Monday, 29 June 2009

Will ye no come back again?

Everyone has one or two causes for which they are prepared to appear just a little barmy; I suspect mine is opposing Scottish independence. In this cause I can see myself in years to come, when I've finally given up completely on caring what people think of me, walking up and down Princes Street with a sandwich board, a mad English woman come to defend the Union. Well, not THE Union, actually, but A union, between two countries and, more to the point, between two peoples with a shared history, partners in crime, actually, if you consider the history of the empire, and certainly a shared labour history.

I'm reminded of this by browsing for a holiday that I'm not going to be able to afford time or moneywise and coming upon the Scottish tourist board's Homecoming Scotland 2009 website. To mark the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns' birth, they've come up with a plan to invite the 25 million or so Scottish diaspora to 'come home' and visit Scotland... this year.

The one year I decided to visit Scotland in the summer it was already full-up, and I spent a week in a small room in Glasgow. It was an interesting experience in its own way, but fell disappointingly short of watching sunsets over the Western Isles. I've been back a couple of times since, but only in the cold.

The Homecoming 2009 website promises:
Robert Burns
Great Scottish Minds & Innovations
All rather cliched, though maybe that's what people still want from 'Scotland'. Anyway, this scion of the Scottish diaspora (one of my great-grandmothers was Scottish) is not heading up that way again soon, but if the mood for independence gets stronger who knows?

Audit Committee report on Telecare: much cause for alarm

The Hendon Times covers a damning audit committee report concerning Telecare, the alarm system used by many elderly people in Barnet. Telecare is the service that sheltered housing residents will rely on more once the wardens are removed from the schemes. The problems seem to come down to a lack of clarity about the level of service.

This is a common problem where public authorities contract with outside bodies to provide a service. We will have far more of this if the council's 'Future Shape' programme is implemented to any great extent. Immediately, this report gives sheltered housing residents and their supporters more cause for alarm than they have already.

Here are some extracts:
Without a complete, signed, agreed and approved SLA between Adult Social Services and the service provider the following risks may materialise: in the event of a misunderstanding, dispute or an event affecting a service user parties to the agreement may deny responsibility or accountability....
There is a risk that if telecare service providers are unaware of the performance standards expected by the Council poor service delivery may occur and expose service users to dangerous life threatening situations....
Without regular reconciliation there is a risk that Telecare services may not be restricted to those entitled... resulting in the Council... making payments for unapproved Telecare users and/or overpayments could be made, resulting in a loss of income. Further, there is a risk that eligible clients may not be receiving the Telecare service allocated to them....
Surely the solution here would be to make the service available free to anyone that wants it?
Where means testing of Telecare applicants is not competed in a timely manner, there is a risk that there may be delays in delivering the service to eligible and vulnerable users. This could result in an event that could damage the reputation of the Council.
This is always the big worry of public authorities: the event that could damage the reputation of the council. Never mind what it does to the poor, hapless individual that the council has failed!

I worked for a year in a civil service office that was having a constant battle over who, them or the local authority, should fence off part of a small river, with neither wanting the responsibility or the cost. This mystery, of course, could have been solved quickly if someone had pushed a small child into the river. Thankfully, it never came to that.

Barnet council must sort out Telecare now, or it must not abolish the sheltered housing wardens.

Access the audit committee report here. The Telecare item is detailed on pages 19-20.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Anyone for a rotten bloc to stop Coleman?

One of my main political preoccupations is working out how to achieve working class political representation, now that the Labour Party has been shut down as an avenue for doing this. I know that local Labour Party activists will tell me I'm wrong about this, but I think that the rule change at the conference in 2007 (Bournemouth), barring unions and local parties from moving motions on current political issues, was the last nail in the coffin. Trade unions still hand over vast sums of money to the Labour Party, but have renounced practically any say in what the party does. Why should working class people continue voting for it?

I still advocate a Labour vote where there is nothing better on offer (ie, for now, almost everywhere, alas) but I'm thinking all the time how to build a political force that can challenge mainstream politics from the left, that is not just single-issue, or transient, and that can honestly claim to represent the interests of working class voters and credibly appeal for their vote.

Or, as Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian recently "This gaping hole calls for a new party. Let's call it Labour".

