Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Firm but Fair: Broken Barnet - living in a Fools' Paradise


When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.

Mrs Angry has been rather preoccupied with other matters, over the last couple of weeks, and had little time, or much inclination, to blog, and so has had to rely on some of her little helpers to carry on, behind the scenes, and undertaking some field work, on her behalf, in the meantime.

Running the Broken Barnet blog is of course a full time business, and requires the support of a very large back office team, you see - now outsourced to Crapita, at a cost of £160 million per annum, in order to achieve savings of £160 million per annum, minus consultancy costs, naturally, and an upfront capital investment of £16.1 million for paperclips, biscuits, gin, and all other blogging support services. 

Staff: dear me, very difficult to find the right sort of easily exploitable interns, willing to work for next to nothing on a perfectly reasonable, zero hours contract, even in these last dying days of the Coalition government, but Mrs Angry has taken on one or two assistants keen to learn the art of bloggery, and one of these new interns, Mrs Alice Fulbright, yes, yes: that is A. Ful -bright (Mrs), has been undertaking some vital research - a spot of 'mystery shopping' of our elected representatives, here in Broken Barnet, to answer the question, Eric - are we getting value for money, from our Tory councillors?

First up, then, a letter from Alice to library boss, Councillor Reuben Thompstone, so keen to promote the nefarious Tory plot to destroy our public library system, by shutting them down, cutting their hours, getting rid of staff, and shrinking the size of of the libraries themselves by a truly eye watering 93% in floorspace. 

23/03/2015 

Well done‏ 


Dear Councillor Thompstone 

 I just wanted to write and tell you how much I admire your stand on this library issue. 

I am heartily sick of local 'left-wing' trouble makers and other professional whingers complaining about your plan to shut down libraries. 

If I had my way, they would all be shut, frankly, and the money saved spent on increasing your wages as councillors, just for putting up with all this constant criticism. 

 In this day and age, anyone who wants to read a book can buy one off amazon, or from a charity shop, if they are on benefits, as so many are these days, especially, no doubt, the ones who are making all the fuss about libraries. 

And perhaps if more people spent less time reading, and more time working, we would not be in the mess we are in now, thanks to the last socialist government. I am sure you will agree. 

 With Best Wishes 

 Alice Fulbright 

 (Mrs) A. Fulbright 

Mrs Angry - and Mrs Fulbright - thought that Councillor Thompstone might just feel slightly suspicious at this gushing missive, but subtlety, irony and indeed satire are qualities in short supply amongst the ranks of our Tory councillors, as we shall see. Back came a most gratifying, and gratified response: 



Dear Mrs Fulbright, 

 Many thanks for your thoughtful and supportive comments. Is there a possibility you might write to one of the local press establishments? We do not always receive kind words in these (sic) and it helps balance alternative views. 


 Best, Regards, 


 Reuben Thompstone 


Councillor for Golders Green,  Lead Member for Children,  London Borough of Barnet


Goodness, thought Mrs Fulbright, and Mrs Angry: what a marvellous suggestion: yes, every possibility - and here you are, Councillor Thompstone, presented, on behalf of every library lover in Broken Barnet, with your wish come true. 

How sad that such 'kind words' are so rare. 

Have you perhaps ever wondered why that might be?

Not sure if by 'press establishments' you meant this blog, exactly - but this is the best we can do. 

Unfortunately, at this point Alice overstepped the mark somewhat, and decided to continue this correspondence: 

Dear Councillor Thompstone 

Yes: a very good idea. I am off tomorrow with my husband for a short break, to the Scilly Isles, but I shall try to send something to one of them in the next few days. Of course I believe the local press - and other so called 'social media' so popular with my grandchildren - are completely biased in favour of the sort of communist-style propaganda that seeks to undermine everything that is decent these days, so one cannot hold out too much hope. 

Thank goodness for men like you, with vision, who carry the banner of Conservative Values, and continue the fight against such anarchy. 

 I had the great honour of meeting Lady Thatcher several times, when she was our MP - she once came to a church bazaar I was organising, and was so kind when I accidentally knocked a cup of tea all over her handbag. Don't worry, she said: I have no state papers in there, only a spare pair of stockings! 

 I know that she would be a staunch admirer of your determination, intelligence and political courage. If libraries need closing: do not listen to the mockers, scroungers and troublemakers - you are the man to do it, and I wish you the best of luck. 

 Yours sincerely, 

 (Mrs) A. Fulbright. 

No reply as yet, but then of course Mr and Mrs Foolbright are enjoying a second honeymoon in the Silly Isles, as far as Reuben Thompstone is concerned. 

NB: Mrs Fulbright's anecdote regarding the milk snatching old bat originally referred not to stockings, but some other form of lingerie, and was censored, in the end, by Mrs Angry, on the grounds of decency. And credibility

Hmm. Who next? Alice thought she might try it on with that old rogue, man of the world, and expert linguist (rumour has it, anyway) the handle bar moustachioed, Terry Thomas look alike, Councillor John Hart.


This dialogue went awfully well - in fact, rather too well, and Mr Fulbright is not at all pleased, I can tell you. 

Mill Hill Library‏ 

Dear Councillor Hart 

I wanted to write to you about this library matter, as frankly I am heartily sick of reading all these whinging left wing complaints about what seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable proposal, ie save money from a service that is largely unnecessary, in this day and age. 

I know that you are a man of letters, so to speak, and a great reader, like myself, and perhaps you would agree that for people like us, who are cultured and well educated, a private library at home, and a 'room of one's own', as Virginia Woolf put it, is all we need to get by. 

Those who insist on reading the latest trashy best seller, which is all libraries seem to supply these days, or some tiresome, politically correct novel reviewed in the Guardian, can either go to WHSmiths and buy it, or even the local charity shops, if they are of limited means, or dependent 'on benefits', as so many of these so called library campaigners most probably are.  

