Wednesday, 31 March 2010

"Welcome to sunny Berwick-upon-Tweed"

I succeeded in getting home from Scotland yesterday evening on the East Coast Main Line. On the radio this morning the line was reported closed between Dunbar and Berwick-upon-Tweed, owing to landslides.

I'm not surprised. I travelled through this area at about 4.30pm. On one side of the line the fields were filling up with pools of cocoa-coloured rain (the colour of the soil) and on the other side the sea was boiling beneath the lashing rain and driving winds. "We are now approaching sunny Berwick-upon-Tweed," the guard said.

I once said that if the union between England and Scotland were seriously threatened, I would move to Edinburgh and walk up and down Princes Street with a sandwich board campaigning to maintain it. (I think we all have a cause such as this that could make us behave rather eccentrically.) Obviously, I meant that I would do this if the weather were fine.

I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend in Edinburgh. I attended an academic workshop with the title "Another Europe is possible? The radical left and the European Union." This was my fantasy conference. (The phrase "one man's meat is another man's poison" might have been invented for just this moment.)

I meant to do some sight-seeing before I caught my train home on Tuesday but it was too wet and windy even for me. Instead, I spent the day profitably in the National Gallery of Scotland, in the Scottish artists galleries, looking at landscapes of lochs and glens.

However, I still had to shuttle between my B&B, the cafe where I ate my lunch, the gallery and, finally, the train station. I'm finally understanding why certain aspects of Scottish culture, the love of "calorie-rich" food, the whisky, the bagpipes and, most of all, the top-rate central heating have come about.

The food for an essential layer of insulating fat, the whisky to numb the pain of the chilblains, the bagpipes because it's the only sound that can climb above the sound of the howling wind and give you heart that you're not completely alone in the world, and the central heating to make you forget that if you venture outside you'll be frozen and soaked through within five minutes, so that you go ahead and do it anyway.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

FBU president Mick Shaw usurps Brian Coleman

I'm going to Scotland tomorrow for a couple of days. I only have time to write a brief report of the Barnet trades council AGM held last Thursday night. Suffice it to say that, incredibly, our agenda was so full we didn't even get around to talking about easyCouncil!

Yes, the challenges are coming thick and fast. The growth of the far-right, what attitude we should take in the elections, tabloid press vilification of trade unions, proposed abolition of the Civil Service Compensation Scheme...

Still, we found time to smile, as the photo at the top, of our guest speaker Mick Shaw, president of the Fire Brigades Union, sitting in the chair usually occupied by Barnet mayor Brian Coleman, shows. We had booked to have our meeting in one of the committee rooms at Hendon Town Hall, but it was needed for another event, so we were fobbed off with the council chamber.

The photos below are, first, of local civil servants talking about their dispute, and, second, the tasty chairs that the councillors sit in when they are in the chamber. Naturally, this being Barnet council, the rest of the time, the chairs just go to waste.

Friday, 26 March 2010

A big fat zero - Barnet Tories launch their manifesto

The Times series reports on the launch of Barnet Tories' manifesto for the council elections. The biggest thing they are boasting about is that they will freeze council tax for a further two years. This seems a most rash promise given that they don't know what else they will have to do in the next two years. It seems like an attempt at a big fat bribe to me. And, if you're going to do that, why stop at two years?

On the easyCouncil/Future Shape front, the Tories say:
“We will give you the choice to tailor certain council services to your own needs and offer incentives to those who use fewer Council services.”
Next, they'll be paying us all just to go away!

I give their manifesto a big fat zero. Oh, hang on. According to this picture on the Barnet Tory-loving website London Daily News, I don't need to, because, bizarrely, that is something Barnet's Tories are happy to admit themselves.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Adopt-a-pothole week

It's been fashionable in the last few years to drive around town in a 4x4 (I think they're called). If you don't have one, it's been fashionable to sneer at people who do.

After driving back to Burnt Oak from North Finchley last night, dodging the pot holes, I can suddenly see the point of an off roader. Me and my driver talked the whole way, so I was only half-concentrating, but it dawned on me near the end of our journey that he had spent the entire time steering around potholes. Some of them are complete craters!

Which is your "favourite" pothole? Mine is the trench where Golders Green Crescent joins Golders Green Road. There's also a small, but very annoying one on Colindale Avenue between Colindale tube and Booth Road. Annoying because it fills up with rain and every vehicle that passes sends dirty spray up onto the pavement.

Barnet council's "FixMyStreet" website, where residents can report potholes and other street repairs needed, only seems to work where people feel they have ownership of a pothole because it is close to their house. Holes in more public places seem to be going unreported and unrepaired. Sometimes these are the biggest holes!

Perhaps we should start an adopt a pothole scheme. Tonight I am going to take charge of the two potholes mentioned in my blog and report them to FixMyStreet. I'll let you know how things go.


The statcounter I use on this blog can tell me what keywords people have used in their internet search to bring them here.

