Barnet is seen as the testing ground for potential action from David Cameron to turn around the public finances – action with drastic repercussions for care services. Nick Golding investigates how service users and providers in two of its marginal constituencies have been affected by a Conservative revolution
It might be a hotbed of political radicalism but it appears much of Barnet’s population has little interest in the general election. “Couldn’t give a toss” is a standard response on the streets of Finchley to Community Care’s questioning about polling day.
The London borough’s Tory leadership is developing a model of service delivery based on budget airlines. Drawing inspiration from the surcharges placed on non-essential items by the likes of easyJet, the council wants to charge residents extra for a higher level of provision, with only a basic service offered for those paying the minimum.
“Some things will be cheap and cheerful and in other areas we will provide complete services,” Mike Freer, the architect of the plan, said last autumn, before he stood down as council leader in order to concentrate on winning the Finchley and Golders Green seat for the Conservatives.
Although the “easyCouncil” model is still being developed, grants for many care organisations have been cut by the council.
The national Conservative leadership has failed to endorse the council’s flagship policy but with little openness from any party about how the budget deficit can be tackled, that is hardly surprising. The name Barnet crops up on the lips of many thinkers on the right of the spectrum when asked about how national public services need to change.
If this election is a referendum on Labour’s big state versus Cameron’s big society, it is appropriate that somewhere as finely politically poised as Barnet has fleshed out the debate more than anywhere else.
Although one of its three constituencies is safe Conservative territory, the 1.7% swing Freer requires to win is almost identical to that his party requires nationally to deprive Labour of a majority. Meanwhile, the 6.5% swing the Tories need in Hendon is roughly the same as that needed for them to win a majority in the House of Commons.
Freer – who could not find the time to speak to Community Care – faces Labour’s Alison Moore in a constituency won by the retiring Rudi Vis last time round.
Moore, also the council’s Labour group leader, says the easyCouncil model “comes apart at the seams” because Barnet has yet to specify what its basic offer will be and what services require extra payment.
“There are a lot of older people who welcome the support that they get locally but they are very worried about what will happen in the context of the easyCouncil and them paying twice,” she says.
Moore cites wider concern about the Conservatives’ handling of care issues locally. Plans to save £900,000 by getting rid of on-site sheltered housing wardens provoked a local outcry and were eventually overturned by the High Court.
Not every local service has received a second chance. Kaya House, a short-stay centre for people experiencing mental health crises run by the Barnet Voice for Mental Health group, closed in February after the council insisted funds could be more efficiently used elsewhere.
Kaya House was used by 175 people during its three years of operation, including those with personality disorders, depression and drug or alcohol problems. It employed nine people, with all of its carers having personally experienced mental illness.
Co-ordinator Elsie Lyons feels the charity has been treated unfairly. She says it was asked to prove how much the facility had saved the area’s health and social care budgets, but this was impossible to prove.
She is particularly angry with one comment to the press by Sachin Rajput, cabinet member for adults. “One councillor said that as much was spent here a night as on a night at The Ritz. A comment like that made me very angry – it was derogatory and demeaning,” says Lyons.
Service user Sean Lennon, 47, who has suffered mental health issues for 20 years, is concerned about a future without the facility. He says: “Kaya House took away the fear that I might have to go into hospital. From what people who’ve gone into psychiatric wards have told me, this has a nicer atmosphere and the staff understand you much better.”
He accuses politicians of all parties of having a “sense of anxiety and fear” on mental health, preferring to debate less stigmatised health issues. But he adds: “I’m going to vote Labour. Whether I’m right or wrong, I think they are more sympathetic on health issues. Gordon Brown says it’s his priority and I believe him.”
Far larger charities are also experiencing difficulty – and they know financial woes will remain whatever the election result.
Jewish Care, one of the 50 biggest charities in the country, cares for 600 people and runs 14 care homes in Barnet, whose population is 17% Jewish.
Speaking in a centre it opened last year to offer mental health advice and support, Jewish Care’s chief executive, Simon Morris, says: “There’s a growing recognition at a national level that the system of operating social care isn’t sustainable. I’m really concerned for the next five years.”
Acknowledging that the budget deficit has “massive implications” for a charity that receives two-thirds of its income from the state, Morris says Jewish Care faces a “stark choice” of raising money from the community – many of whose members will themselves feel less wealthy than previously – or cutting services. But he says that, in an era of austerity, the easyCouncil model could provide opportunities, with authorities keen to contract out services to organisations more efficient than council-run services.
Morris criticises aspects of Labour’s record, expressing dismay that the adult care White Paper will not resolve the care funding question for five years, and calling for the next government to avoid the “constant tinkering” seen as the health bureaucracy has been repeatedly reorganised. But, calling on the electorate to consider the plight of the care sector, he insists the response to the deficit is the biggest issue.
“There’s a question I want people to think about when they go into that booth at the election. Do they want to support those who are prepared to support others or are they more individualistic? To support a welfare state providing for those less fortunate, that costs money – taxation will have to increase.”
He adds: “I think the Conservative default position is a far more aggressive position with regard to public spending than Labour’s.”
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST ISSUES ON THE STREETS OF FINCHLEY?
“I haven’t made my mind up. They’re all talking about national insurance but why do they make such a fuss about it?” – Betty Levy, Finchley Central
“My biggest issue has to be unemployment – there’s no bloody jobs. In public services, there’s too many people doing jobs in which they aren’t doing very much.” – Maurice Glynn, Finchley
“I couldn’t give a toss – politicians are all the same. I haven’t voted for 30 years – and I teach constitutional law. The election’s a farce. I want to buy a tropical island and get away because I can’t be arsed with it all.” – Dorit Chomer, Finchley
“Public services are very important – especially older people’s services. Old people’s homes and carers are important. There’s too much charity involvement and the government should put more money towards it.” – Rita Bissessur, Edmonton
“I will vote, probably Conservative, because I want change. I think the next term will be a poisoned chalice to whoever wins the election. When it comes to public services, I’m not particularly worried – I’ve got private medical cover and I don’t see the NHS doctor because it’s [the NHS] not that good.” – Jason Appel, Southgate
“It seems that whatever government is in charge, it’s proud of creating as many public sector jobs for itself as it can. They’re all admin-type jobs, but the only thing that brings wealth for a country is its exports.” – Victor Allen, Finchley
“I don’t give a toss about any politician. They are all as bad as each other. I suppose my children matter, education matters and my taxes matter but I won’t be voting on 6 May.” – Adi Forman, East Finchley
This article is published in the 22 April 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Can the easyCouncil swing it in Barnet?”