Monday, 28 February 2011

Is Lynne Hillan infringing my human rights?

Several members of Barnet's blogging community have spent much of today contemplating how to respond to Lynne Hillan's stubborn decision not to allow blogging, filming and tweeting in the public gallery at council meetings.

The decision relates mainly to Tuesday's council meeting, where the council is - alas - likely to adopt a plan for £54.4 million cuts. However, unless they change their minds, the ban will hold good for all council meetings.

So it is well worth challenging! I set out at lunchtime to get some legal advice and by 6pm was sending a solicitor's letter to Lynne Hillan.

It questions Hillan's decision on a number of grounds. One of them, the finest, I think, is that she is infringing my human rights. I suspect, however, that the one that will carry the most weight with Hillan is that she is flouting recent guidance from her own Conservative government, and the fact that the letter has been copied to Secretary of State Eric Pickles.

Let's see how Hillan responds. In any case, whether she relents or not, a number of Barnet residents plan to test her ruling by blogging, filming and tweeting in the public gallery on Tuesday night. The anti-cuts protest at Hendon Town Hall begins at 6pm, and the council meeting itself starts at 7pm.

Lynne Hillan digs in her kitten heels

Barnet bloggers have been wondering how Barnet council's Tory group would respond to their own government's advice to let residents film and tweet about council meetings.

It was predictable that they would not embrace the new era of transparency, and would only grudgingly bend to the winds of change. The Tory group, I've heard, had a stormy meeting about the issue. I can imagine how opinion might have divided, roughly along the lines of the close vote during the challenge to Lynne Hillan's leadership.

I understand Lynne Hillan was not at this meeting and therefore could not vote for herself on this occasion. But she has given an interview to the Times series clearly giving the line: there will be no filming, blogging or tweeting on my watch! Read the article here.

I am one of those who has pledged to test Barnet's stand on this. Apparently it does not say anywhere in the council's constitution that residents cannot film, blog or tweet from the public gallery. When the rules on the questions of public and media access to council meetings were written, such ideas as YouTube, Twitter and Blogger were but a twinkle in a geek's eye.

I think blogger David Hencke this morning adequately sums up Hillan's position:
This dinosaur attitude from a Queen Canute is breathtaking. Her ignorance about how the modern world works is absurd. Presumably her next step as Barnet leader will be to table a motion condemning Lady Thatcher for allowing the public by law to attend council meetings.
We will go ahead and attempt to assert our right to film, tweet and blog at the council meeting at Hendon Town Hall tomorrow night, Tuesday 1 March (6pm for the anti-cuts lobby, 7pm for the council meeting). I will have copies of the DCLG guidance for residents to brandish.

Finally, remember that Hillan has dug in her heels on previous occasions, only to be forced to climb down in the teeth of fierce opposition.

The public occasions I know about are Allowancegate, when she partially backed off raising senior cabinet members' allowances (committee chairs still went on to get a huge rise), and the case of Edward Meakins, where Barnet Homes relented in their threat to move him out of his home of 74 years. (Barnet Homes is separate - at arm's length - from Barnet council, but I cannot believe that the Tory administration did not put pressure on Barnet Homes to change their decision.)

We know, then, that Hillan can be budged, but we also know, from these examples, that it takes an almighty force of opposition to budge her - and that she doesn't give in graciously!

Friday, 25 February 2011

Our right to film and tweet

Eric Pickles' announcement in favour of residents being allowed (!) to use their social media devices to record council meetings - filming, tweeting and what have you - is accompanied by official guidance to councils. (Thanks to Dan Hope for drawing my attention to this.)

The letter is available here.

Dan will say that this shows the Tory government is committed to transparency. I suspect they are just bowing to the inevitable - you cannot hold back the tide of technological advance, and only look stupid if you try. This way, they get a bit of credit out of it.

There might be an undercurrent to this, that the Tories nationally continue to be embarassed by Barnet council (and other 'bad' Tory councils). I know that Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State, was informed about residents in Barnet being stopped from filming at last week's cabinet meeting.

