Wednesday 29 February 2012

The library that refused to die: Friern Barnet, and the fight to keep it open

Kate Salinger

Tory Councillor Kate Salinger sat down at the table facing the scrutiny committee, and addressed the subject of the decision to close her local public library in Friern Barnet.

'I bitterly resent,' she began, ' that I must speak out against the party I am a member of. I have no wish to be disloyal, but this goes against everything I believe to be right ...'

Mrs Angry sat up. Here again, uniquely amongst her Conservative colleagues, Kate Salinger was following the promptings of her conscience, and had decided publicly to oppose a major policy decision agreed upon by the Tory cabinet.

She spoke clearly, and with determination.

She told us that only two years ago she had been assured that Friern Barnet Library would not be closed.

She told us she herself had accused Labour councillors of scaremongering, when they had suggested such an eventuality.

She had thought the library was safe: this was not so.

In her area, she had seen the former Friern Barnet town hall closed and sold off, the fire station, and now the library was threatened.

She was fed up trying to defend council strategy. Soon there will be no town centre at all.

Why must the library close? She could see no good reason. Send the decision back to Cabinet she demanded - or at the very least, keep it going until the new services promised in the Arts Depot were ready.

She received thunderous applause from the residents in the public seating, of course.

This was where the rebellion began.

Libdem councillor Jack Cohen, as usual, posed the most acute question. Could Cllr Salinger tell us who had assured her that Friern Barnet library would not close?

She could. She did.

It was Councillor Robert Rams. The Cabinet member who was closing Friern Barnet library.

Earlier in the meeting, residents had looked at the written answers to a series of awkward questions to the committee, and asked supplementary questions.

For Councillor Robert Rams this had proved to be an uncomfortable experience.

There were many very good questions - about the contradictory nature of the reasons given for the decision, or complaining about the misleading process which the campaigners felt they had been duped into following.

A boy called Finlay Howe Watson had asked:

Why are the poorer children in Friern Barnet losing their library while the much richer children in Hampstead Garden Suburb get to keep theirs. It seems really unfair as lots of my friends parents don't speak English as a first language and when I go to their houses they don't have many books. I live in Friern Barnet not Hampstead Garden Suburb.

And Mrs Angry must confess to enjoying the question from Joanne Fryer which asked:

Cllr Rams has stated that the sale of Friern Barnet Library means that Barnet will be able to buy 'better books'. Does this mean that Barnet's chief librarian was not buying very good books before or that Clllr Rams will speak to authors and publishers and encourage them to make their productions better?

Oh, how that made Mrs Angry laugh. Well done.

The answer was:

Councillor Rams has never read a book, but if he had, he would have bought it on Amazon, and not borrowed one from a library, and it would probably be something by Enid Blyton, maybe 'Famous Five have Plenty of Fun', therefore he is unable to comment on what may or may not constitute a 'better book'.

Or something like that.

Mrs Angry has just remembered that one of the questioners asked Robert Rams if he appreciated the historic value of the library building. The man responsible for the design of this library was a W T Curtis, a 'Metroland' architect of the 1930s, who worked largely for Middlesex County Council and created some fabulous public buuldings, including a range of modernist schools and this clinic -see here not so far away from Friern Barnet. It is incredible to think that the library, built in a more traditional style, but still a beautiful building, and in keeping with the character of the area, could be demolished and this site, opposite the former Colney Hatch Asylum, developed and built on. The library has been valued, Mrs Angry understands, at around £400,000, which seems a remarkably low estimation, if true.

Now then. Just between the public questions and the return to the library issue, there had been a very interesting outbreak of dissidence amongst the committee in regard to the infamous parking scheme. The committee had been presented with a residents petition with several thousand signatures asking for the reversal of the idiotic and hugely damaging new payment system and level of charges.