There is certainly a case for standing candidates - anti-cuts, anti-privatisation - candidates in the coming elections. I wish we had stood in the by-election recently in Edgware. Even if these are just propaganda candidacies, their message cries out to be voiced and heard. I don't believe in trade unionists and working-class campaigners leaving politics to the politicians and just going in for industrial and direct action.

And what of Totteridge? Yes, it would have been good to stand in Totteridge as well, not that we would have stood a cat-in-hell's chance of getting elected. In a debate over where we should stand if we did, in Edgware or Totteridge, the cost-benefit analysis would have made us decide for Edgware. It simply takes too long to walk up a millionaire's drive in Totteridge just to deliver one leaflet compared to the relatively high population density in Edgware!

But even the millionaires of Totteridge surely deserve someone better than Brian Coleman representing them. Read the latest tale of his arrogance and say I'm wrong. I don't believe in rotten blocs, actually; I don't think I can meaningfully work in a group with Liberals or Tories - and certainly not anything to their right - but I do hope that there are some people in Totteridge who are prepared to put up a credible candidacy against Brian Coleman in the next council elections. For all our sakes.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

You spin me right round, Mike Freer

Two Leader Listens in one day. The first one, called 'It's flu...' [unwritten subtext: 'Get over it'] is about the - mild - outbreak of swine flu in some Barnet schools. I would have no reason to disbelieve what is written there, if I didn't know how much spinning has gone into the second blog 'Beyond 5pm'.

This is about the axing of the sheltered housing wardens that the Cabinet voted for on 8 June, according to Freer a not uncontroversial decision [meaning: controversial].

To read Freer's account, you would think that sheltered housing wardens don't work outside the hours of 9 and 5 - they do - and that all they do is "provide help and advice ...check up on residents and carry out tasks like changing a light bulb".

He goes on:
"In recent years, support for older people has moved from funding people in care homes to helping people to stay in their own homes as long as possible."
Well, that has been one of the arguments for maintaining sheltered housing: that it prolongs independent living for many elderly people.

"The new mobile teams are likely to remain based at sheltered housing schemes but, for the first time, will be able to provide support for people living in their own homes. Support will be given depending on a person’s need rather than their location..."
People responding to the consultation supported the idea of meeting people's needs: that requires levelling up the service, not cutting it back for some.

"The days of a one size fits all council service that closed down at 5pm have gone."
I'm looking forward to this 24-hour, wraparound bespoke care for all... but we know that what Freer is actually about is saving money. It's good to live within one's means, but there are places residents would rather save money than sheltered housing wardens. And, as I said at the Cabinet meeting in June, why doesn't Freer become a campaigner for more money from central government, rather than just keep handing down cuts? He might get more people on his side.

Trees come to Edgware Road

Great news! West Barnet is going to be somewhat greened, with the planting of a number of trees along the Edgware Road. I have been moaning lately about what an ugly, concrete jungle it is around here, and now I find out that someone - I'm not sure who, Barnet council? Mayor of London? - has plans to do something about it.

I'm going to email the address given in the Hendon Times report and, hopefully, find out more.

P.S. Just tried emailing and my email was returned undelivered. Not an auspicious start. On Monday will try the phone number - 020 8359 7838.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Solidarity with Iranian workers, 26 June 2009 - report

I've posted some pictures on Flickr, that I took at today's protest outside the Iranian embassy in London, calling for 'Justice for Iranian Workers'. Apologies for too many pictures of Martin Mayer, Unite's busworkers rep, but the union has done a lot of work supporting the Vahed busworkers' union in Tehran, and its jailed leader Mansour Osanloo.

The protest, London's contribution to an international day of action, was organised by the TUC, Ammesty International and the International Transport Federation. The guy enterprising enough to bring along a megaphone was Sam from a rather more left-wing organisation!

The main organisers brought 16,000 signatures (signed postcards) calling for Iran to respect trade union rights - human rights - but the embassy refused to take delivery. In the past, they have received such things, but in the present climate they have become more uptight... or hardline. The TUC's video of the event is on YouTube.

