Monday, 6 July 2015
Thinking Something is Going to Happen ... then Nothing Does: another Residents Forum, in Broken Barnet
Now you may or may have not noticed, but Mrs Angry has not been to many council meetings recently.
This is because:
a. She is bored with observing the deathless, glass-eyed stare and manic displacement activity of the elected representatives of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, and:
b. She has had a lot on, see, at home, what with five years' worth of unironed ironing to throw away, and important life decisions to avoid, and then:
c. She has an awful back problem, you know, in case she hasn't mentioned it? So sitting down for long is rather painful and even Mrs Angry is not masochistic enough to force herself to remain seated through the tortuous process and added pain of enduring a long council meeting ... or Residents' Forum.
Until last week, when temptation proved too great.
Temptation in the form of new evidence that yet again, our scheming Tory councillors, carefully nudged by their senior officers, were plotting to attempt to use the Forums to endorse their own nefarious agenda, rather than enable them to be what the democratic process should demand: an opportunity for genuine consultation, and debate with the electorate.
Of course one of Mrs Angry's many character faults is that she never can do as she is told, and if dared not to do something, or it is made clear her involvement is not welcome, generally will have to do it just, well - just because.
Hence her continued membership of Barnet Labour party, you might think.
And indeed a long, long list of things, trailing right back to that seminal moment of childhood memory, look: here she is, standing on a Cornish cliff, aged three, in a terrible stand off with her formidable mother, and her equally formidable grandmother, lined up on one side, pointing their finger reproachfully at the infant Mrs Angry, watched by a sternly disapproving great aunt on the other, who is being threatened by a handful of sand, which Mrs Angry is holding up, poised to throw at her, for no particular reason other than naughtiness, and the heck of it:
If you do that ... was the grim warning ... if you dare do that ... well: nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, but: now it had to be done.
The sand was thrown, Mrs Angry did run, like hell, and - history does not record what happened next, but it was bound to have ended in tears, like most of Mrs Angry's childhood acts of petty defiance against her mother's regime of endless things you must not do.
And as in childhood, in later life. Except now look: in Mrs Angry's hand, not a handful of sand.
No: Mrs Angry will show you fear, in a handful of dust: a distillation of the airless atmosphere of a council meeting, attended by Barnet Tories.
The real attraction of turning up to meetings and upsetting our elected representatives is really simply that they do not want you to be there, and do everything to try and prevent members of the public from attending, and interfering, as they see it, in the ritual of governance.
Because for many of the Tories, (several of whom are of course freemasons, and who naturally love all the pomp and pomposity of municipal office), the ritual is all that matters, and informed involvement by the electors simply a fucking nuisance, and an impertinence, at that.
This view is of course shared and supported by senior managers, who also secretly think that the elected members themselves are surplus to requirements, and deeply resent having to pretend, at least in public, that they are answerable to councillors, and not the other way round. Indeed some senior officers - and you know who you are - increasingly find it very hard not to put the councillors firmly in their place as well - and address them with barely disguised disapproval at committee meetings.
Over the years, Barnet Tories have done everything they can to try to keep residents excluded from meaningful engagement in the democratic process.
Since they nearly lost a judicial review in the High Court in 2013, as a result of their proven failure to consult residents over the mass privatisation of local services, they have pretended to want to engage with the great unwashed, in order to pay lip service to their statutory obligations.
But it is all a sham: an expensive sham. Private consultants are paid vast wads of cash for running 'reviews' which are carefully weighted and filtered so as to extract only data that will support the predetermined policies that our Tory members have been prodded into sanctioning by their senior management team. As long as it smells of true blue ideology, and comes with a side order of moral sanctimoniousness, they will endorse any old tripe that is put on the committee table.
At the beginning of the last Tory administration, in preparation for the implementation of the mass outsourcing agenda, not only was the privatisation not the subject of any mandate from the electors, who were never properly informed about the plans - the very constitution of the authority was amended so as to pre-empt any attempts by campaigners and activists to raise any sort of debate about the outsourcing, or in fact any sort of debate about any council policy: any reference to anything deemed as 'policy' was strictly forbidden at the Residents Forums. Preposterous, of course, and it was rescinded after the contracts had been signed, and all was safely sewn up.
At the beginning of the new adminstration last year, the senior management immediately began advancing plans for another tranche of services to be thrown into the laps of private contractors. Time, therefore, for a more creative approach to the manufacturing of easycouncil spin.
Since the departure of the former deputy CEO, and the former head of communications, a 'charm offensive' has been launched, in which the Tory leader has been assured by senior officers that he really can win back the hearts and minds of residents and the wider public, beyond the confines of Broken Barnet, who now find, on googling any matter relating to this benighted borough and its cockeyed council, only material written by Barnet bloggers, and beastly headlines casting doubt on the competence of our elected administration.
Certain 'friendly' and 'positive' sounding (seeming) parties have been invited in for an audience with Tory leader Richard Cornelius, to film him, or interview the great man, and listen to his words of wisdom.
As you can read here in this carefully pitched, touchy-feely interview with the local Barnet Press, everything, as seen through the rosy tinted view of Cllr Cornelius, is wonderful, in our borough, if we did but know it. Outsourcing, you know, has been a wonderful success. Any evidence? Nope.
But it all sounds so reasonable, doesn't it? Lovely place, kindly, caring Conservative council. Touching references to in house services, one of which had to be brought back in house from privatisation - and another, school meals, which Cllr Cornelius appears to have forgotten is now being put out to tender - with only one 'competitor' left in the bidding process.
The man who wants low paid YCB workers to take a 9.5 pay cut to pay for the flawed business model that can't make money out of care, whose tenants in West Hendon and Sweets Way are being thrown out of their homes as a result of private developments disguised as regeneration ... where is he hiding?
He doesn't want to show the ugly truth, that the poorest and most vulnerable people in this borough are being driven out, punished for being poor and vulnerable, lectured on the need for aspiration, and austerity, while public money is wasted on subsidising private profit.
He does want to be loved, though - Says Cornelius:
I think if people see we are relatively normal people who live here, that’s the way forward. If people see that we don’t have horns growing out of our heads.
Hard to tell, isn't it?
Another thing they hope will help, in the new battle for the love of the common people, is the cosmetic enhancement of that old bugbear, the Residents' Forums. Of course these meetings are simply a roadshow: a performance designed to delude people, as Labour's Cllr Cooke suggested later on, into 'thinking that something is going to happen - then nothing does ...'
Can't shut the Forums down, much as they would like to. Can't shut them up, much as they would like to. What to do then?
Well, just have them at different venues, at awkward times, when no one can go, or remember where they are, and don't advertise them any way, and - oh, here is a new one: change the time limit for the submission of questions, without telling anyone, and try to stop any of the blighters putting in any questions at all.
Mrs Angry's fingers are already itching to grab a handful of something to throw: a spanner in the works, maybe ... but why are they so keen to avoid questions, at the moment, do you suppose?
Having avoided the Forums for so long, she thought now it was unavoidable: time to go and upset the Chair of the Finchley and Golders Green version, Cllr Reuben Thompstone, he of the clipped antipodean voice of authority - or so he imagines - dealing with residents in the way he must treat troublesome boys at the school where he teaches, in between presiding over his council duties, and such marvellous acts as slashing the budget for respite care at our own schools for severely disabled children - and plotting to destroy our library service.
So, just for the heck of it, then: lob in a few awkward questions, Mrs Angry, and force yourself to turn up to the Forum this time.
Except, oh dear, since Mrs Angry had last been to one, things have changed.
First of all: oh no ... Tombstone is no longer the Chair. No more fun to be had, rousing his ire so easily by refusing to be well - tombstoned - by his relentless, monotonous handling of the agenda.
And Mrs Angry was particularly dismayed, having seen the agenda for Thursday night, and fallen about with amusement with the endless possibilities for entertainment, now at risk. Read on.
In the hall, the audience of residents was sparse, but flanked by an attending cohort of no less than thirteen councillors. The poor turnout, of course, by residents was predictable, because council strategy ensures almost no one knows about these meetings.
At the table sat the new Chair, a new councillor, Shimon Ryde, who rather disarmed Mrs Angry at first by being polite, and apparently reasonable. He eschewed the tombstone approach to chairing meetings, and remembered that he was there to facilitate a (sort of) open engagement between residents and their elected representatives. Couldn't quite sustain his cool for the entire length of the proceedings, but then ... to be fair, he was severely provoked.
