Friday, 1 January 2016

A cut of the business: Easycouncil 2015 - or another year outsourced, in Broken Barnet

Time for Mrs Angry's look back at the year in Broken Barnet.

Fewer posts written this year, but the blog has focused on a number of issues which have developed, through the last twelve months, and continue to roll on into 2016.

In fact, Mrs Angry can reveal that over the Christmas period, Barnet Council received letters before action in regard to the legal challenge to not one but two major and highly controversial sets of proposals that have dominated the political agenda this year. Read on for more details.

Some themes, in Broken Barnet, are eternal, after all: or at least will remain with us as long as the present Tory administration has its sweaty hands on the machinery of local government in this borough.

Well, no: in truth the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet fondly imagine they are in control of the borough, but their role is closer to that of the performing monkey, rather than the organ grinder, and the greasy rag, rather than the engineer.

Behind everything that happens in Barnet, of course, there is a secret agenda, a  presented to our doltish councillors in such a way that will appeal to the ideological obsessions of their limited political understanding, wrapped up in corporate claptrap by their unelected, unaccountable senior managers, the men from Crapita, and an assortment of shadowy, overpaid consultants, looking out for more and more opportunities to turn our public services into private profit.

Thanks to the utterly impotent process of scrutiny in Barnet, the performance of contractual partnerships already in place are neither properly monitored, nor challenged: Capita continues to extract huge fees for their delivery of our local services - fellow blogger Mr Reasonable estimates we will have paid them £80 million this year- with no proof, despite his often repeated requests, of the savings that we were told made these massive contracts absolutely essential.

And the uncomfortable truth is that while the Tory members simply refuse to hold Capita to account, the Labour opposition looks on, all too often lacking any clear strategic direction - or credibility.

Towards the end of the year, a new Labour group leader was elected, after ten years in the post by Alison Moore. Her deputy, Barry Rawlings won the election, but it needs to be acknowledged that two separate nominative votes by local party representatives clearly indicated a preference for rival Ross Houston.

This is not a personal rejection of Cllr Rawlings, who is a veteran campaigner, and hard working member: it represents a desire amongst local activists for change - just as the national party and leadership has changed, a new direction, and a better strategy for opposing the Tory administration. First signs at the last Full Council meeting in December suggested that the outcome of the election represented business as usual, and no change at all. Let's hope we are proved wrong.

Apart from the general election, the last twelve months were dominated by a range of issues generated by, predictably, a renewal in commitment to further outsourcing, both in school services, and - in all but name, libraries, once an award winning, value for money, beacon status service, now on the brink of destruction; a blatant, defiant demonstration of what was once an exaggeration, but is now reality: the social cleansing of a capital city, the abandonment of any duty to the concept of social housing, and the shameless accommodation of private developers intent on avoiding a duty to provide any significant level of affordable homes.

Oh: and the curious tale of a blundering council depot purchase, costing millions of pounds of tax payers' money ...

January was to see the holding of a formal Inquiry into the compulsory purchase of properties on the West Hendon estate, leasehold properties, formerly council owned, now affected by the blight attached to all homes caught up in a development project like this. A private development, which Barnet Tories continue wilfully to misrepresent as a 'regeneration' scheme.

Residents' representative Jasmin Parsons, pointing to the part of the development which will force her to leave her home

The original scheme was exactly that: a genuine act of regeneration - one which promised better housing for the residents of the council estate. By degrees, and by stealth, the plans were changed, and, as we were to discover, the publicly owned land which lies by the edge of the beautiful Welsh Harp, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and an area of immense historic significance to the local community, was simply given away to Barratt London to build luxury housing, in the form of the most monstrously ugly development, dominated by a group of, at highest, thirty two storey high tower blocks.

In order to do this, and clear the area of any obstacles to the profiteering of the development partners, it was deemed necessary to demolish the homes of any leaseholders, and of course to dispose of any nuisance in the shape of council tenants, who, being largely and deliberately kept on long term non secure tenancies, were exactly that: disposable - easy to 'decant' into other run down 'regeneration' estates also due to be offered up to private developers. Any tenant who refused whatever alternative accommodation was allotted to them, for whatever reason, would automatically make themselves homeless.

Leigh, who has lived on the West Hendon estate for forty years, and now awaits the demolition of her home

The Housing Inquiry hearing, to be held over two weeks, at Hendon Town Hall, into early February, promised to become more than a consideration of the compulsory purchase of leasehold properties: it was set to be something it was not supposed to be: an opportunity for the people of West Hendon to focus attention on the terrible injustice that was being perpetrated on them, and a deeply embarrassing process of public exposure for the developers and Barnet Council.

Mrs Angry herself became involved in the Inquiry in a way she had not expected: attending as an observer, in order to write about it, but then obliged to submit evidence, after realising that the council and Barratts, in their attempt to smooth the way for the compulsory purchase, and discredit the case put by residents in defence of their right to remain in their homes, were making false assertions about the significance of York Memorial Park: part of the area due to be demolished and built on having been the site of a massive bomb explosion during the war, with huge loss of life, and thousands of homes destroyed or damaged.

Nonsense, said the developers: the CPO area was entirely different, and the site had never had any 'memorial' status.

Wrong, and wrong, as Mrs Angry proved, after doing some fairly basic research in the council's own Archives, right next to the Town Hall.

How curious, is it not, that the planners who had approved the development had not bothered to check these readily available resources?

The hearing was an intensely moving experience, in truth. Listening to the evidence given by residents forced to live through the betrayal of their faith in the promises made by Tory councillor Brian Salinger, and now to live in the hellish reality of the destruction of their homes, and the construction of the towers of profit looming above them, behind the black wall of 'regeneration', it was good to see that at least they had a chance to tell their story.

Jasmin Parsons supports resident Hodan as she explains the terrible impact of the West Hendon development on her family

As they spoke, attending officers from Barnet, Capita, and Barratts looked on indifferently, even in one case falling asleep. All captured on film, for a shortly to be screened documentary, on BBC 1, about the West Hendon story.

West Hendon's Cllr Devra Kay, residents' advocate Dan Knowles, and residents Jacqui and Kalim

Also in January came the first intimations of what was in store for Barnet's library service, despite the outcome of the so called consultation process that the council was obliged to run, with residents, about the devastating cuts planned for this vital and much loved service.

Mrs Angry received what was alleged to be the transcript of an overheard conversation, at North London Business Park, between certain interested parties, on the subject of the opportunities offered by the outsourcing of our libraries.

"Selling Barnet libraries as a business ... bringing in partnership so others can get a ‘cut’ of the business ... We need to show investment. Revenue opportunities. Cabinet papers ... 

We would start with Hendon and Edgware ... Of course we want to present them with options, but let’s start planning now ... This has strategic buying power by selling the libraries. 

JV companies for Tri Borough arrangements. And we have a JV, they (Barnet) have to deliver statutory services. 

It’s a business idea to sell to other local authorities. Yes, we could definitely sell it. 

Commissioners have no commercial experience. They are the ones in charge of the money. Let’s keep in touch, lay out some bonds and security. “Here is what we are doing with the borough etc”. 

We can fill in the information gaps. Information gaps helps with the partnerships. We can have a customer focus group of course, but we are the ones who are paid to make the decisions ..."

It seemed hardly credible, perhaps, then.

As the year's events were to prove, this would appear, in fact, to be a pretty accurate prediction of what the hovering outsourcerers would like to do to our library service: once the initial stage of destruction, including the removal of staff, has been accomplished by the council, and £6 million worth of tax payers' money spent on making the service more tempting to those outsourcerers, under the pretext of modifications needed to implement "savings" of just over £2million, in the library budget.

Mrs Angry was invited to be a member of a panel speaking at a debate, in Mill Hill, attended by a large audience of local residents concerned about the library proposals. Also on this panel were rival election candidates for Hendon, Labour's Andrew Dismore, and Tory Matthew Offord. Sorry: Dr Offord. He's a doctor, you know: have we mentioned it, at all? He likes people to know.

Before the meeting started, Offord, whom Mrs Angry had never met before, tried to have her thrown off the panel - and then decided to direct at her, unprovoked, on arriving on the stage, a sotto voce but sustained volley of horrible comments, which set the tone for the tactics of a certain desperate Tory tendency throughout the coming election campaign, in both Hendon and Finchley & Golders Green.

