Monday 25 November 2013

Mike Freer: your actions show who you are - an occupation in the heartland of Thatcherism

*Updated Tuesday, see below

The story of the occupation of the People's Library, in many ways, perhaps, marked a turning point in the battle of Broken Barnet: the battle won, but not the war, and hostilities continue, of course. 

And the psychic fault line that runs through this borough, acting as a portal to some other world of extraordinary happenings. never ceases to shift and to gape ever wider, and release a series of events that ensure the continuation of this never-ending story.

After the library was returned to the community, occupier Phoenix and his friends moved on: but not very far, or for very long. They turned their attentions to the empty premises of the much loved former Bohemia pub in North Finchley, that dangerous spot, just opposite Cafe Buzz, run by Brian Coleman's nemesis, Helen Michael. 

It is in that most potent and unstable stretch of the High Road where man of the street Horace would sit, with his suitcase, his drawing pad and his crayons, and wish passers by 'the very best of luck'. 

It is in the same stretch of the street where Mrs Angry was walking when she heard our former MP and PM Margaret Thatcher had died: a departure unmourned by her former constituents, marked by a feeble offering of two sparse bouquets left outside the Finchley Tory office just down the road.

The Bohemia had closed down overnight, one night in the summer, despite doing a roaring trade, and having become the focus of the local community. 

The occupiers wanted to return the pub to that community, as well as continue to highlight the issue which is their own abiding belief: that shelter is a human right, and that the increasing level of homelessness in this country is completely unjustifiable when so many usable premises lie vacant and unused.

The new tenants of the Bohemia settled in and opened their doors to local residents, encouraging the use of the premises once more for local groups, meetings and entertainment, including a memorable night of cabaret, with Phoenix playing the part of master of ceremonies, besplendent in gold lame frockcoat, his bleached dreadlocks stuffed into a top hat, between acts like music critic Charles Shaar Murray, playing blues on a slide guitar, and spitting out his brilliant poem 'Dylan in 66', and more poetry from the poet Anna Chen, also known as blogger Madame Miaow. North Finchley, you can be sure, had seen nothing like it before.

Life is a cabaret, old chum, in Broken Barnet. 

As in any period of political repression, in this borough, where the official view of culture is that it has no place here, where libraries are only potential property developments, and museums closed, and the contents declared to be of no value, and flogged at auction, and where Tory councillors tell you to get on the tube in search of the arts while cutting funding to local projects: a clear sign of resistance is the appearance of such spontaneous, uncontrollable forms of expression. But like all such movements in a time of civil unrest, the authorities must have the last word, and the occupation ended one cold night, with bailiffs breaking down the door, accompanied by dogs - and the police.

You might have thought that was the end of this story: but the next event has brought matters to yet another level. From a community activism, to cabaret, and now to politics - the natural course of any uprising, perhaps.

Because last week we heard that the occupiers were back: in a new location, but still in Finchley. They had moved into an empty church, formerly a meeting place for the Plymouth Brethren, and now used once a week by a group of local Sufis. And it is right across the road from ... the local Tory offices, once the constituency HQ of Margaret Thatcher, now serving the same function on behalf of MP Mike Freer.

Ah. MP Mike Freer. As well as being the visionary genius who came up with the easycouncil idea which has now sold this borough and our local services into ten year bondage to Capita, Mr Freer is the proud father of the bill which criminalised squatting in residential premises, moved by the plight of the hugely wealthy homeowners of local Tory stronghold Hampstead Garden Suburb, as reported in the Standard in March 2011:

MP Mike Freer says some homeowners are so concerned by the "epidemic" of occupations that they are considering whether to take family breaks this summer.

He added: "Constituents are wary of going away for three-week holidays. They are worried that they may come back to find their home occupied.

"People have bought these large, expensive properties and the law needs to be changed to give them peace of mind."

At the time, there was much outrage expressed by local Tory politicians, especially Mr Freer, over the ocupation of the £10 million house owned by a Mr Saif Al Gaddafi, formerly of Garden Suburb, Tripoli, and now detained by militia in Zintan, Libya, awaiting trial on security charges, but apparently avoiding indictment on other charges relating to alleged war crimes. Mr Gaddafi's house was occupied by Libyans protesting about the dictatorship - their stance was inevitably portrayed as anti-social behaviour rather than a political statement, of course.

You might be wondering what Mr Freer does on behalf of the rather less fortunate constituents of Finchley and Golders Green. Is he fighting, for example, to protect local health care from the ravages of the new 'reforms'? Is he heck as like. 

Mr Freer is gushing in his support for government policy on health, and describes talk of the privatisation of the NHS as 'tosh'. He does not want us to know the unpublished risks associated with these reforms. He says those who press for this information to be put in the public domain are 'shroud waving'. 

