Thursday, 30 August 2012

Who runs Barnet Council? A question for Barnet Council leader Richard Cornelius

Dear Councillor Cornelius,

We wrote to you last week in regard to the announcement by Pam Wharfe, Barnet Council’s ‘interim’ Director of Environment, Planning and Regeneration, that a decision has been made to abandon the One Barnet Strategic Partnership proposals for the outsourcing of  £275 million worth of our local services in favour of a ‘Joint Venture’.

You have since contradicted her statement, saying:
No decision has been made. No case for a jv has been made beyond the suggestion that there might be such a case. The decisions will be made by elected members in due course.”

In a subsequent message to staff Ms Wharfe has informed staff that:

“...the project Board recommended to Corporate Directors Group that this be formally advanced in discussion with bidders and indeed is currently our preferred option.”

Neither the DRS project board nor the Corporate Directors Group includes any elected members of the council. Membership of the DRS project board, we understand, is restricted to a small number of senior council officers and two consultants from Agilisys/iMPOWER, the company working as ‘implementation partner’ to One Barnet, at an average cost to local tax payers of £250,000 per month.

It would appear that Barnet Council is preparing to commit the financial security of this borough to a new model of outsourcing – one that its own consultants’ advice identified as more risky and costly than the one originally chosen, and that this decision has been made by senior officers before any consideration or approval by the elected members of the council.

Ms Wharfe’s own comments about the new Joint Venture seem to suggest that senior management are not at all concerned by the increased risk of failure that this new commitment will entail, or the increased responsibilities for the authority that this option would involve, as a result of guaranteeing more favourable terms for the successful bidder at the conclusion of the dialogue process.

As residents, however, we are concerned: and we believe that you should be too.

We would ask you and your colleagues to consider the real possibility that in the event of the new Joint Venture failing, the council will still be left with the duty to provide the affected services, whilst the successful bidder may simply walk away with no obligation.

We believe that councillors have clearly not been fully informed as to the details of the Joint Venture, and that the scale of risk that the One Barnet programme presents is simply not fully understood by members. It seems that the need for members to be fully informed of developments and involved in the formation of policy at all stages of the dialogue process has been deliberately overlooked.

Perhaps as well as a decision to pursue a new model of outsourcing, the council is committing itself to a new form of local government, in which the democratic process is set aside for a bureaucratic dictatorship, entirely controlled by the senior management team.

If Barnet is indeed determined to bypass the democratic process, and to give the role of policy and decision making to senior officers, rather than to the political leadership of the Conservative group and the Cabinet, we would suggest this makes the role of the elected members completely redundant, although of course it may well offer a new opportunity for cost cutting exercises in the withdrawal of members’ allowances.

Failing that, may we ask you to assert your authority as leader of the council, recognise that the outsourcing programme has been totally discredited, and instruct your own officers to follow a course of action which is the result of proper consultation and policy formation rather than one shaped by the motivations of their own agenda.

Yours sincerely,

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The war of Toffee's tummy, Or: Save the NHS!

"What do we want?" "PeNHS!" "When do we want it?" "Now!"

What am I talking about? I coined the term "PeNHS" a while back for my idea of a NHS for pets. (Never mind that the name looks like a part of the anatomy.)

I acquired two cats almost a year ago. They very quickly cost me an arm and a leg to look after, as they first had to have their teeth fixed and have their jabs. One of them is allergic to flea saliva, of all things, so they have to have top-of-the-range flea repellent.

The other one started putting on weight, lots of weight. When we got around to taking him to the vet it was too late: he was already diabetic. But maybe, just maybe, if he loses weight fast enough it will be reversable. Cue lots more visits to the vet for weigh-ins and special 'obesity management' diet.

Then on the bank holiday (!) he stopped eating and went into a corner, literally turning his face to the wall. (You know what that means.) I spent most of today ferrying him to and from the vet in a minicab. I had to pay the bill at the end of the day with my Debenhams card.

What is this all about!? Well, for personal reasons, I feel obliged to do right by these two furry fools. And I do like them, most of the time. But what about the expense?! Phew, it's staggering.

Here we have private healthcare for cats, and it made me wonder whether we wouldn't be better off with a sort of NHS for pets.

Perhaps if pet healthcare were free people would be reckless and have lots more pets, or be more reckless with their health. I doubt that somehow.

