Saturday 31 January 2015

Thameslink - No way to run a railway

The London Borough of Barnet is a Borough where many of the residents are commuters. We are blessed with fantastic railway connections into London, built in the Victorian Era and good tune services, built in the early part of the last century. These links shaped the borough and brought prosperity to the locality. As a Mill Hill resident, I can get to my office on Bankside in just over half an hour on a good day, with a fast train from Mill Hill Broadway to Blackfriars. The Thameslink service was originally opened by British Rail in the 1980's, this was an extension to the old BedPan service from Bedford to St Pancras. At first Mill Hill was blessed with eight trains an hour in rush hour, four were stopping services and four were fast to Kings Cross Thameslink. Fast services took 12 minutes from Mill Hill to City Thamesling and stopping services 18 minutes. The Conservatives under John Major decided that it would be a marvellous idea to smash British Rail into hundreds of tiny pieces in perhaps the most controversial and stupid privatisation of all. I happened to find myself on the same train as Michael Portillo around the time of privatisation. He was on his way to address the Scottish Tories(yes there are some) and he explained that the whole thing had nothing to do with efficiency. It was all about destroying the power of the NUR and ASLEF. He explained that these unions were the only ones who could bring the country grinding to a halt. By smashing BR into three hundred smaller companies, all with their own agreements with unions, the likes of Bob Crowe couldn't bring the country grinding to a halt. Despite the Tories believing this was a risk worth taking, they never once have explained this to the British electorate.

The public mantra was that this was because private companies would bring innovation, modern technology and modern working practices to the system and it would become cheaper and more efficient.In the mid 1990's British Rail disappeared and we got the Thameslink Franchise run by Govia. For most commuters, this saw a deterioration in services. Services often ran late or were cancelled and no one was in the least bit surprised when they lost the franchise to First Group in 2004.

Sadly for Mill Hill commuters, any hope that First would be better were immediately dashed. They made swinging cuts to the services from Mill Hill, reducing the number of trains in rush hour down to four stopping services, with no fast services. This resulted in chronic overcrowding of slow services, which were invariably delayed as commuters fought to get on. Eventually First were forced to make some amends, so two of the fast trains were reinstated as "semi fast" trains, stopping only at West Hampstead. First had many disasters along the way, perhaps the worst was when they ran out of drivers and the network nearly ground to a halt.

To no one's surprise, they lost the franchise in 2014. Who did the government bring back? None other than Govia, who they'd kicked out in 2004. And guess what? Even though First Capital Connect were useless, Govia are so bad that many commuters are now missing them.

Over the last week, we've yet again had mayhem. Whilst the root cause was not down to Thameslink, the way they have managed the issues has been appalling. Commuters need proper information to plan their journey, but the Thameslink information website has been useless.

This has given no clue as to the extent of the problems and the information has been completely out of date. Even yesterday, when I was trying to get into town, the information was simply wrong. I had planned to take the 7.27 train from Mill Hill to Blackfriars. I checked the website at 7.16. It shpowed that the train was delayed and had not even left the first station, let alone be anywhere near Mill Hill. Knowing how bad Thamesling are at supplying information, I went to the station anyway. The train arrived bang on time and I was at Blackfriars two minutes early. If I'd believed their website, I'd have been late for my meeting, as this showed that the 7.48 was the next train.

In this day and age, there is no excuse for such an appalling lack of information. All week, I've stood on the platform as trains were halted by red lights. On Wednesday, I wanted to take th 17.00 from Blackfriars to Mill Hill. When I left the office at 16.45, the website said it was on time. When I got to Blackfriars, it was cancelled, but the previous train had not arrived. After standing on the platform, with no announcements for 25 minutes, the train finally pulled out. I arrived at Mill Hill at 18.03, over half an hour later than, I should have.

I then went on to the Thameslink website to see how I could claim compensation. It seems like I'm entitled to a couple of quid, if i go through all the rigmarol of scanning my ticket and filling in a long form. Ever wondered what you are entitled to?

What are you entitled to?

Compensation will be paid in National Rail Vouchers which can be used as payment (or part payment) towards any National Rail ticket, including season tickets.

