Alternative Residents Forum: free thinking and debate allowed
Update: see story P2 Barnet Press: see here
Last night Mrs Angry went to a Residents Forum. A real one.
No, not one of those feudal events stage managed by the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, whereby the voters and tax payers of our borough may not raise their eyes to meet those of their elected representatives, and must remain, with heads bowed, in mute obedience to the new rules forbidding any questioning of One Barnet policy.
This was a meeting arranged by residents, for residents, with no rules and no restrictions. Sounds like dangerous anarchy, doesn't it? How on earth could that work? Well, in a very British way, it did: we don't actually need an imposition of dogmatic regulation in a meeting of this sort, do we? Most decent people are perfectly capable of discussing issues of mutual concern in a mature and mutually respectful way, after all - those that can't join the Tory party and become councillors.
Another blogger remarked to Mrs Angry that last night's forum was rather like a Quaker meeting, and he was absolutely right: speakers spoke as they felt moved, in a democratic, open manner, about whatever they wanted, with conviction, but with respect for others, and a sense of unity. Compare that to the hell fire and damnation ranting of an offical Residents Forum, beginning with a sermon lambasting free thinkers, sinners and heretical thoughts, and the satanic forces daring to opposing the orthodoxy and authority of One Barnet.
All our beloved councillors were invited to the Alternative Forum last night: but only Labour members bothered to attend. The LibDem councillors sent their apologies, at least, but Richard Cornelius, the Tory leader of the council, had a 'prior engagement'. No other Tory councillor bothered to attend.
Of course one or two of the Barnet Tory Cabinet were in Manchester at the Tory conference. Mrs Angry's spy tells her he bumped into one senior Tory overwhelmed with despair at the thought of having to sit at the same table as - guess which councillor of ours - at some do: can you imagine, having to fight a certain somebody for the bread rolls and listen to himself pontificating about dweadful socialists and poisonous bloggers all night long?
Oh and, Tory councillors and senior officers of Broken Barnet, look what another spy at the Conference tweeted on Monday ...
"Just walked up to
Ahem. What have I told you, Tory councillors and senior officers of Broken Barnet? Don't mess with Mrs Angry: Eric will be very cross with you.
In attendance at the Alternative Forum last night was our Labour candidate for the GLA - rival to the much loved Brian Coleman in the elections next year, of course - former Hendon MP Andrew Dismore. While Brian bored the pants off fellow Tory diners in Manchester, and stuffed his face, Mr Dismore sat with residents in a community centre and listened carefully to the speakers, making notes and actually seeming to value what they were saying: goodness me - can you imagine our present Assembly Member doing the same, citizens?
Barnet Alliance activist Julian Silverman talked about One Barnet: he thought it was trying to undo all the progress we had made in the last two hundred years of social reform, and he remarked upon leader Cornelius' alleged statement that Barnet 'was not a place for people on benefits' - Julian pointed out that all residents are dependent on support from a wide range of services: schools, hospitals, social care. I think the One Barnet view would be that we are all 'stakeholders', Julian, but that is a phrase which has no real value in a borough where consultation with stakeholders is a meaningless process, and organised in such a way as to endorse the political agenda of our Tory masters and their senior management team.
There was a lot of talk, last night, about the One Barnet partnership board: a mysterious body which appears to meet in secret and is not publicly accountable. No citizens groups are known to have any representation on the board. Oh dear, sounds awfully like one of those quangos Mr Pickles and his government colleagues so despise, does it not?
The mike passes around the room now, and any resident invited to address the meeting with his or her contribution - and this is what happened for the next two hours or so. And what a contrast this arrangement presents to the appalling new official Forums, with the seething resentment, the antagonism, the contemptuous vice like grip on proceedings by bullying councillors.
One resident, Joe, suggested that it was time the people of the borough were given a referendum on the One Barnet programme. The electorate have in fact never been consulted on this issue, and residents have never been given any real explanation of the principles behind it, the details of the proposals, or the implications for the ordinary citizen. A commitment to massive outsourcing of public services has been relentlessly and unquestioningly obeyed, with even backbench Tory councillors struggling to understand the direction and scale of what will accompany the programme.
Anyone attending a council scrutiny meeting will know that information regarding the practical organisation of One Barnet has been notably short in supply. This is largely, of course, because little information existed - even our otherwise complacent external auditors Grant Thornton felt moved, last year, to highlight the lack of any business plan or understanding of risk assessment in the One Barnet plan. The whole programme, in short, lacks any credibility.
The average Barnet citizen has absolutely no idea what One Barnet is, or how it is going to destroy the local services they have always taken for granted. They do not understand - yet - that it will affect their families, their homes, their streets: their elderly parents, their children, the most disadvantaged members of our community. It is our responsibility to make sure that they do understand.
