Another One Barnet project approved

The business case for the Development and Regulatory Services (DRS) project was approved by Cabinet Resources committee on Monday night.

DRS is a One Barnet project that is looking to secure an external partner to deliver a group of council services that relate primarily to Barnet’s built environment and environmental health.

There are a number of advantages to be gained from working with an external organisation to provide these services, including access to private sector technology and expertise. But the appeal is also financial.

When I speak to residents about how the council should save money, I’m often told that we should reduce back office costs. Using an external provider to deliver services will significantly cut what we spend on support services.

You can read the DRS business case on the Barnet website.


Library strategy agreed by cabinet

Last night, the strategic library review was agreed by Cabinet. You can read the Cabinet papers on the Barnet website.

The strategy is a good example of the council’s One Barnet objectives. It shows a commitment to sharing opportunities in the borough and it shows that a reduction in budget doesn’t just mean less of the same. The principles underpinning this strategy would be the principles of a new library strategy if we had twice the budget.

The strategy also represents a commitment by the council to support the literacy of Barnet residents – young and old. Extensive consultation made it clear that residents want a service that promotes literacy. We can do this best, by making reading for pleasure second nature for every Barnet child, and supporting people for whom full time education was not a success.

The strategy proposes that every primary school child receives membership of their local library. We all know that a child’s education continues outside of school hours and I want to our library service to support that.

During our consultation, parents asked that we have libraries open earlier so that they can bring pre-school children to the service after they have dropped older siblings off at school. We will be doing just that. Under this strategy every building will open at 9.30 at the latest.

Our commitment to literacy extends beyond children. In the 21st Century literacy, and almost as important, information literacy, is the key to successful employment. Our corporate plan makes it clear that this is a council that supports sharing opportunities and sharing responsibilities. Literacy has to be at the heart of all of that.

We will be piloting a new service with The Reader Organisation working with people who have a low level of literacy. This is an agency that has used literature and literacy to open the minds and raise the ambitions of many people – from those with learning difficulties to ex-offenders. I hope this pilot will turn into a lasting relationship.

It is gratifying that there has been widespread support for the strategy in the media. I believe we have delivered the best possible library strategy for the current and future readers of Barnet.

The strategy plans will now go through a second public consultation.

One Barnet Partnership Board minutes to be made public

The One Barnet Partnership Board is a group that’s made up of senior representatives from Barnet’s key public sector organisations, such as the council, the police, the NHS and education bodies. The board meets every two to three months to jointly agree a shared strategy for the borough, oversee a programme of work to turn this strategy into action, and ensure we provide better, more accessible services to Barnet residents.

Following feedback I’ve received from the One Barnet Overview and Scrutiny Panel it has been decided that minutes from the One Barnet Partnership Board will be published online. This decision was wholeheartedly supported by the board.

This means that meetings of the One Barnet Partnership Board will be subject to the same level of public scrutiny as other council meetings. This is as it should be. It is important that what we do is open and transparent because, ultimately, we are working for Barnet citizens.

I will add a link to the next set of One Barnet Partnership Board meeting minutes when they are published.

Barnet’s library review is published

After 1,600 responses to our consultation and over 50 public events I am proud that we have published the findings of our library service review. You can read the report on the Barnet Council website. It is available a little earlier in the evening than I wanted – and there are a few minor changes to the final version, like a graph out of place, but these will be updated in the morning.

Like much of the council, the library service is facing significant budget cuts – a £1.4m reduction to a budget of £6m. To take account of this, we need to reduce back-office costs, make efficiency savings, and find new ways of working to deliver a modernised library service for Barnet.

Our consultation has guided us in our strategy going forward. Respondents made clear we should increase reading, literacy and learning opportunities for children, and should promote reading and learning opportunities for adults. Respondents told us to engage with communities and offer improved community spaces, access and resources and to provide easy access to a wider world of knowledge and information. 

Our approach has been praised by the Museums Libraries and Archives council who said that our strategic review is ‘impressive’ and will help to set future library strategy.

Across London, councils are shutting libraries left, right and centre. Brent and Lewisham will close almost half of their libraries (6 of 13 in Brent and 5 of 11 in Lewisham) and Hounslow plan to shut almost three quarters of theirs (8 of 11). Those who campaigned against our library consultation were campaigning, I believe, in wrongful anticipation that there was going to be likewise en masse closure of Barnet’s libraries.

