Friday, 11 January 2019

The winter of our discontent, or: another load of old rubbish, from Barnet Tories

Tory councillors on New Year's Day

Let us return to happier days, to last September, at the end of a seemingly never ending summer made all the more glorious, for our Tory councillors, by the absence of meetings and council business: a welcome respite from the intensity of focus on their fiscal incompetence - the whopping budget deficit, the failure of the Capita contracts: the massive fraud by a Capita manager, oh - and the incomprehensibly generous loan to Saracens rugby club of £22 million of tax payers' money ... 

How glad they were, in July, when it was time to pack their buckets and spades, or flee to the genteel solitude of their second homes in the Dordogne. 

But there is always an end to summer, and a return to school: a return to grim reality.

Grim reality, for Tory Leader Richard Cornelius, meant kicking off the new term with a tedious duty: a nonsultation event, a one man show, for one night only, doing stand up at the Old Bull theatre, in High Barnet. 

Not many laughs, in the subject of setting a budget: but obligatory. And what was the Dear Leader's main concern, as a priority of council spending, you may ask? 

Was it perhaps to support the most needy and vulnerable residents of Broken Barnet? No. Was it to improve the provision of housing for those in need of a home? Nope. Safeguard social care for disabled residents? No. 

Tory members see none of these problems, in our borough. As reported then:

Inside the theatre, another Richard stood waiting on the tiny stage, about to give a soliloquy not on our glorious summer, or the looming winter of discontent, but to expand upon a vision of life as it never is and never can be, in Broken Barnet, where everything, as he put it, is Nice, or at least, parts of it are Nice, and in defence of which he intends to make sure the Nice parts remain Nice.

Yes: to Barnet Tories, the only bits of Barnet which matter are the areas where, you know, their sort of people live: Totteridge, Hampstead Garden Suburb: Nice places, safe within the embrace of the Green Belt, or guarded by conservation law: the sort of restrictions which are irritating obstruction to development and profit, anywhere else but the areas where they choose to reside. 

Areas which are staunchly loyal Tory wards, and prioritised, as generally Tory wards are, as we have seen from FOI disclosures, and an independent investigation, for largesse from the Highways funds, in order to ... make sure they remain ... Nice.

Oh dear. 

Oh dear, because Mrs Angry, as you will have read, and with her usual clairvoyant powers, predicted this winter would be, as it has become, a winter of discontent: and here it is:

All over the borough, there is now an accumulation of uncollected rubbish: wheelie bins left unemptied, bin bags left in the streets, an epidemic of fly tipping ignored, residents struggling to cope with what is, without any doubt, a total failure in management of a vital public service. 

The council's own twitter account can barely cope with the number of complaints from those whose bins have yet again been left uncollected: the timeline is ahem - littered - with furious comments from residents across the borough. Here is one from an estate in Colney Hatch:

As Labour councillor Sara Conway reported: 

The story has now been featured on BBC news:

You will note that Tory Leader Councillor Richard Cornelius, as usual, when being filmed against a backdrop of social housing, sports a casually tied silk cravat, as a sort of 'up yours' gesture - or perhaps or like a 17th century dandy clutching a nosegay to ward off the Plague, here a talisman against the risk of infectious poverty, from one of those places that are - sharp of intake of breath - not quite as Nice as Totteridge, or Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Richard doesn't think the rubbish crisis is a 'disaster'. In fact he implies the most recent unpleasantness is only due to problems over Christmas, and New Year, due to workers insisting on having time off, to be with their families, or from sickness, that sort of nuisance.

The truth, of course, is that the fault is entirely his, and that of his fellow Tory councillors, and let us not forget the lead member for Environment, Cllr Dean Cohen, who seems curiously quiet, at the moment. Is he in hiding?

The service has been in meltdown for weeks, way before Christmas, for one reason only.

That reason is their decision to cut the service.

Due to their financial blundering, and despite trying to plug the gap in the budget by robbing council reserves, it has become necessary - or so they claim - to make even more drastic savings. 

They convinced themselves they could make £750,000 by cutting down on the number of days spent on collecting waste, and cutting out the collection of food waste - despite the environmental impact of such a retrograde step. To get round objections from the Mayor of London (the man all Barnet Tory members voted to label, in a motion that was excruciatingly shabby, even by Barnet Tory standards, an 'Enemy of the People') - they are now pretending that the measure is 'only temporary'. 

In the meanwhile, Barnet Tory Easynomics dictates that it is possible to collect the same amount of rubbish in a shorter amount of time, with fewer staff, so that is what they proposed.

Oh, except of course - it seems that doesn't work, after all.

Hence the total collapse of any pretence of efficiency in the delivery of this service.

And no - it isn't the workers' fault. They are not being lazy, or messing about: they simply cannot do the work in the shorter time allowed. It is physically impossible. 

At first it didn't seem to matter. Tory members tried shrugging it off. Christmas came and went: they carried on as usual, prancing about, doing what they do best, as seen on New Year's Day:

Alice in Tory Blunderland: new boy councillor Felix, in a lovely crown, and David "Mad Hatter' Longstaff

As you will observe, most of the worst areas, purely by chance, are in Labour wards: the poorer areas, where there are more flats, more estate buildings, more accommodation close to shops. 

So what if these areas are left as dumping grounds, literally, rather than, more typically, in a metaphorical sense?

So what, if the complete collapse of the clinical waste collection left Barnet residents with disabled or ill family members unable to see the back of weeks of bagged up incontinence pads, told, against all H&S guidelines, to dump them in the wheelie bins that were not being collected, offering all sorts of risk to householders and workers? 

Before Christmas, Labour members who complained about this were told by senior officers and the Leader that the service had resumed. This was not true. Only a couple of days ago was the collection of weeks of this resident's clinical waste taken away.

Oh. But then. The worst happened. 

People in Tory wards began to be upset. Oh no! 

Their bins were not collected on the allotted day: outrageous! 

Their bins were not collected the next week, either: simply unbelievable! 

Tory MPs were written to. 

Tory MPs had to juggle the impossible demand now: seem to be sympathetic, without criticising their chums on the council, whose ideology is their ideology: nice homes for nice people, and to hell with the rest. 

In three marginal constituencies, poised as we are at any moment on the brink of a snap election - what could be a more untimely reminder of reasons not to vote for any Tory political representative?

Because: oh dear me, yes: do you remember the last council election? Last May? What was it that our Tory friends decided to run as their main manifesto policy? Try and think ...


Yep. Couldn't mention the impending exposure of the budget deficit, or the Capita contract failure, or the fraud, so: look, look over there! Let's have a game of #angryaboutbins (© Mrs Angry); the favourite dodge of any Tory candidate with nothing else on offer. 

Easy to scare Tory voters with the awful thought that rubbish won't be collected. The very idea! So here in Broken Barnet, our scheming Tory members, desperate for distraction from their own ineptitude, decided to smear Labour by inventing a threat that was simply untrue: that if elected, they would mess with the regular collection arrangments. Ha.

That went well, didn't it, Tory councillors? Hoist by your own f*cking petard ... 

As soon as the election was over, the true state of the council's fiscal peril was revealed. 

Figures were 'readjusted' - but no explanation was ever given as to why a mistake had so badly underestimated the deficit, pre-election, and no one lost their job, or resigned, of course, even when the disclosure of the Capita manager's fraud exposed an entire network of council processes left with virtually no effective financial controls in place.

The next step we should have expected. Having centred their manifesto on the grim warning of rubbish mountains created by wicked Labour, wicked Tories created one of their own. 

But the cost of this folly is in line with the rest of their nonsensical financial policies, as seen in the mythical Capita 'savings'. 

In order to begin to address the accumulation of rubbish around the borough, the council has been forced to SPEND barrow loads of cash: estimated at £15-20,000 a week on overtime, extra staff etc. 

You can work out for yourselves how quickly the 'savings' promised from the cuts in service will be outdone by expenditure on fixing the damage. Easynomics, once more.

In the meanwhile, the landscape of Broken Barnet lurches into eternal winter: yes, a winter of discontent, erupting in a plague of festering rubbish, attended by rats, scavenging foxes, and a burgeoning sense of doom.

Happy New Year

Friday, 14 December 2018

A Matter of Regret: or - who runs Barnet Council, anyway?

The view from Hendon Town Hall entrance

Well. Another extraordinary few weeks in Broken Barnet.

Let us set the scene.

All around the borough, the scale of failure of the current Tory administration is impossible to ignore - unless you live in one of the more privileged wards, or marginal wards, where it is a matter of fact that Highways expenditure, by sheer coincidence, is rather more generous than others. 

In my road, which is half in a Labour ward, half in a Tory ward, can you guess which end was resurfaced, this year, while the same treatment for my end has twice been cancelled? 

Of course a Tory councillor lives in the other end, and we would not wish his journeys around the borough, to be impeded by the same sort of pot holes and loose gravel to be found in abundance on the wrong side of Long Lane, now would we? Nor would we wish to upset the Tory voters. If you live over the border: tough. This is the Tale of Two Barnets: know your place.

The state of decline, in the wake of failing services, is however beginning to become apparent even in the 'better' areas of the borough, or at least noticed by the better sort of (Tory voting) residents, which is why, and only why, the Tory councillors are beginning to panic. Failures in planning and enforcement, for example, are increasingly inciting normally loyal voters to mutiny against their local councillors.

Their property values, - and the built heritage of our borough - are under threat at every point: from the grasp of developers supported by a weakened planning system, that offers fee based advice to applicants, but shows little interest in impact on residents, or in the enforcement of measures meant to protect even listed buildings. Take a look at the Railway Hotel in Edgware, listed but left to decay and suffer damage from two fires in two years with no effective action by the council's privatised services. Only determined lobbying by local campaigners has resulted in any move to save this property from further risk.

As for the rest of the borough: weeds everywhere, broken pavements replaced, if at all, by tarmac: roads deteriorating daily, with massive holes left from the last icy winter: even the broken lamppost opposite the Town Hall (see above) has been left for weeks, leaning at a dangerous angle, unremarked.

Fly tipping left uncollected at street corners: wheelie bins left uncollected for weeks. Yes, weeks - and now it is impossible to travel around the borough without seeing overflowing bins, accompanied by dumped black bin bags full of rubbish. The open landscape of Broken Barnet, in short, is literally a tip. 

Ironically, the Tories have deployed a crack team of litter inspectors, who look like parking wardens, to patrol the high streets of Broken Barnet, to swoop on hapless residents who drop a sweet wrapper, or cigarette butt, and fine them on the spot, but they appear not to have fined themselves for leaving the entire borough festooned with bags of rotting rubbish.

You may recall that the absurd campaign strategy of Barnet Tories in May, aware of the looming revelation of their financial incompetence, post election, and seeking to distract voters with anything other than questions about their catastrophic mishandling of the Capita contracts, featured, rather more literally than usual, a load of old rubbish. 

Yes: the time honoured deployment of #angryaboutbins was put to use. Wicked Labour, they said, were going to cut your bin collection, if elected. 

The Wicked Tories were elected instead, and - cut your bin collection. 

At the same time, they 'readjusted' their budget deficit to a terrifying new level, admitted the Capita contracts were failing to deliver, and that one of their employees had stolen more than £2 million unnoticed, due to what was then identified as a catastrophic absence of any reasonable standard of financial controls and safeguards against fraud. How lucky they were that they had not realised any of this before the election! 

One week my bin was left forlornly on the pavement, unemptied. On the way to the Audit committee, I peered inside at the contents, & thought about taking them with me to the Town Hall,  and handing it to the nearest Tory councillor, but - couldn't quite bring myself to scoop any of it out. Still, it was playing on mind as an appropriate metaphor for the state of things, as I took a seat in the committee room, watching the Tory councillors insinuate themselves into the room, a room already packed with angry residents and campaigners.

In July it had been agreed that the council would seek to 'realign' their contracts with Capita, and that business cases for varying degrees of separation, and return of services in house, would be prepared to go for consideration.

It then emerged that the Chief Executive had submitted a report to the Audit meeting proposing - with no consultation, or further formal discussion - a retraction of this decision. Instead we should now take our time to consider the 'realignment' - or not - of each service, over a long period of time: over the course of which of course we remain in bondage to Capita, and any unpleasant consequences of their own failings shrugged aside, with no urgency over reclaiming the vast majority of services.

Many questions were submitted to this Audit meeting in regard to this report, and several people made comments to the committee: but the situation had been further complicated by the revelation, that day, of a hastily arranged Urgency Committee at which a most extraordinary deal would be considered - and no doubt approved.

A deal has been made, in secret, with Capita: they will pay us £4 million, in return for being allowed to duck the contractual obligation to provide £30 million of contract savings guarantees over the next 5 years. Well, the report itself has the clanging and grammatically cringemaking title of: Commercial Settlement of Historic Issues: flipping Nora, you may think: settlement of Historic Issues with Capita would require a report using up all the paper in Broken Barnet, and then some, would it not, as detailed in the annals of this blog? Indeed it would, but Mr Duncan Tessier, Commercial Director, has managed to whittle down his token compo wish list to these few items: according to my notes (not entirely reliable):

a) Mosaic (the Adults Social care system) – new IT system implementation that
experienced issues with timeliness and quality of delivery;
b) Development pipeline – delays in delivering housing on council land;
c) Increased monitoring associated with financial controls – to cover cost of Grant
Thornton and additional council resources (in addition to first payment made in
September 2018);
d) Procurement gainshare – settling of respective claims; and
e) Miscellaneous items – estates compliance (related to 2013 to 2016); and KPI failures related to the Re contract.
f) Expenditure on a big box of black felt tips, for redaction of details in council reports and FOI responses from Mrs Angry

Hmm. Of course that £4 million is not much to see, is it, as a result of such prolonged contractual intimacy? A tiny drop of honey on the couch, compared to the unending 'exotic spresm' of money ejaculated, with such enthusiasm, into in the ever welcoming lap of Capita, wouldn't you say?

Don't know about you, but I feel so used, don't you, readers? All the way from Storyville to Capitaville, and back again.

And: why did they not use the agreed contractual processes to hold Capita to task for the breaches now being paid off?

Ah. Ahead of you there, they are: because, apparently:

There would be a need to instigate a range of formal dispute resolution processes under both contracts. The contractual dispute resolution processes would be time and resource
consuming with the outcomes uncertain and always subject to the possibility of
appeal. This would not offer the certainty and clarity of the proposed commercial
settlement. Legal advice has confirmed that the settlement outcome is good value for the council when compared with these risks and uncertainties.

'Legal advice', see, unspecified, and unattributed. 

Could have been from anyone. Citizens Advice Bureau. The Chief Executive's aunty. Man on a bench outside the (unstaffed) library next door to the Town Hall. 

And they don't like risk, and uncertainties, do they? Oh, well: unless in regard to a whopping £22 million loan to a private rugby club. 'Certainty and clarity', that is what you expect, from the officers and members of the London Borough of Broken Barnet. Along with transparency, and accountability.

Oh, about the massive Capita fraud. Why, asked one written question from a resident, did no one at Barnet spot what was happening?

It is a matter of regret that the fraud was not identified earlier, was the starchy knickered response. 

A matter of regret.

And all of this, by the way, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with a visit to the borough, a couple of weeks ago, by the Chief Executive of Capita. 

Oh: no, hang on - it did.

One of the many questions to the committee was from me, on the subject of this meeting, which we only knew about by rumour: turned out to be true.


The Chief Executive of Capita recently visited the

borough, to see the company's last outpost for
himself. Since then the council has announced what is
effectively a retraction of its intention to 'realign' the
Capita contracts. What did the CEO of Capita offer
that persuaded the Leader and senior officers to pull
back from the brink? Please give full details of the
meeting: the date, how long it lasted, with whom he
met, and please provide the minutes of that meeting.


Members and senior officers met with Capita’s

Chief Executive on 15 November for around an
hour. The meeting focused on settlement of historic
commercial issues the detail of which is set out in
the Urgency Committee report published today and
on improving the services provided by Capita going

Aha: those historic commercial issues again.

Going forward, as they love to say, so we do not dwell on any unpleasantness: why was this deal agreed? Because, as I pointed out in my comments to the committee, both Capita and the Tory councillors are so fearful of the damage to their reputations (such as they are) neither party can bring themselves to end the relationship. Like some warring couples, they prefer the hypocrisy of remaining in a loveless partnership, than the public airing of their disagreements.

Also in my comments, I pointed out the folly of having as Chair of Audit the Tory councillor who believes that scrutiny should not be critical - and asks for 'positive' comments only, in line with the usual rubber stamping exercise of Barnet Tory committees. 

The auditors looked on, only the new boy with the designer glasses making any effort to look as if anything mattered much, anyway.

Audit, in the age of Capita

One of the independent members of the Audit committee actually appeared to fall asleep, fairly early on in the proceedings: all part of the same problem, the lack of rigour, the lack of forensic investigation, until it is too late. Oh, and those minutes I asked for? No comment at the meeting. I ask the governance officers. Silence. Weeks later I find out from an FOI officer that this question has been magically transformed, without my consent or knowledge, into an FOI. 

This means it will now no doubt be treated in the same way as any other FOI now: subject to an eternal process of delay, excuses and prevarication, in the hope that I will give up. 

Note to whoever is organising this: I will not give up. 

Interestingly, after several people, including blogger Mr Mustard and I, requested unredacted copies of the exempted report by Grant Thornton into the Capita fraud, and its wider revelations (are you keeping up?) this week, in the middle of all the Brexit hoo ha, it was released. What was all the fuss about?  Perhaps this statement from Capita, previously suppressed:

Ooh, get you.

Some hope, however, emerged from the otherwise pointless exercise rolled out at this Audit meeting. 

My comment to the committee largely consisted of a plea to the newer Tory members to distance themselves from the shambolic history of their older colleagues, and think carefully about their duties, as elected representatives, to put the best interests of residents before political considerations. 

It emerged that Labour members of the committee had been - quite incredibly - given redacted copies of a report on which they were expected to vote. This was outrageous, and another sign on the increasingly ruthless, not to say undemocratic measures being used by the Tories to silence debate, and mask the extent of their culpability in the absolute shambles of the current administration. After protest by residents and councillors, Labour moved to demand access. 

Just imagine our open mouthed surprise, readers, when the two new Tory councillors refused to vote against this motion. Cllr Prager voted against, and Cllr Jajeh abstained. The motion passed. 

This is unheard of, in the long dark history of Tory Barnet: Tory members having the integrity - and courage - to take a stand on a point of principle, in favour of the democratic process. Hats off. 

As the meeting reached the point where the press and public are thrown out, for discussion of 'exempt' matters, I thought I would ask the Chair, while passing by the table, if there were any chance of getting my bins emptied, before Christmas? After the chortling finished, keen new councillor Jajeh followed me out of the room, and promised to make sure they were. And he did. Which is very nice of him, but: it shouldn't be necessary to make private arrangements to deal with the inevitable outcome of the Tories' cuts in service, should it?

This week, my bins were emptied, but - hello - a new strategy in #angryaboutbins has been deployed: leaving you with a bag of your neighbour's rubbish in return. Perhaps this is Nudge Theory, once again: encouraging you to see rubbish collection, like gritting, and looking after our parks, as a voluntary civic duty?

A load of old rubbish from your Tory council: taking away with one hand & giving back with another ...

But it is not just bins, and rubbish, and weeds that are having an impact on our daily lives. For many residents, the collapse in local services is affecting them directly, and acutely.

After the meeting at Parliament with John Mc Donnell to discuss the Capita issue, another session was arranged to take place locally. A room was taken at the Town Hall, in one of the committee rooms where public engagement and open debate is usually suppressed at every point: by exclusion, redaction, exemption and limitation. 

Holding a residents' meeting in the Town Hall was a symbolic gesture, meant to remind elected representatives that local democracy is only ever an expression of the will of the community, and not something to be controlled by them. 

It was also, by chance, the same room where five years ago, residents took over the meeting where Tory members were due to vote to approve the Capita contracts - unread. They were obliged to flee to a tiny side room, where they did the deed under siege, defiant to the last. 

Five years on, this meeting now followed a long sequence of testimonies by residents - and some Labour councillors - as to their experiences with the contracted out services. Others read the statements of those unable to do so themselves, or too upset to do so themselves.

Fellow blogger John Dix explained exactly how Capita made so much money out of these services, and how the claims that the contracts are making vast savings are nothing more than an elaborate fiction.

A resident read a statement from a young man with autism, who had been left stranded and in distress when his free travel pass was found not to work: it had been cancelled without warning by Capita. It was a 'heinous action' he said, in his detailed, deeply upsetting comments. This happened because Tory members and senior officers allowed Capita to demand an extra fee for taking over the issue of such passes: and of course the contracts allow Capita to receive gainshare payments for any 'savings'. Who cares if savings are made at the expense of disabled residents? Leave them at the bus stop, or tube station, wondering how they are going to get home. Kerching!

We heard from a resident who is a social worker, deeply concerned at the impact on elderly residents of the failure to maintain pavements and roads: the risk of falls from hazards left unaddressed, from leaves unswept as a matter of policy, leaving slippery pathways all over the borough.

Another read statement described how Capita had helped itself to £2,000 from a resident's bank account, and informed them of the withdrawal of their single person discount.

A resident of East Finchley told us about the local community centre now being 'marketed' by Capita: they have their hands now on all council buildings, including our libraries - what is left of them, unstaffed for much of the time: as one woman explained, leaving one mother no option but to take her little girl out to wee in the car park, as the loos are locked in these hours. Another speaker asked if the libraries were being deliberately run down, so as to free the properties for sale, and facilitate more unwanted development.

A resident of West Hendon exposed the conflict of interest in Capita's dual roles in both running the 'regeneration' of her estate, and the valuation of homes subject to the process of compulsory purchase. (You may recall the massive and sustained fraud to the value of £2m plus by a Capita employee perpetrated in the course of compulsory purchase of properties in another 'regeneration' area).

A Labour councillor furiously condemned the use of Capita bailiffs against the poorest members of her ward.

Another criticised the terrible council website, the first point of information for many residents, and a 'nightmare' to navigate, despite continual challenges to the contractors about the poor standard.

As you might imagine, there was much criticism too of the planning service, with many remarking upon the disadvantages for ordinary residents, and the balance in favour of rampant development.

And on, and on. 

But it makes no difference to our Tory members whose lives are barely affected by the result of their own blundering failure to hold their contractors' poor performance to account. 

They held an Urgency meeting, sneaked into the timetable, listed for 8.30 one morning, with only the Tory Leader, Cornelius, the deputy leader Daniel Thomas, and the Labour leader. Clearly they wanted to hold the meeting at a time when almost no one was likely to notice - or turn up. 

Unfortunately for them John Dix did turn up, to watch their shame faced capitulation to the deal 'offered' by Capita: a £4m quid hand out (or, the equivalent of the amount nicked by one of their employees, times two) and - now ... let's be friends. 

And by sheer coincidence, an announcement was then made that instead of honouring the decision made by the P& R committee - to order officers to present full business cases on all options regarding the future of the Capita contracts - the next P&R committee would only talk about bringing back Finance & HR, and throw the rest of the services into the long grass, some only to be reviewed on the twelfth of never, or Year Seven of the ten year contracts. 

Before the Policy and Resources meeting, Barnet Alliance members, residents and Labour councillors took over the downstairs lobby of the Town Hall and sang a medley of impertinent carols aimed at the Tory members about to wave the continuation of the contracts through, with minimal adjustments. They continued upstairs, in the committee room.

The antics of Kick Out Capita activists obviously met with the disapproval of the Capita officers  behind me, who had as usual commandeered the best public seats, and provoked the close attentions of security staff, campaigners broke through the fourth wall normally retained in the theatre of the absurd that is the average Barnet council meeting, where audience participation is definitely not encouraged. 

Father Christmas and his helper approached the table with presents, and crackers: the Tory leader was not amused and tried to speak over the singing, and ignore the intruders. It didn't work.

In the good old 'MetPro' days, the Tories would have deployed unlicensed thugs in jackboots to menace the public, and physically bar them from the meeting. Not allowed anymore, that sort of thing, so the members had to sit there with wan faces, in tacit admission, from their inaction, and their silence, that they have no defence of what they are doing. 

And of course, there is no defence of what they are doing. 

Another shameful act, to add to all the rest, was the last minute addition to the agenda of a proposal to cut vital housing benefit support to the borough's poorest residents. This report was published (as the document itself discloses) after the deadline for members of the public to exert their right to submit questions or ask to comment: a flagrant abuse of the democratic process.  The Monitoring Officer, when asked by a resident to explain the implications of this, however, was not at all perturbed.

Whether or not this decision is, in these circumstances, challengeable in law, it is most clearly in defiance of the entire spirit of the Nolan Principles. But then the Nolan Principles do not apply, in Broken Barnet.

Questions about who took the decision - officers, or members - to ignore the actions agreed at the earlier committee meeting, to prepare the business cases for all options in regard to the future of the Capita contracts, including Option Three - cutting all ties with Capita - were met with evasive answers. They would only admit that officers recommend the current position, of a 'phased' response. That admission is all you need.

You can view the 158 questions submitted to the committee by residents here.

 My comment to the committee, for what it is worth, which is probably nothing at all, except it was gratifying to see the Tory leader squirming in his seat:

To tell the truth, I find it harder and harder to watch the way in which, over so many years, the Tory members of this deranged administration have presided over the destruction of our local services, and our democratic processes. 

You were responsible for promoting the disastrous partnership with Capita, you refused to listen to all reasonable arguments as to why it would be a disaster, and at every stage, until it was impossible to hide the truth any longer, you have pretended that the contracts were working entirely in our favour. That was, and is, untrue. Some might even say it was a lie.

In the response to one of my questions tonight, you claim, with a truly mind blowing lack of irony, 

“the council will continue to apply a robust approach to managing performance under the contracts”.

Dear Councillors: you have NEVER applied a robust approach to managing performance, which is why we are where we are now, supposedly in the act of ‘realignment’ of those contracts, but in fact back-peddling as fast as the One Barnet, Future-shaped Pedalo from Hell will allow, in order not only to cover up your own incompetence, but that of your contractual partners. 

You once saw yourself as the flagship council for Tory policies, in a decades' long war on public services. You detest the very idea of public services, in fact. Public is bad, private is good. Except: you’ve managed, in your slapstick way, to demonstrate that the reverse is true. 

Not one of you is capable of running an enterprise with a billion pound budget: not one of you is capable of running the whelk stand that used to appear every weekend in North Finchley, across the road from Margaret Thatcher House. What on earth the Blessed Margaret would make of your abject failure even to empty the borough’s bins, let alone manage the massive Capita contracts, is anyone’s guess.

Whether due to incompetence, apathy, or sheer laziness, you have allowed consultants and senior managers to persuade you to swallow the idea of mass outsourcing, then sat back and accepted, in face of all evidence to the contrary, that all was well. Didn’t take much to pull the wool over your eyes, did it? 

Now here you are, about to let them and your hapless contractors hypnotise you with a £4 million pay off, so as to let Capita continue to milk as much profit as possible out of our failing services. 

No wonder the newer members of your own party look aghast at what you have done and what you have failed to do – and what you are about to do now.

Prove me wrong. 

Take a stand. Throw out this report and demand the full business cases you asked for. Or take the consequences, which will, as you must know, come in the shape of electoral failure on a scale you have never seen before, as services decline even further.

A waste of time, perhaps: but if we stop using the limited opportunity we have to speak truth to these dunderheads, what will be the result? 

And the Tories' body language throughout this comment told its own story: they know full well they have blown it, big time - damage limitation is the only course now, and the only consolation they have is ... that it is a long time before the next local elections. 

They are gambling that things will have improved by then. 

In fact it is quite likely that things will be an awful lot worse.

Although the real danger is not to them, in the short term: the immediate risk is to their parliamentary colleagues, should there be, as there probably will be, a general election any time soon. 

We have three Tory MPs, all of whom have overtly or tacitly supported Brexit in three marginal, Remain leaning constituencies, left in a borough whose Tory administration leaves the bins unemptied, the streets full of pot holes, weeds, and fly-tipped rubbish - and a plague of unchecked development adding an intolerable extra weight to our already overburdened services.

As things fall apart, and we slouch towards the holiday shut down, it is abundantly clear - the certainties of life in Broken Barnet cannot -  and never will be - the same. 

Merry Christmas.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Willow House: After the fire

On June 14th, one year after the tragic loss of life in the Grenfell fire, Barnet's Tory group Leader issued the following press release:

“The Grenfell Tower fire deeply shocked and saddened us all. One year on, as we pause to reflect, we will remember all those who lost their lives and will continue to keep in our thoughts the people affected by what happened.

“We must learn the lessons from this terrible tragedy and we will continue to review and enhance fire safety measures in flats to ensure people feel safe in their homes.”

We must learn the lessons.

What lessons has Barnet Council learned, from the tragedy of Grenfell, and the chaotic aftermath, when the local council in Kensington and Chelsea was called on to support those affected by the fire, and find them alternative accommodation?

Well, we know what was supposed to happen, here in Broken Barnet.

Barnet Council and its 'At Arms Length organisation' Barnet Homes, which looks after the council's social housing, immediately undertook a review of safety in its high rise buildings, with particular regard to the risk raised from cladding similar to that used on the Grenfell flats. 

But not all of Barnet's social housing is high rise: so what safety measures were reviewed in regard to the rest of Barnet Homes' properties, or indeed other blocks of flats run by housing associations?

According to this press release, published on 26th June, as well as pledging £30 million in funding for improved safety in high rise buildings, the council would also take action in regard to other forms of social housing:

In addition, the (Housing) committee agreed that Barnet Homes should proceed with developing a programme of fire safety work for low and medium-rise flats.

It is not clear, however, what that agreement meant in practical terms.

All council properties are meant to be subject to regular fire risk assessments, and these inspections will make recommendations for the implementation of any necessary actions to improve safety. 

To what extent, and how quickly, these recommendations are put into action, is an area which clearly is of crucial significance. 

Not long after Grenfell,  Michael, (not his real name), a resident living in a low rise block of flats overseen by Barnet Homes, wrote to me with his concerns about the failure to put in place what he believed to be vital safety measures identified as a result of inspections made years earlier. 

Only one part of the action plan, he claimed, had been processed, after the report, apparently leaving some private flats with fire safe doors not fitted, among other recommendations.

He further claimed that entrance systems and lighting had not been changed and no follow up assessment had ever taken place.  Roof voids, he alleged, were not inspected. 

When he questioned Barnet Homes, he said, he was told these points were not a priority. When asked, in 2013, why work had not been actioned within the time limit, especially in regard to a communal entrance, they responded that this should be of no concern: and that due to the number of properties managed by Barnet Homes, and the demand on its resources, it had not been 'practically possible' to meet the recommended timescales. But that was ok, he was told, (in emails I have seen), the 12 month period was not mandatory, and was just a target. 

Thirty minute fire resistant doors were supposed to be put in place, but some of the privately owned flats had not been required to do so.

This resident asked:

My question is, how many other "P1" issues Barnet Homes decided they could over rule based on their own decision making and not the qualified assessor?

I was so alarmed, last year, by what he had reported in regard to his block of flats, I raised the matter with local councillors, who said they would pursue it. I don't know what happened, after that.

In June this year, I was contacted by BBC London, who were investigating reports of a large number of Grenfell type fire doors - the 'Manse Masterdor' - still left in many social housing properties: did I know that Barnet was one of the boroughs said to be in this category? I did not - but we do know now that Barnet already knew they had these doors: see this section of an FOI response  to someone's query, published in April 2018:

8a) Prior to November 2014, were any of your properties provided fire doors by
the company 'Manse Masterdor'?
If you answered yes; 8b) how many doors?
8c) in how many buildings?
9a) Since November 2014, have any of your properties been provided fire
doors by the company 'Masterdor'?
If you answered yes;
9b) how many doors?
9c) in how many buildings?
210, of which 65 are also included in the 109 properties mentioned in response to
question 8c

There was also a rather shocking question and response on the subject of fire inspection:

3) Since the Grenfell Tower fire on the 14th June 2017 has your council
commissioned independent fire testing of the fire doors fitted in tower blocks
within your council?

None. Where there is a need to install flat front entrance fire doors to London
Borough Barnet /Barnet Homes properties Barnet Homes instruct their contractors to
install doors and/or door sets which are certified to a specific level. This level is in
most cases FD30S. The certification is provided by the door manufacturer following
tests conducted on the doors under controlled conditions. The system as it is
currently designed is the norm within the industry and it is relatively unusual for
landlords to commission tests on doors which they have procured precisely because
they meet a specific level of certification. The Government is conducting an
investigation into certain types of fire doors but there is currently no change to
existing fire safety advice from the National Fire Chiefs Council.

So ten months after Grenfell, there had been no testing of any fire doors in Barnet Homes properties, nor were any planned, until the government advised them to do so. Acting in accordance with the law, but not exceeding its duty of care beyond those limitations.

In May, however, the government did advise action. No need to panic, though: Barnet Homes said there was a low risk to safety. Test your smoke alarms, they suggested, and, oh - in case you had not thought of it, keep your front door properly closed

In the event of fire, "follow existing fire procedures for the building ..."

The same statement said that Barnet Homes had written to all their residents to inform them they would be undertaking a programme to replace the Manse Masterdors, 'subject to the final advice provided by government'. 

Asking Michael now (this June) about what had happened in the case of his low rise block, he told me that only days earlier he had received a letter from Barnet Homes telling him he had a Grenfell type door, and that it would be replaced. No timescale was given. If there was another fire, the advice was, he says, "to stay in his flat".

It would seem the old doors are still in place in his block: although a few months ago residents were asked to choose the colour of the ones that might eventually be provided. 

Low rise properties are of a lower priority, when it comes to the safety programme: but does that mean that so long should be taken in actioning measures deemed necessary years ago?

This thought, and many others, came to mind recently after the recent shocking incident at Willow House, in the Grange Housing estate in East Finchley, which served to underline the necessity of stringent fire safety measures, even in 'low rise' housing blocks.

In the early hours of November 7th, a group of sixty residents of Willow House, a block of flats with three floors, awoke to find the building in which they lived was on fire. 

What happened next raises more questions about not only the level of safety in Barnet Homes properties, but in regard to the ability of the local authority to provide the necessary support to residents affected by any similar emergency: an issue which should have been addressed - and many had thought had been, by Barnet Council, and Barnet Homes - in the aftermath of Grenfell, and following the seriously disorganised response of Kensington and Chelsea to the needs of the surviving residents.

In the course of the fire at Willow House, sixty residents were evacuated from their homes: thirty nine of them are now homeless. 

Three days after the fire, I met several of the residents at a lunch organised by some of the admirable local volunteers and community activists who stepped in to fill the hole left by the initial inadequate response by Barnet Homes and the local council. 

Before the lunch, I had walked around the corner from the Catholic church hall where it was being organised, to the scene of the fire. 

The bitter, acrid smell, even then, three days later, was overwhelming. 

Behind safety barriers Willow House stood in ruins, the roof collapsing, daylight showing through, the glass in the upper windows clinging in shards to their frames. Downstairs, builders had already sealed off the flats with metal casings. The sign, "Willow House', was still visible, but smeared with soot. 

The lunch itself, with an abundance of food provided with great generosity by local families and businesses - even the flower stall in the street outside had sent in a massive bouquet - was a sobering experience: quite clearly, only three days later, most of the residents were in shock, exhausted and traumatised by what had happened, their lives turned upside down, their homes lost, and in many cases, all their possessions destroyed.

One of the families I knew slightly, from another context: friends of a friend, their children amongst those displaced, and returning tentatively for the first time to the scene of their former home. As they talked, their little one sat quietly at a table drawing. Quiet, but his frantic scribbles told their own story. Another pair of children sat silently playing 'Jenga', building up a tower of wooden bricks, and removing them, one by one, until the building collapsed.

The story that emerged from these residents was disturbing, for many reasons.

It was reported that the fire had only been spotted by a passer by, some said an ex soldier, who bravely ran to the building and banged on doors until the occupants were alerted. 

There appears to have been no fire alarm in any communal area.

Only some of the flats had smoke alarms.

The fire had started in an empty flat, and quickly spread to the roof. If the passer by had not alerted the residents of Willow House, the alternative outcome is unthinkable.

When tenants rang what they thought was Barnet Homes' emergency line number, they instead found themselves talking to a repair service.

Members of the community saved the day, unasked, taking charge of the emergency, in the absence of any organisation by the council: someone opened up the nearby Green Man centre, and a local vicar, who also helps run a food bank in the church hall, stepped in to help, with the involvement of a local charity, and members of 'Grange Big Local'.

When Barnet Homes team members did arrive, they came with what sounds like no practical assistance for the residents, who had escaped the fire in their nightclothes, some with no money, no bankcards, no ID. 

Eventually those made homeless by the fire were sent to a hotel in Whetstone. They were told meals would be provided, then found they were not. The next day, in Barnet House, it fell to local Labour councillors who happened to be in the building at the time to use their initiative and open up the council staff canteen, in order to feed the families.

There was supposedly a 'Gold' meeting - of the council's emergency support team - the day after the fire. Quite what was the outcome is unclear, as almost every hard won concession for the residents since then has been achieved only with a fight, at a time when they are least able to focus on practical matters, and are struggling to come to terms with what had happened.

Some money was allocated to the residents, but not enough, and not to all of those affected by the fire, including one private resident I spoke to, who had had to sleep on the floor of a friend's flat, and was not contacted by the council. It seemed as if complete records of residents, whether Barnet Homes, leasehold or privately rented, had not been compiled. This is part of a larger problem, caused by an assumption - an incorrect one - by the housing authority that it had no duties in law to private tenants in these circumstances.

Work has begun on securing the building, but it will be at least six months until the building is habitable. What happens in the meanwhile?

On the Friday, two days after the fire, residents were told they would have to leave the hotel. They would then be homeless. 

Some were informed they would have to accept alternative accommodation in Romford, Edmonton, or Enfield. 

As one of the families told me, in distress, and quite understandable anger, that this was impossible when their young children were at school in East Finchley, and their jobs local too.

Only when local Labour councillors again intervened was the threat of immediate eviction from the hotel lifted. 

With the help of sympathetic housing lawyers, residents became better informed of their rights. On Tuesday there was a meeting between residents and council staff, at which housing officers are said to have apologised for the poor response and lack of support - and have now agreed that now the displaced families will be housed locally. (Too late for one family, already sent out of borough, unfortunately). Only at this point, however, was it acknowledged that the children who had been through this traumatic experience might need assessment, and counselling.

No wonder that, as was clear from the lunch meeting after the fire, and as reported in the Ham & High later in the week, residents felt utterly abandoned by the local council at a time when they most needed help. The help they got was a spontaneous reaction from neighbours and local church and charities: we know that the attitude of the Tory administration is one preferring the third sector to take over their responsibilities, but in the case of an emergency involving sixty displaced residents, this really is not good enough. 

No wonder too, then that they felt they were left to their own devices and pressured into accepting inappropriate housing because they were (largely) social tenants. Can you imagine the same response to a group of residents in Totteridge, or Garden Suburb?

What if there is a major emergency, either in regard to another fire, or even, as is unfortunately quite possible in this borough, a terrorist incident? What capacity and organisational preparations does Barnet have in place, if at all?

Should any of the residents have had to endure such unnecessary distress, at such a time and resort to argument, in order to secure what ought to be provided for them, as a matter of course? 

At the lunch given after the Willow House fire, the group of residents held a discussion, and listened to the advice given by a survivor of Grenfell - Bilal, from Grenfell United, who had come to offer his support. An engaging, articulate man, he has become a very effective advocate for his fellow residents, and his community.

He addressed the residents, and said how much it reminded him of his own experience after the fire, coming out with nothing more than the clothes on your back - he urged them to stick together, and to 'keep the noise levels high' so as to fight for the right to remain as they were, and as they are, as the people of Grenfell were, and are: a community. 

Push for your rights, he urged.

The residents of Willow House decided then to act collectively to push for a better response from the council and Barnet Homes.

I spoke afterwards to Bilal, and I asked him if it had not been particularly hard for him, coming to the scene of another fire. He admitted that the smell had affected him, the familiarity of it. Familiar, too, was what he had heard from Willow House residents - the lack of organised assistance, the further distress, after the terrible event itself; the variation in levels of support, according to the ability of the individual to lobby for their own needs.

Also at the lunch was the parish priest, in whose hall we were. We fell into conversation, and I explained about this blog. A little while later, before I left, he back to me and asked thoughtfully: why then, did I think Barnet was broken, and what could we do about it?

I told him why I thought we had arrived at this point. 

That the corporate culture in this borough is utterly materialist, and cares nothing for the idea of community: that it only adopts the recognition of community when it suits, as a means of opting out of its own duty of care, and devolving responsibility on to others.

That the policy of Barnet Tories is to move the poor and disadvantaged out of the borough, whenever possible - to Romford, or Enfield, or Hillingdon, or even Peterborough, or Birmingham.

That in the London Borough of Capita, the very principle of social housing is seen as fundamentally wrong, as indeed is the concept of the public sector. 

That a council estate is nothing more than a potential development opportunity. 

Anyone lucky enough to have a secure tenancy should be grateful, and if your home burns down? 

Hard luck.

Clear off somewhere else.

What can we do about it? Not sure, really.

You cannot force people who do not care, to care. You can only compel them to follow the rules, to do their duty.

In terms of maintaining the housing stock they own, Barnet does have statutory duties, as indeed it does in regard to the safety of tenants. 

There must now be an investigation into the actions taken by the council and Barnet Homes after the Willow House fire.

Should there be a need, at any point, for an emergency response to a major incident, what happened in East Finchley does not indicate any capability by the local authority to provide the right level of support. 

In terms of fire safety in Barnet Homes - we don't know - yet - what, if any, progress had been made in the replacement of fire doors on the Grange estate, or when the last fire inspections were made. But at the very least, should there not now be more measures installed - fire alarms, and sprinklers, for example - and full lists of occupants, in all of Barnet Homes' properties? 

Yes, resources are stretched: but if the authority can go to so much effort in applying to the Public Works Loan Board for £22 million pounds to hand over to a private rugby club, just to build itself another stand, could it not consider using this process for the purpose intended - that is to say for the benefit of the public, for better housing, and a safer future for the families of this borough?