Brian Coleman loves to be the centre of attention, you may have noticed.
On Tuesday night, however, he may have felt that perhaps, for once, the reaction that he inevitably provokes in people may just have spilled over into something a little beyond his control. Because there he was, last night, sat outside the Town Hall, surrounded by a mob of lively protesters, forcibly dressed in a Mr Lazy t shirt and made to hold a placard demanding a 'penny for the guy'.
Now that was just plain silly, as I happen to know, from the results of a survey on another Barnet blog, that in fact no one would spend a penny on Brian Coleman, in any circumstance, even if he was on fire. I dread to think what happened next, anyway, after Brian was removed from the scene by a group of burly firefighters, just back from shooting the latest Versace season for Vogue - and they looked as if they meant business, if you know what I mean.
Obviously I am talking about Brian the stuffed shirt: no, no, not that one, he was elsewhere, at a question time in Camden with Boris, I mean a Brian Coleman bonfire of the vanities guy, lovingly made for last night's protest. In some kind of weird, totemic way this effigy seems to have acquired supernatural powers, because just as it was the focus of energy at the protest, a wonderful news story appeared on London Tonight on the interesting themes of the Fire Authority, AssetCo, Brian Coleman and £350 luxury hampers. Oh, dear: the media campaign isn't quite going to plan, is it Brian? Nice picture in the Mirror, though, Sleeping Beauty.
So as Brian was otherwise engaged, the Full Council meeting went ahead without him.
As usual, the Mayor's chaplain, Rabbi Ginsbury, started proceedings with an exhortation to the assembly, referring to a daily Jewish prayer which asks the Almighty to save us from 'the arrogant', and indeed, from arrogance itself. The subsequent absence of Brian Coleman from the meeting was therefore possibly not a mere coincidence, and the Mayor naughtily promised that he would inform his colleague of the content of the Chaplain's address.
The Q&A session started. This is where written answers have been given by councillors to councillors, and then the same councillors ask supplementary questions. It is another Barnet ritual, whereby no real information is asked for, with any seriousness, and none given. As regards the public, this process is almost impossible to follow, as the questions are rushed through often with no clue given as to which questions any answers might address. Of course, again, in Broken Barnet tradition, this is done to avoid the chance that any of us might cotton on to what they are up to. But for the record, here are some of the more choice items:
The session started with a frisson of excitement. Up stood the erstwhile pretender to the throne, Mark Shooter, with a follow up to his question about Eric Pickles' plan to abolish the Standards Boards, 'create a new criminal offence' and let councils 'organise themselves'.
In her written response, Lynne Hillan had expressed her delight at the plans to stop residents complaining about councillors, and then claimed she didn't know what sort of criminal offence he meant. Let me remind us all, Lynne, then, that, as explained in a previous blog, 'In a Dark Place', it is proposed that 'serious misconduct for personal gain' by a councillor should become a criminal offence. Got that?
On the subject of standards: we have been assured that the long awaited online access to the register of interests, gifts and hospitality of our councillors would be up and running by the end of October. It isn't. We have been waiting since January for this: why? We are told that, shamefully, some councillors have been allowed to opt out of this alleged move to 'transparency', but why are we still not able to access those that have fallen into line?
Mark Shooter, an alpha male type forced to hang around with the beta boys, and hating every minute of it, then asked when the council will dump the current Cabinet system, which leads to only ten out of sixty three councillors playing any real part on decision making. A very good point. Lynne Hillan replied smugly that the original question was about the standards board and the supplementary nothing to do with the original. So no reply. Shooter sat down.
Ah, pot holes; the subject of much heated debate this last month, and Coleman's responsibility. His written reply stated that the Pothole Elimination Programme 'has been a complete success, on time and on budget'. So: any pot holes you see in any road in Barnet, citizens, do not exist, and that is official. Despite this claim, the sceptical Labour group tried to get a list of all completed roads. Not a chance. Because there are over 1,000, and no roads in Barnet are uncompleted. No, madam, that is not a pothole, that is a figment of your imagination.