Well, Mrs Angry, in her time, has seen off several Chairs: Cllr Cohen, Cllr Old, Cllr Thompstone: doesn't bode too well for you, Shimon ... be warned: no one can last out too long.
Cllr Thompstone sat at his side, almost entirely silent throughout the proceedings, sweating furiously in the heat, and clearly uncomfortable in his role as deputy Chair.
One of the reasons Mrs Angry felt compelled to come to this one was the first question on the issues list. Well, in fact it was not a question, although anyone not wised up to how things are, in Broken Barnet, custom and practice, would have assumed it was.
A lovely rambling, inconsequential statement about how lovely our parks are, and then, oh ... some trigger words that would alert the attention of those in the know: references to yep, 'regeneration' (easycouncil speak for 'private development opportunity') and oh, dear, 'aspirations', and 'delivering outcomes' ... we all know what that means, don't we? And no one was fooled by the 'question' coming from - in this Forum, different name at others - someone with the charmingly vintage name of Elsie Josland.
Elsie was sitting at the table, and not, as you might imagine, the homely, buxom president of a local townswomens' guild branch, in flowery frock, smelling of jam and Jerusalem, but a smart young professional woman, and, as she admitted, a landscape architect working for ... can you guess? A private consultancy.
She gave a nice, anodyne 'presentation' - a few words, nothing to be scared of, sounding awfully non controversial, all about our parks - she'd counted them, you know: we have 120, and open spaces, and nature reserves, and oh, we must not take them for granted, or, 'their wider benefits',being not just beautiful, natural places where you can breathe, and relish their status as our last remaining assets, not flogged off or given away for free to private developers, but as, you know, something that, as she said, 'if of good quality, can increase the value of your home'.
Ah yes. Good. Now we are back on familiar ground: ground that can be exploited, after all, in a commercial sense, in line with the underlying principle of life in Broken Barnet.
Barnet Council, we heard, had commissioned a report, from Elsie and her company, to review such matters as the 'infrastructure' of the parks - how many blades of grass, how much acreage of potential development, or rental, how many views to frame in copyright law, French style, that sort of thing?
They were going to see where money is best going to be spent, by 'consulting' residents, coming up with a series of proposals, and then engage in more 'consultation'. Like the library 'consultation'. Nonsultation. Which is being sat on, until a suitable date to sneak it out, during the summer holidays, and then to be presented to a committee meeting timed for the day of the Leader's speech, week of the Labour conference, when many councillors, and Mrs Angry, will be in Brighton, pretending to be interested in politics, but walking along the pebbled beach, staring at the sea, and wondering where our lives went so terribly wrong.
Mrs Angry smiled politely at Elsie, who, Mrs Angry thought, with a tinge of paranoid suspicion, kept looking at her with the amused expression of someone who might have read this blog and was secretly enjoying the prospect of ending up in it, so here you are, Elsie: your wish fulfilled.
And this 'consultation', asked Mrs Angry, which will be like all consultations enacted by this council, another exercise in throwing money at private consultants, and the response ignored unless it fits a predetermined agenda ... How much will it cost, and is it really hiding an intention to commercialise our parks, as the Tory administration tried a couple of years ago, but had to abandon due to protest, as we like our parks at they are, thank you very much, and please leave them alone, but maintain them as you are obliged to do?
Oh. Elsie kept smiling sweetly, and said she knew nothing about cost, and also said that no 'direction' had been given as to commercialisation. So far, retorted Mrs Angry, but we all know what this means: and if you don't know the cost of this further demonstration of waste of public money, who does? She looked at the Chair, and the members of the panel, including the two from 'Re' the re-diculous name given to the (we have decided on a) Joint Venture with Crapita.
These two men, sat beneath a rather repulsive picture of a vulture hovering over a town, looked deeply bored throughout the evening, clearly ill at ease in the role of having to engage in a process of accountability, and as we shall see, entirely unable to perform in such unfamiliar territory.
The men from Crapita, and Cllr Thompstone
At the other end of the table, although he might as well have sat with them, was the Barnet officer, Jamie Blake, who is apparently the Commissioning Director for Environment.
This means, poor man, that he is supposed to represent our best interests, as residents and taxpayers, in regard to the work that Capita - Re is contracted to do, at vast expense and with no evidence, as yet, of the alleged savings the privatisation was meant to bring. Vast savings and better standards of service, we were told.
Mr Blake had been keen at the beginning of the meeting to explain he was a new boy. Only been here five weeks, so ... he knew nothing about anything, which of course is always helpful, when tasked with the role of ensuring value for money from Crapita.
Mr Blake now made a schoolboy error, however, no doubt disarmed by Mrs Angry's warm encouragement, and foolishly announced that he did know something, after all: how much they were paying Elsie and her fellow consultants: £80,000.
Oops. £80,000? Thanks for that.
Sharp tutting from the residents. And there you go, as Mrs Angry pointed out, how easy it is for our easycouncil to throw money away, in this time of austerity, in pursuit of their own ideological obsessions.
The first real question, albeit from a sense of reality that differs somewhat wildly from that of 99% of the rest of the population, was from outraged residents in Hampstead Garden Suburb, whose every need is of course of the highest priority to Barnet Tories, dependent as they are on the patronage of the most affluent constituents in the borough, here and in Totteridge.
What was upsetting the Suburbanistas? Stand by.
Noisy leaf blowers.
Yes. Just imagine! The horror. The horror.
Noisy leaf blowers, used by - oh dear me, the council's private contractors.
Something must be done, of course: but what, and how quickly? Things are done quickly, in HGS, for residents, of course.
Generally, that is. Or rather, in the good old days, BC: before Crapita.
Here was something new again, or perhaps it was the effect of the heat. In the Greek Cypriot Brotherhood hall, a suitably mediterranean air of sultry discomfort - and silence from the Tory councillors.
The resident speaking to the item, oozing middle class confidence, and an unshakeable sense of entitlement, looked on in disbelief at the lack of reaction and interest in their dreadful plight, clearly aggrieved.
Mrs Angry was feeling aggrieved too, from the point of mischief making, the demotion of Cllr Thompstone a grave disappointment, having lined up a variety of naughty supplementary questions on the relative merits of different ways of dealing with a build up of this sort: blowing or sucking? Blowing produces only one outcome, after all, unresolved: all over the place, for someone else to clear up ...
The resident from HGS was not happy. He demanded to know what action would be taken in regard to the shameless practice now blighting their lives, in sight and sound of all, right there on the street.
The Tory councillors on the panel, and in the audience, swallowed hard - and stared straight ahead, enduring an unprecedented ordeal: not being able to serve, with gutless obsequiousness, the request of a resident from their most favoured ward.
But why the silence?
Partly, Mrs Angry suspected, because the new Chair was not yet fully groomed in the protocols of favour, in Broken Barnet: that the standard of nuisance felt by the residents of HGS is more important than that experienced by those in less privileged areas of the borough: that while the residents of West Hendon are forced to live with the interminable and unceasing noise, day and night, every day of the week, for years on end, the filth and danger of the building programme of the private development that will evict them from their own homes - this is acceptable because they are poor, the undeserving poor, and live in a Labour ward.
The occasional sound of a leafblower in Hampstead Garden Suburb clearly is offensive beyond description, in comparison. It might cause a resident to have to look up from the Telegraph crossword, or disturb the repose of a Siamese cat sleeping on the sunny window seat of a house in Winnington Avenue.
But even Tory grandee and former Hendon MP Cllr John Marshall, was uncharacteristically quiet. Normally he leaps to the aid of any residents from his ward, and kicks up merry hell on behalf of them, eg when anyone, any outsider, dares to park outside their house (yes, again: the horror, the horror ...) and they want Something Done.
Mrs Angry had a feeling that he was aware of the glint in her eye, and the guffawing from her seat, and knew that this complaint might not come over awfully well, in the loving chronicles of this blog.
But there was something else that was apparent - a dawning recognition on behalf of our Tory councillors that their ability to produce instant resolutions to the demands of their most cosseted constituents has now been lost, and lost because of Something Done by themselves, not so long ago. That is to say, the signing off of a mass privatisation of council services, and the annexation of democratic control by Crapita.
