Monday, 10 December 2012

Barnet: The Marriage from Hell


We didn't sign up for this

I stepped out of Barnet Town Hall and into the rainy night on 
Thursday, 6 December 2012, full of inspiration, full of things 
to say in my blog about the extraordinary events I had 
witnessed, those famous lines from Shakespeare's 'Henry V' 
in my mind: "And gentlemen in England now a-bed, Shall think
themselves accursed they were not here". 

But each time I made a start, a bIog appeared in print that said it all and told it superbly. I was content to read rather than write: Mrs Angry, Mr Reasonable, Mr Mustard, Barnet Eye, Citizen Barnet. But an idea was germinating. My muse was doing its job and I had my subject.

There is an agreement between a Council and its electorate, a relationship, a 'marriage' based on trust, commitment, empowerment, enablement, the pooling of assets and resources for the common good of the family. And when a marriage breaks down, as it has in Barnet, it is advisable amid blame and accusations to consider both sides of the story.

In the case of The Residents of Barnet (Plaintiff) v Conservative Barnet Council (Respondent) there seems to be little or no possibility of a reconciliation. The inevitable consequence seems to be divorce with either 'adultery' or 'unreasonable behaviour' as grounds. But though things are acrimonious and fractious, realistically the injured party may have to be patient and wait until 2014 to be free, but with consent on only one side and no sign of a final settlement.

The grounds of 'unreasonable behaviour' can be argued by the Plaintiff. A breakdown in communication resulting in secrecy and lies; the Respondent risking the Plaintiff's hard-earned money on life-changing ventures without their knowledge, without consultation and with no consideration of an alternative; ignoring or ridiculing the Plaintiff's wishes. And as far as 'adultery' is concerned, the Respondent has eagerly jumped into bed with the money-grabbing, discredited contractor, Capita, guaranteed of being screwed. To hell with the Plaintiff, the vulnerable long-term partner who will have to pick up the pieces and foot the bill if things go wrong.

The Respondent, however, claims to be acting in everyone's best interests. So who do the beleaguered Barnet Council Cabinet believe to be at fault?  Who was responsible for the angry protest at Barnet Town Hall on 6 December, when a packed public gallery chanting "You have no mandate" and "Out, out, out" brought a Cabinet meeting to a standstill and forced its members to run for the safety of an adjoining room to continue the meeting in private with a police guard at its door to protect them from their own electorate?

Opposition to 'One Barnet', they believe, is confined to a tiny minority. Richard Cornelius, Leader of Tory Barnet Council, claimed at a public meeting on 9 November that it is none other than the unions. Cornelius is stuck in a past in which Tories blamed everything on "the unions" and "socialists".  He continues to cling to that belief. The unions are not only a spanner in the works, they make a fuss about people losing their jobs. And Cornelius is not the only Tory member of the Cabinet who feels this way. In an exultant, self-congratulatory blog Cllr Robert Rams claims: "The decision is being opposed by the Barnet Alliance for Public Services [BAPS], a front organisation for various trade unions."  And former Barnet mayor, Brian Coleman, is certain that some fantasy "Mr and Mrs Average Barnet would run a mile from last night's disgraceful behaviour".  

At the meeting on Thursday I sat beside an elegant, charming, middle-aged woman who chanted quietly but with gusto along with everyone else  "We will not let you take our democracy away".  She seemed surprised at her own behaviour and told me she was shy, but she was also angry. Yet like Cornelius and Rams, Coleman believes that all opposition is down to a small bunch of pesky lefties.

As there has been no public consultation it is not surprising that the Tories have got it so wrong.  Cornelius should have bothered to listen at the BAPS-organised question and answer session that attracted hundreds of concerned Barnet residents. He would have heard one resident after another declare that they had never been involved in politics before"

I've been impressed at recent 'One Barnet' meetings by the diversity and number of people who have turned up to express their concerns, wanting to be part of a democratic process that has so far been denied them. On Thursday, there were indeed representatives of UNISON there to protect the hundreds of jobs that will be lost in Barnet. That is their job. A grinning Cornelius made it clear on 9 November that he couldn't see there was a problem about jobs going out of the Borough (  He said as much on BBC 'Sunday Politics'. It would be so much easier for Cornelius and Rams if all those vulnerable employees had no-one to support them and fight for their rights. (Councillor Cornelius's Delores )

The Labour Party and Lib Dems were opposing 'One Barnet', because among other things it has no mandate, has never been compared with any alternative to see if it is indeed better or worse than any other option, and they are against Council services being run far from the Borough to make profits for a giant private company. 

Members of the Barnet Alliance for Public Services (BAPS) were in attendance and led the protest. BAPS is not a "front for various trade unions" as the paranoid Rams claims. It is made up of "residents, local organisations and trade unions campaigning for high quality public services in the London Borough of Barnet".  Disparate groups have come together with a common aim: to democratically organise and unite against 'One Barnet'.  They are residents and business owners of all ages and backgrounds, apolitical or from across the political spectrum (including, yes, Tories and even UKIP).  BAPS already have more than 7,000 signatures on their petition.  Can they all be dangerous "lefties" eager to fly the red flag over Totteridge, which is Rams' ludicrous scenario? Perhaps this sort of scaremongering goes down well in certain Tory circles, but it just reveals that Rams like Cornelius has misjudged their opposition as they have misjudged everything else. 

Millions of pounds have been spent by the Council on external consultants and the cabinet is content to act on their "expert" advice and that of their officers rather than read the contract themselves.  But it wouldn't make any difference if they had.  Cornelius clearly stated on 9 November that he would be recommending 'One Barnet' to go ahead on 6 December. He also admitted that with a month to go the contract had not been seen, was incomplete and certain information was still to be received.  He had already made up his mind before even the advisers, on whom he and his cabinet were relying, had seen a complete contract. He had decided to go ahead on a wing and a song.

The Tories are living in the past in a rapidly changing world as are their advisers.  Outsourcing has become outdated, discredited, rejected. There are new models that successfully keep services in-house for the economic and social benefit of the local community.  The Council hasn't even considered such an option. Read this article by an IT expert in the latest edition of Computer Weekly about the 'One Barnet' IT outsourcing.  The alarm bells are not only ringing, they are deafening.

The Council does not have a mandate for 'One Barnet' though they claim that being elected is all the mandate they need. The reality is that 'One Barnet' has been approved even though we didn't sign up for it and the fight must go on. It is a sad day when men and women with no appetite for politics are forced into political activism against their own Council, and yet the numbers are growing along with the passion to stop an arrogant, intransigent handful of men from abusing their power and gambling irresponsibly with our lives. The message is loud and clear. "We will not let you take our democracy away".  And even if it takes until 2014, we want out of this marriage.

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