Friday, 16 March 2018

The Ides of March, 2018: Barnet Tories lose control of the council

Backstabbing in Broken Barnet, a local Tory tradition, perfectly re-enacted this week

Due to 'events', dear boy, 'events', Broken Barnet - the blog, dear boy, the blog - has remained in something of a state of suspended animation, frozen in time,  since January. 

In the meanwhile, however, Broken Barnet itself has, with commendable determination, continued on its course to total self destruction. Yes, all in pieces now. Most gratifying. Only taken them eight years, but now here it is, all over the place.

How could anything else be expected? The laws of the universe command nothing less than the inevitable decline and fall of any establishment, no matter how rotten, or self regarding, in the end. And here in Tory Barnet, that end, The End, is Nigh. 

Oh, hang on: Update: since beginning this post, The End is Here. 

Events, as you will see, have indeed overtaken us all.

And yes, it all happened, fittingly, as noted here by local Labour AM Andrew Dismore, on the Ides of March ...

Yes. Now hold on, because this next bit will require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. On an epic scale. Imagine say, War and Peace, re-imagined by Baz Luhrmann., if not Carry On Councillor.


Seven weeks before the local elections, Barnet Tories have lost control of their own council. 

Well, not so much lost, as given it away.

This is how it happened.

In act of breathtaking stupidity, as we learned earlier this week, the hapless Hendon Tory constituency party decided to deselect three of its most long standing councillors: Joan (where's my coat) Scannell, Maureen (Two Sheds) Braun, and Sury (Didn't approve of the Capita contracts but signed up anyway and then moaned about it) Khatri.

Hendon councillor Maureen Braun

In other words, the deeply misogynist Barnet Tories have rejected two older women, despite their long record of service in their communities - please note the 85 year old Mill Hill councillor John Hart has been re-selected - and Hendon's only BAME councillor, Sury Khatri, despite his own exemplary record as a ward councillor, over two terms. Why?

The Hendon constituency has always been problematic, even by the bottom of the barrel scraping standards of Broken Barnet - and increasingly so. Dwindling membership and factionalism within the depleted ranks has not helped at all, but the selection process overseen by a residue of hard line Tories, determined to shore up their own support, has led to the most calamitous of outcomes for the council administration.

Edgware councillor Joan Scannell, right

The ruthless deselection of well respected members was an astonishingly stupid move, but also breathtaking in its mercilessness: all three are experienced councillors, popular in their wards - and were pretty sure to retain a section of the Tory vote that is otherwise at risk of ... ok, maybe not joining Momentum, but ... sshh ... maybe ... not voting Tory. The way in which they were despatched, however, beats all. Perhaps not so much back stabbing, as stabbing right there, in the front, with nothing more than a belated thanks for their long contribution of service by - oh, deputy leader Dan Thomas who is -aha - also Chair of Hendon Tories:

“As per Conservative Party rules, all councillors must be reselected by their constituency association to stand for re-election. As this process is conducted by secret ballot, it is neither possible nor appropriate to speculate why applicants are not successful.

“Councillors Joan Scannell, Maureen Braun, and Sury Khatri have a combined length of service on Barnet Council of 52 years and both Joan and Maureen served with distinction as Mayor. We are extremely grateful for all they helped us to achieve as a Conservative Council and we wish them all the best for the future."

Anyone seen the Barnet Tory leader, Richard Cornelius, by the way? Or has the coup already taken place?

Well, then. An outright Labour victory, in areas like Mill Hill and Edgware, is more or less unprecedented, but after such an overt act of politicking, and the removal of well known councillors, due to seismic political and demographic changes in this part of the borough: well, it just might happen. And if it does, it will, of course, help to deliver a Labour run council. Hoorah.

Except: no, hang on. 

The Tories have pretty much done that anyway, and seven weeks early. 

As of yesterday.

Tssk. Timing is all, Tory chums: but no, whoops, there you go, far too soon, all over the place, and nothing to show for it, except a deep sense of shame.

Dear me. 

But back to the deselection.

Sury Khatri and his deselected colleagues issued a press release, published here on the Barnet Eye blog: Mrs Angry understands it was written, this howl of rage, in frantic UPPER CASE, by Cllr Khatri.






Love the Momentum reference. Barnet Tories (current and former) have recently resorted, after realising their powers of persuasion are strictly limited, to trying to frighten voters into voting for them by claiming on twitter that to do otherwise will bring about the Apoclaypse, and/or a Labour administration run by, ha ha: Momentum.

This cheered Mrs Angry up no end, when she read it. At last: the comrades are taking over Barnet Labour group. Revolution is just around the corner. Massed hordes will be running up the stairway of Hendon Town Hall, the day after polling day, to tear down the revered portrait of Brian Coleman from his place above the council chamber door, and replace it with a picture of Lenin. Labour leader Barry Rawlings, in line with orders from the Politburo, will formally announce the dictatorship of the proletariat is now in place, in the former council chamber of the London Borough of Capita. Happy Days.

As for the axed Tory councillors, well: Mrs Angry's sympathies are somewhat limited, as it happens. All three Tories may be decent people, and moderate in their views, and in marked contrast to the swivel eyed right wingers in the Tory group, but: they have given loyal support to their group's illiberal policies, over the years. 

Sadly, 'third casualty' Sury Khatri chose to endorse the Capita contracts, and then criticise them, and the process which they had been agreed, after the event, when it was too late. And then complain to Mrs Angry, more than once, that she always reminds everyone about this. Here we go again, Sury. Oh, and setting up a pretend library in Mill Hill, as part of a - excuse me - "business hub" has done nothing to endear him to her. 

