Wednesday 16 October 2013

Small Interventions, or: a meeting with the puppet leader of Capitaville

Richard Cornelius prays for divine intervention, rather than small ones

Richard Cornelius, Leader of Barnet Council, is holding a public event on 15 October 2013 at North London Business Park, to discuss how the council can support the borough and its residents over the next decade.

Over the next five years, Barnet Council will have to make a further £70 million of savings to match a reduced income.

As part of a wide-ranging review during the coming year, Barnet Council will be consulting with residents about their priorities for the borough and the council.

We would like to hear from residents about what small interventions the council could make that could help make Barnet a better place to live.

Imagine, if you will, a surreal sort of wedding reception, with three grooms on the top table (don't tell MP Matthew Offord, he'll be FURIOUS), no father of the bride, no mother of the bride, no bridesmaids - and a guest list from hell, seated around the tables with no food, no alcohol, and Brian Coleman in a tomato red jumper sulking at the back of the room ... Yes, that was  last night's Leader's Forum, in a nutshell.

And just to add to the Alice in Wonderland, through the Looking-glass upside-downery, here was the Tooting Twister, playing the part of the MC, deejaying the gig with all the bravado of a man who had left all his music in a lock up somewhere in Peckham, but couldn't remember what he did with the key.

The invited guests sat on carefully arranged selected tables, with many familiar faces - yes, Brian, the 'usual suspects', strategically distributed according to the rule of divide and conquer, amongst the less well known, but, as it turned out, equally rebellious residents who had foolishly agreed to attend this frantically micro-managed event, and watched over by a senior council officer.

Mrs Angry, like a disruptive pupil in a maths class, (how did they know?) was put right at the front, on a table with only one other resident, and a governance officer fixing her with a beady eye, and just daring her to misbehave. Perhaps he was under instructions to neutralise her anarchic tendencies. That went well, then.

Mrs Angry wishes she was at home, watching Great British Bake Off. The Director of Plaice contemplates the relentless drive for efficiency that is One Barnet.

 On the dais, Chief Executive Andrew 'Black Hole' Travers sat gloomily, next to Leader Richard Cornelius, and a long suffering officer whose role appeared to be trying to scan the audience for potential troublemakers, and write down their names in a book, for future reference.

Up stood Cornelius. But before he could get going, a gentleman in the audience, not known to Mrs Angry, but clearly pretty Angry himself, demanded he be allowed to make a point of order. He wanted to object to the premise of the evening's 'discussion', which was that our views were being sought on ways to make 'small differences' over the next ten years. He rather cruelly reminded the Leader, to popular applause, that he will be unlikely to be in charge this time next year, let alone in ten years.

Wounded, but struggling manfully on, Cornelius told us how lovely Barnet is, with lots of greenery, and a lot going on and stuff, but we have lost a lot of funding, a loss which  they, the Tories, have decided to compound by freezing council tax, a masterly move for which we should be very grateful. 

We cannot stick our heads in the sand, said he, sticking his head in the sand. We have not stuck our heads in the sand by inventing easycouncil/One Barnet, and doing a bit of outsourcing, yes; but insourcing too. Outsourcing just a few 'back office' functions, no need to panic, nothing too dramatic, like a one billion pound programme of wholescale privatisation.

The c word - Crapita - was not uttered by Cornelius, or Travers, in fact, in what is clearly either a studious decision to downplay the takeover, or an act of denial, unable to comprehend the dreadful significance of what they have done. Mrs Angry thought she spotted one of the new Crapita Suits sitting at the very back of the room, in a corner, observing the proceedings, and giving her bad looks, but it might just have been her latent blogging paranoia.

Our 'partnership' with Harrow legal services is wonderful, as is our sharing of a Chief Health Officer with Brent. Now came the funniest self congratulation of all: the community libraries, which are a heavily subsidised vanity project in the fabulously affluent Hampstead Garden Suburb, source of so much Barnet Tory support, staffed by retired JPs and the like, and oh, the People's Library in Friern Barnet. 

This was, he explained, a great result. At this point Mrs Angry was unable to contain her amusement, and pointed out that it was indeed a great result - for the Occupy movement and the squatters who saved it from the grasping hands of our Tory councillors, who had shut it for sale and revelopment. The audience gasped at his outrageous annexing of what had been a disastrous climbdown for the council - oh, yes: Mrs Angry, he nodded, and smiled, caught out, but undeterred.

Ah, a mention now of recycling - ouch, a sore point for residents who have been landed with the most cockeyed scheme of numerous bins forced on even those who have no room for them, hideous eyesores in the conservation areas of the borough, and a hazard on the pavements.

He then tried to boast about the freezing of council tax: saying this was something that the people of Broken Barnet would view with boundless admiration and expressions of gratitude. In the Barnet Tories' blinkered world vision, freezing or cutting council tax is the ultimate achievement, regardless of any impact that it inevitably has on service provision, and on residents. He made a telling statement: in this borough, many of us are 'asset rich, and cash poor'. He meant 'people like us', the Tory voters, stuck in their privately owned homes, rather overlooking the impact of the loss of revenue from frozen taxes on the services which support those who are cash poor, and asset poor, or are, in short - just poor. 

He trailed off now, lapsing into corporate speak ... direction of travel ... a new sleeker service ... He stopped, to a silence broken only by the sound of one man clapping, apparently out of a misplaced sense of compassion. 

Time for Andrew Travers to speak. Richard Cornelius sat back, his eyes raised to heaven, in a pose rather like the martyrdom of St Sebastian, as his Chief Executive recited a dreary repetition of the same tired arguments, no, not even arguments, excuses: decade of austerity, convening partnerships, the cost of living, welfare 'reform' which will, he claimed, accelerate under any future government, but, he declared, rather unconvincingly, we need to be on the side of residents facing these sort of problems.

Andrew Travers' speech is greeted with enthusiasm by residents

Hmm, thought Mrs Angry: funny way of going about that, then, over the last three years, for example refusing to consult those residents over the mass privatisation you have imposed on us, supporting residents affected by debt and welfare cuts with the evangelism of Christians Against Poverty (update on that coming along soon) and refusing to act to bring Your Choice Barnet back in house when it is so clearly in financial meltdown, and affecting the welfare of disabled residents.

Question time.

In the manically organised agenda, this dangerous part of the proceedings had been allotted only a twenty minute spot. First from the man who had raised the point of order. He suggested, again a suggestion met with great enthusiasm, that the first priority of the council should be to break the contract with Capita. 


Another resident expressed the opinion that it is rare that we have seen an example of such complacency and arrogance as we had from the Chief Executive, which upset Cllr Cornelius, who dislikes rudeness, above all things. Who dislikes unpleasantness, and reality, and prefers to live in a cocooned existence where everyone is polite and yes, shafting each other, but with prefect manners.

Blogger Mr Reasonable reminded the Leader that in fact the council's own survey had proved that most residents accept the need for a rise in council tax in order to protect key services.


Mrs Angry thought about Gradgrind, in Hard Times:

Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.

Trouble is that the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet are not reasoning animals. To leap to another literary analogy, they are the sheep in Animal Farm, blindly following orders - or the direction of travel - and unable to think for themselves. Facts are not facts, they are lies, or irrelevant, unless they are told they are safe to believe by their leaders.

We must agree to disagree, pronounced Richard Cornelius. 

Another question, or a suggestion: slash the pay of the Chief Executive and councillors. 

It wouldn't raise enough money, said the Leader. Be a start, though. And an example to others. No? No, Mrs Angry. Some animals are more equal than others, and need larger troughs.

Someone wanted to ask about housing: we are building a lot of housing. In fact 'we' are not: developers are, and as is common practice once permission is granted, recently we heard that a major scheme in the less advantaged side of the borough is now to have the agreed affordable housing removed. And social housing? 'We' have been boasting of a marvellous plan to build ... three council houses. The first for ... how many years?

A man from a body called 'Energise Barnet' wanted to know why the council had never responded to a framework plan asked for by the authority and submitted a year ago. 

Another resident commented that he had sent 58 letters to greenspaces staff, and received no reply. 

At last, a favourable address -oh, not from a resident but from Tory councillor Barry Evangeli, who was probably only there for the biscuits - this is the councillor who was noted once leaving a Full Council meeting with a tupperware box of goodies from the splendid buffet our elected members arrange for themselves for the ten minute interval. (Admittedly, a bored Mrs Angry last night made a half hearted attempt to reclaim some of her frozen council tax by eating a week's worth of not very nice biscuits). 

Councillor Evangeli wanted to know, in what sounded like a planted question, would the welcome cuts in council tax be possible without One Barnet?

No, said Cornelius, as we held our sides, laughing and crying. Evangeli resumed his seat amongst the hobnobs, garibaldis, and custard creams, and thankfully shut the f*ck up.

An elderly resident and local wildlife expert demanded that the council consult residents before taking decisions - you what? He was furious about the lack of proper consultation over the impact of the new recycling scheme, in particular the problems caused by the cluttering of extra wheelie bins to those with disabilities, particularly, as in his case, those with sight impairment.

A member of Barnet Alliance spoke up now about the practice of consultation: or rather the lack of it, or the glaring failure in the process of any that is carried out - the ignoring of any inconvenient data. She attended Residents Forums, she said, where the issue of the bins was brought up, to the objections raised they were told, yes, we are listening to you, they always say, yes, we are listening to you, and go ahead anyway. How can you go on saying these things? And about libraries: you didn't deliver the community library in Friern Barnet, she said, to cheering - you agreed it with one arm held behind your back ... You decide what is best for us ...

You live in a democracy, replied Cornelius. Mrs Angry looked up in amazement: in Broken Barnet?

Sanctimonious, yelled a resident.

A resident at the back pointed out that the council's latest online 'consultation' on equalities issues aimed only at preventing an increase in the 47% of residents who felt their protected needs were not taken seriously. She reminded the leader of such policy decisions such as the new parking scheme, the recycling scheme, channel shifting - why not, she suggested, with commendable restraint, raise your expectations, and reduce the dissatisfaction rather than hope it doesn't get any worse?

I accept that, said Cornelius.

But you don't, said someone in the audience.

Maria Nash: left - red Tory Brian Coleman, Travers ... and the Tooting Twister

Maria Nash, whose legal challenge to One Barnet ended up in the High Courts, asked who is now accountable to residents, now that they have outsourced services.

Your elected representatives.

Oh, how we laughed.

Reference was made to provisions in the contract.

But you haven't read it, commented Mrs Angry. Cornelius said he had. All of it? And before you signed it?  No answer.

Someone wanted to know who owned our IT now. Answer Capita. And if things go wrong? We retain ownership, according to Cornelius. Erm ... you sure, asked Mrs Angry? The leader said yes, although his facial expression seemed to be saying ... damned if I know.

Last question was a corker. 

A woman referred back to the services shared with other boroughs, specifically Brent, where they have recently installed a holographic receptionist in the Town Hall. She asked, in all seriousness, if there was a chance we would be expected to copy such innovation.

Through the medium of mime, Mrs Angry impertinently suggested to Mr Travers that a holographic replacement of his overpaid post might well be a suitable form of budget reduction, in this unprecedented era of austerity. He thought about this, and decided to explain to the audience that both he and the Leader were, in fact holograms - how easily we were fooled! So difficult for a lay person to tell the difference. 

In fact, Mrs Angry had always assumed that Councillor Cornelius was a puppet leader, rather than a three dimensional visual representation, but there you go: we must keep up with the times.

The Tooting Twister, master of spin, who has brought this council safely through three years of political turmoil with barely a whisper of negative publicity, embarrassing newspaper headlines, widespread criticism, or no more than a handful of campaigning documentaries, stood now and  - spoke. 

