Friday 25 November 2011

East Barnet Residents beware - Bin Lorry Depot to be Relocated to Oakhill Park?

At last night's residents forum a little birdy told me to look again at what first seemed a rather innocuous Delegated Powers Report which related to the appointment of an architect. Looking further into the report it appears they want the architect to prepare plans for "The redevelopment and expansion of both the Copthall and Oakhill Satellite Depots to provide fit for purpose facilities for the Council’s Parks and Cleansing Services and to facilitate the regeneration of Mill Hill East by moving these services out of the existing Depot into the newly developed Satellite sites". What I had not grasped is that the small parks depot in Oakhill looks like it is to be turned into the bin lorry depot for this side of the borough. Now for those who don't who know the area in Oakhill Park it is a small fenced area immediate off the car park and is tiny. Perhaps it would hold 3 bin lorries at most. Immediately behind the small area are houses for the elderly, owned by the Lancelot Hasluck Trust. It also transpires that this issue was one of the questions refused at last night's residents forum. So the council want to sneak in a great big bin lorry depot down a very narrow road (Parkside Gardens) in the park car park and immediately behind a cluster of elderly peoples homes. Oh and we aren't allowed to discuss it at the residents forum. When were our local councillors, Cllrs Rams, Evangeli and J Tambourides going to tell us about this proposal?

If these plans are true then this is a disgrace and ever single person in East Barnet should be queuing up at the next councillors surgery on Saturday 3 December at New Barnet Community Centre, 48-50 Victoria Road, New Barnet EN4 9PF.

Cllr Coleman - expect a letter from Cllr Evangeli

At last night's Chipping Barnet Residents Forum there were just three questions on the agenda. Four questions has been excluded on the grounds that they did not meet the criteria for the new censored forums. To her enduring credit Cllr Kate Salinger handled the meeting with a politeness and empathy that is sadly missing elsewhere in the council.

The first question related to a petition for either traffic lights or a zebra crossing on Brunswick Park Road The gentleman who presented the position made a very strong case saying that a child had been knock down on this stretch of road in September and that it had previously been the site of a serious accident. The highways officer acknowledged that there had been speed checks on this stretch of road and a number of speeding fines being issued. It was agreed that the matter should go straight to the Environment sub committee which immediately follows the forum.

Next question came from that "manifestly unreasonable" troublemaker Mr Reasonable and related to the council's latest madcap scheme to let out parks for private hire. I made the point that in Oakhill Park one of the areas designated will be next to the cafe an areas that is very well used by the public. Cllr Salinger mentioned that this was something that she had seen in America and Australia. However the general opinion of the meeting was that this park belongs to the public and using it a revenue generator was unacceptable. Do we believe the council will listen to the public's views - not likely.

Last question related to the automatic barrier on Netherlands Road. Result, the council have repaired it.

The chair of East Barnet Residents Association asked where was his question which related to private hire of the park. Not a valid question pipes up the governance officer. Cllr Salinger, to her credit said she would meet straight after the meeting to discuss the disallowed questions.

Cllr Salinger now said she would move on to the action list from the last forum. Oh no piped up the governance officer again, you are not allowed to do that. An uncomfortable shuffling between Cllrs Salinger and Evangeli. Well, said Cllr Salinger, seeing as we have finished the business of the forum I suggest we discuss the issues list and that is precisely what she did.

The first issue which sparked some debate related to PayPoint. Interestingly Cllr Alison Cornelius made the point that not all PayPoint shops participate in the Barnet parking scheme with none in Totteridge making a mockery of the system. We were graced with the presence of the Barnet Parking Manager who seemed somewhat surprised at this remark and would take up the matter with PayPoint. He said that pay by phone was the main method of parking and that currently 99% of people were paying by phone. Well surprise surprise if you block off all the meters, the scratchcards aren't available yet and Paypoint has just been introduced but nobody can find a local outlet then it is hardly surprising that 99% of payments are made by phone! There remains huge public dissatisfaction with the parking set up in Barnet and Cllr Coleman's steamroller approach shows his contempt for the people he represents.

There was some hanging about till 8.00pm when the Environment Sub Committee starts. First thing was agreeing the minutes of the previous meeting normally something which is simply nodded through. Not this time. At the last meeting and following on from a strong debate at the residents forum the Environment Committee had asked officers to reinstate the light controlled pedestrian crossing at the junction of Oakleigh Road North and Whetstone High Road. However the minutes seemed to have been "adjusted" to say something subtly different. The minutes say that "officers be instructed to investigate the feasibility of re-instating the pedestrian crossing lights" whereas they had instructed officer to simply reinstate the crossing - no feasibility. It was made worse by Cllr Coleman issuing a Delegated Powers Report stating that the lights will continue to remain off. Now given that 5 of the 6 committee members are conservative one might have expected them to just roll over. No. After consulting with the governance officer they agreed, unanimously, to instruct Cllr Evangeli, as Chairman of the Committee to write to Cllr Coleman making it clear that the instruction from the Committee was to turn the lights back on. Now if Cllr Coleman simply ignores this letter it will show that actually the Environment Sub Committees are, like the new format forums, utterly impotent and as such a waste of everyone's time and money.

As ever, it seems that one man runs the council, Brian Coleman. He trumps everyone else and whatever he says goes. I cannot think of a time when Barnet Council has ever been so unpopular, so remote and out of sync with the public it is supposed to represent.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Residents Forum Shown Two Fingers by Council

At the September Chipping Barnet Residents Forum there was a very sensible discussion about the withdrawal of the light controlled pedestrian crossing at the junction of the Whetstone High Road and Oakleigh Road North. It was quite clear that many elderly residents were very concerned that the removal of the light controlled signal (covered up) had made the junction very dangerous. Interestingly it was noted by the Chair, Cllr Kate Salinger that when the trial had been introduced on the other side of the junction (in Totteridge ward) a certain councillor of that ward had demanded that the trial be stopped and it was withdrawn just one month after being introduced. Cllr K Salinger was quite insistent that officers should sort this matter out quickly and it was raised at the environment committee which immediately follows the residents forum.

So did the council listen to what people were telling them. Did the council listen to what the elected councillor for the ward was saying? No. In today's batch of delegated powers reports there is a report signed by Cllr Coleman saying they want to keep the trial going because it saves money. How much? £3,480. So if you are elderly and find it difficult to cross the road, tough luck. Keeping the cars moving and saving three and a half grand is more important.

As for the role of Residents Forums this action shows quite clearly, the council don't give a stuff what residents think. Oh and by the way we can't raise the subject again for at least 6 months. What a bl**dy joke!

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Leisure, a walk in the park but only when its not hired out

In the Barnet Times this week, Cllr Tom Davey says in response to a question about the council’s lack of expenditure on sport facilities, “My personal opinion is we shouldn’t have anything to do with leisure. People can walk or jog in the park for free. That’s the attitude we have to take because we only have a set amount of money to spend.” Well I think that gives us all a very clear indication where the leisure review is going, a consultation due to start on 29 November.

Pretty radical but that isn't a surprise coming from Cllr Davey. What makes this even worse is the council's current consultation of the hiring our of our parks. The council have identified four separate categories for hire, Commercial, Charitable, Community and Private Hire.

In a desperate attempt to raise money, the council are proposing to let out our parks to whoever is prepared to pay. They have failed to say of there is a limit to how often the park can be hired out. Given the councils zeal to raise cash we face the prospect of our parks being turned into showgrounds. In my local park, Oakhill, they have identified a lovely area adjacent to the cafe for private events. But hang on a minute these are public parks. Just because someone can afford a wad of cash it doesn't mean they should deprive the rest of the community of using these facilities. This council are utterly ruthless, close the leisure centres and jog in the park but only when we haven't hired them out. Only in Barnet

Monday 7 November 2011

Barnet Council on the Brink - an open letter to Barnet Residents

The MetPro scandal, exposed by Barnet Bloggers, was a shocking case of incompetence and poor practice that continued over a period of several years. It placed vulnerable people at risk but it took local residents only a few weeks to uncover the problems. On Friday 4 November an equally serious issue was uncovered, again by a Barnet Blogger; an issue that runs to the very heart of democracy in Barnet and in Britain.

On 16 May this year Barnet Council applied to the Information Commissioner’s Office to complain about one particular blogger, to question whether they should be registered under the Data Protection Act and to ask if they had breached the act. The Information Commissioner’s website suggests that if such a situation exists you should “First, tell the organisation concerned and give it an opportunity to put things right. Many data protection problems can be solved quickly without us getting involved”. Did Barnet Council inform the blogger concerned? No, it simply submitted the complaint.

On 7 June the Information Commissioner’s Office responded that it did not consider that a blogger should be registered as a data controller and had therefore not breached the Data Protection Act. For most organisations that would have been sufficient and they would have left the matter there. Not Barnet Council. They responded on 23 June citing a European Court of Justice judgement, not something which just comes immediately to hand. Appealing a decision of the Information Commissioner’s Office is not a step taken lightly. Taking this action must have required approval from someone very senior at Barnet Council and possibly involved taking legal advice.

The Information Commissioner’s Office responded to Barnet Council on 11 July again rejecting the Council’s complaint. It went on to say in its reply:
“The balance of privacy versus freedom of expression relies on taking a proportionate approach. Requiring all bloggers to register with this office (ICO) and comply with the parts of the DPA exempted under Section 36 would, in our view, have a hugely disproportionate impact on freedom of expression”.

This incident comes on top of changes to the borough’s constitution limiting debate in Council meetings, imposing draconian new rules for residents forums and disbanding the only committee able to scrutinise the One Barnet programme.

For all that Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities, talks about the need for armchair auditors, the reality is that local councils, and in this case a solidly Conservative Council, see them as a nuisance and something to be disarmed at all costs. The fact that a local authority should have worked so hard to stop citizens exercising their legal right to ask questions should be something of great concern to every single voter in Barnet.

Over the last few years the Council has looked increasingly out of touch with the community in which we all live. In recent months this tendency has escalated. A much more strident approach has been adopted by the most senior managers and cabinet members, an approach which is becoming unsustainable. The Bloggers of Barnet recognise that there are thousands of hard working council staff struggling to deliver good quality service whilst under immense pressure to cut costs and worrying whether their jobs are about to be privatised or deleted altogether. These people deserve our praise and recognition. It is the very top layer, the officers and consultants on six figure salaries and the Cabinet elite that work with them, that are the problem.

We call upon the Council leader to pause for reflection, for councillors to re-engage with their residents, and senior officers and councillors to start listening to citizens. This should include:

• The Council setting out in a public document fully and clearly what the One Barnet programme means for residents;
• Publishing all currently secret One Barnet reports;
• Allowing in-house team bids for all services;
• Stop putting out false information about bloggers; and
• Relax the rules and allow residents to ask any questions they like at the Residents Forums.

Failure to do so will lead to a Council that is completely isolated from the majority of residents in Barnet and one that ultimately will fail.


Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Thursday 3 November 2011

Barnet Budget Consultation - Not at the Residents Forums

At tonight’s cabinet meeting the big agenda item was the budget proposal for next year. Rather than get into the detail of the budget at this meeting, where I know there is not a chance of getting a straight answer I thought I would ask a rather simple question:

Will the Council be using the forthcoming Residents Forums scheduled for November as one of those forums to consult with residents on the budget process.

The answer was, unsurprisingly a masterpiece in flim flam.

“Last year the Council organised a public meeting as a means of consulting residents on its entire budget. It was cancelled because less than five residents registered an interest to attend even though it was advertised for two weeks in the local press. Residents seem to prefer service specific consultation events and web based feedback. We plan to continue using these methods. Given previous lack of interest in a public meeting on the entire council budget, we are not planning to repeat last year's attempt in the form of one meeting or through Residents Forums. We will be making information available at each forum on how residents can get involved in budget consultation. I will ask the chairman to ensure that residents are aware of opportunities to take part.
This month’s Barnet First will include information about the budget and how residents can tell us their views”

So that’s no then!

