Monday, 30 June 2014
The Highway to Hell: Tory councillor Dean Cohen, Brian Coleman, and another FOI response that Barnet tried to avoid
Last Thursday was the day of the Colindale election, an event delayed by the untimely death of the Green party candidate, and taking place more than a month after the rest of the borough went to the polls.
Colindale has returned three Labour councillors: Zakia Zubairi, Nagus Narenthira, and Gill Sergeant. Returned three Labour councillors with a 68% share of the vote, a swing of ten per cent, and seeing the Tories beaten to humiliating level of only 15% - close to the UKIP share of 10%.
This ward has traditionally been a Labour stronghold, but Colindale is one of those areas that have been targeted in the insidious Tory plantation strategy, via a housing policy in which so called 'regeneration' schemes see areas of social housing and rental accommodation for low income families replaced and dominated by private development schemes.
Beaufort Park - whose quota of affordable housing was removed by the Tories last year - and similar developments are changing the face of areas like this.
The Peel Centre, a former police HQ is also due for development - and of course the Brent Cross Cricklewood plan, that will transform the neighbouring area, is going to be massive in terms of transformation of the western side of the borough.
The result in the long term on the political and electoral landscape will be hugely significant.
In Colindale and West Hendon these schemes are having - and will continue to have - a devastating impact on the local communities.
The faux regeneration might be seen as some as designed to remove the sense of community, as part of a strategy of social engineering.
Call it gerrymandering, if you like, or social cleansing: whether deliberate and politically motivated or not, the effect is the same.
In line with the Barnet Tory wish for only the 'well off' who are not 'dependent on council services', the poorest residents are being pushed out of these areas, and out of the borough.
The demographic representation of wards like these is rapidly changing, but the process is not complete, and in the interim period, the time of change, life is becoming increasingly difficult for those who remain in the parts of the borough which are being prepared for development, or which simply do not register as a priority for support from our Tory councillors.
Yes, we are talking about the interesting case of the Highways expenditure, a matter now under investigation by the Monitoring Officer of Barnet Council.
On the way to the polling station, on Thursday, as the story featured above, published in the current edition of Private Eye suggests, voters in Colindale ward may well have noticed that the streets and pavements in their ward are curiously ill maintained.
If they tripped up on a loose paving stone, or stood forlornly at the edge of a pot hole filled road, wishing there was a safe crossing point, they may just have wondered why this was so - why their pavements, and their roads are in such a state.
They might have wondered why their local council has not addressed these problems - and left the roads and pavements in such a state.
Clearly we live in an age of austerity, and tightening belts, cuts in budgets.
We are so strapped for cash, apparently, that our Tory councillors must deprive disabled children of their after school and holiday respite care, in order to pay for such necessities as their pre-election 23 pence a week tax cut.
Maintaining the highways of Broken Barnet, the road surfaces and pavements, therefore, might be expected to take a low priority, at the moment.
Well: yes, and - no.
Yes, if you live in a Labour held ward.
No, if you are in a Tory ward.
If you live in Golders Green, a Tory ward represented by the Cabinet member who had the last word on the allocation of funds for highways - kercching! Well done. Your pavements are likely to be crack free, lovingly and recently installed, and the surface of your road as smooth as silk.
Oh: unless you live in the further extremes of the ward, the NW2 side, where there is a certain amount of social housing, and where poor people live, who are likely to vote Labour.
These uncomfortable truths have been well documented, in various posts on this blog, and indeed are the subject of a formal complaint by Labour (eventually).
But that is not the end of the story.
When Mrs Angry made the original FOI request for the breakdown of the Highways expenditure, only a partial response was given.
There was a refusal to supply the first two years of the former administration term's funding, on the clearly spurious grounds that such information was not available.
This data was important, as clearly we needed to see the full range of expenditure, and is necessary to verify Councillor Cohen's claims in regard to his own wards' needs.
An appeal was made contesting the withheld information.
When it came to the date when a response was due, an officer sent a statement that the authority needed another twenty days in which to respond.
By coincidence, this dragged the moment of disclosure right up to the time of the Colindale election. Wasn't that a surprise?