There is a protest organised by one Iranian group or another every day outside the embassy at the moment, and an aptly macabre display of pictures of demonstrators killed, candles, bunches of flowers, posters with slogans, etc. A lot of the images, especially the formal pictures of Neda Soltan, the young bystander shot dead by basij militia, are very like what you would see in Iran at a shia'a shrine commemorating someone who has died.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Support the fight for democracy in Iran! Support trade union rights on 26 June

Support the fight for democracy in Iran! Support trade union rights on 26 June - demonstration in London, Friday 26 June, 12.30-1.30pm, Iranian embassy, 16 Prince's Gate, SW7 1PT
“The Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Vahed Bus Company fully supports this movement of Iranian people to build a free and independent civil society, and condemns any violence and oppression. …the Syndicate requests that 26 June, which has been called by international trade union organisations a day of action for justice for Iranian workers, include the human rights of all Iranians who have been deprived of their rights.”

[Busworkers trying to organise a trade union have been jailed and harassed; their current leader, Mansour Osanloo, was jailed in 2007 for five years.]
Several international trade union federations (ITUC, EI, ITF, IUF) have called an international day of ‘Justice for Iranian workers’, showing support to workers in Iran who have been imprisoned and harassed by the Iranian state for trying to organise trade unions, and calling for Iran to respect international labour standards.

This was before the current turmoil surrounding the elections. It is more important than ever now to show our support for democratic rights in Iran. Please circulate this information and attend the protest – with banners where possible.

Protest organised by TUC and Amnesty International
More details: and

Brent Cross not a superhub

Just read this on the Hendon Times website: "[London] Mayor bins Brent X 'superhub' plans". Apparently, businesses do not want to relocate out of central London to one of the four planned superhubs (Brent Cross, Croydon, Stratford, West London). I would imagine they will just be battening down the hatches right now, and grateful to survive the economic storms.

I'm not sure how this leaves Barnet's own plans to revamp the Brent Cross area - scuppered I would think. The successful city-suburb might be doomed to stay ordinary after all.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

whereilive - Colindale

I keep meaning to post some pictures onto Barnet council's website showing where I live. Barnet has a reputation as a spacious, prosperous, leafy borough ("a successful city-suburb of a world class city", no less). But Where I Live (as opposed to where people like Mike Freer and Brian Coleman live) is not spacious, prosperous or leafy.

One can make the best of it, and I do, but that's not the same as saying that it's a nice place. Today, for example, I walked up Montrose Avenue and down the Edgware Road to Asda. I made the most of the fact that it was a sunny day and that therefore everything - the endless asphalt, brick and concrete vistas - looked quite bright and cheerful. I made the most of the fact that it was early afternoon, early in the week and that therefore the roads were not all that congested. I made the most of the fact that Asda is a cheap, cheerful place where one can buy a decent lunch for £4 and that, being early afternoon, early in the week, it was not all that congested. I made the most of my walk back through Montrose Park, not the loveliest of parks - in fact, if Montrose Park were in the market for marriage one would say that it was 'plain' - not ugly, but certainly not beautiful. But, because it was a sunny day, in the early afternoon, early in the week Montrose Park rose to heights of... loveliness? Greenness, at any rate, warm, bright greenness. What more can one ask of one of Barnet's second division parks?

Why I'm burbling on about this is that the Colindale Area Action Plan has been published. I am going to look for the good in this AAP but I basically feel that we in the unlovely and unloved west of the borough are having one put over on us. What it actually boils down to is the population is going to go up and they think they have found somewhere to put the newcomers: in the place which is already a concrete jungle. This suspicion is fuelled by reading the first few paragraphs of the report beneath a coy-looking picture of Councillor Melvin Cohen, Cabinet Member for Planning and Environmental Protection:
Our Three Strands Approach to planning, development and regeneration: Protect, Enhance and Grow, establishes a boroughwide strategy to protect our most important open and green spaces, enhance our existing centres and quality residential suburban neighbourhoods, and plans for growth in appropriate brownfield locations and areas in need of regeneration and renewal. Colindale, located in the west of the Borough, has an important role in all of these priorities, especially Strand 3 [well, there's a surprise]: Growth, as Barnet’s largest housing-led regeneration area.
So, to summarise, the council will
protect - places like Totteridge
enhance - places like Finchley
grow - places like Colindale
They go on to describe what growth for Colindale will mean:
Our aim is to ensure that growth in Colindale is focused around an accessible and attractive new neighbourhood centre that serves the everyday needs of local people combined with an exciting transport gateway interchange at Colindale Underground station. It is essential that Colindale provides the full range of community and education services that are so important for communities to flourish. New areas of housing will be linked to existing neighbourhoods by an improved network of streets and quality green open spaces.
I can see it all now...