Season ticket holders (weekly or longer)

We calculate compensation on the basis of you making one return journey every Monday to Friday and one return journey every fourth weekend. This gives 520 journeys on Mondays to Fridays and 26 journeys at weekends. So to calculate the refund value of each journey, we divide the cost of your season ticket by 546; Other period tickets are calculated pro-rata on the same basis.
  • an annual season ticket covers 546 single journeys
  • a six-monthly season ticket covers 273 single journeys
  • a quarterly season ticket covers 136.5 single journeys
  • a monthly season ticket covers 45.5 single journeys
  • a weekly season ticket covers 10.5 single journeys

 So I go through a load of hassle for vouchers worth a couple of quid, that I'll probably never use. What a complete load of bollocks(excuse my ire). I have an annual season ticket. They have caused me massive inconvenience, but I have the hassle of getting a pittance in vouchers in return, having wasted even more time. This is scandalous. All Season ticket holders should be entitled to an automatic refund when they renew or cash in their ticket, equaating to all the days that Thameslink failed to provide a decent service. They no that nearly no one claims compensation and they know that it costs them nothing. Why do the useless MP's in the Borough say nothing about this issue?

Then there is the wider issue. This cock up was partially caused by Network Rail not maintaining trackside drainage, according to Thames Water. Network Rail is the company which was set up to replace Railtrack. Railtrack was a private company, set up by the Tories to maintain the rail network. It failed when it's policy of shoddy maintenence and buying cheap steel rails from abroad caused a series of major rail crashes and the whole network ground to a  near halt as emergency speed limits were imposed on the network, whilst they found out where the dodgy batch of rails had been used. The most disgusting aspect of this scandal was that there was no accountabilty for the politicians who thought up the whole scheme. They were the ones responsible for the deaths. Wheras Portillo felt that it was bad that the unions could bring the country to a halt, the Tories never said a dickybird when shoddy contractors and badly run private companies did exactly the same thing.

The truth is that the fragmented nature of the rail industry means it is virtually impossible to get anyone to take responsibility. In the days of BR, the Thameslink line had a permanent way team based at Cricklewood, who had responsiblity for their section of track. The team knew the local issues and the lay of the land. Now different teams of contractors are bussed in as necessary. Is it any surprise that drains in tunnels are allowed to get clogged up. Anyone with half a brain would acknowledge that rail privatisation has been a disaster and should be reversed. Many Tories claim that privatisation has improved the railway. Tell me how less trains for more passengers, bad maintenance and bad customer services are an improvement. My guess is that these politicians never use the services they pontificate about. The railway is a vital part of life in our Brough, yet neither Matthew Offord or Mike Freer, our local MP's ever have anything to say about the useless privateers who make a profit from our misery. They should be leading the fight. In May, the pair of them deserve the sack by the electorate for ignoring the real needs of the people who expect their problems to be addressed.

The Saturday List #76 - Handy Household Tips

Over the years, I've picked up some handy household tips. I thought today would be a marvellous opportunity to share a few of them with you.

1. Vodka and kitchen roll makes a superb laptop computer screen cleaning fluid, and is infinately cheaper than supposedly specialist screen wipes.

2. Both Green tea and Pomegranite juice are high in antixodants which have been shown to have beneficial effects in suppressing cancer. Start the day with a cup of green tea and dilute with pomegranite juice to cool down, as you would with milk.

3. If your old vinyl records are sounding "noisy" they can be washed in warm water and detergent and rinsed off with cold water. Dry with kitchen towel. Be very careful, but they will sound much better if they've had a lot of use.

4. If your wine and beer glasses are getting dulled by limescale soak in a solution of vinegar and water, as the acidic vinegar will break down the limescale. Most cleaners are vinegar.

5. Shop sell by dates are not the date food goes bad at. It is the date at which they no longer want to sell it. Shellfish however should always be eaten asap.

6. If you find your house is cold, make sure you keep all internal doors shut as much as possible. Restricting air flow lessens the amount of heat lost.

7. Put a fake camera and a sign saying "you are being monitored 24x7 on the front door of elderly relatives properties and tell them to tell all unsolicited callers they are being video'd. This will make any conmen think twice about trying to swindle them. Put a real one up if you want to catch them!

