Sunday, October 18, 2009

bye bye blogger - A new home for my blog

Well I've taken the plunge and move my blog to a new home. You can now find me at If you pay me a visit you will find more info on why I have made the move. Look forward to seeing you there.

If you link to this blog please update your links to point to the new site. Please note that no public money has been spent on the new site.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mobile phone mast in Queens Road

I recently received notification of a proposal to place a mobile phone base station and 17.5 metre mast at Newman House, Queens Road, Barnet EN5 4DL. The mobile phone companies have been trying to get a mast in this general area for a while now and judging by the emails in my inbox this latest attempt is no more popular than previous applications.

The problem of course is that we all have and want to use mobile phones but none of us want the associated equipment nearby. My own view is to consider how visually intrusive the proposal is and judge it on those grounds. On that basis a 17.5 metre mast is rather intrusive in a residential area bordering on a conservation area.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Future Shape

Last night the Chief Executive Nick Walkley briefed the Lib Dem group on the Councils’ ‘Future shape’ project. Future Shape has probably suffered from two major problems. Definition of exactly what it is and some very poor examples of what it might be ie the whole budget airline comparison.

Dealing with the issue of what future shape is, is still not easy, even after a briefing. It seems to have started as a bit of ‘blue sky’ / ‘out of the box’ thinking (add your favourite management cliché here). It’s probably easier to look at what problems were trying to be addressed.

The first problem is that many of Councils’ activities fail to make a real difference to the people they interact with. The best example of this is probably social services. Why do they fail? Well the answer that future shape comes up with is that often the Councils’ activities are about meeting targets and not actually meeting real needs. I’m sure this is the case but getting away from that culture will not be easy. The problem is not unique to local authorities. The same issues apply to the NHS and the Police. The solution future shape envisages is giving people control over their services, so that they decide what they need. This is where the example of person choosing a carer or a holiday. Of course the choice may not, as in this case be a real one. If the carer is required then there are no funds for the holiday.

Another example is street cleaning. Traders in High Barnet have told the Council that they often clean the streets outside their shops and therefore don’t need the street cleaning service to clean as frequently but do need the parking restrictions sorted out in order to boost their trade. Future shape might therefore imagine a situation where a contract exists between the Council and the traders to clean the High Street and the money saved doing that would allow cheaper parking.

The second problem that future shape seeks to address is the fact that Councils will undoubtedly receive lower settlements from central government as it seeks to battle with the massive debts it has run up. Councils will have to try and do the same with less. The mantra of future shape is that Councils need to do things differently with less. This in reality will mean looking at outsourcing or competitive tendering of services rather than Barnet’s current in-house model.

So what are the problems with future shape? Well the sense I have is that this is an officer led initiative. They know that the council cannot continue to function as it is and are looking for solutions. The job of the politicians seems to be to do the marketing for it and put the spin on it and hopefully (as far as the administration is concerned), take the credit.

In my opinion future shape is born out of a political vacuum. The Tories on Barnet Council have no real idea what they want the Council to do or to be, other than it should not be costing lots of money to their supporters, many of whom use very few of the services the Council provides and would happily opt out of the rest if they could.

If you look at what Councils such as Sheffield and Newcastle are doing then you can see much of the same thought processes going on but driven from a political leadership that believes in giving power away to the people and is driven by a the philosophy that elected representative are there to empower people not simply to act as a short cut to getting the Council to provide the service they should be getting in the first place. If we are ever to get civic society back then there has to be political leadership. Council officers on their own cannot and indeed should not be placed in a position where they are the ones leading the engagement with residents. Barnet’s political masters are already marginalising themselves with their behaviour and lack of vision. Future shape cannot actually make a real difference until that problem is addressed.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hey Dave, choose me, choose me.

The fuss this week over Barnet Councils proposals to use the business model of a budget airline for running council services has caused quite a reaction. Indeed I had LBC radio phoning on Friday morning asking me to be interviewed by Nick Ferrari about the proposals. As I explained in the interview the problem is that we don’t actually know what these proposals entail because at the moment it’s all ‘blue sky’ and ‘out of the box’ thinking based on an expensive external consultants report as part of the Councils Future shape project.

The future shape project is really just out sourcing by another name, and we have been down this road before. The problem with outsourcing is that most Council services are not capable of being competitively tendered in a way that puts any market pressure to bear that would provide better services and /or reduce costs. In the world of budget airlines there can be competition between traditional carriers and budget carriers on a particular route. How many Council services can operate on that basis? I would contend that the answer is not many.

The examples given are ludicrous if you actually think about them. In the planning application example there is a set time period defined by the need to allow consultation with interested parties. This can’t be altered so there will always be a minimum period before any planning application can be determined. Why should anyone have to pay more to get a service that they should be getting in the first place? If the Council cannot determine planning applications in a timely fashion then it needs to look at its organisation and practices to see where it is going wrong. Barnet could easily fund more planning officers if it stopped wasting money elsewhere.

