Mayor's Big Two have track record of failure

By Paul Lashmar
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Indy Politics

They are the Haringey Two; the Labour apparatchiks who are key councillors in the north London borough. But Ken Livingstone's victory has given them a different challenge: running not just one fiefdom of 300,000 people but helping the new Mayor tackle the massive problems of the nine million people who live in the largest city in Europe.

The appointment of Nicky Gavron as deputy mayor and Lord Toby Harris as police committee chief is now shining a strong and inquiring beam on Haringey's record. Just how good - or bad - is the regime that Gavron and Harris been part of for 14 years? Is it a golden example of New Labour local authority management? Or an old-style rotten borough?

In April, the Independent on Sunday's annual local council league table ranked Haringey at 107, out of 114 unitary councils, effectively also putting it almost at the bottom of all of England's 500-plus councils.

It performed dismally in the 42 performance areas used in the table. For example, the council managed to collect only a dismal 85 per cent of council tax owing, putting it in the worst six councils in England. Nearly 20 per cent of tenants owe more than 13 weeks' rent.

This year, for the first time, Haringey took over from Islington the dubious mantle of the highest council tax in London with a Band D rate of £932 a year. Haringey also has the 14th-largest council debt in Britain at £552m, larger than Mozambique's national debt.

Haringey's local education authority has just been roasted by Ofsted inspectors and is rated as one of the six worst in the country. The council also stands accused in the local press of "scapegoating" the education director Frances Magee, fired after just six months in post. Ms Magee was just about the only thing Ofsted praised in the LEA. Lord Harris's reputation as the doyen of Blairite local council reform does not always seem to have benefited local residents.

Haringey lost out in central Government's last annual spending round for local councils. The borough's albatross, the loss-making Alexandra Palace complex, remains firmly around the neck of local people. Servicing "Ally Pally's" £65m debt costs the equivalent of nearly 12 per cent of the total council tax. And despite Lord Harris' alleged influence there is no sign that the Labour government will take responsibility for this monumental drain on the resources of one of the country's poorest councils.

Nicky Gavron, a former wife of Tony Blair supporter Lord Bob Gavron, is councillor for the Archway ward on the borders of posh Highgate. Her greatest claim to fame is helping to set up the flourishing Jackson's Lane community centre in her ward.

There is reputedly no love lost between the two councillors and new Ken colleagues. Much to Lord Harris's annoyance, when Nicky Gavron won the top London Labour Party ballot to stand for the Greater London Assembly she chose the Enfield & Haringey constituency. Toby Harris, also standing for the GLA, asked her to stand elsewhere - apparently saying: "After all, I am Lord Harris of Haringey."

She refused, leaving Lord Harris of Haringey to represent the voters in Brent & Harrow. Ms Gavron's performance in the GLA vote was poor. In an traditional Labour area she was only 3,000 votes ahead of Conservative Peter Forrest.

Haringey local Conservative councillor Peter Forrest said last night: "Toby Harris and Nicky Gavron are councillors at the head of a hugely costly, poorly run and secretive Labour council.

"Why would you want to put failed politicians in charge of the GLA budget that is 10 times the size of the one they have already screwed up at Haringey? They see themselves as New Labour but in my mind they are old Labour, running the highest-cost, lowest-quality council in the country."

But despite Haringey's continuing problems, the political careers of Toby Harris and Nicky Gavron have blossomed under New Labour. Toby Harris was ennobled last year by Tony Blair as he came to the end of a 12-year stint as leader of Haringey council.

"Whether Ken Livingstone is hiring the right team is a very interesting question," said local government expert, Tony Travers, of the Greater London Group. If Mr Livingstone has any chance of improving London he needs to hire people who have proven success in running public service, he said.

"One of Ken Livingstone's problems will be that he does not have a track record in turning round large, ill-run public services. I do think he needs to appoint people who understand how to deliver top quality services."