Sunday 23 February 2014

Consider very carefully: Broken Barnet and the Tory councillors - your heritage in their hands, their history in yours

 Church Farm House, Hendon

Updated, 4th March - see below

As we move rapidly towards the May elections, here in Broken Barnet, it is time we began to review the performance of our Tory councillors, and assess the value of their efforts on our behalf, since they returned to power, four years ago. 

Readers may recall that the entire Conservative group, with one honourable exception, were so convinced of their worth that at the same time as lecturing us all about the demands of austerity measures, and the need for painful cuts in budget to vital services, had decided we should reward them with a whopping great rise in their allowances. They attempted to do this unnoticed, by sneaking the proposal into a meeting on the spurious excuse of urgency, but were found out, and exposed. 

This did not deter them from their brazen plundering of the public purse, and the rise was agreed, but the public outcry eventually forced a partial retraction. 

It should be remembered, however, that senior Tory councillors who were fortunate enough to have been bestowed the patronage of the leader's choice as committee chairs did manage to grab an increase of a staggering 54%. That's right: 54%, more than £15,000 extra to add to the standard pay they already receive.

You can refresh your memory of the full details of this troughing exercise, at our expense, here:

In the years since our Tory representatives awarded themselves their pay rises, how has their performance matched up to their rate of allowance? 

Are we getting value for money? 

What are the KPIs by which we should evaluate their electoral contract with us, the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet?

Perhaps one way of assessing this administration is not in the material terms they would choose, although even by their own monetary standards, they would fail dismally.  

This is, after all, the administration which lost untold millions of our council tax through incompetent procurement and contractual monitoring, and then handed our council services over to Capita to make profit for their shareholders, for minimal 'guaranteed' savings - after spending more than half the theoretical savings in preparation for the privatisation give away, and then giving Capita back £16 million of the capital investment our Tory councillors had told us we would be getting from them ... 

Oh, and they would claim as a magnificent success the fact that they are making the pre-election 'gesture' of a 1% cut in council tax, which will give you maybe 40pence a week back, but will mean that budgets for the provision of care to our most vulnerable residents will have to be cut.

Major fail, then, I would say, wouldn't you, on their own rate of performance?

Mrs Angry has her own system of assessment, based on a more esoteric range of indicators. Perhaps the most elusive, but most telling measurements are the ones that really matter, in the end.

The negative shapes are often more eloquent, in any composition, than the form itself, aren't they? The impact on the background of a line, a curve. The sound left hanging in the air, when the note is struck. You can't see it, or touch it, but you feel it.

What is left, in the landscape of Broken Barnet, after four more years of Tory rule, is not as important as what is gone: what we have lost, for ever, as a result of their blundering policies.

The second act, on regaining office, of our craven councillors, after sticking their hands into the coffers and helping themselves to more cash, was to take a look at the view, and calculate how much they thought they could make from selling off as much of it as possible. 

Asset stripping, in other words, of not just our council services, but publicly owned buildings, and plots of land - anything, in fact, that wasn't nailed down. 

The valuation department of the council was put into action, and every last corner of Broken Barnet that might be of interest to developers was investigated, assessed, and considered for sale. 

In this part of Finchley, alone, for example, a small patch of pot-holed, tarmacked wasteland at the back of our local chip shop was suddenly re-identified as 'a children's playground', and residents and traders told to stop parking there, as the council wanted it back. To sell, it seemed. Bluff, of course, and luckily nothing came of it, after objections were raised.

Then the family living as tenants of the lovely Edwardian park keeper's lodge in Victoria Park were evicted, after being told the house was to be sold. Three years later, it stands empty and decaying, because of an awkward legal restriction contained in the deeds of the property. 

 The old park keeper's lodge in Victoria Park

Not until Mrs Angry kicked up a fuss about the deliberate neglect of the building did the council take any steps to make it secure from further vandalism, and the risk of greater damage. Now they seem to be relying on time and lack of maintenance to do the job we all know they want done: the abandonment and deterioration of this historic property to the point where it can be demolished, and turned into development opportunity. In the meanwhile, another needy family in Barnet waits hopelessly for accommodation which this house could have provided.

