Sunday 29 July 2012

Mrs Angry's Naked Olympics

Well, see: as you may know, Mrs Angry is not awfully keen on sport.

I say not awfully keen: I mean is deeply bored by it, hates watching it, doing it, hearing other people talking about it. In her view, the sporting instinct represents all that is worst in human nature: the need to show off, compete with others and brag about how flipping wonderful you are. Competitive sport is war dressed up in tracksuits and trainers, and acted out on the playing fields of the Olympic Village, rather than the foothills of some far off country, but a primal act of aggression, all the same.

Yes, sport played at the highest level involves a huge amount of effort, training, dedication: for what, though, in the end? A medal. A personal record. So what? Why not use those qualities for something more useful and creative? And why do we need to spend so much money on promoting such self indulgence? Could we not instead spend the money, which is directed at what is supposed anyway to be an event for, ha ha, amateurs, on better sports facilities for children, young people and disadvantaged citizens? In a context, in other words, where the aim of sport is to empower those who might benefit the most from exercise, diversion, and lessons in self discipline, rather than pursue a highly subsidised career in international sport? No, probably not, because this would not provide an opportunity for global brands to make profit out of us.

Pierre de Coubertin

Defining the ethos of the Olympics is usually left to the father of the modern games, Baron de Courbertin, who famously said, or is believed to have said, that the importance of sport was not in the winning, but in the taking part. In fact, this would appear to be a misinterpretation of what he actually said, which was:

"L'important dans la vie ce n'est point le triomphe, mais le combat, l'essentiel ce n'est pas d'avoir vaincu mais de s'ĂȘtre bien battu".

In other words, in life the important thing is not to win, or rather to triumph, but the struggle, and not to have conquered, but to have fought well ... not quite the same, is it? Rather more confrontational. How do you fight well? Why fight at all?

There is already much discussion about the sexism of so much of the commentary of the London Olympics, and the overly male dominance of the event: not sure why this should be such a surprise. Female athletes are generally regarded with amusement: look at the idiotic remark by Boris Johnson about beach volley ball contestants 'glistening like wet otters' - or mocked for their perceived lack of attractiveness, such as certain swimmers, or one or two of the female weightlifters.

Sport is absolutely steeped in entrenched macho values: and you could argue that the competitive drive itself which fuels these events is inherently male. Which is not to say that women are not naturally competitive, but perhaps it is true that generally they channel their energies into more productive, cooperative and creative activities. And perhaps the dominance of men in the organisation of global sports events has created an environment in which in order to survive, they have been forced to conform to the wrong model of competition.

Certainly watching some of the events, and looking at the rather astonishing physiques of some of the female athletes, it might be a reasonable assumption to make that women are being forced to go way beyond the limits of their ability to compete not just with each other, but with a definition of strength that is male, and - maybe - impossible to achieve naturally, or without real cost to the individual.

Look at the case of the sixteen year old Chinese girl who, rather astoundingly, swam faster than the male medal winner in a comparable event: no suggestion of any doping or other use of banned substances in this case, of course ... but is she winning for herself, meeting the challenges of her own motivation, or is she, selected as a little girl for her suitability by a government scout, the victim of national political ambition, controlled by politicians in Beijing?

Pierre de Coubertin formed his ideas about the social benefits of sport as a result of perhaps two major influences: a overly romanticised view of the ancient Olympic games, and - rather surprisingly, perhaps, the legacy of sporting traditions in the English public school system, particularly at Rugby School, where the famous Dr Arnold presided over a curriculum giving great prominence to physical education. As de Coubertin saw it, thanks to Arnold, 'The cause was quickly won. Playing fields sprang up all over England ...' He also thought that the rise of British power, the foundation of the Empire, and success in military engagements was largely attributable to this form of education. Better physical education would make better soldiers, in short.

A generation earlier had seen Wellington observe that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, and how true it is, or was, that the male public school tradition in sport is closer than we care to acknowledge to the militaristic tradition of the ruling classes: the careful management of aggression, and conflict, and the protection of economic interests in far away countries.

De Coubertin's idealised view of the classical games, with well oiled, naked Greek athletes politely grappling with each other in manly contest, encouraged him, somehow, to think of the first Olympics as a model for a new opportunity for the renewal of peaceful cooperation between nations and classes: of course the original games achieved nothing of the sort, and were a series of events hard won by individuals - men, of course, watched only by unmarried women, in case it over excited their mums - taking part for personal and civic reward. Taking part to conquer, and to win, not just for the fun of it.

