Sunday 29 January 2017

NHS SOS: or, how to hide a crisis in healthcare, in Broken Barnet

Mrs Angry may have mentioned, once or twice, that she has a bad back. 

Has done for about 15 years: a tendency to problems with discs, and trapped nerves. And now she is in her twilight years, and in a general decline, with a spine that is falling apart, this is becoming something of a major problem, to the extent that for last few weeks, she has been completely incapacitated, and hardly able to do anything: walk, stand for long, sit - sleep, work. 

Things were so bad at Christmas, at one point, she actually packed a bag of necessities, and picked up the phone, thinking she would have to call an ambulance, & be admitted to hospital, as the pain was unbearable. At its worst, only the reports of the current A&E crisis, with patients dying on trolleys, and the Red Cross being called in to help, dissuaded her from such a move.

What do you do in such a situation, if you live in Broken Barnet? Call your gp? 

Not mine. Doesn't do house calls. 

Go to see him?

Couldn't have got to the surgery, even if there were any immediate appointments, which there rarely are. These days you ring up for one, but find they have all gone, within a minute or so of the line being answered. You are invited instead, if you need an urgent appointment, to arrive at the surgery the next morning before 8.30, and queue outside, in the cold, like vagrants applying to the workhouse, in the desperate hope of maybe being granted an appointment sometime within the next 48 hours. Of course this means that the patients who feel the most unwell are most likely to have to come and queue in this way, which really is intolerable.

Why is this necessary, anyway? If a practice is so overwhelmed with patients it cannot provide easy access to appointments, why do they continue to advertise for new patients? Is it because they receive a payment for each registration? Is the effect of this unlimited recruitment detrimental to the standard of care offered to patients? I would argue that it is.

If there are no appointments with your gp, you may go to a walk in clinic - if you can walk, or get into a car, which I could not - and chance your luck. After a long wait - impossible for me to sit that long - you may see a nurse practitioner, if not a doctor (they usually don't wear ID, so you have to ask who and what they are). If you end up needing some sort of x ray, or test, the chances are you will then be sent on to Barnet A&E, of course, with another long wait.

And what happens in A&E?

A couple of years ago, late at night, I was obliged to go with my son to Barnet General A&E, as he was in excruciating pain, a complication of a health condition. We arrived at ten pm. After waiting some time in metal chairs, even though he was writhing in agony,& needed to lie down I had to summon Mrs Angry to demand he be allowed to let through to the cubicles - which were not fully occupied anyway. He was immediately given strong pain relief, and had a scan. And blood tests were taken. And then we waited. 

Blood test results were going to be delayed, we were told, because the clocks went back that night, and that always meant the IT system went down. Always? In A&E? 

Mrs Angry poked her nose in again. Why is this tolerated? Who are your IT contractors? They didn't know. 

The scan results, we were told, were delayed because they were in a queueing system, in Australia. Excuse me? No consultants on call to interpret them, as the trust has a private contract with a company in Oz, to whom scans are emailed, and then some technician sitting at a screen on the other side of the world has a go at guessing what's wrong. But they had clients all over the world, and we had to wait our turn at the end of a long queue. 

The results didn't turn up until 8 am, ten hours later. In the meanwhile, after four hours of waiting, I went to the loo, came back to my son to, only find he was being made to get off his bed, and move. What's going on? Oh: he is being discharged to another unit? Why? To free up a bed. What unit? This 'unit' turned out to be a chair, next to a nurse's desk, round the corner from the cubicles, where we waited a further three or four hours, despite the discomfort and exhaustion of my son. I went back to check the cubicles several times during that time: only a third of beds were in use. 

And then it dawned on me what had happened. 

Have you moved him because of the four hour target, I demanded? 

The nurse said nothing - it was not her fault - but looked at me in embarrassment, indicating I was right. They were throwing him off a bed, to sit in a chair, round the corner, in the dark, for hours, so as to be able to avoid another statistic which proves that our local A&E could not reach the 4 hour targets. 

A&E: moving targets

And if this was a regular procedure, enforced by managers, then of course the failure in targets was in reality far worse than the statistics suggested. We made a formal complaint about his treatment: nothing much was achieved, of course, because NHS trusts are effectively accountable to no one, over such matters. 

That was then: now here we are in 2017, with a crisis in A&E provision, and patients left in corridors, as so many years of Tory underinvestment and political assaults on the NHS has fatally wounded the system upon which we all rely. 

No point in going to A&E now, then, this Christmas: and not able to see a gp or get to a 'walk in' clinic.I could hardly get out of bed, let alone walk to a walk in centre, or queue outside the surgery.

After Boxing Day, the pain was so acute, I tried calling the practice to see, in desperation, if the gp would take pity and come out. It was closed, for several days over the festive period. 

All I had were some painkillers, which the gp had prescribed by phone, which is another favoured arrangement - you ask them to call you, a few hours later they do: you guess what is wrong with you, and they ask you what you want to do about it. Give me drugs. Here you go.

In desperation, and entirely against my principles, for the first time in my life I resorted to paying for a private gp to come out, at vast expense, to give a pain relief injection, which was thankfully helpful, and got me over the worst point. 

