Sunday, 7 April 2019

Colindale - Are local residents getting a fair deal in meeting Barnet's growth targets?

The population of Colindale is forecast to hit 43,050 by 2030 and will be the most densely populated area in Barnet. I use that as a starting point to allow people to understand a bit more about why some residents feel concerned about the level of development and whether all the pressure for growth is falling on just a couple of wards.

Back in 2001 the population in Colindale was 13,860 with a mix of different property types. It has been highlighted as a growth area by Barnet Council and over time there has been massive redevelopment including on the former Hendon Aerodrome, Hendon Police College (the Peel Centre), the British Newspaper Library and Colindale Hospital. I have been through Colindale a number of times recently and what struck me is how cold and clinical an area it has become with so many blocks of flats. Some are social housing but a great deal are private flats.
Many roads are now private land, with Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras to watch your movements and there seems to be nowhere to park unless you pay.

There are various different sets of figures but according to those published by Barnet in their Ward Atlas data set, by 2018, the population of  Colindale has risen to 26,500. However, there is a lot more development on the cards, including a major development at local underground station. This will cause significant disruption to some of the long term residents.
What you have at this location is a some traditional low rise properties overshadowed by towering blocks. The proposed development would include a series of tower blocks. In the original scheme one of the towers was identified as being no more than 16 storeys high but after a review of the scheme the maximum height has been extended to 28 storeys. These houses in the picture look like they will be consumed in the new development and this is set out in the Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) where it states:
"Potential replacement of properties at Nos. 167 to 173 Colindale Avenue and Agar House, Colindale Avenue, with new mixed-use development with commercial at ground floor and residential above, set back from the current boundary-line to allow for pavement widening".
You can read about the proposals here. The new scheme  will comprise the following:

• Site A – Replacement of existing tube station with commercial use at ground floor and residential above. The building could be between 20 and 28 storeys in height.
• Site B – New station to be positioned over the rail-tracks with integrated station plaza with potential for over-station development.
• Site C – New widened public realm set-back to allow for commercial properties at ground floor with residential above. The new structure could be between 16 and 20 storeys in height.
• Site D – New widened public realm set-back to allow for commercial properties at ground floor with residential above. The new structure to be no more than 8 storeys in height.

The rationale for these high towers is so they can provide "wayfinding" to the tube station.
As it says in the SPD:
"Figure 6 presents an option of maximum height which also incorporates smaller footprints and breaks between structures to incorporate open space. This option clearly marks the station site as the heart of Colindale and could provide wayfinding guidance to pedestrians and commuters. It is evident in Figure 7 that the Townscape is expressed in height through the pinnacle of the station site. The slender tall elements are working better in providing legibility in long views, marking the station and providing a true epicentre for Colindale expressed through height".

The visualisation of these towers shows the bulk of all the properties being built immediately around the tube station but also how much these towers will overshadow other properties. No mention of how this will affect the lives of local people; no mention of the disruption. Perhaps if the people writing this waffle lived in the local area they might have a different perspective.

At some point someone has to say, "Is this fair to local residents?" and I think that point has been reached.

It is important to understand a bit more about the local area.
There is a large source of data about Colindale which highlights some interesting factors as follows:
  • In 2015 only 2.2% of the properties were in the F,G or H Council tax bands compared to 27% as the average for the borough of Barnet;
  • 60% of properties at the 2011 Census were flats. That is likely to have increased significantly as most of the new development is flats. This compares to 42.9% as the average for Barnet;
  • Median Household Income (2012/13) was £30,170 compared to £54,530 as the average for Barnet;
  • Second highest ward for dependent children in out of work households (2014) at 18.9% compared to 10.6% for the borough as a whole with only Burnt Oak having a slightly higher level at 19.1%;
  • It has the lowest level of owner occupied properties at 36.3% (2011) compared to 57.6% for the borough.
Indeed, Barnet's own analysis of Colindale's population suggests it is over represented by young people renting in high density social housing. You can read the ward profile here.
The big risk is that many of these new developments will be sold to buy to let landlords creating a transitory community with no long term commitment to the area. At the 2018 election Colindale had the lowest turnout of any ward in Barnet at only 31.4%. Compare that with the turnout in High Barnet Ward at 55% and 48.1% in Hampstead Garden Suburb and there is a real concern that a lack of electoral engagement means Colindale is an easy target for these large developments.

I wonder if residents of Totteridge or Mill Hill or High Barnet would settle for this type of development on their doorstep, including pulling down their homes "to allow pavement widening". 
So the big challenge facing Colindale now is the additional housing growth and how it impacts on the existing residents.  I am not saying that we don't need more properties in the borough, especially affordable property, but the issue is do we put them all in a couple of wards, namely Colindale and  Golders Green, which incorporates the new Brent Cross development. I looked at the the forecast housing densities across the borough and what becomes apparent is that wards like Colindale will have much more pressure placed on them while wards like Totteridge, Mill Hill and High Barnet will be preserved at the current low densities. Set out below is an analysis of the change in housing densities by ward between 2001 and 2028. (Source: Barnet Ward Atlas)

Ultimately this is about whether the residents of Colindale are getting a fair deal from Barnet Council. I am sure we need a wider conversation about where new homes are built to ensure that Colindale does not become the default option when yet more new flats are proposed.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Disappearing Evidence - Refuse Collection Reorganisation Update

Update 11.29 am 5 April.

I have just had a response from Barnet that the information is now available again.  You can see it here. Having checked the data, the overspend on waste collection service remains the same at £2.029 million.

On 14 March  I asked a series of questions relating to the round reorganisation of Barnet's waste collection service. I expressed serious concern that not only had the rounds reorganisation not saved any money but in fact it had actually cost a great deal more. The reason for me making this assertion was based on information issued at the Financial Performance  & Contracts Committee a few days earlier on 11 March. At that meeting it was disclosed that the waste collection service was significantly over budget and that the year end forecast showed the service would be £1.75 million over spent and that this overspend had jumped £1.189 million since the previous month. I raised this at the Environment Meeting but received no clear response as to when we would get a clear understanding of what the reorganisation has actually cost.

On 1 April Barnet published the Period 11 financial figures which also set out how the latest forecast on the waste collection service had worsened. Luckily I took a snapshot of this report. On the 2 April I tweeted about the significant increase in costs but as of 12 noon today the information has been removed from the website - it looks like it was removed on 2 April, possibly as a result of my tweet.

The figures show that between the figures published on 11 March and those published on 1 April the revised year end forecast had increased by another £283,000. That is a huge increase in short a short period of time. Much worse is that they were forecasting for the last three months of the year in the period 9 figures. To have to make such a large adjustment in period 11 suggests that cost have rocketed at a time when I was told repeatedly at the Environment Committee that the problems with waste collection were reducing. It is now apparent that the reason the problem are reducing is because so much more money is being thrown at them. I have set out below a comparison between the two sets of figures including the one that has now been removed from the Council's (not very) Open Data website.

I have asked Barnet why they have removed these figures and I will update this post once I have a response. What is clear to me is that the round reorganisation of the waste service has been a financial disaster and the risk is that other cuts to services will now be made to offset this massive overspend.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Two Meetings, Some Shocking Discoveries.

Set out below are a few things I learnt at the two Barnet Committee meetings I attended this week. You may find them surprising/shocking.