I really do fail to see, by the way, why a public library should fill its shelves with smutty books like 'Fifty Shades of Grey' or whatever it is called - I have of course not read it, as my husband always chooses my library books for me, and insists it is not suitable! 

If we must have libraries, let them be full of improving literature, to elevate the mind, not drag it down in the gutter. 

I should add that last time I was in Mill Hill Library, I asked the person behind the desk for a biography of Lady Thatcher, and he said there was nothing available. This was very disappointing, and I have not returned since. 

Public libraries may have been a useful thing in the past, but really one must ask now if they do not encourage an attitude of laziness, and feckless dependency on the state, rather than encouraging people to stand on their own two feet, and pay their way. 

An alternative, of course, might be to charge users for the library service. If one is happy to pay for a night in the pub, or the bingo hall, one should be willing to pay for access to literature, information and all else. 

We live in a market economy, and until the loony left acknowledge this hard fact, we will make no progress, in my view. I see nothing wrong at all in closing all, if not most of our local libraries, and putting the money saved to better use: think of the capital profit to be made from selling the buildings for development (although of course we shall have to endure the usual suspects demanding we build council houses rather than decent, attractive properties that we want to see. 

As far as I am aware, none of the libraries are listed, so demolition would be no problem, and the sums raised would go towards keeping our council tax low, or even providing a cut in the rate. 

One might even venture to suggest that the revenue from development might enable local councillors - or at least the Conservative members - to be paid a more generous allowance for all the hard work you do! 

With very best wishes, 

Alice Fulbright 

(Mrs) A. Fulbright 

Mrs Fulbright, who appears to have something of an  idée fixe, for some reason, on the subject of the late Margaret Thatcher, was thrilled to receive a prompt reply: 

Dear Mrs Fulbright, 

What a refreshing email. 


I agree with most of what you write: the library purchases are mostly Millsey Boonsey rubbish; few people visit the book shelves; the premises need to be put to better use (plus library use on a reduced scale); premises may well be disposed of to raise capital for other uses (sadly, not for Conservative councillors’ emoluments). 


On Mrs Thatcher’s biography I believe some have since been published. Like you I buy books – on Mrs Thatcher I recommend warmly Cold Cream by Ferdinand Mount and Alan Clark’s Diaries. Both worked for her and admired the lady. Ferdinand Mount is especially insightful. 


One point: library usage has to be free by statute. I hope you sent in your comments for the consultation, now closed. Thank you once more. 


Best regards 


John Hart 


Mmm. Mrs Fulbright was not shocked by Councillor Hart's dismissive remarks about the libraries, but Mrs Angry certainly was, as they seemed rather at odds with the tone of his views expressed at the library debate in Mill Hill, earlier in the year. 

Still: at least we know now, where he really stands, and indeed his opinion would seem to be pretty much what the vast majority of Tory councillors really think. 

Mrs Alice Fulbright was not quite finished with Councillor Hart, however: 

Dear Councillor Hart 

Many thanks for your response. On the subject of Lady Thatcher, according to my husband, Alan Clark was a philanderer, and a cad, and his diaries are unsuitable material for ladies. This makes me more inclined to read them, however, as frankly my husband is inclined to be something of a killjoy, and life is short, is it not? 

With best wishes, 

Alice 

And back again, from the game old boy: 

Dear Mrs Fulbright, 

Override your husband’s objections and read Alan Clark’s Diaries. Philanderer or not (many of the best men are) he is a stylist and considerable historian. His father was, of course, the creator of the famous TV programme “Civilisation”. Life is indeed brief. At my age, even more so. 


With my best wishes. 


 John Hart 


Best to leave it there, I think, Councillor Hart. 

Mrs Fulbright is not in the habit of overriding her husband, one suspects - in any sense - and it is ill advised, Mrs Angry would suggest, to try to come between a man and his wife. Or to suggest improper reading material to her. 

Alan Clark? Tssk. Still, we must be grateful Cllr Hart did not mention the biography of Anthony Crosland, as he once did in the council chamber, horrifying the Mayor with the quotation, gleefully declaimed:

If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England ... 

What is rather shocking, readers, is the habit of certain Tory councillors of not opening their emails, or responding until prompted. Yes, Councillor Rozenberg, Mrs Angry is looking at you, boy - took your time, didn't you? And you Dan Thomas? Very boring response, too, when it did emerge. Yawn. Oh, and Dean Cohen had to be chivvied along by Mrs Fulbright, who wanted a cracked pavement outside her house in Princes Park Avenue fixed by the end of the week, as she was expecting guests, and knew he was awfully good at fast tracking that kind of thing, according to her sister April.

One or two others, in this limited exercise, of course, may have felt at a loss as how to reply, such as the queenly former Mayor, Councillor Lisa Rutter, who may or may not have welcomed Mrs Fulbright's congratulations for her fence sitting - or leaping - over the library and lorry depot issues.

After all, as Mr Fulbright remarked to his wife, and Mrs Fulbright passed on, perhaps rather tactlessly: 

It takes great courage to ignore the will of constituents and put party loyalty before the demands of local residents, even if, as my husband has pointed out, this will lose you your place at the next local elections. 

Clearly you are a woman of great principle, and I salute you. 

And then, last of all, for April Fools' Day, we have the Dear 'Leader' himself, Councillor Richard Cornelius. 




A man who is too scared ever to reply to any email from Mrs Angry, for some reason, but felt moved to favour Alice with his views on housing policy, after she raised the issue of - ah, Sweets Way: 

Standing firm‏ 

Dear Councillor Cornelius 

I feel I really must write to you to express my sense of anger about the squatters who have moved into the former council housing development in Sweets Way, Whetstone. 