As for residents preferring, “specific service consultations” well how about offering them a choice. As for last year’s meeting it was not clear that you had to register in advance before coming, difficult if you are elderly and have no internet access. The meeting was cancelled 48 hours before it was due to take place and who knows how many would have turned up if it had gone ahead.

The reality is that they can’t restrict who comes to resident s forums and they might actually hear something they don’t like. The constitution specifically allows for the new format residents forums to be used for consultations so there are no rules preventing it happening. No it is the simple fact that democracy in Barnet is under threat. There are a handful of people who control Barnet . Everyone else is irrelevant.

No open discussion on budget, no discussion whatsoever on One Barnet why bother when all the decisions have already been made. So the entire cabinet agenda tonight, all 246 pages of it was neatly dealt with in 30 minutes. If you bother going to the forthcoming residents forums ask why you can't discuss the budget. Oh sorry you can't ask that question.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

The One Barnet Programme: a high stakes gamble

Set out below is an open letter from the Barnet Bloggers on the revelations that have come to light on the One Barnet programme.

Dear Councillor,

As you know the Council is embarked on a massive outsourcing project, the One Barnet Programme. This programme has never been put before the borough’s residents for their comments let alone their approval. It was not in the manifesto of the winning party at the local government elections.

No Conservative councillor or senior Council officer has ever appeared in a public forum to defend the programme. It has been left to concerned residents such as ourselves to make their own investigations into the scope and implications of the planned changes.

We have recently seen a copy of the procurement principles adopted by senior council officers in March 2011, early in the process of beginning the outsourcing. They would alarm any resident who cares about the state of the borough. You can read the document here:
We do not know whether these principles have been modified in the course of the process. The fact that that we do not know is in itself a matter for deep concern and only highlights the problem that residents are being kept in the dark about what the Council is doing with their services and their money. We must insist on residents’ right to know more about One Barnet.

It might well be that councillors themselves are also in the dark about what the Council is doing. Yet you have a duty to represent your constituents and we think you should therefore seek out and share information about One Barnet with them. You should feed back any concerns residents have to the Council Cabinet and senior officers.

The document was produced before the MetPro and other existing procurement failures came to light. Nevertheless and in spite of this, we think that the principles we have seen probably are those along which the One Barnet Programme is proceeding. Those aspects of them that alarm us most and which we think particularly need public discussion are detailed below.

One Barnet is likely to cost jobs in the borough

The Council appears to have decided that there will be no requirement on the companies awarded contracts to create new jobs within the borough. Moreover, they have decided that services do not have to be delivered locally: that is, staff currently employed by Barnet Council could be made redundant and their jobs done by people in another part of the county or even overseas, most probably in a call centre.

Staff made redundant will be offered basic TUPE terms, which, as we have already seen with outsourced services in Barnet, usually means that sooner or later staff will be re-employed on worse terms. That is bound to affect the quality of the service to residents.

There is a high risk that residents will foot the bill if One Barnet fails

The document is shot through with anxiety about who will bear risks, including financial risks. For example, the Council is looking into taking out insurance against contract failure, and it is worried about the implications of outsourcing for paying the pensions of transferred staff. Here is one particularly startling quotation regarding the pension fund:

“At the end of the contract period, there are risks of potential large deficits being built up by the new employer during the contract period. A recovery plan will need to be put in place well before contract ceases.”

The ostensible reason for going down the outsourcing path is to save money, but if contracts fail in any way, it will cost us money and disruption in our services. Other areas of provision will wind up needing to be cut to make up gaps in the Council’s budget.

The quality of our services is in jeopardy
In the document senior officers acknowledge that contractors are interested in the One Barnet Programme for one reason alone: to make money. Take this, for example:
“There are... many examples of long-term partnerships where the commitment and enthusiasm of the provider has waned over the duration of the contract. Major... organisations will generally resource extensively during the first year, or two, of a new contract but this level of resourcing diminishes as the contract moves to a more stable business as usual position.”
Residents, however, care about the quality of their services, and councillors should too.
We believe that councillors have a duty to inform themselves about these issues as a matter of urgency so that they can discuss them with constituents.
The One Barnet Programme has major implications for the future of the Borough’s services and finances and for the way it is governed. One day the discussions behind closed doors must spill out onto the streets, as residents feel the impact of the changes to their services. That will be too late for them and you suddenly to be involved in the debate.
We therefore urge you to take an active interest in One Barnet now. Speaking for ourselves, we oppose the programme; we believe One Barnet will jeopardise local finances, the quality of services and democratic control over them.
You must act now.

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

2nd November 2011

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Barnet Outsourcing - What a legal mess

Today, every single Conservative councillor in Barnet should today be very very worried. Over the weekend certain documents have been leaked to the Barnet Bloggers which illustrate what a complete and utter legal minefield the One Barnet programme has become. You can read some of the extracts at the Barnet Futureshape Blog but trust me, there is much more and it is much worse.

The documents set out quite clearly just what a dangerous game the One Barnet protagonists are playing. Some of the roles within departments currently in the process of being outsourced cannot be carried out by anyone other than an employee of the council because they are statutory roles. Problem for the companies bidding? Oh no. To get round this problem the Council have spent a great deal of money getting their lawyers to come up ways around this legal duty.

The documents also reveal that the council don’t mind jobs being outsourced away from Barnet, either elsewhere in this country or overseas. It states that “The Council do not require services to be located locally except where the service specification demands it. The Council will consider both off-shoring and near shoring proposals”. In other words unless jobs have to physically be carried out here in Barnet then the council don’t mind if they are dealt with in India or the Philippines. I think this nails once and for all the garbage that has been put out by the council, especially Councillor Thomas when he said outsourcing is just about whose name goes on your payslip. Lies. Jobs will be shipped overseas if it is cheaper to do so. Given that the Council is one of the largest employers in the borough (along with the NHS), that doesn’t bode well for council employees and all the local shops and businesses where they spend their salaries.

The risks associated with this programme seem completely out of proportion to the potential savings the scheme might make. Just a few listed in these documents include:

- Risk of contract failure – the council are sufficiently worried that they are considering taking out insurance against the risk of failure, a cost which I doubt has been included in the incredibly flimsy business case previously submitted.

- Risk that if offered a long contract, the outsourcing companies “enthusiasm and commitment will wane” – so what are they doing, yes offering a long contract (10 years)with an option to extend for a further five years.

- In terms of pensions “there are risks of potential large deficits being built up by the new employer during the contract period”. And the response? “A recovery plan will need to be put in place well before contract ceases”. So the private company will get all the benefits and local ratepayers will have to pick up the bill at the end of it.

The list goes on and on. If there was a track record of these mega outsourcing deals going well one might consider the risk worthwhile but given the huge problems at Southwest One and the recent decision in Suffolk to scrap mass outsourcing, I would have thought that any rational, sane and business like person would have taken a step back to reconsider their strategy. And therein lies the rub. This isn't a business decison it is purely political. Private sector good public sector bad. Perhaps that is why they have not allowed the in house teams to bid for any of these contracts.

Barnet Council is at a tipping point. If they persist with this mass outsourcing strategy I think councillors could find themselves accused of breaching their fiduciary responsibilities. And don’t let them say this is all about saving money because I don’t believe it and more to the point no one has yet provided a single shred of reliable,sourced and validated evidence that it will. Yes we have lots of opinions and assumptions but where is the hard evidence – there isn’t any. Worse, the consultants’ bills for One Barnet continue to clock up. In September alone Agilisys, the Council’s implementation partner for One Barnet, billed £84,292. That’s a run rate of £1 million a year for just one consultancy firm let alone all the other consultants and lawyers providing advice on One Barnet. Just stopping all of that waste would save millions overnight.

Councillors, you may have been told that One Barnet was the answer to all your problems but it isn’t and if you aren’t careful it could end up costing Barnet residents millions because it is us ultimately who have to bail you out when things go wrong. Read these documents very carefully, ask difficult questions because it strike me that no one has been asking the right (or any) questions up to now. Failure to do so could cost ratepayers a fortune and you your seats at the next election.