At last the response emerged.
The previous refusal, Mrs Angry was told, was certainly not as she suggested, due to political sensitivities, but due to 'mistakes and incorrect assumptions' made by another officer.
But how revealing is this response, with the previous two years expenditure.
Dean Cohen took over Cabinet responsibility for Environment in May 2012, after Brian Coleman's loss of his Assembly post sent his political career into freefall.
Cohen therefore had pretty much a free reign over spending for the last two years shown on this spreadsheet, as he altered the system of allocation from one of equal distribution to one by which he could have the last say in expenditure.
Now look at this written question, submitted to Full Council on the 21st January 2014 by former councillor Brian Coleman, in regard to spending in Golders Green ward: Mrs Angry's emphasis in glaring red -
Question 64 Councillor Brian Coleman
What is the average amount being spent in a Ward on pavement and highways repairs and renewals during the current financial year? How much has been spent or is planned to be spent in Golders Green Ward?
Answer by Councillor Dean Cohen
Approximately £800,000 is being spent in Golders Green ward in 2013/14. This is as a result of the lack of investment in previous years, for example in the years 2010/11 and 2011/12 Golders Green ward was awarded less than £20,000 in total. I asked officers specifically to work on a list based on need, not like previous years on an even split in constituencies.
Set aside the fact that he claims £800,000 was to be spent that year in Golders Green, whereas the total was more than £1 million - Dean Cohen has given several excuses for the disproportionate amount of money channelled into his own ward. Having a long road in it - that was one memorable reason, but he also has promoted the idea that such a large input was due to lack of funding, and here we see specifically he has claimed that only £20,000 in total was spent in the two years whose details have only just been released.
According to the new information, in those two years, a total of nearly £276,000 was spent.
Even if Councillor Cohen were to try to say now that there had been a typo, and the figure was £200,000, clearly that too would be wrong.
Mrs Angry has asked him to explain the apparently misleading information given to Full Council, and will update the post if and when he does. As of Monday, 10.00 am, he has not done so.
It is true to say that in the period where his former colleague Brian Coleman was responsible for Environment, Golders Green fared less well than other Tory wards, but in no way was it underfunded in the wider sense.
Golders Green Ward received more money in this period than Colindale, yet Colindale's underinvestment was followed by a sum less than £93,000 in the next year, and nothing at all last year, compared to Cohen's ward being given £564,000 in the next year, and more than a million in the final year - before the election.
Golders Green also benefited from some joint funding with neighbouring Childs Hill, which is fortunate for the then Libdem held ward, which, as you will see was given in two years the tiniest possible level of funding: £35,000 in the first year, and just under £41,000 the next.
Quite why Cllr Cohen felt it was necessary to stop joint funding to wards is rather puzzling.
Clearly to him the boundaries between wards are of some significance, and important to maintain when it comes to funding.
Interesting, incidentally, that in the first year, Totteridge, then Cabinet member Coleman's ward receives a whopping handout of nearly £425,000.
That this was at the time when there was supposed to be equal allocation suggests how influential a Cabinet member may be, in terms of arguing for higher funding, when it comes to their own wards.
Did the hugely affluent, leafy lanes of Totteridge really require such a high level of expenditure when Labour wards of Woodhouse, East Finchley and Coppetts, represented by Labour and rebel Tory Kate Salinger were given nothing?
Yes: just look at the figures for Labour stronghold, Woodhouse Ward.
For two years, no funding. At all.
East Finchley, the equally staunch Labour ward, represented by the group's leader Alison Moore: nothing at all in the first year.
Coppetts, which had two Labour councillors, and one maverick Tory, Kate Salinger, the only Tory to dare to defy Coleman that year over the allowance increase row, when he was whip - now defeated by a Labour candidate: no funding.
Of course there may be perfectly rational reasons for these curious decisions: we look forward to the explanations.
Broadly speaking, in the first two years, the funding was more widespread. Quite evidently, after there is a change in the Cabinet member, need was defined not so much in terms of equitable benefit, but on rather ill defined subjective criteria. And any safeguard that a commitment to equal allocation gave was lost.
Apart from an apparently anamolous degree of generosity to Burnt Oak, Tory wards have done particularly well in the total expenditure: but then clearly the 'needs' of the Tory wards were in some way deserving of more support - and their political status was purely coincidental.
What is most worrying is the level and proportion of funding in the year leading up to the elections, in May.
There is quite clearly an electoral advantage that will attach to a candidate who approves a million pounds worth of funding for his own ward in the form of high visibility expenditure: the very ground his constituents walk on, or the roads on which they drive their cars.
As Councillor Cohen comments in one of the emails to Highways officers included in a previous FOI request, a demand for such maintenance comes as a high priority in resident surveys, for obvious reasons.
Questions must be asked about the very high level of expenditure in marginal Hale ward: again, there is clearly a political advantage to incumbent Tory councillors if this area receives such a high level of maintenance in the run up to the election.
Equally in a Labour held area, it is reasonable to assume that a low level of expenditure will have an impact on the councillors' electoral prospects as constituents may become dissatisfied by the efforts made on their behalf by their representatives.
As it turned out, the delay in the election for Colindale meant that the issue of the lack of any budget for this ward was outed and voters informed by Labour in their election literature, so the policy of underfunding would appear to have backfired in this instance.
Who can tell, however, how it may have influenced voters elsewhere, especially in Hale, or Mill Hill?
It is clear to see that there is an urgent need for reform of the system of approval for any significant expenditure, to mitigate the risk that no political influence can be brought to bear - or the perception that it could be - on the final outcome.
Safeguards must be put in place that ensure the fairest possible allocation of funds, on the basis of real need, and not for any other reason, to prevent any perception, proven or not, of favouritism.
The Monitoring Officer is currently investigating the Labour Party's complaint about the Highways budget, Labour having first written to our external auditor, Grant Thornton: and Mrs Angry has updated the Monitoring Officer regarding the new information - but let's remind ourselves of the Labour group's statement:
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.”
Labour's complaint was specifically in regard to what has happened since the current Environment spokesperson took over, and detailed in the letter to the auditor are claims regarding the process of decision making regarding an extra £4 million agreed last year which they claim appears to have been spent on the wards he approved, without a fair system of consultation. See here the letter sent to Grant Thornton:
On receipt of the evidence from this latest FOI response, it would seem clear, however, that the problem maybe even wider than first thought. Perhaps it is time to scrutinise any other ward based expenditure?
The scandalous matter of the Highways expenditure raises serious questions about the way in which tax payers money, in the form of budget allocation, is used in Barnet - is it for the benefit of all, or for the benefit of only those favoured by the ruling administration?
Yet again, in Broken Barnet, we find ourselves enmeshed in a culture of denial; denial of the needs of those without a voice, the forgotten residents of our borough.
The Tories, as always,retreat to the safety of their comfort zone: a place where all the people like them live, or, they think, aspire to live: the roads where the pavements are not cracked, and potholes are instantly filled.
If some live in less advantaged areas, it must be their fault, according to the philosophy of our Tory councillors, and these people should not be rewarded by, or even expect, the same level of investment as those who who live in the nicer parts of the borough.
Worse still, it would appear that those who vote to return a Conservative council are rewarded by a higher standard of service from their local authority.
This is the logical conclusion of the Easycouncil ideal, of course, so do thank Mike Freer, if he is your MP, and you object to a two tier scheme of funding for the pavements and roads of Broken Barnet.
Those who pay the most, who vote the right way - they get the better service: and this is your choice, they would argue. You have chosen to be poor, or old, or young, or disabled, and you must take the consequences.
And if you don't have the means to afford any 'choice'?
Or, if necessary, we'll give you one way ticket out of here, to take you over the border into someone else's responsibility.
How ever did we get to this point: our borough run by such a cynical, decadent Tory administration - one for the few, and not the many?
With apologies to one famous former resident of Golders Green, music hall star Marie Lloyd - all together now:
Oh, Lady Porter, what did we do?
We wanted a democratically run local authority,
And we've ended up with you.
Yep. This is Broken Barnet: June 2014 - a Tory flagship council, and a model for local government.
Don't say you haven't been warned.