Monday, 11 August 2014

The King's Highway, or: Paint it White, #2 - another summer time scandal in Broken Barnet

 

 

 

“So long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King's highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him -- pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?”

 

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

 

Readers, take note.

 

The second of Mrs Angry's delphic prophesies is born, as predicted, in the midst, as we are, of the summer storms of August, delivered like a fearful omen, hidden from view by our scheming council, smothered like an unwanted heir to the evil empire - and smuggled out of the corporate palace of North London Business Park, before the mob has heard the news.


Yes: following on from the outrageous preliminary response by the council to the matter of the allegations regarding the activities of our Tory Mayor, Hugh Rayner, (see previous post),news has slipped out of the other  'investigation' which was promised into the disgraceful matter of the Tory Highways budget. 

 

This scandalous affair, revealed by Mrs Angry, emerged from a series of FOI rquests and demonstrated that Councillor Dean Cohen, when Cabinet member for Environment, changed the rules of equal allocation of Highways funding, gave himself the power to approve all expenditure - and then approved the handout of one million pounds to his own ward, in the run up to the election, and nothing at all to the Labour ward of Colindale, and generous amounts to other Tory wards ... and rather less than generous amounts to other Labour wards.

 

If you recall, the attempts by Mrs Angry and then the Labour group, to raise this matter with the external auditors at Grant Thornton was met with the usual rebuff, and referred back to the council itself for 'investigation'. No need for independent scrutiny, or 'audit' by the 'external auditors', see? Let the party involved examine its own behaviour - or pay someone else to.


Someone else, in this case, it transpires, was a law firm by the name of Sharpe Pritchard, who were asked by HB Public Law, Barnet's own legal services partnership with Harrow, to undertake, well, not an investigation, in fact , a 'review'. The findings of this review were released, very quietly, on Friday, when they hoped no one would be looking, under the guise of a remarkably low key report from the Monitoring Officer.

 

The terms of reference of this 'review' were as follows:


• Consider the process of decision-making in relation to highways expenditure within
Barnet Council in the light of the issues raised in the email from Cllr Alison Moore to
Grant Thornton LLP of 30th May.


• Advise on whether that decision-making has been undertaken lawfully and in
accordance with the Council’s constitution.


• If the advice is that the decision-making process has in any way been unlawful or a
breach of the Council’s constitution has occurred, advise on the steps which should
now be taken by the Council as a result of this.


You can see the rather limited findings of this 'review' here:  

 

http://barnet.moderngov.co.uk/ieDecisionDetails.aspx?Id=5304 

 

The minimal response of the limited findings, in fact, is frankly rather puzzling, considering the length of time it took to produce. 

 

It is up to the Labour group to respond to the first seven points, but what is of real interest begins here, at Point 8, in which the allegation was:


8. The allocations disproportionately benefited
the Cabinet Member’s own ward with the
highest allocation of resources over the year,
and the second highest number of schemes
for the additional funding


Response:


The programme is based on priority
need following technical inspection
of the highway. Detailed evidence
can be provided of the inspection
process. It is worth pointing out that
roads can deteriorate between
annual inspections and therefore
may have to be prioritised.


Bsed on priority need? 

 

This is simply not true. Not if you define the word 'need', in this context, as one objectively assessed and free from political or personal consideration, that is.


One of the Freedom of Information responses to requests made by Mrs Angry was for copies of correspondence between Dean Cohen and highways officers in regard to Golders Green ward over the previous two years. 

 

Despite some emails having been deleted, there were enough supplied in the response to prove that Cllr Cohen was in the habit of directly contacting officers and making strong representations about his residents perceived needs - in his own area of the ward. 

 

Let us remind everyone that one road alone in this area, ie Princes Park Avenue, had in two years  more than some opposition held wards were allocated in entirety - the wards represented by the Labour leader, and the Libdem leader, for example.


This disproportionate expenditure, we are invited to believe, was merely because there was a greater need in the Environment member's ward. Need of what, exactly? Road and pavement repairs, or votes?


Ah, but Mrs Angry, if there was need in any other ward, any other Labour or Libdem ward, that is, then those councillors should have asked for pavements to be repaired, and their roads to be mended.


