Sunday, 1 October 2017

Labour Conference 2017: The beauty of our poetry, and the richness of our lives

Last year, the leaving of Liverpool was for me, I thought, the last Conference I would attend. The divisiveness within the party, and the sense of distance I felt from members who had not embraced the reality of change, either of leadership, or direction, made me feel irredeemably gloomy, and not inclined to re-visit the experience. But a week in politics, a month, a year: a long time, and so much has happened since then. After the spectacular performance of the party during the general election, Mrs Angry's boundless optimism reared its head once more, and here she was, back in Brighton.

Quite apart from the sense of excitement at the party's changing prospects ... Brighton is always the best venue for Conference, and an irresistible lure. See here and here. The unique character of the town, its faded, flaking Regency grandeur, the unbearably self-pleasing hipster culture, the juxtaposition of forced seaside jollity, and a sense of urban decay: all of it makes the perfect painted backdrop for a debate on the state of Britain, in the twenty first century. 

And the sea, the sea; always there like an eternal question, unanswered, crashing onto the pebbled beach, slapping up against the Palace pier, while the ruins of the West Pier, Mrs Angry's favourite Conference metaphor, sits forlornly out among the waves, disconnected from the shore, ravaged by fire: but still standing.

Listen! you hear the grating roar 
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, 
At their return, up the high strand, 
Begin, and cease, and then again begin, 
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring 
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sitting on the damp shingle, 'the naked shingles of the world', in the rather melancholy early autumn sunlight, trying to remember those lines of Dover Beach, I realised I'd never seen the old pier this close before. Now it seemed much nearer to the shoreline than I had thought. (Small, and far away, Dougal).

The sea between seemed calm: until the waves met the pebbles, and suddenly jumped ashore with some force. A young couple lying together by one of the abandoned pier supports were caught out by this, were soaked in seawater, and ran up the beach, laughing, dripping from head to foot. Perhaps it was an omen, for #lab17. Prepare for the unexpected. Ignorant armies, clashing by day and by night.

Up to the Conference centre, which was surrounded by the heaviest security seen yet, with armed police in groups guarding the entrance, and stringent checking of those entering. Inside, all was as normal, the usual array of stalls and broadcast teams, and thousands of people thronging the different levels. Except: it was true to say that the crowds of people were more diverse than ever - a slow process, moving from the days of the boys in suits, to an attendance by a membership more representative of the population, but it is happening, at last.

In the hall, speakers from CLPs were taking turns to put questions from the stage. Several of them objected to the fact that Sadiq Khan was being given the chance to speak at Conference, but not other urban mayors. London-centric politics are so well embedded in all political parties that this sort of favouritism still surprises ... well, only those who live outside London. The rest take it for granted.

Time for a young man in a suit, next up, to try telling members that it was right to hear from Sadiq because he has the largest mandate. Well, yes: because London is so populous. But does that mean he must always take precedence? The people in the hall let it be known that they thought not. But this exchange was a healthy sign: challenge from the floor was strictly forbidden, in the bad old days, pre Corbyn. The balance of power is changing, and members increasingly are given their say.

Outside the centre, a noisy NHS march, led by drummers, moved along to Regency Square, where in fierce sunlight reflected from the sea, speakers like Jon Ashworth and John McDonnell addressed the crowd. Again, in the past these demos took place outside the fenced off Conference, exiled from Conference: now it is a matter of course that the shadow Chancellor and colleagues will take part too.

In the afternoon, Ian McNichol talked about the party's hugely impressive performance in the general election, and the spectacular gain in membership - now around 575,000. Even Canterbury had turned Labour, he remarked: a seat held by Tories since 1295. That was a result of what he called, with a commendable attempt at inclusive diplomacy, 'real Progress, and Real Momentum'.

The Tories, said McNichol, think they are born to rule. Who's going to stop them? WE ARE! shouted everybody. 

Ian Lavery spoke of the pride he had felt in Gateshead when such a massive crowd came to hear Jeremy Corbyn speak during the election campaign: he also poured scorn, to popular approval, on pantomime villains Theresa May, for her dismissal of the use of foodbanks as 'complex', and George Osborne, who had been 'kicked out of cabinet, like a dog in the night'. 

More speakers the next morning in plenary sessions continued to amuse the hall. Emily Thornberry referred mischievously to Jeremy Corbyn's election night 'high five' moment, (which they later re-enacted with rather more success) and then suggested Boris Johnson might be made to take a paternity test in regard to Brexit, with a consequent award of £350 million in maintenance payments.

Keir Starmer talked about the Tories' Brexit policy of 'constructive ambiguity', and their 'post imperial delusions'. Labour now, he said, are the 'grown ups in the room'. 

Union leaders addressed Conference. Unison's Dave Prentis is not the most eloquent of speakers, but appears now to have overcome any doubts about the leader, and was awfully keen to remind us of what he now called 'our magnificent manifesto'.  He said he wanted to see us all on picket lines. Not sure if that included the picket lines in Broken Barnet.

Aslef's Mick Whelan talked about the lie of trickle down economics, and the deception of the 'Northern Powerhouse'; the scandalous difference in levels of investment between north and south.

Funny to see Unite's Len McCluskey no longer the lone voice in the wilderness, addressing Conference with a plea for a return to socialist values. He clearly was almost at a loss to know what to say, this year, except to observe happily that at the election we had won not only the support of the young, the hearts and minds of voters, but that we had won back our dignity and pride, and he ended by quoting part of the chorus of 'The Red Flag'.

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.

The flinching cowards and sneering traitors, at this Conference, were keeping a low profile, and indeed, there appear to have been some damascene conversions, since last year, as the reality of Corbyn's grip on the party, and the nation, made it obvious to some previously disaffected MPs that the advancement of their careers depends on a new found loyalty to the party leadership, and a hasty, if belated, conversion to the founding principles of the Labour movement. 

Amusing to see critics of the new leadership, and new direction, suddenly so keen to fall in line, now that it is clear the change is here to stay.

But hurrah: here on the stage now was Dennis Skinner, who was greeted, as ever, with huge applause, good humour and affection. He talked about his life as a miner, working with men of a range of nationalities, all brought together by their working lives, comradeship, and union membership. He compared the way things were then to the experience of those living in a world of zero contract jobs. But he was thrilled at the high turnout at Conference, the surge in membership, and the clear proof that the party was 'alive and kicking'.

Skinner, of course, was acting as 'John McDonnell's warm up act' - and here now was the Shadow Chancellor himself. His speech was prefaced by a short film by Ken Loach, sitting in the hall, as Mc Donnell pointed out. Loach, whose 'I Daniel Blake' so perfectly expresses the extent of injustice and sense of anger that fuels so much of the newly energised party, stood up and punched the air with his fist, in a gesture of solidarity.

Mc Donnell spoke about his own family's history, and the course of the Labour movement moving in parallel with that history; one that rebuilt the nation from the ruins of war and enabled his generation to move forwards to a better future. This is a message that speaks to so many of us whose own families were enabled to move from an expectation of nothing but poverty and injustice to a point of opportunity and achievement: whose families would not have believed that we have returned, in the age of Daniel Blake, to a state of inequality reinforced by the removal, or destruction, of so many of the hard won rights they had secured.

The years that followed the path of progress, that led us into an era of materialism and a culture of exploitation are, surely, now at an end, and we need to reassert control of the process that gave us the things we, in my generation, took for granted: the foundations of a civilised society - the NHS, free education, a welfare state. 

When Mc Donnell announced a Labour government would be taking back control of the utilities that once were nationalised, in the interests of that better society: rail, water, energy, Conference was thunderous in applause. It was time to remember that such a proposal, only three years ago, was unthinkable. Now it is fundamental to the party's agenda. And hugely popular.

The shadow chancellor also summarised the ways in which recent Tory governments have become recklessly indifferent to the impact of their policies on ordinary families. The end of his speech spoke to me, and seemingly everyone else in the hall:

The Tories have tried to change people’s view of what is normal and acceptable in our society. They want us to accept that in the fifth richest country in the world it’s normal and acceptable for people to be saddled with debt; for people to have to work long, often insecure, hours, stressed out, struggling to find time with their family; for people not to have a pay rise for years no matter how dedicated you are or how hard you work; for young people to have no prospect of owning their own home; for disabled people to be pushed to the edge by the benefits system; or for carers to be struggling without support or recognition.

Let’s make it clear – we will never accept that this is normal or acceptable.

Yes, we will increase GDP, close the current account deficit and increase productivity. But life is not just about statistics. As Bobby Kennedy said almost 50 years ago:

  “The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry.”  (18 March 1968)

The performance of our Government will be measured by the care we show to all our people and the richness of their lives.   

We proved in the election, and we will now go on to prove in Government, our belief that:

Hope will always overcome fear.

Kindness and generosity will always overcome greedy self-interest.

And that the flame of solidarity in our society will never be extinguished.

For years we have proclaimed that “Another World is Possible.”

I tell you now, that world is not just possible, it is in sight.

Let’s create it together.

This is what people want to hear: not the politics of division and despair, of self interest and self satisfaction.

Interesting, and pleasing, that the Shadow Chancellor, and then on the last day, the Leader, both referred to poetry in their speeches: not Dover Beach, but Ben Okri, on Grenfell, by Corbyn. 

Leave a post Brexit Tory to a choice of verse & they resort to Kipling, of course - as we saw this week.

Satisfaction of another kind was on offer later that day, at the Labour Party Irish Society do. From the moment of arrival, the reception was warm, welcoming, and for perhaps the first time at any Conference event, it was a feeling of being at home: the craic, the laughter, a roomful of other people carrying a burden of inherited Catholic guilt; the good humour of the hosts, and guests. Well: perhaps all but one of the guests. Read on.

The leader of the Irish Labour party addressed the gathering, suggesting that the speeches should not get in the way of our drinking, which was clearly good advice, faithfully adhered to by all, including Himself.

As to Brexit: the prospect of a hard border was simply unthinkable, he said. It would not happen. Could not happen.

Standing next to me was a familiar figure. Ah yes, to be sure: it was Your Man - (not mine) - Owen Smith, who in June was appointed by Corbyn as shadow Northern Ireland secretary. He stood there with a glass of beer in his hand, as if he did not quite know what to do with it (everyone else was drinking Guinness from a bottle) and listened more carefully than needed to the speeches. At one point he said to the speaker (who ignored him): you said that last year. I turned to him and suggested, perhaps unwisely, that if he could remember what was said last year, he clearly had not had enough to drink, either then, or now. Nothing. Nope. Not the slightest hint of amusement. He pursed his lips, like a Sunday school teacher. 

Off then to another Irish event: 'Labour for a United Ireland - in a small room over a gentrified pub called the Pump House. A modest gathering, fewer than thirty, but the place was packed - and Ken Loach was due to come. 

In fact this was the sort of meeting that makes Conference so worthwhile: real debate, thought provoking - provocative, even, as we shall see. The panel consisted of people like the Sinn Féin MP for West Belfast, Paul Maskey, and writer Geoff Bell.

Interesting to be reminded by Maskey of the previous times in history that English MPs have played 'the Orange card' to get what they want: Theresa May is following in a time honoured tradition by retaining power only by bartering with the DUP. And yet again, the fate of the Irish people is left in the balance while British interests come first: the continuation of an imperialist policy. Here is the island of Ireland, he said, administered by two states, and three governments: time it was understood you cannot tell the Irish people what to do anymore, and let them decide their own future, in or out of Europe.

Loach arrived, and sat down. He apologised for being late, having been at a discussion about Israel and Palestine. He then said, in passing, that he had never heard a word of antisemitism in the Labour movement. 

Who could have anything but but admiration for Ken Loach as an artist, and film maker? I'm proud to have been in a short film made in Barnet for which he recorded an introduction; 'I Daniel Blake', is an outstandingly moving and important work, and The Wind that Shakes the Barley, about the fight for Irish independence, is a masterpiece. However ... he was incredibly naive to make such a statement. He does not see the contradiction in telling us, as he did at this meeting, that he remembers the overt racism expressed towards Irish people,"no Irish, no blacks, no dogs", and the injustice of telling the Irish how to run their own country, while at the same time claiming the right to tell Jewish people that they are wrong to feel they are the target of racism too, or denying the experiences they have. 

On the other hand, the thought occurred more than once during Conference, that the absence of a safe forum in which constructive political criticism of Israeli government policy towards the Palestinian people can be raised, respectfully, and without causing offence, has a dangerous consequence: a small minority of those who become interested in these issues, purely from a political perspective, sometimes end up adopting, intentionally or not, language and attitudes that are antisemitic, often from ignorance, and lack of challenge at an early point. 

It is unfair to portray Labour members as a whole as holding or tolerating such views, however, as some political enemies like to do: almost all of the offensive material is from people who are mindless, anonymous trolls, or attach themselves to the fringes of extremist groups, not party members. Anyone within the party who resorts to such vile behaviour, should be dealt with as a matter of urgency, and kicked out - and hopefully will be, from now on.

Next morning I wandered into the hall just as a member of the 'Jewish Voice for Labour' movement was launching into a speech accusing the party of creating an amendment (supported by Barnet councillor Phil Cohen) targeting 'thought crime' - in a way that could only offend those who within the Jewish Labour Movement - such as former Labour candidate for Finchley and Golders Green, Jeremy Newmark - have worked to create the new party rule change that will deal with antisemitism - a change backed by Jeremy Corbyn. It was an ugly moment, and I left again, as soon as possible.

Later that day, I was chatting outside the Grand Hotel with one of the Labour councillors from Barnet, when another member of  'Jewish Voice for Labour', who knew the member, although this councillor strongly disagreed with her views, engaged us in an unsolicited argument. She felt aggrieved, stating that the Jewish Labour Movement should not, could not, represent her or the community. JLM, in fact, has a long and distinguished history of representation, founded as 'Poale Zion', at the beginning of the 20th century, and affiliated to the Labour party in 1920. Who or what are JVL? Not sure. 

The amendment is passed, anyway - and now the party can move on: we hope. Yes: Mrs Angry, eternal optimist, again.

One of the most noticeable changes in Brighton, to me, since the last Conference here, is the increase in the number of homeless people on the streets: not just at night time, in shop doorways, but in the day, lying on mattresses and makeshift beds in the shopping areas and elsewhere. Not an unusual sight anywhere, sadly, now: but within the Conference zone, it was a timely reminder of the real extent of social deprivation happening now, worsening now. 

Back at home, some people not at Conference, not party members, or activists, were busy tweeting their disapproval that Labour were apparently not debating Brexit. How dare the party to which they do not belong allow the Leader of the Labour party to cunningly manipulate them into a democratic vote choosing the issues to be debated?

Well,  this was nonsense: members were balloted, and gave priority to other issues for those selected items. Elsewhere, everywhere, the subject of Brexit was very definitely given plenty of discussion. 

Momentum's 'The World Transformed' - next to a bar named 'Revolution' ... and on the site of a house where Dr Johnson and Fanny Burney used to visit their friend, the writer and diarist Hester Thrale ...

But standing in the street one day, observing a homeless man huddled in a corner of a doorway,  wrapped in a blanket, looking across the road in detached curiosity at the passing delegates and members and the queues of people waiting to enter Momentum's 'World Transformed, suddenly things seemed to fall into place: a moment of epiphany.

Arguing about the finer points of Brexit and nothing else is a middle class luxury: an indulgence. Someone in a shop doorway in Brighton, or a single mum in a hostel in Margate: they aren't worrying about their right to go and live in Berlin, or Barcelona, or anything much more than how they can afford the bus fare to the GP, or feed themselves, and keep some sort of life going in the next few days and weeks. While we allow ourselves to become fixated on one issue, and a problem which is never going to be resolved while the current government is in place, people are taking their own lives, driven to despair by the loss of benefits; our NHS is being torn up and thrown to the dogs of privatisation; thousands of people are being forced to depend on the handouts from their local foodbank. Only a change of government can help them - and only a change of government can do anything to reclaim anything positive from the consequences of Brexit.

 That and nothing else should be our priority. No one has a coherent strategy for Brexit, nor for preventing it: there is no way of preventing it as things stand - and the nation the Tories want to build in its place is a terrifying prospect. Only a Labour government can create something that protects most, if not all, of the benefits we now have as part of the EU: but maybe, just maybe - if we are stuck with Brexit - it would be possible to create something even better.

Labour has to address the urgent needs of ordinary people, and our most vulnerable citizens, and offer the hope of a society where they will be safe, supported, respected and empowered. 

We've seen that trickle down economics don't work - now we have to work from the other end of the social scale. 

In or out of the EU, we have to have a change of government to protect the most vulnerable of our citizens.

A fringe meeting on Tuesday night posed an interesting question: was Labour still the party of workers? 

The panel, hosted by the Resolution Foundation, a think-tank that works to improve the living standards of those in Britain on low to middle incomes, was going to include Frances O'Grady, Kevin Maguire, and was chaired by Torsten Bell.

It was held in the Hilton Metropole: an ageing venue of unique ugliness - aptly referred to in Eliot's Wasteland, in one of many literary allusions that associate Brighton with the reputation of a place of unsavoury assignations. Once a grand Victorian hotel, now in a state of barely controlled decline, with many of the Conference events, such as this one, taking place in a massive room, emptied of all human context: a vast space, windowless, grey: oppressive - deeply depressing. Unreal city.

Deborah Mattinson from 'Britain Thinks'  gave a statistical analysis of voters in the last election. How many workers had actually voted for Labour? She gave a breakdown of statistics, and indicated a problem with engaging working class voters. 

Now it was time for Lucy Powell, MP, to speak.

She was well aware of the need to listen to the working classes, she said, smiling. In her constituency she had run a series of meetings with them, to encourage them to express their concerns. The older white working classes, she said, once they got over being -ha ha -#angryaboutbins (copyright Mrs Angry, 2016) revealed that they no longer felt they had 'purchase' over their communities. Oh. Did they use that term, wondered Mrs Angry, or are you putting words in their older white working class mouths?

It was good that Jeremy Corbyn seemed to give hope to some of these people, she admitted - but then contradicted herself somewhat by claiming many voters on the doorstep had been 'angry' - not about bins, but about him. Clearly not to the extent of failing to vote for a Labour MP, thought Mrs Angry, who was beginning to feel rather irritated by her (not helped by the fact that Powell was wearing the same green Boden dress Mrs Angry had worn the day before, unintentionally appropriate for two Irish events: a fact which obliged her to wonder, rather abashed, as to why she was choosing the same clothes as a shadow cabinet mutineer).

Kevin Maguire struck a somewhat different tone: rather less condescending, and more pragmatic - from a north eastern mining background, clearly he felt he might have a rather more informed view of what the working class, in 2017, was, and what they wanted to see from Labour. No sentimentality: listen, but challenge racism, promote Labour values.

Time for questions. Up shot Mrs Angry's hand. A BBC cameraman, who had been filming the discussion, appeared suddenly, too late to have any moderating effect on what now came out. 

Did Lucy Powell not think she ought to reconsider the vocabulary she was using? Talking about the 'working classes' as 'they' and 'them': rather patronising, as if they were some sort of rare species, that needs protecting, when in fact the Labour movement is rooted in working class history ... People in the audience mumbled agreement: a few applauded.

By this time, Powell had realised her gaffe, and was flustered, muttering of course, of course ... Mrs Angry pointed out that like Maguire, she had family background in the former mining areas of the north east, (ironically we were sitting in the Durham room) and she knew that a whole generation of Labour voters had been lost (over the Blair, Brown & Miliband years), that Corbyn couldn't win them back overnight, it was going to take time - but clearly it was happening.

Of course, of course, she hadn't meant to be patronising. Her credentials: well, said the ex Somerville College, Oxford graduate, who comes from a family of teachers: she was a Mancunian. (Yes, thought Mrs Angry, not necessarily a term that is exclusively interchangeable with working class). She could remember visiting her grandparents, in their home, you know, and the pride they felt in their community - their privet hedge - Eh? 

Privet hedge? asked Mrs Angry, thinking of the squalid slum terrace where her own grandparents had lived in Durham, and as Frances O'Grady and Deborah Mattinson tried to hide their laughter. Luxury!

The mood of the meeting changed then: Powell's anodyne politics were clearly not delivering the message most people wanted to hear. Before the end, one woman explained this was her first conference. The thing that had struck her, she said, was that the party seemed to consist of too many over educated young men in suits. Ha! I hear you, sister - Yes, said Mrs Angry, as the other women on the panel nodded: but this is better than it was, believe me. Although, she almost added, looking guiltily at herself, and Lucy Powell, the place is now full of middle class women dressed in Boden. 

A brief escape from the vast, airless, gloomy rooms of the Metropole, but then back again, to a slightly less awful venue in the same hotel for the annual Labour Friends of Israel reception. Outside the entrance there was a noisy demonstration with people relentlessly chanting 'Israel is a terrorist state'. Mrs Angry's heart sank. Once inside, the reception was packed, and speeches were made by a young female MP from the Knesset, the Israeli ambassador, and Emily Thornberry, shadow Foreign Secretary, in place of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn had come last year, courageously, although visibly nervous, and used his speech to condemn antisemitism - almost exclusively unreported by the mainstream media. This year, after so much controversy over this issue, it was clearly decided the better course of action was not to go at all.

Emily Thornberry and Ian McNichol listen to the Israeli ambassador

Waking up the next morning to another beautiful day in Brighton, Mrs Angry stumbled out of bed to peer out of the window at a stunning view of the sea, and the old pier, from the viewpoint of her hotel in the perfectly preserved Regency Square: a vista spoiled only by being bisected by the sky high column of the new observation tower. 

Up then and off to the centre, even though this year, thanks to the mess up over her pass, she had no ticket for the Leader's speech: in the end it didn't matter, as, thanks to a kind steward, she found herself somehow sitting in the front section, in a better seat than ever. 

And of all the speeches seen at the last few Conferences, this was one to be at: the hall was galvanised with a massive wave of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm. The contrast with the Miliband years, when he lumbered around the stage like a puppet, and the speech seemed to go on forever without making any point, or offering any hope, and the best reception he could expect was some dutiful applause, was striking. 

This year Ed was spotted by a friend in the cheap seats, way behind Mrs Angry, looking on thoughtfully. 

Down in the mosh pit, surrounded by a group of very excited Glaswegians, and a few seats along from a curiously subdued Owen Jones, the crowd's mood was exultant. The event was brilliantly presented: the right choice of music, timing, footage, graphics: very effective, and the perfect backdrop to the simplistic style of the leader himself. 

No need to repeat the speech. There was not a single policy in it which you could not applaud: a range of courageous, practical ideas that meet the needs of all those who have been waiting for a fundamental change in the party, and in the political system. The part which was the most resonant for me was this:

The Tory approach to the economy isn’t entrepreneurial. It’s extractive. They’re not focused on long-term investment and wealth creation. When you look at what they do rather than what they say it’s all about driving down wages, services and standards … to make as much money as quickly as possible with government not as the servant of the people but of global corporations.

And their disregard for rampant inequality, the hollowing out of our public services, the disdain for the powerless and the poor have made our society more brutal and less caring.

Now that degraded regime has a tragic monument the chilling wreckage of Grenfell Tower. A horrifying fire in which dozens perished an entirely avoidable human disaster. One which is an indictment not just of decades of failed housing policies and privatisation and the yawning inequality in one of the wealthiest boroughs and cities in the world, it is also a damning indictment of a whole outlook which values council tax refunds for the wealthy above decent provision for all and which has contempt for working class communities.

Before the fire, a tenants’ group of Grenfell residents had warned … and I quote words that should haunt all politicians “the Grenfell Action Group firmly believes that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord”. Grenfell is not just the result of bad political decisions It stands for a failed and broken system which Labour must and will replace.

A broken system: nationally, and here, in easycouncil Barnet, freefalling into the abyss created by the hollowing out of every local service; a place where avarice and a merciless ideology drives an agenda of privatisation beyond the point of any effective restraint - or justification. 

The tragedy of Grenfell has come to signify so much more than the terror and loss of that terrible night: it marks a moment in history from which we can never return, or look back, but only resolve to make the most radical changes to a society that can allow such a thing to happen. There is an appetite, a hunger for change now, that I don't remember seeing before, in my lifetime. 

To see such widespread support expressed for example, for the re-nationalisation of our utilities, is quite something. The centre has shifted: years of Tory government and a lukewarm Labour opposition has created a more radical, reformist minded electorate, waiting for the opportunity offered by Corbyn to re-write the rule book, and make the impossible possible. As the Tories tear themselves apart, and face an existential crisis within their own party, the nation is looking elsewhere for leadership, new ideas - and hope.

Wandering back to the hotel, along the pebble beach, and then circling round the base of the new tower, Mrs Angry looked about, at the sea, and the old town. 

Our Victorian forebears, terrified by Darwin, and the idea of a world without God, used to build piers, to annex the waves, if not Arnold's sea of faith, in the spirit of imperialism: now we construct towers to give us ascendance into heaven, and enable us to look down from a clearer perspective, one previously the privilege of that Victorian God: with a cool eye, and the authority of our own grasp on power.

Standing in the present, looking back to the historic square, or the old pier, still defying the motion of time and waves, maybe isn't such a bad thing, after all. 

Change is difficult, for some more than others, within the party and without; but an acceptance that things cannot continue the way they are, and a willingness to consider more radical and challenging approaches to the issues that face us, is what we need. The message is clear for all of us - adapt, or die: embrace the cold reality of the new, or lose the achievements of the past, as well as the possibilities of the future.

Brighton September 2017

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Nothing to worry about: Audit, in the age of Capita, continued - or: Something may turn up ...

'My other piece of advice, Copperfield,' said Mr. Micawber, 'you know.

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and

six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure
twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted,
the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene,
and--and in short you are for ever floored. As I am!'

Following the calamitous interim report earlier this summer from Barnet Council's external auditors, Mrs Angry predicted that, after the initial shock felt by our muddleheaded Tory councillors, there would be a concerted effort made, before the final report, in regard to damage limitation. 

From shock, to panic - and then denial. The political cost of doing otherwise, for most of the Tories in Barnet, is too high. Next year's local elections are too close for comfort, and of course there could be a general election at any point. This perilous circumstance is having a miraculous effect, in fact: members are now taking care to refuse unpopular planning applications, for example - see the previous post, and other controversial matters, such as the Cricklewood issues discussed at another committee last night, at the same time as the Audit meeting was in progress. But they lack the ability to do anything about the biggest problem of all: the catastrophic contractual agreements with Capita, and a financial crisis that can no longer be denied.

Most of the more astute Tory councillors know that the council is up the proverbial creek, with only a cut price paddle provided by Capita, sitting in a leaking boat, slowly sinking into the swamp. But they cannot admit it. To do so would be to admit they ignored all warnings about the risk of entering into the two massive outsourcing contracts, and have failed in their duty properly to direct and monitor the performance of the delivery of those contracts. 

Mrs Angry went along last night, out of a sense of duty more than anything else: having submitted some questions, and received the usual sort of nonsensical written replies, requiring ... more questions. 

Out of a sense of duty, and despite feeling rather unwell, after a long day locked in an overheated archive, reading through volumes of historic bank accounts, page after page of inky ledgers, money paid in, and money paid out: pretty straightforward, said the archivist, pointing at the annual and six monthly balances, which showed an alarming level of expenditure, set against a sometimes risky level of income. Yes: easy enough, audit, historical or otherwise: profit and loss, money in, and money out: and a final balance to tell the story. Or to show, as our latter day corporate clerks would say, 'the direction of travel'.

Audit in the age of Capita

Easy enough, with accurate accounts. But what happens when the accounts are kept by the same provider as the items and services noted in those ledgers? When the barely numerate butcher, baker and candlestick maker all get together to submit their bills and then write them up in the customer's own accounts, making lots of mistakes, but keeping the ledgers under the counter, and pretending there is nothing to worry about?

That, in effect, is what has happened here, in the London Borough of Capita. The council's accounts, which record the financial transactions of the authority's contracted services, are the responsibility of ... the same contractors who provide those services. 

So apart from the multiplicity of roles and potential conflict of interests represented by the range of Capita's grip on our local public services, there is an overarching conflict of interest that beats everything: their presentation of the annual accounts.

And as the interim external audit report showed so clearly, earlier in the summer, the annual accounts, as overseen and presented by Capita, in regard to services largely provided by Capita, were full of errors. Mistakes that have been identified by BDO include massive sums of money listed in the wrong place, or overstating or understating significant amounts of council funds - our funds: taxpayers' money.

The tone of the interim report was unequivocal: the council's accounts were a mess, and we were using up our reserves in a reckless fashion, which suggested that rather than being the rip-roaring success promised to us by our Tory members, the Capita contracts were not delivering good value for residents, but leading us into financial disaster. 

One of the Tory members of the audit committee gave an indication of the way in which the group would later try to limit the damage: turning on the auditors themselves, and castigating them for the lateness of the report, rather than the content of the report, and the implied criticism of the administration's competence. Yes, shooting the messenger.

The subsequent report from the auditors is rather different in tone, if not in content, much more of a distancing from outcome, based on the council's own rather less than convincing assurances. In other words, yes, we are teetering on the brink of disaster, but on the other hand, the council has said everything will be fine, so maybe it will, after all. 

Well: we all like a happy ending, don't we? And even auditors run out of time - and patience.

In the committee room, the meeting began with a homily from the Chair, Hendon Tory cllr Hugh Rayner. He said that after the final audit report he was happy - no, content - with the 'position' of the council, but not the 'process'. That might be interpreted as trying to encourage us to worry about the arrangement of deckchairs, rather than asking questions about the seaworthiness of the vessel, or indeed the likelihood of icebergs ahead. He graciously indicated that it was unsporting to blame the auditors for the mismanagement of the council (Yes, shooting the messenger #2) when naughty Capita might have had something to do with it. Because naughty Capita did have something to do with it, in fact, they were being slapped on the wrist with a fine, like an overdue library book surrendered by a child lucky enough to find a library from which he is not barred - £50,000. Ooh, er. Just a fraction of their daily profit from the London Borough of Broken Barnet, one imagines.

Time for comments from the public: fellow bloggers Roger Tichborne and John Dix spoke, Mr Tichborne demanding to know how much more the delayed Audit reports had cost the taxpayer, and Mr Reasonable observing the problems deriving from the lack  of clarity over responsibility: the confusion between the roles played by Capita and LBB. He pointed out the extent to which residents were excluded from the role of scrutiny, and mentioned the very serious matter of an FOI request for details about gainshare reward payments, which is being refused on a basis he maintains is quite spurious, as the commercial confidentiality clause used to block release has expired. Who can tell us what that payment for £970,000 was for? Apparently we are not allowed to know.

'I could not receive it as a gift,' said Mr. Micawber, full of fire and

animation, 'but if a sufficient sum could be advanced, say at five per

cent interest, per annum, upon my personal liability--say my notes of
hand, at twelve, eighteen, and twenty-four months, respectively, to
allow time for something to turn up--'

A group shrug from members and officers,  and then it was time for supplementary questions to the written replies. There were some cracking lines in these responses. Mrs Angry's favourite was regarding Question 8:

Risk Management, Conflicts of interest:

3.4 Taking informed and transparent decisions
which are subject to effective scrutiny and
managing risk

Has the external auditor reviewed what appears
to be a number of significant risks raised by
conflict of interest and/or the perception of
conflict of interest posed by the multiplicity of
roles played by the councils' contractors in regard
to planning and enforcement? Is there in place a
satisfactory mitigation of those risks?


The council has satisfied itself it has effective governance processes in place and has provided information to us to be content with the Annual Governance Statement. If you have any specific concerns then you are encouraged to raise them through the escalation routes available to you to either myself or the Council depending on the nature of the concern.

The council has satisfied itself. 

And this is enough for the purposes of audit, apparently. The word of a - well not exactly a gentleman, is he, the personification of Broken Barnet? And - self satisfaction, surely, can never be enough, in the end, can it? 

Satisfaction, or at least, 'contentment', is something the Auditor values highly, however. It is his measure of success. And in answer to Qs 4, and 6, that measure of value was used to satisfy any lingering doubts about, you know, the butcher being left in charge of his customer's accounts: Capita left in charge of the books that log the transactions regarding Capita run services.

 The written answer said the auditors were 'satisfied' with the arrangement. In a state of post-audit mellowness, instead of falling asleep, or making us a cup of tea, we now hear, whispered in our ear, that the auditor is 'content'. And then again 'satisfied', by Q 6. Hmm. Oh hang on: content - or maybe just satisfied - that things will be ok until ... 2020? What happens then?

What happens then? asked Mrs Angry. After our profligate council has dipped into its reserves for the last time, and found there is nothing left? Oh, and by the way, about the change in tone from the highly critical interim report: has any pressure been brought to bear on you, by members, for example?

The auditor smiled, and hesitated. You're smiling, observed Mrs Angry, so am I right?

He murmured something about 'acting without fear of favour'. Of course. Except this is Broken Barnet, where fear and favour are the ruling principles. Or would be, if we had any.

But: and he did seem to be pleased to have the opportunity to say this - the council's arrangements, and his level of contentment/satisfaction therewith, are - oh dear - sustainable only until 2020. In the medium term. After that?

All hell will break loose. 

Or rather, as he said now, addressing the members directly, eyeball to eyeball: 

You will need a fundamental re-write

A fundamental re-write. 

Well, f*ck me. In audit speak that means: THE END IS NIGH. MAN THE LIFEBOATS.

He looked at them. They looked at him. Mrs Angry looked at a Labour councillor. He looked at Mrs Angry. The Tories looked at their shoes. 

Other questions included two on the issue of the Lodge, Victoria Park, the sale of which has been the point of formal objections to the accounts. Although as expressed in his written reply the Auditor had not found any evidence so far that the sale had been unlawful, after the planning meeting of 7th September, where development plans had been firmly quashed by Tory members, and it was recognised that the covenant still applies, he acknowledged the circumstances now may have changed and the matter may be open to review.

Oh: and here is a curious thing. The interim audit report had noted some councillors had not been making annual declarations as required. Mrs Angry had asked why the Monitoring Officer was similarly failing to note that too many members were not making declarations of Gifts and Hospitality. The Chair seemed unwilling to believe this, so Mrs Angry gave an example: having witnessed several of his colleagues disporting themselves at this slap up dinner, at possibly the most expensive restaurant in the borough - and as Mr Reasonable spotted in the accounts, at a cost of £1500. Mrs Angry had been attending a family event at the same venue that night, and was horrified to find the place stuffed full of Tory councillors. 

As she reminded them, passing through the bar, when they greeted her long suffering brother, who worked for them in governance for 30 years, yes, you made him redundant a few years ago, remember? And then, when Tory leader came over to say hello to the long suffering brother, the brother's fearless niece, Miss Angry, demanded that Cornelius should tell her if we, the taxpayers, were paying for his dinner. Mrs Angry's heart swelled with maternal pride, as you may imagine.

Cornelius, clearly terrified by yet another Angry woman holding him to account, meekly admitted that, yes, that was the case. Yet there appear to be no declarations from those present of their attendance at this bash, enjoying the hospitality of you and me, the tax payers of Broken Barnet, and indeed some Tory members have made no G&H declarations at all. *Does this matter? I think it does: it is yet another mark of the indifference shown by our elected members for the principles of transparency, and accountability - and reminds us that austerity, at a time when vital public services are being cut to the bone, does not apply to them.

*Updated: according to the Monitoring Officer (yes, apparently there is one, somewhere) it is his view such jollies do not have to be declared, even though the Labour members did, as you and I are footing the bill. Of course any hospitality paid for by us, without our consent or knowledge, is never going to influence their opinion in any way, so this is, clearly, perfectly proper).

Now, as the Suits from Capita sat back in the seats they had annexed from the front of the public seating area, members listened to the auditor present his report, and then ask questions. 

One of the revelations of the audit was the questionable status of the Pension Fund, which appeared to have been overstated, by, oh, a mere £92 million ... . Not for the first or last time that evening, Mrs Angry wondered why the internal audit process had not already identified such a glaring error. 

But such concerns were not of interest to the Tory members. Councillor Finn, who is the Chair of the Committee tasked with overseeing the scrutiny of contractual performance, was very worried about something else. He was bewildered by the colouring system of the audit report. There were too many colours, he complained. What did it all mean? The auditor tried to explain the subtle variation in opinion that the colours represented: wasted on the Tory members who can grasp only that ... red means danger. Especially the red flag of socialism.  The Chair intervened to apologise, at this point, to members of the public whose copies of the report were only in, oh dear - black and white. 

Councillor Finn

Oh dear, again. Along came another massive question in regard to the accounts. The matter of a £4.6 million debt, from Capita Re, in regard to underperformance of contracted income, that should have been recovered, but had not. Why not? One of the Capita Suits, a Mr Mark Dally, lounging in the public gallery, wasn't that bothered. He was invited to sit at the table, to sit up, and explain ... why he wasn't that bothered. 

Mr Dally, who according to his Linkedin profile, is - excuse me - a 'Change Maker'  (God help us all) who works as a regional director for Capita Local Government, smiled and described the debt as 'disputed'. An agreement would be reached soon. Oh. Well, what is £4.6 million of taxpayers' money, after all? Neither here, nor there. Yes, it might help safeguard vital services, prevent the terrible cuts in the library budget etc, but ... let us not stand in the way of Change, Capita style. Can't have enough of that, in Broken Barnet, can we?

Yes, the debt was owed by Re (the Capita joint venture with Barnet) and appears in the accounts presented by ... Capita, but: meh. Might be paid, might not be. #conflictofinterest, tweeted Mr Reasonable.

At this point, Mrs Angry decided she felt too unwell to stay any longer. She made her excuses, and left. It had been a long day.

Those who remained continued tweeting: 

Cllr Arjun Mittra‏ @ArjunMittra

Cllr Finn says "we should be proud of accounts" "nothing to worry about". This is of course the man chaired the scrutiny of the contracts.

And the man who is Chair of the Performance and Contract management committee, who thinks scrutiny should always be positive, not critical, and wants everything to be 'hunkydory'. Still, as Micawber always believed - 'something may turn up', a miracle, to keep the bailiffs from the door. And, in the absence of surcharges, rather than see our elected representatives end up in a debtor's gaol, it will be the taxpayers of Broken Barnet who bear the consequences of this authority's financial mismanagement.

Thinking back to the hours spent reading through those accounts in the archive earlier in the day, following the ebb and flow of financial activity in the life of one particular figure, left an undeniable sense of historical, or at least fictional, perspective: and the voice of one of the characters created by him. 

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery."

No colours needed here. Cllr Finn: profit or loss: that is the only measurement, in the end, that counts. The Micawber guide to accountancy. But when you surrender control of the books to the tradesman, and surrender common sense to the rule of political dogma, or party loyalty - all measure is lost, and we are lost with it. 

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Heart and Soul: the Lodge plans rejected, in a victory for Victoria Park

Residents and campaigners, including Mary O'Connor and Roger Chapman, (wearing his lucky tie) packed out the committee room for the Lodge plans meeting

The story of the former park keeper's Lodge, in Victoria Park, Finchley, is something that is so much more than the a tale of one building, one park, or even 'One Barnet', the last, terminal stage of the 'easycouncil' model of local government.

It holds within it, this story, the essence of everything that is wrong with this borough, and this country: the prostitution of our public services, our public institutions, our built heritage, and our greenspaces, to the rule of profit. 

This was a tale of one small historic building, in one park, a recreation ground created by a conservative, philanthropic, benevolent paternalism of the past, put up for sale by a latterday, post Thatcherite, Conservative council determined to discard the role of unpaid civic duty, and indeed their roles as trustees of the park, in preference for an easier life as an easycouncil commissioner. 

This newly defined role enables them to continue to accept a generous allowance from the residents and tax payers of Broken Barnet, while happily handing over responsibility for the authority's functions to profiteering contractors - or dumping it on the backs of volunteers. No volunteers to be found in the council chamber, of course, since the departure of the much respected Tory member Leslie Sussman, who diligently served his community for many years - without taking a penny in allowance. 

In a committee room, one night last week, however, we did see some signs of hope that some of our newer Tory representatives would like to experiment with the idea of engaging with their constituents in a way that is ... kind of like it was meant to work, in the first place. 

That is to say, listening to their views, and, well ... representing them. And acting upon them. Why this miraculous event took place now, at this point, is something we shall contemplate later, and in the context of looming electoral doom - but: it certainly was not what was expected, when the meeting began. 

Mrs Angry had turned up at the Town Hall, on Thursday night, very definitely more in hope than expectation of a rejection of the plans, but wandered upstairs early, as usual, in order to find the papers and read through them again. 

It was quiet, just a handful of other residents waiting and wondering how the evening would go. And then: just before the meeting began, a wonderful sight: held downstairs by security staff, a crowd of residents, almost all of them unknown to Mrs Angry, now moved up the stairs and along the corridor to the committee room. This was a very touching thing to see - that at 6pm on a wet Thursday night, so many people would make the effort to come along to remind councillors whose park it was, and that they had no intention of letting anyone knock down the Lodge, and build a block of flats in its place ...

We took our places, and so did the councillors. Rather interestingly, none of the Tories, at this stage, made any declarations of interest, a development that led to some heckling by members of the public ...

Apart from the Chair, Eva Greenspan, Tory members present were Melvin Cohen - who said not a word all evening, Gabriel Rozenberg, Shimon Ryde, and for Labour, Arjun Mittra, Jim Tierney, and Alan Schneiderman.

The atmosphere in the room was tense, and watchful, as the meeting began with a speech from Roger Chapman, a resident and a former senior planner - with more than thirty years experience - and an interest in local history. 

Mr Chapman laid into the reports now presented to the committee, and pointed out, in an authoritative and incisive summary of the case, the serious flaws in the arguments used to sanction the planning officers' rather incomprehensible recommendation to approve the application. He pointed out, amongst other matters, the interesting fact that the authority's own documents acknowledged the authenticity of the covenant which protects this side of Victoria Park. 

Labour's Arjun Mittra and Tory Shimon Ryde both commented on the compelling argument that he presented that the Lodge site still remains, despite the controversial sale, as part of the park. He also made very important points that had been overlooked by the Highways report, such as the lack of turning space for the cars which would be entering and exiting the flats, at such a dangerous junction and entrance to the park.

Up now came a contribution from a resident apparently in support of the application, and who last year had meetings with officers about the money from the sale, and how it should be spent, in regard to the park. Money for 'improvements' which are not needed, but if they were, should not be dependent on the sale of land within the park itself.

To a certain amount of heckling from the public gallery, this supporter suggested that the Edwardian arts and crafts style Lodge was not of any real merit. 

Victoria Park Lodge, before it was put up for sale by Barnet Council

He thought that apart from the benefit of the money from the sale, the new flats would offer some sort of 'surveillance' over the park. He denied that the playground the flats would immediately overlook was used by families with small children. 

This is not so: although young teenagers often play basketball at the far end of the area, the section which would be directly under the gaze of the windows and balconies, right next to the playground, contains barred swings for babies and toddlers, and a slide suitable only for very young children. As Labour's Alan Schneiderman later pointed out, unseen viewers looking down from a block of flats do not represent the sort of surveillance parents would want to see. He also asked if it were not advisable to separate the potential accrual of £600k from the sale of the Lodge from the issue of whether or not the Lodge should be developed.

The next speaker was local Labour councillor Ross Houston, who summarised the many reasons why he supported residents' concerns about the plans: that such a development simply does not fit here; the traffic issues - that Long Lane is a very busy road, near to many schools ... Tory member Gabriel Rozenberg had already pointed out that the entrance adjacent to the Lodge inevitably had many small children running into the park, who would be at risk, should any access to cars be allowed as a result of this proposal.

