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.


Don't Call Me Dave said...

The hike in children and infant burial rates was first attempted when Mike Freer was leader. The council tried to increase charges by 10%. Freer explained that the officer had not consulted with the cabinet member responsible (your friend Brian Coleman) before the report was published. The possibility that Coleman had simply not read his papers was clearly not considered by Freer. In the end the charges were still increased, but ‘only’ by about 6% or 7%.

I accept the need for some services to be cut and other charges to be raised, but has Barnet Council no humanity? No doubt some highly paid actuary sat down and estimated how many babies will die in Barnet in the next 12 months. Who on earth can think this type of behaviour acceptable in modern society?

The council is exploiting the reality that grieving parents are in no position to argue. Far easier to clobber these people with higher charges, than put up the cost of a service used by informed articulate residents who can fight back.

A plague on whoever proposed this.

Mrs Angry said...

I absolutely agree with you: I must say I really was utterly sickened to see such callous bureaucratic consideration given to what is so self evidently a deeply sensitive issue. I think it tells you all you need to know about this Tory council, whose leaders are so short of compassion and any instinct other than their own petty, self serving, ugly political motives.