Saturday, 19 April 2014

One Barnet and the mess it has created - a massively critical internal audit report

For all those One Barnet evangelists who believe everything they are told, make sure you read the latest Barnet Council Internal Audit report. Of the 17 system audits carried out, 6 received a rating of limited or no assurance which is bad. Please read till the end as some of the matters are exceptionally serious.

I'll start with the limited assurance audits. The first relates to the outsourced contract for legal services with Harrow. The audit report states,
"We found an overspend on the Harrow & Barnet Public Law (HBPL) contract, with uncertainty noted in Delivery Units regarding the charging process. Further, it is unclear what income will be achieved on the HBPL contract from the provision of legal services to Re and the Barnet Group and how that will be accounted for". They recommend, "The Commercial Team HBPL contract manager should communicate the legal services charging basis to budget holders and formalise the process of recharging with Delivery Units. Uncertainty around the treatment of income from Re and the Barnet Group should be resolved by reference to the contract and without further delay".
What I want to know is why on earth this wasn't sorted out before now and how can the success or failure of this contract be measured if no one knows what it is really costing. Last year Barnet paid Harrow £3.1 million for legal professional services. So much for outsourcing making cost savings.

The second limited assurance audit relates to the HR function carried out by Capita.
"There is no requirement for the order of agency staff on the Comensura system to be approved by a more senior officer. There is therefore a risk that agency staff may be appointed without appropriate approval. This may not be in-line with the Council’s scheme of delegation and lead to inappropriate use of the Council’s resources". It also notes that "There are no checks performed by the Council to ensure that all pre-employment checks have been completed on agency staff by Comensura, in particular, the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks. There is therefore a risk that agency staff may be inappropriately employed, leading to breaches of procurement policy, potential safeguarding issues, increased fraud risk and reputational damage".

Given that the council paid Comensura £13.69 million in 2013, I find it utterly shocking that there was no approval system and no checks on who was employed. Capita have had this responsibility since September so in the last six months how much money has been wasted and how many rogues have been employed? Even worse Capita state that HR have a number of competing priorities and that implementing the new payroll system comes first so changes to the DBS checks will not be implemented until June.

The third limited assurance audit relates to business continuity - in other words keeping the council running if there is a major problem. The report states that,
"There is no corporate business continuity strategy, and this is recognised as a risk on the Council's risk register. Without a current and comprehensive strategy, there is no clear Council approach for Delivery Units. This could result in Delivery Unit approaches to business continuity which do not enable efficient recovery following an incident". They also note that "Previous business continuity incidents are not formally recorded and there is no lessons learned log. If previous incidents and lessons learned are not captured, then improvements to the business continuity process will not be made, resulting in a less effective process.

That is just poor management but Barnet seems to have been troubled  a number of times by failing to learn from its previous mistakes and it looks like that will continue to happen.

The fourth limited assurance relates to the much trumpeted outsourcing of parking services to NSL. The reports states that, "The Parking Project’s business case listed 13 financial and non- financial
benefits to be delivered to the Council throughout the five year contract period, which included income generation, service quality and savings targets. We found that controls were not in place to ensure that the future realisation of these planned benefits was monitored and managed, for example roles and responsibilities for benefit management and planned timelines for benefit reporting. The Benefits Realisation Plan produced at the end of the project had not been reviewed since the project handed over to the Clienting team in May 2012. An issue management strategy was not in place for the contract and as a result we were unable to identify how the Clienting team intended to manage and escalate issues with the contractor. In particular we were unable to identify what constituted an issue that NSL would be required to raise with the Council; defined roles and responsibilities for those involved in issue management; and documented thresholds or escalation routes for issues".

As our Parking Guru and now national media star Mr Mustard has said so many time this contract isn't delivering what it promised and no one is managing it adequately.

Now we move on to the two audits which received a no assurance rating and which are quite shocking.