This is my chance to apologise to, for example, the person who wanted to know the Indian High Court ruling on the daily rate for a tabla player but wound up here instead.

To the person who was looking for articles using the keywords "Nigel", "Farage" and "twat" and wound up here, I hope you were pleased with what you found.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Civil servants to strike on budget day

The PCS union are organising a third day of strike action on Budget Day, 24 March, to protest aginst the government's unilateral ending of their redundancy scheme. The government wants to make it cheaper to sack civil servants.

Budget day tomorrow is when the Chancellor explains his plans for restoring the national finances. Unfortunately, a lot of that is going to be done through cuts in public services, including cutting the number of staff delivering services.

I'll be visiting some of the picket lines around Barnet.

Here is a list - if you are nearby and want to know more about the dispute do go and ask the PCS members there. If it's not specified, please assume that you should go in the morning. Many civil servants are likely to go down to a central London rally in Parliament Square which is from 11am to 2pm.
North London Revenue Branch will be staging a picket outside Capitol House, 794 Green Lanes, Winchmore Hill, London N21 from 7-10am.

London Customs Branch will be staging a picket outside Berkeley House, 304 Regents Park Road, Finchley, London N3.

Jobcentres - there are likely to be pickets at most of the Jobcentres although you might have to go around to the staff entrances to find them!
Here from the Barnet Press is an account of the first two days' successful action on 8-9 March.

Barnet College - tonight's meeting cancelled

The public meeting about planned cuts at Barnet College scheduled for this evening has been cancelled. See the notice on the college website front page.

What a shame. I hope that there will still be some campaign around this. I'll share any news I get.

Barnet politicians grilled over sheltered housing wardens

Not able to join us on the sheltered housing demo yesterday were people involved in Barnet's 55+ forum. They were busy with an important event of their own, a hustings for local politicians.

More than 50 people were in the audience to grill Hendon Labour MP Andrew Dismore, Liberal Democrat council group leader Jack Cohen, Tory councillor Sachin Rajput, who is Barnet council's cabinet member for adult services, and Green Party parliamentary candidate for Hendon Andrew Newby.

The proposed sheltered housing warden cuts were high on people's agenda. Sachin Rajput continued to defend the cuts.

There's a full report on the Times series site.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Taxi! Or, Why I Am in the Wrong Business

Last week I gave over a half-day to draft the press release and letters to party leaders for today's sheltered housing demo. Today, I gave up another day's work and travelled, at my own expense, to join the protest in Parliament Square.

Sheltered housing residents from Barnet and elsewhere - Portsmouth, Cambridge, Hackney, Camden, Kensington, Whitstable - many of them elderly and disabled, stood across the road from Parliament and shouted "Save our wardens!" at a motorcade of chauffeur-driven cars bearing dignitaries in wigs with their families out of the Palace of Westminster. No, I haven't a clue who they were, but this certainly wasn't access to ministers.

We stood there with Brian Haw, he of the seven-year-long anti-Iraq war protest, and his supporters. We were photographed by the local press and the Times (the press release had some effect, then).

On schedule, the less able pensioners climbed into the minibus they had hired for the day (sometimes Barnet trades unions have paid for transport for these protests), while the rest of us set off on foot. We headed up to 30 Millbank to hand one of the letters in to Tory Party HQ. Then we went around the corner to Liberal Democrat HQ in Cowley Street. Finally, we trundled up to 10 Downing Street, to hand in the third of our three letters to the PM, leader of the Labour Party. We didn't see a single politician all day.

Because - for once - we hadn't arranged permission from the police, our small protest over the road from Downing Street was, strictly speaking, illegal, under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, but we held it anyway. At 2pm, tired but satisfied with our efforts, we broke up and went home.

I don't have to spend my days like this, but I do it because I take my politics seriously. Perhaps one day, when I'm old, someone younger will do something for me - God knows, the way things are going, by then we will need all the help we can get. (I fully expect to be working or starving till the end of my days.)

Today's escapade (not our first - we have been at this for a year now), where a group of old people put themselves out and have to co-opt the voluntary help of people like me, in order to try to get a hearing from the people who laughingly describe themselves as politicians, contrasts so starkly with the scenes exposed in tonight's "Dispatches" programme on Channel 4 that there is no point trying to say more on the matter!

One small crumb of comfort is the fact that it is some of the most Blairite soon-to-be ex-MPs - Patricia Hewitt, Stephen Byers, Geoff Hoon - that were exposed tonight, preparing to cash in on their contacts and sell themselves to lobby on behalf of private business. (I do believe that there is still such a thing as an honest MP.)

Politicians like these look down their noses at politicos like me, but they are the ones looking sleazy now - and I think John Butterfill can kiss goodbye to his peerage!

You can see the programme here for the next 29 days.

My Tracey Emin moment

I saw Tracey Emin on the David Dimbleby "The Seven Ages of Britain" programme last night. I'm not a huge fan of her work, but I can understand the motivation behind much of it, and applaud that.

