Monday, 19 June 2017

The towers of silence: after the fire - the legacy of Grenfell

*Updated Monday & Tuesday- see below:

Watching the coverage this last week of the dreadful fire at Grenfell Tower has been a traumatic experience for everyone, and one that none of us will ever forget. To see such suffering, and be unable to help is frightening: and it has also raised fears in all of us for the safety of our own homes, and communities. 

After details of the structural factors which appear to be central to the cause of the speed of acceleration of this fire became public knowledge, it was easy to find evidence that there are buildings in Barnet which may also be at risk. 

The names of two of these are already in the public domain: Merit House, in the Hyde, Colindale - and Premier House, in Edgware. Both are alleged to have had cladding installed that is similar to that used at Grenfell. And now it is claimed that at least ten buildings in total in the borough may be at risk. 

Labour councillors in Barnet are pressing for an immediate investigation of these concerns, although it seems to me that the issue of risk may be on a potentially almost unquantifiable scale, here and nationally. 

Cladding of this type, if not this particular manufacture, has been used very widely throughout the UK: in schools, universities, railway stations and various other public and private buildings. How safe is it? If safe in theory, in terms of materials used, and testing, can we be sure the cladding has been properly installed, in such a way that does not compromise the fire safety standards of the product?

Tory antipathy towards 'red tape' - a view often expressed by Conservative members in Barnet - and fears of  'health & safety gone mad', or any similar process that might have stood in the way of an easier profit, have led to deregulation of measures intended to protect us from harm. Poor performance in planning, building control and enforcement, especially when those services are privatised, as in Barnet, should raise other matters for concern. Do we have sufficiently robust processes to ensure the most stringent standards in safety are being observed?

*Updated: an article in the Guardian has emphasised the dangers posed by the weakening of building control regulation, and the risks of privatisation: see here.

Rydon, the company which delivered the installation of the cladding to Grenfell, is contracted to Barnet Homes, the housing service for Barnet Council, for the provision of 'dementia friendly' housing for older and clearly very vulnerable residents. 

Mrs Angry asked Derek Rust, the CEO of Barnet Homes about this via twitter: 

No response. Mrs Angry also asked:

No response. No doubt councillors will now make sure all the relevant retrospective safety checks are made - but still, many other questions arise, as a result of what we now know about the Grenfell fire.

*Updated: Barnet Homes have issued the following statement about ten tower blocks they manage, three of which are in Granville Road, Nw2: see here.

The issues raised are both practical, and immediate, in terms of the immediate risk to any residents living in similar circumstances in this borough, but there is also a wider significance, in areas increasingly being identified in the statements and questions of those affected by the fire at Grenfell.

By the end of the week it was clear that the sense of fury amongst the community in this part of West London is one that has been gathering strength for many years. But they speak not just for themselves, but for all those communities in our capital city, and in the rest of the UK, whose needs have been overlooked for so long. 

We are now hearing the voices of a generation growing up in a world where disadvantage is accepted as an inevitable part of the natural order of things: fundamental to that order, so that privilege may be retained by a minority, and maintained by a government indifferent to social justice, but committed to the protection of the best interests of themselves, and their class. 

And yes, we do have to speak about class. 

The old definitions may have broken down, but our society is now polarised between two extremes; two classes - those with control over their lives, and those without. 

As David Lammy suggested last week, it really is a 'tale of two cities', here in London now: a city struggling with a fatal division at its heart. A division between those with power, and a voice: and those with neither. 

Lack of money, loss of access to law, healthcare and education - and housing -  takes away the means to rebalance this polarity: which is exactly why those services are being stripped away. It is a deliberate strategy, born of an ideological obsession that is as fixed in Barnet as it is in Kensington and Chelsea.

Curious, and touching, to hear what one man shouted to the cameras last week, as an example of political indifference, in all the furore about social cleansing, and 'regeneration' and the lack of interest by the local authority in the plight of the poorer inhabitants of one of the richest residential areas in the world:

They shut our libraries, he yelled. Curious, you might think, that he would be so aggrieved by this, rather than anything else. Well: it wasn't this, and nothing else: for him, for all of us, it is symbolic of the whole problem; the wider problem - the ideological assault of the vital services which support the needs of the local community, and the indifference of Tory councillors to those needs, to that community.

It was hard not to be reminded of Barnet, in many ways. 

One of these reminders was in the form of a letter, published in the Guardian, from a resident of Kensington & Chelsea, who had received a tax rebate of £100 from the council, a payment made to reward those who had paid in full, with a boast to residents that the Tory authority was successful in 'consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services' ... He returned the money, last week, to the victims of Grenfell Tower.

This was an eerie echo of a similar pre-election gesture by Barnet Tories, not so many years ago, when a tax cut of about 25 pence a week was made to residents, on similar grounds, with similar grandstanding swagger - just before they announced that they were slashing funds for desperately needed respite care for the families of severely disabled children at Mapledown School. 

Tory leader Richard Cornelius had excused this appalling cut on the grounds that 'the average person in the street' would think it was 'fair'. Only after a storm of protest, from the vast majority of people who did not think it was 'fair' - and much distress caused to families and carers -was the funding restored. 

A shameless preference for rewarding the well off by cutting services to the poor, and vulnerable, is only one similarity between the two Tory run authorities. 

Barnet is another borough with, like Kensington and Chelsea, areas of incredible affluence, but also areas of deep social deprivation. 

In our case, it is a borough where the libraries are closed on the pretence, pre election, of 'refurbishment' but actually in order to impose a devastating programme of cuts in service.  

Where there are good schools and the best access to healthcare in the most affluent areas, and to hell with the rest. 

Where more money is spent on the highways budgets of Tory held wards. 

Where the western side of the borough has the greatest levels of need, and the highest number of Labour held wards, and a frontline of large scale housing developments which will not provide homes for residents, but force their displacement. 

They call it regeneration: we call it social cleansing. Others say it is gerrymandering.

If it was intended as gerrymandering, the plantation of the western, Labour voting side of the borough - it has now been proved to be another ideological and strategic failure: conceived in the feverish fantasies of the neo-Thatcherite, intellectually stunted Tory members, but delivered of an unwanted baby: a new intake of disgruntled, renting young voters, saddled with student loans, unable to afford to get on to the property ladder, and - dear me - voting Labour, estimated at a level of 70%. 

