Monday 14 February 2011

Feel the Love: a Valentine's night massacre

So: Valentine's night, and where was Mrs Angry? Sat in a council Cabinet meeting, gazing dreamily across the room at Brian Coleman, Andrew Harper, Richard Cornelius, Daniel Thomas, Sachin Rajput, sigh ... oh and Melvin Cohen, although you might not have noticed as he had apparently taken a vow of silence throughout the evening, to the audible annoyance of several of his constituents. And Helena Hart, and Joanna Tambourides. And Lynne Hillan, or Madam Leader, as she is known.

In fact Madam Leader is Madam Mao to Coleman's Mao Tse Tung. And in the One Barnet Cultural Revolution, of course, the party activists don't really believe in all the dogma, but must pretend to, in order to survive being sent to life long exile in the paddy fields along with the rest of their hapless colleagues.

There are dangerous mutterings amongst the stooped figures in the paddy fields, however, and certain revolutionary heroes would do well to mind their backs in the weeks and months ahead. Mrs Angry's lips are sealed, of course, as she doesn't want to spoil the fun. But Comrade Chairman Coleman perhaps ought to be a little concerned at what history may have in store for him. How will it all end, we wonder?

In the meeting room last night, space had been made for a large number of members of the public, and the room was overflowing with maybe 150 people or more, all bristling with discontent, by the time seven o'clock came.

Enter the councillors. Ah, look: in keeping with the mood of the times, Brian Coleman is dressed entirely in black. Not sure if this is to reflect the gravity of the situation, a political statement, or because he thinks it makes him look like Johnny Cash - or Simon Cowell. (It doesn't.)

Hillan starts off. No one can hear and everyone shouts: we can't hear. This, she tells us, in the sort of statement we might expect from a woman of her remarkable analytical skills, is going to be a very difficult meeting. Residents start yelling. Hillan threatens to stop proceedings. This is not a dictatorship! shouts someone. Oh yes, it is. Really, citizens: it is.

Eventually question time begins. There were an unprecedented number of questions submitted to this meeting, but only thirty minutes will be allowed, and any that are not covered in that time will be lost. Thirty minutes of democracy? yelled a man in the audience. We're happy to stay, added another: increase the time! Any more calling out and I will have to stop the meeting! threatened Madam Mao.

No one takes any notice. One resident in particular, at the front, persisted in speaking his objections, very loudly, and at great length, and was told he would be removed. He carried on. The entire public area was churning with rebellion.

Councillors from both parties who had come to watch the meeting looked on from their carefully reserved seats with ill disguised amusement. Mrs Angry and friends sat behind some of the Tories and watched their reactions with great interest. Councillor John Marshall had hogged the seats for his friends, and almost had a little disagreement with Mrs Angry as to whether members of the public without a seat might be allowed to sit there. 'And how very nice to see you again,' he commented drily, in his curiously archaic, nineteenth century parliamentary fashion, peering at Mrs Angry as if he were Sir Charles Trevelyan and she were a starving Irish cottier. 'And to see your honour as well, god bless you sir', she said, bobbing in deep courtsey. Well, kind of.

Questions got under way, but in the usual Barnet tradition, the answers given were evasive, and many questioners failed to grasp the way in which the supplementary question system works, or how to follow up their point. This caused huge resentment from the watching crowd. If you recall from the last meeting, Jack Cohen's plea for residents to be helped to understand the arcane mysteries of council procedures, so they might make a meaningful contribution to local governance, fell on entirely deaf Tory ears. They simply don't want a meaningful relationship with anyone else, being quite happy carrying on in the One Barnet, one handed tradition of self love, of course.

Questions were put, and long propaganda based answers given: the residents were mutinous: Answer the question! was yelled incessantly from the floor. The council's security people and council officers moved into and about the public area, whispering threats of eviction in the ear of anyone calling out, to no avail. This is a joke! Answer the question!

Hello: a police officer enters the room, and stands by the doors, with arms folded. Questions continue, with speakers receiving thunderous applause, and objections to the answers no no one believes continually thrown back at the Cabinet member who dares try to respond. Madam Mao continues her threats and warnings about disruption.

Questions about the parking charge issue are particularly contentious: it becomes apparent that the Cabinet Member responsible, ie Coleman, is apparently 'confused' as to some of the facts of the matter, a point which residents are intent in publicising. 'Pompous little arrogant man!; shouts a resident from Golders Green, sat behind me. Uh oh. The policeman puts his helmet on. A security man moves in on Golders Green man who protests loudly, when told to be quiet, and then becomes rather angry. He refuses to leave. You're not allowed to touch him! yells another resident. The police officer is called over. Things threaten to get out of hand: we are warned the meeting may be ended. It becomes clear that if this is the case, the residents will refuse to leave anyway.

A man from a voluntary mental health body made some excellent points about the lack of response to certain questionnaires being used as evidence by the council that the majority of users back its agenda of cuts. He pointed out that such a conclusion was undermined by the failure of the council to engage properly with stakeholders and to enable them to understand the complexities of very difficult issues. Could they really regard the consultation as valid, in the circumstances? The written and verbal responses were curt and dismissive: a shrug - oh well, if anyone was bothered, they would have replied in greater number. Answer the question!

