Sunday, 13 August 2017

The fields lie sleeping: the story of Victoria Park Lodge



Victoria Park Lodge

Once you get outside the inner areas of old cities ... you do not have to go far down to find real earth, the kind cows walked on and crops sprang from, lying there fallow beneath the weight of stone. In this sense the past can be said to be still there, not just existing in the minds of those who seek it, but actually, physically still present ...

Anyone with an interest in local history is likely to have read, at one time, the classic work by Gillian Tindall  -'The Fields Beneath, the History of One London Village'. First published in 1977, this study of Kentish Town is not just a mildly interesting account of the development of that area, but as its introduction reveals, it proposed a new way of looking at urban history, unpicking the layers of time that lie underneath what was once a collection of villages, now held within the sprawling reach of Greater London.

Tindall focuses on the story behind the 'unremarkable' buildings and streets of Kentish Town, such as a row of houses then being occupied by squatters, embroiled in a row with Camden Council. She looks beyond the facade of the twentieth century, and examines the foundation of forgotten history  that underpins the present: noting the inscription carved into a lintel of one of these houses: The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath.

Even in the most built up of areas, she observes, the traces of the past have shaped the reality of the present: the bend of a road still tracing a long disappeared piece of marshy land, or the line of a garden wall following the boundary of a hedgerow. 

Here in Finchley, such traces are not so hard to find. Long Lane, for example, is recognisable from views in old postcards, not so much by the buildings on one side, although many Victorian and Edwardian examples remain, as by the road itself, some of which, opposite the park, not only follows the line of the old hawthorn hedgerow, but has remnants still in the front gardens of some of the houses. One of these is on the other side of the park entrance - and the old Park Keeper's Lodge. 

Ah yes: the Park Keeper's Lodge. Still standing: just about, but sold to a developer who thinks he can knock it down and build a block of flats. Yes, a block of flats - in a park. 

A park: a recreation ground, created by local philanthropists, with money collected to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, and opened shortly after her death by her daughter, Princess Christian. 

The philanthropists and benefactors who dedicated themselves to the idea of a recreation ground for the people of Finchley included the MP, Henry 'Inky' Stephens, from Avenue House, and a man named Francis Hamilton, who was a former merchant, now retired and living at Brent Lodge, one of those large Finchley residences which have disappeared, this one demolished in 1962, despite protest by Spike Milligan and the rest of the Finchley Society. 

Inky Stephens

Hamilton had spent much of his life in Liverpool, engaged in trading with America, particularly cotton. As his obituaries tell us, he was a deeply religious man, a faith perhaps all the more important to him because of the tragic loss of his two young sons, within a fortnight of each other, in 1866. He believed that charitable work was a Christian duty: and he duly gave a portion of his income to a range of good causes. When he died in 1907, his funeral cortege passed through the streets of Finchley, streets that were lined with local residents; blinds were drawn, and tradesmen shut up their shops, as a sign of the respect they felt for him, and as a mark of the loss to the local community. 

Francis Hamilton gave £1,000 towards the purchase of land for Victoria Park; Inky Stephens and Mr Crisp each gave £400; but there were many other subscribers - the list takes up almost all the central column of the front page from January 13th, 1898, reproduced below - some two hundred people gave a contribution, from five shillings from Mr A K Dunkley, to ten pounds from ... the Reverend Batty.


As well as public subscription, grants from Middlesex County Council also went towards the purchase of land from Mr Crisp, and Mr Brooks: the wording of the agreement with the County Council is unequivocal - given for the use of the public 'for ever as an open space and recreation ground'. For ever. 

The first trustees carefully  laid out a covenant that applies to the section of the park which includes the Lodge site, facing on to Long Lane, to protect the recreation ground from development. Other pieces of land to the east and north were added some years later.

The land sold by Mr Brooks and Mr Crisp - at a discounted rate, in acknowledgement of the use to which the sixteen acres were intended - were former fields that once were part of Cobley's Farm, and on the border of Finchley Common. 

The Common has a long history: apart from its associations with highwaymen like Dick Turpin, and Jack Shepherd, and a reputation as dangerous territory, it was the site of military encampments, from the time of the Civil War to the Napoleonic period. 

(I once met a woman who lived a couple of streets away from the park, and claimed she had seen the ghost of a soldier, in an old style red and white uniform, pass through her garden, one dusky evening. She didn't know about the history of armies pitched on the Common, or even know about the Common ... so perhaps she really did have a fleeting glimpse of some moment in Finchley's past ...)

A few paces away from the fields on Long Lane, where Mr Cobley had his farmhouse, at Fallow Corner, Charles Dickens came to stay, in rural isolation, in the summer of 1843, working on 'Martin Chuzzlewit':

'I have discovered a lovely Farm House at Finchley and am going to bury myself there for at least a month to come ... immersing myself in my story.'

