Ever wondered how Barnet Council became a pariah and a laughing stock. With Brian Coleman being hauled before his "Leader" - Councillor Richard Cornelius today, what better time to tell the sad story of where it all went wrong and why.
In the Barnet Conservative Party, there really are only two people that matter, one is never out of the news - Councillor Brian Coleman. The other however, is the real power behind the throne. That man is Finchley MP Mike Freer. Back in 2006, these two cooked up a plan. At the time the leader of Barnet Council was the highly respected and very capable Brian Salinger. Salinger was an efficient leader with years of public service experience. He ran a tight ship and was getting to grips with many of the issues facing the council.
Freer and Coleman despised Salinger. They felt he was not hard right enough and was too old school Tory in his approach. They felt he wasn't a Thatcherite and was too interested in running the council efficiently to be interested in hard right dogma. Salinger had a good relationship with everyone at Barnet, including trades unions and believed in a harmonious atmosphere at the Council. Freer and Coleman derided this "beer and sandwiches" approach. Freer and Coleman had an opportunity. A Council election was coming. Coleman was on good terms with many people in the local party at the time. He engineered the deselection of candidates who were in the Salinger camp (including Barnet Bugle blogger Dan Hope, in Brunswick Park). As Salinger had done a good job running the council, he achieved an increased majority at the 2006 Council elections. Sadly for him, his backstabbing cabinet colleagues had a plan. A day after the victory, Coleman proposed a vote of no confidence in Salinger. With his new found friends installed, Salinger was dumped (in a move reminiscent of the hard left Militant Tendency takeover of Liverpool Council in the 1980's).
Coleman then proposed a new Leader, his hard right mate, Mr Mike Freer. Freer was duly installed. Freer was determined to change things. Out went consensus and in came One Barnet. His political ideology believed that public was bad and private was good in all cases. He enrolled on a BT sponsored program called "Vital Vision". This promotes outsourcing in local authorities. Delegates get courses paid for by BT. Mike Freer got an honoury MBA after a week long course from Harvard. BT also lent Barnet Council one of their executives, Max Wide, to soften Barnet up for privatisation. In return for Brian Colemans help in becoming leader, Mike Freer made him Mayor in 2009. Immediately things started to go wrong. Coleman was found guilty by the Standards committee of breaching its code of conduct in September 2009. He is the only standing Mayor of Barnet to suffer this indignity. As for the outsourcing. It was initially labelled "Future Shape". Freer attracted derision by comparing it to Easyjet and calling it Easycouncil. As people associate Easyjet with all manner of things which annoy them, this was a disaster.
The PR fallout was so bad that the whole project was renamed One Barnet. Hoardes of consultants on megabucks were brought in to sort it out. The project was meant to be up and running by the end of 2010, but whilst the consultants have siphoned millions of pounds of taxpayers money, no savings have been delivered. Freer's real goal was to become and MP. Realising that Barnet Council may go badly wrong, he stepped down as leader in December 2009 to concentrate on becoming an MP in Finchley. He has, however maintained an iron grip on the party machine. Brian Coleman has been his enforcer in the Council chamber.
As the One Barnet shambles has become ever more embarrassing, Freer has sought to disassociate himself from his baby. He has, however, given Coleman unswerving support, to ensure control of the Barnet Conservative party machine. In 2012, when Coleman lost the GLA election, Freer realised that Coleman was no longer an asset for the party. His parking charges had blown up and lost the GLA, also knocking out a safe seat in Brunswick Park (ironically a seat held in the ward where Dan Hope was deselected). Freer knew Coleman needed to be "parked" but he couldn't afford to alienate him completely. In a compromise, Coleman lost his cabinet role, but was given the powerful Budget OSC committee chair. A post that attracts a rather healthy allowance.
In April of 2012, the first One Barnet outsourcing went live. Parking control was taken from the inhouse team and given to NSL. Barnet Council used a new One Barnet Contract, the sort which will be used for all future outsourcings, to implement this scheme. The scheme allowed NSL and Barnet to "share profits" from parking in the Borough. The council now gets 50% of the profits, where previously they got 100%. Traffic wardens are given stringent targets for ticketing and this generates cash. That is the theory. The truth is that it has all gone wrong and the council has a million pounds less in its coffers than forecast. We also lost dozens of jobs, which moved to Croyden.
At the same time as NSL took on the parking contract, they closed Friern Barnet library. This was supposed to bring in a one off receipt of £430,000. This is less than half of the sum lost so far by the outsourced parking contract (which was Brian Colemans baby and the first fruit of Freers future shape/One Barnet project). The total bill for One Barnet Consultants to draw up this mess is around £10 million (for paper reports). That would buy more than 20 Friern Barnet libraries.
What is even more alarming is the fact that Barnet plan to outsource the rest of the council services to multi national companies like Capita and BT this year. These will be on 10 year contracts with guarantees for revenue for the suppliers. They will cost us all a minimum of £1 billion. These guarantees are made with your money. If it all goes well, we pay for it and if it all goes wrong, we'll pay even more. The bidders for one contract (known as DRS) have designated it as "too risky" for them to take on and have asked for a joint venture to be set up between the council and the supplier. This means that the council will take a stake in the company, get a small percentage of the profits (if there are any) and take all the risk. As I understand it, the supplier will simply make a costs + charge for running the service and then cream off most of the profits.
At a recent meeting the Leader of the Council, Richard Cornelius denied that the joint venture would be set up. This is despite Pam Wharfe, a council officer, emailing staff twice to say this was the preferred option. Was Ms Wharfe disciplined for this? Of course not.We have a situation where no one knows who runs the council. We have Councillors defying the standards committee, refusing to apolgise for bad behaviour. We have consultants bills mounting, whilst projects go wrong. We have outsourced contracts failing, with no escape for the taxpayer. And we have the architect of it all, Mike Freer MP sitting in Westminster saying "Nothing to do with me mate", whilst his mate and mentor Brian Coleman creates mayhem wherever he goes.
Will Brian Coleman be disciplined today by Richard Cornelius? We can only wait and see. If he isn't we know why.