Wednesday 4 May 2022

Welcome to Broken Barnet: soon to be under new management

Welcome to Barnet

The London Borough of Broken Barnet has always been of interest to the media, especially at election time, partly because of now fading memories of the area's association with Margaret Thatcher, and more latterly because this borough has been seen as a flagship model for some of the more radical (albeit failed) Tory policies of recent years - the large scale outsourcing of public services, for example: the so called 'EasyCouncil' mode of local authority administration. 

This May, however, Barnet is once more attracting a lot of attention for a different reason: because it is the most marginal borough in the London local elections, and the former Tory stronghold looks likely to be taken by Labour - an extraordinary development, in truth. 

The factors that are seem certain to deliver such an outcome are both local and national: clearly there is widespread dissatisfaction with the incompetence, corruption and dishonesty of Boris Johnson's government, as well as the impact of Brexit, Covid, and the relentless cull of rights we have always taken for granted: the right to free protest being the latest victim of assault.

Locally the picture is perhaps even more acute, with the breakdown in public services and the rampant over-development of the borough now so clearly evident, and increasingly so, crucially, to Barnet Tories' once staunchly loyal voters. 

The Tories have only themselves to blame.

Nine years ago, they decided to give two massive contracts to Capita, for the provision of council services. They signed the contracts without reading them fully, which is why, so many years later, as audited by fellow blogger John Dix, Mr Reasonable, whose forensic pre-election post you can read here, the contract fees have ended up costing us more than £586 million, rather than the estimated £225 million- that's you and me, the council tax payers, dumped with more than double the original cost. 

Value for money? Hardly.

We were promised better services for less money. This was not what happened. 

Apart from the massive overspend, the standard of services has visibly declined. On the way to the polling station, voters will walk on pavements unrepaired, or drive along roads littered with potholes. They have noticed the proliferation of unaffordable development, no longer just in Labour wards, but increasingly, as Capita reaches the end of its 'development opportunity' list, encroaching on Tory voter areas - such as in the heart of historic Hendon, where the now notorious Hub plans have been both promoted and approved by Tory councillors, and which will see the imposition of a 21st century campus, complete with grossly inappropriate, multi storey blocks in the middle of not just one, but two Conservation areas, stuffed with Georgian properties, a Saxon church and a number of listed 20th century civic buildings.

Barnet Tories voted through plans that will see these monstrosities forced into the middle of two Conservation Areas in Hendon.

The Hub plans include the wrecking of the listed Hendon Library, once the central branch of the former Beacon Status library service, cut and shrunk in a hugely expensive 'refurbishment' in 2017, this branch now handed over to Middlesex University, as was the local history museum round the corner at the Grade 2** listed Church Farmhouse, whose local history collection, donated over many years by residents, was flogged off at auction. History, and heritage and  are disposable commodities, for our Tory councillors.

The history of the Hendon Hub development, hatched in secret years ago, and ruthlessly pushed, in the face of all reasonable argument, tells the story of the crassly materialistic values of Barnet Tories, steeped in anti-intellectualism, relentless opposed to any sense of community, history or culture - contemptuous of the idea of any public sector service, free at the point of use.

Barnet Tories like to think of themselves as continuing the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. In fact she would have been ashamed of them: a bunch of third rate carpet baggers, with no vision, no conscience, no sense of civic pride, or duty. She would have been horrified at the destruction wrought on the library service: something she saw as vital to self education, independence and social mobility: a ladder of opportunity they have kicked away from those residents in Barnet most in need of access to books, IT support, information - study space: community space.

Here in Hendon, we meet the gaping fault line in the Tory plan of action: the freedom they have given to Capita in terms of their licence to make money out of planning and regeneration in Barnet has expired, as far as the tolerance of residents is concerned, anyway.

The developments being promoted in Barnet might be acceptable, if they met the needs of local people. But they do not. They even fail to meet their own local plans - in the case of Hendon, their own policies deliberately ignored, as they openly admit.

