Thursday, 14 December 2017

Frozen: A winter's tale, from Broken Barnet

                                                                                                                        Pic credit Angela Barrett

Updated 15th December: see below:

When Mrs Angry was in her infancy, and when there were libraries, still, in the London Borough of Broken Barnet, and when those libraries had children's libraries ... well then: Edgware's children's library had a whole wall of shelves stuffed full of books on mythology, classic tales, and folktales. 

Not just picture books, paper backs, or easy reading: heavy volumes, with long stories, and difficult words - and fabulous illustrations. This was the infant Mrs Angry's favourite section, and she would borrow these books over and over again. 

A particular favourite was one with stories by Hans Christian Andersen: although often grotesque, and frightening, in some cases, beguiling, and instructive: priming a child's imagination, and leading you through an unravelling sequence of useful narrative themes, and archetypal characters, that, in retrospect, gave as close an insight into human nature as anything else could. Perhaps better than anything else would.

The Snow Queen, for example: this tale exerted a huge fascination. Not just the horror of a landscape turned into boiled spinach, the evil protagonist of Mrs Angry's Sunday lunch nightmare, being made to sit at the table, by her mother, for hours, because she couldn't eat the vile stuff - or even the inadmissable similarity between the Snow Queen, and said spinach tormenting, emotionally distant mother ... but so much more. Disturbing, but compelling, this fable - especially the idea that people could lose their human feelings, and emotions: the sliver of glass, and the ice, in their hearts, and in their eyes.

As you grow up, you recognise these people. They cause you the most grief, in your life: cause the most trouble, and simply don't care. Their hearts are frozen, and nothing will change that. And as you get older, you recognise the same lack of humanity is increasingly apparent in the society that has formed around you, shaped by these people. 

Conservatism, as a set of political values, necessarily appeals to those who lack empathy, and compassion, for those less fortunate than themselves. We have seen it in the punitive policies and social injustice perpetrated by successive governments run by the 'Nasty Party', and we see it still in Broken Barnet, in the cradle of Thatcherism, the frozen landscape of the ultimate Snow Queen -  now with a Tory council administration that is rank with self interest, complacency, and utter indifference to those in need. 

In this rotten borough we see not so much a landscape of boiled spinach, so much as a yawning chasm - an ever increasing space between those who have, and those who have not,  worn away by years of relentless ideologically driven opposition to the very nature of public service, equality - or accountability.

Our cold hearted elected representatives, in Westminster, and in the local council chamber, have become so disconnected from the reality of our lives that they have inevitably, and fatally, miscalculated the extent of their own mortality. And now they are on the verge of losing their grip on power, directly as a result of their own hubris.

As well as pursuing an agenda of socially illiberal policies, and hollowing out the council's functions to a skeleton service, Barnet's Tory run administration has prioritised their commitment to encouraging mass development of areas of the borough, under the guise of 'regeneration'. In fact the development that is happening all around us does not address the housing needs of local residents, but is simply a proliferation of non affordable properties. 

There is no corner of Barnet which is safe from this speculative activity - and that includes land owned and used by the authority. Hence the hurried sale, some while ago ... of the council depot at Mill Hill.

So keen were our Tory councillors, and their senior officers, to see a fast buck from this sale, that they somehow forgot to consider where they would put the services that used the site as their base. 

It soon became clear that there was no alternative location within the borough: in panic, a purchase of the Abbots site in Oakleigh Road South was made for waste services - a curious story in which the authority paid a huge amount, despite the site having been bought for a fraction of the cost only a short time beforehand, by the authority's own landlords. Read this, for more on that mystifying tale.

There was no room in the borough, however, for the gritting lorries and supplies that had been based in Mill Hill - so they eventually ended up ... in another borough. In Harrow.

Yes. I know what you are thinking. Isn't that rather foolish? Did they consider the impact on the ability to respond to a major incident involving snow and icy conditions in Barnet? 

