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."


Anonymous said...

The cabinet system is not merely undemocratic, it is anti-democratic. It should be a top priority of the next government to restore public accountability, with councillors and officials liable for dismissal and personal fines if they are negligent, incompetent or unduly profligate with regard to expenditure (eg overseas jollies). If that puts a few people off standing for office, so much the better! Councils have far too much 'power' anyway, and once that power is delivered into the hands of a few people who meet behind closed doors, we descend into tyranny. How dare these people waste our money whilst hiking council tax and failing to deliver adequate services?

Anonymous said...

Hi David

You have said on this blog that the cost of the PwC inquiry into the Underhill sale (apparently close to one million pounds at the last count) is thoroughly justified.

Given that

i) the land at Underhill was in Green Belt when it was sold,

ii) on the same day of the sale, a planning application was passed which was conditional on the Underhill site staying in Green Belt,

iii) the proposed Unitary Development Plan for LB Barnet would be revised to show the land would be staying as Green Belt,

iv) there was a tenant with a very long lease occupying the site when it was sold,

I'm intrigued to know how much you think the land should have been sold for?

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Dear Anon

When Labour brought in the Local Government Act 2000, they simultaneously repealed Section 18 Audit Commission Act 1998. This section allowed for individuals to be surcharged if they were found guilty of wilful misconduct. Unfortunately there is no financial remedy for taxpayers if councillors or officials are only guilty of negligence or incompetence.

I would not support the idea of people being surcharged or fined if they have made an honest mistake, but with the abolition of s.18, there is no longer any incentive for officials to exercise reasonable care when performing their duties because they no longer have to assume responsibility for their actions.

Fortunately, Section 17 has not been abolished. This means that if the council spends our money without lawful authority, the Court can order the person(s) responsible to pay that sum back. I have serious doubts as to whether the £3,100 spent on Leo Boland’s television was lawful, but more on that another time.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Dear Michael

I do intend to write about the Underhill scandal in some detail in the near future. For now, I will give you a condensed reply!

Regarding the cost of the PwC investigation, what I said was: “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.” I stand by that.

The figure of £1 million has been thrown about for some time now, and I have repeatedly called for a breakdown, but none has been forthcoming. Does it include the legal indemnity given to the officers and councillors under investigation? That has cost at least £200,000. PwC have hired their own lawyers, but at what cost?

Does the £1million include the hundreds of thousands of £££ wasted on the failed and futile legal challenge in the High Court? I rather suspect that most of the money has been spent on lawyers and legal fees.

One aspect which is often overlooked is that PwC are legally required to be mindful of the cost to the public purse of any audit investigation. The auditor cannot carry out an investigation if he believes that the cost would be disproportionate to the matter at hand. The auditor alone decides whether or not to conduct an investigation. The auditor alone decides what form any investigation will take. Whilst he has no control over how much the council spent on lawyers and the like, it is reasonable to assume that he had sufficient concerns about the sale to have launched his investigation in the first place.

Dealing with your specific points:

i) Yes the land was green belt at the time of sale (and still is). However, in determining the value of the land, the council was legally required to consider the speculative value (sometimes called the hope value) on the basis that development might be permitted in the future.

There have been two legal cases in recent years (one dealing with a football club) in which the courts ruled that future development value should have formed part of the consideration paid for the land.

ii) The planning application was in respect of the so called second stadium on land occupied by the cricket club. The green belt status was not relevant to this application because sports stadia are permitted on green belt land. I don’t recall this planning application being linked to the Underhill site because the council kept the sale secret until after the 2002 election. My understanding is that it was the GLA or Ken Livingstone who subsequently imposed restrictions relating to the green belt. If that is wrong, please correct me!

Bear in mind that even if the Council refuses to change the green belt status, there is nothing to prevent the site owner making an application to the Lands Tribunal to have the designation altered.

iii) I think you have got this wrong! The deposit draft UDP stated in very strong terms that the land should be de-designated from the green belt and that it would not endure as such. The revised deposit draft was amended, but still called for the land at Underhill to be removed from the green belt. It was absolutely clear in this regard.

iv) The long lease to the football club actually proves that there was no need for the land to be sold at all – a fact which the council now recognises. I think that BFC only required a lease of ten years to comply with League rules. There was no need to sell the freehold at all and BFC had no legal right to acquire it.

Whilst the council did have a right to sell the freehold, they were legally required under s.123 Local Government Act 1972 to obtain the best price possible. The High Court ruled that the sale did not meet the terms of s.123 and was therefore unlawful.

In my opinion, given that the council’s first duty was to the taxpayer and not the football club; given that the council was not under any legal or moral obligation to sell the land and given that there was no economic benefit to the borough in selling it for anything less than the highest possible price, the land should not have been sold for less than £5.7 million, which was the highest valuation put on the site by the council’s own valuer.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else think David Miller is posting anonymous messages to himself?!

Don't Call Me Dave said...

I think you will find that you are the only person here who self entertains.

Anonymous said...


It would be rather nice if your critics actually tried to debate the points you raise rather than use ever more ridiculous personal jibes.

I've yet to see a post on here which says "David Miller is completely wrong about this ..." followed by a few rational comments as to why.

Says quite a lot really.

Anonymous said...

Rog T - its more fun this way ...

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon,

Yes I know what you mean about leaving stupid messages being lots of fun. I used to do it on the toilet wall at school until our physics teacher, Mr Shuttler caught me.

Being an extremely intelligent man and a great teacher, he explained to me that all I was doing was advertising the fact that I was an idiot.

I trust that when you grow up you may have something a bit more interesting to say or find a few activities which will be more rewarding to you.