No Assembly Required

Speech Bubbles at the Blackheath Assembly
I attended a Blackheath Assembly for the first time yesterday. Held in the bright, airy hall of St. Matthew’s Academy (school), with a very post-modern crucifix hanging over us, it started out looking quite promising.
Introductions, agendas, the obligatory local plod telling us to lock our windows when we go outside- the usual things.

The meeting was very specific. We weren’t encouraged to ask questions about the library closures (there’s a meeting about Library Closure on 28th July at 7pm, at the Leemore Centre, Clarendon Rise, Lewisham SE13 5ES). We were told that only issues relating to Blackheath should be discussed. One person asked where he should raise Lewisham-wide issues “I don’t want any of the libraries to be cut”. No clear answer.

Then came The Presentation. It rapidly became clear that this Consultation Exercise had only one purpose- to demonstrate that Lewisham Council should be perceived by its citizens as fundamentally skint. Liz Dart, who had the unenviable task of conveying this message, through the artistic medium of Microsoft PowerPoint, did her best. “I don’t think any of us went into the public sector wanting to close services” was a memorable line.

The presentation was very clear. This is a UK-version of the shock-doctrine approach. Expect “Radical Change” to “completely revolutionise” how services are run.

Voting Machines.  Less useful than some paper and a pencil.

Voting Machines. Less useful than some paper and a pencil.

Then the Electronic Vote began. This was a disaster from start to finish. Think of it as a series of questions along the lines of:

Question: “How would you like us to kill your cat?”.

A: I like my cat, kill someone else’s cat.
B: Perhaps I could volunteer to kill other people’s cats?
C: I think people with cats should kill their own cats, without the council paying.
D: Maybe it would be OK, if you just lopped off one ear of that cat instead?
E: I have another idea.

(This is a facetious example. Lewisham council loves cats. I hope).
The full set of questions can be read here (PDF file) or very poorly OCR’d version here (sorry). The online version, which uses slightly different questions, can be found at the incredibly patronisingly titled Our Lewisham Our Say page.

It’s worth mentioning that the good people of Blackheath were having their views (un)represented by about 46 middle to old aged men and women, a sea of white middle class affability, who looked as though they might have been more at home in a daycare centre or a pub quiz.

All of the questions were framed in such a way as to make the “don’t cut anything” option appear unreasonable.

The questions often appeared to be aimed at helping Lewisham Council work out what choice of words would best convince the public for the need to cut services. For example, if the council wants to reduce spending on roads, should it try to convince you by saying:

“We need to be greener- roads are less important in this new Eco-tastic Age”.

Or should they say:

“Roads should be funded by Bad People who park in Bad Places”

When the voting began, it became obvious that whoever had set the quiz up hadn’t checked that the answers on the paper were in the same order as the answers on the screen. Bearing in mind that several members of the audience clearly had trouble with the electronic voting system, it became necessary for the “quizmaster” to read out every answer, and to try to urge the audience not to look at the paper handouts.

As one lady pointed out- “whoever set this quiz up expects their pay cheque to be correct at the end of each month. This is a schoolboy error.”

Here are the answers on the page:
Answers on the sheet
And here are the completely different order of answers on the screen:
Completely different answers on the screen
(Incidentally the quiz button machines are made by Turning Technologies – take note, they went catastrophically wrong halfway through the presentation, although that’s probably because the laptop was complaining about the Windows Profile being full).

It’s a good point. No debate was held as the vote results were displayed. There was no time to discuss them. The presenters had no answers for the few pertinent questions asked by the audience. A great one was “What proportion of the council’s budget is spent on salaries over £65,000?“. No clear answer.

The entire exercise could have been handled more efficiently using pencil and paper. The use of endless PowerPoint presentations and electronic voting systems feels as though it represents the general cruft and wastage within the council. “We do it this way, because that is how people present things”. A person standing up at the front and simply answering questions would have been far more effective than this.

The sheer number of unelected, unrepresentative bodies mentioned during the talk defied belief. For example, the policeman showed us some crime maps (below average in Blackheath and dropping). “If you want to see more accurate maps, join the Blackheath Ward Panel – anyone can join”. When someone in the audience asked “why can’t we see the accurate maps”, the answer was “they contain sensitive information”. Either they are fit for public consumption or they aren’t. Why should they be shown to a tiny unrepresentative group?

