Saturday 25 June 2011

Swinging in the wrong direction -the Big Society and localism in Broken Barnet

Tory councillor Andrew Harper, seen right, swinging, (but in the wrong direction - see below) is, as I am sure you will know by now, a man with an enormous portfolio - he is not just the representative for the downtrodden masses of Hampstead Garden Suburb, but also serves as Cabinet member for Education, Children and Families, and, most importantly, still clinging to the wreckage as deputy Leader of Barnet Council.

Sadly, Andrew failed in his bid to become Leader this month, due in no small part, perhaps, to an excess of enthusiasm, and running a campaign that peaked rather too soon: the day after the resignation of ailing former leader Lynne Hillan, in fact.

Andrew has not allowed this setback to deter him from all political ambition, however, and only recently he addressed the Tory Reform conference with a wonderfully stupid speech, 'The Big Society in Barnet', happily published on the Conservative Home website for our further edification.

Mrs Angry thought it would be useful to share with you some of the highlights of this speech, and Andrew's thoughts on localism, and the Big Society.

Andrew tells us: 'In Barnet, we have been talking for some time about how we open up our services to greater localism, greater involvement ...'

Got that: greater localism, greater involvement ... Sounds good, doesn't it?

Oh, but what do we mean, here in Broken Barnet, when we use the word localism?

Please do not jump to the wrong conclusion. You may be under the misapprehension that the purpose of localism is to enable local communities to have easier access to the democratic process. This is misguided.

As Eric Pickles has stated, the move to localism will require the cutting of red tape, and the severance of 'the leash' of central government. It is, according to Eric, about 'pushing power outwards, downwards as far as possible' but not in the direction of the communities so much as their elected representatives, 'to act in their residents' best interests'.

Unfortunately, as we know only too well here in our beloved borough, elected representatives assume the mantle of responsibility for their residents' best interests without bothering to consult them and gain their approval for the course of action they pursue.

The limited agenda that is put forward at the time of election fails to give any real indication of the policies that will be enacted once in power, and once in power, the same elected representatives truly are a law unto themselves.

Here in Barnet, for example, almost the first act of our greedy little Tory councillors was to try to sneak in a proposal to increase their own pay, despite the savage budget of cutbacks in frontline services they gleefully informed their residents were on the way, and the number of job losses planned for council staff.

Another item which failed to make it into the election propaganda was the plan to take a hatchet to the council constitution, cutting off the rights of opposition councillors to engage in debate over council policy, and preventing residents from raising issues of their choice at the local forums.

Mrs Angry was present at the special committee where these wicked proposals were voted through by the Tory majority, and heard Councillor Tom Davey agree that such a move might be undemocratic, but as the voters of Barnet had elected into them into office, anything, absolutely anything that they decided to do now was with their approval.

Er, yeah. The furious reaction of residents at this week's newly censored forums shows only too well just how much they approved of the council's contempt for their opinions, and exactly what they thought of the Barnet Tories' demonstration of localism in action.

As for the Big Society, well, according to Mr Harper:

'we feel the balance of social responsibilty has swung too far in the direction of the state - many of us in Barnet quote a headline in one of our local papers about changes in support for residents in sheltered housing :('changes in support' meaning callously removing the wardens) - "The neighbours forced to care", it read. The article went on to say that outraged residents complained that they were now checking on their elderly neighbours each day to make sure they were OK. What can I say but "Good". I think it is worrying that our society has ever felt that caring can simply be a fiscal action - and that it can be delegated in its entirety to the state.'

Look at the attitude this extract inadvertently betrays: 'outraged' residents having to be forced by the council to care for their neighbours. The Big Society must take over much of the responsibilty for caring: and of course not because of the savings to be had in getting rid of luxuries like sheltered housing wardens, no, no: because it is morally incumbant on people to step in and provide such services on a voluntary basis.

Hmm. Well, I'd like to think that Mr Harper is always rushing up and down the leafy lanes of Hampstead Garden Suburb, delivering home cooked meals for elderly neighbours, doing their laundry, and giving them blanket baths. Perhaps he does. He certainly worries a good deal about some of his neighbours, whose empty multi million pound properties are at risk from the plague of squatting he claims is blighting our lives. Mr and Mrs Saif Gaddafi, of Winnington Road, for example.

Alright. Let me introduce you to Mrs Angry's neighbours ... (no, not the ones from hell, now safely removed, no thanks to Andrew Harper). Next door lives eighty five year old Padraig, and his middle aged son Kieran. They are like an Irish version of Steptoe and son: Padraig is a naughty, charming, blue eyed old devil who somehow always triumphs over the romantic ambitions of his son, who rages against the old man's intransigence and mischief, but cares for him, as well as working full time, with great patience and devotion.

Padraig came from Sligo, just after the war, and settled here, working as an engineer on the railway for more than forty years. He came from the same part of Sligo, in fact, as some of Mrs Angry's distant family, from a village at the foot of the Ox Mountains, a place to leave and never come back to. Visiting the village, a couple of years back, Mrs Angry teasingly told Padraig that she saw a farmer drive past on a tractor, who looked just like him. He was of course, said Mrs Angry, a very handsome farmer. 'Ah. That would be my cousin Sean,' said Padraig, nodding, not batting an eyelid.

He has a rich and colourful vocabulary, of eye watering rudeness, and an interesting, if somewhat intolerant world view, with a particular contempt, for example, for the indulgences of celebrity culture. I can't tell you, for example, which politician he describes as 'nothing but a big bag of shite with a piece of string tied in the middle', or the botoxed celeb he claims has had, oh dear, 'more pricks in her than a dartboard' ... He once appeared at Mrs Angry's door, scarlet faced, holding up a copy of The Sun, and jabbing at a particularly silly photo of Elton John. 'Have you,' he spat, incoherently, 'EVER seen the feckin' like?' 'You are a wicked old man', said Mrs Angry, trying not to laugh, as he hobbled home, beside himself with rage.

Padraig's wife Rosie died a few years ago, in a Barnet nursing home, suffering from dementia, around the same time as Mrs Angry's father. And as in the experience of Mrs Angry's father, Rosie's treatment was less than caring. She was found to have suffered a broken arm in unexplained circumstances, deteriorated quickly, and died. He visits her grave every day, to tell her what mischief he has been up to, and every night he still lights a lantern and leaves it at the end of the garden for her, so that she will remember where her home is, and where he is.

Both Rosie and now Padraig have relied heavily on support for their needs, their health. Padraig spent much of last year in hospital having a series of operations, and has become much frailer as a result, and less independent. He is as obstinate as an old mountain goat, and refuses to acknowledge his declining strength, of course.

At this time of year, he will often appear at the door with a bunch of roughly cut, beautiful, scented red roses from his garden, which he shoves in your hands, without speaking, and usually scuttles off before you can catch him and give him the big hug he deserves. He used to give the flowers to Rosie, I suppose. Sometimes he puts them in a Tesco carrier bag and throws them over the fence, or lays them on the recycyling box for you to find when you get home: and to Mrs Angry, no romantic gesture could be more lovely. (Sadly, this is about as good as romance gets, in her experience) ...

The last time he did this, she called round to say thank you. He was in a tetchy mood, having just read the paper. The conversation moved to politics, and the Coalition government. What did he think about the way things were going? Uh oh. His face contorted with fury. He jumped up and grabbed Mrs Angry's arm, leaving a bruise that took a week to fade away.

'I tell you what ... I tell you what, boy ... (he calls everyone boy) and excuse my language ( he always says this, before launching into the most appalling, foul mouthed rant, so caustic it could strip paint at a distance of twenty yards) them f*cking b*stards are all a bunch of f*cking a*seholes, and I don't mind telling you that each and every one of the lying, f*cking sh*ts is an absolute f*cking c**t - if you will please forgive me for sayin' so ...'

I forgive you, Padraig.

'I worked for over forty years, and never once had I a day off sick, and how much tax did I pay, and what now, after all that? What good has it done me? Or Rosie, when she needed it? They don't want to keep me alive, do they? I'm costing them too much ...'

'Yes,' says Kieran. 'You've outstayed your welcome. Look at all these pills you have to take to keep you going, all the operations, and trips to the doctor - an absolute bloody fortune, David Cameron's not going to keep paying out for that, mate ...'

For a fleeting moment Padraig's eyes betray a fear that there is more than an element of truth in what he is saying. He knows how bad things were when Rosie was at the end of her life, and he knows that things now are about to get a whole lot worse.

'Dig a hole and throw me in it,' says Padraig.

'Give me a f*cking spade, and I'll start digging, then, ' says Kieran.

Mrs Angry decided at this point to make a tactful exit, before the old man was in need of hospitalisation again.

Kieran is at work all day, and travels away from home from time to time. When he is not around, do we keep an eye on Padraig, and make sure he is ok? Of course we do. Do we have to be told by Andrew Harper to do this, as our duty on behalf of the Big Society? We do not.

Doesn't it tell you all you need to know about our heartless, selfish Tory councillors, here in Broken Barnet, that they assume that the residents they represent think 'that caring can simply be a fiscal action'? They are so engrossed in their own dysfunctional, selfish world views that they cannot appreciate how the majority of ordinary people live, as part of a community, and relying on relationships that sustain each other. They reduce everything to monetary worth: in short, they know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. This is the real face of the Big Society, especially here: an excuse to cut costs, and to hand lucrative business over to the private sector, no questions asked - and localism?

Oh please.

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