Sunday, 25 November 2012

Barnet is parking mad



November 19 came and went. It was the day Barnet Council promised to have everything ready for a pilot scheme of cheaper and easier parking in North Finchley after a year of consultation. But the promised reduced price vouchers were nowhere to be found, nowhere to be bought.  The Council had none to sell. No-one seemed to know anything about them.

Similarly, the promised extra parking bays intended to replace some double yellow lines in order to provide extra parking spaces had not materialised.

Do the Council's promises mean anything or are they just unable to get their act together? Is the Council rendered impotent by NSL, the private company to whom Barnet parking is outsourced? 

The frustration expressed last week in local newspapers by Helen Michael, the owner of Cafe Buzz in Finchley High Road is entirely justified. Cllr Dean Cohen's crowing must be galling: “With significantly lower parking prices," he writes, "extra parking bays and 15 minutes free parking at a number of locations, I hope residents will make the most of their local high-street and take advantage of the wide variety of shops on offer in the run-up to Christmas and beyond.” 

But the special parking concession for Christmas turns out to be two free hours parking on Saturday, 22nd and Sunday 23rd December. As the 23rd is a Sunday and Sunday parking is free in any case, it seems whoever made this rule had no idea what they were doing, because this means in effect that the Sunday 'concession' changes nothing and is no concession at all. So it is only for one day before Christmas, Saturday 22nd, so close to Christmas that most shopping will already be done, that shoppers will be able to park free for 2 hours. Parking for more than two hours will incur the usual penalty. The hoped-for free parking over the Tally Ho Ho Ho weekend,14th & 15th December is not going to happen.
Traders have so many plans and are putting so much effort into making Christmas a wonderful, community experience for local residents with exciting festive events, special eating offers and convenient, seasonal shopping.  The Tory Council could ruin everything for shoppers and shop keepers at the busiest shopping time of the year. Along with NSL the Council is crippling the business of small traders, who say business has dropped 40% due to the unacceptably high parking charges and the payment methods.  

There is some good news and we have to be grateful for any mercies, however small. The crippling parking charges have been reduced by up to 35% and there will be 15 minute free parking slots after 10 am, and parking in car parks will be £3.50 for a whole day. The new cheaper charges are all listed below. 

But who thinks up the confusing, complicated system of different bays having different rules and charges differing on street and off street? NSL, who are purely profit-motivated, have been losing money because parking is too expensive and too much hassle. The parking regulations are bad for everyone. Things have to change to promote the prosperity and well-being of the Borough and bring it back to life. Meanwhile we must take advantage of the changes offered to us and live in hope.

The Council will be adapting eight loading bays in North Finchley to enable 15 minutes free parking between 10am and 4pm.
The new tariff structure will be as follows – noting that different parking places in North Finchley may have different maximum stays (For example there are “up to 4 hour” parking places, and all day stay bays on-street): 

Short stay new tariff (2 hour max)
Up to 15 mins:            £0.35
Up to 30 mins:            £0.65
Up to 1 hour:              £1.30
Up to 2 hours:            £2.60

Medium stay new tariff (4 hour max)
Up to 30 mins:            £0.65
Up to 1 hour:              £1.30
Up to 4 hours:            £3.25
Long stay new tariff  (all day stay bays)
Up to 30 mins:            £0.65
Up to 1 hour:              £1.30
Up to 3 hours:            £2.60
Over 3 hours:             £4.55
Off-Street  (car parks)
Up to 30 mins:           £0.65
Up to 1 hour:             £1.30
Up to 90 mins:          £1.95
Up to 2 hours:           £2.60
Over 2 hours:            £3.25

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Barnet is revolting


 Barnet is revolting

Tory Barnet Council is arrogantly, and without remorse, ripping its own Borough apart with no accountability, without democratic process. This week its Leader, Richard Cornelius, and his inner Cabinet of rubber-stampers, announced their first major decision regarding 'One Barnet'. They provisionally awarded a £320 million, ten-year outsourcing contract of Council services to Capita. This follows the announcement last month that the Home Office is ditching Capita when its ten-year contract expires in March 2013. “There’s a suspicion that Capita has been earning too high a margin on certain central government contracts,” we read in The Times. Has Barnet Council contacted the Home Office to ask what went wrong? Has Barnet Council taken a couple of minutes on line to read about other disastrous Capita contracts that were terminated early?  And there is the well-known case when in March 2009, Capita SIMS (Schools Information Management Software) sent a truancy warning notice to the family of a Cheshire school student who had died two months earlier.

The lack of concern of the Council for those who elected them was revealed two weeks' earlier at a public meeting where Cornelius was reminded by angry residents that when parking was privatized in Barnet all the Council employees in the parking department lost their jobs which were located elsewhere at a lower cost. Was this going to happen on a grand scale when most of the services were outsourced? Cornelius shrugged his shoulders and smiled as if he expected everyone to appreciate his next remark: "It is, of course, very sad (he didn't even try to sound as if he meant it), but they're all living on the same planet, aren't they?" 

The residents had a point. Yesterday, at 5.11 on a Friday afternoon just before Christmas, a cold, callous email was sent to Barnet Council employees telling them to go home and prepare for redundancy. In other words, employment in Barnet, the financial benefits it brings to the community, the welfare of the employees and their experience, knowledge and expertise, is not a priority, not even a consideration. There was no offer of a meeting, a face-to-face explanation, a show of concern at how the lives of these people might be affected. No word of comfort or support. This devastating news was delivered in the weekly newsletter from the Deputy CEO with the advice that more information could be found on a screen saver or on posters. The evidence clearly shows they couldn't care less. 

To contact the Borough by phone in future, if 'One Barnet' is agreed on 6 December, we've now learned that locals will have to ring a call centre in Blackburn. Who knows where it might be located in 5 or 10 years' time. Capita doesn't have a great record in managing call centres. Their management of call centres for the London Congestion Charge was transferred to IBM after its first stage, much to Capita's embarrassment.[1]  But don't worry. There will be an online information service - fine for those who are online, but there is no proposed alternative provision for those who are not. 

How does all this fit in with Eric Pickles' vision of 'localism'? This week things have moved fast in the London Borough of Barnet. Alarmingly fast. In Tuesday's "Guardian"[2] Cornelius claimed "Forget public v private. We just want the best value for taxpayers' money". He must have meant 'forget public' as he has only ever considered a private option, so how would he know how a public, in-house future for Barnet would compare on price? And although Cornelius claims that £111million of savings over ten years are guaranteed in the contract - his justification for implementing 'One Barnet' - it has been pointed out to him repeatedly that this is impossible to guarantee in practice. 

On Tuesday night, two weeks before the contract is due to be agreed, the 8,000-page contract was seen for the first time by Cornelius and his Tory group. The next morning he declared in an official Council notice: “I will be recommending that my colleagues approve these proposals when we meet on 6 December." In an email he was sure the contract could be read and fully scrutinized in a week. If the Council is unfamiliar with the contents of the contract, how can they recommend it and how will they be able to monitor it? Will they rely entirely on the advice of their own pet consultants who are costing local taxpayers millions of pounds? Will they be guided by the profit-driven contractors? If this is the case, the Councillors will have no role to play and could themselves be candidates for redundancy. The alarm bells are deafening.

" Put simply, democracy is close to being snuffed out. " John Harris wrote on 11 November in the Guardian[3], and he was right. There is no Democracy in Barnet. The Council is autocratic, corrupt, uncaring, but worst of all, inept. 

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?  After all, this is my life and the lives of four generations of my family who all live in Barnet. There is a judicial review in place. Local residents and organisations are united in their determination and vision to defeat this hairbrained scheme. And on Friday Cornelius was beginning to sound a little insecure. Why the emphatic: "My party is backing me" and "the members of my group are happy that we're going ahead. There is of course room for dissent and I'd be lying if I said there wasn't but this is the decision we've taken."  Was he trying to convince himself? Leader of the Lib Dems, Cllr Jack Cohen has said that the Tories have a majority, so it is going to be impossible to defeat them. Well it appears that if only 6 Tories vote against, 'One Barnet' will be defeated. 

