Monday, 23 July 2018

(Not) Sleeping Easily in Our Beds, and - Who is Minding the Council? A week in Broken Barnet

Fellow blogger Mr Roger Tichborne, of the Barnet Eye, modelling this season's must wear t shirt.

Having tried very hard, over the last year or so, to avoid the ordeal of sitting through yet another interminable Barnet council meeting, it took no small act of forbearance to have to attend two meetings in one week - this last week.  

But these were two meetings which simply had to be witnessed, poised as we are on the brink of the apocalypse, and the end of days for Broken Barnet.

The decline and fall must be chronicled, and annotated, in the cause of history, as a warning to others, and ourselves, as we may be, in the future. 

It's not about one local Tory backwater council, clinging on to the days of glory, when this borough was the centre of the cult of Thatcherism, or even just the story, as it more properly should be, of local grassroots activism, fighting back, in the tradition of British underdogs, refusing to be bowed by bullying, tinpot politicians: although perhaps it is both these things. 

More importantly, hidden in the details of these accounts, we hope, is a more significant message - the story of something more universal, in a political sense: not just the failure of a model of privatised government, the utter failure of the market economy in public services. 

The end of Capita-lism in Broken Barnet is a useful lesson - for a wide audience. 

Until recently, council meetings like these would be annexed by the Men in Suits: the Men from Capita - agents of our contractual partners, taking over the public seating, not just manspreading, corporatespreading, with a droit de seigneur fully in line with the perception of their role as feudal overlords, an invading army moving on from the point of battle, to one of conquest, and the imposition of a foreign culture, and language.

The language of the London Borough of Capita, of course, is one of impenetrable meaning, deliberately created to ensure a lack of comprehension, and a virtual surrender to the colonial administration now overseeing every aspect of life in our rotten borough.

We submit, or have submitted, to the vocabulary of occupation: corporate newspeak, the inversion of truth, for the benefit of politicians, and private contractors.

As this administration loses its grip on our financial security, however, and the risks of their contractual bondage are now fully exposed, that co-opted language is itself beginning to lose its fluency, and its magic powers, as we shall see. 

Council officers and Capita representatives attempt the same tired phrases, to try to disguise the sheer awfulness of what is happening: but now their power is broken, and they are failing. 

We see you.

Ah but: the contracts are not being torn apart: they are being 'Re-aligned'. 

Senior officers talk about a 'Re-profiling'. 

Well, we live, as you may recall, in a borough that has been 'Re-Barneted' by ... 'Re' - the Joint Venture owned by Barnet and Capita, although dominated by the latter partner. 

The Chief Executive, and the Tory Leader Richard Cornelius, have of course now Re-signed as directors of Re, because they have suddenly discovered a conflict of interest occurring in such a position, when the contract is under review. They see no conflict in retaining their roles on the commissioning side, at this time, of course.

Tory leader Richard Cornelius, and Chief Executive John Hooton, at Thursday's meeting

Oh. Well, how funny, as Mrs Angry pointed out in questions to this Tuesday's Audit Committee*, because the entire process of outsourcing of services in Barnet has been fraught with conflicts of interest since before the tenders were put out, and despite constant requests for the council to do something to mitigate those risks, nothing was ever done.

* See here for link to full questions, from Mr Reasonable, Mr Tichborne, Mrs Angry and Mrs Jacobson.

Right from the point where officers were coming and going, as 'interim' consultants, or on the staff structure, from outsourcing companies to the council and back again, in a swing door movement, unstopped by any effective restraint, our system of governance has been broken and compromised. 

The multiplicity of roles played by the successful bidder for the two contracts, ie Capita, has provided a fertile ground for conflicts, and the perception of conflict of interest, and even the potential, as we have seen, for fraud, and corruption. 

Planning and enforcement has been rife with conflict, embedded in the very heart of processes meant to deliver an effective service for residents, but now prioritising the needs of developers, with special assistance available to developers, for a standard fee, that helps them gain approval for their plans, while the same company, the same officers - as proven in one local case in Finchley - then overseeing the consultation process - and the recommendation for approval. Where is the transparency, the accountability, or justice for residents?

Apart from a widely ranging portfolio of service provision, Capita was also responsible for presenting the council's accounts: comparable, say, to asking your local supermarket to take the money out of your purse at the check out, while you pack your bags ...

How the Tory members who approved the contracts failed to foresee the conflict here is impossible to understand. 

Only the catastrophic cock up revealed in last year's Audit process brought them to their senses, and made them Re-alise, too late, that they had to bring this service back in house.

Mrs A's supplementary question to the Chair of Audit here then: will they do anything to review the issue of conflict of interest?

After some bafflement as to why that might be a good idea, the response, of course, was -  No.

Another question had been about a crucial report that had been withheld from the meeting - the report commissioned from Grant Thornton on an alleged fraud taking place within the Capita run services.

Blogger John Dix (Mr Reasonable) attempts to raise his concerns at Tuesday's Audit meeting

Both John Dix (fellow blogger Mr Re-asonable), and I had asked about the justification for this exemption. The council's response was to claim it was in the 'public interest', yet in reply to a question to Mr R, admitted that the Re-quest to withhold the report had come from ... Capita. 

Important to note, before asking the supplementary question, that the excuse of 'public interest' was wrongly used, instead of what was quite clearly a commercial interest - that that is a shocking dereliction of the council's duties, as defined by the Nolan principles, in regard to transparency and accountability. Why, Mrs A asked, are you so frightened of confrontation with Capita?

The Chief Executive's face Re-arranged itself into an expression of sincerity, as he burbled his way through the usual sort of non response to any question put to any senior officer if the London Borough of Broken Barnet. It seems he thought that sitting on this report, at this stage, was a Re-asonable re-quest (ok, I'll stop now) from Capita. 

Mrs Angry's third question had been as follows:

There are many references within this report to
failings in the system of financial control but
ultimately the system depends on effective
scrutiny by the Chair and Members of the Audit
Committee. The most serious failure, therefore,
rests with those members who refused to listen to
warnings from union reports, external auditors,
residents, campaigners - and local bloggers,
especially John Dix. Will the Chair now apologise
on behalf of the Audit Committee to these bodies
and individuals, whose strenuous efforts to
defend local taxpayers' investment, and our vital
public services, have been ignored over a period of
several years?

Can you guess the response?

Yes. One word:


Well, of course not. Why would these fools admit their culpability for the Capita cockup, or feel any sense of shame for entering into the contracts, despite all warnings of the consequences? 

Fine. The art of getting one over the Tories at any meeting involves abandoning all hope of truthful answers and using supplementary questions as an opportunity for embarrassing commentary in the guise of working up to said supplementary questions.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Tory Chair of Audit, Cllr Antony Finn made a ridiculous statement, asking that there be a 'different attitude', a rejection of 'party politics' - to 'go forward positively'. He asked for 'bouquets, not criticisms'.

This was, and is, simply preposterous.

