Hendon Library, pic courtesy Historic England
There is a time for everything, in Broken Barnet: a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot. All of these rites of passage, fittingly, are now supervised and monetised by Capita PLC, the council's outsourced provider.
There is also, of course, a time to roll out controversial proposals that might cause fury amongst the populace, if not carefully managed, and pushed through, while everyone is otherwise engaged.
Normally the optimal moment for such plotting is in the summer, while (so the Tory councillors and their masters in the senior management team and Capita imagine) everyone is away on holiday, and not interested in what is going on.
This year, of course, the year of Covid, offers an unprecedented opportunity to roll out any controversial proposal, and hope to get away with it, unopposed - and that, as we now see, is exactly what our scheming Tory councillors have attempted.
They tried this tactic earlier in the year, when they disposed of local planning committees - removing even further the extent to which ward residents and their representatives may take part in any democratically run planning process. As much as was possible with a Tory majority loaded committee, of course. But interfering opposition councillors and their pesky residents were getting in the way of the best interests of Capita and the flock of predatory developers who are grabbing every piece of land available in the borough, and screwing out of it as much profit as possible, regardless of whether or not their ghastly buildings meet the real needs of the local community. As with so many other anti-democratic measures taken by this administration, it becomes clearer and clearer whose interests are now prioritised in this borough. And it is not the residents and tax payers.
In the latest example of Covid opportunism, Tory members have turned their attention to another pet project.
After some effort by Labour councillors to secure an independent review of the devastating library cuts which have turned the former nationally recognised, value for money service into a parody of its former self, a report was published a year or so ago which criticised the depth and severity of the actions taken and highlighted the impact on users, especially children, elderly and vulnerable residents.
The consultants concluded that the cuts had gone too far: not only had staffing been minimised to a barely workable level, and book stock savagely reduced, the physical space for library functions in their own buildings had been shrunk to a nominal and totally inadequate level, with unstaffed hours having a clearly detrimental effect on the standard of service.
'Refurbishment' of Hendon Library - cutting the library footprint to a fraction of its former space within the building - cost half a million pounds of public money, only three years ago. Now the building is to be given to Middlesex University.
Perhaps the most obvious example of what the cuts had destroyed is demonstrated by the plight of Hendon Library. A handsome building that stands next to the Town Hall, (both of them listed properties), this was once the flagship of an outstanding, beacon standard service: the central borough library. As well as a large volume of books for borrowing, it had a reference library, and a music library, a lecture room, and a children's section that covered half of the ground floor.
Above the door lintel is an inscription:
Non mimima pars eruditionis est bonos noscere libros: 'not the least part of learning is to be acquainted with good books'.
The idea of opening a library in Hendon had first been suggested in the early 1920s, at a time when providing free access to books was seen as a civic duty, not simply for the leisured classes, but those less advantaged, as we see in this extract from a local newspaper report from February, 1923, of a meeting of the 'Childs Hill Ratepayers Association', and a motion proposed by a Mr Widlake:
I sure that any opponents of the scheme on the score of cost will be ready to admit that public libraries are not only a necessity, but that their cost is not to be reckoned an expenditure, but an investment.” Councillor Taylor seconded the motion moved by Mr. Widlake, and said that personally he would not mind seeing an increase in the rates provided benefits were given. “Poor people,” he said, “should be enlightened as well as the rich.”
A copy of this resolution was sent to the District Council, and in due course plans were made for the building we now know, which was opened in December 1929 by Lord Elgin, President of the Library Association, and chairman of the Carnegie Trust, from whom a grant of £7,000 had been made towards the overall cost of £30,000. A newspaper report of the opening filled three columns, listing dozens of local dignitaries who had attended the ceremony, begun in the Town Hall, and moved to the new building, which was unlocked by Lord Elgin, after he had been presented with a golden key, which Councillor Mrs Bannister, heady with civic pride, explained would 'unlock our treasure house' ...
Oh, Councillor Mrs Bannister: what would you make of the barbarians in the Barnet Tory group who have so thoroughly trashed your treasure house, and thrown away the golden key?
Post war, Hendon Library had been the base of the magnificent Eileen Colwell, a widely respected professional librarian who pioneered the international children's library movement - of which I was later a grateful beneficiary, in Edgware, as a child with few books at home, liberated by access to endless supplies of reading material at the new library I visited every Saturday, devouring my allotted three books usually by Sunday evening, re-reading them throughout the week until I could borrow more. I would never have passed the eleven plus, or progressed to grammar school without this resource: and that was true of generations of children from all backgrounds, whose standards of literacy, and educational well being, were entirely dependent on the provision of such libraries.
The pathetic replacement children's library in Hendon, post 'refurbishment', overlooked by the ghost of Eileen Colwell.
This is all destroyed now. Ironically, Barnet Tories think, if they think at all, of themselves as the natural heirs of their heroine, local MP, PM and milk snatcher extraordinaire, Margaret Thatcher, but fail to remember that she embraced and defended the public library system as crucial to the cause of social mobility, through access to education and self improvement.
They have effectively torn away all chances of disadvantaged children having somewhere safe and quiet to study, somewhere to have free access to books, to guided information. They have removed a vital social hub for lonely or isolated older residents. Many disabled users no longer feel able to access the unstaffed libraries, let alone remain inside one, without assistance. But the Tory members do not give a f*ck about any of this.
The innate materialism and anti-intellectualism of the average, intellectually challenged Barnet Tory councillor means that even if an ideological hostility to the very idea of the public sector was not deeply embedded in their clockwork mechanisms, their antipathy to anything that hints of cultural values, equality or community, would ensure that their war on libraries would continue.
And so, continue it must, spurred on by the other motivation of their abominable administration: profit. In case you need reminding, a library is not, to the Barnet Tory councillor, and their contractual partners Capita, who now manage the portfolio of library buildings, a temple of education and learning, or leisure. It is a potential property development, or generator of income.
When councillors first began selling off the family silver, and turning their beady eyes to the council owned properties they could flog off, one of the first targets was the historic Church Farmhouse Museum, just yards around the corner from the Town Hall, and the Library. It was the only local authority owned museum of local history, and held a unique collection of historical artefacts, much of it donated by residents. The then Tory leader Richard Cornelius said this collection was 'worthless', and it was sold (for a tidy sum, as it turned out) at auction, while the listed building was put up for sale. But not all went to plan: no one wanted to buy the building, with all the listed features they would have to preserve: such a nuisance! So they tried leaving it empty for a few years, decaying, a perfect metaphor for their contempt for our local heritage, defiant in its refusal to comply with their would be procurement of its history.
In desperation, they tried selling or leasing the property to Middlesex University, the usual customer in the marketplace of council properties in the Burroughs. Like any sole customer on whom the retailer depends, despite much pleading from the council, the Uni stuck out for a deal which was entirely beneficial to them, and a sorry bargain for the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet, robbed of a museum, and their heritage.
The relationship between Barnet Council and Middlesex is very close, and often secretive. They have been awfully helpful and bailed out the council in one or two scrapes, not just in regard to the Museum: their involvement in the curious Saracens story is a crucial factor in propping up that very interesting loan of £22 million which Barnet officers brokered between the authority and the private rugby club, when it was refused commercial funding for the new stand they wanted to build - but which has still not appeared.
Middlesex Uni, in the course of its apparently unstoppable colonisation of the Burroughs, has taken over Hendon Town Hall, in all but name: the Tory councillors still cling to the council chamber and a couple of committee rooms, due to their primary reason for becoming councillors, that is to say, to pretend to be very important members of the community, jostling every year for a nomination to become Mayor, and the chance to be carried about the borough in a limousine, with the grateful populace bowing before them, and a never ending round of all you can eat buffets, at other people's expense.