8. If you are making a cup of tea for one or two people, get a cup and fill the kettle a cup at a time. This way you'll heat the right amount of water and over the course of the year, this will save you a lot of money, as boiling kettles is an extremely energy hungry activity.

9. If you have teenagers, don't wash any clothes unless they put them in the clothes basket. You are not their to be "room service".

10. If you are in an old house, with a large toilet cistern, and you are metered, put a brick in the toilet cistern. This will mean you use less water when you flush the chain and this will save you money.

Friday 30 January 2015

The Friday Joke - 30/1/2015

Michael was a devout Roman Catholic, who lived alone  with his old dog Bonzo for company.  One day, Michael awoke to find Bonzo had passed away, Michael was distraught, so he went to his parish priest and asked,  'Father, my dog Bonzo died this morning. Could you please arange a good Catholic funeral for the poor  creature?'

Father  Raymond replied, 'I'm afraid not. We cannot have services for a dog in a Catholic church,  but there are is a  Baptist Church in the High Street, they have a slightly more "modern" view of scriptures. Maybe they'll do something for Bonzo, if you offer a small donation and ask them very nicely' rather sniffily.

Michael  said, 'I'll go right away Father, thank you. Do you think £5,000 is enough to  donate to them to do the service?'

Father Raymond exclaimed, 'Why didn't you tell me Bonzo was a Catholic in the first place? I'll book it in for Friday"

Have a great weekend and say a prayer for the repose of Bonzo's soul. He was a lovely dog.

Thursday 29 January 2015

Capitaville - History is not your friend

There is nothing I like better than to sit on the Millfield in Mill Hill, crack open a can of pineapple chunks, and watch a frosty sunset over the London Borough of Barnet on a clear January day. This may to you seem like a rather bizarre pleasure. When I was a young kid, I didn't have a sweet tooth, but I loved tinned pineapple chunks. I also used to enjoy my own company. I'd often sneak up to the Millfield and crack open a tin. It gave me an enormous sense of wellbeing, which has persisted to this day.

You are probably thinking by now "what on earth is he on about? What has this got to do with the London Borough of Barnet and Capita?" Well I recently did this, it is what I do to destress when the hassle of family and work are weighing heavily on my mind. It is cheaper than getting bladdered at the pub and much healthier to boot. As the sun sank below St Josephs College, dwarfed by cranes as it is transformed into luxury flats, I got to thinking about what is happening in Barnet. The running of the Borough has been sold off to Capita. They run procurement for the council now. Soon, rumour has it, they will run everything. As soon as they took over procurement, out went the bailiffs the council had previously used and in came Equita, Capitas on service. I recently attended a small business meeting with a lady from the council, who was seeking to improve council engagement with local business, except she wasn't from the Council, she was from Capita. When you phone the council to report a broken pavement or a query with your tax, you don't speak to the council, you speak to Capita. The person on the other end of the phone is not in the London Borough of Barnet.

The local Conservatives call all of this progress. They tell us that it saves money to outsource the council and you get to keep more of your cash, as you pay less in tax. Local bloggers, including myself, have often asked a few questions of the council, none of which have ever been answered.

1) How can it be good for the Barnet economy to export jobs and the associated economic activity, to other parts of the country?
2) When services are in house, no shareholders need profits and no expensive lawyers are needed to monitor contracts. How can outsourcing really be cheaper when all the "hidden costs" are totted up?
3) We are told that outsourcing the switchboard is progress. How many local residents enjoy having to navigate through endless switchboard menu's to try and make a straightforward enquiry?
4) We were told that the Council needed to get Capita in, because they would invest and modernise the services and IT infrastructure. Within weeks of Capita ataking over, bloggers uncovered the truth. Barnet Taxpayers were funding this investment. We gave the cash to Capita to invest. Surely this means we were mislead by the Conservative administration?
5) The so called new services are proving a nightmare. Even Conservative Councillors are tweeting that they don't work properly and expressing their sympathy with residents, many of whom have no choice but to suffer poor service.
6) There have been cases reported in the press, where Capita are using their own bailiff service to enforce debt collections without bailiffs having the correct paperwork to hand. Capita pick up a hefty commission for this. Surely this is a conflict of interest?