What about those residents affected by the bedroom tax? Any support from their MP?

Nope, sorry: in the housing benefit debate on 12th November, he complained that everything was the fault of Labour:

They created the perfect storm of insufficient house building, record overcrowding and housing benefit out of control.

This is rich coming from the man who was  Leader of Barnet Council, at a time when it had the longest housing list in the country, at the same time as boasting of the success of selling off so many council houses. Barnet is only now daring to build an astonishing number of three new council homes, the first in the borough for over twenty years.

Mr Freer, who owns two properties in Finchley, one house in the the south west of France, and enjoys half ownership of another in Scotland,  does not explain where the poorest and most vulnerable of his constituents now living in social housing, deemed to have one bedroom too many, should move to, if they cannot afford the Tory tax on poverty.

What exactly does our MP do on behalf of us, in parliament? As recorded on the 'They work for you' website, Freer's interests, according to Hansard are:

Billing, Departmental Billing, Press: Subscriptions, Sick Leave, Mobile Phones

For some reason, Mr Freer asks question after question about these subjects, to each government department in turn, fretting over the cost of paper invoicing, and hard copy newspapers. Mrs Angry wonders if by any chance he knows of any alternative form of IT based solution that might be used instead, and if so, could he come right out and tell us all, and concentrate on matters of more immediate interest to his constituents?

In the meanwhile: on Friday, his new neighbours in Ballards Lane moved across the road to the forecourt of the Conservative Association offices, and set up camp, with a couple of tents, and some pithily worded posters, aimed at raising the issues of squatting and homelessness.

 As the occupiers press release explained:

Mike Freer, co architect of the anti-squatting law is our next door neighbour! 

We challenge you, Mr. Freer, to sleep out in the cold with us for a night, while the local homeless who we will invite into the warm building watch us from within. 

We can assure you that this will make you understand the reality and flip the switch in your brain which prevents you from feeling compassion for brothers and sisters! 

Or else you can use your political influence to force us out of here into the frost. 

If you are ready to make laws, be prepared for the consequences. With power comes responsibility.

'Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights'
                                                                                                                                                                                        Isaiah 10:12 

Mr Freer declined the invitation, as you might imagine. The occupiers are still there, in the cold, camped in front of the room that serves as a shrine to Margaret Thatcher. 

Thatcher is dead, but there is really no need for a £15 million museum - her memory  lives on in the sociopathically charged policies of Barnet's Tory councillors, who prefer, for example, to continue to cut council tax at the same time as announcing cuts in vital services to the poor, the sick, and the dispossessed residents of this borough.

Our MPs sit back and say nothing, do nothing, in their defence, intent on furthering their own political ambitions at the expense of the more pressing concerns of those they represent. 

In the debate on benefit 'reform' Mike Freer told the house his support for the bill was based on his own upbringing, which appears, in this version of his early life anyway, to have taken place in a brown paper bag, Python style, between the wars, or possibly the nineteenth century:

I would never be rude to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as you well know, but I feel passionately about this. I was raised in a two-up, two-down, with no outside toilet—[Interruption]—with an outside toilet and no inside bathroom. Opposition Members might laugh, but I know what it is like to live in poor accommodation and I do not need lectures from them about what it is like to live in poor accommodation. The Conservative party is the party of aspiration; it is the party that is solving the mess; and I will vote for the amendment.

Of course in this pre-election interview in the Guardian Mr Easycouncil admitted he had spent part of his childhood in a council home, which his parents bought under Margaret Thatcher's right to buy scheme. He thought then that all social housing tenants wanted a similar 'housing journey'. 

Thing is, Mike, you can't even think of travelling anywhere on this journey if you have no social housing left to allocate, and if the poorest of all are finding themselves without any roof over their heads, or are thrown out of their homes when they cannot pay their bedroom tax.

My own mother, between the wars, really did live in the worst poverty, a family of ten, at one point, before her brother and sister died as a result of illness caused by their appalling living conditions, living in a two up two down hovel, in one of those mining areas where your heroine later launched her worst policies of attrition against the working people of this country. And my mother's journey out of poverty was made possible not by Tory style aspiration, but by the efforts of union campaigning for a decent wage, and decent working conditions, and by the policies of a Labour government, the creation of a welfare state, the NHS, fair access to education. 

It's not greed which drags people out of poverty, and protects them from falling into a spiral of need and even homelessness: it's the right sort of support, and compassion from others.

Everything, in short, you cannot expect to find in the political philosophy of the Conservative successors of the woman whose malevolent legacy is embedded, like a genetic fault, in the dna of everything that is wrong in the blackhearted policies of the coalition government, and in the mindless, merciless governance of Broken Barnet.

Updated Tuesday:

The story of the occupation of Margaret Thatcher House has begun to attract attention beyond the boundaries of Broken Barnet, with stories in the Standard and the Guardian , and local BBC news.

Mike Freer, it should be noted, is putting a new spin on his reasons for promoting the anti-squatting bill: 

 “I supported the criminalisation of squatting because it was a big problem in my constituency. I don’t think it was right that hard working families that have saved would come home from holiday or having a house refurbished and would find someone else living in it.

Rather a different pitch to the quote given above, you will note: Mr Freer has changed the story from worrying about the peace of mind of the multi millionaire residents of Hampstead Garden Suburb returning from their three week holidays to their 'large expensive properties' to 'hard working families' - clearly not Mr and Mrs Gaddafi, then, or oil rich overseas royalty, or even Tory party donors whose fabulous family fortunes are founded on arms dealing, but ordinary folk, like you, or me.

Mrs Angry looks forward to hearing further details of the 'big problem' of squatting that has existed in this area, and is confident Mr Freer is able to provide the evidence for this.

The occupiers want only for Mr Freer to accept their invitation to join them for one night, sleeping in the cold, and to experience what it is like for the increasing number of homeless people who have no home, no shelter, and whose numbers are set to increase further this winter as the impact of government welfare cuts makes its impact. Their view is that the effect of his bill, which criminalises the act of squatting in any empty, unused residential property, is unfair, and punishing those who have nowhere else to go. 

The Finchley MP would appear to becoming deeply uncomfortable at the unwelcome publicity that the occupiers have provoked, and the local Times paper reports now that he has told his new neighbours:

 "I appreciate you feel your point is important, but I must stress that I am trying to deal with constituents who are facing urgent medical issues and child protection issues to name but two.  “My constituents are being deterred from calling at my office.  Having made your point through your protest, I now politely ask you to stop."

In fact such claims are nonsense: Freer's Sooty and Sweep style camper van, his mobile surgery, has been happily parked at the back of the office all throughout the last few days and could easily be accessed as normal throughout all this time. The occupiers are in no way agressive, or intimidating, but very charming, reasonable and courteous. And the truth is that he appears to have given them a licence to remain on the forecourt quite legally, but now resents the embarrassing reminder displayed outside the Tory HQ of the consequences of his own actions. 

So be it. 

A message for our elected representatives:


Mr Mustard said...

You might enjoy this link Mrs Angry, or more probably not

look what our cabinet member for housing says

"Everyone is entitled to live in a home that is safe"

sounds like he fancies spending a night in a tent as he is so on the side of people who want a roof over their head? Now why do I think that Tom Davey wasn't thinking of Pete Phoenix?

Anonymous said...

Do you know how many cases there have been of squatters occupying houses while the residents were on holiday? I only ask because it is a frequently cited reason for changing the law. Even if it was such a common event, could they not have targeted the legislation at that problem rather than at all squatting in residential properties? Or is it that the law has been changed to benefit wealthy land-owners, and the protection of 'hard working families' (copyright M. Freer) was merely a pretext?

Anonymous said...

Today I stopped and talked to the protesters outside Tory HQ in Ballards Lane. A decent group of people who want to take very little and give a lot.

I helped them in various ways when they were at The Bohemia; they brought life to an otherwise dead space. At no cost to the owners, they looked after the place, something that's now costing thousands of pounds per week for paid security.

A bad deal for the Bohemians, a bad deal for the owners of the ex-pub, a bad deal for local residents like myself.

Anonymous said...

Thank You Mrs Angry and thank you Barnet, We love you all!

Here you can find more pics of the Tory HQ occupation:

Yours Faithfully,
The Barnet Bohemian Occupiers

Mrs Angry said...

Yes, Mr Mustard, thank you: how I laughed, in a bitter and twisted way, on reading that. If only Mr Freer had been as concerned as he is to deal with non problematic squatters when he refused to remove the abusive, violent and antisocial family his Homechoice housing scheme dumped in the house next door to me, a few years ago. No one from the council cared about this family being put in a sub standard house whose rat infested garden was filled with rotting rubbish: all that mattered was getting rid of a troublesome family out of social housing into the private sector where eviction procedures do not apply, and the state of the accommodation offered was of no interest. Mind you, if I had been Mrs Gadaffi, I imagine something would have been done rather more quickly, and I should not have been obliged to start this blog.
Karma, eh, Mr Freer?

Anonymous no 1: I like the sudden emergence of 'hard working families' as being of such importance to our elected representative. See previous remark. I hope this does not mean the pressing needs of the privileged residents of Hampstead Garden Suburb are being downgraded.

Anonymous 2: agreed.

Mrs Angry said...

And you are very welcome, Bohemian occupiers: I think we have all learnt a lot since your arrival in Broken Barnet ... we have all been on a journey, as Mr Freer would say, although not to the destination he would prefer us to arrive at ...