Sunday, 15 February 2015

Something rotten in the Estate of West Hendon


Something rotten in the Estate of West Hendon

For two weeks at the end of January, a Public Inquiry was held at Hendon Town Hall. The London Borough of Barnet (West Hendon Regeneration Area) Compulsory Purchase Order No 1 2014.  You can't do better than to read Mrs Angry's two masterful blogs for a detailed report that brings it all to life as only she can: http://wwwbrokenbarnet.blogspot.co.uk

It was a contest between residents of the West Hendon Estate, secure and non-secure tenants and leaseholders, who had no legal representation v Barnet Council, Barratts, Capita & Co aka 'The Partners', represented by a QC and Counsel.  The residents had no money for lawyers, but they had a nothing-to-lose passion and anger that instilled them with a determination to fight for the fairness and justice they feel is being denied them.   

Their advocates were a phenomenal, articulate leaseholder who is living the regeneration, Ms Jasmin Parsons, and the impressively calm, knowledgeable and dignified and bit of a Public Inquiry veteran, Mr Dan Knowles, an expert surveyor from Sawyer Fielding, who is representing many of the leaseholders in their struggle to get a fair price for their homes in the big buy out.  They are, as yet, nowhere near it.

 Jasmin Parsons & Dan Knowles

We now await the outcome, the verdict, as the Inspector, Mrs Zoe Hill considers the evidence and makes her recommendations to the Secretary of State, Mr Eric Pickles.

Here is the evidence I presented to the Inquiry in a speech on behalf of the residents, that can be seen on a video below.  It was a follow-up to my first submission that can be found together with all other submissions and information at http://www.west-hendon.co.uk/how-will-it-affect-me_cp01-public-inquiry


STATEMENT TO THE INSPECTOR 27.01.15
The London Borough of Barnet (West Hendon Regeneration Area) Compulsory Purchase Order No 1 2014

I am Councillor Devra Kay, one of the three Councillors for West Hendon Ward, London Borough of Barnet. I was elected in May 2014 but have been closely involved with the regeneration since early 2013. I am a member of the Welsh Harp Consultative Committee but these are my own views.


You'll notice that my original statement is slightly amended.  It consisted of two parts in which there was some repetition which I've tried to eliminate.  Also certain issues that I raise have been dealt with more than once and very ably by other witnesses, so again I will try to avoid repetition in an attempt to save the Inquiry's time and just make reference to the witnesses who dealt with these matters. In addition answers and expansion to matters I have mentioned in the original statement have been provided over the past week that have never been provided before to which I shall allude to better supports/illustrate my evidence and bring it up to date.  

It 's been said several times over the past few days that we are dealing with a very emotional situation and that certainly is the case.  In addition, evidence that has been given by the Partners would be expected to reflect the interests of their organisations.  So I think the best way for me to present my concerns and objections about allowing this CPO to be confirmed is to rely on primary evidence which includes my own personal experiences.

This Inquiry is very much a David & Goliath battle:  The Partners have the support and advice of learned Counsel, the residents have no legal support and are left to fend for themselves, at a disadvantage.  They have asked for help from the Council but were told there is no obligation on the Council's part to help and therefore no help has been given.  The Partners' legal adviser has made a point of the fact that there has been no legal challenge to the planning permission perhaps suggesting that there was no wish to make a legal challenge, but the truth is that legal action has been considered but there have never been adequate resources available to residents to enable them to make such a challenge. 

If I might draw your attention to Para 1.2 in its Statement of Reason, Barnet Council claims that:

"The regeneration proposals will provide significant social, economic and environmental improvements for existing residents."

However, very few existing residents will be able to stay on the newly-built estate because ground rents, service charges, rents, parking, etc will not be affordable.  And the future for leaseholders is uncertain. Derisory offers for their homes well below market value make it impossible for them to afford to live in the new build where prices are high and the number of affordable homes has been drastically cut.  Even the offer of shared equity is unaffordable to most.  Reasons given last week by Mr Watling of Capita for the low valuation was the poor nature or location of the site but the estate is set on a unique site of natural beauty and of scientific interest because of the wildlife it attracts.  It was nostalgically described only last week by Leigh, a resident there for 45 years, who has taken 9 days annual leave to attend this Inquiry as having been a wonderful place to live, a peaceful haven away from the world set beside the reservoir with beautiful views from their windows.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING
Councillor Langleben has dealt in detail with the issue of inadequate provision of affordable housing.  I would just add that the goalposts have changed considerably since Brian Salinger's promise in 2002 the year in which the ballot was taken and in that ballot 67% of eligible residents voted and 75% of that 67% were in favour, so 49% of (less than 50%) of residents voted and voted in favour of the "new" "replacement" homes that were promised with their rights protected and affordable rents, rates and service charges  guaranteed. That was 12 years ago and 6 years before the original planning permission was sought and granted.

There is no intent on the part of the Partners to retain the current residents - the regeneration is now a completely different animal. It is no longer intended as a council estate, rather a commercial development on which any residents who stay are regarded as a nuisance and stand in the way of achieving the highest financial gain.  Residents have either left the Estate or will be unable to afford to stay even if they have tenure.

COMMUNICATION - CONSULTATION 
Regeneration was first hatched in 2002, the year of the ballot, and partners might claim that there has been constant and effective communication and consultation since then. But when I first became involved in the regeneration in 2013,  I heard the same complaint over and over again from tenants and from leaseholders - they faced a wall of silence, there was no information, no communication, only one broken promise after another. They just wanted to know what was going on.  They said they felt they were living in limbo, not even knowing whether it was worth repairing or refurbishing their houses, and the Council were not carrying out vital repairs. One woman had been trying with the help of her son to get a heater mended and for four years nothing had been done.  People felt betrayed. The first thing I suggested to Barnet Homes was that it would make such a difference if trust was established with the residents by listening to and talking to them and they suggested regular surgeries. But when I communicated this to residents they were sceptical as they said they had had surgeries before and when they asked questions they were usually told that the answers couldn't be given that day but that they would get in touch.  But no-one would ever get back to them.  Last year I factored some meetings between Barnet Homes and the two groups and they were very successful, but where Barnet Homes agreed to various requests they were thwarted when matters had to be approved by the Council.

As recently as 14 December 2014, (document CDB.38) a Variation to Section 106 Officers' report to the Council's Planning Committee was published which changed things once again considerably accelerating the demolition and building works. It is stated in this document that "Although not requiring a formal consultation process, Barratt Metropolitan LLP have advised local residents of the proposed changes within a newsletter". Another box ticked.

Paragraph 1.8 in the Council's Statement of Reason for confirming the CPO the Council states: "The Scheme reflects a revised Masterplan for the regeneration proposals and will result in the complete demolition of existing buildings within the Estate and redevelopment to provide new housing, a primary school and a community centre".  Another massive change that was not expected by the residents.

Any legal correspondence that arrives usually does so unexpectedly and although residents are offered the chance to have these explained, it usually causes panic because of either a lack of understanding or trust. The contact telephone number on the letters offering advice was dead, unobtainable.

And rather insensitively in the name of "consultation" two exhibitions were recently arranged for residents, the sort of exhibition that is provided for prospsective buyers who are buying off plan showing drawings and plans of the lovely new flats being built that they will never be able to afford. The residents staged a protest.

People feel that they don't count: and the evidence shows that that is indeed the case.

The level of support, commitment and passionate determination, the very existence of Our West Hendon, and People's Power speaks for itself and is powerful evidence that people are feeling immensely frustrated because of being badly treated and feel they have nothing to lose by protesting as vociferously as they can in public as the only way to make themselves heard. And because of this Public Inquiry questions have had to be answered that might never otherwise have been addressed because they just didn't need to be.

