Monday 15 October 2018

Barnet Eye 10th Anniversary - What would Barnet have been like without the bloggers

Remember Andrew Travers CEO?
After ten years of writing the Barnet Eye, and putting togther a series of blogs about it, over a beer on Saturday night at our Birthday party with John Burgess, the local Unison Branch secretary, we had a brief discussion about the last ten years. John said "I hate to think what Barnet would have been like without the bloggers". Strictly speaking, last week wasn't the start of my blogging career. I started writing the blogs for the Barnet Times. This soon ran into problems as I was a tad too controversial. The local council administration objected to a blog I wrote and foced the editor to remove it. This prompted the former chair of The Chipping Barnet Conservative Association, David Miller to start his own blog. David was the son of Baroness Hendon, a Tory peer. Despite the perception that my blog is left wing, many of my staunchest supporters have been sensible local Conservatives. David explained in his first blog.
I was inspired to do this following the removal of a blog from the Barnet Times website written by local resident Roger Tichborne. Rog T (as he is known on-line) had written an article under the heading “Barnet’s very own Stalinist Mr Bean” in which he criticised the council and its leader, Cllr Mike Freer. Apparently, the Times does not want its bloggers criticising each other in such forthright terms (Mike Freer has his own blog on the same web site). 
I can understand that the paper doesn’t want blogs full of personal derogatory attacks, but legitimate criticism and debate is the lifeblood of a democracy. The decision to remove the blog does seem strange given that Rog had previously posted an article under the heading “Three Cheers for Brownite Freer” which was allowed and Mike Freer readily joined in.  Read it by clicking here:    Rog and I are at opposite ends of the mainstream political spectrum but I am reminded of the quotation often attributed to Voltaire: ‘I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Whilst I am not quite willing to die for Rog T, I am willing to spend £7.50 registering a domain name so that you can now read the article which the Barnet Times refused to publish!

David Millers blog was excellent. I have always felt David was a far better political blogger than myself (maybe he's not so hot on music and football blogs). His dispute with the local Conservative party was that he felt they were anything but Conservative. David's form of Conservatism is one of pragmatism. His view was that Socialism had some good ideas, but it required Conservative pragmatism to make the policies workable. When he saw the local Conservatives embariking on ideologically driven projects, which couldn't possibly be justified by common sense or realistic business cases, he felt he had to speak up. The last proper political blog on what happened in Barnet was entitled Sod The Dead and was a diatribe against Capita and their management of Hendon Cemetary. David wound down his blogging activities after the election of Richard Cornelius as Leader of the Barnet Conservative group. I don't think this was because he was particularly a fan of Cornelius, but I suspect that he recognised that at least Richard didn't share the Stalinist tendencies of certain predecessors, who sought to stifle debate by all means. For all his sins, Richard Cornelius has never shied away from public debate or discussion. He even attended a Q&A session organised by The Barnet Alliance for Public Services.

I don't doubt for a second that the reason that the Barnet Tories changed tack from the Freerite, all controlling way of doing things to Laisse Faire style of Richard Cornelius was due to the fact they were terrified of David Miller and his partner in crime Daniel Hope RIP. Whilst the problems are legion in Barnet Council at the moment, they would have been far worse had the Tories persisted with the previous policy of hiding everything from the public. Miller and Hope made the Barnet Tories painfully aware of what happens when you let a minority faction run the show for their own ends. Whilst it is the last thing I would wished to have achieved by starting the Barnet Eye, the Tories adapted and the net result was that they defied all expectations in the Council elections in May to win a stonking great majority. They did this by selecting engaging and appealing candidates for their marginal ward targets. On Saturday night, new West Hendon Tory Councillor Helene Richman attended the Barnet Eye tenth birthday party.  I'd never met Helene before, but she introduced herself, explained how hard she was working to Save The Midland, a campaign close to our heart here (and address the wider issue of pub closures). She also asked to address the crowd. As the Barnet Eye takes our role seriously and believes in debate and engagement, we welcomed the opportunity to hear what she had to say. She made a superb speech and got a warm round of applause. It was just a shame no one from Barnet Labour could be bothered to show up. Whislt the Tories seem to have learned, are taking engaement seriously, it seems that the Labour group are contracting into an ever tighter and more defensive cabal, dreaming of how "next time we will make this strategy work". I will always be left of centre, but I recognise that if you want to get stuff done, you need right of centre allies and you need to engage in the common ground. There are dozens of micro issues, that make a huge difference to the lives of residents. We need to work together across party lines to sort these things out. That is what local councillors need to do.  It may surpise you to hear me say nice things about a Tory Councillor, but it would be plain dishonest to do anything else. If Barnet Labour want the bloggers to praise them, get off your arses and get involved in grassroots community campaigns like the Save The Midland Campaign.  I was quite shocked that no one from the Barnet Labour team came down. As they lost the seats by a tiny margin, surely they should recognise that it represented an opportunity to start the fight back. So in our review of what Barnet would be like without the blogs, we can conclude that without David Miller, it is likely that the Tories would made an even worse hash of the council.David forced them to confront the fact that they had ceased to be "Conservatives" in the true sense of the word. By electing Richard Cornelius, they became Conservatives again. It may not be a victory for everyone else, but it was a victory for David and it partially explains why he stopped blogging.

The next blogger we have to look at is Vicki Morris. Vicki flew the flag in Barnet for the hard left when it wasn't very fashionable. The Blairites in Barnet would speak patronisingly of her when I spoke to them. Vicki probably hated the Blairites even more than the Tories. Vicki left two main legacies to Barnet. She was one of the founders of the Barnet Alliance for Public Services. Without Vicki, this would not have happened. Vicki's blog started back in 2008, rather dryly with this post
The aim of this blog is to supplement material on the Barnet trades council (Barnet TUC) website, which I administer in the capacity of publicity officer of Barnet trades council.

Here I might, from time to time, give more detailed reports about what the trades council is doing; however, to be clear, this is a personal blog and does not represent the views of Barnet trades council.
The Barnet Alliance for Public Services has made ahuge difference in Barnet. It has been a forum for organising activities for all manner of progressive causes. The activists have done the hard work, but the blogs have provided the petrol for the engine. As there is no effective local press in Barnet, the blogs have been the newspaper for BAPS. We've publicised events, we've organised activities. Every victory for progressive causes has seen BAPS at its heart. Vicki used her blog as the semi official newspaper for BAPS. I was always a huge fan of Vicki (I am not entirley convinced that it was always 100% reciprocated) because she was fearless and generally spot on with her analysis. Perhaps her other great achievement in Barnet was the fact she invented The Friday Joke, a tradition I embraced and maintain to this day. I am sure I know which of the two great achievements Vicki is more proud of. I doubt Vicki would really want to take any credit for her work with BAPS, but she deserves it. Vicki moved to Nottingham and decided to leave Barnet behid her. I miss her.

The next blogger to join the scene was Mr Reasonable. Given what has followed, his first blog seems almost bizarre, a single paragraph about lack of sports provision
I don't believe Barnet Council takes sport seriously and we have very poor facilities. The Council have been promising to undertake a sports facility strategy for more than year but it still hasn't materialised. Without that strategy it gives them a reason not to invest in new facilities. There seems to be an awful lot of talking about sport but not much doing. There is an organisation called CSPAN (Community Sport and Physical Activity Network) which meets regularly. Their last meeting was in September at which 27 people attended. The problem is they don't seem to have got a lot done. Come on Barnet Council, take sport seriously and provide some decent facilities for New Barnet Residents, especially for our teenagers
Of course John was spot on, it's just that given the detail and the work that has gone into most of his blogs,  a Rog T style rant did not really set the scene for what was to follow. Of all the bloggers, I think John's work will ultimately be the most important. He has absolutely destroyed every argument for persevering with Capita and the One Barnet project. Even Capita admitted at their AGM it wasn't working. In June John published just one of hundreds of blogs destroying the arguments for what the Barnet Conservatives have been doing.  At a recent council meeting, I spoke to John about what the bloggers have achieved. He stated that the one big achievement is that we've documented everything, so there can be no argument that people could say that "This is news to us". A good example is the Gainshare agreement in the Capita Contract. This gives Capita 30% of any savings they make for Barnet Council. John first exposed this in 2014.  As we recounted in our birthday blog last week, this has not stopped members of Barnet Labour pretending that this information wasn't in the public domain. This extract from my blog explains

The sad thing is that in the council chamber, they are also inept. Yesterday Councillor Mittra issued the following tweet

I checked my blog. Our first mention of Gainshare was in 2014. Mr Reasonables had identified the issue and I'd sought to draw attention to it in The Tweets of The Week. This tweet from John Dix was top of the list and ever since, Gainshare has been the no 1 issue for bloggers as a demonstration of just how inequitable the Capita One Barnet Contract was.

It is beyond me how Councillor Mittra can claim that he, the Barnet Labour Party or the council as a whole can claim that they've only just found out about this. I suggest they do their homework and start with this blog that Mr Reasonable refers to.  To quote John from 2014

"What intrigued me were a couple of comparatively small invoices,one on 27 November and one on 9th december for a total of £417,007. What this payment relates to is a clause in the contract called "Gainshare" where Capita get a cut of any savings made. Although the contract is redacted it is apparent from the numbers on the invoices that Capita receive 40% of any savings made.

I felt deeply uncomfortable about these savings and have been trying to understand how such savings could be made so quickly. Following a great deal of correspondence with the council and having several subtly different version of how the savings are justified I have been  told that these savings are the estimate of savings to be made over the next year, that Capita invoice Barnet upfront and then at the end of the year if the savings are not as great as Capita forecast then Capita have to return some of the money.  Frankly I was staggered that the council should be sharing out quite so much of the savings of our money and paying out forecast savings as much as a year before they are realised."
Since the inception of this blog in 2008, the Barnet Bloggers have been giving Barnet Labour all of the ammunition they need to take down this awful council. Mr Mittra issued a rather irritated tweet in response to me calling him out.
Councillor Mittra has responded by blocking the Barnet Eye from following him on Twitter. I'll let readers form their own opinion. What I can say without doubt is that without John's forensic analysis, we'd have had more outsourcing and be in an even worse state.

If you thought Mr Reasonables first blog was a tad out of character, Mrs Angry's first attempt at blogging will doubtless cause any officionado's who missed it a chuckle. Mrs Angry is not known for her brevity. Well check this out!

Mrs Angry is like a dog with a bone, when she gets her teeth into something. Her work on the Freedom Pass Scandal, Metpro Security scandal and most recently Capita losing the Borough collection is legedary. She exposes the lie that only nerdy blokes in their bedrooms obsessively write blogs. Strangely, Mrs Angry and myself attended the same Primary School. I am sure that our blogging skills are a direct result of the work of our Primary School teacher Miss O'Donovan. Mrs Angry paints a loving picture of this sweet, kind, saintly old lady in this blog, explaining how she taught us compassion and how to be reasonable. Reading this sentence brought those happy times back
Every opportunity for punishment was taken with evident glee, in fact: a child who needed to leave the classroom to visit the loo was invariably refused permission, for failing to use the facilities during breaks. The predictable and frequent result would be that shamed children would leave pools of urine on the floor, unable to wait any longer. They would then be punished for that, as well, then - and made to clear it up
Luckily I didn't have prostate cancer back then, so I never needed to dash to the loo. In fact as a dyslexic, it was nice to see the bright kids having to suffer along with us dumbo's. I always thought that Miss O'Donovans redeeming feature was that she was an equal opportunity sadist. My eldest twin brothers were caned on their first day at School by Miss O'Donovan. By the time I arrived, they'd take her off what we now call "reception class", so you had her for the last year of Infants. It is strange that I have forgotten the names of many of the nice teachers, but Miss O'Donovan is still there, like a monkey on my shoulder. Every time I feel the urge to be cruel, I think of her. I don't want that to be me. The one gift she gave us was that we don't give up. I suspect that the Roman Catholic Eduction system of the 1960's was all about preparing us for Anti Catholic Purges and Martyrdom. In our own way, blogging is  a feature of our resistance to a Satanic state, if you know what I mean.

Unlike Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry, the final piece of our blogging jigsaw is Mr Mustard. Unlike Mrs Angry and Mr Reasonable, he started his first blog as he meant to carry on. Apart from the first two paragraphs,

I have had enough of Barnet Council and their profligacy.

I didn't use to be interested in local affairs. I just paid my Council Tax and got on with my life. That has all changed thanks to Barnet Council deciding to put the CPZ charges up by unreasonable amounts ( £40 for my car up to £100 p.a. and what are meant to be concessionary vouchers for visitors from £1 to £4 per visit; and what about next year - another 150% to 300% increase ? ). Now only about 5% of the residents of Barnet are in a CPZ and they are going to be milked for an extra £2.6 million. The other 95% won't pay any extra to park outside their homes or have visitors round. It hardly seems equitable to me.
 his blog could almost have been written yesterday for style and content. Mr Mustard has a personal mission to help people having problems with Barnet Council and their parking policies. He is more interested in finances than policies. He has succesfully fought hundreds of parking tickets and unfair practices.

So that is a brief summary of the Barnet Blogosphere. How has this made a difference in the Borough of Barnet and what would it have been like without the bloggers. In my summary, I gave a rather different summary of David Miller to the rest of the bloggers. I worked quite closely with David for a couple of years on matters of mutual interest and shared many useful pieces of information. He never really wanted to be considered as part of the Barnet Blogosphere team, in the way the rest of us did. Whilst he was hugely important, his role was very different, so he needs to be considered outside of what has become the "Fantastic Four". As Vicki dusted off her boots and put Barnet behind her in 2013, before One Barnet was signed with Capita, I wanted to acknowledge her role, but much water has passed under the bridge. She was a key player in exposing Metpro, which was the biggest and most significant victory for the bloggers. Vicki participated in many joint blogs and was a team player.

But as it is five years since her last Barnet blog, things have moved on. The fantastic four are still blogging. We are still digging up stories that the mainstream press are not interested in (until we've done the hard work). We all still attend Council meetings, we all still get tip offs and leaks. We all still get strangers thanking us. As we had the Barnet Eye 10th Birthday party on Saturday, quite a few people I'd never met before turned up to thank me for my efforts. Many reminded me of battles I'd long forgotten. The real legacy of the Barnet blogs and the biggest difference is that anyone who wants do something in Barnet that is against the interests of the people who live here know they have an almighty fight on their hands. This was brought home a few weeks ago when I met an ex colleague who I worked with at BT. He told me that BT, who were originally the front runners for One Barnet, are pleased that they dodged the bullet and Capita have taken the hit from the One Barnet deal. Capita expected the furore over One Barnet to have gone long ago. The fact that people are still picketing their AGM in #KickOutCapita T-Shirts has shocked them. They know that as details of the contract such as Gainshare have been exposed and the full costs revealed it will be far harder to fleece the Barnet Taxpayer. Without the bloggers, none of this would come out and we'd be in a far worse mess. We'd still possibly have had Metpro overcharging and using unlicensed security guards to guard vulnerable young women in Council hostels. If nothing else, preventing vulnerable people from being placed at such risk justifies our efforts. We have long worked independently, but as a team when required. We have our specialisms and we have our pooled talents and we use as is appropriate. The wiser members of the Council welcome our efforts and work with us (often in an under the radar manner), the more stupid ones try and obstruct us at every turn.

When Barnet Council screwed up the arrangements for voting in 2015, Andrew Travers, the CEO and chief returning officer was summarily booted out. I simply don't believe that would have happened without the Barnet bloggers. We have made Barnet Council wake up to the fact that they need to be seen to act when the council fails, or they will get a ruthless media kicking. The 2015 election cock up was not unique. There was Mayhem in 2010, that most likely resulted in Andrew Dismore losing, in Hendon by 106 votes. That was the difference that bloggers have made. We've not fixed all of the problems or won all the battles. But we have made sure that the Council know there will be a battle and they may lose. That has changed the way they think. There is less outsourcing, more accountability and more common sense. The One Barnet contract was published (sadly with redaction) as Richard Cornelius realised that it was easier than fighting to keep it secret. I simply don't believe that would ever has seen the light of day without bloggers. It is fairly clear that the fight to save Friern Barnet library changed the way Barnet Council viewed the library service. Sadly they still seem keen in running it into the ground, but at least they don't want to flog off all of the buildings. I simply hope that one day, a more culturally caring authority may revive it to it's full glory. We are here for the long haul (God willing). As I always tell people, when you fight, you don't always win, but when you don't fight you always lose. That is why I keep writing the blogs and that is why I believe we've made such a huge contribution. Our victories have been sweet, our losses painful, but we are still here.

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