Monday 4 March 2013

A Better Barnet: a residents' forum, not a Residents Forum

Mrs Angry does not like Sundays very much. 

As she has mentioned before, this is a legacy of childhood, where the rituals of the day consisted of a timetable of torment, from mass, in the morning, to an afternoon of Sunday lunch with the unavoidable horrors of Mrs Angry's mother's spinach, boiled relentlesslyfor three hourse into a vile green pulpy submission, accompanied by evil, mocking, cold brussel sprouts, followed by homework, and bathtime, and even worse, hairwash in an unheated bathroom, with ice on the inside of the window, and the prospect of another week of school ahead.

In Mrs Angry's mind, therefore, Sunday is a day to be endured, rather then enjoyed. It is a day of duty: ironing (sometimes), arguing, (usually): tidying up - sometimes -  stuff like that. This Sunday however, there was another exciting possibility: well, when we use the term exciting, we mean ... alternative. This afternoon offered an opportunity to attend an event organised by Barnet Labour party - the Better Barnet Policy Forum. Hold on: can we use Forum, and Policy, in the same sentence, in Broken Barnet? Against the Constitution, isn't it, Councillor Thompstone? Ah, but not in Labour's Better Barnet, Mrs Angry.

The event was very well attended: a packed room, and not just stuffed with Labour activists: Poppy, the local Green party candidate, and even - wait for it - even the Tory blogger, sorry, broadcaster, Barnet Bugle, was present, and tweeting positively about the meeting: 

. to be congratulated for their openness in welcome all to their conference today. Others should do same.

Hmm. Quite. Because this was not a Residents Forum, the 'consultation' events that are supposed to be a mainstay of our local democracy, but which have been smothered by the blanket of One Barnet, administered by our Tory councillors, when they voted to amend the constitution here in Broken Barnet, to ensure there could be no free debate on the massive £1 billion outsourcing scam being foisted on this borough.

This was an open forum, where anyone could come and listen, and join in the discussion. See, Tory councillors of Broken Barnet - this is how it is done. It's called consultation. CONSULTATION. Look it up, or ask your nice new lawyers in Harrow: they might have heard of it before. Or the QC you've just hired, brushing off his wig and gown for the High Court and the One Barnet Judicial Review.

So what did we talk about?

Well, we ate a lot of sandwiches, and drank coffee, and gossiped, and had a very amiable time, and then Labour leader Alison Moore went and spoiled our fun by asking us to take our seats. Mrs Angry did so and was rather disconcerted to find, in front of her, a large projected image stating: From broken Barnet to a Better Barnet.

What's wrong with Broken Barnet? Ah, no, Mrs Angry: small b, see? Hmm. All the same: find your own catchphrases, can't you?

What is a better Barnet, we pondered? 

Where every individual matters, was one thought. 

Caring, inclusive, with hope: a place, suggested someone, where there is honesty, integrity, and transparency - three things we don't have now. 

Or, where we don't make things worse, as another said, rather gloomily.

This was before the epiphany of the Tory Bugle, and he was tweeting cynically about all the 'mom and apple pie' suggestions. But this, thought Mrs Angry, is exactly the point, and the heartwarming if naive characteristic of Labour supporters: they want to make the world a better place, and put people first, whereas Tory activists see things the other way round - sort out the world, make it profitable and then think about social issues. And could you imagine a Barnet Tory event like this? You could not, because they would never hold an open, unregulated debate, and anyway the agenda would be full of hardline ideological claptrap, and resolutions blaming the last Labour government for everything.

John Sullivan spoke now. 

Honesty, integrity, transparency, democracy: they do not exist in Barnet, he said. 

John has a middle aged daughter who has Down's syndrome, and depends on care support. He referred to the 'Your Choice' fiasco, which has made him very, very angry. He said that he wanted Labour to promise to bring social services back in house and that then he would support them 100%.

Councillor Kath Mc Grath took the floor. 

Why, she asked is Barnet broken? How did it happen, and how do we mend it? She referred to the incompetence of Barnet's Tories, who could not even deliver on their set of values. Councillor Pauline Coakley Webb commented that the Tories did not think through the consequences of their actions. Both observations are true, thought Mrs Angry, and so too was the frequently expressed description of a 'disconnect' between the elected council and its residents. A dysfunctional relationship, in other words. 