The development of West Hendon, Colindale, and Grahame Park, and other areas in the borough, is presented as 'regeneration'. 

This word is not a euphemism: it is a lie. It is a lie because it is presented as a regeneration intended to benefit the residents and taxpayers of this borough, whose public assets, in many cases, are being used to subsidise the profits of developers. The benefit is theirs, not ours.

So, yes: we must return to the subject of West Hendon. Where it was revealed, during an Inquiry into the compulsory purchase of 'right to buy' leaseholder flats, that land was given to the developers for only £3 - land worth (some years ago) more than £12 million - a conservative estimate. This blog has featured the story of West Hendon extensively, over the years - and a BBC documentary was filmed on the estate and broadcast last year, see here.

In nearby areas, properties that were formerly a local hospital, a national newspaper archive, a police training centre - all are disappearing and replaced by massive housing developments. Much of the new properties are said to be being bought in cash, off plan, which arguably artificially forces the cost of housing even further beyond the reach of local residents. And explains why so many of these new properties are now being let, rather than providing homes for local families.

Homes for local families, and the need to retain and support local communities is a policy that does not fit with the materialist philosophy of our local politicians. Their own emotional detachment has no use for sentiment, and the idea of social housing is repugnant to them, as a matter of principle. 

You may recall that the local Tory housing spokesperson famously stated that the borough did not want the less well off, or those 'dependent' on local services. He wanted the penthouses of West Hendon to be bought by 'Russian oligarchs'.

So much has been written about the faux regeneration of council estates and working class areas: so much about the examples in Broken Barnet. Social cleansing has become an over used phrase, looked on with contempt by Tory politicians, even as they sign off another development that will inevitably have the same consequence: social tenants moved on, and out, 'decanted' elsewhere, anywhere, the human collateral of profit. Those that are allowed to remain do so on the most grudging terms: short term tenancies, no security of tenure, unwelcome, and unwanted. So, an over used phrase, but an active strategy, and true, all the same. 

Where do those who have been displaced go? 

In many developments, protections for residents, and guarantees of rehousing are rewritten, over the course of planning and then construction. What started as a 'refurbishment' of West Hendon, for the benefit of social tenants and leaseholders, mutated into something else: something much more acceptable to the ideology of the Tory council: a private development. 

Some residents had long term tenancies, and were grudgingly given accommodation in a grim looking block outside of the footprint of the luxury development, out of sight of the beautiful waterside, the families given instead a view of the back yards of respray garages on the Edgware Road.

The even less fortunate residents, some of whom had lived there for ten years or more, were kept on short term tenancies, so as to limit the legal obligations that the authority had to rehouse them. One offer of accommodation refused and you had made yourself homeless. Many faced the grim prospect of eviction, and a move, like this mother in the BBC documentary, into squalid alternative temporary accommodation, rat infested, out of borough, away from family, facing a very bleak future.

In the case of Grenfell, residents were stuffed into a 21 storey tower, with apparently no regard for adequate fire safety measures. The authority's prior concern, it is alleged, is that the ugly, brutalist structure should be tarted up, so as to make it less obviously what it was: a containment of the poor, in an area of privilege, where reminders of poverty and social injustice are an unwarranted distraction - and a threat to property values. A monolith of social injustice: now a monument to folly, and despair.

The sight of the smoking wreck of Grenfell Tower, and footage of firefighters silhouetted in the emergency lighting of that terrible night, desperately trying to deal with an apocalyptic conflagration, aiming hoses that could not reach the height of the flames, could not help but remind me of my father, who was a volunteer fire fighter throughout the worst of the Blitz, spending night after night, struggling to save buildings in the city of London from destruction. They were fighting an enemy, in a time of war. Who is the enemy, now? Who is responsible for the deaths at Grenfell Tower?

The casualties of the Blitz were so many, and the risk of staying put so high that many thousands of residents fled London, a phenomenon unreported at the time by a press working under regulations that put the preservation of morale before the acknowledgment of truth. Now we see accusations, whether accurate or not, but fed from a failure in communication, of a similar management of truth, in regard to the level of deaths at Grenfell. Whose truth are we managing, now? 

The preservation of morale was also the pretext for silence over another wartime loss of life: - the bombing of West Hendon, in 1941.

Thousands of homes were destroyed, and around seventy five people died that night: comparable to the number known to have lost their lives at Grenfell - although the final figure will be be higher, and like in the case of West Hendon, an absolute total may never be known. 

After the war time devastation, of course, families were rehoused, the community revived and a Labour government was elected which rebuilt the country, and created all those foundations now being tunnelled into and undermined by successive Tory governments: a welfare state, the NHS, social housing, like the estate at West Hendon now being destroyed.

Seventy five years after the war time bombing, while residents packed their bags, and waited to be evicted from their homes, a memorial service was held to commemorate the victims of that night in 1941, attended by some who remember the event, and some who suffered the loss of family members, all these years ago.

This service took place below the newly constructed 31 storey tower block that has been built on part of the former council estate. Work carried on as we stood there, regardless of the ceremony. Round the corner, beyond the private development, and out of sight of the waterfront, was Bullfinch House, where the few secure tenants had been grudgingly rehoused, while their less fortunate neighbours were evicted. 

No cladding, on the new high rise, private tower block in West Hendon - as far as we know, at the moment - but still clearly a building at risk, in the event of a major fire. 

The fire safety arrangements for the residents of the new building are unknown: is there a sprinkler system? What sort of emergency escape, and guidance? How would firefighters reach the upper storeys? We don't know. 

Privilege cannot always buy you peace of mind, or protection from harm. Time to ask some questions of Barratt London, and Metropolitan Housing, and Barnet Council, and Capita, one would think.

The state of planning, and enforcement, in Barnet - a privatised service - has reached a point where nothing that we previously took for granted can still be assured. The priority is now tipped in favour of development: and not for housing for the benefit of our local communities, but in order to facilitate the profits of private enterprise. 

Blocks of flats are being flung up all over the borough, with little consideration of the real needs of residents. And social housing is seen not as an answer to a problem, but as the problem itself, or at best, only as an opportunity for yet more development.

All of this is taking place against the groundswell of a movement, a change in the tide: the anger that has been suppressed for so long amongst the dispossessed people of this city, this nation, is finding its voice. 

The election campaign, and the huge surge in popularity for Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, saw masses gathering in a way that is part of that change: people looking for hope for a better future, and justice. The danger, now, is that if that voice is silenced once more, and people feel that they have no hope, the frustration will cause unrest, and an ugly change in mood.

The extent of disengagement that was displayed by the Prime Minister, too fearful to meet survivors in the aftermath of the fire, perfectly articulated the culture of contemporary Conservatism: a set of values that is sustained by a lack of empathy for the experience of others. It is written into their manifestos, their policies, and is the mark of their administrations in government. 

And the extent of welcome given to Corbyn wherever he goes now is the measure of need that people have for something different, something better, kinder, more human, from their politicians.

The emotions unleashed by recent events must be directed into political action now: the alternative is too frightening to contemplate. 

Listening to the anger so vividly expressed by residents of West London on news channels this week made one thing very clear. Their fury was not just about the fire, or regeneration, or social cleansing, but about something more profound: the sense of displacement within society, and their intention, now, to tolerate no more. Now is the time for change, and the realignment of government with the best interests of ordinary citizens, and not the privileged few whose grasp on power is now so much more tenuous than it was a few months ago. 

There are tumultuous times ahead, and life is never going to be the same again. 

It's been a long time coming.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Mayhem, but a moral victory: the battle of Broken Barnet: Election 2017

For some time now, the museum in Chipping Barnet, surviving against all the odds, in spite of the concerted efforts by the local council to close it, has tried to interest the same Tory council in supporting a project that would look for archaeological evidence for the Battle of Barnet. 

This is of course an investigation of huge significance, nationally, and locally, regarding as it does an event of such pivotal importance in our history: and with the potential to identify the only battlefield site within the greater London area.

The only response to this proposal, initially, was for our culture averse Tory authority to try to prise the museum from its property - a lovely Georgian house - and flog it off to the highest bidder, as they had hoped to do with the museum in Hendon. 

Ransack it, and sell it, as they had done in Hendon - the irreplaceable local history collection shoved in boxes, and sold at auction. Of no value, said the Tory leader, Richard Cornelius, with a shrug. Of no material value, which is the only scale of measurement Barnet Tories adopt  (in fact it did raise a lot of money). Here in essence, is the history of Broken Barnet and the present combined: our borough seen as no more than territory fought over by the forces of Capita-lism, our heritage, like everything else the spoils of war, and of no consideration to our elected representatives.

History, in Broken Barnet, is a dangerous thing, to be contained, and disposed of . The history of rebellion, of course, is even more of a risk, and must be suppressed.

Barnet council, and Capita, failed to find the deeds of the museum property, and were unsuccessful in getting their sweaty little hands on it. 

The volunteers who run it clung on: managed to find funding for the archaeological survey, & applied to extend the museum: plans at first blocked by Tory councillors, now underway, reluctantly, only after it became clear the building was never going to revert to the authority. And because it is located in what was, once upon a time, the Tory stronghold of Chipping Barnet.

This Sunday saw a medieval festival held to welcome residents, and show them some of the fascinating artefacts uncovered by excavation of areas now believed to have seen the fighting in 1471: around Kitts End settlement, and in part of Wrotham Park.

In the grounds of the museum, people were watching a re-enactment of fighting between medieval combatants, clad in armour. Families sat on the grass, enjoying the spectacle. Oh, and there, in a VIP area, surrounded by a group of people pretending to be serfs, and safely behind a nominal border of string,  stood the Tory mayor, Brian Salinger, adorned by his chain of office, and clearly relishing the role for which, in the view of all local Tory councillors, marks the utmost height of their brilliant careers. 

Tory Mayor Brian Salinger, surrounded by serfs

Except that the Mayor wasn't quite his usual, ebullient self. Could barely raise a jibe at Mrs Angry's impertinence, in ignoring the barrier of string, and slipping in to take his photo. Stood talking in subdued manner to his companions, in very low spirits. And ... some one was missing: where was Theresa Villiers, the local Tory MP, who usually graces these events with her patronage? 

Perhaps she had other things on her mind. 

Such as the three hundred votes that had only just secured her re-election, on Thursday - and the dire warning given to her, and her two parliamentary colleagues, that she, and they, are now poised to lose their seats, as the serfs, here in Broken Barnet, are rising up against their overlords, and life, for our local Tory politicians, is never going to be the same again. 

Putting on a brave face: Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers, with Mayor Brian Salinger Pic courtesy BBC

It was clear that something was in the air, on Thursday, when arriving at the polling station. 

You could almost smell it, and see it - the scent of blue tinged fear.

The signs were there, too, even on the walk up the road: quite literally, the usual massive sign in the front garden of a Tory activist who lives next door to the church hall where we vote had been rather cheekily decorated with a Vote Labour sticker, and no one had bothered to remove it.

Good Morning, trilled the vicar, with a practised smile, standing at the door of the church hall, like a celestial bouncer: or perhaps, as if to annex the process of democracy and stamp it with parochial authority, and a nudge in the direction of the Conservative party, whose policies, he had assured Mrs Angry last time, when acting as a teller outside, were not, as suggested, utterly in conflict with the Christian values he represents.

Two ancient old women, Tory tellers, sat inside the entrance, against the rules, perched on deckchairs, oblivious to passing voters, and chatted away, as if on a day trip to the seaside.

Inside the hall, we were the only voters, even though it was lunchtime. This was good news: in this area of Finchley, such a low attendance suggested that Tory voters were staying at home, sulking over the dementia tax, or worried about Brexit.

As we left, the Tory teller ladies didn't even bother to take our numbers. 

Outside the hall, Mrs Angry's Tory activist radar picked up an alert: yes, look - smug young man with slicked back hair, a permatan, and crisply ironed shirt, looking at his clipboard with a grim expression. He gave Mrs Angry a baleful look, and said Good Morning, with the air of someone who was eyeing her up suspiciously, in desperate search of a voter to canvass. Mrs Angry's spoilsport son, recognising the dangerous look on his mother's face, whisked her away before she launched any counter assault. 

Later on that morning Mrs Angry made the trip up to North Finchley, to inspect the polling station at the the local library, still closed, along with most branches, while the Tory council rips it apart, removes the children's library, halves the staff, culls the stock, and study space, and installs DIY robot library technology.

A couple of weeks ago, towards the end of purdah, a banner appeared outside this library, and the library in East Finchley, proclaiming the good news that the library would re-open later this summer, and informing the public that the closure was due ... to 'refurbishment'. 

