Tuesday 24 May 2022

Welcome to the Borough of (Hopefully No Longer Broken) Barnet

Ok. I've been putting it off, but here is a sentence I've wanted to write for ... at least twelve years. Well, longer, in fact, much longer.

We now live in the London Borough of (Hopefully No Longer Broken) Barnet.  

Yes. As you know, Barnet Tories have been given the order of the boot, by residents, on a scale that was unthinkable, before May 5th, and is still hard to comprehend. They now have only 22 seats - and Labour has nearly double, with 41. By any measure of success, this is quite extraordinary: by Barnet standards, it is nothing less than sensational. 

As predicted in the previous post, the Tory group Leader, (for the time being, anyway), Dan Thomas, has blindly led his group into political oblivion, despite his magnificent manifesto, based on such gambits as  a false claim about freezing council tax, and a fatal misreading of the rules of #angryaboutbins, and boasting of doing something that absolutely no one thinks twice about, ie emptying said bins, ie a service that we pay for, but somehow something for which they think they deserve congratulations, and four more years in charge of the borough.

Thomas was asked on the live BBC election results show for his opinion on the reasons for his party's disastrous performance. With a face like a slapped you know what, and through clenched teeth, he issued a carefully shaped response which blamed 'a perfect storm' of issues - which naturally had nothing whatsoever to do with him, or his party's performance in power. It was pleasing to see him use this phrase, however, as clearly he was subliminally remembering the prescient tone - and titles - of Broken Barnet's previous posts, here and here,  in which the Hendon Hub development fiasco, and the Tories's mishandling of it,  served as an appropriate metaphor for their looming nemesis.

It is true that national issues helped turn Barnet residents into Labour voters: or possibly, as Thomas would have us think, encouraged his loyal electorate to stay at home, sulking, rather than vote at all. 

Covid, Brexit, the incompetence, corruption and lawlessness of the Johnson government, all of this and more has had a major impact on the local elections this time. And yes, the boundary changes here were beneficial to Labour, to a certain extent. 

Whether or not Barnet Tories want to admit it, however, they are entirely responsible for the way the borough's local services have been mismanaged, and the way in which engagement with the democratic process has been made virtually impossible for residents at a time not only of increasingly dreadful standards of services, but also while witnessing, helplessly, an unprecedented level of monstrous over development - and most significantly, now encroaching on areas where formerly Tory leaning residents live. 

The tower blocks marring the skyline, the relentless demolition of much loved landmarks like the Medical Research Centre in Mill Hill, the White Bear pub in Hendon, the Lodge in Victoria Park; the replacement of perfectly usable housing for non affordable housing; the lack of enforcement of planning breaches in their neighbourhoods: all of this has begun to annoy and alienate the sort of people the Tories needed to keep onside. And here we are, and there they are, sitting on the opposition benches. 

Unnoticed by most, no doubt much to his chagrin, former disgraced Tory councillor, AM and village gossip Brian Coleman has taken his stubby little pencil and written a new blogpost (full of grammatical errors) with his thoughts on the election catastrophe. 

Rather to my alarm, he has somehow reached a point of view in agreement with me on quite a few issues. You ok, Brian? Or maybe it's me that needs a lie down.

No, I won't link to his blog as really, one should not encourage him. 

He focuses, anyway, on the ruthless (and pretty stupid) deselection of Tory members - especially women. He commends Hendon's Nizza Fluss for "her  principled and vocal opposition to the so called "Hendon Hub" , the absurd joint development with Middlesex University which post pandemic looks even more unnecessary ..." 

What he has to say about new Hendon councillor Alex Prager, I could not possibly repeat. Of course I didn't laugh.

Fascinating to see that the library cutter Reuben Thompstone's well deserved fall from grace, after standing in the unwinnable Underhill ward, was reportedly preceded by being turned down by three other areas, as well as his own ward of Golders Green. Awful shame. Brian advises him to ditch the 'silly moustache', amongst other things. Mmm. Not sure that will help. He is the moustache: the moustache is he. There is nothing else.

Dan Thomas, who not so long ago was happy to be seen with Coleman escorting the losing Tory candidate at the London Assembly count, gets little comfort from his chum now. He reckons he can only stagger on for a year at least, and then will have to return to his sun lounger (I paraphrase ...) And then:

I wish the new Labour Council well especially as they undue (sic) some of the dafter decisions of the last few years, Hendon Hub , North Finchley regeneration and of course the horrendous partnership with Capita that has proved a disaster and has had Tory Councillors tearing their hair out . 

Goodness me. Did you vote for it, Brian?


Over the last twelve years of publishing this blog, there has been nothing but a slow, insidious, incremental inevitability that the Tories would reach this point of self generated folly - and lose control of the council.

