Barnet Area Forum - 26 June
By John Lewis
On 26 July, the Barnet area forum was held at Fould's School, Barnet. This was a chance for residents to air their views on matters of local concern.
Unsurprisingly this prompted a sizeable Bees showing of about 30-40 fans and the bulk of the meeting was taken up by angry Bees fans demanding answers from the council. The panel consisted of a number of senior council officers (the equivalent of civil servants) and two councillors, who were co-chairs of the meeting.
After a few other items, the main item of the evening came up - Barnet FC and the redevelopment of Underhill stadium. I kicked off proceedings with a brief speech outlining the problems, and asking the two Conservative Councillors to name one thing they had done to encourage the club to stay in the borough since they were elected. Unsurprisingly this question was to remain unanswered throughout the evening.
Those who arrived thinking that this might be an opportunity to hold the council to account over its actions were to leave sorely disappointed. It was noticeable that at no time did the Tory councillors who were on the panel (chair and vice-chair) show any willingness to answer any questions posed by the floor, instead the council civil servant type guy who was responsible for the environment was left to answer nearly all the questions. Obviously being an elected representative is not deemed sufficient grounds to warrant being accountable to the general public.
His answers were pretty uninformative. His first response was merely to summarise what we already knew- namely that the club had had two meetings with the council, and then put the same council spin on things as Victor Lyon. I responded by pointing out that de-designation was only step 1 of the process, but this was fobbed off by the bloke repeating what he said earlier.
Clearly, this man was not a politician, and could not give political answers to political questions. It was unfair to expect him to defend the policies of the council. His job is only to implement them. We had no gripe against him at all, only the new administration. What we objected to was the direction of policy, not the implementation of it. However, the two Tory councillors- Peter Davis (Underhill) and Wendy Prentice (High Barnet) seemed quite happy to let this poor man fend off the questions, and refused to be held accountable themselves for the policy choices of their party.
At one stage, a member of BRASS stood up, finally confessing to being a member of the Tory Party and delivered a rather condescending speech. Since this was supposedly a forum for residents to air their views to the council, it was rather odd that he chose to face the Barnet supporters rather than the panel of listening council representatives with his views. Then again, seeing as his speech was basically a condescending diatribe against Barnet FC, with some highly misleading and dubious claims about the chairman it was clear why.
All of the speech concerned South Underhill (not on the agenda- the matter in question was the existing site) and rather than addressing the council with his concerns, it seemed to be to give the Bees fans a teacherly ticking off for having the temerity to want to build a league standard stadium. Apparently the club could have built a stadium, but went about it the wrong way, and as a result us Barnet fans should all blame Tony Kleanthous instead. So that bloke who has invested all that time, effort and millions of pounds of his own money into the club is actually the reason for its problems- rather than a handful of local residents in opposition, who were of course, only motivated by a desire to see the best for Barnet FC.
Several Bees fans raised points about what exactly the council was doing to help the club - and all of these were ignored by the chair, who seemed desperate to find someone else to ask. Again the bloke from the council who was not an elected representative was made to answer the questions. At no time did any elected representative make any attempt to explain how the council had done anything to help the club.
The best offering we had was a meek response from Wendy Prentice who said she was an Arsenal fan (does she support Ashburton Grove I wonder?) and that her son supported Barnet, so she wasn't against the club. Throughout the meeting fans had explained that warm words were not sufficient, and that actions were what mattered. I am sure the bloke steering the Titanic cared passionately about avoiding icebergs, and that King Alfred was a big fan of cakes. This point seemed entirely lost on the councillors, whose attempts to fob us off with the mantra "we care about Barnet FC" seemed spectacularly unsuccessful.
Wendy Prentice did attempt to claim that the two meetings arranged with the club were signs that the Tories wanted to keep the club in the borough. This constitutes a rather interesting definition of the word help. At the first they tried to scupper South Underhill, and at the second they tried to scupper redevelopment of the existing site. What assistance! On this definition of "helping" we could Knight Bernard Matthews for services to Turkey longevity. When it was pointed out that these two episodes hardly encouraged the club to stay in the borough, she suddenly spotted someone at the back of the room wanting to speak and rapidly handed the floor to him.
Things got even more heated when a Labour councillor (there only in his capacity as a resident, you'll note) delivered a brief but thunderous speech in defence of Barnet FC in what was without doubt the most sensible, straight talking honest input from any councillor all evening. This prompted Tory councillors (there just to observe- not on the panel) to point out that shamelessly party political tirades from councillors were best kept in the council chamber and then - just to emphasise how strongly they felt about meetings being hijacked by politicians - to weigh in with personal rantings of their own. Only Katia David, to her credit, kept quiet.
Mysteriously, the Tory councillors in the chair seemed far less willing to discipline their own side for intervening without the authority of the chair, than they were to caution Barnet fans. At some point during this council chamber type exchange, Fiona Bulmer newly elected Underhill councillor decided to break into song with "We won the election". It was her only contribution of the evening and was illustrative of her grasp of the situation. Then one of the new Tory councillors gave some spiel about wanting to help the club, but when challenged on what they had actually done, swiftly looked to the chair with an expression of panic on his face.
Sadly, unlike in the world of football, those who are on the receiving end of a stuffing were, when they are the chairman, able to move things on to the next matter. And so, without much being answered they did.
All in all, the evening left us with a feeling that the Tory Councillors knew very little about what was going on, or were at least content to let a poor old council official take all the flak from angry Barnet fans. They seemed totally unwilling to defend their actions, or more pointedly to answer the question set out at the beginning of the evening
"What have you done to encourage the club to stay in the Borough?".