In contrast to other councils’ wholesale cuts to library services, Barnet is planning more positive changes.  We will:

  • spend an extra £10k to buy more books;
  • increase library opening hours by opening at 9.30am;
  • provide better access for children by making all primary school pupils library members;
  • ensure that the mobile and housebound library services are targeted effectively at those with the greatest needs.
  • use technology to reduce costs and improve service by offering more WIFI services;
  • improve online services (including e-books);
  • increase self-service and self-issue;
  • provide better library-based access to council services;
  • provide IT training and support to volunteers to run sessions at libraries;
  • explore a paid-for book delivery scheme;
  • and, most importantly in respect of efficiency savings, we plan to share back office systems with a neighbouring borough.

Under our proposals, Barnet will have three ‘Landmark Libraries’ in Hendon, Chipping Barnet, and at a new site in Finchley, nine ‘Leading Libraries’, and two ‘Link Libraries’ in Grahame Park and Child’s Hill, which will be integrated within other public services. These link libraries will have the same level of investment and same level of books but will bring other services into them. I have been describing them to others as a mini-Burnt Oak Library.

The North Finchley and Friern Barnet Libraries will merge and move to one site. We have had very good initial talks with the Artsdepot about this new Landmark library sharing their site, and I look forward to these talks going forward. We are looking to redevelop Finchley Church End Library, which has a huge maintenance back log.  This redevelopment will potentially be on the same site, though we will have to sale off some of the land. The Institute in Hampstead Garden Suburbs has shown interest in re-providing stock from the Hampstead Garden Suburb Library at its East Finchley site as we propose to remove this site. We will provide them with a self-service terminal to run the library – a fine example of a big society library in action!

In Barnet, we are modernising our libraries and keeping them relevant and popular. We’ve listened to the ideas put forward in the consultation with library users, and this is the result. These plans will now go forward to a second consultation if approved by Cabinet on the 29th March.

Olympic Tickets

Yesterday marked 500 days until the start of the Olympics. As you may have read in the media, each London council has been offered 100 tickets to buy. I have today put out the following statement on Barnet’s allocation:

Councillor Robert Rams, Cabinet member for Customer Access and Partnerships, said: “Barnet council taxpayers are already contributing to the cost of the London 2012 games and I can’t imagine those same taxpayers would be keen on a few councillors attending some events. If we could find a way to provide these tickets to Barnet residents without any further cost to the taxpayer we would be interested in looking at any options.”

Barnet council tax payers should not pay for these tickets and we are now looking at other alternatives to provide these tickets to residents.


New ways of networking

In all facets of my work – in Parliament, at City Hall and as a councillor – networking is hugely important. I used to think it was an art form. To see a Member of Parliament walk into a room knowing no one, and speak for hours to people they had never met, left me in awe. This important skill is something I have worked hard to develop over the last few years.

With the advent of Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools, the way we network has changed dramatically. It is with this back drop that last week I wrote to members of the Barnet Civic Network to let them know that the group will no longer meet in its current form.

The Network was formed six years ago to bring together representatives from Barnet-based voluntary and community groups, to provide a networking forum, and to encourage them to work together.

The council ran evening events twice a year that usually attracted about 100 people. At these events, the council was able to speak to a wide range of organisations and ask them what they thought about any new plans or ideas that were being developed.

The Network has influenced the development of some important policy over the years, including the Safer Communities Strategy and the Sustainable Community Strategy, which I presented. But its most important function has been to connect, sometimes quite disparate, groups and allow people to meet, make contacts and exchange ideas.

Now the group is established, the council is able to engage with them in different and cheaper ways. Running a large event – providing a room and supplying refreshments – is an expensive way to speak to people, particularly when you consider the financial constraints faced by the council. There are now a whole range of free (or almost free) social media tools that allow people from different groups, in different locations to network and collaborate online.

I want to encourage The Network to form their own virtual communities. This could take the form of community groups from a particular sector starting an online forum, broadcasting their messages through Twitter or building communities of interest using Facebook. Pledgebank is another useful tool that they can use to bring people together.

Barnet already uses social media to communicate with residents. This technology allows the council to take messages to the spaces where people congregate online. If you haven’t already done so, check out Barnet’s Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts – there is a new video on YouTube about Community Coaches that’s well worth a look. The council is currently trialling Twitter as an alternative to telephone contact to help to improve customer services.  These services are not perfect yet – but we’re getting there!


I just wanted to thank you for your comments – I am reading them all but need to find the time to reply.

The blackberry app for wordpress does not seem the easiest to navigate so posting on the move is easy – but replying to comments is not!  I will do all I can to reply asap.