Sunday, 29 November 2009

Sheltered housing wardens: two demonstrations and two days in court

Tomorrow, Monday 30 November, Barnet residents of sheltered housing and their supporters will demonstrate at 11am outside Conservative party HQ at 30 Millbank and at 12.15pm outside 10 Downing Street. This is to show opposition to the axing of sheltered housing wardens ahead of the judicial review of Barnet council's decision to make such cuts.

The judicial review is this week on Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 December at the High Court on the Strand. There will be rallies outside the courts at 10am each day of the hearing.

On Monday 7 December there is a national protest against sheltered housing cuts. Assemble 3pm in Trafalgar Square for a march to Downing Street to hand in a national petition.

Friday, 27 November 2009

"Vote Fiona Bulmer: less carrot, more stick for Barnet's disadvantaged families"

I was once told I mustn't say anything nasty about Lynne Hillan (I'm still waiting for that sub-plot to unravel) so I won't. Hillan is favourite to succeed Mike Freer as leader of Barnet council when he steps down in a few days' time.

The Hendon Times suggests that another candidate is Fiona Bulmer, Underhill councillor and cabinet member for children's services. Since the last cabinet meeting, which approved moving to the next phase of the Future Shape programme, I have taken to calling Bulmer 'Carrot and Stick'.

One of the 'problems' that the latest Future Shape report addresses is that of 'disadvantaged' people; not that they HAVE problems, but that they ARE a problem - to Barnet as a whole:
A high level analysis, using an illustrative case study approach, estimates that the costs for the Barnet taxpayer for the 2% of families facing multiple disadvantages is £87.2 million per annum taking into account loss of income and council tax.
The best solution to this 'problem' that the report comes up with is the idea of mentors, ideally recruited from the communities from which 'disadvantaged' people come. I guess the idea is that such mentors can say: I dragged myself up by my own bootstraps, so can you.

Reading the report I have concerns that mentoring is going to be done as far as possible on the cheap. I also think it is wrong to blame the poor for their own poverty. We live in an unequal society, and getting more unequal. I came from a fairly 'disadvantaged' family myself and certainly have screwed up a few times in my life. Many people do. But coming from a working class or 'disadvantaged' family means the effects of mistakes are amplified. Failing to recognise that is a big failure in my view. Middle class and rich people moralising against 'disadvantaged' people is just plain offensive.

But, anyway, at the cabinet meeting, Fiona Bulmer's unique contribution to the debate on this was to ask, believe it or not, whether mentoring didn't risk spoiling the disadvantaged. She wanted mentoring to be time-limited, to have outcomes, and, if it didn't work, for there to be sanctions. If you must, carrot - help with analysing your 'issues' and thinking about ways to sort them out - but, most definitely, stick if this novel approach doesn't deliver desired results on time.

Carrot and stick. I have been trying to think what sort of stick might be applied to a disadvantaged family or individual that doesn't respond to being mentored quickly enough. Perhaps Bulmer would have them driven to the bounds of the borough and banished forever to Brent, say, or Camden, if they would have them.

Another year over, another closing-down sale

This time last year, the vultures who normally couldn't afford to shop there but liked their stuff fell upon the stricken furniture cum ornamental knick-knacks store the Pier as it folded and everything in it was sold off cheap.

I know, I was one of them. I have a collection of tasteful throws to show for it.

This year, starting tomorrow, people who normally couldn't afford to shop there will have the chance to fall upon the stricken book and magazine cum stationery store Borders which has gone into receivership this week and begins a sale at all its shops on Saturday.

Yes, you will be able to snap up cheap Christmas gifts. But how long can this 'good news' go on? I never understand why people think capitalism is efficient, progressive, etc., when we see things like this happen.

That carefully built up brand and company ethos wiped out, its workforce forced onto the dole, the disruption, the everything must go sales. We're told business is like evolution, the fit will survive. Competition forces businesses to be efficient, innnovative, yada yada yada. It all looks like a bloody big waste of time, resources and human effort to me. No wonder a few tears are shed over it as well.

I can't muster the enthusiasm to go and pick over the remains this time. Perhaps it's just been one of those years.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Barnet free of Freer? Not yet a while

It had been expected by people who know more about these things than I do, but Mike Freer will step down as leader of Barnet council in December, in order to concentrate on his other political career: prospective parliamentary candidate for Finchley and Golders Green.

Read a little more detail on the Hendon Times website here. His likely replacement is his deputy Lynne Hillan.

Piece at last! Hendon Times Future Shape report sees light of day

It looks as though the hapless journalist at the Hendon Times has finally written an article about the Future Shape scrutiny committee that Barnet council leader Mike Freer can live with. The third draft, the article reprinted below has lasted on the Hendon Times website for a full 24 hours, after two earlier articles were pulled because they did not present 'the facts' in a way acceptable to Freer.
Council chiefs questioned on "easyCouncil" Future Shape plans
4:59pm Tuesday 24th November 2009
By Sarah Cosgrove
COUNCIL chiefs have been questioned on their Future Shape plans at a public meeting.
The council's Business Management Overview and Scrutiny Sub-committee at Hendon Town Hall in the Burroughs on November 16 called in the decision to go ahead with the mass reorganisation of council structure, asking for clarity on several issues.
These included a list of what the council would consider core services, what the council would provide as a basic package for all residents and how it intended to create a joint public sector with non council public services such as health.
In response Cllr Freer repeated explanations he has given before and referred councillors back to the Future Shape report.
In formal written responses Cllr Freer said it was not possible to provide definite answers to many of the questions at this stage.
On core services he said: “Without detailed conversation with the private and third sectors, any assumptions about what they are willing to provide are yet to be tested.”
He added that Future Shape wanted to draw a line under the old debate of statutory and non-statutory services and create a new model.
“What's core and non core will change over time.”
But leader of the Labour group, Cllr Alison Moore was not satisfied.
“How are you going to what you're having as a discretionary service is if you have no idea what your basic service is? She asked.
Cllr Freer said talking about a “basic offer” for all residents was “misleading” and the question assumed a reduction in services.
“The services that people get are related to their needs and capabilities,” he said, adding that the authority would seek to provide the same services just in a different way.
Cllr Freer gave the example of a community given a budget and a list of options and deciding how much they would want to spend on services like street cleaning and lighting.
But Cllr Moore questioned the “level of complexity” in the idea.
Cllr Freer spoke about “locking priorities” for a few years at a time and moving from contracts of a few years to “lifetime based” ones where there would be more flexibility without changing the provider.
“Nobody has said this is going to be easy, it's a work in progress, some of it will never see the light of day,” he said.
After calling a decision already made by the cabinet the scrutiny committee can vote to send it back to the cabinet to be reconsidered.
Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Moore said it would have been an academic exercise to put the motion forward as Tory members of the committee would have voted it down.
Conservative committee members had no questions about Future Shape.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Barnet council rubbish collection fiasco - another fine mess!

Mike Freer, leader of Barnet council, has been doing some damage limitation on remarks made at a Cabinet scrutiny committee by the council's chief executive Nick Walkley. Did Walkley really say that under the council's Future Shape plans rubbish collection might not be a core service? Yes, he did.

When local paper the Hendon Times reported this, the story was quickly pulled from the paper's website. The journalist was sat down (metaphorically or actually, it doesn't matter) and made to write another story where Mike Freer explained what Nick Walkley had really meant to say. That under Future Shape rubbish collection would remain a core service, but that the council would work at minimising the amount of rubbish it had to collect.

The trouble was that the second story the journalist had to write did not suit Freer either. It too has been pulled. Why? Because, again, the journalist took the trouble to write down what the subject actually said: Freer had described his chief executive's remarks about rubbish collection as 'clumsy' and 'cack-handed'.

This makes Walkley, the man Freer hired, look bad, and it makes Freer look bad as well: he is clearly not much better at managing the message than Walkley.

What a pair! When I think of the two of them together in future, you know who will spring to mind?

And, shamefully, after two pulled articles, Barnet residents are still no closer to knowing whether under the council's Future Shape plans rubbish collection will be a core service or not.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

No place for rubbish in Future Shape?

The Hendon Times has a long report of the Cabinet scrutiny committee held on Monday. This is a chance for councillors to grill the Barnet Council Cabinet closely on decisions they have made. What happens in fact is that the Labour and Lib Dem members of the committee ask some searching questions and the Conservative members of the committee sit tight-lipped - but that's a minor point.

This Monday they were asking questions about council leader Mike Freer's Future Shape plan for changing the way council services are delivered... and which services are delivered. A lot of the worry people have had about the plans is what constitutes 'core services' - what can we be sure the council will deliver in return for our council tax, and what will be 'extras' that we might be required to pay extra for (the easyCouncil model)?

Well, Monday's replies are not at all reassuring - or very enlightening. We might not even get our rubbish collected as a matter of course in Freer's Future Shape. Read the report here.
Dear readers, sorry, if you click on the link above now you will just go to the general news page. The story was posted yesterday but has apparently been pulled from the Hendon Times website. It has been replaced by this.

Clearly Mike Freer's Barnet council want to manage the way Future Shape is perceived very tightly, and they have had a word in the editor's ear. If they are this jumpy this early in the process, they are in for an anxious ride. We all are.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Doing a ton

I shall be 45 in December. This has prompted me to make some macabre calculations.

Assuming that I live three score years and ten plus five for advances in modern medicine I will be 75 in 2039. Should I live to the current average of my grandparents' ages, about 87, I will die around the year 2051. If I make it to 100 (my maternal grandmother is nearing this milestone but I haven't had her advantage of a calorie restricted diet in youth) I might see in 2065!

Doing these sums helps me to to think about who will be on the throne when I am old (assuming my campaign for a republic is unsuccessful), who will send me my telegram!

I can calculate roughly how meagre my state pension will be; just how crowded Colindale will be by then; and even begin to imagine, based on how much culture/technology, etc, have changed in the time I have already lived, what sort of music people will be listening to, how few clothes the singers will be wearing, what vehicles we might be travelling around in, and what fuel they will run on... that's assuming we are all still here.

I find thinking about these things oddly comforting - or it could just be the Seasonal Affective Disorder kicking in. Anyway, it makes a welcome distraction from my other labours.

Council cuts: suddenly Barnet wants to know what we think!

The Hendon Times alerts us to the fact that when it comes to making unpopular decisions Barnet council is suddenly all agog for our opinion. I think it's called passing the buck. Anyway, here's the report with the details of where and when you can have your say on which of your limbs you would prefer to have hacked off. Opting for corporeal wholeness is not an option.

Have your say on next year's council budget

By Sarah Cosgrove

Residents are being asked how the council should “tighten its belt” in its budget next year.

Barnet Council is holding five events over the next few weeks to test run its budget plans for 2010/11.

These will be three residents' forum meetings, which are to include a period set aside specifically for budget consultation, and two Leader Listens events which will adopt the same structure.

The council will also be giving residents the opportunity to comment on its website at

Councillor Lynne Hillan, cabinet member with responsibility for resources said: "We face a twin pressure of increasing demands on some services with restrictions on funding.

“The credit crunch is hitting both the council's income and national budgets and we are obviously in for a period of belt tightening.

“Barnet Council already has low back office costs compared to other London boroughs which, along with a comparatively low grant from central government, limits our options for another round of efficiency savings.”

Cllr Hillan said the council's Future Shape plans will make structural changes which will save money but said councillors would have to make difficult decisions.

Where you can have your say:

Monday November 23 - Finchley and Golders Green - St Michael's Church, The Riding, Golders Green, from 6.30pm.

Tuesday November 24 - Chipping Barnet - Chipping Barnet Library, 3 Stapylton Road, from 6.30pm.

Wednesday November 25 - Hendon - Barnet Multicultural Centre, Algernon Road, Hendon, from 6.30pm.

Thursday November 26 - 6.30pm (budget section at 7.30pm) - Deansbrook Junior School, Hale Drive, Mill Hill, from 6.30pm.

Thursday December 9 - 6.30pm (budget section at 7.30pm) - Hampstead Garden Suburb United Synagogue, Norrice Lea, Hampstead, from 6.30pm.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Brent Cross and green bans

It's going to be another interesting week in Barnet politics. On Wednesday 18 and Thursday 19 November there is a special, extended planning and environment committee to look at Barnet council's regeneration plans for the Brent Cross area.

This deeply unlovely part of the borough certainly needs attention, but Barnet's plans are looking less and less designed to improve life for people in the area and more and more like a cash-cow for the council, with the focus on expanding retail. Barnet council needs money, but is this a good way to make it? Neighbouring boroughs Brent and Camden have had their noses put out of joint, as Barnet's plans will impact on their own residents, but they have little say in what Barnet does.

You can see the plans on the council's website here.

A formidable coalition is forming against the plans and in favour of a call-in by the Secretary of State for the Environment. Visit the Brent Cross coalition website here. Barnet trades council has joined the Coalition, which might seem at odds with our concern for job creation, but we are for sustainable job creation, and it would not be the first time that labour movement bodies have campaigned for the environment.

An episode in labour and environmental history that deserves to be better known is the green bans imposed by the Builders Labourers Federation in New South Wales, Australia.

This group of badly paid and downtrodden workers built a union in the post-war period on democratic participation by members and taking up bread and butter issues in their industry, particularly health and safety. As one contributor describes it, in an inspring film made about the union, "Rocking the Foundations", they set out to 'civilise their industry'.

When they had built up their own strength, they used it to support environmental campaigners objecting to particular construction projects in and around Sydney throughout the 1960s and early 70s. They imposed 'green bans' where, to take one example, construction workers in the union refused to work on a plan to build on Kelly's Bush, the last remaining undeveloped bushland in the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill. They protected low-cost working-class housing schemes around the Rocks area of Sydney against demolition to make way for office blocks. And they stopped the Royal Botanic Gardens being turned into a carpark for Sydney Opera House.

Yes, that's right, they stopped construction projects that would have made jobs for construction workers, in order to protect the environment.

As one contributor says in the film, what's the point in earning a decent wage if you then have nowhere decent to live and nowhere to spend your leisure time? For very many reasons, we are a long way off being able to appeal to construction unions to slap a green ban on the current Brent Cross scheme! But the green bans episode is an impressive example of what can be done when workers are mobilised around environmental issues.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Transition Burnt Oak? Why not!

In inverse proportion, it seems, as world leaders fail to act against catastrophic climate change, Transition Town mania is gripping the UK. I recently joined Transition Belsize - I can get there on the Northern Line. Tonight in the foyer of Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre I met some people well on their way to founding Transition Brent.

This movement began in the more likely setting of Totnes, Devon and is an increasingly global movement. You can find out more about Transition Towns (and villages/cities/forests/islands) here.

The basic idea is:
A Transition Initiative is a community... working together to look Peak Oil [the end of cheap oil] and Climate Change squarely in the eye and address this BIG question:

"for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?"
For an idea of what a Transition Initiative does, take a look at Transition Belsize's meetup page.

You won't be surprised to learn that this is a very middle-class movement. This is a strength - it is well-resourced. But it raises the question of how far this movement can reach into the wider population, therefore, of how much effect it can have. Could there ever be a Transition Burnt Oak, for example? For it really to grow, I think this movement will have to address what environmentalists tend to call 'social justice issues' - what I call, class issues!

The main item of local news in Kent where I've been for a week is the government's decision not to build a new nuclear power station (they have two already!) at Dungeness, largely for environmental reasons: it's a special habitat for wildlife. Most of the local people are clamouring for a new nuclear power station to be built in the area because it will mean jobs. It's a topsy-turvy world, all right.

I am involved with a campaign called Workers' Climate Action. It champions the far from revolutionary idea that we need a "just" transition to a low-carbon economy. That is, a transition which recognises the fundamental fact that most people in this society need to work in order to live. Dismantling polluting industries should go hand in hand with creating new 'green' jobs, and ordinary working-class people should have control over the process.

Otherwise, it just isn't going to happen!

So maybe Burnt Oak is not ready to be a Transition Town just yet, but just maybe it is ready to be a Just Transition Town.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Danger! Educated Gypsy, and Other Wonderful Books I'll Never Get the Time to Read

Just up the road from Barnet in Hatfield is the University of Hertfordshire. I have just been reminded that it has a department of Romani Studies.

Read some warm words about the Department and indeed the University's publications department:
"You could... do a lot worse than buying the entire back catalogue of the University of Hertfordshire Press, a tiny but valiant publishing house which is the main source of Romani Studies in this country. They publish works by many of the acknowledged world experts: Ian Hancock, Thomas Acton and Donald Kenrick among them and a fascinating array of books by Roma people themselves."

Louise Doughty, Independent on Sunday
I am editing a trade catalogue which lists publishers' forthcoming titles. The work from a mechanical point of view is dull, but the subject matter interesting. If only I didn't have to work so hard I would have time to read some of these fascinating titles! (Let's not forget that these fascinating titles represent someone else's work.)

Among many fantastic looking sociology titles, Danger! Educated Gypsy by Ian Hancock looks like a good read.

Next time Brian Coleman starts on about travellers, we might have more ammunition for our arguments with him.

Sojourn in the Medway Towns

I used to consider myself to be someone from Kent who has lived for a long time in London. I finally did the math the other day and worked out that I have lived about 29 years in London - 25 of those since I arrived an innocent fresher at UCL, but also four in my early childhood.

My parents lived for a while in Hackney and then... Finchley! My first memories are of Finchley. We lived in Long Lane and I went for a term to Martin school. My mother was very young and did cleaning jobs for Jewish ladies. (That's what she called them - 'my Jewish ladies'. I imagine they called her 'my cleaning woman'.)

So, totting it up, I only lived 15 years in Kent. Formative years, mind you. I'm visiting my mum in Rochester now, or, rather, house-sitting for her, looking after her cat and ploughing through the most enormous amount of tedious editing work. Back soon.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Chipping Barnet and feng shui

I went to a Barnet trades council meeting in Barnet last night. We usually hold our meetings at the Bull Theatre. I enjoyed my trip out as I had been confined to the house through illness for four days. But it wasn't wise taking the 251 bus to Whetstone in the rush hour traffic, I overheard some deeply tedious conversations which made me wish I was back talking to myself in my own living room.

And when I got up to Barnet my choice of Jenny's restaurant for my supper probably wasn't wise either. Anyway, the meeting was fine, but by the time I left Barnet I was all out of sorts.

I don't know a lot about feng shui - except that it's complete rubbish, of course - but I think High Barnet's is bad. And I blame that church. St John the Baptist church at the top of the hill. That too big, too ugly Gothic Revival church occupying the junction of all the main roads, blocking the flows of energy, or something like that.

I shouldn't be surprised to learn that the church is built on the site of a gallows, because it gives me the willies. Wikipedia tells me that the original church was expanded to its current monstrous size in late Victorian times:
It is a late example of the Gothic Revival Style by Victorian architect John Loughborough Pearson, begun in 1890-91 and completed after his death by his son Frank Loughborough Pearson.
I really don't get Victorian religiosity - almost all churches I see built at this time would make me recoil from Christianity. When I was a girl, I used to go to a Salvation Army troop of Brownies - perhaps that's where my horror stems from!

