New website, new approach

I’ve just seen the latest version of the draft design templates for the new Barnet website and I’m very pleased with how the site is developing.

I’m confident that the new website will be easier to use and simpler to navigate than the existing site as the new design is cleaner and the content has been structured in a more straightforward manner. The designs are currently still in draft form but I will share them once they have been fully signed off and approved.

One of the main reasons for redeveloping the website is to make online transactions easier to access and simpler to use. The focus on bringing transactions online is a reflection of the changing way residents access both public and private sector services.

It wasn’t that long ago that banking transactions had to take place before 3.30pm on a Friday but nowadays I can do my banking 24 hours a day, on the move or at home and I’m able to use a device that simply didn’t exist two years ago.

We can provide a better, more efficient service for residents by allowing them to access more services online, at their convenience.

But as well as providing a more efficient transactional website, the redevelopment of Barnet Online will allow the council to focus on becoming more open and transparent.

As has been discussed elsewhere, the council receives a large number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and responding to them takes up a lot of officer time, time that would be better spent on the core activities of their jobs. We can greatly reduce this burden on council time and resources by publishing more council data and making it easier to find.

We may also encourage more residents to actively engage with the council. At the moment, being an armchair auditor requires a dogged determination. There aren’t many people who would want to spend their social hours trolling through committee papers and expense reports looking for anomalies.

By making more information – previous FOI requests, details of allowances and expenses, copies of contract and tender documents, committee minutes and decisions, performance data etc – more freely available we will allow those residents with less free time to find out more about how the council, councillors and council run services are performing.

And contrary to what you might have read elsewhere, council services are performing extremely well:

  • 81 per cent of resident are ‘most happy’ with refuse collection
  • 73 per cent of residents with experience of secondary schools describe them as ‘good or excellent’
  • Adult Social Services are rated as ‘excellent’ by the Care Quality Commission
  • Children’s Services are rated as ‘excellent’ by Ofsted.

..and in many ways these are the key services residents care about.

Barnet has nothing to hide, so I’m very keen that we make as much information about the council as easy to access as possible and the new website is the ideal vehicle to deliver on this transparency agenda.

In the New Year we will be looking at how we can better present performance data in ways that is genuinely helpful to residents. If anyone has an opinion on how information should be presented, I’d be interested in hearing your views.

Barnet…there’s an app for that

With the launch of Barnet Council’s new iPhone app, residents can tap into local services and information wherever they are. The Barnet Mobile smartphone app is now available for free download from the Apple App Store and is suitable for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad.

Barnet Mobile app

The new app allows you to:

  • access local consultations
  • find local services on an interactive map
  • pay your council tax
  • search frequently asked questions
  • sign-up for pay-by-phone parking
  • contact your local councillor
  • read the latest tweets and press releases.

Barnet is one of the first UK councils to launch a smartphone app and it’s been created by an in-house developer. This means Barnet has introduced a new way to contact and engage with the council at a minimal cost to residents.

I encourage you to download the app and let me know what you think.

An app for Android smartphones is being developed, I will let you know when it is available.

The Leisure Challenge

Barnet Council has published details of a Strategic Leisure Review ahead of the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday 14 September.

As we face what is likely to be a decade of public sector austerity, we are likely to be spending less on almost all non-statutory council services, leisure included. This means that every pound becomes more important and we have to make sure it is spent on getting the right outcomes for the people of Barnet.

The council’s spend, currently £1.7 million, is a comparatively small amount compared to the overall leisure spending in Barnet. The total residents spend on leisure in the borough is estimated to be around £340 million (around £48.10 each week for each household). That means that the most sensible use of council money is to support the development of opportunities that the private sector cannot provide alone, and to work with public sector partners on an agreed set of outcomes. This review will explore just how we can do this.

Council spending is, of course, centred on encouraging people to take some form of exercise rather on the broader definition of leisure. This is entirely sensible as we need to work with partners to support the health of Barnet residents. There is obviously a clear public good in supporting swimming that is not so immediately apparent in subsidising tickets to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

So in running the review we will look at how we meet the changing needs of the boroughs population. In Barnet we have both a growing number of young people and a growing number of residents over 65.

We will need to work with colleagues in the health service to ensure that we meet the needs of these groups. The population of young people is literally expanding – childhood obesity has risen as comparatively sedentary pursuits such a video gaming replace sport as many young people’s leisure activity of choice.

This, of course, will have to be balanced with the need to support the health of older people. We will explore how council spending can limit future demands on the health service and if it is possible to align health service and council budgets around agreed aims.

I’m particularly keen to see the role in wider wellbeing as well as health. There is for instance a great plenty of evidence to show that an element of exercise is very good for mental health.

Such challenges mean that we will need to have a wide ranging review of our work with partners. As well as a role for the National Health Service, we will be exploring how we can work with the Police and the Mental Health Trust in developing a co-ordinated approach to supporting the health and wellbeing of the borough’s residents.

In developing this review we have taken as a model the consultation the council ran over the future of the library service. Our library review looked beyond simply supporting bricks and mortar, to look at the purposes of the service for the future. We concluded that getting young people reading was a priority. It is possible that this review will see getting young people exercising as equally important. We have also had great success supporting reading groups through the library service and it would be interesting to explore if we could support residents exercise groups along similar lines.

That review saw us speak to existing service users, those who no longer used our facilities as well as a large number of groups with an interest in the service.

Every one of Barnet’s residents will have an opportunity to give us their views on the council’s support for leisure activities and what they believe our objectives should be.

I hope we will hear from as many people as possible.

You can access the Cabinet papers from the Barnet website.

Library strategy discussed at Overview and Scrutiny

Last night, the Strategic Library Review was discussed by the Business Management Overview and Scrutiny Committee having been called in by a Labour councillor.

When we first published the Strategic Library Review back in March, it received considerable cross-party support. In comparison to the plans put forward by many other London boroughs that face similar budget cuts, Barnet’s plan for local libraries is very positive. The council has made a commitment to focus on literacy, spend an extra £10k on books and increase library opening hours.

I take my responsibilities seriously, I care about the future of the Barnet’s library service and I’m proud of the strategy that has been developed.

While I can understand that political point scoring always plays a part in the democratic process, much of what was discussed last night centred on issues of trust.

You may have seen comments in the press last week that implied the council hadn’t had any meetings with the artsdepot about our plans to create a new landmark library at the North Finchley site. This is simply not true. Below is a statement from Tracey Cooper the Chief Executive of the artsdepot.

“artsdepot has been discussing with the council proposals for a joint artsdepot-library service in North Finchley for several months, including officer meetings with the artsdepot board. While the planning of detailed proposals are at an early stage, with a lot to cover before we can finalise an agreed model, our two organisations are jointly overseeing the project to confirm the detail of what will be offered and both are excited by the possibilities. Our initial project delivery meeting was positive and artsdepot looks forward to the detailed next stage of work.”

After yesterday’s meeting, libraries in Barnet have a clear future despite the financial pressures faced by the council.

One Barnet Partnership Board minutes

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the minutes from the One Barnet Partnership Board would be made public.

The One Barnet Partnership Board brings together representatives from key public sector bodies in Barnet – the council, NHS Barnet, Middlesex University, Job Centre plus and the Metropolitan Police – to discuss important issues that affect the lives of our residents.

The minutes from the last meeting are now available on Barnet’s website.

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.