Friday, 16 December 2011

Barnet Council - Indecisive or obstructive. 11 months and still waiting for a decision.

Updated 12 February 2016 Still no decision 5 years on

Back in January Barnet Council launched its Pledgebank website to great fanfare. At a cost of at least £30,000 it was aimed at encouraging the community to volunteer for civic activity. It states:

“The website is based on the simple principle that the person making the online pledge will work to make it happen “but only if” a number of other people commit too”.

So on January 12th Mr Reasonable submitted the following pledge:

“I will pledge to give up 4 hours of my time every month to scrutinise and challenge all invoices over £10,000 to help the Council reduce unnecessary spending so long as five other people will make a similar time commitment to sit on the panel and that Barnet Council will genuinely participate in the process and listen to the advice and opinions given.”

Now there was a very good reason for offering this pledge. I had already raised significant concerns about purchasing and procurement monitoring at the council and genuinely felt that having an external panel of people to review and scrutinise these invoices would have helped the council. Perhaps this panel would have picked up things like the MetPro scandal and RM Countryside situation earlier. Perhaps it could have discovered a number of other contractual problems which have been highlighted over the last six months.

But Barnet Council don’t like residents asking awkward questions. So having submitted my pledge on 12 January I waited and waited and waited......
By the end of April I thought I had waited long enough so on 27 April I sent the following email:

Dear Barnet Pledgebank,
Back in January I submitted a pledge – see the email below. It was not accepted but I have never been told if it was rejected. Please can you let me know if it has been:
a) Accepted - and if so when will it be put on the pledgebank website so others can sign up;
b) Rejected - and if so on what criteria;
c) Undecided - and if so when a decision is likely.
Thank you for your help.
Kind regards


I waited for a response. Now I am a patient man but no reply was forthcoming, not even an acknowledgement. Complete and utter silence until September when reading the response to a Freedom of Information request (not submitted by me) that my pledge was still “under consideration”. I duly email Barnet again with yet another polite email:

Dear Barnet Pledgebank,
I submitted a pledge on 12 January 2011 for which I have never had a response. Indeed, I wrote again on 27 April chasing up this pledge but again I did not even receive the courtesy of an acknowledgement. Yesterday (2 September) in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, Johnathan Schroder, Internal Communications Manager, Chief Executive's Service at Barnet Council stated that my pledge was “under consideration”.
Given that it is now 9 months since I submitted my pledge, please can you tell me how much more time you need to consider my pledge and when a decision is likely.
I look forward to an early response.
Thanks


Now you would have thought that might have elicited a response – but you would be wrong. No reply not even an acknowledgement. So after a couple of weeks I rang the council. "Someone will ring you back". No they didn’t. Four weeks later I rang again “Someone will definitely ring you back”. Are you sure? “Yes someone will definitely ring you back today”. Guess what – not a peep, no one rang back.
By November my patience is wafer thin. I rang again but this time, when I was told they would ring me back, I asked to speak to their manager. A few seconds on hold and then told he had just left the office but that he would get back to me. Who is your manager I asked. “Chris Palmer, assistant Director of Communications.” Ah, a Senior Officer and someone who has some clout, maybe? So on Monday 21 November I at last received a response from Mr Palmer.

I am responding to your request for an update on your pledge earlier this year.
This is being reviewed again and I will give you a definitive answer tomorrow.
The criteria for inclusion on Pledgebank are:
• Does this support a civic activity?
• Does the pledge include a deal by at least two parties, to a common end?
• If a pledge requests an action by the council, it should support council priorities.

Pledges may be rejected if:
• They are political by nature
• They are promoting a commercial activity
• The transaction does not support a civic activity.
• The pledge runs counter to the council’s stated policies and objectives.
• The pledge is a statement rather than a deal.
• The pledge maker makes no commitment themselves
• The pledge asks for a commitment from the council that cannot be supported within current resources. “
Obviously Pledgebank is intended to encourage activity outwith the council, i.e. civic activity was always intended to mean activity across society rather than simply further activity from, or about, the council. Your pledge has represented a conundrum in that it does not match the original intentions for Pledgebank and has therefore been a source of debate within the council. For that reason I apologise for asking you to bear with us again, but I will respond in full with a final decision tomorrow.
So, in answer to your question below, c) and 22 November.
Yours sincerely
Chris Palmer
Assistant Director, Communications.


Now as far as I can see my pledge meets all of the relevant criteria so you might expect a swift response as promised. Not at Barnet Council.
Further chasing has still not brought a definitive response. I emailed again last week and again received a reply saying there was still no decision.
Barnet Council, you have had 11 months to make your mind up. I reckon that if this pledge had been accepted it could have benefited the council and more importantly Council Tax Payers by highlighting wasteful spending. It might have picked up Metpro earlier. It would have certainly challenged the huge spend on companies who do not have a valid contract with the council. It might have asked pertinent question like why we are spending millions on consultants with no tangible outcome. It might not have stopped these thing happening but it would have at least added some checks and balances. I was offering half a day a month of my time for free. Not a penny of expenses or allowances. Nothing at all. My only objective to help save the community money.

Barnet Council hate people looking at what they do. At cabinet resources committee on Wednesday Cllr Coleman made a sneering remark about the detail of the increase in charges being something that “the bloggers can pore over at midnight”. Surely everyone should be looking at what they are going to be charged. Public scrutiny should be embraced not sneered at. That is what is wrong in Barnet. They expect us to take what we are given without debate or challenge. Well that must change.
We need much more public scrutiny of Barnet Council and we need it now.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Last Night's Audit Committee - a toothless talking shop?

Last night’s audit committee was a long and unsatisfactory meeting. I’m afraid that due to work pressures this is a rather perfunctory blog. I was aware right from the start that there was a tension in the air, referred to by Cllr Rayner as “the elephant in the room”, the subject of RM Countryside’s contractual relationship took over two hours before it made a brief and unsatisfactory appearance.

Mrs Angry and I had asked a number of questions, all successfully evaded or denied in the written responses. The one response that surprised me was the admission that One Barnet, the council’s transformation programme is “inherently risky”.

Procurement remains a running sore in Barnet and the latest date for centralising the purchasing function is June next year, almost a year since it was determined that it should take place.

I have long maintained that many of the problems identified at the audit committee last night are straightforward business issue that should never have happened in the first place. I am convinced that they have arisen because senior management have spent far too much time concentrating on implementing One Barnet and far too little time making sure the day to day business of the council is operated efficiently and effectively.

Procurement is a serious and immediate problem. At the same time, £200,000 a month is being paid to just one firm of external consultants to help implement One Barnet. If Barnet were to divert some of that consultancy spend into speeding up the centralisation of procurement I’m sure it could have been implemented by now.