Next: lighting, oh yes ... according to Coleman, this is 'another good news story for Barnet'. In fact, sshh: this is such good news, and such cause for celebration, Brian wanted to keep it a lovely, intimate secret, and stopped the local press from finding out about it, until er Mrs Angry and her friends kept asking about it. The funny thing is, that, despite all promises, all these weeks later, the lighting contractors have still forgotten to update their 2010 target schedules on their website with the good news. You would think they might want to share such joyful tidings, wouldn't you? Oh, and of course the new lamp post outside my bedroom window: months later, still no light. And yes, the old one is still there.
Hello ... stand by your beds -here comes Councillor John Hart, looking particularly dashing tonight, I thought, in a very becoming suit, and brandishing an immaculate scarlet poppy on his lapel. Was he expecting more media attention, after last week's moment of fame on Newsnight, struggling manfully, although entirely unsuccessfully, to control his local Residents Forum? He rarely speaks in larger meetings but tonight he was on the case: tackling the weighty issue of allotments, which are now a Good Thing, because they are in line with Big Society thinking and can therefore be relieved of funding.
Councillor Hart desperately wanted Brian Coleman to be made aware of his interest and expertise in this subject. Ah. the world might be falling apart, we may be in a double dip recession, and facing the worst spending cuts in recent history; here in Barnet our services are about to be hacked to death, but Councillor Hart evidently has his own priorities, ie his fruit and veg, digging for victory and all that. War's over, John, by the way. (To be fair, though, he does look like a man who might know how to produce an award winning marrow with very little effort. Even at his age.)
And he was on a roll: he had had an idea about libraries. Why not have them on a 'subscription basis'? Yes, really. Even Robert Ramsbottom looked alarmed and muttered that he 'wasn't keen'. Of course we have had subscription libraries in this country. Two hundred and fifty years ago. When literacy was rightly restricted to the better classes, of course, rather than the plebs who live in one of Coleman's disgusting 'slums'.
Councillor Rowan Turner has submitted a question about the Mayor of London's decision to scrap the targets for gypsy and traveller sites. Did Richard Cornelius, the relevant Cabinet member, welcome this decision? Yes, he did. If you remember, as revealed in this blog -see 'O Porrajmos' if you are interested - in Barnet we have NEVER had one single site for these people, even in the years when this was a statutory requirement. Why has the authority refused to address this need, and formerly even resorted to flouting the law to avoid making any provision? You tell me. In truth, we all know why, and the reason is racism, of the most base and unreasoning sort.
Can you imagine if Barnet refused to find a location for a synagogue, or a mosque, or cleansed the borough of all homeless people? No: it is unthinkable. This is supposed to be an ethnically diverse community,where all cultures and traditions are welcomed and respected. Yet last night I heard once more a councillor repeat the same old rubbish - that in all these years, Barnet really has searched in vain for one single place suitable for accommodating, or being adapted to accommodate, a few gypsy families in need of a stopping place, and somewhere they could gain access to the most basic necessities: clean water, electricity, healthcare and education facilities for their families. It's funny, isn't it, that we can find sites suitable for billion pound profit making developments, but not even one derelict site for romany or travelling people to stop on?
Most of the questions in this session are by opposition councillors. Those few placed by Tories will tend to be submitted in order to give an opportunity for a slap on the back response from colleagues. But a real sign of the trouble within the Tory group in Barnet came in the shape of the questions asked by one or two disaffected members of their own group. Apart from Mark Shooter, we had some interesting queries from Councillor Brian Salinger. He asked, for example, what steps are being taken to ensure that all Freedom of Information requests are fully answered within the timescale laid down by the legislation.
If you remember, as this blog recently revealed, Barnet is in trouble with the Information Commissioner and is being monitored to see how it attempts to improve its record on answering these requests. Salinger's supplementary question was to ask how many requests have not been complied with? Conveniently, Melvyn Cohen could not supply this information and yet again stated that the ICO had only stepped in because of 'one case'. This is frankly ridiculous. I myself had to complain to the ICO last year because of unnecessarily withheld information, and I know at least two other individuals who have had to do the same. Whether you believe that these delays are due to incompetence or from a more sinister cause, ie the political control of information, is up to you. The end result is the same, in either case.
On to the motions.
One of West Finchley's councillors, Kathy Mc Gurk, had submitted a motion on the subject of police cuts in Barnet. She had asked about Safer Neighbourhood Team officers already being taken away from their wards on other duties as a result of the Mayor's cuts to police budgets, and also about the threatened reduction to the number of officers in these teams, particularly worrying at a time when burglary rates are increasing in the borough. Because of the importance of this issue, she had asked for this motion to be withdrawn, and sent instead to Cabinet. The Tories gleefully voted against this, and so the motion will be lost, and the issue went undebated. That's how much the Tories care about safer neighbourhoods, and policing, in this borough, friends.
This administration will do almost anything to score a point against an opposition councillor, even if the issue in hand is one in which cross party cooperation could benefit residents. Tribal warfare is more important than the end result.
I'm sorry, but I now have to quote a motion submitted by Lynne Hillan. you need to see the sort of drivel that our councillors waste time and our money on submitting for 'debate'.
"Council agrees with the Coalition Government that Local Authorities should have the powers to run their affairs as Elected Representatives of local people see fit (sic), and not according to dictats from Whitehall.
Council welcomes the abolition of the Standards regime. local agreements and many of the associated targets.
Further, Council welcomes the statement by Eric Pickles MP that Boroughs such as Barnet will soon be able to manage their own affairs through a general Power of Competence. This is, Council believes, the foundation of the new Localism Bill.
Council is pleased that LBB already seeks to shape services around local people, particularly through One Barnet.
Accordingly, Council calls on Cabinet to tailor even more of its work around local people following the moves to restore power to Local Authorities."
(The incoherence, hypocrisy, excruciatingly awful grammar and lack of punctuation is nothing to do with me.)
So: getting rid of bodies like the Standards boards and the Audit Commission will empower residents, by giving our councillors a free reign to indulge themselves even more than they do already. We have no way to criticise their behaviour, other than once every four years at the ballot box. Our representatives, having proved their competence and integrity so well this year, expecially in concentrating their efforts on voting themselves a nice fat pay rise, are to be trusted with even more vital decision making. And this will all be dressed up as being for our benefit, tailor made for our needs. Thanks very much.
Labour's Alan Schneiderman pointed out that the present administration doesn't competently use the powers it already has. He reminded us of all the money lost in Iceland, on the bridge overspend, missed grant payments. How are they going to tailor their work around the needs of those in sheltered or social housing? Instead of following ideological obsessions, they should be listening to residents, and protecting the most vulnerable members of our society.
Libdem Suzette Palmer welcomed some of the sentiments expressed in the motion: however -(the first of many Libdem 'howevers' last night) - she had grave concerns about other aspects and as Mark Shooter had suggested, worried that currently there was not best use being made of the majority of the councillors, Tory or other wise.
The Libdems are in a very odd place now: neither fish nor fowl, poacher or gamekeeper. I suspect that Jack Cohen is deeply uncomfortable at being placed in this position.
Andrew Harper spoke with dutiful 'enthusiasm' about seeking to become engaged in a much better and deeper relationship (there he goes again) with residents. Or some of them anyway.
Lynne Hillan mentioned that she thought One Barnet would present a common face to residents. And you are the face of One Barnet, Lynne, really you are.
Alison Moore said we needed common sense, not Futureshape, which is is all smoke and mirrors, spin, and has no substance.
Libdem Jack Cohen said that Futureshape, or was it easyCouncil or One Barnet, presents more questions than answers, was a load of gobbledegook, and he hadn't got a clue what it meant. He told us that at the Scrutiny committee he attends, he was barely allowed to ask how much it was costing, and what he did find out, he was not allowed to tell anyone.
Ah: Councillor Tom Davey: the jerk who at the last full meeting insulted public sector workers, whom he claimed did not have 'real jobs' . You might recall that this fool apparently works, or has worked, for a tobacco company, and of course that is a real job, one to be proud of.
His contribution was to allege now that the Labour councillors on scrutiny committees did nothing except point out spelling mistakes and ask for data to be reprinted on A3 paper. This went down awfully well in the chamber, as you can imagine. As Lynne Hillan beamed in motherly approval, he ranted about opposition councillors being political luddites, and then bizarrely about buying a bunch of flowers for his girlfriend. I'm not sure why, except perhaps to tell us that he has, rather surprisingly, got a girlfriend.
