Friday, 29 June 2012

Nick Walkley and conflicting interests

This week I've heard some rather disturbing news. At this stage I cannot disclose the nature of this news, but it has caused me to question the way Barnet Council seems to be morphing into an organisation which is less interested in simply providing good services to local people and becoming something altogether more sinister.

Let me try and explain. The Chief Executive Officer of Barnet is Mr Nicholas Walkley. To do this job, he gets paid £200,000 + benefits. For this enormous sum of money, I happen to think Mr Walkley should be 100% focussed on making sure that the council runs properly and not have any other distractions. It is a big enough job on its own and surely he doesn't need any more cash?

Then I came across this document -  - this is an organisation called the London Crime Reduction Board. In the minutes, I found this paragraph 

Nick Walkley provided an outline  of the work of the Recovery Coordination Group (RCG),  a body set-up by representatives of the boroughs affected, London Councils, the GLA, the Metropolitan Police and the London Fire Brigade.   It is  a short-life group with terms of reference to help London get back on  its feet in the wake of the disturbances.  NW chairs the Group.

As I read further, I came across this paragraph
The RCG is leading work on an impact assessment, to assess how the disorder has affected victims, businesses and communities and what is being done in each local area.  NW said that at present the majority of businesses, many of whom are sole traders, are facing financial difficulties.
The date of the meeting was the 25th August. Now there is a very interesting thing to consider. Mr Walkley talks here about local businesses suffering from "financial difficulties". Do you know what he was planning to do at the same time as he was chairing this meeting? He was planning with Brian Coleman to abolish Pay and Display in Barnet's High Streets and replace it with Pay By Phone. He was also planning huge hikes in High Street charges. I wonder if the RCG discussed this when they met and discussed how to get London back on it's feet? I wonder if the conversation went like this

Mayor of London - Boris Johnson - "Well Nick, you are the leader of the RCG, what ideas have you got to help business and get London back on it's feet financially"

Nick Walkley -  "Well Bozzer, in Barnet we are planning to abolish pay and display parking, hike up parking charges and drive all the customers away from local businesses and into large shopping centres like Brent Cross, which we want to see double in size, they have to get their customers from somewhere you know"

Now this may seem outlandish, but back in 2010 I asked an FOI question about the "One Barnet Project Board" - a board set up by Barnet Council to integrate the One Barnet project and ensure smooth liaison between various major stakeholders in Barnet. Here is the details of the FoI response.

Non-Executive Directors of Barnet Council 

a) How many Non-Executive Directors does Barnet Council have?  

None in the usual sense of the term, but the executive heads of the five principal partner bodies advise the Council's Chief Executive and senior colleagues on an informal unpaid basis.  They are referred to as Non-Executive Directors (NEDs), although they have none of the usual responsibilities associated with this function.

 b) Who are they?  
•    Tom Nathan, Commercial Director, Brent Cross Shopping Centre
•    Cameron Ward, Chief Executive, NHS Barnet
•    Stephen Knight, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Middlesex University
•    Neil Basu, Borough Police Commander
•    Marilyn Hawkins, Principal, Barnet College
c) What organisations do they represent?

See above

d) What criteria does Barnet Council use to engage these Non-Executive Directors?

They are not "engaged" but have accepted invitations to meet with the CE and senior colleagues on an informal advisory basis, the only criterion being their posts as heads of the five principle partner bodies listed above.

e) How often do they meet?


f)  What is the name of the Council Committee(s) in which they assemble? 
The CE of NHS Barnet attends Cabinet meetings in an advisory capacity.

g) How much are they paid to fulfil this Non-Executive Director role? 


h) What influence do they have on Council Policy? 

The Council has a role of civic leadership amongst the above partner organisations.  The NEDs informally advise the CE and his senior colleagues in fulfilling this role. 

i) How long has Barnet Council had Non-Executive Directors? 

Since 2006 

j) Do these non -executive Directors represent Barnet Council in any capacity on Committees outside the Borough? 


k) Which Council Officer appoints them in their role as Non-Executive Directors? 

No appointment is made - they are invited to take part in this advisory process by the Chief Executive. 

l) What is their period of Office as a Non-Executive Director and how do they cease to
become a Non-Executive Director? 

The arrangement is purely informal.  No period of office is stipulated.  Their  position as NEDs is consequent on their appointment as heads of their respective organisations.

As you can see, the board contains the chief of police and the managing director of Brent Cross. They meet informally and so no minutes are taken. Who was the only private sector representative. Not someone from small business or a representative of small traders. No, it was the MD of Brent Cross. Now I've attended a presentation by Tom Nathan and he is a superb speaker. One has to say that in his role on the board, is he likely to favour measures which benefit his business or local traders?

Now this is bad enough, but lets consider another role of Mr Walkley. He is the returning officer at local elections in Barnet. It is his role to oversee elections and make sure they are conducted legally. His job is to resolve any breaches of election law and make sure they are dealt with appropriately. Let me give you a recent example. At the Brunswick Park by-election, the Conservatives put out a leaflet which made claims about car parking charges which technically breached election law. It is Mr Walkley's duty to investigate these and ensure that the Police do their job in prosecuting anybody seriously breaching the law. It is not unknown for private individuals, with an axe to grind to breach these laws on a local level. If someone has a beef with a local councillor or GLA rep, they may do something which breaches such laws, by putting up posters which contain minor breaches. Mr Walkley has to decide whether these should be acted upon. In most cases, a simple call explaining the law and a request to stop suffices. After all we live in a democracy and we don't want to persecute citizens, do we?

So consider this. Take the Brunswick Park leaflet. This was out by a professional political party, who should know the law. The election agent should have training in what should and shouldn't be put up. Mr Walkley, who is CEO on £200,000 is also returning officer and gets paid a few grand for this job as well. He does however report to the Leader of the Council, Richard Cornelius, who is leader of the Conservative Party group. If Mr Walkley chooses to prosecute the election agent of the Conservatives for the leaflet, how will this go down with his Conservative boss? Is this a conflict of interest?

Then lets consider the other side of the coin. We have the One Barnet project board, that meets with members of the Council, Police and Brent Cross. There are no minutes so we don't know what is discussed. At present Barnet is awash with protests about car parking charges. There isn't a single representative who has the local traders interests on the board, quite the opposite.

We theoretically could have a situation where Mr Walkley has found himself embarrassed by the parking protests, which reflect badly on him and his organisation. We have Brent Cross, which stand to financially benefit from the movement of trade from High Streets to the large shopping complex. All very cosy. We also have the Chief of Police sitting in on these convesations. Now I know Neil Basu and Neil Seabridge, who are the last two chiefs of police. I have no doubt that these two gentlemen are completely above board and would not be party to any underhand dealings. I do however have concerns about a structure that allows for the potential of conversations which may be prejudicial to certain groups and individuals withing Barnet.

Just suppose, for instance that a group opposing the parking changes found themselves on the wrong side of the law? How could anyone have any confidence whatsoever that the process hadn't been compromised by all of these conflicts of interest. We rely totally on the honest and integrity of the particular individuals to ensure that everything is above board. There are absolutely no checks and balances and no democratic accountability for this process. All of the people listed above are listed by the Council as "One Barnet Stakeholders". Someone such as me, who opposes One Barnet finds themselves not only in opposition to the policies of the Conservative administration, but up against the Police, the NHS, Middlesex University and Brent Cross shopping Centre.

Do you find this all a bit disturbing? I most certainly do. Barnet Council and Nick Walkley seem to have no concept of what a conflict of interest is. They have no concept of democratic accountability and transparency. That is why there are are no minutes for this meeting and we have no idea what they get up to.

The more power that gets concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable few, the more potential there is for abuse. How much of this is a real threat and how much of this is just potentially a threat? Sadly you only find that out that the process has actually been compromised when people who oppose projects like One Barnet start finding themselves on the end of police investigations for the most trivial of matters. Whilst we all hope that no such thing could happen in Barnet, shouldn't we insist that the structures and separation of responsibilities are in place to ensure that such things are impossible.

1 comment:

Morris Hickey said...

In the response to the FOI request did Barnet Council REALLY say at d) "....principle (sic!) partner..."?