 And there is not only a problem for current residents, most of whom are not going be living on the estate in any case.  What about the new buyers, the future residents, paying around £450,000 for a two-bedroom flat, the first of whom are due to move in during the second half of this year. They, too, are being misled and treated with the same disregard as the current residents. We learned last week that there are no definite dates for the provision of the promised infrastructure - school, roads, community centre, etc.  Such details seem to have been omitted from any sales literature. Buying flats for nearly £½m, thousands of new residents think they will be getting a new road system, GPs and schools but there is no intention to provide this infrastructure for some years after they move in, and regarding the promised school Mr Wyld made it clear that there is no obligation ever to provide a school if the projected so called "child yield" shows there is no requirement for one and for the first few years at least there is no more obligation than to provide school places within a two-mile radius.  And the promised Community Centre is to be built right at the end of the scheme - I think 20 years was mentioned, but I hope I misheard.

The partners are eager to market the homes but do not consider the needs of the community - the residents, present or future.

I believe there are certain things that need to be fixed before the CPO can be granted.

DELIVERABLE ? 

It is going to be in the developer's favour to claim that the scheme is deliverable and professional suicide for them to deny it.  

But we have already seen that conditions like market changes, projections such as "child yield" mean that things can change substantially, as they already have and in fact there are no guarantees.

As we have heard, the plans for regeneration in West Hendon date back to 2002. Since then leaseholders who bought their Council homes under the Right to Buy Scheme have lived in uncertainty being given promises of building going ahead that never happened and plans that were revised and revised again.  But over the years properties were badly neglected in spite of an obligation on the part of the landlord, the Council - a common practice of many developers of private schemes who purchase a property with future development in mind and leave it to deteriorate to a point beyond which renovation is neither practical nor financially viable. 

You only have to look at Marsh Drive, which isn't due to come into the scheme for another 10 years. The place has been allowed to fall into a poor state of repair - no longer pleasant to live in as it once was - and any repairs carried out by the landlords are shoddy and dangerous with no consideration for either safety or appearance.   





Residents cannot be left living like this for the next 10 years and should not be expected to do so. The management must recognise a duty of care and not continue to write off properties still to be occupied for some years, spending as little time and money as possible on upkeep.  This is not only a blight on the estate, but a blight on people's lives - people who have little choice, little redress & who are not listened to or taken into account. They are just seen as a nuisance, to be got rid of.

BUILDING SITE  
The residents are living on a building site on which the standard of site management and enforcement of rules is unsatisfactory. There is bound to be some inconvenience, but there are perpetual lorries, thick dust, overwhelming levels of noise, giant cranes swinging over their rooftops sometimes out of control, porta cabins erected close up to their windows that appear without notice, bright lamps turned on outside their homes from early morning that light up their rooms, construction workers regularly working beyond the agreed hours. Article 1 of the Human Rights act states that "every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his (and I assume 'her' though not stated) possessions". This is not the case on the West Hendon Estate .    

It has been pointed out at this Inquiry by the Partners' lawyer that there are a number of processes available to deal with residents' complaints, but I can assure you that availability does not guarantee anything being done.  I have complained on behalf of and with residents again and again on the same issues and even when something is done, the situation usually reverts back to how it was. 

Yesterday afternoon at around 4pm, I had a typical phone call from a frantic resident about noise..."Listen to this." I could hear something that sounded like a hammer drill, so loud I could hardy hear what the resident was saying. it had lasted all day from 8am.  When she complained she was told with a laugh that the noise would only last for five minutes. Copper pipes were being cut in bunches outside her windows with an electric saw.   

Complaints have been made repeatedly about the workers with regards to drinking and smoking certain illegal substances on site and urinating in public areas and noisily changing their clothes in the very early hours of the morning in the portacabins that have been erected so close to the homes that they block out the natural light. All allegations are denied even though they come from many different residents from different parts of the estate.  At the recent Partnership Board meeting a week before this Inquiry Barratts were told that on many occasions bread was delivered noisily at 3am to the portacabins which are used as a canteen.  The representative from Barratt's refused to accept that this was possible.  But I had made this complaint months before on behalf of residents and nothing had been done about it how could anything be done if the complaint was not even acknowledged by Barratts. 

