Friday, 29 January 2010

Barnet sheltered housing reprieve: how the news is received - the legal cost - implications for Future Shape

In early January Kingsley Court residents celebrated their
High Court victory with lawyer Yvonne Hossacks

David Young and his fellow Kingsley Court residents are celebrating, now it has been confirmed that Barnet will not appeal the High Court judgement against its decision to cut sheltered housing wardens, although lawyer Yvonne Hossacks is more cautious. Read Times series reports here and here.

The Times also has an article about the legal cost of Barnet council's defence at judicial review of their decision - £23,000. The council is setting aside £5 million to fight legal battles next year. (Check figure - it's enormous!)

The implications for the council's Future Shape programme are possibly huge. The council will have to carry out far more rigorous Equalities Impact Assessments in the light of the legal ruling. This, in turn, could make the savings they hope to achieve from their various Future Shape plans so small that they decide it is not worth the political flak to go ahead with some of them. Well, I can dream.

Barnet unlikely to appeal sheltered housing judgement - a stay of execution?

Reading a paper for the Cabinet of 3 February 2010, it looks like Barnet council will not appeal the legal judgement against their decision to axe the sheltered housing wardens. The reasons given are sketchy, but probably include political calculations - they would want to avoid having a wardens protest in the borough around the time of the council elections.

Rather than appealing, it seems likely that they will improve their consultation procedure, to take fuller account of the impact of their proposals on disabled people, and have another go at a later date. How much later? Remember, also, that all they have to do is prove that they consulted: they are quite free to ignore (as they did the first time) the outcome of any consultation.

So we can't quite call this a victory, and, moreover, it doesn't stop other councils going ahead and cutting their wardens (this campaign hasn't just been about Barnet). Nevertheless, a welcome stay of execution.

I'm pasting below quite a lot of Cabinet report. In red are the salient points (as far as my layperson's eye can tell):


The 2010/11 budget as set out in the budget headlines assumes that sheltered housing warden provision remodelling would be completed from the second quarter of 2010/11 realising a £300,000 efficiency saving. As the remodelling cannot now proceed, the £300,000 efficiency cannot be achieved. It is proposed that this is met for 2010/11 from central contingencies.

...As a result of the judgment, the ongoing deficit in the Council’s proposed budget for 2011/12 onwards, due to the absence of a full year efficiency saving of £400,000 arising from changes to warden provision in sheltered housing will need to be considered as part of the 2011/12 budget process [does this mean they are giving up on the plan altogether?]


In brief the judgment of the High Court was that, in taking the decision on 8 June 2009, Barnet did not demonstrate that it had ‘due regard’ to its duties under s49A (1) of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the conclusion drawn in its equalities impact assessment, whilst properly considering an ‘adverse impact’, failed to consider a ‘different impact’ and further was considered to be “Wednesbury” unreasonable. [a new word to look up]
...Portsmouth City Council (PCC) were subject to a similar judicial review challenge on the changes to their sheltered housing provision; their judicial review was joined with the Council’s. Their decision was also quashed. PCC obtained permission to appeal on 18 January 2010. In order to protect its position, Officers lodged an application on behalf of the Council for permission to appeal on 19 January 2010, which was the last day for making an application, so that more detailed consideration could be given to the merits of an appeal.
...Officers have considered whether there are grounds for appeal and are of the view that it would not be appropriate to go to appeal based on the facts of this case which focus on whether in taking the decision on the 8 June 2009, Cabinet could demonstrate that they had had sufficient due regard to the duties under the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

...With the judgment quashing the decision of Cabinet made on 8 June 2009, implementation of the changes to the sheltered housing warden arrangements cannot proceed unless Cabinet takes a new decision to remodel warden provision to sheltered housing. Any future decision must clearly demonstrate (in a manner that would satisfy the Court) that ‘due regard’ has been had to the entirety of Section 49A(1) of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995...

...The judgment raises a number of issues for attention by Cabinet as it seeks to implement fundamental service redesign through the Future Shape programme and to reshape its relationship with citizens. A review of the judgment has been conducted by Legal Services and the Council’s Strategic Equalities Adviser...

The judgment expressly states that “Councillors should be aware of the special duties the Council owes to the disabled before they take a decision”. ...The judgment states that the requirement of decision-makers goes beyond awareness and requires a ‘rigorous and open minded approach’ and there needs to be evidence of this approach....

...The Court ...considered that the Council had involved disabled people in the consultation process in this matter and had amended the proposal to reflect the feedback received. However the analysis of the responses to the consultation did not differentiate between those of disabled tenants who would be affected by the proposals and other respondents.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Where DO the children play?

In front of where I live there is a small green, owned by the council. As you would expect in a built-up area, it is well used by local children, who throng on it, particularly in summer, when they play football and, when there's a test match on the TV, cricket.

In the middle is a sort of village sign which says Adastral Village, as I recall. Recently someone nailed a small, red sign to it. Quarantined with flu to the upper storey of my house, I could only guess at what this sign might say. I bet that says "no ball games", I thought wearily. I got my binoculars out yesterday for a look and, yes, it says "no ball games".

I will have to look into why the council has decided to put this sign up - as soon as I am well enough to do more than tap out the occasional blogpost. But I basically think it is stupid. Were I well enough I might sneak out in the night and pin up an additional sign which could say 'Dogs' toilet only' as that is the other main use for this small patch of grass.

