Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Tea, scones or enlightenment: what are Tory councillors scared of?

Tomorrow the Jewish Community Housing Association (JCHA) will host tea parties at two of its sheltered housing schemes in Barnet. Councillors have been invited to go and find out more about the schemes and the role of the wardens. This is in the run-up to the Cabinet decision on 8 June whether or not to cut the budget for wardens by £950,000, effectively abolishing sheltered housing in Barnet.

JCHA are not the only group to have invited councillors; several schemes invited councillors to attend the official consultation meetings that Barnet's 'Supporting People' staff organised in the spring. As far as I know, no Conservative* councillors have accepted any such invitation. First, the Cabinet got Barnet staff to do its dirty work for it, presenting the cuts and feeling the full blast of residents' indignation; next, the Conservative councillors have ignored any chance of enlightenment on the issue.

If they are so sure the proposed cuts are right, why don't they go and explain why to residents and their relatives and friends? If they are not sure they are right, why don't they take their head out of the sand and avail themselves of the ample opportunities there have been to find out more, and so reach an informed opinion?

The JCHA have been wise enough to tell the wider world about the parties they are organising, so it has been hard for the council to ignore them. How has the council responded? In the most bureaucratic way you could imagine. Lynne Hillan - now Deputy Council Leader and Cabinet Member for Resources, formerly Cabinet member for community services - told the Hendon Times:
the organisation [JCHA] was acting "inappropriately".

She said: “As the association is a contractor to the council, I believe it is highly inappropriate that they should be so overtly political.”
Was that the best objection she could come up with? Why didn't she explain the proposed cuts? At the time, it was her department that would see them through.

This statement bears wider and yet more worrying implications. It shows us a future where a contract culture pervades all council services, as more and more third sector organisations and private companies bid to win contracts with the council. They will be treated as though they were all 'only in it for the money' when in fact many of them simply provide a service to vulnerable people, and should be expected to defend the value of that service above and beyond what's 'in it for them' as contractors. You would expect in-house service providers to stick up for their 'clients', wouldn't you? Why should it be any different for third sector organisations?

*I concern myself with Conservative councillors because Labour and the Liberal Democrats on the council are opposing the proposed cuts.

No comments: