Thursday 24 February 2011

Uprising: updated

Mrs Angry's special agent 'Mr D' eventually returned from the pub - with a slight headache, I imagine - and submitted to her his formal report from the Chipping Barnet Residents' Forum.

Mr D has the great misfortune to live in a CPZ zone, so is obviously very interested in the issue of the charge increases, as are the rest of the inhabitants of his road, of whom almost a quarter made the effort to attend this week's Forum. He tells me that most of those who attended were doing so for the first time and were truly appalled at the complete lack of democracy in the way in which the proceedings were handled, not to mention the apparent lack of knowledge by the Barnet Tory councillors on so many issues.

The residents of another road affected by the increases had submitted a petition, signed by the overwhelming majority of the householders. The organiser asked a council officer a very naughty question, as Mr D puts it:

" Which budgets will suffer if these CPZ increases are not voted through?

'Education', said the officer.

Oh dear. 'No more questions', said the resident, very happy with the answer which shot the Council in the foot. He stood up again to ask Cllr Rutter to minute that answer. I don't think it will survive editing."

Because of course, citizens, parking revenue is strictly ringfenced to revert to the highways budget, and government guidelines make it absolutely clear that parking may not be used for income generation for other purposes. Ah, but hang on: is there not already a huge surplus in the parking account? Oh, and er: why has the Highways budget itself just been dramatically slashed, by the way, does anyone know? Anyone?

Further questions were asked about the comparators used to set the parking charges: no one knew the answer. Ah. Funny, that. Could it have any connection with the fact that government guidelines, as quoted by an official at the Department replying to an enquiry, originally to Grant Shapps, by Mr D also clearly state:

“Charges should be set at levels that encourage compliance with parking restrictions. If charges are set too high they could encourage drivers to risk non-compliance or to park in unsuitable areas, possibly in contravention of parking restrictions. In certain cases they could encourage motorists to park in a neighbouring local authority area which may not have the capacity to handle the extra vehicles. In commercial districts this may have a negative impact on business in the area

The official who answered this letter recommended that Mr D take the matter up further with the Leader of Barnet Council. Mmm. Good luck with that, then.

Back to Mr D's account:

"More questions about why 5% of residents had to pay to repair potholes for 100% of the residents. Mr D stood up again. He is becoming a thorough nuisance. He said I have an idea. Why not spread the £2.5m increases across all the residents of the Borough and call it something like, oh I don't know, lets say Council Tax ..."

Ah ... He continues:

"Mr B had slowly been fizzing and then he came up to the boil. No one knows anything, he said, what's the point of these forums if you can't have your say, and if the people on the panel don't know anything? Why don't we have a vote on who is in favour of the increases, and who isn't, and then we can get on to other matters? Oh no, that's not on the agenda, says Cllr Rutter hastily moving on to the next item. The poster says you can: "Have your say" shouted out Mr D - oh no you can't, was the unsaid response. "

Amongst the long list of other issues raised Mr D noted the following:

"There was another question about wasted money. The cost of Pledgebank. The answer carefully fails to mention the actual cost of Pledgebank which was of course "excellent value for money" and hopefully the answer will come out in due course. Don't hold your breath."

Ah yes: Pledgebank, from the same insightful team who brought us the marvellous Barnet 'Ideas' website, admitted by the council, eventually, to be sneakily planted with One Barnet friendly suggestions by the council itself. Now then: how many pledges have we got? Er ... one, two, three ... four. And all still waiting to get enough support to get them off and running. Well: four potential pledges? Result. Another wonderful use of our money, wouldn't you say, citizens?

Now, do you really think that the sort of people who went to the Barnet Forum and were so disgusted by the whole performance are really the type of residents whose support the Barnet Tories can afford to lose? No: they can't. And the damage done is not just by the effects of the charge increases but by the attitude of the councillors to their electorate in the handling of the whole business. Well, no: their attitude to the electorate, full stop. They are completely out of touch with reality, and setting fire to their own political careers. Most of them are too stupid to realise, and the rest of them don't give a shit anyway.

Look what the admirably forthright Barnet Press says in this week's editorial:

"Increasingly, Britain's politics is dominated by pathetic specimens who, if they have an independent thought in their head, have evolved an incredibly effective system of repressing it to follow their master's voice.

The almost total lack of accountability to constituents for the vast majority of councillors in Barnet, as witnessed by those who packed into the cabinet meeting last Monday and also expressed their letters on this page, show that local democracy is fading into a farce."

If the Tory councillors read this, and the many similarly toned letters and comments from residents, and not feel a rising sense of panic, then they are even more idiotic than we imagine. And they should not just be worrying about the strength of feeling here in Broken Barnet. damage they are causing is not just to their own parochial political chances, but to the greater detriment of the Conservative party as a whole.

A couple of weeks ago a reader of this blog contacted the Department for Communities and Local Government to express his fury at the proposed 'reforms' to the constitution that the Tories are trying to sneak past our noses, and which, if passed, will effectively prevent the discussion in council meetings of any major issues by the vast majority of councillors, and reduce what should be the process of democracy in this borough to a totalitarian rubber stamping machine almost entirely powered by the political flatulance emitted by the likes of Brian Coleman.

This reader mentioned that he had only read about the proposals by following the local blogs. There was much chortling down the phone at this point: the political assistant who had taken his call assured him that they were all very well acquainted with the Barnet blogs.

The same department last week received more than one complaint about the ludicrous treatment of residents present at the Barnet Cabinet meeting who had tried to use their phones to tweet or film the proceedings.

And now, as we know, this week, the department for Communities and Local Authorities, in the guise of Eric Pickles and Bob Neill, have taken the unprecedented step of issuing all local authorities with lengthy instructions intended to force them to show some respect for citizen journalists, bloggers, and tweeters who attend council meetings. The new guidelines clearly oblige local authorities to assist residents to engage in the democratic process using the methods of their choice.

This was the greatest slap in the face that the petty Tory dictators of Barnet Council could possibly have had from the big boys in their own party. It was a deliberate act intended to send a clear message to the lunatic fringe here in Barnet who are dragging their party into the gutter, and trying to take us with them. The Conservative party sees the damage caused by the antics of such maverick councils, and wants to put a stop to their pantomime performance.

In trying to persuade local authorities that they should open up their black hearts, and shower we bloggers and tweeters with new love, Pickles' letter tried to invoke the memory of Margaret Thatcher, blessing her sainted memory as the woman responsible for making council meetings acessible to the general public. To most of us, of course, the idea of Margaret Thatcher as some sort of folk hero dedicated to the rights of the common man is a difficult concept to accommodate.

I think Frances O'Grady, the Deputy Secretary of the TUC, put things in a better perspective. When she attended the anti-cuts rally at the Artsdepot here in Finchley recently, she commented in her speech that Barnet was a window on Cameron's Britain. This is the birthplace of Thatcherism, she said: let it be the place where Thatcherism is finally put to rest.

Here in Broken Barnet we have the last survivors of the glory days of Thatcherism, rounded up into a genetic outpost like the last few Neanderthals, outdated, outnumbered, and doomed. It's not just a question of greater intellect, but an ability to organise and build a society: instead of a superior ability with flint tools, we network, and use social media.

It's only a matter of time until they are extinct, and the rest of us take over.


ainelivia said...

Hallo Mrs A, just had a phone call from SMR Research, asking if I'd like to take part in a survey they are doing for none other than, you guessed it, Barnet Council!! When I'd recovered my equilibrium, I politely informed the nice young Geordie man who phoned, "that I had no doubt that Barnet Council already knew what Barnet Residents opinions are both of the our reduced services, increased parking costs, and increased Councillors allowances, but of course Barnet Council already know that. Why are they spending money doing this survey?"

His response - that I was not the first person he'd phoned who reacted similarly. I rest my case. Revolution in Barnet Now.

Mrs Angry said...

Ainelivia: one night last week I had the same call, while I was busy making dinner. The interviewer asked if I was too busy. 'Oh, not at all', I cried, turning off the oven, gas rings etc, kicking off my shoes and sitting down with a glass of something or other ... 'do carry on ...' You can imagine I had SO many expert opinions to offer. What twisted act of fate had inspired them to call Mrs Angry? Who knows. And here is the funniest bit of all: I was asked to join a new venture called the Citizens' Panel: yes, the one I was disappeared from, and then told it didnt; exist, and then it was used instead of an open budget meeting. Looking forward to the first meeting, except that now I have blown my cover, as we speak, emails are probably flying across the scansafed network of the LB of Broken Barnet, having me removed from the list. Oh well ...

Moaneybat said...

While we are thinking about some 3rd rate PR mechanism for Parliament, we should also look at the PR mechanism at the local level that puts the Party Political Neanderthal in the Town Hall. Many of you without Political Party affiliation attend some sort of Forum, Scrutiny and Town Hall meeting. So why not a Citizens Panel/Peoples Scrutiny Group from those present on the night. You/we get the hands up whether the neanderthals, who do get paid for thinking up 'One Barnet" ideas are compos mentis.

Mrs Angry said...

Do you know, Moaneybat, that is actually rather a good idea? Have to think about that one ...

Moaneybat said...

The credit is all yours - as you have been suggesting similar innovation in a changing society for many a blog. Open Democracy and all the other bits predate portly Pickles and his espousals. Note if the European Left can prompt change in another continent why not Europe tomorrow and there a few politicians in the UK who have had more foresight than their leadership.