Sunday 31 January 2016

Sweet Nothings: or - Mrs Angry's guide to outsourcing.

For all the tweeting Barnet Tory councillors, including the leader Richard Cornelius, and deputy leader and aspiring London Assembly member Dan Thomas, who appear not to understand the basic rules of outsourcing, which may be the reason why they will not answer her requests for evidence of the 'savings' our two whopping Crapita contracts are meant to deliver ... here is:

Mrs Angry's 'Outsourcing for Dummies':

Dick likes sweets.

He uses his £1 pocket money, every week, to buy a bag of Inequality Street chocolates, and then hide them under his pillow, as he is going to grow up to be a Tory councillor, and is rather greedy.

Look: there is a new boy in Dick's class, called Peter. 

Peter is a very clever boy, who has a lot of pocket money, but no sweets. 

Dick is not a clever boy. 

Peter says: Dick, if you give me half your pocket money, I will buy your sweets for you.

I can buy my sweets myself, says Dick.

But if you let me buy them, you won't have to walk to the sweetshop, says Peter.

And Dick, I can buy you even nicer sweets, and save you money

Also, I will give you one of my sweets, if you let me get yours too.

Dick is quite a lazy boy, and this seems like a good idea. 

Alright, Peter, he says: here is half my pocket money

Peter goes to the sweet shop.

Here you are, Dick, says Peter, on his return, and gives him a couple of sweets. 

Now you owe me fifty pence, Dick, says Peter. And you promised me one of your sweets

But I gave you half my pocket money, says Dick, and you said I could have one of your sweets

And look, Peter: you have given me only two sweets. I want more!

No, said Peter. The sweets cost more than I thought

And that means now you have to give me one of your sweets, and reward me with more money, for my efforts, in the form of gainshare payments. 

And by the way, I need a loan to buy some new shoes, in order to keep walking to the sweetshop for you. 

Hand it over, Dick, and be a good boy.

But that's not fair, says Dick, crying. 

And: these sweets are horrible, and I have no pocket money left, and Mummy will tell me off.

Serves you right, you great eejit, says Peter. Next time  someone makes you an offer that seems too good to be true, read the fucking contract, son - and listen to Mrs Angry when she tells you not to sign it ...


Now just look at this picture.  A memorable day, in the forgotten history of Broken Barnet, that is to say, the history that your Tory councillors would like you to forget, but Mrs Angry intends to remind you about, at every opportunity.

'Saving Barnet's taxpayers £126 million'. Got that? 

£126 million.

Of course, what you cannot see in the picture is that Tory leader Richard Cornelius is signing the contract with a magic pen.

Mrs Angry has one of those pens. It really is a magic pen, and writes in invisible ink, impossible to decipher, if you are a Tory councillor, for at least two and a half years after use.

So, anyway. 

Fellow blogger Mr Reasonable, who unlike Mrs Angry is numerate, and a very sensible chap, you know, has been following with a keen eye the progress of the two massive Capita contracts we have been lumbered with, here in Broken Barnet, since 2013.

He has just posted his latest assessment of the state of play, so far: see here ... and in his opinion, well: things are not quite working out as our Tory councillors assured us they would, are they?

According to Mr Reasonable:

"December supplier payments are out and Christmas clearly was a season to be merry. Capita billed £18,264,588.36 in December on both the Re and CSG contracts. That brings their running total for the financial year to £61.26 million, £10 million more than the whole of 2014/15 and a total of £168.3 million since the start of the contract two and a half years ago. While certain Councillors keep repeating the mantra "Capita are saving money" I keep asking them to show me the evidence because the amount of money we are paying seems immense compared to the core contract value".

Yes, councillors: where is the evidence?

Mrs Angry has asked some of them, via the medium of twitter, to explain to her how it was that we could possibly be making savings, when we are giving such vast wads of cash to Crapita, in the form not just of fees, but in 'hidden' costs, extra payments. 

Not one councillor has replied.

Now then. Mrs Angry is not very good at adding up, although this has never been a disadvantage in her career as a local government auditor, which really only requires the ability to detect the slightest whiff of ... bullshit.

Still: if only the infant Mrs Angry had paid more attention in maths classes at school, and spent less time in the corridor, or in detention, and thank you, Miss Bender, she might have been able to assess if indeed the Crapita contracts are saving us, the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet, the bucket loads of cash that we were promised.

As it is, well, readers, especially you, Tory councillors: already spending £168 million, in only two and a half years of a 10 year contract meant to save erm ... £126 million: how does that work out? 

That works out, Mrs Angry thinks, readers and Tory councillors, as a 'saving' of £126 million, over ten years, set against projected expenditure of ... £672 million? 

Or possibly more, if costs rise incrementally, over the ten year contract period.

Oh dear. 

No wonder they don't want to comment, our Tory councillors.

What could they say?

Sunday 24 January 2016

The Last Betrayal, or - the breaking of West Hendon, and the making of a latter day myth: 'sink estates' ...

Left by a resident of West Hendon, on moving out of a compulsorily purchased home

I've lost count, now, of the number of posts I've written about West Hendon, and the eviction of a community from the place they call home, down there, by the waterfront, on the edge of the Welsh Harp.

The residents of West Hendon call it home: or they did, but the local Tory councillors see the place where they live as not a community, but a business opportunity, and under the pretext of 'regeneration', and despite a promise to residents of a better housing on the same site, handed the publicly owned land to Barratt London for a private, luxury high rise property development.

The land was worth £12 million, but was given to developers for £3, so as to allow them to maximise profits on their investment, conservatively estimated last year at a mere £92 million.

