Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Barnet Ideas - the tags don't lie

If you go onto Barnet Ideas, Barnet council's latest venture in wasting residents' money on social media, you won't find any posts with the titles "Brian Coleman", "social media", or "cancel 54% councillor chair rise". However, you can tell that people have made suggestions involving all of those things, because they are listed on the bottom right-hand side among the tags. Funny that.

Presumably, what people had to say didn't make it past the censor. And they asked for our ideas!

Charging headlong into the Barnet call centre

The what? The Barnet call centre. Part of the Future Shape plan for Barnet council involves setting up a Customer Service Organisation (CSO) aka call centre. Yes, they kept quiet about that one, didn't they?!

Anyway, there are problems in the plans so far made to set up the Barnet CSO. These are revealed in a paper Rog T has got hold of and posted on his new Barnet leaks blog. The paper is an expert overview of the plans to move to set up a CSO through which Barnet residents would access services (as opposed to F2F - face to face - access). It is clear that Barnet council would like us to move to doing far more things over the phone and online.

The paper is pretty involved stuff, but will reward study. Actually, it is political dynamite. Two quick things that jump out at me. First is the warning from the expert that outsourcing revenues and benefits - yes, they want to do that - has not worked well when it has been tried in the past in London.

Second is a loud echo of the warning made in the recent Grant Thornton audit of Future Shape. In this document we find:
From a purist point of view, I can't help noticing [!] there is no business case, a rudimentary project plan only, resourcing needs are not fully identified, the target operating model is emergent, benefits are expressed as trends rather than quanitifed, etc. ...Barnet may well feel this formal sketchiness is justified in the context of the change model it has adopted, of setting a strong direction, injecting pace, levering others' experience and expertise, filling in the legacy information gaps as you go, etc. The style has huge advantages, but some distinct risks for you to manage, notably in expectations.
Christ! Sorry for the expostulation, but when the Future Shape process was started back in 2008 I posted a small picture of a guinea pig at the side of my blog. She's there still, and it sounds like, two years on, we are still in total guinea pig territory.

By the way, I don't think that the vast bulk of residents actually want their interactions with Barnet council to be through a CSO. But that doesn't figure in anyone's calculations, it seems.

P.S. I've reached the end of the document and I absolutely love the final paragraph:
6.8 Don't forget the Equalities Impact Assessment. When the council takes a formal decision it needs to be able to demonstrate that it has taken relevant issues into account, and this is one of them.
Yes, sound advice, whoever you are that wrote this. Barnet got caught with that one before, ie, when its decision to axe the sheltered housing wardens was ruled illegal because they didn't take sufficient account of disability legislation. You do very well to remind them!

Bob Neill "not too fussed"; Coleman's incendiary rubbish; Barnet unions answer back

A government minister, Bob Neill MP, has found time in his busy schedule to visit Barnet council, point at a scale model of the Brent Cross scheme, and tell everyone he is
“not too fussed” about concerns raised by external auditors Grant Thornton no business plan has yet been drawn up for the Future Shape programme.
Good for him, but then he doesn't have to live here. We who do are quite "fussed". The Times series has the report.

They also report Brian Coleman defending weekly rubbish collections on the grounds that fortnightly collections are likely to lead to more fires. We'll hold him to that!

Last but not least in my shameless pillaging of Times series stories, Barnet trades council's secretary Austin Harney replies to Coleman's recent slurs against the borough's trade unions. Austin says:
We are not bosses but grassroots trade union representatives who sacrifice our spare time for all people living and working in the London Borough of Barnet.

Under "Easy" Barnet Council, support for the communities and the residents could easily disappear and exacerbate the poverty levels. It seems that our council is attempting to destroy any progress.

I, kindly, ask Brian Coleman to reconsider his criticisms and listen to our communities and residents who could be suffering from these cuts in council services.

Monday, 27 September 2010

We need to challenge the BNP

If a small group of people set up a stall in your high street one Saturday morning and started collecting signatures on a petition that wanted the government to:
- Deport all those who commit crimes and whose original nationality was not British;
- Review all recent grants of residence or citizenship to ensure they are still appropriate;
- Offer generous grants to those of foreign descent resident here who wish to leave permanently
would you sign it? Not many people would! And the BNP knows that, so they don't have a petition with their "immigration" policy on it.

If the leader of this group was someone who said:
I am well aware that the orthodox opinion is that six million Jews were gassed and cremated and turned into lampshades. Orthodox opinion also once held that the Earth was flat… I have reached the conclusion that the “extermination” tale is a mixture of Allied wartime propaganda, extremely profitable lie, and latter witch-hysteria.
would you give this group the free run of your high street in order to build their organisation? No, and that's one reason that BNP leader Nick Griffin - for that is who said it - has gone quiet recently on his Holocaust denial.

How about if they had a colourful banner which said “Support our troops – Bring our boys home”? Would you take them at face value? If you noticed that this was the BNP out on an opportunist recruiting exercise, would you think: well, they’re only talking about the troops today, so it doesn’t matter?

It would be a mistake to do that. The BNP are hiding their nasty politics behind anti-war rhetoric now, but if they are allowed to grow, they will show their true face.

They were disappointed in the general election, failing to achieve the breakthrough they had hoped for. They have been riven with vicious infighting ever since. But they still have enough confidence to try and break out of their ghetto of deserved unrespectability, and they are running "troops out" stalls in a few places.

They are being audacious; we should not turn a blind eye. We need to challenge the BNP. They are currently exploiting the sympathy for British troops fighting in Afghanistan. Soon they will turn to exploiting the discontent with the cuts in public services. Be sure of it. Yet they have no solutions to our social problems, their only answer being to scapegoat everyone who isn’t exactly like them.

Barnet trades council is drawing up a leaflet to counter the politics of the BNP. We are not prepared to just watch while the BNP tries to build its organisation.

Everyone who hates what they stand for needs to challenge the BNP.

Replies to the Guardian article on Future Shape/easyCouncil/One Barnet

Guardian letters has some responses to the article last week about the Grant Thornton report on Future Shape/easyCouncil/One Barnet, and the more recent report on Suffolk council's plan to outsource all their services.
Your report on Barnet's madcap privatisation schemes (Auditor challenges Tory 'easyCouncil' model, 24 September) left out one other fact which incenses local residents. The Barnet councillors trying to slash services have given themselves huge allowance rises. The council leader recently got a 55% rise to £54,000 a year, while other leading councillors saw their allowances double to £35,000. The best-known of these councillors, Brian Coleman, was quoted in July as saying: "I don't have to justify what I earn. Councillors are worth every penny they earn."

Roger Kline, Barnet, Hertfordshire

Just to be clear, the phrase "generally robust" used to describe the governance and planning of our Future Shape change programme was not the council's defence, but the words of Grant Thornton, the independent auditors.

As Future Shape has moved into the delivery phase, Grant Thornton also made a series of recommendations about changes to governance that reflect this. These recommendations are sensible and have been adopted.

Nor has the council any policy of closing libraries. We are, however, asking residents how they would like their library service to be delivered. Changes may involve the current building stock – or a more innovative solution. But protecting public services cannot mean the simple replication of last year's model.

Cllr Lynne Hillan, Leader, Barnet council

One of the biggest casualties of Barnet council's new policy is likely to be the voluntary sector. The charity I work for provides advice on a range of issues, particularly welfare benefits, debt and housing, to disadvantaged members of the community. Just the sort of activity David Cameron has been encouraging us to do. But Barnet has now stopped our modest grant and told us we will have to vacate our premises early next year, so we will probably have to close, with the loss of 30 trained volunteers. The "big society"? It would be funny if it wasn't so tragic.

David Miller*, Secretary, East Finchley Advice Service
* Not to be confused with David Miller of "Not the Barnet Times" blog fame.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

I'm not saying the Daily Mail is reactionary, but...

I have a ready stock of mother-in-law jokes, but they are only for my own amusement. I really don't care that Barnet council's equality and diversity advice (advice, please note) to staff includes "don't diss mothers-in-law".

The press has been all over Barnet council in recent times, and deservedly so, but this is one exposé I won't be bruiting (good word, that). The Daily Mail is a reactionary paper, that can't wait to slag off asylum seekers, equalities reps, equal pay legislation, anything, basically, that manifests or seeks to narrow the differences that exist in people's lives due to their race, age, gender, sexuality, etc.

I know the Mail would argue that they want to reduce the power of the establishment to interfere in our lives, but I don't see them calling for reductions in the coercive apparatus of the state any time soon. For example, they are quite happy to see brutal detention and deportations of "failed" asylum seekers, including children. Yes, nice libertarian people, the Daily Mail.

The whole mother-in-law thing, as well, overlooks the fact that women's lives (as well as men's), the way women turn out, is shaped not by nature but society. Women are constructed into mother-in-lawhood - they are not born that way.

