Monday 22 June 2015

The Best of Our Knowledge, or: the outsourcing of trust, in Broken Barnet

*Updated 16th July: 

Barnet Council tries to block the disclosure of the truth behind the depot purchase recommendation, see below ...

Ok. Mrs Angry has, as you can see, fallen off the wagon, given into temptation, and reverted, once again, to a temporary indulgence in the venial sin of bloggery. See previous post. And now look, another lapse. 

Or to put it another way, Mrs Angry has been reminded, in the course of the last few days, why she felt obliged to launch the wretched blog in the first place, unable any longer to stand the culture of greed, decadence, and incompetence in this most rotten of Rotten Boroughs. 

A press release emerged from Barnet Labour last week - yes: just fancy that! - and do you know, readers, it was quite interesting. No, really. Take a look - here 

Interesting, see, not really because of anything the Labour councillors had done, except make a complaint, but because of a very, very interesting discovery by 'local residents'. 

It is generally the case, in Broken Barnet, that interesting discoveries are made by local residents, after all. And local bloggers, of course.

To begin at the beginning.

The story of the proposed waste depot in Oakleigh Road South, N11, is a very peculiar tale, and what we know about now it makes the story even more perplexing.

Barnet Council, in its haste to open up even more sites in the borough for private housing developments, decided some years ago - in 2004 - to close its depot in Mill Hill East, before finalising plans to move to an alternative location. They then proposed to move the depot to Pinkham Way, conveniently just a step over the border in Haringey, on the southern side of the North Circular. Unfortunately for Barnet, this proposal fell through, after a long and loud campaign of protest from residents. 

Oh dear: ten years after the Mill Hill site was sold - now where to move the depot? Erm ... Lots of head scratching, in the offices of the London Borough of Broken Barnet. Hang on, what about the Abbots Way site, in Oakleigh Road South? 

They've already got a skip company operating from there, so they won't mind the addition of more heavy industrial traffic in the area - a load of bin lorries coming to and fro, a bulking facility for decaying food waste & rubbish, a fuel station etc, will they? 

And anyway, the ward it's in has two Labour councillors, oh, and well yes, Tory Lisa Rutter, clinging to her seat - for the time being - by her dainty ex Mayoral fingertips. Expendable. Easy.

No: not so easy. 

The residents living in this area, unsurprisingly, deeply object to this new facility being foisted on them, and have made their concerns known, with no uncertainty. In a statement made by RAAD: Residents Against Abbots Depot, the campaigning group now formed to fight the new depot move, they claim no consultation with residents was made before the decision was formally approved, last December: 

We residents found out about the waste depot moving to our front doors only AFTER the decision was taken, not having received any information about it from Barnet Council at all. 

On the 16th of March 2015 we residents attended a meeting held by Barnet Council and submitted numerous questions on the matter prior to the meeting and in the given time limit. 

The few answers we got from the Council, included information about 8 other sites considered for the waste depot and Council’s reasons for rejection: 

a) Lupa House, Borehamwood: rejected due to ‘significant planning constraints due to existing neighboring residential uses’. 

b) BSA House (Jehovah Witnesses), Mill Hill: rejected because being near ‘residential properties means that any planning application would be complicated by the potential impacts a depot use may have locally’. 

c) Sites in Bunns Lane, Mill Hill: amongst the reasons was the following ‘There are also residential properties in close proximity which raises concerns in relation to operational impacts and vehicular access arrangements’. 

d) Pinkham way which fell through due to resident action against the proposal BUT: 

Abbots Depot Oakleigh Rd South N11 is considered an appropriate site for the waste depot even though the area is densely populated, with a nursery and housing for vulnerable people and the only recreation Park in our area only a few meters away and approximately 20 nursery, primary and secondary schools located nearby. 

The difference between our area and the sites that were rejected due to proximity to ‘residential properties’can be found: 

a) Through the Inglis Consortium website where it is made clear that sites A, B and C are too near the new residential development hencethreatening possible profits 

b)Through the Office of National Statistics where our area’s demographics are documented 

To be specific: 

Our area consists of 52% ethnic minorities of middle to lower income, with little political, financial or social power whatsoever. 

