Now my friend Mrs X, being a concerned citizen, just like Mrs Angry, but much better behaved, has a keen interest in local politics. Obviously Mrs X and Mrs A have much in common, but generally speaking Mrs X is much more polite, shy and retiring than her mouthy friend. And, as she has been attending quite a few council meetings and forums recently, and was really looking forward to attending the Barnet budget consultation meeting this week (she doesn't get out much these days) she was therefore very annoyed to hear it had been cancelled.
Happily, being a devoted reader of the Barnet Council Facebook page, she had taken the step of registering her interest in attending and was therefore one of four lucky residents promised that they would receive a phone call from Councillor Daniel Thomas, who was going to hold a personal, one to one consultation, with each of the four residents.
Just think, mused Mrs X, as she sat with bated breath by the telephone: I am going to be responsible for 25% of the consultation meeting input ... how did that happen?
At last the phone rang, with a merry tinkle.
Councillor Thomas introduced himself politely. There was a an awkward silence.
'Er, well, what would you like me to talk about?' ventured Mrs X, in a silly opening gambit, then, worried that she sounded like a woman on one of those unsavoury phone lines, launched firmly into: 'Actually, I would like to ask you about the cancelled consultation meeting: do you really think that it was adequately publicised in the first place?'
Councillor Thomas, as it turns out, surely has an assured future in politics, because he is adept at talking at great length in a smooth, hypnotic and brilliantly evasive manner. Plus he has that sort of seductive Welsh accent that makes you think about Dylan (rather than Daniel) Thomas and How Green Was my Valley, Anthony Hopkins, bachelor sheep farmers and strange cheeses, rather than nasty neo Thatcherite Tory councils. A gift for the ambitious Tory would be politician. So. Adequate publicity? Oh, yes, he thought so, all in all. There had been an advert in the local Times and Press, you know. Oh and Barnet First. And some stuff online. And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose, my youth is spent by the same wintry force. What? Pull yourself together, Mrs X.
Hmm, she said, but what if you don't get the local papers? And how many people actually receive (or read) Barnet First? And what about those who don't have access to the internet - many older residents, for example? Or the many residents of our borough for whom English is a second language? It's not a very inclusive approach to consultation, is it? Why not publicise such consultation exercises, and other initiatives such as Residents Forums, more effectively, perhaps through local community groups, residents' associations, synagogues, churches, mosques? If you really want to engage with residents, wouldn't that be a good idea?
Well, said Councillor Thomas, he did know that there were some proposals to 'reinvigorate' the Residents Forums, and that might include wider publicity. There had been a Citizens Panel meeting last night, with all 400 members invited: oh, said Mrs X, that's funny, because I am a member of that panel, and yet, when I asked at the last Forum what had happened to it, I was told it had been too expensive to continue, and I certainly was not asked to attend this meeting: how very peculiar!
And as to the Residents' Forums, she added: yes - now then, you're a Finchley councillor, aren't you? I've been going to a few of our local Forums recently: I haven't seen you there, though ...
No, he said. I've never been to one.
No. No need. He was very busy doing other things. He is an executive councillor. Very busy.
Yes, but surely, spluttered Mrs X, - other local councillors of all parties regularly attend, not as panel members, but to listen to residents views, which is pretty important, isn't it?
Well, he didn't have to. Councillors can largely make of their roles whatever they want, you know, like MPs. (oh dear) He preferred to hold surgeries, and knock on peoples' doors. He was going to be knocking on doors in my road any day now, by the way, by an uncanny coincidence.
But my road isn't in your ward, Mr Thomas.
Mrs X dropped that line of discussion, and moved on to a subject dear to Mrs Angry's heart: the lack of interest by the administration in a process of engagement and consultation with the public. The avoidance of free debate. The preference for 'surveys' which like the library one, are loaded with 'options' that oblige the participant to endorse a pre set agenda. Oh and had he taken a close look at the Ideas Barnet website? Was he aware that rumour has it a large proportion of the 'ideas' submitted to this site are not genuinely from members of the public, and have suspiciously pro Future Shaped suggestions? Oh, and if this was true, didn't it invalidate the whole project?
No. He wasn't aware of any rumour. He would take a look at it. Mrs X is not holding her breath in expectation of any imminent investigation, however.
Thing is, said Mrs X, you don't seem to understand how much damage has already been caused to the relationship between your administration and the residents of this borough ... I'm talking about the allowance rise fiasco, she added, helpfully, just in case he had forgotten ...
Oh, yes, that. Ahem. Well, of course the proposals were rescinded, after listening to the bla bla bla ... the sloeblack, slow, black night zzzz
Only partly, Councillor Thomas. If you remember, eight of your colleagues just voted themselves a pay rise from £7,000 to more than £15,000 for the extra 'duty' of chairing a few committee meetings, in some cases, committees that only meet twice a year. Do you not understand how inappropriate such an increase is, at a time when you tell us our services are going to be so drastically cut, and so many council employees are going to lose their jobs, or at best face frozen salaries for the foreseeable future? The £40,000 which this rise costs could fund the posts of two or three care workers, to look after elderly and vulnerable residents in the borough, couldn't it?
Well, yes, he saw her point.
So: nice that you see my point, but what are you going to do about it? Why don't you suggest to your colleagues that they forego this rise?
