Sunday 21 December 2014

Secret Santa in Broken Barnet, or: Easycouncil ... as easy as falling off a chair?

Earlier this week an article by Aditya Chakrabortty, senior economics editor of the Guardian - (and, more importantly, as Mrs Angry can exclusively reveal, one time saturday assistant at Hendon Library) - appeared in the paper's 'Comment is Free'  column:

As he said:
If you want to see the future of your local public services, it’s already here: in the north London suburb of Barnet. I visited last week – and it’s not pretty.

Here was a brilliant, incisive analysis of the state of Capitaville, now in its second year, since Year Zero, the beginning of the age of mass privatisation of our council services.

Christmas has come early for the campaigners, activists and commentators of Broken Barnet. Once again media attention is turning to the state of things here in the one time, some time Tory flagship borough as an indication, a sounding of the depths, a measurement of where we are now, in these last few months before the general election.

So yes: and here we are now, then, the festive season in Broken Barnet, that time of year when our Tory councillors put aside all political ambitions, and focus their energies on more community minded endeavours. 

You know - like sitting back and pimping the last of the local council services not already sold into ten year bondage with Crapita, putting hundreds of council employees into a state of fear over their jobs, approving a monstrous range of budget cuts, and plotting to destroy our public library system.

Merry Christmas. 

Oh. Mrs Angry says sitting back, and pimping the last of our public services. Hmm. Something of an unexpected problem, for some.

Easy as it is for our worse than useless Tory members to do as their senior management tells them and hand control of this borough to profiteering private contractors, without so much as a whimper, they are not, as events at this week's Full Council meeting proved, awfully good at sitting back, or indeed, sitting.


Chairs: hell of a challenge. What to do with them? F*ck knows.

Having outsourced their brains to Crapita, our Tory friends are now unable to work this out. Not to worry. A £1million report has been commissioned from consultants at Agilisys/iMPOWER, to be followed by a ten year contract as implementation partners, and a new management structure, headed by a Director of Sitting Very Carefully. And then the members' chairs will be taken over by Crapita, and leased back to Barnet Council, at a very reasonable rate. 

Arriving at Hendon Town Hall last night for the last Full Council of the year, where cuts and outsourcing were on the agenda, to be rubber stamped by our uxorious councillors, mrs Angry was met by a curious sight: look - there was Santa Claus. And there was Santa Claus: and another, and another, a dozen or so (not sure of the collective noun, in this context: a sleighload?) all holding placards.

Which of you, asked Mrs Angry suspiciously, is the real Santa?

I am Santa Claus, proclaimed one. 

No! I am Santa Claus, declared another. 

A Spartacus style rebellion amongst the whitebearded comrades, then, which must have been awfully confusing for any small children passing by, or our emptyheaded Tory councillors. 

Mrs Angry has it on good authority, however, that the real Santa is very cross with our emptyheaded Tory councillors, and she must warn them, like that horrible mum in the Daily Mail story, that they are unlikely to receive anything in their Christmas stockings this year, and serve them right. 

He knows, Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, when you've naughty, and he knows when you've been nice. That is to say: never.

Into the town hall and up into the council chamber. The public gallery filled up, watched by nervous security staff - but there was no particular trouble brewing, just a sense of quiet fury, and well worn cynicism at the farce that was about to begin. 

And with an added sense of pantomime, as the back row of the gallery became occupied by a row of santas, sitting rather formally, more like a conclave of particularly grumpy cardinals, peering disapprovingly at the sinners in the council chamber. 

The Mayor swept in, accompanied by his footmen, with an air of showmanship only slightly less overstated than Liberace, on a tour of Vegas. 

Until recently, those in the public gallery (apart from Mrs Angry) would, as expected, stand up - all rise - as the Mayor entered the chamber. It is a sign of the times, and the abiding sense of contempt - oh dear - that we citizens bear for the office, that no one now would even think of making any such gesture. The Mayor might see this as a mark of disrespect to the office he holds. Mrs Angry would argue that it is entirely appropriate. Until Barnet Tories learn to show respect for the residents they represent, they deserve none in return.

The chaplain began her prayer, and our Mayor, councillors and senior officers bowed their heads: always a difficult time for Mrs Angry, who struggles to keep a straight face at the sight of such an unlikely assumption of humility and spiritual reflection, here in the corporate temple of Capitaville.

The ministers leading prayers in the council chamber of Broken Barnet are surely blessed with an evangelical mission way beyond the expectation of God, or even the hopes of the ranks of heavenly angels, saints and martyrs looking down, in tears, on our elected representatives, their knavish hearts frozen in Thatcherite time by the Snow Queen herself, our former PM, now departed. 

Ah well. Let it go, Mrs Angry. Let it go. Let it go, let it go.

The Chaplain began with an odd sort of choice of address to the Almighty. We must give thanks, she said, for the money that has been given for the 'regeneration' of Grahame Park. Oh. Ok.  Bit political, thought Mrs Angry. 

Worse still: let us give thanks for 'volunteers' (here there was a temptation to heckle something on the lines of not in our libraries, thank you very much), oh, and then 'the workers', and 'all in this assembly who have worked hard to make Barnet a better place'. That would exclude all those sitting on the far side of the chamber, then.

Christmas and Chanukah, she commented, were both festivals celebrating miracles. A phenomenon, thought Mrs Angry, unlikely to occur tonight, unless our feckless Tory councillors are suddenly transformed from a herd of donkeys into a pack of roaring lions, and find the courage to oppose the agenda of cuts and outsourcing, and defend the libraries most of them are privately assuring their residents they will not allow to close ...

Christmas, Mrs Angry, as the Chaplain also reminded us, is the season of peace, and goodwill.

But not in Broken Barnet, Reverend. 

Declarations of interest: always amusing to watch, to see how the Tories address this requirement, or circumvent it with their self awarded 'dispensations'. 

Tory Environment lead member Dean Cohen declared something (he mumbles, and Mrs Angry couldn't hear everything) about being in talks with a lighting business. He has mentioned this before. Must be very long talks. Not sure why it is relevant, anyway.

The Mayor put on a solemn expression now, as he had the sad duty to announce the death of a former deputy Mayor, that no one seemed to remember, but had been, he claimed, cheered up by a visit from him, coincidentally, on the very day before she passed away, during which he showed her an old picture of herself he had taken from the Town Hall, dressed in her robes of office. Mrs Angry observed that this demonstrated yet again the curious degree of significance that Rayner, and most of his fellow Tories, place on the status of being Mayor, above all other reasons of being in public office.

