Saturday 30 August 2008

The Barnet Oligarchy

Writing in
The Times this week (the national version not our very own local variety), Anatole Kaletsky wrote: “…the most important function of democracy is not to choose good governments but to throw out bad ones. It is the right to eject bad governments that prevents tyranny, makes government serve the people, discourages corruption and keeps most democratic nations at peace most of the time.

The corollary of this observation is that politicians must always live in fear of punishment by the voters. But if voters repeatedly fail to punish incompetence or corruption or gross misjudgement, then the fear of defeat is lifted and democracy loses its disciplining power. And a country in which the dominant parties can afford to scoff at the discipline of the ballot box, is the point when democracy starts to slide into self-perpetuating oligarchy."

Kaletsky was writing about the forthcoming U.S. elections, but his words apply to any elected authority in any democratic system. Which, of course, brings us to Barnet Council. Under the new system of local government, brought in under Tony Blair’s first government, our long established committee system was thrown out of the window, without any public consultation, and replaced with a cabinet system which concentrates power into the hands of a few individuals – some of whom have not actually been elected.

The result is that councillors pay themselves tens of thousands of pounds of our money without having to deliver improved services to residents. Officers buy themselves top of the range television sets whilst day centres for the elderly have to close one day a week due to a lack of funding. The leader spends £5,000 flying business class to America to learn how to be a leader. The Chief Finance Officer buries £60,000 of expenditure in the accounts but is only “spoken to” about his conduct. £1.4 million is spent on near obsolete computers that don’t work with another £28,000 spent putting them into storage.

The sad reality is that this blatant abuse of power is taking place in councils up and down the country. Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem councillors are all the same when it comes to jumping head first into the public trough.

Even if Labour somehow bucked the national swing and won back control of Barnet Council in 2010, does anyone seriously believe that democratic accountability would suddenly be restored? The last time Labour and the Lib Dems ruled the borough, Underhill was secretly sold off for a measly ten grand and, at the time of writing, the Auditor is still investigating that scandal.

As Kaletsky says, if we maintain the status quo "we will be perilously close to the point when democracy ceases to perform its most essential function of disciplining political power."

Sunday 24 August 2008

Freer Gets Tough On Toffs

Cementing his Brownite credentials, Council Leader Mike Freer has used his blog on the Barnet Times to launch an astonishing attack on those he describes as armchair critics “cosseted by family money.”

I can’t imagine that David Cameron or Shadow Chancellor George Osborne will be pleased to read that, given their backgrounds. Nor Mayor of London BoJo who has just given Cllr Freer a cushy job with a juicy allowance attached.

Cllr Freer wants to be the Tory MP for Margaret Thatcher's old constituency. In an interview some years ago, Lady T said that she wanted a state “in which people own houses, shares and have a stake in society, and in which they have wealth to pass on to future generations.”

When Tony Blair became Leader of the Opposition, he realised that Labour would never be elected if it continued to demonise and punish the hard working wealth creators whose taxes fuelled the economy. Hence New Labour was born.

Mike Freer seems to be stuck in a 1970s Socialist time warp. As someone who is totally dependent on the taxes paid by us to fund his lifestyle, he would be well advised in future to remember the old adage of engaging brain before opening mouth.

If you do make it to Westminster Mike, I hope you enjoy the back benches.

(P.S. Thank you Michael H for pointing out the minor error in the first draft of this posting)

Monday 18 August 2008

I come to praise the Council, not to bury it

Now I know what you must be wondering. Where’s he going with this? Where’s the rant or the obligatory moan about the leader of the council? Well sorry to disappoint, Dear Readers, but this blog entry contains no rant and no moan. Only praise, because praise is due. So much so, that I will put off until another time the article I had prepared about the flat screen TV bought for Chief Executive Leo Boland’s office at a cost of more than £3,000.

So what has me singing the council’s praises? Well, it is a Delegated Powers Report (DPR) issued by Margaret Martinus, Head of the Legal Department. This DPR authorises YVA, an external firm of solicitors, to carry out the legal work on up to 10 property cases.

It seems like an eternity since the Conservatives last talked about privatisation, but finally the good times are back! OK I know British Rail was a bit of a cock-up, but there were plenty of other privatisations which were successful.

The YVA contract is worth £10,000 which equates to £1,000 per case. Although the DPR does not specify the precise nature of the work to be undertaken, the charge does not seem to be unreasonable especially when, in some cases, the council should be able to recover the costs from other parties.

[Post Script. A member of the public posted a reply to this blog but it seems that a technical glitch has caused it to disappear! The writer pointed out that conveyancing work should not cost £1,000 a time and that £500 was more reasonable. Perhaps the council would like to comment on this?]

Clearly the council is just dipping its toes in the water to see if the experiment works, and that is fair enough. But there is no reason why it should fail, and if we really do have a proper Tory administration, then we can soon look forward to full scale privatisation.

The council currently has a legal department of 34 people, 23 of whom are solicitors. 13 staff are part time but this is still a very expensive department to run. Qualified solicitors do not earn peanuts - and nor should they! But it is a simple fact of life that the state is inherently inefficient and bureaucratic. By privatising the legal department, the council - and by definition the taxpayer - will benefit from:

  • Lower costs due to market competition for contracts
  • More efficient service
  • Lower rent charges due to less office space being required at North London Business Park
  • Reduced liabilities for future pension contributions
  • Negligence protection

What do I mean by that last one? Well, take the Underhill sale for example. If that transaction had been handled by an external firm of solicitors, the council would have a claim against that firm for negligence. But because the work was done in-house, the council can’t sue itself.

Existing legal staff need not fear. There is no reason why they could not set themselves up as an independent law firm competing for contracts in the marketplace. If they are good enough, they will have gainful employment. If not, well the taxpayer is relieved of a burden.

In these difficult economic times, there is a moral obligation on the council to deliver a better service at a lower cost. The council’s duty, first and foremost, is to the residents of this borough.

Privatisation is a very simple way to cut costs, eliminate waste and become more efficient. The legal department is only the starting block. Plenty of other departments could follow suit. This blue revolution is long overdue. Three cheers for Barnet Council!

Friday 15 August 2008

14,000 Cheers For Mike Freer

Many Barnet residents were greatly concerned at the recent news that council leader and wannabe MP Mike Freer had given up his job as a banker. How would he get by on his measly Council allowance of just £47,000 a year? Well fear not, because Mayor of London BoJo has come to the rescue and appointed Cllr Freer as a Board Member of the London Development Agency.

This exciting position, which requires Cllr Freer to attend 8 Board meetings a year, carries an allowance of £14,000 per annum. By my calculation, that works out at £1,750 a meeting - but well worth it for the services of someone with so much hands on experience of planning and regeneration.

Pensioners, council workers (who are being offered a pay rise of 2.45% - less than half the increase in the Retail Price Index) and indeed all those who are struggling with the never ending rising cost of living will none the less be glad to make even more cutbacks so that they can pay that little bit extra in their council tax bill to help fund this new allowance for Cllr Freer and keep the wolf from his door.

Of course, Cllr Freer could set an example of pay restraint during these difficult economic times and refuse to accept the allowance. Should he do so, all residents would undoubtedly praise him for this selfless sacrifice.

Sunday 3 August 2008

Pants On Fire

On 29th July, I posted a story about Frequent Flyer Freer’s junket to America which included a club class ticket to San Francisco at a cost to the Barnet taxpayer of nearly £3,000. This story was subsequently featured in the Barnet Press issue dated 31st July 2008. Click here to view it.

In his interview with the Barnet Press, Cllr Freer justified the expense by saying "The flight to San Francisco was 13 hours and I took the decision to fly club class because you get a place to work and it allows you to arrive fresh and ready to go straight into the classroom."

The problem with this argument is that his flight ticket shows that he took the Saturday morning flight arriving early Saturday afternoon local time. The conference didn't start until the Monday (thank you BT for that information). So much for “straight into the classroom.” Cllr Freer clearly had enough time to recover from the flight and could have travelled standard class.

In any event, what council work did Cllr Freer need to do for 13 hours? By his own admission, the Chief Executive runs the council.

Another concern is Cllr Freer’s remark “I took the decision to fly club class…” It was not his decision to take. He was granted permission to visit America by the Chief Executive in consultation with the Cabinet Member for Policy & Performance and, as the council does not have a travel policy for such trips, he should have obtained permission from them. In the private sector, staff cannot fly club class just because they feel like it. Cllr Freer came to power declaring that he would be ruthless on cutting costs. But not his own, it seems.

Cllr Freer’s false statement above is not his first inaccuracy regarding this junket. He told the Barnet Press on 8th February 2007 that he did not anticipate the trip to Boston costing more than £1,000. But the travel agent's invoice showing the actual cost of £1,227.10 is dated 16th January 2007 and is personally addressed to him, so he must have seen it.

Is Cllr Freer really a fit and proper person to be Leader of the Council or the next MP for Finchley when he appears to be so economical with the actualité?

Friday 1 August 2008

Snoop on the Council

There has been much talk in recent months of the power given to councils under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. This Act was designed to help catch major criminals and terrorists, but some councils, for example Poole, have abused it for other purposes, such as spying on a family to see if they really lived in the catchment area for a popular school.

Now it is our turn. Under Section 15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998, we have the right to inspect all books, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to any council business. For example, I recently asked to see all the receipts relating to the purchase of 14 plasma screens for the council’s offices. These screens cost in excess of £33,000 (before installation and software costs are added) but more on that in a few days.

Under Freedom of Information rules, you can ask for details of the Chief Executive’s expense account, for example. But under the Audit Commission Act, you can demand to see the actual receipts and you have a right to make copies.

So, if there is anything you want to know or, better still, anything you think the council doesn’t want us to know, get your Section 15 notices in to the council before 4.30pm on 20th August 2008. Click here for more details.

Remember, every penny the Council spends is our money. We have an absolute right to know how they are spending it. Do let me know if you turn up anything interesting. Write to dontcallmedave99 @ (remove the spaces)