Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Trouble Up North London

Ey up. There's trouble ahead, according to t' dark satanic rumour mills of Broken Barnet.

Sorry: I've been reading 'South Riding', the 1930s novel written by Winifred Holtby, currently being dramatised by t'BBC of a Sunday night. I have to admit I only picked up a copy of the book in order to skip to the end and find out if the plucky heroine, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, gets off with the brooding, grumpy David Morrissey character (described, rather disconcertingly, ladies, in the book, as looking like Adolf Hitler, but with a nice smile) or the fair, gentler, but consumptive socialist Douglas Henshall. Once I had started the introduction, though, by the BBC's brilliant dramatist, Andrew Davies, it seemed worth reading properly, with many parallels to what is happening here in our southern softy borough, right here, right now, eighty years after the book was first published.

The setting for 'South Riding' is er, oh dear - local government. Hmm. I know, but bear with me. As Davies says, it is a timely dramatisation, written as it was in a period of recession and forced austerity, and with huge challenges for government, both local and national. The choices they faced, he describes thus:

"How do we deal with a recession? Do we cut public spending, slash welfare, and in general batten down the hatches, repeating the mantra that 'we're all in this together'? Or do we embrace the alternative of bold programmes of public works, creating employment and stimulating the economy in that way? Rather thrillingly, in this book, the South Riding Council embarks on the latter course ... '

Consider the characters too: the former revolutionary socialist Astell, who believes he can now make more impact by slogging away on endless committees, and making 'unlikely alliances' with 'hardfaced businessmen' to get better roads, education and housing for his constituents. Now there's a thought. Or how about the larger than life Councillor Huggins, sermonising chapel goer and preacher, whose hypocrisy and sexual transgressions fatally compromise his career? Great stuff.

The book opens from the point of view of an inexperienced reporter in the press galley of the Town Hall: ha - most amusing, don't you think? He peers down into the council chamber:

"He saw below him bald heads, grey heads, brown heads, black heads, above oddly foreshortened bodies, moving like fish in an aquarium tank. He saw the semi-circle of desks facing the chairman's panoplied throne; he saw the stuffed horsehair seats, the blotting paper, the quill pens, the bundles of printed documents on the clerk's table, the polished fire dogs in the empty grates, the frosted glass tulips shading the unignited gas jets, the gleaming inkwells ...'

I defy anyone who has ever attended a council meeting at Hendon Town Hall not to recognise this as a pretty accurate description of the place, and the atmosphere of moth-eaten municipal torpor, unchanged from the pre-war era.

As you walk up the stairs, and reach the landing and corridors of our Town Hall you are assailed by the sight of rows of photographs of bearded lady councillors in their Arthur Askey spectacles (and no, I'm not just describing the current intake ) - peering in disgust at the hoi polloi now trespassing in the rooms that once witnessed their acts of patronising governance and good works. You then enter oak lined committee rooms with faded Indian carpets, old gas lighting, the only gesture to the twentieth century being a crap microphone system which rarely works efficiently, partly because none of them can be bothered to turn it on when they speak. Why would anyone want to hear what they say?

In the council chamber itself, you will find the same archaic set up, with every full meeting preceded by the comical Trumpton parade of town Mayor and mace bearers dressed in frock coats, frilly cravats, breeches and tricorn hats. You must stand up, and sit down, and stand up again while the chaplain preaches and beseeches the Almighty for his intervention. For some reason the Almighty usually fails to send a thunderbolt crashing through the roof in the direction of Councillor Coleman, everyone sits down, and the pantomime continues. Are you stuck in a black and white Will Hay film from the 1930s? Yes, you are.

The only real change to the council chamber is a telling detail. There is now a thick glass panel that largely separates the councillors from the public seating area. This protects our fearful representatives from the projection of rotten eggs and tomatoes which they so richly deserve, and neatly serves to underline the separation of council and the community it is supposed to serve.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that despite the clear instructions last week by ministers at the department for Communities and Local Government, the Tory leader Lynne Hillan has announced that no resident may film Tuesday's council meeting, and that she regards the citizen journalists and bloggers that Eric Pickles wishes to empower as not worthy of respect. You will note that although residents may not avail themselves of twenty first century technology in order to bring council proceedings to a wider section of the community, it is perfectly acceptable for councillors to use their blackberries during council meetings. In fact, citizens, I have sat in the public area of one committee meeting and watched over the shoulder of one Cabinet member texting the dear leader herself. Until he realised Mrs Angry was breathing down his neck, of course, and moved away. Spoilsport.

In short, dear readers, as usual in our borough, there is one rule for them, and one rule for us. They do not consider themselves accountable to the people they represent, and the people who pay their over generous allowances. They are nothing less than a bunch of greedy, self serving little Town Hall tyrants who deserve to be thrown out of office and into the real world, where they would stand as much chance of surving in the wild as one of local Mp Matthew Offord's newly hatched tropical fish.

In the twenties and thirties, when talking pictures first took off, a whole generation of old school silent film stars saw their careers ruined over night when their creakey performances and luvvie voices were revealed to their fans, often to much hilarity in the cinemas. Exposure is obviously an undesirable thing to those with a lot to lose. If the greater public were to see film of our Tory councillors in action, it would astound them: the childishness with which they behave, the sniggering, the ranting, the laughing at women speakers - and worse. The public would see how debate is stifled, and councillors meekly allow the cabal that runs their party to walk all over them.

In short, there would be a revolution, and like the poor old movie stars, their careers would be over in an instant. Singing in the Rain, & all that. I think it is rather amusing that our senior councillors have spent so much of our money on elocution lessons, don't you? The Rain in Spain Falls Mostly Down the Drain, doesn't it, Mr Travers? Along with local tax payers hard earned cash. But they at least recognise that one has to be media savvy, and communicate effectively. I think there will have been some heated discussion between senior officers and councillors on the issue of filming and the new Pickles guidelines, and as usual the Tory leadership most likely has chosen to go its own way to perdition.

Last night Barnet Eye blogger Roger Tichborne slipped into a committee meeting and tried to film some of it for a disabled resident who was unable to attend:


Do watch it and witness the Chair, Hugh 'NO YOU MAY NOT' Rayner, shouting down Rog's perfectly reasonable comment that legal advice has informed us that there is nothing in the council's constitution to prevent filming, and that to do so may be in breach of our human rights.

Tonight at the council meeting many residents will attend and will decide for themselves how best our elected representatives should be accountable to the people who out them in office and who pay the local taxes that not only pay their allowances but foot the bill for the same budget they will be discussing.

How have we got to this sorry state? Is this really how things should be? Let's go back to South Riding, and read what Winfred Holtby thought local government was all about, way back in 1935:

" I began to see how it was in essence the first-line defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies - poverty, sickness, ignorance, isolation, mental derangement and social maladjustment ... the war is, I believe, worth fighting, and this corporate action is at least based upon recognition of one fundamental truth about human nature - we are not single individuals, each face to face with eternity and our separate spirits: we are members one of another."

How very different to the way we do things here, in 2011, in Broken Barnet

*Update: ha - see the 'Tory Councils Defy Pickles On Bloggers' Access' story link on Guido Fawkes' blog, in the 'Seen Elsewhere' section : http://order-order.com/

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