Sadly, the audit committee is a bit of a toothless tiger; it may roar (or purr rather loudly) but ultimately officers don’t give a stuff because the committee has no power to call officers to account, admitted several times by chairman Lord Palmer. Cabinet members are the only people who can do anything in Barnet and, whilst that remains the case, the audit committee will remain the impotent talking shop it has become.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Barnet Council Procurement Scandal - Another MetPro?

Move over MetPro: here comes another Barnet Council procurement scandal, and this one is even bigger.

Barnet bloggers earlier this year exposed the scandalous use by Barnet Council of MetPro, an unlicensed security company which was paid a total of more than a million pounds worth of residents’ money despite the absence of any tender process, contract, or properly regulated payment system.

MetPro proved to be just one among hundreds of similar irregular arrangements sanctioned by the Tory authority, which is currently negotiating the outsourcing of £1billion worth of our council services to the private sector under the One Barnet programme.

During the months of the outsourcing tender process, in blatant defiance of the government’s stated policy commitment to transparency and greater accountability by local authorities, Barnet has consistently resisted, delayed or obstructed Freedom of Information requests by bloggers in relation to matters of public interest, including the much criticised procurement of contracts with service providers. We think we know why that might be.

At this coming Thursday’s audit meeting, 8 December, we are submitting questions to the committee about another case investigated by local bloggers involving the council’s long term use of another private company, RM Countryside, which has been paid more than £2 million pounds of local tax payers’ money with an apparent lack of compliance with the proper processes of tendering, contractual arrangements and the regulations set out in the Constitution.

We are questioning the efficacy of the internal and external audit procedures which are supposed to regulate the commercial activity of the London Borough of Barnet.

The integrity of the One Barnet outsourcing programme is clearly fatally compromised by the failure of the authority to regulate its own procurement, contractual and payment processes and we call therefore for an immediate halt to be made in this programme, and for an urgent, independent inquiry to be held into the disastrous lack of control of the authority’s commercial activities. MetPro was a warning: a warning which has been ignored. Now is the time to stop, investigate and hold the authority to account to the residents and tax payers of Barnet.

Signed:
Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Oh Yes It Is - Oh No It Isn't - The Bin Lorry Depot Saga Continues


This morning I trotted off to see my local councillor at their surgery in New Barnet. A couple were already ahead of me in the queue very unhappy with the proposals to let out the parks for private hire. Cllr Evangeli spent 35 minutes with them trying to address their concerns. I couldn't hear what was being said but when they came out I got the impression they were not convinced. Now it was my turn. I came straight to the point why do the council want to build a satellite depot for bin lorries in Oakhill Park. Ah but they don't said Cllr Evangeli, "I have been reassured by the leader that it will not happen". Well that's all very interesting but I held in my hand a copy of a delegated powers report authorising an architect to prepare drawing in readiness for a planning application no later than 31 March 2012. "No it not going to happen" repeated Cllr Evangeli. Well my problem is that the Commercial Director of the Council Mr Craig Cooper has authorised the retention of an architect at a cost of £51,800 PLUS an additional allowance of £35,000 for any necessary surveys. Now Cllr Evangeli says it won't happen but Mr Cooper has just authorised a spend of £86,800 to make it happen. Talk about left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. I made it clear to Cllr Evangeli that when the Council is cutting from line services, a senior officer frittering away 86 Grand is frankly nothing short of a disgrace. I await what happens next.

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.

Signed

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: http://barnetfutureshape.blogspot.com/
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.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Barnet Supplier Payments for September take a quick look

It’s that time of the month again and Barnet Council have published the suppliers payments for September. In total they amount to £28,795,329.82 from over 4,800 separate entries. The usual large payments go to:

GLA: £4,579,494.21
Transport for London: £3,236,734.00
Barnet Homes: £2,243,051.89
Barnet Lighting Services: £1,099,754.61
Catalyst Housing: £1,198,583.77
North London Waste Authority £821,852.00

However there are a few interesting payments which could do with a bit more explanation.

Civica UK Limited who, in the past, have provided services to parking clocked up invoices of £599,725.74 in September. Given that in the whole of last year they billed £353,177.02 then it makes you wonder why Barnet have received such a large bill this month.

Agilisys who are helping the Council to implement One Barnet billed £84,292.00 in September However given the daily rates they charge (£1,350/day for a manager and £995 a day for a consultant) that sum can be clock up quite easily.

Hays HR Services for temporary and interim staff clocked up £574,537.84 in September, which when compared with the £2,638,561.09 for all of last year, again looks high. Perhaps some of the consultants who are now not appearing on the supplier payments schedule are being put through Hays.

Nabarro LLP who are lawyers, clocked up £49,113.10 in fees. I wonder which One Barnet element that relates to?

Penna PLC, consultants who are providing interim staff in the commercial directorate were paid £44,225.00; not bad for one month.

Randstad who are an employment agency were paid £29,108.00 for supplying interim staff for the Deputy Chief Executives department

Simply Performance Management Limited who charged a rather modest £5,750.00. What is interesting is that they specialise in Executive Coaching and it was charged to the Deputy Chief executives Department. I wonder who was the recipient at Barnet Council and will it make them a better manager? Only time (and possibly a few Freedom of Information requests) will tell.

I would urge everyone if the have a few minutes to take a look at the supplier payments lists. This is what the council is spending your money and you can’t whinge about it if you don’t know where it goes.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Incompetence, pedantry or something more sinister?

The new residents forums have perplexed many people in Barnet. The draconian new rules have meant that a number of questions that have been submitted by members of the public have been declined as not meeting the remit of the new rules. Indeed I was subject to one of these refusals for the September forum when I received this response from one of the Governance officers at Barnet Council:

"I confirm receipt of below email. Please note that full Council at its meeting on 17 May 2011 agreed the type of issues to be discussed at Residents Forum meetings as per below in italics. As Issues 3 does not cover public works, I will not be including this on the Issues List".

I heard from a number of other people who had their questions refused so on 19 September I submitted a freedom of information request asking

"For the six residents forums held in June and September 2011 please
could you provide me with the following information:

1 How many questions were submitted by the public.

2 Of the questions submitted, how many were ruled invalid for
failing to meet the new criteria for question submission."

FOI requests are supposed to be answered promptly and within 20 working days as a maximum. Good old Barnet council don't stick to the rules so after some prompting, on 25 October I received a response:

"I can confirm the following:

Chipping Barnet

23 June 2011 – 6 questions and 3 petitions

20 September 2011 – 7 questions and 2 petitions

Finchley and Golders Green

23 June 2011 – 4 questions and 5 petitions

14 September 2011 – 25 questions

Hendon

23 June 2011 – 5 questions and 4 petitions

12 September 2011 – 17 questions and 1 petition

Part 2

I can confirm that the Council does not hold information for the second
question".