The story of Friern Barnet library, built more than eighty years ago with funding from the  Carnegie foundation, followed the same course in the early stages: closed in the face of all protest from the local community, robbed of its books, put up for sale to the highest bidder, rumoured to be a supermarket chain. The building mysteriously had the four corners of the roof covering carefully peeled back, causing rainwater to seep in. Left unchecked, it would have seriously damaged the fabric of the building. Luckily, our friends from the occupy movement moved in, fixed the roof, gave the library back to local residents, and thwarted the plans of our speculative Tory councillors. 

A grave disappointment for Cabinet members Daniel Thomas and Robert Rams, who had been happy, of course, to subsidise a 'volunteer' library for the billionaire, Tory voting residents of Hampstead Garden Suburb, but found no interest in doing the same for the less privileged families of the largely Labour voting Friern Barnet area - until the squatters and local campaigners forced them to agree to support a community library. 

Tory leader Richard Cornelius now tries to present this defeat as an achievement of his administration. 

What a joke.

Not quite so amusing is the story of Church Farmhouse Museum.

Tory councillors and failed museum salesmen Daniel Thomas and Robert Rams

It is now three years now since Councillors Rams and Thomas shut the museum, ransacked the local history collection that furnished the rooms, and flogged the contents at auction. 

Appeals to the the Tory leader were a complete waste of time: he declared the collection to be of no worth. Well, in fact the artefacts given to the museum by generations of local residents, on the basis that they told the history of our borough, through everyday objects, household items, ephemera - they were of interest, and value, to others. Museums in neighbouring areas gratefully took some of the objects: some were thrown in a skip. The rest of the collection was boxed up and put up for sale.

And the sale of our collective past reached a total of £17,380:  a  sum more or less equal to the new rate of allowance for the Chair of a council committee,you could say.

Church Farmhouse was once the childhood home of Dicken's friend, Mark Lemon, the first editor of Punch, the magazine that pioneered a sparkling combination of political commentary and satirical humour. 

One might wonder what the quizzical eye of Mark Lemon would have thought of the small town bunglers posturing as politicians in the council chamber, just across the field from his former home, putting it up for sale, and, with their usual incompetence, failing even to organise that with any success.

Barnet Tories, as we know,  see no worth, no value, or significance, in our local history, and heritage, and collective memory. 

A house is not a home, in Broken Barnet, a library is just a block of flats, waiting for an architect - and a Grade II* listed museum, with surrounding gardens,  is nothing more than a white elephant, a nuisance, and yet, at the same time ... a potentially lucrative property development. 

Or so they thought.

This Tory administration being so culture-averse, and so unappreciative of the historic significance of anything before Year Zero, the year that local heroine Margaret Thatcher became PM, fatally underestimated the difficulties that would lie in the way of turning this delicate historic building into a profitable speculation. 

They thought they had a deal all set up with Middlesex University, an easy sale, made more attractive by the prospect of potential for development of the surrounding grounds. Uh oh: due to unexpected financial setbacks for the University, that plan fell through. 

Since then, Barnet has desperately tried to persuade them to rent the Farmhouse, at least. A few months ago it emerged that this deal had not been agreed yet due to concerns about the state of the building, and the cost involved in making the necessary repairs needed in such a sensitive and badly neglected building. Rumour has it that the staircase alone needs £180,000 worth of conservation work. Not an attractive proposition for potential tenants, let alone purchasers, even without the constraints a listed building necessarily imposes on its use. It is clear now, of course, that the original function of the building as a museum, with restricted numbers of visitors, was perhaps the most appropriate use, after all.

Incidentally, it was again, as in the case of Victoria Park lodge, not until Mrs Angry kicked up a fuss, at the memorable 'circle of friends' meeting with senior council officers during the occupation of Friern Barnet library, raised the issue of the lack of security in place at the former Museum, that any measures were taken to protect it in any way.

