Saturday 31 January 2009

Couch Potato Councillors

Since coming to power in 1997, Labour has consistently undermined our public institutions with its complete and utter contempt for democracy and accountability. Once respected, politicians are now reviled by the public as nothing more than money grabbing opportunists.

So it was with a sense of utter disbelief to read that the Government is pressing ahead with plans to allow councillors to claim their fat allowances without even having to bother to turn up at the Town Hall and vote. This is despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of those consulted oppose the proposals, although undoubtedly a few councillors will welcome the opportunity to vote by text whilst stuffing themselves at a freebie dinner working hard for local residents.

Conservative local government spokesman Caroline Spellman said “At a time when council tax bills are to hit £120 a month and people are working harder than ever to make ends meet, it is incredible that Labour ministers are effectively pushing for some councilors to do less work for more money.”

Politicians are already seen as arrogant and aloof. Remote voting by text or internet is hardly likely to counter that perception. With the country in the grips of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, you would think the Government had better things to do than meddle with local democracy. Or has Gordon already finished saving the world?

Friday 30 January 2009

Sir Roger Tichborne

Barnet’s premier and most prolific blogger is Rog T (sorry Statler & Waldorf, but you have been knocked off your perch. Too much cheap supermarket sherry has clearly been the ruin of you!)

Our Rog has secured his legacy by having a pub named after him in Billingshurst, West Sussex.

The cellar is currently being excavated - presumably to create a sound proof studio -and the grand re-opening is scheduled for 1st April.

How about free drinks on opening night for our poor hard pressed councillors, Rog?

Wednesday 28 January 2009

What value is Brian Coleman?

No stranger to controversy, Brian Coleman, has launched an astonishing attack on Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

In front of television cameras and journalists a packed chamber, Coleman today asked a stunned BoJo to explain the cost of his “envoys, or consular generals and ambassadors.” He wanted to know what “added value” his appointments had brought London.

Many taxpayers have similarly been asking what value Brian Coleman brings to London. Let’s look at the facts.

As a member of the GLA, Coleman receives a basic allowance of £50,582

Add to this his Special Responsibility Allowance as Chairman of the London Fire & Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) - £25,612.50

Add his basic Barnet Council allowance - £9,735

Add his Barnet Council cabinet allowance - £17,036

Grand Total: £102,965.50 a year

Or £1,980.10 a week - Ker-ching!!!

And this is before taking into account his “expenses”.

With Barnet’s council tax set to rise by three times the rate of inflation (as measured by Mike Freer’s preferred Retail Price Index), and thousands of people across the Capital losing their jobs, Londoner’s are indeed entitled to ask precisely what value Coleman brings to London?

Friday 23 January 2009

Lies, damned lies and council statistics

For years, governments and councils have used and manipulated statistics to suit their needs. One of the best examples of this practice is the index used to measure inflation. Sometimes politicians use the Retail Price Index (RPI) and at other times its the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Two weeks ago, Barnet council leader Mike Freer announced that this year’s increase in council tax would be 2.81%. He proudly announced that this was lower than the rate of inflation. But is it?

Last year, in the booklet sent to all households, Freer said: “Barnet Council is committed to delivering high-quality, value for money services without imposing excessive Council Tax increases. Although no authority received a lower increase in grant from central government we have again restricted Council Tax increase to below the Retail Price Index rate of inflation.”

So for Barnet, Mike relies on the RPI index. But latest figures show that the RPI inflation figure is currently 0.9%, with many economists expecting it to fall further in the months ahead. As things stand, the proposed council tax increase is therefore more than three times the rate of inflation!

Freer’s financial reputation, already damaged by the Icelandic banking fiasco, is now in tatters.

He needs to go back to the drawing board and find ways to make significant budget savings to reduce costs and expenditure so that the headline rate can be cut by a further 2%.

If he fails, then Cllr Freer's claim to have delivered a below inflation increase will be just another damned lie.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Obama sends a message to British MPs

This article has been updated. See below.

No country epitomises freedom more than America. In the Presidential election campaign, both candidates published their tax returns for all to see. Compare that with the rather disgraceful proposal by the British Government to change the Freedom of Information laws, to exclude themselves from the Act’s provisions.

Last year the Government lost a High Court battle which required MPs to disclose details of their expense claims. Rather than comply with the Court ruling, the Government is now proposing retrospective legislation, backdated to 2005, to quash previous FOI requests, and to prevent future requests.

In his inauguration speech, President Obama said: “Those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

In the real world, employees are required to submit expense receipts to their employers. Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life said: “MPs should not claim money from the public purse if they are not prepared to have those claims opened up to the public.”

An internet campaign is now underway to encourage people to write to their MPs and tell them what they think about the Government's proposals. The vote takes place this Thursday and I will publish the result on this blog.

You can contact your MP through the web site or alternatively write to them directly:

Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet)

Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

Rudi Vis (Finchley & Golders Green)

Barnet councillors Mike Freer (Conservative) and Alison Moore (Labour) and Haringey councillor Laura Edge (LibDem) are all standing for Finchley & Golders Green at the next election. Cllr Matthew Offord is standing for the Conservatives in Hendon. Perhaps they can all post messages here telling us how they would vote if they were the MPs today.

Update 22.01.09: Following a probing question from Conservative MP Douglas Carswell at Prime Minster’s Questions yesterday, Gordon Brown was forced into a humiliating climb down and abandoned plans to exempt MPs from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr Carswell is an exceptional Member of Parliament for whom the title “Honourable Member” is well deserved.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Tomb Tax Trashed

This article has been updated. See below.

Plans to increase children’s burial charges by 10% were sensationally shelved at last night’s Cabinet Resources Committee, following a campaign led by Barnet Council Watch.

The official reason given by leader Mike Freer is that the report had not been signed off by the appropriate Cabinet member (Brian Coleman) who had asked for the item to be dropped pending further discussions with officers.

Mr Stuart Murray, Director of Planning Housing & Regeneration, told the committee: “We are trying to ensure that…our fees and charges are reasonable….whilst also maximising income for the council in terms of its proper budget management approach.”

Shouldn’t the objective of a Conservative council be to minimise expenditure rather than maximise income? Mr Murray - the man who doesn’t like suburbs - appears to be very off message.

Be that as it may, this is a stunning victory for citizen journalism. Those who scoff and scorn at bloggers will ignore this u-turn by the council at their peril.

Power to the people!

UPDATE: According to the Barnet Times, Cllr Coleman says that officers “failed to alert him” about these charges but the report was made public on 6th January, so why did it take nearly 2 weeks for him to do something?

Now he says that the council will be looking for an inflation linked charge.

But the council is freezing charges for weddings and civil partnerships. If they can afford to do this, why not for children’s funerals too? Could it be because dead children don’t have a vote?

Monday 19 January 2009

Four Weddings and a Funeral

The council officer responsible for investing £28 million in Iceland has, in consultation with council leader Mike Freer, announced revised charges for weddings and civil partnerships.

I am often accused of writing only negative stories about the council, so I am delighted to report the good news that there will be no increase whatsoever in any of these charges this year.

The Conservative Party believes that a stable family unit is the bedrock of civilised society and it is therefore to be welcomed that Barnet Council will not make it more expensive for those thinking of tying the knot.

Although the report does not provide details, it is a reasonable assumption that the number of people getting married each year, far exceeds the number of children under 3 who are buried. So if the council can afford to maintain charges for those getting married, why can it not do the same for the families of those whose lives were tragically cut short?

This matter will be discussed tonight at the Cabinet Resources Committee.

Let us hope that the members of the committee will do the right thing and abolish or freeze the burial fees for children which are set to rise by 10%.

Saturday 17 January 2009

The Return Of The Beast?

