Tuesday 8 November 2011

Watch it all fall down

The Barnet bloggers are a very effective group, when they choose to work together, but they are also each one fiercely individual, and hold very different views in terms of political beliefs - or lack of them. One or two things they have in common, of course: a wicked sense of humour, and a sense of mischief, but most of all, and the thing that definitively unites such a disparate group of people, is a deep and abiding mistrust of everything that issues out of the gaping corporate mouth of the zombie like body of the London Borough of Barnet.

It ought perhaps to worry the Tory leadership and the senior management team of this authority that a group of people of such different backgrounds, views and allegiances are so strongly united and deeply committed to a common point of focus. It ought to alert them to the fact that what they are doing in this borough goes way beyond the boundaries of acceptability. It ought to worry them that their own government's Secretary of State for local government has openly supported us - and singled out their administration for a public humiliation - by criticising the culture of financial incompetence we revealed in this borough, and by slating their shabby behaviour in covertly and illegally filming us .

None of these things, or so it would appear, is of the slightest concern to the Tory cabinet, or the senior management team. Their only interest is in relentlessly pushing through the One Barnet agenda of privatisation. What happens after this has been acheived is of no consequence to them, which speaks of the real motivation behind the programme, doesn't it?

Appearances, of course, are often deceptive: behind the calm facade of the One Barnet facilitators, there is in fact an almost comical state of rising panic: the further the tendering stage of the billion pound packages of business opportunities progresses, the more there is at stake, and the more there is a need to control the public perception of what is happening. As we have seen in recent weeks, this obsession with the smothering of dissent and a total rejection of the need for public scrutiny is reaching new extremes of lunacy.

This is a common pattern throughout the UK, in fact, as citizen journalism finds its strength, and is beginning to cause difficulties for those who want to set their own agenda for local governement. Local councils who have become comfortable over generations of inherited authority are now having their dominance and interesting activities challenged by empowered bloggers, and they don't like it.

Look at what is happening in South Wales. Welsh political blogger of the year, Jacqui Thompson, who blogs under the name of Caebrwyn, won her award recently, and deservedly so, after the most appalling treatment from Camarthenshire County Council, who earlier in the year responded to her action in filming a few minutes of a council meeting with a phone by calling the police, having her arrested, handcuffed, and driven miles to a police station where, quite outrageously, she was detained for hours -before being released without charge. In response to the massive publicity which this act of idiocy provoked, the same council brought in the most draconian new measures possible to restrict the free access of residents to council meetings. Residents must now sign an undertaking not to film the proceedings before they are heavily escorted up to the public gallery: once there they are locked into the room and may not leave without the knowledge and attendance of council staff. Last week, Caebrwyn, trying to leave the gallery, found herself trapped in a stairwell for several panic stricken minutes, imprisoned by locked fire exits, and unable to escape. What could better illustrate the madness of local politicians who have nothing but contempt for their electorate and are intent on preventing the scrutiny and accountability of their communities?

Here in Barnet bloggers have also been refused the right to film council proceedings, which we simply defied - we were spied on and ordered about by council employed illegally operating henchmen, which we reported and investigated, we have been falsely accused of costing thousands of pounds of tax payers money on FOI requests, which we have exposed as a lie, and now we find we have been the target of an attempt to silence us by the most desperate council initiative yet - by complaining to the ICO that we are breaking the Data Protection Act, and therfore liable to punitive fines, because we are unregistered data controllers, a ludicrous accusation which, er, was thrown out - twice -on the grounds of utter stupidity.

At the same time, Barnet continues to obstruct and delay responses to Freedom of Information requests, continually breaching the statutory time limits, and withholding information. As blogger Mr Reasonable asked at a council meeting last week, in relation to the council's refusal to engage honestly with citizens - a question to which he received no reply - what is it that you are so afraid of? What do you have to hide?

There is a faultline that runs right through Eric Pickles's much vaunted idea of localism and means it will never work: it it is impossible to reconcile the conflict between commercial interest, and the activities of the senior officers enabling the externalisation of council services, with a policy of greater transparency and accountability to the communities the authorities are meant to serve. And furthermore, by failing to compel councils to engage with these communities in any meaningful form of dialogue, there can be no real accountability or transparency.

How are the residents of any area meant to take a real part in the democratic process of local government, when they have no power to influence decision making? Pickles likes to pretend that they can - but the truth is that the only pressure that a community has to exert on their elected representatives is effective only in the immediate period before an election. For the rest of the time, as we see here in Barnet, the political leadership and the senior management team determinedly work together to prevent any threat of interference from the electorate.

In Barnet, instead of a move towards the greater involvement of the wider community we have seen a deliberate policy of alienation: the emasculation of our local constitution, a shameless removal of the opportunities for free debate amongst elected representatives, an heretical inversion of the processes of consultation, the blatant censorship of residents' forums. But it is not just the principle of freedom of expression which has been attacked, there is an institutionalised system of abuse of the principle of the freedom of information, whereby material that should be in the public domain is being protected by obstruction, selective censorship, and needless delay.

Mr Pickles, with his stated enthusiasm for open government, and his demand for armchair auditing, has inadvertently put a knife to the throat of many of his own party's administrations. He has become the patron saint of citizen journalism, and we all thank him for it, but his failure to attend to the missing piece of the localism model will ultimately only spell disaster for his much vaunted policy. The enemy of corruption is exposure, and who is more effective in the community at pulling the cover off the dubious activities of local authorities than the citizen journalist? Here in Barnet, you can be certain that we will keep pulling at the cover.

Watch it all fall down.


Mr Mustard said...

Very well said Mrs Angry.

As you say, we all work independently but do have a common aim. I sometimes wonder if the council has a brain, if it truly knows where it is going, or if all the councillors and officers have climbed aboard the One Barnet bus and they don't know the destination or the fare and the driver isn't qualified to drive.

baarnett said...

It is a shame that the Five Barnet Musketeers (Vickos, Rogos, Mustos, d'Angryan, and Reasos, were not around and in their prime a few years earlier.

A planning expert tells me that Barnet Council (Cardinal Freer and the Count de Offord) would never have been able to privatise the whole of Barnet's Brent Cross and Cricklewood area, with the blogging level of scrutiny the Council now receives.

The same sort of thing presumably applies to Stonegrove, Colindale, Dollis Valley, and so on.

Mrs Angry said...

here is an amusing tale which has been sent on to Mrs Angry: last week, at the end of a meeting, after a closed section, she believes, our Tory councillors took the following action -

"The Committee agreed an amendment to recommendation 1.2.3 of Item 7 (Member Development Programme And Member Role Profiles) as reflected below.

“Requests Group Leaders to appraise councillors as appropriate to their Groups and that all appraisals shall be private internal documents held by the Group Secretaries”."

If you recall, Mrs Angry has been asking about these appraisals since they were promised nearly a year and a half ago, at the time of the Tory councillors' shameless pay hike. A week or so ago she resorted to submitting an FOI to see what they have done about it. A few days later this proposal, consequently amended as above, appeared on an agenda.

By making these appraisals private internal documents, it will ensure that the FOI Act does not apply to them: or so they think. If anyone knows any better, do let us know.

Transparency and accountability at its finest, don't you agree, Eric?

baarnett said...

Mr M:

Mrs A's thesis is that at least some officer/consultants know exactly where it is going, but want to keep their snouts in the trough before it skids off the road.

(That's enough bus analogies.)

Mr Mustard said...

Don't worry Mrs Angry my mole in HR will forward them to me.

Mrs Angry said...

and readers, do take a visit to Caebrwyn's blog today -see link at side - to read about more bullying by Camarthenshire County Council, who surely should be twinned with Broken Barnet: except that the opportunities for holidays in the sun - (sorry, official visits to er, protest about the invasion of Cyprus)- for lucky councillors, Morphou style, will perhaps be limited in South Wales, no offence, Jacqui - here is a taste of her experience to day:

..."Right then, today's meeting. I was pleased to meet @Towy71 at the door. As you will see from his blog (Orwellian Stuff), and to his great credit, he refused to sign the undertaking and was therefore not allowed in, in fact a large security guard was called just to make sure. He did however sign for a pass, but that wasn't enough. I and others reluctantly signed though I added the words "unlawful, undemocratic and not binding". It is appalling that we are being made to sign this to observe the meeting and to be honest, I am not sure if I can do it much longer.

I also asked for the external door to be left open, in case of fire, I was informed it would remain locked. The security guard was beginning to look restless at this point. I went and had a look after the meeting and now both sets of doors are firmly locked.

Anyway, with the ritual and guarded procession complete, and the prisoners safely locked into the Gallery, the meeting began. I noticed this time that the Chair, Vice Chair and Chief Exec made a belated grand entrance rather like X Factor judges and everyone had to stand (apart from me) ..."

Don't Call Me Dave said...

According to the Barnet Bugle, your beloved swivel eyed Trot councillors supported this motion as well. No doubt it was the evil Tories who made them do it, because Labour are normally as pure as the driven snow.

Mrs Angry said...

let's see the evidence, DCMD: if this is the case they should be horsewhipped throughout the streets of Broken Barnet.

Mrs Angry said...

... and yes, baarnett, I think you are quite right: now move along the bus please. Ting ting.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

If the Bugle's report is correct, it confirms my belief that the enitre council is rotten to the core. You will have to stop blaming the Tories for everything.

Will you do the whipping?

Mrs Angry said...

1. be fair, they are more culpable than anyone else, and to an unprecedented degree in regard to the extreme lunacy of One Barnet.

2. not my cup of tea, darling, but do feel free to stand in for me on this occasion ...

Don't Call Me Dave said...

But if Labour were effective in opposition, there would be no need for the blogs. They are as useless as the Conservatives and, if in power, I have no doubt they would be doing equally stupid things in as equally an undemocratic manner.

baarnett said...

Younger Angry Citizens will not remember "Now move along the bus please. Ting ting."

However, Boris is bringing the phrase back, as this Boris Routemaster report shows.

All praise to Boris, but I'm not sure it will reach out to North Finchley bus station for a long time.

(Well, it was Mr Mustard who started on buses, not me.)

Jaybird said...

I think it is right that appraisals should be private, otherwise there is too much pressure to give A* to everyone for political reasons. However, appraisals should be either 360 degrees, ie ask a fellow councillor, a council officer & a resident to feed in, or should be done by more than just the group leader, otherwise loyalty becomes paramount.

Mrs Angry said...

DCMD: there is indeed room for improvement and as you know Mrs Angry's boundless optimism encourages her to hope for the best, but in no way would a Labour administration have followed the massive scale of outsourcing. They are also not as personally odious, self serving, self satisfied and shamelessly shallow as the majority of Tory councillors.

baarnett, if you have been on a bus with common people ( and I imagine that like Brian Coleman you find the idea utterly abhorrant) then you would know that passengers are indeed still requested to move along the bus, and one does still have to ring the bell to get off, rather than give one's home address to the driver and wait for him to take you to your front door.

Jaybird, I think that the taxpayers who fund our lazy, troughing councillors - especially the ones who awarded themselves 54% allowance rises, are entitled to receive assuarance that the shiftless dolts are doing something to earn their pay. The published details ought to include attendance rates for meetings, for example. If they are unwilling to be accountable to us, they should stand down immediately and get a proper job where performance assessment will be a requirement, as it is for every ordinary council officer, although only, incredibly, post MetPro for the senior officers who receive such generous salaries from us.

baarnett said...

It is nevertheless very difficult to "grade" councillors, at least beyond attendance reports, and what is the point? They are in for four years, and that's it. How can anyone tell if they have read a long report and have no issues, or they haven't ever gone beyond the front cover?

It is true that their "performance" could become an issue at each election, but the party machines would anticipate that, and massage their images once they had been reselected.

Constituents will know if the councillors have been useful to them, either attending events or providing individual help (well, with Brian, just attending events).

baarnett said...

"...give one's home address to the driver and wait for him to take you to your front door."

Nah, Brian doesn't need to tell the drivers his home address - all London cabbies know it by now.

