Wednesday 12 September 2018

Barnet Council Budget Consultation with Richard Cornelius at The Bull Theatre Barnet

Last night I made my way across the Borough to High Barnet. I'd gone to attend a budget consultation session with the Leader of Barnet Council, Richard Cornelius. The session was about half full with local residents. I arrived early to have a chat with Richard. We had a brief discussion about Brexit. Both Richard and I run small businesses and we are in complete agreement that the uncertainty is extremely bad for the economy. Richard is hopeful that within six weeks we will have clarity as to what will be happening ( I don't share his optimism). We both agree that a return to a full system of customs controls at the borders with the EU would not be good for business and Richard agrees that if we return to the old system where customs carnets are required for businesses who need to move goods through the EU from the UK it would be bad. For my business, which is music it would be a disaster. For many third tier bands rely on touring Europe to pay the bills, the costs of customs clearance for equipment for tours will, for many, make this uneconomical. But enough of that.

The meeting started with a set of slides, which Richard talking us through what they meant. I sat in the front row, next to fellow bloggers Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry (where was Mr Mustard, I hope he can get a note from Mum excusing him, otherwise we'll send the blogger inspector around to sort him out).

Richard's basic message was that Barnet Council has not got enough money to meet its commitments, but trust him, he'll sort it out. Mr Reasonable, sitting next to me, had a stack of paperwork. As ever, he had done his homework and had the figures at hand. Sadly within a minute of Richard starting his pitch, a well coiffured lady, who was clearly quite friendly with Richard interrupted. She said "I hope that you are not going to limit the questions to issues about the budget, people haven't come here to talk about that, there are lots of things we want to discuss about High Barnet". Richard replied "Of course I'm happy to answer questions about anything". This rather ignored the fact that the whole purpose of the meeting was to consult on the Budget. That is why I missed an England game on the telly.

There was a generally satisfied round of applause from the audience as people had a whole stack of questions for Richard that were nothing to do with the Council budget. Whilst there is nothing I like more than seeing the Leader being grilled by local residents, I was horrified by this. In fact I was quite speechless. You see the council legally has to consult on the Budget. If they've set up a Budget consultation session and marketed it as such, then that is what it should be. If you go into the pub and order a pint of Guinness, you expect a pint of Guinness, not a Stella or a pint of cider (even if it is more expensive). I'd dragged myself across the Borough, to discuss the budget, not to hear people moaning that the Police weren't arresting people for peeing in shop doorways. I understand that if you own a shop and someone pee's in it, that is not very nice, but as there was no one from the Police to answer questions, the whole thing becomes an exercise in futility.

Maybe this wouldn't matter if Barnet Council's finances were in rude good health and Richard had the money to buy a few empty shops and convert them into public loo's. However as Mr Reasonable pointed out, there is a £9 million budget deficit this year and a £67 million gap over three years. This is a huge amount of cash. Mr Reasonable pointed out that senior salaries were costing £10 million per annum. He asked why we needed a Chief Executive, a Deputy Chief Executive and Deputy for the Deputy Chief Executive "all on salaries bigger than an MP". Richards responded by saying "It's funny, Mr Dix (AKA Mr Reasonable) has the uncanny knack of asking me these questions in public forums that I always find myself thinking about when I am lying in the bath the night before" (or words to that effect - I didn't write down his exact response). For just one second, I was rather disturbed. Does Mr Reasonable posses psychic powers? Does Richard channel Mr Reasonable when he's in the bath? Richard suggested that this was something receiving serious consideration. Mr Reasonable suggested that the £35 million cost of the commissioning department, which didn't exist six years ago, was a waste of money. He pointed out they have responsibility for "monitoring in house functions", which is nothing to do with commissioning in the true sense of the word. Mr Reasonable queried the fact that it is impossible to have any financial planning or control, when the systems were not fit for purpose, reminding Richard of the disasters of the late audits.

Richard made a rather startling statement. He replied "The figures are improving to the point where I now believe them". A lady in the audience asked what outsourcing meant to her and why the council was doing it. Richard replied that "it means you are paying £114 a year less in council tax". Mr Reasonable nearly exploded "You know that is not true Richard!". He pointed out that with the "contract extras" the opposite was actually true. What Richard means is that if you ignore all of the extras and had kept services in house, sought no efficiency savings and kept budgets at the 2013 levels with inflation, then we'd have to pay £114 a resident more on an average Council Tax. As Richard signed the contracts with Capita, I suspect that he's rather keen to sell this line.

When Mrs Angry challenged Richard stating "You've made an almighty mess of the finances", the nicely coiffured Lady who asked if she could ask about people peeing in doorways let her fragrant mask slip and started shouting at her. Once she started shouting, she simply wouldn't stop. She started screaming "vote for someone else and see where that gets you!" rather smugly. It became clear that she was one of Richards fifth columnists. This prompted a rather worried tweet from the normally quite robust Mrs Angry

This made me think. Was this all a cunning plan by Richard? He has to legally consult on the budget, but if he can drag all his mates down to scupper a proper meeting on the budget, then he can meet his legal requirements to consult, without actually having to answer any questions.

