Saturday, 31 July 2010

Neither Big Society nor rural idiocy!

In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx's paean of praise to the achievements of capitalism (no, really, in part it is), he says:
The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.
In trying to get my head around David Cameron's Big Society idea (or is it just a soundbite?) I have this image of Olde England, Britain as it used to be, in short: village life.

Just that, villages, hundreds of them, thousands of them, tens of thousands of them, who knows. An even blanket of villages across the whole country, none of them very big, all having, with the odd minor variation, the same social structure: a church with its clergy, a manor house with its gentry, shops with their tradespeople, cottages with their rural labourers, and a few professionals living in desirable multistorey houses on the high street.

In this map of just a small part of Hertfordshire, even today, many village names survive, although some of the original settlements have grown a lot bigger, and some have shrunk, and most of them have got joined up somehow.

In village society, which British society was for hundreds, even thousands of years, you could hope that if you were old and infirm someone would come and dig you out if your cottage got snowed in in the winter. Yes, life was shit for most people, and everyone knew their place, but at least you had the obligations of a small society to fall back on.

Jump to the 18th and 19th centuries. Huge numbers had been driven or drawn to the burgeoning cities; the old social patterns, ties and obligations were gone; the working classes did their own thing away from the prying eyes of their betters, and built their own "big society" to help them get by.

Jump to the 21st century. We still have the welfare state, which the majority of people voted to establish and the majority still support today, even though the media and political classes are doing their best to make it seem unfashionable.

Unless Cameron has some Maoist plan to drive us all back to the villages (I think mine is in Kent), we will continue to need the welfare state. Elderly people in Barnet will continue to need to ring the local authorities when there is cold weather and they need their path clearing so that they can get to the shops. Neither Big Society nor rural idiocy but democratically accountable, high quality public services!

Friday, 30 July 2010

By Gove! I think he's exaggerating

Education Secretary Michael Gove has rushed through the legislation for academies, insisting it had to be done quickly owing to the vast amount of demand there was from schools. In fact, nationally, only 153 schools have actually applied. Unfortunately, 19 of those "registering an interest" (a step short of applying, although some of those have gone on to do that as well) are in Barnet.

Here's the list of "not outstanding" schools "registering an interest" (from the Department for Education website):
  • Bishop Douglass School Finchley (Secondary)
  • Finchley Catholic High School (Secondary)
  • Hasmonean High School (Secondary)
  • JCoSS - Jewish Community Secondary School (proposed to open 01/09/10)
  • Mill Hill County High School (Secondary)
  • Monken Hadley CofE Primary School
  • Osidge Primary School
Here's the list of "outstanding" schools "registering an interest" (from the Department for Education website):
  • Ashmole School (Secondary)
  • Barnfield Primary School
  • Hasmonean Primary School
  • Independent Jewish Day School (Primary)
  • Queen Elizabeth's Girls' School (Secondary)
  • Queen Elizabeth's School, Barnet (Secondary)
  • St Mary's CofE Primary School, East Barnet
  • St Michael's Catholic Grammar School
  • The Compton School (Secondary)
  • The Henrietta Barnett School (Secondary)
  • The Ravenscroft School A Technology College (Secondary)
  • Whitefield School (Secondary)
Another, shorter, list called "Applications to Convert as of 23 July 2010" showing those who have made full applications is available here. It includes only "outstanding schools". These are the Barnet schools on that list:
  • Ashmole School
  • East Barnet School
  • Queen Elizabeth's School, Barnet
  • St Michael's Catholic Grammar School
  • The Compton School
  • The Ravenscroft School A Technology College
Although when the plans were first set out, the Tories suggested that any outstanding school that wanted to become an academy would be allowed to, Ravenscroft has already been turned down. Speculation is rife as to why: the feeling among some is that Ravenscroft just doesn't fit the bill of what an academy should look like, there are just too many working class kids there, for a start. That's one reason why it's relatively undersubscribed: the middle class parents of that area don't want their children mixing with hoi pollloi. (I don't know if this is fair but I've heard it from different sources.)

Barnet MP Theresa Villliers is upset, anyway, that Ravenscroft has been rejected and has secured a kind of appeal for the school. Villiers has written a letter to Gove (reported in the Barnet Press, Times series and Evening Standard) saying:
“As you will recognise, the decision to reject the application is a huge disappointment to the whole school community - to staff, parents and students – and to all of us in Barnet who strongly support the school and value the work that it does.

“You will see that the students come from diverse backgrounds, with a significant proportion having special educational needs and others coming from the refugee community.

"I know you do not wish academy status to be confined to those schools which head the results league tables.

"In my opinion, Ravenscroft's progress been hugely impressive in recent years. Ofsted's rating of the school as outstanding reflects the hard work by governors, staff and students. The school has given vastly improved life chances to hundreds of students who might otherwise have struggled or become disengaged from education."
The comment about it being a good school might well be right, but the comment about rejection being a disappointment can't be, because, from what I understand, staff, parents and students have barely been consulted at all about the application. It has come solely from a decision by the governors.

* Barnet Anti Academies Alliance*

My free advice to Lynne Hillan: when you're in a hole, stop digging

The interview Lynne Hillan has given the Barnet Press only makes her harder to like. Photographed looking "intensely relaxed" (first mistake), she manages to offend throughout:
"I would be signing petitions too if I believed everything I read in the paper, but I’ve not got a £20,000 pay rise. I was already on £50,700 from two special responsibility allowances, and if I take the full allowance I will be getting £57,624."
I wouldn't make so much noise about that. OK, the new system means she's lost a special responsibility allowance, but her overall pay still rises by nearly £8,000, a 14% rise.
"We adopted the lowest rate we possibly could and reduced it some more. We will be bringing in a saving this year, and are freezing it for the next four years – year-on-year there will be saving for the taxpayer."
The lowest rate they could? Which they then reduced? How about reducing it further? Moreover, they are only bringing in a saving this year because the cabinet members waived some of their increase. If they claim the full amount next year, the overall allowances budget will increase.

It's news to me that they are freezing the rate for four years. Would they be offering this if there hadn't been so much public uproar? Let's see whether Barnet Tories keep that promise.
"The new system only allows for one allowance, and doesn’t mean a councillor suddenly loses or gains more money overnight – councillors have mortgages to pay and families to keep as well."
A sour note creeps in. Rest assured, Mrs Hillan, no one wants councillors to starve, but there's no danger of it, is there? Hillan should be careful how she talks about this, because people are questioninng hard the whole system of paying councillors at all. Myself, I'm undecided, but I know this recent allowances furore has decided many people against.

What about the timing of the decision to change the allowances system?
Mrs Hillan, who took over as council leader in December, said they had been looking to adopt London Councils’ scheme for some time. When challenged why this had not been mentioned to the electorate before the election, she said: “We hadn’t really discussed it. Only after the election councillors started saying we needed to look at something different.”
Inept handling of the question. Makes it sound as though they had a bout of temporary amnesia. We were looking at raising the allowances, then we forgot we were, then we remembered again. Careless but, somehow, convenient.

How has this episode affected relations with the council workforce?
Unions have hit out at the councillors, with claims that they are lining their pockets while frontline council workers are facing a pay freeze or possible redundancy, but Mrs Hillan argued that politicians had been victims of pay freezes for several years. She said: “I’m not saying I want more money or we should take more money, but the unions have been allowed to increase public sector pay over and over again.”
This comment will go down like a lead balloon with those greedy council workers.