Well, no need to worry about that sort of thing: 'winter planning', of course, is now safely in the hands of Capita. 


This weekend's downfall of snow was clearly predicted, and of course Mrs Angry, like most sensible people, made sure suitable preparations were made on Saturday, before nightfall. 

Patching up the distintegrating lagging round the boiler pipes with old socks. Ordering more logs for the fire. Topping up the bird feeder. Stocktaking of essential emergency supplies: milk, bread, alcohol, chocolate. Noticed there seemed to be no gritting of the road, which was odd, especially as the council's twitter feed had been boasting about doing this the day before, when it wasn't necessary, and - come to think of it, there didn't seem to have been any other gritting this year, unlike in the past, when it seemed to take place every night in winter. 

Waking up about five in the morning, as is Mrs Angry's wont, lying there pointlessly worrying about everything from Donald Trump, Brexit, the heating, the crack in the ceiling, the spider in the bathroom, and the grim prospect of life in 2018, when she realised there was an eerie silence outside: a sure sign of ... yes, looking out of the window now - snow. Falling and now settling on parked cars, and roofs. Went back to bed: getting up a couple of hours later to find the snow was falling even heavier - and the road was already very dangerous - one car struggling painfully slowly to get up the slope and inch its way along Squires Lane. Quite clearly the road had not been gritted: for this section of the road, that was an absolute disaster.

Mrs Angry's son had to go to work in central London. No buses could get along the road - all day. Worse still, the Northern Line was not in service, on either the Barnet or Edgware side. He walked until he was able to see a bus still in service, going along the Finchley Road, and took the tube from West Hampstead. Ballards Lane, he noted, had not been gritted: but crossing over at Henley's Corner, it was evident TFL had been at work in the same conditions, as the North Circular was clear. On his return in the evening, when the Northern Line was back, not only had the treacherous slope to the station not been gritted, nor still had any of Ballards Lane. In short, the transport system in Barnet had completely broken down, and even heavily used public areas in Finchley had been left in a perilous state for any pedestrians.

From reports on twitter and facebook, it was evident that there were chaotic conditions all over the borough and virtually no sign of gritting, anywhere.

Mrs Angry tried tweeting at the few Tory councillors who are on twitter. The leader Richard Cornelius never replies, and his deputy Dan Thomas remained silent. Councillor Zinkin, who is always keen to deny and defend any failing by the authority, even in the face of blatant evidence to the contrary, had this to say, in response: 

Except ... as Mrs Angry pointed out, she was awake then, and saw only snow, not rain - and no grit, no residue of grit. And gritters were conspicuous by their absence here all day - Squires Lane, which is a bus route, left in a very dangerous state, and no buses able to run. Throughout the day some residents braved terrible conditions waiting at nearby stops for buses which would never come. By 11.30, the snow was worse, not turned to sleet. Silence then from Cllr Zinkin.

High ground? Again, from every hill in the borough came reports of stranded vehicles, one or two buses, but worst of all, an ambulance in Barnet. Where were the gritters?

The only sighting of a gritting lorry, readers, was, according to one eye witness ... in Meadway, in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Yes, an minor residential road in the most affluent part of Barnet, populated by billionaires, the safest (last remaining) Tory seat, and important only in the sense that this is where local Tories receive their most generous supply of funding.

In the aftermath of a day of absolute shambles, comparable only to the omnishambles of the Mayoral election day in 2016, which saw the departure of Barnet's former Chief Executive, we learned a little more about what had gone on, or rather not gone on, behind the scenes.

The Tory leader went on radio to broadcast a lot of bilge about battling from 2 am to deal with the snow crisis: contradicting his own senior officer, Jamie Blake, who around eight o'clock in the evening of Sunday had informed councillors, with an extraordinary degree of complacency, in the circumstances, that all was under control:

Dear Councillors,

I am writing to provide you with an update ‎of our activity in response to the snow conditions that we have experienced today.

