Saturday 21 November 2015

Brent’s Coat of Arms – some thoughts on history, and on justice

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coat of arms used to appear on Brent Council’s letterhead, and on various Council publications, but in recent years has been replaced by a modern branding logo.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.

Philip Grant

  Text and artwork for the proposed sign at Brent Civic Centre



Anonymous said...

The trouble with ideas like Deputations is that their usefulness is ultimately dependent on their being administered by men and women of goodwill and honesty. In the hands of a bunch of chiselling little shysters they're merely façade and tokenism. The idea should be given a little more time to see whether there's a chance of the relevant council individuals ever rising above themselves. If not, consideration might be given to the use of another old Saxon method of settling disputes, namely a sharp downward blow with the trusty Saxon broadsword.

The motto probably seemed like a good idea in 1965 but after a couple of decades of mission statements and vision statements it sounds like the sort of banal and mawkish crap produced by every organisation and institution in the country. I'd suggest either getting rid of it, translating it into Basque or going for the ultimate banality with the addition of a couple of new words:


Mike Hine

Martin Francis said...

Thanks Mike, I really did 'LOL' at your motto...

Nan. said...

Love it, Mike!!

My suggestion would be for Brent to adopt the motto below which I think came from a school -

Turpe nescire - it is disgraceful to be ignorant

Nan. said...

Well done to Regeneration for seeking knowledgeable advice from an impeccable source.

I learnt much that was most interesting from your piece, Philip - thank you.

Unknown said...

Interesting that John Lyons is there on the crest.,.and it may well be that the John Lyons Charity continues to help it has before.....before all these useless money grabbing tossers took over...three cheers for longevity against short term shysters

Pete Firmin said...

"Contacted by the Regeneration Department". Some of us can only wish.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Nan.

It is a pity, in one way, that Regeneration had to ask me. Brent used to have two experts on the area's history at Brent Archives, but both were unfairly made redundant in early 2014 as part of a "restructuring" by the former Head of Libraries, Arts and Heritage. The new Museum and Archives team still have a long way to go in replacing such knowledge and experience.

My own interest in local history came to the attention of Regeneration as an "opponent", when I had to correct them about the historical and architectural importance of the Victorian library building that they wanted to demolish at Willesden Green, and again when they put forward a totally inaccurate history of the buildings in Barham Park, as part of their planning appeal on behalf of the Barham Park Trust. We later worked together on the project to put the British Empire Exhibition "Wembley Lion" on permanent public display (on the open space in Wembley Hill Road), to celebrate the exhibition's 90th anniversary in 2014.


Anonymous said...

It's all part of Brent embracing the Tory vision of the Big Society. Sack the staff and rely on unpaid and well-meaning volunteers to do the job. (That's not a personal criticism of you Philip)

Anonymous said...

At the same time increasing the salary's of politicians who have no real world life experience.