Cobley's farmhouse was demolished in 1902, the same year the park was opened. All around the area, the fields were turned to housing, rows of Edwardian terraces. The huge boom in building over the last couple of decades was, in fact, as press reports of the time show, a major factor in the decision by Stephens and Hamilton to make a public recreation ground: they wanted to make sure the residents of the new houses had somewhere green and open, where they could spend their limited leisure time.

Early on in the planning for the park, problems arose as a result of a disagreement with local workers, at a public meeting, who wanted allotments, rather than a recreation ground. Dissatisfaction continued after the opening, when the land was used primarily for rather more middle class pursuits such as cricket: but worse was to come ... within a year of opening, controversy emerged over plans to allow a military band to play music in the park on Sundays. According to a report of a meeting of Finchley District Council in July 1903, local vicars were enraged by this proposal and wrote to complain, and so too did Francis Hamilton: 

'The original scheme', he wrote, 'was to secure an open space for cricket and other games, and on this understanding I contributed a large sum. The ground has been diverted from the original plan, as a sort of shut-up common garden, the front gates being always closed. Had I suspected the ground would ever be used for musical or other such entertainments on Sundays I certainly should never have contributed a farthing toward it. The plan adopted is calculated to bring all the idle loafers, to draw teachers and children from the Sunday Schools, and greatly to interfere with all the endeavours of those who are trying, by religious and philanthropic work, to elevate the neighbourhood'.

Interestingly enough, the councillors, such as Mr Wightman, and Mr Stockman, were not inclined to be bullied into stopping the entertainment: they believed it was important for ordinary local people to be able to spend their one day of leisure in the park, listening to music, if they wanted to - and the band played on. 

Cricket was played in the park, but only by children: any adult in breach of this rule was reprimanded by the new park keeper, who lived in the Arts & Crafts style Lodge at the Long Lane entrance, and he was very firm about this - as we know from a letter to the local paper, in 1909 - the council made sure the playing of games was regulated, and in keeping with the byelaws they had put in place.

This of course was in the days when local councillors saw their roles as a form of civic duty, unpaid, and as a way to help to build a new community, with new parks, new libraries, and new hospitals. How times have changed. 

Now the heirs to Mr Wightman, and Mr Stockman, our Tory councillors and their private contractors, are busy tearing apart everything they created, destroying the library service, opening up the grounds of Finchley Memorial Hospital to development, and selling off parts of our parks, also for development.


Or trying to. 

We know that the Lodge site sale, whether a breach of the covenant or not, was meant to be a test case for other parks and open spaces. Another part of this park, by the main entrance, may be next - and all other parks in the borough are now at risk from development. Unless we make a stand now, over Victoria Park: and over the plans to build flats on the Lodge site.

Back to Tindall:

The situation of specific buildings - pubs, churches, institutions - often dates from long distant decision and actions on the part of men whose names have vanished from any record.

The buildings remain, when even those names vanish, or when the history is forgotten. But if we want to preserve those buildings, we must remember their history. And the history of Victoria Park, and its Lodge, is in danger of slipping out of memory, along with the names of those who created the park, used the park - or worked and lived there.

Newspaper archives tell that story, if you look. And that story is also the wider history of Finchley, in the last century. From the earliest days, and class conflict over the proposed use of the purchased land, with the emergence of a working class prepared to challenge the benevolent paternalism of local worthies, to arguments over cricket, and the threat to the authority of the church, and beyond: the looming clouds of war, from massed celebrations of Empire Day, to the first years of the Great War, and recruiting rallies. 

Soon after the outbreak of war, they were holding a series of concerts, in Victoria Park, to raise funds for refugees from Belgium. 

And soon after the outbreak of war the local papers were publishing column after column of notifications of the loss of men from Finchley, in the unceasing toll of casualties. 


Believed to be Mr Smith, the first park keeper and occupant of the Lodge

Here is Mr Smith, the first park keeper. 

Thomas George Smith: born in Great Yeldham, Essex, in the 1860s, but moved to Finchley as a young man, where he met his wife Fanny, a nurse. They married and had two children: Frank, and Dorothy, who would have been about six and seven when they moved into the newly built Lodge, and were became the first children to play in the little garden still there, behind the hedge. Perhaps one or two of the older trees were already in place, when they lived there, and they had a swing, like the children who were evicted a few years ago, when the council wanted to make what they thought would be a quick buck, from the sale of the site, and evicted the family whose home it was.

Dorothy married in 1922, and disappears from the records. Thomas Smith returned to Essex, and died there at the beginning of the second world war. 

The local paper tells us what happened to Frank, in 1917:



When I pass by the gate of the Lodge now, I don't see the future site of a block of flats. I see a nineteen year old boy who used to go to the school next door to my house, emerging from the front porch of his home, a century ago, after a year spent recovering from the hell of Gallipoli - or rather the botched landing at Suvla Bay - packed up, and ready to go to France and die in a trench, somewhere outside Arras. 