There are many other questions which have come up over the period since the One Barnet contracts were signed. As I watched the sunset, I was struck by the fact that every day, the sun rises and the sun sets. One day the sun will set on the current, highly ideological hard right Conservative regime. I don't know whether it will be replaced by a more pragmatic Tory regime who will simply work to get good value and good services for Barnet residents and will not be interested in signing monolithic ten year contracts with mega suppliers. I don't know whether it will be a Labour Council, who will review the whole caboodle and inhouse the whole thing, as they did previously when they took over in 1992. When Labour and the Lib Dems took over in 1992, they brought back in house refuse collection. The previous Conservative regime had outsourced it and this had been a nightmare. Cowboy contractors had run a terrible service. Collections were sporadic and many residents cars were damaged by refuse carts, who didn't bother stopping to leave details for insurance. When the service was brought in house, even the local Tories were relieved. Strangely this is one service that they've baulked at ooutsourcing.

Who knows how One Barnet will turn out? From what I've heard and observed, there are all manner of issues, more coming to light every day. As it all starts to fall apart, let us not forget who the architects of all this were. The local Conservatives. I suspect that history will not be their friends?

Just remember that if Mike Freer or Matthew Offord are your local MP's they were the men who started off the whole One Barnet Outsourcing project, when they were leader and deputy leader of the Council.

Wednesday 28 January 2015

Mike Freer MP and the £500,000 war chest

I was staggered today to find out how much money Tory MP Mike Freer has in his war chest. According to the Search the Money website he's had over half a million quid in donations.

Here are the details.
Money found: £503,082.59
Donations to Constituency Association:£19,793.13
Donation breakdown estimate
Cash  £475,969.33
Non-Cash £9,230.13
Kind £15,883.13
Food £2,810.00
Mike has also had some interesting corporate donors to his cause (and some interesting private ones if you look on the weblink)

Corporate donor

Associate Amount Accepted Details
Ministry of External Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan) £3,600.00 2011-06-08 Donation-in-kind Donation-in-travel Donation-in-hospitality
Conservative Friends of Israel £1,500.00 2005-03-15 Donation-in-cash
PDL Ltd £1,300.00 2006-10-30 Donation-in-cash
Excelsior Properties £25,000.00 2007-11-27 Donation-in-cash
United and Cecil Club £3,000.00 2008-03-31 Donation-in-cash
United and Cecil Club £1,500.00 2008-12-24 Donation-in-cash
United and Cecil Club £1,500.00 2009-02-01 Donation-in-cash
Lakeside Developments Ltd £5,000.00 2009-12-02 Donation-in-cash
Manrows Ltd £3,600.00 2010-02-11 Donation-in-cash
I-CD Publishing Ltd £3,000.00 2010-02-23 Donation-in-cash
Brookstream Properties Limited £10,000.00 2010-04-07 Donation-in-cash
Sun Mark Ltd £1,962.13 2011-04-08 Donation-in-noncash
British Airways £798.00 2010-12-06 Donation-in-kind Donation-in-travel
Excelsior Properties £950.00 2011-12-20 Donation-in-kind Donation-in-travel
Municipality of Morphou £900.00 2010-10-25 Donation-in-kind
Conservative Friends of Israel £2,000.00 2013-02-17
Conservative Friends of Israel £2,000.00 2013-03-07 Donation-in-kind
The Municipality of Morphou, Cyprus £700.00 2013-10-11 Donation-in-kind Donation-in-travel Donation-in-hospitality
Conservative Friends of Israel £1,200.00 2014-03-27 Donation-in-kind Donation-in-food Donation-in-travel
Sun Mark Ltd £2,163.00 2013-12-09 Donation-in-kind
Not a bad little business is it?