On the other hand Muswell Hill and Mill Hill consists of a 60%+ white British population with a high percentage of ‘AB’ consumers. 


We residents strongly believe that we are being discriminated against because of our social status and ethnic diversity of our neighborhood s and our human rights, are thus being violated: 

a) Our local administration has ignored our right to be consulted before decisions affect us adversely are taken. 

b) We local residents are refused any access to information – our FOI access to relevant documents, surveys etc which might ease our reasonable 

c) Our local administration is raising health and hazard issues concerning the storage of 70.000 litres of diesel on site, near flammable waste, next to several timber merchants in the middle of a highly populated area. 

d) Our quality of life is being undermined as the noise, fumes, increased risk of traffic accidents, air pollution and vermin from the waste (food waste included), willnot allow us to enjoy our family lives and properties. 

e) A leaflet distributed by Barnet Council does not accurately describe all the processes that will be taking place on the proposed waste depot so residents can make an informed decision. In fact it is not even mentioning the word waste. 

Two of our local councillors, Cllr Lisa Rutter, (7th March 2015, Osidge Lane Library) and Cllr Brian Salinger(9th April, Oakleigh Community Church) have cynically admitted that although they support the relocation of the Mill Hill depot to our locality they wouldn't live in the area… 

Our local MP Theresa Villiers supports the relocation of the Mill Hill waste depot in our area even though she supported the Pinkham way campaign in Haringey 

Having no other means left to fight for our rights we kindly request you to look into our matter. We request the 16th December decision is cancelled and a 6 month consultation period taking place prior to any decision made that will affect our lives and health.

Local residents were incensed when these plans were passed by the council, without their participation in any consultation - and after their local Tory councillor Lisa Rutter failed to oppose them, despite their objections. She made a few mildly handwringing observations  at the meeting, and then abstained from the vote - while those in the gallery (well, yes, Mrs Angry) yelled 'vote against it, then'  - when Rutter knew full well that the proposals would go through on the casting vote of the Tory Mayor.

Her chances of being re-elected, in an area which has seen an incremental change in voting from Tory to Labour at the last two elections are now ... minimal. A petition has been lauched calling for her to resign. 

But the depot will go ahead. At no little expense to the taxpayers of Broken Barnet. At vast expense, in fact, in these times of austerity: £13.5 million, to be exact. 

Seems a lot of dosh, doesn't it? Hmm. Seemed a lot at the time, but: that was then, and this is now, and now it seems: oh dear - we may have paid slightly over the odds for the site. 

When we say 'slightly over the odds', of course, we mean only by a margin of, well, around, £12,750,000

Yes. That's right. £12, 750 million of your money, my money, our money. 

Let Mrs Angry explain. 

The proposal to buy the same site for £13.5 million was agreed at full council last December. At the time much criticism was made of what seemed to be an exorbitant price, based on a former valuation of £8 million, 8 or so years ago. 

But what was not known then was that six months earlier a company had bought the very same site ... for only £750, 000. Yep. Only £750,000

Yet officers of the council had informed Labour councillor Geof Cooke, on the 19th May 2015, that: 

 ‘To the best of our knowledge, there have been no changes to the freehold or leasehold positions since 1/1/14’. 

Dear me. It seems 'the best of our knowledge' is a definition that fails to include the most basic search of Land Registry records, acessible to anyone within a few minutes to spare. 

Accessible, it should be said, to everyone: including Tory councillors - and Labour councillors, to be fair. 

Mrs Angry is beginning to wonder if perhaps something is awry in the newly outsourced planning services, here in the London Borough of Broken Barnet: newly outsourced to Capita, of course.

Planning officers, as we saw at the time of the Inquiry into the West Hendon compulsory purchases at least, are apparently unaware of the existence of some of the most obvious sources of information, such as the authority's own local archives, and all other material and resources available to document the history and heritage of sites targeted for development. 

And now it seems planning officers are not familiar with the process of checking the ownership of properties and land via the Land Registry. Or is it, as we shall see has now become the excuse of certain Tory councillors, the fault of officers specifically tasked with the role of valuation?

