Saturday 31 March 2012

Broken Barnet: a Statement.

The Broken Barnet blog has now been outsourced to the private sector, as part of the One Barnet programme, and will no longer continue in the present format.

It will now be known as the BT Barnet blog and will aim to present a more positive image of our borough, with an emphasis on the corporate values of 'Barnet, a successful London suburb', and 'Better value for less money', and demonstrating a particularly 'relentless drive for efficiency'.

Mrs Angry has now been relocated to a call centre in Bangalore, where her terms and conditions of service will no longer apply, although her (unpaid) employment will be guaranteed, at least until the day after the next local elections.

Councillor John Thomas has told her to feel grateful for this new arrangement, and in return Mrs Angry has told him, on behalf of all council employees and residents of Broken Barnet, to go and get a life in the real world outside of the Town Hall, and to shove the whole One Barnet scam up his smarmy little Tory arse.

Friday 30 March 2012

A Tale of Two Barnet Libraries

Last Saturday afternoon a group of residents came to Friern Barnet library to take part in an event they hoped would mark their support for a much loved local resource - one that is due to be closed, in a matter of days, despite a strenuous campaign of opposition by the community.

The date, the 24th March, was significant because it marks the anniversary of the library's opening, 78 years earlier, built according to a design by Metroland architect A T Curtis. A third of the funding for the library, interestingly enough, came from the Carnegie Trust.

Unfortunately it was made clear to the residents that their planned activities would not be allowed in the library and they duly moved the event outside where these photos were taken. (Thanks to Brian Watson for the pics).

The campaigners had planned - amongst other events - story telling for the children, and a puppet show, and to deliver a letter of thanks to the councillors who had voted at a recent scrutiny committee to delay the closure of the library, until such time as the promised alternative services are available at the North Finchley Arts Depot.

On 4th April the issue is referred back to Cabinet. The likeliness of any change of policy from Councillor Robert Rams and his Tory colleagues,however, is remote.

Campaigners for Friern Barnet Library had put forward a proposal to run a community library, in the original building, run by volunteers.

This proposal was rejected, after a year of campaigning by highly committed members of a local group, (see above) on various spurious grounds, including the inability to provide any further funding. The reasons given are irrelevant, in fact, because of course the intention has always been to close the library so as to free the building and grounds for sale and development.

Mrs Angry does not really agree with the principle of community libraries because, in her view, a library should be run on a professional basis, with trained members of staff and a properly resourced network of support. There is a real danger in allowing well meaning volunteers to undertake a committment to such services, not least the danger of exploitation by unscrupulous local authorities who refuse to acknowledge their duty to support funding for arts, heritage and leisure activities. That said, it is entirely understandable that residents would try to preserve a vital local service, and it might be thought to be an enterprise that a Big Society Tory council might want to encourage.

But not in Broken Barnet, of course.

Oh: unless the community in question is in a Tory ward, and happens to be represented by a highly influential residents organisation with plenty of funding and other useful resources at its disposal, courtesy of its enormously wealthy members. Yes, I'm talking about Hampstead Garden Suburb - see earlier blog for more details.

Their toytown library in a shop has been saved, and subsidised by the council who are happy to promise continued funding - yes, funding denied to the Friern Barnet schem - and all necessary support until at least 2016, or as long as the volunteer suburbanistas do not get bored with playing librarians. Still, if they do, their local Tory councillors - John Marshall, Andrew Harper and Daniel Seal were reported to be keen to take their turn behind the counter. Mrs Angry can imagine Cllr Marshall might enjoy playing librarians with the ladies of Hampstead Garden Suburb, and of course Councillor Harper is bound to be keen to be hands on, if the opportunity should arise.

There are deep, dark rumblings from the Suburb, however. According to reports in last week's Ham & High:

"This verbal agreement was made at a meeting on February 6, but the council has still not sent the group the paperwork to finalise it.

A notice on the library door says the library is due to close on March 31.

The community group had hoped for a “seamless” transition starting on April 1 but is now experiencing a “frustrating log-jam”.

“The delay has been frustrating but we received a possible April timetable today,” said Mr Seres on Tuesday.

“If it can be firmed up before the weekend, with one key point confirmed, we will be able to meet it.