What about Kate Salinger?
Mrs Hillan also refused to comment on Councillor Kate Salinger, who was stripped of all her main committee positions after she abstained from the allowances vote on a matter of “conscience”. Mrs Hillan said it was a matter for the Tory group office and said Mrs Salinger was still chairwoman of the children’s services overview and scrutiny sub-committee.
I'm guessing they couldn't find someone else for that job, which involves a degree of competence that is clearly not required for the other posts, such as chairing a residents' forum. (Hillan has said a lot more about Kate Salinger in an interview with the Times series.)

Hillan now makes another rash promise with regard to councillors' allowances. I doubt somehow that she believes that she could get councillors to accept a 25% pay cut. Another careless remark then:
Mrs Hillan said: “I think we are going to have a difficult time over the next four years. We are inevitably going to upset a few people. We are going to see 25 per cent cuts across the board – allowances are not going to be exempt from that. I know it’s going to be painful for everybody.
Now for the Hillan coup de grâce:
“Residents’ relationships with the council are going to change. When someone calls up and says it’s been snowing can we help clear their path, the answer is going to be, ‘Get a spade out of the shed’.

“That’s not just in Barnet – that’s everywhere.”
Not very reassuring words for anyone that doesn't have a shed or a spade, or would struggle to use a spade through age or disability. This is the council that prided itself on getting around to old people's houses during the cold spell last winter. That was warm-hearted Mike Freer's Barnet. This is ice queen Lynne Hillan's.

She might protest that her spade analogy is just a turn of phrase. In that case, here's one for Lynne Hillan: when you're in a hole, stop digging.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Who needs enemies? Top Hendon Tory vilifies councillors' allowances hike

The dismay of Barnet residents at Tory councillors voting their leader and cabinet members big hikes in their allowances reaches into the heart of the local Tory party itself.

The Times series carries an interview with Conservative association member and Chairman of the Hendon and West Hendon Conservative groups, Adrian Murray-Leonard. He says:
“To take the decision to increase allowances is immoral, disgusting and vile. It is a crazy situation. I don't have a problem with the party, it is the people, they are greedy vultures and I don't want to be associated with them.

“Most of them are in it for themselves. They are living under an illusion of grandeur. Most of the people who are getting whipped to make the decision should stand up against it.”
Barnet council leader Lynne Hillan has been defending the decision in the paper. Posing for a pic in the dress she wore on the fateful night that Item 5.3 was passed, she says:
“Although it may look as if there was a considerable increase for one particular special responsibility, it actually works out that the majority of councillors are either receiving the same as they were before, a very small increase, or some are getting a decrease.

"...It's a redistribution."
It doesn't just look as though there was a considerable increase for one particular special responsibility - there was a considerable increase for one particular special responsibility, hers: Lynne Hillan's getting an extra £20,000 a year for being council leader.

(And redistribution is not usually considered progressive unless it results in a more equitable sharing of the cake.)

She says that, overall, councillors' allowances will not rise - but that is only because this year the Cabinet members have agreed to waive some of their increase.

The GMB union has got involved now. The national office is looking into a judicial review of the way the council took the decision, not giving the required notice for that piece of business.

Barnet The Rogue's Gallery

Another lovely picture for the gallery by the talented artist Anon.

Instructions for use: click on poster to load bigger version, then click again to enlarge that.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Life is not difficile in Lille; here's something about the Cross of Brent, it is urgent

I've just got back from a trip to Lille (even Trots have holidays - more on that anon).

Have you been? It's very nice, much nicer than I'd dared hope. I mean, its main appeal is that you can get there in about two hours; it's a bonus that it's also a nice place.

I'll get the crappy photos I took off my camera tomorrow and post them, along with some "aperçus". In the meantime, I can see that I have some catching up to do on the Barnet front.

For example, this Thursday 29 July, the same evening as the trades council is meeting (from 7.30pm in Committee Room 1), the Brent Cross Coalition has a lobby at Hendon Town Hall, the Burroughs, NW4. Please go along and support them if you can, from 6.30pm. More details here.

The lobby is called because the council is rushing through the Brent Cross development plan.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Shall we try that again? - residents forums next Monday and Tuesday

A quick reminder to residents of Finchley and Golders Green and Hendon that there are Barnet council residents forums next Monday and Tuesday nights. Details:
Golders Green and Finchley: Monday 26 July, 6.30pm, St Michael's Church Hall, Golders Green, NW11 8HL

Hendon: Tuesday 27 July, 6.30pm, Sangam Centre, 210 Burnt Oak Broadway, HA8 OAP
Now, just a warning, if you wanted to raise the issue of council leader and cabinet member allowances increases, the new chair of the Chipping Barnt residents forum, Barry Evangeli, told attendees last week they could not talk about that.

But there's no reason why we should not have a try at the other forums. Force the chairs of those bodies to make the same ruling, if they dare - then we should make an official complaint to the council, because at these forums residents should be allowed to raise any item related to council business.

If they refuse to answer questions on any matter, that's up to them and we are entitled to interpret their silence, but they have no right to stop residents raising questions. Here is the relevant passage in the council's constitution:
Residents Forums perform a consultative and advisory role.

They provide an opportunity for any resident to comment on any aspect of council service, plans and proposals.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Please, Mr Gove, can I start a free school?

There is something almost naively endearing about the Government's latest half-baked scheme for reforming education: free schools. But it's all a sinister ploy, I tell you.

I mean, why fanny around with setting up an academy - you know, take the trouble of transforming an existing state school - when you can just start from scratch on any old premises that will pass muster, making up some plausible reason why the local state schools don't quite meet your children's needs?

Of course, you have to get past the vetting procedure first. It's more rigorous than the government has made out up till now. It's nothing like as DIY as was presented in Tory Party election broadcasts. See the flow diagram here:

So, at the back of it, there must be some pretty big outfits somewhere lining up to set up "chains" of free schools (SkoolsRUs?). Before the election we heard about a group of parents who wanted to set up a free school, the Birkenshaw, Birstall and Gomersal Parent Alliance. It turns out this group was looking into setting up a "free school" with that Big Society multinational SERCO! Other multinationals are looking forward to getting in on the act.

The legislation for academies and free schools is being rushed through Parliament now. The Department of Education is so overworked and lacking in capacity that it has enlisted the help of a charity, the New Schools Network (NSN), to advise people thinking of applying to open a free school. This charity includes some key advisers to Michael Gove. From the NSN website:

Director: Rachel Wolf

Before she founded the New Schools Network, Rachel was an education adviser to the Conservative Party.
The Tories used to like to complain about quangos stuffed with Tony's cronies. What on earth is this, if it ins't more of the same, only worse, because at least quangos were, you know, quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations, not just completely independent bodies over which the public has no control.

The Department for Education website explains why NSN is being used:
Why are you working with the New Schools Network?

We believe that there is a need for support at local level for groups interested in setting up Free Schools. The NSN has already built up a large network of such groups as well as experience in supporting them; the Department does not have that experience. We think this makes them best placed at this particular time to help us develop early momentum behind the Free Schools policy. The NSN will work closely with the Department and will hand over projects when it is agreed that they are sufficiently developed to be formally submitted to Ministers for approval.
So NSN is good enough for the Department for Education to work with, or, rather, for an incoming, ideologically driven adminstration that has already had close contacts with them to work with. Is that reassuring enough for you? It isn't for me.

Something I find particularly offensive is that the form for registering interest in opening a free school is semi-hosted on the NSN website, which also features, prominently, an appeal for donations. I simply don't think this is ethical. What is this charity? What does it do, how much do its directors earn? And should people feel pressured into donating to it, as I'm sure many people will?

