Sunday 5 October 2014

Love in a cold climate, or: in the dark, and on the road, in Capitaville

One of the inescapable truths about life in Broken Barnet is this: the things we do not do, or cannot see, are more dangerous, and more interesting, than what is clear, and present, and visible.

The power of the negative shape between, the telling absence, and the sins of omission: this is the defining characteristic that best describes our borough, and the conspiracy of cunning fools tasked with the responsibilities of local governance here.

The default mode of Barnet Council, we are told, is open government. 

Or rather, the readers of the Guardian were told this by our Chief Operating Officer, who lives in a lovely, glass walled cell in North London  Business Park, with a view of the new outpost of Capitaville, filtered by magic glass, that reverses the colours of the landscape, and returns a beautiful image of an ugly world, where a regime of craven Tory councillors obey the prodding of their senior management, as piece by piece, the monstrous mouth of Capita swallows us up, and spits us out, and grinds our bones to dust.

Since the Tories managed to retain control of the council, by the skin of those mascerating teeth, the rampant appetite of Capita has grown and grown. More money, more services, more profit, more bones, more flesh: stomp, stomp, stomp, the monster prowls around the boundaries defined by two massive contracts, but cannot be contained and is hungry, very hungry.

We must feed the beast : and we must ransack the last of our supplies, in a frantic search for more of our public services, to keep it happy. Of course other outsourcering beasts may want to feast on the carcass that is left, but Capita will have first pickings. 

In the last post, we saw how educational services are to be staked out, like bait, to tempt a new set of privatising bidders. It is of course entirely coincidental, and devoid of any conflict of interest that Capita is in charge of the procurement, has been used to market test the proposals, and has a former senior manager from its own educational section working for Barnet since September 2013.

There is a problem, it must be acknowledged, for those wishing to ease the transit of more of our services, and jobs, out of the direct control of the people who own them, that is to say, you and me, into the grasping hands of private enterprise.

The first two contracts were hidden behind the discreet wall of tosspottery known as One Barnet, the ideologised excuse for the giveaway opportunity involving so many of our council's functions.

One Barnet became a toxic brand, however, under the glare of scrutiny from residents and local activists, just as the authority's compliance with the requirement of the localism act's rulings on open government - the real thing, not the lipservice, was to be put to the test.

One Barnet flourised in a swamp of confusion and obfuscation, bereft of any programme of consultation, decisions taken that were not decisions, at a time ill defined, lost in the process, and making it impossible to challenge in court, until it was too late.

The next tranche of outsourcing proposals is more tricky, and so much harder to manage, for the simple reason that those who oppose the very principle of privatised local services are wised up, hardened veterans of the war against the profiteers. We've served one round of service in the trenches, and now we know what to expect.

In the earlier programme of privatisation, residents and voters were kept entirely in the dark as to the implications of what the Tory administration, its senior management and coterie of consultants had planned. There never was any mandate from the people for what happened, as election material gave no hint of what was to come. The need for consultation, as the findings of the judicial review confirmed, was ignored, and any opportunity for debate carefully smothered, by such means as refusing local forums to discuss any issue relating to council 'policy'.

Since the election, Barnet has changed to a new system of governance, or rather reverted to the committee system. With predictable ineptitude, the Tory group failed to ensure the proper rule of governance was in place to monitor this change, and make sure the system was constitutional. 

Which reminds me: what happened to the independent investigation into that particular cockup? Gone awfully quiet, hasn't it?

The Tories decided upon this course of action before they found themselves clinging on to power with the most slender of majorities - and now they find themselves in the most perilous circumstances, needing to micro-manage every committee and every councillor, to ensure there is never a loss of political control, or mistake in voting. 

If only the opposition was so vigilant, some might say: because the naivete of some Labour members is often exploited by their Tory colleagues, and used, in their knavish way, in order to facilitate their own agenda.

And here we go again.

After the fiasco of the new group leaders' panel, the risible, politically biased replacement for the previous standards committee, one might hope the Labour leadership would not have been duped into falling for another Tory trick, and allow the opposition to take part in another example of their absolute defiance of the principles supposedly embedded in their own party's policy of localism, and yes, open government.

We are talking about a new range of secret meetings, coyly referred to as 'working groups', a new idea in which elected members and officers discuss forthcoming policy proposals relevant to a committee, in a body that is not constitutionally recognised, has no regulations or guidelines as to procedure, is not advertised with the other council meetings, and which the Tories - and certain officers - wanted to remain private, with members of the public barred from attending. 

