Wednesday 11 August 2010

No Future(shape)

It's official. You heard it here first. Probably.

Futureshape is dead.

The very name has been struck from the official vocabulary of Broken Barnet. Before you start organising the street parties in celebration, however, there is bad news.

Futureshape is dead, and yet it lives by another name. We must now learn to call it 'One Barnet'.

You see, last night Mrs Angry's spy network was in attendance at the Policy Formerly Known as Futureshape Overview and Scrutiny Panel - zzzzzzz - and she has it on very good authority that the eager councillors and officers there present were already paying homage to the newly christened baby, abandoned on the Barnet doorstep by former leader Mike Freer. Aunty Lynne, of course, had loved the baby at first sight and held it in her motherly arms, while Uncle Brian and all the other Tory councillors, stood around and cooed. But Futureshape was a very ugly baby, and very badly behaved, crying all night and upsetting the neighbours. (Not that that would matter, in Broken Barnet, as we know.) Perhaps, reasoned Aunty Lynne, if we gave it a new name, people might forget that it is such an ugly baby, and learn to love it.

I do think 'One Barnet' is a fabulous name: actually, (is it 'One Barnet', or 'oneBarnet', or maybe Barnet One, Residents Nil? )It has the right kind of empty, meaningless, Michael Jackson, We are the World kind of vibe going on, doesn't it ... you know, we are all in this together, one for all and all for one sort of thing. Of course, this is crap: unity is a concept alien to the grasping Tory councillors of Barnet, except when it comes to ganging up on Kate Salinger if she won't join in their shabby little Allowancegate plot, and a free for all for all councillors, rather than one for all concept, is closer to the truth.

One Barnet, One Nation: no, actually, doesn't quite fit, does it, here in a borough where the gulf between those with and without means is being wrenched even further apart as each day of this cynical and morally bankrupt administration proceeds? One Barnet, where 'differential pricing' and two tier service systems are under active consideration? One Barnet, where poor people who are morally worthy get fast tracked to the top of the housing list and to hell, or unregulated landlords, with the rest? One Barnet, where all the best schools are being urged to opt out of the local authority and 'free' themselves, while so many of the crap schools where disadvantaged kids must go, or special schools for children with disabilities, are having desperately needed funding taken away without even the whimper of a protest from the Tory councillors?

Talking of Kate Salinger, goodness me, she was allowed to take part in the scrutiny panel last night. I say allowed, actually she was there because they couldn't stop her, or apparently remove her from that - yet -without a vote from a committee. So there she was, watched by her husband Brian, and also attending were Alison Moore, and Barry Rawlings for Labour, with Libdem Monroe Palmer instead of Jack Cohen. Chair was Tory Darrel Yawitch, but there were some Tory absences, such as Bridget Perry.

Oh, and Braveheart Tory Councillor Graham Old is a member of this panel, but sent his apologies. Perhaps he was too shy and retiring to sit in close proximity to his great heroine, Mrs Salinger.

Incidentally, I wonder, in the light of the new allowance scheme in which our representatives are supposed to be - ha - more accountable, if anyone is keeping record of how many councillors fail to attend the meetings they are paid by us to represent our interests? I think we should be told, don't you?

Of course, some councillors are more keen than others to attend meetings. Some just can't keep away. Last night, for example, guess who was sitting in the public area? In a rather fetching pink and white polo shirt and a marked absence of bling - perhaps in a humble effort to dress down in an age of austerity and mingle with the common people - yes, Mrs Angry's favourite, Uncle Brian. He spent the meeting making faces at remarks by his councillor chums- careful the wind doesn't change now, Brian, oh - hang on, too late - and playing with his blackberries. No, really; he has two: perhaps he sends himself messages to pretend he has a friend?

This panel exists, it would suggest, from the giveaway title, to scrutinise the progress of Futureshape. It was clear, however, from the questions of Alison Moore and Monroe Palmer that, in the time honoured tradition of consultation in Barnet, they are pretty much out of the loop as to the current state of affairs.

A member of the public had submitted what was, after all, a perfectly reasonable question to the panel, (see what I did there, JD?) asking when the promised 'engagement' with residents will commence, what form it will take, and will the findings be made public? He observed that to date the public have been kept in the dark about the specifics of Futureshape - not just the public, it would appear ...

The response to this was rather vague. There will be some public meetings, sometime. Don't tell anyone, in case they turn up. Some internet based models (no, not that kind). Er and some 'dialogue' with service users. What? Who? Well, said Alison Moore, this is the first we have heard about it ... Ah: did Barnet forget about the need for consultation again, by any chance? And should it really be necessary for a member of the public to remind them of this statutory requirement?

The councillors remarked on the remarkable lack of detail they receive in relation to finances, and the obscure language in which any information is delivered: the word gobbledegook was used. How can they approve progress made when the necessary detail is unavailable?

Monroe Palmer asked an interesting question: can a local authority seek to trade at a profit, or is it actually illegal? Uh oh. No one knew. Oops. The officers were unable to answer that rather crucial point, and eventually had to offer to look up the relevant legislation. Had no one bothered to check this before? This sort of thing hardly convinces one that the Futureshape model has a well researched foundation, does it?

Alison Moore asked for some specific clarification of issues such as a reference to libraries, and a worrying mention of 'non core services'. She was assured that this was merely an interest in expanding such services, and that 'more detail would come out' - when? Let's hope they keep to that promise at least. She also asked about domestic waste collection, and the possiblity of change: she was assured by little Robert Rams, Uncle Brian's mini-me, that this will remain weekly. 'This will remain weekly.' he bleated, adding manfully, 'Full stop.' 'FULL STOP!' blared a man in the public seats, wearing a pink and white polo shirt, texting away like a manic teenager.

So: change is coming, but with a new name.

We don't know in any detail what these changes will be, or the financial consequences, and evidently neither do the officers, the councillors, or anyone else.

This is how they do things in Broken Barnet, and we must just learn to accept it.

Full stop.


Citizen Barnet said...

Well done for going and thanks for the report. (Someone has to do it! That's evidently how the Tory councillors feel, as well.)

There is a Cabinet scheduled for 6 September, which will be another opportunity for residents to ask questions about any matter that concerns them. However, there is a deadline for submitting questions and they also recently passed a rule whereby residents cannot ask questions on the same topic in consecutive meetings. Of course, the 300,000 residents of Barnet consult with each other first before we go to these meetings.

So, if you wanted to go to the Cabinet with a question for public question time it would be as well to email your question to who is the staff member responsible for organising the meeting, and checking the deadline with him as well. It it something like 8 working days before the lunchtime of the day the meeting is held on.

They don't make it easy for us.

Mrs Angry said...

Sorry, what: residents cannot ask questions on the same topic in consecutive meetings? Er: whose bright idea was that? Yet another gobsmacking example of contempt for the democratic process.

baarnett said...

One Barnet

is an anagram of

Rent a bone

which may be their new financial strategy.

Citizen Barnet said...

Mrs A., it was a recent decision. A couple of years ago no one asked public questions; then we cottoned on to the facility and started turning up to public questions to ask about Future Shape and sheltered housing cuts.

So they moved the goalposts! I can't remember which meeting it was when they changed the rules; the search thing is not working on my blog at the moment but I'm sure I wrote a post about it. I think Melvin Cohen proudly moved the relevant rule change but I could be maligning him. I'll look it up when I have more time.

I suggest it's a rule we flout as often as we can! They would look bloody foolish enforcing it (although when did that stop them?).

Moaneybat said...

Mrs A Thanks for the report. The member of the public asked a very important question for it concerns local asset backed vehicles (LABVs). Future Shape proposals include selling part of some council regeneration estates, housing services, other services and assets. If they are considering Stock-Transfer of council homes even to Barnet Homes, they would have to consult all those stake-holders likely to be affected.

Citizen Barnet said...

Mrs. A, I found that blogpost. It turns out that the situation is worse than I thought. We can now only ask questions relating to business being discussed at a particular meeting. Given that we are most unlikely to find out what is being discussed at, eg, a Cabinet meeting, until it is to late to meet the deadline for submission of questions, this is a very serious erosion of our rights to quiz the council.

However, it gets even worse than that because the memory I had about being told you couldn't raise a matter that had been raised at a previous meeting, is a real memory. It was told to a resident, last time he wanted to ask a question about the sheltered housing warden cuts. I will dig out what he told me and try to find out why he has been told this!

Basically, the rules make it impossible for us to know what we can and can't talk about. I think they are unworkable, and we shouldn't try to work within these boundaries. We should go ahead and ask whatever questions we like, and if they try to use these rules to stop us, we should challenge them.

Mrs Angry said...

What a shame that ordinary citizens do not have the right claimed by greedy little councillors to introduce embarrassing agenda items at the last minute on the excuse of urgency. If needed we should try to put questions late in the day, once the full agenda is known. We could always blame IT problems as the cause for delay ...
It is our right and also our duty to engage in these processes, and to watch what our councillors are being paid to do on our behalf. I am sure that they would prefer that the public did not turn up to these meetings and witness their actions but unfortunately they have proved that this sort of vigilence is necessary.