Thursday 6 September 2012

A Very British Squat: Friern Barnet Library - reoccupied

Dave and Phoenix, the new occupants of Friern Barnet Library

The story of the Barnet Spring has taken many interesting twists and turns, but none perhaps have proved to be quite as unpredictable as the development which is unfolding over in Friern Barnet, in the empty property that was, until very recently, the much loved local library.

This beautiful building had served the local community for eighty or so years, since the branch was opened with the assistance of funding from the Carnegie Trust, and its closure by the local authority was fought with determination by local residents: on the very day of its closure, indeed, local people occupied the building to mark, with a symbolic act of resistence, that the library was part of their community, and it was not for the disaffected elected members of that community to act on their behalf and close it down, with no consideration for their wishes.

The reason given for the closure was budgetary: in these times of austerity, support for this branch was deemed a luxury. The bid by some residents to run a community, voluntary library was ignored, yet a similar bid by the highly influential, vociferous residents association in the hugely wealthy Tory ward of Hampstead Garden Suburb was welcomed, indulged and happily subsidised by our Conservative councillors. As this tiny branch is a leased property, there was never a council asset to sell, of course, but the authority is still providing a substantial amount of money in support of the enterprise.

The reason now given for the closure of Friern Barnet is that the council needs the capital from the sale of the building, yet at the same time it is pretending to support a scheme promoted by a local resident to use the site as a community hub, funded by an improbable development proposal. A community hub would be an asset to the area, of course, but not, in Mrs Angry's view, at the cost of a properly run library, and with an inappropriate development on part of the site - and the majority of local campaigners want only to save their library, and have it retained as part of the council library network.

Since the closure, the Save Friern Barnet Library campaign has refused to accept that the end of the story has been written, and has continued to lobby for its reopening, presenting a petition of thousands of signatures to the councillors, and seeing the issue supposedly referred back to Cabinet. Even before the ink was dry on the minutes of the meeting where this was decided, however, Cllr Robert Rams had emailed all signatories to inform them that the decision which had not been referred yet had already been made: the matter was closed.

And that seemed to be that, until this week.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, it seems, a group of activists from Camden with previous experience of direct action campaigns entered the library building, via an open window, and has set up in residence, squatting, they say, in order to reopen a library for the local community.

Bizarrely, when the story was reported in the local press, it was revealed that council staff had been ordered to offer an alternative location to the squatters, and even shown them round the premises. Tory leader Richard Cornelius was quoted as offering encouragement to such an enterprise, and offering a supply of books.

Yes: you are still in Broken Barnet. Bear with me.

This evening Mrs Angry visited the library. A solitary security guard was keeping a baleful eye on the premises, although later on others joined him. He confirmed that the squatters were in occupation. Did I want to speak to them? Just knock on the back fence. Oh. Mrs Angry did just that. A head peeped over the top. We introduced ourselves to each other: his name was 'Phoenix', and he said he was pretty experienced in this sort of thing, and certainly seemed very much at home ... he opened the locked gate: did I want to come in: have a cup of tea?

Mrs Angry declined but took some photos, and we had a very genial and interesting conversation. He was occupying the library, he said, because he wanted it to be returned to the community for their use. He was hoping to organise, with residents, a rota system to operate a library for local people.

Did they have water, electricity, a loo? Yes. In fact, when they arrived, they were rather surprised to find the heating was on. Bit wasteful, we agreed. I told him that he was lucky, when residents had occupied the building, the council had forced them to piss in a wastepaper bin. He looked suitably shocked, clearly used to a better standard of squat. He said he was coming across to the nearby British Legion to attend tonight's library campaign committee meeting. It was ok, he could let himself out: he had the keys to the building, which they had found on a desk when they arrived.

Two of the other squatters came to speak to us: by now a couple of Labour councillors and blogger Barnet Bugle had turned up, and we all chatted affably at the door. One of the squatters was a boy about Mrs Angry's son's age, with an open, innocent, pre-raphaelite face, and a steady, blue eyed gaze. I think perhaps it was his first time involved in such activity. A handful of security guards watched us, quietly, from a distance.

Labour councillors Pauline Coakley Webb and Barry Rawlings look on

Downstairs in the British Legion, behind the door covered in a giant union jack, bingo night was in full swing. Upstairs, in a small room, the library campaign committee was in session. Around the walls were two portaits of the Queen, a couple of plaques referring to the Royal Antedeluvian Order of Buffaloes, and what looked like a yellowing, faded picture of Cecil Rhodes. On one of the tables was a wooden sign declaring that this was 'Liberty Hall'.

Phoenix was addressing the committee members, who sat lined around the edges of the room, listening politely, in their ineffably British way, bemused by the sudden hijacking of their campaign by this articulate, perfectly reasonable dreadlocked activist who had arrived out of the blue and was offering to reopen their library for them.

The Chair was trying to tread a difficult path between not being seen to endorse a potentially illegal action, and being open to the suggestions that the squatters had to make. Others present wanted to be more radical in their approach, keen to embrace the new opportunity. There was some discussion about the right solution: a community library, a voluntary library or a full return to council control. All were agreed on one thing: Friern Barnet library is their library, and they refuse to contemplate it being sold for development.

That is the one thing, of course, that we can be sure our Tory councillors want above all else. They are wary of the consequences, and keen to try to avoid the negative impact on their own electoral ambitions, but if they can get away with it, selling the building is what they will try to do. Selling the site, that is: with or without the library on it.

You might ask yourself why it was so easy for the squatters to enter Friern Barnet Library.

You might ask yourself why the listed Church Farmhouse Museum is so poorly secured.

You could also ask, as Mrs Angry did why buildings like the Edwardian lodge in Victoria Park are being emptied of tenants, then left empty and open to vandalism or worse, for years on end.

What do you suppose the answer might be?

By a most amusing coincidence, this week's Ham & High carries a particularly charmless photo of local Finchley MP Mike Freer, looking awfully pleased with himself after creating new laws that deal with the offence of erm ... squatting.

pic Ham & High

Mike has been relentlessly pursuing the adoption of new measures to fight what he sees as an issue of huge significance: one or two people who have dared to squat in a couple of vacant luxury mansions in hello, Hampstead Garden Suburb. Have a look at this story, which will touch you, with the concern shown for the Gaddafi family whose house was occupied- actually as an act of political protest - last year.

In Broken Barnet, of course, a house is not a home, it is an asset, which must be protected, even when it is empty, and there are people with no homes to live in. A museum or a library is not a community resource, or part of our heritage, it is a potential development, and where you or I might see a vacant property, and a family without a home, or a child without a local library, or a collection of local historical items without somewhere to be displayed, our Tory politicians see merely another business opportunity.

Squatting might, in some circumstances, be illegal. It might be unfair, and an act of theft, taking someone else's home. In the case of Friern Barnet library, I would say, it is a statement which should be made: a moral duty, taking back possession of something which has been stolen from the people it was intended for: for their education, their pleasure, their benefit.

The story of Friern Barnet Library, the library that wouldn't die, is now much more important than anyone could have imagined it would be: it is the story we've seen so often in our history, a small community standing up for itself, and not taking it anymore: a uniquely obstinate, British characteristic: it might not look like it, but essentially it's like the plot of an Ealing studios film from the 1950s, an act of courage and defiance: the triumph of good people over bad.

This is Broken Barnet: who knows what will happen next?

Updated Friday:

Mrs Angry understands that this morning a representative of the Save Friern Barnet Library campaign spoke to Richard Cornelius’ Secretary to request a meeting with him next week, in order to 'negotiate the re-opening of FBL'. He is due to respond to this request this afternoon.

And according to the group's Chair:

"We will be holding a Pop Up Library tomorrow, Saturday, from 11-1pm on the green next to the library and feel that the squatters are highlighting, by their action, the absurdity of our library lying empty. Greenacre Writers are holding a free creative writing workshop in the library at 1pm and Dr Ollie Natelson is offering free chemistry GCSE and A-level tuition from 11-1pm."

The story continues ...


Mr Mustard said...

I can tell you one thing that will happen next Mrs Angry, there will be a sudden increase in the use of security firms to guard empty Barnet Council property and a complete failure to do the proper paperwork as we discovered with that empty park property.

Only 26minutes to go and I will see you at the darkest corner of North London Business Park. I have my motorcyling balaclava at the ready.

Mrs Angry said...

Funnily enough, Mr Mustard, the security guards at FB library were not displaying licences. One told me this was because they were involved in 'discreet' duties. This means of course, that MetPro were clearly the masters of discretion, and perhaps completely misunderstood.

Mr Mustard said...

Is discretion an exemption from the requirements of the SIA? Not very discrete of them to tell you?

Mrs Angry said...

It seems to me that the SIA, ie the Home Office agency which is supposed to monitor and license all security employees, should perhaps be obliged to have rather more stringent requirements, and provide a more effective way for concerned parties to check out the licensing of individuals working in this business. The SIA website is incredibly difficult to use, and makes it almost impossible to check out any company or security guard.

Fil said...

I am the mother of the pre-raphaelite boy with the steady blue-eyed gaze. I love your description and have thoroughly enjoyed your blog. We look forward to each installment. Thank you.

Mrs Angry said...

Fil: he seemed a lovely boy! He reminded me of a figure in a Ford Madox Brown picture. (But don't tell him,if he's anything like my son he would be very cross!)