Last night, the shameless Mrs X was once more at her favourite sport, councillor baiting, at the Finchley and Golders Green Residents' Forum.
At the previous meeting she had raised the subject which must not be mentioned - ie the - here we ago again - the 54% pay rise for committee chair councillors. The Forum chair, poor innocent Councillor Dean Cohen, had somehow found himself manoeuvred into agreeing to ask these eight lucky lottery winners if they might feel inclined - in view of the hard times we are all supposed to be enduring together - to set a good example, restrain their delight at trousering even more of our money whilst most people are facing frozen pay, or even redundancy, and hand the pay rise back.
A written answer awaited her. (The lack of punctuation is nothing to do with me).
'On reflection on the last forum I realised that it is not within the duties of the Chairman of the forum to act as an intermediary beween other elected members and residents, particularly on personal matters such as their allowances.'
Oh, well, what a shame. Mrs X expressed herself pleased that Mr Cohen had spent time in quiet reflection on this issue, but was obviously not too happy with the response. She was of the opinion that the issue of allowances was not a personal one, as it was a matter of public money, paid for by residents, and therefore in need of justification.
Young Master Cohen suggested that (as he was evidently too scared) Mrs X might like to try sending the councillors concerned an email, or perhaps phone them up for a friendly chat. I can see it now:
'Hello: yes - Councillor? Good evening, I wonder - you know that allowance you get for chairing a couple of committee meetings a year, yes, yes - the one that has just gone up from oh, around £7,000 to more than £15,000 ... yes: 54 %! Brilliant! Well done. Money for old rope? Laughing all the way to the bank? Don't blame you! By the way: will any council employees be getting a 54% pay rise this year, or any ordinary workers, anywhere? Any nurses, teachers, social workers, police officers, oh - and fire fighters? No? Oh. What's that? Lots of them won't be getting paid at all soon, so they should keep quiet. Oh yes; no, no, you're quite right. Ours not to reason why, eh? But, er, here's the thing: your colleague Dean Cohen said if I asked you nicely, you might volunteer to set a good example, and forego the rise altogether. After all, the money saved could go towards paying for a couple of much needed support worker posts, such as care assistants, maybe ... care assistants? You know, they help look after the elderly and most vulnerable residents in the borugh, their personal needs etc ... What's that, you don't give a f***? As long as you're alright Jack?'
Next question from Mrs X. This was in regard to the Barnet Citizens' Panel, which used to function as a process of consultation with residents, assessing their level of satisfaction with the Council's delivery of services. When was this Panel discontinued, and why?
Now, in a response earlier in the evening to another question, a certain chief officer had mentioned the Citizens' Panel as evidence for the many wonderful ways in which our council allegedly seeks to assess and honour the opinion of the highly valued residents of this borough. Ah, but then, by this point in the meeting, Mrs X had read the written response to her later question in which it was stated;
'In the past the panel has proved very expensive to maintain, however we are still using the panel for face to face events and also exploring new ways we can consult with the panel in a more cost effective way.'
So, Mrs X asked, does this panel still exist or not?
There was a pause and a fair amount of uncomfortable shifting about on chairs by certain Forum members. 'Because,' added Mrs X, 'I'm supposed to be a member of the Citizens' Panel, and I haven't heard a thing from it for years, which is a great shame ...'
'Indeed,' remarked a certain chief officer, with what almost looked like the beginnings of a wry smile playing on his face, or perhaps it was some form of apoplexy, 'It is, as I'm sure you would make a very valuable contribution, Mrs X ...'
Next question: After the last Forum meeting, an article in the local press expressed concern at the low level of attendance and mention was made of the lack of publicity which these Forums receive. Are there any plans to improve the advertisement and promotion of these Forums?
The answer was a masterly example of corporate evasion:
'The opportunity to improve upon the promotional arrangements for residents forum meetings is a matter which is always kept under consideration.'
In other words, translated from Barnetspeak, not before hell freezes over. The last thing this administration wants is more people turning up to these events, for heaven's sake, Mrs X ...
Throughout last night's meeting, in fact, an underlying theme was clear. In this borough, the process of consultation is nothing less than a farce. For example:
On the agenda last night had been a petition by residents asking for a CPZ zone to be put in place in an area of Golders Green, around Sneath Avenue, which is plagued by all day parking by inconsiderate parkers, causing huge inconvenience to those living in the area and making the roads very dangerous - a young child was knocked down only last week. The Forum was attended by representatives of the surrounding Jewish community who are deeply concerned about the effect on their family lives. Many mothers came with their young children - (incredibly well behaved young children, who sat still throughout without complaining, something Mrs X always finds very hard to do in these meetings.) Several residents spoke. The outcome was that they were told they would have to wait until funds might become available 'to carry out investigations' and then, and only then, public consultation might take place.
There was outrage at this response. What do you mean: what more consultation do you need? What do you call this?
What they call this, in fact, is another dangerous example of people holding their council to account, and trying to remind them that they are answerable to the residents, and supposed to be working on their behalf.
In another item, an officer from Barnet gave a short presentation on something that is almost certainly a constant topic of discussion and heated debate in your own households:
'Core Strategy - Publication Stage and Development Management Policies - Preferred Approach'
Yes, come on, don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. As it says,
'We are in the process of developing a set of planning documents, known as the Local Development Framework (LDF). Together these documents form the overarching local policy framework for planning the future of Barnet. The LDF is a 'folder' of separate documents and two of the most important documents are the Core Strategy and Development Management Policies. We are therefore seeking the views of residents on these documents during a consultation period that lasts until November 25th.'
There then followed a slide show presentation, (yes, real old style slides) with some of the most boring photos you could ever hope to see. Forget your friends' holiday snaps, which you have to watch with a carefully concealed yawn. The most exciting one here was an out of focus view of Tally Ho corner (with a noticeable lack of cars, or people, even the usual hard core street drinkers and Graveyard Family members). Then we had an interpretation, portrayed through the medium of mime and dance, by officers expressing the challenge of working in a corporate world of alienation and meaninglessness.
No, not really, unfortunately.
The lack of focus summed it up, actually. I still have no idea what this presentation was about. I have a horrible feeling it is rather important, possibly being about oh, I don't know, the future development of the entire borough over the next few years. But not to worry, no one really cares what we think, we'll only get in the way and ask questions, won't we?
Please note the latest consultation period started three weeks ago, and this is the first time any of us have heard about it. And when Mrs X asked why this proposal, or whatever it is, could not be made more accessible, and comprehensible, to residents, there was not exactly the most helpful of responses. Because of course, the last thing they want is for anyone to understand what they are talking about, or to proffer their opinons.
If you want to read the two enormous documents, you could try finding it on the web, (not easy) if you are prepared to sit reading it at your desk for three days without food, water or a toilet break. Or, and let me recommend this option: you could visit your local library, before it has been well and truly Ramsbottomed.
These documents have been around for a while, and, when asked, the officer said 334 responses had been made. After further questioning, it seems that none of these are actually from individual residents, all are from organisations or public bodies. Haven't you heard of the Civic Network? No. Or the something strategic partnership something? No. That's the health service, police, etc etc. Ah. Yes, I may have heard of those, why can't you just explain that, in simple terms?
If there have been no responses from residents, could that be because no one has heard of it, and of those who have, probably don't know where to find it, and those that did, probably don't understand it? Another brilliant piece of consultation by our marvellous council.
The officer pointed out that he was pretty sure that mention of the whatever it is, proposal thing, has been made in that journal of easyBarnet propaganda, 'Barnet First'. This, as you probably don't know, is a small magazine which very occasionally arrives on the doormat. We've had one recently, the first in a long time, and I don't know how often it is supposed to come out. I was the only person present who had ever received one. I took one look at it and threw it in the recycling bin, but will see if I can fish it out now I realise what a good read it will be.
Alright: enough. All the issues last night pointed in the same direction. And the direction leads back to the place this blog has been centred in the last couple of weeks. This is a dark, sinister place where consultation with the residents, tax payers and voters of this borough is being increasingly controlled, as is access to information, and the ability to express opinion or criticism of council policies and performance.
All local authorities have a statutory duty to consult the public on major policy proposals. In a well run borough, where the administration has a healthy relationship with its residents, one of mutual respect and trust, the process of consultation will be clear, honest and acessible. In any relationship, communication is vital. In the disfunctional civic family that we have here in Broken Barnet, our relationship is one of mutual resentment, and mistrust, and, let's admit it, communications have broken down. Like the victim of any violent relationship, the residents of this borough are being subjected to an abuse and imbalance of power. This imbalance is being maintained by a complete disregard for the opinions and well being of the people, whose views are not being considered and valued, but ignored and crushed.
Censorship, the control of information, the distortion of the consultation process; all of these patterns of behaviour are the acts of a bully.
This administration is not interested in giving residents the ability to engage in open consultation. Consultation is allowed only according to the rules of the administration, a choice of loaded options which force the resident to endorse the already agreed policy of the council's own agenda.
As Mrs X mentioned specifically last night, there are two perfect examples of this - and worse - in recent weeks. Councillor Robert Ramsbottom's library 'survey', with its cleverly arranged 'choices' and then, oh, this is a good one: the malodorous, much hyped 'Ideas Barnet' website.
This latter ploy is claimed to be a forum of consultation for the residents of the borough to engage in the forthcoming budget proposals. Mrs X has pointed out that much of the content of this website is highly questionable and would bear closer inspection by senior officers at the highest level, and any councillors who care about the integrity of such material. Mrs X advises residents to avoid this site like the plague until such time as it has been proved that the toxic suggestions recommending radical staffing and funding reductions are genuine - and she is not referring to Mrs Angry's spoof ideas regarding the return of workhouses, and the sewage problem at NLBP.
Tory councillors of Broken Barnet: Mrs Angry would like to remind you that consultation is the way in which a local authority communicates with its electorate. Communication is a two way process. We don't want to talk to the hand: the ear is being paid, by us, to listen, and listen you bloody well will.