Thursday 21 September 2017

Nothing to worry about: Audit, in the age of Capita, continued - or: Something may turn up ...

'My other piece of advice, Copperfield,' said Mr. Micawber, 'you know.

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and

six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure
twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted,
the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene,
and--and in short you are for ever floored. As I am!'

Following the calamitous interim report earlier this summer from Barnet Council's external auditors, Mrs Angry predicted that, after the initial shock felt by our muddleheaded Tory councillors, there would be a concerted effort made, before the final report, in regard to damage limitation. 

From shock, to panic - and then denial. The political cost of doing otherwise, for most of the Tories in Barnet, is too high. Next year's local elections are too close for comfort, and of course there could be a general election at any point. This perilous circumstance is having a miraculous effect, in fact: members are now taking care to refuse unpopular planning applications, for example - see the previous post, and other controversial matters, such as the Cricklewood issues discussed at another committee last night, at the same time as the Audit meeting was in progress. But they lack the ability to do anything about the biggest problem of all: the catastrophic contractual agreements with Capita, and a financial crisis that can no longer be denied.

Most of the more astute Tory councillors know that the council is up the proverbial creek, with only a cut price paddle provided by Capita, sitting in a leaking boat, slowly sinking into the swamp. But they cannot admit it. To do so would be to admit they ignored all warnings about the risk of entering into the two massive outsourcing contracts, and have failed in their duty properly to direct and monitor the performance of the delivery of those contracts. 

Mrs Angry went along last night, out of a sense of duty more than anything else: having submitted some questions, and received the usual sort of nonsensical written replies, requiring ... more questions. 

Out of a sense of duty, and despite feeling rather unwell, after a long day locked in an overheated archive, reading through volumes of historic bank accounts, page after page of inky ledgers, money paid in, and money paid out: pretty straightforward, said the archivist, pointing at the annual and six monthly balances, which showed an alarming level of expenditure, set against a sometimes risky level of income. Yes: easy enough, audit, historical or otherwise: profit and loss, money in, and money out: and a final balance to tell the story. Or to show, as our latter day corporate clerks would say, 'the direction of travel'.

Audit in the age of Capita

Easy enough, with accurate accounts. But what happens when the accounts are kept by the same provider as the items and services noted in those ledgers? When the barely numerate butcher, baker and candlestick maker all get together to submit their bills and then write them up in the customer's own accounts, making lots of mistakes, but keeping the ledgers under the counter, and pretending there is nothing to worry about?

That, in effect, is what has happened here, in the London Borough of Capita. The council's accounts, which record the financial transactions of the authority's contracted services, are the responsibility of ... the same contractors who provide those services. 

So apart from the multiplicity of roles and potential conflict of interests represented by the range of Capita's grip on our local public services, there is an overarching conflict of interest that beats everything: their presentation of the annual accounts.

And as the interim external audit report showed so clearly, earlier in the summer, the annual accounts, as overseen and presented by Capita, in regard to services largely provided by Capita, were full of errors. Mistakes that have been identified by BDO include massive sums of money listed in the wrong place, or overstating or understating significant amounts of council funds - our funds: taxpayers' money.

The tone of the interim report was unequivocal: the council's accounts were a mess, and we were using up our reserves in a reckless fashion, which suggested that rather than being the rip-roaring success promised to us by our Tory members, the Capita contracts were not delivering good value for residents, but leading us into financial disaster. 

One of the Tory members of the audit committee gave an indication of the way in which the group would later try to limit the damage: turning on the auditors themselves, and castigating them for the lateness of the report, rather than the content of the report, and the implied criticism of the administration's competence. Yes, shooting the messenger.

The subsequent report from the auditors is rather different in tone, if not in content, much more of a distancing from outcome, based on the council's own rather less than convincing assurances. In other words, yes, we are teetering on the brink of disaster, but on the other hand, the council has said everything will be fine, so maybe it will, after all. 

Well: we all like a happy ending, don't we? And even auditors run out of time - and patience.

In the committee room, the meeting began with a homily from the Chair, Hendon Tory cllr Hugh Rayner. He said that after the final audit report he was happy - no, content - with the 'position' of the council, but not the 'process'. That might be interpreted as trying to encourage us to worry about the arrangement of deckchairs, rather than asking questions about the seaworthiness of the vessel, or indeed the likelihood of icebergs ahead. He graciously indicated that it was unsporting to blame the auditors for the mismanagement of the council (Yes, shooting the messenger #2) when naughty Capita might have had something to do with it. Because naughty Capita did have something to do with it, in fact, they were being slapped on the wrist with a fine, like an overdue library book surrendered by a child lucky enough to find a library from which he is not barred - £50,000. Ooh, er. Just a fraction of their daily profit from the London Borough of Broken Barnet, one imagines.

Time for comments from the public: fellow bloggers Roger Tichborne and John Dix spoke, Mr Tichborne demanding to know how much more the delayed Audit reports had cost the taxpayer, and Mr Reasonable observing the problems deriving from the lack  of clarity over responsibility: the confusion between the roles played by Capita and LBB. He pointed out the extent to which residents were excluded from the role of scrutiny, and mentioned the very serious matter of an FOI request for details about gainshare reward payments, which is being refused on a basis he maintains is quite spurious, as the commercial confidentiality clause used to block release has expired. Who can tell us what that payment for £970,000 was for? Apparently we are not allowed to know.

'I could not receive it as a gift,' said Mr. Micawber, full of fire and

animation, 'but if a sufficient sum could be advanced, say at five per

cent interest, per annum, upon my personal liability--say my notes of
hand, at twelve, eighteen, and twenty-four months, respectively, to
allow time for something to turn up--'

A group shrug from members and officers,  and then it was time for supplementary questions to the written replies. There were some cracking lines in these responses. Mrs Angry's favourite was regarding Question 8:

Risk Management, Conflicts of interest:

3.4 Taking informed and transparent decisions
which are subject to effective scrutiny and
managing risk

Has the external auditor reviewed what appears
to be a number of significant risks raised by
conflict of interest and/or the perception of
conflict of interest posed by the multiplicity of
roles played by the councils' contractors in regard
to planning and enforcement? Is there in place a
satisfactory mitigation of those risks?


