Thursday 27 March 2014

The Library that lived: and who saved it? A joint post by Barnet bloggers

Labour Councillor Pauline Coakley Webb opens Friern Barnet Community Library

Barnet Conservative candidates in Coppetts Ward have been distributing an election leaflet claiming the credit for saving Friern Barnet library.

This indefensible attempt to rewrite history is something that cannot go unchallenged.

The Barnet bloggers have followed the story of Friern Barnet in detail, from the moment in 2010 when Councillor Robert Rams launched the strategic library review, making ludicrous suggestions about the possibilities of ‘pop-up’ libraries in Tescos, and Starbucks.

We supported the raising of a petition, gaining over 7,000 signatures, and the lobbying of council meetings, and councillor surgeries. This gave the Tories pause for thought and they relented from their initial plans.

When the review was announced, only two libraries were marked for closure: Hampstead Garden Suburb and Friern Barnet. As Hampstead Garden Suburb was in a staunchly Tory ward, it took little pressure from influential local resident groups for the council to grant a reprieve, and happily agree to subsidise the small branch library in this most affluent area of the borough. This left Friern Barnet library, in a largely Labour voting ward, as the sole victim of Councillor Rams’ axe. 

Community campaigners were invited to draw up plans to keep the library open. As later events were to demonstrate, this was a crafty ruse by councillors and senior officers, which meant the campaigners were working on plans in the period where they could have instigated a judicial review. Such time wasting slammed the door on legal remedy. It seemed clear to all involved that the council had acted in bad faith and the invitation to draw up proposals were never a serious proposition.

In April 2012, the council closed the library at short notice. A symbolic occupation of the building by residents took place, to register the sense of injustice felt by the local community. The same afternoon, valuers arrived to assess the building for future development. The library was boarded up, emptied of books, and left to stand until a plan of sale had been made.

The closure of Friern Barnet, as some have forgotten, was justified by Tory members on the basis of a new library to be created in the Arts Depot at North Finchley. This plan came to nothing.

Along with many other supporters and activists, Barnet bloggers were at the forefront of the campaign to reopen Friern Barnet library, helping to launch the People’s ‘pop-up’ library, not in Tesco, or Starbucks, but on the village green next to the building, beneath the cherry trees. It was an act of defiance from local residents and campaigners in response to the removal of a much loved local community centre, and it received an astonishing outpouring of support.

The pop-up library received donations of hundreds of books and kept the protest alive throughout the weeks that followed. The BBC One show came to film the event, the first of a wave of media interest in the issue.

Despite this clear evidence that there was enormous support for the library, Councillor Robert Rams and his colleagues continued to ignore the local community.

Through the summer of 2012, residents came down every Saturday, come rain or shine to swap books on the lawn. As we approached autumn, and weather conditions worsened, it looked as if the Peoples library may become unsustainable: but in September 2012, the Occupy movement took over the Library and the People’s Library moved back into its rightful home.

How did Robert Rams and the rest of the Tories react to this demonstration of "Big Society"? They refused to engage with the local residents, although ironically they were more at ease discussing terms of occupation with Phoenix and his collective of squatters who had re-opened the library on behalf of the community.

Within weeks, the library shelves were full and the library was back in business.

Council officers were despatched to meetings to see if a compromise could be reached, but the elected representatives of the Tory Party ignored residents, and refused to attend talks. The council then launched eviction proceedings against the people of Barnet, who were simply using a public asset in the way it was intended.

Despite spiralling costs, the Tories persisted in the war against their own citizens. When the case finally came to court - supported by legal assistance organised by Labour party councillors - it lasted 2 days. 

Barrister and Labour candidate for Finchley & Golders Green, Sarah Sackman, who represented the occupiers in court

The council had originally claimed it was a simple possession case and asked for ten minutes. It was clear to all that despite the judge finding in favour of the council, there were strong grounds for an appeal. The judge herself brokered a deal whereby Occupy would hand over the keys to the community and the library would continue. The council had won the battle but lost the war. 

The sad truth is that there is no happy ending.

Does anyone trust the council after their previous tactics? It would appear to be a mistake to do so. The election leaflet implies that the library was saved by the ‘fervent campaign’ within the Conservative party fought by Councillor Kate Salinger. In fact any success was entirely due to the fervent campaigning of local residents, and the occupation of the premises: and the library has not been saved. It still faces an uncertain future.

Barnet Council simply offered the re-named Friern Barnet Community Library a two year lease, to park the problem until after the election. 

Time stands still in Friern Barnet library, September 2012

The Council has refused to fund a full time librarian. The Council has refused to allow the Library to access the council book stock. There are even allegations of other Barnet Libraries refusing to allow posters promoting events at FBCL. Most worrying of all, there is no long term lease, and Councillor Daniel Thomas, the deputy leader, has merely guaranteed that the building will not be sold in the next four years. What happens then? And even if the building is not sold, for how long will the community library be allowed to remain?

In truth the local community has preserved the building, and filled it full of books, which is a stunning achievement. It is a wonderful community enterprise, a victory of resistance against injustice, but it is not a public library.

Barnet’s Tory councillors have been outmanoeuvred by residents in their move to close the library and sell the beautiful, eighty year old building for redevelopment as a supermarket or flats. But it is only a temporary victory.

To ensure this library and every other publicly owned property controlled by this council remains in our hands and does not become the target of a ruthless agenda of sale and development, the only course of action is clear: use your vote wisely on May 22nd, and do not return this Tory administration to power – or we will all live to regret it.

John Dix

Derek Dishman

Theresa Musgrove

Roger Tichborne


Wednesday 26 March 2014

Mapledown: the school for disabled children paying the price of a Barnet Tory tax 'gesture'

Cuts in disabled pupils' funding to pay for pre-election tax cut worth 23 pence a week: 

Tory leader Richard Cornelius:

“I think the average person in the street thinks this is fair.” 

Pupils Liam, Hana and Faye and their carers at Mapledown School: pic Times Group

Sometimes Mrs Angry really does get very angry. 

That makes it very difficult to write, without resorting to more than the usual fully saturated content of hyperbole, and foul language. 

You'll have to excuse me, if you read on. 

Don't say you haven't been warned.

Mapledown School is a secondary school for disabled children, based near Brent Cross shopping centre, situated in a less than ideal environment for any children, edged against the North Circular, on one side, with the A41 rushing by not far away on the other. This school provides vital care and education for 65 young pupils with severe and complex learning disabilities. Some have multiple disabilities, and others are on the autistic spectrum. As well as caring for the children's educational needs, the school offers vital support to them and their carers with after school clubs, and half term play schemes

An astonishing story yesterday in the local  Times group newspapers has revealed that due to a cut in funding of £45, 000, by Barnet Council, these ventures will have to be cut by 25%, causing enormous hardship on families relying on the already heavily oversubscribed programme.

If you know anyone with a child with such a degree of disability, you must know how hard it is for their parents to continue, day after day, to support their children, often struggling at the same time to maintain their commitments with work. The respite that after school clubs and holiday schemes offer to such parents are an absolute necessity, in practical terms and emotionally too. Now they are faced with the intolerable choice of finding the financial resources to cover the loss of funding for their child's place, or struggling on without such help. For a child with severe needs, such uncertainty and lack of continuity will be deeply upsetting, and for their families, the burden is unimaginable.

As one parent in the article says:  

“We are a group of people who are so overwhelmed with our daily lives that we often don’t say anything - we’re exhausted. We don’t have time to put together huge protest campaigns to fight this - it is tough to be heard.”

When asked about the financial restraints which the authority is offering as the reason for these budget cuts, Tory leader Richard Cornelius seeks to shift the blame to central government, and also attempted once more to justify his pre-election 'gesture' of a one percent cut in council tax, which has deprived the council budget of £1.3 million in revenue, whilst returning the total of 23 pence a week to taxpayers.

“It is not us that has cut the funding and if we were to cover all the cuts from central government we would be looking at doubling council tax.

“It is about striking a balance between spending and taxing. This country is groaning under the level of tax at the moment.”

Asked if he thought the decision to lower council tax at the same time as cutting the school’s budget was fair, he said: 

“I think the average person in the street thinks this is fair.” 

Do you really, Councillor Cornelius?

What a stupid, shameful, utterly repugnant remark to make.

Today we read that the Tory cabinet member for schools, the ineffable Reuben Thompstone, has never bothered to visit Mapledown, but is happy to endorse the cuts, claiming the council's hands 'were tied' by central government. 

This is just not true: the Tory group chose to reduce vital revenue from local tax for political reasons, knowing full well the impact this would have in meeting central funding reductions.

And in this decision we see the real face of Barnet Conservatism. Totally lacking in compassion, or empathy. Utterly driven by political ideology, blinkered by lack of intellectual challenge, or even imagination. 

It is the mark of a sociopathic administration, intent on following its own obsessions with no regard for the impact on those who bear the burden of their half baked, bigoted ideas, a swamp of muddled instinct: financial restraint in the form of tax is bad, except for the poor, freedom to do what you want, free of consideration for others, is good. Leave the people at the bottom to sort themselves out, but give a helping hand to those who already have privilege, and power.

Councillor Thompstone did have a useful suggestion, however:

“I would encourage the school to be more creative in some of the ways it raises money."
More creative in the ways it raises money.  

Thompstone: I suggest you spend a day and night with the family of a child with such severe needs, and then come back and tell us all exactly how and when the exhausted carers of such children can possibly do any more to support their children, and their children's school.

Until then, friend, I also suggest you keep your big mouth firmly shut, and count down the days to the election, at which time I sincerely hope you and your colleagues will find yourselves unceremoniously kicked out of office, and left with an abundance of time to contemplate the reasons why.