In his former role as Chair of the committee which monitored contractual performance, Finn had made similar demands. The purpose of scrutiny, he had claimed, five years ago, at the beginning of the period of contractual bondage with Capita, was  was not to criticise. It was 'to make a positive contribution'. 

Five years of this sort of attitude had allowed Capita to fail, unchecked, to deliver a performance that was simply inadequate, and has created a total crisis in financial management, and the delivery of services.

Mrs Angry reminded him of the failure of the Performance committee to hold Capita to account, and objected to the idea that Audit should be turned into a similar rubber stamping exercise. 

The reports coming to committee were explicit in their identification of the lack of effective financial controls which had led to the current mess we are in. A control system which ultimately ends in the democratic oversight of both Performance and Audit committees. Instead of a typically arrogant, one word response, could he explain why he - and councillor Zinkin, another Performance committee member, felt no responsibility for what has happened? 

Finn opened and shut his mouth, gasping like a stranded fish thrown up on the riverbank, while his colleague Cllr Zinkin laughed quietly to himself at the table. 

It's only a game, after all, all of this, to them.

No coherent response emerged - Finn looks increasingly tired, these days, and beyond the demands of the current crisis. It hardly seems kind to hold him to account, and let the others off the hook. Mrs Angry left the table, with the polite suggestion that if he was unable to undertake the responsibility of his role as Chair of Audit, he should resign in favour of someone else (preferably, as it should be, an opposition member).

It was a suggestion that found favour with the public gallery.

The meeting continued. What did the opposition have to say? The three Labour members missed the opportunity of a totally open goal, their innate politeness leaving them fatally disadvantaged. The Tories, of course, until recently, have never held back, and are utterly ruthless in tactics. They would not hesitate in going for the jugular, in any similar situation.

The former Labour leader Alison Moore described the failing model of outsourcing as 'creaking'.

It's sunk! observed Mr Reasonable, shaking his head. 

She said she actually found the report 'quite shocking'. 

Cllr Kathy Levine then quietly pointed out that the Chair had blithely reassured all members of the council, not so long ago, after concerns were raised about the state of Capita's health, that 'we could sleep easily in our beds' - but 'the next day Capita's shares fell through the floor' ... 

Barnet's external auditors, BDO, Leigh Lloyd Thomas on the right

The external auditors from BDO sat at the table listening. A grim faced Leigh Lloyd-Thomas gave guarded approval of some improvements, but made a curious reference to some of this year's accounts, saying that they 'didn't look right'. The pensions information from Capita, for some reason, had been late. In summary, there are still huge concerns about the council's expenditure, despite some belated recognition from the council that it needed to take drastic action to get a grip of its finances - it seemed that after some difficulties the accounts could after all be published in July, unqualified.

Which July? asked Mr Shepherd, from the public gallery, the veteran one man chorus of disapproval present at all council meetings. (The gravity of this meeting was marked by his accompaniment of three bags of cuttings from the Morning Star, rather than the usual two.)

One matter for the auditors that appears not to have been brought up, although Mrs Angry understands the matter will be brought to their attention, is one that will surely enrage one former Tory member of the council - yes, our dear friend, and erstwhile Mayor, Brian Coleman.

That is the curious case of the Town Hall memorabilia which has apparently 'gone missing' - believed to include not only Mayoral regalia, but other valuable items - an important part of our local heritage, corporate assets subject to the process of audit. 

It seems Capita Estates were meant to place these items in a place of safety: in an act of gruesome irony, they decided to shove it in the disused mortuary just down the road from Mrs Angry - and oh dear, it disappeared, never to be seen again. 

It was meant to happen, of course, to demonstrate, in a neat metaphorical package, the absolute surrender and loss of control of the local democratic process, and here we are.

The People's Mayor, Mr Shepherd, locked out of Hendon Library, next to the Town Hall

Mr Shepherd, the People's Mayor, and the funniest man in Broken Barnet, and without whose presence no Barnet council meeting is properly quorate, was back at the Town Hall on Thursday night for the special Policy & Resources meeting, at which it was to be decided how the council would proceed in addressing the crisis in the Capita contractual performance. The report going to this committee was frankly insultingly short, as noted by Labour members - and with an 'assessment' properly denounced by Mr Reasonable as utterly inadequate, being no more than a chart. The report offered three options: Option One, do nothing. Option Two, do something but not enough, or Three: #Kick Out Capita.

For some reason, even at this earliest stage in the process of 'Re-alignment' of the contracts, the report had chosen a preferred option, which was of course, Option Two.

Outside the building, a crowd of residents, campaigners and union members stood with banners demanding the choice of Option Three.

Residents, campaigners, and union members at the Town Hall

Inside the building, the ever scheming Tory members started the meeting ten minutes early, caring not one jot that many of the residents who had submitted questions, or were making verbal comments, might not have arrived. 

Resident Nick Dixon addressed the committee, rightly emphasising the dire state of the Capita run planning and enforcement service, accusing the contractor of 'poisoning' the council, saying: 

Capita/ Re has developed a fine service....for developers. But, it is a poor, dishonest one for residents. This turns the principle of public service on its head.

He urged members to pull the plug on Capita:

Services MUST be brought back in house, to be monitored closely by democratically elected, accountable councillors.

Get rid of Capita. Put the community first.

'Putting the community first' was also the theme of the speech from another resident and campaigner, Keith Martin. It is, after all, the stated motto of our council, fully in line with its dystopian inversion of language, and truth.

Resident and campaigner Keith Martin

Barbara Jacobson spoke next, criticising their refusal to listen when entering the contracts, despite the clear warnings - many people foresaw that what has happened, would happen. As she ended her speech, she asked deputy leader Dan Thomas, sitting at the table all evening in surly silence, if he was bored. 

Thomas, of course, has perhaps been the most outspoken supporter of the Capita contracts. He spent the evening in visible discomfort - and it was most enjoyable to watch. Here he is listening to resident Nick Dixon's speech.

Labour's Alison Moore listens attentively to resident Nick Dixon's criticisms of the Capita run planning service - while easycouncil enthusiast and deputy Tory leader Dan Thomas, to her right, appears rather less interested ...

John Dix, yet again, sat at the table, and told the Tories how things were. He pointed out the foolishness of leaving so many services with Capita, if they chose Option Two. You have this one chance, he told them, to issue a 12 month termination notice, and look at how services should be provided, in the most effective way. 

In other words: cut free now, take back control.

In response to Labour's Ross Houston's comments, and Mrs Jacobson's description of the report and recommendation being evidence of 'the tail waving the dog', John observed that the Tories are not having a proper, open review. Do it properly, he demanded.

Labour leader Barry Rawlings referred to Finn's remark about us all sleeping easily in our beds, despite the threatened collapse of Capita. We are sleeping in the backseat of the car, he said, having outsourced the driving to Capita ... 

The Tory leader seemed not to want to say very much at this point for some reason, and deferred to the Section 151 officer, Kevin Bartle, who seems to be the only one of them with any grasp of the seriousness of the situation. 

