Friday, 20 June 2014
Taking a haircut, in the market place of care: another Residents Forum in Broken Barnet
Update 24th November, 2015
Greetings, visitors from Cornwall: your new Chief Executive is seated above, at the right end of the table. You might want to skip the Barnet stuff & start reading half way through. Or read the whole thing, and get an idea of what might be in store for you ...
The story of our local residents' forums, here in Broken Barnet, is in essence the story of something else, something rather bigger: it is the perfect demonstration of why Barnet is broken, and will never be mended, while we languish under the regime of swivel eyed loons that have possession of our council.
Started by a Labour administration, the Forums were intended as a way of extending the democratic process to the community, of giving a voice to neighbourhoods within the borough, and focusing attention on hyperlocal issues.
Once the Tories returned to power, they were stuck with a clearly unwanted and potentially troublesome vehicle of opposition to their authority. This presented no real threat, however, during the following years, until such a time as it became apparent, at last, that there really was a burgeoning movement of resistance to their policies: dating from the beginning of the administration which began four years ago.
At this point, the new council began with a fatal error of judgement: the furtive attempt to award themselves a whopping pay rise. This spectacularly backfired, and marked the beginning of a collision course which continues even today, a period of unprecedented crisis, alarm and confusion, which perhaps marks the end of days for Barnet Tories. If not the end, as you might say, it is certainly the beginning of the end.
The council which began in 2010 had a secret agenda laid down for the next four years: the mass privatisation of our local services.
Secret, unmentioned in the course of the election campaign: about to be foisted on the borough's residents and taxpayers, whether they wanted it or not.
Whether they wanted it or not was of no importance to the Barnet Tories.
What was important was to get their own way, and instigate the preparations for a course of action on which they were already determined.
Tory councillors had been easily persuaded by senior officers and consultants that not only was an outsourced council the way forward, there was no possibility of considering an in-house option.
There was therefore every reason to make sure that the course of action decided upon by a handful of officers, consultants, and a few tame Tory councillors could be followed with no chance of objection or even debate.
The Labour leadership offered little threat of effective opposition. The local press were totally uninterested in the issue. The Unions' resistance would be dealt with by the usual smear tactics, and game playing: the one remaining difficulty was the growing criticism from local campaigners - and bloggers.
Any risk of public criticism must be suppressed: the Residents Forums were clearly likely to be the main focus of such challenge, and the Tories duly acted to censor them, amending the council constitution so as to forbid residents and taxpayers raising any issue in public at these meetings which alluded in anyway to what was deemed to be council 'policy'.
Residents daring to question the decisions or proposals about to be imposed by their elected representatives were met with every resistance by Tory councillors and their senior officers, united in a frenzied determination to prevent challenge of their authority, on a level of obsession akin to the merciless fury of a medieval inquisition, seeing heresy everywhere, the devil stalking the streets of Broken Barnet, using the Forums for his nefarious purposes, taking as his tool the sense of uprising and rebellion amongst the previously unpoliticised householders of our borough's leafy avenues. Where would it all end?
It all ended in the High Court, and a finding by Judge Underhill that the council had failed in its duty to consult residents in regard to the massive outsourcing programme. Oh.
And so, in the run up to this year's local election, the Tories decided to try to look as if they were suddenly mindful of the need to respect the views of the electorate. Back to the constitution - let's undo the awful ban on - sshh - questions of policy, and other silly restrictions. For the time being.
Here we are, though, on the wrong side of the election, and look: we are travelling back in time to the bad old days, again ...
The first Residents Forums of the new term were not advertised in advance, and those on the mailing list were not contacted: those who knew that they were listed, and gambled on the chance that they were still legally constituted, after the debacle of the last few days, submitted questions, and found that in many cases these were refused, on spurious grounds, such as being not about 'local' matters, or having been previously discussed, or, in Mrs Angry's case, exchanged, without her consent, for questions submitted to the previous Forum, and filibustered out of time by the Chairwoman.
Time allocated to residents at this meeting, was appropriated by an unasked for presentation of corporate spin, meaning some questions were left unaired.
The responses to questions were not sent on the day of the Forum to residents, who only saw these, crucial to the formulation of their supplementary questions, once they came to the meeting.
And the responses which were given made it clear that every effort is and will continue to be made to evade, obstruct and deny any real enquiry that might cause the council to view it as a challenge to its authority, or secret agenda. The demands of transparency and accountability are easily subverted in these Forums, as you will see.
At the Finchley and Golders Green Forum, an array of council officers was ready and waiting at the table, when we arrived. Neither ready, nor waiting, was the Chairwoman, Tory Danny Seal, who, despite his claim, after criticism of his record in the last term, that he would commit to turning up to the meetings he is paid to attend, failed to show up, even for his first appearance, which seemed discourteous, at the very least.
