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.


Mrs Crazy said...

This is very similar to what happens at any committee meeting when a resident speaks about issues that he/she is concerned about: 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.

Money is the new god and if your concerns stand in the way of this god, your 3 minutes are just so they can pretend they have listened and considered your views.

You might as well have your tongue cut out. The quicker you vacate the public speaker seat, the easier it is for the Tory councillors to breathe.

In fact if you were not present, Mrs Angry, they would breathe better too as you will not be there to document their silent betrayal as they swung their hatchets.

Why has no one had the guts to listen to the people?

How you sat through the disgraceful Worshipping of the Money God by the sacrificing of the Library Lambs without puking is beyond me.

You were a brave woman, Mrs Angry.

Mrs Angry said...

Well, it is true to say I did feel utterly sickened. I don't think any of the councillors present really understand what the impact of these cuts will be. And the Tories simply do not care. But even if you reduce the arguments to one of economic reason, none of this makes any sense: they wilfully chuck money at Capita and any expenditure they take a fancy to. And the real reason for the cuts is not austerity, of course, but ideological: they loathe the idea of public services, free at the point of use, and want to destroy them. Doing a pretty good job so far.

Rational Man said...

Like many things, the bottom line is use it or lose it. If you look at FOI requests, visitor figures in the last few years have decreased dramatically, income has gone down significantly, loans and membership has decreased by an staggering amount. Most people have never set foot inside a library nowadays, and this is the reason why austerity measures hits them the hardest and usually first ahead of all other council departments. Instead of bemoaning the situation we are in and trying to assign blame to politicians and their (admittedly questionable decisions) The questions should be, how did we get here? And unfortunately the answer is - no one uses libraries anymore and staff in the libraries are so against any change or innovation that encourages the library service to compete in the modern world, that they have stagnated and fell behind.
It is a similar situation to woolworths in the early 00's - no-one went in woolworths, their profits fell, the business went under and they announced that stores would be closed. The public reaction was to shout and get angry about a national treasure being lost...if you wanted it that bad, you should have used it.
Any parent would see parallels in toddlers - you try to take a toy away from a toddler that he/she hasn't been playing with or showed any interest in for days away, they will throw a strop about it - cry, scream, bang their fists etc. not because they want the toy, but because you are taking it away. Give it back to them, they might hold it for a bit afterwards as the tears dry up....then put it down and forget about it again.

Mrs Angry said...

For someone who uses the name 'Rational Man', Rational Man - well, one might expect a comment that was evidence based, and objective. Yours, I'm afraid, is neither. 'No one uses libraries': patently untrue.

I worked in a public library for several years, in this borough, when the service was beacon standard, assessed as excellent value for money: properly resourced, with an adequate range of professional staff and a wonderful book stock. Since then the service has been deliberately run down, and starved of investment, which naturally prevents the change and innovation you demand, and leads to a deterioration in standards, so some loss of use - but not to the degree you imply.

Libraries are not some sort of indulgence, irrelevant and outdated: they need to evolve, but with proper funding, and expansion in service, not a programme of devastating cuts. People rely more on libraries now than ever, and the social and educational value is both incalculable, and irreplaceable.

jd2387 said...

Rational man has bought the lie. It is is no way the same situation as Woolworths. Woolworths was a business. Its loss was sad, but other businesses have arisen to take its place.

Libraries are a public service, developed over many years in the days when it was generally recognised that provision of such a service was good for individuals, good for the community, and good for the country.

The library service in Barnet, staffed by trained and dedicated professionals, is being replaced by self-service book cafeterias staffed by security cameras.

Certainly it is true that patterns of reading, studying and library use are changing, but rather than seeking to respond creatively, Barnet has taken advantage of this to mount an ideologically motivated attack on the community.

Rational Man said...

I am a man of science, so it would be remiss of me not to back up statements with facts.
This is data obtained from FOI requests found on Barnet website and on what do they know (an excellent independent website):
Annual visistor:
2011 - 146250
2012 - 135163
2013 - 137825
2014 - 133850
2015 - 130986

Annual loans:
2010 - 130592
2011 - 134462
2012 - 131326
2013 - 126896
2014 - 125156

The request was made in 2015 so that year wasn't included. Of cousre these stats don't take into account use of the digital library.

Mrs Angry, I respect you a little more for the fact that you used to work in libraries. Your opinions would indeed be well informed. I would also point out, I have worked in libraries also - and still do.
I have noticed the difference in people I actually have to serve over the years. The queue someday would go out the door, now barely 5 or 6 people per hour.

It is unfortunate that our targets for the library now are instead of increasing loan amounts, simply to maintain them from the previous year - something we rarely manage.

Mrs Angry said...

Well, 'Rational Man', the data you offer as evidence only shows a relatively small decrease in use. Measured against the huge cuts in funding, staffing, and promotion of libraries all as part of a deliberate policy intended to downgrade the service, I think it shows remarkable consistency in the level of need that exists of a vital and much loved facility.

A library is more than a place to go to borrow books, or access information. It may not be used regularly by the same people; it may be used at different stages of life - but such a space is invaluable, and should be defended from the philistine, senseless strategy of fatally destructive budget cuts. Short term minimal savings are going to be highly expensive in terms of impact on social inclusion, and the educational well being of children. These things may not be easily or quickly assessed in terms of impact, but the damage will be profound, and long lasting.