Tuesday 10 May 2022

Barnet Council Election Analysis - Labour's poison chalice as they sweep the board in Barnet

 Back in January I wrote the following words in a blog on Council finances.

If, as is looking increasingly likely, the Barnet Conservatives lose control of Barnet Council, an incoming regime will be left with a complete mess. It strikes me as highly likely that this update will be very bleak and impose huge stress on the Council budget. The Conservatives, having created the mess, will blame the incoming regime for the problems and wash their hands of the mismanagement that caused the problems. 

So here we are. As I predicted, the Tories lost. The council's finances, organisation and management are in chaos. It was pretty clear to me weeks ago that the Barnet Tories had given up on seriously trying to hold the council, I doubt they wanted to. They hoped that Labour would inherit a poison chalice and fail. It is an indictment of their leadership that they would even contemplate such a strategy, but sadly power breeds arrogance and all the signs are that when they realised the game was up they decided to ensure Barnet failed and that the incoming Labour administration would cop the blame. 

Of course individual councillors wanted to hold onto their seats and they didn't want the decimation and humiliation of the defeat, but from the meetings I attended recently, I got a distinct feeling that they really didn't want to win.

So Labour walk into a total nightmare. The Tories outsourced much of the council's functions and have ensured that there is no proper control of the contractors such as Capita that they employed to do their bidding. The Capita contract is at a key stage of renegotiation. It is really not ideal to have a change of adminstration half way through negotiations, although presumably better than lumbering your successors with a bad contract. Sorting out the Capita contract should be Labour's no 1 priority. My view is that unless Capita can produce a cast iron business case for staying, that clearly benefits residents, they should be booted out. I would remove all of the secrecy about the contract. Put all the figures out there and expose the Tories mismanagement. I'd set up an audit committee enquiry into whether there had been value for money and whether the contract had been properly monitored and administered. 

Then we have the issue of staff pay. Barnet's staff have been treated appallingly by the Conservatives and pay rises have been kept to a bare minimum. Before the election Barnet Labour leader committed to making Barnet a living wage Borough

This is necesary to attract the right calibre of staff to the job. I was discussing the issue of wages with a Tory at the weekend. He was stating that tube train drivers are overpaid. I explained that he didn't see the big picture. London is reliant on the tube network to function. Tran drivers take a very long time to train and this is costly. Staff retention is paramount to keeping the network running. The excellent conditions the RMT have negotiated has ensured that being a tube train driver is a sought after job and there is no shortage of takers. Sadly people in care and social work on not valued in the same way. The problem Labour will have is delivering these commitments, whilst balancing the books in a council that has had it's finances decimated.

There are a whole host of other challenges. Barnet's Tories were fixated on Rugby and more or less drove Association Football out of the Borough. Pitches have been neglected at grass roots level, many have been sold off. The Tory administration has not been able to use joined up thinking to equate lack of youth facilities with higher levels of youth crime and drug use. Sport is a great way to engage with young people.

Their arts strategy has favoured better off kids, who want to play classical instruments. I am all for this, but there is a real lack of support for more urban projects, where young people from less well off backgrounds get the chance to develop. I believe that changingthis should be a very sustainable and cost effective way of improving lives in Barnet. Let me give one example. In Mill Hill, we've seen graffiti and tags of walls, shopfronts etc for a number of years. We also have some extremely ugly large concrete walls in the station etc. Why has no one thought of asking the local graffiti artists to put proper murals on the walls. Challenge them to submit designs and put their talents to proper use to brighten up places like the station undercroft.

Then there are those that are beyond reach in society. Where is the strategy to pull them back from the brink? We should not be a society that gives up on anyone. I've been a supporter of our local foodbanks, as they are a refuge of last support, but a decent society should not have foodbanks. If use hasn't declined in the four years Labour have, they will have failed.

We should be putting down a ladder to help them up, not pulling up the drawbridge. What is Labour's strategy to deal with all of these issues? They will get no help from Boris and central government and their options for raising cash are limited and will not be popular. 

To sum up. I have six tests that Labour have to meet to claim they have succeeded by the time of the next election. These are in order of importance

1. A council with its finances in order
2. A decline in poverty and use of Foodbanks in Barnet
3. An increase in youth participation in arts and sports across the Borough
4. A reduction in crime and anti social behaviour across the Borough
5. A more efficient and accountable Council, which treats residents as partners not customers or the enemy.
6. A council who's workforce are proud to say they are employed by Barnet Council

The order may surprise you, but I think without having the finances in place everything else can't happen. I think dealing with poverty trumps everything else. I think that giving young people opportunities is vital for our future and will lower crime and anti social behaviour, but this is also a priority. Making the council efficient and accountable is how we lower taxes and deliver more for your money. And making staff proud of Barnet again will mean all of the other things are acheivable.

None of these are 'nice to have's' and if you neglect any, none will happen. That is the challenge for Labour. Let's see how they rise to it. One thing I am sure of. For Barnet Labour, winning was the easy bit.

1 comment:

Russell said...

Another significant challenge that you’ve not mentioned is that Barnet Labour came out significantly against development in its manifesto, acquiescing to the borough’s numerous nimbys. Yet the housing crisis affects young people disproportionately so it’s going to be interesting to see how members square the older (comfortable, home-owning) voters’ opposition to new development with young people’s need for homes. It may have won the borough by pandering to the nimbys, but left-leaning youngsters won’t forgive a Labour administration that continues to condemn them to insecure, precarious and expensive housing.