If you want to know more about the free schools policy (no, this is not an advertisement!) I advise you to visit the NSN website, and also the Department for Education's Frequently Asked Questions page on free schools. Here are some snippets from that which should alarm anyone about what might be the future for state education: publicly funded but independent and unaccountable, and, quite likely, run behind the scenes by big business for profit.

Do Free Schools need agreement from the local authority? Proposers will be free to discuss their plans with any local partners, including the local authority, and we encourage them to do so; however; the LA will not need to approve your plans.

How will applicants be expected to demonstrate that they are suitable education providers? Proposers will need to demonstrate that they have strong educational aims and objectives for their new schools, and have the ability or resources to deliver them. Proposers will not have to be groups who already provide education services; they can be new providers but we will expect them to be able to demonstrate a capability to deliver their plans. This might mean partnering new providers with a third-party group with education experience or having plans in place to subcontract parts of the running and management of the school to other suitable organisations.

Who provides the premises for Free Schools? How will you help groups secure sites?We will remove the unnecessary and burdensome regulations that get in the way of local communities securing sites for new schools. This will include allowing a wider range of sites to be used as schools without the need for ‘change of use’ consent. In addition, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will aim to update guidelines, before summer recess, to local planning authorities to make it clear there is a presumption in favour of setting up new schools.

Can Free Schools contract out the running of the school? Can those contractors make a profit?We expect all Free Schools to be established on a non-profit-making basis. All income and assets of the charitable trust must be spent and used for the charitable purpose of the trust, which will run the school, i.e. to advance education for the public benefit.

However, like all state schools, the trust will be able to subcontract elements of the running and management of the school to other organisations, including private companies.
If any of this worries you, please do think of getting involved with Barnet Anti Academies Alliance, which has been set up to fight the government's and Barnet council's policy of encouraging academies and free schools.

Barnet Anti Academies Alliance launched into the blogosphere

The website for the new campaign Barnet Anti Academies Alliance is up and running. New content added daily, hopefully.

To contact the camapign, please email

The website is here. The lead article says:
We are a group of parents, trade unionists, school students, and residents of Barnet. We want to stop Barnet schools becoming academies. To any school wishing to become an academy we are issuing this challenge:

- organise an open debate on the pros and cons of becoming an academy. The more people who know what it involves, we believe, the fewer schools will want to go down this road.

- before applying to become an academy, hold a ballot of parents and staff – and agree to respect the result.

Petitions galore as even the Times series takes a stand

One of the local newspapers, the Times series, avoids getting on the wrong side of the council, so it is a mark of how much Barnet's Conservative councillors have offended that the Times series has now launched - very prominently - a petition: Reject the Rise.

Here they explain why. The wording on the petition, which you can sign here, is:

We the undersigned believe councillors should not accept pay rises agreed under the new allowance structure voted in by Barnet Council on July 13, 2010.

We call upon council leader Lynne Hillan to rethink the rise.
Personally, I think the wording on John Dix's petition is better, more concrete (and longer!). You can sign that here.

And Hendon's former MP Andrew Dismore has a petition as well. You can sign that here.

The more the merrier. Will Lynne Hillan take the slightest bit of notice? No, but David Cameron might.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Barnet unions in the news

Austin Harney, the secretary of Barnet trades council, a colleague of mine, is featured in the Times series, commenting on the council leader and cabinet members' allowances hike. Austin says:
The Conservative Party should not hesitate to discipline their members on the cabinet of Barnet Council, and even threaten them with expulsion from the party if these Councillors do not forfeit their latest increases.

The truth is that these Conservative councillors know that they can impose any policy to their whim and still become elected for every term of office.

Yet, the fact remains that if they stood as independents tomorrow, they would easily lose.
Austin calls on
all people working and living in the London Borough of Barnet to petition their three Conservative MPs, and demand that these councillors withdraw their preposterous increases or face expulsion from the Tory Party.
Meanwhile, the GMB union has calculated that "more than £9m in taxes went uncollected by Barnet Council last year":
The council, which needs to save more than £6m after budget cuts this year, failed to gather £9.873m in council tax and business rates in the 2009/10 financial year.

This makes it the fifth worst offender in London after Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, Croydon and Southwark.

Barnet councillors - it's not too late to change your mind!

Dear readers,

please sign this petition set up by John Dix (who stood in the council elections on the Residents' Association of Barnet ticket):

Please ask friends and neighbours to sign. It makes the case for what was wrong with the Conservative councillors' recent decision to drastically increase council leader and cabinet member allowances, and offers a remedy: just revert to the status quo ante.

Over to us to sign, and over to them to change their decision!

Dear Dave, where's our Big Society?

Dear Mr Cameron (or, if you prefer, Dave),

In Barnet the Conservative-led council wants to hand over delivery of most council services to a big private sector contractor, such as Centrica, where's our Big Society? And it stops residents asking the questions they want to ask councillors at their own forum (Chipping Barnet residents' forum, 20 July), where's our Big Society? And it has granted responsibility for the Brent Cross/Cricklewood regeneration (£4.5bn scheme) to one big company, Hammerson, where's our Big Society?

I could go on but I think you get the picture. This Barnet resident for one remains to be convinced that the Big Society you have just launched is anything more than a load of rhetoric to prettify public sector cuts. Am I wrong?

Yours sincerely,
Vicki Morris

What hope for Liverpool and any of us? Bring back the working classes

Three of my grandparents are buried within spitting distance of the Mersey, and my dad grew up there, so I claim a tenuous connection with Liverpool. When I first started visiting it regularly in the late 1980s it was a dreary place, suffering high unemployment and reeling from deep cuts to public services. I would say it's only just bobbing along now. How is it going to emerge from the coming age of austerity? Back to square one?

David Cameron launched his Big Society agenda there on Monday. Did he have a more valid reason for choosing Liverpool than the corny symbolism of holding his press conference at Liverpool Hope University? Yes, Liverpool, apparently, has volunteered to be one of four "vanguard communities", although someone might have told them:
Some of the local partners in the "vanguard communities" that David Cameron said will lead his "big society" revolution were uncertain about what being in the vanguard will involve.

Many involved in the voluntary sector had been given limited information, and some were warning that voluntary organisations hit by funding cuts will be hard pushed to deliver more.

"We don't know how it's going to work," a spokesman for Liverpool city council said. "We have been given no information about this."

[Rachel Williams and Rajeev Syal, Guardian, 19 July]
Who are these vanguard communities and what is planned for them?

Liverpool, the Eden Valley in Cumbria, Windsor and Maidenhead in Berkshire and Sutton in south-west London will become "vanguard communities". All four authorities approached the government to experiment with running the parts of their public services they think they can administer better.

They may have central government budgets handed over to them to administer at street level, attempt to improve local transport links themselves, take over command of local assets such as pubs and community services, have a greater say over planning permission or local transport and, in the case of Liverpool, allow volunteers to keep a popular local museum open for longer hours.

...The government will also announce the creation of a "Big Society Bank" to help finance social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups. The money will come from dormant bank and building society accounts – the amount is thought to be as much as £400m.

