Friday, 6 July 2018

A Potential Realignment, or: Easycouncil is No More

A deserted Barnet Conservative group room, Hendon Town Hall, watched over by Margaret Thatcher

The end, when it came, came creeping in, like a bad smell; a whiff of something like death, or decay.

It hung over the London Borough of Broken Barnet, a cloud of toxic fumes on a sunny day, like the foul air hovering over the North Circular, unnoticed by those passing through it, at first, and only visible from afar. 

An odour of something like death, or something rotten. Something they are trying to bury, before you see the body. 

Too late, too late. The End is no longer Nigh. The last breath has been drawn, and now, after the election is all over, and the Tory members are safe in their seats, look: it is here. It is finished, at last.

That beginning of the end began, and ended, with the last Audit meeting of the previous Tory administration, in April. You can read about that here.

Then last Friday, an interesting announcement was made. 

Or rather not made, but mis-made, in the time honoured tradition of Broken Barnet, slipped out, the stench of it hastily covered in corporate spin. 

Barnet Council proposes review to realign Capita partnership

Barnet Council has today published a report which proposes undertaking a review to enable a potential realignment of the council’s partnership with Capita. 

A potential realignment.

The council has two major contracts with Capita, to deliver back office services and development and regulatory services. The partnership has delivered significant financial savings since their commencement in 2013, as well as efficiencies and improvements across a range of services. However there are other services where performance improvement is needed. 

Aha. Just a bit of tweaking needed then?

Well, no. 

This is a massive admission. An admission of abject failure by Barnet Tories, on an unprecedented scale.

It is the endorsement of everything we have warned about, since the idea of a mass outsourcing of local services was first explored, and everything we have protested about since the Capita contracts were signed, five long years ago.

It means at last, in the face of a complete disaster for our local services, the threat of total collapse by contractors, the loss of so much money, the ever widening deficit - at last, our Tory councillors, always refusing to listen, until now, now have given in, and thrown in the towel. They know it is all over. 

Even Cllr Antony Finn, the eternal optimist, former Chair of the Performance committee, the Mr Micawber of the Barnet Tory group, who always thought everything would work out fine, was just about to be 'hunky dory', who thought scrutiny should never be negative - even he can no longer look in the other direction. His successor, Finance and Performance chair Peter Zinkin, normally so ebullient, was visibly shaken, this week, at the new finance committee's first meeting.

New Barnet Finance Chair Peter Zinkin listening to Duncan Tessier, commercial director, flanked by the Section 151 officer (right).

Tory leader Richard Cornelius's saturnine smile may now be ever so slightly fixed - and Cllr Peter Zinkin may very well find himself no longer able to 'shoot the messenger', and blame the auditors for bringing bad news.

Don't expect them to do the right thing now, though. They are going to choose to tinker with the contract, rather than chuck it out altogether, as they should. Read what Mr Reasonable has to say about their plans here. As he has noted, the bits they are retaining are the ones that give Capita the most profit, and us the least good value. An attempt at face saving, and damage limitation, for both parties then? 

Makes no difference to one undeniable truth: what it all means is: Easycouncil is over. 

To all intents and purposes, anyway.

It has ceased to be: expired and gone to meet its maker. Or rather will now hang forever and a day, not so much a dead parrot, as perhaps a dead albatross, around the neck of its maker, MP for Finchley and Golders Green, and former council leader, Mr Freer - a grim omen for his acolytes in the Barnet Tory party. Remember this interview, from 2010? 

We were told Easycouncil was in part - "an attempt to have a different relationship with local residents, a part of what Freer calls a "relentless drive for efficiency"."

A relentless drive for efficiency.

Well, certainly they managed to create a different relationship with local residents. One of mutual contempt, it seems. If only the truth about the state of the borough had been published before the election, then local residents would have had the proper information necessary to end that relationship. 

Poor Freer. He probably thought he had at last shaken off the association with the Icelandic Bank disaster ... and now this: his beautiful Easycouncil dream, all in pieces ...

Local activists with shares in the company attended a Capita shareholders' meeting last week, and reported back on what had clearly been an angry and revelatory discussion. According to a press release from Chipping Barnet Labour party:

"Jenny Brown (a member of Hendon Labour Party) raised concerns around Capita profiting from gainshare – a method whereby employees are rewarded for improving the profits of a company. Brown argued that this approach has led to Barnet residents being considered a source of profit, rather than a service user group. Effectively, this system means that there are financial incentives to remove entitlements, for example a reduction in the number of people claiming a single person discount on Council Tax. Given that Capita are already being paid for these contracts, they should not be seeking to use Barnet residents as additional revenue, she claimed".  

"Capita CEO John Lewis initially assigned the blame to Barnet Council, stating that some points raised did not lie within Capita’s area of responsibility. After further pushing from Brown, Lewis conceded to arranging a meeting with Barnet Council to look at the contract, but remained non-committal when attendees requested that Capita provides feedback on the outcome of this meeting to Barnet residents."

Shareholders leaving this meeting were reportedly doing so 'in disgust':

"The Capita CEO was blaming Barnet Council for the poor quality of service.” Others expressed concern for Barnet residents, with one shareholder commenting “They’re hopeless, you have our sympathies, you really do”."

Easycouncil, though. What is it? Or what was it?

What did it even mean? 

Mrs Angry was asked this, not so long ago, in an interview during the election. It took a few moments to remember what the answer is. Was.

Because it was just another meaningless tag: a soundbite, nothing more. Dressed up as a new 'model of local government', actually just a variation of one that was being deployed in every corner of the public sector.

When we went to the High Court with a Judicial Review of the council's bid to impose massive outsourcing of local services, the judge was perplexed by the (Future)shapeshifting nature of the authority's proposals. Futureshape, Easycouncil, One Barnet: what was it? How did it evolve? No one seemed sure what it was, even then. Because it never really existed. It began as an attention grabbing headline, dressed up as a concept - no more than a vague idea of making residents pay more for services, according to their choice. 

Barnet bloggers at the High Court in 2013, for the One Barnet Judicial Review

But even then, there was little detail on how this would work. Soon enough it became something else - or the cover for something else, as Freer departed for Westminster, and his former colleagues on the council became the easy prey of the outsourcing companies hovering over the then fertile landscape of Broken Barnet. Easy prey, in the easycouncil way, allowing their natural inertia and lack of scrutiny to allow the influence of senior officers and external consultants soften the borough up for the plundering of our local services.

Futureshape, One Barnet, all of them brands as poisonous as the air we now breathe, all of them discarded, one after the other, until we reached the stage where as Barnet was given over, as they so cringingly phrased it, to be'Re-Barneted',  invaded by Capita, and run as the last outpost in a dying empire. 

After so much controversy, and bad PR, branding itself became such a toxic process that it was abandoned, in favour of denial. One Barnet became ... nothing. It was de-recognised. It was a non policy. It did not and had never existed. What we had in its place was ... nothing. Discreet nods in the direction of 'the change programme' or 'the transformation agenda'. 

Names and language are important, in any dystopian society, for the purpose of exerting control, and imposing force. 

Amusing to see in this fascinating post by LCC Municipal what other names were once considered for our borough, at the time of its creation: 

The borough of Noresex has a certain appeal, I think, don't you? A nod to the future, and some of our more popular outdoor pursuits, perhaps. Barfindon, Finchelee, and Finchenbar: all have a certain charm. 

Or perhaps, more fittingly, as things have turned out, we should have gone for Norlon, a name fully compliant with the demands of a corporate culture fluent in Newspeak.

Instead of which, we have ended up in the London Borough of Capita.

But not for much longer. The title will soon be up for sponsorship deals, and all the clever money says best odds are on us becoming the London Borough of Saracens, with new council offices at Allianz Park - and of course putting all those newly insourced services back in the library spaces stolen by Tory councillors from the borough's children. 

Oh yes, they will have to insource. And already they were making plans to use library space - at East Barnet, for example, as often predicted in this blog. But now they will have a huge logistical problem, finding ways of returning services where they should be, in house, and locally accountable. If, as we warned them, to no avail, until the current crisis, they had considered that they needed a Plan B, in case the Capita contracts fail, or the company falls apart, this would not be such a disaster. But their arrogance drove them to assert with absolute complacency that such a thing could not happen. It has happened. Yes, we told you so.

Well, in fact who did tell them so? 

Last week, as soon as the 'alignment' was announced, Barnet Labour was quick to try to take the credit. This was completely unfair, in fact, to those campaigners who have worked so hard for so long, often with little or no political support, to oppose the outsourcing, and the signing of the contracts. Who have continued to argue against the mass privatisation, exposing the failures in performance, scrutinising the accounts, asking question after question. 

From the very beginning it has been Unison who led the fight against the outsourcing, campaigning, lobbying, commissioning academic reports - which always went ignored. They begged councillors to take action: ignored again, time after time. Sometimes reports would go to committee meetings, and no member of either party would ask questions about it. John Burgess, in particular, should be singled out for praise for his determined campaigning, persistence, and perseverance.

Barnet Alliance fought with tooth and nail against the mass privatisation. They organised, leafleted, attended meeting after meeting, showing huge commitment from a grassroots campaign, a campaign that should really have been led by Labour. 

Local bloggers not only reported in details the crashing disaster of the contractual bondage councillors had so lazily approved, but took an active role in trying to prevent it: with local residents and campaigners we spent months of our own time advising a legal team in the pursuit of a Judicial Review of the outsourcing. The outcome was infuriating: we would have won, if the challenge had been in time. The lawyers asked why the opposition party did not seek advice within that time: it was a fair question.

Once the contracts were in place, the Labour group leading members were less than active in pushing for any termination of the contract, or in promising to do this, should they come to power. This equivocation was not what residents needed to hear, let alone campaigners, and council staff members. 

More latterly, since the reality of imminent failure became unavoidably clear, there was some shift, and a commitment in the last election's manifesto to try to bring back some services: still - too little, too late.

Other Labour members knew exactly how bad things were, and did their best at audit and performance meetings - but the most probing challenges always came from residents , the unions - and local bloggers. 

One blogger: Mr Reasonable, John Dix, without whose dedication, forensic auditing, determination and great patience, the crashing reality of how and why the contracts are failing would never have been exposed: if credit is due to anyone for holding Capita to account, over the last few years ... it is to him. A highly experienced and astute management consultant, an astute analyst; a modest man, patient beyond words - and continually ignored by Tory councillors and auditors, throughout the years of warning from him of the looming financial disaster.

The leader of the Labour party listening to John Dix, just before the local elections in May

Well, then.

Monday night saw the first meeting of the new Finance and Performance committee. We sat waiting in the public seats, in a room whose muted colour seemed to be fading even further, in the late summer evening light, like a coloured photograph in a family album, turning to sepia over the years.

As they failed to appear, for a joke one of the Labour councillors sat in the Chair's seat, and started the meeting. This was an echo of another evening, long ago, when campaigners did take over: a meeting in 2012, where the Tories were about to approve the contracts. We sat at the table and refused to budge: the Tories packed themselves into a tiny room next door, and hid. They approved the contracts: but they were given a reminder that in this borough, residents would not, and will not, be complicit with their pimping out of our public assets, and our public services.

The council meeting in 2012, where councillors approved the contracts in a side room, chased from the committee table by residents and campaigners, here sitting in their places.

The Tory members filed into the room, also drained of colour, visibly ashen faced, and embarrassed, almost shrinking before us in their chairs. Most of them ageing, with the exception of a new boy councillor who appeared utterly out of his depth, ill prepared and asked only two clanging questions: if there is any sort of internal audit process, and another in which he confused last year's AGM minutes with this year's. 

The responsibility for a billion pound budget, and the massive Capita contracts rests in the hands of a few failing old men, and one boy. Feeling confident for the future?

Mr R had submitted no less than 34 questions. Fellow blogger Roger Tichborne had submitted three. None of the questions received the answers that they deserved: the responses were dismally inadequate, and evasive. 

And Mr R addressed the committee, wearily: he told detailed the shape of the hole they were in, and told them they were in denial:

I have not one ounce of confidence in this committee and will not do so until you start answering straight questions with straight answers. Get a grip, stop spinning, and start sorting out this mess.