Erm: but they did, and nothing happened.


Ask Arjun Mittra, in East Finchley. Ask Gill Sargeant, in Colindale. Excuse after excuse was given, while the work that needed doing in their wards was sidelined. In Mrs Angry's Labour held ward, vital safety work took a year to be implemented - and was only agreed in the first place because Mrs Angry is Mrs Angry and wrote about it endlessly, and lobbied hard for it, over a period of years, following a fatal accident.

 

Compare this reluctance to carry out basic, essential maintenance and renewal work with the accommodation expected by Councillor Cohen from his officers in regard to his own ward ... 

 

Don't take Mrs Angry's word for it, read the damn emails in the FOI response. 

 

They're all published on the council's website, you know, FOIs, in line with the Chief Operating Officer's much vaunted declaration that the default mode of Barnet Council is 'open government'.

 

Ah. Oh ...

 

Of course Mrs Angry can't quite find the link to the publication of the rather revealing correspondence response.  How odd. Shurely some mistake?


But the correspondence is fascinating: read the emails, for example, between Councillor Cohen and Steve Holdaway, Associate Director Highways for Capita. 

 

Ah, yes: Capita. Awfully obliging, is their Mr Holdaway, in regard to Golders Green ward.

 

There appears to be an easy process of communication between our Dean, and Steve, in fact. Hi Steve! 

 

This was on the 27th April, ie the period just before the election, when there seemed to be a flurry of activity, and a concerted effort to get jobs done.

 

 

 Steve's response, first thing next day:

 

 

Plenty of reminders for officers, from the Cabinet member for Environment, should they be slow to respond. 

 

7th May, for example: 'This was the issues I was referring to in my earlier telephone conversation', is a typically ungrammatical response from our councillor, to another hapless highways employee.

 

 The officer promises to attend to it by the next day. Oh dear: by the 9th, Councillor Cohen is obliged to point out a couple of repairs that have, tut tut, still not been done.

 

Rather amusing is the email 'accidentally' sent to Cohen by  our man from Capita, piously suggesting they should thank him for his interest: 

 

 

The territory of Princes Park Avenue, in Councillor Cohen's ward, is clearly one fraught with almost unimaginable terrors and hidden danger for those daring to walk its length and breadth:  this must be why it is so expensive to maintain. 

 

Take for example the horrifying occurrence of a damaged kerb, hastily attended to in March by the council's emergency response team, after this shocking matter was raised by Cllr Cohen. 

 

Admire the logistical coordination of Dean Cohen's strategy for immediate action,  a military style policy of zero tolerance of cracked or chipped paving stones. Zero tolerance in PPA, that is. 

 

In January, residents report an alarming case, a 'matter of urgency' of not one, but two cracks in the new paving: cracks and chips, in fact.

 

 

 

After intervention by Cohen, officers immediately agreed to replace the slabs.

 

In March, a disgruntled resident wrote to express his disgust at the appearance of a crack in a nice new paving stone outside his house, after he has only been driving over it for two days. Driving over it? Hardly surprising, then, is it? (Note that elsewhere in the correspondence, all hell breaks loose and officers despatched to take action when another resident complains about damage caused by what is deemed 'anti-social parking' on pavements, but by a lorry company, not residents.)

 

 

A million pounds on such emergencies is not something that anyone could begrudge, is it? Yes, it is true that at this time, in Councillor Cohen's own ward, Mapledown School for disabled children had to have its respite care facilities threatened with closure due to cuts approved by our Tory councillors, in an amount of funding that was a fraction of the cost of replacing all the paving stones of Princes Park Avenue. 


At the time of the outcry over these cuts of course, it was a Golders Green councillor Reuben Thompstone, who was Cabinet member for schools, and was responsible for the budget being slashed. He admitted he had never visited Mapledown: Mrs Angry understands the same is true for Dean Cohen, and his father. Mapledown, of course, is in the other side of the ward, the poorer side, with social housing, and ... Labour voters. The roads on that side didn't see much of the million pound bonus, you should know. 

 

And anyway: pavements are more important than support for disabled children and their parents, aren't they?

