Tuesday, December 18, 2012


One of the occupational hazards of public life is the constant stream of funerals that one has to attend and often there seems a surge around about Christmas Time .

Sometimes one turns up out of a sense of duty especially if you know the deceased has few family and their friends have mainly passed on before them and sometimes out of a desire to pay tribute to Community work they have done in the past .

Occasionally one is present to mark the passing of someone who was unique and the likes of which we will not see again .

Yesterday was one of those later occasions when I attended the funeral of my friend Mrs Betty Geller.

Betty, who was 85 and had been fighting a virulent form of cancer for the last couple of years died on Sunday and in the Jewish tradition was buried on Monday, was known throughout the Conservative Party especially in North London and was the type of figure that keeps the Democratic process in our Country running.

Having brought up her family and supported her former Bomber Command husband in his career, Betty became a widow in middle age and decided that her Country and the Conservative Party needed her. She worked diligently on a voluntary basis ( indeed I am sure it cost her thousands over the years ) to support the Conservative Party and the other passion in her life , the State of Israel . She managed to combine both, in her support of the Conservative Friends of Israel of which she became National Vice Chairman . Woe betide any Tory Minister whose attitude was less than One Hundred per cent behind Israel as Betty would remind them in no uncertain terms of the errors of their ways . Many a front bencher has been accosted in the corridor at Conservative Party Conference ( at which Betty was a diligent attender ) and been reminded of the need for the UK to stand firmly with Israel , as a fellow Democratic State in the need for a just settlement in the Middle East .

There was not a Conservative Parliamentary candidate in North London whom Betty had not organised a meeting for, nor was there a Party Leader from Margaret Thatcher onwards with whom she was not on first name terms, after Mrs T, I think her favourite was Michael Howard . Her support for young candidates seeking to make progress in the Party was well known and among her "proteges" was the current Party Chairman Grant Shapps. Having campaigned for many years for her good friend Sir Rhodes Boyson in Brent North and against the lunacies of 1980s Brent Council , Betty would go all over the Country to campaign in Parliamentary by elections in her high heels and always looking immaculate , quite how her feet survived I have no idea!

 Serving as President of Brent North Conservative Association she was delighted when her good friend Bob Blackman was elected MP for Harrow East at the 2010 General Election . Bob,also  my former colleague on the London Assembly , was present at Betty's funeral yesterday despite the disgraceful behaviour of  the gutter press in running some decades old story in which nobody is interested in their columns over the weekend. It was this sort of courage in Bob Blackman as well as his solid and proper Conservative views that Betty so admired.

In the 1990s the misguided John Major abolished "Political Honours" and although honours which would have been given for Political service were often dressed up as something else( "Services to Local Government" or "Services to the Community" )  David Cameron is thankfully slowly bringing them back but not in time to reward Betty. There is no doubt in my mind that Political Service to all mainstream Parties is just as important to Society as Charitable Service , Olympic Bronze medals or thirty years as a hard working school dinner lady . Without voluntary workers to deliver leaflets and canvass and telephone the voters we will be reduced to the state funding of political parties or the collapse of Democracy .

Betty has passed on her genes to her daughter Marilyn , a leading Conservative Councillor in Harrow and indeed to her son in law David Ashton who was an excellent Leader of Harrow Council and fought a first class campaign for Parliament in 2005 .

The presence of so many at Betty's funeral , including many non Jews and several Muslim colleagues of her daughter Marilyn is a tribute to Betty's ability to make friends across any divide and indeed any age group.

Four things it seems to me were important to Betty , her family , her friends , the Conservative Party and the State of Israel. All four will  deeply miss her enthusiasm , outspokenness ,handwork, support and dedication .

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Deputy Mayor for Policing

An extraordinary story splashed all over the "Evening Standard" tonight , that the Deputy Mayor for Policing Stephen Greenhalgh has been accused of sexual harassment of a Junior female City Hall employee in the lift .

My friends at City Hall , and I still have some, tell me the incident which apparently happened several weeks ago, allegedly involved Mr Greenhalgh , who since the abolition of the Metropolitan Police Authority is virtually a one man Police Authority for London , getting in the lift admiring the young lady's "arse ", and giving it a slap !

Mr Greenhalgh , a former Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council and the "Blue eyed boy" of Eric Pickles and Conservative Local Government has apologised for anything "that could be or may have been construed as inappropriate behaviour"

Frankly I cannot believe the reports of Greenhalgh's alleged behaviour to be true  , if the incident did happen then I suspect he will have even less of a Political career left than I have and will soon be joining Ann Widdecombe on the Panto Circuit ( Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at High Wycombe , tickets available at all prices ) . However when the chips are down you know who your friends are and in his few short months at City Hall Mr Greenhalgh has made few friends .

His first appearance before the London Assembly after he had been in office for all of three weeks was a total train crash after he decided he did not require the Commissioner of Police to sit next to him and assist with difficult answers. The consequential embarrassment when Greenhalgh had to admit he had not read the brief on the forthcoming Olympics amongst other things ,had Conservative Assembly squirming and became quite a hit on "You Tube" . Subsequent appearances have shown a little improvement .

However Greenhalgh apparently refuses to reply to correspondence from Members of the London Assembly claiming at a recent Conservative Group meeting that was not in his job description and there are severe rumblings from Borough Council leaders of all Parties over his lack of engagement about suggested Police Station closures. Many London Councillors , including me , are unable to equate the upbeat , positive messages on the strengths of Neighbourhood Policing that emerge from City Hall (and indeed Scotland Yard) with the day to day reality of constant "extractions" ( Officers being withdrawn for other duties) and lack of any Transport for Safer Neighbourhood Teams, essential in a huge ward such as Totteridge. The constant problem of burglary is not being dealt with effectively .

When the excellent Kit Malthouse had Greenhalgh's job not only did he put the hours in (rumours are Mr Greenhalgh's appearances in the lift or anywhere else at City Hall are" intermittent ") but he had a grasp of the detail and was always willing to speak to Assembly Members, Councillors, MPs and Conservative activists .

Stephen Greenhalgh may like Kit Malthouse be a "heavyweight", but only one of them is a Political heavyweight .

Just when we thought the Met was becoming settled under the excellent Commissioner Bernard Hogan - Howe ( where is the Knighthood ? ) it looks like a period of Political turmoil is ahead.

Friday, December 07, 2012

How not to oppose "One Barnet"

Last night brought back feelings of nostalgia .

I was at the Town Hall to listen to the Cabinet Meeting that we all knew was going to unanimously agree the "One Barnet" contract with Capita .

However there was   process to go through .

The meeting took place in Committee Rooms one and two which soon became full to the extent that badly briefed security guards attempted to exclude elected Councillors , not helped by the fact that the Leaders Wife, Cllr Mrs Cornelius had distributed various coats , scarves and items of winter clothing across two rows of seats at the front like a demented German tourist with the sun loungers .