In the meanwhile: one creative way to raise money to cover the cost of the support schemes you are cutting has occurred to Mrs Angry.

The £45,000 you want to withdraw more or less matches the amount of payrise Tory councillors awarded to the Chairs of committees, in addition to the already generous basic allowances, as soon as you all returned to power in 2010. 

A mere increase of 54%, from £7,000 to £15,000, and agreed at the same time you were lecturing us, the residents and taxpayers, about the need for painful austerity measures.

Let's see you put the welfare of pupils at Mapledown and their carers before your own interests, and volunteer to return the increases you most certainly have not earned over the last four years.

Or are you not, after all, all in this together with Liam, Hana and Faye?

This is Broken Barnet, 26th March 2014. 

Readers: there are fifty six days to go before you can liberate us from the rule of this loathsome, merciless, cowardly Conservative council.

Please use your vote wisely.

Monday 24 March 2014

Don't ask me what happens next, or: the saving of a library, and who stole it in the first place?

Friern Barnet library was opened exactly eighty years ago this week, funded in part by the Carnegie Foundation - an event marked by a ceremony attended by the Earl of Elgin, no less: presumably the grandson of the geezer who helped himself to a few souvenirs from the Parthenon.

So: opened in 1934 by Lord Elgin, closed in 2012 by Barnet Tories, and re-opened in 2012 by squatters, members of the occupy movement, who helped local campaigners negotiate an agreement with the previously intransigent council, who had every intention of pushing through the sale of the site, and the adjoining green, to developers.

The library's birthday was celebrated on Sunday with a party by campaigners, activists, volunteers, speakers, friends  and guests at what is now a community enterprise, supported by the council, but staffed by volunteers. 

Supported by the council, and now, rather amusingly, even cited by their leader Richard Cornelius, as an achievement for which he and his administration were responsible. So keen on rewriting history, is this Tory administration, that the Mayor was due to come today to grace the event with his corporate seal of approval. 

Mrs Angry understands that he is unwell, and was therefore unable to attend, which is regrettable, but frankly it would have been quite inappropriate for the council's figurehead to be there. 

That this library lives to serve the community of Friern Barnet is in no way due to anything the Tory council has done for it. 

Every day it is open, every book it holds, every letter of every word you read there has been fought for by the people who use it, and their friends, in the face of bare faced indifference and active opposition by the council, until such a time as it became politically expedient for it to adopt of a policy of reconcilation, and compromise.

As it is, only recently Councillor Daniel Thomas made a great deal of promising that he will guarantee the leasehold of the library for the next four years. Mrs Angry, whose innate cynicism in regard to the scheming ambitions of our councillors knows no bounds, ventured a question from the public gallery: what happens in Year Five?

If you cannot guess: let me make it clear. It will join the list of council assets already drawn up for sale, to be activated as soon as - if - the Tories get back into power. And if you believe any promise on the subject of any funded project by a Tory administration in Barnet, you are too naive to breathe the foetid air of Broken Barnet, and should immediately make plans to move elsewhere.

Mrs Angry is easily amused, of course, and few things amuse her more than the capacity of Barnet Tory councillors to engage in acts of outright hypocrisy, right in the face of glaring, uncomfortable truths that their limited imaginations simply cannot accommodate. 

Take a look at this - an election leaflet now being distributed by Tory candidates in Coppetts ward:

Libraries are for communities, and communities need libraries, proclaims this shameless document, by members of the same Tory party which agreed to close Friern Barnet library, in the face of all protest from the local community, in order to sell the site for development. 

The Tory party which, despite the stated need for budget cuts which drove this closure, fell over backwards to subsidise the vanity project that is Hampstead Garden Suburb library, when its millionaire Tory voting residents kicked up a fuss at possible closure, whilst refusing to listen to the rather less advantaged and largely Labour voting residents of Friern Barnet.

Friern Barnet is open again only after occupation, and sustained resistance by local campaigners, including legal action - and let it not be forgotten that it was the negotiations driven by the occupiers, especially Phoenix, which achieved a victory for the local community.

So: bad enough that the Mayor was invited to yesterday's celebration. But Kate Salinger was present, and she is a local Tory councillor, along with two Labour members. For some reason Tory councillor David Longstaff also came along. Kate is a nice woman, and has supported the library activists, but ultimately is loyal to her party, the party who closed the library in the first place. And of course it was the Labour councillors who were first on the scene to show their support, as soon as the occupiers moved in, and helped to organise the legal challenge  ... 

To claim the establishment of the community library is an achievement of the Tories is frankly beyond contempt. 

The only reason there is a library there now is due to one thing: the occupation of the building by squatters from the occupy movement, and the determination of the local campaigners.

Lest we forget - Petra and Phoenix: the librarians from Occupy

It was rather annoying, yesterday, in fact, to hear so many fine speeches in praise of the enterprise, and no mention of the people to whom the library owes its very existence. Phoenix is away, so could not be present, but Petra, one of the original occupiers, and Mordechai were there, more or less unacknowledged. This is how history is rewritten.

When Mrs Angry arrived, long time library campaigner Joanna Fryer was conducting a literary quiz: she then gave a quick address, noting that when the library had held a sixty year anniversary, in 1994, one of the guests was a woman who had attended the library every day, since the library had opened, in 1934.

An extraordinary fact, you might think: or perhaps not, because the relationship between people and their libraries has always been extraordinary, intimate and loyal, long lasting, a contract of love.

Author and library campaigner Alan Gibbons took his turn to address the guests. He remarked first of all on the quiz being the best demonstration of why we need libraries: yes, indeed: where else would you find such a fount of knowledge, except amongst those who read, and read, and read, and fill their heads full of all that stuff?

He talked about his new book, 'Hate', based on the true story of a young woman, Sophie Lancaster, who was kicked to death because she was a goth. She dared to be different, he said. And we are all different, in our own ways. 

This is what literature does: it testifies to the human condition. If you lose a library, he warned, you lose the right to tell the truth about the human condition. 

He talked about a school where the library was removed, in favour of a 'reading room' - a place with books, but no librarian - no gatekeeper. He congratulated the activists who had saved Friern Barnet library as a community library, staffed by volunteers, but, he said: you should not have had to do it. He is right: and sadly, no matter how dedicated the volunteers, they can never replace the posts of professional librarians, and the support of a fully resourced library service.

And of course the government has a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive library service, but, ironically,  other than in prison, said Alan Gibbons, this was a duty increasingly ignored.

In fact, touching on the subject of prison was a timely move: ironic perspective duly ignored, Tory minister Chris Grayling is seeking further to punish prisoners by banning them from receiving any books, in a ridiculous new policy which, (along with its refusal to allow women inmates the privilege of wearing their own underwear), seems to be part of the new Coalition Poor Law, designed to dehumanise and humiliate those who fall foul of the law, and end up behind bars. 

No doubt the treadmill and picking oakum are shortly to be reintroduced as well, but the intent is clear: reading and education are once more the right of the privileged few, and too dangerous in the hands of those on the margins of society.

But to remove access to literature is a dangerous policy, said Gibbons: because reading is one way of teaching empathy. Learn to read, and read well.  

What if those feral young men who kicked Sophie Lancaster to death had had the chance to read - and understood - these words in Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mocking Bird'?

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Libraries, he said, are temples of learning - temples of hope. Exactly so.

Boyd Tonkin, (above, left) long time literary editor of the Independent, spoke about his love of libraries, and love of this library in particular, in which he spent many hours as a child. 

He could remember exactly where he had stood - where two little girls were playing now, amongst the shelves, oblivious to the speechmaking going on around them - reading a book on cricket, and puzzling over the meaning of a word, 'invaluable' ... he could remember the old counter, and the curious shrinking in height in inverse proportion to his own rate of growth. He recalled the speed with which he finished his weekly allocation of books. 

After his speech, Mrs Angry was introduced to Mr Tonkin, curtseying, of course, in homage: he said he loved reading the Barnet blogs: a modern day samizdat, he suggested. Who could hope for higher praise? 

Mrs Angry commented how well his words resonated with her, her own childhood rooted in weekly visits to Edgware library, and a similar obsession with a counter, and a fines box with a brass slot, and  a satisfying clunk when the pennies rolled in. 

The young Mrs Angry longed to be fined, so as to have the excuse to drop coins in it, but never had the excuse of overdue books because her own allocation would be read in the course of the weekend, and returned as soon as possible, as she read her way through every book on every shelf, and learned that the world of fiction was infinite in possibility, and possibly infinitely more preferable to the real world.

Where would children like us be, without a library? Books may furnish a room, but the children of parents who buy no books must find their own. 

No kindle or website can ever replace the feel of a book, the smell of it; the touch of the paper, the presence of the book beside your bed, or on a shelf in the library, inviting you to read it, and enter new realms of imagination, and confront new ideas, and words, and more words, the colour and rythmn of which rearranges your own way of writing forever, and shapes the way you think.

The last speaker was the least well known, the most modest, a quiet young woman with two very small children, who crowded round her as she read a poem, a poem read before in this library, at the re-opening ceremony: it should be reproduced in full. 

She prefaces this with an explanation:

I wrote this poem in anger, when the council tried to close our local library. The library was finally saved, thanks to Occupy squatters, who lived in the building for several months, and local activists. We owe them forever.
Today (23rd March 2014) the community celebrated 80 years of Friern Barnet Library. Here's to 80 more.

To The Book Thief 

by Alex Mankowitz

Would you snatch a book from my boy’s hands,
As he sat pulling apart each word, limb from limb,
Stumbling on phonics, cuddled against my breast?

