Friday 23 August 2013

Use of bailiffs up by 52% in Barnet

Yesterday, The Guardian ran a poll on Council's usage of bailiffs. Coincidentally I had just received an answer to my FOI request on the usage of bailiffs to collect unpaid council tax and I was shocked at the results.

Re Council Tax
 Number of cases passed to bailiffs for unpaid council tax




I was particularly surprised at the massive 52% jump in 2012/13 especially as this is before the new rules concerning bedroom tax and the requirement for benefit claimants to make an 8.5% contribution to their Council Tax kicked in.

If I were Richard Cornelius I would be very worried that so many cases are being referred to bailiffs and what will happen next year when Capita will be in charge of Council tax collection especially as they own a firm of bailiffs, Equita. I would also suggest reading a very interesting article from the Big Issue about the use of bailiffs and their charges.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Barnet's Non Existent Leisure Strategy

For more than four and a half years I have been asking what is the council's Leisure Strategy. Without a leisure strategy is is hard to plan what facilities should be provided and whether the council's leisure provider GLL is doing an appropriate job. I blogged about this back in September 2011 and again in February 2012.Consultants were appointed but we never saw a copy of their report and then leisure became a 'One Barnet' project  - in other word waste loads of money and take twice as long to achieve very little. Last October at the Cabinet Resources meeting they discussed a series of options for leisure (now called the Sports & Physical Activity Review). The report noted:

"Physical activity levels within the borough are poor. Barnet is currently ranked 23rd out of 33 London boroughs for levels of adult physical activity according to the Sport England Active People Survey (5 Oct 2010). Physical activity levels of school children in Barnet are below the national average, with particular concerns relating to some faith schools and areas of deprivation".

They came up with a series of options as follows:
  1. Divest and exit
  2. Maintain spend but use resources differently
  3. Cost reduction
  4. Invest to save
  5. Invest in new capital infrastructure
However, they promptly ruled out option 5 on the grounds that it wasn't "affordable". There was also a One Barnet style  project management report  which identified a project budget of £198,000 and a deadline of April 2013. They had already spent £100,000 by October 2012 so one would reasonably expect that the deadline of April would be achievable. Lots of named project members including Ed Gowan, now departed to Agilisys and Mick Quigley now departed to be headteacher at the Archer Academy. Roll forward to April 2013 and there is still no sight of the review. Then in June 2013 on the Budget & Performance Scrutiny Committee meeting Future Work Programme there is a mention of the review on the long list, post March 2014, and a request to receive an update on the review -  no date, no deadline.

This is what really gets me about Barnet Council; they are full of talk but no one ever follows up. It was quite clear in September 2011 that this was going to be kicked into the long grass. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent for no outcome which is shocking. Meanwhile we have a very poor leisure service as recognised in this year's Residents Perception Survey which showed a decline in satisfaction by 4% points and was rated 16% points lower than average London Councils, the worse result of any of the satisfaction criteria. Barnet are all about big gestures but continue to fail on the day to day business of delivering what people want or need.

Monday 19 August 2013

North Finchley Car Parking Update

I blogged about proposals for North Finchley Business Car Parking last week which to me seemed ill informed based on just 7 responses to a letter sent to 450 businesses. I hadn't quite grasped just what they were proposing in the Delegated Powers Report, so this morning when I read the consultation document here it made my blood boil.

Three car parks, Woodhouse Road, Stanhope Road Lower car park (the one on the right I think) and Castle Road car park will be made Business Permit Parking only. "Pay by phone and all other parking payment methods would no longer apply in these car parks." For Woodhouse Road I am less concerned because it is only ten spaces and in Stanhope Road it is 30 spaces and there are two other car parks in the road, but the car park in Castle Road is 59 places and it is the only car park at that end of the town centre (other than Aldi's).

As a frequent user of Argos at North Fnchley, Castle Road is the nearest car park and the one I always use especially if purchasing something heavy or bulky; walking to Stanhope Road car park is just too far. From my perspective if they make Castle Road car park business permit holders only, I'll just stop using Argos in North Finchley and nip over to Borehamwood instead where you can park right outside the shop for free.

