Tuesday 30 December 2008

Freer’s in a Pickle!

Shadow Community Secretary Eric Pickles announced today that the next Conservative government will purge the fat cats from Town Halls. Officers earning six figure salaries will lose their jobs as councils are forced to merge frontline services and backroom operations in order to save taxpayers money.

In Barnet, we employ 13 officers earning more than £100,000 per annum. The recently departed Chief Executive Leo Boland was on £185,000. In the light of Mr Pickles’ announcement, will Mike Freer ignore Conservative Party policy and appoint another overpriced snout in the trough to replace him?

A Conservative Party source said: “There is super-inflation of chief executive pay that bears no correlation to the level of services they provide. There is a bureaucracy and self-feeding hierarchy of senior officials that are completely unaccountable to the local community...This urgently needs to be addressed.”

The new Conservative policy also throws a spanner in the works for Freer’s pet project - The Future Shape of the Council. For whilst Future Shape talks about drastically slimming down the council by “outsourcing” services, there are no plans to reduce the numbers of chief officers.

Now that these senior officers are facing the order of the boot along with the rank and file, let’s see if they are still willing to support Freer’s privatisation plans. Barnet could be heading for its very own Winter of Discontent.

Friday 26 December 2008

The Wrath of Freer?

On 8th December, the General Functions Committee considered a report which would have given all staff two extra days holiday next year in recognition of the council achieving four star status.

Now as a capitalist, I support the concept of rewarding staff who excel at their jobs, but as our glorious leader Mike Freer said in his New Year address to his loyal subjects: “Over the last few weeks, thousands of people in the country have been told they will be unemployed come 2009, and that insecurity is being felt everywhere, including Barnet.”

To spend nearly £1 million of our money on bonuses for public officials at a time of recession, when so many people in the private sector are having to make cutbacks just to keep their heads above water, would have been utterly crass and insensitive.

A reader of this blog kindly pointed out to me that the General Functions Committee actually rejected the recommendations of the report. My initial reaction to this news was one of immense relief. At long last common sense had prevailed!

But then I started wondering. How did this proposal get as far as the committee stage? Under council rules, all items on an agenda must first be cleared with the relevant committee chairman. As this was a report prepared by the Director of Resources involving such a large amount of money, the Cabinet Member for Resources (Mike Freer) would have unquestionably been involved. That’s the way the system works.

The report states that it “arises from a decision taken at the Corporate Joint Negotiation and Consultation Committee on 7 October 2008 to provide a consideration report with costings on the proposal to award two additional days annual leave in 2008/9 in recognition of the Council achieving 4 star status.”

This committee is chaired by Cllr Lynne Hillan - one of Mike Freer’s closest and most trusted lieutenants. I mention this for one simple reason. It is absolutely clear that the proposal to award two extra days leave was known in advance by at least two of the three people pulling the strings in the Cabinet. If they did not approve of the recommendations, there would have been no report before the General Functions Committee. It simply would not have got that far.

Section 6 of the report states that the cost of this proposal was £975,104.94. To produce a report where the cost has been calculated to the penny is rather unusual. It must have taken an officer some considerable time to prepare and it would not have been done without the leader’s knowledge.

So the big question is this. Why, after going to the trouble of producing such a detailed report, did the committee throw it out? Why was a proposal which the leader had previously supported suddenly given the red card? The Conservatives on the General Functions Committee would not have rejected the proposals if Mike Freer had approved them.

So what changed his mind? Did he realise that the council simply could not afford the gesture given the problems with Aerodrome Road bridge and the missing Icelandic millions? Unlikely, given that the scale of these financial problems was well known before the committee met.

Perhaps the decision was connected to the Future Shape of the Council - Mike Freer’s pet project to privatise the council? Five days before the General Functions Committee convened, there was a Cabinet meeting to discuss Future Shape which was met by a large protest delegation outside the council’s offices. It even attracted the attention of the BBC.

The unions are bitterly opposed to the plans and have promised Freer that he will have a fight on his hands to implement them.

Mike Freer sees Future Shape as his legacy - an opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory in the vain (desperate?) hope that David Cameron will reward him with a position in the next Conservative government. But for this to succeed, Freer has to win over his opponents. The next General Election must take place by June 2010 at the latest, and if the unions want to make life hard, there is absolutely no way these plans can be implemented before then. So Mike’s legacy is now at risk.

Freer has shown himself to be ruthless in controlling dissent within his own ranks of councillors, but he has no power to control the unions. What better revenge on them for scuppering his personal ambition than to take away the reward of extra holiday?

Of course, there might be a different explanation for this volte-face, but I have yet to hear it.

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Barnet's Financial Black Hole

When the Conservatives came to power in 2002, they complained, quite correctly, that the previous Labour/LibDem Administration had plundered the reserves. This was one of the reasons that council tax had to go up by 24% in 2003.

But the Conservatives are also very good at spending cash from reserves:

£4 million to pay for the overspend on the Aerodrome Road bridge project.

£250,000 to pay for the feasibility study into the “Future Shape” privatisation project.

£160,000 to pay for the reduced parking charges.

On top of this, Mike Freer admitted last week that there was a shortfall of over £1.5 million in interest due on the council’s Icelandic investments.

He also admitted that every 1% fall in interest rates costs the council £780,000 for the current year and £1.8m for 2009/10. Given that base rates have dropped 3% in the last two months with another 1% likely very soon, we are looking at a further loss of income of anywhere between £3m and £7m next year.

The council is facing a serious black hole in its finances. Next year’s budget is due to be debated by the Cabinet in January. It promises to be one of the most important meetings of recent times. Residents are entitled to know whether council tax will rise or if services will be cut. Perhaps the reserves will be raided again, if there is anything left?

What chance does Barnet have of emulating a proper Conservative council like Hammersmith & Fulham who have recently announced a 3% reduction in council tax next year - for the third year running?

Monday 15 December 2008

He’s All Right, Jack

The Liberal Democrats are very clever political operators. They portray themselves as a cuddly middle-of-the-road party somewhere in between the Conservatives and Labour, but on many issues they are actually quite left wing to those of us on the right!

That said, two of the best MPs in Westminster are LibDems. Vince Cable, who famously coined the Mr Bean phrase about Gordon Brown, was the first to have correctly called the state of the economy and seems to have a better idea than most as to how to deal with the mess the Prime Minister has caused.

Norman Baker has earned himself a fearsome reputation in Parliament for asking searching questions of the Government and uncovering abuse of the allowances system. I wonder why I admire him?!!

In Barnet, the Liberal Democrats have proved themselves very effective in the questioning of Mike Freer over the Icelandic banking scandal. It is very regrettable that the Conservative councillors have just acquiesced on this issue rather than asking probing questions of their leader.

Cllr Jack Cohen is leader of Barnet’s LibDems. He has a blog on the Barnet Times website under the title “Joined Up Thinking”. He has written several articles about the frustration of being in opposition. No sympathy from me on that count!

In his latest blog, Cllr Cohen explains that he is prohibited from revealing how much the council is spending on consultants. Information which we, the taxpayers, have an absolute right to know.

The Conservatives have complained, quite rightly, about the shameful arrest of Damien Green for revealing embarrassing information about the Government. His defence is that he was acting in the public interest, and there is widespread all-party support for his position.

So come on Jack, go for it!!

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Miller makes a mistake?

Unlike politicians who never make any mistakes whatsoever, we mere mortals do occasionally slip up. I have always said that if there are any inaccuracies in my blog, I will gladly correct them. It is with this in mind that I must alert you to a possible mistake in a previous story.

On 20th November, I published a blog Boland’s Boston Bonanza regarding soon-to-be-ex Chief Executive Leo Boland’s trip to Boston to attend the BT Vital Vision conference. The article stated that, unbeknown to us all, Mr Boland had attended the conference last year with council leader Mike Freer.

However, according to as yet uncorroborated comments published on the London Daily News website, it seems that Boland did not go last year with Freer, but attended this year on his own.

So how did I make such a basic mistake? Well, the council had previously provided details of Boland’s expenses for the year ending 31st March 2008 which included £1,548.60 spent attending the Boston junket conference. I must confess, dear readers, that I simply assumed he went last year. Given the controversy when details of Mike Freer’s trip first broke, it never occurred to me that the council would be so contemptuous of public opinion as to send someone else this year.

But was the mistake in my previous blog relevant? No, because the essential part of the story was not that Boland had gone to America with Freer but that Boland had gone to America and nobody knew about it. That charge remains.

The council says that they didn’t have to tell anyone because the cost was paid for from the officers training budget. This raises two issues:

First, to the 53 councillors who are not members of the cabinet. How worthless do you feel knowing that the Chief Executive can fly off to America and you are kept in the dark. Maybe you would have approved of the trip. Maybe not. But don’t you think that, at the very least, you should have been consulted?

Don’t you think you should have been entitled to question the validity of this trip given that Freer went last year?

Second, to the junior and middle ranking officers of Barnet council. How do you feel knowing that the budget set aside for you to improve your skills and qualifications has been used to send the chief executive to an overseas conference? Are you happy being told to accept a below inflation pay rise when the Chief Executive flies off to America without asking permission and his deputy Brian Reynolds jets down to the South of France?

The London Daily News’ source of information is an unnamed and barely literate ‘spokesman’ for Barnet Conservatives. He or she claims that Boland attended a different course to Freer. This is simply not true. If you download the programme guide from the BT web site, you will see that the document was produced in 2004. BT have been running the same course for years. If there is any doubt, let Boland and Freer produce their course notes so that we can compare them.

The spokesman says the council were not trying to hide anything. So why did they initially refuse to release the information? If they are not trying to hide anything, perhaps they will now tell us whether Boland made a second trip to America. You will recall that Mike Freer went to Boston in March 2007 and to San Francisco the following October. Did Boland also go to Frisco?

Since August 2007, the world has been sliding into recession. Everyone in the private sector has been tightening their belts. What possible justification can there be for the council to waste taxpayers money in this way?

