Are we heading to a two party Barnet?

If I was Cllr Lord and Lady Palmer and Cllr Jack Cohen – our last remaining Liberal Democrat Councillors – I would be worried after last nights election results.

Up and down the country Liberal Democrat Councillors lost their seats – not because of what they had done in their wards but because in their supporter’s views – they had gone back on their manifesto promises when coming into Government with us.

I believe Clegg was brave to come into coalition – and those decisions he has made have been correct – but it is obvious his supporters do not agree with him.

Therefore it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Barnet will have no Liberal Democrats after our next local election.

A few thoughts on last night

Out in East Barnet whilst knocking up I did not come across one person who said they were voting yes to AV.

A great result for my old boss Nigel Evans MP in the RibbleValley. The Ribble Valley Council now has no Labour councillors and the Liberal Democrats were halved.

Nigel used to be the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales and in my time working with him I had a lot of dealings with the Welsh Assembly. I am sorry to see, that whilst picking up a number of seats, the leader of the Conservative Group, Nick Bourne, has lost his.

And the AV vote – my prediction 70 per cent voted No 30 per cent yes.

Another nail in Nick Cleggs coffin?

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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.

Last night in Hendon

Last night (2 March 2011), I presented two papers at Cabinet Resource Committee, the committee that considers reports of a financial nature. (I’m aware that the way the council makes decisions isn’t clear to everyone, so I’ll try and explain the purpose of the various committees, meetings and processes as I mention them). The committee dealt with all agenda items very quickly, so I thought it would be helpful to go into a bit more detail.

The first paper I presented urged that the committee accepted the recommendations of the Customer Services Organisation and New Support Organisation options appraisal. The options appraisal process is used by the council to identify and evaluate the various choices that are available when thinking about how to change a council service. A joint options appraisal took place to consider how we should deliver customer and support services.

The Customer Services Organisation and New Support Organisation projects are part of the One Barnet council transformation programme. The options appraisal recommends that the council finds a strategic partner to deliver seven services; reorganises and improves four of those services prior to the transfer to a strategic partner; and transforms one service in house. The committee accepted these recommendations and we will now be putting together a business case for these services.

There are a several reasons why working with an external provider to deliver services is beneficial for the council, these include: private sector investment, something that is increasingly important now we will be operating with a reduced budget; access to expertise and knowledge not available within the council; improved technology; and reduced costs due to economies of scale.

The second paper sought Cabinet approval to update Registration and Nationality fees and charges from April 2011. Broadly speaking, we are bringing charges for weddings, and nationality and settlement checking in line with the market rate, specifically the rates charged in neighbouring boroughs. The fees we charge to perform a marriage ceremony on a Monday to Friday don’t cover our costs, so an increase is definitely required. At the moment it only costs £40 to get married on a Monday or Tuesday!

There was also a paper about the Award of the One Barnet Legal Partner Contract. The paper concerned the appointment of an external legal firm to work on the One Barnet programme. It is important that we have access to expert legal advice, particularly with complex projects that involve procurement and contract management. The recent media coverage of the previous administration’s botched contract with Catalyst is a timely reminder of how costly it can be when things don’t go according to plan.

The budget, a transformation project and another Barnet blogger

I decided to start this blog to add some narrative around the work I do as a Barnet Cabinet Member. There’s plenty of blog based banter about what we do, but none of it comes from anyone involved in running the borough. By adding my voice to the fray, I aim to give you an informed insider’s view. I’ll try and update the blog regularly with considered, topical posts.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the downturn in the world economy has hit the UK hard and Central government has severely reduced the funding it provides to local authorities. Newspapers are full of stories about how councils across Britain are struggling to deal with the financial shortfall. Unfortunately, Barnet is not immune from these challenges.

Barnet’s budget was approved by Cabinet on 1 March and it is, without a doubt, the most difficult budget I’ve worked on. We arrived at the final version after extensive consultation with staff, residents and service users and I believe we’ve delivered the best possible budget for Barnet in the circumstances. We are protecting the most vulnerable, not those who can shout the loudest.

Over the next three years we need to find £53m in savings. I understand that some of the decisions we’ve taken won’t be popular with everyone but I’m not sure pleasing everyone was ever going to be possible.

Barnet was better prepared for cuts to local government funding than many other councils. We’ve recognised for some time that increased funding doesn’t always lead to better, more popular services. In fact, over the last ten years we’ve seen a rise in both spending and services standards but a slight drop in public satisfaction. We understand that if we want to improve services we need to deliver them in a better, more efficient manner.

The council has already begun a major transformation programme – One Barnet – to radically change the way we deliver services and save £100m over the next ten years. Many of the proposals within the budget are linked to the One Barnet programme, which has been designed around three principles: a new relationship with citizens; a one public sector approach; a relentless drive for efficiency.

If you want to find out more, the One Barnet framework and the Budget Papers are available from Barnet Online.

I’ll be blogging more about the progress of the programme in greater detail over the coming weeks and months.

Please note:  I will moderate comments before they appear to ensure that they aren’t defamatory, abusive, hateful or capable of damaging the reputation of a person or organisation.