Just as a comparison. you may be interested to see Matthew Offord MPs total
Money found: £59,472.00
Donations to Constituency Association:£11,172.00
Donation breakdown estimate
Cash £48,300.00
Non-Cash £0.00
Hospitality £800.00
Kind £9,172.00
Food £4,272.00
Travel £8,472.00
And what about our longest serving MP, Theresa Villiers.
Money found: £25,750.00
Donations to Constituency Association: £2,000.00
Donation breakdown estimate
Cash £23,750.00
Non-Cash  £0.00
Hospitality £0.00
Kind £2,000.00
Food  £0.00
Travel £0.00
Am I alone in wondering why Mike Freer MP has got nearly ten times as much in donations as Matthew Offord and nearly tweny times as much as Theresa Villiers, who has been an MP far longer and is a minister? Now of course this is total donations and he's probably spent a chunk of it, but that is a simply huge sum.

I suppose the answer must simply be that Mike Freer MP is a really wonderful chap. It seems that his fans are popping up in the press and in blogs to say so all the time, without any prompting from him.

It is 100% clear that his Labour Challenger Sarah Sackman will have nothing like the war chest Mike has to fight him. For Sarah's supporters, there is only one way to counter the huge machine that Mike clearly has at his disposal. They will have to get up off their backsides and work ten times harder.

As the Beatles once said "I don't care too much for money, Money can't buy me Love". It seems that for Mike it certainly must have it's usese though. I am just mightily impressed at Mike's ability to raise funds. If by chance he does lose in May, he certainly won't have to sleep rough. Maybe he should give Tess and Matthew a bit of ahand with their fundraising as they are certainly missing a trick or two.

West Hendon Estate scandal in Pictures and Words - Please sign this petition

They say one picture tells a thousand words. This week we are focussing on the scandal of the way Barnet Council is treating residents of West Hendon housing estate. Here are a few pictures that tell the story.

Mrs Angry has been at the inquiry. She writes an excellent report of the proceedings. As we listed yesterday the boss of Barnet Council, Andrew Travers takes a rather different view of the little people.  The story has also been covered by the Hendon Times.

Russell Brand has also had something to say on the subject here

So in summary, if you think that Barnet Council are wrong to put the profits of a private company before housing for the residents of the Borough, we urge you to sign this petition

We rather hope that you agree with us. I was the 74,840'th signitary. That is an amazing number of signatures. We only need 160 more to reach 75,000. Please help us get there and send Barratt Homes and Barnet Council a message they can't ignore

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Barnet CEO Andrew Travers - West Hendon Estate - Another blot on the CV of shame.

Who is the most powerful man in Barnet Council? IF you think it's the Leader of the Council, Richard Cornelius, think again. The real power behind the wheel is the CEO Andrew Travers. The Barnet Council website says of Mr Travers

Chief Executive: Barnet - Andrew Travers

• to lead the strategic management of the Council to ensure quality and best value for money
• to be the Council's principal policy and business adviser
• to be the managerial leader, ensuring that the employees of the Council deliver the agreed objectives and priorities
• to take the statutory responsibilities of Head of Paid Service.


Mr Travers was appointed to the role, which commands a £180,000 salary in July 2013, having taken over from Nick Walkley as an interim in October 2012. Mr Walkley left Barnet council for a lower paid job at a smaller council, after the Barnet bloggers exposed a string of scandals, such as the Metpro scandal, where the council were using a security force to guard civic buildings and vulnerable people, paying above market rate to a company that wasn't accredited and used unchecked members of staff.

Since Mr Travers took over he's displayed a far lower key style. Wheras Walkley initially thought it was good for his career to be seen as high profile, Travers prefers to sit in the shadows. Sadly for the residents of the London Borough of Barnet, the performance of the council has not improved. Mr Travers term in office has seen the appalling  "Your Choice Barnet" scandal, where adult social care was outsourced to a private company, created by the council, only for the company to become technically insolvent and require a bail out of over a million pounds.

Travers job is to provide effective management, however even before he was confirmed in role and was operating as an interim, the Council lost a landmark case against its own residents, when the hiking of parking charges was shown to be illegal. The writing was on the wall long before the verdict, but Travers agreed to waste tens of thousands of pounds on the case. Despite Mr Travers being in charge of Council operations, not a peep was said by him.