The first is  IT Access Controls. The reports states that there is a lack of documented Council-wide policies relating to IT user access management. The only area which did have policies was the Integrated Children's System and that is only because it has been criticised in the past for a lack of policies. More seriously, the report also says that: 
"There is a lack of ownership for IT user management across the Council in relation to the areas audited and at a corporate level. This stems from the lack of a clear division of responsibility in this area between the Council and its IT support provider Capita". 
I have said repeatedly over the last three years that there is a massive risk that certain functions and responsibilities will fall down the gap between what the Council retains and what Capita take over. So what you may say? But here comes the killer statement from the report.
Access to Council systems is not controlled or monitored effectively. For all employees added to any Council system prior to 2010, no evidence of authorisation for access has been retained. No formal reviews of staff access levels or active users had been documented in any of the areas audited. Furthermore, there is no formal process in place for the removal of IT access for temporary staff after they have left the Council. This is appalling especially as the council has been and continues to employ hundreds of temporary staff.

The recommendations are numerous but include the following:
"a) A formal agreement should be developed between Barnet and Capita detailing the responsibility for user management across the Council.
b) An up to date listing of all Council applications should be developed and maintained and include details concerning responsibility for administration and managerial roles between Capita and Barnet".

Capita have been helping the council since last July and were formally operating the CSG contract (which includes IT) since last September yet there is no formal agreement for user management of the IT systems and according to the management comments this will not be implemented until August this year. Barnet had three years to prepare for this contract yet something as fundamental as to who is allowed to access the IT systems is overlooked.

The report also recommends that:
"A Council wide formal process to remove all users from all systems should be developed and
agreed between the Council and Capita. Barnet should seek assurance that Capita remove staff
access in a timely basis. Management should obtain ongoing assurance that polices and processes introduced are being followed in practice, including the retention of authorisation provided for IT access".

So there you have it. Barnet have to seek assurances that Capita do the job they are supposed to be doing because Barnet have handed over responsibility for one of the most sensitive and critical elements of the ways the council is run, its IT systems and have to hope and keep their fingers crossed that Capita actually do what they are supposed to do. I remain concerned that  thousands  of Capita staff dotted all around the UK all have access to Barnet's IT systems without all of the necessary policies and procedures in place to make sure those people should or need to have access.

The second audit that received no assurance relates to the Adult Social Care case management  and and documentation systems SWIFT and Wisdom. The SWIFT system has been having problems since at least 2011 as recorded in the Quarterly performance management reviews. However, in the latest audit report it states that:
"No documentation exists for the administration of either application and the responsibility for oversight of the applications is unclear. There are currently significant operational issues with the system in that it ‘freezes’ limiting its use for operational staff. This has been reported however calls to the helpdesk regarding issues with Swift have remained unresolved and senior management within the delivery unit have not escalated the matter to ensure its resolution. During the audit it was apparent that the working relationship between Adults and IT needs to be more collaborative. Management have no oversight of the backup process for Swift and there is
overarching uncertainty over whether the bespoke elements of the system are backed up at all.
Backups for Wisdom have never been tested. Northgate, the provider of Swift, have stated that
they will be unable to restore Swift in the event of a system collapse; this could result in all client
information in Swift being lost.

So what it is saying is that the system doesn't work and the helpdesk aren't resolving the problems and that if the system does go wrong there is a risk that ALL THE DATA ON ADULT SOCIAL SERVICES CLIENTS COULD SIMPLY DISAPPEAR.

I find it incredulous that such a critical system could be so vulnerable, especially as there have been concerns about this system for the last three years.  I have said repeatedly that the inertia cause by the the entire One Barnet outsourcing project was resulting in the days to day running of the council being overlooked and here is the evidence in black and white.

The report also flags up information security and access issues arising from the difficulties with the system. Because the SWIFT system keeps freezing some staff are taking information off the system to store separately so they can do their day to day work. However there is no record of where this data is stored and if it is secured. The access log system is so ineffective that there is no record of who goes into and edits client files. This is incredibly sensitive information yet the report also says that having been granted access to the system as a whole there is no classification systems as to which users can access which information.

All of these items will be discussed at the Audit committee on Tuesday 29 April. Sadly, I have no confidence that there will be any challenging questioning as we are now in election mode. It is also a major regret that the Chairman of the Audit Committee, Lord Palmer is standing down at the election as he has tried his utmost to hold the council to account supported in large part by the bloggers and active citizens of Barnet.

