Sunday 30 January 2011

Build a bonfire: the march against the cuts

Just back from the Barnet Alliance anti-cuts march. According to the BBC, an extraordinary number of around 2,000 people joined the protest against the cuts. Yes: 2,000. This was far more than anyone could have predicted, and it tells you everything you need to know about the state of political unrest in our borough.

Meeting up in Finchley Central, the march was joined by residents of all ages, abled and diasabled, angry about he cuts to so many vital services, council workers facing the loss of their jobs, others there to protest about the threats to our libraries and museums, and the cuts in grants to voluntary groups - and of course to the Arts Depot, where the march was heading for a rally.

One family walking behind us had some young children who had evidently already formed sound political judgement: as they marched along they merrily sang: 'Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put the Tories on the top, put the Libdems in the middle, and you can burn the bloomin' lot ...' Out of the mouths of babes, thought Mrs Angry.

In contrast to the recent sixth form protest, which for some reason was accompanied by bus loads of police and stacks of barriers, this march had noticeably low key policing - and no kettling, sadly - and of course very well behaved marchers. How amusing it was to Mrs Angry to note that whereas the Tory party HQ had a token two police officers outside, (and a broken window, we noticed - nothing to do with the march, but interesting all the same) when we passed the end of the road adjacent to the home of our beloved councillor Brian Coleman, for some reason the road was actually blocked off by no less than FOUR police officers. No other side road en route was blocked, by the way. Mrs Angry cast a glance at the windows of the flat where Mr Toad lives: look - did she see a slightly gothic Bates Motel type silhouette twitching the blinds? Perhaps it was her over active imagination.

It's been a long, long time since I went on a march, and how strange it felt to be taking part in such activities again, dragged back to the bad old days of Thatcherism and Maggie Maggie Maggie, out out out. Walking along I fell into conversation with a former union activist colleague and we mused on the strange cyclical nature of political movements.

This weirdness was reinforced by some of the speakers at the rally, when we reached the Arts Depot. Up stood veteran revolutionary Tariq Ali, who made a great speech, condemning what he saw as a tri-lateral consensus between the political parties in parliament. He castigated the adherence by all parties to the idea of the market as a solution to all problems, and the failure of the Labour party, claiming that half of the current Labour MPs in parliament could be members of the Coalition government. Oops. That didn't go down awfully well with some of the Labour councillors sitting in the audience. 'Rubbish!' shouted a couple of them.

Next up was Frances O'Grady, the deputy general secretary of the TUC. Barnet, she told us, was a window on Cameron's Britain. Hmm, thought Mrs Angry, remembering the broken window in the Tory HQ. Finchley, as Frances reminded us, was the birthplace of Thatcherism: now it's time to make it the graveyard of Thatcherism ... She remarked on the fact that we are blessed in Barnet with some particularly 'colourful' characters. Brian Coleman , for example. As one the auditorium erupted in an almighty BOO and derisory laughter. To further jeers she described the uncrowned king of expenses, the wining and dining from Assetco, and his insulting description of firefighters as 'thick' and thugs'. Oh, and Bob Diamond and his plea to 'stop bashing bankers' was mentioned, and the fact that one third of all Tory MPs come from banking backgrounds.

Musical entertainment came from the Foundations, their last song in the set reminding us of the 'Bad, bad old days that used to be', and which seem to have returned, don't they,big time. The next speaker was Unison's Linda Perks, who denounced the idiotic easycouncil model which this council are grimly determined to foist on us: three years old and still having millions of pounds of our money spent on it, with not a single penny made in any savings, funnily enough. Like Ali, she talked of the politics of greed, where private profit is put before public benefit.

Robert Johnson from Barnet Voice for Mental Health spoke next, and pointed out how the slash in funding to his organisation, was, in terms of percentage, so much bigger than the percentage of savings that Barnet Council says it has to make: why? His organisation is one that takes vital preventative action and the logic of cutting a grant to such a body defies comprehension. Big Society, anyone?

Alex Clayman, the Finchley Catholic High school boy who organised the recent sixth form protest made a good speech. He is a brilliant example of what student protest really is about, rather than the headline grabbing stupidity of a minority of troublemakers, so easily seized on by the press.

Labour leader Alison Moore spoke of the dilemma we faced, caught between the grip of both local and national Tories, the broken promises of the Coalition government, the cynical use by our own home grown Tories of government policy for cover of their own agenda, the One Barnet con: call it what you like, changing the name of a toxic brand fools no one, and no one will forget the historical incompetence of the millions of residents: money lost in Iceland, the bridge overspend, the 2 million lost in education fees, etc etc etc.

Last but not least came a speech by Yvonne Hossacks, the solicitor who has done so much outstanding work to fight against Barnet's shameless attempts to remove wardens from sheltered housing. She said how pleased she was to attend the rally. She talked about right and wrong, about the price of love and the importance of honour, and the shameful deed of stealing from the poor, the weak and the sick.

Other musical interludes included a brilliant appearance by Boz Boorer, Morrissey's guitarist, who grew up in Barnet and wanted to do what he could to contribute to today's event. He remarked on the sad fact that the Torrington, where many of used to go to see bands, is now a Costa: soon, no doubt, to be a substitute library. Oh, no sorry, that's Starbucks. On the subject of libraries, we had a set from Barnet Eye blogger Mr Roger Tichborne, and his band the False Dots, who were terrific, and he also reminded us about the Library campaign, to which he has given a huge amount of effort, with all the passion he shows for the issues he writes about. It is a great shame that he failed to be elected to the council: he would have made a huge contribution, and who knows: perhaps he still will, bearing in mind certain recent events?

On the way home Mrs Angry thought about the rally, and the speakers, and in particular the remark by Yvonne Hossacks: stealing from the poor, the weak and the sick: the One Barnet mission statement, in other words. This is how it is, and how it is going to be, for the foreseeable future, here in Broken Barnet. If you don't like the thought of that, and you want to see a different future for your family, it's time to stand up and be counted, and so something about it. Today a couple of thousand Barnet residents did something about it -tomorrow: it's your turn.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Reverse parking, the Broken Barnet way: full council

March against the cuts: 11.30, Sunday, Finchley Central Tube: be there, or be square ...

If you are incensed by the new parking charges and the loss of free bays: pssst - don't tell anyone, but if you live in a Tory ward with a worried councillor getting earache and with a very organised lobby from disgruntled residents, well, do you know, I think you might just have struck lucky. Some residents in some areas of this borough are under the impression, you see, that Brian Coleman is, after panicky lobbying from their local councillors, going to desist from removing the free bays and might be able to grant concessions on other changes too. Or so they think.

Two things: either this is not so, and they are deluding themselves, or they are right, and they are being given a concession which ought to be boroughwide, and not confined to any Conservative held ward where residents are affluent, articulate - and admirably well organised.

Is it true? Are the Tories worried they are causing long term electoral damage in some wards, and are they now seeking to mitigate this potential vote loser? If so, there was little evidence of it at last night's full council meeting, where a packed public gallery of angry residents sat in hostile rows, watching the proceedings and yelling, booing and jeering throughout with increasing fury, incensed by the complacency and arrogance of the Tory councillors' behaviour. And who could blame them?

Councillor Coleman is always very pleased with himself and would have been very satisfied with his performance last night. He exhibited his usual charm, modesty and discretion throughout the meeting, of course, but saved his best efforts for the discussion of the objections to the parking charges and loss of free bays: more of this later.

Some councillors last night were conspicuous by their absence.

Councillor John Hart, for example. A report in the local Times yesterday may explain his failure to attend. Responding to an allegation of being racist, he is reported to have responded that he was merely a 'linguist'. Hmm. (You have no idea how many jokes I have removed from this next sentence, out of deference to the circumstances.) According to reports now, Hart's behaviour is being investigated, which is as it should be: after all, as we see from Matthew Offord's performance in parliament last week, there is an impressive new zeal for dealing with allegations of racism within the Tory ranks, albeit in a rather controversial manner - at least this allegation is being referred to the appropriate forum, rather then being made in a context where the person accused has no legal redress.

As usual, last night's proceedings kicked off with a written Q&A session, with supplementary questions.

This activity is used by the Tories not, of course, as a means to extend access to the democratic process for any residents who may be present, but as an exercise in the management of information, the evasion of accountability, and best of all, as a patented mechanism for patting themselves on the back for all the magnificent acheivements of the One Barnet regime.

Crucial to the smooth operation of this mechanism is a generous supply of submissive Tory councillors willing to abase themselves to their Cabinet masters (no names, no pack drill, ...). It works like this: Councillor A. Tory Lickspittle will humbly submit a question along the lines of:

Question: 'Will the Cabinet member agree with me that everything in Broken Barnet is really wonderful, that the sky is always blue, the sun always shines, and the birds always sing happily in the trees, and that this is entirely due to the sheer brilliance and efficiency of the policies and actions of the Cabinet member and our Conservative administration?'

Answer: 'Yes, I am delighted to be able to confirm that this is indeed the case, and that in fact the sun shines directly from the region of my generously proportioned a***, coincidentally the place of origin of so many of my opinions. Furthermore, I am pleased to remind Councillor A. Tory Lickspittle that under the previous socialist administration, there were several years of flood, an outbreak of plague, a pestilence of locusts and the streets were full of downfalls of dead starlings.'

Now here's a question from last night, posed by Labour Councillor Geoff Johnson:

'Can the Cabinet member confirm that all school crossing patrols will be maintained, and none will be cut?'

Answer by Councillor Brian Coleman:


See how it works, citizens?

So what little crumbs of information did we scramble for last night?

Libdem Jack Cohen had submitted a question about parking enforcement, noting that at a meeting of the Business Management Overview and Scrutiny Committee, members were informed that enforcement was 'in meltdown'. He asked - do you accept responsibility or blame your predecessor? Coleman's three word answer?

'I blame circumstances'.

Jack Cohen asked him to answer the question properly. Brian protested, saying he was being asked 'When did you stop beating your wife?' The Tories sniggered.

Coleman was asked about the charge of £57 to any residents needing to replace a wheelie bin which has been stolen. The response was that this charge would be appropriate in circumstances where a resident had been 'careless' with a wheelie bin. I agree. There are times when the Angry family's 24 hour monitoring of our bin has lapsed due to somone falling asleep on their watch, but we can only blame ourselves for our carelessness, and if one of those notorious wheelie bin stealing gangs from Labour run authorities makes one of its midnight poaching expeditions, or the bin itself makes a bid for freedom one night and speeds off down the road, well - here, £57, take it.

