Tuesday 26 June 2012

Detrimental Clutter: Another Residents Forum

Park Keeper's Cottage, Victoria Park

*Updated, see below

Mrs Angry has had a trying day.

She would like to tell you the story about being menaced by a rat this afternoon, and use it as a suitable metaphor for this evening's Residents Forum, chaired by Councillor Reuben Thompstone, but she is mindful of the fact that she has used this device similarly in the past, when attending a meeting at the Town Hall, shortly after encountering a giant rat in the bakery section at Tesco. Hmm.

You probably wouldn't want to know, anyway, about the traumatic hour - the worst experience of MY LIFE, according to Mrs Angry's daughter, who has inherited her mother's tendency to exaggerate slightly - the hour Mrs Angry and Miss Angry spent shrieking and running about and throwing water at our idiotic cat who was tormenting the terrified rat, who then had the gall to sit on a window ledge and stare rudely at us in the kitchen.

Miss Angry locked the door. It was pointed out that this was probably unnecessary.

I thought rats were supposed to be clever, said Miss Angry. What? No. Not that clever, my darling. Then, she said, with her usual interesting perspective on things - what about all those experiments they do? ... I think, said her mother, that it is the scientists who do the experimenting, Miss Angry. Wrong way round, see. Or maybe she's right. Are the rats conducting experiments on us? We all think we are the ones in charge of the agenda, don't we, but sometimes it can be difficult to tell who is really running the show.

Ha, there you go - and here we are at the residents Forum, the faux Forum, where residents may speak only when spoken to, and may not ask anything which upsets councillors, who are supposed to be accountable to residents, but refuse to be. We are the rats, see, and they are the scientists. They have escaped from the lab, and are sitting on our window ledge, staring rudely at us with ill concealed menace. Ok, now I'll stop.

This rambling is because I don't really want to write about the meeting at all, as the whole bloody thing is so offensive to anyone who really cares about local democracy and the need for a real engagement between the community and our elected representatives.

This evening's meeting was sparsely attended by residents. Hardly surprising - the Forums are not advertised, and are deliberately held at 6pm to deter attendance.

There appeared to be more Labour councillors present than anyone else, to be frank. Cllrs Houston, Hutton, Tierney, Cooke, Schneiderman and Mittra, and Libdem Cllr Jack Cohen. No Tory councillors at all could be bothered to turn up, other than the pompous Chair, Reuben Thompstone, who appears to think he is presiding over a trial of Cockney barrow boys in the High Court, circa 1897, and his sidekick, Cllr Graham Old.

Where were you, Tory councillors? Of course Finchley Church End councillors John Thomas and Eva Greenspan never show their faces, which is a blessing, in many respects, but Harper, Marshall, Dean and Melvin Cohen? The latter came for the environment meeting later, but this turn out shows you the attitude they have towards the process of engagement with their own constituents.

Mrs Angry had submitted several questions, just to show willing. Two of them were, as she anticipated, censored and withheld:

1. Why has the Chair of the Forum refused a request sent to him by me after the last but one Forum asking him to explain how the new Forum rules, censoring the topics we may raise, are compatible with the government's localism agenda?

2. Since Councillor Coleman has been replaced as Cabinet member responsible for environmental issues have his plans to hire out our local parks and greenspaces been dropped, or will these proposals go ahead? If the plans are to go ahead, local residents would like to hire Victoria Park for a large party to celebrate the recent election of Andrew Dismore as our Assembly member, but clearly we would need to know if this is now possible.

First one barred, of course, because it is guilty of the greatest heretical sin in One Barnet: raising a question of 'policy', and no 2, well, apparently this issue was discussed at the last Forum, and may not be raised again in six months. Mrs Angry imagines that the park hire scheme was discussed, rather than the party to celebrate Brian Coleman's downfall, as that was then not even a twinkle in her naughty blogger's eye ...

So the rest were actually ok, genuine questions on yes, public works.

3. a.At a Cabinet meeting last night, the Finchley Church End Town Centre Strategy was approved by members, but Councillor Thomas remarked that 'we must be realistic as to how this is funded'. Has any new funding been allocated to the strategy, and if not, what chance is there that the recommendations contained within the report will be implemented, or any real benefit seen in the area concerned?

b. In the report, there are references to the detrimental and 'unnecessary clutter' of advertising and signage in the Finchley area.

The body responsible for this clutter in the first place is the London Borough of Barnet: why was this allowed to happen?

Why should tax payers now be expected to pay for the removal of signs and advertising which should not have been erected?

Can you confirm that questions in regard to the legality of the contract with street furniture providers JCDecaux have now been resolved?
Will the contract, if compliant, be continued, and if so, can any of the signs in Finchley be removed?

The answer was there was no funding. Ah.