Do Cornelius's words reveal a welcome wobble? Can every Tory Councillor in the Cabinet feel easy with and totally in favour of 'One Barnet' going ahead knowing that we now know they have been nodding this through at every stage without being in possession of the facts. Perhaps they are beginning to realise their "the peasants are revolting" "let them eat cake" attitude to the people who they have been elected to serve will guarantee that from 2014 we shall never look upon their like again. They should know that Barnet is revolting. We haven't given up yet.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

TALLY HO HO HO: Wonderful Christmas time in Finchley




Wonderful Christmas time in Finchley 

Be excited. Be very excited. A big event was conceived this week by Finchley traders that is going to set Finchley on fire and give families everything they could possible desire this Christmas

So you're living in Finchley with Christmas just weeks away. There's shopping to be done. There's frantic Googling to find a Santa's grotto only to find that even Selfridge's has turned its back on grottos this year.  Where can you locate a skating rink or rides or real reindeer or outdoor carols, music, street lights, a tree that your kids can decorate, late-night shopping, a French or German Christmas market, Peppa Pig and clowns and other life-size children's characters walking around, face painting, special deals in shops and cafes, activities for the whole family and lots of freebies including (dream on) parking, or just somewhere to stroll and linger to soak up the sparkly Christmas atmosphere.  It's an organisational and financial nightmare at the busiest and most stressful time of the year. But wait.  All this and more is going to happen right on your doorstep around Tally Ho Corner and along the High Road in the run up to Christmas. Hence its name, Tally Ho Ho Ho.

"But what about parking?" I hear you moan. "Impossible, disgracefully expensive and payable only by phone".  Well from next Monday, 19 November, a reduction of parking charges and improved parking arrangements should please the people of Finchley. OK, it isn't back to what it was before the charges were hiked up to levels of madness, but Cllr Dean Cohen, now in charge of parking, has listened sympathetically to the concerns of Helen Michael, owner of the Cafe Buzz fighting for local traders who say business has declined by as much as 40% as a direct result of the Council's parking regime.  Charges in car parks and in parking bays will be reduced.  Some double yellow lines will be removed and replaced with new parking bays. And meters will replace phone payments.  There will be free parking at various times over the Christmas period to be announced.

So what is Tally Ho Ho Ho really all about?  It's a result of a group of Finchley traders winning a financial award from the GLA's Outer London Fund, a scheme that aims to regenerate local high streets and restore a sense of community, boost local business, create new jobs and generally improve the lives of residents.  A sum is specifically earmarked for a Christmas event. To put Tally Ho Ho Ho into action, the traders have brought in Sally Williams, who organised the Olympic torch relay in Finchley in the summer.

Whatever their faith or belief, and whatever Christmas might mean to them, the people of Finchley deserve a good Christmas for themselves and their families in hard times, the hardest most of them have ever experienced.  The transient pleasures of credit cards are long gone and every day, forces beyond our control send personal finances hurtling further in a downward spiral.   So local traders want to revitalise Finchley and provide a Christmas that is good for everyone.  Tally Ho Ho Ho is their attempt to keep their high street alive and prevent the familiar fate of so many of today's dying high streets ending up with dozens of boarded-up, derelict, once-thriving businesses and services that were the heart of the community.  They believe a warm and friendly local Christmas is a good place to start.  So go, Finchley, go and Tally Ho Ho Ho!

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Councillor Cornelius's Dolores


Councillor Cornelius's Dolores

 One Barnet : 23 days and counting

Only 29 days remained when Cllr Richard Cornelius, Tory Leader of Barnet Council, faced an angry public meeting of local residents at the bursting-at-the-seams Greek Cypriot Centre in North Finchley on 8 November.  Other speakers were Cllr Alison Moore, Leader of the Labour Group, Lib Dem Group Leader, Cllr Jack Cohen and Andy Mudd of APSE (Association for Public Service Excellence).

On 6 December 2012, Tory Barnet Council intend to begin outsourcing 70% of their services - core services - to a private, profit-making company at a cost to the taxpayer of £1 billion pounds.  There will be no way out for ten years even if things change or go wrong. There is no precedent for this magnitude of local government outsourcing so it is a gamble. The Council's declared motivation is that it will save money, but it was made clear at the meeting that the amount of savings "guaranteed" in the contract cannot be guaranteed in practice.  The company who wins this contract will have the champagne corks popping, hardly able to believe its luck. That contractor could well be BT, who is eager to secure the One Barnet outsourcing contract while announcing last week that it is stopping its own outsourcing and getting its in-house staff to do these tasks instead to cut costs and save money.   