  • Barnet are moving to brand new offices in Colindale in June but they haven't agreed an exit to the lease at Barnet House which will cost £63,000 a month for the next 156 months,  so we risk leaving the building empty for the next 13 years at a cost of £9.8 million, and that was always in the business case.
  • Barnet are in dispute with the builder of the new Colindale offices and the sum involved is large enough to impact the capital budget - we aren't allowed to know what the exact sum is but my guest would be somewhere around an extra £5+m.
  • Where housing benefit was accidentally overpaid, Capita are allowed to keep an extra £340,000 of the money recovered.
  • Barnet agree with me that they had provided some incorrect figures to Policy & Resources Committee on the FTE headcount of agency staff  - Barnet showed it declining whereas it had actually risen significantly in the last three months. 
  • It is okay to say there is an upward trend in user satisfaction even though the figures have got significantly worse in the last 12 months.
  • If Capita have a large number of vacant posts for services they provide to Barnet we still get charged the same price  - because we only measure outputs and Capita will get penalised (but not as much as they save in salary costs?).
  • We still haven't got a clear picture of all the agency staff costs.
  • East Barnet Library will be turned into a Families Hub for the east of the borough when the library is relocated to the new leisure centre in Victoria Recreation Ground.
  • Barnet surveyed 1.5% of households to understand how many bins they had to collect and subsequently found the small sample wasn't a reflection of the true numbers of bins.
  • Even though for years drivers have been unable to get the large refuse vehicles into restricted access routes they thought they would give it another go - and it failed.
  • Drivers weren't members of the project team that planned the round changes.
  • The new area based collection service means that a significant amount of time is spent getting from the Harrow depot to the point where they actually start collection refuse.

  • They couldn't procure a critical IT system to help with the rounds reorganisation because they left it too late before commencing the procurement process to comply with EU procedure - even though the issue had been known about for 3 years.
  • A significant amount of management time was diverted from services like street cleansing to deal with the new refuse collection rounds.
  • Even though the number of rounds reduced from 41 to 38  Barnet had to hire an additional nine (9) refuse trucks at a cost of £1000/week each and purchased 4 new trucks at a cost of £741,700 +VAT.
  • The new green waste collection round mean staff have to collect an average of 1917 bins per shift.
  • As recently as last week only 28% of rounds on a Monday were completed within an 8 hour shift and over the week 30 rounds took more than 10 hours to complete

  • 17 estates had their twice weekly collections cut to once a week. Discussions have now taken place with managing agents and areas are being identified to store additional bins on the estates.
  • There is no clear definitive comparison between what the refuse service cost before the changes and since the changes so we don't know if they have saved any money.
  • The refuse service is currently forecast to be £1.75 million over budget.
  • Recycling rates are down.

The two meetings left me with no confidence in the operation of the Council and the ability to achieve cost savings. Next financial year - starting in 2 week's time - Barnet has to make £20 million of savings and we will still need to draw down £5.3 million from reserves. I remain concerned that without an accurate picture of how much we are spending on things like agency staff and the refuse reorganisation there is a very real chance the savings won't be achieved.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Barnet Bingate - My questions on what happened

On Thursday Barnet's Environment Committee will discuss the review of the Bin Round Changes that took place in November. Click here to read the full report. Set below are the questions I have submitted which I hope will probe a little deeper into what led to the problems and why the service is now £1.75 million over budget.


Preparation Stage:
  • Why wasn’t a survey of the number of bins collected from households carried out before the rounds were finalised and has it now been completed?
  • The report acknowledges there was over confidence in drivers abilities to access challenging roads. Was a representative of the drivers invited to test drive the new larger vehicles before they were purchased?
  • Was the purchase of wider longer vehicles included in the risk assessment and if so, what was the finding and how was the risk mitigated?
  • I understand from industry experts from outside Barnet that one of the downsides of route planning software is that it does not always pick up road anomalies and as such should always be validated by staff with a detailed route knowledge to “sense check” them. How many of the routes were “sense checked”  by experienced staff before they were introduced and how many were amended following that sense checking?
  • Does the route planning software easily accommodate manual amendments to the proposed routes?
  • Given that some roads may have 6 or more sections, as highlighted at 4.3 in the report, on how many occasions does the route planning software schedule two or more different refuse vehicles, two or more recycling vehicles and two or more green waste vehicles in the same road on the same day, what is the maximum number of different vehicles that have been scheduled for collections in the same road in a single day?
  • Can you confirm that the area based collection strategy means that, for example, on a Monday, refuse vehicles based in Harrow would have to travel to the East of the borough before they start work and return to Harrow at the end of their shift and that on a Friday, for example, vehicles based at Oakleigh Road would have to travel to the West of the borough before they start collecting and return to Oakleigh Road at the end of their shift and how much of their shift is spent travelling from one side of the borough not collecting rubbish?
  • Did anyone calculate the mileage, travel time and fuel costs associated with the area based collection strategy and if so what is the additional mileage, travel time and fuel cost compared to the old collections rounds?
  • Can you clarify  if, prior to the route change, drivers only had to have a knowledge of roads in the half of the borough where they were based whereas now they have to have a knowledge of roads all across the borough?
  • Can you clarify if any members of the frontline staff, such as drivers, were members of the project team?
  • The report notes that from 27 August frontline staff were invited to take part in structured review sessions. How many staff were invited, how many sessions were held and how many frontline staff attended?
  • On page 36 the report states that Street Scene is in the process of procuring a fully integrated IT system. What is the cost of this and why wasn’t it procured before the round changes were made?
  • The calculation of total staff numbers in figure 13 do not add up. Please can you clarify what are the correct figures?
  • It appears that the number of core staff have reduced by approximately 15 since October (core LBB staffing has reduced by approximately 600 hours per week). Was the reduction due to increased sickness, staff made redundant or did they leave and if they did leave what did their exit interviews identify as the reason for leaving?
  • Of the 7,117 of agency staff hours worked in January, what was the split between drivers and loaders?
  • The cost of LBB staff per hour appears to peak in January. Is that linked to bonus payments to incentivise staff to work over the Christmas/New Year period and how much was paid in incentive bonuses to LBB staff?
  • In October, before the changes, LBB staff additional hours were approximately 17% of core hours but by December that had risen to approximately 27% of core hours. What impact did such a high level of overtime in November and December have on staff  and did it result in the increased level of sickness/unauthorised absence?
  • What check were made at the time to ensure drivers did not exceed maximum driving hours and has a review taken place of all tachograph charts/written records to audit those checks?
  • How many hours of other street scene staff were diverted from, for example, street cleaning duties, to refuse collection and has this had a detrimental effect on the standard of street cleanliness?
  • Is the plan to keep the high proportion of agency staff or is it the intension to recruit permanent staff to phase out the majority of agency staff?
  • Given that in the UK over the last 5 years 39 waste workers have been killed mostly by being hit by moving vehicles or machinery, and that as recently as December a refuse worker in Northholt was killed, what safety training is provided to agency staff and permanent staff and has a risk assessment been carried out on the model of using such a high proportion of agency staff?
  • How many rounds were in operation before the changes and how many rounds are there now split between general waste, recycling and garden waste?
  • What is the average number of collections for each of the garden waste rounds?
  • How many of the new rounds are completed within a standard 8 hour shift and how many rounds need additional overtime or agency staff assistance to complete?
  • Can you clarify if situations arise where the vehicle driver is based in one depot but the loaders for that vehicle are based in the other depot?
  • Can you clarify who is now collecting waste from residential properties above shops, household waste teams or trade waste teams, and what have been the operational implications of the changes?
  • Of the 10 additional refuse vehicles on hire each week how many are to replace broken down vehicles and how many are to provide additional capacity on rounds?
  • In addition to the vehicles on hire, how many refuse vehicles have been purchased and what was the cost?
  • How often are general waste vehicles left full overnight and what impact does that have on start time of rounds the next morning?
  • Is green waste held at the Oakleigh Road depot overnight and how often is it sent to Edmonton?
  • How often is recycling waste held in the bulking areas at the Oakleigh Road Depot overnight, and is this a fire risk?
  • How many LBB shunt vehicles are used to transfer waste from Oakleigh Road to Edmonton and has this been reduced/outsourced since the new round changes?
  • In January you were operating an afternoon crew working between 2pm – 9pm at the Oakleigh Road Depot. Is that shift still operating and is it a permanent component of the collection service?
  • How many accident/damages claims have been made since the new larger vehicles were introduced and how does that compared to the number of claims made before the new vehicles were introduced?
  • On how many estates have you cut the number of collections from twice weekly to once a week and how much has that saved?
  • If you are now rebalancing Monday and potentially Tuesday and collection rounds are moved to new days, how will this affect area based working?
  • The report identifies that there were only 225 formal complaints in the three months November, December and January yet during that time there were over 16,000 reported missed bin collections. Many residents reported that they simply couldn’t get through the switchboard. Why did the publicity material not contain a designated hotline number and why was the customer service response so poor?
  • Has the on-going problem with subsidence at the Oakleigh Road Depot impacted on the efficiency of the operation such as restricting vehicle movements or parking within the depot and when will the subsistence problems be resolved?
  • Given that space at the Oakleigh Rd depot is very restricted, how have the additional purchased and hired vehicles been managed in terms of parking, does it reduce the efficiency of the depot and was an appropriate risk assessment completed to ensure the movement of so many vehicles in such a tight space was carried out safely?
  • Please provide a clear summary of the weekly cost of general, recycling and garden waste collections before the changes and the costs after the changes including the additional vehicle hire, additional fuel costs so that we can understand how much the new changes have saved/cost?
  • Period 10 to end of year forecast for the Waste and Recycling Front Line budget indicates it will be £1.75 million overspent. Given that any changes of this scale are recognised within the waste management industry as taking between three and six months for full business as usual, why wasn’t this period of disruption and associated costs not built into the budget?
  • Have you re-forecast the budget for 2019/20 to reflect the problems of implementing the new changes and what is the impact on the MTFS?

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Questions for the Financial Performance & Contracts Committee

How would feel knowing that the outsourced company responsible for managing Highways repairs and maintenance has 25% of posts vacant and are struggling to recruit? Is that why the highways in Barnet are so poor?  We still don't have clarity on agency staff costs and appears to have some very expensive interim staff on six figure salaries. The Council's relocation to the brand new office block in Colindale is late and they are in dispute with the contractor over costs. How much will this new building cost and how easy will it be to get to the new offices if you live in the East of the borough? Just some of the topics on which I have asked questions. As ever, I will have to wait and see if I get straight and direct answers to my questions.

  1. 1.2 says that a £3.685m contribution to reserves from the Capita contract settlement. What happened to the other £0.435 million that formed part of the settlement, when was it paid and where is the record of the payment given that it is not shown as a credit in the monthly expenditure figures?  
  2. What was the reason for the underspend of the forecast NLWA levy?
  3. At 1.9 the report states that the average interest rate for the £304.08m of long term debt is 3.86%. How much of the long term debt is in Lender Option Borrower Option (LOBO) loans, what is the interest rate on those LOBO’s and what steps have been taken to follow in Birmingham and other authorities’ footsteps to extricate themselves from LOBO’s and replace them with lower cost PWLB funding at a lower cost?
  4. Re para 2.1.10, please can you explain in more detail why there is presently a backlog in raising invoices for income due to the service and why CSG is a significant debtor which could result in debt write offs being written back to the service?
  5. How much of the £293,000 overspend in HR is due to the high cost of interim agency staff in senior positions and please can you clarify how many agency/interim staff in HR are costing the council more than £100,000 per annum?
  6. Re para 2.1.20 please can you clarify on which specific retained income lines the £1.346m shortfall has occurred?
  7. Can you clarify specifically how the housing benefit overpayments occurred in the first place, are the repayments anticipated or actual, and will the gainshare be paid before or after the repayments have been recouped?
  8. When you say that the misclassification of income between the General Fund and the HRA has been resolved in 2019/20 and going forward, does this mean that the authority will receive this income going forward or that the income has been reclassified so that we definitely know we won’t receive the income?
  9. Can you clarify how you can reconcile Table 2 which shows an overspend on Streetscene of £1.147 million with Table 6 that shows Environment are still on budget to save £1.915 million and does this mean that additional cuts will have to be made from elsewhere in Environment to make up for the overspend on Streetscene?
  10. Given that a significant debtor is Hammerson PLC owing over £1 million, that all of the invoices required more information and that two of these invoices are more  than a year overdue, has all the requested information been provided and what steps will be taken to seek immediate payment?
  11. Given that Barratt have failed to respond on 8 out of 10 invoices with a value of £600,000 what steps are you taking to recover this money immediately?
  12. Why do the agency staff cost figures not tie into the actual staff cost invoices even taking into account when the invoices were paid?
  13. Why does the average cost of employing agency staff vary by so much from month to month especially in Commissioning Group given there is so very little difference in the number of FTE staff employed?
  14. Given that the agency costs do not include interim and agency staff employed outside Matrix contract, can you quantify what the additional spend is through agencies such as Hampton’s Resourcing and Gatenby Sanderson, and what is the headcount for those agencies?
  15. At point 1.11 it lists 8 areas where benefits were built into the new contract. Can you clarify why those benefits were not build into the Comensura contract either from the start or when a new contract was awarded to Comensura in 2016?
  16. How much do you believe these 8 benefits built into the new contract will save Barnet per annum?
  17. The report fails to identify why recruitment and retention is a problem. What has Re done to understand the causes of the problem, for example have Re undertaken Barnet staff satisfaction surveys, how many exit interviews have been carried out and what were the findings, is it a morale problem, is it a pay and benefits problem? Without knowing what is the cause of the problem how can any mitigation proposals have any chance of success?
  18. Will the lower salary and pension costs arising from so many vacancies be reflected in lower charges made by Re to Barnet?
  19. At 1.35 the report states “Capita has not hit the targets for satisfaction, but there have been incremental improvements in most areas”. However, the report identifies that in 7 out of 10 satisfaction criteria the performance/direction of travel has actually worsened since last year. As such how can the statement “incremental improvements in most areas” be true?
  20. Given that none of the satisfaction KPIs have been met since contract commencement 5 years ago can you please explain what is the point of having KPI’s and what signal does this send to Capita about prolonged non compliance?
  21. Seven different bus routes stop in close proximity to Barnet House and the Northern Line stop at Totteridge & Whetstone 5 minute’s walk from Barnet House make it very accessible to residents. How accessible will the new offices at Colindale be to residents in the East of the borough who have housing queries or want to inspect a planning application in person?
  22. After June 2020 where will the family services in the be located in the East of the Borough and what reassurances can you give that funding for a permanent East Hub will be allocated?
  23. Given that last week I was told that an exit from the Barnet House lease had not yet been agreed, why wasn’t this identified as a risk in the report at section 1.16.7 and what is the scale of the financial risk – i.e. how many months will we have to keep paying rent for Barnet House once it has been vacated?
  24. What is the scale of the financial risk of not being able to vacate NLBP4 by June 2019?
  25. Have you carried out any staff surveys to understand how many staff feel about the move to Colindale, how many staff will find the move difficult in terms of travelling/commuting and what estimates have been made on change in staff retention as a result of the move?
  26. Please can you clarify when (i.e. June 2019) you will have certainty on the scale of the financial risk of the contractual dispute with the building contractor so that it can be incorporated into the budget?

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Supplier payments for January - have we got a clear picture of agency costs?

The biggest issue in the latest set of supplier payment figures is the inconsistency in the interim and agency staff costs. I have been concerned that since the change over in contracts from Comensura to SCM Matrix we aren't getting reliable cost figures. In December the bills from Matrix were £824,900, much lower than I would have expected. However in January the bill was £1,413,389, almost £600,000 more. We have yet to see the breakdown of the costs and which departments increased their use of agency staff but such large fluctuations seem indicative of wider issues. In fact the January figures are the highest since last August.

I would also point out that there are also significant payments to two other staff agencies for what appears to be two members of staff. In January Barnet paid Gatenby Sanderson £18,731.31 and Hampton's Resourcing £11,363.64 and the total payment to the two agencies since January 2018 is £425,536. As far as I am aware this payment is for just two members of staff and if anyone from Barnet Council would care to correct me, please let me know how many staff are involved. What I would also say is that at these sort of salaries, these staff members should be listed in the senior staff salaries list which Barnet are obliged to publish by law and which you can read here.

In total, the agency costs excluding the two above are so far at £13.49 million with two months to run before the financial year end. I am still not convinced the cost includes all the agency staff recruited to sort out the mess on the refuse service but we have to wait another couple of weeks before we get a scale of the problems there.

The Capita and Re payments this month were just under £2 million this month once credits of £147,063 were included. However I haven't seen any details of the £4.12 million Capita are supposed to be refunding and which should have gone through in January.
The running total for payments to Capita & Re are set out below:

The top ten suppliers chart show that yet again the biggest slug of money is going to the Barnet Group; Conway Aecom have the highways contract and John Graham Construction are building the two new leisure centres at Copthall and Victoria Recreation Ground.
 As always, I will continue to monitor Barnet's spending.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

No Policy No Resources - a Council in Denial

"No we haven't agreed a lease termination on Barnet House yet". "No we don't know the scale of abortive costs"...on the new Thameslink station that Government may claw back. "It's not just about the money"... when talking about why it's difficult to recruit and retain care staff on the minimum wage of £7.83/hr. These are just a few of the comments that came out under questioning at the recent Policy & Resources committee meeting. I had asked 21 questions and Barbara Jacobson, a local resident and assiduous scrutineer of Barnet's finances had asked 14 questions. You can read the questions and non answers (because Barnet never give you a straight answer) here.

I had several major concerns linked to Brexit and which are also linked to council funding. The first was about the construction of new homes. Barnet have been receiving around £10 million a year from central government in the form of new homes bonus. Barnet are forecasting that we will receive £54 million over the next 5 years and are critical in order to meet the budget. I raised the concern London’s construction sector has an ageing workforce that is heavily reliant on migrant labour. EU nationals make up 30 per cent of the 300,000-strong workforce, while just half are UK-born. Of the UK-born workers in the capital, 38,500 (12 per cent) are set to retire in the next 5-10 years. Yet it is estimated that 60,000 more construction workers are needed in London and the South East in 2017 to keep up with demand. There have also been articles documenting the slow down in the construction market in London; just one of the articles about it you can read here. As such I was concerned that if the number of new houses built in Barnet failed to meet the threshold to trigger the New Homes Bonus, this could have significant financial impact on Barnet. What reinforced my concern was that Barnet set a target of 3,100 new homes to be built in 2018/19 which would more than meet the New Homes Bonus threshold. However, in the first 3 quarters of 2018/19 only 553 had been completed (according to Barnet's own performance figures) significantly below the threshold. The response was, we think we will make the threshold and if we don't achieve it we will have to update the budget. That strikes me as incredibly complacent especially as there are concerns (detailed in the Municipal Journal) that the local government minister, Rishi Sunak may not honour £500m of New Homes Bonus payments due to councils. If these payments dry up the level of additional cuts that would be necessary to balance the budget are very large.

I then asked about the risks that insufficient care workers can be recruited and retained to meet the needs of the sector. Bear in mind Barnet is the largest London borough and has more care homes than any other borough. It also affects the care workers who support people at home. Again a high proportion of care workers are EU nationals and after Brexit it may become even more difficult to recruit staff. The question I asked was as follows:
"The risk register identifies the issues related to adult social care staff recruitment and retention. However, it does not address explicitly/quantify the financial impact on Barnet if, for example wages rates for carers are forced to increase significantly to attract and retain staff. What studies have Barnet carried out or commissioned to specifically quantify the financial impact of an increase in carer pay rates?"
Now I think that is a sensible question to be asking but Barnet's response was:
"The council has existing contracts with providers for the delivery of services which commit the council and the supplier to a set fee for services. The council continues to work closely with the local market at both a borough and regional level to assess the ongoing risk and impact of salary requirements within the workforce and ensure that rates remain sustainable and competitive". What they are saying in effect is - not our problem. The reason I am particularly concerned about this issue is that very recently a care home near to me, Apthorp House, received an inadequate rating from the CQC.  This care centre is run by Fremantle to whom Barnet outsourced their care services to back in the early 2000's and who last year were paid £3.7 million by Barnet. You can read the full CQC report here but I warn you it makes distressing reading. One of the quotes from the summary was as follows:
"There were not enough staff deployed to meet people’s needs. People told us they had to wait to receive care, and we saw people’s dignity was compromised as there were not enough staff available to support them in a timely manner. Bathrooms were dirty and this exposed people to the risk of harm due to poor infection control practice. Risks to people were not always identified, and risk assessments were not always followed. Medicines were not managed in a safe way".