The Forum began, not with residents' questions, but with a presentation by an officer who told residents what sort of people they were, according to a ward profile, and then what they might be allowed to do with the new allocation of some funding to area sub-committees.
Allowed being the word, as nothing can be done without approval from councillors and senior officers, in the best tradition of Broken Barnet. This decision, we heard was ratified at a meeting, on the 10th June.
Is is lawful, then, asked Mrs Angry, in a fit of constitutional doubt?
They thought so. Because, said Kate Kenneally, solemnly, Counsel had said so.
This Counsel, by the way, is the same Counsel who thought the Council could win the parking Judicial Review, which, erm ... it lost.
Still. No need to panic. Keep calm, and carry on f*cking up, the Broken Barnet way.
And is the allocated funding part of, or separate to, the money distributed in the manner of Councillor Dean Cohen, largely to his own ward, and not at all to Labour held Colindale, in the last year, asked Mrs Angry, still unclear, and casting a baleful look at Councillor Dean Cohen, skulking at the back of the room?
Separate to. And the stand in Chairwoman, the pompous young councillor Reuben Thompstone, who used to try to run the Forum with all the tact and discretion, as Mrs Angry once described it, of the Governor of an antipodean penal colony addressing the convicts on a newly arrived ship from England, clearly wished Mrs Angry would shut up, and not interrupt with impertinent questions.
But here was one of Mrs Angry's impertinent questions, on the agenda, inescapable, despite being rather out of date, substituted as it was from a previous meeting months ago, as explained above.
I understand that Golders Green ward has benefited from £800,000 of Highways related funding in the last year, and has benefited recently from new paving, and even trees, including one planted by Councillor Dean Cohen, in what must be a very welcome photo opportunity, only weeks before the localelections.
Please tell me how much funding from the same source in the same period has been received by West Finchley ward, and explain why, even though money was agreed last summer for potentially lifesaving measures in the accident blackspot that is Squires Lane, still no move has been made or funding spent on delivering the agreed changes? When is the authority going to replace the safety barrier next to Manorside school, destroyed in one of the two serious accidents since the funding was agreed last year, and why is this taking so long?
The response was the old one, in which no real reason was given for the continual delays, and claimed the safety barrier would be in place by the time of the previous Forum. It wasn't, and it isn't.
The officer from Highways apologised, saying he was 'surprised, and disappointed' ... but gave no real reason why these safety measures, a year after being approved, had not been implemented, while so much time and attention had been lavished on Cllr Cohen's own ward on replacing great swathes of pavements and smooth road surfaces in a few favoured streets, in an area in which he himself lives, while the less Tory inclined part of his ward was ... less favoured, and why many other wards in less affluent, Labour held wards received a fraction of the budget, and in the case of Colindale, nothing at all in the last year.
Mrs Angry asked, to no avail, why safety measures outside a primary and nursery school had a lower priority than the pavements of say, Princes Park Avenue, which had £500,000 spent on it in two years. There was no sensible response: how could there be? What: that the life of a child in a Tory ward is worth more than that of one in a Labour one? That would be grossly distasteful, wouldn't it?
West Finchley Labour councillor Kath McGuirk agreed that the delays and disproportionate spending were unacceptable. The accident spots and traffic hazards in Squires Lane have been known about for years, and nothing done.
Mrs Angry had invited Councillor Cohen to comment on the points raised. All he could manage, however, was a mumbled piece of nonsense about funding being based on 'need'. Yeah, right. Whose needs?
Labour's Arjun Mittra, who represents East Finchley, said there was a wider issue at stake: in his own ward he had 18 outstanding defects, reported months ago.
Dean Cohen tried to blame this on the reporting system, whereas some of us more cynically minded citizens might think the lack of resources, due to funding being diverted unfairly elsewhere were possibly a factor.
Mrs Angry's second question, again held over from the last, filibustered meeting, and with a frankly insulting response, bearing in mind the length of time this issue has been complained of.
How long has the park keeper's lodge in Victoria Park been vacant? Why is it still vacant?
How much revenue from rent has been lost since the tenants were moved out? How much has keeping the property secured cost?
When was the property last inspected to ensure the building is still sound and not deteriorating through neglect?
Has the property been valued, and if so what is the value? What plans have been made for the sale of the property?
The response from a Property Services manager:
Following legal advice the Council is currently considering its position in
relation to this matter.
There was no extra information to add.
This historic property was emptied of its tenants nearly three years ago - a family with small children were evicted - or 'decanted', as the council described it, and has since stood, empty, vulnerable and decaying, exposed to vandalism and a magnet for anti-social behaviour and drug dealing. Why?
Because it is one of those assets marked up for the car boot sale that Barnet Tories want to have with any public properties they can flog, libraries, museums, anything that isn't nailed down, whether or not it is part of our local architectural heritage.
Just as with our Carnegie library in Friern Barnet, our Grade 2* listed Church Farmhouse Museum, the lodge keeper's cottage is of no value to the Barnet Tory sensibility, and our councillors would all be perfectly happy if they all fell down, or burnt down: easier to sell as a property development then, of course.
As it happened, Mary, a resident who lives right opposite the lodge was at the meeting, and she told the panel how long she has been worried about the state of the building, the trespassing, having to call the police, and the impact on the local area. No interest, no comment from the Tories - and nothing will be done.
After commenting on this, she was scheduled to speak on another theme: the long running saga of the Dollis Valley Green Walk, whose route, despite the clear clue in the name Walk, seems to suggest to our officers that it must be made accessible to cyclists.
Mary said she was a little nervous. Reuben Thompstone said very solemnly, with no sense of irony, albeit to the accompaniment of much mirth in the audience, that she should not be: this is a very welcoming place, he said.
Mary gave a charming talk, illustrated with the novel use of props: a dolls' bicycyle, Barbie, Ken, and a couple of their offspring.
(Did they have offspring? Did they get married? I always assumed Ken was gay, or reluctant to commit, perhaps. The one that lived in our house, anyway, and led a life of hell, as permanent escort to the twenty seven Barbies accumulated by Miss Angry). But anyway.
Much as we need more cycle paths in Barnet, and elsewhere, the rights of walkers along the course of a Green Walk should really be paramount, shouldn't they? The right of someone to walk slowly along a tranquil path, by a babbling brook, ought not to be ruined by the worry that some speeding cyclist is going to come out of nowhere and make you jump out of the way, or tumble into the babbling brook, especially if you are elderly, or disabled, or a small child.
And if the use of the path is going to be changed, there should be consultation. Local residents associations, such as the Friends of Windsor Open Space, headed by Boris botherer Dennis Pepper, should be consulted. They have not been, and nor has any Equalities Impact Assessment been made, and for very good reason: yet again in the noble tradition of consultation, in Barnet: such consultation might produce the wrong outcome. The outcome that does not fit the decision already made - to 'improve' the footpath for cyclists, because funding for cycling is available.
While residents such as the redoutable Mr Pepper were making points about this nonsultation, by the way, Mrs Angry spotted Councillor Cohen apparently laughing as he made some whispered observation to an acquaintance in the back of the room. What the joke was, we do not know.
Mrs Angry had a vision of the past, Broken Barnet in black and white: a comedy classic, with Brian Coleman as Colonel Mainwaring, and Councillor Cohen as Pike. Who would have thought that the boy would take over the Home Guard, with such hilarious consequences?
Not so hilarious was the next item: questions on the subject of Your Choice Barnet, from resident Tirza Waisel.
There are vulnerable residents in this area who use services provided by Your Choice Barnet and to whom Barnet Council has a legal duty of care. How will Barnet Council protect these residents from a decline in quality of service resulting from YCB’s treatment of the care workers employed to look after them?
If Your Choice Barnet is in such financial difficulty, will LBB take its services back in-house to ensure a proper fulfilment of its duty of care to the residents using these services?
As the sole shareholder and owner of Your Choice Barnet and its main funder, why does Barnet Council not ensure it pays YCB £21.81 per hour per service user so that YCB have sufficient funding to run good services without claiming it needs to cut its employees’ salaries by 9.5%?
All very good questions.
The response, to all three, from an officer in 'Adults and Communities' was: Response to follow. Oh.
Now we understood why Kate Kennally was present.
The more power that the members of the senior management team acquire, the more grandiose their job titles become, of course.
For a brief period of lunacy, two of our highest paid officers revelled in the preposterous twin appointments of Director of Place, and Director of People.
The Tory councillors may be happy to allow their officers to run the council by proxy for them, and tell them, the councillors what to do, but they certainly don't like it when the said officers start to encroach on their sacred territory: the world of pomp and pomposity, where status alone counts, as described by the trappings of office.
They didn't like the universal, heroic scale of these titles, so they took them away, and made them take rather more prosaic labels. Kate Kennally, therefore, is now, not Director of People, but Strategic Director for Communities. Yes, there is Strategy, in One Barnet. In theory, at least. No community, clearly: frowned upon, only people, mostly annoying people, but it is quite the thing now to pretend you care about them, hence the name change.
So, Ms Kennally had graced the Forum with her presence, in order, as it became evident, to address the PR disaster of Your Choice Barnet, the catastrophic enterprise set up by Barnet, on the basis that it is possible to make profit from the provision of care to vulnerable and disabled people, and that there would be so much profit that you could screw out of such a venture, it could be used to subsidise Barnet's social housing company, Barnet Homes.
As it turned out, you can't do either, which was already pretty obvious to all but the private consultants who were paid millions and millions of pounds of our money to come up with a clearly flawed business model, which collapsed, leaving the poor old local taxpayer to cough up a million quid in the first year just to keep it going.
Funny, isn't it, how a Tory council, so keen on financial efficiency, is so inept when it comes to running any sort of business?
Now of course, as YCB continues to sink, it has been decided it is necessary to make ... 'efficiencies' ... by punishing the already very low paid care workers who do this most sensitive and vital work, and cutting their wages by 9.5 per cent.
There had recently been a 100% vote for strike action, reluctantly taken, by employees facing such desperate cuts in their livelihoods, with many families completely supportive of their decision, knowing that the support they provide can only worsen, should staff be reduced to even lower standards of pay.
How can you defend cuts of nearly ten per cent imposed on staff already struggling to survive on the low wages they receive? Kate Kennally gave it her best shot: and it was a truly enlightening experience for those of us who were obliged to sit and listen. A masterclass in corporate drivel, a shameful attempt to justify the cuts, and invert the very logic of the situation, in true Barnet style.
What is important in the nature of the relationship between client and carer - the support giver and the person needing care? Quality of interaction, we heard. Ok. Agreed. And it seems that cutting the wages of the support giver will not in any way compromise that quality of interaction. Really?
We were wrong to think that these care workers were badly paid, anyway, apparently. They have 'a higher rate of pay, compared to others'. Like senior managers in the London Borough of Barnet, but without all the zeros on the pay check.
Mrs Angry wondered where these 'others' were that were paid even less. Albania? China? In the nineteenth century?
The rate of pay was all carefully calculated, we heard.
Ms Kennally was pleased that Strike Action had been called off (for the moment).
Strike Action, of course, was 'detrimental', for users. Detrimental, presumably, in a sense different to the impact of using employees struggling on the lowest scales of pay to look after disabled residents and their personal care, or substituting them with a series of agency workers?
In answer to a question from a resident whose son uses YCB, she said we need to reduce overhead costs.
Do we, thought Mrs Angry? Will that help? Or are you simply dragging out the slow, painful death of a fatally ill concept, simply in order to save the face of our Tory councillors and shire up the credibility of an authority determined to pursue the path of mass privatisation?
Another resident and user of YCB asked if and when YCB finally fails, will it go back in house - or be passed on to Capita?
I think we all know the answer to that, don't you?
Tirza Waisel had a useful suggestion for Ms Kennally: why does she not take a cut in her own salary - a very comfortable six figure sum, with added pension contributions - and other directors?
We didn't seem to get a response to that. What we did hear was that - and Mrs Angry apologises for putting this phrase before you - that we - which we was unclear, but you can count me out of this collective thought - we need to create ' a sustainable market place in care'.
A sustainable market place in care.
Is there any worse condemnation of the corporate culture of this council, than that they subscribe to such inverted principles?
That the care of our most vulnerable residents, your mum, my dad, someone's daughter, someone's neighbour, is dependent on not some intrinsic right to support, but determined by market forces, the language of commerce, and the success of your own stall in the piazza of monetised compassion?
What a revolting concept.
But now 'we' - the same 'we', or a nicer one, again unclear - are worrying about the importance of that 'human interaction' that may take place, between care giver, and customer - if the price is right. Marvellous.
We may need to worry about that being compromised by staff feeling demoralised, after their wages have been slashed, and we must help them to feel 'empowered'.
No good being sentimental, Mrs Angry, about their wages being slashed. As Ms Kennally explained grimly, her dangly earrings, like spat out, half sucked boiled sweets, bobbing about incongruously below her own crewcut locks: they had to 'take a haircut'.
Yes: take a haircut.
Mrs Angry was somewhat taken aback by the use of such a phrase, in reference to the pitifully paid care workers of Your Choice Barnet, facing such a punishment. It was reminiscent of the punishment handed out to female collaborators after the war, a public humiliation.
In fact it is a translation of the term 'kourema', used in reference to the Greek economic crisis. Used in this context, it was a crass remark, and very telling.
We heard that the workers of YCB must take this ritual punishment, sacrificing their right to a decent wage, while YCB 'grows'.
It isn't growing, yelled Mrs Angry: it's failing!
But it doesn't matter that Your Choice Barnet is failing. Even when it is clinically dead, it will wheeled out from the One Barnet warehouse, to be propped up behind a stall, in the market place of care, a mummified corpse, overseeing the next stage of the sale of our borough.
No one must acknowledge failure, in Broken Barnet. The word does not exist. And if the word did exist, it could not be uttered in the carefully filtered air of a Residents Forum, for fear of contaminating us all with a viral urge to seek out a democratic solution, or rise up in revolution, and man the barricades, get a bit shouty in the public gallery at the Town Hall, or refuse to pay our library fines.
This is England, and this is Broken Barnet, June 2014.
The next Residents Forum is not until October.
Probably just as well.