Tuesday 2 January 2018

The Ultimate Cost, or - North Finchley: the life and death of a library

The former children's library at North Finchley

North Finchley is one of a number of interesting but dangerous locations that punctuate the landscape of Broken Barnet - portals to another world: one that underlies and undermines the colonial regime imposed on us by our Tory masters, and their Capita-list army of invasion. 

Under their rule, certain parts of the borough have become a regular focus of contention, and unrest. A place of occupation, resistance: marches. And nowhere is more suitable for the expression of such discontent than North Finchley, the home of Margaret Thatcher House, and the heart of Finchley Conservatism.

A place of nemesis, North Finchley, for certain former Tory councillors - and triumph for troublesome cafe owners. And a stalking ground for a posse of privatised parking wardens who prey on hapless residents trying to park their cars: a constant reminder that the streets of Broken Barnet are no longer the sovereign territory of those who live here, but a marketplace for those who come here to make money.

Perhaps, as we have often considered, it is an historical anomaly, or accident: an interface in time: a psychogeographic accumulation of layers of significance. 

Well, maybe. 

Certainly a geological one, as fossils dug up in the area at the time of railway expansion in the nineteenth century suggested: the place where an ice sheet ended, pinpointed with impressive exactitude by Mrs Robinson, Mrs Angry's formidable geography teacher at St Michael's, pointing in the direction of the High Road, a hundred yards or so away, a landmark which she identified, with great confidence, as the very edge itself. 

A borderline, of many sorts, it is true, the High Road: offering a last stopping place, at Tally Ho, on the much travelled passage, along that stretch of the great North Road, through Finchley Common, the last wilderness before the capital, where danger lurked in the form of ambush: robbers, thieves, and highwaymen. 

Marching up North Finchley High Road to the library, in protest at Tory cuts

Danger still abounds, in Broken Barnet, from robbers and highwaymen, but in the guise of governance. Dick Turpin's musket holed oak still stands decaying at the junction of the High Road, and the North Circular: but his natural heirs sit in the council chamber, and the corporate offices, their target not your money or your life - your money and your life: your council tax, and your local services. 

Local services, such as ... your library, for example.

North Finchley Library has an interesting history all of its own, in fact, the beginning of which can be traced in the archives of the local press: a history well worth revisiting, as the past always is, if we want to understand how we arrived at the point we are now.

In the Hendon and Finchley Times, in October 1934, we read of a decision that the council's surveyor should draw up plans and estimates for a new library, in Ravensdale Avenue. 

This was opened in 1936, after permission was given, rather curiously, by the Ministry of Health: the design itself was cited by RIBA as a model of its kind. 

According to this very interesting post on the architecture of Barnet libraries, in the 'Modernism in Metroland' blog, the building, like the one at East Finchley, was designed by the borough architect, a Mr P T Harrison, in Neo Georgian style.

North Finchley was an attractive building, with two internal oak framed, bow windowed rooms just inside the entrance - one side allocated for 'junior' readers, and a lecture room upstairs used for - well, lectures - and by local residents for meetings and other events.

Early reports indicate the enthusiasm of councillors to get on with opening the library: and show the existence of a library committee, and even a Borough Librarian - a post that survived until the era we live in now, when libraries are under attack by Conservative administrations. No longer is access to a public library system seen - as even Margaret Thatcher believed - as an essential resource for ordinary families, and a route to self improvement: but the founders of the service in Barnet were proud of their achievement, and rightly so. 

By 1938 the new library was proving to be a great success, and was even the subject of filming for a documentary:

Limits on renewals were necessary, because the success was such that often the shelves at North Finchley were almost empty - the council was obliged to allocate further capital sums for book stock.

But what is this here? 

By July 1939, there were signs of a new phenomenon in local council affairs, demonstrated, as it always has been, by subversive activity in the borough's libraries: sshh .... yes: unionisation ...

Personal gossip, and a sea story: what more could you ask for? 

Of course in those days, and indeed until Mrs Angry's days as library convenor, NALGO in Barnet was quite genteel, and members awfully well behaved. That all came to an end, after two successful strikes, and years of organisation ... Less sugar, and more starch, in other words. 

But oh, Mr Long: what would you write now, about your 'noble service'? And you, Mr Smith: does your spirit stand in the shadows of the library at night, looking on, in silent fury, aghast at what they have done to it? 

I think it might.

NALGO was renamed UNISON, and Unison in Barnet has played a major role in leading the fight against the Tory war on public services, especially the campaign in defence of our libraries. 

In 2015, residents and campaigners marched in protest at what was happening to our much loved service -  to North Finchley Library, with supporters and banners from the Durham Miners Association, including the late Davey Hopper, and from LGSM - Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, who feature in the film 'Pride'. 

It was a fabulous, uplifting day: Mrs Angry interviewed Nicola Field, from LGSM, who emphasised the importance of libraries as a first point of information to young people in the process of recognising their sexual identity. A long way from the world of Mr Kenneth Smith, and the aldermen of Finchley: but a good example of why libraries continue to matter, so much, to so many.

Barnet Unison secretary John Burgess, centre, and below, Nicola Field, of LGSM, and the film 'Pride', at North Finchley Library

Hard to stop peering at the stories about North Finchley library, in the archived local press: in May 1938, for example, we learn that the librarian is to arrange 'an experimental programme of stories and epidiascope lectures (slide shows) fortnightly, from October to March, in the upstairs lecture room. This was 'to introduce to juniors the masterpieces of literature'. As time passes, the Borough librarian, Mr Seymour Smith, makes annual reports, and refers to the plans for more new libraries, when the war is over.

In 1940, an obituary appeared in the paper after the death of North Finchley library's oldest member, aged 101, Mrs Eliza Phillips, born in the first year of Queen Victoria's reign, and who, on the occasion of her hundredth birthday, had recounted to reporters her memories of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the Crimean War.

Still in 1940, the redoubtable librarian and union man Mr Kenneth Smith has now edited a Christmas annual edition of 'Query', the NALGO journal. The Town Clerk and the Borough Treasurer both make contributions, welcoming the support of council officers in helping to prepare the borough for the new realities of war. 

On the lighter side, however,  we read, there is an hilarious mock news bulletin at the expense of local dignitaries, and others, for which Mr A V Williams is responsible

Naughty Mr A V Williams. Was he the first Barnet blogger? Presumably in those days the borough council didn't have to have a million pound plus budget to spend on spin doctors to try to counter such impertinence, and negative press ...

Barnet Tories, of course, have always been very careful to listen to the grievances of the more influential residents - so it is no surprise to read that, according to stern questioning from those at a pre-war meeting of East Finchley rate payers (a process clearly pointing the way for the favoured Suburbanistas, lavished in attention at every step), there were concerns raised about the 'undesirable sort of books' which might have crept on to the shelves. 

It also transpires that local councillors had to be pushed into creating libraries in 1929 by the County Council, which threatened to do it instead, if the local aldermen continued to ignore the needs of local people. By the thirties, it seems, they had recognised that libraries were a Good Thing in our borough: Councillor Wilmot declared that: 'libraries were as necessary to the public as open spaces, baths and health services ...' 

Prior to the new public libraries, it appears, there were, at least as early as the 1890's, one or two local lending libraries, and reading rooms - by subscription only, of course. The idea of a national public library service, free of charge, accessible to ordinary residents, and even disadvantaged residents, was clearly not altogether popular with our early elected representatives - just as it is no longer popular with their present day successors.

Councillor Wilmot pointed out to the grumbling rate payers of East Finchley that expenditure on libraries was 3s per head of population: but that this was value for money -

The ultimate cost: incalculable

How times have changed: but the same arguments are as true now as they were then. 

The change is in the councillors themselves, from those who saw their role as a voluntary civic duty, to those who are happy to take an allowance for very little contribution other than the devolvement of responsibility to others.

After more than eighty years of serving the community, North Finchley Library has been targeted, along with the rest of the borough's service for a fate of death by a thousand cuts. The cowards now sitting in the council chamber, in the seats once occupied by Councillor Wilmot and his colleagues, don't dare to shut libraries, as they would wish - at least not now, so close to local elections, and at a time when three newly marginal Tory held constituencies are at risk. 

So they sanctioned the next best thing: a virtual destruction, by default, in the shape of a programme of savage cuts that they have tried to present as 'modification'; a 'reshaping'; a 'reconfiguration' - then a 'refurbishment' ... and now, most offensive of all, as an 'investment'. 

On election day, the council allowed a politically misleading claim of 'refurbishment' to be displayed prominently at the library entrance - and erected only two weeks previously - when the rooms that had been the children's library were used as a polling station.

They boast of having closed no libraries: what they have done is worse - an assault on the fundamental principles of the service itself, sacking half the workforce, attacking the buildings, returning only a fraction of the footprint of those properties to any semblance of a library function. 

Once their plans for this massive assault had been formulated, meetings were held in North Finchley Library as part of a carefully managed  'nonsultation' with local residents, in which their objections were received with absolute indifference.

Hands off, hands behind the back: the business of 'nonsultation'.

At one of these meetings, Mrs Angry asked the then senior officer with responsibility for the cuts programme about the rationale for removing so much space from the library buildings, in order, supposedly, to create office accommodation. 

It emerged there was no real business plan or market testing for the success of such a scheme. What will happen if, as seemed likely in a borough where there is already a surplus of office space to let, there were no takers? The £500,000 a year in predicted income would not materialise: a huge hole in your revenue calculations, surely? 

Meh. Didn't matter, apparently. The library budget was not dependent on it. Really?

The reason it didn't matter was explained by one source, who claimed that the space created by shutting children's libraries, & shrinking the size of the adult areas, was not intended for commercial letting - but so that the council - Capita - could accommodate its own staff. 

As explained in the previous post, a local charity being thrown out of another council property was told last month that there was 'no available space' in any library. Yet on a visit this week to North Finchley, it was clear that the former children's library, now mercilessly ransacked and cleared, is like most of the other spaces in other branches, still unused. 

What a forlorn sight it is. 

The deserted, ransacked children's library: what was it all for?

Thankfully they did not dare, as they had wished, remove the bow windows, but they are now screened off, and the rooms emptied: purposeless vandalism, all in the name of making savings which will never appear, with a £14 million capital sum wasted on the 'reconfiguration' of the service, and ever increasing costs to cover the gap created by the dismissal of half the workforce, and a dawning realisation of the perils of their new automated, unstaffed system. Savings that were meant to amount to only a couple of million per annum, but now clearly will not do so.

And now: where once there was a 'Junior Library', dedicated for the use of the children of Finchley, a ghost sign marks the only indication of its former presence.

What was the point of all this? 

What do they really think, those responsible for this outrage? 

Are they pleased with their work? 

Well, are you?

They took the letters down, but a ghost sign remains: the Junior Room

In the remaining library area, a teenage section has been emptied out too, to create a room with no apparent purpose. 

Worst of all, a nominal children's section has been shoved into the adult area. 

You cannot call it a children's library. I'm not sure what it is, other than an abomination, and an insult to the families in North Finchley who depended on this lovely library for their children's reading needs. 

Just look at it: an utter disgrace.

That table is the children's study table. Yes: THE children's study table. 

How is that adequate provision for the needs of local families? 

How does it meet the statutory requirements of the Library Act?

In the other bay, as here, there is a notice saying the area is for children only. Seated in the armchair, out of sight of the skeleton library staff, was an adult male, who, if he had seen the sign, had chosen to disregard it. 

Staff will no doubt try to make regular checks to see if anyone is sitting there, and ask them to leave, but what happens when they are busy, as they clearly are, with so few workers left to cover their duties? 

Libraries are visited regularly by adults with mental health issues and other difficulties, whose behaviour can sometimes be very challenging. This can and will represent a safeguarding risk to children.

And when the library is left unstaffed, as it is now, for much of the time, with a self entry system, who will tell adults to stay out of the children's area? Admittedly there will not be - in theory - many children there, as they are supposed to enter only with an adult in unstaffed hours. But - unless they continue to spend an unbudgeted massive monthly fee on extra security to guard the unstaffed libraries,  who will be there to check this is an appropriate adult, or supervise the safety of the children's area? 

No one. 

Except a CCTV camera, operated in Swansea.

The impact of these cuts on the children whose library has been stolen is immense: perhaps immeasurable. The consequences on standards of literacy will only become evident as future generations of less advantaged children are denied access to a range of reading material and study space. The wider effect in terms of social exclusion, and the isolation of homeless, jobless, elderly and disabled residents, is unthinkable.

Here are the people to thank for the 'refurbishment' of your local library service. Centre, Tory leader Richard Cornelius, to the right, library cutter councillor Reuben Thompstone - and left, Finchley and Golders Green MP Freer, whose last leaflet claimed his colleagues had 'invested' £14 million in libraries. 

Note they are standing outside not one of their newly cut libraries, but the small - and probably temporary - library for Church End, Finchley, a pop-up library in a block of flats which was offered by developers some years ago, as part of an application to develop Gateway House, and is nothing to do with the current Tory sponsored programme of destruction.

The story of North Finchley library is, as these tales from Broken Barnet always are, about so much more than it first seems. Not just about one library, or one library service, or the state of affairs in this rotten borough. You know what it means: you know what to do. 

Don't let them get away with it.