A decision was made to deploy our gritters at 4am this morning. All ten of our priority one routes were then treated. At 9am a further decision was made to deploy again with a heavy treatment to counter the snow fall. This deployment was sustained throughout the day on a continuous basis with all ten priority one routes receiving three treatments. We have also responded to police requests for treatment in specific locations. In all we have placed circa 200 tonnes of grit salt on the borough’s network today.

We prioritise key routes within the Barnet network for our gritting activities into priority one and priority two routes. Our aim is to treat the ten priority one routes, which largely consist of our main roads, entrances to hospitals, schools and town centre locations, before moving onto priority two areas. While working within these priorities every effort is made to respond to individual requests for assistance from our residents and commuters.

Mr Blake is the Commissioning Director for Environment, and therefore responsible for ensuring the privatised services under his remit are satisfactorily delivered. Mr Blake, you may recall from previous appearances in this blog, such as the matter of the bus passes for disabled residents, which were apparently unlawfully terminated by Capita, sometimes with no warning, and in some cases leaving highly vulnerable users stranded and in distress with no means of travelling home. He accepted responsibility for the decision to pursue this new policy, but continued in his post. This is from his Linkedin profile:

Still seamlessly blending innovation from an inherent understanding of the environment landscape, but not when it has been turned into boiled spinach, and therefore possibly having problems relating intelligently to the related delivery units, what with all the snow and stuff.

Among the other people copied into this message was another senior officer, a man who rejoices in the name of Mr Dean Kronk, and who is the Service Director for Highways, at Re - the private company and (We Have Decided On A) Joint Venture run by Capita with Barnet, and responsible for a wide range of critical functions, including planning and enforcement - one area much criticised for failing to deliver a competent standard of performance. 

So according to Mr Blake, the decision to grit Barnet's roads was only made at 4 am, the time Cllr Zinkin claimed the lorries were already out and delivering the stuff, before it became magically 'washed away' by an alleged downfall of rain.

And Priority One routes were gritted, twice on Sunday, were they? No sign of that in my road, which is in that category. Barnet Hill? Ballards Lane? When?


*Updated 15th December:

Fellow blogger Mr Reasonable has pointed out that the failure to prepare for and address the scale of the snow on Sunday would seem to be a clear breach of contractual obligation by Capita Re, see here:

And here:

It is quite clear that the decision to grit should have been taken as soon as the weather alerts were issued, and not at 4 am on Sunday morning, when it was too late. It is also evident that further action taken on Sunday was simply inadequate. 

Now read a statement put out yesterday by Barnet Unison's  branch secretary, John Burgess. This also explains succinctly exactly where the blame lies: 

First things first, the Gritting service is provided directly by Barnet Council.

It has not been outsourced.

However there have been changes to the Gritting service since Re (Capita) were given a contract that included the Highways Services.

If you go to Barnet Council Winter maintenance web page you will see the contact details for Re, view here

The implications of trying to run services with multiple partners, each of whom will have their own agendas, was probably not discussed thoroughly by those councillors who rubber stamped the outsourcing of key environmental services to Capita.

I know it wasn’t discussed because I attended every single council committee meeting for years, desperate to see some semblance of scrutiny. What I witnessed, was no scrutiny of claims in favour of outsourcing made by senior council officers, long since gone from the Council.

No accountability.

Back to the Gritting service.

The Gritting service prior to privatisation made their own decision as to when they went out to grit roads, now they have to be instructed by Re (Capita).

It is really important to note that fact.

What happened on Sunday 10 December 2017?

I am writing this post in defence of our members who carry out this service.

There has been a great deal of anger from Barnet residents about the lack of gritting that led to the chaos on the streets of Barnet.

I just want to make it clear if my members in the Gritting service had been asked to go out, they would have gone out.

The question that must be asked is why were they were not asked.

I have asked and I am still waiting…….

