Thursday 28 December 2017

St George's Lodge: a seasonal tale, and a New Year's message from Broken Barnet

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!" 

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol

Time for a seasonal tale - and one which illustrates, as perfectly as we could wish, the state of things, as they are, in this most rotten of all Rotten Boroughs.

A story without, alas, the redemptive ending of A Christmas Carol: a story, in fact, without an ending, and one that will continue, after the Christmas break, and New Year, in monthly instalments, for ever and ever - or at least ... until May, 2018.

Come now, with Mrs Angry, the ghost of Christmas Present, to the Burroughs, in Hendon. Stand and admire our Town Hall, once the heart of municipal Barnet - the seat of local authority. During the reign of Margaret Thatcher, it was the venue of election night broadcasts, as the country waited to see whether she could defeat Lord Buckethead (the real one, not the imposter), and Screaming Lord Sutch, and be returned to power as MP for Finchley, and tormentor of the undeserving poor of Breaking Britain, as PM.

Now the Town Hall retains but a shadow of its former self. The fact that it remains, in name only, as the Town Hall, and has not been sold as a hotel, or similar development, is due to an awkward heritage officer some years back (subsequently made redundant), who made sure the building was listed, and protected it from such an undignified fate. 

Listed, but not protected from misuse: the entrance lobby now carved up to make more office space, and the upper floor pimped out for weddings, other social events - or even filming. 

You may now marry in a building run by Capita, and go there to register a birth - or a death, before you or your loved one is taken off to the Easycrem Crapitorium, at Hendon Cemetery, run with ruthless profit-making efficiency by our private contractors. Live streamed funeral? DVD? Cup of tea in the Easycrem Cafe? All part of the service, and, as Miss Angry would say: I'm not even JOKING ...

The council chamber where Margaret once sat in glory, like Gloriana herself, surrounded by fawning Tory members, still survives, along with a few dismal committee rooms, used more for a backdrop to the vanity of Tory councillors, rather than any meaningful enactment of the processes of democracy. The meetings that take place there are as devoid of significance as the fading, hand tinted photographs of former Mayors and Mayoresses that still line the corridor: no one remembers who they are, now: and no one cares. 

On the right hand side of the Town Hall stands what used to be the borough's central library: the flagship library, when Barnet's service was one of the most respected in the UK: beacon status, value for money. Over the last year, it has been closed, gutted, almost entirely stripped of its function as a public library. What remains is not worthy of the name: the rest of the building has, grudgingly, after much persuasion, and a fair amount of begging by Barnet, been taken over by Middlesex University, as has most of the Town Hall. As well as the former Church Farmhouse Museum, a beautiful listed property, just around the corner. 

(This property, of course, fitting nicely into our seasonal theme, was once the home of Dickens's friend Mark Lemon. Dickens had several associations with this part of Hendon, in fact: not as a source of inspiration for a Christmas Carol, but in ways that are far more interesting than one might expect ... More on this from Mrs Angry's alter ego, in the New Year ...).

Middlesex Uni didn't need to take on these tenancies: but Barnet needed tenants, to justify their cuts and closures. The agreements that were eventually reached in regard to the offloading of these properties, in order to save the face of the Tory council, are of course hidden behind the veil of 'commercial sensitivity'.

On Thursday last week, one of the days in which Hendon 'Library' is unstaffed and accessible only to residents with a pin number to let themselves through the automatic doors, one of Mrs Angry's extensive network of spies (oh, ok: Labour councillor Adam Langleben) observed a most bizarre phenomenon: (see his footage on twitter) ... all day long, all the lights were flashing on and off repeatedly, maniacally,  as if the place was possessed, and exhibiting a manifestation of poltergeist activity. 

It is comforting to think that might be the case: the building itself rejecting the violation of its integrity as a library - and the intrusion of strangers.

On the other side of the Town Hall, there is a curious little building: see the top of this post - a late Victorian property, St George's Lodge, which was built as part of St Joseph's Convent, home of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ order of Catholic nuns, who came to Hendon in the late nineteenth century, and still run a primary school and pastoral centre, just around the corner.

The Lodge no longer belongs to them, however, but to the council - can you guess where we might be going with this story? Yes. Stand by.

For the last few years, as it happens, this house was leased by the council to the GMB union, who in turn - ha ha - sublet it to Hendon Labour Party. 

This was, as you might imagine, a constant source of irritation, of course, to local Tories, who made sure the Labour party kept to a rule forbidding the display of party political material, right next to the Town Hall. 

The lease ran out this year, and Labour, the GMB, and a charity which used the upper floor were shown the door.

Oh: the charity which used the upper floor? This is ADDISS, the national Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service. 

This is something of personal significance to Mrs Angry, having been diagnosed, in middle age, with ADD/ADHD, as well as dyspraxia, after half a lifetime struggling to cope with difficulties of this nature. What does it mean, ADD? The best description, perhaps, seen so far, comes from comedian Rory Bremner, who was also diagnosed with this problem, rather late in life, and compares the condition to being tuned into several different radio stations, all at the same time. Welcome to the inside of Mrs Angry's head: this is how it is - eternally distracted, often unable to focus, or follow complex sequences, or instructions, or remember important things. It is a 'hidden' disability, but one that affects your life, your personality, your education, your relationships, and your self esteem, in ways that are profound, and insidious.

For adults and children alike, advice and support from charities like ADDISS is vital, and something to be encouraged by the local authority, you would think: and of course the London Borough of Barnet depends on ADDISS, as part of the voluntary sector, to deliver important support services to those affected by ADD, which is why they supply them with grant funding.

But then of course, we must remember that we are living in Broken Barnet, where, in the age of Capita, the needs of a local charity, or vulnerable local residents, come second to the pursuit of profit.

When the GMB lease ran out, ADDISS asked to take over St George's Lodge. At first, it seemed this might be possible. Barnet's privatised property services, run by Capita CSG, appeared to be sympathetic, and talked about the charity's 'social value', and ways in which the lease might be transferred to them - but then informed the charity that the council would expect a market rent. 

This seems rather unfair: but ADDISS were prepared to consider this, at least in principle, as well as pay for refurbishment. As it turned out, Capita wanted to more than double the rent being paid by the former tenants, to a whopping £36,000 per annum. 

They were then informed that 'members of the council' would visit the property to make an assessment: a 'client lead', and a 'Community Asset Mentor'. Sounds innocuous enough - but both officers were of course from Capita. 

Warm sounds were made, at this stage, however, about how much the council - via Capita - wanted to help charities in the borough flourish, and grow, with their support. 

The reality has proved to be something rather different, in this case.

Time went by, and it became apparent that although they were allowed to remain in situ while 'negotiations' were underway, obstructions were being put in the path of any more permanent and formal tenancy. 

In August, a Capita officer wrote to the charity and told them, in effect, to get out. 

St George's Lodge was being put on the open market, and while this process was under way, it now was claimed, "the Council has an urgent use for it to temporarily house other services ..." 

Urgent use? And temporarily? 

In truth, it seems they were trying to get their usual obliging tenant, Middlesex University, to take it on. Well, why not? Their accumulation of most of the rest of the Burroughs seems well nigh impossible to stop.

Strange that this sudden haste to rehouse other unnamed services was not in any way impeded by the later excuse for a need for immediate removal: that the building needed 'significant' repair work. Work that was significant, it seems, but not something that worried the council when the property was being used by the Labour party and a charity, that is.

Officers pointed out that the building did not have 'community status', so they would not, could not, help out by applying the CBAT* subsidy (*Community Benefit Assessment Tool). Even if the charity applied for grant funding to pay a commercial rent, that would take months, they said, and there was no guarantee that the council would continue such funding, and - dear me: 

"for a property that holds the financial and political value that St George's Lodge does, the insecurity of the income stream is not a risk that the council can take ..."

Financial value  is of course the only measurement of worth, in Broken Barnet - but ... political value? What does this mean, exactly? An extraordinary comment.

Where did the Barnet Capita officers suggest the charity move to? It had been hinted that - ha - they could move to one of the newly gutted libraries. 

Well, as we know: plenty of room there. 

At least three children's libraries have been emptied, and a huge amount of space removed from every library in the borough, supposedly on the pretext of making office accommodation, that would generate £500,000 a year in income. 

But how strange ... ADDISS were told as recently as the 20th December by a Barnet Capita officer that:

 "... unfortunately we do not currently have any available space within our libraries ..." 


They came up with an alternative idea: hot desking. Yes: for a charity.

No available space in libraries? ... Despite all the millions spent on reconstructing the buildings in order to create areas for renting out? As far as we can see so far, there are no new tenants in these newly assaulted buildings, other than Hendon. A very odd state of affairs. And what about the risk of 'insecurity of the income stream' in this respect? Half a million a year lost is hardly insignificant.

It seems highly likely, in fact, that, as we were informed by a whistleblower a couple of years ago, Barnet Capita staff will be placed in these spaces. 

This raises many questions. 

Was the pretext of making office space a deliberate attempt to persuade councillors to approve the library cuts, as addressing the apparent problem of budget restraints?

Does Capita gain in any way from placing staff in libraries? (Mrs Angry has already tried to ask this question at a committee meeting, to little avail).

What does it mean for the future of our already mortally wounded library service, to lose £500,000 of revenue?

Why should space that could be used by the community, or by charities offering support services to our community, be handed over to Capita to save money on accommodation costs - and possibly earn themselves a nice little bonus in the form of a gainshare payment in the process?

What does it say about Capita's stranglehold on our council, our borough, that locally based charities, providing such a vital service, are treated in this shabby way?

And it is shabby: particularly so in the way ADDISS have been told, at the end of December, to clear out of St George's Lodge, in a matter of days. Yes: days. 

The charity pointed out that they - and the council - have a duty of care to the vulnerable residents that they support; that they need time to make arrangements, not just practical ones in terms of removal, but to safeguard the best interests of their clients; they run a helpline that must be in place, for those who need it, for example. This was to no avail, until, after a certain amount of protest, eviction was delayed. But only to the end of January. 

And yes, appeals had been made to Tory councillors over the last few months, including the Tory leader, Richard Cornelius. A local Tory member who was written to is reported to have made no response, although a strange question then appeared at a full council meeting, asking not about the future of the charity, but rather how many properties the council owned in the Burroughs. 

Across the road from the Town Hall, and St George's Lodge, there is a building site: an empty lot, surrounded by wooden fencing, next to a listed row of mid eighteenth century houses. Because of these and other listed buildings, the Burroughs is a conservation area. This did not prevent the White Bear, an historic building which stood on this site, the last in a succession of important taverns of that name at this location since 1736, and which bore a blue plaque noting its significance as the meeting place of the local court leet, from being mercilessly demolished, without permission, a year ago, despite residents' pleas to local planning and enforcement officers, even as the bulldozers were in action.

St George's Lodge is locally listed: but that will not save it. Local listing does not protect properties from demolition, or development. And in the age of Capita, nowhere is safe. Local listing offers only the protection loosely defined by 'planning policy'. 

Planning and enforcement, two services run by Capita Re, sanctioned by Tory councillors, failed the White Bear. A prime site in this location, immediate to the Town Hall, is clearly just as much at risk. And if no new tenants are found for the property, the chances are it will be put up for sale. It is entirely possible that developers are already expressing interest in the site. 

If put up for sale: expect the worst. This is Broken Barnet, where the worst scenario is always the first and last option: the only option.

But what does this sorry tale tell you about the way this borough is run, and the sort of administration which is responsible? 

Right in the heart of what used to be the council's own seat of administration, this is the story of a Conservative council which has abandoned its civic responsibilities, and handed over control of all the services on which we depend to a profiteering company whose priority has never been, and never will be, the well being of those who live here, in their latest and most obliging client state. 

And it is the story of a political ideology, rooted in the age of Thatcherism, whose acolytes see nothing of merit in public service, or the public sector, or the idea of community. 

So Mrs Angry's New Year message to you, dear reader, is this: a suggestion. 

Take a walk along the Burroughs, over the next few days, and take a good look. 

Look at the Town Hall, which isn't a Town Hall. 

Look at the library, which is no longer a library. 

Then take a moment to reflect on the story in this post.

If you don't like the idea of charities being treated like this, or the property next door to you being knocked down for development with no warning, or your park being sold off to developers, or your roads going ungritted in a snowstorm, or your local museum being shut and ransacked and its contents being put for up sale, or your libraries being shut, cut, and torn to pieces, then please: think carefully in May, when your Tory councillors expect you to vote again for them, and ask for four more years of the same. 

They are so arrogant, they think you will vote for them again, simply due to their own sense of entitlement. 

They are so foolish, they think you won't notice what a hash they and their contractors have made of things, since your council services were privatised. 

They hope you won't have read the conclusions of their own external auditors, that they are running out of money - your money - and have yet to produce the scale of savings they pretend they can deliver. 

It is in your hands, however, friends, to disabuse them of their sense of complacency, and their assumption of a divine right to rule. 

The Labour group in Barnet also have their part to play, and changes to make, if they ask to be trusted with the management of the council's role : time to step up, and use their role as opposition to greater effect, following the direction of the newly energised party, represented by a more radical agenda of policies - and leader. Carrying on as before is not an option: there is an appetite for change, but one that needs to see locally, as it has nationally, a re-assertion of fundamental Labour principles, expressed in more robust language - and action.

In the new year, in May, residents will have the chance to change the fortunes of this borough, and begin the task of reclaiming ownership of our local democratic process. 

That responsibility lies with all of us - and the work towards that change begins now.

Happy New Year to you all.

Thursday 14 December 2017

Frozen: A winter's tale, from Broken Barnet

                                                                                                                        Pic credit Angela Barrett

Updated 15th December: see below:

When Mrs Angry was in her infancy, and when there were libraries, still, in the London Borough of Broken Barnet, and when those libraries had children's libraries ... well then: Edgware's children's library had a whole wall of shelves stuffed full of books on mythology, classic tales, and folktales. 

Not just picture books, paper backs, or easy reading: heavy volumes, with long stories, and difficult words - and fabulous illustrations. This was the infant Mrs Angry's favourite section, and she would borrow these books over and over again. 

A particular favourite was one with stories by Hans Christian Andersen: although often grotesque, and frightening, in some cases, beguiling, and instructive: priming a child's imagination, and leading you through an unravelling sequence of useful narrative themes, and archetypal characters, that, in retrospect, gave as close an insight into human nature as anything else could. Perhaps better than anything else would.

The Snow Queen, for example: this tale exerted a huge fascination. Not just the horror of a landscape turned into boiled spinach, the evil protagonist of Mrs Angry's Sunday lunch nightmare, being made to sit at the table, by her mother, for hours, because she couldn't eat the vile stuff - or even the inadmissable similarity between the Snow Queen, and said spinach tormenting, emotionally distant mother ... but so much more. Disturbing, but compelling, this fable - especially the idea that people could lose their human feelings, and emotions: the sliver of glass, and the ice, in their hearts, and in their eyes.

As you grow up, you recognise these people. They cause you the most grief, in your life: cause the most trouble, and simply don't care. Their hearts are frozen, and nothing will change that. And as you get older, you recognise the same lack of humanity is increasingly apparent in the society that has formed around you, shaped by these people. 

Conservatism, as a set of political values, necessarily appeals to those who lack empathy, and compassion, for those less fortunate than themselves. We have seen it in the punitive policies and social injustice perpetrated by successive governments run by the 'Nasty Party', and we see it still in Broken Barnet, in the cradle of Thatcherism, the frozen landscape of the ultimate Snow Queen -  now with a Tory council administration that is rank with self interest, complacency, and utter indifference to those in need. 

In this rotten borough we see not so much a landscape of boiled spinach, so much as a yawning chasm - an ever increasing space between those who have, and those who have not,  worn away by years of relentless ideologically driven opposition to the very nature of public service, equality - or accountability.

Our cold hearted elected representatives, in Westminster, and in the local council chamber, have become so disconnected from the reality of our lives that they have inevitably, and fatally, miscalculated the extent of their own mortality. And now they are on the verge of losing their grip on power, directly as a result of their own hubris.

As well as pursuing an agenda of socially illiberal policies, and hollowing out the council's functions to a skeleton service, Barnet's Tory run administration has prioritised their commitment to encouraging mass development of areas of the borough, under the guise of 'regeneration'. In fact the development that is happening all around us does not address the housing needs of local residents, but is simply a proliferation of non affordable properties. 

There is no corner of Barnet which is safe from this speculative activity - and that includes land owned and used by the authority. Hence the hurried sale, some while ago ... of the council depot at Mill Hill.

So keen were our Tory councillors, and their senior officers, to see a fast buck from this sale, that they somehow forgot to consider where they would put the services that used the site as their base. 

It soon became clear that there was no alternative location within the borough: in panic, a purchase of the Abbots site in Oakleigh Road South was made for waste services - a curious story in which the authority paid a huge amount, despite the site having been bought for a fraction of the cost only a short time beforehand, by the authority's own landlords. Read this, for more on that mystifying tale.

There was no room in the borough, however, for the gritting lorries and supplies that had been based in Mill Hill - so they eventually ended up ... in another borough. In Harrow.

Yes. I know what you are thinking. Isn't that rather foolish? Did they consider the impact on the ability to respond to a major incident involving snow and icy conditions in Barnet? 

Well, no need to worry about that sort of thing: 'winter planning', of course, is now safely in the hands of Capita. 


This weekend's downfall of snow was clearly predicted, and of course Mrs Angry, like most sensible people, made sure suitable preparations were made on Saturday, before nightfall. 

Patching up the distintegrating lagging round the boiler pipes with old socks. Ordering more logs for the fire. Topping up the bird feeder. Stocktaking of essential emergency supplies: milk, bread, alcohol, chocolate. Noticed there seemed to be no gritting of the road, which was odd, especially as the council's twitter feed had been boasting about doing this the day before, when it wasn't necessary, and - come to think of it, there didn't seem to have been any other gritting this year, unlike in the past, when it seemed to take place every night in winter. 

Waking up about five in the morning, as is Mrs Angry's wont, lying there pointlessly worrying about everything from Donald Trump, Brexit, the heating, the crack in the ceiling, the spider in the bathroom, and the grim prospect of life in 2018, when she realised there was an eerie silence outside: a sure sign of ... yes, looking out of the window now - snow. Falling and now settling on parked cars, and roofs. Went back to bed: getting up a couple of hours later to find the snow was falling even heavier - and the road was already very dangerous - one car struggling painfully slowly to get up the slope and inch its way along Squires Lane. Quite clearly the road had not been gritted: for this section of the road, that was an absolute disaster.

Mrs Angry's son had to go to work in central London. No buses could get along the road - all day. Worse still, the Northern Line was not in service, on either the Barnet or Edgware side. He walked until he was able to see a bus still in service, going along the Finchley Road, and took the tube from West Hampstead. Ballards Lane, he noted, had not been gritted: but crossing over at Henley's Corner, it was evident TFL had been at work in the same conditions, as the North Circular was clear. On his return in the evening, when the Northern Line was back, not only had the treacherous slope to the station not been gritted, nor still had any of Ballards Lane. In short, the transport system in Barnet had completely broken down, and even heavily used public areas in Finchley had been left in a perilous state for any pedestrians.

From reports on twitter and facebook, it was evident that there were chaotic conditions all over the borough and virtually no sign of gritting, anywhere.

Mrs Angry tried tweeting at the few Tory councillors who are on twitter. The leader Richard Cornelius never replies, and his deputy Dan Thomas remained silent. Councillor Zinkin, who is always keen to deny and defend any failing by the authority, even in the face of blatant evidence to the contrary, had this to say, in response: 

Except ... as Mrs Angry pointed out, she was awake then, and saw only snow, not rain - and no grit, no residue of grit. And gritters were conspicuous by their absence here all day - Squires Lane, which is a bus route, left in a very dangerous state, and no buses able to run. Throughout the day some residents braved terrible conditions waiting at nearby stops for buses which would never come. By 11.30, the snow was worse, not turned to sleet. Silence then from Cllr Zinkin.

High ground? Again, from every hill in the borough came reports of stranded vehicles, one or two buses, but worst of all, an ambulance in Barnet. Where were the gritters?

The only sighting of a gritting lorry, readers, was, according to one eye witness ... in Meadway, in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Yes, an minor residential road in the most affluent part of Barnet, populated by billionaires, the safest (last remaining) Tory seat, and important only in the sense that this is where local Tories receive their most generous supply of funding.

In the aftermath of a day of absolute shambles, comparable only to the omnishambles of the Mayoral election day in 2016, which saw the departure of Barnet's former Chief Executive, we learned a little more about what had gone on, or rather not gone on, behind the scenes.

The Tory leader went on radio to broadcast a lot of bilge about battling from 2 am to deal with the snow crisis: contradicting his own senior officer, Jamie Blake, who around eight o'clock in the evening of Sunday had informed councillors, with an extraordinary degree of complacency, in the circumstances, that all was under control:

Dear Councillors,

I am writing to provide you with an update ‎of our activity in response to the snow conditions that we have experienced today.

A decision was made to deploy our gritters at 4am this morning. All ten of our priority one routes were then treated. At 9am a further decision was made to deploy again with a heavy treatment to counter the snow fall. This deployment was sustained throughout the day on a continuous basis with all ten priority one routes receiving three treatments. We have also responded to police requests for treatment in specific locations. In all we have placed circa 200 tonnes of grit salt on the borough’s network today.

We prioritise key routes within the Barnet network for our gritting activities into priority one and priority two routes. Our aim is to treat the ten priority one routes, which largely consist of our main roads, entrances to hospitals, schools and town centre locations, before moving onto priority two areas. While working within these priorities every effort is made to respond to individual requests for assistance from our residents and commuters.

Mr Blake is the Commissioning Director for Environment, and therefore responsible for ensuring the privatised services under his remit are satisfactorily delivered. Mr Blake, you may recall from previous appearances in this blog, such as the matter of the bus passes for disabled residents, which were apparently unlawfully terminated by Capita, sometimes with no warning, and in some cases leaving highly vulnerable users stranded and in distress with no means of travelling home. He accepted responsibility for the decision to pursue this new policy, but continued in his post. This is from his Linkedin profile:

Still seamlessly blending innovation from an inherent understanding of the environment landscape, but not when it has been turned into boiled spinach, and therefore possibly having problems relating intelligently to the related delivery units, what with all the snow and stuff.

Among the other people copied into this message was another senior officer, a man who rejoices in the name of Mr Dean Kronk, and who is the Service Director for Highways, at Re - the private company and (We Have Decided On A) Joint Venture run by Capita with Barnet, and responsible for a wide range of critical functions, including planning and enforcement - one area much criticised for failing to deliver a competent standard of performance. 

So according to Mr Blake, the decision to grit Barnet's roads was only made at 4 am, the time Cllr Zinkin claimed the lorries were already out and delivering the stuff, before it became magically 'washed away' by an alleged downfall of rain.

And Priority One routes were gritted, twice on Sunday, were they? No sign of that in my road, which is in that category. Barnet Hill? Ballards Lane? When?


*Updated 15th December:

Fellow blogger Mr Reasonable has pointed out that the failure to prepare for and address the scale of the snow on Sunday would seem to be a clear breach of contractual obligation by Capita Re, see here:

And here:

It is quite clear that the decision to grit should have been taken as soon as the weather alerts were issued, and not at 4 am on Sunday morning, when it was too late. It is also evident that further action taken on Sunday was simply inadequate. 

Now read a statement put out yesterday by Barnet Unison's  branch secretary, John Burgess. This also explains succinctly exactly where the blame lies: 

First things first, the Gritting service is provided directly by Barnet Council.

It has not been outsourced.

However there have been changes to the Gritting service since Re (Capita) were given a contract that included the Highways Services.

If you go to Barnet Council Winter maintenance web page you will see the contact details for Re, view here

The implications of trying to run services with multiple partners, each of whom will have their own agendas, was probably not discussed thoroughly by those councillors who rubber stamped the outsourcing of key environmental services to Capita.

I know it wasn’t discussed because I attended every single council committee meeting for years, desperate to see some semblance of scrutiny. What I witnessed, was no scrutiny of claims in favour of outsourcing made by senior council officers, long since gone from the Council.

No accountability.

Back to the Gritting service.

The Gritting service prior to privatisation made their own decision as to when they went out to grit roads, now they have to be instructed by Re (Capita).

It is really important to note that fact.

What happened on Sunday 10 December 2017?

I am writing this post in defence of our members who carry out this service.

There has been a great deal of anger from Barnet residents about the lack of gritting that led to the chaos on the streets of Barnet.

I just want to make it clear if my members in the Gritting service had been asked to go out, they would have gone out.

The question that must be asked is why were they were not asked.

I have asked and I am still waiting…….

Harrow depot

Many residents are blissfully unaware that Barnet Council sold Mill Hill depot (in the exact centre of the borough) without securing a suitable location for a new depot. This has resulted in services being scatted over a number of sites. In the case of the Gritting service, it was moved to Harrow. This means they have to drive from Harrow and drive into Barnet to begin the routes, then drive back to Harrow to pick up more grit.

The workforce can’t believe councillors could make such a decision and neither can Barnet UNISON.

All the ingredients, then, of a perfect (snow) storm. 

Flogging off the family silver, as usual, and handing a council depot over to developers. Failing to find any location within the borough for the gritters. Deciding to move the gritters to Harrow. Outsourcing the decision making process that oversees the organisation of gritting to Capita Re.

(Mrs Angry's spies inform her that, most amusingly, the very expensive council depot in Oakleigh Road South, had to be gritted last week by ... FM Conway. Yes, a private contractor used, at our expense, to grit the council's own depots because the council's own gritters are too far away, in Harrow).

Apart from the failure to prepare for Sunday's weather, what is puzzling is why, once the level of challenge on the day itself was evident, there was such an inadequate response. 

Hats off now to fellow blogger Mr Mustard, who has written about the weekend's chaos here and here - and who spotted this interesting item in a council meeting in September:

You may ask, but is Barnet actually meeting its statutory requirements, then? It would appear that relying on Capita's handling of the 'winter plan' has meant it has not.

Consider the extent of accountability under the Railways and Transport Act 2003 - s41(1A) Highways Act 1980  ... "In particular, a highway authority are under a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice".

If you had a fall or accident, this week, or any other serious consequence, as a result of the council's failure to take what you consider to be 'reasonably practicably' means to provide you with a safe passage along a highway - which may or may not include pavements - then Mrs Angry suggests you quote this at them, when you make a claim.

There are many questions that must be answered: the definition of what is a Priority road. Is Essex Park, for example, where a certain disgraced former Tory councillor used to live, still worthy of that categorisation? Or Meadway, a relatively unimportant road in Hampstead Garden Suburb, which was apparently prioritised for gritting while so many major routes, like Barnet Hill, were reportedly left in such a dangerous condition, and if so, why?

Who decided which roads were gritted, and in what order, and when?

Why were so many major roads, bus routes, and areas of heavy pedestrian use or around transport hubs, left ungritted all day?

Why was there no emergency response, when not only had there been a heavy fall of snow, but a major failure in the local transport system?

Why did so many schools have to close the next day, and why were so many parents reporting dangerous conditions around the roads and pavements in these locations?

Did the Tory leader and Chief Executive not take an active part in overseeing the response on Sunday? 

If they did, why was it so ineffectual? 

Is it because they are unable to hold their contractors at Capita Re to account, or to direct their delivery of the service, now that they have delegated control to them? Or are they simply not interested?

And here we return to where we started, in our winter's tale. 

In truth, our Tory councillors, shot through, as they are, with the sliver of glass in their icy hearts, are hardened to the plight of those residents whose needs might depend on the provision of public services. They are on record as saying they do not want residents who are dependent on those services.

They fall over themselves to respond to the slightest whinge of those who live in the most affluent areas of the borough, in the Suburb, and Totteridge - and ignore the everyday needs of ordinary residents who might depend on public transport on a day like Sunday, to get to work, or a safe path to get to a supermarket, or to visit a sick relative. Well, if you have a 4x4,  four wheel drive, you're ok, aren't you? And those most affected aren't likely to be Tory voters, are they? 

Well, unfortunately, this is yet another gross miscalculation: like libraries, planning & enforcement, the failure to recognise the impact of such a level of incompetence by their outsourced contractors on their own, previously loyal voters is going to add to the weight of disaffection now placing their electoral future in jeopardy. 

Their inability to empathise, to engage with their own residents and their needs is their fatal flaw: and as with all such regimes, or individuals, in the end, the lack of emotional intelligence that marks their nature will be their downfall: the kiss of the Snow Queen, in the end, will destroy them. 

Thursday 23 November 2017

Incidental and meanwhile uses: or - Barbarians at the gate - our library cutting Tory councillors discover the world of culture.

What remains of the former flagship children's library at Hendon: 'refurbished' by your Tory councillors ...

Updated 29th November: see below*

It becomes more and more difficult to write about the true state of things here in the London Borough of Broken Barnet. 

That is not just because the truth is so unpalatable: but because it has now moved beyond the scope of moral outrage, or even satire. 

What can you say, after a week where we have seen a fatally wounded Prime Minister arrive in the borough to admire the 'success' of Tory housing policy, avoiding the gaping wound of West Hendon, still in the process of social cleansing, and escorted instead to the  safety of the Stonegrove development, where ... oh, the deputy leader of the Tory group happens to live?

PM Theresa May on a visit to Edgware, to admire the sort of housing affordable to local Tory deputy council leaders like Daniel Thomas, (left). Pic credit Times group

In the week where our local authority, slated in a recent OFSTED report for its failings in regard to young children in care, so blithely announces a new 'partnership' with UNICEF .... 

Yes, UNICEF, whose role is to provide humanitarian and developmental support to children in ... developing countries, is now obliged to help the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet fulfil their duty of care to the borough's most vulnerable families.

Oh, and this was also the week where our local authority, as it slides further and further into the mire, at the same meeting where the catastrophic Tory library cuts were (yet again) challenged by local campaigners, debated a report declaring an ambition to become the London Borough of Culture ...  (In 2021, which is the equivalent to the Twelfth of Never, for Tories, in Broken Barnet, as by then the People's Revolution will have taken place - or failing that, Barnet Labour group will be running the council).

Would you like a taste of this breathtakingly stupid report? It proposes, and please excuse me: 

"the establishment of a time-limited council-funded resource to kick start the use of spaces for incidental and ‘meanwhile uses’ in the borough ..."


Heavenly Father, please forgive the author of this report, because Mrs Angry cannot, and condemns him to the worst pit in corporate hell, surrounded and eternally tormented by outsourced imps with especially well sharpened easycouncil forks.

Meanwhile uses.

And who, Mrs Angry, I hear you ask, is going to help our culturally averse Tory councillors learn the ropes, when it comes to you know, art, and all that sort of thing? 

What sort of thing they have in mind is hard to tell, as the only example of cultural patronage they can come up with is a reference to 'supporting' a sculpture installation at Middlesex University. 

Barnet Tories are fond of sculpture, it must be said. 

Outside the Town Hall is a monstrous phallic object, a sort of giant bronze dildo, (batteries not included) foisted on them by some twin town municipality, which they have tried to hide in, ahem, a modest covering of bush: the effect is pretty startling. Art, see: all the same, good or bad: they haven't got a f*cking clue. Oh, hang on: see here - it was of course unveiled by Mrs Thatcher - apparently she was so taken by it, she kept a replica in the privacy of her Downing Street study. 

Goodness me.

And ha ha: here is what greeted Margaret, when they installed the monstrosity, according to the same account in the local Times paper, in 1981:

Among the crowds in The Burroughs waiting to see the Prime Minister and the unveiling were a handful of demonstrators with 12 posters on behalf of Nalgo and the TGWU protesting, among other things, at cuts in the library service.

Plus ├ža change ...

And yes, good news, our council will address the challenge of cultural promotion in time honoured tradition - no, not another nonsultation, but yes, a working group. Oh, hang on, they've already had some thoughts, this group, meeting with stakeholders. In secret, of course. No, not residents:

Arts and Culture is also one of the five themes agreed by the Barnet
Partnership, a partnership chaired by the Leader of the Council, comprising of
Barnet Clinical Commissioning Group, CommUNITY Barnet, Barnet and
Southgate College, Middlesex University, Brent Cross shopping centre,
Metropolitan Police, Job Centre Plus, Groundwork London, Federation of
Small Businesses, West London Business, Argent Related and Saracens

Yes. Arts and culture, as a 'theme' agreed with local bodies such as the police, and the CCG. Oh. As well as favoured Saracens rugby club (whose chairman Nigel Wray is a Totteridge constituent of Tory leader Richard Cornelius). Think that, on the whole, the CCG ought to try to do its own work better, that is to say, to provide a decent standard of healthcare to the residents of this borough - perhaps addressing the length of waiting lists, & lack of appointments, or the scandal of the still half empty Finchley Memorial Hospital, don't you? And the police probably have better things to do. But Brent Cross Shopping Centre? The foremost temple of culture, in Broken Barnet, of course.

This working group, though: the council, Middlesex Uni, and the Artsdepot. They held a workshop in July, apparently. Who was invited, asked Gerrard Roots, in a written question? (Gerrard is the former curator of the local Churchfarmhouse Museum - ransacked & shut by Tory councillors, not so long ago). Oh: they weren't going to say, as that would reveal 'personal information', and he would have to submit a Freedom of Information request for any reply. Eh? Mr Roots, with a masterly demonstration  of his usual lack of tolerance of fools, now pointed out, at some length, that he had already said that they could redact personal names, and that there was absolutely no justification of withholding the identities of groups and other bodies who may have attended. Labour's Pauline Coakley Webb also commented that there was no excuse for withholding such information from elected councillors. 

Fellow blogger Roger Tichborne, who is also a musician, runs a recording studio and a local music festival, had been so incensed by this report that he had made an address to the committee, rightly pointing out that 'culture' was created by the community, and not decided by working groups. The Tory members and their senior officers looked on in silence. 

But there were other public questions - all on the subject of libraries.

Hidden away in one of the reports was a brief but significant statement:

1.23 Libraries: Savings to the library service budget are being delivered
through the implementation of the library strategy, which was agreed
by Council in April 2016. The strategy to reduce the number of staffed
hours at each site alongside the offer of self-service technology
enabled opening is delivering savings in the library service operational
budget whilst maintaining all 14 library sites as well as the home and
mobile library services. The potential to further increase income-raising
opportunities within the library service operational budget has been
considered and are considered unachievable.

Savings to the library service budget are being delivered, are they?

Well, no: not on the level you claimed you needed, you fibbers.

Barnet's library campaigners, including Mrs Angry, submitted a number of questions intended to expose such a claim, and drawing attention to what is really happening. 

The written responses, frankly, were staggering - and elicited the information that Barnet Council was in such desperate straits, as a result of its reckless cuts programme, that it was now prepared to spend an incredible amount of money on security to guard Barnet's newly 'de-staffed',  so called 'self service' libraries. 

This would pay for a significant number of library workers.

In the previous year, these responses revealed, only £20,000 had been spent on routine security needs in libraries. 

Yet since the new 'self entry' system has been introduced, (although not reaching the extended hours promised by our dear councillors) the monthly bill - or so we were led to assume - has been £70,000. The monthly amount is about to be increased by another £25,000, each month.

*UPDATED 29th November

At the CELS meeting, when challenged about this monthly cost, no denial of the figure in the written response was made. Yet when a local reporter asked about the level of cost, Barnet representatives allegedly suggested the total amount paid in extra security had been only £70,000 - in total.

Fellow blogger Mr Reasonable has written today about last month's expenditure and has checked the security bill:

It is quite clear that the security bill, since the unstaffed libraries system was introduced, has risen by up to £35,000 per month. Unless this is entirely a coincidence, and Blue Nine are being billed for some unknown charge, this is likely to be related to the use of security in place of library staff. Adding another £25,000 a month makes a £60,000 bill: how many library workers would that pay for? Thirty?

Why are they using security guards? Because they are too scared to run the unstaffed system as planned, that is to say ... unstaffed. The doors are too unreliable, too difficult for many to negotiate, & they are worried by the fact that DDCMS are considering a formal complaint about the impact of the scheme - as well as trying to minimise electoral damage before next year's elections. 

They claim the use of security guards is just an 'interim' measure, to provide a 'reassuring presence' while the system is new. This is ludicrous: there will always be new users, and those in need of a 'reassuring presence'. We used to have that, anyway, at a fraction of the cost: they were called library staff.

Barnet is also claiming 12,000 have registered to use the new system. What they don't tell you is the number of residents who have not, and are therefore denied access to the 'unstaffed' hours. It seems more than 80% of all readers are unregistered.

So: to save £2.2 million per annum, Barnet is not only throwing £14 million of capital funds, but another whopping amount per annum too,  for security. 

It gets worse. 

If you use Barnet libraries, you will have noticed that although they pretend to have 'retained' all branches, in truth they have gutted those libraries, reducing the library function within each building to a nominal service, and in the process, shutting several children's libraries, and squeezing the size of others to a minimum. This was supposedly in order to create rentable 'office space', which would generate £500,000 in annual income.

Think again. 

One of Mrs Angry's supplementary questions was to enquire why Barnet council staff - or rather Capita staff - are said to be about to be placed in these spaces, rather than commercial tenants. Was this not, as we were warned, always the plan, and what exactly is the benefit to Capita? 

Will they profit from this arrangement, in terms of free accommodation, or gainshare payments? Guess what: they didn't want to say ... 

But for a minimal amount of savings, a fraction of the original estimate, we have been paid the cost in terms of  loss of a once magnificent, Beacon status, value for money library service: the loss of access for all unaccompanied children under 16, the loss of so much book stock, and study space, and the loss of half our library staff, to be replaced by ... security guards. 

As a way of making 'savings', with approximately 20 years ahead of using the paltry sum left over to pay back the £14 million used to assault our libraries ... erm: looks like, Tory councillors, you really have f*cked up, big time, once again, doesn't it? 

Heart warming smiles from local Tories - Finchley & Golders Green MP Mike Freer, Tory leader Richard Cornelius, & library cutter in chief Reuben Thompstone, all of whom now want you to believe they have invested £14 million in libraries, rather than spent this money slashing the service to shreds ...

Well: you may be surprised to hear that the Chair of this committee, Reuben Thompstone, was unmoved by, or, perhaps, bless him, uncomprehending of, the revelations of his party's failure to achieve the wonderful budget savings they thought justified the assault on our library service.  

Thompstone is one of those young Tories so who desperately crave the status of being appointed to the position of Chair of - well, something, anything - and rather than wait for gravitas to arrive after years of public service, apply a larding of pomposity, a good deal of shoutiness, and a novelty moustache, so as to enhance their position.

Increasingly red faced, and hiding behind said moustache, (he appears to be aiming for the full handlebar, but is apparently unable to reach a satisfactory length) he rudely dismissed all of Mrs Angry's supplementary  questions, speaking over her comments, either unable, or unwilling, to answer the questions. 

Rudeness is one thing, shouting down a female resident and refusing to acknowledge her constitutional right to have a response to a supplementary question ...  is something else. I think we know what it is, don't we?

Mrs Angry suggested to Cllr Thompstone that he should resign, a suggestion he appears to have found unwelcome, and then, when he refused to give any response at all to her last question, she declared she would remain seated at the table until he did, even if it took all evening, only giving way to Lisa Pate, who was presenting a petition about school budget cuts, ignored of course by Thompstone. Shame she was obliged to miss the opportunity to see Tombstone call for security guards to remove her, at which point Mrs Angry was planning to recommend that (providing he has a pin number, or indeed a ticket) he could go and visit a library to find one. 

Ah well.

Cllr Reuben Thompstone, pic credit Linkedin

Thompstone's other tactic was to deflect questions to a senior officer sitting nearby, who apparently is leaving now, anyway. The same officer who had, once upon a time, so happily explained to Mrs Angry, although she seemed not to enjoy being reminded of it at the table, that the revenue from income generation was anyway ... of little significance. 

Of course it wasn't: our Tory councillors never intended it to work out that way. The important thing was to decimate the service, hand the buildings over to Capita - and free up space for staff displaced by the move from North London Business Park to much smaller premises in Colindale.

In Thompstone's time as Chair of CELS, there has been a disastrous OFSTED report identifying 'serious failures' in children's services, an attempt to cut vital respite care for the families of children with profound and complex disabilities, and now the virtual destruction of a library service at breathtaking cost - and for no sensible reason. 

Not only has the library cuts programme been a financial disaster, even by its own terms of reference, it has been another Barnet Tory failure. 

Where are all the volunteers on which this cock eyed scheme was meant to depend? Why are the few surviving library workers being required to carry out their duties, as well as their own? As Barnet Unison has pointed out, it is insulting to expect staff members to cover for the failure of the council's own cuts programme:

It is unacceptable that the remaining staff be asked to plug the gaps left by the loss
of jobs of friends and colleagues. The Libraries in Self Service Opening (SSO) mode
are meant to be unstaffed, which is not something the staff or public wanted. But if
they are meant to be unstaffed it is ridiculous that staff should have to work in these
branches in replacement for deleted jobs.

In the end, the library cuts are not about saving money, but driven by the atavistic, neo-Thatcherite delusions of Barnet Tories, who maintain an implacable, irrational fear of the very principle of public service, and to the demands of culture, and the arts, and thinking, or creating, or honouring the artistic and historical heritage we have, or had, here in Broken Barnet. In fact, they have been complicit in a betrayal of Thatcher's own feelings about libraries: she recognised the role they play in education, and social mobility, and always fought to protect them. 

Slipping out of the Town Hall, Mrs Angry noticed, on the way to the bus stop, that, next door, the newly emasculated Hendon Library was still open. Impossible to pass by, without taking a look.

During the questions at the CELS meeting, she had commented that, on visiting  Golders Green Library, she had been moved to tears - tears of rage - seeing what the Tory cuts had done to the place where she had once worked. To see the former children's library destroyed, scoured out of existence, obliterated: this was a traumatic experience. For the local community, particularly the local Charedi Jewish community, this was, and is, a catastrophe. To see Hendon Library, once the borough's flagship library, reduced to the pathetic state it is now, is beyond description. 

Where there was once a large and well stocked adult library, a separate children's library, libraries for music, reference and archives - now there is nothing but a token service, in small, blocked off section of the ground floor. 

The former children's library has, as at Golders Green, and North Finchley, been thrown out of its purpose built room, and reduced to a pathetic installation in one corner. 

And the final insult: placing above the children's corner the old tribute to Eileen Colwell, the pioneering champion of children's librarianship. 

The ultimate act of blasphemy, in the new corner sized children's 'library', next to Hendon Town Hall: the now replaced picture of pioneering librarian Eileen Colwell - which only serves to remind us of the irreplaceable legacy our Tory councillors have stolen from future generations of children in Barnet.

The library issue in Barnet has always been so much more than the story of one public service. 

It represents something far wider, and more profound, locally, and nationally. 

It is the last frontier of something we cannot quite yet see, but sense is slipping out of our grasp - part of the last vestiges of a society we thought we had built on foundations that would last forever, now hacked away, from under our feet.

As the Tory councillors here in Broken Barnet continue on their assault on public services, however, they fail to see that they are undermining not the foundations of our community spirit, so much as their own electoral future. 

So be it.