“If the delay continues for six weeks and there is no library during that time I’ll be spitting blood."

Dear me. This will never do. A frustrating log-jam is not what the residents of Hampstead Garden Suburb expect. The volunteer magistrates, teachers, etc will be on the phone to their councillors, we may imagine, giving them what for. Of course the frustrating log-jam will no doubt be caused by those annoying little practicalities such as er, CRB checks, security arrangements, timetabling, insurance, stock ordering, ... all those trivial matters that a properly run library does as part of its duties. But hey ho, let them get on with it.

Think about Friern Barnet again: the funding from the Carnegie Trust which made it possible to open the library in 1934. Think about the ideals which informed the foundation and administration of Carnegie's charitable foundations. The Trust was founded in 1913 for the 'improvement of the well being of the masses of the people of Great Britain and Ireland'. In the 1930s, in the midst of recession and terrible hardship for working people, it endeavoured to support social welfare projects to help tackle poverty, unemployment and the need for urban renewal.

Eighty years later, we are in the midst of another deep recession, and the residents in the less privileged areas of our borough are no less deserving of help to retain the resources they need to sustain their community life. The double standards shown in the favouring of the Garden Suburb library scheme at the expense of the Friern Barnet plan shows more clearly than ever the black hearted hypocrisy of our Tory council: they act only according to the benefit of their own electoral advantage, and carefully calculate their policy proposals accordingly.

Except that in Barnet, any assault on the library service is a risky move: it is one of those dangerous issues which has fairly predictable results. The middle class voters of Barnet do not like their libraries messed with, in any part of the borough, and Mrs Angry predicts that this issue will come back to haunt the Tory councillors at the next election. Combined with the fury that parking, park hire, allowance rises, oh and the mass sell off of our council services will have caused by then - well, this all might prove to be something of a mistake. A big mistake.

Never mind. As we know, Councillor Rams has announced that he is creating new libraries, with longer hours, and even though these are invisible, we understand that an opening ceremony will be taking place in one of them on Sunday morning, to be attended by Rams, and his equally invisible colleague Councillor Brian Coleman.

See you there.

Or not.

Have a nice weekend.

Mrs Angry x

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Missing in Action: Brian Coleman. Gone, but not forgotten by Mrs Angry

How Brian Coleman managed to cut down on his GLA taxi expenses

It is with deep sadness that Mrs Angry must report some news from the frontline of the election battle for the London Assembly.

Brian Coleman is missing in action, and is not expected to make a return to the constituency of Barnet and Camden.

It is rumoured that our beloved assembly member has been the victim of friendly fire, and ended his career in a skirmish with local Tories, in a car park in Chipping Barnet.

Rumour has it that he had been mistaken for a parking meter, was lassoed by a tow truck and removed, and on closer inspection was found to have had his mouth stuffed full of £1 coins. Brian was released and last seen wandering about the streets of West Finchley in something of a daze. He is reported to have entirely lost his political instincts.

We shall not see his like again.

Thank feck for that, eh, citizens?

Yes: according to a marvellous post on 'Political' the suitably named Sean Fear has predicted that Brian is on his way out. As he says:

"In my view, Barnet and Camden is very likely to fall, as it requires a swing of only 5.5% to Labour, and incumbent Brian Coleman is unpopular among London Conservatives."

Mr Fear is himself a London Conservative, and therefore in a position to tell it like it is. Oh dear, Brian. 5.5% is all it takes? You're toast, chum.

Think of all the sections of the community that Coleman has offended or upset in the last couple of years: every driver in the borough, every shopkeeper, every elderly person unable to pay for parking by phone, or afford the 4x rise in cost of visitor tickets, every park user, every single mother struggling to live in the 'real world' and pay her rent, not to mention 'these people': the vulnerabel and disabled users of subsidised transport, and their relatives and carers.

The attempt to award himself a big fat pay rise, along with his Tory councillor mates, as soon as he got back in power in Barnet in 2010, the revelation that he lives in a charity owned flat with a rent fixed at half the going market rate ... the wining and dining & hampers from Assetco, the insulting remarks about Fire Brigade Union members ... oh, let's stop there, shall we? Anyway, this all adds up to more than 5%, I'm guessing: more of a 55% swing heading in the other direction, I would imagine, Brian.

