Sunday 28 October 2018

Saracens at the gate, or: Barnet Tories and a £22 million loan

St Mark rescuing a Saracen from a Shipwreck - Tintoretto

We are they who come faster than fate: we are they who ride early or late:

We storm at your ivory gate: Pale Kings of the Sunset, beware!

War Song of the Saracens - James Elroy Flecker

Names matter, in Broken Barnet, as we have often noted. 

The use of language, the choice of language, and the naming of names, all hold a totemic value, one that can only be understood in the context of our borough's political landscape, and its history. 

A history which, since the Cultural Counter Revolution of Barnet Tories' successive administrations, has always to be rewritten, or excised.

When they decided to give the use of Copthall stadium, for only a peppercorn rent, to Saracens, for example, it was considered necessary to change the name of the centre, a local name of great historical significance, with long associations to the manor of Copt Hall, home of one of the borough's most influential families, the Nicholls - and replace it with one of a commercial sponsor. 

Saracen, of course, is a name of significance too: the name applied to the marauding enemies of the early crusaders - a term conjuring up all sorts of masculine 'otherness': an invader; an outsider. 

So now we must refer to Copthall as Allianz Park. And all around the borough, underneath the local signs telling you you are in Church End, Finchley, Whetstone or Mill Hill, you will see a poster advertising Saracens: a reminder of your place in the scheme of things, here in Broken Barnet: culture and history of local meaning replaced by commerce, corporate values - and profit. Or the pursuit of it, however elusive and risky that last aspiration may be.

The entrance to Allianz Park

Well then.

One of the great mysteries of Broken Barnet - and there are many, many mysteries - is the abiding contempt held by Barnet Tories, skulking in their lair up in Chipping Barnet, once but no longer the heartland of their power, for the local football team, Barnet FC. 

Here is a saga longer than anything that ever came out of Iceland: except perhaps the tale of the Icelandic bank disaster - and a story of Nordic Noir as dark and vengeful as anything seen from the sofa on a Saturday night's tv viewing. 

To cut a very long story short, then, due to a total lack of support from the local authority, the Bees were obliged, after a hundred year history in this borough, to leave Barnet, and find a new home in Harrow, thus severing all local associations (and leaving many Barnet FC fans implacably ill disposed towards theTory council, none of which helps their dwindling electoral support in the area).

Compare this studied indifference - some might argue active hostility - to the local football team, with the boundless generosity shown to Saracens: a private company, a commercially run club, with no past local association - other than that the owner lives in Totteridge.  Given our stadium, given the Freedom of the Borough, and now given a whopping £22 million loan because they want to build a new stand at Allianz Park.

Why, you may ask, are they asking us, the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet, to arrange them a loan? 

Because they cannot get a commercial loan. 

Why not? 

Well: that the club has had some financial issues is well known, but we are not privy to all the details of the current situation, or the outcome of the 'due diligence' that was required in order to approve the loan last week, because your Tory councillors have exempted the details from publication. 

It may be our money which is at risk, should the club be unable to repay the loan, but we are not allowed to know the circumstances in which it was made, in the first place.

The loan is being arranged on behalf of Saracens by your Tory councillors from the Public Works Loan Board, a body which lends authorities capital sums for a range of projects. The PWLB is due for abolition, in fact, although this decision appears to have been temporarily shelved, due to a parliamentary legislative traffic jam caused by Brexit.

We ask the board for the money, they give it to us, we give it to Saracens, they are supposed to pay it back - over thirty years.

The PWLB was an eighteenth century government initiative, and in the nineteenth century began to offer low cost funding for vitally needed infrastructure for a burgeoning population: new schools, water and sewage systems - the foundations of a better society concerned with health and education - yes, for the many, and not the few.

Rather extraordinarily, however, from reading a number of FOI requests made to the PWLB, it seems the money is handed out by the board's commissioners without requiring an explanation of the purpose of the loan. As one parliamentary memorandum explains: "loans can be agreed with the minimum of scrutiny".