Then my artistic cousin Gemma Parker has sent me a request for a picture of my dressing table for a project, "The Art of Dressing Up".

I have snapped what passes for my dressing table and as it is probably too ugly to make it into my cousin's gallery, and I hate for my efforts to go to waste, I will share it with you now (whether you want me to or not). It is mostly covered in objects covered in dust and, obviously, an empty tea cup. Time for a spring clean. I do, however, use the deodorant and the hairbrush.

The picture is of me in my mortar board and gown for my MRes degree ceremony - a year ago now!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

A week of action for Barnet trades council

An astonishing range of activities this week (commencing Saturday). Barnet trades council's diary is pasted below to give a sense of what we have done already and will be doing for the rest of this week. Please join us if you can!

20-22 March. BA cabin crew strikes. Picket line visits.

Saturday 20 March. Demonstration against the far-right English Defence League in Bolton.

Saturday 20 March. Demonstration against college cuts organised by the lecturers' union UCU. (Picture below courtesy of Barnet Unison.)

Monday 22 March. Demonstration to support sheltered housing wardens, central London, assemble: noon, Parliament Square; at 1pm we will deliver letters to the main party leaders. Barnet residents of sheltered housing schemes are central to organising this event.

Tuesday 23 March. Staff and public meeting against planned cuts at Barnet College. 5.30pm, Building 3, North London Business Park. More information: 020 8200 8300. This meeting has been cancelled, alas.

Wednesday 24 March. Budget day strike by civil servants in the PCS union, as part of their campaign to defend their redundancy scheme. Information about picket lines and strike support will be posted on the Barnet TUC website.

Thursday 25 March. Barnet TUC AGM, 7-9pm, Council Chamber, Hendon Town Hall, the Burroughs, London NW4 4BG. All welcome, including trade unionists and local campigning groups.

27-30 March. BA cabin crew strikes. Picket line visits.

Friday, 19 March 2010

East Barnet gas debacle - the council recommends...

Times series on Barnet council's ad hoc scrutiny committee report of their investigation into the East Barnet gas debacle. The committee's key recommendation was that National Grid pay householders more compensation for the days they spent without gas.

For me the stand-out part is not where committee chair Brian Coleman offers to stand Jack Cohen a dinner, but where he says the council can recommend what they like, but have very little power to make National Grid do anything.
“We can't give them a time limit, we've got no authority over them. We are suggesting they do it but they can say yes, no or mind your own business.

“They are a private company responsible to shareholders and directors.”
I have seen the Future Shape of Barnet council and it doesn't work terribly well?

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Nick Walkley - flushing out the opposition

If you have ever sat in the public gallery for a Barnet council cabinet meeting when chief executive Nick Walkley has been there, be sure you have been thoroughly surveyed. Walkley likes to check out just who is in the room; it's his job to know the lie of the land politically, the size and composition of the opposition to any measure the administration is putting through.

That's how I interpret this invitation from the council to a meeting for people who might be thinking of standing in the council elections. The mainstream parties know who is standing for them, Nick Walkley probably knows who is standing for each party. But he doesn't know what is going on out there, in no-party-affiliation land. He must be getting twitchy.

I went to the recent Residents' Association of Barnet (RAB) meeting that discussed independent candidacies. I haven't written a report, partly because I've been too busy and partly because... I don't want to give anything away! Ha!

It's fair to say that I wouldn't stand as a RAB candidate, because I think their platform is too woolly and not left-wing enough, but do I know others who might be thinking of standing? Aha! That would be telling!

P.S. Worth noting as well that the workshop for potential candidates is being run by Barnet's favourite think tank IDeA. Them again.

Celebrating Iranian New Year in Barnet - can we?

Last week I had a walk in Moat Mount open space. Most enjoyable. Coming through the picnic area I remembered that Barnet council will probably declare this area out of bounds in a few days time.

In recent years, Barnet's biggish Iranian community has tried to mark the last day of its fortnight-long New Year festival with a picnic in Moat Mount and other parks around the borough. But, because of the amount of rubbish they generate, and their habit of having barbecues, the council has become very antsy and now declares the parks closed.

For Iranians, going for a picnic on Sizdah Be-dar (the 13th day) is their way of seeing out the old year. Not allowing for this practice is like telling Anglo-Saxon Brits they can't get pissed and reel around central London on the night of 31 December.

There have been attempts by the Iranian community to negotiate with the council and local police about facilitating the practice, but these have come to nothing. I think the council should try again. The point is sharpened by this news item on special waste collections for the Jewish community over Passover. I don't resent that, although it undoubtedly costs the borough extra.

