Saturday, 13 December 2008

Death of Oriental City: what a crying shame!

Living in the west of Barnet, I frequently pass Oriental City... or what's left of it. For younger (very young!) readers or those who have never ventured to the west of the borough, where Barnet ends and Brent begins, there is a fair description on Wikipedia of what Oriental City once was all those, oh, six months ago.

Where once there was a thriving community, and a bright spot on the dreary Edgware Road, and one of the few - I don't say the only - places to eat out around Colindale/Burnt Oak, there is now a miserable, boarded up, semi-derelict 'building' site - oh, no! Not another one!

It is another example of the disaster that results when local communities are weaker than the property speculators. The destruction of Oriental City is one of the most destructive acts I have ever witnessed. And, I have to say, to my shame, I stood by and let it happen.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Community action saves Sanders Lane

Great news of successful community action preventing the destruction of a green space in Barnet. Read a report here.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Barnet tries nudging: a resident responds

I am reading a great trade magazine (I earn a living from trade magazines, so I'm not sneering) called the Local Government Chronicle. I had always thought the LGC was left-leaning, but it doesn't look to be now.

There is an article written by the editor, Karen Day, which is pure Freer-speak, or is Freer speaking Karen Day? Read it here.

It's so much like the gobbledygook that the Future Shape report is written in, and since I have an interest in language for its own sake, I'm inspired to go and look at other things on the LGC website: there are some gems, humorous and simultaneously alarming, about Barnet, such as 'Barnet tries nudging' ("the intention was to encourage the notion that socially desirable behaviour was normal") and 'Barnet's Boland switches to GLA' (" the helm of Barnet, Mr Boland has overseen the borough's development as a 'city suburb' and its behaviour change programme" - what's that? I'm starting to feel like some kind of Barnet lab rat).

The website has a page called 'Thought Leadership Zone':
"Welcome to the Thought Leadership Zone, where practitioners and commentators can share their vision for local government. This zone features analytical and thought-provoking pieces, examining where local government is now and the challenges ahead.

"...(The LGC Thought Leadership Zone includes sponsored articles.)"
Of course it includes sponsored articles! It just would, wouldn't it?!

I think I am going to become an avid reader of Local Government Chronicle, well, at least an occasional visitor to its website.

This article underlines to me how depoliticised government has become, becoming replaced by governance (as councillor Harper - or was it Offord? - proudly pointed out last week), done by experts whose job it is to keep us all... happy? Quiet? Productive? Quiescent. They do the thinking, we are just bodies (I am indebted to my other half for this observation).

Leader Listens seems to be in this vein. The Leader meets a random sample of the people: it's like testing blood. How is the patient doing this week?

The vision of Barnet in the Future Shape report seems to fit with this: Barnet residents are individuals, with complex needs. In the future they will turn up to some sort of pan-public sector [see LGC] 'service station' where they will have their complex needs met - or not [LGC, Mike Freer et al can't seem to decide which needs it is legitimate for us to have met at the Future Shape service station and which we will have to meet ourselves and which - whisper it - might have to go unmet].

Future Shape offers a horrible, atomised vision of Barnet residents not as they are, a community, albeit one that debates policy and competes for resources, but as atomised, individual bags of wants.

It's obvious also that we, Barnet residents, are the 'them' and Mike Freer et al are the 'us', whose well-paid jobs it is to satisfy our wants (although only as resources, in this case Local Government Finance Settlements, allow).

Freer et al seem to take people's being turned off politics - I'm not pretending that isn't real - as a sign that people don't WANT to be involved in politics. Wrong, they're just turned off politics, and no wonder.

Last week after the farcical Cabinet meeting that rubber-stamped Future Shape we found out that hardly anyone ever submits a question to the Cabinet. Does this show that Mike Freer and his Cabinet are getting everything right? Should they be congratulating themselves? No, it's a sign that democratic channels in Barnet are in a lousy state: people don't know how to hold their 'leaders' to account, and they probably despair of getting a hearing if they tried.

I wrote to Democratic Services after the Cabinet meeting: I wanted to know whether we could have in writing Mike Freer's answers to our residents' questions: my shorthand skills are not what they should be, and I have no written record of his answer to my question. I want to know whether the residents asking questions who could not make it on the night will be granted an answer from the Leader. I want to know whether there will be any written minutes of the public question time, and whether it will be published on the council website, where other members of the public might see it. I've asked all these questions, and Democratic Services have told me they will consult the Leader on my behalf about them.

I'm looking forward to the Leader's response... should it ever come. But what a horrible vision of the future we are being offered, and what an alarming state of affairs we have in the here and now.

