed entirely in black. Not sure if this is to reflect the gravity of the situation, a political statement, or because he thinks it makes him look like Johnny Cash - or Simon Cowell. (It doesn't.)

Hillan starts off. No one can hear and everyone shouts: we can't hear. This, she tells us, in the sort of statement we might expect from a woman of her remarkable analytical skills, is going to be a very difficult meeting. Residents start yelling. Hillan threatens to stop proceedings. This is not a dictatorship! shouts someone. Oh yes, it is. Really, citizens: it is.

Eventually question time begins. There were an unprecedented number of questions submitted to this meeting, but only thirty minutes will be allowed, and any that are not covered in that time will be lost. Thirty minutes of democracy? yelled a man in the audience. We're happy to stay, added another: increase the time! Any more calling out and I will have to stop the meeting! threatened Madam Mao.

No one takes any notice. One resident in particular, at the front, persisted in speaking his objections, very loudly, and at great length, and was told he would be removed. He carried on. The entire public area was churning with rebellion.

Councillors from both parties who had come to watch the meeting looked on from their carefully reserved seats with ill disguised amusement. Mrs Angry and friends sat behind some of the Tories and watched their reactions with great interest. Councillor John Marshall had hogged the seats for his friends, and almost had a little disagreement with Mrs Angry as to whether members of the public without a seat might be allowed to sit there. 'And how very nice to see you again,' he commented drily, in his curiously archaic, nineteenth century parliamentary fashion, peering at Mrs Angry as if he were Sir Charles Trevelyan and she were a starving Irish cottier. 'And to see your honour as well, god bless you sir', she said, bobbing in deep courtsey. Well, kind of.

Questions got under way, but in the usual Barnet tradition, the answers given were evasive, and many questioners failed to grasp the way in which the supplementary question system works, or how to follow up their point. This caused huge resentment from the watching crowd. If you recall from the last meeting, Jack Cohen's plea for residents to be helped to understand the arcane mysteries of council procedures, so they might make a meaningful contribution to local governance, fell on entirely deaf Tory ears. They simply don't want a meaningful relationship with anyone else, being quite happy carrying on in the One Barnet, one handed tradition of self love, of course.

Questions were put, and long propaganda based answers given: the residents were mutinous: Answer the question! was yelled incessantly from the floor. The council's security people and council officers moved into and about the public area, whispering threats of eviction in the ear of anyone calling out, to no avail. This is a joke! Answer the question!

Hello: a police officer enters the room, and stands by the doors, with arms folded. Questions continue, with speakers receiving thunderous applause, and objections to the answers no no one believes continually thrown back at the Cabinet member who dares try to respond. Madam Mao continues her threats and warnings about disruption.

Questions about the parking charge issue are particularly contentious: it becomes apparent that the Cabinet Member responsible, ie Coleman, is apparently 'confused' as to some of the facts of the matter, a point which residents are intent in publicising. 'Pompous little arrogant man!; shouts a resident from Golders Green, sat behind me. Uh oh. The policeman puts his helmet on. A security man moves in on Golders Green man who protests loudly, when told to be quiet, and then becomes rather angry. He refuses to leave. You're not allowed to touch him! yells another resident. The police officer is called over. Things threaten to get out of hand: we are warned the meeting may be ended. It becomes clear that if this is the case, the residents will refuse to leave anyway.

A man from a voluntary mental health body made some excellent points about the lack of response to certain questionnaires being used as evidence by the council that the majority of users back its agenda of cuts. He pointed out that such a conclusion was undermined by the failure of the council to engage properly with stakeholders and to enable them to understand the complexities of very difficult issues. Could they really regard the consultation as valid, in the circumstances? The written and verbal responses were curt and dismissive: a shrug - oh well, if anyone was bothered, they would have replied in greater number. Answer the question!

Madam Leader wanted to move on. The crowd did not. They wanted a debate. Madam was outraged: 'There are places', she informed us, 'where you can have discussions. Cabinet isn't one of them'.

You can imagine the uproar and derision that ensued.

Blogger Roger Tichborne up next. So: Ms Hillan thinks that the sum of around £54 million lost in Iceland, the bridge overspend, legal disputes with Catalyst, Partingdale Lane, the Underhill costs, salary increases for senior officers etc has nothing whatever to do with the need to find around £54 million in savings? Who did she think was stupid: the Cabinet, or the residents? The reply was that the people around the table were not stupid, and therefore we appear to have official confirmation now that this Tory administration does, as suspected, take us all for a load of fools.

The next questionner battled on in vain: a particularly stroppy resident who had been heckling angrily throughout the meeting stood, up and left, shouting in his direction, with arm outstretched: 'Amandla, Julian!' I doubt whether the allusion to the glory days of ANC activism rang any bells with our dimwit councillors, sadly.

Brian Coleman likes the sound of his own voice. He thinks we should like it too, and always gives us the maximum opportunity to enjoy the expression of his modest, well balanced and carefully considered opinions, often in a delivery pitched at a level of decibels that might be considered dangerous by a council noise nuisance inspector, if we still had any. Last night, however, Brian's attempts to justify the CPZ/parking charge outrage was drowned out by a torrent of howls and insults from the attending residents. This visibly shocked our Brian, who was, to an enormous outburst of incontinent hilarity in the room, moved to comment that 'I have never met ruder members of the community'. This, ladies and gentlemen, coming from the man who put the rude in Rude Britannia, is quite something. Respect.