The Cabinet were all present , some looking a little sheepish and the meeting started with the usual thirty minutes of public questions. The usual suspects who submit these questions are often their own worst enemies and I am completely at a loss as to whom they think their target audience is . There were two sensible and important questions in the whole half hour but the rest just frankly seem to enjoy the sound of their own voices knowing in advance what sort of answer they will get. The local journalists do not bother writing anything down and Mr Silverman , not even the most committed opponent  was listening to your endless monologue which just seemed to go on and on and selfishly wasted time at the expense of other residents. The most sensible issue raised was the collection rate of Council tax which currently stands at a very respectable 98.2 per cent and which privately no Councillor thinks can be significantly approved upon by Capita or in fact the Arch Angel Gabriel!

The Leader of the Council was obviously pursuing a policy of charm and reasonableness, both qualities that he possesses in abundance ,  towards residents but sadly this was at the expense of attempting to keep any sort of discipline in the public gallery . Councillor Rams on the other hand , had clearly been attending courses at the Brian Coleman School of Charm (but Robert you never completed the course )  and I suspect was taking secret pleasure at winding up the sad , mad and the bad and the occasional  reasonable resident.

Councillor Hugh Rayner as Chairman of one of the relevant Scrutiny Committees and on behalf of the the Chairman of the other , who was not able to attend ( a wedding I suspect !) mentioned very little and had to be reminded by the Leader of the four points he was supposed to have mentioned so that the relevant Cabinet Member could give the scripted reply and so that  they all knew where they is the pre distributed scripts . The Leader of the Opposition spoke , slower and more authoritatively than usual but she knew she was just going through the motions . Nice ( always a damning word in Politics)  , pleasant and hardworking as Cllr Alison Moore is her failure to proper harness the opposition to " One Barnet" , and her failure to outline cogently the alternatives has allowed the unreformed 1980s lefties to dictate the anti agenda

Once the cabinet had begun to discuss the report before them in a clearly orchestrated move a number of people in the public gallery stood on their chairs and started chanting in a clear stupid attempt to stop the meeting . All that happened was that the Cabinet , Officers, Other Councillors present and the press just adjourned into the neighbouring "Heritage" Room , ironic really as the Cabinet were busy destroying the Council's Heritage, which had been already set up to deal with such an eventuality.

The sensible residents who had come along to listen to the Cabinet debate the matter and are genuinely interested in the issues found themselves excluded as the lunatics attempted to take over the asylum. The demonstrators achieved absolutely nothing except made themselves beyond the pale to reasonable middle of the road residents . It was a massive own goal and handed the Cabinet a huge PR victory . Remember "One Barnet" will only be defeated if those of us who believe in democratic politics persuade enough of our colleagues to come with us and form a united front with "Mr and Mrs Average Barnet" . Mr and Mrs Average Barnet would run a mile from last night's disgraceful behaviour .

The resulting debate in the Heritage Room would win the "Olivier award" for best original script and several cabinet members struggled to adopt the "concerned face" look which was clearly in the stage directions as they asked their scripted questions which all seemed to begin with " I am concerned about X , can I be reassured about .....................?

Surprise , Surprise all the Cabinet were duly reassured about their concerns .

I will spare the blushes of the Cabinet member who duly read out their allocated lines whilst I knew jolly well they did not believe a word of it . As long as you can sleep at night Councillor .

However the answers did give a lot of useful information especially about guarantees that Capita has given about quality of service and scrutiny . The problem is that these are meaningless. How do I know ? I have been there and got the T shirt !

The vast majority of the current Cabinet have little experience of running anything or of dealing with the awarding of large and sensitive Local Government contracts .

In 2001 I was Leader of the Opposition Conservative Group on the London Fire Authority (LFEPA) when the then Labour Chair ( Val Shawcross) brought forward proposals to out source the ownership and management of the entire vehicle fleet and the workshops of the Fire Brigade . I and my Group were somewhat sceptical, not least by the length of the contract , but after endless Officer briefings , some minor changes and much discussion we supported the Labour Group proposals , why ? because the contract was with a subsidiary of British Gas , there were guarantees from the parent company so nothing could go wrong and anyway British Gas was a huge company , with lots of experience . Sound familiar ?

It was not long before British Gas sold the contract on and after various deals it ended up being run by a company called Asset Co and then finally (this Summer)  by an eccentric Northamptonshire Baronet who collected vintage cars when the brigade finally brought it back in house before outsourcing it again !

The losers last night were the ordinary residents of Barnet , they deserve better than the Cabinet decision and they most certainly deserve better than the howling mob who should be ashamed of themselves

No doubt several bloggers went home with moist gussets thinking they had achieved some great victory over the Council , they achieved nothing except the betrayal of the residents they claim to represent . It is time for the usual suspects to shut up and allow the sensible , reasoned opponents of this process to take the floor .

Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Police admit why Burglary is out of control

Last week at a semi public meeting the Barnet Borough Police Commander admitted that Burglary was still the number one crime problem across Barnet .

Despite endless Political pressure over the last couple of years the Metropolitan Police has failed to get to grips with the rising tide of Burglary across the Suburban London Boroughs and particularly Barnet . Month after Month the 21 "Community Action Panels " ( One for each Council Ward) that exist to ensure proper community liaison between the Safer Neighbourhood teams and local residents have been briefed on initiative after initiative being undertaken to tackle Burglary which by all accounts  10 per cent of Barnet households  have fallen victim to.  The latest involved use of the Police helicopter sweeping low over parts of the Borough and making the windows rattle  as residents try to get to sleep around about midnight.

Known Burglars have apparently  been targeted and some when arrested have been encouraged to "confess" to many other break ins other than those they have actually been arrested for.

Sadly one of the key weapons in the battle against this most hateful crime , the Safer Neighbourhood teams themselves have been neutered by the endless "abstraction" of Police Officers from Barnet to go off to other parts of London and deal with whatever the Met think is the issue of the week . A number of Safer Neighbourhood Sergeants ( many of whom are having to look after two teams rather than one ) are openly briefing about their lack of transport ( some teams are lucky in they have a bike between them !)  and manpower and their complete inability to do the job they are supposed to be doing. Oh and by the way I understand the bike allocated to the Totteridge team is broken and in for repair........................

However this week it was revealed by the Police that 41 per cent ( Yes 4 out of ten ) Burglaries in Barnet are committed by Roumanians . Apparently there is a regular mini bus service that runs from Golders Green to Roumania and deposits said Roumanians in the heart of the Borough allowing a number of them to get straight off the mini bus and stuck into their life of crime . Apparently  Barnet has the highest percentage of Roumanian Burglars in the Country.

So if you want something done about Burglary , and which reasonable citizen does not , do not blame Government spending cuts or the forthcoming closure of most of the Borough's outdated Victorian Police Stations but blame fairly and squarely the European Union . Although Britain obtained certain opt outs of EU rules when Bulgaria and Roumania joined the EU with regard to allowing their citizens to work n the UK , the pen border arrangements mean we have no control of who arrives from these two Countries. 

The time has come to introduce  a Visa system , certainly for Roumanians and stick two fingers up to the EU !

Oh and when four years ago much of the alcohol related crime in the Borough was emanating from the Polish  Community the then Cabinet Member on Barnet Council in charge of Community Safety (me) had leaflets produced in Polish and distributed explaining our drinking  laws and what would happen if you breached them , that , combined I suspect with the recession seemed to deal with the issue .

