Cutting councillors in Newcastle upon Tyne: A dangerous move to dilute democracy

Newcastle: the first place to face serious cuts in its councillors? Pic Credit: Free Foto.Com

Newcastle: the first place to face serious cuts in its councillors?
Pic Credit: FreeFoto.Com

Most political activists know that by 2018 the Conservatives will have succeeded in pushing through boundary changes that will cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600 at a time when the UK’s population is rising.

Not so well-known is that there is a local government equivalent now under way by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England which is not being made nearly as obvious.

Papers circulating among councillors in the Newcastle upon Tyne reveal that the Commission is about to look at a series of big cities as part of an ongoing review of local ward boundaries. The bombshell, I am told, is, as a result, the number of councillors in the city could fall by a massive one-third – from 78 to 54. And that similar exercises could see reductions in councillors in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Bristol.

The rationale behind the Commission’s interest is that changes in voter registration from households to individuals have seen a big drop in people registering to vote. Particularly affected are university students who used to be  registered  en bloc by the authority and now have to register themselves. Newcastle,Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol  and London all have huge student concentrations and registration has plummeted. Also  the growth in privately rented accommodation has seen people not always registering when they change address. Once there a ten per cent difference either way the Commission thinks it should review the authority.

It was the student drop that attracted the Commission’s attention to Newcastle. One ward,Ouseburn. saw figures down 30 per cent. But a registration drive saw this fall confined to four per cent.

Officially the Commission say they have no political motive – though it would hit Labour councils disproportionately – and only act if there are big changes in wards.

It told me:“ The Commission will intervene in authorities where 30% of wards have an imbalance of + or – 10% from the average elector: councillor ratio. This is how the Commission builds the main part of its programme.”

“The Commission has no view on whether the number of councillors should increase, decrease or stay the same for any authority. Each council is treated on a case by case basis and the Commission will make its judgment on the strength of the evidence it sees during the review process.”

It did confirm that big cities were being targeted:

” Several metropolitan authorities will form part of the Commission’s England-wide work programme over the next two years mainly because they have relatively high levels of electoral inequality between wards. ”

However documents circulating in Newcastle suggest differently. They reveal the council asked them to drop the review – because it did not meet the criteria( now only two out of 26 wards meet that figure) but the Commission refused.

The Commission confirmed they have cut councillors outside big cities citing   Stafford (-19 councillors), Suffolk Coastal (-13) and South Bucks (-12). They also say they have not cut councillors in Leicester, York, Bristol and Sheffield.

The one increase is in Hertfordshire which will have 78 councillors – an extra seat is being created in Hatfield in the constituency of Grant Shapps, the former Tory chairman. To be fair the councillors in North Hatfield appear to be a little under represented.

To me this suggests another agenda that it is totally not in keeping with government’s vowed policy to promote localism.

It fits more with an agenda of promoting city mayors to replace elected authorities, slashing local government  costs and  reducing accountability at a very local level.  Would a totally privatised London borough of Barnet need many councillors for example? I am not saying the Commission may have this agenda – more its political masters. But the Commission is not being entirely open about what is happening.You will find none of this information in this blog on the Commission’s website as it says it talks to local authorities ( presumably in private) first.

Luckily at least one Newcastle MP, Nick Brown, a former chief whip, seems to be aware of what could be happening and I fully expect him to start raising this in Parliament.I hope others will do so.

Tax Avoidance:Treasury ” We screwed Up”,BBC ” Nothing is wrong.”

Treasury mandarin Sir Nick Macpherson- admitting catalogue of errors Pic Courtesy: BBC

Yesterday Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee had the Treasury, the BBC, Revenue and Customs and local government before them. Subject: How have so many publicly paid figures got away with tax avoidance.

You could not draw more of a distinction between the evidence given by Whitehall and the BBC on the  same issue. There are are detailed reports by me and Mark Conrad on the Exaro news website ( about the hearing.

Suffice to say Sir Nick Macpherson, permanent secretary to the Treasury, put his hands up. He admitted ” a catalogue of errors” had led Student Loans Company chief, Ed Lester, to get a £182,000 a year  job with the government and avoid having tax and national insurance deducted at source. Indeed Howard Orme, the financial director of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, admitted he originally wanted £260,000 a year to do the job.

The disclosure that 2400 Whitehall staff have personal contracts shocked Sir Nick. He was forthright: “The Treasury had been asking the wrong questions. We were concentrating on value for money and not on the tax implications. We should have looked have looked at the figures more carefully.”

Contrast this with the BBC’s chief financial officer,Zarin Patel, who despite disclosing that the BBC employs a third of staff – some 25,000 – as freelances and admitting that 148 of the 467 journalist talent are paid through personal service companies, thought there was no tax avoidance at all.

Patel said: “There is no difference to the HMRC whatever way this is done.” In other words it doesn’t matter.

Not a view shared by the committee, Margaret Hodge, the chair, pointing out there was nothing worse than ” a person paid by the taxpayer avoiding tax.”

Patel’s complacency was also shattered later when HM Revenue and Customs chief, Lin Homer, revealed the paucity of checks on these people who have personal service companies. She disclosed that over three years the number of checks had been 25,12 and 23 respectively. One MP  even wondered whether this should be made public because it would only encourage more tax avoidance and evasion. This is now going up to 230 – but with 3,000 non journalists at the BBC on personal service contracts alone – how much difference will this make. More grist to the case presented by Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, that the Revenue is indeed well understaffed to do its job.

More interest for Freedom of Information freaks – it emerged that the information I got through  the freedom of information request  which blew the whole story – is now to be used as a case study by Whitehall of how something can go wrong ( or at last I hope so!).

The London borough of Barnet also emerged in its true colours . Evidently it had not replied to a request from the Local Government Association to disclose how many senior staff were on personal service contracts – the number according to the redoubtable Mrs Angry @brokenbarnet is 13. But Mps appear to be on the case – they will need to be vigilant, Barnet has a habit of not co-operating with anyone who wants information.

The hearing was a success. The next stage will be to ensure there is proper action to get these wheezes stamped out, the sooner, the better. And of course end the BBC’s complacency over this issue.

Taxpayer subsidised Brian Coleman’s hypocritical cheek in berating a single mum

Brian Coleman: Paying half the rent of the single mum he berated

I don’t want to be seen hounding  Barnet and London Assembly Brian Coleman on this website but his latest outburst takes more than the biscuit. The man who takes £128,000 from the taxpayer in council allowances – he’s probably about the third highest paid councillor now – has recently berated a desperate single mum with a six-year-old son for complaining that she is  facing a £150 a month rent rise to £1100 a month.

 She wrote to him for advice as she said ” out of desperation in the hope that someone can offer me guidance”. Mr Coleman was unsympathetic to say the least. Ms Sharada Osman wrote back surprised at his lack of empathy.

Mr Coleman told her ” I am afraid you have to live in the real world where the country has no money and residents will have to deal with their own issues rather than expecting  ” the system” to sort their lives out.”

What Mr Coleman did not tell her was that he was living in a subsidised  flat, courtesy of the Finchley Methodist Church charity, where he doesn’t even  have the responsibility of painting his windows.

His  rent is £546 a month – half that of Ms Osman. In the real world – the rest of the road-people are paying £1100 a month, according to local estate agents.

Don’t believe me. Well his fair rent agreement is a public document obtainable on-line from the Valuation Office Agency. Search Electronic Rent Register and put in N3 1ND and you can read for yourself and even print your own personal copy.

Then I might suggest – as Mr Coleman seems finally to have got over his technophobia and can use e-mail, send him a e-mail about what you think about it. His work e-mails are

 I’ll be interested to see if you get a reply.