We are told that no decisions will be made at these meetings. Whether or not this is true you must judge for yourself, after reading about the outcome of the Environment group oon Thursday night.

These meetings are not minuted, no papers are available to the public, if they should by some means know they are taking place: clearly this new procedure was deliberately designed so as to circumvent the need for transparency and accountability in the decision making process of the authority at a time when more outsourcing is being planned.

Last year Eric Pickles made it clear in new guidelines that he was serious about opening up the process of local government to residents and taxpayers, as well as the press and citizen journalists.

Quite evidently the new 'working group' strategy is deliberately directed so as to be in defiance of the spirit - and possibly the letter - of the law regulating local government procedures, as defined by the localism act. Last year's guidelines made it clear that only 'informal briefings' or meetings that contain material which is exempt due to confidentiality may be held without the right of public access to the meeting, and the relevant papers and information. 

The 'working groups' are not informal meetings: they are part of a new and well organised process, which will be used to influence the outcomes of the committee meetings. At a time of controversial new proposals in regard to further outsourcing, and associated redundancies, it is even more important that such discussions take place in public, as part of a full programme of consultation.

Already briefings given on the subject of the possible privatisation of educational services have tried to persuade opposition members that a joint venture is both likely and inevitable. It is not, and is not.

So now we have meetings that are not part of the democratic process, and yet will direct the evolution of policy decisions affecting the future of our local public services, with an impact on the lives of all residents. Meetings that exist, but do not exist, an empty space in the calendar: a negative shape - all in the tradition of Broken Barnet.

Mrs Angry thought it would be appropriate to attend one of these meetings: and on Thursday went to the Environment 'working group'. 

This meeting, which was not a meeting, was nominally chaired by Tory Dean Cohen, whose responsibilities for environmental matters, you may recall, is particularly focused on the environment of his own ward, to the tune of £1.1 million pounds worth of expenditure in the year before the election, on roads and pavements on his home ground, while Labour wards went without - completely, in the case of Colindale.

The person who appeared to be directing the meeting, that was not a meeting, however, was the senior Barnet commissioning officer Declan Hoare, who had clear views on the way in which the session was going to take place. Any papers for the public? No. Anyone from governance to ask for copies? No. Any minutes being taken? No. Is this compliant with the guidelines on public access to council meetings, as defined in the amendment to the localism act? Yes, he said.

Mrs Angry tried hard to remember other examples of this sort of body, as sanctioned by our transparency averse council. Ah yes, during the tendering process of the first massive contracts, the senior management team would meet as Corporate Directors Group, but strangely, whenever it met in order to discuss anything of a 'sensitive' nature, called itself something else, and did not minute the meeting, so no material existed that could be FOId relating to the decision making process which led to, for example, the announcement that 'we' had decided to change the business model of what is now Capita run 'Re', without the knowledge or consent of the leader of the council and his cabinet ...

That was then, and here we were now, a handful of residents, bloggers, and a local reporter therefore sat in the few seats allocated for anyone insisting on attending the meeting that was not a meeting and looked on, unable to follow the secret agenda, or read the information given to members in the reports. 

Two Labour members, Alan Schneiderman and Devra Kay objected to the arrangements, but neither Mr Hoare or the Tory members, Cohen and Brian Salinger, who sat with his back to the public, were sympathetic to the idea that the meeting that was not a meeting should follow any rules of access or transparency. 

Mr Hoare gave us a short lecture on the way on which the meeting which was not a meeting would be held. It was 'a briefing', just, he said pointedly, for members - it was not constitutional, and therefore they could not make any decisions, or recommendations

Mrs Angry decided, that as there were no rules, and the meeting that was not a meeting was not constitutional, she was therefore entitled to join in with helpful contributions to the 'discussion', when appropriate, as a resident, and taxpayer. 

This view was not welcomed by Councillor Dean Cohen, sitting self importantly, as he always does, like a schoolboy left to mind the class while the teacher has been called away to see the headmaster. In fact, Councillor Cohen kept snapping at Mrs Angry and told her she could not speak, which of course she happily ignored, if only to annoy him even more.

Even though members of the public were clearly not welcome, it transpired that a resident had been invited, by whom we did not know, to sit at the table and talk about the Friends association which now oversees much of the activities in a park in Childs Hill. Presumably the Tories thought that this was a good example, Big Society style, of where they can show that dumping council responsibilities on residents with a minimal amount of encouragement was a marvellous thing, and hope no one would notice it was just an excuse to try and cut costs.

It was pretty clear that as she began to speak, however, that the woman was no fool, and was determined to inform the members that expecting volunteers to take overall responsibility for the park was not a viable proposal. Grounds maintenance, she pointed out, depends on a continuous and reliable stream of funding by the authority.

What was interesting was that the park's friends' group, in marginal Childs Hill, previously a Libdem seat, targeted by Tories and Labour, returning two Tory and one Libdem councillor, received £50,000 in funding, last August, around the same time that the Highways bonus of £4 million was spent on certain wards. This may have been part of a regular budgetary handout, or it may not, but one wonders how many parks in less advantaged and less marginal wards received similar payments.

It also emerged that the various resident run park associations are not brought together in any one body, but act in isolation, along the old Barnet divide and conquer strategy. There was some sort of proposal to this end, but allowing them to join together would of course be a breach of the riot act, and might lead to unity of purpose, and a pro park lobby which could oppose their fiendish plot to commercialise our parks and open spaces, which of course, in Broken Barnet, must be made to generate income in order to justify their right to existence. 

Now Crapita has its hands on our council services, and even pursues us in death, as in life, at the Easycrem crapitorial post life facililty, the air we breathe, and every leaf of every tree, every blade of grass, and even the chirruping of birds in the sky must be harnessed, and put to the plough. Seems only reasonable, doesn't it?

Next up - ah, Highways maintenance. A sad eyed welshman from Capita, with a teddy boy haircut, stood forlornly at the end of the room and pointed dispiritedly at a powerpoint presentation of charts and diagrams that appeared to signify an apocalyptic future for our road structure.

One of the charts was headed: The Public's Really Simple Asset Management Plan.

The chart consisted, as far as Mrs Angry remembers, of a giant For Sale sign, and a picture of a cashpoint, with the word 'kerrching' written underneath. 

Her notes may not be entirely accurate, of course.

We have too many roads, in Broken Barnet, it seems. The ground covered, we heard, would go all the way to Leeds and back, or was it that all roads went to Leeds and back, whether or not that was where we meant to go? Mrs Angry was confused.

There should be resurfacing of roads, we heard, once every hundred years. Oh. No: by the rate in which they are currently being resurfaced, it would be once every hundred years.

Apart, suggested Mrs Angry, from roads in Councillor Cohen's own ward, in Golders Green. Councillor Cohen suggested she should be quiet. Mrs Angry smiled, recalling that in some parts of Golders Green ward, the roads appear to be resurfaced, and the pavements replaced, more like once every 100 days, while, as the recent 'investigation' confirmed, the highways and byways of everywhere else that is not in a Tory ward,  must wait in line.

The sad eyed welshman said that in order to maintain the roads, Barnet's residents would have to fork out £13 million alone for the backlog.

The road ahead, in this presentation, was becoming clear, and we were not headed for Leeds, after all, but doing a u-turn, all the way back to Capitaville.

Not all roads are the same, of course, he said. Mrs Angry agreed, thinking of the difference, say between Princes Park Avenue, in Councillor Cohen's ward, or the quiet residential roads in marginal Tory Hale, and Aerodrome Road, in Colindale, which Labour held ward that received no funding at all last year, while PPA alone was given £500,000 of funding in two years.

All roads are equal, but some roads are more equal than others. 

We should be prioritising the need to resurface, not, it seems in order of political allegiance, but according to need. Real need, not the definition used by Tory politicians, but concentrating on areas around hospitals, and, you know, where the poor people hang out, because their buses and clapped out old cars wear the roads out too quickly, in their typically selfish way.

The sad welshman continued. He cheered up a bit with the thought, expressed largely to himself, that we, ie Re, ie Crapita, have 'different treatments in the toolbox' in order to fix the many highways of despair, in Broken Barnet.

Here was a nice image of what looked like the flag of a newly independent Balkan state, the ones you can never remember in the picture round of that quiz down the pub, with a scribbly line ominously scratched across it. 

If we had consistently bad weather, we were told, we could cope better with these challenges. 

In a cold climate, as he put it, we know where we are. 

In the course of a cold, cold winter, things fall apart, and the surface cannot hold, but we can patch that up - or seal it - with Mrs Angry's rhubarb jam, (also available under the new Re-surfacing label, at Waitrose, North Finchley, all proceeds to the Broken Barnet charitable trust and pension fund).

In the glare of our summer sun, sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines, and the roads of Broken Barnet melt, like chocolate, and require a different treatment from the toolbox, so lovingly administered now by Crapita. And that meant the toolbox is not big enough, and we need to buy a new one, because Crapita can't afford it, apparently.