Next on vickim57: Barnet Council wrote on their own wall, and other cringe-making forays into social networking

Sunday, 7 December 2008

All the fun of the Barnet Christmas fair

The trades council had a stall at Barnet Christmas fair today, happily on the sunny side of the street. It was a good atmosphere in the winter sunshine, with a donkey braying somewhere nearby, displays of morris dancing, and bursts of Elvis (eclectic jumble the English do so well). High Barnet is nowhere near as sniffy as I had thought it would be (I comes from Burnt Oak, don't you know?).

Anyway, enough of this purple prose: the point is, we gave out lots of leaflets and got a great response! Yet more evidence that hardly a soul wants this privatisation plan.

Just say the words 'Barnet Council wants to privatise a lot of the council services' to a random passer-by in Barnet and they will more than likely groan at the idea. We ran out of leaflets and dispatched someone to print some more.

New slogans occur to me all the time: No privatisation without consultation!

I am thinking up some cartoons for the campaign and will get out my felt pens during the week - this campaign needs some pictures. Today we gave out the latest issue of the Barnet trades council newsletter - I can send copies to people if they email - and our latest press release about the Plain English Campaign's verdict on the Future Shape report (see post below).

Thursday, 4 December 2008

"From a plain English point of view, it is an awful document"

I've got fed up of waiting for Future Shape Programme Director Richard Grice to get back to the Plain English Campaign to explain himself. Last night's meeting is out of the way, and the cabinet have embarked on the next phase of Future Shape - spending £250,000 and six months to examine the outsourcing model in more detail. So Richard Grice couldn't give two hoots about whether the documents he produces are comprehensible to the citizens of Barnet?

I'll publish again the Plain English Campaign's damning assessment of the Future Shape report (emphasis added):

"I think your suggestion that the council is planning to introduce outsourcing is correct although when they couch their plans in such gobbledygook, it is hard to be certain.

"Paragraph 4.3 seems to suggest that they are thinking of using 'organisations other than the Council' while paragraph 5.3 suggests staff could be transferred to other employers. And, the Council also seems to have considered the legal implications of what it is doing.

"In answer to your question about whether it is in plain (enough) English to serve the public interest, the answer is definitely not. From a plain English point of view, it is an awful document. It is so full of jargon and management speak that the message is hard to find. It is quite possible to write complicated stuff like this in plain English - in fact, as everyone is entitled to receiving information in plain English, it should be common practice to write clearly.

"Whether the Council is writing in this style to try to disguise what it is considering, or whether it is just a case of not thinking about the residents of the borough I can't say. What I would do however is ask for the information in an appropriate style so that you, and all the other residents of the borough, are aware of quite major changes that could affect the way your council is run. And, as there seem to be huge implications for staff, I am sure they particularly need to be kept notified of what is happening."

3 December in the news

The London Daily News (check out the video section, lifted from YouTube: it's a video of Charles Leadbeater, management guru, talking to Barnet council management - funnier than re-runs of Morecambe and Wise)

BBC News website

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Democracy in Barnet: Would the first idiot like to come up and put her question?

I have just returned from the rally and Barnet council cabinet meeting (open to the public). Phew!

It was a good turnout, on a very cold night. From the meteorological angle, this campaign can only get easier from now on. We had large numbers of cheerful people, drinking coffee and tea, eating mince pies, carrying banners, waving flags and leafleting passing motorists; singing new campaigning words to old Christmas tunes; all ages, all backgrounds; trade unionists, residents, some experienced campaigners, some doing something like this for the first time. I'll get my photos processed tomorrow and post some here.

We all want: decent public services that are democratically accountable, and those who are working want decent pay, decent holidays, decent working conditions, and a decent pension at the end of it.

Then we went inside Barnet House.

Around fifty people sat in the public chairs in the Cabinet Committee room itself; the rest of us sat in two overflow rooms, with audio link to the main room. I was in the main room, because I, in the capacity of Barnet resident, had submitted a question to the Cabinet committee. I sat near some fellow Barnet residents, concerned about Future Shape, who had also submitted questions.

We had thought that we would be way down the list for questions, especially as we had only submitted our questions on the deadline. As it turned out, questions about Future Shape - six in all - submitted by concerned residents, were the ONLY public questions on the agenda. It makes one wonder whether the public even know these meetings happen, and how many questions are asked on average at them (responding to one question, Mike Freer said he didn't know how many members of the public knew about the meeting, and said it in a way that showed he doesn't care). We were called up one by one, and the Leader (wouldn't you hate to be called 'the Leader'? I know I would) read his answer to our question (submitted a week ago). We were then allowed to ask a supplementary question. For all those people who had submitted a question but were not present, Leader Mike Freer did not read out his answer - even though he had it prepared. We'll have to see whether he replies in writing to them, as he is supposed to do.

