Last night's Chipping Barnet Residents Forum started badly and only got worse. The "Chairman" was Lisa Rutter who, I think, took entirely the wrong tone and as a result steered the meeting into a rigid and inflexible format that left many residents completely disengaged.
We started with a presentation on the new Area Forums and the £100,000 budget they will be allocated. Sounds good? Yes except that although residents can come up with ideas, they will then be reviewed by officers and councillors to see if they are "viable". Give it with one hand take it away with the other. The framework is not clear in what they want to achieve other than it has to be a capital project and cannot require on-going funding. Another council officer gave a breakdown of the population profile in the constituency - how that is meant to help decide what sort of projects will be chosen is unclear. On one of the slides was a reference to timebanks and when someone asked what they were, the officer said they didn't know and asked the audience. Luckily Green candidate, Poppy, was able to explain.
Then onto the main part of the meeting. We started with a petition from residents on Pollard Road. The person who brought the petition was told immediately that the petition was being referred to the Environment Sub Committee and did he have anything else to add? He looked a bit flabbergasted and said that he had expected to talk about the issues. Again Lisa Rutter told him he had 3 minutes to speak (not an official time limit as there is no such rule for residents forums). I should have mentioned that there was a large contingent of residents from Pollard Road and you could sense their frustration. The petitioner started asking questions of the chair who batted them straight back by saying they could discuss then at the Environment Sub Committee. Lisa Rutter then suggested that all the residents would be able to raise these points at the sub committee which is untrue, that is not how the subcommittees work. I told several of the residents that this was untrue and that if they wanted to speak they should do so now. When one of the residents then asked again if they could discuss the issue at the sub committee they were told that no they couldn't. Oh dear, not a smart move and a large number of dissatisfied residents.
At this stage the former chair of the residents forum, Kate Salinger - who I always found to be fair in the way she chaired forums - suggested that all the residents move to a room across the hall to discuss their concerns with Brian Salinger, Councillor for the ward, and who could then reflect their views more accurately at the Sub Committee. A smart move and one which seemed to take some of the heat out of the situation.
There were a number of similar tussles throughout the meeting where sensible suggestions from residents seemed to be met by refusal or complex solutions by the council. Parking on Friern Barnet Lane, parking on Sellwood Drive both problems that could be resolved with some common sense but Lisa Rutter's continual chanting of the mantra you should be speaking to your local councillors about these issues just seemed to anger the audience even more. The issue with Sellwood Drive revealed the level of friction between the new labour councillors for Underhill Ward and the ruling group. Residents were told that there is a list of road across the Borough where councillors have agreed that parking on the pavement will not be ticketed. However since the election residents in Sellwood Drive have been ticketed, albeit with warning notices. The three new councillors had not been consulted on the change in ticketing policy nor had they been c=given the list and this seemed to anger Cllr Paul Edwards.
Eventually the meeting ran out of time with a number of questions including three from Mr Reasonable left unanswered. I must note that I was originally told (as were a number of other residents) that my questions were not admissible as questions had to relate to "local" matters, a term entirely undefined in the constitution. A robust response from me and suddenly they weren't inadmissible but better dealt with by other committees or by our local councillors! so what's the point of forums then.
I think you could sum up the evening as shambolic with many residents who had not been to a forum before left feeling entirely frustrated at the restrictive and unhelpful attitude and council procedures. Lisa Rutter successfully managed to reduce what should be a channel to access residents views, to listen to their concerns and to find collaborative ways to work together, into a heated confrontational battlefield where standpoints were simply hardened.