I know that pets bring a lot of pleasure to a lot of people's lives, and probably help to keep them healthy as well! If you are on benefits you can get your pet treated at the PDSA, but otherwise you pay top dollar.

I don't resent my vet. I think they're reasonable. But there are surely many that aren't. There are probably animals getting treatments they don't need, just because the vet can rake in more cash from a concerned owner.

When it comes to human healthcare systems, in those societies that rely on marketised healthcare the wealthy tend to get more care than they need, while the poor get less than they need. And, of course, the marketing costs, and the administration costs of working out who is entitled to what have to be added on top. Result: worse healthcare at more cost.

So, my musings on the PeNHS, mad as they might sound, are actually more about the NHS, a reflection on how valuable it is.

I have paid my vets' fees and done right by these cats - so far. But there comes a point when the cost becomes prohibitive. My cat was ill on the bank holiday and my vet was closed so we schlepped him a long way to an out-of-hours vet. We paid through the nose.

I took him to our normal vet today, who were overwhelmed with cases where the animal had been ill on the bank holiday but the owner hadn't wanted to pay the extra for out-of-hours and had hung on another day. Cue lots more sick animals and lots more guilty-feeling owners.

The more our NHS follows market mechanisms, the more that the basic free service has to be topped up with privately paid for "extras" (where have we heard that before, Mr Mike Freer? Oh, yes, in relation to Barnet council services), and the more that it is run for profit, the more it will become like the situation I describe in veterinary medicine.

After this rather harrowing weekend, in particular, I find that a truly frightening and upsetting prospect. Can you imagine what it feels like to have to decide whether you can afford a visit to the doctor? For your sick child?

Save the NHS!

100 days to stop this crazy outsourcing

100 days to stop £750m of our money and the fate of most of our council services being handed over to a private company to profit from, if they can.

Barnet Tories' mandate to do this? They don't have one. It was not even mentioned in their manifesto for the 2010 local elections.

Please sign this petition calling on them to put the scheme to a vote of residents.

We are also collecting signatures on paper. Please download from here and approach neighbours, family, friends, workmates. Thank you!

Barnet Unison press release today:
100 days to One Barnet Billion Pound Gamble  
In 100 days time on Thursday 6 December at 7pm in Hendon Town Hall members of Barnet Council Cabinet Resources Committee will formally award a contract to either BT or Capita.  
The first contract known as New Support and Customer Services Organisation (NSCSO) will be for back office services such as Finance, Revenues & Benefits, Estates, IT, HR & Payroll, etc. It is estimated to be worth up to £750 million pounds over 10 years with an opportunity to extend for a further five years.  
In spite of mounting opposition within the workforce and the community the Council remains convinced that privatisation works.  
Barnet Council continues to ignore even the wise words of Sir Merrick Richard Cockell, Conservative Leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Chairman of the Local Government Association, who
called into question the belief that local authorities should be looking to "outsource everything". There were some services better performed by the private sector, but the quality of other services run by councils with the "tightest budgets" had been "underestimated".
2012 has already seen Barnet Council workers being transferred out of the Council including:  
* Adult social care  
* Parking services  
* Housing services  
* Legal Services**  
The NSCSO project involves more than 770 staff, most of whom are at risk of their jobs being transferred out of London.  
UNISON has repeatedly offered to meet with the Leader of the Council to discuss an alternative to the high risk £billion pound gamble being promoted by consultants.  
Branch Secretary John Burgess said:
“If the private sector can do things differently so can the Council in which case all of the savings come back to the tax payers of Barnet instead of big business.”
** Legal Service staff are due to be transferred out of the council on 1st September 2012.
Contact details: John Burgess Barnet UNISON on 07738 389569 or email:

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Countries of the world in cross-stitch - in a crypt

I would be good at being retired, it's a shame I'll probably never get there! Not that I don't intend to live to a ripe old age, just that the state retirement age is constantly being put back out of reach.

Were I ever in the fortunate position to have enough to live on, endless leisure time, and enough of my physical faculties to enjoy both, I would do a lot more of what I did yesterday: mooch around central London, taking in the sights.

I visited the church of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, including a wonderful exhibition that is running in the Crypt Gallery until 22 September. It is by the Embroiderers' Guild, called "Stitching a welcome to Athletes of the World".

The nearly 200 Guild branches were each allocated a different country competing in the Olympics Games, to illustrate in embroidery on postcard sized panels.