But now look: Cllr Khatri may just have redeemed himself, ever so slightly, in the eyes of Mrs Angry, by throwing a strop - and throwing the most almighty spanner in the works. He has resigned the Tory whip, and thrown the council into turmoil, only weeks before the election, as now there is no over all control. 

Yes, you read that right: there is no longer a Tory led council, in Broken Barnet.

The sense of 'fin de si├Ęcle', and the last days of a doomed and decadent empire, have hung over the last few months of the Tory administration, like a bad smell. And like the last days of any disintegrating power, the desperate attempts to cling on to power tell their own story. Let Mrs Angry be the Edward Gibbon de nos jours, and lovingly chronicle the final moments, the decline and fall, of Tory Barnet. 

Here is an illustration, to set the mood, from last weekend:

Behold, in place of loyal footsoldiers once so thick on the ground, in the Tory fortress of Chipping Barnet, a band of mercenaries from Gaul sent in - bussed in - to try to placate the natives, and convince them not to rise up against the army of occupation: 

Visiting Tory activists, lured to Chipping Barnet with the promise of a free lunch: (and taking over the disabled parking area of the tube station ...)

Yes: so they are so short of members, activists and supporters now, in what was always the heartland of Barnet Tory votes, a plea has had to be launched to rally the troops elsewhere, to come and beg Barnet voters to return another Tory administration: the sort of troops that might be desperate for a free sandwich and a wave at Priti Patel, that is ...

We really are in desperate days, aren't we? Gone is the golden age of Barnet Conservatism, when local Tories, blinded by the reflected light of Gloriana herself, the Blessed Margaret, ruled the borough as her divinely appointed representatives on earth. 

A sense of entitlement, and the feudal system of administration of this borough by successive Conservative councils, used to come wrapped in a sort of slightly mildewed covering of paternalism, along with a cohort of gentlemanly members, and a handful of Tory matrons allowed to join in, as long as they kept their heads down, and did as their menfolk told them.

In more latter years, the calibre of candidates for the Barnet Tory group has sharply declined. The era of members like Leslie Sussman, who saw his role as an expression of civic pride, and served the community for decades, but refused to take a penny in any allowance, has long vanished. 

The rot set in the days of the administration led by Mike Freer, now Tory MP for Finchley and Golders Green, clinging on by his fingertips in a newly marginal seat -  Freer's former deputy leader, Matthew Offord, now MP for Hendon, also faces electoral annihilation, as well as Chipping's Theresa Villiers - but it was a pattern reflecting the change in Tory values generally, and nationally. No longer solely the party of the upper classes, and an ethos of noblesse oblige: here came a new generation of working class Tories, ruthless, ambitious - but in many cases, in the context of Barnet, trusted with duties that are far beyond the limits of their own capabilities. 

The oikishness of Barnet's post Thatcherite, upstart Tories is still perfectly represented in the council chamber of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, a group largely comprised, as it is, of failed smalltime businessmen, lower level managers, bank clerks - and the wives or sons of councillors, wedged into safe seats. 

Completely out of their depth when charged with tackling the management of a billion pound budget, they were easy prey for the machiavellian plotting of outsourcing consultants and senior officers intent on facilitating a mass privatisation of council services. 

Tory members, only too pleased to let someone else tell them what to do, rather than be expected to use their own judgement, obediently allowed themselves to be persuaded of the wonderful benefits of the two massive Capita contracts. 

Indolent by nature, and alarmingly dim, Barnet's Tory councillors happily sat back and left senior officers and consultant legal advisers to oversee the entire process of outsourcing on their behalf, blithely accepting their assurances as to the benefits of what even Brian Coleman later referred to as an 'officer driven juggernaut', the Capita deal - now hurtling towards them, totally out of control, faster than we can reach the elections in May.

There would be mass savings. And better services. That was the mantra. Well, here we are, five years later and guess what? No mass savings, in fact we are handing over millions and millions of pounds each month to Capita, as we pay agency staff and consultants to do the work council staff used to do - at maybe three times the cost - and the many variations hidden in the contract the members did not read allows the company to screw more and more fees from such lucrative sources as gainshare payments, that is to say extra rewards payable to them on those 'savings' which are - as fellow blogger Mr Reasonable has demonstrated - somewhat hard to identify.

Better services? No. No, no, no. 

Tory leader Richard Cornelius and Cllr Dean Cohen, awfully proud of their new, state of the art pot hole filler in. Better services, for less money? Erm: no.

Not that they will acknowledge this, or even maintain an effective level of scrutiny of performance, or hold Capita to account when there are serious failures in service. Instead of any such process, they leave Cllr Antony 'Mickey' Finn to oversee the rubber stamping committee, an absolute Pollyanna who thinks scrutiny should not be critical, or indeed negative, and waits, in a state of blissful innocence, for a time when everything will be 'hunky dory'.

Now of course we know, from the council's own external auditors, that the authority is running out of money, having been driven to ransack its reserves to try to balance the books. The books - the accounts - that are, like everything else, written up by the council's contractors. Yes, the same contractors whose service delivery is written up in ... the accounts, whose pages were found by the auditors to be full of errors. 

The multiplicity of roles that Capita plays now, in this borough, defies belief. Within the services it runs, such as planning, this is a real concern. Here it acts as fee based advisers to developers, oversees the planning application process, and advises on the recommendation, or otherwise, of individual proposals. It is also a developer. None of this broad range of activities within the same area offers any reason to our Tory councillors to worry about potential conflicts of interest, of course.

But beyond the limits of the London Borough of Capita, Capita Plc itself is in deep trouble. 

Only a matter of time before it a. collapses or b. has to radically reshape its structure and delivery of services. Either way, Barnet is in line for difficulties on an unprecedented scale. 

Who knew? 

We did. 

And we told you so, Tory councillors, didn't we? 

We even took you to the High Court for a Judicial Review, and would have won, if not out of time. Oh, and when we asked what contingency plans you have, should the Capita deal go tits up, you laughed, didn't you, and said that wouldn't happen? 

Who's laughing now?

Not Mrs Angry. Well: no, she is laughing, but only at your expense, not ours. Because of course it will be the tax payers of Broken Barnet who pay for your gross incompetence, should Capita sink.

All up for grabs now, anyway. Through their own idiocy, Barnet Tories have, at the very least, delivered the best possible PR coup to  Barnet Labour, teetering as we all are on the verge of purdah, in the run up to the May elections: losing control of their own administration, and exposing the bitter divisions within the group, which run far deeper, and in more directions than the Brexit issue.

Throughout the span of eight years in which this blog has been running, some stories have continued to exert a powerful pull on the memory. 

Reporting the Tories' destruction of our library service, here in Barnet, has become something more than a local issue, and part of a wider campaign and struggle to ensure the survival of libraries in the UK as a whole. But nowhere perhaps better exemplifies the danger facing the service than right here, in our own back yard, where culture, heritage, education and learning are valued only in terms of the properties in which they are installed, and the opportunities for profit such buildings extend, now we live in the age of Capita. Our libraries stand as witness to the larger depredations wrought on this borough by so many years of botched governance: a suitable metaphor, standing in full view of every former resident who once enjoyed a previously magnificent, award winning, and value for money service.

The former Golders Green children's library

My own experience of libraries here in Broken Barnet has been as a child, an adult, a parent, and a library worker, and as someone who witnessed the closure, occupation and re-opening of Friern Barnet library, in a spectacular act of defiance by residents and protestors. The fight to preserve our libraries continues, largely thanks to the work of Save Barnet Libraries, who have made a formal complaint to the government about the impact of Tory cuts.

But the library issue is more than the story of one library - or the story of one service: it is all of this and more: of the fight for the heart and soul of this borough. 

(Perhaps that is why, yesterday, in a move clearly aimed to distract attention from the impending catastrophe in the council chamber, Barnet Tories decided to publish a frankly barking tweet, accusing Mrs Angry, library campaigner, of advocating ... erm ... the closure of 'half Barnet's libraries'? Yes. Really.)

Libraries have been relegated to the committee now overseen by the ineffable Reuben Thompstone, a portly young Tory who is awfully pleased with himself, and his little curly moustache, adopted, one assumes, as he aspires to an air of gravitas that is, alas, eternally slipping out of reach. 

Cllr Reuben Thompstone

The CELS committee has born witness to some of the worst acts committed by Barnet Tories in their reign of error.

The evisceration of our libraries - at a cost of £14 million, to save £2 million - was one of them. 

But nothing can compare to the truly shameful treatment given to the families of some of the most vulnerable children in our borough, four years ago, when Barnet Tories had the brilliant idea of cutting council tax by a few pennies a week, deciding the pre-election 'gesture' could be covered by measures such as slashing the respite care for families of children with multiple and complex disabilities, who attend Mapledown School. 

The absolute cynicism and barbarity of such a move, and the abject misery and distress caused to those families almost defies description: but you can read how Reuben Thompstone dealt with this awful episode, and the meeting attended by some of the children affected, here:

(Among the children whose lives were affected by the proposed slashing of respite care was a beautiful young girl named Sophie, who suffers from a range of profound disabilities, and whose grandmother Rose, who cares for her, and cared for her late brother, spoke at the meeting presided over by Thompstone, and whose dignity and eloquence left a lasting impression on all who heard her. 

Sophie's lovely face can be seen now on a large billboard that you pass if you drive out of Broken Barnet, on the North Circular, in an appeal that is part of fundraising efforts for the much needed Noah's Ark Children's Hospice. You can donate to this admirable cause here). 

Another triumph of Thompstone's term as Chair of CELS came in the shape of last year's damning OFSTED report into Barnet's children's services, identifying a shocking level of  failure in the care of vulnerable children, leaving them at risk of 'serious harm'.

How fitting then, that as their parting shot, at the last full council meeting, marred by slurs thrown at Labour members, and following previous full council meetings in which Labour members such as Arjun Mittra and Devra Kay were also subject to abuse by Tory councillors, that the choice of Mayor for the next year - should they be re-elected - was none other than ... Reuben Thompstone. Who could be a more suitable choice, to represent their group?

I prefer to think this borough is better represented not by strutting Tory councillors taking their turns to dress up in moth eaten fox furs, and chains of office, appointing themselves to an outdated post which gratifies their overweening egos, but by courageous citizens like Rose, and Sophie, and all those who quietly and tirelessly support our most vulnerable residents, when they need it most, not turn the other way.

Well: let Barnet Tories in Easycouncil melt, and the wide range of the One Barnet empire fall. Here, readers, is our space. 

A space of five weeks in which to enjoy their self generated folly, and prepare for an election in which, at last, we have a real chance of wresting control of our lives out of their hands, and the hands of Capita, and back in the care of a democratic system of governance. 

