Saturday, 27 June 2020

Finchley Memorial Green Space: Clowning around, Weaving the Landscape - and Nestling into a Rhythm - a presentation from the developers

Grimaldi, hoping to find a cure for his depression, asks Abertheny for advice, and the surgeon, unaware of his client’s identity, prescribes the diversions of “relaxation and amusement”:

“But where shall I find what you require?” said the patient.

“In genial companionship,” was the reply; “perhaps sometimes at the theatre;—go and see Grimaldi."

“Alas!” replied the patient, “that is of no avail to me. I am Grimaldi.” 

Well then: it's quite hard to keep a sense of humour, in these dark days and nights of the Plague Year, 2020. 

So we must be thankful for small mercies, and the ability to take comic relief, when and where we find it. 

On Thursday night, this came in the unexpected form of a Zoom presentation organised by the would be developers of housing on the Finchley Memorial Community Green Space, the subject of the former post, which you can find here. More information on the intended development on the CHP website

A development to be built, so they hope, right on the spot where, as a blue plaque informs passers by, lived the clown Joseph Grimaldi (1778–1837)- the most well known comic artist of his day, who drove himself to a wretched end and an early death through a series of injuries from his physically exhausting slapstick routines, and was prone, like many funny people, to deep melancholy - he famously said I am grim-all-day, but I make you laugh at night’.

Making me laugh on Thursday night, however, thankfully while I was on 'mute', were the would be usurpers of the sad clown's country cottage and gardens, who had decided on a routine of entertainment to distract from the glaringly obvious and awful thing they are planning to foist on us - look, readers: it's behind you! A monstrous cluster of 3-6 storey boxes squatting on the open space, and leering over the genteel Edwardian streets of Bow Lane, and Granville Road.

On the playbill, for our amusement, was a series of presentations by a development director for CHP, the property arm of the Department for Health and Social Care; an architect, and a 'landscape designer'. In the audience, we were told, very quickly, were 25 residents - not a bad turnout for such a little known proposed development, and at this time. We were also told, at the speed of light, that there had been an astonishing 1,000 visits to the proposed development's website: we were not told that around 1,000 people had already signed the petition started by a local resident against said proposed development.

Half an hour for the presentations, half an hour for questions. Mrs Angry, the public clown face to the sad private resident and embittered writer who hides behind the knockabout farce that is this blog, was busy taking notes, and laughing up her sleeve.

First up was a Mr Eugene Prinsloo, the CHP development director, who gave a suitably melancholic run down of his brief, complete with reverential references to 'Her Majesty's Government', and the report of 'Sir' Robert Naylor: perhaps to impress we in the cheap seats of the gravity of what he had to say.  

First joke of the night: he announced that his department had 'declared' that the land at Finchley Memorial was 'surplus'. And therefore to be disposed of, for a fat profit, except: hang on, this project is not a money maker, according to its own PR argument, but claimed as a way of providing affordable accommodation for NHS or key workers.

Well, whispered Mrs Angry, in my ear, he seems to have forgotten that the 'surplus' land belongs to the community, as part of a land swap, when the new hospital was built, and the local plan states quite clearly that it CANNOT be developed ... 

Mr Prinsloo claimed that they were 'very sensitive to the loss of green space', therefore they would kindly keep what was left of it when developed 'accessible' to the local residents to whom it already belonged. 

He spoke vaguely about what the proposed properties would be - he couldn't say definitely that they would be 100% rental, as all that sort of thing (the whole point of the proposal, that is) was 'still in process, at the moment'. 

Oh. Ought you not to have sorted 'all that sort of thing' out, before beginning what you are claiming is a process of consultation? Or is it that you do not want to give assurances, because as we already know, what is proposed by developers, under the guise of 'homes for NHS staff', will very probably morph into something else, with a clearly defined profit margin?

Up next for our entertainment was the landscape man, Mr Neil Swanson, who started with an absolute corker: 'this is a brownfield site', he announced, in a laid back sort of way, which meant you might have missed the significance, if you weren't paying attention. 

Oh dear, no: no, it isn't, it really isn't. 

Petition to save the community green space link here.

What is the definition of a 'brownfield site'? This description, in this context, might seem to be an attempt to conflate ideas of 'previously developed land' with land that was formerly occupied  and polluted by industrial use - that is an eyesore, or derelict. The opposite is true here. Land which over centuries has been part of Finchley Common, has had built on it only a clutch of rural cottages, and then an Edwardian cottage hospital, has now been returned, in a reversal of the land grabbing outrages of the Enclosures Act, in the early nineteenth century, to the use of local people, with open access. 

Mr Swanson had a vision for the new development, however, that would allow local people to 'walk through' the 'cluster of buildings' that would take over their open space. He was going to, and here we were clutching our sides in merriment - to 'weave landscape around the edges' of this, erm: cluster. 

Best of all, we are promised the creation of 'Camberwick' - no: sorry - 'Granville Green' and - wait for it, an 'Orchard Car Park'. That'll be for the 38 cars, which is the limit allowed for a proposed number of 130 properties. Presumably the hundred other cars will be parked on Granville Green?

Next up was the architect, Sarah Hare: we learned now that what were planned were not flats, no no no, nothing so vulgar: these were 'apartment buildings'. They had looked at the surrounding area, (which she described without mentioning the largely Edwardian character of the roads), and decided to create designs that would 'nestle into a similar rhythm'. Nestling, and the gentle rhythm of a mother's heart ... Rockabye baby ... No. Nothing to worry about here. Move on.

These apartment buildings, while nestling and beating a gentle rhythm, while you were not looking, would 'step down to meet the street' and 'articulate a base, a middle and a top'. 

This is an interesting and innovative idea, of course, buildings having a base, a middle and a top: before these requirements were introduced by visionary, award winning architects, many new properties, as you may recall, fell down after, and, sometimes during, construction, because builders tended to make it up as they went along.

More chortling in the back. Because what we saw on the accompanying slide (strangely not available on the website) was not so much an exercise in fascinating rhythm, as a series of ugly, box shaped constructions that were neither capable of nestling happily anywhere, nor matching the architectural language of anything other than themselves, and which will be incongruous in the context of an Edwardian suburb. 