Madam Leader wanted to move on. The crowd did not. They wanted a debate. Madam was outraged: 'There are places', she informed us, 'where you can have discussions. Cabinet isn't one of them'.

You can imagine the uproar and derision that ensued.

Blogger Roger Tichborne up next. So: Ms Hillan thinks that the sum of around £54 million lost in Iceland, the bridge overspend, legal disputes with Catalyst, Partingdale Lane, the Underhill costs, salary increases for senior officers etc has nothing whatever to do with the need to find around £54 million in savings? Who did she think was stupid: the Cabinet, or the residents? The reply was that the people around the table were not stupid, and therefore we appear to have official confirmation now that this Tory administration does, as suspected, take us all for a load of fools.

The next questionner battled on in vain: a particularly stroppy resident who had been heckling angrily throughout the meeting stood, up and left, shouting in his direction, with arm outstretched: 'Amandla, Julian!' I doubt whether the allusion to the glory days of ANC activism rang any bells with our dimwit councillors, sadly.

Brian Coleman likes the sound of his own voice. He thinks we should like it too, and always gives us the maximum opportunity to enjoy the expression of his modest, well balanced and carefully considered opinions, often in a delivery pitched at a level of decibels that might be considered dangerous by a council noise nuisance inspector, if we still had any. Last night, however, Brian's attempts to justify the CPZ/parking charge outrage was drowned out by a torrent of howls and insults from the attending residents. This visibly shocked our Brian, who was, to an enormous outburst of incontinent hilarity in the room, moved to comment that 'I have never met ruder members of the community'. This, ladies and gentlemen, coming from the man who put the rude in Rude Britannia, is quite something. Respect.

And then, before we had barely got going, the dear leader announces with satisfaction that we had run out of time, and no more questions would be answered. Yeah: hurry up - Coleman must have a taxi waiting outside ... ' yelled a resident.

Things fell apart then. The people in the public area were not happy. They were very cross. Being under the misapprehension that we are living in an open democracy, and not in thrall to some form of totalitarian regime intent on suppressing all dissent, the residents did not understand why the remaining questions, including some on the highly controversial proposals to slash the children's centre funding would not be heard. The inflammatory decision to end questions sparked a firestorm of middle class rebellion, on a scale never previously seen, in the oak panelled chambers of our Town Hall. And so Lynne Hillan stormed out, like a sulky Bo Peep, leading her Cabinet sheep behind her.

The room was in uproar and confusion: what was happening? No one knew. An adjournment, we were told, eventually. We had been warned, after all, naughty residents, and now look. Our councillors had downed tools and staged a walk out. No ballot, no negotiations, a wild cat strike. Tut tut. Senior council officers wandered about, totally bemused, wondering what the hell was going on. One picked up his papers and put his coat on. Was he going home? In the public area everyone milled about. The normally inscrutable ladies and gentlemen of the press were shaking their heads in disbelief.

A rumour began that the meeting was taking place in the council chamber, and the crowd started pushing its way out through the doors, down the corridor and in that direction. Someone asked the policeman if he was making sure the councillors were behaving as well as the residents, which he was able to confirm. Then someone said the move was just a trick to clear the crowd, who were being diverted out down the stairs to the exit. About turn: everyone returned to the committee room.

There was a rumour that more police were on their way, provoking a spontaneous outburst of retro protest singing of 'We Shall Not Be Moved' ... In the end, this backup appeared to consist of two worried looking female community policewomen, who stood in the corridor, primed to pounce on troublemakers. This proved unnecessary, fortunately, as the meeting proved to be a game of two halves, Brian, didn't it? Second half less overtly stroppy, more attentive, disgusted and derisory.

After thirty minutes or so, Madam Mao sniffily led the gang of four, and the hangers on who pad out the Cabinet membership, back into the room. She would treat us, she informed us, with the same respect you show us. Oh shit: that doesn't bode well, does it Lynne?

Now the real shit, in fact, was hitting the fan: time to vote through the brutal budget of cuts: vote for the second go at attacking the weak, the sick, and the poor, in other words, taking away wardens from vulnerable elderly people, charging them more for services, cutting the provision of children's centres, and forcing a minority of the borough's drivers to boost council revenue through increased parking charges.

Plenty of dissent on the public side of the meeting: any from the Cabinet?

Nope. Not as such. One or two dare devils paid lip-service to a pretence of decency by mouthing vague concerns about one or two points, then disregarded their own points and voted through the agenda anyway. Melvin Cohen, as I mentioned earlier, was mute throughout, which infuriated consituents, who were there because of the impact the parking changes will have on certain areas of Golders Green, an area which has voiced strong objection to the proposals, objections unvoiced in this meeting. One of those residents muttered: wait til the next election, and see what happens. Indeed.

How did they handle the sheltered housing wardens proposal? By telling us people didn't really want change, but they were giving it to them anyway.

