Sunday, 31 March 2013

Where the bodies are buried: Robert Rams and Church End library

Your name is Robert Rams. You are the Barnet Council Cabinet member responsible for libraries and museums. Or rather: responsible for some libraries, and no museums, because you shut Church Farmhouse Museum, and auctioned off the local history collection, and left the building to stand empty for two years after Middlesex University decided it could not afford to buy the listed building and beautiful grounds. 

Some libraries, because the one library you tried to shut and sell refused to lie down and die, and is now the People's Library. 

So: what do you do now?

You look for another library to shut. Well - to move, he would say.

 Church End Library, and St Mary at Finchley, left, and above

Sitting on the network of corporate ley lines that mark out the secret geography of Broken Barnet, along the road that travels from North Finchley to Hendon Town Hall, on Hendon Lane, is Church End Library. From the outside, well: it's not the loveliest looking building, but inside is fine, on two floors, a purpose built library erected in 1960, still well used.

When the closure of Friern Barnet library was announced, residents were told it was going to be replaced by a wonderful new landmark library, located in the Artsdepot. Residents did not believe that this library would ever materialise, and indeed they were right: it was an invisible library that only ever existed in the imagination of Robert Rams.

Fast forward to this week, and some thrilling news from Barnet Council:

"Initial proposals have been revealed for an exciting new library building at Finchley Church End.

The plans being proposed will redevelop Gateway House and provide a new vision to revive Finchley Central. The developer expects to submit a planning application in April.

If planning permission is granted, the new library would cover 800 square metres over two floors and would see facilities for adults, children and teens plus a cafĂ©, study spaces, meeting and activity spaces.  The proposed new library could open its doors to the public as early as 2015.

The existing library at Church End would remain open until the new library is ready. A range of options are currently being considered for the building. 

By April this year most of the council’s 14 libraries will have received new self–service machines and WiFi hot spots. 

Councillor Robert Rams, Cabinet Member for Customer Access and Partnerships, said:

 “There has been a great deal of work gone into these proposals by staff, and although still subject to planning permission, I feel confident that at a time when neighbouring boroughs are closing libraries we are announcing a proposal for a new library ..."

Ah. Church End Library, here in Finchley Central: Mrs Angry's local library, in fact, closing, for no good reason, and a new library promised - just across the road in Gateway House, a horrible high rise building, owned by the council - now apparently empty and in a state of decline.

 Gateway House

The council's statement is very cleverly worded, isn't it? Plans to 'develop' Gateway House. 'A range of options are being considered' for the library. 


Interesting to speculate what will happen to the library site, isn't it? 

In a very nice location, right next to the ancient parish church, St Mary at Finchley, which dates back at least to the twelth century, and is possibly much older. Notable Finchleians are interred in the church or its environs, including the radical politician and reformist Major John Cartwright (1740-1824), who wrote such tracts as 'The English Constitution, and 'The People's Barrier Against Undue Influence and Corruption' - sadly both works unlikely to be found in a Barnet library. 

Church End branch is, as its name suggests, surrounded by a churchyard - oh, that is to say, part of the churchyard, because some of it, apparently, even perhaps Major Cartwright, is still under the library. 

Or so it is believed, anyway: and when the building was first proposed, there was much controversy and objection to the construction because of this. One story claims there are plague victims buried here, not impossible, as Finchley Common is recorded as being the refuge of many victims who camped out there, having escaped the horrors of London. 

You can walk around St Mary's churchyard and the back of the library and see for yourself how the crumbling gravestones that remain in place abutt upon the boundary and see how some have been rearranged, like broken teeth stuck back in a decaying jaw, after being torn from their natural owners.

 Graves directly behind the library building

In fact the site, although within the churchyard area,  appears to have been occupied for some time in the nineteenth century by the Old Queens Head, an inn frequented by the artist Rossetti, when visiting his friend Ford Maddox Brown, who lived nearby. The building became a church hall, and was bombed during the last war. To one side of the present library is a small garden, and altogether, the present building and its grounds make a tempting option for a potential buyer, one imagines.

Development of the library site can be the only reason for shutting the present building - otherwise why move into another location just across the road? And what do they mean by Gateway House being 'redeveloped'? Rumour has it that the present building is going to be demolished, rather than renovated, and certainly the artist's impression that has been published suggests a new build. The new property will be flats. It is unlikely that these will be any form of affordable housing, and there are many questions raised by this proposal: are the developers buying the building from the council? If so, has this purchase been subject to any tender process?

