Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Chaos at The Council Part 3 - The Audit committee

Tonight I spent two and a half hours at the Barnet Council Audit Committee. Let's start at the end. All of the motions were passed. The accounts were signed off by the committee.  In fact some Tory Councillors were proud of them.

So you may conclude everything was tickety boo. But oh, if life were so simple, which it isn't. As regular readers will know, this particluar "special" meeting was a result of the previous meeting being concluded in chaos. At that meeting, the external auditors highlighted the "problems" completing the report, due to Capita not providing the information in a timely and concise fashion,. They had also not been informed about the awful OFSTED report in an appropriate fashion.

So today was part 2. Prior to the meeting, I had a conflab with fellow Barnet bloggers, Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry. We had asked questions and asked to address the committee. We'd received written answers to the questions we'd posted and discussed the various deficencies with the answers

Committee chair, Hugh Rayner opened proceedings with a rundown on meeting protocol. Then he did something none of us bloggerrs expected. He gave a short speech in which he laid into the way Capita had approached the audit. He commended the auditors for the way they had dealt with the issues.He stated that they had been too focussed on the journey and not the outcome. The report was not thorough in the outcomes department. A review was being undertaken, which would hoghlight what was needed to put humpty dumpty back together again.

Reading over my notes, there is quite a scary scenario being spelled out by the auditors.

The key highlights.

* Austerity is breaking the council (and every other council). Reserves are being dipped into, but come 2020 we face armageddon unless Central Govt changes the funding formula.

* Capita would pay the council around £55,000 towards extra costs incurred as a result of their failure to support the audit.

* Re/Capita were in dispute of a £4.6 million payment to the council. This was deemed "non material" to the audit outcome. Councillor Rayner asked Capita to acknowledge the amount. Mr "Dally" from Capita refused and simply "acknowledged the dispute"

* The Auditor felt that the council was one of the worse clients for "preparation of accounts" but not the worst.

* Councillor Finn was clearly not listening when the auditor from BDO stated that the accounts were qualified for "use of resources" due to the OFSTED audit. He specifically said in his speech at the end that the acounts were fine and "not qualified".

* The Auditor stated on several occasions that Barnets method of outsourcing was "unusual". Councillor Mittra suggested that we'd been promised Capita would be marvellous at reporting, the man from BDO looked at his shoe and refused to be drawn "There is one council that are on our books that are much worse". I was reminded of a friend who bought a Ford Anglia with a blown head gasket and my Dad advised "Well if you can find one with a good lump in a scrapyard and you know how to fit it, you'll probably have got a bargain".

The question I asked re what was being done to ensure this didn't happen again had received a non answer. I pointed this out. It turned out that the answer from the Section 151 officer was slightly misleading. It stated a plan would resolve all of the issues. When I asked why they hadn't seen the plan, they revealed that this wouldn't be ready till November, so it is clearly too early to claim it would resolve anything.

Any sane person, who hadn't fallen asleep for the duration of the meeting would be rather alarmed. After the meeting, I had an informal, off the record chat with Comittee Chair Hugh Rayner. I quite like Hugh, unlike certain other Barnet Committee chairs, he is respectful to the public. Hethanked myself and Mr Reasonable for our questions and said that it was helpful (Mrs Angry had departed earlier). It was a pleasant change and I suspect that some of the younger whippersnappers could learn something from this approach. Cllr Rayner is one of the better committee chairs. He seems to be keen to do the job properly and expressed some candid and very sensible view privately afterwards. The purpose of  the audit committee is to provide scrutiny. The job of the chair is important and Cllr Rayner discharged it seriously and with an appropriate level of humour and gravitas. I would commend Councillor Hutton and Mitra for some excellent questions. I do hope that cllr Rayner has a quiet word with Councillor Zinkin. He has not covered himself in glory throughout this process. For some reason he seems determined to cast himself as the "Capita Champion" and clearly does not understand his job.

As for Councillor Finn. I like Tony. He's a decent chap in many ways, however his summing up was bizzare. One attendee, who shall remain nameless, suggested that he simply uses the same speech every year. Maybe as an accountant, he simply wanted to say some nice things. Sadly it was inappropriate given the car crash. It was a very different car crash to usual. The chair is not in denial. Once you get past the BDO auditors soothing tone, you really should be rather worried.

The one thing we all need to be aware of is that come 2020, unless central government eases its austerity program, nothing that bloggers, councillors, auditors or Council Officers can do will save us from the mother of all budget crises. Given that the government is barley functioning and riven with splits, I can only see huge tax rises and savage service cuts. This is regarldless of the party in charge.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Vandalism in Mill Hill - Time for the council to get serious

This year, the Barnet Eye has seen several acts of vandalism in the Mill Hill Broadway. Here are just a couple of incidents that we're referring to from Mill Hill Twitter feeds.



The Mill Hill Broadway Blog also reported a night of vandalism in August, with some quite alarming pictures. As a result of the vandalism to the Mill Hill Music Festival Banners in May, I made a very disturbimg discovery. Mill Hill is monitored by Barnet Council CCTV cameras, which many residents believe are designed to make sure such low level crime is detected. When we reported the slashing of the festival banners, we were told that the council does not work with the police to resolve such crimes. Whilst you may not think that the slashing of banners is a serious issue, the perpetrators were clearly carrying large blades and were intent on causing damage. What would have happened if anyone had disturbed them? Despite this, there was no interest from either the local Police or the local Council in making any serious effort to identify the people responsible.

It is not only the Broadway. Mill Hill Park has seen some atrocious acts of vandalism, which seem to only serve the purpose of making the park less pleasant. We need a council that takes such issues seriously and get working with the police. We believe that if young people get into the habit of carrying blades, smashing up shops and civic amenities and clearly not worrying about the consequences, out locality will become a dangerous and dire place to live. It is also clear that the local councillors in Mill Hill have no interest in engaing with the Police to do anything about it. There is a council election next year. This will give us an opportunity to kick them out and get some new councillors in Mill Hill who are prepared to get the Police working with the Council to use the expensive CCTV system to serve the people of the Mill Hill properly and make vandals and thugs think again.




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Buy your Goldfish at Finchley Nurseries *** Not an advertising feature ***

Psst..... Wanna buy a cheap Goldfish? Want a nice bowl to sit on the mantelpiece?

If you do, I'd suggest you don't go to Pond Life, the aquatic shop at Finchley Nurseries on Burtonhole Lane! Why? What have they done to upset the Barnet Eye? Well firstly, there is a Tottenham Hotspur FC flag flying above the gaffe. Clearly as a Manchester City fan, I would not enter such an establishment. Secondly, the owner, a certain Mr Bard takes his job very seriously and as such doesn't sell Goldfish to customers who do not have a proper environment for them to live. Goldfish bowls are too small a space for a cold water fish of the size of a goldfish. Without proper filtration, aeration and cover (rocks, plants etc), the fish will be subjected to a long, cruel suffocating, miserable existence. If you have/want a suitable tank which provides such an environment, then that is a different matter. You will find him most accommodating. The same is true for ponds and tropical fish.

I was talking to Mr Bard yesterday. As well as being Mill Hills premiere reputable goldfish salesman, he's also a specialist in pond/wetland/river maintenance. He has a very impressive catalog of projects completed and maintenance contracts. He explained several local projects he's done and showed pictures of his work. Two issues came up. The first was Angel Pond, at the top of Highwood Hill. This Pond is currently plagued with an invasive weed. Despite a lot of money being spent, the Pond is still being clogged up. Mr Bard explained how his advice was ignored, therefore the money was wasted. In short, the weed needed a proper long term strategy to address. His view is that the problem could have been resolved, for less money, had his advice been followed. As a Mill Hill resident, who walks past the Pond on a daily basis, he exclaimed his frustration that so much was spent to such little good.

The subject of Darlands nature reserve was also raised. Strangely, given his experience, client base and proximity of his business to the site (he's next door), he has not been consulted. He walks his dog around the site most days and is friends with Clive Cohen from London Wildlife Trust, who he often discusses conservation issues with.

I must question why such local experts are not involved with the project. Surely we need to involve local experts and local business in such schemes. Has conservation in Mill Hill become like the premiership, where local talent is viewed as 'not sexy'? I really can't see what the proposed Darlands Trust needs to be such an exclusive club. Do you?

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Tweets of the Week in The London Borough of Barnet - 17/09/2017

It's that time of the week again. What has been happening in our little corner of heaven? Here's my pick of the week. Please follow those who tickle your fancy!

1. Hot off the press! This one simply had to be Top of the Tweets. Enjoy



2. Like a great fireworks display? This is the best in the Borough!



3. Once again, respect to London's finest. Keeping us safe and doing a fantastic job!


4.Does Colindale have Britains cutest Pub Dog at The Chandos?


5. Marc Bolan RIP - Sadly missed


6.More great work from Barnets Libraries


7. We love a bit of local history and this is a very fine bit of it!


8.They've gone Quackers up in Totteridge Valley!


9. Outdoor Swimming pools and public drinking fountains. I miss them


10. Why not come down to Finchley for some live music for free at The Bohemia on Friday Evening


That's all folks

Saturday, 16 September 2017

The Saturday List #147 - Ten Ways You Can Help Save The Planet

What do you want for the future? Do you care about the inheritance you leave to your children? Yesterday, I had one of those "what would you do if you won the lottery?" conversations with a friend of mine. It was in light of the huge Euromillions payout. She said "I'd buy some land and build a little estate that all my family and close friends could live on". I thought it was a lovely idea. A real legacy. She explained she was not materialisitic and got the most pleasure not from cars, jewellery or clothes but from being around people she loved. It got me thinking. I am also not particularly materialistic. I like nice holidays, nice wine ( although I stop at around a tenner a bottle usually) and I have a weakness for electric guitars. But if I won the lottery, I thoought it would be great to help my friends and family in a really positive way. Maybe I could buy them all solar panels, to cut their electric bills, buy them electric cars, to cut emissions, pay for better insulation. Then I thought, hang on. We should all be making our legacy to our friends and family a cleaner, healthier planet. So I thought, it's high time I put together a list of simple, achievable ways we can all help make our city better, our neighbourhood better and our lives better. Lung diseases related to pollution are ever more prevalent. So here is my list of ten ways you can combat it. You may not be able to do all of them, but any will help in a small way. If we all thought globally and acted locally, it would make a huge difference.

1. Dump Amazon, buy locally. The rise of delivery services has resulted in a huge number of vans and lorries driving around delivering all manner of goods. A walk down to the high street is good for the constitution. Of course there is stuff you can't get locally, but when you can, use your local shops, put monet back into the community!

2. Walk or cycle for all journeys of a mile or less. Again this is good for your health, will save you money and if you change your mindset and decide that you will make walking or cycling your first choice means of transport, you will find your wallet at the end of the week has a fair few more pennies in. Buy a shopping trolley if you don't want to carry heavy bags. What we need is a new generation of shopping trolleys that are cool!

3. Use public transport where possible for your journeys. The buses and trains will run whether you are on them or not. If you can use them, then that will cut the pollution.

4. Investigate working from home. If you run a firm, do you encourage staff to work from home where it is practical? If your firm allows it have you checked it out. Cutting out those journeys will cut pollution in our towns and high streets.

5. Turn off lights when you are not in the room and only boil enough water to make the drinks you want. I once read that the UK could close two coal fired power stations if we all turned off lights when we weren't in the room and only filled kettles with the amount of water we need to have a tea or coffee. It suggested that when we make tea, we pour the water into a cup and then tip this into the kettle. All that water left at the bottom at the end has been heated, costing you money. I also read that this would save us between £50 and £100 a year. We make all our coffee using a Nespresso, it only heats exactly the amount you want and the pods are recycled. I love gadgets so it is an example of great use of technology and green thinking!

6. Make your next car electric. Have you ever considered getting an electric car? The technology is improving all the time and for many of us, they would perfectly fit in with our lifestyles.

Mill Hill Music Complex Studio 100% Carbon neutral
7. Fit solar panels on your roof. This is an investment in your future. Again it will save you money. There are loan schemes that mean it will actually cost you nothing, as the pay back will cover the cost of the loan. It just means that in future your electricity bills will go down. Our studio is 100% carbon neutral, as we have huge solar panels on the roof. If you run a business, you should investigate this. We actually earn quite a lot selling electricity back to the network. We believe all new buildings should be compelled to include solar panels. It is ridiculous to be burning fossil fuels when such solutions are available.

8.  Plant a tree in your garden. Trees use the CO2 in the atmosphere and turn it into wood. When we burn coal, we are simply releasing carbon from fossilised wood back into the atmosphere. If you plant and apple or pear tree you will also get some lovely fresh fruit. What could be better?

9. Put a small pond in your garden. If you have a garden, then you can help the local ecosystem by putting a small pond in. It is a source of water for wildlife and birds, amphibians will colonise it, who feed on slugs and snails. If you live in Mill Hill, there is a great pond supplier at Finchley Nurseries who can help advise.

10. Don't buy products with lots of packaging. Most of this goes into landfill sites. This costs councils huge amounts of money. Make a conscious effort to choose products such as loose tomatoes and potatoes. If you have bought tomatoes etc, reuse the plastic bag. 

Now of course it's up to you if you do any of all of these, but if you do, you'll be fitter, healthier, have more cash in your wallet at the end of the week, have a great supply of apples or pears at this time of the year, have regular visits from local wildlife, have a thriving high street and leave behind a less polluted world. What is not to like?

Friday, 15 September 2017

The Barnet Eye Big Barnet Libraries Competition! Win £10,000 a year for four years!

Today the Barnet Eye launches an amazing competition with the most spiffing prize in the history of Barnet Blogging. We've got a very simple spot the difference competition. It's really easy to enter. All you have to do is examine the two pictures. One is the Library opening times from 2012 and the other is the Library opening times for 2017. Now just to make it a bit harder, the council changed the font, so ignore the colour and the graphics. We are interested in the words. Jot down as many differences as you can

Library times in 2012

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Library Opening times in 2017

Click for a more reaadable version

Can you spot any differences? Ok, so you want a chance to win £10,000 a year for four years?

Here's what you have to do, it is so simple.

1. Cut and paste the email address of the competition adjudicator into an email - this is

cllr.r.thompstone@barnet.gov.uk

2. In the Message Title bar cut and paste the following line

Congratulations on your wonderful improvements to the Barnet Library service

 3. In main message text, cut and paste the following

Dear Councillor Thompstone. I am a massive admirer of your work and I have noticed all of the following massive improvements to provision of library services that you have instigated.


4. Below this line now list all of the differences you spotted between the 2012 opening times and the new opening times in the 2017 document.

5. Below all of these difference cut and paste the following text.

As a massive admirer of your work, I would love to be selected to be a Conservative Councillor and get a £10,000 a year allowance so I too can make such massive improvements to the library service, which is so cherished by so many children, Parents, Elderly people and other residents. I think you are a wonderful man and have such a lovely moustache.


 6. You may wish to add a tie break answer as we assume this competition will be very popular. Simply add an extra paragraph explaining why you think the changes are so marvellous for the people of Barnet.

The Barnet Eye is sure Councillor Thompstone will be thrilled to get so many people admiring his work.
Image result for councillor reuben thompstone
Councillor Rueben Thompstone and his not at all silly Moustache

Of course, not everyone is a mercenary git in Barnet. You may possibly be appalled at the changes. In which case, I'm afraid you won't get selected as a Conservative Councillor and trouser £10,000 a year in allowances for attending two meetings a year. But you can always send Cllr Thompstone an email listing all of the changes and tell him that you think they are appalling. Sadly, I don't think he'll be quite so thrilled.  Maybe you could tell him he's got a lovely moustache to cheer him up. Here at the Barnet Eye, we in no way think he looks like a complete berk, in the absolutely classical meaning of the phrase.

If you send us a copy of your email, we'll buy you a pot noodle, which is the standard Barnet Eye prize!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Chaos at the Council - Part 2 - The Audit Committee rerun

In July, an extraordinary event occurred at a meeting of Barnet Council's audit committee. The main purpose of this meeting was to sign off the annual council accounts. I've been writing a blog for over nine years and this has happened every year, without too much fuss. External auditors come in, produce a report that says everyting is shipshape (or not), a set of recomendations is laid out and the committee signs it off. Whilst I may disagree with much of what the political agenda of those running the council do, they are democratically elected. With this is in mind, us bloggers tend to pore over the audit report looking for issues to highlight to residents, demonstrating that the political masters at the council are not doing a very good job. It generally isn't that hard with Barnet Council. This year however, it has all been a bit different. Bloggers have generally not had too much reason to challenge the audit report itself. The auditors are competent professionals. This year, it became clear, as soon as we saw the audit report, that it was incomplete. In short, the committe was being asked to sign off a report that wasn't fit for purpose. At the meeting, the auditors themselves reported a catalog of woe, with information not being divulged, council officers and Capita staff not being as helpful as they would expect and incredibly, a report published by OFSTED detailing how Barnet Council's childrens services was failing had not been included in the scope of the report. Amongst all of this chaos, the committee did the only sensible thing. They sent the report back and asked the auditors to try again, as detailed in our 1st August blog.

Next Tuesday, the committee will try again. Rather suspiciously something went wrong on the council website. The report pack, normally made available so people like me can review it and ask difficult questions, did not appear. My fellow blogger, John Dix, AKA Mr Reasonable, was not impressedand tweeted for clarification.


The reports have now appeared. We have until 10am tomorrow to read them and formulate any questions. So lets start with what the 'rework' found. We have cast a quick eye over the report. Here is a key extract that shows just why a 'rework' was needed.

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It is not trivial, is it? To find that information has come to light that has "reduced net assets and reserves of the Council by £82.348 million and the Group by £89.295 million." is clearly worrying.

We note that the OFSTED report and its damning conclusions are now noted.
Click for a more readable view

One other issue caught my eye. My fellow blogger Mrs Angry may well consider asking the committee a question based on this statement and the information she disclosed in her recent blog


Click for a more readable view

At this point, I must make a pretty worrying admission. In my role as an armchair auditor and a blogger, I feel I am failing you, the reader. As I am sure regular readers are aware, I have a job and business interests. I have limited time for blogging. To write this blog properly, I'd normally have allocated 3-4 elapsed days and perhaps spent 5-6 hours pulling the information together. As public questions must be submitted by 10am tomorrow and I only started looking at this report at 7.30am this morning, I've really not been able to pull together a properly put together blog. It is very much a  "summary blog". I've not had a chance to "do the detail" and "crunch the numbers". In short, by not putting the reports up until Tuesday, the Council has in effect circumvented proper resident scrutiny. 

It may shock you to know that I take blogging about the council and trying to make sure our money is well spent seriously. In light of this, I sent this email to the council and committee chair today.



Dear Ms Lugangira & Councillor Rayner,

I have a request to address the committee for three minutesand three questions for the committee. As I do not wish to “hog” the time, if there are a significant number of questions from the public, please allow other questioners priority, should I have been granted the opportunity to address the committee. If the constitution does not allow such an address, then please treat questions as per other members of the public.

Here is a draft of my address.

“Dear Members of the Audit committee, many thanks for being allowed to address this committee. As I am sure we all agree, this meeting is not being held in ideal circumstances. In light of the importance of the task at hand, I wish to raise a very strong objection to the short amount of time between the posting of the report pack on the Council website (sometime on Tuesday 12th Sept) and the deadline for questions (10am Friday 15th). Like many concerned residents, I have a job and business commitments. This has meant that I have been denied a reasonable amount of time to give proper consideration to the substantial amount of detail in the reports. As a local blogger, who has had the value of their work recognised by former local government secretary Eric Pickles, I take my role very seriously. It is impossible to have proper transparency and public accountability if reports are not given due attention before the deadline for questions can be formulated.  I therefore ask this committee to ensure that all public reports are published a minimum of five working days before the question deadline, to allow due time for consideration. Many thanks for this opportunity to address the committee”.