Now I didn't think I'd asked a particularly difficult question. The governance officers who deal with these forums could have answered these question is a matter of minutes. Why it took so long I cannot understand.

What I find so disturbing is the denial that Barnet Council holds any information on how many questions were refused. Is this incompetence, pedantry for not asking exactly the right question, or is it something more sinister. Is this a Stalinist approach to the facts, denying the existence those that are inconvenient.

I have asked for an internal review so we shall have to see what this turns up but I see this response as yet another example of the council's autocratic, controlling and high handed approach to residents.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Suffolk on mass outsourcing - "it simply didn't work"

On the BBC today is an interview with the leader of Suffolk County Council. His view on large scale outsourcing was unequivocal. "It simply didn't work". He also made the point that "In trying to do this (outsourcing) so quickly we simply weren't taking the communities along with us".

Now it just so happens that one of the architects of the Suffolk strategy, Max Wilde, was also influential in setting up the One Barnet programme.

Barnet Council, wake up and smell the coffee! Stop trying to peddle this discredited One Barnet strategy, stop wasting millions on consultants and start running the council more effectively.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Yet More Financial Advice?

Barnet Council have decided they now need KPMG to give them financial advice. With a call off contract the council "does not expect to spend more than £500,000". Given that last year they spent:
- £538,508.23 on Grant Thornton;
- £202,426.07 on PricewaterhouseCoopers;
- £41,730.00 on Deloitte
as well as £1,000 a day on a chief financial officer I would blooming well hope they don't expect to spend half a million quid on yet more financial advice.

Reading the report it appears that the dreaded One Barnet is the driver for this additional advice. When will the Council give One Barnet the chop, stop wasting money on all these advisors and just focus on delivering great quality services efficiently.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Are We Getting Best Value?

The latest Delegated Powers Report reveals that Barnet Council are extending the contract with a company called Ebase who currently provide a standalone system for electronic forms. The contract is being extended for 6 months at a cost of £12,000 to allow time for a new system, JADU, to be implemented as part of the "Customer Services Transformation Programme" and the introduction of a new council website which has had a particularly long gestation.

According to the supplier payments record Ebase were paid £12,000 on 19 May 2011 Interestingly, the Council paid JADU £90,819 in August alone.

Barnet Council seem to have an endless pot of money to spend on IT systems yet front line services are continuing to be cut. I worry that no one is prepared to challenge the spending on IT so it just keeps going up and up and up and up.

Last financial year the council spent £2,970,628.68 on Hardware Purchases and Maintenance and £2,000,813.82 on IT Services. £5 million but is it money well spent?

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

£98k for another interim manager at Barnet Council

Today's crop of Delegate Powers reports shows the appointment of an interim finance manager at a cost of £98,000. Interestingly, although the report is dated yesterday this is in fact a retrospective approval for someone who has been in post since 1 April this year. This interim finance manager will be working on the SAP Optimisation project. For those who aren't up with the jargon SAP is the giant computer system which helps run Barnet Council and which has so far cost over £23 million. On a day when some of the council staff are on strike for trying to protect front line jobs, it seems somewhat ironic that the council is appointing yet another highly paid 'interim' manager on this monster IT project. Perhaps if the council spent a bit less on all the expensive IT systems, consultants and interim managers (Chief financial officer £1,000 a day, Assistant Director HR £140k last year,to name but two) then they wouldn't be needing to make so many cuts to essential services.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The cost of going cashless

In the latest Delegated Powers Report we see that RM Counrtyside Services have been appointed to take out all the 408 current pay and display machines. In addition, they will put in some regular time plate posts to replace the existing low posts. And the cost of this work? £80,244. Now what is interesting is that the council invited three companies to bid but "once the specifications were confirmed and the programmed timetable provided, two of the tenderers withdrew". Given the all the critisism of the Council's procurement performance I would have thought that they would have gone back out to tender. Oh no just award it to RM Countryside - they are "a known and trusted contractor that has worked with L B Barnet
for some time providing consistently high quality work". Are Barnet residents happy that at a time of cuts in essential services, £80,000 is spent to get rid of something many residents actually want? Only in Barnet!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Barnet bloggers respond to Councillor Gordon’s defence of Barnet Council residents’ forums

An open letter to Councillor Gordon from the Barnet Bloggers.

Dear Councillor Gordon,

A letter was published last week in the Press group of newspapers from you concerning the Barnet Alliance for Public Services residents’ forum held on Tuesday 4th October.

We must correct a factual inaccuracy in your letter. The forum was not "private", it was open to all. All Barnet councillors were invited and would have been welcome to attend.

You state that Barnet Council’s own residents’ forums are not in any way hampered by the new rules governing them. Is this your opinion, we wonder, or have you asked the residents who attend? We think they would have a different view.

You state that the forums are "marred occasionally by the irresponsible actions of anti-council agitators". We ask you to withdraw this offensive remark. The undersigned have all attended numerous residents’ forums and have never witnessed an "anti-council agitator".

We have witnessed many local residents who disagree with the policies of the current administration, and we believe their comments are born out of deep concern for the direction of the Council and cannot be in any way construed as "anti-council".

We are also concerned by the description you give of the appropriate way to deal with residents and taxpayers. The phrase "with firm chairmanship, those individuals are fairly swiftly subdued" has highly oppressive overtones and clearly implies that residents are not welcome to express views at odds with the chair.

We would like to remind you, Cllr Gordon, that the forums exist for residents’ benefit, not for that of the chair.

We would also like to remind you of the circumstances in which you became chair, when it became necessary to instigate an investigation into the behaviour of the previous Conservative incumbent.

We remind you that Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has praised the concerned citizens of Barnet for their efforts in exposing the shambles that your administration allowed to develop in the Council’s purchasing department.

We are pleased that you have drawn attention to the next set of Council residents’ forums. We look forward to the opportunity to discuss your comments with you and your colleagues at these events.


