Wednesday 11 December 2019

A Walk in the Park: Ten Years of Broken Barnet

Labour's Parliamentary candidate for Finchley and Golders Green, and local councillor, Ross Houston: in the background the empty site of the former Park Keeper's Lodge in Victoria Park, soon to be a block of flats.

Late on Saturday afternoon, as the dark descended,  and the last joggers ran out through the gates, and the crows settled down for the night in the trees in Long Lane, I was standing by the former Lodge site in Victoria Park, with my local Labour councillor, Ross Houston,  talking about the state of things here, in Broken Barnet - in Finchley - and how it came to be this bad. 

We had both tried to save the old Park Keeper's Lodge from being demolished: but failed. Sold by Barnet Council, approved by our then council leader, then Tory MP Mike Freer, and Tory councillors and leaders Richard Cornelius, and Dan Thomas, even though the beautiful arts and crafts building and its garden was situated in a public park: it was sold, was demolished this summer and now the land is about to be developed with a block of flats, placed in the park, overlooking the children's playground. 

It seemed a suitable metaphor, the Lodge site, for everything that has happened to this area, to this constituency, in the last few years: public assets, common ground, open space - libraries - left to the people of Finchley, in perpetuity, by Victorian philanthropists - sold by Tory councillors, Tory MPs, to developers, for their profit, and as a statement of power: you have no rights, any more, to public spaces, or public services. Everything you thought was dedicated to the benefit of the greater good can now taken away from you.

A park is nothing if not the shared space of the local community: the heart and soul of the community: a meeting place, somewhere we go for our health and well being. You don't have to pay for it. You have a right to be there. Well: you did have the right, for a century or so. You had not realised, had you, that in Broken Barnet, an open space is now an open invitation to development, and capital gain?

Now demolished, but coming to you soon: flats in the park, courtesy of your local Tory politicians

It's more or less ten years now, since I began this blog. An entire decade has passed, chronicled in loving detail, in these posts: and as now, we stand on the brink of an election that will define the nation we are about to become, it is perhaps time to look back, and wonder how we got here. 

I got here by an unexpected route: my family's life destroyed after eighteenth months of vicious, non-stop antisocial behaviour from tenants placed next door by a Tory council with the longest housing list in the UK. They refused to build new social housing, so had resorted to placing priority families in private, often sub-standard accommodation, the landlords paid a premium to take them on: almost no questions asked about suitability of the property. The house next door was not fit for habitation - the garden six foot high with rubbish, plagued with rats: it made no difference to the council, simply offered a way of off loading one troublesome family.

These neighbours from hell were smoking crack in the garden, dealing, acting out stabbings in front of our window, constantly violent, abusing each other, threatening their children, spat at my then young daughter in the street: jumped into our front garden to menace us inside, constantly noisy, screaming - off their heads all night so that, for five months, I had to sleep on a camp bed on the kitchen floor to get any sleep. The council that had placed them there refused to move them, or interfere, and the then leader, now Finchley and Golders Green MP Mike Freer, would not intervene. 

Only the local police, with whom by then we were on first names basis, due to their constant visits, were any help. 

Oh: and our local councillors, who came round, and sat in our living room and listened, and did everything they could to help: local Labour councillors Jim Tierney, now retired - and Ross Houston: now standing as our Parliamentary candidate for Finchley and Golders Green. Their kindness, empathy and support were in stark contrast to the utter indifference of Freer and the Tory run council.

Someone said: start a blog, and write about what is happening. I did: and linked it to local papers and instantly had huge interest. Mrs Angry was born, and went into action. Within ten days, the council had found somewhere else for their 'troubled family' and the assortment of lodgers & dealers that lodged with them, to move to. But it was too late, in many respects. Our family life had fallen apart: our health and happiness - and never really recovered. 

