Saturday, 25 July 2009

Temperature rising on the Isle of Wight: campaign to save jobs at Vestas

I am doing some work on the blog for the Vestas campaign on the Isle of Wight. There 25 workers about to be laid off by Vestas Blades UK have occupied the management offices of their wind turbine blade factory. They want to highlight the effects of job losses on the Isle of Wight, and the gap between the government's rhetoric on expanding renewable energy and its actions - or, rather, lack of them.

The blog is here I have also started a petition on the 10 Downing Street website:

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Barnet residents defy SOCPA and deliver letter to PM

The sheltered housing demo yesterday was not huge (100?) but it was good - a chance to meet other figures involved in campaigning on the issue nationally. So, I met Vernon Yarker, the able, amiable and dedicated chair of Sheltered Housing UK; Joe Oldman of Age UK (working title of the merged Age Concern and Help the Aged); crusading lawyer Yvonne Hossacks; Geoffrey Cox MP (yes, a Tory, who is opposing sheltered housing cuts and who will try to get a debate on this in Parliament next session); plus residents from around the UK, including a colourful delegation from the Oysters sheltered housing scheme in Whitstable, Kent.

Alan Schneiderman, Barnet Labour councillor, attended and there was a good delegation from Barnet's own Kingsley Court, despite one of their two minibuses breaking down in Swiss Cottage forcing them all to pack into one van to reach the protest.

Protests in the vicinity of Parliament are strictly policed, under the terms of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, abbreviated to SOCPA. I think the police tend to enforce the terms more strictly when the crowd is small. The enormous Tamil protests against the attacks on Tamil areas of Sri Lanka were clearly too big to deal with by invoking SOCPA. However, a modest gathering of elderly people and their friends fits the bill perfectly for a bit of petty bullying and rule-mongering. So we were told off for:
- gathering on the paved area, which belongs to the GLA, and not on the grass, which belongs to Westminster council (at a guess);

- having more than one film crew in attendance;

- shouting slogans whilst having our picture taken;

- using a loudhailer close to Parliament.
If they could have gotten away with it, they would probably have told us off for 'walking slowly in a built-up area'. The elderly people for whom it was a great effort to attend refused to be bullied, just as they had refused to be bullied off the grass in front of Hendon town hall when we held our protest in June.

I cannot fault the police too much - for our walk up Whitehall to Downing Street, they let us march on the road, which was quite a thrill. Most of us waited in a fenced area opposite Downing Street while a delegation went to deliver a letter to the PM. Leading the delegation was Joan Bakewell, who looked great and did a piece to camera for some programme or other. Maybe for the "Panorama" programme about sheltered housing, due for broadcast in August.

On a personal note, I did not end up on television on the day despite two near misses, the second when BBC London News chose to interview Dame Joan rather than me - I suppose there couldn't be a better person to be upstaged by. Joan Bakewell is to sheltered housing what Joanna Lumley was to the Gurkhas - we hope.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Sheltered housing demonstration tomorrow, what shall I wear?

See you in front of the Palace of Westminster tomorrow, hopefully, for the national demonstration to defend sheltered housing. Assemble 12.30 in Parliament Square, for a short march up Whitehall to a spot by Downing Street. A delegation, led by Joan Bakewell, will hand in a letter to the Prime Minister calling for him to intervene to stop the national decimation of sheltered housing.

Kingsley Court sheltered housing residents from Barnet have been on the TV news this morning and this evening, giving Barnet council a pasting for their decision to axe the wardens. Alas, Barnet council leader Mike Freer won't have been watching "GMTV" to see it, as I understand he hates daytime television even more than he hates being ill with the flu!

It is great that, finally, this issue is getting something approaching the national attention it deserves. I'm going to get an early night as there is a small chance that I myself will have to go to a studio tomorrow morning. I am dreading my 15 minutes of fame... if it comes tomorrow, at least it will be in a good cause.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Vestas campaign hotting up - but then so is the planet!

