Tuesday 30 December 2008
Shadow Community Secretary Eric Pickles announced today that the next Conservative government will purge the fat cats from Town Halls. Officers earning six figure salaries will lose their jobs as councils are forced to merge frontline services and backroom operations in order to save taxpayers money.
In Barnet, we employ 13 officers earning more than £100,000 per annum. The recently departed Chief Executive Leo Boland was on £185,000. In the light of Mr Pickles’ announcement, will Mike Freer ignore Conservative Party policy and appoint another overpriced snout in the trough to replace him?
A Conservative Party source said: “There is super-inflation of chief executive pay that bears no correlation to the level of services they provide. There is a bureaucracy and self-feeding hierarchy of senior officials that are completely unaccountable to the local community...This urgently needs to be addressed.”
The new Conservative policy also throws a spanner in the works for Freer’s pet project - The Future Shape of the Council. For whilst Future Shape talks about drastically slimming down the council by “outsourcing” services, there are no plans to reduce the numbers of chief officers.
Now that these senior officers are facing the order of the boot along with the rank and file, let’s see if they are still willing to support Freer’s privatisation plans. Barnet could be heading for its very own Winter of Discontent.
Friday 26 December 2008
On 8th December, the General Functions Committee considered a report which would have given all staff two extra days holiday next year in recognition of the council achieving four star status.
Now as a capitalist, I support the concept of rewarding staff who excel at their jobs, but as our glorious leader Mike Freer said in his New Year address to his loyal subjects: “Over the last few weeks, thousands of people in the country have been told they will be unemployed come 2009, and that insecurity is being felt everywhere, including Barnet.”
To spend nearly £1 million of our money on bonuses for public officials at a time of recession, when so many people in the private sector are having to make cutbacks just to keep their heads above water, would have been utterly crass and insensitive.
A reader of this blog kindly pointed out to me that the General Functions Committee actually rejected the recommendations of the report. My initial reaction to this news was one of immense relief. At long last common sense had prevailed!
But then I started wondering. How did this proposal get as far as the committee stage? Under council rules, all items on an agenda must first be cleared with the relevant committee chairman. As this was a report prepared by the Director of Resources involving such a large amount of money, the Cabinet Member for Resources (Mike Freer) would have unquestionably been involved. That’s the way the system works.
The report states that it “arises from a decision taken at the Corporate Joint Negotiation and Consultation Committee on 7 October 2008 to provide a consideration report with costings on the proposal to award two additional days annual leave in 2008/9 in recognition of the Council achieving 4 star status.”
This committee is chaired by Cllr Lynne Hillan - one of Mike Freer’s closest and most trusted lieutenants. I mention this for one simple reason. It is absolutely clear that the proposal to award two extra days leave was known in advance by at least two of the three people pulling the strings in the Cabinet. If they did not approve of the recommendations, there would have been no report before the General Functions Committee. It simply would not have got that far.
Section 6 of the report states that the cost of this proposal was £975,104.94. To produce a report where the cost has been calculated to the penny is rather unusual. It must have taken an officer some considerable time to prepare and it would not have been done without the leader’s knowledge.
So the big question is this. Why, after going to the trouble of producing such a detailed report, did the committee throw it out? Why was a proposal which the leader had previously supported suddenly given the red card? The Conservatives on the General Functions Committee would not have rejected the proposals if Mike Freer had approved them.
So what changed his mind? Did he realise that the council simply could not afford the gesture given the problems with Aerodrome Road bridge and the missing Icelandic millions? Unlikely, given that the scale of these financial problems was well known before the committee met.
Perhaps the decision was connected to the Future Shape of the Council - Mike Freer’s pet project to privatise the council? Five days before the General Functions Committee convened, there was a Cabinet meeting to discuss Future Shape which was met by a large protest delegation outside the council’s offices. It even attracted the attention of the BBC.
The unions are bitterly opposed to the plans and have promised Freer that he will have a fight on his hands to implement them.
Mike Freer sees Future Shape as his legacy - an opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory in the vain (desperate?) hope that David Cameron will reward him with a position in the next Conservative government. But for this to succeed, Freer has to win over his opponents. The next General Election must take place by June 2010 at the latest, and if the unions want to make life hard, there is absolutely no way these plans can be implemented before then. So Mike’s legacy is now at risk.
Freer has shown himself to be ruthless in controlling dissent within his own ranks of councillors, but he has no power to control the unions. What better revenge on them for scuppering his personal ambition than to take away the reward of extra holiday?
Of course, there might be a different explanation for this volte-face, but I have yet to hear it.
Wednesday 24 December 2008
When the Conservatives came to power in 2002, they complained, quite correctly, that the previous Labour/LibDem Administration had plundered the reserves. This was one of the reasons that council tax had to go up by 24% in 2003.
But the Conservatives are also very good at spending cash from reserves:
£4 million to pay for the overspend on the Aerodrome Road bridge project.
£250,000 to pay for the feasibility study into the “Future Shape” privatisation project.
£160,000 to pay for the reduced parking charges.
On top of this, Mike Freer admitted last week that there was a shortfall of over £1.5 million in interest due on the council’s Icelandic investments.
He also admitted that every 1% fall in interest rates costs the council £780,000 for the current year and £1.8m for 2009/10. Given that base rates have dropped 3% in the last two months with another 1% likely very soon, we are looking at a further loss of income of anywhere between £3m and £7m next year.
The council is facing a serious black hole in its finances. Next year’s budget is due to be debated by the Cabinet in January. It promises to be one of the most important meetings of recent times. Residents are entitled to know whether council tax will rise or if services will be cut. Perhaps the reserves will be raided again, if there is anything left?
What chance does Barnet have of emulating a proper Conservative council like Hammersmith & Fulham who have recently announced a 3% reduction in council tax next year - for the third year running?
Monday 15 December 2008
The Liberal Democrats are very clever political operators. They portray themselves as a cuddly middle-of-the-road party somewhere in between the Conservatives and Labour, but on many issues they are actually quite left wing to those of us on the right!
That said, two of the best MPs in Westminster are LibDems. Vince Cable, who famously coined the Mr Bean phrase about Gordon Brown, was the first to have correctly called the state of the economy and seems to have a better idea than most as to how to deal with the mess the Prime Minister has caused.
Norman Baker has earned himself a fearsome reputation in Parliament for asking searching questions of the Government and uncovering abuse of the allowances system. I wonder why I admire him?!!
In Barnet, the Liberal Democrats have proved themselves very effective in the questioning of Mike Freer over the Icelandic banking scandal. It is very regrettable that the Conservative councillors have just acquiesced on this issue rather than asking probing questions of their leader.
Cllr Jack Cohen is leader of Barnet’s LibDems. He has a blog on the Barnet Times website under the title “Joined Up Thinking”. He has written several articles about the frustration of being in opposition. No sympathy from me on that count!
In his latest blog, Cllr Cohen explains that he is prohibited from revealing how much the council is spending on consultants. Information which we, the taxpayers, have an absolute right to know.
The Conservatives have complained, quite rightly, about the shameful arrest of Damien Green for revealing embarrassing information about the Government. His defence is that he was acting in the public interest, and there is widespread all-party support for his position.
So come on Jack, go for it!!
Tuesday 9 December 2008
Unlike politicians who never make any mistakes whatsoever, we mere mortals do occasionally slip up. I have always said that if there are any inaccuracies in my blog, I will gladly correct them. It is with this in mind that I must alert you to a possible mistake in a previous story.
On 20th November, I published a blog Boland’s Boston Bonanza regarding soon-to-be-ex Chief Executive Leo Boland’s trip to Boston to attend the BT Vital Vision conference. The article stated that, unbeknown to us all, Mr Boland had attended the conference last year with council leader Mike Freer.