Brian is very happy about the load of grit we are getting from the council. And is looking forward to the pilot Community Grit Keeper scheme being doubled from, wait for it: 2 people to four -over the entire borough. Marvellous. I do hope they get one in the area around Finchley Methodist Church, and the surrounding houses, because I did notice, after Christmas, that there was a marked lack of Big Society minded residents prepared to clear the ice and snow from the pavement: so lazy, some people, don't you agree?

Labour's Geoff Johnson, funnily enough, was not happy with the one word response to his question about school crossing patrols. Was Coleman bovvered? No. He declared that ten schools in Barnet who had these patrols were merely an 'historical accident'. He is evidently not concerned about the possiblity of accidents which haven't happened yet but surely will, ie the increased risk to children that will ensue if these patrols are lost. Remember that Mr Coleman was suggesting recently that all road works should be forced to have stop and go men rather than temporary traffic lights? Why? Because he was annoyed by the delays that lights cause. And our priority should be the convenience of motorists, rather than the safety of our children, here in Broken Barnet.

Ah: an interesting question on the subject our Tory council would rather we all forgot: the £27 million pounds of residents' money lost in the Icelandic investment fiasco. It seems a further £91,000 of your money has been spent in litigation since January 2009. We were told this will be repaid with the claim 'if it is successful' ... ah, and how are things going on that score? Because despite promises, we still have not received a single penny, have we?

Questions about potholes, which of course are everywhere again. Brian asked how we are going to pay for filling them. The residents in the gallery, who by now had already had enough of the arrogant way in which the questions were being answered, started to shout helpful suggestions:

'Out of your allowances!'

'Yeah: four jobs Coleman!' shouted another

A question about the Arts Depot from Labour's Pauline Coakley Webb received a semi-literate and typically childish response from our very own culture vulture, Robert Ramsbottom:

'We will listen to the concern of residents who are worried that her Government left this country with no money and who want children and adult services protected.' (sic)

Please note that Rams and his chums are totally incapable of accepting responsibililty for the mismanagement of their own party, which lost us £27 million of revenue, and the overspend that cost us another £11 million, the hugely expensive failure to collect local and business taxes, the obsession with the ruinous One Barnet scheme, the millions of punds they waste on consultants, all of which has stolen funding which would have gone a long way to prevent the terrible cuts in service which we are going to see.

As well as that, the new lie they use to divert attention from their financially disastrous actions, and the resultant programme of cuts, is to pretend that the cuts are necessary in order to protect the safeguarding of the most vulnerable members of society. Apart from the money they waste which could be used for this very purpose, many of the cuts themselves are directed frontline services and at the very people they claim they wish to protect.

Anne Hutton had submitted a motion on 'exam results', congratulating the Barnet schools who have done well, but pointing out that many of the new central and local cuts - the loss of EMA, the diversion of funds to academy schools instead of targeting the failing schools who need support - will have a direct impact on educational acheivement, and in particular the most disadvantaged pupils. Look at Barnet's reduced funding for educational psychogical services, for example: children with special needs are already struggling to receive the identification and help they require - things are going to get a hell of a lot worse for them now.

Jack Cohen manfully tried to speak up for the Coalition's 'pupil premium' policy, which is supposed to give funding to pupils who receive school meals. I don't think he was feeling that inspired, as he resorted to quoting Nietzche, at one point. Here in my notes I have: God is dead: Nietzsche. Nietzche is dead: God. - (I wish I was dead - please shut up.)

Andrew Harper thought this reference was a wonderful example of the benefits of being educated in Barnet, until Cohen pointed out he went to school in Leeds. He thought the scheme would put aspiration at the heart of education. Marvellous. Shame that aspiration will be disadvantaged by the loss of other funding, but there you go. He also thought that the premium would help level the playing field. Which is good, because then your local councillors will be able to sell them off for development, eh?

Councillor Tom Davey stood up to speak. Ah: always of interest.

'Little puppy' shouted someone in the public gallery. DAvey wanted to tell us how wonderful grammar schools were, because they had produced people like him. He must be so pleased that Mrs Angry was educated at a grammar school too, the same one as the intrepid Labour councillor Kathy Mc Gurk. Problem is Tom, that for every grammar school you have, you create another crap school elsewhere full of children who think they are educational failures, waiting for a Tory councillor to pay for them to have aspiration served along with their free school lunch. But Tom wanted to make a suggestion: he wants all schools to teach economics because -tee hee - the Labour councillors would have benefited from this. 'Economics?' shouted a resident: 'What about Iceland?' Aha. That's accountancy though, isn't it, to be fair?

During the debate on pupil premium, because it was a Coalition policy, this was considered worthy of approval by the Tories. Approval had to be demonstrated. While Jack Cohen was speaking, Brian Coleman was nodding, gravely, in that manner he thinks makes him look like an elder statesman, rather than an absolute eejit. He is mistaken. At the same time, Andrew Harper was nodding his head so vigorously, I thought there was a real danger that it might come off, and roll across the chamber floor. If it had, you can be sure that it would still be saying 'Hello: I'm Andrew Harper, deputy leader and Cabinet Member for Education, Children and Families, don't you know ...' Of course, if Brian Coleman's head were to fall off, and roll across the floor, well: well, nothing really, it's just an amusing thought, isn't it, boys and girls?

Sachin Rajput spoke about 'Right to Control', an initiative meant to offer more decision making to disabled people. Rajput is a relentlessly grim speaker. He doesn't smile, or try to please. He is defensive, bullish, hard. The perfect man for the Broken Barnet Cabinet, in other words. He went off on a rant about the 97 election. 'But you lost that,' yelled a resident, '27.4 million!' yelled another, and then 'Matthew Offord!' just for good measure, not sure why, but we all laughed anyway. He struggled to keep going. Councillor Rawlings, for Labour, was pleased to see a Labour policy being continued by the Coalition, but pointed out that the 'empowerment' this idea sought to endow could only do so if the individual had the means to make choices. And choices were going to be seriously minimised by the effect of so many cuts: benefits, the reduced funding of charities, for example.

Bridget Perry had a speech prepared. She told us that disabled people would welcome the release from the restrictions of 'routines'. They didn't want to be 'patronised' and 'nannied'. She thought that we were now going to see new generations of - and here is her list: people like - David Blunkett, Steven Hawkins, Stevie Wonder and Christy Brown. Yes, really. Sorry, Professor Hawkins: I'm afraid you'll have to get your own dinner tonight, now you've been released from the tyranny of the nanny state and a repressive timetable of routine.

After an interval for the councillors to go off and feast on their well deserved buffet spread, (Lynne Hillan lies on a chaise longue and Andrew Harper feeds her with pork scratchings) we were treated to a speech by Cllr Cornelius on the pleasures of intimate body piercing, as opposed to the heady thrill you might receive from a responsibility for planning in local government. I am assuming that he has tried both and that he is therefore able to speak from experience, and I am now looking at him in a whole new light, ladies and gentlemen, I can tell you. During this rather alarming preamble, I noticed, through the glass panes in the doors of the public gallery, that our lost Prince, Mark Shooter, was engaged in conversation with Brian Coleman. Shooter looked most uncomfortable, as if Brian had just given him a wedgie, or maybe a chinese burn. Wonder what that was all about?

Cornelius had by now moved from the subject of intimate piercings to John Stuart Mill - no easy task, I promise you. He then informed us that no one used public transport, and everyone used cars, just as Coleman had told us that no one who drives does not have a mobile phone. In other words, the vast majority of our Tory councillors simply have no idea how ordinary people live their lives - and care even less.

Up stands Kathy McGuirk, the Boudicca of the Labour group: and if the Labour group had any sense, she would be leader. No disrespect to Alison Moore, who is an intelligent and decent woman: she is also far too polite and reasonable for the job, which, in opposition to the bunch of shameless, brainless bunch of self serving hypocrites that is the Tory group, is just not what is needed. Kathy, on the other hand, is a quick witted, articulate and strong woman, who does not tolerate the rank idiocy of the Tories in debate, and puts them sharply in their place; in short she has the passion needed to focus on what is undeniably the worst political administration this borough has ever seen.

She had some suggestions for the Tories. Instead of wringing their hands about parking standards, and seeking to use parking charge money for revenue to compensate for the cash they lost in Iceland, why not try supporting public transport, which actually many people rely on, by the way. And she pointed out that despite the Tories' new obsession with localism, there were more 'diktats' being pronounced by Eric Pickles than ever before.

Hugh Rayner made some utterance about the Conservatives' light touch approach to local government.'Light fingered, you mean,' muttered my neighbour.

Eva Greenspan gave a speech. As usual whenever a woman speaks, the Tory boys were laughing. Unfortunately, she then let the side down and gave what was probably the most relentless, interminably tedious speech I have ever heard, in any context, and when the red light came on for her to stop, everyone cheered, including all her colleagues.

At last: Kathy McGuirk's motion on parking in Barnet. She described the boroughwide reaction of fury to the new charge proposals and the loss of free bays, the outpouring of protests by residents, the mismanagement of parking in Barnet, the complete failure of the council to listen to residents. She urged the Tory leadership to reconsider the isssue and most importantly of all, to consult properly with residents. Huge and sustained applause followed her speech. The Tory councillors looked very uncomfortable.

Coleman stood to reply. He had evidently been busy preparing a lovely speech of his own. Watching him working himself into a frenzy with an attempt at a rabble rousing diatribe was as amusing as it was infuriating: the man is just so outrageously arrogant, confrontational, and objectionable. He simply does not accept that he is in office to serve us: he thinks he knows better than us, and will not listen with respect to any point of view other than his own. And he must win every argument.

He started with an hilarious observation that, ho ho: we need more parking space so that - wait for it, Labour can park their bandwagons! We were rolling about in the public gallery, I can tell you. He then proceeded to tell us about the emails he had received. I say tell us, actually he sneered at the senders of these emails who, for some reason, were almost exclusively from wealthy people in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Oh, and they were from women, funnily enough.

He referred to 'Ms K', whose gardeners, he said, would not be able to park outside her house if the changes are made.