Anyway, I'm sure Barnet went downhill after they built that horrendous church. Apologies to any regular worshippers at St John's - I'm sure it's possible to grow to love it.

Barnet's troughing Tories

People criticise Brian Coleman for the high number of lunches and dinners he consumes in his numerous official capacities. (Of course, the main complaint is that he never pays for them.) But a glance at the Chipping Barnet Tories' website makes me wonder whether Coleman isn't just an exaggerated example of the political species as a whole, for to judge from this and this, being a Tory seems to consist of attending and occasionally hosting an endless conveyor belt of lunches, teas, suppers and other divertissements - with nibbles.

A bit like an exchange of pointless gifts at Christmas (or other major cultural/religious festival), Tories seem to be constantly entertaining each other in their own beautiful homes - except that it is not just reciprocal, each time something gets creamed off the top for the local Tory party coffers.

Before anyone accuses me of having an anthropological obsession with Tories (I have, everso slightly, in the long run-up to the election), I was looking into it from a practical point of view, wondering how me and my trade union and lefty mates could get some more cultural life around our political activism.

We clearly don't have anything like the social wherewithal to match Barnet's Tories, but I'm wondering whether we can do better than the odd snatched pint in the pub after a meeting, which is what passes for social interaction among us at the moment.

Anarchy in Barnet

A friend recently suggested that Barnet trades unionists put together a newsletter like the Hackney Heckler, which is produced to reflect left-of-centre campaigns in Hackney.

I wondered whether we have the activist base. For starters, are there any anarchists in Barnet? Hackney Heckler has a good input from anarchists, I believe, who are a mainstay of the Hackney Solidarity Network which produces it.

For curiosity's sake, I will give a prize if anyone can put me in touch with a Barnet anarchist.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

If only we could all be more like Beyoncé

I have had the flu/a bad cold which meant watching more television than I usually risk. There were some good things on, but, of course, some deeply disturbing things as well.

When I was young I would have prayed for something like T4 (that's teen programming on Channel 4, not a terminal at Heathrow). On Sunday I enjoyed the new generation "90210" - no, really, I did. It is more 'edgy' and grown-up than the first generation "Beverley Hills, 90210" - you can imagine the teens in this series taking time out to go vote for Obama before they tear each other to pieces over a handbag in a sale.

But after that there was the much more disturbing home-grown "The World's Greatest Popstars". This week the praises of Beyoncé were sung by Kimberley Walsh, a member of Girls Aloud. Now, I would have thought this was against the rules, as Girls Aloud is one of the other contenders for the award of World's Greatest Popstar.

But never mind that, more alarming things were going on. Kimberley is a pretty young woman but she wore a disturbing amount of make-up, could barely move her head lest she dislodge her hairdo, had some sort of weird padding going on around her shoulder area (or maybe she's just built like that), and couldn't look into the camera (or perhaps that's just the way they filmed her).

Kimberley's heroine Beyoncé Knowles is, granted, in many ways, 'absolutely amayzing', but then she's hardly had the most normal of lives. She joined her first girl band when she was eight years old. Her father gave up his day job to devote himself to training his daughter and her friends in a sort of girl band 'boot camp'. After a few false starts, Destiny's Child was born.

I concede that Beyoncé provides a role model of a young woman who knows what she wants and has the sass to go out and get it - girl power! But hers is not a career path that's open to all.

The most disturbing part of the presentation of Beyoncé's gifts was the time given over to admiring her booty bounce dance. Don't get me wrong, it's a good party trick, but is this really what a young woman today must aspire to achieve?

Below, almost gratuitously, are some shots of Kimberley Walsh before and after a spell in girl band boot camp. I was going to include a video of Beyoncé's booty bounce but after trawling YouTube for a while, and seeing some of the other booty bounce videos on there, I decided I didn't want any part of it.