[Allegra Stratton, Guardian, 19 July]
Personally, I find the whole idea of Big Society unconvincing and deeply patronising. This is Cameron from his launch speech:
For years there was the basic assumption at the heart of government that the way to improve things in society was to micromanage from the centre, from Westminster. But this just doesn't work. It has turned able, capable, individuals into passive recipients of state help with little hope for a better future. It has turned lively communities into dull, soulless clones of one another.
What is he on about? Could he give us some concrete examples? I assume he has no plans to stop supermarkets building "soulless" out-of-town and close-to-town shopping developments, that suck the lifeblood out of high streets? When high street shops close and are taken over by charity shops, that's a good thing, right? Is that Big Society? Well, he's hoping that more and more public services will be run by charities...

Who are these able, capable individuals passively receiving state aid? I assume he is talking about the people he wants to drive off benefits (or, in less sensitive Tory tabloid-speak, "benefits-scroungers")? Or is he talking about wider circles of people, those of us who turn up to our local hospital and expect to find it open? He either needs to spell things out more... or drop the hyperbolic rhetoric.

He has claimed that the Big Society agenda is not just an attempt to prettify the cuts. But he brings along Eric Pickles, communities secretary, to play hard cop. Here's Pickles on Radio 4:
Even at a time when money is tight it is still possible to find different ways of delivering. It is unashamedly about getting more for less. But it is about passing power down to folks so you can start to mould your own neighbourhood and put something back in.
Put something back in? What if you don't have anything to start with? Again, Cameron says this is not just a return to patchwork Victorian philanthropy, but if Big Society really takes off - I'm not sure it can, I'm not sure we can turn back the clock that far without major upheaval! - that's what it would be.

The Guardian publishes an excellent set of reasoned objections to Big Society on its letters page today. This is one of the best:

The ability of community and voluntary groups to significantly increase their role in delivering public services is not easy. They will need time and space to grow and develop local delivery options. For this to happen, the government will have to be more interventionist and reform procurement practice away from raw market "efficiencies" toward effectiveness, the local, and less traditional commercial public service providers. If the government does this it will be fettering the speed and scale of contracts given to the private sector. For the government to create its "big society" it will have to intervene in the public sector market.

Some used to say the public sector crowds out the commercial sector. Now the commercial sector is in danger of crowding out civil society and fettering the "big society". Has the government the stomach for this, or will "big society" actually come to mean big business?

Neil McInroy, Chief executive, Centre for Local Economic Strategies
In Barnet the council wants to hand over delivery of most council services to a big private sector contractor, where's our Big Society? And it stops residents asking the questions they want to ask of local government, where's our Big Society?

There is one actor that has not figured in all of Cameron's calculations and it is the working class, I mean the self-conscious working class, understanding its history. Before the advent of the welfare state, sure, there was philanthropy but a lot of it was, frankly, cranky stuff shaped by the preoccupations of the middle- and upper-class people delivering it. Coverage was patchy and it was wholly inadequate. Historians of the lower orders have shown that the working class basically survived through its own support networks, with poor people helping out the poorer as best they could. And you could go out without locking your door... That was community, that was Big Society. But it was class society.

Who were the greatest enthusiasts for the Big State? Who, recalling the horrors of the 30s, clamoured for it after the Second World War? The working clases. They are not anywhere in Cameron's calculations, and it is time they began to assert themselves again. Big Society will not bring hope to Liverpool, the working class might.

Barnet residents banned from discussing what they like at their own forum

Barnet council residents who went along to Chipping Barnet residents' forum this evening hoping they could ask councillors and council officials about anything they like (council related) were disappointed.

The new chair, Barry Evangeli, who has replaced Kate Salinger, removed from her post for abstaining over the now nationally notorious Barnet council leader and cabinet member allowances hike, told residents they could not ask about this topic.

The Barnet Bugle has an early report of this (no, I wasn't there so this is all hearsay!). I'm sure many more details will emerge in the coming days.

What a farce! I wonder whether the same charade will be repeated at the Finchley and Golders Green forum next Monday and Hendon forum next Tuesday.

David Cameron's [I initially typed David Coleman - I wonder why] Big Society won't come to much when this Tory controlled local town hall isn't prepared to explain itself to its own residents on a question of great interest such as this.

In case you can get along, here are the details for those other residents' forums - let's see if our chairs are as brazen as Evangeli:
Finchley and Golders Green - 6.30pm, Monday 26 July, St Michael's Church Hall, Golders Green

Hendon - 6.30pm, Tuesday 27 July, Sangam Centre, Burnt Oak

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Big Society lunch... sorry, launch

David Cameron launched his Big Society idea in Liverpool yesterday. I was going to write a blogpost about the true meaning of Big Society being "do something useful, just don't expect paying for it", but this, from Joe Robb on his blog "Brian Coleman (aka Mr Toad) has got to go!", is way funnier: PM launches 'The Big Pariah'.

Chipping Barnet residents' forum tonight - elect Kate Salinger!

It's Barnet council's Chipping Barnet residents' forum tonight. It's held at the library and starts at 6.30pm. Papers for it here.

I don't know what's on the agenda but there are plenty of issues that need addressing:

- New Barnet town centre plans

- the rush to academise Barnet's schools

- the council leader and cabinet voting themselves big fat allowances hikes

- the vote by the Conservative group to remove Kate Salinger from the post of chair of the Chipping Barnet residents' forum for refusing to vote for the big fat allowances hikes.
Will Kate Salinger go to the meeting? If I were her, I would go along to defend my actions and protest against my punishment.

And if she did turn up, it might be quite good fun to elect her as the residents' own choice of chair just to irritate whichever councillor has been appointed to replace her. Well, I can dream.

If any Chipping Barnet resident who attends would like to write a report of the meeting I'd be happy to post it up here, without comment or editorialising, tomorrow.


Monday, 19 July 2010

The great Barnet schools sell-off?

I went to the teaching unions' lobby of Parliament today. Originally called to protest at the axing of the Building Schools for the Future scheme, there were also plenty of people asking their MPs questions about the Tories' plans to push schools into becoming academies.

The implications of our own Barnet council's enthusiasm for academies become clearer in this paper - "Conversion of schools to Academy status – transfer of land" - prepared for the Cabinet Resources Commmittee tonight.

All new academy schools will have to be leased to their Academy Trust for 125 years. There is a risk, as the paper acknowledges, that a Trust might try to vary the use of the school land - build some flats? - in which case the council would have to take them to court.

The staff are effectively sold to the new Trust; in theory, under TUPE legislation, the new employer has to keep them on the same terms, conditions, pay, etc, but once a transfer has taken place, there is little to stop the new employer finding a pretext for tearing up the old contract and offering a new, worse, one. This is what happened to the Fremantle care workers.

There are other worrying aspects of academies (to put it mildly). There is no requirement to consult staff, Local Authority or even parents when a school applies to become an academy; an academy trust can ignore the National Curriculum; once a school becomes an academy, governors are usually appointed by the sponsor; with the academies gone, it will be much harder to plan for the needs of non-academy schools and to plan education in the borough generally... I could go on and on.

The Cabinet Resources paper mentions a couple more:

...The grant of 125 year leases to schools adopting Academy status will mean that the Council will have less flexibility in managing its school property portfolio. The Council will only retain a reversionary interest in the school. The Council would no longer have the ability to make changes to schools such as increasing or decreasing the size to meet pupil demand, setting up specialist units in schools or closure.

...The Council is likely to incur significant legal costs in negotiating and granting leases for Academies, if a number of schools choose to convert. The Department for Education (DfE) has indicated that a standard lease template will be produced, which would reduce costs to an extent although resource pressures are likely. Each school converting to Academy status will receive £25,000 from the DfE towards expenditure related to conversion. The Council will seek to recover legal costs from schools where appropriate.
For ideological reasons, Barnet council can't wait to wash its hands of its schools. But the mass conversion to academies sure as hell doesn't look like saving the council any money!

