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.


Mr Mustard said...

Hey look at this Mrs Angry from the local Times newspaper of 26 May 2011. This is what Robert Rams had to say

“None of the Friern Barnet petitioners have made contact with me, but I would be happy to meet with them. I’m very interested in hearing any proposals coming forward from residents and library users during consultation.”

See what he said. "Any proposals", that's right, ANY proposals (sorry to shout) any, any at all, for anywhere, including the library itself, not just for in Friary Park. Any plan, anything, any place, any time, anywhere, any idea you like.

Are you reading this Robert?

Any, any, any, any, any, any

I think he has the idea now.

Mrs Angry said...

mmm: well, he may have said he would be happy to hear ANY proposals, but he didn't say he would take ANY notice, did he, Mr Mustard?

Remember what Cllr Coleman is quoted as saying in his hearing report: 'I shall not be taking any notice of your views'. This is quite normal for councillors in Broken Barnet, after all, is it not? They make the decisions, then they consult us,and then they do what they know is best for us, who know no better.

Mrs Angry said...

... and congratulations to Kate Salinger who tonight has been voted deputy Mayor, to new Mayor Brian Schama. This result is a clear slap in the face for the Colemanite tendency in the Tory group, and might be interpreted as another indication of dissent amongst the timorous councillors.