On December 23rd last year, when they thought no one would be looking, Barnet Council published a very interesting DPR, or delegated powers report.
These reports are an authorisation of payment or other decision made by a senior officer: in Broken Barnet they are often the sign of some sort of furtive activity, and always worth checking out. Eagle eyed blogger Mr Mustard spotted this DPR, noted the payment of £1,000 to a Mr Tim Benjamin for a composition to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, and mentioned this in a post.
Mr Tim Benjamin was then revealed to be none other than the son of the Reverend Adrian Benjamin, the turbulent Tory Anglican priest and long time friend of Councillor Brian Coleman. The Rev also runs the All Saints Arts Centre, a body which is favoured, if I may put it that way, by the gilded cheeks of Actor and stand up comedian, Councillor and now Cabinet Member David Longstaff. (I might have got that in the wrong order. He is awfully amusing, but not necessarily in the way he intends ...)
Father Benjamin, you may recall, had caused outrage in Broken Barnet not so long ago by his behaviour at Coleman's Friern Summer show, where he had summarily snatched and retained, then 'lost' the protest banner of the Barnet Alliance, a residents' body dedicated to resisting the Tory One Barnet agenda of savage cuts in budget and a programme of massive outsourcing.
Mrs Angry would have been appalled at the council sanctioning the payment of such a large sum of money to anyone for such a wasteful and indulgent purpose, but she was absolutely infuriated that they had decided to hand £1,000 to someone with a close association with Tory cabinet members, with no apparent consideration of alternative commissions, let alone a consideration that the Jubilee was something that should be marked by a commission in the first place.
At a time of such extreme economic hardship, when our Tory councillors justify their budget of cuts to services on the grounds of absolute necessity, and with all the profound effects that it has on the most vulnerable residents in this borough: the old, the young, the poor, the sick, what do we do? We allow Coleman and Longstaff to pay the son of one of their chums £1,000 worth of residents money for a composition, a four minute 'anthem' to mark a royal anniversary. There was no competition for this award, no consideration that perhaps the community as a whole might be involved in creating some sort of work - without the cost.
Mrs Angry therefore submitted some questions, via the Freedom of Information Act, in regard to the circumstances surrounding this payment. The response was delayed, in breach of the law, and she spent a week chasing the reason why: complaints, jokes, threats: nothing worked, until a council officer with a surprising amount of common sense at last managed to have a partial response sent late last night, with some material promised for Monday. Monday, of course, being the day after the civic service at which this anthem will be premiered, and the remaining material relating to what may well be the very interesting email correspondance of a couple of cabinet members ...
1. When was the Steering Group for the Queen's Jubilee Celebrations set up, by whom, and what are the names of all the members of this group?
2. How many times has this group met?
3. I would like a copy of the minutes of the group's meetings and decisions.
4. Please give me copies of all correspondence by Councillors Longstaff, Cohen and Coleman or council officers, relating to the work of the group
5. Please give me copies of any material or correspondence held by the council relating to the award of £1,000 given to Tim Benjamin for a composition to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.
Having trawled through the response sent on Friday, Mrs Angry notes that there would appear to be answers to all her questions except for one glaring omission.
There is no correspondence from Councillor Brian Coleman: as yet. This appears to be causing some difficulty, and perhaps the use of a box full of marker pens for the purposes of redaction.
Admittedly there is nothing from Melvin Cohen either, but then he does not appear to feature in the minutes. The steering group, Mrs Angry was told consisted of the following members. How they came to be involved is anyone's guess: mine would be that they are all known to Brian Coleman, which is all that counts, of course.
Councillor Brian Coleman
Councillor Melvin Cohen
Councillor David Longstaff
Father John Hawkins
Councillor Catherine Salinger
Who are these people? Sadly, it would appear that no effort has been made to involve a broad selection of representatives from the borough's ethnically and culturally diverse population. The same old faces, sanctioned by Coleman, have been dragged in to do their duty, and do as he says. An odd assortment, you might think. And where are the representatives of the Muslim community, or Hindu residents, or disadvantaged young people, or schools, or the police, or arts and cultural organisations? Why no Labour or Libdem councillors?
Martin Russell is the borough's Deputy Lieutenant and a long time crony and fellow liveryman of Coleman's at the Worshipful Company of Farriers (yes, really). Bernd Koschland is the Chair of the Standards Committee which deals with complaints against councillors, and is therefore well acquainted with Brian. Flo Kaufmann is an eminent member of the Jewish community. Howard Brabrook is a chair of the Bench in Barnet. Tom Nathan runs the Brent Cross shopping centre. Kate Salinger is a heroine, and living saint, and a true Christian, showing the quality of mercy and forgiveness in agreeing to sit in the same room as Coleman after her scandalous treatment when she rebelled against the allowance rise vote. Michael Knipe is a journalist. Simon Lee: possibly a local businessman. Charles Rowell is a scout leader. Steve Knight is Vice Chancellor of Middlesex University (the one wot gave Brian a doctorate even though he said it was a crap university): oh, and Knight is a member of the mysterious One Barnet Partnership Board, which may or may not exist. Stephen Lane: ah ... well here is where Mrs Angry's investigations took an interesting detour.
Stephen Lane is the Secretary of a fascinating organisation called The Royal Society of St George - see here: http://www.royalsocietyofstgeorge.com/
What is this society? The website, which is awash with stirring quotes from Churchill, Chesterton and Shakespeare, tells us:
"Membership is open to all people who share our love of England and Englishness.
You could take an active part in our mission to safeguard England and to reinforce decency and integrity in our daily lives. In this website you will find full details of the aims of The Royal Society of St. George and details of its activities and fundraising efforts throughout the world."
Oh. That's nice. Mrs Angry tries her best to reinforce decency and integrity, but it's an uphill struggle in Broken Barnet, to be frank. And erm ... what exactly does England have to be safeguarded from, she wonders? I know what you are thinking, but put that thought aside:
"The Society is un-sectarian and independent of party politics. Membership is open to:
All those who subscribe to the Objects of the Society; and
Are born in England or wherever born being English men or English women or children or remoter issue of the same; or
Not being of English descent nevertheless support the aims and objectives of the Society."
Mmm. Well: maybe I should join. Putting aside her mother's unfortunate ancestry, Mrs Angry is awfully English on her father's side. Well, up to 1066, then a bit French. Oh, except the Normans were Vikings, weren't they? See, not English at all. In fact, what is this Englishness that we must safeguard, with jubilee celebrations, and anthems, and leatherette bookmarks? Is the Queen English, or German? Buggered if I know, what do you say, Brian, and Stephen?
Oh dear. Mrs Angry spent far too long this morning visiting their website, in fact, rolling about in mirth, admiring the merchandise, such as this fabulous silver gilt collarette jewel:
A snip at only £375 (including presentation case). Bet Brian has one, don't you? He loves a bit of bling, as we know. He has certainly attended a St George society lunch given by Mr Lane in 2008 at City Hall: may be he was a lucky boy and awarded one of these?
By the way, if anyone wants to buy a little something for Mrs Angry, (Valentine's Day coming up, after all) for only £6 you might want to consider this polyester ladies' bow, with armorial bearings.
I may wear it to the next full council meeting: or residents' forum, if Brian promises to come. I'll email him and ask if he is, shall I? Haven't heard back, since he said he was calling the police.
Back to reality. Or rather no: back to the Jubilee Steering Group.
Coleman, of course, is the dominant presence in the meetings, which read like extracts from some sort of pre war comic novel: Mapp and Lucia, maybe ... look at the weird manic reverence for royal celebrations, the breathless excitement at the possibility that the Queen may just, sshh ... pass by the boundaries of Broken Barnet on her way to Edmonton, the unspoken thought, hanging in the air, of the hopeless longing by Brian Coleman for some sort of royal endorsement which might, just might, you know lead one day to ... some sort of real honour ... CBE, MBE, OBE, DBE, GCSE, KFC ... poor old Brian. And if, as is highly unlikely, he ever does get anything out of the old girl, btw, Mrs Angry will chain herself to the gates of Buckingham Palace, in protest.
It really is a funny world, the 'real world' inside the head of Brian Coleman, one where a whole year of planning, and endless meetings, go into his feverish plans for celebrating what: a royal anniversary? Who cares, really? Less planning went into the launch of D Day, Mrs Angry is sure. As the year progresses, the minutes show that more and more people, the ones with any common sense and perspective, jump ship, and send their apologies, and most of the grandiose plans fizzle out, despite, or perhaps because of, the frenzy of monarchist madness that seems to have overtaken our beloved councillor and Assembly Member.
And so, sadly, we will never see the proposed medallions for every school child, costing £56,000, or the issue of commemorative teaspoons, and who knows what happened to Brian's wish for every Barnet child to be forced to have a leatherette Jubilee bookmark. Such a disappointment. The minutes note the lack of enthusiasm from the education sector for such ideas as inclusion in schools' curriculum of the Diamond Jubilee, as part of their PSHE lessons throughout the year. What?
Other daft ideas included the creation of a maze, and a request that developers, via the planning committees, should be urged to mark the Jubilee with commemorative plaques in all new properties. At one meeting, we are told, Brian Coleman:
'requested that a dedicated Diamond Jubilee section is set up as a microsite of the Barnet online council website to 'go live' following the Royal Wedding in April 2011 ...'
Less batty ideas, involving community engagement and voluntary schemes, as proposed by Brent Cross CEO Tom Nathan, seem to have come to nothing, despite a reminder from Cllr Cohen and even the Deputy Lieutenant of Barnet that the steering group should be an enabler for celebrations by community groups. All that remains, it seems, are two self indulgent Coleman promoted activities: today's civic service, and an event in June in Golders Hill park.
And the idea that we should commission a piece of music for this royal non event? Who was responsible for this?
See the minutes for 22nd February, 2011:
"BC suggested that a piece of music - an anthem or chorus - should be commissioned to mark the celebrations in Barnet ...'
Emails sent to Mrs Angry only refer to Councillor Longstaff's involvement in the approach to Mr Benjamin: of course we are promised the emails from Coleman and others on Monday, so we await their content with anticipation.
By the 4th May, the minutes record that
' Tim Benjamin (son of Adrian Benjamin) has been approached to compose an anthem for the Diamond Jubilee in Barnet. He is keen to do so. As he is a professional composer we need to suggest a fee. Could the Big Society Innovation Bank be used?'
(Oh: and how interesting, in the margin where action points are noted, is the following: "MR to confirm offer with St George's" ... MR being Martin Russell, Brian's chum, and fellow liveryman, the Deputy Lieutenant, presumably, and St George's being the society referred to earlier?)
But oh - the Big Society Innovation Bank: that marvellous enterprise thought up by the Tories in which, having slashed funding to bodies supporting the most vulnerable people in our borough, they give a tiny portion of it back, in hand outs to favoured projects, some of them worthy, but some rather questionable, or projects which should already be properly funded. Funnily enough, this fund was not robbed for Coleman's vanity project, and the idea of sponsorship came to nothing, and that, citizens, is how you, the Barnet tax payers, have ended up paying for four minutes of a royal anthem that no one other than Coleman wants, written by the son of one of his close associates.
The authorisation for this commission was signed by an officer in December, yet clearly the commission had already been agreed much earlier in the year, without any confirmation of the source of funding. Discussions took place between Cllr Longstaff and Tim Benjamin in August and September. Longstaff tells him the steering group 'would like to offer a fee for your work' and asks what he would charge. This seems to be pretty much in the tradition of procurement in Broken Barnet, to be fair. How much do you want? Here you go.
On the 16th September, Mr Benjamin suggested that his fee should be in the region of £1,000, 'if this utterly breaks the bank, however, we can negotiate ...' It would appear that negotiations were not considered necessary: again, this is par for the course in Broken Barnet. He has also asked for travel expenses.
By November, it is noted that 'a first draft of the anthem has now been received by the LBB'. We are told that the musicians of QE Boys school ( ah, Brian's old school, now a highly selective grammar school, always at the top of league tables) and Mill Hill School (presumably the boys' public school whose alumni include MetPro's Noyan Nihat and Saracens' Nigel Wray, or possibly this means the Mill Hill County High School, a favoured successful state school all parents try desperately to get their children into). So: no girls' schools, no involvement by any of the schools in the borough's significant but continually ignored areas of multiple deprivation, no effort to be culturally inclusive.
Included in the FOI response are some puzzling emails sent in early December between senior Barnet officers, heavily redacted, of course to protect the guilty parties, worrying over the legal phrasing of the 'contract' for this commission. By November the group's minutes record that a draft of the anthem had already been received by Barnet, so this might seem to be rather bolting the gate in timing.
"Yes, the council would take a view on its delivery and I imagine, it is unlikely to be rejected. The Council would have difficulty if it tried to argue that it rejected the composition but then went on to disseminate and perform it."
Er: yes. Mrs Angry wonders how the composition was judged to be satisfactory value for money, as required by One Barnet guidelines. Or indeed, a better composition for less money. Perhaps the Director of Corporate Governance whistled the tune for the senior management team, and they gave Strictly Come Dancing style scores, as seen in the outsourcing tender process.
Tim wanted some help with the composition: clearly the muse was in need of a kickstart. Was there some sort of local tune or song, which could be incorporated into the anthem? At one of the steering group meetings, the following ideas were floated, then left to sink to the bottom: (and no, I am not making this up ...)
Barnet Fair?(to the tune of Scarborough Fair) Rejected, probably because it is a centuries old event attended by ... shhh ... gypsies. Mrs Angry could run up a few words on the subject for an anthem, Brian, on the theme of Dale Farm, and a metaphor for those who trade in the politics of exclusion, should you care to commission her.
The Battle of Barnet: Brian has probably never heard of it. In many ways, it's still being fought.
Down at the Old Bull and Bush? (come, come, come and make eyes at me, down at the Old etc) too improper, coarse cockney references to women and alcohol. Nice pub, btw, turn left at Golders Green tube. Convenient for the Suburb and opposite Golders Hill park.
Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines ?(Mrs Angry was made to sit through the film at the cinema when she was a child, and cried with boredom). Good tune, but probably Brian is not interested in the early history of aviation & associations with Hendon Aerodrome. With you on that one, actually, Councillor Coleman.
Anyway, we now know that, according to Mr Benjamin's website, the four minute anthem will be entitled 'Common Wealth'.
Well: Councillor Coleman can probably identify with both those themes, and we are sure it will be awfully uplifting.
Let's hope the civic service has gone ahead as planned and has not, as rumoured, had to be cancelled due to the snow ... Mrs Angry notes with amusement, incidentally, the suitability of the venue, St Jude being the patron saint of desperate situations and hopeless causes.
Never mind, we have June's event to look forward to, in Golders Hill Park. It has been brought to Mrs Angry's attention that this park, in fact, on the borders of the burrough, and a mere stone's throw from the Suburb, is nothing to do with Barnet council, but is run by the Corporation of the City of London. Cllr Melvin Cohen is on the Corporation board which manages this park. All these links with the city and are very interesting, aren't they?
Meanwhile, apart from a privileged few, no one in this borough is going to benefit in any way from all the fuss being made: and here is the terrifying reality - all this nonsense is of a higher priority to Coleman, Longstaff and chums than any of the real issues facing this borough. Bread and circuses, distraction from the things that really matter.
While Coleman's Jubilee anthem is playing out its musings on the theme of Common Wealth this afternoon, traders in North Finchley are preparing for another civic event.
Tomorrow morning, local shop keepers will be holding a funeral: a wake for the death of trade in our local town centres as a result of the catastrophic Tory parking scheme, created, implemented and retained in the face of all opposition and by Councillor Brian Coleman. This scheme has, in a matter of weeks, seen business in local high streets freefall by about 40%: this is simply not sustainable, and shops are already failing and shutting down.
Mrs Angry urges all residents who care about the future of their local high streets to come to North Finchley tomorrow, meeting outside Cafe Buzz for ten o'clock, from where the remarkable owner and local business spokewoman, Helen Michael, will lead a procession, attended by traders dressed in full mourning, and an undertaker who may bear a resemblance to a certain councillor.
Forget the jubilee and the self indulgent fantasies inside the head of Brian Coleman: this is the real world, here in Broken Barnet, and some of us are fighting for its survival.