Sunday, 12 December 2010

Your kecks are on fire - the One Barnet budget consultation

There are lies, damned lies and statistics. And then, of course, there are One Barnet statistics. These figures, and the way in which they are compiled, are indeed a tribute to the immense creativity of the corporate mind, here in Broken Barnet.

Fellow blogger Mr Reasonable has dedicated a considerable amount of time and effort to a close analysis of the dubious financial claims that our council has made in relation to the Future Shape/One Barnet nonsense, and the current budget proposals. His work has cast serious doubt on the accuracy of some of the projected figures contained within these masterpieces of corporate spin. Our Dear Leader, Lynne Hillan, even felt moved to express her 'gratitude' to him at a recent meeting for his armchair auditing.

There is another Cabinet meeting on Monday 13th December. A kind friend has drawn my attention to the accompanying agenda and reports, which include a discussion of the so called consultation with residents over the notorious budget proposals. Let's take a look, shall we?

Apart from some limited specific service consultation, most of the discussions with residents have been confined to the Ideas Barnet website, and a Citizens Panel meeting. More of the latter later, first let's review the review of the ideas website.

As of 24/11/2010, we are told, '213 ideas were posted here and 351 comments added to these ideas. There have been a total of 1,638 votes on the wisdom or otherwise of the ideas.'

'Since the 6th September there have been 5,001 visits to the site'. There's been an average of 6.40 (?) page views per visit, the total number of pages viewed 31,991. There were 3,041 unique visits. Etc etc.

In other words, there is the capacity for analysing in great detail the type of visitors. Hmm. This must have been helpful if anyone bothered to investigate complaints about the origin of many of the ideas, which, as Mrs Angry learnt recently through an answer to a Residents' Forum, were not genuine ideas from residents at all, but have been revealed to be 'test' ideas uploaded and mysteriously left on the site, unidentified as such. And then of course there were ideas submitted but never published, or censored, or 'disappeared', especially in the beginning.

Oh and note the reference to visits since the 6th September. Interesting, when the site was not officially launched a fortnight or so after that date, isn't it?

Rather amusingly: no - very amusingly, the report is obliged to inform us of the most popular budget ideas. These are as follows:

Stop paying councillors an allowance above say, £1,000 a year - 69 votes
Get rid of the Jaguars - 68 votes
Get rid of the Mace Bearers - 60 votes
Review the top 100 contracts - 56 votes
Cut down on the number of consultants used by Barnet Council - 54 votes
Smaller print -50 votes
Stop buying expensive laptops - 36 votes
Withdrawing 54% allowance rise just awarded to councillor chairmen (I'm so proud) 34 votes
Consulting with staff over the coming Budget Cuts - 31 votes
Stop paying Councillors' pensions - 26 votes
"Free" Passover Collection - 26 votes
Reduce Free Skip Service - 26

We are then told that, excitingly, 'There has been some important and relevant feedback which is being incorporated into the Council's budget plans. Details of the key ideas and feedback being taken forward are as follows ... '

Well, at this point all citizens will be rubbing their hands in glee, of course, anticipating, as requested, an immediate reduction in councillors' allowances, a selling off of the mayoral cars, and an instant banishment from the borough of all those hugely expensive consultants that our council appears to rely on. Ah. Oh dear.

How disappointing. And how very odd. Flying in the face of the clear mandate given by residents for such measures, they appear to have been completely ignored, can you believe it, in favour of, well, some strangely One Barnet look-alike type ideas, for example:

-build better support networks for carers: sounds good, doesn't it, except it is linked to the cuts in Adult social care and is therefore being promoted in order to build up the use of carers rather than paid support.

-merging services with neighbouring London boroughs - I don't think I need to explain that one, do I?

-clearing snow - a bag of grit for you to sort your own problems out, so we can wash out hands of the responsibility

-admin departments - a sinister allusion to 'admin functions efficiencies'

-Stop paying huge rent on NLBP - something about consolidating office accommodation - hmm, I suppose when they get rid of enough members of staff, that will free up a few desks?

-Stop replacing the pavements in Whetstone - apparently every time Brian Coleman visits NLBP, the royal route is repaved before the start of the ceremonial procession up Oakleigh Road South. I think this is only right and proper, and a correct use of tax payers money.

- Taxis - we should stop taxi runs for children and adults if these are happening - yes, it seems taxis will now only be used where 'cost effective'. In other words, we are retaining the two jags for the Mayor, and councillors taxi expenses will no doubt be paid without question, but disdvantaged children and adults can walk, or catch the bus.

-Museums - Surely museums could be run by volunteers and managed by the third sector? Of course. Anyone can be a curator, and put together the academic research for an exhibition on literary, historical or artistic subjects. I may even volunteer to arrange an exhibition of my son's ground breaking bottle top collection, 2003-2005.

Let's extend this principle to the entire council, in fact: all senior officers, loyally working without pay, and purely out of love for the ideals of One Barnet. And how about using volunteer councillors, with no allowances?

And that's it.

Funny, isn't it that all the genuinely popular suggestions are ignored in favour of some handpicked easyBarnet flavoured ideas of dubious origin, whose number of votes are curiously not given?

Ah, but then: when you look at an attached Appendix 3, there are even more examples listed of both the most popular ideas ,and ithe deas which are not popular but still being acted upon: not the same things at all, as we know.

Here we find, for example:

Stop replacing perfectly good lampposts - 23 votes

Oh, hold on: Rebuild Barnet Workhouse - my brilliant idea, and I am pleased to see attracting 22 votes. Get that cauldron of gruel on the boil now.

