Monday 25 June 2018

A Radical Alteration: or - the ravished landscape of Broken Barnet, a Common Room, and Mrs Angry's guide to Fighting Back

The state of Broken Barnet, in one picture: the former National Institute for Medical Research, in Mill Hill, designed in the 1930s by Maxwell Ayrton, the architect of the original Wembley Stadium. With its green copper roof, this building was a landmark on Mill Hill's Ridgeway, visible from far across North London. Once a centre for pioneering work in the fields of immunology, and other vital areas of scientific research. Now in the process of being demolished - for yet another luxury housing development.

No, no posts since the election. Hard to summon up the will, really, while looking on in despair at the prospect of another four years of Tory misrule, another four years of cuts in services, of half baked hard right ideology masquerading as policy - and another four years of Labour powerless in opposition, determined not to see the reasons why they failed to win control of the council, and carrying on with business as usual. 

But duty calls. Here we go.

What hope for the future, in Broken Barnet? 

Well: joining the old timers in the Labour party, there are one or two very promising new members, keen to make changes. Will the group let them? Probably not. Why spoil a record of failure in opposition, by doing things differently?

But keep an eye, for example, on Childs Hill councillor Anne Clarke, and Burnt Oak's Sara Conway, both of them very bright, strong women who have already thrown themselves into their new roles, centred in the grassroots issues in the communities they represent - an example to some of the longer serving members in both parties whose complacency in a safe seat leaves them happy to do the bare minimum, and are only remembered in their wards when it comes to a vaguely familiar name on the voting papers. 

As for the Tories: well. What can you say? 

Having won another term in office by default, and in spite of their record of incompetence, the new administration has started as it means to go on: celebrating the inverted ethos of its philosophy, by enthroning as Mayor Reuben Thompstone - the councillor who has presided over the devastation of our library service, as well as a calamitous OFSTED report that lambasted the council's very serious failings in regard to its responsibilities to the borough's most vulnerable children.

Thompstone, of course, was  also Chair of the committee that cut vital respite care funding to families of children with profound and complex disabilities attending Mapledown School.

His appointment as Mayor, therefore, has been very controversial, and can only be seen as a statement of in your face defiance by the Tory group. This is what we are: bow down before it. And after all: you, the residents of Broken Barnet, have asked for years more of this sort of stuff, so: suck it up.

Pic credit Times Series

Here he is, Thompstone, squeezing himself into the moth eaten Mayoral robes, childishly delighted, as are all the Tory members, at being allowed his turn to raid the municipal dressing up box, and stomp about the borough as if he were actually someone of importance, rather than yet another Tory councillor taking his turn to fulfil an utterly anachronistic role, left over from an other era - one, in fact, when elected representatives saw their service to the community as one of civic duty, and philanthropic aspirations - an era which laid the foundations of the very services the current Tory group is set on pulling apart.

Libraries, parks: endowed for the benefit of ordinary residents - now being removed for the benefit of private profit, and a ruthless ideology that detests the very principle of public services, free at the point of access. And every blade of grass in that park, every written word in that library, must now be commodified, and made accountable, in the pursuit of that profit. Or perhaps - in a desperate attempt to retain any hope of solvency.

The absurdity of it: the glee with which the Tories celebrate the annual pantomime of the ludicrous 'Mayor Making' ceremony - this is a reflection only of the limit of their aspirations, and the shallowness of their values.

The annual pantomime in the Town Hall, of course, means more cost for the long suffering taxpayers of Broken Barnet. £3,000, in fact, for the guzzling that takes place afterwards - a festival of self indulgence on a gargantuan scale, at our expense, but one justified by their twitter account as 'Much needed refreshment after a particularly long meeting ... '

As blogger Mr Mustard pointed out, a meeting of an hour and a half is hardly arduous, or long, and Mr Reasonable suggested they visit the local foodbanks, to see how the residents they are supposed to represent are suffering. 'For you to blow three grand on a buffet', he pointed out, ' is utterly repugnant.'

Not so long ago, by the way, the council removed the water made available to residents attending committee meetings, on the pretext of 'austerity' ...

The infantile preoccupation of Barnet Tories with the fripperies of power, rather than their responsibilities, is an indication of their total inability to engage with the real issues now engulfing the borough - and their administration. And these issues could not possibly be more serious.

As fellow blogger John Dix, aka Mr Reasonable, revealed here earlier this month, after the election was over the council published revised figures for their Medium Term Financial Strategy  (MTFS). 

These amended figures are catastrophically bad: as Mr R explains:

So whereas in February they were forecasting a shortfall of £2.79 million in 2018/19 they are now forecasting a £9.5 million shortfall and in 2019/20 the shortfall jumps from £8.2 million to £19.3 million all in the space of four months. 

The long term prospects are apocalyptic with a shortfall of £42 million in  2021/22 and by 2023/24 a "high level calculation" showing a shortfall of £62 million. This means the council can no longer exist in its current form.

I simply cannot believe that in February - before the election - no one was aware of just how bad the financial situation was, in which case were the electorate misled?

The situation could hardly be worse.

As Mr R also reveals here, the state of the Capita contracts is hugely worrying. An arrangement sold on the basis of saving us money appears to be doing nothing of the sort, and quite the reverse. There is a massive overspend in the case of the Re Joint Venture, and underperformance from the CSG contract: more details now available here in the reports for next Monday's  Performance & Contracts committee meeting. These make for a terrifying read.

As Mr Reasonable comments -

We are now at a tipping point. The CSG contract is under-performing with the Council considering bringing part of the finance function back in house; the Re contract predicated on guaranteed income appears to unenforceable. 

There are other matters which will come to light by the next audit meeting, which I cannot disclose at this time but which will have serious repercussions for the entire Capita contract.

Oh yes.

'Other matters'. And 'serious repercussions for the entire Capita contract ...'

Watch this space ... 

But what is the Tory administration going to do about all of this mess? A mess of their own wilful creation, in the face of all warnings, and maintained, in defiance, over the last few years, at every point of criticism, to every expression of concern?

Not much. Just hand you the bill. There will be massive council tax rises. And they will blame anyone else but themselves for the deficit, rather than their own incompetence, and their own refusal, over the years, to make sensible increases in council tax - purely out of bloody minded ideological dislike of taxation, arguably a catastrophic mismanagement of fiduciary duty - and one for which you and I will now pay.

In the meanwhile, the Tory administration carries on as ever, determined to continue fiddling while Rome burns, engrossed in their municipal charades, acting out their folie de grandeur: crisis? What crisis?

Despite the financial apocalypse moving rapidly nearer with every day, they are still able, it seems, to find spare cash down the back of the sofa for some very generous investments: more than happy, for example, to consider handing over a loan, over a period of thirty years, of around £22 million of local taxpayers' money to their favoured partners at Saracens Rugby Club - owned by Totteridge resident Nigel Wray - to build a new stand at their grounds in Mill Hill.

These grounds are at the former Copthall Stadium, now known as Allianz Park, after the agreement brokered by Tory leader Richard Cornelius, which gives use of the stadium to the club for a peppercorn rent of £1 a year.

Saracens were honoured last year with the Freedom of the Borough - a move that infuriated local fans of Barnet FC, whose club were left with no home in their own borough, & were obliged to go (along with our gritting lorries and corporate legal services), to Harrow.

They have always felt betrayed by a lack of support from Barnet Council - and resent the attention given to a sports club with no previous local connections. But now the game is upped, with talk of a loan of money on such a scale: how on earth can we afford this, in these circumstances?

Tory leader Richard Cornelius 

Are we really able to lend a commercial sports club such a whopping sum, over so long a period? What benefit is there for taxpayers? What safeguards are there for the money invested? If we have such a large amount of cash to spare for investment, should that money not be used for the benefit of local services now under threat of further cuts?

We do not know. We are not allowed to know: the details, of course, will all be exempt from publication. We are only given the information they want us to have, rather than the information we need. This is how they do things, with little or no regard for transparency, or accountability.

Generally, the attitude of the Tory group is that accountability to residents is of no importance, and that it is necessary to maintain a relationship between elected representatives and voters that is one of dominance, and control, rather than deference to the people who entrusted them with the well being of our community.

Part of this dysfunctional relationship is expressed by the Tory fear of engagement by residents in any meaningful way within the democratic process. 

And as is often the case when in trouble, or about to put some new controversial policy into action, they have now taken steps to make sure we have even fewer ways of holding them to account, or expressing our views. 

And boy, are they in trouble. And so are we, the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet.

But as the coming meltdown approaches, and it becomes unavoidably clear, even to the dimmest Tory voter, that their elected representatives have fucked everything up, how to minimise dissent, and the political impact?

