Thursday, July 15, 2010

Barnet Unfair: "Easy Council" leaders don't intend to ride Economy class

BARNET council in north London has been seen as leading the way in Tory plans for local government and public services. Having lost millions through the Icelandic bank fiasco, the council came up last year with the idea of remodelling itself on budget airlines like Ryan Air and Easy Jet.

It would provide basic "no frills" services - actually the council wants to farm almost all of these out to contractors - and as for anything else, well you would get what you paid for. An old person needing care say, would have a "choice" - that favourite Tory buzz word. He or she could have a carer, or a cleaner, or take a holiday in Eastbourne.

Of course this freedom means that the more money you have, the less you are forced to choose between wants and needs, but that's what a free society is about, isn't it? There are some very rich people in parts of Barnet, and they might consider jumping the queue to get planning applications approved, or having more frequent refuse collection, worth paying for, rather than having to cough up higher taxes for services to the common folk.

Brian Coleman, who has doubled as Barnet mayor and member of the Greater London Assembly, was elected as a Tory councillor for Totteridge, where a lot of these rich people live, in 1998. Soon after the May 2006 elections he managed to get Tory leader Brian Salinger replaced by councillor Mike Freer. It was Freer who said after £27.4 million of Barnet's money went down the drain in Iceland that he had never kept track of the council's investments. But then, he is only a banker by profession.

It was Freer too, who introduced the "Future Shape" plan for Barnet, getting rid of such "frills" as wardens in sheltered housing, and citing the Easy-jet model. Not everybody was happy, and and it was not only union members in services, or people needing care, who objected. The council's Liberal Democrat Leader Cllr Jack Cohen said: "Barnet Council is in chaos over Easy Jet Plans. It is now becoming clear that the Tory Council is running scared. They have been caught out and are trying desperately to cover their tracks. But we are not fooled. They are marching ahead with plans that will hit jobs, services, and mean Tax Payers forking out on even bigger bills but for far worse services. It is now becoming clear that no service is safe under this Tory Administration. The latest revelation that refuse collection may not be a core service under an Easy Jet Council is in my view final proof they have taken leave of their senses"

In January, the courts ruled that Barnet would be infringing the law if it went ahead with its scheme.
Not giving in, Councillor Lynne Hillan said: "We are now pressing the Tory leadership to introduce new laws if they win power to allow councils to implement their initiatives".

Hillan had replaced Mike Freer as Barnet leader so that he could focus on his parliamentary ambitions. He is now the Tory MP for Finchley and Golders Green, the seat formerly held by the late Rudy Vis for Labour, and before that Margaret Thatcher's constituency.

Said to have enjoyed more free dinners than any other member of the Greater London Authority, Brian Coleman is still the big man in Barnet, as well as a GLA member, and Boris Johnson also appointed him chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. He has managed to upset firefighters and tube workers. He described proposals for a new light-rail link between the branches of the Northern Line and going on via Wembley to Ealing as "bonkers". He has come up with his own proposal to run London tube trains without drivers.

A contretemps with a speed camera led to Assembleyman Coleman being banned from driving himself in 2006, with a total of 12 endorsements on his licence. Being a busy man he spent £10,000 on taxi fares from 1 April 2006 to 30 March 2007, compared to the average figure for a London Assembly member of around £845. A GLA audit panel report in October 2007 showed that Coleman had run up taxi expenses of £1740 in the period 1 April 2007 to 31 August 2007.[48] This accounted for one third of all cab expenses for the Mayor and 25 GLA members. A further GLA audit panel report in March 2008 revealed that Coleman had run up taxi expenses of £4157 in the period 1 April 2007 to 31 December 2007.[50] This accounted for half of all cab expenses for the Mayor and 25 GLA members. Then mayor Ken Livingstone said "Brian Coleman must explain to Londoners how he can possibly justify spending more on taxis in four weeks than the average Assembly member does in nine months."

In July last year Coleman was the only London Assembly member to refuse to voluntarily publish details of their expense claims . He stated "I won't do it voluntarily. It's none of the public's business", and that "Politicians with lower expenses tend to be the politicians who do least work. Those with higher expenses are the ones who do most work. Coleman complied following pressure from Mayor Boris Johnson.

Now Barnet Tories have shown how much they value their own work by increasing the leader's income from £41,893 to £47,027 and that of executive members by 38%. Earlier reports said council leader Lynne Hillan can claim up to £54,000 per year, a jump of nearly £20,000, on top of a £10,000 basic members allowance available to all councillors. Cabinet members are the other big winners doubling their £17,000 entitlement to £34,000, although they have agreed not to claim £7,200 this year to ease the transition and keep it within budget.

Many opposition councillors have lost out in the new scheme, set out by London Councils, gaining a minor allowance increase but losing the £500 travel expenses.

It comes as public sector workers endure a two-year pay freeze while national cabinet members took a 5% cut.

Local Government Minister Grant Shapps urged the council to think again. "This country has an enormous deficit. "I find it quite disturbing they should be taking pay rises - I urge them to think again.

"Which planet are they living on? For goodness sake show some leadership."

Ccouncillor Kate Salinger (Conservative) voted against the rises. "It was a policy I disagreed with and could not in conscience vote for," she said. "Councils should be leading by example. I don't think our example is very good." Councillor Salinger has been removed from every council committee by the Tories for opposing them on the rise.
Public sector trade union Unison called the rises "disgusting".

But Councillor Brian Coleman, one of those in line for a rise, called the move "sensible". Coleman added that 20 other councils in London have done the same.

Chancellor George Osborne said last year that "Conservative Whitehall will have much to learn from Conservative town halls."

We'd guess he does not want civil servants in Whitehall citing Coleman's example of a "sensible" rise! And Unison must be worrying now that its members might expect it to follow Barnet Tories' lead on pay rather than accept a freeze.

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