Update: a small but determined occupation of one of the factories began last night; see report on the BBC website.
I went to the Isle of Wight (population c.120,000) yesterday. First time ever but instead of seeing the sights, I sat in a cafe designing leaflets on a laptop. The campaign to save the Vestas Blades UK factories on the island is hotting up.

It's quite a conservative - and Conservative - island but most of the residents are supporting the campaign by a number of Vestas workers, the island's trades councils and the Workers' Climate Action group to keep two wind turbine blade factories open.

The factories are owned by Vestas Blades UK, part of a multinational company. Vestas is highly profitable but the company doesn't want to invest in machinery to upgrade the factories, and they can make bigger profits elsewhere, so they are bailing out of the UK - and their home country Denmark where more than a thousand jobs have gone already.

The campaigners on the Isle of Wight are calling on the government to intervene - to nationalise if necessary - to save the 600 jobs at Vestas, Isle of Wight and the further jobs on the island that will be lost if Vestas closes. For an investment of £51 million they could have state-of-the-art factories producing wind turbine blades for this massive expansion of wind energy they have been talking about.

The South East England Development Agency has acquired land on the island to build sustainable industries - you pass the unploughed fields on the drive out of Cowes! SEEDA could step in to invest in Vestas.

A campaign blog is starting to look good - - and there are two meetings planned this week on the island: on Wednesday night, a meeting to set up a community campaign and, on Friday evening, a public rally in Newport from 5.30pm. Please send messages of support to

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Sheltered housing national demonstration, 12.30, Wednesday 22 July, Parliament Square

As became clear when we campaigned to save the wardens in Barnet, the cuts to sheltered housing are a national issue. Along with the work of Sheltered Housing UK, and Hendon MP Andrew Dismore's raising the issue in Parliament, our own efforts in Barnet have helped to force a belated national debate on this issue (although still not on the scale that it deserves).

"Panorama" in August will cover sheltered housing; several Barnet celebrities and notorieties will feature in it. One of the stars of the show is David Young, the chair of Kingsley Court Strategy Committee, who lives at one of the sheltered housing schemes due to lose its warden.

Dave has ploughed his own furrow, pretty much, seeing what needed to be done and doing it. As well as building the protests organised by Barnet Community Campaign, he organised a petition which Kingsley Court residents handed in to 10 Downing Street in May; Kingsley Court residents turned up en masse at the surgery of their councillor Joan Scannell in Edgware; and Dave arranged for BBC News to interview residents on the day that the council decided to cut wardens.

Now the Kingsley Court campaigners have got permission for a long-overdue national demonstration on the issue of sheltered housing. It assembles at 12.30 in Parliament Square, on Wednesday 22 July. Then a letter will be handed in to 10 Downing Street; the delegation will include Joan Bakewell.

The gist of the message to Gordon Brown is:
“Pensioners from sheltered housing schemes throughout England demand the Government reverse their policy on sheltered housing, so councils will reinstate sheltered wardens. The Government says they can’t intervene, because this is a local government issue. We have come from across the nation and are all affected — this is a national issue! Take responsibility for once, Gordon, and sort it out.”
More details on the Barnet TUC website.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Which way is the wind blowing: the strange case of Vestas Blades UK

The government publishes a new energy white paper tomorrow. The Guardian has an interview with the Energy and Climate Change secretary Ed Miliband about its contents here.

On Monday Miliband opened Little Cheyne Court in Kent, "the largest onshore wind farm in the south-east of England". It's on Romney Marsh in Kent. Local Tory MP Michael Howard opposed the wind farm. I'm with Ed Miliband on this issue: "Opposing wind farms should be socially taboo, says Ed Miliband". And, yes, I would have one in my backyard.

Right now, the UK's only wind turbine blade manufacturer, Vestas Blades UK, is due to close on the Isle of Wight with the direct loss of 600 jobs. Vestas say there is not enough UK demand for the type of blades they make on the island, and they are moving production to the US and China. Critics are inclined to believe that Vestas just want to make blades where the wages are lower.

Here's one seeming paradox that could be easily solved, it seems to me, by a method that is good enough for failing banks: nationalisation of the closing plant. And, unlike nationalised banks, the Isle of Wight plant turns a profit.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Swans and dogs and humans

What a sad story. One of the cygnets on Grahame Park open space has been killed in an attack by a dog - apparently goaded on by its owner. What a moron. I was getting all excited about the swans recently but behind my excitement was fear that something like this would happen.

I am a bit fed-up with dogs - even when they are not attacking swans. Or, rather, with dog-owners. I wish more dog-owners would think about the potential 'negative externalities' arising from their decision to enjoy the company of a pet, viz barking, shit and the possibility of someone getting bitten.

I was walking to my house one evening last winter when I saw a shape hurtling toward me through the semi-gloom, and heard the faint voice of its owner calling it back: 'Elvis, Elvis'. I hoped that whatever Elvis was, he wasn't going to tear my throat out. In the event Elvis just (just!) muddied my clothes, but the incident also scared me.

There is a patch of green in front of my house. Kids from the whole neighbourhood play on it, rolling in shit because dog-owners take their pets to relieve themselves on it morning and evening. What goes on in these people's heads? It would be a different thing if they were living in the countryside or even near a park with a bit of scrub, but this is a small patch of recreational ground. Clear up your own dog's shit!

I watched an item on BBC London news tonight about dangerous dogs owned by gangs. The police were confiscating and destroying some of them because they were dangerous, but I felt sorry for these vicious mutts, bred for their aggressiveness. I don't feel sorry for their owners when they are prosecuted.

Apparently Barnet police have a project called Barnet Action for Responsible K9s (BARK), which sounds like a good initiative. A better use of their time than warning off over-enthusiastic young politicos.

The London challenge: spot Brian Coleman using public transport

Kicking and screaming, Brian Coleman, mayor of Barnet and London Assembly member for Barnet and Camden, has 'voluntarily' published his AM expenses. You can view them here. The total is £3,605.72 for 3 March 2008 to 28 February 2009.

It is worth noting that Coleman also claims expenses in his role as Chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA). Those he does not have to declare, but Adam Bienkov learned from a Freedom of Information request that Coleman claimed almost £2,000 from the LFEPA for 'travel' between April-December 2008, including that outrageous £396 for his travel to and from a Lord Mayor's banquet in November (most of that was waiting time).

Among his GLA expenses is £1,784 for a travelcard. Given that he claims royally from both the GLA and the LFEPA for taxi fares, it raises the question of what he wants that travelcard for. I can only imagine that he has it on the offchance that a cab breaks down one day forcing him to use the Tube (I can't see him on a bus, can you?). It would save him the trouble of queuing with the common horde for a ticket.

I am issuing a challenge to Londoners: between us can we snap a picture of Brian Coleman using public transport? If no one can, then he shouldn't be entitled to a travelcard as part of his expenses (even if it is taxable).

Warden cuts do not mean the end of the battle

Northampton residents of sheltered housing marched yesterday to protest against the level of service they have been receiving through the floating support since their resident wardens were axed by the council.

A report in the Northampton Chronicle explains:

About 50 elderly people from across the town took part in a march through the middle of Northampton yesterday to highlight cuts to services which mean many of them now only receive visits from wardens once a month.
In Barnet too the council can be sure that their decision to remove the wardens will not be the end of the story.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Iran: the dust settles, but not in a good way

Iran is a very polluted place at the best of times; Tehran and other big cities, particularly, are full of vehicle fumes. Tehran sits in a sort of bowl surrounded by mountains. In the summer no wind comes to take the fumes away and it is common to see people walking around wearing masks.

Right now, however, Iran is choking under a new cloud - of dust, blown from Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The storm affected US Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Iraq last week. There are some dramatic pictures of it here from an 'embedded reporter' in Iraq.

The dust-storm has served as a convenient excuse for the Iranian government to shut government offices and universities. Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of a major student uprising in 1999, when students at Tehran University, emboldened under the regime of the 'reformist' president Khatami, demonstrated against the closure of a reformist newspaper. Their dormitories were attacked and one student killed. Protests followed throughout the country, and in the crackdown more people were killed and hundreds of student activists arrested. Some of those are still in prison.

President Khatami's response, denouncing the protests, led to great disillusionment among many young people about the possibility that the 'reformists' could deliver real change in Iran, and earned the response 'marg bar Khatami!' - 'death to Khatami!' - from some.

There have been student protests on previous anniversaries of "18 Tir" (18th day of the month of Tir = 9th July). Who knows what will be possible this year, but it is a date on many people's minds.

Brian Coleman, the human dynamo

Brian Coleman, Barnet's mayor, is refusing to voluntarily publish his expenses as London Assembly member, while all of the 24 other AMs have already done so. Explaining why he would not, to the Evening Standard's Paul Waugh, he said:
"I won’t do it vountarily. It’s none of the public’s business. They have coped well without knowing this kind of detail for more than 75 years.

“They are not entitled to drool over our personal lives. I’m not going to help the mad, bad and the sad, the bloggers on the internet. I’m not pandering to mob rule. It undermines democracy to suggest that all MPs, all politicians are the spawn of beelzebub.

“Nobody is going to go into public life if they think the minutiae of their grocery bills are going to be looked over....

“Politicians with lower expenses tend to be the politicians who do least work. Those with higher expenses are the ones who do most work.”
Given that his taxi expenses regularly exceeed those of all of the other AMs put together, Coleman is clearly Superman on the quiet, a human dynamo. And he had us all fooled.

I can only think of one other person in 'public life' who is as unrepentant about his right to spend vast sums of other people's money on his own political career and that is George Galloway, who once told the Scotsman newspaper that he “couldn’t live on three workers’ wages” and “needs £150,000 a year to function properly as a leading figure in a part of the British political system”.

Coleman and Galloway actually look a bit alike. Personally, and this might surprise you, while Coleman's politics stink I think Galloway's are far more poisonous. I wouldn't like to guess which of the two is the more expensive.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Mike Freer: no, you cannot shape your own future

One small story among many from the Cabinet meeting tonight. I quoted Conservative Party leader David Cameron at Mike Freer, Conservative Leader of Barnet Council.
Right now most people feel totally insignificant in the political process. Frankly, that's because - in the current over-centralised system - they are insignificant. If you're unhappy about decisions made by your council there's very little you can do about it outside election day.

We're going to change that by giving people the power to instigate referendums on local issues...
Cameron's February 2009 article on local government, from which this is taken, is here. I'm not sure that Cameron's remedies are all that good, actually, but at least he acknowledges that there's a problem.

Mike Freer and Councillor Harper (at previous Cabinets) have taken to saying 'if residents don't like what we are doing, they can vote us out at the next election'. Theirs is a really miserable view of local democracy; Barnet Tories aren't going to vote Labour in the council elections, even if they have hated everything that Freer's administration has done. Non-Tory voters are doubly stuffed.

The main item of business tonight was Cabinet agreeing the next phase of the Future Shape programme. A Barnet press release includes this promise:
Barnet Council proposes to establish a residents’ review of Future Shape, ensuring that developing services match the priorities and expectations of Barnet residents.
As well as asking whether Mike Freer agrees with David Cameron's proposals for local government, I tried to get him to tell us what resident consultation or input there will be during this next phase of the Future Shape programme - what is this 'residents' review'?

His answer really dismayed me. There isn't going to be any. Citizen input - if it exists - is going to be on the level of consultation with individual (atomised) service users at the point of service delivery, as far as I can see. As far as I can see, they should have been doing that for years anyway: the idea that you don't involve the service user in the service they get has thankfully disappeared, even if the practice is not as good as the theory.

What I'm talking about is political consultation and consent, in advance - do the residents agree with and consent to this or that policy? Do we think outsourcing provision of council services to private companies is, generally, a good idea? The only feedback I've had - and I have the advantage over Freer et al that I have actually gone out and asked Barnet residents this question - is 'no', they think it's a bad idea. In the Future Shape programme, will residents be stuck with it neverthetheless if the council goes down that road? Yes, they'll be stuck with it.

There are many things that are bad about this Future Shape process, this one is a key one for me.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Let me get that, Brian, no, no, I insist

Nicking a story from Dave Hill's Guardian London blog about London Assembly members' expenses appearing online - voluntarily. And there's the rub. The only AM who has yet to volunteer information about his expenses is Brian Coleman, first citizen of Barnet (I'm afraid he is).

Looking forward to reading it when it finally goes up... keep checking back here.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

East Barnet festival: Barnet rocks

I have enjoyed getting to know Barnet, since I got involved in the trades council and community campaigning. Before that I could have been living anywhere, because all I knew of the borough was the shops on Watling Avenue and the walk to Colindale tube station. Living in London can be like that, if you have come from outside as I have (I am a maid of Kent, though more like a matron these days).

Today I went to the East Barnet festival. I gather the Festival gets better each year, and I certainly enjoyed it. It was an eclectic event with a rowdy funfair towering beside the more fete-like small stages, stalls and sideshows. I ate curried goat, followed by a strawberry tea, washed down with cider, and met the unfeasibly posh Deputy Lieutenant of Barnet. Having now looked up what this office is, I can understand where the poshness comes into it. If you want to know too read this.

I visited Oak Hill Park back in chilly February, taking some leaflets to someone to deliver; it was nice then as well. Today after helping out at the Unison stall, and talking to some residents about Future Shape (I restate what I have found from the start: there is no public appetite for Barnet council's mass outsourcing plan) I went and enjoyed the music.

The good-natured crowd on the hill thoroughly enjoyed the brilliantly named Schweet Azz who did cover versions of rock standards very well - they played two Thin Lizzy songs which gets them my vote. They play the Builders Arms (New Barnet?) in August.

Then after a fair pause for setting up came the Edgar Broughton Band. This venerable band have been in the business (on and off) for 40 years. Wikipedia says:
The band started their career as a blues group under the name of The Edgar Broughton Blues Band, playing to a dedicated but limited following in the region around their hometown of Warwick. ...the band began to lean towards the emerging psychedelic movement, dropping the 'Blues' from their name as well as their music...
On today's showing, and despite having the same initials, I don't think East Barnet will ever be ready for Edgar Broughton. My friend said they were too 'trendy' for her, I think that should have been 'progressive'.

Mad lefties

I did some leafleting at Burnt Oak on Saturday for the lobby of the council on Monday; my leaflet says 'public services before private profit' (I know, some people think they can happily co-exist but I'm deeply sceptical).

There was a lot of interest, no one hostile to what I was saying, and I had some interesting conversations with people.

Now, you might think I am completely mad for (a) thinking what I think; (b) doing what I do - why, I could have been lolling in bed all morning thinking about my lunch (like some citizens of Barnet that I can think of). That would be 'normal'.

But I get up early on Saturday morning and do this sort of activity because I think it's useful. It informs people about what is going on, gives them a chance to express their own opinions, and provides an alternative to the mainstream wisdom that is not thoroughly reactionary, perhaps contributing in a small way to pre-empting the growth of you-know-who.

All that said, I am frequently disappointed by what the most left-wing people that I meet say. Today I met a socialist who voted for Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, an old-fashioned socialist. We were getting on fairly well until he mentioned the empire: in the past we controlled them, now they control us. What the hell was he talking about?

Then I met a man wearing a 'No to ID cards' badge. We were getting on fairly well until he mentioned the EU: after the war, all the Nazis that had managed to conceal their identity infiltrated the EU and they are now running it and running this country too. What the hell was he talking about?

Am I the only sane mad leftie in Burnt Oak?

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Sheltered housing residents too interested in wardens consultation - shock

Mike Freer has objected to Healthcare for London's proposals on trauma and stroke care in London, in particular the way they have separated out Barnet residents' vociferous views on what is proposed from the views of other Londoners, effectively dismissing them.

