Thursday, 11 November 2010

Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly ...

Now my friend Mrs X, being a concerned citizen, just like Mrs Angry, but much better behaved, has a keen interest in local politics. Obviously Mrs X and Mrs A have much in common, but generally speaking Mrs X is much more polite, shy and retiring than her mouthy friend. And, as she has been attending quite a few council meetings and forums recently, and was really looking forward to attending the Barnet budget consultation meeting this week (she doesn't get out much these days) she was therefore very annoyed to hear it had been cancelled.

Happily, being a devoted reader of the Barnet Council Facebook page, she had taken the step of registering her interest in attending and was therefore one of four lucky residents promised that they would receive a phone call from Councillor Daniel Thomas, who was going to hold a personal, one to one consultation, with each of the four residents.

Just think, mused Mrs X, as she sat with bated breath by the telephone: I am going to be responsible for 25% of the consultation meeting input ... how did that happen?

At last the phone rang, with a merry tinkle.

Councillor Thomas introduced himself politely. There was a an awkward silence.

'Er, well, what would you like me to talk about?' ventured Mrs X, in a silly opening gambit, then, worried that she sounded like a woman on one of those unsavoury phone lines, launched firmly into: 'Actually, I would like to ask you about the cancelled consultation meeting: do you really think that it was adequately publicised in the first place?'

Councillor Thomas, as it turns out, surely has an assured future in politics, because he is adept at talking at great length in a smooth, hypnotic and brilliantly evasive manner. Plus he has that sort of seductive Welsh accent that makes you think about Dylan (rather than Daniel) Thomas and How Green Was my Valley, Anthony Hopkins, bachelor sheep farmers and strange cheeses, rather than nasty neo Thatcherite Tory councils. A gift for the ambitious Tory would be politician. So. Adequate publicity? Oh, yes, he thought so, all in all. There had been an advert in the local Times and Press, you know. Oh and Barnet First. And some stuff online. And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose, my youth is spent by the same wintry force. What? Pull yourself together, Mrs X.

Hmm, she said, but what if you don't get the local papers? And how many people actually receive (or read) Barnet First? And what about those who don't have access to the internet - many older residents, for example? Or the many residents of our borough for whom English is a second language? It's not a very inclusive approach to consultation, is it? Why not publicise such consultation exercises, and other initiatives such as Residents Forums, more effectively, perhaps through local community groups, residents' associations, synagogues, churches, mosques? If you really want to engage with residents, wouldn't that be a good idea?

Well, said Councillor Thomas, he did know that there were some proposals to 'reinvigorate' the Residents Forums, and that might include wider publicity. There had been a Citizens Panel meeting last night, with all 400 members invited: oh, said Mrs X, that's funny, because I am a member of that panel, and yet, when I asked at the last Forum what had happened to it, I was told it had been too expensive to continue, and I certainly was not asked to attend this meeting: how very peculiar!

And as to the Residents' Forums, she added: yes - now then, you're a Finchley councillor, aren't you? I've been going to a few of our local Forums recently: I haven't seen you there, though ...

No, he said. I've never been to one.

What? Never?

No. No need. He was very busy doing other things. He is an executive councillor. Very busy.

Yes, but surely, spluttered Mrs X, - other local councillors of all parties regularly attend, not as panel members, but to listen to residents views, which is pretty important, isn't it?

Well, he didn't have to. Councillors can largely make of their roles whatever they want, you know, like MPs. (oh dear) He preferred to hold surgeries, and knock on peoples' doors. He was going to be knocking on doors in my road any day now, by the way, by an uncanny coincidence.

But my road isn't in your ward, Mr Thomas.

Ah.

