Friday, 21 July 2017

Beware of the Leopard: or - tales of planning and enforcement in Broken Barnet - the story of Victoria Park Lodge continues


But the plans were on display…”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a flashlight.”

“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign outside the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

No leopards in Victoria Park: just an unlaminated application notice hidden by Barnet Capita planning officers on a lamp post out of sight of the site in question, rather than on the one outside the property.

Summer in Broken Barnet can only mean one thing. 

Apart, that is, from the haze of filthy air draped over the North Circular,  criss-crossed by the trail of planes carrying our Tory councillors up, up into the clouds, pointed in the distance of their holiday homes in the Dordogne, while down below, back in Broken Barnet, officers of the London Borough of Crapita carry on with business as usual. 

Well: as usual, but even more so, during the holiday season, the 'silly season' when - they think - most residents are away, and all councillors. 

Summer is a very good time, you see, to get on with anything likely to be controversial, with the residents of Broken Barnet.  

Remember the summer of 2012, when senior officers took advantage of the absence of the Tory leader, and announced they had decided on a joint venture, with Capita?

There are other sorts of things that are best dealt with in the holidays. Unpopular development plans, for example. 

Aha. Anything in particular, Mrs Angry? 

Well, yes. But you wouldn't know, of course, unless you already knew, because, like Mrs Angry, someone had found out, and told you. 

Because the council is not exactly falling over backwards in the effort to keep you informed.

Beware of the leopard.

Remember the plans revealed last year, around this time, to knock down the lovely, historic, arts & crafts style park keeper's Lodge in Victoria Park, Finchley? 

Well, guess what? Here we go again. 

Knock it down and build flats. Yes, flats. In a park. 

Residents and campaigners outside the Lodge last year

My local park: just around the corner from home, the place my children played in all year round, when they were small, through which, or past which, we still all walk every day: a lovely Edwardian park  founded by local benefactors such as 'Inky' Stephens, for the enjoyment of the people of Finchley, left to decline by the council in recent times, but still green, and quiet, with lovely trees chosen by Stephens, and well used, and well loved by local residents.

Here is some of the history of Victoria Park, and the background to the story of the development, in a post from last year:

Standing on the far right is what appears to be the ghostly presence of the park keeper who first lived in the Lodge, Thomas Smith

And here is more:

The consultation period for the new plans is already underway. 

You wouldn't have known it had begun, unless another resident or park campaigner told you, because the official notice from the Council was the one shown above, hidden on a far away lamp post - the photo shows the notice after it had been turned round the right way by me. A notice that no one will see, at the furthest possible distance from the Lodge, out of sight of it, in fact. 

A notice in small print on a piece of thin A 4 paper, shoved in the sort of flimsy, transparent, punch holed cover kept by students in ring binders - open to the elements, so that the first time it rains, the notice becomes soaked, and then illegible.

Complaints were made to Tory councillors some while ago at a Residents Forum about this practice. They agreed it was unacceptable, yet planning officers refuse to abandon this unprofessional form of notification, and use laminated notices that are larger and unaffected by rain. Why is that? I have one from Highways right outside my house at the moment: twice the size of A4, and properly laminated, in a prominent and appropriate position. Apparently Capita planning officers are unable to borrow the laminating machine used by their colleagues in Highways, or allowed to purchase one themselves. Hard up for cash, probably.

After complaints about this notice to a senior officer, copied to the Chief Executive, John Hooton, who also dealt with 'problems' in the consultation process last year, suddenly it was agreed that the original notice could have been placed in a better position, and that eight more notices should be put up around the Park, including, as it ought to have been, outside the Lodge itself, where there is a perfectly good lamp post. 

And suddenly as well, they decided it would be a good idea to consult all those hundreds of people who objected last year - and amend the consultation closing dates. 

Good, but why were these measures not implemented as the obvious course of action, rather than in re-action to residents' complaints?

And the notices? Well, of course - still not laminated. Walking by yesterday on the way home, it was clear that after the first fall of rain ... yes, nicely soaked & on the way to illegibility: is that part of a meaningful process of consultation, do you think?

