Tuesday 23 November 2010

Fora! Fora! Fora!

Yes: this week we see the next round of Residents' Forums, or Fora, as some of us would prefer to call them, at least, those of us in the Barnet blogosphere who studied Latin rather than woodwork, and didn't spend our schooldays behind the bicycle shed with a packet of woodbines, or standing outside the headteacher's study - oh no, hold on: that was me. Anyway, some of us - unlike Barnet Council, in its recent poster campaigns - some of us prefer to write in accordance with the basic rules of grammar, don't you know.

Oh, and on the subject of Barnet's recent posters, rather than worrying about grammatical errors, I feel more inclined to get annoyed about misleading claims being made: I do wonder if the Advertising Standards authority might like to take a look at the posters at bus stops which say the forthcoming sepnding cuts will be around 20% when we know that in fact the figure is almost 27% ...?

But I digress. Yesterday I informed Mrs X that she would once more have to grab her notebook and pen and nip off over to Golders Green to sit with baited breath for the answers to our latest questions to the Residents' Forum. Unfortunately, readers, Mrs X is getting a bit stroppy, and raised objections to my request.

- I'm not sure I can really be a***d, she muttered, rebelliously.

Whatever do you mean, Mrs X? And please mind your language.

-It's cold, it's dark, I'm tired, and I don't want to sit in a drafty church hall listening to a load of residents moaning about stuff. What's the point?

Mrs X, I don't want to hear that sort of defeatist talk.

- Well, she whined, why do we have to do this? Who are you to tell me what to do, anyway? I invented you, and now look, you have me running about everywhere annoying poor old Tory councillors who only want a nice quiet life at our expense: what for?

What for? Let's see: originally, of course, just in case you have forgotten, Mrs X, we started this blog to publicise the completely intolerable situation that we were in: that the Tory twats at Barnet Council and their appalling housing policy had inflicted the loathsome antisocial neighbours from hell on us and ruined our lives and then refused to do anything about it ...

-Oh, yes, I do sort of remember that, now you mention it ...

Hmm, and then it was a question of revenge ...

- Yes: most enjoyable ...

Followed by sheer malice ...


Amusement ...

-Oh, definitely

And most importantly of all, and the reason we continue: because it is our civic duty, Mrs X. You could say it is our contribution to the Big Society, volunteering on behalf of the community to keep our beady eye on the arcane rituals and dubious activities of our elected representatives.

-I'd almost forgotten. Thank you for reminding me.

So here is your return bus fare, Mrs X, and please get going: you don't want to miss anything.

-Ah but hold on, Mrs Angry: if I am going to undertake this sort of work I feel I should be paid an increase in my allowance.

Two pounds there, two pounds back, what more do you want?

-I was thinking more like oh, I don't know, something in the region of £15,333 a year.

What! Just for attending a few meetings?

-Mrs Angry, you simply don't seem to understand the amount of er background reading and other stuff, like um, talking to a couple of people and thinking quite hard, that I have to do, in order to perform this selfless voluntary role on behalf of the residents of Broken Barnet. And this is, anyway, the recommended scale of pay widely recognised across the London boroughs by the vast majority of imaginary friends and/or alter egos of members of the blogging community ...

Is it really? I really couldn't give a **** .Mrs X. Here's an Oyster Card: now get to work.

Disgraceful behaviour: I do apologise. But Mrs X has now returned with her report.

First of all, the bad news. As we may have discussed, Mrs X was rather surprised to be told at the last Forum that the erstwhile Citizens Panel, of which she was a member, had been quietly put to sleep, due to the expense. At the same meeting, she was told that the Citizens Panel was also still being used, as part of the standard 'consultation' process. Of course in the Alice in Wonderland corporate world of Broken Barnet, it is perfectly normal for two completely different things to be true at the same time, as many of the answers given at these events will tell you.

