Monday, 31 August 2009

Mike Freer's Barnet Council: famous for all the wrong reasons part 2

It's hard to know who Mike Freer thinks he appeals to, but the more he publicises what Barnet Council under his leadership is like, the more you think he is shooting himself in the foot.

I don't know the back-story of how Barnet council's half-baked Future Shape plans (which many councillors themselves are going lukewarm on) made it onto the front page of the Guardian on Friday 28 August, and on several pages inside, but here, here, here and here it is. David Cameron's response, I understand, has been quite lukewarm as well, with him saying that Barnet is not necessarily the Tories' blueprint for local government - but perhaps he is just seeing how it plays. This analysis suggests that. Barnet is more like a guinea-pig than a flagship in many ways.

One reason why Barnet's Tory administration and its chief executive might have sought to grab the headlines in a good way (they think it is in a good way, even if no half-rational human would) is because they knew the "Panorama" programme, critical of the council's decision to axe sheltered housing wardens, would be broadcast in August.

Whatever the PR calculations of Freer & Co., the Guardian articles are going down like a lead balloon with Barnet council workers who are supposed to be consulted about all this guff before it's trailed in the press, and won't like it appearing over a bank holiday weekend the week before the kids go back to school, ie, when people have their minds elsewhere and it's hard to respond adequately.

Barnet council trade unions (Unison, GMB, NASUWT, NUT) have responded, however, quickly. Hopefully the Guardian will see fit to print the letter they have sent. Meanwhile, read their press release below.

Barnet Joint Trade Unions Press Release: 28 Aug 2009

“Tories adopt budget airline service model”(Guardian 28 Aug 2009)

The Joint Trade unions would like to express our extreme concerns that any decisions about the future of public services in Barnet have been already made.

Consultation on the Future Shape project has been going on for the past 14 months. In December last year, Cabinet agreed a model which proposed to transfer most of the council’s services to another employer leaving a small core of staff to carry out a commissioning function.

On the 6th July 09 Barnet Council Cabinet Committee rejected the mass outsourcing model.

It is therefore disappointing to read a substantial article in a national newspaper which states the Council is suggesting public services could be run as effectively as the “easyJet/Ryanair model”.

This is the same Ryanair who are “looking at the possibility of installing a coin slot on the lavatory door so that people might actually have to spend a pound to spend a penny.”

Public services are accountable to the tax payer and those requiring public services. It is important that those providing services are providing quality and delivering efficiencies which are then reinvested back into frontline services such as schools and social care services.

It is disappointing to read on the front page of today’s Guardian that the “council plans to make savings by outsourcing services and reducing the size of its 3,500 strong workforce.”

We have previously been told that Future Shape is not a return to the 1980s (‘Life on Mars’) of CCT which saw the mass sell-off of council services, which subsequently failed to deliver quality or value for money and had to be brought back in-house, all at the expense of the local tax payers.

The Trade Unions believe that directly employed staff are best able to provide high quality and accountable public services to residents. We would add that central government needs to allow councils greater financial freedoms to be able to deliver public services.

On 8 September Barnet Public Sector Trade Union leads will be meeting to discuss our response to the debate over the future of Public Services in Barnet.

Contact: John Burgess Barnet UNISON on 07738 389569 or email

Thursday, 27 August 2009

No-frills Barnet

Damn it! The Guardian has stolen my headline - well, the one I always meant to use in an as yet unwritten blogpost. I'll read this article about Barnet Council tonight... or tomorrow. Procrastination is the thief of time - and ideas for good headlines.

Passport to Cricklewood?

Utterly brilliant story here of how Cricklewood residents want to be part of Camden instead of Barnet.

This is what I've been thinking for a long time, that there are chunks of beautiful Barnet that Barnet council is just not interested in, except to squeeze more and more development into in order to meet various targets.

I'm actually not in favour of Cricklewood going, although I support their right to self-determination (Trot joke, there). I'm in favour of a west of the borough fightback to get Barnet to stop taking us for granted - or ignoring us altogether.

Deputy council leader Lynne Hillan's response to this political embarassment is typically and shamefully complacent:
"Recent surveys carried out by the council have shown us that 80 per cent of Barnet residents are satisfied with the borough as a place to live while satisfaction with the council is also above the London average.

"The council works hard to improve quality of life and engage with residents in every area, including Cricklewood.

"I invite those people who have signed the petition to let us know their concerns through one of our engagement channels or by meeting or calling their local councillors and we will do our best to address them."

Viv Todd takes her wardens message to Trafalgar Square

In spite of the persistent drizzle and excessive use of horn, I had a great time between 6-7pm in Trafalgar Square yesterday, Wednesday 26 August, when Viv Todd from Southwark took to the fourth plinth. See the video here.

Viv used most of her hour to talk about the sheltered housing warden cuts. We had a good turnout of supporters, including from Barnet. In fact, there was probably a wider range of organisations and groups involved than at previous protests. There were even some YOUNG PEOPLE there, who have set up a Facebook group to highlight the cuts.

Watching the video you can see that Viv got the message across very well, she was probably distracted by the fact that we couldn't hear her on the ground and kept shouting at her to talk louder! Tip for other plinthers: talk to yourself not the people on the ground - the cameras and microphones pick you up well (swearing included).

Viv also did a good job on breakfast TV taking on Imogen Parry, from ERoSH, which likes to pose as the voice of sheltered housing, but only represents the institutional interests of the providers, not of the residents. They are in favour of the floating support and hub plans.

There should be some good pics available soon. The next protest in Barnet is next week, on Tuesday 1st September. We will attend the Cabinet meeting - but have been debarred from putting any more questions on the issue for six months as we have already raised it! As if there could not be any more questions when, for example, the details of the floating support become known.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Big Brother is there to help the elderly, honest

I've just enjoyed, if that is the word, the Panorama episode "Gimme Shelter" about the cuts to sheltered housing wardens around the country, and the campaign against them. It featured Barnet council in the last segment, taking the decision to cut wardens, against the overwhelming opposition of the sheltered housing residents.

The whole programme is viewable here.

The aspect that most alarmed me about the programme is highlighted on the Panorama website: "How cutting edge kit helps the elderly". Kit, for heaven's sake!

If you watched the programme, you will have seen a different side to this: the kit that told a remote monitor whether you have been out of bed too long, sat in a cold room too long, fallen over... I'm sure all this assistive technology has its place, but it can't replace the human touch.

In the programme, a remote team guided by assistive technology was summoned by a sheltered housing resident who had been shopping and now could not find her purse. The trouble is, no one knew that that was what had happened. The A-Team to the rescue! An onsite warden could have helped the woman in five minutes with little fuss, and she would have seen a familiar face, to boot.

An onsite warden could also deal with the far more serious work of finding people who have fallen and cannot reach their panic cord/button or whatever other 'kit' might have been provided. That might have saved the life of the poor woman in Yeovil who lay in the fireplace for days and whose bitter son appeared on the programme.

All in all, I thought it was an excellent programme, well reported by Vivian White, only marred by a patronising introduction and ending from Jeremy Vine, exclaiming over the fact that the 'elderly are on the march' - why wouldn't they, like anyone else, be active in defence of their interests?

It is good that this issue is not over when it looks like it is over. Northampton residents, who featured heavily in the programme, are still protesting about the sheltered housing warden cuts, two years after they have gone through. All the signs are that Barnet campaigners will continue their fight.

For starters, join us this Wednesday, 26 August, at 5.30pm in Trafalgar Square, where we will be supporting Viv Todd on the fourth plinth.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

A busy week ahead for the sheltered housing campaign

Panorama's "Gimme Shelter" programme this Monday 24 August, 8.30pm, BBC 1, has some interesting trails on the BBC website:

Fred O'Donnell: Back into battle
Vivian White on "Gimme Shelter"
Why elderly residents are fighting back: Vivian White inteviews Joe Oldman (good name!) of Age UK (the merged Age Concern and Help the Aged)

On Wednesday 26 August, 6-7pm, Viv Todd will be on the 4th plinth in Trafalgar Square and will use her time to address the issue of cuts to sheltered housing wardens. A number of us are going down to support her. Join us from 5.30pm.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Mike Freer's Barnet Council: famous for all the wrong reasons

Next week, 24 August, Monday night's BBC "Panorama" programme is due to focus on the cuts to sheltered housing wardens around the country. There is a small report here in the Northampton Chronicle.

Mike Freer's Barnet Council is likely to feature heavily in the programme, famous for all the wrong reasons. Some of the supporters of the sheltered housing campaign, that opposes the cuts to wardens in Barnet, will gather to watch the programme together. Make sure you have a look on Monday night.

Friday, 14 August 2009

I'm sure Grahame Park didn't choose this

While I was consorting with labour movement activists and treehuggers on the Isle of Wight, in the campaign to keep Vestas, the UK's only wind turbine blade factory, open, I should have got some tips on direct action techniques, involving tripods and lock-ons and such things, because, while I was looking the other way, Barnet council has vandalised Grahame Park open space and cut down all the trees.

I knew this was in the wind, but I didn't think hard enough about it. I'd heard of plans to make Grahame Park open space 'smaller but enhanced'. Unless they were planning to replace it with an acre of pristine rainforest, this sounds like bullshit and, to judge by the destruction wrought there in the last week, it sure looks like bullshit.

I found out that the plans are happening now as I took the 204 bus to Colindale tube station, laden down with tent and sleeping bag on my way to the Isle of Wight. All the trees sliced down and being thrown into a shredder that was spitting them out as sawdust. The only thing I can compare this sight to in its effect on the human spirit is the disgusting meatgrinder in the Pink Floyd "The Wall" video. A woman on the bus was talking to her children: 'That's one of the saddest sights I've ever seen.'

If I were into self-harm I would be kicking myself at not kicking up a fuss about this. Barnet councillors, Tory particularly, are forever boasting about how they respect and defend the green belt. I'm all for that, but far more than that I'm for respecting, defending and extending the small green spaces that make life tolerable in neighbourhoods like Grahame Park.

Such spaces aren't defended. It seems they are utterly disposable. Yes, residents were 'consulted' about the plans for 'estate regeneration', which actually seem designed simply to build more houses in an already cramped area. But consultations like this are often just a sheaf of plans in an office somewhere 'available for inspection'. The politicians and developers don't actually go out knocking on doors and say, 'hey, we're going to cut all the trees down, and make a smaller park to be shared by more people - how does that grab you?'

They don't do it because they know what the answer will be.

A lot of people that don't live there sneer at Grahame Park but for the most part all I see is a lot of people in a small space doing the best that they can to get on with their lives and get on with each other. It is a testament to working-class forbearance that there aren't far more social problems in places like Grahame Park than there are.

It would have been better had developers 'Choices for Grahame Park' regenerated the estate, without building the new homes, and spruced up the park that exists. What's been done is a gross act of violence to a community and I predict it will have repercussions for years to come. How can you expect young people to respect and value nature and the environment when they see less and less of it, and only see it subject to the depredations of money-grubbing housebuilders and short-sighted politicians?

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Saving Vestas

I've been blogging feverishly for the last couple of weeks. I'm quite exhausted by it. Not here, but over at It makes a change, getting more than 1,000 hits a day. Little of that popularity is down to me, alas. An occupation to prevent the closure of Vestas Blades on the Isle of Wight, Britain's only wind turbine blade manufactory, does quicken the pulse of more people than the runinations of a 44-year-old trades council activist in north London.

But the Isle of Wight is an unlikely place for this to have happened, isn't it? The workforce were quite young, hardly a union member among them, so how was it possible? (I say was, because the occupation has now ended, although the campaign to keep the Isle of Wight factories producing wind turbine blades - and the workers to keep their jobs - is continuing.)

If anyone tells you that it has been down to the work of outside agitators, they would have a point. A group of young socialists and climate activists went to the Isle of Wight, camped close to the factory, and spent two weeks talking to a very demoralised workforce who believed that they could do nothing to stop Vestas shutting down. In the end it was only a tiny minority of workers who were energised into taking action, but they quickly had the support of most of their former colleagues, who applauded their stand.

It is a saying in the labour movement, fight for every job. In this case, we are fighting for the jobs of 625 workers, which is only a handful, but it is a very symbolic handful. For at the same time as they have allowed the Isle of Wight plant to close, the government has been making a lot of rhetoric about expanding renewable energy, and challenging the scepticism of the public about wind power that has made the expansion of this 'market' so difficult. This has been a fight about jobs, but also about so-called green jobs, that has united environmentalists and trade unions in a way that has seldom been seen. It could be the start of something significant.

I won't go into details - you can read a lot more elsewhere, not least on the aforementioned Save Vestas blog. But I feel energised by what has happened, as well as utterly knackered.

Now, I must get back to my other blog for a while. An eager public awaits.