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 caf├ę, 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. 

Hmm.

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. 

Updated:

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.


http://brentcrosscoalition.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/offices-to-homes-and-library-move.html

*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:

phil.stanier@localdialogue.com


 

Friday, 29 March 2013

You may not like the answers - and in future you may not ask the questions: last night's constitution committee


Mrs Angry was late for last night's Constitution meeting, having been to another meeting elsewhere. As she hurried out of Hendon tube station, up to the Town Hall, she was surprised to see, in the cafe next door to the station, the young Tory councillor Andrew Strongolou sitting back in a chair and chatting with a companion. Funny, she thought: is he not a member of the Constitution committe, whose meeting must be well underway by now?

In fact Councillor Strongolou (right, above) arrived fifteen minutes late for this meeting, well after Mrs Angry, and took his place silently at the committee table, making no contribution. 

Mrs Angry thought back with wry amusement to the recent Full Council meeting in which the apparently unemployed Councillor Strongolou asked a dozen questions about THE UNIONS and their malign influence on council activities. This, citizens of Broken Barnet,is of course a valid subject of public interest, whereas the punctuality and contribution of elected members paid a handsome allowance to attend meetings on your behalf, is of no consequence.

The committee meeting was underway, with public question time: public questions about the right to ask public questions. A variation on the usual theme of Broken Barnet - the perpetual fight between residents and their elected representatives over the right to engage in the democratic process. 

Here in Broken Barnet the only dialogue allowed, of course, is not between voters and the council, but a competitive dialogue between the council and the private sector companies slavering at the bit to avail themselves of the profits offered by running our public services. Communication between resident and council is irrelevant: we are the commodity for sale, and we have no voice.

To ensure the obstruction of any attempt by residents to find their voice, and interrupt the conversation between our council and their would be suitors at Crapita, our right to take part in any meaningful consultation or public debate with our Tory councillors has been ruthlessly removed, over the last couple of years, piece by piece. This has been an outrageous, and  deliberate campaign, following the timetable of the One Barnet programme of outsourcing. 

It is no coincidence that, despite the evidence given in the High Court last week, in regard to the Judicial Review, detailing the lack of consultation with residents, this week the Tories acted to suppress even further the opportunities for any public challenge of their actions. 

Capita has already won, subject to the outcome of the JR, a contract for up to £750 million worth of our public services in the NSCSO package. There is now the DRS contract to win, offering a tempting array of services, including the profits to be made from deceased residents in permanent occupation of the grounds of Hendon Crematorium, in a deal worth up to another £250 million. 

Mrs Angry had the unexpected pleasure, and a great deal of amusement, to be honest, the other day, sitting on the tube next to some hapless Crapita Symonds executive, reading through his documents, and seeing how keen they are to grab hold of this contract. 

Barnet is keen to smooth the way for the conclusion of this tender process. This entails a silencing of criticism from residents who have any inkling of what is going on. And here we were, therefore, being told that from now on it will be almost impossible for any of us to question our elected members at scrutiny committees, which offer one of the last remaining opportunities to hold our councillors to account for the decisions they are taking on our behalf.

 As public question time had began, there was an immediate problem. The Chair, Melvin Cohen, tried to rule that only one supplementary question would be allowed per person, no matter how many questions they had submitted. This caused outrage, as such a rule has never before existed. The newly appointed officers advising the councillors appeared to have no grasp of the relevant regulations, or indeed of the constitution, but tried to justify the unjustifiable attempt to silence the further quesions raised by residents. 

Members of the public present erupted into very vocal objections. Councillors looked panic stricken. 'We have heard what you have had to say', said Councillor Cohen, with a palpable lack of interest. 

Maryellen Salter, previously head of internal audit, in her new governance post, insisted that no rights were being taken away. These were anyway only 'proposals', she observed. 


We were then informed that in future, if these proposals were adopted, we would not be allowed to put questions to our elected representatives, but would be able to 'make comments'. One resident remarked that in effect, that was what happened anyway, as we did not receive answers to our questions.

And how, asked Tirza Waisel, from Barnet Alliance, does all this fit with your views of local democracy?

Officer Andrew Nathan ventured the interesting opinion that the council was not removing any rights, but 'regularising' them.

As to the questions posed to our councillors? You may not like the answers, said Melvin Cohen, but ... But what? No, Councillor Cohen: we do not like the answers, in fact.

End of questions, and now a chance for speakers to address the committee. John Dix, also known as blogger Mr Reasonable made a magnificent speech.


"The amendments proposed tonight will reduce democracy in Barnet. 
I will start with amendments to article 3. 



You have amended 3.01d from public participation to public engagement, a subtle shift which appears to show the council’s true motives, a rejection of public participation. The rest of the paragraph appears to contradict proposed changes you are making elsewhere in the constitution. It states that:

Citizens have the right to ask questions and make comments at committee meetings, make representations at Residents’ Forums and contribute to investigations initiated by Overview and Scrutiny Committees (such as Panels or Task and Finish Groups). 



However, other amendment you are seeking to introduce tonight will stop residents asking questions at Overview & Scrutiny  Committee meetings and make it even more difficult to ask questions at residents forums. 



At article 10, residents forums, you are seeking to move the deadline for asking question back from 6pm the day before the forum to 10am two working days before the forum. Until two years ago, when you imposed restrictions of residents forums, residents could ask questions on the evening. This was especially useful for 1 in 5 who do not have access to the internet.  You have made no attempt to identify if the changes you made 2 years ago have been successful yet you seek to impose even more restrictive practices without consultation. 



Moving onto article 6, clause 6.03 sets out the specific functions of overview and scrutiny committees including the requirement “to consider and implement mechanisms to encourage and enhance community participation in policy development”. Indeed, Mr Craig Cooper’s statement at the Judicial Review last week said that one of the roles of overview and scrutiny was “to amplify the voices and concerns of the public”.



Yet as part of these proposals you are seeking to stop members of the public asking questions on call ins and pre decision scrutiny. 



That’s not amplifying the voices of the public that’s gagging the public. Many of the call ins are delegated powers reports which will never be subjected to public questioning without call ins. As for ruling out pre decision scrutiny questions that may be a resident’s only opportunity. That is because clause 5.1 of the public participation rules specific excludes the public asking questions “On any matter which has been the subject of a decision of any committee in the previous six months” and that rule was used to prevent me asking question on a post decision scrutiny review in December 2010. On that occasion it was only thanks to the common sense and discretion of Cllr Rayner who agreed to suspend public participation rules that enabled me to ask my questions.

So there you have it. You want to stop us asking questions on pre decisions and call ins and rules already prevent residents from asking questions on post decisions so that means no public questions at scrutiny full stop.



These latest proposals send one very clear signal and that is you want to eliminate public participation in Barnet. Two years ago you ignored the views of the public and pushed ahead with the draconian restrictions to the residents forums. They are now in their death throes and you want to kill them off permanently. With no outlet to question the council in residents forums this led to more public questions  at Overview and Scrutiny. So your response is to kill off participation in those meetings too. Perhaps that in turn will lead to far more FOI requests. 



In summary these amendments seem to be an incredibly ill timed response considering the events that took place in the Royal Courts of Justice last week. Legal challenge increasingly looks like the only way residents can get their questions answered in Barnet. Please think very carefully before agreeing to these amendments as in time they may prove to be disruptive and a very costly error of judgement."
The Tory councillors, including leader Richard Cornelius,  looked on blankly. Their lack of sympathy is perfectly rational, of course. They want to ignore the views of citizens, and see no duty to consult, or to abide by the expressed wishes of the people they represent. They have been elected to do as they please, collect their allowances, and take their turns at playing Mayor. They are not there for our benefit.
Barnet Alliance stalwart Julian Silverman also addressed the committee, putting the situation in Barnet in a global context, and remarking, to the general amusement of the public gallery, that there is more control for citizens over their affairs in Cyprus than in Broken Barnet.
  
Veteran activist and trouble maker Mr Shepherd hovered near the table, with his bag of cuttings from the Morning Post, wanting to make a statement. He was told he could not.
I can only claim the right of a council tax payer, then,  he commented, resigned to his fate.

That's right, said Melvin Cohen. 
He sat down.
And now Councillor Cohen had a problem. 

Due to the unwelcome objections raised by members of the public, the meeting, which started at the unusually early hour of 6pm, had apparently over run the short amount of time alloted by him. He had an engagement elsewhere. The democratic process must be halted, therefore. 

Clearly in Broken Barnet, as seen by the examples of Councillors Strongolou and Cohen, our Tory councillors expect meetings to be arranged to their convenience, rather than the taxpayers who pay for their allowances.
 
Against a backdrop of barely concealed derision from the public gallery, he arranged for another meeting, on the 10th April, where the proposals would be reconsidered.
 
Mrs Angry suggests that residents attend this meeting, having submitted questions, and perhaps exercising their right to speak, a right which has not, as yet, been removed by amendment of the constitution. The failure to correct this oversight will of course be addressed at the earliest opportunity, here in Broken Barnet, where the mute submission of subject citizens to our Tory council is their expectation, and our duty.
 
Of course by the 10th April, Judge Underhill may well have given his findings on the Judicial Review of One Barnet. What chances then, one might speculate, of silencing the residents of Broken Barnet?
 
Not much, to be frank, Councillor Cohen. Don't put anything in your social diary for April 1oth: looks like it is going to be a long night. 

Thursday, 28 March 2013

A Peculiar Evil: the silencing of opinion, in Broken Barnet

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

John Stuart Mill


Richard Cornelius announces the approval of the deal with Capita to residents occupying the meeting in December


Last week saw a three day hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice of a Judicial Review of the £1 billion One Barnet programme of privatisation. This wholescale act of outsourcing will, if allowed to proceed, pass the majority of our council services into the hands of Crapita, so that they may use them for their profiteering pleasure for the next ten years, maybe fifteen years.

During the hearing, and in advance of any judgement, the court was told by the counsel for resident Maria Nash that there was evidence of Barnet Council's disregard for the process of consultation over the outsourcing proposals, and the judge several times expressed his bafflement overthe authority's apparent refusal to undertake any real consideration of residents' opinions.

We know that as well as failing actively to consult residents during the tender process which prepared the way for the approval of the Crapita deal, Barnet acted to stifle any existing opportunity for public criticism of the plans, either by elected members or members of the public.

The One Barnet scrutiny committee was abolished, and the council's own constitution was amended so as to minimise the engagement of non executive councillors in meetings, and, worse still, to silence any dissent in the local residents forums, by forbidding the discussion of any council policy at such events.

Policy, in Broken Barnet, is sacred. It is the decisions of our Tory masters, or at least the senior officers employed by our Tory masters, made holy writ, and any challenge of these decisions is One Barnet heresy, and must be silenced. As One Barnet slowly, shyly emerged from the cover of Futureshape and the whopping £1 billion privatisation programme was revealed to the world, the imposition of silence became more of an imperative than ever before. The allocation of a billion pounds worth of business requires an absence of informed challenge, of course.

You might think that the revelation of such ignominous behaviour, as detailed in the case presented to the High Court might have shamed our Tory councillors, teetering as they are on the brink of unprecedented disaster at next year's local elections, into a sense of foreboding, and a desire to make good their mistakes. 

No. This is Broken Barnet, after all. 

The Tory councillors think that whatever they do, they will be returned to office in 2014, carried on the shoulders of grateful constituents, delighted by the four long years of their contemptuous, incompetent administration, and thanking them for having sold us and our public services into bondage to Crapita. 

And indeed our elected representatives think their strategy of the last three years has been so successful, all that is needed for things to continue as they are is, well: more of the same. 

Having shut down all meaningful debate in the council chamber, and silenced their residents in their own forums, tonight at the Constitution, Ethics and Probity Committee, our Tory councillors are proposing to go one step further. 

As Mr Reasonable reports in his blog here: 



 "Public questions are not permitted at Overview and Scrutiny Committees when they are considering call-ins or undertaking pre-decision scrutiny of executive decisions"

Now just to be clear this new rule would have prevented any questioning on the NSCSO contract at the Business Overview & Scrutiny Committee Meeting on 29 November - a topic on which 63 public questions were submitted
. Every single one of those 63 questions would be ruled invalid under the new rules ..."

Barnet's ruling junta is now seeking to remove the right of members of the public to submit questions to council meetings and in addition, new rules are being introduced in regard to time limits for questions to Residents Forums, where we are anyway only allowed to raise isssues of 'public works'. This limitation, combined with the fact that Barnet no longer informs residents by email or indeed by any other reasonable means when these Forums take place - at 6pm, when most inconvenient for everyone - will inevitably lead to fewer and more 'manageable' questions for our council.

What possible justification can there be, at a time when Eric Pickles and the Coalition government claim to be such staunch supporters of local accountability, to act to prevent residents from holding their elected representatives to account? There is none, of course, but that has not stopped Tory leader Richard Cornelius from trying to defend this latest flagrant obstruction of the democratic process: in the local Times he claims -

“The change is merely about ending a situation whereby scrutiny committee chairmen are being asked questions they are not in a position to answer ..."

In other words, the Chair of a Scrutiny committee may not be advised by residents of issues which he on their behalf should be raising with his colleagues. This is outrageous.

Furthermore, Cornelius, floundering about as he always does when marked as the focus of criticism ridiculously seeks to deflect the blame for the proposals to the Labour group leader, who is of course away and not here to defend herself from the accusation that she has in some way endorsed the plans merely by being a member of a cross party working group that clearly is controlled by the Tories. 

Here is the heart of the problem we have in Broken Barnet: an incompetent, arrogant, self serving Tory administration that defies its own party's commitment to the principles of localism, and has no understanding of the most basic principle of democracy, and that their authority is only placed with them on our behalf, that we the residents and tax payers of this borough should be informed and consulted on every major issue and policy decision that comes before the council. If they think that, after all we have said and done in the last three years, we are going to sit back and allow these town hall tyrants to trample upon our democratic rights any longer, they are very gravely mistaken.