Tuesday, 4 November 2014
A nursery tale, and decorum not retained: a meeting with the hollow men of Broken Barnet
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Last week's meeting of Barnet's Children's Education, Libraries & Safeguarding Committee was always going to be a lively one, and the council was well prepared with a double sized room for public seating, and extra security staff prowling the corridors of the Town Hall.
Another sign that this meeting was more than usually interesting was the degree of discomfort evident on the faces of the Tory councillors who entered the room quietly, and slipped into their seats alongside Labour members, senior officers, and independent members, all three of whom, it must be said, gave Mrs Angry very disapproving looks throughout the meeting, in response to her unasked for comments.
One of these independent members used to be the headteacher at the primary school attended by Miss Angry and her brother, so he may well have been feeling a bit twitchy for good reason, to be fair.
The room was packed with residents angered by two issues on the agenda: the truly appalling library proposals, as described in the previous blogpost, and another highly controversial matter: the cuts in nursery provision, which will affect classes at four nurseries in the borough, including Moss Hall, a well respected nursery school here in Finchley, many of whose parents were in attendance at the meeting, furious and having already launched a determined campaign against the plans. The council wants to cut funding, and to amalgamate four nurseries into one school, with one headteacher and deputy headteacher.
Three of the nurseries, Brookhill Nursery School in Brookhill Road, East Barnet, Hampden Way Nursery School in Hampden Way, Brunswick Park, St Margaret's Nursery School in Margaret Road, New Barnet, have agreed to merge. This might seem a logical move - if one accepts the necessity in the first place for such a drastic measure - as these three nurseries are in the same part of the borough, in adjoining wards.
Moss Hall Nursery, in West Finchley, which will see the council subsidy it receives slashed by 50% over the next two years - will not be joining this merger. Hard to see how or why a school so far away from the other three could be joined to the others, anyway.
Headteacher Perina Holness has tried to negotiate with the council, recognising the need for a decrease in the subsidy, which Tories claim must be cut because it derives from an underspend on other funding which will be lost. Ms Holness's suggestion of a 25% cut accompanied by fundraising by the nursery has been rejected. She says Moss Hall do not want to be amalgamated with the three other nurseries because of the staff cuts that will result, with the loss of several posts, headteacher and deputy headteacher, three classroom teachers and five nursery nurses.
This nursery is rated 'outstanding' by OFSTED, and has a good reputation for accommodating the needs of children with learning difficulties. It is the sort of nursery which every parent wants their child to attend, and consider themselves very lucky if they do gain a place.
A success story, in short, but of course, this being Broken Barnet, subject to the laws which govern our Tory council: take something that works perfectly well, and serves the community, and destroy it by withdrawing funding, while boasting in the run up to the local elections of your 'gesture' of a cut in council tax: the council tax that goes towards all those boring things like ... education, and nursery schools.
But here is another interesting thing. Just as the library cuts seem to be tailored to a political agenda, as were the handouts from the infamous Highways budget last year, here we find again budget cuts to nurseries targeted in such a way as any political fall out will be on Labour held wards - overlooking the sole surviving Tory councillor in Brunswick Park, Lisa Rutter.
Looking at the location of the nurseries (and trying to negotiate the terrible ward maps on the council website, in order to guess where the boundaries are) it seems Brookhill and St Margaret's are in East Barnet ward, and Hampden Way in Brunswick Park.
East Barnet Ward, you may recall used to be represented by three Tories, including the hugely unpopular Robert Rams, who was in charge (apparently) of libraries and museums, They were replaced, much to the Tories' astonishment, (although not to Mrs Angry, who predicted this would happen) by three Labour councillors, Rebecca Challice, Phil Cohen, and Laurie Williams.
Brunswick Park had one Labour councillor, from a by election, Andreas Ioannides, and gained two more, in the process losing the Tories one of their dominant members, Andreas Tambourides.
Moss Hall is in West Finchley, a traditional Labour stronghold, galling to MP Mike Freer and the local Finchley & Golders Green Tories, not least because it is also the location of their HQ, Margaret Thatcher House.
Ah, but: here is the thing. Moss Hall might be in a Labour ward, but it is one of those schools that middle class parents are desperate to find for their children, and that includes a fair few Tory voters in Finchley.
Oh dear. A slight miscalculation, from someone. A very loud and well championed campaign is directed at saving the nursery from destruction, of the sort that must have local Tories, especially Mike Freer, sweating with fear.
At the meeting last week, Freer's election rival, Labour's Sarah Sackman, was present, and has pledged her support to the nursery, and indeed she did wonders to help the plight of two schools for disabled children whose vital respite care schemes were threatened by Tory cuts.
Mrs Angry looked awfully hard, but did not see Mike Freer at the meeting, even though, behind the scenes, he has been promising to help campaigners, and was reportedly keen at one stage to broker a deal so he could make a statement before the meeting. The terms of this deal, however, were not acceptable to the nursery or campaigners.
Of course Freer is in a difficult position: he rarely, if ever, criticises his the policies of his Tory colleagues on Barnet Council - and why would he, when everything they do and say is programmed by his fatuous easycouncil philosophy, and neo Thatcherite agenda?
Mrs Angry understands that some Tory councillors have suggested that parents from Moss Hall should fund their child's place at the nursery. Good idea. Let's start charging parents at state primary schools, too, and - oh, no doubt we soon will be, anyway.
More open in his support and criticism of the plans than Freer, is Tory councillor Brian Salinger, who happens to be chair of Governors of Moss Hall, and therefore inclined to be rather cross about the threat to what he knows very well is a brilliant nursery school.
True, if this were a nursery school with no connection to him, he would be unlikely to kick up much of a fuss, but you can't be sure: he takes an unpredictable stand on some issues, and is something of a loose cannon in the party, although generally a good boy when it comes to voting. Just occasionally he finds himself in the need to visit the gents, at such times, rather than abstain, or vote against his party whip. So things might get interesting, in these days of such a slender minority for our Tory administration.
But back to last week's meeting.
This was, Mrs Angry realised, with a sinking heart, chaired by possibly the most aggravating chairwoman of all Tories, ie Reuben Thompstone, who is a young man who acts with a degree of pomposity remarkable in anyone under the age of 73, and delivers his rather comical demands for silence, and obedience to his rule, in a clipped antipodean accent that tends to drive Mrs Angry to further and further acts of impertinence, for no particular reason she can think of.
(Why oh why, Mrs Angry often wonders, looking at most of our younger Tory councillors, do some sons and daughters decide not to rebel against their parents, but try to be just like them, and act so middle aged, and so conventionally? It is grossly unnatural.
FFS, young people of Broken Barnet, don't join Conservative Future, and spend your weekends canvassing for Mike Freer. You might end up like Myles Longfield. Or in a blue t shirt on a stage with Grant Shapps, looking like one of the undead.
Listen to Mrs Angry. Resist the urge to take out a subscription to the Daily Telegraph. Go out and get pissed. A lot. Go to festivals, not the Tory conference. Get a tattoo, (unless you are a child of Mrs Angry, in which case, never return home) Have lots of (safe) sex. Don't get married. Don't have children when you are still a child yourself, and most of all, please don't stand as a Tory councillor and sit in moral judgement on others, when you have no idea of the terrible things that life can throw at some people, and leave them in need of your help, and your compassion).
Next to him was someone out of sight, whose mumbling voice at first she mistook for Cllr Dean Cohen, but turned out to be James Mass, who looks and sound like a Head Boy trying to impress the Headmaster, Mr Thompstone, at a school assembly (actually Reuben Thompstone is a teacher, and Mrs Angry's offer of a crisp fiver to any pupil who can let her know his nicknames at school still stands, and Tombstone doesn't count, as it is too obvious. And not rude enough).
Mr James Mass, in fact, is 'Lead Commissioner - Family & Community Well-being', for Barnet Council.
Well-being, in Capitaville, being, well: not so much well, as ill -being, ill conceived, malevolent policies designed to tear families apart, and destroy all sense of community.
And here is a funny thing, according to Linkedin, Mr Mass, before arriving at the gates of the demi-paradise that is Broken Barnet-Capitaville, worked for - no, no, not Capita, of course not. Mr Ian Harrison, the Director of Education- he did, though. But Mr Mass, he of the mumbling voice, he used to work for ...iMPOWER, the iMPLEMENTATION partners of the One Barnet privatisation of our public services, who were the happy recipients of millions and millions of pounds of cash from Barnet taxpayers. iMAGINE Mrs Angry's surprise, when she realised that!
After the disclosure of interests - ha, in which Labour councillors dutifully did just that, and no Tories did anything of the sort, (did they have dispensations?) except the Chair, who revealed solemnly that he was a member of Golders Green library, which amused Mrs Angry, who used to work there, and wondered how he will enjoy squeezing into his library when it is reduced by 93% in size?
Seventy five public questions, almost all on libraries and the nurseries. All excellent, well reasoned written questions. Responded to by the usual evasion, and half truths, and the verbal supplementaries provoked even less satisfactory responses.
In fact, due to a combination of the notoriously bad sound system, chosen apparently for the purpose of disrupting all attempts at communication between councillor and council officer, and councillor and member of the public, and all the variations between, and the mumbling of Mr Mass, no one in the audience could hear much of the responses, which was probably a blessing, but it made some of them very cross, even more cross than they already were, which was very, very cross indeed.
CAN - YOU - E-NUN-CI- ATE? demanded one particularly irate man half way down the seating area, e-nun-ci-at-ing with admirable diction, and an understandable amount of fury. He was obliged to repeat his demands more than once throughout the evening, because the answer to that unwarranted public question, it would seem, was - no, he could not.
Naughty Labour Councillor Dr Devra Kay loudly observed,with perfect diction, from the audience, that he would never make a nursery teacher.
Excellent, intelligent questions from a range of members of the public, and from Perina Holness - and oh, here was a familiar face. The Chairwoman welcomed 'Councillor' Kate Salinger. She pointed out wrily that she was 'just an ordinary member of the public, these days' - she lost her seat in Coppetts to Labour, despite her support for the People's library.
The Tories were trying to claim the nursery cuts were sanctioned by an earlier Task & Finish group. Councillors, her question asked, what you have before you is NOT what was recommended by a very hard working group of your peers ... Please explain to me why the work of the T&F group is now being ignored and what is the educational justification for it?
The response was of course a waste of time, but the real impact from her question was evident in the faces of those former colleagues, who sat squirming with embarrassment in the face of her fiercesome gaze.
Questions about the library cuts were equally unwelcome, and the resulting tide of dissatisfaction frome residents began to work up to a crashing wave of unrest, and when the Chairwoman abruptly stopped public questions at exactly 30 minutes, and would not extend the time, people were very angry. Uh oh.
Retain your decorum, demanded Cllr Thompstone. Mrs Angry tittered, remembering with fondness this post from three years ago:
In fact Thompstone was obliged to make his command for 'decorum' no less than four times throughout the evening: so many times, indeed, that after the meeting, chatting to a couple of members of Mill Hill Residents Association in the corridor, one of them said he had been puzzled, at first, as to why a Barnet councillor would feel he had to keep referring to the Herts authority, Dacorum.
(Mrs Angry imagines Decorum/Dacorum would be the sort of area more suited to our Tory councillors, in fact, being populated by natural born conservative voters, rather than the stroppy lot of ungrateful residents, here in Broken Barnet: with well behaved women, no doubt, who don't go and heckle councillors at meetings, but stay at home and make jam (successfully, unlike Mrs Angry) and respectable men who spend their evenings down the Rotary club, or quietly in front of the tv, sipping hot milk, in slippers, dressing gown, and paisley pyjamas).
Moss Hall campaigner Nikki Roberts now came to the table to address the committee, being graciously allowed three minutes to do so - it used to be five, but in typical style our Tory councillors decided it was a good idea to cut down on such dangerous engagement with their electors.
Nikki present a petition which already had more than 3,000 signatures. She explained how the nursery had tried to be reasonable and negotiate with the council, and fundraised, and - then she was cut off by the Chairwoman, because it was time for members to ask questions.
With his usual impeccable good manners, Labour's Ammar Naqvi's question to her was, would she please continue her speech, which she did.
Tory deputy leader Dan Thomas was ill at ease. He said, avoiding eye contact with anyone in particular that it was a very emotive issue. Not comfortable with emotive issues, our Tory councillors.
His colleague, self confessed Thatcherite Helena Hart had a Few Points about libraries, she said in her usual rather doleful tone. Saving £2.85 million, she remarked, with touching pathos, 'was never going to be an easy option'. She raised concerns about the amount of money to be spent on consultation - £200,000, or so Mrs Angry has in her notes - that can't be right, can it?
So Councillor Hart did not like the proposals that would effect Edgware and Golders Green Library. 'Completely unpalatable'. Oh dear. Is that because they are Tory wards, and, erm ... she is a member for Edgware? Does that mean the cuts that will cause such devastation in other libraries are acceptable, Councillor Hart? If so, what makes your library any different?
She thought there should be a 'mix and match approach', rather than sticking to the strictly defined three options, and so did Cllr Thomas. That way, no doubt, will appeal to all Tories wanting to make sure their own libraries escape the chop.
Ammar Naqvi made a very astute observation now, pointing out that the proposals were based on a straw man argument ... well, thought Mrs Angry: the Tories wanted a hollowed out council, and now their headpieces almost certainly are full of straw, so yes: this is the inevitable line of logic, for a Tory member ... We were being presented with a false choice, he continued, with so many disparate services being pushed together and then this grouping used to justify a budget cut across all of them.
Labour's Anne Hutton said she wanted to invite a union representative to speak. A unioin rep sat at the table. The Chairwoman said he would not allow it. SHAME! Why not? An argument ensued as to whether or not it was constitutional. Labour said it was, the Tories said not. RUBBISH, announced a voice easily identifiable by the scouse accent of Councillor Paul Edwards.
They're scared, said Cllr Dr Kay. Officers looked on blankly: despite the Lloyd-Jones report, clearly the vacuum of knowledge in legal and governance matters continues. The union rep left the table, without speaking.
Don't call a lawyer - cos you got none, declared the People's Mayor, Councillor Lord Shepherd, gleefully, from the public seats.
Or call a lawyer from Harrow, and see how quickly they can get here, he advised, trying to be helpful. Alright, no, he wasn't.
It's only 45 minutes away, he estimated, after some thought, no doubt working out the bus routes, and timetables.
In fact he was wrong, there was a lawyer from HB Public Law sitting at the table, apparently as a token gesture, rather any practical use. But no Monitoring Officer, as our part time, interim, seconded, secondhand Mr Large was presumably at his day job in Westminster, rather than here for a try out of the zero hours contract we've cooked up for him here in Broken Barnet. Or maybe he does a pizza delivery round on a moped on Tuesday nights.
Anyway, just to show willing, and give him something to do, when he is on Barnet time, Mrs Angry has written to ask Mr Large to look it up in the constitution, as a sort of initiation test, to get him into the swing of things.
On to nurseries, now.
Oh God. Time for Kate Kennally to speak.
Nothing fills Mrs Angry with more dismay than the prospect of a prolonged speech from this senior officer, now the Strategic Director of, ha, Communities, and who seems entirely unable to express a single sentence without resorting to the sort of corporate bilge these people feel they must regurgitate in order to demonstrate their grasp of any given issue.
In fact such abuse of language does the complete opposite, demonstrating the strawheaded emptiness of Barnet policy, and more besides: it is the language of commerce and profit - remember the suggestion that low paid care workers for the disastrous Your Choice Barnet, which tries and fails to make profit from the care of disabled residents, being told to take a 9.5% cut in pay and her comment that they were merely 'taking a haircut, in the market place of care'?
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
Bla bla bla. New models of delivery. (This is the new, approved buzzword, used instead of ... shh ... outsourcing, mass privatisation, One Barnet etc ...). She then resorted to another usual tactic: a po faced attempt to make listeners feel guilty about daring to criticise a council policy she must defend, by raising terrible consequences should that policy not be put into action - in this case, an impact on children with special needs due to budget restraints. Raise council tax, suggested Barnet Alliance campaigner Barbara Jacobson, from the audience.
Ah. Now time for Tory councillor Brian Salinger to come to the table. His colleagues on the committee visibly became uncomfortable, expressions fixed, and wary. They were right to be wary. Salinger laid into the plans for Moss Hall, pulling no punches. As the councillor of many years spoke, the young deputy leader Dan Thomas, who usually seems icy cool in his demeanour, reddened, and looked deeply embarrassed.
Salinger began, unless Mrs Angry misheard it, by accidentally referring to Kennaly as 'Councillor'. An interesting slip, and telling, in an administration where the senior officers do indeed take on the role that should be the responsibility of elected members, creating and directing policy and decisions, as we saw in the DRS joint venture fiasco, despite such officers being, as he put it now, with no little contempt, 'unelected and unaccountable' ...
Silence. His fellow Tories looked on, mortified.
Are you still a Tory, Brian? asked Mrs Angry, thoughtfully, chewing the end of her pen, sitting just behind him.
Very much so, he batted back, automatically, but clearly with some reservation. He stepped down.
Who was that masked man? asked Bob Jacobson, as Salinger passed him by.
Labour's Rebecca Challice announced that they wanted to refer the matter to Full Council: not all nurseries involved had been fully consulted, and it would be wrong to vote that evening. The Tories were not pleased, of course, because the library issue had also been referred there - and both were now exposed to the danger of an unpredictable outcome.
Kate Kennally launched another interminable speech, this time reading from notes: bla bla bla, relentless drive - sorry - focus - on efficiency, overarching business plan, direction of travel, yadiyadiya ... Later on she started talking mysteriously about a critical mass, although it was not quite clear whether that was a reference to (James) Mass, who is above criticism, of course.
Labour's Anne Hutton commented that there was plenty of money wasted by the council which could be made available, setting up academies, on consultants - and senior officers. Ouch.
Independent member Simon Clifford spoke, unlike his two colleagues, for some reason, who remained silent all evening.
Ms Kennally said she was happy to have a conversation with him 'out of here'. I'm sure you are, thought Mrs Angry, but for the purposes of transparency, we would prefer that conversation was in public.
Two incendiary issues, then, deferred to tonight's Full Council, at the end of which, of course, there will be a vote of no confidence in the Tory leader, Richard Cornelius, in the aftermath of the Lloyd-Jones investigation into the failure in governance and legal services.
It promises to be a night to remember.