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.