Monday 28 July 2008
Don’t make fun of Mike Freer or we’ll pull your Blog
Barnet resident Roger Tichborne has a blog on the Barnet Times web site. Unfortunately, one of his best ever postings vanished soon after it first appeared.
Mr Phil Crowther, Group Editor of the Times Series Newspapers - publishers of the Barnet Times - has advised me that the reason for its removal was because it criticised fellow blogger Mike Freer, Leader of the Council, in what he considered to be derogatory terms, contrary to agreed guidelines.
What constitutes a derogatory remark is, of course, a matter of opinion. In the article in question, Rog T (as he is known on-line) criticised Mike Freer using language which admittedly might have made uncomfortable reading for some, but which was no different to the legitimate criticism politicians attract on a daily basis in other journals.
However, there appears to be an inconsistency in the newspaper’s application of their own rules. Roger had previously written a hard hitting article entitled “Three Cheers For Brownite Freer” which was published on the Barnet Times web site and Mike Freer even posted a reply to it. But his follow up article “Barnet’s very own Stalinist Mr Bean” was pulled. Mr Crowther has told me that this was because he considered the term “Brownite Freer” to be politically descriptive whereas “Stalinist Mr Bean” constituted lampooning, caricaturing and even belittling. That is his opinion, but I do not think he will find many people who share it.
It seems to me that Roger was attacking Cllr Freer’s policies and style of leadership, rather than making personal attacks per se. Caricature and satire are essential to a democracy, and we do not expect our political leaders to receive kid glove treatment from the media. Of course, if the Barnet Times does not wish to publish satirical articles of this type, that is their absolute right - even if some of us consider that their decision was inappropriate censorship. The most important thing, however, is that that article can now be published. With Roger’s permission, I reprint the offending piece below unedited so that you can make up your own mind up as to whether the Barnet Times were right to pull it.
“Barnet’s very own Stalinist Mr Bean”
Probably the best political quip of the year was that Gordon Brown had gone from being Stalin to Mr Bean in six months. Now I proposed the theory that the leaders of our Council were Brownites. As I survey their plans and policies I am forced to conclude actually they are more a Mr Bean/Stalinist hybrid. Let me explain why.
Since I've started writing this blog all sorts of people have started asking me to investigate various council schemes. People have got in touch to tell me of all sorts of shenanigans. In a moment of alcohol induced clarity, following the Finchley Carnival on Sunday, it all became clear, so let me set out the case for the prosecution. The Charge is that Barnet Council is being run as a quasi Stalinist Junta (albiet run by the Beanite Tendency).
1. Over development of Barnet. There are currently 6,000 families on the waiting list for council houses. This tells me that there is a need for 6,000 new homes in Barnet. How many dwellings does the council plan to build? 80,000. There are massive schemes all over the Borough. Just to list a few - Cricklewood, Colindale Hospital, Mill Hill Barracks. Each one of these schemes threatens important local sites. Cricklewood threatens Hendon FC. Colindale includes plans for a road straight through Montrose Park. The Mill Hill Scheme plans to put a busy road through Sanders Lane Nature reserve. Once these sites are destroyed, that is it, they are gone. Why do we need 80,000 new dwellings in Barnet? Have the people of Barnet been consulted as to whether we want them. These are not homes for local people, complete with nice gardens for children to play in, these are massive rabbit hutches. Anyone who has to drive in rush hour will know that the roads are already full to bursting. The schools are all oversubscribed. What is the purpose, other than to transform a green suburb into the new Elephant and Castle? Schemes like this proliferated in the Soviet Union. Massive blocks of grey flats, lifeless, soulless and soul destroying. Barnet has a unique character and our Council want to destroy it.
2. Deportations. No I'm not joking. It is official council policy to deport inconvenient people out of the Borough. A good friend of mine, a widow with 4 Children, one severely disabled has been on the Barnet Council House waiting list for 7 years, since her husband died. She has been in temporary accommodation. Last year she was told that she was being evicted and that if she wanted a home she'd have to drag the children away from their schools and friends and move to Norfolk.
3. Abuse of the Transport System. In the Soviet Union, special lanes were installed for important politicians. Normal road users were not allowed in these. Whilst we haven't quite reached this level of waste, the council has spent approx £1 Million pounds reopening Partingdale Lane to traffic. A vanity project if ever there was one. As to the travel expenses of a certain councillor, the less said here the better.
4. The Council Politbureau. The current administration operates what is called a cabinet system. This is where all of the real decision making is done. Doors are closed and schemes are hatched. Now "Cabinet Members" get a significantly larger amount of money than ordinary councillors, so you may ask who decides how they get picked. Well, you've guessed it, the Leaders decide. Every so often though the other members of the Tory group decide that the leader isn't up to it, so they stage a coup. That is why Brian Salinger is no longer council leader.
5. Excessive squandering of money. As in all Stalinist economies, as there is no proper scrutiny and no transparent decision making, bad decisions are made and no one gets held to account. Take the enquiry into the sale of the lease of Underhill To Barnet Football Club. The council leader stated in the last council meeting that this has cost just under a million pounds. There is no limit on how much it might cost. There isn't the space to describe the whole sorry saga, but does anyone anywhere think this was money well spent? Like all good show trials, it is deemed "necessary to defend democracy"
6. Clinging on to power. The Council Leader and Deputy Leader are standing as candidates for Parliament. Good luck to them. I just happen to think that given the important nature of the job of running the council, maybe someone else who doesn't have the distractions should be doing the job. With so much executive power in the hands of the leadership of the council, surely there is a conflict of interest. I am not saying that the leadership team favour certain wards when dishing out council cash to gain advantage, but the potential exists and that is good for no one. If as seems likely the leadership team departs for Westminster, wouldn't it have been better to have bedded in a new Council Leadership team, whilst the old ones were around to help and advise.
Now those of you who have followed the council over the last few years may conclude that they are more Mr Bean than Stalin, certainly many of their finest fiasco's would indicate that. But that doesn't mean the tendency isn't there. I can assure you that unless there is a radical change of policies, when my children are my age Barnet will not be the leafy, green, pleasant and friendly Borough it is today.
Rog, responding to your blog, and following your numbering system:
1. I entirely agree with you that the proposed overdevelopment in Barnet is deeply worrying and must be resisted at all costs. This is not NIMBYism. Anyone can see that the infrastructure won’t be able to cope with this level of building. Mike Freer admits that he wants to raise millions of pounds in stealth taxes to pay for the infrastructure changes needed, but these changes would be so massive that Barnet would irrevocably change from a leafy suburban borough to a sterile grey metropolis. I don’t remember ever being asked to vote for that.
When Brian Salinger was ousted as leader, it was supposedly because of his housing policies. What Mike Freer proposes is many times worse. 7,000 homes for Brent cross alone. You call them rabbit hutches. That would be a luxury! They will be matchboxes, though probably not as well built.
Mike Freer says the council is obliged to build these homes because of government targets. Once again, Gordon Brown is setting the agenda for Barnet Council. The Tories were elected to protect the interests of the people of Barnet, not to roll over and let Labour tickle their tummies! Brian Coleman agrees with you that we should be building quality family homes with gardens.
2. If what you say is true, I can expect my deportation papers any day now!!! Perhaps the council would like to consider making me an offer to leave the borough and stop questioning all their grubby deals?
3. Partingdale Lane has cost far too much - even supporters of the project would probably accept that. But it was a manifesto pledge in 2002, so the Tories had every right to push ahead with it.
It is clear that the council did not consult properly, which is what led to the court hearing. That is surely a failure of the professional officers rather than the councillors? The question is, have any officers been sacked for incompetence, or just given a wage rise and promotion as happened with Underhill?
4. I could write several volumes on this alone! The cabinet system is totally undemocratic and in dire need of reform. Cabinet scrutiny is an abject failure because the leader of the council effectively chooses the chairman of the scrutiny committee.
I do recall in 2002 that many Conservative councillors said they were opposed to the cabinet system and wanted a return to the committee system. But I don’t hear any of them calling for that now. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the allowances.
5. The Underhill investigation has cost a huge amount and I call upon the council to give a detailed breakdown of the final costs. I expect most of the money has gone to the lawyers.
If steps are taken to improve democracy, improve scrutiny and improve accountability, then the cost will be justified. If the council sweeps this under the carpet and carries on as normal, then it will have been a complete waste.
6. When Victor Lyon was leader, he announced that as he was not going to seek re-election to the council in 2006, he would stand down as leader in May 2005 in order to give his successor a reasonable period of time to get his/her feet under the table. Mike Freer will be standing for Parliament at the next election which is most likely to be in May 2010 on the same day as the council elections. If Victor’s principle still applies, will Mike Freer confirm that he will step down as council leader in May 2009? If he wants to stay in post until May 2010, that would mean the Tories fighting the next council election leaderless. The people of Barnet are entitled to some certainty.