Wednesday 20 October 2010

True Grit, and a Cabinet of Curiosities - updated

It was a cold night, and Mrs Angry really just wanted to stay at home on the sofa, watching The Apprentice, laughing merrily as a bunch of hopelessly incompetent no hopers make a mess of their latest project. Instead of which, she forced herself out into the chilly night air, up again to the Town Hall, to watch a bunch of hopelessly incompetent no hopers make a mess of their latest project. Because, of course, tonight was the council Cabinet meeting.

It is a curiously voyeuristic experience, watching one of these staged events: a spectacle you can observe, but not join in. I suppose it is a political equivalent of dogging: watching other people shamelessly indulging themselves while you hang around feeling slightly ashamed to be there. Or so I imagine. (Note to self: be careful with your tags: remember what happened with spanking and Mrs Angry's schooldays ...)

Cabinet Meetings are particularly uncomfortable to witness as of course there are only Tories taking part and there is no real debate or disagreement, just a nauseating show of consensus and mutual satisfaction. The windows of the Committee Room get very steamy, in fact.

Before the real action starts, there is a token gesture of involvement with the proles, in which the Cabinet have to pretend to consider questions from members of the public. This procedure is barely tolerated by the mean mouthed Leader. She looks for any reason to stop the speaker, rather like a particularly bad tempered game of 'Just A Minute', in which the poor member of the public is pulled up for hesitation, deviation or repetition. The first questioner, an elderly gentleman, was given short shrift by her, and you can guess which councillor, can't you, rudely snapped 'Get on with it!' at the poor man?

I should add that the subject of this question was in regard to the example of cooperation in Newcastle, where the council and trade unions have got together to agree a package of £30 million of savings without any compulsory redundancies: this obviously demonstrates what can
happen when a local authority has a genuine respect and concern for its workforce, and seeks to work in partnership, rather than resort to confrontation, when negotiating with the unions.

The rudeness and lack of respect which is given to members of the public trying to exercise their right to ask a question is utterly indefensible and the Conservative councillors of this borough outght to be ashamed of the conduct of their leader and colleagues, in yet another example of the obstruction of the right of a resident to voice criticism and engage in debate with this morally degraded administration.

No doubt they resent the fact that residents have the right to ask any questions, and would prefer it if the public was not able to attend such meetings and witness what goes on. If you remember, at the last Full Council meeting, only a handful of people were actually able to get in to sit in the public gallery. It was encouraging to note last night that the Chief Executive himself came into the public seating area and, after pointing out that there were still many members of the public who needed seats, turfed out some disgruntled senior officers (including, funnily enough, the gentleman who barred Mrs Angry from the council facebook page, who foolishly tried to sit next to her and was subjected to her gorgon like glare until he shifted ...)

The second question came from David Young, the heroic campaigner against Lynne Hillan's plot to remove wardens from sheltered housing. This issue is once again back on the agenda. Why, he wanted to know, had they learnt nothing? He begged them to consider the people who might die as a result of the loss of residential wardens. He invited the councillors to visit the sheltered housing where individuals had told him they would even contemplate suicide if this support was withdrawn. What is your question? demanded Ms Hillan, in her horrible, grating voice. He gave an appropriate reply: his question was: 'How stupid can your Cabinet be?'

For the answer to this, carry on reading.

Councillor Maureen Braun stepped up to the meeting to speak about some work she and her chums had been doing on how to take wardens away from old people without looking evil and twisted -or do I mean, how to focus support on those with the most need whilst being mindful of financial constraints? She spoke in a lovely, soothing mumsy voice and said that the reason the courts had put paid to their first warden snatching attempt was because they were all so naturally 'imbued' with the need to consider the issues of equality that they had not thought to demonstrate this. The silly judge. He should have realised that their regard for supporting disability was clearly demonstrated by the proposed removal of wardens, shouldn't he!

Maureen and her group had looked at Hackney, where wardens had been successfully snatched. I say successfully, but obviously this is from the point of view of the snatcher, rather than the victims. Maureen told us, with some surprise, that their conclusions were that the elderly residents missed their wardens. Strangely, they had really missed the reassurance that these people had given them. Isn't that odd? You would think that in line with correct easyBarnet ideas, these feckless, lazy OAPs would welcome the chance to live - what is the phrase - more independent lives, wouldn't you? Couldn't our new MP nip round to remind them how to do the washing up? These old scroungers: just because they lived through the war, they expect the nation to owe them a living, and do everything for them, don't they?

Over to the constantly scowling Sachin Rajput to discuss the various options that they intend to consider in regard to the warden issue. He gave a little talk about equality, listing them all. Ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, all sorts of considerations must be made, and must be seen to be made. He reminded us not once, but twice, of the new need to prove consideration for transgender persons. His Cabinet colleagues looked bemused. Robert Ramsbottom thought of a question: were they, he wondered, still in danger of heading down the same path to failure as in the previous proposal? Rajput thought they had considered as much as they could. Councillor Richard Cornelius asked if they had developed records to prove we've done so? They really, really want to push this one through, don't they?

Item 7, the 'Fairer' Charging Policy for adult support. The warm hearted Mr Rajput was off again, starting - as is required by all Barnet Tories when beginning an address, with the Barnet mantra: every evil thing on this earth is a direct result of the wicked Labour Government. He told us we are not charging adults who need support enough for the service. Know what: if we have to screw more money out of vulnerable older people, Mr Rajput is the man for the job.

There were no questions for him, of course from his colleagues: they are not really allowed to speak up, you see, in case they utter deviant thoughts and let the side down.

Oh dear: Item 8. Actually, I was looking forward to this item: a report from a 'Task and Finish Group' on 'Council's Response to Cold Weather'. Cold weather, of course, is also the fault of the Labour government, let's be honest. It's what you expect with a socialist administration, isn't it, Brian?

Hello: here comes Councillor Dean Cohen, star of last night's residents' Forum. (see previous blog)He has to make the report, and sits at the big table with the grown ups. He is going to talk about a load of grit. I said grit. Grit, of course, being a commodity with which our Tory councillors are not awfully familiar, as recent events have shown.

Dean informed us we now have two and a half thousand tons of the stuff, and another fifteen hundred on order, to arrive in January. This is ok because now we have a Tory government, and they will make sure it does not snow before January, unlike the shambolic management of Gordon Brown, whose incompetence was responsible for sneaky pre January snow last year.

Dean had been out counting the number of grit bins in the borough: 260, plus 38 in town centres. He had important news. Our Tory council is creating the new citizen's role of, wait for it: 'Community Keeper of Grit Bins'. Please don't think I am making this up: it's true. This has been thought up to solve the scandalous activities of people who help themselves to grit without permission and use it. I know. Outrageous.

If you are lucky enough to be appointed Community Keeper of Grit Bins, you will be expected to bear the responsibility of looking after a new council issued padlock. Just like President Obama, you will be given an exclusive code, and you, and only you, will be able to activate it. This is the Big Society, and it's coming to Broken Barnet: are you big enough for it?

The cold war task force had other brilliant ideas. Why not adapt council vehicles by putting snow ploughs on the front? Yes: why not? The Mayor's car(s), for example.

Any questions? Of course not. The Dear Leader had her say, however. She welcomed the Big Society ideas. and the thought that residents might take part in clearing their own streets. Mmm. Might do some councillors good to get handy with a shovel too.

Aha. Step forward Councillor Brian Coleman who so far had been remarkably quiet. Unfortunately, he seemed to resent the intrusion of this task force onto areas of his responsibility. He was off on one of his rants, whoosh. Many residents in this borough have been known to - guess what - ring up the council to - you won't believe this - ask someone to come and clear snow or ice. Unbe -feckin -lievable. Not in forty years, bellowed Brian, not in forty years has this council ever done such a thing. Dear God, whatever next. Apparently, there have even been cases of - wait for it - residents taking grit from the bins to, you won't believe this: to put on their garden paths! Why can't they fall over and break their necks without complaining?

He then raged about Labour councils whom he claimned last year wouldn't share their grit. Then he calmed down, and expressed himself to be officially 'relaxed' about grit bins. Phew. However: padlocks? Absolutely not. They will cut them off, you know. Who, Brian, who? Grit thieves? International crime gangs? Socialist grit hoarding councils? As for snow ploughs: nonsense. Streets of of Barnet are not wide enough. We are not living in the Highlands of Scotland, you know. Snow plough attachments: not an option. Ah, but Brian was chilling again: he repeated his approval of the weighty issue of grit bins. And people must take more responsibilty. No doubt he will himself be seen this winter in a woolly hat, and fetching ear muffs, whistling a happy tune and clearing the pavements of West Finchley. His final remark was in praise of a report in the Ham & High, which is apparently, in Brians' opinion, for those who prefer a quality local newspaper. Ah: that would be a local paper which does not describe Brian as 'deluded', perhaps?

Poor Dean Cohen slipped out of the room, and Mrs Angry was tempted to go over to Mr Toad and box his ears on his behalf for being so unnecessarily rude to a younger and less experienced councillor. Actually, I'm surprised his Dad didn't do this for him, seeing as he was sitting next to Coleman.

But this sort of behaviour is par for the course amongst Barnet Tories, a party of mutual and thinly disguised contempt, factions and plots, the only unifying factor a lack of - er - grit, and a fear of reprisal if they step out of line. Mrs Angry noted with interest the reactions of some Tory councillors watching the proceedings. And some unlikely companions. She found it hard to tear her eyes away from the dream team pairing of, sigh, Councillor John Hart and the lost Prince, Mark Shooter. Wonder what they have in common? Apart from fatal good looks, and a winning way with the ladies, of course.

Item 9, dealing with financial planning. Shoot me now.

Ah, bless. Lynne Hillan stated now that she had not come into local politics to make huge cuts in spending. No, no, she had done so in order to 'bring something back to society'. And try to take a whopping great allowance rise while everyone else in society lost their jobs or pay increases.

Councillor Thomas opened his mouth for the first time and said nothing of interest. But don't worry, Brian was waiting to mouth off again. He reminded us we were in dire straits due to the - can you guess - the disgraceful behaviour of the previous Labour government, and that Barnet had to deal with the enormous debts left as you might expect by a socialist administration. Yes. I must admit that when we have a debt incurred by a council losing £27 million pounds of tax payers money in offshore investments I do prefer it to be a Conservative run administration, don't you? Tory incompetence is so much more acceptable, not to say spectacular in scale. Coleman then spat out some incoherent ranting about residents who should 'stop writing and asking for this, that and the other, because there is no money!' Citizens: please heed Mr Coleman's instructions and stop writing, phoning, emailing and bothering him about things- he's not paid to listen to you and oh hang on , Brian, yes, actually, you are! Did you know?

The turn of Andrew Harper, deputy Leader (at the moment, although eyeing that coveted chair next to Mr Walkley with a keen interest). Andrew reminded us all about One Barnet - oh yeah, whatever happened to that? He then said he was looking for a new relationship. Really? Mrs Angry sat up. Oh: with residents and partners. What: all of them? Even Councillor John Hart couldn't manage that. And if you want to launch a charm offensive, you may need to take radical action first: a coup, followed by the immediate defenestration of certain colleagues from the windows of the Town Hall. Otherwise, trying to appease the residents of this benighted borough is not going to work.

And now Councillor Richard Cornelius. He is an odd one, Cornelius: looks like Mr Punch and always has a slightly inappropriate smile, whatever the nature of his speech. He is rather like a minor Dickensian character, maybe a clerk or a haberdasher, obsequious but prone to unfortunate remarks. He claimed he was known as the cynical member of the council: oh yes? What a rebel. He said he liked bottom up decision making. I'll bet. And something about a block of flats in Grahame Park with a 77% turnover, which would be solved not by providing better housing, but by creating new shorthold tenancies.

Councilor Rajput got in another rant about the Labour Government. During this speech Coleman was openly looking at his blackberry, with his usual good manners. Or is it really his blackberry? Could it be the remote control that works Councillor Robert Ramsbottom, because I did notice that he then immediately stood up to speak ... He referred of course to the evil Labour government, and did we know there was a note left on the desk of - yes Robert, we do, move on: and ah his library survey was going marvellously (really: wonder if it has reached double figures yet?).

Hello: Councillor Melvyn Cohen speaks! Talking about the cost of civic events. Oh: good idea: what now then? Large scale cuts in civic entertainment? Smaller canapes? Broken biscuits from Costco? Selling off the Mayoral chain? No. He did try to suggest that there should be a reduction in overtime payments to the Mayor's drivers, that they should not be paid for waiting about but for actual use oh but then ex Mayor Coleman made a strange gesture to him - or perhaps it was an involuntary twitch - and he suddenly shut up. That was interesting, wasn't it?

At this point I had had enough and was going to go, but up stepped Labour Councillor Ross Huston to address the Cabinet on the subject of the impact of budget cuts and changes of policy on housing issues. He mentioned the loss of security of tenure, and the effect on families, the knock on effect on the private sector, the resulting increase in homelessness, the consequences for people on low incomes, and the need for a review of all these issues. He was wasting his breath, of course.

Lynne Hillan thought she might agree with some of his points but she was more interested in making sure no family received more benefits than the average wage, and she welcomed the cap on housing payments when she considered all those awful stories in the papers. Sadly it appears that the hardcore Tory decision makers in Broken Barnet arrive at their political policies by a process of ingestion of Daily Mail headlines. I'm afraid they don't have the intellectual capacity to follow any more reasoned arguments.

And then up pipes Richard Cornelius. The authority is not there, he informed us, 'to create a system that traps people in generational poverty'. No, indeed, in this borough you will now be 'enabled' to experience your generational poverty in the private sector, eh Richard?

But there was worse to come. He actually then stated - and I am having to reread my notes to be sure - this fool actually stated that 'there have been many cases in this country of people brought up in poverty who thrived on it.'

Yes. My own mother often talked with great fondness of growing up in the beneficial environment of abject poverty. True, her four year old brother and six year old sister died within days of each other in a diptheria epidemic in a slum standard colliery hovel, and they were so poor, the family could not even afford to pay for their funerals, until the local (Labour) councillor did so with his own money, but my goodness how they thrived otherwise. Happy days.
Words cannot contain the contempt I feel for this idiot, and all his equally obnoxious, stupid colleagues.

And now here comes Coleman with his contribution: this time he lets loose on those housing benefit scroungers who all want to live in Belgravia and Mayfair and expect the state to pay. I have to agree with you there, though, Brian, expecting to have your accommodation subsidised by anyone is appalling, isn't it? Eh?

And then, with one bound, he is spouting off on the subject of creating slums. Slums like Graham Park.

If there are any slum conditions in Grahame Park, you unspeakably objectionable man, I suggest that you remember who has created them. A slum is not a building: a slum is a neglected building.

Remember that unanswered question, from the sheltered housing campaigner: How stupid can your Cabinet be?

I think we all have the answer now.

*Update, Friday: well, last night Mrs Angry was just about to turn off Newsnight, when hello: up pops a clip of film with the unmistakeable visage of Councillor John Hart (has he been waxing his moustache?) ... goodness me, what a thing to happen, and just before bedtime. Poor Councillor Hart was shown struggling manfully with some admirably bolshy residents at another Forum (wish they'd come to mine) chanting 'We want answers, we want answers' ... and the item was all about the sad slow death of easyBarnet, where the Dear Leader was showing signs of panic at the prospect of changes in housing policies. Michael Crick wanted to ask the Dear Leader, her deputy, or the Cabinet spokesperson for housing about these issues, but he was left standing all alone outside the Town Hall, because they weren't allowed to speak to him. I wonder who shut them up?


franklymydear said...

It looks like the slums of Grahame Park are being rebuilt, only to be replaced by the future slums of high-density, high-rise Brent Cross

Mrs Angry said...

This is very difficult for me, but I must say that to be fair,for whatever reasons he may have, Coleman has opposed the Brent Cross development. One thing is clear: this council feels no sympathy for those who depend on social housing.

Moaneybat said...

The slums of Grahame Park are being rebuilt to give them similar slums but, with NEW brickwork and, possibly the kind of 'temporary' deserving tenancies affordable to whom? No Job No Home if they've got kids, then the Big Society's charities will find them middle class parents or vasectomy. I think one or two of Barnet's Defend Council housing campaigners have been vindicated on the issue of state housing. Amazing how some of those kids who reely done alright come from cancil haasin built to give them that chance.

Mrs Angry, you say it better than I do. Forgive me, I simply cannot be civil to short-sighted overpaid politicians. Time for indegistion and supper.

baarnett said...

I see there's an interesting book review on building and redevelopment during the "Blair Boom", here.

ainelivia said...

Hi there Mrs A. Since i found your blog, I've begun to look forward to your reportage and indepth analysis of the goings on with our local Council. Sadly you just confirm my long held suspicion that Barnet Council in the main is comprised of incompetent careerists with little or no actual personal committment to the idea of public service; though they have very strong instincts for the administrative power and influence (not to mention free lunches) which can be attained through their roles.

Mrs Angry said...

I'm afraid to say, dear Ainelivia, that you are absolutely correct, in my view, this administration is not only self-serving and incompetent, but consists almost entirely of cynics, half wits and amateurs. They are hurtling towards disaster, and dragging us with them.