Thursday, 5 April 2012

A showcase to the world: how to kill a library, Broken Barnet style

#occupyfb ... the residents fight back - pics courtesy Barnet Press

Two Barnet Council committee meetings last night: Cabinet, and Cabinet Resources. The Cabinet committee was scheduled for an hour. Most of that hour was taken up by public question time: in total there were 76 questions, all addressing the same issue: the closure of Friern Barnet Library. Many of the written answers to these questions were followed with supplementary questions put to the committee by local residents who were extremely distressed by the impending loss of their much loved library and still hoped, against all the odds, to persuade the Tory Cabinet to rescind or at least delay the closure. One by one they took their turn at the table.

Some residents queried the process which had led up to the decision to close, and the pretence sustained over nearly a year by Councillor Rams that 'negotiations' for the establishment of a community library had any chance whatsoever of succeeding. Others asked why there had still been no feasability study in regard to the promised new library at the North Finchley Arts Depot. One woman pointed out that the council had already spent £100,000 on a consultant's study which concluded such a proposal was not viable.

Cabinet chair and Leader Richard Cornelius inexplicably commented that no, really the council had only received 'anecdotal' advice that a library could not be fitted into the Arts Depot.

'£100,000, for anecdotal advice?' yelled an angry resident, who is clearly unfamiliar with the millions of pounds of our money thrown at consultants of every conceivable type on the slightest pretext by the leadership and senior management of Barnet Council.

A woman sat down next and reminded Councillor Rams that later this month the Olympic Torch relay will pass by what will be the boarded up building of Friern Barnet Library. What did he think this edifying sight will tell the world about our borough? Rams as usual, when cornered, became a sulky school boy and blurted out some nonsense about the world realising how wonderful the council was to spend so much money on new books and new libraries - yes, those invisible ones. We will be, he asserted, a showcase to the world.

Hmm, thought Mrs Angry. Like one of those useless bookcases - or cabinets - from IKEA that you spend three days knocking up and then walk into the room the next morning to find in pieces all over the living room floor.

Another resident, Mr Merchant, posed the idea that the Cabinet councillors were rather like a team from The Apprentice, whose failed strategy had brought them back to the boardroom, pointed his finger at Councillor Robert Rams, and informed him, on behalf of the residents of Friern Barnet, that he was fired. As he finished his parting remarks, Councillor Coleman decided to interrupt, and told him in his typically rude manner 'you've had your answer ... 'and then, according to Mr Mustard, although Mrs Angry, whose hearing is intermittently unreliable, cannot believe this is true, told him to 'clear off'. Oh dear.

*Update, in fact, we have looked at the recording of the meeting and we can tell you that - well, wait and see ... you will be horrified.

Mr Merchant thanked him for displaying his usual good manners.

Another resident, Mr Rurangirwa, was asked very carefully by the chair how he pronounced his name, as if it was beyond the comprehension of any middle class Tory councillor living in Broken Barnet. Sadly, it may well be beyond the comprehension of most middle class Tory councillors living in Broken Barnet. Mr Rurangwira looked bemused and continued with his supplementary question. He is a single parent with five children, and relies on the resources offered by his local library. He asked how a pregnant woman or parent with small children could be expected to walk, as suggested, or struggle on a bus to get to the nearest alternative library.

The next resident had a visual impairment. He was able, just about, to get to his local library, which he needed to be able to borrow large print books, and expressed his deep sense of anxiety at the thought of the difficulties he and other residents with disabilities would have in reaching another library.

Tirza Waisel pointed out the impact on residents who relied on the proximity of this library as a place to visit, in order to counteract the loneliness and isolation that is too common for many elderly people.

A little girl called Hannah approached the table, and really, you would have had to have a heart of stone not to be touched by what she had to say: couldn't they all see what an amazing difference to their lives a library makes - please listen, she asked, sweetly, before getting up and walking away sadly. Of course the Tory Cabinet members do have hearts of stone, so she was wasting her time.

Richard Cornelius commented that 'libraries are about the things that are done, rather than where they are done', which is simply not true, unless you make the assumption that everyone has a car and full mobility and equal access.

The best speech came from a young boy called Oscar. Addressing a committee is a daunting experience for anyone, but he was simply brilliant: he took the written response to his question regarding the 18 roads that must be crossed on the way to North Finchley, and expertly deconstructed their arguments, and asked them ' why can't you see children will not be able to get there?

Cornelius applauded his 'eloquence', as did we all, and expressed his view that shutting Friern Barnet library was for the greater good, a necessary sacrifice. Oscar was not impressed.

Two councillors now sat together at the table: Tory Brian Salinger, and Labour's Barry Rawlings. The fact that they were united on this issue tells you how controversial the closure is, and that opposition to it is intense.

Councillor Rams has promised that he will one day produce a 'landmark library'. Salinger pointed out that no one seems to know what this means, including Rams, and questioned the viability of such plans. Rawlings agreed and said that it was all very well for him to claim he was not closing a library but 'merging' it, when there was nothing for it to merge into.

Cornelius said about the landmark library that he 'believed' that it would happen, in a rather wistful way, as if he was trying to convince himself of the possibility, just as a small girl might want to believe in fairies, or the possibility that Justin Bieber was coming round for tea.

Uh oh, time for Brian Coleman to muscle in. He and Salinger are old enemies, of course.

Coleman claimed that Salinger hasn't complained about the closure before in public, which is rubbish, and then alleged that he had seen him 'voting for closure often enough'. Salinger looked perplexed - 'I don't think I ever have', and talked about a certain Tory colleague who had promised that Friern Barnet Library would not close.

'Which councillor was that?' called out a member of the public

'Robert Rams', came the reply, to the scorn of all residents present.

Cornelius, who dislikes unpleasantness, and bad things, and arguments, tried to bring the whole nasty business to an end, and summarised by astutely noting that they were being asked to think again about the closure. Councillor Harper put his oar in then - he really is such a stirrer - and pointed out that no, actually they were simply being asked to postpone the period of closure.

And so then they took a vote and agreed, agreed, agreed to close the library without any further delay, the next day, at four pm.

And so, after 78 years of serving the people of Friern Barnet, a library built with funding from the charity started by the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was closed by a bunch of unscrupulous Tory councillors who, as one of their Labour colleagues pointed out, know the price of nothing, and the value of nothing.

In Broken Barnet, a library is not a community centre, a place of education and a resource for local residents: it is a building and a plot of land, ripe for development.

End of story.

Well, no: it wasn't quite the end of the story, was it?

As you can see from the photos, this morning a group of residents came to Friern Barnet Library sat down, and refused to leave. As I write they are occupying the building, locked in by Barnet council.
the occupation as it began

What is happening today is an unprecedented act of rebellion by residents. Mrs Angry certainly cannot recall any incident quite like this. The BBC are on their way, and a large crowd is gathering outside.and are determined to stay until they have made their voices heard, and the Tory councillors are forced to listen.

This is about our borough, our services, our community: Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, if you don't understand what you are hearing, you need to stand down now, make way for an election, and let the voters show you exactly what it all means.

Part Two and updates later

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