I wouldn't resent the council allowing Iranians (and Kurds and Afghanis, whose New Year is at the same time) to use the borough's parks for their New Year picnic. Disposing of the additional waste (for at most a couple of days) would cost the borough extra, but in the great scheme of things it must be small beer. And it would stop a significant part of the community being treated as pariah once a year.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

BA cabin crew and the right to strike

The right to withdraw your labour - to strike - must be one of the most fundamental human rights. Without it, what are we? Slaves. You can argue that when we are taken on in a job we sign a contract, that we make a contract to do so much work for so much pay, etcetera, and that by going on strike we are breaking this contract. But there is no equality in this bargain. If you don't work, you starve, simples. The exchange involved in one person agreeing to work for another is not a fair one.

There is a lot of room in this system for bargaining, for demand and supply, etcetera, to alter the balance in favour of one side - the employer - or the other - the employees. That's where unions have come in - a historical fact, an organic part of the economic system we live under. In every country where industrialisation and capitalism come to dominate, you get trade unions. Workers will form them, to defend their interests against bosses who, given half a chance, will squeeze workers to do more and more work for less and less money. Papers such as the Daily Mail can fulminate against this state of affairs as much as they like - the alternative, a state with no trade unions to speak of, is usually called a dictatorship.

All this granted, in any industrial dispute you have a choice of sitting on the fence, or picking a side. As you might expect, I'm supporting the BA cabin crew who have voted to go on strike. They've persisted against judges ruling their first ballot illegal for the most tendentious reasons; the predictable howls of the press; and now the idiotic statements by Gordon Brown, desperately trying to curry favour with middle class voters whom he cannot imagine having any higher concern than whether they will get away on holiday on time.

Len McCluskey of the cabin crew's union Unite wrote a good piece for the Guardian yesterday where he laid out some of the issues:

Some people believe it is wrong that BA cabin crew get paid more than colleagues at other airlines. According to that argument, competition among staff means levelling down pay, while boardroom competition means levelling it up. I make no apology for the fact that union-organised employees are better paid than the majority of private sector workers denied our support and protection. That's what we are in business for.

And cabin crew bear no responsibility for BA's difficulties, and should not be singled out to pay for them. It was not cabin crew who fouled up the launch of Terminal 5, with its devastatingly bad publicity. It was not cabin crew who organised the fuel price-fixing racket which has cost BA hundreds of millions in fines. The airline's reputation for dirty tricks? Not cabin crew but management.

It is no surprise, then, that BA is also inept at industrial relations. But it takes a special sort of mismanagement to build on these catastrophes by then getting into a confrontation with the very people smarter airlines use as a marketing tool – the cabin crew on whom passengers depend for their safety and comfort.

Over the last few months these employees have been bullied by some of the airline's pilots, harassed by its managers, demonised by its PR specialists and stalked online by its internet snooping brigade. It is testimony to the determination of these "middle-England" employees that they have twice voted for industrial action to defend their dignity in the face of these tactics, worthy only of a Victorian mill owner.

But BA cabin crew have not been blind to the economic realities of the airline's position. They offered the company a package of savings which would have more than met their requirements – an extraordinary £60m worth of concessions. The fact that BA prefers the greater risk and cost of industrial action makes it clear that there is another agenda at work here.

This dispute is now a clash between two brands. The BA brand – a premium airline in which skilled professionals deliver a quality service for passengers. And the Willie Walsh brand – all threats, bluster and grandstanding – a brand that Walsh will no doubt wish to take on intact to his next employer, whatever the wreckage left in his wake.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Strap your hands 'cross my Engine

Another one of those patronising articles about Barnet, written by someone who thinks it's just dandy if their fave consultancy firm creams off some of our council taxes to pursue their bizarre management theories. Am I sounding a bit paranoid and bitter? Well, I just don't like my borough to be talked about behind my back.

It gets worse. I recently drove past a banner in Southwark inviting residents to get involved in the Future Shape of Southwark Housing. Sound familiar? This article about Engine Service Design, who ran Barnet council's case study on working with disadvantaged people - you know, the ones that cost the council so much money! - reveals that they worked with Southwark council as well.

So, Barnet Future Shape is actually us being fobbed off with Southwark's cast-offs! Look at this quotation from the article:

Engine's Joe Heapy says: "Organisations need to listen, adapt, and collaborate, which is totally right for our times. Whole system change is painful, and it hardly ever happens in local government. But design can help bite off small chunks of that change, while keeping an eye on the larger picture."

Graeme Gordon, head of corporate strategy at Southwark council agrees. "If we were to just talk about cuts, that would be a terrible missed opportunity. We may be driven by the funding crisis, but we want to do things differently."
That sounds a lot like Mike Freer, writing in the Times in November:

...if this next round of public sector reform is simply to be about cutting spending, we will have failed. The need for reform runs much deeper than that.
And I thought we were special.

London Mayor says 'yes' to Brent Cross scheme UPDATED ON 16 MARCH

London Mayor Boris Johnson has given his approval to Barnet council's big Brent Cross redevelopment scheme. There is a report on Property Week's website - who, not unsuprisingly, only see the upside. The Coalition for a Sustainable Brent Cross Cricklewood Development will comment soon, I expect.

