The King's Highway, or: Paint it White, #2 - another summer time scandal in Broken Barnet
“So long as a man rides his
Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King's highway, and neither
compels you or me to get up behind him -- pray, Sir, what have either
you or I to do with it?”
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
Readers, take note.
The second of Mrs Angry's delphic prophesies is born, as predicted, in the midst, as we are, of the summer storms of August, delivered like a fearful omen, hidden from view by our scheming council, smothered like an unwanted heir to the evil empire - and smuggled out of the corporate palace of North London Business Park, before the mob has heard the news.
Yes: following on from the outrageous preliminary response by the council to the matter of the allegations regarding the activities of our Tory Mayor, Hugh Rayner, (see previous post),news has slipped out of the other 'investigation' which was promised into the disgraceful matter of the Tory Highways budget.
This scandalous affair, revealed by Mrs Angry, emerged from a series of FOI rquests and demonstrated that Councillor Dean Cohen, when Cabinet member for Environment, changed the rules of equal allocation of Highways funding, gave himself the power to approve all expenditure - and then approved the handout of one million pounds to his own ward, in the run up to the election, and nothing at all to the Labour ward of Colindale, and generous amounts to other Tory wards ... and rather less than generous amounts to other Labour wards.
If you recall, the attempts by Mrs Angry and then the Labour group, to raise this matter with the external auditors at Grant Thornton was met with the usual rebuff, and referred back to the council itself for 'investigation'. No need for independent scrutiny, or 'audit' by the 'external auditors', see? Let the party involved examine its own behaviour - or pay someone else to.
Someone else, in this case, it transpires, was a law firm by the name of Sharpe Pritchard, who were asked by HB Public Law, Barnet's own legal services partnership with Harrow, to undertake, well, not an investigation, in fact , a 'review'. The findings of this review were released, very quietly, on Friday, when they hoped no one would be looking, under the guise of a remarkably low key report from the Monitoring Officer.
The terms of reference of this 'review' were as follows:
• Consider the process of decision-making in relation to highways expenditure within Barnet Council in the light of the issues raised in the email from Cllr Alison Moore to Grant Thornton LLP of 30th May.
• Advise on whether that decision-making has been undertaken lawfully and in accordance with the Council’s constitution.
• If the advice is that the decision-making process has in any way been unlawful or a breach of the Council’s constitution has occurred, advise on the steps which should now be taken by the Council as a result of this.
You can see the rather limited findings of this 'review' here:
The minimal response of the limited findings, in fact, is frankly rather puzzling, considering the length of time it took to produce.
It is up to the Labour group to respond to the first seven points, but what is of real interest begins here, at Point 8, in which the allegation was:
8. The allocations disproportionately benefited the Cabinet Member’s own ward with the highest allocation of resources over the year, and the second highest number of schemes for the additional funding
The programme is based on priority need following technical inspection of the highway. Detailed evidence can be provided of the inspection process. It is worth pointing out that roads can deteriorate between annual inspections and therefore may have to be prioritised.
Bsed on priority need?
This is simply not true. Not if you define the word 'need', in this context, as one objectively assessed and free from political or personal consideration, that is.
One of the Freedom of Information responses to requests made by Mrs Angry was for copies of correspondence between Dean Cohen and highways officers in regard to Golders Green ward over the previous two years.
Despite some emails having been deleted, there were enough supplied in the response to prove that Cllr Cohen was in the habit of directly contacting officers and making strong representations about his residents perceived needs - in his own area of the ward.
Let us remind everyone that one road alone in this area, ie Princes Park Avenue, had in two years more than some opposition held wards were allocated in entirety - the wards represented by the Labour leader, and the Libdem leader, for example.
This disproportionate expenditure, we are invited to believe, was merely because there was a greater need in the Environment member's ward. Need of what, exactly? Road and pavement repairs, or votes?
Ah, but Mrs Angry, if there was need in any other ward, any other Labour or Libdem ward, that is, then those councillors should have asked for pavements to be repaired, and their roads to be mended.
Erm: but they did, and nothing happened.
Ask Arjun Mittra, in East Finchley. Ask Gill Sargeant, in Colindale. Excuse after excuse was given, while the work that needed doing in their wards was sidelined. In Mrs Angry's Labour held ward, vital safety work took a year to be implemented - and was only agreed in the first place because Mrs Angry is Mrs Angry and wrote about it endlessly, and lobbied hard for it, over a period of years, following a fatal accident.
Compare this reluctance to carry out basic, essential maintenance and renewal work with the accommodation expected by Councillor Cohen from his officers in regard to his own ward ...
Don't take Mrs Angry's word for it, read the damn emails in the FOI response.
They're all published on the council's website, you know, FOIs, in line with the Chief Operating Officer's much vaunted declaration that the default mode of Barnet Council is 'open government'.
Ah. Oh ...
Of course Mrs Angry can't quite find the link to the publication of the rather revealing correspondence response. How odd. Shurely some mistake?
But the correspondence is fascinating: read the emails, for example, between Councillor Cohen and Steve Holdaway, Associate Director Highways for Capita.
Ah, yes: Capita. Awfully obliging, is their Mr Holdaway, in regard to Golders Green ward.
There appears to be an easy process of communication between our Dean, and Steve, in fact. Hi Steve!
This was on the 27th April, ie the period just before the election, when there seemed to be a flurry of activity, and a concerted effort to get jobs done.
Steve's response, first thing next day:
Plenty of reminders for officers, from the Cabinet member for Environment, should they be slow to respond.
7th May, for example: 'This was the issues I was referring to in my earlier telephone conversation', is a typically ungrammatical response from our councillor, to another hapless highways employee.
The officer promises to attend to it by the next day. Oh dear: by the 9th, Councillor Cohen is obliged to point out a couple of repairs that have, tut tut, still not been done.
Rather amusing is the email 'accidentally' sent to Cohen by our man from Capita, piously suggesting they should thank him for his interest:
The territory of Princes Park Avenue, in Councillor Cohen's ward, is clearly one fraught with almost unimaginable terrors and hidden danger for those daring to walk its length and breadth: this must be why it is so expensive to maintain.
Take for example the horrifying occurrence of a damaged kerb, hastily attended to in March by the council's emergency response team, after this shocking matter was raised by Cllr Cohen.
Admire the logistical coordination of Dean Cohen's strategy for immediate action, a military style policy of zero tolerance of cracked or chipped paving stones. Zero tolerance in PPA, that is.
In January, residents report an alarming case, a 'matter of urgency' of not one, but two cracks in the new paving: cracks and chips, in fact.
After intervention by Cohen, officers immediately agreed to replace the slabs.
In March, a disgruntled resident wrote to express his disgust at the appearance of a crack in a nice new paving stone outside his house, after he has only been driving over it for two days. Driving over it? Hardly surprising, then, is it? (Note that elsewhere in the correspondence, all hell breaks loose and officers despatched to take action when another resident complains about damage caused by what is deemed 'anti-social parking' on pavements, but by a lorry company, not residents.)
A million pounds on such emergencies is not something that anyone could begrudge, is it? Yes, it is true that at this time, in Councillor Cohen's own ward, Mapledown School for disabled children had to have its respite care facilities threatened with closure due to cuts approved by our Tory councillors, in an amount of funding that was a fraction of the cost of replacing all the paving stones of Princes Park Avenue.
At the time of the outcry over these cuts of course, it was a Golders Green councillor Reuben Thompstone, who was Cabinet member for schools, and was responsible for the budget being slashed. He admitted he had never visited Mapledown: Mrs Angry understands the same is true for Dean Cohen, and his father. Mapledown, of course, is in the other side of the ward, the poorer side, with social housing, and ... Labour voters. The roads on that side didn't see much of the million pound bonus, you should know.
And anyway: pavements are more important than support for disabled children and their parents, aren't they?
Some may feel all that Cohen's badgering of officers and eagerness to please his residents, and haste to implement the work in the last few weeks before the election is simply an example of a councillor doing his job, but of course it is not that simple. Ask Labour Councillor Mittra how many times he has asked about long standing repairs in his own ward, to no avail, for example?
Because of course this exemplary service, rolled out to the fortunate residents of the Environment Member's own ward, does not extend to the enquiries of residents in every other ward in the borough, who are not lucky enough to have the attentions of the councillor who controls the allocation of funding, and is in charge of the officers who implement the works requested.
Let's say it again: such tender care of the 'needs' of one area of his own ward, the area in which he himself resides, came at a cost, in the pre-election year, of a staggering £1 million, and clearly was paid for by the lack of expenditure in less favoured, Labour voting wards.
And the pattern of expenditure shows quite unequivocably that residents of Labour held wards are not extended the same privileges as the residents of Conservative held wards: there is effectively a system of financial apartheid in the way expenditure is distributed.
Let's return to the council's commissioned review,and Labour's allegation regarding this issue
10. Over the last 4 years the profile of spend appears to be significantly more in administration held wards compared with opposition held wards (see attached officer briefing note).
This is a way of analysing the spend, however, it has not been allocated on a ward basis as clearly roads are not always contained within ward boundaries.
Meh, in other words. This is a way of analysing the spend says the review, dismissively... away? No, this is the only way, based on clear evidence.
To try to divert attention from this glaringly obvious truth, the review attempts to distract by fatuously claiming the disproportionate expenditure is due to roads not being contained within ward boundaries.
I think you will find that Princes Park Avenue is contained within the boundary of Golders Green Ward, and yet received, let us say it again, more in two years than many opposition held wards were given in that period for their entire budgets.
This sort of facile assertion, in my view, completely compromises the objectivity and fairness of this 'review', and demands that the findings must be robustly challenged. But it fades into insignificance when we reach the conclusion drawn by the 'investigator', as you will see below. Let us continue.
Another point raised by Labour:
15. 2013/14 was an election year, and many of the schemes were progressed very close to the local elections.
The funding for the additional works came from the improved financial offer from the two outsourcing projects (DRS and NSCSO). The outsourcing projects had themselves been delayed by the judicial review (to September (NSCSO) and October (DRS) 2013) so the money was also delayed which impacted on timing of the highways work.
Another ridiculous statement. Whatever the source of the extra funding, or the timing (what would they do without the Judicial Review to use as an excuse for any problems?) the progression of the schemes was quite clearly undertaken in order to favour the Tory administration's political chances: look at the huge amount of money invested, for no apparent reason, in the most marginal ward of Hale, for example, which the Tories were desperate to retain. Imagine the tragic loss, if our beloved Mayor, Hugh Rayner, and his little friend Tom Davey had lost their seats - and they came very, very close to it, seeing Labour pick up the third one ...
No defence of the splurge in Hale has been forthcoming, nor could it, because there is none.
The 'investigator' found that the council officer who dealt with a mysterious briefing note in regard to the funding of Hale has left the council, rather inconveniently, and apparently no one can shed any light on the approach made by Tory members for Hale in regard to the level of funding.
So no wrongdoing then? Ah: yes, the review does admit that the decision making process of the allocation of funding 'was not as transparent as it should have been'.
But guess what? It was the officers' fault.
It always is, in Broken Barnet: whenever there has been any wrongdoing, elected representatives are not expected to take responsibility - blame is always attached to the employees who are expected to do as they are told by their political masters, and then act as whipping boy if it all goes wrong.
The review tells us:
'However, there appears to be an assumption by officers within that service that the Cabinet Member had the exclusive right to decide which schemes went forward'.
The assumption, Mrs Angry would suggest, was by the Cabinet Member, who admits he changed the rules on allocation of funding, and it would have been a brave and foolhardy officer who dared to oppose his decisions.
That said, do we now assume that the former Director of Place will now take responsibility for the lack of transparency? Or will the blame be focused on someone more junior, and expendable?
The review does also admit, in a roundabout way, that Councillor Cohen was in breach of standing orders:
Advice on decision-making process
In my view the decision-making process was not correctly followed. The power to make decisions in relation to these matters was delegated to the Area Environment Sub-Committees. If it was not possible to convene meetings of these sub-committees then eitherthe decision should have been taken by Cabinet or, in reliance on the delegated authority given by the Cabinet meeting of 4th November, the decision should formally have been taken by Councillor Cohen and the requirements of the Council’s Standing Orders should have been met.
Will he be subject to any consequences as a result of this breach?
But here is the most preposterous assertion of all, as contained within the conclusions of this 'review'. To the accusation of political bias, the 'investigator' has decided:
'Whilst it is clear that the data supports the view that there has been more expenditure in administration held wards, this does not justify drawing a conclusion that there has been political bias'.
The data supports the view that there has been more expenditure in administration held wards...
(Mrs Angry translates: this review agrees with the allegation that there was MORE MONEY SPENT IN TORY WARDS)
... but you may not take from this clear evidence what might reasonably seem to be the only logical and unavoidable conclusion - that this DOES constitutes political bias.
What the f*ck would justify such a conclusion, then, you might reasonably ask, in the eyes of the company commissioned and paid by the council to produce this 'review'?
Earlier in the findings we read:
'The investigator concluded that he would not describe the expenditure on highways which resulted from this decision-making process as unlawful. The additional money was spent on lawful items of expenditure and there is no evidence that the decision-making process was invalidated by being undertaken for an improper purpose.'
No evidence, if you overlook the incontrovertible proof that, in the run up to an election, more expenditure was made in Tory wards, to the extent that £1 million was spent in the Environment Member's own ward, in one year, and half a million in two years on one road alone, and the most marginal ward was lavished with funding, and in neither ward was there a case for real need, while in less advantaged, Labour held wards in the borough, funding was withheld, and in Colindale, not one single penny was allocated in the year before the election.
As Cohen himself expresses, with some irritation, to officers in the FOI correspondence, residents' perception surveys clearly demonstrate a high priority given to the state of the pavements and highways.
Quite clearly then, he was aware this had a direct effect on the way in which these issues might reflect on the councillors representing any ward. He made sure his own residents received prompt and efficient responses to their 'needs', whereas in Labour wards, residents stumbling over broken kerbs and pavements, and trying to find a safe crossing point to get ti the other side of a busy road would have assumed that their councillors were not acting as effective advocates, when the truth was that restraints on expenditure were being applied to their areas, and continual excuses masking long delays in agreed work.
Does this sort of impression affect the way people vote? Of course it does.
Should there be safeguards to ensure that the allocation of such high visibility expenditure,within weeks, days and even hours of an election is fairly allocated, without any risk of even the perception of bias? Yes, yes, and yes again.
Has our local tax been used lawfully in regard to the Highways budget?
Has the council's own commissioned review been adequate to the role of independent scrutiny, or should there now be real action to more thoroughly investigate this matter, and ensure that we, the residents and taxpayers of every ward in this borough have received equitable benefit, in a programme uninfluenced by political considerations?
You can probably guess Mrs Angry's view: what do you think?
Over to Labour once more - and to any other citizen who objects to the findings of this so called review.
The investigator hired by Barnet Council hesitated to call the expenditure unlawful because he felt he had seen no evidence of improper purpose.
Improper purpose would presumably have included political bias, and the investigator's reasoning for seeing no evidence of this, even though 'there has been more expenditure in administration held wards' might reasonably be questioned by a more stringent act of scrutiny.
In Mrs Angry's view, we need a more stringent act of scrutiny.
council and the Tory party would like to think they have seen the back
of this story.
Mrs Angry thinks that they are mistaken, if they really
imagine that to be the case.