Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Phoenix rising: the library occupation continues

 Another victory for the Friern Barnet Library campaigners

Today was the day that Barnet Council went to court, expecting to be given an order enabling them to evict the community squatters occupying Friern Barnet library.

Today was the day that Barnet Council was not given an order enabling them to evict the community squatters occupying Friern Barnet library, and so the occupation continues, at least until the week before Christmas, when the judge has ruled there should be a full hearing of both sides of the case.

In a courtroom packed with forty or so residents, occupiers, library campaign supporters, Labour councillors, bloggers and press representatives, we witnessed the extraordinary sight of a judge clearly intent on ignoring the preremptory expectations of the local authority and instead opening up the process to a fair consideration of the case. I say extraordinary: of course it should not be so, but here in Broken Barnet, any due process which works in favour of the people and not those who seek to use the process against the people is a pretty rare event.

Rob Booth, a reporter from the Guardian, came to Broken Barnet today to observe the civil war that has erupted in this borough, and meet some of the bloggers who have reported the astonishing sequence of events that continues to evolve as residents rebel against the policies and actions of their maverick, lunatic, privatisation obsessed Tory council.

Before the court sat, quietly amongst the crowd waiting to enter the room, deputy leader and Tory councillor Daniel Thomas fixed upon the Guardian reporter and stood for a long while whispering frantically to him, like Hamlet's uncle dripping poison in his victim's ear. His poison of choice was a relentless trickle of oleaginous One Barnet propaganda. 

Mrs Angry stood listening, smiling to herself:  whisper, whisper ... One Barnet is not just about two contracts ... there was no real opposition from residents, just a couple of cut and paste emails ... Booth nodded politely, but after a while his eyes glazed over, as if he might be considering jumping out of the window, and running as far away from Broken Barnet as possible. Who could blame him?

Once in court Councillor Thomas found himself sitting surrounded by amused residents and campaigners. He looked distinctly uncomfortable. Barnet Eye blogger Roger Tichborne tried to make him feel welcome and encouraged everyone to applaud his courage in turning up. We did. He appeared a little unnerved.

Councillor Thomas, asked Mrs Angry naughtily: is Robert Rams not coming along too

He swallowed hard, as the court tittered. He had no idea. Of course Rams, the Cabinet member for libraries, would not be coming, partly because he would probably not get out of the courthouse alive, but also because whereas we see a library still located in the community of Friern Barnet, the council sees only a property, an asset to be disposed of: a development opportunity. Dan Thomas is in charge of such disposals, and was there to reclaim his property. Unfortunately for him, the judge thought otherwise, and once it became clear that there would be no triumphant statement for the press and photo of Cllr Thomas on the steps of the court waving his eviction order, he slipped out of the room.

 Outside court after the hearing

Up to now the case has been pursued against 'persons unknown'. The judge, who was commendably helpful throughout, and really went out of his way to extend his advice and a full explanation of the process to the court, rearranged matters so that Phoenix and five other named individuals were the parties responsible for representing the library campaigners and residents. This may incur some costs, it was explained, and if so I hope that we will all do our bit by pledging some financial support.

The judge decided that in view of the nature of the dispute, and the assertion by Phoenix and friends that the council had implied permission to remain in the library building, serious issues needed to be addressed, and this could not be done in the short amount of time alloted to the day's procedure. He began to mark out a timeline of dates in preparation for a hearing, including the requirement for disclosure of all documents by both sides, to each other. Phoenix's adviser, his 'Mackenzie's Friend', Reema Patel, clarified that this would oblige Barnet Council to reveal the now you see them, now you don't, deeds of the library.

Barnet's representatives at court were completely wrongfooted by today's developments. They had clearly foreseen a straightforward procedure, with permission given for an immediate eviction from the library premises. When the judge offered them a chance of mediation, the council's solicitor took instruction and then refused, saying negotiations had been concluded.

On Tuesday, Phoenix and Rosie, one of the library campaigners were sent an email by senior officer Bill Murphy, stating:

Dear Phoenix and Rosie, I write further to our meeting on 3 October 2012. There were a number of options presented to the Council as to how you proposed to run a community library at the former library premises. 

Having carefully considered the various options the only viable option would be option 4 i.e. for the community interest group to purchase the premises. The premises have been earmarked for sale and the Council now need to market the premises for sale. Naturally, the community interest group can put forward offers for the purchase of the property at the appropriate time and the Council will consider that proposal along with any offers received from other interested parties. 

It was made abundantly clear to the Council at the meeting by those who attended that the possibility of opening a community library from Friary House was no longer of interest. In order to consider any offers for the purchase of the premises the Council requires vacant possession. Having now explored all options in respect of your proposal to open a community library at the current premises the discussions are now concluded. 

The Council now insists that you give peaceful possession of the premises so that the property can now be marketed for sale. Once the premises have been put up for sale you will have the opportunity to put forward an offer for the purchase of the property. 

Bill Murphy Assistant Director, Customer Services

Mike Gee, another campaigner, was reported to have been informed by Councillor Robert Rams that once repossessed, the library would be boarded up, and only one and a half days would be given to clear the building of books. 

There has never been any chance whatsoever that any community group would be able to buy the library. Its stated value of £400k or so is nonsense: one could hardly buy a small house in the area for that - the value of this site must be several times that to developers, and the council will expect a price reflecting the maximum valuation.

But oh dear: look now ... a development which no one expected. A judge prepared to listen to both sides of a highly contentious dispute, in which, as he observed, 'there is a public issue' ... 
The library was closed in April: here we are, six months later, under occupation by the community, and the council struggling to use the process of eviction in order to gain possession and flog the site to the highest bidder, as they are doing with our much missed Church Farmhouse Museum.

Phoenix returns home after the hearing

Many of the supporters left the court and made their way to the library, where Phoenix and friends laid on tea and biscuits and everyone celebrated the extension of life that this eighty year old library had just obtained: a stay of execution. 

It is impossible not to like Phoenix: he is an engaging, energising individual, and yet enigmatic in his way. Who is he? Where does he come from? How long will he stay? Mrs Angry watched him today sitting in the children's corner, and thinking with amusement of one her favourite childhood books, that he rather reminded her of a sort of dreadlocked Mary Poppins, (sorry, Phoenix) sent to teach us not how to fly a kite, but to teach a community to stand up for itself, and yes, like Mary he is a stickler for good manners, isn't he, Captain Cooper? Jazz hands, and put your hand up when you want to speak ...

Mrs Angry making a direct point, but no jazz hands, as Phoenix facilitates ... pics stolen from Citizen Barnet

  Filming in the library, where the shelves have been restocked by local residents

A film crew wandered about, and the guy from the Guardian interviewed people, and later on his photographer turned up and ... uh oh, wait and see ...

 bloggers Roger Tichborne and Mrs Angry

In Birmingham, David Cameron was giving his speech to the Tory conference. Here in the people's library, nobody cared. 

Barnet was once a flagship Tory borough, the former seat of Margaret Thatcher, an easycouncil: now it is the stamping ground of the sad, mad and bad lunatic right of the Tory party: the home of Brian Coleman, our former GLA member, currently on bail on suspicion of common assault, whose parking policy has brought the high streets of Barnet to the brink of economic disaster. 

Coleman, of course, was ultimately defeated by the concerted efforts of residents and bloggers determined to resist his re election. 

Friern Barnet Library was identified as a suitable case for development: this too has been obstructed by the efforts once more of a determined and well organised community. 

That leaves us with one more battle, one for which the occupation of Friern Barnet library should serve as a very important lesson. That is of course the opposition to the £1 billion gamble of the One Barnet sell off of almost all our council services. 

The library campaign is not an aberration, an issue in isolation - it is part of a much bigger picture. It marks a point whereby the residents of a community turn on the elected representatives who have betrayed their best interests and who have refused to listen to the very people they are supposed to serve.

The shabby Tory councillors of Broken Barnet may not understand or care about the reaction that will ensue if they allow the One Barnet programme to continue. They may well, as the Joint Venture fiasco demonstrated, have lost control of the decision making process of the council, and allowed the senior management team of officers to hijack the agenda. The sudden departure of the Chief Executive certainly suggests that something has gone badly awry. 

The companies currently vying for the £1 billion One Barnet contracts should take note.

What is happening in Friern Barnet is just a taste of what is to come. 

The residents, activists and bloggers in this borough are not going to sit meekly by and watch their borough's services deconstructed and degraded by mass privatisation. 

We will fight you to the last moment of signing, and we will watch you every day for the rest of your contracted tenure in our borough. 

One Barnet may be, as Ken Loach says in the new film, a licence for exploitation: it doesn't buy our submission.

Don't say you haven't been warned.

 Update Thursday:

A statement by Barnet Council about the court case was issued today and is quoted in the local Times:

 “We have sought to keep an open dialogue with squatters through this process and we are disappointed that this discussion has been used to prevent the council assuming immediate control of a public asset. It is now unlikely that other councils will be as reasonable in their relation with squatters in any public building. This will mean we cannot have any further discussions about a community library until the court case is finished.”

If ever you needed an example of Barnet's complete inability to communicate honestly and openly with residents, here it is. 

As you will have read in the email above from the Assistant Director of Customer Services, even before the court hearing yesterday the council had stated categorically that 'discussions are now concluded', a response repeated to the judge yesterday in court.  

Amusing though it is to see Barnet pretending to worry about the fate of other councils who may follow what they see as their own over charitable indulgence of squatters, the cold truth is that they have no intentions, and never had any intentions, of supporting any sort of library that the community actually want, ie in their own library, in their own community. 

This story is not about a review of library provision, or a even rationalisation of resources: there is no rational and independent consideration of the needs of library users in the borough: the sale of Friern Barnet library is purely and simply an asset stripping exercise, decided upon not on the basis of local need for services, or even as part of a budget plan - it is a suitable site for development, and, so they imagined, could be shut and sold without any electoral or political impact, whilst the cosseted Tory voters of Hampstead Garden Suburb would have their own ridiculous play-library subsidised as long as they want, no matter the cost.

That the people of Friern Barnet have taken back possession of something that is not a council 'asset', but a community centre, and one which belongs to them by every moral right is something to celebrate, and we should hope that their victory, however temporary, will encourage others to do the same.


The library continues to serve the community, of course, and has been filled with an astonishing amount of books and other material by local residents, but there are also all sorts of activities and events you may wish to support, including a visit from Will Self, on the 14th November to sign copies of his new book 'Umbrella', which is partly set in the former Asylum across the road from the library, (now of course a luxury housing development owned by Barnet Council's landlords, the Comer brothers). The Friern Barnet library website is here:

Oh, and look here: this is where Barnet shows its true colours yet again: having been trounced in court yesterday, the council which allowed throughout all the years it employed an illegal security company that had no CRB checks, let alone licenses, to work with vulnerable children, and then refused to investigate any potential cases of abuse, is now implying that the people's library is presenting a risk to local children: see the press release here -

Update Friday: 

Here is an amusing press release from Barnet Labour, in which Cllr Pauline Coakley Webb socks it to the increasingly desperate Tory deputy leader John Thomas:

Deputy Leader slammed for Friary House "better access" claim Labour 

Coppetts councillor, Pauline Coakley Webb has accused Barnet's Deputy Leader of making misleading comments in Wednesday's local press coverage that Friary House, in Friary Park has "better access" than Friern Barnet Library. 

In response to the court ruling that the eviction of Friern Barnet Library "licensees" must go to full trial in December, Cllr Daniel Thomas was quoted saying, "We have offered a perfectly good alternative with better access but this has been refused by a small group who claim to represent the whole community." 

Cllr Coakley Webb slammed Cllr Thomas for his comments saying: 

"Short of being in a parrallell universe I do wish Cllr Dan Thomas would check out the facts before speaking. Anyone going to the Friern Barnet Community Library, currently being so well run by the community, would know that the perfectly designed slip road, right outside the library front door, has FREE parking and designated disabled places. Even if you came in a wheelchair the distance from the car to the front door is a metre or two. 

Then there is a gentle short slope with handrails and there you have it you are in the library. In comparison Friary House, which Cllr Thomas has offerred as a replacement volunteer library, is in the middle of a park. There is no car park on site so you have to find a parking space on the surrounding roads. You then have to walk to get to the park entrance, then walk to the middle of the park only to then find a much smaller community space than is currently enjoyed at the original purpose built, Friern Barnet Library!! 

The truth is, Friary House has poor access, and is not wanted by the local community as a library space. Meanwhile, 4000 plus, and rising, supporters to keep their library, is not what I would call a 'small group'. If that is a small group it makes Barnet’s Cabinet a dot on the horizon eager to be totally out of touch with the wishes of the community."


Rog T said...

Dear Mrs Angry,

A commendable write up indeed. Sadly you missed the most interesting thing. Poor old Rob Booth asking various questions about Barnet of local bloggers expecting simple answers, such as Metpro, SO15 & Helen Michael and the sorry tale of One Barnet. As each tale of woe unfolded, poor Rob had the look of a man who had bought a pet Chiwawa pupppy only to find it was grew into a Wolfhound on acid.

Today was the day I realised that to a sane and dospassionate analytic mind such as Robert, the Borough is insanity personified. All this to a backdrop of kids reading books, old ladies dropping in new books and refugees just enjoying a degree of peace in a public space.

Lord help those who think strangling such a baby is a good idea

Anonymous said...

thanks this

Mr Mustard said...

I have to take slight issue with your early words about the judge being in favour of the people (I know I know I wasn't even there, earning a living and all that, ironically partly by recovering houses in Spain on which the mortgage is months or years overdue). The judge is independent and in favout o fjustice, mind you if he doesn't like the way you behave you can have a rougher ride.

Refusing mediation was not the wisest move by the council. The refusal may cause any future award of costs in favour of the council to be lower than it would otherwise be.

Mrs Angry said...

Where did I say he was in favour of the people? If you read it properly, Mr Mustard, you would see I praise him for being fair, and making a difficult process accessible to the occupiers, which gave balance to the proceedings which would not otherwise have been there. My point was that giving fair consideration to the less advantaged party in the process is not something we are used to here in Barnet, where the system is used to confuse and confound the taxpayers and residents, rather then enable them to take part.

Mr Mustard said...

You are correct mum now that I have re-read what you wrote.

Ron said...

Nice one.

Mrs Angry said...

Hmm. Better. Please pay proper attention in future, Mr Mustard.

Mrs Angry said...

here is an interesting question - the council is in its latest statement calling the occupation illegal. Is it? Has that been decided yet? I think not: the judge defined the occupiers argument as being that the council had given permission to the squatters and recognised them as licensees. Until the case is heard, presumably illegality has not been established. Tut tut, Tooting Twister.

phoenixrising said...

Great write up,now we have time to really organise,calling all local support team come in and help,fill in the rota ,together we can win this.
This is your community centre and library use it or lose it.
Stop the Cuts.The 6 million for the Arts depot library which seems to be faltering could easily keep the libraries open and re employ the 19 of 25 librarians made redundant.and go a long way to saving many public services.
Lets talk solutions,the best one we heard this week was if the new chief executive took a pay cut from 190,000 o 160,000. Then the 30,000 could be used to borrow the 400,000 needed.But why should we pay for a building that already belongs to the community?
we are legally occupying,there is only one story time for kids ,same as used to run in the library, by a local mother who is CRB checked.
We have had woodhouse college teachers in offering books and saying they'd like to bring classes in,also 2 classes from the international school came in to learn about direct democracy,the community library,squatting and civil rights.
The library is a beacon of knowledge and learning.
More from Phoenix is on my blog
Basically for 20 years since the 1992 Rio Earth summit our group has been setting up environmental community centres in some of the 1.4 million empty properties in the UK.
In this time we have negotiated with many councils and found that as usual they do not represent the will of their people but corporate concerns.We need more direct democracy in this country.

Mrs Angry said...

well said, Phoenix: and you are right - why should the community be told to pay for something that already belongs to them? The money needed to keep all our libraries could easily be found if the will was there, the problem is that the council prefers to allocate the funding to wasteful indulgences such as outsourcing consultants, and high pay for senior officers.

Dr Vodka said...

I salute the work of the occupiers and the extra life they have breathed into the campaign. I think Pheonix's obvious celebrity has helped no end. Perhaps it was a figure head that had been missing all this time. However, the amazing work done by the SFBL group should not be pushed into the shadows of history by this dazzling light.
The local campaign had been and continues to be hugely successful. I have watch some inspirational people work courageously and tirelessly to save this library, surely these footsoldiers are the heroes.
Personally, and with no ill feelings towards the squatter whatsoever, have been offended by the council's willingness to negotiate with them whilst brushing SFBL aside.
We are only at this point now because of the selfless efforts of SFBL.

Mrs Angry said...

Hmm, I think it is fair to say that the occupiers' arrival has brought an unexpected new life to the story, which was languishing somewhat. But that is not to say that it is entirely the SFBL campaign that has made this such a successful campaign, and it is a success, whether or not the library is saved, it has acheived all sorts of things no one could have envisaged.

When the occupation first happened I simply could not believe the council's reaction, and as you say, especially in the light of their refusal to negotiate with local campaigners. That is why I asked Barnet officers the question about only entering into talks when someone was 'holding a gun to the head'.

As we now see, however, the negotiations were just playing along, and the real intent has always been to lever the occupants out of the premises at any cost. This tactic has not quite gone according to plan, has it?