Q1. The revised report details misstatement. Can the committee explain how such misstatements occurred and what efforts will be made to prevent such misstatements in future.

Q2. At the previous meetig, it was observed by the auditors that Capita staff had not been as helpful as they would normally expect. Why has this observation not been formally documented, as clearly this would add to costs for the taxpayer?

Q3. Can the committee provide details of the extra costs incurred to the taxpayer of having to resubmit this report and restage this meeting and suggest who bears respobsibility for incurring these costs

Regards
Roger Tichborne


Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Barnet - Does the One Barnet Commissioning Council work?

This isn't going to be a long blog. It doesn't need to be. You only really need to look at the two extracts from council reports below to know everyting you need to about how the One Barnet Commissioning Council is going.

 These are from the report pack for  tonights  PERFORMANCE AND CONTRACT MANAGEMENT COMMITTEE of Barnet Council meeting. The committees job is to ensure that the council is efficiently managing its suppliers and ensuring that their contracts are being adhered to.

The following extract tells you everything you need to know. Of the 'themed committee indicators in the report pack', just under 40% have worsened in Q1 of 2017/18. In an act of unrivalled Chutzpah, a ridiculous spin is put on these results. The council have the audacity to claim "the majority have improved". Whilst this is technically correct, the fact that 37% have worsened is absolutely appalling. 
http://barnet.moderngov.co.uk/documents/g9098/Public%20reports%20pack%2012th-Sep-2017%2019.00%20Performance%20and%20Contract%20Management%20Committee.pdf?T=10

Barnet Eye readers will also be interested to see just how much of the 'savings' we were promised as a results of the One Barne are actually materialising and how much us Barnet Taxpayers are giving back to suppliers in cash in what is known as "gainshare payments".

Click on image for a more readable version
In other words, by the councils own figures over £90 million of savings have failed to materialise and £6 million has been paid to suppliers in the savings that have occurred. These are from the councils own report.

Does One Barnet work? Is the commissioning council a success? Well I daresay that our local council leadership will say "we've achived savings of £35 million that we wouldn't have got otherwise. But these savings were taken against a "do nothing" model. There was never a comparator done to work out what savings could have been made without outsourcing.

These savings have come at a cost. Hundreds of jobs have moved out of Barnet. This has affected the local economy. Do councillors read these reports? One can only wonder. I must say I was surprised that all of this was tucked away with little commentary to actually highlight the dire nature of what was being reported. This is no surprise to me. By my rather dodgy maths, that means every man, woman and child in the Borough will not be getting £250 of promised savings from this contract. Of course Capita have done rather well out of the deal, with payments of £265 million according to the report.

Click for more readable version
Value for money? Draw your own conclusions

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Tweets of the week in The London Borough of Barnet - 10/9/2017

It's Sunday, so it must be time for the The Tweets of The Week. We have some pretty porky prime cuts this week! Don't forget to follow any tweeters who tickle your fancy. Yet again it is  a great reminder that we are lucky to live in an excellent corner of the worlds greatest city!

1. We are very chuffed at this. One of our fave pubs receiving national acclaim!




2. We love to use this page to let you know of great stuff going on in our locality and it doesn't come any cooler than this!


3. Love this tweet. Art Against Knives doing great stuff in Burnt Oak

golders
4. A sad little bit of Golders Green history


5.Arsene Wenger announces his latest signing in Waitrose in Totteridge


6.Good to hear that Barnet Councillors chucked out Victoria Lodge planning appeal. Good work by RozGab


7. Great local history video from The Finchley Society


8. Here's one for people with dementia and carers


9. Are you ready to rock! Great live music in North Finchley tonight "The Spirit of the Torrington!"


10.Buzzing Helen shows impeccable musical taste!




That's all folks!