Then there is the self-nominated Coordinating Body. Anyone can nominate themselves to be on this group, and they meet four times a year, to set the agenda for the next meeting. Blackheath Village Residents Group aren’t on the list. Blackheath Society isn’t on the list. Having been to the meeting, I suspect that this is because they’ve realised that these meetings are something of a joke. A faux-democracy card-shuffling exercise, designed to give the illusion of power to a few bored individuals, who are going to either hand all of our public services over to the private sector, or just shut them.

11 Comments

Filed under blackheath, politics

11 responses to “No Assembly Required

  1. Whilst not condoning the style of the presentations you describe, or any faux-consultation exercises in general, the point that surely has to be faced is that local government is going to be facing the brunt of the ‘unavoidable’ budget.

    There seems to be a choice for councils; take the decisions based on the best reasoning that the Mayor, councillors and officers can muster, or try to engage in a more participative approach.

    Either way the cuts are coming and an awful lot of people’s cats are in the bag.

  2. JP

    I’m sorry Bugle, but this post is utter bollocks.

    Whether you like Lewisham Council or not, nobody can blame them for the cuts that they are being forced to make. Their grant from central government is going to be cut by an unprecedented amount. At the same time, the government has frozen council tax, which means they are unable to make up the shortfall to any extent. What is the alternative to cuts? To sneer at their attempts to bring people into the decision making process, or even to explain the choices that have to be made, is just pathetic.

    As sad as it is that Blackheath Library may be shut down, the alternatives are even more grim. It is dangerously parochial to focus on this issue to the extent that you have done. Thousands of elderly and disabled people rely on Lewisham Council for their social services, for example. There is clearly a hierarchy of need.

    ‘But maybe if the Council didn’t spend so much on Powerpoint…’. Get real. It astonishes me how the Daily Mail’s insidious ten year campaign against the public sector has seeped into the brains of people who ought to know better.

    This piece on Londonist a while back explains the unenviable decisions that are having to be made (see discussion at the bottom with local Councillor).

    http://londonist.com/2010/07/council_cuts_come_to_lewisham_and_y.php

    The coalition professes through crocodile tears that this was inevitable: it wasn’t. As cheap a shot as it may be, can I also say (while I’m here) that I hope the people who crowded onto the Heath to touch the hem of Nick Clegg’s garment during the election campaign will now admit that the Lib Dems have facilitated an unprecedented attack on the public sector in this country. 80% spending cuts; 20% tax rises. ‘Change that works for you’.

  3. Lara

    Having been at the meeting, I have slightly different take. While there were obviously some problems with the process, I thought that the residents were unbelievably unhelpful in being very obstructive. Absolutely we didn’t need the electronic voting system but actually I was more shocked that people weren’t more open to the whole process. Lewisham council do not have to try and engage local people in the discussions, they could just make their cuts. And frankly if I were them I wouldn’t bother with any more consultations. Also I went to that meeting worried about blackheath library closing but came away thinking that in the context of cutting badly needed youth mentoring schemes or adult social care that actually the library in the village is more of luxury. If it is kept open I worry what will be cut instead and hope that the middle classes of blackheath will also rally to defend services used elsewhere in the borough.

  4. RM

    Thanks for writing your views of the meeting. So-called democracy often does not leave citizens much choice. My vote would be to close a swimming pool rather than a library – a lot more money would be saved. Libraries are not a luxury in a society moving towards illiteracy.

  5. I would like to thank everyone that attended the Blackheath Assembly and particularly for taking part in the Our Lewisham, Our Say discussion.

    The discussions we are holding at assemblies are only one part of the conversation we are having with the community. On our website we have an online survey, with the scenarios you discussed on Monday, plus others. You will also find an online discussion forum here, plus lots more information about the Council’s services and its spending to help inform your thoughts. You will find all of this at http://www.lewisham.gov.uk/oursay

    We will also be in dialogue with community and voluntary groups and will be taking Our Lewisham, Our Say onto the streets during August and September. The feedback from all of these discussions and from the survey will be presented to the Mayor and his Cabinet to inform their decisions at their November meeting. We will also publish the feedback on the website.

    The observations you have made about the way the discussion was conducted and the way the questions were presented have been taken on board and will help us improve the session when we take it to other assemblies in the coming months.

    The clear answer to the direct question, “what proportion of the Council’s budget is spent on salaries over £65,000” is 1.3 per cent.

    I do hope that you will visit the website to complete the full survey and encourage others to do the same.

