Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Darkness on the edge of town: another Residents Forum
Residents Forums: keeping residents in the dark, Broken Barnet style
Barnet Residents Forum, then.
Mrs Angry had never been before, but such is her insatiable appetite for opportunities to bait Tory councillors that this time she decided to venture into uncharted territory, and attend another area Forum, not of course as a resident, but in her capacity of citizen journalist.
The other irrestible attraction of this event, of course, was that it was, for the first time, being held at the All Saints Arts Centre, the lair of naughty banner snatching vicar, and chum of Brian Coleman, the Reverend Adrian Benjamin.
When she arrived, a small group of puzzled residents, two Tory councillors, Brian and Kate Salinger, and a couple of council officers were wandering about trying to find the hall. The hall, in fact, was full of small boys running about practising Tai Kwondo (have I spelt that right?) and it transpired that the Forum was being held elsewhere on the site. No one knew where. Eventually a tiny side room was identified as the venue. Most of the residents who arrived for the Forum never found the place, and would not have been able to fit in anyway. Hats off: confuse the enemy - a brilliant strategy for further discouragement of engagement of the electorate with the democratic process. Mr Pickles would be so proud.
The next Forum, we understand, is being held in a phone box in an undisclosed location, in the middle of the night: residents will just have to guess where. Although frankly it makes no difference if any residents attend or not: no real issues are allowed to be discussed, after all, and any important decision has already been made.
The room we were put in was a dark, dusty, cobweb ridden store room, lined with rough hessian sacking curtains hiding amateur theatrical props. On one side, the severed head of a blonde female dummy was horribly impaled on a piece of scaffolding. It was probably left there as a warning, Mrs Angry concluded, with a sense of rising unease, thinking about another reign of terror, pre One Barnet, and the head of the Princesse de Lamballe on a pike in front of Marie Antoinette.
As Mrs Angry took her seat, she became aware of an odd knocking sound and a faint but distinct murmuring of 'Help me: please help me' drifting over from the far side of the room. It appeared to be coming from an old cupboard, clearly marked 'Stolen Banners' ... How very curious, thought Mrs Angry.
When the meeting got underway, only about fourteen residents were present, although a few more eventually managed to find their way in. Standing grimly at the back like a pair of undertakers at a funeral were Tory councillors Andrew Strongolou (has anyone ever heard him speak?) and the subject of Mrs Angry's most popular councillor appraisal, small but deadly Councillor David 'Golden Arse' Longstaffe - the actor, darling. Alright: an actor. Allegedly. Couldn't see: he kept his trousers on, as far as I know.
Chairing the Forum was Kate Salinger. She did her best to be fair, and is a nice woman (yes, yes, I know she is a Tory, and it pains me to admit it) and she is deserving of much admiration for being the only Tory councillor not to support the shameless, greedy attempt by her group to vote themselves a whopping rise in their allowances as soon as they were elected last year. If you recall she was then vilified by her own spineless Tory colleagues, merely for following her conscience, and was immediately and publicly stripped of her committee positions right there, in the council chamber, in a ritual humililation that Councillor Coleman later described as an act of 'discipline'. If you want to know what a bunch of absolute bastards the Tory councillors of this borough really are, this incident tells it all.
Kate Salinger as chair was a total contrast to the arrogant, antagonistic performance given at the last two Finchley and Golders Green Forums by Cllr Reuben Thompstone. She was clearly very uncomfortable with the repressive regulations and ruthless constraints of the censored Forums, and also managed to remember, unlike so many other Tories, that she was there to listen to residents with courtesy and respect. If only the rest of them were so inclined.
That said, she too was obliged to read out the dictatorial new rules which apply to the Forums, telling residents all the things they may not discuss, and this lecture really does wind people up. The fact that the Tory councillors think they have the right to address the people they represent in this way is just too much: who the fuck do they think they are?
After this sermon ended, up stood Julian Silverman, from Barnet Alliance, to try again to move the same emergency motion he had brought to last week's Forum. As he spoke, a whimpering sound emerged from the cupboard of stolen banners. Cllr Salinger interrupted him and asked if he was a local resident, because if not, he should not be there. This caused Mrs Angry some amusement, who wondered in future if residents attending meetings will be frisked and asked for their papers before being allowed in.
Julian carried on regardless, as he always does. The Chair told him she would decide who would speak: he said no, it was for us, the residents to decide. She disagreed. He asked who decided who decides? She said if any resident was unhappy they should take it up with the council leader and councillors. And are you happy with the way in which the Forums are now run? asked Mrs Angry, catching her eye. Cllr Salinger looked away: that's irrelevant, she said. But it isn't, it really isn't. If those few decent Tory councillors had the guts to stand up for what they know is right, and in public, they would be doing what they were elected to do, and not simply help perpetuate a bullying, self serving Cabinet dictatorship.
Mr Mustard will fill you in on the full questions and answers, Mrs Angry was really only there for the craic, but some discussions were of interest. Much hilarity ensued (well, on Mrs Angry's part: luckily this time she had remembered to wear waterproof mascara) when Councillor Salinger thought that Mrs Angry was actually Mrs Mustard. Mr Mustard broke out in a cold sweat, passed out on the floor, and had to be rushed to Barnet General. I can't imagine why, can you? Of course it is his fault: even though Mrs Angry is, as you know, very circumspect in her behaviour, and always conducts herself with becoming modesty, Mr Mustard is a shameless flirt. Even Mr Reasonable moved his chair away during the course of the evening, Mrs Angry noted.
Before the ambulance came, however, we had a question from an elderly man very concerned about the supposedly temporary but long term removal of a green man crossing at a busy junction, guess where, with Totteridge Lane. Yes, Coleman country. This was in place, we learnt for a year. Why? To see what would happen, said the officer. To see how many people get run over, suggested Mrs Angry. The officer explained that it had been considered necessary that this very long term and risky trial be put in place because in this borough- ahem - we have a duty to 'expediate traffic'. Mrs Angry asked if there is not a greater duty to 'expediate' the safety of pedestrians, but then Mrs Angry had forgotten that we live in Broken Barnet, where as long as Brian Coleman is Cabinet member for Environment, the car is king. Ah: up speaks Cllr Salinger who pointed out crossly that you take your life in your hands if you try to cross the road there now, and she insisted the matter be referred to the next Environmental Sub Committee. Good for her.
Mr Reasonable had submitted three questions. One of his questions was missing. He was not very pleased. This is what he had asked:
"The One Barnet outsourcing will have a major impact on the delivery of public works locally. The constitution states that residents forums can be used “for certain consultations from the council”. Can the chairman indicate if outsourcing is a topic which will be considered for consultation at a forthcoming residents forum."
Mr Reasonable was told by the Chair that she had asked three different people about his question, and received three different answers, so had decided not to proceed with the question. This is regrettable. Mr Reasonable's question goes straight to the heart of what is so wrong about the newly stifled Forums. Nothing may be questioned. We have no right to criticise the people we elected, and whose allowances we pay. We may not even question why we may not question anything.
Oh, but Councillor Longstaffe, hiding at the back, is - tee hee - the member for Community Engagement. One Barnet is committed to forging a new relationship with residents, as he reminds us. Well, that is certainly true: a masochistic relationship, with our masters forcing us to submit to their wicked ways. Except we don't have a 'safe word', do we? Oh: well, maybe 'election'. I said election, Mr Mustard. And things are rather getting out of hand, aren't they?
Julian Silverman tried to intervene as Longstaffe started spouting some One Barnet drivel about three new avenues for engagement. Longstaffe has a short fuse and yelled at 74 year old Mr Silverman 'Shut up and listen'. Mrs Angry's own fuse blew at this point and she found herself standing up and telling Longstaffe that there was absolutely no need to speak to him that way: the Chair was upset too, and Longstaffe had to apologise.
A resident asked about the way in which 'crosscutting' issues could be dealt with in the Forums, with the ridiculous new regulations, and bar on any matter being mentioned again within a six month period.
No idea, said the Chair, shaking her head, with just a hint of despair, and a welcome touch of honesty.
Here comes a question from Mrs Angry's new spouse about lighting. Mrs Angry's attention, always easily distracted when statistics are trotted out, noted that out of the gloom now emerged a familiar white bearded figure in a long gown. No, boys and girls, and Tory councillors, it wasn't Father Christmas: it was Father Adrian Benjamin. The desperate tapping from the banner cupboard immediately ceased. Mr Silverman shook his head. Rather fittingly, as we were debating the merits or otherwise of low levels of lighting, the Rev decided to turn a few switches on and dispell some of the gloom in the room. 'And the Lord said, let there be light, and there was light' said Mrs Angry, rather more loudly than she intended. Father Benjamin chortled, and waved jazz hands about like an old trouper. He then pulled a chair up and sat in front of the residents. After a while of listening the Reverend had clearly worked out that Mrs Angry was a wicked woman, and a swivel eyed trot, and smelt of popery, and he sat staring at her through hooded eyes, with a curious and not altogether kindly expression.
Good news about the lighting, though: our council is going to have fun at our expense, it seems - turning down the level of lighting to see what will happen, kind of like taking away crossings to see how many people get killed crossing the road, only in this instance they are keen to see how many muggings, sexual assaults, burglaries and accidents will happen when the lights are dimmed. They will then count any written complaints, so if you are mugged, or are a woman walking home late at night worried about being assaulted, or an elderly person too scared to go out after dark, don't forget to write a letter of thanks to your local Tory councillor, will you?
Resident and local activist Mr David Howard expressed some lack of confidence in the use of surveys by private contractors involved in this sort of trial. He wasn't awfully sure, going by past experience, that any questions they asked, or the resulting data that emerged, would be treated in a way that was entirely open, fair or transparent.
You are a pessimist, Mr Howard, said Councillor Salinger.
No, said David, sadly. I am a realist.
And that, citizens, is the best you can hope to be, here in the shadowlands of Broken Barnet, where we are allowed to see only as much as our Tory masters want us to see, and where we may speak only when we are spoken to.
Councillor Salinger, when pressed, said that councillors would, at some unspecified point in the future, be discussing the new format of the Forums and debate (fancy that) whether or not they are working. Mrs Angry would like to believe this is true, but she suggests to all citizens that in the meanwhile, you attend the Forums and continue to raise objections, politely, but firmly, until they remember that they are accountable to us, that they represent us, and that they are paid by us, and it is our opinion that should be listened to. And if some little oik of a councillor tells you to shut up: well - I think you know what to do.