The council has satisfied itself it has effective governance processes in place and has provided information to us to be content with the Annual Governance Statement. If you have any specific concerns then you are encouraged to raise them through the escalation routes available to you to either myself or the Council depending on the nature of the concern.

The council has satisfied itself. 

And this is enough for the purposes of audit, apparently. The word of a - well not exactly a gentleman, is he, the personification of Broken Barnet? And - self satisfaction, surely, can never be enough, in the end, can it? 

Satisfaction, or at least, 'contentment', is something the Auditor values highly, however. It is his measure of success. And in answer to Qs 4, and 6, that measure of value was used to satisfy any lingering doubts about, you know, the butcher being left in charge of his customer's accounts: Capita left in charge of the books that log the transactions regarding Capita run services.

 The written answer said the auditors were 'satisfied' with the arrangement. In a state of post-audit mellowness, instead of falling asleep, or making us a cup of tea, we now hear, whispered in our ear, that the auditor is 'content'. And then again 'satisfied', by Q 6. Hmm. Oh hang on: content - or maybe just satisfied - that things will be ok until ... 2020? What happens then?

What happens then? asked Mrs Angry. After our profligate council has dipped into its reserves for the last time, and found there is nothing left? Oh, and by the way, about the change in tone from the highly critical interim report: has any pressure been brought to bear on you, by members, for example?

The auditor smiled, and hesitated. You're smiling, observed Mrs Angry, so am I right?

He murmured something about 'acting without fear of favour'. Of course. Except this is Broken Barnet, where fear and favour are the ruling principles. Or would be, if we had any.

But: and he did seem to be pleased to have the opportunity to say this - the council's arrangements, and his level of contentment/satisfaction therewith, are - oh dear - sustainable only until 2020. In the medium term. After that?

All hell will break loose. 

Or rather, as he said now, addressing the members directly, eyeball to eyeball: 

You will need a fundamental re-write

A fundamental re-write. 

Well, f*ck me. In audit speak that means: THE END IS NIGH. MAN THE LIFEBOATS.

He looked at them. They looked at him. Mrs Angry looked at a Labour councillor. He looked at Mrs Angry. The Tories looked at their shoes. 

Other questions included two on the issue of the Lodge, Victoria Park, the sale of which has been the point of formal objections to the accounts. Although as expressed in his written reply the Auditor had not found any evidence so far that the sale had been unlawful, after the planning meeting of 7th September, where development plans had been firmly quashed by Tory members, and it was recognised that the covenant still applies, he acknowledged the circumstances now may have changed and the matter may be open to review.

Oh: and here is a curious thing. The interim audit report had noted some councillors had not been making annual declarations as required. Mrs Angry had asked why the Monitoring Officer was similarly failing to note that too many members were not making declarations of Gifts and Hospitality. The Chair seemed unwilling to believe this, so Mrs Angry gave an example: having witnessed several of his colleagues disporting themselves at this slap up dinner, at possibly the most expensive restaurant in the borough - and as Mr Reasonable spotted in the accounts, at a cost of £1500. Mrs Angry had been attending a family event at the same venue that night, and was horrified to find the place stuffed full of Tory councillors. 

As she reminded them, passing through the bar, when they greeted her long suffering brother, who worked for them in governance for 30 years, yes, you made him redundant a few years ago, remember? And then, when Tory leader came over to say hello to the long suffering brother, the brother's fearless niece, Miss Angry, demanded that Cornelius should tell her if we, the taxpayers, were paying for his dinner. Mrs Angry's heart swelled with maternal pride, as you may imagine.

Cornelius, clearly terrified by yet another Angry woman holding him to account, meekly admitted that, yes, that was the case. Yet there appear to be no declarations from those present of their attendance at this bash, enjoying the hospitality of you and me, the tax payers of Broken Barnet, and indeed some Tory members have made no G&H declarations at all. *Does this matter? I think it does: it is yet another mark of the indifference shown by our elected members for the principles of transparency, and accountability - and reminds us that austerity, at a time when vital public services are being cut to the bone, does not apply to them.

*Updated: according to the Monitoring Officer (yes, apparently there is one, somewhere) it is his view such jollies do not have to be declared, even though the Labour members did, as you and I are footing the bill. Of course any hospitality paid for by us, without our consent or knowledge, is never going to influence their opinion in any way, so this is, clearly, perfectly proper).

Now, as the Suits from Capita sat back in the seats they had annexed from the front of the public seating area, members listened to the auditor present his report, and then ask questions. 

One of the revelations of the audit was the questionable status of the Pension Fund, which appeared to have been overstated, by, oh, a mere £92 million ... . Not for the first or last time that evening, Mrs Angry wondered why the internal audit process had not already identified such a glaring error. 

But such concerns were not of interest to the Tory members. Councillor Finn, who is the Chair of the Committee tasked with overseeing the scrutiny of contractual performance, was very worried about something else. He was bewildered by the colouring system of the audit report. There were too many colours, he complained. What did it all mean? The auditor tried to explain the subtle variation in opinion that the colours represented: wasted on the Tory members who can grasp only that ... red means danger. Especially the red flag of socialism.  The Chair intervened to apologise, at this point, to members of the public whose copies of the report were only in, oh dear - black and white. 

Councillor Finn

Oh dear, again. Along came another massive question in regard to the accounts. The matter of a £4.6 million debt, from Capita Re, in regard to underperformance of contracted income, that should have been recovered, but had not. Why not? One of the Capita Suits, a Mr Mark Dally, lounging in the public gallery, wasn't that bothered. He was invited to sit at the table, to sit up, and explain ... why he wasn't that bothered. 

Mr Dally, who according to his Linkedin profile, is - excuse me - a 'Change Maker'  (God help us all) who works as a regional director for Capita Local Government, smiled and described the debt as 'disputed'. An agreement would be reached soon. Oh. Well, what is £4.6 million of taxpayers' money, after all? Neither here, nor there. Yes, it might help safeguard vital services, prevent the terrible cuts in the library budget etc, but ... let us not stand in the way of Change, Capita style. Can't have enough of that, in Broken Barnet, can we?

