While you were sleeping: scrutiny in Broken Barnet
So: last night.
Business Management and Overview Scrutiny Committee.
Tories: Hugh Rayner, chair, Brian Gordon, ranter, Brian Salinger ex leader, axe to grind, almost sensible liberal conservative, Rowan Turner, banner snatcher, Dean Cohen, aged 12, Maureen Braun: asleep. Yes, really.
Labour: Alison Moore, leader, speaks quickly, emails slowly, too nice, Barry Rawlings, well meaning, too nice, Kath McGuirk, not nice, but in a good way: mouthy, loud, funny.
Jack Cohen: LibDem, very bright, asks the most perceptive questions.
Sitting in the back, Tory Robert Rams, leader Richard Cornelius.
In the public seating, disgruntled library users and parking objectors, two bloggers and an assortment of council officers. And two journalists, there like most of us because of the controversial parking pay and display issue.
During the week of the riots, if you recall, Cllr Brian Coleman had tried to sneak through the abolition of cash parking in Barnet, got caught, and ended up being called to account for it to this scrutiny committee.
Other members of the public were there because library closures were also being called in. As usual in Broken Barnet, any touchy issue that members of the public feel strongly about and might prove dangerous to manage were moved back to the end of the evening to annoy the residents and deter them from ever attending another council meeting. There was a long evening ahead.
Item 8: Regeneration. Labour councillors pointed out that the promised redevelopment of all the most disadvantaged areas of Broken Barnet has been dragged out for a decade or so, and that residents in those areas are now completely alienated from the whole issue.
There was a lot of muttering and hand wringing from the Tories. Chair Hugh Rayner, who attempts to wield a firm but fair control of meetings, asked if members of the public could hear.
'Are we meant to? asked Mr S, an elderly hard left activist and cheeky chappie who usually attends council committees armed with his copy of the Morning Star, and sits throughout all meetings commenting loudly, and baiting councillors.
Kath McGuirk pointed out that if the Tories had got going earlier with regeneration, the uncertainty around the economic situation would not now be affecting the plans, and that Tory plans in regard to parking, which would affect local businesses, shutting libraries and so on would affect town centres already struggling to prosper.
Jack Cohen questioned the use of the term strategy in regard to regeneration, when there were only initiatives and wish lists rather than time scales, reviews or even targets. Is that good enough?
Yes, thought leader Cornelius, who had targets in his mind, but thought it unwise to formalise them (presumably because they might have to meet them). Oh, said Jack: good, targets in your mind - could you give us some - out of your mind?
Dollis Valley has started, said Cornelius, vaguely.
And when would it be remembered that residents, citizens, are partners in this regeneration?
Oh, but there is no planning application.
Yes, there is.
Oh, but not detailed ... (in Broken Barnet, residents are not entitled to be involved in consultation until the outcome has alreay been decided by the Tory Cabinet).
Uh oh, the tiresome Tory Brian Gordon sticks his oar in. All was going very well, and he wished the opposition would stop trying to raise irrelevant philosophical points.
Maureen Braun made her one and only contribution of the night, before settling down for a snooze. She was worried sick about the Green Belt. We want to keep the Green Belt. Good, yes we do, thought Mrs Angry, rather puzzled, thinking of a certain development in Mrs Braun's ward, on Green Belt land, owned by a prominent local Tory.
Item 10: Fostering. Tory Reuben Thompstone, the stern faced dictator of the newly censored Finchley and Golders Green Residents' Forum has been leading a task and finish group to look at ways of improving this much needed support for local children.
Ah: a grim faced Councillor Brian Gordon has a question.
Do we ensure that fostered children are placed with a mother and a father?
There was a stunned silence. Jaws dropped all around the room. Even seasoned council officers looked aghast at Gordon. The officer responsible for answering this question struggled to formulate the answer. Kath Mc Guirk turned to Gordon and reminded him that we live in 2011. The officer stammered that we abide by national statutory guidelines.
And that includes same sex couples? he was asked.