Senior officers must use the dissociative words of corporate culture, of course, and the evening's awkward interactions were generously lubricated with the use of 'slippage', and yes, re-profiling, and - eww, what sounded like 'the removal of skins'? Anything to avoid admitting we are up shit creek without a paddle, in other words. But as we have noted, the magic power of the language of occupation is waning, and it no longer serves, with any level of effectiveness, the purpose of counter transparency.

Labour's Kath Mc Guirk, thankfully, doesn't speak in code. 

(Earlier in the evening there had been a deviation from the main event to consider a grant to two local selective girls' schools, one of which, of course, as a mark of its excellence, has produced not only stroppy Cllr Mc Guirk, who was therefore obliged to make a declaration of interest, but also Mrs Angry, both of us trained by the Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus in topical debate, unarmed combat, and advanced impudence).

Commenting on the lessons not learned from the Icelandic bank disaster, and the new disaster of the Capita contracts Kath now demanded to know: Who is minding the council?

There appeared to be no easy answer to this. Well, in fact, no answer, because - no one is.  

Ross Houston observed that it was incredible to find us learning about this crisis only after the recent election - it is scandalous he said, that it has got to this stage. He referred to the administration's incompetence, and made a curious remark - 'I hope it is incompetence ...'

Time for more soothing words from the Chief Executive, John Hooton, who appears remarkably unfazed, in the circumstances, and very keen to please everyone. 

He now described, using a suggestion from the corporate guidebook, Section 13b, Calming phrases to use at a time of impending Doom, and the Collapse of a New Model of Local Government, delivered in a cheery tone of voice, that we have been standing on a significant cliff edge, but now 'that challenge has come a bit forward' ...

 Barnet CEO: 'That challenge that has come a bit forward ...'

Well yes. A bit, Mr Hooton, a little bit. But of course:

You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off ...

And now look. In fact, let's be honest - we are over the edge of the cliff, in free fall, and there is no one down below to catch us.

The deputy Chief Executive, Kath Shaw, reminded members that 'all' they were doing this evening was to vote on whether or not there should be the provision of a full business case for any of the options before them.

Ah. Except of course there was already a preferred option, wasn't there? 

Should there be? asked Labour councillors, and attending bloggers? 

Oh, yes, it was a legal requirement, we were  told, more than once in the meeting.

Labour leader Barry Rawlings was worried - we need full consultation on all the options, and flexibility, but members only have half the figures needed to make any proper consideration of the options listed. 

Kath Mc Guirk reminded the Tories that an in house option had not been allowed, at the time of tendering. At this point the Tory leader, for some reason, tried to silence her. 

After more argument on this line, Tory councillor Finn, still trying to Accentuate The Positive, as the ship sinks swiftly into the sea - or as our fingertips are prised, one by one, from the edge of Mr Hooton's cliff, asked that we did not 'harp back' to all the horrid things that have happened while he and his colleagues have been ... well, supposedly minding the council. The public gallery instantly erupted into derisive laughter.

Step forward Tory councillor Peter Zinkin, who thought he might as well have a go at his party piece, which is to work himself into a sudden outburst of faux outrage, in order to leave his audience of jeering residents worried about his blood pressure. We have done wonderful things, he claimed, holding down taxes, and, and ... and services were maintained! This met with more derision, naturally, and as soon as it was apparent his performance wasn't working, he was laughing at himself, again. 

It fell to Labour members to try to navigate a way through this mess. Back to the issue of the preferred option - why not drop it in favour of properly assessing all options? The Tory leader maintained that he had been informed it was a legal requirement.

By whom? heckled Mrs Angry, suspiciously: Did you take legal advice? Independent legal advice?

Aha. It then emerged, after a certain amount of questioning, that no, they hadn't. The advice turned out to be merely the view of the deputy Chief Executive that it would be 'wise' to have a preferred option, with the implication that it might otherwise lay the council open to legal challenge.

Where to begin?

First of all, it demonstrated - yet again - how easily our Tory councillors are directed by senior management - (remember 'We have decided to form a Joint Venture' and the revelation that what was to become Capita Re had been agreed by officers, without the involvement of the Leader?). It too often appears that members cannot be bothered to question the advice given to them. Secondly, all this confusion underlines the perilous state of affairs now that Barnet no longer has an in house legal team  - and thirdly, it may well be the case that having a stated preference of option at this preliminary stage, with so little proper consultation, could itself make the council open to challenge on the grounds of 'irrational decision'. 

Labour members tried to get them to drop the preference. Officers wriggled out of this, and in the end, an amendment to assess all options was bolted on to the original proposal, as was. Mr Reasonable tutted loudly, commenting that all that will happen is officers will come up with the same preference. If so, it will be a disaster, as Capita is allowed to retain its most favoured services, including procurement, with all the extra cash we end up passing over to them in gainshare payments.

That was the end of that matter, for that meeting: but there was another proposal on the agenda, one ostensibly of a less serious nature, but still highly contentious - for good reason.

At the same special meeting where the crisis in the mass privatisation of council services, set against a backdrop of massive and increasing budget deficit, and the rapid diminishment of our reserves, the Tory leader and his colleagues wanted to approve a loan of more than £22 million pounds, over a thirty year period, to Saracens' Rugby Club, favoured partners of the council, and owned by Totteridge resident Nigel Wray. The club wants to expand, but is apparently unable to secure a commercial loan they want in order to do so, so we, the tax payers of Broken Barnet, are being tapped for it.

You might well ask why on earth the Tory leader would think it appropriate at any time to throw £22 million pounds worth of our hard earned cash at a local sports club - or indeed to subsidise the commercial activities of any company with public sector money - but to use it in such a high risk venture is nothing short of madness.

Where is the security? What happens if Saracens go bust? How risky must it be to lend such a huge sum of money when the banks won't do it? Why are we doing it, and at a time when we are in such dire straits? When vital services are about to be cut to the bone, due to the financial mismanagement of the current administration, and the total failure of their mass privatisation, and the least advantaged members of our community forced to carry the burden of cost of their incompetence, and profligacy?

Truth is there appears to most of us that there is very little that this administration would not do, for its own purposes, and there is nothing we can do to stop them wrecking this borough, and our local services, and our financial wellbeing. 

Or so they think.

The story isn't over yet.

Friday, 6 July 2018

A Potential Realignment, or: Easycouncil is No More

A deserted Barnet Conservative group room, Hendon Town Hall, watched over by Margaret Thatcher

The end, when it came, came creeping in, like a bad smell; a whiff of something like death, or decay.

It hung over the London Borough of Broken Barnet, a cloud of toxic fumes on a sunny day, like the foul air hovering over the North Circular, unnoticed by those passing through it, at first, and only visible from afar. 

An odour of something like death, or something rotten. Something they are trying to bury, before you see the body. 

Too late, too late. The End is no longer Nigh. The last breath has been drawn, and now, after the election is all over, and the Tory members are safe in their seats, look: it is here. It is finished, at last.