Harrow depot

Many residents are blissfully unaware that Barnet Council sold Mill Hill depot (in the exact centre of the borough) without securing a suitable location for a new depot. This has resulted in services being scatted over a number of sites. In the case of the Gritting service, it was moved to Harrow. This means they have to drive from Harrow and drive into Barnet to begin the routes, then drive back to Harrow to pick up more grit.

The workforce can’t believe councillors could make such a decision and neither can Barnet UNISON.

All the ingredients, then, of a perfect (snow) storm. 

Flogging off the family silver, as usual, and handing a council depot over to developers. Failing to find any location within the borough for the gritters. Deciding to move the gritters to Harrow. Outsourcing the decision making process that oversees the organisation of gritting to Capita Re.

(Mrs Angry's spies inform her that, most amusingly, the very expensive council depot in Oakleigh Road South, had to be gritted last week by ... FM Conway. Yes, a private contractor used, at our expense, to grit the council's own depots because the council's own gritters are too far away, in Harrow).

Apart from the failure to prepare for Sunday's weather, what is puzzling is why, once the level of challenge on the day itself was evident, there was such an inadequate response. 

Hats off now to fellow blogger Mr Mustard, who has written about the weekend's chaos here and here - and who spotted this interesting item in a council meeting in September:

You may ask, but is Barnet actually meeting its statutory requirements, then? It would appear that relying on Capita's handling of the 'winter plan' has meant it has not.

Consider the extent of accountability under the Railways and Transport Act 2003 - s41(1A) Highways Act 1980  ... "In particular, a highway authority are under a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice".

If you had a fall or accident, this week, or any other serious consequence, as a result of the council's failure to take what you consider to be 'reasonably practicably' means to provide you with a safe passage along a highway - which may or may not include pavements - then Mrs Angry suggests you quote this at them, when you make a claim.

There are many questions that must be answered: the definition of what is a Priority road. Is Essex Park, for example, where a certain disgraced former Tory councillor used to live, still worthy of that categorisation? Or Meadway, a relatively unimportant road in Hampstead Garden Suburb, which was apparently prioritised for gritting while so many major routes, like Barnet Hill, were reportedly left in such a dangerous condition, and if so, why?

Who decided which roads were gritted, and in what order, and when?

Why were so many major roads, bus routes, and areas of heavy pedestrian use or around transport hubs, left ungritted all day?

Why was there no emergency response, when not only had there been a heavy fall of snow, but a major failure in the local transport system?

Why did so many schools have to close the next day, and why were so many parents reporting dangerous conditions around the roads and pavements in these locations?

Did the Tory leader and Chief Executive not take an active part in overseeing the response on Sunday? 

If they did, why was it so ineffectual? 

Is it because they are unable to hold their contractors at Capita Re to account, or to direct their delivery of the service, now that they have delegated control to them? Or are they simply not interested?

And here we return to where we started, in our winter's tale. 

In truth, our Tory councillors, shot through, as they are, with the sliver of glass in their icy hearts, are hardened to the plight of those residents whose needs might depend on the provision of public services. They are on record as saying they do not want residents who are dependent on those services.

They fall over themselves to respond to the slightest whinge of those who live in the most affluent areas of the borough, in the Suburb, and Totteridge - and ignore the everyday needs of ordinary residents who might depend on public transport on a day like Sunday, to get to work, or a safe path to get to a supermarket, or to visit a sick relative. Well, if you have a 4x4,  four wheel drive, you're ok, aren't you? And those most affected aren't likely to be Tory voters, are they? 

Well, unfortunately, this is yet another gross miscalculation: like libraries, planning & enforcement, the failure to recognise the impact of such a level of incompetence by their outsourced contractors on their own, previously loyal voters is going to add to the weight of disaffection now placing their electoral future in jeopardy. 

Their inability to empathise, to engage with their own residents and their needs is their fatal flaw: and as with all such regimes, or individuals, in the end, the lack of emotional intelligence that marks their nature will be their downfall: the kiss of the Snow Queen, in the end, will destroy them. 

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