As I watched the situation unfold, I started to think about what should have happened. Barnet Council has a legal responsibility to consult. Richard Cornelius is the leader of the council, but if they are doing the consultation properly, then he is not the person who can actually answer the questions. There should have been a panel, preferably consisting of the CEO, the Head of Finance, the Head of Audit and the Leader and possibly the Section 151 officer. Questions should be limited to issues relevant to the budget. If Richard wants to answer questions about people peeing in doorways and why the Police don't arrest them and deport them, that is great, I am all for public engagement, but that is not what a budget consultation is about.

I will be writing (possibly a joint letter with other bloggers) to all of the above, to state my objections to what we saw last night. The budget crisis is too serious to ignore. If I go to see a performance of MacBeth at the RSC, I don't want to  find that they have replaced that with a duet between Michael Macintire and Barry Manilow, even if most of the audience decide this is far more fun.

Anyway, for the record, here are my notes on some of the highlights that had nothing to do with the Budget.

Richard answered a question as to why there was so little social housing being put up in the North East of the Borough. He stated that "This is the nice bit of the Borough, we want to concentrate the building on the parts that aren't nice". A query as to what was being done about fly tipping resulted in us being told that the Council had seized and crushed two white vans owned by "commercial fly tipping organisations" and that fly tipping was big business in Barnet.

A question about small business drew a response from Richard stating that Barnet had the third highest number of small businesses of any London Borough. He stated he was proud of this. What he didn't say is that Barnet now has the largest population of any London Borough, therefore being third means that we are below where we should be by this measure. Richard told us that we are now collecting 98% of council tax.

Several residents asked questions about policing. Richard made the point that "this is nothing to do with me guv'nor". The subject of street drinking and homelessness came up. Richard stated "most of them are foreigners". As I volunteer with the Mill Hill Churches Homeless Shelter Scheme, I pointed out this wasn't correct. Many are British born and bred, with mental health issues and substance abuse problems. These are things social services could deal with. Another resident suggested that closing public conveniences was responsible for the increasing instances of public urination. One well coiffured lady said "It's not just street drinkers, people using pubs are also urinating in public!". This seems unlikely to me. Pubs have toilets. Unless people have prostate cancer and need to pee every five minutes or a mental disorder where they prefer public urination, why on earth would people nip out of the pub for a wee? My overriding impression was that many of the more well heeled members of the Barnet audience were a tad lacking in compassion.

There were also a few questions about the lack of provision for children to engage in outdoor activities. As I don't live in High Barnet, I don't know if it is worse there. I actually think Mill Hill is quite well provisioned. Having raised three children, much as I'd love to slam Richard on this, we have decent provision. We have decent parks, scout groups, brownies etc. The problem is teenagers and gangs.

A couple of residents suggested that Barnet Council should put up council tax to pay for better services and more policemen on the street. Strangely, Richard didn't boast that he'd met this aspiration, as Barnet are putting up taxes by the maximum amount they can without having a referendum.

Several residents asked about libraries. They stated that the without trained staff, the libraries are a shambles. One resident said he now used Enfield library. Richard looked rather upset.

A gentleman who identified himself as a former soldier and policeman and as someone who runs a small charity asked some very searching questions about the Youth Zone project in Burnt Oak. He pointed out that the "Postcode War" mentality of local gangs made this out of bounds to many vulnerable young people. He suggested that the money would have been far better spent on the many small groups that are starved of funds. He said the "grand project" approach to youth was not the way to gain trust with young people.

I asked Richard a question about Capita running planning, citing three examples where the interests of Barnets residents, businesses and environment have been let down. One of these was a case where the Capita run department failed to process the request, resulting in a huge electronic sign by the motorway being "deemed approved" by the planning Inspectorate, despite enough objections being made for it to referred to the planning committee (which obviously never happened).  Somehow Richards meandering response ended with "I think this shows that it is all actually working rather well".

The more I see of Richard Cornelius, the more I admire his Machiavellian talents. Just about everyone on the left has dismissed him as a buffoon, but he is anything but. He understands Barnet, the people and the politics. He understands how the council works. In May, against all expectations, he won a stonking majority at the polls. I think Richard knows exactly where the G-Spot of the majority of the well coiffured, well off voters of Barnet can be found and unashamedly knows how to excite it, to the extent where they simply have to give him a great big X at the election. Sadly the rather dull and dour campaigns run by the Labour Party in recent years simply encourage Labour voters to reach for the whisky and the revolver (in Borisesque electoral terms).

 He has sidelined or lost nearly all of the "problems" in his base of councillors. I suspect that he knows the only effective opposition in the Borough is the bloggers. What I saw last night is his strategy for dealing with us. Richard is not stupid. He knows that John Dix has him nailed on the issue of Capita. What he also knows is that most Barnet residents don't give a monkey so long as their bins are collected and their taxes can be perceived as low. He knows that so long as John Dix isn't given the opportunity to ask questions of people who can answer his questions, he will survive. That is why we didn't have a budget consultation meeting with the appropriate people involved. It really is as simple as that.

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