Irredeemably modern and painfully plain, the blocks were not only out of character with Bow Lane, and Granville Road, but in no way matched the contemporary design of the new Hospital, shining like the white elephant it has been allowed to become, across the open space. 
The deliberately elliptical line drawings available on the website really do not convey the full impact of the colour slide mock up we saw of the grim, (-all-day and all night) slab faced boxes intended for this development. Pic courtesy CHP website.

Architects, in Broken Barnet, love to use the metaphor of dancing and rhythm - remember the first designs for the block of flats going up now on the Lodge site? These, we were promised, would be 'Dancing with the Park''. Dancing in the style of a tarantella, that is, the dance of death - among a community in the grip of plague.

I'll sit this one out, thanks. 

Ah - talking of Victoria Park, the landscape designer informed us that although there would be some sort of limited play facilities for small children, 'it is not our job' to provide anything more as - oh: 'Victoria Park can provide larger activities for children ...'

Well, can it? Maybe apart from the section that has already been grabbed for property development.

Mr Swanson was now rushing past the number of established trees that would be removed - fifty in total, although he admitted later that they were still 'in the process' of surveying them  - and expanding upon how 'Nature will be woven round' (there is a lot of weaving, as well as dancing, in the lexicon of proposed property development) the blocks of flats plonked down on our open space. Hornbeams. A wild flower verge. A swale. A what? A damp meadow, supported by rainwater. (A giant puddle, in other words). Funnily enough, there has been one of those on the playing fields, which seem never to be used as playing fields, and were blocked off for more than a year, on the other side of the site, supposedly due to drainage problems. 

All of this weaving, and swaling, we learned, was in order 'to create a sense of community'.

On our community space.

Time for questions from residents - and time was already running short.

Resident A made the point that there appeared to be nothing in place to stop the proposed housing entering the private sector: which is exactly the case. He mentioned the word 'covenants'. They replied by agreeing new covenants could be created. They did not mention the inconvenient fact that this land is already protected from development.

Resident B asked questions about the type of housing: short term rental, mid term, long term? What size, what numbers of each - and what research was done to see if it was needed. Ah.

Mr Prinsloo said, rather mysteriously, that the numbers of units were 'moving around at the moment, which again was rather curious. In regard to a point later about subsidising NHS staff housing directly, rather than building it for them, at vast capital outlay, he said that this type of 'quantams' 'doesn't exist' (sic -no idea) and went on to refer to 'Sir' Robert Naylor's report, which he summarised as saying that one third of NHS budget should be from government, one third from the private sector - and one third from sale of sites.

Oh. Well how odd, then, you might think, that rather than seek to sell land here, the NHS is proposing to lose money by building housing not intended, supposedly, for the private sector, but in order to subsidise staff and provide them with affordable housing. Sounds very charitable, but that contradicts the budget strategy of the Naylor report. Of course this land cannot be sold, because it was part of a land swap deal when the new hospital was built. The properties could be sold, however, should the proposal allow for such an eventuality - and you can bet it will. Even if the properties become 'affordable' level sales, the likeliness of uptake from NHS or keyworkers is bound to be low, which leaves no alternative.

Resident C brought up the overlooked issue of the character of the neighbourhood - and the plan to enclose all remaining green spaces in the centre of the design. Resident D pointed out no surveys had been done, and there was no evidence of need for this type of housing. 

Resident E , referring to the 'pretty hideous design' of the blocks reminded everyone that the local plan requires any development in this part of Finchley (excluding the hospital green space, which is listed as not available for such a purpose) to be 'low density family houses' which clearly this proposal did not present.

Mrs Angry's contribution, on behalf of her alter ego, was, apart from picking up several awkward issues which had been glossed over, to point out there were plenty of other NHS sites in North London which could provide such housing, without taking away a green space, and the absurd attempt to label this a 'brownfield site'; to narrate the history of the plot to develop this site, clearly documented in the leaked emails of 2017, between Capita and Barnet, and the implication thereof, which was that it was a private development dressed up in a more apparently suitable guise of 'homes for NHS workers', during the current epidemic. 

Mr Prinsloo couldn't 'talk to' the history of 'previous' organisations (although NHS property representatives took part in the 'previous' plotting) - 'we can only be clear' about their own proposal. They had to deliver something that was 'financially viable'. Well quite. And this proposal, as presented, isn't. Neither viable, nor sustainable as a model of development. It neither reaches the requirements of the funding process, nor explains how an outlay of investment in building these properties can be repaid, let alone generate any significant net profit for the NHS. That could only be met, long term, by private sale or rent, and almost certainly non affordable private sale or rent.

The really important contribution of the evening, however, came from Resident F, who explained that he worked for another NHS trust at a senior level, and had previously worked on the early stages of a similar project. They had found, however, that in the end, they had to sell the land, and ask another provider to build the accommodation.


And he also questioned, from the point of view of someone who was in a position to know, the lack of evidence for demand for this sort of housing. He believed that there was no real case for this. In which case, the project was not sustainable.

A suitable time to drop the curtain, I think. 

Despite the choreographed performance, the script was unconvincing. So many questions left unanswered, and an resolved contradiction in the narrative. One thing was clear: the lack of assurances, and the lack of detail all hint strongly at what we all fear will be the outcome, at some point in the process of trying to promote this development. A cynical deployment of the current crisis to present what seems like a generous and necessary subsidy for NHS staff has been engineered, in my view, in order to kick start what we know has always been the aim of certain parties within the local authority, and Capita: yet more development and exploitation of our rapidly diminishing open spaces. More fee generated income and profit for Capita, for Barnet, and every accommodation made to speed it through the planning process. 

Even as I write, you can bet there are conversations going on involving our privatised planning service, and other parties, as to how to get round the restrictions on the sale or use of this piece of land, and how to introduce the resulting development to an open market, for maximum profit. They will come back with a slightly less ugly design, empty promises about tenancies only for NHS or key staff (without advertising the small print that is the let out clause), Granville Green will become Grimaldi Gardens, and the' swale' will have sunk into the lost footprint of Fallow Corner.

If you want to stop this happening, do something about it - write to your local politicians and tell them why you object to any development on this community space. In the end, as with everything else in Broken Barnet, the only power you have to obstruct the will of developers is activism, political lobbying - and strategic opposition. 

The pantomime continues:  it's up you, now, to take control of the theatre.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Finchley Memorial Hospital - new proposals to build on our community green space

During lockdown, normal life, of course, has come to a standstill. 

We have been living isolated lives, distanced from each other, in fear and anxiety for the future, the preoccupations of our former existence falling away, or pushed away, for the time being.

In Broken Barnet, however, some things - one thing above all - must continue, even as all else comes to a halt. 

Even as churches, synagogues and mosques have remained locked, one God still demands our constant attention: the God of development, and the localised cult of Capita, continue unabated in their activities, and the assault on our landscape and our built heritage goes on, regardless. 

Covid 19, in fact, has been a great blessing for local developers, as it gives them almost free reign to push through their plans, when there is little opportunity for residents to be aware of what is happening, or to engage in meaningful consultation: or to object to the monstrous proposals now turning what Barnet Tories used to promote as a green and pleasant place to live, into a concrete jungle - a hideous, soulless sprawl encouraged in the Labour voting areas originally, but a viral infection now rapidly, and dangerously, spreading into their own territories.

During lockdown, the would be developers of the former gas works in New Barnet, who want to impose a stunningly ugly set of blocks on that site, faced a slight setback when protest from fellow blogger Mr Reasonable and other residents forced an extension to the consultation period. There have been at least 891 objections.

You can't object on the portal now but - despite two occasions on which Capita planning officers have wrongly, and possibly unlawfully, tried to refuse to accept written or later emailed objections, a practice which has had to be reported to members in order to be stopped - you may write in until the decision is made. 

The New Barnet development, despite a certain amount of 'interesting' lobbying and campaigning, has a chance of being turned down, as of course it is in a Tory area, and Theresa Villiers, and Barnet Tories, have a lot to lose if they are seen to endorse it. Ugly blocks of flats, of course, are acceptable only in Labour areas. 

What happens at the end of an external appeal process, of course - is another matter.

During lockdown it has been reported that the Edgware Broadwalk shopping centre has been bought by Irish housing developer Ballymore. This fits the rumours that have been circulating about plans by certain parties to develop this part of Edgware, (which includes the benighted 'Railway Hotel' listed building), between the Edgware Road and Station Road, under the guise of 'regeneration' - another service run by Capita.

During lockdown, the construction began on the block of flats which are to be built in Victoria Park, Finchley, thanks to local Tory politicians - including MP Mike Freer, and council Leader Daniel Thomas - who approved the sale of the beautiful Edwardian park keeper's Lodge, now demolished: another irreplaceable part of our history, lost forever.

Flats in Victoria Park, Finchley, in place of the demolished park keeper's Lodge, courtesy of your local Tory councillors

But now there is another threatened development being hurried through,, in a period when full consultation is impossible - and this time it is a proposal to build on a community open space - although you would not know this from the PR guff that is accompanying the proposals.

And this one has been predicted by me, some years ago: the development of housing on the green space surrounding Finchley Memorial Hospital. You might wish to read this post from 2017 to get some idea of what is behind the current plot to develop this land. 

As I reported then, when the hospital was built, the open space around it was designated as a much needed green space, with open access. It had been agreed that the following would also be provided:

Sports and play facilities for local residents: it was meant to be a landscaped, open community space, accessible to the general public, a “Communal Green,” with a children’s play area, adult fitness equipment, picnic tables, table tennis tables, and so on ...

This did not happen. Why, when it was required by the planning permission? 

Well, we know why, because when a local resident asked for an explanation, they accidentally released some emails - published in the 2017  post - which showed 'they' ie Barnet, Capita etc, knew full well the installation of these facilities would obstruct the chance of a housing development on the site. They then used the threat of pushing through the belated installation, in order to 'encourage' NHS properties to get on with plans.

'Enforcement action here would focus their minds on this matter ...'

You might wonder why your local council, and its profit driven privatised planning service, have put so much effort into depriving local residents of a much needed green space, and health and fitness facilities. To understand that, you have to grasp the utterly ruthless exploitation of this borough by developers, and their facilitators. When you realise the extent to which this sickness has taken hold of this borough - you will probably wonder then why you continued to return a Tory council that allows the best interests and well being of residents to come second to the profits of developers. At least: I hope so.

The other question should be why our contractors and senior officers are spending so much time, paid for by Barnet residents, promoting this and countless other profit making developments, with other bodies, rather than addressing the question of the poor provision of local healthcare - at FMH, and elsewhere, especially in the largely Labour voting, poorer, western side of the borough.

You will note that still, three years later, the Hospital buildings are desperately under used, with much of the building empty, even at a time when there is so much pressure on the NHS and such long local waiting lists for access to consultants, clinics, and treatment. That the local CCG has allowed this to continue for so long, is simply impossible to understand.

In my view, if the proposed housing development is allowed to go ahead at this site, it is only a matter of time before Finchley Memorial Hospital itself is closed, and after another interval, the rest of the site developed.

If you look at the post from 2017, you will see how and why this proposal has come about, why it is being presented now - and why it is being presented in a way that they hope will make it impossible for it to be turned down. 

In other words, a development proposed to be built on community open space is being carefully branded as a scheme to ... oh: provide housing for NHS staff. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? 

At a time when we are all so deeply grateful for the NHS and the incredible work of its staff, how could anyone be so churlish as to oppose such a plan? Even if it is on open ground that is a community green space?

Well, except .... the devil is in the detail, as always, in Broken Barnet. Let's see what they are claiming these proposals are about, here, on their development website. To be clear, this is a 'consultation' by CHP, a property management and planning arm of the Department of Health and Social Care. As they boast on their home page:  'we have a strong track record of adding value to the NHS, offering a unique blend of investment, property management and strategic estate planning expertise'.