If people are worried about children being knocked down by passing motorists (a road rings this green), they could, instead of forbidding their games, put up a sign saying 'Drive slowly, children at play'. That way, motorists might also avoid the dogged skateboarders and the ramps they build in the road.

Then, if people are actually worried about children's welfare, they could put some dog litter bins at each end of the green and a sign saying that owners allowing their dogs to crap on the grass must pick it up, or be fined if they don't.

If people were actually worried about children's welfare, they would encourage them to play ball games; there is scant open space around Burnt Oak/Colindale for games. Especially since Grahame Park open space is now and for the foreseeable future a building site, while it is made smaller but 'enhanced' to make way for more flats.

But then I suspect that the people who put this sign up are not worried about children's welfare and only regard them as a nuisance. What 'No ball games' actually means, but they are not allowed to write it, is 'No children'. Now, I am not fanatical about children, and have had run-ins (though remarkably few) with some of the local kids but I do recognise that they have human rights to move about relatively freely, and to develop their physical, emotional and social capacities, just as I was allowed to. Playing ball games on a patch of grass overlooked by adults who have a stake in their healthy development could be one way to do that. Unfortunately, such opportunities are rarer and rarer.

The chopping down of the trees on Grahame Park open space was depressing; this 'No ball games' sign is a daily provocation to me; if Barnet council plans to whittle away any more of our precious green spaces (not Green Belt, but precious green space nonetheless) I might just find myself chained to a bulldozer in the near future... if I can just shake this flu.

Edgware Road trees: why is nothing ever simple?

There is controversy about the species of tree that Barnet council plans to plant on Edgware Road. Fair enough, but rather depressing that they can't get it right. The Edgware Road is not 'leafy, green' Barnet but 'grey concrete' Barnet and badly needs some prettifying.

Times series report here and Barnet Eye's view here.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Trees reach Edgware Road

Barnet council's plan to plant 100 odd trees alongside the Edgware Road around Burnt Oak is going ahead. Hoorah! They are always going on about what a green, leafy borough it is, without addressing the fact that vast swathes of it are in fact horrible and grey.

Read the Times series report here.

Of course, they are not spending Barnet money on it - the money is coming from the Mayor of London.

Back to bed. (The flu-o-meter is showing six days now.)

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Some drops of joy with draughts of ill between

Flu (now abating) has prevented me from going to my friend's Burns supper tonight. It was the first I'd ever been invited to. Viewing the exotic running order (below; anonymised) I'm more disappointed than I can say that I'm not well enough to go.
Bebington Burns bash

An explanation – E
A Toast – M
Poem – Jock and Jean – J
Song – A red red rose – A
Selkirk Grace – M

Soup: Lentil and carrot or Tattie and leek

Poem – The Snaman – J
Song – A Man’s a man – A
Poem – The death of Joy Gardner – E
Enter the Haggis – D
Address – The Haggis – A

The Main Event: Haggis Neeps and Rumpletietumps (and alternatives)

Song – Freedom come a ye – A
Poem - The mask of Anarchy – E

Pudding: Scottish sweeteners and Craggle whimpies

Songs and poems
The Shafrans
Anybody else
Song - Auld lang syne - Everybody
My friend lives on the Wirral, the rectangle of land between the Mersey and Dee rivers. She lived in Scotland long enough, however, to acquire a Scottish boyfriend and the Burns supper habit.

From the schedule you can see that the Burns theme is interpreted loosely when it comes to the choice of poems. My friend has chosen a poem by Benjamin Zephaniah about the death in police custody of a 40-year-old Jamaican immigrant, Joy Gardner. Robert Burns died young too, aged 37, which might be one connection here with the poet.

Burns is celebrated as a champion of poor Scots and debunker of totalitarian government and religious oppression, but a recent - controversial - book questioned whether Burns was all that committed to the anti-slavery cause and said that he toyed with the idea of going to work as a manager - a slave driver - on a plantation. Perhaps that's why my friend chose this poem about a black woman, a descendant of slavery; more likely it was because it reminds us that there is still always an underdog, and that they can find themselves, disastrously, at the mercy of the state.

I am not a Burns aficionado, and have only managed a quick shuffty through some of his shorter poems to convey my own sickbed emotions today. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek I offer you now the first stanza of a poem in Burns' book “Misgivings in the Hour of Despondency and Prospect of Death”.

Why am I loth to leave this earthly scene?
How I so found it full of pleasing charms?
Some drops of joy with draughts of ill between:
Some gleams of sunshine ‘mid renewing storms:
Is it departing pangs my soul alarms?
Or Death’s unlovely, dreary, dark abode?
For guilt, for guilt, my terrors are in arms;
I tremble to approach an angry God,
And justly smart beneath his sin-avenging rod.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Barnet has leave to appeal wardens decision

Barnet council has been given leave to appeal the High Court's decision that their plan to axe sheltered housing wardens was unlawful. But will they appeal? Portsmouth council, which also lost at the High Court, has said that it will.

Here is a press release from campaigner David Young, of Kingsley Court in Barnet, telling all the major parties that if they do not reverse the cuts in warden services they should not expect any vote of the 500,000 or so sheltered housing residents in the UK. No warden, no vote!

Times series report.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Send for that dark-skinned fellow

Last night I enjoyed a film version of Gerald Durrell's "My Family and Other Animals" on television. The role of Spiro, the Durrell family's self-appointed factotum, was taken by Omid Djalili, born in the UK to Iranian parents.

In an earlier epoch, the role might have been taken by Anthony Quinn, a Mexican American (with some Irish mixed in) who most people remember in his role of Zorba in "Zorba the Greek". Wikipedia describes Quinn's early career thus:

He played "ethnic" villains [and] Indians, Mafia dons, Hawaiian chiefs, Filipino freedom-fighters, Chinese guerrillas, and Arab sheiks.
And plenty more besides. Omid Djajlili is fast becoming the Anthony Quinn of the 21st century, at least in Britain, filling a variety of film, TV and theatre roles wherever someone of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern extraction is called for. He's even in an advert at the moment, playing "some sort of Arab" who, unlike white Anglo-Saxon Brits, is not afraid to haggle.

Type-cast? I would say so. Given his shape, he also tends to be cast at the less flattering end of the spectrum; Omar Sharif, who was Lebanese, also portrayed many nationalities/ethnicities, but at least he often made the romantic lead.

A Greek friend of mine is going to do his national service soon. I was trying to think of humorous portrayals of military life to cheer him up, and tried to get him excited about "It Ain't Half Hot Mum". He took a brief look and couldn't get the humour (there was some, wasn't there?), mainly finding the programme deeply offensive.

I must say, looking at it now, the character Bearer Rangi Ram (played by Michael Bates!) is a pretty terrible stereotype. We are asked to laugh at his "silly" accent, and the way he wears a snake-belt around his turban, and, especially, his habit of talking about "we British".

Such a character has an echo later in the Coopers (Kapoors) and Robinsons (Rabindranaths) in "Goodness Gracious Me", who are in denial about their background. But there they are the losers for it, rather than being mocked for their presumption at reckoning themselves English.

The character Rangi Ram is something different. As a society we are now more aware of the important role that people from all over the British Empire played in Britain's armed forces, and such a portrayal wouldn't be acceptable today.

So there has been some progress, but not nearly enough.

I'm sure Omid Djalili knows the score, his comedy show is pretty astute on the way different groups rub along in the UK. But, while he's probably only too pleased to be working, hopefully he can start to use some of the credit he has earned to shine a harsher light on our abiding prejudices and those more recently acquired.

And, on a related note, surely it can't be beyond the wit of producers to find a Greek actor to play a Greek, etc.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Your good ocular health!

I had my two-yearly eye test today. As I suspected, stronger glasses are called for, but otherwise my ocular health is good.

Near-sightedness came upon me quickly. They tell you that your eyesight will deteriorate with age, what they don't tell you is that you will go half-blind on your 40th birthday. I'm joking/exaggerating, of course, before anyone under 40 reading this blog (who are you?! I'd like to shake your hand!) starts to panic. But, anyway, it is true that near-sightedness or presbyopia - meaning 'old eye'! - sets in between age 40-50.

Go and get your eyes tested (about £20) as soon as possible when it does - you will know, because you won't be able to focus on near objects so easily and will need to go cross-eyed to read! The optician can sort you out with a nice pair of reading glasses - oh, go on, it's not that bad!

They do all sorts of other tests of your ocular health - which can also be a guide to your general health.

Today, inevitably for an extra £10 fee, I had retinal photographs done. It is quite alarming seeing a big colour photo of the inside of your eye, including optic nerve, blood vessels, macula, retina. They all look so vulnerable! And so they are - look after them!

Seeing them like that reminded me how I should be eating green, leafy vegetables to help avoid age-related macular degeneration, and that I haven't consumed enough lately. Spinach, anyone?

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Haiti - paying over and over for its rebellious past

The entry for Haiti on Wikipedia points out that it is

the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion [led by Toussaint L'ouverture and the Black Jacobins].
If you know any more history of Haiti, you might conclude that the country has being paying the price for that ever since. If you would like to read more I can direct you to an article written by socialist Colin Waugh who has made a study of Haiti. I shall re-read this article in the coming days.

Most people if they are interested in Haiti only tend to look at the ugly recent history. Too many people write the country off as a tinpot little island in the Caribbean where the population can't get its act together. Too many people apply the offensive and glib label 'basket case' to places like Haiti, without taking any account of the long and sometimes monumental historical events that make a place what it is.

In more recent times, it had seemed that there were signs of hope... until the earthquake on Tuesday.

I am active with an anti-sweatshop campaign called No Sweat. We have contacts with an inspiring group called Batay Ouvriye, that supports fledgling trade unions in Haiti, and with the Haiti Support Group here in the UK. I hope that we can get in touch with our colleagues in the coming days. It's hard to know what the future can hold for the country when everything seems to have collapsed, but we can at least try to help the people we have met and look for a way to continue their precious work.

Redwing regrets choosing UK for winter break

From the RSPB website (I'll take my own picture if he comes back!)

For the past few days a biggish, reddish bird has been flying around the neighbourhood. I have at last identified this as a redwing, a small thrush. These birds live in large numbers in northern parts, including Iceland, Scandanavia and Russia, and fly south for the winter. Hundreds of thousands usually winter in the UK. They must be regretting their choice this year.

They live out in the countryside, and only come into town gardens when there is snow lying on the fields. That explains my recent visitor. He will only get a drink of water and a bath here, I'm afraid. I keep the birdbath going all year round, but I don't feed the birds.

To feed birds properly is a responsible job, and I've read that you have to be reliable, or birds waste precious energy turning up for a meal when there is nothing being served. Any visitors here are welcome to scratch around in the leaves for insects - I leave the garden messy until the spring.

I do like my birds, I have to admit. I am not a fanatical twitcher, but I have identified 22 species in the garden. (The redwing made it 22.) This is not a bad haul, I think, given it's Colindale/Burnt Oak. I hope we don't lose any more green space around here, though, or it will soon not be worth our winter visitors' journey.

Rain dance pays off for Barnet council

Daniel Thomas, the Barnet Cabinet Member with responsibility for Environment and Transport, must have been relieved this morning as the rain cleared some of the snow. His rain dance must have paid off, and just as well - Barnet council didn't have much else of a strategy going for them, as the borough's grit dropped to just three days' supply.

For all that the thaw has set in, I think it is still too early to abandon wellingtons when venturing out, however. With my tendency to dress like a Land Girl, the last few weeks have not troubled me, but going into central London has been rather embarassing, mingling with the suits. I hope they can make allowances for the fact that we have travelled in from an outlying borough, and forgive the rich, country smells we bring with us.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Make your own grit - recipe

Amid news that Barnet council is that close to running out of grit completely, I have been scouring the internet for recipes to make your own grit. This is the best so far (Phil's blog is good, as well, if you are heavily into search technology and other techy matters).

2010 council budget - cuts, including to sheltered housing

The Times series reports on last night's Barnet council cabinet meeting which agreed its budget headlines for 2010-11.

£15m cuts to balance Barnet's budget while council tax remains static

By Sarah Cosgrove

ADULT and children's services and the environment are the main losers in this year's proposed budget as councillors struggle to keep council tax at current levels and cope with rising costs.

Read more.

I wish I had time to comment on the details; I do have time to mention that the council has had to put back into its spending some of the savings it had hoped to make on abolishing the sheltered housing wardens. This is because, owing to the legal challenge, they haven't been able to terminate the contracts they have with housing providers for warden services as quickly as they expected.

Please note, however, that they had expected to save £400,000 over the year, and have now budgeted that they will save £300,000. That means they expect to press ahead with their plans soon. Will they appeal the decision against them, as Portsmouth council has? Will they win an appeal? Would the political price be worth paying, in the run-up to the council elections? These are all calculations for them to make. For our part, we know what we will be doing - carrying on our campaign to save the wardens!

Postscript. I don't dislike the Times series half as much as the Barnet Eye does. I think the journos do a pretty good job under, what I suspect, is some political pressure, but I do wish they would sub their online articles better. Some of the budget article simply didn't make sense.

Islam4UK, the Barnet sheltered housing march, and the defence of democracy

I'm not sure that banning Islam4UK is a good idea. I suspect that banning them will gain them a few more recruits, rather than lose them any. In general, I am against the state exercising its power to decide how or whether people can organise politically.

Where there is dangerous criminality, of course, it's reasonable to step in to prevent that.

I'm glad Islam4UK called off their planned march through Wootton Bassett. It was a stunt designed mainly to cause offence to military families.

I don't support the UK's intervention in Afghanistan, and Islam4UK aren't completely insane in what they say about western military intervention in the Middle East (although they are insane in what they say about almost everything else), but the march deserved to be stopped.

But by who? By the state? Curiously, the government was ambivalent about whether it would intervene to stop Islam4UK's march, but has now banned the organisation. I'm not in favour of the state banning demonstrations, however detestable the cause.

In the great scheme of things it is hard to imagine that the banning of Islam4UK is the thin edge of a wedge which would see the state banning more and more of its political opponents, of whatever political stripe. But I still worry.

Yesterday, the government lost in the European Court of Human Rights over its section 44 stop and searches under the Terrorism Act 2000. These have been used extensively against journalists and protestors with nothing like terrorism on their mind. They allow police to stop and search people 'on a hunch'; suspects' details, even when they are found to have done nothing wrong, are generally retained. On Monday night, I went to my union meeting - the London Freelance Branch of the National Union of Journalists. Attending was Pennie Quinton, one of the journalists who brought the case in the ECHR. In this article she explains the background.

Yes, the state is seeking to expand its powers. As a society are we vigilant enough about this? Do we ourselves too readily call for bans on things we don't like? It takes a lot of self-control to tolerate dissent and a lot of effort to listen to and argue against ideas we don't agree with. But that's what democracy requires. If you don't practise democracy - in all senses of the word 'practise' - I fear you lose it.

Let me give you an example closer to home. From the sublimely awful Islam4UK, and over-zealous anti-terrorism legislation, to the astonishing case of the Barnet sheltered housing march.

A friend of mine was recently summoned to a meeting between Barnet council, the local police, and 'leaders' of the Muslim community in Barnet. The aim of the meeting was for the council and police to dissuade anyone who might be thinking of joining the counter-demonstration to the planned far-right rally in Harrow.

That, in my view, is objectionable enough. Why should Muslims remain meekly at home while racists parade in front of their mosque?

But Mike Freer, who was still council leader, also let slip that he had been under pressure (he didn't say who from) during the summer to BAN the march to defend sheltered housing that went through his ward in Finchley. To his credit, he resisted that call (and I doubt he could ban it if he wanted to) but the very idea that anyone in Freer's political vicinity should ask him to do so is shocking.

I would think in this case that such a call would be more down to political laziness, than to authoritarianism, but it certainly shows disdain for the importance of democratic traditions such as the right to protest. Democracy - use it or lose it, even in Barnet.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Pressure on Lib Dems as Portsmouth council appeals wardens judgement

When Barnet sheltered housing residents won their legal case against Barnet Tory council's decision to axe their wardens, Lib Dem Portsmouth Council was in the dock as well, and their legal case went against them also.

David Young, Barnet campaigner, has written to the leaders of all the main parties calling on them to prevent the cuts. So far, only Lib Dem party leader Nick Clegg has not replied. David Young has written to him again, demanding to know his position, and also objecting to Portsmouth council's decision to appeal the court's ruling.

Read David Young's letter below, and scroll down for a call to arms.

The Labour government removed the ringfence around the sheltered housing wardens budget and has it in its power to change the regulations so that the cuts need not be made - it still has time to do this before the general election. Lib Dem and Tory councils around the country have the power to stop and reverse the cuts they have made to this service.

I believe that popular opinion is against these cuts. Can we impose our view and save the wardens? Well, it is still, even at this late hour, worth the battle.

Let's see whether Barnet council follow Portsmouth's decision to appeal... If you want to write to your councillor and ask them to come out against the cuts (in the case of Tory councillors - Lib Dem and Labour in Barnet are against the cuts), you can find their details here.

Parky's dignity report

On Sunday I blogged about how we need as a society to change our attitude to ageing and the priority we give to meeting the needs of older people.

Today, veteran broadcaster Michael Parkinson, who spent last year as ambassador for the government's Dignity in Care campaign, has published a report, My Year as National Dignity Ambassador. You can download it from the Department of Health website.

I haven't had time to read through the report yet. I'm guessing it won't grasp the nettle on the funding issue - Parky has never struck me as one to put his head above the parapet on political issues - but it should get the issue discussed more widely. BBC news report here.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Pub talk: smoking bans

On Saturday I took shelter from the snow in the Shakespeare's Head pub on Kingsway. The first thing I noticed on entering was a proliferation of menus; this establishment is clearly geared up for feeding office workers and shoppers.

In this pub in 2003 I met my other half (for want of something better to call him - 'boyfriend' would make me sound like a Dick Emery character). I smoked liberally all evening, which didn't manage to put him off.

Of course, since the smoking ban in July 2007, now one cannot smoke in pubs in England. My mother says 'it's over, that period is over, finished'. The several centuries when we thought it was fine to smoke, even good for your health. And the few decades when we knew that it was bad for us, but recast the issue as a conflict between political freedom and 'health fascism'. It's over. No more smoking at work, in cinemas and theatres, on trains, tube and buses, in hospitals, or, even, in pubs. Like children, who have always had to sneak off to the back of the bikesheds, execept in the privacy/sanctity of their own home, even adults now must skulk about outside if they want to indulge their filthy habit.

On the whole, I think this is a good thing. I gave up smoking in 2004 (an event entirely connected to meeting 'my other half') but, before then, I had got used to being banished to my friends' gardens if I wanted to smoke, so I do see the other side of the problem.

Of course, such an enormous social change is going to have monumental effects, and the closure of many pubs is one of them, as smokers stock up on cheap booze at the supermarket and drink at home instead. The Lost Pubs Project suggests pubs are closing at the rate of 25 per month. It's not all down to the smoking ban, of course, but that has had a big impact.

It's swings and roundabouts, isn't it? Now a middle-aged lady like myself can thoroughly enjoy an evening in a pub - if she can find one. The Shakespeare's Head is a Wetherspoon's; they concentrate on providing an extensive menu. I had a half of Frank Incensed, the Christmas ale from the Nethergate Brewery, with my supper. I liked it - but they aren't going to get rich from my custom! Maybe middle-aged ladies eating egg and chips and supping a half is not what pubs should be about, but I understand that, if that's what you want to do, it is still possible to get pissed in a pub - I've seen it done.

It's sad to see boarded-up London pubs, and every village definitely needs its pub, just as it needs its post office and school.

But fewer people dying of smoking-related diseases, as part of the shake-out from the extension of smoking bans, the downward pressure it exerts on the number of people smoking, has, in the long run, to be a good thing.

Pub talk: smelly pubs and pub smells

Now that they no longer reek of cigarette smoke, too many pubs reek of other things that the cigarette smoke masked.

I don't know whether it's because a fall-off in trade means pubs can't refurbish as often as they used to, or whether it was inevitable, but there are several pubs, clinging on for economic dear life, that smell so strongly of piss these days that I can't go into them anymore. And so, losing even more business, they spiral ever downward. I could predict a few more hostelries that will soon be joining this sorry list from the Lost Pubs Project, a fascinating undertaking.

I still love that smell of stale beer you get around the door of a good pub. It brings back childhood memories of being left in the children's room at the Cooper's Arms, Rochester by my mother. This small pub on St Margaret's Street was full on a Saturday afternoon with locals, hippies, art school students and trainee teachers (eek!). My mother was in the last category.

Dressed in her finest donkey jacket, she would install me in the side room with all the other drinkers' offspring, where we would sit around a large wooden table with glass bottles of coke and packets of plain crisps. God knows what we talked about! I feel this was an essential training for life and wouldn't have missed it for all the middle-class upbringings in the world.

Postscript. In 'researching' this blogpost I learned of the existence of something that men and pub landladies know all about, but concerning which I had been in complete ignorance: the urinal cake. Ain't education a wonderful thing?

Pub talk: ham and eggs

Only loosely pub-related, but prompted by my visit to the Shakespeare's Head on Kingsway on Saturday.

Perusing the vast menu at this Wetherspoon's, I didn't take long to decide on ham, egg and chips.

It sparked a memory from childhood. My parents separated when I was six. Thereafter, I saw my dad once a fortnight, and for the odd week throughout the year when he would take me on holiday. When I was about eight we went to the Lake District. One day we went for a walk up a 'mountain', of sorts. When we set out we could see the top of the mountain and aimed for it. It was a nice day. As we surmounted the foothills, climbing ever higher, somehow the peak was always out of sight.

The weather began to change, clouds came down, the sky darkened, and a persistent drizzle set in. The temperature dropped. My dad determined that we should give up on our ambition, which disappointed me. But he made a new adventure of following the course of a small river that ran down the hill.

We clambered along beside the river. My father urged me to go quickly. I can judge now that he was anxious for our fate, though he didn't say so. We must keep ahead of the descending cloud, outstrip the storm, or we might get stuck and lost.

At a certain point, it became clear that we were travelling faster than the storm, and were no longer in danger. We relaxed, suddenly blithe, blase, light-hearted. The car park came in view. We jumped into the car and drove straight to a pub.

Nowadays, it would be considered a gastropub; then it just served food to cold and grateful climbers. Among the many delights on the menu were 'ham and eggs' and 'more ham and eggs'. I'll have more ham and eggs, I said.

The waitress looked askance at my eight-year-old frame and said, are you sure, it's rather a lot. My dad looked at my eight-year-old frame and said, she'll have more ham and eggs. It came, it was enormous, and I ate every speck.

This only reminds me that I still have not succeeded in visiting my father this winter, where he is - much to his pleasure, I'm sure - cut off by snow and ice in deepest Kent. It also reminds me of the value of knowing when to quit.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Thoughts on age: we need an elder care revolution

There was rightly uproar over the recent Guardian story about the overuse of feeding tubes for elderly dementia sufferers in care homes. (Read the story here.)

But I think some of the comments were reasonable as well. It's all very well being in uproar but unless you have tried looking after an elderly person you might not understand how difficult it is to provide the level of care you would like to. I help to look after an elderly person. Elderly people do not completely lose their personalities. Some are more difficult to look after than others.

That said, or perhaps because of that, elderly people should be afforded every care they need to enable them to live as well as they can, to get as much enjoyment from life as possible. As a society, we are nowhere near set-up at the moment to provide that level of care.

The solution - practically a revolution - is for society as a whole to face a nunber of facts and reshape its thinking on age.

1. We need to stop being embarrassed about ageing. We are all of us getting older all the time, we don't suddenly wake up one day and find ourselves 'an older person', a subspecies of human. We need to act against ageism, which affects all ages, and realise that as individuals we will, all of us, if all goes well, be 'all ages'.

Enough of 20-year-olds moaning about how old they are getting! And 30-year-olds thinking they invented middle age. When we can face up to ageing, perhaps we can start having respect for the truly 'elderly'.

2. We need to spend vastly more money on providing care than we do now. Take staffing levels in care homes: they must be increased, and training improved. At the moment, too much staffing is contracted out - in order for councils to 'save money' - to companies who cut corners by paying their staff badly, and not employing enough of them.

In Barnet, daycare workers working in centres taken over by Fremantle had their pay and holidays slashed. Many experienced workers could not continue working in the centres and left, to be replaced by badly paid agency workers. Fremantle expects to make money from their contract. The council expects to save money. How can this be achieved? Shockingly, staff cuts - either in number or quality - are routinely seen as the solution to this type of problem.

3. We need to recognise caring. So many people - I don't know the percentage but it must be massive - will spend part of their lives caring for older people or being cared for themselves, that it is astonishing there is no recognition of it in popular culture, discourse, political campaigning...

So many people struggling with this unexpected - why unexpected? Because we don't talk about it - life-event, finding their way, like new parents struggling to care for a new infant. Yet there is very little support for carers or the cared-for.

I would include in this the issue of young carers. How can it be right that there are so many - the 2001 census says 175,000 - young people caring for relatives? It is one thing, allowing young people to show their 'care' for a relative, quite another to expect them to do most of the caring.

4. We need to recognise old people. Many older people want to live at home, that doesn't mean they want to be isolated and at times lonely. (For example, this shouldn't be possible.) Society needs to include older people more in everything it does, and afford them their own outlets for social activity. One of the great benefits that the sheltered housing wardens, that we have been battling to save, can give is to help create a social space for residents in sheltered housing schemes.

Old people need jobs, if they can do them; they need to be seen in the media. It is simply scandalous the emphasis placed on employing pretty young women in newscasting, TV presenting, etcetera, in preference to pretty, average looking or downright ugly older women, to take one very visible if somewhat frivolous example.

Anyway, I must go now, as I am being called by someone who wants her supper. I shall try to serve it with a smile.

Thoughts on age: grey hair

Pixie Geldof's voluntarily grey look

Taking after my father, I got my first grey hairs in my late 20s. I used to use henna or toners to add interest to my dark brown hair, not to cover the grey hair, particularly. Around age 35, after a few stressful years, I realised that my roots were, well, grey. What's going on under there, I wondered. One evening after work I had my hair cut short to reveal the true colour of my hair in its full glory - a shocking, terrifying grey.

Rather than frighten my workmates, I found another toner in a drawer, slapped it on and went to work with my hair-colour half way between what they were used to and what it really was. They were still shocked. I was shocked. It took a while to accept what had happened. 30 years a brunette and now...

Why don't I dye my hair? The reasons are practical and political.

On the practical side, I think there's something quite undignified in looking like a badger, with a grey stripe down the middle of your head when you haven't had time to get your roots done, but that's what sometimes happens when you routinely dye your hair. Aged 35 I didn't fancy having this anxiety - and the expense of regular dying - for the next 40-odd years. OK, if you start dying when you're 50, maybe you have the money and the patience to keep up appearances for a while. I didn't.

On the political side, there's also something deeply undignified about not being able to own up to the fact that you have aged, you are older, not necessarily that you are old, although that is alright by me, as well. At the time I faced the 'to dye or not to dye' dilemma, I worked with an extremely capable woman in her mid 50s, who was the publishing director for a magazine. She had raised two pleasant children by herself. I used to feel aggrieved on her behalf when I heard her making an appointment with her hairdresser: 'that's right, cut and colour'*.

It was never just cut. It had to be colour as well. Why? What did she have to hide or be ashamed of? Likewise, why did I suddenly need to feel embarassed for being what and who I was? I haven't dyed my hair since then; it has produced all sorts of reactions, from uncomprehending disdain to complete indifference. Some people even like it. I must say, I do, sort of. It's certainly true that I'm in a small minority of women, and possibly even men, who don't ultimately reach for the bottle. I find this collective act of mass self-denial utterly inexplicable.

I shan't pretend I'm holier than all these people and don't cheat at all. I discovered quite late in life that, alas, the more money I spend on my hair, the better it looks. I get it straightened now, and spend ridiculous amounts on a purple shampoo which, if I overuse it, gives me a purple halo. (In the olden days, it was called a blue rinse.) But I won't succumb to the ridiculous amount of pressure there is on people to 'hide that grey'.

* The phrase strikes horror in my heart, especially as it's usually pronounced 'cut 'n' colour' which makes it sound that bit more common and awful.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

The inevitable Barnet-in-the-snow-pictures

Everybody's doing it, and why not? It only happens once every 30 years, apparently, that we get this much snow. I couldn't resist building a snow cat in the garden today (too lazy to make a snow man), and I feel like sharing some snowy snaps taken yesterday and today around Burnt Oak and Edgware.

I could have included any number of shitty-looking, half- or ungritted pavements and roads, because I saw many today, with people sliding about all over them, but today I am on a Barnet-can-look-quite-nice-in-the-snow tip.

Before venturing out, ring my friend

My friend works at TfL giving advice on how the transport is running. I guess she'll be very busy right now, although perhaps she is about to be replaced by...

Know before you go

Check your journey before you set off. Call our new, voice-activated service on 0843 222 1234.

P.S. The picture is TfL's idea of a joke, shown on their website - quite cute, actually.

Onto the ice road

One of my guilty televisual pleasures is History channel's "Ice Road Truckers", shown in the UK on Five. I am not alone in this, since the programme has now entered its third season. In "New Season Ice Road Truckers", the truckers leave Canada to try their luck on the Dalton Highway in Alaska.

The Highway is an ice road that runs from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, near the Arctic Ocean and the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. The mostly very large truckers must haul their heavy loads along treacherous, winding and dipping ice roads, across mountains where avalanches can hit at any time, through blizzards and white-outs, and then across the frozen Arctic Ocean itself. (Is your pulse racing by now? Mine is.)

The tagline for the series "A job to die for" is not a good one - if those guys and girls aren't in a union they are mugs. And the new series is shot with too much jumping about - or perhaps I need a new lens prescription. Those caveats aside, I would recommend you to take a look.

It puts our own current snowy misery into perspective. Lying in bed at night hearing the gritting lorries plying the main roads of Barnet (not the side roads - by order of the council) I'm grateful to everyone whose job it is to deliver things or visit people in this cold. Myself, I am venturing out to Edgware this afternoon. I may be gone for some time.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A fond farewell to Spartanburg, South Carolina

One of the many wonders of the internet is the Google news search. A Google news search for the words 'Barnet council' each morning shows me many - almost too many - stories about Barnet, giving me the subject matter for this blog.

Since I've been writing the blog I have had, however, to weed out a regular trickle of stories about Spartanburg, South Carolina, whose apparently popular mayor is one Bill Barnet.

Now Bill is stepping down as mayor after two terms and, I imagine, my Google news search for 'Barnet council' will no longer show me stories about him. I shall no longer be connected, however tenuously, to Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Touched by this thought, I did a little Google searching this morning about the town and Bill Barnet. I'm guessing that politically we wouldn't have a great deal in common, but this blogpost - from one Christopher George, a guy who seems a little more on my political wavelength - indicates that Barnet was respected by all the communities of Spartanburg and will be a hard act to follow.

Good luck and happy new year to Bill Barnet and the other residents of Spartanburg (incidentally, a majority black city).

EasyCouncil plans remain deeply unfair

Barnet council has been told that plans, mooted as part of the easyCouncil/Future Shape scheme, to fast-track planning applications where the applicants pay extra are illegal. They are dropping those plans for now, but are lobbying David Cameron to allow more flexibility in such areas if he forms the next government. Read the report in the Times here.

Barnet's Tories still plan to go ahead with the idea of a core service (unspecified) paid for out of council tax, with top-up fees (unspecified) for extras (unspecified).

Let's be clear. Inequality is built in to this idea. Richer people will be able to pay for a decent service (although they would be justified in resenting having to do so); poorer people will not be able to afford to, or will have to cut back in other areas.

And what services are we talking about? Plans are still vague, but refuse collection, bizarrely, is considered to be an area where there can be flexibility.

If there is one area where an across-the-board high level of service needed to be guaranteed, you would think it would be refuse collection. At least, Barnet residents think so. A Reuters reporter wrote this after interviewing shoppers in Barnet in mid-December:

In the Spires shopping center in Barnet, a little more than five miles, or eight kilometers, from Brent Cross and lacking its designer name outlets, Christmas shoppers were wary about the EasyCouncil plans.

‘‘It’s worth exploring. So much money is wasted,’’ said Chris Cooper, 68, a retiree, shopping with his wife in the small, partly uncovered center, home to the upmarket supermarket Waitrose and the bookseller WHSmith.

‘‘But nothing is free, so will it end up costing more or less?’’ he added.

Some locals feared the program would encourage illegal dumping of garbage, rather than increasing recycling.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Homelessness: still a very Big Issue

I used to suffer bad depressions and often felt my economic situation to be vulnerable as a result. Whenever I saw someone selling the Big Issue I would think 'there but for the grace of God go I', and reach for my purse. Nowadays, I only buy the magazine on really cold nights; I'm more like Lady Bountiful these days: 'here you go, my good man, and keep the change'.

Tonight was a cold night and I bought a copy. I was struck by some of the true-life stories in a YMCA advert, including this:
Tom's life fell apart when his new step-dad made home unbearable. He sofa-surfed when he could, but his friends' parents would never let him stay for long.

Aged just 18, and with no source of income, he was reduced to sleeping on park benches.
Elsewhere in the magazine there is an article that says 'almost one in four of London's homeless are ex-Forces'.

My own teenaged grandfather left home when his mother got married a second time, to someone horrible. (This was in the mid-1920s, by the way!) The only opening he could see was to join the army so that's what he did. At least he got enough to eat there!

His childhood must have set him up better to cope with life's slings and arrows, because he went on to have a reasonable army career, get married, etc., and was never without work or a roof over his head. But, still, he was bad-tempered sometimes and my mother's memories of him are far from being all good.

So, there, but for the grace of God goes my grandfather as well. He would have bought the Big Issue, I think, had it been published when he was alive. He missed it by a few months.

I can remember when homelessness became a - the - big issue in Britain. It was the late 1980s. A number of factors combined in a disastrous way:

- the Tory government removed entitlement to housing benefit for 16- and 17-year-olds. This meant young people leaving care or running away from home had no means of support, and relatively large numbers of them wound up on the street;

- more availability of hard drugs which hooked more vulnerable people;

- there was a deliberate shake-out and shut-down of old industries, such as mining and steel manufacture, which led to numbers of unemployed young men heading to London seeking work. Again, relatively large numbers of them found themselves on the streets.

I remember, around Christmas time, driving home from socialist meetings in north London to south London, turning onto the Strand and seeing scores of people camped out on the pavements. It was a truly shocking sight.

Things, thankfully, have got better since then, although I'm not sure why. I would guess that the NGOs, support networks, council services, etc, for dealing with street homelessness have got better. I would guess that the economic boom years reduced the numbers of people becoming homeless through joblessness. But with the economic crisis, perhaps those days will come back.

I hope we are not hardened to such sights now and will not tolerate them again. But, then, we already are tolerating too much...

Tieless Cameron: haven't we had it with image and no substance?

The headline on an Evening Standard article today is "Tieless Cameron is the Tories' poster boy for election battle". Conservative Party posters showing a tieless Cameron will go up all over the UK soon, presumably in an attempt to convince us that he is one of us/just what the country needs/a pretty straight guy, etc. Actually, he just looks like he's forgotten to put his tie on.

How empty-headed do Tory image makers think we are?

If they were promoting 'tireless Cameron' that would be worth something but why should we care what Cameron wears? Alright, perhaps for some people it does matter whether he wears a tie or not, but the point surely is that he should wear what he feels comfortable in and not what he thinks voters would like to see him in.

The image on the poster is pure Tony Blair circa 1997 - only, that little bit more dressed down. Expect Cameron to appear in public soon with a phony Blairite mug of tea welded to his hand as well (I always thought Tony Blair was a shyster - I was right). The Tories are making a mistake because I think - I hope - the public has had it with politicians faking niceness.