Anyone who tells you that Barnet's outsourcing has been a success is fooling themselves. We have had 3 or 4 years of complete inertia when the day to day running of the Council was given a low priority and investment minimised. Contractual barriers have been erected between Capita and retained Council functions which create grey areas of uncertainty over responsibility and some contractors are simply ignoring the council and doing what they want. Commissioning Council may be a buzz phrase but the reality in Barnet is a failure to deliver on the basics.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Holly Park Primary School Barnet - A Shocking Food Hygiene Report - A Joint Blog

We all have an expectation that our children will be cared for when they are at school, and we rely on our local council to ensure their safety, with a rigorous enforcement of the regulations regarding food hygiene. Young children are at a higher risk from the consequences of failing to uphold the high standards expected in these areas, and the result of such failures could be devastating for pupils.

On 12 December 2013 Holly Park Primary School kitchen was inspected  by an Environmental Health Officer from Barnet Council. They gave the school a zero rating, the lowest possible, citing amongst other things:
  • Cobwebs and insects over food preparation areas;
  • Flaking paint from the ceiling;
  • Windows that don’t shut allowing in rain, leaves and insects;
  • Leaking pipe;
  • Damaged floor tiles;
  • Broken ventilation allowing pests into the kitchen;
  • No pest control contract;
  • Work surfaces and storage areas which cannot be properly cleaned;
  • Mould and condensation to the skylight and ceiling in the dry store where food is stored;
  • Kitchen staff using broken electrical sockets and extension leads because other electrical sockets were not working;
  • No evidence of a current electrical safety certificate;
  • Broken lights ;
  • Broken and disused kitchen equipment which were difficult to clean behind;
  • Kitchen staff WC with holes in the walls and ceiling;
  • Leak in the kitchen floor;
  • An insecticutor  (one of those blue light machines  you see in kitchens that zap flies and insects) full of dead insects;
  • Inadequate and overflowing bins.

Having read the food hygiene inspection report at Holly Park, as well as the follow up visits report, it is clear that something has gone very badly wrong at this school, and that this matter needs to be brought to public attention.

In total there were 21 contraventions of law listed with timescales for remedy ranging from immediately to 28 days. Bear in mind this inspection took place a week before the school broke up for Christmas but, as far as we are aware, parents were not informed of this situation and food continued to be served from this kitchen.

On 14 January 2014 a follow up visit was made by the Environmental Health Officer. Given that this was more than 28 days after the first visit, all of the contraventions of law should have been remedied. Sadly that wasn’t the case and the follow up report reveals the following:
  • The walls and ceiling had not been cleaned and there were still cobwebs and insects in the kitchen;
  • The floor had only been given a temporary repair but the Environmental  Health Officer required them to monitor the leak;
  • Pests could still get in through the windows because they could not be shut – it was suggested that this was because the windows could not take the weight of the roof and had bowed out of shape.
  • The work surfaces and shelves that could not be properly cleaned had still not been replaced;
  • The electrical safety certificate had still not been produced;
  • The flaking paint had not been dealt with.
 This visit took place a week after the children had gone back to school and food was still being served out of the kitchen. You can read the full report here.
What is apparent is that most of these issues are structural and denote a total lack of investment in this school kitchen. Barnet are always ready to claim credit for the excellent standards in schools but this indicates they have completely overlooked essential safety in the kitchen of this school.
We would also note that two there are two other schools in the Borough that achieved inadequate food hygiene ratings, Deansbrook Junior School in Hale Drive which scored just one point (Major improvement necessary) and Underhill Infants School  which scored two points (Improvement necessary).
You can read the food hygiene ratings for all Barnet schools here:

Serious questions about the situation at Holly Park must be addressed. 
  1.  Have the problems now been completely resolved and if not why not?
  2.  Were parents fully informed of these problems? If not, why not? Surely they had a right to know -especially those parents whose children have school dinners?
  3. Were the governors of the school, including Cllr Brian Salinger made aware of this report? If not, why not, and if they were, did they not think parents had a right to be informed of the situation?
  4.  Why did Barnet Council allow a kitchen in such a poor state of repair continue to operate, and why, when they were given a zero rating, did they fail to remedy so many of the contraventions within the timescale set by the Environmental Health Officer?
  5.  Were there any conflicts of interest between Re, the council’s contractor  who now operates Environmental Health, and the Council over the role of the Environmental Health Officer, given that  the Officer now has two employers – Capita, before they enter and after they leave the premises, and the Council, whilst they carry out the inspection?