Sarah Sackman, the barrister who represented campaigners and occupiers of Friern Barnet Library when their case went to court, thought that there should be less emphasis on Barnet being broken. (What a cheek). She commented that it was of course the council and its policies that are broken, and not society itself. Blogger Mr Reasonable, on the other hand, said that Labour had to yet deliver the message about what was broken in Barnet, that they must better communicate exactly what had gone wrong.

Mrs Angry pointed out that she had copyright on the phrase, and that she expected a fee (this was A Joke) and made the observation that it was clear now that the Tories had lost the next election, but that it was now up to Labour to prove that it can win the election. 

This was not necessarily a view that was bound to be popular with some of the longer serving councillors, and one came up to her at the break to protest that they all worked very hard. 

They do work hard, and they are all very nice, caring people, but here again is the blessing and the curse of (oh - I nearly said socialism, just imagine .... ) well, being a Labour supporter, then ... because they are usually naturally disposed to care, and respect the rights of their fellow human beings, sometimes political strategy is lost beneath a deathly weight of well meaning, and the battle is lost. But it is a battle, and one now where everything is at stake. We cannot afford to hold our punches, if we are going to do the right thing for our community.

Mrs Angry had another conversation with a councillor who is also very nice, and very polite, and loath to hold senior officers of the council to account. The feeling is that officers should not be dragged into political matters. This may have been true years ago, and still is true of the less senior post holders, but now the harsh reality is that the senior officers, the Directors and senior management team are the ones who really drive the One Barnet juggernaut, and whose hands need to be wrested from the wheel. They must be challenged, restrained, and reminded that although the democratic process includes them, they are the servants of that process, and not the masters.

Alon Or-Bach next, and here he was asking us if we had unlimited resources, what would we want to do? 

Again, the responses were touchingly simple, and modest: making the roads safer ... supporting the voluntary sector. Investing in housing. Restoring arts and culture as a valued part of our community life. 

No one was asking for anything impossible, (except perhaps the man who wanted sailing and meditation put on the school curriculum) and Mrs Angry suggested that in fact achieving all these things was a question not of resources, but of attitude, and that was needed was not necessarily more money, but a change of culture in the administration of the borough, and to reclaim the ravaged language of One Barnet, to take the pretence of an aspiration to 'a citizen-centric council, and make it a sincere ambition.

Time for local Assembly member Andrew Dismore. What were our priorities in creating a Better Barnet?

He made an interesting point about One Barnet: tracing its dubious lineage back past the easycouncil soundbite 'model' of Mike Freer to Westminster Council, and the gerrymandering genius that was Tory leader Dame Shirley Porter. Her idea of a council, he claimed was to meet once a year, sign all the contracts and retreat. Yes, One Barnet, more or less, as we hope we shall not discover it, in all its true horror, in the near future.

Andrew talked about the need for real consultation, and the need, as Mrs Angry had suggested (Mrs Angry was embarrassingly caught out at this point daydreaming and staring into the mid-distance, but sat up and tried to look attentive) the need to be more careful with the use of language: outsourcing means privatisation, savings mean cuts, affordable housing means affordable to someone earning £70,000 a year ...

A lady from Mill Hill said she felt that the class structure in Barnet still existed, and would affect the next election, and Mrs Angry agreed - newly defined, perhaps, by the increasing gulf between those with needs, and those with means, defined by widely diverging access now to education, healthcare, housing, and almost every basic requirement to support a decent life. 

As the Forum came to a close, it was agreed that further consultation and discussions should be held, and feedback circulated. The Forum had been a thoughtful debate, positive, yet not afraid to be critical and challenging. Everyone who wanted to speak did so, no one was silenced, and the one thing that is a forbidden activity in a council Residents Forum, that is to say the consideration, formulation or criticism of sshh, policy, was here the central activity and focus of the meeting. Honesty, integrity, transparency: democracy: from broken Barnet, then, to Better Barnet. 

Might have to change the name of the blog, if this sort of thing takes off.

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