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. 

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Come fly with me!

So the Cabinet reshuffle has been and gone and the good news for London and the potential economic recovery is that Her Majesty’s Government seems to have shifted in its’ opposition to expansion of Heathrow Airport .

Anyone who has flown into Heathrow in the last 15 years, and I suspect that is most adult residents of the Borough of Barnet, cannot help but to have been annoyed by the time wasted and fumes generated circling over North London and Hertfordshire whilst stacked before being able to land and then the huge distance walking to the arrivals area from one’s plane. The only time I have arrived early at Heathrow was when I shared a flight from Inverness with Princes William and Harry, who were returning from Balmoral and surprise surprise we were 10 minutes early landing at Heathrow.

The Conservative Party opposition to Heathrow expansion (never shared by me) seemed to be driven by the quest for votes in South West London and a supreme form of Nimbyism not worthy of serious Politicians. Anyone who has bought a house in the vicinity of the Airport over the last 50 years knew what they were getting , indeed many acquired property because it was near Heathrow and convenient for overseas business commitments or there own employment. Heathrow is undoubtedly the economic driver for much of West London and East Berkshire. In my years on the Assembly having lost the argument with my fellow Conservative Assembly members I always found myself taking an “urgent phone call “ when votes took place on Airport development.  Colleagues who thought their seats vulnerable to Liberal Democrats, used to lose all sight of the strategic issues around international air travel and go week at the knees worrying that the four by four brigade of Ham and Twickenham would have their summer Barbeques disturbed by aircraft noise .

The attitude of Boris Johnson has always been quite bizarre on this issue. Having achieved Mayor al office he suddenly produced a vague Norman Foster or was it Richard Rogers , the two seem interchangeable , inspired plan to build "Boris Island" or "Fantasy Island" out in the middle of the Thames Estuary . A film of him and Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse on a particularly grey and misty day wearing life jackets and looking rather pale bobbing about on a boat somewhere off Gravesend did nothing to promote the plan as a viable or safe option. Indeed although nobody has any memory in Politics these days you only have to ask for the files from the National Records Office on the proposed Maplin Sands Airport from Ted Heath’s time to know the project was a non starter. The vague talk of “Arab money” funding the project seemed to disappear as that great supporter of Britain the Emir of Qatar rescued Barclays Bank instead. As David Cameron said to me soon after Boris’ election in 2008, “I am too worried about the North Kent marginal’s to go for an estuary Airport”.  The Mayor’s office did no serious work on looking at the raft of other airports looking to expand, there was little interest when I arranged a meeting for the excellent Thanet MP Laura Sandys who was keen for investment in Manston Airport in her constituency and Northolt and Biggin Hill seem to be dismissed without a thought. Far be it from me to think that Boris was only interested in personal prestige in encouraging an expensive floating aircraft carrier.

The attitude of Conservative Ministers to Heathrow seemed odd to me as a supporter of the free market. I began to suspect that some female Ministers had gazed into Zac Goldsmith MP’s eyes and had immediately succumbed to his very obvious charms.  Zac is one of that new generation of MPs of all parties who behave as though they were glorified Borough Councillors and worry about the trivia of their constituents rather than the overall strategic picture and their duty to assist in Governing the Country. Zac' view on car parking fees in Richmond Park was one of the contributing factors that wrecked sensible reform of the Royal Parks (but that is another blog entry).

Likewise Justine Greening MP for Putney despite her undoubted abilities and her charm and effectiveness on the media never seemed to me to have a grasp of strategic issues. I recall a dinner given at a Westminster Hotel for a small and select group of senior Conservative London Politicians ( and me ) by Metronet , one of the two contractors under the disastrous PPP (Public Private Partnership) invented by Gordon Brown that ran London Underground . Everyone at this dinner knew Metronet was on its last legs financially and something would have to be done to resolve the issue just banged on about the state of the tiling at East Putney Tube Station. Well Politics is a funny old game and Ms Greening is now Secretary of State for Overseas Development in which position no doubt she will have to undertake many visits to all those African Dictatorships, sorry I mean worthy development projects, your taxpayers’ money is propping up. No doubt as she circles over Barnet waiting to land after a 12 hour flight from Rwanda she can reflect on the state of British aviation policy and our current lack of Airport capacity.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Cometh the hour, Cometh the woman !