I know virtually all routine wok on Barnet Council has ceased whilst Members and Officers struggle with "One Barnet" ,( have you tried speaking to the Planning Department ?) but surely as we approach the peak Christmas burglary period the relevant Cabinet member needs to start holding the Police to account over their failure on Burglary and could perhaps produce some leaflets in Roumanian and get them handed out at Golders Green Bus Station

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lord Leveson

Lord Leveson and I have something in common, besides both having the same Christian name of Brian , we share the same hairdresser. Well hairdresser is stretching it a bit as the more traditional term of "Barber" covers it, particularly as neither his Lordship nor I have much hair left .

 The publication of the much anticipated Leveson Report has laid out a blue print for the future conduct of the media and it is still to be seen if the Politicians accept the recommendation. Clearly no change is no option as there have been far too many innocent people ranging from the family of Milly Dowler to Chris Jefferies, the man wrongly accused of his tenants murder whose lives have been damaged by the activities of less than scrupulous journalists . My view is that the Leveson report should be accepted in whole and that the Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband are more in tune with the public than the Prime Minister on this matter  and that statutory regulation is necessary and is needed now.

My personal run in with the unlamented "News of the World" happened about six years ago when about 6pm one evening as I was changing to go out to a public event my front door bell rang and a young man who identified himself as a reporter from the "News of the World" asked me if suggestions that were apparently "being discussed at North London Dinner Parties" that I was, or had been, involved in a relationship with a well know International pop star were true. I was somewhat mystified as frankly I do not attend, nor indeed get invited to "North London Dinner Parties". At the time I got rid of the journalist from my doorstep by ringing a friend who had a senior role on the "News of the World" who spoke to the guy who promptly disappeared and no more was heard of this story again.

At the time I was extremely puzzled as to how the newspaper got hold of any supposed details of my  private life, something I do not discuss with anybody and certainly not journalists and frankly could not think of an answer. Five years later the answer became obvious.

Likewise it was always a mystery to me how various stories appeared in the media during the 2002/3 Fire Brigade pay dispute. Several media figures are now facing criminal charges which involve alleged phone hacking of Mr Andrew Gilchrist , who at the time was General Secretary of the Fire Brigade's Union so no doubt matters may well become clearer during that criminal trial .

The Leveson report however does not in my opinion go far enough.

I cannot see why journalists should not be forced to belong an individuals to a professional body along the lines of the Law Society or the British Medical Association and be disciplined or struck off for unprofessional conduct. These days anybody running a dodgy website  can buy a digital recording devise, pay a subscription to the National Union of Journalists and waddle into Town Hall claiming to be a "professional journalist ".

Likewise as my former Assembly colleague pointed out in her intervention in the House of Commons this afternoon after the Prime Minister's statement that something had to be done about the digital media .

I do not mean the obsessive bloggers and tweeters, although post Lord McAlpine I suspect many tweeters will rightly be far more circumspect in what they tweet, I mean those journalists who think it is right to post a story when only half the job is done . I have lost count of the times the "Hendon Times" which years ago under the Editorship of the  late Denis Signey, had a high reputation in the Community, has published a story on its' website without even bothering to check the facts or seek a comment from individuals mentioned in the story and has later been forced to take the story down or amend it .

Likewise a right to privacy is long overdue in this Country, it is already against the doomed Press Complaints Commission code to publish photographs and some stories about the children of public figures and that should be extended to all relatives . Furthermore just as the Local Government Code of Conduct recognises that complaints cannot be made against Councillors when they are off duty, the media regime should be extended to the media being forbidden to harass Politicians and their families when not fulfilling public duties .Likewise there needs to be protection against the media publishing the private addresses of Politicians or details of their children's schools .

Lord Leveson has started the process of cleaning up the cesspit of current tabloid journalism, we need to go much further.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

As you know I am all in favour of preserving traditions in relation to Barnet Council . One such tradition enshrined in Town Hall legend, if not in Standing Orders, is that the private Conservative Party Group meetings leak like a sieve. Indeed the Conservative Group stopped producing minutes for its members back in the early 1990s after these inexplicably always ended up in the hands of the then Labour Leader Alan Williams and these days any Conservative Councillor who wants to see what the Group actually decided (as opposed to what some members think it decided) have to ask to go and physically inspect the minutes. Sometimes details of the top secret discussions have appeared on newspaper web sites before the meeting has even finished.

I am delighted that this tradition is one that continues as last Thursday night at Hendon Town Hall an extraordinary meeting of the Conservative Group took place . This private meeting was addressed by Council Officers who briefed the Councillors present (and I am told there were 7 absent) , several diplomatically I understand, on the "One Barnet" process and the recommendation to Cabinet to accept the Capita bid for the back office functions.

The Officers then withdrew and a long and arduous debate then ensued.

First a former leadership contender complained that Councillors had been given an 18 page document and no time to read it, then a succession of Councillors got up to attack One Barnet , the concept and the implementation until a total of 12 had voiced concerns . By this time the Leader's blood pressure was rising until he finally jumped up "red in the face" and said unless the Conservative Group supported this " all the Libraries would have to be closed and social services would be reduced to a crisis only mode "

Several members objected to this blackmail but were swept aside as Group Chairman (still ambitious at 72 !) Councillor John Marshall called a vote asking "that if the Cabinet endorsed the Officers recommendations then the Group would support them" . There were only 7 abstentions. I would suggest that decision rather fetters Conservative Members ability when it comes to the Scrutiny process in the next fortnight and no doubt Councillors will declare what "whip " they are under at the start of the Scrutiny meetings as Standing orders dictate.

Obviously the whole Cabinet, or" the boys" as they are increasingly known due to their youth and inexperience, voted in favour . Apologies to those Cabinet Members not part of the boys gang whose silence is no doubt due to awaiting developments during the next Conservative Group Leadership campaign next April .

One long serving Conservative Councillor put the phone down on a very young Cabinet Member who phoned him up because he felt his colleague did not understand "One Barnet" and needed it explaining. As the Councillor told me he felt like punching the patronising little git !

Having attended the meeting at the Greek Brotherhood the other week I am well aware of the strength of feeling of many residents and although there was a great deal of left wing hot air spouted which was not relevant to much at all , it is clear that the war is frankly lost. The only hope for Richard Cornelius is that Labour had little alternative to offer and the Lib Dems Jack Cohen just played blatantly to the gallery knowing he will never have to implement any policy on Barnet Council. Whilst I doubt there was more than a handful of Tory voters at the meeting what there were was a phalanx of residents who will be moved to get off their backsides and campaign against those who seem committed to destroying the fabric of the Council's operations. I am increasingly being stopped in Tesco or the Coffee Shop or even in Church by Conservative voters, activists and Party members wondering why their own Party Councillor want to damage the Borough especially as it seems to go against much of what their own Government is proposing .

What has worried me and increasingly loyal Conservatives, is that the current Leadership of the Council has failed to offer any vision and sadly increasingly much competence to Barnet affairs, one Cabinet member told me the current Friern Barnet Library Squatter fiasco was our own fault "as we left the keys in the lock" . Whether you agreed with Mike Freer or not he had vision and understood strategy , he also understood how to maintain firm Political control of Barnet Council Officers to make sure policy was delivered  .