Clearly this sort of activity has no place in modern Olympic events.

one for the ladies: look, glistening like wet, erm - oh ... make your own jokes

Ruined by the interference of corporate Rome, of course, the ancient games, ending up with Nero insisting on taking a prominent role, water fountains and cultural events laid on to placate the masses, just like Boris and London, 2012 ...

The nineteenth century adoption of physical education as a form of training ground for the Empire may have resulted in a nation covered in playing fields, but the idea of sport as an integral part of the lives of most school children is simply not true, other than in a limited fashion within the curriculum. All around the country free sports facilities are disappearing, and only the privileged few who can afford gym membership have access to such activities. The playing fields themselves are being redeveloped, as speculators move in on easy opportunities for profit. Look at this BBC report from earlier this year highlighting the sales by London councils of parks, playgrounds and greenspaces:

Nowhere could offer a better example of this shameless sell off than our Tory council speculators here in Broken Barnet, as this story from the local Times reveals: here Barnet sold more public land than any other London borough in the last three years, including land attached to Broadfields School, and Northway and Fairways special schools, all right on the edge of the Green belt, and the playing fields at Stanley Road, East Finchley, a site which the authority has allowed to deteriorate nicely to the point where it has become a suitable case for flogging to developers.

And in this Olympic year, our Tory councillors have not only sold off one former local football ground, Hendon FC, in a highly controversial deal, to a lower of two bidders, a move which is now the subject of judicial review, they sat on their hands while the much loved Barnet FC has been forced out of its hundred year old home at Underhill, and out of the borough. In contrast, the Tory councillors have fallen over themselves to assist the fabulously wealthy Nigel Wray, who lives in Totteridge, in his bid to find a new home for Saracens rugby team, from Watford. Our stadium at Copthall, neglected by the authority over decades, has been given to him to use on a peppercorn rent, and Saracens have been allowed to rename the stadium, in a deal worth several million pounds, with a German finance company.

Hendon FC - up for sale to the highest bidder. Oh: ok - the lowest bidder.

Other sports centres and clubs in the borough have been closed: in the borough now there are practically no free sporting facilities, in fact, in line with the presiding ethos of our council, which sees sporting sites and cultural buildings not as community resources, but as potential property developments. Selling off playing fields, unfortunately, is a dishonourable tradition here in Broken Barnet - see here ...

There are large areas of economic deprivation within Barnet -a surprising fact which our council chooses to ignore. Within the least advantaged areas access to good education, healthcare and housing is of course the most restricted: the social problems which occur without opportunities for younger residents to engage in positive activities inevitably lead to anti social behaviour, drug abuse and related problems. Selling off sports grounds, clubs and playing fields will produce a quick profit, but the long term effects of such shameless profiteering will be much more significant.

The brilliant, defiant tone of Danny Boyle's opening Olympic ceremony on Friday touched on an almost forgotten sense of pride, an emotion which has resounded with so many people: a celebration of the history of ordinary people, the achievements in social progress and culture made possible by real struggle, real work, real people. Not the struggle of a game of tennis, or polo, or years of training for a five second win in a race for a medal. Hard work, in hard circumstances, and quiet lives of small successes, large sacrifices and modest ambition.

Ironic, is it not, that it takes a man of Irish Catholic background to remind the British, or arguably the English, of the things which matter so much to us? Or maybe not. Maybe only someone who comes from a culture outside of the English class system could produce such an effective slap in the face for a coalition government run by the privileged elite for the privileged elite.

Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton, Dave, and Boris: but then again Jerusalem will be built on England's green and pleasant land - if you and your chums haven't sold it all off for development.

Thursday 26 July 2012

Mrs Angry's Olympic supplement: a day and night in pictures

As you know, Mrs Angry's spies are everywhere, and she has been sent some supplementary photos of yesterday's Olympic celebrations, here in Broken Barnet, for you to enjoy.

Above, an illegal display of non approved carbonated refreshment, an offence punishable by death, in the corporate paradise that is Broken Barnet.

The same illicit material was taken to Friern Barnet, to salute the Olympic torch, and stand, impertinently, in an act of civil disobedience outside the former library, closed by local Councillor Robert Rams and his Tory chums, and transformed, as if by magic, into a marvellous prospective development. Please note the shouty plainclothes policeman seemingly wiping his nose on his fingers, which is something his mum should have taught him not to do, in Mrs Angry's opinion.

Mrs Angry's geeky plane spotting readers - here is a treat for you all, especially Mrs Angry's brother - yes, you will have noticed the Typhoon fighter that flew over Hendon just before the arrival of the Olympic Torch: look see ... those pointy things are missiles, apparently. Just in case any local cafe owners were intent on holding up any posters along the route, and embarrassing the corporate sponsors.

