Tuesday 4 February 2014

From Bishops Avenue to Strawberry Vale, or: how not to be poor, in Broken Barnet

*Post script Sunday: 'A mansion tax will ruin the lives of many residents', says Tory leader -see below:

It would be very easy to assume, from the self congratulatory proclamations of our Tory councillors, that Barnet really is what they would like it to be - a 'successful London suburb', a prosperous, leafy borough with a thriving community supported by the best schools, healthcare and housing. 

And to an extent this is true, that is to say there are many parts of Barnet which do boast all of these features, and indeed there are two areas which are not just comfortably placed within the description of affluence, but are home to some of the most wealthy and privileged individuals in the country. 

Or rather these areas include some of the most expensive properties in the UK, but of course: a house is not always a home, and in keeping with the ethos of Broken Barnet, a house is more properly an investment, and a safeguard against a life less favourable, should your everyday life as the dictator of a developing world country, the member of a royal family in an absolute monarchy, or the capitalist Czar of a non tax paying corporation, end in tears, a quick flight to the UK - and an anonymous end in a tree-lined boulevard of broken dreams, here in Broken Barnet.

Totteridge Lane is one of these privileged areas, of course, and in the ward represented by the Tory leader Richard Cornelius and his wife Alison, and - for the time being - by disgraced former Tory councillor Brian Coleman. 

Cornelius, who presides over council business with the smooth disdain of a rather uppity butler in a PG Wodehouse novel, is sure to retain his seat, as is his wife, are they are both awfully genteel, and don't eat their peas with their knives. 

Whether the newly independent Coleman, with his criminal conviction, and his rather oikish manners, can rely on the loyalty of enough of his former supporters  and stand any chance of being returned to the council this May, remains to be seen. It is highly unlikely.

And of course the football managers and music moguls of Totteridge Lane are not entirely typical of the area as a whole, which has its share of rather less well to do residents and disaffected voters. It is just possible, in short, that the third councillor in Totteridge later this year is not a Tory. Sharp intake of breath.

The other area of Barnet which enjoys an especially favoured number of wealthy residents - uniquely favoured, in fact, and as such is closer to the heart of our Tory councillors than any other part of the borough - is within the Hampstead Garden Suburb ward, that bastion of Tory support- and funding. 

Yes, let's talk about Bishops Avenue, shall we? Everyone else has an opinion, at the moment, on this subject: here is the view from Broken Barnet.

Bishops Avenue was the focus of a very interesting leading article by Rob Booth in Saturday's Guardian:

 'Empty homes: scandal of UK's billionaires row'. 

This title, if nothing else, is an indication of the alarming rate of inflation in Mrs Angry's lifetime, as in her childhood this road was referred to locally merely as 'Millionaires' Row', a fact which would fascinate us when driving along up to the Heath for a bracing walk, via Kenwood House, peering at what were then rather more elegant and discreet buildings set back from the road, aloof and relying on the protection of affluence and social mores, rather than the overtly hostile security of the monstrously vulgar properties that have taken their place.

Now as you travel through this road you can only look in wonder at the ugly buildings that punctuate the sequence of massive, landscaped, gated properties, and muse on the correlation between enormous wealth and a total absence of any sense of aesthetic value, or sense of proportion - the more contemporary houses looking more like the arrivals terminal of a small regional airport than a home, and curiously devoid of any signs of life, or occupation.

Bishops Avenue has always been a road for the nouveaux riches, or those in need of seclusion, and discreet retirement: most accommodated by a level of wealth that came to them almost by surprise, catching them unawares, a profiteer's wet dream, the easy satisfaction of desire, like sex without love, the grasping of money without conscience: furtive,  sociopathic, driven by a need to demonstrate status, and power. The house on Bishops Avenue is proof of that. Look at me: no, don't look at me: this is mine - pass by. Don't come too close. 

How much of the money in Bishops Avenue is not inherited, not begotten, but made: the ultimate reward of a life of risk, and game playing? Taken from the profits of corporate success, or excess: taken from the wealth of an overseas country, whose inhabitants may live in abject poverty or civil war, or the threat of revolution, but whose rulers have carefully invested in properties like these, should they need to leave the country in a hurry? Quite a lot, we might conclude.

There are other reasons to hide away in gold plated splendour, and bullet proof glass, of course: one long term resident was Salman Rushdie, in a custom built property designed to accommodate him and his police protectors during the long years of his Fatwa.

Arch snob Evelyn Waugh, who lived in nearby Golders Green, but always walked uphill to a postbox in Hampstead in order to make sure his letters were stamped with a more acceptable postmark, placed the legendary press magnate 'Lord Copper', who features in 'Scoop', firmly in the Bishops Avenue, where he very probably felt quite at home.

And many latterday residents, it must be recognised, simply enjoy the cachet of being the residents of what is now, according to the Guardian article, the second most expensive street in the country.

Amongst the current inhabitants, occaisionally stepping through the electric gated sanctuary of their carefully guarded anonymity,  you will find spectacularly wealthy individuals, invariably preferring themselves to be described as 'philanthropists', the origins of their fortunes in, say, pornography, or arms-dealing, tactfully put to one side. Money endows respectability, or at least a deferential silence, in Bishops Avenue, as well as security.

The Guardian article raises the issue of the large number of properties in Bishops Avenue which are empty and derelict, apparently abandoned by absentee owners, many of them overseas residents or mysterious offshore companies, seemingly content to leave the houses vacant and unvisited for many years. 

pic courtesy Guardian, Graeme Robertson

Around ten mansions have been left in this state for what is said to be almost a quarter of a century - extraordinary pictures show some of these buildings in advanced decay, with dusty chandeliers hanging from collapsed ceilings, and rotten, mould-encrusted staircases leading up to rooms with no occupants - other than the occasional visiting owl. 

Owls being, in English folklore at least, the symbol of mortality and death, makes the solitary residents of these properties suitable guardians for these neglected buildings, in a long slow decline, like a consumptive fin de siecle courtesan, waiting for the return of a long departed lover. Or perhaps the advances of a speculative property developer, this being Broken Barnet, after all ...

The revelation of the number of so many empty properties in Bishops Avenue has not surprisingly surprised a strong reaction from the media and political commentators. Several further pieces have remarked on the unacceptability of such wasted accommodation in a time when homelessness is at an all time high, and the punitive policies of the condem government are removing the safeguard of welfare support from the most vulnerable members of our society, sending them into their own spiral of decline, which can only end, as we are seeing,  in the lowest levels of poverty and despair. 

The lack of affordable housing, the rising cost of living, the loss of benefits, and worst of all, the impact of the bedroom tax means that there could never be a time in which the obscenity of vacant mansions lying empty and unused is more repugnant. 

In the Tory mind, however, such a fate is of no consequence, and beyond any sense of shame, or even irony. 

A spare bedroom in a council house is the subject of contemptuous finger pointing, an aberration. 

Twenty spare bedrooms in a mansion in Bishops Avenue is hardly worthy of a shrug, or a moment of contemplation.

Hampstead Garden Suburb councillor Andrew Harper, putting aside the demands of his weighty portfolio to answer the phone to the Guardian, is reported to have 'laughed' when it was suggested to him that some of the derelict properties in the road could become affordable housing, and when asked if leaving vacant homes for decades was acceptable said: 

'That's their prerogative ....'

Barnet's Tory leader Richard Cornelius, speaking here said: 

"The Bishops Avenue is in its own little bubble and frankly has little connection with the rest of Barnet. I would rather spend public money bringing family houses back into use than get involved in battles with the lawyers of billionaires."

These remarks are from local Conservatives whose own party, and local MP, is supported by at least one resident of the Avenue, and who enjoy a very cosy relationship with the voters of Hampstead Garden Suburb, especially the highly influential Hampstead Garden Suburb Residents Association. 

The local council residents' Forum is often the venue for a spectacular display of enthusiastic support by Harper, and his colleague John Marshall, for any demands made by those who live in the Suburb. It shall be done, and quickly, they command. Contrast this with, for example, the long awaited traffic calming measures needed in Mrs Angry's part of West Finchley (a Labour ward), still not installed, despite years of lobbying, one death, countless serious accidents.

And then there is the ludicrous approval and support given to the local council subsidised vanity project, a volunteer library in a shop, after budget cuts finally brought down the chopper on what for decades had been an unsustainable branch library, but never closed due to the political sensitivities of such an action.