Yours,

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

As a footnote, I would add that I, along with several other Barnet Bloggers, attended the meeting where the rules on Residents Forums were changed. The Conservative group ignored the independent research the council commissioned; they ignored represntations from the public and they ignore the options put forward by the council officers. Sadly we have no official record of this meeting as the Council refuses to publish minutes of meetings that propose changes to the constitution.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Alternative Residents’ Forum - Cllr Gordon Seems a Bit Upset

I read in today’s Barnet Press a letter from Cllr Gordon talking about the “private forum” held on Tuesday. Firstly Cllr Gordon, it wasn’t private. It was open to the public and the press and I’m sure they can reassure you that no one was asked for the ID before being allowed to enter. Cllr Gordon believes that the Hendon forum is free from constraints and that a wide range of matters were discussed. Well that certainly wasn’t the case at the Chipping Barnet Forum where one of my questions requiring a simple yes or no answer was disallowed and where a number of people expressed concerns that we were not allowed to discuss matters of “Council Policy”. I was most interested in his comment that, “With firm chairmanship those individuals (people who he calls anti council agitators) are fairly swiftly subdued”. Frankly that sounds more like something Gaddafi would have said rather than an elected councillor. He notes that “it is unfortunate that they cannot find something for constructive to do with their spare time”. So we should just sit and accept everything Cllr Gordon tells us because of course he is a Councillor and he is always right.
Well Cllr Gordon, I can tell you that there are lots of unhappy residents of Barnet who are fed up being told what is best for them by a bunch of councillors who are both arrogant and out of touch with what many local people are saying. Ignore them at your peril!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The People Speak – Last Night’s Alternative Residents’ Forum

They say a society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Judging by what I heard last night, Barnet is in severe decline driven in large part by ideological commitment to One Barnet. I will not go into great detail about what was said last night as all five of the Barnet Bloggers were present and I’m sure they will give a more accurate record of the meeting. However, what struck me most were the stories from people who have vulnerable relatives hit hard by the changes to the way support is delivered.

To their credit there were a number of Labour Councillors in attendance last night. They sat and listened, but there were no Conservative councillors and the Liberal Democrats sent their apologies. Ok, so some of the Conservative councillors were up in Manchester at their conference but I can’t believe they were all there. With no council committee meetings scheduled last night I would have thought a few representatives of the ruling group might have shown their face.

Last night showed me that there are a lot of angry people in Barnet and they are getting organised. Barnet councillors may say that residents care about pavements and bins but most people either have a child or an elderly parent or relative or next door neighbour that depends on council services. No one in Barnet will be unaffected, directly or indirectly, by the changes that are taking place and the consequences they bring. Should we be targeting the most vulnerable, often on the lowest incomes, to make sure that people living in their millionaire houses in Totteridge and Hampstead Garden Suburb can enjoy lower council tax bills.

Barnet Councillors and, in particular, the cabinet members who make all the decisions in Barnet, need to start listening to the people to whom they are accountable. Stop wasting millions of pounds on this ideological madness called One Barnet and start focusing on delivering what people need.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Barnet bloggers look forward to meeting Cllr Thomas to discuss Barnet council’s priorities

Dear Councillor Thomas,

We, bloggers of Barnet, are most pleased that in your recent YouTube broadcast you express yourself keen to engage with local residents and discuss ways to improve Barnet.

As you are no doubt aware, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles recently commended the bloggers of Barnet for their great work exposing the MetPro scandal. The subsequent investigation has highlighted all manner of problems with Barnet Council's procurement procedures which we are promised will now be rectified.

Since we are all motivated by the desire to help you improve Barnet still further, we are pleased to invite you for a live, televised discussion, to be broadcast on www.GotSeeN.com, at a time to suit you.

We are sure that there are many subjects about which we could have an interesting and informative discussion.

As public spirited citizens we are willing to meet all the costs of staging this event and broadcasting it live on the internet. We also guarantee to afford it maximum publicity and coverage through our blogs.

We are happy to discuss any topic and suggest that if you let us know in advance the topics you want to cover, we will do our homework so as to ensure a fruitful discussion.

We would be happy to broadcast either from the Barnet Council offices at North London Business Park or a venue chosen by us.

Subjects we think you might be interested to discuss are: One Barnet, Cabinet Members’ allowances, executive pay, waste within the council, the number of highly paid contractors working for Barnet, cost overruns on projects such as Aerodrome Road, CPZ charges, Icelandic investments, overdevelopment and the strain it puts on infrastructure.

We look forward to hearing your response.

Best wishes,

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Barnet’ s budget consultation – A lottery of the future?

Good old Barnet Council. They really must be worried if the latest consultation wheeze is anything to go by. First of all you have to find the consultation page on the Council’s website not an easy thing to do so I have embedded a link here ensure readers can take a look at this wonder.

First we have Councillor Thomas with a professionally made video with lots of lovely chart telling like Private Fraser in Dad’s Army, “We’re all doomed,”. Take a careful look at the chart they show. The first one shows spending on Overseas Aid rising and Barnet spending falling. What’s the subtle message there Cllr Thomas? He then shows us another graph which seems to suggest that by 2022/23 adult social care and children's services will be consuming the entire council budget. Well I’m sorry but I simply don’t buy this one. Frankly I think this government will have been kicked out long before that happens. Also I don’t believe that council tax will not rise over the next ten years. It one of those clever little chart that are meant to frighten people without actually conveying any sense of reality.

So now we move on to the survey. Although I would absolutely not claim to be an expert I have carried out a few consumer surveys in my time. My golden rule is don’t ask a question unless you can do something with the results. What we are presented with is a list of 28 activities and then asked

Which of the following services are most important to YOU?
Which services do you think are the most important for the council and it partners to focus on FOR BARNET AS A WHOLE?

You are only allowed to pick 8 out of the 28 listed. It's a bit like picking your lottery numbers and hoping they come up. The list of activities is set out below.

1. Community safety services (tackling anti-social behaviour & crime)
2. Council owned leisure facilities
3. Doorstep recycling
4. Environmental health service
5. Fostering, adoption and children in care
6. Housing advice and housing benefits
7. Keeping vulnerable adults safe
8. Library service
9. Nursery and early years services
10. Parking services
11. Parks, playgrounds and open spaces
12. Planning and building control
13. Primary education (5- 11 yrs)
14. Provision for public space CCTV
15. Recycling facilities
16. Refuse collection
17. Repair of roads and pavements
18. Secondary education (11 - 18 yrs)
19. Street cleaning
20. Street lighting
21. Support for adults with a learning disability
22. Support for adults with a physical disability
23. Support for adults with mental health problems
24. Support for children with disabilities and special needs
25. Support to family carers of adults
26. Support to older people with care needs
27. Trading standards, consumer advice & licensing
28. Youth activities

Now let me see which ones are important to me? How do you prioritise secondary education over environmental health for example or how about fostering or refuse collection. And where do I think the "council’s focus for Barnet as a whole" should be? Support for adults with a learning disability, or repairs of roads and pavements.

The next question asks if there are any service areas you think the Council need to improve on.

The last question asks if you have used any of the services. Interestingly it appears to omit provision of public space CCTV, refuse collection, repairs of roads and maintenance, street cleaning and street lighting.

Now my question is what are earth are they going to do with this data. Are they seriously suggesting that if not enough people identify support to older people with care needs that they will stop providing it.

Perhaps if the council spent a lot less money on expensive lawyers and consultants dreaming yet more bizarre ways to “re-engineer the council”, hugely expensive IT systems, over paid senior officers on consultancy contracts and focused on running all of these services better we wouldn’t need to be answering such ridiculous questions.

If Barnet want to consult then let’s do it properly and based on informed decisions not some harebrained, petty, little on line survey.

Take it seriously Barnet and host open discussion sessions around the borough. If you can spend £30k of the pledgebank website (success 1 pledge)then surely you should invest a little in some decent consultation.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Art of Rubber Stamping - A Barnet Masterclass

Last night at the Cabinet Resources Committee we saw world class exponents of rubber stamping in action. With 17 items on the agenda and 155 pages of papers the sense of urgency was apparent from the start. Councillor Coleman shifted uneasily looking at his watch. I couldn’t sure but was he whispering “agreed” over and over again?

The meeting kicked off at a very brisk pace, Cllr Thomas using all his efforts to break the previous record of finishing the meeting in 22 minutes or less.

Oh Oh! First problem. Awkward resident wants to ask some questions. I appreciated Cllr Coleman’s genuine comments concerning my injuries as I hobbled to the microphone. Now Cllr Thomas runs a tight ship at CRC, so with good planning they had prepared answers in advance, alleviating the need to read out either the questions or the answers. Any supplementary questions? Mr Reasonable also likes to plan in advance so I duly read out my supplementaries. Not much point though. A slightly indignant Cllr Cornelius denying that the £1.7 million being spent at Hendon Cemetery was because of three years inaction. Well you commissioned consultants to undertake an option appraisal in 2008 so that looks like three years inaction to me. Leisure contract supplementary questions sidestepped by Cllr Rams.

Well that had caused a slight delay in proceedings. The 22 minute deadline looked lost. Ok next target looked like 30 minutes. Off they set running through the agenda items. 1 minute for each and they could all be out by 7.30pm.

Allotments was dealt with by Cllr Coleman, dismissing Cllr Thomas’s request to include fences to the responsibility of allotment holders. Mill Hill sports ground pinched to be used for new schools; Agreed! Cllr Harper spoke for at least 2 minutes on the new school places that will be created. Could he be jeopardising the chances of hitting the 30 minute barrier. Agreed Agreed!

Cllr Harper talked about early intervention and prevention commissioned contracts. Cllr Cornelius said that he could now understand what he was voting for but that the papers should have been written in plain English. Another couple of minutes closer to the deadline.

When we get to the item on Hendon cemetery Cllr Thomas had barely paused for breath before Cllr Coleman was shouting agreed, agreed. Three seconds for that agenda item. Could this be a personal best for Cllr Coleman!

Leisure contract item and Cllr Rams was about to start talking but the scowls from other committee members cut him dead. Any questions? No. Agreed!

We came to an item introduced by Cllr Rajput. He started talking but Cllr Coleman was still gently mouthing agreed, agreed. The 30 minute deadline was now starting to look tight. A couple of items now seemed to get Cllr Coleman to speak up. Clearly the 30 minute target was a goner.

Disabled and vulnerable people’s transport met with Cllr Coleman’s disapproval. If he had his way he would change the law so that Barnet wouldn’t have to provide transport for any of them. He definitely didn’t like the thought of working with London Boroughs of Brent and Hounslow.

Well that was it; the 30 minute deadline missed and still an item to go. A discussion around treasury management. Cllr Thomas reiterates that they have to be ultra careful. Yes we don’t want another Iceland. A question about whether the council has any money in Santander bank – No. What do they know that we don’t.
Time to exclude the public so we are finished and it just coming up to 7.35pm. Definitely missed the qualifying time for the Rubber Stamping Olympics - must be quicker next time.

Monday, 26 September 2011

An open letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Barnet Bloggers are fed up with the lack of transparency at Barnet Council, particularly their attitude to Freedom of Information requests. Set out below is an open letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Dear Mr Pickles,

In June last year, as part of your stated policy of commitment to the principle of ‘localism’ and greater accountability by local authorities to the communities they represent, you issued the following statement:

New era of transparency will bring about a revolution in town hall openness and accountability

“Getting council business out in the open will revolutionise local government. Local people should be able to hold politicians and public bodies to account over how their hard earned cash is being spent and decisions made on their behalf. They can only do that effectively if they have the information they need at their fingertips.

“The public should be able to see where their money goes and what it delivers. The swift and simple changes we are calling for today will unleash an army of armchair auditors and quite rightly make those charged with doling out the pennies stop and think twice about whether they are getting value for money.”

As part of your programme of action to make local authorities more accountable you have created an obligation for them to disclose details of expenditure and have expressed the intention to compel councils to allow citizen journalists to film, photograph and tweet reports of council meetings.

In conjunction with these new directives, you have expressed the wish that residents use existing legislation in order to scrutinise the processes of local government, including, most importantly, the rights given in the Freedom of Information Act of 2000.

All of these suggestions are commendable, and should indeed further extend the powers of scrutiny to local communities.

It is deeply regrettable, therefore, that here in the London Borough of Barnet, rather than embrace a policy of greater transparency, the Conservative administration is making every effort to resist any obligation to be more accountable to its electorate, and is, in direct opposition to your wishes, obstructing the efforts of the armchair auditors that you so applaud.

In a speech at the CIPFA conference in July this year you made the following remark:

I was shocked by a recent case in Barnet. The council had hired a private security firm, MetPro, which included “keeping an eye” on local bloggers - at a cost of over a million pounds. The contract had been awarded without a tendering exercise, without a written contract, and no proper invoicing. An internal audit showed there “serious deficiencies in current procurement arrangements”, and there were no guarantees that against a repeat of such practices.

Irony of ironies - this misuse of public money was uncovered thanks to the determination of local bloggers and activists, including Barnet Eye, Mr Mustard, and Mrs Angry (as she had every right to be.) Exactly the same people MetPro snooped upon.

I've got news for Barnet. Live blogging from council meetings. Microjournalism. Call it what you like. It's here to stay. In fact this citizen samizdat - local people reporting on their local council's triumphs and shortcomings - is the perfect counterblast to town hall Pravdas.

As you know, Mr Pickles, here in Barnet bloggers have had to fight for the right to film council meetings, and we have made huge efforts to uncover the ‘deficiencies’ which lay at the heart of the MetPro affair, as well as bringing to the attention of the community a number of other serious issues of concern to all residents.

Earlier this year, in defiance of the move to greater transparency and accountability, and to a more meaningful engagement with citizens, we have seen Barnet’s Conservative administration attack the local constitution, restricting the right of elected councillors to speak at meetings, and worst of all, censoring the local Residents Forums so that absolutely no discussion of any council ‘policy’ may now be raised, nor any issue alluded to within a six month period be submitted for inclusion. These and other draconian and undemocratic regulations are read out in detail at every Forum, and their imposition has caused enormous anger and resentment amongst residents.

Even more worrying, perhaps, is that the culture of secrecy and fear of transparency which is so endemic in this local authority has now extended to the council’s flagrant abuse of the Freedom of Information Act.

Barnet bloggers and armchair auditors – and other residents – who have submitted FOI requests to Barnet Council are increasingly having their enquiries obstructed or needlessly delayed, particularly enquiries on issues of political or financial sensitivity.

Two FOI requests submitted by residents in regard to the MetPro affair, for example, were only answered a few days ago, on 16th September, after an inexplicable delay of several months.

One request had been made in early April, the other in early May. As you will know, the statutory period within which responses must be made is 20 days.

Another request made in relation to potential declarations of interest between senior officers of the council and a major private company was ignored for months and then obstructed on a pretext, despite a current outsourcing tender process for a package of services worth a staggering £750 million in total, in which this influential company is now one of those shortlisted.

In Barnet there is no open declaration of interests, gifts, or hospitality given to senior officers, and one response given to an FOI request by a blogger in regard to such declarations was sent with the identities of donors withheld, invalidating the information and again obstructing the purpose of the enquiry.

The FOI request in regard to the tendering company was reported to the external auditors at a meeting in July: despite an assurance that the issue would be investigated by them under the terms of their remit, we are not aware of any progress in their enquiry.

After struggling to hold the authority to account for FOI responses which were withheld, delayed, or misleading, one Barnet blogger has recently been sent, in reply to a perfectly valid question regarding a hugely over budget IT system, a response refusing to address his request for information, on the grounds that it is ‘vexatious’ and because of the alleged number of previous enquiries.

In Barnet, bloggers, armchair auditors and residents are obliged to resort to making an increasingly large number of FOI requests in response to an obstinate refusal by the authority to comply with the intentions of your stated commitment to greater openness, accountability and transparency, and in order to place the necessary information in the public domain, in a medium easily accessible to all.

Despite the demonstrably inadequate state of preparation revealed by the MetPro audit report, and despite the concerns of so many backbench Conservative councillors, a highly controversial programme of massive outsourcing is being promoted by Barnet’s senior management team and council leadership as the keystone policy of the ‘easycouncil’, One Barnet agenda. There could hardly be a time in which a need for openness and accountability could be more pressing. Public confidence in the governance of this borough is, however, at an all time low, and we, as residents and citizen journalists therefore ask that you, in defence of your stated policy of localism, investigate the obstructive and anti-democratic practices employed by this authority in a sustained attempt to prevent proper scrutiny of its actions and decisions.

Yours sincerely,

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The problem with contracts – Lessons to be learned for One Barnet

On Tuesday there is a Cabinet Resources Committee which will deal with a number of subjects. Item 15 on the agenda relates to the leisure services contract with Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL).Back in 2003 the Council entered into a 15 year contract with GLL. Move on 8 years and the Council is now under pressure to cut the budget. It is also losing sites that are attached to the academies like the leisure centre at QE Girls school.

What Barnet want to do is cut the £1.7 million per annum contract by £733,000 this financial year and by £467,000 next financial year. The council have been informed by their legal advisors, Bevan Brittan, that “alteration of the contract, in the manner proposed, would, for the purposes of European procurement law, constitute a material change to the content and nature of the original opportunity such as to amount to a ‘new’ contract”. What this means is that Barnet will have to terminate the contract with GLL 7 years early.

I suspect that GLL will be seeking a significant compensation package for having such a long contract cut short.

So what, you may say. Well I suppose what this illustrates to me are three things

1. Nothing stays constant and the longer the contract the more likely events are to change;

2. When you contract out a service you lose all the flexibility you have with an in house service;

3. Contracts and EU rules are tricky and if you get it wrong you can be sued.

One Barnet is a huge and complex outsourcing project. The two contracts currently being tendered are worth £1 billion and will be let for between 10 and 15 years. Now let’s skip forward five years and things in Barnet are changing again. I wonder how easy it will be for Barnet to escape one of these new contracts. Will a major change mean the contract has to be retendered all over again at huge expense. Will it be possible to get out of the contract?

The current Conservatives in Barnet seem more wedded than ever to this highly risky One Barnet strategy. There were hopes that when Cllr Cornelius was elected leader he might see sense and call a halt to this madness. However he and Cllr Coleman seem keener than ever to embrace what many people see as a massive multi-million gamble. I think it was Churchill who said “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it". Tragically political dogma seems to trump commonsense in Barnet.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Battle for Democracy in Barnet– Last night’s Residents Forum

After last night it is apparent that Barnet Council have stepped up their campaign to destroy democracy in Barnet. Well guys we are made of sterner stuff. Your tactics will not work.

The Chipping Barnet residents forum was held at the All Saints Centre on Oakleigh Road North. What I didn’t realise is that there are a collection of buildings and halls on this site. Currently debilitated following an accident, I hobbled around looking for the meeting. Down one alley in this complex maze I found a very elderly gentleman also with mobility problems who was also looking for the forum. “Perhaps it’s been cancelled” he said. With not a single sign, and a hall full of young children practising judo, that was a very natural conclusion to come to. Knowing one of the stalwart of the forum I gave him a call. Yes, the meeting was going ahead and he would come out to direct us to its location. He emerged from an alley way and pointed us in the right direction. The elderly gentleman and I hobbled our way down the alley, crutches at the ready through a well hidden door. Now I know the Council is hard up but frankly I was shocked that they felt this venue was suitable. Dingy, dirty and difficult to negotiate, it was completely unsuitable as an accessible venue. Perhaps the Council think that if they make venues so hard to find people will stop coming but last night the hall was full. To her credit, the Chairman, Cllr Kate Salinger was equally disapproving and said that a meeting will never again be held in this venue.

And so to the meeting. I had missed the first couple of questions and the next question was regarding the covering of the pedestrian crossing lights at the junction of Oakleigh Road North and Whetstone High Road. Mr McKenny who is chair of the Whetstone Society asked why, after an 18 month trial and a clear concern that this was very dangerous for pedestrians, couldn’t the cover on these lights simply be removed. The officer from Highways gave us some old waffle about procedures and decisions and how it needed cabinet approval. The long and the short of it is you have to wait until someone is seriously injured or killed before it will spur them into action. There was general discontent from this reply, none more so than from the chairman herself. She made it clear that where this had happened on the other side of the junction, in Totteridge ward, a certain councillor had demanded the cover be removed and voilĂ  the next day it was removed. No need to go through procedures, no cabinet approval. So why could it happen on Oakleigh Road North. Mutterings of discontent all round and a requirement that it should be dealt with at the environment committee immediate after the forum. We shall have to wait and see if it actually happens but no one can ask about this problem again for another 6 months. Those are the new rules.

Next it was my turn. I had submitted three questions but one question was disallowed.

The first question was regarding the closure of the Queen Elizabeth Leisure Centre as the assets have been transferred to QE Girls School as it is an academy. Apparently there is provision in the lease for the leisure facilities to be made available to the public outside school hours but it is not clear if this has happened yet. However, the fact that Greenwich Leisure (GLL) no longer runs the facility means that there is no link to the Barnet Leisure website run by GLL. So how are the public supposed to know what is available, when and how much it costs. No forward planning then.

My next question related to the car parks in East Barnet Road. I had to pick these car parks so that it was a local issue and not a “policy” issue which is FORBIDDEN at residents forums. The question involved the ability to pay for car parking with cash at a PayPoint outlet if you don’t have a mobile phone or credit card. The response was, we will put up signs telling people where they can pay when the service is operational. Given that this PayPoint contract was approved using a delegated powers report back in March I expressed my surprise that after 6 months this service was still not working. Cllr Salinger again spoke up saying yes, it is working. “Ah no”, said the officer “perhaps in October”.

So we move on to the missing question. Why is it not on the list I asked Cllr Salinger? “Because I have been given three different opinions as to whether or not it can be asked and that means I am going to wait” she replied. Now I have to make it clear that I respect Cllr Salinger even though we do not share the same political views. I believe she is a decent and honourable person. I sensed her discomfort at being placed in this invidious position. So what was this dangerous question that no one must even hear let alone have it answered?

“The One Barnet outsourcing will have a major impact on the delivery of public works locally. The constitution states that residents forums can be used “for certain consultations from the council”. Can the chairman indicate if outsourcing is a topic which will be considered for consultation at a forthcoming residents forum.”

As readers may know I take great interest in the constitution and it is clear to me that if the constitution says forums can be used for certain consultations from the council then asking if a topic will be consulted on at one of those forums seems to be a fair question. Otherwise I suppose we have to use telepathy to guess what topics will be discussed in the future. I wrote to the officer who dealt with my query copying in Mr Lustig expressing my concern as to why a question that would receive a simple yes or no answer could not be asked.

Now this problem isn’t going to go away. I am concerned that the line that has been spun at residents forums about the rules is actually not what the constitution says meaning that cllrs who are enforcing these rules are treading a very fine line. I say this for the following reasons:

1. The Council refuse to published minutes of the Special Committee which forms the basis of this change. Without the minutes of this meeting councillors who voted in favour of this change may not have realised that there was significant opposition from members of the public who spoke at the meeting, that councillors ignored the advice of their own research and that they ignored options put forward by officers.

2. The recommendation which was put to the vote at council is quite ambiguous. There is no definition of what local means, they say “basically” public works; what does basically mean? What does Public Works mean? It then goes on to say what type of matters COULD be covered but it certainly does not say what couldn’t be covered other than licensing and planning.

3. Ultimately it is what is in the constitution that counts and the constitution (Article 10) it is quite brief. All it states is “Residents Forums provide an opportunity for any resident to raise local matters (“Public Works”).” Again, the only specification it makes about what may not be discussed are planning and licensing matters.

I wonder what a lawyer would make of their interpretation of the constitution. Perhaps we will find out sooner rather than later?

Next up was the redoubtable Mr Dishman who gave the officer a detailed cross examination of the £5 million spent on energy saving nodes for the lampposts. The technology seems a good idea but I think Mr Dishman was right in describing the funding of this scheme as a “three card trick”.

There were three more questions about parking in High Barnet. The lady who spoke has spoken on a number of previous occasions on this and similar matters but it seems that nothing ever gets done. She will have to wait 6 months now before she can ask this question again – it’s in the rules you know!

A run through the follow up from last time and we were finished. A thoroughly unsatisfactory meeting. No we couldn’t ask about many of the things that really bother people in Barnet. The cut to services for the elderly, the problems with personal care budgets, the huge risks associated with One Barnet Outsourcing, the profligate waste on consultants. No, they are dangerous questions and must never be talked about.

Democracy in Barnet is definitely under sustained attack from the council, an utterly deplorable situation.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

“Channel Shifting” In Barnet - Isolating the least advantaged

In the papers for the forthcoming Budget & Performance Overview and Scrutiny Committee we start to see where Barnet Council is going with the outsourcing process and what will be required from the private outsourcing companies. They have included an example of the draft output specification for the new Customer Service Organisation, a service which currently costs a shade under £44m a year.

The output specification doesn’t tell the private companies how to deliver services. The council even states that it is “agnostic” about how they go about providing this service but it does set down some key principles one of which is something called "channel shift". It is a typical buzz phrase but in layman’s terms what they are saying is that they want to change the way people contact the council. They want to shift them away from calling the council on the telephone and or going to council offices to using email or the internet. The reason for this is quite simply financial. It is much cheaper to deal with an inquiry on the internet, which may be automated, than to pay someone to answer a phone or sit at an enquiry or reception desk.

Now in theory that sounds very plausible. However, it does not take into account the very wide diversity of people in Barnet and their very differing ability to access the internet.

Reading through all 797 pages of the very comprehensive Residents Perception Survey it sets out how people prefer to contact the council. Overwhelmingly, people prefer to contact the council on the telephone. Set out below is a brief summary of how people like to contact the council for different tasks:



The survey also breaks these figures down into range of different personal profiles.

I have shown a few examples below to illustrate how different groups access the council for advice and to request or apply to use a service.

First if we look at those people asking for advice or information.

• Overall 4% visit a council office whereas 13.5% of the unemployed visit a council office.

• Overall 24% use the web/email whereas only 12% of over 65 year olds use the web/email.

• Only 10% of council house tenants and 6% of housing association tenants use the web/email.

• 36% of Finchley Church End residents are use the web/email compared to only 14% in Hale ward.

If we now look at people who request or apply to use a service you see similar trends.

• 40% of 18-24 year olds use the web/email compared to only 14% of over 65 year olds.

• For the unemployed 76% use the telephone and 10% attend the office whilst only 13% use the web/email.

There are numerous other examples but what keeps coming out to me is that certain groups are much less likely to channel shift than others and often they are the least advantaged. If you are young, employed or living in an affleunt ward, that may be a great idea, but if you are old or unemployed or a council tenant, it may cause you real problems. Often these are the people who are most likely to need to access council services. A private contractor who is required to get people to “channel shift” (it is one of the key performance indicators) risks leaving a large section of the population disengaged from council services.

I wish the councillors would start looking at their own data in a bit more detail and realise that not everyone in Barnet has the advantages they enjoy. It also show how this outsourcing project could go horribly wrong.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Is this what you voted for?

Back in May 2010, some 16 months ago, the Conservative voters of Barnet saw fit to re-elect the Tory administration for another four year term. I wonder how many of those Conservative voters would have been happy with the complete and utter mess the Council have got themselves into now.

Today some Barnet Council staff are on strike. Perhaps the Daily Mail readers amongst you will boo and hiss at this stage. Well I know John Burgess of Unison and I know a lot of people who work for Barnet Council and frankly I think they have been given no other choice. They have been pushed into this position by what seems to me a blind adherence to political dogma from Conservative Councillors whilst ignoring both common sense and the facts.

