With Barnet in lockdown, Lib Dems are on your side
By Gabriel Rozenberg
A few weeks ago, the idea that the whole country would go into lockdown to defeat the coronavirus seemed unimaginable. And yet here we all are. In Barnet, tragically, COVID-19 has taken its toll. More than 1,200 cases of the disease have been recorded and very sadly some 350 Barnet residents have lost their lives. Our hearts go out to those whose lives have been affected by this terrible disease. We will never forget the bravery and self-sacrifice of the NHS staff and care workers, who have given their all in the past three months to keep our community safe.
Lockdown is tough but it's been a success. In Barnet, new cases of COVID have reduced to a trickle. We can start to think about what comes next. Yet in many ways, this is the point of greatest danger. Even with just a trickle of cases, a second wave is very possible. So it's crucial that we get clear guidance so that we can keep a lid on this disease for good.
But the statement on Sunday night from the Prime Minister was a total mess. Those who can't work from home - very often, lower paid and more vulnerable workers - were instructed to go back to work if it was safe to do so. But how should Barnet residents get to work, when we need to avoid overcrowding on the Tube and buses? How does it work if you've still got children at home? The answers are hard to find. We rely on the government to be decisive, but it seems like they have given up on leading.
As leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Barnet Council, I've worked to be a constructive partner. During the emergency, Barnet Council officers have reshaped the borough to prioritise public health and keep people in care safe from harm. Just as residents have pulled together in recent weeks, so too have councillors from across the political spectrum. Public health is our priority and always will be.
However, as the situation advances, it is now time to start asking tough questions of the Conservative group that runs Barnet. There are several areas we are going to focus on.
- Barnet residents need guidance so that they can keep themselves and their loved ones safe. Vague slogans like "stay alert" and "use common sense" are a recipe for chaos. What if going out to work puts me, or the people around me, at risk? Why can I only visit my parents one at a time? Barnet Liberal Democrats are calling on Barnet Council to step in, and give detailed guidance on its website and throughout social media.
- Barnet needs to reshape its streets around pedestrians and cyclists - fast. Social distancing means the Tube can't operate as before. But if we all travel by car, the streets will be in gridlock. That's why right across London, local authorities are building hundreds of kilometres of new cycle lanes, typically with quick and simple low cost measures. Barnet Liberal Democrats are leading the local campaign for better cycling facilities. But Barnet's Tory councillors, who are obsessed with cars, are dragging their feet. So far, they haven't built a single metre of extra cycle lane. There's a similar problem on our pavements, where we are all patiently queuing outside stores. How are pedestrians supposed to get past? Particularly for those with mobility challenges this is a real concern. We need to widen pavements quickly.
- Barnet must show how it is going to pay for all of this. In common with other boroughs across London, Barnet is in serious financial trouble. The virus has blown through some £31 million of funds, while weakening the economy of our neighbourhood. We've had so far just one short report on the borough's finances. But that was very alarming. It said that there is now a real risk of a Section 114 process - effectively a bankruptcy. Barnet Liberal Democrats have demanded to see the full figures. We need to know what the plan is.
- Barnet needs to bring back democracy and transparency. Dozens of council meetings were cancelled in March and April. For weeks, Barnet Liberal Democrats pushed for these committees to meet online. They've finally started, but there's a problem. The calendar for May to July showed 37 council meetings. Yet just 18 - less than half - have been confirmed as taking place. These committee meetings are the most important decision-making events in the borough. They allow detailed scrutiny of the Tory administration. It is simply unacceptable that they've been scrapped.
During the emergency, we avoided criticising the Conservative group. But problems are now building up in their response to the coronavirus, and it's our job to hold them to account in a way that is effective and fair.
That's how the Liberal Democrats are providing an opposition which is on your side.