Thursday 23 September 2010

Ship of Fools

So: the future of Futureshape. Or is it One Barnet? Or easyBarnet. Or easyCouncil. Or a complete load of crap? Well the Future isn't bright, and it isn't orange: it's pear shaped.

Mrs Angry's advice? Start packing now, citizens.

According to Wednesday's report in the Times Group local papers, "Senior councillors have been ordered to draw up a business plan for the Future Shape scheme after an independent report revealed there is no 'fundamental mandate' for it" ...

That is an interesting phrase, isn't it: 'fundamental mandate'. What does it mean? The word mandate sort of implies an authorisation from the electorate, doesn't it? A timely reminder that the council is supposed to be working on our behalf, although this idea has slipped out of fashion lately. Did we give permission for Futureshape? They will argue that by voting the Tories back in power, we did: (ahem, when I say 'we', not me, obviously).

Ah: except there is a better argument which says that you really didn't know what you were signing up for, did you? No one could have, in fact, because if Grant Thornton can't get to grips with what Futureshape is actually planning to do, then it is unlikely that the average voter would understand either. You were led up the garden path, in other words.

The Times report states that auditors Grant Thornton have criticised the scheme for having 'no clear direction' and called for the council to set out the planned costs, benefits, timescales, risks and outcomes of the programmme.

This is simply unbelievable.

A local authority, with a budget of £1 billion, has committed itself to a programme of massive outsourcing of public services and large scale spending cuts, yet has made no risk assessment, no costing, no timeplan?

At the last full council meeting, Leader Lynne Hillan was very amused by the idea of the leader's job being merged with that of the Chief Executive, Nick Walkley. She thought that she would like his job (I'll bet) but he wouldn't like hers. Maybe not, but I'm guessing he'd do it a bloody sight better than you do, missus.

There are, in fact, very serious questions to be asked about the ability of local councillors to deal with the huge strategic and financial challenges of a modern day local authority of the size of Barnet.

If you ever attend a meeting in the Town Hall, you will walk up the stairs, and along the corridors of power, past photographs of previous and rather more worthy councillors from our borough's past: po faced individuals in fur-trimmed red vestments, with bottle glass specs and sumptuous moustaches - those are usually the lady mayoresses.

These people, and their largely ceremonial roles, are from an era when local administration was a matter of gentlemanly agreement over the setting of the local rates, the naming of the new municipal park, or whether or not to place a water trough at the local turnpike. (Troughing is, of course, still an issue of major concern for our elected representatives, but now it is for the benefit of dumb councillors rather than dumb animals. )

The London Borough of Barnet is now a huge administrative structure, with highly complex needs. One of those needs is that is is run by able and accountable leadership.

In what other business or administrative context, other than a local authority, would someone like Hillan be given such enormous responsibility? With control over a £1 billion budget? What are her qualifications for such a post, other than having been elected group leader by an unknown number of her fellow councillors? Does she have a background in senior corporate management? Has she retired from a career of spectacular success in the city? I would imagine that very few local councillors, certainly in Barnet, have enjoyed such a career. Oh: apart from Mr Shooter, maybe, but this was not considered a good enough reason to elect him as leader, for some reason.

Does the leader of any council have to have any qualifications, or proof of ability, in fact? No? Not even a gcse in Home Economics? If not, why not? How can anyone without prior experience in dealing with such huge responsibilties be expected to cope with the running of a mammoth urban administrative area? And yet, if Cameron's 'Big Society' wants to devolve even more power to local authorities, there will be even more power invested in the hands of council leaders. That's a good idea, isn't it?

Of course easyCouncil was not Lynne Hillan's masterplan: Mike Freer, our new Tory MP, is the brilliant political and economic strategist who came up with that idea. Back here in Broken Barnet, however, Lynne and her Cabinet colleagues have happily endorsed Futureshape at every opportunity and this administration is fired up and stamping their feet with impatience, waiting for the new scheme to get underway. Oh dear.

If, in the wake of Allowancegate, any more proof were needed of the reckless, amateur status floundering of this Tory administration, here it is: the lack of preparation for the introduction of Futureshape. Yet another blunder. But it is on a scale which dwarfs every other criticism you can throw at this collection of self serving idiots. Allowancegate was a disgrace, a folly, and caused widespread outrage. The uncertainty and vulnerability caused by a premature committment to the Futureshape/One Barnet progamme could have consequences on an apocalyptic scale.

If you think this is an exaggeration, remember the warning from the head of Childrens' Services in Barnet that his department was facing financial 'Armageddon'? Cuts of up to 50%? This is a service which deals with vulnerable children, and provides them with vital support and protection. What more sensitive service provision could be more in need of a stable and secure level of adequate funding? What could be a more telling warning of what is in store for us?

Let's get one thing straight: the Grant Thornton report cannot properly assess the likely success of Futureshape/ One Barnet/easyCouncil, for one very good reason: there is almost nothing to assess yet.

All this report can do is demand more information, any real information, on the actual detailed planning which must support any proposal of this nature, of this size.

Councillor Robert Ramsbottom has now agreed that he will come up with some sort of 'business plan' by December. Brilliant idea: instead of messing with our libraries, give this intellectual giant an even larger responsibility.


Can any Tory councillor identify any other line of business, any company, any organisation, in which such a state of affairs would be tolerated? Would any bank manager lend money to a self employed businessman who came to him with no business plan, no risk assessment, no costing? No? Then why should the tax payers and voters of Barnet have their services, their borough, put at risk in this foolhardy way?

Once someone does get round to coming up with some sort of business plan, is this going to be further assessed by another set of consultants, at our expense? Are we going to have to pay for some other consultants to come up with a business plan, in fact: I'll bet we do. Unless we want something on the lines of:

1. Let's run One Barnet like Starbucks!

2. Let's not run it like Blockbusters ...

3. My head hurts, can I stop now?

How much more time and money must be spent on a fanatical committment to this laughably inadequate, so called 'model for government' that we are now told never really existed in any reliable detail? How much more of our money has to be spent on saving the faces of an administration that so evidently lacks intellect, competence, and genuine committment to the well being of the people it was elected to serve?


baarnett said...

"Freershape" never seems to have had an underlying intellectual foundation.

Why is it any different to "just trying to save money", which many other local authorities are trying to do?

Mike Freer got on the telly with this vague idea, but could not fill the subject out. It is now, justifiably, a mill stone around his political neck.

Furthermore, Lynne Hillan has inherited this whole business, with even less idea of what it is meant to be (witness her pathetic TV interview on the subject).

Mrs Angry said...

I know there is a move to having an elected Mayor in Barnet, but I am not sure this will solve the problem of amateur and intellectually challenged politicians finding themselves out of their depth in the deep waters of administrative and financial management. I suppose the problem is that anyone with half a brain has more sense than to get involved in local politics ...