That beginning of the end began, and ended, with the last Audit meeting of the previous Tory administration, in April. You can read about that here.

Then last Friday, an interesting announcement was made. 

Or rather not made, but mis-made, in the time honoured tradition of Broken Barnet, slipped out, the stench of it hastily covered in corporate spin. 

Barnet Council proposes review to realign Capita partnership

Barnet Council has today published a report which proposes undertaking a review to enable a potential realignment of the council’s partnership with Capita. 

A potential realignment.

The council has two major contracts with Capita, to deliver back office services and development and regulatory services. The partnership has delivered significant financial savings since their commencement in 2013, as well as efficiencies and improvements across a range of services. However there are other services where performance improvement is needed. 

Aha. Just a bit of tweaking needed then?

Well, no. 

This is a massive admission. An admission of abject failure by Barnet Tories, on an unprecedented scale.

It is the endorsement of everything we have warned about, since the idea of a mass outsourcing of local services was first explored, and everything we have protested about since the Capita contracts were signed, five long years ago.

It means at last, in the face of a complete disaster for our local services, the threat of total collapse by contractors, the loss of so much money, the ever widening deficit - at last, our Tory councillors, always refusing to listen, until now, now have given in, and thrown in the towel. They know it is all over. 

Even Cllr Antony Finn, the eternal optimist, former Chair of the Performance committee, the Mr Micawber of the Barnet Tory group, who always thought everything would work out fine, was just about to be 'hunky dory', who thought scrutiny should never be negative - even he can no longer look in the other direction. His successor, Finance and Performance chair Peter Zinkin, normally so ebullient, was visibly shaken, this week, at the new finance committee's first meeting.

New Barnet Finance Chair Peter Zinkin listening to Duncan Tessier, commercial director, flanked by the Section 151 officer (right).

Tory leader Richard Cornelius's saturnine smile may now be ever so slightly fixed - and Cllr Peter Zinkin may very well find himself no longer able to 'shoot the messenger', and blame the auditors for bringing bad news.

Don't expect them to do the right thing now, though. They are going to choose to tinker with the contract, rather than chuck it out altogether, as they should. Read what Mr Reasonable has to say about their plans here. As he has noted, the bits they are retaining are the ones that give Capita the most profit, and us the least good value. An attempt at face saving, and damage limitation, for both parties then? 

Makes no difference to one undeniable truth: what it all means is: Easycouncil is over. 

To all intents and purposes, anyway.

It has ceased to be: expired and gone to meet its maker. Or rather will now hang forever and a day, not so much a dead parrot, as perhaps a dead albatross, around the neck of its maker, MP for Finchley and Golders Green, and former council leader, Mr Freer - a grim omen for his acolytes in the Barnet Tory party. Remember this interview, from 2010? 

We were told Easycouncil was in part - "an attempt to have a different relationship with local residents, a part of what Freer calls a "relentless drive for efficiency"."

A relentless drive for efficiency.

Well, certainly they managed to create a different relationship with local residents. One of mutual contempt, it seems. If only the truth about the state of the borough had been published before the election, then local residents would have had the proper information necessary to end that relationship. 

Poor Freer. He probably thought he had at last shaken off the association with the Icelandic Bank disaster ... and now this: his beautiful Easycouncil dream, all in pieces ...

Local activists with shares in the company attended a Capita shareholders' meeting last week, and reported back on what had clearly been an angry and revelatory discussion. According to a press release from Chipping Barnet Labour party:

"Jenny Brown (a member of Hendon Labour Party) raised concerns around Capita profiting from gainshare – a method whereby employees are rewarded for improving the profits of a company. Brown argued that this approach has led to Barnet residents being considered a source of profit, rather than a service user group. Effectively, this system means that there are financial incentives to remove entitlements, for example a reduction in the number of people claiming a single person discount on Council Tax. Given that Capita are already being paid for these contracts, they should not be seeking to use Barnet residents as additional revenue, she claimed".  

"Capita CEO John Lewis initially assigned the blame to Barnet Council, stating that some points raised did not lie within Capita’s area of responsibility. After further pushing from Brown, Lewis conceded to arranging a meeting with Barnet Council to look at the contract, but remained non-committal when attendees requested that Capita provides feedback on the outcome of this meeting to Barnet residents."

Shareholders leaving this meeting were reportedly doing so 'in disgust':

"The Capita CEO was blaming Barnet Council for the poor quality of service.” Others expressed concern for Barnet residents, with one shareholder commenting “They’re hopeless, you have our sympathies, you really do”."

Easycouncil, though. What is it? Or what was it?

What did it even mean? 

Mrs Angry was asked this, not so long ago, in an interview during the election. It took a few moments to remember what the answer is. Was.

Because it was just another meaningless tag: a soundbite, nothing more. Dressed up as a new 'model of local government', actually just a variation of one that was being deployed in every corner of the public sector.

When we went to the High Court with a Judicial Review of the council's bid to impose massive outsourcing of local services, the judge was perplexed by the (Future)shapeshifting nature of the authority's proposals. Futureshape, Easycouncil, One Barnet: what was it? How did it evolve? No one seemed sure what it was, even then. Because it never really existed. It began as an attention grabbing headline, dressed up as a concept - no more than a vague idea of making residents pay more for services, according to their choice. 

Barnet bloggers at the High Court in 2013, for the One Barnet Judicial Review

But even then, there was little detail on how this would work. Soon enough it became something else - or the cover for something else, as Freer departed for Westminster, and his former colleagues on the council became the easy prey of the outsourcing companies hovering over the then fertile landscape of Broken Barnet. Easy prey, in the easycouncil way, allowing their natural inertia and lack of scrutiny to allow the influence of senior officers and external consultants soften the borough up for the plundering of our local services.

Futureshape, One Barnet, all of them brands as poisonous as the air we now breathe, all of them discarded, one after the other, until we reached the stage where as Barnet was given over, as they so cringingly phrased it, to be'Re-Barneted',  invaded by Capita, and run as the last outpost in a dying empire. 

After so much controversy, and bad PR, branding itself became such a toxic process that it was abandoned, in favour of denial. One Barnet became ... nothing. It was de-recognised. It was a non policy. It did not and had never existed. What we had in its place was ... nothing. Discreet nods in the direction of 'the change programme' or 'the transformation agenda'. 

Names and language are important, in any dystopian society, for the purpose of exerting control, and imposing force. 

Amusing to see in this fascinating post by LCC Municipal what other names were once considered for our borough, at the time of its creation: 

The borough of Noresex has a certain appeal, I think, don't you? A nod to the future, and some of our more popular outdoor pursuits, perhaps. Barfindon, Finchelee, and Finchenbar: all have a certain charm. 

Or perhaps, more fittingly, as things have turned out, we should have gone for Norlon, a name fully compliant with the demands of a corporate culture fluent in Newspeak.

Instead of which, we have ended up in the London Borough of Capita.

But not for much longer. The title will soon be up for sponsorship deals, and all the clever money says best odds are on us becoming the London Borough of Saracens, with new council offices at Allianz Park - and of course putting all those newly insourced services back in the library spaces stolen by Tory councillors from the borough's children. 

Oh yes, they will have to insource. And already they were making plans to use library space - at East Barnet, for example, as often predicted in this blog. But now they will have a huge logistical problem, finding ways of returning services where they should be, in house, and locally accountable. If, as we warned them, to no avail, until the current crisis, they had considered that they needed a Plan B, in case the Capita contracts fail, or the company falls apart, this would not be such a disaster. But their arrogance drove them to assert with absolute complacency that such a thing could not happen. It has happened. Yes, we told you so.

Well, in fact who did tell them so? 

Last week, as soon as the 'alignment' was announced, Barnet Labour was quick to try to take the credit. This was completely unfair, in fact, to those campaigners who have worked so hard for so long, often with little or no political support, to oppose the outsourcing, and the signing of the contracts. Who have continued to argue against the mass privatisation, exposing the failures in performance, scrutinising the accounts, asking question after question. 

From the very beginning it has been Unison who led the fight against the outsourcing, campaigning, lobbying, commissioning academic reports - which always went ignored. They begged councillors to take action: ignored again, time after time. Sometimes reports would go to committee meetings, and no member of either party would ask questions about it. John Burgess, in particular, should be singled out for praise for his determined campaigning, persistence, and perseverance.

Barnet Alliance fought with tooth and nail against the mass privatisation. They organised, leafleted, attended meeting after meeting, showing huge commitment from a grassroots campaign, a campaign that should really have been led by Labour. 

Local bloggers not only reported in details the crashing disaster of the contractual bondage councillors had so lazily approved, but took an active role in trying to prevent it: with local residents and campaigners we spent months of our own time advising a legal team in the pursuit of a Judicial Review of the outsourcing. The outcome was infuriating: we would have won, if the challenge had been in time. The lawyers asked why the opposition party did not seek advice within that time: it was a fair question.

Once the contracts were in place, the Labour group leading members were less than active in pushing for any termination of the contract, or in promising to do this, should they come to power. This equivocation was not what residents needed to hear, let alone campaigners, and council staff members. 

More latterly, since the reality of imminent failure became unavoidably clear, there was some shift, and a commitment in the last election's manifesto to try to bring back some services: still - too little, too late.

Other Labour members knew exactly how bad things were, and did their best at audit and performance meetings - but the most probing challenges always came from residents , the unions - and local bloggers. 

One blogger: Mr Reasonable, John Dix, without whose dedication, forensic auditing, determination and great patience, the crashing reality of how and why the contracts are failing would never have been exposed: if credit is due to anyone for holding Capita to account, over the last few years ... it is to him. A highly experienced and astute management consultant, an astute analyst; a modest man, patient beyond words - and continually ignored by Tory councillors and auditors, throughout the years of warning from him of the looming financial disaster.

The leader of the Labour party listening to John Dix, just before the local elections in May

Well, then.

Monday night saw the first meeting of the new Finance and Performance committee. We sat waiting in the public seats, in a room whose muted colour seemed to be fading even further, in the late summer evening light, like a coloured photograph in a family album, turning to sepia over the years.

As they failed to appear, for a joke one of the Labour councillors sat in the Chair's seat, and started the meeting. This was an echo of another evening, long ago, when campaigners did take over: a meeting in 2012, where the Tories were about to approve the contracts. We sat at the table and refused to budge: the Tories packed themselves into a tiny room next door, and hid. They approved the contracts: but they were given a reminder that in this borough, residents would not, and will not, be complicit with their pimping out of our public assets, and our public services.

The council meeting in 2012, where councillors approved the contracts in a side room, chased from the committee table by residents and campaigners, here sitting in their places.

The Tory members filed into the room, also drained of colour, visibly ashen faced, and embarrassed, almost shrinking before us in their chairs. Most of them ageing, with the exception of a new boy councillor who appeared utterly out of his depth, ill prepared and asked only two clanging questions: if there is any sort of internal audit process, and another in which he confused last year's AGM minutes with this year's. 

The responsibility for a billion pound budget, and the massive Capita contracts rests in the hands of a few failing old men, and one boy. Feeling confident for the future?

Mr R had submitted no less than 34 questions. Fellow blogger Roger Tichborne had submitted three. None of the questions received the answers that they deserved: the responses were dismally inadequate, and evasive. 

And Mr R addressed the committee, wearily: he told detailed the shape of the hole they were in, and told them they were in denial:

I have not one ounce of confidence in this committee and will not do so until you start answering straight questions with straight answers. Get a grip, stop spinning, and start sorting out this mess.

They looked on, bemused, but not disagreeing. It would appear, in fact, that they are all in a state of shock, rather than denial. They know Mr R is right, was right all along: we were all right all along, right from the very beginning, with our warnings: unions, campaigners, bloggers, Labour: but they did not listen. 

One notable circumstance is the absolute silence of Tory members: terrified, avoiding all social media, in the hope, no doubt, that by the time summer is over, the worst will have come and gone, and they can carry on as normal. Well, that is of course absurd.

Anyone heard from deputy leader Dan Thomas recently? 

No. Thought not.

Mrs Angry understands there is - yet another - division amongst the Tories now, between those who think it is time simply to cut their losses, and dump Capita outright - and those who refuse to show any admission of weakness, and insist, on the basis of their blinkered sub-Thatcherite dogmatism, that the show must go on. Face-saving, for political reasons, rather than hard realism, and the prioritisation of the best interests of those they represent.

At the next Audit meeting, later this month, further details will come to light of the extent of the financial mess we are in. There will be no possibility of carrying on in the way they have: they know it. We know it. They should put residents' interests first, and bail out: they won't, because it would mean the already tawdry reputation of Barnet Tory politicians, both here and in Westminster, would be damaged beyond repair. It already is: but they refuse to see it - and their attempts to stave off total collapse will be nothing more than a temporary patch up job: as one Labour councillor remarked - papering over the cracks. 

Those cracks are widening every day, as we pay more and more money to Capita that we cannot afford, and raid our rapidly diminishing reserves, for failing services. This is not sustainable, or defensible. 

It's going to be a long, hot summer. 

Shut your windows, and pull down the blinds.

Monday, 25 June 2018

A Radical Alteration: or - the ravished landscape of Broken Barnet, a Common Room, and Mrs Angry's guide to Fighting Back

The state of Broken Barnet, in one picture: the former National Institute for Medical Research, in Mill Hill, designed in the 1930s by Maxwell Ayrton, the architect of the original Wembley Stadium. With its green copper roof, this building was a landmark on Mill Hill's Ridgeway, visible from far across North London. Once a centre for pioneering work in the fields of immunology, and other vital areas of scientific research. Now in the process of being demolished - for yet another luxury housing development.

