Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Mrs Angry's Spring Forum

Well, here we are at last: springtime in Broken Barnet. The days are getting longer (or maybe they just seem longer) - sad little daffodils are drooping in their buckets in M&S, and Mrs Angry's heart is full of love. One Barnet love, of course.

In fact, she was in such a good mood, at the end of last week, she found herself brimming over with ideas for tonight's local Residents' Forum, and sent in no less than five interesting questions, just to show willing.

1. At the recent special committee for constitutional ‘reform’, a number of highly controversial proposals were submitted for review which, if implemented, would seriously curtail the involvement of councillors of all parties, and members of the public, from engaging in council meetings. Are all of these proposals still being supported, and if so, can you explain how such measures are in any way consistent with the idea of ‘localism’, which allegedly seeks further to empower communities, or indeed explain how such changes are in any way acceptable in a democratic system of local government? If the proposals are still being put forward, when is it envisaged that a decision will be made on whether or not these so called ‘reforms’ will be adopted?

2. Can you give a copy of the job description of the current Conservative party political advisor, state the level of his salary, and confirm that he is a council officer, paid for by public funding? Do his duties include acting as a spokesperson for the party?

3. I am sure that many residents would like to have a detailed explanation for the following expenses noted in the online council for expenditure over £500, just a small sample of many questionable entries in these accounts:

a. The payments made to Todd Worsnip, also known as ‘DJ Snips’, amounting to more than £2,000 in July and August by Childrens’ Services.

b. The two payments made to Miss Blondie Waka, apparently a ‘hip hop’ artist, of £1,269 each, in August, by Adult Social Services (name later ‘redacted’).

c. A payment of £550 to the RAF Museum in November by Adult Social Services for ‘staff training’.

d. Payments of £3,150 by Children’s Services and £900 by the Corporate Governance Directorate to ‘Higgins Cartoons’ in November.

e. A payment of £1,162 to Digby Trout Restaurants Ltd by Adult Social Services for ‘staff training’ on 9/12/2010.

f. Payments of more than £15,000 to the four star luxury Sandbanks Hotel in Poole for conference facilities in November.

g. Payments, by the Deputy Chief Executive and other departments, of more than £15,000 in the last quarter alone to Voice!Business Associates, a company that specialises in ‘voice training’. How many officers have been trained by this company?

I am sure that elocution lessons for senior officers, training in satirical drawing skills, and conferences in luxury hotels are enjoyable activities for all concerned, but these expenses would seem unnecessary at any time, and seem particularly inappropriate at a time when many other council officers were being given redundancy notices, and plans being made for spending cuts in frontline services of unprecedented extent and range, and I think residents deserve an explanation for such expenditure.

4. Can you tell me when the company providing security cover for the Town Hall and other council requirements was first engaged, and by whom? How many other companies tendered for the contract?

5. Can you tell me when Barnet Council will comply with the instructions from ministers Eric Pickles and Bob Neill on the use of filming, photography and tweeting in all council meetings by citizen journalists, bloggers and other valued members of the community?

But something rather wonderful has happened. Look, children: can you see a little corporate fairy flying around the ceilings of North London Business Park? You do believe in fairies, don't you? Clap your hands if you do, and help Tinkerbell ... yes look, there she goes, in a sprinkle of stardust, all the way to the Democratic Services and Corporate Governance department ... What's that, Tinkerbell? You've done something magical? Mrs Angry's most embarrassing questions, hmm, numbers 2, 3, oh, and especially 4, yes, the security thing - have been transformed into what? Into Freedom of Information Requests! Without her even asking! And now there is a delay of perhaps twenty working days before they have to be answered ? Isn't that extraordinary, boys and girls?

On Tuesday morning, though, Mrs Angry became quite excited. There was a very promising looking email in her in box. It suggested that one of her questions, about the absurd expenses, had been answered. Except that when she looked closer, the naughty officer had just given her the information already available in the council's online expenses. Wasn't that a silly mistake? Mrs Angry had to respond at once, politely, but in forthright terms, explaining that she wasn't really in the mood to play games, and did not wish to bother the ICO, as they seem so busy chasing up mysterious security companies at the moment, but if the correct information was not passed on, she would have to take steps to complain. Again. The silly officer wrote back saying it was all an unfortunate misunderstanding, and she believes him. It's Ash Wednesday, today, and as her Lenten sacrifice, Mrs Angry has given up being cynical, ironic and sarcastic, you see.

Luckily, the unrepentent Mrs X is still bitter and twisted, with a warped sense of humour, and she was able to attend tonight's Residents Forum on her behalf.

In the church hall, we understand, Mrs X sat down in front of Tory Councillors Graham Old and John Marshall.

'Aha .. ' cried Mr Marshall ... ' here comes Mrs Angry! Oh dear, I suppose that means I am going to read about myself in her blog tomorrow ...'

Mrs X was puzzled by this, although people do often confuse us. Mrs Angry is much better looking, better read - and more intelligent, of course, although not so well behaved.

'Good evening, Councillor Marshall', said Mrs X, with an evil smile.

Noticing that the seats were all displaying brochures with 'Advice for older people and their carers', she picked one up and helpfully passed it over:

' This might be of interest to you, perhaps?'

'Oh dear me,' said our John, 'I may be seventy, but I don't feel in need of a carer quite yet ...'

Mrs X raised an eyebrow, knowing full well that Councillor Marshall, a scheduled ancient monument, half as old as time, is at least a hundred and seventy. (Some say even older, and that he lost his seat in Parliament when Cromwell disbanded the Rump Parliament of 1653 ...)

And then the meeting began. Mrs X noted with disappointment that the Head of Corporate Services was not present and hoped that he was not avoiding her, for some reason. Second Forum in a row, too. He is at least a worthy opponent, and capable of putting up some sort of resistence to Mrs X's irritating questions. Councillor Cohen is just too easy to play with.

Of the fourteen questions listed, at least nine were in some way related to parking. Three had accompanying petitions. Not just from people disgruntled over the outrageous increases, but from the problems caused by ill thought out schemes, or a lack of any scheme at all. At least two mentioned the suspiciously huge number of meters suddenly out of order, and the resulting difficulties, and pressure to use councillor Coleman's 'cashless parking' system. One elderly resident complained that she cannot pay this way as she has no phone. This cannot be correct, of course, as Councillor Coleman has already told us that there are no drivers in the borough who do not own a mobile, and Mr Coleman is always right, as we know.

Is it at all possible, suggested Mrs X, that there is a deliberate policy of not fixing meters, so as to force drivers to use the cashless system?

According to the council's own breathless claims in the target figures released recently, one of Environment's top three achievements is getting a rise in these payments up from ten to thirty per cent: wonderful news, and nothing whatsoever to do with the sudden epidemic of ageing meters which have, coincidently, deteriorated at exactly the same time as the introduction of the new payment facility. And no, it has nothing to do with the allegation that a certain individual slips out of his penthouse flat at the dead of night and prowls the streets of Broken Barnet with a pair of rubber gloves, some superglue, and a ball of plasticine. He may well do so, but I am confident that it has absolutely nothing to do with the meters.

The Highways officer, surreptitiously kicking a bag of screwdrivers under the desk, said that he had personally made sure that 87% of the meters in Golders Green and Temple Fortune were working today. He did look rather weary. (And most likely, only three per cent of the meters in the rest of the borough were working, and tomorrow, all the meters in GG & TF will be unusable again.)

Councillor Marshall stood up to respond to some of the points. He paused dramatically:

'I am, of course, always happy to assist Mrs Angry', he said, pointing at Mrs X like a shameless hussy, 'with her famous blog ... '

There was a sharp intake of breath, like the moment in an Agatha Christie story when Hercule Poirot announces in the library that the kindly, starch-aproned housekeeper is really a psychotic serial killer, escaped from an asylum in the Welsh borders. Everyone turned to stare at Mrs X, who sat wide eyed and innocent, shaking her head at this vile accusation. 'Mrs Who?'

After listening to all the many items about the parking problems, Mrs X began to lose her patience. It was clear, she observed, that all these issues had one common factor: the complete lack of any coherent policy by the council. In fact, it was true to say that the problems were due to the conflict between any attempt to manage parking with a pragmatic approach, and the objective of benefiting residents, with the shameless determination to use drivers as a form of income generation: the two directives are obviously irreconcilable, and these problems will continue, and continue to be raised at every Forum, and every council meeting, until the next election, after which, she cheerfully predicted, you will all be out of office. There was a round of applause.

There had been some talk about the use of petitions as a means of persuading our councillors to sort out the many thorny issues which upset their residents. Mr Marshall referred to some which had been submitted - ha - to Brian Coleman. He encouraged others to do the same. Mrs X asked him if he was altogether certain that Cllr Coleman paid any attention to petitions. 'He does if I tell him to', confirmed Mr Marshall with an interesting look in his eye. Mr Marshall is of course the Tory whip. A pleasing, if fleeting, image passed through Mrs X's mind, of the old statesman exercising discipline upon any disobedient Cabinet member who defied his will. Of course, some people enjoy that sort of thing, and this must cause all sorts of unexpected consequences.

By the way, on the subject of parking, here is a suitable point to draw your attention to a new Barnet blogger, and give a warm welcome to 'Mr Mustard' ( the Barnet bloggers are all beginning to sound like characters in a Tarantino movie, aren't they?). Mr Mustard has firm views on parking charges and the wasteful expenditure of our beloved council and is a new convert to the joys of councillor baiting at Forums: check him out.

Mrs X's questions next - the ones that were deemed safe for public airing. Consitutional 'reforms'? The reply was merely 'A number of proposals are being considered' ...