And I think of his parents and sister, receiving that letter from his friend. 

The fields lie sleeping.

He made 'the great sacrifice', we read. His parents may have taken comfort from that thought: that their son's death was not in vain, that it was for his King and country, and that his loss, and the loss of a whole generation of young men from Finchley, was to build a better future. 

It seems now we are determined to throw that better future away, with all the progress that came after two world wars, as we plunder every source of profit left in every public asset, every parcel of land, every opportunity for development, regardless of the consequences.

Did the council have the right to sell the Lodge site? 

Morally: no. 

Legally? It is unclear. 

The land is protected by the covenant that was supposed to prevent this section of the park, carefully created by the purchasers acting on behalf of the people of Finchley, meant to prevent the very fate it now faces: destruction and development. 

They were acting as trustees not only for the time of the park's creation, but for its future life, for future generations. How could they know that their heirs, in their role as councillors, would compromise their position as trustees, and guardians of the park, and put the Lodge site up for sale without bothering to check that any covenant was in place? 

That their role as trustees was not protected by the maintenance of a separate body, or committee, that would safeguard the best interests of the park, but would allow the Tory councillors, in an apparent conflict of interest, to approve the sale, as part of their asset stripping agenda, with no consideration given to their duty to uphold the terms of the covenant?

Even the council's own lawyer, at a residents' meeting last year, appeared to have doubts about the sale and any future use of land. She said that the developer may well have bought himself something of a 'white elephant'. In other words, he may have been sold a useless piece of land, that is only of value if he retains and restores the historic property.

And she is probably right, as the covenant makes quite clear that even if the Lodge were not there, the site cannot be used for any other purpose than a Park Keeper's Lodge, a cricket pavilion, or a bandstand. Knocking down the Lodge will not change anything: only another one could be built: or a cricket pavilion, or a bandstand.

When the council first evicted the family that was living in the Lodge and put the property on the for sale list, they had no idea of the restrictions that existed in the form of this covenant. Years went by as they tried to get around this. Eventually they found someone prepared to buy it anyway, in a cash purchase, and washed their hands of responsibility.

Last year this developer tried to apply to demolish the Lodge, and build a monstrously ugly block of eight flats. The plans said eight, but a representative of the company claimed to residents he met outside the Lodge that there would be twelve units. 

Of course any breaches of planning approval in Barnet now, or even unauthorised demolition, are likely to be met with little or no enforcement, and will probably result in Tory members giving retrospective permission. Or so has been the case, until now.

There was a fierce outcry from residents last year, and many took part in a campaign to oppose these proposals: and the plans were rejected. 

A year later, in the middle of the summer holidays, when many local residents who should be consulted are away: here we go again: this time an application for six flats - or so we are told. The new design is a less modernist, more aspirational retro in style: still utterly inappropriate to the predominant architecture of the surrounding area - even if for one moment we put aside the fact that it is proposed to put this block in a public park.

Last year the consultation process was marked by controversy over the so called 'supporting' comments which were, by some means never explained, despite complaints, routinely anonymised, so as to protect the identities, or apparent identities, of those who claimed to support the plans. Some of those comments were frankly offensive: using allegations of crime and the risk of rape as a reason to approve the plans. The anonymity was dropped after the complaints: but no explanation was offered as to why the page seemed to have been coded in such a way to allow this facility.


Local resident and green spaces campaigner Mary O'Connor - pic local Times group

This year, some residents keeping an eye on the online publication of comments noted that a number of the objections disappeared one night: a substantial proportion - one of the residents calculated a loss of about 21%, a reduction which of course altered the balance of objections to supporting comments. The comments may have been retained as documents, but anyone looking at the online version would think that the objections were not as high as they really were. And why had this occurred? 

Only one supporting comment appears to have been lost: one supposedly submitted by a woman using the title 'Mr', making remarks about the 'raping history' of the park. 

The rest of the 'supporting' comments are largely from people who live miles away, yet apparently like to cross the borough to come and walk in Victoria Park at night, but worry about 'crime'. 

You might wonder how giving approval to a block of flats (overlooking a children's playground) would mitigate against the risk of crime, rather than, say, re-introducing park keepers, improving the lighting, or allowing the police to do their job - but there you go. 

You might also wonder about using the pretext of a perceived risk of sexual violence in regard to a planning application. 

The subconscious implications of the use of such terminology might be read as projecting something that others see as an assault of another kind: an enforced intrusion, or the imposition of power and profit, in the context of a vulnerable, community held space.

Perhaps someone did think twice about the 'rape history' comment, anyway - as last time anyone checked, it was still missing, and not replaced, as the objections were, eventually, but only after much lobbying.

