Archive for May, 2007

The wrong post office

May 26, 2007

“The packet is opened here, you should stick a piece of tape” said the young woman behind the post office counter.
“Yes please, can you stick a bit of tape there?” I replied.
“You’ll have to buy it if you want to do that.”

She insisted that she didn’t have any tape to use but that rolls were on sale, she added that even if she needed a piece of tape she would have had to buy one roll.
And so I had to give in and buy a roll of tape despite needing only about two inches of it.
At first she came with a gigantic roll for £1.49, I asked if she didn’t have anything less, at that point she told me that yes, there were also smaller rolls, but that they were not adequate for the job. I insisted to see a small roll. She came back with a perfectly adequate roll for sale at 69p.
After my dealings at the counter I asked to see the manager.
I told him that all through my life I had been able to have pieces of tape applied to letters and packets without having to buy rolls.
“This is not a government office, this is a private business” he said shaking his head.
“It is a matter of courtesy to have some tape at hand to help clients” I said.
“It’s a private business” he repeated.

This happened to me today at the post office in Catford but it could have been anywhere. The world is full of mean people but this won’t stop me from trying to be nice.
Still, I won’t be going back there in a hurry.

Freedom of Information in action

May 23, 2007

 

LONDON BOROUGH OF LEWISHAM

COUNCIL MEETING – 23 MAY 2007

Question asked by: Mr M Calò

Question

The Consultation on Loampit Vale collected 28 online responses to the questionnaire that were not included in the report to the Mayor.
Had those answers been included then the outcome of the consultation would have changed substantially.

This malpractice did not came to light because of this administration’s watch on the works of Lewisham Council and its hired consultants, but because I asked for a copy of the consultation questionnaires under the Freedom of Information Act discovered that the content differed from what was reported to the Mayor and the public.

Is the Mayor disturbed by all this?

Reply

The proper use of the Freedom of Information Act by members of the public assists the running of the Local Authority. It is regrettable that all the responses to the consultation were not included in the original report. I am grateful that this oversight has come to light and I am now informed that when the 28 responses referred to above are included the results of the consultation are 50% in favour, 47% against with 3% unanswered as compared with the earlier report showing 53% in favour, 43% against and 4% unanswered. Am I disturbed by the proper use of the Freedom of Information Act – no.

I could have used my right for a supplementary question to point out that quite a number of those that answered yes contradicted themselves in the comment box so those answer should be considered invalid, instead I thanked him for acknowledging my positive contribution and encouraged him to take on board my other well-meaning advises.

He seemed to have understood what I said in spite of the fact that the microphone from the public gallery sounds like this.

Joanspotting (and Bridget too)

May 21, 2007

..those that voted in the closure motion, and then skulked off so their names didn’t appear in the main list…

There is Joan!

May 18, 2007

A couple of months ago I was wondering why that old campaigner of Joan Ruddock MP, representing Lewisham Deptford at Westminster wasn’t among the signatories of the Early Day Motion in defense of the Freedom of Information Act.

I emailed her to urge her to join but as I am not technically in her constituency (the border is just down the road, my MP is Bridget Prentice and she can’t sign because she’s in government and anyway she would never dare stepping out of line, she knows what’s good for her) the only answer I got was the following message from her secretary:

” Thank you for your email. Unfortunately there is strict Parliamentary protocol which states that MPs can only deal with enquiries from their own constituents.

I am sorry we cannot be of more help.”

But I have instead just discovered that Joan Ruddock MP did take an interest in the FoIA, in fact she actively urged Labour MPs to vote for a shameful bill exempting themselves from the effect of the FoIA.

Here’s from the email to the Labour group at Parliament urging them to show support for this disgraceful piece of legislation (click here for the full email):

If you support the principle of keeping MP’s casework confidential it would be extremely helpful if you could let us know your availability on the 18th May, ideally from 9.30 – 14.30, but certainly from 10.30-14.00. We need at least 100 MPs from all parties to be present in the event of a closure motion.
We look forward to hearing from you.


