Wednesday, 19 March 2014
Good news all round: the meaning of democracy, and the destruction of a community: two nights out in Hendon
West Hendon, February 1941
At the very end of last night's debate in West Hendon, an elderly man stood up, and took the microphone. He wanted to mention something that was not really a point of debate, but one of local history.
Earlier in the evening a resident of the doomed estate by the Welsh Harp had revealed that the new development will see the destruction of York Park, created, we heard, as a memorial to those killed in the terrible incident in West Hendon in 1941, in which an experimental bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe flattened three roads, killing around eighty people, injuring many others, and making 1,500 people homeless after destroying 366 houses, damaging hundreds more. He had been a boy then, he told us, and cycled from Burnt Oak to see what happened, coming upon a scene of absolute devastation.
He was upset at the prospect of York Park being destroyed in order to facilitate the development. After all, the park, he said, was a sort of war memorial, and there were laws, weren't there, to protect war memorials?
After a rather desultory discussion about the meaning of democracy, it was clear that the 'regeneration' of West Hendon was the only issue that residents wanted to hear about last night.
Why wouldn't they? Their lives are being torn apart by this scheme, having faced an uncertain future for years now, not knowing where they will be living, the estate falling into a state of neglect, many residents having no secure tenancies, and leaseholders being presented with extortionate demands for £10,000 each for maintenance which should have been done years ago, not now that the buildings are due for demolition.
Residents representatives spoke with great anger about the way in which they are being sidelined in the development of this area.
Derrick Chung criticised Barratt Homes, the council, and the Metropolititan Housing Trust for failing ordinary residents, who would not be given any assurance of a home in the area after development, or any real choice as to where they would go.
We're not residents, we're not leaseholders, we're a community! That was the declaration from the splendid Jasmin Parsons of the Residents Regeneration Group, to thunderous applause.
There was real anger in the room from the local community over the council's failure to recognise their needs, and to prefer to support the development of luxury housing, penthouse flats, and property that seems fated, as in schemes like Beaufort Park, to be the target of speculative overseas investment, rather than present accommodation for local buyers or renters, let alone those who cannot afford to invest in non affordable housing.
Jasmin Parsons, from the Regeneration Residents Group
As Jasmin said, working people are being evicted from West Hendon, and it seems clear that many will end up not only far from West Hendon, but out of the borough. The disruption to their lives has already begun with the beginning of the building work, as one resident described, lorries passing their homes constantly, bringing dirt, smoke, grit, the green spaces around them being closed off and ripped apart.
A vicar from the church of St John the Evangelist, next door to the centre where we were gathered, said that the regeneration was in fact the only issue that really mattered to residents. They are not going to worry about recycling bins, when some of them are having to live in damp flats, and do not know where they are going to be living in two years time, he pointed out. He asked all the political representatives a question: do you support having their right to stay in this community?
In fact Labour has pledged to try to renegotiate so that as many residents affected by the scheme can stay: to do this, of course, they must first be elected as an administration.
Veteran local Labour Councillor Agnes Slocombe had reminded the meeting forcefully that all the problems being encountered were as a result of a Conservative administration, and the only way to make changes is to use their votes, and make them count, and remove them from power.
Cllr Agnes Slocombe urges residents to use their vote and remove the Tory administration pic courtesy of Our West Hendon
The debate and appeal for support for Labour was listened to by the equally long serving local commentator Mr Shepherd, who, with his usual display of remarkable ingenuity, managed to divert the discussion to his favourite topic - the level of failings within the corporation of the City of London - and then announced that he might have voted for Bob Crow's party, but indicated, graciously, and with a certain amount of caution, that he was willing to consider endowing Labour with the not inconsiderable honour of his vote.
Mrs Angry imagines that Labour HQ are already drawing up plans to send a campaign bus down his road, and organising a personal visit from Ed Miliband. Turn the mike off, before you leave, Ed.
The power of feeling amongst the residents at this question time was formidable: Labour representatives looked on, not quite able to focus this anger where it should be, behind their policies, and towards the hated Tories, who as they always do, refused to send any members to defend their own policies at a public meeting.
Some of the residents from West Hendon had put questions regarding Barnet Homes and housing policy to the previous night's Contract Monitoring meeting: careful, well informed questions which, in some cases, such as the rights of tenants in place before changes in the localism act, went unanswered as neither councillors nor officers knew how to reply.
There were 77 public questions, in all. There should not have to be 77 public questions, if councillors are able to scrutinise properly the contracts that the authority now manages.
The entire meeting, in fact, showed exactly what is wrong with scrutiny in this borough. Serious failings in the parking contract are being ignored, as Mr Mustard can explain better than me, but all we saw was an agreement to defer the matter to a future date.
No: not good enough - there is an election on the horizon, and councillors of all parties owe it to all residents to do their job, and hold contractors to account, with more of a sense of urgency.
And think about this: if they are so lax with parking, how on earth will they cope with the massive Capita contracts?
The answer is they certainly are not coping yet. They still fail to question, with the notable exception of Labour's Jeff Cooke, not only the satisfaction levels quoted by Capita, but the way in which the data itself is compiled.
How representative is the sample used to base these figures? We do not know.
The Tories do not care. The Labour group is too easily satisfied, and fearful of any robust challenge of officers and Tory colleagues.
At the question time in West Hendon, Libdem leader Jack Cohen warned again that if the Tories get back into power, on the first morning back in power, they will call in the senior officers, and ask how they can do more of the same, develop and expand all the policies they have begun in the last four years. God help us.
Think you have seen everything that could be privatised, privatised? Think again.
Think you have seen everything that could be sold off, sold off? Think again.
At the Contract meeting, Deputy Leader Daniel Thomas and his cabinet cohorts, Robert Rams and Tom Davey, presented a lovely slideshow of how marvellous everything has been in the last four years, and how even more marvellous it will be in the future.
'Good news all round', he explained. It was early days, but the 'start of a relationship'. Customer satisfaction was at an all time high.
Julian Silverman, behind him in the public seats, pointed out that we are not their customers, we are your employers.
The fact that these councillors sat with their backs to the public, their employers, electors, and taxpayers, said it all really.
We are irrelevant. They are not accountable to us. Only our heckling made any inroads into their complacency and arrogance. Thomas made remarks about 'socialists' - as if we would not be pleased by being recognised as such - and their awful behaviour. 'A noisy minority'.
The Chair told Mrs Angry, aged 12, to go and stand in the corridor. Mrs Angry did not go and stand in the corridor.
Councillor Thomas' interesting view of the Capita contracts was that, even though it is 'early days', it is already a resounding success. His collegue Tom Davey thought the Labour councillors were very disappointing in their questions now that it had been shown that their predictions about an immediate failure had proved wrong.
Oh, but then Labour's Barry Rawlings pointed out that the in house services had deliberately been left to 'wither' before outsourcing, so as to make the case for privatisation and present an apparent level of savings.
And of course nowhere could that be more true than in procurement, which was effectively abandoned - to the point of catastrophic failure in management, making it easy pickings for Capita to come in and take shedloads of profit, with only a minimum of savings for us.
One of the admissions of this presentation was that a report on a list of council assets would now not be forthcoming until later in the year. Wonder why that is?
The contract performance summaries were dismissed with no real debate.
But Jeff Cooke queried the surprisingly high customer satisfaction levels for Barnet Homes. For Barnet Homes, Derek Rust admitted the process for gauging satisfaction was not 'an exact science'.
It's not a science at all, remarked Mrs Angry, who was somewhat distracted, at this point, by Councillor Rayner, sneaking into the seat behind her, and whispering in her ear another invitation to Scratchwood. With or without her wellies.
And Councillor Harper, don't think Mrs Angry didn't spot your nodding at her, and the elaborate build up to the reference to 'fingering individuals' in reports, in the regrettable absence of more portfolio jokes.
You are too aware, now, of your legendary status in my blog. Time to call it a day.
Oh: you have called it a day: standing down, disappointingly.
But yes. There are lies, damned lies, statistics, and Barnet council customer satisfaction surveys.
We live in a world of inexactitude, and inequality, here in Broken Barnet, where councillors sit with their backs to their voters, and refuse to enter into a dialogue with the residents who pay their allowances, and rely on them to represent their interests.
Back in West Hendon, the interests of residents who most need representation are ignored by the Tory administration. This administration does not want them to remain in their own homes, in their own community, in this borough. They are surplus to electoral requirements, and are not affluent enough to merit the fawning attention given to the residents of Totteridge of Lane and Bishops Avenue.
The elderly man who cycled down to see what devastation had been wrought on this area in the war is now witnessing the demolition of a community in an attack more destructive than anything launched by the Luftwaffe.
On that night in 1941, 1,500 people were made homeless, by one act of war. But their homes were rebuilt, homes for working people, and the community revived.
In 2014, we are seeing perhaps as many people made homeless by the ideology of profit, a cynical war against the poor: the gerrymandering tactics of a political administration determined to cleanse the least advantaged areas of this borough of those in need and replant them with those with means.
It might be an idea for the Tory councillors to consider the example of history, and reflect on what happened when the second world war was over, and the first election was held, and the people who wanted their voices heard made sure that they put in power a party that would listen.