Thursday, 15 September 2011

Part Three, Residents Forum: A farce - and in your face

Residents Forums in Broken Barnet: the residents fight back

A local resident, let's call him Ray, stood up now to speak with real feeling about the use of parks for events, and the scandalous fact that charges were not waived for the abandoned Finchley Carnival. As he had already commented, the discretionary level of charges was potentially discriminatory: why should a community festival, providing as it does a range of events for local disabled and elderly residents, be at a disadvantage in such a process, and at the mercy of Councillor Coleman's 'discretion'? These are OUR parks, he said, to thunderous applause, and OUR events, not Brian Coleman's - we all have the same rights and the same rules should apply.

A former Labour councillor stood up to speak. He congratulated Mr Richardson for his skilful answer, which said absolutely nothing at all, and by the way, the Forums were supposed to be for members of the public to see the questions, and debate the answers, or at least they were when they were first introduced, fourteen years ago (and by Labour, reminded Mrs Angry) ... When interrupted by Cllr Thompstone, he responded angrily - What happened to the principle of free speech which has always been held in such high regard in this country? How dare you sir?

You said you wanted to ask a question
, snapped Thompstone.

The question, remarked Mrs Angry helpfully, whilst scribbling away, is - how dare you behave in this way?

Mr Smith stood up in fury and shouted: These whole proceedings are disrespectful to the entire community, this is just a stupid farce!

Mr Richardson, who had listened to the comments of Mrs Angry and the Carnival organiser in regard to the inequality of treatment given to Friern Show and Finchley Carnival, suggested he would investigate the matter, and respond in writing.

When you investigate the matter, asked Mrs Angry, there is another issue I would like you to consider ... Is there not a potential conflict of interest in the fact that the Cabinet member for the Environment is also the chair of directors of the show which allegedly had its charges waived?

Ah. Silence, and an inscrutable expression of the face of Mr Richardson. Well, we look forward to the written reply to that one, don't we, citizens?

Mr Silverman decided then to mention the banner which was confiscated by Coleman's Tory vicar chum at the Friern Show, and the fact that his group were wrongly barred from a community event. Oops. Councillor Thompstone was off and yelling at the OAP now: 'YOU PEOPLE ...

You dare to call us 'You people', gasped Mr Silverman. Thompstone blew his top.


Mr Silverman has been to the police.

We then had some questions from a resident and mother of small children who was speaking about local concerns regarding some dangerous crossings in East Finchley near a local school. She was told that, as you might expect in Broken Barnet, pre emptive safety measures are not allowed - nothing would be done because no one had been recorded as being seriously hurt or killed yet. The good news was that if someone was prepared to sacrifice a small child, or elderly resident, the resulting statistical data might engender some interest from the council. Shove that child in the road, or push granny under the bus: what are you waiting for, woman?

Ok: next question, from Mrs Angry:

Can you confirm that councillors still qualify for free parking permits that ensure they do not have to use any payment system when parking in the borough? If so, can you confirm that this generous gesture for our elected representatives will continue?

Now for some reason, this question had been published, so accepted, yet the answer said merely that it was a policy issue and therefore 'not within the remit of the Forum'.

Mr Smith, who had been seething with fury all throughout the meeting, stormed right up to the desk to protest in no uncertain terms, to the clearly trembling Tory councillors about the ludicrous constraints of the new Forum, and his personal sense of general dissatisfaction with the way in which the evening was proceeding. Thompstone, like a hopelessly ineffectual physics teacher struggling with a disruptive schoolboy, ordered him to sit down.

Send him to stand in the corridor, suggested Mrs Angry, thinking back to her schooldays, and beginning to lose her composure, as Mr Smith complied with Mr Thompstone's request, but not in a way he might have expected. He fetched a chair and dragged it in front of Thompstone's table, and sat down right there, less than two feet away from him, folded his arms and remained there for the rest of the evening. Just imagine how funny it was, watching Thompstone trying to pretend Mr Smith was not there, glaring at him. Mrs Angry, it must be reported, was unable to write notes at this point, as she was beside herself with helpless laughter.

Up stood LibDem councillor Jack Cohen, in gentlemanly defence of Mrs Angry's unanswered question. Mr Cohen is a good sort, and reads this blog with careful scrutiny, often taking Mrs Angry to task for grave errors, such as (so he claims) confusing the title of Bunuel films, or worse still, as he pointed out before last night's meeting, blaming a loose rivet for the loss of the Titanic (an obvious but useful analogy for the One Barnet disaster) when of course everyone knows it was the wrong size of rivet that was to blame. An eye for detail, see. Jack: what can I say? So ashamed: must try harder.

Councillor Cohen stated his opinion that Mrs Angry's question should not be rejected on the grounds that it alluded to 'policy'. If you took that line then every action of the council would be 'policy'.

How exactly, asked Mrs Angry, do you define 'policy'?

Well, said Councillor Cohen, it - ... he came to a sudden halt, surprising himself ... Actually, he muttered, rather perplexed - what is it?

And herein lies the sacred mystery of the new Residents Forums, citizens. We may not utter criticism of 'policy'. We may not refer to 'policy'. We may not even discuss 'policy'. It is taboo: forbidden, dangerous. It has a potency so strong that even looking at a question addressed to a matter of policy could have catastrophic consequences, like gazing at the sun.

But what is it?

Policy is divine law, in our borough. It is the word of One Barnet. To challenge policy is to challenge the natural laws of the universe, and the wisdom of our rulers. It is a sin, and sin must be cut out of the heart of the citizen, here in Broken Barnet. Some of the citizens who come to the Forums are free thinkers, and heretics, agents of the devil, and must not be allowed to spread their blasphemous message. Watch out, citizens: Councillor Thompstone is building a bonfire.