Removing the 'detrimental clutter'? No: stand by for some fabulous One Barnet speak: 'for obvious reasons the Council cannot justify the expense of proactive removal unless as a part of an overarching project where locally their removal can be facilitated' ...

And the myserious JC Decaux contract ... or is a contract? We have already been informed that it is not a compliant arrangement. The response confirmed that it has still not resolved the issue.

What then, asked Mrs Angry, was the point of the town centre review, if there was no money for it? How much money had it cost is to carry out? And why? And why do we still pay advertisers with whom we do not have proper contracts whose installations appear to be cluttering our streets?

The officer did not know how much the strategy review had cost, but clearly it has used a substantial amount of council resources, and for what? As a meaningless statement which may or may not be referred to in future planning decisions, and only if it suits the purposes of the council.

Next question:

5. Next to the lower entrance in Long Lane to Victoria Park, there is a former park keeper's lodge. More than a year ago, I believe, the family living there as tenants were obliged to leave, and the property has remained empty since then, becoming increasingly derelict. For some time now, the fence has been broken, trampled down and the site is accessible to anyone. This is in an area in which there have been instances of drug dealing, reported to the police.

Why has this property been left unoccupied for so long when there are so many homeless families in Barnet?

Why has the council not acted to secure the property?

Has the council put the property up for sale, and if not why not?

Is the council hoping that if the property deteriorates it can be demolished, and a more valuable site sold?

This was the answer.

Yes. No answer. A blank space.

The officer said he had been refused an answer by the Property Services department. The matter was now being referred to the Director.

God knows these Forums are farcical enough as it is: to refuse point blank to answer a perfectly valid public works question is really extraordinarily obstructive.

At this point, even the Chair was looking askance.

Labour's Councillor Cooke was angry - he revealed that he too believed there was a deliberate policy to allow such properties to deteriorate to the point where they may be demolished, and of course the site on which these properties stand are all much more valuable as more suited for developement. He talked about another park keeper's cottage in Oak Hill Park, similarly neglected.

Mrs Angry referred to her concerns about the former Church Farmhouse Museum, a beautiful and important listed building still standing empty and inadequately secured after a year of closure. Why is this building's security taken so lightly?

Some years ago a fire badly affected another listed property then in the council's possession. Such things can and do happen, accidentally of course. Church Farmhouse is rather a nuisance because it is protected by listing and the site cannot be fully exploited by development. There is no excuse not to give it every possible protection from deterioration or unfortunate accident, however, even in a Tory borough where heritage is seen only as a property asset, and not a thing of intrinsic value to the community.

The park keeper's cottage has been empty for more than a year. A family with children were removed from this property, as Cllr Tierney explained, being told it was wanted urgently for sale. They were rehoused, but they might have been better off staying in their home, or at least the property could have been used to accommodate another family in need. The fact that Property Services have refused to answer this question is clearly an indication, in my view, that there is something very wrong somewhere. Let's see what we can find out, shall we?

If you know of any similar properties around the borough, please let Mrs Angry know, via email.

Finally a question about the newly announced highways maintenance schedule:

"At a recent council meeting, plans were announced to allocate funds for highway works. I note that the funding in my road is being given to the other end from us, ie in the Conservative ward, rather than the Labour ward. I note that the area around the Sternberg Centre is included, which I would have thought has already benefited from the section 106 money that was supposed to be associated with the development of this site. Why is more funding being allocated to this area?

Nearly four years ago there was a fatal accident outside my house, due to a combination of a driver speeding at more than double the speed limit, and a junction with a notoriously bad sightline. After the accident we asked for improved safety measures to be put in place, as this junction, next to a primary school, is continually the location of collisions, and unfortunately it seem likely that it is only a matter of time before another fatality occurs. Despite assurances, nothing has been done, and worse still previous traffic calming measures have subsequently been removed.

Why does the council not see this eastern end of the road as a priority?"

Oh dear: Councillor Old has formed an opinion about something, and it is an opinion about Mrs Angry's question. His opinion is that she is being party political, and of course council funding is not allocated in any unfair way.

Mrs Angry became rather cross.

It is a party political issue, when money is being constantly diverted, in this borough, to party politically sensitive ends. Like subsidising the over privileged Hampstead Garden Suburb Library, at the expense of Friern Barnet Library, or arranging for unpopular car parking charge plans to be dropped during an election purdah period. And Cllr Olds (whose ward is this side of Finchley) could not explain why the Tory end of our road was being favoured with extra money for road safety measures, when already supported by section 106 money for crossings etc, when there had been no fatal accidents, and yet the blackspot near my house is still waiting, four years after a death, for any promised review. All the Coleman inspired council has done is to remove safety measures.