Which is odd, isn't it? We heard that 'efficiencies' need to be made from the Highways budget, and all our roads, even those that do not go to Leeds and back, must be resurfaced over a shorter than hundred year cycle, yet those savings promised us by those advocating the Capita contracts with such enthusiasm, are not available to cover these costs, which surely must have been or should have been assessed before the contracts were negotiated?

We have to find an immediate saving of more than £5 million. Yet last autumn, according to the line given to excuse the pre-election highways spluge in Tory wards, the £4 million they spent was only forthcoming as a result of the new contract. Why did they indulge in that spending spree, when they knew there would be a shortfall in funding after the election? How could such expenditure possibly be justified? This truly is a scandalous use of taxpayers' money.

And it gets worse: because, as Labour's Alan Schneiderman revealed, the efficiencies we are now told are necessary will require staff redundancies - and further outsourcing.

In other words, the lovely new pavements and road surfaces of Tory held wards are being paid for by turning loyal Barnet highways staff out of their jobs.

No wonder that they wanted to hold these 'briefings' in secret, is it? 

But you know: this is what we signed up to. Or rather the Tory councillors signed up to: being used as a cash cow by Capita - and this is how they make their profits. 

Look at this news from Birmingham, where it has just been revealed that in 2013, of the £102m spent on their own joint venture, the City Council handed over a staggering £23m in dividends to Capita, despite the dire financial straits in which they now find themselves:

Quick, change the subject. 

Oh. Not the best subject: the controversial issue of street lighting, and a terrifying proposal to turn off the lights of Broken Barnet at night, in order to, yes, make efficiencies. 

This is, of course, the very same light which emanates from the entirely new stock of streetlamps replaced over the length and breadth of the borough only the other year.

Had the police given their opinion, as to the impact on crime? Conveniently no one could answer. 

Mrs Angry gave her unasked for views on the risk to the safety of women and elderly, and even the perception of risk which would affect residents' quality of life. This will be maximised should another proposal on the table, to leave parks unlocked at night, be adopted by our idiotic councillors.

Fear, they acknowledged, was a potential result of such a drastic step. But fear and loathing, in Broken Barnet, are qualities our Tory councillors seem happy to encourage, as you may have noticed. 

And then: oh dear. The next item, on the secret agenda, was a formal proposal from the handlebar moustached octogenarian Tory John Hart, on the subject of ... trees.

Councillor Hart is very worried about the trees of Broken Barnet, at least the ones that line our crumbling highways. 

He wants them all removed, because they are too big, he thinks, and must be replaced, on a boroughwide programme, like all our streetlamps. The replacements should be small trees, colourful ones of which he approves, not ones, he said, with heads like lavatory brushes, which he does not like. 

After an incomprehensible anecdote about when he worked for the Board of Trade, with what he called the Abominable No Men of Whitehall, he enlarged on the reasons for this Amazonian scale schedule of deforestation. 

Not only are the trees too big, they fall on people, or cause subsidence, and then our 'darling residents', as he described them, complain about cracks in their houses.

The poor officer from Open Spaces tried valiantly to address these barking proposals with some semblance of restraint.

There are some 300,000 trees lining the streets of Broken Barnet, she said, patiently, as if talking to a particularly obtuse child. The savings from subsidence claims would be negligable, and the cost of replacing them prohibitive. There would also be an impact on the ecological life of the borough, such as the loss of honeydew for bees.

Those of us who were sniggering at the foolishness of such a suggestion were informed tersely by Tory councillors: at least he made the effort

And there we were, at the end of the meeting that was not a meeting, and Labour councillors were still asking about the very terms of reference under which the 'briefing' and discussion had taken place.

Labour's Devra Kay had asked - why shouldn't residents attend these meetings? They are in public, she was told - but of course 'public' in this case means only to those members of the public who did not have to rely on the meetings which are not meetings being listed on the calendar, or advertised in the press, or advertised anywhere except hidden away beneath a series of baby rhyme times, or knit and natter sessions, in our no doubt soon to be offloaded libraries.

In fact, despite no visible listing on the council's website, there is another 'working group' arranged for tomorrow night - but the Labour members due to attend have rightly decided to boycott the event.*Updated: since this development, the meeting that was not a meeting will now not meet at all, as it has been cancelled.

Tory Brian Salinger banged on, as he always does, about having been a councillor for 33 years, and always having private briefings and ... he was interrupted, possibly by Mrs Angry: Be quiet and listen to me, he said, jabbing his finger about. Pointy finger, pointy finger, said Mrs Angry, tutting. 

As the non meeting ended, Alan Schneiderman raised questions about the status of members, as opposed to officers. This was an important point, as a visiting stranger, who may have wandered into the town hall, and up the stairs, and into the committee room and found the meeting which was not a meeting, might have concluded that Mr Hoare and his colleagues from Crapita were in charge, and not the elected members of the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

No decisions, of course, are meant to be made at these sessions, yet clearly when even the Chair appeared to want to back away from the lighting proposal, it seemed the officers had the last say in what 'went forward' to the actual committee. Mr Hoare would be passing on his views on what had been discussed at the 'briefing', even thought, we were told, there were no minutes, and no recommendations.

In other words, members' opinions would be marginalised in the process, and yet some report finalised by non elected officers, which might well suit the purposes of Capita and senior management, but is clearly a distortion of what is supposed to be a democratic process, open and transparent, and accountable to the community, and their elected representatives, would go on to the committee stage.

This is where the road takes us, not to Leeds, but always back to Capitaville, and here we must remain, enclosed by boundaries we feel, but cannot see, in the shadows of the night, where the glare of scrutiny is dimmed, and the underworld of private enterprise, like thieves in the night, robs us of what we hold dear, and fear to lose, at the cost of our liberty, and our democracy. 

Put out the light, then put out the light.

This is the history of Capitaville, Year Two. 

Only eight more to go. 


Anonymous said...

"So now we have meetings that are not part of the democratic process, and yet will direct the evolution of policy decisions affecting the future of our local public services, with an impact on the lives of all residents."
This all sounds very like this government; say one thing in public, then carry on doing anything idealogically you want behind the scenes..

John Brace said...

I report on a Council where these shadowy "working groups" have been running for years.

You're right, they are anti-democratic.

So about 17 months ago I made a FOI request for various minutes of these "behind closed doors" meetings.

It was denied on "vexatious" grounds, due to the amount of redactions they'd have to do.

So I asked for an internal review, the "vexatious" claim was dropped and they claimed it would cost too much.

So I appealed to ICO, who disagreed with them and issued a decision notice (17 months after the request) giving them 35 days to comply or 28 days to appeal to the FTT.

Maybe I'll get a response by the time of my next birthday!

However it transpired during the appeal to ICO that two of the sets of minutes I requested, was on their website anyway. Actually checking their own website is apparently beyond the abilities of this Council to do....

So yes, I agree with the broad thrust of what you say... but it's not just in Barnet that it happens!

P.S. You should see the loopholes I had to exploit to get the text of two £12 million/year contracts out of them, one of which was turned down through FOI on "commercial sensitivity" grounds.

One was a contract for bin collection, street cleaning et cetera. The other was a schools PFI contract for 11 schools, plus realted services (school meals etc).

Makes me wonder at times what bits of local Councils haven't been privatised! Oh and the name of the above Council is Wirral, who it would appear broken barnet seem to be learning from!

Mrs Angry said...

Yes, Anon: it is all very well for Pickles to make laws that appear to devolve power to residents and taxpayers, but it is almost impossible to enforce the guidelines he sets down: look at the example of the abolition of the standards regime, which gives carte blanche to the sort of knaves running our council to do what they want, with no fear of sanction. They have even managed to grant themselves dispensation against the requirement to declare pecuniary interests, even though he made failure to do so a criminal offence.

John: at least your secret working groups were minuted ... all of these bodies are simply a device to undermine the demand for transparency and defy the very principles the Tory party pretends we must require of those in public life, and the concept of open government .

Mrs Angry said...

Thank you, Anon, for your comment which, in view of the references to fascism,and certain stakeholders in the rotten borough of Broken Barnet, is probably best left unpublished, but I did agree your suggestion that the Tories may have wished to remove all the larger trees for fear of an outbreak of lynching. I believe the recent replacement of lamp posts may have been for the same reason, bearing in mind what happened to Mussolini.

Anonymous said...

Thank you mrs A , for your Last comment . & yes you are right ! I get so frustrated over the Arrogance of those that call themselves public servants Behaving in such an appalling way . But there is always a bright side to this ! Without there incompetence I couldn't have a good laugh at there Expence , reading your Blog . So once again thank you so much for being Angry :)

Mrs Angry said...

You are welcome, Anon. Besides, I can't help being angry, and sad. Humour is one way to cope, I suppose.