Nor is any councillor familiar with the notion of looking things up on the Land Registry, it would appear - either Tory or Labour. But then there is a quaint tradition, in this borough, of tame councillors in power and in (what passes for) opposition never to challenge the word of an officer, in case it upsets them, and makes them cry. 

This charming practice, a hangover from the good old days when officers were gentlemen, and allowed to perform their duties without being dragged into the political intrigues of our elected representatives, is no longer appropriate. 

Although less senior officers should not be held responsible for the political pressures forced upon them by their own senior managers, or indeed the political administration, the harsh truth is that this authority, and the outsourcing process is run entirely by senior management, and yes, actually: they should be held to account, with ruthless insistence - even if it does make them cry - or at least shift slightly uncomfortably in their seats at the committee table. 

Indeed Mrs Angry has noted a new tendency to some of the more recently appointed senior officers to speak to councillors with a certain amount of arrogance, almost as if, readers, almost as if ... they really did think that they were running the council, and not our elected representatives. 

It is also true to say that since the Capita contracts began, less and less democratic oversight is given to the massive decisions being made, both in terms of general policy, and on the lesser scale of issues such as planning. 

Officers are gaining more and more power to make those decisions, and councillors are being increasingly alienated from the process of governance. 

 Well: we all make mistakes, don't we? 

And £13.5 million is neither here nor there, is it? 

Funnily enough, this is about the value of the land given away by our Tory councillors to Barratts to develop the West Hendon estate. 

One can only admire the consistency with which they make these distributions of largesse, at the expense of the taxpayers of the London Borough of Broken Barnet. 

And here we are, throwing another £12 million or so at a purchase of land, an act of generosity which neatly ignores the fact that, for example, our library service is about to be destroyed on the pretext of an austerity budget cut of £2.85 million. How many times does that go into £13.5 million? Erm. Oh, someone work it out.

Oh yes, and let us not forget that this site, costing us this exorbitant amount of our hard earned dosh, may only be available for five or ten years, as it is likely to be needed as railway sidings for the Cross Rail 2 extension to New Southgate.

And about that £750,000. 

The company which bought the site? A company called Cergold. That is to say a company owned by the Comer brothers, who happen to be the landlords of ... Barnet Council, being the owners of North London Business Park, where the council's offices have been for some years, although now due to move - at further expense - to Grahame Park. 

The Comer brothers were also the developers of Princess Park Manor, the former county asylum, now turned into a number of luxurious properties: and in fact run a hugely successful company, with assets worth an estimated £2 billion. Not bad for a couple of plasterers from Galway. The boys done good: read all about it herewhere we learn their abiding principle, and the reason for their success - hard physical slog in the early days, and then astute investment in the right sort of potential development: buy cheap, sell high - acquire low value land in the right location, at the right time, build on it - and then wait for the profits to roll in. 

Why have they bought this site? Who knows. Who knew? We don't know. Someone might. If so, they haven't explained it yet. Why did Barnet/Capita officers not know the site had already been bought, or part of it, (none of this is clear) when they told councillors last year and this year that there were no changes to the freehold or leasehold site? How can such a lack of due diligence be anything other than incompetence? 

The residents objecting to the Abbots Road depot went last Saturday to Councillor Lisa Rutter's surgery at Osidge Library. 

She was accompanied by deputy Tory group leader Daniel Thomas, for some reason. Thomas is a councillor in Finchley, so clearly was in attendance in support of Rutter, as deputy leader, rather than just casually dropping in. 

Also in attendance, incidentally, were police officers: the Tory councillors claimed that they had not requested police to be there, so it is something of a mystery as to why they turned up to monitor a few elderly citizens in flat caps and rainmacs, exercising their democratic right to lobby their elected representatives.

Also mysterious, almost delphic in its cryptic tone, was the response given by Cllr Thomas in response to a question from residents about the depot: a response minuted by a representative at the meeting: 

Q: Why was £13.5 million spent on acquiring the proposed Abbots Waste Depot site, when the same piece of land was sold the previous year for £750k ?

