Tuesday, 10 June 2014
Highways of Despair: Labour report Barnet Tory Highways allegedly 'politically biased' spending to the auditor
What is a realization of the notion of knowledge means for it rather the ruin and overthrow of itself; for on this road it loses its own truth. Because of that, the road can be looked on as the path of doubt, or more properly a highway of despair ...
Hegel, the Phenomenology of Mind
Fair enough, so.
Mrs Angry, Broken Barnet
You may recall the very interesting story of the Highways budget allocation to Barnet wards, which in the last two years has been the responsibility of Tory councillor and environment Cabinet member Dean Cohen.
When Dean, the son of fellow Golders Green member and outgoing mayor Melvin Cohen, took over his new post from Brian Coleman, he decided to change the system of funding from one of equal allocation to all wards, to one where he would have control over the amounts granted to each.
Brian Coleman was less than impressed in being, as he probably saw it, supplanted by a young whippersnapper like Dean, and kept a vigliant eye on the activities of his usurper.
Earlier this year Coleman claimed that the new Cabinet member had spent £800,000 of Highways funding on his own ward.
In fact, when Mrs Angry decided to submit a few FOIs about this budget, the truth was far worse: in two years, Cohen's own ward had received an astonishing £1.6 million, £1 million alone in the last pre-election year.
Looking at the amounts granted to the other wards was equally astonishing. Most of the best funded wards appeared by coincidence to be Tory held, or targeted, or even, as in the case of the second best funded ward, Hale, again purely by coincidence, the most marginal ward in the election campaign.
Most incredibly, in the year in which Golders Green ward received more than a million pounds, one Labour ward, Colindale, received ... absolutely nothing. Zilch. Not a penny.
Mrs Angry had thought this was a mistake in the FOI response, and so did the local councillors, but - it was not. Yet throughout the period, local Labour councillors claim, they were given a series of changing excuses as to why certain work they had asked to be done had not materialised.
Cllr Cohen has tried to justify his million plus splurge on his own ward on the basis of 'need'. What sort of 'need', we cannot be sure. Certainly he thinks that the roads and pavements in his own part of the ward 'need' more attention than in others: Princes Park Avenue, for example, in two years has had more spent on it than many entire wards.
He has also defended his enormous act of generosity towards his own ward on the basis that erm, erm ... it has quite a long road in it, and ... he lives there, so can identify problems. Mmm.
Certain senior officers have tried, rather half heartedly, to tell the Colindale councillors that they did not need (there's that word again) any funding at all this pre-election year, because of ... regeneration projects. Funny that, because West Hendon has a big regeneration project (Barnet Toryspeak - regeneration = private development) and yet had money allocated - and that was of course nothing whatsoever to do with any delusional plans they had to nobble the Labour vote in that ward.
Among the FOI questions asked by Mrs Angry, one was refused on the grounds that the information was not available. That was for details of the spending allocation for the first two years of the last administration. Not available, thought Mrs Angry? Really? Rather careless, to have mislaid these accounts, no? And then she began to wonder: could it be that this was not actually true, and that - surely not - someone did not want her to know what the previous years' spending had been? She therefore appealed against the decision.
Can you believe this, readers: after the statutory period for the appeal had ended, she received an email saying that officers could not supply this information, because ... they needed more time. By a curious twist of fate, this means that the answer to her request, should the material needed suddenly be found after all, will emerge, and again this is pure coincidence, at the end of the period leading up to the delayed Colindale election.
Funniily enough, as a further FOI accidentally reveals, officers were able to tell one unnamed councillor the expenditure for Totteridge and Golders Green wards, when he asked, backdated to 2008/09. More evidence for the ICO, there, anyway.
But never mind. Let us not be downhearted. Mrs Angry's has her own information gathering team, her network of spies in the house of One Barnet, and this has already supplied some very interesting indication of longer term spending plans - and crucially it is important to remember this is where it was supposed at one point to go, rather than where it did.
Let's look again at the graph demonstrating their four year plan:
According to this, the luckiest ward in Barnet was meant to be Totteridge, represented then by the Tory leader and his wife - and Brian Coleman. Clearly there must have been a lot of 'need' in that exclusive area, populated by millionaires, premier club managers and rugby club owners, for brand new pavements and road surfaces, unlike, say, the more urban areas of Labour held East Finchley (represented by the Labour leader) and ... Colindale. Except ... did that money actually go there, in the end?
We don't know when this graph was made, or to what extent the missing two years spending is included with any accuracy, but clearly it shows an intention different to the end result. Compare it to the actual expenditure priorities of the last two years:
What happened to Totteridge's allocation? Or did it have a barrel load of dosh handed over in the first two years? Did Golders Green have nothing in that period? We need to know, don't we? But one thing is sure: the Labour held wards, the less affluent wards, generally received a far less generous allocation.
Mrs Angry's third FOI request was for correspondence between Cllr Cohen and Highways officers in regard to his own ward of Golders Green.
This makes for very interesting reading.
At this point, travelling as we are along this particular highway of despair, let us take time to follow a short diversion, and ponder this interesting statement from the information officer, in the response to the question:
I should advise that the council does not have a retention period for emails and for this reason officers will delete their emails when the issues raised have been dealt with. I should also advise that due to the volume of emails that highways offices receive they frequently delete emails that are no longer necessary.
How, one might ask, is the absence of any retention period for emails compatible with the demands of the Freedom of Information Act? And anyway, a senior councillor has told Mrs Angry that all deleted emails are in fact retrievable, if necessary, for a long period: is this true? If so, why not retrieve them for FOI purposes?
But surely any responsible authority has a retention policy in place: and one might think that, as the Chief Operating Officer Chris Naylor boasts, the default mode of Barnet Council is 'transparency', such a policy would be an obvious requirement?
Returning to the question of the third FOI response: it is clear from the surviving emails that there has been significant pressure exerted on highways officers from Councillor Cohen in regard to work in his own ward, and an admirable degree of care has been lavished on certain roads in particular. The residents of Princes Park Avenue are very fortunate indeed.
What is also revealed by these emails is that last year, when we were all being continually lectured about the need to make huge savings in expenditure, he obtained an additional £4 million pounds of funding for these purposes - theoretically for the whole borough, but as he himself boasts to a resident on the 10th November:
I have managed to get an additional £4 million ... princes park avenue and woodlands are 2 of the big roads being done which is taking up a substantial amount of the allocated funds.
Elsewhere it appears that some of the extra dosh - including an overspend of between £90-100 K - that was being focused on a few lucky areas comes from savings in the 2023/14 budget - where those savings were made, we do not know. The Colindale budget would seem to be one possibility, wouldn't it?
One brave officer, the assistant director of resources dared to send in a revised list, apparently with a reduced budget. On 3rd October, Councillor Cohen replied:
I am not happy with this. It was a policy to start putting more funding into pavements and this is where the need is as also shown in the residents perception survey.
Presumably the residents of wards like Colindale were not asked for their perceptions of how their roads and pavements were being maintained last year.
To another resident on January 22nd, Councillor Cohen brags:
You will note that I have been publicly criticised by my predecessor for spending monies in golders green but I am confidant that I have allocated the money correctly which includes substantial roads such as woodlands road and princes park avenue ...
The residents of Golders Green, or at least in the lucky roads that received so much lavish repair of their pavements and road surfaces, were also very fortunate in that the local councillor was very keen to make sure all work was completed on time, ie by April/May 2014.
He even suggested at one point - April 29th - that in order to accomplish this, work should be done on Saturdays: a rather odd request in the context of Golders Green: he was told by an officer this would put too much pressure on a limited budget - but Councillor Cohen also arranged for an additional 'banksman' to help out on one spot, at a cost of £500 a day, for four days, in order to manage the traffic in the favoured Princes Park Avenue.
Why so much consideration in one part of one ward, and - why the rush, you might ask?
Highways officers, this correspondence reveals, are clearly very quick to apologise, and apologise again for delays. They offer their humble thanks, via Councillor Cohen, to his residents who kindly draw their attention to their complaints about cracked pavements, and so on.