Update made on 16 March:
John Denham, the Secretary of State, has told Barnet council they cannot go ahead with the plan until they get explicit permission. This looks like the precursor to the government calling the plan in for a public inquiry. Quite right too!

Below is the statement by the Brent Cross Coalition.

Coalition Pleased that Government Stalls Plans that Boris Rubberstamped

The Coalition for a Sustainable Brent Cross Cricklewood Plan are celebrating their biggest victory since they formed in September 2009. Yesterday the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government issued a ‘stop notice’ under Article 14 of the Town and Country Planning Order 1995, saying “the SoS hereby directs Barnet Council not to grant planning permission on this application without specific authorisation”.

Boris Johnson had passed the plans on Friday, and the stop notice means that John Denham now has more time to decide whether to call in the development for a public inquiry. The Coalition believes the development fulfills every criterion for a call in.

Coalition Co-ordinator Lia Colacicco was excited, “Hopefully the Secretary of State’s next move is to call a public inquiry immediately so that these disastrous plans can undergo full public scrutiny.”

“We were hoping that John Denham would stop this dinosaur of a development. He has much broader powers than the Mayor: it could be called in on several criteria, but in particular because its effects go far beyond the immediate area, local people don’t want it in this form, and because it is completely unsustainable in terms of traffic, housing, and the environment.”

“We are not surprised that John Denham has issued a ‘stop notice’. How would it look if this out-of-town development is allowed to go through with its incinerator and sub-standard housing, when by 2016 all other new housing will have to be carbon zero? We want an exciting and innovative place, built around people and public transport – including a local railway like the docklands light railway. We need to use the latest green technology.”

Darren Johnson, London Assembly member said, “There are better ways to spend £4.8bn if we want to revitalise this area. Londoners want less traffic, good local shops and more affordable homes, but the Mayor has rubberstamped a development that will bring the exact opposite to the area: another 29,000 cars, a threat to other neighbourhood shopping areas and one of the lowest affordable homes targets in London.”

David Howard, Federation of Residents Associations in Barnet added, ”The timing is interesting. The scheme may now struggle. Its greatest advocate in Barnet, Mike ‘easy council’ Freer is hoping to move away from the Council into Parliament. Westfield shopping centre is under-performing. Brent Cross developer Hammerson is getting cold feet about doubling the size of the shopping area, and moving its attention to France. The housing market has collapsed and the Brent Cross model is out of date. No wonder the developers have only committed to phase 1. We await with interest what will happen next.”

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Defend public services - oppose the witch-hunt in Unison!

At the civil servants' strike rally on Tuesday 9 March a number of guest speakers pledged their support for the battle to defend civil service redundancy terms. They included - what shall I call them? - many of the usual suspects: John McDonnell MP, NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear, RMT general secretary Bob Crow. But there was also a more surprise guest appearance by Unison general secretary Dave Prentis.

Prentis was unequivocal in his support for the civil servants:
UNISON fully supports PCS members in their fight to retain their hard-won conditions. Both our unions face similar attacks on our pay, our pensions and our conditions.

What’s happening to our public services and our public sector workers at the moment is daylight robbery. The rich are allowed to get away with being tax cheats. They are allowed to get away with their off-shore accounts and their non-dom havens. But I call that theft.

...the Government, instead of attacking its own workforce, should be standing up to the tax cheats, to the rich city bankers and the financial institutions. And it should stand up for public services and public sector workers. General Secretary of UNISON, with 1.4 million members, I call on all public service unions to unite together to stem the growing clamour for more and more public spending cuts. Using our collective strength to say to whoever is in power - we won’t tolerate attacks on our services, on our members or their pay and jobs. We will fight to defend them.
This is all very welcome. But it sits uneasily beside developements inside his own union, where activists are worried that a full-scale witch-hunt is going into swing.

For years, four key officers in their respective branches - Bromley, Greenwich, Hackney, the Tenant Services Authority - have been defending themselves for putting out a leaflet critical of the leadership (their real "crime") at the union's 2007 conference. The leaflet had a cartoon of the three wise monkeys on it - capable, so the witch-hunters said, given a fair dollop of imagination, of giving offence to black people.

Eventually, the four, who are also members of the Socialist Party (their real "crime") were banned from office for several years. Last Friday morning, 5 March, Unison London region "swooped" on the Unison offices of three of the four and shut them down, pending new branch elections.

Throughout the country, Unison branches are fighting bitter battles to defend the jobs, pay and service conditions of some of those 1.4 million members that Prentis likes to boast about. The last thing they need is to be looking over their shoulders wondering whether their own union backs them. It would be even more absurd if wider activist layers came under suspicion because of their support for the four - classic witch-hunt territory, where those who question the standards of justice in a case involving others in turn find themselves coming under suspicion.

Is this all just an internal union affair that others should keep their noses out of? I don't think so. With 1.4 million Unison members in the UK, probably every other member of the population has a friend or family member in the union! Moreover, unions pride themselves on serving not just the interests of their members but also of the industries, communities and public services that they work in. This is especially important for the public services. "Defending jobs, defending public services" is a slogan unions use often - and with justice.

Ordinary residents who rely on the services that Unison members deliver will be affected if the union's ability to function at a grassroots level is hampered by the witch-hunt and so, yes, we do have an interest in what happens inside Unison.

Defend Unison democracy!
Join Unison members protesting outside Congress House on Great Russell Street, London. Monday 15 March, 6pm onwards.
Followed by a "Defend the Four" meeting, 7pm at University of London Union (ULU), Malet Street (just around the corner).

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

RATS to Westminster council: no to the bike tax! No to job cuts!

RATS stands for "Riders Against Tory Stealth taxes".

Returning from the civil servants' strike rally yesterday, I couldn't help noticing an enormous great motorcade of bikers at Trafalgar Square. They were protesting against Westminster council's "experimental" introduction of parking fees for motorcycles and scooters.

A well-orchestrated campaign, No to the Bike Parking Tax, says:
We strongly hold that this scheme is nothing other than revenue-raising and designed to deter motorcycle and scooter usage, latest figures from Westminster show that so far £2.5million has been made from the experimental scheme yet only £300k has been spent, mainly on signs and lines, this is a dangerous piece of anti-rider legislation which would, if allowed to be introduced fully, soon be copied by other councils throughout the UK and beyond. It was Westminster who introduced extortionate car parking fees to reduce parking congestion and look how long it took for that to spread.

Introducing fees seems totally contrary to the well-documented aims of Transport for London’s anti-congestion initiatives. The levying of the Congestion Charge on 2-wheeled motorised transport – like all previous parking legislation – was felt to be inappropriate, since it was considered an efficient mode of transport to help ease the Capital’s congestion problem.
After riding up and down in front of the Northumberland Hotel, where the council was holding a shindig at the cost of £23,000, the bikers joined Westminster council workers protesting against the council cutting 60 city guardian and inspector posts. These are council workers who walk around Westminster reporting on graffiti, vandalism, deterring crime, giving directions to tourists, etc.

The best part of the evening was when the police tried to tell the bikers that, under the terms of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (SOCPA), they couldn't use their megaphone.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Civil service strike, 8-9 March 2010

Congratulations to the civil servants who struck today and yesterday to defend the Civil Service Compensation Scheme (CSCS), their redundancy terms, which the government has decided to drastically downgrade.

The government has done this without consulting its workforce. Four of the smaller unions rolled over and died - without consulting their membership. The largest civil service union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), balloted its 270,000 members on whether or not to take strike action and they said yes.

I went to the central London march and rally today. I'm posting a few pictures.

It's clear that the downgrading of the CSCS would be a precursor to the government - of whichever political complexion - slashing jobs in the civil service.

PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka was correct in telling civil servants they must act strongly now to defend themselves. Time is short: the changes are due to take place in the new financial year. The election period creates some turmoil, but also an opportunity for civil servants to pressure the Labour government.

East Barnet gas debacle - report of the scrutiny committee meeting

National Grid could not cope when a water mains burst cut gas supplies to 3,500 East Barnet homes and businesses over Christmas.

The energy network operator came under fire at a meeting of Barnet Council's scrutiny committee last week (4 March).

National Grid told the commitee it struggled to bring the emergency under control as water gushed through the gas mains and into some households. And it said that two national call centres had failed to keep up with calls for advice during the crisis.

Barnet Council officers claimed advice letters that should have been sent out to the East Barnet community had been 'sat on' by National Grid lawyers. A National Grid spokesman claimed, however, that the letters had been delayed because of a technicality and because "it was too dark" to deliver them on December 23 - four days after the gas supply was cut.

The company again snubbed calls to increase compensation to householders and businesses.

Benard Walsh, of Brookhill Road, who spoke on behalf of residents said:
I am staggered that, despite National Grid's admission that it could not cope with this crisis, the company is refusing to re-consider its compensation offers. The figures paid out have varied by £500 from neighbour to neighbour. Some of the shops have lost thousands of pounds but National Grid is only prepared to offer them £50 a day. These small businesses had to pay employees' wages with or without gas.
The Scrutiny Committee presents its conclusions at a meeting at Hendon Town Hall on March 18th at 7pm.

Report by Bernard Walsh

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Demonstrations, strikes... start getting used to it

Demonstrations, strikes... start getting used to it. I don't say that with glee, quite the opposite. But if we are threatened with massive public service cuts, job losses, etc., then we must resist.

A recent BBC survey of councils in England gave an estimate of 10% cuts in council workforces over the next 3-5 years. If anyone thinks you can shed 25,000 jobs and not affect frontline services, think again!