In her intimate, one on one budget consultation with how green is my Councillor Daniel Thomas last week, Mrs X was told that the night before the cancelled public meeting (are you keeping up?) there had been a wonderfully organised -or do I mean orchestrated? - meeting of the panel - oh dear - without an invitation for Mrs X.

Mrs X has now been informed that she has been summarily 'retired' from the Citizens Panel. She should have been sent a letter informing her of this, with the grateful thanks from the authority for her sterling work over the years of service, and a signed photograph of Nick Walkley. Inexplicably, this has somehow all been completely overlooked. How very odd.

Oh well.

There were about thirty or so people at the Forum. Perhaps in view of the high risk of anarchist protestors, the panel last night included a police officer, looking rather surprised to be there. But no heavy objects were thrown, and everyone behaved impeccably. Except for Mrs X. In the audience were Tory Councillors Andrew Harper, John Marshall, Graham Old, and Labour members Alison Moore, Jim Tierney and Anne Hutton. couldn't see any Libdems: wonder if they've gone into hiding?

There were six written questions at the Forum, and oh, four of those were from Mrs X. After a question by someone who wants to cut down a group of eleven oak trees in Erskine Hill, Golders Green, (which seemed rather unnecessary), the first of Mrs X's contributions was on the subject of the idiotic 'Ideas Barnet' website, meant to be a mainstay of the current Budget Consultation process:

1. Although I have now received a written reply in regard to questions asked at the last Forum about the authority's consultation process, one of the questions, on the subject of the 'Ideas Barnet' website, has apparently been misunderstood. My question was about the integrity, rather than the 'integration', of the ideas submitted. It is widely believed that a large number of the ideas included on this site are not, as they purport to be, genuine suggestions from residents, and I would therefore like to ask of the 187 or so ideas on the site, how many can be verified, by means of email addresses, post codes etc, as being from individuals with no connection to the authority?

There was a frankly staggering official written reply, a small part of which I will quote:

"... the early ideas on the site were submitted by staff as they tested a beta version of the site. These stayed on the site to launch it. In the main these tend to be specifically internal issues. "

In other words, citizens, as suspected, the authority is admitting that some of the ideas included in this project are not genuine suggestions by residents, or even staff members in other departments, but bogus 'ideas' submitted by staff members associated with the project itself, which have been allowed to remain without being identified as such.

You might not think that this matters: it does.

This was supposed to be a an exercise in consultation with residents. The responses gathered are meant to influence the decisions which will dictate where and how much spending cuts are made - decisions which will have an impact on the jobs of many council employees, and of course on the delivery of so many essential services.

Some of the earliest 'ideas' on this site, purporting to come from residents, were suggesting ways for example in which volunteers could be used to replace council officers, or that certain services could be charged for. One awful 'idea' claimed staff knew they were underperforming and if made to reapply for their jobs, would be happy to go and work elsewhere. Other genuine ideas, as we know, were in the early days censored and removed or not published at all.

Mrs X commented on the extraordinary reply to her question, and pointed out that such interference with a public consultation invalidated the whole project.

A resounding silence fell upon the hall. Panel chair Dean Cohen looked uncomfortable and looked at Mr Lustig, the Director of Corporate Governance. Mr Lustig looked uncomfortable and looked at Mrs X. Mrs X looked at Mr Lustig and waited.

Of course there really was no response anyone could make. Mr Lustig did his best, talking about 'different forms of engagement', some of which were 'quite innovative in their approach'.

Mmm. Rather too much so, I would say, wouldn't you?

This matter, by the way, has been reported to two councillors, one Tory, one Labour. Neither has said whether or not anything has happened as a consequence.

Next question.

2. There have been several stories reported in the local press expressing dissatisfaction with the lighting renewal project in this borough. Councillor Coleman assured the last full council meeting that this project was 'a good news story' yet the website of the contractors still has 18 roads in 2009, and 19 roads in the current year, listed as 'not scheduled', and are therefore not completed. This might imply that the project is in fact better described as a 'bad news story'. Why is the project running behind schedule, and when will the work be satisfactorily completed?