This is what Freer says in his 'Leader Listens' blog:

Barnet too interested in health consultation – shock

These are issues about which Barnet residents feel very strongly. So strongly in fact that 27 per cent of all the residents in London who responded to the survey are from Barnet, 2335 out of the 8611 total - by far the highest of any London borough. Response to the London-wide consultation varied from a low of 43 responses in Tower Hamlets to around 500 or so in other areas where campaigns were held to encourage response.

There are two ways of looking this. Either Barnet Council is so effective at encouraging consultation that we produce a response four to ten times larger than other boroughs. Or, people in Barnet feel that the proposals do not meet the needs they have of the healthcare system. Tempting though it is to claim credit, I cannot help but feel that the latter is the case.

The response of Ipsos MORI who have conducted the research for Healthcare for London is to treat Barnet as an oddity, to publish figures for Barnet separately and to highlight the views of the rest of London if Barnet is taken out of the equation. This seems to me absurd.

The boroughs where the public mood most closely matches that of Barnet are, unsurprisingly, Enfield and Haringey. Obviously north-west London is unhappy with plans that place support for emergency treatment so far away from us…

This consultation shows that north-west London has real concerns about these plans....
He has a point, but it is exactly the point he dismissed so sneeringly during the sheltered housing wardens consultation: he wasn't surprised that so many residents and their supporters got involved in the consultation and he wasn't surprised that they didn't like the proposals, after all, they believed it was going to harm them. Therefore, he felt he didn't have to take much notice of what they said. That is exactly what Healthcare for London has decided to do here. Are you surprised, Mike? You are being hypocritical.

Pain, maybe gain, and a bloody big mess if they get it wrong: Barnet’s Future Shape

On Monday 6 July Barnet council’s Cabinet are likely to endorse the latest Future Shape report. As you would expect, the objectives of this controversial and already expensive exercise, looking at how Barnet council might reconfigure service delivery in the future, are presented in glowing terms in the report:
1. A new relationship with citizens
• developing a deeper understanding of community needs, aspirations and capacity
• connecting citizens with each other to encourage self-help
• enabling citizens to choose and personalise services
• working with the public to change harmful behaviours

2. A one public sector approach
• collaborative leadership; beyond organisational boundaries, with democratic accountability at the heart of it all
• retain only those things that add value to the public
• joint strategies to decide how resources are used
• jointly commissioning services through specialist ‘vehicles’ to achieve better outcomes

3. A relentless drive for efficiency
• developing the space to think strategically and commission services
• ensuring a greater proportion of expenditure is preventative
• working with public, private and third sector partners to lower costs
• trading and gaining revenue through value added services
How it’s shaping up has changed from the original conception, that much is admitted, when the Future Shape vision was of a small, ‘strategic hub’ at the centre of the council, with councillors and senior officers ‘freed up’ to think about the most important issues facing Barnet, such as climate change and obesity (that’s what they said!), and the vast bulk of council services placed at arm’s length in a ‘special purpose vehicle’, rather like Barnet Homes is now. Many back-office functions would be bought in from the private sector. (That last part of the vision remains, with hints that a big contract with a company like IBM is being considered.)

The enormity of how much work it would take to achieve such a vision has slapped the Future Shape team in the face since then; that and the recession. For instance, on page 11 they report:
The Vehicle Group are due to report in October but have already identified that a single ‘vehicle’ for the delivery of all Council services, as was proposed previously, is not feasible.
It’s the recession, stupid