There's a scene in the film The Man with Two Brains (1983) in which Steve Martin, a widower who regularly consults the portrait of his dead wife, stands before her hoping for a sign of approval for his new relationship with the evil, scheming, but irresistibly sexy, Kathleen Turner.  "If there's anything wrong with my feelings for Dolores just give me a sign," he asks.

An anguished warning emanates from the portrait, a wailing of "No. No-oo. No-ooo. No-ooooo". The portrait rotates wildly, the wall cracks, the room flashes dark and light and a whirlwind blows objects crazily about. With the room in ruins and the portrait askew on the wall Martin seems to be oblivious to what has occurred. "Just any kind of sign", he pleads. "I'll keep looking out for it. But meanwhile (removing the portrait from the wall) I'll just put you in the closet".  

One Barnet is Cllr Cornelius's Dolores. There were impassioned 'No-oooos' from the deeply concerned residents who complained that they have not been consulted. Many have been completely unaware that this is about to be thrust upon them. They have expressed their anger and have asked for a referendum.  If anything goes wrong, the taxpayer could lose their core services and will have to financially bail out the Council.

Andy Mudd urged the Council to at least consider an alternative claiming that "Barnet is the worst contracting authority I've come across."  And it is certainly true that Barnet contracts to date, including parking and maintenance have been a disaster. 

'No-oooo' came from Cllrs Moore and Cohen, who complained that their participation has been stifled by a general lack of transparency. Relevant information and committee papers have been denied even to councillors.  The right to speak out in meetings has been curtailed. Cllr Cornelius claims that secrecy is essential as the contract is "commercially sensitive" and in future the private contractor would also have the right to secrecy for the same reason. In other words certain parts of the contract may never be revealed.

Impassioned "No-oooos" came from every side. Even former mayor, Cllr Brian Coleman, sitting at the back of the hall, has declared himself against One Barnet since he has been relieved of the Tory whip. In the hall was a man who had travelled from Somerset to share the woes of outsourcing. His Council is being sued by their outsourcing partner Southwest One following a dispute over whether enough savings were being made and the quality of the procurement service. His 'no-oooo' came from bitter experience. Throughout the meeting, Cllr Cornelius sat smiling and nodding affably, and like Steve Martin, consigned the objections he didn't want to hear to the closet.

In fact, it became increasingly clear that Cllr Cornelius had not read the contract and does not know details of its contents. And he is still waiting for certain vital information to arrive. This is with less than a month to go. The Council has never explored the possibilities of a comparative in-house alternative that would avoid running public services for the profit of a private company at the risk of the taxpayer and would keep it local with all the advantages outlined by BT as well as boosting the employment and economy of Barnet. It is a shambles. Yet Barnet Tories are determined to push ahead with this life-changing, risky, irrational, irreversible move that could bring ruin to Barnet. Why? Cornelius has also consigned both democracy and reason to the closet.

He claims no-one has come up with an alternative, but alternatives have been proposed and continue to be proposed. They are ignored by the Council who are employing an outside consultant at massive cost to the taxpayer.

It seems there is little that can be done without a change of mind by the Council. In reality the Tories large majority will achieve the result they want.  But will they decide that the risk to Barnet and to their own election chances in 2014 is too great for them to go blindly ahead?  Andy Mudd advised that if the Council were minded, they could back out tomorrow and right up to the deadline on 6 December without any financial penalties.  And apparently the coffers of Barnet are far from empty, so a period of reconsideration is affordable. The people of Barnet must fervently hope that it is One Barnet that Cornelius ultimately consigns to the closet and locks the door behind it.

Monday, 5 November 2012

"Sad, mad, and bad" "couple of hags" see Brian Coleman plead 'not guilty' to criminal assault charge


"Sad, mad, and bad" "couple of hags" see Brian Coleman plead 'not guilty' to criminal assault charge 

It's no longer possible to refer to Brian Coleman as 'Tory' Councillor since his suspension from the Conservative Party last week, so Barnet Councillor, Brian Coleman, 51, appeared in Court this morning facing the criminal charge of 'assault with beating' as well as a dangerous driving offence. He pleaded not guilty to both.

