Sunday, 23 March 2014

Dangerous obsession: or - the questions about Church Farmhouse Museum Barnet Tories won't allow

The story of Church Farmhouse Museum, as Mrs Angry has most recently commented in this post ...

.. serves as a fitting metaphor for the nature of the Tory administration here in Broken Barnet.

What was a fine and rare example of our built heritage, a beautiful Grade II* listed seventeenth century house, and a well respected and much loved local museum, was peremptorily closed by our philistine Tory councillors three years, ago, its irreplaceable collection of local history artefacts denigrated, labelled 'of no value', ransacked and flogged at auction - or given away to local museums in neighbouring areas, where history, heritage and culture have not yet been outsourced. 

So a building that was bought by the council decades ago, in order to preserve it and to provide the borough with a local museum is now regarded by the current Tory run authority as a nuisance, and of value only as in terms of its speculative potential.

Councillors Daniel Thomas and Robert Rams were keen to flog the Church Farmhouse, as well as the collection, as of course it seemed to those who have no concept of the unique value of an historic property, that it was ripe for development. 

Wrong, of course, as the demands of a listed building of this nature make it unsuitable for most adaptions that would make it commercially attractive. They thought they had a deal all lined up with Middlesex Uni. 

Wrong again: Middlesex Uni backed out, seemingly because of financial problems, and then, as potential tenants, arguing over the difficulty and expense of making the delicate fabric of the building sound and suitable for their purposes, whatever that might be. Oh dear.

In the meanwhile, during the long and unnecessary years of closure, the building has deteriorated from neglect, and English Heritage has now listed it as 'vulnerable'. 

It stands forlorn, and empty, and decaying, representing in perfect form the miserable state of the local Conservative party ethos.

It was not until Mrs Angry suggested the property was open to being targeted by squatters, at the time of the Friern Barnet library occupation, that any moves at all were made to secure Church Farmhouse: a company was immediately engaged to employ a 'live-in' guardian, and he has remained there until recently, and a new development. 

It appears that the company is liable to legal challenge if their employee is installed in a property without cooking or bath/shower facilities, neither of which existed, unsurprisingly, in the former museum.  

(As an aside, may Mrs Angry point out, as observed only this week, on walking past the building, that clearly food is being prepared in the Farmhouse: has this activity been assessed and monitored in terms of fire risk to the building, and does it affect the building's insurance policy?) 

It now seems that the council has tackled this problem in the most extraordinary display of contempt for the preservation of this sensitive building - by installing a totally anachronistic shower room in the listed structure - and apparently without seeking consent from English Heritage. Again we must ask: who has authorised this? What risks to the fabric of the structure does this raise, as well as the potential damage to the listed internal features?

Of course we imagine it to be anachronistic: perhaps it is a seventeenth century period style contraption, consisting of a small servant boy and a wooden pail of water from the dewpond in the museum grounds?

Former museum curator Gerrard Roots, who lives yards away from the building, has kept a careful eye on the Farmhouse since the place was summarily shut. 

No one could be better placed to know the effect of the years of closure and neglect has had on the structure, and he has tried, in face of all the odds, to keep the issue of the building's fate in the public domain, and to ask vital questions about the state of the place, and also about its future. 

Former curator Gerrard Roots outside the Church Farmhouse Museum, closed by Barnet Council. pic Times Group

These questions are exactly the sort of questions that Barnet Council does not want to answer.  Why? 

Because they are too acute, and too embarrassing. 

What can they do to stop the matter being discussed? 

They resort to the usual Barnet tactics - the ones that prove the complete nonsense of the spin put out by some senior officers that the default mode of Barnet Council is 'open government'. 

Read on, and see what we mean. This is the latest response from an information officer at Barnet to Gerrard Roots, who has attempted to find out if the newly installed facilities were discussed, as surely they should be, with English Heritage: here is his latest request:

Since September 2012 Barnet Council has contracted Ad Hoc Property Services to provide security for Church Farmhouse Museum. 

Ad Hoc has provided a 'Guardian' to 'occupy' the premises. On its website Ad Hoc tells prospective Guardians that all the properties it maintains have cooking and shower/bath facilities. Church Farm has neither, and I understand that, at the beginning of this year, Ad Hoc was advised that it could lay itself open to a legal challenge if it continued to require its Guardians to live in the Museum under such conditions. Since then the security for the building has been maintained, not by an Ad Hoc Guardians, but instead by ordinary security staff, from another security company (presumably) acting on behalf of Ad Hoc, who do not live in the building. (I was not given this information in response to an FOI request on security at Church Farm that I made some weeks ago.) 