To celebrate the coming of the corporate carnival to Broken Barnet, the Mayor of London kindly arranged a display in Victoria Park, which took place rather romantically at dusk, with a half moon glowing in the sky, and hordes of sweaty Tory councillors wandering about in the crowd, safe in the knowledge that the lack of lighting meant no one would recognise them, grab them by the collar, and give them a good talking to about the dangerous lunacy of One Barnet.

As you can see below, however, one or two of them took the sensible precaution of removing their ties.

Above, yes, once again here we have Tory leader Richard Cornelius being bored to tears by his (former) Cabinet colleague, and our (former) GLA member, Cllr Brian Coleman .

We then all settled down to watch a frankly rather repetitive display of dancing, which seemed to be an allegory of life in Broken Barnet, the creative spirit caged and subjugated to the rule of repressive Tory policies, over a tediously long period of time.

... and then, goodness me, here was a most perplexing act - involving an enormous crane, from which dangled a number of rather tubby angels in drag, wrapped up in what looked like a collection of giant used condoms, cheerfully festooned with sparkling red lights. It was a memorable sight. It had been suggested by some, of course - oh, alright, by Mrs Angry - that Tory councillors dangling from a crane might be an even more memorable, and indeed enjoyable sight. Which was funny, because ...

... by this point we had lost sight of one of our most beloved Tory councillors, and, rather oddly, Mrs Angry did not see him reappear for the rest of the evening.

Although ...

Thanks to Mrs Angry's special correspondants everywhere.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

The Games: another Torch relay in Broken Barnet

the torch arrives in Finchley, along with a shouty plainclothes policeman

Mrs Angry has had lots and lots of hits on the blog this morning from people searching for details of the Olympic Torch relay, which came to our borough today. It was pleasing to think that all these readers arrived not at a summary of the official route but on Saturday's post about the alternative Torch relay and demo, which took place in order to allow residents express their fierce opposition to the One Barnet programme of mass outsourcing of our council services.

As it happened, Mrs Angry, son and daughter stood and waited for the Torch relay to arrive outside the entrance to Victoria Park, where the Our Barnet alternative relay had been forced to halt, due to the refusal of Barnet Council to allow residents to enter their own park.

Miss Angry and local children await the Torch

Despite the fun atmosphere in the thousands of onlookers lining the route, whereas the Saturday event had been the focus of real political and community spirit, the relay today was largely a tawdry, corporate carnival, the runner with the torch barely visible between the advertising trailers accompanying her. In essence, it perfectly summed up pretty much what is wrong with so many global sporting events, whether the World Cup, international cricket, or the Olympic games, commercial sponsorship is corrupting the spirit of competitive sport, and reducing what should be a unifying interaction of athletes, and countries, into a massive marketing opportunity.

Not just globally, of course. Referring back to the ideas of 'What money can't buy', and the introduction of a market economy into areas where such values, or lack of them, simply should not exist, these London games seem the most appropriate symbol of the political culture of our coalition government, and the ruthless deconstruction of so many of the many foundations of our society in favour of the yearning for profit where profit cannot or should not be made: the NHS, education, the emergency services ... ... the public sector.

And here in Barnet, we have the perfect demonstration of how far you can take this commercial exploitation of well, almost everything you can think of. Apart from the monstrous One Barnet programme, which has been designed to facilitate the profit of transnational companies at the expense of the services so vital to the wellbeing of our community, we are witnessing the sell off of anything of any material value. Our museums and libraries are not valued as part of the cultural life of this borough, but as property assets. And this rule of materialism, in this year of Olympic glory, applies not only to culture and heritage, but also in the case of sport.

In the last week or so, we have seen the continuation of a desperately grubby wrangling over the sale of Hendon FC ground, mysteriously sold by Barnet Council not to the highest bidder, for once, but determinedly to the bidder with a lower offer. We have also seen something very sad, the loss of Barnet FC - the team has been forced to leave its home in the borough at Underhill, and relocate to Harrow. What will happen to the land left vacant by this move, Mrs Angry, I hear you ask? Hmm. Mrs Angry simply cannot imagine.

the sponsors relay and screens

Compare this sad loss,and the crocodile tears of Barnet Council, to the wonderful encouragement given to Saracens rugby team, from Watford, who have been given our Copthall Stadium to play with, at a peppercorn rent, rather than Barnet FC, who have been kicked over to Harrow (rather like Barnet Council's own mutinous legal team - but that's another story). Yesterday we learnt that Saracens have agreed a fabulous commercial deal with a German finance company which means we must refer to Copthall Stadium, from now on, as 'Allianz Park'. Like f*ck. Not in this blog. Copthall is named after a nearby seventeenth century manor house, home to the local landowning Nicholl family, but shamefully demolished, in traditional Barnet style, in 1959.