Now, looking on line I noticed that Apthorp are advertising for care staff but at the national minimum wage of £7.83/hr rising to £8.28 /hour after a probation period and care certificate. It is all very well Barnet saying we have a fixed price contract with care homes like Apthorp but if that means they can only afford to pay minimum wage and that isn't enough to attract and retain staff then we have the risk of a major problem which might ultimately lead to the closure of the centre. From my perspective we need a grown up conversation which may mean increasing the amount paid to care homes on the basis that care staff are offered London Living Wage as a minimum. Unfortunately when I asked the director of Adult & Communities (salary £148,099/annum) if they had considered the London Living Wage they said "It's not all about the money". Well I'm afraid to say that if you are on £7.83/hr, the money is pretty blinking important and an extra £2.72/hr (the difference between National Minimum Wage and London Living Wage) could make a huge difference to the ability to recruit and retain care staff. However, it will cost more money and Barnet say they don't have any. Barnet are also looking to review people who receive care at home and if the cost is higher than putting them into a care home then they will be moved into a care home. This is not about what is best for the individual, it is about what is cheapest and that seems brutal.

Next financial year Barnet have to make a further £20 million of savings topped up with £5.35 million from reserves. This is an incredibly tough budget and many people will blame central government and that is true. But Barnet can't relinquish all responsibility as they have chosen to freeze council tax for the last 7 years, only taking social care precept rises. Before the last election any sensible person would have seen the additional massive cuts coming and taken a 2.99% council tax rise but Barnet Tories chose to freeze council tax again. Some people may say they don't want to pay any more for council tax but ultimately you have to take a rational view; do I pay what is needed or do I bury my head in the sand and wait for the crisis to happen. Well it's happening and it will get much, much worse. My thoughts are that we need to take a big tax rise this year, say, 6%. Based on my calculations this would add an extra £6.8 million this year and every year going forward, so it would help to cut the savings target over the next five years from £65 million to £31 million, still a stretch, but would allow for some of the risks on wage pressures and reduction in new homes bonus. It would make up for the freeze last year and would at least mean that we stand a bit of a chance in delivering some services to a reasonable standard. It would require a referendum of Barnet residents but I genuinely believe that if you explain to people what the consequences will be of not taking this extra increase they will agree - so long as the money isn't squandered on non essential activities.

That's not to say that Barnet can't make savings elsewhere. Barnet are spending £50 million to relocate to a new office building at Colindale. It is overdue and they are now looking at May for a moving in date. I asked about the lease on Barnet House and whether they had agreed a termination of the lease but the answer was "no not yet". That means we risk having the building standing empty but still shelling out rent of £65,000 each month until the lease termination is agreed. 

Barnet have also made huge financial commitment to fund the new Thameslink Station at Brent Cross which is anticipated to cost £365 million. Originally it was planned to ringfence the business rates from the expansion of the Brent Cross shopping centre to fund the interest payments. However, with the decision of Hammerson to pause the extension Barnet have been negotiating with Government as to a different funding model. This has been identified as a potential risk for the council so I asked the following question:
"OP27 (of the risk register) identifies the risks associated with the affordability of the Thameslink project and in particular the risk that Government may claw back grants leaving Barnet liable for the abortive costs. What is the scale of the abortive cost liabilities and when will a final decision be made as to whether this project will be aborted?" Not surprisingly Barnet did not give any indication of the scale of costs so I asked a supplementary question asking whether the scale was half a million or £5 million or £20 million or £50 million. The answer was "we don't know at the moment". That is an answer I find terrifying and utterly unacceptable especially as the sum could be huge.
As the Finance Director pointed out the budget is finely balanced and there is little room for manoeuvre. I forecast that the financial position will only get worse next year as wage pressures increase, it becomes impossible to deliver all of the £20 million of budget savings and government puts more financial pressure on Councils.
We should be talking directly about the reality of a council tax increase above 2.99% and the need to catch up for the seven years of freezes. Now is not the time for political point scoring if we are to avoid a major financial and social crisis. I just hope there are a few more sensible voices out there.