Barnet council responded to the survey. For the question "Excluding schools, what do you expect to be the overall reduction in spending in real terms in the next 3-5 years?" Barnet answered 15-20%. If anyone thinks that sort of decrease can be done through efficiency savings and not affect residents' service from Barnet council, think again!

Barking and Dagenham, where the BNP's Nick Griffin aims to be the next MP, and the fascist party aims to make gains in the council elections, replied that it expects to make 25-30% cuts. That'll really reconcile alienated voters to the mainstream! Council job cuts in Barking and Dagenham are expected to be 500-1,000.

Barnet did not answer the job cuts question (they say they have 3,706 full-time equivalent staff, excluding in education). But they did explain how they expect to "save money", the by-now familiar Future Shape plan:

Consolidation and outsourcing of support services
Improved corporate procurement
Integrated citizen contact, including with partners
New service delivery models at arms-length to the Council
Joint commissioning and assessment with the PCT
Increasing and differentiating charges
Reducing core service entitlement
Barnet Press reports this week on the passing of the Barnet council budget, with its freeze on council tax. I don't believe that it is necessary for council tax to be raised in order to defend council services against cuts, but I do think the councils, and we the people that live in them, should be demanding no cuts in our money from central government. We did not cause the banking crisis, why should our services suffer to pay for it?

Barnet Press also reports on the recent impressive demonstration against the proposed closure of Whittington Hospital A&E, which Barnet TUC took part in.
John Burgess from Unison in Barnet marched alongside other union members holding a banner on Saturday [27 February]. He told The Press: “We’re trying to build awareness about these plans.

“We need to see some changes in the mainstream political parties’ manifestos before the election, or the future will be more protests like this, more people on the streets, at MPs’ offices, outside council offices and so on.

“People need to think about how the taxpayer bailed out the banks from a financial meltdown, and now the private sector is eyeing up our NHS – it’s the hypocrisy which winds me up.”
Tomorrow and on Tuesday, civil servants in the PCS union will be on strike to protest against the government's unilateral downgrading of their redundancy scheme, the precursor to a jobs cull on the cheap. Demonstrations, strikes - yes, start getting used to it.


If you would like to support local PCS picket lines (a quaint old practice, but one I can heartily recommend) I've received the following message:

Please note the details of PCS picket lines outside JobCentres for DWP North London Branch tomorrow and Tuesday - your support is very welcome, as are branch donations and collections for our hardship fund:

Wood Green – 7.30am-10.30am
Tottenham – 8.30am-10.30am
Finchley – 8am-10am
Barnet – 7.30am-10am
Palmers Green – 8am-10am

There should also be a presence outside Hendon JobCentre tomorrow morning, and Enfield JobCentre Tuesday morning.

Unlikely Socialists no. 1 - Oscar Wilde at odds with Evening Standard

Last night I helped a friend to celebrate her 30th birthday at the Green Carnation, a Soho bar with an Oscar Wilde theme - flock wallpaper, comfy sofas, Wilde quotations on the walls, and rammed to the rafters with young men in tight t-shirts (as you might expect, it has a mainly gay clientele).

One enjoyable quotation, just at the top of the stairs, which you can read as you pull your coat on at stupid o' clock before tottering off in search of a night bus, is:
Work is the curse of the drinking classes.
How true, how true. Not many people know Oscar Wilde's other guilty secret - that he was a socialist, a libertarian socialist or anarchist, some say. The best evidence for this is his 1891 essay "The soul of man under socialism". This opens:

The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.
If that sounds paradoxical, well, it is Wilde! He was having a swipe at the widespread practice of philanthropy by middle- and upper-class people, when what was really required was a new economic system to eradicate poverty entirely and allow everyone to achieve their potential - particularly, their artistic potential.

How true this rings right now! For the last couple of weeks London's Evening Standard has been filled with hand-wringing articles about the extent of poverty in the capital. People who have the opportunity to do something meaningful about it, if they and their friends would only put their hands in their pockets and pay more tax, have instead been lining up to shake their heads and urge the better-off to do more charity work among the feckless poor.

They include Gordon Brown (you know him, that rather prominent member of the democratically elected government for the past 13 years), who tells us:
Poverty demeans a great city like London... There is much further to go, because the causes of poverty are often deep-rooted and will take a generation to turn around.
And Prince William:
It is up to us, not just politicians and charities, to answer this challenge — wherever, whenever and in whatever way, small or large, we feel we can.

I realise that I am very fortunate. But through my involvement with Centrepoint, and talking with the disadvantaged young people it looks after, I feel I have an understanding of some of the issues surrounding homelessness, one of the many manifestations of poverty in this capital city.
And London mayor Boris Johnson:
The welfare system is an essential part of a civilised society. The state must be strong. The state must be active. But the state on its own cannot cope. It is time for a new age of voluntarism and volunteering. It is time for the rich to show their sense of duty to wider society.
Oh, spare us! The government and the would-be government that are slashing and preparing to slash further our public services and put people out of work, but who are totally devoted to maintaining our unequal distribution of wealth, are calling on the rich to help the poor - who are evidently perceived to be incapable of knowing what is good for them.

Relying on philanthropy from the rich to solve problems of poverty didn't work in the 1890s and won't work now! We need to defend and extend public services, create jobs, build homes, reduce the wealth gap. We should tax the rich and big business (including those pesky greedy bankers) to do it!


This blogpost is the first in an occasional series on Unlikely Socialists - people who self-identify as socialists, whose idea of socialism I more or less agree with, and who are fairly famous and respected by the mainstream. The aim of this thread is to help rehabilitate the label "socialist" to something that more people will be proud to call themselves.

Friday, 5 March 2010

It's like a jungle sometimes - a day in Westminster

I've had a heavy day covering the English Defence League (EDL) demonstration in Westminster. I got down there at 12.30 by which time anti-fascist demonstrators had set up a small roadblock. This was quite quickly removed by the police using a variety of tactics - though, mercifully, they never resorted to using riot police.

Other than that, however, we saw the whole lot of police kit on display today: dogs, horses, and, the first time I've ever seen it, two London buses - no.s 148 and 24 - to process and take away arrested anti-fascist demonstrators! I wonder whether they were just hired from the bus company for the day, and what the drivers made of it - I did try asking one of them through his cab window, but he just shrugged sheepishly.

Once the roadblock was cleared, the EDL, who had been assembling outside (and inside!) Tate Britain for several hours, and had a fair amount of booze inside them, were allowed up the road to Westminster. They demonstrated on College Green, about 500 of them, looking, for the most part, like a gang of football hooligans.

They were there, ostensibly, to defend Dutch politician Geert Wilders' right to show his anti-Islam film 'Fitna' in Parliament. (Wilders was the guest of Baroness Cox and UKIP's Lord Pearson.)

For myself, I think Wilders is paranoid about Islam and whips up hatred against Muslims, but I don't really hold with calling for the state to ban him. For that matter, I don't really hold with calling for the state to ban EDL marches. I just think that more of us who dislike what they stand for should hit the streets when they are in town.

If everyone who nominally dislikes them and could get a day off work (it's not that difficult) had turned up in Westminster today, the EDL would have been massively outnumbered and might have thought twice about exercising their 'freedom of speech'.

I got some mobile phone pics of the police breaking up the blockade, but none of the EDL because my phone had packed up by then! However, the press pack really only turned up on the scene in numbers once the EDL did, so you will have plenty of pictures of their angry, snarling faces (the EDL, not the press pack) in your newspapers tomorrow.

My pictures are of the bit that was less well covered. I've included a couple here. Plus a link to a Grandmaster Flash song from 1983! It's a good antidote to today's events!

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Let's hear it for odd-shaped balls

Someone with good sense has taken down the 'No ball games' notice, the one I was moaning about the other week, from the green in front of the house.

A couple of days ago I saw some boys, inspired by the Six Nations tournament, attempting to play rugby on there. We need to encourage that sort of thing, not discourage it, and I will wait to see whether anyone is fool enough to put the sign back up.

Monday, 1 March 2010

East Barnet gas debacle - come to the scrutiny committee (guest blog)

Two and a half months after a gas breakdown plunged 3,500 households and businesses in East Barnet into Arctic temperatures, Barnet council launches an inquiry into the emergency on Thursday night. Bernard Walsh, of Brookhill Road, orchestrated a campaign aimed at bringing those responsible for the crisis to account.

The meeting of the council's scrutiny committee will examine why shivering residents and shop owners were stranded as utility companies, local authority officials and emergency services failed to communicate with them during the crisis.

The loss of gas caused severe problems during the festive period, but the total lack of communication exacerbated the problem.

National Grid appears to be using pre-agreed compensation guidelines to ride roughshod over people's needs. This gas breakdown cost people money, hard cash from their pockets. All National Grid are offering is £30 a day compensation for households and £50 for businesses. The £multi-billion organisation threw in £100 per day for homes cut off on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

National Grid has ducked calls for increased compensation to make good the anguish caused by failure to tell people what was going on. And local councillors also went into hiding - until I called for a public meeting two weeks ago. It's a pity those councillors couldn't knock on a few doors to communicate with people during the breakdown - they'll be doing just that in the next month or so in the run-up to the election.

Following the public meeting at New Barnet Community Centre, National Grid held two and a half days' of surgeries at East Barnet Baptist Church, to track down all 3,500 premises affected by the cut off - around 350 people made it to the surgeries.

Scrutiny committee chairman Cllr Brian Coleman has snubbed calls to hold the meeting in or close to East Barnet, meaning many of the vulnerable people who were left high and dry by the communication breakdown will again be denied the chance to have their say.

The meeting takes place at Hendon Town Hall, the Burroughs, NW4 4BG at 7pm on Thursday 4 March. Official papers available here.

Bernard Walsh

P.S. Notice of the meeting in the Times series today.