No, no posts since the election. Hard to summon up the will, really, while looking on in despair at the prospect of another four years of Tory misrule, another four years of cuts in services, of half baked hard right ideology masquerading as policy - and another four years of Labour powerless in opposition, determined not to see the reasons why they failed to win control of the council, and carrying on with business as usual. 

But duty calls. Here we go.

What hope for the future, in Broken Barnet? 

Well: joining the old timers in the Labour party, there are one or two very promising new members, keen to make changes. Will the group let them? Probably not. Why spoil a record of failure in opposition, by doing things differently?

But keep an eye, for example, on Childs Hill councillor Anne Clarke, and Burnt Oak's Sara Conway, both of them very bright, strong women who have already thrown themselves into their new roles, centred in the grassroots issues in the communities they represent - an example to some of the longer serving members in both parties whose complacency in a safe seat leaves them happy to do the bare minimum, and are only remembered in their wards when it comes to a vaguely familiar name on the voting papers. 

As for the Tories: well. What can you say? 

Having won another term in office by default, and in spite of their record of incompetence, the new administration has started as it means to go on: celebrating the inverted ethos of its philosophy, by enthroning as Mayor Reuben Thompstone - the councillor who has presided over the devastation of our library service, as well as a calamitous OFSTED report that lambasted the council's very serious failings in regard to its responsibilities to the borough's most vulnerable children.

Thompstone, of course, was  also Chair of the committee that cut vital respite care funding to families of children with profound and complex disabilities attending Mapledown School.

His appointment as Mayor, therefore, has been very controversial, and can only be seen as a statement of in your face defiance by the Tory group. This is what we are: bow down before it. And after all: you, the residents of Broken Barnet, have asked for years more of this sort of stuff, so: suck it up.

Pic credit Times Series

Here he is, Thompstone, squeezing himself into the moth eaten Mayoral robes, childishly delighted, as are all the Tory members, at being allowed his turn to raid the municipal dressing up box, and stomp about the borough as if he were actually someone of importance, rather than yet another Tory councillor taking his turn to fulfil an utterly anachronistic role, left over from an other era - one, in fact, when elected representatives saw their service to the community as one of civic duty, and philanthropic aspirations - an era which laid the foundations of the very services the current Tory group is set on pulling apart.

Libraries, parks: endowed for the benefit of ordinary residents - now being removed for the benefit of private profit, and a ruthless ideology that detests the very principle of public services, free at the point of access. And every blade of grass in that park, every written word in that library, must now be commodified, and made accountable, in the pursuit of that profit. Or perhaps - in a desperate attempt to retain any hope of solvency.

The absurdity of it: the glee with which the Tories celebrate the annual pantomime of the ludicrous 'Mayor Making' ceremony - this is a reflection only of the limit of their aspirations, and the shallowness of their values.

The annual pantomime in the Town Hall, of course, means more cost for the long suffering taxpayers of Broken Barnet. £3,000, in fact, for the guzzling that takes place afterwards - a festival of self indulgence on a gargantuan scale, at our expense, but one justified by their twitter account as 'Much needed refreshment after a particularly long meeting ... '

As blogger Mr Mustard pointed out, a meeting of an hour and a half is hardly arduous, or long, and Mr Reasonable suggested they visit the local foodbanks, to see how the residents they are supposed to represent are suffering. 'For you to blow three grand on a buffet', he pointed out, ' is utterly repugnant.'

Not so long ago, by the way, the council removed the water made available to residents attending committee meetings, on the pretext of 'austerity' ...

The infantile preoccupation of Barnet Tories with the fripperies of power, rather than their responsibilities, is an indication of their total inability to engage with the real issues now engulfing the borough - and their administration. And these issues could not possibly be more serious.

As fellow blogger John Dix, aka Mr Reasonable, revealed here earlier this month, after the election was over the council published revised figures for their Medium Term Financial Strategy  (MTFS). 

These amended figures are catastrophically bad: as Mr R explains:

So whereas in February they were forecasting a shortfall of £2.79 million in 2018/19 they are now forecasting a £9.5 million shortfall and in 2019/20 the shortfall jumps from £8.2 million to £19.3 million all in the space of four months. 

The long term prospects are apocalyptic with a shortfall of £42 million in  2021/22 and by 2023/24 a "high level calculation" showing a shortfall of £62 million. This means the council can no longer exist in its current form.

I simply cannot believe that in February - before the election - no one was aware of just how bad the financial situation was, in which case were the electorate misled?

The situation could hardly be worse.

As Mr R also reveals here, the state of the Capita contracts is hugely worrying. An arrangement sold on the basis of saving us money appears to be doing nothing of the sort, and quite the reverse. There is a massive overspend in the case of the Re Joint Venture, and underperformance from the CSG contract: more details now available here in the reports for next Monday's  Performance & Contracts committee meeting. These make for a terrifying read.

As Mr Reasonable comments -

We are now at a tipping point. The CSG contract is under-performing with the Council considering bringing part of the finance function back in house; the Re contract predicated on guaranteed income appears to unenforceable. 

There are other matters which will come to light by the next audit meeting, which I cannot disclose at this time but which will have serious repercussions for the entire Capita contract.

Oh yes.

'Other matters'. And 'serious repercussions for the entire Capita contract ...'

Watch this space ... 

But what is the Tory administration going to do about all of this mess? A mess of their own wilful creation, in the face of all warnings, and maintained, in defiance, over the last few years, at every point of criticism, to every expression of concern?

Not much. Just hand you the bill. There will be massive council tax rises. And they will blame anyone else but themselves for the deficit, rather than their own incompetence, and their own refusal, over the years, to make sensible increases in council tax - purely out of bloody minded ideological dislike of taxation, arguably a catastrophic mismanagement of fiduciary duty - and one for which you and I will now pay.

In the meanwhile, the Tory administration carries on as ever, determined to continue fiddling while Rome burns, engrossed in their municipal charades, acting out their folie de grandeur: crisis? What crisis?

Despite the financial apocalypse moving rapidly nearer with every day, they are still able, it seems, to find spare cash down the back of the sofa for some very generous investments: more than happy, for example, to consider handing over a loan, over a period of thirty years, of around £22 million of local taxpayers' money to their favoured partners at Saracens Rugby Club - owned by Totteridge resident Nigel Wray - to build a new stand at their grounds in Mill Hill.

These grounds are at the former Copthall Stadium, now known as Allianz Park, after the agreement brokered by Tory leader Richard Cornelius, which gives use of the stadium to the club for a peppercorn rent of £1 a year.

Saracens were honoured last year with the Freedom of the Borough - a move that infuriated local fans of Barnet FC, whose club were left with no home in their own borough, & were obliged to go (along with our gritting lorries and corporate legal services), to Harrow.

They have always felt betrayed by a lack of support from Barnet Council - and resent the attention given to a sports club with no previous local connections. But now the game is upped, with talk of a loan of money on such a scale: how on earth can we afford this, in these circumstances?

