|Cafe Buzz in North Finchley, hit by Barnet Parking charges|
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.