Tuesday 27 June 2017
The Tail Wagging the Dog: or, a Tale of Two Meetings, in Broken Barnet
Residents supported by members of Barnet Housing Action Group and Unison outside Hendon Town Hall
To have to attend one council meeting, on a beautiful summer's evening in June, might be thought to be unfortunate. To have to attend two, in the same evening, at the same time, thought Mrs Angry, as she arrived at the Town Hall, was a punishment beyond reason. And how could it be done? Well: of course, Mrs Angry has the power to be everywhere, and anywhere, at any given time, and so as in everything else, it was really down to a question of timing: when to arrive, and when to move on.
Waiting outside the Town Hall was a crowd of residents and staff members, union members, and of course the People's Mayor, Mr Shepherd, without whom no council meeting is quorate. Not only the most accomplished heckler in the history of local government; ageless, unchanging in his habits, he travels the borough, with his bags of clippings from the Morning Star, a fixture of Broken Barnet, vital to the mechanism of what passes for democracy, in this most rotten of Rotten Boroughs.
Inside the Town Hall, after two months, the lift was still broken, a tribute to the culture of inertia that permeates the corridors of corporate power. So what if people in wheelchairs, or with mobility problems, cannot exercise their right to attend council meetings? All the better, if they don't come. Access for disabled residents? Just one of those foolish rights that incur more and more of that stuff that we have so often heard dismissed as 'red tape', and 'health and safety gone mad' by the most senior Tory councillors in Barnet.
In fact, as they have forcibly been reminded in these last two weeks since the Grenfell fire, red tape and health & safety save lives. And the absence of these tedious restrictions means disasters like Grenfell are inevitable, rather than, as they should be, completely avoidable.
The first meeting was a Housing Committee, and first on the agenda was an emergency item for members to discuss a hastily produced report on the authority's response to the Grenfell fire.
This report was necessary for many reasons, not least because Barnet Homes manages 28 tower blocks, and ten of them have cladding. Three blocks, in Granville Road, Childs Hill, have been identified as having the same rain screen panels as Grenfell Tower. The council says the insulation material was different: but we know that tested samples of the cladding have proved to be flammable. The cladding will be removed: in response to a question by Labour members, however, an officer claimed that it had complied with building regulations.
This suggests that there is a fatal flaw, somewhere, in the standards used to assess such cladding, and that therefore, surely, all cladding on any building should be urgently re-assessed? It is used everywhere: not just in tower block housing, from schools to hospitals, to railway stations, and many other types of development.
In Barnet, the council has now committed to a review of fire safety in its own high rise buildings, and will allocate £10 million to implement any changes recommended by the London Fire Brigade. That is to say the fire authority which has been subject, over the years, to savage cuts, and even privatisation of resources.
The report's first recommendation, rather typically for Barnet, is to note that 'all Barnet Homes properties have up to date Fire Risk Assessments and comply with fire safety legislation'.
This is a bold assertion, and one which we would hope is correct - but here is the problem: Fire Risk Assessments may have been made, but have the recommendations made as a result been actioned?
Mrs Angry has been contacted, for example, by one tenant of Barnet Homes who alleges that this is not the case, in the building where he lives; that all but one recommendation remain unaddressed, over a period of years. This was one of the issues raised by Labour's Adam Langleben, who also, very worryingly, presented a petition of a tower block in Hendon whose residents are very concerned about the lack of any fire alarm, or sprinkler system.
The report refers to high rise buildings, and cladding: but cladding is not the only issue here. Fire safety in all buildings are a matter not just of construction, but so many other aspects, all of which require stringent standards of scrutiny and enforcement. The experience of both processes, in this borough, over recent years, has taught us that breaches in compliance with regulations can and do regularly occur in many different areas, usually with little or no sanction.
Which may explain the remarkable silence of Tory members at this meeting and an unusually mute acceptance of the need to do everything possible to review the safety of council owned high rise properties. But what about the rest? And what about properties in the private sector? They say they can only offer advice - but as Labour's Kath McGurk pointed out, due to the lack of social housing stock in Barnet, the authority is obliged to house many tenants in the private sector, and therefore has an added obligation to ensure robust standards of compliance with safety standards.
The Tory members at this meeting, chaired by the usually rather pugnacious Tom Davey, who was clearly on his best behaviour - and being filmed - were Shimon Ryde, Melvin Cohen, deputy leader Daniel Thomas, and Bridget Perry. Apart from the Chair, only Shimon Ryde made any contribution to the discussion of the report. Labour members asked all the questions, while the rest of the Tory councillors sat still, saying nothing.
One rather curious note was struck by a very senior officer present who, in response to questioning about Barnet's safety measures, added on the remark 'unlike Labour boroughs'. This was a pretty extraordinary comment, from an officer who is supposed to be politically neutral. It was not challenged by Labour members, who are always too reluctant to hold senior officer to account, wrongly believing they are not responsible for political policy making. But this was a telling remark.