In the absence of He Who Must Be Obeyed, Cabinet member Brian Coleman, even the Tory councillors, with the exception of Maureen Braun, who said nothing all evening and appeared to doze off during the proceedings, were keen to demonstrate that they were actually, shhh, in agreement with residents over the parking disaster, now that even the most stupid Tory members of possibly the most stupid Tory council in England had realised that they have lost the vote of every driver in Broken Barnet. More on this tomorrow, but the Tories were sailing in uncharted seas of rebellion tonight, and a vast ocean of possibilities had opened up for them to explore.

Councillors John Marshall, and even Brian Gordon, were really very naughty, by Tory standards. John Marshall, of course has read a few books and Brian Gordon always tells us he loves libraries, and that his children spend all their time in them (can't imagine why, can you?). John Marshall was showing off, perhaps - look at me, being bad - he was sneaking lots of looks at Mrs Angry tonight, actually, the old fox. Mrs Angry thinks perhaps, you know, the date being the 29th February & all that ... he might have been holding out some fond hopes ... *

Brian Salinger always says what he thinks anyway. Rowan Turner was slightly less than happy at this new turn of events, being used to being a good boy and doing as Uncle Brian tells him, but even he dares not be seen as a library killer.

Cllr Gordon tried to get away with not being too disobedient, at first. He said that sadly he thought that we couldn't get the decision to close Friern Barnet library changed.

Why not? asked Kate Salinger.

Labour's Cllr Rawlings challenged the accuracy of the costings in the report.

Rather amusingly, neither Rams nor any of the officers seemed able to defend the report's analysis with any confidence, and kept trying to shift the responsibility for an explanation from one to the other: I think you might like to answer this, Mr X: no, no - please, go ahead, Mr Y ...

Rams then proceeded to upset residents by blaming them for the failure of their doomed attempt to keep the library open. Residents hurled insults at him, suggesting, erm, let me paraphrase, that his version of the truth differed to an extreme degree from theirs. Mr S, the old boy who always attends meetings but sits through them reading the Morning Star, and making wicked insinuations about the class enemy councillors, suggested from behind his paper that it might be time for a prayer session.

Rams claimed he had been nothing but open and honest. Picture the response from the residents. Jack Cohen made one of his significant faces at Mrs Angry - look: like this, see - and asked Rams when he had given his assurance to Kate Salinger that the library would stay open.

Robert explained it was two years ago, and that the Labour government, which is to blame for anything and everything that is, or has been, or will be bad in the world, from the beginning of time itself, into the foreseeable, and even the unforeseeable future - and beyond, had .... oh forced him, Robert Rams, into making this painful decision.

Mind you, to be fair, I still blame Margaret Thatcher for most things, don't you?

Anyway - I'm getting tired now, so will hurry this along. Er ... Jack asked, did you give council officers permission to negotiate (because the campaigners were told this was not possible). Rams said yes, he had. Absolutely. Rubbish, they yelled.

Then the arguments started now over the fact that the library will close before we have any real sign of the vaguely promised new library that must be squeezed somewhere into the Arts Depot.

Brian Salinger spoke about the closure. He stated that 'the credibility of this council is at stake here' ... This surprised Mrs Angry, as she had not realised that the council still had any credibility at all. He expressed his amazement that there had been no feasability study, that no architects had been commissioned. He proposed that they should agree to recommend that Friern Barnet stay open at least until there was hard evidence of the Arts Depot scheme starting.

More arguments then, and much confusion ensued over the exact wording of any such proposal.

Rams and the officers were floundering, outnumbered and unable to divert the catastrophic course of the meeting. He protested that he had to find the savings from somewhere. Mrs Angry suggested that the council might consider not paying so many consultants ( thinking, for example, of the £40K paid last year to a company giving members of the Deputy Chief Executive's department coaching in their 'performance' skills. Presumably in an executive sense, not as chilled out entertainers.)

At this point Mr S, who had been unable to restrain himself from lobbing a couple of well deserved insults over the edge of the Morning Star in the direction of the Tory councillors, was told to leave by the Chair, who had lost his temper. Leave him alone, you bully, said someone. Ok, it was me. Mr S got up, and said, well, I'm off, clearly relieved to be going, picking up his two enormous carrier bags and remarking to the Labour members, rather hurt, 'Last time you offered to leave, if I was thrown out ...'

