Barnet Conservative candidates in Coppetts Ward have been distributing an election leaflet claiming the credit for saving Friern Barnet library.
This indefensible attempt to rewrite history is something that cannot go unchallenged.
The Barnet bloggers have followed the story of Friern Barnet in detail, from the moment in 2010 when Councillor Robert Rams launched the strategic library review, making ludicrous suggestions about the possibilities of ‘pop-up’ libraries in Tescos, and Starbucks.
We supported the raising of a petition, gaining over 7,000 signatures, and the lobbying of council meetings, and councillor surgeries. This gave the Tories pause for thought and they relented from their initial plans.
When the review was announced, only two libraries were marked for closure: Hampstead Garden Suburb and Friern Barnet. As Hampstead Garden Suburb was in a staunchly Tory ward, it took little pressure from influential local resident groups for the council to grant a reprieve, and happily agree to subsidise the small branch library in this most affluent area of the borough. This left Friern Barnet library, in a largely Labour voting ward, as the sole victim of Councillor Rams’ axe.
Community campaigners were invited to draw up plans to keep the library open. As later events were to demonstrate, this was a crafty ruse by councillors and senior officers, which meant the campaigners were working on plans in the period where they could have instigated a judicial review. Such time wasting slammed the door on legal remedy. It seemed clear to all involved that the council had acted in bad faith and the invitation to draw up proposals were never a serious proposition.
In April 2012, the council closed the library at short notice. A symbolic occupation of the building by residents took place, to register the sense of injustice felt by the local community. The same afternoon, valuers arrived to assess the building for future development. The library was boarded up, emptied of books, and left to stand until a plan of sale had been made.
The closure of Friern Barnet, as some have forgotten, was justified by Tory members on the basis of a new library to be created in the Arts Depot at North Finchley. This plan came to nothing.
Along with many other supporters and activists, Barnet bloggers were at the forefront of the campaign to reopen Friern Barnet library, helping to launch the People’s ‘pop-up’ library, not in Tesco, or Starbucks, but on the village green next to the building, beneath the cherry trees. It was an act of defiance from local residents and campaigners in response to the removal of a much loved local community centre, and it received an astonishing outpouring of support.
The pop-up library received donations of hundreds of books and kept the protest alive throughout the weeks that followed. The BBC One show came to film the event, the first of a wave of media interest in the issue.
Despite this clear evidence that there was enormous support for the library, Councillor Robert Rams and his colleagues continued to ignore the local community.
Through the summer of 2012, residents came down every Saturday, come rain or shine to swap books on the lawn. As we approached autumn, and weather conditions worsened, it looked as if the Peoples library may become unsustainable: but in September 2012, the Occupy movement took over the Library and the People’s Library moved back into its rightful home.
How did Robert Rams and the rest of the Tories react to this demonstration of "Big Society"? They refused to engage with the local residents, although ironically they were more at ease discussing terms of occupation with Phoenix and his collective of squatters who had re-opened the library on behalf of the community.
Within weeks, the library shelves were full and the library was back in business.
Council officers were despatched to meetings to see if a compromise could be reached, but the elected representatives of the Tory Party ignored residents, and refused to attend talks. The council then launched eviction proceedings against the people of Barnet, who were simply using a public asset in the way it was intended.
Despite spiralling costs, the Tories persisted in the war against their own citizens. When the case finally came to court - supported by legal assistance organised by Labour party councillors - it lasted 2 days.
The council had originally claimed it was a simple possession case and asked for ten minutes. It was clear to all that despite the judge finding in favour of the council, there were strong grounds for an appeal. The judge herself brokered a deal whereby Occupy would hand over the keys to the community and the library would continue. The council had won the battle but lost the war.
The sad truth is that there is no happy ending.
Does anyone trust the council after their previous tactics? It would appear to be a mistake to do so. The election leaflet implies that the library was saved by the ‘fervent campaign’ within the Conservative party fought by Councillor Kate Salinger. In fact any success was entirely due to the fervent campaigning of local residents, and the occupation of the premises: and the library has not been saved. It still faces an uncertain future.
Barnet Council simply offered the re-named Friern Barnet Community Library a two year lease, to park the problem until after the election.
The Council has refused to fund a full time librarian. The Council has refused to allow the Library to access the council book stock. There are even allegations of other Barnet Libraries refusing to allow posters promoting events at FBCL. Most worrying of all, there is no long term lease, and Councillor Daniel Thomas, the deputy leader, has merely guaranteed that the building will not be sold in the next four years. What happens then? And even if the building is not sold, for how long will the community library be allowed to remain?
In truth the local community has preserved the building, and filled it full of books, which is a stunning achievement. It is a wonderful community enterprise, a victory of resistance against injustice, but it is not a public library.
Barnet’s Tory councillors have been outmanoeuvred by residents in their move to close the library and sell the beautiful, eighty year old building for redevelopment as a supermarket or flats. But it is only a temporary victory.
To ensure this library and every other publicly owned property controlled by this council remains in our hands and does not become the target of a ruthless agenda of sale and development, the only course of action is clear: use your vote wisely on May 22nd, and do not return this Tory administration to power – or we will all live to regret it.