Friday 25 October 2013
An Accident Waiting to Happen, and: Bingate - the cover up begins: another Residents Forum
Tuesday night saw the meetings of the first Residents Forums in Broken Barnet since the Tory junta lifted its shamelessly Stalinist rules of censorship - that is to say the regulations, approved by a change of constitution, imposed so as to prevent any criticism of council policy during the dangerous period of procurement for the one billion pound One Barnet privatisation.
A legal challenge in the High Court saw this draconian measure noted with disapproval by the judge - as was the deliberate obstruction of any meaningful consultation with residents. As soon as the contracts were safely signed, of course, the council relaxed its iron grip, and graciously removed the ban on free speech.
Similarly, whereas throughout the entire procurement process every possible effort was made to enforce a culture of counter transparency, moving in the opposite direction to a commitment to open government, rooted in a defiance of FOI law, and determined to maintain a covering of secrecy over any politically sensitive data, now that the crucial period of negotiation is over, Barnet Council is seeking to present itself as the very model of virtue, and accountability.
In an article in this week's Guardian, the deputy Chief Executive - or 'Chief Operating Officer' as he styles himself, Chris Naylor, wrote a most amusing article headed: 'In Barnet, the default setting is open government' ... we are, he told us, ha ha ... at the start of a journey - hoorah! And now that it makes no fecking difference, we are allowed to read (bits of) the Capita contracts, and erm, they have improved their FOI turnover.
He fails to mention that they have been compelled to improve their response to FOIs because Barnet has yet again been in trouble with the Information Commissioner, for amongst other things, refusing to answer Mrs Angry's request for information regarding the Capita Joint Venture decision taken by senior officers, (without informing the council leadership or executive) a refusal which continued over several months and included the wrongly redacted names of private consultants even when under review by the ICO.
And a regime of counter transparency continues in Broken Barnet, as we shall see later.
When the suppression of free speech was imposed on local Residents Forums, each new meeting was begun with a ceremonial recital of the change of regulations, the listing of forbidden issues, read by the absurdly pompous young Chair, Reuben Thompstone, who proceeded to treat any residents who dared to transgress these rules with the most contemptible arrogance and intolerance.
Funnily enough, now the restrictions were removed, there followed no announcement by the new Chair, Graham Old - or apology.
We sat in the old drawing room of Avenue House, with Inky Stephens gazing down on the people of Finchley, to whom the house was left in his will: in his portrait clinging on to the reins of his horse, whose head is held up, and back, nostrils flaring red, eyes wide in fear. Not dissimilar to the sight of a Tory councillor, forced to look his electorate in the face, at close quarters: always an uncomfortable experience, for both parties.
On the agenda last night, supplied by now compliant residents, trained to concentrate on public works, and not the bigger picture, were mostly questions regarding parking, and road safety.
At the last meeting there had been similar requests, and despite an attempt to draw these into the logical conclusion, that there should be a boroughwide review of parking and, even more urgently, road safety, this had been squashed as being a comment about policy, and therefore against the rules.
Mrs Angry tried again, and made the point again, that all these issues, instead of being dealt with piece by piece, reactively, should be addressed on a wider basis. The Chair nodded, and looked mildly in agreement. But no suggestion to make. And that was the pattern of the evening. Residents would raise perfectly sensible ideas, and the Chair would say they were perfectly sensible, and move on to the next item. This is clearly their new tactic, having tried to avoid dangerous challenges from the unwashed masses by silencing them, they will now avoid the same trouble by silencing themselves.
Or so they think.
Almost every resident raising a point about safety in their road would say - it is an accident waiting to happen, and ask do we have to wait for someone to die before you act?
Mrs Angry shifted in her seat, in fury, knowing that death and endless accidents count for very little for this Tory administration, even after the downfall of Brian Coleman: despite at last agreeing, in June, after several years of lobbying a budget for safety measures here in the Squires Lane area, after a fatality and endless serious collisions, nothing has happened - it is only 'progressing'. In the meanwhile, accidents continue, such as this one a week or so ago, with a car ending in a neighbouring front garden, next door to a primary school entrance:
In a way, of course, this lack of commitment to making the roads safer is in keeping with the new economics of Capitaville, where a recent report worried about the risk of any reduction in deaths affecting the profitability of the new Capita run Crematorium.
On the agenda at the Forum was a question from Mrs Angry about this new venture, which is one that fills her with fury, as they are proposing to turn the cemetery into a green open space, and install a cafe.
Due to being shoved at the end of the agenda, this question was not discussed, but the written response, from a Mr Nottage, who is apparently the Cemetery and Crematorium manager, was just gobsmackingly awful:
The intention is to enhance the visitor and mourner experience at Hendon Cemetery and Crematorium by providing on-site refreshment and possibly catering facilities for after funeral receptions which should improve convenience for mourners. Currently a vending machine only is used which offers very limited choice to our service users.
Thinking back to my mourner experience after the funerals of my mother, and my father, I'm not sure that it would have necessarily have been enhanced by the prospect of a double espresso and a kitkat in the Abide With Me Capita cafe facility.
Still, the tudoresque Gatehouse, through which all the deceased residents must pass on their last journey in Capitaville, will make the perfect venue for all those who like gawping at such events, whilst enjoying some light refreshment.
But here is a curious thing: as an afterthought, the response states that -
The parks and open spaces portfolio does not form part of Re (the joint venture company between Capita and the council). Parks and open spaces sit within the Council's in-house Street Scene Delivery Unit.
In which case, readers, if such areas are not covered by their contract, why did the man from Capita announce plans to designate the cemetery grounds as an open space? Do they actually understand that there are still (a few) aspects of life in this borough over which they have no droit de seigneur?
But returning to the items which were allowed ... contrast the relaxed attitude to the risk to the lives of school children in a Labour ward to the obsequious enthusiasm shown last night, as it always is, by the Tory councillors of Hampstead Garden Suburb, vice Chair John Marshall, and councillor without portfolio Andrew Harper, who were falling over themselves in eagerness to accommodate residents from their ward, who live in one of the most affluent areas in the country, and who are always outraged by the inevitable result of CPZ zones in other areas leading to other people daring to park outside their houses. Can you imagine the sheer horror of such impertinence?
As usual, at this meeting, Councillors Marshall and Harper appeared deeply moved by such a dreadful plight, and urged council officers immediately to implement the wishes of residents seeking to prevent such outrage. The satisfied residents, having had their way, then got up and rudely walked out, with no sense of embarrassment, or interest in any other local matter, and while another member of the public was addressing the meeting.
A question from Mrs Angry now about the impact on the high street of the catastrophic Coleman led parking scheme, which overnight, after introduction, saw footfall in shopping centres drop by up to 40%.
Had the council assessed the effect in Finchley Central, and if not, why not? Answer, yes. But more than a year ago. A couple of parking bays had been changed. The economic impact clearly was of no interest.
Would it not be a good idea to review the situation? Tory councillors Old and Marshall looked on blankly, not in disagreement, but with no contribution to make. A resident from Cricklewood and another spoke in support of the need to introduce measures to help traders. No response, although there was a visible Pavlovian Tory twitch, quickly subdued, when one woman pointed out the effect of declining high streets on house values.
Next question: the small but interesting subject of the park keeper's lodge in Victoria Park, a lovely arts and crafts house, whose tenants were evicted some years ago on the pretext that the property was to be sold. Until Mrs Angry asked about the lack of security last year, this was being deliberately allowed to stand open and unsecured, vulnerable to vandalism, and becoming a venue for drug dealing. Yet another historic property is declining further, empty and forlorn, and still has not been put up for sale, at a time when social housing is at an all time low in this borough.
Why, and how many other empty properties does the council currently own? Yet another evasive response from Judith Ellis, of Property Services, blaming the delay this time on the Charity Commission, for some reason, and simply ignoring the question about the number of other vacant properties. Not good enough, and Ms Ellis will be asked again for a proper response to the latter. Is there something they don't want us to know, do you think?
Another of Mrs Angry's questions: asking yet again why the NSL parking wardens target the same favourite spots,( especially next door to Cafe Buzz in North Finchley, funnily enough, run by parking campaigner Helen Michael) and refuse to visit areas that may be less lucrative in terms of revenue, but desperately need enforcement, for safety reasons, such as next to schools, or for access for the disabled, whose spaces are regularly misused by others.
The response was from Lyn Bishop, who holds the post of 'Street Scene Assistant Director' - sounds awfully theatrical, doesn't it? She claimed that wardens do not have targets and they are only there to ensure free traffic flow and avoid congestion (ha: really). They are not specifically directed to keep to certain areas in order to increase revenue. Erm, they may not be directed to, Ms Bishop, but that is what they choose to do, have to do, in order to keep the revenue which you rely on to keep rolling in, and in some cases to earn the bonuses that keep them just above the minimum wage.
Ah. Now for some fun. Recycling: #bingate. This is, in case you have been living in the world outside Broken Barnet, and who could blame you, is the latest council cock up, overseen by Councillor Dean Cohen, who inherited the poisoned chalice of environmental matters from the late Brian Coleman. (No, not dead, except in a political sense, merely resting).
Residents of Broken Barnet have been given an array of new bins, at a cost of around £4 million, and this changeover has been implemented with all the usual display of Barnet incompetence that you might expect - this incompetence being a result of a lack of political oversight, and part of the reason why our councillors were so keen to hand everything over to Capita.
As in the case of procurement, rather than try to run something properly themselves, well ... well: why bother?
Outside Mrs Angry's terraced house, therefore, after the new arrivals, was a delightful display of plastic bins: one grey wheelie bin, one blue wheelie bin, one blue box, two grey boxes, one brown bin. Very attractive. And all pointless, as Miss Angry appears not to understand the concept of recycling and throws everything in the same bin, with graceful disdain, in the manner of a houseguest at Downtown Abbey, so that her poor housekeeper/mother has to don rubber gloves and fish it all back out again, curtseying, and standing around worrying which bin it should rightly be in, and frankly, she has better things to do with her time.
The scandal of #bingate, however, is that having spent £3.7 million on the new blue bins (the most expensive tender) and £400k on the brown food bins, oh dear: a letter was published last week from DEFRA from recycling minister Lord de Mauley, who felt obliged to remind councils (and the keyword here is remind) that co mingling of waste will not be permissable from 2015, as detailed in guidance published in June 2012. Oh dear: whoops. £4 million down the drain, then?
Councillor Cohen has tried to bluster his way out of this. Red herrings, loopholes, bla bla bla: but clearly he is at best now hoping to argue his way out of the apparently overlooked new requirements, and at worst, we are seeing the scandalous result of local residents' taxes being wasted on non compliant arrangements. On top of that, Barnet cannot even seem to administer the non compliant arrangements with anything approaching a modicum of efficiency. The contractors SSI Schaefer, have not supplied the bins to all residents, and the collection arrangements have been chaotic.
Trying to find out information regarding the new scheme requires you to phone the new Capita run call centre.
Good luck with that, then.
Mrs Angry has rung this number now on three occasions. More often than not, the call does not connect, and you receive a message saying this number is not recognised.
This is what the man from Capita might have been referring to as being 'lost in the wires', or, if you are an embittered, cynical armchair auditor from Broken Barnet, you might imagine that this curious state of telephonic limbo might be a place where callers are sent when lines are too busy to take your call, cleverly avoiding the creation of awkward statistics suggesting the Capita call centre is not dealing with calls to the council with the level of efficiency it has so glibly guaranteed ...
Once connected, unless you kick up a fuss and demand to speak to a human being, you will be sent off into a virtual journey of recorded messages, which of course do not answer your questions.
The human being, if spoken to, does not live in Barnet, and does not know what the f*ck you are talking about, and will probably give you the wrong information, as in the case of Mrs Angry trying to have one of the cars damaged by the recent accident and dumped outside her house removed. Yes, it is still there. Lights gone, music player gone, two tyres gone, windows open. Complements the wheelie bin display, and demolished wall.
But back to the Forum. Mrs Angry had asked about the new scheme, and in particular the the conglomeration of horrible plastic bins in the conservation areas of Barnet, especially those which are terraced. Had there been any consideration of the visual impact and was it compliant with regulations for such areas? Another resident had asked several very important and detailed questions about the scheme too: her questions had been relegated to the end of the agenda. Both of us were not given responses but were told there would be a verbal update.
Mr Lai gave some sort of response to Mrs Angry's question, merely saying the bins were compliant with conservation requirements, and in a tone implying that he thought blue plastic wheelie bins were not, as Mrs Angry described them, hideous, but in keeping with the spirit of late Georgian architecture.
More importantly, he avoided answering the supplementary question about whether Barnet had checked that the new bins were compliant with the new regulations coming into effect in 2015. This, readers, is the most important question of all, in the story of #bingate.
The recycling questions opened up a general expression of simmering dissatisfaction from residents, for example from a woman in Cricklewood explaining the impossibility of storing the bins safely in conservation areas with restricted access.
Unfortunately, with finely judged timing, in the tradition of containing danger of free debate, the Chair of the Forum decided that at this point, the meeting should be cut short.
This provoked fury from the resident who had submitted the really detailed questions about recycling: already cheated of a written response, now she was refused the promised verbal update. Waiting until the next Forum is hardly an acceptable alternative. This, she virtually spat at the councillors, is not democracy. They looked on blankly, indifferent: democracy? In Broken Barnet?
The strategy of silence, and the outsourcing of blame to the officers compelled to attend the Forums, may have worked this time: unfortunately for our Tory councillors, there are other ways and means of raising matters which they would rather not see brought into the public domain. There are committees, for example.
There is one committee in Broken Barnet which is obliged to have an opposition councillor as Chair.
And there may be a Condem coalition in parliament which works in happy partnership, but here in Capitaville the Libdem councillors still retain an independence of mind: and they also fill the post of the Chair of Audit Committee.
Next post on the way, then: last night's Audit Committee, and the questions the senior management team tried to block ...