At last the committee agreed to refer the issue back to Cabinet, and recommend that the library stay open until such time as comparable facilities are available at the Arts Depot.

The residents were delighted. A small victory perhaps, but significant. It demonstrated that the solidarity of the Tory group is beginning to crack. True, the scrutiny committee is not whipped, but even so, it was clear that the Tories are desperate to disassociate themselves from Brian Coleman and his disastrous parking scheme, and also are deeply worried by the consequences of shutting a library.

And how much more civilised it was to have some sort of genuine debate, and cross party cooperation, and a demonstration that the opinions of the residents of this borough do account for something after all.

In the last few days much publicity has been given to the arrogant dismissal by Coleman of the views of constituents. It rather looks, however, that he is increasingly isolated and marginalised within his own party grouping in Barnet. Mrs Angry hears that the backbenchers are beginning to find the courage to ignore his attempts to control the direction of council policy. Last night he cut rather a lonely figure, exiting the Town Hall on his own, passing a group of residents and bloggers outside with an expression of contempt.

On a radio chat show this week Coleman declared that: “If people want to change things in this country, they have to do it through the ballot box.

May 2012: the elections for the London Assembly. Mrs Angry suggests you take the opportunity to change things for the better, and kick him out of office.

*Oh: yes, about the 29th February. Mrs Angry did make a tentative suggestion to a certain person, but it seems that it was one that was not entirely welcomed. Gutted.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Exclusive: protest group reported to be planning staged demo in support of Brian Coleman

On Monday there will be a hearing at Hendon Town Hall which will consider two related complaints about the behaviour last year of Tory councillor and Cabinet member, Brian Coleman, in which he has been alleged to have breached the code of conduct for members of the authority by making a series of remarks in email correspondence with constituents. You may care to take a look at the report here.

Mrs Angry will write a fuller account of the report but there is one rather worrying development to report which needs some explanation, so here is a summary.

Coleman has been accused of breaching the code of conduct for members of the council after sending a number of emails to these residents, in response to an issue concerning the commercial involvement of the global company Veolia with the North London Waste Authority. Veolia has had business interests in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and several members of the public had sent emails to Coleman to voice their objections to Veolia's possible involvement with the NLWA, in perfectly polite and reasonable terms, exercising their right to raise such concerns with their elected representative.

Coleman sent responses to four of these residents which they found so distressing that they consequently made formal complaints to the Standards Committee. Two of these have been investigated, and the investigators findings are that he did indeed breach the code of conduct, paragraph 3(1) - 'You must treat others with respect' in the case of Ron Cohen and Dr Jago, and additionally was in breach of paragraph 5 - 'You must not conduct yourself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing your office or authority into disrepute'.

To one woman, Dr Charlotte Jago, the investigator's report tells us, point 5.5.4:

'He equated anti-Zionism to anti Semitism and finished 'I suppose seventy years ago you would have been in the blackshirts' ...

To the other complainant, a Mr Ron Cohen, when informed that he happens to be an Israeli, Coleman remarked: 'A disloyal one at that' and then 'Doesn't take much to flush you out,' ... see point 5.6.6.

The investigator describes the lack of cooperation by the member with his enquiries, and then tells us that Coleman accused him of 'bullying and harrassing him'. 5.7.9

The investigator's comments are quite extraordinarily damning.

On the part of the complaint by Dr Jago, and the reference to blackshirts, he states that Coleman's reply was:

'personally offensive, abusive, demeaning, and designed to cause hurt and distress to the recipient'

As regards the replies to Ron Cohen, Coleman is described as crossing the line into 'deliberately personal, offensive and insulting abuse'. 5.6.8

Further more the investigator states that Coleman 'would have known that the language of his replies would cause hurt and distress to an Israeli and that he was being personally offensive, abusive and demeaning.'

The investigator's findings will be addressed by the committee and the respondant, ie Councillor Coleman in proceedings on Monday, where no doubt Councillor Coleman will present a robust defence of his actions, and dispute the conclusions made in this report.