In an unprecedented step, he then announced that, in a demonstration of Mayoral patronage, he had arranged for coffee and mince pies to be made available for the public, in the lobby outside the chamber. We live in an age of foodbanks, of course, and noblesse oblige: and this gesture may or may not be related to the recent revelation by fellow blogger Mr Mustard, following a question by the sharp minded new Labour councillor, Rebecca Challice, about the cost of our councillors' slap up buffet at these meetings:

Question Time, next. Usual game playing by the Tories. It was good to see Brian Gordon, the right wing Tory member for Edgware, comment, in regard to one response, about the 'multi racial and multi cultural' population of this borough. Cllr Gordon, of course, apart from his enthusiasm for diversity, is fondly remembered for his blacked up impersonation of Nelson Mandela at a party in an old folks home. 

Amandla, Brian.

He is also very good at providing leading questions for fellow Tories, on the lines of  would the leader agree with me that we are the most wonderful council in the history of local government? He wanted to know from his fellow frozen hearted councillors about preparations for what a winter of blizzards, here in the blighted landscape of Broken Barnet. 

Ah. An opportunity for Dean Cohen to revisit his finest political achievement - no, not the millions of pounds spent over the last couple of years on tarting up pavements in Tory wards, something far, far more successful. Cultivating a bunch of Pledgebankers. 

No, not exactly cockney rhyming slang: this was a Big Society Idea, from a few year ago, using - yes - volunteers - to do the things we already pay our council to pay some other contractor to do, ie look after the borough. 

As Mrs Angry recalls, at least two citizens in Cllr Cohen's own ward agreed to sign up - or at least pose for a photo opportunity - to shovel a load of grit provided by Barnet Council on those precious, tenderly cared for pavements of Golders Green (£1.1 million worth, in the last financial year).

Unfortunately the venture seems not to have caught on, very possibly because the idea of selfless volunteering has not been pioneered to any noticeable degree by our elected Tory councillors, and although our Tory friends think that libraries can be stripped of all professional or paid staff, our council chamber will remain stuffed full of largely redundant councillors, paid very nicely, thank you, and continuing to deliver shovel loads of shit policies on top of the heads of their electorate, while drawing up plans to replace senior officers with holographic representations, provided by Crapita, at only twice the going rate of six figure salaries, hidden behind the commercially sensitive front of agency provision, hidden behind a commercially sensitive, blogger-proof contract.

Questions continued with two telling admissions from the Tory 'Leader', Richard Cornelius:

In response to this question by Labour's Phil Cohen:

Q:' Visiting our local library with my family is the highlight of our week'. Who said that?

A: I don't know.

From Labour's Paul Edwards:

Q: Would the Leader confirm if any senior officer currently employed by the London Borough of Barnet has also been an employee of Capita in the last five years; and if so, for which Council Department/theme area are they currently employed?

A: I do not believe so, but it would not be a barrier to their employment.

Cornelius may not 'believe' so: if so, he is wrong, or badly informed. There is a senior officer who has worked for Capita for many years, and within that time frame, who is now heading one of the services being prepared for outsourcing, a proposal for which Capita has already been involved in 'market testing'. 

Mrs Angry has been trying to ask questions about this from the new, part time, interim Monitoring Officer, since October, and only just received a reply - after resorting to shaming the Chief Operating Officer on twitter - a response which claims the individual has not worked for Crapita since 2011 and-

... has no ongoing financial interest in the company. In those circumstances, it cannot be said that a reasonable, objective and well-informed member of the public would see any conflict of interest.

Really? Obviously Mrs Angry is well informed, but cannot claim to be reasonable or objective: what do you think, reasonable and objective readers? 

We hear that there are council protocols for such situations whereby conflicts of interest might occur, as described in the officers' code of conduct, with which of course the officer has complied with. No one doubts his honesty, but it is the responsibility of the council to have in place a system that addresses any possibility of risk from conflicts of interest, or even the perception of conflict of interest.

Are you confident, readers, that Barnet's protocols are sufficiently stringent to ensure the integrity of the tendering process for these outsourcing contracts, worth millions and millions of pounds of our money, bearing in mind the number of other senior officers who have come and gone between tendering companies, contractual partners, and consultancies?

After more knockabout questions, and careful evasions, and poor old Tory councillor Old getting his jacket caught in his chair, and finding himself unable to stand up to speak, it was on to the first item for debate: the interesting story of the council's new depot plans.

In their enthusiasm for the encouragement of property development, Barnet Tories, some way back, happily sold off the previous borough depot at Mill Hill East, before, oh dear, they had found a suitable site to take its place. 

Plans to use a site at Pinkham Way, conveniently in an area bordering on Haringey, came to nothing, and now they want to use a location in Oakleigh Road South for the waste depot - and this has caused some concern amongst local residents.

Tory councillor Dean Cohen intervented to make another declaration of interest.  A client of his, he said, owned a site adjoining the new proposed location.

Labour's Kathy Levine spoke about the council's incompetence in regard to this matter, not only in the failure to identify a suitable site, but in the price paid, in apparent panic, for the Abbotts Road property, which, she said was more than £5 and a half million more than the vendors had paid for it: Barnet was had over a barrel, she claimed.

Local Tory councillor Lisa Rutter stood up.  Her queenly manner, assumed during her term of office as Mayor, an office she was clearly deeply reluctant to relinquish - as demonstrated by what seemed like a six hour long speech at the end of her term, has never entirely faded, despite the length of time since she was deposed.

She now made a dramatic declaration of intent to the chamber. 

She would not vote for the plans. 

A sharp intake of breath. 


She was going ...wait for it ...  to abstain

Her demeanour, at this point, was as one might expect to have seen on the shining, heroic face of Joan of Arc, headed for the stake, and not giving a damn for the fiery torment lined up for her. 

Or that was her intention. In fact she appeared rather more in the guise, thought Mrs Angry, perhaps unkindly, of that woman, Margaret Dumont, in the Marx Bros films, always trying to rise above the anarchic chaos  of the plot, and retain some semblance of dignity, but failing.

Vote against it, don't abstain, suggested someone. Well, ok: it was Mrs Angry.  

You can't face both ways, said someone else. You know the Mayor will use his casting vote, and the plans will go through anyway

And so he did, and so they did. 

Lisa Rutter's residents should know and understand, and remember, that their local councillor could have voted against the depot plans, and they would not have been approved, but she chose not to, apparently putting party loyalties before the concerns of her constituents. 

True Blue Lisa Rutter, failing to oppose the new depot plans

Mrs Angry's mind was wandering by now, but she suddenly found herself listening to an uncharacteristically bad tempered Dean Cohen launching an attack on Labour's abandonment of the grossly undemocratic working groups, an attempt by the Tories, terrified of the risks unleashed by the new committee system to their tenuous grip on power, to persuade the traditionally docile opposition to discuss and agree on policy proposals out of sight, behind closed doors, and beyond the reach of transparency and accountability: a travesty of the local democratic process, in short.