However, according to as yet uncorroborated comments published on the London Daily News website, it seems that Boland did not go last year with Freer, but attended this year on his own.
So how did I make such a basic mistake? Well, the council had previously provided details of Boland’s expenses for the year ending 31st March 2008 which included £1,548.60 spent attending the Boston
But was the mistake in my previous blog relevant? No, because the essential part of the story was not that Boland had gone to America with Freer but that Boland had gone to America and nobody knew about it. That charge remains.
The council says that they didn’t have to tell anyone because the cost was paid for from the officers training budget. This raises two issues:
First, to the 53 councillors who are not members of the cabinet. How worthless do you feel knowing that the Chief Executive can fly off to America and you are kept in the dark. Maybe you would have approved of the trip. Maybe not. But don’t you think that, at the very least, you should have been consulted?
Don’t you think you should have been entitled to question the validity of this trip given that Freer went last year?
Second, to the junior and middle ranking officers of Barnet council. How do you feel knowing that the budget set aside for you to improve your skills and qualifications has been used to send the chief executive to an overseas conference? Are you happy being told to accept a below inflation pay rise when the Chief Executive flies off to America without asking permission and his deputy Brian Reynolds jets down to the South of France?
The London Daily News’ source of information is an unnamed and barely literate ‘spokesman’ for Barnet Conservatives. He or she claims that Boland attended a different course to Freer. This is simply not true. If you download the programme guide from the BT web site, you will see that the document was produced in 2004. BT have been running the same course for years. If there is any doubt, let Boland and Freer produce their course notes so that we can compare them.
The spokesman says the council were not trying to hide anything. So why did they initially refuse to release the information? If they are not trying to hide anything, perhaps they will now tell us whether Boland made a second trip to America. You will recall that Mike Freer went to Boston in March 2007 and to San Francisco the following October. Did Boland also go to Frisco?
Since August 2007, the world has been sliding into recession. Everyone in the private sector has been tightening their belts. What possible justification can there be for the council to waste taxpayers money in this way?
As I have said many times, the public’s contempt for politicians is growing. It is up to the ordinary councillors in Barnet to now speak out and say “enough is enough.” The council’s Audit Committee must investigate how the chief executive was able to fly off at our expense to a conference which Freer had already attended.
I regret that my original blog contained an inaccurate statement. But I make absolutely no apology for bringing details of this obscene extravagance to the public’s attention. If councillors do not take immediate action to curb the excesses of the Executive and the chief officers then, come election time, the public will be entitled to ask what on earth is the point in voting? The gravy train departing from North London Business Park must be decommissioned forthwith.
Thursday 4 December 2008
The Evening Standard has published a chart showing the pay scale for council leaders across the capital. The annual bill for London taxpayers is £28 million.
Mark Wallace, campaign director of the Taxpayers' Alliance, is quoted as saying: “This is an obscene amount of money, particularly in the middle of a recession. These very same councillors have been complaining their councils are strapped for cash, but seem to have no qualms paying themselves excessive amounts. Council leaders earning huge amounts from some of London's poorest boroughs should be particularly ashamed.”
Clearly this doesn’t apply to our very own leader Mike Freer who is only the 16th highest paid out of 32 on a miserable £47,000. Well done Mike for paying yourself such a modest amount for your part time job.
What does this video clip have to do with this story? Absolutely nothing! But it’s nice to see that Brian Coleman has taken to heart David Cameron’s message about going green!
Monday 1 December 2008
The disgraceful arrest of Conservative MP Damien Green by counter terrorism police has sent shock waves through Westminster and the whole country. Forget comparing Gordon Brown to Mr Bean. Try Robert Mugabe.
In 1642, King Charles I demanded that the Speaker of the House of Commons, William Lenthal, hand over five troublesome MPs. The Speaker stood firm and refused to tell the King of their whereabouts, arguing that he was answerable only to Parliament. Compare that to the shameful behaviour of the current incumbent, Gorballs Mick, who allowed Police to enter Parliament during a recess and ransack the office of an MP whose only crime has been to embarrass the Government by exposing their failings.
Since Tony Blair came to power in 1997 and anointed himself President, the authority of Parliament has been continuously undermined and our rights and liberties gradually eroded. David Cameron described Green’s arrest as a watershed moment and he is right.
But it is not just Parliament which Blair neutered. By virtue of the Local Government Act 2000, Town Halls are no longer run by their councillors, but by unelected officers who are unaccountable and, in many cases, simply out of control.
In Barnet, a council spokesman told the Hendon Times newspaper “there was no need to inform councillors” that Chief Executive Leo Boland had spent £1,500 of taxpayers money attending a meaningless conference in Boston.
Nor did chief officers tell councillors they were spending £14,000 of our money buying flat screen televisions for their offices.
Deputy Chief Executive Brian Reynolds took it upon himself to fly to Edinburgh for almost ten times the cost of an Easy Jet ticket. Then he flew off to the South of France on a junket.
When the council was found to have sold land illegally, the Borough Solicitor Jeff Lustig was not fired but promoted to Head of Corporate Governance.
The Borough Surveyor David Stephens was reportedly disciplined over this incident, but files uncovered by the External Auditor reveal that one month later he was quietly promoted, such is the contempt that the officers have for the councillors and public they are supposed to serve.
Worst of all, Borough Treasurer Clive Medlam, took out loans of £70 million in 2006 without the prior knowledge or approval of the council. £28 million of that money was last seen sinking somewhere off Iceland. Has he been sacked?
Far from it. Mike Freer describes Medlam in his blog as “our excellent acting Director of Resources.”
Medlam is the council officer who, in 2005, deceived Mike Freer and the Cabinet Resources Committee by producing a report seeking approval for a £60,000 increase in expenditure to cover the External Auditor’s statutory fees. This was, however, a complete fabrication. The £60,000 was actually for the legal costs of those under investigation by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which included Medlam. It seems that our most excellent Clive also forgot to mention to the committee that he was one of the beneficiaries of this money.
For failing to declare his personal and pecuniary interest, Medlam was “spoken to” by Brian Reynolds and that was deemed sufficient punishment, even though it is arguable he should have faced a criminal investigation on suspicion of obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception. I still have the e-mails from Cllrs Freer and Offord confirming that they would never have approved this expenditure had they known the truth.
Why did Freer not insist that Medlam be sacked over such a serious matter?
The answer is really rather simple. The councillors are not running the council. They only do what the officers allow them to do. Boland and his chums must go home pissing themselves laughing every night. They run the council as their personal fiefdom, pay themselves a fortune and don’t have to bother with that trifling inconvenience of standing for election every four years.
If Boland was the Chief Executive of a private company, the shareholders would have chucked him out years ago. Instead, Bonkers Boris has given him the top job at the GLA with a massive £205,000 salary.
Democracy has gone out of the window. Accountability is a long forgotten word. As Private Frazier put it so succinctly: "We're doomed, I tell ye!"
Wednesday 26 November 2008
No, dear readers, this is not a blog about the Cabinet Member for free lunches. This is a tale of waste and extravagance featuring Mr Brian Reynolds, Deputy Chief Executive of Barnet Council. The man who would be king.
In 2007/08, Mr Reynolds incurred the largest expenses bill for any officer in the council. In fact, he spent more than the Chief Executive, Chief Financial Officer, Assistant Chief Executive and Borough Solicitor combined.
He spent just over £1,000 on flights. According to the council, over £450 was for a flight to Edinburgh to attend a meeting regarding Brent Cross. A return flight costs just £50 on Easy Jet.
