Sunday, 30 December 2012

Citizen Barnet's review of the year 2012

Hello, it's time for Citzen Barnet's review of the year 2012. I use photographs I've taken throughout the year to illustrate an episode from each month of this year in the London Borough of Barnet, where we edged closer and closer to 'One Barnet' outsourcing bliss/blight.

Grab a glass, enjoy, and happy 2013!

January - you've been Johnsoned!

In some ways, 2013 was the year of Boris and Brian (more, much more anon).

On Tuesday 17 January Boris Johnson hosted a TalkLondon/ElectBoris roadshow at the Peel Centre, Aerodrome Road. He bestrode the stage like a colossal ****. Brian Coleman, his GLA running mate, was effectively muzzled by being made chair for the evening. Still, no one could miss in the (too) well-behaved audience - although Coleman did his best to - a vociferous group in bespoke t-shirts protesting against Barnet Council's new parking regime: this was my first sight of North Finchley traders' leader Helen Michael whom I now count as a mate! A year can be a long time in politics.

I didn't take a picture that night, so this month is illustrated with one of the odd pictures I made during his election campaign highlighting Boris Johnson's penchant for doughnuts and what I think of his politics generally: mouldy, old dough.

Freezing February - Barnet's marching season

February perversely was, as I remarked at the time, the month for three outdoor demonstrations!

On Saturday 4 February I paid my first visit to Friern Barnet to take part in a Save Friern Barnet Library group demonstration. On Monday 6 February I joined the North Finchley traders' funeral march. On Thursday 9 February, I supported the Barnet Unison picket at the council offices at North London Business Park. This was how I reported the strike:
Around 300 workers due to be transfered to private sector employment under the council's "One Barnet" outsourcing plan will be taking their fourth day of strike action.
They included 20-odd 'back office' staff of the parking service (pictured) - ultimately made redundant when NSL took over the parking contract (worth £15 million over 5 years) in May.

VICKI TIP: You can follow Barnet Unison on Twitter (a social medium that came of age in Barnet this year): @Barnet_Unison

March at the movies

On Monday 5 March Brian Coleman was found to have breached the councillors' code of conduct. A prize (of sorts) if you can guess how many months hence he will comply with his penalty.

Also in March, Barnet Tories began to attempt to repair their electoral arses by announcing a review into their new disastrous parking regime, and choosing Brian Schama as their new mayor and Kate Salinger as his deputy. As the year goes on, we will see how little this was and too late.

Monday 19 March saw the premiere of the film "A Tale of Two Barnets" by Charles Honderick (director) and Roger Tichborne (producer). The Phoenix cinema in East Finchley was packed out for this treat of a film which explored the lives, hopes and expectations of some of Barnet's residents as the borough gears up for the massive 'One Barnet' outsourcing programme.

Little did we or - I suspect - even Charles and Roger know that 2012 would be so busy that it would require a second film by the end of the year!

The picture below is of the orderly dole queue formed by protesters outside Downing Street on a warm Budget Day, 21 March.

April - adumbrations!

Foreground: Maureen Ivens, Save Friern Barnet Library group; background: Barnet Council Assistant Director Bill Murphy briefs an electrician on turning the power off.
Barnet Council went ahead and closed Friern Barnet Library on Thursday 5 April but could not carry through their plan without resistance! Some stalwarts of the Save Friern Barnet Library group, bolstered by members of the Barnet Alliance for Public Services and one or two members of the local Labour Party, 'sat in' at the library for five hours after the planned closing time of 1pm. We even thought to improvise a Twitter hashtag: #OccupyFB. Prophetic in a way!

May the merciless

Thursday 3 May was the day, the frabjous day, when the Labour Party's Andrew Dismore slay the Tory Brian Coleman to become Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden, a richly deserved victory and defeat respectively. (Boris Johnson won his election, btw.)

On Thursday 31 May the Barnet Tories also lost a seat in a by election in Brunswick Park ward, left vacant on the death of former Council leader Lynne Hillan. The seat was won by one of the nicest men in British politics, Labour candidate Andreas Ioannidis.

Helen Michael celebrates the defeat of Brian Coleman in the plush surroundings of Alexandra Palace
June - Greece and an AGM

The Barnet Alliance for Public Services (BAPS) held its first AGM on Tuesday 12 June at the Greek Cypriot Centre in Britannia Road, N12. We have had an incredibly busy year, meeting almost weekly, organising talks, marches, stalls, and so on. We also have a swish new website, helped by sponsorship from some of the unions that are also opposing cuts and privatisation in our public services.

