Friday 5 May 2017

My Way, or the Highway: the Barnet Tory ward expenditure scandal revisited

Here is a picture of Mrs Angry's favourite, self perpetuating pothole, by the bus stop outside Tesco's, Finchley. 

She is at a funny age, you know, and developing an interest in the most peculiar things. (And no, that's not her discarded miniature of vodka in the hole. Mrs Angry prefers gin.)

Not the most exciting picture ever published on this blog, perhaps, but in itself, representing a perfect metaphor of life in Broken Barnet. Life in a Labour ward, anyhow. 

Ah yes. Remember the tale of the interesting range of diversity, in the allocation of highways' funding, a couple of years or so back? 

Time to update this. 

Read on.

Broken Barnet has featured many times in the Rotten Boroughs column of Private Eye magazine, of course, and indeed has been the subject of commendations and awards by Lord Gnome, all of them gratefully received, no doubt, by the ever expanding team of spindoctors employed in the hopeless, Sisyphean task of trying to 'manage the reputation' of our wretched Tory council.

One particularly memorable story, from three years ago, was first highlighted here in this blog by Mrs Angry, believe it or not, after a helpful tip off by former Tory politician, and fervent admirer, Dr Brian Coleman. Yes, really.

Well, not so much a tip off, as such, as a glaring accusation, made in the chamber of Hendon Town Hall, asking how much Cllr Dean Cohen, his former colleague, and replacement, since his fall from grace, as Chair of the Environment Committee, had spent on his own ward:

A Freedom of Information request, obstinately fought by the council, as is often the case when any politically sensitive material is at risk, confirmed the disparity in expenditure not only in the Chair's ward of Golders Green, but widely across the range of wards in the borough.

Here is a graph kindly provided at the time by fellow blogger Mr Reasonable, showing the picture rather more graphically:

And another, courtesy of Mr Mustard, for 2013-2014: the year before the local elections: (Yes, Mrs Angry has outsourced her in house graphics team).

The Labour group then complained to the external auditors, and in the end, an investigation into the spending was arranged by the council's own legal advisers at HBPublic Law, and carried out by a law firm by the name of Sharpe Pritchard.

Their report was released during that period most favoured for the burial of bad news, ie in August, and came to an interesting conclusion, buried away in the detailed appendix:

Whilst it is clear that the data supports the view that there has been more expenditure in
administration held wards, this does not justify drawing a conclusion that there has been political bias. 


Doesn't it?

And yet it was clear, from other information obtained by FOI, that officers at Capita were very happy to accommodate the requests from certain Tory members, at seemingly limitless expense, while potholes and pavements in other Labour wards went unattended, budgets minimal, or indeed, as in the case of Colindale, received no expenditure at all, in one year.

The significance of this concern over expenditure is that not only was it targeted at administration held wards, it was happening in the run up to an election. There was criticism raised about the level and timing of the spending in marginal Hale ward, for example.

Still, all that is history, isn't it? Lessons learned, Mrs Angry, and all that: we have moved on, since then, and expenditure now reflects an entirely fair and transparent system of allocation, based on need, free of any political consideration.


Well, Mrs Angry thought it was time to check how taxpayers' money has been spent, on our behalf, by Capita, at the direction of our Tory administration, fully confident that the result would be evidence of a new culture of equality.

For some reason, once again the council - or Capita - were reluctant to answer a new Freedom of Information request, and it was something of a painful process, extracting the information - rather like pulling teeth from a rotten mouth.

But here we are at last, anyway - take a look: the last two years expenditure added on to the previous totals:

And here in glorious, politically enhanced technicolour, is another chart, again courtesy of Mr Reasonable:

Looking at the last two years in isolation throws up the following order of priority: (leaving out the smaller cross border pay outs) -

Childs Hill
Mill Hill
Finchley Church End
West Hendon
Golders Green
West Finchley
East Barnet
High Barnet
East Finchley
Brunswick Park
Burnt Oak
Garden Suburb

The pattern is clear, although of course, as always, readers, the truth is more complex. 

Problem is trying to identify that truth, when so much effort is put into disguising the real story.

Understanding the landscape: that is the key, as we are so often told by our friends from Crapita, sitting at the committee tables of Broken Barnet, where the blinds are pulled firmly shut, to prevent us seeing out of the window.

Let's try to peer through the slats.

It is obvious that the highways's budget is still largely going to Tory held wards. 

The Sharpe Pritchard report claimed this was nothing to do with political considerations, : the implication being that there were other factors to explain the disparity.

What might those factors be?

If budget is linked to need, rather than any other pressure, it must be due to local differences. Some wards must have heavier levels of traffic, or pedestrians or road use. 

That does not seem to be supported by the facts, however. 

Looking at the council's data on ward profiles suggests there is a story to tell, one which challenges the official narrative of allocation on a basis of politically blind allocation.

Tory held wards are on the whole larger than Labour ones: but they are also lower in density of population, and more likely to have fewer roads, with lower levels of traffic and pedestrian use.

Yet the wards with the highest level of funding are neither the largest in terms of area, nor in terms of density of population.

Top of the charts, for the last two years, Childs Hill, is the 12th largest, out of 21 wards - and the fifth ranking in density.

At number two, Mill Hill is the largest in area, but only the third most dense. 

In third place, Finchley Church End is the 15th largest ward. It is 10th in ranking by density.

Number four, Oakleigh, is the 10th largest ward. 13th in terms of density.

At the other end of the list, 

Looking at the figures from another perspective tells another story.

According to data updated in 2015, Barnet is amongst the 50% most deprived local authorities in England. Quite an astonishing statistic, when you consider that in our borough we have some of the most affluent residential areas in the UK: Bishops Avenue, Hampstead Garden Suburb, and Totteridge. 

From a position of 176 out of 326, in 2010, within five years we were rated at number 157, as deprivation has increased. Not something our Tory councillors mention, of course, when boasting of the 'successful London suburb' that they claim to have created. Successful for whom?

Bishops Avenue, and the Suburb, are just a short walk from Strawberry Vale estate, one of the worst areas of social deprivation - in East Finchley: a Labour ward that is always in the bottom half of the list for funding from the highways budget. 

And here is another clear pattern: Labour stronghold Burnt Oak, the most deprived area, and the most densely populated, always near the bottom of the list, as is Labour held Colindale. 

Totteridge, a large ward - but the least densely populated - sits way above the Labour wards struggling with social deprivation. It is of course perhaps the safest Tory held ward, with councillors that include the Tory leader.

Church End, another Tory enclave, represented by deputy leader Daniel Thomas, is only the 15th largest ward, and only tenth in terms of density: number three in the list for top funding. Why? 

There are some apparent anomalies. Childs Hill, for example, has had a miraculous change in fortunes, receiving, in 2012/2013, when it was a Libdem ward, a mere £150,000 when neighbouring Tory held Golders Green, represented by the new Chair of the Environment Committee, was handed £563,000.

In the next year before the last elections, in which Childs Hill was a marginal target, hotly contested by Tories, Labour and Libdems, its budget was bumped up to £337,000, while lucky Golders Green received an eyewateringly generous sum of over a million quid. Hale, the most marginal ward, which the Tories were desperate to retain, came second in the list with £780,000. 

Labour held Colindale was given ... nothing. 

Not one penny.

Back to the most recent two years of Highways funding, one year away from the next local elections. Childs Hill, which in 2014 lost two Libdem councillors, and gained two Tories, is yet again crucial to the retention of power next May. By sheer coincidence, and not due in any way to political considerations, if we apply the conclusions of the Sharpe Pritchard report, this ward has gone to the top of the list for expenditure: nearly £3 million worth. 

That must mean there are a hell of a lot of potholes and broken pavements, in Childs Hill. Mind your step. 

And oh: the previously top marginal ward of Hale has gone right to the bottom of the list, and Golders Green must take only second place, with a mere £1.5 million. 

But then again, as Dean Cohen explained last time, in justification of the whopping amount of money given to his area - he has a long road in his ward and ... and, well, you know, that must cost a lot to maintain, that road. Because it is long, see?

Burnt Oak, of course, the most densely populated ward, with the most social deprivation, and the safest Labour seat, received only a third of Golders Green's allocation. 

Mind you, the area was lucky to get that, as in the previous year of 2014/15 Burnt Oak was given - nothing at all.

West Finchley is apparently doing ok: Labour ward, but ... one which the Tories would love to win, and one where the local MP lives, and which accommodates his offices, (on the border) and ahem, being Mrs Angry's residence, of course, so high priority, obviously. Apart from in regard to potholes by the bus stop outside Tesco, where Tory voters tend not to accumulate.

No expenditure in this ward, in the year after the last local election, however, for some reason.

West Hendon: Labour - but a controversial 'regeneration' area, which must be seen to 'succeed' and must be tarted up to accommodate all those Russian oligarchs Tory housing  spokesperson Cllr Davey reckons will be moving in.

And East Barnet: yes, Labour now, but formerly Tory, the loss of which saw the tragic departure of former library 'chief' Robert Rams. And another ward they want back. 

It may be that all of this is merely coincidental, of course, and the continued greater expenditure in Conservative held wards is simply because those Tory councillors are more active - or more effective - in lobbying Capita for attention to their wards. 

In which case, though - that would make a nonsense of any claim that allocation was in response to careful, objective evaluation, rather than on demand.

Perhaps there are only short roads, perfect pavements, and a remarkable lack of potholes, in Labour wards. 

What other explanation could there possibly be?

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