As we know, rights are only active if you exercise them. Let's test this newly ceded right to film and tweet at the council meeting next Tuesday, 1 March. There will be a lobby against cuts from 6pm, outside Hendon Town Hall, and then residents can (I hope) go inside to watch the council meeting, which starts at 7pm.

I am printing off copies of the DCLG guidance to give to residents going into the meeting. If we do nothing else on Tuesday night, at least we can wave this letter in one hand and our cameraphones in the other at Brian Coleman while shouting 'smile for the camera' - obviously, that is only one suggestion for a slogan.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Barnet council failed in bid for Decent Homes grant

I'm combing Barnet council's website now to look for pronouncements on their (failed) bid for Decent Homes grant money. What will be the implications of our failure to get this money for repairs to social housing in the borough? The money will have to be found from elsewhere, or essential upgrading will not be done...

Here's how the local press reported to Enfield the good news that their bid was successful - and how we found out that Barnet's had not been.

(Thanks to JC for spotting this story.)

Citizen journalists of Barnet, unite! Council meeting, 1 March

On Monday 14 February an innocuous young man was threatened with expulsion from the public gallery at the Barnet cabinet meeting. His crime? Attempting to make a short film of proceedings on his phone.

How behind the times Barnet council shows itself to be. They act in a draconian manner to stop their own residents (to whom they are accountable) from using a piece of equipment that has become as everyday and routine as the pop-up toaster. Haven't they seen how people in the Middle East and North Africa are using social media to help them win their democracy?

I invite every resident coming to the council meeting at Hendon Town Hall next Tuesday 1 March to come with their cameraphones at the ready. Perhaps Brian Coleman will learn some manners if he knows that what he says will end up on YouTube for all the world to see before the night is out.

Oh, and who is this agreeing with the call for greater openness? This is a statement made today by none other than Eric Pickles, the Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government:
"Many councils are internet-savvy and stream meetings online, but some don't seem to have caught up with the times and are refusing to let bloggers or hyper-local news sites in. With local authorities in the process of setting next year's budget this is more important than ever.

"Opening the door to new media costs nothing and will help improve public scrutiny. The greater powers and freedoms that we are giving local councils must be accompanied by stronger local accountability.

"We are in the digital age and [the] analogue interpretation of the press access rules is holding back a new wave of local scrutiny, accountability and armchair auditors."

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Barnet's bad news Sunday - parking fees in the Express

Barnet council's cabinet meeting on Monday 14 February (a week is a long time in Barnet politics) features in this exposé by the Express, "Council car fees rip-off":
Barnet Council’s income from parking fees has more than doubled in four years from £2.2million to £4.7million.

Police were called to a council meeting last week after residents in the north London borough protested at plans to double the cost of parking permits this year and raise the cost of a three-month visitor permit 400 per cent to £240.
There are a couple of useful websites if you are interested in the campaign against CPZ fee rises in Barnet: the CPZ Action Group and, featuring a great poster!

And two petitions: "We are not cash cows..." on the Barnet council website and "Stop Barnet council's increased motoring taxes" on GoPetition.

A number of residents are mounting a legal challenge over the CPZ fee rises; I hope they will still turn out to lobby the council meeting on Tuesday 1 March from 6pm at Hendon Town Hall. This is the evening that the council ratifies the budget adopted by the Cabinet on Monday night.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Strong vote for action against privatisation from Barnet staff

Barnet Unison reports on the outcome of a ballot for industrial action by council staff confronted with transfer to the private sector in line with easyCouncil plans:

Council workers vote for strike action

Council staff working in the following services: cemeteries, planning, highways, land charges, registrars, environmental health, building control, trading standards have overwhelmingly voted to take action short of strike and strike action in a ballot conducted over the last three weeks.

There was a 58% turn out with 92% agreeing to action short of strike and 77% agreeing to strike action.

Barnet UNISON is organising union meetings with members to discuss the next steps.

Discovery of legionella in Fremantle care homes

Barnet Unison are calling for an inquiry into the discovery of legionella bacteria at some Fremantle care homes in Barnet.

Read the union's questions here and link here to the letter issued by Barnet council and NHS Barnet to staff and clients of Apthorp Lodge and Dell Field Court.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Haringey is to Egypt as Barnet is to Iran

In the last few weeks we have, if we've any humanity, been transfixed by events in Egypt. We were even able to watch the protests and the heroic struggles by democracy campaigners to hold Tahrir Square on television. No doubt, Egypt was (still is?) a police state, but it is a relatively open society.

The state-owned Egyptian Lying Broadcasting Corporation covered the events - dishonestly, yes, but you could read what was happening by what they omitted, eg, close-up scenes of the crowds in Tahrir Square after Mubarak told them on 10 February that he wasn't going to go.

And these broadcasts were supplemented with almost continuous coverage by independent broadcasters such as Al Jazeera (independent of the Egyptian state if not of the Qatari!).

Contrast this to the uprisings in Iran in 2009 - and, possibly, today. The little that we could see of comparable sized demonstrations of at least a million on the streets of Iran (from a population of comparable size to Egypt's) squeaked out through tweets on Twitter and mobile phone footage smuggled onto YouTube.

Yes, Egypt was (still is?) a police state, but the repression in Iran is that much more complete and suffocating.

What has this to do with Haringey and Barnet? Of course, both are paradises for anyone who wants to do anything remotely political compared to Egypt and Iran. But, relative to each other, Haringey is to Egypt as Barnet is to Iran.

In Haringey, council meetings, all of them, as far as I can tell, are filmed and painstakingly indexed, so Haringey residents can see who has spoken, how long they spoke for, etc! I haven't watched the broadcasts for long - they're council meetings, for heaven's sake! - but I would bet that the general standard of behaviour of councillors in Haringey is much higher than that of councillors in Barnet.

You can see the range of what is available to Haringey residents here.

Contrast that to Barnet, where a hapless member of the public spectating the Cabinet meeting on Monday 14 February, mistakenly believing that he was living in the 21st century, attempted to make a film of the meeting on his phone. He was threatened with expulsion from the meeting.

Residents who wanted to share with interested parties outside what they were seeing with their own eyes, were reduced to discreetly Twittering. As we are often reminded in relation to the recent Iranian uprising, Twitter is a great new tool for getting around the barriers put in the way of democracy by repressive regimes.

No less true in Barnet than in Tehran.

A while back David Miller, on his "Not the Barnet Times" blog, reviewed the most-up-to-date knowledge on why Barnet won't allow broadcasting of meetings - or, even, private broadcasting in the form of residents making their own videos.

I suspect the main reason is that Barnet's Conservative regime would not long outlast any more scrutiny.

Hey, hey, ho, ho, Lynne Hillan has to go!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Barnet councillor blogs - No.1 in an occasional series: Sachin Rajput

I was thinking about Sachin Rajput who featured so heavily in last night's Barnet council cabinet meeting. He has been selected as Conservative GLA candidate for Harrow and Brent for the election in 2012. We'd be sorry to see you go, Sachin, in the unlikely event that you won. Oh, I've just remembered, Barnet councillors can easily manage to juggle the demands of serving Barnet residents and representing two boroughs at the Greater London Assembly at the same time (cf Brian Coleman - I wonder how he does it!).

I've got a new hobby, then, showcasing Barnet councillors' blogs. And this, readers, is councillor Rajput's personal blog. It bears many of the hallmarks of the man himself. Flashy, not unattractive, and very, very lumbering in the prose. I should be careful what I say: he is a martial arts expert! Hi-ya!


My cheeks are burning, I am a shy person but I behaved uncharacteristically badly on Monday evening, heckling the Barnet council cabinet meeting.

