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.


Jaybird said...

Just to be clear, there is absolutely nothing in either the CBAT tool (flawed though it is) or in the motion which passed it that says it can only be applied to buildings already registered as a community asset. I would suggest ADDISS seek legal advice.

ADDISS said...

Thanks Jaybird. Its not about the money. We can pay the rent. WE just dont understand how the lease was offered to Middlesex University first who turned it down, then offered to us, raising our hopes and then the offer withdrawn because the council decide they want it for themselves. But then to evict us three days before Christmas asking for vacant possession on 5th January, is just simply callous especially as they knew weeks ago they were going to do it.