Ryde is a councillor for Childs Hill, and he now stated that, despite assurances given after an inspection of the tower blocks by the London Fire Brigade, residents were still concerned about the absence of a satisfactory evacuation procedure, especially in regard to the need to identify and assist vulnerable residents, and also that there was a need for a process to inform all residents in a more effective way.
Mrs Angry has been informed that currently in the Granville tower blocks there are groups of three men, tasked by the council to walk around the buildings, on a 24 hour watch for fire.
It seems as if we are on a wartime footing, with the use of fire wardens taking the place of adequate fire prevention, alarm systems, sprinkler systems, evacuation plans. What an indictment this is, of the lack of care given to the housing and safety of the least advantaged members of our society.
As you can read here, residents of Granville have tried to raise concerns about the state of the cladding of their buildings, some of which fell off, in 2013, in windy weather. Tenants of social housing, and indeed leaseholders within the same developments, as we have seen in the case of West Hendon, carry little weight with the current administration. One of the better outcomes of the terrible tragedy of Grenfell, perhaps, might be that years of neglect of social housing stock, and the needs of tenants, here in Barnet, and elsewhere may be followed by a better regard for their safety, and well being. We must hope so.
Down the corridor to another meeting next: this time to a rare opportunity for members of the public - an invitation to present their views on the 'Re' Capita contract, currently under review by a councillors' working group. This review is being held in secret, behind closed doors, despite protests from Labour members, but our Tory representatives have graciously allowed one session in which their constituents may timidly voice their opinions, under strictly limited circumstances:
The Chairman has indicated that approximately one hour will be allocated to allow the public to make verbal representation at the meeting on the operation of the RE contract. The amount of time allocated to each resident, trader or business representative to speak will depend on the number of people who have requested to speak at the meeting. The Chairman will announce the detailed arrangements at the start of the meeting. Members of the Working Group will have the opportunity to ask questions of members of the public making verbal representations at the meeting.
Dangerous stuff, for Tory councillors. Fraught with risk of engagement, and ... criticism.
A taste of what was to come had been indicated by fellow blogger Mr Reasonable, who was already well entrenched, and tweeting about the meeting:
First speaker at Re Review is frightened about how planning is run in Barnet and their use of gobbledygook
Next speaker at Re Contract Review also speaking about failure in the planning department.
Re "pushing through revenue generating schemes". Culture of build first ask for permission later.
Re are pro development and ignore residents. Wow this Re Contract Review is not going well for Re and Capita.
Next speaker at Re Contract Review says Barnet not receiving value for money from Capita.
Next speaker at Re Contract Review meeting about highways officers lack of responsiveness.
Next speaker at Re Contract Review meeting back to planning lack of notification for local residents & inability to get through to officers
Next speaker at Re Contract Review meeting yet again complaints about planning conflicts and accountability
Next speaker at Re Contract Review meeting about planning enforcement. Officers just don't seem to be listening when residents complain
This meeting was being held, most unusually, in the council chamber - and much to Mrs Angry's amusement, the councillors were sitting in the places normally taken by senior officers, and members of the public were obliged to take their places in the seats belonging to Tory councillors.
Mrs Angry positioned herself in the Tory leader's place, noting with alarm its tendency to swing backwards, into a helplessly semi prone position, and observing a number of mysterious buttons on the desk. Like the naughty schoolgirl she was, once upon a time, and unable to resist the temptation, she pressed all the buttons, to see what would happen. But nothing did. Life is full of disappointment.
Sitting besieged by an array of very cross residents were a selection of Tory councillors: Comrade Councillor Peter Zinkin, his sidekick Antony 'Mickey' Finn, and the ineffable Sury Khatri, who said absolutely nothing, and probably just as well. There were two Labour councillors, who didn't say much, either, but didn't need to, as the Tories were sticking themselves further in it, with every minute that passed.
The strength of feeling, and level of dissatisfaction, amongst the residents, was intense - but it was also significant in that those present, largely, were not 'the usual suspects' that the Tories are used to hearing, at most council meetings, but a representation of the rapidly increasing number of disaffected people, their sort of people, their voters, who are at last understanding that the decline in local services is a political issue, and that the privatisation of those services, as a result of the massive Capita contracts, has had a hugely detrimental effect on things they see all around them: the street where they live, the park they use, the roads they drive on.
One of the most articulate speakers was a woman who was a former local authority architect, clearly appalled by the present state of affairs in planning, which is now run by Capita. But all of the residents present were well informed and keen to express their sense of dismay at the way in which planning and enforcement, in particular, are now run.