 In the best interests of all families with children at Barnet’s schools, we ask Barnet Council to respond in full to the concerns raised here, as soon as possible, so as to reassure residents that the privatisation of council services and management of statutory roles in the One Barnet programme is not placing children or any other residents at risk.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Friern Barnet Library - A Joint Bloggers Statement

Claiming credit for something you haven't done is an unappealing trait. When politicians do it weeks before an election, it needs to be brought to the attention of prospective voters. Set out below is a joint blog from the Barnet Bloggers regarding Friern Barnet Library.

Barnet Conservative candidates in Coppetts Ward have been distributing a leaflet claiming the credit for saving Friern Barnet library.

This indefensible attempt to rewrite history is something that cannot go unchallenged.

The Barnet bloggers have followed the story of Friern Barnet in detail, from the moment in 2010 when Councillor Robert Rams launched the strategic library review, making ludicrous suggestions about the possibilities of ‘pop-up’ libraries in Tescos, and Starbucks.

We supported the raising of a petition, gaining over 7,000 signatures, and the lobbying of council meetings, and councillor surgeries. This gave the Tories pause for thought and they relented from their initial plans.

When the review was announced, only two libraries were marked for closure: Hampstead Garden Suburb and Friern Barnet. As Hampstead Garden Suburb was in a staunchly Tory ward, it took little pressure from influential local resident groups for the council to grant a reprieve, and happily agree to subsidise the small branch library in this most affluent area of the borough. This left Friern Barnet library, in a largely Labour voting ward, as the sole victim of Councillor Rams’ axe. 

Community campaigners were invited to draw up plans to keep the library open. As later events were to demonstrate, this was a crafty ruse by councillors and senior officers, which meant the campaigners were working on plans in the period where they could have instigated a judicial review. Such time wasting slammed the door on legal remedy. It seemed clear to all involved that the council had acted in bad faith and the invitation to draw up proposals were never a serious proposition.

In April 2012, the council closed the library at short notice. A symbolic occupation of the building by residents took place, to register the sense of injustice felt by the local community. The same afternoon, valuers arrived to assess the building for future development. The library was boarded up, emptied of books, and left to stand until a plan of sale had been made.

The closure of Friern Barnet, as some have forgotten, was justified by Tory members on the basis of a new library to be created in the Arts Depot at North Finchley. This plan came to nothing.

Along with many other supporters and activists, Barnet bloggers were at the forefront of the campaign to reopen Friern Barnet library, helping to launch the People’s ‘pop-up’ library, not in Tesco, or Starbucks, but on the village green next to the building, beneath the cherry trees. It was an act of defiance from local residents and campaigners in response to the removal of a much loved local community centre, and it received an astonishing outpouring of support.

The pop-up library received donations of hundreds of books and kept the protest alive throughout the weeks that followed. The BBC One show came to film the event, the first of a wave of media interest in the issue.

Despite this clear evidence that there was enormous support for the library, Councillor Robert Rams and his colleagues continued to ignore the local community.

Through the summer of 2012, residents came down every Saturday, come rain or shine to swap books on the lawn. As we approached autumn, and weather conditions worsened, it looked as if the Peoples library may become unsustainable: but in September 2012, the Occupy movement took over the Library and the People’s Library moved back into its rightful home.

How did Robert Rams and the rest of the Tories react to this demonstration of "Big Society"? They refused to engage with the local residents, although ironically they were more at ease discussing terms of occupation with Phoenix and his collective of squatters who had re-opened the library on behalf of the community.

Within weeks, the library shelves were full and the library was back in business.

Council officers were despatched to meetings to see if a compromise could be reached, but the elected representatives of the Tory Party ignored residents, and refused to attend talks. The council then launched eviction proceedings against the people of Barnet, who were simply using a public asset in the way it was intended.

Despite spiralling costs, the Tories persisted in the war against their own citizens. When the case finally came to court - supported by legal assistance organised by Labour party councillors - it lasted 2 days. The council had originally claimed it was a simple possession case and asked for ten minutes. It was clear to all that despite the judge finding in favour of the council, there were strong grounds for an appeal. The judge herself brokered a deal whereby Occupy would hand over the keys to the community and the library would continue. The council had won the battle but lost the war. 

The sad truth is that there is no happy ending.