Paul Mackney, Greek Solidarity Campaign, Greek party Syriza and Greek-Cypriot party AKEL spoke at a Barnet Alliance meeting, 7 June
Dodgy jobs in July

Barnet Council had a dishonorable mention at the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in July for the number of senior executives it employs on contract rather than on the payroll (aka town hall tax dodgers), including its then deputy Chief Executive Andrew Travers. The Famous Five Barnet bloggers (who by now were having their elbows jostled by many excellent, new bloggers) wrote one of their year's many open letters on the issue.

At a BAPS conference "Barnet Council: not for sale!" on Saturday 7 July, blogger John Dix (Mr Reasonable) wowed the audience with his One Barnet black box trick, and public services expert Andy Mudd frightened them silly, presenting his daming report "London Borough of Barnet: Procurement and Contract Management", which concludes:
...there can be little confidence that Barnet has the capability, and perhaps more worryingly the culture, necessary to meet the challenge posed by the letting and management of contracts that, under the One Barnet plan, will be far bigger than anything the Council has previously dealt with.
John Dix shows how environmental health will be among those services disappearing into the One Barnet outsourced 'black box'
Angst in August

In August, if you could drag your gaze from the sporting spectacles on the telly long enough, you would notice that Barnet Council leader Richard Cornelius got in a strop over One Barnet. While he was on holiday, senior officers let it out that one of the big contracts, Development and Regulatory Services, would be a Joint Venture, whereas Cornelius was not keen on this. For a while we could legitimately ask, and we bloggers did: who runs the Council, the elected politicians or the unelected officers?

A few months later it was clear that the answer is the unelected officers, but they have to twist the politicians' arms first, as Cornelius too came out favouring JV. Of course, there is also the question of who the elected politicians represent, when they have never consulted residents over the whole principle of One Barnet, let alone which particular model it will take. But that is the theme of the last third of the year.

In the meantime, here is a picture of Barnet Mayor Brian Schama showing his face at a community games on Grahame Park estate.

Good sports in September

Friern Barnet Library was re-occupied in September by people who know rather more about the business than we who attempted it in April; by activists of the Occupy movement. I've learned subsequently that they had little inkling of the battle that had raged and was still raging around the building, but a political compromise and cooperation with existing campaigns was quickly established, and the library re-opened to the public under workers and users' control, its shelves filled with donated books.

Barnet Council quickly had the occupiers in court but hadn't prepared well, as it took them till December to get a possession order.

Barnet Alliance stall at Chipping Barnet Library, Saturday 15 September
October - omg!

October felt like the most torrid month in a torrid year, outside Barnet, where Jimmy Savile's paedophilia was exposed, and we had recently found out about the disgraceful behaviour of the establishment around the Hillsborough disaster, and, of course, all year the Murdoch newspapers cases rumbled on. But also in Barnet we had our own torrid autumn.

Brian Coleman was involved in an alleged assault on Helen Michael; Barnet Tories shilly-shallied about how to respond, finally suspending him from the local party in November, but only after the national party had already stepped in to boot him out of its ranks.

Barnet Council Chief Executive Nick Walkley (one of literary editor Boyd Tonkin's 'barbarian bureaucrats' for his role in closing Friern Barnet Library, and a chief architect of 'One Barnet') announced he was taking his bad haircut off to Haringey for a pay cut. He was replaced by his deputy Andrew 'Town Hall Tax Dodger' Travers.

The Council thought better of outsourcing 'street scene' services, thus relieving residents of one massive headache.

Barnet Council finally admitted that the 'landmark library' they were negotiating with the Artsdepot to replace the closed Friern Barnet Library was a chimera. It didn't stop them continuing to pursue a possession order on the library, so as to evict the occupiers and sell the building. (But they weren't there and they aren't quite there yet...)

Brian Coleman finally apologised - very badly - for his insults to residents (see entry for March - if you guessed right, your prize is a warm, satisfied glow. Plus, please get in touch: your encyclopedic knowledge of Barnet trivia could come in useful for a fundraising quiz I am organising).

Charles Honderick and Roger Tichborne's follow-up film "Barnet - the Billion Pound Gamble" premiered at the Phoenix on 22 October.

The Barnet Alliance presented its petition calling for a referendum of residents over the One Barnet programme at a Council committee, the Business Management Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which finally asked some awkward questions - including of Andrew Travers.

I helped design and edit a wraparound on the local newspapers which told residents more than they had ever been told before about the One Barnet programme. When I write up some notes on how we have run this campaign I will write in big letters WE SHOULD HAVE DONE THIS EARLIER!

It has never been difficult persuading Barnet residents - of whatever party allegiance - that One Barnet is a bad idea. All we needed to do was to let more of them know earlier what the Council was planning and we might have stopped it before it began...

(I did warn you October was mental.)

November nightmares

Brian Coleman became a saint of a kind yet still a sinner. He came out against One Barnet in an article in the Barnet Press. He also denied the charge of "assault [of Helen Michael] by beating and driving without reasonable care" at Uxbridge Magistrates' Court on 5 November - Coleman's case is due to be heard on Wednesday 6 February 2013.

Richard Cornelius finally consented to address the public over One Barnet, at a meeting organised by BAPS on 8 November. His performance failed to impress even those who had come with an open mind, in a packed room at the Greek Cypriot Centre.

Barnet Council workers learned that Capita had won the bid to provide a £750 million New Support and Customer Services Organisation (NSCSO) aka big call centre. They would soon find out that around 200 would lose their jobs which would be exported out of the borough.

The Council learned of the first of two legal challenges to One Barnet, from John Sullivan on behalf of his daughter Susan. Barnet Alliance is helping to raise money to support this legal case and that of Maria Nash (announced in December). You can donate here.

Richard Cornelius listens to Andy Mudd, Barnet Alliance meeting, 8 November
December deadlines
Many things came to a head in the final days of a frenetic 2012. 

Barnet Alliance disrupted the Cabinet meeting on Thursday 6 December where Barnet Tories took the decision to go ahead with the £750 million NSCSO contract (now transmogrified into a £320 million contract - I'm still not sure how: that's my homework). We could not sit by and watch this illegitimate decision go ahead without making a protest, albeit a token one.
On Monday 17 December Barnet Council finally got a possession order against the occupiers of Friern Barnet Library but I understand the - on the face of it - dodgy judgment will be appealed. And the battle to save the library is, dare I say it, only just joined.
On Thursday 20 December Barnet residents visited and protested outside the HQ of Capita in Victoria. I have a feeling that Capita will come to regret winning this contract. I for one will play my part in building a national campaign that turns the spotlight on the operations of the big public sector outsourcing companies in the way that groups such as UK Uncut and Occupy have successfully shone a light on the tax evading behaviour of the likes of Starbucks.
2013 looks like being as busy as 2012.
Happy Christmas, Capita, from the Barnet Alliance for Public Services

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

It's Crapita week!

Wonder if we can turn this around? Cartoon: Tim Sanders.
I'm laughing like a drain.

Capita have won the contract to run Barnet Council's New Support and Customer Services Organisation (NSCSO), worth between £320-750 million to them. But along with that licence to print their shareholders a tidy sum of money, they have also won the almost full and undivided attention of Barnet's growing activist community.

The implications of this must be starting to sink in for the Capita top brass.

For starters, the Barnet bloggers have declared this week 'Capita week', or 'Crapita week' or what-you-will, and are posting and tweeting stories about the misdeeds and failings of the multinational outsourcing company.

There are plenty of stories to go around, and we are busy keeping readers informed.

Then, this Thursday 20 December, Barnet Alliance for Public Services, and anyone else we can interest, will visit Capita HQ between 5-6pm at 71 Victoria Street, SW1 for a small protest. Please join us if you are free.

The most joyous aspect of all of this is that we wrote to Capita CEO Paul "£14k a week" Pindar to ask him for a meeting. Since his company is taking over a huge chunk of Barnet services and running them, and since he claims to value the views of Barnet residents, surely he would be happy to meet us on Thursday?

Paul Pindar has, get this, replied, saying that since Barnet Council's deal with Capita is still not sealed it would be inappropriate for him to meet us. But - he has replied! This has opened the floodgates on a generous correspondence flowing - increasingly in one direction, toward Capita - with Barnet residents.

I hope to post some of the letters on the Barnet Alliance website soon for your edification and delight.

