Thursday, 23 July 2020

Barnet Council - Why do I bother attending meetings?

Last night I dialled into the Barnet Council planning committee. Due to the Covid regulations, virtual meetings are being held. I have to say that I found the process to be deeply unsatisfactory for members of the public. I had asked to make a submission on the planning application made by Barratts for the National Institute for Medical Research site. An associate of mine was also speaking and contacted me yesterday in a panic because he couldn't understand the process of connecting to the meetings. He is someone who has had medical issues and initially he was deeply concerned by the prospect of having any assistance with the technology, as he's been social distancing. In my previous incarnation as a freelance IT consultant, I've attended hundreds, if not thousands of conference calls, but he had never had the pleasure so didn't understand the technology. I had assumed that the council would have a Zoom like facility, but this being Barnet, this was only for councillors and officers. The public had to dial in on audio only. In the end, my associate came to my house for assistance. As the Barratts site has badly affected both his health and his business, he felt obligated to speak. So I set him up on the call in my front room in a socially distanced manner.

He feels (and I agree) that Barnet Council has badly let down both him and his business, in not taking enforcement seriously. He has been noting problems with the site for two years and has had no satisfactory service from the council in dealing with his issues. As for my submission, I wanted the councillors to look at the the guidance officers had given, which I believe had not adequately conveyed the nature of the objections or the problems with the application.

Our case was the third on the agenda. Listening to the preceding two cases was quite demoralising. There were clearly major issues with both applications, but the committee passed both anyway. From what I heard, I was quite staggered that the first was passed. Ellliot Simberg, one of the better Tory Hale councillors made a good case for rejection, but he was summarily ignored. For the second application, I felt that the councillors on the committee did not really bother to explore whether objectors had a valid case. The committee chair, a Conservative attempted to prevent a Labour councillor for asking a perfectly reasonable question of the developers spokesperson. As a lay person, I could see no reason for this intervention. The application was passed easily.

For the application we spoke about, my associate read out his long list of issues. The committee did not bother to ask him any questions. One member, in an act of extraordinary bad manners, did not mute themselves and started loudly clearing their throat during his submission. I was quite shocked that the chair did not reprimand the culprit or give my associate extra time. As someone who is registered deaf, the format that was being used was less than ideal. I could hardly hear what was being said. When it came to my submission, I found I had a loud echo ringing in my ears, making it extremely difficult to concentrate on the text I was reading. I am used to public speaking and performance so I got through, but it was extremely difficult. At the end of my submission, again there were no questions. The application was passed 12-0 by the committee. The officers made some observations that I strongly disagree with. Amongst these they stated that the Mill Hill Preservation Society had not objected. This surprised me as I'd been advised by a member of the committee that they had objected. No comment from the MHPS appears on the Council site. It may well be that due to Covid19, the MHPS had been unable to meet to formulate a response. It strikes me as worrying that such organisations will be excluded because their committee are isolating?  Given the format of the meeting, we had no opportunity to query this.

I have been to hundreds of Barnet Council meetings over the last ten years. Few have been satisfactory, but last nights was the worst. Given my hearing issues, I felt excluded and I felt the complete lack of interest by the committee in what members of the public had to say to be high handed and rude. Not for the first time, I asked myself why I bother attending these meetings. The simple answer is because I find it quite repulsive that councillors, who we elect, can treat the public with such disdain and someone has to call them out. There is no reason why we should not have the same access to the Zoom style meetings as councillors, so that at least we can see their faces and see who is blowing their nose so rudely. In council, we can see when councillors role their eyes at the public. Now it is anonymous. I hadn't expected the council to reject the developers plans. That's not what happens in Barnet these days. I had a faint hope that they might at least enquire why I'd chosen to give up an evening making the points I'd raised. I said that I felt the officers had not properly represented objections by the public in their report. Given that I was limited to three minutes in my submission, I at least expected someone to ask what had lead me to that conclusion, but not one of the 12 councillors on the committee could be bothered to enquire.

People ask why I bother writing a blog. It is so there is a public record of what happened, should anyone be interested.I hope, probably in vain, that one day the electorate of Barnet will wake up to how badly their elected representatives are doing their job. Councillors get an allowance of over £10,000 a year. One would expect them to at least read the paper work and engage with the public. Sadly that is something they have no interest in doing (in my experience). I spent a long time reading the paperwork, I believe there was a serious problem in the presentation of the report. I gave up my Wednesday night to share this. And what did I get for my trouble? Totally ignored.

I stopped hoping that these councillors might feel the slightest need to do their job and represent the general public a long time ago. I just hope that at some point, the voters decide that they want people who will listen to them and at least give them a fair hearing.

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