Friday, 17 March 2017

Kicking it into the Bushes,Unproductive Clutter, and a Question of Urgency: an Environment Committee meeting

Unison members at the Town Hall, in Lo Vi jackets

According to the Book of Revelations (Broken Barnet version, rather than King James), the certain signs of an impending apocalypse is predicted not by the appearance of the Anti-Christ, war, famine, plague, judgment, chaos, silence, rebirth, or four horsemen riding up the marble steps of Hendon Town Hall, so much as - well, a combination of all of these events, perhaps, and the attendance, for the first time in a very long time, of all four Barnet bloggers at a council committee meeting.

Yes: there we were, at Wednesday night's environment committee, a full quartet of bloggery, planted amongst furtive looking Capita drones, and tetchy residents, and a handful of naughty primary school age boys, who had clearly committed some dreadful act, such as setting fire to the headmaster's trousers - or maybe asking why they were no longer allowed to visit their local library - and were being punished by a trip to a council meeting, to see how the democratic process, in Barnet, is beaten to a quivering pulp by an assortment of Tory councillors, senior officers, private contractors and consultants, in a long drawn out assault lasting ... oh, a mere three and a half hours. 

The naughty school boys got very bored after a while, and who could blame them, and began wriggling in their seats, and then tried tying each other's shoe laces together. Mrs Angry looked on in admiration, wishing she was fit enough to crawl under the table and do the same to the Tory councillors. Except they would probably have enjoyed it; especially that octogenarian silver fox, & handlebar moustachioed linguist, John Hart, who, apropos of nothing very much as far as anyone could see, announced early on in the meeting, with woefully misplaced self confidence, that he was the borough's 'environment and heritage champion', don't you know?

No. I don't know. This might be true if by that he means that he has an allotment, and has read Don Quixote (whom he closely resembles) in Spanish, as he once informed Mrs Angry, in order to impress her with his cultural credentials. Can't recall Cllr Hart speaking out in criticism of the the ransacking and closure of Church Farmhouse Museum, and he supports the library cuts, too ...  (He protested, later, about the demolition of the White Bear, across the road: whose fault was that? The council of which he is an elected member, and whose colleagues allowed it to happen, by default, despite all pleas from residents.)

On with the meeting: the Chair, Dean Cohen, refused to listen to sense and bring forward items for which members of the public had submitted questions, or wanted to make comments, so they had to wait hours after their questions for the items to come up for discussion, which meant everyone had forgotten what had been said, and ... oh, the usual Barnet nonsense. 

Still, to be fair, Cllr Cohen did allow, against Mrs Angry's expectations, an urgent item on the Legionella story featured in the previous post, although of course that was the very last item of the evening - at ten o'clock, as we shall see.

The meeting began.  A man walked up to the table and sat down to talk about an issue in Hampstead Garden Suburb, which meant all the Tory councillors immediately sat up straight, and looked on with absolute attention, while Mrs Angry automatically lapsed into a semi comatose state and found it impossible to follow what he was talking about. Or care about what he was talking about. She thought he said he was the former Director of English Heritage. In fact he was a former senior Director of English Heritage, and he was rather cross about ...  Unproductive Clutter, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Ah. Yes.

This latest HGS outrage is from the same school of drama as - There Is Quite A Lot Of Noise In Hampstead Garden Suburb - meaning the dreadful threat to delicate ears from ... noisy leaf blowers. As you can imagine, Mrs Angry was moved to tears by this latest tale of human suffering, and tried to imagine how Ken Loach would approach the story, as a sequel, perhaps, to 'I, Daniel Blake'. Camilla Long would love it, wouldn't she? A suburbanista safari.

In contrast to this, next to take their place at the table was a woman from Cricklewood, trying to raise the issue, one which is of many years standing, caused by a waste disposal and skip hire contractor based there, whose activities make life a misery for residents - with pollution, noise, mess, and all sorts of continued nuisance, including work at weekends, when it is theoretically not allowed. 

Later on in the meeting Cllr Shimon Ryde came along and said they were doing all sorts of things (marginal ward, see?) but then Labour's Alan Schneiderman said, well, it's not very effective then, is it, and Cllr Ryde was annoyed, and we heard all about MP Mike Freer (remember him?) who was doing something (marginal ward, see?) and bla bla bla. He agreed enforcement was an issue: but our Tory councillors will never pursue such criticism to the logical end, and hold contractors accountable.

Finchley resident Mary O'Connor asked awkward questions about the imposition of cycling on our lovely Dollis Valley Green Walk: if it is unsafe to allow cycling on pavements she argued, why is it ok to force pedestrians, including the elderly, those with children, disabled residents, to share a path meant for quiet walks with speeding cyclists? No response. But it's because someone gave them money for it, and Barnet Tories see no further than a free handout.

Another resident complained about an issue regarding the surface dressing of roads. You can hear the stones rattling against the cars, he said. Blank faces. Complaints were ignored, he added. And documents have been 'mislaid'. How many, asked a Labour councillor? The Chair interrupted hastily. Not appropriate. Yes it is, everyone shouted at him, especially Mrs Angry, who has a great interest in missing documents. 

And emails. Especially emails. 

Back to the meeting. Oh dear: here comes another HGS councillor: the rather dour Cllr Grover, who sat down and talked in grave tones about ... the question of de-cluttering, and - the problem of posts. Not blog posts, like this one, which are above criticism, of course, and well beyond decluttering, but posts which obscure the lovely vista of St Jude's Church. 

Mrs Angry laughed, remembering the association of St Jude with lost causes, hopeless cases, and things despaired of. The patron saint of Broken Barnet.

Hampstead Garden Suburb residents, murmured the Tory member, in the manner of a discreet but sympathetic Harley Street psychiatrist giving expert witness evidence for the defence at the Old Bailey,  ... ' are highly sensitive to change in their environment'.

Tory councillors looked on, nodding, dabbing their dear little grimacing faces with their hankies. What could they do to help their most loyal and most supportive multi millionaire residents, in this terrible plight? The posts, and the lost vista. We must preserve these precious things. 

They wanted a policy that would protect the endangered species of Broken Barnet, those living in conservation areas - sorry, did I say conservation areas? I meant Conservative areas, of course ... they want them to be cosseted and cherished, and wrapped up in love and money, and surrounded with lovely pavements, (more of that to come) and not have to worry about anything beastly like noise, or ugliness, or spoiled vistas. 

The rest of the borough, of course, the children of a lesser god, the poor - they can just stop moaning about their children's schools and air quality and the noise, and mess, and broken pavements and potholes and bloody well put up with it. This is Broken Barnet, and this is how we do things here. If you don't like it, you know what you can do. If you do like it, we may make you do it anyway, if you are a non-secure tenant, or too poor to live in the Suburb.

You might be wondering why all four bloggers had come along to witness all this nonsense. Was it to support the Suburbanistas in their time of crisis? It was not. 

It was because we hoped to watch something very rare. An event as rare as a good deed in a naughty world, or the appearance of ... four bloggers at a council meeting. A decision ... not to outsource a council service. Yes! Just imagine!

The item everyone had been waiting was eventually reached, after a long haul.

Barnet Unison representatives sat poised in anticipation. In the public seats, a party of big burly workers in hi vi jackets watched attentively. 

And then ...


The decision not to outsource ... did not happen. 

It was not even going to be discussed.


No one knows. 

The Chair fumbled some sort of excuse about ... burble burble burble ... some information was missing ... burble... the figures need more work ... burble burble ...

Unison representatives and workers looked on in disbelief: their jobs on the line, expecting good news, and now this ...

If that was the case, asked Labour's Alan Schneiderman, at a loss, like everyone else, to understand what was going on, why did you not ask officers to provide the missing information? 

No sensible response.

Tory Brian Salinger, brimming with satisfaction at being, at last, after a mere thirty years wait, elected as the next Mayor, (which is all Barnet Tories care about, and in this case has been deliberately withheld, due to petty factionalism in the group) now made an eejit of Himself by declaring grandly that in any case, in regard to the options, there was no in house team. This, as you may imagine, came as something of a surprise to members of the in house team sitting in their high visibility jackets in the public gallery. High visibility, but not to Tory councillors wearing blinkers, and praying for any excuse not to not outsource their jobs.