And now the monstrous new towers are growing higher, and higher, in West Hendon, violating the skyline of north London for miles around, while residents must watch their estate demolished, piece by piece, as they remain, trapped in the middle of a building site, waiting to be removed, 'decanted' and dispossessed of their homes, driven out of West Hendon, probably out of Barnet, and very possibly out of London. 

Is that 'regeneration'? 

Only if you see a piece of land as a commodity, an empty space; bereft of social value, and history, inconveniently occupied by people whose lives are to you nothing more than a matter of indifference, and worse: a barrier to the possibilities of profit.

And this is, after all, then, the story of West Hendon, and now the story of Tory London, and a housing crisis created by arrant greed, in the face of real and desperate need, by too many, for access to truly affordable, decent housing.

Tory housing policy in London, a subject to be fought over by aspiring GLA members, and mayoral candidates, is made manifest, here in West Hendon. 

The promise of 'regeneration' is a lie. It means redevelopment, and new homes for the rich. It means: the people who live there now will not live there in the future. 

But Londoners are beginning to understand that this lie is indeed just that: that numerous former estates are being cleared, demolished and redeveloped, and overseas buyers flocking to buy up the housing that ordinary residents of the capital can only dream about. High profile examples like Heygate loom large in public consciousness now, and yes: the game is up, but nothing must come before the enormous profit still to be had for the big time players involved and on the look out for more and more potential sources of speculative development. 

So there is now a need for a change in tactics: a gearing up of the political engineering that drives, or at least enables, this massively profitable business. As always, what is tried in Tory Broken Barnet is proof enough for the rest: what worked in West Hendon will do for the rest of London, and elsewhere: the demonisation of social housing, and the destruction of council estates, on the pretext of problems that do not exist, or at least not on the scale some would have you believe.

Yes: we are talking about 'sink estates', a term readopted with such glee by David Cameron, in his recent declarations about housing, in the new Tory war on the very idea of social housing; an approach which sits comfortably with mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith's pronouncements in a revealing interview  with the Camden New Journal:

And when asked about the potential loss of social housing, Mr Goldsmith said London’s percentage of social housing is unusually high, and that the balance needed to be “rejigged” in order to increase the amount of homes available for “those in the middle”.

So 'sink estates', then: knock them down, and the social deprivation which Tories think are synonymous with such developments, will just disappear, will it? Well: of course it is progress, perhaps, that they at least seem to acknowledge that there is significant social deprivation to address, but: no. It won't. Buildings don't create poverty. Ah: well then, what about things like ... crime? We all know that all council estates are rife with criminal behaviour, and, yes, that should scare the rest of us into thinking a Tory government is quite right to knock them down, with no further delay: ghettoes to be cleared, and sanitised: socially cleansed.

This issue was the subject of some reporting and debate on the London section of the last but one episode of the BBC Sunday Politics show. And guess which Tory MP was invited along to speak in defence of the new Tory housing proposals, and answer the question - is it the architecture, the building, or the people who live in it that is the 'problem' ? (You can see the programme here, the London section about 38 minutes in ...)

Local MP, member for Hendon, Matthew Offord. 

Offord explained in a seamless flow of virtually unchallenged assertions that in his constituency he has not one but two 'sink estates', that is to say, West Hendon, and Grahame Park. 

He spoke of West Hendon in particular, 'we're rebuilding that', regenerating it: it had become 'a success story in itself', thanks to Barnet Council, the Mayor and the government - only later did he make a general reference to Barnet working with the private sector, such as Barratts.

He referred to Grahame Park, which he said had been built 'just after the war'. He boasted of taking Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne there, and thought this might have influenced their policy making. Really? Did you take them to West Hendon?

In fact Grahame Park was not built 'just after the war', but in the 1970s, by a Tory council - but still, who needs to quibble about the facts, on the BBC, these days? And now followed some really outrageous claims by Offord, that really did demand a robust challenge, but one which unfortunately was not forthcoming:

These estates, he claimed now, are 'very much no-go places at night ...', offering in evidence of this that local police say it is 'very difficult there to maintain and enforce the law ...'

An extraordinary remark, and indeed a pretty extraordinary sequence of assertions, made smoothly, as if irrefutable fact, and accepted without question. 

No-go areas? Mrs Angry made a note, in red, and thought this was something that really did need investigating. When had the mean streets of Broken Barnet become so dangerous that our police officers were struggling to exercise the rule of law, in certain areas of the borough?

Offord continued blithely with his litany of woe, delivered deadpan, still unchecked: yes, the 'walkways' and the 'physical attributes' of these places are the problem.

Walkways? What 'physical attributes'? No one asked him to elaborate. 

Neil Coyle, the Labour MP for Bermondsey & Southwark, tried to bring some sort of human perspective to the discussion by reminding us the debate was about people's homes. 

West Hendon resident Leigh, who has lived on a sink estate, without realising it, for more than 40 years

This is never a good line to follow with Conservatives, of course. A house, for a Tory politician, in 2016, is not a home, if it is defined as social housing.

And so we saw, as the debate turned to the question of 'tenancies for life'. Offord had strong views on this.

The big issue here, he said is just that, 'people living in properties (or livin', as he says, in that curiously archaic accent he has - to match the curiously archaic nature of his black and white political vision - talking out of the side of his mouth, like a chippy, but aspirational costermonger in a 1950s Ealing comedy, ... some sayin' well, they should be able to live there for life ... '

Now he went further: stating he was indeed happy with the five year limit on tenancies, he then declared, absurdly:

'No one has a right, even in the private sector, those of us that own our own properties ... we cannot guarantee, even ourselves who have mortgages, that we are going to live in that property for the rest of our lives ...'

Tim Donovan asked Offord now if he accepted that if you knock down these estates, what you put in its place, both in its nature of tenure, and the number of properties, will never be matched, which means people will be displaced. 

Offord thought that you never can, because using private sector capital 'means you are going to have to sell some of those properties privately ...'

Some of these properties. All of these properties, in effect, with at best a token offer from the profiteering developers of a minimal amount of (non) affordable housing.

Look at the history of West Hendon: a 'regeneration' sold to residents on the basis of doing exactly what is looked on now as out of the question - improving the quality of life, for their families, giving them new homes, in their own community. Now they find themselves evicted, and in some cases, homeless, in order to make way for luxury accommodation, the majority of which, so far is reported to have been sold to wealthy overseas investors.

Let's ask the question again: is this regeneration?

Or is it, yes: social cleansing? 

Offord was asked about that.  He said he found the term 'quite offensive'.

'We're actually trying to socially improve people's lives, not only through the quality of their housin', but also through their ability to access transport, to engage in the work process - maybe to live in parts of London they'd not considered before ...'

No: really. That is what he said. 

The feckless, ungrateful residents of West Hendon, you see, are having their lives 'socially improved', by their Tory council, which gave away the land they live on to private developers, and then informed tenants and leaseholders alike to clear off out of it, and don't come back: you can't come back. 

No right to return, no compulsory purchase offer to owner occupiers adequate enough to enable them to buy shared equity on the new luxury development. A few lucky secure tenants shoved into a grim building outside the footprint of the new development, with no view of the waterside, looking onto the grimy backyards of shut up shops on the Edgware Road, the rest kicked out into more temporary accommodation on other 'regeneration' estates, refusal of which made them homeless. A community destroyed, displaced, eradicated. Kerrching.

And it was a community. And it was not some 'sink estate', or any sort of high rise, dystopian, Brutalist monster, creating a latter day Dickensian style rookery of crime and social deprivation. If only the Tory council had maintained the estate, and not allowed it to fall into disrepair, it would be a perfectly nice place to live, even now. 

Local Labour Cllr Devra Kay and residents' representative Jasmin Parsons

Who wouldn't want to live in such a beautiful spot, overlooking the waters edge of the Welsh Harp? But beauty of location is now reserved for those who can pay a premium for it: and deliver profit into the hands of developers.

The West Hendon estate was built on a human scale, with low rise buildings, looking onto each other, with green spaces in and around it. The 'physical attributes' which their MP said had created a 'sink estate' had in fact done nothing of the sort. 

The beauty of the surrounding landscape, and the simple architecture of West Hendon created a community, rooted in generations of local families rehoused, in the sixties and seventies, in homes which afforded dignity, decent housing, and hope for a better future.

The green spaces that surrounded this estate included York Memorial Park, a place of totemic significance to the residents there - a mark of ownership, central to the local history: the idea of continuity, and community - an area left in commemoration of the many civilians who lost their lives, some of them still buried there, under the earth, below the wreckage of the war time bombing of 1941, and now annexed by the developers for maximum profits from their investment.

There was a low crime rate, in fact, on this estate, until the council moved in so called property guardians into vacant flats, according to the remaining long term residents, and as for 'no-go' areas ...?

Well, then: Mrs Angry thought she would check this with the local police, who were more than happy to put the record straight.

A representative of the borough commander immediately refuted the idea that there were 'no go' areas in Barnet. 

And then the senior officer in charge of policing for this part of the borough contacted her to say that in all the years he has served in Barnet, he has not known of anywhere in the borough that is 'no-go' ... day or night.

And he has kindly invited Mrs Angry on a 'ride along' tour with the police in West Hendon, to see for herself how they fulfil their duties on the estate and elsewhere (plus a visit to the station to meet him, and inspect the custody suite in Colindale, although hopefully not for an overnight stay, like one of our former Tory councillors ...)

Couldn't be clearer, could it? Offord's allegations were apparently ... without any basis. Got that?

No no-go areas.

Quelle surprise.

In fact, in Mrs Angry's view, for an MP to make such a remark is utterly unfair to the local police, who work so hard to do such a difficult job, and maintain peaceful community relations, in the context of increasing budget restraints.  

And it is insulting to the residents of the West Hendon estate, the vast majority of whom are not in need of Matthew Offord's programme of 'social improvement', but are already perfectly familiar with the work process, and keen to remain in their own community, rather than be introduced to the impossible task of finding any alternative accommodation in 'parts of London they hadn't considered before' - in a capital city gripped by a rapidly increasing housing crisis.

Offord's remarks have caused fury amongst many residents who saw the programme: but he has nothing much to lose politically in his own backyard, by what he said. There are few Tory voters, on that estate now. 

There were some once, amongst the tenants who were taken in by another version of mythology, that is to say, the 'aspiration' encouraged by Margaret Thatcher, to join the property ladder, and buy their own council homes: the leaseholders, who were handed a £10,000 bill for work the council needed doing before they knocked down their homes, and which the leaseholders furiously rejected, saying if any work was necessary, it was clearly the responsibility of Barnet Council ...

These people were betrayed by Thatcher's heirs in Barnet, on the council, and in Parliament, not just over the demands for money, but at the point of compulsory purchase of their hard earned properties.

 When the council's valuers rated their properties, subject to CPO, at less than a level that would help them reach the shared equity point, who helped them? Who spoke for them, at the Housing Inquiry? Did their MP even attend the Inquiry? No.

The appointed representative from Sawyer Fielding, Dan Knowles, not only put their case but acted as an unpaid advocate for tenants on the estate, to defend residents interests: an honourable thing to do, and absolutely necessary in this case, when the council and developers were able to promote their arguments with the help of a highly experienced - and expensive - QC, and legal team.

There is no doubt that the belatedly improved offers for leaseholders, and better offers of rehousing for tenants, were achieved only by the efforts of people like Dan Knowles, the local Labour councillors, and, let us not forget, the limitless determination, courage and strength of residents' representatives like Jasmin Parsons. 

Oh, and all the attention generated by this story, locally, here and elsewhere and nationally, and all the negative PR blown back in the faces of the developers.

It should also be remembered that residents did ask their MP for help, and in desperation, even tried to lobby him at a constituents' meeting in a church hall, in their own ward: he hid from them, refused to speak to representatives, and then demanded a police escort home. 

Luckily, it seems, the forecourt of St Matthias' church, West Hendon, is not in one of those 'no-go' areas, where policemen fear to tread. 

Some Tory MPs apparently feel differently.

The constituents who had tried to speak to him were, Offord told a local reporter, a 'rag tag bunch' who only wanted to 'cause trouble'.

Next month sees the broadcast of a BBC documentary programme that has been made about the story of West Hendon, from the perspective of these 'rag tag' residents: the real history of West Hendon, in contrast to the mythological version preferred by Tory politicians, and their commercial partners.

The myth of the 'sink estate', and the smear campaign now directed at the very idea of social housing - this is a necessary part of the faux regeneration of London: that is to say, not a regeneration at all, but a commercial exploitation of easily accessible, bargain basement development sites, pimped to the private sector by willing Tory councils like Barnet, and a Conservative government obsessed with the demonisation of the working class, and the creation of a new, powerless underclass, easy to dehumanise, to decant and control, and reduce to nothing more than an unwanted residue, disposable and ... irrelevant.

A useful mythology then.

The truth, as with so many things, in Broken Barnet, is something else.

Sunday joke, from a Barnet Tory Councillor ... David Bowie, and the joy of reading

Updated 20th September 2019: Cllr Rozenberg has now left the Conservative Party, and joined the LibDems, and May God Have Mercy on His Soul:

More rib-tickling library fun from twitter, last night, for the residents of Broken Barnet - 

Hampstead Garden Suburb councillor Gabriel Rozenberg, bless him, who spends his time fighting unknown depths of social injustice and deprivation in the most affluent ward in the borough, if not the country - yes, dealing with noisy leaf blowers, homeless butlers, etc - (and who lives down the posh end of Mrs Angry's road, you know), was in a reflective mood:

Gabriel Rozenberg ‏@rozgab

Thought for the day. If Bowie, endlessly prolific, could find time to read so many books, why can’t you? #notetoself

Hmm. Mrs Angry replied:

Maybe it's because you and your fellow Tory councillors shut all the fecking libraries? 

He did at least have the grace to respond: 


And so Mrs Angry suggested Gabriel did the right thing and tell his fellow Tory cllrs to stop messing with libraries. Reading, she observed, should not be the privilege of the wealthy.

No comment.

They simply don't get it, do they, our Tory councillors? Or rather even if they do, they hang their heads and vote through any proposal put in front of them by their own senior officers, and Crapita, swallowing any old guff on the pretext of making those elusive 'savings' for which there is never any real evidence. 

Funny how we can afford to spend £6 million on carving up our libraries for outsourcing, but not the modest budget required to keep our once universally admired, and value for money service intact, isn't it? Or look for other ways of keeping our libraries as they are - and even investing in them, for the benefit of residents, and indeed as a cost effective resource as community centres.

If any of the Tories with some degree of intellectual capability, or cultural interests, (yes, unlikely) stops to think about it, they know that most of the great creative talents that Britain has produced have relied, in their childhoods, on the access to reading that the public library system once gave to all children, regardless of background, or wealth.

Gabriel's hero David Bowie famously once said that he was 'a born librarian, with a sex drive ...'  in his youth, he used to hang out with friends in the library gardens in Bromley, and in his adult life read three or four books a week, and would even take his own library collection on tour with him.

The history of this country, and the social progress of which we once were so proud, is rooted as much in the public library service as in the other foundations of a civil society: the NHS, the Welfare State, equal access to good education: all of which, of course is being systematically dismantled by the grandsons of the generation which tried to oppose the introduction of all of these things in the first place.

The future for libraries in Barnet, and the future for our borough's children, especially those from less advantaged backgrounds - whose parents, unlike the privileged residents of Hampstead Garden Suburb cannot afford to buy them books, or take them to a politically favoured, subsidised library in a Tory ward - is indescribably bleak: barred from the horrendous new unstaffed libraries that our Tory councillors want to introduce, and condemned to lose so much vitally needed study space. 

Where will the children of Bromley, Brixton or Barnet explore the world of reading now, Gabriel?

The impact of the library cuts in this borough, in terms of literacy, and educational achievement, will be incalculable - and the wider effect of removing the access to reading, and the world of the imagination, the liberation of the mind, from future generations of children with the potential to become writers, artists, or even politicians, is perhaps even more immeasurable. 

Mrs Angry, not so long ago, tried reminding the Tory councillors that Margaret Thatcher had been a great advocate of public libraries, recognising that they were essential to the process of social mobility, or rather what our Barnet Tories claim to be so keen on, that is to say 'aspiration'. They wriggled in their seats, the neo Thatcherites, and it was clear they knew this was true: but they voted through the proposals anyway, because ... they do not have the courage of their own convictions.