Mrs Angry looked on in awe, as she had no idea he was capable. It was time for the interval. He followed her out of the room, as she went in search of the loos. After pointing out that she was accustomed to be being escorted to the ladies with an armed guard, when at North London Business Park, he pulled himself together and took on this added responsibility. Fortunately this time the escort did not wait outside, as frankly, this is rather off-putting, don't you find, ladies? 

Inside the loo, incidentally, a stern notice caught Mrs Angry's eye: DO NOT REMOVE TOILET TISSUE FROM THE CUBICLE.  Not sure why anyone would want to, rather than dispose of it in the usual way ... or if this is a new directive from Crapita - Mrs Angry did wonder if staff are being monitored, now, on their use of the facilities, and fearful of reprisal if they use more than one sheet?

After the break, we were supposed to engage in a 'discussion' of a few strictly limited subjects, intended to provide data support, and proof of 'consultation' for council policy and decision making. Needless to say, this did not entirely go to plan on Mrs Angry's table.

How to support businesses? Stop killing the high streets with doubled business rates - and the catastrophic new parking scheme. Capita said it was committed to local contracts, then dumped the current bailiffs for their own subsidiary company, Equita. Oh, and is going to make hundreds of staff redundant, which will affect our economy.

Green spaces? Let's discuss the matter of Capita's revolting plan to turn Hendon Crematorium into some sort of leisure facility - a green open space, with a cafe. Outrageous.

Parks: how can we get people to do more - and save the council money? More One Barnet PR: why should they? Hard labour in parks, sweeping up leaves etc is meant to be community service punishment for lawbreakers, not the duty of hard working residents.  

But such activities are good for people's health ... Ha - stop charging trainers to take their running OAPs through the park then.  

After the riots, people picked up their brooms and all got together - what? Ah: the Big Society. We are very keen on doing things for ourselves, here in Broken Barnet, haven't you noticed? Occupying the library that our council shut and put up for sale, for example. 

For some inexplicable reason, when it came to the time when the table's officer was supposed to report back to the meeting, none of the points we raised above were mentioned. Are you surprised?

The Chief Executive wishes he was at home, watching Great British Bake Off (probably not with Mrs Angry)

Labour leader Alison Moore joined the discussion and commented, as did the Tory leader, on the perfectly good suggestions that were made, introducing 20 mile per hour speed limits on dangerous roads, preventing the commercial exploitation of our parks (something the Tories are still determined upon), explaining the 'Commissioning Council/Easycouncil to the plebs, how to ensure thriving communities, how to ensure transparency and openness. 

Hmm: transparency and openness, like consultation, are qualities that were not available throughout the procurement process, but are the new watchwords of the administration, as they begin to gear up for next year's election. 

A senior officer came and chatted up Mrs Angry after last night's meeting, to assure her that he was all in favour of open government.

Too late, she replied. It's safe now, to engage with the public, now that you've persuaded our elected representatives to sign the deal with Capita. All throughout the procurement process, every possible step was taken to clamp down on debate, avoid any meetings with residents, censor their Forums. The contracts are signed, the deal is done, and our fate is sealed: for the next ten to fifteen years, we are owned, lock, stock and barrel, by Capita, and still our Tory councillors have absolutely no grasp of what that means.  

some of the usual suspects

And playing the transparency card now is pointless. The damage is done: as one resident observed after the meeting, the Tories still do not understand how much they are hated, as a result of the disastrous policies they have pushed through: the parking, the parks, the recycling, just a few of the issues that have enraged the voters they need to keep onside to return to office. Some of them may not even want to return to office, those with any glimmering of the likely course of the privatisation, and the inevitable disasters which will ensue.

So last night's flirtation with democracy was too little, too late: an irrelevance, a ticked box - something to list in the response to the next Judicial Review, to prove that unlike last time, the council has made a gesture to the principle of consultation. But as the resident from Barnet Alliance said: they listen - and they ignore what we say.

Of course they do: they listen to the beating of another drum now - and so no, you are wrong, this is not a democracy, Councillor Cornelius.

This is Capitaville.

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