Reflect 25% budget cuts in councillor allowance rates - 20 votes

Not one of these being actioned, sadly, yet an idea on the crucial subject of the perenniel flower bed displays outside the Town Hall, with only 14 votes, is being addressed!

Other ideas listed in the appendix as being taken up, with no apparent mandate, include - again -suspiciously worded proposals with the correct One Barnet attributes, eg: exploiting council property and assets, oh and hello: 'close Osidge Library '- where did that come from, and how many votes did it get?

Right then. The Citizens' Panel. There is a load of stuff emanating from this newly convened panel, at a meeting which by remarkable coincidence, took place the day before the open public meeting which was supposed to give a voice to any resident who wanted to discuss the budget proposals. This open meeting was barely advertised, and few people realised that to attend you had to send an email informing the council of your intention. Because so few people did email such an intention, the meeting, rather controversially was cancelled. The Citizens Panel meeting was used as a substitute for the open meeting.

As I have mentioned, I was a member of this panel. At a recent Forum I asked what had happened to it and was given two different answers: that it had been dropped due to the expense, and that it was still in existence and going to be used for budget consulation. I waited in vain for my invitation, and was told later that I had been removed from the panel, after my years of long service, gratefrully received, but they had forgotten to tell me!

So what does the report and the appendix tell us about the panel meeting?

There were 54 attendees. Ok. How were these selected?

We are told that 'Attendees were invited in proportion to the adult population of the borough.'

Oh. wonder what 'in proportion' means. In terms of sex, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, hair colour, political views? Ah ... so it seems that these 54 people were all vetted in some way. They were not selected on a random basis, that we do know. Was there an independent body involved in the selection? If so, in the interests of 'transparency' we should be told: if not, then oh dear, that's not very good, is it?

Now here is a telling paragraph in the report:

'Several people in the public meeting felt they were hampered in the discussions by not having more detail of the scale of the cut (information was presented about current budgets and proposed reduction - the two were not present together) This concern was also raised by the Budget Performance Overview and Scrutiny Committee.'

In my view, that tells you all you need to know about the meeting, and indeed the entire budget consultation process. Even the council's own scrutiny committe was unhappy about the lack of clear information about the details of the proposed cuts.

If you want to read through the 'discussions' that took place at this stage managed meeting you can read them on the council's website. I have no intention of taking them seriously, nor the ludicrous Ideas Barnet suggestions. It's clear to me that this consultation is not a consultation at all, but another clumsy bit of spin intended to endorse a pre set political agenda. The Cabinet meeting will merely rubber stamp these reports, with no dissenting voices, and carry on with business as usual.

If you feel slightly aggrieved by this somewhat cavalier attitude to the democratic process of consultation, why not pop along to the Town Hall on Tuesday night, and voice your protest, along with a few other disaffected citizens?

That sort of thing is all the rage, these days, you know. But do try and behave: you don't want to end up being kettled in the Town Hall car park, do you?

PS The mass lobby, organised by the NUS and Unison, is at 6pm, and then, if you manage to avoid being detained by Her Majesty's constabulary, you can nip down to the Claddagh Ring for an evening of fun: free buffet, and music by the likes of Mr Roger Tichborne (don't let that put you off). Keep the free buffet quiet, or You Know Who might leg it out of the council chamber down to the pub with his doggie bag ...


Mr Reasonable said...

Mrs Angry, as ever you set out so elequently the absolute sham that is the ideas website consultation. As you say, some perfectly reasonable ideas such as stop replacing perfectly good lamposts and stop buying expensive laptops seem to have been overlooked. This is particularly irritating given that between April and September Barnet Council paid Barnet Lighting Services £844,464.50 and Hewlett Packard £460,568.92. That is enough to prevent:
The closure of the Gardening Project run by Barnet Learning Disability Service (£85,000);
Withdrawal of the core funding for the Arts Depot (£194,000);
Cessation of youth services at two premises (£50,000);
Cessation of behavioural and high incidence support and reduce educational psychology service (£233,000);
Cessation of all support for services aimed at reducing teenage pregnancy (£90,000);
Cessation of commissioning of services for supporting and preventing substance misuse (£150,000).
I could go on but I think it makes the point that the council seem to have set their own priorities for where the cuts should fall and that doesn't necessarily coincide with what the residents want.
I would point out that it was me who made the comment about the rent at North London Business Park. My view is that these offices are very remote and difficult for residents to access. The council should be close to the community and should have offices which are functional and not lavish. We appear to be paying around £3.3m in rent for NLBP which seems excessive to me and hence my comment.

baarnett said...

In today's "Localism Bill":

"The duty on councils to promote greater involvement in local democracy will be abolished. Ministers think this is 'an unnecessary burden' on councils."

Bang goes the Residents Forums, then!

Mrs Angry said...

You are right, Johnny: the priorities for spending cuts are seemingly ideologically based and not balanced by proper scrutiny of contracted services. The lighting issue is a good example, and still, months after I raised the query, we have an old lamp post sitting right next to a new lamp post with nothing on top. Goodness knows why the tax payers have to pay for such waste and duplication.

I meant to comment on the cutting of funds to the educational psychology service. This is yet another example of disadvantaged children being disproprotionately affected by the cuts: Andrew Harper likes to congratulate himself on the number of 'excellent' schools in the borough. By and large these are selective schools catering for able middle class children. There are too many bad schools in the borough, largely attended by children from less affluent backgrounds who are more likely to have learning difficulties or more severe special needs. Anyone who has had a child with a learning difficulty knows what an almighty struggle it is already to get help and support for such children - cutting educational pyschology funding will have devastating consequences. What was all that crap about better services for less money, and targeting funding to those in the most need? Funny how we can cough up money for councillors pay allowances, but not our most vulnerable children, isn't it?