Yes, the debt was owed by Re (the Capita joint venture with Barnet) and appears in the accounts presented by ... Capita, but: meh. Might be paid, might not be. #conflictofinterest, tweeted Mr Reasonable.

At this point, Mrs Angry decided she felt too unwell to stay any longer. She made her excuses, and left. It had been a long day.

Those who remained continued tweeting: 

Cllr Arjun Mittra‏ @ArjunMittra

Cllr Finn says "we should be proud of accounts" "nothing to worry about". This is of course the man chaired the scrutiny of the contracts.

And the man who is Chair of the Performance and Contract management committee, who thinks scrutiny should always be positive, not critical, and wants everything to be 'hunkydory'. Still, as Micawber always believed - 'something may turn up', a miracle, to keep the bailiffs from the door. And, in the absence of surcharges, rather than see our elected representatives end up in a debtor's gaol, it will be the taxpayers of Broken Barnet who bear the consequences of this authority's financial mismanagement.

Thinking back to the hours spent reading through those accounts in the archive earlier in the day, following the ebb and flow of financial activity in the life of one particular figure, left an undeniable sense of historical, or at least fictional, perspective: and the voice of one of the characters created by him. 

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery."

No colours needed here. Cllr Finn: profit or loss: that is the only measurement, in the end, that counts. The Micawber guide to accountancy. But when you surrender control of the books to the tradesman, and surrender common sense to the rule of political dogma, or party loyalty - all measure is lost, and we are lost with it. 

Tuesday 12 September 2017

Heart and Soul: the Lodge plans rejected, in a victory for Victoria Park

Residents and campaigners, including Mary O'Connor and Roger Chapman, (wearing his lucky tie) packed out the committee room for the Lodge plans meeting

The story of the former park keeper's Lodge, in Victoria Park, Finchley, is something that is so much more than the a tale of one building, one park, or even 'One Barnet', the last, terminal stage of the 'easycouncil' model of local government.

It holds within it, this story, the essence of everything that is wrong with this borough, and this country: the prostitution of our public services, our public institutions, our built heritage, and our greenspaces, to the rule of profit. 

This was a tale of one small historic building, in one park, a recreation ground created by a conservative, philanthropic, benevolent paternalism of the past, put up for sale by a latterday, post Thatcherite, Conservative council determined to discard the role of unpaid civic duty, and indeed their roles as trustees of the park, in preference for an easier life as an easycouncil commissioner. 

This newly defined role enables them to continue to accept a generous allowance from the residents and tax payers of Broken Barnet, while happily handing over responsibility for the authority's functions to profiteering contractors - or dumping it on the backs of volunteers. No volunteers to be found in the council chamber, of course, since the departure of the much respected Tory member Leslie Sussman, who diligently served his community for many years - without taking a penny in allowance. 

In a committee room, one night last week, however, we did see some signs of hope that some of our newer Tory representatives would like to experiment with the idea of engaging with their constituents in a way that is ... kind of like it was meant to work, in the first place. 

That is to say, listening to their views, and, well ... representing them. And acting upon them. Why this miraculous event took place now, at this point, is something we shall contemplate later, and in the context of looming electoral doom - but: it certainly was not what was expected, when the meeting began. 

Mrs Angry had turned up at the Town Hall, on Thursday night, very definitely more in hope than expectation of a rejection of the plans, but wandered upstairs early, as usual, in order to find the papers and read through them again. 

It was quiet, just a handful of other residents waiting and wondering how the evening would go. And then: just before the meeting began, a wonderful sight: held downstairs by security staff, a crowd of residents, almost all of them unknown to Mrs Angry, now moved up the stairs and along the corridor to the committee room. This was a very touching thing to see - that at 6pm on a wet Thursday night, so many people would make the effort to come along to remind councillors whose park it was, and that they had no intention of letting anyone knock down the Lodge, and build a block of flats in its place ...

We took our places, and so did the councillors. Rather interestingly, none of the Tories, at this stage, made any declarations of interest, a development that led to some heckling by members of the public ...

Apart from the Chair, Eva Greenspan, Tory members present were Melvin Cohen - who said not a word all evening, Gabriel Rozenberg, Shimon Ryde, and for Labour, Arjun Mittra, Jim Tierney, and Alan Schneiderman.

The atmosphere in the room was tense, and watchful, as the meeting began with a speech from Roger Chapman, a resident and a former senior planner - with more than thirty years experience - and an interest in local history. 

Mr Chapman laid into the reports now presented to the committee, and pointed out, in an authoritative and incisive summary of the case, the serious flaws in the arguments used to sanction the planning officers' rather incomprehensible recommendation to approve the application. He pointed out, amongst other matters, the interesting fact that the authority's own documents acknowledged the authenticity of the covenant which protects this side of Victoria Park. 

Labour's Arjun Mittra and Tory Shimon Ryde both commented on the compelling argument that he presented that the Lodge site still remains, despite the controversial sale, as part of the park. He also made very important points that had been overlooked by the Highways report, such as the lack of turning space for the cars which would be entering and exiting the flats, at such a dangerous junction and entrance to the park.

Up now came a contribution from a resident apparently in support of the application, and who last year had meetings with officers about the money from the sale, and how it should be spent, in regard to the park. Money for 'improvements' which are not needed, but if they were, should not be dependent on the sale of land within the park itself.

To a certain amount of heckling from the public gallery, this supporter suggested that the Edwardian arts and crafts style Lodge was not of any real merit. 

Victoria Park Lodge, before it was put up for sale by Barnet Council

He thought that apart from the benefit of the money from the sale, the new flats would offer some sort of 'surveillance' over the park. He denied that the playground the flats would immediately overlook was used by families with small children. 

This is not so: although young teenagers often play basketball at the far end of the area, the section which would be directly under the gaze of the windows and balconies, right next to the playground, contains barred swings for babies and toddlers, and a slide suitable only for very young children. As Labour's Alan Schneiderman later pointed out, unseen viewers looking down from a block of flats do not represent the sort of surveillance parents would want to see. He also asked if it were not advisable to separate the potential accrual of £600k from the sale of the Lodge from the issue of whether or not the Lodge should be developed.