Several complaints were made about the missing objections to the Chief Executive. Capita planning officers said they would look into it, but despite continual prompting, no explanation was forthcoming until they decided to blame it on 'a third party provider', that is to say IDOX, which runs the online procedure. 

But are you saying no planning officer has login access to IDOX? You and your third party providers are data processors: is our personal data secure? No reply. 

Then we heard they were asking IDOX to look into the matter. On Friday, right at the end of the consultation period, residents were told the reason for the disappearance of objections was an 'outage', between two dates in July. An outage that apparently only affected objections.

Thing is: the dates of the 'outage' ... were three days after the comments disappeared. 

So this excuse would appear to be utterly spurious.

The other problem, which several residents have contacted me about over the last few weeks, is the inadequacy of the notification system. As you may recall, one A4 piece of paper, shoved into an open flimsy cover was put on a lamp post, facing away from the street, at a point on Long Lane that was  the furthest possible from the Lodge, even though there is a perfectly good post right outside the property. As soon as it rained, of course, water seeped through and the notice was largely illegible, and looked old, of no current interest to any passer by.

Only after continued complaints did Capita officers agree to put up more notices: although not on any of the park's own notice boards. These additional notices also, predictably, have all been soaked and made largely useless. Officers have refused to use the laminated notices - twice the size - routinely displayed by Capita colleagues in Highways. Why? 

Only latterly did they send letters to all residents who commented last year. And the changing dates of the consultation, amended in some notices, but not others, has caused endless confusion. This is not an efficient or fair way to run a public consultation.


Another peculiarity is that even though the outcome of the consultation, and the decision by officers to recommend or reject the plans has officially yet to be made, it was spotted early on in the consultation that a planning meeting had already been set for consideration of the Lodge application. 

When this was pointed out last week to officers and copied to the Chief Executive, and the suggestion made that it might imply the matter was pre-determined ... suddenly the date was removed. 

How curious.

Many local campaigners now feel that there needs to be an investigation into the handling of the whole process of consultation over the Lodge plans. It seems clear, moreover, that it is a wider issue than simply the matter of one planning application - it goes back to the central problem, one that our Tory councillors are only just beginning to grasp - and that is the loss of control, of democratic oversight, over the delivery of planning and enforcement services in this borough. 

This in turn has led to a system in which development is given precedence over the best interests of residents, and our environment, and built heritage. 


Park notice board, last opened in 2010: no planning applications here

The Capita contracts allow the council's privatised planners far too much scope to put the generation of income from development before any other consideration: developers may, as in this case, pay a substantial fee for 'pre-planning advice' from officers, given under terms of commercial confidentiality. Residents who may object to the same application are not allowed to know what that advice was. Then the officers run through the sort of low key consultation process we have seen in regard to the Lodge: and one of them makes a decision as to whether or not it should be rejected. Open and transparent? Or is there an inherent conflict of interest in this system? 

Clearly there is pressure on officers to ensure the system is easier and more attractive for fee paying developers, and residents come second best.

If any developer breaches the terms of planning approval, residents are again at a disadvantage, as enforcement by the contracted service is given such low priority, and so few resources. That there is little or no profit to be had in enforcement - no extra fees or performance related payments - is the reason for this. 

Your Tory councillors are pretty laid back about breaches: politically weighted planning committees will often grant retrospective permission for unauthorised buildings, and officers using delegated powers can alter the conditions of approval anyway.

You may be thinking, but: I pay my council tax, Mrs Angry: I am a property owner. I don't want the value of my property affected by all this sort of nonsense. 

I will say to you then: stop voting Tory councillors back into power, because as the recent audit reports show, they are allowing this sort of nonsense to become the mark of their administration, despite all the warnings they were given, before outsourcing almost every council service they could think of.



The reaction from residents in Finchley to these plans is the same as last year: campaigners leafleting in the park and explaining what is proposed are met with open mouthed astonishment: flats? In the park? Yes, in the park. Overlooking the children's playground. By the entrance.

Hard to explain, isn't it, when standing in the middle of a park, that most British of all British public institutions - that a recreation ground meant for the people of Finchley, for their use, and for all time, is no longer dedicated for their use, indefinitely, but must be, like everything else in this rotten borough, carved up, sold off, and thrown in the lap of developers? 

Those squatters mentioned by Gillian Tindall in the house in Kentish Town were evicted, eventually.

 The house had been marked for demolition, as part of a large development: where it stood was going to be designated as an 'open space'. In the 1970s, there was still an acknowledgment that such spaces were necessary. But the development never happened, the house was saved, and  carefully restored by Camden Council. Tindall wondered, then, if this marked a recognition by local authorities, of their duty to preserve our built heritage, not destroy it. 

All these years later, it seems the cycle has moved around again, and we are facing the loss of historic properties to the demands of development, and on a giant scale. 

So let's give the last word, as does Gillian Tindall in her introduction, to the words of William Morris:

These old buildings do not belong to us only ... they belonged to our forefathers and they will belong to our descendants unless we play them false. They are not in any sense our property, to do as we like with them. We are only trustees for those who come after us.

Barnet's Councillors, whether they like it or not, are still the trustees for Victoria Park, and for the Lodge. In that role they have an obligation to protect the park, and the Lodge, for future generations. 

Unless you speak up now, however, they will turn the other way while a part of our local park, and our local history, is lost forever. 

Please act now.

We have until Tuesday the 15th August, this week, to object online to this proposal. Emails and letters of objection may be accepted after that date: but it you post one, be sure to send it recorded delivery.

If you have not done so already, please take the time to read this flyer, and object via the council's website: here is the link.





Sunday, 30 July 2017

Shooting the messenger: or - the art of audit, in the age of Capita


The night the auditors came, left: BDO's Leigh Lloyd-Thomas tells it like it is ...

Mrs Angry had more or less given up going to Audit meetings, since the Tories scrapped the principle of having an opposition member as Chair, and installed one of their own councillors to keep an eye on things. Why did they do this? Why do you think? This is Broken Barnet. If a thing ain't broke, break it, and then rewire it so it does your bidding, and doesn't provide a mechanism for the purposes of transparency, and accountability. 

When Libdem member Lord Palmer was Chair, you could at least expect a modicum of objective oversight, and criticism of council policies and performance which might result in some action - at least, until the beginning of the shotgun wedding with our contractors, Capita, when criticism of their performance was likely to be rebuffed by the administration, if not by the Audit committee.

But this week's Audit meeting, it was clear, was going to be perhaps the most important meeting since those contracts began. 

Mrs Angry turned up for this meeting because she had been alerted by Mr Reasonable, who had spotted that something was very, wrong - and so it was. Very, very wrong. (Read his typically acute report here, which has a more detailed explanation of the financial implications, and significance for all of us).

It was clear that there was a serious problem, because a major part of the agenda was missing from the website, even up to the day before the meeting. This was Item 11 - the report from our external auditors, BDO. When the report was published, at the very last minute, it was evident why there had been a delay. 

The report is a catalogue of disaster. Disastrous, in terms of the presentation and handling of the accounts - yes, the responsibility of Capita. That would be, for anyone who does not understand the extent of institutionalised conflict of interest, in  this administration, accounts produced by Capita, that reflect the financial performance of the council's services, most of which are now run by ... Capita. 

BDO had been unable to complete their annual audit because of the numerous errors in those accounts - and because of issues of concern that had arisen in the course of their inspection. 

A range of issues that were shameful enough, but of which the most significant was the identification of overspending, and that the authority is not on target to make those savings promised to us by our Tory councillors before, against all voices raised in opposition, blindly signing the contracts - without full and proper scrutiny of all the content of the agreements. 

The external auditors also point out in their report that the council had failed to create a satisfactory process for the  scrutiny of performance by their contractors- again, a point which has been made time and time again by those of us who warned them, before and after signing, of the risks to which they were exposing our public services.

On approaching Committee Room 3, Mrs Angry thought for a moment that she had gone to the wrong venue. Something was wrong: the room looked ... different. 

On entering, it was plain to see that yes, it was different: it had been cut in two, and the committee area part of the room reduced to a corner of its former footprint.

Cut in two ... reduced in size ... Do you mean ... 'refurbished', Mrs Angry? 

As in the library 'refurbishments' - applied with the help of sledgehammers, and pneumatic drills - now being implemented by the grace of Tory Cllr Reuben Thompstone, who narrowly lost a vote of no confidence a few days ago, after his latest career best, as seen in the damning OFSTED report into care services for vulnerable children? A report which in itself was enough to prevent the auditors from signing off the accounts?

Of course. Our Town Hall, like our library buildings, is virtually one in name only, now, with nothing more than a nod towards its intended purpose of public service and democracy, and the rest of the building carved up, and pimped out for hire to Middlesex University and now ... and now, readers, wait for this ... as a wedding venue. 

Yes: every woman's dream, married life beginning under the beady eyed scrutiny* of deceased Mayors in moth eaten furs, and their scowling, bespectacled - moustachioed - wives, whose fading portraits adorn the walls of the upper floor.

(*from the days when civic duty meant proper scrutiny, and not an easy life half asleep in meetings, rubber stamping officers' reports and waiting to pick up your allowance).

Sticking together in the cramped public seating area of the newly shrunken room was a small colony of Capita drones, looking, Mrs Angry noted, with some satisfaction, rather glum, and as if they had drawn the short straw in being sent to attend, when it seemed none of the most senior Capita people had dared show up. When they think things are going well, they like to engage in a spot of corporate manspreading, preening themselves in the public seats, or what used to be the public seats, when the public bit in public service had not been removed. No, not removed, Mrs Angry - 'Refurbished'.

Mrs Angry sat down next to veteran council meeting attendee, and one man chorus of disapproval, Mr Shepherd, who said he had been thinking about her ... Mrs Angry's hopes of hiring the Town Hall for her next wedding suddenly seemed more likely, for one shining moment. But then: oh. Thinking of her at the Bishopsgate Institute, when visiting an exhibition of the Morning  Star's photographs of the Brixton riots. 

Oh well. 

Oh, but: he had something to give her. A present, from the exhibition. Hello: what's this - an award, no less: a badge - We Are Angry

We are.

In came the councillors. As the new Chair of Audit, Hendon Tory Hugh Rayner (yes: I know: just fancy that!) took Mr Reasonable aside for a quiet word of explanation (Mr Reasonable had, despite the last minute report that broke the deadline, submitted various pertinent questions ... Mrs Angry waved impertinently across the table at Tory member Peter Zinkin. 

Comrade Councillor Zinkin - greetings! He came over to Mrs Angry and Mr Shepherd. Would you and your fellow traveller like to have a few moments to yourselves, asked Mrs Angry, with her usual tact? He declined the offer.

Mr Shepherd, rather untactfully, then brought up the subject of Cllr Zinkin's cousin and namesake, the hero of British communism, and former editor of the the Morning Star, when it was the Daily Worker. And now look, he complained - you've gone and banned it from our libraries

What libraries, Mr Shepherd? 

Ah. Those former library buildings that are being  'refurbished'? No room for the Morning Star, now, I fear.

The meeting began. The Chair began the proceedings, and introduced himself, claiming the former Chair had gone on to 'greater things'. 

This was a puzzling reference, as Cllr Salinger, the former Chair, has only - at last - become Mayor, after thirty years of waiting, rather than kicked the bucket. A fate worse than death, being Mayor of Barnet, you might think: but of course this is all the Tory members care about, prancing about in the Mayoral bling, and stuffing themselves with cucumber sandwiches at Rotary Club luncheons.

Rayner apologised for the lateness of the report on Item 11, and the resulting inability of members of the public to submit questions, or indeed for all members of the committee to read and properly consider the contents. There would be another meeting, now in view of what had happened, in September. In the meanwhile discussion on the interim findings began.

Rayner cast a sympathetic look at the uncharacteristically subdued Capita drones at the back. 

Don't look so worried, he said. We will be gentle with you.

Will we? 

Why? asked Mrs Angry, and Mr Reasonable.

Well why? 

Mr Reasonable began his supplementary questions to the written answers on the issues sheet. The councillors looked on: they know now that he has a better grasp of what is going on than they do, and they pay attention to what he says, as they should have done, years ago, before they threw us into the grasping embrace of Capita. 

It emerged soon enough that as well as all the damning errors and failings identified in the course of the inspection, the auditors - external auditors - had found that seven councillors had not, as required, returned annual declarations. You might wonder why internal audit, and the Monitoring Officer, had not spotted that before it reached the point of an external audit, of course - and you should wonder. The truth is enormous laxity is given to this matter. And we heard that five members had continued to fail to make the declarations even at this stage.

So: name and shame these members, demanded Mr R.

The Chair refused. It was only - only - five, and he 'preferred' not to name them. Later that night he defended this decision on twitter, stating:



As you might imagine, Cllr Rayner's reference to the stocks led to a range of suggestions from residents keen to provide rotten tomatoes (preferably tinned) or attend a public caning. Others were not amused in the slightest, and expressed their sense of fury at the arrogance of members refusing to comply with the requirement for transparency over their interests. 

None of this appeared to worry Cllr Rayner, the new Chair of Audit, who thought it should all be handed over to the Monitoring Officer to deal with. Well no: surely he should have done so already?



The Monitoring Officer is the same one who refused to find fault when Mrs Angry complained about the Chief Executive falsely claiming no libraries had been found to have traces of legionella. And saw no problem with the 'refurbishment' banners which went up outside libraries (including a polling station) during purdah. Now it seems he has left it to the external auditors to hold councillors to account for the declarations which are presumably within his remit to manage. Or rather, to Monitor. 

And since the meeting, it has emerged that the council's MO - not named so unclear if the present or previous one - failed to inform members, as required, of a finding of maladministration by the Local Government Ombudsman.

But then so many of the issues of concern to BDO were matters which should have been picked up by the council's own procedures - were they functioning with any efficiency. The reason why the report is still only an interim one is that the annual audit inspection has met with numerous failings in process: so many that the usual length of time for inspection was simply not long enough. This is an appalling indictment of the state of incompetence for which the council, as the commissioning body, and its contractors Capita, are equally responsible.