Another local councillor, veteran Labour member Jim Tierney, who has lived not far from the park for many years, and is one of the few members who understand the historical context of ... well, almost everything ... also spoke, at some length, about the proposed development. The Chair tried to get him to hurry up and finish, at one point - We have had this park for 117 years, he admonished her: So don't be rushing me. You can give the ward councillor a few minutes

Cllr Tierney listed all the planning and highways issues, and the terrible precedent it would make, to allow development in Victoria Park, but he spoke with most feeling about the park itself, and its creation by local people at the end of the nineteenth century, figures such as 'Inky Stephens', the former Finchley MP, and all the others who had subscribed towards the purchase of the land, to commemorate the life of Queen Victoria, and to secure the park for ever for local people, with a carefully written covenant which had been simply ignored, it seems, when the Lodge was sold: but cannot be ignored when it comes to any question of development.

Victoria Park, said Cllr Tierney, in his soft Irish voice, is the soul, and the heart, of Finchley's history and heritage

Heart and soul: two things to which we rarely hear reference, in the committee rooms of the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

Enough of sentiment for the past: here is the shadow of the future - up to the table came a representative of the developer's agent.

He appeared to be puzzled as to why residents would not welcome what he thought was a marvellous development, and one that would bring immense benefit to Victoria Park. He was clearly aggrieved at the suggestion that residents had not been properly consulted: the agents had hand delivered seventy leaflets about the plans, he claimed. Where, was not clear. Mrs Angry certainly didn't get one, or see one, or meet anyone who had one. 

He meandered on to the subject of crime in the park, which he thought was a good reason to build a block of flats. That would be the old 'surveillance' idea, one must assume. New residents standing at the window, with night vision binoculars, scanning the park, looking for anything which might stop the online commenters in 'support' of the plans, who live in another part of the borough, from dropping by for a midnight ramble, as they claimed in their comments that they like to do.

The agent also said the Lodge had been neglected for '20 years' - clearly not true. Until the council put the property on its bargain basement property sale list, there was a family with young children who lived there. True, the property was then left pointlessly empty when the council found out about the covenant, and the gate and fences left unattended until residents complained, but then when it was sold, the property was renovated, if only in a limited way, and once more has had people living there. Until the week of the meeting, that is. And now again, since the meeting, the lights are on in the property, and clothes on the washing line, evident to any passer by. Most puzzling.

And unfortunately a complaint about negligence sat badly with the evidence shown in some of the photographs that planning officers now displayed on an overhead projector.

But here the fun began.

Tory Cllr Rozenberg, most gratifyingly, now launched a merciless, forensic interrogation of the developer's agent, who was clearly unprepared for his questions. 

Hats off: it was a masterly display, and of the type we rarely see, in the committee rooms of Broken Barnet.

Until then, residents had been unclear as to how the meeting would go, or how the Tory members would approach the highly controversial plans. No doubt remained now. The Tory councillors - or at least those of them who spoke, as one remained silent throughout -  were as appalled as the residents.

The councillor wanted the agent to explain what had happened to some of the fine architectural features of the Lodge; the period features. Specifically the elongated chimney, and the terracotta finials. 

The chimney had been cut in half, and the lovely finials knocked off the roof, in the middle of the night, in an apparent act of random vandalism, by parties unknown, within a day of the Residents Forum where these details had been mentioned, as proof of the building's historic character.

The agent said he could not comment.

Cllr Rozenberg continued, referring to what he described as a state of 'squalor' now clearly demonstrated in the officers' photographs, which showed that for some reason, bags of rubbish had been pushed into the gap between one side of the Lodge and the boundary hedge: hidden from view from the angle of the street, but making a wonderful subject for photographers of neglected sites ready for demolition and development. (See above).

Why had this rubbish been allowed to accumulate? Surely no landlord would tolerate such an awful mess - and does the council not collect rubbish from this address?

No explanation.

The councillor now drew attention to the grafitti on the property, including what he described, with commendable restraint, as a 'green phallus'. 

The agent was lost for words, once more.

Yet there it was, on the projected image above our heads, an urban, twenty first century variation on a theme more usually associated with pagan hill figures carved into the English landscape: a symbol of virility - or defiance. 

The public gallery tittered, as Mrs Angry's over active imagination considered the possibility that this was some sort of manifestation of the Green Man of Broken Barnet, the guardian of our landscape, the protector of our open spaces, leaving his marker, right there, staring in the face of would be developers ... and leaving a warning to the men from Capita, and our elected representatives, to leave our park alone.

The fields lie sleeping.

Present at the committee table were a planning officer, and a consultant who had produced the rather elliptical Highways report. Now it was their turn to speak. As they were recommending this development, they were there to put the case on behalf, effectively, of the developer, and yet, at the same time, advise the councillors on the merits and lawfulness of the proposals. An impossible conflict of roles, you might think - and one complicated by the unique commercial context of the contracted planning service.

The planning officer agreed that there had been a 'substantial' level of objection to the plans (clearly ignored by the planners when making the recommendation), and also admitted that throughout the consultation there had been a series of 'issues' with the website. Indeed there had. The question, unasked, by them, was if the consultation therefore had been, as required by law, adequate, fair, and meaningful. The evidence would suggest otherwise.

It would, in fact, seem to be that there had been a remarkably successful process of 'insultation',  (Copyright G. Roots, 2017, see previous post), rather than any demonstration of meaningful consultation, in regard to the plans to demolish the Lodge, and replace it with a block of flats. 

Right from the off: starting with the decision, during August, a month when so many residents were away, as with last year's plans, to notify the thousands of users of Victoria Park by the means of one thin A4 piece of paper, shoved into an open flimsy cover, and tied the wrong way round on a lamp post as far as possible from the Lodge site, even though there was a perfectly good post right bang outside the building. 

The rain soon soaked through the notice, of course, and made it even more ... unnoticeable.

Residents complained: and pointed out this was utterly inadequate. After much lobbying more notices were put up, in the same flimsy open covers, it carried on raining, and they got wet, and became illegible. Residents' pleas for laminated notices, and notices in the park's own readymade, covered noticeboards by the two main entrances (one by the Lodge) were ignored by Capita Re planning officers. It was pointed out that Capita Re Highways officers use laminated notices, twice the size - this was repeatedly ignored too. Why?

Because the original notice had been hopelessly inadequate, and had affected the rights of residents to be properly notified, when the extra flimsily covered notices were put up, the dates of the consultation had to be amended. And it was agreed only now that all who had commented last year should be notified in writing. This caused enormous confusion over consultation dates with residents. 

It is fair to say that the only way most residents were notified was by local campaigners, like Mary O'Connor, see below, who spent their own time and money printing leaflets, and distributing them in and around the park.

Mary O'Connor during last year's application: pic courtesy local Times Group

Following on from the case of the mysteriously anonymised 'supporting' comments last year (only resolved by complaining to the Chief Executive, and many of them consequently exposed as associates of the developer), this year we had more issues with the online comments process. 

A number of residents reported to Mrs Angry that their objections had gone missing, and some had noted the date on which this had occurred. Had anyone removed them? Or had they been lost, somehow? 

At the very least, it would seem that there was a vulnerability in the system which put personal data at risk.

At the time of the disappearance, one of the residents had calculated, the number of objections lost represented about 21% of all comments: clearly a statistically significant figure. And yes: it seemed all the missing comments were objections, with one exception. 