The next speaker was local Labour councillor Ross Houston, who summarised the many reasons why he supported residents' concerns about the plans: that such a development simply does not fit here; the traffic issues - that Long Lane is a very busy road, near to many schools ... Tory member Gabriel Rozenberg had already pointed out that the entrance adjacent to the Lodge inevitably had many small children running into the park, who would be at risk, should any access to cars be allowed as a result of this proposal.

Another local councillor, veteran Labour member Jim Tierney, who has lived not far from the park for many years, and is one of the few members who understand the historical context of ... well, almost everything ... also spoke, at some length, about the proposed development. The Chair tried to get him to hurry up and finish, at one point - We have had this park for 117 years, he admonished her: So don't be rushing me. You can give the ward councillor a few minutes

Cllr Tierney listed all the planning and highways issues, and the terrible precedent it would make, to allow development in Victoria Park, but he spoke with most feeling about the park itself, and its creation by local people at the end of the nineteenth century, figures such as 'Inky Stephens', the former Finchley MP, and all the others who had subscribed towards the purchase of the land, to commemorate the life of Queen Victoria, and to secure the park for ever for local people, with a carefully written covenant which had been simply ignored, it seems, when the Lodge was sold: but cannot be ignored when it comes to any question of development.

Victoria Park, said Cllr Tierney, in his soft Irish voice, is the soul, and the heart, of Finchley's history and heritage

Heart and soul: two things to which we rarely hear reference, in the committee rooms of the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

Enough of sentiment for the past: here is the shadow of the future - up to the table came a representative of the developer's agent.

He appeared to be puzzled as to why residents would not welcome what he thought was a marvellous development, and one that would bring immense benefit to Victoria Park. He was clearly aggrieved at the suggestion that residents had not been properly consulted: the agents had hand delivered seventy leaflets about the plans, he claimed. Where, was not clear. Mrs Angry certainly didn't get one, or see one, or meet anyone who had one. 

He meandered on to the subject of crime in the park, which he thought was a good reason to build a block of flats. That would be the old 'surveillance' idea, one must assume. New residents standing at the window, with night vision binoculars, scanning the park, looking for anything which might stop the online commenters in 'support' of the plans, who live in another part of the borough, from dropping by for a midnight ramble, as they claimed in their comments that they like to do.

The agent also said the Lodge had been neglected for '20 years' - clearly not true. Until the council put the property on its bargain basement property sale list, there was a family with young children who lived there. True, the property was then left pointlessly empty when the council found out about the covenant, and the gate and fences left unattended until residents complained, but then when it was sold, the property was renovated, if only in a limited way, and once more has had people living there. Until the week of the meeting, that is. And now again, since the meeting, the lights are on in the property, and clothes on the washing line, evident to any passer by. Most puzzling.

And unfortunately a complaint about negligence sat badly with the evidence shown in some of the photographs that planning officers now displayed on an overhead projector.

But here the fun began.

Tory Cllr Rozenberg, most gratifyingly, now launched a merciless, forensic interrogation of the developer's agent, who was clearly unprepared for his questions. 

Hats off: it was a masterly display, and of the type we rarely see, in the committee rooms of Broken Barnet.

Until then, residents had been unclear as to how the meeting would go, or how the Tory members would approach the highly controversial plans. No doubt remained now. The Tory councillors - or at least those of them who spoke, as one remained silent throughout -  were as appalled as the residents.

The councillor wanted the agent to explain what had happened to some of the fine architectural features of the Lodge; the period features. Specifically the elongated chimney, and the terracotta finials. 

The chimney had been cut in half, and the lovely finials knocked off the roof, in the middle of the night, in an apparent act of random vandalism, by parties unknown, within a day of the Residents Forum where these details had been mentioned, as proof of the building's historic character.

The agent said he could not comment.

Cllr Rozenberg continued, referring to what he described as a state of 'squalor' now clearly demonstrated in the officers' photographs, which showed that for some reason, bags of rubbish had been pushed into the gap between one side of the Lodge and the boundary hedge: hidden from view from the angle of the street, but making a wonderful subject for photographers of neglected sites ready for demolition and development. (See above).

Why had this rubbish been allowed to accumulate? Surely no landlord would tolerate such an awful mess - and does the council not collect rubbish from this address?

No explanation.

The councillor now drew attention to the grafitti on the property, including what he described, with commendable restraint, as a 'green phallus'. 

The agent was lost for words, once more.

Yet there it was, on the projected image above our heads, an urban, twenty first century variation on a theme more usually associated with pagan hill figures carved into the English landscape: a symbol of virility - or defiance. 

The public gallery tittered, as Mrs Angry's over active imagination considered the possibility that this was some sort of manifestation of the Green Man of Broken Barnet, the guardian of our landscape, the protector of our open spaces, leaving his marker, right there, staring in the face of would be developers ... and leaving a warning to the men from Capita, and our elected representatives, to leave our park alone.

The fields lie sleeping.

Present at the committee table were a planning officer, and a consultant who had produced the rather elliptical Highways report. Now it was their turn to speak. As they were recommending this development, they were there to put the case on behalf, effectively, of the developer, and yet, at the same time, advise the councillors on the merits and lawfulness of the proposals. An impossible conflict of roles, you might think - and one complicated by the unique commercial context of the contracted planning service.

The planning officer agreed that there had been a 'substantial' level of objection to the plans (clearly ignored by the planners when making the recommendation), and also admitted that throughout the consultation there had been a series of 'issues' with the website. Indeed there had. The question, unasked, by them, was if the consultation therefore had been, as required by law, adequate, fair, and meaningful. The evidence would suggest otherwise.

It would, in fact, seem to be that there had been a remarkably successful process of 'insultation',  (Copyright G. Roots, 2017, see previous post), rather than any demonstration of meaningful consultation, in regard to the plans to demolish the Lodge, and replace it with a block of flats. 

Right from the off: starting with the decision, during August, a month when so many residents were away, as with last year's plans, to notify the thousands of users of Victoria Park by the means of one thin A4 piece of paper, shoved into an open flimsy cover, and tied the wrong way round on a lamp post as far as possible from the Lodge site, even though there was a perfectly good post right bang outside the building. 

