Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The art of community engagement: another Residents Forum

As reported in the previous posts regarding the Cabinet meeting, it is more clear than ever that our idiotic Tory councillors are completely in denial about the implications of the One Barnet Judicial Review, the appeal hearing for which is shortly to be heard.

They maintain, in the face of all reason, that the Judge did not find that Barnet Council was in breach of the statutory obligation to consult residents about the mass privatisation of council services, and furthermore, they continue to defy the need to consult residents on this matter, or indeed any other important issue.

One of the core pieces of evidence which proved the lack of consultation was in relation to the censoring of the Residents Forums, achieved just in time to prevent discussion of One Barnet by an amendment of the council consitution. Residents are now forbidden from mentioning, let alone discussing, or criticising any council policy. Questions may only be raised that address strictly technical matters, 'public works': street based problems, parks, that sort of thing. No issue may be raised again within a six month period. The Forums are held at 6pm, when few working residents or parents can attend.

Such repressive and ruthless stifling of debate is clearly an affront to the principle of the freedom of expression, and any elected body with any pretence to the fundamental principles of democracy would be ashamed to adopt such a tactic in order to silence the views of their own electorate.

But this is Broken Barnet, not a democracy, more a Tory run tinpot administration where the swivel eyed loon holds power, and knows no sense of shame or self restraint.

Another restriction has been added to the draconian measure taken to censor the Forums - an earlier deadline for questions, couched in very misleading terms. The Forums are not advertised by the Council, except by means of an email sent in the week before to a few residents who persist in attending, and an advert hidden in the local press which is published the day before the deadline.

The result is predictable, and exactly what they want: low attendance and a shortage of questions. The Forums themselves, at least the one Mrs Angry attends, are run by an intemperate Chair, determined to silence anyone who dares to question the ridiculous rules.

Yesterday saw no papers published for our Forum until two hours before the starting time. Mrs Angry and other residents' questions, submitted on 'public works' issues, were blocked despite arriving on Friday, because they had missed the 10 am deadline - the date had not been given, only two working days before the meeting which one might reasonable assume to mean the deadline should be 10 am Monday, especially as the ad had only appeared the day before. But no: there would be no flexibility, even though only four questions were on the Agenda.

Interestingly, over at the Barnet Forum, maverick Tory councillor Kate Salinger had chaired a thoughtful meeting, with thinking allowed, and, heresy - a question from blogger Mr Reasonable that yes, was a matter of policy - the community engagement strategy. Or rather what passes for it, in an abstract sense, as there appears not to be one. But still, to be allowed to have an adult, daringly free debate about it ...
Libdem Cllr Jack Cohen stood obediently before the Chair (this is the feudal way in which proceedings are followed at these events) and asked for the indulgence of Councillor Old on behalf of his constituents who had a very important issue they wished to raise, that had been stupidly disallowed despite being submitted on Friday. He reminded Cllr Old that the Forums were supposed to serve the residents.  

There is nothing I can do, said Old, with evident satisfaction. 

Mrs Angry pointed out the unfairness of our questions being barred on these grounds. Councillor Old refused to listen to her, as usual.

One of the telling features of all Barnet council meetings is the appalling standard of the PA systems they use, and the difficulty residents always have in following the proceedings as a consequence. This suits the councillors very well, of course. They do not want to be heard, nor do they want to listen to members of the public and their impertinent questions. One councillor even made fun of Mrs Angry's hearing at the committee table on Monday - are you deaf? Slightly, yes, Councillor Rams, thankfully, when you are speaking, anyway.

In the Forums, they have elected not to bother with any microphones, and seem perplexed as to why this should be a problem. Can't hear? Sit at the front then.

Item 1 was about a CPZ extension in Hampstead Garden Suburb. The speaker stood before the panel, and spoke eloquently about his misgivings about the whole thing, the flaws in the whole concept of CPZs, and then pointed out there had been, ha ha: no real consultation. That, said Mrs Angry, is how things work, in this borough.

Later on, in the environment part of the evening, residents came along to support the extension. It is of course difficult to convey the sheer horror of what these cosseted residents have to suffer, as a result of other people daring to park outside their houses, but Tory grandee Cllr John Marshall was there to offer his fervent support, and counsel them in their hour of need, and even commanded the Highways Manager to install the CPZ earlier than he had agreed.  

He told an outrageous story of a local garage leaving a serviced car to be collected in - can you believe this - Winnifield Way? 

This is the exclusive road second only to Bishops Avenue in terms of affluence - the residents mostly massively wealthy international owners, and including a house owned by the Gaddaffi family, the occupation of which caused so much fury on behalf of the householder by our Tory councillors and MP. 

Mrs Angry wondered how Cllr Marshall would cope with the duties of a councillor in an area of social deprivation, where real need and the full impact of social exclusion would present an altogether less agreeable and easy role to play.

Some local councillors always attend the Forums: some local councillors, especially the Tory members such as Eva Greenspan and Dan Thomas do not. Councillor Thomas told Mrs Angry he did not think it was necessary. 

But Mrs Angry was puzzled last night to see Tory councillor Lisa Rutter sitting in the front row, accompanied by her husband. 

Councillor Rutter very much enjoyed her reign as Mayor, taking her husband with her everywhere as her escort, and she has retained her queenly air of graciousness since the time of her reluctant abdication in favour of Cllr Schama. 

Councillor Rutter is not a councillor in Finchley or Golders Green, nor a resident, and yet she was allowed to speak to Item 2, proposed by a resident who did not turn up. The resident concerned and 24 other people wanted a mirror put on a tree to allow a better view of the road for motorists. Rutter spoke - at some length - and with no little displeasure, about this item, an issue she said was of great concern to some people she knew in the road concerned, Mayfield Avenue, which is in Woodhouse Ward, and perfectly well represented by three Labour councillors.  She then took the opportunity to criticise unnamed council officers for not responding to her questions about the issue 'in a logical manner'.

It seemed to Mrs Angry that it was completely inappropriate for a councillor from another ward to use the Forum in this way, and especially so when we, the residents, are prevented from speaking openly about issues of our choosing. Rutter's colleague Cllr Old saw no problem at all, however and allowed her to continue unquestioned.

Is this a Residents' Forum, or a Councillors' Forum, asked Mrs Angry?

No reply.

Next up, Item 3 - residents wanting a crossing refuge and a 'keep clear' box to improve road safety in Regents Park Road. In the bad old days, presumably when Coleman was in charge, this had been refused. Now that we have been relieved of his attentions, we are allowed to proceed with such measures, or at least we are allowed to review the situation.

Item 4: a resident who did not turn up was cross about being splashed by buses driving through puddles in Llanvanor Road. It was agreed that a water company had not fixed the mess they made in recent works in the area. Mrs Angry reminded the Highways Manager that Crapita was going to do that in the future for him. He allowed himself the indulgence of a wry smile.

Item 5, and a load of old rubbish from the head of rubbish at the London Borough of Broken Barnet. In fact, he was a very nice man, keen to tell us all about the joys of the new recycling scheme, which will supply us with even more wheelie bins, which we poor taxpayers have to pay for, and then find a place to keep. 

Mrs Angry asked where people like her who live in terraced houses are supposed to put these blasted things, and wouldn't it be better to encourage people to compost their garden waste instead of collecting it, and why did we choose the more expensive tender for the new wheelie bins?

Composting was clearly not of any interest to our councillors, and some 112 streets have been identified as going to have problems with accommodating the new bins, although we are not allowed to know where they are, and the new bins are the most expensive because they will, like the new deal with Crapita, last ten to fifteen years (in fact they will outlive the deal with Capita, which is biodegradable and will be composted in a couple of seasons). And they have very nice wheels. The bins, not Capita.

Ah,last item, a survey sneaked into the Forum with no warning, at the last minute, in the hope that having put almost everyone off attending, a suitably small number of residents would take part. This low return would, in the time honoured traditions of Barnet consultation, produce all the evidence the councillors need to shut down the Forums forever.

Mrs Angry asked how the survey would be conducted, other than in this way? The Chair claimed it would be available on the council website. Hmm. Nicely hidden. Unfotunately for our councillors, residents attending last night's Forum will be making sure the forms are made more broadly available, and a link to the survey will be uploaded later. 

NB: Thursday - the form would appear still not to have appeared on the council's website.

Time for part two, the Environment sub-committee. Mrs Angry usually goes home at this point, but had to stay last night as she was speaking to an item regarding the road safety concerns in her own road.

On the committee were Tories Graham Old, John Marshall, Libdem Lord Palmer, and Labour councillors Houston, Rogers and Hutton.

The first subject was road safety in the Moss Hall Schools area - a parent spoke very well about the urgent need for better safety measures in the vicinity, and raised many issues similar to Mrs Angry's experience in her road. One such subject was the problems caused by a failure to enforce parking regulations. Enforcement officers were never to be seen there, as indeed is the case here in Squires Lane. 

As we all know, this is because parking enforcement has become an income generating service, rather than one intended to manage the needs of drivers, and keep the roads clear, and the officers are targeting the lucrative high streets. Trying to make this point, however, was not allowed by the Chair. 

Really it would be preferable if we did not mention this fool anymore, and ignored him entirely, but now that disgraced former Tory councillor - and former Environment cabinet member - Brian Coleman has embraced the world of twitter, he has committed himself to making as many outrageous/tedious pronouncements as possible, in order to continue to receive the attention he so desperately craves. Today, in a hole, even if he doesn't realise it yet, and so still digging, and in a comment clearly inspired by the issues discussed in this Forum, displaying his usual offensive, sexist attitude, he tweeted:

20mph zones are sops to bored housewives who have no idea about traffic issues.Police have no power to enforce

By the time the committee had started, the hall's caretaker had been asked by someone, presumably a resident from Barnet Alliance, who use the same venue, to produce a microphone. Unfortunately for Councillor Old, therefore, when Mrs Angry's turn to speak came about, not only, for once, was he able to try to shut her up, her words of wisdom were amplified throughout the room.

You have five minutes, he told her, through pursed lips. 

Mrs Angry had not written a speech, just made observations on the report's recommendations, but the evening's experiences had inspired her to jot down a few brief comments, which she proceeded to deliver, to the visible annoyance of the Chair, who sat busying himself writing I hate Mrs Angry all over his papers, and pretending she was not there, or so she imagined. Labour Cllr Arjun Mittra recorded his reaction:

Cllr Arjun Mittra 25 Jun
Cllr Old enjoying speech

Cllr Arjun Mittra 25 Jun
Ok, he's perhaps not enjoying speech

The reason why Mrs Angry had wanted to comment on the points raised by the speaker from Moss Hall, she informed the Chair, was because it was directly relevant to her own item. In fact, this proves the point that we should, and  must discuss these issues not in isolation, but in terms of policy, and on a wider scale. The reign of Councillor Coleman is over, and now there needs to be a change of culture, and a boroughwide review of policy on road safety, particularly, as in these cases, in the vicinity of schools. What could be more important than the safety of our children? You should be prioritising this issue, and doing that thing so unpopular with the Tory councillors of this borough - consulting the residents and schools of the relevant areas.

Cllr Old did not want to hear this, and told Mrs Angry so, at some length, interrupting her allotted time. She ignored him and carried on, and then had a very productive discussion with Neil Richardson, the Highways manager about the measures necessary to reintroduce some improved level of safety in the Squires Lane/Manor View area. Old made no memorable contribution to the discussion, unlike Labour's Cllr Houston who has helped bring this report to the point of consideration, and the approval of a proposed budget of £21,000 worth of measures to be implemented.

What are the Tory councillors so afraid of, that they must act to control every possibility of free and open debate at any meeting involving members of the public? 

Why does the Chair of a Residents Forum think he is entitled to treat the taxpayers and voters of this borough with such condescension and lack of respect for their opinions? 

Why should we not question the policies, decisions, and possibilities of the issues that affect our daily lives and our rights as citizens? 

How on earth can they think that what they are doing is compatible with the policy of localism, as promoted by Pickles? 

Do they even care what their own party policies are?

Let's see what Eric has to say, shall we?


baarnett said...

Thought that was a picture of The Last Supper for a minute, Mrs A.

You know, a get-together of followers, around a leader who was able to get his comeuppance.

Mrs Angry said...

Did Jesus get his comeuppance, Baarnett? Not sure you have grasped the whole christianity thing there. And I fear the martyrdom of Councillor Old will not extend to a willing participation in a crucifixion, although I am willing to ask at the next Forum. Hang on, does that come under public works, or policy?

I'll get back to you.