Friday, 13 January 2012

The next leader of Barnet Council?

Cafe Buzz in North Finchley, hit by Barnet Parking charges
What qualities would you look for in a leader? Here's a few I'd go for. Charismatic, eloquent, passionate, caring and intelligent. What about for a local political leader? I'd go for someone who understands the area, is familiar with the local issues and someone who has backbone to stand up to council officials. Now here's the tricky bit. What about if they have to lead the Barnet Conservatives? This is a very damaged brand at the moment. The parking policies championed by Brian Coleman have alienated huge swathes of people who are natural Conservatives. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that their vote will go into meltdown before the next council election. The first big test of this will be the GLA elections where Brian Coleman is trying to hang on to his £50,000 a year job scrutinising the Mayor (yes, he gets £50K a year for a part time job, suggesting ways Boris could be a better mayor). So what sort of person could save them? Well if they had all of the qualities above, it would be a good start. However we are talking about leading a right of centre group. The natural domain of local government Conservatives is local business. Get someone with experience of running a local business. Get someone who understands the average High Street in Barnet and the people who use it. Get someone who understands that a strong small business sector is the only way to maintain a pleasant Borough. Most of all, get someone who will not stand by as local businesses are thrown to the wolves to plug the holes in the budget caused by management incompetence. A person with these skills, would no doubt also have the wherewithall to actually address the waste and incompetence within the council that this blog has spent nearly 4 years exposing.

On Tuesday morning, I attended a Business Breakfast, hosted by the current Leader of Barnet Council, Richard Cornelius. As detailed here, I thought it was a great meeting, not because anything actually happened, but there was at least a glimmer of a sign that Barnet have woken up to the fact that local business must listened to. The meeting was sold out. These people, who I guess were mostly natural conservatives, were incensed. The parking issue is killing many of their businesses and the council has no strategy whatsoever to address it. A speaker suggested that Barnet allow 1/2 hour free parking to boost the High Streets. The Leader of the Council, Richard Cornelius said "We can't do that, we'd lose £2 million in revenue". In effect, this was an admission that Barnet Council is unlawfully using parking as a cash cow.You see councils are not allowed to structure parking policy to raise funds, the purpose is to efficiently regulate traffic. As the High Street is a place where some people come to buy a pint of milk or buy a sandwich and a cup of tea (which takes 10 minutes and the spend is 50p - £3), whilst others come for a haircut or meal (or both - spending £50 -£300) and stay 3 or 4 hours, the policy is hugely discriminatory against a certain sector of retailers.When Richard Cornelius took over as Leader of the Council, I had assumed that as a small businessman (he runs a jewelry business), he'd understand. What he doesn't seem to grasp is that half the shops in the High Street are not dealing in a market where the average spend is several hundred pounds. Wheras a Jeweller like Richard can afford to give his customers a £2 parking voucher, because they are spending £2,000 on a diamond tiara, a cafe selling someone a cup of tea for 80p, would be losing £2 on the transaction. In answer to Richards comment about losing £2 million in revenue, the has wasted twenty times that amount on botched projects, bad investments and inept decisions over the last few years. They have lost up to £27.4 million in botched Icelandic investments (who knows what the real figure is, with lost interest etc), they overspent £11 million on the £12 million Aerodrome Road bridge replacement project. They have had to pay Catalyst Ltd £8 million because they have outsourced care homes with a badly drawn up contract. They have spent £26 million on their SAP procurement project, which former Leader Mike Freer said would cost £6 million. They have spent at least £5 million on consultants for the One Barnet project, over 4 years, to deliver savings, but all they have delivered is reports, suggesting more consultants reports. This week the Barnet Eye detailed how they were spending £374,000 to buy play equipment, which they are then going to put into storage for £10,000 a year. The list goes on, but I'm sure you get the idea.

There is no lack of money for pet projects that benefit no one, but a parking policy which would regenerate the High Streets, breath life into local shops and provide employment for local people (taking them off the dole and delivering tax income) would lead to a huge improvement in the economy of the Borough. Sadly, the leadership of the council just do not seem to get it. The parking charges are a stealth tax, full stop. As Conservatives, the Barnet Tories should recognise the fact that such taxes hurt businesses and jobs. They don't. It is time that the current crop of Conservatives admit that they are not up to the job. They should resign their seats and ask for local business people who do understand the local economy to replace them.

Going back to the meeting on Tuesday, one particular speaker stood out. Helen Michaels, who runs cafe Buzz stood up and wiped the floor with the parking policies of Barnet Council. Not only that, but when someone intervened to try and shut her up, virtually every member of the audience backed her. What was she arguing for? Sensible, business friendly policies.  She used the examples of old ladies, mums with kids and one off shoppers in a hurry to illustrate her point. It was unarguable. She ticked all of the boxes I listed at the head of this article. In a sane world (or at least a sane Borough), the Leader of the Council would be off to Cafe Buzz today, to sign her up as a Conservative candidate. If I was Richard, I'd parachute her into a safe seat and give her Brian Colemans cabinet job. Many people tell me Colemans one redeeming feature is that he's not afraid to speak his mind. Neither is Helen. The difference is she has business experience and cares about the locality. I doubt anything would make me personally vote Conservative, but if she replaced Coleman in the cabinet and scrapped his awful policies, I'm sure a lot of natural Tories who wouldn't currently touch them with a bargepole would swarm back. She is an example of someone who clearly would make a decent council leader, for all the reasons listed above.

I've no idea whether she'd even want to get involved, but she's the kind of person we need in Barnet politics. I spoke to her briefly yesterday, nothing to do with this. She told me that if she can't get the parking problems sorted out, it will kill our local high streets. She's right. The sad truth is that whilst Barnet Council needs a Leader like Helen Michaels, the chance of us ever getting one is probably more remote than me becoming the next Pope.

PS. I urge everyone who reads this blog to support their local High Street. Please use the local shops, cafe's and pubs. With petrol at it's current prices, a short walk to the local shop may actually be cheaper, if you add in the transport costs.


Jez2010 said...

This blog is spot on in flagging the local issues that matter, as ever.

I'm outraged by this ill-conceived and poorly implemented change. The pay-by-phone system is overpriced and highly inconvenient.

As I result, I avoid using the pay-by-phone bays – and I’d urge others to do the same: only by denying this greedy Council the additional revenue they crave will they back down.

I’ve contacted my ward councillors (Tom Davey, Brian Gordon & Hugh Rayner) about this and none have bothered to reply. I’ve never considered voting for any party other than the Tories but I’m now looking forward to giving them a good kicking in the next elections.

baarnett said...

Given the lack of a single-transferable vote (well, three with council wards), people will need to see who comes 4th, 5th and 6th in each ward, and consider voting for that party, whichever it is.

Plenty of time to think about that, though.

Morris Hickey said...

baarnett. It isn't quite that simple. In 2010 I voted for two of the three Conservatives in the ward where I live (there was no way I could vote for the third one) but did not use the third vote.

Experience since then leaves only one of the three that I could support with a vote next time. However, there is no way I could vote for any candidate of the party that was fourth, fifth and sixth last time.

I just hope that in 2014 there might be some credible independent candidates. Having served for 24 years as a Conservative councillor up to 2006 I am seriously considering standing as one of those independents next time.