The Mayor Elect

One of the furious workers yelled - we're here! And he added they could delay matters, but it was going to cost them even more - he was an agency worker. Oh well: Barnet Tories, of course, love agency workers, and waste millions of pounds a year on them for two reasons: this gives a nice little earner to Capita, and it suits their ideological position of implacable hostility to any in house council service.

Now it was the term of Tory councillor Peter Zinkin to pipe up. He claimed consultation with the workers had produced a magnificent level of support for council plans: quoting percentages and statistics left, right, and centre: or rather not left, but right of centre, until it was pointed out to him - loudly, and in some detail - that only 25 people had taken part, and therefore his statistical analysis was completely meaningless ... Note his interest in the workers, however - bit of a give away?

Interesting character, you see, Peter Zinkin. 

Born in 1904 (didn't realise he was quite that old), joined the Communist party in 1926, went to work for the Comintern in Moscow, in 1931, became political correspondent of the Daily Worker ... Oh. Hang on.

Not our Cllr Zinkin. His cousin, apparently. Slightly removed. Very distantly removed, perhaps. Poles apart: north to south.

Shame. Up to this point, Mrs Angry, fresh from an excellent talk this week at the Highgate Literary and Scientific Association on the subject of the Cambridge spies ... and mindful of the fact that a local union organiser is called Burgess ... well, well: an interesting fantasy had begun to form. 

After extensive twitter exchanges with him yesterday, however, it would appear that spoilsport Comrade Councillor Zinkin is not a fellow traveller, nor a double agent, and is still a paid up member of the Conservative Party. So he says. Can't wait to tell the People's Mayor, Mr Shepherd, though.

But why were the Tories backtracking on their decision? 

It might have been because they were aware of the political implications of admitting an in house option was best, rather than carry on the relentless hollowing out of council services. Or it may have been because they are secretly hoping to find a way to privatise anyway. All very peculiar.

On with more important business. Back to Tory councillor Brian Salinger, talking shit. Or rather, tut, Mrs Angry: talking about shit: dog shit - or 'dog waste', as the members referred to it, holding the very thought at the end of their noses, and avoiding the unpleasantness, with all the gentility of Betjeman's Norman, soiling the doilies and using the couch for his feet.

Brian Salinger: kicking it into the bushes

Brian had clearly read about the Tory MP in St Albans who says the trees in her area are festooned not with cherry blossom, but with bags of dog shit, hanging from the branches. (Oh to be in Hertfordshire, now that spring is here ...). She wonders if we would do better not to tell people to put their doggies doo doo in those ghastly flesh coloured bags, but to 'kick it into the bushes'.

Having spent the whole evening - well, no, the last few decades - kicking things into bushes, our Tory councillors, especially Brian, were very taken with this idea. Also up for suggestion was that we should follow the example of heh heh, wait for it, Barking Council and demand that naughty dogs who leave their poo in the wrong places (Tory wards) are subject to DNA tests. And then presumably paw prints, interviews with SO15, confiscation of their pet passports, and deportation with no appeal. 

If only dogs could be trained to use litter trays, like cats, and Tory councillors, thought Mrs Angry, aloud, her mind wandering, and thinking fondly of the Greyhound round the corner, and the prospect of alcoholic refreshment, after the hours long ordeal of this pointless meeting.

Sitting at the table was Mr Jamie Blake, the man behind the Freedom Pass fiasco, which you may recall: his very well paid job - six figure salary - is for the post of the commissioning director for environment: but let him introduce himself, from his linkedin profile:

I am responsible for £50m revenue budget, plus up to £60 million capital schemes including significant highway developments, regeneration and open space schemes. The role is an integral part of the commissioning model – seamlessly blending innovation drawn from an inherent understanding of the environment landscape and market place with the pragmatism to relate intelligently to the related delivery units.