Of course anyone who knows what is happening to our libraries knows that the closures are in fact due to the work that will impose a savage programme of cuts in service. 

Anyone who knows what is happening therefore, might reasonably conclude that the claim of 'refurbishment' is simply not true, and intended to deceive those who ... do not know what is happening. And during an election period. 

Worse still, one of these banners was displayed prominently, centrally, right outside the entrance to a polling station - and yes - here we are, on the day itself, still in place, right next to  the main election sign.

Mrs Angry took a photograph. On approaching the entrance, in search of the Presiding Officer, two Tory matrons sitting outside asked, laughing, why she was taking a photograph. She explained that it was evidence of what she considered to be a breach of purdah, and the regulations regarding polling stations, and a deliberate attempt to deceive voters about the assault on our library service, as promoted by their party. They made faces, and muttered. 

The Exit Poll team outside looked on, bemused: afterwards explaining this was one of 140 or so sites around the UK, chosen as key indicators of the outcome. Good choice, and one suggesting that the Yougov poll, that had predicted Finchley & Golders Green was likely to be taken by Labour, was not wide off the mark, after all.

Inside the library, the voting was being held in the two rooms which formerly comprised the children's library, now closed by Tory councillors, with the approval of all local Tory MPs.

The lovely oak framed bow windows have now been obscured, and the rooms emptied, supposedly for use as income generating office areas: except we know from FOI requests that there are no tenants for any of the library spaces. The libraries, like the council itself, have been hollowed out, and surrendered to the private sector on the pretext of saving money, with no prospect of achieving that outcome. 

Is it allowed, to display political material, at a polling station, Mrs Angry asked the Presiding Officer? 

No, it isn't, was the reply. 

Why have you allowed that banner to remain next to the polling station sign, then? It is politically motivated, misleading, should not have appeared during purdah, and most certainly should not be allowed on election day. He did not know. He would pass on the complaint. 

A complaint had already been made, to the council's Chief Executive. He claimed - eventually - that the banners were 'factually accurate', and had only been used in order to comply with the council's duty to inform the public. This is of course nonsense, as 'refurbishment' is not the reason for closure, and if there was a duty to inform the public, that duty did not suddenly emerge in purdah, a couple of weeks before the election, when Tory candidates were hearing protests about the cuts from residents at local hustings, but at the time of the library closures, months ago. 

But still: it was only right and fitting that a library stolen by a Tory council from the children of Finchley should be used, first of all, as a venue for their parents' right to engage with the process of democracy, and to exercise their vote. 

What could be more appropriate? Or rather, more ironic.

Here in Margaret Thatcher's home territory, her Conservative heirs have betrayed the pact she made with her electorate, to offer them what she saw as the means to a better life: not just through property ownership, now out of reach of any young resident in this constituency, but in terms of education, and access to public libraries, a service she robustly defended in her career, remembering and honouring the part it had played in her own early life. 

The people of Finchley, voting in the former children's library, and elsewhere, used their opportunity, last Thursday, to express their views on the policies of another Tory government, policies endorsed with absolute loyalty - and much enthusiasm - by local Tory councillors, as well as the sitting MPs. 

And what a result: or set of results - an absolute trouncing, short of a final win, but a moral victory: all three MPs only retaining their seats - for the time being - by the skin of their vulpine teeth. Theresa Villiers, in Chipping, clinging on with only around 300 votes, Freer in Finchley and Golders Green, by a margin of 1500 or so, and Offord in Hendon by roughly a thousand votes.  

That they now face the loss of their seats, should there be another election anytime soon, is a very real possibility. 

That too many people, on both sides of the political spectrum, failed to see this coming, is quite astonishing. 

Yes: Mrs Angry has got so far in this post without resorting to I Told You So, but - she did. Tell you so. And you too, the Labour party in Barnet: please excuse me - Told you so

The portents have pointed this way for some time. 

At the last election, in 2015, as usual, Labour resources were thrown at Hendon, in the hope that this would achieve a win for Andrew Dismore, who had previously lost the constituency to Offord by a narrow margin. In fact, Offord won easily. As Mrs Angry pointed out, at the count, a view not universally welcomed at the time, not canvassing in Chipping had been a tactical error, judging by the fact that even without any support, the young & inexperienced, left leaning candidate Amy Trevethan, had won an incredible 18,000 votes against the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. 

A tactical error, because as Mrs Angry had also predicted, to disbelief, or rather, to deaf ears, in the previous local elections, wards in Chipping were taken by Labour, as the former Tory stronghold began to wake from its state of bondage, and prove that complacency by both parties was misconceived. Chipping is now one of the most marginal constituencies - as indeed are, slightly lower down the list, Hendon and Finchley.

Hendon: well. What can you say, about Matthew Offord, that has not already been said? Apart from the contribution to his own downfall that he managed in his distance from the so many sections of his own electorate, and the much publicised treatment of a now deceased constituent, and his widow, the changing demographics of the constituency played an important role in his loss of votes.  

Matthew Offord       pic courtesy Mirror

The Tory plan to develop their way to electoral success in Hendon was - rather to everyone's surprise - undone by the fact that most of the new housing is rented by a younger generation unable to buy: who came out to vote, returning around 70% support for Labour, rather than the Tory voters that our Tory friends thought would cooperate in the plantation of Grahame Park, Colindale and West Hendon. 

The failure of Offord himself to consolidate his own position with his local party, (it is rumoured that deputy leader Daniel Thomas nearly won the nomination from Hendon Tories) or to endear himself to voters, by engaging with them in any effective way, sealed his fate. He won't survive another election, as things stand now.

Finchley and Golders Green? Sarah Sackman fought an impressive campaign in 2015, and had Freer's team very worried. This time round, complacency by Tory activists soon gave way to panic, with good reason. Again, changing demographics, with a more transient population, a young renting electorate, and the fear of older Tories over dementia tax, not to mention the Remain voters who felt betrayed by their MP's flipflopping approach to Brexit - all of this contributed to his relegation to marginal status. Goodbye, Mr Freer, next time round.

Waiting in the wings: Jeremy Newmark, poised to beat Freer at the next election - pic Barnet Press

Chipping also has had demographic changes, but also has always held untapped potential Labour votes that have been ignored. This constituency has also seen a rapid decrease in the strength of the local Conservative association - and the sad loss of some of its more active members, like the now disgraced former Totteridge and London Assembly member Brian Coleman. 

