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.

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