The rain soon soaked through the notice, of course, and made it even more ... unnoticeable.

Residents complained: and pointed out this was utterly inadequate. After much lobbying more notices were put up, in the same flimsy open covers, it carried on raining, and they got wet, and became illegible. Residents' pleas for laminated notices, and notices in the park's own readymade, covered noticeboards by the two main entrances (one by the Lodge) were ignored by Capita Re planning officers. It was pointed out that Capita Re Highways officers use laminated notices, twice the size - this was repeatedly ignored too. Why?

Because the original notice had been hopelessly inadequate, and had affected the rights of residents to be properly notified, when the extra flimsily covered notices were put up, the dates of the consultation had to be amended. And it was agreed only now that all who had commented last year should be notified in writing. This caused enormous confusion over consultation dates with residents. 

It is fair to say that the only way most residents were notified was by local campaigners, like Mary O'Connor, see below, who spent their own time and money printing leaflets, and distributing them in and around the park.

Mary O'Connor during last year's application: pic courtesy local Times Group

Following on from the case of the mysteriously anonymised 'supporting' comments last year (only resolved by complaining to the Chief Executive, and many of them consequently exposed as associates of the developer), this year we had more issues with the online comments process. 

A number of residents reported to Mrs Angry that their objections had gone missing, and some had noted the date on which this had occurred. Had anyone removed them? Or had they been lost, somehow? 

At the very least, it would seem that there was a vulnerability in the system which put personal data at risk.

At the time of the disappearance, one of the residents had calculated, the number of objections lost represented about 21% of all comments: clearly a statistically significant figure. And yes: it seemed all the missing comments were objections, with one exception. 

That exception was allegedly - and we use the term here because of the history of questionable comments last year - from a woman (calling herself 'Mr') apparently supporting the plans in terms of a rather offensive remark - because of what he/she claimed was the 'raping history' of the park. Clearly an absurd and repellent remark ... and the only supporting one to disappear. 

A long, long series of emails took place over the weeks of the 'consultation', trying to establish how the disappearance had happened. After a while this was blamed on IDOX, the third party providers of Capita Re's planning portal. Ok: ask them to explain. After more time went by, we heard planning officers were informed by IDOX that this must be due to an 'outage' on a certain night in July. Oh. Very interesting. Because by then the date on which the act of disappearance had occurred had been provided to Mrs Angry: and ... well, well: it pre-dated the date of the 'outage'. 

The officer maintained this was still the probable cause. Mrs Angry asked if Capita, or IDOX, were in the process of re-writing the laws of physics, or rather the law of cause and effect, in order to explain how an event may happen after the consequence? Or perhaps they subscribe to the Jungian theory of synchronicity, which holds that there is another universal law, one of 'meaningful coincidences'? That must be it.

Next came the response that now they thought it was the system overloading. Even though ... the disappeared comments were left on a range of dates? And how curious that this applied only to objections, with the one exception previously noted. Whatever the cause, clearly an unreliable system, in which we may not invest any degree of confidence,

This issue was still unresolved by the time of Thursday's meeting. As was the fact that Capita Re officers had unaccountably failed to upload sixty other objecting comments - sent only privately as an unasked for FOI response, before the meeting, but not put in the public domain. Why not?

The senior Capita Re planning officer who had dealt with all these complaints was, as it turned out, the very same one sitting at the committee table, defending the decision to recommend approval of the developers' application. 

Yes, despite only 69 mostly questionable comments in support of the plans - and more than 450 objections against, almost all from local residents outraged by the proposal to build flats in their park, and listing many very sound and reasoned grounds for objection, that met all the planning requirements for refusal. And despite the rather curious Highways report that failed to address the full impact, in terms of raised risk of accidents as a result of allowing a block of flats in the park, with access and parking for a number of cars, right by the busy entrance, at an already very dangerous junction.

And so, apart from the failure in the process of consultation, here was another reason for concern over the recommendation: the very real conflict of interests posed by the way in which Capita Re manages the privatised system of planning, in Broken Barnet. 

At a Re contract review meeting with residents earlier this summer, concerns about this issue were raised with two Tory members, councillors Zinkin and Finn. They were clearly dismayed at the level of discontent among residents over the way planning is now managed - or not - and the poor standard of enforcement of breaches of planning conditions. 

Cllr Finn had stated, rather unconvincingly, that he did not think there was any problem with the multiplicity of roles played by Capita in these services, and other functions of the outsourced council. (And remember Capita is also a developer, which has the potential to complicate things even further). Finn thought there must be 'Chinese Walls' and all sorts of safeguards to ensure there was no conflict. He is wrong: in fact there would appear to be no evidence of any system that properly mitigates against such a risk - or, equally importantly, the risk of the perception of conflict of interest. Mrs Angry understands, moreover, that this is an issue that has been reported to the authority's external auditors.

And the Lodge case is a good example of this unmitigated risk: with the same officers giving fee based, private advice to the applicant, information which to we are not party; overseeing the process of consultation, and then making the recommendation to approve the plans. This is, by any reasonable standard, simply not acceptable: not transparent, or fair.

Now that planning is part of a profit making business, rather than an in house process meant to work for the local community, are planning officers under pressure from senior managers to reach targets of approved applications? 

Where are the checks and balances that should be in place to ensure that we have a service that works for residents and taxpayers, and does not prioritise what is best for Capita?

Back to the meeting.

The Highways consultant said he understood the points about safety. But of course it had been councillors and residents at the meeting, rather than officers, who had pointed out the huge risks to children running into the park, in this area, and the risk from traffic at a dangerous junction.

He commented only that it was the duty of parents to teach them the Highway Code. 

In fact, in Mrs Angry's view at least, it is the duty of planning and highways officers to consider the impact of developments within public parks, in terms of safeguarding children, but we had seen little evidence of that.

Tory Shimon Ryde said that he hardly knew where to begin with this application ... that the Lodge was ancillary to the park. Labour's Alan Scheiderman said we want the park preserved and enhanced, not developed.

Well: by now it was clear that the meeting was not going the way the developers wanted; and it was also clear that the officers at the table were somewhat taken aback by an unprecedented level of criticism, couched in such robust terms, by the Tory members. 

The mood of the residents crowding out the room lifted, and we watched carefully now as they negotiated the grounds for refusal, which the planning officer seemed to want to remain the same as the previous year. Members would not allow this, however, seeing the danger of further attempts to develop the site, should it not be made absolutely clear that the Lodge and its grounds are still, to all intents and purposes, part of the park.

The vote, when it came, was unanimous - albeit the third Tory member, Councillor Melvin Cohen, appeared slightly slower to raise his hand in opposition, until the last moment.

The application was unanimously rejected.

All very well. An impressive performance from the two Tory members who had questioned the applicant and officers. The fact remains, however, that the Tory group as a whole had originally approved the sale of the Lodge both in principle, when Finchley MP Mike Freer was leader, and then in practice, when the property was sold, in a cash purchase, to the current apparent owner. We say 'apparent', as the circumstances of the sale were rather puzzling, with a change of ownership on the day of completion.

On the other hand, it is fair to say that members appear to have been misled when making these decisions. They were not told about the covenant - and then they were led to believe that renovation of the property would be so expensive that it was not a credible proposition. Officers' reports insisted that it would cost £100,000 to bring the house to a decent standard of accommodation. In the event, the developer's representative admitted it cost only a fraction of this - and when FOI requests were made for the estimate on which the £100k cost was based ... it emerged there was no trace of any such report. Would members have sanctioned the sale, if they had been in full possession of the facts?

The Lodge survives. The developer will probably try to appeal, but he might be better advised to cut his losses, and accept defeat. He knows, or should know, his investment in this site is only of value in terms of the period property that he had hoped to demolish. With or without that property, he cannot build on this site, and so the only course of action is to sell the Lodge - or return it to the council. For the sake of the residents of Finchley, we must hope that the latter action is at least possible. It seems the most fair outcome for all parties.

The story of the Lodge is also the demonstration of a changing political landscape, here in Broken Barnet. There can be little doubt that the local elections next year, and the risk of a general election at any moment, in a newly marginal constituency, helped to encourage support from our Tory members for residents' opposition to this proposal. But there is also the dawning realisation among the more astute Tories that the impact of the Capita contracts in terms of voters, in regard to issues like planning and enforcement, is beginning to make itself felt. And the very serious criticisms raised by the current audit review pose fundamental concerns that they can no longer ignore.

Not just about one building, then, or one park, or the issue of development: this story has been about the future of our borough, its heart, and its soul; and about the extent to which we have given away our ability to direct the course of our local democratic process, so that it safeguards the best interests of our community. It is time to acknowledge the problem, and address it.

The fields still lie sleeping, underneath, here in Finchley, and elsewhere in the borough, and the spirit of defiance, and a lingering hope of a better future, they remain as well, somewhere out there, beyond the boundaries of our common history, and heritage. 

And that, in the end, is the real story of the Lodge, in Victoria Park.

Tuesday 5 September 2017

The right sort of people: or - Darlands, another act of insultation, in Broken Barnet? Plus: last call for the Lodge objections ...

Two important council committee meetings this week: one last night, one on Thursday. Thursday will be the planning meeting that decides the fate of the historic Lodge in Victoria Park - starting earlier than normal, Thursday at 6pm, Hendon Town Hall. The Lodge is the first item - so don't be late. More on this below.

Last night's meeting was the Assets and Regeneration committee: yes, we may not have regeneration, as such - other than the wholescale removal of poor people from favoured areas, like West Hendon - but we do have assets, in Broken Barnet - although of course this is only ever a temporary state of grace, as public assets must be become private profit - or at least outsourced to some body not within the reach of the local democratic process. 

Our libraries, for example: currently undergoing death by a thousand cuts, some given away to volunteer groups to run (one of these was broken into, last weekend): the rest carved up, the library area within their own buildings reduced to a minimal, nominal function, empty former children's libraries now gutted and waiting for theoretical tenants who will almost certainly never appear. In fact, Mrs Angry can reveal that as she predicted, two of the libraries will instead have council staff placed in them. Who knew? Me. Told you so. Is Capita paying itself rent for this? And a gainshare payment for saving money? Who knows. Not our councillors, that's for sure.

Hendon Library, next to the Town Hall, lies empty, stripped bare, its windows whitewashed to stop Mrs Angry, standing on tiptoes, taking more photographs. Not very successfully, as you can see here:

Hendon Library, refurbished by your Tory councillors

Yes, this was once our flagship library. Yes, it was, for many years, the base of internationally acclaimed, pioneering children's librarian Eileen Colwell. None of this impresses our philistine, culture averse Tory councillors. But it is - was - an asset, not a library. A business opportunity in waiting. 

Except of course our Barnet Tory members are pretty useless businessmen, when it comes to their civic duties. (The womenfolk don't get much of a say, of course). They happily swallow whatever easy guidance they get from their officers and consultants and sign off any old deal put before them: hence the almighty mess we are in with the Capita contracts, as the external auditors have now pointed out. When it all goes wrong: too late, too bad - we the taxpayers will carry the cost, not them.

When the library cuts were put forward, the massive reduction in size of the floor space of each library was agreed so as to make rooms available for renting out. Officers admitted cheerily that there was no business plan to support that. Because of course they don't care if this works out or not. If it does not, it will give them the excuse to cut the remainder of the service down to the ground, and sell off valuable properties for development. But as part of this scheme they assured us it was already agreed that Middlesex Uni was taking over almost all of Hendon Library. 

Despite denials, as the time of closure for 'refurbishment' came ever closer, rumours emerged that the deal had fallen through. This had echoes of the farce over our only museum, at Church Farmhouse, around the corner: shut, ransacked, put up for sale, no takers - Middlesex Uni begged to take it on, which they did, eventually, but only after years of reluctant negotiations. 