Local councillor Ross Houston said that he agreed with Mrs Angry, and said that she was quite right to raise the issue, that this part of the road had not had sufficient attention.

This is the story of what happened in the incident outside my house, four years ago, as reported in the Daily Mail. No doubt the driver, who ran off and left his victim lying at Mrs Angry's feet, is already out of prison, and able to drive up the road again at eighty miles an hour, should he wish, as the council refuses to allocate any funding to any safety measures which would prevent this happening again, or the countless other less serious but avoidable accidents which occur here.


Will it make any difference, pointing out this inequable treatment? Well, another review was promised. Another year will go by, and nothing will happen. Maybe nearer the election, the more marginal wards will be lucky enough to receive some benefit from similar funding.

Two other questions tonight were about speeding in residential roads: Petworth Road in North Finchley, and the Grove in Finchley Central. The good news is that now the enemy of traffic calming, Brian Coleman, is safely out of the way, we might see a change in policy favouring the well being of pedestrians and children rather than speeding drivers. We might.

Cllr Helena Hart trenchantly demanded, to much sniggering, at a meeting last week, that Barnet should remain a 'hump free' borough.

How Mrs Angry looks forward to the day when a Tory councillor would not dream of expressing such a demand, rather than the wish to see a borough where no child loses his life crossing the road, killed by a speeding driver.

*Update, Wednesday:

This morning Mrs Angry visited the park keeper's cottage to see if she could take some photographs. As you will see, not only is the gate wedged open, the fence down, and the grounds strewn with rubbish, including broken glass and evidence of drinking, the site is supposedly secured by a company - with remote CCTV. Mrs Angry imagines, therefore, that there is film of her this morning as she wandered in and took her photos. In fact, of course, this is complete nonsense, and yet again it would appear Barnet are handing over taxpayers' money for an inadequate service.

It should be remembered that this site is right next to a children's playground, and also an area known to attract dealing. There is no justification for this property to be left vacant when so many families are homeless in this borough: it is also a terrible shame that what is a really nice Victorian cottage, contemporary with the opening of the park more than a century ago, should be left to deteriorate in this way.

But what else do you expect?

Oh: Mrs Angry's daughter has come home and told her she has just seen workers arrive at the cottage - and they appear to be in a hurry to re erect the fence. If you want the missing pieces, chaps, they are broken up and piled in a corner of the garden, and some of it is wedging the gate open, no doubt for night time visitors.

No need to thank me, Councillor Thompstone.

*Update Thursday:

Well, on her travels today, Mrs Angry noted that as if by magic, the park keeper's cottage has indeed acquired a lovely new bit of fencing - good bit of work, actually: wish they would come & fix mine: look ... one of Mrs Angry's most exciting photos, you will agree. Almost as good as Roger Evans, AM & his interesting pictures of subways in Barking and bus stations in Gants Hill.

oh, but erm, presenting another convenient metaphor for the state of things here in Broken Barnet - look how they have left the entrance to the property:

Barnet Council: putting up fences, but leaving the front gate wide open.

I despair.


Mr Mustard said...

Isn't it amazing Mrs Angry how no sooner do the famous five Barnet bloggers make some terrible truth public than the council are able to spring into immediate action having sat on their hands for a year previously. That Blogger Update Manager job I advertised on April 1 must have been filled after all.

No-one else can have complained about the building these last 12 months then. I wonder if the arrangement with the security people included making the grounds of the building secure? Now that would be radical!

baarnett said...

Obviously the council has forgotten they owned the building, Mrs A, and you had reminded them.

One Barnet takes the real resources, and the rest is run on a wing and a prayer.

Mrs Angry said...

Indeed, Mr M. What would they do without us? I imagine that the Barnet Big Society Innovation Bank award is on its way now.

Baarnett, yes, and no I am not publishing that other comment - look, censorship - as I have enough problems in that direction as it is, thank you very much.

Mrs Angry said...

Incidentally, all the way through Mrs Angry's valuable contribution to the Forum, Chair Reuben Thompstone kept interrupting needlessly and trying to shut her up, saying 'the councillors' might want to speak as well ... as there were only Labour councillors there anyway (& Jack Cohen) this was rather silly - especially when in fact, Cllr Thompstone, it is, in theory at least a RESIDENTS forum and cllrs are not supposed to speak unless asked to.

And then, rather amusingly, the Chair came up and interrupted Mrs Angry AGAIN when she was having a private conversation with Jack Cohen - yes, look at me, talking to a Libdem. Mrs Angry was very tempted to tell Cllr Thompstone off and tell him he was not allowed to raise the issue he wanted to draw to the attention of Cllr Cohen, but of course she was too polite.

Mr Mustard said...

Do you know who put up the fence Mrs A, I do hope it wasn't our friends at RM Countryside?