The 'debate' fizzled out then, but not before the dear Leader made an unforgettable statement, assuring us that 'You won't teach me anything about incompetence'.
One issue which really excited the chamber was - can you guess? Libraries, of course. In fact, it is true to say that this subject generates more passion and fear than any other, at the moment. It might be taken as a symbolic issue, a point of focus, for the opposition to the present Tory administration, and its idiotic Futureshape 'model'.
It's not just the opposition councillors who worry about the threat to libraries; many Tories do too. Let's see if they can find the guts to stick to their convictions - obviously we can't be too optimistic on that score. But even the Tory hardliners know that they are in trouble on this one: they know that the residents of this borough will not tolerate an attack on libraries, and there will be an uprising if any such thing is attempted.
Robert Ramsbottom, looking rather forlorn in the absence of his mentor, stood up -at least I think he was standing up - and made his speech. How long before Starbucks is mentioned, I wondered, just as the very word flew out of his mouth. Labour's Councillor Brodkin had proposed an amendment stating a pledge that no libraries would close, and pointed out how highly efficient and well visited our libraries are, on a national scale, with proven high value, at a cost much lower than the national average. You listening, Robert?
Suzette Palmer reminded us that she liked libraries. Good. Apparently they have knitting sessions in some of them, called Knit and Knatter. Wherever that is, shut that one down NOW. Oh - and she thought they ought to have solar panels on all their roofs, and sell electricity back to the Grid. Hmm. She was cross, though, because Councillor Ramsbottom had said he was going to ask for her involvement in the library review, being a Libdem, don't you know, and easygoing and all that, but he had cast her aside, and she was hurt. The cad.
It was good to hear councillors of all parties praise the borough's library staff: Kathy McGurk reminded the chamber that they were amongst those despised ranks, public sector workers, and also reminded us of the less than impressive record of Barnet Tories in defence of the library system.
The formidable Tory Bridget Perry (the old style Anne Widdecombe look alike) backed up Robert Ramsbottom. She said that like any shopkeeper or housewife, he was determined to save money.
Robert stood up rather hastily then, and blurted out that the reason he had turned aside from Suzette Palmer was because the day after he had offered her the hand of friendship, and honoured her with an invitation to be involved in the review, what happened? Her party (all three of them) had tabled A Vote of No Confidence in his party's leadership. Oooh, er, mocked the left hand side of the chamber, and the public gallery.
At this point, a cold chill swept through the room. Yes, you guessed, Brian Coleman was in the building and slipped into his seat. 'Ha,' yelled the elderly, badge covered activist sitting behind me: 'Enter the prince'. Prince Charming? Hamlet? Prince of Darkness? I am sure he was rivetted by the next topic, a timely reminder by Labour's Claire Farrier of the greater effects on women of the recession, the cuts, the loss of benefits and so on.
Bridget Perry expressed herself to be 'insulted' by this speech. Why? Although frankly, she looks like the sort of woman who is easily insulted. Because Councillor Farrier was 'splitting men and women apart', and she wasn't having that. She had been a girl guide until very recently you know (what?). She then talked about womens' plumbing - oh dear (or is it women plumbers, can't tell from my notes?)
Jack Cohen pointed out how few women were now in government, nationally and here in Barnet.
On cue, our best female role model, Lynne Hillan, stood up to remark that Claire Farrier's speech smelled of the 1980s, and ramble on about Red Ed and the looney left. What was needed of women was hard work, not quotas and positive discrimination. Lynne knows a lot about hard work, as you know.
The meeting ended shortly afterwards, thank God. It came as something of a shock to realise that throughout the forty five or so minutes that he was present, the normally unstoppable Brian Coleman had not uttered a single word, and had sat almost invisibly in his place. Had he been swopped for the penny for a guy Coleman? Or has the unfavourable publicity given to him in the firefighter dispute taken its toll on his normally ebullient spirit?
Well: what happens when you play with fire, Brian?