Adding value. 

That means: profit. Will any profit from this proposal be retained locally, to improve access to healthcare in Finchley or Barnet as a borough? That would be nice. Doesn't say so, does it? 

Warning: the website for the Finchley proposals includes a 'quick poll' which turns out to ask the question: 'Do you support the delivery of homes for NHS staff?' And a survey which begins in the same way - be careful which box you tick.

In other words, if you try to express your opposition to this proposal on what the developers have failed to admit is a community open space, you are a really horrible, selfish person, who thinks NHS workers should not be given homes. 

Nice touch.  

More details:

 What are you proposing?

Community Health Partnerships are proposing plans for up to 130 homes for NHS staff on the site that was formerly occupied by the hospital up until 2012. 50% of those homes will be classified as affordable housing in planning policy terms, and these will be designated for staff on lower salary bands.

The remaining 50% of homes will be open to individuals working or training in the NHS. We are confident that there will be sufficient demand for these homes from NHS staff, but if there not, opportunities will be opened up other public sector key workers, such as those working in the police or fire service.

Area defined in red is where developers want to put the proposed blocks of flats: pic courtesy CHP.

Doesn't tell you much, does it? Are these 'homes' - flats - for sale, or rent? What is 'affordable'? Rent at 65%, say, of local levels in this part of Finchley (some of the houses in Bow Lane have been marketed at £1 million plus) is not going to be affordable for many NHS or key workers.

130 'homes', not units: 'homes for NHS staff ' rather than just another local development consisting of ugly blocks of flats - some of which will be looking on to the Edwardian houses of Bow Lane.

No mention of the fact that this land was designated for community use, a rare and vital patch of open space in this area, and one which is well used by local residents, even in 'normal' times, before Covid.

Please note that there will be parking spaces only for 38 cars. 

And 195 bicycles. 

A prim note from the developers gives the pretext: 'Commuting via private vehicle will be actively discouraged on-site'. So only a quarter of the new residents will be able to park their cars on the site. The rest of them - very few of whom, in reality, will be abandoning their cars for bicycles -  will be parking in the residential roads around the Hospital - or even in the Hospital car park. 

That'll be fun, when you bring your elderly mother to the Walk In clinic, and can't find anywhere to park, won't it? And patients attending Finchley Memorial cannot get there by any other means (other than a long walk) because despite years of asking, no bus* has been allowed to stop there. Why? I think we know why now, as we knew before: the reason that there is - as they claimed - no turning point for a bus was nonsense, then - but will be true once the land is taken up by a new development. 

*Update Sunday 28th June: by an extraordinary coincidence, after years of blank refusal, and stating buses could not be re-routed to FMH, leaving patients without a public transport link, and a long walk to the hospital, it has just been announced the 383 will now run there - at exactly the moment when a housing development proposal for 130 homes and only 38 parking spaces has been announced!

This is also the reason, clearly, why, despite having agreed to allow the new Finchley War Memorial  to be put in place on this spot, in time for the centenary ceremonies of 2018, the only tribute that was allowed was a single wreath, while the newly carved memorial, with hundreds of names of local casualties, is left gathering dust in storage. I am told now that the Memorial site has been moved elsewhere - honouring the dead clearly having come way behind maximising the profit in a piece of land. 

The plot to develop this piece of land is also the reason the long awaited community facilities were never installed, as promised - but used as a lever to hurry along development, as revealed in the emails published in 2017.

 Only half of these new flats will be for sale at so called 'affordable' planning policy levels.

It remains to be seen if the average NHS worker - the care assistants, the porters, even the nurses, will be able to afford these properties. Oh, the remaining non affordable properties will be even more expensive, but 'open' to 'individuals working or training in the NHS'. And if they don't take up the properties? What then? Kerrching.

Then there is the other factor, which will not be mentioned in any developers' plans that propose a quota of affordable housing. 

There is every likelihood that should the developers, after planning permission is granted, decide they don't want to offer the same amount, or even any amount of affordable housing, they will turn around and demand this requirement is dropped, claiming it is no longer 'viable' - and they will be allowed to do so. 

Only recently there was an example of this practice in North Finchley, when the development of Britannia House was allowed to cancel its affordable quota - see here. The same happened, over time, in West Hendon.

So what happens if the new flats are not snapped up by NHS/key worker staff? 

That is one of the questions I have put to Mr Oliver Deeds, who is acting as the "Community Engagement Specialist" for these development plans, and who claims on the website that he is 'listening' ...  Last Wednesday I emailed him to ask some questions:

1. This is community ground, and was intended to remain so for local residents, of which I am one.

Why not build homes for NHS staff on available ground that does not remove community space?

2. What happens if NHS staff or key worker staff cannot afford the supposedly affordable level of purchase of these proposed properties? What is to stop these properties ending up on the open market?

3. What is to stop changes in use from NHS or key worker staff to open marketing to any purchaser?

4. Please confirm that there is nothing to stop the developers dropping the affordable/key worker designation of these properties, once permission has been granted, claiming it is no longer viable to designate the properties as affordable.

5. Who is paying for the development and building costs of these proposals? 

As of today, a week later, he has not replied. If and when he does, I will publish his responses.

Don't be fooled by the framing of this development proposal. We all want a better deal for NHS staff, and know how much they deserve a decent salary, working conditions, and a good quality of life. But NHS properties, or CHP, or the local NHS trust, have had plenty of opportunity to provide affordable housing for staff, even locally - and on NHS owned land. 

More than a decade ago, the developers of Barnet General turned down the opportunity to convert the former Barnet Workhouse, one of the first built in the country, in the early 1830s, and very probably one of the sources of inspiration for Dickens's 'Oliver Twist', into homes for key workers. The then Labour leader of the council put an emergency local listing status on the building. The developers knocked it down regardless, two weeks later. The site then stood derelict for years: then there were - surprise! - rumours that housing would be built there. Not for NHS staff, or key workers. Last time I had the misfortune to visit Barnet General, it was still derelict.

