Wednesday 30 January 2013

December bill for One Barnet professional advice - £650k

December supplier payments for Barnet are out today and yet again, One Barnet Implementation Partner, Agilisys, have been billing prodigiously . In December they billed £485,682.03 or more than £25,000/day every working day of December. That brings the total paid to Agilisys in 2012 for the implementation of One Barnet to £3,862,550.32 and over £5.5 million since the contract started. This is the contract that was originally expected to cost "circa £2 million".

Legal advice from Trowers & Hamlins for the Commercial Directorate (which means the One Barnet project) was £164,928.86. So between Agilisys and T&H, it cost Barnet residents £650,000 in December.

Richard Cornelius was saying any delay in implementing One Barnet will cost the council £1 million a month. I now understand why - it's all those bl***y fees.

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Barnet's IT infrastructure provider goes into adminstration

Oh dear. Today it appears that Barnet  Council's IT infrastructure supplier 2e2 have gone into administration. I blogged about this contract back in July 2011 when I express concerns about the company and the renewal of the contract. In 2010/11 Barnet Council paid 2e2, £1,077,913.62 and in 2011/12 Barnet paid 2e2 £1,370,356.83.

Capita are due to take over in the responsibility for the IT infrastructure in April but what happens for the next two or three months and will it cause problems? This should be a wake up call yet again for the Council that key suppliers can fail and when they do it is all of us that are left with a mess. Beware what you outsource!

Saturday 26 January 2013

Icy pavements in Barnet. A solution perhaps?

In Barnet the gritters have been out trying to keep the roads clear (not mine by the way). However they do not seem to have made any attempt to grit or clear the pavements. I have seen lots of people forced to walk in the middle of the road because the pavements were so treacherous. I saw this video of a pavement gritter and thought it seemed such a good idea maybe we ought to have two or three in Barnet. I then found out that these are quite adaptable machines which can be fitted with different attachments for street cleaning as well so can be used year round. It stuck me that if the Townkeepers in Barnet  had access to one of these machines (maybe one between two or three Townkeepers) it might have help keep our pavements a bit clearer.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Will cuts to Council Tax Support work or are we forcing even more people into poverty?

Starting in April, benefit claimants in Barnet will have to pay a contribution toward their council tax. Details of the scheme can be read here. This is a central government policy to cut the council tax bill by 10% and supposedly to incentivise people back into work. The net effect for Barnet is a cut of £3.7 million of central government grant towards council tax benefit so the council can either absorb the cut (which according to the LGC around 25% of council have opted for so far) or get benefit recipients to pay.

The new system to be implemented in Barnet will mean that benefits claimants will have to pay at least 8.5% of their council tax out of the benefits they receive. Interestingly, the Council's own report says,

"There will be an impact on working age claimants who in the past have been effectively exempt from paying Council Tax and will in future be expected to pay a portion of their Council Tax liability. There is a real risk that a significant part of this segment of population will be unwilling to pay any contribution towards their Council Tax bill, leading to an increase in customer contact, appeals and complaints, and higher levels of bad debt."

I think this is a bit tough to say some people will be unwilling to pay. I suspect the reality for most is that they will be unable to pay which is fundamentally different.

Reading through the papers for tonight's Budget and Performance Scrutiny Committee meeting it examines the performance of Barnet Homes and highlights that 38% of all Barnet Homes tenants are in arrears (according to company accounts these arrears were £1,327,484 at 31 March 2012). If so many people are in arrears already, then surely asking them to contribute towards their council tax will make matters even worse. But this affects many more people than Barnet homes residents. In total 32,000 Barnet residents are in receipt of Council tax benefit. However, the proportion of claimants who are of working age has been declining over recent years and this trend is likely to continue with an ageing population. Since pensioners are exempt from any new CTS scheme, the impact of any measures to collect a portion of Council Tax will increasingly fall disproportionately on those of working age. In Barnet the 5,000 working age benefits claimants who have hitherto received 100% Council Tax Benefit, will be hit hardest.

The Council are using the powers given to them to do away with the discount for second homes and properties that have been vacant for two years or more to try and offset this pressure on benefit claimants. However the impact will be significant especially on larger families who occupy larger houses. There is a transitional phase for the first year but after that it appears that larger families might be as much as £25/week worse off.

Although pensioners on benefit are exempt from the scheme, those elderly who, for example, are in hospital for a prolonged period and currently apply for the empty property discount will no longer qualify.

Other people who will be affected include single parents with non dependent children, for example children who are living at home whilst at University, or children who are unemployed, will no longer qualify for the non dependent adult discount.

Now Barnet did carry out consultation but as ever it asks those motherhood and apple pie questions to which no one can object to justify implementing the scheme. Yes of course people want a scheme that is fair and that those who can afford to pay make some contribution but for those on benefit the current scheme does not seem particularly fair at all.

The Daily Mail contingent might say well all these "scroungers" should pay and people on benefits receive far too  much money anyway. My experience of people I know who are in receipt of benefit is that life is anything but easy and their budgets are incredibly finely balanced; even a small unforeseen problem can mean they run short of money for food or utilities. But forget what I say. An arch Tory, Lord (Patrick) Jenkin who was the architect of the Poll Tax has come out in a BBC interview and said,

"The poll tax was introduced with the proposition that everyone should pay something, and with the present structure of society it doesn't work. We got it wrong. The same factor will apply here, that there will be large numbers of fairly poor households who have hitherto been protected from Council Tax, who are going to be asked to pay small sums." He also said the government needed to prepare for a "backlash" when the cuts came into force. 

Officials at one London borough  have described the change as "likely to have a disastrous impact on the levels of child poverty". Laura Wale, money adviser at National Debtline, said she would expect "a lot more people to have liability orders" if local authorities stick to their current procedure of enforcing outstanding bills through bailiffs within their usual timescales of one to three months. She says councils will have much more discretion than previously to slow down their enforcement procedures to enable people to find work or search for some other solution. However with Capita taking over responsibility for Council tax collection in Barnet from April, and having given specific guarantees on the collection levels, I suspect they will not show the same level of discretion as other Councils.
Ironically in the first year of operation these changes will generate savings that exceed the cuts by around £500,000. The Council say they will use this surplus to establish a Crisis Fund for those most affected by the changes. Given that the government has put in transitional relief for just one year of £600,000, there is a very real chance that next year the 8.5% contribution level will have to increase and that the Crisis Fund will disappear. 

If Patrick Jenkin thinks this strategy is a mistake then perhaps Barnet should be listening to him and coming up with other ways to meet the shortfall - or telling Eric Pickles that he is mad. Sadly, as ever, it will the be the poorest and most vulnerable who will suffer most.

Friday 18 January 2013

Public Exhibition of New Barnet Optex Site Development

The Optex Site, 15 East Barnet Road, and 7-11 Victoria Road are all owned by Tesco. Having given up on the option to build a new superstore or another Tesco Express in New Barnet, their developers, Spenhill, have looked at developing housing on these sites. This is a really positive move that will bring a number of derelict sites back into use with a range of family housing.

All the details of the site can be checked out on their website here. They are also hosting a public exhibition next week on Wednesday 23rd and Thursday 24th at the Salvation Army Hall in Albert Road. I would strongly urge New Barnet residents to go along and have a look at what is proposed, ask questions and satisfy your self about the proposals. 

Thursday 17 January 2013

Last night's Chipping Barnet Residents Forum

We turned up at Barnet House to a freezing cold room but were met with a warm smile from Cllr Kate Salinger!

To start off with there were only 8 people present including a couple of councillors. Over the next half hour a few more people joined the meeting, but holding residents forums at 6pm clearly deters anyone who works in central London.

Before the meeting started Cllr Salinger noted that I had raised several questions relating to "Themed Residents Forums". These are a specific requirement in the Constitution and the leader or a delegated member of the cabinet must host one at least once a year. I had asked when we were going to have one and could the topic be the DRS. Unsurprisingly these questions were initially ruled out of order. However, having stated that preventing me question why the constitution was not being upheld seemed to run against the spirit of the constitution and that I would pursue this further, Cllr Salinger had called Richard Cornelius and he had agreed to host a forum. So officially my question was never asked upholding the entirely undemocratic policy of limiting debate at forums.

The remaining questions were dealt with in half an hour. Can we have a 20 mile an hour speed limit around two primary schools. Waffle, waffle, where funding is available waffle, waffle, speak to the school travel plan coordinator.  Painting some double yellow lines at a dangerous junction. Waffle, waffle, may get pushed up the priority list but officers are focused on sorting out parking in town centres. When the new recycling bins are introduced can we get a smaller bins? Waffle, waffle, standard 240 litre bin waffle, waffle. Some discussion about the fact that matters are discussed but don't always get actioned and then its all over. So that's it till March. So much for public debate - not in Barnet.

Monday 14 January 2013

More than 5,200 people end up paying for parking which was supposed to be free. Only in Barnet

Updated 7.30pm see below
Just before Christmas,  Barnet Council decided to offer residents the opportunity to park for up to two hours for free on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd December. This was supposedly to help boost high street trade. I know this because I check the Council's website daily, something which I suspect very few residents do. 

I visited North Finchley on the 22nd to take advantage of the free parking and was surprised to find the car park barely half full.  I also found that there were no signs about the free parking period in the car park in Castle Road and several people trying to pay by phone. I tried to tell some of them that parking was free for two hours. A few thanked me and went on their way but a couple said "there aren't any signs telling us its free so we are going to pay anyway because we don't want to risk getting a ticket."

When I returned to my car the same thing happened. People too worried about getting a ticket to take the risk especially as there were no signs telling them it was free.

I decided to submit an FOI request on the subject and today I received the response.

The questions and responses are below:

Q1. The number of car parks that had signs informing the public that parking was free for two hours. 
R1. None. Information was published on the Council’s website and local press.  There were also posters in local shops

Q2. Copies of any correspondence between Barnet Council and the pay by phone operator instructing them that car parking was free for two hours.
R2. We have not been able to locate any correspondences relating to this matter.
Q3. The number of payments by telephone that were taken on 22nd December 2012 for periods of two hours or less and the total value of those payments.

R3. The total number of transactions for 2 hours parking or less is 1043 for Off-street locations. On-street transactions were 4186. The approximate value of the transactions will be £9000.

So there was no correspondence telling the pay by phone provider that there was free parking for two hours, money was taken even though the Council had waived the charges and there were no signs in any of the car parks telling people the parking was free.  Given that Civil Enforcement Officers (traffic wardens) visit each of the car parks several times a day they would have been able to affix simple stickers letting residents know it was free parking.  It would have cost peanuts. The Council could have instructed the pay by phone company not to take payments on 22nd and 23rd but chose not to.

It's bad enough that the free parking was only for the Saturday and Sunday before Christmas but by failing to effectively communicate that policy they have failed to meet the objective of offering free parking namely to stimulate trade.  Cllr Dean Cohen should hang his head in shame.

Updated 7.30pm
The Barnet Times ran this story this afternoon and have now updated it with the revelation from Cllr Cohen that everyone who paid on the day has now been refunded. He said,
"We did put up posters but perhaps some more signs should have been put up too".  Dead right! Yet again a weak idea badly executed. The big issue is that Councillors simply don't listen and then they try and sort out the ensuing mess. Perhaps it would be better if they got it right first time.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

The reality of cuts in Barnet

Looking through Barnet Council's disclosure log I came across a very interesting response. Someone had asked how many school crossing patrol officers were employed by the Council and the response showed the following:

  • In 2011/12 the council employed 14 School Crossing Patrol Officers.
  • The council currently (2012/13) employs one School Crossing Patrol Officer.

I took an interest in this because I blogged about it in 2011. The issue was that the actual crossing patrol salaries were £41,503 but the central overhead charges for Management, HR, IT etc were £115,497.

So the cuts promised were enacted and all but one of the staff have gone. However, I wonder how much of the original management and overhead costs were actually saved rather than the modest salaries.  When you look how much money has been wasted by the council on consultants it still seems ridiculous that the safety of our children is put at risk to save £41,503. 

 This a very simple example of how a crude and ill thought through strategy of cuts is hitting Barnet residents; expect an awful lot more.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Contract, what contract?

At the beginning of December I applied under the FOI act to see a copy of the contract between Capita and Barnet.

"Please provide me with a copy of the contract between Barnet Council and Capita for the NSCSO project. If you cannot supply the complete contract in its entirety, please provided me with all those elements that are not strictly commercially sensitive and have already been disclosed or about to be disclosed in the public reports and answers to questions considered at scrutiny or cabinet meetings."

 Now we all know a contract exists because it has been much talked about, councillors have inspected it and you can even see a picture of it here.

Waiting until the very last day (I claim it was a day late) Barnet's response was somewhat surprising.

"I am writing to inform you that the information you request is not held by London Borough of Barnet. The contractual agreement for the provision of the New Support and Customer Services Organisation (NSCSO) has yet to be finalised and signed and therefore no final contract currently exists. The contract is expected to be signed between late January and March 2013. Following this, it is our intention to publish the contract on the council's website having redacted any elements considered to be commercially sensitive."

I note that Barnet are using this excuse with anyone else asking for information about the contract or indeed the investment proposal of Capita in IT.

Not only have Barnet refused point blank to discuss this contract with residents, Barnet deny the contract's existence until it is signed and an opportunity to flag up problems has therefore passed.

The New Year is not off to a good start. Next week are the residents forums which will again deny residents the right to ask any questions about One Barnet or any other matter which is about policy. We have the DRS contract coming up which cannot in anyway be described as "back office". There are lots of really important questions that need to be answered about service delivery, transparency, governance, contractor conflicts of interest, charging policy, to name but a few, yet the Council are mute on this and the public have been effectively gagged.

I think that 2013 is the year when many more residents are going to wake up to the huge risks such a radical and complex outsourcing contract will bring and how the details have been hidden by the Council. Sadly by then it may be too late to do anything about it.