Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Capita Technology to revolutionise democracy in Barnet ?

The way we conduct democracy in town halls up and down the country is completely antiquated and out of date. The system of people turning up one day every four years, regardless of snow, thunderstorms or blazing sun and casting a vote for someone, who can then do what they like for four years, claiming huge allowances, with merely turning up to two meetings a year is not fit for purpose in this day and age. Technology moves so fast that by the end of a four year council term, technology, politics and the world has moved on. Whilst some stories always stay the same Senior Tory wants MP pay doubled , UK debt hits a record of £799bn some seem like a distant echo of a far off world  10,000 extra university places , Nato's new approach in Afghanistan , Egypt reassures Israel on Shalit , Tesco to create 800 finance jobs
In Barnet we are lucky to have outsourced the running of our council to the worlds greatest technology company - Capita. Unlike many stick in the mud councils, Capita are committed to revolutionising the way Councils do business. In the bad old days of the 1970's, if the council failed to collect your rubbish, you would have to write a letter and then six weeks later you would get a reply fobbing you off. Under the new system run by Capita, you'll be able to ring a call centre in Blackburn and be fobbed off straight away !

What the Capita outsourcing project does offer scope for is a complete overhaul of the way we conduct our democracy in Barnet. Councillors cost a lot of money. There are 63 of them. Each one of them gets a basic allowance of £10,457, costing £658,791. On top of that various councillors get extra allowances


Special Responsibility Allowances 1 August 2010 to 31 March 2014
This table sets out the current rates of Special Responsibility Allowances.
Deputy Leader of the Council
Cabinet Members (excl. Leader and Deputy)
Chairman of Planning & Environment Committee 
Chairman of Pension Fund Committee 
Chairman of Licensing Committee 
Chairmen of Overview and Scrutiny Committees 
Chairman of Business Management Overview & Scrutiny Sub-Committee 
Chairman of General Functions Committee 
Leader of Major Opposition Group 
Chairman of Audit Committee 
Chairman Area Planning Sub-Committees 
Chairman of Constitution Ethics and Probity Committee  
Chairmen of Overview and Scrutiny Sub-Committees (except Business Management) 
Chairmen of Residents Forums 
Chairmen of Area Environment Sub-Committees 
Shadow Cabinet Members 
Member of Pension Fund Committee 
Leader of Smaller Opposition Group 

All in all this costs over one million pounds a year ! Most of these jobs are at the gift of the Leader of the Council. You may ask why the taxpayer needs to spend all of this money and what benefits are derived. You may wonder what power they have and how much value for money they deliver.  I was drawn to the story in Labour run Brent today. They have replaced the receptionist at the Town Hall Births, Marriages and Deaths department with a hologram http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-23754319 who can help people go to the right place. The new holographic assistant "Shanice" will direct people and only costs £12,000 per annum. Apparently similar systems to the hologram is used at airports to provide information about what can be taken onboard planes, visitors will be able to use a touch screen function to key in their question.

Now I think Barnet are missing a trick.  Given that Capita now runs the Council and the role of Councillors is purely to rubber stamp the decisions taken by officers in partnership with Capita, surely we could replace these councillors with holograms. with Capita technology, we could have a big brother like voting system, where we could select our favourite celebrities to feature as these holograms. After all, with the party whipping arrangements, the councillors clearly serve no useful function whatsoever.

The truth is that there is absolutely no democracy whatsoever in Barnet. Since the Tories won the election, there have been many huge changes in the Borough. In every case there has been either no consultaton at all, or the views of local residents have been completely ignored. Here is a non exhaustive list of all of the changes which have occurred in Barnet, which did not feature in the Tory manifesto and there has been zero democratic input

1. Outsourcing of Parking control to NSL
2. Hiking of Parking charges
3. Barnet FC being forced out of Underhill to Harrow
4. Saracens RFC moving to Copthall Stadium
5. Outsourcing of Council functions, including revenue collection, cemetry management and call centres to Capita.
6.  Hiking of allowances for Barnet Councillors.
7. Various free schools opening up in sites across the Borough.
8. Erosion of Green Belt.
9. Closure of Friern Barnet Library
10. Abolition of cash pay and display meters in the High Streets

It may interest you to know that in every case, I discussed these issues with my local Mill Hill Conservative Councillors. It may also surprise you to know that in more or less every case, they privately agreed with what I had to say. In some cases, such as the Saracens & free schools, there are benefits to some as well as a downside. I am not saying that these issues should be prevented, in fact I am pleased that Copthall is being used and my experiences of Saracens are that they are a benefit to the area. The issue is that such a development should be take account of the views of the local population.

Another example of this is the Etz Chaim school development, on the site of the former garden centre at Mill Hill. This development caused a huge local row and polarised residents. I recognise the need for new school places and I have no issue with faith schools, especially as all of my children attended them. I am sure Etz Chaim will do a good job for the children it serves. What has always bothered me is the way that Barnet Council, for purely ideological reasons conducted its business. Many people have taken issue with the founders of the school. Personally I take the view that this is unfair. They have purely tried to deliver a school that they think meets their needs. Where I do take major issue is with the way the council have conducted their business in respect of the school. The decisions were not taken in an open and transparent way. I do not subscribe to some of the wilder views mentioned to me. I simply think that Barnet Council wanted to be seen as a flagship Tory council and wanted to be first to jump on the free school train. As a result, they failed to properly consult and properly take account of residents views.

This will probably not be a popular view within the anti Etz Chaim group (and possibly the pro group as well), but as far as I am concerned, when it was clear that the school was going to be steamrollered through, the Council should have made part of the deal be a transformation of the pavillion & cafe in Mill Hill Park, to cater for the various disabled groups etc which used the Cafe at the Garden Centre. The pavillion is run down and in no way comparable with the attractive cafe at the former Garden Centre. Democracy should be about seeking compromises. The only people who benefited from what actually happened were lawyers.

So my question to Capita is this. You are a technology company. You state that you are transforming local authorities. You claim that you deliver better services for residents and local people. Yet in all of this, there is no mention of democracy. I do believe town hall democracy is out of date. Meetings in the town hall are not broadcast, technology is not used to give people a say and local people are excluded from decision making.

In this day and age, this is pathetic. Now that Capita are running the council they should set up system bring real democratic accountability to the Borough. If they can't do that, they should simply replace the councillors with a bunch of nodding dog holograms and save the taxpayer a million pounds a year.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the only time residents are counted as at the polling station the rest of the time they are ignored. we would all do well to remember that next time we are asked to vote. personally i think the Council should be run by independents at least that way there would be a fair vote and decisions would be based on what will work for the areas not what the council of the time are told to do by their parties. The fall out of getting what you want is having to live with the risk that nothing goes wrong and that can be a hard thing to do when you have had to cross your fingers on some of the things that have been passed. CPZ is a classic and no doubt other warnings ignored will materialise. I dont agree with the Lawyers point as the CPZ case certainly served the residents well.