As I have said many times, the public’s contempt for politicians is growing. It is up to the ordinary councillors in Barnet to now speak out and say “enough is enough.” The council’s Audit Committee must investigate how the chief executive was able to fly off at our expense to a conference which Freer had already attended.

I regret that my original blog contained an inaccurate statement. But I make absolutely no apology for bringing details of this obscene extravagance to the public’s attention. If councillors do not take immediate action to curb the excesses of the Executive and the chief officers then, come election time, the public will be entitled to ask what on earth is the point in voting? The gravy train departing from North London Business Park must be decommissioned forthwith.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Barnet Council slacking in pay rates

The Evening Standard has published a chart showing the pay scale for council leaders across the capital. The annual bill for London taxpayers is £28 million.

Mark Wallace, campaign director of the Taxpayers' Alliance, is quoted as saying: “This is an obscene amount of money, particularly in the middle of a recession. These very same councillors have been complaining their councils are strapped for cash, but seem to have no qualms paying themselves excessive amounts. Council leaders earning huge amounts from some of London's poorest boroughs should be particularly ashamed.”

Clearly this doesn’t apply to our very own leader Mike Freer who is only the 16th highest paid out of 32 on a miserable £47,000. Well done Mike for paying yourself such a modest amount for your part time job.

What does this video clip have to do with this story? Absolutely nothing! But it’s nice to see that Brian Coleman has taken to heart David Cameron’s message about going green!

Monday 1 December 2008

We're Doomed!

The disgraceful arrest of Conservative MP Damien Green by counter terrorism police has sent shock waves through Westminster and the whole country. Forget comparing Gordon Brown to Mr Bean. Try Robert Mugabe.

In 1642, King Charles I demanded that the Speaker of the House of Commons, William Lenthal, hand over five troublesome MPs. The Speaker stood firm and refused to tell the King of their whereabouts, arguing that he was answerable only to Parliament. Compare that to the shameful behaviour of the current incumbent, Gorballs Mick, who allowed Police to enter Parliament during a recess and ransack the office of an MP whose only crime has been to embarrass the Government by exposing their failings.

Since Tony Blair came to power in 1997 and anointed himself President, the authority of Parliament has been continuously undermined and our rights and liberties gradually eroded. David Cameron described Green’s arrest as a watershed moment and he is right.

But it is not just Parliament which Blair neutered. By virtue of the Local Government Act 2000, Town Halls are no longer run by their councillors, but by unelected officers who are unaccountable and, in many cases, simply out of control.

In Barnet, a council spokesman told the Hendon Times newspaper “there was no need to inform councillors” that Chief Executive Leo Boland had spent £1,500 of taxpayers money attending a meaningless conference in Boston.

Nor did chief officers tell councillors they were spending £14,000 of our money buying flat screen televisions for their offices.

Deputy Chief Executive Brian Reynolds took it upon himself to fly to Edinburgh for almost ten times the cost of an Easy Jet ticket. Then he flew off to the South of France on a junket.

When the council was found to have sold land illegally, the Borough Solicitor Jeff Lustig was not fired but promoted to Head of Corporate Governance.

The Borough Surveyor David Stephens was reportedly disciplined over this incident, but files uncovered by the External Auditor reveal that one month later he was quietly promoted, such is the contempt that the officers have for the councillors and public they are supposed to serve.

Worst of all, Borough Treasurer Clive Medlam, took out loans of £70 million in 2006 without the prior knowledge or approval of the council. £28 million of that money was last seen sinking somewhere off Iceland. Has he been sacked?

Far from it. Mike Freer describes Medlam in his blog as “our excellent acting Director of Resources.”

Medlam is the council officer who, in 2005, deceived Mike Freer and the Cabinet Resources Committee by producing a report seeking approval for a £60,000 increase in expenditure to cover the External Auditor’s statutory fees. This was, however, a complete fabrication. The £60,000 was actually for the legal costs of those under investigation by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which included Medlam. It seems that our most excellent Clive also forgot to mention to the committee that he was one of the beneficiaries of this money.

For failing to declare his personal and pecuniary interest, Medlam was “spoken to” by Brian Reynolds and that was deemed sufficient punishment, even though it is arguable he should have faced a criminal investigation on suspicion of obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception. I still have the e-mails from Cllrs Freer and Offord confirming that they would never have approved this expenditure had they known the truth.

Why did Freer not insist that Medlam be sacked over such a serious matter?

The answer is really rather simple. The councillors are not running the council. They only do what the officers allow them to do. Boland and his chums must go home pissing themselves laughing every night. They run the council as their personal fiefdom, pay themselves a fortune and don’t have to bother with that trifling inconvenience of standing for election every four years.

If Boland was the Chief Executive of a private company, the shareholders would have chucked him out years ago. Instead, Bonkers Boris has given him the top job at the GLA with a massive £205,000 salary.

Democracy has gone out of the window. Accountability is a long forgotten word. As Private Frazier put it so succinctly: "We're doomed, I tell ye!"