And then, before we had barely got going, the dear leader announces with satisfaction that we had run out of time, and no more questions would be answered. Yeah: hurry up - Coleman must have a taxi waiting outside ... ' yelled a resident.

Things fell apart then. The people in the public area were not happy. They were very cross. Being under the misapprehension that we are living in an open democracy, and not in thrall to some form of totalitarian regime intent on suppressing all dissent, the residents did not understand why the remaining questions, including some on the highly controversial proposals to slash the children's centre funding would not be heard. The inflammatory decision to end questions sparked a firestorm of middle class rebellion, on a scale never previously seen, in the oak panelled chambers of our Town Hall. And so Lynne Hillan stormed out, like a sulky Bo Peep, leading her Cabinet sheep behind her.

The room was in uproar and confusion: what was happening? No one knew. An adjournment, we were told, eventually. We had been warned, after all, naughty residents, and now look. Our councillors had downed tools and staged a walk out. No ballot, no negotiations, a wild cat strike. Tut tut. Senior council officers wandered about, totally bemused, wondering what the hell was going on. One picked up his papers and put his coat on. Was he going home? In the public area everyone milled about. The normally inscrutable ladies and gentlemen of the press were shaking their heads in disbelief.

A rumour began that the meeting was taking place in the council chamber, and the crowd started pushing its way out through the doors, down the corridor and in that direction. Someone asked the policeman if he was making sure the councillors were behaving as well as the residents, which he was able to confirm. Then someone said the move was just a trick to clear the crowd, who were being diverted out down the stairs to the exit. About turn: everyone returned to the committee room.

There was a rumour that more police were on their way, provoking a spontaneous outburst of retro protest singing of 'We Shall Not Be Moved' ... In the end, this backup appeared to consist of two worried looking female community policewomen, who stood in the corridor, primed to pounce on troublemakers. This proved unnecessary, fortunately, as the meeting proved to be a game of two halves, Brian, didn't it? Second half less overtly stroppy, more attentive, disgusted and derisory.

After thirty minutes or so, Madam Mao sniffily led the gang of four, and the hangers on who pad out the Cabinet membership, back into the room. She would treat us, she informed us, with the same respect you show us. Oh shit: that doesn't bode well, does it Lynne?

Now the real shit, in fact, was hitting the fan: time to vote through the brutal budget of cuts: vote for the second go at attacking the weak, the sick, and the poor, in other words, taking away wardens from vulnerable elderly people, charging them more for services, cutting the provision of children's centres, and forcing a minority of the borough's drivers to boost council revenue through increased parking charges.

Plenty of dissent on the public side of the meeting: any from the Cabinet?

Nope. Not as such. One or two dare devils paid lip-service to a pretence of decency by mouthing vague concerns about one or two points, then disregarded their own points and voted through the agenda anyway. Melvin Cohen, as I mentioned earlier, was mute throughout, which infuriated consituents, who were there because of the impact the parking changes will have on certain areas of Golders Green, an area which has voiced strong objection to the proposals, objections unvoiced in this meeting. One of those residents muttered: wait til the next election, and see what happens. Indeed.

How did they handle the sheltered housing wardens proposal? By telling us people didn't really want change, but they were giving it to them anyway.

Fairer charging?Well, yes it will have an adverse impact on the elderly, the disabled, and females, but they were doing it anyway.

Or to put it another way, in line with the One Barnet policy of protecting the needs of the elderly, the disabled and females, they will fund this by cutting services to the elderly, the disabled and females.

Never knowlingly undercharged, yelled a woman next to me.

Sachin Rajput droned on and on, reading out his notes like the class swot, in his inimitable way, then suddenly came to an abrupt stop. He's run out of script! ... 'and put fairness at the heart of the agenda' he concluded. Even Brian was laughing now.

Children's centres: step forward the Smiler with the Knife, Andrew Harper.

Bla bla bla, all in a nice tone of voice so it seems less horrible than it really is ... Mrs Angry listened in hypnotic trance and then lost concentration ... ' and I am going with Model X' he suddenly and unexpectedly declared: we all sat up, had we missed something?

Labour's councillor Clare Farrier addressed the meeting on the plans to up charges for allotments, an emotive issue for many residents. An elderly lady behind me, during all the earlier pantomime, had asked fearfully 'is it normally like this?' and explained she was there because she bitterly resented the new charges. She was from the Lawrence Street allotments: as they debated this, I thought about often going to this lovely site as a very small girl, helping my uncle Jack lay straw under the strawberries, and stealing the fruit when he wasn't looking ... this reverie was sourly interrupted, however, by Madam Leader demanding to know how it was fair and equitable that we all should subsidise your activity?

Rather fairer than subsidising your lifestyle with our council tax in response to your demands for a hike in your allowance, Madam Leader, I would say.

Where is the subsidy? someone shouted out. Actually, I think it was me.

Coleman was off again. He talked about a shaft of proposals. Yeah, we've been shafted, alright! There had been 'extensive consultation': uproar. Dictator! yelled a heckler. Last night he managed to gloss over the fact that actually the lollipop attendants he wants to cut, at unknown risk to our children's safety cost only £41,000, for salaries: and of a whopping £157,000, the rest is HR and IT costs. Where is the fairness, he asked in ten schools having these attendants? They should pay for it themselves. You may be asking how.

