Monday 13 April 2015

Federation of Small Business Network Breakfast with Mike Freer (how do you like your cheese?)

Embedded image permalinkThis morning we had the regular FSB North London Network Breakfast.  As part of the FSB's engagement with local political leaders, the FSB invited candidates from the main parties to speak to the meeting. This month it was the turn of Mike Freer. Mike is the Conservative candidate and has been the MP for the last five years.

Mike was nice and early and spent the first hour mingling with various people and chatting informally. I used to see Mike quite regularly when he was leader of the council, but realised that this was the first time I've seen him in the flesh since he was elected as MP in 2010. As he isn't my MP, I suppose that this is not really surprising. Unike some MP's who have aged visibly over the period, being an MP seems to be agreeing with Mike. He actually looked younger than he often did when he was council leader. Mike stood up and gave his presentation and I actually thought he gave a very good presentation.

He started by talking about the work of the coalition. He said the coalition had done a good job and that he wasn't going to denigrate his Lib Dem colleagues. He felt the two parties had worked very well together to put the country back on its feet. He reminded us that the treasury secretary had left his successor a note saying he'd spent all the money when Labour vacated office. He gave us some facts and figures about the economy and how well the coaition had done. Employment up, people lifted out of tax, lending improving.  Mike told us that he'd run a small business for three years and didn't enjoy the experience. He said he was glad to get his old job back at Barclays. As he was addressing an audience of people who haven't thrown in the towel, I thought this was a brave thing to announce, given that regulations were one of the reasons he cited and that has got worse with every government. Mike also told us that the government was taking a serious look at business rates reform. This would be a major boost if it could be abolished. I believe it could create up to half a million new jobs.

I have no idea whether Lynton Crosby has ordered Tories to "nice up" following the debacle of last week, but Mike was in a very jovial mood and I thought his pitch was excellent ( regular readers will know I am not generally a fan, but credit where its due).

Then on to the questions. I got in first with a question about parking. Mike said he had worked with Eric Pickles to try and improve the situation. He said that he'd had cross words with former Tory Councillor Brian Coleman over the botched scrapping of cash pay and display. He said that he didn't think parking was as important to the High Street as many businesses claim and that it would cost  £2 million. Cafe Buzz owner Helen Michael was not impressed. She told Mike that Barnet that Barnet Council had £7 million in the special parking account, which is reserved for such matters. Mike stated that if it was simple, Labour would have proposed something in the council budget. Helen was not impressed with this

The next question was on the EU. Mike (who interstingly was wearinga  purple tie) siad he thought we should have an election and he beleived the UK would vote to stay in. He was questioned about the uncertainty this would create, but pointed out there is already a degree of uncertainty and this hadn't stopped the UK attracting more investment than the rest of the EU put together. Mike stated that having the referendum would allow the UK to get a better deal. Rather bizarrely he then stated that he visits France regularly and in France no one enforces EU regulation in Cheese Shops. It seems that Barnet Tories have a bit of a cheese shop obsession. First Matthew Offord promised us a Cheese shop in Mill Hill, now Mike claims that David Cameron will change the law to make it easier removing EU bureaucracy. I suspect that Mikes hopes will prove as vain as those of us in Mill Hill who like a bit of the smelly stuff on top of our crackers! Mike very skillfully avoided actually saying whether he was for or anti EU membership.

The next question was about HS2. Did Mike personally support "wasting £80 billion" on the project. I found myself in complete agreement with Mike. He supports HS2 and would like to see such projects built far quicker. He pointed out that in France, communities campaign for such projects to come to their region and questioned why the British are so NIMBY in their attitude. He didn't mention that in France the government pays you a premium for suffering property blight, so it can be a nice little earner to have a line at the bottom of your garden. In the UK you will get screwed over by dodgy compulsory purchase legislation.

Another question was on the subject of commercial property being converted into housing. Mike quoted the example of a few office blocks that were not fit for purpose in the Finchley and Golders Green area, that were under utilised and stated this was a good thing. I asked him about what happened to Trafalgar House in Mill Hill, where dozens of businesses were thrown out of a perfectly good office block to allow developers to cash in. Mike rather ducked the question with "I cant comment it isn't on my patch answer".

I spoke to a couple of the local business owners after the meeting and asked what they thought of Mike. I was a bit surprised by the answers. The response wasn't as positive as I'd expected, given that I thought he'd done quite well "Typical politician, promise the earth before the election" was one comment. Another one was "Same old C*** as the council about parking, didn't seem to happy when the £7 million in the reserves was mentioned". Another one reminded me that they had the inheritance tax cut in the last election manifesto and said "if it won't cost anything as they claim, why didn't they do it this time?". I think people who own and run businesses are a tad cynical.

One interesting little side note. We were graced with a visit from the local Tory blogger Dan Hope,  who video'd the procedings, so if you were unlucky enough to miss the fun, you may be able to catch the repeats (strangley Mr Hope did not attend the Green or Labour sessions) on his blog at some point. I am rather hoping that the Cheese comments are preserved for posterity. 

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