Sorry, I've had a "sense of humour" bypass this morning. Or perhaps I've just got PMT.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Sign the save Barnet libraries petition

Roger Tichborne has set up a petition as part of the campaign to save Barnet's libraries. Please sign up here, and let others know about it. Roger has a stall on Mill Hill Broadway this morning, 10am till 12 noon (does anyone know whether 12 noon is am or pm? My guess is am).


Friday, 24 September 2010

Save Barnet's libraries - campaign starts tomorrow in Mill Hill

Barnet's library service is sure to be threatened as a result of the council's "Strategic Library Review", launching - though probably not where residents might notice it - soon.

Roger Tichborne has launched a wonderful pre-emptive defence of the libraries. He starts this Saturday (tomorrow, 25 September) on Mill Hill Broadway. He is inviting residents to visit him on a stall between 10am and 12 noon. You are invited to bring a book to donate to councillor Robert Rams, who is heading the library review.

Mr Rams has suggested that library books will be available in more places than ever, once the review has finished, including, for example, Starbucks. If that's Rams' proposed alternative to picking books up in a library, we are right to be alarmed.

Please get along to Rog's stall if you are in the area. This is just the start of the campaign, but it's a good place to start!

P.S. I am scouring my bookcases now for titles that I think Rams will benefit from reading, or that I cannot be bothered to. Here's a good one.

Attempt to smear the trades council is laughable

If you read my blog yesterday you'll have had advanced notice of this feeble attempt to smear the trades council in the Times series.

I'll repeat here the comment I made on the Times website:
Ladies and gentlemen of the Times series, I can't believe that you dignified this "story" with column inches/webspace. A pathetic attempt to smear the trades council over what was at worst a misunderstanding in the organising of a public meeting that was, in the event, a great success.

The timing should have made it completely obvious to you that Coleman was trying to distract from the public meeting last night - 200 plus residents and workers against Barnet council's cuts and privatisation agenda.

I think it was your press night, but you did not send a journalist to cover that - the Barnet Press did. Instead, we get this, frankly, crap. I'm embarassed (once again) to be in the profession.

Vicki Morris
Barnet TUC publicity officer and NUJ member
And here is yesterday's post, getting my rebuttal in early! My prediction was utterly correct.

Coleman - the perfect scab

The man who has done more than anyone else to provoke the current industrial action by London's firefighters, Brian Coleman, chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, is quoted in the Times series calling on firefighters not to vote for strike action because they will lose pay.

The firefighters are currently taking industrial action "short of strike" in their dispute with London Fire Brigade. LFB wants to change firefighters' shift patterns, equalising the lengths of the night and day shifts. The implication for firefighters of such a change would be that they would have less "stand down" time during the night shift. Stand down time is important if firefighters are to function well when called out - no human being functions as well at night as they do in the night.

The implication for London residents of equalising the shifts is it would make it easier to cut shifts altogether, for instance, closing some fire stations at night - when most fires happen.

Rather than negotiate with firefighters, the LFB took the nuclear option and has threatened to sack all of London's 5,500 firefighters unless they accept the shift change. The firefighters' union, the FBU, responded by balloting for industrial action short of a strike and won an overwhelming "yes" vote. They are currently balloting on strike action, since the LFB has not refused to withdraw the redundancy notices.

Brian Coleman's most convincing argument used with the firefighters is - if you go on strike, you will lose pay. Everyone who ever votes for or goes on strike knows that, and it is the price they must pay for exercising their right to withdraw their labour. In fact, every worker who does not join a strike - who crosses a picket line - knows it too. And the excuse you hear most frequently from such people - strike breakers, scabs - is "I can't afford to lose the pay".

Such people are always happy to benefit from the results of the sacrifices made by others. They always think that somehow their case is special, that no one else is as needy as them. Brian Coleman, I can see now, if he were ever to fall from his cherished position in the petty bourgeoisie and down into the working class, would make the perfect scab.

P.S. The result of my not at all frivolous poll, recently concluded, is nobody would piss on Brian Coleman were he on fire. 20 people would call the LFB to douse him "as that job is best left to the experts". This being so, I suggest Coleman refrain from smoking in bed or standing close to a naked flame in a loose nightshirt for the next period.

Barnet council has one last fling with pointless websites

I had been going to write a post recently about how Barnet council seemed to have fallen out of love with social media. For a while local government policy wonks ran whole conferences based on Barnet's pioneering and innovative foray into... using Twitter. But then the wheels fell off the wagon.

No one except me was using whereilive.org - just look at it now.

Lynne Hillan took over the underutilised "Leader Listens" blog from Mike Freer - and now look at it. (With the demise of LeaderListens I had to change the name of this blog.)

Even the Barnet council Facebook page, which coped valiantly with the storm of protest generated by the Edward Meakins scandal, has now fallen silent.

Never say die, though. Barnet council is having one last desperate roll of the dice, and has just launched barnetideas.

Inviting us to help them "face the challenge of a smaller budget", they invite suggestions under the headings:
You could be better at...
You should just stop...
I would pay a little extra for...
Well, away you go (if you can be bothered). Will they never learn?

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Barnet Alliance launched at successful meeting

Oh, back in the news again, Barnet council. The Guardian has picked up on the Grant Thornton audit report on Future Shape/easyCouncil that shows little progress so far.

Meanwhile, at the Emerald Suite in North London Business Park more than 200 workers and residents met for the launch of Barnet Alliance for Public Services.

A good night, all in all. Though no one's feeling complacent, I'm sure.

UPDATE: There are some videos from the meeting on Hangbitch's (!) blog.

There are a few pics on my Flickr site here.

Live working or die fighting - in Barnet and the BBC

It has come to my notice that Someone in Barnet (I can hazard a guess as to who) is annoyed by the idea that Paul Mason, "Newsnight" journalist, was ever mooted as a guest speaker at the public meeting the trades council has organised tonight (for details of the meeting, glance to your right).

And, because they have such a high regard for themselves, this Someone went straight to the top and complained to the Director General of the BBC Mark Thompson.

Mark Thompson is battling the idea that the BBC has a left-wing bias - he says it did, for 30 years, but not now! - and that it wastes tax payers' money. Mark Thompson cut his own pay by 20% this year, so that he now earns only... £600,000. Thompson is in dispute with the BBC workforce, as he tries to cut their pensions, and in response the unions have called two 48-hour strikes which could affect coverage of Tory party conference, and the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October.

In this climate, I can see why Mark Thompson might be anxious to reassure Someone in Barnet that the BBC is not farming out its journalists to support left-wing causes. (Although I still don't think it's a good use of his time.)

But the whole story is really such a non-story! I'm genuinely sorry if any toes have been stepped on in this case (I don't yet know whether they have). But the trades council did have reason to believe that Paul had said he would speak at the meeting - in a personal capacity. When we heard that he couldn't we took his name off the publicity. It is not a secret that Paul knows a bit about the struggles of the working class - a glance at his bibliography would tell you that.

I can only imagine that the story is being aired now, the day of the public meeting against cuts and privatisation in Barnet council, on purpose. It looks like a rather desperate attempt to create some scandal around the trades council, when all we are guilty of, at worst, is a misunderstanding. I'll be interested to see how this plays out - if it does at all.

Freedom Pass safe for now

Stan Davison, chair of the Barnet 55+ Forum, has a column in the Barnet Press this week telling the good news that the Freedom Pass that pensioners rely on for free travel is safe - for now. I can't go into the details, but the scope of the pass had been threatened.

Pensioners and supporters all over London were mobilising on the issue. Members of the 55+ Forum attended the lobby of Barnet council last week, and Stan spoke on the issue.

Pensioner power is considerable, and will need to be mobilised again in the current climate of cuts. But we shouldn't forget that older people need everyone to get behind their issues.

If you want to know more about Barnet 55+ Forum, particularly the inaugural Barnet Older People's Forum at Hendon Town Hall, 11am-4pm, on Thursday 14 October, visit their blog here.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Suffolk county council follows Barnet into oblivion, unless... Meeting tonight!

Taking its lead from Barnet easyCouncil (we've learned in the past few days how well that's going), Suffolk county council appears to have decided it can go one better and become the noCouncil.

It plans to outsource everything. From directly employing 27,000 staff it hopes to reduce to a few hundred, drawing up contracts in a dusty annex of the county hall (the rest having been sold off as flats, naturally).

15,000 staff work in education, but all of those, ideally, would go out of Suffolk's direct employ, with the accelerated move to academies and free schools. (We know how well that particular Tory plan is going.)

Of course, this is just something written in the Guardian, just as the Guardian wrote at length about Future Shape/easyCouncil. So, just pie in the sky, then. Hopefully.

Warm invitation

Of course, if you think all of this is too awful to contemplate and you still believe that the residents of Barnet have the power to do something about it (if we don't, what have all our democratic traditions come to?), please come to the public meeting tonight (Thursday 23 September) to launch the alliance against cuts and privatisation.