Worse still, £520 was spent on a flight to Cannes to attend MIPIM, the international construction and property conference - known in the trade as a massive junket.
Now perhaps a business trip to Edinburgh can be justified, but what possible benefit could there be to taxpayers for an officer to attend a jolly in the South of France? Who authorised this trip and why? Perhaps Mike Freer could tell us if this is something else he didn’t know about.
Mr Reynolds spent over £1,600 on hotels. It is frankly obscene for a council officer to be spending our money in this way. He also clocked up an unspecified travel bill of more than £725 - clearly he should take lessons from Brian Coleman in how to do it properly!
Only Assistant Chief Executive Nick Walkley managed to perform his duties without spending a penny on expenses - but unfortunately he has now left the council on secondment to Whitehall. Let us hope he returns soon as the new Chief Executive.
The most disturbing aspect of this tale, however, is not that chief officers have been extravagant with our money, but that they desperately tried to keep the details secret. The council initially refused to release the figures claiming that the public were not entitled to see “personal information” about officers. Needless to say that argument was complete nonsense and they eventually, albeit reluctantly, handed over the information.
Clearly the council wanted to cover this up because it doesn’t show the chief officers in a very good light. It will hardly help Brian Reynolds land the top job when we can now see how profligate he has been with our money. How can he tell ordinary council workers that they must accept below inflation wage rises when he and Leo Boland spent more than £2,000 just on lunches?
When the Conservatives won control in 2002, the then leader Victor Lyon promised us an open and honest administration. Now would be a good time to start chaps.
Sunday 23 November 2008
You may have read the recent story in the Barnet Press of the sterling work by Conservative councillor Terry Burton to have a war memorial commemorating seven council workers killed during the Second World War restored to public display at St James’ Church, East Barnet. The memorial had been found gathering dust in a store room for more than 40 years. Cllr Burton is surely due a commendation for his relentless work on behalf of the war veterans.
At the commemoration service, Mayor John Marshall said: “I’m honoured to be unveiling the plaque in memory of those East Barnet Urban District Council staff who sacrificed their lives to protect the freedoms we enjoy today. Returning the plaque to public display for all to see at the church is a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives serving their country.”
I have previously criticised Cllr Marshall over his idiotic policy to sell off school playing fields, but praise is most certainly due for those sincere and heartfelt words.
You can imagine then, the disappointment to read in the following week’s edition that the council had apparently reneged on a promise to help restore the war memorial at St Peter-le-Poer Church in Muswell Hill. The memorial was badly damaged in a storm three years ago and the cost of repairs is £25,000.
The Reverend Bruce Bridgewood says that he spoke to the council at the time and they offered to pay half the cost if the Church raised the balance - which they duly did. Unfortunately, the council has now refused to contribute towards the cost, saying:- “We are not responsible for the upkeep of the war memorial at St Peter le Poer Church. It would be unfeasible to spend a large amount of money on a memorial which is not our responsibility, but we have offered the church free professional advice from our team of architects and engineers with any repairs they wish to undertake.”
In response, Father Bruce has, understandably, written a strongly worded letter to the paper disputing the council’s version of events. I leave it to you, dear readers, to decide whether to believe a council spokesman or one of God’s representatives here on Earth.
Speaking to Barnet Council Watch, Father Bruce said: “The reason why Barnet helped in the past is because the Memorial was erected from funds raised by public subscription. It is very much a community memorial despite the fact that it stands in the Church grounds.”
Father Bruce pointed out that the council had spent £14,000 on flat screen televisions for chief officers. He could have also mentioned the £1.4 million spent on lap top computers - many of which are now in storage, the £2,000 the Chief Executive and his Deputy spent on lunches last year, the £5,000 the Leader spent travelling business class to America, £1,700 spent by an officer on a junket to the south of France…the list is endless.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have occasionally criticised council leader Mike Freer, but I do not attach any blame to him for this unfortunate situation. I am genuinely certain that he had no knowledge whatsoever of the promise previously made by the council to the Church.
Nor do I believe for one minute that Cllr Freer would take the heartless attitude “The memorial doesn’t belong to the council, so we’re not interested.” I am sure that he will be equally as upset as Fr Bruce and his congregation that the memorial has yet to be restored to its former glory.
So I send this plea to Cllr Freer. Mike, we both know that if it was not for the selfless sacrifice made by those who gave up their lives during the War, you and I would not be here today exercising our right to free speech and expression.
I am the first person to complain when public money is frittered away on pointless projects, but this is not one of them. The council has over £300 million cash invested in banks across the world. The amount the Church requires equates to about 12 hours worth of interest. Surely you can find the money for such a worthwhile cause?
Next year will be the 90th anniversary of the dedication of the memorial. Please take charge of the situation to ensure that John Marshall’s fine words apply to all war memorials in the Borough and that the Church has the funds it needs to restore the memorial in time for the next Remembrance Day service. Do this not just for the sake of those who gave their lives, or for those who paid for the memorial when money was scarce, but for all Barnet residents who continue to live in peace thanks to the selfless sacrifice of those brave men and women. We must never forget them.
Thursday 20 November 2008
This article has now been updated.
In July, I wrote an article Frequent Flyer Freer detailing our glorious leader’s two trips to Boston and San Francisco attending a conference organised by BT. The cost to the taxpayer was more than £5,000 as Cllr Freer decided to fly business class on the San Francisco leg.
Whether this was a wise use of public money or a meaningless junket is a matter of opinion. What cannot be disputed is that the trip was authorised by means of a Delegated Powers Report (DPR) issued by the soon-to-be-departed Chief Executive Leo Boland. This was arguably an abuse of the democratic process because, under the council’s constitution, Officer DPRs cannot be called in for examination by a scrutiny committee.
A possible reason for bypassing scrutiny has now come to light. In a world-wide exclusive, I can now reveal that Mike Freer did not attend the Boston conference alone. The council has admitted, albeit reluctantly, that Leo Boland also flew to Boston at a cost of £1,548.60.
Whether Mr Boland should have attended the conference is, again, a matter of opinion. What is utterly disgraceful, however, is the fact that the council tried to keep this information secret from the public. I have spoken to several Conservative councillors over the last few days and they were all completely oblivious to the fact that our Leo had gone to America with Mike Freer.
When the Tories won control in 2002, the then leader Victor Lyon promised “an open and honest administration”. Once again, that promise seems to have been broken. When will backbench Conservative councillors wake up to the fact that their leader treats them like mushrooms by keeping them in the dark?
If you read the DPR it states:-
This report seeks approval for the Leader of the Council to travel to the United States during 2007 as a participant of the BT Vital Vision Programme.
Note that the report seeks approval for Mike Freer only. No mention that Leo Boland is attending. More damning, however, is the statement:-
Opportunities of this quality for leadership development are rare and were the Leader unable to participate then a valuable development resource funded by the private sector would have been foregone.
This is patently not so. If Mike Freer had stayed in Barnet, the ‘valuable development resource’ would not have been foregone as Mr Boland was there. The public have been misled by this statement.
Participation in the BT Vital Vision Programme will enhance the council’s international reputation.
Which has no doubt been enhanced further by our clever decision to invest £28 million in failing Icelandic banks.
It is anticipated that all of Barnet’s residents will benefit from the Leader’s participation in this programme.
There are three key questions which require answering:
- Why were we not told at the time that Mr Boland was also going to America?
- Was his travel authorised and, if so, by whom? The DPR set a budget of £5,000 which Mike Freer exceeded on his own. What budget was used to pay Mr Boland’s costs?
- Was there a conflict of interest in Mr Boland issuing the DPR authorising Mike Freer to travel, given that he failed to declare that he was also attending?