The results are stunning, a real labour of love in every sense! If you like crafts, needlework or just pretty pictures do go and have a look. The exhibition is free.

I hope they won't mind me illustrating this blogpost with a few of the pictures I took: the colours don't come out all that well, but it should give you an idea of the variety and imagination involved.

Were I ever to retire, I might myself take up needle and thread!

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Where is Boris Yeltsin when you need him? Or: Who's in charge at Barnet council?

In our bloggers' letter on Monday - by gum, a week is a long time in Barnet politics - we asked Richard Cornelius, the leader of Barnet Council, how come the council had shifted from a full outsourcing model for one of their big 'One Barnet' contracts - worth £275m - to a Joint Venture (JV).

This decision had been announced to the Barnet council workforce on the preceding Friday by Pam Wharfe, a senior council officer - a (well-)paid employee, not a democratically elected councillor.

Council leader Cornelius, apparently returning from holiday, emailed the bloggers back saying:
No decision has been made. No case for a jv has been made beyond the suggestion that there might be such a case. The decisions will be made by elected members in due course.
He said much the same thing to Reema Patel, a new blogger on the Barnet scene:
Contrary to reports this decision has not been taken. Jv remains an option, but no decision as yet. There will need to be a convincing argument for this route.
That to me sounds unenthusiastic about JV.

The reply to us could just be seen as emphasising the point that such decisions have to be approved by the democratic input of councillors (what, in Barnet?!).

But the second response sounds much more like the council leader himself and the senior officers (and a fellow Cabinet member, Daniel Thomas, to judge by his statement to the Barnet Press) are at odds over the future direction of the council and the fate of £1bn of taxpayers' money.

Remind me, who is running Barnet?

For my own reasons, I have been reading about the history of post-communist Russia.

This whole ludicrous scenario puts me in mind of the Communist reformer Gorbachev, holidaying in August 1991, suddenly being imprisoned in his dacha while hard-liners attempt a coup to stem the tide of history while he is away.

On this occasion, Gorbachev is rescued by Boris Yeltsin (probably drunk) bravely climbing on top of a tank before the White House to face down the hardliners.

Gorbachev returns to the capital Moscow and the reform progress continues. The rest, as they say, is history (and what a history).

I don't know where the bloggers fit into all of this, something about glasnost and a free press, I think.

To say nothing of citizen engagement.

I don't want to worry you further, but I should remind you that the hapless Russian people wind up with Putin at the end of all of this.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Save Friern Barnet library events, Sunday 26 August

The Save Friern Barnet Library campaign's determined and imaginative campaign to save their library continues. I wouldn't bet against them achieving their goal.

This Sunday 26 August they are keeping the issue in the public mind with a gathering from 2-4pm on the green outside Friern Barnet Library (we still call it that, even though it is closed for now). There will be a pop-up library, music, children's activities and a raffle! Bring a friend or two!

There will also be a tour of Friern Barnet led by Dr Oliver Natelson, the Observer's Ethical awards "Local Hero" for 2012. You need to book if you want to go on the tour, as demand is likely to be high, and I understand that there is a £2 charge for adults. Email to register interest.

The afternoon also features a celebration of 100 years of the 43 bus route!

I'm planning to get along on Sunday, and looking forward to travelling on the top deck of the 43 bus with other library campaigners and bus enthusiasts (yes, even them!) all the way to London Bridge. There will be many sights to see along the way, and you will have good company.

Assemble at 4.30pm for the bus ride.

Save Friern Barnet Library campaign group website: Follow on Twitter: @savefriernbtlib

Monday, 20 August 2012

The new One Barnet Joint Venture: a joint statement and an open letter by the Barnet bloggers

Dear Councillor Cornelius,

At the end of last week, an email was sent by Pam Wharfe, Interim Director of Environment, Planning and Regeneration to employees of Barnet Council in which it was casually revealed that one of the two One Barnet outsourcing projects, the outsourcing of c.£275 million worth of council services, is now to be redesigned as a ‘joint venture’ in a new company comprising the bidder and the local authority.

This remarkable development raises several hugely important questions.

In the email, Ms Wharfe makes the rather disingenuous statement that the new organisation provides " ... an effective basis on which the Council can benefit from these opportunities and [at] the same time it gives the Council greater rights of transparency and control ..."

The loss of democratic accountability to the community in the provision of services that would result from the outsourcing of the One Barnet programme is an issue we and other critics have raised repeatedly, yet is an accusation the council has continually rejected.

Whilst we are pleased to see that the authority has now accepted that our concerns are valid, we fail to understand how the creation of a new commercial venture will improve the ability of the council to retain proper controls and transparency in regard to the services outsourced in this way.

The new arrangement also raises the real risk of conflicts of interest regarding the management of the new venture and those who will be involved in the decision making processes of the organisation. Bearing in mind the failure of the council to mitigate the potential risks posed by any senior officers with links to private companies involved in the bidding process, what safeguards will be in place in relation to the membership of the new board?

Most significantly, perhaps, the new venture would appear to move the burden of significant risk from the private sector partner to the taxpayers who will be expected to fund the new company, whilst any profits that may ensue will not return to residents, but will be shared with the commercial partner. If the venture fails, residents will bear the cost of failure, and the need to re establish all in house services – if possible.

In short, the joint venture might fairly be described as nothing less than the outsourcing of profit, and a desperate, last minute agreement to carry the full risk of catastrophic failure in order to sustain, in the face of mounting disquiet from all quarters, the One Barnet outsourcing programme.

We ask why the Conservative administration has decided on this sudden course of action, at such a late stage in the dialogue process, and remind you, Mr Cornelius, that when the original case for outsourcing was made, your own consultants’ report stated:

The costs and risks associated with a JV model are judged at this stage to be higher than for a Strategic Partnership.

As we have so often pointed out, the undoubtedly high risks of entering into a Strategic Partnership have never been subjected to any independent assessment, or indeed any form of real scrutiny, yet here you are now, committing the financial security of our borough to what has been clearly identified as an even riskier and more costly strategy.

We might also speculate to what extent this radical departure, at this advanced stage in the dialogue, has exposed the council to risk from legal challenge by companies who have been excluded from the dialogue at an earlier point in the proceedings.

In respect of the need for democratic accountability, we would also question on what basis, and on whose authority the council has taken this decision: was the change in policy debated within the Tory group, or the Cabinet, or is this another development driven by the senior management team?

The mass privatisation of One Barnet will have a devastating impact on the daily lives of Barnet residents, as the need to make profit inevitably comes into conflict with the provision of public services, that is to say the support on which depend so many of the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of our community. All studies have demonstrated that the savings you imagine will transpire as a result of privatisation simply will not materialise, and indeed the whole enterprise is more likely to cause more cost to the local taxpayer, as well as a sharp decline in the standard of service.

By the time the full extent of the damage to the well being of this borough becomes evident, it will be too late to wrest back control of services without enormous difficulty and an intolerable burden of further cost. The senior officers who have driven the outsourcing agenda will no doubt be far away from Barnet and it is equally likely that you and your Tory colleagues will be voted out of office at the very first opportunity.

As residents of this borough we ask you to come to your senses and call an immediate halt to the One Barnet programme. Stop listening to the self serving advice of the private sector companies and the senior officers who are promoting this agenda, and take a look at the answer right in front of you – the in-house solution. With the support of the staff you employ you can work together to achieve the efficiencies you need and avoid the dangerous gamble of One Barnet: now is the time to act, before it is too late.

Yours sincerely,

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Sunday, 19 August 2012

One Barnet catch-up, Or: When does outsourcing become Joint Venture?

The meat and potatoes of my political life here in Barnet is opposing the council's privatisation plan "One Barnet" - but you wouldn't know it to look at my blog!

If it seems that I have been sorely neglecting my duties to report on this recently, rest assured that it is mainly down to my assuming more responsibility in the Barnet Alliance for Public Services. This organisation opposes cuts... and One Barnet. So I have been putting some of my former blogging energies into helping to draft leaflets and so on.

Luckily you are served very well by the other Barnet bloggers who, unlike me, haven't been shirking in their duties of late, in fact, they have been excelling themselves.

But it is time (well time) for me to produce a catch-up, which mainly consists of posting links to other people's work!

First, there are the remarks by Barnet council leader Richard Cornelius to the local press, sticking up for One Barnet. Here are some choice quotations from the Times series article "One year on, leader of council talks about tackling budget cuts, One Barnet and parking":
“The North Finchley Parking Review is also underway so we should know what all the traders think rather than just those who are most vocal. I think it’s important to know what the shopkeepers actually want.
“Their PR campaign has been really very successful but unfortunately they have actually persuaded people that it’s difficult and expensive to park so they’re shooting themselves in the foot with this..."

North Finchley traders' leader Helen Michael has written a very robust response to Cornelius. You can read it in this blogpost by Mr Mustard.

In his Barnet Press interview, "Barnet leader Cornelius hails ‘progress’ during his first year", Cornelius says:
“I’m a natural conservative. I don’t want to do anything – I feel it is a good idea,” he said. “Outsourcing is driven by a need for greater efficiency. If we do not do that, what are we to do to meet the budget requirements? “We are delivering a much fairer and a much more efficient system.”
The local papers this week are full of letters taking issue with what Cornelius says. But, more to the point, the man who declares himself a convert to 'One Barnet' outsourcing has some more explaining to do now.

It transpires that the wholesale outsourcing programme about which the council has been in dialogue with BT, Capita and EC Harris, is about, at least in the case of the £275 million contract for Development and Regulatory Services, to be transformed into the setting up of a Joint Venture (JV) company.

Yes, that's right, someone has got massive cold feet and over the summer holidays what seemed like the answer to all our problems is not that any longer. Something rather different is envisaged.

If you had any confidence in the whole process before, you must be losing some by now... no, isn't that right, Conservative councillors?

Anyway, Roger Tichborne breaks the news of this volte face on his Barnet Eye blog.

Mr Reasonable tells us more about the implications of a JV.
...what are the risks of the Council entering into a Joint Venture?  
Barnet will have to pick up their share of losses should the outsourcing project be a disaster - and please don't say it can't go wrong. Just talk to the former Conservative leader of Somerset County Council and their problems with SouthWest One.
Mrs Angry in her Broken Barnet blogpost "One Barnet: new rules, and a new look for the House of Fun" has a lot more detail about other failed JV experiments.

There I was catching up with One Barnet outsourcing, now there's this JV stuff to get our heads around.

Meanwhile, none of this, but none of it, has been put before the residents to ask them what they think.

If you think that is wrong, please sign the Barnet Alliance petition calling for a referendum on One Barnet.

If the total looks rather forlorn on Barnet council's e-petitions site, don't worry, we are collecting lots of signatures on paper forms.

Please email if you want some in order to collect signatures in your area/networks:

Let us pray, kinda, Or: Women and religious tyranny

St Paul's - cathedral church of Barnet, oh yes!
A week ago on Saturday I found myself in St Paul's Cathedral for choral evensong. "Choral" will help to explain why: I am not religious but I do like a bit of church music.

I was wandering about after a meeting in the area - I do like to wander about - and couldn't resist popping in when I heard the bells summoning the faithful.

I found it a most moving experience. I am apt to supress feelings and on this occasion, a bit out of sorts and not sure of the proper way to behave, I found myself by the end having a good old weep - I have no particular idea why - and feeling much the better for it.

The staff at St Paul's have to put up with a constant traffic of tourists (especially when there's an Olympics on) and are probably used also to seeing atheists break down in tears as they hear the lovely music and reflect on how, if there is a God, they will spend the rest of the great hereafter listening to the sound of tortured screaming including their own, so the whole experience wasn't as embarrassing as it might sound.

There IS a link with Barnet in all of this.

Barnet comes - so to speak - under the Bishop of Edmonton, who is one of five Bishops in the Diocese of London, whose church is St Paul's Cathedral.

I didn't know all this a week ago on Saturday so imagine my surprise when I heard one of the holy people (I'm not very up on church hierarchy) asking us all to pray for St Mary's Church in Hendon, St Mary's High School, and Middlesex University.

I imagine that prayers are said for some area within the Diocese of London at each evensong and it had come the turn for Hendon.

Funny that I was there to hear it, if I hadn't been there I suspect that none of us would know that prayers were said in St Paul's Cathedral for Hendon by worshippers from all over the world... except, if you believe in the omniscient one, it doesn't matter, does it? The prayers are said for Him to hear, not for gossips like me to repeat to my (dwindling) congregation of blog readers.

I'm sorry if I sound flippant. One thing I never do is diss Jesus, after a small 'miracle' that happened once to me and my mum. As I am in confessional mood, I will share it now with you.

I was 12. We lived with my mum's extremely moody boyfriend. One day we wanted to watch the 'Jesus of Nazareth' miniseries (the one with Robert Powell in the starring role).

The boyfriend didn't say we outright couldn't (!), but he wanted to sit in the room with the television so he made us have the sound right down, I mean, so far down that you could barely hear it.

The television, for some reason, was on a table behind the sofa so to watch it you had to sit on the arms of the sofa facing backwards. My mum and I each sat on one arm of the sofa like bookends, straining to hear the television, but enjoying the pictures (wink, wink) of the life of Jesus the carpenter, while the master of the house sat in his armchair polishing a pair of silver candlesticks and savouring his warped power, I imagine.

Suddenly, to my ear at least, the volume on the television turned itself up so that the programme was comfortably audible.

I glanced at my mum who glanced at me, having evidently witnessed the same phenomenon; and we both glanced at the tyrant of the silver polish who had evidently witnessed it himself. He couldn't blame us however; and he was from an Irish Catholic family so perhaps he retained some fear of the Almighty, and he didn't dare say anything.

After we had enjoyed the rest of the programme, my mother and I did mention this 'miracle' to each other but only once - you don't want to push your luck.

Anyway, that's the - main - reason that I don't diss Jesus; Jesus, from where I sit, was a good guy, the friend of the oppressed and the confounder of tyrants.

Right, back to Barnet, kind of. As I stood in my kitchen this afternoon in the baking heat, not helped by having had the oven on full blast all morning roasting a chicken, cleaning the fridge, I caught... choral evensong on Radio 3.

I noticed that the main prayer is the same as that I had heard a week before, probably it is the same at all C of E evensong services. Wikipedia tells me that this prayer is The Creed. The most interesting bit for me was:
I believe in Jesus Christ...  
Who was...  
...crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell;  
The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven...
Yeah, that's right, Jesus went to hell. Just like you and me, well me, anyway.

This makes sense, of course, because Jesus's life and death was about finding a way to avoid hell. If we believe in Jesus we don't go to hell. More or less.

Apparently, that reading comes from the Book of Common Prayer (1662). The Book of Common Worship (2000) has Jesus descending not into hell but, more gently, "to the dead". I don't know which is truer to the original text/belief/word of God (!). But it strikes me they are very different.

Anyway, today during the evensong service there was also a nice reading from the Acts of the Apostles (whatever those are), Chapter 1:
So from the Mount of Olives, as it is called, they went back to Jerusalem, a short distance away, no more than a Sabbath walk;  
and when they reached the city they went to the upper room where they were staying; there were Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Jude son of James.  
With one heart all these joined constantly in prayer, together with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
This sounds to me perfectly respectful of the women, who were fully involved in the religious practice. And so it should be: today apparently is the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I was looking at the Bishop of Edmonton's Wikipedia entry (remember, he presides over Barnet) and he, apparently, opposes the ordination of women. He acts as a bishop for worshippers in other dioceses - Rochester and Southwark - that oppose the ordination of women. I find this quite upsetting.

Why should I care, though, since I am not a member of the Church of England, what one Peter Wheatley thinks about women, and whether or not there are women bishops? Well, it seems obvious that people like me ought to support the most liberal interpretation of religious belief and practice, in any and all religions.

All religions it seems to me have been reformed at some point and could stand to be reformed further.

On Friday, three punky young women in Russia were sentenced to two years in prison (and they have already been in prison for five months, including the two separated from their young children) for misbehaving in church, in this case the Russian Orthodox Church.

Here the power of the church backs up an authoritarian ruler who wants to make examples of Pussy Riot in order to deter other protestors and hang on to his fairly unlimited power.

Here is Amnesty International UK's Pussy Riot page for more information and to send them a message of support.

Let believers and non-believers turn religion against tyranny.

Oh, and while I am on a religous tip and while I think of it, Eid Mubarak!

Monday, 13 August 2012

Community fun and games, Or: An afternoon in Grahame Park

Mayor of Barnet Brian Schama and Hope Yoloye of Living Way Ministries
I sauntered over to Grahame Park open space this afternoon for the Community Games. These are being organised around the country in order to capitalise on the Olympics.

This is the choice: can the working classes be induced to shift their lardy arses off their sagging settees so as to save the NHS some money in the future or, instead, will the ruling classes have to part with a small modicum of their vast wealth in order to fund state-of-the-art healthcare for all?

I know where I would lay most of the emphasis.

I'm all for fostering personal responsibility but it is absurd to compare the life choices for a working-class child from Colindale with those for the son or daughter of the people currently making policy on housing, health, education, local government and - yes - sports funding.

The London Olympics underlined this disparity once again. A year on from the London riots, there were the pundits in the television studio recommending the discipline of boxing (beating people up in a gym) to keep youths - they mean working-class youths - "out of trouble" (beating each other up on the streets).

Meanwhile, the three-day eventing team included a member of the Royal family. In what other discipline could the field be so small as to give one of the eight grand-children of the Queen a realistic chance of selection? Or is horsemanship really a matter of the right breeding?

Anyway, today's event at Grahame Park was cheerful, lively and enjoyable. But the on-the-ground organisation for it was done by a church. From what I can tell, it is a very good church... but what if it weren't?

The current Mayor of Barnet, Brian Schama, put in an appearance to hand out the medals for the sack race and talent contest. But he looked like he would rather be somewhere else; I don't think that was just on account of the drizzle.

He praised the church, saying they are doing good work fostering community spirit on the estate. Indeed, they are. But the withdrawal of the authorities from places like Grahame Park is completely unnecessary.

There has been a lot of praise for community champions in places like Grahame Park, sorting out "problem families". Yet Grahame Park is really not such an "exotic" place needing special understanding. Go there, look around and you will quickly see that all it needs is a little money spending on it, for repairs and recreation, and it could be a thriving community.

I took the Barnet Alliance petition with me today and collected signatures to support the revolutionary proposition that Barnet Council should consult with residents before it outsources all of its services to the private sector.

There was a lot of recognition of what is at stake - and alarm at what is being proposed. The problem is that most Barnet residents simply don't know what is going on. And the ruling administration would happily keep it that way.

My conclusion after this Olympics fortnight and from today is that working-class people do indeed need to get up off from their settees - to kick the backsides of their condescending Tory rulers.

I hope that one of the unintended consequences - legacies? - of the Community Games around the country is that they bring working-class people together in a space where they can discuss how they are going to do that.

The road to salvation lies - no, not through prayer - through zumba!

Sport - or at least bouncing - for all!

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Morning Star sighted in Edgware

Venus, the 'morning star'
Helen Michael, North Finchley traders champion, has a nice guest post on the Barnet Eye blog, talking about, among other things, the importance of local high street shops. (I won't give you the link, or you'll be off there before you've read this. I am sure you know how to find it!)

Yesterday, I was inspired by watching the Olympics to walk all the way to Edgware instead of catching the bus - well, the Olympics can inspire the middle-aged generation, not just the youth.

It started to tip down just as I reached the anonymous looking point in the road where Burnt Oak Broadway turns into High Street, Edgware. This happens on a tiny bridge over the tiny Edgware Brook - a tributary of the pretty small Silk Stream (which flows into the modest Brent River, which flows into the mighty Thames).

This bridge is the historic Edgware Bridge. Now, how do I know all this colourful local knowledge? Well, I had to scour the internet, but I found this great website,, by a guy called Nick Papadimitriou, full of forensic detail about bridges and streams in our area. Do consult it if you ever catch yourself wondering about 'that little stretch of river' in the west of the borough!

Anyway, back to yesterday's walk. I sheltered from the sustained cloudburst in the doorway of a washing-machine repair shop. The proprietor was on emergency callout, according to the post-it note on the front door - or he might have chased me away and into the path of the cars driving through now monstrous puddles.

The rain did not look like easing, so I side-stepped to the cafe next door, the Estrela da Manhã - which is Portuguese for "morning star".

I have often passed this cafe, and always intended to stop off, but since, to my mind, this is one of the ugliest stretches of road in the whole of London, I usually just get my head down and forge on to the slightly less ugly reaches of Station Road, Edgware. (You see, I do walk this way quite often.)

I find Portuguese cafes a good cut above most English caffs. I know some people will disagree, but there we are! Anyway, the Estrela da Manhã at 8 High Street, Edgware, is delightful, very good value, and I'll certainly be patronising it again.


Thinking a little harder about this adventure, I'm wondering now why 'morning star' appears to be such an important name in Portuguese - and Spanish.

It is, variously, a name for the planet Venus, when visible before the sunrise; a nasty, medieval weapon; and the daily newspaper of Stalinist origin that I am always trying to persuade people is not 'the daily newspaper of the labour movement'.

(You see what a lot can be spun from my fevered imagination after one walk up the Edgware Road. And I thought it was boring around here.)

Morning star - a nasty weapon
Morning Star - a newspaper (nothing wrong with this headline!)