Wednesday 5 March 2014

A tale of three budgets: part one - the misuse of power, and an open door

The misuse of power, exposed by Queen Esther

Mrs Angry could tell that tonight's full council meeting was going to be a memorable one as soon as she clapped eyes on Mr Shepherd, the veteran commenter who haunts the public gallery of the Town Hall in Broken Barnet. 

Usually Mr Shepherd is accompanied by two bags of a collection of old clippings from the Morning Star, and stapled together jottings in his spidery handwriting, keenly worked up observations on articles on a wide range of political subjects, over a wide period of time. This is his filing system, and during meetings he will busy himself sorting out his notes, re-reading his saved articles, cutting out new ones - and yet keeping a keen ear out for the faux pas and stated hypocrisies of our Tory councillors, interjecting, with perfect timing, and usually without looking up over his spectacles, with a series of barbed comments on the proceedings, a one man Greek chorus, and delivering a masterly stand up, or rather sit down, comic routine. 

He is simply the funniest man in Broken Barnet, and almost always spot on with his one line pronouncements.

Who is Mr Shepherd, and where does he come from? How long has he been coming to council meetings? 

Since the beginning of time - to be precise, dating back as far as the Thatcher era, which is the beginning of time, in Broken Barnet: his voice can clearly be heard heckling the old bat herself, on election night. Where he comes from, or where he goes to: no one knows.

Tonight there was an added air of deliberation to his entry into the public gallery. Not two bags, but three, as he pointed out with glee to Mrs Angry. This was unprecedented, and had to be taken as a portent of deep significance. Like Sherlock Holmes, applying his mind to a three pipe problem, Mr Shepherd clearly thought the consideration of three budgets would require a shift in gear.

Also present in the gallery was a small party of school children, with their teacher. Is this some sort of detention, asked Mrs Angry, sympathetically, feeling awfully sorry for the poor mites, and wondering what terrible thing they had done to be punished in this way?  She warned the teacher there would be a fair amount of shouting, and made a mental note to try not to swear as much as usual. Very difficult, as it turned out.

Sitting on his own in the chamber, in his place in no man's land, in the middle of the room, eating some food liberated from the councillors' buffet, was the folorn figure of a man who is no longer allowed in the Tory members' group room - disgraced councillor Brian Coleman. 

The last item on the meeting's agenda was the decision of the group leaders' panel that Coleman should be formally censured for yet another breach of the councillors' code of conduct. This time it is for a very curious reason: the unauthorised 'disposal' of a council laptop. In fact it is not so much the loss of the equipment that is the real story, but the mysterious circumstances in which such a loss appears to have happened. But more of that anon.

Before the proceedings began, the innocent school children were even more traumatised when Tory councillor Reuben Thompstone came bursting into the gallery, stood before them with what Mrs Angry, (more used to seeing him shout at her, red faced, at Residents Forums, in an attempt to silence her attempts to defy the censorship rules) eventually realised was an attempt at a welcoming smile, as he informed them he was Councillor Reuben Thompstone, and responsible for schools in Barnet. They stared at him uncomprehendingly, visibly recoiling, and clearly wondering what the hell he was on about. 

We began, as usual, with a prayer from the Mayor's chaplain. With an admirable, if surprising demonstration of rabbinical mischief-making, and as we approach the festival of Purim, he chose a timely passage from the book of Esther, about a 'wicked Prime Minister' - his words - who abused his position, and reminded us of the lessons we must take from the story regarding the misuse of power ... Well said, Rabbi: but as always, a completely wasted effort, down among the unbelievers in the council chamber of Broken Barnet.

Purim, of course, is traditionally celebrated by the wearing of fancy dress. A tradition which is also very popular with the Tory councillors of all faiths, in the London Borough of Barnet.

This meeting was in order to approve the annual budget, of course, but the first and most important part of the agenda, as far as the Tories were concerned, was the election of the new Mayor. 

The childlike excitement which this nonsensical annual decision engenders amongst their ranks is really mirthmaking. It is impossible to overstate how much it matters to them, to have a chance of playing Mayor, dressing up in the moth-eaten robes, and being driven around the borough in the official limousine to carefully chosen civic events. But it does, it really, really does. 

Just as Councillor Thompstone imagined a group of school children would be impressed by his talking to them, in his capacity of ... whatever, the Tories seem to think being Mayor has some sort of magisterial authority, or even royal status. It is truly comical to see the relish with which they conspire, and plot, and scheme, and fawn in order to have their turns at it - and the airs and graces which new incumbants take upon themselves.

This time it is the turn of Mrs Angry's blushing admirer Hugh Rayner, and he was being formally proposed by his fellow Hale ward councillor, the mean spirited housing spokesman Tom Davey, who warned us, and Hugh, that his speech was going to be rather like the best man at a wedding. 

Mrs Angry had a sudden, blinding vision of a wedding from hell, in which you find yourself suddenly espoused to Cllr Rayner, and compelled to sit through a reception in the 'Django Unchained' cafe, at the bottom end of the Scratchwood car park. 

Pull yourself together, Mrs Angry - and FFS wake up before the honeymoon begins. 


The Mayor elect contemplates his year of glory, watched by Cllrs Davey, left, and Rams, right, as usual playing with his blackberry during a council meeting. Perhaps Ramstone Consulting has just received their first commissioning email from Mrs Angry?

Tom Davey told us he thought Hugh was a great chap, had been in the RAF, and indeed had ended his career at RAF Hendon - as an exhibit, or tour guide, presumably, as the place has been a museum for about thirty years. 

Davey had to thank Hugh for being the man who got him into politics.

That was a mistake, suggested Mrs Angry from the public gallery, rather unkindly.

The proposal was seconded by Kate Salinger. She likes Hugh because he is polite, and has impeccable manners. Chivalry, she remarked, is rarely mentioned these days. Kate thinks this is regrettable, and that some of us have taken gender equality too far

Mrs Angry was emulating the master of riposte, ie Mr Shepherd, at this point making unwarrranted and grossly disrespectful remarks, very loudly, whilst scribbling notes, and noticed the eulogy had come to an abrupt end. She looked up and saw Kate Salinger had stopped, and was looking disapprovingly at her rather in the manner of her former maths teacher, many, many years ago. Oh do carry on, said Mrs Angry, to  certain amount of sniggering from the gallery ... It's fascinating ...

Kate enlarged on her theme, talking approvingly of the medieval concept of chivalry, with poetry writing and jousting, and lying around weakly, dying of unrequited love - well, we've all done that, haven't we? Waste of fecking time. 

The modern equivalent, ie men not jousting or writing sonnets, but opening doors, and ... well, what else do they do? Mrs Angry has forgotten.  'Gentleman Hugh', said Kate, rather wistfully, is awfully good at it, and therefore should be Mayor. Fair enough. 

Kate Salinger admiring Hugh Rayner's winning way with the ladies, and expertise at opening doors, and all that sort of thing, watched by the queenly Cllr Rutter, who enjoyed her time as Mayor so much,  that at the end of her term, the length of her goodbye speech meant she nearly had to be deposed by armed insurrection.

And Actor-Councillor David Longstaff will play the role of runner-up, or deputy Mayor, which will involve sitting at Hugh's right hand, like God the Son, or Camilla Parker-Bowles, and smiling, and eating a lot of cucumber sandwiches. So. As a mark of respect for David's new position, Mrs Angry will make no reference at all to his illustrious career, the small part in Mary Whitehouse, his gilded posterior, or a particular point of interest to scientists at NASA. He will play his new part magnificently. As long as he remembers to keep his clothes on.

Part of the culture of decadence and denial that exists in the council chamber of Broken Barnet is the failure to recognise that all this fiddle playing distraction of the mayor-making is based on an unfortunate presumption: that the Tories will win the May election and be returned to power. 

In fact Hugh Rayner is one of those most likely to get the order of the boot from the ungrateful residents and taxpayers and will be very lucky indeed if he does get his turn at wearing the fur trimmed robes and chain of office. If Labour win, their delightful nominee Agnes Slocombe should be sitting in the Mayor's place, and deservedly so.

Which brings us to the rather more important point of last night's meeting - the budget.

Just as there will be a new Mayor elect, if there is a change of administration, then, you would expect, there will be a new budget, doing away with the iniquitous Tory cut in council tax, cheerfully admitted to be a pre-election 'gesture', which will save most taxpayers only 23 pence a week, but will cause even more of a deficit in revenue, and oblige the authority to make cuts in vital services such as care support, and recoup more money from hapless residents through stealth taxes like parking.

If you thought that, you were wrong.

Oh dear. Please reconfigure your moral compass, in preparation for Part Two. 

You will need to make a major adjustment.

to be continued


Anonymous said...

I was mayor of a small, insignificant town. On my first day, I was told was told in no uncertain terms by the town clerk that she ran the town and I was just a figurehead. As it turned out, she underestimated me and I lasted longer as mayor than she did as clerk.

But, as you say, it means nothing. I did eat an awful lot of sandwiches and judged an awful lot of competitions but my main role was that of whipping girl when anyone disagreed with anything the council did. It didn't matter if I didn't vote for it, spoke against it, it was ALWAYS my fault.

I stuck it out as long as I could and then resigned to live in the real world but you would be surprised how many people think I sm still Mayor and everything is still my fault!

It wasn't worth the chain. And anyway, I found out that it was neither me nor the clerk who was in charge - it was the unelected but very politically pro ruling party CEO of the district council who had the real power and thought town and parish councillors were the lowest of the low and just a minor hindrance.

Mrs Angry said...

Yes: the feeling of some people in Carmarthenshire is that the Chief Executive there has a quasi-political role and too high a profile for someone who is meant to be an officer, and not directing matters of policy. If that is the case, then it is the fault of the council members, for failing to exert their control over the administration. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all.It is interesting to watch the webcast meetings and see the Chair, the equivalent to our Mayor, as deferring to officers, and the CE seemingly in charge.Also amusing to see how obedient the councillors are, and so easily shut up when awkward questions - or at least they were.

Anonymous said...

You cannot underestimate the power of officers. They control access to knowledge and, when political as many are, they restrict that knowledge to just (some of) the Executive Board. The Executive Board is massaged, made to feel special whilst being manipulated.

There should be no executive boards, all committees should be represented in political ratios and overview and scrutiny committees - made up of minorities first - should be able to investigate anyone and anything without interference

If you think this will ever happen, keep looking for that unicorn!