Yes! intervened Kath, and single parents, and reminded him of the Equalitites Act.
Mrs Angry noted, Councillor Gordon, that from the lofty heights of the high moral stance you like to assume, you did not ask if we ensure that fostered children are placed with loving carers. Or if are we doing everything we can to make sure these children are safe, and happy.
Item 9: Housing
Up steps one of the most objectionable younger right wing Tories, Tom Davey.
Tom Davey informs us that Barnet is now 'moving away from security of tenure' for residents in social housing. This is because there are so many houses, he claims, currently under utilised.
Mmm. Poor people should not be allowed to have too many rooms to live in, of course, partly because they don't deserve it, and because this encourages them to become too comfortable and lazy and dependent on benefits. If they have to worry about being chucked out of their homes in a few years time, this will teach them a valuable lesson.
The good news is that Tom Davey has generously decided not to throw any existing tenants out on their ears: this will only apply to new ones. They will be allowed a generous minimum term of two to five years.
Only someone like Davey could fail to understand what consequences this will have on families left with no continuity of accommodation for their children, for their children's educational needs, or for the elderly who will worry about being uprooted from an area in which they are familiar and have a network of friends and facilities. The truth is that people like Davey have no life experience to teach them any compassion for the needs of those less advantaged than themselves, and make decisions affecting thousands of people's lives in a theoretical, ideological context with no understanding of the impact they will make.
A Mr Berg had asked about the ridiculous situation that will now ensue when residents try to park in Barnet, and have to find one of the new PayPoints, if they cannot pay by phone. He pointed out that it might take a substantial amount of time to locate such a shop, walk there, pay and return to the car, by which time a ticket may have been given out.
The written answer was that your car will be observed for a period of, wait for it, at least three minutes. During this period, the warden will 'look for the motorist'. So, do not worry, citizens. As long as you a. know where all PayPoint shops are, b. can find a place nearby, c. are able to sprint to the shop, push your way to the front of the queue, and race back in three minutes, all while being observed by a traffic warden with a stopwatch, all will be well.
A Mr Martin asked for an assurance that there will be no gaps in service in any period when libraries close and the promised new ones reopen. The response more or less confirmed, in a roundabout One Barnet way, that there is no such assurance. Robert Rams simply repeated the same meaningless answer throughout the evening, leaving all in no doubt that there most probably will be libraries closing before the new ones are open: this is the way of things in Broken Barnet, gleefully following a preset agenda of closures to make budget savings, dressed up in the name of improvement, whilst pretending to listen to the concerns of residents and objectors.
A Ms Darby had asked (naively) for a yes or no answer to the charge that closing libraries is in direct contravention to the council's core objectives, specifically:
'Increasing reading, literacy, and learning opportunities for children' 'Promoting reading and learning opportunities for adults'
The written answer was no, everything will be fabulous. When pressed by Ms Darby, Rams said sulkily: 'I refer to the answer already given' - which didn't go down awfully well. Ms Darby was furious, returning to her seat shaking her head. 'Read Kafka,' suggested Mr S, the old lefty, helpfully to her, from behind his Morning Star.
More questions on library closures failed to get any real response. It became clear that there is a political path being pursued by Rams to blame any closure of libraries on the failure of residents' groups to take on the voluntary running of such enterprises. Just as happened with Church Farm House Museum, this pretence at trying to support such schemes is absolute balls, and totally cynical. There has never been any real possibility of such ventures being practicable, and even if there had been, the development value of both the Museum and Friern Barnet Library are far more important to our asset stripping Tory councillors.
It was a shame that a Mrs Ivens did not turn up to ask a supplementary question in regard to her point about the link between the recent riots, and social and cultural deprivation, and the folly of shutting libraries that offer access to resources for job seekers and disadvantaged youths in need of educational facilities. The written answer was dismissive, and ended waspishly by saying:
'Furthermore, I do not believe any rioters were spurred on by frustration at a lack of library facilities.'
Oh dear, Mrs Angry had to stifle a laugh: a council officer with a sense of humour? Goodness me.
While these questions were being well, evaded by Councillor Rams, the doors opened and in slipped a familiar stocky little figure, wearing a rather vulgar pin striped suit and a glowering expression. Brian Coleman had arrived. (A word of advice from Mrs Angry, Brian: that tie was a mistake: stripes with stripes - what were you thinking?)
Time for the called in items.
Libraries first, Rams at the table again. He was grilled by Labour, Libdem Jack Cohen and his own Tory councillor colleagues, especially Brian Salinger, about the vagueness of plans for the promised uber library in the Arts Depot which is supposed to make up for shutting any others.
Rams claims he has been having lots of talks with the Arts Depot. How many, and who with, asked Jack Cohen. Ah. Rams appeared unable to remember. He was pressed on the specific timing of closures and openings, and it became clear that he simply cannot, will not explain what will happen. With the help of an officer it eventually transpired that in regard to the Arts Depot library plans, he has had seven meetings with officers, and only two with board members from the Depot.
Kath Mc Guirk summarised by saying the whole situation was as clear as mud. So many uses of the words 'pending' and 'subject to'. Were the Tories really trying to modernise the library service, or simply to save money?
Tory Brian Salinger wanted to refer the matter back to Cabinet. A vote was taken: five for, five against. What did Chair Hugh Rayner do? He used his extra vote to block the library issue being referred back to Cabinet. Shameful.
Up to that point, Mrs Angry had been quite impressed by the efforts of the scrutiny committee. I say efforts of the committee: I mean some of them, ie the opposition and Brian Salinger. The other Tories were largely silent, and Maureen Braun spent almost the entire evening dropping off to sleep, chin falling forward, and at one point, tilting back, mouth open, causing alarm amongst members of the public. This is simply unacceptable behaviour at an important meeting which takes decisions on issues of huge significance to so many residents. If any councillor is unable or unwilling to stay awake during a meeting, or perhaps is suffering from ill health which prevents the councillor form taking an active part in proceedings that he or she is paid to attend, then he or she should resign from the council.
Councillor Rayner's action simply underlined the priority of interests which the Tory councillors of this borough follow with such blind obedience: not to the benefit of residents, but to the benefit of the Tory group and its bullying regime of party 'discipline'.
Talking of which, here comes Brian Coleman. For some reason, Brian orders his helpful assistant Ms Pam Wharfe to sit next to him at the bottom of the table, where he will have his back to the Barnet Bugle's camera. Touching modesty.
Brian is here because Labour and Libdem councillors have called in his sneaky attempt to sign off the cashless parking order during the week of the riots in August.
Why, wonders Kath Mc Guirk, was there such a rush to deal with an issue that is so sensitive, pushed through in August when most of the committee were away?
Brian sat bristling with impatience, his dainty little foot jabbing away at the carpet like Michael Flatly about to launch into an impromptu Riverdance solo performance. (Your shoes badly need reheeling, Brian, btw).
Well, he said, smugly, I was tasked with making haste ...
Kath Mc Gurk suggested he was more interested in squeezing money out of hapless residents. Coleman objected - Rayner intervened sternly, advising Coleman that he as chair would decide who would speak.
Kath asked questions: where are these PayPoints, how identifiable were they, had there been an Equalities Impact Assessment, what if someone was stuck in a queue, why was the time allowed so short, had there been a risk assessment of the amount of appeals that would ensue?
Coleman launched into a lengthy dismissal of all concerns. His banner snatching assistant Rowan Turner nodded ingratiatingly across the table.
Jack Cohen had asked for details of the locations. They had not been provided. Why?
No response. The officer could only think to say the details 'were on a website'. But why had Cllr Cohen not received information he had asked for? Silence.
Cohen continued: and if I don't have a phone, how will I know where the nearest PayPoint is?
Whoosh: Off we go ... Coleman does not believe 'these people' exist, that is to say people who have a full driving licence but no phone or credit card. What do they do when they need petrol? How do they pay? What about buying a tv licence?