Mrs Angry naughtily suggested that the Museum might also be occupied, knowing that this would force them to take steps to look after the building, or face accusations of a deliberate policy of neglect. As expected, the same afternoon, a security company, at last, was sent to the Farmhouse, as it should have been at the time of closure.

More worrying news emerged last month, that English Heritage has now listed the status of the building as 'vulnerable'.

That the building is still standing, and still protected from barbarous commercial exploitation is almost entirely due to the persistence of one man: Gerrard Roots, the former curator, who fortunately lives near to the Farmhouse, keeps a watchful eye on the building, and continues, in the face of continual obstruction from the council, to ask questions about the state of the property.

Former curator Gerrard Roots outside the Farmhouse, with Labour's AM Andrew Dismore (left) and councillor Arjun Mittra, campaigning to preserve the building from further neglect.

As he commented in the local Times here, the Farmhouse has deteriorated badly over the three years of pointless closure, through lack of proper maintenance, with damp 'festering' on the walls, and the attics full of what is politely referred to as 'guano' from an infestation of pigeons.

This article was also full of guano of another kind, in the form of utterances by our Tory councillor in charge of property, deputy Leader Daniel Thomas:

“Minor repairs have been identified at Church Farmhouse, including clearing a blocked gutter, carrying out minor window repairs and securing an upstairs door to keep the building clean and free from pigeons.

We are continuing to work closely to secure the building’s longer term future, including discussions with Middlesex University."

A dismissive reference to 'minor repairs' does not equate with the level of deterioration that has led to the official designation of vulnerability by English Heritage. The delicate fabric of this unique building requires skilled and specialised attention. 

So what do Councillor Thomas and his Tory colleagues intend to do about it? 

Gerrard Roots asked, via a Freedom of Information request, and eventually received a reply from an information officer - or in the name of an information officer - which, frankly, is quite staggeringly officious, and threatens to refuse further requests for information on the issue.

The reply also reveals that rather than use expert advice and professional care to deal with the problems identified by English Heritage, Barnet is using its own long term maintenance contracters, who are more used to fixing leaky pipes than addressing the requirements of crumbling Grade II* farmhouse.

Gerrard's questions in red, and Barnet's response in blue:

Thank you for your request received on 31 January 2014, for the following information:

"In mid-January 2013, English Heritage told Barnet Council that it must deal with several problems at Church Farmhouse Museum- one of them being the pigeon excrement- encrusted attics, which EH emphasized was a health and safety issue that should be remedied immediately. On 16 January 2014 Cllr Daniel Thomas, Deputy Leader of Barnet Council, told the local press that, in response to these demands, 'we have now instructed work to be carried out...'. However, as of 31 January 2014, not only had no work whatsoever been carried out at Church Farmhouse, but it would appear that no contractors had even visited the building to estimate for the work involved. 

Therefore, I wish to know: 

a. how much money has been set aside for these essential repairs; 

b. have any contractors yet been asked to tender for the work; 

c. if so, what are the names of the contractors, and are they approved by English Heritage; 

d. by what date must these putative contractors visit Church Farm so that they can make their estimates; e. and, most importantly, what date has Barnet Council set for work to begin on resolving these pressing problems identified by English Heritage, considering that English Heritage has already categorized Church Farm as a 'vulnerable' building?"

We have processed this request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.


I am writing to inform you that we have searched our records and some of the information you requested is not held by London Borough of Barnet. There is a misunderstanding in the question about the way the procurement system works. 

We have answered your questions and provided some advice about how the procurement system works as this will allow an understanding of how the process has operated in this instance.

The works that will be undertaken imminently are to clear a blocked gutter and to secure the loft against entry by pigeons plus removal of all pigeon guano and cleaning of the loft space as required. English Heritage identified that the windows would benefit from some minor repair work going forward but are not necessary to be undertaken immediately and they are to be monitored and reviewed again next year.