Don't cut our services. Don't privatise our services. No to easyCouncil!

Thursday 23 September, 7pm, Emerald Suite, North London Business Park, Oakleigh Road South, London N11 1GN.

Speakers include film director Ken Loach and John Lister of London Health Emergency, but the main aim of the meeting is to hear from Barnet residents and workers and make plans to defeat the absurd easyCouncil plan.

More details: info@barnettuc.org.uk

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Barnet: lions led by donkeys! Meeting this Thursday...

Do make an effort to come!

A blow on the sheltered housing front - the law is an ass

I haven't reported on this much before now, as I did not want to give heart to our enemies, but there has been a setback in the fight to defend sheltered housing wardens. Yvonne Hossacks, the lawyer representing many of the residents battling the loss of their wardens, has been turned down for much of the Legal Aid money used to fight the cases.

This was done on a small technicality. Yvonne appealed but the appeal has been rejected. Many of the residents had written to the authorities to plead for a second chance, but that has been ignored. Here is an extract from one of their petitions:
The residents of rented Sheltered Housing are, by definition of being in rented accommodation, not rich, indeed, it is said, that 75% of them are in receipt of benefits. Apart from their age, average 75, with many in their 80s, it seems discriminatory to reject their applications on the basis of a single fault made by the applying solicitor office in filling in the Legal Aid forms. No human is so perfect [as] not to make typographical mistakes, and you have at your disposal Tippex, copiers, telephones, fax machines and the internet to discuss, and correct, trival errors with their originators.

Your rejection, I believe, fails to take into account Legal Aid is not about whether a dot, or a comma is in the correct place in an application form, but is to do with making possible equality before law, for the less financially able persons in society.

...You will appreciate that this effectively could remove legal protection in this matter, for up to 500,000 people living in Sheltered Housing. The knock on effect is that these people may now become legally 'out of time' to bring their actions and they will have been dealt a disservice.

The situation these residents find themselves in is that Wardens from Sheltered Housing are often withdrawn, or their hours of duty changed, against the wishes of the residents and without the consultation(s) required by Housing Law. (Our national statistics show that 97% of the residents of Sheltered Housing only moved in because 'it had a Warden'). In short it appears to have been foreseen that the elderly could be treated in this way because the Housing Providers had assessed that
they could get away with it, by reason of their victims' age and lack of financial resources and lack of expertise in Housing Law!
Yvonne's view has always been that the legal case is what can win, the political campaign creates a better atmosphere for the legal case to succeed by worrying councils, and giving heart to the residents who are fighting. It seems that the focus must shift to the political campaign now. In that case, gird up your loins, because Barnet, like other councils, will surely shift back on to the front foot in this matter.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Mr Travers moves to calm councillors' audit committee jitters

It's funny, isn't it? One of the planks of Future Shape/easyCouncil/One Barnet is to build a new relationship with residents. Increasingly I am thinking of this as the "arms-length relationship". Minimal services, delivered by a private or arms-length firm, with people paying to top up if they can afford it or want "extras" (as yet undefined).

More and more remote access, less face to face contact. Ideally, actually, in the minds of the current administration they'd rather we all just f***ed off; then they could spend no money on no services, and say it was a job well done. Although some of them would be floundering about looking for an outlet for their talents, and they would miss the allowances...

Deputy Chief Executive Andrew Travers has written to all the councillors to calm their concerns about a letter Roger Tichborne has sent them. Roger is simply pointing out that the Grant Thornton audit of Future Shape so far shows there are several "opportunities for improvement" (gaping holes) in the (scant) progress made.

We know that some Tory councillors are worried about Future Shape, not just Labour and Lib Dem. In the Cabinet, when I saw them discuss Future Shape (as far as they do actually discuss anything on these stage-managed occasions), I sensed that one or two needed reassurance that the return would be worth the outlay - Richard Cornelius was one.

Well, they must surely be really wondering now. Mark Shooter called Future Shape a "Stalinist bureaucratic initiative" when he challenged Lynne Hillan for leadership of the Conservative group - and we know he ran her a close second!

I have just watched the "Panorama" programme investigating whether the 9,000 or so public sector employees who earn more than the Prime Minister (£142,500) deserve their pay. The reputations of a few of those people are on the line here in Barnet if Future Shape goes down. No wonder they are moving to calm fears.

My question is why don't the likes of Travers talk to the people? We are the ones that really need to be persuaded of the merits of the project we are paying for. I forgot, we must be kept at arm's length.

P.S. Roger has unearthed all sorts of details about Andrew Travers' pay and career path, too knotty for me to untangle at this late hour, but rewarding reading, I'm sure.

Who should rule Barnet?

I don't think it will come as a surprise to anyone to learn that there are moves afoot to have a directly elected mayor of Barnet. I have to look at this in more detail, but I don't think I'm in favour of it. (Who needs leaders anyway?)

But I'm interested in discussing the pros and cons. The Wikipedia entry for the topic "Elected mayors in the United Kingdom" goes into some detail of what the mayor can do:
A local-authority elected mayor has powers similar to those of the executive committee in a Leader and Cabinet model local authority. These are described as either "exclusive" powers or "co-decision" powers and are defined in the Local Government (Functions and Responsibilities) (England) Regulations 2000.

Co-decision powers are those the mayor shares with the council, notably the power to make the local authority's annual budget and its policy framework documents. These are: Annual Library Plan; Best Value Performance Plan; Children's Services Plan; Community Care Plan; Community Strategy; Crime and Disorder Reduction Strategy; Early Years Development Plan; Education Development Plan; Local Development Framework; and the Youth Justice Plan. To amend or reject a mayor's proposals for any of these documents, the council must resolve to do so by a two-thirds majority. This is again based on secondary legislation, in this case the Local Government (Standing Orders) (England) Regulations 2001.

Exclusive powers are less easy to define, because they consist of all the powers that are granted to a local authority by Act of Parliament except those defined either as co-decision powers or as "not to be the responsibility of an authority's executive". This latter is a limited list, including quasi-judicial decisions on planning and licensing, and certain ceremonial, employment and legal decisions.

An elected mayor (in a mayor and cabinet system) also has the power to appoint up to nine councillors as members of a cabinet and to delegate powers, either to them as individuals, or to the Mayor and Cabinet committee, or to subcommittees of the Mayor and Cabinet committee. In practice, the mayor remains personally accountable, so most mayors have chosen to delegate to a very limited extent—if at all.
Of course, the beauty of an elected mayor is we get to choose who it is, not the political groups. This supposedly confers more legitimacy on them. It might well be that an independent can get elected. Hmmm.

Now, if we did move to a mayor system who do you think would win? One of the main party candidates? Can you imagine any of the parties being able to put forward any character sufficiently charismatic to impress the voters of Barnet?

Who might stand as an independent mayor? I can imagine one or two people who might do quite well.

This kind of brings me back to my objection to the whole mayor thing: it makes me think of the song "If I ruled the world". Actually, the lyrics to that song are rather sweet, but reality is not like that. In fact, I don't think any one person should "rule" Barnet, or even be in a position to pretend to. (No, I don't like the Leader and Cabinet model, either.)

Words by Leslie Bricusse/Music by Cyril Ornadel

If I ruled the world, ev'ry day would be the first day of spring
Every heart would have a new song to sing
And we'd sing of the joy every morning would bring

If I ruled the world, ev'ry man would be as free as a bird,
Ev'ry voice would be a voice to be heard
Take my word we would treasure each day that occurred

My world would be a beautiful place
Where we would weave such wonderful dreams
My world would wear a smile on its face
Like the man in the moon has when the moon beams

If I ruled the world every man would say the world was his friend
There'd be happiness that no man could end
No my friend, not if I ruled the world
Every head would be held up high
There'd be sunshine in everyone's sky
If the day ever dawned when I ruled the world

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Rag, bull

Tuesday night sees two Barnet council meetings of interest, both concerned with Future Shape/easyCouncil/One Barnet: the Audit Committee will look at auditor Grant Thornton's damning report on the lack of progress made in the "governance arrangements" for the Future Shape programme.

In another room, the Future Shape Overview and Scrutiny Panel (they haven't gotten around to renaming it) meets to review progress with the whole Future Shape programme generally. Generally, it isn't good.

Future Shape, Unison estimates, has cost £2.5 million so far, in consultants' fees, staff costs, etc. And another £2.5 million is being sought.

So what are we getting for our money? Reading between the lines, sod all. The report going to the scrutiny panel on Tuesday shows little progress in many areas. Since Future Shape is all about mass outsourcing of council services, that is probably a good thing, but all the time they are trying to do what is probably undoable, they are throwing more of our money away.