Daniel Thomas:  £13.5 million was the market value provided by the District Valuer. No one knows the circumstances of the sale for £750k.

Well, well. The 'district valuer', so not a valuation by Capita, then? 

Mrs Angry has asked Councillor Daniel Thomas to confirm the implication of his reported remark at the Osidge meeting, and that he blamed Capita for what appears to be a massive overspend on this site.  

I would like to ask you about your reported comments at the meeting at Osidge Library on Saturday, in regard to the waste depot proposal. 

Can you confirm that you said, as minuted, that the responsibility for the £13.5 million expenditure of taxpayers' money on a site that was sold for only £750,000 last year was entirely that of the district valuer, ie Capita? 

 And do you think this represents good value for money, for those taxpayers, in terms of the purchase of the site, and in terms of the standard of service by your contractual partners Capita?

Just as this post was going to be published without a response, an email from Cllr Thomas landed in Mrs Angry's in box, as follows:

"I’m aware that a conversation I had with some campaigners two weekends ago appears to have been inaccurately reported to third parties.  Incidentally, I saw no minutes being taken by any of the four people Cllr Rutter and I met with.  It is interesting that amongst comments attributed to me, left out was a campaigner’s lack of objection when, after complaining her school had to take on a bulge class, I responded it was just as well the council was receiving £millions from the Mill Hill redevelopment which will help build more classrooms across the borough.  Relocation of the depot will help make this huge capital receipt possible even after the costs of a new depot are taken into account, not to mention the benefit of new homes and a new school.  

The district valuer is not ‘responsible’ for council expenditure but can be consulted for advice on land transactions.  If their advice was that £750k reflected open market value we clearly would not be paying the sum we intend, remembering that the purchase is subject to planning permission for a depot being granted.  It is the value of the land as a depot site which is relevant to the council.

The previous ‘£750k transaction’ does not represent open market value which is obvious given the size, scarcity and availability of such plots.  It is also the case that the parties involved in that transaction were connected and so further demonstrates it was not an ‘open market’ purchase and cannot be reliably used as an indicator of value. 

I’m therefore happy that, yet again, Barnet Council is acting in the best interests of taxpayers.  I’m also very happy with the high quality services provided by Capita, which also represent good value for money and allow us to redirect decreasing revenue budgets from the back office to front line services. 

Kind regards,

Cllr Daniel Thomas

Deputy Leader of the Council" 

This response, of course, raises more questions than ever: Mrs Angry has replied with just two for now. 

You say that the district valuer - ie Capita - can be consulted for advice on land transactions. Was the district valuer consulted, or not? 

And why did officers state quite clearly to Cllr Cooke on the 19th May this year: 

'To the best of our knowledge, there have been no changes to the freehold or leasehold positions since 1/1/14'?

And here, just in, is his response: 

Cllr Cooke has recently received a response to his questions including the one below.  No doubt he/Barnet Labour will publish the responses to their questions on their ‘complaint’ webpage, but in advance of that I can exclusively reveal to you that, one and a half hours after Cllr Cooke received the response you quote below, he was sent an update to clarify there was indeed a transaction in June 2014.

The council’s monitoring officer has reviewed the decision making process and confirmed it was robust.  I’ve been advised the district valuer was consulted on this transaction.

Hmm. But we still don't know why councillors were not informed of the true state of play when the decision to approve the £13.5 million payment was made, do we?

 Mrs Angry has replied:

I am of course sure that the residents of Barnet will have all concerns put to rest by the assurance that the authority's own Monitoring Officer found the process was 'robust'. 

Failing that, it might be an awfully good idea if we have an independent, external investigation to ensure that the process was not only 'robust', but is fully transparent, and made accountable to those residents and taxpayers who will have to foot the bill.

We need to establish why misleading information was given to councillors, and why the district valuer provided a market value that differs so vastly from the price Barnet paid for their own stake in this site.

If Capita are at fault in any way, this would raise the most serious questions about the contract performance, and would require a full account to local taxpayers as to why such a large payment has been made necessary by the taxpayers of this borough for the acquisition of this site.