There was also the former Marie Foster site, not far from the hospital. That was sold no doubt at huge profit, to a private care provider. Why did they not build homes for NHS or key workers there? Or in any of the other large NHS owned estates now being carved up and developed as private housing, all over London?

Alternatively, there are plenty of brownfield sites or other locations which would be suitable for housing development: but our access to open space, to community space, in this borough, in this part of the borough, is rapidly diminishing. Victoria Park, as we have seen, was designated open space, and protected by a covenant, intended to keep it as such. This was ignored. Now we have another precious open space, meant to be for community use, targeted for more profit led development - and please don't imagine profit is not involved in this scheme, whoever the intended tenants of this housing may be.

Just as bad as the loss of this space would be, is the precedent it would set for every other similar remaining site in this borough. Nothing will be safe from development. And the way in which it has been covertly organised by interested parties, over a period of years, frankly, is cynical beyond words: look at those emails again, and wonder at the rare glimpse it affords into what happens under the cover of our local council and their privatised planning service.

We have reached a point now where this service is run entirely to benefit developers and Capita, who milk this borough for every last fee they can generate from us.  In terms of planning there are so many fees they can screw out of development, and some of the practices this encourages are deeply concerning.

Why, for example, has it been made possible for developers to pay for a named planning officer of their choice?

Why are former senior planning officers able to leave Barnet/Capita and immediately go to work for the same developers they were dealing with in their former posts? And to deal with former colleagues in the promotion of their new clients' applications?

Then there is the question of impact on the local community of such large scale development. 

Where is the expansion in infrastructure, education and healthcare provision?

With more and more development and greater density of an enlarged population, is there not a greater not lesser need for green and open spaces, for the physical and mental well being of all residents?

The site of Finchley Memorial Hospital is not just another plot waiting for development - or at least, it is, only in the eyes of developers and those agencies and companies that benefit from the massive, virtually unregulated expansion of such development in this borough.

It is not only a tiny, precious piece of open space, a community asset - it is part of our local history.

This area of Finchley was once part of Finchley Common, and on this particular spot there was a small settlement of cottages, at Fallow Corner. Look carefully at the aerial photo, and you will see  trees and shrubs, which, close up, you will realise are ancient remnants, boundary markers, of a more rural era.

Dickens came here to visit the clown Grimaldi's cottage right here, at Fallows Corner, and later returned to stay at nearby Fallow Farm, then known as Cobleys's Farm, to write Martin Chuzzlewit. Grimaldi's residence is now marked exactly on the site targeted for development with a plaque that no doubt is in the way of the proposed blocks of flats, just as the new war Memorial intended for this spot has been shoved aside, and the installation made impossible, inexplicably, for years.

The very name 'Finchley Memorial' was given to the old cottage hospital here, replaced by the empty modern building carefully located a suitable distance away, across the empty fields. The name was given in order to commemorate the fallen of Finchley, who did not return from the fields of Flanders, in the first World War.

The new War memorial had many names added to it, and should have been in place for 2018. For the last four years, it has been left packed in wooden crates in a stonemason's yard in Scotland. At the time of the centenary, all that was allowed to be put in place was this wreath:

What greater insult to the memory of those local men, than to prevent this commemoration from taking place, without admitting the real reason, that it was in the way of development?

Literally nothing is safe anymore, from the hands of profiteers: our built heritage, our local history: our parks and open spaces.

The only way to stop this madness is to make sure you make your objections heard, loud and clear, even now, at this awful time.

Although the CHP has launched a campaign and website, you will not there are no detailed plans available, so this cannot be considered in any way as proper consultation.

They say that:

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic we are unable to hold a physical public exhibition, but we have provided other means through which you can feedback to us, through this site.

You might think that after all these years of waiting developers might not wish to hurry through plans during a global crisis, but then ... that would be rather naive, wouldn't it?

I am still waiting for a response to my questions, sent a week ago. I will attempt to register for these 'consultations' and 'presentations' - and I hope others will too:

We will also be holding two online presentations on the scheme which you can book to attend by emailing Oliver Deed on These are taking place on Thursday 25th June, between 7pm - 8pm and on Tuesday 7th July between 12pm - 1pm. You can also email to organise a one to one telephone consultation with a member of the project team by emailing

If you wish to oppose the building of housing on our open community space, there is a petition started by a local resident, which already has more than 800 signatures, and which you might wish to sign: link here.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

Tell Us Like It Is: Barnet Tories confronted with the impact of their library cuts.

Reuben Thompstone enjoys being Chair of the libraries committee. 

Or rather being the Chair of the committee that deals with libraries, as an afterthought - which is all they are and can ever be to the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet. 

He enjoys being Chair, and talking very fast, in his clipped antipodean tone, and telling people how it is, and not listening to other people saying no, it's actually not like that at all. 

But on Thursday night, in Committee Rooms One and Two, with the curse of Capita as usual working its dark magic on the process of communication with residents via the terrible sound system, and a total failure in live-streaming the meeting for those listening at home, Councillor Reuben Thompstone was obliged to keep quiet, and  hear a summary of the independent library review - as explained in the previous post here -  which, couched in tactful terms, informed him that everything residents and campaigners said would happen to our library service post cuts, has happened. 

Has happened with serious impact on residents, especially children, disabled residents, elderly residents, disadvantaged students needing study space, job seekers needing trained staff to help them, and so on, and so on.

You asked, said the consultant, Eric Bohl of the 'Activist Group' consultants which produced the review, cheerily, to the Tory members:  to Tell Us Like It Is, so we have. 

And so they did. 

And it really was a question of We Told You So, for the residents and campaigners sitting in the cheap seats, in the public gallery.

Poor Tombstone looked distinctly uncomfortable throughout this presentation, and swallowed hard, sitting there in a voluminous short sleeved shirt and a fair isle tank top, his little waxed moustache at half cock, sporting a lime green bow tie, and obviously trying to look 'interesting', but comically reminiscent of the way my long suffering boy cousins used to be dressed by my aunt for parties and family events, circa 1969. 

