Tuesday, 8 January 2013

A betrayal of trust: Barnet Tories, Robert Rams, and the library that will not die

Extraordinary news tonight.

*Updated Thursday: scroll down

Barnet Council, in apparent defiance of the judgement given at last month's court hearing regarding the future of Friern Barnet Library, has announced that it will hand over control of the building to a third party, that is to say a charity, 'commUNITY Barnet', an umbrella organisation of voluntary services in the borough. 

According to the story in the local Times paper, as reported here by Chris Hewtt:

"Barnet Council has invited a third party to take over Friern Barnet Library, ending any chance of direct negotiations with the current occupiers. 

The local authority announced this afternoon it will hand a licence to CommUNITY Barnet, a charity supporting voluntary organisations in the borough, which will run the building in the interim.

The charity will take charge of the library until February and has been asked to co-ordinate community groups looking to take over the building in the long term.

The council will begin accepting community bids for the building in February and it hopes interested groups can come together and enter one unified application through the licence holders. 
Libraries portfolio holder Councillor Robert Rams told the Times Series that it would be up to CommUNITY Barnet whether or not it chose to hold discussions with the library’s current occupiers. 

Friern Barnet Library was shut down in April as a cost-cutting measure by the local authority, which is ultimately looking to sell the property.

Squatters gained access to the empty building in September and have since helped a number of community groups set up their own library with a stock of more than 8,000 donated books. 

Today’s announcement means no direct talks will be held and Cllr Rams said it would be up to CommUNITY Barnet to discuss the continuation of the library with appropriate community groups. 

He said: “The squatters will have to leave so we can take control of the building and have it to offer to community groups during the official bidding process. 

“The squatters have made it very clear who they are and we will go ahead with the eviction at the end of January if they don’t leave themselves. 

“We have put in place a clear mechanism with which the council can work with the community – it is a great opportunity.” 

The news will come as a blow to members of the Friern Barnet Community Library who last week put forward five representatives to begin negotiations with the council. 

The group had requested a meeting with Cllr Rams and council leader Richard Cornelius on January 11 but told the Times Series this morning they had received no reply to repeated email requests."

Unlike Cllr Robert Rams, Mrs Angry was in court for the two day hearing last month, in which Judge Pearl made it clear that possession of the building was to be delayed in order to allow negotiations in regard to a licence to begin. 

The judgement was made in respect to the dispute between local campaigners and occupiers and the council. No mention was made of negotiations between the campaigners and any other party.

Rams' statement today would also appear deliberately to ignore the message sent by his own party leader in correspondence with leading member of the library campaign, Keith Martin:

On December 26th, Cornelius wrote to Keith Martin:

Dear Mr Martin,

Thank you for your email, which I have read.   Now that the case is settled and subject to legal advice that dialogue will not prejudice any matter, colleagues and officers will be happy to discuss a proposal for a community library in the Friern Barnet area.

Happy New Year


The implications of Cornelius' email are perfectly clear: negotiations will take place between both parties, represented on behalf of the authority by 'colleagues and officers', not a charitable body, appointed by the council, upon which it relies heavily for funding.

Where is the accountability here? Where is the obligation to show transparency in the decision making process? Where is the democratic process? 

An unelected, charitable foundation financially dependent on the local authority suddenly charged with responsibility for a building which is now registered as a community asset?

Mrs Angry understands that commUNITY Barnet may have its own interpretation of the role which it believes it has been given, and that this interpretation may differ somewhat from the picture presented by little Robert Rams, the man who, you must remember, has already brought us an invisible landmark library, and been obliged to be seen to campaign against the effects, in his own ward, of a parking policy already endorsed by himself and his Tory colleagues.

Oh - updated already ... Rams has just tweeted his own statement, via 'twitlonger': try not to laugh.

"A key part of my Friern Barnet Lib Statement today "I’d like to stress,” said Councillor Rams, “that because of the success of the One Barnet procurement process we have more contractual savings than we expected and the council is in a different financial position than when we started our library review. We also have slightly less pressure on our capital budget which gives us the scope to look favourably on bids for the building from local residents."

What rubbish. Any 'contractual savings' are total fantasy: Rams is desperately trying to regain control of this story, dressing it up as 'looking favourably' at local bids. 

The truth is the law obliges the council to consider local bids, and he knows it. If there is more money, Rams, do the right thing, and re open the library - support this branch, just as you have so enthusiastically supported your extravagently subsidised enterprise for the millionaire Tory voters of Hampstead Garden Suburb. 

Or maybe stop the deprofessionalisation of Barnet libraries which your philistine administration is in course of implementing?

Campaigners for Friern Barnet Library are very angry tonight: they feel that they have been betrayed, yet again, by their elected representatives. Who can blame them for feeling this way?

More importantly, perhaps,  the point to be considered is how this latest development will be seen if and when the judicial review is under way.  

Ultimately, of course, the real test will be in May 2014, when Robert Rams and all his shabby Tory colleagues must face the judgement of the electorate for every little shameful thing they have done in these last few years of what must be, by any standard, one of the most infamous Tory administrations in the history of modern local government.

This was Broken Barnet, in January 2013. How was it for you?


Here is the full text of Rams' own release, which would appear to contradict his own statement to the Times: note that he says nothing about a licence to commUNITY Barnet, and says it is up to the charity whether or not it 'negotiates' with local campaigners, rather than that it must help them put in a bid ... also the council's intention to sell goes forward, and of course there is no guarantee that ANY community group's bid will be seriously considered ... confused? 

Yep. All of it is a total mess.

 "Below is a copy of the full press release sent out today regarding Freirn (sic) Barnet Library.