I am not in the habit of contacting councillors, but in this case I feel I really must speak up: if only the 'silent majority' of decent, law abiding residents would do the same. 

Do these people have no sense of shame? 

They seem to think they are entitled to subsidised housing, simply because they have not, like you and I, worked hard all their lives, and seen the rewards of their labour bring them the sort of home that you and I enjoy, here in Totteridge. 

These are, quite simply, the politics of envy. What can we do, with such people? I am glad to see that they are largely being moved out of the borough, and will cease to be a burden on the taxpayers here. 

One almost longs for the era of the workhouse, and the deterrant of all that implied for those who refuse to support themselves, and not expect others to hold responsibility for their well being. 

Of course we hear nothing but complaints from the usual local suspects, who seem to think living in a socialist paradise will solve all their problems. 

My husband and I hope that you will stand firm in the face of all the disgraceful trouble making being encouraged by left wing agitators, who seem to want us to return to a state of anarchy. 

Yours sincerely, 

Alice Fulbright 

(Mrs) A. Fulbright 

His response was as follows: 

Dear Mrs Fulbright, 

Thank you for your email. We will be firm but fair. There is an obligation to house some people but not those who have made themselves deliberately homeless. 


Personally I want to help people improve their condition but not support a lifestyle based on welfare hand outs. Barnet gives housing preference to those in work. This has made a big change. 


Lets hope the election gives us the result that enables the reforms to continue. 


Thank you for your support 


Richard Cornelius 

So. The unfortunate tenants of social housing in this borough now facing the loss of their homes apparently deserve no help, or sympathy, from Richard Cornelius. 

And this is because they have made themselves 'deliberately homeless', is it? 

By being forced by his council to remain in non secure tenancies for years on end, subject to being moved around the so called 'regeneration' estates of Broken Barnet, whenever it suits the authority? 

Tory housing policy is based not on need but is dispensed by a punitive system driven by the gears of social engineering, oiled by a sanctimonious vision of the feckless poor, benefit scroungers. 

Firm but fair? 

Tell that - again - to the children of Sweets Way, Councillor Cornelius; the families, hard working families, not 'scroungers' demanding hand outs, who have been evicted from their homes, their lives, security and education thrown into disarray.



What could be the better definition of a fool, this April, the cruellest month of all for so many residents of this borough, than those words, spoken by the Tory leader? 

And in the Fools' Paradise that is Broken Barnet, the joke is on us all, not just today, but tomorrow, and the day after that, and all the days until we rid ourselves of their pernicious, heartless governance of our community. 

Monday, 16 March 2015

Sweets Way: another round of evictions, another occupation - and a visit from Russell Brand


Greetings, friends from the MoD. Maybe use a proxy server, in future - slightly more discreet.

As you will know, Mrs Angry has a pet theory about the curious, seemingly unstoppable sequence of extraordinary events, here in Broken Barnet: one that depends on a pysycho-geographical interpretation of the world, charged with the power of a legacy our Tory politicians would rather deny, and destroy. 

Our history, and our heritage - the story of the people who have lived here, and left something that survives and defies, somehow, the new order of things in this borough: the selling of our land into bondage to profit, a hostage to market forces, and the easy prey of private development.

The small rebellions which occur, from time to time, seem to take place in strategic points of the map of our borough. West Hendon, caught between Watling Street and the Welsh Harp: the occupation of the People's Library, Margaret Thatcher House, on the road that cuts across from Barnet to Finchley: the downfall of Brian Coleman, the occupation of the Bohemia, on the Great North Road ... and now on the same route, the evictions, and the occupation, of Sweets Way, in Whetstone.

Whetstone itself is of symbolic significance, of course: you can still see the stone itself, outside a public house, some say it was where the men fighting in the Battle of Barnet sharpened their swords. A more prosaic explanation is that it was a stepping stone for travellers from the coaching inn that once stood there. But as in all these things, the power is in what people believe, rather than what is true.



On the eastern side of the Great North Road, in Whetstone, a Mr Sweet once had a large hothouse nursery, growing grapes and tomatoes, and cucumbers, having been apprenticed to a Mr Kay, whose nursery in Squires Lane, along the road from Mrs Angry, has disappeared except for the high brick wall that once sheltered his own vineyard. 

According to one account from 1901, the young Mr Sweet used to look up at the trees at Hampstead Heath, and feel that if he could not become associated with Nature in a more or less intimate manner, he would not succeed at anything. Eventually he settled in Whetstone, built his glasshouses, and became known as 'father of the modern hothouse nursery business'.

During the second World War, this land was requisitioned by the army, and post war became the site of a housing development for military families, an estate in modest grey brick, but fringed still with a number of trees, which soften the effect of the subdued architecture, and lend an air of quiet to the area. Are they Mr Sweet's trees? Hard to tell, but it seems as if they might well be. And Sweets Way is a community of roads built on a human scale, family sized houses: exactly the sort of housing we need for families in need of a home, at an affordable rent, in our borough.



Evicted residents of Sweets Way, and Jasmine Stone, from E15

In which case, you might reasonably ask, why have these houses been emptied of their tenants, in some cases their belongings forcibly removed, by bailiffs, thrown on the streets, the properties secured and the families who lived there left without homes to go to?

Well, yes, of course: this is Broken Barnet, and Sweets Way is one of the last enclaves of social housing, or indeed any realistic definition of affordable housing, in the hugely affluent ward of Totteridge, represented by ... the local Tory council leader Richard Cornelius - and his wife. 


The housing itself is owned by Annington Homes, a company which in 1996 secured a deal with the Ministry of Defence in which for £1.6 billion, it acquired 57,000 homes used to accommodate serving members of the armed forces and their families, leasing them back to the MoD, and selling on those homes considered surplus to requirements. This agreement was to prove somewhat controversial, over the years which followed, with complaints about the standard of accommodation and cost of renting back the properties, and becoming the subject of a parliamentary report  in 2007.