(NB Except their ties were on a piece of elastic, which I used to pull - twang -  and run away before they caught me. The old temptation arose, at several points in the meeting, and was only very narrowly avoided. A good example, I like to think, of how, in my twilight years, I am coming to grips with my ADHD).

As predicted, the Tory members - (only two Labour members were there, which is unfortunate, but as one of those is the redoubtable Sara Conway, no one else mattered) - the Tory members seized what they thought was a lifeline, dangling in a sea of shame, and picked up on the rather naive suggestion in the report that in the long term, the damage done by sacking library staff on such a disastrous scale, and leaving libraries unstaffed for so many hours, could be repaired, if not by paid staff, by 'volunteers'.

Ah yes. Volunteers. 

Awfully keen on those, our Tory members. Residents stepping up and doing their civic duty, to perform for free the jobs they already pay the council to do. Sweeping the streets, picking up litter, filling potholes in chain gangs, scrutinising the council's financial performance for them, all that sort of thing: no different to running a library, is it? 

Oh wait.

IT IS. It really is different.

Libraries are not simply places where books are stamped in and out, and people sit in silence calmly reading, as a clock slowly ticks the hours away - if they ever were. In case you don't know it, here is a poem supposedly written about Golders Green Library, (where I once worked, and where there were still polished tables, and linoleum) by the late Dannie Abse, who lived in the area, and thankfully would never have seen what Barnet's cultural assassin councillors have done to the place:

Who, in the public library, one evening after rain,
amongst the polished tables and linoleum,
stands bored under blank light to glance at these pages?
Whose absent mood, like neon glowing in the night,
is conversant with wet pavements, nothing to do?

Neutral, the clock-watching girl stamps out the date,
a forced celebration, a posthumous birthday,
her head buttered by the drizzling library lamps,
yet the accident of words, too, can light the semi-dark
should the reader lead them home, generously journey,
later to return, perhaps leaving a bus ticket as a bookmark.

Who wrote in margins hieroglyphic notations,
that obscenity, deleted this imperfect line?
Read by whose hostile eyes, in what bed-sitting room,

in which rainy, dejected railway stations?

Libraries still bear witness to the 'accident of words', and offer so much more: now hugely important community resources, one of the few remaining safe spaces, in an increasingly frantic, alienating or virtual world: they offer a place where people can find sanctuary, support, and information. 

They are meant to be run by skilled staff, who have the appropriate training and qualifications, experience, knowledge needed to select book and media stock, advise readers on same, advise users on IT, fix IT problems, answer reference queries, study related enquiries, deal with sensitive personal matters like benefit applications, job seeking, mental health support, sexual issues; help children, read keep them safe, run parent and baby sessions, deal with anti-social behaviour, defuse potentially violent situations, offer first aid: build relationships with regular visitors who might be lonely, and need the reassurance of a familiar face behind the counter, perhaps the only person they have spoken to for days. 

This range of duties is not, cannot be, and should not be, the role of a volunteer. 

Do we offer them any incentives? was the only question asked by Tory Nelson Mandela impersonator Brian Gordon, who once told us his children spent most of their time in his local library, and who could blame them.

Incentives, for undertaking such a demanding and difficult post? How about a salary, training, and qualifications, Councillor? That's called 'A Job'.

Of course our Tory members struggle with the concept of volunteering, and what it might demand. 

Unlike their own former late colleague, the admirable (Tory) Cllr Leslie Sussman, who served the borough - out of nothing more than a sense of civic pride - for decades, without taking a penny in return, the current Tory group will not undertake their roles on a voluntary basis, but expect - hello: 'incentives' - a generous allowance, topped up, if they are lucky, and ingratiate themselves with the leader, with a whopping amount for being Chair of any committee - paid even, as we have mentioned previously, if that committee doesn't meet for many months. 

Plus they have other perks, like free parking permits, of course - which Labour members refuse to take. That's an incentive, isn't it?

As they sat there, plotting to fill the pothole of all potholes in the library staffing structure with the equivalent of the useless bucket of tarmac Capita chucks on any hole in the road these days, that is to say a few hapless volunteers, someone dropped a clanger. 

On the subject of volunteers, the senior library officer present let slip something no one had known: that no DBS checks are being made of volunteers who are used in staffed hours. 

We had to query this several times, before anyone could believe it. No DBS checks? For people volunteering to work in an apparent 'safe space' environment, with access to young children, and vulnerable adults?

They weren't 'allowed' to ask for DBS checks, it was claimed. And it wasn't considered necessary because they were supposed to be supervised by staff.

Libraries in Barnet now are barely functioning on a skeleton staffing basis - one that the report commented was not adequate. In fact there were more officers sitting at the committee table last night, than you would ever find in even the busiest Barnet library, on the rare times when you will find any staff in any library now. 

The idea that these staff members, praised by the consultants for working so hard and with such dedication under such pressure, have the time to train the volunteers who are taking their colleagues' jobs, let alone supervise them in a way that answers the demands of safeguarding, is absurd. Absurd and dangerous.

To use as volunteers people who have not been vetted via DBS is more than foolish - it is taking a massive risk. 

Years ago, when this blog first began, in the wake of the MetPro scandal, in which it emerged that Barnet's Tory councillors had been using an illegally operating security firm, with no contract, and amongst their duties had been the supervision of 'looked after' children - even though they were not DBS checked, or even licensed. Here we are, nearly a decade later, and by chance we find that they are still defying the basic demands of safeguarding in their own libraries.

Clearly most people who volunteer do so out of good will, and wanting to do something useful - but it is also true that any position, voluntary or not, that offers access to children attracts some individuals whose motivation is less worthy. 

There are known cases of individuals with a history of offences involving children trying to gain a position as a volunteer in a local library. When I worked in a branch, I remember vividly a male volunteer who had to be barred after inappropriate behaviour with children. This is unfortunately a recurring problem. Paedophiles will always continue to try to gain positions that enable them to groom or abuse children: the only mitigation of such a risk is a system of vetting that prevents their appointment to such posts.