One of the new notices

New official notice outside the Lodge: no expense spared on flimsy cover, but a robust application of string. How long is a piece of Capita Re string, Mrs Angry?  As long as you like, doesn't matter, as no one will be able to read this by Monday.

But there is another 'problem', and one similar to the 'problem' that mysteriously occurred last year, when the Chief Executive had to investigate why planning officers were ignoring complaints that the online comments system had been set up to favour the supposedly 'supporting' comments. Supposedly, as many were rather odd, and, as discovered once the identities were published, from people associated with the developer, his builder, their families etc.

It had been noticed, however that these 'supporting' comments were hidden by anonymity, while any objectors had, as is supposed to be the case, their full names and addresses published. It was found that the web form had apparently been coded so as to automatically anonymise the supporting comments. 

Only after complaining to the Chief Executive was this stopped. But why had it happened? Who had authorised and implemented this? We were not told.

This year something equally odd has happened.

At the beginning of this week, residents who had left comments objecting to the new development plans began reporting that these objections, after being published, had suddenly vanished. Possibly up to a third removed, or deleted -  obviously changing the proportion of objections to supporters. And yes, residents have sent me screenshots of their lost comments, and noted when they were published.

Supporting comments are of course much fewer, and clearly predominantly not from the local area, for some reason. They are largely preposterous, ranging from the absurd to the offensive, with many who live miles away claiming new luxury flats in my park must be allowed in order to address the urgent housing crisis in my area (not theirs, clearly) or claiming that they travel miles from their home to stroll about late night in my local park, and worry about crime, so flats must be built here to mitigate against their fears. Or something like that. 

Worst of all are the remarks, an echo from last year, apparently from a woman using the suffix 'Mr', affecting the same argument due to what she suggests is the 'raping history' of the park. 

Why anyone would think the gravely serious issue of violent sexual assault is a useful pretext for backing a development of flats - and one with views overlooking a children's playground - is beyond comprehension, and deeply distasteful.

But what has happened to the missing objections? 

Yet again, several complaints have been made, to the senior planning officers, and to the Chief Executive. 

Days have gone by: all we are told is that they are 'urgently investigating'. What are they up to? Who removed the objections? Why have they not been replaced? Have other objections not even been published? We do not know.

As time goes by, any lingering confidence that residents can have in this hapless 'consultation' is rapidly diminishing.

The Lodge

Residents are already at a disadvantage, in any major planning development now in Barnet, because of something few of them know about. And that relates to what is in effect a major conflict of interest inherent in the way in which Capita runs the council's planning and enforcement services. 

As fellow blogger Mr Reasonable recently pointed out to Tory councillors, the poor level of enforcement in this borough is likely to be related to the fact that their contractors make no real money on it. The profit is all in planning. An important source of that profit is in the new system that has been introduced allowing Capita 'Re' to charge developers big fat fees for pre-application advice on their proposals. Proposals that will be decided at an early stage by  ... Capita 'Re'. 

This advice is something we, the residents, and taxpayers, are not allowed to know about: it is a matter of commercial interest, between planning officers working for  'Re', and their clients, the developers: all perfectly legitimate, it must be stressed.

Legitimate, but fair? Should a council's planning service not prioritise the best interests of residents, in the course of an entirely open and transparent process? Should there be any inherent conflict? 

Are planning officers under pressure to meet targets of recommended approvals? How much time and consideration is given to the needs of the community within the process of application? We don't know. But clearly a large number of recommendations to reject applications by officers would deter developers from using the fee based advice service.

They will say, oh the same officers who deal with the case don't decide the outcome. Is that so? Please demonstrate that. But as Mr Reasonable also pointed out, management of conflicts of interest is largely about perception, rather than proven risk.

The balance has tipped too far: the planning process as it is now cannot work to the best advantage of ordinary property owners or residents affected by development. And the political impact of this for Tory politicians both on the council and in parliament is rapidly growing. 

Back to the Lodge.

The park keeper's Lodge and garden, Victoria Park
Bad enough in itself, the idea of demolition of this lovely building, but to be replaced by an block of flats? Unthinkable, you would imagine. Unless you are a developer, or work for the Capita run planning service of our Tory council.

This time the proposed structure is less high, and less brash - but still ugly, a mutant style of architecture cobbled together in order to convince us all that it is somehow in keeping with an area of Edwardian housing. The photograph on the plans is rather fuzzy and appears to have been photoshopped from an amalgam of gothic Victorian, rather than Edwardian, buildings, rather unhappily reminiscent of a workhouse, corrective institution, or asylum. 

Perhaps someone doesn't know their architectural history, or language - or care, or understand that any building on this site, in a public park, is simply not acceptable, and would set a dangerous precedent if allowed. 

A mock up from the application for the latest development plans, flats over looking a playground, built in the style of 'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children' ...

If allowed, moreover, it would be a constant reminder to every former Tory voter passing by, or entering the park, of the demonstrable state of abject failure by their council and their MPs to prevent the development of our parks and open spaces, or to exercise any control over the now rampant overdevelopment of our borough.

The ugliness of the flats proposed last year was one thing: the real objection was the principle of building anything at all in any of our parks - we all know that this is seen as a test case by the council - and Capita - intended to serve as a precedent to sell off other parts of our parks and open spaces, and accumulate capital profits from development potential in the process.

The reaction to this proposal last year was instant: residents were horrified at the thought of the Lodge being demolished, and incensed by the very idea of a part of their park being used for development of any sort. Objections soon rolled in, and after a hard fought campaign by the community, the plans were blocked. Of course it was only a matter of time before the developer, who bought the property for a cash sum, made another attempt to make profit from his ill advised purchase.

An ill advised purchase, as the council's own lawyer had admitted at a Residents Forum last year to local campaigner Mary O'Connor: stating that the buyer may well have landed himself with 'a white elephant'. 

Which was an acknowledgement that, aside from uncertainties over the power of the authority to dispose of the Lodge in the first place, there are quite clearly limitations on the use of that site, which are there to prevent the site from being developed, or separated from its function in regard to the park.

Well: 'caveat emptor', and all that: but did the council in any way lead the purchaser to believe he could develop the site? Because if so, and they had doubts about the grounds for such belief ... he might well have reason to feel disgruntled now.

The application last year, in any case, was met with a tidal wave of objection from local residents, and thankfully, was rejected at the first stage. Now it seems we must go through all of this again.

What we must also go through, it seems, is the deathly and mysterious processes of the privatised planning service now run for Barnet by Capita. 

Many concerns have been raised by residents over the last year about planning and enforcement in this borough. As the Capita 'Re' contract has bedded in, and change has become apparent, those who generally take no notice of council policy, indeed are likely to be (previously, at least) happy Tory voting homeowners are now sitting up and objecting to the failure of the authority to regulate the tide of development,  large and small, that is transforming the streets of this borough, seemingly unrestrained. 

As previously reported, we have seen vast large scale developments built at the expense of lost landmarks, such as the Newspaper Library and hospital in Colindale, but also we are seeing a tendency to smaller properties being knocked down without authorisation - such as the historic former White Bear pub in the Burroughs, opposite the Town Hall - and in another case, a house in Hendon by the same developer as the one who bought the Lodge, unsanctioned by local councillors, who indeed recently happily approved a retrospective planning application for the new building that had already sprung up in its place. 

Despite the indifference of Tory councillors in Hendon, their colleague and current Mayor Brian Salinger has expressed his worries about the low level of enforcement of planning breaches: everything from a house built in a barn in Totteridge, to multiple examples of unauthorised extensions, outbuildings, conversions. 

A recent meeting of residents and Tory members to discuss the Capita contract which oversees these services was attended by a large number of residents, not political activists, but ordinary people enraged by what they see as the councillors' failure to put their interests before that of developers. It was an uncomfortable experience for the Tories, who clearly have not any degree of control over the monster they have created in this so called 'joint venture', and will now pay the political price, in next year's local elections.

Not surprisingly, the developer who bought the Lodge in a cash purchase from the council, wants to see a return for his money. 