Sunday, 21 June 2009

A happy father's day

Yup, don't forget to say happy father's day to your dad if he is still around. I remembered to. This is a first. I have reached the age when you realise that the old man will not be around forever, and that you will miss him when he goes! Don't tell my dad!

I have had a strange relationship with my dad, but probably not atypical for children of divorced parents. Once my parents split (when I was 6) I saw him every other weekend for about 6 years and then less often after I became a teenager. There have been periods when I thought I would never see him again through a sort of mutual estrangement :(
A few things that I associate with my dad:
Procrastination, a fault I have inherited
Being too satisfied with little, materially speaking, a fault I have inherited
Moody (prog rock?) LPs - Caravan's 'Land of Grey and Pink', Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Rick Wakeman... who could be normal being raised on this musical diet!
Cold houses
Frozen chicken pies
A horror of Edmonton where we broke down on a trip to the Lake District
Cigarettes - I gave them up after 17 years, he after about 40
Strong coffee - something I took up after I gave up the cigarettes
Custard creams - my biscuit tastes are posher
Donkey jackets
We had a good conversation today. My half-sister has passed her BA with the same grade that I got - 2.2 - and is rewarding herself with a trip to New York. Her twin, my half-brother, is still enjoying his career with the lightning conductor company.

My dad told me about the local rich man he is working for. We had a laugh about him carrying on a conversation with my dad from his pool, while my dad laboured in this man's garden. "I must say, John, those cabbages you brought us the other week were abso-loot-ly delicious!" This man is a few years younger than my dad and speaks with a very posh accent.

And I spoke to my mum as well today. All in all, a very good father's day!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Not such twits after all

Finally, someone has found a genuinely good use for Twitter: demonstrators in Iran have been using it to keep in touch, let others know where they are and what they are up to, while the state moves to shut down channels of communication as fast as possible.

I read the story on the Guardian website.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Students are still revolting - more power to them!

Two stories of students revolting today. In Iran, students have held protests at their universities against Ahmadinejad's apparent coup. In London, students are defending the rights of low-paid workers.

Two million Tehranis took to the streets today, putting Ahmadinejad's 'victory' rally on Sunday in the shade.

The demonstrations have been largely peaceful, in contrast to the reaction of state forces. There have been bloody raids on universities, with at least five students reported killed at Tehran University in the early hours of Sunday morning. Two young women - Fatemeh Barati and Mobina Ehterami - and three young men - Kasra Sharafi, Kambiz Shoaee and Mohsen Imani - have been cut down in their prime.

At the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, students today occupied the director's office. Their protest is about an event that took place early on Friday morning. Cleaners at the college, who have been conducting a living wage campaign, were called into an office for a meeting, and then surrounded and questioned by 40 immigration police. Nine were taken away, without a chance to consult a lawyer, and some have been deported.

There is a debate in the labour movement about what attitude to take toward immigration laws. I'm strongly in the (utopian?) camp that No One Is Illegal, a phrase coined by Jewish socialist Steve Cohen, who sadly died earlier this year. Everyone has the right to a decent life. If that is not possible because of social and political conditions, change the social and political conditions, don't penalise - and scapegoat - the migrant who is no worse, and often better, than you or I.

In any case, one thing I think all trade unionists should be able to agree on is that workers should not have immigration law used against them each time they fight for better wages and conditions at work. The company that employs the SOAS cleaners is ISS. They also employ the cleaners on London Underground who have been subject to similiar harassment, exactly after they too won a London living wage campaign (which ISS have since said they will not honour).

The SOAS occupation website is:

As for getting in touch with the protestors in Iran, you are probably aware of how hard that will be, but if I can find any reliable means I will post details.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

The book corner

What I like about the job I'm doing currently is that I see book publishers' schedules for the next six months, ie, what books are coming out. As I've been doing this work for 10 years I have witnessed many developments.

When I first started, I thought book publishing was the highest pinnacle of human intellectual achievement, but I realise now that it is a complete racket, like most other commercial ventures! A publisher can tell you what will be a bestseller before it's even published, based on the fact that they are going to spend a lot of their marketing money on it. Books that buck this trend are called 'word-of-mouth bestsellers', ie, they're actually some good, and people tell their friends about them.

If someone hits on a new format that sells well, say Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, every other big publisher will rush into print a number of similar books, and thus a genre is born: chick lit. High-brow novels are just another genre: 'literary fiction', which has its own target market and promotion methods.

