Monday 19 November 2018

Willow House: After the fire

On June 14th, one year after the tragic loss of life in the Grenfell fire, Barnet's Tory group Leader issued the following press release:

“The Grenfell Tower fire deeply shocked and saddened us all. One year on, as we pause to reflect, we will remember all those who lost their lives and will continue to keep in our thoughts the people affected by what happened.

“We must learn the lessons from this terrible tragedy and we will continue to review and enhance fire safety measures in flats to ensure people feel safe in their homes.”

We must learn the lessons.

What lessons has Barnet Council learned, from the tragedy of Grenfell, and the chaotic aftermath, when the local council in Kensington and Chelsea was called on to support those affected by the fire, and find them alternative accommodation?

Well, we know what was supposed to happen, here in Broken Barnet.

Barnet Council and its 'At Arms Length organisation' Barnet Homes, which looks after the council's social housing, immediately undertook a review of safety in its high rise buildings, with particular regard to the risk raised from cladding similar to that used on the Grenfell flats. 

But not all of Barnet's social housing is high rise: so what safety measures were reviewed in regard to the rest of Barnet Homes' properties, or indeed other blocks of flats run by housing associations?

According to this press release, published on 26th June, as well as pledging £30 million in funding for improved safety in high rise buildings, the council would also take action in regard to other forms of social housing:

In addition, the (Housing) committee agreed that Barnet Homes should proceed with developing a programme of fire safety work for low and medium-rise flats.

It is not clear, however, what that agreement meant in practical terms.

All council properties are meant to be subject to regular fire risk assessments, and these inspections will make recommendations for the implementation of any necessary actions to improve safety. 

To what extent, and how quickly, these recommendations are put into action, is an area which clearly is of crucial significance. 

Not long after Grenfell,  Michael, (not his real name), a resident living in a low rise block of flats overseen by Barnet Homes, wrote to me with his concerns about the failure to put in place what he believed to be vital safety measures identified as a result of inspections made years earlier. 

Only one part of the action plan, he claimed, had been processed, after the report, apparently leaving some private flats with fire safe doors not fitted, among other recommendations.

He further claimed that entrance systems and lighting had not been changed and no follow up assessment had ever taken place.  Roof voids, he alleged, were not inspected. 

When he questioned Barnet Homes, he said, he was told these points were not a priority. When asked, in 2013, why work had not been actioned within the time limit, especially in regard to a communal entrance, they responded that this should be of no concern: and that due to the number of properties managed by Barnet Homes, and the demand on its resources, it had not been 'practically possible' to meet the recommended timescales. But that was ok, he was told, (in emails I have seen), the 12 month period was not mandatory, and was just a target. 

Thirty minute fire resistant doors were supposed to be put in place, but some of the privately owned flats had not been required to do so.

This resident asked:

My question is, how many other "P1" issues Barnet Homes decided they could over rule based on their own decision making and not the qualified assessor?

I was so alarmed, last year, by what he had reported in regard to his block of flats, I raised the matter with local councillors, who said they would pursue it. I don't know what happened, after that.

In June this year, I was contacted by BBC London, who were investigating reports of a large number of Grenfell type fire doors - the 'Manse Masterdor' - still left in many social housing properties: did I know that Barnet was one of the boroughs said to be in this category? I did not - but we do know now that Barnet already knew they had these doors: see this section of an FOI response  to someone's query, published in April 2018:

8a) Prior to November 2014, were any of your properties provided fire doors by
the company 'Manse Masterdor'?
If you answered yes; 8b) how many doors?
8c) in how many buildings?
9a) Since November 2014, have any of your properties been provided fire
doors by the company 'Masterdor'?
If you answered yes;
9b) how many doors?
9c) in how many buildings?
210, of which 65 are also included in the 109 properties mentioned in response to
question 8c

There was also a rather shocking question and response on the subject of fire inspection:

3) Since the Grenfell Tower fire on the 14th June 2017 has your council
commissioned independent fire testing of the fire doors fitted in tower blocks
within your council?

None. Where there is a need to install flat front entrance fire doors to London
Borough Barnet /Barnet Homes properties Barnet Homes instruct their contractors to
install doors and/or door sets which are certified to a specific level. This level is in
most cases FD30S. The certification is provided by the door manufacturer following
tests conducted on the doors under controlled conditions. The system as it is
currently designed is the norm within the industry and it is relatively unusual for
landlords to commission tests on doors which they have procured precisely because
they meet a specific level of certification. The Government is conducting an
investigation into certain types of fire doors but there is currently no change to
existing fire safety advice from the National Fire Chiefs Council.

So ten months after Grenfell, there had been no testing of any fire doors in Barnet Homes properties, nor were any planned, until the government advised them to do so. Acting in accordance with the law, but not exceeding its duty of care beyond those limitations.

In May, however, the government did advise action. No need to panic, though: Barnet Homes said there was a low risk to safety. Test your smoke alarms, they suggested, and, oh - in case you had not thought of it, keep your front door properly closed

In the event of fire, "follow existing fire procedures for the building ..."

The same statement said that Barnet Homes had written to all their residents to inform them they would be undertaking a programme to replace the Manse Masterdors, 'subject to the final advice provided by government'. 

Asking Michael now (this June) about what had happened in the case of his low rise block, he told me that only days earlier he had received a letter from Barnet Homes telling him he had a Grenfell type door, and that it would be replaced. No timescale was given. If there was another fire, the advice was, he says, "to stay in his flat".

It would seem the old doors are still in place in his block: although a few months ago residents were asked to choose the colour of the ones that might eventually be provided. 

Low rise properties are of a lower priority, when it comes to the safety programme: but does that mean that so long should be taken in actioning measures deemed necessary years ago?

This thought, and many others, came to mind recently after the recent shocking incident at Willow House, in the Grange Housing estate in East Finchley, which served to underline the necessity of stringent fire safety measures, even in 'low rise' housing blocks.

In the early hours of November 7th, a group of sixty residents of Willow House, a block of flats with three floors, awoke to find the building in which they lived was on fire. 

What happened next raises more questions about not only the level of safety in Barnet Homes properties, but in regard to the ability of the local authority to provide the necessary support to residents affected by any similar emergency: an issue which should have been addressed - and many had thought had been, by Barnet Council, and Barnet Homes - in the aftermath of Grenfell, and following the seriously disorganised response of Kensington and Chelsea to the needs of the surviving residents.

In the course of the fire at Willow House, sixty residents were evacuated from their homes: thirty nine of them are now homeless. 

Three days after the fire, I met several of the residents at a lunch organised by some of the admirable local volunteers and community activists who stepped in to fill the hole left by the initial inadequate response by Barnet Homes and the local council. 

Before the lunch, I had walked around the corner from the Catholic church hall where it was being organised, to the scene of the fire. 

The bitter, acrid smell, even then, three days later, was overwhelming. 

Behind safety barriers Willow House stood in ruins, the roof collapsing, daylight showing through, the glass in the upper windows clinging in shards to their frames. Downstairs, builders had already sealed off the flats with metal casings. The sign, "Willow House', was still visible, but smeared with soot. 

The lunch itself, with an abundance of food provided with great generosity by local families and businesses - even the flower stall in the street outside had sent in a massive bouquet - was a sobering experience: quite clearly, only three days later, most of the residents were in shock, exhausted and traumatised by what had happened, their lives turned upside down, their homes lost, and in many cases, all their possessions destroyed.

One of the families I knew slightly, from another context: friends of a friend, their children amongst those displaced, and returning tentatively for the first time to the scene of their former home. As they talked, their little one sat quietly at a table drawing. Quiet, but his frantic scribbles told their own story. Another pair of children sat silently playing 'Jenga', building up a tower of wooden bricks, and removing them, one by one, until the building collapsed.

The story that emerged from these residents was disturbing, for many reasons.

It was reported that the fire had only been spotted by a passer by, some said an ex soldier, who bravely ran to the building and banged on doors until the occupants were alerted. 

There appears to have been no fire alarm in any communal area.

Only some of the flats had smoke alarms.

The fire had started in an empty flat, and quickly spread to the roof. If the passer by had not alerted the residents of Willow House, the alternative outcome is unthinkable.

When tenants rang what they thought was Barnet Homes' emergency line number, they instead found themselves talking to a repair service.

Members of the community saved the day, unasked, taking charge of the emergency, in the absence of any organisation by the council: someone opened up the nearby Green Man centre, and a local vicar, who also helps run a food bank in the church hall, stepped in to help, with the involvement of a local charity, and members of 'Grange Big Local'.

When Barnet Homes team members did arrive, they came with what sounds like no practical assistance for the residents, who had escaped the fire in their nightclothes, some with no money, no bankcards, no ID. 

Eventually those made homeless by the fire were sent to a hotel in Whetstone. They were told meals would be provided, then found they were not. The next day, in Barnet House, it fell to local Labour councillors who happened to be in the building at the time to use their initiative and open up the council staff canteen, in order to feed the families.

There was supposedly a 'Gold' meeting - of the council's emergency support team - the day after the fire. Quite what was the outcome is unclear, as almost every hard won concession for the residents since then has been achieved only with a fight, at a time when they are least able to focus on practical matters, and are struggling to come to terms with what had happened.

Some money was allocated to the residents, but not enough, and not to all of those affected by the fire, including one private resident I spoke to, who had had to sleep on the floor of a friend's flat, and was not contacted by the council. It seemed as if complete records of residents, whether Barnet Homes, leasehold or privately rented, had not been compiled. This is part of a larger problem, caused by an assumption - an incorrect one - by the housing authority that it had no duties in law to private tenants in these circumstances.

Work has begun on securing the building, but it will be at least six months until the building is habitable. What happens in the meanwhile?