Those people do not deserve to have been dismissed in this way. I know that one of them at least was ill on the night.

I will post the questions and a precis of the answers in another post. The substance of the questions was less interesting than the style with which Mike Freer dealt with them. He treated us like the enemy, who must be cowed. The bloke lacks style. I know he knows we don't agree with him, but to diss residents who have taken the trouble to take part in the democratic process - a process that has put him where he is today - is naff.

The Future Shape item was moved up the main agenda, 'since it is of interest to some people here'. Mike Freer introduced the item with the usual rubric that 'not changing is not an option', saying the council will have to make savings in the future because the government is underfunding it. He did a lot of blaming things on the government, and Brian Coleman took up that refrain in his speech, saying Barnet were just trying to comply with the Gershon efficiency drive (like he knows a lot about efficiency!).

Then each Tory councillor making up the cabinet chipped in with a smarmily scripted endorsement of the Future Shape plan. Well, not quite every one, councillor Harper stuck the boot into the unions (Tory theme of the evening), dismissing their concerns as the reactions of dinosaurs that refuse to change, BUT he did say that he was worried about maintaining democratic accountability throughout an outsourced service model. Councillor Cornelius sounded the most sceptical of all. He called the document vague, and looked forward to more concrete financial details.

Cabinet members made quite vicious attacks on the unions, with Professor Whitfield's careful briefings scathingly and unjustly rubbished. The attacks were shocking at the time, but, on reflection, they show how concerned the administration is at the headway the unions have made in publicising and focusing public concerns about Future Shape. We must not lose our nerve.

The adminstration WILL attempt to smear the unions as 'protectionist' - and we should confess to wanting to protect our members' (less than princely) terms and conditions, better than what they might expect to get if outsourcing goes ahead (cf Fremantle). But we are not trying to protect vast wealth and privilege!

The cabinet lyingly claimed that the unions have made no positive suggestions for change: our positive alternative to Future Shape is explicitly to improve inhouse services through consultation with users and with those who deliver the services.

At the end of the evening, the cabinet voted to go ahead with the next phase of Future Shape, at a cost of £250,000. One councillor had asked earlier whether members of the public, if they had GOOD, CONSTRUCTIVE suggestions, would be able to feed into the process, and Mike Freer said they would, although he did not say HOW or WHEN, because, let's face it, he doesn't mean it.

On the night, the Tories closed ranks, even though some of them clearly have misgivings. I think they are making a mistake, branding the unions as the enemy. We are not going to be cowed.

"That'll be slightly less than you were expecting to pay, madam"

I don't know about you but I keep going into shops and getting charged slightly less than I was expecting to pay for things. So I went into Bon Marche and bought a woolly hat that said £5 on the price tag and the woman behind the counter charged me... £4.89 for it.

And I went into Caffe Nero and carefully added up the cost of a cappuccino and pain au chocolat only to be told it wasn't the £3.40 I was expecting to pay but... £3.36.

Then I remembered: it's the 15% instead of 17.5% VAT rate, stupid!

It might not save the economy, but the reduction in the VAT rate has resulted in an extra (and welcome) surreal daily twist to what is already a pretty surreal winter.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Residents' associations anxious about Future Shape

The Federation of Residents Associations of Barnet (FORAB) have written an open letter to Mike Freer (28 November 2008), sent to the local papers. It expresses their concerns about the Future Shape process:

Dear Councillor Freer,

Future Shape of the Council

I am writing on behalf of FORAB to express our grave reservations on the current proposals for the future shape of our Council.

We expect Councillors to keep under constant review the services that the council offers and the way in which they are carried out to ensure that they are the services needed and that best value for money is delivered.

From the report that is going to Cabinet next week we see no evidence how either of these expectations will be delivered.

The thrust appears to be that outsourcing is the future for most if not all services based on contracts with the Council. Unfortunately the public are sceptical about the efficacy of such an approach eg NHS and cleaning and all Government departments' IT replacements. These shortcomings have been repeated in Barnet eg the inability to change the former recycling contract, the sale of the site at Underhill and the recent major expense on IT and visual equipment to name but three examples. The only winners are always the lawyers.

We are greatly concerned at the secrecy to date and undue haste with which it is being proposed to take the matter forward.