Apart from seeking to minimise the failure by members to make declarations, it must be said, Rayner and his colleagues were evidently horrified by the tone, content and implications of the external auditors' interim report. 

As one of the men from Capita leant back against the newly partitioned wall, and yawned, the Chair apologised to members and the public for the lateness of the report and the consequent lack of time for informed discussion, or questioning of the finding. He stated himself to be shocked by the errors identified by the auditors. No bluster, or excuses: just a quiet and highly uncharacteristic reaction of - well, what? For once, when presented with a crisis, the Tories seemed utterly unsure of what to say, or do, or how to manage the political consequences.

Except for one Tory councillor. Yes: step forward Comrade Councillor Zinkin, now displaying a flair for shameless politicking worthy of the name of his illustrious revolutionary namesake. He worked himself into a fury over not the content of this most damning report, but in regard to those who had produced it, that is to say the external auditors. Everyone in the room now looked on in open mouthed astonishment as he attacked BDO for submitting their findings so late, and failing to spot any of the issues identified at any earlier stage, even the recent OFSTED report.

Why are you shooting the messenger? yelled Mrs Angry. He carried on.

He wanted letters of complaints written. To the Chief Executive. And to whatever body was responsible for appointing auditors. (Curious that he didn't know who that is.)

What about Capita? shouted Mr Reasonable, and Mrs Angry, in chorus.

The auditors looked on across the table, forced to listen to this totally unwarranted barrage of nonsensical accusations - without the chance to defend themselves. Tory members such as Cllr Finn looked embarrassed, and clearly wanted to distance themselves from such remarks - Finn openly disagreed with his colleague, and reminded the meeting that the blame rests with Capita. To be fair, he said, wryly, nothing was going 'exactly smoothly' ... 

It is true to say, of course, that Cllr Finn, as Chair of the committee that is meant to oversee the performance of the council's contractors, must share a heavy portion of the burden, as the report points out that the process of scrutiny is inadequate. 

Hoping that everything will be 'hunky dory', and maintaining as he did at one meeting that the purpose of scrutiny, 'was not to criticise. It was to make a positive contribution'. is simply not good enough.

But Finn cannot be held entirely to blame: every Tory member has played a part in the sanctioning of contractual failure, overlooking the clear warning signs of looming disaster, as in the catastrophic library IT crash, which lost a huge amount of data, and caused chaos - and the dire standard of areas such as the website and switchboard systems. 

And how curious that not only were senior Capita representatives absent, but that no senior Tory councillors were in attendance. No doubt the Tory leader Richard Cornelius is happily ensconced in his French rural retreat, but the deputy leader Dan Thomas is here. Mrs Angry caught him legging it from the Town Hall on her way in, that very evening. Can't think why he didn't stick around, can you?



Deputy leader Dan Thomas, who didn't stay for the meeting

When given the chance to speak, the men from BDO, led by Leigh Lloyd-Thomas, who has always struck Mrs Angry as an absolutely fair, honest and conscientious auditor, pointed out that they had been on site for five weeks and had had to conclude that it was not possible to sign off the accounts or to submit anything other than an interim report as there were simply too many issues to 'close down'. 

As for the terrible OFSTED children's care report, (which Tory councillors appear to want to blame on anyone but themselves, including Reuben Thompstone, the Chair of the CELS committee which should oversee the service), Mr Lloyd-Thomas had to bring to the attention of the Audit committee the fact that no one had informed him about it. 

Since last week's meetings, moreover, it would appear there are other serious errors which for some reason officers may not have informed the auditor about, including the LGO report mentioned earlier - and the recent fine from the Pensions Regulator for failing to submit information required by law. What else is there?

The auditors continued, reporting that there had been 'problems with the presentation of income' in the Capita managed accounts. And that there was not 'a robust IT platform'.

There followed a catalogue of 'errors', involving a million or so here, then another one missing there, and on and on, all which were hard for Mrs Angry to follow, but next to her, Mr Reasonable, as is his wont in committee meetings, shook his head, sighed, muttered, and fought back the angry tears of a management consultant and citizen auditor driven beyond the bounds of Reason itself.

The credit balance, for example, was wrong: by £1.6 million. Exit package payments (generous consolation prizes for senior officers who 'leave by mutual consent') - these are not being discharged when agreed, as they should be. Mrs Angry wondered whose exit package may be next up for agreement, and sincerely hoped the figure would of a size sufficient to soothe their wounded pride, and sense of pique, at being the sacrificial victim for the Tory councillors whose own responsibility is never called into question.

Labour's audit lead member, Geof Cooke, recalled the promises made at the time, or rather before the time, of signing the Capita contracts, and the boasting of their success with previous partnerships elsewhere. Four years into the contract, one year after the (frankly nominal) Year 3 review, and look where we are now. 

A senior officer at the table, unidentified and unaccountable to the public, tried to shift the blame regarding IT inadequacies, by claiming the council was not using Capita's system, and had inherited the old one. Other officers looked askance at this, as well they might. Mr Reasonable pointed out from the public seating that they are indeed now using 'Integra', introduced by Capita, and despite the expense of previously buying in a new SAP system. Senior officer Anisa Darr confirmed this. 

It seems particularly ironic that the failings identified by this audit are linked to a less than satisfactory IT system. 

Readers may recall that, before launching the One Barnet mass outsourcing fiasco, our Tory councillors - and senior officers of the council - stated categorically that no in house option, as an alternative to outsourcing services, could be considered because we needed the capital investment that was promised by a private contractor. 



2013, Barnet Tory leader Richard Cornelius signs away control of council services to Capita

When Capita was awarded the contract, we were promised that one of the benefits of the deal would be an 'upfront' £16 million in investment for IT systems.

It then transpired, after the signing, that not only were we not going to get this generous hand out - we were now expected to GIVE this £16 million TO Capita to spend on the necessary improvements. 

BDO were not our external auditors in this period, unfortunately - the contract then was with Grant Thornton, whose tolerance of Barnet's financial activities - and disasters such as the MetPro affair - was quite remarkable. 

One might speculate now what a different set of auditors might have made of that deal. An arrangement which has not improved the delivery of accounts, but delivered a full blown cock up of the type so often seen, in Broken Barnet. So often seen, but so seldom resulting in any censure. 

Until now.

How many times was this local authority warned of the consequences of such a radical hollowing out of council services, and the delegation of control of those services to the private sector? The theoretical model was bad enough, but the structure and complexity of the two Capita contracts, nodded through by lazy, gullible, irresponsible Tory members, without any real attempt to understand the implications, or listen to those who already understood them: this has resulted in the consequence we all predicted: a disaster, and one that affects every man, woman and child in this borough, at a time of desperate need, and unparalleled hardship.



One of the boxes containing the Capita contracts

And how many times have our dopey Tory councillors defended the Capita contracts, claiming, in the face of all argument to the contrary, that they were returning savings, and represented excellent value for money for tax payers? Despite the clear evidence that Capita is milking the contracts for 'hidden' fees and profits that go far beyond the balance of any of the strictly limited, nominal savings?

The audit report could not have been clearer. Last year the council overspent by £8.3 million. There is a massive budget gap in the years to 2020. The council's reserves are shrinking. The likeliness of any real savings throughout the life of this ten year contract is rapidly diminishing. 

Thursday's meeting was a car crash: but it was a collision that was always going to happen, as soon as the speeding Capita juggernaut could be seen hurtling towards the brick wall of an independent audit. 

The mass delusion of Tory councillors, apparently held, as one resident put it last week, in the grip of Stockholm Syndrome, mutely accepting only the version of truth supplied to them by their own contractors, cannot be sustained. They have f*cked up, good and proper, and at a time when, in terms of electoral risk, they are at their most vulnerable.

The impact of their policies, or their contractors' hijacking of services: the library cuts, the development favouring planning service, the lack of enforcement of planning breaches, parking, all of these things are losing Barnet Tories, in the council chamber, and at Westminster, the support of their own voters, in the run up to next year's local elections and when there could be another general election, at any moment, in three newly marginal constituencies.

For years Barnet's Tories have cut council taxes by token amounts, to try to sweet talk voters into returning them to office. This gesture has cost us untold amounts of desperately needed revenue, and seen the imposition of the most swingeing cuts to vital services. This year, pre-election, such a gesture would be utterly indefensible. 

But what can they do, now, to limit the damage of the inevitable consequence of their folly in promoting the easycouncil road to ruin? 

After the immediate shock has worn off, over the summer holidays, they will try to manage the political impact of this latest, largest cock up. No doubt the PR and communications team will be expanded yet again as they try to spin their way out of trouble, and convince the residents and tax payers that there is nothing wrong. 

But it won't work this time: things have simply gone beyond the point of return, and there is little they can do.

At the end of the discussion of the audit report, Mr Reasonable, Mrs Angry and Mr Mustard wandered down the steps of the Town Hall, and stood talking at the front door, where rain sodden confetti from one of the day's weddings was sticking obstinately to the flagstoned entrance. Mrs Angry suggested that her report of the evening's disclosures would be the shortest ever. Four words:

We told you so

More than four words, in the end: but we did. Tell you so. Over and over again, and you wouldn't listen.

Now all you can do, Tory councillors, is to apologise to the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet, come to your senses, and pull the plug on the Capita contracts. 

If you don't, you will be acting wilfully to put your own party interests before those of the people you claim to represent.

The choice is yours.