Poor long suffering Councillor Cohen breathed a sigh of relief, and attempted a joke, I believe, about Mrs X throwing some light on the subject. Mrs X responded in kind, agreeing that she was in need of clarification.

Trying to crack a joke at these Forums - oops sorry, DCMD, Fora - is the municipal equivalent of doing stand up at the Glasgow Empire. You could have heard a pin drop, and I think Mrs X may have seen a bale of tumbleweed roll across the floor. Nothing. Nada. Not a titter. Oh dear.

The written reply again neatly sidestepped the question about running behind schedule and concentrated on admitting that the contractors had not updated their timetable on the website, oh, but it was 'expected' that the programme will be completed on time. Hmmm. But what if the details on the website are not actually updated because they actually reflect the status quo, ie many roads still far from complete?

Next: ah, a question which Mrs Angry herself has wanted to make for some time now:

3. At the last full council meeting, in response to a question about stopping sites for members of the gypsy/traveller community, Councillor Richard Cornelius stated that this authority has always failed to identify a single site in the borough suitable for accommodating the needs of such people. The London Borough of Barnet is almost unique in failing ever to provide any stopping place for gypsy families, even to the extent of ignoring its statutory duties under previous legislation. It could easily be argued that this represents a form of discrimination against gypsies and travellers, who are of course recognised in law as belonging to an ethnic minority. I would like to know what this authority has done, over the last eight years, actively to locate and consider sites suitable for such a purpose, including, but not solely, in response to the recent but now abandoned proposal for a site by the Mayor of London.

Yet again, the written answer did not answer the question. No response whatsoever on the actions the Tory administration of the last eight years or so has or, as one suspects, has not taken, to identify a single site suitable for, or capable of being adapted to be, suitable for providing a stopping place for gypsy families.

So Mrs X tried again and asked for this point to be addressed. A strange stifled sound came from the seats accommodating our beloved Tory councillors. Councillor Cohen looked at Mr Lustig. Mr Lustig looked at Mrs X. Mrs X looked at Mr Lustig. He explained that he had worked for Barnet Council since the dawn of time ( he did look rather tired, poor man) and - and I can't read her notes here but he gave his usual brilliantly Sir Humphrey type response and kindly offered to
forward any details of any actions taken. I imagine that this will be in a very small envelope.

And lastly: aha, a query about the new online register of councillors' interests.

4. The register of councillors' interests, gifts and hospitality has at last become available online, although seven members have been allowed to 'opt out' of what is presumably intended to be an excercise demonstrating a committment to 'transparency'. Rather confusingly, some of the councillors whose declarations do appear on the online register appear reluctant to give details of their homes in the borough. Without implying any deliberate wrongdoing on the part of any individuals, it is stated on the register that it is a breach of the code of conduct for members 'to omit information that ought to be given in this notice' or 'to provide information that is materially false or misleading'. Can you clarify the rules on the declaration of property interests within the borough by councillors, either as owner or tenant?

Now I would like to be able to tell you that Mrs X reported back with a full and frank explanation of this issue. She tells me that yet again, the written answer was unforthcoming and queried this at the meeting. She told me that after a short but confusing verbal response talking about tenancies and tenure she is no more the wiser than before as to why so many councillors appear reluctant to give details about their homes. If they do not own these homes, do they not have to declare that the accommodation is rented? Well, some actually do, others simply say nothing at all. If the councillors themselves do not understand the rules, how can the residents be satisfied that all the necessary information is in the public domain?

A group of women had come to the meeting to ask the following, which is no doubt of concern to many parents throughout the borough:

'In the light of the proposed cuts to early years funding within the Borough, what is Barnet's future commitment to funding its children's centres?'