Tory leader Richard Cornelius 

Are we really able to lend a commercial sports club such a whopping sum, over so long a period? What benefit is there for taxpayers? What safeguards are there for the money invested? If we have such a large amount of cash to spare for investment, should that money not be used for the benefit of local services now under threat of further cuts?

We do not know. We are not allowed to know: the details, of course, will all be exempt from publication. We are only given the information they want us to have, rather than the information we need. This is how they do things, with little or no regard for transparency, or accountability.

Generally, the attitude of the Tory group is that accountability to residents is of no importance, and that it is necessary to maintain a relationship between elected representatives and voters that is one of dominance, and control, rather than deference to the people who entrusted them with the well being of our community.

Part of this dysfunctional relationship is expressed by the Tory fear of engagement by residents in any meaningful way within the democratic process. 

And as is often the case when in trouble, or about to put some new controversial policy into action, they have now taken steps to make sure we have even fewer ways of holding them to account, or expressing our views. 

And boy, are they in trouble. And so are we, the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet.

But as the coming meltdown approaches, and it becomes unavoidably clear, even to the dimmest Tory voter, that their elected representatives have fucked everything up, how to minimise dissent, and the political impact?

This is of vital importance, for their own political survival - and that of the three local Tory MPs, facing the prospect of  a general election at any moment, in three newly marginal constituencies. 

First up, the Residents Forums. Dangerous. And tedious, according to veteran Tory John Marshall, former Hendon MP, and now a member for Hampstead Garden Suburb. The insolence of these people, who want to address their election representatives, on matters of local interest, and hold them to account: except for those in the more ... genteel wards, shall we say?

Cllr Marshall, whose speeches, at least no doubt in his own estimation, and delivered in that creaking, patrician voice of his, dazzle us all with the extent of his sparkling wit and incisive commentary, and could never, ever be too long, thinks that anyone (apart from himself) who wants to speak for longer than three minutes at these Forums is a 'village bore'.

He and his fellow Tories have therefore decreed that no resident at any Resident Forum, who might wrongly assume from the title of the meeting that it is a Forum for Residents, may speak for longer than this time limit.

Admittedly most Tory members are so intellectually challenged, they are unable to concentrate for longer than three minutes, but still: harsh, you might think. 

Mrs Angry looks forward to the next Finchley and Golders Green meeting, where the residents of Hampstead Garden Suburb are always treated with such indulgence by their uxorious Tory councillors, and allowed to witter on all evening about such issues as the gross impertinence of strangers who park outside their houses, or - steady on - the unspeakable intrusion of noisy leaf blowers, but now will be sternly monitored by Councillor Marshall, a stopwatch, and a loud klaxon.

Or: maybe they won't.

The other action these quivering Tory councillors have taken, in their clampdown on the freedom of expression, is to try even harder than they have already to repress the right of residents to ask questions at committee meetings. 

Fearful of what is to come in the next few weeks and months, as it becomes no longer possible to cover up the extent of their financial irresponsibility, and the failure of the Capita contracts, Barnet Tories have decided to ban questions on any matter going to committees other than substantive items from the administration. In other words, nothing raised by Labour may be the subject of comment or question by residents.

The Tory group is in denial. They must have known financial meltdown was coming, of course, before the election. Some of them may even secretly have wished Labour would win, and be left to deal with the consequences, rather than those responsible for the mess.

The consequences of re-election are not only that you must deal with the outcome of your own folly in office, but that you must expect the unachievable promises you made in your manifesto to come back to bite you in the *rse, sooner than you might have thought.

No wonder they wanted to stifle the voice of the Residents Forums. Can you imagine what the Tory heartlands will have made of the bin collection cock up?

A familiar scene in Barnet: bins left uncollected, and overflowing - pic credit Times Series

Wooed by a party that put #angryaboutbins at the top of their manifesto agenda, residents have been infuriated to find, wallowing as we are in the aftermath of post electoral tristesse, that the entire waste collection system has broken down. Broken down because the council which spent £13 million in a panic buy of a new depot, left it to Capita to oversee, and then found months later that the whole place, keen to provide an appropriate metaphor for the state of the borough, was literally falling apart. This means some waste has to be taken out of borough, hence the inability to keep to the collection timetable.

Having had nothing to put in their manifesto other than fabricated stories claiming a Labour administration would destroy our bin collection service, the Tories have, well - set about destroying our bin collection service. Now then: Mrs Angry would like to think that in some way, this is homage to the swivel eyed lunacy of socialist bin conspiracies, but no. There is another game in play here. 

One of the rules of playing #angryaboutbins, Tory version, is that the rules themselves no longer apply, post election, see? Or indeed the rules about any pre-election pledge, pretty much.

You can do what you like. You can leave the bins uncollected. They have. You can then vote to cut green bin collections in winter. They have. And you can even decide to set fire to the brown bins, in a bonfire of Barnet Tory vanities. Oh yes. They have. Or they will.

The brown recycling bins are - well, not to to be recycled - they are to be dumped in the black bins, and then burnt, in an incinerator, along with all pretence at environmental responsibility.

Oh, and even though fly tipping is at an all time high, and barely a street corner in the whole of Barnet is without its display of old mattresses and discarded fridges, your elected representatives have surveillance officers on the streets in uniform, watching to fine you if you drop a sweet wrapper, or cigarette butt.

As things fall apart around him, Cllr Reuben Thompstone disports himself in the Mayoral bling, and speeds his way around the borough in the corporate limousine, provided at our expense, along the pot-holed roads, past the street corners littered with discarded mattresses, past the foodbanks depended upon by so many citizens, and past the shop doorways where homeless residents sleep. Look: he is also passing by the public libraries, where many of those less advantaged residents spend time during the day, a place of sanctuary. Or they did, until Thompstone and his fellow Tories took the axe to this most vital and much valued service.

Why does that matter so much, you might wonder? Why so much protest over one service? Well, it matters very much for all those residents who use - who used - their local libraries ... but it is something else, too, as that place of sanctuary, that point of information, or that meeting place, that focus of the community. It stands as a point of resistance to everything that Barnet Tories stand for: and everything they fear.

Take a look at these words, by Nick Poole, CEO of CILIP, the UK Library and Information Association, in a talk which describes a library as a room -  'The Common Room', in one of the best possible defences of the irreplaceable social value of this public service:

This room of ours belongs to the Doctor, the Fireman, the Nursery Nurse. To the Lawyer, the Clerk, the Farmer and the Shop Owner. It belongs to the Hairdresser and the Cadet, the Office Worker and the Civil Engineer. It belongs to the elderly lady in a high rise who hasn't spoken to anyone so far this week. It belongs to the newly-arrived migrant looking for a sense of connection – to home, to life over here, to people who care and can help.

It belongs to the group of ladies who meet once a week for a knit and a natter. To the visually impaired group who have moved on from being strangers and become a supportive network of friends. To the factory worker who secretly loves c18th French romance fiction and tells his wife he’s popping in for a Haynes Car Manual.