Quite how you defend the Green Belt when planning officers are based in Mumbai I do not know . Several Councillors had no idea where Darwen in Lancashire was and were reassured it was not proposed to relocate services to Darwin in Australia !

There is a  Conservative, clear blue water alternative to the current New Labour nonsense and that is to asses individual services and decide where and how they are best delivered. Some belong in the private sector, some in the voluntary sector, some in joint operation with other Boroughs or public bodies and some we should cease performing at all. Occasionally some should just be left alone in house to get on with the job!

To outsource as Barnet are proposing, just preserves  certain services in aspic for ten years and is as wrong as the left wingers who argue that not one Council  job should be cut or changed .

Roy Hattersley reportedly said that the 1983 Labour manifesto was the longest suicide note in history , I suspect he had not seen the Capita contract.

In the 1964  United States Presidential Election the Democrats attacked the Republican candidate Senator Barry Goldwater, whom they considered a right wing "war monger" with the phrase "In your cuts you know he's nuts"

True Conservatives in Barnet know "In their guts, this One Barnet scheme is nuts ". Many even get the feeling that the usually sensible, mild mannered and traditional Conservative Leader of the Council feels the same but has backed himself into a corner .

It is still not to late to change tack and salvage the 2014 election and allow true Conservative philosophy to win through .

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A role model !

The other Thursday  I was present at Chelsea Old Church for the Service of Thanksgiving for the Baroness Ritchie of Brompton better known as Councillor Shireen Ritchie, and in the tabloid press as the former step Mother in law of the Popular singer (as the Daily Telegraph would put it ), Madonna 

Many of the Great and the Good were present including Cabinet Ministers Michael Gove, Maria Miller and the "millionaire private plane owning" Party Chairman Grant Shapps as well as several dozen MPs and peers. Sadly Shireen's husband John was not well enough to attend and step son, film director Guy was otherwise engaged.

Shireen was first elected to Kensington and Chelsea Council in 1998 and during her local Government career made children and young people's issues her speciality. In his excellent address Sir Merrick Cockell mentioned that she insisted on being updated on the progress of each individual child in the care of the Council a commendable action , but all I can say is the Royal Borough must have far less children in care than Barnet !

Shireen exemplified the sort of local Councillor fast disappearing across London passionate about her Ward, prepared to do the hard work, afraid of nobody and an expert in a particular field . She was not afraid of controversy and her service on the voluntary side of the Conservative Party included being responsible for Parliamentary candidates and Cameron's much derided "A-list". A number of the beneficiaries of that system occupied the pews last week !  However the recent resignation of the lightweight Louise Mensch as MP for Corby has reinforced that on this particular topic Shireen was wrong. Her final illness prevented her from making the most of her well deserved elevation to the House of Lords in 2010 . 

The presence of Michael Gove, in my view the most reforming and sensible Education Secretary since Margaret Thatcher, proved the respect in which Shireen was held by Central Government due to her role on the Local Government Association when it came to advising on Children's issues.  She was clearly listened to

However in the last few weeks a number of leading Councillors have made speeches at Party Conferences and elsewhere which Michael Gove would be sensible to ignore. The growth in the number of Academies has left some power hungry local Councillors and many jobs worth Local Government Officers suddenly realising that there influence in Education is fast disappearing down the swanny.  The Academy programme has resulted in a fundamental shift in power away from the traditional restraints of the Local Education Authority, most Secondary Schools and an increasing number of Primaries are now enjoying freedoms they have never experienced before. Additionally failing schools are being removed forcibly from LEA control and re-established as new schools with a frsh start.
The traditionally fraught issue of schools admissions which drives so many parents to distraction both at secondary level and, with the shortage of school places increasingly at primary level is mainly a result of the failure of Local Authorities to properly plan and the solution is not to force parents to send children to unpopular schools or schools the other side of the Borough but to allow successful schools to expand as their Heads and Governors see fit . For this to happen there needs to be flexibility on the planning front as many schools sit in the green belt.
A centralised schools admission system which often leads parents with false hope or cons them into thinking there is genuine choice has had its' day and a more honest and open system run by schools themselves and not by an LEA whose officers are often more interested in social gerrymandering than good education is needed. The suggestion from the Mayor of London that he should have a strategic role in Schools, in a sort of "son of ILEA" format is a recipe for disaster. Is there any parent in London who wants some distant official at City Hall dictating which school their child should attend or worse still thinks Boris Johnson or Ken Livingstone could run Education in the 33 Boroughs with hundreds of schools?.
In the NHS the Government reforms were based on "leaving it to the professionals " and the same thinking is beginning to apply to Education . The move to have fewer Politicians involved in Education is welcome because sadly not all have the expertises and dedication of the late Councillor Baroness Ritchie .

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Life at the top!

There are many weird and wonderful traditions on Barnet Council some of which have been in place since the Council was set up in 1965 others which have "developed" over the years and most of which add to the efficient running of the Council or the gaiety of Civic life or both.

One tradition that used to exist was that the immediate past Chief Executive's official portrait was hung in the corridor outside the Chief Executive's office. Leo Boland ended this tradition in 2001 when he ordered the removal of Max Caller's portrait from the Town Hall on the grounds (quite rightly) that Officers on the whole should remain anonymous and it is elected  members who should take all the glory.

Max Caller was the Chief Executive of Barnet Council when I was first elected and therefore I have judged
all subsequent Chief Executives of the various public bodies I have served on against him.

Before Mr Caller, Barnet had a Town Clerk, a lawyer who was a semi God like figure to staff and indeed Councillors. The two previous Town Clerks, Mr Williams and 
Mr Bennett, I don't even think their wives addressed them by their Christian names, still have there names painted on certain old statutory notices in parks and allotments with the phrase "by Order of the Town Clerk" etc... etc... and in their day it was by order !

Max Caller was not a solicitor in fact he was an extremely accomplished engineer who made his name in Barnet as an efficient Borough Engineer (a title now sadly replaced by some meaningless Assistant Director post ) and was the first to use the title "Chief Executive" because in those days the title "Town Clerk" needed a legal qualification . However he made up for this by wearing the Town Clerk's wig and gown on every possible civic occasion. Mr Caller whose post Barnet career took him to Hackney and briefly Haringey and earned him a CBE is now running the Local Government Boundary Commission and last time I saw him (inevitably at a funeral) was busy deciding the fate of the Councillors of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea who unwisely have requested a re-drawing of Ward Boundaries .

In the days before e-mail Councillors wrote letters to Officers about constituents issues and no matter how trivial the matter a Councillor always received a reply signed by Mr Caller in his distinctive green ink. Woe betide an Officer who was dealing with a member and did not keep the Chief Executive in the loop! Some considered Max a control freak I thought he just had a huge capacity for hard work, a knowledge of the Council second to none, an understanding of the pressures on Politicians, a first class brain, an ability to serve whomsoever the electorate had given him to work with and a remarkable attention to detail. So, what if he supposedly occasionally lost his temper, he never did with me and indeed was always willing to guide and encourage new Councillors. He did however drive Politicians of all Parties mad (from Lady Thatcher downwards) by his inability to finish an election count before the Western Isles constituency. Sadly this is another Barnet tradition which still exists!

Max was succeeded by the modernising Leo Boland (no wig and gown for him) whose expertise on strategy and policy development meant some of the attention to service delivery  detail shown by Mr Caller and important to most councillors and the public was left to others. Leo was a Chief Executive for the post 2000 Local Government Act, which created the dreadful Cabinet system era whereas, under Mr Caller Councillors of all Parties who phoned the Chief Executive were put through under Mr Boland the Chief Executive would "phone you back when his meeting had finished".

However Leo's wide knowledge of Local Government thinking and ability to interpret "New Labour" Government policy direction lead the Council to fundamentally examine how it was going to do business in the future. The disadvantage is that constant reorganisations seemed to promote the Marxist theory of revolutionary chaos and Councillors often had no idea who was responsible for certain services from one week to the next. Traditional Council  Officers (nicknamed men in cardigans by the Chief Executive) departed in droves with their pay-offs and pensions. Mr Boland was a Chief Executive who could deliver change and hence I was a passionate supporter of his appointment as Boris Johnson's Chief Executive at City Hall in 2009
, an appointment that sadly ended in tears, but that is a story for my forthcoming book.

Following Mr Boland came Nick Walkley. I did not serve on the Appointment panel , I do not think the then Leader trusted me to make the "right" decision and there was some disquiet amongst the ruling Group who perceived the new Chief Executive as far too close to the thinking of the Labour Government, he had spent a year on secondment at the Department of Communities and Local Government and far too susceptible to whatever Local Government fad was in favour that week, whatever did happen to "Total Place". Some less Charitable Conservative Councillors considered him the then Leaders "puppy" no doubt as a result of his habit of nodding his head enthusiastically during the Leaders speeches, but as he also did it during my speeches and indeed during virtually all members speeches I put it down to an in built politeness to elected members. I was however dubious that car owning Barnet could have a Chief Executive who did not drive !

But Mr Walkley proved to have balls and a surprising respect for Civic Life. His insistence that Council Directors should escort Councillors at Remembrance Day wreath laying ceremonies across the Borough and should fork out of their own pockets for tickets to the Mayor's Charity Dinner was a welcome change.

However it was clear that despite his strength of character and the most disgraceful and personalised abuse by the sad , mad and the thoroughly nasty (and supposedly angry) , all was not well in the State of Denmark, (I am fond of my Shakespeare) and the shock amongst Councillors at his sudden departure and for Haringey of all places is palpable. Perhaps they are old fashioned but some Councillors apparently think that for 200,000 a year a certain amount of loyalty to the Borough would not have been out of place. 

Having been appointed by an Administration lead by a radical and reforming Conservative Leader (Mike Freer) there is a theory that Mr Walkley was not as comfortable with a more traditional Conservative Leader determined not to throw out the baby with the bathwater who is more relaxed with Government at all levels doing less and achieving more .

Somehow I do not think Mr Walkley's portrait will be appearing on the wall of the Town Hall soon................

As for the future, does the Borough need a Chief Executive? After Leo Boland left City Hall the post was abolished, where Boris leads, Barnet should follow. On the other hand Max Caller is always open to a new challenge, green ink and all !

We still have his portrait in the attic I believe!

Friday, October 05, 2012

Saint or Sinner?

When King Charles II was restored in 1660 he began (in my view as an ardent Royalist quite rightly) to pursue the Regicides who had conspired to execute his father, Charles I eleven years earlier. Those who had not fled abroad were duly tried and often hung, drawn and quartered much to the satisfaction of Queen Henrietta Maria, the sainted King’s widow.  However the main culprit, Oliver Cromwell had of course inconveniently died in 1658, but not to be frustrated Charles II had his body exhumed from Westminster Abbey and duly hung in chains at Tyburn and his head displayed on a pole till 1685.

This brings me on to the late Sir Jimmy Saville. I have no idea if he committed offences against young girls over many years, certainly there were many rumours and of course the alleged offences are the most disgraceful and appalling. I can understand the need of any victims to want closure and to see some sort of “Justice “dispensed. However, Sir Jimmy is dead and what exactly are the Police supposed to do about the allegations that they now appear to be investigating?  Saville cannot be brought to trial and receive the jail sentence he deserved if guilty. Metropolitan Police resources are overstretched as it is (ask anybody who has been burgled recently) and quite why tens of thousands should be spent investigating a dead man I am not sure. We have had a sort of trial by media, rather appropriate as Saville constantly used the media for self promotion, but what can we do about it now?

We can ensure procedures are in place in the BBC and elsewhere to ensure this sort of thing does not happen again but frankly if we start investigations every time some unsavoury ( and usually malicious) rumour is circulated about public figures we would have to double Police numbers.  Just because someone is unmarried, dresses flamboyantly and is somewhat eccentric does not automatically make them a paedophile.  The press treatment in early 2011 of Chris Jefferies , who had nothing to do with the murder of his tenant ,  Bristol student Joanna Yeates cost a number of National papers large sums in libel payments . The appalling vilification he received seemed to be based on the fact that he had been a teacher at a private school, dressed eccentrically, and had a wild hair cut and the final “peculiarity “ had been a Liberal Democrat Councillor!

When in 2007 I repeated often aired rumours that the former Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath had been warned about his cottaging activities in the 1950s there was a parade of the outraged great and the good saying I was destroying the reputation of a great man . No I was just repeating what was common knowledge and in my view made no difference to his reputation (that of being a bad Prime Minister who betrayed Britain by taking us into the EU and then spent 30 years in a giant sulk having lost the Tory Leadership to Mrs Thatcher). Likewise I have no idea if the many rumours around the late Sir Cyril Smith Liberal MP for Rochdale and his interest in young boys are true but I would not suggest an expensive Police Inquiry to find out, especially in Rochdale which has on going serious issues around child abuse to deal with.  Anyone who has read the posthumously published diaries of Tom Driberg, a now forgotten Labour MP, Chairman of the Party, Peer and journalist, will know that the many rumours about him in his lifetime were true with knobs on!

So when the media / Police have “convicted“ Sir Jimmy Saville what do we do ? Well taking a leaf from King Charles II we could dig up Sir Jimmy’s  rather tacky gold coffin and put it in a cell in Pentonville Prison for a couple of years and then Justice will have been done?

Thursday, October 04, 2012

The health of the Conservative Party

Last week I attended the Executive Council of my local Conservative Association and along, I suspect, with most Local Conservative Associations we discussed the state of our membership and the number of "lapsed members" who had failed to renew. One member had not sent his subscription in after 40 years membership apparently over the Prime Minister’s support of Gay marriage.  Sadly this is symptomatic of the state of the Conservative Party on the ground. The ever loyal membership and activists many of whom have not recovered from the removal of Mrs T 20 years ago are passionately anti Europe , pro a crackdown on Immigration, think benefits should be cut quicker and deeper than IDS is proposing and would cut Overseas Aid . Oh and they hate Liberals with a large or a small "L".

Many Councillors (increasingly the backbone of Conservative Associations) are dismayed by the lack of the promised freedoms of the Localism Act and the constant snipping at them from the DCLG and the Taxpayers Alliance. The proposed changes on planning rules around extensions has for many Councillors, ever mindful of the views of their local residents and amenities Associations led to despair.

The members do not feel any “ownership” of the current Government. Whilst Cameron’s popularity declines amongst the middle aged and older activists, they feel nobody is listening and they do not know what to do. Often their entire social lives revolve around the Conservative party and they therefore have no intention of defecting to UKIP (even if their cross goes there in the next Euro election). They love Boris, especially in London , although unlike say Jeffrey Archer or Norman Tebbit whom they also adored in their heyday, Boris refuses virtually all speaking requests from Associations and indeed often suggests his Father!

Most activists had no idea who Baroness Warsi was when serving as Party Chairman and long for the return of a Cecil Parkinson type figure with charm and charisma.  

What is to be done? The Prime Minister needs the membership and the middle classes to fall in love with him as they did with Lady Thatcher 30 years ago. It can be done, just concentrate on those issues which every Tory MP hears month after month raised at their Executive. 

As published in House Magazine – Conservative Party Conference supplement

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Well done thou good and faithful servant

Much is being written in the press over the laborious selection process being undertaken by the Church of England to select a new Archbishop of Canterbury. Apparently the Commission dealing with the appointment spent three days last week locked away at a secret location interviewing potential candidates, whom according to Ladbrokes include the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of London, Durham, Norwich, Coventry and Liverpool .  

The current Archbishop, Rowan Williams is retiring having had quite enough over the last ten years. I have to admit I am not a fan. He has managed to lead the Church of England and the wider worldwide Anglican Community precisely nowhere and leaves behind a legacy of division and in the United Kingdom increasing irrelevance. On Gay clergy and women Bishops no decision. On so called “gay marriage” abdicating the Opposition to the Archbishop of York and the Roman Catholic Church and on Church unity no progress. I shall also not forget in a hurry his slightly off taste joke about sheep and the Welsh at one particular Lord Mayor’s Banquet!

Clearly an intelligent man he will no doubt enjoy his retirement in Academia.

Of the contenders to take over in my view the most outstanding character is the Bishop of London , Rt Rev Richard Chartres, he is head and shoulders (literally) above other candidates. However the rumours in the press he is considered too conservative, with a small “c” and also upsets the politically correct lobby by declining to ordain women, I know however how supportive he is of the excellent women clergy who serve in his Diocese and he manages to combine traditional Church of England views (popular in the pews) without any form of bigotry. Reportedly close to the Royal family, especially Prince Charles, he rescued St Paul’s Cathedral from the disaster that threatened to engulf it last year when the “Occupy London“ rabble of the great unwashed, some of whom seem to have decamped to the former Friern Barnet Library, caused the resignation of the Dean and half the Chapter. Over the years I have been grateful for his support and advice and the way he values those who serve our City in Local Government.

It is always a special experience to attend worship at St Paul’s Cathedral and last week I attended Evensong with a congregation made up of the City faithful and curious tourists and a number of family, friends and parishioners of the Rev Adrian Benjamin whose last service at St Paul’s as a serving Prebendary it was . I am not totally sure quite what a “prebendary” does in the Church of England except St Paul’s has 24 and it is a sort of honour to those clergy who have been passed over (or could not stand Church of England Politics and declined) higher Church Office. I know Adrian has enjoyed his role at the Cathedral and, never one to miss an opportunity to preach the message, last autumn held a service on the steps of St Paul ’s for the protesters and apparently made £300 in the Offertory!

At the reception held after Evensong in a City Bank the Bishop of London spoke of Adrian ’s remarkable 37 years as Vicar of All Saints and his wider service to the London Diocese. The Bishop recalled the remarkable production of The Passion that Adrian undertook through the streets of Oakleigh and Whetstone in 2003, which similar to a Hollywood epic, involved hundreds of people, horses, Roman Centurions and  the Bishop suddenly appearing out of a window from above a shop in Oakleigh Road North to address the throng. I seem to recall that I played the role of Pontius Pilot (typecast as usual) in the playground of Sacred Heart School .

Indeed this event was recalled again on Sunday when hundreds or worshippers lead by the Deputy Lieutenant, Theresa Villiers MP and the Leader of the Council packed into All Saints Church and the Hall afterwards to pay tribute to Adrian as he retired as Vicar of All Saints .Representatives of other Churches were joined by members of the Jain Community, the Jewish Community , the Bangladeshi Community. He has become a Barnet institution serving as Mayor’s Chaplain to the late John Tiplady, conducting the weddings and funerals of numerous Councillors and involving himself in Community activity in the true meaning of evangelism. Never one to hide his Membership of the Conservative Party and his strong support for Margaret Thatcher, Hartley Booth, Sir Sydney Chapman and Theresa Villiers. His daughter is now a serving Conservative Borough Councillor in Surrey.  Indeed Adrian was always prepared to fight the good fight against those who would damage the Community, extreme evangelicals, “Guardian” readers, Labour Politicians, opponents of Church Schools amongst others.

When the chips were down Adrian was there, he is no fair weather friend or clergyman who dispenses warm words and takes no action

I know the whole Community in Whetstone and his many friends across Barnet wish him and his wonderful wife Martine a happy retirement!

Now come to think of it is it too late to reopen the candidates list for the next Archbishop of Canterbury ?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Horse, a horse! My Kingdom for a horse!

One of the delights of living in London is the Annual Lord Mayor’s Show held each November.

It marks the installation of the Lord Mayor of London and involves a procession of thousands, part military parade, part carnival, part Civic event. Unlike the other 31 London Borough Mayors plus one Lord Mayor who take office in May each year, the Lord Mayor of London has chilly and often wet early November to contend with.

The traditions around the Lord Mayor of London have lasted for centuries and involve the City Corporation (the equivalent of Barnet Council!) , the City Livery Companies and the over 30,000  Freemen of the City of London . However the role of the City has changed over the last couple of decades as it has refocused itself as a spokesman and supporter of the banks and business institutions that provide so many jobs and so much revenue for UK plc. In fact the Lord Mayor spends up to a third of his year of office touring the world and lobbying for British business, a job that the Mayor of London would simply not have the time to do.  In recent years I have seen first how hard Lord Mayors have worked and sometimes for scant reward. The disgraceful and small minded decision of the Gordon Brown Government to withhold the traditional Knighthood from the excellent Alderman Ian Luder (who accepted a CBE) and Alderman Nicholas Anstee (who reportedly declined an OBE) was somewhat reversed by the award by the coalition of a Knighthood to Finchley resident Alderman Michael Bear after his year of office in 2011.