There has been great consolidation among publishing houses. There are now fewer and they are bigger. Independent bookselling has been squeezed by the growth of big chains such as Borders and now supermarkets. These big sellers are also big buyers and they can dictate the shape of the industry, driving down prices, and making the market less diverse: there are more copies of books sold now, but fewer actual titles published. Amazon has finally become a real player, as it was long predicted they would. Although, as you might have noticed, they don't just bother with books now.

Much printing has moved to China, where it's cheaper. Technological advances have brought many new and fancy formats, and lots of books are bundled in with CDs/DVDs/novelty gifts, etc. In some cases, it is hard to tell whether they still qualify as a book.

I won't go into the developments in all the different genres that I have seen, but just concentrate on a few. I have developed a hatred of crime fiction and the ways of promoting it, which puts me at odds with most of my countrymen and women, I realise, who lap the stuff up. Man is wolf to man... and don't we love to read about it!

The most infuriating and cynical new genre is books about small things you can do to save the planet, printed on paper from trees, that will never get read and usually don't deserve to be. If you really want to save the planet, join the Climate Camp or plant a tree!

Humour books seldom are funny, but one or two can surprise me with their brilliance. I'm not sure what I make of the trend to swearing in book titles, but I think at least it is honest. My colleagues and I, rather quaintly, still debate whether to put the * in titles like The Way of F**k it: The Modern Way to Transform Your Life (which is a so-called self-help title, by the way).

Mind, body and spirit titles ruled for years, yielding much entertainment, but they seem to be in decline: there are, after all, only so many methods of ancient divination you can tap before you have to accept that nothing will be so useful in helping you to know your own future as actually getting off your backside to shape it. Still, I miss the celtic tree symbols (though not the sodding angels - I never got angels).

Business titles have not taken a knock in the downturn. In the good times the titles were all about 'gurus' and their secrets for making a mint, in the crisis the titles are all about what has gone wrong... it's all very well being wise after the event! Computing used to be a tiny genre, and is now massive; graphic novels are burgeoning. Many books 'tie in' to films and television programmes. There is a newish sub-genre of biography titles called 'misery memoirs', based on a good, original title, Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. Some of the titles that have followed are, in my view, seriously tasteless. The Other Side of the Wall: How An Abused Little Girl Struggled to Make Her Screams Heard Above the Sound of The Neighbour's Television-Set As They Watched a Popular 1970s Television Crime Drama (I made that one up, but there are titles just like this).

When I do this work, I start inventing my own formats and titles, some cleverer and funnier than others, which will, thankfully, never see the light of day, but it keeps my brain working, sort of.

Here are some titles that I have come up with during my current spell of work:
No, I Don't Have Tourette's, I'm Just F**king P*ssed-Off (a humour title, obviously)

Queer Stories for Children (in the under 5s fiction category, a series to make erstwhile critics of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin see red)

Should I Lie About My Age to Get Laid? (one for the increasing ranks of the menopausal - self-help)
If all of these seem a bit rude, that just reflects what I am seeing in the publishers' lists - a childish desire to shock, perhaps, filtering through to publishing from television and other culture? In some cases, yes, but the queer stories, no: after weeks of looking at princess titles for girls and football stories for boys, that really does appeal to me. When you look at publishers' lists, it is as though women's lib (remember that phrase?) had never happened!

The great and the bad: Ayatollah Khomeini

In 2004 I was lucky enough to visit Iran as the guest of a family friend. One day another friend picked me up to drive me to Behesht Zahra, the large cemetery south of Tehran which has many graves of soldiers killed in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. There are more cheerful days out to be had in and around Tehran! But I also wanted to visit the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini which is nearby. Again, there are more cheerful days out to be had in and around Tehran! But I do like my history and don't believe in just going to see the pretty sights (of which Iran has many) when I visit a country.

On the drive south, along the dusty highway out of Tehran, my travel companion asked me: 'What do you think of Ayatollah Khomeini?'

This question floored me. I mean, I'm a woman from the West, wasn't it absolutely obvious what I would think of him? To my companion clearly it wasn't. This set me thinking, and I found an answer that had to acknowledge the factor that had made it possible for him to ask such a question.

'Well, Khomeini was a very strong and important figure.'

'Yes, he was,' my companion agreed, and we left it there.