The promotion of Chipping Barnet’s Member of Parliament Theresa Villiers to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will come as a great delight not only to her but to her many friends and supporters in Barnet and beyond.

Since succeeding the much loved Sir Sydney Chapman as MP in 2005 Theresa has worked hard locally, living in the constituency and turning up at hundreds of local events a year.Many a time she has rushed back on the Northern Line from Westminster for a residents meeting only to jump back on the tube to the House of Commons for a 10pm vote.

I have always considered Theresa a shrewd cookie and a very clever woman. Once elected in 2005 she firmly hitched her wagon to the Leadership campaign of David Cameron whilst some of us hankered for the more traditional approach of David Davis and following his victory she got her reward becoming Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury in Cameron’s first Shadow Cabinet (after only 6 months in the House) where she faced the dreadful bully Ed Balls for whom she quite soon developed a deeply held dislike (rather as Ed Miliband has done). She then became Shadow Transport Secretary where she developed the mistaken policy which has now come back to haunt the Government of opposing expansion of Heathrow and spent endless hours mastering the intricacies of the railway franchising system. Following the General Election of 2010 where she turned Chipping Barnet back into the safe Tory seat it always was prior to 1997, she failed to make the Cabinet due to need to appoint some pesky Liberal Democrats but ended up as Minister of State with Membership of the Privy Council (highly sort after). Dear Sir Sydney Chapman never achieved Privy Council status to his huge disappointment; I think he would have preferred it rather than the Knighthood.

Theresa in Government was lumbered with the highly unpopular (and in my view ludicrous High Speed Rail) and in recent weeks has taken on the bad loser of British Business Sir Richard Branson over the West Coast Rail Franchise.

Presumably with the Security considerations that still exist in the Northern Ireland portfolio Theresa’ bike will have to be put in the garage and the site of her hair flowing in the wind as she pedals around Parliament Square will be a thing of the past .

However a word of warning to Northern Ireland’s Politicians, and of course they have more Politicians per head of the population than any other part of the United Kingdom, Theresa is no pushover with a strength of character more than equal to the likes of Martin McGuiness or Peter Robinson, just ask (the very few) people who have fallen foul of her.

I am sure everyone in Barnet wishes Theresa well as she serves our Nation in this vitally important role

Monday, September 03, 2012

Jobs for the Boys?

I have just returned from a well earned holiday in that most beautiful part of the Kingdom, Cornwall , to be precise the slightly isolated and upmarket town of St Mawes . My favourite Hotel in the whole of England , The Tresanton ,owned by Olga Polizzi ( Daughter of the late Lord Forte and Mother of Channel Five Hotel Inspector Alex) once again made me very welcome .

This Hotel is the not sort of place where you are  likely to see guests with Tattoos or inappropriate body piercing and where over a fabulous dinner on the terrace overlooking the beautiful Falmouth Estuary you can peruse the other guests . Is that a Senior Director of Barnet Council with his family? Oh look an Officer from City Hall and her BAFTA winning TV scriptwriting husband!  And that was just Monday…………

The success of the Tresanton is the immense attention to detail by the staff and indeed whilst I was there by Olga Polizzi herself who made sure that standards were maintained. As Olga is a former Westminster City Councillor, and friend of Lady Thatcher, I would expect nothing less. The success that Olga and her brother, Sir Rocco Forte have made of their group of luxury hotels across the world (which sadly my budget does not extend to visiting) is testament to hard work , vision and no doubt the family genes.

However Olga is married to the distinguished writer and biographer William Shawcross, whose official biography of the late Queen Mother earned him a CVO and rave reviews and for those with long political memories is the son of the late Sir Hartley Shawcross, Attorney General in the Clement Attlee Government and Chief British Prosecutor at the Nuremburg War crime trial.  As Sir Hartley got older, and he lived to 101, he gradually moved to the right, as so many do, and acquired the nickname “Sir Shortly Floorcross”. Of course the Attlee family went all the way Clement’s son, the second Earl joining the SDP and the current Earl Attlee serving on the Conservative benches in the House of Lords as a Lord in Waiting (Government whip).