The report is a piece of management gobbledygook all through, but what I can discern is that in order to reach the deadlines they have set themselves, the Future Shape team are going to be sitting up late into the night over the next month. The code for progress made is Red, Amber, Green.

Red: Overall performance is significantly off trajectory, outside direct control of the Workstream Lead (WL) and Programme Director (PD) and requires Operational Group (OG) intervention.

Amber: Performance is off trajectory, requires substantial WL or PD attention. Some aspects may require urgent intervention.

Green: Performance is on trajectory under control and contained within normal day to day project management.
Of the five Future Shape "workstreams" only one - "People & Culture" - is currently "on trajectory"; the others - "Value for Money", "New Relationship with Citizens", "Commissioning" and "Leadership" - are currently "Amber".

Of course, we could probably decide whether to be worried or excited about these delays if we knew what the f*** they were talking about. Perhaps it's as well we don't. The only thing is, I wonder whether anyone at all in the council knows what the f*** they are talking about.

Future Shape: RAG or bull, you decide. I can't.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Join the army: the Barnet army of armchair auditors

When he was standing against Lynne Hillan for leadership of Barnet's Tory group on the council, Mark Shooter said:
The choice that you face... is a stark one. ...It is between:

A closed and secretive approach [yes, he was talking about Lynne Hillan] battling all and sundry who want to expose waste and bad play at the Town Hall and my leadership that wants to fling open the windows and let the disinfectant of sunlight pour in and an army of armchair auditors find savings to help us in our task. An administration who treats the public with contempt [yes, he was talking about Lynne Hillan] and my leadership who wants to harness the passion and energy of our residents to give us great ideas to make Barnet a better place.
Did he mean it? We'll never know, since he wound up voting full confidence in Lynne Hillan at the council meeting on Tuesday 14 September. But whether he did or not, I like the idea and I have unilaterally appointed myself recruiting sergeant for the Barnet army of armchair auditors. Please let me know if you would like to join or, to signal your interest, simply post our absurd insignia to your blog/Facebook page/Twitter stream, etc. (That's how we do things around here.)

(This is the cheapest Friday night I've had in a long time.)

Future Shape: the game is up

Barnet council have already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds (are we into the millions yet?) on preparing Barnet council services for wholesale privatisation, the so-called Future Shape/easyCouncil/One Barnet programme.

Then they started spending money on commissioning reports looking at how they are doing on preparing Barnet council for wholesale privatisation. The conclusions of one just published, by Grant Thornton ("Review of the Governance Arrangements of the One Barnet Programme: Value for Money Review 2009/10"), suggest what critics have always suspected: the council is floundering about, making little progress, and wasting money, not saving it. I think this snippet ("Recommendation 1"!) about sums the problem up:
The Council [should] develop and agree a business case for the One Barnet programme, incorporating:
· the planned benefits and outcomes of the programme;
· the estimated cost of the programme;
· overall timescales of the programme, including key anticipated milestones; and
· a high level risk profile.
Here is the full report going to the Audit Committee on 21 September.

Rog T has compiled the choicest quotes already, and you can read his comments here.

Future Shape: is the game up? It bloody well ought to be! Stop wasting our money and jeopardising our services. No to Barnet easyCouncil!

Putting the case against academies in Barnet

A circular from Barnet Anti Academies Alliance outlining their plans for informing parents about the implications of going for academy status. If you can help with any of these activities or you would like more information, email barnet@antiacademies.org.uk.
At our meeting this evening, we planned a number of activities. We will be focussing on the schools next in line to become Academies. Trade Unionists in those schools will be meeting to consider motions opposing Academy status, and we will be leafletting parents at events such as open evenings.

We would like to leaflet at the following times, please let me know if you can help:

East Barnet - 6.30pm, Monday 20th September

Ravenscroft - 6pm, Tuesday 21st September

Ashmole - 6pm, Thursday 23rd September (leaflet for 30-40 minutes before going to the Public Meeting, see below)

Compton - Tuesday 28th September (probably 6pm)

We also discussed holding a Conference in January, any ideas you have would be welcome.

And don't forget the public meeting, Thursday 23rd September, 7pm, Emerald Suite, NLBP with a speaker from the National Anti Academies Alliance.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Brian Coleman: more interested in saving a pound than saving a life

Here in Barnet we are well practised in disliking Brian "Mr Toad" Coleman. We have many causes to resent him: for taking our money in allowances, and ignoring what we say, and being rude to us. We have had our bellyfull of Coleman and would dearly love to be rid of him.

As we know, he has other ponds to paddle in, other sources of cash to tap, other constituencies to offend. As well as being a councillor in Totteridge ward, he is the GLA member for the whole of Barnet and Camden. It is rumoured that he will not make the shortlist next time the Tory candidate for that post is chosen.

Let's hope so! In the meantime, alas, he can do untold damage to services that millions of Londoners rely on in his capacity as chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. (Just think of it: the emergency services in London are ultimately run by Brian Coleman.)

Boris Johnson is alleged to dislike Brian Coleman - join the club! Now get rid of him!

I went to the march then protest at LFEPA HQ today, organised by the London Region FBU. London's firefighters have been threatened with the sack unless they accept new shift patterns. The idea is to move from the day time shift and longer night time shift, to two 12-hour shifts. Firefighters would be expected to be on alert all night, instead of having standdown time when they can get vital rest: no human being operates as well at night as they do in the daytime. Management also hope they will be able to cut out some of the shifts altogether, that is, reduce fire cover.

I think that fully half of London's firefighters went on the march today; which is to say that all of London's firefighters who were not at work went on the march today. It was a really great sight, most were wearing their smart Brigade uniforms. Not only are people like Coleman reckless with firefighters' jobs and conditions of service, they are also gratuitously rude to firefighters. Today's demonstration was dignified. Firefighters are proud of what they do. For the most part, the public support them. The FBU had commissioned a poll which shows overwhelming public opposition to the LFEPA/LFB plans.

Hopefully, LFEPA will see sense and it won't come to a strike (Coleman will never see sense). But if it does come to a strike, I think the London firefighters will see it through, and I think the London public will back them.

And, yes, from what I saw today, London's firefighters really, really dislike Brian Coleman. Almost as much as we in Barnet do.

More pics at http://www.flickr.com/photos/11722019@N03/sets/72157624845022885/with/4996520628/ (please credit if you use any and you don't know me well: Vicki Morris).

General secretary of the FBU Matt Wrack with the odious Mr Toad in the background

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Connaught workers: what it means to be a wage slave

After an outrageous display of dithering by the authorities, it appears that the former Connaught workers do have a job. Barnet Unison contacted KPMG last night and learned that KPMG had not known that Lovell had agreed to take the workers on when they issued redundancy notices.

It is still a very anxious time for the workers while they wait for all their paperwork. Why should they bear the stress? Connaught went bust; KPMG are disorganised. We all know that it is not a question of a bit of paperwork to the Connaught workers: it's about their lives!

This episode highlights something that it's easy to lose sight of. In this society if people don't have a job they go hungry (unless, of course, they are rich...). You can't scratch a living from the soil anymore (thank goodness!). We can't all become small business people providing goods and services to each other. Where would we get the money to pay for them? Who would make the things we sell?

One of the aspects of wage slavery that makes it so awful is the insecurity. In the era of modern capitalism, before it was somewhat civilised by the advent of public services, we didn't work unless someone was making a profit from it. We had no control over whether we worked or not and, thus - in a world of relative plenty - whether we ate or not.

Slavish devotion to the free market as a way to run the economy, the turn to privatisation away from public services (Future Shape/easyCouncil), entails a return to more insecurity for workers, and more stress like that the Connaught workers are going through. It's a bonkers idea.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Lousy Tory councillors back Hillan all the way

I couldn't get into Hendon Town Hall to see the Barnet council meeting tonight, but I've seen the lousy news on the appropriately lousy London Daily News website, that the Tories backed leader Lynne Hillan unanimously in the vote of confidence tabled this evening.

I can only think they have woken up and smelt the coffee - the coffee that their own government is brewing. Barnet Tories cannot afford to be divided against the growing opposition to their plans. Whether they cut or privatise or whatever else they come up with, their government has told them the real enemy is outside. (It was, literally, tonight, in the shape of a trade union and residents' lobby of around 150 people, despite the rain.)

Cameron must have read his party the riot act (and let's hope he won't be needing it again soon). Or Hillan has made some trifling political concessions to the internal Tory opposition. They might be feeling good about themselves, but I don't think the average Tory voter in Barnet will have been impressed by the recent shenanigans. One minute, Barnet Tories are at daggers drawn, the next they are vowing their undying respect for each other.

It really doesn't wash. Let's remind ourselves what Mark Shooter said about Hillan's regime a few short days ago:
- bullying
- Stalinist
- morally dubious.

You can read it all here if you don't believe me, on Conservative Home ("it's anything but cosy"). I'm starting to wonder whether your average Tory politician is a different species from the rest of us.

Don't cut our services! Don't privatise our services! No to Barnet easyCouncil!

Barnet trades council, council unions and residents campaigning on a number of issues made up a lively lobby of Hendon Town Hall tonight, 14 September. The full council was meeting to discuss, among other things, the partial reversal of the senior cabinet members' allowance hike (Allowancegate) and to debate a motion of no confidence in the leader Lynne Hillan.

The lobby attracted around 150 people, in spite of the rain. People were angry at the treatment Connaught workers in the borough have received since the company went bust. They are angry about Allowancegate. They are (still) angry about proposed cuts to sheltered housing wardens. They were demonstrating against Barnet council's so-called easyCouncil plan, to privatise most of the council services, and at the same time to charge residents extra on top of council tax for a "better" level of service - as yet unspecified.

Many residents could not get inside the town hall to hear the meeting. There will be complaints about this. Times series reporters tried to deliver their petition against the allowances rise to the leader, but she refused to meet them - she will only speak to the group editor.

The lobby was addressed by, among others, Keith Nason, Barnet NUT; John Burgesss, Barnet Unison; London FBU; Paul Mackney (Coalition of Resistance); Stan Davison, Barnet 55+ Forum. We leafleted the public and attendees, urging them to come to the launch of the Barnet Alliance 4 Public Services at North London Business Park on Thursday 23 September. (More details: info@barnettuc.org.uk). And released a lot of orange and white "easyCouncil" balloons into the stormy Barnet night.

London Region FBU say: Coleman doesn't cut the mustard

London Region FBU sent a delegation to tonight's lobby of Barnet council at Hendon Town Hall. They were sporting a smart new t-shirt featuring Brian Coleman, the chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. The Region is in dispute with the London Fire Brigade who are trying to change their shift patterns and have threatened them with redundancy if they don't accept the new terms.

The region has a march and lobby of London Fire Brigade on Thursday 16 September at lunchtime. More details on their website.

Connaught workers: do they have a job or not?

The local papers are reporting that Connaught workers doing council house repairs for Barnet Homes, made redundant when Connaught went bust, have got their jobs back. But the picture is scandalously unclear. Yes, the unions had a meeting with Lovell, who are taking over some of the Connaught contracts, and with Barnet Homes this morning. And they were told they would be taken back on.

Some of them, Unison members, attended the lobby of the Barnet council meeting tonight. They wanted to talk about their experience. While they were there, their union rep received  notification from KPMG, the receivers, that they do not have jobs.

I don't know the situation at the moment, but they were shocked and upset to be treated in this way. Barnet Homes should take the workers back on now. It is a scandalous way to treat workers. And meantime council house repairs are going undone.

Connaught workers at the lobby of Hendon Town Hall, 14 September 2010

Lynne Hillan refuses to meet the press

Times series reporters attended Barnet council meeting at Hendon Town Hall tonight and asked to interview Lynne Hillan. They wanted to present her with the paper's "Reject the Rise" petition bearing nearly 1,600 signatures, collected from Barnet residents against the allowances rise. But Hillan would only meet with the paper's group editor - our intrepid reporters weren't senior enough for her. (And they looked so smart in their suits!)

Hillan wasn't snubbing the reporters - she was snubbing the residents who have signed the petition.

Hendon Town Hall reverse tardis syndrome

Pleading to be admitted
I would love to tell you what went on at the Barnet council meeting at Hendon Town Hall tonight, but I can't as there was no room for all the public that wanted to go inside to go inside. And no more committee rooms could be opened - or so they said.

We had a good crowd for the lobby, but I don't think it can be true that there was no room. I think I did see Mrs Angry slip inside, however, and she gives very detailed reports, so I shall be consulting her blog in a few hours.

I do, however, have some stories and pics from the lobby and will post them shortly.

Birmingham Tories outdo Barnet's in awfulness (by a long chalk)

We thought we had problems in Barnet. Birmingham City Council has "gone for the nuclear option", as someone has said, and put all of its 26,000 staff on notice of redundancy. They can keep their jobs if they accept worse pay and conditions of service.

I'll share any inside info I get on this. In the meantime, please come along to the lobby of Barnet council tonight, 6-7pm at Hendon Town Hall, The Burroughs, NW4 4BG. Our theme is "Don't cut our services! Don't privatise our services! No to Barnet easyCouncil!"

Monday, 13 September 2010

Connaught's bottom line: a cautionary tale for fans of Future Shape

While I was helping out with the trades council stall against cuts and privatisation in Burnt Oak on Saturday, a Connaught van pulled up at the side of the road. I waylaid the passenger as they got out. They were from Hammersmith and Fulham. They too had been sacked - by text message - last week, but quickly re-employed by Lovell, the company that has taken over Connaught's more lucrative contracts. They had a lot of sympathy for the sacked Connaught workers in Barnet.

This story tells us a lot about what it means to rely on the private sector to provide public services. Basically, Connaught's contract with Barnet, due to be ended by Barnet itself in February, is just not worth any private company's time or effort. So now the workers are idle, and the repairs are going undone. Barnet Homes is negotiating for the contract to be taken on by a new company (and the 45 workers will have their third employer in a row), but if there isn't enough clear profit in it, no company will want to take it on. The workers will still be idle, and the repairs will still be undone.

Why should much-needed public services only get done when they can make a profit for someone? It doesn't make sense. The need is there, and the people are there to do the work. Where does profit come into it? It's the public purse that will pay for it in either case. Why wouldn't we want all of our money spent on the service, instead of some of it going into private pockets?

Barnet council should have done and bring the council house repairs back inhouse. The workers can go back to repairing people's houses and Barnet residents will be getting the best value for their money.

A tale of two Brians

This email exchange has reached me.

From: Coleman, Cllr Brian Conservative
Sent: 10 September 2010 19:07
To: BSchama@aol.com
Cc: Prentice, Cllr Wendy Conservative; Hillan, Cllr Lynne Conservative; Harper, Cllr Andrew Conservative; Scannell, Cllr Joan Conservative; Rayner, Cllr Hugh Conservative; Cohen, Cllr Melvin Conservative
Subject: RE: Council Meeting September 14th. Agenda Item: 3.6

In view of the contents of this e mail , which I assume is notification that you cannot support a vote of Confidence in our Administration despite the result of the ballot at the Group I assume this means that you have resigned the Conservative Whip

As I am sure you will appreciate this is a serious matter and I ask you to reflect as of course if you intend to sit as an Independent appropriate arrangements will have to be made

Kind regards

From: BSchama@aol.com [mailto:BSchama@aol.com]
Sent: 10 September 2010 18:24
To: Coleman, Cllr Brian Conservative
Subject: Council Meeting September 14th. Agenda Item: 3.6

Dear Brian

I am a loyal supporter of David Cameron, who I believe epitomises the wish of all genuine Conservatives to find the right solution to our current financial problems at both national and local level, and I fully support him and the Coalition in this very difficult task.

Lynne's stance on Allowances has embarrassed him and the Party I support. Grant Shapps made this very clear publicly and still she did not listen. I would like to be free to look after the best interests of the residents of our Borough and my Mill Hill Ward.

I have no problem with how the Leadership election was conducted which, so far as we know, was in a professional and fair manner. Nonetheless, nearly half the Conservative Group voted for Mark Shooter as Leader and this has further weakened Lynne Hillan's credibility.

As you are aware, the Council now needs to make a number of extremely tough decisions when reviewing funding and public resources. For Lynne to have chosen this very time to attempt to push through an obscene pay increase for herself and her closest cabinet and committee chairman colleagues demonstrated once and for all that she lacks the sense, sensitivity and judgement required of a leader.

As you also well know, a number of her Conservative colleagues - both old and new - advised her that this course was wrong. She refused to listen to reason and instead cynically persisted in attempting to justify the increases and only backtracked when she found herself caught in the relentless glare of adverse publicity, destroying the last of her personal credibility in the process.

Even now she still simply does not understand that the public want - and are entitled - to know exactly who is receiving an increased allowance and how much the increase is in each individual case, including the Chairman of her various Committees. Yet in attempting to explain her new "fallback" proposal she has signally failed to itemise both her own and her Cabinet & Committee colleagues' actual existing allowances and their proposed new allowances in a way that is transparent to our residents.

Every difficult Council and Group decision which has to be taken in the months ahead will now be tainted by her personal history of cynical allowance manipulation.

I would like to be free to vote in the best interests of the residents who I have the honour to represent and to do so with a clear conscience, without my loyalties divided between our national leader (whom I respect) and our local leader (who I do not).

I would be happy to support Andrew Harper, as Leader as I believe he stands the best chance of uniting our troubled group, supported by Mark Shooter as Deputy Leader with special responsibility for fiscal matters.

This is the only way that our Conservative group can unite again and go forward

Of course, you will need to seriously change your personal style if they are to succeed.