Developers know, moreover, that if they are obliged to offer a small quota of affordable housing in their plans, once planning permission is granted, they can plead 'non viability' and get this requirement quietly dropped. This is just one of the shameless practices promoted by the privatised planning service, along with many other activities which favour developers rather than deliver a fair and open service for the benefit of residents.

Hence we have ended up with a lot of very expensive unaffordable housing, which increases the population, largely by renters living in properties bought off plan by overseas investors, but is not supported by any adequate investment in the infrastructure needed to support the new level of incomers: in schools, healthcare, leisure facilities, parks, retail services. 

As the dissatisfaction with the Tory administration has grown, so too has their determination to become less and less accountable to residents - and voters. 

The right to hold councillors to account has been savagely restricted - the council constitution was amended to make the actions and decisions of elected representatives virtually unchallengeable: effectively there is no longer any right to raise valid questions at council meetings, and to hold our elected representatives to account, no matter how significant and complex the issue. 

Consultations on council policy have become Nonsultations. Legally obliged to pay lip service to this requirement, the outcomes, even if the opposition to their plans is unanimous, are routinely ignored and the Tories and senior officers and Capita simply carry on with their own agendas: agendas that do not prioritise the best interests of the people of this borough, as in the most obvious example of housing. Their own plans say we need affordable homes for families - they ignore all reasoned objections and approve huge, ugly multi storey developments that simply do not address local need. 

Since Covid, Tory members have stopped all surgeries: this no show continues even though their own government leaders lie that 'Covid is over';  Tory members are so unfearful of the virus they largely refuse to attend committee meetings in masks, or to observe any restrictions: indeed some of them are conspiracist anti-vaxxers, and see such sensible measures as unnecessary and an infringement of their liberty. Yet they still hide behind the Covid pretext for keeping their own constituents at a distance.

Residents' Forums are pointless now, with similar restrictions on questions, and the inevitable response to any significant challenge being that the point will be 'noted' - and no further action detailed.

There have been election hustings held locally: barely advertised - and the Tories have failed to attend the last two. This is a grave mistake, as they should remember from last year's Assembly husting, where the Tory candidate chickened out, and Cllr Zinkin had to take his place. Labour's Anne Clarke won, of course. In truth, Zinkin seems to do all the heavy lifting for his group: the current leader Dan Thomas is hardly seen - although now he keeps popping up on Twitter in canvassing photos, with a rictus grin, trying to hold on to hope that the ungrateful residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet will not kick him out of post. 

Boundary changes have redrawn the wards in parts of Childs Hill, Cricklewood and Golders Green. Zinkin is now standing in the new Childs Hill, with Nizza Fluss (wrongly deselected in Hendon - see below) and former Labour Childs Hill councillorBarnet and Camden AM, the exceptionally hard working Anne Clarke, is now in Cricklewood with former Woodhouse councillor Alan Schneiderman, who is one of the most capable Labour members. A new Tory hopeful in this ward is Yosef David, who seems like a nice chap - but was formerly in the Brexit party, along with Nigel Farage.

Cricklewood Tory candidate Yosef David, formerly a Brexit Party candidate

Thomas's party's election manifesto appears to consist only of a reverse #angryaboutbins gambit, ie expecting voters to be humbly grateful that their rubbish is taken away, (while also expecting them not to notice their cars bouncing in out of the thousands of potholes littering our roads, as a result of the botched Highways service run by Crapita). Oh and they are claiming they have frozen council tax. This is not true, in fact they have raised it but are calling the increase something else, thinking you won't notice. Always a mistake, to take your voters for fools.

Thomas, it has to be said, shows poor judgement at the best of times, and in terms of political instinct generally. He has failed to become elected twice in parliamentary seats, or to be nominated for the Hendon seat instead of Matthew Offord: he failed in his own bid to become elected to the London Assembly after his chum Coleman's fall - he has only ever held a safe council seat in Finchley. And now he is leading Barnet Tories into electoral peril, to complete the score.

Johnson and Barnet Tories' Leader, Daniel Thomas

What does it say about the style of administration foisted on this borough by Barnet Tories, when residents cannot engage meaningfully with their elected members through consultation on developments and other major decisions that have direct and lasting impact on their lives? 

It means that those residents are removed from the democratic process, and powerless to share in the governance of their communities. Or so the Tories think. Thought. Now there are two Judicial Reviews being taken by local campaigners, one in regard to the Hendon Hub, and resident Franca Oliffe is standing on behalf of residents infuriated by the Tories' behaviour over the Hub plans. Franca has reportedly been receiving a warm welcome on local doorsteps: Tory candidates should be worried. Ignoring the opinions and the  best interests of your local residents - and voters - is never a good move. 

Hendon resident and anti-Hub campaigner Franca Oliffe

The other JR is as a result of the planned development on the community green space at Finchley Memorial Hospital, approved by Barnet Tories last year. Yes, the same party whose leader, Dan Thomas, claimed in an infantile motion put to Council recently that:

 "This Conservative Council would not and will not build on our parks or green spaces ..."

The Lodge, Victoria Park, Finchley: sold to developers, demolished - now there is a block of flats in the park. Residents were not and are not amused.

Both developments are in middle-class, residential areas: the sort of area Tories must retain to have any real hope of electoral success. Many of those behind these legal challenges are the sort of people who would normally be Tory voters: their votes have been lost. And that is part of the problem: Tory members have allowed Capita and developers free reign in this borough to the extent that they have undermined their own electoral stability. Labour councillors have told me that overdevelopment and planning has frequently come up on the doorstep, when canvassing Tory and marginal areas.

As well as residents pursuing legal challenges, there have been several, very serious complaints now made to external bodies regarding the way in which the Hendon Hub was alleged to have been promoted and approved by the Tory group in Barnet, following a refusal by the authority to admit any wrongdoing after investigating itself, and finding itself innocent of any charge. 

Watch this space.

Hendon Tory councillor Nizza Fluss, with Hub campaigners. Cllr Fluss was deselected for opposing the Hub plans.

Looking at the wards as they are now, redrawn, and favouring Labour, it is pretty clear that even without national and local factors bearing down upon them, Barnet's Tory councillors are going to be hard pressed to do well in this election. Riven by factionalism within and between the three constituencies, they seem to have made some very odd choices for ward candidates. 

Barnet Tories' long history of misogyny is not news: at the last election, long serving, loyal councillor Joan Scannell was ruthlessly deselected from her seat, because she was not popular with the right people. This time round, two more older women, have been deselected - one fought back and had to be shoved into another seat, and one was unpopular with her colleagues, was then alleged to have made offensive remarks about another candidate, and left the Tory party to join the Libdems. 

The first of these is Nizza Fluss, who was a councillor for Hendon. Her crime was to refuse to support the Hendon Hub plans: and she was punished accordingly, with deselection. She complained about the way in which this was done, rightly won her case, and is now a candidate in Childs Hill. She has continued to oppose the Hub plans, and deserves credit for her integrity and courage. 

The second is West Hendon councillor Helene Richman: the background to the allegations about her conduct is here. Cllr Richman apologised for the offence her remarks had made - but could it be that there is more to this story than meets the eye?  At all events, she is now standing as the Libdem candidate in the same ward. A ward that the Tories won last time round, but are unlikely to retain. Standing for Labour is the redoubtable Andrea Bilbow, who runs a well known charity, and two other new people.

On the theme of misogyny, it is notable that the seats in which the Tories have the most hope of returning councillors have no female candidates. Unless you are an obedient, younger woman, or married to a councillor, you now stand almost no chance of standing as a Tory in this borough. 

