Saturday 26 February 2011

Avenue House Update

On Thursday evening there was a meeting at Avenue House attended by around forty or more local residents, the manager of the estate, and three other trustees, including the Chairman of the Trust. Mrs Angry sent her trusty sidekick, Mrs X, to attend, and report back.

Unfortunately, she tells me, there were no other members of the board, or any of the local councillors present. This is very surprising. Avenue House is an enormously important local resource, and much loved by the local community. Apart from the historic house and outbuildings, including the controversially unused Bothy, the grounds, gardens, and play areas are a vital - and under appreciated - feature of the estate. One might expect the local councillors, Conservatives Eva Greenspan, Graham Old, and Daniel Thomas, to show some sort of interest in its welfare. Perhaps they did not receive an invitation. To be fair, we hear that Graham Old at least has done some leafleting on behalf of the appeal for funds from local residents.

It was clear from the start of the meeting that there was a lack of rapport between the management of the Estate and the majority of the residents present. The estate representatives were there to ask for money, and for fund raising ideas, but many residents were there to express their sense of disappointment with aspects of the way in which the estate is run, and to ask for a greater involvement in the management by the wider community.

At times the mood of the meeting, which took place in the large Victorian drawing room, watched over by a wary looking portrait of old Inky Stephens himself, threatened to crack through the very English veneer of barely repressed animosity into something a little less civilised, rather like a more than usually surreal episode of Midsomer Murder, or Rosemary & Thyme, an impression enhanced by the presence, amongst the residents, of a couple of locals who happen to be tv actors, with oddly familiar faces. Happily, the evening passed without bloodshed, or the discovery of a body in the shrubbery, but it was a close run thing.

After questioning one of the board about the involvement of the council in negotiations for extra funding: (apparently refused, in no uncertain terms), it became apparent to Mrs X that there has been an element of scaremongering in certain quarters. The council does not want to take back the estate and be lumbered with the responsibility. And guess what, dear readers? A naughty councillor was alleged to have stated at a social function, no doubt with a plate of canapes in one hand, that 'private schools were queuing up' to move in to the building.

This is a load of codswallop.

Yes, it is true that if funding is not urgently secured, the estate could end up reverting to the council. And we all know, don't we, that our shameless Tory council would be happy to flog off any of our heritage that isn't nailed down? But for such a major Grade 2 listed building and grounds, left by bequest to the people of Finchley, to be sold, and then allowed to become used as a school is a nonsense, and I do not believe for one moment that such an eventuality would be allowed. It may close, however, and could become a boarded up building, surrounded by inaccessible grounds. The truth is that our philistine council does not want to reclaim the estate, and will do what it can to evade any responsibility, other than give the financial help it needs.

What has happened at Avenue House is a perfect example of why the Big Society claptrap is such a fantasy, and totally impractical: you cannot expect well meaning amateurs to perform a professional function and take responsibility for such enormous projects, especially without any support or funding, in this case, from the local authority. It is unfair, and on a scale of this size, quite unreasonable.

That said, we all need now to support the management of the estate in the current crisis, and ensure that emergency funding is found from any available source. Pressure should be put on the council to assist: if there is no money available from local budgets then they can still be involved by helping the estate management to identify alternative sources, whether from local businesses, Lottery funding, or from some private foundation. Some of the trust members are under the impression that most local residents can easily afford regularly to donate large sums of money to solve the situation: if you can, then do so, and do it quickly, but most of us can't, and should not be expected to, especially in the current economic situation. It should also be said that the local community will expect greater openness and accountability for any financial support it is able to offer.

Despite the criticisms raised at the meeting by local residents, it must be acknowledged that the current administration has worked with little support to keep Avenue House going since 2002. It can't have been easy, and it is easy to criticise, and those that do must be prepared to help turn things around.

It was evident that everyone present really cared about the future of the house and grounds, and wanted to help secure the future of this unique historical property. The Friends of Avenue House group has been relaunched, and many of those present have volunteered to join and do their bit to help. This estate is our legacy, and we must all work to try to preserve and protect it : that's what Inky Stephens intended, and it is our responsibilty to make sure that we pass his legacy on to future generations.

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