Saturday 9 October 2010

Lights out for the territory

... anyway, as I was saying, before I got distracted... Mrs Angry noticed yet another interesting story, the other day, in the course of browsing that source of so much useful information, the local Times website. I feel it my duty to bring it to your attention, inspired by the stirring lines of Margaret Thatcher's favourite prayer: 'Where there is darkness, Lord, let me bring light ...'

An article reported that some stroppy citizens in that hotbed of rebellion known as Lullington Garth, in the mean streets of Woodside Park, North Finchley, had dared to complain about the lighting proposals that were being installed in their road by the council's lighting contractors. They mentioned various problems including the loss of parking space, inappropriate locations of seemingly unnecessary new lamp posts, oh, hold on, including 'placing lamps outside bedroom windows' and asked when the old ones would be taken away, pointing out that old ones appeared to be left in situ in a neighbouring area. Mmm.

Aha: a lightbulb moment, you might say, for Mrs Angry. Suddenly light was shed on a dark mystery that has been hovering over my head for some months now.

Earlier this year, we received a letter from a company claiming to be working on behalf of Barnet Council. It told us new lighting was going to be installed in our street. Funny, I thought, doesn't seem much wrong with what's there already. There were a load of plans sent with the letter, with no explanation as to any relevance to us. And to be honest, one would have to have been a fully qualified civil engineer to have understood these plans, which were highly technical and completely baffling. I could see nothing that would affect our property, however, so I put the letter aside and forgot about it.

Some weeks later, without warning, I came home to find, rather to my surprise, that an eight metre lamp post had been erected outside my bedroom window; for some reason less than a metre away from a more distant, already installed, and perfectly adequate older lamp post, still in place. And I mean that it is even now, still in place.

This new post was rather worrying, as, due to a nearby crossing and all the lighting that goes with that, we already have a fair amount of light pollution in the front of our property. Erecting an extra and probably stronger light directly outside might be beneficial in terms of being able to read in bed without bothering to put the light on, but obviously one would prefer not to have to sleep in light levels comparable to those of detainees in Guantanamo Bay.

The new arrangements look to be a boon to peeping toms, of course and/or any council officers still on surveillance duties (see June blog 'Panic on the Streets of London), but represent yet another nuisance served to us by Barnet, who seem set on driving me out of my tiny mind, turning me into a permanent insomniac, having this year and a half provided us with the infamous Neighbours from hell, a year of unceasing road works, unfixed manhole covers that go bang bang all night long, a drunk-magnet bus stop moved close to our house, (with no consultation) and now a spotlight on my bedroom window.

So I looked at the correspondance from the council contractors for a contact point. Oh: there wasn't one. No phone number, anyway, I found an address, wrote twice to the company, asking various questions. Eventually a reply arrived with no assurances as to the effect on us. So I sighed, and just hoped for the best. Months later, the new lamp post is still there, next to the old one, with no lamp, only a piece of yellow tape fluttering forlornly in the wind, which worries the Angry family cat, who spends hours anxiously monitoring it from the window, trying to work out if it is some sort of exotic bird and if he ought to try to catch it. (Yes, he is a bit dim).

It appears from the story in the paper, and other anecdotal information, that this state of affairs may well be a common story around the borough. Or it may not. We don't know. In fact, citizens, we may never know. Why? Because, according to the Times' story, the council's press office has been given orders not to release any technical information regarding the lighting project.

Oh really? I hear you ask. By whom, Mrs Angry? You will, I am very sure, be surprised to hear that it was in fact that stalwart champion of free speech, and transparency in government, and Mrs Angry's personal favourite, Councillor Brian Coleman.

Brian obviously thinks it is not necessary for residents, the people who pay for the lighting of their borough, to have access to the details of how their money is being spent. No, no, this matter is best left to the sparkling intellect and superior judgement of Mr Coleman, who informs residents, via the Times, that 'he did not know how much the PFI contract had cost the council so far, or the likely cost' ... he would only say the project is going 'quite successfully'.

Oh. Only quite successfully? Translated from Colemanspeak, this is a very interesting comment. Our Brian is not one for understatement, or modesty. Remember his remark that the residents of Barnet would be 'delighted' that he had awarded himself a whopping pay rise, not so long ago? I think we need to see the facts, and judge the matter for ourselves, as the armchair auditors we are supposed to be, don't you? Set that thought aside for the moment though: WTF is Coleman to instruct anyone to withold this information? And for what reason?

Ok: Brian thinks we are not entitled to ask, or the press is not entitled to ask, on our behalf, about the intricate details of the lighting project. So Mrs Angry made her own enquiries.

It seems that the company which has the contract for lighting our streets was, as part of a PFI (Private Finance Initiative) deal, for a 25 year period. Yes: 25 years. Gosh, said Mrs Angry: that's a long time. I am sure that things are going just swimmingly in this case, but in theory, what if, say, a company went bust in that period? Oh, she was told, don't worry: the finance is always held in a special account guaranteed by a bank. Oh: which bank? Allied Irish? Ah. God bless. Safe as houses, then. Ireland -no, don't be thinking Iceland, silly readers. World of difference.

And we are in Year Five of a Five Year Plan, soviet style, which I have found sort of detailed on the company's website, whose address was not given to us in any literature. I say sort of, because the details for 2010 are not awfully helpful, listing all roads as 'not programmed'. Oh. And my road doesn't seem to feature at all, except in reference to locating another, more important road. Odd. Have none of the streets listed for 2010 been completed? The schedule for 2009 also lists quite a few as 'not programmed' rather than 'complete'. Has the information just not been added to the website? Surely residents have a right to know?

