Thursday 22 October 2015

A tendency to disagree: or Full Council, and how to kill a library service, the Broken Barnet way

Next door to the Town Hall, in the Burroughs, where all Barnet council meetings take place, stands Hendon Library. Another pleasing example of the buildings which are now part of a conservation area, and central to the history of our borough.

Not just in terms of the architecture, but because of the people who have worked there, over the decades, and played their own role in the story of what we are now, and everything we stand to lose, if the latter day heirs of our corporate administration are allowed to continue in their relentless policy of mass privatisation.

The Town Hall would have been sold off, had it not been listed, and protected from most forms of development, but now is a Town Hall in name only, used by Middlesex University by day, for council meetings at night. And next door's Library is about to become one in name only too, like the rest of our library service.

How sad to look at Hendon Library as it is now, and consider how it will be - and remember how it was.

Built in 1929, this was the borough's central branch, with a reference library, a music library- and of course a children's library.

Hendon's children's library was designed and developed by a pioneer librarian, and story teller, Eileen Colwell, the 'doyenne of children's librarianship' in Great Britain: a woman who devoted forty years of her life to her work at Hendon, and became widely renowned, and much respected for her professional achievements, on a national and international scale.

This is what the Telegraph had to say about her career, in the obituary published in 2002:

Eileen Colwell, who died yesterday aged 98, was an author and librarian and one of the founders of the children's library movement; her knowledge of children's literature was unrivalled and she was much consulted by book publishers, translators and library administrators who came from all over the world to study her methods.

In the 1920s, when Eileen Colwell first became a librarian, there were no children's sections in libraries, and the presence of children, especially young children, was discouraged. She considered it of vital importance that children should have access to books from an early age, and that their first introduction to literature should be a pleasant one.

The Guardian's obituary observed:

... in 1926 Eileen saw the answer to her prayers in a newspaper advertisement for a post at Hendon, in north London: "Wanted, librarian to found library system - especially for children." She applied and was accepted, but on her arrival found "no books, no shelves, just a room".

Ever practical, she hand-picked an initial stock of 2,000 volumes, chosen with the help of Eleanor Graham and other friends, and set about laying the groundwork for a welcoming, inclusive children's library, full of colourful and interesting books.

Before long, Eileen's reputation spread, persuading other boroughs to follow suit, and her library - "I saw it built from the first brick" - established itself as a showplace. "Visitors," she said with justifiable pride, "always had Hendon on their list." She also initiated clubs and storytelling, and encouraged the children to chat about their books and help run the library. One of her many helpers was a boy burglar; another became a professor in California ...

She was, in short, responsible for the establishment of something of immeasurable worth: the creation of the very idea of libraries specifically for children, that promoted a love of reading, access to children of all backgrounds, lifting children out of the limitations of poverty, and endowing them with the opportunity for something better, through the world of fiction, and imagination, and education.

The achievement of Eileen Colwell in her work at Hendon Library set a standard of excellence throughout the country - but I was one of the first generation in this borough to benefit from that standard of excellence here, in Barnet's children's libraries.

How grateful I am to her: coming from a home where reading was encouraged, but books rarely bought: how else would I have discovered the love of reading, and the world of infinite possibilities contained within the power of the written word?

Storytime in Golders Green library, pic credit Museum of London

And now, how truly angry am I, to see those opportunities stolen from the children of succeeding generations, the children whose parents cannot afford to buy them books, the children now to be barred from unstaffed libraries, or libraries only at a long bus ride's distance from home?

I thought of Eileen Colwell, last night, at the beginning of the council meeting, at Hendon Town Hall, next door to Hendon library, during the address made by the Mayor's chaplain, Dayan Abraham, a thoughtful, conscientious minister, who clearly takes his role very seriously, and actually tries to inculcate, in the withered black hearts of the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, some sense of moral purpose in what they do, on our behalf, as our elected representatives.

As you will know, this is a thankless task, and one with little prospect of success.

Mayor's Chaplain, Dayan Abraham

Rather to the surprise of all of us in the public gallery, and certainly to the lost souls sitting on the Tory benches, Dayan Abraham decided to give a short sermon on the duty of the council to observe their responsibilities as corporate parents, and their duty to provide the education that our children deserve, that they require, in order to become good citizens, citizens who are, as we are, united in diversity.

It was an impassioned speech: political, by implication, and no less effective for that. More effective, perhaps.

He mentioned libraries, specifically, and alluded to contentious issues, that needed to be resolved ... invoking the story of the judgement of Solomon.

The Mayor looked on in surprise, but perhaps not without some sense of amusement, at his chaplain's speech: the Chief Executive, normally so inert during these meetings, turned round, and regarded him with a fixed eye, and an expression of barely concealed astonishment.

But it was well said: what could be more important, than the wellbeing, and the education, of our children?

Well, hang on, Mrs Angry, you may be thinking: this is Broken Barnet, and things are ... more complicated, aren't they?

More important, in Broken Barnet/Capitaville, than the wellbeing of our children, is money, profit, and an ideological opposition to the very idea of public service, service that is accountable to residents through the democratic process.

The Mayor's chaplain had pleaded with councillors to remember their duties to the borough's children, to their education.

Education, to Barnet Tories, is something they like to claim as something they provide, to the highest standard, in this borough. They sit smugly in the council chamber, and congratulate themselves on the wonderful schools we have here - as if they had anything whatsoever to do with it.

The truth is that there are some good schools here: either highly selective schools full of pupils from all over London, or faith schools, or - God help us - academies, or free schools.

The selective schools take the top scoring children from the widest catchment areas - thereby tending to inhabit the top of league tables, and of course not as a result of  any value added acheivement.

There are also some pretty awful schools in Barnet, to which the less advantaged children inevitably are sent.

And it is those less advantaged children who rely on public libraries the most, for books and for study space, and for help, from qualified librarians. If the library plans go through, it will be the education of those children that will suffer, as they will find little space in the newly shrunk libraries, and will be completely banned from the ludicrous, 'open' or unstaffed branches.

Our philistine Tory councillors, sadly, do not understand the importance of culture, or education, or literature, or the imagination - or anything else you cannot round up, and put a price on.

And so we found ourselves, last Tuesday, facing the inevitable approval, by the Conservative led administration of Broken Barnet, of the most savage plans to destroy our library service, which only a Tory councillor would fail to see as a vital part of the educational and cultural foundation of the intellectual development of our children.

In the judgement of Solomon, the baby was to be cut in two, and divided up between the two women claiming it as theirs. The real mother's conscience would not allow that, and the baby was spared, and returned to her. In Broken Barnet, the baby, the library service, is to be slaughtered, anyway, due to the lack of any conscience on behalf of our corporate parents, our Tory councillors. And the chaplain's words, needless to say, fall on deaf ears.

Yet they were so terrified, some of these councillors, last week, of being personally identified with what they know is a vote losing policy, this unparalled assault on our library service, with a budget cut of 60%, that they chickened out of approving the plans at committee level, and referred it up to Full Council.


At this week's Full Council, then, the ineffable Libraries head, Tory Reuben Thompstone, stared straight ahead, and repeated, like a dutiful schoolboy,  the proposals to cut staffing by 46%, and hand the library buildings over to Capita, leaving a nominal service, provided, in many branches, by unstaffed opening hours, and employing, if that is the correct term, the 'enthusiasm of volunteers'.

      Reuben Thompstone

Mrs Angry and fellow blogger Mr Tichborne had much correspondence with Cllr Thompstone, last weekend, on the subject of voluntary work, which you can read here. In short, it would appear that Cllr Thompstone does not agree that he should act in any voluntary capacity in regard to his civic role, or indeed his own job as a teacher - but everyone else may happily see their jobs replaced by 'volunteers'.

There were no easy options, he told us, with the air of someone who had forgotten that this was because of the self-limiting rules he and his Tory colleagues had invented in order to sanction this brutal assault on our library service.

There was a curious silence from the Tory benches: they squirmed in their seats, knowing perfectly well that what they were doing was shameful, and even, from their own point of view, risking significant electoral damage, and many of them have privately expressed dismay over the plans - whilst lobbying frantically behind the scenes to get their own libraries protected - successfully in some cases, as you can see.

One or two pretended after the event that they might have voted against, or abstained, but didn't because Labour did not have a full attendance - but they would say that, wouldn't they? Cowards, all of them.

Labour's Anne Hutton highlighted the lack of vision for libraries shown by the Tory administration, the lack of any coherent business plan in regard to the current proposals, and put forward an amendment asking for at least a delay in the process, and reserves to be used to keep the libraries going until an alternative solution to the funding problem had been found. Pointless, of course, as the Tories are simply not open to alternative solutions, and if they were, their own senior management team simply wouldn't let them proceed.

Having referred the toxic library cuts plan up to Full Council, to spread the blame, and try to protect GLA hopeful Dan Thomas from the electoral fallout, our Tory members now sat back and handed the poisoned challice of speaking in favour of the proposals to their least experienced councillor. A stroke of genius, keeping the more prominent members safely out of the picture.

Step forward Val Duschinsky, from Mill Hill, who was very proud to be making her first speech - a 'maiden' speech, by yet another of the type of Tory matron that the party tolerates, amongst its ranks, rather than any younger and potentially less obedient woman, or one who might actually have any driving political ambitions, or new ideas. Odd that in the six months since the election this was the first time she had spoken, but still: what a privilege to begin in this way!

Against a volley of heckling from the small number of residents who can squeeze into the public gallery (the large overflow room was, well: overflowing), Cllr Duschinsky prattled excitedly on, telling us, for some reason, that she had been a primary school teacher (then you should be ashamed of yourself, yelled someone. It might have been Mrs Angry. Ok, it was Mrs Angry.) ... and complaining about the 'relentless negativity' of the opposition, and by implication anyone who objects to the destruction of our library service.

Duschinsky claimed that when she held her councillor surgery at her local library, there was often no one else there. Mrs Angry resisted the temptation to suggest that might be because everyone was hiding in the bushes outside, too scared to come in, and instead reminded her that libraries had been underfunded and the book stock halved, deliberately, over the last few years - this making libraries less appealing and appear to be failing, of course.

Mrs Angry also observed that the residents of Mill Hill would be bound to thank her for her efforts, at the next election.

Mill Hill's other councillors are no better, of course. Cllr John Hart confessed to Mrs Angry's friend Alice, earlier in the year, that he was all for the proposals, saying:

"... the library purchases are mostly Millsey Boonsey rubbish; few people visit the book shelves; the premises need to be put to better use (plus library use on a reduced scale); premises may well be disposed of to raise capital for other uses (sadly, not for Conservative councillors’ emoluments)"

And Sury Khatri is the man who agreed with Mrs Angry this year that the proposals were awful, but voted for them anyway. After voting for the Capita contract agreement, he expressed grave doubts about the deal, and the way in which Tory councillors were distanced from the process - but only when it was too late.

This is how they are, the Tories.

That Duschinsky, a former teacher, who might be expected to understand the enormous need for public libraries, easily accessible to children of all backgrounds, could so readily support these appalling plans, is shocking - although perhaps not, in the context of Broken Barnet.

Labour tried to speak against the inevitable approval: leader Alison Moore as usual complained the Tories knew the cost of everything, and the value of nothing. Reema Patel gave an impassioned, tearful speech, clearly distressed by what was being forced through.

As is usually the case, the best opposition speech came from sole surviving Libdem, Jack Cohen, who, no blushing maiden he, (so rumour has it), was making his 800th speech.

He observed that the Tories had been trying to close libraries for thirty years. This is absolutely correct: when Mrs Angry worked for Barnet Libraries, they wanted to shut at least three branches, but backed out because - can you guess? They were in Tory wards. One of them, the vanity project that is now Hampstead Garden Suburb library, was always top of the list, and a waste of resources, now happily retaining a subsidy from the council, so as to satisfy the residents whose voice is so much louder, even, than the dreadful noise problem now causing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis amongst the massed ranks of millionaire suburbanistas.

Please give generously.

Unless, like Mrs Angry, you do not give a flying f*ck.

Thank you.

Jack Cohen remembered the days when Barnet councillors actually took an interest in libraries, and books, and reading. Mrs Angry thought then about the councillors' own little library that was set up, in the members' room, so that our elected representatives could have first run at the latest best sellers, before the hoi-polloi could get their hands on them. And they were of course only best sellers, rather than anything with any intellectual content: oh, come on, what did you expect?

And Councillor Cohen recalled with affection the late Labour councillor Ellis Hillman, (the only Mayor to have been rated by Barnet Council's in-house chorus of disapproval, Mr Shepherd, who likes to point at Hillman's picture in the rogues' gallery of corporate fame that hangs along the corridors of the Town Hall, and tell you, with glee, that he was the only Trotskyite Mayor of Barnet - (So far, Mr Shepherd, so far, Mrs Angry always responds, with hands clasped, in fervent prayer ...)

Mr Shepherd, and Unison secretary John Burgess

When he took office, apparently, Ellis Hillman's first act was to clear out all relics of the sainted Margaret Thatcher from the Mayor's Parlour: it was even rumoured that an old friend offered him a bust of Lenin, to take her place.

Hillman used often to come in and chat to Mrs Angry at work in Golders Green library, as it happened: the most erudite and well read of men, he had a brilliant mind, and a breadth of knowledge that was quite extraordinary. What would he have made of the Tory attacks on our library service? I think I know.

He was also, as Jack reminded us, President of the Lewis Carroll Society, which was fitting, as last week's library committee had been apparently entirely enacted in the style of Alice in Wonderland, with Cllr Tombstone happily empowered by his own ability to believe at least six impossible things before breakfast, hence his keen support for the library proposals, based as they are on a fantasy business plan, supported by made up data, assumptions, invisible risk assessments, and crapitorial assurances that aren't worth the paper that, well - they're not written on.

They voted then, and not one Tory councillor abstained, or opposed the proposals.

Morally bankrupt! shouted the man next to Mrs Angry, in the public gallery.

He was right. He is right. They looked on, silently: knowing they have done something awful, and not one of them with the courage to follow their conscience.

The Tories tried to redeem themselves, in the latter part of the meeting, by a joint motion welcoming a small number of refugees to the borough - fifty in total. Big deal.

Mrs Angry noted, with wry amusement, that several of the Tory members kept looking in her direction, as if to say, look - see, here we are, demonstrating our compassion, even as we continue in our agenda of relentless war against the poor, here in Broken Barnet. Forget about the libraries, and the terrible thing we have just done: look at us, wringing our hands over an international crisis.

Some of the more politically sound Labour members tried hard to give the wider context to the refugee issue, and the failure of the Tory government to respond effectively to the international crisis, but of course this was not welcomed by their Conservative colleagues.

Tory leader Richard Cornelius made one of his curious speeches in support of the motion, an incoherent stream of pasted together phrases that meant nothing much at all, and in fact, on closer scrutiny meant nothing whatsoever. And unusually for the Leader, he ran out of things to say, and was clearly not inspired enough by the issue to have to worry about the red light ending his speech. Meh.

Still: We all come here from somewhere else, he said, rather mysteriously. In his case, it probably means he moved from St John's Wood to Totteridge - a journey of perilous danger, and hardship, for sure.

And - being nice to fifty people from Syria did not mean, he observed, with soothing words to those whom he thought might be worrying about it, that we were 'importing terrorism'. Phew!

