That Ratners Moment
Older readers will recall Gerard Ratner’s now infamous address to the Institute of Directors, which destroyed his credibility and nearly bankrupted the company which bore his name. Ratner said:
“We also do cut glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?” I say, because it’s total crap.”That people still talk about his speech 18 years after the event is a stark reminder of the need to choose your words carefully. The nearest political equivalent, until now, was Theresa May’s comment in 2002 that the Conservatives were the “nasty party”. Whatever her intentions, Labour and the LibDems have used that phrase time and time again in order to attack the Tories.
There is little doubt that the slogan 'easyCouncil' was coined by a smarty pants in the council’s PR department to gain national recognition for Mike Freer’s ‘Future Shape’ project and, in that respect, it has clearly succeeded. Freer’s reputation has taken quite a battering recently with the £28 million Icelandic banks scandal and the £11 million Aerodrome Road bridge overspend. With a General Election just eight months away, he needed to do something to give his fledgling campaign a boost. The question is, has it backfired?
EasyCouncil is being discussed in the mainstream media - newspapers, TV and radio - as well as across the blogosphere, but the general consensus, from the right as well as the left, is that the analogy with easyJet and Ryanair has left the council open to ridicule.
Budget airlines are hugely popular for their no frills service. And that is the problem for Barnet because, when it comes to public services, people don’t want cheap and cheerful schools, social services or road repairs. They want the very best.
The council has failed to understand the difference between driving down costs through greater efficiency and saving money by providing an inferior service. But the proof that easyCouncil is nothing more than a gimmick comes from two contrasting statements made on the same day last week. Council Leader Mike Freer said:
“We would be daft not to look at other successful business models such as Ryanair. You might not like Ryanair but you cannot deny they have shaken up the airline industry and made the costs of their products very transparent.”Whereas his press office were saying:
“The Council is not proposing to base its future model of operation on the business model of budget airline.”What is certain is that the opposition will use the sobriquet ‘easyCouncil’, not as a term of endearment, but as a stick to attack the Conservatives’ record on public services.
Most politicians have come to realise that voters are sick and tired of their elected representatives sticking their snouts ever deeper into the public trough - especially in the midst of the worst recession in modern times. But Cllr Melvin Cohen seems impervious to the public criticism of his new allowance of almost £7,500 for chairing just four meetings of the Constitutional Review Committee.
Cllr Cohen told the Barnet Times that it was the Independent Review Panel which granted the allowance, not him. But it was Melvin Cohen who decided to accept it. Cllr Cohen said:
“Each committee meeting entails reading through masses of paper, double-sided and in small print. Each committee involves three or four hours of reading and preparatory work.”Perhaps Melvin has forgotten that SRA stands for Special Responsibility Allowance, not Special Reading Allowance. All councillors are expected to read their papers as part of their normal duties. Why should the public pay councillors nearly £470 an hour just to read?
To make matters worse, in the same week that Cllr Cohen’s inflation busting rise was reported, the council also announced that it was slashing nearly £11,000 from the budget for children’s community service grants.
Dozens of voluntary and community groups will now have their budgets reduced or stopped altogether. The public does understand that in the current economic climate, money is tight and the council has to tighten its belt, but to cut these grants whilst giving Melvin Cohen an obscene pay rise is truly despicable - and mean.
It begs the question as to whether councillors have a death wish or are simply detached from reality?
Where is Prince Charles?
A row appears to be brewing between Mike Freer and Brian Coleman. Despite seizing office on a promise to end massive over development in the borough, Cllr Freer has backed plans for the regeneration of Brent Cross which includes 7,500
“It's the best way we have for investing £4 billion in that part of the borough. It allows Brent Cross to retain its pre-eminent status as a shopping centre.”But Brian Coleman, who in his capacity as GLA member for Barnet & Camden has frequently spoken out against monstrous carbuncles, does not agree. He told the Standard:
“I think it is appalling. Where is Prince Charles when you need him?”
The week ahead
On Thursday, the Standards Sub-Committee will be meeting to consider whether to uphold the ruling by the Independent Investigator that Brian Coleman breached the Members Code of Conduct when he sent Rog T an e-mail calling him an obsessive poisonous liar.
Coleman told the Investigator:
"My defence is not that this was a moment of anger and temper but I actually stand by and I would repeat everything I have said in the e-mail to Mr Tichborne. It was not a momentary lapse of judgement." (emphasis added)This neatly sums up Mr Coleman’s arrogant contempt for the Members Code of Conduct. If he had said: “I was tired. It was a tough day in the office. I replied without thinking and, with hindsight, shouldn’t have responded in that way,” then arguably the case against him might have collapsed. But he is actually proud of what he said.
If you are an elected politician, you have to accept that the public will sometimes attack you, criticise you and try to make your life difficult. That is part of the job. But if you are incapable of responding in measured and courteous terms, irrespective of the provocation you feel you may have suffered, then a career in public life is clearly not for you.
In next week’s edition
Should Conservatives vote for Nigel Farage or John Bercow at the General Election?