Even before the last election I was voicing my concerns about the whole Future Shape/One Barnet project. As a management consultant for the last 25 years I’ve learned the language of bulls**t and psychobabble and I can smell it at 50 paces. The Council is spending millions of pounds each year on very expensive consultants to dream up these harebrained schemes but sadly the supporting evidence is completely absent. I read both of the business cases in detail and if I had ever produced work of such weak quality I would have been sacked.

When you are embarking on contracts with a total value of £1 billion you need to be absolutely sure that :

• You are doing it for the right reasons;
• That you have considered all possible options;
• That there is strong and supportable evidence base to back up the assumptions;
• That you have considered and analysed in great detail all of the risks; and
• That the benefits are tangible and realisable.

I would say the current business case for this mass outsourcing fails on just about every count. Please be clear; I am not opposed to outsourcing. In fact I have earned a living over many years helping companies carry out outsourcing projects. The difference here is the scale and structure of the outsourcing. There are no trials taking place; no testing of just one service at a time. No, this seems to me to be the gambler’s all or nothing strategy. The problem is that this gamble impacts hundreds of council staff and if it all goes wrong, services will suffer and it could end up costing every council taxpayer in Barnet a pile of money.

Some people will say that this strategy is unavoidable because we have to make savings. Well we may have to make savings but from what I can see:

a) Staff have already made great sacrifices – 140 were made redundant at Christmas and there have been big budget cuts even before a single outsourcing company has set foot in Barnet.

b) There are still great saving to be made in areas such as hugely expensive consultants and lawyers – the budget for the company helping to implement One Barnet is £2 million and £500,000 for the lawyers to help draft the contract.

c) Employing consultants to fill full time senior council officer posts. For example, the Deputy Chief Executive is a consultant on £1,000 a day and last year he cost the council £206,000; the Assistant Director of Human Resources, cost £133,975; Assistant Director Barnet Communications, £114,912; Assistant Director Commercial Assurance, £105,204 and that figure doesn’t even represent a full year. I cannot believe that with so many unemployed we cannot find good staff at much more realistic salaries.

d) The huge amount being spent on implementing the SAP IT system (total cost to date in excess of £23 million).

e) And little things like buying every councillor a brand new laptop costing over £1,600 each, wasting at least £30,000 on the pledgebank website which so far has only had 1 successful pledge, £70,000 a year spent on the Council’s Barnet First magazine which I only see when Igo to the council offices.

Today is the strike. Staff wanted to strike only for the afternoon to minimise disruption to the public so what does the council do but locked them out this morning as well. We face library closures. Services to some of the most vulnerable are being cut, they got rid of crossing patrol staff, they have whacked up parking charges and allotment fees. They have closed the only two museums in Barnet and have cut the funding for the Artsdepot. It now looks like they are going to savage the leisure services. The opportunity to debate this with the Council has been stifled by the draconian new rules for the residents forums (contrary to the council’s own independent research) which now excludes any question on council policy.

Come on Conservative voters, is this really what you voted for?

Friday, 9 September 2011

Warning - Leisure Under Threat in Barnet

On Wednesday evening the Cabinet are going to approve the commencement of a strategic review of leisure services in Barnet. This strategic study is something that has been promised for years so in some respects it should be welcomed. But nothing is ever that straightforward in Barnet.

According to the Cabinet papers, the total leisure budget is £1.7 million per annum which works out at approximately £4.85 per Barnet resident per year. What particularly worries me about this strategic review is that one of the key conditions of the review is that the leisure budget has to save £1.2 million over the next two years. Using my fingers and thumbs that looks to me like a 35% cut in the budget bringing the cost of providing leisure down to just £3.14 per resident per annum. Now is it realistic to assume that a good leisure service can be provided for £3.14 per resident per year?

The committee papers say that the review will be:

“wide ranging, evaluating the current service model, assessing the needs of users, and a range of options to reduce expenditure with the objective of modernising the service, meeting needs and improving performance. The review will also consider options to work with a range of different partners, community groups, and public service organisations to improve the quality of services offered”.

However, it also goes on to say:

“In order to deliver the required budget savings the current arrangement for the management of the Council’s assets is unsustainable. It is therefore vital that a strategic review is completed so that the Council can assess its priorities and that of its residents to ensure that changes to the way that leisure is provided in the borough are appropriate and evidence based”. To me that says facilities will close.

Now the Council makes great play in paper that according to the Residents’ Perception Survey,

“34% of residents think that Council owned leisure facilities offer a good or excellent service (an 11% increase compared to 2007/08)”.

However, elsewhere in the same Residents Perception Survey, 41.4% or residents are worried about the lack of recreational facilities and 55% worried that not enough is being done for young people. I am exceptionally worried that this strategic review will be yet another hatchet job finding good reason to close leisure facilities, something that will impact directly on young and old alike.

Given that, “The provision of leisure in the borough is not a statutory service”, every single Barnet resident who has ever used a leisure centre or swimming pool or who has children should be exceptionally concerned that there is a very real chance of leisure facilities disappearing in Barnet. Make sure Barnet council knows your views!

What on earth is going on? - An Open Letter to Councillors From the Barnet Bloggers

9 September 2011

Dear Councillor,

We are writing to share with you our concerns about the recent decision of the Chief Executive Nick Walkley to erect posters throughout the council offices bearing an ‘Open letter to staff’.

The posters did not contain any new information that was not already conveyed to staff in an email on the same day. Why, therefore, were the posters necessary? What is clear is that at a time when the council is making cuts to valued services, this was an appalling waste of money.

Custodians spent valuable time putting the posters up when they should have been carrying out their normal duties. We are taking steps to find out the cost of these posters and will share the information with residents. We would welcome any light councillors can shed on this and on how the decision to approve the poster strategy was taken.

The overall effect of the posters is surely to further alienate much of the workforce from council management and bring more disastrous PR for the council. If they seemed like a good idea when the decision to use them was taken, surely seeing the effect when the entire council is plastered with identical copies of one poster – only, in different sizes – can only embarrass those who thought of them.

We hope you will agree, the whole poster episode has been ludicrous and ineffective, the impression given that the council management team is starting to panic.

What can be salvaged from this? It is time for the council to recognise that staff will not be bullied into accepting the “One Barnet” outsourcing project. (Our own view is that the programme should be scrapped.)

It is also high time that the council consulted fully and properly with residents over One Barnet. It is scandalous that the representatives of the bidding companies can meet with senior Barnet management, yet the council – neither the leading Conservative group, nor senior council executives – has never appeared in a public forum to justify to residents these plans which will have a profound impact on council services for years to come.

We invite your views on this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne