March against the cuts: 11.30, Sunday, Finchley Central Tube: be there, or be square ...
If you are incensed by the new parking charges and the loss of free bays: pssst - don't tell anyone, but if you live in a Tory ward with a worried councillor getting earache and with a very organised lobby from disgruntled residents, well, do you know, I think you might just have struck lucky. Some residents in some areas of this borough are under the impression, you see, that Brian Coleman is, after panicky lobbying from their local councillors, going to desist from removing the free bays and might be able to grant concessions on other changes too. Or so they think.
Two things: either this is not so, and they are deluding themselves, or they are right, and they are being given a concession which ought to be boroughwide, and not confined to any Conservative held ward where residents are affluent, articulate - and admirably well organised.
Is it true? Are the Tories worried they are causing long term electoral damage in some wards, and are they now seeking to mitigate this potential vote loser? If so, there was little evidence of it at last night's full council meeting, where a packed public gallery of angry residents sat in hostile rows, watching the proceedings and yelling, booing and jeering throughout with increasing fury, incensed by the complacency and arrogance of the Tory councillors' behaviour. And who could blame them?
Councillor Coleman is always very pleased with himself and would have been very satisfied with his performance last night. He exhibited his usual charm, modesty and discretion throughout the meeting, of course, but saved his best efforts for the discussion of the objections to the parking charges and loss of free bays: more of this later.
Some councillors last night were conspicuous by their absence.
Councillor John Hart, for example. A report in the local Times yesterday may explain his failure to attend. Responding to an allegation of being racist, he is reported to have responded that he was merely a 'linguist'. Hmm. (You have no idea how many jokes I have removed from this next sentence, out of deference to the circumstances.) According to reports now, Hart's behaviour is being investigated, which is as it should be: after all, as we see from Matthew Offord's performance in parliament last week, there is an impressive new zeal for dealing with allegations of racism within the Tory ranks, albeit in a rather controversial manner - at least this allegation is being referred to the appropriate forum, rather then being made in a context where the person accused has no legal redress.
As usual, last night's proceedings kicked off with a written Q&A session, with supplementary questions.
This activity is used by the Tories not, of course, as a means to extend access to the democratic process for any residents who may be present, but as an exercise in the management of information, the evasion of accountability, and best of all, as a patented mechanism for patting themselves on the back for all the magnificent acheivements of the One Barnet regime.
Crucial to the smooth operation of this mechanism is a generous supply of submissive Tory councillors willing to abase themselves to their Cabinet masters (no names, no pack drill, ...). It works like this: Councillor A. Tory Lickspittle will humbly submit a question along the lines of:
Question: 'Will the Cabinet member agree with me that everything in Broken Barnet is really wonderful, that the sky is always blue, the sun always shines, and the birds always sing happily in the trees, and that this is entirely due to the sheer brilliance and efficiency of the policies and actions of the Cabinet member and our Conservative administration?'
Answer: 'Yes, I am delighted to be able to confirm that this is indeed the case, and that in fact the sun shines directly from the region of my generously proportioned a***, coincidentally the place of origin of so many of my opinions. Furthermore, I am pleased to remind Councillor A. Tory Lickspittle that under the previous socialist administration, there were several years of flood, an outbreak of plague, a pestilence of locusts and the streets were full of downfalls of dead starlings.'
Now here's a question from last night, posed by Labour Councillor Geoff Johnson:
'Can the Cabinet member confirm that all school crossing patrols will be maintained, and none will be cut?'
Answer by Councillor Brian Coleman:
See how it works, citizens?
So what little crumbs of information did we scramble for last night?
Libdem Jack Cohen had submitted a question about parking enforcement, noting that at a meeting of the Business Management Overview and Scrutiny Committee, members were informed that enforcement was 'in meltdown'. He asked - do you accept responsibility or blame your predecessor? Coleman's three word answer?
'I blame circumstances'.
Jack Cohen asked him to answer the question properly. Brian protested, saying he was being asked 'When did you stop beating your wife?' The Tories sniggered.
Coleman was asked about the charge of £57 to any residents needing to replace a wheelie bin which has been stolen. The response was that this charge would be appropriate in circumstances where a resident had been 'careless' with a wheelie bin. I agree. There are times when the Angry family's 24 hour monitoring of our bin has lapsed due to somone falling asleep on their watch, but we can only blame ourselves for our carelessness, and if one of those notorious wheelie bin stealing gangs from Labour run authorities makes one of its midnight poaching expeditions, or the bin itself makes a bid for freedom one night and speeds off down the road, well - here, £57, take it.
Brian is very happy about the load of grit we are getting from the council. And is looking forward to the pilot Community Grit Keeper scheme being doubled from, wait for it: 2 people to four -over the entire borough. Marvellous. I do hope they get one in the area around Finchley Methodist Church, and the surrounding houses, because I did notice, after Christmas, that there was a marked lack of Big Society minded residents prepared to clear the ice and snow from the pavement: so lazy, some people, don't you agree?
Labour's Geoff Johnson, funnily enough, was not happy with the one word response to his question about school crossing patrols. Was Coleman bovvered? No. He declared that ten schools in Barnet who had these patrols were merely an 'historical accident'. He is evidently not concerned about the possiblity of accidents which haven't happened yet but surely will, ie the increased risk to children that will ensue if these patrols are lost. Remember that Mr Coleman was suggesting recently that all road works should be forced to have stop and go men rather than temporary traffic lights? Why? Because he was annoyed by the delays that lights cause. And our priority should be the convenience of motorists, rather than the safety of our children, here in Broken Barnet.
Ah: an interesting question on the subject our Tory council would rather we all forgot: the £27 million pounds of residents' money lost in the Icelandic investment fiasco. It seems a further £91,000 of your money has been spent in litigation since January 2009. We were told this will be repaid with the claim 'if it is successful' ... ah, and how are things going on that score? Because despite promises, we still have not received a single penny, have we?
Questions about potholes, which of course are everywhere again. Brian asked how we are going to pay for filling them. The residents in the gallery, who by now had already had enough of the arrogant way in which the questions were being answered, started to shout helpful suggestions:
'Out of your allowances!'
'Yeah: four jobs Coleman!' shouted another
A question about the Arts Depot from Labour's Pauline Coakley Webb received a semi-literate and typically childish response from our very own culture vulture, Robert Ramsbottom:
'We will listen to the concern of residents who are worried that her Government left this country with no money and who want children and adult services protected.' (sic)
Please note that Rams and his chums are totally incapable of accepting responsibililty for the mismanagement of their own party, which lost us £27 million of revenue, and the overspend that cost us another £11 million, the hugely expensive failure to collect local and business taxes, the obsession with the ruinous One Barnet scheme, the millions of punds they waste on consultants, all of which has stolen funding which would have gone a long way to prevent the terrible cuts in service which we are going to see.
As well as that, the new lie they use to divert attention from their financially disastrous actions, and the resultant programme of cuts, is to pretend that the cuts are necessary in order to protect the safeguarding of the most vulnerable members of society. Apart from the money they waste which could be used for this very purpose, many of the cuts themselves are directed frontline services and at the very people they claim they wish to protect.
Anne Hutton had submitted a motion on 'exam results', congratulating the Barnet schools who have done well, but pointing out that many of the new central and local cuts - the loss of EMA, the diversion of funds to academy schools instead of targeting the failing schools who need support - will have a direct impact on educational acheivement, and in particular the most disadvantaged pupils. Look at Barnet's reduced funding for educational psychogical services, for example: children with special needs are already struggling to receive the identification and help they require - things are going to get a hell of a lot worse for them now.
Jack Cohen manfully tried to speak up for the Coalition's 'pupil premium' policy, which is supposed to give funding to pupils who receive school meals. I don't think he was feeling that inspired, as he resorted to quoting Nietzche, at one point. Here in my notes I have: God is dead: Nietzsche. Nietzche is dead: God. - (I wish I was dead - please shut up.)
Andrew Harper thought this reference was a wonderful example of the benefits of being educated in Barnet, until Cohen pointed out he went to school in Leeds. He thought the scheme would put aspiration at the heart of education. Marvellous. Shame that aspiration will be disadvantaged by the loss of other funding, but there you go. He also thought that the premium would help level the playing field. Which is good, because then your local councillors will be able to sell them off for development, eh?
Councillor Tom Davey stood up to speak. Ah: always of interest.
'Little puppy' shouted someone in the public gallery. DAvey wanted to tell us how wonderful grammar schools were, because they had produced people like him. He must be so pleased that Mrs Angry was educated at a grammar school too, the same one as the intrepid Labour councillor Kathy Mc Gurk. Problem is Tom, that for every grammar school you have, you create another crap school elsewhere full of children who think they are educational failures, waiting for a Tory councillor to pay for them to have aspiration served along with their free school lunch. But Tom wanted to make a suggestion: he wants all schools to teach economics because -tee hee - the Labour councillors would have benefited from this. 'Economics?' shouted a resident: 'What about Iceland?' Aha. That's accountancy though, isn't it, to be fair?
During the debate on pupil premium, because it was a Coalition policy, this was considered worthy of approval by the Tories. Approval had to be demonstrated. While Jack Cohen was speaking, Brian Coleman was nodding, gravely, in that manner he thinks makes him look like an elder statesman, rather than an absolute eejit. He is mistaken. At the same time, Andrew Harper was nodding his head so vigorously, I thought there was a real danger that it might come off, and roll across the chamber floor. If it had, you can be sure that it would still be saying 'Hello: I'm Andrew Harper, deputy leader and Cabinet Member for Education, Children and Families, don't you know ...' Of course, if Brian Coleman's head were to fall off, and roll across the floor, well: well, nothing really, it's just an amusing thought, isn't it, boys and girls?
Sachin Rajput spoke about 'Right to Control', an initiative meant to offer more decision making to disabled people. Rajput is a relentlessly grim speaker. He doesn't smile, or try to please. He is defensive, bullish, hard. The perfect man for the Broken Barnet Cabinet, in other words. He went off on a rant about the 97 election. 'But you lost that,' yelled a resident, '27.4 million!' yelled another, and then 'Matthew Offord!' just for good measure, not sure why, but we all laughed anyway. He struggled to keep going. Councillor Rawlings, for Labour, was pleased to see a Labour policy being continued by the Coalition, but pointed out that the 'empowerment' this idea sought to endow could only do so if the individual had the means to make choices. And choices were going to be seriously minimised by the effect of so many cuts: benefits, the reduced funding of charities, for example.
Bridget Perry had a speech prepared. She told us that disabled people would welcome the release from the restrictions of 'routines'. They didn't want to be 'patronised' and 'nannied'. She thought that we were now going to see new generations of - and here is her list: people like - David Blunkett, Steven Hawkins, Stevie Wonder and Christy Brown. Yes, really. Sorry, Professor Hawkins: I'm afraid you'll have to get your own dinner tonight, now you've been released from the tyranny of the nanny state and a repressive timetable of routine.
After an interval for the councillors to go off and feast on their well deserved buffet spread, (Lynne Hillan lies on a chaise longue and Andrew Harper feeds her with pork scratchings) we were treated to a speech by Cllr Cornelius on the pleasures of intimate body piercing, as opposed to the heady thrill you might receive from a responsibility for planning in local government. I am assuming that he has tried both and that he is therefore able to speak from experience, and I am now looking at him in a whole new light, ladies and gentlemen, I can tell you. During this rather alarming preamble, I noticed, through the glass panes in the doors of the public gallery, that our lost Prince, Mark Shooter, was engaged in conversation with Brian Coleman. Shooter looked most uncomfortable, as if Brian had just given him a wedgie, or maybe a chinese burn. Wonder what that was all about?
Cornelius had by now moved from the subject of intimate piercings to John Stuart Mill - no easy task, I promise you. He then informed us that no one used public transport, and everyone used cars, just as Coleman had told us that no one who drives does not have a mobile phone. In other words, the vast majority of our Tory councillors simply have no idea how ordinary people live their lives - and care even less.
Up stands Kathy McGuirk, the Boudicca of the Labour group: and if the Labour group had any sense, she would be leader. No disrespect to Alison Moore, who is an intelligent and decent woman: she is also far too polite and reasonable for the job, which, in opposition to the bunch of shameless, brainless bunch of self serving hypocrites that is the Tory group, is just not what is needed. Kathy, on the other hand, is a quick witted, articulate and strong woman, who does not tolerate the rank idiocy of the Tories in debate, and puts them sharply in their place; in short she has the passion needed to focus on what is undeniably the worst political administration this borough has ever seen.
She had some suggestions for the Tories. Instead of wringing their hands about parking standards, and seeking to use parking charge money for revenue to compensate for the cash they lost in Iceland, why not try supporting public transport, which actually many people rely on, by the way. And she pointed out that despite the Tories' new obsession with localism, there were more 'diktats' being pronounced by Eric Pickles than ever before.
Hugh Rayner made some utterance about the Conservatives' light touch approach to local government.'Light fingered, you mean,' muttered my neighbour.
Eva Greenspan gave a speech. As usual whenever a woman speaks, the Tory boys were laughing. Unfortunately, she then let the side down and gave what was probably the most relentless, interminably tedious speech I have ever heard, in any context, and when the red light came on for her to stop, everyone cheered, including all her colleagues.
At last: Kathy McGuirk's motion on parking in Barnet. She described the boroughwide reaction of fury to the new charge proposals and the loss of free bays, the outpouring of protests by residents, the mismanagement of parking in Barnet, the complete failure of the council to listen to residents. She urged the Tory leadership to reconsider the isssue and most importantly of all, to consult properly with residents. Huge and sustained applause followed her speech. The Tory councillors looked very uncomfortable.
Coleman stood to reply. He had evidently been busy preparing a lovely speech of his own. Watching him working himself into a frenzy with an attempt at a rabble rousing diatribe was as amusing as it was infuriating: the man is just so outrageously arrogant, confrontational, and objectionable. He simply does not accept that he is in office to serve us: he thinks he knows better than us, and will not listen with respect to any point of view other than his own. And he must win every argument.
He started with an hilarious observation that, ho ho: we need more parking space so that - wait for it, Labour can park their bandwagons! We were rolling about in the public gallery, I can tell you. He then proceeded to tell us about the emails he had received. I say tell us, actually he sneered at the senders of these emails who, for some reason, were almost exclusively from wealthy people in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Oh, and they were from women, funnily enough.
He referred to 'Ms K', whose gardeners, he said, would not be able to park outside her house if the changes are made.
Then there was the woman who would have to 'park her car in her own drive'
Another who worried about her 'luncheon guests' not being able to park.
A mother whose 'kiddies' he said might actually have to walk to school.
Let's get this in proportion, he bellowed, we're not talking about building sky scrapers!
By this time he was in a full blown, eye rolling, teeth grinding, grade one rant, like a tv evangelist in Kentucky. The residents looked on in utter horror and expressed their outrage in no uncertain terms. Everyone shouted in protest, yelling about taxis, and the councillors' free parking permits. And, unsurprisingly, they were genuinely appalled to see an elected member of the council speaking of residents with such derision and lack of respect. The other Tory councillors looked deeply embarrassed.
Why had he picked on Garden Suburb? The most organised resistence to the charge rises and loss of bays is actually from Golders Green, yet this was not the focus of his attack. He would not have dared, because Coleman like to think he is well regarded in this community. He does not understand the depth of bad feeling caused in this area by these hikes, and the loss of bays, and the lack of consultation. Or perhaps he does now realise, and is trying to back pedal. Whatever one's sympathies for the people in this area, and I certainly understand why they are so upset, and admire the fight they are putting up, if concessions are made in some wards and not others this will be quite wrong.
Susette Palmer stood up, absolutely incensed. She yelled at him: 'WE DO NOT ALL LIVE IN GARDEN SUBURB! Big Society? You have no idea what you are talking about! ... It's easy to pick out those that you want to be cynical about ...'
Labour's Cllr Brodkin said it was not just about Garden Suburb ... in Burnt Oak, people were not annoyed about not being able to park a car outside their house, they just wanted to be able to park in their own street. Coleman had claimed the money was needed for things like SEN transport, and he therefore looked forward to this vital service being improved by 150% in line with the charge hikes.
Up stood Tory Cllr David Longstaff, the actor, remember - beige man in Ikea, small part in Mary Whitehouse? No? As if the place wasn't in enough uproar, he decided to inflame matters even more. I can't tell you what he was really saying other than it involved an hissy explananation of what a black hole is (we know, thank you, we read the book by that bloke Bridget Perry wants to empower) and then a spat with Kathy Mc Gurk. He was shouted down by the residents in the gallery, who were in open mutiny now, and being watched over by hovering security staff primed and ready to protect Brian Coleman with a human shield in the event of an armed insurgency by the Garden Suburb Massive.
Labour's Cllr Geoff Johnson made his maiden speech. He remarked, to thunderous applause, that Barnet's current adminstration was the worst council he had ever known in terms of engaging with residents, and described the increases as 'obscene'. He talked about the effects it will have in Colindale - many of the residents in the gallery were from this area. He declared, again to huge applause, that it was time residents were treated with more respect.
Up stands our friend Rajput. He had no sympathy with people in large houses who couldn't park outside their homes. What about him? What can he do when he can't park outside his house?
'Get on a bus! Try public transport! You've got a free permit anyway! What about the people who can't afford to pay?' yelled the residents. When he carried on arguing, the gallery as one yelled SIT DOWN! He sat down, defeated.
'Well', said Kathy Mc Gurk, shaking her head at the silent Tories: 'How to make friends and influence people!'
It was her turn to mock, and how the gallery enjoyed it: she mocked the Tories' suggestion that if people didn't want the new changes, they should move. She reminded them that the reason for shortfall in revenue was entirely their own fault and due to their mismanagement. She also remarked on their plans to sell off the parking service, which is interesting, isn't it?
Councillor McGuirk urged the Tories to be flexible, to consult more fully with residents and the council as a whole, and to rethink the proposals. If you don't, she warned - it will come back to haunt you.