It was just intolerable sitting there spectating, while the Tory cabinet droned and intoned their way through 600pp worth of business, all of it bad news. £54.4 million cuts which, she tells us, it pains council leader Lynne Hillan to inflict on us - but she and her cabinet still manage to find justifications and excuses for every last measure.

So putting up charges for social services - cutting social services - is repackaged as 'fairer charging'; abolishing the youth service is 'freeing up volunteers from bureaucracy so that they can get more involved in providing positive activities... for the young people of Barnet'; and so on.

There were many different groups there representing people using services which are suffering direct cuts or rises in charges. They included a large and lively contingent of children, parents and staff from the schools that are having their crossing patrols cut; and the residents who are being forced to pay much more for having the temerity to live in a Controlled Parking Zone and own a car - or be visited by someone in a car, such as a volunteer befriender coming to check on an elderly person, perhaps.

At the end of the evening, I think, Yvonne Hossack, the lawyer for many sheltered housing residents in Barnet, was planning to serve papers on the council legally challenging Barnet's second attempt to remove the sheltered housing wardens.

I left the meeting quite late on as Daniel Thomas, Cabinet member for Resources and Performance, was toiling through his preamble to the budget plans proper, on why the cuts are necessary. On my way out I toyed with the idea of smoking a cigarette in the ladies' loo to trigger the fire alarm and thus, potentially, delay the fateful decision to another day - but I don't smoke. The Cabinet was going to pass its cuts budget.

That isn't the end of the story. The budget will be ratified at the council meeting on Tuesday 1 March. Anti-cuts protesters will have a lobby outside Hendon Town Hall from 6pm.

I am already ideologically opposed to Barnet's Tories, but, above and beyond that, seeing them in action always reveals one or two purely distasteful moments. The first tonight was when Andrew Harper detailed how £1 million saving would be achieved by charging more disabled Barnet residents for the social services they need to lead decent lives. Basically, taking £1 million away from vulnerable people. The second was the way the cabinet ganged up to grill Gillian Gear, who is the archivist at Barnet Museum and has volunteered there for 30 years.

Dr Gear is the sort of person that, two or three years ago, Tory councillors would have liked to shake hands with, maybe, posing for a snap in the local paper, while they extolled the virtues of volunteering and keeping open a valued cultural feature of a successful suburb.

Tonight, the political demands of the time have changed, and so they set out to humiliate and belittle Dr Gear. How many hours is the museum open? asked Brian Coleman, in a tone that implied that the volunteers who run the museum were not giving a very good service (actually, it is quite likely that the council just wants to sell the building). Why, asked Andrew Harper, trying to be hard-nosed but just making himself look deeply unpleasant, should all Barnet residents pay to keep the museum open?

Why, Mr Harper? Well, because we are a civilised people who value knowing something of our history, where we came from. I didn't always behave in a very civilised fashion yesterday evening, but I do understand that a country that closes its museums is a civilisation in decay. Barnet's Tories don't seem to have clocked that.

More information: Barnet Museum, currently battling for its life; and Church Farmhouse Museum, similiarly imperilled.

P.S. It's only right to acknowledge that the staff of the council's governance and democracy department did a great job preparing for this meeting and working to keep it on track. Sorry we were such a pain.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Cuts of £54.4 million and an unprecedented number of questions - just another Valentine's Day Cabinet meeting in Barnet

Tomorrow night, Monday 14 February, Valentine's Day (grr!) Barnet council cabinet will meet to discuss a number of important questions.

These include:
- proposed axing of sheltered housing wardens
- proposals to cut the number of children's centres from 21 to 13
- proposals to raise charges for social services
- proposals to raise parking and other 'revenue income' charges
- how the council proposes to cut £54.4 million from its spending in the next three years.

This meeting, then, is the big one! (To be followed in the next few months and years, I suspect, by several more big ones, as the hoped-for savings from One Barnet do not materialise, and the council makes further cuts to plug the resulting gap.)

Residents are still just about allowed to have a say at these events, in the form of public questions. We are allowed up to 20 questions but only if they fit into half an hour, because that is our time limit.

Apparently, not surprisingly, an 'unprecedented number of questions' has been submitted for tomorrow night, including mine - I am questioning the proposed abolition of the youth services.

Sheltered housing residents will demonstrate in front of Hendon Town Hall, where the meeting takes place, from 6pm. Please join us if you can!

Friday, 11 February 2011

Fight the cuts: the case of Building Schools for the Future

Those six councils who took the government to court over its decision to axe Building Schools for the Future have won their case. The judge found that they had not been properly consulted, and ruled that Michael Gove must reconsider.

Here's a report of the news from the BBC.

Our own council, Barnet, like the good loyal Tories they are, found reasons to welcome the axing of Building Schools for the Future when it happened even though they had already spent/wasted money preparing for new school buildings that would now never be built.

They should have appealed too... as we were saying back in August.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Jack Cohen voices protest against cuts

Jack Cohen, leader of the small three-member Lib Dem group on Barnet council, has signed the letter by Lib Dem council leaders complaining about the cuts in local government.

There's a report by the Press Association here.

I hope the Barnet Lib Dems will vote against the cuts in the council chamber on 1 March.

Barnet offers its youth nothing

As most readers will have noticed, Barnet council plans big cuts. They are going to 'save' £54.4 million over the next three years. Actually, if Future Shape/easyCouncil/One Barnet goes t*** up, they could end up having to 'save' even more. The cuts identified already could be just the start.
This is how they intend to achieve the savings:
  • One Barnet £12.1m
  • Efficiency projects £22.9m
  • Increased income £4.2m
  • Service reductions £15.2m
As you might imagine, 'efficiency projects' often turns out to be a cut in disguise, and One Barnet is all based on the idea of outsourcing service delivery to the private sector. This often ends in a cut in the quality of service, sometimes through cutting staff, sometimes through cutting corners, often through quibbling over the level of service that is to be provided. 'Increased income' means things like charging residents more to park in front of their own house, aka taking money from residents and giving them nothing in return, aka a cut.

Of the pure 'service reductions' planned, one of the most shocking to me is that for youth services. They plan to cut £1.46 million in 2011/12, £500,000 in 2012/13 and £960,000 in 2013/14. If they do what they plan, in three years' time there will be no youth service in Barnet. The details are in a paper going to the Cabinet meeting next Monday 14 February (yes, Valentine's Day).

Looking at the details of the consultation the council undertook around this proposal, it appears that Barnet's youth service is already very no-frills, but what is there is valuable and valued by the users.
There was widespread support for the work of youth support services. A number of young people highlighted the role that youth support services had played in increasing their confidence and the positive impact this had on their education, employment and social development. Respondents to the overall questionnaire and at consultation events expressed the view that all young people needed support, not just the vulnerable, and that young people from different backgrounds need to mix with peers in order to increase inclusion and understanding. Concerns were raised over who would be identified as vulnerable, as needs often weren’t identified until young people had accessed services, and whether those who didn’t qualify for support would become vulnerable without the support. Young people suggested that targeting specific groups of young people could lead to labelling and bullying.
Risks identified in making these cuts are:
The proposed reductions in youth services, which promote positive activities for young people including education, employment and training, may have an adverse impact on indicators such as school attendance, youth offending and youth unemployment, as well as the Corporate Plan educational attainment targets.
The language of the proposed cuts is highly euphemistic. We must be used now to the idea that every cut can be excused with the promise that Big Society will step in to close the gap in the social fabric. One of the most offensive things that Cameron and Co. are doing is belittling the work that armies of volunteers are already doing up and down the country.

Rhetoric about Big Society can't disguise the fact that in many areas of life, social need will only be met by the state. If Society were Big enough to provide youth services on Grahame Park, for example, don't you think it would be being done already? The simple fact is that in some places, not enough people do have the time or resources voluntarily to lay on activities for young people. That's why the council needs to.