Mrs Angry asked if the councillors did not feel it was unacceptable, in a time of a 'ruthless drive for efficiency' and 'better services for less money' that residents must continue to subsidise the free parking arrangements which only Tory councillors make use of?

Oh dear, at last Councillor Old put his head over the trench. He wanted me to know that he only ever used his permit when making site visits. Good man, said Mrs Angry. He never used it otherwise. Highly commendable, Councillor Olds, well done. What about the rest of your Tory colleagues? He had utmost faith in them. Oh, said Mrs Angry, turning to the residents: and do we all have utmost faith in our Tory councillors, not to abuse their permits? NO! was the instant and unanimous reply.

Mrs Angry, you are being very rude, said the Chair, Councillor Old is talking, and you are ignoring him. Yes, said Mrs Angry, as insolently as possible, I am ignoring him -and I'm not going to listen to him, just as you have not been listening to to residents all evening.

Next came two questions about contracted out services, a water issue, and then street lighting - a favourite subject of Mrs Angry, who had many happy months needling the LBBarnet over the completely unneccessary and wasteful (half finished) replacement of lamps in her street. Thompstone leapt on lighting as a subject to use as good PR for outsourcing: look - penalty clauses, confirming the highest standard of performance. Er yeah, not quite the whole story, though, is it? Remember the schedules which were mysteriously not updated, the extra money paid to the contractors this year etc etc? Never mind, the resident was urged to speak to a certain officer with any concerns (as it happens, this was Mrs Angry's friendly officer who spent weeks re-arranging the new Guantanomo Bay levels of lighting outside her bedroom window, into something more, you know, romantic and enticing ... and he even got the workmen to leave a present for her cat. See: One Barnet: not all bad. Don't quote me.)

Nearly forgot to write about one of the most shameful episodes of last night's meeting: some residents had come to protest about yet another action by, oh God help me, yet again, himself, Brian Coleman, who despite funding being allocated years ago, had dumped plans to restore a bus stop needed desperately by elderly and disabled citizens living near Sunny Way in Finchley. Ray spoke again, passionately and touchingly: his late grandmother had campaigned tirelessly for the restoration, reliant on it due to her ill health. Another resident, Mr B, an elderly man using an oxygen cylinder which he has to carry everywhere, stood and with great effort tried to explain to the dunderhead Tory councillors why this decision was having such an impact on his life, and the life of other residents. This stop is in a Labour ward, in an area with some social housing, where more people are reliant on public transport. Mr B became very upset by the intransigent manner of the Chair, who was reluctant to let him or anyone else speak. When he did address the Forum, despite the fact that Mr B was struggling to speak, due to his illness, and the emotion he clearly felt, little deference was extended for his condition - why the hell was he having to stand up in the first place, when the councillors sit down throughout on their complacent backsides - and refuse to listen anyway?

Thank God, nearly the end. One last question. Was the resident here, asked Councillor Thompstone - A Mr Smith?

Yes, said Mr Smith, still sitting two foot away from Councillor Thompstone, with arms folded, he was here.

Oh, how we laughed. Except for Councillor Thompstone.

I'm not speaking to you, said Thompstone, until you apologise.

What for?

For your behaviour.

Ok: Mr Smith stood up, and the room went silent as he leant right over, right into Thompstone's face.


But when Mrs Angry looked at his question, she sat up in her seat: it was about the Dollis Valley Green Walk, and Councillor Coleman's sneaky attempt to impose a cycle lane on the walk, without any consultation with residents: he asked specifically about the stretch alongside the brook between Dollis Park and Waverley Grove.

The answer said 'There are no plans to introduce a cycle path. There are footpath resurfacing improvement works programmed to take place on 19th September.'

This is in direct contradiction of what has been reported. Mrs Angry has seen the DPR signed by Brian Coleman, and the schedule, and the reference in online details telling us: 'an additional £250,000 has been secured from TfL for cycle and footpath improvements' : she is puzzled by the fact that the Highways manager seems to know nothing about any cycle plan. In fact there seems to be complete secrecy and confusion about the whole issue. You cannot just shove a cycle track onto a walk, or even more peculiarly, only parts of it, and expect this to be a satisfactory arrangement.

Neither of the Tory councillors on the panel has anything to say, even though, Mrs Angry understands, Councillor Old is aware of the issue, from the Chair of a local open space association. Neil Richardson, the Highways manager claimed he knew nothing of any cycling plans.

Councillor Kath Mc Guirk pointed out to Mr Richardson that there had been a story in the local Times only a couple of weeks ago: at this, Councillor Thompstone smiled patronisingly and made a dismissive remark about reporters. Kath commented tartly that Mr Beckett, the gentleman in question, who wrote the article (well, we must assume he is a gentleman, although of course he does write for the Grauniad) is in fact a highly respected journalist and writer.

At the full council meeting this week, Councillor Coleman actually made a remark about 'cycle paths and other clutter': what on earth is he doing, one must ask, sanctioning one in the Green Valley walk?

At last, the meeting came to an end. Councillor Thompstone sank in his seat and breathed out slowly, as people moved off.

Mr Smith was absolutely right: then whole proceedings were an utter farce, especially when you consider this definition of the term, so neatly describing the events of last night, and indeed telling us a good deal about the circumstances we live in, here in Broken Barnet:

Many farces move at a frantic pace toward the climax, in which the initial problem is resolved one way or another, often through a deus ex machina twist of the plot. The convention of poetic justice is not always observed: The protagonist may get away with what he or she has been trying to hide at all costs, even if it is a criminal act.

Farce in general is highly tolerant of transgressive behaviour, and tends to depict human beings as vain, irrational, venal, infantile, and neurotic. Generally, there is a happy ending.

Mrs Angry hopes there will be a happy ending, in this case, don't you, citizens?

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