York Memorial Park has been dealt with more than adequately by Theresa Musgrove.

The Chair of the Barnet Council Housing Committee has been heard to say on more than one occasion at public committee meetings that if you can't afford to live in the Borough then you should live elsewhere and that he would welcome Russian oligarchs as residents.  

(I saw a television programme a couple of weeks ago about Russian oligarchs living in London and none of them expressed a wish to live in West Hendon).

But the residents of the West Hendon Estate were able to afford to live in the Borough until the goalposts were suddenly moved and it has become more and more apparent that leaseholders are being forced out of the Borough against their will due to the inadequate, well-below-market-price offers made to them for their properties. There are leaseholders who have outstanding mortgages which have not been taken into consideration.  And it seems that rents are due to rise for secure tenants so that in spite of their assurance of a home on the estate, even though this will be beside the busy main road in the most unattractive part of the estate away from the views over the reservoir, rents are due to rise to 80% of private market prices that will be unaffordable for them

Non-secure tenants are offered an alternative home as their blocks enter the demolition stage that could be anywhere. Some have been moved elsewhere in the Borough.  A home is offered and a decision demanded within 24 hours and if tenants turn down the offer because of unsuitability either of the property itself or its location in terms of jobs, schools, family, etc they are struck off the list and responsibility to rehouse them is removed.  

Some families have been threatened that if they don't agree to take the one property on offer they will be homeless and their children taken into care.  People are frightened to object.

Some tenants are transferred to other regeneration sites. There is a family with three children, one only four months old forced to transfer to Graham Park, another regeneration site due for demolition with no information about how long they would be there (this came up at the Partnership Board meeting the week before the Inquiry). The flat had broken windows and after two protests that were rejected they were given 2 days to move or no home.  In the end they were given 4 days. Their departure was filmed and is available on Youtube. Yet a few days later so called "Guardians", a middle-aged couple I believe, moved into the flat. These Guardians pay rent and there seem to be different terms and conditions for different guardians. Some have an unfixed amount of time, some are offered a 6 month contract/agreement and I've heard of one who have been offered 12 monthst, but then your clients must be able to give you this information.  We only hear of it from residents.  Other non-secure tenants have been transferred to other regeneration sites.  Residents also talk of construction workers who are given empty flats to live in. The decisions of those with the power of allotting empty flats and decanting non-secure tenants in what appears to be an inexplicably cavalier fashion needs explanation and seems to have no regard to the care and wellbeing of current residents.  There needs to be a properly managed system established that is fair and reasonable and makes the process of having to move home less traumatic.

If the CPO is allowed to proceed without pause at least, the Partners will be given carte blanche to go on as before indicating that all is well and acceptable. New procedures need to be put in place and monitored or there will be increasing dissent and problems will continue into the future.

The question that has to be asked is WHAT WOULD BE THE IMPLICATIONS IF THE CPO DIDN'T GO AHEAD?

What's done is done. Unfortunate things have happened and people's lives have been changed in very unsatisfactory circumstances and it's too late to do anything for some who no longer live on the estate.

But I think it's important to learn lessons and ensure that things change and better processes are put in place for the future.  A pause offers the opportunity to improve things that are at present unacceptable.

The rot set in a long time ago but we still have a long way to go and the evidence given to this Inquiry from both sides reveals that the intention to consider anything but profit has either never been there or certainly has not been there for some time. 

There is an unsatisfactory system in place, an established culture, a practice that has been allowed to lapse into bad practice that will undoubtedly continue if the CPO is confirmed right away.  I ask the Inspector to recommend to the Secretary of State that there is a pause to accommodate a complete rethink and change in policy, in priorities and an acknowledgement and recognition that things cannot go on as they are.  From the Council and Partners there is no recognition of duty of care. By suppressing, ignoring and denying the protesting voices of residents the situation is bound to worsen over the years and be counter-productive in attracting buyers amid bad publicity. 