Mrs Angry cannot find any details regarding the development of Gateway House on the council website, and on checking where the plans are available for view was rather surprised to find that they were only on view at Gateway House from 4 to 7.30 pm last Wednesday ... why they are not now in Church End library would be puzzling were it not for the way in which we expect consultation by Barnet Council to be organised - in such a way as to avoid all but the most token gesture, and in order to facilitate the council's own agenda, whatever that might be.

And who are the developers of Gateway House? It would seem no plans have actually been submitted, so one might wonder how the council is able to give so much detail about the proposals, but, according to the Barnet Press, the company involved is the Pears Family Trust.

This name rang a bell with Mrs Angry. She then remembered a story last month in the same paper allegedly linking the the William Pears Group with a surprising new bid for the Barnet Spires shopping centre up in High Barnet. The William Pears Group, incidentally, in turn supports the Pears Foundation, with which of course Councillor Rams must be familiar in his role as Governor of JCOSS school in New Barnet, where the Foundation provides an admirable scheme for pupils diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders.

A complex story, then, the tale of Church End library. We are promised, as we were with Friern Barnet library, that it will not close until the new facilities are available in the new development. Whether or not you believe that, or indeed any promise made about the future of library provision in this borough, will depend on how long you have lived here, and whether or not you have anything between your ears. 

In this borough, after all,  libraries are dangerous, the suppliers of books, and interesting ideas: they encourage people to think - and people who think don't return Tory councils to power. 

This is Broken Barnet: we need no libraries here ... much safer to sell the buildings, and turn them into profit. 


Land Registry records confirm that Gateway House was bought by a company named Maverick Estates in September, 2011, for £5.25 million.  

Three members of the Pears family became directors of Maverick Estates in April 2011, including Trevor Pears, who is the subject of this interview here in the Standard last year, and Mark, who lives in Totteridge. The family's wealth is estimated at around £1.6 billion.

Mrs Angry's spies tell her the development of Gateway House is intended to include around 74 residential properties, as well as offices and some retail units. 

Are the residential properties likely to be definable as affordable housing? We do not know. 

One would reasonably expect, however, that a handsome profit is to be made on an investment of only £5 million, and therefore the provision of some space for a library, which will apparently be put in part of the ground floor and a basement area of the building, will not represent a major loss for the developers, although no doubt it will help to smooth the way for planning permission. 

The still unanswered question, of course,  is why we need a new library in Church End in the first place, when we have one already well used, just across the road ... 

Updated Wednesday:

Mrs Angry has discovered that Phil Stanier, who works for a company named 'Local Dialogue', is acting for the developers in what is claimed to be a public consultation before plans are submitted. The drawback with this is that apparently there is only a week to go before the plans are submitted, and the only consultation has been the very low key exhibition of plans for a couple of hours one day last week, when almost no resident was aware of the opportunity.

As readers will know, Mrs Angry is awfully keen on the principle and practice of consultation, and so, in order to help the Pears Group in their undertaking, has written to Mr Stanier for further information on behalf of residents: 

Dear Mr Stanier:

I understand that you are the person to contact for information regarding the proposed development of Gateway House in Finchley. 

I am a resident of Finchley, and I write a local blog, Broken Barnet, and I have written about the development plans, althought there is a shortage of detailed information about the proposals: I believe that there is a document which purports to be a part of the process of consultation in regard to the scheme, and I wonder if I may be sent a copy? 

I also have a few preliminary questions: 

I understand that the document is intended to perform the role of consultation before the developers submit their proposals to the council. The council has said this submission will be this month. How then can the public be properly consulted before the submission of the application when information about the proposals is not in the public domain? The only opportunity to see the plans took place briefly last week, before almost anyone was aware of it.

How many, if any, of the proposed new residential properties will be definable as 'affordable housing'? 

Has there been any form of Equalities Impact Assessment on the implications of moving the present library into the new development? 

If so, how has the outcome informed the design of the new library? 

Will there be any parking allocated for users of the new library? 

What plans, if any, have the developers taken to mitigate the impact of the building work on the already congested traffic flow in the area? 

With grateful thanks, 

Yours sincerely,

Mrs Angry 

*Updated again:  

Mrs Angry has now received the plans, and these are available for your viewing pleasure over at the Brent Cross Coalition blog - no, don't ask me what it has to do with Brent Cross, but he is capable of uploading them, and Mrs Angry is not ... and she is promised answers to her questions later today.

*Update Tuesday 9th April:
Well, Mrs Angry did not, despite a polite reminder, receive any response from the man at Localdialogue: it may well be because consultation in respect of Gateway House is to be neither local, nor a dialogue, as is the tradition in Broken Barnet. So this afternoon she rang Mr Stanier, who by coincidence, it transpired, had just been about to reply to her. She saved him the trouble and asked her questions anyway.

