Victoria Park Lodge, October 2016
After the silly season of August, and the even sillier Conference season of September, we find ourselves in Black October, when nights draw in, and we must contemplate the dark winter to come. And this winter promises to be a very dark one, in Broken Barnet.
Look over there: half our library staff about to be packed off to the Job Centre. Goodbye, all: we don't need you anymore. We have thrown out half the books, shrunk the library spaces, and introduced staffless libraries, from which the borough's children will be banned. Unfortunately, not banned will be the individuals who are currently causing problems for staff and residents alike by their behaviour, who are reported all to have tickets, and will be able to hang out in these unsupervised libraries, terrorising any other users who dare to come in.
Incidents in recent weeks reported to Mrs Angry include a member of staff sworn at when censuring a member of the public for racially abusing a disabled child; police called after a member of the public smashed a mirror, and then returned to the library, later in the day; a female member of the public so drunk, in the daytime, that an ambulance crew had trouble in persuading her to accompany them for treatment; this is part of the everyday life of libraries, in a 21st century society.
Let us emphasise again, that the majority of these residents have library tickets, and will be able to access the new, DIY, unstaffed libraries, with no one there to intervene.
Yet, as Mrs Angry understands, we have yet to see the promised 'Safeguarding' policy that needs to be in place in order to address some of the many risks and unanswered concerns over the new unstaffed libraries - something which we must emphasis has never been attempted, on this scale, anywhere comparable.
Barnet and Capita have had two years in which to prepare for the programme of cuts, and to help staff at risk of redundancy prepare for their own futures, once they are sacked.
There are 51.5 full time equivalent posts being slashed from your local branches - but the final number of people who will lose their jobs is yet to be determined.
Those members of staff getting the old heave ho, however - still waiting, many of them, for the information they are due, in regard to their financial futures. Pension seminars have been cancelled. Deadlines for competitive job selections were set, but are now being passed.
Six local organisations have been asked by Barnet Council to submit business plans to supplant our sacked library staff, and attempt to run what will be presented as a public library. These are:
Mind in Barnet
The Hope of Childs Hill
There were other bids, of course, including - and you may find this absolutely astonishing, as I did, when I heard about it - a bid from the Labour group's spokesperson for Libraries, who proposed running a sort of training hub, linked to her own company - properly declared in her interests, it must be said. The proposal was rejected.
I am not entirely sure why I was astonished, to be frank. But the political ineptitude of such a move - or at least the extent of the group's naivete in allowing such a bid to go forward - is breathtaking.
Jenny and Siobhan O'Dowd, victims of the Freedom Pass 'renewal' scheme
Freedom Passes, next: one of those issues that the opposition group messed up on, leaving it to local bloggers to kick up about, and pursue.
I didn't bother writing about the Policy and Resources meeting, some weeks ago now, at which this issue was the subject of questions to the committee - but where of course, as usual, the Tory leader shrugged his way through any suggestion of blame for what was by any standard an utterly scandalous matter: the demand by Capita for a further fee of £100,000 on the pretext of renewing something that did not renewing, ie the travel passes that disabled residents are entitled to, under statutory criteria.
We found out that some of these most vulnerable pass holders were finding themselves stranded, their passes arbitrarily, and unlawfully, cancelled without warning, on spurious grounds. Labour did not understand the issue and kept banging on about criteria set by London Councils. They were still banging on about it at this meeting. And one councillor even thanked officers for their hard work on clearing up the mess created by this unlawful process. One officer at the table earns a six figure salary, and had previously admitted that he was responsible for the scheme which caused so much distress to so many vulnerable residents. Sorry, but I'm not sure he deserves anyone's thanks for having to put right what should never have been done in the first place. My sympathy is for the victims of this scheme, who are still contacting me, worried about the future of their travel passes.
Tory councillors now maintain the renewal process was and is still necessary, because 'people's circumstances change'.
Reminding them, at the meeting, of the young man whose father was driven to write MY SON STILL HAS DOWN'S SYNDROME all over his form did nothing to pierce their impenetrable sense of self satisfaction. They are beyond shame, of course.
Let us say it one more time. The criteria, as explained in a letter before action from counsel representing one of the residents affected, are STATUTORY. They cannot be ignored, or changed.
Barnet, and Capita, however, are now reviewing the Freedom Pass scheme. Rather like WC Fields reading the bible, looking for loopholes, you might think.
Please take part in the consultation process, and consider attending the drop in sessions to make your views known.
But the matter of the unlawful process that took place earlier this year will be left as it is: with no one in trouble for sanctioning an unlawful and deeply distressing process - and Capita facing no financial penalty at all for their actions. Indeed they continue to prosper from it.
The reason I did not write about this before was because, frankly, I had felt so sickened by the failure of all concerned on the council to take ownership of this scandalous story, sort it out, admit it was just wrong, penalise those who were responsible, and make sure it will never happen again.
It will happen again, of that you can be sure. Maybe not with the passes, but with other contractual profiteering schemes, other scandals, other injustices. And who will speak out about it, and do something about it? Only the 'usual suspects'.
Sitting in this meeting I had begun to feel a sense of total despair, and one which is hard to shake off: the Tories are utterly shameless, and would rather defend such a wretched scheme, than admit wrongdoing, and lose face, and have to admit that the contract with Capita, which they approved without thorough scrutiny of the detail, in which is hidden the devil's own work, making excess profit from payments beyond the core contract 'savings'.
And the Labour opposition which should be jumping on the evidence which prove the diabolical nature of these schemes, and those that agree them, simply fail to do so. The fear of appearing too radical, or unkind to senior officers, leaves them in a state of inertia - and one in which too many of them are too comfortable. Too many of the longer serving and 'moderate' members don't really seem to want to win control of the council: and they fail to understand that they never will, anyway, unless they convince voters that they offer a robust rejection of Tory policy, and a viable alternative to the current administration. It is a reflection of how things were, with the party nationally, until the arrival of a new leader.
As individuals, most Barnet Labour councillors are hard working, well meaning representatives: but the more important responsibilities need to be given to some of the younger, and frankly brighter members, so that collectively, as an opposition, they begin to - well, oppose. We expect nothing but the worst from the Tories: but we depend on something more, something better, from Labour.
Still, at the meeting we spent most of the time debating something much more important than the destruction of our library service, or the removal of travel passes for the borough's disabled residents.
Diving facilities at Copthall: well - this is a matter about which a small number of parents who have children training in this sport care about very much, and although one has sympathy for them - the council has decided not to bother with such facilities, in the future, on the grounds of cost - it hardly necessitates a greater level of debate than other more subjects: but of course parents were sitting in the gallery, and had a very articulate representative making a strong case for the retention of diving. This always concentrates the minds of our councillors.
The Tory members, incidentally, claimed that the Labour opposition had already voted for the plans which included this proposal. Oops. Splash: quite a bellyflop, in fact. Yes, but now, said Labour, We Are Listening To Residents.
At the P&R meeting, our Tory friends, who are always keen to lecture us on the need for cuts to public services, especially our libraries, due to the economic burden, and yet fresh from throwing £800,000 on the creation of more PR posts to 'manage the council's reputation' (To be fair, £8 million might be a more appropriate sum) - now decided to approve the gift of £500,000 of our money - that is to say the money of the hardworking tax payers of Broken Barnet - to the RAF Museum.
Why? F*ck knows. Because they could. Who needs libraries, or meals on wheels, when you can look awfully big giving money to a national museum?
What a shame our own local museum at Church Farmhouse was shut, its irreplaceable collection ransacked & flogged off, and the beautiful listed building put up for sale - unsuccessfully - by the same Tory councillors: on the usual excuse of lack of funds.
The RAF Museum - which was host for BBC Question Time last night - has a perfectly sound system of fundraising, and is perfectly capable of managing without half a million quid from Barnet residents.
When heckled (by Mrs Angry) on the point about funding this museum, while depriving the borough's children of libraries, and our elderly residents of meals on wheels, Tory deputy leader and failed GLA candidate, Dan Thomas, remained unmoved, of course, staring straight ahead, with his usual cool, blue eyed indifference.
They know, the Tories, that this sort of handout, and the money splurged on propping up their shabby reputation in the run up to the next local elections, is really proof of the lie of austerity, and indefensible, on any moral ground - but then they do not measure policy by moral standards. Or rather they see a higher purpose: loyalty to a ruthless ideology that despises the very idea of public services.
You would hope that the Labour opposition thinks otherwise, and would seize this opportunity to lay bare, and then eviscerate, the damnable hypocrisy of the Tory expenditure. Not a bit of it. The leader waffled on about the Museum arguably being a good thing for the local community in terms of ... apprenticeships, maybe? Eh? And muttered that on the whole there probably were better things to spend the money on. But then - the Labour councillors abstained, did not oppose the RAF grant. This was infuriating.
A Labour councillor since explained to Mrs Angry the rationale was that if they had opposed it, the Tories would tell voters that Labour ... was showing a lack of respect for our armed forces.
Give. Me. Strength.
My father served in the RAF during the war, defending this country from fascism - although sometimes, these days, one might ask why he bothered. Before that, he served as a local Auxilliary Fireman, defending this area from fire, and explosions - including an incident at what was then Hendon Aerodrome, now the home of the museum.
Many of my Sunday afternoons as a child were spent being obliged - most reluctantly, it must be said, (and in revenge for which I would routinely sabotage my brother's squadron of airfix models ...) - to wander around the wonderful collection of planes, and RAF memorabilia with my father and brother.
Saturday mornings, however, were always spent visiting the local library, in Edgware, which entirely supported the voracious reading requirements of all four of us, on a weekly basis.
My father held a Barnet library ticket until his death, aged 95.
He was thrilled that his grandchildren used their local library too.
He was a dyed in the wool Tory, as it happens - but he would have been beside himself with fury at the thought of the current assault on our library service, by a Conservative council; depriving other children and elderly residents of easy access to books, and information, and support.
He most certainly would not have wanted to see the profligate giveaway of half a million pounds to the RAF museum, whatever his own part, and sense of pride, in its history, while our libraries are destroyed on the pretext of shortage of funding.
But then again, earlier in the year, lecturing the Tories about the proposed library cuts, and quoting Margaret Thatcher and her protection of libraries at them failed to do anything more than make the relentlessly prim, self confessed Thatcherite Cllr Helena Hart look as if she had a mild case of indigestion. One cannot expect any policy decision made on the basis of caring Conservatism, or even Thatcherism, in Broken Barnet.
The Barnet Tories, who claim to worship the memory of the Milk Snatcher, in fact are doing everything they can to undo the foundations of her legacy in one respect: her determination to give the feckless hoi-polloi a sense of aspiration, and a means to social mobility. Look what they have done to the council flat right to buyers in West Hendon: and now look at what they have done, or are about to do, to the local library service.
Victoria Park Lodge, under new ownership
Another issue which reared its head during the summer, and continues still, is the interesting story of the park keeper's Lodge, in Victoria Park. (See previous posts in Juy and August). After a briefing by local campaigners, local councillor Ross Houston submitted questions to officers about the sale, which they would not answer at the meeting, but agreed to do so in writing within two weeks.
When the matter was discussed at committee, two Tory councillors declared interests, in that they had knowledge of parties related to the Lodge application, as you will note from the minutes. Only one left the room, when the item was discussed, although Mrs Angry can't recall whether or not he did when her questions on the matter were discussed.
If you have followed this tale, you will probably know that despite the covenants which campaigners believe should protect the park from development, Barnet disposed of this property in a cash sale to - well to whom, exactly, is a very good question. No one is quite sure.
The name of the purchaser on the contract has proved rather difficult to track: a man who apparently lives at the address of a property owned by the builder of the man who apparently is the developer of the Lodge. But who also gave the address of the developer - and whose signature was witnessed by someone with an overseas address - at the time of purchase. And had two different solicitors. Got that?
The other odd thing is that a group of residents who went to pose for a group photograph outside the Lodge were told by someone claiming to represent the managers of the property that the company that owned it was another company altogether, whose director, it would seem, from checking it out at Companies House, is a Russian national. How curious. Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding, or something ... lost in translation.
And now the Lodge ownership has changed hands again, on 16th August, according to Land Registry records: from the man whose name is on the contract - to the developer's company. That was a few days before the decision was made which refused the application to demolish the Lodge, and build a monstrous block of flats in the park. Curiouser and curiouser.
An application to put in a loft conversion has now been made - why, when the developers wanted to demolish the property and build a block of flats is unclear.
Of course, Barnet sold the Lodge knowing that the covenants appear to forbid the building on the site of anything other than a park keeper's Lodge, a cricket pavilion, or a bandstand - so it would seem to be a case of 'caveat emptor', and what one lawyer acting for Barnet suggested might well be 'a white elephant'. Oh dear. As I've said before: I'd as for my money back, if I were you, Mr - oh. Well, whoever's money it was - did you keep the receipt?
Mrs Angry's friend, the Park Lodge crow ...
In the meanwhile, the lovely garden of the Lodge has been the focus of attention: the hedging mercilessly cut back, and a delightful old yew tree cut down. The Lodge crow is pretty damned furious about it as you may imagine - or so he informed Mrs Angry this afternoon, as she passed by, admiring the trail of rubbish in the bushes, and bags of it dumped outside - but at least passers by may now admire the remaining stump of the Arts and Crafts chimney which was mysteriously cut in two, in the middle of the night.
The other yew remains, being subjected to a preservation order, but an application was submitted to cut this back too. Latest news, we understand that details on this move has been updated as 'application invalid on receipt' - so who knows what is going on?
Well, one person who may be able to tell us is the council's External Auditor, who is reviewing the circumstances of the sale, and whether Barnet did indeed have power in law to sell the Lodge, as part of his annual review of the accounts. The audit certificate has not yet been awarded, while objections to the sale, and those in regard to other matters, are still under investigation.
East Finchley library, pre cuts
Back to libraries, now: just received this copy of an email sent to Barnet councillors, regarding something the Tories are keeping awfully quiet about, of course.
Here is the beginning, then, of the end for Barnet Libraries - or it will be if you don't kick up about it:
1. Proposals for resident, member and staff engagement on changes to library buildings - prior to submission of planning applications
2. Submission of planning applications
3. East Barnet Library – Public consultation on the proposed co-location with the new leisure centre
4. Changes to library fees and charges.
1. Resident, member and staff engagement on changes to library buildings
Resident engagement: Resident information sessions, led by officers, are being scheduled to take place at library sites from the end of October, two weeks prior to the submission of planning applications during November. The aim of each session is to engage and inform residents about key changes to their local libraries, with indicative timelines of building works and any temporary closures required. They also provide residents and library users with an opportunity to comment and ask questions about the proposals ahead of the final submission of the planning application. The same information will also be available to view on the Barnet website as the sessions begin. The sessions will be advertised at library sites, in the local press, and through use of social media.
At each session, proposed floor plans and indicative timescales for the building works will be shared together with any potential period of temporary library closure. Where it may prove necessary to temporarily close a library building to enable works to be completed, information about alternative library services and transport options will be provided. Following each public information session, display boards will remain at each site for ongoing information and updates on the changes taking place.
Information sessions will take place at:
Tuesday 25 October
10:00 - 12:00
Tuesday 25 October
14:00 - 16:00
Wednesday 26 October
14:30 – 16:30
Wednesday 26 October
18:00 – 20:00
Thursday 3 November
14:00 – 16:00
Thursday 3 November
18:00 – 20:00
Friday 4 November
11:00 – 13:00
Friday 4 November
15:00 – 17:00
Wednesday 9 November
11:00 - 13:00
Wednesday 9 November
18:00 – 20:00
Thursday 10 November
12:00 - 14:00
Thursday 10 November
16:00 – 18:00
South Friern, Mill Hill and Childs Hill, and East Barnet Partnership libraries will be included, although it will be explained that any changes to the current library space are dependent upon the organisation(s) that are successful in their applications to run these Partnership libraries. At East Barnet however, we already know that building works to the toilet arrangements need immediate remedy.
Member engagement: Ahead of these resident engagement sessions, we have arranged for members to have early sight of the proposals. For members, some of you will have attended the briefings held over the summer period and therefore be aware of the outline proposals at particular sites. These have now been further developed, together with an indicative timetable, all of which will be available for members early in the week commencing 17 October, when we will send out another email.
Staff engagement: The design proposals and indicative timetable will also be shared with library staff in the week commencing 17 October.
2. Submission of planning applications for changes to library buildings and for potential change of use (commercial letting)
Following the resident engagement sessions, planning applications will be submitted during November for each of the sites that require it.
3. East Barnet Library proposed co-location with potential new leisure centre – public consultation
Through the consultation undertaken as part of the wider strategy for libraries, residents told us that co-location of services was a good way to tackle some of the financial challenges faced by the service. As you may recall from the committee report on the Library Strategy, there is a potential opportunity to re-locate the Partnership library at East Barnet to within the proposed new leisure facility at the Victoria Recreation Ground in New Barnet. Although the new leisure centre is not due for completion until 2019, in order to ensure the building provides new, fit for purpose library facilities we need to finalise the building design shortly.
Therefore we will be consulting with local residents around the current East Barnet Library site and the proposed re-location using an online and paper questionnaire starting at the end of October. The results will be collated and analysed, and a report of findings produced early in the new year to inform the final decision. In the meantime, the procurement of a partner organisation to run the East Barnet Partnership library continues and all applicants are aware of the potential future move.
4. Changes to library fees and charges
From 1 December, a number of the library service fees and charges will be changing as outlined in the Library Strategy Committee report. We will be introducing fines for the late return of child and teen items. These will be charged at a rate of 5p per item per day. Fines for adults will be increasing by 5p, however we will be removing the charge for reservations on items already in stock.
Nice touch at the end there: reminding us of the new income generating whizz by your Tory councillors - to make money from overdue books borrowed by those few children who manage to find a Barnet Library from which they are not barred, due to the staff having been sacked. And yes, the income from those children's fines are part of the budget calculation, so they are depending on this money ...
Now that the cuts are not just a matter of proposal, a vague threat hardly understood, but are about to be put into action: this is when the majority of residents will begin to find out what exactly their Tory councillors have decided to do to their local library. They will be shocked, once they understand exactly what it will mean - and this is when the terrible thing the Tories have done will begin to cause electoral trouble for them, especially amongst their own voters. Good.
But what can you do, if you are a Barnet library user who passionately objects to the destruction of your library service?
It is up to you, now: don't leave it to the politicians - lobby them, all of them, councillors, MPs, and insist they listen to your views. Look at what happened, this summer, with the Lodge: the weight of publicity, and the pressure from residents stopped that planning proposal in its tracks, and even had the local Tory MP trying to appear on the side of campaigners (including his favourite blogger) when - ahem - he was the guy in charge of the council when the property was put up for sale ... Grassroots campaigns can and do work - if you are prepared to get involved.
Visit your local libraries, before they disappear: borrow books, support staff - they need it, now, more than ever - go to the 'engagement' sessions, and give the people promoting this nefarious process a hard time, in defence of your library - demand answers to your questions, and tell them what you think of their wilful destruction of the service, on the spurious pretext of economic need.
Tell them you want to spend your council tax on library staff in libraries, not on more spin doctors trying to mend the tattered reputation of this council, or to make a grandiose gesture to a national museum.
And please consider joining the national demonstration, next month - remember, remember, the 5th November - in support of libraries, museums and galleries.