The prematurely festive theme of peace on earth and goodwill to all men, however, clearly does not extend to women, that is to say German women, as the Tory leader now deviated into a swipe at the awfulness of the European Union, which is all the fault, of course, of a woman, and a German woman, at that, or 'Frau Merkel', as he likes to refer to her.

Cornelius, with masterly understatement, remarked on the novelty of a motion to council supported by all three parties. Well quite.

In fact, he reminded us darkly,  at some meetings, rather than what he would clearly prefer, a submissive consensus - there can be snipers ... and often, he added, somewhat sniffily - A Tendency to Disagree ...

Well, if only we would all just agree with them, our Tory councillors, and do as they say, without argument.

If only we could stop sniping, and being negative, and support their betrayal of the best interests of the people of this borough, their abandonment of the principles of public service, their fawning facilitation of private profit, at our expense, without complaint.

As Mrs Angry arrived at the Town Hall, on Tuesday night, one of the Tory councillors, former leader  Brian Salinger, was standing on the steps, sharing a joke with staff.

Mrs Angry had met Councillor Salinger in the supermarket, a few days earlier, (you can't push a trolley round Waitrose, North Finchley, without being pounced on by a Tory councillor: she once had a memorable encounter with veteran Tory Cllr Marshall by the nut counter, for example) - and had given him, at some length, the benefit of her views on the library cuts he and his colleagues were about to approve, despite the secret misgivings of many of them about the proposals.

He had had no real argument to offer, in defence.

As he stood on the steps now, she offered to take his photo, and he stood to attention, showing off his tie (he prides himself on his ties, and is always fondling them in front of Mrs Angry, for some reason), which was hand painted, you know, on silk. From somewhere in the Baltic. Lovely.

Mrs Angry admired the tie, but suggested the photo, bearing in mind the forthcoming vote, should be a commemoration of his status as library killer. He made the following gesture: Mrs Angry, having been educated in a convent, has no idea what it means, so please do let her know, if you do.

Councillor Salinger thought this was awfully funny, of course.

But the truth is, in regard to the library issue, as to all the other contentious issues that our Tory councillors vote through, in loyalty to party, rather than to their residents - they simply do not care, and here we see a moment's careless gesture speak more eloquently than anything else, as to exactly what they think.

Look at their faces, in the photo above, where they vote through the cuts. Some hiding their faces, others laughing. They know what they are doing, and they just don't give a damn.

This is not the end of the library story, however, quite yet.

Barnet will shortly begin another round of pointless 'consultation', after which, whatever residents say, they will go ahead, and force through the plans, more or less as they are now: brutal, mindless: the devastation of a once magnificent library service, destroyed by the policies of barbarians, at the behest of their own senior management, and the army of outsourcing consultants who plague this easycouncil borough. Remember this post, back in January, with the alleged overheard conversation regarding plans and yet more business opportunities to be screwed out of our libraries?

They will try to force the plans through: there will no doubt be attempts at legal challenge, and protests from residents, and perhaps some light tinkering with the plans, to make them appear less awful than they really are. But they will still be really, really awful.

Barnet Tories like to see our borough as the flagship of privatisation: a beacon of enterprise, in the evergrowing market that our plundered public services now provide.

Once upon a time, as Eileen Colwell might have begun one of her storytimes, in this borough, we were the flagship of something rather more worthy: the creation of a library service that excelled in giving the very thing Conservative philosophy pretends to want, the opportunity for children to learn, and play, and grow into happy, well educated and resourceful adults.

That was a dream, that became a reality, here in Broken Barnet.

Now we are living in Capitaville, and even our libraries must be turned to profit, or die.

Well: next May, voters will have the chance to express their views on library cuts, via the ballot box.

And this is one issue that will hang around the neck of Councillor and GLA candidate Daniel Thomas, right the way through his election campaign.

The Tory voters who are now coming to all the library meetings, and marches, and protests, are not going to forget what they have done.

And nor will the rest of us.

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