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Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Burning money at Barnet's Pledgebank

Whilst wandering the streets of Barnet, I have been intrigued to see posters on bus stops advertising something called Pledgebank. One poster says that "I will clean up the snow if my neighbours help me" (which reminds me: "I will get the washing out of the machine after I have finished this blog posting, with or without the intervention of the neightbours"). These posters appear at the same time at which, one is told, Barnet Council is entirely cutting its grants for local museums, including the Barnet Museum and Church Farm House Museum. So, there is money for advertisements for Pledgebank, but not a penny for Barnet Museum?

Now, I have, admittedly, never actually been to Barnet Museum. But, as Sir Humphrey Appleby said about the arts programmes that Bernard does not watch on the BBC: "Neither do I - but it is still important to know that they are there." Given that Chipping Barnet was, prior to its 1960s absorption into Greater London suburbia, a Hertfordshire market town of many centuries' standing, is it so absurd for it to have a small museum of its local history, including the Battle of Barnet? And is such a museum, presumably much used by pupils at local schools, not exactly the sort of thing that one might willingly expect a bit of one's Council Tax to be spent on - if Council Tax is to be levied in the first place, that is. Even in a time of cutbacks, is it really necessary to cut the whole grant, rather than only part of it? If a grant made some sense last year, does it really make no sense this year? Does a 100%, immediate cut not deprive local museums of a chance to seek alternative funding before the axe falls? And, once these museums have gone, they are never coming back. If we want some sort of public realm in the local area, then it has to be paid for somehow - unless we are now deciding that we want no museums, libraries, parks or anything else at all apart from homes, shops and pubs?

At this point, local Tory politicians will demand to know what I would cut instead of cutting the museums grant. I would cut the Pledgebank and the department that would produce such a thing - the Council, at a time of austerity, does not have money to spend on such fripperies. Or, rather, it does have such money, but it came from the local people who pay Council Tax, and I think they'd rather keep Barnet Museum than have a Pledgebank website. Guff like Pledgebank sums up what is sometimes wrong with local government in this country. I don't care if some Liberal Democrat-controlled councils have done something similar elsewhere, or if I'm about to be told that Barnet's Lib Dem councillors have supported it in some way, shape or form - I still think it's nonsense.

Let's look at what it actually is. OK, when I read about it in the Hendon Times, I can start to see the point of it. It is not a total waste of time. But it still speaks volumes that a local authority would think that this sort of thing is a greater priority than keeping the local museums open. They'll say it costs no money, but it is clearly taking up council officers' paid time, and the mere fact that the Council has a department responsible for doing things like this suggests that they just don't get it. They just do not get it. The paper says:
The idea is part of a wider drive by the council to get more interaction with residents online in a bid to save money and make it easier for people to contact them.
Which is to put the cart before the horse and to overlook why we have a local council in the first place. The Council does not exist so that residents can interact with it or contact it. It does not exist for the purpose of saving money on its spending, as it would not be spending any money if it did not exist in the first place. No, it exists to provide certain services that can more effectively be provided by a local authority than by anybody else. That is why we have a council and that is why we pay Council Tax and business rates (yes, I know that councils pass business rates on to central government - but they earn interest on the rates before passing them on, and that is serious money for the council - that's where a lot of the money came from that Barnet lost when they invested it in Icelandic banks). And we all moan about paying these taxes, and we all question what it is spent on. And I still maintain that most people would regard having a local museum as a reasonable use of their local taxes, while being somewhat unsure about something like Pledgebank.

I have just visited the Pledgebank, to say: "I pledge to urge Barnet Council to close Pledgebank and spend the money on maintaining the Council's grant to local museums instead, and I'm sure that lots of local people will join me in doing so." When I first pressed the button to suggest that pledge, it crashed, so I did it again and it said: "I'm afraid that we rate limit the usage of the contact form to prevent abuse." Quite right too. Whether it has been received therefore remains one of life's little mysteries. Oh, I would love to have been at the sort of meeting at which this thing was devised and discussed in detail. What am I talking about - I have been at the sort of meeting at which this thing was devised and discussed in detail. While working for another London borough that we'll call Walford, there was a leaflet being designed that, instead of advising people to contact the Council, said: "Or you can Contact Walford". I said: "Look, I know you've spent a lot of money and time re-branding your call centre, website, front desk, etc, so that it's all called Contact Walford, but will the average person really know that Contact Walford means to ring the Council?". I swear people fainted with horror at my saying this. "But," came the response, "We've done market research which shows that 98% of people recognise the Contact Walford campaign."

Because, you see, they just don't get it. The cart is being placed before the horse and they just do not get it. And this is what you get from Barnet Council if you elect the Tories locally. You don't get resources focused on front-line services. You don't get a stern "no" to trendy ideas that waste money. What you get is Pledgebank. And there's this one as well. It is beyond parody!

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