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 ?