Now here is another interesting story.

As reported recently, by fellow blogger Mr Reasonable, now that Barnet Council has decided to vacate the offices at NLBP, it appears that the Comer brothers, through another company of theirs called Hindale Limited, are to make an application to its former tenants for a massive development on the site, of 1600 new houses:

And it seems in order for this application to proceed as smoothly as possible, reports Mr Reasonable:

'Hindale will pay Barnet £105,364 for officers' time to prepare a site development brief and to provide pre application advice to inform the preparation of the planning application for the site ...'

Of course there is absolutely no guarantee that the planning application 'informed' by Barnet/Capita officers will then go on to receive a recommendation to grant approval by, erm ... Barnet/Capita officers. None whatever.

Mrs Angry imagines that, however, we can rely on our obedient Tory councillors to rubber stamp the application, should they, by some chance, look with favour on the application their officers have helped to 'inform'. 

Barnet Tory councillors look with favour on any private development put be before them, on an ideological basis: the easycouncil mantra of Barnet Tories - private sector good, public sector bad. 

And Mrs Angry is fully confident that we will be told there will be all sorts of 'Chinese walls' and 'protocols' to assure us there is absolutely no conflict of interest between officers acting as both advisers and scrutineers of a planning application, just as there was apparently no conflict of interest inherent in Capita acting in the management of the 'regeneration' of West Hendon, and the valuation of the compulsory purchase properties.

Are you satisfied by that assurance, readers? 

There is no suggestion of any underhand activity by developers, or indeed that there is any connection between the Abbots depot purchase, and the NLBP proposals. Although the two sites are less than half a mile apart, that is probably coincidental: their companies as we know, invest in land all the time, as part of their modus operandi.

And if the Comer brothers managed to get a stake in the depot site for £750K, good for them: that may well mean they displayed a rather more acute business acumen than our own senior management team, and our contractual partners. Perhaps they should be providing pre application advice for us, rather than the other way round. 

But what is of concern is the multiplicity of roles that our outsourcing partners are now taking in the management of private development, here in Barnet, and the risk this raises of conflict of interest, and the lowering of standards of service - the loss of trust in due process - and the real risk of even greater cost to taxpayers, at time when the budget for essential public services are being so ruthlessly slashed.

To put this all in context: the other reason residents went to Osidge library, a week or so ago, and put questions to their local councillor - and Councillor Thomas - was in regard to the appalling proposals now threatening our library service with destruction.  

These terrible plans include options to close many branches, shrink them in size by 93%, or even remove staff from libraries, and leave them as 'open' branches, not only de-professionalised, but totally unsupervised: in essence a few books on a shelf, the conception of some fool who has never used a public library in his life, and cares even less about the survival of a library service in any recognisable form. 

These cuts, on such a barbaric scale, are being proposed by our Tory councillors on the pretext of austerity, of course: an economic necessity they still like to blame on Labour financial incompetence, and extravagance, rather than the self indulgence of bankers, or world recession. Neither financial incompetence, nor extravagance is ever the responsibility, in their eyes, of any Conservative administration.

Yet here we are again, in Broken Barnet, where our Tory councillors have given away public land worth £12 million to private developers for £3, and blown another £13.5 million on a site that would appear to have been acquired for only £750,000 ... 

Incompetence, or extravagance? Unacceptable, either way. 

Don't let the Tories fool you. 

It is not a question of how much money we have: it is always a question of what they choose to spend our money on - and what they choose to spend our money on is entirely at the whim of their half baked, swivel eyed lunatic ideology: here in Barnet our Tory administration, the bastard child of Thatcherite materialism, reduces everything to the measure of profit, and and the best interests of private enterprise. 

That they were elected to office to represent me and you, and that the senior officers they employ are meant to safeguard our rights and our investment is of no importance. 

The only thing to do is to refuse to tolerate their insufferable regime. The fight continues, after all, and after all: what else can you do?

*Updated 16th July

Mrs Angry decided last month to find out exactly what was the truth behind the recommended purchase of the Abbots Road Depot, and submitted a Freedom of Information request on this matter. This response has now been sent: 

Dear Mrs Angry 

Thank you for your request for information received on 16 June 2015 for the following information: 

"Please send me copies of any correspondence, notes, record of discussions, or telephone calls by Barnet officers, since May 2014 up to the present date, in regard to the issue of establishing the identity of the ownership of the Abbots Depot site in Oakleigh Road South. This is to include any proof of checks made via the Land Registry site, and the date on which such checks were made..." 

We are processing this request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. 

I can confirm that the Council holds information of the description specified in your request. The Act requires us to respond to request promptly and in any case within 20 working days from the date we received your request. However we consider that some of the information is exempt and we need further time to carry out the public interest. This is where we need to balance the public interest in disclosing the information against the public interest in withholding it. 

We estimate that it will take an additional 10 days to take a decision on where the balance of the public interest lies. 

Therefore, we will respond by 29 July 2015. 

Hmm. Well. "Therefore", Mrs Angry has replied:

Dear Ms X:

I have checked with the ICO guidelines, and it clearly states the following, if you are claiming extra time to consider exemption on the grounds of 'public interest':

"To claim this extra time, you must:

contact the requester in writing within the standard time for compliance;

specify which exemption(s) you are seeking to rely on; and

give an estimate of when you will have completed the public interest test".

You have not specified which exemption(s) you are seeking to rely on. Kindly do so now.

The ICO also states:

"You must bear in mind that the principle behind the Act is to release information unless there is a good reason not to. To justify withholding information, the public interest in maintaining the exemption would have to outweigh the public interest in disclosure".

It is self evident that it is most certainly in the public interest for the residents and taxpayers of this borough to know why their elected representatives were not properly informed before being asked to approve a £12 million* purchase of land previously sold for £750,000, and for those residents and taxpayers to see that due diligence was undertaken before officers of the council/ Capita recommended the purchase.

Yours sincerely,

Mrs Angry

*Correction: actually no less than £13.5 million ...

If the Council does hold the information Mrs Angry has requested, then surely it is a good idea to publish it, to demonstrate that a process of due diligence was in place, and to explain why councillors were not aware of the £750,000 purchase before approving the Council's signing off of £13.5 million for the same piece of land? Redactions will be made of the names of any non senior officer involved in the matter, so what is the problem?

Unless, of course ... no. Surely not, Mrs Angry. 

Is there ... is there something they do not wish us to know? 

Because of course, in the long, dark history of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, it has been proven, over and over again, that the uncovering of the very thing that they do not wish us to know is always, in the end, quite definitely in the public interest. 

And political embarrassment, or spurious excuses of 'commercial sensitivity' are not grounds for withholding information which we have a statutory right to scrutinise.

We must keep demanding the truth is put in the public domain - and Mrs Angry intends to make sure that that is exactly what happens. 


Anonymous said...

"The previous ‘£750k transaction’ does not represent open market value which is obvious given the size, scarcity and availability of such plots. It is also the case that the parties involved in that transaction were connected and so further demonstrates it was not an ‘open market’ purchase and cannot be reliably used as an indicator of value."
What does this mean? Why would a company sell an asset to another company at below market value (even if they needed to realise the asset quickly the normal route is to go to auction). If this land transacted at below 'open market value' it would be of interest to HMRC to know the circumstances wouldn't it?

insideknowledge said...

excellently written, as anormal, and truly touching the subjects that matter/hurt. it needs to be open, transparanet and not kept secret. too many decisions are left to the officer (now capita employees.) there are conflicts of interest everywhere now, more so than ever before. as soon as the first conflict is caught and challenged, and it will be, the flood gates will open, and the whole capita csg and re contracts will start to crumble faster than savings in an icelandic bank. people are more aware nowadays, and challenge issues correctly, and keep their dignity, unlike the tory administration here, who just see the pound signs for quick gain, and go for advice that has been given to them via their "partners"

Mrs Angry said...

Yes indeed, Anonymous: you have identified the most interesting part of Cllr Thomas's comments - a very interesting claim for him to make. Were they connected? First I've heard of it.