Barnet's Tory politicians, of course, until the emergence of the local blogosphere, and an accompanying surge in local activism, were simply not used to being held to account by anyone, or their actions reported and challenged with any credibility. Things are different now, and they don't like it.

It should be noted that Theresa Villiers is always impeccably polite: demonstrating the superior intelligence - and diplomacy - which has helped her career take off beyond the wildest dreams of her parliamentary colleagues. But as we were to see over the coming months, all three MPs were to struggle with the impact of the library plans endorsed, if not created, by Barnet's Tory councillors

February saw the continuation of an initiative by Barnet Labour party: the idea of the councillor who should now be the leader of the group, Ross Houston, who set up a Housing Commission to report on the state of the housing crisis in Barnet.

There were several open sessions held over several months, with contributions by experts from outside the borough, as well as local residents. Mrs Angry and Mr Reasonable gave evidence to one session - having received a panicked last minute email urging us to concentrate not on the problems, but on finding 'solutions' ...

Well, of course Mrs Angry and Mr Reasonable took no notice, and discussed both the problems, and the solutions, which in Mrs Angry's view were related to the uncomfortable truth that the Labour party needs to try more efficiently to get elected, and at least become a more effective opposition, in order to tackle the gerrymandering, socially cleansing Tory housing policy that has this city, this borough, in its merciless grip.

An awful loss, in February, for many local Labour activists, with the death of the lovely Nick Goldberg, whose work for the party, and for the Zacchaeus 2000 trust, stand as testimony to the potential we all have to work for the good of all, rather than our own self interest.

March saw the library story continue with a lobby of a Full Council meeting, preceded by an Extraordinary Meeting (more Extraordinary than usual, that is) to discuss the library budget cuts.

A huge crowd of campaigners gathered outside, to make their fierce opposition, many brandishing copies of library books:

Owen Jones: good choice. May even have been read by one or two Tory councillors.

Kama Sutra: even better choice. Unlikely to have been read by any Tory councillors.

Two other big stories emerged in March: the first of these was another housing scandal - the evictions of social tenants on the Sweets Way estate, in Whetstone.

The houses in Sweets Way were originally built and owned by the Ministry of Defence, for service personnel but following the deal made in 1996 now belonged to Annington Homes, a subsidiary of Terra Firma, run by William Hague's chum Guy Hands (whose Four Seasons care home business, the largest provider in the UK, has just been reported as struggling for survival).

For some time these properties had been used by Barnet Council to house tenants, but Annington wanted to develop the site, of course, and once a risky election period was over, Barnet Council duly gave permission for them to proceed. They gave permission, and as became clear, eventually, simply failed to ensure tenants would be re-homed in suitable accommodation, leaving many families facing not only the loss of their homes, but the prospect of having no home at all, or at best sub-standard accommodation, which, as in the case of West Hendon, if refused, would mean they would be considered to have made themselves homeless.

Just by chance Mrs Angry met two tenants from Sweets Way, as they were in the process of trying to stall eviction notices served on them: the first was an elderly man with a heart condition, sent to live in Harlesden, and then told his accommodation was no longer available, and a woman with two children at local secondary schools, whose education would clearly be disrupted by the move, and who had been told to go and live in this filthy place on another "regeneration" estate, notorious for problems with crime, and high levels of social deprivation:

Not surprisingly, she could not agree to taking her children to live in such squalid accommodation.

The next development in the story of Sweets Way is perhaps predictable to anyone who has followed the history of Broken Barnet: members of the Occupy movement moved in, and with residents, formed an active resistance to the development.

Petra, Mordechai, and Daniel

Without the publicity provoked by the occupation, and the support of so many campaigners, it is absolutely certain that the families of Sweets Way would have been airbrushed out of that history of Broken Barnet, in fact. Oh, and publicity, of course, attached to an interest in the matter by one Russell Brand, who Mrs Angry met in the kitchen of one of the occupied houses, one cold Saturday morning. Yes: it's true. We had a short conversation about tupperware, as you're asking.

In March we also learned something very, very interesting about the West Hendon development.