What a shame that the same degree of attention is not shown, in my own Labour held ward, to installing the safety measures agreed nearly a year ago now, at what is an accident blackspot, outside a primary school, and nursery, and has claimed one life, and seen countless serious crashes and related injuries.
If only all councillors were able to provide such efficient service for the repairs needed in their wards, you will be thinking: especially if you live in, say ... well, Colindale?
To be fair to Councillor Cohen, it may be that there is an audit trail of similarly attentive interventions by him on behalf of residents in other wards, - and this presumably would be found by a full investigation, should one be instigated - and if those emails have not been deleted, due to the absence of a retention policy, of course.
Now, before the election, Mrs Angry drew the matter of the Highways spending to the attention of certain Labour councillors. Nothing happened.
So she went to the Audit Committee and complained about the expenditure and asked if the external auditors at Grant Thornton might be taking a look at the matter. She was told that if she felt the expenditure might be unlawful, she should report it to them.
And then we had an election, and lo: a miracle occurred, when it was too late for the campaign, but still very pertinent to Colindale, of course: Labour issued a press release, explaining that they had referred the matter to ... Grant Thornton.
Hurrah, thought Mrs Angry, who had not relished the prospect of writing again to her friend and fellow auditor, Mr Paul Hughes, of Grant Thornton, with news of yet another questionable financial transaction by Barnet Council.
Labour refers £4m highways allocations to auditors
Barnet’s Labour councillors have referred highways allocations worth £4m to the external auditors to investigate after discovering that no formal decision had been taken on which schemes were awarded money. The final decision over which schemes were progressed was delegated to the Cabinet Member for Environment whose own ward received the highest award of over £1m for 2013/14.
Leader of the Barnet Labour Group, Cllr Alison Moore said: “It’s hard not to be left with the perception that the process has been politically biased during an election year and given the sums of money involved there is clearly a public interest in this issue being investigated further. “Members of the public will not understand how an individual Cabinet Member can be directly involved in the allocation of resources to their own ward in this way with no real formal decision and no public scrutiny or challenge.”
Cllr Alan Schneiderman, Labour’s Environment Spokesperson said: “The whole thing is a scandal! Opposition councillors were just by-passed by the Cabinet Member and not even asked to submit schemes for consideration. Quite how they decided what roads to include is surprising when we can all see roads and pavements in a far worse state than those chosen to be repaired.”
Here is a copy of the letter sent to Grant Thornton:
Dear Paul Hughes & Nick Taylor (Grant Thornton LLP)
We are writing to you to set out our concerns about the way council resources have been allocated in the last financial year for highways schemes.
An FoI request by local resident, Ms Theresa Musgrove, shows that the ward of the then Cabinet Member for Environment - Golders Green - was allocated significantly more resources compared to any other ward. Our detailed concerns are as follows:
1. Cabinet agreed on 4 November 2013 to allocate an additional £4m to roads and footway schemes, and delegated the allocation to the Cabinet Member for Environment:
2. The Cabinet Member for Environment was directly involved in the drawing up of the list of schemes.
3. According to an officer briefing note (attached) that was compiled at the beginning of May 2014, the list of schemes was prepared for consideration by Cabinet, but the decision on the final list of schemes did not go to Cabinet for formal decision, and no Cabinet Member DPR was published to formalise the decision about which schemes were chosen.
4. The proposed list of schemes should have been subject to scrutiny and call-in - £4m is over the threshold for call-in.
5. The list of schemes was only formally submitted to Area Environment Sub-Committees for approval on 26 March 2014, but this appears to be for rubber-stamping/information as schemes on the list had already been completed or progressed before:
6. It is not clear what the process was for consulting members to ascertain which schemes should be included in drawing up the proposals, and how some schemes put forward by members were included compared with others that weren’t included.
7. It appears that administration councillors were consulted on the schemes – the attached officer briefing note refers to changes being made following comments by the Hale councillors.
8. The allocations disproportionately benefitted 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 (6).
9. Hale ward had the second highest allocation of resources over the year, and the highest number of schemes for the additional funding
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).
11. Only about 15 of the 44 schemes funded by the additional money were on the reserve list of schemes, so no formal decision on 29 schemes has been made other than the very late approval at Area Environment Sub-Committees on 26 March 2014.
12. The criteria against which these 29 schemes have been selected has not been published or made clear – particularly the reasons why these were chosen compared with any others – including those on the reserve list.
13. Only 7 out of the 44 schemes funded by the additional £4m were in Labour held wards. Although policy adopted in recent years is not to have a straight geographical distribution of resources but to base it on need, we believe there are roads and footways in each Labour held ward that would meet any robust criteria as much as roads in Conservative held wards.
14. As far as we are aware no Labour councillors were consulted on the proposed schemes prior to them being submitted to the Area Environment Sub-Committee, and no Labour councillors were asked to submit roads/footways for consideration as part of the process.
15. 2013/14 was an election year, and many of the schemes were progressed very close to the local elections.
We also attach email correspondence from a further FoI request by Ms Musgrove that gives further details of the Cabinet Member’s involvement in the selection of schemes. We also enclose below email correspondence between Cllr Moore and officers on the subject.
We ask that you investigate further as in our view the decision-making process has clearly not been robust or transparent, but despite raising the issue on several occasions with the council they maintain that no procedures have been breached. It does lead to the perception that the process has been politically biased during an election year and given the sums of money involved there is clearly a public interest in this issue.
We look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible.
Cllr Alison Moore
Leader of the Barnet Labour Group
Writing to Mr Paul Hughes, of Grant Thornton, is always a rather demoralising activity, in truth.
Mr Hughes, as we know, rather than adopting the overly cynical audit approach pursued by Mrs Angry, subscribes to the rather rosier view that nothing is ever as bad as it seems, and if it is, will fall naturally under the heading of matters he may or may not take into account, at some unspecified date in the future, and that there is never any pressing cause for alarm.
Such equanimity is laudable, of course, and has served Mr Hughes well throughout the calls for an investigation into the MetPro scandal, and the matter of the £16.1 million upfront capital investment from Capita that turned out to be quite the reverse, a payment from us to Capita; and matters relating to the NSL contract, and ... oh, stuff like that.
It was of no surprise, therefore to read here that Mr Hughes, on receipt of the complaint from the Labour group, has apparently shrugged this one off too, and referred it back to Barnet, and our Monitoring Officer.
We are told that our external auditors 'would be taking no further action at this time'.
Odd, because the matter has already been dealt with internally: in the form of a complaint to the Monitoring Officer's line manager, ie the Chief Executive, from one of the Colindale councillors. The logical step, therefore, would be for the matter now to go to external scrutiny, surely? And of course that was the recommendation of the Audit Committee.
One might be forgiven for wondering what is the purpose of the external auditor, if not to investigate such potentially serious cases.
Mrs Angry once asked Mr Hughes this very question, in fact, but he declined to respond.
Quite clearly there is a conflict of interest in the councillor in charge of Highways Funding approving the expenditure in his own ward, especially if it results in such disparity between levels of funding.
Equally obvious is that officers will be placed in a very difficult position when under pressure to agree works in the ward of the member with overall responsibility for their department.
More immediately there is the question of the impact of lack of funding in regard to the election in Colindale, and the benefit it may have brought, intentionally or not, to the campaign of the members in Golders Green.
If one ward is given such a high level of funding in the run up to polling day, and another one has funding withheld, is this not likely to have an effect on the way residents view their local representatives?
Surely there should be safeguards in place in any system which oversees the allocation of funds to ensure that all decisions are indeed fairly made, and independent of all potential political influence, or perception of conflict of interest?
In order to establish that the current system is fair, and independent of any such risk, in my view there must now be a full and open investigation of the way in which this funding was distributed.
If the external auditor refuses to examine the allocation of Highways Funding, it would appear that there is quite clearly now a need to take this matter elsewhere, and perhaps that is the only chance of reassuring the taxpayers of this borough that there has been no wrongdoing, and that their money has been used so as to give equitable benefit to all residents of the borough - wherever they happen to live.