This time the library has been shut, ransacked, gutted, and left standing as little more than a shell while more begging took place. A deal has now been reached, but of course we are not allowed to know the financial details. Mrs Angry would guess the terms are pretty generous: a peppercorn rent, and a building modified to the tenants' exact requirements. Shame about the token library that has to be in the way, in one corner of one of the three floors. Still: that won't last long.

Gerrard Roots, the former curator of the Church Farmhouse Museum, had some questions about this deal, to be signed off last night: all of them ignored of course. He pointed out that the so called consultation over the cuts had been widely viewed as a 'nonsultation', but might better be described as an 'insultation'. The Tory members looked on, with no interest. They do not see the finer points of difference between any of these definitions.

They do not understand the nature of consultation, in fact, and that is why they were so surprised by the number of angry residents who had turned up to hear another item - one which the Tories must have thought had been safely dealt with, with little outside interest: the question of Darlands Nature Reserve, in Totteridge Valley. 

This is a little known area of our borough, a beautiful rural landscape of fields, and farmland, hedgerows and trees, now protected by the Green Belt, which of course offers rather less protection these days than it did. A landscape familiar to Mrs Angry, and indeed fellow blogger Roger Tichborne*,  both of whom went to school at St Vincent's, on the Ridgeway, in Mill Hill village, which backs onto the valley. The farmer's children were pupils at our school: their father would come up every day and take the slops from our school dinners back for his pigs, a forced diet which the infant Mrs Angry thought should have been a matter of investigation for the RSPCA. And the NSPCC, come to think of it.

We still visit the area for walks, and to visit the Adam and Eve, and because the best garden centre in the borough, Finchley Nurseries (I expect more discount now, Phil)  is here, near Burtonhole Farm.

* Mr Tichborne's lively account of the meeting can be read here ...

The only reason that any residents knew about the proposals regarding Darlands was because resident and green spaces campaigner Mary O'Connor had spotted the item, and made the effort to put up notices in the area a week or so ago. Many residents who came to the meeting were furious that they would otherwise have  had no way of being informed about the plans.

Before the meeting began, Mrs Angry had arrived early and gone up to the committee room to read through the papers, and charge her phone. (This latter activity required a certain amount of ill advised crawling under a table, and led to an unfortunate situation later on, after charging was over, in which she backed out and found herself in a compromising position, kneeling before the Tory leader, Cllr Cornelius, who seemed to find this quite thrilling, you know, (as far as you could tell), even though Mrs Cornelius was sitting right behind her, looking on. 

Mrs Angry sat eavesdropping, as usual, in the public seats. Totteridge councillors Mrs Cornelius and Cllr Stock, and the ever debonair, silver fox Mill Hill councillor John Hart (whose curling, handle bar moustache was admired, at some length, and with a certain amount of envy, by an elderly resident accompanying Mrs Cornelius), all sat in a huddle with a group of Totteridge worthies with whom they were clearly well acquainted, evidently all in on the plans for Darlands. In other words, the new trust had been arranged, members appointed, and - with no consultation with local residents. This is Broken Barnet, of course: this is how we do things. But it rather annoyed the residents, who made their views on the issues known, forcibly, and loudly, throughout.

Things were not improved by the farcical state of the sound system in the committee room. No one could hear what was being said: including the admittedly half deaf Mrs Angry, who was sitting in the front row. This is quite normal: and the perfect metaphorical enactment of a larger truth, the absolute failure in communication between elected members and their residents. No one can hear, except those at the table, the councillors and officers, but - who cares? Why does it matter? 

Even when they remember to use the microphones, these stop and start, and the poor acoustics in the room make sure almost no one can hear. Those who attend meetings regularly are used to it: the residents last night were not, and were infuriated. They were also not used to the idea that their elected representatives talk, and they must listen; ignored any such limitations, and with breathtaking Brechtian disregard for the invisible fourth wall in the theatre of farce that is a Barnet committee meeting, simply talked at the table, to the table, and even came to sit right by the table, inventing their own rules of participation. 

Chair Daniel Thomas lost control of the meeting, and didn't dare to contradict these residents, in the way that Barnet Tories always defer to those from Tory held areas.

A worried Cllr Thomas fails to control the meeting

One elderly local environmental expert, who was very hard of hearing, but has an immense amount of knowledge about the borough's wildlife and ecological issues, moved his chair to the front and said that as some of the many questioners had not turned up, he thought he should speak to the committee - quite against the rules, and if any Labour activists, for example, had tried this, they would have been stopped, and security called if they persisted. Thomas did not even attempt to stop him. 

Many of those present had real and very valid questions that they wanted raised, many of those issues also succinctly put to the committee by Labour's Pauline Coakley Webb. You cannot blame residents for being worried:  the failure to consult, the lack of information, and the apparent lack of preparation by the consortium itself could only foster suspicion. And there are many things to worry about. Is the proposed lease going to end in commercialisation of the land? Is it a back door for development? Will it disturb the delicate ecological balance of the surrounding area?

It is a quite extraordinary thing, but no ecological survey of Darlands had been made before the proposals formed to lease the reserve to this group of trustees: largely Tory councillors and a few local people with an interest in wildlife. How can any decisions be made without such a survey? With no audit of the animals, insects, birds, and plants that are to be found there, in the area around or in the lake? We heard from birdwatchers and others about the variety of species to be found: siskins, warblers, mandarin ducks; snakeshead frittillary, and more - one of the public questions listed a huge variety of flora and fauna:

The lake is home to grass snakes and water shrews,
and the area is used by up to eight species of bat (some of
which are nationally scarce including Natterer's Bat and
Nathusius' Pipistrelle). The field north of the lake (included
in the proposals) supports numerous breeding birds
including the scarce and 'red-listed' Grasshopper Warbler,
plus Little Owl, Kestrel, Linnet, Reed Bunting, Whitethroat
and Lesser Whitethroat. It also supports numerous butterfly 
species ...

None of this evaluated: so how can residents have any confidence that this sensitive area, so rich in biodiversity, will be safe in the hands of the trust which has been appointed, with no transparency or democratic engagement, let alone consultation or any form of election, by a previously unknown 'Green Spaces Board'? Mary O'Connor had asked about this mysterious entity, pointing out there was no information about it anywhere: response -

The Greenspaces Board is an internal management
board that is chaired by the Strategic Director for
Environment and its membership includes a number of 
officers from different areas of the council.