There is a simple answer as to why this is all happening now. The leader of the Council Mike Freer is the Tory PPC for Finchley and Golders Green. Under its new boundaries the constituency is notionally the 2nd most marginal Tory / Labour seat, (although currently held by Labours Rudi Vis). If the Tories win the next election then this seat will have almost certainly been won by them.

Freer therefore expects to be an MP and will want to have done something to attract David Cameron’s attention and this is obviously meant to be it. Freer of course will no longer be at the helm of Barnet Council and therefore not left with the responsibility of trying to work out how to implement the future shape proposals.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The madness of the CRB check.

If you do any kind of work where you come into contact with children you are required to complete a Criminal Records Bureau disclosure application form or to give it its more common name a CRB check. This form is submitted by the organisation that wants you to do the work i.e. a School, Church etc.

If you were to design a system with the aim of making it the most bureaucratic and idiotic system ever created then you could do worse that create a system like the CRB check.

So what are the problems with the CRB check?

Firstly you have to make a separate application for each organisation. I have already filled in at least two CRB forms as a Governor at my local infants school and as someone involved in youth work at a local church. I now am required to fill in a further two CRB forms providing exactly the same information because I am a substitute member of the new Children services committee and because I am no a Governor with another local school.

Secondly the organisation that you work for has to process the form and send it off to the CRB people. This is time consuming and any error on the form will find it rejected and cause even more paperwork.

There has to be a simpler less bureaucratic way of protecting children. There is one centralised list so it would make sense for anyone who is required to work with children to register on that list and provide the information and proof of identity once. Any organisation wishing to employ someone to work with children could then apply to the CRB with a simple consent form to see if the person they are employing is registered or not. If they are then the additional organisation that they are going to be working for can be added to the database. Far less work for everyone.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I received a letter the other day announcing the closure of 'Personal Computer World magazine'. PCW was one of the first UK based computer magazines. I remember avidly reading it whilst saving my pocket money to buy my first computer a ZX81 back in 1981. PCW covered a wide range of computers and even in its later guise it was still an interesting read despite a little to much focus on windows I guess the market for computer magazines had become increasingly crowded and it was inevitable that in the current climate not all of them will survive. The publisher has moved my subscription to Computer Active. Somehow I don't think I will be renewing.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Breaking News - ASDA withdraw their planning application in new Barnet

News has just reached me that ASDA have withdrawn their planning application for New Barnet. More soon.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Residents' surveys

Over the last few months I have been spending quite a lot of time on the doorstep. My colleagues and I have been distributing resident’s surveys in order to find out what the priorities are for the people in our wards. In High Barnet we have now distributed around 1000 survey forms.

On Saturday we were out again. I like doing surveys as they help ground what we do in the reality of what people are really concerned about. People generally like to be asked their opinions and are happy to complete the survey. The results of the surveys are compiled and used to target specific issues such as speeding in certain roads. Everyone who completes a survey (and gives us their address) is written to with a detailed breakdown of the results so that they know what their neighbourhood is concerned about.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Sheltered housing warden cuts scrape through

Last night was the first meeting of the new Business Management Overview and Scrutiny sub Committee. Cllr Jack Cohen is the Lib Dem representative on the committee and I went along to watch as he had called in the decision to scrap the site based Sheltered housing warden service. The first meeting was not an auspicious occasion. Jack has a very calm analytical method of questioning both officers and cabinet members and it soon became clear that there were big holes in the proposals to cut the wardens.

First up was the admission that no cabinet member had been to visit a sheltered housing scheme as part of the consultation process. The reason? – too upsetting. Basically it was clear that if Cllr Cornelius (the cabinet member responsible) had gone then the emotions evoked by some very upset and angry residents might have swayed his decision. Never mind the poor staff from Barnet who were sent to defend the indefensible. I know for a fact that many of them found the experience traumatic. I’m reminded of Cllr Brian Salinger the previous leader of the Council before the coup. I disagreed with him on many things but I am sure that he would have gone and presented his case to the residents.

Then we moved onto the future provision. Jack asked how many people in there own homes would be helped by the new arrangements. After all this is one of the justifications for doing it. Answer – We don’t know. Well if they don’t know then how are they going to manage it? There will have to be a budget. Will they start turning people away when the budget is spent? The inability of the cabinet member to produce a clear business case for his proposals was frankly shocking. We are putting all these vulnerable people through hell and we are not even sure of the benefits of doing so!

And then came the vote. The Tory councillors all voted against apart from Cllr Scannell who abstained. The Chairman Cllr Prentice used her casting vote to push the measure through.

It was clearly wrong to start this whole affair as part of the budget setting process. If we were going to look at Sheltered housing provision then it should have been a piece of work done ahead of the decision (not after it). There needs to be a robust needs analysis and a real consultation so that any conclusions are based on evidence and not simply the desire to find budget cuts.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

New Facebook links

Facebook have introduced the ability to have a much simpler link rather that the usual long chain of numbers in a link. You can now get to my profile like this.

You can register to change your facebook url at