Wednesday 26 November 2008

The Life of Brian

No, dear readers, this is not a blog about the Cabinet Member for free lunches. This is a tale of waste and extravagance featuring Mr Brian Reynolds, Deputy Chief Executive of Barnet Council. The man who would be king.

In 2007/08, Mr Reynolds incurred the largest expenses bill for any officer in the council. In fact, he spent more than the Chief Executive, Chief Financial Officer, Assistant Chief Executive and Borough Solicitor combined.

He spent just over £1,000 on flights. According to the council, over £450 was for a flight to Edinburgh to attend a meeting regarding Brent Cross. A return flight costs just £50 on Easy Jet.

Worse still, £520 was spent on a flight to Cannes to attend MIPIM, the international construction and property conference - known in the trade as a massive junket.

Now perhaps a business trip to Edinburgh can be justified, but what possible benefit could there be to taxpayers for an officer to attend a jolly in the South of France? Who authorised this trip and why? Perhaps Mike Freer could tell us if this is something else he didn’t know about.

Mr Reynolds spent over £1,600 on hotels. It is frankly obscene for a council officer to be spending our money in this way. He also clocked up an unspecified travel bill of more than £725 - clearly he should take lessons from Brian Coleman in how to do it properly!

Only Assistant Chief Executive Nick Walkley managed to perform his duties without spending a penny on expenses - but unfortunately he has now left the council on secondment to Whitehall. Let us hope he returns soon as the new Chief Executive.

The most disturbing aspect of this tale, however, is not that chief officers have been extravagant with our money, but that they desperately tried to keep the details secret. The council initially refused to release the figures claiming that the public were not entitled to see “personal information” about officers. Needless to say that argument was complete nonsense and they eventually, albeit reluctantly, handed over the information.

Clearly the council wanted to cover this up because it doesn’t show the chief officers in a very good light. It will hardly help Brian Reynolds land the top job when we can now see how profligate he has been with our money. How can he tell ordinary council workers that they must accept below inflation wage rises when he and Leo Boland spent more than £2,000 just on lunches?

When the Conservatives won control in 2002, the then leader Victor Lyon promised us an open and honest administration. Now would be a good time to start chaps.

Sunday 23 November 2008

Barnet’s War Memorial Shame

You may have read the recent story in the Barnet Press of the sterling work by Conservative councillor Terry Burton to have a war memorial commemorating seven council workers killed during the Second World War restored to public display at St James’ Church, East Barnet. The memorial had been found gathering dust in a store room for more than 40 years. Cllr Burton is surely due a commendation for his relentless work on behalf of the war veterans.

At the commemoration service, Mayor John Marshall said: “I’m honoured to be unveiling the plaque in memory of those East Barnet Urban District Council staff who sacrificed their lives to protect the freedoms we enjoy today. Returning the plaque to public display for all to see at the church is a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives serving their country.”

I have previously criticised Cllr Marshall over his idiotic policy to sell off school playing fields, but praise is most certainly due for those sincere and heartfelt words.

You can imagine then, the disappointment to read in the following week’s edition that the council had apparently reneged on a promise to help restore the war memorial at St Peter-le-Poer Church in Muswell Hill. The memorial was badly damaged in a storm three years ago and the cost of repairs is £25,000.

The Reverend Bruce Bridgewood says that he spoke to the council at the time and they offered to pay half the cost if the Church raised the balance - which they duly did. Unfortunately, the council has now refused to contribute towards the cost, saying:- “We are not responsible for the upkeep of the war memorial at St Peter le Poer Church. It would be unfeasible to spend a large amount of money on a memorial which is not our responsibility, but we have offered the church free professional advice from our team of architects and engineers with any repairs they wish to undertake.”

In response, Father Bruce has, understandably, written a strongly worded letter to the paper disputing the council’s version of events. I leave it to you, dear readers, to decide whether to believe a council spokesman or one of God’s representatives here on Earth.

Speaking to Barnet Council Watch, Father Bruce said: “The reason why Barnet helped in the past is because the Memorial was erected from funds raised by public subscription. It is very much a community memorial despite the fact that it stands in the Church grounds.”

Father Bruce pointed out that the council had spent £14,000 on flat screen televisions for chief officers. He could have also mentioned the £1.4 million spent on lap top computers - many of which are now in storage, the £2,000 the Chief Executive and his Deputy spent on lunches last year, the £5,000 the Leader spent travelling business class to America, £1,700 spent by an officer on a junket to the south of France…the list is endless.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have occasionally criticised council leader Mike Freer, but I do not attach any blame to him for this unfortunate situation. I am genuinely certain that he had no knowledge whatsoever of the promise previously made by the council to the Church.

Nor do I believe for one minute that Cllr Freer would take the heartless attitude “The memorial doesn’t belong to the council, so we’re not interested.” I am sure that he will be equally as upset as Fr Bruce and his congregation that the memorial has yet to be restored to its former glory.

So I send this plea to Cllr Freer. Mike, we both know that if it was not for the selfless sacrifice made by those who gave up their lives during the War, you and I would not be here today exercising our right to free speech and expression.

I am the first person to complain when public money is frittered away on pointless projects, but this is not one of them. The council has over £300 million cash invested in banks across the world. The amount the Church requires equates to about 12 hours worth of interest. Surely you can find the money for such a worthwhile cause?

Next year will be the 90th anniversary of the dedication of the memorial. Please take charge of the situation to ensure that John Marshall’s fine words apply to all war memorials in the Borough and that the Church has the funds it needs to restore the memorial in time for the next Remembrance Day service. Do this not just for the sake of those who gave their lives, or for those who paid for the memorial when money was scarce, but for all Barnet residents who continue to live in peace thanks to the selfless sacrifice of those brave men and women. We must never forget them.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Boland's Boston Bonanza

This article has now been updated.

In July, I wrote an article Frequent Flyer Freer detailing our glorious leader’s two trips to Boston and San Francisco attending a conference organised by BT. The cost to the taxpayer was more than £5,000 as Cllr Freer decided to fly business class on the San Francisco leg.

Whether this was a wise use of public money or a meaningless junket is a matter of opinion. What cannot be disputed is that the trip was authorised by means of a Delegated Powers Report (DPR) issued by the soon-to-be-departed Chief Executive Leo Boland. This was arguably an abuse of the democratic process because, under the council’s constitution, Officer DPRs cannot be called in for examination by a scrutiny committee.

A possible reason for bypassing scrutiny has now come to light. In a world-wide exclusive, I can now reveal that Mike Freer did not attend the Boston conference alone. The council has admitted, albeit reluctantly, that Leo Boland also flew to Boston at a cost of £1,548.60.

Whether Mr Boland should have attended the conference is, again, a matter of opinion. What is utterly disgraceful, however, is the fact that the council tried to keep this information secret from the public. I have spoken to several Conservative councillors over the last few days and they were all completely oblivious to the fact that our Leo had gone to America with Mike Freer.

When the Tories won control in 2002, the then leader Victor Lyon promised “an open and honest administration”. Once again, that promise seems to have been broken. When will backbench Conservative councillors wake up to the fact that their leader treats them like mushrooms by keeping them in the dark?

If you read the DPR it states:-

This report seeks approval for the Leader of the Council to travel to the United States during 2007 as a participant of the BT Vital Vision Programme.

Note that the report seeks approval for Mike Freer only. No mention that Leo Boland is attending. More damning, however, is the statement:-

Opportunities of this quality for leadership development are rare and were the Leader unable to participate then a valuable development resource funded by the private sector would have been foregone.

This is patently not so. If Mike Freer had stayed in Barnet, the ‘valuable development resource’ would not have been foregone as Mr Boland was there. The public have been misled by this statement.

Participation in the BT Vital Vision Programme will enhance the council’s international reputation.

Which has no doubt been enhanced further by our clever decision to invest £28 million in failing Icelandic banks.

It is anticipated that all of Barnet’s residents will benefit from the Leader’s participation in this programme.

How exactly?