I understand that business users need car parking spaces and that the huge hike in prices in 2011 sent the number of permit holders plummeting from 194 to just 23.  But this seems an ill conceived approach. The rational for converting these car parks to business permit holders only is because these car parks are "under utilised". Surely the council should be looking at ways to drive many more shoppers into North Finchley so these car parks aren't under utilised.  It doesn't seem that long ago that I remember when on a Saturday it was difficult to find a  space in any of the car parks. Maybe I am the only one who thinks this needs more thought but either way let the council know your views by emailing or calling:

Gavin Woolery-Allen (Senior Engineer) 
Traffic and Development Section  
0208 359 7545 

Tuesday 13 August 2013

North Finchley Business Parking - think before you overcharge.

Business parking permits in North Finchley are currently under review. Until now I hadn't realised just how expensive they were.  Reading a recent delegated powers report was most enlightening where it states:
"The costs of the Business Permits prior to April 2011 were £310 for a specific vehicle permit and £620 for an any-vehicle permit and a maximum of 3 permits can be applied for by each business. These costs rose to £525 and £840 respectively in April 2011 as part of periodic reviews of parking charges across the borough. Following the price increase there was a marked reduction in the uptake in business permits in North Finchley and across the rest of the town centres in the Borough. At the beginning of 10/11 there were 194 permits issued to businesses in North Finchley. This dropped to 23 immediately after the increase, it rose to 79 in 12/13 and there are currently 110 Business Permits issued in North Finchley".
So it is making less money now that before the increase. The council is now looking at alternatives such as getting business permit holders to park in "under-utilised car parks" at Stanhope Road, Castle Road and Woodhouse Road. I would be asking why on earth these car parks are under utilised - and we all know the reason for that. This is yet another illustration of how Barnet act first and think of the consequences later. Anyone in business would have undertaken a bit more research FIRST not waited the whole thing had gone wrong. The council sent out 450 letters but have had only 7 responses so this provides no reliable basis for decision making. Such a limited response is perhaps an indicator of how isolated the council have become from the business community.

I just hope that all the proposals for revenue increases coming up under the One Barnet plan (of which there are many) as identified by Capita, don't have the same consequences.

Monday 12 August 2013

What a load of rubbish.

In addition to the £3.7 million Barnet is spending on new recycling bins and food caddies, I saw last week in a Delegated Powers Report that Barnet are spending £26,343 on biodegradable food caddy liners. Every household will get a roll of ten bags. It is not much in the scheme of things but do we really need liners. We already have a kitchen caddy which we purchased ourselves (£4.99 at Robert Dyas)  and we simply wash it out daily. We put the waste in the green bin (which will not be allowed in future) which we also wash out regularly. To me it is £26,343 wasted and it may also set expectation from some residents that they will be provided on a regular basis - which I don't think is the intention.

A bit more common sense please.

Friday 9 August 2013

The Cost of Contractual Disputes - Pay Attention Barnet

Southwest One, the outsource contract in Somerset, ended up in dispute when the council were sued by their outsourcing partner. The dispute has now been settled but the process has racked up a huge legal bill. As revealed in a Freedom of Information request the total legal bill came to more than £2.6 million. The lion's share of fees went to Pincent Masons but it was interesting to see that Barnet's lawyers Trowers & Hamlin were also in receipt of fees in 2011/12.

Perhaps Barnet should think about setting aside money for legal fund now.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Capita's takeover of Barnet

For the last four years, since the subject of Futureshape, (later EasyCouncil and One Barnet) was first mentioned I have been asking questions. Not rude questions, not ideological questions, just questions about how such a massive contract will work in practice and how it will be administered. In my day job I have been working on outsourcing/competitive tendering of service contracts since 1986 so those questions are based on my experience not just random thoughts.

All the way through the process I have never had a straight answer, I have had misleading answers, false answers and answers to different questions. The public have never been allowed to see a copy of the contract, indeed at one stage the council denied a contract existed (because it was a draft).

I have raised concerns about the length of the contract - I still do not believe there is any clear justification for such a long contract other than it is what Capita wants. I am worried about the level of power and control Capita will exert over the council - with so many services under one contract, even if some go into meltdown the council will be unable to terminate the contract as they simply will not have the resources to take it back in house at short notice

I am worried about the fact that all of the council's data will be held and administered on Capita's servers in a Capita office in the North of England (or further afield) with only the promise that the council can access that data at the end of the contract at a "reasonable cost".

I am worried about fraud and conflict of priorities between ensuring new council tax benefits claimants are registered quickly and the need to identify fraudulent claimants.  I am seriously concerned about the shift in emphasis that may take place in planning decisions where four out of five are delegated to officers when there will be an incentive to maximise the new homes bonus and build as many new homes as quickly as possible.

I am worried about the role of managing agent for procurement of third party contracts Capita will assume even though it was never mentioned the original tender document and the ability Capita will have to influence contracts with care providers for the most vulnerable in our society.

There are many other real concerns about the way this contract is structured, about the millions of pounds of management fees that Capita will receive but most of all I am concerned that throughout the process there has never been any independent oversight, no due diligence no scrutiny whatsoever other than that attempted by the residents of Barnet. That isn't just naive and stupid, it is downright reckless. The council's response is that they have had legal and professional advice but these are the same advisors who have been pushing this outsourcing juggernaut from the outset so they are definitely not impartial or objective.

All the way through the process I have been told that there is no alternative, there is no Plan B. Well frankly that is nothing short of an admission of failure; a failure to think creatively a failure to work collaboratively with the workforce, a failure to ask residents what they want and if they believe handing so much control to one company is in the best interest of the residents.

The council has spent over £7 million with just one firm of consultants and many millions on other professional and legal advisors to promote this outsourcing contract. Yet if only half of that money had been used to invest in new technology, new working practices, a rationalisation of council buildings, then the savings could have been made whilst retaining the flexibility of a service under our direct control.

Only a handful of councillors have pushed this contract through with the remaining Conservative councillors doing as they are told through whipped votes. I genuinely do not think they really grasp what they have done. They have given this contract to Capita in perpetuity because with so many services bundled together it will be almost impossible to bring them back in house at the end of the contract and it will be exceptionally difficult for any other company to take over because of the way Capita will have integrated the various council functions into numerous different locations within their own organisations.

Hundreds of Barnet council staff are going to be made redundant in the next three months. That will have both a social and economic impact on them and the borough. Some families will be forced to move some may lose their home, many will end up on benefit which we as taxpayers will all have to pay for so that a private company can prosper. How many children will suffer when they have to move schools. These are not a by product of an outsourcing scheme, they are people with lives that will be damaged. Local shops and tradespeople will lose the spending power of all those staff but none of this has figured in any of the calculations about savings that will be made.

Capita may have won the contract but Conservative councillors may have just lost themselves the next election especially when things start to go wrong and we as residents start to experience the problems. The items that weren't written into the contract, the services levels that weren't quite agreed properly. I intend to request a copy of the contract and in particular details of the key performance indicators. The council will no doubt try to claim commercial confidentiality but I see no successful defence to that as Capita are in now and they will have no competition for  at least ten years. I will make sure as many residents understand those key performance indicators as possible so that instead of a team of three or four contract monitors there will be 10,000 people each checking how Capita are performing.

Capita, I think you may come to regret the day you ever entered a contract with Barnet.

Friday 2 August 2013

Judicial Review Appeal Update

Sadly, this afternoon, the Court of Appeal have issued their judgement that Maria Nash's appeal has been unsuccessful. The judgement can be read here,

Wot no Agilisys - Barnets Supplier payments for June

Looking through the supplier payments for June, one thing jumped out at me - no payments to Agilisys. Given that their bill has reached more than £7 million and bills have been running at around £250k- £300k per month, the lack of any payments to Agilisys is somewhat of a surprise. Maybe someone has at last pulled the plug on this juggernaut, maybe it is an oversight and we will get a double bill next month.

Other interesting payments were £378,996.49 paid to Trowers & Hamlin, the Councils legal advisors. Perhaps if Barnet had bothered to consult the residents we wouldn't have been landed with such a huge legal bill.

Oh and even though Capita haven't been awarded the NSCSO contract yet - pending the judgement on the Judicial Review Appeal - they have managed to secure a very lucrative short term deal which in June paid them £167,625 for the "NSCSO Management Fee"

NSL were paid £269,537.70 for operating the parking system. I would suggest anyone who is concerned about this should read Mr Mustard's blog on the payments to NSL.