The last-minute change of venue from Hendon Magistrates' Court to Uxbridge failed to deter interested Barnet residents from attending the hearing. There is a history of uncontrolled, angry public outbursts from Coleman against local residents, this one at a council meeting in September: It's worth noting that also last week, a pivotal week in Coleman's career (see my blog of 3/11/12), he metaphorically jumped into bed with the women by strongly denouncing in the press the controversial One Barnet outsourcing scheme to which they objected, claiming that it should be "ditched".

The case will be heard in the first week of February.  There's a lot to happen before then starting with tomorrow night, Tuesday, 6 November when at a full Council meeting, 6pm at the Town Hall, Coleman could be stripped of his Chairship of the Budget Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Will I still be able to refer to him in my February blog as [Barnet Councillor] Brian Coleman?

Saturday, 3 November 2012

No Party, No One Barnet, No Shame, November

No Party, No One Barnet, No Shame, November 

La Bloggeuse, 3 November 2012

A week is a long time in politics for former Mayor of Barnet, Brian Coleman 

Former Mayor of Barnet and ex-Chair of the London Fire Authority, Brian Coleman, has weathered many storms in his political career. He is a survivor. But an incident on 20 September may prove to be one storm too many. He is charged with the criminal offence of “assault by beating” which has a maximum custodial sentence of 6 months. Coleman is the architect of the draconian parking regime inflicted on Barnet residents and businesses. So when Helen Michael, the owner of Café Buzz in Finchley High Road spotted Coleman parking in a loading bay she used her phone to photograph him. He allegedly tried to get hold of the phone and allegedly assaulted her in the process. When he attempted to drive off, Ms Michael tried to prevent him by jumping into the passenger seat of his car, but he allegedly drove off wildly with the car door open and is also charged with “driving a mechanically propelled vehicle on a public place without reasonable consideration”. 

Fast forward a month to last Tuesday evening, 30 October. The Barnet Conservative group were getting ready to vote on whether or not to suspend Coleman. The leader of the Council, fellow Tory Richard Cornelius, a weak man, had been dithering. He admitted to finding the whole situation "very difficult to deal with because I know and like Brian". But an hour before the group meeting, Cornelius was informed that Conservative head office had taken matters into their own hands and suspended the disgraced Coleman from the Conservative Party over Cornelius's head. 

On the same day, local residents Mr Ron Cohen and Dr Charlotte Jago received apology letters from Coleman ordered by the Standards Board because of offensive emails sent by him. Cohen and Jago objected to Veolia Water's involvement in the Pinkham Way waste plant bid. Coleman accused Mr Cohen, who is Jewish, of being a disloyal Israeli and told Dr Jago “70 years ago you would have been in the blackshirts [Nazi movement]”.  He sent the following pathetic excuse for an apology, 7 weeks past the deadine, complete with spelling mistakes:
 “In line with the recent standards board rulling (sic). I hereby apologies (sic) for any offence caused by the emails in question.”

Mr Cohen was not impressed.
No-one could have expected Coleman's next move. On Thursday, in an article in the Barnet & Whetstone Press, Coleman ditched his loyal Tory colleagues to go it alone. He had nothing to lose. Suspended from the Tory Party he was still a Councillor but free of the party whip. Unlike his poorly-written apology letters, he is now able to write articulately that One Barnet, the highly controversial £1billion, ten-year outsourcing plan championed by the Tory council, which is due to come into force on 6 December in spite of public opposition, "should be scrapped". This is the first time he had expressed this view. headline=BrianColeman:%27OneBarnetshouldbescrapped%27  

"The time has come to dump One Barnet and return to core local government    values and make sure this particular turkey does not see Christmas!"

Adding disloyalty to his other attributes he seems to be making a last-ditch attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of the people.

Remember, remember the 5th of November. I'm sure Brian Coleman will do just that. Next Monday is the day on which a criminal conviction could consign his political career to the bonfire. A legal expert says that if found guilty, as a first offender and having caused no permanent injury, Coleman would most likely be facing a community order. The case begins at 10 am at Uxbridge Magistrates' Court, Harefield Road. Will he survive to fight another day?
Perhaps things have gone too far this time. The week will end with a full council meeting on Tuesday at which the Barnet Conservative group is to propose Coleman be stripped of his chairship of the Budget Overview and Scrutiny Committee. For Cllr Brian Coleman this could be the last time, I don't know. A week is a very long time in politics.