And he must know the game is up ...his conspicuous absence from the hustings, from any visible canvassing here in Barnet: this tells you all you need to know.

Where was Brian when Boris Johnson came to Finchley last week, to stroll along the Dollis Valley walk and see where his grant has gone, a grant that was awarded some time ago, but only just being implemented, in time for the election, and clearly intended to provide a suitable good news photo opportunity for the Mayor and for the local Tory member?

Unfortunately, this timely hand out has been blown in the course of a scandalously mismanaged scheme which has seen perfectly adequate footpaths replaced, while dangerously broken up sections remain, half finished playgrounds, and the imposition of ghastly, ugly and useless 'entrances' at the end of unrepaired tracks.

Coleman, for whatever reason, did not accompany Boris on his walk, which was probably just as well, as the Mayor was collared by local residents' association chair Dennis (the menace) Pepper, who pointed out the mess that has been made of the whole project.

Deputy Tory leader Cllr John Thomas was not amused at being shown up in front of Boris, and complained to the local paper which published the story. But where was Cllr Coleman? Was he sulking? Or has he been told by Lynton Crosby to keep make himself scarce?

Brian Coleman is reluctant to take part in any hustings events, we are told: the only canvassing so far that he has taken part in and that we know about, in fact, has been in the safe zones of Hampstead and Belsize Park. But the safe zones in the Camden part of the constituency are not significant in terms of voters. It's in Barnet that Coleman needs to win over the hearts and minds of the electorate.

Oh dear.

Never mind. Brian has been keeping himself busy. According to a tweet yesterday by his Camden Tory hangers on, he managed to get himself invited to Buckingham Palace to take part in the presentation of 'Loyal Addresses by Privileged Bodies'. Can you imagine? Brian must have been feverish with excitement. Not sure why he was there, as most of the others seem to have been people like the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other church leaders. As far as Mrs Angry is aware, Brian Coleman has not as yet been appointed as the head of a church or religious order, but of course he is, in many ways, a privileged body. Sorry, in Coleman house style: A Privileged Body.

Tomorrow, monarchists of Broken Barnet, guess what? The Queen herself, yes, Her Maj, is ssshhh ... well no, not coming to Barnet, sadly. Almost as good though. She is DRIVING THROUGH THE BOROUGH. At high speed, blinds drawn, probably, like Dr Johnson in the Lake District, but in this case to avoid sight of that ghastly little man who came to the Palace yesterday, and wouldn't stop bowing, and dribbling on the carpet, and kept boasting that he has paid £1,000 of residents hard earned cash to commission his mate's son to write a royal anthem for her jubilee.

Brian may be trying to keep a low profile, in this, surely the strangest election campaign in London, but yesterday the Guardian helped him out with some useful publicity. On Monday, Patrick Kingsley's Diary informed us:

"• Elsewhere in motoring, scarcely believable scenes at London's City Hall. Assembly member Brian Coleman – scourge of firemen, connoisseur of the hansom cab – appears to have tightened his purse strings, if not his belt. Once criticised for expensing £10,334 on taxis in a single year, Coleman has kept this year's outgoings to just £189.65. Or has he? Closer inspection of his parallel expense account at the capital's fire authority, which he chairs, suggests the burden is merely shifted elsewhere – to the tune of £3,367.27. The biggest culprit? Car journeys. All 80 of them, not least a £40.34 round-trip from Southwark to Westminster. It's five minutes on the Jubilee line."

Now this is very interesting. Mrs Angry is puzzled by some of Brian's expense claims. Of the Assembly Members on the authority, his total, by the way, of £3,367.27, towers over the next biggest, by Tony Arbour, for a mere £192. Most of the others claim nothing. But look at this entry - on 2902/2012, a taxi fare of £38.55 (invoiced) to go to the Grosvenor hotel for a dinner. Doesn't say where from. But by an extraordinary coincidence, the return fare was - guess what? £38.55. Invoiced.

Mmm. And here is another one: 4/11/2011 - taxi, from where we do not know, to East Wintergarden, 43 Bank Street E14, to the CFOA Spirit of Fire awards, £49.24. (Invoiced). Guess how much the return fare was? Yep. £49.24. Invoiced. Of course one might ask why we have to pay for a black cab anyway, which presumably this must be, as otherwise the fare would be rounded up, and a damn sight less expensive.

If he cannot bring himself to get the tube like any other Londoner has to, what's wrong with using a local minicab service? A cab all the way to Heathrow airport costs less much than that. Try Fairway Kenwood cars, Brian - Mrs Angry uses them all the time, and has had some very interesting political discussions with many of their remarkably well informed, not to say opinionated drivers. You'd be in your element.

Ah: hang on though - Heathrow Airport ... looking at Brian's GLA expenses, which are now an exemplary study in restraint and value for money for London tax payers, only £189.65, compared to the bills which used to run into thousands in former years - hello, a modest claim for a tenner or so for mileage to a question time event ... but two claims in relation to taxi fares to and from Heathrow - outward on 7/10/2011, for £77.46, and return on the 10/10 for £101.47. What was this for? Oh: what is described as 'an official trip to Cyprus'.

Every year, in the autumn, several councillors from Barnet visit Morphou in Cyprus for a short break, usually all hotel accommodation and flights provided at the expense of the Municipality. This, we are told, is in order to attend a 'peace demonstration' relating to the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus. Their loyal support for the people of Morphou is expressed by attending lunches, and dinners, and in accepting lovely paperweights and a few bottles of wine. Here is last year's entry from the online GLA gifts and hospitality register:

Brian Coleman 07-OCT-11 Meals at restaurants in Cyprus during Visit to Cyprus to attend events organised by the Municipality of Morphou to protest against the Turkish invasion and occupation of Cyprus. 7th October Dinner at Pavilion Restaurant in Nicosia 8th October Dinner at Hilton Hotel Nicosia 9th October Lunch at Stavros tis Asinou 10th October Lunch at Evohia Restaurant Nicosia Municipality of Morphou

Brian Coleman 07-OCT-11 Visit to Cyprus (7 - 10 October) to attend events organised by the Municipality of Morphou to protest against the Turkish invasion and occupation of Cyprus. Return flights with Cyprusair from London to Larnaca and 3 nights bed and breakfast at the Hilton Park Hotel in Nicosia

Clearly this sort of hectic schedule of protest is bound, one day, to persuade the Turkish government to pack up and leave Cyprus. A few more dinners at the Pavilion Restaurant should do it, I reckon, don't you?

Now when Mrs Angry and Mr Mustard were eventually allowed, recently, under strict supervision, and with security arrangements reflecting the highest level of alert at the council offices which our visit represented, to view the withheld declarations of interests, gifts and hospitality by our Barnet councillors, we found that Brian Coleman had not declared this latest trip to Morphou. It may be this was because his trip was made in his capacity as GLA member, and therefore does not have to be listed here. But was his trip an official one? Perhaps it was, endorsed by the London Assembly. Should the London tax payer have to fork out over £170 in fares to & from the airport for such a trip, though?

On the other hand, we must admire the skill involved in getting the Fire Authority taxi fare expenses to match exactly, to a penny, inward journey and outward journey, bearing in mind all the variable factors of traffic, speed, signals, different routes. Mrs Angry is sure there is a perfectly valid reason for the coincidence, and will write to LFEPA to ask, so she can explain to the rest of London's taxi customers how to do the same. Perhaps the cabbie is carefully encouraged in this activity by Brian, holding a stopwatch, to speed up, or, no - surely not - slow down, in order to acheive such a target. What larks, eh? Mrs Angry suspects, in fact, that Cllr Coleman's new idea of removing pelican crossings from the borough is in order, with relentless efficiency, and for the provision of better services for less money, to facilitate the unimpeded progress of his taxi journeys, and therefore save the London tax payer a small fortune. Well done, Councillor Coleman, says Mrs Angry.

Of course when he loses his Assembly seat in May, and therefore his Fire Authority post as well, he won't have to take a taxi anywhere, will he? Might not be able to afford to take a taxi anywhere, come to that.

Poor old Brian.

Missing you already.