This is yet another sad day for democracy in Barnet.
Update: 21.11.08 In response to a comment posted below, I am adding another question to the list:
4. Why was it necessary for two people to attend the same conference?
Tuesday 18 November 2008
In 2002, when the Conservatives won control of Barnet Council, Chief Executive Leo Boland was paid the grand sum of £113,100 a year. Since then, Mr B
When he takes over the reins at the GLA in January, our Leo will be earning the staggering sum of £205,000 a year - a rise of 81% in the space of just 7 years. Nice work if you can get it!
Contrary to misconception, I am not opposed per se to large salaries for public officials. What really matters is a person’s ability to do the job that is required of them. If services improve, costs and borrowings are reduced and council tax goes down then, yes, chief executives are worth every penny they are paid.
Those who support the idea of council chiefs earning more than the Prime Minister will tell you that in order to attract the best people, you have to pay the best wages. Quite so. But is Mr Boland the best man for the job?
During his time at Barnet:
- Underhill was sold unlawfully
- Partingdale Lane was re-opened unlawfully
- Council tax increased by 24% in 2003
- The Aerodrome Road bridge project has gone £4 million over budget
- £1.4 million has been spent on near obsolete computers, many of which are now sitting in a store room gathering dust
- £14,000 has been spent on televisions for chief officers
- £28 million of taxpayers money is missing, last seen somewhere near Iceland.
In the private sector, chief executives risk their own capital. There is no gold plated state funded pension for them if their company goes bosoms up.
Council chiefs are paid by us, the taxpayers, yet we have no say whatsoever as to whether we are happy with their performance. We can complain to our councillors until the cows come home, but they claim they don’t have the power to do anything. As Conservative MP Douglas Carswell said recently: “You cannot have public services without accountability to the public. If those you elect are unable to hold those running public services to account, there is no point in democracy.”
Thursday 13 November 2008
At the special council meeting on 4th November to discuss the Icelandic banking crisis, LibDem councillor Monroe Palmer tabled an amendment calling on the Cabinet Resources Committee to revise its Treasury management policy to “prioritise the security of capital, rather than striving for the very highest interest rates available.”
In response, council leader Mike Freer said: “Even basic accountants will know, if you get a rate of interest below inflation, your capital is eroded. That is not a sensible move.”
Two days later, interest rates fell by 1.5% to 3% - substantially below the rate of inflation. Yesterday, the Governor of the Bank of England let it be known that he will allow interest rates to fall to zero if necessary. That’s good news for home owners with mortgages, but rather bad news for Barnet council with £328 million cash on deposit.
Our capital is now being eroded and, thanks to those wise people who chased the higher interest rates (seemingly oblivious to the higher risk they carried), the rate of erosion is set to increase significantly in the weeks and months ahead.
The council cannot refinance its long term loans taken out at higher rates of interest because the capital is frozen in Iceland - possibly lost.
Does anyone still think the council has been sensible in its investment strategy? No doubt Mike Freer will say, as he always does, that the interest rate collapse could not have been foreseen. But this is precisely why the council should not have been so utterly reckless with our money in its investment strategy.
Barnet adopted a high risk strategy which worked for two years but has now backfired. Monroe Palmer’s proposed amendment calling for a low risk policy, which the Conservatives blocked with their majority, did not actually go far enough. A sensible council would have adopted a no risk investment policy.
Councils should not be playing the financial markets. Investing surplus cash on a short term basis until it is required is sensible. But Barnet council borrowed specifically to lend, which is simply unforgivable.
Even now, with a gaping £28 million hole in its finances, the council says “There is a risk of the Council becoming too risk averse in its response to this situation, and not achieving budgeted deposit income. In the past two years, the Treasury Management Strategy has delivered £26m interest earnings across all funds to support the council budget.”
Has the council not learned anything about risk?
At least we now know the real reason for their dangerously cavalier attitude to investments. The council actually budgeted for investment income in order to run basic services. Mike Freer has acknowledged that this income was used to hold down the rise in council tax last year. Being so reliant on interest rates is hardly a sensible way to run a council.
But even if we get our £28 million back, with base rates now collapsing, the council cannot possibly meet its interest target for the current year. So will services be cut, will council tax go up or, like Gordon Brown, will Mike Freer allow borrowing to go through the roof leaving future generations to pick up the bill for his folly?
Many of us had high hopes when Cllr Freer became leader. We thought he would be ruthless on cost cutting by eliminating waste and bureaucracy. Instead he borrowed recklessly, gambled and lost. Mike, you can sit in your ivory tower blaming everyone else for this debacle, but in the eyes of the public, you are a busted flush.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I frequently bemoan the lack of accountability in Barnet. You can sell land illegally, you can overspend £4 million on a bridge project, you can even flush £28 million down the pan on a high risk gamble with taxpayers money. Nobody is ever to blame. Nobody ever apologises for their actions.
Just what does it take for someone in the public sector to get the sack?
As Haringey residents have just discovered, even the tragic death of a small child in circumstances too horrible to think about are not deemed grounds for sackings or resignations.
Frustrated as we are about Barnet’s reckless investment policies that will most likely put up our council tax, at least nobody has died or suffered terrible injuries. Baby ‘P’ was not so lucky.
Haringey’s Director of Social Services Sharon Shoesmith has said “The child was killed by members of his own family and not by social services.” This was a little boy who had been visited 60 times by social workers and health visitors.
Sharon Shoesmith, you should hang your head in shame. You and your department are a total and utter disgrace.
But equally at fault are Haringey’s ruling councillors. Shoesmith has refused to resign from her £100,000 a year job, so why haven’t they sacked her?
Councillors are elected to serve the community and by allowing this woman to keep her job, they have let the community down. If the totally avoidable death of an innocent child is not sufficient to get councillors off their lazy fat backsides, then they should all be thrown out of office at the earliest opportunity. With a planned and concerted effort, a change of control could easily come about.
Of course, it won’t bring back Baby ‘P’, but it will send a clear message to the councillors that they failed in their basic duty of care to the public, and they must accordingly suffer the consequences.
Conservative MP Douglas Carswell has summed it up quite succinctly on his blog when he says: "You cannot have public services without accountability to the public. If those you elect are unable to hold those running public services to account, there is no point in democracy."
Sunday 9 November 2008
Amidst the excitement and razzmatazz of the U.S. Presidential election, it was easy to overlook the by-election last week in the Scottish constituency of Glenrothes. This was hugely important for Labour following their humiliating and crushing defeats at Crewe & Nantwich and Glasgow East.
It was a seat which the SNP were widely expected to win. Even on polling day, the opinion polls suggested that another shock was on the cards. In the end, Labour held on quite comfortably with a majority of over 6,700.
Mike Smithson writes the popular blog politicalbetting.com which describes itself as “Britain’s Most Read Political Blog” - but don’t tell Statler & Waldorf or they might spill their Ovaltine! The day after the by-election, Mr Smithson posted an article questioning whether the SNP’s defeat was due to the fact that their candidate, Peter Grant, was also the leader of the local council. Smithson wrote:-
“I also wonder whether it was a good idea for the SNP to have had a local councillor, least of all the leader of the group, as the candidate. This, inevitably, made it easier for Labour to focus on the council’s performance and made their attack on care charges that much more potent.
It’s for this reason that I don’t think it is a good idea for local councillors to be parliamentary candidates in either by elections or general elections in their areas and this applies to all parties.”
Political parties never admit that they chose the wrong candidate, and publicly the SNP will undoubtedly disagree with Smithson’s comments. But privately, will any of the parties now be re-evaluating their candidate lists?
In Barnet, Leader Mike Freer is standing for Finchley & Golders Green whilst Deputy Leader Matthew Offord is standing for Hendon. Both are important seats for the Conservatives, but none more so than Finchley which is the party’s number one target, partly due to its iconic status and partly due to the fact that recent boundary changes mean that it will technically be deemed by the media to be a Conservative seat at the next General Election.
If the Conservatives do not win Finchley & Golders Green, they will have an uphill struggle to win the election.
Conversely, might Labour throw in the towel in Finchley before the election is even called and put all their limited resources elsewhere? They know they will lose some seats, so from a manpower perspective, is it worth the effort trying to hang on to this one?
The role of the LibDems will be crucial. On Barnet council, the LibDems made an electoral pact with Labour which kept the Conservatives out of office for 8 years. If their supporters switch to Labour in 2010, it is quite conceivable that it could keep the Tory candidate out.
I hope, therefore, that the Conservative Party is happy with their choice of PPC. The last thing they need is a candidate whose campaign could be undermined by his management of the council.
Tuesday 4 November 2008
Private Eye magazine has raised an interesting question about Barnet’s £28 million Icelandic investments. The Rotten Boroughs column (issue 1222) asks: “So was Barnet breaking the law? Guidance on local authority investment issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2004 states that less “prescriptive” regulations introduced in the 2003 Local Government Act “allow the temporary investment of funds borrowed for the purpose of expenditure in the reasonably near future”. Then it goes on to say that “the speculative borrowing purely in order to invest remains unlawful.”
The council has admitted that it borrowed £40m in 2006 - two years in advance of when the money was required. The report to Cabinet on 23rd October 2008 concedes that borrowing this far in advance “is not the norm”. Does anyone think that ‘two years in advance’ meets the definition of “reasonably near future?”
The most damning aspect, however, is the requirement that funds only be invested temporarily. According to paragraphs 9.6.2 and 9.6.4 of the Cabinet report, the council admits to entering into long term contracts with the Icelandic banks for terms of up to three years. That is hardly temporary!
So even if we do eventually get our money back, there is clearly an arguable case that the council’s investment policy was illegal.
Last night, council leader Mike Freer appeared before the Cabinet and Overview Scrutiny Committee and was asked by LibDem leader Jack Cohen: “How many times in last two years have you met with officers to look at the Council’s investment portfolio”? According to a LibDem press release “Cllr Freer revealed he had never to his recollection had any meetings or indeed never seen a list of the Council’s investments . He admitted that the first time he knew any details of where the Council deposited money including the investments in Icelandic Banks was when the news about the Icelandic Banks broke a few weeks ago.”
But hold on a minute. The council has admitted that it borrowed £40 million in 2006 and the money was invested to take advantage of the interest rate differential - speculative borrowing which is not permitted by law. The Cabinet Resources Member at the time was, and still is, Mike Freer. Is Cllr Freer really saying that under his watch, officers borrowed £40 million and he knew nothing about it? If true, that sounds suspiciously like a serious dereliction of duty.
In 1991, Western Isles Council lost £24million which it had illegally invested in BCCI. The council had to be bailed out by the taxpayer and it was 14 years before they got their money back. The council’s Chief Executive and Chief Finance Officer were sacked and the leader of the council leader resigned. Et tu, Barnet?
13:45 STOP PRESS: Leo Boland has just announced his resignation as Chief Executive of Barnet Council....to take up the position of Chief Executive of the Greater London Authority. Will he be taking his telly with him?
Thursday 23 October 2008
I have just stumbled across the web site of Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Harwich & Clacton. Mr Carswell first stood for Parliament in 2001 in the Sedgefield Constituency against a certain Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. Mr Carswell is a Eurosceptic and co founded the Direct Democracy group - an organisation which embraces ‘radical localism’ and the democratisation of quangos.
In a paper for the Adam Smith Institute, Douglas called for the abolition of Council Tax and for VAT to be converted into a local sales tax, to make local authorities self-financing.
Mr Carswell’s also has a blog and his latest piece describes a problem with his local council - but it is a tale we have heard countless times about councils the length and breadth of the UK.
Thanks to the Local Government Act 2000, introduced by the aforementioned Mr Blair, unelected and unaccountable officials now wield enormous power which can be exercised without reference to the elected councillors. The committee system which worked well for generations has been thrown on to the scrap heap, and ordinary councillors have been completely emasculated by the Cabinet system.
I do hope that when the Conservatives are returned to office at the next election, that Mr Carswell is given a prominent role in reforming local government and restoring real power to the people. I reprint his blog below.
What’s gone wrong with local government?
By Douglas Carswell MP
Few things better illustrate what's wrong with local government than this;
Tendring district council in my constituency commissioned an expensive public fountain for Clacton town centre. Some local residents were sceptical, arguing it wasted public money. The fountain enthusiasts argued it put something back into our town. Either way, both sides could take comfort that it was a local decision.
Or was ....
Something called the Health Protection Agency has now got involved. One of their "experts" ordered the fountain shut. Apparently, to comply with "new draft national water guidelines" the fountain must go "on public health grounds as a precautionary measure."
Thus are our town hall officials incapable of running a municipal fountain. Indeed, I doubt they could even run a bath. At no point does it seem to have occurred to Tendring council that if you start asking remote officials whose job it is to say "no" for permission to do something, they are very likely to say "no".
The council didn't have a change of heart because they listened to local people. No. They paid heed to remote health and safety officials.
What is so insulting to local democracy isn't just that a bumptious little official at the Health Protection Agency carries more weight than local residents, but the fact that the council boasts of its willingness to submit to them. Tending council brags "the council is very fortunate to be working so closely with the expert from the Health Protection Agency."
If only council officials worked as closely with voters and the unfortunate, put upon council taxpayer.
Monday 20 October 2008
In 2006, Barnet council took out long terms loans of £40 million “to take advantage of the very low market rate loan available at that time.” (See paragraph 9.3.2 of the report to Cabinet this week)
The report continues: “Earmarking borrowing in this way to a capital project is not the norm….and the action was taken to protect the council from higher borrowing rates expected in 2008 and onwards (i.e. when the actual capital expenditure would be incurred). This prediction on interest rates has indeed occurred…”
However well intentioned the plan, this statement is an admission that the council was speculating on interest rates. The council uses the word “prediction”. The Thesaurus on my computer offers the word “guess” as an alternative.
Whilst interest rates did initially rise, they are now falling again. Our beloved Prime Minister Gordon Brown told Parliament today: “... with interest rates low and falling, inflation expected to come down over the next year, these underlying economic indicators - particularly interest rates - make us stronger than at any other previous downturn.”
Falling interest rates might be good news for some sections of the economy, but could they spell further disaster for Barnet Council, even if we eventually get back the money frozen in Iceland?
The council claims justification for their investment strategy because for two two years they made a ‘profit’ on the interest rate differential. But if rates continue to fall, will the council be paying more in interest than it is receiving, given that some of the big loans taken out were at fixed rates?
How much more of our money is at risk?
We need to know who made the decision to borrow all this money. Who authorised it? What kind of risk assessment was carried out? If it was this easy to make a profit, then we would all be doing it!
It seems as if the council was relying on alchemists for devising its investment policies, and we will be left to pick up the bill for their reckless folly.
Friday 17 October 2008
Just over a week has passed since Black Thursday - the day the news broke that nearly £28 million of our money was at risk in the Icelandic banking collapse. It’s a sad, sad situation but still no apology or words of comfort to put residents at ease.
If the council could turn back time, I am sure they would, and nobody is accusing them of deliberately losing our money. So is it really asking too much for Mike Freer to say: “We're very sorry about this. We are working around the clock to try and get your money back.” But sorry seems to be the hardest word.
Next week, a report on this crisis will be discussed by the Cabinet. You can download it from the council’s web site.
Paragraph 6.2 states: "The 2007/08 Statement of Accounts, which have been signed off by the Council’s external auditors, includes £1.037m of interest which has not yet been received and therefore the accounts are potentially overstated by that amount should the interest not be paid."
Isn't this what Enron was doing - overstating profits by including revenue which had not actually been received? Has the council been trying to massage the figures to help get an improved rating from the Audit Commission? Can anyone explain what’s going on?
The council would have you believe they were acting prudently, but paragraph 9.3.2. of the report contains an admission that they were playing the money markets. The council borrowed heavily in 2006 because they thought the rates of interest would be higher in 2008 when the cash was actually required. You can dress that up as much as you like, but borrowing money you don't yet need because you think the rates will go up in the future is speculation, pure and simple!
Council chiefs are patting themselves on the back because their interest rate prediction was initially correct. But they got lucky. Lucky, lucky, lucky. Only a few weeks ago, Mystic Mike said that the credit crunch could not have been foreseen. It is one thing for the council to invest its spare cash on a short term basis, but to deliberately borrow long term and lend short term is gambling. Northern Rock tried something similar and look what happened to them.
Paragraph 9.9.4 details possible courses of action the council will have to consider if we don't get our money back. It does not mention putting up council tax. Are they burying bad news, or giving a guaranteed undertaking not to put up our taxes? They should tell us the truth.
Cllr Freer says that Barnet acted responsibly. The crucial point, which applies to all local authorities, is that councils should not have a low risk policy, but a no risk policy - especially in the current climate when money is too tight to mention.
Let us hope that the funds and missing interest will soon be returned otherwise some heads are gonna have to roll.
Thursday 16 October 2008
The council has posted a ‘leadership’ video clip on YouTube in which officer Jonathan Smale describes the leader as a ringmaster, surrounded by clowns - one of whom is wearing a green jacket because he is environmentally aware! Watch it for yourself if you think I am making this up!
Mr Smale says clowns are prepared to take risks. Quite so. But not usually with £28 million of our money.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at such an absurd waste of public resources.
Wednesday 15 October 2008
As many of you know, the Barnet Times pulled Rog T’s blog from their web site in response to his article criticising the council’s posting of an offensive video clip on YouTube.
Unfortunately, under the stewardship of its Editor Phil Crowther, the paper is developing a reputation for removing articles that could cause embarrassment to some. Far safer to stick with stories about cats stuck up trees.
But fear not! Much as the political classes would like those who have the audacity to hold a contrary viewpoint to simply shut up and go away, Rog has launched his own blog - The Barnet Eye - which will be subject only to his own editorial constraints.
Visit his new blog at http://www.barneteye.blogspot.com/
Sunday 12 October 2008
Thursday 9th October 2008 - Black Thursday - will go down in history as the day the once proud Borough of Barnet was brought to its knees by the incompetence, negligence and sheer recklessness of those charged with running the council.
As residents awoke to the dreadful news that nearly £28 million of our money might have been lost on a high risk investment strategy, what words of comfort were there for those of us who will ultimately have to pick up the bill? None. Because the council’s spin doctors were far too busy trying to find other people to blame for this debacle.
Householders are now facing the double whammy of massive council tax rises and having front line services slashed beyond recognition to plug the gaping crater in the accounts if we don’t get all of our money back. And while Barnet burns, leader Mike Freer fiddles: “No council could have reasonably foreseen the collapse of Iceland's banks in what once were safe deposits” was his response.
Is that so, Mike? Then please explain how Brighton & Hove City Council managed to remove all its Icelandic investments a year ago when they had an inkling of the impending crash.
You’re supposed to be a banker, Mr Freer, or is that just a typographical error? What were you doing when credit agency Fitch first sounded warnings. Their spokesman Martin Winn told the Daily Telegraph “We have been highlighting a growing risk about the Icelandic banking system since February 2007. The rating BBB+ is very high risk for a Western European bank.”
Those warnings were passed on to many local council finance managers, prompting some, like Brighton, to stop investing in Iceland. Did Barnet miss that one, Mike?
Well what about the warning from the highly respected Moody’s Investors Service who cut their ratings on Icelandic banks eight months ago? Or the warning from the Conservative and LibDem parties who both sounded the alarm bells in June? Were you too busy watching the Chief Executive’s wide screen television to notice what was going on?
You can’t pass the buck on this one, Mikey. You hold the resources portfolio. Ultimately, it was your responsibility. If this money cannot be recovered - but let us hope that it can - then it represents the biggest case of gross negligence ever known to the Borough.
As Simon Heffer said in his weekly Telegraph column: ”As for the councils who have lost fortunes by investing in Icelandic banks, even though it had long been clear these were risky: sack the officials who took such advice and surcharge the councillors who endorsed it. Too many people have forgotten what a serious business managing money is.”
In trying to defend the council’s recklessness, Cllr Freer - the Tory candidate for Finchley & Golders Green - told the Barnet Times: “Councils have been actively encouraged, and indeed praised, by Whitehall to undertake investments of this kind.” What a complete and utter fabrication! Since when did the government encourage councils to play the money markets and risk taxpayers money?
Did anybody in Barnet Council ever stop to ask why Icelandic banks were paying a higher rate of interest than UK banks? You don’t need to be a banker to know that it was because they were a higher risk.
In all Mr Freer’s excitement to blame other people, he forgot to mention that Barnet is involved in the high risk strategy of arbitrage - borrowing from one bank and lending to another at a higher rate. This is not what councils should be doing and the practice might actually be illegal. Western Isles Council had to be bailed out by the government in 1991 when it lost £24 million which it had borrowed and subsequently lent to the discredited BCCI to try and make a profit.
In 2002 when the Conservatives came to power, the council had borrowings of £39 million. That figure has now risen to an astronomical £215 million. Some of the money has been used to pay for infrastructure works such as the road resurfacing programme and some to repay other loans (perhaps Barnet was advised by Carol Vordeman?) But it is now clear that a significant proportion of this money has been spent on speculative investments.
Perhaps Cllr Freer can advise us precisely how much of our money has been gambled on the money markets, how much more is at risk and who authorised these transactions?
Barnet Council has been criticised by the TaxPayers Alliance for its reckless behaviour. Instead of addressing the TPA’s concerns, the notoriously thin skinned Freer responded “The TaxPayers' Alliance has little grasp of reality when it comes to the complex nature of local authority finances.”
I do not think you will find many people in this Borough who are particularly impressed with your grasp of local authority finances either, Mr Freer. You have not even had the decency to apologise.
Wednesday 8 October 2008
The long awaited PricewaterhouseCoopers report was published this morning. It is a ninety-six page document with three volumes of supporting documentation, each over two inches thick. It will therefore take a little time to work through it all and give a full response. In the mean time, to summarise, the Council's Auditors concluded:
We are of the view that the sale of the freehold of Underhill did breach requirements of section 123 Local Government Act 1972 and it was occasioned by a number of procedural breaches, misjudgement and errors by a number of officers.
Based on the valuation information available to us, the entry in the financial accounts for the year ended 31 March 2002 in respect of the consideration for the sale of Underhill is contrary to law, on the basis that the £10,000 received together with the contingent further consideration does not meet the requirements of section 123 of the LGA 1972.
We have reservations as to whether it was appropriate to use a delegated powers report to authorise the disposal of the freehold interest. Even if this were a legitimate route, there were manifest flaws in the authorisation process, notably:
- The Borough Solicitor’s concerns were not properly addressed;
- The Constitutional requirement for publication of the DPR were not put in place;
- The errors in drafting create doubt as to whether the delegated powers report was properly approved.
We are also concerned at the apparent absence of debate about the benefits to the Council of any disposing of the freehold interest in the Underhill stadium, and the granting of a proportion of any future development gain to the Company.
I am grateful to the Auditor for stating in clear and concise terms that the council acted unlawfully. However I am disappointed that he is not taking action against any individuals involved in this matter.
Given that the transaction was unlawful, I do not see how the Borough Solicitor Jeff Lustig can remain in his job. His excuse is that he had delegated the work to other people. Even if that was so, ultimately as head of the legal department he must carry the can for the failure of his department to carry out its duties lawfully. That is what happens in the real world.
The report says that one officer has been disciplined. That was Mr Dave Stephens, the Borough Valuer. He was given a written warning. But documents provided by the auditor show that just one month after receiving his written warning, he was promoted and given a wage rise. That taught him a lesson!!
I do have very serious concerns regarding the auditor’s comments in connection with the land valuation, but I will write about that in a separate blog in due course.
There is also the matter which PwC could not investigate as to whether an officer of the council gave evidence to the High Court about the sale which was at variance with the known facts. I am taking advice on this aspect and will comment in detail when it is appropriate to do so.
Although the council now recognises that it did not need to sell the freehold in order to help the football club, it is clear that they seriously failed the residents and taxpayers of the Borough. I have yet to see any evidence that processes have been changed to prevent further abuses of the democratic process occurring. Indeed, things actually seem to be getting worse.
I have been advised that PwC’s bill is over £875,000. I am surprised and shocked at that figure. The Auditor was legally required to be mindful of the cost to the public purse. He could not carry out an investigation if he believed that the cost would be disproportionate to the matter at hand. It is therefore reasonable to assume that he had sufficient concerns about the sale to have launched his investigation.
But was it worth it? If steps are taken to improve democracy, improve scrutiny and improve accountability, then the cost will be justified. However if, as I fear, the council sweeps this under the carpet and carries on as normal, then it will have been a complete waste of time and effort.
Tuesday 7 October 2008
The recent Conservative Party Conference was somewhat overshadowed by the recent turmoil in the world’s financial markets, so you may have missed some interesting policy announcements which are bound to appeal to voters of all political colours.
Shadow Chancellor George Osborne announced that there would be a two year freeze on council tax which will come as a welcome relief to everyone who has seen their tax bill rise relentlessly year on year over the last decade.
In Barnet, these rises have been due to a combination of poor settlement grants from central government and Labour having raided the kitty before they left office in 2002. But whatever the reason, taxpayers need a break.
There is, however, a potential loophole in Mr Osborne’s proposals because councils could try to raise additional revenue through stealth measures such as increased rents for council tenants, supplementary business rates, car parking fees or penalty charge notices.
George Osborne’s plans to allow councils to increase expenditure by 2.5%, to be paid for by an increased government grant - in turn to be paid for by reducing government spending on consultants and advertising.
But for his plan to work, there must be a corresponding freeze on charges raised by local authorities. The key buzzword at the moment is responsibility. Councils across the country spend far too much of our money on frivolous vanity projects, paying obscene salaries for chief officers and councillors, and creating thousands of non jobs such as Barnet’s very own Social Media Manager. All of these extravagances must come to an end because the taxpayer’s pips are well and truly squeaking.
David Cameron gave an excellent speech by all accounts. Two items caught my attention.
First was his announcement that taxpayers money cannot be used to buy plasma screens. This comes a bit late for us in Barnet with £14,000 having already been frittered away on wide screen televisions for chief officers, but clearly Mr Cameron was sending a coded message to Barnet that enough is enough.
Second was his statement that quangos have seen their day. The Taxpayers Alliance estimates that the total cost of these bodies was £101 billion in 2007 - a figure too large to even comprehend.
Many quangos duplicate the work of others and there does not appear to be any independent scrutiny of their effectiveness. Appointments are rarely based on ability or experience. Rather, quangos seem to exist purely for members of the political classes to give each other cosy little jobs with plum allowances.
So, if you want to stop your tax being wasted lining the pockets of money grabbing politicos then the answer is simple. Vote Conservative!
Sunday 5 October 2008
Picture the scene. A leader under pressure. Plots all around him. Leaks to the press. A head of steam building up to remove him from office. What is he to do?
Against the advice of his closest friends and political confidantes he extends a warm hand to his nemesis. The man who previously had nothing but bad things to say about him. Someone who wished him out.
A brilliant plan by the beleaguered leader or a crucial strategic mistake?
History suggests the latter, for this is not the story of Gordon Brown bringing Peter Mandelson back into the Cabinet. This is the story of Brian Salinger supporting Mike Freer for Deputy Leader of the Council in 2005.
A year later, despite a fantastic election result, Salinger sat helplessly as his so called friends ruthlessly knifed him in the chest, allowing Freer to claim the crown.
Mr Brown, take note. Your days as Prime Minister were already numbered. Now that number is even smaller.
Friday 3 October 2008
This article has been updated. See below.
Barnet Council has recently found a new way to waste taxpayers money by posting pointless video clips on YouTube of local residents talking about the area where they live. One such clip was posted on 29th September - the eve of the Jewish New Year.
One minute into the video, the resident says: “I know it's mainly a Jewish area so a lot of the Jewish people have got things, but for the normal British people...there is nothing really for them.”
Being Jewish and being normal are not mutually exclusive.
I e-mailed Barnet’s Communications and Consultation Director Emer Coleman explaining that whilst I realised this person was not speaking for the council, I did not think they should be promoting her views. I asked for the clip to be removed.
Mr Dominic Campbell, the council’s Social Media Manager (no, I have no idea what one of those is either) replied: “While we understand your concerns, the views expressed are those of the resident and not those of Barnet Council and as such we do not intend to take any action at this point.”
This is absolute nonsense! Are we supposed to believe that if a resident made a video clip saying “I think the Chief Executive is an overpaid waste of space and should be sacked” they would allow it to remain on the website?
Let us give this resident the benefit of the doubt and say that she was not intentionally being anti-Semitic. Indeed she would probably tell you that some of her best friends are Jewish. Rather, let us assume that she has a somewhat weak grasp of the English language and did not appreciate the meaning of what she was saying.
But the same cannot be said of Barnet Council’s highly educated officers. Is it that difficult for them to see why these remarks are offensive?
Our well beloved leader Mike Freer claims to be a good friend of the Jewish community. Let him prove it by ordering the video clip to be removed immediately and apologising for Mr Campbell’s crass insensitivity.
Update 03.10.08 (11.15 am) The council has given in to pressure and now removed the video. However, they have not offered an apology or an explanation as to how it was ever allowed to be posted.
Wednesday 1 October 2008
The long running investigation into the council's unlawful sale of the freehold of Barnet Football Club's stadium has finally been completed and the council’s auditors, PricewaterhouseCoopers, will be publishing their findings on 8th October - a mere 6 years, 6 months and 12 days since the land was sold by the previous Labour/LibDem Administration for a measly £10,000.
Opponents of the investigation are very anxious to concentrate only on the cost of the inquiry. Perhaps this is because they do not want the public to be reminded that in 2004, the High Court declared that the sale contravened s.123 Local Government Act 1972.
The sale had previously been described by an independent inquiry team as being “a major breach of the democratic process.” Add to that the High Court declaration that the sale was unlawful and you have the most damning indictment possible of Barnet Council.
To those who have opposed the auditor’s investigation, I ask:
1. Do you support the sale by the previous Labour/LibDem council on unlawful terms?
2. Are you happy that the land was sold secretly for £10,000 despite being worth considerably more?
3. Are you happy for all the procedural irregularities to be swept under the carpet?
4. Are you happy that nobody has been held to account for their actions?
Many people have raised concerns as to PwC’s costs. Opponents of the inquiry conveniently forget that the auditor is legally required to be mindful of the cost to the public purse of any audit investigation. He cannot carry out an inquiry if he believes that the cost would be disproportionate to the matter at hand.
Furthermore, the auditor alone decides whether or not to conduct an investigation. The public are entitled to ask for an investigation, but they have no right to force the auditor to hold one. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that PwC had sufficient concerns about the sale to have launched their investigation in the first place.
It should be stressed that the PwC investigation has absolutely nothing to do with Barnet Football Club. Over the last few years I have spoken many times with club Chairman Tony Kleanthous. He has always been keen to point out that the club did nothing wrong. But PwC were not asked to investigate the club’s conduct in the transaction, and nor did they have the power to do so. They were only investigating the council’s conduct.
But just as the Labour Government is trying to divert public attention away from its abysmal mismanagement of the economy by blaming everything and everyone else, so Barnet council now seeks to divert attention from its failure to comply with the law or to take action against those responsible.
The spin coming from the council is that the investigation has cost about £1 million and it is all David Miller’s fault. Talk about shooting the mesenger! This nonsense started in July when council Leader Mike Freer posted the most outrageous and blatant lie on Rog T’s blog when he said “The referral to the external auditors was by three members of the public not the Council”.
Yes, three members of the public (of whom I am one) made a complaint to the auditor, but it was the Cabinet which voted on 1st June 2004 to refer the matter to the Auditor for further investigation after the internal investigation carried out by Brian Reynolds was unanimously rejected by them. Cllr Freer was present at that meeting and voted in support of the resolution.
The then leader, Victor Lyon, formally wrote to PwC on 23rd June 2004 requesting an investigation.
For the record, it should be noted that whilst I and another Barnet resident first contacted PwC in 2002, our complaints were not formally registered until 2005 - long after Cllr Freer and his chums had made their own complaint.
The original auditor assigned to Barnet told me that he would not start his inquiry whilst Barnet was carrying out its own internal investigations. You would need to ask the council why they did not call in the auditor on day one, which would have been the sensible thing to have done.
As for the claim over costs, the figure of £1 million has been thrown about for some time now, but does it include the £200,000 spent on legal indemnities given by the council to the officers and councillors under investigation? PwC have hired their own lawyers, but at what cost?
Does the £1million include the hundreds of thousands of pounds wasted on the failed and futile High Court case against Barnet Football Club?
I rather suspect that most of the money has been spent on lawyers and legal fees rather than going to PwC. I have served a Freedom of Information request on the council to get the definitive answer and I have been told that I will have a reply by 10th October. Watch out for a new posting on this blog.
In the mean time, we can only sit and wait for PwC’s findings. I hope the entire report will be placed in the public domain as there are some really important documents which the public needs to see. Unfortunately, I am legally prevented from publishing them at this time.
Monday 29 September 2008
On 15th September, I wrote a blog praising Dad’s Army fan Brian Coleman, whose excellent piece in the Barnet Press extolled the virtues of old fashioned respect for community and civic institutions.
Brian’s latest column, entitled Thank God For The Boys Brigade, praises the role of the uniformed youth services and the values they espouse. Credit where credit is due, this is one of the best articles Brian has written for a long time.
In between these two great journalistic endeavours, however, is a somewhat bizarre Press Release in which Brian calls on Mayor BoJo to ensure that the 2012 Olympic medals are struck in the UK.
Given Brian’s well known antipathy towards the Olympics, many people will question whether he has undergone a damascene conversion, or if this is simply a damage limitation exercise following his previous unwarranted attack on the British athletes returning from Beijing.
Politicians are often accused of giving misleading answers to simple questions. In reply to Brian’s suggestion, the Mayor’s response was clear and unequivocal. “No.”
The reality is, of course, that even if we wanted British made medals, Gordon Brown has flogged off most of our gold reserves on the cheap so we probably don’t have enough of the precious metal left. Unless, perhaps, Brian is willing to melt down some of his ceremonial bling for the cause?
Thursday 25 September 2008
I have been accused by some characters of bringing the Conservative Party into disrepute, so let me be amongst the first to congratulate Barnet Councillor Lynne Hillan who was today elected Chairman of the London Councils Grant Committee. Well done and good luck!
This committee meets up to four times a year and I am sure Lynne will be worth every penny of the £5,299.32 allowance that comes with the job.
Just one question. According to the Press Release, Cllr Hillan “has a business background as founder and MD of a marketing firm.” Can they be referring to Ashurst Direct Marketing Ltd, which went into creditors liquidation in September 2006 with debts of more than £121,000, including £10,650 to the taxman?
Wednesday 24 September 2008
The Barnet Times recently ran an article which set the alarm bells ringing. Fortunately, an extremely helpful officer from Barnet Homes was able to put the record straight and bring down my blood pressure!
Under the headline “Measures introduced to help (the) hard up” the article referred to council schemes to help residents suffering from the credit crunch. It also mentioned that grants of £29,000 were available for people to buy their council homes.
My initial reaction was to wonder how on earth giving tax payer’s money to council tenants could help Barnet residents suffering from the current economic depression.
It turns out that the credit crunch help measures and the housing grants were two separate issues which somehow appeared as one article in the paper.
But this still left another question unanswered. Why was the council making grants available for tenants to buy their homes when they were already entitled to discounts under the Right To Buy scheme? Again, the newspaper article gave a slightly misleading impression. The council officer explained that the Cash Incentive Scheme (or CIS as it is known) is a distinctly separate scheme from Right To Buy. Under CIS, a grant is paid to tenants to move out of council housing into private accommodation, thereby releasing their property for another family. You can’t apply for a discount and a grant!
But then came the real shocker. Apparently, CIS has been operating in Barnet for nearly 20 years which means that it was Margaret Thatcher’s government which brought in the legislation that allows hard working taxpayers to subsidise council tenants buying their own homes. Who would have ever thought this possible from the woman once dubbed the milk snatcher!
So if CIS has been around for 20 years, why is it being publicised now? Has the council taken a leaf out of Labour’s book and decided that re-announcing an old decision will divert attention away from the TV scandal? Or the laptop scandal? Or the bridge scandal?
But there is a far more important issue to consider than the work of the council’s spin doctors. Is CIS fair? According to the Government’s web site “The objectives of the Cash Incentive Scheme are to release local authority accommodation for letting to those in housing need and to encourage owner occupation.”
You might agree with those objectives. But equally it could be argued that CIS only serves to create a culture of dependency by sending out the message “stay in your council house for a few years and then we will pay you to go somewhere else.” How does that encourage people to be financially responsible and save up for their own home?
By enticing tenants to move into the private sector, they are being encouraged to take on mortgages which they might not be able to afford. Is Barnet not at risk of fuelling the sub prime crisis?
The Council has set aside £600,000 for CIS this year. Last year 21 grants were awarded at an average of £26,000 each. At a similar level, we could be looking at around 23 or 24 grants this year.
In the current climate, where every penny counts, is it really appropriate to spend such a large amount of public money helping such a small number of families?
£600,000 could be used to help far greater numbers struggling to pay their council tax or heating bills. Or it could buy wide screen televisions for residential care homes. Or the council could simply not spend the money at all and give everyone a well deserved break. This is supposed to be a tax cutting administration after all.
Conservatives have criticised Gordon Brown for creating a client state economy in order to effectively buy votes. It is hard to see how CIS is different. I think you got this one wrong Maggie!