For the sake of preventing the small number of those volunteers who would be in this category gaining access in this way it is unfortunately necessary to have stringent requirements on those who apply - as there would be in any other comparable situation.

If it is true that volunteers cannot be obliged to be subject to DBS checks, it should follow that they should not be used in public libraries. 

The truth is not many do volunteer for library work in Barnet: as the report explained, many feel it is the wrong thing to do, to help take someone else's livelihood, and dismantle the very service which they admire. 

Volunteer run enterprises anyway are unreliable as a source of substitute staffing simply because there is no obligation on those involved to comply with the needs of the service. 

If Tory members want safe spaces for children, and for all vulnerable users, then they need to do as the review suggests, and as they used to do, and employ more trained staff.

In any service they valued, this would be an automatic requirement - but it is a sign of the deep lack of cultural understanding by the majority of councillors as to the purpose and many benefits of libraries, from the opportunities for less advantaged residents to the preventative role they play in terms of social issues like exclusion, and support for mental health, all at the heart of a community. 

As the consultant remarked, our Tory members seem not to appreciate the great asset they have, in what was once one of the best performing - and best value - library services in the UK.

On another level, however, there was recognition by Tory members - or some of them - of the enormous risk that non-vetted volunteers present. 

Let's hope the shock they clearly felt at this revelation at the meeting translates into action, and a better future for Barnet Libraries emerges from this review: with investment in properly trained and paid staff, and a commitment to provide all the resources libraries need, in order to serve the people of Barnet in the way that they deserve. 

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Saving Barnet Libraries: the last battle

The 'refurbishment' of Barnet libraries ... remember that? 

This was the interesting claim that was written on banners and hung outside library buildings across the borough, two weeks before the general election of 2017, trying to persuade local voters that nothing was happening to this vital community service, other than a few new carpets and a change in upholstery. In one case, seen below, at North Finchley, the banner was hung outside a library being used as a polling station, the paint hardly dry after its beautiful, purpose built children's library had been hollowed out and oh: 'refurbished' - to no purpose whatsoever.

North Finchley library on polling day, 2017

What was happening, in truth, was that Barnet's Tory councillors were spending £14 million on hacking the library service to pieces: sacking staff, chucking out books by the skipload, carving up the library buildings, so as to empty most of the space of any library function, and then installing 'open access' equipment, so that staffed library hours were reduced to a nominal level of coverage. Unaccompanied children under 16 were banned from entry, and study space cut back to a fraction of the former provision.

And for what reason? Ostensibly to 'save money'. Yes: spending £14 million to ... make savings. 

The only 'savings' that emerged from this were in terms of staffing costs: paying off the staff who were sacked. Except: oh dear, as predicted, the risks to library users of unstaffed libraries, as campaigners against the cuts warned, meant that the council ended up paying a fortune every month on security guards - and has done ever since.

The story given that the massive reduction in library space within the former library buildings was so as to generate income from commercial renting soon turned out to be ... just that: a story. 

There never was any serious intention to let the space in this way, as was admitted at the time of nonsultation: senior officers admitted they had done no market testing, and said it didn't really matter. 

Golders Green children's library, after Barnet Tories destroyed it - and above right, the replacement they shoved into the adult library.

It didn't matter, because the long term plan, as many believe, is merely to run the service down to the point where the authority and Capita can find a reason to divest the council of more assets, and sell some of the buildings for development, on the basis of insufficient footfall as a library.

The result, however, is that the income which was part of the original business plan has not materialised, and as things stand, the £14 million 'investment' in the 'refurbishment' of the service will see no proportionate return.

In short, the libraries' fiasco, even if judged only on its financial case, has been a failure. This is the only outcome which will worry some Barnet Tories: but it is not the only, or the most important, consequence, of course. 

Having written to the government minister responsible for libraries to complain about the devastating cuts to our library service, Save Barnet Libraries campaigners pushed for a review of the impact of these cuts, and a report by an independent company of consultants 'Activist Group" has now been published. 

Save Barnet Libraries campaigners, with letters in support of East Finchley library, by local children.

Tomorrow (Thursday 5th March) the report, which you can read here, will be considered by the Community Leadership and Libraries committee (you can see that Barnet Tories have so little interest in the library service they have attached it randomly, as an afterthought, to this committee, rather than allow it, as was once the case, its own committee, or include it, as it should be, with education and leisure).

What does the report say?

It says that everything we as residents and campaigners said would happen, has happened. 

That the current plan for libraries does not deliver the expectations of the council's own stated local policies.

That even if you accept that their intentions in pursuing the cuts were valid, their objectives have not been met, and their strategy has failed to deliver the results they demanded. 

That "the reduction in staffed opening hours has gone too far ..." 

That: "Students no longer have sufficient study space at many branches ..."

It is noted that reduction in book stock can have a detrimental impact on user visits (deliberately so, of course, in Barnet) - although the report perhaps does not fully explore the particularly poor provision of stock for children, especially at libraries such as Hendon, and Golders Green. (see pics below)

Library users who were surveyed, moreover, referred to the range of books in their top priorities for improvement: first priority, unsurprisingly, is the availability of staff:

The impact on children and young people, especially those from backgrounds of social deprivation is made clear in this report:

Prosperity, child poverty and attainment


The borough is relatively prosperous and has high levels of educational attainment. However, Barnet contains pockets of deprivation which are concentrated, but not exclusively, in the West of the borough.

This is reflected in turn by the third of children who live in poverty. These inequalities are reflected in educational attainment. The implications for the library strategy are:

• The relative prosperity of the borough means that a substantial proportion of the borough may choose not to borrow books or use free computer terminals.
• While generally prosperous, there are areas with high levels of deprivation which need adequate resources.
• Study spaces for young people are particularly important for those living in the most deprived areas.
• Self-service opening currently excludes, and possibly disadvantages, young people below the age of 15 from accessing quiet study areas.

The report highlights one crucial aspect of the failed 'transformation' of the library service: Barnet was one of the first authorities to implement the so called 'open access', unstaffed libraries - but they tried to use the technology in a way that no one else had used it: in order to reduce staffed hours. This is why it has been such a disaster, and has seen the permanent deployment and high cost of security staff. The adoption of open access libraries, incidentally, was based on a lie - reports to committee claiming that such libraries were 'standard' use in 'Scandinavia'. They weren't, and the few that were in existence were used in a completely different context.

Security staff cannot replace the removal of trained library staff, nor can the Big Brother eye of CCTV, which is supposed to monitor these spaces in lieu of staff on the ground. 

The report takes up the issue of 'volunteers': Barnet Tory councillors, some of whom expect generous allowances for little or no work by themselves (for example in the case of one very well paid Chair whose committee did not meet for more than seven months), in their eagerness to make residents work for free - doing work that their council tax has already paid for - thought that they could sack their own trained library staff, and replace them, if necessary, with 'volunteers'. 

The report points out that this did not happen. It didn't happen, as we warned it would not, (and is touched upon in the report) because by and large people do not want to take away the livelihoods of library workers and anyway are not capable of doing the work of professional librarians or trained library staff. 

There is a fundamental failure to grasp, both in the culture of the Barnet Tory 'vision' for public services, and to some extent in this report, the reason why volunteers cannot and should not be asked to run libraries. 

The idea that well meaning residents can take the place of library staff is wrong: the duties of library workers are complex, and require a wide range of skills, including management of safeguarding issues, dealing with users presenting challenging behaviour due to mental health problems, guiding users needing help with benefit or job applications, those in need of social service support - as well as an understanding of data protection issues. That is in addition to having a wide experience in IT and information provision - not just finding you an instant result on google, but finding you the right sort of answer for your needs. This level of qualification and skill is not, and should never be, demanded of volunteers in any form of service, but particularly in a work environment used by vulnerable residents and children.

Part of East Finchley library - as it was

The physical absence of library staff means that library users feel at risk, lack skilled support, and for many users at risk of social isolation, or with mental health issues, for children and elderly users, as we hear from users quoted in this report, there is every reason now not even to attempt to visit their local library, or, as the report points out, even to try to guess when it is open - or where it is.

Where it is? Yes. One important point well covered in the report is the lack of basic signage: a telling absence which reflects the fact that the council would really rather you didn't turn up and use the service. 

My local library is a good example of this: the new Church End branch does not even have a sign outside informing you that it is a library. If you didn't already know, you would never know at all. 

Why is this? 

If you look around you, you will see none of the fixtures are permanent: the space could be emptied of books and stripped back within a short time, with no structural changes. And that is because the space belongs to the development in which it is placed, given planning permission on the basis of offering us a new library we didn't need: there was one across the road - with a sign saying 'library' on the front - which simply required some ... what is the word? Refurbishment ... 

Once the new library fails to be considered to be performing adequately, it will face closure, and the lease returned to the freeholders. Other libraries face closure on the grounds of self generated decline in use - and will no doubt provide an asset ripe for sale - and yet another opportunity for development for the vultures circling what is left of our built heritage and community centres. 

The closure of libraries, in Barnet, is and always has been a very sensitive political issue: it causes alarm among Tory voters, and letters to our MPs: they don't want this, so the cuts were designed so as to leave the library buildings nominally as libraries, but effectively in a state that would make future closures less controversial. 

In terms of impact, these truly devastating cuts to the library service have caused real hardship for many dependent and vulnerable users. Their statements may be found in the report: take for example these comments on unstaffed hours, when entry is only possible with a card and pin number, and there may not even be a security guard on the premises: 

These are all issues we warned would happen - but were ignored by the Tory members and senior officers who wanted to adopt this system. 

People simply do not want libraries to be unstaffed: they don't feel safe, there is no one to ask for help, should there be a problem - but most of all, no one is available should they need advice, guidance, or complex information. 

One of the issues given particular attention is that of toilets: the removal of staff has had the consequence that branches are often left with no access at all, leaving many users, especially those who are disabled, elderly, pregnant, or with children, feeling unable to continue to visit their local libraries. 

Another of the issues probably not given as much attention as it should, but beyond the remit of this review in terms of future outcome, was the impact of such reduced access to libraries on the literacy and educational achievement of the borough's children, especially those in less advantaged families: an outcome whose that will only be seen in the years to come. 

Other forms of impact are not quantifiable: the impact in terms of loneliness and social exclusion. 

What can be measured has largely been avoided: as the report notes, libraries have been left without any system of assessing the level of use, since the cuts were implemented. Now why might that be, do you suppose?

As the report observes, all of this is so short sighted, in failing to accept how libraries can be used in a 'preventative' role, "improving people’s life chances and helping to reduce spending on health and welfare".

But then in Broken Barnet, long term gain is never seen as more useful than short term measures, or political gestures. 

So what is to be done? 

The report is quite clear. It recommends replacing lost staffing hours - at least until the day that will never come, when the mythical volunteer army is ready to take over: but most importantly of all, investing in the library service - yes, investing, not cutting, a difficult concept for Barnet Tories but one - are you keeping up, councillors? - one which in the long term will be more cost effective, in terms of its preventative role, as already noted. 

There is of course the benefit in terms of social value, but that might require some difficult thinking, for some members, being a commodity that cannot be measured, weighed, or quantified in material terms.

Tomorrow is also World Book Day, and an appropriate day in which to make a plea, by the children of the borough, to their elected representatives that evening, to secure their right to a better future, and a future for their local libraries.

One of the comments made by the consultants at Activist was in reaction to the strength of feeling among the hundreds of residents and library users they spoke to:

We have been struck by the passionate commitment shown by the people who use
Barnet’s libraries and by the staff who serve them. 

This is what is at the heart of this battle, and it has been a battle, between residents and the Tory group on Barnet council: they misjudged the extent to which what was once a beacon standard, money for value library service, matters to the people who live in this borough, and those who work in this service, and what is stands for: community, culture, heritage, education, and the joy of reading, the vital role of reading, and learning to see the world from a view point different to your own - a quality some might say is lacking in the ethos of the present council administration.

Over to you, now, councillors. 

Don't let us down.