The council has a contract with two repair and maintenance companies to undertake repairs and maintenance on an as needed basis. These contractors were chosen in accordance with the council’s Contract Procedure Rules. Therefore, when repair and maintenance works such as those detailed above are required there is no need to undertake a formal procurement process to tender for quotes. It is sufficient under the Contract Procedure Rules to ask one or both of the contracted companies to provide a quote or to undertake works in accordance with agreed rates.

a. how much money has been set aside for these essential repairs;

The council does not hold this information. The council does not set aside a budget for individual sets of works for individual buildings in this way. There is a general budget available for repairs and maintenance to all properties which are pending disposal (e.g. sale or leasing). Repairs and routine maintenance is paid for out of this budget as and when required. The works that will be carried out – as detailed above – will be paid for out of this budget.

b. have any contractors yet been asked to tender for the work;

A contractor has been asked to quote for the works and a quote has been received.

c. if so, what are the names of the contractors, and are they approved by English Heritage;

Kirkman and Jourdain. There is no requirement for them to be approved by English Heritage for the works they will be undertaking.

d. by what date must these putative contractors visit Church Farm so that they can make their estimates;

We do not hold this information; however a quote has been received and accepted.

e. and, most importantly, what date has Barnet Council set for work to begin on resolving these pressing problems identified by English Heritage, considering that English Heritage has already categorized Church Farm as a 'vulnerable' building?

The council has already engaged a contractor to remedy the problems identified with the gutter and pigeons. In respect of the windows, there is no information held in response to this under terms of the Act, however, the intention is that the incoming tenant will undertake the minor window works as part of the proposals to occupy the property, as these are not works that have to be done imminently.

After such a begrudging response, comes this:

Section 14 (1) Advice

In February 2013 the council refused one of your FOI requests under section 14 (1)as it was vexatious. This was upheld at internal Review. Whilst you complained to the Information Commissioner you later withdrew your complaint. The previous section 14 (1) decision therefore still stands. When you withdrew your complaint to the Information Commissioner the council confirmed to the Commissioner that it would assess all future requests on their individual merits, and would not automatically refuse future requests under section 14 (1).

The council has undertaken this, and has responded to 4 (including this) requests since that time. You have submitted 4 requests since the end of November 2013, including two requests within one week. All requests have been concerning Church Farmhouse
Museum, and have included the same subjects over which you have made repeated previous requests.

The council reserves its right to consider the application of section 14 (1) against any future requests concerning Church farmhouse museum, under the criteria that apply to this section and having regard to the guidance in Dransfield, the leading Upper Tribunal decision in this area.

You are advised to consider very carefully before submitting further requests on this subject, whether by yourself or through a third party.

No one could be better placed or more entitled to make informed requests to Barnet about the state of this building than the former Curator, who ran what was an outstandingly good local Museum and exhibition venue for more than thirty years. He is absolutely right to question what has been a totally unnecessary, costly and damaging closure of a much loved and needed community asset. 

You may recall that marvellous piece of spin in the Guardian last year by our Chief Financial officer Chris Naylor, informing the world that the 'default mode of Barnet Council' is now .... what was it ... ah yes: 'open government'. 

Perhaps Mr Naylor would like to explain the aggressive stance taken over what are perfectly valid queries about an issue of concern to many residents?

The reference to  requests that might be made  'through a third party' is a pretty outrageous suggestion, too, one might add. 

The arrogance of this response, and the threat of using the pretext of vexatiousness over what is a genuine matter of public interest is reprehensible - and exactly what one might expect from this bullying, incompetent Tory run council, which knows the price of nothing, the value of nothing, and whose philistinism, and remorseless lack of interest in our common heritage, Mrs Angry cheerfully predicts, will perfectly mark the passage of their own electoral history, this May, here in Broken Barnet.

In the meanwhile, tragically, nothing could better serve the purpose of metaphor for the decadence and moral decay of the current Tory administration than this: the sight of our formerly beautiful museum, shutters closed; silent, empty, rotting - and full of shit.

Update 4th March

Simply unbelievable news now emerging from former curator Gerrard Roots: he reports that yesterday workmen began constructing a 'shower room' in the Grade 11* listed, 17th century building, just recently listed as 'vulnerable' by English Heritage. 

This action appears to be because the current security 'guardians' are unable to live there legally, it transpires, due to the lack of washing facilities.

Gerrard has submitted questions to the council's governance officers demanding to know if English Heritage has been consulted and given permission, and who is responsible for the installation of the shower room. 

What next?


Anonymous said...

Question 57 Councillor John Hart
Could the Cabinet Member update me on the disposal of Hendon Church Farmhouse?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas
Following specialist inspection work undertaken by Middlesex University, the costs to occupy the building increased to a level more than the University could commit to under the 4 year lease term they agreed to. The Council have been working with the University to consider options: the Council invest in the property; a longer term lease can be granted to Middlesex University to enable them to invest in the building; or that the property is sold.

Mrs Angry said...

One of the worrying things about the deal our councillors were trying to cook up with MU, as I recall, is that they would make such improvements to the property as would make it more commercially viable as a potential sales opportunity. Quite how this sort of agreement is compatible with the integrity of the interior features, or indeed exterior, of a Grade II* listed, 17th century farmhouse is something of a mystery.

It seems to me that the whole issue now has simply become a face saving exercise for the Barnet Tories who insisted on the closure, and that puts the building at great risk as a result.

Anonymous said...

A great piece Mrs A. but I have one small but significant correction to suggest.

The true blue Tory knows the price of everything today, but the real value of absolutely nothing whatsoever.

For the hard pressed taxpayer this is better known as..... SELL, SELL, SELL

And once the silverware is gone, it's gone, and then where will our children, and our children's children be?

Mrs Angry said...

Well no, the sad truth is that quite often, and certainly in Barnet, Tory politicians may feel prompted by their innate urge to try and sell anything within grabbing distance, but can't even manage to do that properly.

The three examples in the post (were you paying attention, Anon?) are classic Barnet Tory cock-ups. But there is a long tradition of incompetence, dutifully logged by the local blogosphere, dating back at least as far as the procurement mess uncovered by the Metpro fiasco, with thousands of non compliant 'contracts' wasting untold millions of taxpayers' money.

Then look at the Capita contracts: because they couldn't run procurement efficiently, they are paying someone else to do it, give a bit of pocket money back to us, and leg it with all the rest of the profits: kerching!

They were so keen to accommodate Crapita, they spent half the predicted savings on preparing for the privatisation, and continue to throw money at the consultants 'advising' them on the deal.

They sold the whole outsourcing nonsense on the basis of needing an upfront capital investment - and ended up paying themselves.

They couldn't run a jellied eel stall in Southend, on a bank holiday weekend, let alone the proverbial event in a brewery.

Because their business acumen is so lacking, they fail to understand the needs of local traders and small business owners, and just did not foresee or care about the effect of Coleman's idiotic parking policy on our high streets.

And because they are so uncultured, and short of any intellectual grasp, they do not appreciate the value of libraries, and museums. As Rams said, if you want all that sort of thing, get on the tube.

They are rather like the particpants in the Apprentice: full of themselves and yet totally

Mrs Angry said...

No idea why I started that sentence, and how it got there. Sorry, feeling rather muddle headed today (more than usual).

Gerrard Roots said...

Barnet's half-witted Tories are too dim to know the price of anything (hence their incomprehension of, and inability to defend, their deal with Capita), but they do have sufficient low animal cunning to realise that whatever the price is, it will be paid by us, not them.

Mrs Angry said...

Ha: Gerrard: 'low animal cunning' - exactly so ... furtive, instinctive and self seeking, and unequal to the challenge of anything honourable, or worthwhile.

Euff. Roll on May.

Anonymous said...
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