We don't have a Hamlet to sort out the things that are rotten in the Estate of West Hendon as Marcellus almost said to Horatio, but we do have this opportunity to delay the CPO until a better, fairer process is in place, has been monitored and is approved by both sides, in fact until the statement in the Council's statement of reason 1.2 that "The regeneration proposals will provide significant social, economic and environmental improvements for existing residents" and (I add) also for future residents, is seen to be honoured.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hfv2Mdd0gHg

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The three boomerang skips: Skips and caravans go away! (Updated16 January)




 

The three boomerang skips:

Skips and caravans go away!

Once upon a time in West Hendon there were three skips.  They were brought to my notice by residents who lived beside them in their roads but wanted them gone.  The skips were full of earth and then filled up and overflowing with any old fly-tipped rubbish: mattresses, rats in mattresses, old cookers, planks of wood, crisp papers, cans, half-eaten sandwiches, anything that was no longer wanted.  I complained to the Council on behalf of the residents and my complaint was sent to Street Scene, Highways and then Highways Enforcement and after lengthy correspondence but with no sign of anything happening I was rung one day out of the blue by a resident to be told rather thrillingly that the skips were no longer there.  A frissant of happiness and jubilation was felt by all.  


Then early one morning about three weeks later another call from the same resident. "You couldn't make it up, Councillor Kay, the skips are back in the same places and they're still full of earth".  I couldn't quite comprehend.  And to add to the problem complaints had been coming in to me that two derelict, abandoned caravans full of rubbish were parked in different roads in West Hendon and in spite of residents' complaints to the Council nothing had been done.



I'd had enough of emails and their ridiculous platitudes.  I wanted action. I resorted to the telephone.  A slight diversion about CCCC (Capita Coventry Call Centre) answering calls for the London Borough of Barnet.  Sadly but not surprisingly little has changed, except that the operators are very polite even though one came back to me saying that she was sorry but forgot what department I'd asked for and please could I tell her again. It happens to us all.  It took at least 15 minutes to get through to someone who could help me.  This is because I first rang the officer whose name and direct line was on my correspondence and was told I needed a particular person in Highways Enforcement, but there was no reply from the extension I was given, no answering machine and no redirection.  This is something Capita assured me would be fixed some months ago at a Performance and Contract Management Meeting .  If Anna Earnshaw is reading this, please take note. So I had to resort to the main switchboard.  Again a polite and lovely lady, but didn't know anything about Highways Enforcement.  I finally got through to someone in Highways who took a message for the person in Highways Enforcement who turned out not to be in Highways Enforcement at all. Nevertheless I did finally speak to her the next day and what she said was refreshingly honest but the last thing I wanted to hear.



The punch line is that there is no facility for the Council or Capita's RE (Highways) to remove either skips or caravans.  They have neither the equipment nor the storage space.  The officer speculated that the skip company must have removed the skips but couldn't understand why they had brought them back. But then it is a bit of a brain teaser.  The skip company is claiming that the skips were stolen and therefore not their responsibility and so will not pay the fine which presumably they have to do if they admit to their ownership and remove them.  So we'd better get used to seeing rubbish-filled skips and caravans as a permanent feature of the Barnet Street Scene because the Council doesn't do skips and neither does it do caravans.



 Update on 16 January from a West Hendon resident who told me that she was told Capita was getting estimates from companies who could remove a caravan. Will check it out.  A mess in every way.

Friday, 9 January 2015

CRASH! ARRIVA! ARRIVA!

Crash! Arriva! Arriva!




Today my bright blue once shiny little car was carried off to AE (Automobile Emergency) after an 8-day wait for an appointment. Car reflecting life. Hopefully the delay will not prove fatal. I wish it a speedy recovery after an Arriva bus "didn't see" me and veered into my lane leaving my car with its bowels hanging out for everyone to see. The bus driver tried to pretend it had never happened but I embarrassed him into stopping and facing the music by following the bus, exposed bowels and all, pressing my hooter and not letting go. I'm fine by the way.

