This morning I attended a Barnet Council Business breakfast with the Leader of the Council, Richard Cornelius, CEO Nick Walkley and a couple of guest speakers. Before I start, let me say that I applaud this initiative. These events were held regularly under Mike Freer, one of the few initiatives I wholeheartedly supported. Lynne Hillan couldn't be bothered, so it is a good sign to see Richard Cornelius resurrecting the process.
I arrived at 7.46 and got a cup of tea. The conference started and I had a brief chat with CEO Nick Walkley. We share an interest in a certain type of music and Nick was rather interested to hear that the Damned had rehearsed for their last tour at the studios I run. He also explained how when he became CEO he'd expected to have to make cuts of 20% to the budget, but with the economic situation this could be as high as 46%. That isn't a task which can be pleasant or easy.
Next up a brief chat with the Leader over our respective Xmas breaks. Despite what I often write here about how they run the council, on a personal level both Richard and Nick are among the people involved with the council who are ok to have a chat with and are quite pleasant.
Then the meeting started. We had a fairly lengthy preamble from the Leader. He told us that engagement between Barnet Council and local small business wasn't good. He stated that an ongoing dialog was necessary and for many businesses, the council was a mysterious organisation. He explained that the council has employees to run the operations. We have councillors to represent the wards, a cabinet to make decisions and the general councillors scrutinse them. The council runs services such as street cleaning,schools, refuse collection etc. Much work is done battling with central government for money. The government has cut 26% from the budget, and these cuts will get worse. 77% of savings have come from "doing things smarter". 67% of services are high performing and low cost.
He explained that the Council was "right of centre" but committed to preserving good adult and childrens services. He listed things people were satisfied with (refuse collection, schools). He then explained the regeneration program. Many 1960's estates were not well designed and were badly put together. These are being tarted up with proceeds of land sales. He explained that Barnet was a bigger authority than Newcastle or Edinburgh.
He then told why small business was important. There are 20,000 registered businesses in Barnet. He said it is "difficult for the council to understand them". He said that as there are 1,700 people under 24 seeking work in Barnet, they had a role to play in solving the problem. He said that the council often got it wrong, such as opposing the "restaurant culture" in Whetstone. He admitted this now kept the High St alive. He said business would struggle during the Olympics. He explained how the council had put bids in for the High Street refurbishment for Edgware, Cricklewood and Finchley.
Next up was CEO Nick Walkley. He explained how Barnet was Londons largest borough with 360,000 residents. It is diverse with 146 langauges spoken in schools. He explained how Barnet was a green borough. He said that the Council was investigating how they could "better use" these assetts (I sincerely hope this doesn't mean charging for using green space). He explained how lots of new business start in Barnet every year. Barnet has a high employment rate and the local economy is £6 billion a year. He explained how people lived longer and this was stretching council budgets on elderly care. There is also a baby boom, with 4,000 more nursery places required.
He outlined the details of regeneration projects in the west of Barnet. He suggested that Stonegrove was a great opportunity to see regeneration in action. He explained how the sales force marketing Beaufort Park sell it on it's easy commute into London and the nightlife opportunities locally. He explained how the projects were making the area younger and more diverse.
He then went on to discuss the budget. He said more cuts are likely, with the emphasis on protecting childrens and adult services. He said that tough decisions had to be taken. Closing two libraries and losing staff, along with pooling services with other boroughs.
He also announced a scheme called "Your Choice Barnet" (is this the new name for the unmentioned "One Barnet" scheme?). He said this scheme would transform Barnet. The good news was that the council were meeting the targets for savings. He posed the question of how this affect the councils relationship with Business. I'm not sure he gave us an answer.
Then we had Gail Laser, from Chipping Barnet retail forum. Gail explained we we should, as business people, be positive and plan for the future. She explained efforts to revitalise High Barnet High Street, based on a scheme used in Crouch End. She thanked "Hem" - "a brilliant Barnet employee, who helped pull the scheme together". She said that the plan had been to give Barnet a stronger identity. She identified the main issues with the High Street "Lack of choice, Parking issues..." (a murmer of agreement went around). She explained how a local lottery and a grant of £400,000 form Boris had helped. This scheme included improvements to the green behind the church and "some tarting up of shopfronts". She urged the council to encourage "pop up shops". She suggested that from 2013, business rates would come back to Barnet and could be used to encourage local business. She criticised Barnet Council for its attitude to Barnet FC, The Bull arts centre and Barnet Museum.
Gail then talked about the bid for Edgware and how the diverse ethnic communities (Asian to the west and Jewish to the east) influenced the make up of the town centre. She commented that it was run down and in need of a spruce up. She commented that councils have a duty to help high streets. She said that although she thought cashless parking was the future (boos and hisses from the crowd), the implementation had been botched. Sh lamented the failure of Barnet to be represented at the Urban Design London conference. She rounded off by saying that Councils can influence the state of the High Street and cited the parking charges as a good example.
Richard Cornelius briefly responded to a couple of points raised. He said that he wanted Barnet FC to remain at Underhill, he said he genuinely didn't know what the problem was and thought Barnet FC were unreasonable. He said that part of the deal to open the arts depot was to close the Bull Theatre. This may be true, but the Bull was a part of the High Street in a way the Arts Depot most certainly isn't. For what its worth, I think there is a place for both. He stated that the threat of closure had been lifted from Barnet Museum and it was now being run by volunteers.
Next up we had Peter Murphy, from C&G properties. He bemoaned the fact that it had taken him over two years to get planning consent for a development his company were undertaking. He stated that most of his tenants were on 6 month licenses as they were start up businesses and they wanted flexibility in a recession. He then made an outrageous statement. He described his experience with an Irish bank, and stated "never bank with the Irish, they are a bunch of cheats". After a diatribe about Irish bankers, he then excused it by saying he was a Murphy. He gave some advice about running a business in a recession. He advised to "get rid of staff with a negative attitude as they damage the business". He then said "and we never fire anyone". He commented that a recession makes staff available who in a boom would not work for you, so you should take advantage of the opportunity. He then made another outrageous statement. He said that the council was "run by a bunch of wallies who hadn't got a clue about business". Richard Cornelius pointed out that he was a small businessman. Nick Walkley then interjected that his teacher used to call him a wally at school, supposedly because he had trouble spelling his name. Apparently Mr Murphy is the landlord for 1% of all business owners in Barnet. The mind boggles.
Then we had public questions.
Jeremy Link - estate agent pointed out that land prices and rents in Barnet were not in recession and had held up well (contradicting a point made by Nick Walkley earlier). He said lettings were up by 25%.
Another estate agent, Saul Gerrard from Martin Gerrard said that the Council were far too inflexible on change of use requests and this was causing properties to lie empty.
Mike Moriazou (??) from Print Express explained that businesses were in a pincer movement of falling sales and rising costs. He explained that small firms lacked the expertise to complete Pre Qualification Questionairres that Barnet require, before awarding contracts and so were being discriminated against.
Then we had the star of the show. Helen Michaels spoke. Helen has been a resident of Barnet for 20 years and run a local business for 5 years. She lambasted the council for its botched cashless parking implementation. She berated them for the fact that they completely fail to understand the fact that many elderly people cannot, for a variety of reasons, use the mobile phone parking scheme. She pointed out that it took a 20 minute call to register and there was an unjustifiable 20p surcharge. MAny people have to pay £2 to park for five minutes. She said that no one understood the paypoint scheme and that many people had been fined whilst trying to find the place to pay. In mid flow, a man from from Energise Barnet suggested that she'd gone on too long and other people had issues they want to raise, and suggested she made her point. As she was eloquently putting across the issue many had wished to raise, the audience backed her and said "let her speak, this is the issue". She explained how the local car parks had become football pitches as no one wanted to park anymore. The leader of the council suggested that she could buy parking vouchers and give them to her customers if the charges were too expensive. She shot back "If someone comes in for an 80p cup of tea, how can I afford to give them a £2 parking voucher". Richard Cornelius suggested "maybe they'd buy a meal then". Ms Michaels shot back "not if they only want a cup of tea they won't". Richard Cornelius said that the pat as you go had been phased out because all of the parking meteres kept breaking down. Many people were skeptical, I suspect rightly so, given that they used them every day. A fishmonger (didn't catch his name) and a fish and chip shop owner made several similar points.
There was a short break for a chat. I got a cup of tea and started chatting to a rather nice lady, who it transpired was Richard Cornelius sister and also a small business owner. Rather sadly she claimed she wasn't a reader of the Barnet Eye. She runs a company that arranges events.
After the break I got to ask a double pronged question. Part 1, I commended the leader of the council on asking business to attend the forum. I suggested that mishaps like the parking fiasco could have been avoided had he consulted the people in the room properly before it was implemented. I suggested that a proper forum be set up and suggested that he may like to include people such as Helen Michaels in it. He agreed. Then I asked if the leader and the CEO would be prepared to speak in a documentary film, which I am helping a young film maker put together about Barnet. The leader thought for a second and then agreed. Nick Walkley, thought for a few seconds longer and said "only if I can see the questions beforehand and only answer the ones I want to". I responded that this would be more than acceptable. He replied that under these circumstances, he would be happy to appear.
I suspect that they both left the meeting worrying as to what they had agreed to. They needn't. I had been asked by a young film maker to assist him in making a documentary about life in Barnet in 2012 and the challenges which face the residents. I think Richard and Nick have a story to tell and it will make a more interesting film. Council leaders and CEO's should be open and accessible and they are to be commended for making themselves available. I thought it was a shame that this meeting wasn't filmed. Although generally I tend to video council meetings, I had specifically gone along with the intention of having a positive attitude to the process, as I agree with the concept of this type of meeting. There are many challenges in Barnet and we have to work together to address them. I hope that this meeting today was not just a one off and that we get regular forums for the benefit of all citizens. I will conclude by repeating the fact that I was pleased the meeting was held. I suspect most of the people who came, were mainly interested in the parking issues. I doubt many of them were too pleased with the response from the council. It is important that we get the opportunity to make these points to the leader and the CEO. I suspect it is even more important that they listen to us and take some action. They may wish to consider the fact that I parked in Avondale Avenue and walked to the meeting, because I refuse to register for the parking scheme. If they'd kept the ticket machines, they'd probably have got a £1 from me in the empty car park. That really is the bottom line.