Barnet Anti Academies Alliance was set up at a meeting last week to inform schools, parents, staff and Barnet residents generally about the implications of academies for Barnet education, and to resist the policy. For more information email

The campaign will be producing a newspaper over the summer which will be available for the start of next term, and they are setting up a website with local information. Until those are ready, to find out more about academies, visit the website of the Anti Academies Alliance.

You're in trouble now, Brian - the Express weighs in

The Daily Express (far from being my favourite newspaper, but still...) has weighed in on the Barnet Cabinet and Leader's expenses scandal with a diatribe against Brian Coleman, and councillors in general.

They get confused between councillors and Cabinet members in the passage below, but it will still be extremely uncomfortable reading for the Tory party, both the variety that we have here in Barnet and the variety that lives in 10 Downing Street! It's good to see the sheltered housing wardens issue getting attention as well.

Barnet, which this year increased allowances for its councillors from £17,454 to £27,580 and that of its leader from £40,893 to £47,027, was revealed earlier this year to be one of the lousiest councils in the country for carrying out adaptations so as to allow disabled residents to continue living in their homes – with residents waiting more than five years.

The council has also done away with full-time wardens at old people’s homes, instigating instead a system of roving wardens who cover the whole borough. Councillors defended the scheme by promoting it as pioneering and an efficient use of money.

But now it seems some of the money saved will simply be disappearing into councillors’ pockets instead. It is extraordinary that at a time of severe financial constraint a council which promotes itself as a super-efficient flagship authority can be awarding itself pay increases.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Class warfare breaks out in the Tory party

Britain's second highest paid councillor, Brian Coleman, has hit out at criticism from the local government minister Grant Shapps. Coleman says it's OK him getting nearly £120,000 in allowances for all his elected posts because he doesn't have any other means of support, unlike Shapps, "the multi millionaire Grant Shapps... The one with the private plane... The successful businessman..."

This is the sort of argument that the Chartists made for why MPs should be paid: if they aren't, only the rich can be politicians. The Chartists were right, but there's pay and there's pay! Does Coleman need so much pay? Does anyone need so much pay?

He gets so much because, in theory, he is doing a demanding job, two demanding jobs, er, three demanding jobs. How does he find the time to do three demanding jobs? Perhaps he should step down from one of them, or two, or three.

Class war is breaking out in the Tory party between the aristos and plutocrats at the top, the Shapps, Osbornes and Camerons, who "can afford" to take a pay cut, in order to set a good example to the rest of us, and petit-bourgeois party members like Brian Coleman. If Coleman takes a pay cut he'll slip down to the level of the common man. It is the classic case of the petit-bourgeois being squeezed in a crisis, desperately trying not to be forced down into the working class.

Come on down, Brian. It's not so bad. We'll all shove up and make room for you. Read about the spat in the Telegraph.

Ostriches on Sunday

The Royal Parks apart, I don't know a finer London park than Golders Hill Park.

Its attractions include a deer park, butterfly park, zoo and bandstand. The cafe, though a little pricey, is very nice and there's an ice cream stall. The grass is like a thick pile carpet to walk on.

It's fairly quiet on Sunday morning, mainly dads taking small children out. It gets busy in the afternoon, but is still quieter, I reckon, than heaving Hampstead Heath next door.

This morning I got to stand beside an ostrich and admire its quivering, plump body stuck full of enough ostrich feathers to adorn a hundred ladies' Sunday hats.

The park is owned and maintained by the Corporation of London. One way or another, they make enough out of us, so go and enjoy it while they are still "giving something back"!

"Frankly, my dear, it looked better on the bird."

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Barnet council's new logo?

(With grateful thanks to the artist, who, I think, wishes to remain anonymous.)

Honour Tolpuddle - fight the Tories!

The march at Tolpuddle in 1984, the year of the great miners' strike

Every year the trade union movement remembers one of its founding events, the "martyrdom" in 1834 of six agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle, Dorset, transported to Australia for "swearing an illegal oath" - actually, for setting up a trade union.

The cause of the martyrs won so much support - including a march of thousands in Copenhagen Fields, Islington - that they were freed early and returned to a heroes' welcome. Since when Tolpuddle village has been a seemingly unlikely place of pilgrimage for fans of trade unionism, there is even a small museum there.

Around this time, each year, South West region of the TUC organises a festival, which keeps growing in size and popularity. Now it comprises camping and training events as well as the traditional parade and speechifying on the Sunday.

The demonstration on that day, when trade unionists from all over the country - and sometimes abroad - walk in a loop up the road through the village and then back down the other side, allowing everyone to see everyone else at least once, is a very moving event.

The musical entertainment once this is over is often very good, as well, but the speechifying can rather get up one's nose, as trade union leaders who have no intention of leading any kind of struggle whatsoever, and are earning several times what their members earn, sing the praises of the hapless George Loveless and his band. There is an old-fashioned and appropriate term for people like this: Sunday socialist. A more up-to-date version would be: they just don't get it.

I'm not going to Tolpuddle this year, because I can't afford too much time away. Those that are there I urge to enjoy the sunshine while they can, because we've a hell of a task ahead of us. And ask the trade union leaders why they won't lead a fight against the government's policies. Honour the Tolpuddle martyrs? The only appropriate way is to fight the Tories!

Friday, 16 July 2010

Blimey, was he talking about Neil Kinnock?

I chanced upon this impressive poem by Adrian Henri at the start of the Labour Party's 1992 election manifesto "It's time to get Britain working again".

The poem is called "Winter Ending". It's apt to read this poem now because, good as the poem is, I don't want to go through that cycle of winter and spring again. Shall we strain every sinew to make sure we don't have the cardboard cities, leaking classrooms, peeling waiting-rooms and polluted streams (?) this time around?

Barnet trades council is hosting a meeting on Thursday 29 July at 7.30pm in Committee Room 1, Hendon Town Hall, the Burroughs, London NW4. We aim to set up a Barnet Public Services Alliance to head off cuts to public services, and privatisation. Any organisation that would like to send a representative and interested individuals are invited to attend. For more details email

And if anyone doubts there are other sources of wealth sloshing about that we could tap to pay for public services, check out today's news on Goldman Sachs.

Winter Ending

'A cold coming we had of it'
huddled together in cardboard cities,
crouched over shared books in leaking classrooms,
crammed into peeling waiting-rooms,
ice stamped into crazy-paving
round polluted streams.
Winter ending:
paintings, poems bud hesitantly,
tentative chords behind boarded facades;
factories open like daffodils,
trains flex frozen rheumatic joints,
computer-screens blink on
in the sudden daylight.
As the last cardboard boxes
are swept away beneath busy bridges,
the cold blue landscape of winter
suddenly alive with bright red roses.

Barnet council residents forums - our chance to quiz the council

For the next fortnight, Barnet residents, you have a chance to go along and quiz the council on any topic you like! Submit your questions in advance to the person named for each area (click on the area name to go to the relevant page on the council website).

Chipping Barnet - 6.30pm, Tuesday 20 July, Chipping Barnet Library
Finchley and Golders Green - 6.30pm, Monday 26 July, St Michael's Church Hall, Golders Green
Hendon - 6.30pm, Tuesday 27 July, Sangam Centre, Burnt Oak

Thursday, 15 July 2010

"Austere times...?" - Barnet Press; Barnet Bugle audio and video

The Barnet Bugle has provided audio and video of news coverage of the Barnet council Cabinet and Leader allowances scandal. Thanks, Barnet Bugle (the blog is run by Daniel Hope, a former Tory councillor).

The Barnet Press, which you can pick up in your local Barnet library, has extensive coverage of the story. Its front-page headline is
Austere Times...? As councillors vote themselves a big pay rise – in the name of ‘transparency’ – we asked for council leader Lynne Hillan (whose pay is going from £34,909 to £54,227) to explain it a bit more. The answer? No comment.
The main article is here; union comment - "Unions’ disgust at pay rises as council workers face job losses" - here; the fate of Kate Salinger - "Tory councillor is punished for her stand against ‘immoral’ pay awards" - is reported here.

An editorial comment condemns the Tory councillors. The Barnet Bugle has that as well (it's not on the Barnet Press website, as far as I can see).

Brian Coleman, Barnet's most distressed gentleperson

In childhood, things that one comes across randomly outside one's normal experience can have a big impact. A porn magazine thrown away in a hedge, for example. (Another time.)

I once came across a copy of The Lady magazine (125 years old this year). I quickly surmised that the world of The Lady was restrained and a little dull, but refined, so not all bad.

I was intrigued most of all by the advertisements, particularly one for a home for distressed gentlefolk.

So there were these people who were broke and needed charity, but because they had once been gentle, they needed extra special care, because, well, once gentle, always gentle, I suppose. The poor are always with us (as Lib Dem councillor Susette Palmer reminded us on Tuesday night) but the poor should, as far as possible, only be people who had been born poor.

It was a very intriguing idea, and provided me with an early insight into class society.

Now, to Brian Coleman. My friend said the other night, when I told him about the Barnet council leader and cabinet members' allowances hike, and how Brian Coleman now gets about £130,000 in annual allowances from his various positions: "It's outrageous, why don't you let the papers know about it, the Telegraph, for example?"

I laughed gaily: "Why, they know all about it already. Everyone knows about it!"

And they do, and that's the shame of it. So, not for the first time, I pondered the question of how Coleman gets away with it, and I came up with two answers:

1. Coleman, for whatever reasons of cronyism or whatever, is part of Boris Johnson's team at the GLA, and cannot be sanctioned by his own party for fear of making Johnson look bad in what is now (though the election's not till 2012) the pre-mayoral election period.

2. Coleman was not unseated by his electors at the last election, they go on backing him in spite of all his stunningly and deservedly bad press. The only reason I can think of is that the affluent voters of Totteridge and Whetstone actually think £130,000 is not all that much. Perhaps they feel sorry for Coleman, like some sort of distressed gentleperson who's gamely gone into politics on their behalf and mustn't be allowed to suffer pecuniary disadvantage on account of it.

Why, the man must have his suits tailored and be able to wine and dine people at the Haven as much as any other man of his class.

Oh, surely, the voters of Totteridge and Whetstone can't be as moneyed and foolish as all that?

Freer and Hillan - no hard feelings, I'm sure

Apparently, newly elected Golders Green and Finchley MP Mike Freer is backing Local Government Minister Grant Shapps over Barnet councillors' allowances hike.

The Times series has a report. Freer is supposed to have said:

"It is not justifiable for hikes in councillor allowances when public sector workers are facing a two-year pay freeze.

“We're all in this together, and those who hold public office need to lead by example."
The other Barnet MPs, also Tories, Matthew Offord and Theresa Villiers are taking the same line. It shows the tension that can exist in party politics between the national and the local tiers.

These tensions will be there in all parties. Barnet Lib Dems went along with all the major policy statements of the Barnet Tories on Tuesday night - academies and free schools, the emergency budget and, roughly, where the cuts must fall, cuts to housing benefits - but you could see they relished the opportunity to have a go at the Tories over allowances.

Recently, the local Labour group sometimes took a line somewhat independent of the Labour government - for example, opposing the sheltered housing warden cuts, when it was government policy that gave councils the green light to make such cuts. But their mood music at the council meeting on Tuesday echoed the national party "explanations" of the crisis: it was a global economic crisis, making drastic cuts now will jeopardise the recovery.

There was no sign of any independent analysis of, well, "the system" as such, a system that Labour in its New Labour guise and the Tories and the Lib Dems all support, more or less enthusiastically: free market, globalised capitalism.

What was I expecting?!

Back to Mike Freer. Former leader of Barnet council, and a big crony of Lynne Hillan, I can't believe that he isn't simply saying now what he has to say. Just as Barnet's Tory councillors on Tuesday night were under the thumb of the whip, Freer has to say what national government is saying. It won't do his career any harm either. And I imagine that in a phone call to Lynne and Brian he can smoothe things over on a personal level.

Council reported

Meanwhile, Barnet Lib Dems have reported the council to its own standards committee for failing to give sufficient public notice of the proposal to raise Leader and Cabinet member allowances. Times series report here.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Barnet Tories slated by Local Government Minister Grant Shapps

News is leaking out about Barnet Tories last night voting the leader and Cabinet big rises in expenses - and the government's own Local Government Minister Grant Shapps is not impressed, telling BBC London news:
"I find it quite disturbing that they should be taking pay rises - I urge them to think again. Which planet are they living on? For goodness sake show some leadership."
Press cuttings:

BBC London News
Evening Standard
Jewish Chronicle (blogpost by Marcus Dysch)

An academy is for life... Why the Tories' plans for education could mean a two-tier education system

Barnet branch of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) is hosting a meeting about academies. Anyone interested in hearing the union's case for what's wrong with the Tories' plans for education is invited.
An academy is for life

Guest speaker: Alasdair Smith, Anti Academies Alliance

5.30pm, Thursday 15 July
Oak Room, Building 4, North London Business Park, Oakleigh Road South, London N11 1NP

More information: Barnet Teachers' Association; email Keith:

Barnet Tories follow the Judas goat to the slaughter; Or, How should Lynne Hillan spend her £19,318 pay rise?

When we first heard that Lynne Hillan and Barnet council's Tory cabinet were looking at increasing their expenses by between 55-99%, we were aghast.

I think it's a con, John Burgess, the Unison branch secretary told me. It was one of those cynical ruses whereby the council leader can say that she is prepared to make a sacrifice and forgo her pay rise, and so must all the rest of us.

Well, that was giving them too much credit. I went to the council meeting last night; that item of business (item 5.3, remember it) was left till the very last, 10.15pm, when they must have hoped most of the public would have left. Most of them had, but representatives of the council unions remained to hear Lynne make her pitch for why she should get £54,227 instead of £34,909 (a 55% rise) and why Cabinet colleagues should get £34,780 instead of £17,454.50 (a 99% rise).

When she started by saying "Barnet is one of the biggest boroughs...", I realised that the Tories were going to take the money! She went on to say how complex it was running the borough's services (even though they are looking to hive off most of them), to flatter councillors on all sides - what a hard job they do - suggest that the rises for her and her cronies will not raise the overall cost to residents, because they are doing away with some smaller allowances, etc.

Tom Davey, a Hale ward councillor, who'd earlier made a bigoted speech about people who live in social housing, and insisted that "poverty is an emotive word", had to second the motion. He sounded a lot less sure of himself now.

Of the Tories, only Kate Salinger abstained. 37 Tories did what Liberal councillor Susette Palmer passionately implored them not to do: follow the Judas goat (Lynne Hillan) to the slaughter and vote their boss a nice pay hike.

The Times series in a report quotes John Burgess's response:
“It's disgusting. We were lectured last night about how we have to help cut council services.

“I've sat in here and listened to how they just voted themselves a massive pay increase and I think council workers are going to go mental. I can't believe what I've just heard.”
There's a fuller Times series report here, that omits the trade union response.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Council meeting Tuesday night - will Lynne Hillan vote herself a massive pay rise?

There's a council meeting on Tuesday night (13 July) from 7pm at Hendon Town Hall, the Burroughs, NW4. The council unions have organised a lobby from 6pm, to protest against planned privatisation, and I think some campaigners for sheltered housing will be there as well.

Please get along if you can. Papers for the council meeting, which the public are free to observe, are available here.

An item that has been announced late - Item 5.3 - pertains to councillors' expenses, and could well involve council leader Lynne Hillan giving herself a big pay rise!

The figures involved are:
Council leader: current £34,909, proposed £54,227, increase 55%
Cabinet members: current £17,454.50, proposed £34,780, increase 99%
Thanks to Rog T and to the Barnet Bugle for spotting these in time for us to make a noise about them!

Gove turns a crap idea with reasonable motivation - academies - on its head, now it's a crap idea with no justification

Here are some basic arguments from the website of the Anti Academies Alliance on what's wrong with Michael Gove's academies proposal. This scheme from New Labour that aimed to raise standards in deprived areas by building a posh new school and bringing in "expertise" from private business, is being turned on its head as "outstanding" schools in leafy suburbs are being offered a fast track to academy status.

Barnet unions will be at the protest on 19 July in central London.

Anti Academies Alliance backs the 19th July lobby of Parliament called by education unions
On the second reading of the Academies Bill, Monday 19th July, the education unions have called a lobby of Parliament over the cuts in the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

While Michael Gove is slashing the rebuilding of hundreds of schools around the country he is promising extra money for any school that becomes an Academy, and to anybody who wants to open a ‘Free’ school.

The crisis over BSF is intimately linked with the Academies programme. In many places Academies were forced on Local Authorities in order to secure BSF funding. In some areas all that remains are projects to build Academies. The divisive nature of this highlights our concerns about the tendency towards greater social segregation.

We are also concerned that the government will use the October comprehensive spending review to put academies and 'free' schools at the top of the priority list.

But our main focus remains the Academies Bill which gets its second reading on the 19th July. This bill seeks to develop a 'revolution' in education policy by which academies become 'the norm'. As it stands, the Bill denies parents (or staff and the local community) the right to any consultation over the decision to seek academy status. It paves the way for an unprecedented deregulation and privatisation of schools. It will create the conditions for the undermining of Local Authority support for schools in vital areas such as SEN, admissions and behaviour. It will prevent the rational planning of school places in the future allowing dis-economies of scale to develop. The new 'free' schools it will encourage will mean other schools have to close.

The AAA urges anti academies campaigns around the country to mobilise for the lobby. We urge parents to join with us.

The future of a good local school for every child is in question. Let's ensure our voices are heard.

Rally at Methodist Central hall, opposite Parliament, 1pm, 19 July, followed by lobby of MPs.

Friday, 9 July 2010

So it's One Barnet but every school for itself?

I see a contradiction between Barnet council's moves toward sharing back office functions with other Barnet organisations and the drive to joined-up local governance - One Barnet - and their enthusiasm for getting all Barnet schools to become Academies.

This article in the Guardian shows school governors on the whole sceptical about the benefits of academies, and the separation of schools from the support of local authorities is one of the key reasons why:
Dennis Fox, a governor at Lantern Lane primary school in East Leake, Nottinghamshire, which is rated outstanding, said he would resign if it were to gain academy status.

"It's always reported as freeing schools from the constraints of local authorities, but I see it more as depriving schools of their support," he said. "Politicians don't seem to realise that the more you impose responsibility on schools the more they need that support. Academies imply an enormous extra responsibility for governors. This is not what I became a governor for."
Barnet council trade unions have issued a press statement responding to the news that the council is encouraging local schools to become academies. Read it here.

Meanwhile, some Barnet schools seem to be getting ahead of themselves. The legislation has not been written yet, but Ravenscroft School and East Barnet School are already clamouring to become Academies.

Do the parents or governors know what they would be getting themselves into? If you want to help with the unions' campaign at either of these schools, or want to know more please email The unions will be leafleting today at 3pm at East Barnet school, and next week at Ravenscroft.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

It just HASDA be...

Engaging in another pointless, time-wasting exercise only made possible by the invention of social media, viz voting online in the election for Birkbeck former student governor, I came across the excellent Freaky Trigger blog, among whose editors is Peter Baran, a former Birkbeck student (not necessarily a guide to who I voted for - but a reasonable clue).

The blog has a great series on the top 25 pubs of the noughties. I loved this contribution by Peter on the Head of Steam/Doric Arch (HASDA) at Euston station. I occasionally drink here as it is where NUJ London freelance branch repairs after meetings at the Friends (Quaker) Meeting House on Euston Road (any irony there?).

Peter's description of Euston station is excellent. What a line:

the slightly overgrown concourse of what may well be Euston Square has become slowly inhabited by swish looking portakabined Nandos and the like. It is like the Harlequin centre in Watford had sent its food court on holiday, with Krispy Kreme and Banger Bros missing the return train.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Hi, I'd like to participate in meaningless, pseudo-populist consultation exercises, preferably conducted via social networking sites, and, yes, I do live in Barnet

As well as offering Barnet's Corporate Plan rendered visually as a "word cloud" on its front page today, Barnet Council is inviting residents to get involved in its 2011/12 budget consultation - via Facebook.

The friendly message here says:

We will be consulting with residents as we develop a budget for 2011/12. If you would like to be involved in that process please register your details through our facebook page (external link). Just a simple "Hi, I'd like to register my interest in helping to shape the budget 2011/12" will do at this stage. We will be in touch in due course. You will need to be registered with Facebook to leave your details and comments.
We are lucky, lucky people.

Coleman pepped up over potholes

The Times series (what would I do without them?) reports:
The cabinet portfolio for the environment, which covers highway maintenance, was ...placed in the hands of Councillor Brian Coleman, who claimed his priority was going to be “roads, roads, roads”.

The first step seems now to be the setting up of the new “pothole elimination programme”, which aims to deal with the remaining potholes on principle [sic] roads by July 31, and all others by the end of October.

Cllr Coleman said: “This push means motorists will no longer need to navigate potholes on the borough's principal roads.

“I want Barnet residents to go about their business safely and smoothly.”

He said on average, the council repairs 1,000 potholes each year, a figure surpassed by the end of January.
The "pothole elimination programme", or PEP for short. I feel a series of puns coming on.

Scrapping Schools for the Future

So, now that Conservative central government has scrapped the Building Schools for the Future scheme, what is Barnet Conservative council going to say?

When they were in line for £80m for Barnet secondary schools, back in September 2009, the scheme was a good idea. Then council leader Mike Freer, and now Conservative MP, also boasted that the council had the expertise to manage the complex contracts for the construction project:
"We are obviously delighted that we have been recognised for our work with schools in the borough.

"We submitted a bid to get the money early, and because they were impressed by our track record and expertise - our ability to deliver First Class Schools on time and on budget - they fast-tracked us to the front of the queue.

"Managing major capital projects is fraught with difficulty, and we feel this was a strong mark in our favour."
The Times series reports on who will be the losers now:
...the projects at Bishop Douglas RC, Copthall, Oak Lodge, St Mary's CE High, The Pavillion, and The Ravenscroft, have all been stopped.

Only East Barnet school, which was opened last month, has successfully been completed under the BFS.
Mr Gove said the national scheme had been “characterised by massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy”.
Would Mike Freer agree? And would it worry him anyway if it were true?

UPDATE: Here, on the Times series website, is what Barnet Tories are saying: "Tory bosses at Barnet Council admit school spending cuts are 'disappointing'"

An unkind word on Enterprise Inns

Here's what a friend in the hospitality trade says about Enterprise Inns, the company that wants to close down the Cross Kings this Friday:

Sadly I think Enterprise Inns are going to survive, they are to the licence trade what truckers are to hedgehogs. I've met many people who have tried to run Enterprise Inns pubs, none have anything but contempt for them. They would make excellent Lib Dems, you don't see what they're like until they have you by the balls.

You've bought it, now you must drink it like a man

Among the wonderful moments I passed at the Hop Farm Festival this weekend was waiting in the freezing night air for my sister at the exit to the arena while all the assorted drunks were driven out at the end of the evening.

We had got separated (never let them out of your sight) and I felt I mustn't go to bed until I had checked that she was alright. (It turned out she was asleep in her tent throughout.)

People were not allowed to take drink out of the arena with them. Rather than pour drinks away, already drunk people stood at the gates and attempted to down pints.

"You're encouraging binge drinking!" several protested. Still, they drank.

There was one wonderful individual there, a tall, thin man with a fantastic accent. Someone asked him where he was from. "I'm from Carrk," he said (my attempt to write the word "Cork" the way he said it).

He had an unaffected, laconic sense of humour and told the people who found themselves standing at the gate with him: "You've baaught it, now you must drink it like a man." For himself, he was ready to stand there in the freezing cold and take his time.

My investigations reveal that other Irish people make fun of Cork accents and people from Cork. I imagine it might get irritating if people talking in that accent were talking rubbish, but people talk rubbish in all sorts of other accents. To me this accent was pure music.

I was serving on one of the over-stretched bars during the festival. My only real regret of the weekend was one time actually applying the "Challenge 25" rule - you have to ask anyone that looks under 25 (at a music festival!) whether they have ID. Apologies to the young man affected, who was almost certainly over 18 but did not have ID, for turning him away. I'm sure that he would not be grateful to me for his lack of hangover in the morning.

But there's no time for such regrets. I must be a man: I've bought it and now I must taste the bitter consequences of my actions. Or, in the modern parlance, "suck it up".

Monday, 5 July 2010

Not another trendy wine bar... save the Cross Kings!

Rather gutted to learn that the venue where No Sweat has its comedy fundraising nights is... going out of business!

The Cross Kings on York Way, Kings Cross is tied into some sort of contract with Enterprise Inns (themselves in difficulty). I don't know the ins and outs, but Cross Kings owes back rent and has had the plug pulled on it. They are due to close this coming Friday!

The pub has two stages and hosts some sort of music or comedy event almost every day of the week, with great humour and patience. I'm guessing that in this area, which is being rapidly developed, the fate of the Cross Kings is to become some sort of a trendy wine bar.

We are having a last ditch effort to get a campaign to save the Cross Kings. Anyone who cares about this sort of thing could visit this link and ask Enterprise Inns to think again.

If there are any potential benefactors out there, please contact the pub straightaway. Telephone: 020 7278 8318. Email:

If we fail, at least come down to the last-night party this Thursday. The address is 126 York Way, London N1 0AX.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Van is the man

I liked Van Morrison before I ever heard him. Van Morrison is to music what dark matter is to the universe:

In astronomy and cosmology, dark matter is matter that is inferred to exist from gravitational effects on visible matter and background radiation, but is undetectable by emitted or scattered electromagnetic radiation. [Wikipedia]
Of course, what I've just written is completely pretentious twaddle.

And, personally, I'd almost certainly heard some Van Morrison already without realising it, although it didn't feel like that when I went out and bought "Moondance", an unlikely pick of record for a teenager in the 1980s, on what felt like a hunch.

I haven't "loved him ever since", and I don't like all his stuff, and he's not my favourite artist, and I understand that sometimes he can turn in a lousy performance, but... on his night he is really great. I saw him this Friday at the Hop Farm Festival in Kent, his singing was great, his songs great, all the musicians were wonderful.

And when all's said and done he's just a working-class Belfast boy that loves music. Van Morrison shows what humans, some of them born very lowly, can do. Here are a few lines from his song "Philosophers Stone" which seemed to me most apt:
Out on the highways and the by-ways all alone
I'm still searching for, searching for my home
Up in the morning, up in the morning out on the road
And my head is aching and my hands are cold
And I'm looking for the silver lining, silver lining in the clouds
And I'm searching for and
I'm searching for the philosophers stone
And it's a hard road, Its a hard road daddy-o
When my job is turning lead into gold
He was born in the back street, born in the back street Jelly Roll...

Imagine there's no NHS...

Imagine there's no National Health Service. Obviously, we only want you to imagine. It's not going to happen. But what if...? How much of it would we actually miss, if it went?

Ditto schools and universities. Policing. Public transport and infrastructure. Pensions, social services. Homes... Shave a bit off, here and there. 20%, 30%, 40% - the sky's the limit.

Obviously, it's just a hypothetical, but... Well, we can dream...

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Cut red tape? Let's start with the anti-union laws

HM Government has just wasted a load of public money on a bit of gimmicky social media - they just can't help themselves, can they? The offending website, launched today, is "Your Freedom", which invites the public to enter into "the dialogue" to make proposals under these headings:
Restoring civil liberties
Which current laws would you like to remove or change because they restrict your civil liberties?

Repealing unnecessary laws
Which offences do you think we should remove or change, and why?

Cutting business and third sector regulations
Which regulations do you think should be removed or changed to make running your business or organisation as simple as possible?
A quick-witted socialist, Owen Jones, got on there to propose that the restrictive anti-union laws introduced by Thatcher and maintained by New Labour should be abolished.

How popular this proposal is it is impossible to check at the moment, because the website is down, owing to too much traffic!

On the same theme, of abolishing the anti-union laws, I am happy to report that left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell has come top of the ballot for Private Members' Bills.

This was a karmic consolation prize for withdrawing from the race to be in the Labour leadership race. He asked all his sponsors to back Diane Abbott instead, knowing that neither would reach the threshold (why have a threshold?) of sponsoring Labour MPs if one did not withdraw. And knowing that there was damn all chance of Diane Abbott withdrawing. (In any case, her sponsors would probably not all have backed McDonnell.)

McDonnell's bill is incredibly reasonable. If the same rules applied to Parliamentary candidates as are being applied to unions in regard to their strike ballots, there would not be a single MP that could take their seat without being open to a legal challenge.

The press release for the bill says:
After coming first in the Private Members' Ballot and in consultation with the trade union movement and leading trade union lawyers, John McDonnell MP is sponsoring the "Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill" to tackle the increasing practice by employers of using minor technical errors in the balloting process - which have no material effect on the outcome - to take unions to court in order to prevent them from taking industrial action.

...The Bill has been co-signed by Kate Hoey MP, Tony Lloyd MP, Dave Anderson MP, Michael Connarty MP, Austin Mitchell MP, Frank Doran MP, Kelvin Hopkins MP, Jim Sheridan MP, David Crausby MP, Ian Lavery MP and John Cryer MP.

Second Reading of the Bill will be 22nd October 2010. There will be a mass rally and lobby of parliament on the 13th October 2010.