There are three key questions which require answering:

  1. Why were we not told at the time that Mr Boland was also going to America?

  2. Was his travel authorised and, if so, by whom? The DPR set a budget of £5,000 which Mike Freer exceeded on his own. What budget was used to pay Mr Boland’s costs?

  3. Was there a conflict of interest in Mr Boland issuing the DPR authorising Mike Freer to travel, given that he failed to declare that he was also attending?
Even if attendance by both the Chief Executive and Leader of the council was deemed necessary, it is inexcusable that we have only just found out about it, so long after the event. Every penny that the council spends belongs to us. We have an absolute right to know what councillors and officers are doing in our name so that they can be held accountable.

This is yet another sad day for democracy in Barnet.

Update: 21.11.08 In response to a comment posted below, I am adding another question to the list:

4. Why was it necessary for two people to attend the same conference?

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Leo Boland’s 80% wage rise

In 2002, when the Conservatives won control of Barnet Council, Chief Executive Leo Boland was paid the grand sum of £113,100 a year. Since then, Mr B awarded himself has been awarded some rather eye watering increases.

When he takes over the reins at the GLA in January, our Leo will be earning the staggering sum of £205,000 a year - a rise of 81% in the space of just 7 years. Nice work if you can get it!

Contrary to misconception, I am not opposed per se to large salaries for public officials. What really matters is a person’s ability to do the job that is required of them. If services improve, costs and borrowings are reduced and council tax goes down then, yes, chief executives are worth every penny they are paid.

Those who support the idea of council chiefs earning more than the Prime Minister will tell you that in order to attract the best people, you have to pay the best wages. Quite so. But is Mr Boland the best man for the job?

During his time at Barnet:

  • Underhill was sold unlawfully
  • Partingdale Lane was re-opened unlawfully
  • Council tax increased by 24% in 2003
  • The Aerodrome Road bridge project has gone £4 million over budget
  • £1.4 million has been spent on near obsolete computers, many of which are now sitting in a store room gathering dust
  • £14,000 has been spent on televisions for chief officers
  • £28 million of taxpayers money is missing, last seen somewhere near Iceland.
No doubt Mr Boland will claim that none of this was his fault. But in the real world, where chief executives are answerable to shareholders, these matters would be his fault. The buck stops at the top.

In the private sector, chief executives risk their own capital. There is no gold plated state funded pension for them if their company goes bosoms up.

Council chiefs are paid by us, the taxpayers, yet we have no say whatsoever as to whether we are happy with their performance. We can complain to our councillors until the cows come home, but they claim they don’t have the power to do anything. As Conservative MP Douglas Carswell said recently: “You cannot have public services without accountability to the public. If those you elect are unable to hold those running public services to account, there is no point in democracy.”

Thursday 13 November 2008

Barnet Council. Up the proverbial creek. Paddle missing.

At the special council meeting on 4th November to discuss the Icelandic banking crisis, LibDem councillor Monroe Palmer tabled an amendment calling on the Cabinet Resources Committee to revise its Treasury management policy to “prioritise the security of capital, rather than striving for the very highest interest rates available.”

In response, council leader Mike Freer said: “Even basic accountants will know, if you get a rate of interest below inflation, your capital is eroded. That is not a sensible move.”

Two days later, interest rates fell by 1.5% to 3% - substantially below the rate of inflation. Yesterday, the Governor of the Bank of England let it be known that he will allow interest rates to fall to zero if necessary. That’s good news for home owners with mortgages, but rather bad news for Barnet council with £328 million cash on deposit.

Our capital is now being eroded and, thanks to those wise people who chased the higher interest rates (seemingly oblivious to the higher risk they carried), the rate of erosion is set to increase significantly in the weeks and months ahead.

The council cannot refinance its long term loans taken out at higher rates of interest because the capital is frozen in Iceland - possibly lost.

Does anyone still think the council has been sensible in its investment strategy? No doubt Mike Freer will say, as he always does, that the interest rate collapse could not have been foreseen. But this is precisely why the council should not have been so utterly reckless with our money in its investment strategy.

Barnet adopted a high risk strategy which worked for two years but has now backfired. Monroe Palmer’s proposed amendment calling for a low risk policy, which the Conservatives blocked with their majority, did not actually go far enough. A sensible council would have adopted a no risk investment policy.

Councils should not be playing the financial markets. Investing surplus cash on a short term basis until it is required is sensible. But Barnet council borrowed specifically to lend, which is simply unforgivable.

Even now, with a gaping £28 million hole in its finances, the council says “There is a risk of the Council becoming too risk averse in its response to this situation, and not achieving budgeted deposit income. In the past two years, the Treasury Management Strategy has delivered £26m interest earnings across all funds to support the council budget.”

Has the council not learned anything about risk?

At least we now know the real reason for their dangerously cavalier attitude to investments. The council actually budgeted for investment income in order to run basic services. Mike Freer has acknowledged that this income was used to hold down the rise in council tax last year. Being so reliant on interest rates is hardly a sensible way to run a council.

But even if we get our £28 million back, with base rates now collapsing, the council cannot possibly meet its interest target for the current year. So will services be cut, will council tax go up or, like Gordon Brown, will Mike Freer allow borrowing to go through the roof leaving future generations to pick up the bill for his folly?

Many of us had high hopes when Cllr Freer became leader. We thought he would be ruthless on cost cutting by eliminating waste and bureaucracy. Instead he borrowed recklessly, gambled and lost. Mike, you can sit in your ivory tower blaming everyone else for this debacle, but in the eyes of the public, you are a busted flush.

Sack Haringey Council

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I frequently bemoan the lack of accountability in Barnet. You can sell land illegally, you can overspend £4 million on a bridge project, you can even flush £28 million down the pan on a high risk gamble with taxpayers money. Nobody is ever to blame. Nobody ever apologises for their actions.

Just what does it take for someone in the public sector to get the sack?

As Haringey residents have just discovered, even the tragic death of a small child in circumstances too horrible to think about are not deemed grounds for sackings or resignations.

Frustrated as we are about Barnet’s reckless investment policies that will most likely put up our council tax, at least nobody has died or suffered terrible injuries. Baby ‘P’ was not so lucky.

Haringey’s Director of Social Services Sharon Shoesmith has said “The child was killed by members of his own family and not by social services.” This was a little boy who had been visited 60 times by social workers and health visitors.

Sharon Shoesmith, you should hang your head in shame. You and your department are a total and utter disgrace.

But equally at fault are Haringey’s ruling councillors. Shoesmith has refused to resign from her £100,000 a year job, so why haven’t they sacked her?

Councillors are elected to serve the community and by allowing this woman to keep her job, they have let the community down. If the totally avoidable death of an innocent child is not sufficient to get councillors off their lazy fat backsides, then they should all be thrown out of office at the earliest opportunity. With a planned and concerted effort, a change of control could easily come about.

Of course, it won’t bring back Baby ‘P’, but it will send a clear message to the councillors that they failed in their basic duty of care to the public, and they must accordingly suffer the consequences.

Conservative MP Douglas Carswell has summed it up quite succinctly on his blog when he says: "You cannot have public services without accountability to the public. If those you elect are unable to hold those running public services to account, there is no point in democracy."

Sunday 9 November 2008

SNP warning for Barnet Conservatives

Amidst the excitement and razzmatazz of the U.S. Presidential election, it was easy to overlook the by-election last week in the Scottish constituency of Glenrothes. This was hugely important for Labour following their humiliating and crushing defeats at Crewe & Nantwich and Glasgow East.

It was a seat which the SNP were widely expected to win. Even on polling day, the opinion polls suggested that another shock was on the cards. In the end, Labour held on quite comfortably with a majority of over 6,700.

Mike Smithson writes the popular blog which describes itself as “Britain’s Most Read Political Blog” - but don’t tell Statler & Waldorf or they might spill their Ovaltine! The day after the by-election, Mr Smithson posted an article questioning whether the SNP’s defeat was due to the fact that their candidate, Peter Grant, was also the leader of the local council. Smithson wrote:-

“I also wonder whether it was a good idea for the SNP to have had a local councillor, least of all the leader of the group, as the candidate. This, inevitably, made it easier for Labour to focus on the council’s performance and made their attack on care charges that much more potent.