P.S. A friend has suggested I am wasting my time raking over the coals to write a blogpost about the top 10 crimes of Thatcher. Of course, I had been going to follow this up with a top 10 crimes of Blair, which would be identical, only omitting points 1, 5 and 8, and replacing Tony Blair at no. 10 with Gordon Brown.

However, I do regret setting myself such a gruelling publishing schedule and have decided to spare you the turgid details of points 2-10, and end the series here. We all have other, fresher, fish to fry.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

10 crimes of Thatcher (and, yes, I do know she’s broken her arm)

I have refused to join my Facebook friends in the Facebook group ‘Street party when Thatcher dies’. I don’t see any death as a cause for celebration, especially as I get closer to my own! In any case, I feel that Margaret Thatcher’s advancing dementia rather cheats them of any pleasure they could feel at her demise. Margaret Thatcher today is not the Margaret Thatcher we all knew and hated.

I realise that Margaret Thatcher is a sensitive topic in Barnet, but when all, in this 30th anniversary of her government’s beginning, are eulogising her contribution to society (ha!), I have to remind myself and my readers of all the harm she has done.

Here is my top 10 crimes of Thatcher. If I have missed any, or if you would like to argue why some of these things are actually good, please leave a comment. Likewise, if you would just like to castigate me as heartless and insensitive. I will write more about each crime of Thatcher in blogposts over the next few days, making a start today with no.1. But, first, here is the list:
1. Propping up apartheid
2. 16- and 17-year-olds denied benefits
3. Warmongering
4. Anti-union laws
5. Poll tax
6. Mass unemployment
7. Privatisation
8. Section 28
9. Deregulation
10. Tony Blair
1. Propping up apartheid

Thatcher supported US President Ronald Reagan’s policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with the racist South African regime under apartheid. The kindest interpretation of this is that Reagan and Thatcher did not believe that opponents of apartheid could bring it down, or replace it with something better - this was the period of the Second Cold War, and they feared a Communist takeover in South Africa. The harshest interpretation is that they were soft on apartheid. They branded the majority political representative of South Africans, the African National Congress (ANC), a terrorist organisation; and vetoed United Nations sanctions against the apartheid regime. Either way, they gave comfort to the apartheid rulers and read the political situation very wrong. In 2006, during a visit to Nelson Mandela in South Africa, David Cameron disowned his Party’s former leader’s stance on apartheid.

Iran: don't mourn, and organise for 26 June

I have many Iranian friends. They are all dismayed by the result of the Iranian presidential election, which shows incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winning a comfortable majority in the first round, thereby avoiding a second round of voting, which might have united the opposition around a single candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

My friends are pretty convinced that Ahmadinejad's supporters in the state have fiddled the results, quite apart from the fact that he has also been travelling around the countryside distributing largesse to the rural poor, more or less buying their votes - another abuse of his power.

Here is an interesting report from the BBC.

The election process is deeply undemocratic, only people who accept the whole Islamic Republic regime can stand for election. But it is still a forum for politics to be done, and the fact that the incumbent might have used his position to fiddle this result marks a further deterioration in Iran's stunted democracy.

Many constituencies are involved in the fight for democracy in Iran. One among them is the trade union movement, heavily repressed. Several international trade union federations have organised a day of support for them, on Friday 26 June. I will post details of events in the UK once they are finalised.

Iran: don't mourn, organise (although that is often easier said than done).

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Barnet's Tory councillors close ranks

I've just read Lib Dem Councillor Duncan Macdonald's blogpost about the Cabinet meeting last night, and about a meeting of Hadley residents he went to afterwards where the Conservative councillors "intimated that they were not keen on the decision" to cut the sheltered housing wardens.

It reminded me to post something about the email I sent to all the Conservative councillors on Sunday evening, an 11th hour request to them to think again about the proposed cut. (Roger Tichborne has published the email on his blog The Barnet Eye.)

I didn't have any replies at all to that email, except one, an Out of Office AutoReply from Councillor Terence Burton which said:
Sorry, but I am currently away and unable to read or answer e-mails, I am with the Veterans & schoolchildren in Normandy for the 65th Anniversary of D-Day Commemorations until June 10th.

God Bless them and thank them for what they did for ALL of us!
Rather ironic. It would be nice to hear from Councillor Burton on his return - whether he thinks the cuts to sheltered housing are an appropriate sign of our gratitude. But I expect he will be keeping as mum as the rest of the Conservative councillors.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Barnet's Conservative Cabinet swings the axe on sheltered housing

A quick report from the Cabinet meeting tonight. In short, as we feared they would, Barnet’s Conservative Cabinet voted to cut the sheltered housing wardens, saving the council a fairly paltry £400,000 but at a high social cost.

Council Leader Mike Freer dealt in his characteristically graceless manner with a lot of angry voters: his mantra on these occasions is becoming, well, if you don’t like it, you can vote us out next year. Mike “cross-in-a-box-once-every-four-years” Freer’s vision of democracy.

We held a lively protest that got a lot of press coverage – the assault on sheltered housing is, belatedly, becoming a national issue. You can see the BBC London news report here.

Mike Freer is interviewed and says: “The council’s finances are actually quite robust, so that’s not the driver. The driver is predominantly about making a service fit for purpose. ...we have about 15 hundred settings, a thousand of them already have a floating, visiting warden, only one third have a resident warden.”

If financial considerations are not the driver, why is one of the main points in the consultation document:
Barnet Council is proposing three major changes:
To reduce the amount of funding paid at present for services in sheltered housing and similar locations. This would contribute toward reductions in expenditure that are necessary for Barnet Council to set a balanced budget for next year....

Proposal 1 – reduction in funding for support services in sheltered housing
The council has to make savings of £12 million next year, and it proposes that services for older people in Sheltered Housing should contribute £950,000 to this total....

The rest of the savings of £950,000 each year would be used by the council to enable services for older people in Barnet to be maintained. Next year, the council will have to make savings of £12m in order to make sure expenditure is in line with income.
In the document, there is a lot more, an awful lot more, along those lines. In short, in the news clip Freer is not telling the truth about why they want to make this cut.

They say it is so that they can spend more money on other elderly residents in Barnet – show us the figures. Vague promises about extending the residual sheltered housing support service to other Barnet elderly are just that: vague promises. We have consistently called for levelling up of services, not levelling down: sharing a far smaller budget among many more people is no way to increase 'fairness'.

The sheltered housing warden cut is about saving Barnet council money; the rest is justification. I could find a reason to make cuts, if I wanted to make cuts. The point is I don't. Freer goes on and on about how central government’s settlement for Barnet is too low: then lead the community in a fight for more money. And stop justifying and making cuts!

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Freer's way: silencing the majority

Trying to better understand Barnet council leader Mike Freer, I read this December 2007 article by him, published on the Hendon Times website:
Judging the mood

Yesterday I went with the Chief Executive to present to an awards judging panel: the Council is shortlisted for two awards... one of the judges asked a question which did get to the heart of some of the issues: Given all the infrastructure issues we had identified as a problem of the growth in the Borough past and expected, had we won over the residents???

Well as politicians we often take silence as acquiescence - but is this a fair assumption? But if silence isn't acquiescence, is it apathy? Or is it that the Council simply goes on around our residents and we are largely invisible to the vast majority. So what do we do? I don't suppose there is a magic forumla, every attempt at engagement has its faults - even the Leader Listens events (which get audiences from 12 to 70) aren't perfect - but interestingly I ask every audience if they have attended a Resident's Forum and the vast majority haven't. So whilst not perfect, the Leader Listens do seem to get a raft of different people. So I guess the answer to the question is - in the absence of other information, silence has to be acquiescence - isn't that how democracy works? The silent majority rule OK!!
This political philosophy gives Freer no clues as to what to do when a part of the hitherto silent majority gets rather vocal against a council proposal, as they are doing over the proposed sheltered housing warden cuts. In this instance, he has decided he doesn't want to hear their voices at all: he cancelled the May residents' forums and has turned down a request by a member of the public to address the Cabinet meeting this Monday 8 June, before the Cabinet makes its decision. Addressing the Cabinet is allowed for under the council's governance rules, but is at the discretion of the Leader.

What would it have cost Freer, before he swung the axe, to listen to one of the sheltered housing residents, David Young, organiser of a petition opposing the proposed cuts?

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Join the lobby on 8 June: stop these cuts to services for the elderly!

The council have published the results of their consultation on sheltered housing in Barnet, and recommendations for its future. Their report shows they have decided to ignore the result of the consultation and to proceed to axe sheltered housing wardens.