Mrs X dropped that line of discussion, and moved on to a subject dear to Mrs Angry's heart: the lack of interest by the administration in a process of engagement and consultation with the public. The avoidance of free debate. The preference for 'surveys' which like the library one, are loaded with 'options' that oblige the participant to endorse a pre set agenda. Oh and had he taken a close look at the Ideas Barnet website? Was he aware that rumour has it a large proportion of the 'ideas' submitted to this site are not genuinely from members of the public, and have suspiciously pro Future Shaped suggestions? Oh, and if this was true, didn't it invalidate the whole project?

No. He wasn't aware of any rumour. He would take a look at it. Mrs X is not holding her breath in expectation of any imminent investigation, however.

Thing is, said Mrs X, you don't seem to understand how much damage has already been caused to the relationship between your administration and the residents of this borough ... I'm talking about the allowance rise fiasco, she added, helpfully, just in case he had forgotten ...

Oh, yes, that. Ahem. Well, of course the proposals were rescinded, after listening to the bla bla bla ... the sloeblack, slow, black night zzzz

Only partly, Councillor Thomas. If you remember, eight of your colleagues just voted themselves a pay rise from £7,000 to more than £15,000 for the extra 'duty' of chairing a few committee meetings, in some cases, committees that only meet twice a year. Do you not understand how inappropriate such an increase is, at a time when you tell us our services are going to be so drastically cut, and so many council employees are going to lose their jobs, or at best face frozen salaries for the foreseeable future? The £40,000 which this rise costs could fund the posts of two or three care workers, to look after elderly and vulnerable residents in the borough, couldn't it?

Well, yes, he saw her point.

So: nice that you see my point, but what are you going to do about it? Why don't you suggest to your colleagues that they forego this rise?

Well , he could, but then burble burble burble bla bla bla and I am going into the darkness of the darkness forever, I have forgotten that I was ever born ... STOP! Stop right there.

Because you know, apart from the allowance scandal, you and your colleagues do seem to act as if you are in some way not accountable to the people they are supposed to represent ... I've sat through council meetings in the last few months and listened in disgust as Tory councillors have ranted about there being no such thing as poverty, or that people actually 'thrive' in poverty, that people in receipt of benefits are lazy and lack aspiration, that people in the public sector should get 'a real job' - (this apparently from someone whose real job is selling tobacco), and oh, let's not forget your collegue Mr Coleman's charming references to people who live in the 'slums' of Grahame Park ... do you not understand how offensive these remarks are to the residents of this borough?

Oh! Something pierces the smooth and previously impenetrable surface of this councillor's defences: he is here to discuss the budget proposals, and he will not comment on individual councillors' comments.

Ah but, countered Mrs X, don't you see that there is a direct relation to your performance as councillors, and our rights as the people who pay your allowances? The people you offend by such remarks? Have you forgotten you are supposed to be working on behalf of us? Volunteering to do your bit for the community, Big Society and all that? Many residents do all forms of voluntary activities without demanding any payment at all, you know.

Well, he said, as regards Councillor Coleman's remark: it was an 'extreme comment' but we live in a free world, you know, a free country ... Mrs X shook her head in despair. And in the new budget proposals, you know, there are plans to 'streamline' the committee system, in order to make savings. Ok, said Mrs X, but it might be feared that this is an excuse to further increase the Cabinet system, and continue to restrict decision making to a few individual councillors, rather than sharing the process with your party colleagues ... Councillor Thomas disagreed, and seemed to think his colleagues were sufficiently involved in decision making.

That's not what your colleague Mark Shooter thinks, is it? enquired Mrs X: I was a the last full council meeting when he raised this very point ... oh dear. Mark Shooter appears to be something of a sore point with Councillor Thomas, for some reason, and for the second time he showed a spark of impatience with Mrs X.

Ok: the budget itself then. Why is it in council reports etc you state we have to save 26% in spending cuts, whereas in posters stuck up at bus stops and so on the figure is reduced to 20%?

Actually, he said the figure is 27%. What? Well, 26.7. So why the discrepency? Mrs X, like Mrs A, cannot understand any calculations more complicated than 12x12s are um whatever they are, without being walloped on the hand with a wooden ruler, so she is unable to recall what the explanation was. I am sure there was a perfectly reasonable one. Maybe.