It belongs to the young lad who's been excluded from school. To the girl who needs to get away from her parents. To the boy who has questions he simply can't ask his mates. It belongs to the four-year-old who might one day be Prime Minister, or an astronaut, or a lion tamer. To the girl who will one day be awarded a Nobel prize. The boy who will grow up to be known by his family and friends for his kindness and compassion.

It belongs, too, to the dispossessed who have been taught to hate the culture that surrounds them. It belongs to those who feel alienated and marginalised by mainstream British culture. It belongs to the young people who walk out of their house in the morning with time and talent but not money, determined to make something of themselves, who need a place that isn't home and isn't work but is that 3rd space that is uniquely theirs.

This room of ours belongs to women and men, young and old, people of every faith and none. It belongs to them not because they hand over their credit card, or share their personal data or buy a coffee. It belongs to them by right, from the moment of their birth.

It belongs to you by right, from the moment of your birth.

Here in Barnet, there could be no more dangerous place than a library: a common room, where the community can meet, and exchange information. And that is why they had to get rid of them.

The buildings are still there, the lights are (sometimes) on. But no one's home, much of the time. No staff. Well, unless you count security staff. Yes, still in place, at huge cost.

And all that freed up space, robbed from the library service, costing millions of pounds in 'refurbishment'? Any takers? Nope.

Peer inside the former children's libraries at Golders Green, and North Finchley, and what do you see? No longer the Common Room: nothing but an empty space, bereft of meaning.

 Where are the revenue generating tenants we were assured were queuing up to rent them? That necessitated the expulsion of former community groups and businesses that used them? Is it true that the plan is, and always was, to use the space for council and Capita workers instead?

And the plan to use a small company aiming to rent out desk space in three branches, while children and young students are locked out of their own libraries for much of the time, a scheme that would appear not aimed at generating much money anyway, could it ever have been anything other than an act of window dressing, to distract from the failure to find commercial clients?

(See below for how that plan worked out ...)

It is not just about protecting local services, local libraries, and local parks.

The landscape of Broken Barnet, both literal and metaphorical, is under threat: our open spaces plundered by speculative developers, and our built heritage vanishing in front of us: ruthlessly demolished, along with all the history associated with it, the significance for us, our past, and our future.

Take a look at the image of the ravaged Medical Research building.

This is not a despatch from a war torn country, the morning after a bombing raid. Or perhaps, in a way, it is a casualty of war.

A war being fought in the green fields of Mill Hill, and Totteridge, and Finchley, and all over our borough: a war for the heart and soul of our community.

The privatised planning service now effectively functions no longer for the benefit of the community's needs, but as a commercial service for developers.

Fee based systems now work for the promotion and approval of developments: all around the borough we see more and more blocks of flats, and unaffordable housing springing up, in every available space - and without the resources, the infrastructure, the schools, the shops, the healthcare, or the open spaces to support the vast increase in population such development will bring.

Our greenbelt land, the pride of our borough, is increasingly coming under threat - as well as our green spaces.

Nothing prepares you for the shock of a sight like that of the Medical Research building, ruthlessly eviscerated, its guts hanging out, and dying in front of your eyes.

I went to St Vincent's school next door to the NIMR: my grandmother, aunt, uncles & cousins lived not far away - this building was as much a part of the landscape, and our lives - in a conservation area overlooking green belt - as the churches, convents, and schools that lie along the Ridgeway - it was a landmark you could recognise for miles around, because it was - well, on a ridgeway, a high point between valleys.

Never did I think I would see such a sight, a brutal dismemberment of my own past - and yours too.

But then I had forgotten we live in Broken Barnet, where our history and heritage have no defence against the forces of development, and private profit.

Most residents had no idea that this historic building was going to be destroyed, having been lulled into a state of complacency by the early promise that the development was going to be a 'conversion'.

When and where this conversion became destruction, who knows? Not me. But it is too late, and now we have to live with what the architects refer to, with breathless daring, as an 'augmented facsimile'. And no, that is not a demolition you see in the picture - apparently the building has merely been 'radically rethought' - and 'radically altered' ...

Or, in other words, we are losing a building of unique significance in terms of its architecture and scientific heritage, and local history, but gaining one that ... looks a bit like it, because ... it was so important, in terms of its architecture, scientific heritage and local history. Ok, thanks very much.

Yet again the language and process of development provides us with a literal metaphor for the state of Broken Barnet: managed no longer by a process of democratic engagement, but the next best thing: an augmented facsimile, where Mayors wear the trappings of a former age, and residents are kept behind the glass wall in the public gallery, looking on, as mute observers.

Here is the lesson. Fight back. Demand your voice is heard. You can't change the result of the election, or stop them upping the council tax to cover the outcome of their financial folly. But you can take action, direct action, to thwart the wider policies they are trying to implement. Development, cuts in service, the war on truth, and freedom of expression.

Don't let them silence you: speak out.

Protect every building you can from development. Get them listed. Fight for every one under threat of development. Local landmarks, local libraries, local greenspaces. Follow the planning process every step of the way, every modification by officers.

Fighting back can and does work. The determined campaigning of the Save Barnet Libraries team has done so much, and continues to defend our libraries for the future generations of this borough, despite the best efforts of a Tory council set on destroying the service. It is your library service, your library - your common room. Defend it.

There is still a formal complaint being considered by the Secretary of State that may force the authority to restore some of the damage done - and plans to give library space taken from children in North Finchley, and residents in East Finchley & Chipping Barnet, to an enterprise set on charging 'entrepreneurs' for desk use have been stopped after the group approached the company in question.

Grassroots campaigning works: it is vital - and it needs your support: don't sit back and leave it to everyone else.

And - oh yes: here is a fight you can join in now: as our open spaces are under threat of encroachment, a never ending battery of development, time to turn our minds back to one particular case featured so often in this blog, over the last few years.

One small building, that means so much. The story of the Park keeper's Lodge, in Finchley's Victoria Park.

The power of grassroots campaigning: residents here forced the council to block plans to build flats in a local park

Last year, a determined fightback by residents - plus the prospect of local elections, and a marginal MP being badgered by local residents - helped convince local Tories, in the end, not to allow approval of the plans to knock down this lovely Arts & Crafts cottage, nestling in its own garden within the park, an integral part of the park, and the park's history.

In a move which horrified local residents, and one open to many questions as to process, and the setting aside of the covenant created by the park's philanthropic founders,  a covenant meant to prevent development, and to preserve the park, in perpetuity ... the Tory council had flogged the site to a developer.

That the council acted as both trustee, and planning authority, might suggest an insoluble conflict of interest - but the sale went ahead, and the developer persists in trying to replace it with a block of flats. The plans have now gone to appeal via the Planning Inspectorate, beyond the influence of local processes.

The appeal for this proposal is now only open to objections for a short while: you have until the 28th June to save this part of your park from development. All the details you need are available via this link: here.

Please take the time to object, and play your role in protecting your borough, your parks, your libraries, your built heritage - and your open spaces.

Don't fall for the council's boast of 'putting the community first'.

They don't, so - you must.