When Capita were announced as the winners of the NSCSO contract, I tweeted that Paul Pindar would soon rue winning the contract. I am pleased to see my prediction coming true.

Capita, we are going to shine such a spotlight on you that you will beg to be put out of your misery! (Please excuse that rather violent imagery which rather goes against my peaceable nature. On this occasion, it is just making me laugh so much...)

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Party and rally to save Friern Barnet Library

The battle for Friern Barnet Library enters a new phase next week. Barnet Council will return to court on Monday 17th to try to get a possession order to evict the Occupy activists who re-opened the library.

Please support the library campaigners and occupiers at court. I think the hearing is early in the morning, but will find out and confirm. The address is: Barnet Civil and Family Courts Centre, St Marys Court, Regents Park Road, Finchley Central, London N3 1BQ.

Tonight, Saturday 15th, they are hosting a cabaret evening at the Library. This might be your last chance - in the current phase of the campaign - to party in Friern Barnet Library so get along if you can.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Christmas cheer, North Finchley, Saturday 15 December

At long last, some good news for traders and shoppers in North Finchley, and a party for all who can get along there. (Barnet Alliance will have a stall at this event and distribute leaflets for our protest at Capita on Thursday 20 November, 5-6pm, 71 Victoria Street, SW1H. But that's not till Thursday so here are the details for this Saturday.)
A Christmas Event for North Finchley

Visitors to North Finchley are in for a treat this Christmas as local traders organise ‘Tally Ho Ho Ho’, a town centre event packed with free family activities and entertainment. Saturday December 15th is the date for your diaries when the event kicks off with a flourish.

Father Christmas will arrive by horse and carriage at 10.00am and he will be carried through the town distributing chocolate, gold coins to children. From 11.30am children will be able to visit Santa with two live reindeer and a barn owl in a beautiful grotto at the Bohemia Bar on North Finchley High Road.

Peppa Pig and George will be making public appearances at intervals on Tally Ho Corner from 11.30am until 3.30pm where stalls will sell mulled wine, chocolate marshmallows and other sweet treats.

Children can make Gruffalo badges in the artsdepot cafe and a small stage will be erected outside the building for musical entertainment. Other activities include cupcake decorating, wreath making, carol singing, face painting and street entertainment.

In the lead up to the event children are invited to participate in a bauble decorating competition. Perspex baubles can be picked up from Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe on North Finchley High Road and children are asked to decorate them with a Christmas scene before returning them to the to the town Centre Christmas Tree during the Tally Ho Ho Ho event. Judges from Design for London will select a winner to receive a toy hamper and all baubles will be placed on the tree for public viewing.

The Tally Ho Ho Ho event has been funded by the Mayor of London’s Outer London Fund, Barnet Council and local businesses. It has been organised by the North Finchley Traders Association.

Chair of the association Helen Michael is excited about the event and thinks that it will be good for the town: ‘We are providing a real alternative to shopping centres and online shops. North Finchley has a town centre Christmas tree; we have successfully campaigned for reduced car parking charges, we have a wide range of specialist shops and cafes and this event will enable people to relax and connect with their community.’

Activities take place from 10.00am until 4.00pm; for further details contact event organiser Sally Williams, Retail Revival Ltd; 07889 173101.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Residents take over the town hall, Or: A lesson in manners

I've returned from a weekend away recharging my batteries after the last manic couple of weeks campaigning against Barnet Council's 'One Barnet' outsourcing programme. On a personal note, I suppose, I was keeping a low profile as well, since I was one of the 'ringleaders' of the residents' brief sit-in at Hendon Town Hall on Thursday 6 December and, you might be surprised to hear, I don't much like being the centre of attention or making a fuss in public.

The Cabinet was meeting to vote on whether to approve an outsourcing contract with Capita for a New Support and Customer Services Organisation (NSCSO), worth at least £320 million over 10 years. The champions of One Barnet say this means 'back office' services, things such as getting cheaper human resources management and stationery. They say - and said in the meeting - it wouldn't directly affect 'front-facing services', and residents wouldn't notice the difference.

Of course residents will notice the difference, because one of the big chunks of the NSCSO contract entails channeling all of our telephone calls to the Council through a Capita call centre. 200 jobs at least are likely to be lost from the borough and 'exported' to another city, for example, Belfast, Blackburn or Sheffield, as a result.

There are just two examples of the difference that NSCSO will make to Barnet residents.