A few days later, having lost the feeling in most of my foot, and increasing numbness in my leg, as well as severe pain, consulting him in desperation again at the company where one of my 'overburdened' gps, I noted, works, as well as at our NHS practice, the private gp said I must get a lumber MRI scan. 

I knew there was no chance of getting one urgently in Barnet, so I paid a fortune for one to be done privately, the same day, (under no pressure, it should be noted) as by then I was terrified there was something seriously wrong. The scan confirmed the problem was with a combination of issues, mostly to do with displaced discs, one of which, right at the base of my spine, was particularly bad, and causing the worst of the symptoms. So what now? The course of treatment done privately would cost thousands - not possible for me. 

Have to go to the gp to be referred. Email gp - ask for referral. He says I must make an appointment with him in order to do so. Ring surgery. Receptionist, (one of the type that appears to think any approach by a patient is some sort of impertinence), says there are NO appointments at all. In the foreseeable future.  Eh? What, ever again, in the history of time? I didn't say that. Well, after protesting, and stressing that the gp had told me to make one, one was suddenly found - the next week. More delay. 

Somehow I managed to get to the appointment, and made it absolutely clear what an impact on my life the problem was having, that I couldn't move, walk, rest, sleep, work: that I was exhausted, and the pain was intolerable. Result: more handfuls of painkillers and an agreement to refer me to a consultant. Urgently. How long would that take? Maybe four to six weeks. I looked at him in horror: I can't wait that long. Maybe it would be faster, he shrugged, if I was lucky. Little did I know then that six months, not six weeks, would be a more accurate estimation. Yes, for an urgent appointment. Read on.

I could go to Barnet or Chase Farm. Barnet would be better, I say, as I can't easily get to Chase Farm (in Enfield) in this state. You'll go to whichever you get, he said. Well, ok: yes. 

Just a few days before, I had read an article in the Guardian about private companies being used by health authorities to handle referrals - and block as many of them as possible. Did Barnet use such a service? Yes, they do. Oh. Will this cause any problem? No, he didn't think so. But most referrals are not referred on, are they? He thought they were. Mrs Angry knew otherwise, and told him that someone had forwarded to her an FOI request which shows only around 20 per cent go to specialists, the rest being 'triaged' and dealt with in alternative ways.

A few days later, however, there seemed to be good news: a letter arrived from the referral management service (RMS) - log in details so as to make an appointment. Ok. Go to website to do so. Yep - says urgent referral. Comes up with Barnet and Chase Farm. And then - what?

A statistic sitting below the hospital details - both of them, Barnet and Chase Farm back clinics:

I read and re-read this several times. That couldn't be right, could it? Because we know there is an 18 week statutory limit for waiting times. 21 weeks would be a breach - and 21 weeks for 92% of patients ... would be a scandal.

Still: I had an urgent referral, so that would not apply to me, would it?

On to the next step, to book the actual appointment. Which is when I really had to stop and stare at the screen in disbelief:

No appointments? At all?

Not limited availability: no availability. 

Urgent or otherwise. 

None at all? Ever? 

Clearly this was because they do not make appointments beyond a limited point of demand - perhaps the statutory limits, thus hiding a backlog of referrals - including urgent ones - that cannot be dealt with, in the current state of things, by our two local hospitals. 

Again: this is nothing less than scandalous. Both in terms of the lack of provision, and the process of deliberately hiding the true level of demand. It is from the same approach to management as the fudging of A&E statistics: calculated to give a false report of the crisis facing our NHS, due to the government's underfunding - and the fatal introduction of market values, and unrestrained privatisation. 

What next, though? Back to Step I? As far as I could see, I had no alternatives on offer - this couldn't be right, could it? 

Maybe it was because I was trying to book at the weekend. I tried again the next day: same result. 

I rang the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) for help: they said that this was not acceptable, and that the gp should be contacted, straightaway. I emailed him and asked as advised, that if the NHS cannot provide me with any appointment, at all, let alone urgent, that I could be referred to a private provider with a contract to supply such services in this sort of situation: but no reply until, after another email, a message was sent late the next day, saying I had to contact the referral service myself, all he could do was refer me again, and 'He states that he cannot refer you to a private consultant via NHS funding'. Oh. Well: this was not true, as I was to discover, or at least he may not be able to, but the referral service can - but I was also dismayed that my own gp could not attempt to find me any provision, but that I was expected, in my state, to spend hours negotiating the system in order to find some sort of treatment.

I made a formal complaint about the failure in the referral appointment system to the 'NHS North East and East London Commissioning Support Unit', which is apparently the body which is meant to oversee Barnet CCG's provision of services. This has had to be updated, throughout the week.

I rang the referral service. The phone was answered by a young man. He said he had no clinical experience. How could he assess my needs, therefore? Could I speak to someone who was qualified to do so? Nope. They only had a doctor there in the evening. Manager? not available. I persisted, until I did get to speak to someone. I made sure she knew a. that I had made an official complaint and b. that I was writing about my experience. After some time, I learned that I had a right to be referred to other options other than Barnet or Chase Farm. In fact, as I now know, the NHS constitution gives you the right to specify any provider. Shame my gp did not tell me that, nor does the online appointment system make that clear. 

Only trouble was - there were still no appointments, anywhere, anytime soon. Whipps Cross? Where is that? Essex? How do I get there, like this? And not anytime soon anyway, let alone urgent. 

