Tonight was the Barnet Alliance for Public Service panel debate on One Barnet. Council Leader Cllr Richard Cornelius, Labour leader Cllr Alison Moore, Lib Dem leader Cllr Jack Cohen and Andy Mudd of the Association of Public Service Excellence.
A really good panel and full credit to Richard Cornelius for coming and engaging with the public to debate One Barnet. This is the first time the Tories have held themselves accountable for One Barnet. Well, it's actually the first time the Tories have held themselves accountable!
The event was filmed, and when it is available, I would suggest people watch it for themselves, becuse people should form their own views on this, they had the full range of opinion, and a fair, well mannered and open exchange of views. Richard was not in front of a crowd of supporters, but I was surprised to talk to some people afterwards who were Tories, and came with an open mind, and left horrified. I think we are getting real traction, and I was both surprised and ecstatic at how many East Finchley residents came, many of whom were not people I know from doing the rounds, but ordinary people, who are genuinely worried about this One Barnet fiasco.
There were 10 Labour Councillors, almost half the group. Supporting Richard, there were just two that I saw (plus Cllr Coleman, who is no longer a Conservative Councillor) out of 37. Despite the performance of the Tory Councillors on Monday night, that they couldn't be bothered to turn up and support him in the biggest public test of his leadership thus far was, in my opinion, extremely rude. I don't know about what that says about the power balances in the Tory Group (nor do I actually care very much) but they should have turned out to support him. Given the ALL voted with him on the Extraordinary Council Meeting on Tuesday and they would not even vote to pause and re-think the process, we can safely assume ALL Tory Councillors are fully behind the One Barnet programme, with no exception. If that was the case on Tuesday, why wasn't it on Thursday? Rudeness.
Andy Mudd is real value for money, with good insights and experiences. Alison argues long and hard at the last Budget and Performance meeting to get him as a witness to the committee about outsourcing, but sadly the opportunity wasn't taken up.
Cllr Cohen, whom I like personally a great deal, spoke well, and was fairly balanced in his approach, as he always is.
Richard tried his best, but really he was hamstrung by the reality, which is that no one knows what is really in the programme. Despite only apparently being weeks away from the signing of the first contract, they still don't know what's even in them! He had no real response about the thin client model, nor on why an inhouse bid wasn't considered. When asked about what the benefits were, he said about keeping taxes low. when it was pointed out that this would lead to worse services for disabled and vulnerable residents, he said they had a duty to taxpayers. It's like the 47% thing in America, disabled people and vulnerable people are taxpayers too!
But I thought Alison was excellent. not just because she is my leader, my ward colleague and my friend, but I really felt I could see her as leader of the Council. She was on top of detail (she always is- it's freakish), compassionate and understanding of peoples concerns, but also forthright and honest about some important issues. For example, she said that there will be tough choices for us if we win the Council in 2014. She also gave the right answer about the committee system, which was that we are slating the Council for not considering properly all the options, how can we agree to changing the system of the council without properly discussing that as well? I myself have never seen the committee system, and have questions about how it would work, but I keep an open mind.
I spoke briefly about how it was already difficult for Councillors to get some information, and my own struggles. We are not allowed to see commercially sensitive information, and this is before all the services and performance date is commercialised as performance of a private company. I also said that the bloggers tried to exercise their rights to audit the accounts, and these had been redacted to worthlessness. If we can't scrutinise properly now, what will it be like when the entire Council is commercially sensitive in it's performance stats?
Members of the public were really engaged, and had some excellent questions. What was truly satisfying was that many of these questioners were not people I recognised as being the usual political activists, but normal members of the public, with a great deal of common sense, understanding and practicality. I thought there were some odd points from the Greens about austerity. Rather strange given the Green Council in Brighton are cutting by something like 40% to my understanding. We have to be realistic, and most of the people there understand that. This is a debate about how we deliver services and change them to cope with the realities, and I am glad that all the public understand that.
I was very happy with Alison's performance, and I thought she got better as she went on. She gave herself a good birthday present to herself today.