Please make sure you are registered to vote, and make sure your vote counts. 

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Ultimate Cost, or - North Finchley: the life and death of a library

The former children's library at North Finchley

North Finchley is one of a number of interesting but dangerous locations that punctuate the landscape of Broken Barnet - portals to another world: one that underlies and undermines the colonial regime imposed on us by our Tory masters, and their Capita-list army of invasion. 

Under their rule, certain parts of the borough have become a regular focus of contention, and unrest. A place of occupation, resistance: marches. And nowhere is more suitable for the expression of such discontent than North Finchley, the home of Margaret Thatcher House, and the heart of Finchley Conservatism.

A place of nemesis, North Finchley, for certain former Tory councillors - and triumph for troublesome cafe owners. And a stalking ground for a posse of privatised parking wardens who prey on hapless residents trying to park their cars: a constant reminder that the streets of Broken Barnet are no longer the sovereign territory of those who live here, but a marketplace for those who come here to make money.

Perhaps, as we have often considered, it is an historical anomaly, or accident: an interface in time: a psychogeographic accumulation of layers of significance. 

Well, maybe. 

Certainly a geological one, as fossils dug up in the area at the time of railway expansion in the nineteenth century suggested: the place where an ice sheet ended, pinpointed with impressive exactitude by Mrs Robinson, Mrs Angry's formidable geography teacher at St Michael's, pointing in the direction of the High Road, a hundred yards or so away, a landmark which she identified, with great confidence, as the very edge itself. 

A borderline, of many sorts, it is true, the High Road: offering a last stopping place, at Tally Ho, on the much travelled passage, along that stretch of the great North Road, through Finchley Common, the last wilderness before the capital, where danger lurked in the form of ambush: robbers, thieves, and highwaymen. 

Marching up North Finchley High Road to the library, in protest at Tory cuts

Danger still abounds, in Broken Barnet, from robbers and highwaymen, but in the guise of governance. Dick Turpin's musket holed oak still stands decaying at the junction of the High Road, and the North Circular: but his natural heirs sit in the council chamber, and the corporate offices, their target not your money or your life - your money and your life: your council tax, and your local services. 

Local services, such as ... your library, for example.

North Finchley Library has an interesting history all of its own, in fact, the beginning of which can be traced in the archives of the local press: a history well worth revisiting, as the past always is, if we want to understand how we arrived at the point we are now.

In the Hendon and Finchley Times, in October 1934, we read of a decision that the council's surveyor should draw up plans and estimates for a new library, in Ravensdale Avenue. 

This was opened in 1936, after permission was given, rather curiously, by the Ministry of Health: the design itself was cited by RIBA as a model of its kind. 

According to this very interesting post on the architecture of Barnet libraries, in the 'Modernism in Metroland' blog, the building, like the one at East Finchley, was designed by the borough architect, a Mr P T Harrison, in Neo Georgian style.

North Finchley was an attractive building, with two internal oak framed, bow windowed rooms just inside the entrance - one side allocated for 'junior' readers, and a lecture room upstairs used for - well, lectures - and by local residents for meetings and other events.

Early reports indicate the enthusiasm of councillors to get on with opening the library: and show the existence of a library committee, and even a Borough Librarian - a post that survived until the era we live in now, when libraries are under attack by Conservative administrations. No longer is access to a public library system seen - as even Margaret Thatcher believed - as an essential resource for ordinary families, and a route to self improvement: but the founders of the service in Barnet were proud of their achievement, and rightly so. 

By 1938 the new library was proving to be a great success, and was even the subject of filming for a documentary:

Limits on renewals were necessary, because the success was such that often the shelves at North Finchley were almost empty - the council was obliged to allocate further capital sums for book stock.

But what is this here? 

By July 1939, there were signs of a new phenomenon in local council affairs, demonstrated, as it always has been, by subversive activity in the borough's libraries: sshh .... yes: unionisation ...

Personal gossip, and a sea story: what more could you ask for? 

Of course in those days, and indeed until Mrs Angry's days as library convenor, NALGO in Barnet was quite genteel, and members awfully well behaved. That all came to an end, after two successful strikes, and years of organisation ... Less sugar, and more starch, in other words. 

But oh, Mr Long: what would you write now, about your 'noble service'? And you, Mr Smith: does your spirit stand in the shadows of the library at night, looking on, in silent fury, aghast at what they have done to it? 

I think it might.

NALGO was renamed UNISON, and Unison in Barnet has played a major role in leading the fight against the Tory war on public services, especially the campaign in defence of our libraries. 

In 2015, residents and campaigners marched in protest at what was happening to our much loved service -  to North Finchley Library, with supporters and banners from the Durham Miners Association, including the late Davey Hopper, and from LGSM - Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, who feature in the film 'Pride'. 

It was a fabulous, uplifting day: Mrs Angry interviewed Nicola Field, from LGSM, who emphasised the importance of libraries as a first point of information to young people in the process of recognising their sexual identity. A long way from the world of Mr Kenneth Smith, and the aldermen of Finchley: but a good example of why libraries continue to matter, so much, to so many.

Barnet Unison secretary John Burgess, centre, and below, Nicola Field, of LGSM, and the film 'Pride', at North Finchley Library

Hard to stop peering at the stories about North Finchley library, in the archived local press: in May 1938, for example, we learn that the librarian is to arrange 'an experimental programme of stories and epidiascope lectures (slide shows) fortnightly, from October to March, in the upstairs lecture room. This was 'to introduce to juniors the masterpieces of literature'. As time passes, the Borough librarian, Mr Seymour Smith, makes annual reports, and refers to the plans for more new libraries, when the war is over.

In 1940, an obituary appeared in the paper after the death of North Finchley library's oldest member, aged 101, Mrs Eliza Phillips, born in the first year of Queen Victoria's reign, and who, on the occasion of her hundredth birthday, had recounted to reporters her memories of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the Crimean War.

Still in 1940, the redoubtable librarian and union man Mr Kenneth Smith has now edited a Christmas annual edition of 'Query', the NALGO journal. The Town Clerk and the Borough Treasurer both make contributions, welcoming the support of council officers in helping to prepare the borough for the new realities of war. 

On the lighter side, however,  we read, there is an hilarious mock news bulletin at the expense of local dignitaries, and others, for which Mr A V Williams is responsible

Naughty Mr A V Williams. Was he the first Barnet blogger? Presumably in those days the borough council didn't have to have a million pound plus budget to spend on spin doctors to try to counter such impertinence, and negative press ...

Barnet Tories, of course, have always been very careful to listen to the grievances of the more influential residents - so it is no surprise to read that, according to stern questioning from those at a pre-war meeting of East Finchley rate payers (a process clearly pointing the way for the favoured Suburbanistas, lavished in attention at every step), there were concerns raised about the 'undesirable sort of books' which might have crept on to the shelves. 

It also transpires that local councillors had to be pushed into creating libraries in 1929 by the County Council, which threatened to do it instead, if the local aldermen continued to ignore the needs of local people. By the thirties, it seems, they had recognised that libraries were a Good Thing in our borough: Councillor Wilmot declared that: 'libraries were as necessary to the public as open spaces, baths and health services ...' 

Prior to the new public libraries, it appears, there were, at least as early as the 1890's, one or two local lending libraries, and reading rooms - by subscription only, of course. The idea of a national public library service, free of charge, accessible to ordinary residents, and even disadvantaged residents, was clearly not altogether popular with our early elected representatives - just as it is no longer popular with their present day successors.

Councillor Wilmot pointed out to the grumbling rate payers of East Finchley that expenditure on libraries was 3s per head of population: but that this was value for money -

The ultimate cost: incalculable

How times have changed: but the same arguments are as true now as they were then. 

The change is in the councillors themselves, from those who saw their role as a voluntary civic duty, to those who are happy to take an allowance for very little contribution other than the devolvement of responsibility to others.

After more than eighty years of serving the community, North Finchley Library has been targeted, along with the rest of the borough's service for a fate of death by a thousand cuts. The cowards now sitting in the council chamber, in the seats once occupied by Councillor Wilmot and his colleagues, don't dare to shut libraries, as they would wish - at least not now, so close to local elections, and at a time when three newly marginal Tory held constituencies are at risk. 

So they sanctioned the next best thing: a virtual destruction, by default, in the shape of a programme of savage cuts that they have tried to present as 'modification'; a 'reshaping'; a 'reconfiguration' - then a 'refurbishment' ... and now, most offensive of all, as an 'investment'. 

On election day, the council allowed a politically misleading claim of 'refurbishment' to be displayed prominently at the library entrance - and erected only two weeks previously - when the rooms that had been the children's library were used as a polling station.

They boast of having closed no libraries: what they have done is worse - an assault on the fundamental principles of the service itself, sacking half the workforce, attacking the buildings, returning only a fraction of the footprint of those properties to any semblance of a library function. 

Once their plans for this massive assault had been formulated, meetings were held in North Finchley Library as part of a carefully managed  'nonsultation' with local residents, in which their objections were received with absolute indifference.

Hands off, hands behind the back: the business of 'nonsultation'.

At one of these meetings, Mrs Angry asked the then senior officer with responsibility for the cuts programme about the rationale for removing so much space from the library buildings, in order, supposedly, to create office accommodation. 

It emerged there was no real business plan or market testing for the success of such a scheme. What will happen if, as seemed likely in a borough where there is already a surplus of office space to let, there were no takers? The £500,000 a year in predicted income would not materialise: a huge hole in your revenue calculations, surely? 

Meh. Didn't matter, apparently. The library budget was not dependent on it. Really?

The reason it didn't matter was explained by one source, who claimed that the space created by shutting children's libraries, & shrinking the size of the adult areas, was not intended for commercial letting - but so that the council - Capita - could accommodate its own staff. 

As explained in the previous post, a local charity being thrown out of another council property was told last month that there was 'no available space' in any library. Yet on a visit this week to North Finchley, it was clear that the former children's library, now mercilessly ransacked and cleared, is like most of the other spaces in other branches, still unused. 

What a forlorn sight it is. 

The deserted, ransacked children's library: what was it all for?

Thankfully they did not dare, as they had wished, remove the bow windows, but they are now screened off, and the rooms emptied: purposeless vandalism, all in the name of making savings which will never appear, with a £14 million capital sum wasted on the 'reconfiguration' of the service, and ever increasing costs to cover the gap created by the dismissal of half the workforce, and a dawning realisation of the perils of their new automated, unstaffed system. Savings that were meant to amount to only a couple of million per annum, but now clearly will not do so.

And now: where once there was a 'Junior Library', dedicated for the use of the children of Finchley, a ghost sign marks the only indication of its former presence.

What was the point of all this? 

What do they really think, those responsible for this outrage? 

Are they pleased with their work? 

Well, are you?

They took the letters down, but a ghost sign remains: the Junior Room

In the remaining library area, a teenage section has been emptied out too, to create a room with no apparent purpose. 

Worst of all, a nominal children's section has been shoved into the adult area. 

You cannot call it a children's library. I'm not sure what it is, other than an abomination, and an insult to the families in North Finchley who depended on this lovely library for their children's reading needs. 

Just look at it: an utter disgrace.

That table is the children's study table. Yes: THE children's study table. 

How is that adequate provision for the needs of local families? 

How does it meet the statutory requirements of the Library Act?

In the other bay, as here, there is a notice saying the area is for children only. Seated in the armchair, out of sight of the skeleton library staff, was an adult male, who, if he had seen the sign, had chosen to disregard it. 

Staff will no doubt try to make regular checks to see if anyone is sitting there, and ask them to leave, but what happens when they are busy, as they clearly are, with so few workers left to cover their duties? 

Libraries are visited regularly by adults with mental health issues and other difficulties, whose behaviour can sometimes be very challenging. This can and will represent a safeguarding risk to children.

And when the library is left unstaffed, as it is now, for much of the time, with a self entry system, who will tell adults to stay out of the children's area? Admittedly there will not be - in theory - many children there, as they are supposed to enter only with an adult in unstaffed hours. But - unless they continue to spend an unbudgeted massive monthly fee on extra security to guard the unstaffed libraries,  who will be there to check this is an appropriate adult, or supervise the safety of the children's area? 

No one. 

Except a CCTV camera, operated in Swansea.

The impact of these cuts on the children whose library has been stolen is immense: perhaps immeasurable. The consequences on standards of literacy will only become evident as future generations of less advantaged children are denied access to a range of reading material and study space. The wider effect in terms of social exclusion, and the isolation of homeless, jobless, elderly and disabled residents, is unthinkable.

Here are the people to thank for the 'refurbishment' of your local library service. Centre, Tory leader Richard Cornelius, to the right, library cutter councillor Reuben Thompstone - and left, Finchley and Golders Green MP Freer, whose last leaflet claimed his colleagues had 'invested' £14 million in libraries. 

Note they are standing outside not one of their newly cut libraries, but the small - and probably temporary - library for Church End, Finchley, a pop-up library in a block of flats which was offered by developers some years ago, as part of an application to develop Gateway House, and is nothing to do with the current Tory sponsored programme of destruction.

The story of North Finchley library is, as these tales from Broken Barnet always are, about so much more than it first seems. Not just about one library, or one library service, or the state of affairs in this rotten borough. You know what it means: you know what to do. 

Don't let them get away with it.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

St George's Lodge: a seasonal tale, and a New Year's message from Broken Barnet

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!" 

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol

Time for a seasonal tale - and one which illustrates, as perfectly as we could wish, the state of things, as they are, in this most rotten of all Rotten Boroughs.

A story without, alas, the redemptive ending of A Christmas Carol: a story, in fact, without an ending, and one that will continue, after the Christmas break, and New Year, in monthly instalments, for ever and ever - or at least ... until May, 2018.

Come now, with Mrs Angry, the ghost of Christmas Present, to the Burroughs, in Hendon. Stand and admire our Town Hall, once the heart of municipal Barnet - the seat of local authority. During the reign of Margaret Thatcher, it was the venue of election night broadcasts, as the country waited to see whether she could defeat Lord Buckethead (the real one, not the imposter), and Screaming Lord Sutch, and be returned to power as MP for Finchley, and tormentor of the undeserving poor of Breaking Britain, as PM.

Now the Town Hall retains but a shadow of its former self. The fact that it remains, in name only, as the Town Hall, and has not been sold as a hotel, or similar development, is due to an awkward heritage officer some years back (subsequently made redundant), who made sure the building was listed, and protected it from such an undignified fate. 

Listed, but not protected from misuse: the entrance lobby now carved up to make more office space, and the upper floor pimped out for weddings, other social events - or even filming. 

You may now marry in a building run by Capita, and go there to register a birth - or a death, before you or your loved one is taken off to the Easycrem Crapitorium, at Hendon Cemetery, run with ruthless profit-making efficiency by our private contractors. Live streamed funeral? DVD? Cup of tea in the Easycrem Cafe? All part of the service, and, as Miss Angry would say: I'm not even JOKING ...

The council chamber where Margaret once sat in glory, like Gloriana herself, surrounded by fawning Tory members, still survives, along with a few dismal committee rooms, used more for a backdrop to the vanity of Tory councillors, rather than any meaningful enactment of the processes of democracy. The meetings that take place there are as devoid of significance as the fading, hand tinted photographs of former Mayors and Mayoresses that still line the corridor: no one remembers who they are, now: and no one cares. 

On the right hand side of the Town Hall stands what used to be the borough's central library: the flagship library, when Barnet's service was one of the most respected in the UK: beacon status, value for money. Over the last year, it has been closed, gutted, almost entirely stripped of its function as a public library. What remains is not worthy of the name: the rest of the building has, grudgingly, after much persuasion, and a fair amount of begging by Barnet, been taken over by Middlesex University, as has most of the Town Hall. As well as the former Church Farmhouse Museum, a beautiful listed property, just around the corner. 

(This property, of course, fitting nicely into our seasonal theme, was once the home of Dickens's friend Mark Lemon. Dickens had several associations with this part of Hendon, in fact: not as a source of inspiration for a Christmas Carol, but in ways that are far more interesting than one might expect ... More on this from Mrs Angry's alter ego, in the New Year ...).

Middlesex Uni didn't need to take on these tenancies: but Barnet needed tenants, to justify their cuts and closures. The agreements that were eventually reached in regard to the offloading of these properties, in order to save the face of the Tory council, are of course hidden behind the veil of 'commercial sensitivity'.

On Thursday last week, one of the days in which Hendon 'Library' is unstaffed and accessible only to residents with a pin number to let themselves through the automatic doors, one of Mrs Angry's extensive network of spies (oh, ok: Labour councillor Adam Langleben) observed a most bizarre phenomenon: (see his footage on twitter) ... all day long, all the lights were flashing on and off repeatedly, maniacally,  as if the place was possessed, and exhibiting a manifestation of poltergeist activity. 

It is comforting to think that might be the case: the building itself rejecting the violation of its integrity as a library - and the intrusion of strangers.

On the other side of the Town Hall, there is a curious little building: see the top of this post - a late Victorian property, St George's Lodge, which was built as part of St Joseph's Convent, home of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ order of Catholic nuns, who came to Hendon in the late nineteenth century, and still run a primary school and pastoral centre, just around the corner.

The Lodge no longer belongs to them, however, but to the council - can you guess where we might be going with this story? Yes. Stand by.

For the last few years, as it happens, this house was leased by the council to the GMB union, who in turn - ha ha - sublet it to Hendon Labour Party. 

This was, as you might imagine, a constant source of irritation, of course, to local Tories, who made sure the Labour party kept to a rule forbidding the display of party political material, right next to the Town Hall. 

The lease ran out this year, and Labour, the GMB, and a charity which used the upper floor were shown the door.

Oh: the charity which used the upper floor? This is ADDISS, the national Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service. 

This is something of personal significance to Mrs Angry, having been diagnosed, in middle age, with ADD/ADHD, as well as dyspraxia, after half a lifetime struggling to cope with difficulties of this nature. What does it mean, ADD? The best description, perhaps, seen so far, comes from comedian Rory Bremner, who was also diagnosed with this problem, rather late in life, and compares the condition to being tuned into several different radio stations, all at the same time. Welcome to the inside of Mrs Angry's head: this is how it is - eternally distracted, often unable to focus, or follow complex sequences, or instructions, or remember important things. It is a 'hidden' disability, but one that affects your life, your personality, your education, your relationships, and your self esteem, in ways that are profound, and insidious.

For adults and children alike, advice and support from charities like ADDISS is vital, and something to be encouraged by the local authority, you would think: and of course the London Borough of Barnet depends on ADDISS, as part of the voluntary sector, to deliver important support services to those affected by ADD, which is why they supply them with grant funding.

But then of course, we must remember that we are living in Broken Barnet, where, in the age of Capita, the needs of a local charity, or vulnerable local residents, come second to the pursuit of profit.

When the GMB lease ran out, ADDISS asked to take over St George's Lodge. At first, it seemed this might be possible. Barnet's privatised property services, run by Capita CSG, appeared to be sympathetic, and talked about the charity's 'social value', and ways in which the lease might be transferred to them - but then informed the charity that the council would expect a market rent. 

This seems rather unfair: but ADDISS were prepared to consider this, at least in principle, as well as pay for refurbishment. As it turned out, Capita wanted to more than double the rent being paid by the former tenants, to a whopping £36,000 per annum. 

They were then informed that 'members of the council' would visit the property to make an assessment: a 'client lead', and a 'Community Asset Mentor'. Sounds innocuous enough - but both officers were of course from Capita. 

Warm sounds were made, at this stage, however, about how much the council - via Capita - wanted to help charities in the borough flourish, and grow, with their support. 

The reality has proved to be something rather different, in this case.

Time went by, and it became apparent that although they were allowed to remain in situ while 'negotiations' were underway, obstructions were being put in the path of any more permanent and formal tenancy. 

In August, a Capita officer wrote to the charity and told them, in effect, to get out. 

St George's Lodge was being put on the open market, and while this process was under way, it now was claimed, "the Council has an urgent use for it to temporarily house other services ..." 

Urgent use? And temporarily? 

In truth, it seems they were trying to get their usual obliging tenant, Middlesex University, to take it on. Well, why not? Their accumulation of most of the rest of the Burroughs seems well nigh impossible to stop.

Strange that this sudden haste to rehouse other unnamed services was not in any way impeded by the later excuse for a need for immediate removal: that the building needed 'significant' repair work. Work that was significant, it seems, but not something that worried the council when the property was being used by the Labour party and a charity, that is.

Officers pointed out that the building did not have 'community status', so they would not, could not, help out by applying the CBAT* subsidy (*Community Benefit Assessment Tool). Even if the charity applied for grant funding to pay a commercial rent, that would take months, they said, and there was no guarantee that the council would continue such funding, and - dear me: 

"for a property that holds the financial and political value that St George's Lodge does, the insecurity of the income stream is not a risk that the council can take ..."

Financial value  is of course the only measurement of worth, in Broken Barnet - but ... political value? What does this mean, exactly? An extraordinary comment.

Where did the Barnet Capita officers suggest the charity move to? It had been hinted that - ha - they could move to one of the newly gutted libraries. 

Well, as we know: plenty of room there. 

At least three children's libraries have been emptied, and a huge amount of space removed from every library in the borough, supposedly on the pretext of making office accommodation, that would generate £500,000 a year in income. 

But how strange ... ADDISS were told as recently as the 20th December by a Barnet Capita officer that:

 "... unfortunately we do not currently have any available space within our libraries ..." 


They came up with an alternative idea: hot desking. Yes: for a charity.

No available space in libraries? ... Despite all the millions spent on reconstructing the buildings in order to create areas for renting out? As far as we can see so far, there are no new tenants in these newly assaulted buildings, other than Hendon. A very odd state of affairs. And what about the risk of 'insecurity of the income stream' in this respect? Half a million a year lost is hardly insignificant.

It seems highly likely, in fact, that, as we were informed by a whistleblower a couple of years ago, Barnet Capita staff will be placed in these spaces. 

This raises many questions. 

Was the pretext of making office space a deliberate attempt to persuade councillors to approve the library cuts, as addressing the apparent problem of budget restraints?

Does Capita gain in any way from placing staff in libraries? (Mrs Angry has already tried to ask this question at a committee meeting, to little avail).

What does it mean for the future of our already mortally wounded library service, to lose £500,000 of revenue?

Why should space that could be used by the community, or by charities offering support services to our community, be handed over to Capita to save money on accommodation costs - and possibly earn themselves a nice little bonus in the form of a gainshare payment in the process?

What does it say about Capita's stranglehold on our council, our borough, that locally based charities, providing such a vital service, are treated in this shabby way?

And it is shabby: particularly so in the way ADDISS have been told, at the end of December, to clear out of St George's Lodge, in a matter of days. Yes: days. 

The charity pointed out that they - and the council - have a duty of care to the vulnerable residents that they support; that they need time to make arrangements, not just practical ones in terms of removal, but to safeguard the best interests of their clients; they run a helpline that must be in place, for those who need it, for example. This was to no avail, until, after a certain amount of protest, eviction was delayed. But only to the end of January. 

And yes, appeals had been made to Tory councillors over the last few months, including the Tory leader, Richard Cornelius. A local Tory member who was written to is reported to have made no response, although a strange question then appeared at a full council meeting, asking not about the future of the charity, but rather how many properties the council owned in the Burroughs. 

Across the road from the Town Hall, and St George's Lodge, there is a building site: an empty lot, surrounded by wooden fencing, next to a listed row of mid eighteenth century houses. Because of these and other listed buildings, the Burroughs is a conservation area. This did not prevent the White Bear, an historic building which stood on this site, the last in a succession of important taverns of that name at this location since 1736, and which bore a blue plaque noting its significance as the meeting place of the local court leet, from being mercilessly demolished, without permission, a year ago, despite residents' pleas to local planning and enforcement officers, even as the bulldozers were in action.

St George's Lodge is locally listed: but that will not save it. Local listing does not protect properties from demolition, or development. And in the age of Capita, nowhere is safe. Local listing offers only the protection loosely defined by 'planning policy'. 

Planning and enforcement, two services run by Capita Re, sanctioned by Tory councillors, failed the White Bear. A prime site in this location, immediate to the Town Hall, is clearly just as much at risk. And if no new tenants are found for the property, the chances are it will be put up for sale. It is entirely possible that developers are already expressing interest in the site. 

If put up for sale: expect the worst. This is Broken Barnet, where the worst scenario is always the first and last option: the only option.

But what does this sorry tale tell you about the way this borough is run, and the sort of administration which is responsible? 

Right in the heart of what used to be the council's own seat of administration, this is the story of a Conservative council which has abandoned its civic responsibilities, and handed over control of all the services on which we depend to a profiteering company whose priority has never been, and never will be, the well being of those who live here, in their latest and most obliging client state. 

And it is the story of a political ideology, rooted in the age of Thatcherism, whose acolytes see nothing of merit in public service, or the public sector, or the idea of community. 

So Mrs Angry's New Year message to you, dear reader, is this: a suggestion. 

Take a walk along the Burroughs, over the next few days, and take a good look. 

Look at the Town Hall, which isn't a Town Hall. 

Look at the library, which is no longer a library. 

Then take a moment to reflect on the story in this post.

If you don't like the idea of charities being treated like this, or the property next door to you being knocked down for development with no warning, or your park being sold off to developers, or your roads going ungritted in a snowstorm, or your local museum being shut and ransacked and its contents being put for up sale, or your libraries being shut, cut, and torn to pieces, then please: think carefully in May, when your Tory councillors expect you to vote again for them, and ask for four more years of the same. 

They are so arrogant, they think you will vote for them again, simply due to their own sense of entitlement. 

They are so foolish, they think you won't notice what a hash they and their contractors have made of things, since your council services were privatised. 

They hope you won't have read the conclusions of their own external auditors, that they are running out of money - your money - and have yet to produce the scale of savings they pretend they can deliver. 

It is in your hands, however, friends, to disabuse them of their sense of complacency, and their assumption of a divine right to rule. 

The Labour group in Barnet also have their part to play, and changes to make, if they ask to be trusted with the management of the council's role : time to step up, and use their role as opposition to greater effect, following the direction of the newly energised party, represented by a more radical agenda of policies - and leader. Carrying on as before is not an option: there is an appetite for change, but one that needs to see locally, as it has nationally, a re-assertion of fundamental Labour principles, expressed in more robust language - and action.

In the new year, in May, residents will have the chance to change the fortunes of this borough, and begin the task of reclaiming ownership of our local democratic process. 

That responsibility lies with all of us - and the work towards that change begins now.

Happy New Year to you all.