In response to a Freedom of Information request, it was revealed that the land on which the estate was being built - public land, worth at the time of agreement as much as £12 million, and undoubtedly now worth an awful lot more - had not been sold to the developers, Barratt London. Or rather it had been sold for the grand total of £3: £1 for each piece.

One of the parcels of land, which includes York Memorial Park, was valued at £9 million. Its value, of course, in terms of significance to the local community, as a place of commemoration, and literally as a place of interment, is beyond material worth, but such sentimental matters are of no consequence, in Broken Barnet. Sold for a quid.

This now notorious 'Poundland' deal, agreed in secret, was approved despite an estimated - and probably modestly understated - profit margin for the developers of a whopping £92,234,108.00.

In other words, it would appear that this giveaway of public land has subsidised the profits of private developers.

What benefit has this brought to the taxpayers of Broken Barnet?

In fact the direct effect of a Tory housing policy which encourages such developments, and ignores the need for social housing, is that the poorest members of our community are being driven out of the borough - which is the blatant intent of the Tory administration.

April came along, and Mrs Angry decided to ask her friend, Mrs Alice Fulbright, to undertake some correspondence on her behalf with some of the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, on the subject of the library cuts proposals.

Alice duly wrote to chief library cutter Cllr Reuben Thompstone to urge him ...  to persist in his relentless assault on our library service. As she wrote:

I am heartily sick of local 'left-wing' trouble makers and other professional whingers complaining about your plan to shut down libraries. 

If I had my way, they would all be shut, frankly, and the money saved spent on increasing your wages as councillors, just for putting up with all this constant criticism. 

Well: this was exactly what Tombstone had been waiting to hear, and he replied:

Many thanks for your thoughtful and supportive comments. Is there a possibility you might write to one of the local press establishments? We do not always receive kind words in these (sic) and it helps balance alternative views. 

Oh dear: an absence of kind words was just too upsetting to contemplate. Could she contact local press establishments? Yes, she could. One of the local blogs, anyway. A. Fulbright (Mrs), thought this was a very good idea.

A. Fulbright (Mrs)

Just in time for April 1st.

Another idea was to write to veteran Mill Hill councillor, keen linguist and man about town, octogenarian Tory member John Hart.

Mrs Fulbright now proposed that all libraries be demolished, and the money saved spent on more generous salaries for Tory councillors.

Cllr Hart was in full support:

What a refreshing email. 

I agree with most of what you write: 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). 

Rather prescient: this, in a few words, was more or less what the Tory council was subsequently to suggest, in their proposal for libraries.

Much as Mrs Angry tried to ignore it, something was looming, and arrived, in May, which could no longer be avoided: yes ...  the General Election.

The curse of Mrs Angry: days later, Ed Balls was out of a job ...

She stuck a poster outside her house, to instruct the voters of Finchley and Golders Green as to the correct way to fill out their ballot forms.

Tssk. Too many of them disobeyed her, with unfortunate consequences.

Painful to write about it still. In fact the disappointment, frustration, rage at the failings of the local Labour campaign - and sense of disgust at the gutter tactics of some local Tory activists - were enough to drive Mrs Angry to shelve the blog for a while, and consider retiring to a nunnery.

But then something happened.

A community event which took place days after the election: a march in support of our threatened libraries. Mrs Angry really didn't want to go, and lay in bed trying to think of good excuses not to turn up, but there weren't any, so she did, and how glad she was that she did.

Children at East Finchley library

The march was an act of defiance, and renewal of spirit, amongst the residents of Broken Barnet and those who came to show their solidarity with us. Writer and library campaigner Alan Gibbons addressed the crowd, and commented that the march was like an Irish wake:

That is to say, the end of something, mourned, but celebrated, a defiance of the darkness to come, but the recognition of another truth: that that life must carry on, and is worth living, in the companionship and consolation of family, friends, and community.

And so it was, after all. And so: back to business.

June saw the continuation of resistance to the West Hendon development. Mrs Angry, who had received a missive from Barnet Council trying to order her to stop using her own sourced images of the bombing of West Hendon, for some reason, went with the magnificent Jasmin Parsons to visit a Barratt's showroom, on site, and was not impressed. She left a message, in one of the drawers, in the bedroom. Did they ever find it?

Mrs Angry inspects the Barratt showhouse bedroom ...

Oh: and then came another interesting revelation, about another long running Barnet story: the tale of Abbot's Depot ... as we were to learn:

"The proposal to buy the same site for £13.5 million was agreed at full council last December. At the time much criticism was made of what seemed to be an exorbitant price, based on a former valuation of £8 million, 8 or so years ago. 

But what was not known then was that six months earlier a company had bought the very same site ... for only £750, 000. Yep. Only £750,000. 

Yet officers of the council had informed Labour councillor Geof Cooke, on the 19th May 2015, that: 

 ‘To the best of our knowledge, there have been no changes to the freehold or leasehold positions since 1/1/14’ ..."

Goodness me. How very odd: can that be true - that officers of the council forgot to tell the elected members of the London Borough of Broken Barnet about the purchase of this site, apparently from one Comer company, to another Comer company, when they were asked to approve the £13.5 million cost of acquiring the site for a council depot?

The Comer brothers, by the way, are the landlords of Barnet Council, at North London Business Park - a site which the council must vacate as the land is due to be turned into yet another housing development, the planning application assisted by Capita, for a fee, and the decision to be recommended, or not, by planning officers provided by ... Capita.

And the land purchased with £13.5 million of tax payers' money ... will soon be required for the Crossrail 2 extension.

Next up was news of competitive tendering, Barnet style, for the latest tender proposal: educational services, including school meals. Competitive tendering, as it became clear, without any, erm - well, competition. A marvellously understated statement from the council admitted there might be a certain lack of 'competitive tension'.

This is the joy of outsourcing, see: finding the best value service provision through a wide ranging procurement process, involving the participation of ... one candidate. Like sexual tension, without the sex, or the tension. No foreplay, and no happy ending. (Note to self: stop re-writing the same jokes).

Guess who won the bid, then? No, not Crapita - they pulled out, pretty early on - always disappointing, in the bedroom, or the boardroom - but even they had the sense to see there is no money in it - go on, go on ... Oh: yes. Well done. The winner was the only bidder, Cambridge Education, who have subcontracted school dinners to - oh: ISS, apparently. Good idea. In space, no one can hear you scrutinise the non delivery of an outsourcing contract, after all.

July brought more revelations on the subject of the depot purchase. Barnet had tried to prevent the publication of some of the information requested by Mrs Angry via the FOI Act - as it generally does with any material that is politically embarrassing - but: hard luck, Mrs Angry has seen off previous attempts of this nature by referring the matter to the ICO - and won her argument, of course. Information may not be withheld on such a pretext, and eventually the required material was released.

Combined with further information obtained by Labour's Geof Cooke, there are clearly some hugely important questions raised by this matter, which have yet to be answered. Our Tory councillors, and their senior management, and Crapita all must hope that this issue will simply fade away.

If so, they are mistaken.

The residents of the area surrounding the new depot are, as you can imagine, incensed by the idea of having the waste facility, with all the nuisance it represents, dumped on their doorstep, with what they maintain was a lack of proper consultation: they formed a campaign group RAAD, and now, at the end of the year, Barnet Council received a letter before action in regard to a legal challenge.

Mrs Angry returned to West Hendon, one sunny Saturday morning, and walked into the first open sales event in one of the monstrous new buildings.

Armed with a glass of Barratt's champagne, and a goody bag of lovely brochures filled with encouraging pictures of local amenities and shops (Hampstead and Primrose Hill, several miles away, rather than the kebab shops and re-spray garages of the Edgware Road), Mrs Angry was escorted by an indifferent young estate agent, who had never been there before, and didn't care who knew it, into a rabbit hutch sized apartment, with a charming view of the building site next door.

On every previous Saturday morning, and sometimes at other times over weekends, and all the time during the week, the residents of the estate have had, and will have to live on that building site, putting up with the most intolerable conditions: noise, dirt, traffic. Who cares? No one. They are of no interest, when profit is at stake.

Outside the black fence that marks the boundary between the private development and the urban ghetto wilfully created by the council as a transitional holding space for the nuisance represented by the residents of the estate, protestors stood with banners, speaking to prospective buyers, most of whom were appalled to hear the real story behind the reinvention of West Hendon, and the destruction of a community more ruthless, and more effective than the wartime bombing whose impact still lies, quite literally, beneath the soil here, and remains in the memories of many of the older residents.