Does anyone trust the council after their previous tactics? It would appear to be a mistake to do so. The election leaflet implies that the library was saved by the ‘fervent campaign’ within the Conservative party fought by Councillor Kate Salinger. In fact any success was entirely due to the fervent campaigning of local residents, and the occupation of the premises: and the library has not been saved. It still faces an uncertain future.

Barnet Council simply offered the re-named Friern Barnet Community Library a two year lease, to park the problem until after the election.

The Council has refused to fund a full time librarian. The Council has refused to allow the Library to access the council book stock. There are even allegations of other Barnet Libraries refusing to allow posters promoting events at FBCL. Most worrying of all, there is no long term lease, and Councillor Daniel Thomas, the deputy leader, has merely guaranteed that the building will not be sold in the next four years. What happens then? And even if the building is not sold, for how long will the community library be allowed to remain?

In truth the local community has preserved the building, and filled it full of books, which is a stunning achievement. It is a wonderful community enterprise, a victory of resistance against injustice, but it is not a public library.

Barnet’s Tory councillors have been outmanoeuvred by residents in their move to close the library and sell the beautiful, eighty year old building for redevelopment as a supermarket or flats. But it is only a temporary victory.

To ensure this library and every other publicly owned property controlled by this council remains in our hands and does not become the target of a ruthless agenda of sale and development, the only course of action is clear: use your vote wisely on May 22nd, and do not return this Tory administration to power – or we will all live to regret it.

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Another costly mistake in Barnet - the high price of outsourcing

The entire One Barnet programme has been delivered by a team of consultants and interims. I have repeatedly expressed concerns about the lack of continuity of such a team and the risks associated with leaving such important decisions in the hands of people who have no connection with the borough. The most recent manifestation of these risks is the award of approximately £650,000 to council staff due to the failure to provide information required by law when staff are made redundant or transferred to a new employers. You can read the specific details here.

Most importantly the council's advice was provided by a consultant who has now departed the council for pastures new. This mistake means that money is diverted away from essential services. Given that all reputable consultants carry a professional indemnity insurance policy to pay out when mistakes are made, I hope that Barnet will be seeking to recover the money it has had to pay out.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

West Hendon Estate - The destruction of a community

I have been to two meeting this week where the subject of the West Hendon Estate has come up. It is a tragic example of greed, incompetence and a lack of regard for the people who live there that is resulting in the destruction of a community.

On Monday night I attended the Contract monitoring scrutiny committee. I have to say the only scrutiny that took place was that carried out by the residents who had submitted 77 questions. Among the other things the residents questions revealed were that Barnet had agreed to Capita including £5.35 million of redundancy costs in their contract price. Yes that does mean that Barnet residents pay to make their own staff redundant so that Capita can make a profit by employing new staff in on much cheaper wages in Blackburn. we also learned that the council have agreed an additional payment of £453,000 to route call to libraries via a call centre. My experience was that having spoken to the call centre they had to put my call through to the library anyway. I say cut out the middleman and save £453,000.

But on to questions from the residents of West Hendon Estate. They revolved around the the council's duty to rehouse people who are homeless or about to be made homeless. Some of the council's responses were reminiscent of Joseph Heller's Catch 22.  Jasmine Parsons asked:

The successful implementation of the Council’s Placement Policy has resulted in the first discharges of Homeless duty into the private rented sector.
a. Can you please specify if they still remain on the council housing list?
b. If not why not?
c. If yes what are they categorised as? 

Barnet's response was as follows:
The Housing Allocations Scheme (September 2013) sets out in detail which customers are eligible to join Barnet Council’s banding system and which are not. To be placed onto the scheme a customer must have a reasonable preference. To have a reasonable preference, a customer must either be homeless or owed a duty to house under s.193 Housing Act 1996. Once a customer has accepted a suitable offer of private sector accommodation that can be used to end the housing duty, that customer is no longer homeless or threatened with homelessness or owed a duty to house. Therefore the customer has no reasonable preference and does not qualify to be placed onto the Housing Allocations Scheme (which in 2010 replaced the ‘council housing list’). 

So my understanding of what they are saying is that if you are homeless the council have a duty to house you so they shuffle you off to a private sector landlord where you may have only a short term tenancy and which you may find yourself evicted from in six months time when they crank up the rent. However, because you have been placed in private accommodation you are no longer classified as homeless therefore you no longer qualify to go on the council waiting list. In other words it is impossible for the homeless to get onto the council house waiting list.