Mrs Angry x

Saturday 24 March 2012

Enticement: an invitation to the One Barnet House of Fun

It is a strange courtship, the competitive dialogue that takes place between a local authority and the businesses that wish to tender for the running of its services.

Not so much a courtship, perhaps, as a long drawn out indecent proposal, a prolonged episode of feeling up, stage managed flirting and whispered promises, playing off one would be lover with another.

Outwardly, the ritualised process follows a strictly ordered set of rules, overseen by protocols, the chaperones jealously guarding the virtue of the body up for sale. In the house of fun here in One Barnet, however, the services on offer are available on a less formal basis, no questions asked - when they think they get away with it. Whether or not you are after a quick screw, or perhaps the thrill of something a little bit more risky, this is the house to come to.

In the house of One Barnet, we are offering two menus, to cater for a range of tastes. Punters interested in the temptation offered by the NSCSO package of fun have been looking at the list of services over the last few months, and some have dropped out, or been shown the door. Now the only gentlemen sitting on the sofa are from BT, and Capita.

Who will win? There are two schools of thought. Some believe that the interesting plan to restructure our call centres neatly fits the BT model, and is an indication therefore in one direction, whereas others think that as Capita is bidding for both bundles of services, it might seem a good idea to give both to the same company. Who knows? Some do know, of that Mrs Angry is fully confident.

On Friday representatives from Capita came to meet six hundred or so staff at Barnet Council, in what was supposed to be a chance to meet the company who may soon be their new employers - in theory, and temporarily, in many cases. A question was asked about the location of jobs, should Capita win the bid. Capita refused to answer, claiming, ridiculously, that it could not give any response to this as it had not yet been selected.

The harsh reality is that many jobs are likely to be moved to whatever location Capita decides is most profitable. As we have reported, there has been evidence to suggest that at least one outsourcing bidder is considering the use of employees in Bangalore. The fact that they will not confirm any committment to keeping staff in this borough in employment is surely significant.

In the next week or so, BT will also come to Barnet to meet staff: Mrs Angry wonders if any of the staff who have worked for Barnet and gone to BT will take the opportunity to come back and see old friends? That would be nice, wouldn't it?

Oh: which reminds me.

You may recall that Mrs Angry has been trying, over the last few months, to investigate the curious lack of care which Barnet appears to have shown in regard to the issue of conflict of interest between senior officers of the council, currently employed and recently employed, and the companies which have been bidding for the services up for sale, here in the One Barnet house of fun.

On the 9th January, Mrs Angry wrote to Lord Palmer, the Chair of the Audit committee, in relation to the way in which Barnet has managed, or not managed, the risk of conflict of interest created in the course of the current dialogue process.

"Dear Lord Palmer,

You may recall that at the last Audit Committe meeting I submitted several questions regarding the issue of the conflict of interests of senior officers of the borough, expressing particular concern about the need for transparency during the One Barnet programme and the current tendering process that will outsource £1 billion worth of council services.

I raised the specific example of an officer who had taken an active part in the dialogue process for the customer service package, worth £750 million, and has now taken a post with one of the four short listed companies competing for the business on offer.

Without making any personal accusation of wrong doing in this case, it seemed to me, and to many others, that this is an extraordinary development within the context of such a hugely sensitive commercial negotiation, and that in the interests of transparency and probity there must be an urgent investigation into the circumstances in which this former employee was able to take up a position with a shortlisted tendering company. I am uncertain as to whether any such investigation has since taken place ..."

In this letter, Mrs Angry referred to an earlier post:

which mentioned a Freedom of Information request regarding the register of interests which senior officers are supposed to use to declare any interest which is relevant during the dialogue process.

"In March this year, the council's directors and senior officers proposed creating a register of interests in order to log any potential conflicts of interest relating to procurement and other issues resulting from the One Barnet outsourcing programme. Please tell me when this register was implemented, and give me copies of all entries to the current date."

Mrs Angry was told that the register had been implemented in May, and was sent copies of 18 declarations. Only 18 declarations. None of these are dated earlier than October 4th, only 24 days before this stage of the process was due to end, and several names of officers whom one would expect to be involved in the process are missing.

When all these points have been raised by Mrs Angry, via the Chair of the Audit committee, no satisfactory reply has been given - in fact the eventual response has been to tell her that the officer whose new employment had raised concerns was 'taken off the job as soon as he made Barnet aware of the potential conflict'. Staff who raised this question at a meeting were also told that as soon as he accepted his new post, the officer had no more access to the NSCSO procurement so did not have to sign any declaration of interest. Hmm.

The officer in question left his post in Barnet on 28th October and immediately started his new post at BT. At his level, three months notice is the usual requirement for resignation, so presumably the council would have known he was leaving in August, yet his signature appears on a draft 'output specification' submitted to a Business and Performance Overview and Scrutiny committee on the 22nd of September. And why was no declaration demanded from him, and other officers, before August?

There are many questions in regard to this matter which any reasonably minded resident would be perfectly entitled to want to ask, and in the interests of transparency, these questions must be addressed. So far, they are being ignored.

New information given to Mrs Angry will be submitted to Barnet for verification in relation to this case, and she looks forward with great interest to the response.

A few weeks ago she submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for proof of the date of this officer's resignation. This was refused, and she is now appealing against this decision on the grounds of it being a matter of public interest. Another question was as follows:

"Please supply a copy of the letter sent late last year to the four shortlisted companies involved in the competitive dialogue for the Customer Services service tender process which requested that they do not 'poach' any more officers from the authority."

The response was disappointing:

"I can confirm that the Council did not send any letter(s) of this nature to the shortlisted companies. Can I suggest that you provide further information, which may assist us in identifying the information you are requesting?"

Ah. Happily, Mrs Angry is indeed in a position to provide further information, which may assist the London Borough of Broken Barnet in identifying the information she is requesting, from the shredded documents bagged up at North London Business Park.

She has a copy of the letter.

In fact, it comes in the form of an appendix form, number 4, sent on or around the 23rd of November... Statement of Good Faith and Declaration - ha, can you imagine, 'Good Faith', in the London Borough of Broken Barnet? Mrs Angry has been told that this requirement was made, rather belatedly, in November, after a blog was published about certain comings and goings between Barnet and certain outsourcing companies.

This form explains to all tendering companies that they must not -

'while participating in this competitive dialogue process, solicit or entice away or employ or attempt to employ any person who is directly involved in the council's procurement process and/or those on the project or programme board, programme team, evaluation panels and full time project officers.'

Solicit or entice away ... I like the sound of that, don't you? Very appropriate, in the circumstances.

Now then: if this form was only signed or presented on or about 23rd November, that would appear to be rather late in the day, would it not? Rather too late in the day, in fact. And even if the form had been presented earlier in the process, this would reasonably suggest that there may indeed have been some sort of 'enticement', in perhaps more than one case.

Mrs Angry must emphasise that she is not accusing any individual officer of wrongdoing: the question here is clearly an apparent failure of the council - as an employer, and as a participant in a procurement exercise - in regard to its own responsibility to apply properly regulated protocols to safeguard the integrity of the competitive dialogue process, and in order to prevent any conflict of interest, or perception of conflict of interest.

Do we have to mention it again, the reason why this is such an important matter?

There is a total of one billion pounds worth of business being pimped by our council through the One Barnet programme.

This massive scale of outsourcing has been widely discredited - government policy is no longer to push for programmes as radical and all encompassing as this, and some of the companies previously associated with outsourcing are themselves now stepping away from this market. It is simply too risky, and cannot be relied on to provide either a satisfactory standard of services, or the savings promised, or even the profits desired by the companies involved, without unwanted complications when things go wrong.

Here in our borough, our reckless Tory council is sleepwalking its way to disaster by continuing to support a business plan they have never understood, while the senior management team push them from behind with undignified haste, and an evident lack of care for the proper regulation of the procurement process.

You might hope that our councillors would stop and question the need for an undignified haste - and to question whether or not they are party to a gross assault on the best interests of the residents of this borough, residents and employees alike.

But as is usually the case, here in the house of fun, the best interests of the ones who get f*cked are generally overlooked by the proprietor, and the gentlemen on the sofa. This is Broken Barnet, and all you can do now is lie back, close your eyes, and wait til it's all over.