Time for Mr Reasonable to speak. Unfortunately, Cllr Zinkin, who like to present himself as Cllr Reasonable, but does not like to be contradicted, and then is rather less than reasonable, decided to keep interrupting, and help Mr Reasonable, as he had helped the residents, to express what he thought they ought to say. It is the classic trick used by anyone trying to control a meeting and retain authority over the proceedings: take possession of the dialogue - own it and control it. Didn't work, however, as Mrs Angry and then others pointed out to Cllr Zinkin that it was not his right to reframe the comments made: that he should listen to what they were saying.
Mr Reasonable continued. He made the point that the Tory members wanted only to address the symptoms of the problem, rather than the cause: perfectly true. They were continually focusing on details that could be changed, rather than the real issue - the deckchairs, rather than the navigation and course set towards the iceberg - the contractual partnership that is bleeding this borough dry, and turning our services to their profit, rather than for our benefit.
Mr R talked about the ineffectual KPIs, the key performance indicators that are supposed to monitor Capita's performance, but don't. Yes, the Tory members knew, wanted to change things - four years in to the contract.
Conflicts of interest next: this is hugely important. Mr R pointed out the terrible risks that accrue when you have the same company running planning and enforcement. Risk because of that dual role, magnified by the fact that the Re contract is not about savings, so much as about generating revenue. They love running planning, as they can charge developers big fat fees for advice, at the same time as making the decisions or recommendations about planning applications - clearly a conflict there. And enforcement, where planning approval has been breached, so poorly run in Barnet? Well: no money to be made there, only cost. In short, he said, it is a case now, with Capita running these services, of 'the tail wagging the dog': the services run by a profit hungry private company intent on furthering its own interests, and not those of the residents and tax payers who pay their fees.
The whole system now, said Mrs Angry, is geared towards favouring developers, rather than residents.
The system, said Mr Reasonable, is broke.
Zinkin and Finn were struggling to keep their heads above water now: the ship was sinking fast. Cllr Finn began manically clicking and unclicking his pen, clearly very flustered.
It is part of the job, said Zinkin, to look after the people we represent ...
No, said Mrs Angry: that is THE job you have.
Antony Finn tried to convince us, and himself, that there was no conflict of interest, when Capita was dealing with the planning decisions in regard to the many developments underway in this borough, and at the same time accepting fees for advising the developers. He claimed that it was perfectly fine, because they used 'different officers'. That is not true: in at least one local case she was involved in, the same officer advised a developer and was the appointed officer for running the consultation process and associated oversight of the case - on a large scale, it is impossible to believe that watertight separation is made between the two roles. As Mr R reminded the councillors, conflict of interest is about perception, not just practice.
By now Cllr Finn's pen clicking had reached epic proportions. A discussion about the waste of money on using consultants rather than cheaper in house employees, as we were reminded by Unison representatives in the audience - and the foolish expense of massive corporation tax bills, pretty well finished him off.
Mrs Angry decided to help him on his way, offering her view, from the leader's seat, that the fatal mistake they were making was to fail to see the impact on their own electoral well being that all of these issues were having: the failure in planning and enforcement was now having a visible effect on the environment, on the street, and in the parks - affecting ordinary residents, and their own voters. Next year, she predicted, in a Cassandra like voice of doom, and a certain amount of ill concealed glee, they would lose control of the council, and it would be entirely their own fault.
But what could they do, suggested the hapless Tories, wringing their hands. The contract ... dump it, we suggested. Pull out, like they have in Birmingham, and elsewhere.
You were duped, and you know it now, said Mrs Angry, as the two senior officers present looked on in thinly disguised horror.
This is what happens, when you sign a contract, without reading it, isn't it?
The meeting finished then. The Tory councillors looked visibly shaken. They didn't deny it, when predictions of a lost council were aimed at them. The loss of votes in the three Barnet constituencies at the General Election has caused huge panic in the ranks, and they know that there is a range of policies that they have promoted, such as the savage library cuts, or allowed Capita to promote, such as the hijacking of development, that are hugely unpopular with local voters: added to the new popularity of Labour nationally ... well, things don't look good for them, at all. And they know it.
And if we have a new Labour administration in Barnet, next year, it won't be a moment too soon. It's time to wave goodbye to the years of complacency and self interest; the ideological obsession that sees public services as something to be disposed of, rather than supported; the neglect of those who don't live in the best areas of Barnet, whose children don't go to the best schools; whose housing needs are irrelevant, as they are, in the previous words of the Chair of the Housing Committee, not wanted in this borough:
Here is the true face of Tory indifference, in Barnet: affordable housing seen as a token gesture, and social housing as something detestable - but just part of a deeply rooted culture of suspicion of any public sector function, which is why they were so keen to divest themselves of responsibility, and hand over control of services to the private sector.
Public is bad, private is good. Pretend outsourcing saves money, as the pretext for privatisation, then sit back, and leave your contractors to run things, and screw as much money as possible from the residents, and hope they don't rumble what you're up to.
Bad news: they have rumbled what you're up to, Tory councillors - and they don't like it.
Roll on next May.