Saturday, 13 September 2014

Robber Barons Told to Ship Out in West London

Wise counsel for ‘Leaders’ everywhere.              
Guest blog by Mike Hine
Here’s an encouraging little tale for people anywhere who are fighting local government secrecy, opposing council leaders who think they’re above democratic accountability, needing a reminder of what a brief, focussed, media-savvy campaign can achieve with public backing or just happy to see a couple of smug Tory bigwigs get reminded of the limits of their entitlement. (And it’s a particularly happy one for anyone who knows the beautiful, unspoilt, undeveloped stretch of the Thames riverbank between Twickenham and Richmond).
It involves Richmond’s Tory council leader Baron True(!) and old friend of Thatcher and ex head of P&0, Baron Sterling, (who once said that his Portsmouth cruise-ship customers should have a separate terminal so they wouldn’t be forced to mix with ‘ordinary’ ferry customers who were ‘mostly semi lager louts and lorry drivers who smelt of BO’). 
Lord Sterling paid for the building of the ‘Gloriana’, the beautifully-constructed bit of royal bling you see below. It was specially built and used for the Queen’s jubilee celebrations in 2012.

The problem with a camp old bit of kitsch like this is what do you do with it after it’s fulfilled its original function? Rather like the monarchy itself in fact.
Well  Baron Sterling had a word with Baron True and they decided that they’d get local council tax payers to fork out for an enormous wooden boathouse ( a 10 by 40 metre glorified shed) on an ‘unused’ bit of the Thames embankment and they’d put it in there.  Baron Sterling would be happy, Baron True would have a ‘legacy’ vanity project, Richmond might be given ‘Royal Borough’ status and both of them might get their ‘Barons’ upgraded to something less insignificant by a grateful old monarch.
All this was secretly planned by the leader of the council 2 years ago, an architect was commissioned and a design approved by the barons was produced. In June of this year the leader deigned to let his electors know his plan, correctly assuming that his lobby-fodder councillors (whose claim to know nothing of the plans didn’t temper the desire of almost all of them to give it their immediate full backing) would raise little objection. The idea was that, after the customary fake ‘consultation’, the project would be agreed in council by September and work would go ahead; they’d start chopping down trees, destroying the habitats of bats, birds and other wildlife and bring in the development company’s excavators. It seemed to be a fait-accompli.
But then the shit hit the plan. (And that’s not a reference to the thousands of people who got involved in refusing to let the barons rob them of their heritage). The people who loved the fact that this mile-long stretch of the Thames was pretty much as it had been for the last 200 years, the people who took their kids to the small playground there, who used the friendly, scruffy café, who walked their dogs there, who just enjoyed the tranquil, unspoiled nature of the place, they got together through word of mouth, through social media, through meetings, through online petitions and referendums, through the (non-political) local ( but vastly inferior) equivalent to Wembley Matters.                                                                                                                                                            
 And, guess what:  LINK  
The Barons’ plans have been abandoned and this, in its untidy, undeveloped, characterful loveliness, has been preserved. 
For now.

What’s the relevance of this to Brent? Simply the fact that certain aspects of local  government in Richmond  might ring a bell with observers of local government in NW London.       
Baron True and Councillor Butt, in the way they conduct affairs and the way they affect our lives, have more in common than they have differences. The clandestine nature of the planning of the Gloriana boathouse vanity project has more relevance to the way councils and their leaders operate in both Brent and Richmond than do the Labour or Tory labels attached to the main players in either borough. Vanity and power (and the abuse of ‘procedure’ to lubricate the exercise of both) are seen to be their own justification. The extravagantly rewarded council functionaries who knew but kept schtum about the Barons’ plans in Richmond had no more sense of duty towards the public they served and who paid them than do their expensively ‘outsourced’ and perpetually interim equivalents in Brent. In short, the barons’ mentality, the self-serving arrogance of power, the secretiveness, the sense of entitlement about handing down prearranged decisions to the ‘ordinary’ people, these qualities are not just the preserve of the ‘ennobled’.                                                                         
 But the biggest lesson from the Gloriana boathouse victory is surely one to celebrate and to take encouragement from: it is that, no matter how ‘noble’, how well-connected, how apparently secure in power, how self-confident or how devious, the barons can be resisted and the barons can be defeated,  in Brent as in Richmond.    
 And that lovely bit of unspoiled Thames riverside with its scruffy old playground and its friendly little cafe will now remain a testament and a monument to that fact. 

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