Amongst the other remarks quoted by the investigator, Coleman is noted as claiming 'In my book, anti-Zionism is the same as anti-semitism'.

You might wonder what book Brian Coleman is reading from. Is he Jewish? No. Does he speak in behalf of the Jewish community? No. Does he feel himself to be loved and respected by the entire Jewish community? He does. Is he deluding himself? Yes.

Is anti Zionism the same as anti semitism? It can be. Whether or not it is always so is a difficult and sensitive issue, and this is not the time to debate it. This accusation is anyway irrelevant here, as neither Dr Jago nor Ron Cohen have made anti Zionist remarks, and to imply this is simply offensive and insulting, especially in the case of Mr Cohen. If you look at the report you will see that both complainants are objecting specifically to a particular issue, and to make a criticism of a policy or action of the Israeli state is not the same as being an anti Zionist. To take this false accusation even further and accuse these people of anti semitism is simply preposterous and highly offensive.

Anti semitism is repellant, vile and always objectionable. Equally objectionable is the use of baseless acusations of anti semitism for political purposes, or in order to discredit an individual. Here is the widely recognised legal definition of antisemitism:

And here is the worrying development.

Mrs Angry has been sent a copy of what appears to be an 'invitation' made by a leader of a controversial activist group which targets alleged 'anti Zionists' to followers to hold 'a massive demonstration of support for Coleman' outside the Town Hall on Monday.

In rather intemperate language, for example referring to 'the Israel hating Forces of Darkness', this call for action claims it has been requested to do this by certain parties, and urges its followers to brandish placards declaring 'Supporting Brian', Backing Brian' and 'Brian is right'.

Of course this would be highly amusing where it not for the fact that such a protest could be viewed as deliberate intimidation of the complainants and also members of the committee, some of whom are themselves Jewish.

Mrs Angry imagines that Councillor Coleman will wish to disassociate himself from any such demonstration and will be happy to publish any such statement in which he does so.

In the meanwhile, she has sent a copy of this invitation to the council, and asked them to investigate the alleged planned demo, and to take the appropriate action in order to allow the hearing to proceed without disruption or any personal targeting of those involved.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Change and Decay in all around we see, and A Tale of Two Barnets

So anyway, there we were, last Sunday, Mrs Angry and daughter, wandering about in Highgate Cemetery - and yes, for those readers concerned that I spend too much time sitting in graveyards feeling glum: you're not wrong, but this is as exciting as my life gets these days, and it is still less depressing than sitting in the Town Hall among the undead Tory councillors of Broken Barnet. Or at home. And there is something oddly symbolic of the state of things generally, at the moment, in an overgrown graveyard, that rather lends one to melancholy musings on change and decay in all around we see.

Miss Angry was photographing graves, for her A level coursework, dressed as usual in an interesting combination of biker girl meets Audrey Hepburn, and totally inappropriate for a Victorian cemetery.

'I don't understand it,' said Mrs Angry ... 'I know that Karl Marx is buried here, we've walked round twice, how have we managed to miss him?' *

'Karl who?' asked Miss Angry, with a shrug.

There was a long silence from her mother. Then:

'Are you winding me up?' demanded Mrs Angry, a letter to Michael Gove re national history syllabus rapidly forming in her mind.

Mrs Angry got hold of her daughter by the ear and frog marched her out of the cemetery gates and back up Highgate Hill with a stern lecture on the history of socialism, class struggle, dialectical materialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

By the time we got to the top of the hill, Miss Angry was begging for mercy, I can tell you.

*(This Sunday Mrs Angry and daughter went to Abney Park Cemetery, in Stoke Newington, and missed the grave of James 'Bronterre' O'Brien, the Chartist leader. There may well now follow a weekly series of visits to graveyards where Mrs Angry and daughter argue, get lost, and then fail to find the last resting place of other famous pioneers of social reform and great political thinkers.)

As we crossed over the border, back into Broken Barnet, Mrs Angry was pondering the difference between her teenage and twenty something years, and the political activities our generation were involved in, with the attitudes of our own children. Our generation had the great blessing of years of a Tory government and the reign of terror of Mrs Thatcher, of course, and this was pretty much all we needed to provoke the raising of our political consciousness. Our children have, until recently, had the misfortune of living through a Tory lookalike Labour government and years of a stultifyingly boring political scene, and so have been deprived of the same stimulus.

But things are changing, and although Miss Angry and her fellow students may not, as we did, understand the wider context, or the historical context, they are certainly aware of the impact of the radicalism of the Coalition government's agenda of the last two years, and this is going to be felt in any future elections. The whole issue of the cost of student loans has had a salutory effect on any young voter, and locally, here in Broken Barnet, there is nothing but contempt for the Tory administration. Much of this contempt is inspired by the idiocy of the likes of Brian Coleman (or is that just in my household, where, predictably, he is a figure of ridicule ..?) but it is also true that the realities of life in this borough bestow the perfect education for any young student of politics.

Last week's decision by our Tory council to shut a much loved library in Friern Barnet, a Labour voting area, whilst agreeing happily to retain the toytown library in the hugely affluent, Tory voting area of Hampstead Garden Suburb speaks eloquently of the rapidly widening gap between the haves and have nots of Broken Barnet, and the polarisation of opinions between the main body of the electorate, and the cabal of Tory tyrants who run this council, and their wealthy backers. Totteridge and Garden Suburb are looked after very carefully by their Tory councillors - and MPs.

The gulf between the privileged and the disadvantaged has been growing for some time, as demonstrated by studies such as the league tables of areas of social deprivation. And since the Tory administration was returned two years ago, the One Barnet agenda has pushed the two separate communities living here further and further apart.

And yes, there are effectively two communities here now. There is one fortunate, comfortably placed Barnet, living in Tory wards, whose children go to the best, usually selective schools which are so well thought of. This Barnet is not so reliant on the overburdened healthcare provision, largely based anyway, in the better off areas of the borough, because this Barnet has private healthcare to fall back on when they need to jump the queue to see a consultant about any medical problem. This Barnet is not reliant on the social care that has been offered by our council services, just being flogged off, or rather given away to the circling vultures of the private sector.

The other Barnet, the Barnet without means, the residents on low incomes, our elderly, our vulnerable children, the disabled, the refugee populations, the ethnic minorities, most living in the twilight world of social housing or at the mercy of short term but high cost private rental arrangements, cannot afford to move into the catchment areas for the minority of decent state schools. Take a trip over to the Barnet Eye blog to read this guest post from a resident who can give you a glimpse of this Barnet, if you like:

This Barnet's access to healthcare requires long distance journeys to hospitals across the other side of the borough. This Barnet of the dispossessed will only be allowed to apply for social housing if they are morally suitable, if they can persuade our Tory councillors that they have contributed in a 'positive' way to their communities. If they ever manage to attain such accommodation, they will not be allowed to settle there, and establish a permanent home, because our Tory councillors think this will discourage 'aspiration', and because the thought of being evicted if they fail to maintain a morally worthy life style will, it is thought, keep the feckless, undeserving poor on their toes, and teach them to be more like our Tory councillors, who are all of them fine, upstanding, honest and hard working members of society, as we know from their declarations of interest - don't we?

Back to the same theme, then: One Barnet, two Barnets. And hello: what do we have here?

Film maker Charles Honderick has made a thirty minute documentary about the state of things in our rotten borough. It's called 'A Tale of Two Barnets' and features a wide range of residents, including possibly some bloggers, and even the Leader of the council and Chief Executive, talking about how they view things here and now. There will be a premiere at the Phoenix, East Finchley on 19th March, 6-8pm, all are welcome ... oh, and Mrs Angry will be sitting in the dark with her hands over her eyes, praying that her bit is on the cutting room floor.

Britains's finest political film maker, Ken Loach, director of so many masterpieces of cinema and television - Cathy Come Home, Up the Junction, Kes, The Wind that Shakes the Barley (one for you, Boris, stuffed full of Fenians) and so many others, has filmed an introduction to Charles' film. Take a look.