Regards,

Tony Lloyd, Angela Eagle, Kevan Jones, Ann Cryer, Joan Ruddock, Martin Salter and Don Touhig.

Today this shameful bill passed through parliament and reached the House of Lords.

It is important to remember that there is already in place a data protection Act to protect the privacy of constituents dealing with their MPs.

Well done Joan for putting yourself above mortals.

Making sense

May 17, 2007

I spoke again at Mayor and Cabinet yesterday. This time I had five full minutes available but used only about one minute and I think it was a good idea. I take Barry Quirk’s nodding in apparent agreement as an indication that I was making sense.

Mayor Bullock rejected my request and that’s another strong indication that I was making sense.

I think that I start to master this skill of speaking at Mayor and Cabinet. This time, strong of the experience of the last time I spoke there I didn’t give them any rope to get back at me, I also kept my argument confined to one point, avoided expanding it to water it down or offer multiple choices so that the main point can be ignored by picking on the periphery. Result? They ignored it all.

To counter my request the Mayor was offered by an officer a very nice string of factual inaccuracies that he kindly accepted without the slightest blink.

It then came the time of the round of opinion from the distinguished members of the Cabinet.
As I was listening to them I was thinking that if I had had the courage to put up such arguments as theirs I would have been eaten up alive, but there you go, that’s the privilege of being a member of the Bullock cabinet. They all avoided speaking of the subject matter but kept rigorously by the shallow end of the talk about pools.
“I spoke with three women at the pool and they were all excited about having a new gym” said one of them.

Can you imagine if I had said to the Mayor “I spoke with three chaps in the changing rooms and they all told me that they’d rather have this one refurbished if all you’re prepared to build is that blot”?

What I did say instead was that as he was committing to spend £20k on a consultation to ask people if they wanted the pool at Ladywell or Loampit Vale it would be opportune to have a study to determine the pros and cons of the possible choices to allow the public to make an informed decision.

That was rejected, he instead agreed with officers to commit to one of the options from now despite consulting with the public on the options.

He also rejected all of the points submitted by the Area Forum but one. On the last one he said that he needs more time to think. Take your time, don’t get a headache Steve.

More on the Quirk Review

May 16, 2007

I have now read the Quirk Review and I have to admit that yesterday I was a bit unjust, it is an interesting read and unlike what newspapers had said it doesn’t recommend to sell libraries and swimming pools for £1.

It gives a good review of the possible options and doesn’t ask for new legislation to be introduced. It recommends to build a database of information that may come useful to whoever wants to try to go down that road, it also recommends that the government makes an effort to encourage local authorities and community groups to consider all options regarding publicly owned assets, so, good luck to it.

It’s then entirely up to individual local authorities to make good or bad use of the options available, some will find good uses to empty properties, some other will try to shift responsibilities away from them together with the assets (case study 5 in the paper) but I suspect that those already know all the tricks in the book.

Beware of the community man!

May 15, 2007

If if looks too good to be true…

Today’s news is that the Government wants to sell community assets like swimming pools and libraries to “the community” for the nominal price of £1.

A report by our local Chief Executive of Lewisham Council, Barry Quirk, delivered to the Cabinet Minister for Communities (Saint) Ruth Kelly MP argues that “handing public assets to communities leads to better services”.

Is he really saying that just about anybody can do his job better than himself? Such an honest approach would be indeed refreshing but I don’t think that that’s really his point.

I’m rather suspicious that what this is leading up to is a huge dismissal of public services, the enrolment of well-wishing volunteers as “partners” that are given the “community” badge so that they can run the services previously run by the Council on the cheap and, on occasion, can be made to fail if supporting them is not anymore convenient without being held responsible.

Last year at Lewisham Town Hall I attended an event entitled “Consultation Day”. A consultant was being paid to run a one day workshop about well…consultations.

Interestingly to start his one day event (after paying hugely professional lip service to the Mayor, the Government and whoever gives him the bacon to bring home) he called the attention of this audience made of politicians and Council officers from various London Borough and “partners” (like me) to the basic activity of Local Government: budget cuts.

“Who can tell me what’s the Gershon formula?” he asked. A forest of arms raised up and he chose a dandy gentleman in the first row that explained that this chap Gershon had identified the way forward for local councils in a 2.5% cuts in the revenue budget year after year for the reason that there are savings on inefficiencies to be made.

So, like everybody else, year after year Lewisham Council comes out with its 2.5% cut in its budget and there goes one service or two and a few people lose their job. Much of it doesn’t really stand up as ‘efficiency saving’ but we’re always told that that’s what they are.

Now that all the possible efficiency savings have been made (but wait for the next round) and all that could be outsourced to the private sector has been outsourced, Councils are left with the problem of trying to outsource even what nobody wants. Mainly these are services that are quite expensive to run and don’t make enough money to sustain themselves. So here’s the proposal to ‘give’ libraries and swimming pools to “the community”.

I’m left wondering what does this word means? Isn’t the Council a cornerstone of the community?

We elect people to represent us and they hire professionals to run the services. What’s so wrong with it?

Why is it that they don’t want to run services anymore? If your local services are handed out to people that can’t run them and the Council is not anymore responsible for those services then we all lose and there’s nobody left to hold to account.

Barry Quirk knows this as he explained to the people at IDeA when asked to draw a parallel between basketball and local politics:

“As a five-on-five game it involves competition that is ‘up close and personal’. Local government involves larger teams, but it has the character of a contact sport – the public with the politicians, the politicians with the managers, the managers with the staff and staff with the public!”

It takes a lot of expertise and professionalism to run community services and well wishing community members may not have those qualities.

There are examples of successful not-for-profit enterprises delivering public services, but they are professional set-ups, take Greenwich Leisure for example, that started as a management buy-out of the leisure services of Greenwich Council, not a bunch of amateurs wanting to run their swimming pool.

Greenwich Leisure, as a not-for-profit company has to reinvest all surplus in the service and this gives it an edge in delivery of service when compared with for-profit companies that always look forward to creaming the profits.

If you have been a reader of this blog for a while you may remember my not-for-profit pfi petition. Well that’s pretty much the point.
I don’t know why when 2 years ago Lewisham Council had to hand out a pfi contract for Downham pool it didn’t use Greenwich Leisure but went instead for a for-profit company with a poor record in delivery of public service. Has Barry Quick changed his views since that contract?

Quirk was already Chief Executive when Lewisham Council decided to opt out of delivering sport and leisure and take on “an enabling role in seeking both public provision to the private sector, and public access to private facilities” and this new idea of giving service-loaded buildings away for one pound pretty much fits that idea too, only that it’s not private companies but “communities”.

Beware!!!

Update: read here a different perspective on the initiative that Andrew Brown posted at almost exactly the same moment when I posted this.

Addicted

May 9, 2007

It’s one week that I listen to the same disc over and over again. Can’t help, it’s wonderful.

Another swimming pool, another election

May 4, 2007

As stated below, I was very curious to see the result of the local elections in Plymouth after that Council closed the local swimming pool Seaton Pool without a plan for a new one.

The wait didn’t disappoint, in an uneventful election night Plymouth showed one of the biggest swings of the night with the Plymouth Labour Party losing control of the Council in favour of the Conservatives.

I don’t know how big the influence of the swimming pool issue was over that election but I know that people care enough about their swimming pools to use their vote to keep them.

Keep an eye on Seaton

May 2, 2007

Here and there around the land tomorrow is election day and at least in one place they are up to much the same that me and my fellow campaigners were up to last year here in Lewisham.

When I read about it at the London Pools Campaign site I just could not refrain from writing something about it. Read it here.