Tonight's Finchley & Golders Green residents forum took place in Avenue House, in Finchley, which is fortunate enough to boast a large meeting room, a necessity, as it happened because the room was packed, and copies of the agenda ran out far before the room was even half way full.
I say agenda: I mean the strictly limited list of officially approved questions that have been allowed for inclusion by our Tory masters, and the formal responses which will be their last word on the matter, as the new rules mean we may not raise the issues again within a six month period. At the forum for once, after Mrs Angry complained about the lack of them at the previous two meetings, an action sheet was produced, regarding the issues raised at the last meeting. Whereas at most meetings, the minutes or action points are quite reasonably checked and agreed, here we were told that no reference to the actions may be made. Why? Because of the six month rule. But what if, asked Mrs Angry, being steadily ignored by chair Councillor Thompstone, what if the actions have not been actioned? What do we do then? He would not respond.
All questions submitted by residents must now go before the new McCarthyite scrutiny process to be examined for traces of dangerous heresy: the unspeakable sin of challenging One Barnet 'policy'. We may not ask anything which questions 'policy'. We may not ask why we may not ask anything which questions 'policy'. What is policy? F*ck me if I know. Is it an ill wind which blows through the late autumnal trees in the soon to be pimped parks and open spaces of Broken Barnet? Is it that secret thought lying at the muddy bottom of Councillor Coleman's dark imaginings? Is it a divine mystery, like the holy trinity, or the number of long term, over paid interim consultants hidden in the ever fluctuating structure of the senior management team?
The only issues which may now be raised at a residents forum are those which are directly a matter of 'public works'. Do you know what that means? No, nor do I. It raises an image of something that might be the subject of derision in a Will Hay film of 1943, perhaps, with bowler hatted public servants drawing up blueprints for a public convenience outside the Town Hall, and it all going horribly wrong, but in a lovely, black and white way, with a cameo role from Stanley Holloway as Brian Coleman, the portly, loud mouthed and slightly common alderman. No offence, Brian.
Mrs Angry is of the opinion, as you may gathered, that the forums are now in fact a complete and utter travesty of their intended function, as part of the process of consultation and debate between voters and their elected representatives. There is no debate allowed here, and all consultation is doctored so as to suit the preordained strategy of the ruling junta of Tory Cabinet members running this borough. Or so they think: in fact the senior management team runs the borough, according to their own objectives, and one or two Tory Cabinet members assist them when this suits their self interests.
Just because there is a reign of terror in Broken Barnet, however, does not, in Mrs Angry's eyes signify that we should just sit back and let them have it all their way. We must engage in acts of resistance, or civil disobedience, and disrupt their silly games wherever possible.
With this in mind, Mrs Angry continues to submit questions, and continues to attend the forums, and attempts to subvert the process of the evil new system as much as possible.
For this forum, she submitted the following questions to the governance officer:
Dear Ms A:
I hope that you are well. And Mr Lustig too.
I would like to submit the following questions to the Finchley and Golders Green Forum:
1. The council has just announced plans to hire out parts of some of our local parks for private functions and other events. I would like to know:
a. Is it the intention of the council to allow any of these parks to be fully closed to the public for any event?
b. Has legal advice been taken on the grounds for allowing such use of the parks?
c. Has an equalities impact assessment study been carried out?
d. Why has Friary Park been missed off the list of parks intended for the scheme? Has the Cabinet member for the Environment withheld it from the scheme and if so why?
e. The scheme includes Scratchwood greenspace. Is the Cabinet Member for the Environment aware that this location is known for its use by 'dogging' enthusiasts, and does the council really think this is a suitable venue for weddings and other such events?
2. Is there a potential conflict of interest in the fact that Friary Park is used by the Friern Barnet Summer show at a minimal rate of hire each year, when the Cabinet Member for Environment, who has the choice to waive charges for hire, is himself a director of the company which organises the show?
3. At a recent council meeting it was disclosed that budget priority was being given to spending on roads rather than footpaths, and that the only work on footpaths has come from 'LIP' funding. Bearing in mind the state if many of our local paths, could you explain what this means, and inform us how much in total has been spent on footpaths from this source of funding, and compare it to the amount spent on footpath funding in previous years from each source?
With many thanks,
Rather naughtily, Mrs Angry had submitted question 1(e) for no other reason, she must confess, than to tease the Director of Corporate Governance, and she really had not the slightest expectation that it would be accepted. By the 'public works' rule of course, arguably it should be submissable, addressing an issue which certainly takes place in public, and does require a certain amount of effort, if not work, at least on the part of some of the participants. Or so Mrs Angry understands: she also understands there are some members of the council who might be able to confirm this from personal experience?