I want you to know that I bear you no personal animosity and I take this opportunity to wish you and your family "Shanah Tovah".



Saturday, 11 September 2010

Defend the Freedom Pass! Free travel for the elderly!

Barnet 55+ Forum will be at the lobby (actually, several lobbies!) and council meeting at Hendon Town Hall this coming Tuesday night. They are defending the Freedom Pass which allows 60+ people to travel free on buses. The drive to cut money spent on public services means that the government wants to raise the age at which people are eligible for it.

Below is the text by the 55+ Forum explaining their campaign.


Few schemes have fulfilled the meeting of a social need of older and disabled people than the establishment of the Freedom Pass and its extension of use. The impact on the mobility of people has been of enormous benefit to people and the communities. It is a situation that may be about to change unless Londoners wake up to the implications of a current proposal.

For the third time in recent years an attempt is being made to make changes to the conditions that apply to the GLA Concessionary Fares Act, 2009. It represents a most serious threat to the Freedom Pass. The arguments and the draft Bill itself is dressed up to make it seem no more than changes on the basis of technical rationality and not to appear contentious. But the proposed changes are in effect a potential blank cheque to make changes to anything and everything, because the rules of the game will have been altered. That is why London boroughs older people’s Forums give an instinctive NO to the changes proposed as soon as they become aware of what’s afoot, and seek to get their borough Councils also to say NO in the consultation that is taking place.

Barnet 55+ Forum have launched a petition to the Council to that effect. Members and friends are urged over the next few days to make use of it, get your filled in forms back to us. We will seek to present them to the Council at its meeting next Tuesday. We will also seek to address the Council to press them to change their position, which appears to go along with the Bill’s sponsors- Westminster Council.

To make as much impact as possible we again ask members and friends to help by being at the Town Hall next Tuesday 14th September, showing your concern.

The intention of the current move by Westminster and other councils is to have an enablement in the Act that will give flexibility on services. That will be on certain rail services in the short term. The other proposal is for councils to be able to go to “independent” arbitration in the event of a disagreement with Transport for London over the costs of the scheme. Such flexibility and procedure will undoubtedly open the door to further changes. We are calling on our Council to have nothing to do with it.

A few factors you should know:

• This is a private Bill, drawn up by a hired agency. What price elected representatives!

• The consultation being now rushed through (principally involving Councils, and no serious attempt to involve others, least of all the users) finishes on 22nd October. They will then seek to make it law on November 4th. The excuse for this rush is that a private Bill is allowed once a year and they would have to wait another year! It is farcical. It is not serious consultation

• A great many councillors, let alone the public, are either unaware of what is going on, or are ignorant of the facts and arguments.

• Council positions can be found out on their websites before they meet. Check it out, and act accordingly


Stan Davison
Chairperson Barnet 55+Forum
8th September 2010

Friday, 10 September 2010

Psst! Wanna buy a used street market?

I couldn't help noticing in the Hendon Times today an advert for Watling Market in Burnt Oak. Yes, that's right, a whole six day a week market is up for lease, by the council.

A history on Wikipedia of Burnt Oak says of the market:
In 1936 Watling Market opened with a hundred covered shops and stalls.
Bloody hell, how times change. I've never made it down there when the market is open (Saturday mornings and shopping have never gone together for me) but I've seen it at other times, and it is in a bad way.

If ever an area was in need of some Big Society plus some serious redevelopment money, it's the back of Burnt Oak.

Residents' forums in Barnet next week

Barnet council governance and democracy department advertises the residents' forums for this month (all next week). They promise:
Have your say on council plans and local proposals. It’s your meeting [sic]. You can put questions, debate issues [unless it's about councillors allowances and you live in Chipping Barnet] and set the agenda.

If you tell us in advance of issues you want to raise we are more likely to have an answer for you on the evening.

Monday 13 September 2010 at 6.30pm
St Peters Church, Stonegrove, Edgware HA8 8AB
Bus: 107
To submit issues for the forum contact: Paul Frost 020 8359 2205 / paul.frost@barnet.gov.uk

Chipping Barnet
Wednesday 15 September 2010 at 6.30pm
Coppetts Wood Primary School, Coppetts Road, N10 1JS
Buses: 234 direct, 423 and 134
To submit issues for the forum contact: Pauline Bagley 020 8359 2023 / pauline.bagley@barnet.gov.uk

Finchley & Golders Green
Wednesday 15 September 2010 at 6.30pm
St Michael’s Church Hall, The Riding (Off Golders Green Road), Golders Green NW11 8HL
Buses: 83, 183, 210, 240
Stations: Golders Green (328 from Golders Green station)
To submit issues for the forum contact: Stephanie Chaikin 020 8359 2019 / stephanie.chaikin@barnet.gov.uk

Connaught workers sacked by conference call

Sent this morning from John Burgess, Barnet Unison secretary:
I have to report some shocking news. At 6pm last night former council workers TUPE’d first to Barnet Homes then TUPE’d to Connaught were sacked. How were they given this shocking and distressful news?

They were sacked by conference call!

That’s right. In all my time I don’t think I have heard anything so cowardly but I should not be surprised. Fremantle was a nightmare for our members but this is truly awful.

Members are still reeling from the news and we are trying to find out what can be done. In the interim we will be meeting with our members to see what support we can offer our members and their families.

I am asking for messages of support to be sent to me at john.burgess@barnetunison.org.uk

Whilst we look at some of the options I would ask Barnet Unison members to make sure they alert colleagues to what has happened and make sure you have made arrangements to come along to the lobby of the council meeting at Hendon Town Hall on Tuesday 14 September (6-7pm). We will have our Connaught members alongside us and it would be great if they could have your support.
UPDATE: I've searched the national news and found out that construction group Morgan Sindall have taken over most of the Connaught contracts, and are retaining 2,500 of the 4,400 staff. Does that mean they have decided the rest are surplus to requirements? BBC Liverpool reports a similar story to Barnet, so we can assume this is happening the length and breadth of the country.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Lobby Barnet council, Tuesday 14 September

Don’t cut our services – don’t privatise our services – no to Barnet easyCouncil!

Lobby of the council meeting on Tuesday 14 September

6-7pm, Hendon Town Hall, The Burroughs, London NW4 4BG

The Tory administration in Barnet has been rocked recently by the angry reaction to their allowances rise for senior Cabinet members. Although the Tories claim to have backed down, eight committee chairs will still see their allowances rise from £9,974 to £15,333, a rise of 54%.

Lynne Hillan has seen off a challenge to her leadership of the Conservative group – but only just! She will face a no confidence vote at the council meeting. It seems that she has done enough to satisfy dissident Tories for now, and they will probably keep her in office. But how long can this unity last?

Mark Shooter, who challenged Hillan, has criticised her leadership style, talking of “bullying”. He has criticised the decision to cut sheltered housing wardens, calling it “morally dubious”. He has described the council’s cherished Future Shape/easyCouncil privatisation plan as a “Soviet bureaucratic initiative”.

And all of this comes from a fellow Conservative!

We do not believe that this administration has the moral authority to continue in office, to impose their regime of cuts and privatisation on Barnet council workers and residents. We believe that cuts will harm the most vulnerable and degrade the quality of life for all in Barnet. Mass outsourcing of services will lead to worse working lives for Barnet’s workforces and worse services for residents. And disruption when contracts go wrong, as has happened through the collapse of Connaught.

We don’t accept that public services should be slashed to bail out the banks, which are now merrily paying out dividends and bonuses again. If you have an issue with this council, please come along on the night and make your voice heard!

For more details or to help build the event, please email info@barnettuc.org.uk.

Also for your diary: 7-9pm, Thursday 23 September
Emerald Suite, North London Business Park, Oakleigh Road South, London N11 1GN
Launch of Barnet Alliance 4 Public Services. Public meeting, all welcome.

Can Barnet Tories vote according to conscience?

Mark Shooter, if the rumours are correct, only avoided becoming leader of the Barnet Tory group on Tuesday night by one vote (he's rumoured to have got 18 votes to Lynne Hillan's 19). I don't know what they put in the water at the Town Hall but Shooter's comments to the Times series afterwards sound distinctly sheeplike:
Speaking after the meeting, Hendon ward councillor, Mr Shooter, said he would now work with his party colleagues for the good of the borough.

He said: “I am happy to say that I will support unity and work with the group for the sake of the people of Barnet.

“Obviously I am disappointed after receiving tremendous support. I would like to thank my supporters but I accept the decision as being fully democratic.

“I will do my part to get behind the group and make sure the authority and the councillors do the best for the borough.”
From this, you wouldn't think that all hell had just been unleashed in the Barnet Tory group - publicly, at that. I can only think that during the meeting, which I understand to have gone on for three hours, an awful lot of air was cleared.

The odds of Shooter and his supporters backing the no confidence vote in Hillan next Tuesday appear to have lengthened considerably.

So, this is my question now. Do Shooter and those who backed him believe that the Tory group should vote with their conscience in future or simply toe the line?

This matters because Shooter highlighted a number of issues in his final pitch to councillors before Tuesday night where he is wildly at odds with the current leadership. Those issues, with my interpretation/comment in brackets, are:
"...fully erase the decisions of that flawed Council meeting of July 13th; the allowances will then revert to the previously agreed scheme." (We should reverse the rise in senior Cabinet members' allowances and the rise in allowances for committee chairs.)

"...leadership is a lot more than cobbling together some decisions with a few friends and then bullying others into submission." (Does it include allowing councillors to vote according to conscience?)

"Before Labour’s change to the law in 2000, all Councillors ran the Council. This had worked well for a very long time." (Exclusive rule by Cabinet should end.)

"Why, if our highly paid directors are so skilled in local government affairs do we need to spend millions of pounds on consultants? One or the other has got to go." (Look to your laurels, Nick Walkley et al.)

"I do not believe Soviet bureaucratic initiatives like One Public Sector, Labour’s Total Place (and Barnet’s Future Shape / Easy Council) ideas are not [sic] the way forward." (Needs no comment!)

"...we can avoid morally dubious decisions such as the scrapping of the warden service, the closing of libraries and the selling off of the allotments." (Could Shooter support it at a council meeting should the wardens cut be voted on again? Could he in all conscience vote to close a library, should that question arise?)
Shooter and his supporters might - or might not! We'll know on Tuesday - have decided to close ranks for the good of the Barnet Tory party, and they might have screwed some commitments out of Hillan et al on the strength of the vote on Tuesday night. But how long could such an arrangement last? And how foolish would Shooter look if he now voted at variance with the manifesto he outlined during his challenge?

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Cuddly Cameron's contribution to childhood

News has reached the Guardian of Barnet council's warning on its children's services: that they face "financial Armageddon". The Children and Young People Now blog reported thus:
The Tory-run authority, dubbed "easy council" for its philosophy of supplying basic services and charging individuals for additional requirements, is facing cuts to its £12m of children service grants of between 25 and 50 per cent. The figures were revealed by head of children’s services Robert McCulloch-Graham, who said that the department was also facing cuts of 20 per cent to its core budget over the next three years.

Speaking to the council’s budgetary scrutiny committee, McCulloch-Graham likened the department’s financial position to "Armageddon", with a doubling of referrals to the department in three years combining with lengthy court cases to put children’s services under great strain.
What a truly frightening prospect is in store; these cuts, a little bit here, a little bit there, are going to have real casualties, people, young people, who slip through the cracks and aren't helped when they need to be.

A friend of mine reports that his mother, a social worker working with young children and taking them into care, sometimes at short notice, has had her budget for buying necessities for them - blankets, clothes - cut by 75%. (This is not in Barnet, for the record.) Why? Why are cuts like this even being contemplated?

Doing the Burnt Oak stall on Saturday I met a lady who works as an escort for disabled young people in Barnet; she helps them on their journeys to school and so on, in council or hired vehicles. She and her fellow workers face losing their job with the council and being re-employed by private companies doing the work on contract. You can bet your bottom dollar the escorts will be taken on on worse pay and conditions, and with less training being provided in future; that will mean a faster turnover of staff, less continuity for the children, worse care.

Little by little, here and there, drip, drip, drip, crap is being poured onto our heads by that nice Mr Cameron. (Yes, I know his father has just died.) These cuts are a political choice by the government; they could do other things to restore the national finances, or even, since the UK is the sixth richest country in the world and not likely to go bust any time soon, just leave things alone.

GLA: Tories scupper another ticket office debate

I mentioned yesterday that the Tory members on the GLA had scuppered a previous debate about the proposed job cuts on London Underground, by walking out to make the meeting inquorate. Well, they've done it again! This morning the Assembly was due to discuss the issues posed by the mayor's plan to cut 800 jobs, and the Tories walked out again.

Brilliant. Very mature handling of the dispute that nearly brought London to a halt yesterday.

I also mentioned a protest by disabled rights groups. They believe that fewer staff on stations will make it harder for disabled people to use the Tube. There's a picture of their protest on Tory Troll's blog. (It features a friend of mine!) I wanted to get down there this morning and take some pics, but I was, frankly, too knackered. Politics is fun, but it wears even me out sometimes. (Imagine how Barnet Tories are feeling, then!)

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Connaught collapse - Back to the Future Shape?

Barnet council is currently embarking on a mass privatisation drive (Future Shape aka easyCouncil); they want to stop direct employment of council workers and farm them and service delivery out to arms length companies such as Barnet Homes and to multinationals such as... Connaught.

Oops. Connaught, the firm that has the contract for council house repairs in Barnet, among other places, is going bust. What will happen to Connaught's local workforce (once TUPE'd over to Barnet Homes and then again to Connaught)? Hopefully, they will be brought back into the Barnet fold.

It's a worrying time for the Connaught workers, annoying for Barnet's council tenants, who have only an emergency repairs service (as I understand it), and alarming for all Barnet residents who care to think about it: privatising services is no guarantee of a reliable, cheap service, yet Barnet's Tories present it as the answer to all our prayers.

In fact, the Connaught story shows Future Shape happening in reverse, no bad thing!

Will Hillan be finished off by Shooter or Harpoon?

So, Lynne Hillan won the vote at the Tory group tonight (I'm only reading this on the Times website and on the other blogs - I've no inside knowledge!). But the vote was close. The high vote for Brian Schama as chairman of the party (he lost 18:19 to Wendy Prentice) after he wrote the rudest possible email to Hillan shows how deeply divided Barnet Tories are.

And Rog T reckons that Andrew Harper will step in to unite the two sides and emerge the real winner in a few weeks time. Rog knows more about, er, most things than me; he must have good information to make him say that.

So the saga goes on to next Tuesday and the confidence vote at the council meeting. I really can't see Shooter's supporters not voting against Hillan in that vote, now that the situation in the party is revealed as so rancorous. I don't know what the real Barnet Conservative grassroots thinks, but I'm sure they'd just rather it was all over soon than caring how!

P.S. Yes, that is the unkindest headline I've ever written. I'm ashamed of myself, but inside every journalist lurks a tabloid journalist. As one woman to another, Lynne, I don't mean it quite as bad as it sounds.

Disabled transport users lobby tomorrow against Tube job cuts

I told you that service users should support the Tube workers' fight against job losses! I've just received an email from some disability rights activists, planning to protest at City Hall tomorrow, when the GLA is due (again) to discuss the planned 800 job cuts on London Underground.
Tomorrow – that is Wednesday 8th September at 9am, join us and other Disability right activists outside City Hall to show our opposition to these dangerous cuts and meet Assembly Members as they attend a GLA Assembly meeting to discuss them.

We will be calling on Boris Johnson and London Assembly Members to oppose the cuts to station staff and support a tube network which is safe and accessible for everyone, disabled and non-disabled.

· Wear red, if you can

· We will provide banners and placards, though feel free to create and bring your own

· Come angry!

Directions: Meet in front of City Hall, The Queens Walk, London SE1 2AA

Map link: http://bit.ly/bNU3eJ

Nearest station: London Bridge (step-free) or Tower Hill.

Buses RV1 (low floor, wheelchair accessible), 47 and 381 stop nearby. More detailed directions available at http://www.sense.org.uk/media_centre/latest_news/may_2009/directions_city_hall.htm

For a better service, support the Tube strikes!

Now that my official title is "trade unionist Vicky [sic] Morris" I thought I would say a few words about why I think people should support the London Underground strikes, and in defence of trade unions generally.

Trade unions have been the bedrock of the movement for democracy in this country. One of the first campaigns for universal (male!) suffrage was the working-class Chartist movement. One of their key aims was to organise a general strike for democracy!

Trade unions have fought for every measure that has civilised work - the 10 hour day, abolition of child labour, health and safety regulations - and been resisted most of the way by their employers. When middle-class reformers have pushed for welfare provision, it has usually been as a means to head off more radical solutions to social problems: working class revolt.

Today trade unionists on the London Underground are on strike to defend 800 jobs. In many ways this is a selfish strike - they want to keep their jobs. These are not cushy jobs, in spite of what the Metro will tell you. But they are decent jobs, and the alternative is to go onto the job market in a climate of high employment.

But in many ways this is also an unselfish strike: London Underground with fewer staff will be a worse service. Ticket offices will be closed more often; there will be fewer staff around to help you buy a ticket, give you directions, or intervene if there is trouble on a station.

What other means do Tube workers have to fight their cause than to withdraw their labour? The best thing passengers can do to defend the service is support the Tube workers' strike, and get the London Underground management and GLA to stop their job cuts proposal. Lobby your MP and GLA member (maybe not Brian Coleman, alas, as your words really would be falling on deaf ears, or Richard Barnbrook, for all the obvious reasons).

