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.


Mr Reasonable said...

A delight to read as ever! You are right Mrs Angry that the ordinary people are now getting hacked off. It will get much worse when they realise what other increases they are in for. Allotment charges up by 183%, bowling green charges up 20%. If you insist on using cash at pay and display parking meters, the charges will go up by as much as 100% (Hampden Square and Watling Avenue car park)and often by 43%. Photocopying at the planning department doubles and it doesn't even stop when you are dead! Class B burial plots go up by 11.5% and cremations at the weekend by 16.3%. When you factor in all the service cuts that are going to kick in this year and there will be a lot more unhappy residents.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Mrs Angry

Don’t you realise how lucky we are to have such conscientious councillors who are willing to save us all the trouble of thinking for ourselves?

If Councillor Coleman has decided that we must all pay increased charges for parking our already highly taxed cars on roads already paid for by our taxes, who are we to argue?

Don’t you realise that we questioned the need to pay £1,000 for £300 computers, it merely demonstrated that we are all sad pathetic people with nothing to do all day?

There really is no need for residents to trouble themselves developing opinions when councillors are quite willing to impose their opinions on us for only a modest fee. Having you got some knitting to do instead of worrying your pretty head over these trifling issues?

Don't Call Me Dave said...

I really must remember to proof read more before pressing the 'post' button!

Mrs Angry said...

Death and taxes, Johnny: the two certainties we all face, especially so in Broken Barnet, it seems.
DCMD: I am glad to see that at last you have submitted to the correct mode of thinking. Our councillors know best and can be trusted to run the borough on our behalf,and I really don't know why we bloggers continue to belittle everything they do. But then,as you say, I know no better.
As to the knitting, although I am now obviously Lord Palmer's new best friend, are you confusing me with Susette? Sadly my knitting abilities are negligable. When I was at primary school we were made to knit vests for orphans in Africa (not sure why you need itchy woolly vests in Africa) but mine was so deformed and full of holes it was thrown in the bin by the teacher.

Mrs Angry said...
petition against the new parking charges and changes