I am a man who is not easily shocked but Brian Coleman's performance at the Budget & Performance Overview & Scrutiny Committee last night was breathtaking in the extreme. We had contempt, insults, denigration, sarcasm and offence in quantities and ferocity worse than anything the Simon Cowell, Gary Barlow or Craig Revel Horwood could ever dish out. It left many incredulous and others shell shocked. I came away with the clear impression that Barnet Council was in meltdown, senior officers were intimidated cabinet members were humiliated and the gulf between officers and members is immense.
I won't go through the meeting blow by blow but I am sure my fellow bloggers will give much better accounts of proceedings. However I will give you some highlights:
Public questions: Mr Coleman clearly has no respect for members of the public. Each public question was treated with complete contempt, no sensible answer given, supplementary questions simply ignored. One person asked about the Council's "New Relationship with the Citizen". Last night demonstrated with crystal clarity exactly what that relationship is; disdain, derision and disrespect. Cllr Coleman might as well have just held up a sign saying P*SS OFF RESIDENTS because that is exactly how we were treated.
There was scrutiny of a report on Early Interventions for troubled families. Cllr Cornelius said that the hope was that by early intervention it would help people to lead better, happier lives. Cllr Coleman's response was "I don't care how people lead their lives as long as they don't break the law and don't cost anything". In other words stuff the disadvantaged as long as it doesn't cost anything. Alison Moore raised serious concerns that this was actually all about saving money and the cuts will make matters worse. Cllr Coleman grilled the officer repeatedly to the point that I almost felt sorry for him.
Robert Rams was up next. I had asked a series of questions about the wasted money on yet another consultants report. They have messed about for a year to come up with five options which we all knew about three years ago. Cllr Rams confirmed a response to one of my questions; yes selling off all the council's leisure centres is an option they are considering - People can exercise in the park if they want to get fit. Cllr Coleman ridiculed the outdoor gym equipment in the parks saying they were nonsense. I've used the equipment - yes me use gym equipment - and actually in Oakhill Park there is often a queue to use the equipment because it is accessible and free to use. In the future it looks like that will be the extent of leisure provision in Barnet.
We then had a long session scrutinising the budget holders. This is where Cllr Coleman wreaked revenge on his former cabinet colleagues. None were left off lightly. Sachin Rajput was on the receiving end of cross examination for a change forced repeatedly to confirm his confidence in his budget. Poor old Dean Cohen was challenged about the parking charges. Pam Wharf picked up the question about the parking budget and if it was under budget. "the account is in surplus". Ah ha, not what you were asked. Cllr Coleman persisted eventually squeezing out of Ms Wharfe that yes the parking budget was under budget. Oh dear! Dan Thomas really did take a beating and to be honest I did wonder at one stage it it was gong to come to fisticuffs. The animosity between Thomas and Coleman was palpable.
I had been trying to think what this meeting reminded me of and then it came to me in a blinding flash - Monty Python's sketch "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition".
We then moved on to the massive outsourcing contract for development and Regulatory services. Cllr Coleman wanted to know whether the council were going to enter into a joint venture with bidders. Richard Cornelius looked pretty cross. I have seen no papers about a joint venture and I would need a deal of persuading. The question was asked again and again and the response was clear form Cllr Cornelius no decision has been made. Everyone in the public gallery was willing the Labour group to ask the question "well why did Pam Wharf send not one but two emails telling council staff they were going for a joint venture and why did Cllr Thomas support that view in the Barnet Press. Sadly the ball was fumbled and the question attempted by Cllr Mittra was not pressed home. Cllr Coleman made a defining, if somewhat crass, comment when he summed up Richard Cornelius' views on a joint venture, " If I were a gambling man, which I am not, I would bet the Icelandic Bank money on us not having a joint venture". In one move Cllr Coleman killed off any prospect of One Barnet being a joint venture once and for all.
It was clear at this stage the gulf between officers and Councillors is immense and on the One Barnet Outsourcing they are on two quite separate tracks. "Officers have been closeted with the bidders". That is a deeply unhealthy position and I think there is a very real risk that officers have become far too close to the bidders to retain their objectivity. Cllr Thomas said that a joint venture was the suggestion of the bidders. That should have set every single alarm bell ringing in anyone with a sense of objectivity and common sense but when you have such a close relationship with bidders perhaps certain individuals have lost sight of who they are supposed to be working for.
The meeting drew to a close and Cllr Coleman was out the door. There were a lot of huddled discussions and a sense that something quite special had happened. I have a feeling this meeting will be remembered for a long time in the future and definitely not for the right reasons.