Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Barnet Traders Special - North Finchley Business owners speak

A week ago I was at the Arts Depot, attending a Barnet Council organised forum for small businesses. Yesterday, I attended my own little mini forum of small business owners in North Finchley. At the council meeting I'd been highly impressed withthe way Helen Michaels, the owner of Cafe Buzz had spoken. Even more impressive was the way she seemed to have complete backing of virtually the entire meeting. At the meeting I gave Helen my card, told her about the blog (she'd never heard of it before) and suggested we do an interview. She agreed, so I made my way up to her business, Cafe Buzz in North Finchley yesterday afternoon, to see her. She advised me to arrive hungry, as she'd be providing lunch. I was a bit taken aback when I arrived. I had expected a quite chat, but the shop was full of the owners of small businesses, all wanting a chat as well. It became clear why Helen had the support of the hall, she is a natural organiser.

Before we got going, she kept her side of the bargain and provided me with lunch, which I must say was excellent. Without wishing to get too sidetracked, I am on an anti cancer diet right now which involves being virtually vegan, eating plenty of antoxidants and drinking a minimum of five cups of green tea a day. In the vast majority of cafe's in London, this means that you are generally limited to fried tomatoes and mushrooms, and if you are lucky a slice of wholemeal toast without butter. Helen provided a very tasty snack of lentils and roast vegetables, with a fine cup of green tea to boot. And don't be mistaken, all of the other stuff I'd have eaten had I not been on the diet were there, tastily beaming out at me.I suspect I'll be back again

So who did we have? We had a hairdresser, the owner of a health shop, the owner of a discount store, the butcher to name but a few. Now normally I'm a copious note taker, but for some reason I'd left the notepad in the car, and I'd parked a half a  mile away to avoid having to pay to park ( I can't be bothered to register and I don't want to give Coleman a penny in parking charges). If you don't mind a schlep and you are visiting in North Finchley, you can park for free in Avondale Avenue except between 2 and 3pm.

As I tucked into my lunch, perhaps the most interesting part of the chat occurred. We all discussed the issues and challenges of running a small business in these times. Helen summed it up when she said "I am personally responsible for the lease, I can't walk away from it, even if I wanted to". She explained how a few years ago "someone from Barnet council asked me why I want to run a business here and suggested I'd do better if I moved to Brent Cross". She explained how Councillor Brian Coleman had marched into one of her neighbouring stores and demanded that the owner moved some street furniture, which he'd taken a dislike to "Get your property off my street". That was her first encounter with Coleman. She said "what right does he have to call it "my street", we pay rates". All of the business owners told the same story. There turnover was down. Some by 15% some by 30%. Why? The same answers time and again. "People can't be bothered with the hassle of paying to park". I asked about the 115,000 people that the council have claimed to have registered? "That is less than 1/3rd of the population. That is probably people who have to because they park in Council car parks for work."  The hairdressers have said that it is the hassle factor rather than the cost which is putting her customers off. "People are just baffled by the system. Who has twenty minutes to register for the system, for a quick trim?" The owner of the discount store was far more blunt "They're killing our business and they don't care".

We discussed politics. Most of the assembled group agreed that the small business community is pretty staunchly Conservative. How has the changes affected this "We won't be voting for them agin until they start listening". One of the group said "I love Boris and what he's doing, I can't believe he's tied up with Coleman, that will hurt him round here". Helen has had a bunch of t-shirts made up. She's getting a group of small business owners together to protest at the Boris and Brian show at the Talk London event tonight at the Peel Centre in Colindale.

We discussed the cost of making the parking regime more business friendly. We discussed the claim by Richard Cornelius that it would cost £2 million to introduce free parking  for 1/2 an hour. I dispute this claim. You may ask why? Because it is clear to me that no one really has a clue how much it would cost. There are two types of shoppers. Those that want to spend 5 minutes buying a paper, milk, get cash out of an ATM etc. Then there are those that are having a meal, getting their hair done or other lengthy appointment. To me the answer is simple. Have a designated section of parking in each High Street, maybe 20% of spaces, where there is free parking for 1/2 hour. In these bays, if you park longer than 1/2 hour without a ticket, treble the fine. If the space is available, you can still pay and display for longer, but you have to pay. This would ensure a turnover of car parking spaces. It would mean that people just nipping out for a sandwich at lunchtime would be spared the effects of the stealth parking tax.

Richard Cornelius asked how the council could plug the gaps in their finances. Here's one suggestion. Last year, Barnet Blogger Mr Reasonable suggested on the Council Pledgebank, that he would donate his time free of charge, to the Council if he could look at the books and identify savings. The council never got back to him. I would suggest that Barnet Council, take Mr Reasobable up on his offer. I'd suggest that they also invite myself and Helen Michaels to take part. Any savings we identify, could be offset against the supposed £2 million required to fund the parking changes.

It may not surprise you to know that I think we could save a minimum of five times that amount (£10 million). How can I make such a claim? Well quite by accident bloggers discovered that Barnet Council had paid Metpro Security over £1.4 million for security services. There was no tender for this work and no proper contract. As a result of our enquiries, the agreement was cancelled and the work retendered to companies which charged far less. Even worse, much of the work was deemed "unnecessary". At the audit meeting, where this was discussed, it was revealed that of the 9,700 suppliers Barnet use, only the top 187 are actually properly audited. I would suggest that between myself, Mr Reasonable and Helen Michaels, it is inconceivable that we wouldn't find at least a couple of dozen other such expensive and wasteful practices and examples of unnecessary services. I'd be happy to give the rest of Barnet the £8million savings, once we'd got the funding for our free parking initiative. What is more, I doubt it would take people, who are used to eking out savings running their own businesses very long to achieve. Here is my challenge to Barnet Council. Call the bluff of the Barnet Eye. Take up this challenge. You really cannot lose. You'll either get a stack of savings or you can discredit me for once and all. All I ask is unlimited access to the books. I will happily sign a non disclosure agreement if that is what is necessary, to protect any sensitive data.

Of course, if Barnet refuse to take up this offer, what does that tell you? I await the call.

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