    Thank you once again for your contribution.

    Liz Dart
    Head of Community and Neighbourhood Development
    London Borough of Lewisham

  6. JP – I think you’ve done the hook, line and sinker swallowing here.

    Firstly – the government has not frozen council tax. It has no power to do so. What it is doing is offering incentives – we could call them bribes – to councils that agree to hold council tax at zero. Labour councils could make this a point of opposition, but they haven’t. They’ve decided to take these bribes.

    Bugle is absolutely right to say the council is presenting cuts as the only option. Steve Bullocks was peddling that line when I interviewed him several months ago, before Osborne had delivered his emergency budget, and certainly before local councils were told by Pickles to find an in-year contribution to the first round of cuts. Bullock could be looking at other options – an increase in council tax, a rationalising of the council’s property portfolio, a redrawing of regeneration and civic centre rebuilding plans in Catford and so on. There’s no need for Sir Steve to pursue buildings that will stand as a shrine to his administration when funds are so tight. He also needs to considering a redrawing of some of his devastatingly poor PFI contracts (Brockley rise has increased in cost by nearly £71m).

    Bullock is doing none of these things. He wanted to take the service cut option from the outset. Bugle is bang on.

  7. JP

    As I understand it, Ms Bitch, the Council is precluded by law from subsidising its revenue expenditure with savings made on capital projects. So it would be unlawful for it to raise money for adult social care, for example, by flogging off its property portfolio.

    Your point about council tax is quixotic. Opposing the ‘bribes’ from government , as you put it, wouldn’t help Lewisham’s balance sheet. The cost of keeping down council tax is being met by an increase in the grant from central government (the so called ‘bribe’). If the local authority increases council tax, that grant is taken away. Raising council tax by enough to both offset the lost grant, and safeguard services, would be difficult (not to mention hugely regressive).

    Councils are in a cleft stick here, through no fault of their own (although, subject to the point in the first para., I take your point about the cost of redevelopment – signed off, to be fair, in rosier economic times). Imagining that town hall windmill jousting is going to save services is irresponsible. Steve Bullock isn’t Derek Hatton, and I don’t want him to be. That way lies ruin.

    The options for meeting the immediate threat to services- i.e. the drastic cut in the central government grant – are limited, given the national political situation. Because of a highly ideological political choice made by the Coalition, Councils will be forced to do less. Local people need to help shape the priorities.

  8. Jimmy

    Over the last couple of years the council, the mayor, and councillors knew that whatever the outcome of the election serious cuts would need to be made to the council budget. In fact the figure of £60m has been around since before the election.
    My question would be why were we not consulted about these cuts before an election? Why did none of the parties offer any manifesto commitments on protecting services? And why just a couple of months after an election does such a consultation need to be undertaken? If the winning Labour party, having run Lewisham for 40 years do not understand where the cuts need to be made, then they should try to find more competent councillors, cabinet members, and council officers.

    In reality the people who run Lewisham are fairly competent and know where the cuts will fall, and have done for months now. This is a political exercise in implementing unpopular cuts and as nothing to do with feedback and ‘good ideas’ from the public – it is pitting popular libraries and leisure services against adult social care in a unfair fight that will thankfully be ignored. Say goodbye to your libraries.

    If the council were serious then they would start by cutting 10% of staff in the town hall and reducing cabinet and councillor salaries but 5%-10%, with a similar cut for all council employees earning over £100,000 per year. After this has happened they can start asking us which services need to be cut, before then they have no right to demand such cuts.

    • Cllr Mike Harris

      The likelihood is that the Council will be cutting at minimum 10% of its staff – and this is after the Council cut a layer of management in the last cost-cutting exercise only 2 years ago. I agree, wages at the top must come down, but as Liz said this accounts for only 1.3% of expenditure.

      Much as I like the Bugle, this article doesn’t spell out the inevitability of cuts – or the really desperate situation we’re in. The Council is facing a 25% budget cut. No amount of reducing paperclip expenditure, or cutting the “bureaucrats” or Powerpoint, is going to solve the problem alone. And few, if any, many organisations with a budget above a £1bn have made these cuts in just 24 months.

      The coalition is cutting far quicker and far deeper than Labour would have (nearly 50% more in GDP terms according to The Economist). The result: Lewisham will suffer.

  9. This is just the sort of detail I was seeking. I wish I’d have found your website earlier.

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