Yesterday (3 February) workmen began constructing a shower-room in the Church Farm building, to enable, it would seem, Ad Hoc's Guardians eventually to resume occupation without any threat of legal action. This work, on a Grade II* listed building categorized by English Heritage as 'vulnerable', commenced without any public statement of intent by Barnet Council, and, indeed, even without any warning to the security staff currently manning the building. 

Therefore, I wish to know: 

a. at whose behest is this work being done- Barnet Council's or Ad Hoc's; 

b. who is paying for the work- Barnet or Ad Hoc; 

c. is the work being carried out by approved Barnet contractors; 

d. has this work been discussed with English Heritage and, if so, has English Heritage given it its approval; 

e. has Middlesex University- still supposedly negotiating leasing the building from Barnet Council- been informed: 

f. how much will the work cost; 

g. has Barnet continued to pay Ad Hoc £85.00 per day during the period when there has been no Guardian in occupation, merely a rota of security operatives from a different organization;

h. is there any intention of making additional alterations to the building to comply with Ad Hoc's requirements?.

The response from Barnet:

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


London Borough of Barnet has determined that the request is vexatious in accordance with section 14(1).

In considering whether a request is vexatious under section 14(1) the key question is whether the request is likely to cause a disproportionate or unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress. The council must objectively judge the evidence of the impact on the authority and weigh it against the purpose and value of the request, taking into account context and history. There is an emphasis on protecting the authority’s resources from unreasonable requests.

The leading decision on section 14(1) is the Upper Tribunal in Dransfield (ICO v Devon County Council and Dransfield 2012 UKUT 440 (AAC) (28 Jane 2013) which says at para 20:
“section 14 … is concerned with the nature of the request and has the effect of dis-applying the citizen’s right under section 1(1)… the purpose of section 14… must be to protect the resources (in the broadest sense of that word) of the public authority from being squandered on disproportionate use of FOIA…”

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) guidance on section 14(1) encourages the use of section 14 in any case where the public authority believes the request is disproportionate or unjustified. It states at para 11 an authority “should not regard section 14(1) as something which is only to be applied in the most extreme circumstances or as a last resort”

History and Context

Although the act is applicant blind we believe that the context and history of your requests are of relevance when considering section 14(1).

In his decision on the Dransfield case, Judge Wikeley stated that:

A common theme underpinning section 14(1) as it applies on the basis of a past course of dealings between a public authority and a particular requester, is a lack of proportionality.
First the present or future burden on the public authority may be inextricably linked with the previous course of dealings. Thus the context and history of the particular request, in terms of the previous course of dealings between the individual requester and the public authority in question, must be considered in assessing whether it is properly to be characterised as vexatious. In particular, the number, breadth, pattern and duration of previous requests may be a telling factor

We believe that this is sufficiently demonstrated by the evidence with regard to the historical context of this request and therefore applies to this request.

The council received and responded to 9 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from yourself in 2012/13. In respect of a request received on 11/2/13 the council refused this as vexatious on 13/2/13, which was upheld on Internal Review. You then exercised your right
to complain to the ICO. The ICO investigated and informally indicated that they would uphold the section 14 (1) decision in a decision notice. At this point you withdrew your complaint. Therefore the previous section 14 decision and reasoning that your request concerning Church Farmhouse Museum was vexatious remains in place.

The ICO informally asked the council what approach we would take if you made any future FOI requests regarding Church Farmhouse museum (CFM). We stated that we would deal with these on their individual merits. We have considered the ICO guidance which reminds a local authority that it cannot simply refuse a new request solely on the basis that it has classified previous requests from the same individual as vexatious. This has not occurred in this case. Since the previous section 14 application the council has received and responded to four further FOI requests from you on this exact same topic

All your requests concern Church Farmhouse Museum (CFM). We have no record of you making a FOI request to the council about any subject other than CFM. All the requests concern the same single property and the council’s management of it, particularly repairs and security. This is not a case of a requester asking varied questions across the council’s area of responsibilities, nor even on a single general issue (such as for example social services, or schools policy) but on a single building with which the requester has a personal history and vested interest. A clear analogy can be drawn with Dransfield on this point, especially with respects to the issue of an individual having an ‘idée fixe’.

Volume of requests and burden on the authority

Judge Wikeley stated

“the greater the number of previous FOIA requests that the individual has made to the public authority concerned, the more likely it may be that a further request may properly be found to be vexatious”

A requester who submits 5 requests on the same discrete subject over approx. 15 weeks (following a period of submitting 9 requests over 5 months) can reasonably be seen to have submitted a high number of requests. A total of 14 requests on the same discrete subject have been submitted within less than 18 months.

In his decision on the Dransfield case, Judge Wikeley stated that:

The purpose of section 14 is to protect public authorities and their employees in their everyday business. Thus, consideration of the effect of a request on them is entirely justified. A single abusive and offensive request may well cause distress, and so be vexatious. A torrent of individually benign requests may well cause disruption.

A “torrent” of individual requests, whilst they may not individually, taken out of context, be seen as harmful, can lead to disruption and distress. The number of requests you have submitted which have to be answered by a very small number of officers, are a heavy burden on the authority, taking officers away from other work and disrupting routine work.
The council accepts that if submitted as a stand-alone individual request without the context and history this request would not be regarded as vexatious. Indeed, the council has responded to a number of similar requests since you withdrew your complaint to the ICO. However, the relevant context here is the burden that the volume of requests has had on the council and, in particular, the Principal Valuer who has been involved in the majority of the requests.

The case could reasonably seen as to be analogous with that of Betts (Betts vs ICO, (EA/2007/0109 19 May 2008)), where the request concerned health and safety policies and risk assessments, and there was nothing vexatious in the content of the request itself. However, taking into account the dispute with the council, the FOI requests and correspondence the Tribunal concluded that the request was vexatious when viewed in context. As in Betts, this request is a continuation of a pattern of behaviour and part of an on-going campaign to pressure the council. Our experience is that responding to this request would be very likely to lead to further correspondence, requests and complaints and that, as in Betts, given the wider context and history, the request was harassing, likely to impose a significant burden, and obsessive.

Whilst we acknowledge your right to be interested in this subject, we feel your continued use of the Freedom of Information Act in order to receive information and to push home your point of view shows a lack of reasonable proportionality. It has contributed to a significant and unreasonable burden on council resources and staff, constituting, in the words of the Dransfield ruling, a manifestly unjustified, inappropriate [and] improper use of a formal procedure. The council acknowledges it has a duty to demonstrate a commitment to transparency and we have endeavoured to respond to your second batch of requests.
Whilst you have submitted a high number of requests on one very narrow subject, the council has been prepared to respond to them.

Whether the point had been reached that the pursuit of the issue had become vexatious was considered on receipt of request reference 692965. However, it was considered that although there was a significant burden on the council with attendant disruption, the tipping point had not been reached at that time. That request was responded to and you were given advice on section 14. However we believe that at the receipt of this current request a tipping point has been reached and the burden on the authority has become too onerous to justify.

Distress to staff and burden on the council

In Dransfield Judge Wikeley also noted that vexatiousness may be evidenced “…by obsessive conduct that harasses or distresses staff, uses intemperate language, makes wide-ranging and unsubstantiated allegations of criminal behaviour or is in any other respects extremely offensive…”

Whilst this request may not appear, when taken as a single request out of context, to be obsessive, harassing or distressing in tone and scope, it needs to be viewed in context. The numbers of requests over such a short time period, the exceptionally narrow scope of the requests and the tone of many of the emails have been harassing and distressing for staff.
The FOI requests regarding CFM are administered by one council officer and the vast majority of the information requested provided by another officer. The burden on the council in dealing with these requests is concentrated in a small number of individuals, and the time taken is disruptive to their other daily work.

Serious purpose or value

We do not contend that if looked at in isolation this request has no serious purpose or value. We acknowledge your entitlement to make proportionate FOI requests and to engage with the council over the issues surrounding the closure of CFM. Our willingness to do this is evidenced by our responding to four requests following the withdrawal of your complaint to the ICO. However, it is our view that, in submitting the volume of requests on one discrete topic, representing an obsession or ‘idée fixe’ such that resulted in a section 14(1) response, your requests are now disproportionate to any serious purpose or any
value you may gain from this information. There is a strong similarity with Dransfield on this point.

Alternative approaches

The ICO guidance states that it is good practice to consider whether a more conciliatory approach would practically address the issues surrounding potentially vexatious requests. Given your dealings with the council over the FOI requests and general issues over CFM we do not believe that this is a viable option. It is our view that you have, to quote the ICO guidance “take[n] an unreasonably entrenched position, rejecting attempts to assist and advise out of hand and show no willingness to engage with the authority.” You are unwilling to accept responses provided and respond to requests with argumentative and tendentious language. Your response to the advice and assistance over section 14 in the last response supports this view.

Advice and Assistance

We would advise you that the council is fully cognisant of its duties under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 and other relevant legislation, and any works undertaken at Church Farmhouse Museum will be taken in accordance with those requirements. Not all works require English heritage consent, for example those which do not impact upon the structure of the building, and the self-contained shower cubicle is an example of this. Where English Heritage consent is required the council will obtain this in advance of undertaking works. The council is aware of the need to obtain best value for money in relation to security at Church farmhouse and is acting to reduce security expenses whilst ensuring a continuing suitable level of security at the building.

Well. Where to start?

First of all, this response has clearly had a serious amount of imput by legal services. This is a mark of how worried our Tory councillors are by the glaring scandal that is the Farmhouse issue, and the embarrassment caused by Gerrard Roots' questions: questions that are too dangerous, because they are so well informed. 

To try to represent his enquiries as in any way other than made on a subject that is of important public interest to the residents of this borough is contemptible, and indeed risible.
 Look at the language used:  idée fixe, obsession, argumentative and tendentious language, 'a torrent of individually benign requests': requests which yet are claimed, within the same response, as having a tone that is 'harassing and distressing for staff' - a clear contradiction.

In truth, there has been neither a torrent of requests, nor any obsessive behaviour - we are talking about only 14 careful and considered requests in 18 months. These questions were quite justified, and indeed necessary, in the public interest, to establish exactly what has happened as a course of the actions taken by the authority. 

That a publicly owned, listed building, a museum, part of our heritage should be shut, with no consultation, and put up for sale, was bad enough. To keep it closed for three years, at our expense, and neglect the building to the point where it becomes listed as 'vulnerable' is nothing short of scandalous.

The individuals who are likely to feel harassed, and rightly so, are the Tory councillors who are responsible for this f*ck up. 

Thanks to them we have lost our local museum, for no good reason, and they have spectacularly failed to achieve the very purpose of their shabby ambitions in flogging the place off for a quick buck. No wonder they do not want any well informed questions holding them to account.

It is a pity that Mr Roots dropped his original complaint to the ICO. It is clearly not the mark of an unreasoning obsessive to have done so: no one could blame him for not wanting to be bothered with the interminable process. 

His new complaint, however, will now be considered in the wider context of Barnet's history of abusing the FOI process when trying to avoid allowing transparency over politically sensitive issues - see the case of the One Barnet minutes it tried to withhold, until the intervention and determined efforts of the ICO forced them to respond.

In my view there should be an enquiry into the actions of the council in the handling of this matter, and all the negotiations which have been held in secret in regard to the future of the Farmhouse, from the very beginning, should be laid open to public scrutiny. 

We were not asked if we wanted to lose our museum, and our local history collection thrown away, given away, or sold to the highest bidder. 

We were not asked if we wanted this beautiful building put up for sale, or loaned to Middlesex University. 

No efforts were made adequately to secure the building, until its vulnerability was made public by me. 

No one has more of a right to ask questions about the state of Church Farmhouse than the former curator, who worked there for more than thirty years, and who sees daily the rate of deterioration of the building. 

To misrepresent his attempts to hold the authority to account for its shameful behaviour in regard to the property is pathetic, cynical, and a deliberate strategy. 

It is in short, exactly the default mode of this Tory council: not open government, but the absolute inversion of the principle of transparency - a sign of a failing administration, losing its grip, and retreating to a position of mindless attack.


Mr Mustard said...

Gerrard is nothing like me and has asked far fewer questions than the number I negotiated as reasonable (after my own requests hit the vexatious buffer when I was going at the rate of about 15 a month), which is 60 a year. Now that I can ask, and as my current main interests don't need much in the way of FOI, I might have asked 3 this year (it all depends how you count).

Mrs Angry said...

Exactly: it is quite clear that it is not the volume of requests that has caused annoyance, but the sensitive nature of the issue itself. This is contrary to the FOI act and must be not be tolerated. If our Tory councillors are embarrassed by these questions, then hard luck.

Mr Reasonable said...

I was under the belief that Barnet were trying to be open and transparent. This illustrates that the Council are happy to talk when it suits them but ask a tricky question and everything changes. Gerrard is obviously asking the right questions so others will now have to ask them on his behalf.

Mrs Angry said...

I should perhaps add that, incredibly, Gerrard was told in one previous response by an officer:

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

This takes their stance on this issue to another level entirely - suggesting that he would resort to disguising his own FOI requests through someone else. How, I wonder, do the officers intend to detect these third party efforts? By careful analysis of syntax, and codebreaking techniques? Preposterous.

Anonymous said...

I am shocked and appalled by the Councils attitude to this. Is any action being mobilised about this issue I can align myself with? Would it be worth writing to English Heritage to see if they can intercede in these matters since the Council seems to not wish to engage with residents? I have tried writing to my MP Matthew Offord when the closure was first mooted and didn't even receive an acknowledgement so I'm not sure that's an avenue wort exploring.

Mrs Angry said...

Yes, why not write to English Heritage, and point out that the council which has been happy to allow a Grade II* listed building to become so neglected it is now 'vulnerable' are happy to rush in and install an anachronistic shower room when it suits their purposes.

You are not the first to complain about Matthew Offord's response, or lack of it: I would insist on a reply, no matter what it takes. That is what he is being paid for, after all.