It became apparent that Coleman does not really want people to use the PayPoints, and claims they will not do so. What is perhaps not really understood is that the PayPoint service is only atemporary scheme, intended to be purely for a transition period. After that, it is card payment or nothing.
His defence for not retaining cash machines is that they are too expensive for the council to run and maintain. Mrs Angry wonders why the companies that are invited to tender for parking are not expected to provide and maintain their own machines. She supposes that is because no one wants them to, because it would require the retention of something that would be to the benefit of every elderly, non mobile phone user in the borough and would therefore annoy Councillor Coleman.
And how are the residents of Broken Barnet going to be informed of the changes in parking payment? Oh, in local papers. Hmm. A lot of PR work. (Well, they don't have much else to do, do they?) Posters in bus shelters: marvellous idea, telling bus passengers about car parking, don't you think? For some reason, Councillor Coleman forgot to mention the free advertising of council activities offered here and elsewhere by the Barnet blogs. Perhaps it slipped his mind.
All the criticism which Brian's brilliant idea was receiving appear to have upset him. He then had a little temper tantrum, bellowing: 'THERE IS NO POINT IN OUTSOURCING A PILE OF CRAP'.
Oh dear. The other Tory councillors looked on in horror. Cornelius looked embarrassed and shrank in his seat. Mrs Angry expressed her sense of shock at such vulgar language and reached in her bag for some Rescue Remedy.
There is NO POINT, explained Brian, NO POINT in taking a service not fit for purpose and OUTSOURCING IT!
Indeed, thought Mrs Angry, rather like procurement, and contracting, and so many other functions of the council which the Tory administration has allowed to become 'not fit for purpose'.
You still voted to outsource them though, didn't you?
The committee: or some of them, continued to give Coleman a hard time over the effects of removing cash payment from parking. Tory Salinger said he did not accept that everyone who was able to drive carried a mobile phone, or that no one ever forgot their phone when they went out. Coleman said he had occasionally found himself unable to park because he had no change (like HM, Brian does not carry money on his person) 'Get a taxi ' suggested Mr S.
For the first and only time Tory Dean Cohen plucked up the courage to speak - and to dare to disagree with Coleman. Good man Dean. (He actually should have more confidence in himself, in Mrs Angry's view, as he generally has a reasonably liberal and sensible approach to issues, at least by Barnet Tory standards).
Dean Cohen pointed out that in Golders Green, there will be only one PayPoint at one end of the road, and by the time you had purchased a ticket and driven back to your place, it might have been taken. Oh, said Coleman: you can get an app for your phone which tells you where the free spaces are ...
Er ... yes, Brian, if you don't have a phone, or you don't have a phone with a web browser (yes, can you imagine?) ... but then Brian adds nastily that whenever he is in Golders Green, all residents have mobile phones 'clamped to their ears'. Hmm. I am astonished to hear that Coleman can still walk down the Golders Green Road without being pelted with rotten fruit by residents enraged at the new parking charges and the removal of free parking spaces.
Brian Gordon, who has evidently been getting earache from residents in his ward in Edgware pressed Coleman as to what will happen if in contradiction to Coleman's prediction, the PayPoint Scheme is actually very popular. This was a foolish question. Even if it was the most successful enterprise undertaken in the history of Broken Barnet, if Brian has signed its death warrant, its days are numbered. As Coleman told Gordon witheringly 'life moves on'.
At this point Gordon left the room, as did Salinger. If the Labour group had taken then initiative, the vote could have been taken to refer the issue back to Cabinet, and the Tories would not have had the majority needed to obstruct it. Nothing happened, Gordon and Salinger returned, and the vote to refer failed.
Maureen Braun probably had the right approach, come to think of it.
Scrutiny in Broken Barnet is a meaningless ritual, and best endured in silence, with your eyes shut, hoping it will soon be over.
*If you want to see footage of last night's meeting - and why wouldn't you - please click on the link to the Barnet Bugle where you can admire your councillors from the comfort of your own laptop.
Tonight is the Audit Committe meeting. Two council meetings in two days. God help me.