Labour should never have fallen for this, of course, but the leadership complied, until protests from more radically minded members such as Alan Schneiderman and Devra Kay led to their boycotting the whole farce. Alan reminded Dean Cohen now that hidden in the proposals put to one of these groups were suggestions that our street lights should be turned off at night, and the parks left unlocked: both putting women's safety at increased risk, amongst other consequences. By Labour councillors dragging the issues into the public arena, and inviting members of the public to attend, the Tories had then been forced into a retraction of these idiotic proposals.

Dean Cohen maintained the group meetings were held in public. Hmm, thought Mrs Angry, eventually - but kept a virtual secret, with no agenda, no papers, no public questions, no minutes: no democracy.

At this point in the evening, Alison Moore, the Labour leader, decided, at last, that she had had enough, and launched what was by usual standards an outspoken attack on Tory policy, nationally and locally, observing that we were seeing 'the inevitable destruction of local government as we know it'. Even Thatcher, she said, baulked at such extreme measures, and yet we were seeing this happen in Barnet.

She laid into a list of expenditure wasted on such things as paying over the odds for the new depot, the parking deficit, the extortionately high salaries of 14 senior officers earning more than £100,000. As for the millions wasted on consultants' fees: a 15% cut would save our libraries, wouldn't it? She accused the council of 'stunning incompetence', that Barnet's public services were not safe in Tory hands - you know it, and we will not support it.

Deputy Labour leader Barry Rawlings began to speak. As he did so, or perhaps because he did so, Tory councillor Anthony Finn, for some reason, fell off his chair, or rather - slowly slid forward, like Titanic on the slipway in Belfast, launched and moving inexorably towards the ocean floor. 

The chamber looked on in surprise: a security officer rushed through the doors with impressive speed, and went to his assistance. 

In the public gallery, the news that a Tory councillor had hit the deck was met with a certain amount of feverish excitement. Has someone kicked the bucket? asked one man behind Mrs Angry?

The word 'by election' shot through the gallery faster than a speeding bullet.

Fortunately Cllr Finn was hauled up from the floor of the chamber, unscathed, if somewhat embarrassed, and able to joke about there being no safe seat left in Barnet.

In many former Tory wards in Broken Barnet, this is most certainly the case. 

Libdem Councillor Jack Cohen was speaking now. 

 A riveting speech from Cllr Cohen (screws loose, Jack?)

He was brandishing a copy of the Barnet Tory Town Hall pravda, 'Barnet First'. In it, he had found a lovely feature with Councillor Cornelius smiling benevolently at residents, and doing what sounds like a good example of what Mrs Angry's no 1 fan, ie Eric Pickles, emphatically does not want Town Hall administrations to do, ie wasting tax payers' money on agitprop. Do you, Eric? Tell them off, then: good and proper.

According to the Tory leader's message to the downtrodden masses of Broken Barnet, Crapita is starting to see the fruits of their labour, here in their latest and greatest colonial outpost. 

Strange Fruit, concluded Mrs Angry, via Billie Holiday.

Jack Cohen observed that you do not pick fruit by cutting down the tree itself. 

He also floated the idea, hat tip to @rustyrockets, in a thought popularly received in the public gallery, that Richard Cornelius was the 'Poundland Margaret Thatcher'. 

Or perhaps, he suggested, with a dig at the Tory leader's Hatton Garden jewellery shop, a more suitable comparison would be Ratner's?

Cornelius replied with a brave if somewhat bizarre response, claiming that the Tories had fought off all Judicial Reviews brought against the council (clearly forgetting the parking fiasco) and that, ha ha: democracy was 'safe in Conservative hands'. Mmm.

Tory matron Joan Scannell spoke waspishly about 'nasty comments' and banged on, as the Tories still do, and will until the end of time, not about their own faults, but about the 'Labour deficit'. She said, in rather a 'nasty comment', that she could not wait to see what the opposition's financial proposals would be, and what they would cut.

Your allowance, suggested Mrs Angry.

Nasty comments: Joan Scannell

Oh dear. Sitting in the gallery was Gerrard Roots, the former curator of the Church Farmhouse Museum, which was shut, ransacked and put up for sale while Cllr Scannell and her Tory colleagues sat back and watched, without protest.

Gerrard, who may or may not have come to the Town Hall via the Greyhound, (tempting, but always risky, for anyone about to sit through a Barnet council meeting), and who is anyway yet to be persuaded to show anything other than the most scathing contempt for Barnet Tory councillors, and their reprehensible behaviour, does not give a flying fuck for their opinion, and nor does Mrs Angry, who was beside herself with mirth, as he was now moved to make a not necessarily universally popular recommendation to our elected representatives:

Earn your money - and SHUT UP, he suggested. Loudly.

Oh dear. Councillor Wendy Prentice, she of the bird of paradise coiffeure, was outraged by what seemed to Mrs Angry to be a perfectly reasonable request, and she squawked in fury across the chamber at the Mayor, to demand an apology. 

I know who said it, she said, like some sort of uppity teaching assistant in a primary school assembly, as we fell about laughing: I RECOGNISE HIS VOICE ...

It is true to say that Gerrard has a rather splendid, withering patrician tone when he speaks, and that Councillor Wendy Prentice ... does not. 

He was unmoved, and unrepentant.

I am not going to apologise, he said. And SHUT UP.

How funny that the Tory women were happy to see their slip-sliding colleague Antony Finn remark 'Calm down dear' to a female Labour member, and said nothing when their former pin up boy Brian Coleman insulted women in the public gallery, and called them 'old hags', and yet are so sensitive when a member of the public reminds them that they receive a generous allowance to represent us, the residents sitting in that gallery.

On with the motley: the panto continued with a turn by handle-bar moustachioed silver fox and renowned linguist, Cllr John Hart, who resembles a character in a vintage fifties British comedy, probably played by Terry-Thomas, or Leslie Phillips ...

Not eating all the pies, but clearly stimulating all the same: Cllr John Hart

Cllr Hart gave a frankly mystifying speech, even by his own standard, a benchmark that is pretty unbeatable. 

It appeared that he was asking us to support his intention to, well: to stimulate the residents of Mill Hill with pie stalls. 

Nope: don't ask me. 

The residents of Mill Hill, Councillor John Hart, might be more stimulated by the thought of a Tory councillor with the integrity to defend their local library, and not vote through the current scabby proposals to shut it down, or sentence it to death by a thousand cuts.

And next we had the amusing spectacle of veteran Tory Cllr John Marshall on the subject of the truly shameful leaders' panel, which is the scabrous replacement for the former standards committee, politically weighted and a total joke. 

Earlier in the evening, during the Q&A session, in response to the Labour leader's belated objections to the panel, and questioning its integrity, the Tory leader, running forward gingerly, in his vintage knee length footballer's shorts, to an open goal, remarked that it was strange that she should take part in a body that she felt lacked integrity. 


Back of the net.

Alison Moore now announced that Labour would be withdrawing from the process. 

This is the only approach the opposition can possibly take, and should have been taken right from the moment any credibility was removed - but now the wider Labour group has made it clear the sort of co operation and consensus that the Tories try to exploit is no longer going to be an option, and so -hard luck, Tory councillors of Broken Barnet. Fings ain't wot they used to be. 

Watch out. 

Are you sitting comfortably?

Thank God. Half time. No oranges, but the lure of mince pies. Mrs Angry tried to retain some principles, and boycott them, but failed. An officer slipped into the gallery and whispered to Mr Shepherd that he was invited to come and sample the Mayor's hospitality. He smiled graciously - In the Mayor's Parlour, he asked? I have been there before, you know. No, Councillor Lord Shepherd: laid out on a trestle table outside the public gallery door. 

The People's Mayor declined the offer, with pained dignity. 

A Nightmayor, and the People's Mayor

Note to the Mayor: the mince pies were very nice, but too small, and not as good as Mrs Angry's. (Note to those seeking to corrupt Mrs Angry: cake usually does the trick. Or alcoholic persuasion, or whispering suggestions in her ear. Unless you work for Crapita, in which case ... no. No, no, no).

Where were we?

Recess over. Tories started without Labour, who didn't hear the recall bell. 

A new Tory councillor, who, unique in that she appears to be, if not in the first flush of youth, of childbearing age, and in possession of her own teeth, and some faculties, made a maiden speech worrying about obese children. Mrs Angry tactfully tried not to look at any particular councillors, at this point. 

The new councillor for Totteridge, Brian Coleman's replacement, thought it was a good idea to stop poor people becoming fat by sending them to their local park, and making them take up gardening. (Mrs Angry is yet to see ex Cllr Coleman jogging around Victoria Park, or buying secateurs in Homebase, but one hopes he will follow his successor's helpful advice, now that he is at a bit of a loose end and at risk of piling on those extra pounds).

Labour's Arjun Mittra, who is lovely, but perhaps could be described as being possessed of a cherubic figure, spoke with fondness of his interest in sport, as a child, having watched them all on tv as he indulged his interest in kebabs, pizza and pepsi. He did not say that he would be easily stimulated by pie stalls, but Mrs Angry thinks it likely.

New boy Tory cllr Gabriel Rozenberg also made his maiden speech. Not sure what it was about, but he decided to tell us about his own childhood aversion to sport, being a conscientious objector to all such compulsory activities . Mrs Angry felt a bond of kinship with Gabriel, reminded of her years at St Michael's, spent hiding during PE lessons, quaking with fear in the gym cupboard.

He explained that his mother, ie the journalist Melanie Phillips, used to ring his school and beg them to allow him to pursue a form of physical activity more suited to him, such as, he said, cats cradle, or origami. Which was rather funny. But then he went and spoiled it all, and provoked Mrs Angry into heckling him, by banging on about the wonderful parks and ancient woodland in his ward, and how children can benefit from these lovely places, and design their own obstacle courses and all that sort of thing. 

As he spoke, Mrs Angry listened to the sound of Mr Shepherd, the People's Mayor, sellotaping together a selection of articles from the Morning Star, and sighed.

Cllr Rozenberg is a nice bloke, and very bright, and very possibly in the wrong party, but he is in the Tory party because he is naive, and representing as he does the favoured residents of Hampstead Garden Suburb, has simply no understanding of the real challenges faced by children, obsese, or not, or those maybe going without food altogether, or dependent on foodbanks, in the less advantaged areas of Broken Barnet, where there are no lovely parks, or ancient woodland, and the obstacles they must avoid are those created by a Tory government and local authority intent on demonising their parents, and punishing them for being poor.

Labour's Anne Hutton had an interesting contribution to make. She reminded members of the agreement that local primary schools had been given in regard to the grounds of the new Finchley Memorial Hospital. You may recall that Mrs Angry has questioned the curious excuse sometimes given by various Tories, the Mayor of London and TFL, that there is not enough space at FMH for a bus to take patients there, and deposit them, and turn around, when it is clear to see there is a load of unused grassed over space.

Cynical Mrs Angry has previously, and frequently, suggested this was because that land has secretly been earmarked for development (just as staff told her the rumour of the unoccupied building space being reserved for private practice): and lo and behold, it now seems that there is a rumour that the council wants to move the Lido from the other side of the High Road, and relocate it ... at Finchley Memorial. Well, then: what is the truth?

Cllr Hutton's own cynicism about funding for local projects has been aggravated by the promise of development for North Finchley library resulting, she said, in nothing more than a model replica of the building. It'll be bigger than the new one, said some wit in the gallery. 

Back to reality, now, a far cry from ancient woodlands, and the first world problems of privately educated schoolboys, good or bad at sport: over to West Hendon, that portal into another dimension of Broken Barnet: a view of the borough our Tory councillors turn their backs on. 

Labour's Adam Langleben spoke about the appalling treatment of residents of West Hendon now an area of 'regeneration', ie development,  now being socially cleansed of their presence. 

In this other Eden, the children of the poor are being packed up, cleared out, sent away, taken away from their schools, their friends, their neighbourhood - their community:  and the land where their homes now stand has been sold to privateers, profiteers, who will drive the last of them out, knock down their houses, and build luxury properties for absentee owners, and speculator landlords.

As they wait for the final days of their years long, short term unsecure tenancies to end, or must give up the properties they were so enthusiastically encouraged to buy, the council has left them to live in squalor, in asbestos ridden, damp, rat infested properties neglected by the council over decades. Barnet Homes then turned on the leaseholders and landed them with massive, last minute bills for maintenance they as landlords had failed to implement. In some cases, the monthly payment for these demands is bigger than their mortgage.

As Adam observed, Barnet Tories are selling Thatcher's dream - the right to buy your own council home -  right down the river. How ironic, sitting in the Town Hall that witnessed her election night triumphs, to hear the story of the betrayal of her key policy, the encouragement of aspiration, and the reward of hard working families with the keys to their own home. They have learned the hard way that the party which once pretended to want to help people out of poverty by persuading them to join the property ladder was only in it for a quick buck - and a chance to destroy the very concept of social housing.

