Friday 26 October 2012

Brian Coleman: clinging to the wreckage - last night's scrutiny meeting

Dealing with a badly behaved child is something all parents have to face, at some point. Tantrums, fighting, arguing, a whole range of misbehaviour that must be met by firm discipline: of course Mrs Angry never quite got the hang of this, and was always puzzled by the advice given in parental guides that bad behaviour should be met by sending your errant child to sit on the naughty step, or upstairs to his or her room. Mrs Angry's daughter would simply wobble her lip, and cry, and make Mrs Angry feel dreadfully guilty, and her brother would fold his arms defiantly and say: No. I won't: and you can't make me. Boys, see.

Earlier this week, Barnet Tory leader Richard Cornelius, in a belated response to the news that his chum Councillor Brian Coleman had been charged with assault by beating and a driving offence, indicated that his colleague would not be suspended, as that might prejudice his trial, but would merely be asked to 'take a back seat' in the political life of Broken Barnet. 

This reaction  provoked a universal reaction of astonishment and indignation, including, it seems, within senior Tory ranks, and Councillor Cornelius was obliged to perform a speedy u turn, announcing that he was instigating the procedure to suspend him. 

Last night at Hendon Town Hall saw the meeting of the Budget and Performance Overview and Scrutiny committee, a committee chaired by ... Councillor Brian Coleman. Would he be allowed to chair this, in view of the proceedings to suspend him? Surely not, you might think. Surely Brian would feel that his position was untenable and would agree to stay away?

No. I won't: and you can't make me.

And when we arrived in the committee room, there was his name in the Chair's place at the table, and look: as members took their seats, in came a familiar figure: the elephant entering the room.

There was a lot of coughing, (and not just from Mrs Angry, who is still suffering, yes, thank you for asking) and a fair degree of repressed amusement in the public seating - which was in fact filled almost entirely by senior officers. 

Councillors sat opposite the Chair with bemused expressions.

The Chair tapped his little hammer: Coleman is the only Chair of any committee who uses such a prop, of course, appealing as it does to his need to feel omnipotent, Thor like in his super powers. Last night's opening tap, however, was rather less confident than the performance at the previous meeting he chaired, in which he treated members of the public and fellow councillors with gobsmacking officiousness and condescension.

Coleman was clearly on his best behaviour, in fact: subdued, quiet, no grandstanding, no ranting, a few timid attempts at the odd mildly humorous remark, but nothing on the usual scale of performance.

What was on the agenda seemed hardly of any importance, compared to the the extraordinary circumstances of the meeting itself, but on we went.

Alan Schneiderman pointed out that the so called savings in the library budget were nonsense. A senior officer tried to make out that they were real. A typical One Barnet argument, in fact. 

Cabinet member for libraries, Robert Rams, sat at the table, swinging his little legs, clearly bored, covertly looking at twitter on his phone. Mrs Angry sent him a stern tweet, reprimanding him for sitting at the table tweeting, rather than listening to the committee. He turned round and laughed. Another councillor who should be sent to his room, preferably until well after the next election.

Councillor John Marshall had made it to the meeting, with arm in sling, after falling in the park the other day. Mrs Angry had commiserated with the old boy at the beginning of the meeting, and tried tactfully to establish whether or not anyone had pushed him, but apparently not. There may however have been an undetected blow to his venerable old head, as he now piped up, in his peevish patrician voice, and suggested that Councillor Robert Rams was now one of the 'heroes' of Hampstead Garden Suburb for his wonderful support for their - ha - 'community library' with its millionaire Tory volunteers: proof, he said, of the Big Society in action. Marvellous. Wonder who Councillor Marshall thinks is the hero of Friern Barnet, and their small society venture, the people's library? Occupier and community librarian Phoenix?

 After an awkward mention of street lighting, and erm, a legal challenge of the procurement process, we moved swiftly on to ah ... oops, parking. This was, of course the highly contentious issue which has galvanised the borough's political insurgence, and played a major part in the political downfall of the Chair, Brian Coleman, at the GLA elections, and in his previous capacity as Cabinet member for environment. 

Again, much debate about whether or not any of the mythical One Barnet savings have been produced, as promised by the privatisation of the parking payment contract so fortuitously awarded to our friends at NSL - or whether in real terms, income has dropped rather alarmingly. 

No: Ms Pam Wharfe was very reassuring,  and seemed to think it would all balance out nicely in the end. Aww. That's nice. Mrs Angry likes a happy ending, don't you?

There followed a rather unfortunate performance at the table by Councillor Dean Cohen, who is the successor to Coleman's cabinet post, referring, with Freudian slippage on a grand scale to, oh dear, incidents of illegal parking, CCTV, and suspension  ...  of parking bays. 

A matter of real public concern, of course, in all our high streets.

Following in his new role of One Barnet sceptic, Tory Councillor Hugh Rayner remarked that he did not see why we should pay for any inefficiencies of our parking contractors, despite the fact that, as Ms Wharfe informed us, the contract made it impossible to demand real changes in the way the parking is run. 

Oh dear, oh dear, elected members and senior officers of the London Borough of Barnet: no, and this is the point which you have refused to address: you are about to surrender control of £1billion worth of our council services to the private sector, and the history of total incompetence in this borough's management of procurement and contracting hardly inspires one to believe that the new contracts will address the needs of residents affected by the new provision of service delivery, does it?

Ah, but - more worrying signs of confusion from Cllr Marshall. He wants to tell us that  of course residents are now getting a much better service, as a result of the newly privatised parking services. 

Erm: no, Councillor Marshall, dear sir - no, they are not. 

Parking attendants do not have targets to meet, he informed us, with the authority of someone who knows nothing about the finer details of any given subject,  but has been educated to sound like he does.

Finally a discussion about the committee's ability to scrutinise the One Barnet process. Labour leader Alison Moore thought it was clearly a good idea to look at recent examples of failure, or where authorities had withdrawn from such proposals, as in Cornwall, Somerset, Suffolk, Edinburgh, etc etc. 

Of course at last night's meeting, new interim CEO Andrew Travers had been asked which sort of similar case studies his officers had looked at, and he could not quite recall, but agreed to come up with a list, one which Mrs Angry would certainly like to see, although she suspects it will be rather short.

Alison also reminded the Chair of the need to establish clearly what is happening with the last minute proposal - by the senior management team, acting without authorisation from the members - to change the model of outsourcing for one set of services to a joint venture. 

Coleman announced grandly that there would be no joint venture, as the leader had categorically informed the committee last time. Ah. Funnily enough, the new CEO had referred again to the consideration of this new model only the night before, with absolutely no suggestion that it had been discounted. This is, of course, because the senior management team are really the driving force for One Barnet and have every intention of promoting their own favoured option.

Coleman, continuing his finely observed portrayal of understated martyrdom, and dignity in adversity, remarked that in regard to the Labour leader's concerns, 'I don't disagree with anything you say' ... his only objection was really as to the sort of advice the committee ought to take.

Coleman, for all his faults, is a pragmatist, and knows that One Barnet is doomed. Hugh Rayner knows it too: and so does almost everyone now, it seems, apart from the leader and deputy leader of the Tory group.

The Labour group has now called for a vote of no confidence in leader Cornelius over the One Barnet fiasco. 

This will take place in the next few days. Between then and now, a lot of interesting manouvres will be taking place, Mrs Angry would imagine, as the increasingly open dissent amongst the Tory backbenchers comes into play. 

Many of them are deeply worried - at last - by the extent of the enormous committment to One Barnet and they are also concerned by the continual flow of negative publicity related to their colleague Brian Coleman. They know that their chances of being re elected in 2014 are fatally compromised. They have an opportunity to do something now, and frankly if he loses his position, Cornelius has only himself to blame.

And that was that.

Coleman took his little hammer and tapped it, lightly, just once, declaring the meeting ended. People drifted out of the room. He left quietly.

And that, citizens, is how the world ends, in Broken Barnet: not with a bang, but a whimper. The slow, painful recognition that finally, the impact of the things we do, and the things we fail to do, catch up with all of us, eventually - and then we have to face the consequences.

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