They looked on, bemused, but not disagreeing. It would appear, in fact, that they are all in a state of shock, rather than denial. They know Mr R is right, was right all along: we were all right all along, right from the very beginning, with our warnings: unions, campaigners, bloggers, Labour: but they did not listen. 

One notable circumstance is the absolute silence of Tory members: terrified, avoiding all social media, in the hope, no doubt, that by the time summer is over, the worst will have come and gone, and they can carry on as normal. Well, that is of course absurd.

Anyone heard from deputy leader Dan Thomas recently? 

No. Thought not.

Mrs Angry understands there is - yet another - division amongst the Tories now, between those who think it is time simply to cut their losses, and dump Capita outright - and those who refuse to show any admission of weakness, and insist, on the basis of their blinkered sub-Thatcherite dogmatism, that the show must go on. Face-saving, for political reasons, rather than hard realism, and the prioritisation of the best interests of those they represent.

At the next Audit meeting, later this month, further details will come to light of the extent of the financial mess we are in. There will be no possibility of carrying on in the way they have: they know it. We know it. They should put residents' interests first, and bail out: they won't, because it would mean the already tawdry reputation of Barnet Tory politicians, both here and in Westminster, would be damaged beyond repair. It already is: but they refuse to see it - and their attempts to stave off total collapse will be nothing more than a temporary patch up job: as one Labour councillor remarked - papering over the cracks. 

Those cracks are widening every day, as we pay more and more money to Capita that we cannot afford, and raid our rapidly diminishing reserves, for failing services. This is not sustainable, or defensible. 

It's going to be a long, hot summer. 

Shut your windows, and pull down the blinds.

Monday, 25 June 2018

A Radical Alteration: or - the ravished landscape of Broken Barnet, a Common Room, and Mrs Angry's guide to Fighting Back

The state of Broken Barnet, in one picture: the former National Institute for Medical Research, in Mill Hill, designed in the 1930s by Maxwell Ayrton, the architect of the original Wembley Stadium. With its green copper roof, this building was a landmark on Mill Hill's Ridgeway, visible from far across North London. Once a centre for pioneering work in the fields of immunology, and other vital areas of scientific research. Now in the process of being demolished - for yet another luxury housing development.

No, no posts since the election. Hard to summon up the will, really, while looking on in despair at the prospect of another four years of Tory misrule, another four years of cuts in services, of half baked hard right ideology masquerading as policy - and another four years of Labour powerless in opposition, determined not to see the reasons why they failed to win control of the council, and carrying on with business as usual. 

But duty calls. Here we go.

What hope for the future, in Broken Barnet? 

Well: joining the old timers in the Labour party, there are one or two very promising new members, keen to make changes. Will the group let them? Probably not. Why spoil a record of failure in opposition, by doing things differently?

But keep an eye, for example, on Childs Hill councillor Anne Clarke, and Burnt Oak's Sara Conway, both of them very bright, strong women who have already thrown themselves into their new roles, centred in the grassroots issues in the communities they represent - an example to some of the longer serving members in both parties whose complacency in a safe seat leaves them happy to do the bare minimum, and are only remembered in their wards when it comes to a vaguely familiar name on the voting papers. 

As for the Tories: well. What can you say? 

Having won another term in office by default, and in spite of their record of incompetence, the new administration has started as it means to go on: celebrating the inverted ethos of its philosophy, by enthroning as Mayor Reuben Thompstone - the councillor who has presided over the devastation of our library service, as well as a calamitous OFSTED report that lambasted the council's very serious failings in regard to its responsibilities to the borough's most vulnerable children.

Thompstone, of course, was  also Chair of the committee that cut vital respite care funding to families of children with profound and complex disabilities attending Mapledown School.

His appointment as Mayor, therefore, has been very controversial, and can only be seen as a statement of in your face defiance by the Tory group. This is what we are: bow down before it. And after all: you, the residents of Broken Barnet, have asked for years more of this sort of stuff, so: suck it up.

Pic credit Times Series

Here he is, Thompstone, squeezing himself into the moth eaten Mayoral robes, childishly delighted, as are all the Tory members, at being allowed his turn to raid the municipal dressing up box, and stomp about the borough as if he were actually someone of importance, rather than yet another Tory councillor taking his turn to fulfil an utterly anachronistic role, left over from an other era - one, in fact, when elected representatives saw their service to the community as one of civic duty, and philanthropic aspirations - an era which laid the foundations of the very services the current Tory group is set on pulling apart.

Libraries, parks: endowed for the benefit of ordinary residents - now being removed for the benefit of private profit, and a ruthless ideology that detests the very principle of public services, free at the point of access. And every blade of grass in that park, every written word in that library, must now be commodified, and made accountable, in the pursuit of that profit. Or perhaps - in a desperate attempt to retain any hope of solvency.

The absurdity of it: the glee with which the Tories celebrate the annual pantomime of the ludicrous 'Mayor Making' ceremony - this is a reflection only of the limit of their aspirations, and the shallowness of their values.

The annual pantomime in the Town Hall, of course, means more cost for the long suffering taxpayers of Broken Barnet. £3,000, in fact, for the guzzling that takes place afterwards - a festival of self indulgence on a gargantuan scale, at our expense, but one justified by their twitter account as 'Much needed refreshment after a particularly long meeting ... '

As blogger Mr Mustard pointed out, a meeting of an hour and a half is hardly arduous, or long, and Mr Reasonable suggested they visit the local foodbanks, to see how the residents they are supposed to represent are suffering. 'For you to blow three grand on a buffet', he pointed out, ' is utterly repugnant.'

Not so long ago, by the way, the council removed the water made available to residents attending committee meetings, on the pretext of 'austerity' ...

The infantile preoccupation of Barnet Tories with the fripperies of power, rather than their responsibilities, is an indication of their total inability to engage with the real issues now engulfing the borough - and their administration. And these issues could not possibly be more serious.

As fellow blogger John Dix, aka Mr Reasonable, revealed here earlier this month, after the election was over the council published revised figures for their Medium Term Financial Strategy  (MTFS). 