Ah, but Tory housing lead member, the charmless Tom Davey, was on his feet, reverting to his new persona, that of the quiet man, who speaks in what he clearly thinks is a controlled and yet deadly manner, no longer the ranting juvenile: retaining the juvenile political extremism and ideology, but expressed in the moderate, soothing tones of a third rate stage hypnotist. Look into my eyes, and listen to my voice. You will feel sleepy, very sleepy, Mrs Angry, and then you will find yourself reading the Daily Mail, and hating benefit scroungers, and socialism, and wanting to buy a penthouse flat in a Barratt Homes development overlooking the Welsh Harp.

I am actually amused, he declared, in a tone of voice in which there was not the slightest trace, nor even an atomic memory, of any sense of humour. 

He said that Cllr Langleben had misrepresented the truth, that there was no evidence of financial distress. The developers had already offered to pay costs, and help out.

Why now? shouted furious leaseholders in the gallery.

Only because of so much bad publicity, suggested Mrs Angry

It is true to say that some show of assistance has been miraculously made, latterly, by Barratts, albeit only in some cases. Mrs Angry has noted some weeks ago, at the height of direct action taken by local residents, and a good amount of sympathetic media attention on the plight of residents, that a certain PR company whose clients include the developers of the West Hendon project, have been reading and re reading her posts on the subject. It may be entirely coincidental, of course. 

Labour's Devra Kay protested about the treatment of her constituents in West Hendon. Tom Davey shut his eyes, and held his head.

Her colleague Paul Edwards pointed out that the council was not there simply to facilitate profit, it is there to ensure social and economic justice. 

Nope. Deaf ears. Nothing.

Cllr Langleben alleged then that those few residents who had been offered a new deal were given them only on condition of accepting a gagging order, which is quite extraordinary, if true. Why would that be the case, do you suppose?

He observed, with good cause, that the Tories are running scared of the judge let public housing inquiry into the West Hendon leaseholder scheme, due to take place in January, following orders from Uncle Eric Pickles.

Oh, and Labour would be writing to all council tenants in the borough, warning them of what was likely to happen to them, too. 

Davey looked bored. Other Tory councillors looked embarrassed. They know they have betrayed the leaseholders, even if they don't give a shit about the tenants they have planted in West Hendon, rounded up like hostages, prepared for the moment when they will be bussed out of Broken Barnet, beyond the boundaries of our borough, to become someone else's problem.

The meeting wound up then. 

Happy Chanukah, and Merry Christmas, said the Mayor.

Unless you are a leaseholder in West Hendon, observed Mrs Angry, as she packed up her notebook and pens.

What about the druids? wondered Mr Shepherd, aloud to himself, worrying about this fellow Mayor's failure to be fully inclusive, in his festive greetings.

Everyone drifted out. All the cuts and outsourcing proposals, and the destruction of our library service had been voted through, on a majority of one, and barely anyone noticed. Painfree privatisation, the easycouncil way. 

At least: that's what they want to believe.

But the real battle is fought not in the council chamber of Broken Barnet, or by motions to council, or pointless pantomime debates.

It's up to us now, to inform the residents of this borough of every Tory councillor who voted for the next round of outsourcing and cuts in budgets, and then tries to tell them, with a nod and a wink, that of course they won't allow their local library to close, or that depot to be built next door to their homes. 

Look at the evidence - when have any of them had the courage to stand up for what is right, and just, and put the best interests of residents before the mindless tribal loyalty to their own group, and their own political ambitions? 

The battle in the council chamber and committee rooms of the Town Hall - the pantomime - is a diversion from the real war going on around us. 

The real struggle is outside, in the hands of ordinary residents, and activists, and campaigners, and in the words written in the press, and this blog, and spoken on tv, or the radio, or via social media: it is the battle for the hearts and minds of voters. And that campaign is underway, drawn up, mapped out, on the march. 

The Tory councillors of Broken Barnet may or may not survive the next three years or so, with their slender majority: but their foolishness has very likely cost the three local Tory MPs irreparable damage in their chances of being returned to parliament next May. Either way: this war will all be over by next Christmas: it remains to be seen who is the winner, in the end.

Monday 8 December 2014

Be careful what you wish for, and: Mrs Angry goes to a library 'consultation'

 Storytime in Golders Green Library - picture credit Museum of London

Before Mrs Angry was Mrs Angry, and in between her time with MI5, a short but interesting career in burlesque, and a few years in the Carmelite convent in Tyburn , she was, you may be surprised to hear, employed by the London Borough of Barnet, working in Golders Green Library, and the union convenor for Barnet Libraries: placed there in a covert plot to undermine the establishment, and bring about the revolt of the proletariat - or at least a few bolshie librarians. 

And they were bolshie, too: successfully striking twice, and warding off a nefarious plot by the then Tory council to close down libraries. Yes, there will be a theme of deja vu running through the course of this post. Try and keep up.

Tories in Barnet are awfully fond of closing things down, of course, and always have been, since the days when Margaret Thatcher was the MP for Finchley, and her having a tendency to shut down entire industries, mining, steel, manufacturing: anything that moved and had a trade union, in short.

But what began as an anti social activity on a modest scale, in homage to the former PM and her manic attacks on public services, the neo Thatcherites still clinging on (only just) to control of Barnet Council have revealed a manic bloodlust for the sport of closing public amenities, public buildings,  running amok like Jack the Ripper, slashing mindlessly at the body of our local public services.

In the old days, there would often be proposals to shut down certain branch libraries. Top of the list drawn up by senior library management - in those days, when libraries were respected even by Tory authorities, there was a Borough Librarian - was Hampstead Garden Suburb. This was purely on pragmatic grounds, due to the cost of subsidising what was, even then, an indulgence: a sop to the hugely affluent and influential residents of one of the most wealthy residential areas in the country. The 'library' was no more than a few bookshelves in a tiny former shop, and totally impractical, leeching funds from other libraries in much more deserving areas: but we all knew that the Conservative council would never allow it to close.

And they never have allowed it to close. When included a couple of years ago in the nominal list of targets for closure, it was never going to happen: the residents' association was outraged, and a marvellous rescue package agreed in which the council would subsidise the little library in a shop, at the expense of other libraries in less advantaged areas. 

Despite all pleas from the local community, in far greater need of a public library, Friern Barnet branch, in a ward with two Labour councillors and one maverick Tory was refused any subsidy; closed down, the shelves stripped, and the building put up for sale. The library was then taken over by Occupy activists, who worked with local campaigners to reopen the building, fill it with books, and defy the council's actions. 