This is of vital importance, for their own political survival - and that of the three local Tory MPs, facing the prospect of  a general election at any moment, in three newly marginal constituencies. 

First up, the Residents Forums. Dangerous. And tedious, according to veteran Tory John Marshall, former Hendon MP, and now a member for Hampstead Garden Suburb. The insolence of these people, who want to address their election representatives, on matters of local interest, and hold them to account: except for those in the more ... genteel wards, shall we say?

Cllr Marshall, whose speeches, at least no doubt in his own estimation, and delivered in that creaking, patrician voice of his, dazzle us all with the extent of his sparkling wit and incisive commentary, and could never, ever be too long, thinks that anyone (apart from himself) who wants to speak for longer than three minutes at these Forums is a 'village bore'.

He and his fellow Tories have therefore decreed that no resident at any Resident Forum, who might wrongly assume from the title of the meeting that it is a Forum for Residents, may speak for longer than this time limit.

Admittedly most Tory members are so intellectually challenged, they are unable to concentrate for longer than three minutes, but still: harsh, you might think. 

Mrs Angry looks forward to the next Finchley and Golders Green meeting, where the residents of Hampstead Garden Suburb are always treated with such indulgence by their uxorious Tory councillors, and allowed to witter on all evening about such issues as the gross impertinence of strangers who park outside their houses, or - steady on - the unspeakable intrusion of noisy leaf blowers, but now will be sternly monitored by Councillor Marshall, a stopwatch, and a loud klaxon.

Or: maybe they won't.

The other action these quivering Tory councillors have taken, in their clampdown on the freedom of expression, is to try even harder than they have already to repress the right of residents to ask questions at committee meetings. 

Fearful of what is to come in the next few weeks and months, as it becomes no longer possible to cover up the extent of their financial irresponsibility, and the failure of the Capita contracts, Barnet Tories have decided to ban questions on any matter going to committees other than substantive items from the administration. In other words, nothing raised by Labour may be the subject of comment or question by residents.

The Tory group is in denial. They must have known financial meltdown was coming, of course, before the election. Some of them may even secretly have wished Labour would win, and be left to deal with the consequences, rather than those responsible for the mess.

The consequences of re-election are not only that you must deal with the outcome of your own folly in office, but that you must expect the unachievable promises you made in your manifesto to come back to bite you in the *rse, sooner than you might have thought.

No wonder they wanted to stifle the voice of the Residents Forums. Can you imagine what the Tory heartlands will have made of the bin collection cock up?

A familiar scene in Barnet: bins left uncollected, and overflowing - pic credit Times Series

Wooed by a party that put #angryaboutbins at the top of their manifesto agenda, residents have been infuriated to find, wallowing as we are in the aftermath of post electoral tristesse, that the entire waste collection system has broken down. Broken down because the council which spent £13 million in a panic buy of a new depot, left it to Capita to oversee, and then found months later that the whole place, keen to provide an appropriate metaphor for the state of the borough, was literally falling apart. This means some waste has to be taken out of borough, hence the inability to keep to the collection timetable.

Having had nothing to put in their manifesto other than fabricated stories claiming a Labour administration would destroy our bin collection service, the Tories have, well - set about destroying our bin collection service. Now then: Mrs Angry would like to think that in some way, this is homage to the swivel eyed lunacy of socialist bin conspiracies, but no. There is another game in play here. 

One of the rules of playing #angryaboutbins, Tory version, is that the rules themselves no longer apply, post election, see? Or indeed the rules about any pre-election pledge, pretty much.

You can do what you like. You can leave the bins uncollected. They have. You can then vote to cut green bin collections in winter. They have. And you can even decide to set fire to the brown bins, in a bonfire of Barnet Tory vanities. Oh yes. They have. Or they will.

The brown recycling bins are - well, not to to be recycled - they are to be dumped in the black bins, and then burnt, in an incinerator, along with all pretence at environmental responsibility.

Oh, and even though fly tipping is at an all time high, and barely a street corner in the whole of Barnet is without its display of old mattresses and discarded fridges, your elected representatives have surveillance officers on the streets in uniform, watching to fine you if you drop a sweet wrapper, or cigarette butt.