So here is another appeal to you, Councillor Rozenberg, and any other Tory members who really know what you are about to do is just plain wrong: yes, please - do the right thing, and vote against these terrible plans.

Who knows, Gabriel: you could even be ... a hero, just for one day?

Friday 22 January 2016

Friday Joke: keeping warm and well, in Broken Barnet - visit a library (until we lock the door & sack the staff ...)

No, you couldn't. You really couldn't. Make it up. 

But here it is: the Friday joke, courtesy of Barnet Council:

Download our factsheet for tips on staying warm and well this winter

Yes. A tweet from our council, earlier this week, pretending to worry about the plight of elderly residents in Barnet, senior citizens who might be struggling with the effects of the recent cold snap. 

Not those who live in social housing, of course, or might be from an ethnic minority, or living ... heavens, no ... in one of those ghastly 'sink estates' (more of that in the next post). 

Serves them right, if they feel cold. Put on more clothing, and stop moaning. They are the undeserving poor, who must expect to shiver, and feel sorry for themselves. 

No: we are all awfully worried about the better class of citizen, in Broken Barnet, that is to say, the Tory voter, feeling a bit chilly, and at a bit of a loose end, this winter.

Go and sit in a lovely warm library, the tweet suggests. Maybe take part in a book club, or one of the many other marvellous activities our wonderful libraries have to offer, in their role of providing places for older residents to meet and avoid the risk of social exclusion, and isolation. 

Ah. But Mrs Angry, you may now be asking - (you should be asking, and if you are not, you are a. either rather dim, or b. a Tory councillor, and c. yes, no Venn diagram is needed here, to show any overlap, just one enormous circle) - you should be asking:

Is that one of the libraries that our council is planning to subject to a devastating programme of cuts, accompanied by the sacking of half the library staff, the slashing of staffed opening hours, the shrinking in size of library space, the introduction of completely unstaffed libraries, and the banning of children from all those unstaffed libraries?

Yes, readers, and Tory members, it is. How amusing!

Mrs Angry: will there still be book clubs, and activities, and a warm welcome from librarians, in the new library 'service' our Tory councillors are proposing?

What do you think?

And, erm ... Mrs Angry ... have we not seen that photo somewhere before, anyway?

Yes. Yes, you have. Barnet Council used it for another tweet, not so long ago, to announce - ha, you'll never guess ... the latest, otherwise almost secret consultation process for the dreadful options to cull the library service, as approved by your Tory councillors.


At the time we laughed at the very idea that the photo of five elderly, affluent middle class white people sitting in pearls, and best suit and ties, could possibly represent the real diversity of residents who depend upon the public library service for such a wide range of needs. 

A reasonable representation, perhaps, of the Tory's pet project, still subsidised, even in this age of austerity, by the council: a bijou, pretend 'community' library in Hampstead Garden Suburb, the billionaires' ward where the loudest sound you will hear, apart from the intolerably noisy leaf-blowers, is the yelling of Tory voters demanding the world revolve around their needs.

And in truth this picture does represent very well the lack of understanding by Barnet Council of what a library is, or does, or the vital role it serves, as a central part of what it is that used, once, to make our society one that offers opportunity to all, education for all, and hope for a better world.

A Friday joke, then: but ... the laugh is on us, isn't it?

Sunday 10 January 2016

Something Went Wrong, or: the scrutiny of a Capita contract, in Broken Barnet

On Thursday night, Mrs Angry went to the Town Hall, to attend a meeting of the Performance and Contract Management Committee. 

(No - don't go anywhere: I had to sit through it - and now so do you).

Q: Mrs Angry: what is the Performance and Contract Management Committee?

A: The Performance and Contract Management committee is an ingenious mechanism devised by officers and Tory councillors of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, as a method of avoiding the Management of Performance and Contracts, in the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

This is usually easily accomplished by:

a. making sure the committee runs out of time to discuss things, as in the last meeting, or:

b. the Chair not being bothered, much, about anything that is raised as a criticism, and: 

c. the empty headed Tory councillors, as usual, obediently rubber stamping anything their officers tell them to. 

Until recently, this strategy worked pretty well, as it was still just about possible to maintain the rosy glow of satisfaction that flushed over the winsome faces of Barnet and Crapita, in that far away summer of love, in 2013, when the two massive contracts were approved and signed, and after what had been a long, drawn out period of courtship, our local services were sold into bondage to private profit, in what we were assured was a consensual, and mutually beneficial relationship.

Barnet and Capita, in happier times: but now - is the honeymoon over?

But the history of outsourcing has demonstrated, time and again, that inevitably, after a brief honeymoon period, when the contractual partners love each other desperately, and the commercial spouse is still keen to make a good impression, and fulfil all the promises whispered in the ear of the commissioning council at the time of bidding ... it all begins to Go Wrong.

And now it is clear that the honeymoon is over for the foolish Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, so easily seduced by Crapita, lured into this 'partnership', led by the nose by their own senior management and assorted accomplices, the shadowy consultants who live off the market of public sector outsourcing. 

We are now approaching the three year review point in the Crapita contractual agreement, and even the most bleary eyed, dopey Tory councillor can see that all is not well. Things Are Going Wrong. And they don't like it.

That they are even beginning to accept that Things Are Going Wrong, is due not to their own acts of scrutiny (they don't have a fecking clue), or even the exertions of the Labour group, try as they might. 

It is largely because of the analysis of one man, a resident and armchair auditor, the local blogger, John Dix, aka Mr Reasonable, a man of infinite wisdom, a wide range of experience, and a clear understanding of the mysteries of corporate finance, qualities markedly lacking in any of the members of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, and rather too many officers, come to that. 

