The kind of council we need

Most of us want a Better Barnet, and better services run by Barnet Council. We would like taxpayers’ money to be well-spent on necessary services which are an investment for the long-run; whether that’s on decent and weekly rubbish pickups, quality childrens’ centres, SureStart programmes;  good and sustainable residential care for the elderly; or quality regeneration and home building to meet the scarcity of good and affordable homes. We want our leaders to be accountable to residents, to promote a sense of shared community and responsibility, and to be accountable for the management of those services.
 
We would like a sensitive Council policy towards parking which will allow small and local businesses to attract local residents, and enable those businesses to grow, and we would like local libraries across the Borough so that our children are properly treated as an investment for the future and have the access to the books they need to develop into confident, well-rounded and mature individuals. We would like a Council which is supportive of both local business and young people during the most difficult economic times – and is responsive to them.
 
The parking scandal goes deeper than simply the question of access to car parks and local high streets which desperately need support. It shows that those who currently run the Council are increasingly out of touch with the needs of residents.
 
It is worth setting out what it is that we want, because it highlights what it is we do not want; the One Barnet programme which will privatise up to 70% of services. The fact that there are cuts to Barnet Council’s budget is no defence to what is clearly an ideologically haphazard dismantling of council services. The point is that reorganising services can be done much better. Other local authorities are having to make difficult choices, but they are at least making choices that still benefit their residents. They have not voted for hikes in councillor allowances while slashing public services and freezing public sector pay. There are councils that are finding innovative ways of keeping Libraries open, by working with the local community, and even by opening new Libraries. In the last year alone, Labour-led Southwark Council opened a new library and a new park (Burgess Park). Barnet has closed one library, shutting those in Friern Barnet off from access to vital education, and has proposed to hire out our parks for private events. This contrast is stark. It shows that priorities are utterly skewed.
 
Not only are priorities skewed, but the reasoning behind political decision making is muddled. The absence of any clear reasoning behind the One Barnet programme suggests that it will not be more efficient or better value for money at all, in the long term. A study by the European Services Strategy Unit found 25% of public outsourcing schemes had failed or gone seriously wrong. Handing over ten year contracts to private providers mean that there is no incentive to improve services or make efficiencies. Alongside this, those companies will have a duty only to their shareholders – to turn a profit, which will no longer be reinvested into taxpayer-funded services. Outsourcing on this kind of scale will make it much harder for politicians to do their job as scrutinisers and commissioners, and to be held to account for the delivery of those services. It will be equally as difficult to co-ordinate the management of services.
 
The ‘One Barnet’ programme is indicative of a political leadership council that is not positive, but negative. We have a responsibility to be ambitious for those who live in our local area, and for its future. We should push for a local political leadership which is more responsible, and more in touch with the sort of support that those on low income and running businesses currently face. We should not simply oppose ‘One Barnet’, but push for a better Barnet – for better run councils, schools, libraries, waste disposal.
 
Reema Patel is a local activist, law student, campaigner on equalities issues and a school governor at Hollickwood Primary School, Coppetts, Barnet.
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