The early days of Hendon Library: the 'Treasure House'
It was only a matter of time before the University got its foot in the door of Hendon Library, of course. During the massive programme of cuts that they pretended was a 'refurbishment', but which slashed the the service to shreds, in which millions of pounds were spent in order to - ha ha - 'save money', the 'reconfiguration' of Hendon Library was prioritised. The library functions were cut down to a tiny part of the footprint of its own building, and all that was left, in effect, were a few rows of bookshelves. The once outstanding children's library was gutted, and a useless, miniscule replacement shoved into a corner of the building, Eileen Colwell's legacy trashed and thrown in a skip, along with her vision of educating and empowering new generations of children through a love of reading.
As a final insult, they put her photograph on a wall looking down at the two boxes of picture books and the couple of stacks of shelving that pass for the newly 'refurbished' children's 'library'.
After the review's damning report was published, you might have hoped that the Tory councillors would have been shamed into some sort of plan to repair the damage they had done to the service. You would have been wrong to entertain such hopes. They feel no shame, and indeed are incapable of ever admitting they are wrong. They now decided, therefore, to double down on the same course of action, thinking they could push through the handover of Hendon Library to Middlesex Uni while the borough was in the grip of Covid, and not in a position to protest.
Tory councillor Reuben Thompstone, cutter and shutter of Barnet Libraries, pic courtesy Times Series.
As you can read in this account in the local Times, Reuben Thompstone, the pantomime Tory member in charge of (cutting) libraries, informed a meeting on November 18th that 'moving' Hendon Library was an 'exciting opportunity'.
In the now usual Barnet Tory tradition of take a decision first, then pretend to consult afterwards, they have already agreed to go ahead with the proposal to remove the Library from Hendon Library, and stuff a token replacement in a portacabin, in what they claim will be a temporary measure. Their scheme includes a vague plan to build something on what is now the tiny Town Hall car park, across the road, which they say would accommodate a small library and house an even bigger nuisance, the borough's Archives.
The latter function, ie the preservation of council documents, is a statutory one, or you can bet your last penny that they would flog off anything of value they found in the Archives, delete the archivist's post, and restart the history of Broken Barnet from Year Zero, in a cultural revolution with no culture, no past, no future - and no responsibility for heritage.
We do not know where these fragile and irreplaceable documents will be placed, during the 'temporary' decantation of the library into a portacabin. But before the retelling of horrible histories becomes forbidden, in Broken Barnet, let us remember what happened to the civic heritage collection, and the Grass Farm stained glass windows, left in the similarly emptied and abandoned Church End Finchley library.
Capita was given charge of the safekeeping of all the civic heritage collection. They handed the items to a third party contractor, and, showing at least some regard for the art of ironic gestures, shoved everything in the derelict Finchley mortuary, a few yards across the road from where I live. (Later sold for development, of course). And then - guess what? The items were stolen, and/or destroyed.
After we raised concerns about the Grass Farm windows, an irreplaceable piece of Finchley's history, taken from what was once the home of the family which included arts and crafts designer Ambrose Heal, and left to the local council, many years ago, it was admitted - after a lot of prevarication - that these too had been stolen, while supposedly in the safekeeping of live in guardians contracted by Capita. Were there any sanctions, or penalties for the loss of these objects? What do you think?
The Grass Farm windows, stolen while in the keeping of council contractors
We have every reason to worry about what would happen, therefore, to the historic material currently in our local Archives, and it seems that questions raised by Labour councillors about this have not been adequately addressed.
Recent history tells us there is little likelihood of any permanent replacement being built for Hendon Library. We were assured, when Friern Barnet branch was closed, that a wonderful replacement library would be built in North Finchley. A temporary arrangement of shelves in a room in the Arts Depot was the only thing to come out of that - and then disappear.
The authority will simply not be in the position to afford to build any replacement, for the foreseeable future and eventually the 'library' portakabin will be run down and 'disappeared'.