There are in fact many first time candidates in this election, from all parties. As well as a number of paper candidates who might well find themselves elected, by default.

The combination of changes in the boundaries, and the numbers of councillors in each ward, as well as the retirement - or death - of some long serving councillors is the reason for the new intake: the outcome will be very interesting. Standing down is Mill Hill Tory, expert linguist and silver fox, John Hart. The handle bar moustachioed Cllr Hart is as old as time itself, of course, even older than that other scheduled ancient monument, Hampstead Garden Suburb's John Marshall, who is also retiring. 

It seems likely that the loss of old timers and the proliferation of new candidates will not help the Tories. A lot of loyal personal votes will be lost - and some of the sideways moves of current Tory members, panicking at the prospect of losing their council seats, is rather baffling. 

The former library cutter Reuben Thompstone has lost his safe seat in Golders Green (room for two only and therefore baggsied by father and son act Melvin and Dean Cohen). He has turned up as a candidate in Underhill, of all places, which is likely to go to Labour, and this move might look rather suspiciously as if the Tories were not bothered about keeping him in a seat. 

Excuse me while I look for my tiniest of tiny violins.

Mill Hill attracts all sorts of ever hopeful candidates - ie the Libdems, despite coming third last time. Fellow blogger Roger Tichborne is standing again, as well as your man Richard Logue, who was, hang on, let me get this right ... Labour, then Libdem, then Labour and now Libdem again. Keeping up? Rather amusingly, standing against her Uncle Roger, for Labour, is Pascale Fanning-Tichborne. I imagine they have a bet on to see who beats whom.

In two Finchley wards - East and West - Libdems are standing in full defiance of the fact that the best they can do is split the opposition vote and return the Tory candidate. Both wards have hard working Labour members, and this is a pointless exercise, of course.

Oh, and in Totteridge, here is a well known name: former long time Child's Hill member and old chum Jack Cohen, who is not so much a Libdem as a Lib, and a good sort, (even if he doesn't know his rivets from his screws). Clearly I could not possibly suggest that you vote for a Libdem ... but Jack has promised I can be his Mayoress if he wins & miraculously becomes Mayor. Can you imagine? All those free buffets, and the chance to sit in the council chamber, smirking at the Tory opposition ...?

Of course Totteridge (and Woodside, to which it is now joined) is the fiefdom of the Cornelius councillors Richard (former Leader) and his wife Alison. Short of an armed uprising, nothing will dislodge these two from their seats. Also I think the Barnet Libdem policy (which came as a surprise to at least one of their candidates, didn't it, Simon?) of developing the Green Belt, may not go down awfully well in any part of Barnet, but particularly in Totteridge, and Mill Hill, and Underhill and all the other wards blessed with at least one green area where the Tories and their developer partners can't build any blocks of flats.

There are of course other parties standing in the elections: from the Green Party, the Women's Equality Party - and one or two individuals with no party connection. 

Among Labour's new set are some very promising younger candidates: in Whetstone, Liron Vellman and Ella Rose, for example, and in Edgwarebury, Josh Tapper (he of Gogglebox fame). One impressed resident (ok, my brother) tells me that they have noticed Josh regularly working in a local park, quietly clearing up litter. This is the sort of community spirit we need: and something that has been so sadly lacking under the Tory regime. 

In truth that Tory regime has been lacking in so much: gone are the days of old school Tories, doing their best for the people of Barnet: following a vocation for civic service, and even philanthropy. 

One Nation Tories are short in supply, in Broken Barnet, as they are in the House of Commons. The parallels between what is happening in Parliament, and locally, here in Broken Barnet, are hardly coincidental. They are a representation of a vaccum deep in the heart's core of the Tory psyche, in the era of Johnson: a loss of moral credibility - of moral purpose.