But of course the other factors here are firstly the brilliant choice of candidates by Labour, with three outstanding representatives - Jeremy Newmark, Mike Katz, and Emma Whysall: all highly intelligent, articulate people, well chosen for their respective constituencies. 

And they had the sense to pick up on local issues which really matter to voters - issues which Mrs Angry has, in vain, tried to persuade Labour councillors to get a real grip on, that is to say the state of local NHS services: the dire state of waiting lists in this area - and the scandalous waste of Finchley Memorial Hospital - and, oh yes: the library cuts, a programme that by unfortunate timing for the Tories, was at the most evident stage of development when the election was called, but will continue to lose them votes when the newly emasculated libraries re-open.

The fury felt by many Tory voters, at seeing the doors of their local library firmly closed, and having seen half the library staff in April lose their jobs, has and will continue to illustrate the most direct representation of Tory cuts in action, in a way that their own voters can understand.

The Labour candidates understood the political implications of these things and very effectively held the Tory MPs to account for their failure to put the interests of constituents first, and worse still, to back government and local council policy always, rather than address the local impact on the people of Barnet, Hendon, and Finchley & Golders Green.

Oh. And then there is the other thing, of course. Which no one wanted to talk about, in Broken Barnet Labour circles. The love that dare not speak its name. Yes: Jeremy Corbyn. 

As explained so many times before, voting for Corbyn as leader, for Mrs Angry, was absolutely the only choice, the only way of realigning the party: dragging it away from the dominance of a hopelessly detached, fatally centrist, London focused, election losing agenda, and bringing it back to the founding principles of the Labour movement. 

At the last two party conferences, as reported here, and here, it was impossible not to feel increasingly isolated in this view, not so much within the wider representation of the party, and the new membership, as amongst the local Labour party, many of whom maintained Corbyn was unelectable, and that only a tedious manifesto of compromise and Tory-lite policies would win over the immoveable prejudices of the average voter. Well, there you go. Wrong. Corbyn's manifesto, manifestly, was a brilliant one, and at last offered a real alternative to the usual pap - and offered hope of something better, within grasp.

Despite the massive increase in membership since his election as leader, Labour locally has been slow to recognise the shift in political tone from the centre to the left, and local Tories had clearly expected that he would be the kiss of death, in the Barnet constituencies, for the hopes of all three Labour candidates. He wasn't. The choice of Jeremy Newmark, and Mike Katz, in Finchley & Golders Green, and Hendon, helped - their staunch advocacy within the Jewish community reassuring to many electors understandably with reservations after the inept handling of the antisemitism issue. But Corbyn's national popularity was also reflected within the three Barnet constituencies, and unquestionably was the factor that brought all three to the brink of a truly astonishing Labour victory.
Could there have been three Labour MPs returned? Of course. And some of the blame must be taken by the party organisers. Tactical mistakes have been made by Labour in Barnet, based on the usual failure to step outside their frame of thought, and the same magic circle of leadership, and to approach campaigning in a more dynamic, and more effective way. 

In this campaign, Mrs Angry received messages from new members volunteering to help canvass in Barnet constituencies, cross to find they were being asked instead to campaign in other constituencies, such as Enfield, and Hampstead. Another issue is a more technical one: a decision was made not to use tellers at polling stations, or technology that assesses turnout, and directs last minute, targeted door knocking to get out the vote. Whether this was the result of the short notice for the election, or a lack of will within the party's organisation is unknown - but next time one would hope for a better use of resources.

Some crucial votes were lost - wasted - on other parties, as is always the way in Broken Barnet. Green votes were down from last time, partly due, one suspects, to the choice of new candidates, but local Libdems helped split the opposition vote, as usual. The much vaunted Libdem revival did not appear, but the distraction in key areas was enough to help return another Tory candidate. 

Next time will be different. This election's results has proved that the people of all three Barnet constituencies are no longer satisfied with the performance of their Tory MPs.

Election night 2015

Offord, Villiers and Freer have taken their electorate for granted, and failed them. 

Beyond a small circle of activists, there is no local, personal loyalty for them within their own communities - and the breakdown in relationship between them and their constituents is entirely their own doing. 

If they had any sense, they would take the risk of putting local issues before the promotion of their own political careers, take on their own former colleagues in Barnet Council, and stop hiding in their constituency offices, or behind the parliamentary aides who do their constituency work, get out, enter into open debate, consider the issues affecting ordinary families, and those struggling to survive, and try to understand their needs. But they won't. They are incapable of it. 

There are local elections here, next year. Whatever the chances of another general election, the impact of this June's results will continue to reverberate, and when the council vote comes along, will be remembered by a newly empowered electorate, freed from the restriction of thinking the Tory grip on power is unshakeable. 

In all conflicts, of course, the ultimate threat is not just outside the walls with your enemies, but within the fortress itself. Factionalism plays as large a part in war as anything else: another significant part of the forgotten history of Broken Barnet, so lovingly chronicled in these archives.

So before we forget, let's look at the words of one Barnet Tory: Tory councillor Gabriel Rozenberg - son of Melanie Phillips - whose outburst on twitter, post election, is a most telling indictment of his own party's failings: a few examples -

Gabriel Rozenberg‏ @rozgab  Jun 11

After an election, time to speak up. Of the past 6 elections, my party has won 1.We cannot win from the hard right. It’s an illusion.

If we revert to agenda that ignores young ppl, offers little on housing, talks of ‘citizens of nowhere’… we’ll lose the next election, too.

Brexit, being an almighty disaster, is our country’s #1 challenge to get fixed. Yet it is not actually the VOTERS’ top priority at all.

Voters want rising wages, job security, affordable homes, safe borders… and predictable government. Brexit delivers none of that.

In Barnet, as elsewhere, the Tory party is in disarray: there is a fatal fault line over Brexit, and so many other issues. Lack of coherence in policy, and any awareness of the mood of the electorate, has led to the disintegration of the party, with voters and members confused as to what the party stands for, and failing to see how the Tory government, or the local council, is working to their benefit. 

Theresa May was an inept minister, and is an incompetent Prime Minister. Her weakness is the same weakness that will ultimately be the downfall of so many Tory politicians: a lack of emotional intelligence, and failure to read or understand the feelings of others. 