The options to be considered by the Cabinet when it meets on Monday 8 June are:
(1) cut £950,000 from services for the elderly by getting rid of sheltered housing wardens and means testing the alarm service in sheltered housing schemes;
(2) cut £600,000 from services for the elderly by operating a reduced wardens service and means testing the alarm service;
(3) cut £400,000 fron services for the elderly by getting rid of sheltered housing wardens and retaining the alarm service for all;
(4) don't cut services for the elderly and leave the current set-up in sheltered housing alone.

The option that those who wrote the report recommend to the Cabinet is (3). When the cuts were first proposed it was £950,000 that seemed most likely. Some people might be tempted to think that this represents some sort of climbdown by the council. Perhaps they have responded to the overwhelming feeling against the proposed cuts; looking at the proposals it seems more likely that they have worked out that unless everyone uses it, the alarm scheme becomes non-viable. In that case, what we are left with is what they wanted to do all along: axe the wardens. This seems more and more mean-minded when you realise that the budget saving will be £400,000, and not even this year, as they have to give six months' notice to the organisations providing the sheltered housing schemes.

This Tory administration has learned nothing from the consultation, which showed overwhelming support for the wardens and a firm belief that they enhance people's quality of life and help them to live independently for longer than would otherwise be possible. Wardens prevent bad things from happening to elderly people, whereas the alarm system is only there to deal with the aftermath of an accident or emergency.

I urge everyone to read the report, particularly those sections detailing the consultation, which are very poignant. More than that, rouse yourself to come to the lobby of the Cabinet meeting on 8 June. We will gather at 6pm outside Barnet House, Whetstone for the lobby, and go into the public gallery at 7pm for the meeting itself.

Beyond the 8th what can we do? We know that there are more cuts in the pipeline in the next few years. With regard to sheltered housing, a sum of about £400,000 has been allocated to an interim 'floating' support service to substitute for the loss of the wardens: how long will that sum be safe, at the hands of this council, that can always invent a justification for any cut it wants to make? If they won't defend us, we will have to defend ourselves!

Monday, 1 June 2009

Teach Yourself Resilience

I am working as a freelance at a trade magazine. I've worked on and off there for years. The staff have changed a lot over those years. I am one of the longest serving members!

It used to be a cosy, family firm, we knocked off for a glass of wine or a bottle of beer in the office at 4pm on Fridays. It didn't make a lot of money, but it was respected in the industry, and the family when they sold the company (boo!) made a million pounds.

They sold it to a multinational. "Bean counters!" as our editorial manager said. She was made redundant soon after, along with a few other long-standing (ie, more expensive) members of staff.

The cuts and rationalisations have gone on ever since; each time I go back I know fewer and fewer people, not just because of natural wastage, but increasingly because more and more people have been made redundant. Two more went this week. At least in the public sector you have some warning if you face redundancy; often in the private sector they can just tell you not to come back next week.

Each time it happens it as though someone has died; there is a gap where there was a person. Everyone spreads out a bit more, the computer equipment they used is snaffled if it's better; everyone has to work that little bit harder.

The IT staff were 'let go'; the company now has a contract with Tata. If you want some help with your IT you have to email Tata. If the request conforms to Tata's service level agreement, they will email their staff member and tell him to leave his office down the corridor and come and help you.

I understand there are hard-hearted business books that attempt to teach us that we should all have resilience training in order to withstand and deal with the shocks that are 'natural' in today's job market and the modern economy, but I think they have it wrong. The resilience training we need is that which will teach us to stand up for ourselves and say that this is a crazy way of organising things.

P.S. A well-wisher has pointed out that I might sound rather chauvinistic mentioning the name of an IT consultancy based in India. I too roll my eyes when I hear people going on about Indian call-centres as though they threatened British civilisation - after all, the fact that we have British civilisation at all has a lot to do with the subjugation and massive exploitation of the Indian sub-continent. And much that we take for granted as British has been lifted from imperial conquests. Moreover, I am in favour of the development of India's economy and more people there getting jobs, as everywhere.

My aim in this case was to demonstrate the increasingly absurd workings of capitalism when someone in the next room is not allowed to help me until someone geographically very distant tells him that he can, based not on my need or his ability, but on a piece of paper haggled over by my management, based in the US, and his management, based in India.

On a personal note, not only are some of my best friends of Asian origin, but I once made a memorable trip to a Tata factory in Bihar, northern India, and actually harbour an absurd personal affection for the brand.