And what does that mean, exactly: what sort of time scale? Don't know. Not a clue? No. Two weeks, two months, six days, three year? Oh, well, actually, they thought it will go to full council, where it will be debated. Ah, good: progress, said Mrs X, and what are your thoughts, Councillor Cohen, on the alarming fact that your esteemed local LibDem colleague, Lord Palmer, who represents one of our wards, will in future not be allowed, should Brian Coleman's plot succeed, to take part in any debates? Oh, thought Dean Cohen, stammering slightly, he thought Councillor Lord Palmer would be very er welcome to always, er, be welcome to, you know speak and all that ... He may be welcome, said Mrs X, but his right to speak will be lost, which seems pretty incredible, considering your party is in a Coalition government with his, apart from any other objection on the basis of the fundamental principles of democracy. Hmm.

Ah yes: second question, regarding the Lynne Hillan's refusal to join in with Eric Pickles' newly born admiration for citizen journalism. Guess what the answer was? 'The authority is considering the recent letter' ... How long does 'considering' mean? Two weeks, two months, six days, three years? They didn't know. You must have a rough idea. Oh, well, it will have to go to full council. The next one. On the 12th April. Ah: thanks for that, see, it's easier than you think, answering awkward questions, if you just try.

Mr Marshall piped up and said he thought he might have seen some members of the public taking photos at the meeting last week. Mrs X agreed that he may well have seen something of the sort and offered to show him an illicit picture of his friend Brian, which is still awkwardly stuck on her blackberry (baarnett, if you know how to sort this out, please let me know) ...

When all the other parking issues were sorted, and AOB came up, Mrs X felt obliged to raise the subject that is of such urgent interest: the circumstances regarding the council's use of private security contractors Metpro Rapid Response, as seen at the meeting last week, when ordinary members of the public were prevented from emtering the half empty public gallery, in defiance of police advice. She noted with bewilderment that her question had been transformed into a FOI request, and speculated why that might be. She also asked what the Chairman's thoughts were about the fact that the company was facing a petition to be wound up by HMRC in the High Court next week.

Another shock horror moment, followed by disbelief. No one knew anything. Mrs X pointed out that emails on this subject had been sent to senior officers, and ignored. She asked for, and was promised, a full explanation in writing. Again: watch this space.

The last item of interest to Mrs X was an action point from the last meeting, the same old question she has been asking since last summer: 'What efforts, if any, have been made to organise the performance assessment of councillors,which was promised months ago, at the time of the allowance rise increases?'

Answer: f*ck all.

Or, as the officer put it, again, for the third time, 'work towards this is ongoing'.

What, in One Barnet speak, does 'ongoing' actually mean? What has actually been done, specifically? I think you can probably guess that there is absolutely nothing to tell us. Mrs X reminded Councillor Cohen that residents pay the councillors' allowances, and are therefore entitled to expect some sort of performance appraisal. This was a popular comment, incidentally, as was Mrs X's offer to set up some voluntary, Big Society type of appraisal system to help the councillors, an idea which was gratefully received by Mr Cohen, although, as Mrs X pointed out, to some extent, she was already providing this service.

As we left the hall, Mrs X was followed up the Golders Green Road by her new admirer, Councillor Marshall. We exchanged some interesting views on next year's GLA elections, and discussed Faustian pacts with the devil, and the strange truth that living next door to a church does not necessarily guarantee someone a place in heaven, or indicate any visible proof of Christian values.

Mr Marshall told Mrs X that he lives in Hampstead Garden Suburb, (at least until Mr Gaddafi asks for his house back, she would guess) and parted with her at the corner of a sideroad, claiming he was going to take a bus. A likely story, thought Mrs X, and lo and behold, there was a crack of a whip, and out of the darkness appeared a speeding horse driven carriage, the coachman's face obscured by a black gauze veil. And as she watched, Mr Marshall slipped away into the deep shadows of the night, to return home before dawn, and join the rest of the undead Tory councillors of Broken Barnet in their silk lined coffins, hiding in the castle vaults, safe from the prying sunlight of public scrutiny.

Mrs X gets a lot of Tory councillors chatting her up these days. She would like to think it was due to her siren like personal charms, but sadly, the truth is that they enjoy the thought of being written about, and love the attention. It also clear that most of them are completely out of touch, alienated from their own leadership, and the mood of their electors, and that they read the blogs to give themselves some sort of grip on reality.

Mrs X and Mrs A respectfully suggest that they might want to get out more, and mix with the villagers, before the public outcry ends in a torch lit procession to the castle, an awkward confrontation, and a wooden One Barnet stake through their withered hearts.


baarnett said...

Regarding the blackberry, Mrs A, I asked about the subject in a shop in Friern Barnet Road this morning, and they said it was:

"probably one of several species in the Rubus genus of the Rosaceae family, but the fruit is not a true berry, since it is botanically termed an aggregate fruit, being composed of small drupelets."

Does that help at all, Mrs A?

I presume those drupelets are those things you can download, and pay £2.99 for, but I'm getting out of my depth here.

Mrs Angry said...

funny, very funny, baarnett: and I was relying on you ... and let me tell you there is nothing you can tell me about soft fruit - used to have an allotment pal ...