Nevertheless: it has been decided that the press may not be privy to information which might inform the tax payers and voters of this borough as to how their money is being spent, and yet again in recent weeks we see this panic stricken Tory administration resort to censorship, and the stifling of information to which we are entitled.

And this was not the only example of this nasty habit last week.

In the current Hendon & Finchley Press there is a story - page 7 - entitled 'Tory councillor keeps pothole repairs secret'. Yes, it's that man again. It tells us that 'Official progress on how many potholes have been repaired after the severe weather earlier this year will remain a secret, by order of a senior Barnet Councillor' ...

The story states that Coleman 'vetoed' the release of figures to The Press which would show whether the council has reached its target of repairing all roads damaged by the snow by the end of October. Why?

Libdem councillor and leader Jack Cohen is quoted as saying 'It's ridiculous to refuse to provide this information as it's something that every resident in the borough will be interested in. It's ludicrous to have this kind of secrecy on something like this. What has he got to hide?'

Yes: what has he got to hide?

If these projects, lighting and potholes, are going to plan, tell us: that really is a 'good news' story, Brian, isn't it? But if there are problems, we are entitled to know, because we are paying the bill.

Does it matter? Yes, it does, in both cases, both lighting and potholes, not just in these specific issues, but on a point of principle.

We need to know that the council is able to control the management of tenders and contracts, and to justify its choice of contractors. If, as we are told will happen, this reckless council throws the responsibility for delivering so many of our services into the lap of private contractors, we need to be sure that the authority is able and willing to choose the right companies, and to hold them fully accountable for the quality of service that they deliver - with our money.

We have the right to be kept informed as to the details of these contracts, and how well the delivery of services is performing. Neither Big Brother Coleman, nor anyone else, is entitled to withhold such information.

This is information on a matter of public interest which ought already to be in the public domain, or to be freely available on request . If this information is withheld from us, we can of course access it eventually via a Freedom of Information Act request. Currently, and rather shamefully, the London Borough of Barnet is one of 19 bodies being monitored by the Information Commissioner due to its apparent reluctance to answer these requests within a reasonable time. It would not be advisable for Barnet to drag their feet over any more requests, or to complain about the expense involved in answering any such request when it has only been made necessary by obstruction of a perfectly reasonable question made by by the local press on our behalf.

In fact, as the Hendon & Finchley Press so eloquently puts it in its editorial, entitled 'Deluded Coleman is not running borough':

'It is simply outrageous that a politician should not only have the temerity to feel he has the right to stifle news about an issue that affects virtually all of his constituents and thousands of others, but that officers of the council - paid for by those constituents -can be silenced by that decree ... Mr Coleman has stepped over the line again - we wonder if there is anyone big enough to tell him that Barnet is not his personal fiefdom.'

I volunteer for that job.

Coleman: a word of advice from Mrs Angry - do try to remember one very important thing: you are the servant, and not the master, of the residents of this borough.

You seem set on a course of electoral self immolation. Sadly, the likeliness of anyone offering to quench the fire on your behalf, in the proverbial fashion, or indeed in any more conventional way, seems minimal, chum.

If you had any loyalty to the party you claim to support, you would try and make up for the damage you and your mates have done to the party's chance of re-election in this borough, and beyond: yet, here you are, after Allowancegate and the Grant Thornton report, all at the bottom of a big hole, and still digging.

The thing is, in truth, you just can't stop yourself, can you?


ainelivia said...

nearly forgot, very important, if they close the libraries, it will probably be impossible to get this book, as I don't see Tesco or Starbucks stocking it, it's not exactly blockbusting material

ainelivia said...

Brilliant as ever Mrs A. The only light - tee-hee - i can shed on this is our own experience. New lighting was installed in our little glen of gold (that's a hint as to the street name) quite some time ago. We are told that they have replaced the old type with more environmentally friendly type lighting; and yes the old lamposts were left in place for some time before being removed. And yes again, some are positioned unfortunately outside residents bedroom windows.

The more paranoid among my neighbours are convinced that the little round thing on top of the lampost is CCTV, watching us all go about our daily business. Personally am not worried, as am sure that with the upcoming cuts, if they are CCTV they will be turned off to save money. What worries me is if they turn the street lighting off to save money and leave the "CCTV" on!!!

As to our Mr Coleman, am considering having a whip round on the Broadway this Saturday, so we could cobble together the funds to purchase him a copy of Robert de Boards highly hilarous and informative "Counselling for Toads - A Psychological Adventure", in which Boards uses the character of Toad (Wind in the Willows) in a series of Transactional Analysis sessions, helping Toad to analyse his own feelings and develop emotional intelligence, - a highly sought after ability in some societies, not though at Barnet Council et al. If Mr Toad could achieve this why not Mr Coleman....... of course we don't hold out much hope, but heck anything is worth a try.

Alternatively, they can be gotten on loan from any of our local libraries, as long as he gets there before they are shut down for good.... then he'd have to try Tesco..... or Starbucks....

ainelivia said...

Just thought I'd mention this, apparently a cosy little hideaway, complete with entry chute, has just been vacated somewhere in South America, it's in the middle of a mine said to be absolutely packed to the roof with gold and copper. wonder if Barnet plc would like to take over and we could lodge most if not all of our current council members in the vacated cave. Of course we wouldn't mention that in order to get out they need a crane.... and we'd move the crane, wouldn't we guys.... heeeeeeee.........

Mrs Angry said...

thank you Ainelivia: dear me I think I would be more worried about the council spying on my nightly activities ... I will rush out and buy some suitable full length winceyette nightdresses and a nightcap. Or possibly black out blinds.

Mrs Angry said...

in regard to the hole in South America, although I can think of one councillor who is very interested in the subject of (pot)holes, this one might just be too much of a tight fit unless he foregoes a few lunches beforehand ...