There may be some merit in the proposals but this will only become clear and possibly acceptable to the electorate if all of the proposals are exposed to examination and discussion with the people of Barnet who will pay for the services and are in the best position to decide if they are value for money. Furthermore they will be able to spot what is flawed and what is workable.

If the proposals are sound you will be able to implement them with much public support and if they are flawed the Council tax payers of Barnet will be saved from a very expensive disaster.

We urge you to slow down the programme and consult widely with all interested parties including individuals and groups who have a variety of expertise.

Yours sincerely,

David Howard, Chair of FORAB

Monday, 1 December 2008

Unions respond to latest Future Shape report

The councils unions' response to the latest Future Shape report is here.

It has been prepared by Professor Dexter Whitfield, of the European Services Strategy Unit.

It has been said that we are getting a lot more value for money from our consultant than Barnet council is getting from theirs - PricewaterhouseCoopers!

The unions are providing sound and relevant information, that is readable, and available for all to see. Let's see if the council deign to respond to this. So far they have not responded to any of the briefings that the unions have produced.

Union briefings here:
Response to the latest Future Shape report
Briefing 1 'Assessment of Strategic Hub proposals'
Briefing 2 'Public service principles and values'
Briefing 3 'Trade unions submit Employment Charter'
Briefing 4 'Barnet to review their staffing contracts'
Briefing 5 'In house transformation'
Briefing 6 'The "shrinking by outsourcing" models - implications for staff'

Save Sanders Lane!

I was out and about in Barnet yesterday, dropping off leaflets about Wednesday's rally and meeting to Dollis Park and District Residents Association. On my way through Mill Hill East I passed a big banner saying SAVE SANDERS LANE.

When I got home I looked on the Internet and found this website: Save Sanders Lane.

I'm all for saving green spaces, I'm not a fan of too many cars (please note, "too many cars" - I can see their usefulness for many people), and prefer walking and using public transport - so, yes, SAVE SANDERS LANE!

But what's also immediately striking about this case is the complete lack of transparency there has been from the council about what they want to do. Have a look for yourselves. It reminds me of the lack of transparency the council is demonstrating over Future Shape.

Friday, 28 November 2008

"From a plain English point of view, it is an awful document"

Protocol dictates that I remove the post that was here until Wednesday 3rd.

We sought the opinion of the Plain English Campaign about the latest Future Shape report, and they have to give Barnet council a chance to explain themselves before we are allowed to publicise their opinion about the document.

My feeling is that Barnet council will say, oh, well, that document was never meant for public consumption (far too 'technical'!?), in which case why put it on your website? But at least it means they will then be more or less committing themselves to producing some Plain English information about Future Shape. So... watch this space.

Hold the front page

Mike Freer has told the local Times newspaper: “The Future Shape model has been prepared in consultation with our staff and users to see how we can deliver our services better." Tell that to... well, staff and users, and I think they would laugh in his face.

The council might be regretting its decision not to inform residents about what is going on, because the only people who ARE providing information are Barnet trades council (Barnet TUC) and, in the first place, the council unions (eg, Barnet Unison).

We have been getting a lot of coverage in the local press and this week a front page (well, you know, once you've taken the advertising wrapper off, but those are the times we are living in):

Times series, Thurs 27 Nov: "Privatisation looms?"

Other reports this week:
Barnet and Whetstone Press, Thurs 27 Nov: "Fears of privatisation of council services..." and "Unions suspicious of motives..."

Rog T dissects Future Shape

I promised in an earlier post to cover the latest Future Shape report from the council in detail, but Rog T is already dissecting it very well at this blog Rog T - The Barnet Eye - I recommend you take a look.

However, there is so much that is awful in the report that we would have to work in relays to cover it all, so perhaps I will have to take over at some point.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Future Shape: it IS pear-shaped

From this to this. And it took them a whole 7 months.

The Leader's report on 'Future Shape' to the Cabinet of 6 May 2008 ("The Future Organisation of the Council") was, from my point of view, a politically worrying document, but fairly coherent. The latest report, "Future Shape of the Council", which is what they will discuss at the Cabinet on Tuesday 3 December, is full of management speak, muddy, and downright sinister in places.

Have a look for yourself. I hope to cover some points from it in the next few days.

This Saturday 29th November, join or visit one of the trades council's public stalls informing the public about Future Shape:
10.00-11.30am - outside Chipping Barnet library
Please note: the stall previously advertised for Whetstone Waitrose is not now going ahead - unless someone else would like to organise one! Please get in touch:
10.30-11.30am - outside Tesco, Burnt Oak
11.00am-12 noon - outside Tesco, Finchley Central

Monday, 24 November 2008

Future Shape of Barnet council: If you had just one question, what would you ask?

In the build-up to the Council Cabinet public meeting which will discuss 'Future Shape' (7pm, Tuesday 9 December, preceded from 6pm by a rally organised by trade unions and Barnet residents), I will examine different aspects of our campaign to bring the matter to public attention.

A Barnet resident attended Leader Listens in north Finchley. She was rather dismayed by the reaction she got from Leader of Barnet council Mike Freer when she asked why Barnet council weren't informing the public about their 'Future Shape' deliberations.
He said (I'm paraphrasing): the residents of Barnet voted for councillors to act on their behalf, to make decisions, without any necessity to get the opinions of local residents. If residents don't like councillors' decisions, we can vote them out after four years.

By this account, Mike Freer's definition of democracy is the very crude one that democracy = putting a cross on a ballot paper every x years.

In the trades council we think otherwise; we know that democracy involves a whole lot more than that. For example, we believe that it means an active citizenry! And there are plenty of Barnet residents out there who know how to use the avenues that exist to HOLD OUR ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES TO ACCOUNT, not just at election time, ie, for councils, on one day every four years, but in between times as well.

I am trying to turn myself into an active citizen (well, an active resident - I've always been active in the trade union movement). With some other residents I contacted Barnet council's Democratic Services, to find out how to put questions to the Leader (hate that term! Wouldn't you hate to be called 'the Leader'?) and Cabinet at their meeting on 3 December. We spent part of the weekend looking over Future Shape material that is in the public sphere, and devising the questions that we would most like to have answered. From what I have seen, Future Shape raises enough questions to fill several Cabinet meetings, but on Tuesday 3 December the public will be able to put only 20 questions, or half an hour's worth, whichever is the longest. Please be there to hear what we have come up with!

Straw poll - Whetstone Waitrose: er...?

Not quite the detail I was looking for, but the people running the stall outside Whetstone Waitrose to inform the public about Barnet council's 'Future Shape' deliberations ('We do it, because Barnet council won't') said 'the stall went very well'. I take that to mean that in Whetstone, just as I have been finding in Burnt Oak, there is NO PUBLIC APPETITE FOR PRIVATISATION.

I walked around Whetstone a little bit on Sunday looking for places to leaflet about the lobby on Tuesday 3rd December (6pm rally, 7pm attend public meeting of the Council Cabinet). Barnet House, where the rally and meeting will take place, is a bleak spot, built on stilts with a chill wind whistling underneath. We shall have to wrap up warm for our lobby and come with chants prepared to keep our spirits up.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Straw poll - Burnt Oak Tesco: No public appetite for privatisation

For a couple of months past I and a couple more people from Barnet trades council, reinforced by members of Barnet Unison and a friend who lives in Kingsbury, have organised a stall outside Tesco on Burnt Oak Broadway on Saturday morning (10.30-11.30, in case you pass that way on a Saturday).

We ask people to sign the trade unions' 'Future Shape' petition (text here Barnet trades council (Barnet TUC)).

Its basic demand is that the Council should give the 'inhouse' option a fair crack of the whip when assessing it against any other option they can dream up, all of which would involve some sort of outsourcing to private companies/Third Sector or arms length organisations, or what have you.

I can say, hand on heart, based on this consultation exercise - as far as I know, the only one so far conducted over the council's Future Shape plans - that there is NO PUBLIC APPETITE FOR PRIVATISATION/OUTSOURCING. People visibly groan when I tell them what is being contemplated. OK, a few people scuttle past, with their heads down, their body language telling me 'I don't want to talk to anyone on the street about anything ever'. A few people say 'the council's rubbish, anyway' and have given up on the idea of doing anything about it. And on one occasion a business Masters student from China politely discussed with me why privatisation MIGHT be a good thing. But, apart from that, the overwhelming sentiment of the public using Burnt Oak Tesco is: privatisation, no thanks.

This Saturday, some of my colleagues ran a stall outside Waitrose in Whetstone High Road. Socio-economically speaking this is a different kettle of fish from Burnt Oak Tesco, so it will be interesting to hear what the response is there. I bet they get a few more people prepared to support privatisation, and ready to argue about it. But I bet it's still not a majority. I'll report back here when I've found out.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

What's the point?

The aim of this blog is to supplement material on the Barnet trades council (Barnet TUC) website, which I administer in the capacity of publicity officer of Barnet trades council.

Here I might, from time to time, give more detailed reports about what the trades council is doing; however, to be clear, this is a personal blog and does not represent the views of Barnet trades council.