And now our Tory members are beginning to see that things being Done is no longer possible, in the way they were Done before, because they have given away control to a profit making venture, the vulture with its wings outstretched, claws fastened deep into our rapidly weakening services - and because the continuity of local knowledge, the safeguarding of democratic scrutiny, has been broken.
One of the Crapita officers stated himself later to be one of the longest serving members of staff: he has worked here for five months.
There is Quite A Lot of Noise, in Hampstead Garden Suburb! declared the resident, looking with dismay at the lack of interest in his predicament.
Of course the written response had admitted, with an admirable economy in punctuation, that:
'the Contractors due to efficiency issues do not now sweep leaves'.
Ah. Yes: there you go: the perfect metaphor for privatisation. Do not undertake to deliver a service, and resolve an issue. Move it somewhere else, for someone else to deal with, and at cheaper cost. Efficiency, Crapita style, see? Marvellous.
Still nothing from the Tory councillors. But then: how can they criticise their own handiwork?
Is it possible to have mufflers? asked the resident, losing heart, scanning the range of indifference presented on the faces of the panel members.
You can buy them in the States ... for 16 dollars, he muttered, trailing off into quiet desperation. He sat down, defeated.
More questions about traffic related problems in residential areas - including one from a resident in a road around the corner from Mrs Angry, who does not like traffic going down his road, and wants it all sent down Mrs Angry's road instead, which is so dangerous she has fought for years to have traffic calming measures installed. Like blowing unwanted leaves away from your own front door: but little sympathy shown from officers trying to juggle the highways budgets, thankfully. (Highways budgets that have themselves been blown on the favoured streets of Tory wards, pre-election, as Mrs Angry reminded the councillors ...)
A resident of West Finchley asked about the agreed length of time it is supposed to take officers to respond to complaints or reports to Environment officers, now Capita officers, of course, in regard to such things as obstructed pathways, or hazards that need addressing.
The Commissioning Director shrugged and said that he didn't know. And that was that. Erm:
But it is your job to know, observed Mrs Angry. To hold Capita to account, on behalf of the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet, and ensure that they are receiving Value For Money from the contract. Surely you have performance indicators that they must reach: KPIs in the contract?
Nope. He didn't know. I know nothing.
Cllr Marshall made one of only two interventions in the meeting, pointing out that Mr Blake had only just arrived, in Broken Barnet, and therefore could not be expected to know about everything. Or anything.
Well, Cllr Marshall, suggested Mrs Angry, from her seat further along the row, with an evil grin: do you know? After all, you have been here, have you not ... since the beginning of time itself ...?
Apparently not. He had not read all of the Capita contract.
Mrs Angry suggested that it was likely he had not read any of it, in fact, like the majority of the Tory councillors who signed up for it.
Anyway. Time for Mrs Angry's own awkward questions. Which had, of course, as usual, been moved as far down the agenda as possible, in the hope that they would be filibustered out of time. Unfortunately for the Tory councillors, quite a few residents who had submitted questions had not turned up, which moved hers up within the time limit. Bad luck.
1. Explain the £13.5 million of taxpayers' money spent on buying the waste depot site sold last year for only £750,000, and why did officers not tell councillors about the sale?
A written answer, not from the Chair, but from our friend John Hooton, Chief Operating Officer. He said £750K didn't reflect market value, and the Monitoring Officer said the decision making process was - ha ha -'robust', and therefore 'the information provided to the committee was not misleading'.
Well, no: it wasn't misleading. It was completely wrong. Why, asked Mrs Angry did officers not tell members about the sale? Did they not know, or did they not tell them deliberately? Simple question, not answered.
The Chair began to look very uncomfortable, and could not offer a response, other than to imply Labour was making some allegation about tax.
Labour's Cllr Cooke, who has been involved in this matter, stood and spoke angrily about the lack of transparency over the purchase. Residents sitting in the hall were clearly aghast at hearing the details of this story.
An uncharacteristically quiet Cllr Marshall, left, listens to Labour's Geof Cooke, as residents take note
Still no explanation, either to him, or Mrs Angry, whose attempts to pursue the point were met with 'I think we have exhausted the subject'.
That's what you would like to think, Tory councillors: but you are mistaken.
Incidentally residents protesting about the depot plans who submitted questions to their Forum in Barnet were told the issue could not be discussed, although the Chair, Tory councillor Lisa Rutter, made a statement defending her own much criticised actions in failing to oppose the approval of the plans.