It is being predicted that David Cameron will give Ken Clarke a place in the shadow Cabinet in his forthcoming reshuffle. Some right wingers, including the redoubtable John Redwood, are reported to be against his appointment because of Clarke’s Europhile tendencies.

However, most Tories acknowledge that with Peter Mandleson now effectively running the country, they need a big hitter on their team, and they don’t come much bigger than cuddly Ken!

Conservatives opposed to Clarke must look at the wider picture. We need to get back into power before Labour totally bankrupts this country. Ken Clarke appeals to voters of all political colours - and of none. People like him because he is a good bloke and talks their language. If anyone can put Labour’s Prince of Darkness into the shade, it’s Clarke.

So the sooner he is brought back into the fray the better. Being in the shadow Cabinet does not mean that he will automatically become a Minister in the next Conservative government. Once victory is secured, a loyal lieutenant can always stab him in the back to get rid of him. I’m sure there must be someone in the Tory ranks capable of such a Machiavellian deed.

Open letter to the Cabinet Resources Committee

Update 10:40, 19 January 2009

The Leader of the Council has refused to allow my open letter below be circulated to members of the Cabinet Resources Committee. Instead it has been referred to the Cabinet Members responsible for their consideration.


Dear Members of the Cabinet Resources Committee

Item 11 on your Agenda seeks your approval for revised fees and charges for the Planning, Housing and Regeneration Directorate. I respectfully draw your attention to Appendix D which relates to cemetery and crematorium fees.

The proposed increases are all substantially in excess of the rate of inflation (with one minor exception). The increase for young children’s grave charges is the highest at 10%, with interment fees set to rise significantly also.

It is hard to imagine anything more distressing for a parent than to bury a child and whilst there is obviously a cost to the Borough in arranging burials, I implore you to show compassion to what must be a relatively small number of families and to waive these charges completely or, at the very least, keep them at the current level.

It is generally accepted across the political spectrum that some public services cannot run at a profit or in accordance with the normal ‘rules’ of supply and demand. This is just such a situation and one which I hope you will agree merits public subsidy.

The report before you does not state how much money the proposed increases will raise, but in terms of the council’s total annual income it must be a miniscule amount. I therefore urge you to be sympathetic unto those mourning their loved ones, find savings in other parts of the budget which is still under consideration, and accordingly reject the recommendation before you.

Yours sincerely

David Miller

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Pay more to bury your children because Reynolds is off to the sun again

Brian Coleman was interviewed by Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 last week. He repeated that well known truism: “The only certainty in life is death and taxes.” Unfortunately, in Barnet, the cost of dying is about to get a bit more expensive.

Next week the Cabinet Resources Committee will be discussing a recommendation to increase burial charges by 10% for children under 3 years of age. It is hard to imagine anything more tragic than parents having to bury a child. But for Barnet Council it is simply a money making opportunity.

Barnet proudly boasts that the increase in council tax is lower than the rate of inflation yet interment fees for stillborn children will rise by 7.84% which is considerably higher.

David Cameron has spent three years trying to create an image of caring Conservatism, but nobody in Barnet Town Hall appears to have read the script.

At the same time, the attendee list for the MIPIM property junket in the South of France has been announced and, once again, Acting Chief Executive Brian Reynolds (pictured hard left) will be going. Regular readers of this blog will recall I have previously written about his attendance at this pointless jolly.

Tickets for delegates cost £1,300 each (inc VAT). Then add the cost of flights, the luxury hotel (they don’t do cheap in Cannes), gourmet restaurants etc and suddenly it’s a lot of our money down the drain.

We are in the midst of a long and deep recession. Barnet residents are concerned for their jobs and are tightening their belts. Pensioners are having to dip into their savings to pay their council tax bills because interest rates have collapsed. Yet the public sector arrogantly and contemptuously thinks that it is immune from the realities of the real world.

Mike Freer once claimed that he would be ruthless on cost cutting. Well prove it Mike and tell Reynolds that he can’t go. Tell him that if he seriously wants to be considered for the job of Chief Executive, then he needs to act responsibly in these difficult times and stay in his office and do some real work.

And while you are at it, tell your Cabinet colleagues that if they dare approve the plans to raise burial charges for children, the public will not forgive them.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

Snouts In The Trough

I am grateful to one of my readers who alerted me to a fascinating web site which helps people to submit Freedom of Information requests to any public authority.

In response to a question from a member of the public, Barnet Council published details of councillor expenses for the current financial year 2008/09.

In 2007/08 council leader Mike Freer claimed £47,082. According to the latest figures, Mr Freer’s allowances for the current year 2008/09 are £51,109 - almost £1,000 per week. This is a rise of more than 8.5% - far and away in excess of the rate of inflation.

But in percentage terms, it pales into insignificance when compared to Lynne Hillan (pictured right), who hopes to take over from Freer when he steps down as leader later this year. Her Barnet allowances rose from £30,298 to £34,559 - a thumping increase of more than 14%!

Brian Coleman, no stranger to controversy, saw his Barnet council allowances rise by a modest 1% from £26,498 to £26,771. Deputy Leader Matthew Offord’s increased by 1.4% from £35,998 to £36,506.

Some councillors saw their allowances drop, so it would be unfair to say that all of them are greedy. But councillors must demonstrate to the public precisely what they do for the money. It is not sufficient for them to say “we could earn five times as much in the private sector.” No you couldn’t, otherwise you would be there doing it.

The economy is in terrible shape and we expect our leaders to lead by example and tighten their belts. We will soon know how much councillors propose to pay themselves from March. After the inflation busting increases given to Cllrs Freer and Hillan last year, is it too much to hope they will follow the example of some of their colleagues and take a cut?

Friday 9 January 2009

Idiots Guide To The Budget

The Budget Headlines Report, presented to the Cabinet on 6th January, was written by the Chief Financial Officer Clive Medlam - the man who failed to declare his personal interest when duping the Cabinet Resources Committee into agreeing to pay for his legal costs as part of the Underhill investigation.

Included in the report was a Glossary of Terms. Perhaps Mr Medlam thinks the Cabinet are too stupid to understand the lingo?

Mr Medlam helpfully explains that the Chief Finance Officer is “The corporate officer responsible for managing the financial risks of an organisation. Also responsible for financial planning and the communication of financial performance and forecasts.” (emphasis added)

Clive Medlam is the officer who signed for £70 million of loans in 2006 and then invested £27.4 million of the money in Iceland. Based on Medlam’s own definition of his job, he is the man responsible for all of this.

Mr Medlam was also responsible for “the communication of financial performance.” In other words, it was his job to tell the Cabinet Member for Resources, Mike Freer, who claims to have known nothing about these investments.

So either Medlam was grossly negligent in failing to tell Freer what he was doing with the money, in which case he should be sacked, or Freer is being economical with the actualité as to what he knew and when he knew it.

Mr Medlam hasn’t been sacked. Draw your own conclusions.

Thursday 8 January 2009

Mike Freer Wins An Award!

Congratulations to Mike Freer, leader of Barnet Council, who has been named Banker of the Year by Private Eye magazine in their Rotten Boroughs Awards 2008.

The citation reads: "One man who raised cluelessness to an art form was the Tory leader of the London borough of Barnet, Mike Freer. He told councillors that he couldn’t be blamed for the council losing £27.4m in dodgy Icelandic banks because he had never bothered to review the council’s investments. Ever. And in a former life he used to be, er, a banker. Quite.”

Well done Manuel Mike. We are all so proud of you.

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Lollipop ladies face the axe in budget cuts

Barnet’s Cabinet meets tonight to discuss the budget. One of the proposals is to axe school crossing patrols to save £75,000.

The council expects schools to pay for this service themselves. With what precisely? Their budgets are already stretched to breaking point.

School Governors will be faced with the unenviable choice of either cutting something from their own budgets or going without the lollipop ladies and men.

I fully support attempts by the council to cut costs, but to do so at the risk of children’s safety and education is immoral and nothing short of electoral suicide.

There are so many other ways to reduce costs without affecting front line services - cutting Councillors’ Special Responsibility Allowances (SRAs) being top of the list. In 2007/08 (current figures not yet available), 22 councillors received multiple allowances, despite the recommendation by the London Councils Executive Committee that no councillor should receive more than one SRA.

In 2007, Barnet Council actually voted to remove the cap on allowances, allowing Mike Freer to claim an additional SRA.

Councillors allowances cost the taxpayer more than £1 million last year. In the real world, people are having to tighten their belts during the economic crisis. It’s time for our leaders to set an example, take a small cut in their allowances and save this service.

If the council had not gambled £28 million of our money in Iceland, wasted £1.4 million on near obsolete computers (many of which are now in storage unused), or £14,000 on televisions for chief officers, or £1,750 sending the Acting Chief Executive to the South of France, they would not now be faced with the need to cut essential frontline services.

However, there is one small glimmer of hope. The council needs the agreement of the Schools Forum to charge schools for the crossing patrols. I don’t know who the members of this forum are, but I urge you all to reject this dangerous and stingy proposal out of hand.

Saturday 3 January 2009

Council Tax to rise 2.81%

Brian Coleman recently wrote in his Barnet Press column: "As for New Year's resolutions for both the country and individuals - it should be to reduce debt and live within our means". I agree with that entirely. But for thousands of families in Barnet, especially pensioners, that task is made a little bit harder with the news that Mike Freer is proposing to raise Council Tax by 2.81%.

This figure is disclosed in his Budget Headlines Report, which will be discussed by the Cabinet on Tuesday. Regular readers of this blog will know that the discussion will amount to no more than adulation for our glorious leader and supine acceptance of his proposals.

Given that no councillor banged the gong more enthusiastically than Freer for zero tax rises, his failure to deliver once in the top job is a bitter disappointment to those who previously supported him.

The rise is being kept down to “only” 2.81% because the council is taking £1 million from reserves, otherwise it would have been 3.49%. The Borough Treasurer’s report states that any drawing from reserves has to be repaid next year. So just as the Labour government is shamelessly mortgaging our future for the sake of Gordon Brown’s political career, Mike Freer is seemingly following suit to improve his election chances. It won’t worry him that council tax will rise in 2010 by more than would otherwise be the case because by then he won’t be leader any more. It will be his colleagues who have to pick up the pieces.

The Borough Treasurer, Clive Medlam, reports that reserves have fallen 16% in the last year which makes the decision to draw a further £1 million even more reckless. Who can forget when the Conservatives lambasted the previous Labour/LibDem Administration for running down the reserves in 2002?

Medlam has also repeated his warning that the level of borrowing the council has incurred since 2004 cannot be sustained indefinitely. By 2010/11 it will be costing us £13 million a year in repayments.

What is particularly interesting about this comment is that it was Medlam who borrowed £70 million in 2006, £28 million of which is now missing somewhere in Iceland. Mike Freer has claimed ignorance regarding these loans, but is it credible that the Chief Financial Officer would be borrowing such vast sums of money whilst simultaneously issuing warnings about the council’s debt level, without the Leader knowing?

No doubt the council will boast that this latest rise in council tax is below the rate of inflation, and indeed it is…for now, at least. But it is a double whammy for pensioners who have previously relied on investment income to help pay their living costs. They will be forced to dip into their capital to pay this tax rise as the income from their savings dries up due to falling interest rates, thereby eroding their capital further.

But the bad news does not end there. According to the appendix to the report, council tax will rise by a further 3.5% every year from 2010 to 2013. Given that inflation is set to fall drastically this year - with deflation a distinct possibility - it is time for the real Conservatives on Barnet Council to wrest control of the budget from the Brownite Freer and instil some tough fiscal disciplines, so that zero tax rise becomes a reality and not a leadership election gimmick.