Thursday, 20 September 2012
The lull before the storm: Brian Coleman's last stand
Walking along the corridor to the Budget scrutiny committte meeting at the Town Hall last night, Mrs Angry spotted the Mayor, Councillor Brian Schama. He looked at her rather warily, and said:
'I am not speaking to you,' replied Mrs Angry, rather childishly, sweeping past.
'I am not speaking to you', said the Mayor, sulkily.
'Good,' said Mrs Angry, continuing on her way.
After the events of the last week, here in Broken Barnet, Mrs Angry was not at all in the mood to attend last night's meeting, chaired as it is by Brian Coleman, but on the other hand, she did not want to give him the idea that she was in any way impressed by his recent baiting of her, so off she went, notebook in hand, fist in pocket, clenched, ready for a fight, if need be.
As it happened, he did not dare acknowledge her presence in any way other than, she noticed with interest, darting the odd covert look at her, when he thought she was not looking. She was looking. His expression, she noted, was one of curiosity, rather than anything else, studying her with detachment, looking on. An insight into his apparent inability to empathise with others, perhaps, to read their emotions: or maybe a calculating assessment to see what effect his behaviour has had on an enemy? Who knows - and who cares, really.
He slammed a wooden hammer down on the table sharply, twice, to call the meeting to order. Mrs Angry laughed, never having seen any Chair resort to such a theatrical device. It made Coleman seem rather like the auctioneer in some seedy smalltown saleroom, a role in a way, one might say, he was enacting for real, last night, later on, as we moved onto the interesting topic of the One Barnet sale of the century, and the now you see it, now you don't Joint Venture.
As well as three bloggers and a group of local residents, the committee room was, most unusually, stuffed full of Tory Cabinet members and councillors, including the leader Richard Cornelius and deputy leader Daniel Thomas. Even more unusual was the atmosphere in the room, one of quiet unease. The mood darkened as the evening progressed.
Public question time. This process of engagement with the electorate clearly was being tolerated by the Chair only by the most strenuous effort on his behalf. In defiance of any consideration for the public, he had not allowed any written answers to be published, and read out the questions - about the cuts to sport and leisure, as well as the Joint Venture issue - in the most contemptuous manner, at the greatest speed, and spat out his response in the fewest words possible, often dismissing the question, or a subsequent supplementary question, as being an issue to be covered later in the meeting, which as it transpired, was largely not the case.
Coleman was revelling in this opportunity to grandstand what he sees as his magisterial control of procedure and great statemanship, and his ability to manipulate and direct the course of action. Poor old boy, this committee post is now his only chance to demonstrate the tired old music hall act that once played out on the London Assembly and the Fire Authority, and NLWA, and in the Cabinet: being Brian Coleman. He clearly thought he was on sparkling form, but the stony silence and watchful gaze of his Tory colleagues looking on told quite another story.
In truth Coleman's behaviour as Chair is very telling. He is easily distracted by trivia, is clearly bored when the attention is not on him, seems unable to engage with any prolonged intellectual debate, and is more interested in the procedure, and the confirmation of his authority within the procedure, than the objectives of the meeting.
He began the discussion of the first item with a reprimand, in his peevish manner, for the language used in their report. He had had to translate it into English, he said. Coleman's own writing, as seen in his ludicrous blogposts, is littered with grammatical mistakes and omissions, but clearly he sees himself as the model of fluency and is keen to keep others up to his standard. He made an objection to aspects of this report, on early intervention schemes for what he called 'patronising attempts to manage people's lives'. He didn't care, he said, how people lived their lives, as long as they 'don't break the law, and don't cost anything'. Hmm.
He picked away at phrases that displeased him: references to 'academic thinking' , 'possible life outcomes' ... he was not sure, he said, how you measure a happy successful life ... Mrs Angry studied his face, thinking that this was almost certainly an honest admission, at least. He then went on to rail, bizarrely, about the poor relationships in this borough between the council and the Church of England. An increasingly tense and irritated Richard Cornelius spoke pointedly about his admiration for a 'first class cleric' who was a vicar in Stonegrove, Edgware. More trivial objections to come: why do we no longer refer to 'troubled families'? The committee looked on in bemusement.
Tory Hugh Rayner now spoke. As he made his perfectly reasonable contribution, the Chair paid no attention, preferring to look at the messages on his blackberry.
Tory Brian Gordon talked about 'troubled families'. As he often does, he decided to make a provocative statement about what he considers to be 'the ideal family', with a mother, and a father: do we, ie the council,he asked, still take that view? The Chair, who had already forgotten his liberal attitude of not caring how people live their lives, informed the room that families needed fathers. Leader Cornelius said quietly that what constitutes an ideal family is in the eye of the beholder.
The next item was about sports and leisure facilities, or rather the abandonment of such facilities in this borough, where playing fields and sports clubs are development opportunities rather than a much needed resource for the less advantaged residents unable to afford expensive gym fees to keep fit. A rather terse Councillor Rams expressed the view that 'leisure isn't just about buildings' but that parks played an important role in such activities. In other words, the residents of Broken Barnet are allowed to take a walk in their local park (providing there are no private functions being held, thanks to the Tories' new policy of hiring out our parks and greenspaces), but this is about the only free leisure activity that will be available in future.
Some rather awkward discussion took part then about rates of obesity, and the need for physical activities to combat this problem. Can you guess which two tubby Tories thought this was not a problem, and that fitness centres were a waste of time?
Cllr Rayner took the opportunity to raise the issue of the risk of obesity and a higher chance of early death. There was an awkward silence before Coleman made a joke about dying happy, followed by a rather enthusiastic response from Rayner: see above.
On to budget matters, and a curious display of thinly veiled hostility towards the Chair from an increasingly combative deputy leader John Thomas. Coleman voiced his opinions on seemingly every aspect of budget expenditure, asking whether it was not a 'cop out' not to go for another council tax freeze?
An icy Cllr Thomas suggested to the Chair that he might like to find a way of finding the £4 million that is required in able to acheive such an objective. Coleman did not respond.
How confident was Cllr Thomas in his One Barnet savings?
Confident, actually, said Thomas, in a rather equivocal manner which did not, in the way one might hope, inspire Mrs Angry with any confidence at all. Actually.
Pretty confident? asked Coleman again, without conviction
I am, said Thomas, who may or may not have had his fingers crossed behind his back.
We must really be in the shit, then, was Mrs Angry's conclusion.
More nitpicking. Councillor Coleman wanted to know why we are spending money on the closed Friern Barnet library. Electricity, for example: he noted that the place was lit up like a Christmas tree.
That would be your squatters, Brian, pointed out Mrs Angry, trying to be helpful.
Cornelius said that electricity had to be left on in order to keep the burglar alarm system in full operation. There was some amount of derisory laughter at that point, as you might imagine.
More bright ideas from Coleman: charge for Freedom pass adminstrative costs. A review upwards of councillor allowances: (review upwards = more money for Brian & chums).
Ah: savings could be made from the pool of carers used by residents with dependent needs by means such as, ha, better contract monitoring ... better contract monitoring saves money, you know - does it? Oh dear: think of the millions lost, then, by the cock ups in procurement & contract monitoring over the last few years. How many childrens centres, libraries & museums could have been saved by that overspend?
And then we got to the real event of the evening: the Joint Venture item.
Coleman had called in this item to the scrutiny committee. Why? Because he can, and because it gives him a sense of power, and because he is probably annoyed at the fact that senior officers have been caught out taking decisions rather than members: an affront to the authority of the Tory group, of course.
Various councillors sit at the table, as well as Ms Pam Wharf, the 'interim' director who let the cat out of the bag and informed staff the decision had been made to switch to the even more high risk Joint Venture model of outsourcing, a statement then contradicted by leader Cornelius who claimed no such decision had been made. Mrs Angry, after teasing out the relevant information from council sources, established that the decision in fact had been made by the directors' group, and not been subject to consideration by Cabinet.
Poor Brian was in a dilemma now. He explained that his concern arose when he read about this story in erm, the papers. He meant the blogs, of course, but could not say so, and yet he detests the local press, so he modified his position by a disclaimer. He had not read it in the local Times. That leaves the Press, who followed it up after we covered it, of course, and issued a joint statement.
Leader Cornelius sat and admitted quietly that he had not seen ANY outline papers relating to a joint venture proposal. He said this not once, not twice, but three times, with an almost disarming simplicity.
Furthermore, he explained that the proposals had in fact emerged after the bidders had been 'closeted' with senior officers.
Everyone in the room sat still in astonishment.
I'm every bit as curious as you are, added Richard Cornelius, yes, the same Richard Cornelius who is paid to be leader of the council, and nominally in charge of a £1 billion programme of outsourcing.
After some frantic signals from the blogging side of the room, Cllr Mittra asked the question that had to be asked, the email that Pam Wharf sent to staff. Mrs Angry twisted round to see her reaction. Keeping her head down, but smiling to herself.
John Thomas tried to distract attention from the glaring chasm that had opened up in the middle of the room before us. A Joint Venture should not be ruled out, and of course we would in any consideration learn from the experience of ventures that had failed.
Mrs Angry has just received FOI responses which confirm her earlier suspicions that there has indeed been no new appraisal of the Joint Venture proposal since 2010, and in the immediate weeks before the gaffe by Ms Wharf, no correspondence between Ms Pam Wharfe and Mr Nick Walkey, and Ms Pam Wharfe and Cllr Richard Cornelius on the subject of the JV.
Labour tried to ask more questions. Coleman ended the discussion saying triumphantly, Cornelius has not read anything about it, and you haven't been able to crack his position. Brian went on to say he is not a gambling man, but he would bet there will not be a joint venture.
Mrs Angry whispered to Mr Reasonable that she was, therefore, off down to William Hill to put her life savings on the absolute certainty of the announcement, on Monday morning, of a One Barnet JV.
And indeed this afternoon, Mrs Angry's spies, who are everywhere, told her that senior officers are still informing staff that a Joint Venture is the preferred option.
Here is the frightening truth, then: the elected members of this council have effectively lost control of the One Barnet programme, if indeed they ever were in control.
The really fascinating discovery last night, however, was the clearly evident tensions within the Tory group, specifically between councillors and Brian Coleman.
At times, arguments between Cabinet members and the Chair threatened to develop into something rather more than a disagreement over small points of debate. There was an intense, mutinous atmosphere, charged with something only a fool could overlook: the creation of the perfect storm.
One fool in particular did overlook the warning signs, and earlier this evening, it would seem, the stormcloud broke, in spectacular fashion.
More tomorrow on the latest developments.
Councillor Coleman in action.
Sweet dreams, citizens of Broken Barnet, wherever you are resting your head tonight ...