For over a year now, the Leader of Barnet Council has been holding meetings in different Wards, twice a week, to find out what people really want.
We had a letter inviting us to the local school hall to ask questions on such diverse items as schools, refuse disposal, the police, the health services and the streets; safety and cleanliness.
The letter went on to explain that the meetings were to help the council with future plans and that we were invited to give our opinions on how our local area could develop in the future and to ask questions about local plans. It went into specifics for our area but I won’t bore you, dear reader, with those here. However it ended with “…but on other matters which you would like to put to me in order to make Barnet an even better place to live.”
My wife and I turned up on time for the meeting and we were disappointed to see that out of a thousand people invited, less than five percent turned up. Apathy is alive and well, and living in London!
The letter, and his business cards, which were free to take had his direct line number printed, together with his email address. His business card also had his mobile telephone number!
The Leader, Mike Freer, was very positive as one would expect from the leader of one of the two largest boroughs in Greater London. He said he couldn’t please all of us but each issue where he couldn’t give an immediate answer would be written down by his assistant there, and he would send these issues to each department and would write to all of us with the collective answers in due course. We learned that there were 330,000 people on the Electoral Register, second only to Richmond with the amount of “green space” in the borough. However, Barnet has the most under fives and over eighty-fives which means more resources have to be made available.
There are about 9,000 employees including education staff and teachers in the borough, Barnet’s income is around a billion pounds a year and providing services cost well over six hundred million. In fact, if Barnet Council was a commercial undertaking, it would be in the FTSE 500 size company.
We learned how it isn’t quite so easy to run a borough with others being responsible for transport and the highways. In addition, large companies know only too well how to buck the system to get what they want at the residents expense.
Some of the changes to council budgets were made through these meetings, including introducing the “signature street cleansing service”, increasing the frequency of residential cleansing from four times per annum to thirteen times per annum; and increasing the amount of money spent on roads and pavements, for example three town centres were refurbished this last year alone. And the increased grants to the voluntary sector for youth work were proposed and accepted.
Barnet returned a Conservative council but our ward returned three Socialist council members, so I would imagine that most of those present were Socialists. However, there was no politics at the meeting, no shouting and everything ran in a civilised manner. This is how local politics should be.
I did ask the leader if he had knowledge of any other council, Conservative or Labour, who also implemented such a scheme and Mr Freer replied that to his knowledge; “no other council did this, although I have heard that “Hammersmith & Fulham” were looking at the concept”.
During the days that followed, I received a full A4 page personal letter about what Mike is doing to try to reverse the Post Office decisions, but the hoops that he has to jump through are too numerous to mention here.
I also received a circular letter to all the residents who had been invited which included a ten page summary of the meeting together with columns for actions taken or resolutions made. All the suggestions made appear to have been taken seriously and many have either already been put in place or have been promised in the near future. So it seems as if Barnet Council are listening to their residents and Mike Freer, as leader, is doing a very good job of drawing the local residents into the decision making progress.
All in all, I got the impression that this is not so much good Tory or Bad Labour, rather it was just good Mike Freer. I swore in the seventies that I would never vote Tory again in the General Election until every Tory who signed to take us into the EEC was dead and buried and I never have – in over thirty years. This, of course, includes any other party who stands for the EU. But I might make an exception if Mike Freer stands for Parliament.
Footnote: A few weeks afterwards, Labour sent their local councillors to call on people “on the doorstep”, throughout the area and listed four items which cropped up at Mike Freer’s meeting, said they are looking into these items and will get back to us. Too late I thought, The Leader has already got back to us with a ten page document and we know what is happening. It is the first time I have heard from our local Labour councillors during the six years we have lived here so it is good that they are getting a move on I guess.