Then there was the woman who would have to 'park her car in her own drive'

Another who worried about her 'luncheon guests' not being able to park.

A mother whose 'kiddies' he said might actually have to walk to school.

Let's get this in proportion, he bellowed, we're not talking about building sky scrapers!

By this time he was in a full blown, eye rolling, teeth grinding, grade one rant, like a tv evangelist in Kentucky. The residents looked on in utter horror and expressed their outrage in no uncertain terms. Everyone shouted in protest, yelling about taxis, and the councillors' free parking permits. And, unsurprisingly, they were genuinely appalled to see an elected member of the council speaking of residents with such derision and lack of respect. The other Tory councillors looked deeply embarrassed.

Why had he picked on Garden Suburb? The most organised resistence to the charge rises and loss of bays is actually from Golders Green, yet this was not the focus of his attack. He would not have dared, because Coleman like to think he is well regarded in this community. He does not understand the depth of bad feeling caused in this area by these hikes, and the loss of bays, and the lack of consultation. Or perhaps he does now realise, and is trying to back pedal. Whatever one's sympathies for the people in this area, and I certainly understand why they are so upset, and admire the fight they are putting up, if concessions are made in some wards and not others this will be quite wrong.

Susette Palmer stood up, absolutely incensed. She yelled at him: 'WE DO NOT ALL LIVE IN GARDEN SUBURB! Big Society? You have no idea what you are talking about! ... It's easy to pick out those that you want to be cynical about ...'

Labour's Cllr Brodkin said it was not just about Garden Suburb ... in Burnt Oak, people were not annoyed about not being able to park a car outside their house, they just wanted to be able to park in their own street. Coleman had claimed the money was needed for things like SEN transport, and he therefore looked forward to this vital service being improved by 150% in line with the charge hikes.

Up stood Tory Cllr David Longstaff, the actor, remember - beige man in Ikea, small part in Mary Whitehouse? No? As if the place wasn't in enough uproar, he decided to inflame matters even more. I can't tell you what he was really saying other than it involved an hissy explananation of what a black hole is (we know, thank you, we read the book by that bloke Bridget Perry wants to empower) and then a spat with Kathy Mc Gurk. He was shouted down by the residents in the gallery, who were in open mutiny now, and being watched over by hovering security staff primed and ready to protect Brian Coleman with a human shield in the event of an armed insurgency by the Garden Suburb Massive.

Labour's Cllr Geoff Johnson made his maiden speech. He remarked, to thunderous applause, that Barnet's current adminstration was the worst council he had ever known in terms of engaging with residents, and described the increases as 'obscene'. He talked about the effects it will have in Colindale - many of the residents in the gallery were from this area. He declared, again to huge applause, that it was time residents were treated with more respect.

Up stands our friend Rajput. He had no sympathy with people in large houses who couldn't park outside their homes. What about him? What can he do when he can't park outside his house?

'Get on a bus! Try public transport! You've got a free permit anyway! What about the people who can't afford to pay?' yelled the residents. When he carried on arguing, the gallery as one yelled SIT DOWN! He sat down, defeated.

'Well', said Kathy Mc Gurk, shaking her head at the silent Tories: 'How to make friends and influence people!'

It was her turn to mock, and how the gallery enjoyed it: she mocked the Tories' suggestion that if people didn't want the new changes, they should move. She reminded them that the reason for shortfall in revenue was entirely their own fault and due to their mismanagement. She also remarked on their plans to sell off the parking service, which is interesting, isn't it?

Councillor McGuirk urged the Tories to be flexible, to consult more fully with residents and the council as a whole, and to rethink the proposals. If you don't, she warned - it will come back to haunt you.

She's right.

Sunday 23 January 2011

The Long March to Finchley

The March to Finchley, by William Hogarth, 1750.

(If you look closely, in the far distance is the Arts Depot, and, just in front, look: we can see a couple of highwaymen councillors on Finchley common, demanding money with menaces!)

So: I was on this bus, the other day * (bus/public transport: explanation for Tory councillors -see below) going to Finchley central, from Tally Ho, see, and minding my own business, avoiding eye contact with fellow passengers, as you do, and thinking about nothing in particular ... suddenly there was a lot of shouting, and general commotion, between some yob in a pulled up hoody and the driver.

Hoody became very displeased. Didn't agree with the view of the driver that his Oyster card had no credit, and informed him of this repeatedly, in no uncertain terms, in his charming North London gangsta patois. Driver stopped bus, turned off lights, opened doors and invited hoody to leave. He didn't. We sat there. He carried on yelling abuse. An old man, in his late eighties, decided, having probably lived through the war, and seen off Hitler, that he wasn't taking this crap from anyone, and informed the hoody of his opinions on this score, at some length. This was not taken awfully well by our friend, who started threatening the old boy, as well as the driver.

The driver sat in his cab, too scared to do anything. Eventually the bus drove off, with the yelling etc continuing. The old boy yelled back, the hoody squared up to him, the driver stopped the bus again, a woman tried to intervene, and then Mrs Angry opened her big mouth. Big mistake. Hoody turned on her, and an interesting discussion ensued, leading Mrs Angry to compliment him on his sparkling wit, which he rather took the wrong way, and so, after failing to get the quaking driver to call for assistance, she decided to get off.' 'Yeah, get off the bus bitch,' the hoody spat in her face, and for good measure adding an interesting, if somewhat graphic, suggestion as to how she might like to spend the rest of the afternoon.

Mrs Angry was so incensed by this latter remark that she, rather stupidly, jumped straight back on the bus, and replied, to the bemusement of the terrified passengers, in a frank and descriptive manner which may have cast doubt on the extent of his attractions, virility and stamina, that it might indeed be a pleasant way of passing the time, but that this was highly unlikely to involve the participation of the hoody. (Just imagine the fun I had explaining a censored version of this exchange to HM constabulary, btw). This observation may well have been misinterpreted as a form of 'disrespect', and therefore Mrs Angry fled before her new friend could hitch his trousers up and try to run after her.

Turned out, of course, that this hoody is a particularly charming gang member, from another borough, with some lovely interests, and a wide social network. Which is why she has now decided that walking up to North Finchley, and avoiding the bus, at the moment, is much more environmentally friendly, and of course, a useful source of much needed exercise. It also avoids any expense, and inconvenience, due to, oh I don't know, new parking charges, looking for a free parking bay, that kind of thing.

And, talking of walking up to North Finchley, and new charges, and the loss of parking bays etc, there is a march next Sunday, from Finchley Central to the Arts Depot, to protest against the the highly controversial agenda of One Barnet cuts, and privitisation, about to be forced on this borough by our Tory councillors. You know, the same people whom you may recall decided a few months ago that cuts are only for residents, and that the economic necessity they claim is driving them to such savage measures does not prevent them trying to sneak in a huge self awarded hike in their own pay?

If you are incensed by the sponging and abusive behaviour by this shameless bunch of hoodies masquerading as our elected representatives, vandalising our borough, whilst determined that we should pay for their free rides, permits and allowances, why not jump off the Broken Barnet bus, and walk with me and other residents to show how p***ed off you are? If I can do it, you can.

You might like to sign this petition, as well:

The Long March to Finchley meets at Finchley Central station at 11.30, and will continue along Ballards Lane to the Arts Depot. A hearty cheer will no doubt be raised as we pass the local Conservative association office - and I'm sure Councillor Coleman will wave out of his bedroom window with a friendly smile and a merry quip, to wish everyone 'Bon Voyage' as we shuffle along! Or perhaps he will provide tea and biscuits in the Methodist church hall for a few favoured guests? Milk, no sugar, and a couple of chocolate hobnobs? Thanks, Brian ...

And, of course I'm looking forward to being kettled in Waitrose carpark, ooh er - aren't you, ladies? (At least they have a loo, and we can do a bit of shopping while we wait ...)

*("bus", "public transport": these are widely available ways of moving from A to B, if you do not have a free parking permit, use of the Mayoral limousine, or a preference for travelling by taxi at the local tax payers' expense, but frankly are best avoided by the better class of person, and councillors.)

Thursday 20 January 2011

Are we being served? Secret shopping with Mrs Angry

Watched some of that Mary Portas programme the other night, in which she takes disaffected shop assistants to task for their lack of attention to customers. Service, as she pointed out, is what the customer wants, and what the customer deserves. Hmm.

I would agree, except I cannot abide the sort of bogus service you receive in so many shops now, whereby as soon as you set foot in their premises, you are assailed by a volley of insincere greetings and intrusive questions as to your shopping intentions. Much to the embarrassment of certain close family members, I have now refined a zero tolerance technique for deflecting this form of harrassment, because I know it for what it is: spin, and nothing else. It's no good greeting me like a long lost cousin at the door and then leaving me standing in the changing room in my undergarments waiting in vain for someone to go and get me another size (smaller, obviously). That's not service, is it?

As in shopping, so in life. And life in Broken Barnet is no exception. Imagine, perhaps, that our beloved borough is a big One Barnet department store, Grace Brothers style. I think I might cast Lynne Hillan as Miss Brahms, and Andrew Harper as Captain Peacock ... (as this blog is of course entirely politically correct, Mr Humphries' role must remain unfilled, and there will be absolutely no reference to Mrs Slocombe's feline friend). But are we being served?

In the One Barnet Department store, as Mary, Queen of Shops has found in the country in general, there is a deeply ingrained resistence to the idea that the customer is king. In the One Barnet store, the shop manager is king, and the staff defer to him, rather than the customer. We are told, all the time, that we are being given value for money, better for less: One Barnet, never knowingly undersold. What we are sold, of course, is a load of spin: 'service' replaced by disservice. Yes, we've all been left standing in the waiting room in our metaphorical undergarments, while the shop assistants are sitting by the back door, having a fag, and moaning about the customers.

Unfortunately, as in a rather grim Soviet era communist nation, we benighted residents of Broken Barnet have no choice but to shop at the One Barnet store, at least for the next three years or so. See the empty shelves, the mile long queues, the sense of hopelessness ... ?

What can we do about it? Not much. Except join in subversive activities and work towards the downfall of the state. Stuff like that.

In the meantime, let's catch up on some continuing stories from around our borough, shall we? Some good news stories, in the officially approved, all in this together, One Barnet style.

Actually, I should admit to you that Barnet's customer service may be slightly better than I have implied. I have great news, for example, in regard to my new lamp posts. Aha. And all it took was, let's see: about 25 emails, a few stories in the local press, some pointed questions submitted to my local residents' forum, oh and a handful of blogs, all over the course of several long months, and look, hey presto: as if by magic, our posts now have numbers stapled to them. Oh yes. No lights still, but then we mustn't ask too much. The road was only listed for work by the contractors in 2009, and we mustn't hurry them too quickly, after all. They might ask for more money.

Can you imagine my excitement, last week? Following some very interesting email exchanges and promises from a certain long suffering council officer, valiantly attempting to charm Mrs Angry with his wicked One Barnet ways (and impressive knowledge of Homer), one morning I peered through my net curtains and saw a man in a hi-vi vest staring at the lamp post outside my bedroom window, bold as anything. The cheeky monkey. And then - another man got out of a van, brandishing an enormous wooden pole (or maybe he was just pleased to see me) - you know, the sort of giant ruler they use to measure the overweening egos of certain Tory councillors. Well, that's all they did: just stare, and wiggle the pole around a bit; frankly, rather disappointing. And then this week, guess what? Another man turned up, and this time: he had a massive clipboard! Whoa. Put it away, son: we've all seen one before. Didn't look like the clipboard had seen much action, I have to say, but then I am easily impressed these days. Next thing: walked out next morning and found my lamp post is now officially number 18. Headless, but with a sense of identity. *(Update: came home this afternoon and found the post magically now has a lamp! Now we have our own pair of working street lights, one old, one new, twice the energy, twice the cost, right outside my bedroom window. Looking forward to going to bed in Guantanamo Bay surveillance lighting levels! I'm guessing this is all in hand with the Broken Barnet policy of transparency?)

Changing the subject: just borrowed a fascinating book from my local library, making the most of it while it's still there, don't you know. Biography of Mussolini. Hmm. Interesting life. Came to a bad end, sadly, like most dictators. Very unfortunate. Something to do with a lamp post.

Which reminds me - I forgot to say, it's true we have no lights still, but when we do, I have been promised an official One Barnet lighting up ceremony, with the lamp posts officially turned on by a councillor of my choice. Hmm. Thinking carefully about that. Councillor of my choice. One of the great and the good: a popular, well loved figure, and someone who would draw an enormous crowd of local residents, all keen to express their appreciation of his or her many admirable qualities ... Nope. No one springs to mind. Or rather, too many candidates spring to mind. Che peccato: such fun we could have had, eh citizens?

Anyway. What else? Ah yes - the infamous charge hikes. Blogger 'Don't Call Me Dave' has pointed out something which escaped the watchful eye of Mrs Angry - the fact that our beloved councillors are still being allowed a free parking permit. Yes: the councillors bringing in the new parking charges are themselves exempt from the same parking charges. Doesn't that just say it all?

*Update: here is a petition to sign if you object to this sorry state of affairs:

A week later, and I am afraid to say that I still have had no answer to questions about the mysterious vanishing act of the grossly insensitive proposed hike in the charges for the burial of children and still born babies. Let's hope this objectionable proposal has been thrown in the bin where it belongs.

Oh: and the online expenditure listing is revealing more and more highly questionable entries detailing the somewhat unexpected payments made with our money. Here are just a few more examples:

Forget about the previously mentioned expenditure on conference expenses by Children's Services: my attention has been drawn by an observant resident to a whopping £9,000 plus spent on the 15th of July at the Holiday Inn, Elstree. Yes, £9,000.

Oh: and in April, Children's Services paid £1,200 to some football club called Tottenham Hotspur, for 'conference expenses'. What's wrong with the Emirates, then? Who's a Spurs supporter? Really? Doesn't surprise me.

In June, Environment and Operations paid £7,600 to a theatre company, for 'other services'. This company presents plays on such subjects as the dangers of playing with fire, so perhaps this was for the benefit of certain councillors. At no little cost to us, unfortunately.

In April, and again in May, a company which apparently provides 'eco songwriting workshops' was made two payments totalling more than £5,000 for 'consult fees' by 'Environment and Operations...

Most bizarre of all, there were two mysterious payments, around £1,269 each, made in August by Adult Social Services to someone called 'Blondie Waka'. This is presumably - and of course I am happy to correct it if I am wrong - the same as 'Blondy Waka' , yet another obscure hip hop 'artiste' whose delightful ditty can be heard on Youtube, extolling the virtues of 'rude bitch music' which apparently goes 'in like a dick' and is addressed to 'you motherf*ckers' out there. You get me? I think she means us, ladies and gentlemen. 'Tell me what the f*ck you want', she asks, rather touchingly. Adult social services, eh? I wonder if she was hired to entertain the old people in a residential home? Keeping it real, and more challenging than a sing along with Dame Vera Lynn, I suppose.

But what I would really like, Blondy, is for someone to explain why we are supporting so many potty mouthed hip hop artistes, and daft theatrical ventures, and jollies at such expense, at a time when we are told we cannot afford children's centres, sheltered housing wardens, must decrease support for children from educational psychologists, slash funding from the early interevention and prevention services which protect vulenrable children, cut the maintenance of grants to essential charities, the continued protection of libraries, museums, lollipop ladies etc etc etc. That's 'what the f*ck I want'. Thanks.

Oh, and while you're there, in the interests of 'transparency', could you perhaps find out why someone at Barnet has recently ordered that your name be withdrawn and replaced with 'named individual' in the expenses listings, along with some other parties, since the list was originally published? Is there something they didn't mean us to see?

How transparent is a piece of black out material?

Happy Birthday to the Broken Barnet technical advisor, from possibly the most embarrassing mother of all time ... xxx

Friday 14 January 2011

Banquet of the Senseless

The unexpected absence of Brian Coleman from the Cabinet Resources committee meeting last week was, as I am sure you can imagine, a source of great grief and anxiety among the gathered residents present. The scenes which ensued after the passing of the charge increases would have been even more enhanced by the presence of our Brian, but he was unavoidably detained elsewhere. Unless I am very much mistaken, in fact, he was busy stuffing his face at the annual London Government Dinner, hosted by the Lord Mayor at Mansion House.

According to a blog by my friend Mr Roger Evans, AM, GLA Conservative group leader, Boris Johnson was in fine form at the dinner, surrounded by a 'star studded' audience (and Brian Coleman) - and treating them to a wonderful speech. Mr Evans commented that he likes the fact that he no longer has to listen to Ken Livingstone 'droning on in a speech about boring old economics, and observes that Boris 'appears so much more relaxed in this environment'. Oh really?

Well, I'm pleased to hear it. Old Etonians are back in fashion after all, and I'll bet Ken used to eat his peas with a knife and tuck his napkin into his collar: so shaming. What did Boris talk about? He made a nice little speech about wicked train drivers unions, which led seamlessly into a hymn of praise on the joys of driverless trains. And the next day Coleman was quoted in the Ham & High saying the Mayor should start looking immediately at phasing out all drivers from the underground. Nice. Can't wait to sit a train with no driver, can you? Of course this won't concern Boris or Brian, as neither of them take public transport, do they? Wonder if there are any taxi bills winging our way since last week, after their slap-up supper, by the way?

While Boris, Brian and Roger were enjoying their banquet, of course, back in Barnet, Brian's Tory colleagues were sitting in a committee room, surrounded by enraged residents, voting for a huge and highly controversial number of astronomical charge and fee increases; increases which will affect every resident in our borough: from allotments to skips, bowling fees to photocopying charges, and of course the now notorious parking charges.

Of course the parking charges are perfectly avoidable. Oh yes, they are. If you choose to drive a car, and insist on using it to get to places, and carry people around in, that's your problem. And, as the senior officer responsible for the report said at the meeting last week, if you must hog these parking places and will insist on not moving on, preferably out of the borough - you must expect to pay. You want to park outside your own house? Outrageous. Some people. If it bothers you, paying for the privilege of parking, why not become a Tory councillor, travel by taxi everywhere, and charge that to the local taxpayer? Problem solved.

There are some curious inclusions in the listings of new rates. These are the 'amended' rates, by the way, apparently rearranged, (although not substantially lower, as far as I can see), in a little panic about the amount of protest councillors around the borough are receiving.

For example: community and charity events on greenspaces will, for the first time, be charged per day, £56 and £140 respectively. Why, when there is no cost to the council anyway? Who owns these greenspaces? Are we going to be charged for breathing One Barnet air next?

The use of greenspaces by Barnet schools for cricket, football or rugby: previously no charge, now £303.

Tree safety inspection for education/Barnet sites, previously free, will now be charged at a rate of £165. Can your children's school easily afford such charges?

Tree safety inspection for 'various other sites' : no longer free, now £200. Worried about that branch falling on your head? Wear a One Barnet hard hat and cross your fingers.

Fitness programmes ie exercise classes, previously free, now £20. Of course those with means, and gym membership, won't be affected. Those who cannot afford gym membership and rely on free classes will not be able to afford to pay. Yet again the poorest and least advantaged members of society will be affected, and their health will be suffer, incurring more serious health problems - and at greater long term cost to our health service.

Collection and disposal of dead animals from private dwellings: previously £19, now £50. Nice. Maybe just leave that rat where it is. Our council isn't bothered, and probably some Homechoice tenants are moving in next week.

Oh, and forget about the cost of living: worry about the cost of dying, here in Broken Barnet. Because even unto death, Barnet Council will pursue you.

In fact, the original proposals had the most offensive list of proposals for rises in rates for burials. Amongst this admirably bureaucratically organised list were rises in the rates for the burial of still born babies, and children under the age of three. Two different rates, in fact, one more expensive than the other. I could speculate as to the reason, but in view of the subject matter, I will not.

Anyone who has known someone who lost a child of this age - and I have friends who have experienced this sort of terrible loss - knows what a tragic and deeply traumatic experience this is. To be charged hundreds of pounds to bury an infant of this age is appalling enough, but only in the London Borough of Barnet will they actually sit and think how much more money they can screw out of grieving parents in these tragic circumstances. I cannot tell you how disgusted I was to see these increases listed. But how very strange: after the failed attempt to sneak these charges through without unfavourable publicity, by the time we reached the meeting last week, all mention of increased burial charges had vanished, as if they had never existed, back into the murky sludge from where they never should have emerged. Or have they? I emailed the council on Friday to see what has happened to these particular charge proposals but I have not yet received any reply, so I cannot tell you if they have been omitted - or simply taken off last week's report for political reasons.

On a lighter note, I see that not all the increased charges are too extensive: the rate for a spare dipstick, for example (yes, really; don't ask me why) - is only going up by £1. No, Madam, that's not Councillor Coleman ...

If you recall, we are constantly being told that the cuts and the redundancies and the hike in charges are all unavoidable. We are given the same old line, repeated over and over again, in the hope that we will eventually be brainwashed into believing them, that they are committed to ' a relentless drive for efficiency', 'better services for less money', and that it is all the fault of the economic mess caused by no, not those naughty bankers, it's all the fault of the wicked Labour government, and its carefree spending.

Ah yes, carefree spending. Because of course our Tory council is the epitome of financial prudence. Well, yes, it did lose £27 million pounds of our money in the Icelandic fiasco, and then there was the matter of the bridge overspend, and then the money they forgot to collect in tax, how many more millions is that? And ... oh, well, let's not dwell on all that unpleasantness, shall we?

By the way: did you know that our council is now obliged to display all expenditure over £500 online?

Take a look. It is a very interesting list, if you are patient, and prepared to trawl through the accounts. It's only one quarter's worth, and is more than due for an update, funnily enough. If you take a peek, you will note with interest that while our Tory councillors are pushing through a programme of cuts of unprecedented savagery, and voting through the sort of charges listed above, they are happy enough to spend money on some rather questionable expenditure on our behalf.

Here is just a tiny selection of a long, long list of how they chose to spend our money. This selection is fairly random, and just the tip of the iceberg. It does not even begin to include the really big stuff such as the numbers of payments to consultant companies and recruitment agencies, or the puzzling payments to 'redacted' individuals.

Let's take the £3,000, for example, that was paid for 'Consult Fees' to the 'Momo Theatre Company' on the 8th of September, 2009. This company apparently provides workplace shows, and shows for schools, on environmental issues, delivered through the medium of 'slapstick comedy' As if we didn't have enough homegrown One Barnet knockabout fun to keep us all amused!

Or how about some mysterious expenses paid for 'conference fees' - such as the £519 spent at West Lodge Park hotel, for for Barnet's Children's Services, on the 29th of July; and the £535 paid for conference fees through 'central expenses' to the Greek Cypriot Community Trust on the 4th of August. Why do we have to pay any such fees? Surely we have plenty of in-house facilities for meetings at NLBP or the Town Hall?

Why are there four payments, described as 'other services', paid by Children's services to a 'hip hop' producer, totalling around £4,000, all within the space of one quarter? To be fair, it may be that there is a genuine educational need for children in Barnet to learn skills of this nature, regardless of the high cost: I'd be interested to know more, if this is the case.

And then we have two payments to a gentleman named Todd Worsnip. Todd Worsnip, you know - DJ Snips. Yeah, that Todd Worsnip. £820 on the 9th July, £1,420 on 16th August. Again, paid by Children's services for 'other services'. I note that on his website he refers to having 'acted as a mentor figure for young people who have been excluded from school or have criminal convictions'. Mmm. I am quite certain that the interests and language he expresses in his Twitter page are absolutely conducive to such a role.

I'm not altogether sure, however, that our Tory councillors would necessarily find much in common with Snips. He is, after all, quoted in an interview with the 'Sa-lute' website as follows:

"If you could spit in anyone’s face who and why?
- David Cameron, because hes a C***.
Good Call!"

Money well spent, then, I'd say. You may disagree, and think there are more pressing calls on our shrinking financial resources. And no doubt these artists, who boast of their charitable activities, will be happy to give their interesting services free to the borough in future, as part of their Big Society contribution.

Just by chance, after writing this, I turned on the tv, and there, on the BBC's 'Inside Out' programme, was a feature about the issue of withdrawing wardens from sheltered housing. Guess which authority was the star of the show? Yes: the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

I watched the item and felt truly ashamed at living in a borough which shows nothing but callous indifference to the needs of such vulnerable elderly residents, has had its plans thrown out of court, and yet is still absolutely determined to pursue the course of removal of such vital support. This administration originally adopted such a policy purely on ideological grounds, and now will maintain that such measures are necessary because of the current financial crisis. At the same time they pretend their programme of cuts is designed to protect the safeguarding priorities, the interests of the most vulnerable and most needy of residents, and yet here is the perfect example of just these sort of residents who are being put at risk to their health and sense of security by a completely indefensible and unnecessary cut in service. As the programme pointed out, any short term savings by removing the wardens will be dwarfed by the greater cost of increased reliance of social service budgets.

Take a look at the books, and see for yourselves where your money goes, and consider whether you feel that the prioritisation of resources is as they should be.

As for me, until this council stops throwing money at the big lie that is the One Barnet programme, gives back the committee allowance increase money our Tory councillors sneakily awarded themselves this summer; until they cut spending on all the consultants, and agencies, and conference expenses, payments to slapstick comedians, hip hop artistes and foul mouthed DJs, I won't believe they really give a damn.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Stand and Deliver: highway robbery in Broken Barnet

Cabinet Resources Committe, 13th January

The area in which I now live used to be, until relatively recently in the history of our borough, a part of Finchley Common: a place notorious for brutal highwaymen like Dick Turpin and Jack Shepherd, who spent their days and nights lurking in the undergrowth with pistols and evil intent, waiting for some hapless coach of passengers rushing through the danger zone to fall into their bloody hands.

Times have changed, of course. If you stay too long in this neck of the woods you don't necessarily go in fear of your life, but you are still at risk of being relieved of all your disposable cash. And the ruthless ne'er do wells targeting innocent citizens going about their daily lives are more likely to be doing so in the guise of elected Tory councillors of Barnet Council, rather than as the romanticised career criminals of a bygone age.

No one coshes you over the head, these days, or threatens to pepper you with shot. Highway robbery, in Broken Barnet, in the year 2011, is carried out by stealth, by cunning, and by committee.

Ah: and tonight there were dark deeds aplenty amongst the gang of four culprits comprising the Cabinet Resources Committe, which was meeting to approve a huge number of highly controversial proposals imposing massive charge increases in a wide ranging and very long list of fee based activities - from allotments, burials to - oh dear - parking ...

I didn't hear any discussion tonight of the driving force behind these proposals, that is to say, a purely monetary one. And the interesting thing about the parking charges, in fact, is that despite the implication that this will go towards making good the budget deficit entirely caused by the wicked Labour government ( nothing to do with those lovely bankers, remember) all parking revenue is ringfenced and can only remain in the highways budget. So all that extra dosh which will be chiselled out of Barnet motorists can only be used within a very strictly defined area, not spread about for the general good. Perhaps we will see all potholes filled with gold, and another boroughwide round of lamp post replacements then?

Feelings were running high tonight. Very high. In fact, let me give you a taste of what is to come in this report, when I tell you that what started off as a well attended but rather subdued meeting eventually descended into utter chaos in the public area, a call for security, and an enforced ten minute adjournment.

As we discussed in an earlier blog, the councillors had been hoping to get away with the charge increases, as well as the removal of free parking bays, by keeping publicity and consultation to the barest minimum, and arranging what little warning there was about parking changes and hikes to take place over the holiday period. When residents found out, rather late in the day, what was happening, a smouldering resentment began to build, and this has been rapidly turning into a boroughwide blaze of fury.

These committee meetings are generally poorly attended by the public, but some of the many residents who are enraged by the enormous charge hikes had come along to this one, and a few had submitted questions about the allotment rises. I don't know why there were no questions about the parking charges, as this was the most controversial issue. I strongly suspect that many simply failed to understand their right to pose such questions. Audience participation is not exactly encouraged at these carefully stage managed events, for obvious reasons.

Those who had tabled a question appeared not to realise, and of course, it was to the councillors' advantage that they did not realise, was that they would be given written answers, but would also be entitled to attend and ask a supplementary question in person of the committee. None of the questioners had prepared a supplementary question, and some of those who had tabled questions had received replies by email and not known they could attend and extend the point of their question. Others claimed they had not been able to ask questions which had supposedly been raised before: in short there was a great deal of confusion about what is, after all, their fundamental right to engage in the democratic process of local government

Ah, and what a surprise: as predicted by Mrs Angry, an amendment had been made to the agenda, in which, by means of a neat trick, the charge increases would be approved in principle, with no discussion of the levels, as this had been postponed to a later date, cleverly averting, with useful ambiguity and evasion, much of the flack that was flying their way over the increases.

The members of the committee present were rather fewer than might have been expected: we had Andrew Harper, the deputy leader, sitting happily, like a rose between two thorns, in between little Robert Ramsbottom and our Mr Punch, Richard Cornelius. The chair was my personal One Barnet budget consultant, Daniel Thomas. Oh: I know what you are wondering: where was Dick Turpin? And where was his faithful moll, Lynne Hillan?

Yes, a disappointing and mysterious absence from the Cabinet member responsible for these charge proposals, your favourite and mine, Councillor Brian Coleman. Where was he? Was he unavoidably detained? Was he suffering from a diplomatic illness? Had he been rounded up, gagged, and imprisoned in a dark cellar, somewhere deep in the bowels of the Town Hall? Or was he sulking, after his embarrassing defeat earlier this week at the London fire authority, where, outrageously, he had been trying to enforce plans to end the rights of members to (how dare they?) ask questions at their meetings? (This aborted move may or may not be linked to the rumour published in the Standard on Tuesday that there are moves to sack ALL London firefighters and force them to apply for a shrunken number of posts.)

*Update Friday: there is an interesting story in the Ham &High about Brian Coleman and his comments about too much money being awarded to our borough from Tfl ...

So: Brian wasn't there, and nor was Lynne. Perhaps she's still on one of her well deserved holidays. (Hope it wasn't that Saga cruise being targeted by pirates!) You don't think - no, it couldn't be - could it, that they were trying to avoid this meeting for some reason? Surely not.

In their absence, anyway, the assembled bunch of B list Tory councillors still managed to do us over good and proper, and as it turned out, not a thing could be done about it. Except explode in anger, and yell in the direction at the said B list Tory councillors, as almost all the residents left in utter disgust and fury, once they realised the charges had been approved, without any debate. (There is no debate, in a Cabinet meeting of any sort, just nauseating self satisfaction, cant and hypocrisy.)

Daniel Thomas, the chairman who looks like a head boy and talks like a Thatcherite throw back, didn't see why we should worry about anything that wasn't a frontline service. Andrew Harper agreed. Robert Rams had spoken to allotment holders in his consituency and said they were more interested in taking over the allotments themselves, in accordance, he noted approvingly, with correct One Barnet thinking. 'Drivers of their own destiny' proclaimed Councillor Thomas, in equal admiration ...

As for the parking charges, Andrew Harper had just a shadow of a question: how did the proposals shape up compared to other boroughs? Just an after thought, you know, no need to consider that sort of thing when you are first drawing up such significant proposals, is there?

The cooperative senior officer was happy to reassure him, quoting some inner London figures which rather puzzled Mrs Angry, and other residents, as of course Barnet is an outer borough ...

Emboldened by Harper's rebellious attempt at vigorous scrutiny, (well - Brian and Lynne weren't there so no one could kick them under the table) Rams blurted out that there were lots of comments from residents about the loss of free parking places. Ah. Ooops:

The senior officer wasn't concerned. In her opinion, it could be argued that there was a 'contradiction' in having any free places in controlled parking areas. Oh, that went down awfully well with the residents, I can tell you ... in fact, this is the point when they began to get very, very cross.

A woman shouted across to the committee - 'When are you going to open the floor up to questions?'

They weren't, of course.

The councillors carried on congratulating themselves. Daniel Thomas thought Barnet's charges were good value for money. Harper justified the rises because we haven't revised the pay and display rates for a couple of years now.

The senior officer made a remark about the new changes encouraging people to move on and not block a space all day. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear: that was it.

'Rubbish!' shouted a member of the public. There was pandemonium. People began to stand up, move about, and shout at the committee:

'You all have free parking passes, don't you?'

'You won't get away with this!'

'You are an absolute disgrace!'

'You don't listen to the public!

'You're meant to represent us!'

The sort of people who were acting in this unprecedentedly outspoken way were not political activists: they were ordinary, decent, middle class residents, elderly allotment holders, residents of areas with CPZs, several members of the orthodox Jewish community, a young girl, a student, traders.

An impassioned retailer from Golders Green yelled across the room: 'how can you say these charges are going to benefit trade?' Another woman shouted that she hadn't known about the changes until yesterday, the lack of consultation was outrageous.

Enter the council security, and council officers: throughout all this, of course, our Tory councillors went rather red, kept their heads down, and remained silent. Due to the uproar, the Chair snapped that there would have to be an adjournment. Most of the residents left the room in fury. As she left, one woman told them: 'We voted for you - we won't make the same mistake again, just wait and see!'

Oh, goodness me, what have you done, you silly Tory councillors?

There followed a couple of other items, but no one really bothered to show much interest.

They approved the renewal of the Sodexho contract, despite Cllr Cornelius' slight concern about people possibly having to eat 'mush' in order to subsidise the very expensive special meals some elderly or dependent people require (the fusspots, eh?).

I thought we were going to get some probing questions from Andrew Harper (sorry, Deputy Dear Leader, Andrew Harper) on the issue of a renewal of resources for some project tackling the issue of domestic violence, but in fact he said that although he recognised the importance of this subject, he would just like to point out (you may wish to sit down now, in case you faint with the shock) that his title had been incorrectly given in one part of the report. Will this be amended? It was agreed that it would, which I am sure will be of no small relief to us all.

At this point, the public were excluded while they all discussed some property matter, and Mrs Angry took the welcome opportunity to slip away into the rainy night.

So there you have it, another magnificent example of the way they do things in the London Borough of Broken Barnet: see our Tory councillors' commitment to the principles of democracy and transparency in public office, to the process of consultation, engagement with the community, and a new dedication to the concept of localism, and marvel at the way in which it will empower residents to take the important decisions which will shape the future of our borough!

Or maybe not.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Mrs Angry signs the Pledge

I, Mrs Angry, hereby solemnly promise to sign the pledge and abstain from all alcoholic refreshment until - what time is it? Can't last out much longer. What? Not that sort of pledge? Phew.

Ok, what sort of pledge is it, then?

According to the local Times, 'Pledgebank' has been set up by Barnet Council to get residents volunteering for community work. Ah. Big Society, and all that. Marvellous. Ask not what the London Borough of Broken Barnet can do for you, but what you can do for the London Borough of Broken Barnet. No, you aren't allowed any allowance for doing it. That's being a councillor. Well, yes, they are supposed to be working for the good of the community too. No, of course they can't be expected to VOLUNTEER and perform their duties from a sense of civic pride like the rest of us. Why the f**k should they? They're not mugs, you know. *(Update: mugs, you know - those things which fly out of cupboards and hit Tory MPs in the eye, according to poor old accident prone Matthew Offord). And yes, it's true they not only refuse to do this for free, in fact but, oops, last year they tried to screw more money out of the community for their part time efforts; but hey, let's not hold a grudge.

Let's see, what does our little man Cllr Ramsbottom have to say about the scheme:

"There are two ways it can be used. If someone wants to start their own youth club they can go online and ask the council to provide sports equipment if five other people pledge to help ..."

Wonderful opportunities there for Mr P de File, and every nutcase in the borough, to gain access to vulnerable youngsters, eh? And how much is all this equipment going to cost us, Robert?

"The other way is by getting people to pledge to help with community activity, such as clearing snow from a road or graffiti from a street. We can then provide the grit or paint to do this."

Hmm. Isn't that sort of drudgery that people with community service orders are supposed to be doing, under the supervision of properly trained council officers?

Or, as the Times reporter points out:

'Critics have accused the Conservatives of trying to get residents to provide services free that councils should be providing.'

Look what our Dear Leader tells us in her proclamation in the Local Government Chronicle:

"Increasingly local government will be a deal: “ We will provide a half a ton of grit if you agree to spread it”. There is a real engagement challenge here - often these groups will not be the usual suspects. They will be “flash communities” of short duration, forming to complete an activity - such as clearing snow or tackling local environmental damage."

Ah, yes: the Dunkirk spirit. Backs against the wall. All in this together. Trouble is, if residents have a common adversary in all this mess, their hostility is directed against the council, and they do not want to work with it. Because, as we know too well now, we are not all in this together; there is one rule for them, and another for us.

The real engagement challenge is between Barnet Council and its electorate, and they continue to fail to make it work because they don't respect our opinions, they are dictating to us how they want us to think, and how we should behave.

Never mind. Let's join in the fun. Mrs Angry has submitted her own pledge. She had to email it because for some reason, the online form appears reluctant to take her suggestions:

"hello friends: do you know, there appears to be a slight problem with submitting any pledges via the online form? Great shame. Here is mine, anyway: I look forward to seeing it if you ever get round to listing them. Have you had many entries yet? Real ones, I mean, not the ones on there before launching the site!

I am of course saluting a picture of the Leader as I write:

"As long as my fellow bloggers do the same, I will continue faithfully to monitor the activities of Barnet Council, and report them as fully and as accurately as possible to the residents of this borough, hopefully in a manner that is both entertaining and informative.

I will not expect any allowance or payment for this civic service.

Amen, thank you, and God bless us all."

Yours faithfully,

Mrs Angry

Sunday 9 January 2011

Netroots UK: an online rebellion

So: there is trouble in paradise, and, here in Broken Barnet, the natives are restless.

But what is happening elsewhere in the country, around and about this earth of majesty, this septic isle?

Are there signs of resistance beginning to emerge in opposition to the apocalyptic political agenda of the Coalition government, or are people just sitting back and waiting for the worst to happen? What can we do about it anyway? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out.

A few years ago, while America was still squirming under the heel of the Bush administration, across the nation there emerged a new grassroots political phenomenon, the Netroots movement, which, through the use of new online resources and social media, created active opposition to the Republican government, and strengthened support for progressive political causes, directly contributing to the success of the Obama election campaign. The Netroots movement has become so well established and influential, in fact, that the President himself sent a video address to the 2010 conference.

On Saturday, the first Netroots conference was held at the TUC HQ in Bloomsbury, drawing more than 600 interested bloggers, tweeters, journalists, and other online activists, to hear speakers from the media and politics, and take part in various workshops. Mrs Angry was there: she would not exactly claim to see herself as an organised activist, but thought it might be interesting to attend, and it certainly was. And it was amusing, and flattering, to -ahem - hear this blog singled out for praise in one of the workshops by someone I guess we have to describe as a 'veteran journalist' (tweet that then, Dave Hill - although of course, really, I'm only a girlie blogger writing about knitting & kittens & stuff ... )

This event even attracted the interest and attendance of a few token Tories, including Sam Coates, who, we were told towards the end of the afternoon, had described the day as 'chaotically brilliant'. Even poor old Guido Fawkes got his knickers in a twist about it (I'm guessing he wasn't invited) and with all the wit you might expect from him, labelled the event - go on, go on - yes, 'Nutsroots'. Actually, it was markedly short of spotty geeks and nutters (apart from the token Tories in their kipper ties) and contrary to Fawkes' prediction, we were not plied with unlimited amounts of alcohol and subsidised food all day long. The hosts being the TUC, I had of course expected beer and sandwiches, but disappointingly we were handed paper bag mums packed lunches of the sort, in a post Jamie Oliver world, that you're actually not allowed to give your kids anymore: stuffed with crisps and Ribena. Ribena! But anyway ...

What was a real revelation to me, throughout the course of the day, was that much of what is happening in our borough, with the flourishing blogosphere, and the unprecedented interest - by normally apathetic voters - in both local and national political issues, is part of a much bigger picture. People are restless, and frustrated, and not connecting to mainstream politics or finding expression in media such as the press, tv and radio. they are taking matters into their own hands.

One of the first speakers on Saturday was a guy from the TUC, who made some very interesting points about the changing perception of electors, as recorded in a series of opinion polls since the May election.

When the Coalition government first announced the necessity for a blitzkrieg of spending cuts of such ferocity, the good old British public accepted, like the dimwits they take us for, that this course of action was unavoidable. Increasingly, however, people are beginning to have serious concerns about the speed in which the programme of cuts are being introduced, the effects they will produce, and they are rapidly realising that the cuts are in fact inherently unfair. The number of voters who think they are going to suffer directly is rising, whilst those who think the cuts will be good for the economy is falling to zero. And of course all this is happening before any of the proposed changes have really begun to take practical effect: what happens then will be very interesting indeed.

Journalist Polly Toynbee spoke eloquently about what is heading our way: the full impact of change on our society, the effects every citizen will see in their local community, and in their daily and family lives. The impact of loss of budgets for schools, further education, training, libraries, hospitals, the police, ambulance and fire services. The effect on young and old: childrens' centres, youth centres, elderly day care centres. Tuition fee rises, the loss of EMA. Old and young, the most vulnerable will be the hardest hit. She pointed out that most cuts will fall hardest, of course, on children, the poorest children. Forget about 'every child matters': staff in certain government departments have already been forbidden to use this phrase. Benefits lost or cuts or frozen rates; changes to housing policy and the increased difficulty of finding affordable accommodation: almost every cut you can think of will have a direct impact on the youngest and most dependent members of our society.

Every child suffers, in Coalition Britain.

Toynbee warned that Cameron and friends, in what she described as a 'brutal' government, are recklessly creating 'a social deficit of incalculable cost'. The repair of such damage will be so much harder than any kind of financial repayment, becaus what is being planned, is so much huger than anything that Margaret Thatcher ever dared to do. She left her own legacy, of course: a lost generation of young people, brought up dependent on a welfare system: Thatcher's children, the point where Britain got broken, in my humble view, Dave. Your turn now, you, and George and Nick: see how big a mess you can create, why don't you?

But there is hope, as well as bleak foreboding, in what Polly Toynbee had to say. She noted how political opposition to the government is so much more united than in similar situations in past history. And if the impact of the cuts is going to be felt on such a local, personal scale, then perhaps much of the solution to fighting the onslaught is also on a local, personal scale.

Time for communities to fight back, and take control of the argument. And in the age of online activisim, blogging, tweeting, social media, there is a new accessibility for ordinary people to do just that. I think it's true to say that there is obviously now a completely dysfunctional relationship between Parliament and the vast majority of voters, and there traditionally has been little interaction between local government administrations and their local constituents. I think that fury and frustration is already forging a new lack of tolerance for the self serving politicians of the parliamentary world and indeed those misfits skulking about in the Town Hall chambers of local authorities. Voters are wising up. So much information is now available online, and this is where so much political debate is taking place. Politicians need to rethink their preset ideas, and the mainstream, traditional press and media, both national and local, need to adapt and change if they want to survive.

One of the later speakers was a very interesting guy, Ari Rabin-Havt, who runs 'Media Matters', an organisation in the US which monitors press coverage of politicial issues. This, as we are reminded so horrribly today, is a very important function. He warned of the 'Fox Effect': the way in which a right wing television channel presents political issues in sensationalist and seemingly unregulated ways; a practice which can have a truly catastrophic effect.

Many citizens in America form all their political views from such toxic sources. We watched a film of a presenter called Glenn Beck, raving, ranting about Nazis and Socialists, footage reminiscent of the movie 'Network', you know, 'I'm mad as hell etc ' - which appeared to be a spoof: it wasn't. Think of Sarah Palin, and her surreal world view: we laugh, but many Americans hold the same attitudes and dangerous opinions, having been fed for years on a newsdiet of such crap. What happened in Tucson this weekend is already being linked to the poisonous atmosphere engendered by such dangerous and irresponsible political coverage and debate.

Will we face problems like that over here? Hopefully not. But we have our own difficulties: most of our national newspapers are tediously right wing, and the famous neutrality of the BBC is something which requires eternal vigilence. But that takes us back to the Netroots idea: cutting through the barrier of the hostile or indifferent old school media, and giving ordinary people and ordinary communities a voice, and a say in their own futures. Empowering them, you might say, if you were a Big Society kind of person. Who'd got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Because - it's localism, Dave.

But not as you know it.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

The Peasants' Revolt: a stroppy Residents' Forum


Were your ears burning, last night, Brian?

A word of advice from Mrs Angry.

Maybe don't accept any social invitations in the Golders Green area, in the near future.

Unless, of course, you particularly want an earful from members of the local community on the subject of your new parking plans, your attitude to consultation, the arrogance of the present council, the hypocrisy of the present council, and: well, shall I go on?

Consultation? Let me explain. This is a process whereby elected representatives of the community - yes, councillors - are supposed to ask residents what they think about new council proposals, by giving them clear and detailed information, allowing them time to consider the matter, then listening to what they have to say. All this is done in an open, honest and positive manner, because after all, elected representatives are accountable to the electorate, aren't they, and must remember that they are only in place to serve the needs of the community, not dictate to them what is going to happen. No?

Oh: hang on. Sorry, that's not how it works in Broken Barnet. I was forgetting. Bit carried away, after this evening's excitement. Yes: excitement, at the Finchley and Golders Green Residents Forum. Who would have thought it?

As usual, my spy and confidante Mrs X was sent to attend the meeting on my behalf. Let me give you Mrs X's breathless account, while she lies down on the chaise longue with a cold compress and a glass of sherry.

We had worried that due to the Christmas break, no questions would be tabled for this Forum so, just in case our boy chairman, Councillor Dean Cohen, might be bored, and feel like he wasn't earning his attendance allowance, Mrs Angry and Mrs X had thoughtfully suggested a couple of thought provoking items for the agenda.

First question:

'What efforts, if any, have been made to organise the performance assessment of councillors which was promised months ago, at the time of the allowance rise increases?'

Sadly, Mr Lustig, the usual brunt of Mrs X's questions, was absent - and the written reply was left to another officer who stated rather lamely:

'In July 2010 Council resolved; 'That the recommendation of LCIP be followed for role descriptions to be developed for councillors for all their areas of work; the role descriptions to be placed on council websites; Members to report publicly on their activity through a variety of channels ... and the introduction of an appraisal system for Members.' Work on this is ongoing.

Ah yes, mused Mrs X. Ongoing. But, er that was in July - six months ago ... has anything concrete actually been acheived since then?

Well, you know ... things are in place, she was told. Things in place? Marvellous, but is there any chance of the appraisal system up and running say, oh, let's see - before the next election?

Mrs X was given no such assurance, I am afraid to say.

Cast your mind back to last summer.

At the time of the allowance rise scandal, if you remember, we were told that this was all part of the new professional status they were trying to convince us that they deserved, along with a hike in pay. U turn or not, we currently have eight councillors with a 54% bump up of an extra allowance each for which we have absolutely no way of ensuring that we, the tax payers, are getting good value, or any value in return.

For all we know, these councillors turn up to a couple of meetings, wing it all the way through, let the council officers do all the real work, and then piss off home with £15,333 in their wallets. Of course, that cannot possibly be the case, can it, citizens, but the point is we just don't know, do we? How much of this legendary 'background work' do they actually do? How many hours a week does Lynne Hillan put in for her enormous annual rate? How many meetings are missed by councillors who are committee members? We elected these people, we pay for their allowances: we have a right to know. This evasion of scrutiny is shameful.

Next question:

'I have been told that the borough's huge lighting replacement project was both necessary and progressing satisfactorily. At a recent Budget and Performance Scrutiny Committee meeting, however, a council officer was apparently summoned to explain how it would be possible to make savings to the lighting contract. He told the meeting: "We may be able to use technology to resolve the problems instead of replacing lighting columns". This would appear to support the suspicions of many residents that the replacement project was a misuse of financial resources, and quite unnecessary. At a time when, supposedly due to a need for financial restraint, many council officers are facing redundancy, and so many vital services are at risk, how can this council justify the waste of such a large amount of residents' money on this pointless exercise?'

The response to this question was somewhat unclear: Mrs X asked the officer responsible about the date and amount paid for the current lighting contract, but he was unable to answer. Not to worry, Mrs Angry had taken the time to look it up before the meeting and provide Mrs X with the necessary details: wasn't that lucky? And from what she understands, a figure of no less than £27.5 million appears to have been thrown in their direction, in 2007.

Councillor/Lord in waiting Palmer, sitting in the audience, interrupted at this point. He wanted to inform Mrs X that he had himself queried this point when the contract had first been awarded. He said that he had not been able to understand how the contractors could claim that they could replace all the street lighting for the same cost as repairing the old stock.

He had thought, and commented at the time, that it was too good to be true. Ah.

Hold on, then ...

Because now a little bird has told Mrs Angry that in fact it may well have been too good to be true, and there may be, or have been, problems in the delivery of some of these contracts. She would politely remind our opposition councillors that, as previously suggested to them, they might care to investigate these projects and confirm whether indeed all is progressing as expected. Again, surely residents have a right to know?

Why does this matter?

At every single council meeting, with tedious predictability, Tory councillors of the loonier tendency stand up and foam at the mouth about savage savings being made necessary by the wicked, spendthrift, wasteful Labour government. Yet they seem unable to apply their own rigorous financial judgement on any assessment of their own financial management, for some reason - and here is a perfect example.

Why have we had to have all our street lighting ripped out and replaced, when now we are told it is perfectly possible to repair the stock we already have? And has this project actually been completed satisfactorily? It is impossible for the poor old tax paying resident to know: the contractor's website has until recently been consistently out of date and unforthcoming. After complaining, at last, some changes have been made, but these are rather puzzling: unless Mrs Angry is very much mistaken, and she is happy to correct this if so, streets which were listed for this year, ie 2010, just ending, have now been recorded as completed in the previous year, 2009, other listed streets have popped up which did not appear before on the list, and strangely, Mrs Angry's street does not appear on the list at all. Is that because it is a road in which the work has been left for months unfinished? Are there other roads around the borough left in a similar state?

Interestingly, as recorded since the summer, in our part of the street, we have a wonderful row of redundant new posts, shadowing the perfectly satisfactory old posts, still in use. Months later, and the new posts have never been given lights. We residents, on the other hand, have been given all sorts of excuses, all contradictory, as to why this is so. It's a load of nonsense, and I'm afraid to say presents a potent symbol of all that's wrong with this administration, and its fanatical committment to contracted out services at the lowest cost, regardless of the long term consequences.

And now: on to the main event.

