Democratic accountability, or managed democracy, in Broken Barnet: an alternative view
They were expecting trouble, at the Town Hall, last night.
In the post MetPro era, there were no blackshirted, jackbooted heavies available for bouncer duty, so for last night's Cabinet meeting, extra council officers were laid on for security, lining the way upstairs, two paces apart, just waiting for an enraged library user to misbehave, and oh, I don't know, raise their voice, or threaten to draw a moustache on Brian Coleman's Mayoral portrait with a marker pen, something Mrs Angry once came close to trying, until Mr Mustard, who is a scaredy cat, stopped her. Or was it Mr Reasonable? Couldn't have been the Barnet Eye, as he would have lent her a pen and filmed it, then ran like hell.
But I digress.
Enraged library users certainly were in abundance, last night. Enraged in a very British, middle class way, the way that we do so well: polite, seething, disgusted, asking lots of brilliantly acute questions, to no avail, and then allowing their innate decency to stop them from jumping up and slapping the faces of the odiously smug Tory Cabinet members.
Last week it was announced that Barnet would not be allowing local campaigners to run a community library in Friern Barnet, but that it had decided to support a similar residents proposal for Hampstead Garden Suburb. The reasons given for this favouring of the Suburb are simply preposterous: the campaigners in this hugely privileged Tory voting area are being subsidised by the council while those fighting for a well loved and well used library in a less advantaged, Labour voting area have been rejected on the grounds that they cannot be subsidised by the council. It is an absolute scandal.
There were thirty three public questions listed last night: a huge number for a Cabinet meeting. Most, but not all were related to Friern Barnet library. One or two other issues were queried: Dr Julia Hines asked a question about adult social care. When discussing the possibility of one of them taking on the role of older citizens' champion, the leader Cornelius and the Chief Executive had to be reprimanded by Julia for sniggering. They looked abashed, as so they should. In his response to her supplementary question, the Leader addressed her as 'Mrs' Hines and referred, in a way which rather implied he had forgotten that being leader of the council may not exempt him from the possibility of being elderly himself, in the not so distant future, to old age as 'the slide of doom' ... he has a habit of producing the most fabulously memorable phrases. Memorable for the wrong reasons. Dr Hines told him off again, for using such a negative term. Again, he had the grace to look ashamed.
Residents and local campaigners took their turn to sit at the table and present their supplementary questions, receiving platitudes and patronising responses from the Leader, Richard Cornelius, who uses the tactic of politeness (a rare quality in a Barnet Tory councillor) good manners, and a manic smile to try to divert people from the pungent smell of the awful, festering corpse that is, or was, One Barnet, lying dead at his feet.
From the Cabinet member with responsibility for libraries there was a predictable performance: defensive, abrupt, sulky. Rams does not like being under attack, and as in the case of the doomed efforts by campaigners to save Church Farmhouse musuem, resorted, completely unfairly, to blaming the campaigners for the failure to save the library.
This is unfair for many reasons: these residents have put enormous effort and real committment into their campaign, and worked really hard to try to save what is a hugely important community resource. To blame them for the rejection of the proposal is insulting. And in truth, they have never had the slightest chance of their plans succeeding, not because of any detail of their case, but for the simple reason that there was never any intention on the part of the Tory cabinet to allow them to succeed. The only consideration that is of any importance to them is the development potential of the buildings in question.
It was very sad to see the residents take their turn at the table, and walk away so angry and frustrated by the process they have been duped into following. Their naivete is to their credit: they really believed that there is a system of democratic consultation in this borough, that they were being invited to engage in a Big Society venture, and that they could trust our council to help them do it. In short, they had not realised they were living in Broken Barnet. They do now.
Discussing a report about secondary schools last night, Councillor Marshall commented waspishly that in his time as a Cabinet member, meetings were not as long as last night's. Clearly he found the inordinate amount of time alloted to public questions and those from opposition councillors rather tedious. He wasn't anti democratic, though, just preferred 'managed democracy'. Ah. Well, we do that rather too well, in fact, here in Barnet, don't we?
Let's fast forward to later in the evening, when the report was officially approved by the Cabinet.
Councilor Rams introduced the report with a carefully thought out preamble. This was, he informed us, in a way meant to deny the rumour that he has never read a book, and perhaps a nod in the direction of homage to a certain bicentenary .... "A Tale of Two Libraries".
Two libraries, two cities, two nations.
Hmm. Mrs Angry thought happily about Sydney Carton, and a vision of Robert Rams stepping up to the guillotine, doing a far, far better thing than he has ever done before, and expressing his hopes for Broken Barnet:
"I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out".
And then she woke up. Mrs Angry was touched by the indication, however, that Councillor Rams has enjoyed reading her posts on Dickens in Barnet. Hmm. (And he has been sending her tweets, did you know? Trying to set her up with a friend of his, and accusing her of stalking him, and staring at him with mad love in council meetings. Clearly he is besotted. When Mrs Angry writes rude things about him, no matter how rude they are, he sees only the words I love you, Robert Rams ... ) Poor boy.
Labour's Councillor Pauline Coakley Webb spoke to the members: she observed that the issue now was one of inequality: the favouring of the Suburb scheme contrasted with the Friern plan. The Tories looked on apathetically.
When the Suburb branch was mentioned Mrs Angry made a face at their local councillor Andrew Harper, who was looking more than usually pleased with himself. Mr Reasonable laughed, and nudged Mrs Angry as she scribbled away and pointed out Cllr Harper was still fixing her with a most unpleasant expression in return. Mrs Angry was tempted to stick out her tongue, then remembered she is a middle aged mother of two teenagers and supposed to be grown up. She consoled herself by making an imaginary obscene gesture at you, instead, Councillor Harper, on behalf of the children of Friern Barnet, whose library is being taken away from them in order to subsidise one for your over privileged consituents.
Cllr Barry Rawlings sat at the table next: in exasperation he questioned why the residents associated with the Friern community plan were being treated with such contempt. He carefully deconstructed the reasons for the rejection of their plan, as detailed in the report, for example the contradiction between using the loss of capital gains from property sale as well as lost rental.
Rams' response was simply pointless: how do you defend the indefensible? The Barnet Tories have been trying to do this for the last two years, and still haven't got the hang of it.
We have, said Rams, been doing everything to try to help the community with their proposals. He blurted out: in fact we have BENT OVER BACKWARDS ...
Yes, said Mrs Angry, for no good reason, to a tittering public gallery, but probably in the wrong direction, Councillor Rams ...
Another contentious issue raised last night was the issue of park hire. This is another brilliant idea from the genius who thought up the fatal cashless parking scheme which is bringing the high streets of our borough to the brink of bankruptcy: yes, that nincompoop, Brian Coleman. Having nuked the town centres, Coleman has now turned his sights on our parks and greenspaces and is set to ruin them as well with his latest idiotic scheme.
Inside the head of Brian Coleman, of course, there is very little room for anyone else except himself, and his interesting fantasy life, in which he rules the whole world, and is widely admired for it, but increasingly there is now the constant irritating thought that there are still some things in Broken Barnet over which he has no control. The sky above, the ground below, the birds in the trees, and the little blades of grass which grow in Victoria Park, for example. (And Mrs Angry: fecking nuisance, eh, Brian?)
When Brian goes for his constitutional in the park he looks around with grave disapproval, and is all too keenly aware that these things are beyond his command, and insist on delighting the residents of Broken Barnet without his permission, despite his Very Important role as Cabinet member for the Environment. But what can he do?
He can round it all up, and extract money from it, that's what. Hence the park hire proposals.
Labour councillor Jim Tierney addressed the meeting and reminded the dunderhead Tories that the parks belong to the community, that he had not received one email in favour of the proposals, that for the minimal estimated revenue of £30,000 the disruption such a scheme would cause was simply not worth it. In fact, he predicted, while Brian Coleman scowled at him, it was clear that there would more likely be a loss due to the running costs, which have not been properly assessed.
Coleman, of course, is never wrong, and would never admit to being wrong even if he were (rather like Mrs Angry) ... but he struggles to answer the criticisms of the park hire plans because, for once, even he realises he has misjudged the amount of opposition this would provoke.
Interestingly, leader Cornelius told us we needed this stupid scheme for the revenue it would provide for the purpose of 'maintenance'. This is a completely new excuse and is nonsense.
Coleman's strategy in defending his plot to pimp our parks and greenspaces is to pretend the proposals change nothing of importance. So why make them, Brian? He claimed that 'only' a small area of the parks will be closed - but as he was reminded by Labour councillor Alan Schneiderman, at the last Finchley residents forum a question (by Mrs Angry) about this eventually extracted the admission that entire closures would be permitted.
Our Brian then informed us that we have 'always' had large private events in our parks, and sometimes closed the entire area to residents. This is another of his sweeping claims, made with great bravado and absolutely no proof. His one example of this was to refer to the Dussehra event which used to take place in Victoria Park. Mrs Angry may have misheard, but she thought she heard him say this attracted 10, no, 30,000 visitors. This made her laugh: living round the corner from the park in question she remembers exactly what it was like, in fact. It was a spectacular event, and seemed like good fun, but where on earth would 30,000 visitors have fitted in, and where would they have parked?
If you recall, Coleman says he is against the Saracens' take over of Copthall stadium because er, his constituents in Totteridge, miles away, are worried about the parking. Mmm. And what about the parking problems caused by private events in our local park, Brian? Can they plonk themselves outside yours? Ah: no permit.
Still, remembering the Dussehra festival set Mrs Angry thinking. This is a Hindu celebration held at the end of summer, marking the victory of good over evil. At the end of the day, it is traditional to set fire to a huge effigy of Ravanna, the great demon. Kind of like the Lewes event, where images of unpopular public figures are paraded through the town and burnt. Or Guy Fawkes.
Can any citizens think of a similar sort of event that we might be able to hold here, in Broken Barnet? If only there were a well known local figure whose face on the top of a giant effigy shooting flames into the evening sky might attract a crowd of thirty thousand - or even more. Now - there is a private function that would be worth hiring the park for, don't you think?
Coleman had another set of proposals to set before his Cabinet colleagues last night. This was his cunning plan, building on his success in removing traffic calming measures from our roads, to further speed up traffic flow by getting rid of such nuisances as temporary traffic lights. Mrs Angry was present at a meeting last year in which he said he wanted to replace all such lights with men carrying, oh dear, stop and go signs.
The report last night has pointed out that banning temporary lights would be deemed as an 'irrational' decision, (quite) and one that would expose the authority to a 'potentially massive liability' (underlined, in case any Cabinet member were left in any doubt as to the extent of sheer idiocy of his idea).
Barnet has one of the worst road traffic accident rates in London. We should be prioritising all the extra income which Coleman's disastrous parking policy is supposed to generate on road safety measures, shouldn't we, and perhaps prevent some residents from needlessly losing their lives, not wasting time and money on schemes to empty the roads of things which compel speeding motorists to slow down a bit? It may annoy one or two people sat in taxis, rushing between social engagements to stuff their faces at our expense, but frankly, Mrs Angry does not give a shit about that, do you?
There was one procedural discussion last night, on some tedious matter, which was causing Mrs Angry's attention to wander somewhat, until brought back to reality by a most surprising protest from Councillor Coleman: to everyone's astonishment, his mouth opened, and he made a complaint about 'the lack of democratic accountability' ... There was a moment of stunned silence, and then the residents present erupted into a howl of laughter.
Coleman lost his rag. Will the Public Gallery, he yelled ... will The Public Gallery .... GET A LIFE!
The Public Gallery was beside itself, falling about in merriment.
WHEN YOU START TELLING THE TRUTH, YOU SCOUNDREL! shouted Mr P, Mrs Angry's favourite heckler.
And then, a woman who had been sitting quietly at the back, a well spoken, middle class resident who had come because of the library closure, the type of voter that the Tory party in Barnet, and London, simply cannot afford to alienate, stood up.
COLEMAN ... she shouted: You are A JOKE.
She's right, Brian.
And in May, you will find out quite how deeply amusing we find you.