Thursday, 15 September 2011

Part Two: In your face: a Residents Forum, continued

Consultation with residents, One Barnet style

So - Finchley & Golders Green Residents Forum: where were we?

Last night's meeting took place in a new venue, a church hall, just opposite Mrs Angry's old school, in fact, which she took as an omen of some sort. The evening certainly turned into the sort of performance you might expect from a hopeless, desperate teacher who cannot control the class and totally loses the plot. Mrs Angry thought nostalgically of the time the school's German teacher, Fraulein B, whom all the girls suspected of being a man, due to an excessively large moustache, lost it big time one afternoon, locked a load of pupils in the library, asked them intimate questions about their fathers, and then had to be taken away in an ambulance, as we all watched, in ghoulish fascination.
Happy days.

Anyway: there we all were, crammed into a tiny room, residents faced by a panel of glowering Tory chair Reuben Thompstone, his sheepish, largely silent colleague Graham Old, a governance officer Ms A, and the manager of Highways, Mr Neil Richardson.

Also present were several Labour councillors, including Kath Mc Guirk, Ross Houston, Jim Tierney, Anne Hutton, Jeff Cooke, and Alan Schneiderman, and Libdem Jack Cohen. Former chair Tory Dean Cohen came in late, missing most of the fun. Where were any other Tory councillors? Mrs Angry has never seen Eva Greenspan at a Forum, which is pretty shabby, and deputy boy leader Daniel Thomas told Mrs Angry himself that he does not need to attend, ever - which is what you might expect. And where was the Garden Suburb housewife's choice, Councillor Andrew Harper? Had something come up at the last moment?

And John Marshall: how could you stay away?

Mrs Angry bumped into Councillor Marshall, the other day, in Waitrose - he was, rather fittingly, standing by the organic nut display, looking bemused, and trying to pretend he wasn't following her. Feeling sorry for the old boy: he can't help it, after all, who could - she made polite conversation. For some reason he told her about the magazines he likes to read (no, not that sort), like Private Eye. Ah, said Mrs Angry: yes, an excellent publication. Very interesting story a few weeks ago about Barnet, wasn't there? Was there? What about? MetPro! Remarkably well written, she thought. John gulped, and said the first thing that popped into his head: of course we have an election coming up next year, don't we? Hmm, said Mrs A: poor old Brian, he must be getting rather worried ... Oh, he said, panicking, well:I am not Councillor Coleman's spokesman ... Ha, no: said Mrs Angry, moving off, who would want that job? A few minutes later, Cllr Marshall came over to Mrs Angry and her daughter by the fish counter. He said to Miss Angry: Can't you control your mother? She gave him a steely look: NO, she replied firmly, I cannot. And then went and spoilt it by adding: I only wish I could. Mrs Angry was obliged to lecture her about her disloyal attitude all the way round Waitrose, and most of the way home.

But back to the Forum.

Mrs Angry grabbed the question sheet to see what written responses her three questions had received. If you recall, out of the several she had submitted, only three were allowed, under the new rules, which are aimed at preventing any useful or awkward questions being put to the panel or debated. Or that is the theory: things don't quite work out like that at our Forum.

Two of the questions had been given limited and evasive answers: the third, asking about councillors' free parking permits, was listed: but with no response other than:

'This is a policy issue and therefore not within the remit of the Forum.'

In which case, thought Mrs Angry: why was the question put on the sheet, unlike the other questions which were rejected for the same reason?

The Forum began with a stern lecture from the pompous, dictatorial Councillor Thompstone on the subject of how the meeting would proceed, and the many new regulations which we, the residents of the Residents Forum, must observe. This performance took five minutes, by which time Mrs Angry was wound up like a coiled spring, ready to leap up, grab hold of Councillor Thompstone's tie, and shout in his self satisfied face 'LISTEN, SON: YOU ARE THE ELECTED REPRESENTATIVE OF ALL THESE PEOPLE, NOT THEIR F*CKING SLAVEMASTER, AND YOU DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO SPEAK TO THEM IN THIS WAY!' But of course Mrs Angry is far too polite, and anyway she didn't need to jump up and shout in his face, because another resident did it for her, a little later in the proceedings. Oh yes.

