7:17 pm - May 31st 2009
A bit more about the realities of evil Tories on the ground, as we prepare to be governed by them:
Parked high outside Hendon Town Hall is one of those wretchedly dated revolving billboards that councils use to spam the masses with unsubstantiated PR bilge: at various turns of the loop, this one proclaims that the Tory Barnet council is ‘working for a healthy community,’ and ‘supporting the vulnerable to live independent and active lives,’ and screeds of other modernisation tripe.
All is not lost, though. There is this evening a nice, large protest group under the billboard – a protest group that is made up of exactly the vulnerable Barnet residents that the council purports to so fervidly support.
These protestors are very pissed off. They are Barnet sheltered housing residents, and they’re picketing this evening’s Barnet council annual meeting to protest at a council proposal to remove permanent on-site wardens (people who help in emergencies, organise GP visits and appointments, and check in with each resident at least once a day) from their sheltered housing blocks and replace the wardens with a ‘floating’ support service, whatever the hell that is. They’re mostly very elderly (in their 80s and even 90s) and at that unlovely point in life where people become too frail to stand. They’re huddled in wheelchairs, or clutching walking-frames, or leaning on carers and chairs.
They’re not too sure what a ‘floating’ support service is, either. The cynics among them have a few ideas – they imagine a system where residents telepathically trip some alarm when dropping dead from heart attack, thus alerting a random officer somewhere in the borough to stop by later on with a shovel.
I understand – kind of – the term ‘floating service’ to mean a support officer of some stripe will stop a various housing blocks across the borough, to meet briefly with anyone who needs – well, supporting.
Bill Campbell, Barnet council’s unnaturally oily senior press creature, refused point-blank to say what a floating service was when I told him that I didn’t quite grasp the idea – Campbell said he couldn’t say what a floating service was until the cabinet voted for or against the concept at its 8 June meeting. I said that someone must know what a floating service was, if only to be in a position to put the concept of it before the cabinet. Campbell said again that he couldn’t say what the concept would be. I thought probably somebody could. This went on for longer than was strictly fascinating. Suffice to say a floating service is not one the council wants to brag about. Let’s return on 8 June.
Back to the protest: long-time (eight years) sheltered housing resident Mary Dorrie, 87, glares across the small lawn at the front of the town hall, where grinning councillors sweep past the wheelchairs and walking-frames, and up the town hall stairs to their meeting. Some avoid the whole scene by driving past it. They pull up at the front door in cabs and fancy cars. The crowd boos each time one arrives.
‘You just can’t answer for this lot,’ says Dorrie furiously, watching councillors disembark from late-model cars and shake hands with various high-vis-dressed coppers as they enter the hall. ‘They’re just going in that door and they’re just smiling, with all old people sitting out here, freezing. I’d love to get inside there.’
Doubtless, she’d be kneecapped if she tried. The protestors say that a very limited number of people were permitted in the public gallery at this evening’s meeting (some say six, and some say seven), and Dorrie’s warden says that sheltered housing residents were refused permission to speak at the meeting anyway.
Bill Campbell tells me that the residents were allowed to contribute – they were permitted to hand a petition to the mayor before the meeting. ‘They got a chance to contribute,’ he says loftily, or something to that effect. I observe to Bill that the person the protestors were allowed to give their petition to was actually the outgoing mayor – yesterday’s man in council politics if there ever was one. The protestors might as well have handed their petition to the spaniel that wandered onto the lawn for a piddle.
There have been other rebuffs: Dorrie and Sylvie Sedgeman, another sheltered housing resident, say they invited councillors to an afternoon-tea session at their block so that they might air their concerns with councillors in a civilised manner. This has yielded thin results thus far: Dorrie and Sedgeman say the invitation hasn’t even been acknowledged.
None of which augers too well for the chances of any off-message responses made to the council’s early-2009 consultation document on sheltered housing support. The council argues that it will save about £950,000 if it shifts from the on-site warden setup to the famous floating service (the council says it needs to find £12m to avoid raising council tax), but nobody here has much patience for that.
Quite a few protestors make dark reference to the £27m the council pissed away in Iceland last year, when the topic of financial shortfalls is raised. The council’s Bill Campbell fluffs around badly on this point, saying that the council is in talks with people in Iceland about retrieving the lost funds (although nobody in Iceland has a bean, so god knows who the council could be talking to, except maybe Bjork). None of the protestors has much of a mind to buy into the ‘public money is tight’ argument right now, either, given that there’s endless lolly to muck out moats, upgrade latrines and put ducks up in style, etc.
Let’s not forget either that Barnet’s had plenty of money for consultancy into its perverted proposal to outsource most of its services to the dingbat private sector (we’ve reported on that here on LC) Rumour also has it (Hendon Labour MP Andrew Dismore has been spreading it) that Barnet councillors have recently awarded themselves a pay rise of over 20%. Campbell – although a senior press officer – says he can’t confirm or deny that one, so he’ll get back to me on it (he hasn’t). He reminds me that MPs are the ones who are at the centre of an expenses scandal. I say that is true, but I’m interested to know if councillors are also in on the act. Campbell also tells me that the Iceland losses have nothing whatsoever to do with the council’s financial shortfall – hardly a surprise. Nobody at this council can add.
The council also argues that the on-site warden model represents an unfair distribution of resources – that not every elderly person in Barnet who needs such support gets it (those who don’t live in sheltered housing, that is) and that some sheltered housing residents don’t use the on-site warden, but still have to pay for the service (each sheltered housing resident pays a service charge).
Thing is – nobody at tonight’s protest is making a noise in favour of the council’s points around ‘fairer’ distribution. Quite the reverse. Michael Byrne, a retired bricklayer who has been in sheltered housing for three years, says he hasn’t had to use the warden’s services yet, but likes to know the warden is there in case the time comes. He can’t believe anyone actively supports a cut, for that reason – quite the reverse, again. ‘Obviously, there’s going to be a backlash. I never thought the council would stoop this low. What are they going to do – wait for something to happen (to one of the residents)?
Plenty happens even with a warden there, Dorrie says. Not so long ago, ‘I collapsed in my flat, and just lay in the bedroom. The warden had the key, so she opened the door.’ She says she’d probably have lain in her flat for days if the warden hadn’t been round to carry out regular checks. A floating warden would need to know where to float – they’d need to be alerted to a resident’s fall, or non-appearance. At the moment, ‘every single person there living on their own has the warden knocking (to check) at least once a day.’
Which is a good thing, says Sedgeman – and not just from the health point of view. There’s the security issue,to think of, and they think about it quite a lot. Prowlers often wander into places where older people live, looking for money and drugs.
‘We had a lady, eight o’clock at night, a man broke into her bedroom window – she was just sitting there – and all of a sudden, this man comes in and goes over to her cupboard and starts opening the drawers.’ A prowler turned up in Sedgeman’s flat, too. She was glad there was a warden onsite that day.
So. The protestors say they couldn’t care less for the independence of which the famous council billboard declares them such lucky recipients. They chose the sheltered housing concept precisely because the presence of an on-site warden meant they could rely on someone other than themselves. In other words, they feel that independence is synonymous with isolation. Which makes sense. Nobody in their right mind looks to romanticise isolation when they’re vulnerable and/or unwell.
Kate Belgrave is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a New Zealander who moved to the UK eight years ago. She was a columnist and journalist at the New Zealand Herald and is now a web editor. She writes on issues like public sector cuts, workplace disputes and related topics. She is also interested in abortion rights, and finding fault with religion. Also at: Hangbitching.com and @hangbitch
· Other posts by Kate Belgrave
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