The two meetings for residents which have been briefly held, in almost total secrecy, it would seem, although allegedly advertised in the local press, have been attended by a total of only 50 people. The pre application proposal consulation period is rather vague, sort of to the end of this month, but it is best to get your views in by the end of this week. 

When asked why the plans have not been put in the most obvious place, ie the current library across the road, there was no clear answer. 

There has been no equalities impact assessment yet, and the drawings of the library which, as Mrs Angry pointed out show stairs down to a basement level which may have an impact on accessibility, are merely speculative, or rather 'indicative'.

There will be parking for library users: but only one space, or possibly two.

The skeletal structure of the building is being retained, as it is 'more economic'  to build around it, but it will be adequate for the new development as buildings of this period tended to be 'over engineered'.

The council will be charged rent for the library, as a 'legal security', although it is 'anticipated' that this will be at a peppercorn level, on a lease for a hundred years or thereabouts.

Oh, and it seems there will be no affordable housing in this development.

If you are a resident of Finchley, or a user of Church End library, and you wish to make your views known to the developers, you may do so by email to:



baarnett said...

Don't forget the little matter of building the thing. It is not just an outlay of £5.25 million pounds.

But, given the way the council hid the sale of its Pinkham Way site, TO ANOTHER PUBLIC_SECTOR BODY, it cannot be trusted to make public any negotiations with these private developers.

Mrs Angry said...

No, that is true: but even after the cost of the development, the profit from turning an office block into 74 saleable residences must be pretty healthy.

I think we know that our beloved councillors cannot be trusted, full stop, Baarnett.

Mr Reasonable said...

This is all very strange Mrs A. By taking 800sqm in this building the developer is giving up a rental stream of between £160k and £240k per annum. Alternatively this amount of space could accommodate between 8-10 flats. Why are the council taking this space when they have a perfectly good library across the road. Why not leave Church End library where it is and slap on a decent S106/CIL which would benefit the rest of the community or insist on a reasonable number of affordable flats. The numbers just don't seem to add up.

Mrs Angry said...

Indeed, Mr Reasonable: it is a mystery, is it not? One of many mysteries, in the continuing story of Broken Barnet, and our secretive, non consultative Tory councillors. Many more questions to ask: let's hope we get the answers.

Anonymous said...

What is 'affordable housing'? Surely to be affordable it would need to be rented. Once sold, the property becomes part of the market and ipso facto unaffordable. Otherwise, what is meant is cheap accommodation, aka small, pokey, shoddy, depressing. Poppy

Mrs Angry said...

Poppy: I doubt very much if any of the properties in this development will be affordable by anyone on a low income ... the housing crisis in London, which is felt most keenly by those with the least means, is not an issue that greatly concerns our council, I think. Not sure exactly what the 74 properties will be like, as the details have not been forwarded.

Anonymous said...

This is very interesting... this is the first I've heard of this. Perhaps you won't have seen this - an article lamenting the possible closure of Parkway Patisserie in Finchley, possibly because of a proposed Church End library move. The Parkway shop is an institution within the Jewish community - and for numerous other locals - and supplies two other shops. If it closes the whole business will close. The building is directly opposite the empty one you mention. It will be interesting to see whether the proposal is in fact for the Parkway building or the one opposite. It seems a shame to kill a thriving, decades-old family business just to move the library two minutes away from its current home. Why not either use the empty building opposite, or regenerate the current site?

Anonymous said...

Apologies, to add to my comment a few minutes ago, I can now see on closer inspection that Gateway House IS the Parkway building, not the empty building opposite. Parkway is just going out of shot to the left in the picture you have posted above. I walked past there this morning and the building is not empty. Aside from the thriving bakery, there is a modern beauty salon and a drycleaner, and I think an estate agent. Meanwhile, the building directly opposite IS completely empty. I find it impossible to believe that Mr Pears, who grew up not far from Finchley (as per the Standard article you link to) is 'not aware of the importance' of Parkway to the community - as stated in the Jewish Chronicle article I linked to before. I really hope he doesn't kill the bakery and the library.

Mrs Angry said...

You didn't leave the link to the JC article, Anon: but yes, it is very important to the local Jewish community, I think the only kosher bakery in Finchley. I believe there is a suggestion there will be a couple of retail outlets in the new proposals, but nothing is sure, and of course we do not know who will move into these new premises, or what sort of lease arrangements there may be.