And why that is, is explained on page 18:
What has changed since the inception of the Future Shape Programme
In the intervening period, between May 2008 and June 2009 a number of changes have emerged that are additionally in need of a response
• Recession and the deterioration in the public sector funding picture
The recession and higher public borrowing means increased pressures on public services. Barnet’s Tories - and they are far from alone in this – believe that one way to save money is outsourcing, getting private companies to run services, which they can sometimes do more cheaply than the private sector - although often through driving down employees’ wages and conditions, and by delivering an inferior service. However, a key problem for the council is that however much they might want to privatise, sometimes there is no private company out there that can do what they want:
The recession has also had an impact on private sector providers. Historically the private sector has fulfilled a need for additional capacity in local government by investing substantially in partner authorities and securing pay back for this investment over a number of years. But the number of providers is shrinking with some in real trouble and others seeking a much shorter return on investment. Additionally the appetite for the market to take on risky ventures outside of areas of core competence has diminished. The Cabinet report of May 2008 sought permission to explore the idea of a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’ to procure and arrange the delivery of services on behalf of the Council. The recession has severely curtailed the capacity of the market to be able to respond to such a challenge.
There is another dimension to this problem that raises serious worries about the Future Shape programme; this is spelled out on page 6: continuity risk, and the financial implications of a disruption in critical services being delivered from outside the council ...
ie, what happens if a business delivering a service goes bust, or simply decides it wants more profits than it is getting? This nature of problem was seen recently when National Express pulled out of the East Coast rail franchise.

A rather long and alarming list of further things that could go wrong is included in Appendix 2 of the report, ‘Risks’.

The future of the working groups

The Vehicle Group (to be renamed Commission Group) was one of seven working groups that began work in spring 2009. Explicitly, council trade unions and Barnet residents were not represented as such on those bodies. The working groups will continue in the next phase of Future Shape - joined by an eighth, the ‘People Stream’, which recognises, well, that people – Barnet staff – are going to be quite important in what happens in Future Shape. But the report does not give clues as to how the groups will function henceforth, whether their membership will change – as I believe they must. They have had handpicked council staff members on them but have mainly been guided by the Future Shape team which is headed by secondees from British Telecom, and much of the input to the reports that are available now has come from consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), who are being handsomely paid for their work.

If the council is serious about involving citizens and ensuring proper governance and democratic accountability under any new configuration of service delivery, they have to involve residents, as residents, now. And consult properly with council unions, as there are serious implications for staff in what is being considered: outsourcing, with transfer of staff to new employers should be done under conditions that are not worse than what they have now; there is no case for cutting the number of staff employed. Services cannot be delivered well on a shoestring by staff with too much work to do.

Is the gain really worth the pain?

The report gives fairly sketchy ideas at this stage of how much money could be saved; it’s never admitted that they might ‘invest money to save’ and end up losing money, but that surely must be a risk. A lot of money is going into the Future Shape development programme itself; then the gains that are offered seem to be fairly modest and, at this stage, possibilities not promises.

Spend less and get more?

One idea permeates the hype around Future Shape, as it did the sheltered housing warden cuts passed recently at the Cabinet: services never suffer, even when they cost less; in Barnet-world cuts almost always seem to lead to better services!
Could the opposite actually be true?

One passage in the report (page 19) boasts of a relentless programme of cuts over several years:
Barnet has reduced costs by £80.9m over the last 8 years, an average of approximately £10m per annum.
And yet the report says that one of the reasons Future Shape has to happen is because of ‘static’ or falling satisfaction levels with council services; at the same time it cannot quite work out why there should be falling satisfaction (page 18):
Deterioration in public satisfaction
Whereas at the outset of the Future Shape Programme the available data suggested that satisfaction was static, latest figures show that between 2006 and 2009, public satisfaction with local authorities fell from 52% to 45%. In Barnet the figure has dropped from 57% in 2006/7 to 51% in 2008/9. Perceptions that the Council provides value for money have also deteriorated.

In 2008/9 one third of residents agreed the council provides value for money, an 8% drop since this question was last asked in 2006/7. This is despite ever improving results in the ‘industry standard’ CPA ratings and despite a general increase in people’s satisfaction with their local area; up on average for 75% to 79%. In Barnet this figure has increased from 78% to 80%.
Decreased satisfaction, I contend, is related to cuts. You can’t go on forever cutting and getting better services; it doesn’t stack up. The wily public have noticed that!