Sweets Way has been used in the last few years as social housing for local families, some on long term temporary accommodation arrangements, of the sort we have seen at West Hendon, denying people the full protection of secure tenancy, and making them easier to dispose of - to 'decant', when they themselves become 'surplus to requirement'. 

Their homes are now to be demolished, to make way for a new development approved by Barnet Council last December, after a previous one, a very similar one, was turned down just a couple of months before the local elections of last year. 

Barnet Council has had plenty of time to arrange for the families of Sweets Way to be given alternative accommodation, but has failed to do so with any semblance of competence. This has led to terrible outcomes for some families, mercilessly evicted like tenants in the Irish famine, emptied out onto the streets, their possessions dumped there by bailiffs, the residents left to fend for themselves. 

As reported here, a few weeks ago, Mrs Angry by chance met two residents about to be evicted from Sweets Way: one was Peter, a very nice, elderly man with complex health problems, who had suffered a heart attack at the end of last year as a result, he said, of the stress caused by the looming eviction, and his worry about finding a new home. He had accepted alternative accommodation, only to find housing officers had given the property to someone else, and then told him he must take up a place in Hanwell. 

The other was a lovely woman called Shereen, who had two teenage sons.  

Shereen

She showed me photos of the accommodation she was expected to move to by Barnet Homes: a flat on another 'regeneration' estate, so clearly again for another limited tenancy - but this place was simply foul: appalling.


Filthy, damp, squalid: with broken windows, uninhabitable.



Sweets Way was home to around 160 families: all to be evicted, as we have seen, with no real consideration of the difficulty of finding suitable accommodation for them to move to.  Only ten families remain. Eviction, court orders, bailiffs: all arranged with logistical efficiency. Rehousing? A matter of indifference, it seems, to Barnet Homes. Families uprooted, given one choice of accommodation, suitable or not, in any location, and in any state of repair. 

By now the story of Sweets Way was beginning to make itself known: from the first tweet, denied by Barnet Council, claiming that the children of some evicted family had been taken into care, to the scenes witnessed and filmed by local housing campaigners of bailiffs evicting tenants and their possessions onto the street, what was happening here was now the focus of wider and wider attention, from the local media and beyond.


Sweets Way, of course, follows the course of much of what we have seen, are seeing, in West Hendon: tenants and residents in the way of private development, becoming in many cases the responsibility of Barnet Homes, for rehousing, with all the humiliation, desperation and vulnerability that entails: a dependence on the goodwill of housing officers, some of whom, as in the case of West Hendon, appear unable to communicate clearly to the residents their rights and options.

In the case of Sweets Way, as we will see, it seems only the media attention has brought any pressure to bear on the need to find homes for some of the evicted families that are anything approaching an acceptable standard of suitability. 

And then last week, matters took another turn entirely: one of the houses that had been emptied of its inconvenient tenants was taken over by occupiers, in order to make a protest about the mass evictions. Among those taking part in this event were some faces familiar from other occupations in the borough, notably the reclamation of Friern Barnet Library. 

On Saturday, Mrs Angry was invited to come over and visit - as well as one or two other people - and duly went, arriving on the edge of the estate, walking through the streets of a ghost town, an extraordinary silence hanging in the air, the sound of homes that are no longer homes, but merely buildings divested of their significance, their purpose: as redundant now as the nursery buildings abandoned here by Mr Sweet, from homes for families to hothouses of speculation, and profit. 

Hard not to spot the occupied house: there it was, the fences draped with banners and posters, and there they were, our friends from Occupy, Bohemians Daniel, Mordechai, and Petra.


Bohemian Occupiers: Petra, Mordechai and Daniel

Another face familiar from stories in the media: Jasmine Stone, from the E15 mums group and housing activist: and most importantly families who had been turfed out of their properties, but returned to make a stand at what they - and so many other supporters - see as a terrible act of injustice: the loss of their homes.


The day before had seen a visit from a large number of police. It was explained to them that this was a political protest, and on those terms it seems there was no criminal act being undertaken. The police waited, pointlessly, until the children came home from school, and got on with their homework ... and then left.

We went into the house, and talked to some of the mums and children staying there. I asked about the two people I had met, trying to ask the courts to stop their evictions: what had happened to them? Later on that afternoon, I had the answer to that question.  

In the kitchen, stuck to the window, was a notice: a notice to vacate, stuck on the outside, so as to be read inside. 

After taking a photo of this, I turned round, and standing behind me, in surreal fashion, holding a cake box, was Russell Brand. Hello, he said, putting out his hand. Oh ... hello, I said, slightly caught by surprise, and unsure of the etiquette on such occasions ... Erm ... I write one of the local blogs ... Oh: cool, he muttered. Short of anything else to say, I admired his selection of tupperware, which he was very worried about, as it wasn't his, and he had to return it.

Just then, readers, it suddenly occurred to me what a strange course my life has taken, in what should have been my respectable middle years, standing in the kitchen of a squat with Russell Brand, discussing tupperware. 

In fact, at this point, Mrs Angry took a moment to text this thought to Miss Angry, who was at work, and primly refused to be impressed by her errant mother's misbehaviour, expressing some concern as to the likelihood of having to attend a police station, and provide bail cover. And: Yes but have you washed my white tights, she demanded, tutting, in her virtual way? Mrs Angry hadn't. The next day she received a lovely Mother's Day card, handmade, but expressing the wish that she might try to become a less embarrassing mother. And apply herself with more efficiency to her household duties. 

Some hope.

Russell Brand, of course, has given his support to the E15 mums, and also made a short film about the West Hendon development. He is mocked by some for his new found zeal for political activism, and his rejection of political orthodoxy, his cynicism: but there is no doubt that in this case, at least, his support and the attention he brings to the terrible injustice being perpetrated here, is hugely useful.

Amusing to watch him in action: undeniably charismatic, more than a little manic: witty, of course, very bright, yet somehow, between the cracks of his madly energised persona, watchful, detached: thoughtful. 

He loomed large in the house, tall and dark, loud and dominant - followed about by a troupe of kids, like the pied piper, particularly good with them: almost messianic in his insistence on speaking to them, rather than the grown ups: suffer the little children ... 

He listened to the families, held their babies, jumped on the trampoline outside, and went to the swings with a gaggle of children. 


Asked about the real issue of the day, ie the fate of Jeremy Clarkson, he yelled, from the swing, that he didn't buy into the automobilised obsession of Top Gear, and that the children should eschew that sort of thing, and prepare themselves to be 'radicalised' ... 

And he pointed out the folly of perfectly good houses like the ones in Sweets Way being knocked down to make properties for rich people. 

You're rich, observed one of the kids. 

And off he went, in his blacked out people carrier, driven by a man, as he explained, keen to get to the Arsenal game. He waved royally as he left. It was huge fun for the Sweets Way families, and a real boost to their campaign. But what happens now?

One thing that seems to be happening, in another echo of the Irish evictions, is that there are reports of houses being already made uninhabitable, to deter former residents from returning, or any further re-occupations.

Amongst the twenty or thirty residents, former residents who were at the occupied house, at last I had spotted Shereen. She hugged me and told me what had happened to her, since we had met a few weeks ago. She had now been sent to accommodation in Enfield, miles from her sons' schools - even though they are about to sit GCSEs. 

asked about the terrible flat in Grahame Park: officers from Barnet Homes had reportedly told a councillor that flats in such a state were only being offered with the clear promise that 
the property would be fully renovated, with new kitchens and so on, before the tenant moved in, on a temporary basis, of course, as Grahame Park is due for 'regeneration'. Was that right? 

No, she said. Only after she refused to go to such a filthy, substandard place did they say they would do it up. And based on the cases I heard at the West Hendon Inquiry, I can believe that is perfectly true.


Shereen and Russell Brand

Since the story had been widely reported, Peter, she thought - whose health problems, as he had explained to me meant that he needed to be close to Barnet General - had variously been offered somewhere in Bounds Green, moved to a studio flat in Wembley Park for a few days, and then to somewhere in Finchley Central, in a property she said had a heating system that was leaking.

I spoke to Rejane, another mother of young children, girls aged five and eight, who has lived in Sweets Way since 2009. She showed me, on her phone, an email from a Barnet housing officer which she had just received, telling her that she may have to wait weeks, or even months, for rehousing. She claimed other housing officers were pressurising tenants to go to the private sector, and relieve the authority of the burden of finding them the homes they so badly need.

Barnet approved this development, and knew full well the consequences for residents, in a borough in which housing policy is being deliberately engineered in order to exclude as many families in need as possible, and indeed to remove them from the borough. But they made no real effort to safeguard the well-being of families who would be losing their homes, as a result of the development they were suddenly, post local election, so keen to support.


The lack of alternative accommodation for those made homeless by the private developments encouraged and supported by the Tory administration is monstrous, but calculated. What they do not expect, have not expected, is the reaction from residents, campaigners, and the media. 

One thing is sure: the reputational damage caused to the companies involved in current developments in Barnet is profound, and increasing. This can be measured, on a small scale, by the number of PR agencies and companies who read 'Broken Barnet', clearly worrying about the impact of direct action on their profit margins, present, or projected. 

They should be worried: and their consciences, if they have any, should be ensuring that they feel a sense of shame for the trauma and disruption caused to the families who stand in the way of their lucrative development.

Today some of the evicted children from Sweets Way went to the offices of Annington Homes, and tried to speak to the Director, James Hopkins, who reportedly earns around £2.2 million per annum. It appears he was unwilling to see them, for some reason. 


The series of small rebellions that are taking place in Broken Barnet, the direct action: brave acts of defiance by ordinary residents, but these are events that ought to sound a warning sign to all political parties. 

The political disaffection embraced by celebrities, repeated by those frustrated and alienated by orthodox political campaigning is a symptom, not a cause of political failure. 

The parties which are not engaging directly with the people most affected by the surge in social injustice that has occurred in the course of the last Tory led government's administration, or the last two local administrations here in Barnet must learn how to listen, and not shy away from the real problems people are facing. 

As we move towards the election, and find our parties obsessed with their own campaigns, and worrying about how many kitchens are acceptable, or how many jobs, somehow they have overlooked the glaring fact that for many voters the challenge today is if they have a home to live in, or a job that pays enough to support their families. 

So: Russell Brand came to Sweets Way - good for him. At least he made the effort to show his support.

We are unlikely to see any campaigning Tory ministers dare to show their faces on this estate, or any other 'regeneration' estate in Barnet. So let's see a shadow cabinet minister get on the tube to Whetstone, or West Hendon, and show their solidarity with the mums and dads, the children and babies, who have no permanent homes to go to, tonight, or tomorrow, or maybe ever again.


And let's see Tory council leader Richard Cornelius, and housing chief Tom Davey, and the smiling, true blue suit of deputy leader Dan Thomas appear in Sweets Way, and explain to the people there their views on 'aspiration', and the plight of the feckless poor. 

Local Labour candidate Amy Trevethan has done her best to work towards a better outcome for the evicted tenants of Sweets Way. 

Exactly what her electoral opponent, the current Tory MP for Chipping Barnet - and Northern Ireland secretary - Theresa Villiers, has done on their behalf is unclear. 

Here is another neat synchronistic link: Villiers' illustrious ancestors include George Villiers, the 4th Earl of Clarendon, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during the period of the Famine: and the mass evictions of tenants which ensued during that era.

