Monday, 4 November 2013

Persons Unknown: the Bohemia occupiers in court

Barnet County Court is a small, relatively modern building, squeezed onto the site of a former primary school, tucked away in the centre of Church End, Finchley. 

It is usually a quiet place, dealing with family matters, and civil disputes: with a few modest sized court rooms, and a surreal post office type counter where visitors queue to hand in payments, or their petitions for divorce, sliding them carefully under the glass screen to be stamped by hard faced clerical assistants, while sad eyed single parents sit forlornly with barristers, discussing the terms of their child's living arrangements, and others come to pay off their fines from unpaid council tax arrears, or cry over a confrontation with bailiffs. 

In short, it is a place of subdued emotion, where people go at the most vulnerable times in their lives, and the atmosphere is one of relentlessly slow bureaucracy, tempered with quiet despair.

Sometimes in life, you find yourself in conflict with the law, or seek to change your position within the limitations it imposes, and attending court becomes an obligation, or an inevitability.

Last year, this courthouse was the venue for the hearings regarding the occupation of Friern Barnet Library - the People's Library, an example of direct action, theoretically a challenge to law, leading to a re-examination of legal status, invoking aspects of human rights' legislation, and ending with an outcome that perhaps no one could have expected - the saving of a library, and the creation of a new sense of community. 

In the least likely outcome of all, the local Tory councillors try very hard to present this overwhelming triumph of the occupy movement as their own accomplishment, and a Big Society achievement.

After the success of the saving of Friern Barnet Library came another occupation - the same characters who reclaimed the library moved into the Bohemia pub, which had shut overnight, during the summer, causing immense upset to the drinking classes of North Finchley, and so many other local residents who had begun to see the place as a real community centre, and a beacon of hope for the otherwise struggling high street.

The pub had closed not because of a failure to make money, but due to arguments between tenants and leaseholders. The doors were shut, boarded up, and the Bohemia sat dark, empty and abandoned, an eyesore, right in the middle of the town centre. Rumours abounded that a supermarket chain was about to move in, causing further dismay amongst the local small traders, already battling against the continuing impact of the council's punitive parking policies.

One night in September, a group of occupiers let themselves into the premises, and announced their intention to save the pub for the community.  

Since then Phoenix, Daniel, Petra, Mordechai and others have acted as caretakers for the property, living there and opening it up to local residents, with all sorts of community functions, including live performances, ranging from bands, cabaret, stand up and even burlesque ... and then last week, predictably, came the news that notice had been served by the owners to repossess the property. 

A crowd of supporters accompanied the occupiers to court this morning, filling the waiting area and causing evident anxiety to court officials unused to such a high number of visitors. No need: everyone was perfectly well behaved, and most were veterans of the previous case. Only a few of us could squeeze into the tiny courtroom, however.

It was revealed that only ten minutes had been set aside for this hearing, which seemed rather extraordinary. Judge Joshi decided that the case required extra time, and has deferred the full hearing to later this week, with a two hour slot required at another court, as there are no spaces available here in Barnet. She reminded the court that the proceedings were in order to find what is legally right, rather than morally so. An interesting comparison, you might think. She noted Phoenix's statement that he was in favour of the move to mediate, rather than litigate, and that there was no reason for such action to cease.

Some case management did take place during today's hearing. The repossession order is being applied for on behalf of Antic Ltd, against 'persons unknown'. Counsel for Antic was a Mr Fain. 

There followed some protracted deliberations as to whom this referred. Phoenix was named as the party, along with Daniel Gardner, and other parties may apply to be attached to the proceedings. 

Phoenix's 'Mackenzie's Friend', Mr Sagar, asked an interesting question - in the event of costs being awarded against the claimant, how likely is it that this will be paid if Antic is in liquidation?

Antic, said Mr Fain, is not in liquidation - it is in administration. 

Mr Fain now asked for proof of identification of the named parties. 

Phoenix did his best to address the judge's attempts to define some sort of suitable documentation. Driving licence? No - he does not drive. Passport? He has not been out of the country for 20 years. Bank statement, National Insurance number? Council tax? Any photo ID?

Phoenix shook his head, and politely explained that he has lived in occupied properties all his adult life.

This was a curious indictment, thought Mrs Angry, of the world we live in.  A place where persons unknown cannot become known unless they have been documented, and labelled, and carefully numbered. Where Tory ministers can adopt multiple personae in their business lives, and yet demand accountability from others in every other context. Where companies lie hidden behind other names: shell companies, offshore companies - phoenix companies - and remain anonymous, but an individual, an ordinary citizen, must join the system, or become a non person, invisible, and without rights.

As we left the courthouse, and Phoenix and his supporters gathered outside for photos, Mrs Angry noted, at a discreet distance, an occupied police van parked across the road. One of the squatters had told her some undercover police had been on the premises last week, sussing the place out. Is this a coincidence? Maybe.

Another thought, which may or may not be true: a rumour is drifting about that Tesco has recently shown renewed interest in the Bohemia site. The property is very large, and would nicely accommodate a supermarket, whilst offering an additional profitable opportunity for development. Is this what we, the residents and shopkeepers want? No. Is this what we will get? Probably, if we do not continue to fight for a community pub.

And here is a chilling thought. As part of the second massive privatisation contract, Capita Symonds will be running planning in this borough. Tesco is a client of  ... Capita Symonds. Conflicts of interest, then, of this sort, how will they be managed, now we are living in Capitaville? 

The honest answer is - we do not know. We should know, because the DRS Joint Venture contract has just been published - or rather bits of it have been. The rest of it, including the section on, yes, conflicts of interest, looks like this:

Quote: 'the default mode of Barnet Council is open government' - Mr Chris Naylor, Section 151 officer, in the Guardian, last week.

Unfortunately for Mr Naylor, the default mode of Mrs Angry is eternal cynicism, and a sense of martyred commitment to the vocation of armchair audit, and citizen journalism.

And speaking of which: time for some fun at this evening's council meetings ... 

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