Overarching anxieties

The latest Future Shape report shows the council sobering up somewhat, and it has pushed the deadlines for major changes back a long way. But what is envisaged is groaning with risks for the quality of services in Barnet in the future; real content would have to lie behind the fine promises, and I doubt the council’s ability to deliver this, especially given the signs that they are prepared to:
- Buy cheap services that might represent ‘value for money’ but that are poor quality
- Sacrifice staff levels, wages and conditions
- Disrupt the representative function of councillors
Author’s note: This blog is only a start in assessing the Future Shape report. A longer version of this document will be available on the Barnet trades council website soon. And please forgive any spelling mistakes – I’ll sub this post tomorrow, but I felt I must put something up!

Friday, 3 July 2009

The swans of Grahame Park

I walked through the bit of green ground beside Grahame Park estate this evening. It's always remarkably verdant, thronging with litter, birdlife, and locals throwing bread at them.

There is a small, dirty but deep pond which at some point someone has stocked with wildfowl, perhaps more in hope than expectation. The point is that, unlikely as the setting is, the wildfowl have decided to stay. There are coots sitting on their little nests jutting up out of the water, ducks roosting on the banks, inevitably many crows and pigeons, occasionally flocks of gulls wheeling about, but, best of all, a pair of swans with three handsome cygnets in tow gliding serenely along.

It gladdens the heart!

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Brian Coleman and the right to offend

I generally steer clear of tarring all politicians with the 'greedy bastards' brush. Regarding MPs, their major crimes, as far as I am concerned, have been the policies they have passed or condoned: kowtowing to big business, the privatisations, the murderous war in Iraq... Those and the careerism. What did the Telegraph say about all of that?

I was part of the left in the Labour Party that was not strong enough to stop all of that. We lost the battle for Labour's soul. The answer now is to rebuild, not to join in the populist, anti-politics hullabaloo.

That said, there are some examples of egregious robbing from the public purse that must be challenged, and Brian Coleman's taxi bills are such. Why do we tolerate him? We grumble about him, we blog about him, we (at least, I do) hope that Barnet Tories get their act together to end his 'political' career soon. But what do we citizens of Barnet do in the public sphere to make our anger known?

I have been canvassing opinion about making a public statement of dissatisfaction that would at least ask for his removal as mayor. The first citizen of Barnet is an embarassment to all the other citizens of Barnet.

But I've had a lukewarm response: it's a distraction, pointless, populist, a bloody good idea (but only from a few). Why? Is this not how politics is done in Barnet? If so, I want a more robust and rude and public politics! Brian Coleman regularly exercises his right to offend, I want mine!

Moving with the times

Today is hot and I have to look after a cantankerous older person and plough through the Future Shape report, so I need a laugh.

I have recently discovered this thing called YouTube. (Apparently, it's been around some time, and has some intellectual property issues, but never mind about that now...) I've been happy to discover all sorts of interesting things on there - actually, you name it, they've got it. Somali pop music, Uncle Peter, Count Arthur Strong, Detroit Techno, Mansour Osanloo and the Vahed busworkers (my current all-time political hero, not a rock band)... everything that tickles my fancy, they've got.

It's probaby highly politically incorrect, but here is Count Arthur Strong, unusually motivated by some ethical considerations, plugging Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Chicken Out! campaign, and here is his memory man.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Citizens of Barnet: your Future will be Shaped on Monday

I'm ploughing through the latest Barnet council 'Future Shape' report, which will be discussed (ho, ho!) at the Cabinet meeting on Monday 6 July. If you too would like to read the report it's available here. (I wonder whether the Cabinet members themselves read it!)

I hope to provide a summary of my take on it tomorrow evening - that depends on how many of my chores I get through.

Barnet unions and residents will be out in force again at a lobby before the Cabinet meeting, 6-7pm, Barnet House, 1255 High Road, Whetstone N20 0EJ. Please join us to find out more about Future Shape and the unions' response. As is now our custom, a number of us public will be availing ourselves of our right to put questions to the Cabinet at the start of the meeting itself.