Information about my work as a Labour Councillor for East Finchley in the London Borough of Barnet

Friday, 21 September 2012

Budget and Performance

Last night saw my first Budget and Performance Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting at Hendon Town Hall.

There were some very important items on the agenda, and promised to be a good meeting.

We started with the questions from the public. The Labour group were annoyed to see that the questions had been written, but no written reply had been given, and the Chair, Cllr Brian Coleman read the original questions, gave a reply and then gave a supplementary. We registered a complaint that the standard practice was to provide written answers to written questions, but the Chair said he has checked the standing orders (the rules governing how committee meetings should be run) and said it was in order.

The public questions were very good, especially those of John Dix and Reema Patel, but it's never easy when you don't have the answer before you. The video of the exchanges are available on the internet, and I will leave it to your judgement on how they went.

Then we examined the early intervention and prevention strategy. this is a very important development which will save money in the long term, and help solve a problem. I followed the lead from my ward colleague Cllr Alison Moore and raised the concern that by targeting resources to the very bottom only, you miss those not at the same level of risk, but
still potential beneficiaries of the funding, and this would worsen their life chances. Cllr Cornelius said that he understood, but it was best to target at the worst off. There was a lot of patronising and jargonistic nonsense about happiness boundaries, which we all took pot shots at.

On the sport and physical activities review, Cllr Coleman was annoyed at the delay, and it was revealed that parks were part of the review. We had a go about them for ruling out any capital expenditure, but not ruling out not providing leisure centres. We lost the vote to recommend ruling it out.

Then we went through the provisional budget. There was a lot there, and I wont go through it in detail, the video is available on other websites. My contribution was to note that they had not provided figures about the savings from the "renegotiation" of the meals on wheels contract. All the Labour Councillors had various points to make, and clarifications to seek on different sections. It was revealed that the council will be charging for some driving infringements, but there was a mistaken figure of revenue from CCTV enforcement of parking, which will not happen. Sadly, due to the time limit, you can't query or debate all the lines, and the job is harder for me because I am often allocated my questions later, when everyone else has asked all the good ones, or the ones I wanted to.

Cllr Coleman was keen to see a freeze in Council tax, and Cllr Thomas challenged him to find the budget savings that would achieve it. There were some interesting exchanges between Cllr Coleman and his former Cabinet colleagues, which was fascinating to watch. I thought my colleague Cllr Alan Schneiderman of Woodhouse ward made a very goodpoint, which was how can the council target resources at the most vulnerable when they were cutting even more from the children's budgets. He was ruled out of order, but the point had been made.

Then we discussed the confusion over the DRS One Barnet contract. We were told that Cllr Cornelius had not seen any of the papers, nor discussed and aspects of the Joint Venture proposal, nor that it had been agreed to. We thought this was strange, because of the reported email that was sent to staff in the summer saying that a JV was the preferred option. I must admit that I dropped the ball, by phrasing my question in a way that was ruled out of order. I moved on to a secondary point about timelines in order to properly think a rephrasing of the question that could be ruled in order, but because it was nearing the 10 pm cut off, I was cut short and others were given their questions.

I could not find a copy of the email, and I wanted to ask why it had been sent, why Cllr Thomas was reported in the press supporting it and why the Leader had such a stridently different view. I was very disappointed, as I think I have enjoyed and done OK on my other committees, but found this one much harder to handle.

If one thing was cleared, it is that the leader has ruled out a JV. It's understandable, as the JV was considered the more risky (!) option in the earlier business model for One Barnet. It still isn't clear what went on over summer, regarding the email to staff, but it will have to wait for another day to find out.