You have to imagine the rest of the meeting taking place, as it did against a backdrop of vociferous discontent, yelling, arguing, barracking, laughter, applause, jeers, and an increasingly red faced Thompstone barking commands at the mutinous residents. It was terrific entertainment.

We were about to launch into the staged event that now passes for question time, when an elderly gentleman stood up to protest about the format of the Forum and the repressive control of debate that has taken place. The chair tried to shut him up, in his charmless way: he failed. The elderly resident was in fact Mr Julian Silverman, the Barnet Alliance member who had his banner snatched by Tory vicar, and chum of Brian Coleman, Father Adrian Benjamin. Mr Silverman had brought along copies of his own emergency resolution for the Forum to consider, which he had handed out. It was a pefectly reasonable resolution:

"We regard the coming decision of the council to sell off all council services to one-for profit company as an impending threat, which, on top of present government and council policies can only mean further attacks on libraries, the Health Service, education, welfare, social care, small businesses and ordinary householders, housing, the loss of adequate care for the elderly, children, the sick, etc. As responsible citizens and as participants in a forum intended for residents, we therefore call upon this meeting to suspend the new restrictions on questions so as to allow an urgent discussion of how to save jobs and services in Barnet."

As you might imagine, Mr Silverman's reading of this proposal enraged Cllr Thompstone, who tried to shout him down amongst disorder from the residents who supported him. In fact there was complete pandemonium. Thompstone was furious and carried on trying to impose his authority: 'What is a Forum for?' demanded an unstoppable Mr Silverman. 'May I remind you ...'

'NO, YOU MAY NOT' yelled Thompstone.

Mrs Angry, trying to be helpful to the Chair, suggested that such scenes were only to be expected in view of the censorship enforced by the new rules, and, she added, to applause from residents, if Mr Thompstone didn't like it, he might like to go back to his fellow Tory councillors, and the constitution committee which created these repressive regulations, and get them withdrawn. Councillor Thompstone appeared not to welcome this suggestion.

A resident asked if we could shut the open doors, as there was noise in the entrance hall. Cllr Thompstone nodded his head gravely. Yes, that was something he could agree to. Oh: very good of you, said Mrs Angry. He added that he had wanted them open because he wanted people to come in. No you don't, shouted a man at the back, Mr Smith, who was getting increasingly agitated.

The first three questions were of the type approved of by the new order of Forum management- submitted by a resident asking about litter picking and path mainenance. Phew. No dangers there: street based, public works, any problems can be blamed on low level council officers. Marvellous. Ah: a certain senior officer's name is mentioned: let's call her Ms Y. The chair recommends that she is contacted. SHE NEVER ANSWERS HER EMAILS, yelled Mr Smith.

A couple more litter problems, yawn: but the resident had not turned up, so no supplementary questions. Moving on nicely. Ah: a question from Mrs Angry:

1.Why are some local events in parks charged at the full new rate, and others charged nothing at all? Who decides which event will be charged?

Mrs Angry suggested that this might be 'discussed' at the same time as a later, more specific question:

2.I understand that this year's Friern Barnet Show took place in a public park but was not charged the full new rate by Barnet Council for the event. By contrast, I believe the 100 year old Finchley Carnival which takes place in Victoria Park had to be cancelled this year because the full charges were going to be imposed.
  • Can you confirm that this was the casem and if so clarify why charges are made in one case, but not the other?
  • Can you confirm that the decision to charge or to waive the charge is made by the Cabinet member for Environment, or if he was present at council meetings at which the show was discussed?
Ah. Well: the written answer to the first question was a list of charges already in the public domain, although we note the charge for events sized in excess of 5,000 to be 'by negotiation' and the remark which states: 'A discount may be applied to the daily rate for Charitable/Community events at the discretion of the Director for Environment and Operations'.

The written answer to the second question repeated most of the first response, blamed the organisers of the Finchley Carnival for not taking up an unspecified 'offer' from the council, and again referred to the Director of E&O.

Yes, said Mrs Angry - but you have not answered the question, have you? I asked why charges were made in one case, but not the other, and I asked about the involvement or not of the Cabinet member, ie Councillor Brian Coleman, in the decision to waive charges for the Friern Show ... you have not addressed these points.

... oh yeah,
yelled a resident helpfully, to much cynical laughter in the audience: Coleman is the Chair of directors of Friern Show, isn't he?

Ah. Silence from Councillor Thompstone.

Mr Richardson, the Highways manager stepped in. Bla bla bla, the Director has discretion, bla bla bla ...

ANSWER THE QUESTION yelled Mr Smith, who has been yelling angrily all the way through, objecting vociferously to the Forum's repression of debate, refusing to shut up when Thompstone interjects.

Does the Cabinet member discuss the waiving of charges? asked Mrs Angry, again. Is he present at the meetings where this is discussed? Did Friern Show have the full charge waived?

IT'S DISCRIMINATORY! shouted a resident - which of course is a very good point. Mr Richardson looked uncomfortable. He could not comment on the attendance at meetings by councillors.

And Councillor Coleman is not here to defend himself, added Thompstone, attempting introduce a note of pathos into the proceedings, a foolish move, and one fiercely rejected by howling residents who expressed their enthusiasm for the future attendance of Councillor Coleman in no uncertain terms, and in a manner that might suggest he would be better advised staying at home, hiding behind the wardrobe.

A member of the Finchley Carnival community organising committee was also present and she had more questions regarding, for example, the £3,500 that was allegedly going to be imposed on the event by Councillor Coleman, in contrast to Friern Show.

Mr Richardson thought that there had been some very valid points made. He did not have the answers to hand.

WHY NOT? yelled Mr Smith: You knew the questions, you should have prepared your answers. THIS FORUM IS A FARCE! A battle between him and Thompstone ensued, which resulted in the Chair ignoring Mr Smith entirely despite his putting his hand up to speak patiently for long periods. Thompstone objected to Mr Smith's tone, which was funny, because Mrs Angry objected to Councillor Thompstone's tone but was obliged to sit and listen to it all evening, and pay him an allowance to perform in this bullying manner. Other residents attempting to speak were similarly, rudely ignored, in a blatant decision to prevent any meaningful debate. This quite unsurprisingly enraged the appalled audience of residents.

Thompstone, who although as portly and pompous as some elder statesman can only be thirty something, has the most patronising approach, even when not laying down the law, for example addressing a woman at the back old enough to be his mother as 'young lady', and another resident almost as old as him as 'young man'. He was also less than sensitive to the needs of one or two speakers with disabilities in the course of the evening, which Mrs Angry would think was unintentional, but a direct result of the huge gulf between our Tory councillors and the broad range of their electors.

Continued later.


Mr Mustard said...

Am very sorry to have missed your meeting Mrs A but I was unavoidably detained at the snooker table at which I make quite a good break and evidently you, and fellow residents, didn't get a break at all.

Mrs Angry said...

I'm trying to think of a suitably snooker based response to you, Mr Mustard, but I just can't manage it. I hope your Forum is as much fun: suspect there will be an armed escort for councillors after last night. Where is MetPro when you need them, eh? Officer Sharkey,m come back: all is forgiven.

baarnett said...

We all trust your laptop enjoyed its time in the fridge, Mrs A (see previous post) and trust you can put Barnet Council in the washing machine, to clean up the dysfunctional, corrupt, rudderless, broken, decayed outfit that it is.