Twelve years and a thousand posts: so much awful stuff to report -  first from the time of MetPro, and the illegally operating, jackbooted thugs that the Tory councillors appointed to keep residents out of the Town Hall, a scandal which led to the discovery of thousands of missing contracts.

Next up: the late, much missed blogger Dan Hope spotted, late one night, that the Tories had sneaked onto a council agenda a proposal to award themselves massive rises in their allowances, even while lecturing us about the need for 'austerity'. We wrote about it: they were forced to retreat.

Then came the strategically organised embedding of the idea of mass outsourcing of services: facilitated by senior officers, consultants and representatives of potential tendering companies. Next came the courtship by Capita, in circumstances never fully understood. The Tories were easily fooled into signing up, without reading the contract that contained so many cleverly designed ways of squeezing every penny out of local taxpayers. We warned them, the unions warned them: they didn't want to know. But we were right, weren't we? And taxpayers have had to pay the cost: more than double the estimated cost.

We sat and watched, and reported, as Capita drew up a long list of 'development opportunities' - opportunities for themselves, camouflaged as 'regeneration'. The mass overdevelopment began, every last corner of the borough that could be grabbed was marked for use. They are only giving up on regeneration now because the opportunities themselves have dried up. Planning has become the favourite cash cow, with a system so saturated with conflicts of interest the entire borough has become helpless before the predation of major developers, pushed by lobbyists, and agents, and none of this in ways which are transparent or accountable. Labour must wrench this service from the hands of Capita, and take it back in house.

We sat and watched and reported, as Capita looked for every last gainshare payment and reward they could muster from such heartless measures as snatching the Freedom Passes of disabled residents, many of them with learning difficulties, some left stranded, helpless, as they discovered their passes had been summarily stopped, without warning. After the fuss we kicked up, this nasty trick was reversed. 

Another shameful episode was the attempt, in order to make a pre-election bribe via a tiny cut in council tax, (the cost of one cup of coffee a month) to take away the desperately needed respite care funding for families of children with severe and complex disabilities. Some of the parents came to the committee to beg the Tories not to do this, their children in wheelchairs. The children, as part of their conditions,  made a lot of involuntary noises - and were told twice by the Chair to be quiet. We reported this story: the cut was restored.

We sat and watched, reported and protested, as our once magnificent library service was gutted, and destroyed, by the hopeless philistinism, one might say hopeless nihilism, of the Barnet Tory councillors. They didn't care. None of them valued libraries, or the local museum. If only they had read more as children, or been taken to visit museums, maybe they might have developed a greater degree of imagination, and empathy, and not ended up as such a bunch of soulless fools, of course.

There have been many, many more stories like these: the millions spent on a depot that was bought for a song only just beforehand, the highly curious tale of the £23 million loan to Saracens, when they could not get a commercial loan; the absolute scandal of West Hendon, where social tenants were tricked out of their homes, and the land given away in secret to developers - throughout all of these we - bloggers, activists, residents, campaigners, have tried our best to question and report what is happening and engage with members, in order to take a meaningful role in the local democratic process. 

But the more successful we were in raising these issues, where so much was at stake, politically and financially, the more repressive were the measures taken by Barnet Tories to silence any challenge, or even debate. The Standards regime was effectively dismantled. The consultation process was trashed, and outcomes ignored. Worse, they amended the council's Constitution, to prevent any challenging questions of policy proposals or decisions: we were gagged, by our own elected representatives. In the end the only voice left for dissenting residents was at the ballot box.

So. My advice to Barnet Tories? 

Kick out Dan Thomas, and elect someone as Leader who has clear judgement, respect for the views of residents, and is prepared to work hard at communicating with those residents, listening to their views and putting their best interests at the front of every policy decision. 

Remember that representation as an elected member is a privilege, and conveys a duty to the community that put you in that position, and that you need to demonstrate to that community that you understand this. Find a modicum of humility, compassion for those in need, and a sense of civic pride - not the sort that relies on the pantomime of council meetings, and slap up dinners in the Haven, at our expense, but one that has a vision of a better place, and a map that might show us how to get there.

Learn from the mistakes of the last few administrations: put up candidates with some life experience, and some degree of competence in handling large budgets, rather than coopting chums or relatives who fancy a life of performative civic functions, rather than working hard for the community. 

Accept the concept of community, in fact: embrace 'the other', get to know the wide and wonderful diversity of the people of this borough, all cultures, faiths, ethnicities. Understand the needs of those who are less advantaged, vulnerable, disabled, and now struggling simply to survive. Show some consideration for older residents, who are excluded from the virtual world of technology in which you live. 

Learn to appreciate the value of culture, heritage: the need for social hubs - for a properly funded library service. 

