Sunday 9 July 2017

"Refurbishment" - Or: How to destroy a library service, the Barnet Tory way

Take a long, hard look at this photograph. What is it? What was it?

It was the children's library, in Golders Green.

It isn't any longer. 

It has been - what was the word, on those banners that appeared, just before polling day? 

Ah yes: 'refurbished'. Golders Green library has been closed, as have all our libraries, for what our Tory councillors, during purdah, were very keen for us to believe was 'refurbishment', a lovely make-over, rather than the ugly truth - closed in order that the buildings had as much of the library function torn out of them, like a bleeding heart, while DIY technology meant to replace staff was installed, the book stock culled, study space removed - and space instead created to make accommodation for rentable office space.

In Golders Green, the children's library has been gutted, the walls removed of its original oak shelving, painted over, the carpet replaced by a cheap and nasty grey industrial floor covering. Now it stands empty, unused, and waiting for a theoretical commercial tenant, one that is yet to be found. Will probably never be found. And the revenue that was supposed to accrue from the new space in our libraries? Half a million a year? Any sign, yet? 

What do you think?

But then, that was never really going to happen, was it? And the assault on our libraries was always about something else, other than 'austerity', or the need to make savings. It was, and is, a political choice: an ideological war on the idea of public service, and part of a long term strategy to move the library buildings into the list of assets managed by their contractors, Capita, and eventually, there can be little doubt, turned into opportunities for property development.

Let's change the subject. Banners. 

Why, Mrs Angry? Well, why not. It is a subject that has featured in this blog, more than once. Banners are important, in the life of Broken Barnet, and to Mrs Angry. Her great grandmother was from County Clare, see - the Banner County. Yes, there is one, in the West of Ireland. Something to do with Daniel O'Connell, rebellion, & Irish nationalism. Look it up. 

Yes ... dangerous things, banners. 

Remember the one belonging to those troublemakers at Barnet Alliance for Public Services, kidnapped by a vicar, friend of Brian Coleman, in a stand off in a tent at the Friern Barnet summer show? Never seen again. Had its own twitter account, at one time, claimed it was being held hostage in a cupboard, in a church hall.

Well, then. One of the things that fascinates Mrs Angry, to no purpose, but there we are, most of the things, and indeed people, that attract Mrs Angry are futile pursuits, in the end, is the difference between left leaning activists, and right leaning activists. Well: are they active, the right wing? Or do they just sit there sulking, counting their money & feeling hard done by?

It's what you do, if you are left of centre. You protest - and you march in unity, and comradeship. Think about the history of trade unions, and the Labour movement. The Durham Miner's Gala: the Big Meeting, Pride - every march that has ever happened.

Where and what would we be, without banners, in the Labour movement? We have them, and we know how to use them. Remember when the late Davey Hopper brought the Durham Miners' banner and the people from 'Pride' - LGSM - brought theirs,  to Barnet, to march in support of our libraries? A fantastic day.

But Tories ... what do they do, en masse? Apart from oppressing the working classes, playing golf, and a spot of leafleting? Do they run grassroots campaigns? No. Organise demos? No. Go on marches? No. No need. No need to rally behind a common point of principle, when you have no principles, other than each man for himself, and to hell with everyone else. 

Banners then: do they use them, much? For marching behind, no. For deceiving voters: yes. Sometimes. Especially in Broken Barnet. Read on.

If they need to express an opinion on any given subject, Tories, in Broken Barnet anyway, will of course not do it themselves, but pay someone to do it for them. Preferably at our expense. And pretend it is not political dogma, but, ah yes: communication. 

Communication. The transfer of information, from one person to another. Or, in Barnet speak, from source to customer. Except - they get it wrong. They don't have anything positive to communicate, and indeed they fear the honesty, and vulnerability, of real communication: dialogue between equals. For them, communication is a one way process. A statement, and a declaration of intent. The language of a corporate dystopia. 

Have a look at the Tory propaganda rag, which we tax payers have to fund - 'Barnet First'. Should we pay for a politically driven magazine? Eric Pickles didn't think so. Condemned them. Town hall Pravdas, he called them:

Live blogging from council meetings, micro-journalism, call it what you like - it’s here to stay. In fact this citizen samizdat - local people reporting on their local council’s triumphs and shortcomings - is the perfect counterblast to town hall Pravdas.

Uncle Eric preferred citizen bloggers: especially the ones in Barnet,  funnily enough, even though, or perhaps because we have always made such great efforts to hold his Tory colleagues to account. 

Here in Barnet the local blogosphere continues to hold the mirror up to the ugly face of the Tory administration, with such success that the same administration spends a fortune on trying to counteract all the bad PR by lavishing money on its Comms team.

Thing is, there are rules about communications, and publicity, by government, national and local, during the period before an election. 

Then, at least, there is supposed to be some deference towards the idea of representation of the truth, and political balance. And particular care is meant to be taken by local authorities in regard to any material pertaining to local issues of a sensitive or controversial nature. In Barnet, that would include the Tory programme of cuts that are resulting in the most radical diminishment possible of a once magnificent, value for money, beacon status library service, the sacking of half the staff, the eye wateringly large reduction in size of library function within the buildings, the introduction of unstaffed hours, the loss of study space - and the huge cull of book stock.

Yet during purdah, exactly two weeks before residents went to vote, banners suddenly appeared outside many libraries, claiming that the libraries were closed for 'refurbishment'. Quite clearly this was not an accurate or fair representation of the reason for the closures, and might well have persuaded any residents who saw it, just before the election, that the council was doing the reverse of what it really meant - that the council was improving the service, rather than cutting it.

East Finchley library, and a banner that appeared during purdah, just before the election, while the library was closed for the implementation of radical cuts in service

Mrs Angry wrote to John Hooton, the Chief Executive of Barnet Council, to complain about the banners. 

He replied, but dismissed her complaint, claiming - quite incredibly - that the wording was accurate, and that this had been verified by the Monitoring Officer. Yes, the same Monitoring Officer who backed him up in claiming there had been no legionella traces found in any library when ... erm ...  there had been. 

Mr Hooton also asserted that the banners had only been put up because the council had a duty to inform residents why the libraries were closed. 

On the day of the election North Finchley library had the 'refurbishment' banner displayed next to the main sign that indicated the building was functioning as a polling station. The 'refurbishment' of the library banner was much bigger than the polling station sign, in fact. 

Mrs Angry made another complaint to the Presiding Officer, on the grounds that it was a breach of the regulations, clearly displaying politically influenced material at a polling station. Nothing happened, of course. All day and all night, voters went past it on their way in to the newly gutted children's library, now acting as the polling station.

The result for all three Barnet constituencies was perilously close. Anything which might have influenced voters may well have made all the difference to three marginal results: only three hundred in it in Chipping, for example.

General Election day, in North Finchley, at the newly gutted library, its former children's library acting as the polling station

Mrs Angry submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out when the 'refurbishment' banners had been requested, and authorised - and what a story is told by the response. Or at least - some of that story. As is often the case, in Broken Barnet, the most significant detail is in the documents that are not made available, as much as those that are.

Here are the facts disclosed by the FOI response: 

On the 1oth May, more than two and a half weeks after purdah was supposed to have begun, an email was sent to Katie Mayers, the head of 'Communications' for Barnet council, by an unknown 'Project Officer' (name redacted by Barnet Council) regarding a conversation with Val White, the 'Assistant Director, Partnership, Performance and Planning, Children's Service'  (her job title, don't blame me). Ms White had said she had discussed 'fast tracking' approval for the 'refurbishment' banners, and was asking for authorisation and printing as soon as possible.

We do not know with whom Ms White had discussed the fast tracking of approval for these banners. Which is a rather crucial piece of information, isn't it, readers?

On the 25th May, the banners were put up outside several libraries. That was exactly two weeks before polling day. And on the same day of an important hustings event in the Finchley and Golders Green campaign, one of several: one where according to a Labour councillor who was present, the issue of library cuts and closures caused a great deal of protest, which was met with a response from Tory councillors shouting about ... 'refurbishment' ... Just a coincidental use of the same term, Mrs Angry is quite certain. 

Does any of this matter? It might - if it was a breach of purdah; especially if it influenced a large enough number of voters - not many needed to affect the very marginal results. And we do know that the library cuts were an important issue in this election - and will be for the foreseeable future. 

If I were a Labour candidate who had stood in Barnet, this June, I would most certainly be making a formal complaint. 

Not only was the explanation on the banners not 'factually accurate' - the library closures were due to radical reconstruction work, reduction of library size, and the installation of machinery to take the place of staff, not some sort of redecoration and improvement of service - the explanation given that the council had a duty to inform residents also does not have any credibility. 

It might be the case that the authority should explain - truthfully - why the libraries were closed. But this should have happened not two weeks before the election, but when the branches were shut. 

The FOI response confirmed that most branches were shut months ago: North Finchley on February 6th, Golders Green on 13th February, East Finchley and Hendon on 11th April. Yet it was only on May 10th that a very senior officer suddenly decided that banners should go up - and that this idea should be 'fast tracked'. Why? 

Well: on Friday afternoon, being in Golders Green, Mrs Angry decided to wander down to the library to see how the 'refurbishment' there had gone. It was, after all, a place where she had worked, for several years, a long time ago, a time when the library was properly staffed, with several qualified librarians, including a children's librarian, as well as other trained members of staff, and even a caretaker. It was always busy, and much loved by local residents, especially in the Jewish community. 

Friday afternoons were always the busiest day, especially the afternoon, when families would queue up to borrow vast numbers of books for Shabbat: as many as six each for each child. The Chief Rabbi of the time, Rabbi Sachs, would queue up with everyone else, borrowing a balance of worthy tomes - and spy novels. 

Many of the older residents were Jewish refugees from Germany, or Poland: some were survivors of the Holocaust. Inspirational: fiercely intelligent, compassionate, and admirably stoic, they would come in several times a week, not just to borrow books, but to chat, to talk about their lives, your life, what they had read: what they had learned - the kind of indefinable, precious sort of interaction that cannot be measured in statistics, or in terms of value for money - but a form of point of human contact and support that only a public library offers. Offered, until the current crop of shambling Tory councillors decided to launch an all out war on the library service in this borough.

We arrived at Golders Green library at around four pm, on a Friday afternoon. Which should be its busiest time in the week. But this was the week when the newly 'refurbished' branch had re-opened, in what was supposed to be one of its 'technology enabled' days. That is to say, unstaffed: entry only by pin number, and automatic doors.

Except that no library with this new technology, robbed of its staff, is being allowed to operate as it is intended: no one present, and readers left to their own devices. They dare not run their  brave new system. It is simply too risky to do so, yet. It may prove too risky to run at all.

Outside the doors stood a security guard, very serious, pacing up and down. A nice man, only doing his job, but his presence gave a rather menacing air to the whole venture. 

Standing in the doorway, wearing a Barnet Libraries 'Here to Help' t shirt, (on the back it says, 'Here to Help, because I've sacked 46% of the staff that used to work here) was a senior officer, masquerading as a member of library staff - and a local library manager. As we approached, an orthodox Jewish resident with profound learning and physical disabilities was trying to understand the new DIY entry system. He was helped by the library manager. How would he cope in the future, gaining access, with no help outside or inside the library? 

It was hard enough for dyspraxic Mrs Angry, who struggled with the entry keypad and then nearly knocked herself out on the doors, which are cunningly designed to open outwards, so as to bang into anyone standing too near - dangerous and difficult to negotiate for anyone in a wheelchair, or pushing a buggy. 

Inside the library, someone asked the senior officer where was the loo. She hesitated, then showed her upstairs. Of course, when the staffless hours are in place and being run as they intend, there will be no access to any toilet facilities. It seems they also forgot to designate one for the use of staff - when staff are present, which won't be very often. 

There won't be any staff or anyone else to help you with anything when the DIY hours are working as intended: so - on your way in, do take time to read up on what to do if there is an emergency, like a fire. 

Note the misleading information given about emergency evacuation. Instructions given by staff? What staff? On the end of a telephone, while the fire blazes around you, or while you are being mugged? Who will help a disabled person escape in an emergency? How is the lack of provision for disabled access - including a non operational lift at Chipping - not a breach of equality laws? 

And a bit pointless, telling you how to get in to the unstaffed library, if you are not in already - unless you bring a pair of binoculars, and peer through the letter box.

Mrs Angry heard from staff at another library recently that a member of the public had been demanding to know how women could feel safe in an unstaffed library. She knew from her local gym, which has a self entry system, how vulnerable such an arrangement is to abuse - according to her a woman had been assaulted there, and drug dealing is common at night.

Also outside the library we had met a thirteen year old boy from Hasmonean school, who was very cross about the new entry system. He did not have a pin number for the new system: he couldn't, as no child under the age of sixteen is allowed unaccompanied in the new DIY libraries ... no matter - he tailgated us, as did another elderly woman, apparently also with a learning disability, who simply walked in. 

The boy was furious: he had written to his MP, Mike Freer, to tell him what he thought of the cuts to his library. And here was the library, 'technology enabled', staffless, on a Friday afternoon, of all times, he pointed out ... Mrs Angry suggested he and his parents also wrote to their local Tory councillors. If you live in Golders Green, you might like to do the same. 

The ease of tailgating proves how simple it will be for non registered readers to enter the unstaffed libraries, and pose a threat to others: there are a number of homeless library users, many of them with mental health, drug and alcohol abuse issues, who already require careful supervision by staff, who are themselves at risk, but are expected to deal with such problems with, at times, inadequate support from management. In one (barely) staffed library, apparently, not so long ago, a homeless library user hid in the building overnight: imagine the potential for similar incidents, once the unstaffed hours operate as they are intended to run.