Another cock up in Barnet resulted in the Council having to virtually close down, when it emerged that they had gotten rid of legally qualified staff resulting in a procedural cock up which resulted in all of the councils committees to not be legally constituted. This cock up nearly cost the Leader of the Council his job. The Law Gazette detailed just why it is not acceptable to follow the Travers lead Barnet model where the Monitoring officer isn't properly qualified. In fact, the Travers model means that the council doesn't have anyone left who knows how to do their job. This means that whatever happens, the council is at the mercy of private contractors as their is no in house capability left. 

The Barnet Eye has investigated the subject of outsourcing at length over the years, Most large commercial organisations refuse to outsource too much of their business to a single supplier. In Barnet, Andrew Travers has seen contract after contract go to Capita. Barnet has gained the nickname "Capitaville". Whilst Travers claims this has delivered savings, the council pointedly refused to do a public sector comparitor, to prove it. Canny companies use a range of suppliers and play them off against each other. Barnet simply sign huge monolithic contracts lasting ten years with Capita and hope for the best.

The latest cock up is in West Hendon, where the council is partnering with Barratt homes to demolish and rebuild a large housing estate. There is currently an inquiry running and evidence has emerged showing that leaseholders who'd bought properties under the right to buy legislation have been subject to compulsory purchase orders, forcing them out of their homes and paying them well under the market rate. As you will see from Mr Travers message below to staff, he pointedly ignores the injustice of this situation, failing even to mention the low valuations. He talks about the need to purchase the properties, but doesn't say a dickeybird about treating the victims of the policy fairly.

From: First Team
Sent: 23 January 2015 16:35
To: AllStaff
Subject: Weekly message from the Chief Executive

The story of the week for us has to be the start of the Public Inquiry into the compulsory purchase of homes bought under right to buy on the West Hendon estate. The council is arguing that we need to purchase these properties in order to continue to redevelop the estate.

Part of the reason for the national attention the Inquiry has attracted is that schemes like West Hendon have very much hit the media zeitgeist.  Some of this follows on from the New Era Estate in Newham where local residents were concerned about rent rises for existing tenants.  In West Hendon, the issue we have is how we support the residents who have moved into the estate during the hiatus before regeneration began.

But the central issue is really a discussion happening all around London about how can we transform estates such as this, which pretty much everyone  wants to see rebuilt, with private sector involvement. There simply isn’t the public sector finance available to do so; tens of millions of pounds would be needed in West Hendon.

Much of the national debate is also about how much estates should change. It is generally accepted that the big mass housing schemes of the 60s need replacing.  Built with high hopes, too many have in effect become ghettos of deprivation. But in changing the social mix of these estates, we have to be careful to support existing communities.

For the record, tenants on secure tenancies on the estate will move to the new development, home owners will be able to buy properties with shared equity and, of those who have moved so far, non-secure tenants have been found  homes elsewhere in the borough. Talk of people being sent to Luton are wide of the mark.

There will be a lot more West Hendons in London over the coming months and that debate about transforming the physical and social infrastructure of estates, while supporting existing residents, is set to rumble on for some time. 

Have a good weekend.


Of course to the likes of Mr Travers, making sure that decvelopers like Barratts are kept sweet and can make huge profits is far more important than caring about the effect on little people.

Mr Travers is one of the authors of the One Barnet outsourcing project. Apparently his ambition is to be the first Council CEO to outsource the entire council function. We are seeing plans to even outsource areas such as social work. In his first ever email to staff  after he took over, he said the following and he's been true to his word

"In practice, this means we will need to accelerate the Wave 2 projects in the One Barnet programme and we will publish details of proposals for waste and street scene in Cabinet papers next week"

Mr Travers got the job on the basis that he is an expert in local government. Since he's been in post, Barnet has seen a whole string of well documented cock ups. What is bizarre is that no one ever talks about them being Andrew Travers responsibility. In part this is because it is convenient for the local opposition to "blame the Tories". What I find hard to understand is why the Tories are so keen to persevere with someone who has built a track record of disatsers in the Borough. I don't believe anyone in Barnet believes that it is right and just for the council simply to be able to take your house and  give you less than anyone else would, so that a private company can turn a big profit. Until we have a CEO of Barnet who cares about the people who pay his wages, the hundreds of thousands of ordinary council tax payers, sadly that is exactly what we will see more and more of.