Cabinet Resources Committe, 13th January
The area in which I now live used to be, until relatively recently in the history of our borough, a part of Finchley Common: a place notorious for brutal highwaymen like Dick Turpin and Jack Shepherd, who spent their days and nights lurking in the undergrowth with pistols and evil intent, waiting for some hapless coach of passengers rushing through the danger zone to fall into their bloody hands.
Times have changed, of course. If you stay too long in this neck of the woods you don't necessarily go in fear of your life, but you are still at risk of being relieved of all your disposable cash. And the ruthless ne'er do wells targeting innocent citizens going about their daily lives are more likely to be doing so in the guise of elected Tory councillors of Barnet Council, rather than as the romanticised career criminals of a bygone age.
No one coshes you over the head, these days, or threatens to pepper you with shot. Highway robbery, in Broken Barnet, in the year 2011, is carried out by stealth, by cunning, and by committee.
Ah: and tonight there were dark deeds aplenty amongst the gang of four culprits comprising the Cabinet Resources Committe, which was meeting to approve a huge number of highly controversial proposals imposing massive charge increases in a wide ranging and very long list of fee based activities - from allotments, burials to - oh dear - parking ...
I didn't hear any discussion tonight of the driving force behind these proposals, that is to say, a purely monetary one. And the interesting thing about the parking charges, in fact, is that despite the implication that this will go towards making good the budget deficit entirely caused by the wicked Labour government ( nothing to do with those lovely bankers, remember) all parking revenue is ringfenced and can only remain in the highways budget. So all that extra dosh which will be chiselled out of Barnet motorists can only be used within a very strictly defined area, not spread about for the general good. Perhaps we will see all potholes filled with gold, and another boroughwide round of lamp post replacements then?
Feelings were running high tonight. Very high. In fact, let me give you a taste of what is to come in this report, when I tell you that what started off as a well attended but rather subdued meeting eventually descended into utter chaos in the public area, a call for security, and an enforced ten minute adjournment.
As we discussed in an earlier blog, the councillors had been hoping to get away with the charge increases, as well as the removal of free parking bays, by keeping publicity and consultation to the barest minimum, and arranging what little warning there was about parking changes and hikes to take place over the holiday period. When residents found out, rather late in the day, what was happening, a smouldering resentment began to build, and this has been rapidly turning into a boroughwide blaze of fury.
These committee meetings are generally poorly attended by the public, but some of the many residents who are enraged by the enormous charge hikes had come along to this one, and a few had submitted questions about the allotment rises. I don't know why there were no questions about the parking charges, as this was the most controversial issue. I strongly suspect that many simply failed to understand their right to pose such questions. Audience participation is not exactly encouraged at these carefully stage managed events, for obvious reasons.
Those who had tabled a question appeared not to realise, and of course, it was to the councillors' advantage that they did not realise, was that they would be given written answers, but would also be entitled to attend and ask a supplementary question in person of the committee. None of the questioners had prepared a supplementary question, and some of those who had tabled questions had received replies by email and not known they could attend and extend the point of their question. Others claimed they had not been able to ask questions which had supposedly been raised before: in short there was a great deal of confusion about what is, after all, their fundamental right to engage in the democratic process of local government
Ah, and what a surprise: as predicted by Mrs Angry, an amendment had been made to the agenda, in which, by means of a neat trick, the charge increases would be approved in principle, with no discussion of the levels, as this had been postponed to a later date, cleverly averting, with useful ambiguity and evasion, much of the flack that was flying their way over the increases.
The members of the committee present were rather fewer than might have been expected: we had Andrew Harper, the deputy leader, sitting happily, like a rose between two thorns, in between little Robert Ramsbottom and our Mr Punch, Richard Cornelius. The chair was my personal One Barnet budget consultant, Daniel Thomas. Oh: I know what you are wondering: where was Dick Turpin? And where was his faithful moll, Lynne Hillan?
Yes, a disappointing and mysterious absence from the Cabinet member responsible for these charge proposals, your favourite and mine, Councillor Brian Coleman. Where was he? Was he unavoidably detained? Was he suffering from a diplomatic illness? Had he been rounded up, gagged, and imprisoned in a dark cellar, somewhere deep in the bowels of the Town Hall? Or was he sulking, after his embarrassing defeat earlier this week at the London fire authority, where, outrageously, he had been trying to enforce plans to end the rights of members to (how dare they?) ask questions at their meetings? (This aborted move may or may not be linked to the rumour published in the Standard on Tuesday that there are moves to sack ALL London firefighters and force them to apply for a shrunken number of posts.)
*Update Friday: there is an interesting story in the Ham &High about Brian Coleman and his comments about too much money being awarded to our borough from Tfl ...
So: Brian wasn't there, and nor was Lynne. Perhaps she's still on one of her well deserved holidays. (Hope it wasn't that Saga cruise being targeted by pirates!) You don't think - no, it couldn't be - could it, that they were trying to avoid this meeting for some reason? Surely not.
In their absence, anyway, the assembled bunch of B list Tory councillors still managed to do us over good and proper, and as it turned out, not a thing could be done about it. Except explode in anger, and yell in the direction at the said B list Tory councillors, as almost all the residents left in utter disgust and fury, once they realised the charges had been approved, without any debate. (There is no debate, in a Cabinet meeting of any sort, just nauseating self satisfaction, cant and hypocrisy.)
Daniel Thomas, the chairman who looks like a head boy and talks like a Thatcherite throw back, didn't see why we should worry about anything that wasn't a frontline service. Andrew Harper agreed. Robert Rams had spoken to allotment holders in his consituency and said they were more interested in taking over the allotments themselves, in accordance, he noted approvingly, with correct One Barnet thinking. 'Drivers of their own destiny' proclaimed Councillor Thomas, in equal admiration ...
As for the parking charges, Andrew Harper had just a shadow of a question: how did the proposals shape up compared to other boroughs? Just an after thought, you know, no need to consider that sort of thing when you are first drawing up such significant proposals, is there?
The cooperative senior officer was happy to reassure him, quoting some inner London figures which rather puzzled Mrs Angry, and other residents, as of course Barnet is an outer borough ...
Emboldened by Harper's rebellious attempt at vigorous scrutiny, (well - Brian and Lynne weren't there so no one could kick them under the table) Rams blurted out that there were lots of comments from residents about the loss of free parking places. Ah. Ooops:
The senior officer wasn't concerned. In her opinion, it could be argued that there was a 'contradiction' in having any free places in controlled parking areas. Oh, that went down awfully well with the residents, I can tell you ... in fact, this is the point when they began to get very, very cross.
A woman shouted across to the committee - 'When are you going to open the floor up to questions?'
They weren't, of course.
The councillors carried on congratulating themselves. Daniel Thomas thought Barnet's charges were good value for money. Harper justified the rises because we haven't revised the pay and display rates for a couple of years now.
The senior officer made a remark about the new changes encouraging people to move on and not block a space all day. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear: that was it.
'Rubbish!' shouted a member of the public. There was pandemonium. People began to stand up, move about, and shout at the committee:
'You all have free parking passes, don't you?'
'You won't get away with this!'
'You are an absolute disgrace!'
'You don't listen to the public!'
'You're meant to represent us!'
The sort of people who were acting in this unprecedentedly outspoken way were not political activists: they were ordinary, decent, middle class residents, elderly allotment holders, residents of areas with CPZs, several members of the orthodox Jewish community, a young girl, a student, traders.
An impassioned retailer from Golders Green yelled across the room: 'how can you say these charges are going to benefit trade?' Another woman shouted that she hadn't known about the changes until yesterday, the lack of consultation was outrageous.
Enter the council security, and council officers: throughout all this, of course, our Tory councillors went rather red, kept their heads down, and remained silent. Due to the uproar, the Chair snapped that there would have to be an adjournment. Most of the residents left the room in fury. As she left, one woman told them: 'We voted for you - we won't make the same mistake again, just wait and see!'
Oh, goodness me, what have you done, you silly Tory councillors?
There followed a couple of other items, but no one really bothered to show much interest.
They approved the renewal of the Sodexho contract, despite Cllr Cornelius' slight concern about people possibly having to eat 'mush' in order to subsidise the very expensive special meals some elderly or dependent people require (the fusspots, eh?).
I thought we were going to get some probing questions from Andrew Harper (sorry, Deputy Dear Leader, Andrew Harper) on the issue of a renewal of resources for some project tackling the issue of domestic violence, but in fact he said that although he recognised the importance of this subject, he would just like to point out (you may wish to sit down now, in case you faint with the shock) that his title had been incorrectly given in one part of the report. Will this be amended? It was agreed that it would, which I am sure will be of no small relief to us all.
At this point, the public were excluded while they all discussed some property matter, and Mrs Angry took the welcome opportunity to slip away into the rainy night.
So there you have it, another magnificent example of the way they do things in the London Borough of Broken Barnet: see our Tory councillors' commitment to the principles of democracy and transparency in public office, to the process of consultation, engagement with the community, and a new dedication to the concept of localism, and marvel at the way in which it will empower residents to take the important decisions which will shape the future of our borough!
Or maybe not.