Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Should Barnet Councillors declare Independence?

I had a truly extraordinary conversation yesterday. I can't reveal who with, when or where, but it has left me feeling rather disturbed. It has seriously undermined my sense of trust in politics in Barnet. There are two major developments in Barnet politics in the last few weeks. The first is the departure of Nick Walkley to Haringey Council. The other is the news that Barnet Council plans to outsource waste collection, in a joint outsourcing bid with Brent Council.

There is a common theme in these two events. Haringey Council are a Labour Council. Brent Council are  a Labour Council. Nick Walkley is viewed as Mr One Barnet. In  a quite extraordinary blog yesterday, maverick Tory backbench Councillor Brian Coleman says
Having been appointed by an Administration lead by a radical and reforming Conservative Leader (Mike Freer) there is a theory that Mr Walkley was not as comfortable with a more traditional Conservative Leader determined not to throw out the baby with the bathwater who is more relaxed with Government at all levels doing less and achieving more .
Even more interesting is this description of the relationship between Walkley and Freer
Some less Charitable Conservative Councillors considered him the then Leaders "puppy" no doubt as a result of his habit of nodding his head enthusiastically during the Leaders speeches
The implication could not be clearer. Walkley was "frustrated" by the pace of outsourcing in Barnet. He is going to Haringey to unleash a OneBarnet + program, at a Council where he believes there is the political discipline to see it through. If nothing else it confirms the view that Mike Freer was and still is the driving force behind One Barnet. Without the "Shepherd" to keep the sheep in order, the puppy has found himself a new flock and a new field, with a new master.

Then there is Brent. Again this is a Labour Council. Barnet has jumped into bed with a Labour Council who are already further down the privatisation route than Barnet. Given the struggle in Barnet, you may think Brent would have reconsidered the proposal, but clearly the opportunity to save a few pennies on the Brent Council tax payers bills has taken precedence over supporting the residents questioning One Barnet next door. It was revealed that a Brent Labour Councillor dismissed the idea of an in house solution, even though Barnet Council saved a fortune when they did this in 1992.

Now what I'm about to say will sound like heresy in Barnet left circles. There are three big outsourcing projects on the table in Barnet. There are the two classic One Barnet bids and the refuse collection in a joint bid with Brent. Let's look at these logically. Which one is the least risky to the taxpayer? The two with a completely new organisation, new structure and new companies, who will export jobs to wherever the lowest paid bidder is, or the refuse collection bid, in conjunction with Brent, who have management experience of the process and some sort of track record?

We have identified many risks with the One Barnet projects, but surely Brent have what it takes to deliver real savings? That seems like a reasonably pragmatic view to take. The only problem is that we can't actually say that. Why? Because we have not seen the figures, even more alarmingly, no public sector comparator has been done. Barnet has a very efficient refuse organisation. Many Tory councillors have confirmed this. If this organisation was allowed to bid for the contract, surely this could give us the best of both worlds. I am not asking for special favours, just the chance to see if it is a better option. As we have a Tory Council, it is clear that any award to this organisation would be because it was the best bid. It amazes me that a Tory Council doesn't use the opportunity to say "look how well we run public services".

What alarms me most is the fact that if you take all of the posturing out of the equation, it is pretty clear to me that it doesn't matter whether your council is Tory or Labour, in this day and age, you will get zealots trying to impose schemes which are completely bonkers, have no sound business case and are inherently risky on the public. At a public meeting on Monday night, it became clear that it wasn't the Councillors who new what was going on in Parking, it was my fellow blogger, Mr Mustard. When it comes to outsourcing, it is not the Councillors, but my fellow blogger Mr Reasonable.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation of all though came yesterday. On Saturday, Sury Khatri,  a Mill Hill Conservative Councillor made the statement that around ten Conservative Councillors are One Barnet sceptics. I made the point that this means there is actually a majority against the proposal on the council.

What was I told yesterday? Well it appears that I am wrong. Why you may ask? Well my supposition was that all of the Labour Councillors are anti One Barnet. I was informed that this was not the case. I was informed that whilst it is politically useful for them to be associated with the movement against it, some do not fundamentally disagree with the program. I was told that in their alternative budget, One Barnet is included in the figures and they have no plans for a different course of action.

I was also told that the local Labour Party have only committed to the proposal for a referendum on it, because they know the Tories are too stupid to actually go for it and it allows them to focus on an anti One Barnet campaign, without actually saying they will stop/reverse one Barnet. A group of Labour Councillors believe that something like One Barnet is the only way to address the funding crisis at the Council.

So the question I asked was this. If ten Tories crossed the floor of the Council chamber to vote against One Barnet, would Labour stick the knife in the project and vote against it. The answer I got was "Yes, because it would fatally damage the Tory administration".

So let us consider the full facts about outsourcing in local government. Whether you live in a Tory Borough such as Barnet or a Labour Borough such as Brent or Haringey, you are likely to see your public services outsourced. Political control of the council makes no difference. In both Labour and Tory groups you have a Blairite/moderniser faction who see traditional public service provision as an outdated mode of operation. In Barnet this was most aptly demonstrated by Mike Freer, who Brian Coleman correctly identifies in his blog as an archetypal Blairite. What other conclusion can be drawn from this statement in Colemans blog (talking about Walkleys appointment).
 I did not serve on the Appointment panel , I do not think the then Leader trusted me to make the "right" decision and there was some disquiet amongst the ruling Group who perceived the new Chief Executive as far too close to the thinking of the Labour Government, he had spent a year on secondment at the Department of Communities and Local Government and far too susceptible to whatever Local Government fad was in favour that week"
I find it extraordinary that in the week before Brian Coleman finds out whether he will be charged, he should go on the offensive against the man who he put in Power in Barnet, Mike Freer MP. At a time when Coleman needs all of his friends, why should he set out on a mission to alienate the most powerful of them all?

This question has been answered for me. There are many people in Barnet for whom Brian Coleman serves a very useful purpose. Brian Coleman stated in a previous blog that he had discovered who his true friends are. It is clear that Coleman is not a fan of Walkley, Blairism or outsourcing. He believes that councillors should maintain control of services and not surrender this in ten year contracts to private companies. When you are on the brink, as Coleman is, the time comes to call in a few favours. I am not in his circle of friends, so I can only speculate as to what these favours may be, but it is quite clear to me that his latest blog is a mere shot across the bows of those who have washed their hands of him and his antics.

But for me, following the conversation I alluded to earlier, it begs a far more fundamental issue. I've spent four years (this blog started on the 11th October 2008 - ) writing this blog. I've done it out of love for the place I live. I now read my early efforts and am shocked at how totally naive I was back then about Barnet politics. I think this may even have been true last week. As readers of this blog will know, I am making a film at the moment. It will have its world Premiere at the Phoenix Cinema next week, on Monday 22nd October at 6pm. It is a fantastic film, even if I say so myself. I was shocked to watch the early cut of it. It made me realise why I write the blog and the power of what the people in our local community can achieve.

We are faced with a situation where our Borough is being dragooned into a highly risky and dangerous set of contracts that will tie us in for ten years to Private companies. Wherever this has happened in Barnet previously it has resulted in massive overspends and legal cases. This will eventually come out of our pockets. It is clear that this is driven by arcane practices, dodgy political intrigue and some rather unsavoury characters. It is not at all clear to me what the Political alternative is.

It is time for Barnet Councillors to discover their conscience and declare independence from the vested interests. My father flew a bomber plane in the second world war to fight for independence from tyranny risking his life in the process. Most of the members of his squadron were shot down and either killed or held as POW's as was he in Rumania. I am not asking anyone to take such a risk, I am simply asking for local councillors to show some courage and stop this madness. One thing is clear to me. The threat used to keep councillors in line is withdrawal of party whip. If a group refuse this, then the administration will in effect lose it's majaority. They will not take this risk. I believe that the sane and decent councillors who care, need to take a risk and stand up. They will not be forgiven if they do not.

If in two years a councillor says to you on the doorstep "I did not support this" but they voted for it, they are a coward and should be dismissed.

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