On the Friday, two days after the fire, residents were told they would have to leave the hotel. They would then be homeless. 

Some were informed they would have to accept alternative accommodation in Romford, Edmonton, or Enfield. 

As one of the families told me, in distress, and quite understandable anger, that this was impossible when their young children were at school in East Finchley, and their jobs local too.

Only when local Labour councillors again intervened was the threat of immediate eviction from the hotel lifted. 

With the help of sympathetic housing lawyers, residents became better informed of their rights. On Tuesday there was a meeting between residents and council staff, at which housing officers are said to have apologised for the poor response and lack of support - and have now agreed that now the displaced families will be housed locally. (Too late for one family, already sent out of borough, unfortunately). Only at this point, however, was it acknowledged that the children who had been through this traumatic experience might need assessment, and counselling.

No wonder that, as was clear from the lunch meeting after the fire, and as reported in the Ham & High later in the week, residents felt utterly abandoned by the local council at a time when they most needed help. The help they got was a spontaneous reaction from neighbours and local church and charities: we know that the attitude of the Tory administration is one preferring the third sector to take over their responsibilities, but in the case of an emergency involving sixty displaced residents, this really is not good enough. 

No wonder too, then that they felt they were left to their own devices and pressured into accepting inappropriate housing because they were (largely) social tenants. Can you imagine the same response to a group of residents in Totteridge, or Garden Suburb?

What if there is a major emergency, either in regard to another fire, or even, as is unfortunately quite possible in this borough, a terrorist incident? What capacity and organisational preparations does Barnet have in place, if at all?

Should any of the residents have had to endure such unnecessary distress, at such a time and resort to argument, in order to secure what ought to be provided for them, as a matter of course? 

At the lunch given after the Willow House fire, the group of residents held a discussion, and listened to the advice given by a survivor of Grenfell - Bilal, from Grenfell United, who had come to offer his support. An engaging, articulate man, he has become a very effective advocate for his fellow residents, and his community.

He addressed the residents, and said how much it reminded him of his own experience after the fire, coming out with nothing more than the clothes on your back - he urged them to stick together, and to 'keep the noise levels high' so as to fight for the right to remain as they were, and as they are, as the people of Grenfell were, and are: a community. 

Push for your rights, he urged.

The residents of Willow House decided then to act collectively to push for a better response from the council and Barnet Homes.

I spoke afterwards to Bilal, and I asked him if it had not been particularly hard for him, coming to the scene of another fire. He admitted that the smell had affected him, the familiarity of it. Familiar, too, was what he had heard from Willow House residents - the lack of organised assistance, the further distress, after the terrible event itself; the variation in levels of support, according to the ability of the individual to lobby for their own needs.

Also at the lunch was the parish priest, in whose hall we were. We fell into conversation, and I explained about this blog. A little while later, before I left, he back to me and asked thoughtfully: why then, did I think Barnet was broken, and what could we do about it?

I told him why I thought we had arrived at this point. 

That the corporate culture in this borough is utterly materialist, and cares nothing for the idea of community: that it only adopts the recognition of community when it suits, as a means of opting out of its own duty of care, and devolving responsibility on to others.

That the policy of Barnet Tories is to move the poor and disadvantaged out of the borough, whenever possible - to Romford, or Enfield, or Hillingdon, or even Peterborough, or Birmingham.

That in the London Borough of Capita, the very principle of social housing is seen as fundamentally wrong, as indeed is the concept of the public sector. 

That a council estate is nothing more than a potential development opportunity. 

Anyone lucky enough to have a secure tenancy should be grateful, and if your home burns down? 

Hard luck.

Clear off somewhere else.

What can we do about it? Not sure, really.

You cannot force people who do not care, to care. You can only compel them to follow the rules, to do their duty.

In terms of maintaining the housing stock they own, Barnet does have statutory duties, as indeed it does in regard to the safety of tenants. 

There must now be an investigation into the actions taken by the council and Barnet Homes after the Willow House fire.

Should there be a need, at any point, for an emergency response to a major incident, what happened in East Finchley does not indicate any capability by the local authority to provide the right level of support. 

In terms of fire safety in Barnet Homes - we don't know - yet - what, if any, progress had been made in the replacement of fire doors on the Grange estate, or when the last fire inspections were made. But at the very least, should there not now be more measures installed - fire alarms, and sprinklers, for example - and full lists of occupants, in all of Barnet Homes' properties? 

Yes, resources are stretched: but if the authority can go to so much effort in applying to the Public Works Loan Board for £22 million pounds to hand over to a private rugby club, just to build itself another stand, could it not consider using this process for the purpose intended - that is to say for the benefit of the public, for better housing, and a safer future for the families of this borough?

Sunday 11 November 2018

Remembrance Day in Broken Barnet, 2018

Remembrance Day, North Finchley, 2018

It seems to be increasingly the thing to do, these days, to reject the idea of remembrance, to raise criticisms of the wearing of a red poppy, and to present any ritualised commemoration as somehow mawkish, jingoistic - or a gloating triumphalism.

Maybe this is simply because we now have a generation of younger people whose families have never experienced the horror of war, or who have forgotten their own history, and the losses they experienced seventy years ago, or a hundred years ago.

Easy to repeat the aphorism that those who forget the lessons of history will be condemned to repeat it. Easy to point at what is happening now, in the US, in Europe, and the UK: the rise of populism, and the normalisation of extreme right wing politics: the rise of anti-semitism, anti-gypsyism, islamophobia. Hard to understand it, perhaps, unless you see it against a personal background of experience, or inherited memory.

Easy to misinterpret or misrepresent the interest by so many in the wars of the past: in the trenches of the First World War, or the unfolding of World War Two.

In most families, any traumatic experience, of loss, or poverty, or violence, is hard enough to deal with. 

For those families who have gone through the experience of war, or persecution, and flight: the loss of loved ones, the loss of home, the threat of injury or death - it is something that is often impossible to process at the time. 

Often those who survive such experiences never speak of it, to their own children. I know this to be true in my own family, where unspoken trauma was passed on through the generations that followed : from those that survived the horrors of eviction and famine in Ireland, my mother and aunts who lost a brother and sister, in one terrible week, in their impoverished childhood: other, darker, half acknowledged secrets that died with them - and of course my grandfather and great uncles, some of whom did not came back from the Great War, or did return, but physically or psychologically damaged:

It is painfully true, this suppression of trauma, of those I have met who survived the Holocaust, and could not bear to tell their own children the story of what happened to them, in Germany, or in the Warsaw Ghetto, or escaping from a one way journey to a concentration camp.

Those untold stories remain in the margins of silence, to a greater or lesser extent, because for survivors the memory is or was too great to acknowledge: but the pain these experiences cause often become all the greater for remaining unspoken, and visited onto all the generations that follow, in one way or another.

Better then to address it, and confront it - and remember. 

I have my grandfather's portrait in his Royal Field Artillery uniform, handsome and swaggering, as usual, keen to get to France and act the hero. He came back to Durham from the Great War a broken, brutalised man, with his life in ruins: a new wife soon expecting their first child - and no job. No jobs for heroes, only a life ahead of poverty and humiliation, for him, an educated man left with no option but to take a job down the pit like everyone else.

I have my great uncle's dog tags: returned to his mother after his death: but with the wrong details - John Cross, CoE, instead of RC, for Roman Catholic. He had been called up, even though he was, as we would say now, someone with severe learning disabilities - when his brother accompanied him to the army recruiting station and tried to explain this, they listened, and then conscripted the brother as well. 

Their Irish Catholic mother Mary Ann refused to believe the dog tags had come from her son's body: especially when someone from the same town claimed to have seen him walking along the top of a trench, two weeks after he was supposed to have been killed, in the last few weeks before the war ended, in the last great push. She never accepted his death, and waited for him to come home. He never did, of course, and is buried in a small cemetery near Cambrai, with 63 other casualties from the 19th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers. Mary Ann's sister had already lost two teenage sons within days of each other, in 1915. No graves for them, just a name on a wall, and on a local memorial. 

We had a mass said, for John Cross, on the anniversary of his death: it is what my grandmother, and my mother, would have done, as a matter of course, in their lifetimes. I noticed from the mass lists that he was the second soldier to be remembered in this way, in that week: the other also from an Irish family, in the Connaught Rangers. 

I also have the engraved 'trench art' shell case another great uncle bought home, Percy Garnish, listing the battles he had survived: Hooge, Ypres. He survived, but not for long: gassed in the trenches, he never recovered his health and died in the old Colindale hospital, where he had been sent from Brixton for better air. Making the long trek from South London to Colindale to visit Percy was how the family made the decision to move here permanently - to Edgware and Mill Hill. 

And Percy is buried in Hendon Cemetery, along with both my grandparents. Ah yes: Hendon Cemetery,  handed over to Capita, who were desperate to get their hands on the opportunity for profit from death and bereavement, planning all sorts of ways of maximising income: live streamed funerals, DVDS, even a cafe. Oh and re-using our family graves to squeeze more profit out of plots. 

Colindale hospital is no more: another luxury housing development.

Here in Broken Barnet we do things differently, of course - remembrance not excepted.

Like every other token of culture, history or heritage, this must fit in with the ruling principles of market forces: profit before all. 

History begins only in Year Zero: when our borough became annexed by Capita; everything that came before can be of no interest, unless it can generate income, or pay its way: and if it stands in the way of development? Knock it down, or sell it off. 

Most residents will have no idea that there have been plans for Finchley to mark the hundred year anniversary of the end of the First World War with the unveiling of a large memorial, with no less than 1300 names of local people who went to war, but did not return: a wonderful idea, promoted by local historian Mick Crick.

Amongst those names should be the name of Private John Henry Parr, the first casualty of the War, who died on the 21st August 2014, it is believed after having been sent on his bike with another soldier on a reconnaissance mission, and coming face to face with a German patrol. He was only seventeen years old, having lied about his age in order to join the army two years earlier. 

Probably this was an economic necessity for his family: in the 1911 census he is listed as living in Lodge Lane, North Finchley, where there is a commemorative plaque, but he was born and spent his early years in Lichfield Grove, a turning off the road I live in. The 1901 census shows a large family struggling to live in rooms in a shared small house: and we know that poor John's mother, by 1911, had only seven children surviving out of twelve. Joining the army must have seemed like a good move. John Parr is now buried in the same cemetery in France as the last soldier to die before the Armistice took effect.

Another casualty of war who lived close by, here in Finchley, was a twenty year old boy called Frank Smith. Already a veteran of combat before his eighteenth birthday, wounded while serving in the Dardenelles, sent home to recover for twelve months, he was then called up again, and sent this time to France, where death soon claimed him, in April 1917. 

Frank went to the school next door to my house - and he lived in the Lodge, in Victoria Park: his father was the park keeper. 

Yes, that Lodge, and that park: a story I've written about a lot, over the last couple of years. 

Local campaigner Mary O'Connor at the entrance to the Lodge, Victoria Park

I always think of poor Frank, and his family, when I pass by the gate to the Lodge, most days, and I thought of him recently when reading about the planned memorial to Finchley's fallen: would his name be on it? 

And then: a curious development - an application to put the Memorial not where originally intended, but in the park, where Frank used to live. 

Originally, you see, the Memorial was meant to stand in a location in Finchley that seemed the most appropriate of all: Finchley Memorial Hospital, in Bow Lane.

This is another local building that I've written about - the white elephant that squats on the site of an older hospital, demolished in order to replace it with a state of the art facility, funded by PFI money, from a Labour government initiative - and then left empty and deliberately underused by a Tory government and unaccountable local CCG. 

The first hospital was built in 1908 on land purchased by a local benefactor: Ebenezer Homan, who lived with his family in Friern Watch, a large house in North Finchley.

At the end of the Great War, the building was renamed as Finchley Memorial Hospital, in honour of the generation of the many local men who had gone to war, and not returned. As I discovered when writing an earlier post some years ago:

When Finchley Memorial Hospital was renamed, in 1922, the ceremony was marked by the attendance of General Sir Ian Hamilton, who was, until recalled from duty, the former Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force during the Gallipoli campaign, and seems to have made a consequent career of unveiling memorials to those who lost their lives as a result of the insanity and incompetence of his fellow officers and architects of war.

The original Finchley Memorial Hospital

Hamilton being one of those ultimately responsible for the botched landing at Suvla Bay may have been seen by Mr and Mrs Smith as an inappropriate choice to oversee the renaming of the local hospital.

When the hundred year anniversary approached, plans were made by Barnet War Memorials Association, led by Mick Crick, to commemorate the fallen of both world wars on a new memorial, which would be placed on the hospital site. Planning permission for this project was granted last year.

Except those in charge of the hospital had other ideas, despite the initial agreement to allow this. Due to constant delays by hospital trust managers and 'private partners' in providing the requisite permission, it became clear that the memorial would not be in place for the anniversary. It seems that the significance of the timing was of no interest to the hospital bosses: and plans were made instead to see if it could at least, at some point, be placed in Victoria Park. Wherever it goes, it will be too late for this special centenary Remembrance Day. What an insult to those whose names should have been in place, for this particular day.

At the point where the memorial should be there is nothing more than a single, forlorn and weather beaten wreath, marking the spot where it may now never stand.

Such obstruction is insensitive, but what is the reason? Well: I think we can guess.

Last year we discovered, accidentally, from an FOI released to a resident, secret plans to develop part of the land on the hospital site, plans being encouraged by council officers and NHS property managers, as well as other interested parties. 

Where the wreath has been placed is on the boundary of the most likely area for development. Could it be, do you think, that the reluctance to approve the installation of the memorial was anything to do with these plans?

The five 2-ton marble stones that make up the memorial were cut and polished.  The 1300 plus names have been researched and checked, and were ready to be engraved onto the stones.  All that remained was for someone from the NHS to give the official go-ahead and the memorial could have been installed within weeks. Now it is too late.

Whatever the real reason for the delay, the result has been to destroy the only chance to honour the lost soldiers at the most appropriate time,  the 100th year anniversary remembrance day. 

A pretty shabby outcome, and yet utterly predictable, in this borough, where developers have the last say on everything.

The Lodge, where Private Frank Smith closed the gate, leaving behind his mother, father and sister, on the way to his death in the trenches - sold by the council, in conflict with their role as trustees of the park, and despite the covenant carefully designed to protect the park from such development - is now up for auction, this coming week, despite the covenant that should prevent any sale or development. 

That covenant was put in place by the local benefactors who created the park - led by 'Inky' Stephens, of Avenue House, which was used in the war as a hospital for injured servicemen. One wonders what he would have made of the commercialisation of the park, the destruction of the local hospital - and the failure to erect the memorial.

Instead of a service of Remembrance commemorating the hundred year anniversary of the Armistice, a local Finchley ceremony took place as usual at the smaller memorial outside the British Legion building in North Finchley, which has no names on it, but is accompanied by two smaller ones with lists of men from a local bus garage, and the tramway service.

Can you guess what I am going to tell you now? That this building, and the memorial site, were nearly lost this year, due to the Capita consulted, Capita approved redevelopment of North Finchley. 

Only public protest has saved the day: and the very fact that they thought nothing of including this property in their scheme tells you everything you need to know about the continuing invasion and exploitation of our community, and our heritage, by developers encouraged by the Tory administration and their Capita contractors.

It is all part of the sickness that has taken over this borough; hanging over us in a miasma of greed and philistinism. 

Some would say history is irrelevant, and the remembrance of wars long past is pointless: that it belongs to another age. But the older you get, the less you see time as something fixed, and irretrievable - or disposable. 

You can close down the museum, prevent the building of a memorial, throw away all the history books in the libraries - shut the libraries - but the story of the past still lives on in the memory of any community, or surviving witness.

My eldest aunt was conceived in the last months of the Great War, when my grandfather had leave from the trenches: she was born in 1919. 

She is still alive, in 2018, and in her hundredth year; her lifetime spanning everything that has happened in the century after the Armistice. 

Still alive, but returned now to the time of her childhood, where she relives some of the dark history buried for so long as if it happened only months ago, not decades. 

Such is the power of memory, and loss. 

Remembrance Sunday, 2018

Friday 9 November 2018

Kicking Out Capita - an Inquiry at the House of Commons

A trio of Barnet bloggers

Arriving at Westminster, on Tuesday night, and being a little early, I thought I might park Mrs Angry on a bench somewhere, reading over her speech for the meeting, and laughing at her own jokes, as usual, and go and have a quick peek at the river below the Parliament buildings, now shrouded in discreet veiling during the period of renovation.

This was an entirely unrelated mission to the purpose of the evening - I thought I would take a look at the spot where, in the tradition of my family's spectacular tradition of sensationalised lives and deaths, my great-great grandfather managed to drown himself, in October 1864, falling over the edge of a giant caisson, a metal cylinder placed in the water in the course of work on the Thames Embankment, between the bridge and Parliament. He managed to get himself in the Morning Advertiser, (Shocking and Fatal Accident At The Thames Embankment) and the Evening Standard, anyway: probably the only incident of note in his difficult life, born by the river in Essex, married by the river at St Mary Lambeth, living by the river in the notorious slums of Waterloo. 

Poor forgotten Thomas Garnish's ignoble death by the river, in the murky waters below the mother of all Parliaments, happened because it had been considered necessary to create a massive new sewage system for London, after years of rising pollution - and notably as a result of the long, hot summer of 1858, the year of the Great Stink, when Parliament could not keep away the noxious fumes from the foul water of the Thames. The stench had been intolerable, for our elected representatives, whose upper class sensitivities were of course rather more refined than those of the workers like Thomas, who lived in extreme poverty, with no sanitation, and every risk of an early death from disease - or accident - as a result.

That was then, and here we are now in an era when our Tory politicians appear to want to reduce the less advantaged members of society to the same level of squalid poverty and dependency they would have faced in the nineteenth century: a thought that reoccurred with chilling impact once in the palace of Westminster, watching an icily disapproving Iain Duncan Smith glide past the crowd of Barnet residents waiting in the committee room corridor. A couple of those residents clocked who it was, and ventured a muted jeer as he moved on, his feet barely touching the f*cking floor.

The air that wafts into the committee rooms of Westminster, filtered through the billowing sheets draped over the scaffolding, may be more sweet smelling these days - or it may not: as the evening progressed, there did seem to be a distinct odour of something indefinable in the air, that was not entirely pleasant. 

Because we were in Parliament to take part in an meeting that wasn't exactly a meeting: an Inquiry into the impact of Capita on the London Borough of Barnet, an event organised by Barnet Unison's John Burgess, chaired by Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty, and attended by the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. Evidence to be given in the form of testimonies by residents, activists, councillors, bloggers.

McDonnell welcomed all those present, and introduced himself with becoming modesty as the man whose most important job was booking rooms for John Burgess. 

He is well acquainted with the state of things in Broken Barnet, as he reminded us, having visited our picket lines and protests over the years - including, with Jeremy Corbyn, the march for libraries that some of us foolishly went on, from Finchley to the occupied People's Library in Friern Barnet - in a blizzard. Local activist Tirza Waisel pointed out that blizzard actually took place in the Barnet Spring. Indeed it did.

He spoke about the business of outsourcing, conflicts of interest, and the need to reform the process, as well as the state of audit, shared out as it is, between the magic circle of four major companies. And Barnet? Barnet had been a testing bed for outsourcing, he observed - the Easycouncil model was of course considered a flagship policy for Tory authorities.

Time for the evidence: first up, three Barnet bloggers: Mr Reasonable, Mr Tichborne, and Mrs Angry. Mr Tichborne has written about the meeting here.

You can see our testimony here, if you're bothered: 


Mrs Angry's contribution (from about 16 minutes in) was about the creation of the London Borough of Capita, as the last outpost of their failing empire. 

In pleasing irony, the massive picture above our heads depicted King Alfred 'inciting the Saxons to prevent the landing of the Danes ...' 

Also pleasing to see the Shadow Chancellor guffawing at Mrs Angry's Crapitorial jokes for lapsed Catholics, of course:

A steady progression of speakers followed: Barbara Jacobson, from grassroots campaign Barnet Alliance, mentioned the recent £2 million fraud by a Capita employee - how many others might there be, she asked: a question Barnet's Tory councillors are keen not to explore - at least publicly.

Resident Nick Dixon told a shocking story about alleged malpractices within the planning service.

Resident Janet spoke of the appalling state of adult care in Barnet, and the lack of interest by members of the committees tasked with scrutiny of provision.

Holly Kal-Weiss, from Chipping Barnet Labour, who is hoping to be selected as the parliamentary candidate to stand against Theresa Villiers, told us about an extraordinary sequence of events involving a resident wrongly charged massive fees by Capita - twice.

Several Labour councillors made the effort to attend the meeting - although unfortunately not the group Leader, Barry Rawlings - and two of them now spoke: Ross Houston, who commented that the Easycouncil test alluded to by John McDonnell had failed, along with One Barnet and the 'Thin Client' model imposed on our local services. He criticised the lack of transparency and accountability, and most of all the gross mismanagement that had led to the wrong, understated deficit figures being published before the May elections, adjusted to a far worse level immediately after the Tories won back control of the council. 

He rightly commented that the only explanation for this was mismanagement, or something far worse. There can only be one of two explanations. Yet no action appears to have followed in terms of investigating how this happened. John Mc Donnell nodded as he suggested we needed to restore the scrutiny of an Audit Commission - abolished, of course, by Eric Pickles.

Labour member Kathy Levine also spoke: criticising amongst other Capita failures the truly awful administration of the local Pensions Scheme, the £2m fraud and the Grant Thornton report that was withheld from publication.

Aditya Chakrabortty, Holly Kal-Weiss, Cllrs Ross Houston and Kathy Levine

New councillor Sara Conway made a very good point, that Labour needs to communicate on the doorstep to voters the reality of outsourcing, and explain why it is that their local services are failing.

As the flow of testimony continued, the odour of something not quite definable moved about the room, not from the river, something we brought with us from Broken Barnet: something rotten, and dying.

Barnet Unison's John Burgess, a man who has worked tirelessly over the years, all too often ignored, to warn what would happen in the course of the mass privatisation of our local public services, wound up the meeting, with a notice of the forthcoming council meetings, such as P&R on 11th December, and the next Full Council a week later, where we expect the Tory councillors, despite all that has happened, to announce they intend to continue with the catastrophic coupling with Capita, both parties struggling in the water, dragging each other down to the depths, rather than admit their gross incompetence, and face up to the truth.

Residents are invited to attend these meetings, and make their feelings known: further details to follow.

John Burgess

Capita Inquiry address: 

I’ve been writing about the London Borough of Capita for five long years, and about the process of outsourcing for much longer: since the days of ‘Easycouncil’, Futureshape, and One Barnet. Which came first? Can anyone remember?

When we took Barnet to the High Court, to challenge the mass privatisation of our council services, the judge found it impossible to understand the ever changing shape of what became the One Barnet programme, or to identify the point of decision at which it could be challenged. But that had been a deliberate strategy: to invent a Trojan Horse, to enter the city walls, and win the war.

The truth is these shape-shifting concepts are all versions of the same thing, or rather part of the same process of metamorphosis: and they all have the same meaning, and significance, which is – no meaning at all. They are all an act of deception; smoke and mirrors.

Language, in corporate culture, which is now the culture embedded in our system of government, is not a medium of communication, but the reverse: an attempt to obstruct transparency, and accountability; to facilitate the exploitation of profit, even at the point of delivering vital public services, in a time of austerity.

Easycouncil was an empty, meaningless idea, deployed by a local Tory MP in search of a claim to some sort of political vision. It is the perfect testimony to his career. Unveiled as a new model of local government, it was in fact another version of the same model of outsourcing being rolled out by the same team of companies throughout the public sector.

It is impossible to write about Barnet, and Capita, without using the metaphor of empire: because this is what we have become; colonised by Capita: the last outpost, in a virtual invasion, and occupation. It is the twenty first century equivalent of the East India Company, perhaps: an incremental appropriation of land, and wealth, by stealth, for the commercial exploitation of resources.

By stealth, and not won by open battle or siege: Barnet was an open city, the keys willingly handed over by our empty headed Tory councillors, assured by a scheming court of senior officers, and a cabal of consultants - some of whom were moving in and out of Barnet and various would be tendering companies - that mass outsourcing was necessary, that mass outsourcing was the answer to all their problems.

They could provide better services, for less money. Did they really believe that? Hard to tell, as most of them lack the ability to scrutinise the most basic report, let alone a billion pound budget.

Barnet’s Tories are old school, unrepentant neo Thatcherites. They are an evolutionary anomaly: the last of their breed, still living in the days of glory when Margaret sat in their council chamber every election night to see herself re-elected and pretended to remember who they were. She was very good at that: the older members still recount, with moist eyes, the tiniest anecdote connected with her; to the younger ones she is a mythical figure from the past, but one whose spirit still haunts the corridors of Hendon Town Hall.

They were easily persuaded, then, that their instinctive distrust of the public sector should be reason enough to embark on the wholescale privatisation of our local services. They didn’t need much persuasion, in truth: their hands off approach to governance, and preference for an easy life, meant their approval was guaranteed, despite any reasoned arguments not to undertake such a risk laden venture.

And there were reasoned arguments, from every side: from unions, from grassroots campaigners like Barnet Alliance, from local bloggers, from Labour councillors. Reports were commissioned from leading academics, legal advice was taken, and acted upon: the Judicial Review would have been won, if not deemed out of time: and it was out of time largely because no one had spotted the moment when it had all begun, the shape-shifting of Easycouncil, Futureshape, One Barnet.

As we know, Barnet’s Tory members approved the contracts, five years ago, without properly scrutinising the details – the 8,000 pages of details. They were not allowed to, given only a few hours to skim through. The contracts were assessed and approved by … the same lawyers who had written them.

The members may not have read the contracts, but we did – which is how, incidentally, I came to discover that hidden within one section dealing with the enthusiastic commercialisation of our local crematorium, now the Crapitorium – literally making money out of my dead grandmother – Capita had proposed mitigating the risk of negative publicity by offering discounted, pre-used graves to the local bloggers! Yes: a Capita joke, and legally binding! An offer which I am not quite ready to take up. Still: in the midst of life, we are in death: and always we are in the hands of Capita. There is no escape. They own us, body and soul, & no doubt will pursue us in the after life, too, having won a contract for the provision of eternal torment, in the many rings of hell.

The Tory members had not spotted the many variations within the contracts that enabled Capita to maximise the opportunities for profit by way of extra fees such as ‘Gainshare’ payments: all of which means instead of better services for less money, we have seen a rapid decline in the performance of services, and rising costs.

One example of how this works in practice was the shameful revelation – by local bloggers – of the ‘opportunity’ taken by Capita to gain extra fees by taking over the provision of Freedom Passes to local residents with disabilities. Young people with autism and other difficulties were finding themselves stranded, unable to get home, and deeply distressed because their passes had been cancelled by Capita with no warning, and without any valid reason. Only after public outcry did the Tories intervene, and restore the passes.

Planning and enforcement is another area in which profit for shareholders is prioritised over providing a fair and transparent service for residents. Want to get your development approved? Pay a whopping fee, and you are fast tracked all the way. You can even pay to choose your own planning officer: now why would you want to do that? Where are the safeguards to ensure probity within the planning service? As for enforcement, there is no profit to be made there, so little has taken place. As a result, even Tory councillors are beginning to see the outcome in terms of electoral damage from their own voters, furious at the rampant proliferation of unauthorised development, now posing a threat to their own best interests.

Capita is in serious trouble now in regard to its botched handling of the Barnet Pension scheme: anyone like me who has experienced the level of incompetence and lack of adequate information given to scheme members will be in despair at the thought of their future financial security left in their hands.

From the moment the contracts were signed, the language changed once more: One Barnet disappeared. The word was never used again. No name was used at all. There were only coy references to ‘the change programme’.

And right from the beginning we knew there was no hope of any effective oversight either by commissioning officers, or Tory members. The committees tasked with this role were simply rubber stamping exercises. The Tory councillor who was Chair of the Performance committee actually said that scrutiny was not meant to be critical. He continually repeated the view, even as late as this year when all was falling apart, that he wanted only to hear ‘positive comments’.

And it is all falling apart now: but as in the last days of any empire, the rise and fall of Capita Barnet is a slow and painful process. It is politically expedient, however, for the Tory administration, and for the reputation of Capita, to keep face, and retain a colony in Barnet.

What’s happened here is only perhaps an extreme example of what is happening elsewhere, all over the UK, all throughout the public sector, and it raises a more fundamental question than our local concerns, which is the real point of significance here: the principle of the democratic control of public services.

Private profit cannot, should not, be made from these services. It creates a distance between accountability and the community, takes power away from that community.

Local services, local jobs, local democracy: let’s have these rights returned to us, and begin to rebuild a system of local government that works for us, and not for Capita, and its shareholders.