Once we were inside the library, the boy looked around in disbelief. He wasn't the only one to react in this way. I was stunned by what I saw - by what they have done. Worse than stunned: angry, and tearful. 

The newly 'refurbished' Golders Green library - short on romance, or any other books, as you can see ...

My beautiful library, laid waste. Gutted, ransacked, emptied out: 'refurbished' with less consideration than the waiting room of an open prison, or a reception area in an industrial estate. 

What had once been the busiest day of the week was now represented by a handful of visitors, standing forlorn in an otherwise empty room.

Ghastly cheap furnishings, the barest minimum of books thrown into a handful of small, ugly metal bookcases, replacing almost all of the original oak lined shelving that was an integral part of the building's character, and history. But there was a worse act of vandalism. 

The front half of the library building had been designed as a children's library: a generous space, with walls of shelving, a wonderful refuge watched over by librarians who could see through the half windows. The shelves were stuffed full of books: so many there were always overflow trolleys groaning with excess stock. 

On a rare return visit a year or so ago, it was clear that as part of the Tory administration's war on books, the stock had been radically culled. Not only were the shelves not packed, there were gaps on every one, and even an entirely empty bookcase. 

Now the room itself had been emptied; hollowed out, like the rest of the library service, in line with the guiding principles of the easycouncil model: robbed of books, shelves, tables, chairs; stolen from the children of Golders Green.

Hiding in a corner of the room was the mysterious project manager - a consultant - whom I'd met at an 'nonsultation' session in North Finchley library, a year and a half ago: a session where he and a library manager pretended to listen to our views on what was then being disguised as a 'reshaping' of the service. 

The consultant project manager retreated to a far corner of the empty room, and clearly did not want to engage in conversation with Mrs Angry. 

Probably a wise decision. 

But then, he is a very busy man, after all, being, according to his Linkedin profile, a former one stop shop wedding service organiser, not to mention an 'entrepreneur, business angel, career interim executive, gap manager, and trouble shooter'. How does this qualify him to oversee the library cuts programme? Well: no shortage of gaps, or trouble to shoot, in Barnet Libraries, are there?

No, and  ... there may be trouble ahead. There will be trouble ahead.

I can't believe what you've done, I blurted out. This ... this is terrible

I was conscious that the room that used to be wrapped in a comforting insulation of those book lined shelves, tables and chairs, boxes and trolleys of books, had now developed an echo: my words hung in the air, magnified by the emptiness.

The project manager turned his back, and looked away.

In what remains of Golders Green library, in what was the adult section, they have created a token new area for children. A  tiny boxed off area, which defies description. It certainly cannot meet the description of a comprehensive library service for children, as defined in law - here is one half, the entire provision for younger readers:

The other half, which could not be photographed as there was a member of the public standing in the way, (yes, that is how small it is) consists of a few shelves with a grudgingly small number of paperback books for older children. A travesty of the definition of a library, the entire venture - with local children and families punished the hardest. 

Many people who have seen these photos on twitter (very widely retweeted) have commented that the children's area looks like a doctor's waiting room, or that there is more choice in a charity shop. Unfortunately, these are both pretty accurate observations. 

And apart from the lack of space, and the lack of reading material, where will story times, and parent and baby sessions take place? These were so popular, in an area with families with lots of babies and toddlers, that when they were held, there would be queues outside the door.

I stood for a moment and looked around, forcing back tears, thinking about my former colleagues. 

I thought about Miss P, the archetypal spinster librarian, a dedicated but deeply modest professional woman, who spent all her working life at this library, in a job she loved, and saw as a vocation, from the time when Eileen Colwell, the legendary pioneer of children's libraries, with an international reputation, was based at Hendon. 

Miss P died a few years ago. I was one of only five mourners at her funeral: no one from Barnet library management bothered to attend, or send flowers. Her forty year career as a librarian came and went, and no one noticed her final departure.

But she will be remembered - by the children she read stories to, and helped to choose books, and helped with their homework - and by the older readers who knew she would tell them when their favourite authors had written a new book, or how to apply for a bus pass, or where to go for legal advice, or would ask about their families, or their health, and be a point of continuity in what for many elderly people are lives lived largely in isolation, bereft of social contact.

Golders Green children's library - now destroyed by Barnet Tories. 
Pic credit Museum of London.

Hendon's library has also been virtually destroyed: reduced to a tiny gesture of service within its own building - the children's library also gutted, and emptied, waiting like Golders Green, and all the other branches, for commercial tenants who are no more than the figments of some overpaid consultant's imagination. 

Needless to say, Eileen Colwell's photograph has been removed from Hendon library. Wonder where it is now? Wonder what she would have had to say, to those responsible for this monstrous act of destruction? To Tory councillor and library head Reuben Thompstone, who has forced through these terrible cuts, and imposed a system that actively bars children from their own libraries, and replaces trained library staff with security guards, and a CCTV camera remotely controlled from Swansea?

(Not been a good week for Cllr Thompstone: an OFSTED report has condemned the performance of another part of his portfolio as Chair of the same committee that oversees libraries, the safeguarding and care of vulnerable children in Barnet - see here.)

Barnet Tory library cuts have been made on the pretext of savings, for less than a couple of million quid, a lie proven by the £14 million they are spending on the implementation of all this 're-shaping' of the service. A couple of million quid, which pales into infinitesimal insignificance when measured against the obscene level of fees churned out of us by the Capita contracts, and the many millions paid each month to consultants, and interim staff, and on new PR posts, or acts of largesse, like £500K gifts to the RAF Museum. 

The truth is that the Tory politicians in this borough - councillors and MPs - have nothing but contempt for the idea of public services, and for the public library system. 

They have never used a library, most of them are lacking in any intellectual capacity, and all of them are deeply materialist in outlook. If you cannot buy something, it is of no value to anyone. There is no profit to be made. The state must not be expected to provide anything for free: if you want to read a book - go to Waterstones and buy one. 

And information now is also a commodity: something that can be bought, and traded: controlled. It can be distorted, and reinvented, and printed on a banner.

The communication of information must appropriated by those in power, must be subject to political direction, or it poses too many risks to authority. 

No wonder Barnet Tories want to cut off access to education, to information, to the infinite possibilities of thought lying within the covers of a book. 

Reading and information educate us to challenge the status quo, and demand accountability from those who have power over us, when they seek to mislead us, or avoid the glare of scrutiny. 

Don't be fooled: arm yourself with knowledge, and defy their covert agenda. Broken Barnet is no longer a Tory stronghold, nor is this nation - and they know it: there may be a general election any time this year, and next year will see elections here for a new council. You have them cornered: and now is the time to fight back.


Anonymous said...

In the past few weeks my two year old daughter has started acting out journeys during which we 'go to the library' but it's closed. It isn't something we've put her up to. Clearly, she understands libraries to be places with locked doors, that she is kept out of.

Well done Barnet!

Anonymous said...

Not directly related to your post here, but wanted to make sure you have seen the recent inspection report on children's services. Inspection report - Barnet. Best wishes (not a Barnet resident or politician).

Mrs Angry said...

Yes, in fact there is a link in the post, thanks Anon.

Anonymous said...

Did you know the library space is no longer going to be rented out in order to get an income. Its going to be occupied by Capita.

Anonymous said...

Sitting in our local library study hall in Canada, I reminisced about my years studying in Hendon library (as a correspondence student). On a whim I thought I'd look Hendon library up on the internet. What I saw made me feel sick: The closure of the 1st and 2nd floor of Hendon library! - What!!?

I remember in 2001 to 2003 (when it was open, was closed because of refurbishment sometime round then) Hendon library's study room was full whenever exam time came around. People literally sitting on the floor because they didn't arrive early enough to procure a seat. Usually about March to June each year, and then a little less busy October to November. The point I'm making is, there are many people who have nowhere to study except at the local library. Studying at home is not productive, and full of distractions. I'd estimate daily there were about 60 people (school students + adults) all studying - at busy times - in Hendon library.

In my time at Hendon Library, I met qualified doctors, dentists, pilots, lawyers and accountants (like myself) studying hard preparing for whatever exams were coming up. Even here, in my local library I'm surrounded by at least 40 adults, of all ages, studying for something, and it's not even busy yet.

Because of having a quiet space to study productively in, I was luckily able to pass my exams, and because of that I earned good money to pay more than my fair share of taxes. Since passing my exams I alone have probably paid more in tax to the UK govt. than Capita want to earn in rent annually for the 1st and 2nd floor, and that's just me. Who knows how much collectively is earned by providing the facilities to allow people to study.

Are we going to see a serious brain drain in Barnet now, thanks to short-term money saving? How much will be forfeited in lost tax revenue? How much does London want to lose out vs other countries that provide these facilities? Is everyone with any ambition in Hendon expected to now study at the local Starbucks?

Where are all of Hendon's school students going to go when they need to prepare for their A level exams? It sounds like no research has been done on this whatsoever.