The Tory group on the GLA walked out rather than hear a motion against the job losses proposal in July. This issue will be revisited soon. Even Boris Johnson has said he worries that the government's deficit reduction plan is trying to cut too much too fast.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Starbooks - tall, grande or paperback? Or, Barnet's library future

I've returned from the Barnet council cabinet meeting. I only arrived just in time for the meeting and when I got there most of the people had already absorbed the atmosphere and were sitting in funereal silence with their heads bowed over the enormous pile of paperwork. It was like gate-crashing a wake.

I felt like making a quip about it when I was called to ask my public question, but I hadn't the heart. You see, socialists are nicer than Tories.

My question about libraries was answered on paper by Lynne Hillan and she read it out as well. I wish I had a copy but, because I was late, I didn't get one. I'll ask Governance and Democracy to send me one.

The upshot of Hillan's answer was: the council is not involved in an estates review which will include looking at merging (closing) libraries. The Strategic Library Review is only about enhancing the service and making it more responsive to changing need. I would be reassured if I hadn't read Councillor Robert Rams' comments to the Times series that the library service is likely to be squeezed by 25-30 per cent.

Councillor Rams was allowed to have a go at me! I wouldn't mind but I hadn't been rude to him (chubby chops!). I said I thought the aim of the consultation over the library service was probably actually about identifying which libraries they could close.

"Typical trade unionist! Head in the sand!" Rams opened with some gusto. He went on to say that he imagines that there will be more venues offering books in Barnet once the review is over, not fewer. He held out what is to him a tantalising prospect: Starbucks lending library. I've news for him: it's been tried already, it was called Borders, and it failed.

And why was the atmosphere so dreadful this evening? Well, of course, tomorrow night, Lynne Hillan faces a challenge to her leadership of the Tory group on the council from Mark Shooter. The Tories in Barnet are, whatever they pretend, in a hideous mess. Lib Dem group leader Jack Cohen has played a bit of a blinder, and put down a no confidence motion in Hillan for the council meeting on 14 September. If she survives the vote tomorrow, Hillan next faces a vote in which Labour and Lib Dems will vote against her, and only eight Tory councillors need to break ranks for her to lose.

Would they do it? We debated this in the corridors outside the meeting, in the pub and on the way home. I think they just might. There would be terrible opprobrium from some Tories for voting with Labour and Lib Dems. But, after all, the Lib Dems are the government's coalition partners, so they cannot be painted as completely untouchable. And the stakes are extremely high.

It is not just about Allowancegate, or some paltry squabble in a local Tory party, it is about big politics. Can Barnet council sort out its difficulties and the incumbent party, the Tories, push through enormous cuts and possibly privatisation on the borough? Can they do it without hitting the headlines every day and humiliating the national party?

If enough Tories in Barnet wake up and smell the (Starbucks) coffee, they will realise that they have to get rid of Lynne Hillan. I'm not telling them to do it. To be honest, I'd rather have her at the helm than Shooter, I think, because I know that Hillan is politically inept. Shooter, it's too soon to say.

P.S. Anyone want to join a save our libraries campaign?

Defend all Barnet's libraries!

I'm swotting up on libraries, library cuts, etc., ahead of the Barnet cabinet meeting tonight. I'm asking a public question relating to the paper "Strategic library review" which will be wafted before the noses of the Cabinet. They will all vote enthusiastically to have one, then probably strenuously ignore the results of the consultation which, I predict, will find that... people don't want to close their libraries!

As I discussed in an earlier post, the strategic library review goes hand in hand with the estates review, where Barnet council moots merging some of the libraries and selling off the sites thus liberated. I thought initially that the libraries most likely to close would be the less glamorous sites in places such as Grahame Park, but, after speaking to someone I met on the stall at the weekend, I now think that it could be the more substantial libraries - the ones in nice buildings - that will be put up for sale.

For example, Hendon library, slap bang in the middle of the expanding Middlesex University campus. Middlesex want to close their Enfield site and move all their operations to Hendon. So the library and Hendon Town Hall would do them nicely!

Cabinet meetings are held at Hendon Town Hall (though for how much longer?). It starts tonight at 7pm; come along if you want to see, possibly, Lynne Hillan's last Cabinet performance, and hear me asking a question about libraries. The question I submitted is:
The Cabinet paper proposing a Strategic Library Review is at pains to stress that full consultation will be carried out to find out what Barnet residents need and want from their libraries. Yet, at the same time, it is assumed from the outset that less money will be spent on libraries at the end of the process. What if the result of the consultation concludes that the same amount or more money should be spent on libraries? How can you convince Barnet residents that the results of the SLR are not a done deal, for example, that it is not inevitable that some libraries should close?
Germaine Greer has an article defending libraries as libraries in today's Guardian. It doesn't break new ground but if you like Greer you might like to see it. And she's on the right side!

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Don't cut our services! Don't privatise our services! No to easyCouncil!

We (trades council and friends) revived our public stalls today. We had three this morning, in Burnt Oak, High Barnet and central Finchley. I think the attitude against the Tory administration has hardened since I last did a stall in Burnt Oak in the spring.

Business was brisk in Burnt Oak. There were four of us personing the stall; we also went up and down the shops in Watling Avenue asking the shopkeepers whether they would display our advert for the lobby of the council meeting on Tuesday 14 September (6-7pm, Hendon Town Hall, NW4 4BG).

We are going to need many more such stalls and mobilising of the residents, encouraging them to DO SOMETHING about what many are unhappy about. People lack confidence that they can make their views heard. I felt more than ever before that whether one enjoys doing such activity or not, it is vitally necessary now. There is no alternative to getting onto the streets, talking to people, and convincing them that unless they actively resist, services will be cut and/or privatised, their living standards will fall, and the area they live in will be degraded. (Burnt Oak, much as I like it, is already no oil painting.)

Knowing this made it a lot easier to motivate myself; actually, it is no harship at all to talk to fellow Barnet residents. I learned some interesting stories of things that are going on in the area, and among the council workforce, since many council workers live in the area.

Next stalls: Saturday 11 and Saturday 18 September, Burnt Oak, High Barnet and central Finchley, from about 10.30 till noon; and also Golders Green tomorrow, and Sunday 12 and Sunday 19 September. If you want to help out or know more, come by the stalls or email info@barnettuc.org.uk.

Friday, 3 September 2010

A busy week ahead for functional body Brian Coleman

I have gained exclusive access to the desk diary of Brian Coleman AM FRSA BAKA for next week. Tiptoeing past his slumbering form, I was able to glance over his shoulder and read there the entries for next week. He has a busy schedule, I can tell you.

Monday 6 September: Barnet council Cabinet meeting. Well, in fact, I'm not sure that Cabinet meetings really are all that onerous for the members; all the decisions have already been made. Hillan's merry band troop in and wearily perform their pre-rehearsed lines for the assembled public and press. They like to wrap up business as early as possible, presumably so that they can go back to their dinner parties. That's one of the reasons - there are others - that they hate the 30 minutes allowed for public questions.

Unlike the public, who have had to wade through a 300+ page agenda to work out whether their public questions will be in order (ie, relate to business being heard at that particular Cabinet meeting), I can't imagine that any of the Cabinet members will actually know what they are voting on when they stick up their hands in unanimous agreement with the Leaderine. But they will do it anyway and probably accompany the act with fulsome praise for everything Hillan thinks, says and does. Even those of them who plan to stab her in the back the next night.

Tuesday 7 September: Barnet Tory group crisis summit. The Tory group will meet to decide whether to continue marching into oblivion, ignominy and national notoriety with Lynne Hillan at their helm, or whether to rally around a bloke no one knows from Adam who has some powerful friends in high places... somewhere...

At least Mark Shooter makes the right noises to the press and he has gained some supporters in the blogosphere. Vote Shooter, get fewer howling political blunders and unwanted media attention? A better bet, therefore, for shafting the residents and workforce of Barnet big time? It is for Barnet's Tory councillors to decide. The recalcitrant residents of Barnet will merely await the next Pope and see what s/he plans for us.

Wednesday 8 September: Functional Body Question Time at the GLA. This week's functional body is Brian Coleman, chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. The questions that Coleman will face in the meeting are listed here, plus a great long list of questions requiring written answers. (Volunteers are sought to sharpen Brian's pencil.)

There is only a fleeting mention of the dispute that Coleman and the London Fire Brigade have engineered with London's firefighters. In brief, the LFB has threatened to sack all of London's firefighters before Christmas if their union doesn't agree to drastically changing their shift-pattern. The FBU is balloting its members on action short of strike as a first step to show their displeasure at being treated this way. You can read the FBU's very reasonable case here.

Thursday 9 September: Why, it's the weekend, isn't it?!