Monday, 12 November 2012

Not in our Name: democracy snuffed out - but here comes a legal challenge ...

A couple of weeks ago, the Barnet bloggers met Guardian journalists John Harris and John Domokos to talk about and film a conversation on the subject of what is happening here, on Barnet, in the war between our local council and the residents it claims to represent. 

The two Johns also attended the public meeting last week with Tory leader Richard Cornelius, in which he fielded questions on the £1 billion gamble outsourcing proposals which are about to be signed and condemn us to a contract of corporate bondage, tied to the radiators of BT or Capita, with no safe word, and no escape from the room of pain for ten long years. 

Our local MP Mike Freer used to be very proud of what he told us was his own brilliant idea, the 'easycouncil' model for local government. In fact, this programme is a marketing strategy planted all around the country by the large private sector companies which form a virtual monopoly in public sector outsourcing. And Mr Freer seems less than keen to be associated with One Barnet, these days, for some reason. Easycouncil has now become a toxic brand, however, as you will see.

The article is in the paper this morning: page 34 - do rush out and buy a print copy, & keep a starving Guardian journalist in a job ... or you can read the article online here: 

The comments are well worth a read too, revealing the extent of ignorance in regard to the extent to which local government is in bed with the private sector, and the danger this represents to local democracy, accountability, and the provision of public services.

This is only one of a wave of national - and international - media articles and reports on the 'citizens revolt' in Barnet. Why is what is happening here of such fascination to the outside world?

The article makes the point, kind of, that we have made local government outsourcing look hot: the pulses of the reading public are racing now, it seems, at the very mention of competitive dialogues, European procurement law, in house comparators.

In fact there are several factors which explain the irrestible allure of the Barnet story.  

A comically inept, sad, mad and bad Tory administration still clinging to faded legacy of the Thatcher years, the unstoppable mouth and all round loose canon that is Brian Coleman, the soundbite ideology of the 'easycouncil' concept, the irrestible rise of the Barnet blogosphere - but that in itself is a curious phenomenon, which none of us can really explain. 

Most importantly, surely, is the raising of political consciousness amongst the wider electorate: the previously disaffected voter, or non voter, the former conservatively minded residents who usually sleep walk through the political cloudbursts with their umbrellas up, and their minds closed.  They are wide awake, now, and hurling those umbrellas at their elected representatives.

The occupation of Friern Barnet library is, of course, the story of the wider, wilful deconstruction of the public library service, and a part of a national debate on why we need libraries in the first place.  After the article went online last night, incidentally, Mrs Angry received this response from a reader:

"I just wanted to voice my support for you and the other bloggers and activists who are fighting against Barnet council's plans to outsource local services and sell off amenities, especially the fight for Friern Barnet Library.  

I no longer live in the area but I was born and brought up in Barnet.  There were only two free things to do in Friern Barnet when I was growing up: go to Friary Park or go to the library.  I used to go to the library by myself from a young age and I spent so much time there I feel I practically lived there.  

As a child of first-generation immigrants, my only other source of books was school or jumble sales.  Friern Barnet Library was a godsend and a sanctuary for a bookworm like me and I wonder if I would have the same life-long love of books and learning if I hadn't had such a wonderful resource within walking distance.  I obviously have a lot of emotional attachment to the building but I'm also incredibly sad that if it closes other children in the area won't have the same opportunities that I did when I was growing up."

This is what the closure of a library means: it has real impact on the lives of those who rely on the things that others take for granted: access to education, information and a route to a better life by self advancement - yes, the natural partner to aspiration, that admirable quality so often commended to the undeserving poor by our Tory masters, our councillors,  here in Broken Barnet. 

But the closure of our library, and its occupation, reclamation, and reopening as a people's library has taken on a totemic significance far beyond the immediate story of the closure of this particular local branch, and a local council set on flogging off the site for redevelopment.

Because this is just part of the wider picture of what is happening here in Barnet, the exploitation of a community by an asset stripping Tory council and its friends in the private sector: and that larger act of betrayal is itself just one example of what is happening all around the nation, as the policies of the coalition government tear apart our NHS, our welfare state, and our educational system, and feed the pieces to commercial enterprise.

As the Guardian article concludes:

"What's happening in Barnet goes back to the absolute fundamentals. This is a local story with terrifying national significance. People here are fighting for their most basic of rights. Once One Barnet is rolled out, so-called commercial confidentiality will smother service delivery, and contracts will have to remain in place for a decade, irrespective of which party wins elections. Put simply, democracy is close to being snuffed out." 

So, yes, the battle of Barnet, 2012, is not just a local skirmish: the outcome may just indicate the future  'direction of travel' of local government itself, demonstrating as it does the real impact of central government policy, and the future of localism. 

Here in Barnet the fundamental flaw of Pickles' much vaunted radical revision of local democracy is fatally exposed by this gaping hole: there is no democratic mandate, was never any democratic mandate, from the residents of this borough, for the adoption of 'One Barnet'. Democracy really is close to being snuffed out, and Uncle Eric, intentionally or not, is blowing out the spluttering flame.

The feeble outline proposals of Mike Freer's easycouncil tosh have been used as cover for what is arguably one of the most outrageous acts of fraud ever perpetrated on the voters of any local authority: the mass giveaway of public services for the profiteering opportunities of global companies running out of easily available markets, in an exercise that has taken place without proper consultation, or scrutiny, or risk assessment, or any real evidence whatsoever that the plans will produce any benefit for the residents and tax payers of Barnet. 

Quite the reverse: all the available evidence indicates the probability of extensive and costly failure. Devolving more power to the knaves and fools running Barnet Council does not empower the community: it enables the knaves and fools to do whatever they like within a four year period of plunder and pillage, with no fear of restraint.

Except of course that is not quite how things are going, here in Broken Barnet. The insurgency continues to throw spanners in the works of the One Barnet machine and its relentless, sadistic drive for 'efficiency'. 

And look: here today is the biggest spanner of them all. The Guardian article makes reference to the effect of outsourcing already in place in Barnet that is affecting the daily lives of some of our most vulnerable residents:

"There is also plenty of noise about even more vital services that have been fragmented and refashioned out of all recognition: day care for adults with disabilities, for instance, is now handled by a new "local authority trading company", and has been taken out of purpose-built centres into local church halls."

Solicitors acting on behalf of Susan Sullivan, above, a disabled woman living in this borough, who has featured in both the films made about Barnet in the last year, have now sent a letter to Barnet Council informing them of their intention to seek a Judicial Review, and to challenge the implementation of One Barnet on the grounds of failure properly to consider the impact of the proposals on those who are most vulnerable to the impact of such a radical and wholescale privatisation of public services.

Barnet has a history of a failure to consult over major policy decisions, and a worrying disregard for equalities legislation, and Mrs Angry suspects that this contemptuous attitude and corporate complacency will lead, in the end, to the legally assisted death of One Barnet. 

Equally importantly, in the wider context, the resistence shown here, the fight that continues, the network of residents, activists, occupants, bloggers, tweeters, young and old, able bodied and disabled, can show the rest of the nation how to defend their own communities from the downpour to come, the full impact of government cuts, now breaking over our heads. Put away your umbrellas, friends - look around you, use the resources you find to hand: and make your own shelter from the storm. 


Here is interesting example of how an application for judicial review can revitalise a campaign to protect public services. Mrs Angry first came across this story at a Netroots workshop, andfound it very inspiring - it has some valuable lessons for us all in Barnet. 

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