Monday 7 September 2020

Too Long at the Fair: Victoria Park, and Barnet Tories, all on board the Ghost Train

All the fun of the fair, in Broken Barnet, in the year of Covid.

Update no 2. - Thursday, please scroll down to the bottom.

Update no 1. with a response from Barnet's Chief Executive, below - and my reply to him.

Victoria Park, in Finchley, has often served as a useful metaphor for the wider state of things here in Broken Barnet.

A park created by local Victorian philanthropists, named for the elderly Queen, in the last years of her reign, and opened by her daughter, Princess Christian, as a place meant for the recreation of the people of Finchley. 

These days, however, the local Tory councillors, treacherous heirs to the corporate trusteeship left to them by Inky Stephens, have little interest in protecting the rights of residents to enjoy any open space, let alone this one.

In blatant breach of the covenant that was placed in protection of the park, Tory members sold off part of the land, which included the beautiful, Arts and Crafts style Park Keeper's Lodge, and high hedged garden, in a cash purchase to a property developer.

The Lodge was demolished, despite all protests by local residents: and now, thanks to your local Tory councillors, including the current Leader Dan Thomas, and former council leader, now local MP Mike Freer, who both approved the sale of the site, in its place you can now watch the slow construction of a block of flats. 

That in itself is the perfect metaphor for the state of this borough, where not even a public park is safe from the land grabbing activity of rampant development: a monster now eating up every last inch of Barnet, creating thousands of non affordable slums of the future, increasing the population regardless of the burden on an already inadequate infrastructure of local resources: schools, healthcare, shops - and even parks and open spaces. 

This rapacious level of development is being facilitated by the council's own privatised planning service, and privatised 'regeneration' service: both of them run by Capita, which is of course in its own right also a developer. 

And Capita runs many other services for Barnet: including the management of parks and open spaces. 

A couple of summers ago, a group of Gypsy Travellers dared to come and halt for a few days, very neatly, in a corner of the park. They were obliged to do this because in Barnet there are not, and never have been, any legal stopping places for gypsies, even during the many years when it was a statutory requirement.

The Travellers and their caravans were frankly indistinguishable from the fairground people who now park up here, with their own tatty looking vehicles, several times a year, in order to feed the council's income generating machine, run by Capita. The only difference is that the council provides them with facilities, and rubbish bins. But the racist rebellion from a vocal minority of outraged local residents ensured that they were soon turned out of the park: on the day of the eviction some local women stood and literally shrieked at police officers, until this was done.

I stood and watched as this eviction took place. The council officer who was in charge noticed me looking and said, assuming I was one of them: 'Don't worry, they're being moved out'. I replied that I wasn't worried, except that the occupation would not have happened, if there had been an alternative stopping place. He looked back at me blankly, unable to comprehend why anyone would care. I wondered what he would say if I told him that some of my own family used to travel about in this way, once upon a time.

Two years on, and we find ourselves in the year of Covid, and our local park has never been more vital to those of us who live in the area: the only place we can go to, to walk in the fresh air, in safety, socially distanced, and escape from the otherwise full time house arrest many of us are still under.

The last thing we expected to see in the park this summer, at a point when local infection rates are shooting up again, was another occupation - by a fun fair.

The occupation of a park by Gypsy Travellers is a threat to public safety, but the occupation of a park by a fun fair, in the midst of a pandemic, sanctioned by the same officers who organised the eviction of the former, is ok, apparently. Probably because, you might reasonably assume, quite apart from the pandering to racism, the only events allowed in the park are those which generate income for the council  - and more importantly, for Capita. 

Capita manages parks and greenspaces, and receives, for all budget 'savings' it identifies as such, financial rewards, called 'gainshare payments'. This is one of the ways the company extracts profit from our local services - all as part of the massive contracts, thousands of pages long, which our empty headed Tory councillors obediently signed, in 2013, without properly reading the small print. Or even the large print. They relied on the same people who wrote the contract to scrutinise the contract for them: that is how lazy and incompetent they were.

Labour councillor Ross Houston at Victoria Park: he and local members were not consulted about the fair, and are questioning why this event is continuing.

Complaints about the fun fair were made to the relevant officers, and local councillors. It became clear that the local councillors had not been consulted. An officer claimed that they had been 'informed'. This turned out to be after residents' complaints were made to said officers. The approval of such events, said the officers, was made on a basis of 'business as usual'. Despite the fact that we are clearly not living in 'usual' times, and that Covid infection rates are now increasing.

Further enquiries revealed that officers were complacently relying on assurances made by the fun fair organisers: assurances that clearly, on my visits, were not being observed. But this is anyway irrelevant - there is no way in which a public gathering of this sort, with these numbers attending, in their hundreds every day, for ten days, could be safe from risk, in the current circumstances.

At the end of the week, as the fair arrived and started up its ten day booking, the council's own Covid data demonstrated that the infection rate in the borough, and in this part of the borough, were increasing. Their twitter account continued to urge people to #stayalert, and take precautions to avoid risk of infection. Local GPs, for the first time during the epidemic, issued text messages to patients warning them of the rise. 

Still the fair continued, and over the weekend when it was always going to be busiest: hundreds of people attending every day. I visited twice, at a safe distance, and in a mask, watching in horror the lack of social distancing, monitoring of numbers, cleansing: people shrieking on the rides, all unmasked - only one or two ride attendants sporting one, in one case under the chin. At one stall, food was being prepared and handed over by a person wearing no gloves, no mask, to a queue of non socially distanced customers. Business as usual, if the definition of usual is borrowed from the era of Typhoid Mary, perhaps.

One might have sympathy with the people who work on the fair - ironically, originally many fair people were Gypsies too, once upon a time: but many of us are hugely financially impacted by the continuing Covid nightmare - one which will be ending even further in the future if we do not get a grip of it now, in the wake of fatal delays and gross incompetence in the handling of the crisis by Johnson's government, rotten to the core with contracts to private companies that fail to deliver vital PPE, and all the other companies favoured on the basis of croneyism.

Back in Finchley: one resident at the weekend contacted our Tory MP Freer, who lives near to the park. She was reportedly informed that he could do nothing about the fair.

Absurdly, by Monday, the situation in regard to the Covid rate was so critical that the council tweeted that people must not meet up outside in groups of more than six. There have been reports, over the last week, of police fining or closing down large gatherings: yet this one is still going on. Why?

Here is the nub of the matter. 

The local authority's responsibility for public health is clearly being put at risk by by the actions of its own contractual providers, in allowing this fair to take place at all, at this time - of course all responsible boroughs have had control of their own decision making, and cancelled such large scale events. 

This local authority's functions and duties to the public, as with central government, in many respects, are being compromised by the activities of its own privatised services - on a huge scale, most obviously in planning and development. 

Last week the professionally lobbied plans of a developer to build a set of monstrous blocks of flats on the site of the former gas works in East Barnet were rejected by 'outraged' Tory councillors, the same councillors who have approved development of monstrous blocks of flats in areas where their own vote base was not at threat. The interesting thing about this was, as fellow blogger John Dix pointed out, the extent to which the arguments put by Capita planning officers appeared to be in ignorance of so many council planning policies. He posed the question: 'When you outsource critical council functions like planning & make them highly dependent on fees, is this one of the consequences?"

Here in Barnet Tory councillors have outsourced their public services, and outsourced their responsibilities. 

They are no longer running this borough: it is being run by a private company which knows that no matter how poor their performance in service delivery, their clients in Barnet will not withdraw from the contracts, or seek any effective sanction for their losses. It is caught in a relationship of coercive control, from which, or so they maintain, there is no escape.

There is just one problem, from the point of view of the local Tory party. Their own voters are now falling under the wheels of the vehicle they created, by allowing a private company to run the borough. Residents of formerly loyal Tory areas are now being confronted by rampant development right next door to them, and are furious that there is nothing to stop it. They see their pavements and roads left unrepaired, and are furious about that too. They find a fun fair in their local park, during a global pandemic. The Tory councillors and MPs they write to, about all such matters, expecting instant action, are unable to help, because they cannot compel contracted out services to do the work they are paid to do, to an adequate standard. Why would they, when nothing happens when they don't? 

So: come along to Victoria Park. Steer clear of the building site, on your way in. Wander into the fun fair, why don't you, and test out the old herd immunity thing? It's what Dominic Cummings would want, after all. 

This is Broken Barnet, the ultimate wet dream of any slaphead government adviser, hiding in the bunker on his dad's farm: a testing ground of market forces, spaffed up all over the place, unregulated. A former democracy taken over by covert consultants and faceless managers: all the fun of the fair, and all of the risk on us, the poor sods who pay our council taxes, and are left looking forlornly through the park railings for the lost figure of Inky Stephens, hiding in the shadows of the Ghost Train.

Tickets please!

From John Hooton:

Firstly just to be very clear that we all remain very concerned about the prevention of spread of Covid-19 in Barnet, and we are working closely with Public Health England colleagues, looking at cases in the borough, where these are arising, making sure that any links are identified and that our community messaging is targeted in the right way.

There is a system nationally and indeed across London that we work within, which includes escalation points where additional measures are considered in local areas, depending on the intelligence coming through the public health system. This is based on coronavirus infection rate per 100, 000 population.

Barnet has seen a relatively low number of cases over June, July and first part of August, and has been well below the threshold of 20 to 25 per 100,000 cases. At this point, we make sure that we target our communications in areas where there have been more cases or clusters of cases, and work closely with the test and trace system on the intelligence to see if there are any links between cases and any potential risks of increased infection. At this level of cases, events and activities will take place across Barnet and indeed in boroughs across the country provided that they are adhering to national guidelines and that Covid risk assessments are completed if necessary. Many other boroughs in London have had similar events over recent weeks, and this operator was previously in another London borough.

When the threshold of 20 to 25 per 100,000 cases is reached, this is the point at which additional preventative measures are considered. This would include enhanced enforcement in areas of higher infection, more community messaging and reviewing whether things like events or large gatherings should still take place.

As of today, Barnet has seen the rate per 100,000 increase to over 20. That means that our public health team are working with regional colleagues to understand the epidemiological picture and agree the appropriate actions.

The intelligence suggests that the increase in cases is predominantly in 16-24 age group and also particularly in the south and the west of the borough. Transmission is mainly through household members, through visiting friends and private parties and gatherings. Whatever we do in terms of next steps will need to be informed by the evidence that is coming through from the public health system.

Finally, I just want to be very clear that any fee that is paid by the operator has absolutely no bearing on whether the funfair will continue to operate in the borough. On this, a decision will be taken in the next 24 hours on the basis of the information we have on compliance with the risk assessment and the context that I have set out above.

Kind regards

My response: 

Yes, thank you for this but if you will forgive my bluntness, this is just a load of flannel. 

The facts are reducible to one thing. There is an increase locally, amongst largely young people. Yet you have allowed a fun fair to take place, and to continue even as cases are rising, an event which young people of this age group attend, whilst sending out messages telling people not to gather in groups of more than six outdoors. This is absurd. That is all there is to it. 

There was never any argument for holding an event like this during a pandemic. There is enough risk from activities which are unavoidable, and such events as this set a dangerous example to the community, encouraging them to think there is no longer any need for caution - as evidenced by the behaviour of the majority of people at the fair.

 At this precise point it is reckless, and will cause the spread of the virus utterly unnecessarily. Let us hope no lives are lost or serious long term health problems caused as a consequence.

Theresa Musgrove

Update No 2:

Yesterday (Wednesday) it became apparent that national rates of Covid infection have risen to the extent that a drastic revision of measures has had to be adopted by the Government. It was also revealed locally that infection rates in Barnet, specifically in wards adjacent to Victoria Park, have been rising to an alarming level: see the chart below.

After writing to the Chief Executive to ask him to confirm that now, at least, the fair would be stopped, he replied to say that this would only happen on Friday. 

This means that nine out of the ten days the fair was due to run have been allowed, in the face of all common sense - and rising rates of Covid transmission. 

Stopping it only one day short does nothing except allow the council to demonstrate a purely nominal intervention. 

If there is a risk, there has been one right from the beginning - and it has increased as the event has been running. It will not magically change tomorrow: it is already increasing beyond any point that such events could possibly be justified - if there ever was justification, at the time of a pandemic. 

This sorry tale is the perfect demonstration of everything that is wrong with the administration of this local authority, and in its way a reflection of the sickness in our current government: an impotent Tory leadership, policy and decision making being driven by outsourced contractors, and a process of governance unable to put the well being of the community, and its responsibilities for the protection of public health, before the demands of income generation - 'business as usual'. Too many conflicts of interests, too much compromise. Our democratic system is broken.

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