Earlier this year Mrs Angry wrote about a bloggers' breakfast at North Finchley's Artsdepot, held by Chief Executive Tracey Cooper and some of her colleagues on the management team.
We were puzzled, before we arrived, as to why we had been invited to the Artsdepot, knowing little about it as, although it is meant to be a borough arts centre, it is usually pretty inaccessible, geographically isolated and apparently managed in obscurity by an anonymous board. Most residents barely know the place exists, let alone enter the building, hidden away as it is, with its back to the world in a seedy alleyway, and almost no visible presence.
It soon became clear at the first meeting that the management wanted to defuse the adverse reaction that was bound to follow the disclosure that it intended to evict Community Focus - a groundbreaking arts programme which works with disabled adults, children, and other disadvantaged or excluded residents - so as to allow a commercial tenant, the London Studio Centre, to use 50% of the building for a college of dance. Community Focus had been told their space would be required for Artsdepot's management team to use as their administrative offices.
Clearly it was apparent that such a development was a public relations nightmare, and Artsdepot were keen to try to try to deflect any negative reaction to the eviction. Being seen to cause distress and disruption to a body dealing with people with learning disabilities is, they conceded, likely to be interpreted as rather shabby.
Artsdepot argue that financial pressures due to, amongst other things, the withdrawal of grants from Barnet Council, give them no option but to pursue this course of action.
In Mrs Angry's view, this is absolute tosh. There was and is no justification whatsoever for evicting a community based project from a community arts centre so as to accommodate a commercial enterprise with no local connection - and to do this in order to make room for management offices is completely inappropriate: as we pointed out, there is space in the permanently vacant units on the site for this purpose, if necessary.
CF believe the accommodation of the London Studio Centre was used as a pretext to remove them from the building after a long period of bad relations between the management and their group.
And here is an amusing development: the story now is that the space to be vacated by Community Focus is no longer for 'administrative office space' but will be used by the Artsdepot for ... community focused creative activities ... yes, sounds like Community Focus-lite, in house style, doesn't it? A wise change, from a PR point of view, but entirely unnecessary when this purpose built and adapted unit is already home to an experienced group performing this function brilliantly, don't you think?
Artsdepot intern Kaydee and a gallery of work on display
At yesterday's meeting CF director Tim Balogun welcomed a selection of local residents, Tory councillor and Cabinet member David Longstaff, local Labour councillor Anne Hutton, local business spokeswoman Helen Michael, a representative of Barnet Alliance, and Linda Edwards, MBE, director of a local charity, the Larches Trust, and the parent of an adult with a learning disability. Kaydee, who has worked for several months with CF as an intern was present, as was Paul, a resident whose nephew attends CF activities and Juliet, who also attends classes, and works as a volunteer.
Tim told us that eviction had been due to take place last month, but was now postponed until December. The group has nowhere to move to. Many of the learning disabled clients were extremely distressed by the prospect of losing their much loved space in the Artsdepot, and clearly for anyone with such disability, continuity and a familiar environment is of vital significance.
Community Focus offers a unique experience of around 25 different types of creative activities to more than 1500 regular users, and up to 5,000 indirectly through such ventures as outreach work, working with schools, groups in the community and so on.
Juliet and Kaydee
At yesterday's meeting, local resident Juliet, who has learning difficulties but contributes with great energy and enthusiasm to the activities run by Community Focus, spoke passionately about the deep impact the threatened eviction is having on her and her friends. She was clearly very angry and unhappy, and it was upsetting to see such unneccessary distress and confusion caused by what really is, frankly, an incomprehensible situation.
What on earth are the management and the trustees of this building doing, taking it upon themselves to sub-let half of a foundation intended to serve our community as a venue for the arts to a commercial tenant, and in the process, ejecting a body which is doing the very thing the Artsdepot was intended to do? See the entry on the Charities Commission website:
A) TO ADVANCE AND FURTHER PUBLIC EDUCATION IN THE ARTS, INCLUDING IN PARTICULAR BUT WITHOUT PREJUDICE TO THE GENERALITY OF THE FOREGOING BY PROVIDING A CENTRE FOR THE BENEFIT TO THE PUBLIC TO PROMOTE ARTISTIC EDUCATION
B) TO PROVIDE OR ASSIST IN THE PROVISION OF FACILITIES FOR RECREATION AND OTHER LEISURE TIME OCCUPATION IN THE INTERESTS OF SOCIAL WELFARE OF MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC WITH THE OBJECT OF IMPROVING THEIR CONDITION OF LIFE
• CHILDREN / YOUNG PEOPLE
• ELDERLY / OLD PEOPLE
• PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES
• PEOPLE OF A PARTICULAR ETHNIC OR RACIAL ORIGIN
• THE GENERAL PUBLIC / MANKIND
Surely this remit does not include using so much of the footprint of the building for commercial purposes? Quite clearly the effect of such a move will be in direct contradiction of the duty to provide benefit to the general public, and with particular implications for the protected groups listed here.
The impact on Community Focus is directly on residents that qualify within those categories, and if the eviction was the responsibility of the local authority then there would surely have to be not only consultation with the local community, but an Equalities Impact Assessment.
Ah: but - hang on. Who is responsible, ultimately, for the management of the Artsdepot, the building it inhabits, and the activities it organises?
Here is the nub of the matter: the chain of responsibility. Community Focus, a charitable trust, is the tenant, without a lease, but paying a substantial rent, of Artsdepot, another charitable trust. Artsdepot is the tenant of leaseholders Barnet Council, but pays a nominal rent. The freeholders ... are you keeping up? ... appear to be a low profile property company.
What of the Board of Trustees? Who are they? How are they appointed? What do they do?
We know no more than an (outdated) list of names on the Charity Commission website. None of the individuals listed appear to be representative of the local community: originally councillors were supposed to be on the Board, but appear to have been 'lost'. Yesterday, Tory councillor Longstaffe said he thought he was supposed to be back on the board, but had heard nothing yet. Labour's Kath McGurk has had no contact for some while. Tory councillors Eva Greenspan and, hello, Councillor Andrew Harper - both were once members, but no longer.
Why should the Board of this community centre not have local and community representatives - representatives of Community Focus, and other users of the centre? How does the Board otherwise address issues of equality, and accessability, and inclusion?
The council, ultimately, is at the root of this problem, as is usually the case in Broken Barnet.
The Tory group opposed the building of the Artsdepot, and continues to hope for its demise: the withdrawal of funding was not entirely enacted without political intent. And the lack of support and direction from the local authority has created a vacuum into which the current management has stepped, and taken over, with no accountability to the community.
This is not acceptable.
When Councillor Robert Rams closed Friern Barnet Library, and tried to push his invisible landmark substitute through the doors of Artsdepot, he found that the automatic glass doors, wide as they are, would not accommodate him. His proposal, in fact, was not awfully popular with the management, and he eventually gave up last October, citing disagreement over the level of investment by the council. A more astute negotiator might have retained a community use of the space, with no need for evictions, but clearly preference was given by the board to the dance college's tenancy, for whatever reason.
We have now reached the point where our Tory councillors must put aside their antipathy to the Artsdepot, and assert the right to have representation on the Board, so as to protect the best interests of residents, and in particular to ensure the future of Community Focus.
Some while ago leader Richard Cornelius indicated that he had sympathy for their plight, and that he thought there was room for everyone in the building: a typically hands off reaction, and totally inadequate.
After the meeting, Mrs Angry took a look at some of the activities and work created by Community Focus - you can learn more about this here, via their website:
The delightful Kaydee and Juliet showed Mrs Angry around: we looked in on a ceramics class, and admired the absolutely stunning artwork on display: the principle by which Tim Balogun works is to help his clients achieve the highest artistic standards, and not be left to settle for the process of creativity as an easy option, but to attempt something bold, and courageous, and surprising.
Kaydee had joined Community Focus as part of a Barnet Council scheme to place young people in employment and training. She was so grateful for the experience, which she describes as:
'the most wonderful and enriching opportunity I have ever had ...'
and she had nothing but praise for the work CF undertakes - she asks:
'how could anyone not want a place as lovely as that at the heart of the community?'
The ability of creative experience to have a transformative effect on lives is clear, but it is a delicate, elusive process that requires the right environment, and the opportunities for those who might benefit the most from such activities, in the heart of our community, are becoming fewer and fewer.
If we let go of this one without a fight, what does that say about us?