That exception was allegedly - and we use the term here because of the history of questionable comments last year - from a woman (calling herself 'Mr') apparently supporting the plans in terms of a rather offensive remark - because of what he/she claimed was the 'raping history' of the park. Clearly an absurd and repellent remark ... and the only supporting one to disappear. 

A long, long series of emails took place over the weeks of the 'consultation', trying to establish how the disappearance had happened. After a while this was blamed on IDOX, the third party providers of Capita Re's planning portal. Ok: ask them to explain. After more time went by, we heard planning officers were informed by IDOX that this must be due to an 'outage' on a certain night in July. Oh. Very interesting. Because by then the date on which the act of disappearance had occurred had been provided to Mrs Angry: and ... well, well: it pre-dated the date of the 'outage'. 

The officer maintained this was still the probable cause. Mrs Angry asked if Capita, or IDOX, were in the process of re-writing the laws of physics, or rather the law of cause and effect, in order to explain how an event may happen after the consequence? Or perhaps they subscribe to the Jungian theory of synchronicity, which holds that there is another universal law, one of 'meaningful coincidences'? That must be it.

Next came the response that now they thought it was the system overloading. Even though ... the disappeared comments were left on a range of dates? And how curious that this applied only to objections, with the one exception previously noted. Whatever the cause, clearly an unreliable system, in which we may not invest any degree of confidence,

This issue was still unresolved by the time of Thursday's meeting. As was the fact that Capita Re officers had unaccountably failed to upload sixty other objecting comments - sent only privately as an unasked for FOI response, before the meeting, but not put in the public domain. Why not?

The senior Capita Re planning officer who had dealt with all these complaints was, as it turned out, the very same one sitting at the committee table, defending the decision to recommend approval of the developers' application. 

Yes, despite only 69 mostly questionable comments in support of the plans - and more than 450 objections against, almost all from local residents outraged by the proposal to build flats in their park, and listing many very sound and reasoned grounds for objection, that met all the planning requirements for refusal. And despite the rather curious Highways report that failed to address the full impact, in terms of raised risk of accidents as a result of allowing a block of flats in the park, with access and parking for a number of cars, right by the busy entrance, at an already very dangerous junction.

And so, apart from the failure in the process of consultation, here was another reason for concern over the recommendation: the very real conflict of interests posed by the way in which Capita Re manages the privatised system of planning, in Broken Barnet. 

At a Re contract review meeting with residents earlier this summer, concerns about this issue were raised with two Tory members, councillors Zinkin and Finn. They were clearly dismayed at the level of discontent among residents over the way planning is now managed - or not - and the poor standard of enforcement of breaches of planning conditions. 

Cllr Finn had stated, rather unconvincingly, that he did not think there was any problem with the multiplicity of roles played by Capita in these services, and other functions of the outsourced council. (And remember Capita is also a developer, which has the potential to complicate things even further). Finn thought there must be 'Chinese Walls' and all sorts of safeguards to ensure there was no conflict. He is wrong: in fact there would appear to be no evidence of any system that properly mitigates against such a risk - or, equally importantly, the risk of the perception of conflict of interest. Mrs Angry understands, moreover, that this is an issue that has been reported to the authority's external auditors.

And the Lodge case is a good example of this unmitigated risk: with the same officers giving fee based, private advice to the applicant, information which to we are not party; overseeing the process of consultation, and then making the recommendation to approve the plans. This is, by any reasonable standard, simply not acceptable: not transparent, or fair.

Now that planning is part of a profit making business, rather than an in house process meant to work for the local community, are planning officers under pressure from senior managers to reach targets of approved applications? 

Where are the checks and balances that should be in place to ensure that we have a service that works for residents and taxpayers, and does not prioritise what is best for Capita?

Back to the meeting.

The Highways consultant said he understood the points about safety. But of course it had been councillors and residents at the meeting, rather than officers, who had pointed out the huge risks to children running into the park, in this area, and the risk from traffic at a dangerous junction.

He commented only that it was the duty of parents to teach them the Highway Code. 

In fact, in Mrs Angry's view at least, it is the duty of planning and highways officers to consider the impact of developments within public parks, in terms of safeguarding children, but we had seen little evidence of that.

Tory Shimon Ryde said that he hardly knew where to begin with this application ... that the Lodge was ancillary to the park. Labour's Alan Scheiderman said we want the park preserved and enhanced, not developed.

Well: by now it was clear that the meeting was not going the way the developers wanted; and it was also clear that the officers at the table were somewhat taken aback by an unprecedented level of criticism, couched in such robust terms, by the Tory members. 

The mood of the residents crowding out the room lifted, and we watched carefully now as they negotiated the grounds for refusal, which the planning officer seemed to want to remain the same as the previous year. Members would not allow this, however, seeing the danger of further attempts to develop the site, should it not be made absolutely clear that the Lodge and its grounds are still, to all intents and purposes, part of the park.

The vote, when it came, was unanimous - albeit the third Tory member, Councillor Melvin Cohen, appeared slightly slower to raise his hand in opposition, until the last moment.

The application was unanimously rejected.

All very well. An impressive performance from the two Tory members who had questioned the applicant and officers. The fact remains, however, that the Tory group as a whole had originally approved the sale of the Lodge both in principle, when Finchley MP Mike Freer was leader, and then in practice, when the property was sold, in a cash purchase, to the current apparent owner. We say 'apparent', as the circumstances of the sale were rather puzzling, with a change of ownership on the day of completion.

On the other hand, it is fair to say that members appear to have been misled when making these decisions. They were not told about the covenant - and then they were led to believe that renovation of the property would be so expensive that it was not a credible proposition. Officers' reports insisted that it would cost £100,000 to bring the house to a decent standard of accommodation. In the event, the developer's representative admitted it cost only a fraction of this - and when FOI requests were made for the estimate on which the £100k cost was based ... it emerged there was no trace of any such report. Would members have sanctioned the sale, if they had been in full possession of the facts?

The Lodge survives. The developer will probably try to appeal, but he might be better advised to cut his losses, and accept defeat. He knows, or should know, his investment in this site is only of value in terms of the period property that he had hoped to demolish. With or without that property, he cannot build on this site, and so the only course of action is to sell the Lodge - or return it to the council. For the sake of the residents of Finchley, we must hope that the latter action is at least possible. It seems the most fair outcome for all parties.

The story of the Lodge is also the demonstration of a changing political landscape, here in Broken Barnet. There can be little doubt that the local elections next year, and the risk of a general election at any moment, in a newly marginal constituency, helped to encourage support from our Tory members for residents' opposition to this proposal. But there is also the dawning realisation among the more astute Tories that the impact of the Capita contracts in terms of voters, in regard to issues like planning and enforcement, is beginning to make itself felt. And the very serious criticisms raised by the current audit review pose fundamental concerns that they can no longer ignore.

Not just about one building, then, or one park, or the issue of development: this story has been about the future of our borough, its heart, and its soul; and about the extent to which we have given away our ability to direct the course of our local democratic process, so that it safeguards the best interests of our community. It is time to acknowledge the problem, and address it.

The fields still lie sleeping, underneath, here in Finchley, and elsewhere in the borough, and the spirit of defiance, and a lingering hope of a better future, they remain as well, somewhere out there, beyond the boundaries of our common history, and heritage. 

And that, in the end, is the real story of the Lodge, in Victoria Park.