Friday 16 May 2014

Six days Till The Voters Decide

In the run up to the elections on the 22 May I thought I would revisit some of the blogs I have posted over the last four years to see of anything has changed. Today I am looking at events in 2011starting with a blog posted in March 2011 and relates to the infamous Council meeting where MetPro first came to the bloggers attention. This became the watershed moment when Barnet's attitude to residents became clear and war was declared on the bloggers. 

What transpired was that MetPro had no formal contract, were not SIA licensed, had not been CRB checked and had secretly filmed residents at council meetings. However this was at at time when residents were not allowed to film in council meetings, another matter that resulted in a showdown between residents and the Council. Filming of meetings is now commonplace but in 2011 it took a series of heated exchanges and the open filming by bloggers to eventually get the council to relent.

2011 is when the Council changed the rules on residents forums to make it much harder to ask relevant and challenging questions. They introduced this censorship in order to protect the dogmatic One Barnet programme from questions or scrutiny. At they same time they closed down the only scrutiny committee that had responsibility to oversee this project. Redaction of any and all information became the norm to the ridiculous extent that the council even redacted details of payments to the Council's recycling partner May Gurney in the "belief" that the payment of £861,000 was going to Mr & Mrs Gurney's daughter May. 

Roll forward to 2014 and the Council will claim to be more open. In some ways they are having restored the ability to ask any questions you want at residents forums. However, the ability to get an answer which is in any way relevant to the question is a great deal harder and now that One Barnet has been implemented and matters are covered by commercial confidentiality the council can blame someone else for hiding the facts from residents. 

Take for example the publishing of Capita contract which Barnet said was a landmark decision. Try reading it or downloading it. Still plenty of black ink.

When asked about why the Council had given £16.1 million to Capita to fund capital investment when all along we had been told this would be funded by Capita, we got a response but one that very carefully constructed in such a way that it actually told us nothing. 

So has the culture of secrecy and conflict with the residents changed since 2010? Not really. We can ask questions at residents forums but they have to be submitted two days in advance and you are unlikely to get a straight answer. The amount of time for questions and to address committees has been reduced from 30 minutes plus time for people to address the committee to a total of 30 minutes for everyone. In addition the time allowed to address the committee has been reduced from 5 minutes to just three. How topics as complex as those dealt with at the last Audit committee can be explained in three minutes highlights the way the council stifles meaningful dialogue. I would say that all out war is over but it has now become a cold war, more subtle but no less confrontational with residents.

When candidates ask you for their votes ask them how they will be more open with the public and whether they welcome resident involvement in setting council policy. That will be a real test of just how seriously they want resident engagement.

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