The second question was asked by Tayieba Shah related to those people in emergency accommodation (EA) and why the council is missing its own target for the length of stay in EA. The council's response is frankly staggering.

Moving the longest staying households from EA would have a positive impact on this indicator as it would reduce the average length of stay of households in EA. But it may have the adverse consequence of increasing costs as those households who are the longest stayers in EA are generally accommodated in more affordable accommodation for the council which was procured at a time when market conditions were more favourable and rents lower.

So in other words, it is cheaper to keep people who have been in Emergency Accommodation for a long time in the same EA rather than move them to new accommodation because it will be more expensive. The council's target for the length of stay in EA is 26 weeks but currently the average stay is 41.1 weeks. For those stuck in emergency accommodation it must be devastating to be stuck there indefinitely because it is cheaper than moving people out.

On to the meeting last night, the BAPS Question Time, at Barnet Multicultural Centre in Hendon. It was clear from the outset that there was just one massive issue and that is the plight of the residents from the West Hendon Estate. The regeneration of this estate has been on the cards for many years and the initial planning permission was granted back in 2003. However following detail, planning permission being granted last year the scheme now seems to be ploughing ahead.

Where there are currently 680 homes, these will be replaced by 2,171 homes including a number in 29 storey blocks looking out over Welsh Harp reservoir. According to the planning statement of 15 February 2013, the current population of the estate is estimated at 1,475 and that will rise to 9,161 when the development is complete. That is a six fold increase in population.

In theory there should be enough new homes for existing tenants but in practice that is not the case because of the catch-all phase "affordable". What is affordable to a senior officer at Barnet Council on a six figure salary is completely unaffordable to key staff carrying out essential work such as hospital workers, teachers, police and social workers.

It appears that Barnet want to gentrify this area by squeezing out those on low and average wages to be replaced with people who can afford £350,000 or £400,000 for a 2 bed flat right up to £1 million for the penthouse apartments.

It is shameless how this community is being destroyed but in Barnet money always appears to take priority over people especially in a Labour ward. I cannot imagine such a massive and disruptive development would every be considered in Conservative enclave of Totteridge where the population density is just 18 people per hectare, just one tenth of the proposed density of the new estate. Draw your own conclusions as to why that is.

Please look up Our West Hendon community group on Twitter or on Facebook to find out more about their plight.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Buying Votes in Barnet

Tonight is the council meeting which will agree the budget for next year. The Conservative group have put forward a 1% cut in Council Tax at a cost of approximately £1.4 million. That may sound a great deal but it works out at around £10 per household per year or around 20p a week. This come at a price however. To give back 20p a week to each household the council is cutting services to the elderly, adults with learning difficulties and children's services. In addition, charges for most council services are rising.

The council seem to judge the appropriateness of their cuts to services by how many people agree with them. If we followed that through to its natural conclusion, the majority would vote for minimal or no council tax but does that make it right that the elderly or adults with learning disabilities get screwed at the same time? Of course not but this council is determined to win votes and therefore cuts to services in return for cuts to the council tax are what we will get.

At tonight's meeting we will also hear three alternative budgets, from Labour, Liberal Democrats and from Brian Coleman. Having read through the details, I have to say that I am disappointed that Labour have chosen to go along with the Council Tax cuts. It is not surprising, I suppose, given that any suggestion they would either freeze or increase Council Tax would be pounced on by the Conservatives, but that doesn't make it right. The Liberal Democrats have proposed a council tax freeze (as opposed to a cut), freeing up £1.4 million to spend on other services and reduce the impact of proposed cuts to children's services. I also like their proposal to delete the political assistants posts for the Labour and Conservative groups, saving £83,000 a year. I have always found it a contradiction that a council that has gone out of its way to eliminate paid union representatives seems quite content for us to pay for its political assistants. In some ways the Liberal Democrats can afford to be more radical in their proposals as they only hold one ward, Childs Hill, and with two of their three councillors retiring (the Palmers) the likelihood of their proposals coming to fruition are limited - but I admire Cllr Jack Cohen for at least making the suggestion.