Wean yourselves off a dependency on the lie of 'private good, public bad'. Don't listen to the whisperings of consultants, lobbyists, and senior officers. Easycouncil was a crashing failure: Your Choice Barnet was a crashing failure - admit it. You can't make profit from a public service - nor should you try.

Stop despising the very concept of social housing. Stop seeing the role of councillor as an agent for development, and developers. Immerse yourselves in the principles of integrity, honesty, transparency and accountability. Here's a novel idea: all of you declare ALL of your pecuniary interests. What have you got to hide?


Moving on. 

We are now in uncharted waters, with a Labour council set to run the borough for the first time ever. Unless you include the Labour-Libdem coalition which lasted from 1994 to 2002, of course. But this year's election saw the Libdems wiped out: hardly surprising as the two former councillors were both defectors from other parties, and the Leader, Gabriel Rozenberg, who apparently thinks he will be Libdem MP for the new Finchley and Muswell Hill parliamentary constituency, (he won't) was not elected in West Finchley, where he chose, rather foolishly, to stand rather than in his previous ward of Hampstead Garden Suburb, where he might at least have depended on some personal support. Now for the first time in many, many years: there is no third party represented on the council.

Mrs Angry's advice for the new Labour administration, then? 

Stand by, comrades.

Things have perhaps not got off to the greatest start, from my point of view. Let's hope it is just a misunderstanding. But I reserve judgement, at this stage - and I have to remain critical, as I would be with a Tory administration.

Because you see, the council agenda for tonight's first Full Council meeting, as spotted by fellow blogger John Dix, has put forward changes to the Constitution in regard to the rights of residents to engage in council meetings. Good, you might think, remembering the extraordinarily drastic restrictions imposed by the last, hard right Tory council.

But they have kept the restrictions - and worse, have devalued the already devalued Residents' Forums by amalgamating them with area committees. This means effectively that residents will still be unable to question, in any meaningful way, their elected representatives at any council meeting.

You may recall that Labour members joined residents in expressing their outrage at the gagging laws brought in by the Tory administration. 

We then discover that they are adopting the same measures. 

Once this was revealed, excuses were made, we are going to consult people on engagement before making changes - well, changes to the Constitution have been made, with no consultation - and that 'governance' wouldn't let them make more changes at this stage. 

The truth is that some of the more right of centre members of the Labour group have always somewhat resented the way in which bloggers, activists and campaigners have held Barnet Tories to account - that is to say, feeling obliged, at times, to take on the function of an effective opposition. 

Latest news on this, however, is, as the meeting looms large this evening, that hints are being dropped that the gagging rules now will now be dropped, at the next Constitution meeting. Wot, no consultation? Ok with the Monitoring Officer, is it, whose contract was renewed, just before the end of the Tory administration? 

If this is the case, it really should have been made clear and indicated right from the off, so as to manage expectations.

Watching the Labour Leader on election night telling the BBC that it wasn't so much Labour who won the council as the Tories who lost it was an astonishing moment. Apart from the somewhat  message it sent to all those activists who worked so hard to canvas for Labour before election day, it struck a warning note: being too comfortable in opposition is perhaps not the best preparation for delivering the radical new administration that is needed in order to undo the damage of so much reckless, heartless Tory policies imposed on this borough.

Labour must ignore the blandishments and assurances of the senior management team. In fact, get rid of as many of them as you can. They have become too used to directing policy, rather than implementing decisions taken as part of the democratic process, by members. This suited the Tory administrations, due to their natural tendency to laziness, and apathy. This is how we ended up with the disastrous Capita contracts - consultants and senior officers - with the help of one or two key Tory councillors manoeuvring behind the scenes - senior officers were relentlessly pushing through the proposals, meeting in secret, making major decisions about the shape of the mass outsourcing, without even informing the then Tory Leader, as we saw at the time of the second contract proposals. 

As fellow blogger John Dix has predicted, the senior management team is likely to try to lure the new Labour administration into thinking they have no option but to extend the contracts. This is not true. And it will be a sharp test of judgement, if they listen to this, and do allow any extension. The benefit will be to Capita's increasingly worried shareholders, not Barnet's range of failing council services. 

The Labour group is without question a collection of decent, well meaning people, and there are some excellent new members now going to be put in positions of great responsibility in the new council. 

Barnet is lucky to have hard working, conscientious Labour councillors who, unlike  many of the previous Tory representatives, are fully dedicated to their roles, and have a genuine sense of civic vocation and duty, as well as an acute understanding of the needs of the residents of this borough whose voices have been overlooked for so long. 

A council which has people like Ross Houston, Anne Clarke, Sara Conway and Arjun Mittra, and newcomers like Liron Vellman, in positions of influence, will be in safe hands. And I hope one of them will soon take over as Leader, for a newly confident, newly enthused administration.

Is Barnet still Broken? Yes: look at the state of us - but at least now we are, at long last, on the road to recovery.  

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