Why is it that an outside team, whose fabulously wealthy chairman Nigel Wray lives in Totteridge, has been given such favourable accommodation, when our local football team has been kicked out of the borough? And why have Saracens been able to use one of our assets to generate income for themselves, and not the residents of this borough?

more sponsor relay nonsense

Where are the opportunities for local residents to take part in sport? Where are the facilities, for those who cannot afford gym fees? How will we encourage Olympic atheletes of the future, in this borough, especially those whose parents are not able to afford to pay for their sporting activities?

The Olympic spirit, supposedly one of mutual understanding, a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play ... to Mrs Angry, this all sounds closer to the motivation of the alternative Torch relay, Our Barnet, not One Barnet, than the corporate carnival which passed through Finchley today.

As the Torch approached Victoria Park, it was noticeable that the only real security surrounding the procession was an escort of somewhat agressive and frankly rather sweaty police officers in grey t shirts running alongside the torch bearer.

officer on the route, one of a team brought in from Greater Manchester police

Mrs Angry thought back to the keen attentions of counter terrorist officers to local shopkeepers' spokeswoman Helen Michael, and the phone call to the organiser of the alternative torch relay. It seemed even more likely today, that all the fuss about potential demonstrations along the course of the route was the real motive for such interest. And as it was clear that neither individual represented a security risk, it seems evident that what was being investigated was the threat of political embarrassment, and a disruption of a major PR excercise for the corporate sponsors.

Long way from Olympia, 776 BC, to Broken Barnet 2012, isn't it?

Mrs Angry, a lesson in law from Barnet Council, and a response

the law is a ass, apparently, in Broken Barnet

Dear Mrs Angry,

Re: Inspection of Documents

I refer to your email communication, of 13th July, addressed to Andrew Travers. I am responding to your email communication as Andrew Travers is presently away from the office, on leave.

Given that you have set out the relevant legislation in your email, I will not set it out again, but I will make reference to it.

Section 15 (3) and (3A) removes, from the right of an elector to inspect the accounts and documents relating to them, accounts or document which contain personal information, being information which identifies a particular individual or enables a particular individual to be identified and the auditor considers that the document(s) should not be inspected or disclosed.

I confirm that the external auditor has approved the Council’s approach of redacting such information and further confirm that the relevant information has been redacted on this basis.

In addition, Section 15 (3) and (4) removes the right of interested persons to inspect the Council’s accounts to be audited and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them and to make copies of all or any part of the accounts and those other documents where the accounts or other documents contain information about a member of staff and the, remaining, requirements of Section 15 (4) (a) and (b) are met.

Again, I confirm that redaction of documents has taken place, on the basis of this provision.

With respect to ‘commercial confidential information’, to which you have referred, I confirm that the Council has, on the basis of the Court of Appeal decision in the case of Veolia ES Nottinghamshire Ltd) v Nottinghamshire County Council [2012] redacted commercial confidential information. Any redactions on this basis were not ‘… political decisions’, but, rather, a balancing act between the public interest in transparency, particularly where the dealings of public authorities and the use of public money is concerned, against the public interest in the maintenance of valuable commercial confidential information. In the view of the Council the issue of ‘commercial confidential information’ is not limited to publication of information but is relevant to inspection of accounts and documents relating to the account: the Court of Appeal, in the Veolia case mentioned above was, indeed, concerned with the right of inspection under Section 15.

The Council fully appreciates the importance of the role played by electors in assisting the auditor in his audit and has no intention of obstructing you and/or other residents from viewing the accounts, in accordance with the rights and subject to the reservations set out in 15(3), (3A) and (4)”.

Kind regards

John Hooton
Assistant Director, Strategic Finance

Mrs Angry has replied:

Dear Mr Hooton,

Thank you for this response, which, I am afraid I find to be completely inadequate.

I am well aware of the Veolia case, and I note that you have chosen to interpret the findings of this case in a subjective and carefully selective manner.

If you recall, the judgement in this case referred to a public need for transparency and stated that there should be no absolute bar on material, rather a balancing act between commercial sensitivity and the public interest. Clearly Barnet Council has chosen to ignore this finding and has chosen to use the pretext of - originally - commercial sensitivity, and now, latterly, 'personal information', for purposes of its own, ie to obstruct the proper scrutiny of its accounts, which is unlawful.

There has never been any need to redact any personal information, or any commercially sensitive material, from Barnet's accounts in this instance, for several reasons:

1. The law makes it perfectly clear that the original documents should be made available. If material had been specifically exempted from the public domain, there might be an argument for redaction, although in the case of the elector's right to inspect the accounts, the over riding importance is so as to enable the individual to raise any related concerns with the authority's auditor. This is not a case of the risk of publication of such material: should such an act have ensued then this would have had its own consequences. We made it perfectly clear on our visit - and this is a matter of record - that we had no intention to publish any such material.

2. Although the law provides for the possible redaction of personal material, this is a matter for the auditor to decide. Despite your attempts to present a later decision by the auditor to defend the redaction of personal information for individuals working for a private company or supplier, this is a retrospective decision. Mr Mustard, prior to this retrospective judgement, had already been told by Mr Hughes in an email that he had not been approached about such a matter. May I quote the following confirmation, sent at 1.14pm on July 13th, by Mr Hughes, in response to his enquiry specifically about this point:

"The understanding you obtained from officers was correct, in that I was not involved in any discussions about providing or withholding information."

On Thursday July 19th, however, an officer emailed Mr Mustard quoting an extract from another -undated - email from Mr Hughes, which would appear to be a retrospective intervention sought after the event - and a partial one.

The auditor has responded as follows:

‘For individuals not employed by the council (e.g. individual named consultants working for suppliers) I have considered whether there is any reason why this information should not be disclosed. In line with guidance from the Audit Commission, this has involved consideration of weighing the rights of an individual to inspect information against the nature of the information and the potential consequences of disclosure on individuals who can be identified from it.

The factors I have considered and reached a view on are:

    • the relevance of the names of individuals within suppliers to the ability for electors to exercise their inspection rights, i.e. does the absence of a specific named person impair an elector's ability to understand the substance of the transaction in question? My view is that the absence of individuals details would not impair this ability.
    • potential consequences for individuals if information pertaining to them is disclosed, i.e. the likelihood of their personal information being published and commented on more widely. Based on relevant local experience, in my view it would be possible that individuals would be named and commented on in blogs and other media to an extent and in a manner that could result in personal consequences for them.
    • whether the individual identified has chosen to place themselves in the public domain (or could reasonably expect to have their information disclosed). In my view, whilst companies supplying councils can reasonably expect their names to be in the public domain, individuals working within those companies would not necessarily expect that their personal details would not be disclosed.
In my view, the right to inspect is outweighed by these other factors so I would conclude that information relating to individuals working for suppliers should not be disclosed.’

Please note anyway that Mr Hughes specifies individuals working for private suppliers, in the extract, and not council officers. And one might reasonably question why, at our meeting with Mr Hughes, he informed us that he held no view on the matter of redaction, and that it was a matter purely between the council and us as residents. As an allegedly independent auditor, to state now that he supports some redaction is rather surprising, when he had no earlier opinion on the matter.

3. The law, even as interpreted in the Veolia case appeal, does not provide for the wholesale redaction of any material that an authority pretends is 'commercially sensitive' simply for political reasons. We have already presented you with plenty of evidence showing that material was redacted on a widescale, deliberately obstructive basis, with no genuine relevance to commercial sensitivity. In one case, the page where a contractor was asked if any of the information was to be exempt the company had clearly marked N/A all the way through the form, yet your officers needlessly redacted everything within the document.

4. The reference made by Mr Hughes in relation to bloggers is the crucial point here: all three Barnet residents and bloggers who came to see the accounts have written extensively about several extremely significant matters relating to the governance and administration, or failures in governance and administration, of Barnet Council. We were the 'armchair auditors' who publicly exposed the MetPro scandal - to the publicly stated approval, you may recall, of Mr Pickles, and indeed of Councillor Lord Palmer, the Chair of Barnet Council's own Audit Committee - and revealed the widespread incompetence by the authority in matters of procurement, tendering and contractual processes. A huge number of contracts with private suppliers were found to be non compliant, a scandalous state of affairs and one which represented a serious misuse of public money, paid to private contractors without the appropriate safeguards in place to ensure proper efficiency in terms of value for money for residents. Unfortunately the auditors, both internal and external, had failed to notice these very serious failures in procedure.

By examining council records and making our own investigations, we have continued to find further irregularities, and the purpose of our visit to view the accounts was specifically in order to investigate similar matters of public interest, in order to raise them with the auditor on behalf of the residents and taxpayers of this borough. All the excuses which you are now seeking to provide to justify the obstruction of our right to see the accounts are totally spurious and we intend to continue to fight this unlawful act by the authority through the appropriate channels.

Yours sincerely,

Mrs Angry