Compare the indulgence shown to this venture, in an area of billionaire Tory voters, to the fate of Friern Barnet Library, in a rather less advantaged and largely Labour voting area: shut, closed - about to be put up for sale for development ... until the intervention and occupation of squatters.

Ah: squatters. Not a word they like to hear, in Hampstead Garden Suburb: at least not the Tory councillors, and our MP, Mike Freer. Freer was one of the sponsors of legislation that criminalised squatting in all residential properties, abandoned or not. 
After occupying the library, and returning it to the people of Friern Barnet, and opening up a community pub in the former Bohemia, our local occupiers, including spokesperson Phoenix, moved onto Mr Freer's front yard, right outside Margaret Thatcher House, the local Conservative party offices. They stayed there to mark their protest at the injustice of so many houses left empty when so many people will spend this winter homeless, maybe sleeping rough, with nowhere to go. As reported here:

Freer commented:

I supported the criminalisation of squatting because it was a big problem in my constituency. I don’t think it was right that hard working families that have saved would come home from holiday or having a house refurbished and would find someone else living in it.

This was a new spin on an earlier justification for his promotion of anti-squatting  laws, given in 2011 and reported in the Standard: 

MP Mike Freer says some homeowners are so concerned by the "epidemic" of occupations that they are considering whether to take family breaks this summer.

He added: "Constituents are wary of going away for three-week holidays. They are worried that they may come back to find their home occupied.

"People have bought these large, expensive properties and the law needs to be changed to give them peace of mind."

Hard working families, or billionaires in Hampstead Garden Suburb? Make up your mind, Mr Freer. And we are still waiting for the proof of an 'epidemic' of occupations in the Suburb, or elsewhere in your constituency. 

In fact the event which caused so much concern to the super wealthy property owners in this exclusive area was the occupation of a £10 million mansion in Winnington Close, the road that lies behind Bishops Avenue, and runs parallel to it, literally and metaphorically. 

No 7, Winnington Close was the property of Mr Saif Al Gaddafi, now enjoying a rather less privileged address in a prison cell, somewhere in the south of Libya. The occupation that so enraged Mr Freer and his friends in the Suburb,in fact, was an act of protest by those opposed to the regime of tyranny that still had a relentless grip on the oppressed people of that country.

Phoenix and his fellow occupiers asked Freer to join them in the cold, sleeping out in the street, as so many homeless people must do, every night, tonight, tomorrow night. He refused, and had them evicted. 

Freer was happy to support the bedroom tax, just as he is happy to stand back and watch the evisceration of our NHS. These issues, of so much signficance to the less advantaged residents of this borough, hold no interest for him.

In this article yesterday in the Guardian, by Aditya Chakraborrty, he asks why we tolerate the 'hoarding' of houses, as we are seeing in the Bishop's Avenue. He comments:
Outside The Bishops Avenue and its 120 unused bedrooms, 6,437 people were counted last year as sleeping rough in the capital alone. At the last count 344,294 households in London were on local authority waiting lists for housing.

He refers to a suggestion by David Ireland, head of the 'Empty Homes' Charity, for the Mayor of London ...

'underwrite an action by Barnet council to repossess one of the homes on The Bishops Avenue. That would send a signal, as would giving councils greater power and funding to take back and do up empty homes. We should put all owners of British property on to a register – not the directors of some nominee company – and use the tax system to penalise under-occupation'.

But he ends with another idea: to build more social housing. 

Sadly, that idea will never catch on, here in Broken Barnet. They are ideologically opposed to the very principle. Every policy that they have promoted in recent years has been to encourage developments that favour the redevelopment of areas which will offer accommodation to the affluent, and exclude those without means. Some have accused them of a policy of gerrymandering, and a deliberate exclusion of disadvantaged residents from the borough. Whatever the truth, there is little interest in regenerating the social housing they are burdened with, with any sense of urgency, as we see in the Dollis Valley example, ten years in the waiting.

Which leads us back to the beginning, and those parts of Broken Barnet that Conservative values can never reach: the undeserving poor, languishing in the less favoured areas of the borough.

Bishops Avenue, of course, begins at a junction with the High Road in East Finchley, crosses the A1, and ends up at the gates of Kenwood. 

At its beginning in East Finchley, this most extravagantly privileged road is only a few minutes walk from one of those parts of Broken Barnet that are so broken, no one is sure how to put them back together. 

Forget the Bishops Avenue, then, and come with Mrs Angry to the Strawberry Vale estate.

The name conjures up visions of some idyllic retreat, doesn't it? 

In fact this location, running along the North Circular, is an ugly, Kremlin style social housing development which has the dubious honour of being the single most deprived neighbourhood in the borough. 

In an updated assessment in 2011, in which consideration is given to the number of significant but largely ignored areas of social deprivation in the borough, Strawberry Vale was identified as particularly in need of support, and was placed at only just outside the listing of the 10% most deprived areas in the country. 

More than 33% of the school children who live in Strawberry Vale  were in receipt of free school meals. Residents struggled with high levels of deprivation in terms of income, health and employment, disability, and anti-social behaviour. 

Since 2011, the economic crisis and the impact of the government's so called welfare reforms will have hit the residents of this area very badly: we have yet to have an updated report that will reflect the impact of the new reality of cuts, increased poverty and dependent need. Unsurprisingly,  a foodbank now operates in East Finchley, on Saturdays, at a nearby church hall.

An indictment of any borough that boasts such extremes of affluence and poverty within such a short distance of each other, you might think. 

Not in the view of our Tory councillors, of course. 

But these figures are taken from a Barnet report - see  here from the Insight Team, in 2012. What policies do they propose, to confront the causes and impact of the issues that face residents of Strawberry Vale?

Nothing. Oh: except this. There is a reference, right at the end, accompanied by a lovely, cheery picture, of volunteers working for a project called 'Hope House', organised by a local evangelical Christian church, of whom the officer responsible for the report, now departed,  was a member, doing God's work, in the London Borough of Barnet.

This is in line with Barnet's adoption of 'Christians Against Poverty' as a way of addressing the intolerable burden of debt and distress caused to the tenants of Barnet Homes as a result of the welfare cuts and the bedroom tax. Relieves the council of responsibility, and cost. Perfect solution.

The policy is quite simple: abandon the most vulnerable members of our community to their fate, look the other way, and leave them to the enthusiastic embrace of religious zealots, while we concentrate on supporting the needs of our more affluent residents.

Barnet's Tories are boasting of being only one of two London boroughs to cut the council tax rate for next year. 

The impact of this loss of income on our vital services will be devastating. Already we see workers for Your Choice Barnet, and Fremantle - who work with the most vulnerable of our residents, struggling with disabilities, and special needs - being told to accept huge cuts in pay, dragging some of them below the level of pay of the London living wage.

The tax cut is meant, as Tory leader Richard Cornelius says, as a 'gesture' to those residents who resent the payment that supports their less advantaged neighbours. This policy is probably well tuned to the displacement of conscience that applies to the most privileged residents of this borough. 

It is true: they do live in a bubble, and will be left alone to enjoy the sense of seclusion that this affords. This is the privilege of wealth, in Broken Barnet. 

In the most materialistic of all boroughs, the homeland of Thatcherism, where rampant greed is dressed up as political libertarianism, nothing could be more suitable, no metaphor more apt than this: an avenue of rotting mansions, vacant, unloved, but still earning money for their investors, while down the road, families try to survive in social housing, under the threat of the bedroom tax, and the withdrawal of benefits.

This is Broken Barnet, where money talks. Can you hear what it is saying? 

*Postscript Sunday:

Just in case you thought Mrs Angry is inclined to gross misrepresentation of the deep sympathy for the plight of the wealthy felt by Barnet Tories, please take a look at this piece now published in the local Barnet Press, by council leader Richard Cornelius: quite simply it is beyond parody, as the title indicates:
A mansion tax will ruin the lives of many residents

"IT’S not often that I get to watch television these days. However, I recently saw a Liberal Democrat spokesman on TV extolling the mansion tax.

We have also heard a lot from Labour about this and their wish to tax the rich more harshly. There are a good number of people in Barnet whose houses have rocketed in value towards this level.

It’s not their fault that this has happened and often they are surprised that they would not be able to afford their own home if they were starting out again. Lots of our residents are rich in terms of assets, but poor in terms of cash.

Most of us are fairly cynical about taxes and know that if you have a large gap between the current top council tax band and the mansion tax threshold, someone will want to collect on the value of properties in between – probably requiring a total re-evaluation of the bands.

That is what is so sinister about this horrid, left-wing proposal. Taking a few thousand pounds – or even a few hundred each year from someone living in a semi-detached house – may please the socialists but will ruin the lives of many of our residents.

The politics of envy has no place in Barnet. You can’t improve life by taking away what people have struggled to buy out of already taxed income. The Conservative-led council has been successful in maintaining services while saving our taxpayers money.

The years of stable council tax and now a proposed one per cent cut have removed people’s anxiety about property taxes, but we need to be vigilant."


Anonymous said...

I read the Guardian article with interest in particular Andreas Panayitou, a property tycoon selling one of the empty mansions, Heath Hall, for £65m who admitted that the derelict Saudi properties "really let the road down" and added he fully agreed with Boris Johnson that London homes were not "blocks of bullion" and further stated "You don't want empty streets and people just parking their money. You need people to live in them or rent them". Fair enough I think and laudible.

However, he then argued against increasing taxes on unoccupied homes, which he said would be an "annoyance" that would make buyers choose Monte Carlo or Milan instead of London.

Great I say, let them choose Monte Carlo or Milan and more preferably anywhere other than this country. If they are not going to use their property productively then they are just leeching off the rest of us mere tax paying mortals. By avoiding Stamp Duty, and not even living in the country just what are they contributing? Nothing.... absolutely nothing, other than Council Tax which would be paid by any owner, and even this Thatcher legacy tax is regressive, totally favouring the wealthy.

The continual deficit to the local community, local economy and national economy is immense. When the property is finally sold, more money simply vanishes off to a tax haven..... again avoiding tax.

Let's hope the lovely bedroom tax helps offset this loss. Sic.

Mrs Angry said...

Yes, that was my reaction too, to the awful thought that buyers might choose to buy elsewhere: so what? Their purchase of a house in Bishops Avenue brings no economic benefit to us, only the dubious pleasure of an absentee landlord, content to let his property stand neglected.

I think Andrew Harper's comment was most telling, a shrug: their prerogative. His young colleague,Cllr Davey, who is responsible for housing policy, has said he would rather see Russian oligarchs in the borough than those burdensome residents who depend on council services.

Thatcher's heirs: she would be so proud.

Anonymous said...

Clearly empty properties should be taxed, it's total commonsense. And taxed quite heavily using a progressive time based scale, say a 50% compound annual increase. The income from this tax should be ring fenced and used locally for the benefit of local people, most preferably with a community emphasis. The proerty should be reviewed annually, taking account of CURRENT value and number of bedrooms going to waste.

Plus, if the property or grounds are deemed to be in a state of serious disrepair, or decoration, or boarded up a further tax should apply for each 'social offence'.

Further, holiday homes which are not FULLY let out should also fall into this category, as they too are depriving local communities of both income and local housing, and while the tax tax level should be 'nominal', local councils should base the amount upon local impact and factor in how much of the year the property remains vacant.

Clearly these taxes are not going to be easy to administer, especially when you are dealing with the wealthy who perversely are very happy paying an expensive accountant to avoid tax. However, assuming the income raised is spent wisely and as close as possible to the blighted areas, then at least the REAL local population will have some form of compensation.

All very sensible, although fraught with practical difficulties. But we all know money speaks. Far better (and so much easier) to attack the vulnerable at source. Perhaps we can shortly expect those on benefits lucky enough have an unused garage and/or driveway or parking space to be subject to a "No Car" tax. And as ridiculous and iniquitous as that sounds, who an earth several years ago would have predicted a "bedroom tax"?

Now that the government has seen fit to pick upon the deprived for "empty bedrooms", it seems only fair to me that the logical progression of this tax should now extend to private owners with empty or under used homes. Those on benefits spend their money locally, those with empty homes spend little or nothing.

Mrs Angry said...

The injustice and cruelty of the bedroom tax makes me want to cry with rage: the immensely privileged, sanctimonious Tory politicians who are imposing such misery on ordinary families quite clearly derive an almost pyschopathic pleasure from the humiliation and distress that their loathsome policy creates.

In the Tories' mind, prerogative applies not on a basis of worth, or need, but as the rightful prize of the powerful.

Money talks: the poor and disadvantaged have no power, and therefore no voice.

It is a brutal, venal philosophy, and perfectly explains the benign tolerance shown to the billionaire speculators and absentee residents of Bishops Avenue.