 

Some may feel all that Cohen's badgering of officers and eagerness to please his residents, and haste to implement the work in the last few weeks before the election is simply an example of a councillor doing his job, but of course it is not that simple. Ask Labour Councillor Mittra how many times he has asked about long standing repairs in his own ward, to no avail, for example?

 

Because of course this exemplary service, rolled out to the fortunate residents of the Environment Member's own ward, does not extend to the enquiries of residents in every other ward in the borough, who are not lucky enough to have the attentions of the councillor who controls the allocation of funding, and is in charge of the officers who implement the works requested. 

 

Let's say it again: such tender care of the 'needs' of one area of his own ward, the area in which he himself resides, came at a cost, in the pre-election year, of a staggering £1 million, and clearly was paid for by the lack of expenditure in less favoured, Labour voting wards.


And the pattern of expenditure shows quite unequivocably that residents of Labour held wards are not extended the same privileges as the residents of Conservative held wards: there is effectively a system of financial apartheid in the way expenditure is distributed.

 

Let's return to the council's commissioned review,and Labour's allegation regarding this issue

 

10. Over the last 4 years the profile of spend
appears to be significantly more in
administration held wards compared with
opposition held wards (see attached officer
briefing note).

 

Response:

 

This is a way of analysing the spend,
however, it has not been allocated
on a ward basis as clearly roads are
not always contained within ward
boundaries.

 

Meh, in other words. This is a way of analysing the spend says the review, dismissively... a way? No, this is the only way, based on clear evidence.

 

To try to divert attention from this glaringly obvious truth, the review attempts to distract by fatuously claiming the disproportionate expenditure is due to roads not being contained within ward boundaries.

 

I think you will find that Princes Park Avenue is contained within the boundary of Golders Green Ward, and yet received, let us say it again, more in two years than many opposition held wards were given in that period for their entire budgets

 

This sort of facile assertion, in my view, completely compromises the objectivity and fairness of this 'review', and demands that the findings must be robustly challenged. But it fades into insignificance when we reach the conclusion drawn by the 'investigator', as you will see below. Let us continue.

 

Another point raised by Labour:


15. 2013/14 was an election year, and many of
the schemes were progressed very close to
the local elections.


Response:


The funding for the additional works
came from the improved financial
offer from the two outsourcing
projects (DRS and NSCSO). The
outsourcing projects had themselves
been delayed by the judicial review
(to September (NSCSO) and October
(DRS) 2013) so the money was also
delayed which impacted on timing of
the highways work.

 

Another ridiculous statement. Whatever the source of the extra funding, or the timing (what would they do without the Judicial Review to use as an excuse for any problems?) the progression of the schemes was quite clearly undertaken in order to favour the Tory administration's political chances: look at the huge amount of money invested, for no apparent reason, in the most marginal ward of Hale, for example, which the Tories were desperate to retain. Imagine the tragic loss, if our beloved Mayor, Hugh Rayner,  and his little friend Tom Davey had lost their seats - and they came very, very close to it, seeing Labour pick up the third one ...

 

No defence of the splurge in Hale has been forthcoming, nor could it, because there is none.

 

The 'investigator' found that the council officer who dealt with a mysterious briefing note in regard to the funding of Hale has left the council, rather inconveniently, and apparently no one can shed any light on the approach made by Tory members for Hale in regard to the level of funding.

 

So no wrongdoing then? Ah: yes, the review does admit that the decision making process of the allocation of funding 'was not as transparent as it should have been'.

 

But guess what? It was the officers' fault. 

 

It always is, in Broken Barnet: whenever there has been any wrongdoing, elected representatives are not expected to take responsibility - blame is always attached to the employees who are expected to do as they are told by their political masters, and then act as whipping boy if it all goes wrong. 


The review tells us:


'However, there appears to be an assumption by officers within that service that the Cabinet Member had the exclusive right to decide which schemes went forward'.

 

The assumption, Mrs Angry would suggest, was by the Cabinet Member, who admits he changed the rules on allocation of funding, and it would have been a brave and foolhardy officer who dared to oppose his decisions. 


That said, do we now assume that the former Director of Place will now take responsibility for the lack of transparency? Or will the blame be focused on someone more junior, and expendable?

 

The review does also admit, in a roundabout way, that Councillor Cohen was in breach of standing orders:

 

Advice on decision-making process

 
In my view the decision-making process was not correctly followed. The power to make decisions in relation to these matters was delegated to the Area Environment Sub-Committees. If it was not possible to convene meetings of these sub-committees then eitherthe decision should have been taken by Cabinet or, in reliance on the delegated authority given by the Cabinet meeting of 4th November, the decision should formally have been taken by Councillor Cohen and the requirements of the Council’s Standing Orders should have been met.


Will he be subject to any consequences as a result of this breach?

 

But here is the most preposterous assertion of all, as contained within the conclusions of this 'review'. To the accusation of political bias, the 'investigator' has decided:


'Whilst it is clear that the data supports the view that there has been more expenditure in administration held wards, this does not justify drawing a conclusion that there has been
political bias'.


Got that?


The data supports the view that there has been more expenditure in administration held wards... 

 

(Mrs Angry translates: this review agrees with the allegation that there was MORE MONEY SPENT IN TORY WARDS) 

 

... but you may not take from this clear evidence what might reasonably seem to be the only logical and unavoidable conclusion - that this DOES constitutes political bias.


What the f*ck would justify such a conclusion, then, you might reasonably ask, in the eyes of the company commissioned and paid by the council to produce this 'review'?

 

Earlier in the findings we read:

 

'The investigator concluded that he would not describe the expenditure on highways which resulted from this decision-making process as unlawful. The additional money was spent on lawful items of expenditure and there is no evidence that the decision-making process was invalidated by being undertaken for an improper purpose.'

 

No evidence, if you overlook the incontrovertible proof that, in the run up to an election, more expenditure was made in Tory wards, to the extent that £1 million was spent in the Environment Member's own ward, in one year, and half a million in two years on one road alone, and the most marginal ward was lavished with funding, and in neither ward was there a case for real need, while in less advantaged, Labour held wards in the borough, funding was withheld, and in Colindale, not one single penny was allocated in the year before the election.


As Cohen himself expresses, with some irritation, to officers in the FOI correspondence, residents' perception surveys clearly demonstrate a high priority given to the state of the pavements and highways. 

 

Quite clearly then, he was aware this had a direct effect on the way in which these issues might reflect on the councillors representing any ward. He made sure his own residents received prompt and efficient responses to their 'needs', whereas in Labour wards, residents stumbling over broken kerbs and pavements, and trying to find a safe crossing point to get ti the other side of a busy road would have assumed that their councillors were not acting as effective advocates, when the truth was that restraints on expenditure were being applied to their areas, and continual excuses masking long delays in agreed work. 

 

Does this sort of impression affect the way people vote? Of course it does. 

 

Should there be safeguards to ensure that the allocation of such high visibility expenditure,within weeks, days and even hours of an election is fairly allocated, without any risk of even the perception of bias? Yes, yes, and yes again. 


Has our local tax been used lawfully in regard to the Highways budget?

 

Has the council's own commissioned review been adequate to the role of independent scrutiny, or should there now be real action to more thoroughly investigate this matter, and ensure that we, the residents and taxpayers of every ward in this borough have received equitable benefit, in a programme uninfluenced by political considerations?


You can probably guess Mrs Angry's view: what do you think?

 

Over to Labour once more - and to any other citizen who objects to the findings of this so called review. 

 

The investigator hired by Barnet Council hesitated to call the expenditure unlawful because he felt he had seen no evidence of improper purpose. 

 

Improper purpose would presumably have included political bias, and the investigator's reasoning for seeing no evidence of this, even though 'there has been more expenditure in administration held wards' might reasonably be questioned by a more stringent act of scrutiny. 

 

In Mrs Angry's view, we need a more stringent act of scrutiny.

 

The council and the Tory party would like to think they have seen the back of this story. 

 

Mrs Angry thinks that they are mistaken, if they really imagine that to be the case.


Background: 

 
http://wwwbrokenbarnet.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/scandalous-barnet-councils-million.html


http://wwwbrokenbarnet.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/the-lost-highway-or-road-to-broken.html

 

 

http://wwwbrokenbarnet.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/the-highway-to-hell-tory-councillor.html

 

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Paint it White: Dismore trashes Barnet Council's laughable in house 'investigation' of the Mayor

Barnet Mayor, Tory councillor Hugh Rayner

Here is a press release from Andrew Dismore, Labour GLA member for Barnet and Camden, expressing in the strongest terms his anger over the handling by Barnet Council of the allegations put to the Monitoring Officer regarding Tory Mayor Hugh Rayner:
 
Rayner investigation: fears of ‘whitewash’ at ‘hearing’ on 3rd September 

Andrew Dismore AM, Labour London Assembly member for Barnet and Camden, and the complainant concerning the conduct of Conservative Cllr Rayner, Mayor of Barnet, has today expressed his fears that the investigation may turn out to be a whitewash. 

Mr Dismore said: “My concerns began when the Monitoring Officer (MO) disallowed a large part of the complaint. She has disallowed those parts of my complaint not on the grounds of inadequate evidence to support them, but on what to me seems to be a pedantic, very technical interpretation of the councillors’ Code of Conduct. She has done so with minimal explanation, followed by an absolute refusal to even consider very detailed and closely argued representations as to why this interpretation was wrong and in my view was clearly against the spirit of the Nolan principles of conduct in public life, which set out requirements relating to openness and accountability of politicians. 

“Officers have played the strict definition card before and it really restricted what the Panel could do in relation to former Cllr Coleman. 

“ Because of the MO’s ruling, the Leaders’ Panel will therefore not be able to consider my complaint concerning Cllr Rayner’s conduct as a landlord, nor his non registration of interests concerning his receipt of housing benefit, even though thousands of pounds of public money was involved. The MO has taken the view that Cllr Rayner’s dealings with Barnet Homes are not relevant because Barnet Homes is separate from the Council, even though I argue that Barnet Homes is wholly owned by the Council and funded by them. 

 “The Council have also refused to respond to these freedom of information requests of mine, on the grounds that it would take more than 18 hours to find the answers: · 

Please disclose all email correspondence on his council email address passing between Cllr Hugh Rayner and a) Barnet Council and b) Barnet Homes that mention the following properties: (list as on his register of interests entry) · 

Please disclose all correspondence passing between Barnet Council and Hugh Rayner in his capacity as a landlord for each of the last 3 years · Please disclose details of all payments made by the Council to Hugh Rayner in his capacity as a landlord including any Housing Benefit payments in each of the last 3 financial years. 

 “However, these problems will not prevent the public forming their own view as to the Mayor’s conduct on these matters, bearing in mind his own admissions to the local press. 

“Nevertheless the Leaders’ Panel will consider the two most serious allegations, concerning Cllr Rayner’s non-disclosure of interests at council and committee meetings; and improper use of his position as a councillor in dealings with council officers. 

 “That though, is not the end of the story. 

“The Leaders’ Panel hearing date has been set for a date ( 3rd September) when it was known in advance that I was on holiday and not able to attend to present the complaint, which would be the normal procedure; and the MO has refused to countenance a rescheduling of the date even though I am available for a number of dates before her deadline for the hearing. 

 “LBB’s published “Process for complaints” states “ procedures would have an emphasis on flexibility and informality ( insofar as possible and consistent with the principles of natural justice ) and dispute resolution”. The MO seems to be overlooking this requirement in her approach to the listing of the case. Although the Code states there should be a report submitted to the Panel within 3 months of the complaint, the rules do not state that the meeting has to be convened to decide it within 3 months and this could await my return. The MO says that I could send a representative in my absence, but with over 300 pages of evidence in this very complex and detailed case of such public importance it is not fair, just or practical for me to send someone else to do this. This would not happen in the law courts and it should not happen here.

 “The MO will not confirm if Cllr Rayner was consulted on the date before it was set or not, as the officer involved is ‘on holiday’ , and so this raises the question of whether there has been a level playing field, concerning the setting of the date. It looks like the ‘defendant’ will be there, but there will be no ‘prosecution’. 

“Membership of the Panel includes Cllr Cornelius as chair. He has not so far recused himself, even though he has already publically expressed support for Cllr Rayner in the local papers, in response to press reports of the allegations:

http://www.times-series.co.uk/news/11280338.Council_leader_defends_Barnet_Mayor_s__illegal__behaviour/

In these circumstances Cllr Cornelius cannot therefore be seen to be impartial, so far as I can see. There is also a de facto Conservative majority on the Panel. Conservative legislation removed the compulsory requirement for an independent chair, but the Council could have an independent chair if it so wanted, and that seems to me what should happen. 

“The MO cannot confirm the hearing will be held in public, so justice such as it is, may not be seen to be done. 

 “The MO will not confirm she will copy to the members of the Panel my correspondence dealing with all the above procedural issues and including my detailed submissions as to why I consider her rulings to be wrong. 

“The only way these problems can be resolved is if, at the Leaders’ Panel: 

1. The hearing is adjourned to a date when both I and Cllr Rayner can attend; 

2. Cllr Cornelius relinquishes the chair, stands down from the Panel, and an independent chair is appointed; 

3. A Conservative member agrees in advance to abstain, so no one party has a majority, as used to be the case before the Conservatives changed the rules; 

4. the Panel requires the MO to provide the full correspondence and submissions passing between myself and the MO; 

5. the Panel resolves to hear the case in public, given the public importance of the issues involved 

 “Against this sorry background, it is inevitable that there have to be fears of a whitewash. If the Leaders’ Panel do not deal with this case appropriately, then I will have to explore other avenues to establish the truth for the people of Barnet and achieve an appropriate outcome.

 Monitoring Officer Maryellen Salter, left, watched by Tory leader Richard Cornelius

As Mrs Angry predicted, it is now clear that there is absolutely no hope of a fair and objective assessment of the allegations directed at Councillor Rayner through the process of the in house Leaders' Panel. 

It is also quite evident that this never was or could be the case, and that the gravity of the charges against him, involving allegations of a potentially criminal offence, mean that the matter cannot and should not be referred to any internal process, but investigated by the police, and forwarded then, if necessary, to the CPS.

In my view, rather than take part in a discredited procedure, and one which is clearly subject to political influence, Labour councillors should refuse to attend the Group Panel, and refer the matter to the police.

It should not be forgotten that not so long ago, the Monitoring Officer referred, with some urgency,  what was proven to be a false allegation, on a far less serious charge, about a Labour member to the police and CPS. Quite extraordinary, is it not, that the same stringent standard was not applied to a Tory councillor accused of a number of deeply concerning allegations?

A test of the Labour leadership now, then. Comply with the Tory agenda, or do the right thing, and boycott a process whose rules you know to be ill defined, untested, unfair, and politically weighted. 

The Leaders Panel cannot deliver an objective assessment of the charges against the Mayor: and they are allegations of a nature that make an internal investigation redundant. It must be repeated too that some of these allegations have been discounted by the Monitoring Officer - a former auditor with Grant Thornton, who has no legal background -on the clearly spurious grounds that Barnet Homes has nothing to do with Barnet Council. 

Barnet Homes' own website states quite clearly:

In February 2012 we became part of The Barnet Group, a local authority trading company owned by Barnet Council.

Owned by Barnet Council. Got that?

Andrew Dismore


Andrew Dismore is quite right to allude to the clear conflict here between the position taken by the council on this matter, and the requirements demanded by the Nolan Principles.

Alllied with the Barnet Tories' recent outrageous move to require the same Monitoring Officer to issue them with a dispensation that allows them to take part in committee meetings without the obligation to declare their interests, it is absolutely, inarguably the case, that this council is demonstrably and fundamentally opposed to the principles of transparency and accountability, and refuses to adhere to the spirit of their own government's policy on localism, let alone the principles of democracy, or natural justice. 

The behaviour of the Tory party in Barnet continues in the same squalid course as it has pursued over the last four years, in other words.

The members of this administration, in truth, are incapable of acting in any other way: and the current failure in standards of governance serves only to enforce the regime of decadence, incompetence, and abject betrayal of the best interests of the residents and taxpayers of this benighted borough.

It is time for the central Conservative party, once more, to step in, and force this maverick council to comply with the obligations of all public bodies: to be open and honest in its transactions, and to demonstrate an understanding of the need of the highest levels of probity  from its elected members, its senior officers, and in the processes of the administration itself.