Would you prise his little paws off the cover,
Ignore his baffled screams, my tearful pleas as you
Peel away bendy fingers, made sticky by a day’s play?

Would you snatch it if snatching made it tear,

Left him grasping a crumpled cover, bereft,
While you walk away triumphant, dropping pages like a trail?

Just how far would you go?

How about the books already in his head,
The bedtime stories lovingly tethered to his soul;
Would you steal those too? Why let them be?

Because you know, books are not like bees.
They don’t lie down and die after a single sting, nor fizzle out
like a match that burns to a searing stub at your fingers.

No. When you steal a book you steal it again and again.
You steal it from every child whose face ever pressed up
Against a rainy window pane, bored and poor and trapped.

You lock him in, in a way that no wall ever could.
You set up fences he can’t even see, burn ladders he didn’t know he had.
And you do it to his children and his children’s children.

For eternity.

That is what you are doing to us.

So I say: steal my baby’s books if you dare,
But first look at him, look at his big brown eyes,
And tell him what you’re going to do.

Say to him: Child, I am taking from you this book
that you are reading.

Say: Child, forget these pictures.
Say: Child, snuff out those rhymes.

And tell him: Don’t ask me what happens next.
There are no more pages to turn.
Because: Child, this is the end.

Then sing to him:

Lavender’s blue dilly dilly,
Lavender’s green.
I stole your books, dilly dilly
Cos I am mean.


Call up your men, dilly dilly
Call up your crooks,
Some to build pyres, dilly dilly
Some to burn books

Some to break glass, dilly dilly
Some to crush bricks,
While me and mine, dilly dilly
Still get our kicks.

Then take a long look at his big brown eyes.
Just look.
And see, just how much you are taking from us.

See just how much you are taking from us.

The story of Friern Barnet library is not just about a building full of books, that was closed, and emptied, and opened, and refilled with books. 

It is about the idea of resisting injustice, an idea you might read about in one of those books, and feel strong enough to carry into your own life, and make it change the world. And that is why our enemies want to shut our libraries and take away our books, to disarm prisoners of their access to learning, and the process of contemplation, dangerous thoughts: they want to stop us thinking, and thinking we might be strong enough to challenge the things they are doing.

Here in Broken Barnet they are taking away not just books, and libraries, but housing, and carers, and children's centres, and day centres, and so many vital services that support the most dependent residents of this borough. 

Don't be fooled by Tory candidates and their election leaflets that tell you they are your friends, and only want to help you. 

They are the ones standing with a knife in their hand. 

The only way to stop them is to go to the polling station on May 22nd and vote for the people who really do care about those who need help, and stand up to be counted, when it counts.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Dangerous obsession: or - the questions about Church Farmhouse Museum Barnet Tories won't allow

The story of Church Farmhouse Museum, as Mrs Angry has most recently commented in this post ...

.. serves as a fitting metaphor for the nature of the Tory administration here in Broken Barnet.

What was a fine and rare example of our built heritage, a beautiful Grade II* listed seventeenth century house, and a well respected and much loved local museum, was peremptorily closed by our philistine Tory councillors three years, ago, its irreplaceable collection of local history artefacts denigrated, labelled 'of no value', ransacked and flogged at auction - or given away to local museums in neighbouring areas, where history, heritage and culture have not yet been outsourced. 

So a building that was bought by the council decades ago, in order to preserve it and to provide the borough with a local museum is now regarded by the current Tory run authority as a nuisance, and of value only as in terms of its speculative potential.

Councillors Daniel Thomas and Robert Rams were keen to flog the Church Farmhouse, as well as the collection, as of course it seemed to those who have no concept of the unique value of an historic property, that it was ripe for development. 

Wrong, of course, as the demands of a listed building of this nature make it unsuitable for most adaptions that would make it commercially attractive. They thought they had a deal all lined up with Middlesex Uni. 

Wrong again: Middlesex Uni backed out, seemingly because of financial problems, and then, as potential tenants, arguing over the difficulty and expense of making the delicate fabric of the building sound and suitable for their purposes, whatever that might be. Oh dear.

In the meanwhile, during the long and unnecessary years of closure, the building has deteriorated from neglect, and English Heritage has now listed it as 'vulnerable'. 

It stands forlorn, and empty, and decaying, representing in perfect form the miserable state of the local Conservative party ethos.

It was not until Mrs Angry suggested the property was open to being targeted by squatters, at the time of the Friern Barnet library occupation, that any moves at all were made to secure Church Farmhouse: a company was immediately engaged to employ a 'live-in' guardian, and he has remained there until recently, and a new development. 

It appears that the company is liable to legal challenge if their employee is installed in a property without cooking or bath/shower facilities, neither of which existed, unsurprisingly, in the former museum.  

(As an aside, may Mrs Angry point out, as observed only this week, on walking past the building, that clearly food is being prepared in the Farmhouse: has this activity been assessed and monitored in terms of fire risk to the building, and does it affect the building's insurance policy?) 

It now seems that the council has tackled this problem in the most extraordinary display of contempt for the preservation of this sensitive building - by installing a totally anachronistic shower room in the listed structure - and apparently without seeking consent from English Heritage. Again we must ask: who has authorised this? What risks to the fabric of the structure does this raise, as well as the potential damage to the listed internal features?

Of course we imagine it to be anachronistic: perhaps it is a seventeenth century period style contraption, consisting of a small servant boy and a wooden pail of water from the dewpond in the museum grounds?

Former museum curator Gerrard Roots, who lives yards away from the building, has kept a careful eye on the Farmhouse since the place was summarily shut. 

No one could be better placed to know the effect of the years of closure and neglect has had on the structure, and he has tried, in face of all the odds, to keep the issue of the building's fate in the public domain, and to ask vital questions about the state of the place, and also about its future. 

Former curator Gerrard Roots outside the Church Farmhouse Museum, closed by Barnet Council. pic Times Group

These questions are exactly the sort of questions that Barnet Council does not want to answer.  Why? 

Because they are too acute, and too embarrassing. 

What can they do to stop the matter being discussed? 

They resort to the usual Barnet tactics - the ones that prove the complete nonsense of the spin put out by some senior officers that the default mode of Barnet Council is 'open government'. 

Read on, and see what we mean. This is the latest response from an information officer at Barnet to Gerrard Roots, who has attempted to find out if the newly installed facilities were discussed, as surely they should be, with English Heritage: here is his latest request:

Since September 2012 Barnet Council has contracted Ad Hoc Property Services to provide security for Church Farmhouse Museum. 

Ad Hoc has provided a 'Guardian' to 'occupy' the premises. On its website Ad Hoc tells prospective Guardians that all the properties it maintains have cooking and shower/bath facilities. Church Farm has neither, and I understand that, at the beginning of this year, Ad Hoc was advised that it could lay itself open to a legal challenge if it continued to require its Guardians to live in the Museum under such conditions. Since then the security for the building has been maintained, not by an Ad Hoc Guardians, but instead by ordinary security staff, from another security company (presumably) acting on behalf of Ad Hoc, who do not live in the building. (I was not given this information in response to an FOI request on security at Church Farm that I made some weeks ago.) 

Yesterday (3 February) workmen began constructing a shower-room in the Church Farm building, to enable, it would seem, Ad Hoc's Guardians eventually to resume occupation without any threat of legal action. This work, on a Grade II* listed building categorized by English Heritage as 'vulnerable', commenced without any public statement of intent by Barnet Council, and, indeed, even without any warning to the security staff currently manning the building. 

Therefore, I wish to know: 

a. at whose behest is this work being done- Barnet Council's or Ad Hoc's; 

b. who is paying for the work- Barnet or Ad Hoc; 

c. is the work being carried out by approved Barnet contractors; 

d. has this work been discussed with English Heritage and, if so, has English Heritage given it its approval; 

e. has Middlesex University- still supposedly negotiating leasing the building from Barnet Council- been informed: 

f. how much will the work cost; 

g. has Barnet continued to pay Ad Hoc £85.00 per day during the period when there has been no Guardian in occupation, merely a rota of security operatives from a different organization;

h. is there any intention of making additional alterations to the building to comply with Ad Hoc's requirements?.

The response from Barnet:

We have processed this request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.


London Borough of Barnet has determined that the request is vexatious in accordance with section 14(1).

In considering whether a request is vexatious under section 14(1) the key question is whether the request is likely to cause a disproportionate or unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress. The council must objectively judge the evidence of the impact on the authority and weigh it against the purpose and value of the request, taking into account context and history. There is an emphasis on protecting the authority’s resources from unreasonable requests.

The leading decision on section 14(1) is the Upper Tribunal in Dransfield (ICO v Devon County Council and Dransfield 2012 UKUT 440 (AAC) (28 Jane 2013) which says at para 20:
“section 14 … is concerned with the nature of the request and has the effect of dis-applying the citizen’s right under section 1(1)… the purpose of section 14… must be to protect the resources (in the broadest sense of that word) of the public authority from being squandered on disproportionate use of FOIA…”

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) guidance on section 14(1) encourages the use of section 14 in any case where the public authority believes the request is disproportionate or unjustified. It states at para 11 an authority “should not regard section 14(1) as something which is only to be applied in the most extreme circumstances or as a last resort”

History and Context

Although the act is applicant blind we believe that the context and history of your requests are of relevance when considering section 14(1).

In his decision on the Dransfield case, Judge Wikeley stated that:

A common theme underpinning section 14(1) as it applies on the basis of a past course of dealings between a public authority and a particular requester, is a lack of proportionality.
First the present or future burden on the public authority may be inextricably linked with the previous course of dealings. Thus the context and history of the particular request, in terms of the previous course of dealings between the individual requester and the public authority in question, must be considered in assessing whether it is properly to be characterised as vexatious. In particular, the number, breadth, pattern and duration of previous requests may be a telling factor

We believe that this is sufficiently demonstrated by the evidence with regard to the historical context of this request and therefore applies to this request.

The council received and responded to 9 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from yourself in 2012/13. In respect of a request received on 11/2/13 the council refused this as vexatious on 13/2/13, which was upheld on Internal Review. You then exercised your right
to complain to the ICO. The ICO investigated and informally indicated that they would uphold the section 14 (1) decision in a decision notice. At this point you withdrew your complaint. Therefore the previous section 14 decision and reasoning that your request concerning Church Farmhouse Museum was vexatious remains in place.

The ICO informally asked the council what approach we would take if you made any future FOI requests regarding Church Farmhouse museum (CFM). We stated that we would deal with these on their individual merits. We have considered the ICO guidance which reminds a local authority that it cannot simply refuse a new request solely on the basis that it has classified previous requests from the same individual as vexatious. This has not occurred in this case. Since the previous section 14 application the council has received and responded to four further FOI requests from you on this exact same topic

All your requests concern Church Farmhouse Museum (CFM). We have no record of you making a FOI request to the council about any subject other than CFM. All the requests concern the same single property and the council’s management of it, particularly repairs and security. This is not a case of a requester asking varied questions across the council’s area of responsibilities, nor even on a single general issue (such as for example social services, or schools policy) but on a single building with which the requester has a personal history and vested interest. A clear analogy can be drawn with Dransfield on this point, especially with respects to the issue of an individual having an ‘idée fixe’.

Volume of requests and burden on the authority

Judge Wikeley stated

“the greater the number of previous FOIA requests that the individual has made to the public authority concerned, the more likely it may be that a further request may properly be found to be vexatious”

A requester who submits 5 requests on the same discrete subject over approx. 15 weeks (following a period of submitting 9 requests over 5 months) can reasonably be seen to have submitted a high number of requests. A total of 14 requests on the same discrete subject have been submitted within less than 18 months.

In his decision on the Dransfield case, Judge Wikeley stated that:

The purpose of section 14 is to protect public authorities and their employees in their everyday business. Thus, consideration of the effect of a request on them is entirely justified. A single abusive and offensive request may well cause distress, and so be vexatious. A torrent of individually benign requests may well cause disruption.

A “torrent” of individual requests, whilst they may not individually, taken out of context, be seen as harmful, can lead to disruption and distress. The number of requests you have submitted which have to be answered by a very small number of officers, are a heavy burden on the authority, taking officers away from other work and disrupting routine work.
The council accepts that if submitted as a stand-alone individual request without the context and history this request would not be regarded as vexatious. Indeed, the council has responded to a number of similar requests since you withdrew your complaint to the ICO. However, the relevant context here is the burden that the volume of requests has had on the council and, in particular, the Principal Valuer who has been involved in the majority of the requests.

The case could reasonably seen as to be analogous with that of Betts (Betts vs ICO, (EA/2007/0109 19 May 2008)), where the request concerned health and safety policies and risk assessments, and there was nothing vexatious in the content of the request itself. However, taking into account the dispute with the council, the FOI requests and correspondence the Tribunal concluded that the request was vexatious when viewed in context. As in Betts, this request is a continuation of a pattern of behaviour and part of an on-going campaign to pressure the council. Our experience is that responding to this request would be very likely to lead to further correspondence, requests and complaints and that, as in Betts, given the wider context and history, the request was harassing, likely to impose a significant burden, and obsessive.

Whilst we acknowledge your right to be interested in this subject, we feel your continued use of the Freedom of Information Act in order to receive information and to push home your point of view shows a lack of reasonable proportionality. It has contributed to a significant and unreasonable burden on council resources and staff, constituting, in the words of the Dransfield ruling, a manifestly unjustified, inappropriate [and] improper use of a formal procedure. The council acknowledges it has a duty to demonstrate a commitment to transparency and we have endeavoured to respond to your second batch of requests.
Whilst you have submitted a high number of requests on one very narrow subject, the council has been prepared to respond to them.

Whether the point had been reached that the pursuit of the issue had become vexatious was considered on receipt of request reference 692965. However, it was considered that although there was a significant burden on the council with attendant disruption, the tipping point had not been reached at that time. That request was responded to and you were given advice on section 14. However we believe that at the receipt of this current request a tipping point has been reached and the burden on the authority has become too onerous to justify.

Distress to staff and burden on the council

In Dransfield Judge Wikeley also noted that vexatiousness may be evidenced “…by obsessive conduct that harasses or distresses staff, uses intemperate language, makes wide-ranging and unsubstantiated allegations of criminal behaviour or is in any other respects extremely offensive…”

Whilst this request may not appear, when taken as a single request out of context, to be obsessive, harassing or distressing in tone and scope, it needs to be viewed in context. The numbers of requests over such a short time period, the exceptionally narrow scope of the requests and the tone of many of the emails have been harassing and distressing for staff.
The FOI requests regarding CFM are administered by one council officer and the vast majority of the information requested provided by another officer. The burden on the council in dealing with these requests is concentrated in a small number of individuals, and the time taken is disruptive to their other daily work.

Serious purpose or value

We do not contend that if looked at in isolation this request has no serious purpose or value. We acknowledge your entitlement to make proportionate FOI requests and to engage with the council over the issues surrounding the closure of CFM. Our willingness to do this is evidenced by our responding to four requests following the withdrawal of your complaint to the ICO. However, it is our view that, in submitting the volume of requests on one discrete topic, representing an obsession or ‘idée fixe’ such that resulted in a section 14(1) response, your requests are now disproportionate to any serious purpose or any
value you may gain from this information. There is a strong similarity with Dransfield on this point.

Alternative approaches

The ICO guidance states that it is good practice to consider whether a more conciliatory approach would practically address the issues surrounding potentially vexatious requests. Given your dealings with the council over the FOI requests and general issues over CFM we do not believe that this is a viable option. It is our view that you have, to quote the ICO guidance “take[n] an unreasonably entrenched position, rejecting attempts to assist and advise out of hand and show no willingness to engage with the authority.” You are unwilling to accept responses provided and respond to requests with argumentative and tendentious language. Your response to the advice and assistance over section 14 in the last response supports this view.

Advice and Assistance

We would advise you that the council is fully cognisant of its duties under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 and other relevant legislation, and any works undertaken at Church Farmhouse Museum will be taken in accordance with those requirements. Not all works require English heritage consent, for example those which do not impact upon the structure of the building, and the self-contained shower cubicle is an example of this. Where English Heritage consent is required the council will obtain this in advance of undertaking works. The council is aware of the need to obtain best value for money in relation to security at Church farmhouse and is acting to reduce security expenses whilst ensuring a continuing suitable level of security at the building.

Well. Where to start?

First of all, this response has clearly had a serious amount of imput by legal services. This is a mark of how worried our Tory councillors are by the glaring scandal that is the Farmhouse issue, and the embarrassment caused by Gerrard Roots' questions: questions that are too dangerous, because they are so well informed. 

To try to represent his enquiries as in any way other than made on a subject that is of important public interest to the residents of this borough is contemptible, and indeed risible.
 Look at the language used:  idée fixe, obsession, argumentative and tendentious language, 'a torrent of individually benign requests': requests which yet are claimed, within the same response, as having a tone that is 'harassing and distressing for staff' - a clear contradiction.

In truth, there has been neither a torrent of requests, nor any obsessive behaviour - we are talking about only 14 careful and considered requests in 18 months. These questions were quite justified, and indeed necessary, in the public interest, to establish exactly what has happened as a course of the actions taken by the authority. 

That a publicly owned, listed building, a museum, part of our heritage should be shut, with no consultation, and put up for sale, was bad enough. To keep it closed for three years, at our expense, and neglect the building to the point where it becomes listed as 'vulnerable' is nothing short of scandalous.

The individuals who are likely to feel harassed, and rightly so, are the Tory councillors who are responsible for this f*ck up. 

Thanks to them we have lost our local museum, for no good reason, and they have spectacularly failed to achieve the very purpose of their shabby ambitions in flogging the place off for a quick buck. No wonder they do not want any well informed questions holding them to account.

It is a pity that Mr Roots dropped his original complaint to the ICO. It is clearly not the mark of an unreasoning obsessive to have done so: no one could blame him for not wanting to be bothered with the interminable process. 

His new complaint, however, will now be considered in the wider context of Barnet's history of abusing the FOI process when trying to avoid allowing transparency over politically sensitive issues - see the case of the One Barnet minutes it tried to withhold, until the intervention and determined efforts of the ICO forced them to respond.

In my view there should be an enquiry into the actions of the council in the handling of this matter, and all the negotiations which have been held in secret in regard to the future of the Farmhouse, from the very beginning, should be laid open to public scrutiny. 

We were not asked if we wanted to lose our museum, and our local history collection thrown away, given away, or sold to the highest bidder. 

We were not asked if we wanted this beautiful building put up for sale, or loaned to Middlesex University. 

No efforts were made adequately to secure the building, until its vulnerability was made public by me. 

No one has more of a right to ask questions about the state of Church Farmhouse than the former curator, who worked there for more than thirty years, and who sees daily the rate of deterioration of the building. 

To misrepresent his attempts to hold the authority to account for its shameful behaviour in regard to the property is pathetic, cynical, and a deliberate strategy. 

It is in short, exactly the default mode of this Tory council: not open government, but the absolute inversion of the principle of transparency - a sign of a failing administration, losing its grip, and retreating to a position of mindless attack.