Monday, 10 September 2012
How not to sell a library: Mrs Angry's guide for officers
Craig Cooper, Director of Commerce at Barnet Council and armchair flamenco expert
Part Two - So: you want to sell a library?
Good idea. Look at this one. Friern Barnet: nice building, nice location, bang opposite the Comer brothers' development of Princess Park Manor, a nicely sanitised new name for what was once the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. Comer brothers? They own North London Business Park, which Barnet council rents for its offices. Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum? Well, in these politically correct times we have no use for such stereotypical views of mental health, and more importantly, we have decided it is much cheaper to put mentally ill people back in the community, and then sell off the Asylum, and now, yes, let's sell off the library too. Don't need those anymore, either, do we?
How should we go about flogging it? Hmm. Well: not like this.
Back to the meeting. And addressing the point, in fact, of the needs of those in the community who have disabilities.
Maryla pointed out that in contrast to the unsuitability of Friary House, Friern Barnet library offered a perfectly accommodating environment for residents with such difficulties. Apart from the one levelled building, and the relative ease of parking, the environment was perfect in terms of scale and lighting for those with mental disabilities, for example autism and also for those with visual impairment. The officers looked on blankly.
Barnet Eye blogger Roger Tichborne said that Barnet Council simply did not understand the sort of people who use libraries, and their needs. A library is not just about books, it is a resource for residents, for example for the elderly who visit for warmth, and interaction. He is right. Unless you do understand all these needs, and the social impact of removing a library from the context of its surrounding community, you cannot see why moving a library away from its location is so damaging.
Ms Taylor admitted that perhaps she did not have a 'complete handle' on this aspect, but she thought that - and I am checking my notes here - that a library was not the best place to keep warm.
Funny that, really, thought Mrs Angry, wonder why she has kept the heating on in a closed library since April, then, as the squatters discovered when they arrived last week ...
Julie Taylor, deputy chief executive of Barnet Council
Checking them again, because I have also noted that she went on to say she was mystified by the sight of families in Friary Park with small children, contrasted with the argument that this is the wrong location for a library.
Rosie pointed out that according to the 1931 census, ie around the time the library was built, the population of Friern Barnet was 23,000. Since then it has doubled. Perhaps the council should be considering putting a library in Friary Park as well as one back here?
Mike Gee spoke now. He said he thought that Ms Taylor's remark that Friary Park was the only option was a provocative statement. He asked about plans to sell the building in Friern Barnet: did Mr Cooper think it would be demolished? Had any developers shown interest?
Captain Cooper, interrupting a zen like state of inner calm and detachment from the scene around him, punctuated so far only by a half hearted attempt to kill a wasp, in a bizarre display of seated flamenco dancing, stamping on the carpet, now responded smoothly that it was not clear what would happen to the site. He did not deny that the building could be demolished. He claimed that 'no developer' had expressed interest in the site, but explained, without batting an eyelid, that the property could be marketed and 'disposed of' within six months.
Councillor Coakley Webb spoke now. She emphasised the dreadful parking at Friary Park, compared to here, the long walk to Friary House. She pointed out that she realised the officers were only following the decisions of their political leaders (you sure about that, Pauline?) but that as the next local elections drew ever nearer, they may well be taking their orders from a Labour council, which will not countenance the sale of this library. She mentioned the hidden costs of, for example, paying for her councillor's surgeries to be held elsewhere, and the loss of a venue for the local police safer neighbourhood team, who had been driven out.
S'ok, said Phoenix, winking, they were round last night, so they're still visiting the building ...
the new community librarian, Phoenix
Time for Mrs Angry's chance to speak.
She explained that she completely agreed with Mr Tichborne in the idea that a library was not just a place full of books, but an essential part of a community. She outed herself, in fact, as having formerly worked for Barnet Libraries, where she had gained this insight, at first hand. Oh, gasped Ms Taylor, I didn't know that.
Mrs Angry had a sudden horrible vision of a pinboard in an office at NLBP, with pictures of Mrs Angry, her old school reports, and vital statistics, and all the little known facts of her secret life written up in fluorescent marker pen on index cards, perhaps lovingly compiled by Barnet's answer to Malcolm Tucker, ie the Tooting Twister, and probably festooned with an assortment of darts. Poisoned darts.
Erm, but then she told the meeting that she perfectly understood why elderly people might want to come into a library for companionship, and somewhere warm to sit, and disabled residents, and mothers with small children, and why you cannot expect those who most rely on the proximity of their library to travel long distances to find another one. She mentioned her conversation with Alfred, a refugee whose own country is now creating a library network as part of a renewal of faith in the integrity of a nation's soul, and how in contrast here we were, tearing our libraries down, and selling them off, and now Alfred's children, who relied on their local branch cannot travel on their own to a library, and what a terrible thing we have done, haven't we?
To say that we cannot afford to keep this library open is nonsense, in the context of the council's budget, disregarding the restraints it has placed on the service it values so poorly, that is to say, that of libraries and museums. Mrs Angry reminded the officers, noting the admirably composed expression of Craig Cooper, that we are spending £275,000 alone, every month, on one bunch of consultants. The problem is not a lack of money, but of a failure in priorities.
Mrs Angry had a question for Mr Cooper. He said that no developer had expressed interest in the property, but that was an interesting choice of wording. Had any other body, such as a local private school made any enquiries? Captain Cooper replied that the site had not been marketed. This was, as far as Mrs Angry was concerned, not quite what she had asked.
She wanted to ask one more question.
If Phoenix and his friends had it in mind to go over to Church Farmhouse, in Hendon, and enter that building, (presuming a window has been left open, of course) and squat there too, will the council negotiate with them, and then please can we have our museum back?
There was a certain amount of mirth at this point, in fact the normally circumspect Mr Reasonable roared with laughter. It was indeed very hard for Mrs Angry to keep a straight face, looking at the officers across the room.
Ms Taylor, the deputy chief executive eventually formulated a response. She thought not, because, apparently: 'We do not have the same interest in that.'
Ah. No gun at the head, in that case, one must assume. Sorry, Phoenix. No offence.
In fact, readers, there is indeed not much chance of getting our museum back, because our Tory councillors have sanctioned the disposition of the contents, and are even now flogging some of it in an auction in the midlands. More of this in another post.
Fiona Brickwood challenged the officers on the issue of where the capital receipt from the library sale would go. They had implied that it in some way went towards other library expenditure, but was that really how it worked? Interestingly, the officers themselves were unsure. Cooper, who ought to know, being Director of Commerce, kept quiet, and the others appeared to contradict their own statements.
Diane Taylor asked about the value of the property, and was told it was around £430,000.
This is, of course, complete balls. It is not an accurate valuation of the site, which includes not only the building but two pieces of greenspace on either side. It is most certainly worth many times the stated sum, and this, dear readers is why no attempt by a community group to offer the price of the library will be accepted. Our Tory councillors want to extract the maximum profit from this exciting opportunity. And they don't give a f*ck about the library.
Mr Reasonable had been slowly simmering over the course of the meeting, and now came to boiling point. Even a reasonable man has his limits.
This meeting, he said, was futile. We were all having a lovely chat, but we are wasting everyone's time. The officers present are not authorised to make any changes (not that that matters, in this council, when they want their own way), and where were the councillors? Big applause.
Phoenix said he thought it was not a complete waste of time, that there was a point in dialogue. Mrs Angry reminded herself that she was listening to the leader of a group of squatters patiently, tactfully, trying to make peace between the warring middle class residents, citizen journalists and senior council officers of Broken Barnet. Can life become any more surreal?
The meeting finished, with an agreement brokered by our unlikely facilitator that more would follow, and hopefully with the attendance of the real villains of the piece, the Tory Cabinet members who are probably quaking in their shoes as we speak at the very thought of accepting such an invitation.
The council officers left, and as they did some of the residents pointed out of the library windows that they had parked in what appeared to be disabled bays ... where are those fecking traffic wardens when you really need them, eh?
What will happen next? When asked whether or not the council would be seeking to evict the squatters we were told that 'no snap decision would be taken'. This situation will probably drag on for weeks, months, who knows. The council probably care more about the management of the story than the reality of occupation.
The library has supposedly not been put up for sale yet. Like so many other buildings left vacant by this authority, although sale is given as the immediat reason for closure, there seems to be a tendency to leave properties empty, unsecured, deteriorating.
You might speculate why that might be.
Perhaps they hope that after a long period of time people become used to the sight, and care less and less passionately about its future.
Perhaps they hope it becomes easier to demolish, and make the site more valuable.
One thing is for sure: if Barnet Council thought the closure of Friern Barnet library would be a simple task, and easy money, they were mistaken. This story is far from over. Let's see where it takes us all next.
Labour councillors are putting an emergency motion to full council tomorrow night, urging the reopening of Friern Barnet library. Come along to Hendon Town Hall, 7pm, and show your support.
According to reports in the local press and in the Guardian, here , eviction proceedings have been instigated by the council. This contradicts the statement made by council officers at yesterday's meeting, as minuted:
Q: Is LBB intending implementing eviction procedures? JT – Not making any snap decisions on that.
In future Mrs Angry would be inclined to disregard any request not to film meetings with senior officers on council business, when agreed that all views are in the public domain.