Barnet Eye blogger Roger Tichborne spoke next: he talked about the success and impact that our blogs are having, and the anxiety that this causes within the One Barnet garrison. He mentioned the success of the sheltered housing campaign, the massive reverberations of the MetPro scandal - said that these issues and the way in which they were challenged by residents, activists and bloggers proves that we can change things: we do not have to sit back and accept the inevitable.
Much of the evening's discussion, interestingly, centred around the impact that the One Barnet madness was having, and will continue to have, on vulnerable residents, especially on those with disabilities and special needs.
A resident and disability campaigner named Maria Nash spoke: she welcomed the idea of the Alternative Forum, and asked how the debate could be extended to those who have been excluded from the process of consultation - people living with disabilities, special needs and impairments, and also elderly residents, a large section of the community and yet one that in this borough is increasingly marginalised,and without a voice. Think of the policies being enforced, for example, in relation to parking: the impact on elderly residents who drive, but are without mobile phones, or internet access - Councillor Coleman, in fact, refuses to acknowledge that they exist. They are non persons, in the London Borough of Broken Barnet.
Another resident, Linda, spoke of her truly dreadful experience as the parent and carer of a woman with autism, whose vital night time support was cut without agreement or warning, by the council earlier this year: a service only resinstated when a solicitor established that it was not legal and fought for the decision to be retracted. Linda asked how other, less fortunate residents who do not have expert support, can possibly protect themselves from such devastating and often illegal withdrawal of services?
Andrew Dismore spoke about -ha - a topical issue: Barnet's non compliance with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. Even Mr Dismore struggles with the effects of the One Barnet totalitarian control of information, and its determination to avoid the tranparency and accountability which the government claims it wishes to support.
Andrew also remarked on the lack of awareness that residents have of the One Barnet programme: easycouncil is something they may have heard of, he said, but we must make the whole concept easier to understand and better known.
He mentioned the latest scandal regarding the agreement to flog off Hendon Cemetery, signed off in a matter of three seconds (good man: he's been reading this blog, if you haven't guessed). He reminded us of the Westminster cemeteries sale and the immense distress caused to relatives by privatisation, resulting, eventually in much embarrassment for the Tory gerrymandering enthusiast Lady Porter, and a return to public ownership. This was acheived by a campaign by enraged relatives and residents, and was, he said, a great example of how public opinion can be used effectively to organise resistence to such exploitation of a public resource.
A man named Mr S spoke now, with deeply felt anger, about the impact of cuts in budget, and the One Barnet agenda, on Barnet residents with special needs and disabilities. He began by condemning the denial of free speech at the newly censored council Resident Forums. He then spoke of his experience as the father of a middle aged woman with learning disabilities. And he used an interesting phrase.
Mr S repeated the words uttered by Councillor Brian Coleman last week at the Cabinet Resources Meeting, expressing his desire to see a change in law that would remove from the council the requirement to supply transport for children with special needs, and vulnerable adults. Coleman, whose own infamous taxi fares are frequently paid for by public money, referred, in a remark of breath taking offensiveness, to such residents as 'these people'. 'These people', repeated Mr S, with barely controlled fury ... 'These people?'
A social worker present angrily questioned why senior officers present at the Cabinet meeting where Coleman's remark was made apparently failed to challenge such an appallingly ill judged comment, and failed to remind councillors of their duty of care to such vulnerable people?
A very good point, as you might agree.
Paul Edwards, a former borough union leader, and former colleague of Mrs Angry, in the good old days of unity and successful industrial action ( a lesson there for all Barnet employees worried about their jobs: join your union, if you are not already a member, and make your voice heard) now addressed the meeting. He thought that the present administration was the worst example of Tories in power that he had seen in thirty years of living in Barnet. I don't think anyone is going to disagree with that statement either.
Paul also has had experience of the Barnet evasion of awkward FOIs, such as on the subject of outsourcing: he had asked questions, for example about the council's assessment of the impact on the local economy of the resulting loss of up to 1,000 jobs - despite the vagueness of the reply it was clear that this aspect of the One Barnet agenda has been conveniently overlooked. Why is no business minded backbench Tory councillor not asking the same question? It is quite extraordinary, is it not, how docile they are?
Another resident, Ms W, again raised the subject of the effects of council policy and actions on vulnerable members of the community - the impact of the so called 'fairer contribution' imposed by Tory budget cuts. She also mentioned an issue which recurred throughout the evening: the intimidation felt by some voluntary groups in the borough from the authority if they tried to work with organisations such as Barnet Alliance - the fear of losing desperately needed grants is a real one, born out of the horrible, bullying culture that has evolved in this borough.
Kim Lee, a campaigner for the protection of our libraries, spoke of the concern residents feel at the lack of information coming from Tory councillors in regard to the supposed future replacement libraries at the Arts Depot and Hampstead Garden Suburb: he questioned the lack of detail which surrounds the proposals, a subject which Cabinet member Robert Rams is less than keen to discuss in any detail.
Unison leader John Burgess talked about the need for trade unions to reclaim their place in the community. Unions would support local campaigners wherever possible. He noted that the council was reacting in an increasingly aggressive way to local resistance to One Barnet. Closing down or restricting the Residents Forums was just one such act of aggression: he urged residents to continue to attend and continue to submit challenging questions to the Forums - a plea endorsed by Mrs Angry. He referred to the recent industrial action by staff facing the outsourcing of the service they provide, and announced another strike planned for later this month. He also talked about ways of engaging with the wider community.
Alison Moore, the Labour leader, also discussed the need to explain to residents exactly how the massive outsourcing of services was going to affect them. As she put it, Mrs X in Totteridge probably doesn't think much about the way her council is run, as long as the wheelie bin is emptied on time: she will only realise what has changed when she needs the support of a service that is no longer there. Alison described One Barnet as an ideological project, whereby options appraisals are prejudged, and by means of a secretive process in which in-house proposals for services are simply ignored.
Why, anyway, she asked, was there such a presumption in favour of privatised services? It was a false argument that the private sector could provide better and cheaper services.
Barnet Tories, she said, were guilty of serial inaction: examples of the incompetence of their administration ranged from the £27 millions of investment funds lost in Iceland, the millions wasted in the Aerodrome Road bridge overspend, the scandalous case of MetPro and the revelations of an entire procurement system that was not fit for purpose, the disastrous management of the parking service and the expensive failure of the IT system.
A resident called Sheree expressed the amazement she had felt that here in this country, which boasts of being the world's oldest democracy, she had witnessed the use of private security employees, paid for by residents, paid to tell residents why they were not going to be allowed to attend a council meeting, at the command of a group of Tory councillors whom she described as 'thugs and thieves'.
John Dix, the blogger known as Mr Reasonable, stated that it was everybody's right to attend council meetings, and urged them to do so. He pointed out that the Byzantine mystery of council procedure prevented most residents from understanding how they might participate in the democratic process, and that we must look to ways of educating people in ways of accessing the system, so that more people became involved.
We must make this issue real, he said: residents were only just beginning to realise that the effects of the cuts and the huge sell off of services to the private sector was going to affect their child, their parent. He remarked that the efforts of bloggers to challenge the actions of our beloved councillors was clearly beginning to cause them some distress, and that we were determined to keep up the pressure. Indeed we are, are we not, fellow bloggers?
We talk about the council, said John, but the council is only individual councillors. He suggested that residents take the argument to these individuals, their elected representatives: ask them direct questions. Instead of residents feeling intimidated, it should be the councillors who are -or should be -legitimate subjects of scrutiny.
You may have noted that at this Forum, unusually, Mrs Angry kept her mouth firmly shut. This is because, for once, a Forum provided a genuine process of debate, and it was good to sit and listen to the opinions of so many different residents, who were able to talk freely, without being gagged, or controlled, or told what to think.
This sort of meeting is what we do so well in this country, isn't it? We care about our communities, and we fight to protect them, whenever we feel they are under threat. What a stark contrast there was in the impassioned sincerity of the opinions voiced here, at this event, and the outrageous lies and empty political dogma dressed up as truth that issues out of the mouths of our scabby Tory councillors at their orchestrated meetings in the Town Hall ...
Labour leader Alison Moore made some interesting observations at the Forum, but I must disagree with her on one point: I no longer believe that there is any truth whatsoever in the statement that One Barnet is an ideologically based programme.
I am absolutely certain that it is entirely driven not by principle, but by a rather more base instinct, and one as far from ideology as is possible to be: and this is the motivation of self interest and profit.
There is far too much money at stake now for this marketing of our services to be engineered and delivered without creating a fatal vulnerability to external pressures, and morally compromised practices. I think you know what I am saying.
In short, citizens, we really are being sold down the river, and those who will benefit from it are not you or me or our children or our parents, or any resident of this borough. It doesn't take much to work out where the profit will be, and where it is going to end up -and if the residents of this borough do not wake up and see what its happening very soon, and demand to call a halt, it will all be too late.
When your parent needs care, or your child is diagnosed with special needs, you will look for support from the local authority, and you will find yourself referred to a faceless, unaccountable private company, whose mission is to generate profit for its shareholders, not to give you the help you need.
If you don't want to live with this sort of future, now is the time to stand up and tell your feckless Tory councillors, and tell them very loudly. This is Broken Barnet, and they are the ones who broke it - make sure they know you know it too.