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.


Open Public Services White Paper

I’ve been meaning to write something about the Government’s Open Public Services White Paper, which was published in July.

The White Paper suggests a new approach to public services, one that will be partly achieved by opening up services to a range of providers. It argues that better services can be achieved by encouraging innovation in service delivery, an approach we are already exploring in Barnet.

Of particular interest to me was the section about services commissioned by local government, as this closely relates to the council’s transformation programme. As the paper explains, local authorities are usually the most appropriate bodies to decide how local services should be delivered. The Government is keen to encourage the opening up of locally commissioned services in a range of areas, including:

  • customer contact
  • planning
  • property and facilities management
  • back-office transactional services
  • family support
  • support for looked-after children
  • trading standards and environmental services
  • housing management.

As I’ve mentioned previously, Barnet is already speaking to the market to find partners to deliver several of these services. We have recognised that we need to tap into private sector expertise to find new, more innovative ways to deliver services.

For more information, you can read the Open Public Services White Paper or visit the open public services website.

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.

Have you signed up for planning alerts?

There is a service available from Barnet Council that makes it easy to find out about planning applications in your area. The council will send you email updates if you sign up for planning alerts at Barnet’s website.

There is a very simple online form that asks you to choose whether you want alerts about planning applications in your local ward or close to your postcode location. Once you sign up, you will receive an email each time a planning application is lodged for a property in your local area.

Barnet is exploring different way to make information available to residents and the planning alert service is a good example of providing information in a more easily digestible manner.

Planning applications have always been available for public scrutiny but by providing an ‘opt in’ alert service the council has made it much easier for residents to access the information they want.

It is important that residents are involved in planning decisions in their local community and this service will encourage more local people to take a more active role.

Planning alerts, along with other website features such as FixmyStreet and Barnet PledgeBank have improved the online experience for Barnet residents and made it easier to interact with the council.

We will continue to explore new way to engage with residents and provide them with the information they want in ways they want to receive it.

Future Libraries

Last Friday, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the Local Government Group released a joint report on the future of libraries – ‘Future Libraries: Change, options and how to get there’. The report highlights some of the innovative ways that local authorities are modernising library services.

You may remember that the Museums Libraries and Archives Council have previously praised Barnet’s strategic library review, describing it as ‘impressive’. So it is no surprise that much of what is recommended in the joint report mirrors what we plan to do in Barnet.

The report’s recommendations include:

  • running library services with other council or community services
  • sharing back office costs with neighbouring boroughs
  • partnering with the private and third sectors
  • involving the local community with the running of local library services.

We plan to improve library based access to other council services and run two link libraries – Grahame Park and Child’s Hill – integrating library services within other public services.

We are in discussion with a neighbouring borough to share library support services and costs

During the public consultation the idea of providing library services from shops was discussed, and while this idea was ridiculed by some, it is now recommended by the report.

We have also given the community the opportunity to come up with ideas for running community library services in Friern Barnet and Hampstead Garden Suburb.

You can read more about the joint report on the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council’s website.


More about Barnet’s Innovation Bank

As mentioned previously, Barnet’s Big Society Innovation Bank was launched last month to provide funding for individuals and not-for-profit groups who have innovative solutions for local problems.

On Friday 8th July, we held an Innovation Bank ideas festival at North London Business Park that was attended by about 80 people.

During the session, attendees discussed their ideas and received practical advice and feedback from a range of charity and social enterprise groups including Red Ochre, Involve, Social Enterprise Coalition and Social Enterprise London.

I’ve been really impressed with the volume and scope of the ideas that were suggested and the feedback from the people who attended was very positive.

You can get more information about the Innovation Bank and download an application form from

Applications need to be submitted by Friday 29 July, so you have a week to get involved.