And now I have courtesy wheels to get me around which I hope will keep me safe at night. For the past few nights I have not felt safe walking everywhere in 50% dimmed streetlighting along dangerous, neglected pavements in desperate need of repair that I have long and loudly protested about on behalf of angry residents, and knowing there is a 31% rise in violent crime in the Borough over the past year (2nd highest in London).  The Council may tell us that with lights at half power you can't tell the difference but we're not daft. Just hope the car withstands the deep ruts in the roads with the exception of course of that royally-named recipient of a huge part of the highways budget, Princess Park Avenue. Yes, you've guessed. I live in the Tory-Capita Borough of Barnet: Barnet in the dark, Barnet on the cheap.

I'm off to strike up a fun, short-term relationship with the temporary car. In the words of Irving Berlin, "No strings and no connections, no ties for my affections, I'm fancy free and free for anything fancy." 

And if any Arriva bus drivers are reading this, please stay in your own lane and do look out of your window. Arriva! Arriva! 

Have a great weekend everyone.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

MORE LEGAL GAFFES COME TO LIGHT IN DISFUNCTIONAL BARNET


 La Bloggeuse with Mayor Shepherd, the People's Mayor of Barnet



MORE LEGAL GAFFES COME TO LIGHT IN DISFUNCTIONAL BARNET

A Tale in Two Blogs: Blog the First


Barnet's Constitution, Ethics and Probity Committee (aka CEPC pronounced SEPS) met on 25 November. It is a committee without razzmatazz; it isn't filmed; the public gallery is usually empty, though this has nothing to do with the Conservatives' penchant for private meetings behind closed doors, but rather that it is considered to be unutterably boring down to its very name. But allow me to recommend it to you, not merely because I am lucky enough to be a Member, but because it lies at the very heart of the Council. Its role is to continually scrutinize, test and amend the rule book: the procedure, the protocol of how the Council operates that is the Barnet Constitution.


At the first CEPC meeting of this administration in August, and my first meeting as a Member of the Committee, the Conservative Chair, Cllr John Marshall expressed the hope that the committee would run on consensus, but as I ventured to ask, doesn't there have to be agreement in order to have consensus? 


There were some fundamental political issues on the agenda last week: fairness, democracy, transparency (Blog 2). And there were shock revelations of yet more incorrect advice from the former Monitoring Officer and the Council's private lawyers, HB Public Law that led to the Council acting in contravention of its own Constitution when councillors appeared before the Council's disciplinary committee, the Leaders' Panel. So as you weren't there and no video exists on Youtube, in the cause of transparency in which I firmly believe, here is what happened: the business and how it turned out - a tale in two blogs.


If you remember, the expert local government lawyer, Claer Lloyd-Jones, wrote in her recent independent report about Barnet of 14 September 2014:

o       There is no-one who understands local government law in depth at Barnet. Barnet employs no lawyers.
o       There are staff in key roles in the Governance structure in Barnet who are inexperienced in governance matters. 


Ms Lloyd-Jones' report explains that Barnet's Monitoring Officer is also responsible for Legal Services provided by the private company HB Public Law that Barnet shares with Harrow, and who Tory Council Leader, Richard Cornelius can be seen waxing lyrical about on old Youtube footage.  HB Public Law did not escape criticism in Ms Lloyd-Jones report.


Blunders in Governance procedure that resulted from the stumbling in the dark of a legally unqualified, inexperienced Monitoring Officer relying on a private, shared, remote, hands-off, legal service continue to pop up to plague the Council and this was evident at the CEPC meeting.

In response to a Members' Item from Labour Group Leader, Alison Moore, in which she proposed in the cause of fairness that the Constitution be amended to: "Ensure that any councillor subject to a complaint under the Code of Conduct is allowed access to the Independent Person (an independent adviser who examines the evidence and sits on the Panel but does not vote) throughout the process" there came a shocking revelation, nothing new at a Barnet meeting.


Before any discussion or vote could take place on Alison Moore's amendment, John Marshall made a rather sheepish announcement. He had been informed, he said, by new Interim Monitoring Officer, Peter Large, that no amendment was necessary because the two councillors who have recently come before the Leaders' Panel, one Conservative, one Labour, were denied their Constitutional rights of access to an independent advisor because Barnet Governance and HB Public Law wrongly advised that the councillors did not have that right. 


So once again, the Council had been given the wrong legal advice by Barnet Governance and their supporting lawyers and had acted in contravention of the Constitution. Cllr Marshall merely said in explanation: "It was a mistake and I apologise, but it wasn't me", smiling as if he were cracking a joke.  


And this wasn't all. Conservative Councillor, Joan Scannell repeated the opinion expressed at the Panel's hearing by the Independent Person that the case against the Labour Councillor should never have been brought before the Panel as there was no case to answer and she added that it was a great pity that this had happened. Yet another found-to-be-wanting decision of Maryellen Salter who advised that the complaint should go ahead, but on the day the hearing was halted almost as soon as it began. The Conservatives deftly sweep these matters under the carpet, but this should not be allowed. By being in denial they are putting the Council and the Borough, in fact all of us, at risk and make it impossible to mend the past in order to create an honourable future. 


Bad advice to the Council is only part of the story. I noticed that in the bundle of documents handed to Ms Lloyd-Jones to aid her in her preparation of the Report, there was listed an 


"Unsigned and undated Side Agreement re Deputy Monitoring Officer and additional support to Barnet Monitoring Officer HBPL Business Plan 2014-17" - a larger role = more participation to be taken on by HBPL.


This is what Ms Lloyd-Jones had to say about the document:


4.13 A side Agreement to the IAA [Inter-Authority Agreement][1] was drafted at this time which adds acting as DMO [Deputy Monitoring Officer], corporate, governance and MO [Monitoring Officer] support to the services to be provided under the IAA. This agreement remains unsigned by Harrow. It is imperative for the document to be signed as much of the work it refers to is being carried out in practice.


Although the document is not dated, Ms Lloyd-Jones roughly dates it "at this time", ie the time when committee proportionality was being considered for the new administration around the time of the Full Council on 2 June 2014.  


For a law firm to fail to sign an Agreement and for a Council not to ensure that it is signed seems to me to indicate how sloppy and unsafe practice has been, and also how unmonitored. No signed obligation or liability on behalf of HB Public Law to the Council existed to cover these additional duties which were being carried out in practice. It was this law firm that was advising the Barnet Monitoring Officer. The indication is that the Agreement was signed by Barnet but not by Harrow. So was it the case that having signed the Agreement, Salter went on leave never to return leaving no one in Barnet to get the Agreement signed by HB Public Law as there was no-one acting as in-house Monitoring Officer.  Peter Large arrived without announcement around two week's later as "interim legal and governance adviser" and was appointed Interim Monitoring Officer after another two weeks on the day of Salter's departure.  Even in the absence of a Barnet Monitoring Officer, HB Public Law could have taken the initiative to countersign the form but it appears that for a while those in charge were content for nothing to be done. Who was to blame for this, as it could not have been the absent Salter. Was there no procedure at Barnet by which the Monitoring Officer's role was managed in the absence of a Monitoring Officer? Has the Agreement now been signed, and if so, when? 


Cornelius makes it clear in a written answer to Council that Salter carried out no work for the Council from 12 September to 9 October.  So who, if anyone, was carrying out the day-to-day in-house legal duties in Barnet in that time?  It was only when I asked at another meeting who had been acting on Salter's behalf that I was told by the CEO that Jessica Farmer, Head of Legal Practice at HB Public Law "had been nominated by Salter".                                                                                                                                                                                                       

There are so many unanswered questions and those in charge refuse to take responsibility for allowing this untenable regime to continue unchecked for so long. How many more wrong decisions based on wrong advice is going to be discovered that puts the Council at risk and exposes it to challenge and compensation? Shouldn't all advice given during this period be challenged and tested? At Council I asked that this should happen. Cllr Cornelius replied:


"This sounds like a personal attack on a former officer. Full legal advice was always available. A new Monitoring Officer is now in place."


There is no question of a personal attack from me but rather a legitimate and justified challenge of advice given to and acted upon by the Council when Salter was in post. It is rather the action to remove Salter from her post that can be seen as an attack from those who decided that she should take the rap. Yet they seem to have no intention of parting company with HB Public Law who were there to provide Salter with legal advice and failed miserably in the disastrous case of committee proportionality.


It is clear from the report that legal advice was not always available and Barnet expressed concern about the remoteness of HB Public Law (Report: 4.16). And when advice was not forthcoming the Monitoring Officer went ahead without it, and even when it was forthcoming she was left to interpret it in spite of her lack of legal knowledge. The report states that "the Monitoring Officer is also responsible for Legal Services provided by HBPL" (4.12). She couldn't really win.
 

So where do we go from here?  Richard Cornelius has said Ms Lloyd-Jones’ report was “fair enough” and it was now “a question of how we move forward”.  As we have seen, just one instance of wrong legal advice can be catastrophic.  Interim Monitoring Officer, Peter Large, for whom Barnet is a 2-day-a-week add-on to his busy full-time job at Westminster Council is now in place for an indefinite period. A permanent appointment will be the task of the Remunerations Committee.  Large was appointed solely by the CEO in consultation with Richard Cornelius which is their constitutional right but then they were at the top of the responsibility chain during this whole period and it seems they were perfectly satisfied for legal matters in Barnet to be dealt with on a wing and a song.


And after all that has happened, after Ms Lloyd-Jones has said that most local authorities appoint a lawyer as Monitoring Officer, Richard Cornelius has refused Labour's request that there will be a requirement for the next Monitoring Officer to be legally qualified. Salter's own recruitment in 2013 has been the subject of discussion as it appears she was the only person to be interviewed for the post of Monitoring Officer. She is an Auditor but took over from an in-house lawyer with years of experience of Barnet Council yet there was no requirement for legal qualification or experience in the job description though there was for an auditor. But then another senior Conservative, Councillor Anthony Finn, has justified Cornelius's decision by insisting that qualifications are unnecessary as "all that is needed is a clear head". Would you put the clearest-headed dentist in charge of brain surgery? But then this is the man who, like his Tory colleagues at the CEPS meeting, voted in favour of unconstitutional meetings on budget cuts being held in private because residents would be scared when matters such as switching off street lights were discussed.  



So let us return to the two councillors who are victims of all this chaos, those who were denied their right of access to an independent person because of a dysfunctional system. Do these councillors get an official apology?  Are they to be compensated in any way?  Will they demand compensation and of what kind?  How long has the Council known that this advice was wrong? It appears the two councillors have not been informed of the injustice done to them. And this error may never have come to light if Cllr Moore had not submitted her Member's Item that forced an admission.


The people of Barnet deserve better than this headless-chicken culture with no accountability. No lessons have been learned, no fault acknowledged, no effective remedy prescribed to heal Tory Barnet of its self-inflicted wounds. Maryellen Salter is long gone while others cling on with everything to lose hoping they've done enough to cover their tracks, and time bombs are ticking.  

COMING SOON TO A LAPTOP NEAR YOU:
Our day in Coventry: Capita and the Polo factor
More from the CEPS meeting: Tories vote to keep public out of unconstitutional meetings on budget & cuts. Says one Tory: People would be scared to hear discussion on cutting street lights.



·   [1] These were the other related docs in the list: Committee report to Barnet Council establishing the shared legal service 4th April 2012; Committee report to Harrow Council establishing the shared legal service 4th April 2012; Inter Authority Agreement re HBPL 17th August 2012; Committee report to Barnet Council establishing Deputy Monitoring Officer as HBPL- 29th January 2013