In the meanwhile, the occupation continues, and it seems there will be a sleepover, tomorrow night, at 60, Sweets Way. Rusty Rockets is supposedly packing his sleeping bag and heading over. Mrs Angry imagines that it is unlikely that Mr and Mrs Cornelius, Tom Davey, Dan Thomas, or Theresa Villiers will be doing the same.



Saturday, 14 March 2015

Less than best, or: in a private space - the secret story of West Hendon

Eric Pickles: pic courtesy of the Guardian

In the course of the Inquiry into the compulsory purchase orders of homes in the doomed West Hendon estate, one thing above all else became absolutely clear: the fatal absence of information central to the matter under review; an omission that was deliberate, strategic - and fundamentally wrong.

That information was the viability report, the original basis for agreement between Barnet Council and Barratts in regard to the latest, bastardised version of what had originally been intended to be, many years previously, under a Labour council, a genuine programme of regeneration, but has now become a massively profitable private development, using public land, land which we know now to have been given away, not sold.

I say not sold: in fact that is unfair. Three parcels of land were bought for £1 each, for a site valued at the time as being worth more than £12 million.

This 'Poundland' deal secured for Barratts a unique opportunity for a private development on the edge of the beautiful Welsh Harp reservoir, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, fringed by open space, a sanctuary in the otherwise relentlessly urban landscape of this area of north west London. 

A unique opportunity, of course, that has been achieved by default, or rather by stealth, smuggled through the gates of scrutiny like the Trojan horse, in the guise of a scheme meant to improve the local community, but which in fact will destroy that community, raze it to the ground, to be replaced by luxury housing, luring overseas investment or those fortunate few able to afford the non 'affordable' price of properties, and neatly facilitating the Tory agenda of gerrymandering the poorer, Labour voting areas of the borough out of existence.

How did we get to this point? We went into the process of the Inquiry knowing only that we did not know, well, what we did not know: the details of the agreement between Barnet and Barratts, and in particular the nature of the viability study. Requests for this information had always been rebutted, and now at the Inquiry, when the Inspector was asked to demand the release of the study, the consistent argument against doing so from Barnet and Barratts, a line stoutly maintained by their counsel, was that this information was not relevant. 

At the same time, however, the developers and the local authority insisted the compulsory purchase order for the properties in West Hendon were absolutely essential to - ah, yes: the viability of the scheme. 

Phase 3, the stage involving these three bargain basement pieces of land, was itself essential to the success - for that read profitability - of the entire development. 

So: we were not entitled to know the details of the 'viability' they claimed was so perilous, yet the Inquiry was expected simply to take the word of developers and the council that this was the case, and feel sympathy with their plight, acting as they were, as pioneers in the brave new world of faux regeneration.

This desperate need to secure the 'order lands' was the real driving force behind the merciless treatment of leaseholders and tenants on the estate, and the issue of York Memorial Park was crucial to the matter too: it was necessary, from the point of view of the development, to set about denying the historical significance of the area in question, just as surely as it was to demolish the properties which stand in the way of Barratt's profiteering.


As the Inquiry hearings finished, and Inspector Zoe Hill went off with her library of core documents, sans viability study, one or two of us, who had sat through the two weeks of the process with rapidly mounting suspicions, decided to submit Freedom of Information requests for information relating to the development. The recent ruling by the ICO in favour of enforcing the publication of a similar viability report regarding Greenwich Council was encouragement enough to ask for what should have already have been in the public domain, and certainly should have been available to the Inquiry.

West Hendon Councillor Adam Langleben made a request to Barnet Council: and Mrs Angry made two, one to Barnet, and the other to the Department of Communities and Local Government, expecting, as was to prove the case, that the outcome in terms of response on broadly the same subject would be different, depending on the varying sensitivities of the respective bodies.

To Barnet Council:

Please send me copies of the letter and enclosures of August 7th 2013, sent by Barnet Council to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and referred to in a letter of 25th September, by a Ms Karen Rose, applying for consent to dispose of land at West Hendon. 

Please send me copies of any other correspondence relating to the disposal, to or from DCLG and Barnet Council.


This arrived with some redactions of names, and a dozen or so documents, some of which were inocuous enough, maps and notices already seen. These appeared to be padding, in fact, and possibly meant to fill the gap of other material held but not disclosed, as we shall see.

To the Department of Communities and Local Government, then, a request asking for:

Copies of all correspondence between the DCLG and Barnet Council regarding the disposal of land in West Hendon, which received consent in September 2013, and any memoranda or related documents, including such as may be from, to or by the Secretary of State.

So: broadly the same request, although oddly, the more specific one to Barnet failed to winkle out the correspondence referred to regarding the letter of 27th September, whereas DCLG sent what I had asked Barnet for, but did not receive: curious, is it not? Still, the belt and braces approach seemed to be quite effective, even if not all information has - as yet - been released.

As to the material sent from Barnet Council, the most obviously interesting document was a Development Appraisal from the Valuation Office Agency, dated July 20th, 2013full of stuff about such things as the 'Standalone Development',  and grandly sub-headed, 'The West Hendon Masterplan' ... 

Aha  ... The Masterplan

Yes: full of interesting details about the projected costs, fees - profit. And 'assumptions'. Masterplans tend to be built on a foundation of 'assumptions', don't they? Or delusions of grandeur.

Hard for a mathematical eejit like Mrs Angry to interpret these figures, and indeed they required reading, and re-reading, and a lot of head scratching, and checking with some of the more numerate bloggers of Broken Barnet, before she could be quite sure that some of those numbers, hidden so innocently on the page, amongst the costs for road works, and stamp duty, were, after all, the truly incendiary facts underlying this development.

The 'net realisation' of the 'regeneration' is estimated at £510, 516,436. 00.

The costs, including the architect's fee, at a stonking 8%, or £17,061,782.00, nearly £7 million more than the amount paid to the council as Section 106 funding, come to £418,182,108.00.

This means - and this is where you may wish to reach for your hankie, and dab your eyes - the hard pressed developers, or so we are told, will be making a profit of - of only ... £92,234,108.00.

Don't know about you, but when engaged in cobbling together a luxury housing development on public land, given away for £3, and masquerading as the regeneration of a council estate in West Hendon, Mrs Angry doesn't even consider getting out of bed for anything under £93 million. 

The very thought. 

Barratts, therefore, must be congratulated for being prepared to build their ghastly, 32 storey hideouts for all those Russian 'oligarchs', out of favour, doomed to live in exile amongst the kebab shops of West Hendon, instead of the saltmines in Siberia. 

Harsh. 

Almost an act of charity, you might say, by these developers - or a demonstration of philanthropic devotion in the field of housing comparable only to Mr Peabody, or our own local heroine, here in Finchley: that pioneer of affordable housing, Octavia Hill.

Mmm. 

Of course presumably £92,234, 108.00 is only an 'assumption'. You never know, with a bit of luck, property values being, as they have been since then, on an upwards direction, maybe they might just be able to screw a little more profit from all that effort. More like £92,234, 109.00.

But then, hang on ... let's skip forward to the last document released, a Market Value report for Phase 3, prepared for the Valuation Office by DVS, the District Valuer Service, this is, we are informed  'to establish the market value for a proposed disposal of less than best consideration ...'

And here was another calmly listed set of figures, which again required reading, and re-reading, and not so much head scratching as a reaction of stupefied disbelief.

The three parcels of land that are required by Phase 3 of the scheme are valued as follows:

Phase 3 (i) -   Unrestricted Value: £3,100,000
                      
                         The unrestricted value: £1.

Phase 3(ii) -    Unrestricted Value: £8,890,000
                         
                          Restricted value: £1.

Phase3(iii) -    Unrestricted Value: £325,000

                          Restricted Value: £1.

All three parcels of land had 'nil value'  declared in regard to the 'voluntary conditions'.

Unrestricted value, we are told, is 'similar' to market value ... 'but includes the amount that a special purchaser may be willing to pay' ... 

Of course that does not specify whether or not the definition of 'special purchaser' means one who wants a value below market value. Restricted value, ie the Poundland price? And what about those 'voluntary conditions'?



According to this, the valuation of £1 for each piece of land reflects the voluntary conditions by which Barnet will benefit from the disposal at less than best consideration ... voluntary conditions that we are told have 'nil value'. Oh. 

Confused? Me too. Because on face value, if one dares to use the term, it would appear to indicate that we have given Barratts the land for £3 rather than £12 million, for no financial benefit. 

Well, perhaps Mrs Angry has misunderstood.

The second parcel of land, by the way, though you wouldn't know it from the description, includes York Park - York Memorial Park, the open space which commemorates the many civilian lives lost in the terrible bombing of February 1941. 

Worth, in financial terms, around £9 million. 

In terms of social history, and the significance to a community being violated and destroyed in a campaign rather more effective than the one perpetrated by the Luftwaffe: beyond estimation. 

Sold to Barratts for £1. 

(And here is a curious thing: the document which show the notice published - in a way most people would not have seen it - in July 2013, for the disposal of York Park is in the name of the then Director for, oh dear: 'Place', Pam Wharfe, now departed from Barnet. Curious because her name, given as formal authorisation, is misspelt, twice, on the notice, in big letters, as Wharf). 

We have been told by Barnet Council that the land was given away because of the marvellous deal offered by Barratts, to supply, within their private development, some affordable housing, and also that this deal was only possible if the land was given away, due to the viability of the scheme, and the need for the developers to make sufficient profit from the scheme.

The extract above, from the Application, and disclosed by DCLG, is blaming the requirement to deliver affordable housing for the developers' insistence on the land being 'transferred' to them for the price of only £3.

It may be that Mrs Angry is naive, and not grasping the point here, but it does seem that £92 million profit, plus presumably grants from central government, and tax free conditions that accompany so called regeneration projects have created a deal which entirely favours the developers, and not the taxpayers of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, whose land, worth at least £12 million, has been so easily disposed of. Paying market value, or at least the unrestricted value, would still have left them with a few quid in the bank, wouldn't it?

And as Cllr Langleben has pointed out here

... as you will see, the point I am making is that in a world where Barnet Council didn’t own the land – Barratt would have had to cough up 20% anyway – but in the case of West Hendon they didn’t even have to pay for the land and they are still only providing basically half of the Council’s affordable housing target and most importantly – in line with developments nearby like Pulse where the land was bought at full market value.



Caught in the middle of this bargain basement giveaway are the people of West Hendon, the tenants and leaseholders being forced from their homes, after living for years on a building site, their lives made hell, unable to sell up and go, unable to find secure accommodation, their amenities taken from them, their local park built on, their community destroyed, and every promise made to them at the time of the original agreement broken.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government - or his representatives - has allowed the local authority in Barnet to destroy a local community, in fact, on the basis of a scheme put to him as representing something that has not happened: the provision of affordable housing to which residents already living there had a right to access. 

To look at the documents released by FOI requests, and indeed listening to the jabbering of Tory councillors even now, we can see quite clearly that there was an expectation of residents on the estate transferring to the new properties, the Tory leader as recently as last month claimed that this would be the case. Yet as we heard over and over again at the Inquiry, leaseholders are effectively barred from the new housing because the council's Capita supplied valuers absolutely refused to give a valuation of their homes that was sufficiently high to enable them to apply for shared equity for any property, despite evidence submitted that indicates the Capita values are below market rate.

The crucial point here then is whether or not the Secretary of State or any of his officials at DCLG dealing with the application  to dispose of the three parcels of land, for the knockdown price of £3, was assured that residents' ability to take up the offer of rehousing in the development had been safeguarded. 

If such undertakings were made, then clearly the Secretary of State was misled: if not, why did he, or his junior minister, knowingly approve the action? 

Well: it should be the case that, in the interests of transparency, of course, the reasoning behind the approval of the cutprice disposal is in the public domain, to allay any fears by local taxpayers that the deal does not represent value for money. 

After all, Eric: you keep banging on about localism, and empowering communities: did you mean only empowering middle class, Tory voting communities, after all? 

And do the people of West Hendon not have the right to take an informed part in the process of consultation that affects their lives to such a profound degree, and is now destroying that community, by default, by stealth, and by your leave? 

Who took these decisions? On whose advice? 

What do the documents released in the FOI tell us?

Oh dear. 

When it comes to anything touching on this sensitive matter, guess what? It has been refused, or redacted. The response informs Mrs Angry that some information has been withheld because:

... there is a need to protect the safe policy space for recommendations to be considered. This exception can apply to information in whatever form it may take including memos, notes of meetings or emails and can include submissions i.e. consideration templates to ministers in government departments, information passed between officials in the course of their duties, internal minutes and briefs. Therefore we have redacted any recommendations, considerations or non-factual information, though factual information has been released.

The response continues:

In this case disclosure of the information you have requested would be the disclosure of advice that was provided to Ministers and which they were able to take into account in reaching a decision. The public interest is of course served by knowing that the advice that has been provided to Ministers is accurate and appropriate. 

However, the Department must also consider that there is a very strong public interest in ensuring that Ministers can receive advice from officials within an appropriate degree of private thinking space. Whilst it may be appropriate to disclose factual information that provides an informed background to Ministers, it may not be appropriate to disclose actual advice, which may include the recommendation that officials have made. 

We consider that this changes the need for Ministers to be able to receive advice and guidance from officials in the knowledge that it will remain within an appropriate degree of private thinking space, unless there is an at least comparably strong public interest in releasing that advice. We believe that it is particularly important that officials have the space within which to advise Ministers on sensitive and challenging issues without being constrained by the knowledge that the advice may subsequently be challenged in public. Ministers must also have the freedom to disagree, if that is their conclusion, with the recommendations and advice given. 

A private space, for thinking. A safe space.

Rather a nice idea, isn't it? Shades of Virginia Woolf, a Room of One's Own: a virtual chaise longue on which Eric Pickles may recline, with a box of chocolates & a glass of sherry, thinking awfully hard, but in a private way, safely and blissfully unaccountable to the beastly spoilsports and nosy parkers who want to know why their council is giving away free land to private developers.

Hmm. Is this good enough, from the department run by the man who says he wants local government to be accountable to the people who pay the council tax that funds it? No, frankly, it is not, and of course Mrs Angry has objected to the withholding of this vital information, and will take it to the ICO, in due course, if they persist in stonewalling.

Was Pickles even briefed, formally, or informally, on West Hendon, or was it all decided by junior ministers and officials? We do not know.

In the meanwhile, we must make do with some redacted documents, including a letter sent on the 20th September 2013 to planning minister Nick Boles, from someone (name redacted) at the National Planning Casework Unit. 

Issue: Whether to grant London Borough of Barnet consent.

This tells Mr Boles the sad story - get that hankie out again - sniff, that if the developers are not given the land for free, and a social housing grant of £5.5 million, they will incur a loss of £18 million. What they call 'a high level of affordable homes', needed to 'decant' those pesky residents, is what is to blame, see?

Never mind that secure tenants and their children are being packed into a horrible building outside the boundary of the luxury development, in a holding area overlooking the grimy backyards and businesses of the Edgware Road. 



Or that the estate has been deliberately filled with non secure tenants living for years on temporary contracts, to minimise their rights to rehousing.

Or that leaseholders were about to be hammered with ten thousand pound bills for maintenance the authority has failed to implement.

Or that those same leaseholders, who did the thing our Tory councillors so admire, aspired to 'better' themselves, and join the property owning classes, were shortly to find no one cared when they pointed out the council's valuation of their homes, by Capita, for Capita, conveniently made sure they were unable to obtain a new home on the development?

And Mrs Angry is still puzzled by the figures here. Subtract £18 million, from £92 million, and  ... that leaves, erm ...? Quite a lot of money, doesn't it? 

Especially when you consider that Barratts announced recently announced pre tax profits rising from £120 million last year, to £210 million this year ... 

And this complaint about having to provide a high level of affordable homes: you sure that was accurate advice? Compared to similar schemes in the borough, for which land was not given away in a Poundland deal?

Anyway, Mrs Angry, you are asking, what was the outcome of this letter, and the advice given? 

It was as follows:



Oh well. And of course although we do not know what was said here, we also do not know what else we do not know, in terms of withheld memos, notes, emails, phone calls, minutes, and briefs, do we?

Eric Pickles is awfully keen on transparency in the Town Hall, of course -but his own department is able to wriggle free of this requirement when it suits. 

Well, let's see about that, shall we? 

The exemption from the FOI request being cited is on the grounds that they may withhold the information if the public interest in doing so outweighs the public interest in disclosing it. 

Quite clearly this excuse is utterly spurious, and the real reason for not releasing the material is political sensitivity. 

This is simply unacceptable, and the information must be put in the public domain, so that we can see exactly why and how the residents of the West Hendon estate came to be cheated and betrayed in the course of this development. 

This is a scheme that has become a perfect example of the lie that is 'regeneration', the worst illustration of the many ways in which Conservative housing policy, and the mythology of localism, are failing the ordinary people of this borough, this city, this country, in so many communities: from Broken Barnet, to Broken Britain - it's a long journey, and a desperate ending, for all of us.