This year’s Diamond Jubilee would have been a complete non event without the full role played (and indeed funded) by the City Corporation and the Special honours list issued last week thanked many involved in the arrangements including the excellent Paul Double, the City Remembrancer, a unique local government post, part Chief Lobbyist, part Head of protocol, part Political Advisor, but all round Mr Fix It. On certain occasions Paul is required to wear the traditional uniform involving tights and lots of lace but as a former Town Clerk of the Corporation (Chief Executive in Barnet terms) said to me “ wouldn’t you for £150,000 a year ? “

I was thinking of the changing role of the City (and the sniping at it by some left wing Politicians over the years) as I enjoyed dinner of Smoked haddock and chive crushed potato fishcake, followed by beef and chocolate and raspberry brownies with my Livery Company (The Farriers) the other evening at Vintners Hall following the traditional ceremony and Church Service for the Installation of the Master of the Company for the coming year. This year the honour of being  Master of the Worshipful Company of Farriers falls upon Major General Sir Evelyn Webb-Carter, KCVO, OBE,DL who after a distinguished military career (ending up as General Officer Commanding London District) has just retired as Controller of the Army Benevolent Fund .

The Worshipful Company of Farriers is not just some sort of City dining Club, like I suspect some Livery Companies are, and along with its’ charitable activities and support for our armed forces (especially those involving horses) actually plays a major role in the training, registration and standards of the Farriering business, many working farriers are Liverymen of the Company and numerous women belong also as Liverymen. A company that goes back to 1356 still has a role 650 years later.

In his address Sir Evelyn outlined plans for his year of office including the Company’s participation in the Lord Mayor’s Show where the Major General (a fine horseman)  will lead the Farriers float through the City streets with me and 50 other Liverymen dressed apparently in Hessian tabards (not sackcloth and ashes).

To the surprise of many, the Master also announced he would be writing a blog detailing his activities during his year of office.  

Who says the City of London is stuck in the past?

Monday, September 17, 2012

“Tomorrow in Jerusalem “

Last Thursday evening I attended a packed meeting in Hendon organised by the three Barnet Borough MPs, Matthew Offord, Mike Freer and Theresa Villiers to allow residents to hear and then question the Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for the Middle East Alistair Burt MP. Mr Burt is very familiar with North London having started his political career as a Councillor on the London Borough of Haringey in the days of the loony left. I suspect the Middle East is a piece of cake compared to morass of 1980s Haringey politics but I do not envy him either job.
Over nearly two hours Burt explained the current Government’s policy on the Middle East and answered a couple of dozen questions from a well informed and not exclusively Jewish audience. Burt came across as a Minister in full command of his brief and as reasonable, controlled and informed. As a former member of the Conservative Friends of Israel (an organisation he had to resign from when appointed a Minister) he approached the subject of the Middle East from a position of a long term supporter of the State of Israel
As a loyal Conservative I support the vast majority of the Government’s policy (except some of the daft stuff proposed by the Lib Dems) but on the issue of dealing with Israel even I wish our Government would throw off some of the shackles imposed by the traditionally Arabist minded civil servants and be a little more supportive. In particular it is high time that the British Government recognised that so called East Jerusalem is not occupied territory but is part of one city and that city is the legitimate capital city of the State of Israel. It is obvious that Israel will never surrender any part of Jerusalem, and neither should it. Just as Germans never accepted the division of Berlin and Cypriots will not accept the division of the city of Nicosia, to somehow suggest that the Biblical holy city of Jerusalem should have some sort of barrier built through it like Belfast at the height of “the Troubles” beggars’ belief.
Likewise the Minister maintained that the building by Israel of settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan was somehow an obstacle to Peace.  Anyone who has visited Israel is struck by a number of things but the first is the size of the Country. Israel is tiny; and with an increasing population has a need to expand to provide the promised home for all Jews; hence the settlements built on unused vacant land on the West Bank.
The main blockage to peace is not the settlements but the failure of Israel ’s neighbours, Egypt excepted, to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. This leads us on to the demonisation of Israel across the Islamic World and Alistair Burt was strong in his condemnation of this demonisation.
Of course here in the United Kingdom we have substantial experience of the demonisation of Israel, most notoriously by the Guardian newspaper and the anti-Israel bias of the BBC. The former BBC Middle East correspondent, the vile, Orla Guerin was quite rightly subject to formal complaint from the Israeli Government and was finally replaced by the more rounded reporting of veteran Jeremy Bowen after a visit to Israel by the BBC Director General Mark Thompson. The antics of the former Labour Mayor of London Ken Livingstone showed that on the left hatred of Israel still exists. Livingstone’s claim that he was not anti-semitic just anti-Zionist appeared not to be believed by many within and without the Jewish Community.
Of course whereas now we have the demonisation of the State of Israel, in the 1930s we had the demonisation of the Jewish people. Across Europe the far right and in the Soviet Union, the far left whipped their peoples into a frenzy of anti-semitism the like of which had not been seen since the Middle Ages, which lead to the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews.  In the UK despite the activities of Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts Britain escaped the worst excesses of anti-semitism and the Jewish community flourished and prospered. However it was not just Mosley in the East End stirring up anti-semitism amongst the white working class, in 1930s Britain there was a deep seated underlying hatred of Jews amongst some sections of the upper and professional classes. After the war when Britons learnt of the appalling nature of the Holocaust, anti-semitism was not in the slightest bit fashionable or indeed acceptable in polite society, but it never disappeared.
Locally there are still some who remember the great “Golf Club scandal“ of the early sixties when certain local Golf Club refused to admit Jewish Members, the late singer Frankie Vaughan being one of those blackballed. I was appalled a few years when discussing the Sternberg Centre planning application with a constituent from Squires Lane Finchley on the phone, to be told “these people are ruining Finchley“, when I asked “which people?” back came the reply “The Jews”. Some of the opposition to the development of the Etz Chaim Primary School in Mill Hill recently blatantly had nothing to do with planning issues and the antics of the so called Palestine Solidarity Campaign in disrupting cultural events, including last years Prom Concert by the Israeli Philharmonic and this years Edinburgh Festival reminds me of Nazi book burning. Attempts to intimidate politicians on the North London Waste Authority, whilst attracting some support from the left wing London Borough of Islington has failed to stop the Authority conducting a procurement process which includes the French owned company Veolia.
Veolia which is involved with excellent new light transit system in Jerusalem which is transforming public transport in that city whilst preserving the historic environment has been a particular target for attack but it is not the only business doing legitimate trade with Israel that has been targeted
The attempts to intimidate me over the North London Waste Authority procurement contract, which have included a series of politically motivated complaints to the Standards Board and an attempt to have me arrested at Camden town hall have just made me more determined to resist this new form of anti-semitism.
A Jewish friend of mine said to me only the other week that if you scratch the surface of some of the polite middle classes living in Barnet you find the anti-semitism just below the surface, sometime they try and dress it up as anti-Zionism which they do not consider the same as anti-semitism but you cannot dispute the fact that those who want the State of Israel to disappear inevitable want the Jewish people to disappear as well.      

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Get a life!

As the quality of journalism of local newspapers declines and their readership falls through the floor in recent years a new phenomenon has appeared with the rise of the internet ; the local blogger.

It is now a rare occurrence for any professional journalist to be sitting in the gallery of a Council meeting and their place has been taken by the amateur and often obsessive “blogger”

Up and down the country individuals who have a particular axe to grind or have failed to be actually be elected to their local Council sit for hours listening to tedious committee meetings and then composing blogs which often have little relationship to the proceedings they have just witnessed.

The problem with bloggers in local government is that unlike the local press who still have to abide by the rules of the soon to be defunct Press Complaints Commission (although many local journalists openly flout it)

In Barnet we are particularly blessed with bloggers with a number writing several times a day about Barnet Council matters (is the Council really that interesting?). A number have taken to doing it anonymously by adopting silly names which in my view is rather on a par with sending poison pen letters or as Mike Freer put it “the one handed bloggers”. The signs of obsessive behaviour are clear to see, one blogger has viewed this blog over 200 times in less than a week. More worryingly as they become more and more obsessive their conspiracy theories become wilder and wilder and their grasp of reality becomes more tenuous. I did have a very good laugh earlier in the year when one blogger suggested that those of us involved in the organising of the borough’s celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee were part of some sort of “Masonic” conspiracy, for the record I am not a freemason. I do have to admit that there are several blog stories that have appeared that I know to be complete fiction from start to finish because I deliberately fed a pack of lies to either a Council officer or indeed a Councillor whom I suspected of leaking to the bloggers and sure enough the stories appeared.

Their attempts to personalise local politics (where to some extent the local newspapers have followed suit) has lead them to begin to indulge in bizarre activities. Councillors and senior professional officers of the Council have been followed, a black van has been reported suspiciously parked outside Councillors homes, officers of the Council have had their private residences photographed, and one female Council officer had her mobile phone number published, my 88 year old Mother was attacked in the street and one Council officer had to take their house off the market after inappropriate enquiries from bloggers.  Additionally there have been repeated acts of criminal damage on Conservative Party premises in the borough. Many Councillors of all parties no longer disclose their private addresses in order to protect their families.  In short bloggers rather than attempt to keep the wider community informed and involved, something all Councillors would welcome, have attempted to instigate a regime of intimidation just because they happen to politically disagree with the current Council administration. This is not unique to Barnet with the distinguished Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council Sir Merrick Cockell amongst others regularly being regularly the victim of appalling personal abuse.

Additionally as a lazy way of filling their blog they submit dozens and dozens of Freedom of Information requests on spurious matter which they then reveal as shocking exclusives on their blogs. Of course this is also a tactic employed by the Taxpayers Alliance which regularly reveals “shock horror” that Local Government spends money! In Barnet the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent dealing with FOI requests could have kept Friern Barnet Library open. Just a thought!

I am not worried about blogs that genuinely debate matters of political interest and indeed there are several that cover Barnet affairs from a socialist point of view with which I fundamentally disagree but I enjoy reading. Furthermore the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles’ idea about recruiting “armchair auditors“ is a positive move to enhance the power of the Internet and make local government more accountable. In Barnet some bloggers who think they act as the servant of the voters have actually developed bigger egos than us Councillors; the difference is they don’t have a democratic mandate to back it up and get highly offended if anyone criticises them. They can dish it out but they cannot take it.

One gets the feeling that some bloggers have fixated on Barnet Council and its’ officers and members in preference to obsessing over David Beckham or Simon Cowell.

My message to some bloggers, “Get a Life!“

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Hold The Front Page

A small news item caught my attention this week; journalists working for Newsquest in Yorkshire are taking industrial action over the level of their pay.

Newsquest of course are the publishers of the Hendon Times Group of Newspapers amongst many other titles. As a company it is the product of a highly leveraged management buyout, in the 1990s, of the former Reed Group Newspapers financed by the well known US company KKR (Kohlberg Kravis Roberts) who were well known prior to the recession for providing vast sums of cash to executives to often pay over the odds for established businesses most notoriously in the case of RJR Nabisco. There then followed a series of mergers, title swaps and aggressive acquisitions including the Westminster Press original owners of the Hendon Times series, that gave us roughly the Newsquest Group . 

Except in 1999 Newsquest was bought by the American Company Gannett media Group for the extraordinary inflated price in many peoples opinion of £922 million and additionally Gannett took on Newsquest's large debts. 

Further acquisitions continued including the well respected Richmond and Twickenham Times group of Newspapers bought from the Dimbleby family. Then along came the recession.

Newsquest like many other groups of local papers found their advertising revenue going through the floor and made dramatic job cuts, closed titles, changed papers from daily to weekly. It found it had a £65 million pound deficit on its staff pension scheme.

I was reflecting on this when I heard a slight flutter of my letter box and this weeks edition of the “Finchley and Hendon Times” drifted down on to my mat. I am indeed one of the apparently decreasing number of residents of Barnet that still receives this once august organ through my door albeit intermittently. Sadly the paper no longer arrives with a thud as its pagination has dramatically reduced in recent as advertisers desert it in droves for more effective forms of communication. Newsquest papers are not alone in racking up massive financial losses (although of course as a foreign owned private company they do not reveal detailed accounts), the once mighty “Hampstead and Highgate Express” now owned by Archant publishing have withdrawn from the industry wide Audit Bureau of Circulations and rumour has sells less than 3,000 copies a week and only attracts property advertising but they distribute free copies in St John’s Wood.  The Press Group (now privately owned by Sir Ray Tindle and his companies), which 40 years ago dominated local media and whose editor was often a household name in Barnet, is now an irrelevance received by fewer and fewer Barnet residents. When the Press Group journalists went on strike over pay some months ago I am not sure any of its readers noticed the difference. 

Sadly as the local papers profitability declined so did the quality of the “journalism”. Local Journalists came and went with such regularity that the Councillors had barely learnt their names before they quit, were sacked or simply made redundant. One began to get the feeling certain young ladies were hired for their assets which were not always above the neckline and others who barely had a GCSE in “media studies”.

Stories appeared on line with spelling mistakes and before any facts were checked. In one case involving me an incorrect story appeared reporting on a supposed incident third hand, long gone are the days when local journalists bother with any serious coverage of Council meetings. Most Councillors don’t return local journalists calls and even senior Councillors just leave it to the Council press office to explain an issue in words of one syllable in the vain hope that local journalists might just get the gist of an often complicated or potentially sensitive matter involving social services or childrens issues. Quite why the Hendon Times Group has felt the need to publish so many pictures of my 88 year old Mother I do not know, unless it is to encourage those individuals who aggressively swore at her in the street the other week or to make her more easily identifiable when she is on the bus to Sainsburys. (Note to editor if it is in order to intimidate me to stop further references to the Press Complaints Commission, it won’t work and if it is to intimate her, she did go through the Second World War………..

Occasionally an exited Barnet Council press officer will rush up excitedly and say “good news Councillor", “so and so is leaving from the local paper" only for them a few  weeks later to bemoan the fact that the replacement is even worse. 

Most hypocritically of all, editorials are published condemning the Council for cutting this or that in order to save the hard pressed taxpayers money and yet the “slash and burn” changes to pay and conditions undertaken by these journalists employers are far more severe than anything any public body has done. 

Increasingly householders have notices attached to the gate “no free papers, no pizza leaflets”, which just about sums up the state of our local papers
This week at St Brides, Fleet Street a memorial service takes place for Dennis Signey OBE, former Editor of the “Hendon Times“ ,distinguished sports journalist, huge figure in the community, friend and admirer of Lady Thatcher. Many in that congregation will be mourning the passing of decent, honest and truthful local journalism as well.