Question 2 was a serious question, a matter of public interest, and one which in any open democracy, is a perfectly valid subject for scrutiny.
Of course here in the topsy turvy world of Broken Barnet, what is right is wrong, and what is wrong is right, and we must always expect to be surprised. And of course Mrs Angry's question about dogging was accepted, and her question about a potential conflict of interest was rejected.
When she picked up the sheet tonight and read the question listed as written amongst all the parking and road safety questions, she was overcome with an unseemly fit of schoolgirl like giggling. This was not helped by the response to one of the first items, concerning some ugly new parking signage, in which there was far too much po faced talk by the forum panel about the rather lax control of erections by Barnet Council, interrupted in timely manner by the late entrance of Councillor Andrew Harper. Make up your own joke.
Tory councillor John Marshall, who is, of course, Mrs Angry's secret admirer, was sitting behind her, safe enough from her swivel eyed troublemaking, but not too far away to bask in her presence, as he always does, the old fox. Councillor Marshall is an old fashioned sort, and obviously believes in long courtships, you know. He is rumoured to have been engaged to Jane Austen, in his youth, or so they say, but it is said she tired of waiting, and took up writing instead, with a broken heart. Rather like Mrs Angry.
In a way, Mrs Angry rather fancies herself as Broken Barnet's answer to Jane Austen, her two inch piece of ivory being this blog, perhaps, with all the same comic elements of human frailty closely observed, although with ruder jokes, and more swearing. Admittedly, Jane Austen didn't write much about dogging. Although there is that bit in 'Emma', isn't there, where she goes to Box Hill, and has a disappointing picnic? Perhaps it was Mr Darcy that was a disappointment, rather than the lemon posset.
At this point I am tempted to tell a very rude story I've just heard about a certain Barnet councillor, and no, I can't. I must self regulate (and sincere thanks to the Barnet Press for the advice).
Anyway, the first question was a petition in support of a 20 mile speed limit in a road in NW2. The resident who presented it did so because he thought, rather controversially, that children being put at risk of being knocked down was a bad thing, which of course it may be in other boroughs, but not here in Broken Barnet, where we have plenty of spare ones to make up the deficit, being the most populous London borough, so the Cabinet member for the environment and all his chums aren't that bothered. Same goes for old people, who are a fecking nuisance, and want to cross roads slowly, and get in the way of cars being driven by Tory councillors on their way to lunch at the Haven.
A Highways officer thought that things might improve in the road when the massive Brent Cross-Cricklewood development was built. In 20 years time, muttered Mrs Angry. Well, exactly when will that be, demanded the resident. 2015, said the officer. Ha: three years, said Mrs Angry. Councillor Marshall tutted behind her: 'Four, if you can count, ' he remarked waspishly, looking askance. 'Ah well,' said Mrs Angry airily: ... 'I can't.' ... Councillor Marshall looked appalled, but frankly not surprised. He still loves me, I think, airhead though I am.
Funnily enough, this afternoon, Mrs Angry had to give an phone interview to a financial journalist about - oh dear - the audit process - ha, yes, me, Councillor Marshall, can you imagine? I did explain she was talking to someone who can't remember how to do long division, or even simple subtraction, as you see, but luckily she was blinded by my ability to talk a load of balls about things I really know nothing about, and I think I got away with it.
So anyway. Speed limits. Ah, hold on just one flipping minute: looking at the written response to this question, what do we find?
"20 mph speed limits are not supported by current policy but the location has been investigated to see if other traffic management measures might be justified ..." What? Who said that they could refer to shhh, you know that thing we are not supposed to mention. Yes, go on then: policy. POLICY. There. So: it is ok to invoke the black magic of 'policy' as an excuse not to do something, just as long as no one asks why.
Next question: ah. And this is why there were so many people packing the room tonight. The issue of cashless parking. Hold on, isn't that policy? Er ... well it is cashless parking in Temple Fortune, which must be a public work, then, as it is related to a specific location? Trying to second guess here.
A petition was being presented by Loretta Paterson, a shop owner who has been featured in the local press, focusing attention on the real impact on local traders and businesses of the idiotic new parking arrangements and charges imposed by yes, him, the Cabinet member for the environment, little Brian Coleman.
Loretta explained the disastrous effects that the new cashless parking system was having on trade. This is not a slow burning issue: the impact has been immediate, and catastrophic for all our town centres, struggling to survive in the present economic recession, and desperately in need of a boost from the pre Christmas trade. As she told the forum, to repeated applause, local businesses, shop owners felt they were being held to ransom by Barnet Council. Do we not need to keep our local shopping centres alive? What would happen to the council's income when all the traders were forced to close, and revenues from business taxes fall? Apart from the inherent problems with cashless parking, the difficulties it causes for older residents, there are continual issues with the automated system itself, further deterring customers from trying to park locally and use the shops. Even the larger retailers like Waitrose, M&S, Smiths, Starbucks, Smiths, Boots were complaining of the dramatic loss of trade.
Mrs Angry noted that Councillor Marshall, one of Ms Paterson's councillors, joined in the several rounds of applause that accompanied her speech. Councillor Harper, also a councillor for her area, looked worried, as well he might.
An officer by the name of John Mc Cardle addressed the issues raised. Brian Coleman would have been proud of him. He repeated almost verbatim the Coleman view on cashless parking. Give that man a promotion. The council had to raise charges for economic reasons. Oh, no, not for income generation in a general sense, you know, because that is not supposed to be allowed. He said it's for, er, funding things like provision of transport for children with special needs. Yes, come on, you remember, 'these people' whom Councillor Coleman would prefer not to have to provide transport at the council's expense, because we have other priorities, like councillors' taxi bills.
Mr McCardle said that we should not say that cashless parking, and the need to use credit cards to pay, should in any way endanger vulnerable residents, such as the elderly. He said that the Metropolitan Police supported cashless parking. Really? Mrs Angry asked for the evidence to support this claim, and he said that the borough commander was completely in agreement, so any senior police officers reading this, please confirm that Commander Basu really does agree with this (whoops) policy, and that, as reminded by a Temple Fortune resident, the police notices warning elderly people not to have their valuables, phones and credit cards on display are going to be withdrawn. Thank you.
Mr McCardle said, to the vocal derision of attending residents, that the new payment system had proved to be popular 'across the borough' ie as there was no other way of paying, some people were using the payment system, rather than incur a penalty. Well of course they are, yelled members of the public: what choice do they have? Oh, and I have just remembered his most ridiculous statement: shopkeepers complaining about loss of business should offer to pay for their customers parking. No, really. That went down awfully well, as you can imagine.
The chair, Councillor Reuben Thompstone, had so far tried to stick to a pretence of conciliation in his role. You know, firm but fair. He had desisted from reading through the page and a half of new rules which has been read out at previous forums like papal bulls, intended to strike fear into the congregation: episcopus servus servorum dei and all that. The Bishop dropped his mask here, however, and stomped his crook on the carpet, under the watchful eye of Inky Stephens, the original owner of Avenue House, and whose portrait hangs on the wall. 'Can we have a little bit of decorum?' he demanded. Stephens left Avenue House and grounds to the people of Finchley. Luckily it now belongs to a trust, otherwise of course our Tory councillors would be flogging it off to developers.
McCardle carried on in loyal defence of the new Coleman parking arrangements. Paypoint, scratchcards bla bla bla - DISGUSTING shouted a shop keeper. McCardle said witheringly that he thought the problem was really 'a generation thing' ... A rather patronising remark, suggested Mrs Angry. Ridiculous, someone yelled. Old people could text the parking service from their cars, if they didn't want to be mugged. My elderly mother was mugged in her car in Temple Fortune just a week ago, shouted another resident.
After more yelling, Reuben Thompstone, remembering he was supposed to be acting nicely said thank you for your comments. Yes, but what are you going to do about it, he was asked. He began to lose his composure.
Why are we here? demanded another resident.
Well, said Mrs Angry, let's see what the Temple Fortune councillors have to say, shall we: at least two of them are here ...
Councillor John Marshall, to his credit, stood up. Turning to Andrew Harper behind her, Mrs Angry said, don't you want to speak? He shook his head, in panic, and pointing to John Marshall, said 'he stood up first' .... 'Chicken', hissed Mrs Angry.
'You're too scared of Brian Coleman', someone shouted.
'Bring him here!' demanded another. This is an invitation which has been issued before, but strangely never accepted.
Mr McCardle added now that it was very unlikely that there would be a change of sshhh 'policy'. Of course not. That would be like asking the Pope to drop the doctrine of transubstantiation, or to sanction gay partnerships. Get real, residents of Broken Barnet.
Are you performing some sort of comedy act? asked a resident. Mrs Angry thought that if he was, he would need to work on it a bit more before he was invited to perform it at the Edinburgh Fringe, or live at the Apollo. More jokes, and less blatant contemptuous disdain for the opinions and well being of the audience, perhaps.
Mrs Angry reminded Mr McCardle that Paypoint was only an interim measure. Mr McCardle, whose post, Mrs Angry believes is itself theoretically only an interim measure, disagreed. Mrs Angry was obliged to tell him that she was present at the council meeting where Brian Coleman had confirmed this very point. She also asked how many tenders there had been for the Paypoint system. She did not receive a reply. Still, she remarked, looking round at the faces of the quivering Tory councillors, there would undoubtedly be a reversal of this idiotic cashless payment system, although not until nearer an election.
The next item was a plea from residents of a very nice road in Hampstead Garden Suburb in regard to their need for a CPZ. They don't like white van man parking outside their lovely houses, and talked about the sheer horror of watching people from other roads parking in their road, and even taking overnight luggage out of their boots. They may have been going on holiday, but the curtain twitchers of Garden Suburb weren't quite sure.
Mrs Angry wondered if they knew how lucky they were to have such a trivial problem. A trivial problem that suited the purposes of the puppet show forum. Their case, however, was presented with professional flair by a resident whose articulacy and skill will undoubtedly acheive what she wants, in a Conservative ward, while the rest of the borough is left to go to hell in a hand cart.
Item 8 concerned a topic raised by a Dr Hines, regarding road safety in our area. Traffic calming measures have been taken out of our main road, thanks to you know who. After they were removed, we were asked if we wanted to be consulted about their removal. This has never taken place. Accidents, often involving children attending one of the several schools in the area are too frequent. A fatal accident has taken place outside Mrs Angry's house, and she was assured that something would be done to improve safety and prevent speeding. It never was. Nothing ever is done about road safety in our area. The priority in Broken Barnet must always be for the benefit of traffic, and the motorist, rather than safety, and the pedestrian.
A resident raised the issue of speeding around Moss Hall School, and daringly, the individuals of the last two items asked for their issues to be linked. Ridiculously, Councillor Thompstone decreed that to combine two items would constitute a challenge of ha ha, guess what: policy, and therefore was not admissable. Four legs good, two legs bad, in Broken Barnet.
At this point Mrs Angry was beginning to lose her composure. What, she demanded of the Chair, exactly is your definition of 'policy'?
Mrs Angry, he spat out, rattled at last, I explain this to you at every meeting ...
Mrs Angry lost her temper.
Just who, she yelled, do you think you are to tell us what we may or may not discuss at our residents forums? You are our elected representatives, and it is we who should be deciding what we want to raise here ...
Oh yes, Mrs Angry, ranted Thompstone, I so look forward to your contribution and outbursts ...
Do you? Good.
Councillor Thompstone looked at his watch. Oh look, he said with a smirk ... we have run out of time ... we simply can't continue with the next items, I am afraid ...
The next items were Mrs Angry's: questions about the incredible proposal to hire out our parks, and the mysterious omission of Friary Park (where Brian Coleman has his Friern Barnet show) from this list- and also a query about the decision by guess who to approve more spending on roads and stop funding any improvements to footpaths.
The meeting could easily have continued for a few minutes: it was deliberately shut down to a. annoy Mrs Angry and b. prevent any discussion of these issues.
Sadly, therefore, Mrs Angry cannot tell you if the Cabinet member for the environment is aware of the conflict between the needs of the dogging community in their use of Scratchwoods, or throw any light on the strange desire of the council to offer the site for hire to wedding parties. Mrs Angry was approached afterwards by an apologetic council officer who very kindly offered to supply any information she required, however. Watch this space.
As Mrs Angry slipped her coat on, she noted Councillor Harper fixing her with a glare. I suppose - MRS ANGRY - he said, the cheeky monkey, that all this will be written up tonight. Hmm, said Mrs Angry, possibly, looking him up and down ... did you bring your portfolio with you tonight, Councillor Harper? He looked back at her blankly. Oh dear, thought Mrs Angry, have I been wasting my time, trying to sustain a lewd, childish and pointless series of double entendres over the last few months?
What was really important about this meeting was the realisation that the senior Tory councillors of this borough are in a state of barely repressed hysteria in regard to the state of feelings amongst the residents of Broken Barnet. They are running scared. Mrs Angry understands that Brian Coleman is now in a very vulnerable situation, and that not only is his glorious career at the GLA and London fire authority at stake now, even the quaking councillors here are ready to stick the knife in.
Dead man walking, Brian?