It looked innocuous enough, the question.

Mr S, a resident from Golders Green, wished to express the objections of himself and many residents over 'the removal of free parking bays and an increase in the cost of resident parking permits from £40 to £100'.

Did you know about this? Does anyone?

It's not just in Golders Green, East Finchley and Cricklewood, whose residents were objecting last night - it's a boroughwide, income generating policy being sneaked in by the council over the holiday period - while they hope no one is looking.

All free bays will be removed, permits will go up to £100, and the cost of the vouchers which residents must purchase for visitors wishing to park is going up from £12 to an astronomical £48.

The written answer to Mr S's question stated:

'In order to meet the Council's aspirations of converting all existing free bays to paid for parking places in the borough work has already commenced in order that identified changes can be implemented and operational by 1st April 2011 although it is anticipated that roll out of the changes will commence on-street in late January ...'

Mr S stood up to speak. He was polite, and restrained, but he was furious, and so as it turned out were almost everyone in the room, once the debate opened up.

He had emailed the Cabinet member responsible for this policy proposal. Can you guess, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, which councillor it might be? Yes, our favourite, Councillor Brian Coleman.

Of course CPZs and parking meter schemes are always sold to us on the basis that they must be in place in order properly to manage the parking problems of a given area. In fact, all this does is move the problem onto another area. Parking issues, moreover, are really only of interest to the Tory politicians in this borough when there is money to be made.

In this case, Mr S had been told - in no uncertain terms - that the council wanted to lay its sweaty little hands on the ready cash that was to be had by implementing this proposal.

Mr S drily observed that he now knew how best to get in contact with a councillor: by upsetting them. He said that minutes after emailing our Brian with his objections to this plan, he was rather startled to receive a phone call from him ... 'I was quite scared', said Mr S, obviously still traumatised by the experience. Isn't it kind of Councillor Coleman to take such a personal interest in such matters! Ringing up grateful citizens to help them understand the finer points of council policy: imagine the cost of his phone bills! (Do we pay for those, btw?)

Mr S spent some time forensically examining the implications of Brian's income generating parking scheme,and the effects that the loss of all free spaces would have on residents. He was deeply concerned about what he perceived to be a failure by the council to consult with the residents before taking the decision to proceed with these plans. There is, as he reminded us, a statutory duty to observe this procedure fully, and in such a way that would, as government guidelines explain, 'avoid the public concluding that the council has already made up their mind' on the issue. He noted that only a few street notices had been quietly stuck up in the relevant CPZ areas, just before the Christmas holidays, and that there was little time for the public to object to these proposals. He found the lack of thorough consultation to be 'sinister' and could only conclude that the process was pointless as the decision was a foregone conclusion.

*(Update: I've just checked and failed to find any consultation for these proposals on the council's own online list of current consultations).

Another angry resident stood up to object. He also commented on the low level of notices and consultation. He resented the assertion by Coleman that the provision of free bays 'defies common sense'. Councillor Coleman was talking nonsense, and someone should tell him so. (From a safe distance, presumably.)

A woman resident was extremely cross and gave full vent to her feelings. She pointed out the disastrous effect on local shops and businesses, as well as ordinary residents, especially the elderly and less well off. She reminded the councillors that local authorities were not supposed to design parking charges for revenue. She said the enforced proposals were a dangerous slide into undemocratic policies in local government.

Another male resident said that he and other members of the Golders Green community had made their own survey of public opinions on the plans.In his view, the blanket proposals, with no exceptions, for the loss of all free places was proof that the scheme was purely for revenue purposes and that the effect on the community was being ignored. He criticised the lack of consultation and agreed that with the others that the decision had clearly already been made.

What was interesting about these impassioned speeches was that the people making them were not the usual sort of people who attend these sort of events. They were largely ordinary, non political residents, probably natural Tory voters, driven into political activity by sheer exasperation. It was a rebellion: a middle class mutiny.

There were several councillors present. Unfortunately, I could spot only one Labour member, Geoff Cooke. For Libdems, we had Monroe Palmer and Jack Cohen. Say what you like about the Libdems - and I certainly have - they are good local representatives and work hard, always attendind these Forums. Some Tories seem to think it is not important to attend and engage in debate with local residents. I have not seen Eva Greenspan in the six months I've been coming to these meetings, for example, and Daniel Thomas himself breezily informed me that he felt it unnecessary to attend, and has never done so.

Councillors Melvin Cohen, John Marshall and that beardy one whose name I can never remember sat very quietly throughout all this, their heads bowed. Melvin had a flat cap on, pulled down low over his forehead. But there was no hiding place. Someone had to speak. Melvin stood up. He said he was going to be unashamedly parochial. In other words he had to be seen to be doing something because he would never hear the end of it from his consituents, I suppose.

He said, trying to look hard, that someone had spoken to Councillor Coleman about it. Oh yes. He wasn't scared. (He looked scared). Please tell us what the outcome of that was, gasped Mrs X, in boundless admiration. Melvin looked worried, as well as scared - Oh, but I cannot possibly divulge the contents of a private conversation, he replied. But surely, asked Mrs X, we have a right to know what the response was - this is why we are all here, aren't we, to discuss these things? Can't you at least let us know, say, if the outcome was, well, favourable, or not favourable? Melvin looked even more worried. Hello: John Marshall put hid head over the trench, spun round and hissed at Mrs X ... 'No - he doesn't have to ... you listen and let him speak ...' Nice man. Went to the same political charm school as our Brian, I hear.

There was further unrest and confusion in the room over the timetable for consultation, and when the ultimate decision would be made, and by whom. Councillor Dean Cohen, bless him, doesn't know anything much about council procedures, and his Dad wasn't any help.

The council officer burdened with defending the indefensible, or facing the fallout from a political decision in the absence of any Tory with the balls to stand up and answer residents' criticisms, was himself confused about the timetable for consultation and decision making. He was also in the difficult position of trying to find practical reasons for a blanket removal of free spaces and a huge hike in charges, when this position had already been undermined by the blatant admission that the plans are being driven by revenue chasing politicians. This is yet another example of our local Tory councillors pretending that their policies are 'delivering better services for less money', in fact.

Monroe Palmer objected to the blanket policy being implemented, and said Libdems were very upset about the changes, violently against them. Labour's Geoff Cooke noted council information already stated that the changes will be implemented by February, a statement which of course prejudges the outcome of any consultation.

It became clear that the decision for these proposals rests solely in the hands of Brian Coleman, and that no other councillors or community involvement can directly influence this decision. Outrage was expressed in the room by residents about this, and a councillor suggested it might be possible to delay the decision making until such a time that a wider involvement might be sought. Palmer pointed out that 'localism' was supposed to bring greater power to the community and therefore committees should be expected to become more involved in these decisions. Of course this maverick Tory administration is more concerned with concentrating power within a privilged few rather than sharing the responsibilities with colleagues, let alone with the wider community.

A woman resident remarked that the present system of decision making in Barnet Council was reminiscent of a Soviet style procedure. 'Oh no, it's not', snapped a peevish John Marshall, who seemed to have woken up and thought he was at a Chrismas pantomime.

Obviously Barnet Tories don't mind dictating to the masses, but object to being told they are dictators. And you can't invoke the spectre of - sshh - good old fashioned Cold War era communism without upsetting the older councillors, who probably still have nuclear bunkers at the end of their gardens.

A trader now stood up and made a blunt but brilliantly effective speech. He was a tyrefitter in Golders Green: he turned around so we could see his business' name on his Travolta style jacket - Grays Tires. He was incandescent with fury: his business relied on the free parking bays. The changes would ruin trade: what was he supposed to do?

Another resident stood up to add his contribution; a well spoken, articulate and enraged citizen: he said he objected to any charge for residents' parking: why should you have to pay to park outside your own home? He compared the high charges of Barnet with other boroughs, including Westminster. He said the council's attitude was a disgrace, a joke: he reminded the councillors that they are there to serve, 'You are responsible to us: you are accountable to us!' He concluded that it was becoming clear that the best thing any Barnet resident could do was to move out of the borough, as soon as possible.

What was interesting about this very lengthy and outspoken onslaught of criticism from residents was not so much the issue itself, important though it is, but the fact that they were so vociferous and so ready to take on the council with such enthusiasm.

It was clear from this meeting is that at last the ordinary residents of this borough are beginning to see what we bloggers have been trying to highlight for some time: the contempt shown for the process of consultation by the current Tory administration. They refuse to engage in a genuine dialogue with the community they represent because they want to impose their lunatic policies without any mandate from the people. They resent the scrutiny of outsiders and fear debate because it exposes the weaknesses in their administration and their dangerously idiotic One Barnet package of ideas. Last night was a perfect example of why they avoid open debate with residents: they cannot control the outcome, and they know this will loosen even further their slippery grasp on the government of this benighted borough.

Our beloved Tory councillors have been in power now since May, and according to Mrs Angry's book of corporate guidelines, it must therefore be time for their six month performance appraisals. In the absence of any interest from the councillors in appraising themselves, Mrs Angry is happy to oblige.

Sadly, it would appear that the vast majority of these councillors are still intent on avoiding any form of scrutiny or accountability to the electorate who placed their trust in them.

They tried to screw more money from us - and some of them have actually got away with it.

They dragged their heels on putting their interests, gifts and hospitality online, and some have actually refused to do so. Others have avoided providing all the necessary information.

At every point where consultation with the public has been required, the bare minimum has been facilitated, and worse, some of the procedures have been arranged in such a way as to prevent an honest and full response from contributing residents.

There is a hardcore determination on the part of the leadership to resist sharing the process of decision making even with their owb colleagues. This is undemocratic, and leading the borough into an increasingly unsustainable political direction. The slavish adherence to the discredited One Barnet claptrap is fatally damaging to the best interests of the borough and its residents.

Until the rest of the Tory group stops behaving like a bunch of eunuchs guarding a harem, and has the guts to organise a palace uprising, it looks like this pathetic performance is set to continue for the next six months, and beyond.

In short, like the guy said last night: you are a joke, and you are a disgrace, and you are betraying the people whose loyalty you used to lever yourselves into power. The trouble is, as last night's meeting revealed, the peasants are restless, and trouble is brewing.

Don't say you haven't been warned.

Update: there is the link to a petition against the new parking charges and changes in the comments section.