Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Battle for Democracy in Barnet– Last night’s Residents Forum

After last night it is apparent that Barnet Council have stepped up their campaign to destroy democracy in Barnet. Well guys we are made of sterner stuff. Your tactics will not work.

The Chipping Barnet residents forum was held at the All Saints Centre on Oakleigh Road North. What I didn’t realise is that there are a collection of buildings and halls on this site. Currently debilitated following an accident, I hobbled around looking for the meeting. Down one alley in this complex maze I found a very elderly gentleman also with mobility problems who was also looking for the forum. “Perhaps it’s been cancelled” he said. With not a single sign, and a hall full of young children practising judo, that was a very natural conclusion to come to. Knowing one of the stalwart of the forum I gave him a call. Yes, the meeting was going ahead and he would come out to direct us to its location. He emerged from an alley way and pointed us in the right direction. The elderly gentleman and I hobbled our way down the alley, crutches at the ready through a well hidden door. Now I know the Council is hard up but frankly I was shocked that they felt this venue was suitable. Dingy, dirty and difficult to negotiate, it was completely unsuitable as an accessible venue. Perhaps the Council think that if they make venues so hard to find people will stop coming but last night the hall was full. To her credit, the Chairman, Cllr Kate Salinger was equally disapproving and said that a meeting will never again be held in this venue.

And so to the meeting. I had missed the first couple of questions and the next question was regarding the covering of the pedestrian crossing lights at the junction of Oakleigh Road North and Whetstone High Road. Mr McKenny who is chair of the Whetstone Society asked why, after an 18 month trial and a clear concern that this was very dangerous for pedestrians, couldn’t the cover on these lights simply be removed. The officer from Highways gave us some old waffle about procedures and decisions and how it needed cabinet approval. The long and the short of it is you have to wait until someone is seriously injured or killed before it will spur them into action. There was general discontent from this reply, none more so than from the chairman herself. She made it clear that where this had happened on the other side of the junction, in Totteridge ward, a certain councillor had demanded the cover be removed and voilà the next day it was removed. No need to go through procedures, no cabinet approval. So why could it happen on Oakleigh Road North. Mutterings of discontent all round and a requirement that it should be dealt with at the environment committee immediate after the forum. We shall have to wait and see if it actually happens but no one can ask about this problem again for another 6 months. Those are the new rules.

Next it was my turn. I had submitted three questions but one question was disallowed.

The first question was regarding the closure of the Queen Elizabeth Leisure Centre as the assets have been transferred to QE Girls School as it is an academy. Apparently there is provision in the lease for the leisure facilities to be made available to the public outside school hours but it is not clear if this has happened yet. However, the fact that Greenwich Leisure (GLL) no longer runs the facility means that there is no link to the Barnet Leisure website run by GLL. So how are the public supposed to know what is available, when and how much it costs. No forward planning then.

My next question related to the car parks in East Barnet Road. I had to pick these car parks so that it was a local issue and not a “policy” issue which is FORBIDDEN at residents forums. The question involved the ability to pay for car parking with cash at a PayPoint outlet if you don’t have a mobile phone or credit card. The response was, we will put up signs telling people where they can pay when the service is operational. Given that this PayPoint contract was approved using a delegated powers report back in March I expressed my surprise that after 6 months this service was still not working. Cllr Salinger again spoke up saying yes, it is working. “Ah no”, said the officer “perhaps in October”.

So we move on to the missing question. Why is it not on the list I asked Cllr Salinger? “Because I have been given three different opinions as to whether or not it can be asked and that means I am going to wait” she replied. Now I have to make it clear that I respect Cllr Salinger even though we do not share the same political views. I believe she is a decent and honourable person. I sensed her discomfort at being placed in this invidious position. So what was this dangerous question that no one must even hear let alone have it answered?

“The One Barnet outsourcing will have a major impact on the delivery of public works locally. The constitution states that residents forums can be used “for certain consultations from the council”. Can the chairman indicate if outsourcing is a topic which will be considered for consultation at a forthcoming residents forum.”

As readers may know I take great interest in the constitution and it is clear to me that if the constitution says forums can be used for certain consultations from the council then asking if a topic will be consulted on at one of those forums seems to be a fair question. Otherwise I suppose we have to use telepathy to guess what topics will be discussed in the future. I wrote to the officer who dealt with my query copying in Mr Lustig expressing my concern as to why a question that would receive a simple yes or no answer could not be asked.

Now this problem isn’t going to go away. I am concerned that the line that has been spun at residents forums about the rules is actually not what the constitution says meaning that cllrs who are enforcing these rules are treading a very fine line. I say this for the following reasons:

1. The Council refuse to published minutes of the Special Committee which forms the basis of this change. Without the minutes of this meeting councillors who voted in favour of this change may not have realised that there was significant opposition from members of the public who spoke at the meeting, that councillors ignored the advice of their own research and that they ignored options put forward by officers.

2. The recommendation which was put to the vote at council is quite ambiguous. There is no definition of what local means, they say “basically” public works; what does basically mean? What does Public Works mean? It then goes on to say what type of matters COULD be covered but it certainly does not say what couldn’t be covered other than licensing and planning.

3. Ultimately it is what is in the constitution that counts and the constitution (Article 10) it is quite brief. All it states is “Residents Forums provide an opportunity for any resident to raise local matters (“Public Works”).” Again, the only specification it makes about what may not be discussed are planning and licensing matters.

I wonder what a lawyer would make of their interpretation of the constitution. Perhaps we will find out sooner rather than later?

Next up was the redoubtable Mr Dishman who gave the officer a detailed cross examination of the £5 million spent on energy saving nodes for the lampposts. The technology seems a good idea but I think Mr Dishman was right in describing the funding of this scheme as a “three card trick”.

There were three more questions about parking in High Barnet. The lady who spoke has spoken on a number of previous occasions on this and similar matters but it seems that nothing ever gets done. She will have to wait 6 months now before she can ask this question again – it’s in the rules you know!

A run through the follow up from last time and we were finished. A thoroughly unsatisfactory meeting. No we couldn’t ask about many of the things that really bother people in Barnet. The cut to services for the elderly, the problems with personal care budgets, the huge risks associated with One Barnet Outsourcing, the profligate waste on consultants. No, they are dangerous questions and must never be talked about.

Democracy in Barnet is definitely under sustained attack from the council, an utterly deplorable situation.


  1. The council can push and push and push John and keep nibbling away at democracy but eventually the worm turns and they will be swept away by the tide of public opinion.

  2. "The Council refuse to published minutes of the Special Committee" - could you clarify this, perhaps?

    Are the minutes being soldered into a lead cylinder, and given to National Archives, to be released in 300 years, or will it be sooner?

  3. Hi baarnett, the council has a policy that it does not produce minutes (oh yeh!) of special committee (constitution) meetings. This is the response to an FOI made by the Barnet Bugle on this matter.

    "Minutes are no longer produced for meetings of the Special Committee (Constitution Review).

    The Special Committee (Constitution Review) is not a decision-making body. All Constitution amendments must be approved by the full Council in accordance with Article 15 of the Constitution.

    I suppose it is actually very convenient because it means that anything discussed or agreed at a Special Committee can be denied in the future.

  4. as I commented on Mr Mustard's blog, it is interesting how selectively they choose to enforce the new constitutional rules: the Chair last night commented that local councillors attending Forums are not supposed any more to be able to address the meeting but at both Forums I have been to the Chair has allowed this, despite the stringent appplication of rules in the case of residents. Also at the two last Finchley Forums I cannot recall seeing any action plans regarding the previous meetings. We must challenge these ludicrous and undemocratic changes as loudly as possible.