As things fall apart around him, Cllr Reuben Thompstone disports himself in the Mayoral bling, and speeds his way around the borough in the corporate limousine, provided at our expense, along the pot-holed roads, past the street corners littered with discarded mattresses, past the foodbanks depended upon by so many citizens, and past the shop doorways where homeless residents sleep. Look: he is also passing by the public libraries, where many of those less advantaged residents spend time during the day, a place of sanctuary. Or they did, until Thompstone and his fellow Tories took the axe to this most vital and much valued service.

Why does that matter so much, you might wonder? Why so much protest over one service? Well, it matters very much for all those residents who use - who used - their local libraries ... but it is something else, too, as that place of sanctuary, that point of information, or that meeting place, that focus of the community. It stands as a point of resistance to everything that Barnet Tories stand for: and everything they fear.

Take a look at these words, by Nick Poole, CEO of CILIP, the UK Library and Information Association, in a talk which describes a library as a room -  'The Common Room', in one of the best possible defences of the irreplaceable social value of this public service:

This room of ours belongs to the Doctor, the Fireman, the Nursery Nurse. To the Lawyer, the Clerk, the Farmer and the Shop Owner. It belongs to the Hairdresser and the Cadet, the Office Worker and the Civil Engineer. It belongs to the elderly lady in a high rise who hasn't spoken to anyone so far this week. It belongs to the newly-arrived migrant looking for a sense of connection – to home, to life over here, to people who care and can help.

It belongs to the group of ladies who meet once a week for a knit and a natter. To the visually impaired group who have moved on from being strangers and become a supportive network of friends. To the factory worker who secretly loves c18th French romance fiction and tells his wife he’s popping in for a Haynes Car Manual.

It belongs to the young lad who's been excluded from school. To the girl who needs to get away from her parents. To the boy who has questions he simply can't ask his mates. It belongs to the four-year-old who might one day be Prime Minister, or an astronaut, or a lion tamer. To the girl who will one day be awarded a Nobel prize. The boy who will grow up to be known by his family and friends for his kindness and compassion.

It belongs, too, to the dispossessed who have been taught to hate the culture that surrounds them. It belongs to those who feel alienated and marginalised by mainstream British culture. It belongs to the young people who walk out of their house in the morning with time and talent but not money, determined to make something of themselves, who need a place that isn't home and isn't work but is that 3rd space that is uniquely theirs.

This room of ours belongs to women and men, young and old, people of every faith and none. It belongs to them not because they hand over their credit card, or share their personal data or buy a coffee. It belongs to them by right, from the moment of their birth.

It belongs to you by right, from the moment of your birth.

Here in Barnet, there could be no more dangerous place than a library: a common room, where the community can meet, and exchange information. And that is why they had to get rid of them.

The buildings are still there, the lights are (sometimes) on. But no one's home, much of the time. No staff. Well, unless you count security staff. Yes, still in place, at huge cost.

And all that freed up space, robbed from the library service, costing millions of pounds in 'refurbishment'? Any takers? Nope.

Peer inside the former children's libraries at Golders Green, and North Finchley, and what do you see? No longer the Common Room: nothing but an empty space, bereft of meaning.

 Where are the revenue generating tenants we were assured were queuing up to rent them? That necessitated the expulsion of former community groups and businesses that used them? Is it true that the plan is, and always was, to use the space for council and Capita workers instead?

And the plan to use a small company aiming to rent out desk space in three branches, while children and young students are locked out of their own libraries for much of the time, a scheme that would appear not aimed at generating much money anyway, could it ever have been anything other than an act of window dressing, to distract from the failure to find commercial clients?

(See below for how that plan worked out ...)

It is not just about protecting local services, local libraries, and local parks.

The landscape of Broken Barnet, both literal and metaphorical, is under threat: our open spaces plundered by speculative developers, and our built heritage vanishing in front of us: ruthlessly demolished, along with all the history associated with it, the significance for us, our past, and our future.

Take a look at the image of the ravaged Medical Research building.

This is not a despatch from a war torn country, the morning after a bombing raid. Or perhaps, in a way, it is a casualty of war.

A war being fought in the green fields of Mill Hill, and Totteridge, and Finchley, and all over our borough: a war for the heart and soul of our community.

The privatised planning service now effectively functions no longer for the benefit of the community's needs, but as a commercial service for developers.

Fee based systems now work for the promotion and approval of developments: all around the borough we see more and more blocks of flats, and unaffordable housing springing up, in every available space - and without the resources, the infrastructure, the schools, the shops, the healthcare, or the open spaces to support the vast increase in population such development will bring.

Our greenbelt land, the pride of our borough, is increasingly coming under threat - as well as our green spaces.

Nothing prepares you for the shock of a sight like that of the Medical Research building, ruthlessly eviscerated, its guts hanging out, and dying in front of your eyes.

I went to St Vincent's school next door to the NIMR: my grandmother, aunt, uncles & cousins lived not far away - this building was as much a part of the landscape, and our lives - in a conservation area overlooking green belt - as the churches, convents, and schools that lie along the Ridgeway - it was a landmark you could recognise for miles around, because it was - well, on a ridgeway, a high point between valleys.

Never did I think I would see such a sight, a brutal dismemberment of my own past - and yours too.

But then I had forgotten we live in Broken Barnet, where our history and heritage have no defence against the forces of development, and private profit.

Most residents had no idea that this historic building was going to be destroyed, having been lulled into a state of complacency by the early promise that the development was going to be a 'conversion'.

When and where this conversion became destruction, who knows? Not me. But it is too late, and now we have to live with what the architects refer to, with breathless daring, as an 'augmented facsimile'. And no, that is not a demolition you see in the picture - apparently the building has merely been 'radically rethought' - and 'radically altered' ...

Or, in other words, we are losing a building of unique significance in terms of its architecture and scientific heritage, and local history, but gaining one that ... looks a bit like it, because ... it was so important, in terms of its architecture, scientific heritage and local history. Ok, thanks very much.

Yet again the language and process of development provides us with a literal metaphor for the state of Broken Barnet: managed no longer by a process of democratic engagement, but the next best thing: an augmented facsimile, where Mayors wear the trappings of a former age, and residents are kept behind the glass wall in the public gallery, looking on, as mute observers.

Here is the lesson. Fight back. Demand your voice is heard. You can't change the result of the election, or stop them upping the council tax to cover the outcome of their financial folly. But you can take action, direct action, to thwart the wider policies they are trying to implement. Development, cuts in service, the war on truth, and freedom of expression.

Don't let them silence you: speak out.

Protect every building you can from development. Get them listed. Fight for every one under threat of development. Local landmarks, local libraries, local greenspaces. Follow the planning process every step of the way, every modification by officers.

Fighting back can and does work. The determined campaigning of the Save Barnet Libraries team has done so much, and continues to defend our libraries for the future generations of this borough, despite the best efforts of a Tory council set on destroying the service. It is your library service, your library - your common room. Defend it.

There is still a formal complaint being considered by the Secretary of State that may force the authority to restore some of the damage done - and plans to give library space taken from children in North Finchley, and residents in East Finchley & Chipping Barnet, to an enterprise set on charging 'entrepreneurs' for desk use have been stopped after the group approached the company in question.

Grassroots campaigning works: it is vital - and it needs your support: don't sit back and leave it to everyone else.

And - oh yes: here is a fight you can join in now: as our open spaces are under threat of encroachment, a never ending battery of development, time to turn our minds back to one particular case featured so often in this blog, over the last few years.

One small building, that means so much. The story of the Park keeper's Lodge, in Finchley's Victoria Park.

The power of grassroots campaigning: residents here forced the council to block plans to build flats in a local park

Last year, a determined fightback by residents - plus the prospect of local elections, and a marginal MP being badgered by local residents - helped convince local Tories, in the end, not to allow approval of the plans to knock down this lovely Arts & Crafts cottage, nestling in its own garden within the park, an integral part of the park, and the park's history.

In a move which horrified local residents, and one open to many questions as to process, and the setting aside of the covenant created by the park's philanthropic founders,  a covenant meant to prevent development, and to preserve the park, in perpetuity ... the Tory council had flogged the site to a developer.

That the council acted as both trustee, and planning authority, might suggest an insoluble conflict of interest - but the sale went ahead, and the developer persists in trying to replace it with a block of flats. The plans have now gone to appeal via the Planning Inspectorate, beyond the influence of local processes.

The appeal for this proposal is now only open to objections for a short while: you have until the 28th June to save this part of your park from development. All the details you need are available via this link: here.

Please take the time to object, and play your role in protecting your borough, your parks, your libraries, your built heritage - and your open spaces.

Don't fall for the council's boast of 'putting the community first'.

They don't, so - you must.