Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Things fall apart: a reflection on the Tale of Two Barnets

Last night Mrs Angry and Mr Tichborne, of the Barnet Eye, attended a local showing, here in Finchley, of the Tale Of Two Barnets film, with a discussion afterwards with some residents.

Rog has seen this film many times, but it was only the second time Mrs Angry had seen it, and indeed there were many interesting observations to be made from a second viewing.

This is not a film that is going to win awards for technical production values. It should, however, win an award for it has acheived: exactly what it set out to be: the creation of a community film, a record of what is happening here in Barnet, partly as a result of government policy, but most of all due to the hijacking of the borough by a Tory administration determined on a ruthless programme of budget cuts and a massive, and a wholescale privatisation of council service.

This is described in his introduction to the film Ken Loach as a right wing agenda, expressed in the crudest of language, using government policy as a smokescreen. He notes the effect on the most vulnerable members of our society: the old, the young, the disabled, the poor: in short, it is the destruction of a caring society, the metamorphosis of the provision of service into an opportunity for profit.

Perhaps the most memorable parts of the film are the accounts given by residents whose relatives are already the victims of the privatisation of social care, and from the discussion after the film another view of this experience was given by Mrs D, an elderly resident whose husband's care has been handed over to the new LATC - local authority 'trading company', and its provision of support which Barnet, with its usual lack of irony, has named 'Your Choice'.

In the film we hear of a resident whose support worker's hours have been cut and who is now left at nights in soiled bedding, as he is generally unable to drag himself to the bathroom, now he has no one to assist him.

Another woman with severe learning disability has seen her day centre shut, and has lost the stability of a structured timetable, in a familiar environment. Continuity of care, and a stimulating programme of support are essential for the wellbeing of people with learning difficulties, and yet these most vulnerable of residents are being left in church halls, parks, or even shopping centres as a way of passing their time. The woman's father notes the complete lack of consultation with residents affected by these changes, which he says reflects the lack of respect for people with disabilities by the local authority.

After the film Mrs D explained that the new provision of adult care has become hopelessly complicated and restricted by the council's new system: 'Your Choice' means less, or no choice: if you can find your way through the labyrinthine system of application, assessment, means testing and then the payment system, you are extremely fortunate. Once your needs are in theory agreed, and your level of payment, you will find a payment system that is out of control, and over or under charges people. Those who cannot make their payments and are dependent on care support must by law have their care continued, but the resulting lack of revenue caused by the new payment system, instead of saving the council money, would appear to be going to do the opposite.

Contrast these experiences of life in Broken Barnet with the platitudes and corporate jargon spouted by the Tory leader Richard Cornelius and and Chief Executive Nick Walkey. Here indeed you will see the Two Barnets exposed: here is the gulf between those controlling the political direction of the borough, and those who are the victims of their folly.

Mr Walkley, with a complacent expression, talks smoothly about the need not to be complacent, and in relation to the new arrangements for social care, claims that 'users' now have a greater say in their provision, and are enabled to make 'better decisions' about their lives.

Tory leader Cornelius smiles and talks smoothly about being concerned to protect old people and the young, and claims that everything they are doing in terms of the budget is driven by that consideration. In other words, the world is turned upside down, and inside out, and the political and administrative leadership of the council is shown for what it is: on the other side of the looking glass, looking in at a world they neither understand, nor care about.

The issue of the impact of Brian Coleman's utterly deranged parking policy on the lives of residents and businesses in the borough is illustrated by a resident describing the increasing isolation and financial burden of the elderly, and a local shopkeeper struggles to maintain his fury when he contemptously recounts the remark by Chief Executive Walkley, after an uncomfortable meeting with traders furious at the 40 to 60 % loss in trade that the changes have incurred, that he felt 'pissed off' by their reaction, or as he puts it, his rough treatment. Mr Shea informs him: 'Mr Walkley -we are seriously pissed off by our treatment by Barnet Council...' He says the council is killing off their businesses, and is simply not listening. Not listening, in fact, is an accusation which runs all the way through this film.

And if our council is not listening to us, who are they listening to? What are they so preoccupied with, that they can't or won't hear what the residents of this borough are telling them? An academic specialising in outsourcing explains that the experimentation with private companies so far in Barnet has been on a relatively small scale: with even this limited level of outsourcing our council's competence hardly inspires confidence - we hear in the film about MetPro, and Fremantle, and we are reminded that the scale of One Barnet is fifty times bigger than anything undertaken before.

For me one of the most significant observations in the film comes from veteran activist Julian Silveman who describes a meeting he once attended in which he raised the subject of council links with the private sector. Or to be specific, he raised the issue of a man named Max Wide, who until a few months ago, was a highly influential executive at BT. Mr Wide came to the London Borough of Barnet on a long term secondment, at a period when the first model of One Barnet, or Futureshape, as it was known, was being stuck together with old loo rolls and sticky backed tape.

Julian had posed a question. Was Mr Wide representing BT, or the residents of Barnet? Mr Wide, he was told, represents the council. So, said Julian, what did that mean? He asked who pays his wages? Bt pay his wages, he was told: but they employ 'one of ours' - a senior Barnet officer was sent on long term secondment to BT.

Another senior officer, as we know, left Barnet last year to work for BT after taking an active role in the competitive dialogue process for £750 million worth of Barnet services. (More on this story later this week). BT is currently the front runner, in competition with Capita, to win the contract.

*NB: There will be more community screenings of the film in the weeks to come, and next Wednesday the film will be shown at the House of Commons: a selection of MPs, councillors, media representatives and campaigners have been invited to the screening, and up to seventy people may attend, if you turn up by 6pm for the 7pm start. Mrs Angry is amused to see that the film will be shown in the Wilson Room, in Portcullis House, a room which may be familiar to you if you enjoyed the spectacle of Rupert and James Murdoch giving evidence to the 'hackgate' select committee last year. Mrs Angry, preparing for all eventualities, has been practising her left hook.

*Update: since writing this late last night the results of yesterday's by election in East Finchley have been announced, with the Labour candidate triumphant -and with a massive 16% increase from disaffected Tory voters. Rumour has it that 15% of that increase was caused by the fleeting appearance of Brian Coleman at the entrance of East Finchley tube station yesterday morning.

Oh dear, Brian. By your own party's estimation, only a 5.5% swing is needed in the GLA elections to dislodge you and bring a new era of peace, love and understanding to the residents of Barnet and Camden.

Time to check out the new arrangements for Jobseekers' Allowance, maybe?


Mr Mustard said...

The sight of Mr Walkley laid back in his chair was a mteaphor for me Mrs A. He needs to sit up and take notice of what is happening in the borough.

If senior officers don't live in the borough (and consultants almost never do) how can they have any real experience or idea of the state of the borough or what it is like to live here day-to-day?

(Not thinking of myself. Our street is a microcosm of the big society but that is despite the council not because of it. Yesterday I borrowed a neighbour's car to take a different neighbour to the hospital. He had my van so he could recycle tree clippings and was pruning his neighbour's trees as well as his own. I was feeding yet another neighbour's cats and went across the road in the evening for a glass of red and another neighbour popped beforehand in to borrow a soldering iron and have a glass of red (I see a theme here) I am expecting yet another neighbour to pop over today with some free tickets for a gardening show. Yet another neighbour digitised my logo into various colours as you saw. None of this is because of the council. Why they think they can promote big society I have no idea. Best just to leave us alone and concentrate their help on the less well off and less mobile or able)

Simple, many officers have no idea what Barnet is really like.

baarnett said...

I expect Brian will move out of his subsidised Methodist Church flat, and go and live in a taxi haven.

Mrs Angry said...

Baarnett, like Blanche du Bois, poor Brian is going to rely very much on the kindness of strangers in the near future, I think, and he will certainly need his charity flat, I imagine. Oh dear: and think of the adage about being nice to people on the way up, because of what happens when you are on the way down ...

Well, Mr Mustard, I think that one of the few postive consequences of the last couple of years under the iron grip of our Tory dictators has been the birth of a new body of activists, and the formation of a resistence movement: people coming together who have a range of different backgounds but are all united in opposition to what is happening. It has created a network of residents working to gether for a common cause, and that can only be a good thing. It's the Big Society, Dave, but not as you meant it to be.