Well , he could, but then burble burble burble bla bla bla and I am going into the darkness of the darkness forever, I have forgotten that I was ever born ... STOP! Stop right there.
Because you know, apart from the allowance scandal, you and your colleagues do seem to act as if you are in some way not accountable to the people they are supposed to represent ... I've sat through council meetings in the last few months and listened in disgust as Tory councillors have ranted about there being no such thing as poverty, or that people actually 'thrive' in poverty, that people in receipt of benefits are lazy and lack aspiration, that people in the public sector should get 'a real job' - (this apparently from someone whose real job is selling tobacco), and oh, let's not forget your collegue Mr Coleman's charming references to people who live in the 'slums' of Grahame Park ... do you not understand how offensive these remarks are to the residents of this borough?
Oh! Something pierces the smooth and previously impenetrable surface of this councillor's defences: he is here to discuss the budget proposals, and he will not comment on individual councillors' comments.
Ah but, countered Mrs X, don't you see that there is a direct relation to your performance as councillors, and our rights as the people who pay your allowances? The people you offend by such remarks? Have you forgotten you are supposed to be working on behalf of us? Volunteering to do your bit for the community, Big Society and all that? Many residents do all forms of voluntary activities without demanding any payment at all, you know.
Well, he said, as regards Councillor Coleman's remark: it was an 'extreme comment' but we live in a free world, you know, a free country ... Mrs X shook her head in despair. And in the new budget proposals, you know, there are plans to 'streamline' the committee system, in order to make savings. Ok, said Mrs X, but it might be feared that this is an excuse to further increase the Cabinet system, and continue to restrict decision making to a few individual councillors, rather than sharing the process with your party colleagues ... Councillor Thomas disagreed, and seemed to think his colleagues were sufficiently involved in decision making.
That's not what your colleague Mark Shooter thinks, is it? enquired Mrs X: I was a the last full council meeting when he raised this very point ... oh dear. Mark Shooter appears to be something of a sore point with Councillor Thomas, for some reason, and for the second time he showed a spark of impatience with Mrs X.
Ok: the budget itself then. Why is it in council reports etc you state we have to save 26% in spending cuts, whereas in posters stuck up at bus stops and so on the figure is reduced to 20%?
Actually, he said the figure is 27%. What? Well, 26.7. So why the discrepency? Mrs X, like Mrs A, cannot understand any calculations more complicated than 12x12s are um whatever they are, without being walloped on the hand with a wooden ruler, so she is unable to recall what the explanation was. I am sure there was a perfectly reasonable one. Maybe.
Oh, btw: what happened to the what was it now, £9 million pounds of lost revenue from the council and business tax you Tories somehow forgot to recover last year? Any chance of that turning up? Only in dribs and drabs. Oh, what a shame. And the money in Iceland, another £27 million lost by a Tory administration? Nope. Those greedy Icelanders won't give it back. Tut tut. Because 27+9 makes (ouch) er £36 million pounds, doesn't it, and goodness me, I wonder how many wardens, and care assistants and vital services that would support? Hmm? Hello?
Before you go, can we just talk about Future Shape, or whatever it is called this week? Thanks. Er, now, again, Mrs X has a poor grasp of economics and accounting, but she understands that this was created two years ago in order to save money. How much money has it saved?
None. In fact it has cost money.
Oh dear. Really?
Another £3 million pounds lost. Let's see: £36 million plus £3 million = what, £39 million of our money lost ?
Thank God we have a Tory council, eh, citizens, to save us from the economic catastrophe of Labour incompetence.
Councillor Thomas said that Future Shape was going to deliver savings. Ah, yes, said Mrs X, savings have been 'identified' but if they do materialise they still have to offset against the costs, don't they, so there is still no net gain?
Oh, and the Grant Thornton report was rather worrying ,wasn't it? Telling us there has been no business plan, no costings, no timescale, no detail? How have we got two years down the line without such a basic structure? If I went to a bank manager with a proposal to set up my own business without any such fundamental information, I would be shown the door, yet your administration is proposing to run the borough on a business model which does not exist in any detail. This seems rather peculiar, you know.
Councillor Thomas became quite impassioned at this point. He has obviously been extending a certain amount of thought as to the value and direction of Future Shape.
He said that he too had at times been 'impatient' with these plans. But the Grant Thornton report had really come 'too early' in the process. (well, that's always a disappointment, and what a shame the council wasted so much of our money on paying for this report then, eh?) and he assured Mrs X that, and I have her notes here to confirm this, readers, that we are 'on the cusp of getting results', and if these results do not materialise, if things aren't 'working out', if for example 'outsourcing' is promising to look 'too risky' well then, and get this: 'we won't go ahead' with Future Shape.
You heard it here first, citizens. Future Shape is living on borrowed time.
I want to believe Councillor Thomas meant what he said, that this council will abandon its ideological committment to the Future Shaped future of this borough, unless we are soon presented with the evidence that it really can run this borough satisfactorily.
Unfortunately, as we have seen so many times before, life in Broken Barnet is not quite so straightforward, is it? And if there is a choice between saving face, and sacrificing us all on the altar of an ideological nonsense, or admitting that this bunch of twats have made a major mistake and sold us down the river, well, my friends, I think we all know which way this will pan out, don't you?