(And it was "ting, ting" to start the bus, Mrs A, as well you know. I expect your admirer Councillor Marshall can tell you all about the trams, when he shares a cocoa with you one evening.)

Mrs Angry said...

baarnett: it may be difficult to grade councillors, but why not try? And yes,at the very least they should account for their attendance record, as they do in other authorities, the data of which is available online.It would be interesting to know how often certain councillors speak: some I have never heard utter a word.Many are incredibly lazy or inattentive. I have sat in fury and watched one Tory councillor sleep throughout a meeting, which I found to be grossly disrespectful. How many emails, letters and phone calls do they deal with? They are happy enought to keep records of the expenses they claim to accrue in the line of their responsibilities: let's see how those expenses are justified - or not.

I have been on a bus, thank you, and even on a tram, in Manchester. Horlicks, baarnett, horlicks. Just coming to the boil as we speak. Must put the milk on too.

caebrwyn said...

Mrs Angry, I am sorry I missed this post the other day. All so true. Carmarthenshire senior management and the vast majority of councillors have never been criticised nor put under such public scrutiny before. They are not taking it well. I believe they're even keeping a watchful eye on Barnet (although probably not quite sure of where it is - I can almost hear 'in England somewhere...') The measures put in place for accessing the public gallery are possibly the most exasperating at the moment - I can't believe they are getting away with it - trouble is all but a couple of the 74 councillors are completely spineless or, I guess, just not interested in rocking comfortable boats. Even the Welsh minister for local government seems to think it's acceptable. While I was locked up in Llanelli police station my own Councillor (retired farmer - most of them are)was in the local club eating steak courtesy of the taxpayer. Their dwindling powers are being removed on an almost daily basis and nearly all just sit there and take it, paying endless tributes to their non-elected masters in the process The political make-up doesn't seem to matter, Carmarthenshire Council has always been something of a family affair, parochialism at it's worst. I sit on my local community council which, until last year consisted of 8 members, 7 of whom were related to each other. Carmarthenshire council have carried on quietly for years in a similar incestuous manner, doing as they wish without even the inconvenience of having to listen to Mr Pickles, or anyone. They still are of course but now have the uncomfortable presence of bloggers in the gallery keeping a watchful eye. I have great hopes for the May election that there will be a surge of new members - I have a feeling I'll be disappointed, a few weeks before the 2008 election, and to retain the amenable puppets, each cllr was given £5000 to spend in his/her ward, they were nearly all returned, many unopposed.
As you oppose/scrutinise One Barnet, Carms CC are busy showering a US based evangelical organisation with funds to 'ease the pressure on the social care budget' - it doesn't bear thinking about.
I'll leave you in peace now.

Mrs Angry said...

Greetings Jacqui, and congratulations once again on your award for Welsh Political Blogger of the Year, so well deserved.

Yes, I have been rather amused to notice Carmarthenshire CC vising my blog recently, and one or two other Welsh county councils.

We too have incestuous groupings of councillors on our council, not just in terms of related members, but other associations. And again the problem is that a small cabal of councillors makes all the decisions in secret, and the rest of the dunderheads largely do nothing, pocket their allowances and wing their way through to the next election. This time they may be in for something of a shock as the reputation of this council has never been so low, and by then the residents will be seeing the effects of the One Barnet scam, a programme to give council services to the private sector.

I have read the post by your fellow blogger Y Cneifiwr regarding the controversial evangelical Christian venture which has received so much funding from the council: it seems incredible to me that an organisation which is alleged to believe that eating disorders and self harming in young women can be caused by'demons' is going to be given the care of vulnerable girls and women: a perfect example of the inherent risks of devolving the responsibility of such care to voluntary sector bodies.

As for your county council and the ludicrous lengths they go to - forcing residents to sign an agreement not to film proceedings, and then imprisoning them in the public gallery behind locked doors - to try and control the perceived threat from your attendance at a public meeting, words (almost) fail me. They are a disgrace to their community and do not deserve to be holding public office. Thank goodness for people like you who are prepared to defy their outrageous behaviour,uphold the riht to scrutinise their actions and fight for real transparency and accountability.