2. Why did the Tory administration secretly give away public land in West Hendon worth more than £12 million to private developers for £3, and is this not another example of Conservative profligacy with taxpayers' money?
The written response was: Chairman to respond verbally at the meeting.
Mrs Angry looked expectantly at Councillor Ryde.
I don't recognise what you mean by your question, he said.
She repeated what she had asked. He repeated the same words.
But what is your response?
That is my response, he said, with pursed lips: I don't recognise what you mean by your question.
It seemed that poor Councillor Ryde was finding Mrs Angry's probing enquiries too much of an intellectual challenge. Not a massive surprise, to be fair. But: couldn't you have put that in writing, she asked? Nine little words: shouldn't have taken too long. The Monitoring Officer probably would have lent him his biro, if he'd asked, when he was checking his response, to see it was 'robust'.
Oh well. Now suddenly the Chair did seem to understand, and tried to tell Mrs Angry the £3 West Hendon deal was a flipping good one, because that was the real value. Mrs Angry said this was a load of rubbish, and had Cllr Ryde, like her, been to the Housing Inquiry? Er, no.
Mrs Angry pointed out that the council could have negotiated a much better deal, if you accepted the faux regeneration was actually defensible, which it is not, and did Cllr Ryde actually know how much profit Barratt London was making from the deal, because she did? * He did not. And then this subject too was by now exhausted, and so was the Chair, and we were told to Move On. *(£92 million ...)
Next: a moan about the way the council was trying to scupper the Forums: waste of time, except that Councillor Marshall tried to defend changing the time limit by saying only one person missed the deadline, and Mrs Angry explained that was because she and other enthusiasts had advertised it on his behalf, via the medium of Twitter, although there was no need to thank her. Did Cllr Marshall, who was born in an era of sealing wax, semaphore and beacons, know what Mrs Angry was talking about? Are you on twitter, btw, Cllr Marshall, she asked?
Nyeoooow! said the old boy, scandalised by the very thought.
Last question about libraries, specifically Church End. How much did they reckon they could get for it when they flog it off?
At last Tombstone was allowed to speak. Unfortunately he was so boring Mrs Angry fell into a trance, and forgot to listen to what he was actually saying, so winged a further question on the cuts themselves, and floated the thought that if he and his pals would stop throwing money at consultants, and giving away public land for free, or throwing money at land worth a fraction of the price, we would have enough to save all our libraries. But then, she observed, regarding Cllr Thompstone with her beady eye: you don't want to save the libraries, do you?
Cllr Thompstone thought that was a statement, and not a question, and therefore declined to respond. In fact, said Mrs Angry, there was a question mark at the end of my sentence.
But how interesting that he declared her suggestion to be a statement of fact: he does not want to save the libraries. No question mark.
The meeting more or less ended with a question from a resident who is concerned about the failure of the council, as she sees it, properly to manage the ecological well being of our open spaces, particularly along the Dollis Brook walk. She listed plants which are not being controlled, and may become invasive: Japanese knotweed, Himalayan Balsam, hemlock: giant hogweed.
All of them plants with attitude, and many of them rather a risk, if left unmanaged. Mrs Angry winced, having once ended up in A&E with awful burns from what Guys' toxicology unit had to confirm was due to contact, in strong sunlight, from giant hogweed. Hemlock, is of course, equally dangerous, although useful for disposing of enemies of the state, and unpopular philosophers.
The Director of Commissioning wasn't bovvered. Meh.
The plants are seeding, admonished the resident, and might go downstream, and end up establishing themselves within the borders of the Welsh Harp, which is - at the moment - an SSSI.
Seeding? That's what plants do, shrugged Mr Blake.
Well, thought Mrs Angry, as the meeting wound up, and we wandered out into the cool air outside the hall: as the colonisation of West Hendon and the Welsh Harp, and indeed the Annington development of Sweets Way, are being sponsored by our council, it seems fitting that the invasion of our open spaces should be facilitated by them as well - until these become the next target for income generation opportunities.
And Mr Blake is right. Seeding is all part of the natural cycle of life, even here in Broken Barnet.
But then of course, some plants are more invasive, and more dangerous than you might think, aren't they?