At the Cabinet meeting, Barnet Alliance for Public Services decided to disrupt the vote. We knew that the Cabinet members would adjourn to another room to take it and that our protest was only symbolic, but we wanted to make the point that the public, insofar as it has even been told about One Barnet, rejects it.

At the meeting there were public questions, Labour leader of the Opposition Alison Moore spoke (and was challenged by the Tory Cabinet), and we didn't want to stop those. In the event, we timed our intervention slightly wrong; we thought Daniel Thomas was about to announce the vote, and started our protest prematurely, but in fact, when the Cabinet adjourned to another room, there was still some comment from the other Cabinet members. It's a shame we did not hear it, but I wonder, also, whether the Cabinet members' questions would have been any more probing or less stagey than usual.

For example, something along the lines of the box-ticking you usually hear:
"Has the Leader considered the potential impact of x proposed policy change on disabled people in the borough?"

"Yes, I can reassure the member that we have carried out a full Equalities Impact Assessment."
The necessity of carrying out Equalities Impact Assessments was a hard-learned lesson for Barnet Council when they first lost a legal challenge over their proposed (and carried through) policy of removing residential sheltered housing wardens.

There are now two legal challenges being brought against One Barnet, as Maria Nash sent a Pre-Action Protocol letter to the Council on Thursday to add to the action already initiated by John Sullivan on behalf of his daughter Susan.

I am learning that a lot of what Cabinet members say in public is more for the benefit of lawyers in case of a potential legal action, than for us the residents.

Why we disrupted the Cabinet meeting

The purpose of our intervention on Thursday night was not so much, as I have already said, to make impossible a vote, as to make the point that none of the decisions the Council is taking in relation to the One Barnet Programme has democratic legitimacy.

After the Cabinet members had adjourned to a side room to conclude their deliberations, we residents 'took over' the committee table and held an impromptu residents forum.

In May 2011 Barnet Tories changed the Council's constitution - possibly illegally - to BAN residents at the Council-run residents forums from talking about:
  • policy
  • Barnet-wide issues
  • anything discussed already in the past six months.
What this effectively was, was a ban on public discussion by residents about the One Barnet Programme.

The disruption we caused on Thursday night was noisy and not particularly polished - we are only learning how to protest - but it got a lot of publicity for our basic case: residents have not been consulted about One Barnet. Residents should have been consulted about One Barnet. We should be fully informed about and, if we want it, involved in ALL decisions that affect our Council services and the expenditure of our money.

Much as it causes me some personal embarrassment to be captured on video as the woman on the chair (I took my shoes off first, I'll have you know), leading the chanting, I'm very glad that we took the decision to protest in this way and, even more, that we had the guts to carry it through. Possibly contrary to appearances, I think the Barnet Alliance is growing up politically.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Protest against One Barnet, Thursday 6 December

Not time to say much more than I'm protesting against the One Barnet programme tomorrow - twice! Please join me!

Residents say ‘no’ to outsourcing of our Council services!
We invite you to join our protests:

Thursday 6 December: 7.30-9am, North London Business Park,
Oakleigh Road South/Brunswick Park Road, N11.
“Don’t let Capita in!” protest at the site of Barnet Council’s main offices.


Thursday 6 December: 5.30-6.30pm, Hendon Town Hall, the Burroughs, NW4.
Protest at Town Hall ahead of the Cabinet’s meeting (7pm) to decide whether to approve an outsourcing contract with Capita worth at least £320 million.

We are protesting on the day that the Cabinet of Barnet Council decides whether to approve an outsourcing contract for back office services and a call centre, with the multinational outsourcing company Capita. The contract is worth at least £320 million.

This contract is part of the One Barnet Programme (OBP). Under OBP most of Barnet Council services will transfer to outsourcing giants such as Capita, whose main skill is winning contracts and who only exist to make profits for shareholders. We think this is wrong!

Barnet Council wants to outsource on a scale never attempted before in local government. All over the UK councils are backing out of similar schemes, as they go wrong or the risks become clearer.

But here in Barnet the Council wants to go ahead with a scheme they have no mandate for and which they have refused to discuss with residents.

In the process they will make at least 200 Barnet workers redundant, and force residents to phone a call-centre in another part of the country when they want to contact the Council.

Please show your opposition! Please join our protest! *

Sign the petition calling for Barnet residents to decide the future of our services: