Friday 16 December 2016

No More Order and Decorum, at the White and Funny Bear - or: another demolition in Broken Barnet

There has been an inn called the White Bear on this site since 1736: here it is in 2016, courtesy of your Tory councillors, a local developer, and Crapita. 

Then a soldier fond of battle,
Who has fought and bled in Spain,
Finds in Hendon air his metal,
Well stirred up to fight again.
Then a justice of the Quorum
At Burroughs revels, Hendon Fair,
Finds such order and decorum

At the White and Funny Bear

Popular Song, circa 1810

The last post, about the demolition of a house in Vivian Avenue, Hendon, and the scandalous state of building enforcement in this borough, must be followed by another story that yet again demonstrates the new freedom of the borough, courtesy of your Tory councillors, and their contractors Capita, that has been granted to the developers of Broken Barnet. 

Despite the demolition of the Vivian Avenue house taking place a month ago now, we understand that neighbours have heard absolutely nothing from the council in regard to any action taken against those who knocked it down, rather than extend it - and indeed the builders have continued to work on the site, building what are reportedly the foundations for a new structure.

In the previous post, I referred to the case of the White Bear, also in Hendon, which was being demolished, apparently with new approval, despite earlier refusal by councillors. Three years ago it had seemed that the campaign to prevent the destruction and development of this much loved local landmark had been successful. Somehow, in the meanwhile, without any publicity, the would be developer,  acting through his company 'Platinum Riverside Ltd', had continued with his plans, and had eventually received permission to build flats on the site. 

Once work began, however, local residents became very upset, because it seemed the whole property was being destroyed, and they had believed that approval only for partial demolition had been granted. 

Some of them had tried to block the work, called the council's enforcement officers - but in vain. No effective intervention was made. The building was mercilessly demolished, regardless, or perhaps because of, any immediate questions raised about its approval status. What did Barnet Council do to stop them? What do you think?

This is an extract from the council's own report on the Burrough's conservation area: also an 'Area of Archaeological Significance' - a report published in 2012, which was of course the year before the Capita contracts were signed, and planning services were privatised:

It is believed that there has been an inn at the site of The White Bear Public House since Tudor times, with the name the “White Bear” in use since at least 1736. It is here that the Lord of the Manor held his court until at least 1916. Between 1690 and 1890 a fair was held during Pentecost near the site of the present pub, and the local hay farmers from around the area would come to hire mowers and haymakers for the summer harvest. The fair was also renowned for dancing and county sports, attracting many visitors. The existing pub was rebuilt in 1932. 

The rebuilding of the public house in 1932 was in a 'Tudorbethan' style in keeping with the majority of other housing in the Burroughs, which has - until now - retained its unique character, thanks to those who understood the importance of the preservation of conservation areas, and built heritage. Those people have gone - one heritage officer pushed out a few years ago, for daring to do his job by protecting sensitive historical properties from development - a job deleted in a 'restructure'. And now here we are in the grip of a Capita run council which sees buildings only as measured in terms of income generation for contractual fee purposes, given free reign by a Conservative administration which is culture averse, and has no interest in history, or heritage - or in providing any effectual scrutiny of the performance of its contractors. There goes the neighbourhood, then. 

On Wednesday I stopped off at the site to take a look at what was going on. What was going on was absolute devastation: the old building battered into a massive pile of rubble, with nothing of the old structure remaining. As the sun set over the Burroughs, the sight of such wilful destruction, right next to the row of eighteenth century houses which would have been built around the time of the old White Bear, was deeply upsetting. 

A foreman stood in the open entrance to the site, looking very pleased with himself. I took a photograph of the demolition and he came over. Why, I asked, have you knocked down this property, when there was apparently only permission for partial demolition? He shrugged. Was there? He didn't know - wasn't anything to do with them. Well, it might be, I suggested, if there is a court case, should the permission not have allowed for it. I walked off. 

From a safe distance he yelled: Court? I'll take you to court ... 

I turned on my heel, and returned in full Mrs Angry mode. Take me to court? What for? 

For ... your attitude, he said, stupidly. I looked at him. 

A lovely building has been destroyed, apparently without approval, in a conservation area, next to a fragile row of listed eighteenth century buildings, part of our local history - and you talk to me about MY attitude

He moved away very quickly.

Rare surviving row of early 18th century houses, next door to the site of the demolished White Bear, now potentially  at risk of structural damage

The next morning I tried, with a great deal of difficulty, to speak to someone in Barnet-Crapita planning, or enforcement, about the issue. Eventually a young woman on the duty desk confirmed there was only approval for partial demolition. You sure: nothing since 2014? No. (In fact she was wrong - there were variations allowed by planning officers which had chipped away at the amount of property that would be remaining). The case officer was not answering her phone. Another officer who knew about the case, however, claimed that a 'Stop Notice' had been issued the previous day on the site. Really? I was there late yesterday afternoon, early evening, and work was carrying on. Oh, perhaps it had been delivered during the night. Or early in the morning. Ok: I would be passing through Hendon later that morning, so would take a look. I'll let you know, shall I, if the notice is up? Yes. He gave me three numbers, two direct lines, one to him, another to the case officer. All a waste of effort, as it transpired.

When I arrived at the site there was no sign of work, although it was lunchtime. A transit van was parked in the grounds, and a fork lift truck amongst the debris. But no workers around - and more importantly, no 'Stop Notice'.

Walking around the back of the property, it was clear that something was presenting an immediate risk to safety: the huge mound of clay, soil, and heavy pieces of rubble were piled up towards the boundary, an England flag stuck defiantly on the top, the whole heap perilously near a rickety, splintering old fence, patched up in places with bits of hardboard. If there were rain, or any movement from the weight of debris, it is quite possible to imagine the whole lot sliding forwards, through the fence, onto the public footpath and road.

It was also sad to look at the churned up earth, and consider the amount of lost archaeology, and local history, destroyed in the demolition. And worrying for the future of the eighteenth century terrace next door, with the typically shallow foundations of that period: not to mention something locals are aware of, that is to say the risk from underground streams in the area.

Trying to contact enforcement to ask about the missing Stop Notice was impossible. Neither officer answered their phone, nor had any message service. Someone did promise to pass on information about the notice, and safety risk - but who knows what happened? He insisted a Stop Notice had been served and had been on display. He said the case officer would call back. She didn't. No one has.

It would seem that Capita have only about four enforcement officers currently working on all such cases - and  no doubt this is one of the factors that have created the abysmally high levels of non enforcement of breaches, as seen in the document referred to in the previous post, in which it would seem around 80% of cases are signed off with 'no further action'. But it is up to Capita, and the commissioning officers and councillors to ensure there are sufficient officers to do the job. 

Why was a notice to stop work only delivered a day or so ago, when it is too late, so long after residents informed council officers what was happening?

Because, I was told, since residents contacted them, the rest of the structure had 'fallen down'. 

Ah, I see. What a shame. No one could have seen that coming, could they?

Why did officers not act immediately, when there was a chance to preserve some of the building - or at least to confirm that the appropriate permission was in place?

If there is enough evidence to require a Stop Notice now, why had no one checked the documents as soon as it was reported, when any remaining structure could be protected?

Why is the work going ahead with apparent disregard for the impact on listed neighbouring buildings, and in regard to health and safety?

Why do officers not have any message facility, that residents can call in urgent circumstances?

What have the local Tory councillors - including planning Chair (& shed enthusiast) Maureen Braun - done to investigate residents's concerns about the demolition? Will it teach the Tory councillors on planning committees to be less naive - or indulgent with such applications in the future? One can only hope so.

So many questions, aren't there?

Developers know now that Barnet is an easy place to get away with breaches of planning and enforcement regulations. 

They know that they can apply for permission for one thing, build something else, and nothing will happen. 

Nothing will happen to them, but you may find yourself living next door to a house turned into multiple occupancy, or with unauthorised extensions ... or you may wake up one morning and find the house next door to you is being demolished. It will be destroyed before anyone does anything to stop it. And all of these things will affect the value of your property, and affect your enjoyment of your own home. Don't like the sound of all that? Tough. You keep voting for the nincompoops who have let it happen, so you only have yourselves to blame. Try to resist the temptation in future.

The failure by our privatised council effectively to enforce the law, and to protect this borough from rogue development, is having a hugely detrimental impact on not just the appearance of the borough, or the value of neighbouring properties, but on the quality of life of all residents. 

It is also destroying our common history, incrementally, brick by brick, property by property. Any historic building which is not nationally listed - and some that are - is at risk from predatory development, the laxity of council contractors, and the laziness and apathy of Tory councillors, who turn a blind eye to the destruction they sanction, either by foolish decision making at committee, or by failing properly to monitor the performance and processes of their privatised planning and enforcement services. 

So, no more 'order and decorum', at the White and Funny Bear - the pub which, ironically, was once known as 'Committee Room No 5', by council officers from the Town Hall, across the road, who used to be its most regular source of custom. 

No more order and decorum, no more history; only a stylistically anachronistic future building that will sit, in triumph, in the middle of a conservation area, in tribute to the era of profit, and the fatal assault of our local history, and built heritage.

There could be no finer representation of all the finest principles of Tory Broken Barnet, could there?

Thursday 8 December 2016

All Fall Down: Planning and Enforcement in Broken Barnet

Updated 9th December

In fact it seems the scale of lack of enforcement in Barnet is far, far worse than could have been imagined: since publishing this yesterday, the post has not only received record numbers of visits, but I have been sent many examples of similar cases, and many comments, some of which I am not publishing - yet. The anecdotal evidence is one thing, but there is evidence from the council's own records of a very serious problem in enforcement.

It seems that at November's Full Council meeting a Tory councillor, perhaps naively thinking the response would prove how well Barnet-Capita were doing in terms of enforcement, asked about the level of 'satisfactory outcomes' in regard to planning enforcement.

Councillor Brian Salinger:

Will the Leader please provide
members with a list of all planning
enforcement cases that officers
have handled in the last 2 years
advising which they consider to
have reached satisfactory outcomes
and which are still outstanding. Will
the leader ensure that the list shows
the dates on which the first
complaint about each of the

developments was logged?

Cllr Richard
Cornelius (Leader of

the Council)

The volume of cases means that this list will have to be supplied

separately to the councillor and published online.

Just look at the response, published separately.

It really is breathtaking, in terms of volume - and content. 

In the majority of cases the outcome is 'No further action'. 

And there are many cases still 'in investigation'.

The range of issues is extraordinary: from a house being built in a barn in Totteridge, to construction of an unauthorised building on Council Land without permission in my own road (one of several breaches), an unauthorised outbuilding in another property in Vivian Avenue - and a subdivided property across the road from our Tory MP. 

The figures need a closer analysis, when time allows, but even a cursory glance is enough to suggest that this is an absolute scandal: and catastrophic for the borough - the loss of control over development is having a massive detrimental impact on the quality of life of residents - and the value of their properties. 

8th December

Writing this blog inevitably means that Mrs Angry receives quite a lot of emails from residents about a range of local issues, but increasingly, since the Capita contracts began, the most common subject of all such correspondence is in regard to ... planning.

Complaints about the way in which our council handles not only planning applications, but also the enforcement of breaches of planning and building regulations, are becoming more and more frequent, and this is rather worrying. 

Many people now are claiming that enforcement is simply ineffective, and believe that the best interests of developers are put before those of residents, as a matter of policy, and in practice. I have to say that I think this is pretty much the case, now, in Broken Barnet.

We know that more and more large scale developments are being approved, seemingly without restraint: and there would appear to be little care to ensure such developments are being considered within any overall policy of what is best for the borough. 

Huge housing schemes are welcomed with little or no insistence that it is affordable, or supported by adequate investment in schools, health care, traffic management and leisure facilities. Vital local services like libraries that support the burgeoning new population are being ruthlessly cut: sports venues are disappearing - and even parks are now vulnerable to development - something that should be unthinkable.

Apart from these larger schemes, however, there is also a growing perception that less and less management, regulation and enforcement of small scale development is in place: that too many inappropriate conversions, extensions and even new build properties are being allowed, with any breaches of planning permission or building control left unsanctioned. This, it is feared, is giving developers the idea that they can simply do whatever they like, without fear of enforcement by the council.

Take the example of the house shown in the pictures above. Or rather what was a house - this is what it looked like, until three weeks ago:

This is in Vivian Avenue: a nice, suburban road in Hendon - in a Labour ward. The property which stood on this site until recently was a perfectly sound, pre war detached house, in keeping with the rest of the road. In need of some renovation, but otherwise a nice family home.

It had been bought by local developers, however, who put in a series of planning applications, from September 2014 onwards, four of which were eventually approved - after four planning committee hearings - and despite numerous objections from neighbouring residents. Oh and some rather curious supporting comments. 

Utilising a step-by-step Oliver Twist 'Please, Sir I want some more' approach, the developers asked for more and more to be built on the site, and conditions were placed on approved schemes that seemed to protect the neighbouring residents and the locality. 

The latest approval, given earlier this year, after the very interesting supporting comments, and despite all objections, was for side and rear extensions to the property, and a basement, in order to convert it into seven self-contained flats, even though the second to last approval conditioned the extensions allowed to be for a single family home.

Approval was finally given in October: passed by Tory councillors Hugh Rayner, Brian Gordon,Val Duschinsky (present as a substitute) and shed enthusiast Cllr Maureen Braun using her casting vote. Labour members voted against.

Hoardings were erected around the property, and work began. The house was gutted internally. 

Neighbouring residents, unsurprisingly, were upset, and very worried about the impact of living next door to a property that had been built as a home for one family, but would now accommodate seven households. They were wrong to worry about that, however. What happened next was far worse than anything they could have imagined.

On November 17th, it became clear that something was very wrong: the house was disappearing, level by level, in rapid sequence: one neighbouring property had a window broken by debris flying over a boundary fence - thankfully no one was hurt, but this was by good fortune, as no warning had been given of what was happening. 

And what was happening was not an extension, or conversion, as the approval allowed, but - demolition.

No warning, and as far as the neighbours could see, no safeguards to ensure that the demolition was undertaken in a safe and considerate way.  Dust everywhere: was there asbestos on the site? Was there any risk from gas leaks? Were the utility companies informed? Had any risk assessment been made of potential hazards before the work?

What would you do, in such a distressing situation? You would probably ring the council, wouldn't you, and expect them to immediately come out, inspect the site, and close it down until thorough safety checks had been made?

But then this is Barnet, where Capita runs planning, and enforcement, as well as offering support to developers: yes, you might think there is a clear conflict of interest inherent in this arrangement, but that doesn't bother your Tory council.

Neighbours rang the council. Nothing happened. No one was particularly interested in the apparent breach of permission, or the health and safety aspects of demolition, it appeared.

Apart from some contact with an officer on November 18th - the neighbours have heard NOTHING since. The building work continues, with what looks like pile driving, which would imply the foundations of a new building are being prepared. 

The site was secured fully with hoarding for three days: then that was removed and business continued as usual. Was it all a show for enforcement officers? No one knows, because no one has been updated as promised by the council. What are they doing?

Local Labour councillor Adam Langleben visited the site and raised the matter with the planners and was sent a routine enforcement acknowledgement letter a week later. The workers on site, apparently, had not seemed to understand what a councillor was: which is what you might expect, of course.

Rumour has it that there very few enforcement officers working for Barnet-Capita now. That would seem to be something of a problem - for residents, if not for developers. Perhaps this is why there is a perception by some residents that clear breaches are simply not being addressed and enforcement not sufficiently stringent.

It is reported that the council is taking legal advice in the case of Vivian Avenue, perhaps because the developer might think he can claim as one token wall has not been destroyed, there has been no demolition. If so, this to any reasonable person would make a complete mockery of the planning process - and it means any house in this borough, in any road, could disappear in the same way: yes, you could look outside your bedroom window one morning, and find the house next door to you was being knocked down, and there would be next to no support from Barnet Council.

Apart from the worry and disturbance from living next door to a demolition site, the prospect of an unauthorised new building next to yours raises serious concerns about the effect on the value on your own property which is likely to accrue from the loss of continuity in style of housing in your road. 

Well, then. This is not the first time this particular developer has, without planning permission, demolished an older suburban property, in a nice residential road, and replaced it with an modern building. His own home, which eventually, after two appeals, was given retrospective approval. His builder, unfortunately, as previously reported, has a history of Health & Safety breaches, including work on gas appliances for which he was not qualified.

Oh, and - this particular developer ... is connected with another series of posts in this blog: the story of Victoria Park Lodge.

The Lodge is a lovely Edwardian house, arts and crafts style, contemporary with the founding of the Park trust, by local benefactors: lived in for decades by the resident Park Keeper. See here and other posts for further details.

Residents outside the threatened Lodge in Victoria Park

The house in Vivian Avenue which has been demolished is owned by CDEG, one of the companies owned by the family of Mr Adi Friedman and his wife Birgit Friedman. The developer who acquired the Lodge, after a cash purchase, earlier this year, a transaction which has been the subject of an investigation by the council's external auditors, as a result of objections made by local taxpayers, in regard to, amongst other considerations,  whether or not the authority had power in law to sell what campaigners claim are legal restrictions that protect the park from sale and development, due to covenants created at the time of the park's endowment.

You may recall that during the summer, after submitting a highly unpopular application to build a block of flats on the site in Victoria Park, the property's new owners then made an application, later withdrawn, to demolish the Lodge. Thanks to the outcry from local residents and campaigners, this was withdrawn, and eventually, after much protest - and criticism of the way in which the planning department handled the process, for example allowing 'supporters' to be anonymous, while publishing full details of objectors, refusing to compel the applicant to reveal the advice given by Capita planning officers - the application for the flats was rejected.

It is pretty clear, therefore, that it is only by good fortune, or rather thanks to determined lobbying by local residents, that the Lodge is still standing. But for how much longer?

An application has latterly been submitted to hack away at two protected trees in the garden of the Lodge - and then, more worryingly, plans to install a 'loft conversion': in a property which we know the developer wishes to replace with a block of highly profitable flats.

Since the last post written about this very interesting story, more information has come to light about the sale, and the way in which Tory councillors came to approve the principle of sale, several years ago.

First of all came the revelation that on March 30th, the day of the sale by Barnet Council, the property immediately transferred ownership: from a Mr Gruber, who paid the cash upfront, to the Lodge Victoria Park Ltd, which is of course a company run by Mr and Mrs Friedman. No money, it would appear, was exchanged in regard to the second sale. This transaction only came to light when land registry records were updated, six months later. This is all perfectly lawful, of course - if somewhat puzzling.

Then emerged more information from the council side, about the curious case of the missing report which was the basis of recommendations to councillors deciding whether or not to put the Lodge up for sale. This was, it should be noted, long before the current developer was on the scene -  the years that have passed since the sale was approved in principle, and the sale that has now taken place reflect the difficulties that then ensued for the council, when they subsequently realised that there were legal difficulties due to the covenants attached to the park.

When the sale of the Lodge was approved, councillors had been advised by officers that it would be too expensive to renovate, and continue to use as council housing. (The family who used to live there very happily were evicted a few years ago, despite the shortage of social housing in this borough, and the property left empty until sale). It was claimed, on the basis of a report that no one can produce, that the Lodge would cost £100,000 to bring up to suitable standards of accommodation. 

The council has repeatedly been asked, by residents, and by local Labour councillor Ross Houston, for copies of the report that is supposed to have made this assessment - to no avail. It has been 'lost': no one is sure how this occurred. Oh, but then ... when resident Mary O'Connor raised the subject again at the last local Forum, we learned that there was a report, after all, which would be made available. 

All was not what it seemed, however. It was not the original report, that had mysteriously been lost. This was a NEW estimate, in which, by remarkable coincidence, it was found possible to arrive a total very close to the alleged £100,000 cost of renovation.

A great shame that before this new costing, no one had had a chat with the Lodge developer's representative who told residents in the summer that they had spent around £7,000 on the property, before renting it out. 

Last month Mrs Angry had extensive correspondence (copied to the auditor) with Ms Anisa Darr, currently 'Director of Resources' at LBBarnet, in regard to the mystery of the missing dossier. Ah - not missing, Mrs Angry. Just 'not available'. In the sense that say, Lord Lucan is not missing, but 'not available', do you see? 

Hmm. Ms Darr said:

As has been previously stated and confirmed, the original estimate by Barnet Homes is not available.

As per the response to Cllr Houston’s members item 


it was confirmed that a revised estimate was undertaken to determine the estimated value of works required to bring Victoria Lodge into decent homes standards for residual use.

This was a desktop estimate and in order to complete this exercise decent homes methodology, age of the building and a schedule of rates from our framework of service providers was used. The estimate was completed by an Estates lead within my team and did not involve getting quotes from contractors. Similarly on-site inspections from building services team would only be required, on any of our assets, once a decision to progress the works, on the initial estimate, had been made. 

I have included the link to the rather revealing responses to Cllr Houston's questions, but as you will see, for some strange reason, it no longer works, and the document is no longer in the public domain. Curiouser, and curiouser. Is there something in it they don't want us to see? Is it the other offers that were made for the property? Details that should not have been published? Not to worry, chaps: we kept copies anyway.

The new desktop estimate, belatedly produced at the end of this summer, when the campaign to save the Lodge was in full swing, was created without any assessment or quotation by builders, or tradesmen, fortunately manages, somehow, to stretch to the £100,000 figure given to councillors when the sale decision was made. 

There is, however, no evidence that the authority can offer to prove that there ever was a report based on any previous assessment of cost of renovation, in fact: there is no audit trail, nothing. One might reasonably suspect, therefore, that it is entirely possible that the £100,000 figure was total fantasy, and that councillors, not for the first time, and not for the last time, were ... misled.

Other misleading information would appear to be a failure to investigate the background to the covenants and restrictions that are meant to protect the park from development: and frankly it might well be that the developer who bought the Lodge did so under the impression that he would be able to get permission to build flats on the site. Was he also ... misled? Or does he have reason to think he can ignore the covenant?

Let us repeat this one more time: whatever the arguments over the legality of the sale of part of the park, there is no doubt about this covenant in regard to the Lodge site: no building may be erected there other than accommodation for a park keeper, a cricket pavilion, or a bandstand. In other words, as the council's own lawyer admitted, he may well have been sold 'a white elephant'. And to be quite clear - now the site is only of any value with the Lodge intact.

The Lodge is now let to tenants on some casual basis: yet a neighbour was informed by someone associated with the building that this was still council housing, which clearly it is not. Rubbish is regularly accumulating around the periphery of the site: one might ask why the landlord would want the site to be so untidy and unappealing. Hard to think of a reason, isn't it?

Over in Hendon, almost opposite the Town Hall, another part of our built heritage is being demolished, after standing neglected for some time: the White Bear, an historic and architecturally pleasing pub, standing on a site which has been the location for an inn for centuries, and is - was  - surrounded by eighteenth century houses. After public outcry a couple of years ago, when demolition and development was first planned, councillors rejected the application. Once campaigners thought they had won the argument and focus shifted, the plans were quietly approved.

This sort of example is happening all over the borough: developers, large and small in scale, unchallenged by regulation or enforcement, ripping up our built heritage, our green spaces,: essential features of what our Tory council likes to promote as a borough that is a 'successful city-suburb'. 

Even our most historic properties are not safe, like the former Church Farmhouse Museum, just around the corner from the White Bear, and at the back of the Town Hall, the heart of the oldest part of Hendon: put up for sale, like the Lodge, pointlessly, as offering nothing to developers because of the restrictions of its Grade 2* listing - so left to decay and stand as a crumbling symbol of everything wrong with the unprincipled, moribund state of Broken Barnet. And the Town Hall itself, as reported in the previous post, also listed, is being carved up inside, in order to accommodate valuable office space.

The limited protection offered by listing can only ever apply to a handful of properties. Throughout the borough now, we are increasingly seeing the loss of buildings, homes that should be retained as they are, integral to their local architectural context, part of our joint history, all through lack of a well directed and properly enforced system of planning, and simply because there is a fast buck to be made, somewhere, for someone. Such development does not address the serious housing crisis in this borough, providing low rent accommodation or affordable housing for those on modest incomes: they are targeted at overseas buyers - as in West Hendon, and even - preposterously, at the other end of the scale - in the case of the flats unsuccessfully proposed to replace the Lodge in Victoria Park.

As far as the Tory councillors and Capita are concerned, developers may do more or less what they want - and there is little you can do about it. Don't be surprised if you wake up one morning and find a pile of bricks where once there was a house next door to you. And if you don't like the idea of that prospect ... please remember not to keep voting for the people who allow such wanton destruction.

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Quite significant changes: or, Barnet library services cut to shreds, staff sacked - Merry Xmas from your Tory councillors

Barnet Council - Shame on You:   Pic courtesy Barnet Press and the Barnet Society

Last night Mrs Angry went to the Town Hall, to the General Functions Committee, to watch the Tory councillors give their final approval to the sacking of half of Barnet's library staff, and to a series of devastating cuts that will mean the virtual destruction of the library service in this borough.

Although the formal approval had not yet been given, earlier that day many members of library staff had already been told they had lost their jobs. 

Some of those who wanted redundancy were not offered the option, which seems curious. And rather worryingly, it would appear that those chosen for the push include individuals who are of an ethnic minority, with a disability, or long term health problem - and older women. This may or may not be representative of the general workforce: but it underlines the difficulties that these employees now face, just before a bleak Christmas, and New Year, in regard to their future livelihoods, and the chances of re-employment: low paid workers, with families to support, mortgages or rent to pay.

When you arrive at the Town Hall now, you are immediately reminded of the state of things here, in Broken Barnet, as you step into what was the foyer of a lovely municipal building, now with hoardings dividing the entrance, as they carve the space up for offices. This Town Hall, built in 1900 to a design by T H Watson, is a Grade 2 listed building, in 'pre-Renaissance manner'. Now we live in a state of annexation by Crapita, it is only fitting, however, that what should be the focus of architectural pride in our borough is being assaulted and humiliated in this way: profit before heritage, for Barnet Tories, every time. Profit before anything, in fact: honour, decency, justice.

To one side of the former foyer stood possibly the most pathetic Christmas tree imaginable, trimmed in corporate coloured tinsel. The fairy had fallen off, apparently: probably died of shame - or jumped.

As we moved upstairs, we passed a display of untouched copies of our Tory councillors' propaganda rag, 'Barnet First', whose cost of production is paid for, despite the demands of 'austerity' , by you, and me, and all the council tax payers of Barnet - written, no doubt by the team of spin doctors whose ranks have just been expanded, again despite the cuts in our services, by six new PR posts: at a cost of £800,000, in the run up to the next local elections.

The meeting began, as is the norm now, in Capitaville, with more new faces sitting at the Committee table: Mr Lemon, the HR lead officer, who spoke in a whisper, as if he could hardly summon the will, or was present at a funeral - which in a way it was. 

An item came up first about the recruitment of a new CEO. The previous one, you may recall, left 'by mutual agreement' after the election day fiasco earlier in the year. Richard Cornelius, who had been left with egg on his Mr Punch like face, made his only spirited contribution of the evening, keen to express the view that the new successful candidate should have to perform his electoral duties whilst taking annual leave, as we should not have to pay him to do whatever it was he was supposed to do, ie perform his electoral duties. Which is supposed to include doing it in such a way that the right registers are available at the Polling Stations, but it didn't really matter that they weren't according to the investigation ordered by the Leader, as we learned everyone who was responsible was on a 'journey', on which we must 'wish them well'. (Mr Travers went on a journey then, and has never been seen since.)

Libraries. Here we go.

Chipping Barnet Library, closed for 'refurbishment' ie gutting & shrinking (even though the planning application hasn't been approved yet) ... What's in it for you, reader? F*ck all, now.

Three officers took their places at the tables, two from library management, Florence Armstrong,  and Hannah Richens, accompanied by Duncan Tessier, the Assistant Director for Children's Services who spent the evening avoiding reference to the impact on the borough's children of being barred from our lovely new DIY, self service, unstaffed, shrunken libraries.

Mr Tessier, who earns around £95,000 a year, told us, in hushed tones, that it was necessary to cut the jobs of half the low paid library staff in Barnet, in order to make savings of £2.2 million.

Quite significant changes, as he put it, with admirable understatement. Well: admirable if you are not one of those losing your job, or a resident dependent on access to a local library where there are trained staff to help you.

Savings of £2.2 million. And spending £6 million to carve up the libraries, shrink the space, cull the book stock, turn them into DIY self entry staffless rooms. Plus, they are spending £12 million plus on new libraries, which we do not need, but will be run on the same principle - the principle that a professional library service can be run with volunteers shuffling around a few dog eared paperbacks on a trolley in a room they call a library.

Savings of £2,2 million, when we have so many private consultants, interim senior officers and agency staff working for the council, hidden behind a screen of 'commercial sensitivity', and a bill of - £20 million a year. A bill which earns Crapita an extra gainshare payment profit?

Savings of £2.2 million, when they hand out half a million quid for no reason to the national RAF museum (which has just announced they have been given another £4 million from lottery funding)?

Savings of £2.2 million, when they have just spent nearly £1 million, as mentioned above, on six new spin doctors, to manage the Tory council's 'reputation'?

But then of course spin doctors are so much more valuable, and contribute so much more to our community than library staff, don't they?

Barnet Unison secretary John Burgess came to address the Committee. He was given three minutes to speak on behalf of staff about to lose their jobs. Every second was monitored, and he was allowed not one moment longer. 

John tried his best to reason with the unreasonable: to no avail. The Tories were absolutely uninterested and did not engage with him in any way. Not one councillor, when invited to do so by the Chair, had any question for him. 

One expects that from the Tories, of course, but to see the Labour councillors remain silent was absolutely infuriating. 

This meant that staff were deprived of the opportunity for their representative to enlarge on the limited speech he had been so grudgingly allowed, and raise important points on their behalf. It also meant, of course that the Labour councillors: leader Barry Rawlings, former leader Alison Moore, and more junior councillor Ammar Naqvi, made another political blunder, and gave up the chance to hold the Tories to account. 

Last week Labour also failed to challenge the £12 million splurge on library construction & modification costs as hidden in a list of expenditure put to P&R for approval.

John was obliged to sit down, cut short of any further chance of comment.

Now Labour councillors decided to ask polite questions of the officers. Alison Moore wanted to know ... about travelling times for staff once the remaining ones were working at new libraries. 

She murmured that she did wonder- and of course this had probably not occurred to any of them before, Mrs Angry concluded, if what might be in store was 'death by a thousand cuts'.

Well, yes. Now that you come to mention it. Well spotted.

No future ... but maybe anarchy in Chipping Barnet

Leader Barry Rawlings asked, in a thoughtful way, how they would measure the success (or not) of the cuts. 

Probably by the outcome of the next election, Mrs Angry suggested, unasked, as she wrote GOD HELP ME, underlined, in her notebook. 

The officers thought the accomplishment of savings would be the mark of success.

Cllr Rawlings now wondered, philosophically, if that was how people will judge what is a good library?

Mr Tessier wanted us to remember no libraries had closed, and there would still be a 'professional' service. Mrs Angry pointed out that what will remain will not be libraries and he had sacked almost all the professional librarians.

Cllr Rawlings wondered now if they should not go down the route of 'community hubs, still with a library at the heart of them'. 

Mrs Angry really was very angry, at this point. Bad enough the Tories rubbishing libraries: but one would hope to see an opposition passionately, furiously defending the primary importance of libraries in their own right, properly resourced and staffed by trained staff. But then we have to remember that, quite incredibly, the Barnet Labour councillor who is their library spokesperson actually put in a personal bid to run a community/training hub type partnership library. 

Throughout all the 'debate' about this item, the Tory councillors sat very quietly, avoiding eye contact, or indeed any involvement - at least as much as possible. 

Richard Cornelius, who became a councillor because of his own sense of fury over the closure of his local library in Totteridge, knows perfectly well what he is doing to our library service, but does it anyway. He insists on the demands of 'austerity', but refuses to admit the monstrous and rapidly increasing level of profligate spending on the Capita payments, which are completely out of hand, and fails to see the flagrant hypocrisy of spending tax payers' money on spin doctors for his own administration's political benefit, rather than on vitally needed, properly trained library staff and properly resourced library services for residents.

Deputy leader Dan Thomas was clearly bored throughout the whole meeting, and spent much of it looking at his phone. He now stared straight ahead and spoke in his usual icy cool manner about the wonderful benefits of the ravaged library system. 

Well. Mrs Angry has warned Cllr Thomas before of the political fall out from the library cuts. She predicted he would lose the GLA election because of his association with what is a toxic subject for Tories: and lo, and behold, he did lose.

And here comes a new warning of what is to come, as the reality of what has been approved begins to sink in with ordinary residents, many of whom have no idea what is in store, or the scale of it. Look at this story in the local Barnet Press yesterday, and on the Barnet Society's website: and see why the Tories should be quaking in their boots.

Look at the photo at the beginning of this post: these are the people Barnet Tories need to vote for them, if they are to retain control of this council. 

This photo is taken in Chipping Barnet, once the natural heartland of Tory support. 

These are not what the Tories like to imagine are 'the usual suspects': local political activists and campaigners. 

These are ordinary residents outraged by what is planned for what was the finest library in this borough: and this before the real face of what is to be done has been seen.

As one woman says in the Barnet Society story: 

I’m an inveterate book buyer, and I like owning books, but many parents can’t afford to do that for their children. I have always loved coming to the Chipping Barnet Library, seeing the students using computers, and people reading the papers. How can our local council put all that in jeopardy?

Because Barnet Tory councillors are clearly not library users, or readers, or interested in culture, and education, and access to information, or matters of social inclusion,  - they simply do not understand the vital importance of libraries and imagine most residents feel the same. This is a gross miscalculation. 

As the woman quoted in the Barnet Society report suggests, even those who can afford to buy books, or may not use libraries themselves, understand their importance for those who do. 

Libraries, like the NHS, are essential to the continuation of what this country is, at its best - or what it once aspired to be: a civilised society, offering hope and support to those who need it, when they need it. 

And Barnet Tories are going to find that their own political survival will be put in jeopardy by their actions in taking away that support from those who need it most, by the anger expressed by others who, unlike our elected representatives, are capable of caring about the well being of others less fortunate than themselves.

Merry Xmas, Councillor Cornelius.