Dr Gillian Gear spoke passionately and eloquently in defence of the Barnet Museum, reminding everyone that the museum had been given to the borough in 1938, in perpetuity, of the need to retain the integrity of the collection, representing 80 years of material: our local heritage. Coleman looked deeply unimpressed. He tried questions about opening hours, and access for the disabled, no doubt thinking the response would detract from support for the musuem. It didn't.

But our Tory philistines know the price of everything and the value of nothing. They do not consider our heritage and cultural life as in need of protection. Funding will be provided for conferences in four star hotels, and consultants, and foul mouthed hip hop artists, and elocution lessons for officers who want to speak with confidence, but our much loved and much needed museums are simply property developments waiting to be signed off.

More budget discussion. Those in need will be supported. Like special educational needs: support will be targeted. Yeah. As things stand, you are highly unlikely even to get to the stage of having your child identified as in need of support, and this is set to get even harder with a cut in provision of service from educational psychologist services, isn't it? They claim to be giving with one hand, while taking almost everything else away with the other. It is all, as one heckler pointed out, a load of bullshit.

Priority of budget provision. Comments from the Cabinet. Oh God: Sachin Rajput again. Nooooooooooo. Fairness. Need. Thirteen per cent. One third. Mrs Angry drifted off, resurfacing only when she heard Andrew Harper, showing off as usual, telling us that his was the biggest. (budget provision, ladies ...) Not what I've heard. And I am afraid I saw another Cabinet colleague laughing at this point. Doubt that he is any position to snigger.

And this is the problem, friends. It became apparent to Mrs Angry during the course of this meeting, that some of our Tory councillors absolutely love the attention their antics attract, and they secretly relish the sort of scenes we had last night. They love the drama, the pantomime: they love reading the blogs the next day to see what we make of it all. They even wink across the room at the bloggers, whilst making soundbite witticisms or outrageous remarks, in order to build up their own legend, at least in their own imaginations.

What they don't realise, though, and this is something which also became apparent last night, is that the deep divisions within the Tory ranks is making for some strange bedfellows amongst our Barnet councillors, and even engendering an unprededented cross party consensus on the most surprising aims and objectives. Have they got it in them to find the wherewithal to organise themselves? Let's see, shall we?

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Caught in a Bad Romance

Want your bad romance

I want your ugly
I want your disease
I want your everything
As long as it’s free
I want your love
I want your love

I want your drama
The touch of your hand
I want your leather-studded kiss in the sand
And I want your love
I want your love

You know that I want you
And you know that I need you
I want a bad, your bad, romance

etc etc etc

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Chomping at the bit: a reform school for councillors

Public speaking doesn't come easily to many people, you know.

Mrs X, for example, is terribly shy and likes to keep a low profile, and if called upon to address a meeting, will do so well enough, but only because she has had careful training, at no little expense, I can tell you. In fact Mrs Angry has paid several thousands of pounds to have her coached by a marvellous voice training company: got the name from Barnet council expenses, actually.

Yes, did you know, our cash strapped council has spent oh, around £15,000 in the last three months on staff in need of elocution lessons? Money well spent, I'd say, wouldn't you? Please stop whinging about children's centres and libraries and wardens: we simply must have council officers who can enunciate and project, with clarity, posture, pitch: and entertainment, and this company teaches all of these admirable qualities. Good morning, yes: I have called you in to discuss your compulsory redundancy package, but you will be relieved to know that I am going to deliver it in an engaging, animated and well modulated tone of voice.

Had the council officers present at tonight's special committee meeting practised their breathing exercises, and walked around the committee room with a book on their heads, to improve their posture before we arrived? Hard to tell.

This meeting, of course, was called to review (or not to review, as it turned out) the notorious constitution 'reforms' which our council is shamelessly trying to sneak through, and which, if adopted, will seriously curtail the free debate of council policy in this borough, and give increase powers to the much abused Cabinet system of decision making.

I would guess, though, that our Tory councillors have not yet been on the lavish One Barnet speech, presentation and body language workshop, though, as they seemed awfully quiet and ill at ease, and desperately tongue tied. One or two looked as if they weren't actually sure where they were, or why they were there. The rest rather looked as if they wished they were anywhere else. And somewhere else indeed was the author of the most outrageous 'reform' of all, our Councillor Coleman, who perhaps had a dinner engagement - probably not in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

I say they met to review reforms. In fact they seemed to have met to review the review of reforms, and to debate the constitution of the constitution review group. It was a meeting about other meetings which may or not take place. These meetings may or may not take place at a time that is known, and consist of certain members, or they may not. You will have to guess. Why do you want to know? Look: the idea is that the more vague the timetable, the easier it is to drag the whole thing out, and vote in the most outrageous proposals when no one is looking, obviously ...

The meeting was chaired by the Mayor, Anthony Finn. The other members present were Tories Melvin Cohen, Richard Cornelius, Andrew Harper, and Joan Scannell, (who was silent, and frankly rather bewildered, throughout). For the Libdems there was Jack Cohen, and Labour members Alison Moore, Barry Rawlings and Alan Schneiderman.

There was actually some argument - very daring - about the constitution of the constitution review group. Jack Cohen, who often represents the only real voice of sanity and opposition in Barnet council meetings, raised concerns about the political balance of any such group, and that it should not just be a rubber stamping body. In a taste of what is to come should Coleman's motion be adopted, the Mayor suggested that as a minority party, the Libdems were overrepresented and therefore, he shouldn't 'push it' ...

The motions were not after all, it seemed, going to be properly debated in this meeting, but referred on into a maze of other meetings, however: Alison Moore briefly addressed the issue of Coleman's preposterous proposal of restricted speakers. What, she asked waspishly (which is quite strong for a Labour councillor), was his purpose in putting such a motion?

Melvin Cohen had evidently been briefed to respond, but struggled to find anything useful to say, because of course you cannot defend the indefensible, stared into the mid distance and mumbled rather sheepishly (come, come: breath in, breath out, project, Melvin ... ) something about the Mayor having discretion. (Hmm. Perhaps the Mayor should have used some of that last week when the Times asked him to pose for a photo with his lips hovering naughtily over the gasping mouth of that resuscitation dummy ..?)

The other Tories were quiet and kept their heads down. An awkward silence ensued. Well, said Jack Cohen, I see it as a compliment that that you want to shut my group up ... more silence.

The Tories looked around the room whistling, inspecting their manicures etc.

What, demanded Labour's Barry Rawlings, is the purpose, anyway, of Brian Coleman?

This was, of course, a rhetorical question, or perhaps, more truthfully, a riddle as old as time itself.

Financial matters next, the proposal that up to £2.5 million pounds of our money could be spent with only the approval of the Cabinet or Cabinet resources committee. Alison Moore pointed out, helpfully, that this was A LOT OF MONEY, which it is, isn't it, citizens, but I trust our Cabinet councillors not to do anything silly with it, don't you? Like invest it in a pyramid savings scam, or an Icelandic bank, or voice training workshops?

Councillor Richard Cornelius, who, er, has not the most challenging approach to complex issues and is therefore admirably suited to the purposes of this committee, said he was troubled and trying to visualise it - ie the new spending allowance, rather than a suitcase full of £2.5 million used notes, I assume. He said he was a new boy and wasn't sure how often the new scope would be needed? Actually, in his funny little way, he might have stumbled on something. If you are allowed to spend £2.5 million at one go, with no restrictions on how often you may do so? That is rather worrying, isn't it?

Mr Reasonable had exercised his right - while it still existed - to address the meeting.

He commented on the restrictive practices already in place which made it almost impossible to ask significant and pertinent questions at council meetings. There are all sorts of unfathomable, complex and unfair rules which prevent items on certain issues being raised, often within certain time limits, and this of course is designed to discourage members of the public from trying to exercise their democratic rights and engage in council decision making.

Localism is supposed to be empowering local communities to become more active in the decision making process, and if our home grown councillors weren't a bunch of power crazed Tory mutants, that is what they would be seeking to do here in Broken Barnet.

Mr Reasonable, following through on the idea of extending public involvement, pointed out that if they really wanted people to participate more, they might stop making it so hard for them to do so.

He suggested a tiny amendment, of one word, from 'any' to 'that' in one of the proposals, which would have made it easier for a member of the public to raise a question at a meeting.

'It's not a big ask, and will send a small signal that you are prepared to listen. Failure to do so will show councillors' lack of interest in engagement with the people.'

He was wasting his time.

It was clear from the regrettably untrained body language and disengaged expression of the Tory councillors that they have absolutely no understanding of Mr Dix's point, nor interest in what he was trying to say. They resent the intrusion of members of the public, their electors, into council procedure, and simply do not accept that they are accountable to us in any detail. Apart from a dismissive comment from Andrew Harper that scrutiny committees don't make decisions, anyway, there was no reaction or interest from the Tory councillors, nothing. Yet again, sullen silence.

John Dix tried again. He said he would love there to be a root and branch review of public participation in council procedures. It would be great to have some sort of debate about this. He was asked by the Tories if anyone would really be interested in this. He said he thought the public would be chomping at the bit.

Really? asked the Mayor, and then, in a breath taking, Brechtian disregard for the conventions of theatre/ council protocol, turned to the gallery and saucily asked Mrs X and another woman: 'Ladies: are you chomping at the bit?'

A chance for Mrs X to participate in a council meeting, and show her confidence in public speaking. 'Oh yes,' she confirmed, trying not to think about his seductive resuscitation technique: 'Chomping at the bit.That's right.' 'Me too. Chomping' added the other woman, as insolently as possible. The Mayor raised his eyebrows, and expressed his surprise.

Andrew Harper stepped in now and made pointed remarks about committees being for members.

Alison Moore thought it really important we drive forward the development of evidence of scrutiny. There is absolutely, she insisted, a role for drawing evidence from a wider range of the public. The council's proposals had missed a real trick.

Jack Cohen put things more bluntly: for effective scrutiny, we must have dialogue with residents.

There then ensued a council officer led discussion of 'focus groups'. They seemed to want to push the idea that using these mysterious focus groups is a substitute for giving open access to any resident to put a question to a council meeting and engage in effective, direct scrutiny of council policy. Of course during the Budget consultation, instead of the cancelled open public meeting the council made brilliant use of the newly resurrected Citizens Panel (sadly sans Mrs Angry), a body with no objective or independent assessment of choice of invited members, and this is obviously seen as the way forward, a controlled gesture of engagement: safe sex with no risk of unwanted consequences, you might say.

Focus groups, however, are still a bridge too far for some Tory members. Richard Cornelius said he wasn't sure about them, because, get this: they might 'devalue' the participation of an elected member. What?

In my sorry, Mrs X's scrawled notes we have the following: 'M.Cohen. A member led matter. No added value, asking members of the public to contribute ...'

Yes, really.

Alison Moore reminded the meeting that inspections had criticised the standard of scrutiny in Barnet.

Andrew Harper pointed out sniffily that members can 'talk to the public and bring their views along to meetings'. .

Jack Cohen reminded Mr Harper of the spectacular lack of success in this regard exemplified by the recent 'cherry picking' performance given by Brian Coleman at the full council meeting (where he chose to read out and sneer at selected comments from Garden Suburb residents - ie Harper's constituents ...) Harper turned on him: 'And you've never done that?'

No, said Cohen. He became quite cross: he said some councillors work hard for their residents ...

Oh, interrupted the Mayor: 'Brian Coleman does a good day's work' ... when the laughter faded away, Cohen continued to say that residents can - or should - be helped through the maze and labyrinth of council procedures in order to become more fully involved. The horrified look on the Tories' faces said it all, and the discussion ended.

Alan Schneiderman attempted to move a proposal of some sort in regard to at least some greater use of focus groups. Your Tory councillors voted against this. Why? Why do you think?

As far as they are concerned, the new constitution proposals, carefully glossed over last night, are merely a wheeze to concentrate power even more in the hands of the Cabinet, push debate to the sidelines, and to miminimise the contribution of opposition councillors. Last night they were frankly perplexed as to why the issue of greater public participation was even raised.

They simply do not get it. They do not see how alienated they are from the electorate which has placed them in power, and how dangerous their contemptuous attitudes are. They have no understanding of the rapidly growing anger of residents in this borough, and they care even less.

*Update: Big Brother's Constitutional 'reforms'

It seems Mrs Angry is not the only one to be staggered by the neanderthal-like political blundering of our Tory leadership here in Broken Barnet. The attempt to dismantle the procedures which allow debate and open decision making in this borough, and provide some accountability and transparency to the electorate, has now reached the national press.

Firstly the story was picked up yesterday by investigative journalist and former Westminster correspondant David Hencke:

And now this morning the story is covered in the Guardian Diary by Hugh Muir:

How much more embarrassment to the government by this lunatic council is the Tory central leadership going to allow?

Barnet's ruling junta has just sent a begging letter to Eric Pickles asking for a hand out, previous gaffes by the council having lost £27.2 million in the Icelandic bank fiasco, £11 million on the bridge overspend, etc, and with the easycouncil idiocy costing more money rather than the savings it was supposed to deliver.

If I were Mr Pickles, I would be writing back to say if you want bailing out, here's the deal: get your house in order, stand aside for a new leader, get rid of the centralised Cabinet system of decision making, oh, and stop trying to smother the democratic processes of local government.

Just a thought, Eric.

*Latest 2pm Wednesday: Barnet Council have at last got back to David Hencke saying that these are Tory proposals, so they cannot comment! Obviously Barnet Council is no longer Tory run: good news indeed, citizens!

**Friday: updated on David Hencke's blog -

"Richard Robeson, spokesman for the Conservative group on Barnet, would not enlighten people on the proposed curbs. The Facebook friend of Brian Coleman said tersely: 'We do not talk to bloggers or journalists.' "

Ooh er: who does a spokesman speak to then?

*** Tuesday: council spokesman quoted in David Hencke's blog as saying:

“A review group will be considering the issues and will report back any proposals to a future meeting of special committee (constitution review).”

Mrs Angry's spokeswoman says: "Translated from easybarnet speak, this means any new and radical changes will be shuffled about a bit, until nosey bloggers get bored and stop watching, when they will be introduced via the back door."

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Big Brother's Order for the Day: constitutional 'reform' in Broken Barnet

Updated Tuesday - see:

Only last month an attempt was made by Brian Coleman, in his capacity as chair of the London Fire Authority, to revise the standing orders of this body so as to prevent 'the practice of Members of the Authority putting questions to the Chair and leader of the Authority' ... This move was spotted by a vigilant blogger, Adam Bienkov, and highlighted in the Guardian and London Standard, leading to awkward publicity for the Mayor, and, pretty swiftly, a humiliating climb down by Coleman.

Well, then. A regular reader of the blog recently drew my attention to the agenda of a Special Committee meeting of Barnet Council, scheduled for the 9th February:

And look what Mrs Angry has spotted, tenderly placed amongst a flurry of proposals purporting to 'improve' the organisation of council procedures: Item 5, point 8 - aha: a very helpful suggestion from a Councillor B. Coleman. It proposes:

'To amend the Council Procedure Rules to grant a reserved express right to only the Leader of the Council and the Leader of the main Opposition Group or their spokespersons to speak on Motions, Policy Items and Committee reports at the Council meeting. All other speakers would be called at the discretion of the Mayor.'