The view from Hendon Town Hall

If you go to a committee meeting in the borough's Town Hall, at Hendon, bang in the centre of the area now waiting for the destruction to be wrought by the Hub plan, you walk up the stairs, past portraits of Aldermen and women,  and long dead, former councillors, the predecessors of the current hatch of Tory members, who so much enjoy dressing up in the inherited, moth eaten robes of office, and taking turn to play Mayor.

The original Aldermen and women, councillors,  took up their roles because they wanted to make things better: they wanted to give ordinary people a park to enjoy, on their days off, or a library to give them access to self improvement. Post Thatcher, what do we have? Tories with a sense of entitlement, who enjoy the status they think is conveyed by becoming a councillor, and the generous allowances, but feel little sense of obligation to the people who voted them into office. 

The Town Hall, at Hendon, is one of those civic buildings about to be surrounded by the hideous blocks of the Hub plan, supposedly for students, but likely to end up as speculative residential housing. It stands next to the listed library, about to be gutted, its library function removed, and the property given over to Middlesex University. What would the men and women who made such efforts to open this library think of their latter day heirs in the council chamber? I think I know. They would be appalled.

The listed Hendon Library, about to be hollowed out, built on, and handed to Middx Uni, thanks to your Tory councillors.

As well as complaints made to the Council about the Hub fiasco, there have also been more than one formal complaint made about the alleged failure by Barnet Council properly to investigate and act upon the non-declaration of pecuniary interests by a number of Tory councillors.

Several Conservative members have been investigated by the Monitoring Officer in regard to such declarations. And several Conservative members have been found by the Monitoring Officer to be in breach of the Code of Conduct as a result.

What happened? Were they sanctioned, for their breaches? No. No further action. 

In at least two serious cases reported to the MO, no proper response was given at all, despite being promised.

Why is that? 

This matter, and other complaints from a number of residents, is now being referred to the Local Government Ombudsman. Again: watch this space.

Barnet Tories have allowed a culture to become embedded in their group, and in their administration of this council, in which there is a refusal to obey the duty of transparency and accountability that they owe to their electors, the residents and taxpayers. 

Conflicts of interest abound, at every level of the council, not least because of the multiple roles that Capita plays in so many areas of council services - particularly in the role of planning and development. And engagement in what should be the shared purpose of a strong, healthy, local democratic process has been deliberately stifled by the Tories, particularly in recent years, to the point where it does not function at all.

The overarching duty of all elected representatives is to abide by the Nolan Principles for Public Life:

1. The Seven Principles of Public Life

The Seven Principles of Public Life (also known as the Nolan Principles) apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder. This includes all those who are elected or appointed to public office, nationally and locally, and all people appointed to work in the Civil Service, local government, the police, courts and probation services, non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), and in the health, education, social and care services. All public office-holders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources. The principles also apply to all those in other sectors delivering public services.

1.1 Selflessness

Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.

1.2 Integrity

Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.

1.3 Objectivity

Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.

1.4 Accountability

Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.

1.5 Openness

Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

1.6 Honesty

Holders of public office should be truthful.

1.7 Leadership

Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.

A party which does not respect and implement the Nolan Principles at every level of its administration, is simply not fit to stand any candidates for election. 

Here in Barnet we have had years of increasingly unaccountable Tory governance, and in the last four years, this antipathy to the principle of transparency, the exclusion of residents from the democratic process, and the abandonment of acceptable standards of ethical governance has left the borough in a state of ruin. 

What is happening in Westminster, led by the amoral, incompetent government of Boris Johnson, is happening here. 

We cannot continue like this. 

It's time for change.

The only way of stopping this borough from further depredation and decline, of calling an end to the  easy pickings for developers, contractors and consultants, and of wrenching back control of our community, our environment, our history and our built heritage - protecting our public services, our most vulnerable and disadvantaged residents - is to vote Labour and put a group of decent, honest, hard working representatives in a place of power to do good, and help rebuild what we have lost.

Labour Deputy Leader Ross Houston, Victoria Park

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