Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Barnet Council Cabinet Meeting 2012/2/2012 - full report

Please see the video in the previous post for a lour of public questions. A couple of words of praise first. for Richard Cornelius. Since the start of the blog, I've sat through these meetings during the reign of four leaders. These have been Mike Freer, Lynne Hillan, Andrew Harper (who sat in for Hillan during her illness) and now Richard Cornelius. Unlike the first three, at least Richard is civil and polite. Manners and courtesy cost nothing. I may not agree with much of what Richard says, but at least he is a decent man who reaslises that you don't need to behave boarishly with members of the public. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in the contrasting answers to my question regarding the poor usage of English in a Council report. Councillor Robert Rams, who clearly holds the public in complete contempt, replied to my request to say who reviewed the badly written report saying "I did" and then went on to say that if that was the only thing I could find to criticise (which it clearly wasn't) then he'd won the argument. Richard Cornelius, recognising that Rams was clearly making a fool of himself and the whole cabinet interjected "I also read it and I apologise". To many people, it may count for nothing, but I respect that. The mark of a man. Another example of the fact that Richard is at least trying to make his colleagues acknowledge the existence of the voters of Barnet came when Councillor John Marshall stepped up to make a speech about education. He wryly commented "When I was in the cabinet, these meetings were far shorter". He was clearly annoyed at having to hang around, whilst the public had their say. Richard Cornelius replied "That's democracy". Marshall sneered "managed democracy". Clearly, unlike the Leader, he really isn't that bothered with keeping the public in the loop. It is worth noting that Councillor Marshall was a big supporter of Councillor Andrew Harper, who Richard Cornelius defeated last year to become leader. Whatever you may think of Richard and his administration, I for one am glad that at least we have someone who recognises the public need to be involved in the democratic process.

So what other issues were discussed. The use of Parks as revenue generators was a big topic. Two Labour Councillors, Jim Tierney and Alan Schneiderman both made representations to the Cabinet. Both made valid points, both were completely ignored. Tierney stated that the proposal to rent parks could take the parks out of use for 12 weekends in the Spring and summer. The public could be deprived of use of the parks for 50% of the summer. In compensation for this loss, the Council would generate £30,000 in revenue. This is less than the cost of the wages of the Council officer who will oversee the scheme. Tierney felt that this was financial ineptitude. He was disappointed that the council did not seem to understand the difference between revenue and profit.

Richard Cornelius replied that many people with gardens too small to hold functions in would benefit from the policy. I found this rather odd. Surely if people live in flats on low incomes, hiring out the park for a garden party is not high on their list of priorities.

Brian Coleman then piped up that "only 6% of the park will actually be hired out" and that people are spreading misinformation. Given that this 6% is the bit people use (you can't play football on the flowerbeds etc), I suspect that he's quite right to complain about misinformation.

Alan Scheiderman stated that it had been confirmed that the whole park could be shut. This had been confirmed at the Golders Green residents forum.

Brian Coleman piped up that the Council can already shut the park for 5 days a year for events. Schneiderman responded that Councillor Coleman clearly doesn't know the difference between community events and private parties.

Then we had Business planning. There has been a 26% cut in grants from government. Richard Cornelius was proud that 75% of these cuts had come from savings generated from reorganisation. Money was likely to be returned from Iceland. This would ease pressure on certain budgets, but he emphasised that this was a one off and that was a  relatively small amount in the pot.

Then we had Councillor Daniel Thomas. He stated that the Council Tax base had grown. This had eased pressure on budgets. He stated that Council tax would again be frozen. The year after it is set to rise by 2.5%, He talked of further savings of £29 million (unspecified) and said that the Council were bang on budget. He also talked of building up reserves of cash, with a view to future unexpected pressures. Those of us familiar with the way the Barnet Conservative group work, know what he means is that it is being stashed so that they can cut taxes before the next election in two years time. I would take the view that most people would rather have the cash now, when they are really struggling.

It was odd that later he talked about household finances creaking. Now one question I would loved to have asked. Surely if the One Barnet project was as marvellous as we are being lead to believe, then the cash should be freed up from reserves to help people now. It seems perverse that parking charges are being hiked, whilst the council stashes our cash away for "a rainy day". This is not Conservative policy. It is nanny knows best, state husbandry of our money.

Andrew Travers, who is responsible as area 51 officer (oh no, sorry area 51 is an area in Nevada where UFOlogists believe alien spaceships are kept) - financial officer - told us that he's satisfied that the cash is rolling in suitably well and the plans are robust. Mr Travers has a key fianncial role. He is not a council employee, he is a consultant, emplloying a front company to avoid paying tax. A practice that Eric Pickles has criticised. I first met Mr Travers under the reign of Mike Freer in 2009. Clearly the Barnet Council idea of a temporary role not quite what the Oxford dictionary implies. I think that local authorities should not employ people on such dodgy arrangements.

Andrew Harper started to ask a question. He was pleased to report that schools were considered important. At this point, the Council PA system started to scream loudly. Being a sound engineer, I wanted to go up and adjust it. The noise was quite painful. Eventually Harper stopped waffling, but I'd long since given up on his question.

Councillor Rams spoke about consultation. There are three strands. These are paper, online and face to face. Last year I organised a petition about Libraries. over 7,000 people signed it and it was included as part of the strategic library review. At the council meeting where the paper was adopted, I asked Rams for a commitment to keep me informed. He undertook to do this and I undertook to keep the people who signed the petition informed. Can you guess how many times Rams and Barnet have reported back to me? It is proof that Councillor Robert Rams sees consultation as a box to be ticked. He couldn't give a stuff about it.

Councillor Rajput (adult social services) made possibly the most boring and pointless interjection I've heard for a long time. He waffled on about the previous Labour government. Given that presumably the rest of the council cabinet agree with him, why did he bother. It merely irritated the audience (even those who agree with his policies). I would suggest to Rajput that if he wants to get on, he cuts out the drivel, the pointless rhetoric and the waffle. Stick to the facts and doing the job. Your colleagues don't want to listen to boring speeches and neither do the public. The point was eventually reached. Were equalities being taken seriously by the Council (see it could have been asked in five seconds).

Councillor Thomas replied that yes they were (strange that the Council keeps losing court cases because they aren't - maybe he was visiting area 51 with Travers when we were discussing that previously). It is so important that it was reflected in the corporate plan.

Councillor Cornelius then stated that equalities legislation was an unfortunate legacy of the last Labour government. Sadly I suspect dear old Richard doesn't really understand the issue. If he did, I doubt he'd have said that. As a volunteer for a disabled charity, who has spent a lot of time in a social setting discussing these problems with the people who are suffering, the equalities act has made a huge difference to peoples lives. Of course there are some times when it is misused, rather like the corporate regulation that allow staff such as Andrew Travers to masquarade as private companies to avoid tax. I wonder which costs the taxpayer more? Tax avoidance or treating the disabled fairly?

The we had Councillor Davey. His contribution to the debate "Debt repayment is at the forefront of my mind". He was worried about council rent arrears. Maybe he would wish to consider the cause of such debts. Council policies removing jobs from the Borough in botched outsourcing? Ever thought of that?

Then we had Councillor Helena Hart. She is concerned that Barnet will be shafted, when it gets responsibility for the Healthcare budget. Camden and Islington will get double what Barnet get. Wellbeing programs will be the first to suffer. Helena Hart seems to be one of the more sensible members of the cabinet. No waffle, no bluster. Councillor Cornelius agreed that this was a worry.

There was also the issue of receipts from business rates. This is going to be collected and kept locally. This is a good thing. Maybe then the council will actually care when they force businesses out of the High Street.

Councillor Rams asked if Councillor Thomas would like to congratulate the Mayor, Boris on his £3.50 a year cut to Council tax. Rather surprisingly, Councillor Thomas stated that this wouldn't even buy a half of shandy at his favourate lapdancing club and he'd rather the money was spent on providing proper care for the elderly. Gotcha, of course he didn't say that. I'm sure he's never been near a lapdancing club in his life, being a Welshman he abhors shandy and there's no way he'd rather Boris spent £3.50 a year of your money on caring for old people than giving you a pittance back. Of course he congratulated Boris.

Then on to the Library closure at Friern Barnet. Two Labour Councillors, Pauline Coakley-Webb and Barry Rawlings asked questions. Why was Finchley library in a Tory Ward being kept open until the Arts Depot replacement was ready, whilst Friern in a Labour ward was being sold off. We all know the answer, but there is no way Councillor Rams would say. It was all Pauline Coakley-Webbs fault for not winning the lottery and buying it for the community. At least I think that's what his answer was. It was clearly her fault. Rams stated that anyone could buy the building and carry on running it as a Library if they wished. Councillor Rawlings asked how the service could be transferred if there wasn't something opening elsewhere to replace it? He also asked for clarification on the figures as there was double counting of savings.

Councillor Rams clearly didn't understand the question. He responded that Garden Suburb residents had worked hard with their local Conservative Councillors to keep their library. I was sitting with a group of ladies from Friern. At this they started muttering obscenities about Rams. He really does have that effect on even the most genteel and fragrant of ladies.

And then Partnership Boards. Yet another Councillor Brian Coleman command performance. He stated that these boards were stuffed with unelected officials. He said that he regularly needed to remind them that he "had a democratic mandate" wheras they represented no one. Councillor Andrew Harper immediately struck to correct the impression Coleman was trying to paint. He stated that it was hugely beneficial to have the organisations represented and that public scrutiny of their work was positive. At this Brian Coleman bellowed  a sarcastic laugh. Harper looked affronted. Councillor Helena Hart had had enough of Coleman (haven't we all), she turned to him in a highly irritated manner and exclaimed "This is what democracy is all about". Coleman slunk back and picked his nose (as he always does when he's been told off).

And finally education> I've already mentioned Councillor Marshall and his annoyance at being kept waiting. He actually made a few rather interesting points.

1) Bishop Douglas School has limited appeal to local Catholics. I suspect that he hasn't chatted to the Head recently. The school has been making great strides. I have two children at Catholic schools in Barnet (just so readers know I have a view). Bishop Douglas has had a troubled few years. It is back on track. Many people who are not Catholics attend Catholic Schools. For instance, the owner of the Day of The Raj in Mill Hill, Romal is a Muslim and attended my old School, Finchley Catholic High. I am happy if the sector widens its appeal and inclusiveness. I am not sure what the point was.

2) QE Boys (one of Barnets leading schools in terms of results) attracts more pupils from Harrow than Barnet. This is shocking. It means that our roads are clogged with parents traversing the Borough from Harrow. It is a great argument against selective education and for a Comprehensive model. Councillor Marshall wondered if it meant that schools in Harrow were better suited to preparing their pupils for competetive exams. I wondered if it meant that the attitude of certain members of the cabinet to literacy and grammar was starting to be felt in the education service. I wondered if Councillor Rams gave a moments thought to whether his policy would help or hinder our young people compete with those from Harrow?

Footnote : I just got an email from a source at Barnet Council praising the conciseness of my blogs - ironic as I am posting the longest one for a year !

After questions, we had the

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