It’s for this reason that I don’t think it is a good idea for local councillors to be parliamentary candidates in either by elections or general elections in their areas and this applies to all parties.”

Political parties never admit that they chose the wrong candidate, and publicly the SNP will undoubtedly disagree with Smithson’s comments. But privately, will any of the parties now be re-evaluating their candidate lists?

In Barnet, Leader Mike Freer is standing for Finchley & Golders Green whilst Deputy Leader Matthew Offord is standing for Hendon. Both are important seats for the Conservatives, but none more so than Finchley which is the party’s number one target, partly due to its iconic status and partly due to the fact that recent boundary changes mean that it will technically be deemed by the media to be a Conservative seat at the next General Election.

If the Conservatives do not win Finchley & Golders Green, they will have an uphill struggle to win the election.

Conversely, might Labour throw in the towel in Finchley before the election is even called and put all their limited resources elsewhere? They know they will lose some seats, so from a manpower perspective, is it worth the effort trying to hang on to this one?

The role of the LibDems will be crucial. On Barnet council, the LibDems made an electoral pact with Labour which kept the Conservatives out of office for 8 years. If their supporters switch to Labour in 2010, it is quite conceivable that it could keep the Tory candidate out.

I hope, therefore, that the Conservative Party is happy with their choice of PPC. The last thing they need is a candidate whose campaign could be undermined by his management of the council.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Has Barnet Council broken the law again?

Private Eye magazine has raised an interesting question about Barnet’s £28 million Icelandic investments. The Rotten Boroughs column (issue 1222) asks: “So was Barnet breaking the law? Guidance on local authority investment issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2004 states that less “prescriptive” regulations introduced in the 2003 Local Government Act “allow the temporary investment of funds borrowed for the purpose of expenditure in the reasonably near future”. Then it goes on to say that “the speculative borrowing purely in order to invest remains unlawful.”

The council has admitted that it borrowed £40m in 2006 - two years in advance of when the money was required. The report to Cabinet on 23rd October 2008 concedes that borrowing this far in advance “is not the norm”. Does anyone think that ‘two years in advance’ meets the definition of “reasonably near future?”

The most damning aspect, however, is the requirement that funds only be invested temporarily. According to paragraphs 9.6.2 and 9.6.4 of the Cabinet report, the council admits to entering into long term contracts with the Icelandic banks for terms of up to three years. That is hardly temporary!

So even if we do eventually get our money back, there is clearly an arguable case that the council’s investment policy was illegal.

Last night, council leader Mike Freer appeared before the Cabinet and Overview Scrutiny Committee and was asked by LibDem leader Jack Cohen: “How many times in last two years have you met with officers to look at the Council’s investment portfolio”? According to a LibDem press release “Cllr Freer revealed he had never to his recollection had any meetings or indeed never seen a list of the Council’s investments . He admitted that the first time he knew any details of where the Council deposited money including the investments in Icelandic Banks was when the news about the Icelandic Banks broke a few weeks ago.”

But hold on a minute. The council has admitted that it borrowed £40 million in 2006 and the money was invested to take advantage of the interest rate differential - speculative borrowing which is not permitted by law. The Cabinet Resources Member at the time was, and still is, Mike Freer. Is Cllr Freer really saying that under his watch, officers borrowed £40 million and he knew nothing about it? If true, that sounds suspiciously like a serious dereliction of duty.

In 1991, Western Isles Council lost £24million which it had illegally invested in BCCI. The council had to be bailed out by the taxpayer and it was 14 years before they got their money back. The council’s Chief Executive and Chief Finance Officer were sacked and the leader of the council leader resigned. Et tu, Barnet?

13:45 STOP PRESS: Leo Boland has just announced his resignation as Chief Executive of Barnet take up the position of Chief Executive of the Greater London Authority. Will he be taking his telly with him?