He thought - or was led to believe - that he could develop this site, and that it was worth the investment. Who told him that? We don't know. 

The property had stood empty for several years, because the council had evicted the family who had lived there: they had thought the sale of this property would be straightforward, and only later realised the legal limitations that applied to the property, in terms of any attempt to sell it, once the Lodge had been emptied by the authority and put on the 'assets for sale' list.

What we do know, however, is that there is a covenant that protects this side of the park from development, and that the site where the lodge is situated cannot be used for the erection of anything other than a park keeper's lodge, a cricket pavilion, or a bandstand.

Even if this covenant did not apply, and if anyone accepted the principle of building a block of flats within the footprint of a public park, there is absolutely no way in which this location is suitable for development. 

The Lodge site is at the entrance to the park, on a very busy road, and at a junction which is already dangerous: residents know of countless accidents at this spot - personally known to Mrs Angry were one involving a six year old child, and another in which a mother was hit by a car and her baby catapulted out of her buggy. To put a block of flats there, with access for a number of associated cars, would be an act of extreme folly, endangering the lives and safety of many families and children entering the park, or simply walking along this section of Long Lane. It would raise the risk of accidents not just between vehicles travelling along Long Lane, or crossing the already risky junction with Park View Road and Oakfield Road, but exiting the proposed flats.

It is hard to see this developer accepting he has been sold a pup, in the case of the Lodge: he clearly does not understand why local residents object to the loss of this building, a part of our built heritage, and local history; nor probably does he appreciate the strength of feeling about the principle of protecting a park from development. 

What is to be done, then? Well: forget about a block of flats. It's not going to happen. Even if the Lodge were demolished, or fell down, or went up in flames, the covenant means it has to be replaced by ... a cricket pavilion, a bandstand ... or a Park Keeper's Lodge. Nothing else. 

This is a charming period building, with a lovely, private garden, and sympathetically restored, would make a suitable community centre, or an attractive cafe. Residents would also probably be happy to see it used as it was before the sale, as a family home: a period property in a nice garden screening it from the rest of the park, as it was, would turn over a reasonable profit for a developer stuck with what is otherwise a 'white elephant'.

And similar Lodges, in other areas have been sympathetically restored: such as this one, in Roe Green Park, Brent, which is going to be a cafe: you can see the similarities to the property in Victoria Park: this would perhaps be the ideal solution - and one which would generate income for the owner - for our Lodge. It certainly would be a more positive outcome for the reputations of all parties involved, than a continued attempt to knock it down and replace it with flats.

In Labour run Brent, where a very similar park keeper's lodge has been restored, and will be used as a cafe, rather than offered as a development opportunity by Tory councillors ... Pic courtesy Wembley Matters website

In a borough where our libraries are currently undergoing a virtual evisceration, and the service is all but dead, it is of course a natural progression of thought for our Tory council to see our parks and open spaces as the next target in their campaign of destruction. As well as the sale of the Lodge site, it is rumoured developers have their eyes on a plot of land at the main entrance to Victoria Park. It is likely this will be attempted, under the pretence, as was the Lodge sale, of generating revenue for the park, which is in a state of deliberate neglect, and underfunding, in preparation, it is alleged, for such proposals, as well as spurious proof of the need for 'volunteer' maintenance by residents, rather than by the council that we already pay to do the job. In this pursuit, the council has identified small and unrepresentative residents' groups to co-opt in what they hope to present as 'consultation' over their plans. 

Some residents attempting to take part in these groups report that they have waited weeks to have their applications accepted, and then found themselves relegated to a mailing group, rather than invited to take part in any meetings, or decision making. Don't be fooled: the real voice of the residents and users of this park in the objections: those that have survived.

The idea of a public park, like that of a public library, is something that speaks to a uniquely British sense of national identity. It is a cultural symbol, as much as anything: a mark of community, a shared space, endowed in an age of philanthropy for the generations of the future; a legacy that is precious and founded in our common history. 

Let's not let them tear that apart. 

Here is a leaflet produced by residents campaigning against the Lodge demolition and development: please check when making your objection that the amended consultation end date has been verified.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Children at risk: Time to take responsibility - a joint statement

Children at Risk: Time to take responsibility

A joint statement from the Barnet Bloggers

“There are widespread and serious failures in the services provided to children and their families in Barnet. Inspectors identified a legacy of widespread poor practice and ongoing systemic failures and services that neither adequately ensure the safety, nor promote the welfare of children and young people”. 

Ofsted Inspection Report on Barnet Children’s Service July 2017

Over nearly a decade of scrutiny by Barnet bloggers, we have investigated and reported the seemingly endless sequence of scandals, blunders, and political folly created by Barnet’s Conservative councillors. The incomprehensible tale of the MetPro fiasco, the disgraceful confiscation of travel passes for disabled residents, the cutting of vital respite care for children at Mapledown School, which cares for children with profound disabilities, the illegal CPZ parking charges, are only some of the many examples of administrative incompetence – and worse – that we have pursued.

In all this time, in response to all of these disastrous situations, not one Conservative member has taken responsibility for the failure in services to what are very often the most vulnerable members of our community.

No one could be more vulnerable than a child: especially a child in care, whose well being has become the responsibility of the local authority, standing as a corporate parent.

Yet now we see the emergence of a most damning report from OFSTED, one that slates the provision of care services in Barnet for such children: a report that should shame any local authority, and would – anywhere else but in Barnet.

“The vast majority of care planning is ineffective. There is a lack of focus on measuring progress for children or their outcomes. When there is no progress, this is not re-evaluated or escalated effectively. This leads to drift and delay. This is particularly stark for a significant number of children who are victims of chronic long-term neglect and emotional abuse, who do not have the impact of this risk recognised, responded to or reduced, despite spending long periods subject to child protection planning … ”.

“Young people who go missing from care receive a poor service, because social workers do not find out enough about the risks to them. This means that young people who go missing are not always kept safe enough from dangers, such as gangs or adults sexually exploiting them”.

In any circumstances where there has been proven wrongdoing, or a failure in standards, it is usually the case, in Barnet, that officers are held responsible, and those elected members tasked with the responsibility – and paid generous allowances for those duties –of overseeing the enforcement of their own policies remain distanced from the consequences of their actions. We believe that this is wrong, and that councillors should be held accountable.

In this case, we believe, the fault lies in a serious failure in leadership, oversight and scrutiny by the Children, Education, Libraries and Safeguarding Committee, chaired by Conservative councillor Reuben Thompstone.

The same committee was responsible for the Mapledown cuts – later reversed, after protests from parents, and a public outcry; and was also the instrument of approval for the devastating programme of cuts to our library service, presented to residents as mere ‘refurbishment’, but which has seen the closure of children’s libraries, and the removal of access for under sixteen year olds from any library operating the newly unstaffed hours.

It seems to us that under this Conservative administration, children are seen not as our most precious asset, but an easy target for cuts, and the lowering of standards meant to ensure their protection, and wellbeing.

In 2014 Tory members approved a cost cutting restructuring of Family Services which has resulted in the use of agency social workers soaring from none in 2013, to £3.05 million per annum in 2016/17.

With the average agency social worker staying just 202 days, there has been a constant turnover of staff, and throughout this period, Children’s Services have been under constant pressure to meet the budget savings forecast.

We believe that pressure on budgets for local social workers responsible for ensuring the safety of young people has lead to the near destruction of the service, and a situation where there are simply not the resources to ensure vulnerable young people are given the life chances they deserve.

This cannot possibly be in the best interests of the children of this borough.

We therefore make the following suggestions:

1.     That there must be a full open, transparent, and independent public inquiry into what went wrong.

2.    This inquiry must include a forensic audit of all correspondence between the Conservative administration and officers, regarding Children’s Services, to ensure that political interference has not, and cannot in future, prejudice the standard of care.

3.    This inquiry should be concluded prior to May 2018, to allow the people of Barnet to pass their own judgement on the administration.

4.    We call for the resignation of the Councillor in charge of Children’s Services, Cllr Reuben Thompstone.

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne