The role of Mayor of Broken Barnet is supposed to be non political, but the current incumbent, Melvin Cohen, enjoying his second term, retains his post as Chair of the Constitution committee
It will probably come as a surprise to most citizens of Broken Barnet that their local council has a Constitution, and that there is a committee which oversees the management of that Constitution, as well as, yes the rather difficult concepts of ethics and, oh dear - 'probity'. Yes, yes, ethics and probity. In Broken Barnet. Guided by our Tory councillors. No, really.
Last night's meeting was sparsely attended, but in fact it was dealing with an issue of momentous signficance: the issue of the Residents Forums, and a proposed review of the way in which they work - or rather do not work - since the Tories imposed draconian rules, two years ago, which ruthlessly repressed the right of residents to raise any matter which the council deemed related to 'policy', and effectively removed any danger of the One Barnet privatisation, or any controversial council action, being openly debated with residents.
The Tories' obsessive fear of free debate, of joined up thinking, whereby carefully isolated issues falling safely under the category of 'public works' could come together and form a coherent challenge to policy ... well, this was the dreadful fate that must be prevented, at all costs.
The Judicial Review of One Barnet, due to go to the Appeal Court next week, highlighted the silencing of the Forums as a key part of the evidence which successfully argued that Barnet Council had never had any intention to consult with us about the privatisation, and that it was therefore in breach of statutory obligations.
And so, two years later, when the outsourcing process is complete, and there is nothing to lose, Melvin Cohen, the Tory Chair of the Constitution committee who was so keen to approve the introduction of such outrageous restrictions, now proposed to review them, having ignored every form of protest throughout the critical period, of course.
The council had tried to nobble this review by - yet again - an exercise in nonsultation - consultation carried out in virtual secrecy, with the clear intention of creating proof of lack of interest that would endorse whatever they wished to do to the Forums. Unfortunately, local activists took the matters into their own hands, as is generally the case now in this borough, and promoted the survey, and an alternative survey designed by fellow blogger Mr Reasonable.
The result from both surveys was clear: residents want a total reversal of the restrictions, and a Forum system run for the benefit of citizens, rather than the agenda of the Tory administration.
The meeting began with Public Question Time, questions asked by John Dix, aka Mr Reasonable, and Mrs Angry. John has written about the meeting and his conclusions here:
Mrs Angry's first question:
1. When you decided to impose restrictions on members of the public, that is to say the residents, taxpayers and voters of this borough, when attending Residents Forums, and refused to allow them to raise issues of council policy, did you take legal advice as to whether or not such an act is compatible with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom to hold opinions, and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority, and regardless of frontiers?
If advice was taken, please inform me of the details, and the date and source of advice. If not, why did the authority act in defiance of this basic principle of law?
The decision you refer to was taken in April 2011. The original report was cleared by the Director of Corporate Governance for legal implications stating that there were no specific legal implications arising from the report. The council remains confident that the rules for residents’ forums do not breach the European Convention on Human Rights.
Time for the supplementary question:
Yes, said Mrs Angry, very good, but - did you take legal advice specifically about the ECHR implications, or not?
A lot of flummery now from the Chair, which amounted to the response: not.
How very interesting.
2. When you decided to dictate to the residents of this borough what they could or could not discuss at their own Forums, did it not occur to you that such censorship is the mark of a totalitarian regime of government, and the complete inversion of the principles of democracy, and the localism policy of your own Conservative party?
This refers to a decision taken in 2011. At its last meeting the Committee specifically requested a review of arrangements for Resident Forums. That is on the agenda for this meeting and the Committee will consider your comments in conjunction with the responses to consultation and other information.
Mrs Angry pressed the Chair as to whether or not, in his view, the censorship and the repression of the freedom of speech was the mark of totalitarian regimes all around the world.
Councillor Cohen seemed unhappy with this suggestion, and could think of no sensible response, but merely asserted, not once but twice, avoiding eye contact, but as if saying it aloud might make it true: There was no censorship.
Erm, yes: yes there was, replied Mrs Angry. But of course it makes no difference: Barnet's Tory councillors are simply unable to face reality, and merely repeat the same untruths over and over again, like obstinate children: we did consult, the Judge didn't find we had broken the law, we didn't censor the Forums, the moon is made of cheese, and we are going to win the next election.
At the High Court hearing of the One Barnet Judicial Review, Judge Underhill found that Barnet Council had never had any intention to consult with residents and that the authority was in breach of the statutory obligations in this respect. This highly significant finding is the reason leave was granted for the appeal. In court, the silencing of the Residents Forums was perhaps the most important piece of evidence that supported this finding.
Throughout the course of the One Barnet tender process, residents constantly complained about the censorship of the Forums, which far from enabling the council to be 'transparent and accessible to all sectors of the community' had totally the opposite effect. You and your Conservative colleagues ignored all demands that you retract the new restrictions.
As Chair of the Committee which acted to prevent any discussion of One Barnet or any other council policy at Residents Forums, and therefore exposed the authority to the charge of a breach of its statutory obligations, and which refused to review the restrictions until the tender process was effectively finished, do you not feel your position is untenable, and that you should resign?
The Council was successful in the recent judicial review hearing in that the judicial review was not allowed. The High Court ruled that the claimant was refused time on the application for judicial review. Lord Justice Underhill’s main judgment was on the time element, and specifically stated:
“I believe that the grounds of all of the pleaded claims, with the exception of the alternative claim in relation to the public sector equality duty, first arose more than three months before the issue of proceedings, and I should not extend time in relation to them. I accordingly refuse permission.”
He then went onto discuss his other conclusions however due to the refusal based on time, these are not rulings. In fact he noted on the consultation issue and that he would not necessarily quash the decision of Cabinet:
“It does not, however, follow that I would necessarily have quashed those decisions or the decision of 6 December 2012. I would have wished to give serious consideration to the Council‘s argument that even if the claim was in time on a Burkett basis it would be right nevertheless to withhold relief on the basis that, because substantially the same challenge could have been made to the earlier decisions, there could be said to have been undue delay within the meaning of section 31 (6) (b) of the 1981 Act”
There is no finding in the judgment that residents’ forums were silenced, and that given that the matter is subject to appeal, any answer to the question posed should await the outcome of that appeal.
More re-writing of history, and another act of denial. No news from the Chair as to his imminent resignation, either.
Mrs Angry pointed out that the issue of the silencing of the Forums most certainly was the subject of much discussion in court, having been a mainstay of the rather interesting content of Mr Craig Cooper's contribution, in the form of his statement. This provoked some sniggering from bloggers in the public seats, who fondly remembered the trashing given by the judge to this piece of work.
The Chair shrugged, and said he had not been in court, but Councillor Cornelius had. Er, no, Cornelius admitted, he had not. No, said Mrs Angry, but I was, for both days, and I wrote about it, and I read all the court papers, and the judgement, and I can tell you it was an issue of no little significance.
Meh. They didn't care: except clearly the Chair is extremely ill at ease over the whole issue, and at the beginning of the questions had tried to deflect the blows which were coming by announcing that he intended to recommend that residents may now, or rather once again, discuss anything they wish at their Forums, other than planning matters.
Oh, thank you, very kind, and why, thought Mrs Angry, have you so vehemently opposed such a reversal of policy over the last two years? Is it because the iron fisted repression of dissent has served its purpose, in your view, or the reverse, that is has spectacularly backfired, and left you so vulnerable to legal challenge? Or that the impending election next year will cause even more protest from residents unable to voice their opinions, or hold you to account? Whatever the truth, there is no denying that they have been forced into this u-turn, and against their instinctive, paranoid mistrust of engagement with their own electorate.
Time for speeches from members of the public - ie yes, Mr Reasonable, and Mrs Angry - and former Tory councillor turned blogger Dan Hope, who is annoyed by another issue on the agenda, the change back from Cabinet to committee system, which although welcome, is being introduced in what he sees as an unnecessarily complicated way. More on that later.
Mr Reasonable, with a sense of resignation, took his seat, and launched into a denouncing of the council's pathetic Forum 'consultation'. As he patiently explained to the dimwitted councillors the flaws in such inadequately designed surveys, senior council officers looked on, with ill concealed hostility. It was a warm evening, and one councillor drifted off to sleep, as in the public seats, did veteran commentator Mr Shepherd, clutching his bag of cuttings from the Morning Star, and festooned with badges for the People's Assembly, and all his other campaigning activities.
The Council's survey had not surprisingly only received 52 responses. Mr Reasonable had created his own, interactive version, and in a short time produced data from 62 responses. Both surveys indicated the same level of discontent with the Forums. The Chair listened, without listening. Richard Cornelius grimaced, and looked on, struggling to understand what all the fuss was about.
Mrs Angry's turn. This speech did not go down awfully well: the Tory councillors glowered in their seats, and Melvin Cohen, to whom it was lovingly addressed, sank down into his chair, and had the grace to look slightly ashamed, as well he should.
In truth, Mrs Angry found it hard to keep her composure, towards the end, as the sight of the councillors' discomfiture was beginning to provoke a schoolgirlish urge to Laugh Out Loud.
I want to speak to you, Councillor Cohen, as Chair of this Committee, and as a representative of the Cabinet which bears collective responsibility for the Constitution of this authority.
I want to ask you about the way you approach your role on this committee, and the way in which you and your Conservative colleagues have assaulted the Constitution for your own political purposes, and used what should be a protection of the rights and wellbeing of the residents of this borough for the purposes of a continued attack on the democratic process, and a betrayal of the best interests of the community you are supposed to represent.
In April two years ago, I sat here and watched you, and Councillor Scannell, take part in the meeting which voted to rewrite the constitution so as to curtail the ability of fellow councillors to put motions to council meetings, and to cut the number of full council meetings, and, most shamefully of all, you decided to impose ruthless new restrictions and petty minded rules on the Residents Forums.
You, our elected representatives, informed us, the taxpayers and voters of Barnet, that we may not discuss with you at these Forums, any issue which touched on ‘council policy’.
What you did was the act of a desperately weak administration, set on silencing all dissent from the people it purports to represent. Such repressive measures, you must know, are the mark of dictatorships, everywhere, now, and in the past, and that you are not perturbed by this is a mark of the alienation from reality that is so deeply embedded in your group’s mindset.
The imposition of the new rules took place, as it was designed to, just as the tender process for One Barnet was getting underway, and was relentlessly upheld, in the face of all protest.
What were you thinking, to treat us, the residents of this borough, with such feudal contempt?
You were elected to serve the community, and you have a responsibility to listen to our views, and to engage with us in consultation in order to ensure the administration of local government in this borough is managed with due regard for the law, and in deference to the people who pay your allowances.
The ethos of public service is meant to direct your actions as councillors, yet you seem to regard your roles as merely sinecures, with no obligation to those who elected you.
You compete amongst yourselves with ill disguised enthusiasm for the generously rewarded posts of committee Chairs, and gleefully take your turn to dress up as Mayor, taking a preposterous, childish sense of self importance from the ceremonial honour. In the process you have completely forgotten the reason you have been elected to office – or perhaps you simply do not care.
Why are you so afraid of scrutiny, and transparency, and being accountable to your constituents?
Why are you so afraid of challenge, and open debate, and the difficult process of attempting to reach some consensus with people whose views may differ from yours?
Why have you abused the trust placed in you by voters, and used the power placed in your hands against the very people whose interests you are supposed to protect from harm?
We suggested to you, when you voted through the silencing of the Residents Forums, that it was necessary for you to create an adult relationship with your electorate, one built on trust, and mutual respect. You didn’t listen, and consequently you found yourselves taken to court, where the judgement of a Judicial Review found you in breach of the law, for refusing to consult us, the residents and taxpayers, about the One Barnet programme.
Now that you have nothing to lose by doing so, you have proposed to review the Residents Forums, too late, and in a way that will ensure yet again that the lip-service you pay to the notion of consultation will take the place of what is really required.
Your way of fixing this consultation was, with no prior notice to residents, to leave a few surveys on seats at the Forums, knowing that only the dedicated few who know about these events will be attending. Only after protest did you extend the deadline - and the only online link is to a printable version only, rather than the usual interactive form.
The survey has not been publicised, so that residents who do not know about the Forums could take part. This is because you do not want to have any significant response which endorses the view that the Forums should be open, free and run according to the wishes of residents, rather than in line with your own reprehensible desire to stifle all criticism of your activities.
The manner in which the Forums have been conducted since the amendment is simply outrageous: beginning with the Chair reading out a list of rules to those attending, dictating what they may or may not say, crushing all protest, as if they were pupils in an approved school, rather than the taxpayers of this borough.
The rigid ban on discussing anything that might be defined as council ‘policy’ is ludicrous. It is reminiscent of some sort of medieval church court, where heresy is seen in every corner, and the word of God must not be doubted.
But this is 2013, not 1213, and the word of Eric Pickles is law, rather than the Almighty: and quite clearly, measured by his commandments, you are the heretics, and we are the saints.
Time for the swivel eyed loons of Barnet Council to calm down, take a deep breath, and listen to your own Secretary of State: localism is meant to be about empowering the residents and tax payers of every community, to enable them to take back control of their own destiny.
When you have understood that difficult concept, try and grasp another one: a model of government in which citizens participate equally and freely in the process of political self determination, and enjoy rights in law that protect the freedom of political expression, and the freedom of speech.
It’s called democracy.
Mrs Angry was suddenly roused by the sullen face of Tory councillor Andrew Strongolou, newly self appointed scourge of Barnet Unions, who as usual, had sat through the meeting totally silent, and making no contribution.
Are you awake, Councillor Strongolou?
He sat up, rather pleasingly, with far more alacrity than one might expect, and appeared rather startled, to be honest. Mrs Angry almost felt guilty at having broken through the invisible glass barrier that is meant to protect our elected representatives from reality, and cocoon them in an artificially maintained habitat, safe from any threat to their way of life.
I will allow one supplementary question, said Mrs A, magnanimously exhibiting what she considered to be a remarkable tolerance, in the circumstance. Sadly, no one dared,* and she sat down.
*In fact, that is not quite true, as Councillor Mark Shooter did dare to ask:
What was your point? Which was quite impertinent, wasn't it? Or remarkably obtuse.
The councillors now turned to another constitutional matter: how to arrange the proposed return to the committee system. Mrs Angry groaned, pinioned as she was between Mr Reasonable and Mr Mustard, who, unlike her were not yet ready to leg it out of the Town Hall and round to the Greyhound, where a chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc would be waiting to wash away the horrible sight of Tory councillors on a glorious summer's night, patching up their attack on the prostrate body of local democracy.
But there was more fun to come: the spectacle of our elected members, now fully evangelised advocates of the joy of consultation, trying to come to terms with the new normal, and the requirement to at least pretend to - shudder - engage with the hoi polloi in a partnership of political intercourse, and mutual gratification.
Most probably most residents of Broken Barnet don't giving a flying f*ck about whether or not the council is run by a Cabinet of Monstrosities, or that very British institution, the committee, but really they should, if only they knew what knavish tricks have taken place under the former system.
Now came a dangerous flirtation with democracy: how to go about this thing called 'consultation'? What should they do? The councillors rubbed their chins, and thought awfully hard.
Richard Cornelius, Tory leader, thinking awfully hard at the last full council meeting
Mrs Angry thought perhaps she was experiencing some sort of heat induced hallucination, because leader Richard Cornelius appeared to be saying that there ought to be 'plenty of consultation', and then ... 'there might be some ideas from members of the public' ... she put a hand to her forehead, feeling faint ...
What form should this consultation take, asked Councillor Finn? No: really.
Social media, Forums, Barnet First, suggested the Chair, airily, in the manner of a well seasoned expert. Or a consultant, perhaps.
The room began to sway, and Mrs Angry was obliged to fan herself with an agenda ...
Public meetings, she heard herself say out loud ... Yes, said the Chair, Public meetings.
It's like a new world, said Mrs Angry, collapsing on her seat, beside herself with wonder.
And now came the formal recommendation regarding the Forums. They were off and running, now, flushed with radical enthusiasm. New starting times? Bit scared of going for the obvious option, one which would be more convenient for working people and parents ... trying to get a 6.30 start, instead of 7pm. Let's suck it and see, suggested the Chair. Mrs Angry shifted uneasily in her seat.
What about the environment meetings that follow - let them start later? Oh, ok.
Oh, by the way: does Councillor Cornelius attend the Forums, or not?
Very carefully not, he declared, letting the new man of the people mask slip at last. Ah. No. That would be risky, wouldn't it?
Before the meeting began, Mrs Angry overheard the dear leader talking to Mr Mustard about the latest parking scandal, (confiscating cars from driveways), and protesting his dismay. He would refer it, he said, not once, but twice - and in the manner of the master of Downtown Abbey discussing his butler - to 'Travers'. The Chief Executive, that is.
And talking of the number of cars permanently parked on driveways, well, he said - some of my cars don't work. Some of his cars, citizens. Perhaps Travers gives them a regular waxing at the weekend, when he has nothing else to do. After he has done with the dear leader, of course.
Libdem councillor Jack Cohen gave his suggestions, as usual the only voice of common sense. He pointed out the absence of Forum venues in the west and south of the borough - the more disadvantaged areas, naturally.
For Labour, Claire Farrier reminded the Chair, who suddenly found something interesting to stare at on the table, that the Labour leader had constantly raised the issue of the outrageous restriction of the Forums, to no avail.
Could questions be asked on the night? Oh, a flurry of panic amongst the Tory ranks. Spontaneity cannot be controlled, after all. It might present political embarrassment, and danger.
Labour's Alan Schneiderman pressed for Cabinet members to attend the Forums in order to answer questions from residents, rather than leave officers trying to defend political decisions. There was a look of horror on the Tory councillors' faces: accountability in the raw? Oh, no. Just not on.
Cornelius thought it was impossible to expect his colleagues to have a crystal ball, and know what might come up. Mrs Angry, whose crystal ball is in full working order, and had no sympathy, suggested that they are paid to know the issues covered by their portfolios.
Labour wanted more meetings, themed meetings, microphones - a cup of tea for residents? This caused apoplexy amongst the Tories, whose lavish buffets at full council meetings and refreshments in the members' rooms are clearly a privilege they deserve, at our expense.
Would you like waitress service, asked the Chair?
Yes, thought Mrs Angry, and peel me a f*cking grape, and remember your place. Hopefully she did not express this out loud, but it is difficult to remember.
Refreshments could be sponsored by local businesses, came the response.
Mr Shepherd had woken up, and had a useful suggestion:
Get Capita to sponsor the microphones, he said, ones that switch off before any vote, and turn back on again when it's over ...
Oh, how we laughed, even though it wasn't really so funny, and a cool breeze was wafting into Committee Room 1, and the sun was sinking over the rooftops of Broken Barnet.
And is it ever going to be over, thought Mrs Angry?
To be continued.