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

Thursday, 8 September 2011

One Barnet Outsourcing - An Alternative View Point

I see today that Barnet Council has selected the shortlisted companies to bid for the New Support and Customer Service Organisation who are as follows:

Avarto UK
Capita Business Services Ltd
CSC Computer Sciences UK
HCL Axon (consortium)

Now the Council says that staff will be protected when services are outsourced through TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment) so from my rather simplistic view the big change that will happen is within the management.

All the reports I have read recently all seem to point deficiencies in senior management. So my question to Barnet councillors is therefore why don't you simply employ one of these companies on a management contract. Keep the staff as council employees and outsource the senior management. This way you can offer a much shorter contract, three - five years instead of the proposed ten years and base the management fee directly on their performance both financial and quality. The benefit to the council is that there is no huge transfer of staff, if the outsource companies fail to deliver the benefits then you can get rid of them and replace them quickly because all the people who deliver the frontline services remain employees. The other big benefit of this strategy is that it gives councillors a lot more flexibility to change, amend and adapt budgets and services as circumstances change. From what I can see these outsourcing companies bring new management ideas and "intellectual capital" to use a buzz phrase. In which case why go through all the pain disruption and cost of transferring all the staff when its actually the management you are after. Perhaps it would help to save the fortune that is currently being spent on high priced consultants and lawyers dreaming up these exceptionally complex and largely untested solutions.

Councillors, outsourcing the senior management offers you the opportunity to bring about real change whilst reducing the risk should the outsourcer fail to deliver and retaining the organisation's "corporate memory" with all those skilled middle and lower level management and frontline staff who deliver services to the public day in and day out.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Church and Politics - A Lethal Cocktail

As many readers have probably already seen on various other blogs there were some unpleasant moments at the Friern Barnet Show. A banner belonging to the Barnet Alliance For Public Services was confiscated and subsequently lost by the Vicar of All Saints Church and he was very rude to an elderly gentleman that I know calling him a "rogue".

Normally I am a very reasonable chap but along with the other Barnet Bloggers I believe the Vicar overstepped the mark significantly. To register our concern the Barnet Bloggers have put our concerns in writing, a copy of the letter is set out below:

The Most Reverend the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury
Lambeth Palace
Via email to

Your Grace,

We the undersigned are writing to you to draw your attention to the behaviour of the Reverend Adrian Benjamin, the vicar of All Saints Church in Barnet. As you are no doubt aware, the London Borough of Barnet, like many other London boroughs, is suffering huge cuts to public services. A campaign, Barnet Alliance for Public Services (BAPS), has been set up to defend these vital services and has been active in opposing many of the policies being implemented by Barnet Council. The campaign is broad based and not aligned with any political party.

As part of the campaign, BAPS intended to operate a stall at the Friern Barnet Summer Show, a local festival. Rev Benjamin is on the organising committee. Originally Rev Benjamin gave BAPS permission to have a stall, but withdrew that permission at the last minute on the grounds that he deemed the campaign to be political.

The campaigners from BAPS were offered space on another person's stall and they took part in the festival after all. When Rev Benjamin learned of this he brought some other men with him, dismantled the stall, confiscated the BAPS banner and asked the campaigners to leave the park. When later asked to return the banner, Rev Benjamin replied that it had been lost and could not be returned. Since Rev Benjamin was also extremely rude to the campaigners, an unseemly row has now developed. Rev Benjamin spoke to one of our local papers, the Hampstead and Highgate Express and made the following statement:

“If someone came in with explosives then it would have been me who was responsible for disposing of it and as far as I’m concerned it [the banner] is as predacious as a bomb.’’ He referred to Mr Silverman (one of the campaigners) as ‘‘a rogue, a rogue.”

(The original article can be viewed here:

Mr Silverman is a 74-year-old pensioner, who has worked tirelessly as a community campaigner in Barnet for many years. There are several questions raised by Rev Benjamin's behaviour, which we feel we must set out.

a) Shouldn't a minister of the Church set a better example in his dealings with members of the public? Publicly denigrating people who are clearly involved in community activities in the press is surely not acceptable.

b) Comparing local campaigners to terrorists is highly insulting and irresponsible. We believe that this shows an appalling lack of judgement.

c) The failure to respect the property of others and the failure to exercise a duty of care with materials in his charge shows a callous disregard for other people. The BAPS campaign has extremely limited funds and the banner will cost a significant amount to replace.

As Rev Benjamin is a part of the festival organising committee, we believe that he has brought the Church of England and the wider Christian community into disrepute. As leader of the Church, we call upon you to intervene. We believe that, at the very least, Rev Benjamin owes Mr Silverman a public apology and that he should pay for a new banner for BAPS. As to whether Rev Benjamin is a suitable candidate for such an important role in the community and the Church of England, we will leave that to your wisdom and judgement.

Yours faithfully,

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

(Concerned Barnet residents)

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Cashless Parking - Choices, What Choices?

At last night's Business Management Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting there was a lengthy debate about the cashless parking system. The council has introduced a system where you can buy a parking ticket at shops that have the PayPoint service. Having watched the committee (thanks to the exceptionally community minded Barnet Bugle)it is clear that this is a sop and will be phased out as soon as possible. Indeed Cllr Coleman said the council would not promote the PayPoint service as they want people to use payment by phone only. The committee also confirmed that you will only get 3 minutes to buy your ticket at a PayPoint outlet before you risk getting a penalty notice.

Now some may say I am a cynic, but my guess is that Barnet will keep as quiet as possible about this PayPoint option and when no one uses it they will say they are vindicated in phasing it out. Having stood on a busy road with credit card in one hand, phone in the other, trying to listen to the instructions I can tell you it is not as simple as Cllr Coleman suggests. Also there are a great many people in Barnet who have English as a second language and who may find it much easier to pay at a shop.

Barnet Council talks a lot about improving choice so why didn't they consider prepaid scratch cards for parking which they use in Westminster. Westminster states on its website,

" While Pay by Phone parking offers customers a range of benefits, Westminster City Council is aware that there are motorists who are unable (because they don't have a debit/credit card and/or a mobile phone) to use the service and others who may feel more comfortable using an alternative payment method".

I guess the answer is because Barnet just doesn't care!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Pledgebank - Under Consideration?

Back in January I submitted a pledge to the Barnet Council Pledgebank. My Pledge was as follows:

"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 at the time I heard nothing back from Barnet Pledgebank; not posted, not rejected, not acknowledged. Having heard nothing I wrote to Barnet Pledgebank on 27 April asking what was happening with my pledge. Guess what? no reply, not even an acknowledgement.

On Friday Barnet Council published the response to a Freedom of Information request and guess what? My pledge was there at number 2 on the list. It hadn't been accepted as a pledge but equally it hadn't been rejected. It was Under Consideration. Well I have now written again to Barnet Pledgebank asking how much more time they need to consider my pledge. In my humble opinion, I think nine months is more than enough time to consider my pledge.

Setting aside the use of the site for Royal Wedding Street Parties (which would have happened anyway) and five Big Lunch street parties (which again would have probably gone ahead anyway)only ONE pledge has so far been fulfilled. To me it looks like the future of Barnet Pledgebank should be under consideration especially given the cost estimated in excess of £30,000.

I look forward to Barnet Council finally coming to a conclusion on my pledge and giving me the courtesy of a reply to my email!