Thursday, 8 November 2012

What are councillors supposed to do?

Several of my loyal army of readers seemed to be a little upset that I'd been less than nice to one of the Barnet Councillors yesterday. As I made my way at 6.30am to the The Passage Day centre for Londons Homeless in Victoria, to feed the hungry homeless, I pondered just what it was that specifically annoyed me about the performance of said Councillor. I realised that I was asking myself the wrong question. In fact, with all the blogs and all of the talk recently about "no confidence votes", we all have. The question we have to ask is "What are Councillors meant to do?". Perhaps the next question is one for individual Councillors. Are they doing what they are meant to do? I suspect that perhaps 95% of the residents of Barnet don't really know what Councillors are supposed to do (as opposed to what they actually do).

Councillors in Barnet get £10,000 a year for being a councillor (substancially more if they are in the cabinet or chair of a committee). For this they only have to do one thing to be legally entitled to claim the dosh. They have to turn up to 2 Council meetings a year. So that is the legal requirement, but I daresay that is not what anyone would agree is a satisfactory answer.

Councillors are elected for a four year term. There are 21 wards in Barnet and each has 3 councillors. Let us clear up the first misconception. Councillors are not supposed to "run the council". Even the Leader, Richard Cornelius is not supposed to do this. This job is done by the CEO and his team of executives. The role of the Council is to "decide council policy" and to make sure officers implement it. Councillors are elected by the residents and are meant to represent residents wishes. They have the power to intervene and take action when officers do not act in the best interests of the people of Barnet. They should make sure that officers implement the agreed policy. If you have a problem with a council provided service, a Councillor is supposed to make sure that you have been treated correctly by the Council. A diligent councillor holds regular surgeries for constituents and uses these to speak to residents and undertake casework. In Mill Hill, the local Tory Councillors do this on a Saturday morning at Mill Hill library.

As I pay the councillors to represent me (via my taxes), I expect them to listen to my concerns and if I have a genuine grievance, to act on it accordingly. As the local Councillors in Mill Hill are Conservatives, they were elected to impliment the Conservative manifesto. If I don't like something the Council are doing, but it was a policy laid out in the manifesto, I have no grounds for expecting them to act upon my complaints. I will have the opportunity in 2014 to get another party elected. That is my democratic right. If the council is implementing a policy which was not in the manifesto, the Councillors may still be within their rights to ignore my requests to act. They should however listen to me and explain the reason for their decision.

The One Barnet program was not included in the Conservative Manifesto in 2010, nor was the plan to hike parking charges. As such, my Conservative Councillors lack a democratic mandate to implement the changes. They have a legal power to do it, but the two things are different. I would expect my councillors to make the case for the changes, if asked. At a recent meeting, two of the Councillors Sury Khatri and John Hart met and discussed the issues with residents. They undertook to take our concerns back to the leadership. As such, I have no issue with the two gentlemen. They are doing what Councillors should do.

We then turn our attention to the person who inspired this blog. His name is Dean Cohen and he is the cabinet member with the responsibility for parking. I have a degree of sympathy with Councillor Cohen. He inherited a poison chalice from Brian Coleman when he was sacked. That is where the sympathy ends. He took over the role in May. It is now November. Dean Cohen has just announced his plan to remedy the mess Brian Coleman left him. His planned measures, to be trialled in North Finchley are:

- A 35% reduction in current parking charges on-street to increase turnover with a proportionate slightly less reduction for off-street car parks to ensure overall parity. 

- The introduction of dedicated business parking bays within off-street car parks, to increase on-street parking space. 

- Making a number of on-street parking bays a 2 hour maximum stay to increase turnover. 

- Adapting existing on street loading bays to allow a 15 minutes free parking period after 10am to promote rapid turnover. 

- Introducing a 15 minute stay facility on pay-by-phone bays. 

- Introducing a number of new ‘Pay-by-Phone’ short-stay parking bays at specific locations in the High Street to increase on street parking availability. 

In addition to the parking review changes, six on-street credit and debit card payment machines will be installed in the New Year. In yesterdays blog, I posted a link to Dean Cohens response to Alan Schneiderman. Councillor Cohen refused to entertain Councillor Schneidermans request for a "free parking period" to boost the High Streets, on the grounds that it would cost too much money. Now I thought that Cohens arguments were weak to say the least. Here are the reasons why

1. The special parking account is over £1 million under budget since NSL took over enforcement. Mr Cohen does not address this huge black hole at all.

2. Mr Cohen claims the changes proposed by Labour would cost money. The hike in parking charges has resulted in a massive defecit in the budget. If Mr Cohen was a serious politician, he would have addressed all of the relevant issues in a costed scheme and have the figures to hand.

3. The figures Mr Cohen attributes to the cost of the Labour amendment are highly dubious. I did some calculations and I think it is unlikely that the officers have got the figures right. Mr Cohen should have challenged these figures and ensured that his answers were robust and credible. Do the maths yourself if you don't believe me.

4. Dean Cohen is delivering the new credit card operated meters in January, after the busiest time of the year for retailers. Presumably their could have been a mini bonanza in parking fees if he'd got the meters in now. They have been planning this for six months.

5. Dean Cohen has sought to repair some of the damage caused by Brian Coleman. Allowing 15 minutes parking in loading bays after 10am is a sensible move, but doesn't address the primary issue that parking charges have been used as a stealth tax. The raise is still well above inflation.

6. Mr Cohen states that if the money is not collected from parking charges, then roads may not be resurfaced. I was under the impression that parking was not the sole source of revenue for Barnet Council. If they were to cut waste (which you know there is plety of) then they could resurface roads and give the High Street a boost. By auditing the Metpro contract properly, the council saved £450,000 on work costing £1.4 million. That is one contract. Barnet only intend auditing 173 out of 9,300 contracts. RM Countrysides were told they could charge what they liked for removing meters. How many other dodgy deals are there out there. Mr Cohen gets paid £24,000 as cabinet member to stop the Council officers taking the piss out of the taxpayer. I think he has not done this.

So in short, I believe that Councillor Cohen has failed to represent the needs of businesses and residents properly. As a councillor and a cabinet member, he has a duty of care to us residents to work tirelessly on our behalf. He may be a nice chap, have a lovely Dad and be very bright, but he is a councillor and a cabinet member and he is paid by you & I, the taxpayers of Barnet to do a job. There are several Tories who are backbenchers, who are hard working and have sharp minds. Three that spring to mind are Brian Salinger, Mark Shooter and  Sury Khatri. I cannot believe that any of these would have done such a poor job of getting to grips with the mess Brian Coleman left in the parking department. 

We must acknowledge that Dean Cohen is an improvement on Brian Coleman, but to be honest, wouldn't just about anyone be? His "trial" scratches the surface of the problem and does nothing for 18 of the 19 High Streets in the London Borough of Barnet.  That is not good enough for the people of Barnet. It is time that the Councillors started to take their job as seriously as they take collecting their allowances and it is time the cabinet started working as hard at dealing with the issues as they did at raising their allowances after the 2010 council election. 

Is that really too much to ask.

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