These amended figures are catastrophically bad: as Mr R explains:

So whereas in February they were forecasting a shortfall of £2.79 million in 2018/19 they are now forecasting a £9.5 million shortfall and in 2019/20 the shortfall jumps from £8.2 million to £19.3 million all in the space of four months. 

The long term prospects are apocalyptic with a shortfall of £42 million in  2021/22 and by 2023/24 a "high level calculation" showing a shortfall of £62 million. This means the council can no longer exist in its current form.

I simply cannot believe that in February - before the election - no one was aware of just how bad the financial situation was, in which case were the electorate misled?

The situation could hardly be worse.

As Mr R also reveals here, the state of the Capita contracts is hugely worrying. An arrangement sold on the basis of saving us money appears to be doing nothing of the sort, and quite the reverse. There is a massive overspend in the case of the Re Joint Venture, and underperformance from the CSG contract: more details now available here in the reports for next Monday's  Performance & Contracts committee meeting. These make for a terrifying read.

As Mr Reasonable comments -

We are now at a tipping point. The CSG contract is under-performing with the Council considering bringing part of the finance function back in house; the Re contract predicated on guaranteed income appears to unenforceable. 

There are other matters which will come to light by the next audit meeting, which I cannot disclose at this time but which will have serious repercussions for the entire Capita contract.

Oh yes.

'Other matters'. And 'serious repercussions for the entire Capita contract ...'

Watch this space ... 

But what is the Tory administration going to do about all of this mess? A mess of their own wilful creation, in the face of all warnings, and maintained, in defiance, over the last few years, at every point of criticism, to every expression of concern?

Not much. Just hand you the bill. There will be massive council tax rises. And they will blame anyone else but themselves for the deficit, rather than their own incompetence, and their own refusal, over the years, to make sensible increases in council tax - purely out of bloody minded ideological dislike of taxation, arguably a catastrophic mismanagement of fiduciary duty - and one for which you and I will now pay.

In the meanwhile, the Tory administration carries on as ever, determined to continue fiddling while Rome burns, engrossed in their municipal charades, acting out their folie de grandeur: crisis? What crisis?

Despite the financial apocalypse moving rapidly nearer with every day, they are still able, it seems, to find spare cash down the back of the sofa for some very generous investments: more than happy, for example, to consider handing over a loan, over a period of thirty years, of around £22 million of local taxpayers' money to their favoured partners at Saracens Rugby Club - owned by Totteridge resident Nigel Wray - to build a new stand at their grounds in Mill Hill.

These grounds are at the former Copthall Stadium, now known as Allianz Park, after the agreement brokered by Tory leader Richard Cornelius, which gives use of the stadium to the club for a peppercorn rent of £1 a year.

Saracens were honoured last year with the Freedom of the Borough - a move that infuriated local fans of Barnet FC, whose club were left with no home in their own borough, & were obliged to go (along with our gritting lorries and corporate legal services), to Harrow.

They have always felt betrayed by a lack of support from Barnet Council - and resent the attention given to a sports club with no previous local connections. But now the game is upped, with talk of a loan of money on such a scale: how on earth can we afford this, in these circumstances?

Tory leader Richard Cornelius 

Are we really able to lend a commercial sports club such a whopping sum, over so long a period? What benefit is there for taxpayers? What safeguards are there for the money invested? If we have such a large amount of cash to spare for investment, should that money not be used for the benefit of local services now under threat of further cuts?

We do not know. We are not allowed to know: the details, of course, will all be exempt from publication. We are only given the information they want us to have, rather than the information we need. This is how they do things, with little or no regard for transparency, or accountability.

Generally, the attitude of the Tory group is that accountability to residents is of no importance, and that it is necessary to maintain a relationship between elected representatives and voters that is one of dominance, and control, rather than deference to the people who entrusted them with the well being of our community.

Part of this dysfunctional relationship is expressed by the Tory fear of engagement by residents in any meaningful way within the democratic process. 

And as is often the case when in trouble, or about to put some new controversial policy into action, they have now taken steps to make sure we have even fewer ways of holding them to account, or expressing our views. 

And boy, are they in trouble. And so are we, the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet.

But as the coming meltdown approaches, and it becomes unavoidably clear, even to the dimmest Tory voter, that their elected representatives have fucked everything up, how to minimise dissent, and the political impact?

This is of vital importance, for their own political survival - and that of the three local Tory MPs, facing the prospect of  a general election at any moment, in three newly marginal constituencies. 

First up, the Residents Forums. Dangerous. And tedious, according to veteran Tory John Marshall, former Hendon MP, and now a member for Hampstead Garden Suburb. The insolence of these people, who want to address their election representatives, on matters of local interest, and hold them to account: except for those in the more ... genteel wards, shall we say?

Cllr Marshall, whose speeches, at least no doubt in his own estimation, and delivered in that creaking, patrician voice of his, dazzle us all with the extent of his sparkling wit and incisive commentary, and could never, ever be too long, thinks that anyone (apart from himself) who wants to speak for longer than three minutes at these Forums is a 'village bore'.

He and his fellow Tories have therefore decreed that no resident at any Resident Forum, who might wrongly assume from the title of the meeting that it is a Forum for Residents, may speak for longer than this time limit.

Admittedly most Tory members are so intellectually challenged, they are unable to concentrate for longer than three minutes, but still: harsh, you might think. 

Mrs Angry looks forward to the next Finchley and Golders Green meeting, where the residents of Hampstead Garden Suburb are always treated with such indulgence by their uxorious Tory councillors, and allowed to witter on all evening about such issues as the gross impertinence of strangers who park outside their houses, or - steady on - the unspeakable intrusion of noisy leaf blowers, but now will be sternly monitored by Councillor Marshall, a stopwatch, and a loud klaxon.

Or: maybe they won't.

The other action these quivering Tory councillors have taken, in their clampdown on the freedom of expression, is to try even harder than they have already to repress the right of residents to ask questions at committee meetings. 

Fearful of what is to come in the next few weeks and months, as it becomes no longer possible to cover up the extent of their financial irresponsibility, and the failure of the Capita contracts, Barnet Tories have decided to ban questions on any matter going to committees other than substantive items from the administration. In other words, nothing raised by Labour may be the subject of comment or question by residents.

The Tory group is in denial. They must have known financial meltdown was coming, of course, before the election. Some of them may even secretly have wished Labour would win, and be left to deal with the consequences, rather than those responsible for the mess.

The consequences of re-election are not only that you must deal with the outcome of your own folly in office, but that you must expect the unachievable promises you made in your manifesto to come back to bite you in the *rse, sooner than you might have thought.

No wonder they wanted to stifle the voice of the Residents Forums. Can you imagine what the Tory heartlands will have made of the bin collection cock up?

A familiar scene in Barnet: bins left uncollected, and overflowing - pic credit Times Series

Wooed by a party that put #angryaboutbins at the top of their manifesto agenda, residents have been infuriated to find, wallowing as we are in the aftermath of post electoral tristesse, that the entire waste collection system has broken down. Broken down because the council which spent £13 million in a panic buy of a new depot, left it to Capita to oversee, and then found months later that the whole place, keen to provide an appropriate metaphor for the state of the borough, was literally falling apart. This means some waste has to be taken out of borough, hence the inability to keep to the collection timetable.

Having had nothing to put in their manifesto other than fabricated stories claiming a Labour administration would destroy our bin collection service, the Tories have, well - set about destroying our bin collection service. Now then: Mrs Angry would like to think that in some way, this is homage to the swivel eyed lunacy of socialist bin conspiracies, but no. There is another game in play here. 

One of the rules of playing #angryaboutbins, Tory version, is that the rules themselves no longer apply, post election, see? Or indeed the rules about any pre-election pledge, pretty much.

You can do what you like. You can leave the bins uncollected. They have. You can then vote to cut green bin collections in winter. They have. And you can even decide to set fire to the brown bins, in a bonfire of Barnet Tory vanities. Oh yes. They have. Or they will.

The brown recycling bins are - well, not to to be recycled - they are to be dumped in the black bins, and then burnt, in an incinerator, along with all pretence at environmental responsibility.

Oh, and even though fly tipping is at an all time high, and barely a street corner in the whole of Barnet is without its display of old mattresses and discarded fridges, your elected representatives have surveillance officers on the streets in uniform, watching to fine you if you drop a sweet wrapper, or cigarette butt.

As things fall apart around him, Cllr Reuben Thompstone disports himself in the Mayoral bling, and speeds his way around the borough in the corporate limousine, provided at our expense, along the pot-holed roads, past the street corners littered with discarded mattresses, past the foodbanks depended upon by so many citizens, and past the shop doorways where homeless residents sleep. Look: he is also passing by the public libraries, where many of those less advantaged residents spend time during the day, a place of sanctuary. Or they did, until Thompstone and his fellow Tories took the axe to this most vital and much valued service.

Why does that matter so much, you might wonder? Why so much protest over one service? Well, it matters very much for all those residents who use - who used - their local libraries ... but it is something else, too, as that place of sanctuary, that point of information, or that meeting place, that focus of the community. It stands as a point of resistance to everything that Barnet Tories stand for: and everything they fear.

Take a look at these words, by Nick Poole, CEO of CILIP, the UK Library and Information Association, in a talk which describes a library as a room -  'The Common Room', in one of the best possible defences of the irreplaceable social value of this public service:

This room of ours belongs to the Doctor, the Fireman, the Nursery Nurse. To the Lawyer, the Clerk, the Farmer and the Shop Owner. It belongs to the Hairdresser and the Cadet, the Office Worker and the Civil Engineer. It belongs to the elderly lady in a high rise who hasn't spoken to anyone so far this week. It belongs to the newly-arrived migrant looking for a sense of connection – to home, to life over here, to people who care and can help.

It belongs to the group of ladies who meet once a week for a knit and a natter. To the visually impaired group who have moved on from being strangers and become a supportive network of friends. To the factory worker who secretly loves c18th French romance fiction and tells his wife he’s popping in for a Haynes Car Manual.

It belongs to the young lad who's been excluded from school. To the girl who needs to get away from her parents. To the boy who has questions he simply can't ask his mates. It belongs to the four-year-old who might one day be Prime Minister, or an astronaut, or a lion tamer. To the girl who will one day be awarded a Nobel prize. The boy who will grow up to be known by his family and friends for his kindness and compassion.

It belongs, too, to the dispossessed who have been taught to hate the culture that surrounds them. It belongs to those who feel alienated and marginalised by mainstream British culture. It belongs to the young people who walk out of their house in the morning with time and talent but not money, determined to make something of themselves, who need a place that isn't home and isn't work but is that 3rd space that is uniquely theirs.

This room of ours belongs to women and men, young and old, people of every faith and none. It belongs to them not because they hand over their credit card, or share their personal data or buy a coffee. It belongs to them by right, from the moment of their birth.

It belongs to you by right, from the moment of your birth.

Here in Barnet, there could be no more dangerous place than a library: a common room, where the community can meet, and exchange information. And that is why they had to get rid of them.

The buildings are still there, the lights are (sometimes) on. But no one's home, much of the time. No staff. Well, unless you count security staff. Yes, still in place, at huge cost.

And all that freed up space, robbed from the library service, costing millions of pounds in 'refurbishment'? Any takers? Nope.

Peer inside the former children's libraries at Golders Green, and North Finchley, and what do you see? No longer the Common Room: nothing but an empty space, bereft of meaning.

 Where are the revenue generating tenants we were assured were queuing up to rent them? That necessitated the expulsion of former community groups and businesses that used them? Is it true that the plan is, and always was, to use the space for council and Capita workers instead?

And the plan to use a small company aiming to rent out desk space in three branches, while children and young students are locked out of their own libraries for much of the time, a scheme that would appear not aimed at generating much money anyway, could it ever have been anything other than an act of window dressing, to distract from the failure to find commercial clients?

(See below for how that plan worked out ...)

It is not just about protecting local services, local libraries, and local parks.

The landscape of Broken Barnet, both literal and metaphorical, is under threat: our open spaces plundered by speculative developers, and our built heritage vanishing in front of us: ruthlessly demolished, along with all the history associated with it, the significance for us, our past, and our future.

Take a look at the image of the ravaged Medical Research building.

This is not a despatch from a war torn country, the morning after a bombing raid. Or perhaps, in a way, it is a casualty of war.

A war being fought in the green fields of Mill Hill, and Totteridge, and Finchley, and all over our borough: a war for the heart and soul of our community.

The privatised planning service now effectively functions no longer for the benefit of the community's needs, but as a commercial service for developers.

Fee based systems now work for the promotion and approval of developments: all around the borough we see more and more blocks of flats, and unaffordable housing springing up, in every available space - and without the resources, the infrastructure, the schools, the shops, the healthcare, or the open spaces to support the vast increase in population such development will bring.

Our greenbelt land, the pride of our borough, is increasingly coming under threat - as well as our green spaces.

Nothing prepares you for the shock of a sight like that of the Medical Research building, ruthlessly eviscerated, its guts hanging out, and dying in front of your eyes.

I went to St Vincent's school next door to the NIMR: my grandmother, aunt, uncles & cousins lived not far away - this building was as much a part of the landscape, and our lives - in a conservation area overlooking green belt - as the churches, convents, and schools that lie along the Ridgeway - it was a landmark you could recognise for miles around, because it was - well, on a ridgeway, a high point between valleys.

Never did I think I would see such a sight, a brutal dismemberment of my own past - and yours too.

But then I had forgotten we live in Broken Barnet, where our history and heritage have no defence against the forces of development, and private profit.

Most residents had no idea that this historic building was going to be destroyed, having been lulled into a state of complacency by the early promise that the development was going to be a 'conversion'.

When and where this conversion became destruction, who knows? Not me. But it is too late, and now we have to live with what the architects refer to, with breathless daring, as an 'augmented facsimile'. And no, that is not a demolition you see in the picture - apparently the building has merely been 'radically rethought' - and 'radically altered' ...

Or, in other words, we are losing a building of unique significance in terms of its architecture and scientific heritage, and local history, but gaining one that ... looks a bit like it, because ... it was so important, in terms of its architecture, scientific heritage and local history. Ok, thanks very much.

Yet again the language and process of development provides us with a literal metaphor for the state of Broken Barnet: managed no longer by a process of democratic engagement, but the next best thing: an augmented facsimile, where Mayors wear the trappings of a former age, and residents are kept behind the glass wall in the public gallery, looking on, as mute observers.

Here is the lesson. Fight back. Demand your voice is heard. You can't change the result of the election, or stop them upping the council tax to cover the outcome of their financial folly. But you can take action, direct action, to thwart the wider policies they are trying to implement. Development, cuts in service, the war on truth, and freedom of expression.

Don't let them silence you: speak out.

Protect every building you can from development. Get them listed. Fight for every one under threat of development. Local landmarks, local libraries, local greenspaces. Follow the planning process every step of the way, every modification by officers.

Fighting back can and does work. The determined campaigning of the Save Barnet Libraries team has done so much, and continues to defend our libraries for the future generations of this borough, despite the best efforts of a Tory council set on destroying the service. It is your library service, your library - your common room. Defend it.

There is still a formal complaint being considered by the Secretary of State that may force the authority to restore some of the damage done - and plans to give library space taken from children in North Finchley, and residents in East Finchley & Chipping Barnet, to an enterprise set on charging 'entrepreneurs' for desk use have been stopped after the group approached the company in question.

Grassroots campaigning works: it is vital - and it needs your support: don't sit back and leave it to everyone else.

And - oh yes: here is a fight you can join in now: as our open spaces are under threat of encroachment, a never ending battery of development, time to turn our minds back to one particular case featured so often in this blog, over the last few years.

One small building, that means so much. The story of the Park keeper's Lodge, in Finchley's Victoria Park.

The power of grassroots campaigning: residents here forced the council to block plans to build flats in a local park

Last year, a determined fightback by residents - plus the prospect of local elections, and a marginal MP being badgered by local residents - helped convince local Tories, in the end, not to allow approval of the plans to knock down this lovely Arts & Crafts cottage, nestling in its own garden within the park, an integral part of the park, and the park's history.

In a move which horrified local residents, and one open to many questions as to process, and the setting aside of the covenant created by the park's philanthropic founders,  a covenant meant to prevent development, and to preserve the park, in perpetuity ... the Tory council had flogged the site to a developer.

That the council acted as both trustee, and planning authority, might suggest an insoluble conflict of interest - but the sale went ahead, and the developer persists in trying to replace it with a block of flats. The plans have now gone to appeal via the Planning Inspectorate, beyond the influence of local processes.

The appeal for this proposal is now only open to objections for a short while: you have until the 28th June to save this part of your park from development. All the details you need are available via this link: here.

Please take the time to object, and play your role in protecting your borough, your parks, your libraries, your built heritage - and your open spaces.

Don't fall for the council's boast of 'putting the community first'.

They don't, so - you must.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Election 2018: Barnet is still Broken

A hopeless dawn for Labour, at Allianz Park on Friday morning

Interesting piece in the Irish Times this Sunday, by Fintan O'Toole, on England, and the cult of heroic failure. The Charge of the Light Brigade; the Franklin expedition; the Somme - to name but a few examples of glorious catastrophe - noble hearted failure, staring defeat in the face, and embracing it. 

We live now, however, in Barnet, in the age of inglorious failure: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and then looking at its broken body on the floor, poking it with a stick, and wondering what happened.

Yes, Barnet is still Broken. 

And here is what happened. 

If you want a simplistic explanation of why Labour failed to win the council, please feel free to go elsewhere. This will be an attempt to look more dispassionately at the facts, and confront some hard truths. None of us will be any the better for it, and some of us will feel worse, but it needs saying.

Here we are then, in a nutshell. Labour lost for a number of reasons. Some are more important than others. Some are very complex. Some are not. 

Different parts of the borough were won or lost for different reasons, and some for the same reasons.

There were some very good candidates. There were some pretty poor ones. 

Some should have stood down. Some should never have stood at all. One or two newly elected Labour councillors will bring a hugely needed injection of energy and fresh perspective to the party.

It is very difficult to attempt to analyse what went wrong in Barnet with a cool eye - especially at the moment - because of the sensitivity of the one issue that everyone is talking about: and that is of course the issue of antisemitism within the Labour party, and how it is dealt with, or not dealt with, by the leadership and processes of the national party. 

A national issue, but one with a huge significance for Barnet, where, as this report in the Mirror states, one in seven voters is Jewish. 

Only a fool - or a bigot - would think that the failure of the party to deal appropriately with the issue of a minority of vile antisemites who cling on to the fringes of the party for their own purposes is not a huge factor in the reputational damage to the local party, and its chances of electoral success. 

Let us be clear about this, but also not dismiss the need to acknowledge the consequence of other failures.

The impact on Jewish Labour voters and residents of Barnet, is profound, and undeniable: many will have been reluctant to vote for the party. Some will have chosen not to. 

But we must consider the question: whatever the impact, was it statistically significant, in terms of the outcome of the election in Barnet?

Immediately after the result was announced, many Labour councillors were of course shocked and disappointed - for those who lost seats, or failed to be elected, this was a very public and painful rejection. The immediate reaction was to attribute blame for the losses on only one issue: the antisemitism debacle.

Quite evidently, and quite reasonably, many Labour supporting Jewish residents have been angered, and hurt, by a prolonged tolerance of antisemitism within the outer fringes of the party - or at least the slowness of some to instigate swift and effective mechanisms to deal with such behaviour. This has undoubtedly lost many Labour votes from the Jewish community, caused huge damage to the relationship between party and the community - and harmed the ability of the party in Barnet to campaign and win the council from a grossly incompetent, and increasingly unpopular Tory administration.

But the picture in Barnet is more complex, and needs closer analysis before we can conclude that the antisemitism issue was the only significant factor in the Labour defeat.

It is necessary to consider the other causes : local and national issues, and variations within the Barnet context, and at this point in its political history.

We do not have figures that prove how many of the one in seven voters in Barnet said to be Jewish were Labour supporters: however many, or rather how few, this is clearly likely to have been catastrophically affected by the antisemitism row. But setting emotions aside, if we can, how crucial was this in terms of the outcome, on a strictly statistical basis? Are there other reasons for Labour's failure - such as concern about the emergence of a left of centre party leadership - or a personal mistrust of the leader himself? And what other local factors were at play?

The loss of West Hendon ward came as a huge shock to many people, and was a personal tragedy for councillor Adam Langleben, who has been prominent in raising continuing concerns about the way in which antisemitism is dealt with within the Labour party. He considers the loss of his seat attributable to Labour votes lost because of anger over the issue. 

Adam's departure from the local Labour group will be a huge blow: a hard working, highly astute and experienced member, and a passionate, and well respected advocate for the Jewish community, locally and elsewhere. 

But was the loss of this ward, and all chances of gaining the council for Labour, entirely due to one issue? 

In truth the loss of West Hendon ward was always a very real risk, and has been, for some time.

The demographic changes within this area over recent years have been very significant. As this ward profile shows, there are now large Muslim and Hindu communities in West Hendon, as well as a broader, increasingly diverse population of other origins, ethnicities and religions. The percentage of Jewish residents, as you will see, was estimated at 14% - smaller even then than the Muslim one, at 17%. The Jewish community within this ward is  one that would seem unlikely to have supported many Labour votes, in any eventuality. 

The changing face of West Hendon, and the increase in BAME population was something the local party was aware of, and acknowledged, at least privately, at the time of campaigning the last London Assembly elections. There was real concern then about a gain in Tory support in these communities. In fact there were emerging signs of a shift in electoral patterns even as early as 2014, which is why the local Tory party so gleefully celebrated the defection to them of a disaffected Labour councillor, Ansuya Sodha, who stood for them in West Hendon in 2014 - and even then, in those circumstances, won 1, 357 Tory votes. Since then, the Tories have targeted these communities - and benefited as a result.

In fact the figures for last week's results show that the Labour vote increased, despite the antisemitism issue. Clearly so did the Tory vote - but where did the UKIP support go? Looks like it went to the Tories.

There is another hugely important factor in this ward. And that is a subject this blog has covered extensively - the faux 'regeneration' of the former West Hendon council estate: call it regeneration, call it social cleansing- the result in terms of political outcome is a radical realignment of old loyalties.

As this ruthless scouring of the local landscape has progressed, removing a low rise community of social housing, and replacing it with a monstrously ugly development of high rise, 'luxury' developments, the heart has been ripped out of West Hendon - and with that bleeding heart goes a haemorrhaging of traditional Labour voters. 

Let's look at another ward: my home ward of West Finchley, which has a Jewish community of more diverse character than that of West Hendon. One might expect there to be a higher level of Labour voters who would be upset by the antisemitism issue - yet this was retained for Labour, with an increased vote, despite the departure of veteran, and much loved, councillor Jim Tierney.  Rabbi Danny Rich was elected in his place  - he is a senior figure within the community of Liberal Judaism: hopefully voters found assurance in his candidacy, and voted accordingly. 

It is true that the Tory candidates in West Finchley increased their votes too - but then again they probably picked up the UKIP voters.

In Finchley Church End, a Tory stronghold, there is one of the largest Jewish populations in the borough - estimated in 2013 at 31%.

Quite clearly the Tory vote has increased: but interestingly the Labour vote has more or less stayed the same, and has not collapsed. No Green candidate, nor one from Ukip: an increase for Libdems - which may bear a clue to something else going on, which we will come back to later.

This is only a snapshot of a small number of the election results, and obviously there will need to be a detailed analysis of all wards - and a period of reflection by the local party. It would be wrong, however, to make conclusions immediately after this massive disappointment without that detailed analysis. 

Which brings us to another issue: something easily noticed if like me you were at the count, scrutinising the ballot papers. 

When you do this, you note the number of block votes of three, for any party. You have little time to keep up with the flow of papers being counted, and learn to watch every one, looking for the detail of each vote. What seemed extraordinary was the number of split votes: some with the most baffling combinations: one Tory, one Labour, one Libdem, for example. Many of these multiple choice votes appeared to include one Green candidate.

This seemed quite extraordinary, and indicates something that is being missed by all parties. Is it that voters are increasingly confused by the messages put out by mainstream politics, and failing to associate them with a coherent narrative and range of policies?

Another issue which quite clearly must have affected the outcome of this election in Barnet, and may have something to do with the split votes, is one that is hardly being mentioned, in the middle, as we are, of so much debate about antisemitism.

This is of course ... Brexit. Ah yes: remember that? Everyone seems to have forgotten, 

It might be time to ask if worries about the lack of opposition to Brexit from Labour, and a mixed message from the Tories,  has had an impact in this election - and caused a trend towards split votes. 

Again, confusion and disillusion among voters might well have sent them into a random choice of pick and mix votes, thwarting the best laid strategies of election agents and campaigners. We expect voters to be consistent, and loyal to one party. The thought that they might be heartily sick of all of them, and effectively act to undermine the whole system as a result, is quite tempting. 

Party activists expect voters to be politically literate, articulate, and think in the same way they do. The truth is something quite different.

Acting as teller earlier in the day at a local polling station, the well seasoned Tory matron doing the same for the Tories was replaced after a while by a man in his thirties who appeared not to know what to do, and kept asking the Labour teller, ie me, if he was doing it right. After a while, to my astonishment, he casually mentioned that he was actually a Labour supporter, and asked did I know how he could join the party? When I had stopped laughing, it occurred to me this might be an ill omen. It was.

But back to the question of lost votes for Labour, and an excruciatingly disappointing failure to win the council from the Tories. 

It had seemed so simple: the Tories themselves were in free fall, panicking about the growing evidence of failure of their easycouncil model of hollowed out, outsourced services: the spiralling bills, the decline in those services - they were unable to formulate a credible manifesto, and constructed one seemingly the work of an opposition party, with no connection to their own disastrous record. Tory members thought they were in for a thrashing at the polls - and some may well have been secretly relieved if this had happened, rather than face what is going to happen as the evidence of their own incompetence becomes even more clear, in the coming months. Others  were rumoured to be plotting to push a newly formed council - or opposition group - in a new direction, with a new leader.

Tory leader Richard Cornelius interviewed at the count

To be fair, Labour's campaign was slightly better focused than in previous elections. As always, there was great emphasis on canvassing, and leafleting. But there were the same mistakes in target wards, and a failure to see the trees for the wood: or rather the wood as it was maybe ten years ago.

And as always, they tended to forget that you need to have something to put on those leaflets and mention on the doorstep: a clear set of policies, based on a record of strong opposition.

This is where the party must acknowledge failure. The record in opposition has not been strong - or even memorable. Time and again their performance has been too low key, unclear, weak, and poorly communicated to residents. Too many times the Labour group has failed to challenge the iniquitous agenda of the Tory administration, to fight with real passion, and well directed strategy. 

The continual struggle to expose the damning truth about the performance of the Capita contracts has been left to Unison, and local activists and bloggers. Blogger John Dix has offered the only real scrutiny of the outcome of this contractual bondage - a fact acknowledged by the Tory Chair of the Audit committee, at his last meeting.

A preference for life in the centre of the party is partly to blame for this fatal inertia, as is a position out of step with the new energy within the Labour movement, and the key policies of a hugely popular manifesto.

Quite apart from the distraction and anger over the antisemitism issue, voters in Barnet did not know what Labour stood for, whatever it was, because there was such poor communication and slowness to get involved in local issues at a grassroots level.

Take the fight against library cuts: this should have come from Labour, not have been left to a campaign group, Save Barnet Libraries, to pursue. Instead we saw the library lead in Labour actually take part in a bid to run one of the Tories' new 'partnership' libraries: an excruciating blunder that horrified campaigners, and further alienated them from the party.

That some later rapprochement took place was down to the great diplomacy of Childs Hill community activist and SBL campaigner Anne Clarke - who has just been elected, as a Labour gain, to represent this ward, which borders on Golders Green, with the closest of margins, replacing veteran Libdem councillor Jack Cohen. 

Elected in a ward with a diverse range of residents, including a Jewish population of 17% - and two Tory councillors from that community. Fiercely intelligent, outspoken, but tactful - and strategic, the reason Anne was elected as a new councillor, in a marginal ward - the most marginal in London - was because she is that rare thing: a candidate who has proved their worth by being steeped in local activism, deeply embedded in grassroots local issues and several campaigns, such as the fight against the aggregate depot, and drawing residents towards the party at election time. Hard work, but it paid off, despite the odds. 

This is the way forward for Barnet Labour: reconnecting with residents; acknowledging the rapid demographic changes which are now a feature of a borough with an increasingly transient population, and embracing the wide range and diversity of the borough, and the needs of each community. Barnet is changing - and Barnet Labour must change with it.

The rift with the Jewish community is a grievous wound that needs urgent attention. Jeremy Corbyn must find a way to fix this: only he can put it right. 

Whatever has gone before, and the rights or wrongs of it, and the part it played in the local election, the only way forward now is through dialogue, and honesty.

The alternative is unthinkable. The future is unthinkable. 

Residents have just elected a brutal, re-energised Conservative council that will feel newly vindicated in its role, and believe that their history of incompetence has been rewarded - or at least overlooked - and this will empower them to adopt an agenda of policies that will be even more extreme than anything that we have yet seen. 

As the financial health of the borough continues to deteriorate, more and more cuts in public services will be imposed, and standards thrown out of the window.

Time for Labour to become the opposition this borough needs: to end its tendency to seek a path of consensual politics, and mutual ground. There can be no mutual ground with such people. 

There are few Labour members who are elected on the basis of wanting an easy life, or not wanting to serve their community: individually all are honourable, decent people, with the best intentions: but collectively, as a group, they have been too ineffectual.

Time to grab hold of the agenda: to wrong foot the Tory administration - to be politically courageous, and assertive, to offer the choice of a radical and persuasive alternative, not choose to rely on the same old routine, an anodyne manifesto, a few stunts, and a barrel load of empty words. 

Time to put the questions to committees that residents and activists and bloggers have had to articulate, because the opposition group has failed to do so. 

Time to earn the respect of voters, with a defence of their rights, and their concerns. 

Then, and only then, when it is time for another election, here or nationally, Labour might - just might  - be in with a chance of winning here, one day.