No appointments, apparently. Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, an obvious choice, and not far away in Stanmore? No response as to whether or not there were any. Chelsea & Westminster, but not for a long time, was the reply. 

What about the Royal Free, in Hampstead, which is actually my nearest major hospital? They don't have a back clinic? Oh come off it: are you saying there are no orthopaedic doctors at the Royal Free? 

Um: well there are, but they call it something else, she said. Comes under rheumatology. 

I don't care, I said, trying not to lose my temper, what you call it: I just want to see a specialist, quickly, and not spend any more weeks like this, in constant pain, forming a dependency on painkillers which don't work for longer than an hour at a time, unable to move, or sleep, or ...

Oh: suddenly, after searching the wide open landscape of NHS provision, within London and the Home Counties, and possibly beyond, the manager remembered the existence of a private hospital, a short distance from where I live - which apparently has a contract with local NHS providers. 8th February ok?

Ok: yes thank you. So my gp was wrong, and this is an option, after all? 

Yes. Except ... they may reject my referral. She claimed this was not uncommon. Even though they have a contract to supply services to the NHS? Yes, if the case was 'too complex'. If my referral is rejected, I commented, I will be asking for statistics on exactly how many referrals are made to this provider, and how many are refused. She said she would get confirmation the next day, if successful, and - fortunately - it was. Even better, I could go on the 3rd of February, as my needs were urgent. Marvellous. Which doctor, or clinic was it? She said she didn't know: it didn't matter, just turn up and they would direct me.

And then I got the letter, a day or so later. 

Looked up the consultant, and was confused. He wasn't an orthopaedic specialist. 

He dealt with pain management, and anaesthesia.

I rang the referral service. The manager I had dealt with was not there. Another woman listened, and said she would ring the hospital. She claimed there was only an answerphone. That was Friday afternoon, and that was how it was left. I have no idea what happens now.

I updated my complaint, and gave in to despair at the impossibility of ever sorting this out. *

*Updated Monday: 

After a morning making strenuous and exhausting representations to the Barndoc run 'referral management service', eventually, after a lot of argument, the appointment with the right specialist was retrieved. I was told there may be a 10-12 week after the initial appointment for any treatment. The idea being, presumably, that you are left to recover slowly, and in great discomfort, over a matter of months, and cure yourself, without causing too much expense to your local CCG

Earlier last week, I had tweeted about my experience, and included @barnetCCG, without much hope of any response. I did receive a response, from their 'communications manager'. Yes, they have a communications team - we may not have enough money for local NHS services, but we can afford to pay for spindoctors for our local Clinical Commissioning Group, to manage their reputation, and make sure no naughty bloggers alert residents to the state of crisis in NHS waiting lists?

He wanted to know if we could discuss the issues (not on twitter, clearly, was the idea, ie let's shut you up). I emailed him to say no thank you: I've made a formal complaint about the CCG's failure to provide me with an NHS appointment, the breach of statutory waiting limits, the referral process etc. 

They didn't let it go. A day or so later, I had an email - my address clearly passed on, without my permission, to a woman whose job is 'Head of Programmes – Demand Management
Barnet Clinical Commissioning Group'. She wanted to discuss my tweet. Which one? By now I was deliberately updating the story, putting the matter where it should be, in the public domain. Could she call me? If you must.

A long conversation ensued. To be fair, she listened carefully -  of course I pointed out, again, that I had made a formal complaint, and that I would be writing about the issues raised by my experience, but clearly, from her response, she knew that already. She appeared not to know how the ERS, online referral system, worked in practice, rather than theory - and accepted when I offered to send on copies of the screenshots published here, as if she could not quite believe what they said. She thought there were clearly flaws in the referral process that could be addressed, like - information leaflets given at the point of referral by gps, as I pointed out patients probably do not know their rights under the NHS constitution. And gps should be reminded that patients have the right of referral to any provider, and not, as I was, led to believe. that there were only two options.

Well, tinkering with the process is all very well: better information is a good thing - but the real issue unaddressed is the failure to provide appointments - any at all. Not much point having a referral process if there is nothing to refer to, is there? 

And how widespread is the problem? Someone contacted me, after one of my tweets, and said it was common for gps in this area to re-refer, as appointments were so hard to secure. Anecdotal evidence, of course, but if true, this means that each re-referral masks the underlying problem, and prevents the politically damaging statistics that would accrue as a result of unlimited waiting lists: if, for example, the waiting time to see a back specialist is admittedly already in breach of statutory limits for 92% of patients, on one referral, and there are no appointments at all, what is the true picture, if we were able to include re-referrals? Lists that are many months long, and maybe more than a year from time of first referral by a gp? 

Who knows? Probably no one. Ignorance is bliss, if you are an NHS manager, or a Tory health minister. 

A&E targets, waiting lists: the deliberate suppression of the real level of demand is absolutely insupportable - but who is speaking out against this, or holding them to account for it? No one in Barnet, as far as I can see, which is why they are getting away with it.

Who are they, you may be wondering? Well, it would seem that as Barnet CCG holds responsibility for commissioning services for residents of this borough, the responsibility is theirs to ensure that provision is good enough, and certainly that it complies with statutory requirements. Does it? Not in my case. But how wide a problem is it? I think we should be told, don't you?

Dr Debbie Frost, Chair of Barnet CCG

In conversation with me the CCG's 'demand manager' had let slip that gps should know the current state of waiting lists as they are all sent monthly bulletins with the relevant statistics. Oh: may I please have a copy sent to me? Yes, of course. Although there will be a new one out soon, would I like to wait for that? I'd like that as well, to compare with, but in the meanwhile, could I have the current one? Yes. 

Despite several reminders, and agreement to send this on - it has not been forwarded. 

Draw your own conclusion.

There is reference, incidentally, on the Royal Free Foundation Trust's website to NHS waiting lists - this trust now has responsibility for a wide area, and includes Barnet and Chase Farm hospitals - in the absence of much information elsewhere, this statement is interesting, albeit rather curious: 

So 90 and 95% are the targets for patient waiting times. Yet ERS referrals to at least two clinics within the Trust's area are actually failing at a rate of 92%, and 21 weeks. What about the performance of the rest?

And what a clever statement here, my emphasis: 'A total of 92% of patients who are actively waiting for treatment should not have waited longer than 18 weeks'.

Well no - they shouldn't have, because there is a statutory obligation for them to be seen within that period, but the point is - did they wait longer? Please tell us the truth.

Back to Barnet. 

Our CCG has a website, which I would urge all Barnet residents to look at - and examine. 

There would appear to be no current information available here on the performance of the services they are paid to commission on our behalf - that is to say in a form easily accessible to most residents and patients.

If you are a stroppy citizen journalist with severe back pain, and no appointment with a specialist, however, and feel motivated to look at the papers relating to the last Governing Body meeting, on 26th January, there are some interesting reports - or rather - oh: they would be interesting if they contained data that could be scrutinised, unlike the 'Access KPIs and Mini Data Sets', in which all the most vital information appears 'to be confirmed', or not stated. There is listed an annual report for 2014-15 here: 

But this page 'can't be found', which is rather unfortunate, isn't it - especially when there is no Annual Report for 2015-16? Or perhaps I've missed it, in my drugged up stupor.

I've just noticed another page which can't be found either: 'gifts and hospitality' - not really very impressive to see this: and who knows how many other links are the same?

Oh: hang on, by googling have found a draft copy now: very interesting - wonder why the website hasn't published this? Let's see. 

Lovely diagrams.

Hmm. Oh dear. Oh look:

Barnet CCG is in deficit, or was up until May last year.

They admit they are not compliant with standard targets on 'Referral to Treatment Incomplete Waiting Time Performance'.

They boast of  a key achievement being the elimination of the historic backlog of patients waiting over 18 weeks to be treated, in regard to the Royal Free services (complex definition - don't ask). Mrs Angry imagines this achievement is due to the wonderful system of not giving appointments at all, as explained above. Well done. Pat on the back. 

Ah, but ... here is a story from 'Enfield Today', which describes a crisis in backlog cases in 2014: in the previous year, we learn, the local NHS trust ...

'had stopped reporting the numbers of patients waiting longer than 18 weeks for treatment to NHS England because of a major data quality problem'.

A major data quality problem. Dear me. 

Looks like that 'major data quality problem' may have recurred, doesn't it? 

Despite the fact that Barnet CCG was then, in 2014, given additional support, 'underpinned by "legal directions', by NHS England.

Still. Back to the last annual report (draft) and - there is more good news:

Given the potential risk of harm to patients waiting for long periods of time before treatment, the CCG also introduced a robust clinical harm review process.

In other words, they may not be able to grant you an appointment, but they will make a show of worrying about the fact you might drop dead before you are treated. I am paraphrasing, of course, because I am losing the will to continue. Oh dear. Hold fast. Here comes another load of ... 

In order to monitor progress, the CCG initiated an RTT Task & Finish Group (oh, hoorah: we like these, in Broken Barnet - the perfect vehicle for never accomplishing anything, but looking as if you are doing something about it) ... which meets monthly and has a clear remit to monitor the delivery of recovery and improvement plans until targets are met. This work has also overseen the reduction of patients waiting in excess of 52 weeks for treatment.  Erm - 52 weeks: a whole year? Yep. At the start of the year there were 195 patients waiting more than a year, and by March 2016 this historic backlog of 52 week waiters had been reduced to 1.  

Let's hope the other 51 weren't the victims of 'clinical harm' - or worse.

An historic backlog of waiters, before being 'reduced' by Barnet CCG

The draft report gives a link to a Register of Interests, which, it is claimed, is updated bi-monthly, but seems, from the listings given, not to have been updated on the site since July 2016. 

We also learn that there have been issue with conflicts of interest, and whistle blowing:

Raising Concerns and Managing Conflicts of Interest

In May 2015, a member of staff raised a concern about conflicts of interest around the
commissioning of primary care services. There was a concern that GPs had not fully declared their financial interests. In addition in November 2015 two members of staff wrote letters to the Secretary of State for Health and NHS England about the recruitment and remuneration of interim staff. 

Two reports were commissioned to look into these matters.

The details given, in this report, of the remuneration of CCG senior staff are very interesting.

The Chair of the CCG Board, Dr Frost, earns £120-125,000 a year. 

In regard to senior officers - despite the deficit, Mr Matthew Powls, Director of Planning and Performance/Chief Operating Officer, takes home a whopping £290-295,000- or rather 'an agency' does.

Another senior officer, a Mrs Elizabeth James, Director of Clinical Commissioning/Interim Joint Chief Operating Officer is on £200-205,000, through another agency arrangement. Ms Sarah Thompson, another Director of Clinical Commissioning, is on £85-90,000. Etc, etc. Why do we need two directors of commissioning? And two Chief Operating Officers? Are these posts subject to any kind of performance evaluation, again bearing in mind the deficit, and other failures, such as missed targets? While ordinary doctors and nurses and other, less well paid NHS staff struggle so valiantly to keep our healthcare system going, despite such demand on resources, frankly this level of expenditure to me seems utterly unjustifiable. 

The CCG performance data which is otherwise available in statistical form in the minutes of last year's meetings is hard to follow, but does not anyway represent an accurate or clear picture: referrals to treatment, 'RTT", for example, includes, but does not specify, the percentage of referrals to consultants, or the full range of providers, and we already know from the FOI response that most referrals - 80% - are 'triaged' off to treatment other than specialist services:

The RMS receive the majority of GP referrals. Exclusions include two week wait cancer referrals, mental health and some community referrals.

The RMS process approximately 7,500 referrals a month. For 2014 / 2015 this was a total of   90,732 referrals sent to the RMS.

80% of these are triaged and the remaining 20% are not triaged and sent directly on to specialist services.

It is worth looking at another document published on the Barnet CCG website, if you look for it - the declarations of interest in regard to the members of the Governing Board - here specifically for the January meeting, in a committee room at Hendon Town Hall - the perfect venue, of course.

The first declaration is from the Chair, Dr Debbie Frost, who states that she is a gp in Mill Hill - and that one of her practice partners is also the Chair of Barndoc Healthcare Ltd. Rather surprising, that the Chair of the CCG, and the Chair of one of CCG's major contractors are partners in the same gp practice.

Two other members of the CCG Board are local gps who are shareholders in this private company. 

Three members present at the meeting, out of ten in total, therefore, have links to Barndoc.

What is the significance of that, you may be wondering? 

Well, Barndoc is a private, for profit company, one that is commissioned by the CCG to provide certain services to Barnet patients. Out of hours care: very important. And also very important ... the Referral Management Service. 

Not much is said about this function, on the website, and most patients probably have no idea it exists. Or what it does, or that there is any need for it at all - after all, it used to be the case that your gp referred you by letter directly to a consultant. 

Those days are gone. 

In the new era of market opportunity in the NHS, there is profit to be made from 'managing' referrals - and filtering out those deemed unnecessary. Hence these referral companies, and all the other 'for profit' enterprises springing up everywhere.

Although profits are, according to Barndoc's website, 'reinvested in improving patient services and care', there are of course large budget expenses that must be met before any profit can be made, all of this detailed in the filing history and accounts at Companies House, (information that is required to be in the public domain) - staff salaries, directors and consultancy payments, some billed to local gp practices: take a look.

There is of course no implication that any of this is anything other than lawful, and transparent. One would expect that these members recuse themselves from any discussions that would relate to services provided by Barndoc, and I am sure we would receive full assurance that this is the case.

But is there not a reasonable argument to put, that there is an inherent conflict of interest in the Board of Barnet Clinical Commissioning Group including members of a private company commissioned by that group, a company whose delivery of contractual obligations are not openly scrutinised, in a way easily accessible - or comprehensible -  to members of the public: the patients, residents and taxpayers who rely on those services?

If waiting lists in Barnet are not meeting statutory limits, then the CCG which has responsibility for commissioning the healthcare for which referrals are made needs to challenge such failures, openly, robustly and objectively, in terms of provision, and process. When members of that CCG are actively involved with the private company that is meant to manage the referral management process, can we be sure that our best interests are being safeguarded? If there is not any conflict of interest, is there still a risk of perception of conflict? Have these risks been assessed, and audited?

And most of all, who is going to ensure that there is full transparency, and accountability, to patients in Barnet, in regard to the provision of NHS care? 

Not our local Tory MPs, who prop up a government that could not care less about the provision of care, in health, or any public services. 

Not our local press, who don't seem interested in investigating any serious issue, any more.

Over to you, then comrades in Barnet Labour: time to step up - and speak out. 

In the meanwhile, I have plenty of time on my hands to lie here writing about it my own experience, from the sharp end, as you can see: in great discomfort, but fortunate enough not to have my life in danger -  but for many people waiting to see a consultant, lengthy delays can and will cause extreme distress, and could have serious consequences. 

We must act now, for their sake: acknowledge the problems we face, and do something about it.

Overworked gps are not always able to detect when an illness or injury is life threatening, and expedite the referral. In some cases, waiting months to be seen by a specialist may quite literally prove to be fatal. 

So: residents of Broken Barnet - the NHS, in your borough: your life in their hands - are you happy with that thought? 

If not, you'd better be prepared to do something about it.

Monday 16 January 2017

Wrecking Ball, or - Mrs Angry's Basement Tapes: building enforcement in the age of 'Re' - the Barnet Tory-Crapita Joint Venture

Looking from a neighbouring house to the Vivian Avenue basement excavation, where the land has collapsed, after basement excavations - and the demolition of a property with planning approval only: but why was work continuing?

In December, I wrote a post about what is fast becoming a very serious issue, here in Broken Barnet: the lack of enforcement of breaches in planning approval. Focusing on two recent and apparently unauthorised demolitions in Hendon, a house in Vivian Avenue, and the former White Bear pub in the Burroughs, it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong in the scrutiny and management of such developments.

Work on the White Bear was ceased after a Stop Notice was issued by Barnet Council - after public outcry and protests by residents, but also when it was too late, and the whole building was already a pile bricks and mud. That this historic building, part of a conservation area, is lost forever is an absolute scandal, and we can only wonder what sort of eyesore might replace it. Why did officers allow plans that councillors on the planning committee had originally rejected to be modified, and move so close to full demolition that - oh dear, as the work commenced, the remaining part 'fell down'? 

Who will be held accountable? 

No one.

The other property demolished was a house in a nice residential road, being developed by the same family who have tried to demolish the Lodge in Victoria Park, and replace it with a block of flats. Only a concerted campaign by residents has prevented this from being approved - so far.

The house in Vivian Avenue was left with the remains of one wall, alleged by some to be used as argument that the property had not been demolished. But that wall has now gone too - so what is the council doing about it? 

Work continues on the site, and - oh, a new application was received last week, published on the council's planning website, for a demolition and a new build. Which is already happening.

Yes, after the developers had already knocked the property down, in defiance of the limited approval for extensions and a basement in regard to the house that had been there. Is there any action to hold them to account for what they are doing? 

We don't know, because there has been no contact from any officer with the neighbouring household since the 18th November. Extraordinary, isn't it?

*Update: just heard that someone from building control came today, 16th January -  at last - but the council and Chief Executive were informed on the 13th, so it is lucky no further subsidence or collapse has taken place over the weekend: and where have they been in the weeks previous since the demolition?

But there is worse.

On Friday morning the owners of a neighbouring property discovered that, to their great shock, there had been a collapse of land overnight on the boundary of their property, with the fence and fence posts disappearing onto the basement excavation, exposing the ground under the patio steps - and destroying the lawn they had laid only last summer. 

More worrying still now is the very real possibility that their house may now be at risk of structural damage, or - even worse - collapse. 

Looking towards the houses, with the depth of excavation and collected rain water clearly visible

This is not an unreasonable fear: not so long ago, due to reckless excavations by builders for a basement made under a house in Finchley,  cracks in the property suddenly appeared, and then it began to collapse, with very little warning - residents and neighbours managed to escape from the affected buildings without harm, but only by good fortune. The property had to be demolished. The collapse happened, as in the case of Vivian Avenue, after a sustained period of rain. 

(One of the neighbouring houses affected, incidentally, as you can just about make out in some photos still has the name painted above the door, from the 1930s, of Tants, the Finchley builders, once owned by my uncle Jack - who would no doubt have been aghast at the sight of such botched work).

As this article on the Finchley story ( a report written by a surveyor) makes clear, the consequences of excavating basement developments, should things go wrong, can be 'catastrophic' - even fatal - and as the writer observes - 'They can also be ruinously expensive'. The company involved in this case went into liquidation, and the residents affected have lost everything.

Collapsing house in Finchley      Pic credit: Times group

At the weekend local Labour councillors contacted the Chief Executive to demand answers as to what - if anything - the Capita run planning and enforcement team was doing about the Vivian Avenue site. Interesting that the White Bear, in a Tory ward, surrounded by a group of middle class residents united in fury, had a Stop Notice slapped on it, whereas the other demolition appears to have been overlooked, and work - potentially putting neighbouring property at risk - has been allowed to continue. Why?

Data regarding the number of cases of breaches dealt with by enforcement officers working for Capita-Barnet was recently released in response to an enquiry by a Tory councillor, revealing the astonishing fact that nearly 80% of cases end in 'no further action'. Yet a recent Freedom of Information request to Labour run Ealing council, which is a fair comparison to Barnet, suggests that their rate is closer to 50%. 

Mrs Angry is awaiting more data from other authorities, but if this is typical, one might begin to ask why 'Re', Barnet's joint venture with Capita, is performing so badly. Is it a failure to allocate adequate resources to planning and building control? Is it incompetence? Or is it a deliberate policy of laissez faire, in order to cut the 'red tape' - safeguards - that Barnet Tories - many of them landlords - feel restricts the poor developers, trying to screw enough profit out of their demolition of the build heritage of Broken Barnet?

Whatever the truth, it won't make any difference to the Tory councillors, (unless someone knocks down the house next door to them), just about to assess the Re contract, because nothing would make them admit that the contract they so eagerly approved was a waste of time and money: but one may live in hope that the Labour opposition might hold Capita to account for its poor performance.

Yes: Mrs Angry, eternal optimist.

Saturday 14 January 2017

Dan Hope: the Barnet Bugle - a tribute

I can't remember, now, when I first met the Barnet Bugle: probably at a council meeting, maybe six years or so ago. 

I found him, at first, an infuriating figure - a Tory blogger, determined to wind up the new wave of lefty, trouble making rivals - an irascible, pugnacious, deliberately provocative character, who argued even more than I do. Impossible man. I could not understand why anyone would want to have anything to do with him. 

Within a short while, of course, we were the best of friends, and co-conspirators, in secret, while maintaining the usual hostilities, in public, for the sake of appearances. And in order for him to hide the fact that underneath his bluff exterior, he was in fact a sensitive, and even shy man: something of a maverick, always on the edge, looking in.

And when I had heard he had died this week, I was devastated, and wept like a child. 

Who would have thought it, Dan Hope?

I couldn't attend his funeral yesterday, unfortunately, having spent the past few weeks immobilised by a serious back problem. Instead I watched the snow falling, in my garden, and thought guiltily about his mourners, standing in the bleak weather in the cemetery to pay their last respects. 

So now here, instead, is my tribute to him.

The Barnet Bugle and the Barnet Eye

When I started writing about Broken Barnet, the Bugle was already a fixture of that new phenomenon: the emerging blogosphere - a collection of disaffected residents, citizen journalists, and armchair auditors, created by the self perpetuating forces of inertia that protect the vacuum of political life in this borough. The new bloggers, in other words, represented a movement forged in despair at the policies of a rabid Conservative administration, stuffed full of empty headed neo-Thatcherites, the lack of effectual opposition by the Labour group, and an absence of any real scrutiny by the local press.

Dan Hope was, unlike most of the Barnet bloggers, a Tory: of sorts, and not the sort running Barnet Council. 

He had been a councillor: a Conservative member, edged out by internal politics in the Chipping constituency, and the wider group - then ruthlessly removed; treated shabbily by his former colleagues, an experience that left him with little sympathy for the administration then dominated by current MP Mike Freer and his chum Brian Coleman. 

Before the 'Barnet Bugle' had been invented, Dan was a partner in the first Barnet blog, 'Statler and Waldorf', as explained here by his friend and fellow pioneer blogger 'Don't Call Me Dave', David Miller, son of the late Tory peer Doreen Miller - and formerly Chair of Chipping Barnet Conservatives. 

The reason that both these Conservative bloggers were driven to write about the actions of their former colleagues is better understood after reading DCMD's tribute to the Bugle, written this week:

Daniel was a passionate believer in open and transparent government, local and national: a principled stand that made him many enemies within the higher echelons of Barnet Council, where the culture of secrecy and obfuscation is ingrained into every fibre of its being. Indeed, the way that he was treated by some of his so called Council colleagues was nothing short of a disgrace, effectively forcing him out of the Council and the Conservative Party; not that this ever stopped him campaigning for a Conservative government and the pursuit of proper Conservative policies.

When DCMD started his own Blog, Daniel provided much needed technical support with the preparation of pictures and videos. In recent years, Daniel tirelessly attended council meetings to record them for the Barnet Bugle. He asked the questions which Councillors were often too lazy or scared to ask for themselves.

Daniel’s legacy will be that he stood up for what he believed in, and would not be bullied into silence or submission, as were so many councillors seeking to climb the greasy pole of higher allowances. 

They say that vengeance is a dish best served cold: and Dan Hope delivered his own revenge, over the years, by coolly, calmly and methodically holding up the mirror to the antics of his former colleagues, and showing it to the wider world.

He dedicated the next few years to holding to account the successive Tory administrations who have had their sweaty grip on this borough. Or did, until their fingers were prised from the controls, by Crapita.

And he did so by pioneering a new form of scrutiny: by filming council meetings, and posting the footage on his blog: something that seems routine now, but was a courageous activity at the time, met with ill tempered reaction from the Tory councillors and their officers. In Wales one local blogger was arrested merely for daring to film part of a council meeting on her phone, and no doubt some of the Tory members in Barnet would happily have seen the same consequences fall on the head of Mr Hope, and all the rest of the bloggers sitting in the public gallery. 

Unfortunately for the Barnet Tory junta, and all similar councils throughout the UK, in fear of the new emphasis on transparency, the new role of citizen journalism was one approved of and encouraged by then Secretary of State for local government, Eric Pickles,  a politician much admired by Dan Hope.  Pickles compelled local authorities to become more accountable to their residents and tax payers and sanctioned - no, actively encouraged - the use of filming, tweeting, and allied activities. 

Tory Barnet, the self styled 'easycouncil' model of outsourcing, and flagship of hardline Tory policies suddenly found itself at the centre of a perfect storm of media attention: social media, and then national, mainstream press, fascinated by the reports by bloggers of an emerging resistance by local residents and campaigners to the devastating double whammy impact of swingeing cuts, and mass privatisation.

Dan Hope filming at the occupation of Friern Barnet library

The beginning of this new era kicked off with the 'MetPro' scandal: it turned out that the jackbooted thugs used by the Tory councillors to provide security at the Town Hall, and elsewhere, including, according to the company's claims, work with vulnerable children, were an illegally operating, unlicensed operation, hired in circumstances that were never fully explained - and paid in the absence of any contract or monitoring of their activities. They had tried - physically, and in defiance of police instructions on the night - to bar bloggers and residents from the council's budget meeting, stop them filming, and indeed were later proved to have been covertly filming bloggers, including me. 

We then revealed the wider story: that the authority had thousands of similar cosy arrangements with private contractors - without contracts in place.

Pickles was furious, and made a speech castigating the Tory run council - and praising the Barnet bloggers. 

From that moment the tables were turned: and filming and reporting the minutiae of every important meeting or event has become a matter of routine. 

It is difficult to explain the significance of this: the filming so lovingly and attentively maintained by Dan Hope not only preserved a record of the meetings themselves, and opened up the process of 'democracy' to the people of Barnet, it provided evidence for legal challenges, and has had a direct and lasting impact on the political landscape - no longer could members evade responsibility for the things they said, and did: it was all a matter of public record.

From an initial position of mutual mistrust, based on our political allegiances, the Bugle and Mrs Angry found common ground in many areas, and forged an unlikely alliance, behind the scenes - and we had a lot of fun, in secret, exchanging information, and plotting tactics to undermine the best laid plans of the knaves and fools in charge of our borough council.

It is true to say he was very good at winding people up, and even upsetting them, often just for the hell of it, very naughty - argumentative and provocative on twitter to the extent even I ended up blocking or muting him, most of the time, (although still reading his tweets in secret) as I couldn't bear the endless rows he created, out of sheer mischief. But he genuinely enjoyed debate, and his intelligence, and low threshold of boredom, demanded the stimulation that such interaction supplied, even if it ended in disagreement. Especially if it ended in disagreement: much more fun.

Dan Hope was a loyal friend to those few Tory councillors who stood by him: he was appalled by the treatment of Kate Salinger, in 2010, vilified and publicly humiliated by her so called friends in the Conservative group, simply for following her conscience and refusing to vote with the rest of the craven Tories for a whopping hike in their own allowances, at the same time the party was lecturing residents about austerity and the need for devastating cuts in local public services: a move that Dan had spotted, late one night, being sneaked onto the agenda at the last minute.

Dan was an absolute stickler for protocol, and the constitution: doing things the right way. If he spotted something was wrong - it was wrong. He knew. He would sit there, in the gallery, behind his camera, sighing loudly, and shaking his head, muttering.

As well as the news of his death being covered by the local Times and Press, and Evening Standard, many tributes on social media have been paid to him: tributes from those of a range of political allegiances and backgrounds: 

Here are just a few of those: 

Sarah Sackman, former Labour candidate, Finchley & Golders Green:

A Labour councillor in Camden:

From Jeremy Newmark, Chair of Jewish Labour:

From Marcus Dysch, political editor of the JC:

A mensch. He would have liked that: and he was.

Many of the comments made by friends in the Tory party stress his loyalty to Conservative values - and indeed he was a Tory, but his values, and his sort of Conservatism, were not those of the majority of members sitting on the benches of the Town Hall in Hendon. He had liberal views, clear sight, and a vision that was rather more progressive and intelligent than that of any of his former colleagues, and unlike them, was prepared to fight for what he believed in, rather than keep his heads down, go along with the blundering administration which they support, while keeping their allowances, and taking turns at dressing up as Mayor, which is all most of them really care about.

His choice of words for his twitter profile said it all, really:

Provoking thought. Challenging nonsense. Shaking things up. Stimulating debate. Right of centre hue.

Right of centre hue: but the word Conservative missing, you will note. He was too independently minded to find an easy definition of his political views, or perhaps a fixed place within any definition. 

The truth was Dan often preferred the company of the lefty leaning bloggers he loved to annoy, and local activists, to the members of his own party - and often accompanied us to the pub and other social events: and even to the Labour Conference, where he always had a wonderful time. After one leader's speech, readers, he even broke the habit of a lifetime, and bought Mrs Angry a drink. And possibly a bag of crisps. An official photograph was taken, to record the occasion: 

Hang on: just remembered at another hotel, at another conference, he bought me a glass of champagne, in tribute to what he alleged was my preferred form of socialism. 

Cheers, Dan

On one memorable night at a Manchester conference, he insisted on dragging me to a Hacked Off meeting (deeply tedious, but with a generous amount lot of free wine, which he made good use of) and then we met up again at the Labour Friends of Israel, where, after a catastrophic amount of even more alcohol, and no food, we ended up disgracefully drunk, and spending the early hours chatting to Jon Snow, sitting on the floor outside the gents in the Midland Hotel, engaged in an apparently fascinating conversation, the details of which neither of us could remember the next day. Or since.

Mrs Angry awoke, the next day, in fact, with a terrible headache, wincing at the early light of dawn, and tweeted: 

Someone please turn the sun off. 

The Bugle tweeted back: 

The sun: Someone please turn Mrs Angry off.

Bugle also went off to one of the Tory conferences, and bumped into his idol, Eric Pickles. He introduced himself, and took it upon himself to pass on Mrs Angry's good wishes, claiming Uncle Eric flushed becomingly, and beamed with delight. Naturally. But Dan really admired Pickles's attempt to work against the instincts of his own party in local government, and force them to be accountable to their communities. And the Bugle was part of that process, right from the beginning.

Dan was always present, at every political event, here in Barnet: meetings, protests, conferences, late night election results - there he would be, with his camera, determinedly capturing the scene for posterity. 

And now posterity has captured the Barnet Bugle - and things will never be the same.

We will all miss you, Dan. 

Rest in Peace, friend.