So, an unaccountable board, appointing an unaccountable group of trustees, in a process shrouded in secrecy, with no reference to consultation with the wider community. Yet again: this is how we do things here.

It was clear that the leading light in the new 'consortium' is the Chair of the Totteridge Manor Association. (At the beginning of the meeting Tory leader Richard Cornelius had declared his membership of this and the Totteridge Residents Association). Is there still a Totteridge Manor, you may be wondering? There is in the minds of our Tory councillors: a whiff of feudalism never fails to appeal to their little Englander tendencies, living as they do in the pre-war era, where everyone knew their place, and cheery workers doffed their caps at local Aldermen, as they made important decisions on behalf of a helpless, feckless underclass. 

Cornelius, incidentally, at one point in the meeting, stated, with a clear sense of outrage, that Darlands - yes, owned by Barnet Council -  had been dreadfully neglected for twenty years or more, and he had been waiting and waiting for someone to do something about it.

Mrs Angry chewed the end of her pencil thoughtfully and interrupted, from across the room.

Who, she asked, is the leader of Barnet Council? And has been for the last few years? (Not to mention the local councillor). 

As the feckless underclass chuckled in the cheap seats, Cornelius stopped in his tracks, as if he had forgotten, completely lost his train of thought, and got off at an unexpected station, without a ticket. He did not continue.

The Chair of the new trust addressed the meeting: his name was Terry Bannister, clearly a nice and well intentioned man who appeared to be rather taken aback that things, contrary to the assurance of the Totteridge councillors and their associates, were not going to be quite as straightforward as promised. He did his best to explain what he and his friends were up to, that they knew what they were about, being the 'right sort of people' to run the consortium/trust. He twice mentioned, with evident unease at the difficulties that were being raised about accountability, that they were in a 'chicken and egg' situation. What or which was the chicken, and what or which was the egg, never quite became clear. 

There would be a full ecological survey. Should already have been one, commented Mrs Angry, scribbling away. He disarmed her then by agreeing: yes, there should have been, in yet another breach of the first rule of Fight Club, Barnet style: do not acknowledge hecklers, like Mrs Angry, or agree with them, Mr Bannister. Schoolboy errors, from one unschooled in the realpolitik of Broken Barnet. 

The Chair of the new trust was asked by Labour's Pauline Coakley Webb if he thought he really had enough funds to do what was required in regard to the lake, and dredge it? Should this important decision not be deferred for a more full consultation? The meeting - or rather the Tories, moving en masse as usual, decided no, not necessary.

It is full of toxins, apparently, allegedly a legacy of the Medical Research Institute next to my old school, now waiting, yes - can you guess? To become yet another property development. Like my old school, the oldest bit, on the Totteridge side. And almost every former institution or public building, in this rotten borough.

Dredge the lake? Drain the swamp, whispered Mrs Angry to Mr Roots.

It will cost maybe £400,000 to accomplish that. The dredging of the lake, that is: the swamp draining rate has yet to be assessed. The trust has only £40,000, but apparently they are confident of raising the rest. How? People want to know? Membership? Doesn't that exclude those without means? 

Well, no doubt the fabulously wealthy residents of Totteridge Lane can pay for the dredging of Darlands Lake with the money lost down the back of their impeccably upholstered sofas: if not, no doubt again, grants will appear from somewhere, to help with the cost. After all, Tory councillors are very keen to spend money on schemes that fit in with their ideological stance of public ownership bad, outsourcing good, especially when it involves dumping responsibility on well meaning volunteers: as we have seen in the library fiasco, and will increasingly see with our parks and green spaces.

Now then.

One of the things that amused Mrs Angry when looking at the reports for the Darlands item was the keenness of officers to play down the risk of harm to the reserve because of the covenants that will be in place to protect it. Ah yes: covenants.

Rather oddly, the sudden enthusiasm for such restrictions appears not to have caused even the smallest bead of sweat to appear on the revered foreheads of our Capita planning officers when it comes to the other highly controversial issue to come to committee this week: that is to say the preposterous proposal to knock down the historic park keeper's Lodge, and build a block of flats in Victoria Park, Finchley.

This land, given to the people of Finchley for ever,  is protected by a covenant. It forbids the erection of any building on this ground other than a park keeper's accommodation, a bandstand or a cricket pavilion. Barnet's privatised planners are ignoring the covenant, and have recommended that this block of flats be built in the park, by the entrance, despite all the reasons it is quite clearly in breach of the restrictions, and asie from the matter of the covenant, an utterly inappropriate over development of such a site. If the Tories use their ability at committee to force this through, they will be setting a terrible precedent for every park and green space in this borough. 

They will also be committing political suicide, in what is now a highly marginal constituency, which is perhaps one of the reasons why, so Mrs Angry has been informed by residents, our local Tory MP has said he has personally objected to this proposal. He must know that a block of flats in such a place - and right opposite our local polling station - would only serve to remind voters of the dire consequences of outsourcing planning services to the private sector, and the failure of local Tories to protect the park created by another Conservative MP, more than a century ago, for the future and continued benefit and well being of the people of Finchley.

Please let your councillors know how you feel about this, now, before Thursday - especially the Tory members who may very well vote in favour.

All the members' details are here: it is important to email the substitute members as well, in case they take part. Email addresses here.

Councillor Eva Greenspan  (Chairman) Conservative
Councillor John Marshall    (Vice-Chairman) Conservative
Councillor Arjun Mittra   Labour
Councillor Alan Schneiderman   Labour
Councillor Melvin Cohen   Conservative
Councillor Shimon Ryde    Conservative
Councillor Jim Tierney   Labour
Councillor Ross Houston  (Substitute) Labour
Councillor Graham Old  (Substitute)  Conservative
Councillor Jack Cohen  (Substitute) Libdem
Councillor Reuben Thompstone  (Substitute) Conservative
Councillor Anne Hutton  (Substitute) Labour
Councillor Alon Or-bach  (Substitute) Labour
Councillor Gabriel Rozenberg  (Substitute)  Conservative