Barnet council in north London receives a relatively low grant settlement from central government because it is a relatively prosperous borough. However, it has large pockets of deprivation.
The current Tory council makes a lot of central government “unfairness” when it wants to justify its plans to cut services and to go in for extensive outsourcing (the “Future Shape” programme). But, at the same time, the council consistently neglects poorer areas.
Overdue regeneration of the worst housing estates (formerly council, now run by an ALMO, Barnet Homes) are grinding to a halt in the credit crunch with contractors like Barratt Homes looking unlikely to deliver; plans to revive the built-up, congested and downright ugly west of the borough boil down to more big stores and high-intensity private apartment blocks while fantastically wealthy areas like leafy Totteridge are left untouched; amenities, cultural and recreational services are “no frills” when they exist at all.
Barnet trades council has helped to set up an independent residents’ group, Barnet Community Campaign, to protest against Future Shape and cuts, including a campaign against the proposed axing of elderly sheltered housing wardens. Barnet expects to make £12 million savings this year, £700,000 of that will be through the wardens cut.
One thing the campaign will have to do is counter the arguments of the Barnet administration: instead of privatising and cutting, they should be mobilising residents to campaign for more money from central government, and putting their own house in order.
Council leader Mike Freer is under new pressure with the recent disclosure that council officers went against Barnet’s own Treasury policy when placing £2 billion worth of investments — £27 million of that is currently frozen in failed Icelandic banks. The questions are: how much did Freer know and when, and shouldn’t he have known more? Freer is the Tory PPC for Finchley and Golders Green and will go up against the Labour group’s leader on the council, Alison Moore.
Council workers’ unions — Unison, GMB, teaching unions — should co-ordinate or at least service the disparate campaigns going on in local government around the country. In Barnet it has been the work of individual union branches to seek out information from other areas of the country. We confront different issues and different local foes, but ultimately we are all in the same boat and need to discuss and work together, never more so than now with massive cuts in public spending looming.