Community Barnet asked to support local groups interested in future of former Friern Barnet Library building

Barnet Council has asked Community Barnet to support community organisations seeking to make “Right to Bid” proposals for the former Friern Barnet Library Building.

Councillor Robert Rams, cabinet member for libraries said: “We have been able to support a very successful community run library in Hampstead Garden Suburb, in large part because local residents have a fully accountable and effectively organised body that we can provide with public assets.

“I’d very much like to see a similar body in Friern Barnet and Community Barnet seems perfectly placed to support groups of local residents in becoming properly established and able to develop a “Right to Bid” proposal. I understand that they have already had an approach from a potential group. Ideally we would only have a single bid but we could consider more than one.”

As the next step in the Right to Bid process, the council will confirm its intention to market the building at Cabinet Resources Committee in February. Bids cannot be formally invited before that decision.

Any bid for the site would be bound by full planning and building regulations."

*Updated Thursday:

Incredible story now in the local Times: 

CommUNITY Barnet have denied Rams' story, and told reporter Chris Hewett that they wish only to help support any groups, including the current occupiers bidding to run the library:

"CommUNITY Barnet’s CEO says the organisation has no intention of running the library in Friern Barnet despite suggestions it had struck a deal with the council. 

Libraries portfolio holder Councillor Robert Rams had said the voluntary sector support group would be handed a licence to run the building until official bids were made. 

But the charity’s interim CEO Denise Murphy told the Times Series that no such agreements were made. 

She said: “We were somewhat surprised. We had been asked if we would support the groups that want to run the library services in Barnet and we said yes.

“We didn’t talk about a licence at all. We’re an infrastructure group, we don’t run services.”
Squatters gained access to the Friern Barnet Road building in September and have since helped community groups set up their own library in there. 

Barnet Council says it will evict the squatters at the end of this month before marketing the property on February 25. 

Groups and businesses then have six months to submit bids for the council’s consideration and the authority says its current budget will allow it to look favourably on applications from within the community. 

CommUNITY Barnet has been invited to support any groups wanting to submit a bid.
The organisation will also assist the current occupiers, or any other group, looking to continue the running of the library in the six months between the eviction of the squatters and the council’s final decision.

Mrs Murphy said: “Should the Friern Barnet library groups or any other groups want to make a bid, we will be there to support them.

“There is no agreement with Barnet Council – they proposed it to us and we have said we will be open to any groups that ask for our help.
“We would of course have helped anyway as that is what we do. We had already had some phone calls from one or two of the current occupiers before the council approached us. 

“We have only had one group in touch with us so far and that is the people in the library at the moment."

What an absurd situation. Note the significant detail in this report: the reference to marketing, after the occupiers are evicted. Rams claims community bidders will be considered - oh, because suddenly its current budget will allow it to look 'favourably' on such proposals. 

What does that mean? Where has the extra allowance come from? Is this from the Landmark Library disaster? Is it enough to make a community bid more attractive than a bid from say, a supermarket, or a gym, or any other property developer? The law demands only that Rams & co consider the community bids. They will then be able to turn away and say sorry, but best value requires us to accept a higher commercial offer. And don't think our Tory councillors are not capable of such a trick: we've seen it all before.

Rams position on the library issue is surely untenable now: he has dragged a charitable body into a political controversy and caused even more antagonism over this contentious issue. Either he should give in with good grace, bow to the will of the residents of Friern Barnet and return the library to its proper place, properly funded and secure in the heart of the community - or he should resign.


baarnett said...

Most importantly, I think CommUNITY Barnet needs to issue an urgent statement, explaining exactly what it thinks it is involved in.

Is this charity going to be paid for its as-yet-undefined role, for instance? Is it going to be completely transparent in what it is doing?

Is there a contract with the council? (One can run cowboy security outfits for the council for years without one, but maybe things have changed.)

Who approached whom?

Mrs Angry said...

All very good question, Baarnett.

Mrs Angry understands a statement may appear tomorrow.

Mr Mustard said...

So Community barnet have been asked by the council to support applicants. Why? Will it prejudice their case if they say they prefer to have their own trusted advisers? Have Community Barnet ever actually run a library and so have some expertise to offer in this area?

Jaybird said...

Community Barnet's role is to help groups get constituted and find funding.

What is not clear is who will hold the interim licence. It would be a great shame if a community asset were to lie empty and unused.

Mrs Angry said...

Jaybird: Rams would appear to have made contradictory comments about commUNITY Barnet's stated role. He has made it clear, however, that the local campaigners are being completely ignored yet again: worse than ignored, treated pretty shamefully. In my view commUNITY Barnet should not be used in a political argument such as this matter: they are not accountable through any democratic process and indeed receive funding from the council.

Mr M: I do not think that this body is going to run any library. They are being used as a buffer to try to distance the bad publicity the case is generating from the Tory councillors as we roll merrily along to May 2014.

beeinthebarnet said...

1) I understood that the licencees could not also be involved in the bidding (for reasons of impartiality) therefore if commUNITY barnet are the licencess how can C.B. "support groups of local residents in becoming properly established and able to develop a “Right to Bid” proposal."
2) Judge Pearl's decision was in relation to causing the least interference with the protesters right to protest under paras 10 & 11. Therefore the council were asked by the judge to enter into negotiations with the protesters as to giving them a licence to operate the library. it was up to the protesters to decide who would be the licencees and for the council to negotiate with them. By the council appointing the licencees they are avoiding the legal issue they are bound to observe, namely to interfere as little as possible with the protesters right to protest by keeping the library open.