I, Jamie Blake

Well, relating intelligently to related delivery units is an important job isn't it? Is it? F*ck knows. All we do know is that he is supposed to oversee, on our behalf, the grateful residents of Broken Barnet, the delivery of environmental services provided by private contractors. That would be, in an astonishing range of different roles, quite a few raising questions of conflict of interest - Capita, Capita, Capita, Capita, Capita, Capita, and Capita, as far as the eye can see, or not see - and a few add on companies, as in the case of the parking service (see Mr Mustard for all that sort of thing). 

Mr Blake is a man who clearly has very burdensome duties, in relating pragmatically and intelligently to  stuff, deploying his inherent understanding, and seamless blending, and all that sort of thing - and is therefore sometimes obliged to put councillors in their place, should they forget themselves, and speak out of turn. 

To one Labour councillor, at one point, on Wednesday night, he suggested kindly:  'Councillor, perhaps you misspoke?' and later, in a discussion about why some roads in the borough appeared to be given better treatment than others (ie in Labour areas) he said graciously:  'I'm not saying you shouldn't have asked the question ...' 

Risky: Barnet Tories like officers to kowtow, and pretend the elected members are still in charge, even though they most certainly are not. 

Now we must move on to another issue of vital significance, in the territory wars of Broken Barnet. 


Yes: you may think that our Tory members, who after all, award themselves free parking permits, and do not need to walk anywhere much, are otherwise like demi-gods, floating on an ethereal plane, whose feet never touch the ground, and who need not concern themselves with the everyday paths followed by ordinary residents. 

But no: they are very interested in this subject; keen to ensure that the proper tradition of apartheid in highways expenditure is maintained. In other words, some areas in the borough may have paving stones - and other must now put up with what was referred to as 'black non porous materials': asphalt, to you and me. Pavements are now only supposed to be what Mr Blake explained were 'prestigious' areas. He claimed this meant 'conservation' (Conservative) areas, or 'regeneration' (private development, Conservative) areas. Funnily enough, as Labour councillors pointed out, there are some mysterious anomalies in certain residential areas ... like West Heath Road ... Comrade Councillor Zinkin in turn explained this was because that road, in his ward, and one of the most exclusive, of course, in the borough, 'was in danger of collapse' and had had to have special treatment. 

By this time, Mrs Angry felt she too was in danger of collapse, and most certainly in need of special treatment.

But this is how things are, in this borough: it is the 'Tale of Two Barnets', where there is a time honoured tradition of spending money where the Tories want, for political reasons, and the rest of the borough can just put up with what is left over. What Hampstead Garden Suburb or Totteridge want: they get. In a Labour ward? Join the back of the queue. For those who doubt this, or who have short memories: cast your mind back to the scandalous story of the Highways expenditure in the run up to the last local elections, and the inquiry by Sharpe Pritchard which proved Tory wards had had more money spent on them. It is a necessary process: how else would we remember our place, in the scheme of things?

Throughout the protracted, interminable discussions of the black stuff, and the brown stuff, and vistas, and decluttering, and ... well, it looked as if there might be no time for the urgent item on legionella. 

The Labour members asked for it to be put before some other items, to make sure it would be raised. By that time, by unfortunate coincidence, the Chief Executive of Barnet Council, who had been lurking in the back of the room, appeared to have left. 

Still, the commissioning director for environment, Mr Jamie Blake, was at the table, and would be bound to be able to answer any questions, wouldn't he? 

Oh: apparently not. 

Councillor Alon Or-Bach explained the very serious concerns about the legionella testing, and water contamination and asked if there had been any misleading statements?

Mr Blake said he hadn't got any comment, which was rather disappointing. 

Mrs Angry commented instead, unasked for, from her seat, pointing out she had complained to the Chief Executive, Mr Hooton, about the matter on Monday, but had not received the promised response. 

Someone observed that the Tories looked appalled when the issue was mentioned: clearly knew nothing about the tests, or the apparent cover up. One councillor mouthed to another: this is the last thing we need.

To shut Mrs Angry up, and the Labour members, the Chair agreed that the item would be addressed and a response given to them as soon as possible. When? Oh, today, tomorrow, he said. 

The meeting ended.

Tomorrow was yesterday. Not a word so far, from anyone, of course.

What is it they don't want us to know?

To be updated.

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