Most authorities, of course, use the funds for vitally needed capital projects such as housing. Some have used the money to invest in commercial property, which, as Vince Cable warned last year, puts local authorities at risk in the same way as during the Icelandic bank crisis, should there be a downturn in the commercial property sector.

Tory leader Richard Cornelius

Here in Barnet we have other uses for a PWLB loan: asking for money not for desperately needed low cost housing, but to help a privately owned company to build a new stand at its stadium. Is this in the spirit of why this loan system was created? Does it benefit the community in any way?

Whatever arguments you might find to claim that Saracens' presence at Allianz Park is beneficial to the borough - bringing a few jobs at the Stadium, some space for Middlesex Uni, a few community projects: oh, and the use of the Stadium centre for election counts - the net gain for the majority of residents is insignificant. Worse still, this massive loan puts us at risk of further financial difficulty should Saracens become unable to keep up repayments, as we will continue to be obliged to repay the PWLB. 

The really infuriating thing about this is not just the amount of risk, but the very fact that Barnet's Tory members are prioritising this matter at a time of such unprecedented crisis for the authority, and in the face of the evidence of their own lack of judgement over Capita - not to mention the experience over the Icelandic investments.

We are, as a result of their financial mismanagement, struggling to overcome a massive budget deficit - the extent of which was only revealed after the May elections, when earlier calculations were mysteriously found to have been seriously underestimated. Plundering the reserves, and planning another round of devastating cuts, is not a sustainable response to this crisis on any long term basis.

We are, as a result of their financial mismanagement, struggling to cope with the unsatisfactory performance of the two massive Capita contracts, leaving council services not, as we were promised, better, and at a lower cost, but paying out huge extra fees while standards fall, while the fraudulent activity of one of Capita's employees has exposed the total absence of proper financial controls in the way the contracted services have been delivered. 

The Tories have not acknowledged their culpability in this: maintaining an obstinate silence while they go through the motions of a contractual review that will almost certainly leave Capita retaining the most profitable services, in order that the Tory administration does not lose face over the exposure of their own failings and political judgement.

Instead of addressing these issues, and in the middle of this crisis, they focus their energies on pushing through this loan. It is truly mystifying. Why? Whose idea was it, anyway? 

For the last few months, questions on this matter have been batted to one side. Freedom of Information requests, made in July, have still not been fully answered, and every excuse under the sun has been made to delay or minimise disclosure.

At the Policy and Resources meeting last week where the loan was approved, many written questions were submitted to the committee Chair about the Saracens loan, by members of the public.

Included among these were important questions about the origins of the proposal: 

Q. Who first suggested the loan, to whom, on what date,
and in what context? Please list all details.

A. The loan was suggested by Saracens in October 2017. We do not

have a record of the context in which it was suggested.

"We do not have a record of the context in which it was suggested". Rather unfortunate.

Is that credible, do you think? They know it was suggested by the club, in October, but can't remember how, when or why? No record, no audit trail. 

Councillor Richard Cornelius met the owner of Saracens, who is a constituent of his, in July and September: no exact dates given here, no details - and it would appear, unless it is being withheld from FOI, that there is no written record of the discussions. 

Cllr Cornelius at the meeting, incidentally, denied his emails on the matter were being withheld from a FOI request, until corrected by deputy Chief Executive Cath Shaw, who seemed to know an awful lot more about the matter than he did: he seemed genuinely surprised.  In fairness, it may well be that he sees no reason not to be transparent and disclose more material, but that it is, like almost everything else that happens within Fortress Barnet, an officer decision to withhold, redact and sit on the papers we maintain are in the public interest to see: the default mode of Broken Barnet, in the age of Capita, and everything that came before it.

The material refused disclosure via FOI was supposedly protected on the ground of commercial interest as well as 'legal privilege'. Public interest, however, would appear to dictate that at least some of this material should be released.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing, over this deal - but it is perfectly reasonable to expect greater transparency over these meetings and discussions: the questions raised by residents - and Labour members - are important, and utterly valid. 

