Guest bog by Philip Grant
The Coat of Arms which used to grace the front of Brent Town Hall in Forty Lane has been preserved, and will shortly be on display in the Civic Centre. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Brent’s Regeneration Department, and asked if I would ‘review for accuracy’ the proposed text of the sign which would be displayed alongside it. As a keen local historian, I was happy to assist them, and was able to correct several minor errors and suggest some improvements. The resulting text and artwork for the sign can be seen below.
This coat of arms used to appear on Brent Council’s letterhead, and on various Council publications, but in recent years has been replaced by a modern branding logo. Looking at the coat of arms again, and the civic messages it conveys, has given me some thoughts which I will share with you here. Please feel free to add your own thoughts as “comments” below.
The designers could not use all of the information which I supplied. One of the details left out, about the banner held by the lion (taken from Wembley’s coat of arms), was that it shows the scales of justice, and commemorates the Saxon moot court held at a site near the present-day Kingsbury Circle. There was a form of local government here a thousand years ago, when Wembley was part of an area of Middlesex known as the Hundred of Gore. The name had nothing to do with blood, but with the triangular spear-head shape of the small field where the Hundred’s inhabitants used to meet.
The Moot (or meeting) for each Hundred was held in the open air on a regular basis, to discuss any problems, disputes or petty crimes which had arisen in the Hundred since the last meeting. The parties to an issue raised would put their case, anyone else who had a point to make could do so, and the matter would then be decided by a vote. The majority view decided the issue, and everyone was expected to accept it.
Illustration of a Saxon Moot, from “Wembley through the Ages” by the Rev. H.W.R. Elsley
I do not know how well this early system of local government worked in practice, but both Wembley (in the 1930’s) and Brent (when it was formed in 1965) were keen to use the symbol of the scales of justice, to show their commitment to fairness for all, which is what the Moot was meant to deliver.
With over 300,000 inhabitants, it is not possible for the people of our borough to meet together in a field for an open discussion of issues which are then decided by a majority vote. Once every four years, we elect 63 councillors to represent us, in the expectation that they will hear the facts and evidence on matters of local concern, debate them and reach decisions democratically. Like the Saxon villagers of old, we have the right to attend Council meetings, and for several years we have been able to watch and listen to Full Council meetings online. In June 2014, we were given the hope that we could participate in our modern version of the Moot, when “Deputations” were introduced. The Council Leader explained the purpose of these in the “Brent & Kilburn Times” (12 June 2014) as follows:
‘Cllr Butt said, “New proposals allow the public to speak in council meetings for the first time ever is aimed at bettering how the community engages with the council and allows residents to hold us to account.” ‘
So far, in my experience, this measure to bring more openness into Brent’s local democracy has not lived up to its original promise.
Martin Francis made the first request to present a Deputation in September 2014, on the (overdue) appointment of a permanent Chief Executive. He was denied the chance to speak, on the grounds that he had not given sufficient notice (even though he did so within the time set out in a “tweeted” invitation issued by Brent Council itself) LINK
I have given valid notice to make Deputations a number of times, but have never been allowed to present them. I asked Scrutiny Committee, in November 2014, to allow me to make a Deputation seeking scrutiny of Brent’s decision to appeal against the Employment Tribunal judgement in the Rosemarie Clarke case. They were persuaded not to hear me, by misleading advice from Brent’s then Legal Director (who had a clear conflict of interests in the matter). LINK
At the end of April 2015, I gave notice to make a Deputation about the Equalities and HR Policies and Practices Review, which was on the Scrutiny Committee agenda. I was told that I could do so, but only if I did not refer to the Rosemarie Clarke Employment Tribunal case, which the review had been set up to learn the lessons from. Although I explained why it would be both relevant and reasonable to refer to that case, the committee accepted the advice of Council lawyers that I should not be allowed to speak on those terms. LINK
A year after Martin’s first attempt, I asked to present a Deputation to Full Council, to welcome the new Chief Executive, and to emphasise the importance of high standards of conduct in carrying out Council business. On this occasion, I was prevented from speaking only by the personal discretion of the Chief Legal Officer, who wrongly claimed that my proposed subject was ‘inappropriate’, and ‘in reality, a complaint about how the Council has handled your request for greater transparency.’ LINK
Does Brent Council still uphold the spirit of fairness that its use of the scales of justice in its Coat of Arms was meant to show? You can add your answers, whether “yes” or “no”, as comments below. Personally, I hope that the presence of the Coat of Arms, on display in the Civic Centre, will be a reminder to councillors and Council Officers of the standards that, historically, Brent should be aspiring to.