Wednesday 9 February 2011

Chomping at the bit: a reform school for councillors

Public speaking doesn't come easily to many people, you know.

Mrs X, for example, is terribly shy and likes to keep a low profile, and if called upon to address a meeting, will do so well enough, but only because she has had careful training, at no little expense, I can tell you. In fact Mrs Angry has paid several thousands of pounds to have her coached by a marvellous voice training company: got the name from Barnet council expenses, actually.

Yes, did you know, our cash strapped council has spent oh, around £15,000 in the last three months on staff in need of elocution lessons? Money well spent, I'd say, wouldn't you? Please stop whinging about children's centres and libraries and wardens: we simply must have council officers who can enunciate and project, with clarity, posture, pitch: and entertainment, and this company teaches all of these admirable qualities. Good morning, yes: I have called you in to discuss your compulsory redundancy package, but you will be relieved to know that I am going to deliver it in an engaging, animated and well modulated tone of voice.

Had the council officers present at tonight's special committee meeting practised their breathing exercises, and walked around the committee room with a book on their heads, to improve their posture before we arrived? Hard to tell.

This meeting, of course, was called to review (or not to review, as it turned out) the notorious constitution 'reforms' which our council is shamelessly trying to sneak through, and which, if adopted, will seriously curtail the free debate of council policy in this borough, and give increase powers to the much abused Cabinet system of decision making.

I would guess, though, that our Tory councillors have not yet been on the lavish One Barnet speech, presentation and body language workshop, though, as they seemed awfully quiet and ill at ease, and desperately tongue tied. One or two looked as if they weren't actually sure where they were, or why they were there. The rest rather looked as if they wished they were anywhere else. And somewhere else indeed was the author of the most outrageous 'reform' of all, our Councillor Coleman, who perhaps had a dinner engagement - probably not in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

I say they met to review reforms. In fact they seemed to have met to review the review of reforms, and to debate the constitution of the constitution review group. It was a meeting about other meetings which may or not take place. These meetings may or may not take place at a time that is known, and consist of certain members, or they may not. You will have to guess. Why do you want to know? Look: the idea is that the more vague the timetable, the easier it is to drag the whole thing out, and vote in the most outrageous proposals when no one is looking, obviously ...

The meeting was chaired by the Mayor, Anthony Finn. The other members present were Tories Melvin Cohen, Richard Cornelius, Andrew Harper, and Joan Scannell, (who was silent, and frankly rather bewildered, throughout). For the Libdems there was Jack Cohen, and Labour members Alison Moore, Barry Rawlings and Alan Schneiderman.

There was actually some argument - very daring - about the constitution of the constitution review group. Jack Cohen, who often represents the only real voice of sanity and opposition in Barnet council meetings, raised concerns about the political balance of any such group, and that it should not just be a rubber stamping body. In a taste of what is to come should Coleman's motion be adopted, the Mayor suggested that as a minority party, the Libdems were overrepresented and therefore, he shouldn't 'push it' ...

The motions were not after all, it seemed, going to be properly debated in this meeting, but referred on into a maze of other meetings, however: Alison Moore briefly addressed the issue of Coleman's preposterous proposal of restricted speakers. What, she asked waspishly (which is quite strong for a Labour councillor), was his purpose in putting such a motion?

Melvin Cohen had evidently been briefed to respond, but struggled to find anything useful to say, because of course you cannot defend the indefensible, stared into the mid distance and mumbled rather sheepishly (come, come: breath in, breath out, project, Melvin ... ) something about the Mayor having discretion. (Hmm. Perhaps the Mayor should have used some of that last week when the Times asked him to pose for a photo with his lips hovering naughtily over the gasping mouth of that resuscitation dummy ..?)

The other Tories were quiet and kept their heads down. An awkward silence ensued. Well, said Jack Cohen, I see it as a compliment that that you want to shut my group up ... more silence.

The Tories looked around the room whistling, inspecting their manicures etc.

What, demanded Labour's Barry Rawlings, is the purpose, anyway, of Brian Coleman?

This was, of course, a rhetorical question, or perhaps, more truthfully, a riddle as old as time itself.

Financial matters next, the proposal that up to £2.5 million pounds of our money could be spent with only the approval of the Cabinet or Cabinet resources committee. Alison Moore pointed out, helpfully, that this was A LOT OF MONEY, which it is, isn't it, citizens, but I trust our Cabinet councillors not to do anything silly with it, don't you? Like invest it in a pyramid savings scam, or an Icelandic bank, or voice training workshops?

Councillor Richard Cornelius, who, er, has not the most challenging approach to complex issues and is therefore admirably suited to the purposes of this committee, said he was troubled and trying to visualise it - ie the new spending allowance, rather than a suitcase full of £2.5 million used notes, I assume. He said he was a new boy and wasn't sure how often the new scope would be needed? Actually, in his funny little way, he might have stumbled on something. If you are allowed to spend £2.5 million at one go, with no restrictions on how often you may do so? That is rather worrying, isn't it?

Mr Reasonable had exercised his right - while it still existed - to address the meeting.

He commented on the restrictive practices already in place which made it almost impossible to ask significant and pertinent questions at council meetings. There are all sorts of unfathomable, complex and unfair rules which prevent items on certain issues being raised, often within certain time limits, and this of course is designed to discourage members of the public from trying to exercise their democratic rights and engage in council decision making.

Localism is supposed to be empowering local communities to become more active in the decision making process, and if our home grown councillors weren't a bunch of power crazed Tory mutants, that is what they would be seeking to do here in Broken Barnet.

Mr Reasonable, following through on the idea of extending public involvement, pointed out that if they really wanted people to participate more, they might stop making it so hard for them to do so.

He suggested a tiny amendment, of one word, from 'any' to 'that' in one of the proposals, which would have made it easier for a member of the public to raise a question at a meeting.

'It's not a big ask, and will send a small signal that you are prepared to listen. Failure to do so will show councillors' lack of interest in engagement with the people.'

He was wasting his time.

It was clear from the regrettably untrained body language and disengaged expression of the Tory councillors that they have absolutely no understanding of Mr Dix's point, nor interest in what he was trying to say. They resent the intrusion of members of the public, their electors, into council procedure, and simply do not accept that they are accountable to us in any detail. Apart from a dismissive comment from Andrew Harper that scrutiny committees don't make decisions, anyway, there was no reaction or interest from the Tory councillors, nothing. Yet again, sullen silence.

John Dix tried again. He said he would love there to be a root and branch review of public participation in council procedures. It would be great to have some sort of debate about this. He was asked by the Tories if anyone would really be interested in this. He said he thought the public would be chomping at the bit.

Really? asked the Mayor, and then, in a breath taking, Brechtian disregard for the conventions of theatre/ council protocol, turned to the gallery and saucily asked Mrs X and another woman: 'Ladies: are you chomping at the bit?'

A chance for Mrs X to participate in a council meeting, and show her confidence in public speaking. 'Oh yes,' she confirmed, trying not to think about his seductive resuscitation technique: 'Chomping at the bit.That's right.' 'Me too. Chomping' added the other woman, as insolently as possible. The Mayor raised his eyebrows, and expressed his surprise.

Andrew Harper stepped in now and made pointed remarks about committees being for members.

Alison Moore thought it really important we drive forward the development of evidence of scrutiny. There is absolutely, she insisted, a role for drawing evidence from a wider range of the public. The council's proposals had missed a real trick.

Jack Cohen put things more bluntly: for effective scrutiny, we must have dialogue with residents.

There then ensued a council officer led discussion of 'focus groups'. They seemed to want to push the idea that using these mysterious focus groups is a substitute for giving open access to any resident to put a question to a council meeting and engage in effective, direct scrutiny of council policy. Of course during the Budget consultation, instead of the cancelled open public meeting the council made brilliant use of the newly resurrected Citizens Panel (sadly sans Mrs Angry), a body with no objective or independent assessment of choice of invited members, and this is obviously seen as the way forward, a controlled gesture of engagement: safe sex with no risk of unwanted consequences, you might say.

Focus groups, however, are still a bridge too far for some Tory members. Richard Cornelius said he wasn't sure about them, because, get this: they might 'devalue' the participation of an elected member. What?

In my sorry, Mrs X's scrawled notes we have the following: 'M.Cohen. A member led matter. No added value, asking members of the public to contribute ...'

Yes, really.

Alison Moore reminded the meeting that inspections had criticised the standard of scrutiny in Barnet.

Andrew Harper pointed out sniffily that members can 'talk to the public and bring their views along to meetings'. .

Jack Cohen reminded Mr Harper of the spectacular lack of success in this regard exemplified by the recent 'cherry picking' performance given by Brian Coleman at the full council meeting (where he chose to read out and sneer at selected comments from Garden Suburb residents - ie Harper's constituents ...) Harper turned on him: 'And you've never done that?'

No, said Cohen. He became quite cross: he said some councillors work hard for their residents ...

Oh, interrupted the Mayor: 'Brian Coleman does a good day's work' ... when the laughter faded away, Cohen continued to say that residents can - or should - be helped through the maze and labyrinth of council procedures in order to become more fully involved. The horrified look on the Tories' faces said it all, and the discussion ended.

Alan Schneiderman attempted to move a proposal of some sort in regard to at least some greater use of focus groups. Your Tory councillors voted against this. Why? Why do you think?

As far as they are concerned, the new constitution proposals, carefully glossed over last night, are merely a wheeze to concentrate power even more in the hands of the Cabinet, push debate to the sidelines, and to miminimise the contribution of opposition councillors. Last night they were frankly perplexed as to why the issue of greater public participation was even raised.

They simply do not get it. They do not see how alienated they are from the electorate which has placed them in power, and how dangerous their contemptuous attitudes are. They have no understanding of the rapidly growing anger of residents in this borough, and they care even less.


Mr Reasonable said...

As ever an accurate and comprehensive account of the meeting. Sadly, as you say Mrs Angry, they just don't get it. Members (cabinet only) rule, residents obey. Not for much longer. The revolution is coming, it is only a matter of when!

Mrs Angry said...

we are the petty bourgeois bloggers of Broken Barnet: united, we'll never be defeated, Mr Reasonable ...

Moaneybat said...

I wonder if our conmic Mayor would have asked two men in the gallery if they were “chomping at the bit?” If he had any respect for his opposite gender in the public gallery, then he should have chosen another phrase to see if there was agreement from the public gallery on the issue.

I am pleased the Renovated Labour opposition and a few others have, followed your lead in exposing the local Conservatives whom, would make Pinochet and Stalin, look like Angels, amongst them shamefully, a class of people whom should know better given the history of Europe as recently as the 1990s. Our local Conservatives wish to sweep their errors of judgement under the carpet. Don’t let them do so.

Moaneybat said...

Two great events in one day. First the
victory for six councils in the High Court against the Conservative Government over the schools building programme followed by a 7000 year old civilisation showing us how to deal with those whom think, support and act like the Colemans. We must not leave it before Coleman's taxi has driven him home.

Mrs Angry said...

dear Moaneybat: how right you are ...