This outrageous proposal openly seeks to prevent any free debate by the elected representatives of you, me and all the residents of this borough, in what is supposed to be a democratic system of local government, reducing our council meetings to a mute, submissive, rubber stamping exercise.

In fact, forget about rubber stamping, it's back to the Orwellian boot stamping on the human face routine: you will do and think as you are told, and there will be no dissent.

What possible defence could you give for such an amendment to council procedure?

They will say it is to 'streamline' the committee structures and council practices, to save time, or some such rubbish. According to the accompanying report, however, it is clear that there are no resource implications - and no justification.

They will emphasise that the Mayor may use his discretion to allow speakers. This is crap as well: the position of Mayor is not like the position of Speaker in the House of Commons, with strict neutrality. The Mayor is an elected councillor, takes part in important votes, and will inevitably be under pressure to be party political in decision making. And please observe that, incredibly, only the leader of the main opposition party is allowed to speak - for a couple of minutes - not the leader of the third party, ie the LibDems. Yes, do sit down, and shut up, Lord Palmer, you're not in the House of Lords now, chum.

There are other proposed changes too. Note that the next two are from the Conservative Group as a whole, whereas the restriction of speech amendment above is a personal proposal from Coleman. I think that is very interesting, don't you, citizens?

Point 5:

To amend the Council Procedure Rules to remove the distinction between motions and policy items. This could allow for a more flexible procedure where the Mayor might decide to allow prolonged discussion of a motion to allow more Members to have the opportunity to speak and interact.
The abolition of Policy Items could allow the discussion of at least one 'opposition motion' at each meeting. Dispensing with two distinct items on the agenda (motions and policy items) could involve arrangements by which there could be discussion of at least one opposition item.
Please note the clever use of the phrase 'the Mayor might decide to allow prolonged discussion of a motion' ...

Point 6:

To remove ‘Comments on the Work of Cabinet’ from the agenda of Council meetings.

Ah, yes, of course, f*ck transparency and accountability, the work of the Cabinet should be exempt from comment from our elected representatives, who have no right to scrutinise or question the decisions of their betters. Quite right.

Point 9:

To review the current structure of Area Sub-Committees and Residents Forums.

This last one is no suprise and is no doubt intended to prevent Mrs Angry and other badly behaved residents from daring to ask awkward questions, in writing or in public, leading to embarrassment for the council: in other words, it is another attempt to minimise the powers of scrutiny of ordinary residents, and the accountability of the administration and councillors to the people who placed them in power.

There will be a lot of excitement this week about the forthcoming budget papers, details already leaked elsewhere, if you are interested. Forget, for a moment, all of that, and the fuss about parking charges, and libraries, and children's centres: no matter how serious theses issues are, they are greatly outweighed by the significance of what is being proposed this week in the shape of these so called consitutional reforms.

If these reforms are passed, the ability of councillors to make a real contribution to the decision making processes of this council's administration will be cut to shreds. If you think what is happening now, in terms of the cuts, the One Barnet nonsense, is bad enough, imagine what might happen if the current leadership is able to push through even more controversial proposals without even a whimper of protest from their own party, let alone the opposition.

Ask yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, if you think that these outrageous proposals are truly what David Cameron and Eric Pickles and Grant Schapps would consider to be in line with the sacred tenets of 'localism'. Is the repression of debate and free speech by the elected representatives of the people of this borough in any way going to deliver the declared object of localism, ie to further empower ordinary citizens and give them greater involvement in the decision making processes that govern their community?

Or have we been kidnapped and marched relentlessly onwards into a brave new world of localised dictatorship, by a small bunch of power crazed Toy Town megalomaniacs masquerading as the Tory council Cabinet, intent on imposing their lunatic agenda in blatant disregard for any of the fundamental principles of democracy, let alone the governing policies of their own central party?

Friday, 4 February 2011

Where we are now

May you live in interesting times, says the old Chinese curse ... and these last couple of weeks in our beloved borough have been very interesting indeed, haven't they, citizens?

Numerous strands of developing issues are slowly weaving themselves into a complex, fascinating tangle of old rag, big enough to hoist on a flagpole and flap, in desultory fashion, at half mast, in the wind of change blowing outside the Broken Barnet Town Hall.

All the stupid political decisions taken by the Tory leadership in Barnet are now beginning to impact on each other, and on the residents and voters, who at last are waking up to the reality of what another four years of this cack handed administration will mean.

The Tories have got away with so much blundering in the past because the core voters in the borough have largely been unaffected by council policies in action, and many have been too lazy to care about the effects on anyone else. Oh, how things have changed. And how foolish the Tory councillors have been.

The trouble all started last year, when the Tory leadership tried to sneak in the infamous troughing allowance rise, got caught out, did it anyway by whipping their callow colleagues into line, and then kicked the political shit out of the one councillor who dared to express her dissent. The outrage that this greedy, nasty, shameless episode created was enormous, unprecedented, and has caused life changing injury to the electoral well being of the Tory party in Barnet, a fact that they seem unable to grasp.

The decision to push for this hike, right before the imposition of the worst budget cuts the country and the borough has ever seen, was a fatal political misjudgement. It has undermined any vestige of respect that the residents might have had for the rest of the administration's agenda, and worse still, raised the political consciousness of thousands of previously apathetic residents and voters. These are the people who will be banging on the doors of the polling stations at the next election, waiting to punish the Tory candidates by switching their votes. Oh dear.

Having infuriated the ordinary residents by their greed, what did our empty headed Tory councillors do next? They fought amongst themselves, and made yet another idiotic decision: to let Lynne Hillan remain as leader, compounding the damage of Allowancegate, and encouraging the leadership in their sense of omnipotence. Another masterstroke.

Next: instead of trying to rebuild the fractured relationship with the people they are supposed to represent, the Tory administration decided to betray their trust even further by setting up a package of budget 'consultations' which was nothing less than a blatant PR exercise aimed at getting public approval for the council's own ideological agenda.

The said agenda is based on the lower set schoolboy economics of the One Barnet/easycouncil scheme which consultants Grant Thornton, in yet another report funded by us, effectively warned was not fit for purpose. This load of crap has has millions of pounds of our money thrown at it, and has yet to return us a single penny.

The residents of Barnet know when they are being sold a pup, and they know the easycouncil idea is a pup. They don't want vital services cut or outsourced. They no longer accept the old excuse that the cuts are being made because of 'Labour inefficiency'. They remember the £27.4 million pounds of our money lost in Iceland, the £11 million lost on the bridge project: and the rest. They look at the lost revenue, and the council expenditure, the money wasted on conferences and hip hop workshops and consultants and senior officers on private contracts, and they are cross: very very cross. They remember the councillors' greed and hypocrisy in trying to vote themselves more money, just before making hundreds of staff redundant, cutting budgets and slashing funding to voluntary bodies.They know that the One Barnet mantra, 'better services for less money', is a lie. They know that money is not being saved to support frontline services, as it is the front line services themselves which are being cut. And now, with these budget cuts are being laid before them, they are beginning to wake up, stand up, and answer the bully boy councillors back.

At recent council meetings and resident forums, we have seen ordinary residents begin to vent their fury at some of the proposed cuts and increases in charges. At the march last Sunday, up to 2,000 people felt strongly enough to demonstrate their anger at what is happening, and only a proportion of these were council employees or union members. These new protesters are not political activists, they are largely middle class, conservative minded people who strongly oppose the idea of losing libraries, childrens' centres, arts and museums funding, and are enraged by the imposition of wildy inflated parking charge increases, and loss of bays.

But the Tory leadership just doesn't get it.

At the last full council meeting, we were shown the extent of the contempt in which the opinions of voters are held by the Barnet Tories by the way in which the Cabinet member responsible for the parking hike, yes, your favourite and mine, Councillor Brian Coleman, laid into the people who had dared object to the new proposals. Firstly he arrogantly rejected out of hand any criticism of phone only parking charges, claiming there was no one in the borough who had a car but not a mobile phone. To howls of anger and derision from the public gallery, he then launched an attack on the complaints, and sneered at the people who wrote them, portraying all objections as whinging from the privileged residents of Hampstead Garden Suburb, people who live in 'big houses' and were incensed that their 'gardeners' would not be able to find somewhere to park.

What a laugh: class war with Brian Coleman, the man who represents the enormously affluent area of Totteridge, stuffed to the brim with millionaires, along whose main highway you cannot walk without passing the gated mansion of a football manager, or cross without being sprayed with ditch water by a speeding porsche belonging to some soap star celebrity.

And it should be said that throughout the course of this rant, Andrew Harper, deputy leader and councillor for Garden Suburb, sat there with all his red faced Tory pals and said nothing. If I were a resident of the suburb, I would be asking my representatives for an explanation. Or you can ask Mrs Angry for an explanation, if you prefer. And her response would be that the Tory councillors in Barnet are a bunch of dunderheads, and too shit scared of Brian Coleman, and the prospect of damaging their glorious political careers, and losing their committee allowances and other perks, to stand up for what they know is right. She sincerely hopes that one day the councillors will find it in themselves to follow the example of their voters, and tell it like it is, rather than keep calm and carry on. But she is not holding her breath. She predicts that it will only be nearer to the next elections, and the real prospect of losing their cushy allowances for good that the Tory eunuchs will remember that they are big boys after all, flex their muscles, and try to look tough for the voters.

For some reason, however, Coleman thinks it acceptable to attack the suburbanistas when they dare to criticise him. He thinks he has a safe seat in Totteridge, and that he is able to say what he likes without any fear of reprisal. He forgets, or does not care, that the newly awakened, affluent, articulate middle class residents who were so incensed by his remarks are the backbone of the Tory vote in Barnet, and that he has pushed things just a little too far. He and his Tory councillor chums have awakened a sleeping giant, and they will live to regret it.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

All in this together? Barnet's secret expense account

Well, I don't know about you, but I'm feeling in need of a break.

Always feel this way at this time of year: gloomy January rolling into miserable February. Thought I might have a weekend by the sea ... fancy coming along? Just you and me. Anyone? Don't all rush.

I know the perfect place, so romantic ... a lovely spot, on Britain's Palm Beach - yes, apparently there is one - in Poole, on the Sandbanks peninsula, a location with the fourth highest land value in the world ... Nice hotel, with its own direct access to a blue flag beach, and a lovely spa, an oasis of tranquility, a sanctuary for pampering and indulgence, where, we are told, we can immerse our senses in a world of calm and serenity ... oh, and they have wonderful conference facilities too, did you know? Must be wonderful, because last November, Barnet Council spent over £15,000 of our money on a conference here.

Yes, that's right, just days before handing redundancy notices to other members of staff, and even as they were lecturing us on the need to bear the pain of the economic crisis and preparing the worst set of financial cuts this borough has ever seen, the leadership of this council was sanctioning the splurge of thousands of pounds on accommodating unknown guests at a four star hotel by the seaside. £15,000: an amount that would pay for say, the continued support of a care worker for an elderly person, or vital educational psychological support for children with special needs, or a substantial part of a grant maintenance to a local voluntary body.

Inappropriate, in the circumstances, as I am sure you will agree. And, apart from the enormous sums spent on consultants, agencies etc, there appear to be many other peculiar payments listed in the latest batch of Barnet council expenses over £500. I say appear to be, because we just cannot be sure. Despite an oft stated commitment by Lynne Hillan and chums to the principle of 'transparency' in local government, in this batch of expenses someone has taken the decision to withhold the identity of huge numbers of recipients of the payments. These 'sensitive' payments are merely marked 'redacted'.

Do you remember, ladies and gentlemen, the smug satisfaction by the leadership of this council when the Audit Commission was abolished, and how they castigated the spending of the commission on 'staff jollies' and other alleged waste of public money? I can easily understand their delight at the loss of the Audit Commission, of course, and the external scrutiny it was supposed to bring to bear on local authorities, but perhaps the leadership might care to look a little closer at their own spending of public money.

They like conferences, the senior officers of Barnet. Especially in Childrens Services, for some reason. Perhaps there is an explanation for this, and Mrs Angry is always ready to listen to such explanations, should they be proffered. Why, for example, on 5/11, did they spend £4,095 at the Comfort Hotel, Enfield? (Bit of a let down, after Sandbanks, I would say, wouldn't you?)

Oh, and why was £1,500 was spent by Childrens Services, on conference expenses, on the 25/10. Details redacted. Perhaps it was another Spurs visit. Funnily enough, the next two entries are redacted too: two lots of consult fees on the 5/10: one for £10,8000 and another for £5,600. What were they, and why are they withheld? Or look at the entry for 19/10 and the payment by Planning Housing and Regeneration of £11,303.54 for more consult fees. These are large sums of our money, and we are entitled to an explanation, don't you think?

Staff training provides some odd entries too: take the £550 paid on 2/11 to RAF Museum enterprises. Why? Are we training staff to be WW2 aircrew? Team building exercise? One Barnet: all in this together/Dunkirk spirit kind of thing? Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Walkley? Don't tell him your name, Mr Reasonable.

Payments to theatre companies continue, of course. We may be depriving our only arts venue of funding, but luvvies need not despair - improvisation and drama will stay on the agenda at NLBP: and not just in the Chief Executive's penthouse suite. Environment and Operations, for example, are still funding the Momo Theatre Co, you'll be pleased to know: £6,000 for consult fees on 5/10. The Stopwatch company got another £4,400 on 18/10. No doubt the issues which these companies are being hired to promote are very worthy, but surely there are more cost effective ways of delivering a message?

Suspicions about the potential disguise of embarrassing payments were first aroused when Mr Reasonable and I, after trawling through the last quarter of declarations, noticed that at least two entries, to the redoubtable Miss Blondy Waka, a hip hop artiste of forthright opinions and eyewateringly frank vocabulary, had been altered late last year, replacing her name with 'redacted'. Why was this alteration sneaked in, we wondered?

Did she continue to deliver her services to Adult Social Services? We just don't know. Was there a 'rude bitch' Blondy Waka Christmas show for the old folks' home, perhaps? Maybe.

Since we highlighted some of the more questionable payments in the previous quarter earlier last month, it would seem this practice has been applied on a much larger scale. In fact an early glance at the entries would suggest that there has been maybe a three times as many redacted payments. We do not know the identity of these recipients or for what services, other than in a very vague description, they are being paid. Why?

Of course there will be a few situations in which it may no be appropriate for an individual's name to be published. I'm not sure what those circumstances could be, when public scrutiny and accountability relies on the openness of such payments, and in any case there should not be so many entries withheld in this way. To do so lays the council open to easy accusations of secrecy for the point of political sensitivity, which would be indefensible, wouldn't it?

There is one entry which might give us some hope of a more positive future, however. In October yet another theatre company, Box Clever, was paid the sum of £4,312.50 for 'other services'. Box Clever provide a number of productions, dealing with such things as 'walking to school' (Mrs Angry is herself an expert on this subject, by the way, having done it for many years, and willing to hold a series of workshops for a similar sum, if you get in touch with her agent). Oh, and the company also offer 'bespoke projects', offering 'unique drama input' into conferences and training - ah: good, conferences with drama ... and in particular, in delivering a programme which teaches 'Engagement With The Community'. Now there's a novel idea.

I'm guessing they haven't signed up for that one yet.

*Updated 12.15 pm: just seen a truly hilarious story in the online local Times newspaper, claiming that, after Mr Reasonable asked why three payments of nearly three hundred thousand pounds to an environmental services company had been redacted, the reason was someone had mistaken the company's name, May Gurney, for the name of someone's daughter. Yes: really - read all about it -