Having acquired a new interest in the way the local Tory council was running things,  been horrified by the lack of scrutiny and opposition to their increasingly right wing agenda, and having discovered the power of social media as a tool for holding to account such breathless disregard for the public interest, I carried on. The MetPro scandal arrived then with all its revelations about a Tory party prepared to use unlicensed thugs in jackboots as a private security army, paid in some casual arrangement, with no contract, no tendering: who set this up? We never found out - but we did uncover the incredible, unregulated state of Barnet's anarchic financial system, with literally thousands of other non contractual relationships with suppliers and private companies. 

Before he left his position on the council, Freer had shown interest in what was sold as 'a new model of local government' and informed the world, as he stood for Parliament, of his masterly new plan, 'easycouncil', in which there would be more 'choice' for residents. In fact it wasn't his idea: it was a version of something being rolled out everywhere, in many public sector services: privatisation - the 'outsourcing' of those services. Embedded in the local Tory council, as he left, this intention was nurtured by various consultants from the private sector firms who came here and would later bid for the lucrative deal that became One Barnet.

Your local services that are in such a state now are directly because of that 'easycouncil' initiative. You were promised better services for less money. You didn't get it. You can see your local services failing at every point: and you are paying more and more for it. As fellow blogger Mr Reasonable, John Dix, pointed out recently, the running total for the Capita contract period is now at £445 million, £169 million above the contracted value.

Roads and pavements in a mess? Potholes everywhere? Ask the local Tories why their contractors don't do a better job. They won't be able to answer. Fed up with the lack of enforcement when some developer knocks down a house next door to you, or openly breaches the planning permission for three flats across the road which becomes five, or a house of multiple occupancy? Hard luck. Neighbour hosting a bed in a shed? You're on your own. 

Planning and enforcement are now run as a business by Capita Re, to milk as much income as possible from development, which is now rampant across the borough - especially in the more western, Labour held areas. Luxury development that does nothing to solve the chronic shortage of affordable housing, or social housing. They don't measure the housing waiting lists anymore: just as well, in this borough - but the crisis that drove Freer's council to dump people in substandard accommodation in the private sector has not abated: is likely to have become much worse.

Fees are generated through a range of 'services': pre-application 'advice', fast tracking, and oh: want to choose your own planning officer? Pay enough, and you can. Why you would want to, is another question. Another question still is why senior planning officers are allowed to work for Capita Re, then leave and immediately set up as private consultants, acting as agents for the same developers they dealt with in their former posts at Barnet. Yes, this is now happening, with several individuals. 

Enforcement is not effective as a process now, because: there are no income benefits for Capita, only costs. Planning and enforcement are now run for the benefit of developers, and Capita shareholders, not the best interests of residents and the community. What did you expect? This is how easycouncil works, in practice.

Ask  the Godfather of Barnet outsourcing, Freer, why  local services are in such a mess: he will blame the council, as if it had nothing to do with him. It is to do with him: it is his legacy. Remember that tomorrow, when you go to the polling station.

Election fever here in Broken Barnet has been overheated by an intensity of focus on the three marginal constituencies: Chipping Barnet, held by Theresa Villiers - by only 300 votes, last time; Hendon, the seat of the abrasive former deputy leader of Barnet Council, Matthew Offord - by only 1,072 votes - and Finchley and Golders Green, where Freer won last time by a margin of 1,657.

FGG has only three candidates at this election: and in every sense, despite the claims of certain parties, it is a three horse race, the very fact of which has local Tories besides themselves with fear. Freer is in a very difficult position. Having said he voted to Remain at the time of the Referendum, the political wind changed direction, and he changed with it, supporting government policy on Brexit, and then being appointed as a junior whip by Theresa May. 

Former Finchley and Golders Green Tory MP and junior whip, Freer, sitting beneath a portrait of Ken Clarke. Pic courtesy of the Ham & High

A lucky appointment for him, not being likely to forge a brilliant parliamentary career in any ministerial posts. May's government fell apart, and he remained a whip as Johnson took over, and throughout all the breathless defiance Johnson and his lackey Cummings showed for the Parliamentary process, the democratic process, including the prorogation, and then the 'de-whipping' of 21 Tory MPs, including the Father of the House, Ken Clarke, and Nicholas Soames. Rather amusingly, in a recent interview in the Ham & High, Freer chose to pose for a photograph under a portrait of ... Ken Clarke. Well, then, what do we make of all that? He could have resigned, rather than be associated with Johnson's actions in government. But he chose to stay. And what has he done in his own constituency, in the meanwhile? Erm. Nothing much, really. His election leaflets spoke for themselves - nothing to see.

At the last election the Labour candidate came a close second. This time round, there was clearly a huge issue that would have to be addressed by any Labour candidate: the issue of how the Labour party dealt with allegations of anti-semitism by members. For the first Labour selection, a woman who happened to be Jewish, the pressure proved too much to bear. 

Another candidate was chosen: a brilliant choice, in fact - local West Finchley councillor Ross Houston. Ross is that rare thing: a good man in politics, and respected not just across the range of the local party membership, but by all who know him. Will he win? I hope so: he is the candidate who is rooted in this community, cares passionately about those who are less advantaged, and will work on their behalf, if elected. He deserves to win.

Ok. Then we have the third candidate, for the Libdems. There was one, a local woman, duly chosen. But she was shoved aside, and sent to Hendon. Why? Because Luciana Berger had joined the Libdems - her third party in one year - and wanted to stand in Finchley and Golders Green. Not only wanted to stand, but right from the off, we were informed, by Libdem party, was going to win. Why? Well: mostly because - she wanted to win. 

A poll was published which appeared to show that - goodness me - she was going to win, and by a landslide! Incredible! Well, yes: in fact, it was literally incredible, and totally bogus, as the result was achieved by excluding the option of voting for a Labour candidate ...

Since then, the Libdem campaign has followed through on the spurious basis of claiming that only they can beat the Tories. Utterly untrue, but a commitment to the truth was abandoned very early on in this campaign. 

Residents in this constituency since then have been bombarded by an unceasing storm of Libdem propaganda, on a level unprecedented in any previous election: in our household alone we have received more than 27 mailshots, leaflets, fake newspapers, fake polls; letters from polling experts who turn out not to have seen the stuff sent in their name, and all of it at enormous expense. Such a deluge of stuff, in fact, that many residents have complained both to the Returning Officer here, and to the Electoral Commission, as so many feel that the expenditure budgets must have been exceeded.

A sample of just some of the Libdem campaign material received in our house over the last two weeks

In the meanwhile, the Libdem campaign in Finchley and Golders Green has consisted of Luciana Berger holding 'Luciana in Your Lounge' events (for those lucky enough to have a 'lounge' big enough to hold more than five people, and canvassing Hampstead Garden Suburb with a string of luvvy actors Hugh Grant (who clearly had misgivings afterwards) Jason Isaacs, - and Simon Schama. Phwoah: eh?

Why Garden Suburb? Well, because the 'leader' of the new Libdem group (of two Libdem councillors) on Barnet Council, Gabriel Rozenberg, is a councillor for that area. Elected as a Tory, and happy to remain a Tory until recently, Gabriel was Chair of the Housing Committee that did not meet for eight months, even though during that time the abysmal, squalid conditions in which residents of Marsh Drive, in West Hendon, were living, reached a point of crisis - and was featured on the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme, reported in the post previous to this one.

Can anyone take seriously a woman who joined a party she herself has said you cannot trust?

Preposterous, self indulgent, middle class political game playing by the Libdems does nothing to address the real issues of residents in the constituency, especially those in need, victims of the austerity policies supported by ... Libdems in coalition with the Tory government: bedroom tax, and Universal Credit. They have no local policies: no policies, other than a commitment to further, permanent cuts in spending, and continued austerity measures.

Most contemptible of all here in Finchley and Golders Green was the campaign's exploitation of the issue of mental health provision, which is abominable in all Barnet constituencies - second to bottom in national scores for access to support. Libdems will wave a magic wand, and make this disappear, apparently. Marvellous, if you overlook the role they played in approving the worst cuts in this service, including to children and young adults, in the early years of their coalition of shame with Cameron's Tory government. Don't fool yourself that they will not do the same, in another coalition.

Local Tory activists, now in short supply, have been terrified of the impact of Libdems with Luciana Berger as a candidate, and all the money thrown at this target ward. You might think it should be Labour who would be most worried - but no. Of course there are former Jewish Labour voters understandably upset and alienated by the anti-semitism debacle in the Labour party and choosing to support the Libdems here: it is fair to say that Muslim voters may have strong reserves about voting Tory after the incident last weekend involving a Muslim mother,  after which the Chair of Chipping Tories had to stand down. It is not the first time allegations of Islamophobia have been made against local Tories: a councillor was suspended last year, but reinstated in circumstances which were never clarified.

It is fair to say as well that there will probably be a fair number of disillusioned Tories defecting to the Libdems, hence a certain amount of panic in Finchley and Golders Green. Remain Tories have been strongly wooed in former stronghold areas like the Garden Suburb. 

It will not be enough for them to win - the truth is that the three parties are likely to be on a closer footing than any of them would like to admit, and the result - is unpredictable.

The Tories and Libdems have not bothered to explore beyond the areas where they feel safe, however. A foolish mistake: but typical of both parties, who feel no interest in the residents who are not middle class, and comfortably placed - who live in social housing, or rented temporary accommodation, just getting by: or not getting by at all.

Here in Finchley and Golders Green, however, we have 48 per cent of children living in poverty. 

We have areas of social deprivation, only a short walk from the ward of Hampstead Garden Suburb: itself an area of exclusive affluence,  populated by an assortment of overseas dictators living in exile, arms dealers, porn merchants, and anyone who can afford a house in a listed conservation area, safe from development, and worth millions of pounds.

Back in the real world, and the less privileged areas of Finchley and Golders Green, we have a section of our local community dependent on foodbanks. 

We have hostels for homeless people, and women fleeing domestic abuse. 

We have a generation of children now doomed to grow up without easy access to libraries, or study space. 

We have elderly citizens and disabled residents unable to visit those libraries in the hope of feeling less lonely.

We have parents of children with profound disabilities whose respite care has been snatched away by local Tories, without a thought for the impact on them: we have disabled residents whose travel passes have been snatched away by the Tory council's contractors, to earn an extra fee. 

We have local healthcare struggling to provide a decent level of support, with record waiting times for GP appointments, or access to consultants.

We have a local hospital here in Finchley half empty, while residents wait for treatment, and while local health authorities plot with developers and the council to build housing on the site.

We have people sleeping in the doorways and alleys of our high street in Finchley, in the bitter cold of a winter's night. 

Who will speak for them? 

It won't be Mike Freer. 

It won't be Luciana Berger. 

It can only be someone who is rooted in this community, and has spoken out, for years, on their behalf: who has marched with campaigners against the local cuts to public services, to libraries, listened to local police, and local charities, and local residents, trying to put back together the broken pieces of our fractured lives. That person is Ross Houston.

We stood talking, on Saturday night, in the dark, in Victoria Park, by the fences surrounding the demolished Lodge. The metaphorical message stood clear, and shining, in the gloom. Our history, and our heritage, our community, put up for sale by Tory politicians, part of the campaign of war on that sense of community, and our common history: a denial of the past, for the sake of present profit. We deserve better. 

In the ten years I have been writing this blog, I have been privileged to meet some extraordinary people, from a diverse range of communities, struggling to cope in the most extreme circumstances: in poverty, with disability, in terrible housing, in isolation, and in fear. I see no hope whatsoever for them or any of us from the political agendas set by Tory politicians in this borough, and these constituencies, only indifference, lack of compassion - and financial incompetence. 

When you vote tomorrow, please don't support Tories, or yellow Tories: vote for your Labour candidates: for a Labour manifesto, for hope for a better future for you, your families, and your community. Yes, Barnet is still broken: time to start picking up the pieces, and building something new.