Thursday 10 October 2013

Keeping politics out of the committee: overview and scrutiny in Broken Barnet

 Councillor Hugh Rayner

Two council meetings in three evenings: see how Mrs Angry suffers on your behalf? What a sad reflection of her own home life that sitting in Hendon Town Hall laughing up her sleeve at the absurdities of our local councillors seems the more interesting way to spend the evening. Think about that very carefully, Mrs Angry.

Veteran meeting attendee and one man Greek chorus Mr Shepherd derives the same perverse pleasure from these events, of course. 

At the beginning of Monday's Business Management Overview and Scrutiny committee, he made a dramatic entrance into the room through the councillors' door, and stopped to ask the governance officer, with his usual gleeful impertinence, if there would be a charge for the entertainment. The answer was no, but then: Capita have only just got their feet under the committee table - or at least they did last night - and no doubt they will be looking for revenue from this lucrative source in the future. Bound to be hidden in the contract somewhere.

Tory councillor Hugh Rayner was Chair, pushing through the agenda with his bluff, military manner. Declarations of interests ... whipping arrangements NONE, he announced, I repeat: NONE. 

First off was the consideration of a Walksafe petition of 2,300 signatures from residents in the Brunswick Park area and parents at Osidge school, with a very good presentation from a parent, Kate O'Riordan. She looked somewhat shellshocked by the madness of the ensuing debate, in which Tory councillors, mindful of the need not to oppose a petition from a marginal ward with one Labour councillor, tried to raise mild objections, without upsetting the petitioner too much. But they simply cannot help themselves, so used to following what even rightwinger Brian Gordon described as 'Colemanesque' arguments on road safety measures, ie that they are unnecessary.

There followed a surreal discussion between Tories as to whether current policy was to introduce measures only after a fatality. 

Clearly, thought Mrs Angry, whose prolonged attempt to introduce such measures has been going since a fatality outside her home years ago, one fatality is not the benchmark of measurement, nor a long record of horrible accidents, and indeed more deaths are preferable, before action can may be considered to prevent, well - deaths and horrible accidents.

Or that was the case. Post Coleman, the wee timorous beasties in the Tory party are daring to come out of their hiding places and introduce a few such schemes. At last, measures have been promised for this part of Finchley (although nothing has happened yet), and eventually they agreed that one should be sanctioned in Brunswick Park, complete with the ultimate slap in the face for poor Brian - a twenty mile an hour zone, all no doubt to be the subject of a photo opportunity just before purdah begins next year.

Before they reached that agreement, there was concern expressed that parking spaces might be lost as a result of the new measures. In a queenly address to the committee, aLisa Rutter, the Tory councillor, who, as Coleman remarked, has never quite recovered from her reign as Mayor, the apogee of any Barnet Tory councillor's political career, graciously backed the proposals, but said she must represent all her residents, hence her worry over parking spaces. In Barnet, it would appear, even post Coleman, the interest of drivers still come before the safety of children, or at least must have equal rights to attention.

Another Tory, Brian Salinger came up with the interesting idea that taking away spaces might be a problem in another way, as they make roads safer - by slowing traffic. As someone who regularly witnesses accidents outside a neighbouring primary school, caused by parked cars obscuring sightlines at a difficult junction, this is very hard to accept.

Salinger, however, redeemed himself by making a more sensible point, which is that they need, we need, a boroughwide safety policy, something unthinkable until now, with Coleman out of the way. Joined up thinking, in Broken Barnet, is of course never encouraged, and Mrs Angry does not expect to see any such policy, until a Labour administration takes over next year.

On to another extraordinarily stupid decision of the Tory administration, and again linked to the disastrous parking revenue policy promoted by Himself, that is to say the Saracens match day parking zone, which applies to huge areas of the borough, and possibly beyond, supposedly to regulate parking, but in fact to generate massive amounts of cash from hapless residents, with or without permits, caught out on matchdays without tickets, and fined in vast numbers by the predatory parking control officers. 

Saracens, a rugby team with no connection with this borough, but whose chairman Nigel Wray lives in Totteridge,  were given a peppercorn rent for Copthall Stadium in Mill Hill  in a deal approved by Leader Richard Cornelius around the same time that Barnet Football club was kicked out of its hundred year old home in Underhill. 

Saracens promptly arranged a multimillion pound sponsorship plan with Allianz, and renamed the stadium - Allianz Park, and found themselves quids in. What do we get out of it? A few school visits, limited access and one big headache on match days for residents.

Mrs Angry had no idea how wide the parking zone was, but it even comes as far as a (much needed) parking space outside Church End Library, here in Finchley Central. Local resident and openspace campaigner Dennis Pepper pointed out recently there was a mysterious sign referring to 'event days', and we were both puzzled what that could refer to, concluding it was a mistake. But no. And the less densely populated areas, in less affluent roads nearer to the stadium are left out entirely: presumably because there is less chance of generating enough revenue.

Much discussion ensued as to what can be done to tackle the difficulties caused by this ill thought out scheme. Mill Hill councillors were out in force - and staying awake throughout the meeting, galvanised by the worry that residents already incensed by the idiotic new parking meters and higher charges are now at the point of electoral revolution, due to the number of penalty notices being incurred by the match day enforcement. 

Many residents, of course, have no idea when a match is on, and are easy targets for fines. Some councillors thought it might be a good idea to warn them. This would spoil everyone's fun, though, and lower income. And, as Brian Gordon said, we must avoid 'too much spoonfeeding' of residents. After all, who are they? Merely the people you represent, Cllr Gordon, and who foot the council tax bill, and give you a generous allowance, and who have been fleeced mercilessly by you lot in return.

Pam Wharfe, Director of Plaice, was hauled up before the committee to explain matters. Not bovvered. Perhaps, she suggested, Cllr Khatri has not had time to take in all the detail of her report. Ooh, get you.  

I would say, she declared, with fetching modesty, as Director of Plaice, (in case we had forgotten who she was) bla bla bla bla bla bla, burble burble burble. Yes, you would.  

Oh and everything will become much more easy to resolve now that the new NSCSO organisational magic is in place. In plaice? Of course. Everything is so much better, in the earthly paradise that is Capitaville, plc. Mrs Angry sighed.

Pam Wharfe

Labour's Councillor Schneiderman had an item about parking and the effect on high streets. Labour's Kath Mc Guirk wanted something done quickly, with consultation with residents as well as traders. She cast scorn on a certain 'anorak' approach to the problem which would be content with taking photos of parking meters. This was a mistake, as the anorak tendency is strong amongst the ranks of our elected representatives, and it led to the Chair talking fondly about traffic cones, and Lord Palmer reminiscing about John Major's Traffic Cone Hotline. 

Libdem peer Councillor Lord Palmer pulled himself together and reminded the Tories that traders were going out of business due to the inability to park, and urged them to consider a thirty minute charge free period to tackle the problem.

Brian Salinger retorted that it was a pity that Palmers's party had a different view, and wanted to ban cars from shopping centres altogether. Oh dear. The Chair was not happy with this jibe.  

We try, he explained sternly to his colleague, to keep politics out of this committe as much as possible.

Yes: Mrs Angry did laugh out loud.

Cllr Brian Salinger thought then, in terms of timing, that we should consider how long it took his wife, Cllr Kate Salinger, to have her hair done when at the local salon. Good point. We must not inconvenience our councillors. And Mrs Angry was almost impressed by a man having grasped that this is not possible in half an hour, like a visit to the barber's, but Lord Palmer thought he was talking nonsense. Shut him up, Chair, he suggested.

Councillor Schneiderman confessed that he had not photographed any traffic cones, but that he had once tried to buy a couple. He did not explain why, but his partner, Councillor McGuirk, gave him a strange look.

Discussion of 'Task and Finish' groups next. These bodies are groups of councillors getting together to approach an ill defined task, and think about it quite hard, but finishing  by achieving almost nothing at all, in the time honoured tradition of Broken Barnet.

Councillor Maureen Braun, still awake, had an important point to make. When they switch back to the committee system, there will be no Task and Finish groups. They will have to be called Panels. This is a radical change. Mrs Angry suggests they set up a Task and Finish group to explore the possibility. 

Frankly the only reason Mrs Angry felt obliged to stay to the end of this meeting was because Labour's deputy leader Barry Rawlings intended to suggest a Task and Finish group with a really important aim: to study the standard of care in residential homes in the borough, and examine whether or not Barnet has in place procedures to ensure that homes reported by the CQC as providing inadequate standards are not being used for placements by the authority. 

In the light of the death of the resident of Fremantle and other concerns about homes reported here, it would seem this ought to be a priority of attention from our elected representatives. 

Unfortunately, this new suggestion has to join the queue for the allocation of resources, and seems likely never to come to pass. 

We can't visit all the homes in the borough, remarked Cllr Salinger, sadly. True: but you really ought to visit the worst performing ones, and help to safeguard the welfare of our older and most vulnerable residents. But then: this is Broken Barnet, and this is Capitaville, a place where the safety of residents, old and young, is less important than the generation of income, and the nurturing of profit.

Talking of which, stand by for the account of last night's proceedings, when our new friends from Capita came to their first contract monitoring committee.

It was a memorable evening, and unfortunately for our new friends from Capita, this was one committee where it proved impossible to obstruct the unwarranted intrusion of not just politics, but a refreshing and clearly unexpected display of opposition and resistance from the ungrateful residents and councillors of their new outpost.

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