By Marcus Dysch
July 14, 2010
The news that Barnet Council cabinet members have voted through a bumper new pay structure is surely one of the most disgraceful episodes in the proud history of the borough with the largest number of Jewish households in the country.
The deal agreed at last night’s council meeting, reported here by my old paper the Hendon Times, will prove a sickening blow to hard working Barnet residents who are currently scrimping and saving to make ends meet.
The paper reports that council leader Lynne Hillan (above) can now claim “up to £54,000 per year for the role, a jump of nearly £20,000, on top of a £10,000 basic allowance available to all councillors”.
Her cabinet colleagues agreed that their allowances should be doubled to £34,000 from £17,000. But how touching, they have agreed to not claim £7,200 of that money this year to “ease the transition”.
Absolutely nothing, nothing that those councillors do could ever possibly justify pay rises of such a nauseating level.
Such a move would have been highly questionable if taken during times of full and plenty. Now, in the austerity age, as dramatic cuts to spending loom on the horizon, it stinks.
Whether the Conservative group would have proposed such enormous increases under its previous leader and his deputy, Mike Freer and Matthew Offord (both elected to the Commons in May), is debatable.
Whatever residents may have thought of Mr Freer's regime – do not forget the council lost £30m in the Icelandic banks collapse under the stewardship of the new member for Finchley and Golders Green – both men are considerably more in touch with the public mood than Mr Freer's successor.
According to the Times’ report, in scenes reminiscent of Stalinist Russia, Councillor Kate Salinger, the only Tory councillor to vote against the proposals, was duly removed from every committee she served on at the end of the meeting, and sent to a gulag (ok I made that last bit up).
Still, such action should come as no surprise to Mrs Salinger. She will clearly remember how her husband, Brian, was ruthlessly knifed by Mr Freer, egged on by the odious and controversy-mired Brian Coleman, days after winning the 2006 local election for his party.
My experience of covering Barnet Council at that time was one of generally well-intended councillors working conscientiously for residents who in many cases were friends and neighbours as well as voters.
It was one of the most diverse authorities in the country, with representatives from Jewish, Muslim, Cypriot, Greek, Asian and gay communities. Observing at council meetings was at times a splendid job and could often make you proud to be British. To see real diversity at work - as every single resident in the borough could point to at least one councillor as 'one of their own' - was quite inspiring.
Of course in some cases there were individuals who saw service in Barnet as a path to greater things. A few have gone on to become MPs, and arguably deservedly so.
Others, however, were clearly in it for the money. There were a number of family partnerships, with husbands and wives, fathers and sons, serving together on the authority.
More than once I saw a wife or a son winched into a safe seat in a safe ward. One by-election candidate - the wife of a serving councillor - shamelessly told me she had not a single policy idea. More shameful still, the residents elected her. All aboard the gravy train.
For attending a few meetings together a few times a month, replying to a few emails and checking some cracked pavements, they could happily, and with relatively little hassle from the public, pick up a few grand a year.
At the time Ms Hillan was a relatively average performer. Since taking over from Mr Freer last December she has proved herself wholly incapable of running an authority of Barnet’s size.
She oversaw plans to save £400,000 a year by unlawfully removing 24-hour live-in wardens from sheltered housing (a proposal eventually blocked by a High Court judicial review).
Yet only last month the council advertised three new director-level positions paying almost £300,000 a year.
And now this shameful episode.
After becoming council leader she said: “We want to offer an excellent service to all of our residents… There is a huge shared responsibility here and we all have to take part and we will support people to do that.”
What an utter disgrace these pay rises represent.
It will be a sad sign if the general apathy surrounding local politics stops residents and opposition councillors uniting to demand Ms Hillan’s immediate resignation.