Record Interest in blog banning Barnet and AssetCo’s fire sale

Last week’s blogs on Tory controlled Barnet’s defiance of Eric Pickles on banning bloggers and the woes facing Assetco, the London strike breaking private fire company, produced record hits for my modest site.

Altogether there were 3293 hits in seven days – with two record hit days of 1,375 and 1021. There were 1324 hits on the Barnet story and 1128 on  the revelation that AssetCo were facing a winding up petition from Revenue and Customs.

Barnet’s refusal to allow bloggers or filmmakers to record their big cuts package was much boosted by decisions by Guido Fawkes and Conservative Home to mention it on their websites. Guido Fawkes led to 1001 visits while Conservative Home attracted 55 visitors.

 The AssetCo story was boosted by being mentioned by the FBU – some 100 referrers – but a lot of the interest appeared to come directly. Mentions by the London Evening Standard and The Mirror produced  20 and 6 hits respectively, suggesting that the traditional media is losing ground to blogosphere sites. They were nearly equalled by hits from Liberal Conspiracy, Broken Barnet,VicKim57 and Left Foot Forward.

Interest in both stories revived hits on an older but updated blog on Brian Coleman, who features in both Barnet and the London Fire Authority. Hits have now reached 2285, with  massive interest in his council allowances,free gifts and expense claims.

So thank you. This week there will be new revelations about Barnet and the plight of AssetCo. So keep watching.

Barnet’s new pioneering Tory policy: Curb free speech

Anthony Finn-permission to speak ,sir? Pic -courtesy Barnet Times

Barnet Council already notorious for cuts as a no frills  Easy Council  – is about to make dubious history as the first borough to curb free speech.

New proposals now sent to a committee  will take away most councillors right to speak at future council meetings unless the Tory mayor, Anthony Finn, gives his permission.

The proposal is part of  a plan to “streamline” debate and procedures  by the ruling Tory group so presumably councillors will have little opportunity to protest at the growing number of cuts and increased parking charges residents have to face.

The Tory group also wants to bar discussion about the work of the Cabinet at the full council and change the scope of debates.

But the most controversial proposal comes from former Barnet Tory mayor Brian Coleman which limits the right even to speak.

His motion says: “To amend the Council Procedure Rules to grant a reserved express right to only the Leader of the Council and the Leader of the main Opposition Group or their spokespersons to speak on Motions, Policy Items and Committee reports at the Council meeting. All other speakers would be called at the discretion of the Mayor.”

The plan from a £128,000 a year  council allowance man  keen to become the new Tory Taliban  follows his humiliating climbdown last month (see earlier blog) when Boris Johnson slapped down his proposal to ban questions to the chair of the fire authority,one Brian Coleman.

Then he was exposed by blogger,Adam Bienkov. This news comes courtesy of another blogger, Mrs Angry, whose Broken Barnet website  regularly reveals the calamitous state of affairs in the borough.

The proposals mean  as Labour is the official opposition, the government’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, could be denied a voice in the borough as could any dissenting backbench Tory. One extraordinary result is that Monroe Palmer, a recently ennobled Liberal Democrat councillor, could have more rights to express himself in the unelected House of Lords than as an elected Barnet councillor.

All this is hardly in line with David Cameron’s promise of more transparency and proper debate.

Barnet Council’s head of media, Sue Cocker, said: ” The council cannot comment on the substance of the report as these proposals have come forward from the Conservative Group. ”

“A review group will be considering the issues and will report back any proposals to a future meeting of special committee (constitution review).”

Richard Robeson, spokesman for the Conservative group on Barnet, would not enlighten people on the proposed curbs. The Facebook friend of Brian Coleman said tersely: ” We do not talk to bloggers or journalists “. If you can do better than me try him at work on 0208 359 2004.

You might ask what is going on by emailing the mayor at

In future there may be a better way of protesting. The council under legislation will have to provide soon a facility for e-petitions from residents raising issues. How about tabling a motion calling for the council to restore free speech for its own elected councillors.