Save Barnet Libraries campaigners have issued a statement (forming part of a letter published in the local press) on the proposal for a massive six-year £90m “Hendon Hub Redevelopment” to expand Middlesex University, and the removal of the library from the listed, purpose built building:
In October 2021, perhaps even before the first tranche of planning approvals, the library will be rehoused in “temporary” portacabins on the Burroughs Large Car Park near the A41.
Residents are meant to be happy about this, on the Council’s promise of a new library with “curbside appeal” in either Autumn/Winter 2023, or May 2024 – the date is vague. The description of the new library is also vague, promising to “facilitate the provision of a broader and enhanced library offer” that will attract more visitors, incorporate the borough’s archive and be “rent free in perpetuity”. This sounds very like the old Hendon Library which until 2017, was the most well-used branch in Barnet with over 233,000 visitors and 146,000 book loans per year.
But, unfortunately, the proposals for the future library contain no guarantees at all: no capital budget, design or planning permission. Similarly, there is no commitment to increase staffed hours and library resources - which is what the service really needs to encourage library use. As the Council’s independent evaluation bluntly stated, the cuts to staffed hours have “gone too far”.
These issues didn’t seem to matter to Cllr Thompstone or his colleagues on the Library Committee (CLCC) on 18 November. After all, they presided over the last decimation of the library service: in Hendon by spending £500k on reducing the library to 13% of its previous size, cutting staffed hours by 72% and leasing the building so that the library became a paying tenant. (One point of this was to make money from the building, but it’s unclear if it broke even, let alone made a profit.) By 2019-20, before Covid, book loans had reduced by half and the Council had stopped counting visitors.
In terms of the so-called “temporary” library, we are only told there will be reduced opening hours which will be, very unsatisfactorily, made up for by the mobile library. We are extremely concerned that the Council gives no consideration to the effect of the move and reduced service on library users, particularly as it appears almost inevitable that the development will overrun on time and costs, threatening the prospects of a new library at all.
They are right to be concerned, and right to articulate the fury that will be felt by many residents and users over the further assault on our library service. Funnily enough, one of the newer local Tory councillors, Nizza Fluss, has voiced strong objections to these proposals. So she should.
“I can’t see any reason to leave this Grade II-listed building ... I do see why Middlesex want to acquire it, but I can’t see how it will benefit Barnet residents or the residents of Hendon.”
She is somewhat naive, and an inexperienced member of the Barnet Tory group and will be ignored, of course, by her colleagues, if she continues to object, and told to vote in line with the party's position.
Well: if you live in Hendon, or use the library, you might like to write to your MP, Matthew Offord, and remind him of his former pledge to keep all libraries in his constituency open. He claimed, during an earlier Libraries nonsultation, that Unison was to blame for 'scaremongering' in repeating fears about library closures. Of course: blaming a union for telling the truth is the usual fall back for Tories trying to deflect attention from their assaults on our public services.
In the previous cull, library buildings were retained, but with their function as libraries reduced to a small fraction of the footprint of the building, to aid the Tories' assertion that they have closed no branches. The pretence was that the rest of the buildings would be used to generate income. This was nonsense: an excuse to justify the absurd expenditure of £14 million pounds of taxpayers' money, in truth not to make 'savings' (which of course have never made, other than in terms of sacking staff) - but for preparing the next stage in their long term development plans.
In practice, the Barnet Tory decimation of the library service, the replacement of staffed hours with self service entry - and the massive reduction of the book stock - was far worse, and has had a profound impact, leaving many people with effectively very little or no access to the service. The longer term effect in terms of the educational and literacy standards of less advantaged children and students, of course, will be equally damaging.
The closure of Hendon Library will have a further, hugely detrimental impact on residents, particularly, as in the case of Golders Green Library, for the families of the local Charedi community. As always with Barnet Tory cuts, however, the consequences for children, the elderly and vulnerable matter not at all, when development or business interests are at stake.
Oh, and if they get away with shutting the flagship library, you can be sure other valuable library buildings will follow.
Libraries are more than just an easy target for Barnet Tory cuts: they carry a symbolic role in the group's ritualised, instinctive loathing of the very concept of public services, free at the point of use. Although unthinking in their attitudes and half formed beliefs, they naturally object to what is to them a mystifying concept: community, care for others, culture; the love of reading and the acquisition of knowledge, for its own sake, or the importance of social hubs to address issues of exclusion, or loneliness. They see only an unnecessary burden, and a duty they refuse to acknowledge, a cost they do not want to pay. Their emotional distance stands on the same place as every tedious, extreme right wing administration, perfectly demonstrated by the rise of Trumpism (admired by some local Tory members) or the Johnsonian shambles that passes for government in the UK. It is from a heart as hard as flint, and as cold as ice: why should I do anything for others? Only my self interest matters.
Despite the smouldering contempt Barnet Tories feel for the local library service, with typical hypocrisy, once the Covid crisis was underway, this service, above almost all others, was considered so important that it was the last to close, before lockdown, leaving poorly supported staff - and users - dealing with an unknown situation, expected to carry on, while councillors's surgeries were cancelled.
On the Saturday before Christmas, Johnson announced the introduction of Tier 4 and warned of an apparently more virulent mutation of the virus: within a short time of this deeply worrying announcement, far too quickly for any proper risk assessment to have been made of the increased risk to health, with all the unknown factors of higher and faster transmission, library staff were told to report to work as usual on Monday. "Click and collect" services continue, which they must administer. Many other library services have closed, of course, in other areas, by authorities with some sense of responsibility for their staff, and the public. But not in Barnet.
So which is it, Tory councillors? A library service of such little importance, that you can slash it to pieces, and leave poorly paid workers to struggle on, regardless, commended by your own consultants for their efforts to do so, in spite of the damage you had done? Or is it so vital that you must now, in the grip of an increasingly dangerous pandemic, merciless in its grip on this part of North London, force those workers to risk their lives, and that of their families, while you sit safely at home with your feet up, cancelling surgeries, holding a few safely Zoomed meetings, but refusing to put yourselves at any risk at all?
When Hendon Library was opened in 1929, Lord Elgin made a speech, faithfully recorded in the local newspaper report: it was one which would have passed over the empty heads of the current crop of Tory councillors in the chamber of Hendon Town Hall. He observed:
Libraries (are) not mere store-houses of books. They must be centres of social and political life—political in its old and full sense of what pertained to the good of the community. A library should teach us not only that we had a neighbour. It should help us to understand that neighbour, to know his ideals and ambitions, and to know that he wanted to find the best way of making use of the talents with which he had been entrusted. A library service must be treated as the true life-blood of the population. It must the open gateway to all and sundry to knowledge and beauty.
Not content with ransacking the treasure house of Hendon Library, and no doubt leaving the golden key to be stolen with the rest of the civic collection, our philistine councillors are happy to throw the spare key to the building over to their friends at Middlesex University, and reverse the march of progress begun by their predecessors.
There is no excuse for this. The events of the last year have proved more than ever that the public library service is a vital, fundamental resource for all communities, never more so than in difficult times, and not least for those without means, the 'poor' people that Mr Widmark recognised, even in the 1920s, who deserve access to reading, and information, just as much as those with wealth and privilege.
Just as Barnet Tory councillors care nothing for those without access to books, computers or smart phones, they care even less for Lord Elgin's vision of 'the good of the community'. They do not recognise the idea of caring for one's neighbour, and supporting him or her in their aspirations, or needs.
And it is fair to say that the paternalistic but caring Conservative councillors of the 1920s would not recognise their supplanters in the chamber of Hendon Town Hall, who are intent on destroying their legacy of philanthropy, and practical help.
Hendon's 'Treasure House', of course, is the perfect place to start the next phase of their war on libraries: where better than the former central library, that once meant so much to so many people?
A gateway to knowledge is a dangerous thing, in Broken Barnet: a portal to a world of differing opinions, and the possibility of change. No wonder they cannot wait to shut it down.