John Dix has consistently presented the only stringent, evidence based evaluation of the contractual agreement, and the performance of Capita, in this borough. And at this week's meeting, due to consider the performance review of the CSG contract, he had submitted a series of questions in regard to that very subject, but began by speaking to the committee.

It should perhaps be mentioned that, despite this being a meeting of immense significance, we two were the only residents present, flanked to the rear by an assortment of anonymous, scowling senior officers and Crapita clones. 

During the meeting, one could not help but note, two of the more alert Tory members kept glancing, curiously, furtively, to watch our reactions to the more eyebrow raising parts of the proceedings - and the Chair kept nodding in our direction, happily entertaining Mrs Angry's unasked for observations, to the clear annoyance of officers, without telling her to shut up - and even replying. 

They know that we know what they know, but do not dare acknowledge, of course.

You are the guardians of this contract, Mr Reasonable reminded them: and this review is a massive test for you. But how many of you have read the contract in detail

Part of the Barnet Capita contract, carried lovingly down the stairs of Hendon Town Hall

He reminded them they had rejected a suggestion by Labour's Reema Patel that they should prioritise the KPIs, performance indicators, in such a way as to ensure they could better scrutinise the contract.

And, said John, you now need to seek independent advice to help you measure the real performance of these contracts. 

The Tory councillors looked on, uncomprehendingly. Why would they need to do that?

Veteran Tory, former MP for Hendon John Marshall, now a councillor for Hampstead Garden Suburb, is one of the few Tory members with anything approaching a reasonable degree of intellectual rigour. 

His demeanour throughout the meeting was most interesting: subdued, and unusually quiet. 

In itself, the negative shape created by his silence was perhaps a key performance indicator more useful than mere statistics.

Mr Dix was a frequent commentator on these matters, he observed: did he at least accept that the council had saved substantial sums of money from the contracts?

No, Mr Dix did not. 

He patiently explained, once again, that although the core contract appeared to guarantee savings, the real cost to the benighted taxpayers of Broken Barnet was hidden by the amount of money spent on other payouts: all the extra ways that Crapita's interminably long contract so cleverly allows, the add ons - the gainshare payments. You need to look at the figures as a whole, he said, and he said once more that he had not seen the evidence to support the claim that the contracts were saving money.

Look at those responses to the detailed questions asked by John Dix, and you will see how the real picture of profit and loss is concealed, so conveniently, behind a wall of secrecy, needless complexity, obfuscation - and the pretext of commercial sensitivity. 

The details of the gainshare payments are key to transparency over the contracts, revealing as they do the real balance of costs versus alleged savings: but we are not allowed to see them.

Marshall did not reply, and sat reflectively, clearly not prepared to dispute what John was saying. Anyone with any sense could not dispute it, of course. 

Tory councillor Peter Zinkin, who is a relatively new member, and obviously not yet steeped in the depth of cynicism that inevitably arises after a longer acquaintance with the finer points of governance, here in Broken Barnet, tried to suggest that there were enough officers in place, in whom we could happily rely, to carry out the necessary monitoring of the contracts. 

He and his fellow Tories, including the Chair, Antony Finn, tutted at the very idea of  spending money to bring in more consultants to advise on the scrutiny of these agreements.

Mrs Angry didn't know whether to laugh, or cry. 

The Tory members of Barnet Council continually sign off payments reaching into many millions of pounds per annum exactly to this purpose: paying exorbitant fees for unaccountable, secretive, and unchallenged legions of consultants whose favours we must support entirely so as to failitate the grand designs of the senior management team, and further prepare the way for more opportunities, at our expense, for private profit from outsourcing companies.

The Tories have allowed, at a time of budget restraints, and the loss of so many less well paid jobs, endless re-structuring and creation of management posts, new posts, preposterous new titles, with handsome salaries, all at our expense.

Yet they will not pay for one independent advisor to look at the performance of one of the most expensive contracts in local authority budget history, to ensure that they, and more importantly we, are not being deceived as to the efficiency of this partnership, and its performance.

Still: perhaps there are more important expenses.

Sitting at the table, Mrs Angry observed, in between becoming infuriated, but grossly amused, that Twitter's predictive text kept insisting the word she wanted to use was not Crapita, but 'cesspit' - sitting at the table was a tightly smiling officer she had not seen before, a Mr Hamburger, whose job title, she observed to Mr Reasonable, with some relish, and not a little sauce, was 'Relationship Partnership Manager'.

Ah, thought Mrs Angry, nodding to herself sagely. Has there been a falling out? Is the happy coupling of Barnet and Crapita already reaching the stage of silent sulks, slamming doors, and separate bedrooms? Is he here to mediate, and try to stop things getting to the point of Cornwall Council and BT, ending in court, to fight over a messy divorce settlement?

Hmm. Maybe. Let's see: oh, the job description (for which you get around £80K, which is why we can't afford independent advice on the actual contract, see ...) suggests the role is a bit more touchy feely than that, requiring the successful candidate to be able to:

"work from a holistic perspective, driving delivery of the contract by focusing on the bigger picture, without being dragged into the day to day minutiae ..."

Yes, it is a real drag, isn't it, the day to day minutiae? 

No! No, it isn't, Mr Hamburger, and Tory councillors: really, it isn't - the devil is in the detail, in fact, in that minutiae, and the bigger picture is right there, in your face, hidden in plain sight, hidden in that contract none of you could be bothered to read, if you will only look now, or ask someone to do it for you, if you are incapable. 

You were sold a pup, Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, and you are still being sold a pup, and it's time to acknowledge it, and put things right. 

And you can stop listening to the same people persuading you to launch a fatal assault on our library service, in a softening up exercise for more outsourcing.

And as the meeting progressed, and the Tory councillors' shifting, rather uneasy body language, suggestive of repressed dissatisfaction, and discomfort, (or possibly uncomfortable underwear, hard to tell) gave way, eventually, to ... expressed dissatisfaction, and a certain amount of, well:  yes - concern.

Discussion now of the council website, for which Crapita is of course responsible. Anyone who has tried to use it knows how awful it is: impossible to navigate, ugly, cumbersome - the perfect introduction, in fact, to the reality of life outsourced, in Broken Barnet. 

But it seems even our Tory members have noticed how bad it is, as they have to rely on it for their own purposes as councillors. This might be true largely because now they are reportedly encouraged not to do as they did in the past, and contact officers directly, but only through 'members' enquiries'. If true, yet another way in which unaccountable officers are limiting access to the democratic oversight of our local services. 

And members often report to Mrs Angry how frustrated they are in any search for the information they require to do their jobs as councillors. As much as anyone else, trying to use the hopeless contact centre (now apparently not only sent to Coventry, but with a semi automated system instead of response by human beings), or finding data on the website is infuriatingly difficult.

The Chair tried to dismiss concerns about those who might find the website, or any web based contact point with the council, as being in some way silly, and making a fuss about nothing. 

Casting a hurried glance at the two bloggers sitting in the public seats, tutting loudly and shaking their heads, officers whispered urgently to the Chair, pointing out, you might guess, that one must at least pretend, even in Broken Barnet, to try to be inclusive, and show lip service to the idea of equal access to all, including the elderly, disabled residents - oh and poor people, Tory councillors, you know, the ones who rely on IT access via their local libraries, which you are trying to cut off from as many people as possible ... 

The Chair nodded and dutifully muttered something about those who, erm, you know, found it a bit difficult, all that sort of thing.

A pair of Capita representatives were called to the table, their backs to us, the residents, to explain themselves to our elected members.

Labour's Geof Cooke got into his stride now. He remarked that Capita had presented itself as a leader in IT expertise. Now they 'had their feet under the table', it seemed they couldn't be bothered with demonstrating this much vaunted mastery of the subject. He posed a very interesting question to the Chair, which the Chair appeared to have trouble hearing:

Did he approve an extension in the contract variation in regard to these matters, or not?

No reply.

The officers from Capita burbled on smoothly about, in hindsight, you know, in hindsight ... more time was needed, for example for the data centre ...

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but it is a thing that Capita apparently only buys in - one imagines from a subcontractor, or fee based consultant - after things have gone tits up, and they need an excuse for gullible Tory councillors. Oh, what was that? 

A problem, in April, last year, that was referred to in hushed tones. 

"Something Went Wrong ... " Looks were exchanged between the Crapitorial representatives, and the Tory members, who looked less than pleased, and rather constrained, as if they wanted to be more outspoken - but not enlarged upon. The 'something' that had gone Wrong would be 'looked at'. More cryptic references to audit, and - ah: PWC. Hmm.

Labour's Cllr Cooke, who is by far the most tenacious of opposition members in committee, was not going to shut up.

Did you, he demanded again of the Chair, approve of the extension of eleven months to comply?

Finn looked flustered. He ... didn't think ... that the Constitution said that he had to ... In other words, it seemed, he was not sure, or did not want to say whether he had, or not.

Pretty astonishing, you might think. But if you think that, then you must not understand how things are, here, in Broken Barnet: it is not the elected representatives who run this council - it is the senior officers. And that is entirely due to the laziness, apathy, and lack of courage of those members who have sat back, failed to hold officers to account, and allowed this to become the norm.

This situation inevitably developed because the Tories were too content to let the boring part of governance rest entirely with council staff - and too many long serving Labour members become institutionalised, and reluctant to ask difficult questions of senior officers, in case it upsets them, failing to see the difference between officers merely doing their jobs, and the senior officers who must be held to account.

The example of the information withheld from members over the depot purchase is a good example of the real state of things, in this borough, and the extent to which councillors are excluded from the process of decision making, and management.

Cooke continued, listing all the pretty promises made, pre-contract signing. Data management, the Observatory ... Capita had built its reputation on IT, and HR, so why, he demanded to know, were there so many problems? Problems, very often, raised by the opposition which never found their way into reports. And other problems which they were not 'pro-actively' told about. Problems we are still sorting out, two years later.

Finn tried to turn the tide of crashing reality washing over the committee table of the Performance and Contract Management Committee. 

He thought that the 'successes' of the contracts were being ignored. 

Mrs Angry remarked to Mr Reasonable, when we had stopped laughing, that Cllr Finn is blessed with a Pollyanna like ability only to see the best in everything, which is not necessarily the best quality for the Chair of any scrutiny committee. 

He has previously explained at a previous meeting, a couple of years ago - as pictured below - that the role of scrutiny, of course, is not to criticise, but to make positive contributions. Ha: no, really.

Tory Councillor Finn, and the art of scrutiny: accentuating the positive, eliminating the negative

In fact the report refers to successes, but failures are not mentioned. Oh, hang on, they come under the category of 'Challenges'. 

There are no failures, within the grasp of a Capita contract, see, only yes, challenges for the future. Or, even better - areas which 'require more focus moving forward' ...

Ok, said the Labour councillors: what about 'social value': how do we measure the degree to which promises about this intangible aim have been achieved?

Meh. Where is the profit, for Crapita, in social value?

Ah: and as for the report on their performance, Geof Cooke wanted to know: did they write it themselves?

Do you know, readers, Mrs Angry had suspected that just might be the case. It reads rather like a child writing his own school report, in fact. Not must do better: couldn't do better. Except focus more, while moving forward, of course.

And the report displays a breathtakingly romantic view of the impact of their annexation of Broken Barnet:

Since commencement the service has seen considerable transformation, with the relocation of service delivery staff to other locations whilst maintaining a seamless service delivery ...

Seamless? Really? 

And - relocation of staff: TUPEd out of existence, moved to Lancashire, or waved goodbye to, with a cheery grin. At one point, when one Tory councillor was dismissing the impact of ignoring in house bids for tenders, as was the case with the tender eventually won by Crapita, the normally well behaved (compared to Mrs Angry) John Dix interjected angrily to remind him: 

Hundreds of people lost their jobs!

Oh hello: time for Mr Hamburger to speak. Surprisingly, not so as to pour oil on troubled waters, and make soothing sounds of reconciliation, and mediation, and hope for the future, moving forward, with more focus, but to observe that the report was indeed written from Crapita's point of view. 


Well, you know, if you employ Capita to write a report on Capita, what the f*ck else do you expect?

Geof Cooke was quoting some of the most amusing, self satisfied conclusions of the report - reference, for example to the introduction of 'highly competent' Capita employees. Were employees not competent before, he asked?

The officers at the table struggled to formulate a response.

It's complex, said the Director of Resources, after some thought.

No: no, really it is not.

'Our resilient data centre ...', continued Cooke. 


A very general opinion, ventured the Head of Corporate Programmes and Resources.


Time then for more Capita officers to address the meeting: stepping up to the table was Catherine Lyon, head of Customer Services, for Capita Local Government. Smooth words about improvements, strategies, focus, bedding in, bla bla bla. They were far from complacent. 

No, she was serious. 

So serious she was clearly stumbling to find things to say. Absolutely recognising not performance to remain at.  Eh? Healthy place to start from. A reference to John Lewis. What? 

Aspirational mood music, one must assume. Tweed covered sofas, Orla Kiely, hats for royal garden parties. Good move: the Tories like aspiration. You might think Capita had more in common with Sports Direct, or Primark, but the Tory members have no idea. Shopping is for the womenfolk, after all.

The Chair decided to ask one of his faux naive questions: I am a member of the public, he began ... No: you are not, said Mrs Angry, firmly, worried that he had forgotten, yet again, poor old boy, that he was the Chair of a committee allegedly tasked with the role of scrutiny.

I am a member of the public, he said: ... why do I need the website? Rather than using the phone, for example, he explained.

Because you can never get through on the phone, observed Mrs Angry. He looked down the table at her, and nodded in agreement, which was nice, but really rather worrying - from the Chair of the committee allegedly tasked with the role of scrutiny.

The other woman from Crapita made an interesting admission, a conclusion from their own careful assessment of customer satisfaction: when they do better, she said, people liked it

Goodness me, thought Mrs Angry. Who would have thought it? And better still, the woman from Crapita thought that, in a year's time, things might be ... better. What, better even than sometimes better? 

No hurry. That will only be three years and more into a ten year contract. 

Mr Hamburger, the relationship manager left the room, at this point, Mrs Angry suspected in order to go to the gents, and have a good cry.

Tory councillor Sury Khatri, who voted with all his colleagues for the Capita contracts, and then complained about it, when it was all too late, now let rip, condemning something or other as being 'a dog's breakfast', and was also apparently cross about some printed forms, meant to be available as an alternative to the website, which had been promised to some of his elderly constituents, a year ago, but never arrived. 

And then: the normally unshakeable Councillor Zinkin, in a masterful display of the art of careful understatement, allowed himself the luxury of a criticism of Capita's performance:

A number of things had occurred, he said grimly, which could definitely have ... occurred better ...

Ah: that word again: even better. Who measures better, or best performance, in Broken Barnet? Not this committee, it seems.

Tory Shimon Ryde now dared to be critical too, sort of, worrying about something small, and safe, whether or not the system could cope with multiple library cards for one household. 

Mrs Angry pointed out, rather unkindly, that Shimon had nothing to worry about, in fact, as soon he and his colleagues would be cutting the libraries to the point where no one would need a card.

And this is the point, Tory members of the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

You need to wake up, shape up, and admit you've been had. 

Yes, we told you so, and you didn't listen, but it gives no one any satisfaction to be proved right. 

This is a tragic outcome for the residents of Barnet: a betrayal of their best interests, and their taxes, paid to you in trust for the administration of the services which support us all, every day, in good times, and bad times.

It's time to hold your contractors to account, and demand value for money: no more excuses, and if they don't, well, then: do what the rather more independent councillors in Cornwall, and Birmingham, and elsewhere have done, with their contractors, and tell them to take a running jump.

Will that happen? 

Mrs Angry thinks not. 

Labour members proposed that the working groups being set up to review the contract should be open to residents. The Tories insisted on excluding the public, when they wanted to. Of course they want to: they don't want residents, and voters, to cotton on to the fact that they have cocked up, to such a serious degree. Especially now, in the run up to the GLA and Mayoral elections.

The truth is too powerful, and too awful to acknowledge. And this is Broken Barnet: a place where it is better to accommodate a terrible lie, than reveal the ugly face of a dangerous truth.

The outsourcing of public services is nothing but an act of piracy, actioned by privateers, sanctioned by government, national and local.

And what is happening in Barnet today will happen to the rest of you, tomorrow.