Looking briefly at Brian Coleman's proposals, one has to wonder what planet he is on. He proposes a further 2% cut in council tax costing £2.86 million. To pay for this he wants those in receipt of benefit to pay 20% towards their council tax  (known as Council tax Support or CTS) instead of 8.5% which is currently required. That would raise £1.76 million although he also includes a provision of  £306k for bad debt against this increase which suggests he is setting up the poorest to fail and be exposed to court action and/or the bailiffs (owned by Capita). A note from officers says that he could not increase CTS this year because it has missed the deadline for setting CTS but it gives you an indication of his priorities. Brian  also proposes reversing the Council's policy to increase the hourly rate of  the lowest paid council employees to the London Living Wage of £8.80 per hour. Keeping people in poverty seems to be a theme here. He also wants to turn off street lights on minor road between midnight and 5 am. Given the council, of which he was a member, spent £27 million on the street lighting PFI to improve lighting levels it does seem somewhat ironic he now wants to turn them off at night. I'm afraid I do have to go along with one of Brian's proposals not mentioned by either of the opposition parties and that is the elimination of the CEO post saving approximately £260k per annum. Currently in Barnet we have both a Chief Executive and a Chief Operating Officer which, in my opinion, is one Chief too many.

Overall the budget proposals are disappointing and short-termist. They fail to address the demographic pressures which the borough is facing and which are set out in the budget report. This is all about the election in May and ensuring that the politicians keep their power and their allowances. Given that the council now have Capita providing most of the services, I would have taken the opportunity to slash the number of councillors to just one per ward saving around £650,000 in councillor allowances. I would have also focused much more on creating jobs in Barnet, stimulating business and benefiting from the proportion of Business Rates the council are now allowed to retain which in turn would allow more to be spent on those who most need the council's services. I would also make serious inroads into the consultancy and interims budget where the council are spending millions unnecessarily.

Let's see if this attempt to buy votes in May works but I hope for the sake of those most in need that it does not.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Community Right to Bid - are Barnet trying to make more difficult?

In the list of decisions taken by the council is the decision to commence consultation on the a change  to the criteria for assessing nominations under the Community Right to Bid  legislation. Below is the summary shown on the website and here is a link to the document

The council has developed a draft policy intended to strengthen the criteria for assessing nominations under the Community Right to Bid. The additional criteria are designed to take account of the local context and priorities of the borough, building on the broad criteria set out by Government. This report is to commence a formal 6 week consultation on the changes.

The additional criteria the council are adding suggest that they want to make it more difficult for the community to list items and I wonder if that is because we can expect a series of sales of community assets following the elections in May - assuming the Conservative group retain control. The wording of the additional criteria are set out below.  In particular my reading of clause 4 at the bottom leaves it wide open for interpretation and therefore rejection by the Council of the the Community's right to bid - but maybe someone will tell me otherwise.

If this is something that concerns you make you you participate in the consultation exercise here. The closing date is 25 March.

Draft London Borough of Barnet assessment criteria for defining Assets of Community Value

• When assessing nominations for inclusion on the Register of Assets of Community Value in Barnet, the council will consider the criteria set out in section 88 of the Localism Act 2011 — whether the principal use of the nominated asset furthers the social interests or social wellbeing of the local community and may realistically continue to do so (whether or not for the same use).

• When interpreting these key phrases to make decisions on what constitutes the social interests and social wellbeing of the local community, the council will consider

1. The extent to which the nominated asset is considered to be essential to the special character of the area.

2. The strategic priorities set out in Barnet's Corporate Plan at the time, which are currently:
i. Promote responsible growth, development and success across the borough; 
ii. Support families and individuals that need it — promoting independence, learning and well-being; and
iii. Improve the satisfaction of residents and businesses within the London Borough of Barnet as a place to live, work and study

3. The Core Strategy set out in Barnet’s Local Plan at the time, which includes social, economic and environmental objectives and policies, and provides the overarching framework for delivering sustainable development in Barnet.

4. Barnet’s diverse and growing population and the physical and social infrastructure required to meet its aspirations.
• The council will consider nominations on a case by case basis, with particular regard to:
o The realistic prospect of the asset’s principal use continuing or resuming its contribution to social interests or wellbeing within the next five years
o The sustainability of the asset’s contribution to social interests or wellbeing
o The commercial viability of the nominating group, including the ability to raise funds