Barnet council continue to talk about their 'youth offer'. The fact is, with their planned cuts to the youth service of £3 million, they intend at the end of three years to offer the youth of Barnet - nothing.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Save Garden Suburb oaks (no, we're not hysterical)

Just came aross a notice about a protest at Hendon Town Hall tomorrow, Tuesday 8 February, at 7pm against the removal of some old oak trees in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Brian Coleman recently made some derogatory remarks about Garden Suburb residents, calling them hysterical. Well, they're not hysterical here, but they are very worried, and I don't blame them.

I watched (I'm ashamed to say) as the trees on Grahame Park open space were felled and the park halved to make space for New Hendon Village, an ugly development of 'lakeside apartments'. I hope these oaks don't go the same way:
Insurance Companies greed responsible for death of bicentennial oak trees

Monday, 07 February 2011

Hampstead garden suburb disappearing in front of our eyes.

Barnet council want to fell 3 x 200 year old oaks in the hampstead garden suburb now!!

There is a meeting on tuesday 8th february at the Barnet [Hendon] town hall to determine the outcome of an application to kill 3 mature magnificent oak trees. A property developer has taken over the fabulous old tea house in Hampsteads northway and reports the oak tree roots are disturbing his house and will increase his insurance companies fees for the house, the trees are not on or near his property, nor does the developer live there! but perhaps wants to rebuild maybe? at some stage, and also maybe buy the electricity sub station adjacent also in the conservation area, where the accused offending oak trees are situated, he also wants to take down trees situated in the most beautiful quakers meeting house, also part of the ancient woodland which contributes in a valuable way to the environmental diversity of hampstead garden suburb.

The envionmental impact of tree felling is great.

Oak tree roots grow downwards and their roots never exceed their width.

Those trees are alive with life, squirrels, magpies, pigeons sunning themselves and endless birds, let alone the very fresh air we are able to breath and the wonderful smell of ancient traditional woodland that wafts in the area. There are documented 365 reasons why trees are valuable to the planet.

It is catastrophic that in a conservation area such as the suburb a few more bricks or a worried insurance company should be allowed to replace the natural environment and though we complain about the deforestation of rain forests we are doing more damage here to our very few remaining trees, which will be killed forever.

for more info please contact:
Kim Einhorn
0208 452 8518

or the council -
edward jones - planning officer trees and landscaping - barnet council 0208 359 4731
Papers for the meeting here.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Barnet voices for the library, Saturday 5 February

Further to innumerable blogposts on libraries, I am proud to say that Barnet is joining in with the national day of action against library cuts, coordinated by Voices for the Library. There is still time for other groups to join in. So far we have events in Edgware and East Finchley...

More details on the Barnet Alliance for Public Services blog here.

Just how big is this big society?

Thanks, Mrs A, for putting me onto a great speech by author Philip Pullman to a meeting against library cuts in Oxfordshire. It's published on the False Economy blog. This is my favourite passage:
Here in Oxfordshire we are threatened with the closure of 20 out of our 43 public libraries. Mr Keith Mitchell, the leader of the county council, said in the Oxford Times last week that the cuts are inevitable, and invites us to suggest what we would do instead. What would we cut? Would we sacrifice care for the elderly? Or would youth services feel the axe?

I don’t think we should accept his invitation. It’s not our job to cut services. It’s his job to protect them.

Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers. What patronising nonsense. Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves? And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort, and yet are so wealthy that they can commit hours of their time every week to working for nothing? Who are these volunteers? Do you know anyone who could volunteer their time in this way? If there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing in a good cause, they are probably already working for one of the voluntary sector day centres or running a local football team or helping out with the league of friends in a hospital. What’s going to make them stop doing that and start working in a library instead?

Especially since the council is hoping that the youth service, which by a strange coincidence is also going to lose 20 centres, will be staffed by – guess what – volunteers. Are these the same volunteers, or a different lot of volunteers?

This is the Big Society, you see. It must be big, to contain so many volunteers.