Rejection, whether in love, or politics, is for most of us, a painful experience, but one that teaches a lesson: for politicians like these, it is  no more than a moment of confusion: something they cannot have predicted, and an outcome from which they will learn nothing. 

Mrs Angry's predictions, on the other hand, have proved to be pretty reliable, and here is another: if there is another election soon, the same candidates will stand again, in Broken Barnet, despite the evidence of their rising unpopularity - and the Tory party will lose all three seats: the local council will also change hands, next year, from the Tories, to Labour.

Let battle commence.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Saving Broken Barnet: Mrs Angry's pre-election guide

A couple of weeks ago, Mrs Angry went along to the launch of the campaign of the Labour candidate for Finchley and Golders Green, held at the Bohemia, in North Finchley. To be quite honest, this attendance was provoked by a sense of duty, as much as anything else, in the likely circumstances, or so it seemed, that only a couple of diehard activists would turn up, and the event would be something of a damp squib.

On approaching the venue, however: well ... what a sight. And then: what a surprise.

There were queues to get in, and the room hired for the launch was bursting to the seams, packed with local members, many of them new, all keen to show their support. There was a feverish atmosphere: literally, due to the heat of the overcrowded room, but also in terms of a real sense of excitement, that at that point in the election campaign seemed wildly out of proportion to the gloomy predictions of some elements within the local party, who cling to the political certainties of the past, and retain a less mutable vision of Labour politics.

All three Labour candidates from the Barnet constituencies went outside before the launch for photographs, standing across the pavement, cars passing by hooting as if it was a picket line - which in a way, perhaps, it was: a statement of solidarity and defiance, on that faultline of local political significance, just along the road from Margaret Thatcher House, where Tory activists sit, night and day, frantically stuffing leaflets in envelopes. 

Or rather, plastering the windows with them - rumour has it that the local party is so short of help, CCHQ has had to send leafleteers to the constituency, in order to bolster the campaign. Must be hard finding loyal volunteers to help out, this time, when the party locally is itself is in conflict over Brexit, and in an area that voted so heavily to remain part of the EU.

Margaret Thatcher House, Finchley Tory HQ

Returning to the Bohemia, it was hard not to remember the history of this location, and the part it has played in the story of political activism, in Broken Barnet. The occupation, a few years ago, by the same people who liberated the People's Library, in Friern Barnet, was a notable moment in that story, and made this the perfect venue, in many ways, for the launch of a new opportunity for rebellion. From direct action, to a more meaningful engagement with the democratic process is not so large a leap.

Jeremy Newmark is the perfect choice of candidate for Finchley and Golders Green: a genuinely warm, likeable and well respected man - and one who can represent the Jewish community in this constituency without any of the taint that attaches to some of the shabby apologists for anti-semitism who have caused so much distress amongst the membership over the last year or so.

Newmark, moreover, has all the necessary qualities to give the people of this constituency an elected representative who works for the good of our community, and will fight for the improvements we so desperately need in so many areas: schools, housing, the NHS, in the delivery of local public services. 

Ah yes: local public services ... like libraries, for example.

Remember those? It might be hard, for some of you. Because at the moment, only a handful of them are open. The rest are either only open occasionally, and run in so called partnership with volunteer groups, or have been shut for months so as to accommodate a truly devastating programme of building works that will see our libraries cut down in size, within the footprints of their own buildings, staffing halved, or in some cases entirely removed, book stock drastically culled -  and study space reduced to a minimum. 

In fact, they are so scared of running the unstaffed libraries without, erm - staff, they are using security guards and managers to attend all the DIY opening hours, making a mockery of the whole process, and at unknown cost. Whether this continues after the election will be interesting to see.

Because so many branches are shut, students trying to revise for exams, as so many are at the moment, are particularly badly affected - and particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds unable to study at home. 

The charedi community in areas like Golders Green, Hendon, Childs Hill, whose families depend on libraries for heavy borrowing on Fridays, for shabbat, are finding the doors to their local branches firmly shut. When they are open again, the children's libraries at Hendon and Golders Green will be gone forever. 

As someone who worked for years in the latter library, I find this simply beyond comprehension, and I urge voters in those areas to hold their elected representatives directly to account for what they have done, or allowed to be done.

Mrs Angry, for reasons of health, and sanity, and possibly health and safety, has tried to avoid such events, but is informed that at a local Finchley & Golders Green hustings last week, when sharp criticisms of the library cuts were raised, local Tory councillors in the audience began shouting that the libraries were merely being 'refurbished'.

By an extraordinary coincidence, banners have just been put up outside our libraries, even while they are being assaulted, also making this claim. 

Currently being cut to pieces: East Finchley library

Now then. One or two Barnet council meetings have been cancelled during the last few weeks, on the pretext of 'purdah'. 

Meetings likely to be particularly embarrassing to the Tories, but not otherwise appearing to meet the critieria that might demand their postponement.

Yet these banners have appeared, totally misrepresenting the facts regarding the real reason for the closures of such libraries, again citing the spurious Tory spun excuse of 'refurbishment'. Clearly this is where all the extra PR budget so enthusiastically approved not so long ago is being spent.

What is the definition of 'refurbishment'? It generally means redecoration, and improvement. It quite evidently is not the appropriate term for the outcome of a savage programme of cuts in service, that severely diminishes that service in scope, accessibility, and resources. 

The unqualified statement that libraries are being refurbished is simply not true: it would appear to be deliberately misleading, and one that has appeared during an election period. Rather questionable, one might think.

In the case of East Finchley library, however, there is much more to the story, and one which relates to the wider issue of why the Tories have attacked our library service in this way. 

If you recall, the pretext was in order to make a couple of million of pounds in the budget. In order to achieve this saving, they are going to spend around £14 million in total. Yes: madness. Much of the capital outlay is going on the reconstruction of the library buildings, in order to shrink the space within them for the service, and supposedly free space for commercial purposes: to let to businesses. This is supposed to make more than half a million quid a year in rental income.

Mrs Angry decided to submit an FOI request to ascertain exactly how many tenants had been found to take on the newly freed office space in our public libraries.

The answer that emerged explained that there were NO arrangements of this sort in place, at all. Nothing.

Oh, a vague mention of 'negotiations' - but nothing confirmed. Not even the flagship rental agreement which we were told long ago was a done deal, ie the handing over of almost the whole of Hendon Library to Middlesex University. No such deal has been agreed. The library is closed for months, in the process of being gutted, and reduced to a tiny area on one of the three floors, for no reason.

