Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The damage done, Or: The King of Bling has left the building

I arrived late for the extraordinary Barnet Council meeting at Hendon Town Hall this evening, but found a seat in the overflow room with other tardy members of the public. On the end wall, like a painting over a grand fireplace, was a screen showing a sort of bird's eye view of the Barnet Council chamber where the session was in progress. A pigeon in the rafters sort of view of the proceedings.

When I arrived Labour councillor Kath McGuirk was speaking to the Labour Group's motion of no confidence in Tory Leader Richard Cornelius.

With 22 votes to the Tories' 37, Labour couldn't win this vote, not even with the tenuous support of the 3 Lib Dems, but it was important to put this motion to challenge Cornelius's 'One Barnet' programme.

Lib Dem Lord Monroe Palmer laid into the mass outsourcing plan as well, and he is the chair of Barnet Council's Audit Committee so he knows full well about the council's recent bad record in procurement and contract management.

The vote was taken and Labour lost (Brian Coleman abstained, for the record), but in the debate some good arguments were made. Unfortunately, I had not heard most of them and will have to wait for the video footage, that I'm sure Barnet's citizen filmers are editing as I type, to see it.

After a break, and the extraordinary council meeting being over, the ordinary council meeting began.

There were a lot of questions to the executive, raced through. Then there was another break. Public and councillors milled about in the corridors.

Earlier in the evening, I understand, the Conservative Group had met and kicked Brian Coleman out of their number. I'm not sure quite how this works; he was suspended by the national party last week. But I know Coleman wasn't happy about this latest rejection. In the break he was having a row with Cllr Anthony Finn, who is replacing Coleman in some of his committee positions, in a side room. I was too busy looking for a lost telephone, twitching about behind the velvet curtains, to hear what was said, but I know that Coleman was basically accusing Finn of betraying him.

When the council meeting re-convened, Coleman was not in the council chamber. (He is still a councillor until the electors of Totteridge boot him out in 2014. I wonder how delighted they feel about that.)

I know, as Richard Cornelius is always reminding us, that Coleman is innocent until proven guilty. But whatever about his impending trial, this evening's council meeting was a curious showcase of just how disruptive one individual can be.

A large part of the evening was given over to a Labour motion for some periods of free parking in Barnet's high streets at Christmas time. This has to be done to help mend the damage done to local trading by Barnet's disastrous meddling with the parking regime, hiking prices, and removing parking meters so that shoppers have to pay by mobile. Of course, Coleman was the architect of this policy.

Today it was announced that the Council, thanks to the sterling campaigning efforts of Cafe Buzz owner Helen Michael, is introducing various measures to try and woo shoppers back to the shops in North Finchley, and during the evening they announced that they were talking with the shopkeepers of other high streets in Barnet.

Throughout all of this Brian Coleman sat nibbling his fingers and taking no part - for he is now without a group or responsibility - only taking an active part in the proceedings during question time (when he seemed to have asked an inordinate number of questions!).

Later in the evening, after he had left, there was an item of business reporting on how Brian Coleman had - finally, late and grudingly - paid the penalties handed to him by the Standards Board for insulting two Barnet residents by email. Another Brian Coleman sour misdeed.

And, finally, near the end of the evening, again without him there to hear it, it was announced who would replace Coleman as chair of the various committees that he was still in charge of, and that - the greatest ignominy for him personally, I imagine - he was no longer to be considered as a part of the Conservative group.

Alison Moore, Labour Group Leader, was quick to ask whether the Tory Group being lighter by one member would impact on the allocation of committee places, which is done in proportion to the groups' numbers. The Director of Corporate Governance, the soon-to-be retiring Jeff Lustig, said he would look into it.

So the evening was punctuated by reminders of the damage that Brian Coleman has done to the lives of Barnet residents and to the reputation of the Barnet Tory Party.

The Barnet Tories might be happy to be rid of him, but how will they fare now he is merely a glowering presence on the fringes of their group? To be honest, I think they will still fare ill. There was plenty of evidence of it tonight.

A number of residents had arrived to hear the Labour motion for the Council to re-open Friern Barnet Library, or at least to negotiate with campaigners. The motion talked about the fiasco of the now-never-to-be Landmark Library at the Arts Depot which Robert Rams, the Cabinet member responsible, has now admitted is not going to happen. Rams continually blamed the Arts Depot for the failure of negotiations around the library.

He said talks had been going well, when Arts Depot management seemed for some reason he could not understand to have changed their minds.

It strikes me that you are a very poor politician indeed when you are in charge of the libraries in a major London borough but can't hold an adult conversation with the management of the local arts venue.

When I first heard that the Landmark Library had fallen through, I tweeted Robert Rams that the attitude of Barnet Council when they cut the borough's fairly small grant to the Arts Depot had probably soured relations. The Council sat and watched as the Arts Depot management had to cast about to plug the gap in their finances. Now, is it any wonder if the Arts Depot don't feel like pulling Robert Rams's chestnuts out of the fire?

On a personal note, I found this evening dis-spiriting. The public gallery had mostly all left through ennui by the end, even though major crimes against justice and reason continued to be committed in the council chamber.

When the motion was put to approve the appointment of Andrew Travers to replace the scurvy knave Nick Walkley as Chief Executive I couldn't help reminding people loudly that the Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles regards people like Andrew Travers as 'town hall tax dodgers', because they have been employed long-term as personal contractors rather than being on the payroll, which incurs higher taxes.

As the meeting broke up a few people smiled indulgently at me, the mad loon who can't refrain from shouting from the public gallery when things get too much for her. I felt quite embarrassed about my outburst. Later on, around a table in the Lido noodle bar, it was pointed out to me that Travers had been sat at the front of the council chamber and heard it all when I publicly impugned his character. And suddenly I felt a whole lot better.

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