Monday, 15 September 2008

Don't Panic, Captain Coleman!


Barnet Councillor and GLA Member Brian Coleman has been doing his best recently to disprove P.T. Barnum’s theory that any publicity is good publicity. First was his reported tantrum when he was overlooked for a senior position on yet another taxpayer funded quango.


Then he made a somewhat disparaging and unnecessary outburst against the successful British Olympic team returning from Beijing. With even London Mayor BoJo distancing himself from our Brian’s remarks, were the wheels about to come off the gravy train that provides him with £87,500 a year in allowances?

Well fear not, dear readers, because in his column in this week’s Barnet Press, BC proves that, deep down, there is a real Tory in there somewhere. The article talks about Dad's Army and the concept of community and respect for local civic institutions - two good old fashioned virtues which were once the mainstay of traditional Conservative philosophy.

Unfortunately, Brian did not go on to say why such institutions are now held in such utter contempt by the electorate, so I will proffer a simple explanation: the public have been completely disenfranchised by the political classes and the political process.

As renowned journalist Janet Daley wrote recently: “It is a positive point of pride among politicians here to say that they bravely hold out against "populist" demands - which is to say that they wilfully ignore and deride the concerns of ordinary people because they are not sufficiently enlightened to be worthy of consideration. There is almost no sense at all of the principle that underpins the US Constitution: that in a democracy, the will of the majority of the people is sacred.“

The old system of local government had worked well enough for generations, but Tony Blair’s first government ignored the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. At a stroke, the committee system was out and the cabinet was in. Without any public consultation whatsoever, vocational councillors were replaced by highly paid professionals.

Previously, important decisions were taken by committees made up of the great and the good. Today most councillors don’t even get a look in. Unelected officers have more power than them.

Councillors never used to be professional politicians. They were ordinary members of the public who stood for election out of a sense of civic duty because they had something to contribute to the local community. It was a noble cause. Allowances were extremely modest at a few hundred Pounds a year.

Today we have a generation of politicians who look only at what they can get out of the system rather than what they can put into it. The minimum a Barnet councillor receives is £9,735 a year (for which he or she need only attend two meetings) and this figure can rise to more than £47,000 if you stab your colleagues in the back, get to be leader and then change the rules which previously limited how many special responsibility allowances you could claim.

It now costs Barnet taxpayers more than £1 million a year to pay for councillors’ expenses. But what do they actually do for the money? Just as Westminster has been neutered by Brussels, so have our Town Halls been neutered by Westminster. Central government dictates key policy matters and instructs councils as to how our money is to be spent.

There are 63 councillors in Barnet. Do we really need that many? Traditionally the reason for three members per ward was to ensure that the workload was spread out. But when you consider that (a) the officers do all the work, (b) the public no longer need to attend surgeries to ask councillors for advice or to make a complaint and (c) most councillors are not actually involved in the decision making process, one councillor per ward is more than sufficient.

The changes to local government brought in by Labour have not improved governance. Rather, the opposite is true. The Local Government Act 2000 has driven out of office those possessed with a lifetime of experience, achievement and success, to be replaced by career politicians who put obedience to the party whip above service to the community.

To restore respect for our political institutions, the public - and the public alone - should be allowed to decide what form of local government we want, and how much we are prepared to pay for it. Easier said than done, of course, but not impossible. The 2000 Act provides for the election of a directly appointed Mayor. If enough electors demand a ballot (I think the figure is 10,000), then the council is forced to hold a referendum.

The election of a Mayor would fundamentally alter the balance of power in the Borough because it would mean, for the first time, that the head of the Executive is directly accountable to the voters. Imagine that! At present, the leader is only accountable to the councillors in his/her group and the wishes of the public can be totally disregarded or dismissed with impunity if the ruling party so chooses.

I will come back to the question of an elected Mayor in a future blog because I am convinced the time is now right for such an election. The democratic deficit in this country - let alone the borough of Barnet - is increasing at an exponential rate. Politicians need to be reminded that they are elected to serve, not to rule.

14 comments:

Adam said...

Hi Dave

Do you know if BC's nearly nine grand in cab fares is included in the GBP 87.5 k or not? How close to the community can you get from the back of a cab anyway?

With 63 councillors, the gravy train in Barnet must be very long and, for some, it must be as plush as the Orient Express....why do I say this???

Well, correct me if I'm wrong but doesn't the borough of Barnet have three MPs? If that is so, how can they manage to carry out their constituency activities while the Borough Council has 63 members, each costing, at the very least GBP 10k a pop. When extrapolated across London, the cost must be eyewatering. Trebles all round, as you say. Next stop: the Riviera.

Look fwd to hearing.

Adam

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Adam

I think the cab fares are on top of the allowances. No doubt Barnet_Jane will correct me if I’m wrong.

It will need a councillor to explain why we need so many of them but I agree with your point about the cost of local government across London, and the same argument probably applies nationwide.

We are over governed in this country and if we abolished all the unnecessary quangos and the placemen who sit on them, then it would undoubtedly save the taxpayer a small fortune.

John Franklyn said...

Assuming it works like Telford and Wrekin, the Cllrs will be given an allownce of x ammount, which often varies, ie-cabinet members can earn 2 0r 3 times as much as a cllr not on the cabinet, cab fares etc are claimed as expenses.

When Councils release their annula figures, it doesn't give the full picture as payments for outside bodies, being on parish councils are not included. So the figures quoted are the minimum many earn.

www.telfordcouncilwatch.org.uk

Mr Toad has GOT to go! said...

Mr Toad has GOT to go!

http://www.myspace.com/mr_toad_has_got_to_go

http://www.new.facebook.com/group.php?gid=24061317432

Don't Call Me Dave said...

John

Barnet does operate on a similar basis. If Adam is still interested, the current figures can be found at http://www.barnet.gov.uk/members-allowances-scheme-april08-to-march09.pdf

I don’t know if news of Brian Coleman’s expenses reached Telford, but his now legendary taxi bill was incurred on his GLA duties, so every Londoner contributed.

In the interest of openness and transparency, I think councillors should be required to state on their register of interests, full details of all other bodies and quangos they sit on so that taxpayers can see how much they are receiving at our expense. We shouldn’t have to hunt for the information.

I liked your blog, by the way. Council watches of the world unite!

John Franklyn said...

Don't call me Dave

I think that would be a good idea and would point out some conflicts of interest. I'm questioning a conflict of interest at the moment,

A Councillor, who also on the the outside body with a housing trust ans is supposed to represent residents on housing matters, but the question is, as he is

1.A Director of the Housing Trust
2.A Trustee of their charity

Can he represent the resident without having to declare a conflict of interest and he also sits on the planning committee.

Things seem a little questionable.

Adam said...

Dave

What astonishes me is the ability of councillors to line their own pockets without anybody questioning what they do and how they do it. Through this type of democracy, we are all disenfranchised-is it any wonder that people don't care about politics on a national scale when, on a local scale, the avarice of those elected to serve is plain to see. Churchill said that the price of democracy was eternal vigilence. He was talking about watching out for the Soviets, not our own elected representatives. Yet, 60 odd years later, we are reduced to this sorry state of affairs. £87k for BC, however much for Mike Freer and God knows how much councillors earn elsewhere....compare that to the earnings of a real servant of the public, like a nurse or a teacher, then look yourself in the mirror, Brian Coleman, and tell us that you're worth it....

Don't Call Me Dave said...

John

We have our fair share of conflicts of interest in Barnet. The one I am trying to deal with at the moment involves the Borough Treasurer who presented a report to the council’s Cabinet Resources Committee which sought approval of the payment of legal costs for officers and councillors facing an audit investigation.

Trouble is, he buried the figures in the report by claiming the amount was “auditor’s fees” and then failed to declare to the committee that he was one of the recipients of the indemnity awarded (£10,000 in his case).

The council say that the officer has been spoken to. That is woefully inadequate. At the very least he should be sacked, but frankly I think he should face criminal prosecution and go to prison.

Rog T said...

David,

Forgive me if I've missed something, but doesn't the indemnity make the whole investigation rather pointless. Presumably if everyone has an indemnity, then the worst that will happen to all of them is that they'll be "Spoken to".

I would have thought that PC Plod should be the one doing the speaking to in the case of the Borough treasurer's little stunt. Surely what he did is illegal?

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Rog

The indemnities are for the legal defence costs. What is utterly outrageous is that when these indemnities were first granted, it was on condition that if an individual was found guilty of any wrongdoing, they would have to repay the cost of the indemnity back to the council. Fair enough, you might think.

But somewhere between the cabinet meeting which approved this decision, and the publication of the minutes, the wording was changed so that the indemnities would only have to be repaid if an individual was found guilty of wilful misconduct - which is a very specific charge (the penalty for which is surcharging).

This change of wording was not approved by the cabinet and it can be proven that it was altered after the event. I have an audio recording of a subsequent cabinet meeting in which the Deputy Chief Executive acknowledges the change. Cllr Freer has failed to act on this.

In short, it means that even if a councillor or officer is found guilty of gross negligence, taxpayers will have to pay for their legal defence. The cost of the indemnities is some £200,000.

As for this, and the Borough Treasurer’s deception, I believe both matters should be dealt with by the Police. I have prepared a file for the CPS but have been advised to wait until the PwC report is published before delivering it to them.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Adam

I couldn’t agree more with your last sentence. Cllr Lynne Hillan made a stupid remark a few weeks ago in which she tried to justify these obscene allowances by suggesting that councillors could earn five times as much in the private sector. Not with her business track record she couldn’t.

John Franklyn said...

Don't Call me Dave

I must offer you a compliment for having the courage to set up your blog and I firmly belive that as time passes, you will have vital role to play in local democracy.

Keep up the good work.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Thanks John, I will do my best! For anyone who doesn't know, John has his own blog which is well worth bookmarking. It is not just Barnet Council which has contempt for the electorate.

http://www.telfordcouncilwatch.org.uk

John Franklyn said...

What I fnd hard to believe are the amount of local authorities who make massive mistakes, to the cost of the taxpayer, reduce democracy, make promises they constantly fail to deliver, but when someone points it out and puts it into the public forum for debate, sites like this are considered trouble causers of accussed of misleading the public.

The truth is, it becomes a labour of love, a vital community function which could be easily embraced as a useful tool for reaching residents.