Hendon's children's library - shut by local Tories

And the same would appear to be true of all libraries.

Oh. Except for East Finchley. A local community group who asked to rent space there recently was told, no: there will be no space to let here. Really? East Finchley has always done rather well from renting the room upstairs. But no longer. Why? Because ... oh, they are thinking of having a 'business hub' there. Really? What is meant by that? More enquiries revealed that they are talking to a one man business that was given seed funding to use up 'surplus' space in Merton Libraries - letting desk space on an individual basis. 

Why this business needed 'seed funding' is unclear. What is clear is that if this were to be allowed in East Finchley, it would mean that accommodation would be reserved for this business in a library that is taking study space away from students and school children in one of the poorest area of the borough, with high levels of social deprivation, and allowing a third party to make money in their local library, while they struggle to find anywhere to study.

Why would they choose this venue to put this venture? Because it is a politically sensitive area, with a very active local library campaign by residents - and because it is in the constituency of a Tory MP, Mike Freer, who has to explain to his voters why his friends at Barnet Council are cutting libraries, and make it seem like a positive move. Along with the 'refurbishment'. So what if children and young people in Strawberry Vale lose out, and will only be able to access a library anyway for a few hours a week? They're not likely to vote Tory anyway, are they?

Messages from the children of Martin's School, next to East Finchley Library

Let us remind you that all three Tory MPs in Barnet have refused to condemn the library cuts, but have been at the sharp end of residents' protest over this issue. And those protests are largely from middle class, Tory leaning residents who, even though they may not depend on their local libraries as much as others, recognise their importance, and are horrified at what is happening.

Clearly the local Tory council thinks that some might, just might, have their fury over library closures mollified by such nonsense, just as some will see that claim about 'refurbishment', and fall for it. Mrs Angry prefers to think that these voters are not as naive as their elected members would appear to imagine.

An issue that is of great concern to all residents of Barnet is the current state of local health services. As Mrs Angry has discovered recently, from personal experience, and on demanding answers to questions from the local commissioning body, the CCG, (who are very reluctant to answer some of those questions, and consequently will now have to explain themselves to the Information Commissioner), here in Barnet the NHS system is virtually falling apart. 

The half empty Finchley Memorial Hospital

This is through no fault of the hard working staff in our hospitals, clinics, gp practices and walk in centres. Gaining a GP appointment is a process now fraught with difficulty, and waiting lists to see a consultant are, as revealed here, simply unable to meet demand: it seems as many as one third of referrals are finding there are NO appointments, at all. Why is this? Ask the CCG, and the government supported by your local Tory MPs, without hesitation, or challenge. Of course the reason is a disastrous combination of a politically directed lack of funding - and a failure in local accountability. 

On Monday, outside Finchley Memorial Hospital, there was a well attended rally in defence of those local health services. This was the most appropriate venue: a wonderful new building, created by a Labour government, left half empty since opening: why? Such a waste of resources, and sustained failure to address the needs of the local community is scandalous: but who is doing anything about this? Not your local Tory MP, who cannot even manage to persuade anyone to provide the promised bus service that would prevent patients from having to make the long, long walk to the hospital when attending appointments, or the walk in clinic.

Labour rally in support of our local NHS, with candidates Jeremy Newmark, left, Mike Katz, right, and Emma Whysall (just out of shot).

According to Labour candidate Jeremy Newmark, when he addressed the crowd, Mike Freer had reportedly claimed at a local hustings last week that 'contracts had been signed' with local GPs, to move in to FMH, as we were promised so long ago. This came as a surprise to Mrs Angry, whose own practice was supposed to move in, but has refused to do so as the cost demanded was too great. Money is everything, of course, in the Tory run NHS.

This claim had also come as a surprise to Mr Newmark, that is to say, talk of contracts being signed, as he had had a meeting last week with the Chair of the CCG (who has also invited Mrs Angry to go and 'chat' with her, after raising concerns about the board's performance) ... the Chair, he said, had not only said there were no GPs about to move in to FMH, but that in the new - excuse me - 're-imagining' of the hospital, there may be none at all. Ever.

Well, well. 

Over the course of Bank Holiday Monday, one local Tory supporter tweeted at Mrs Angry that he thought we couldn't do better than re-elect Freer. Mrs Angry invited him (twice) to tell her what our MP has done for ordinary families in Finchley and Golders Green, over the last two years. He did not reply. He couldn't. He still hasn't, after being prompted again last night. And the leaflet sent out by Freer ... is laughable. It has nothing to say. And he cannot cite any notable - and recent - achievements on behalf of this constituency.

Look around you. 

Everything you see that is failing the people of this borough it directly the result of Conservative policy, whether national, or local. Housing, planning and enforcement: another area in which the policies of the outsourced council, supported by your MPs, are turning this borough into an unregulated opportunity for profiteering developers, at both ends of the spectrum, large scale, and small time. 

From the scandalous faux regeneration of West Hendon, with public land given away to Barratt London, and large scale eviction of social tenants, as well as the betrayal of leaseholders, it has been a small step to the facilitation of endless other massive developments, with housing intended not as affordable, or for the benefit of residents, but as investment for overseas buyers, or anyone wealthy enough to buy off plan, in cash. 

On a smaller scale, the failure by the privatised planning and enforcement service now run by Capita effectively to regulate breaches has led to an epidemic of unregulated extensions, buildings, unauthorised demolitions, and the replacement of perfectly good family homes by ugly, expensive, inappropriate housing that does not address the real needs of the majority of residents.

What safeguards are there, to protect the interests of home owners, and the built heritage of this borough? You tell me. And if you can't, ask your parliamentary candidates. They may problems answering this, even as they are with increasing frequency, being asked by normally loyal Tory voters, who see unrestrained development all around them, threatening the value of their properties, and their quality of life. 

This is the legacy of the local Tory 'easycouncil' approach to public services: and now is the time to hold the architects of this flawed construction to account.

The truth is that all three of our Tory MPs here in Barnet assumed, with their usual sense of entitlement, that as the next election was far off in the future, and they were in the early days of their term, they didn't have to bother to be seen doing much at all in their constituencies. In fact, they have been so quiet, Mrs Angry had (almost) forgotten about them altogether.

To be fair, on looking at their news archives, it seems that Matthew Offord has moved on from worrying about elderly cod, and has been busy worrying about monkeys instead:

And locally? Erm. Well, Mike Freer held a Christmas card competition. Fair enough. He does make a particularly jovial Santa:

And as part of his tradition of wooing voters, street by street, (appears not to have reached this part of Finchley yet) invited a friend of Mrs Angry, and her neighbours, to Westminster, where they had a wonderful time, with a genial host, showing them round, cracking jokes, a laugh a minute, apparently - until they realised  - oh - they had been in the wrong party, and with the wrong MP.

Usually, towards election time, we are graced with some attention by our elected representatives - a few photographs in the local press, so as to remind us of their names on the way to the ballot box, but for much of the time, other than answer emails from constituents, they follow a policy of keeping to a minimum of appearances at carefully chosen venues, amongst friends, and avoiding any engagement with local issues. 

This is probably a wise move, as on the rare occasions they do venture into the dangerous ground of open debate, it only serves to expose them, and their disconnection from the hardship and injustice that is the daily experience of too many of their own constituents.

Yes. Let's take time to remember those constituents, shall we: the ones that are always ignored by our Tory representatives. Residents in social housing, waiting to be evicted by the relentless 'regeneration' schemes. Residents living in the borough's areas of social deprivation. Residents using the borough's food banks, or living in fear of domestic violence, or unable to access legal aid, or legal advice; children whose school budgets are about to be savagely cut by Tory cuts which our MPs and Tory councillors refuse to condemn. Elderly, disabled, vulnerable or seriously ill residents living in fear of losing vital benefits.

Just look, if you can bear it, at this footage from a local hustings at Mill Hill shul, moderated by Rabbi Y. Y. Schochet, in which Hendon MP Matthew Offord dismisses any allegations that he was indifferent to the plight of a former constituent, who has very sadly now died, dying, as his widow tells her MP, knowing that he was indifferent to their distress over the loss of benefits to his bereaved family. Shockingly, Offord does not even have the decency to offer his condolences: instead observes that 'there are always going to be losers'. And remarks that: 'some people get remarried'.

Please make Matthew Offord the 'loser' on June 8th, and vote for Mike Katz

This tactic of avoiding public engagement as much as possible, of course, is necessary because any organised activity or campaigning on local issues is completely out of the question. Out of the question because it is impossible for any of our three MPs to criticise any action by the local council. 

For Theresa Villiers, up in Chipping Barnet, this is largely out of a sense of discretion, and a natural instinct for the preservation of her political career, which, unlike her two parliamentary colleagues, was highly successful - until she made the blunder of backing Andrea Leadsom for Tory leader - and being a cheerleader for Brexit, at the wrong time:

Mrs Villiers, backing Brexit, and bringing back all that money for our NHS

In the case of her two colleagues in Finchley & Golders Green, and Hendon, their lack of local campaigning, and failure to challenge any matter that is the responsibility of Barnet Council, is not just because of political loyalty, but due to the fact that they are so closely associated with this administration: Freer and Offord were, until their move to Westminster, Leader and deputy Leader of the Tory group, and pushed the 'easycouncil' mass outsourcing agenda that is the ideological assault, in the guise of austerity, on the very principle of public services. 

The autocratic Mrs Villiers might appear to think she has a right of tenure, up there in Chipping: a feudal seat of power, in line with her Plantagenet forebears - but last time round, in the Battle of Barnet, 2015, she lost a huge amount of votes to the young and inexperienced, but very bright and left leaning Labour candidate, Amy Trevethan, who managed to persuade an astonishing total of more than 18,000 residents to vote for her, at a time when her chances had been utterly dismissed by all parties. Now the very able Emma Whysall is standing - and the changing demographic face of this constituency, with the added factor of general disillusionment by traditional Tory voters worried by the 'dementia tax' fiasco means nothing is predictable, anymore: arch Brexiteer Mrs Villiers could well be in trouble.

Emma Whysall, Labour's candidate in Chipping Barnet

Over the course of the last few years, this blog has reported the slow annexation of this borough by the profiteering vultures who circle round our public services, our publicly owned assets, and our democratic process, seeking to indulge their appetites at our expense. 

We have seen the accountability of elected representatives to their constituents stripped away, and the indifference of those representatives to those constituents reach a point of complacency that has now put them in real danger of losing their support.

Also over the last few years, I have watched the Labour movement painfully shift from a position of similar overweening satisfaction with its own performance to somewhere new, and, yes - slightly scary. No one quite knows yet, where we are, or where we are going. The signs now, however, are that there is at last real hope for a radical new approach to the issues which beset this country, and a change in the political agenda, from one rooted in everything that is worst in human nature, to something better, yes, yes: for the many, not the few. 

Whether or not you like or approve of Jeremy Corbyn is neither here nor there,in the end. Can he do the job better than Theresa May? That is the point. I don't subscribe to the cult of personality, in political life. But I think Corbyn is a decent man, that he has transformed the party, the political scene - and this election, for the good. He has made errors of judgement: but latterly he has also shown himself capable of listening to his critics, and of reaching out to parts of this country with no voice, and until now, no hope. And the Labour manifesto he has given us is manifestly good, and brave, and brings the party back to its core values, or closer than we have been, for a long time.

The changes that we need can only come about, locally and nationally, with a Labour government. Here in Barnet we have three outstandingly good candidates: decent, empathetic, conscientious people who will work hard for the whole community, and put their interests before anything else. These are the sort of representatives we need, and deserve.

Mike Katz, Labour candidate for Hendon

Please reject the politics of fear, and the blundering government of Theresa May, and vote for these candidates, and for a Labour government, next week.

The latest polls suggest that there is a groundswell of support for Labour nationally, and particularly in London; that in Hendon, Offord is now in danger of losing to Labour's Mike Katz. Finchley's Tory vote is also reportedly falling away. Chipping is demonstrably no longer the Tory stronghold it once was. Change is within your grasp.

In all three constituencies there is evidence from the doorstep that some Tory voters - especially Remainers, and those horrified by the dementia tax - will choose to stay at home on polling day. This would make all the difference, of course, between re-election, and an outcome that no one would have predicted, a few weeks ago, but now is a real possibility. 

There is at least, without doubt, a sense of shifting expectations: it is up to you now, for the sake of all of us, our families, and our community, to turn those expectations into reality.