Ah: like greased lightening, Andrew Harper ran to the front of the hall and stood in front of the women. If you recall, Mr Harper is keen to forge deeper relationships with residents. Thank you so much for coming, he gushed. This gave him the opportunity to correct the 'scurrilous' reporting in the local press last week, with the title '21 centres will close', next to his photo, tut tut. Yes,but, the women wanted to know, what is going to happen? Oh, well, we couldn't possibly tell you, because the local funding amount wasn't going to be fixed until next month. However: here it comes, the new Tory mantra, resources must be channelled to those who (pause for caring expression) need it the most. (Like Tory councillors trying to up their allowances, remember). The women looked less than reassured and continued to ask about a more specific commitment to the centres. A glint of impatience flashed in the councillor's eye, and he emphasised again the inability to make any committments at this stage.'But thank you all so much for coming' he finished with, as if he were handing out coats at the end of a Garden Suburb drinks party: 'So nice to see you!'. The women stared back, totally bemused.

Mrs X wandered out into the mean streets of Golders Green, and back up to the station. In a bookshop on the high road a lovely old man fell into conversation with her, leaning across the piles of remaindered books. 'Do you know dear, ' he said, as he left, looking up at the night sky, 'There are 28 billion stars out there, in the universe: don't you think there must be intelligent life out there, somewhere, far away?'

'Yes,' said Mrs X, 'At least, I do hope so. Because there isn't much evidence for it down here on planet earth, is there?'

And in the civic world of Broken Barnet, citizens, there is, I would suggest, an almost complete lack of any evidence at all.


baarnett said...

Please be kind enough, Mrs A, to convey our thanks to Mrs X, for her stirling public service in attending this meeting, and for staying awake long enough to write down what took place. Or not.

If Mrs X happened to draw doodles, while the dreary time slowly passed, perhaps you could scan them in, and add them to the blog.

Perhaps cartoon caricatures of some of the Barnet councillors by Mrs X would illustrate their cartoon-like behaviour. (We know Mr Toad. Which one is Elmer Fudd? Or Daffy Duck?)

Mrs Angry said...

Aha, Baarnett ... I have confiscated Mrs X's notes and inspected them for doodles. I am afraid to say that there is at least one lewd and unseemly illustration of a certain Councillor which has now been destroyed. Thank you for reporting back to me. I do wonder, after reading these blogs, what Mrs X does at these meetings, and if in fact she does sit through them or sits in a cafe making it all up. But then you couldn't really make it up, could you, the sort of stuff our representatives get up to?

baarnett said...

And a new crisis is now bubbling up, with the Standards Committee investigating one of their own. (See vickim57.)

"Indemnitygate", perhaps?

Mrs Angry said...

ahem, actually, I mentioned this interesting story, an item I spotted buried away in some broing coucnnil agendas,although not knowing then that it was a Standards member, in the 'In a dark place' blog - I think October 8th. Please pay attention, baarnett.I will be asking questions later.

Mrs Angry said...

that should be boring council agendas, sorry, the cold is affecting my brain.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Your knowledge of Latin plurals is to be commended. As is your skill in forcing the council to admit that their Barnet Ideas” web site is a fix, pure and simple. The council must now be forced to remove all “test” messages and, in future, show whether a message has been posted by an officer or a member of the public.

It is interesting to note how the council has decided to deal with the ‘scurrilous’ reporting of news in the local press - they have hired the journalist to work for them. Brilliant!

Mrs Angry said...

Benigne dicis, magister.
Actually, written in blood in the front all of Mrs Angry's Latin excercise books was the old verse: 'Latin is a language, as dead as dead can be, it killed the ancient Romans, and now it's killing me'. Before this proved to be fatal in my case, I chucked it in as soon as possible.

Yes, the admission in regard to the Ideas site is highly significant, in my humble view. It tells you all you need to know about the farcical 'consultation' process in this borough.

The appointment of a local journalist is an indication of how worried the administration had become about its inability to smother critical reporting of its lunatic activities.