Hence I was not surprised to see that William Shawcross is the favoured candidate to take as Chairman (not “Chair” I hope) of the Charity Commission as a safe and sound pair of hands. The Charity Commission is one of those endless Quangos which seem to stagger on despite attempts by successive Conservative Governments to cull them. Perhaps as an incoming Chairman Mr Shawcross, who is a member of the Board of the Anglo Israel Society, can look at the so called “charitable activities” of Christian Aid and Oxfam amongst others with their anti State of Israel stance.

Another Quango is the Arts Council where the no doubt “Guardian” reading Dame Liz Forgan has not had her contract renewed and is being replaced by the more entrepreneurial Sir Peter Bazalgette.

These changes remind me of the American system where when the President goes his whole Administration goes with him. I think it is time we considered a similar system in the UK and that when there is a change of Government all the Senior Civil servants, ambassadors, High Commissioners, Chairman of Public Bodies go as well. There is something slightly creepy and not a little two faced about rows of Civil servants lined up by the Permanent Secretary to applaud an incoming Cabinet Minister when he arrives at his new Department when you know jolly well a couple of hours they were shedding tears at the departure of the last Secretary of State. It is useful to have endless Government appointments available to be filled by trusted supporters who perhaps it is advisable to send to the other side of the world as Ambassador to Mongolia or Governor of Pitcairn Island. Britain has always practised it to a limited extent, the former Home Secretary Lord Waddington made an excellent Governor of Bermuda (a post I have always rather fancied since we no longer appoint the Viceroy of India!)  And among those who have served as High Commissioner to Australia are Lord Carrington, ex Tory MP Sir Alistair Goodlad and ex Labour Ministers Baroness Liddell and Baroness Amos. The appointment of ex Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell as High Commissioner to Malawi never came about as the UK shut the High Commission down to save money.

In Local Government the practise of clearing out Officers who are seen as having been too partial to the last lot has been going on for decades. Often disguised as early retirement, ill health retirement or redundancy “due to reorganisation “, the departure is usually accompanied by a large cheque. It is an open secret that in 2002 when the Conservative Group took power in Barnet it discussed changing the  Chief Executive but decided against it on grounds of cost and the theory that that the individual had been diligent in implementing the Labour / Liberal Administration agenda and no doubt would do the same for us . He did.

Neighbouring Enfield did change the Chief Executive in 2002 and got into enormous trouble with the District Auditor and suffered the financial consequences. The press over the weekend reported that 400 Senior Council officers received severance payments last year of over £100,000 and anyone in Local Government could name those who left because they fell out with the Leader of the Council or the majority group or indeed both.

The principal of appointing your own senior officers was enshrined in the Greater London Act that created the Mayor and Assembly where 12 “Political Officers “ could be appointed by the Mayor without open advert . This lead to some rather suspect appointments by Ken Livingstone and indeed one or two by Boris Johnson but has meant that the men and woman at the top at City Hall whilst governed by Local Government terms and conditions are politically driven and owe their jobs to the Mayor ’s whim. The also have fixed term contracts which expire when the mayoralty ends.

As the election of Police Commissioners in the autumn makes it easier to remove incompetent Chief Constables perhaps it is time to consider the wholesale Politicisation of the Civil Service and Local Government in the interests of efficiency and democratic accountability.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

"Let's all go down The Strand"

Spent a wonderful evening at the Adelphi Theatre enjoying the Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Sondheim’s masterpiece “Sweeney Todd”. The excellent cast was headed by Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton who both rightly received a standing ovation from a full house. Michael Ball is clearly the best and most versatile actor around today in musical theatre by a country mile (who can forget his Olivier winning performance as Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray”) and is second only to the Great Diva Elaine Paige in my all time Pantheon of musical stars. Indeed Barnet Girl and Conservative supporter Ms Paige (this woman is absolutely perfect in every way) was educated at the now long forgotten Southaw School in Russell Lane (as was my sister) and it is surely high time she was created a Dame.

Imelda Staunton can just simply turn her hand to any role serious or comedy, musical or straight and indeed is an old hand at Sondheim as I remember seeing her in the original London production of “Into the Woods “in 1990 when the theatre was virtually empty as the Task Force had just begun the liberation of Kuwait, and London had emptied of American tourists whose knowledge of Geography had lead them to believe that somehow Kuwait was just a couple of stops on the subway from the West End.

Coincidentally, also enjoying a night at the theatre was my old friend (and Christ College Boy) Councillor Robert Davis, Deputy Leader of Westminster City Council. In my view Robert single handedly does more to encourage West End Theatre than probably any other individual with the wonderful annual weekend “West End Live” promoted by Westminster City Council this year drawing huge crowds to Trafalgar Square. Robert is celebrating 30 years of service on Westminster where he has held most offices, including being the youngest (at the time) individual to serve as Lord Mayor. The fact that he was turned down for selection for a seat on Barnet Council which lead him to seek election in Westminster was a great political loss for this Borough, but whilst Westminster got Robert, Barnet got Councillor Melvin Cohen so we cannot complain!

Just to prove that there are some heterosexual fans of musical theatre whilst we were enjoying our interval drinks the former Local Government Association Chairman Lord (Jeremy) Beecham came over to say hello. Lord Beecham is one of my favourite Labour Politicians, not only for his staunch defence of Local Government and the State of Israel but because he once memorably described me as someone "who could not knowingly pass a fire without pouring petrol on it", a quote I have used many times on my CV.

During the Olympics the Adelphi closed the Show for a fortnight to avoid the traffic chaos and many other West End Theatres were half empty. Perhaps when the “spectacle “ of the Olympics and Paralympics are over those who have clamoured for tickets for the various events can fork out and enjoy the nightly spectacle of the many and varied shows in our West End Theatres.

Letter to The Evening Standard

Dear Sir
Having been on holiday for the last 2 weeks I missed Alison Roberts’s interview with Alderman Simon Walsh following his acquittal on various sex charges.
I was surprised however at Simon’s version of events concerning his sacking from the Fire Authority, of which I was Chairman, by the Mayor of London.
Alderman Walsh had been appointed in 2008 by Boris Johnson on my strong recommendation and served diligently as Chairman of the Audit Committee and was a loyal and hard working Authority member. However to my knowledge he never met Boris Johnson on Fire Brigade business and Boris had little idea who he was, so to suggest he had some sort of “City Hall career” is fantasy. When his term expired in 2012 it was highly unlikely he would have been reappointed. 
In the summer of 2011 I, as Chairman, other Authority members and Officers became concerned that Alderman Walsh was missing meetings without explanation, was not replying to e mails and phone messages and was looking extremely unwell and we were genuinely concerned about his welfare. However it was only in September 2011 five months after his arrest that as a result of City of London Corporation gossip I heard that he had been arrested and was in a position to ring him and ask if the gossip was true. He had not undertaken any of the usual courtesies of Local Government when a member gets into “difficulties” of explaining privately the circumstances and asking for understanding from colleagues at a difficult time .Neither I was told had he approached the Town Clerk of the City Corporation or the Senior Alderman.
I was sympathetic, not least as a fellow Gay Man, to Alderman Walsh’s position but specifically asked him if any of the allegations he was facing involved children (not least as the Fire Authority works closely with young people through it’s “LIFE” programme) and he categorically stated they did not. This was the position I explained when I met Boris Johnson and Deputy Mayor Sir Edward Lister. The Mayor (who has appointed more Gay men to senior positions in his Administration than any other British Politician I can think of) would not countenance any talk of Simon’s dismissal on the grounds of Innocence until proven guilty and that whilst the pornography in question might not be to his taste what someone viewed through the privacy of their own key board was their affair. Whilst the City of London Corporation was rushing round desperate to avoid embarrassment (with Officers talking about withdrawing Alderman Walsh’s Dinner invitations!), the Fire Authority and the Mayor ’s Office were firmly supportive,
However when six weeks later the “Sunday Mirror” reported that one charge did involve an alleged under age boy and Simon on the phone confirmed this was the case the Mayor ’s office decided that we had to ask for Simon’s resignation. When Simon declined to resign the Mayor removed him from office on the grounds that Alderman Walsh had failed to be open, transparent and straightforward about his situation, never mind that his Fire Authority duties would no doubt suffer whilst he was giving his attention to clearing his name.
I personally am delighted that Simon has been cleared of all charges and wish him well in his future career but I know that sadly his departure from the Fire Authority was of his own making and not through any prejudice from me or the Mayor ’s Office
Yours Faithfully
Councillor Brian Coleman 
(Chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Authority 2008 to 2012)