Oh, btw: what happened to the what was it now, £9 million pounds of lost revenue from the council and business tax you Tories somehow forgot to recover last year? Any chance of that turning up? Only in dribs and drabs. Oh, what a shame. And the money in Iceland, another £27 million lost by a Tory administration? Nope. Those greedy Icelanders won't give it back. Tut tut. Because 27+9 makes (ouch) er £36 million pounds, doesn't it, and goodness me, I wonder how many wardens, and care assistants and vital services that would support? Hmm? Hello?

Before you go, can we just talk about Future Shape, or whatever it is called this week? Thanks. Er, now, again, Mrs X has a poor grasp of economics and accounting, but she understands that this was created two years ago in order to save money. How much money has it saved?

None. In fact it has cost money.

Oh dear. Really?

Another £3 million pounds lost. Let's see: £36 million plus £3 million = what, £39 million of our money lost ?

Thank God we have a Tory council, eh, citizens, to save us from the economic catastrophe of Labour incompetence.

Councillor Thomas said that Future Shape was going to deliver savings. Ah, yes, said Mrs X, savings have been 'identified' but if they do materialise they still have to offset against the costs, don't they, so there is still no net gain?

Oh, and the Grant Thornton report was rather worrying ,wasn't it? Telling us there has been no business plan, no costings, no timescale, no detail? How have we got two years down the line without such a basic structure? If I went to a bank manager with a proposal to set up my own business without any such fundamental information, I would be shown the door, yet your administration is proposing to run the borough on a business model which does not exist in any detail. This seems rather peculiar, you know.

Councillor Thomas became quite impassioned at this point. He has obviously been extending a certain amount of thought as to the value and direction of Future Shape.

He said that he too had at times been 'impatient' with these plans. But the Grant Thornton report had really come 'too early' in the process. (well, that's always a disappointment, and what a shame the council wasted so much of our money on paying for this report then, eh?) and he assured Mrs X that, and I have her notes here to confirm this, readers, that we are 'on the cusp of getting results', and if these results do not materialise, if things aren't 'working out', if for example 'outsourcing' is promising to look 'too risky' well then, and get this: 'we won't go ahead' with Future Shape.

You heard it here first, citizens. Future Shape is living on borrowed time.

I want to believe Councillor Thomas meant what he said, that this council will abandon its ideological committment to the Future Shaped future of this borough, unless we are soon presented with the evidence that it really can run this borough satisfactorily.

Unfortunately, as we have seen so many times before, life in Broken Barnet is not quite so straightforward, is it? And if there is a choice between saving face, and sacrificing us all on the altar of an ideological nonsense, or admitting that this bunch of twats have made a major mistake and sold us down the river, well, my friends, I think we all know which way this will pan out, don't you?

8 comments:

baarnett said...

"Well, said Councillor Thomas, he did know that there were some proposals to 'reinvigorate' the Residents Forum..."

About time. They are incredibly boring, and make people never want to go again. At least some of the detailed stuff could be dealt with off-line (note the jargon) and there could be invited speakers with slides (NHS, police, LIBRARIANS?) with proper publicity.

I see the Brent Cross coalition web site shows a cup of tea next to their advert for the forums. Surely tea and biscuits, and a break for a chat, would be worthwhile, and worth the small cost? The numbers attending would build up, I'm sure.

But then, I've always assumed Barnet holds these meetings simply because the government says local authorities must do so.

Mrs Angry said...

You must understand, baarnett,that if these meetings were better advertised, less boring, and arranged in such a way as to encourage attendence, this would be a complete disaster for the administration: residents would turn up, express criticism and cause difficulties. Consultation is only given the minimum of required attention, for the same reason that the majority of councillors are not directly involved in the decision making process. If you don't like what is happening int his borough, go to your forums and councillors' surgeries and make your opinions known. It's your right, and your duty.

Johnny on the Web said...

I also had a call from Cllr Thomas (http://reasonablenewbarnet.blogspot.com/).I was very cross that the consultation had been cancelled and that there needed to be a debate on how the council was run before we start looking at where individual cuts will fall. My argument always has been that there is a lot of waste in the council - £19 million spent on consultant fees in the last 6 months being just one example. So before you start cutting essential services you need to look at the structure and processes of the council. I made the point that the council needs to engage with residents and that we may hold the key a lot of the solutions but there has to be a relationship of trust, something which is currently lacking. The remote location and campus environment of North London Business Park allows those decision makers to remain disengaged from the community they are supposed to represent. The sooner the council moves out of NLBP and relocates into the community the sooner the re-engagement process can start.

Mrs Angry said...

hello Johnny: like you I was extremely cross about the cancellation, but not surprised, as, like so many other examples of 'consultation' by this administration, it was doomed to failure by lack of committment shown by the organisers. Whether this is due to incompetence or deliberate is a matter for debate. The meeting could have been rescheduled after a better attempt to advertise it more widely, but won't be. This is why I have written up my 'one to one' consultation, as people have a right to know what Cllr Thomas has to say in defence of his council's policies. I think the ambiguity expressed about the future of Future Shape is very interesting, don't you? I also tried to make the same point about rebuilding a relationship of trust, but I am not sure the leadership of this administration gives a stuff about such matters..

Mrs Angry said...

PS, I've just noticed something very interesting, a reference to 'the budget consultation meeting' meaning in fact the Citizens Panel meeting which Cllr Thomas mentioned as taking place the night before the unfortunately cancelled 'open' meeting. As i said in the blog, I am supposed to be a member of that panel, but was not invited. It might be thought by a cynic well versed in the dark arts of Barnet politics that instead of taking the risk of having an open meeting attended by interested but uncontrollable residents, they have preferred to hold a meeting with handpicked guests and are now seeking to present this as 'consultation'. Isn't transparency a marvellous thing?

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Mrs A and Mrs X - the new cheeky girls of Barnet?

I genuinely wonder why councils bother holding consultation exercises at all or why we get upset when they don’t. They are a sham. Always have been. Always will be. This is not an anti Barnet rant - it applies to all local authorities. These exercises allow councils to tick a few boxes so that they can to claim to be engaging with the community, but they care not what we think and do whatever they want to do regardless.

As you have pointed out above, the questions asked are usually loaded to ensure that a predetermined outcome is ensured. Or the consultation period is too short or too poorly advertised to provide statistically useful data.

On the rare occasions that a consultation exercise is widely publicised, the response is simply ignored, as we noted recently over the warden closure programme.

The only solution to the problem is to remove councillors at the ballot box. It’s the only language they understand. However, in Barnet we have a particular problem in that the Labour opposition is weak and totally ineffective to the extent of not being able to organise the proverbial in a brewery. They need to be removed from office as well. There is no point looking towards the LieDems for deliverance - their days as a political force are well and truly over.

As Private Frazer put it so succinctly: “We’re all doomed.” Might as well get used to it.

baarnett said...

Do they publish the minutes of the "Citizens Panel"?

Mrs Angry said...

Aha: yes, DCMD, we are the Cheeky Girls ... Lembit Opik need not get his hopes up, however, eurghh. And not just because he is a Libdem.

Mrs X would like to point out that it is true that she has a close association with Mrs Angry, but she has now washed her hands of her, due to her bad behaviour and filthy language.

I don't think Captain Mainwaring would approve of your loose tongued, yellow livered defeatist talk. Walls have ears: don't you know there's a war on? Stupid boy. And don't giv'e em your name,DCMD.Etc etc.

baarnett: funny you should ask about minutes: I asked how the feedback was going to be used and was told it would be made available in some way to public scrutiny, and I think we should follow that up, don't you?