Fairer charging?Well, yes it will have an adverse impact on the elderly, the disabled, and females, but they were doing it anyway.

Or to put it another way, in line with the One Barnet policy of protecting the needs of the elderly, the disabled and females, they will fund this by cutting services to the elderly, the disabled and females.

Never knowlingly undercharged, yelled a woman next to me.

Sachin Rajput droned on and on, reading out his notes like the class swot, in his inimitable way, then suddenly came to an abrupt stop. He's run out of script! ... 'and put fairness at the heart of the agenda' he concluded. Even Brian was laughing now.

Children's centres: step forward the Smiler with the Knife, Andrew Harper.

Bla bla bla, all in a nice tone of voice so it seems less horrible than it really is ... Mrs Angry listened in hypnotic trance and then lost concentration ... ' and I am going with Model X' he suddenly and unexpectedly declared: we all sat up, had we missed something?

Labour's councillor Clare Farrier addressed the meeting on the plans to up charges for allotments, an emotive issue for many residents. An elderly lady behind me, during all the earlier pantomime, had asked fearfully 'is it normally like this?' and explained she was there because she bitterly resented the new charges. She was from the Lawrence Street allotments: as they debated this, I thought about often going to this lovely site as a very small girl, helping my uncle Jack lay straw under the strawberries, and stealing the fruit when he wasn't looking ... this reverie was sourly interrupted, however, by Madam Leader demanding to know how it was fair and equitable that we all should subsidise your activity?

Rather fairer than subsidising your lifestyle with our council tax in response to your demands for a hike in your allowance, Madam Leader, I would say.

Where is the subsidy? someone shouted out. Actually, I think it was me.

Coleman was off again. He talked about a shaft of proposals. Yeah, we've been shafted, alright! There had been 'extensive consultation': uproar. Dictator! yelled a heckler. Last night he managed to gloss over the fact that actually the lollipop attendants he wants to cut, at unknown risk to our children's safety cost only £41,000, for salaries: and of a whopping £157,000, the rest is HR and IT costs. Where is the fairness, he asked in ten schools having these attendants? They should pay for it themselves. You may be asking how.

Dr Gillian Gear spoke passionately and eloquently in defence of the Barnet Museum, reminding everyone that the museum had been given to the borough in 1938, in perpetuity, of the need to retain the integrity of the collection, representing 80 years of material: our local heritage. Coleman looked deeply unimpressed. He tried questions about opening hours, and access for the disabled, no doubt thinking the response would detract from support for the musuem. It didn't.

But our Tory philistines know the price of everything and the value of nothing. They do not consider our heritage and cultural life as in need of protection. Funding will be provided for conferences in four star hotels, and consultants, and foul mouthed hip hop artists, and elocution lessons for officers who want to speak with confidence, but our much loved and much needed museums are simply property developments waiting to be signed off.

More budget discussion. Those in need will be supported. Like special educational needs: support will be targeted. Yeah. As things stand, you are highly unlikely even to get to the stage of having your child identified as in need of support, and this is set to get even harder with a cut in provision of service from educational psychologist services, isn't it? They claim to be giving with one hand, while taking almost everything else away with the other. It is all, as one heckler pointed out, a load of bullshit.

Priority of budget provision. Comments from the Cabinet. Oh God: Sachin Rajput again. Nooooooooooo. Fairness. Need. Thirteen per cent. One third. Mrs Angry drifted off, resurfacing only when she heard Andrew Harper, showing off as usual, telling us that his was the biggest. (budget provision, ladies ...) Not what I've heard. And I am afraid I saw another Cabinet colleague laughing at this point. Doubt that he is any position to snigger.

And this is the problem, friends. It became apparent to Mrs Angry during the course of this meeting, that some of our Tory councillors absolutely love the attention their antics attract, and they secretly relish the sort of scenes we had last night. They love the drama, the pantomime: they love reading the blogs the next day to see what we make of it all. They even wink across the room at the bloggers, whilst making soundbite witticisms or outrageous remarks, in order to build up their own legend, at least in their own imaginations.

What they don't realise, though, and this is something which also became apparent last night, is that the deep divisions within the Tory ranks is making for some strange bedfellows amongst our Barnet councillors, and even engendering an unprededented cross party consensus on the most surprising aims and objectives. Have they got it in them to find the wherewithal to organise themselves? Let's see, shall we?


Jaybird said...

Thanks for posting Mrs A.

There is a curious Orwellian use of language when talking about need. Cllr Rajput uses need to refer to people who meet the substantial and critical need criteria the Council has a statutory obligation to provide for. He does not seem to acknowledge that people with mild or moderate needs do, by definition, have needs.

baarnett said...

Thanks for all that effort, Mrs Angry.

You are indeed the Thunderer, the Blogger of Record.

In comparison, Roger is an honoured, but mere teenage scribbler.

Mrs Angry said...

You are right, Jaybird: support for need is being allocated strictly on a basis of statutory obligation, and not on a basis of compassion: we are in Broken Barnet, after all, where profit comes before caring.

Baarnett: you may consider yourself removed from Mrs Angry's naughty list ...