This is simply a request for accountability, and a full range of information, in the public interest, in regard to what is a huge amount of debt that now becomes our liability, as a result of these secretive arrangements. If it all goes pear shaped, we will carry the cost, not the Tory councillors who so easily make these arrangements in our name. 

Many questions were asked about the mysterious 'Company A', which will have to cover half of the loan - (the rest is supposedly matched by security offered by the lease on Allianz Park Stadium, which ... we already own). All of the questions about 'Company A' were refused, with a reference to the exempt papers.

After the exempt session, the proposal was put to the vote. The Tories were down in number, as Cllr Dean Cohen quite properly recused himself, having declared an unspecified personal interest in regard to the Saracens' item. The casting vote, therefore, was made by Cllr Cornelius, as Chair - and the loan of £22.9 million approved.

At a budget consultation at the Old Bull a few weeks ago, I asked Cllr Cornelius if anyone could apply for a whopping loan from the council, these days. Could I? Oh yes, he laughed: as long as I promise to build a stadium stand. 

Cornelius at the Old Bull

Ok. I promise. The details of that promise will be exempt from publication, and indeed I may not be able to guarantee to pay you back, Richard, but: who cares? As security I offer you a mortgaged house, and my collection of back copies of Private Eye - bound to be worth a fortune, one day.

As well as asking questions, three members of the public spoke to the committee to express their concerns over the Saracens loan: Barnet Alliance activist Barbara Jacobson, blogger Mr Mustard (Derek Dishman) - and me. One of the comments I made was as follows:

How curious that a Tory group, which sneers at the very principle of subsidy, when it comes to social housing, or small businesses; that insists on community enterprises ‘washing their own face’, should be so keen on a £22 million hand out to a commercial company, for a project that brings no gain other than to a tiny number of the residents of Barnet.

Here is the paradox: a Conservative administration that is happy to cut vital services to the most vulnerable members of our community; that cancelled the funding for respite care for the families of children with profound disabilities, that dropped the provision of wheels on meals, closed our only local museum, on the pretext of austerity - then handed half a million quid to the nationally funded RAF museum; that has slashed our library service to pieces, and left thousands of disadvantaged children locked out of their local branches with nowhere to study - worrying about none of these things, and preferring to wring its hands over the frustrated development plans of a private rugby club.

Well. As Mrs Jacobson announced at the committee meeting, I don't give a toss about rugby, (except when Ireland are playing, when I might show a minimal amount of interest) but like most residents I do care about the best use of my council tax, and the risk of further financial loss as a result of Barnet Tories' continued profligacy with our hard earned money. 

We do care about the people in this borough who will be sleeping in shop doorways tonight, in freezing temperatures, because there is inadequate shelter for them. We do care about those families who have no chance of ever finding a home in this borough, because Barnet Tories do not believe in the principle of social housing, subsidised by the tax payer. We do worry about schools struggling to maintain the roofs of their ageing buildings, or to provide facilities for pupils with special needs. We care enough to want to see an investment in community centres, and to see our libraries returned to the former standard of excellent service, with pride in the work they do to counter the lack of opportunity for less advantaged residents, and in providing safe spaces for those battling social isolation, and loneliness.

But you don't, do you, Barnet Tory members? You haven't asked for a loan to invest in projects of social capital. Why would you? The undeserving poor must learn to fend for themselves, while we lend a helping hand to more worthy causes, like private rugby clubs.

This is Broken Barnet, still in pieces. And here are Barnet Tories, still wielding the hammer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Surely, the Loan to Saracens cannot in anyway represent by % per head of the Borough population good value for money , for the Tax payers of Barnet this is in no way correct . If the Leader of the council is so keen on Rugby ! Then maybe as group Leader of the Tories it should be they that guarantee the said Loan . Let them put up Torie party property like Margret Thatcher house & the other property owned by them as surity should the Saracens default on the Loan !!!! It's very easy to play fast & lose with other people's money isn't it MR . Leader .