In the end the worldwide publicity this hugely popular occupation attracted forced the Tories into a humiliating retreat, and the agreement that the People's Library, the library that would not close, should become Friern Barnet Community Library, subsidised by the council, like Garden Suburb, but this apparently happy outcome was compromised by one crucial flaw: FBCL would not be part of the borough's public library system.

For some campaigners - and some councillors, of both parties - this was not seen as a problem. They had saved the library, a beautiful Carnegie building, and a group of residents would see that the venture continued on a voluntary basis. Success: or so they thought.

But for many others, the agreement that excluded the return of the library to the borough service was not only regrettable, it put the other libraries at risk. Because we knew exactly how shameless the Barnet Tories have been, under the 'leadership' of 'Tricky Dicky' Richard Cornelius, and how likely they were to try to turn what had been a galling defeat into political profit. 

For some Tories, the motive of profit is accompanied by something else: something even more shameless, and repellant. That is to say, the desire for revenge. A library, in Broken Barnet, is a symbol of resistance: a rallying point for the community, a place where people think. Shut it down. Shut them all down.

The campaigners, bloggers and residents who created a surge of rebellion to the ignominious policies of the previous Tory administration, especially in regard to the parking fiasco, and the library story, became something the Tories had never really encountered before: an effective opposition. And those two political blunders, in two areas that were always guaranteed to attack the Tories' own electoral base, lost many of the most prominent councillors their seats, and very nearly lost them control of the council.

Due to their innate stupidity, our Conservative members have failed to learn the lessons of the last few years, and like all bullies, imagine that the way to retain authority is to carry on in the same way, rather than try to reach a consensus with the residents they purport to represent. 

Hence the latest outsourcing proposals, and in this case the truly apocalyptic scale of plans lined up to besiege the remnants of our library service, knock it all down, and grind it into the dust. 

Where there is resistance, as with all such assaults, they will be likely to back off: where there is capitulation, they will walk over you.

The so called 'consultation' process for the library proposals reveals another of their tactics in the war against culture: divide and conquer. Play residents off against each other. Those who have the loudest voices, and the greater political influence: they will be rewarded for their protest, at the expense of the less advantaged, and less articulate communities. Survival of the fittest, and sod the rest: it's the Tory way. 

Mrs Angry thought she would choose to attend one of these nonsultation events, and the one she would choose would be Golders Green library, where she used to work. 

Arriving as the doors opened, there was an astonishing sight: a queue, outside, in the chilly rain, of about twenty young mothers with babies in buggies - not something that ever happened, in Mrs Angry's time, before she left to be a mother herself, with babies in buggies. There was evidently a 'baby rhyme time' session in the children's library, the first of two that day, due to enormous demand. 

Walking into the library, an eighty year old building with a mosaic floored entrance hall, brass railed, polished stone staircase, oak doors and shelving, time seemed to have stood still.

Was it really twenty years or so, since leaving? Hard to believe, in some ways, because the first two faces that she saw were the two elderly sisters who used always to be the first on the doorstep, every morning, when the doors were unlocked, all that time ago: unmarried women who lived together in a house across the road and came every morning to read the papers. We recognised each other, and were all mutually amazed at the passage of time, and yet the stillness of time, and here we were, together again. Did they know the library was at risk of closing? They did not. Mrs Angry wondered how they would cope, should that awful day come.

Ben, the consultant who has been running these events was waiting, with only a few chairs ready, in a corner of the library. Only a few chairs ready because he knew that the timing of the consultation had been carefully arranged - by the commissioning team senior officers, apparently - so as to exclude as many  library users as possible from attending: barely advertised, and fixed in a weekday morning, when working people cannot attend, an action heavily criticised by the users who came.

Despite the deliberately obscure time of the session, throughout the three hour time slot, the chairs were filled constantly by a sequence of library users, shyly but determinedly resolved to make their voice count in the consultation for this awful set of proposals.

Mrs Angry decided to stay for the three hours, not because she wanted to, but because it was clear that otherwise the discussion was not going to be anything other than a talking shop whose outcome was, like the online survey, directed by a carefully steered debate.

Significantly although the table before us had copies of the three bad options that our council thinks we should choose between: death of our library service not by a thousand cuts, but by three equally terrible weapons. 

No one was going to say, you do not need to die at all, except Mrs Angry, who pointed out that the residents of Broken Barnet did not have to choose death for their library service: choose life, she said, and reject all three options: please. 

We sat in the corner of the library, wedged rather awkwardly in the teenage fiction section, watched over on our side, Mrs Angry happily observed, by books by the brilliant writer, and esteemed library campaigner, Alan Gibbons.

And rather aptly, in view of the circumstances, a local resident persuaded by Mrs Angry to join the discussion, spotted a book by former Tory favourite, Jeffrey Archer:

Be Careful What You Wish For ...

The consultant, his back against a wall of vampire romances, introduced himself. 

Who do you work for, asked Mrs Angry? 

His company was called 'Shared Intelligence'. Oh. Sounds promising, doesn't it? How much are we paying you for this consultation? With a grimace he muttered something about £20K. And did the other users sitting there realise £200, 000 was being spent on this excuse for 'consultation', and how many libraries would that keep open, did they think?

Oh, and where is the rest of the £200K set aside for the nonsultation going anyway? 

He thought it was to be spent on the survey: printing costs etc. That would be the printed copies that had not been available, weeks after the consultation had begun, and were now being kept behind the desk, where unless you knew they were available, you were obviously not going to ask for them. Only after absolutely insisting were any copies brought to the table, and it was Mrs Angry who kept offering them to those attending (with a warning about the loaded questions), rather than the consultant.

Two of the attendees were young mothers from the local Charedi community, who emphasised how vital the library was to their family life. One of the mums described the proposals as 'devastating'. She could not drive, and depended on the resources in their local community, and the library was a central part of this. Mrs Angry remembered the importance to such families, many with several young children, and the queues that would form on Fridays,  to have plenty of reading material for them over shabbat, and one very bright and cheeky little boy called Zvi-Dov, who was found to have 116 library books hidden under his bed, by his embarrassed mother, who had to bring them back in a shopping trolley ...

Mrs Angry also remembered the elderly residents who would call in every day, the library being part of their daily routine, a welcome sanctuary, where staff would build relationships with them, over the years, and be privileged, in some cases, to hear their life stories, and become honoured trustees of their confidences. 

Yes, in some cases, these older residents, in Golders Green, were former refugees, and in some cases, survivors of the Holocaust. Over a period of time you would get to know these people, and their backgrounds, and maybe be trusted to hear their testimonies. Some of them would need your help to find books to read, that they needed to read, because it helped, in some small way to come to terms with the path of their lives and experiences that they could not discuss with their own families. 

Mrs Angry has written about this before, but it has to be repeated as it tells its own story: the necessity of communication, and bridges between generations, and different communities, and the value of reading, and literature, and bearing witness, and telling your story, and enabling those who come after you to learn the lessons of history.

For Barnet Tories, of course, history began in the year zero, when Margaret Thatcher came to power as PM, and ends when she was disposed of. Since then, we find ourselves living in Broken Barnet, under the flag of Capitaville, where history is of no value: nothing more than the collection of faded photographs, and a few family items left to a local museum. Museums are dangerous places, like libraries: their contents remind us of our common past, and sense of identity. Shut them down, sell off the collection: charge people £8.50 a go to look at those old photographs, online: heritage is only valuable in monetary terms, after all.

This disregard for culture, or history or heritage extends to our built heritage. The museum is shut, and put up for sale. What next? The libraries, of course.

How fitting that the idea of a public library, promoted by Victorian philanthropy, funded by successful capitalists, salving their social conscience by good works, and investment in access to the education of the working classes, should be destroyed so enthusiastically by their heirs in the Tory party, both nationally, and locally. 

What happened to the idea of enabling social mobility, and aspiration? 

When did such paternalistic Toryism become replaced by the mutant brand we see in power now, wielding policies that widen the gulf between rich and poor, making education and healthcare the privilege of those with means, rather than a right for all? 

Access to information, and the liberating power of reading: the means to self improvement, self expression, to empowerment of the individual: what was once the gift of the Tory do gooder is now an affront to those who took his place in government: a form of intellectual terrorism, a covert activity that threatens the status quo. Remove books from prisoners, then, (or try to, anyway). Stop as many young people from disdvantaged backgrounds from being able to afford to go to university. And shut down the public library system. Close the buildings, and sell them off to local property developers for more non affordable housing. 

Rather than admit that this is their real agenda, Barnet's nonsultation pretends that many of the branch libraries will merely be 'shrunk' in size, so as to free up the rest of the buildings for rental to commercial tenants. Reduced by an average of a staggering 93%. No, that is not a typo: let's say it again, 93%. The size of Hampstead Garden Suburb Library, the library in a shop.

Except that of course this is a load of balls. This option is thrown in as a distraction, and a frightener. The worst excesses of the three bad options are meant to make whatever final outcome emerges, with its 'compromises' favouring Tory ward branches, seem like a blessing. And the truth is that any branches considered surplus to requirement will simply be flogged off as lucrative developments. There are no doubt companies that already have their eyes on certain buildings, including the one in Church End that has already been marked for sale thanks to a previous deal with the shy and retiring Pears Group who have planning permission to develop Gateway House.

The fact that the consultation document reveals there is no costing for the potential rental of library buildings reduced in size, nor any mention of the substantial capital investment that would be needed to convert the libraries to extra use, (and therefore make a complete mockery of the alleged motive for the cuts, of finding necessary savings) says it all. In a borough where an abundance of empty office space is begging for tenants, there is no business case to support this preposterous suggestion, and there never was intended to be.

Golders Green is one of those branches that are supposed to shrink in size. The consultant tried to give a vague idea to the users sitting around the table, of what that would be. He said it would kind of be like that section over there, between that bit, and that bit. The group looked bewildered. 

What is the current floor space, asked Mrs Angry? Erm .... around 5,000 square feet. And do remind us of the size of the new 'library'? 540 square feet. So, said one of the men in the group, you are saying ... it will be a tenth of the current space.


A tenth.

Golders Green is not a large library. A space that is one tenth of the area now used is simply impossible: an insult to the idea of a library. Room for a couple of shelves and a handful of books: no space for students, or pcs, or children's activities. No baby rhyme time. No library, in short.

But this is as likely to happen as the building of Robert Rams' invisible library in North Finchley. It is pie in the sky, a total fantasy. The library will either continue as it is, or be sold for development. And it will not be sold, or closed, or shrunk - because the Tory councillors in Golders Green will not dare allow that. 

Some debate took place in the nonsultation over why these proposals were made in the first place. Mrs Angry took it upon herself to explain that the cut being presented as an unavoidable saving was in fact a relatively small amount, although the fact that it represented 60% of the library budget demonstrated what good value for money our services already provided.

Some further explanation ensued as to how much money the Tory council wasted on such things as - sorry, Ben - consultants: millions and millions of pounds each year, oh, and you might like to ask your local councillor, Dean Cohen, why he spent so much money on the pavements and roads of Tory wards, including £1.1 million in Golders Green, just before the election, and £500,000 on Princes Park Avenue, in the last two years, while some Labour wards like Colindale last year got not one single penny. £1.1 million pounds - almost half the savings the Tories say necessitate the closure of library services.

Someone asked where Cllr Cohen was, and then one of the young mums said, with an interesting glint in her eye, that she knew Dean Cohen, and his wife, and would be Having A Word With Him. 

In the background, baby rhyme time continued in the children's library, and library staff dealt with the continual stream of visitors, helping with enquiries, using the pcs. 

None of the Tory councillors had the guts to show up, but Sarah Sackman, who is Labour's parliamentary candidate for Finchley and Golders Green, spent the morning talking to residents outside, and then came in to sit through some of the discussion. Just look around you, she said: there was no better evidence of why the library was so vital, and irreplaceable.
When Mrs Angry worked there, the staff structure comprised a librarian in charge, a deputy, a reference librarian, a children's librarian, library assistants and a branch administrator. It was a struggle even then to keep up with the demands of users: heaven knows how they manage now.

Typical remarks from attendees ranged from 'absurd' in regard to the 'open library option, 'absolutely ridiculous' in general, and 'I don't understand what motivates these people ...', 'the heart is being ripped out of council services', 'outrageous proposals' ...

After a while, a woman who had been sitting opposite the consultant, and glaring rather furiously at him, said she was rather inclined to agree with the views of that woman, Mrs Angry, who wrote about this sort of thing.

Mrs Angry sat up. Aha, she declared ... that is ... me!

Is it really? asked the woman. She laughed.

Is it really? asked the consultant, turning a funny colour ...

After this dramatic revelation, outing Mrs Angry in the manner of the denouement of a murderess in a sensation novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, a satisfying change was noticeable in the nonsultant's attitude of complacency, as he realised he was in for a very long and uncomfortable morning. Throughout the session, he nervously kept checking twitter, to see, he confessed, what was being said about him. Mrs Angry assured him she would do no such thing. But would write all about it in the blog instead. So here you are, Mr Lee.

The option for 'open libraries' caused the most ridicule and protest: when asked, the consultant appeared to know little about it, other than to say, rather feebly, that it worked well elsewhere. Where, demanded Mrs Angry? He didn't know: probably, was it - Ipswich, or ... Abroad. (Same thing, arguably, to be fair).

Scandinavia, suggested Mrs Angry, trying to be helpful, and nodding encouragingly, but at the same time trying to conjure up vague intimations of Nordic Noir, and menace in the shadows of an emptied out library, devoid of books, people, meaning or hope.

The Swedish model, remember? No, he thought it might be Danish. Less exciting, of course. Though probably safer, thought Mrs Angry, as the bookshelves were less likely to have come from Ikea, and fall over. Not safer than a fully staffed library with human beings interacting with each other, of course, rather than a dystopian vision of a self service library, and a holographic librarian, however. 

The safeguarding aspects, issues of equality of access for the disabled: have these really been taken into consideration? The residents at the consultation laughed, but were incredulous that this was a serious proposal, pointing to the risks involved, and again, the necessity for capital investment for implementation, uncosted. And again, this is because these nightmare scenarios will never happen, and are meant only to scare us all into acceptance of the eventual, slightly less awful decision.

What was truly touching about the reaction of the users who came to this discussion was this: they were none of them the sort of people who made a habit of this sort of thing. Ordinary residents, reserved by nature: when they approached the table, quite a few of them did that quintessentially British thing, hovering vaguely, then moving off pretending to be looking for something else, then plucking up the courage to join in. Quiet people, shy: but determined to speak out, because they desperately care about their library service, and are truly distressed to think it may be taken away from them.

One man said he had lost his job a little while ago, and that it was comforting to have somewhere to go, near to home, on the days when he had nothing to do. The staff were all good people. 

Another man, serious, carefully weighed his words before speaking. He had, he said slowly, got a lot of general knowledge from using the library. He trailed off, clearly unable to express what would be a personal loss on such a scale, or understand the reasoning behind it. Who could?

One quietly spoken older woman said apologetically that she was not very articulate - she was - but clearly she felt very strongly about what was being proposed. She did not have a computer, she said, or a mobile phone. This was, as she put it, an intimate library. She wanted to say how kind the library staff were, in helping her learn to use the pc, so patient, never a raised eyebrow: that's rare - in the world we live in, she said, why would we lose that?

This woman was not the only one to praise the staff, for their help and kindness, and professionalism, and to try to explain the intangible, inexpressible sense of sanctuary, welcome and belonging that you find in a library. It is a place of refuge, a place of safety, as well as a place with access to the world of books, and information.

The selective note taking of the nonsultant throughout the nonsultation consisted of, well not taking many notes, as far as Mrs Angry could see, seated at his right hand side, so as to keep her beady eye on him. He was quite keen when a woman turned up who worked for Wandsworth library service which had been taken over by a 'mutual' company, apparently seen as a lesser evil by staff who had been previously treated by the council in a pretty shabby fashion, reportedly having to pay back sick pay, for example. Mrs Angry pointed out that when the same 'mutual' company took over Greenwich libraries, they put new staff on zero hours contracts. 

Has anyone, in all these events, expressed any support for the proposals, Mrs Angry asked the consultant. He thought very carefully, and then remembered there had been one elderly man with wild hair, who said he had grown up on a remote sheep farm, and thought everyone should stand on their own two feet. (Or four feet, presumably, if you are a sheep).

It will be interesting, won't it, readers, to see how the outcome of these events, from a few scribbles in a notebook, are transformed into a report to council?

When the session was nearing the end of the three hour time slot, a woman in a beautiful blue velvet coat slipped into one of the spare seats. She smiled very sweetly, and listened patiently to what they group had to say: and then she took out a piece of paper, on which she had written a speech. 

And what a speech it was. 

Her name was Esther Waldron, and you can find a copy of what she said on the Independent Catholic News website. No further comment needs to be made, as Esther says it all: only to add that, for some reason, the consultant listened to what she had to say - and wrote nothing down.
A Defence of Barnet Libraries

One of the books I’m borrowing from Golders Green Library is ‘A Century of Wisdom - Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer’.

Alice’s surname means ‘Heart of Summer’. Alice spent two years in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Holocaust. She survived because of the beauty of her piano playing; she was a concert pianist who played in concerts in the concentration camp.

In the book, Alice quotes Heinrich Heine who foresaw the evils of Nazi Germany. Heine said of the early days of Nazism: “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn people."

To translate this to the modern day: if Barnet Council decimates its library service and severs access to books, it will, in the end, also decimate the spirit of its people.

And not just any people, but its weakest members – by which I mean the most vulnerable; as Gandhi once said: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

In average, in Barnet, 44 per cent of school children don’t speak English as a first language at home. And 18 per cent of the borough’s population are aged 60 and over. Reducing staffing levels in our libraries by 40 or 50 per cent will make it 40 or 50 per cent more difficult and intimidating for these people to navigate our libraries.

I’ve listened as staff of Golders Green library have patiently explained to elderly people how to create an email account, how to surf the internet. The time and care these librarians take with the people of our community is an example to us all.

In literary terms, the three options that Barnet Council is proposing for its future library service are ‘Hobsons Choice’.

I love and choose to live in Golders Green is for its religious diversity and tolerance. 

Directly opposite the library is a Greek cathedral. Nearby is a Buddhist community centre. The area is, of course, well known for its vibrant Jewish community. This is also a Christian parish - my Catholic church is five minutes’ walk away on Finchley Road.

Barnet Council would not restrict access to our places of worship – at least I hope it would not. The same principle applies to libraries.

When I was a child every book was like the Bible to me. Every book felt holy. I still feel that books are holy, and that libraries are sacred spaces. Libraries are cathedrals of the human imagination. 

When I walk into my local library, my spirit soars at the achievement of the writers around me, and my soul sings at the possibilities inside the pages of the books.

With its current options Barnet Council will restrict access to books, but also the ideas in them - the hopes and dreams of authors’ hearts that speak to the human spirit, and what it means to be human and alive. 

To sever libraries is to sever access to what the books inside them represent: the creative imagination, which the poet William Blake said was God. He called it ‘Jesus Christ the Imagination.’

In closing: the words ‘council’ and ‘councillors’ have their origins in Latin words meaning ‘a group of people meeting together;’ and also the verb ‘to call’.

Councils are literally called to bring people together.

Barnet Council, please use your powers to preserve our libraries because they are worth far more than any budget gap of £ 72 million.

Barnet libraries, like the people who live in the borough, including its most vulnerable members, are valuable beyond measure.