Residents of West Hendon, holding pictures of the bombing and one of the memorials to civilian loss

It has been reported that of the first thirty eight new luxury properties that have now been sold on the new development, thirty six have gone to overseas buyers.

This is how you destroy a community: not by rockets, or bombs, but by a housing policy based not on need, but greed.

Meanwhile, also in July, at a residents' forum in Finchley, Tory councillors were urged to act immediately to deal with an issue causing distress to residents in another part of the borough.

A humanitarian crisis, as you will appreciate, on an unimaginable scale:

"What was upsetting the Suburbanistas? Stand by. 

Noisy leaf blowers. 

Yes. Just imagine! The horror. The horror

Noisy leaf blowers, used by - oh dear me, the council's private contractors.

Something must be done, of course: but what, and how quickly? Things are done quickly, in HGS, for residents, of course. 

Generally, that is. Or rather, in the good old days, BC: before Crapita ..."

Dear me. The Tory councillors squirmed in their seats, but said nothing.

"There is Quite A Lot of Noise, in Hampstead Garden Suburb! declared the resident, looking with dismay at the lack of interest in his predicament.

Of course the written response had admitted, with an admirable economy in punctuation, that: 

'the Contractors due to efficiency issues do not now sweep leaves'. 

Ah. Yes: there you go: the perfect metaphor for privatisation. Do not undertake to deliver a service, and resolve an issue. Move it somewhere else, for someone else to deal with, and at cheaper cost ..."

Mrs Angry went up to Durham, to the Miners' Gala, in July, and bumped into former fellow blogger Vicki Morris, Citizen Barnet, right there, below the balcony of the County Hotel where in the old days the Labour leader would address the Big Meeting, and endorse his commitment to the founding principles of the party. Yes! Just fancy that, you young folk! Of course Tony Blair never came, despite being the MP for Sedgefield, just down the road. Eww, no.

As we were talking, a BBC news crew asked to interview Vicki, having spotted she was wearing a vote for Corbyn t shirt, and asked her why she was doing so. Mrs Angry tweeted words to the effect that she thought it might have something to do with the novel idea of having a socialist back in charge of the Labour Party. Jezza immediately tweeted his thanks for our support, which amused us both no end ...

By August, it was clear that something immensely important, and quite unexpected had happened: not only had Corbyn proved to be a credible candidate for the leadership, there was a surge of support for him, for the possibility of change within the Labour movement, and a re-connection with the grassroots membership, and a resumption of the values which had created the party in the first place.

Then in September came a truly memorable day: the 12th of September, to be exact. A fabulous day.

Another march against the library cuts, organised by campaigners like the indefatigable Polly Napper, who is a member of the London Metropolitan Brass band, who accompanied the march to North Finchley. But also with us were representatives of the wonderful 'Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners' group, as featured in the film 'Pride' ...

As we marched along, the news came, with perfect timing, that Jeremy Corbyn had been elected as leader of the Labour Party.

As well as the LGSM people, the banner of the Durham Miners' Association had been brought to the march by their general secretary, Davey Hopper. How fabulous it was, to be marching with these people, on such a momentous day. For Mrs Angry, whose family produced many generations of Durham miners,  seeing the DMA representatives at the march was a moment of great pleasure - and she took delight in suggesting to Hopper that he and the banner pose for a photo opportunity outside the offices of the local Tory party: Margaret Thatcher House ...

The strength of feeling that the march represented was more than about the library cuts: because the protests against the library cuts represent so much more - fury over the assault on the very idea of public services, owned by and run for local communities, fury over the plundering of those services by profiteering private companies, and fury over the diminishment of the support those services offer to the most vulnerable and needy members of our society.

Also this month came the end to another long running story: the battle of Sweets Way, and the end of occupation.

On the last day, Mrs Angry made another visit, as our old friend, campaigner and occupier Phoenix held one last protest - trying to stall the eviction of the last remaining tenant, a disabled man named Mostafa - as the police, fire brigade and other less identifiable parties looked on:

"Balancing rather precariously up on the roof of one of the houses, yesterday afternoon, was the familiar figure of Phoenix, the veteran of many similar events here in Broken Barnet - and elsewhere. 

Do be careful, Phoenix, called Mrs Angry, in mum mode, as he waved cheerily down at her, 

Don't worry, Mrs A, he yelled: I'm used to it ... "

Mostafa never stood a chance, of course, nor any of the tenants in Sweets Way. He and all his neighbours were standing in the way of someone's profit, and had to be removed. But what happened in Sweets Way, and what is still happening in West Hendon, is a story that continues, and one of a wider significance.

In September, Mrs Angry went to the Labour conference, held this year in Brighton, full of expectation - often a mistake, in her experience.

It was a conference entirely different to the previous few year's events, as it turned out. In all sorts of ways.

In place of the moribund proceedings, the non debates, the clear gulf between party leadership and membership,  there was a genuine sense of something utterly new: with so many new members, and returning members, a feeling of excitement, and, at last, the possibility of change.

Change for the better, but one informed by the values and spirit of the people who founded the Labour movement, and a party that works for the good of all, rather than the aspirations of a few careerist politicians.

John McDonnell came to Barnet, early one morning, and stood in the rain to show support for Barnet workers striking in protest against the destruction of local services as a result of the Tory council's commitment to mass privatisation.

John McDonnell, Unison's John Burgess & Labour councillors & Mrs Angry at Mill Hill Depot picket line ...

McDonnell observed that Barnet's programme of outsourcing "had been the most brutal of all".

And now, of course, at the forefront of that programme is our wonderful library service.

Perhaps the Barnet Tory councillors - Reuben Thompstone, and Dan Thomas, and Richard Cornelius, believe their senior management team, and all those overpaid private consultants, when they are told the library proposals, built on a wobbling platform of assumptions, and aspirations, actually present a coherent plan for running a library service. If they ever expected the residents of Broken Barnet to lie down and accept what amounts to the end of a library service in this borough, they were deluding themselves.

Scared by the torrent of opposition from residents who took part in the first round of 'consultation' regarding the library cuts, and horrified by the political fall out demonstrated by the level of protest to local MPs and councillors by normally loyal Tory voters, the options chosen to go forward were what the council had thought would fool some into thinking their views had been taken into account.

Look, they said: no libraries will close. And look: they will be open for more hours!

Ah. Well, this all depends by what you mean by the word "library", doesn't it?

Is an old village telephone box with a few faded paperbacks in it, a library?

It is not.

Can a building, handed over to Crapita, with a corner reserved for some shelves of books, but no staff, in any meaning of the word meet the definition of what might reasonably be described as a library?

It cannot.

Is a library, a library, without librarians? Without staff? Without anyone on the premises at all? Will you feel safe, in such a place? In November, more details emerged of the potentially catastrophic, but unacknowledged risks presented by the unprecedented wholescale use of unstaffed libraries.

(You may wish to comment on such issues, as part of the token 'nonsultation' now soon to end - you can do so online, and may wish to consider the advice given here as how to avoid the pitfalls so cleverly prepared for you, as part of the survey. Please note the consultation period ends on January 6th).

Back in October, Mrs Angry and local Barnet Alliance campaigner Barbara Jacobson tried appealing to the members of the education committee responsible for libraries: Mrs Angry even attempted, probably not very convincingly, to assume the mantle of Margaret Thatcher, in order to chastise the Tory members for their assault on a service which their beloved leader had considered to be a vital resource for social mobility. And to point out to deputy council leader Dan Thomas, who wants to be elected GLA member for Barnet and Camden, that the library issue is electoral poison.

They wriggled in their seats, especially self proclaimed Thatcherite Helena Hart, who has managed to preserve her local library at Edgware from any real harm.

But the hypocrisy of their own policies, the abject denial of their own stated principles as Conservatives: this presents no intellectual conflict in the minds of Barnet Tories - largely of course because most of them have no intellectual capacity, and the rest of them don't give a flying you know what, as Mrs Angry was reminded on arriving at October's Full Council meeting, and raising the subject of the library cuts with former Tory leader Brian Salinger:

They think they are true blue Tories, loyal Conservatives: yet so many of the policies they embrace with such mindless enthusiasm attack the very heart of what they claim to believe in, that is to say, 'aspiration', and helping people to help themselves out of poverty, by education and access to the property ladder.

Not only have they, with such indifference, betrayed the leaseholders in West Hendon who accepted Margaret Thatcher's invitation to get on that property ladder, and follow the path to prosperity, they are now knowingly condemning the children of the least advantaged families in the borough to a future without access to a public library, without a safe place to study, to the professional support of trained librarians.

Once this borough was the centre of excellence in children's librarianship, the home of pioneering librarian Eileen Colwell, whose life's work brought new opportunity to so many generations of children not only in this country, but around the world.

Only in Broken Barnet could there be once more a place where opportunity comes to die, and history turned backwards to a society where education, housing and every other mark of civilisation and progress becomes once more the privilege of those who can afford to pay for it.

But the story of Broken Barnet, in 2015, is not one empty of hope. Quite the reverse, in fact.

In December the current library nonsultation consisted of little but a few forms, left unnoticed on library counters, and four 'open sessions' which no one except a few library campaigners knew about, or attended.

Those in charge of promoting the library cuts probably thought that all resistance had fizzled out, hence the minimalist consultation this time around.

And yet again, if so, they are mistaken.

A claim before action letter from Save Barnet Libraries was sent to Barnet Council this week, as detailed in a press release: full details of the letter will be published in a separate blog, but in the meanwhile:

"SBL points out that the Council’s claim of ‘Keeping all the libraries open’ is misleading, as reduced in size and resources and without full-time staff, these are libraries in name only.

The campaign has taken advice from respected solicitor John Halford, at Bindmans LLP, and a ‘letter before claim’ detailing the legal errors in the consultation procedure was sent to the council shortly after Christmas.

The letter maintains that the consultation is unlawful because it fails to seek the views of, and consider the impact of the proposals on, those most affected, and that the documents do not contain enough information to allow people to respond sensibly. It also raises the flaws in the pilot and the lack of any contingency plans, for example if not enough volunteers come forward. Another complaint is the Council’s failure to carry out its promise of October 2014 to actively explore co-location of council services within existing library buildings" ...

The legal action was made possible because of the determined efforts of local residents, campaigners and community representatives who crowdsourced the larger part of the necessary funds, to their astonishment, in a matter of hours. Such is the strength of feeling, in this borough, over this issue.

But it is not just a show of defiance over the library proposals: Barnet is well used, by now to organising itself in resistance to the impact of injustice perpetrated by the policies of the local Tory administration, and government.

Library campaigners Polly and Mary, centre and right, and Labour councillor Alon Or Bach

And now it faces not just protests, and marches, and heckling in the council chamber, but legal challenge, over two key actions, libraries and the depot plans.

This borough is lucky to have many residents who take on the roles of advocates and activists, who organise campaigns, and, in stark contrast to the self serving Tory councillors who are our nominal representatives, work tirelessly to try to make the place we live in a better one.

To witness the tenderness of Jasmin Parsons, sitting with her arm around a mother giving evidence to the West Hendon Housing Inquiry, exhausted by worry over her sick child, facing eviction from their home; following the redoubtable library campaigner Polly Napper along the roads of Finchley on the library marches; listening to the brilliant evisceration, by Barnet Alliance's Barbara Jacobson, of the semi-literate, villainous pieces of work that are often submitted as reports to council meetings; seeing the council staff and residents who stand in the rain for hours on picket lines, defending their public services ... magnificent people, courageous, intelligent, compassionate, strong, and so supportive to one another, and an honour to know: all this has been a real privilege, this year, for me.

The lessons of West Hendon and Sweets Way are that unless you oppose, with every breath you have, the relentless policies of this administration, the least advantaged residents will be treated with utter contempt: only campaigning and publicity achieved any fair outcome for the tenants and leaseholders facing the loss of their homes.

As Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty noted in his recent piece on local Unison secretary John Burgess, we know how to fight, in this borough, for our community.

And we will fight you, Tory councillors of Broken Barnet: in the town hall, on the street, in words and deeds, and actions.

See you in court, probably.

Happy New Year.

No comments: