Tuesday 5 September 2017

The right sort of people: or - Darlands, another act of insultation, in Broken Barnet? Plus: last call for the Lodge objections ...

Two important council committee meetings this week: one last night, one on Thursday. Thursday will be the planning meeting that decides the fate of the historic Lodge in Victoria Park - starting earlier than normal, Thursday at 6pm, Hendon Town Hall. The Lodge is the first item - so don't be late. More on this below.

Last night's meeting was the Assets and Regeneration committee: yes, we may not have regeneration, as such - other than the wholescale removal of poor people from favoured areas, like West Hendon - but we do have assets, in Broken Barnet - although of course this is only ever a temporary state of grace, as public assets must be become private profit - or at least outsourced to some body not within the reach of the local democratic process. 

Our libraries, for example: currently undergoing death by a thousand cuts, some given away to volunteer groups to run (one of these was broken into, last weekend): the rest carved up, the library area within their own buildings reduced to a minimal, nominal function, empty former children's libraries now gutted and waiting for theoretical tenants who will almost certainly never appear. In fact, Mrs Angry can reveal that as she predicted, two of the libraries will instead have council staff placed in them. Who knew? Me. Told you so. Is Capita paying itself rent for this? And a gainshare payment for saving money? Who knows. Not our councillors, that's for sure.

Hendon Library, next to the Town Hall, lies empty, stripped bare, its windows whitewashed to stop Mrs Angry, standing on tiptoes, taking more photographs. Not very successfully, as you can see here:

Hendon Library, refurbished by your Tory councillors

Yes, this was once our flagship library. Yes, it was, for many years, the base of internationally acclaimed, pioneering children's librarian Eileen Colwell. None of this impresses our philistine, culture averse Tory councillors. But it is - was - an asset, not a library. A business opportunity in waiting. 

Except of course our Barnet Tory members are pretty useless businessmen, when it comes to their civic duties. (The womenfolk don't get much of a say, of course). They happily swallow whatever easy guidance they get from their officers and consultants and sign off any old deal put before them: hence the almighty mess we are in with the Capita contracts, as the external auditors have now pointed out. When it all goes wrong: too late, too bad - we the taxpayers will carry the cost, not them.

When the library cuts were put forward, the massive reduction in size of the floor space of each library was agreed so as to make rooms available for renting out. Officers admitted cheerily that there was no business plan to support that. Because of course they don't care if this works out or not. If it does not, it will give them the excuse to cut the remainder of the service down to the ground, and sell off valuable properties for development. But as part of this scheme they assured us it was already agreed that Middlesex Uni was taking over almost all of Hendon Library. 

Despite denials, as the time of closure for 'refurbishment' came ever closer, rumours emerged that the deal had fallen through. This had echoes of the farce over our only museum, at Church Farmhouse, around the corner: shut, ransacked, put up for sale, no takers - Middlesex Uni begged to take it on, which they did, eventually, but only after years of reluctant negotiations. 

This time the library has been shut, ransacked, gutted, and left standing as little more than a shell while more begging took place. A deal has now been reached, but of course we are not allowed to know the financial details. Mrs Angry would guess the terms are pretty generous: a peppercorn rent, and a building modified to the tenants' exact requirements. Shame about the token library that has to be in the way, in one corner of one of the three floors. Still: that won't last long.

Gerrard Roots, the former curator of the Church Farmhouse Museum, had some questions about this deal, to be signed off last night: all of them ignored of course. He pointed out that the so called consultation over the cuts had been widely viewed as a 'nonsultation', but might better be described as an 'insultation'. The Tory members looked on, with no interest. They do not see the finer points of difference between any of these definitions.

They do not understand the nature of consultation, in fact, and that is why they were so surprised by the number of angry residents who had turned up to hear another item - one which the Tories must have thought had been safely dealt with, with little outside interest: the question of Darlands Nature Reserve, in Totteridge Valley. 

This is a little known area of our borough, a beautiful rural landscape of fields, and farmland, hedgerows and trees, now protected by the Green Belt, which of course offers rather less protection these days than it did. A landscape familiar to Mrs Angry, and indeed fellow blogger Roger Tichborne*,  both of whom went to school at St Vincent's, on the Ridgeway, in Mill Hill village, which backs onto the valley. The farmer's children were pupils at our school: their father would come up every day and take the slops from our school dinners back for his pigs, a forced diet which the infant Mrs Angry thought should have been a matter of investigation for the RSPCA. And the NSPCC, come to think of it.

We still visit the area for walks, and to visit the Adam and Eve, and because the best garden centre in the borough, Finchley Nurseries (I expect more discount now, Phil)  is here, near Burtonhole Farm.

* Mr Tichborne's lively account of the meeting can be read here ...

The only reason that any residents knew about the proposals regarding Darlands was because resident and green spaces campaigner Mary O'Connor had spotted the item, and made the effort to put up notices in the area a week or so ago. Many residents who came to the meeting were furious that they would otherwise have  had no way of being informed about the plans.

Before the meeting began, Mrs Angry had arrived early and gone up to the committee room to read through the papers, and charge her phone. (This latter activity required a certain amount of ill advised crawling under a table, and led to an unfortunate situation later on, after charging was over, in which she backed out and found herself in a compromising position, kneeling before the Tory leader, Cllr Cornelius, who seemed to find this quite thrilling, you know, (as far as you could tell), even though Mrs Cornelius was sitting right behind her, looking on. 

Mrs Angry sat eavesdropping, as usual, in the public seats. Totteridge councillors Mrs Cornelius and Cllr Stock, and the ever debonair, silver fox Mill Hill councillor John Hart (whose curling, handle bar moustache was admired, at some length, and with a certain amount of envy, by an elderly resident accompanying Mrs Cornelius), all sat in a huddle with a group of Totteridge worthies with whom they were clearly well acquainted, evidently all in on the plans for Darlands. In other words, the new trust had been arranged, members appointed, and - with no consultation with local residents. This is Broken Barnet, of course: this is how we do things. But it rather annoyed the residents, who made their views on the issues known, forcibly, and loudly, throughout.

Things were not improved by the farcical state of the sound system in the committee room. No one could hear what was being said: including the admittedly half deaf Mrs Angry, who was sitting in the front row. This is quite normal: and the perfect metaphorical enactment of a larger truth, the absolute failure in communication between elected members and their residents. No one can hear, except those at the table, the councillors and officers, but - who cares? Why does it matter? 

Even when they remember to use the microphones, these stop and start, and the poor acoustics in the room make sure almost no one can hear. Those who attend meetings regularly are used to it: the residents last night were not, and were infuriated. They were also not used to the idea that their elected representatives talk, and they must listen; ignored any such limitations, and with breathtaking Brechtian disregard for the invisible fourth wall in the theatre of farce that is a Barnet committee meeting, simply talked at the table, to the table, and even came to sit right by the table, inventing their own rules of participation. 

Chair Daniel Thomas lost control of the meeting, and didn't dare to contradict these residents, in the way that Barnet Tories always defer to those from Tory held areas.

A worried Cllr Thomas fails to control the meeting

One elderly local environmental expert, who was very hard of hearing, but has an immense amount of knowledge about the borough's wildlife and ecological issues, moved his chair to the front and said that as some of the many questioners had not turned up, he thought he should speak to the committee - quite against the rules, and if any Labour activists, for example, had tried this, they would have been stopped, and security called if they persisted. Thomas did not even attempt to stop him. 

Many of those present had real and very valid questions that they wanted raised, many of those issues also succinctly put to the committee by Labour's Pauline Coakley Webb. You cannot blame residents for being worried:  the failure to consult, the lack of information, and the apparent lack of preparation by the consortium itself could only foster suspicion. And there are many things to worry about. Is the proposed lease going to end in commercialisation of the land? Is it a back door for development? Will it disturb the delicate ecological balance of the surrounding area?

It is a quite extraordinary thing, but no ecological survey of Darlands had been made before the proposals formed to lease the reserve to this group of trustees: largely Tory councillors and a few local people with an interest in wildlife. How can any decisions be made without such a survey? With no audit of the animals, insects, birds, and plants that are to be found there, in the area around or in the lake? We heard from birdwatchers and others about the variety of species to be found: siskins, warblers, mandarin ducks; snakeshead frittillary, and more - one of the public questions listed a huge variety of flora and fauna:

The lake is home to grass snakes and water shrews,
and the area is used by up to eight species of bat (some of
which are nationally scarce including Natterer's Bat and
Nathusius' Pipistrelle). The field north of the lake (included
in the proposals) supports numerous breeding birds
including the scarce and 'red-listed' Grasshopper Warbler,
plus Little Owl, Kestrel, Linnet, Reed Bunting, Whitethroat
and Lesser Whitethroat. It also supports numerous butterfly 
species ...

None of this evaluated: so how can residents have any confidence that this sensitive area, so rich in biodiversity, will be safe in the hands of the trust which has been appointed, with no transparency or democratic engagement, let alone consultation or any form of election, by a previously unknown 'Green Spaces Board'? Mary O'Connor had asked about this mysterious entity, pointing out there was no information about it anywhere: response -

The Greenspaces Board is an internal management
board that is chaired by the Strategic Director for
Environment and its membership includes a number of 
officers from different areas of the council.

So, an unaccountable board, appointing an unaccountable group of trustees, in a process shrouded in secrecy, with no reference to consultation with the wider community. Yet again: this is how we do things here.

It was clear that the leading light in the new 'consortium' is the Chair of the Totteridge Manor Association. (At the beginning of the meeting Tory leader Richard Cornelius had declared his membership of this and the Totteridge Residents Association). Is there still a Totteridge Manor, you may be wondering? There is in the minds of our Tory councillors: a whiff of feudalism never fails to appeal to their little Englander tendencies, living as they do in the pre-war era, where everyone knew their place, and cheery workers doffed their caps at local Aldermen, as they made important decisions on behalf of a helpless, feckless underclass. 

Cornelius, incidentally, at one point in the meeting, stated, with a clear sense of outrage, that Darlands - yes, owned by Barnet Council -  had been dreadfully neglected for twenty years or more, and he had been waiting and waiting for someone to do something about it.

Mrs Angry chewed the end of her pencil thoughtfully and interrupted, from across the room.

Who, she asked, is the leader of Barnet Council? And has been for the last few years? (Not to mention the local councillor). 

As the feckless underclass chuckled in the cheap seats, Cornelius stopped in his tracks, as if he had forgotten, completely lost his train of thought, and got off at an unexpected station, without a ticket. He did not continue.

The Chair of the new trust addressed the meeting: his name was Terry Bannister, clearly a nice and well intentioned man who appeared to be rather taken aback that things, contrary to the assurance of the Totteridge councillors and their associates, were not going to be quite as straightforward as promised. He did his best to explain what he and his friends were up to, that they knew what they were about, being the 'right sort of people' to run the consortium/trust. He twice mentioned, with evident unease at the difficulties that were being raised about accountability, that they were in a 'chicken and egg' situation. What or which was the chicken, and what or which was the egg, never quite became clear. 

There would be a full ecological survey. Should already have been one, commented Mrs Angry, scribbling away. He disarmed her then by agreeing: yes, there should have been, in yet another breach of the first rule of Fight Club, Barnet style: do not acknowledge hecklers, like Mrs Angry, or agree with them, Mr Bannister. Schoolboy errors, from one unschooled in the realpolitik of Broken Barnet. 

The Chair of the new trust was asked by Labour's Pauline Coakley Webb if he thought he really had enough funds to do what was required in regard to the lake, and dredge it? Should this important decision not be deferred for a more full consultation? The meeting - or rather the Tories, moving en masse as usual, decided no, not necessary.

It is full of toxins, apparently, allegedly a legacy of the Medical Research Institute next to my old school, now waiting, yes - can you guess? To become yet another property development. Like my old school, the oldest bit, on the Totteridge side. And almost every former institution or public building, in this rotten borough.

Dredge the lake? Drain the swamp, whispered Mrs Angry to Mr Roots.

It will cost maybe £400,000 to accomplish that. The dredging of the lake, that is: the swamp draining rate has yet to be assessed. The trust has only £40,000, but apparently they are confident of raising the rest. How? People want to know? Membership? Doesn't that exclude those without means? 

Well, no doubt the fabulously wealthy residents of Totteridge Lane can pay for the dredging of Darlands Lake with the money lost down the back of their impeccably upholstered sofas: if not, no doubt again, grants will appear from somewhere, to help with the cost. After all, Tory councillors are very keen to spend money on schemes that fit in with their ideological stance of public ownership bad, outsourcing good, especially when it involves dumping responsibility on well meaning volunteers: as we have seen in the library fiasco, and will increasingly see with our parks and green spaces.

Now then.

One of the things that amused Mrs Angry when looking at the reports for the Darlands item was the keenness of officers to play down the risk of harm to the reserve because of the covenants that will be in place to protect it. Ah yes: covenants.

Rather oddly, the sudden enthusiasm for such restrictions appears not to have caused even the smallest bead of sweat to appear on the revered foreheads of our Capita planning officers when it comes to the other highly controversial issue to come to committee this week: that is to say the preposterous proposal to knock down the historic park keeper's Lodge, and build a block of flats in Victoria Park, Finchley.

This land, given to the people of Finchley for ever,  is protected by a covenant. It forbids the erection of any building on this ground other than a park keeper's accommodation, a bandstand or a cricket pavilion. Barnet's privatised planners are ignoring the covenant, and have recommended that this block of flats be built in the park, by the entrance, despite all the reasons it is quite clearly in breach of the restrictions, and asie from the matter of the covenant, an utterly inappropriate over development of such a site. If the Tories use their ability at committee to force this through, they will be setting a terrible precedent for every park and green space in this borough. 

They will also be committing political suicide, in what is now a highly marginal constituency, which is perhaps one of the reasons why, so Mrs Angry has been informed by residents, our local Tory MP has said he has personally objected to this proposal. He must know that a block of flats in such a place - and right opposite our local polling station - would only serve to remind voters of the dire consequences of outsourcing planning services to the private sector, and the failure of local Tories to protect the park created by another Conservative MP, more than a century ago, for the future and continued benefit and well being of the people of Finchley.

Please let your councillors know how you feel about this, now, before Thursday - especially the Tory members who may very well vote in favour.

All the members' details are here: it is important to email the substitute members as well, in case they take part. Email addresses here.

Councillor Eva Greenspan  (Chairman) Conservative
Councillor John Marshall    (Vice-Chairman) Conservative
Councillor Arjun Mittra   Labour
Councillor Alan Schneiderman   Labour
Councillor Melvin Cohen   Conservative
Councillor Shimon Ryde    Conservative
Councillor Jim Tierney   Labour
Councillor Ross Houston  (Substitute) Labour
Councillor Graham Old  (Substitute)  Conservative
Councillor Jack Cohen  (Substitute) Libdem
Councillor Reuben Thompstone  (Substitute) Conservative
Councillor Anne Hutton  (Substitute) Labour
Councillor Alon Or-bach  (Substitute) Labour
Councillor Gabriel Rozenberg  (Substitute)  Conservative

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