Sunday 26 September 2021

A Perfect Storm: Barnet's Tory pro-development council ignites an unprecedented scale of rebellion in its heartland voters

Undefeated by the storm, local residents protested against the Hendon Hub plans

On the 20th of July there was a Policy and Resources committee meeting at Hendon Town Hall, at which the highly controversial plans for the Hendon Hub development were due to be discussed by councillors. 

A huge crowd of residents campaigning against the plans gathered outside before the meeting. 

As they did so, the sky darkened, and thunder began to growl menacingly overhead, quickly followed by a downfall of heavy rain. 

It made no difference to the mood of the residents, or rather seem to galvanise their resolution: the British response to adversity tending as usual to obstinate refusal to accept being beaten. 

In this case, with most of the protestors being formerly non political, and inexperienced in attending demonstrations, there was an added sense of rebellion, and even jubilation. They were determined to show their elected representatives, skulking in the committee room upstairs, how strongly they felt about these monstrous plans to foist what will effectively be a campus colonisation of not just a residential neighbourhood, but the historic heart of Hendon, comprising not one but two Conservation Areas. 

Such a large protest had not been seen outside the Town Hall for a very long time, even pre-Covid.

Fellow blogger Mr Reasonable and I stood outside, astonished at the scale of the turn out, and the impressive organisation of the Residents' Group, led by Professor Brad Blitz, and Gabbie Asher. 

Local residents Professor Blitz and (hiding behind the poster) Gabbie Asher

Returning home, I listened to the meeting via the audio link. Always unpredictable, this broadcast system, especially when, it seems, anything politically significant is being debated. It was clear that the residents who had packed out the public gallery were not going to sit there quietly, letting the usual rubber stamping exercise play out, with the Tory majority pushing through the Capita Barnet officers' reports. An exemplary display of perfectly tuned heckling ensued, disrupting the android default programming of Chair and Tory leader Dan Thomas, whose attempts to use this as an excuse to end 'debate' and move to a vote was no doubt restrained by the knowledge that this would contribute to the already robust case for challenging the nonsultation process - which has been rolled out (with of course no conflict of interest), by Capita subsidiary GL Hearn).

Since the Tories amended the constitution in order to stop the far too effective scutiny of residents, questions to committee are now largely forbidden, but Gerrard Roots, former curator of the Church Farmhouse Museum - (also, as proposed for the listed Hendon Library, closed, ransacked & handed over to Middlesex Uni) - had managed to slip one through, and a gloriously impertinent and yet highly pertinent one it was: 

This is a dreadful proposal, concocted in secrecy in 2019, and
finally presented for public consultation during the chaos of
the pandemic. The plan would ruin the two 'Heritage
Conservation Areas' in Hendon. It would remove essential
services to residents, and replace them with vast new
Middlesex University buildings - including student halls of
residence which are unlikely now ever to be used. The sole
beneficiaries will be the big builders/developers. The plan is
so awful that even some LB Barnet Conservative councillors
(backed up by Hendon's Tory MP) have broken ranks to
oppose it. (Those councillors already appear to have been
punished for their decency.)

I wish to know if the rest of Barnet's Tory councillors regard
themselves as representatives of their residents or simply as
the servants of powerful developers?

Of course asking any question of a Tory run committee - should you be allowed to do so - is always pointless, but you cannot give them the pleasure of thinking their stifling of debate is ever going to be accepted, if you really believe in democracy, and justice, and holding power to account.

The meeting progressed, and it was time for councillors to ask questions of officers. Labour's Arjun Mittra asked the officer in charge of the Hub project about the involvement of Historic England. 

Here is a curious thing. 

Capita of course makes most of its money in Barnet from its exploitation of our planning system. A system which now works to promote development, and profits for Capita, rather than to regulate planning, or benefit our communities. 

If you make a planning application in the London Borough of Capita, you are encouraged to pay a fat fee to our privatised planning service for 'pre-application planning advice'. If your application is turned down you will probably receive a letter noting that you did not avail yourself of this service, tut tut, and inviting you to have another go, after paying to take said advice.  (Being in the process of moving house - sadly not escaping from Broken Barnet, but we can all dream, can't we? - and looking at the past planning applications of various properties has given an interesting insight into this interesting practice ...)

Of course it may be that you made some crashing error in your design, before paying for this 'advice'. It could not possibly be a way of generating more income, could it? And anyway, there will be a full record of what they come up with, and an audit trail, & all that sort of stuff.

Well, no. As Mr Reasonable discovered, when campaigners asked for copies of the Pre Application advice for the Barnet Gas Works development ... it transpired there was nothing at all. Advice had been given but ... no record of it exists. 

No need for transparency over this sort of thing. No need to worry about the number of former Barnet Capita planning officers now working as agents for developers, who will have rung up their former colleagues for 'advice'. No need to worry about conflicts of interest in the same teams overseeing 'advice', consultation, recommendations etc. 


(And not to worry, after years of me bringing up the issue of paying a fee to name your own planning officer - and being ignored - that clear conflict of interest has now supposedly been quietly been disposed of. Why did it take so long: eight years, in fact?)

Interestingly, if a planning application is from the local authority itself for, say, hundreds of unnecessary units of student accommodation, and the virtual destruction of a listed Library, in a residential area, and not one but two Conservation areas, stuffed full of eighteenth century houses, an ancient parish church, a host of listed civic buildings, then - oh ...

There is, it seems, no need to take pre planning advice or guidance from the most obvious source, ie Historic England - at least, according to the senior officers of the London Borough of Capita.

Sitting at home, listening to the questions from Cllr Mittra at the P&R committee, I was absolutely astounded - and very cross - to hear the following response from the officer seemingly in charge of the Hub project, in answer to his question as to whether Barnet had engaged 'proactively' with Historic England - and erm, if it was not a resident who had informed them about the Hub plans?

No. It wasn't, she said. And she could prove this.

Oh really?

I knew this was could not be true. Councillors were being misinformed.

Because I was the resident who had informed Historic England, in April. And yes, I can prove it.

In April, I had written to HE with my concerns about the Hub plans, in terms of the scale of the impact on the Conservation areas and the threat to the listed library building. They responded, to my utter astonishment, with a response that said that they not only knew nothing about the Hub development, it had not been mentioned to them - even as they had been engaged in discussion with Barnet Capita officers, in February, over the draft local SPD plan. 

I say discussion: Historic England wrote to Barnet with criticisms of the draft. Barnet ignored these criticisms, as far as I can see from the final SPD.

HE even sent me a copy of the letter in which these criticisms are detailed: in which they objected to the many references to 'development opportunities' and criticised the lack of consideration for protecting heritage, and the character of this uniquely sensitive area- as well as noting the need to prevent multi storey buildings being erected. 

All of which, of course, is in direct conflict with the Hub plans, which as we now know, have been under consideration since at least 2019, and possibly even earlier. Yet this major proposal was one which LBB/Capita apparently decided to hide from Historic England, even when the new SPD was being drafted this February.

Engagement with HE only began when following enquiries from me and Professor Blitz, HE, alerted to the potential risk posed by the plans, said they would contact LBB. A meeting took place, according to the officer at P&R, only at the end of June, less than four weeks before this committee meeting. The officer informed members of the P&R committee that she had seen HE's report that morning. Yet the report had not been circulated to members, let alone added to the published documents, even though other late amendments were, at the last minute. 

Back to the Hendon Hub. You might reasonably expect that if Capita Re advice is needed at an early stage in the process of designing Mrs Bloggs's kitchen extension, Capita Re might be expected to consult HE about such crashingly inappropriate designs for two Conservation areas at an early stage, rather than so late in the day. 

You might expect officers to pass HE's report to members before the meeting in which they were due to make a decision. 

Unless, of course, there was a determination to avoid any criticism, no matter how valid, from HE, at a stage when it might influence and possibly obstruct the proposal to erect such hideous and architecturally anachronistic student blocks - or even prevent what will be the virtual destruction of the listed Hendon Library.

As it happened, Labour members exercised their right to refer part of the decision, the business case, to Full Council, the following week. 

Residents then again gathered outside the Town Hall, making noisy representations to the councillors in the chamber.

By some strange circumstance, this time the audio link ... was not available. And no recording, it later turned out,  was possible. How unfortunate that a debate and vote on this highly contentious proposal now has no record. 

The excuse was that the storm the previous week, before the P&R meeting, had meant a lightning strike had selectively prevented the broadcast of Full Council. Even though other meetings during the week had not been affected. An Act of God, you see?

Hendon ward councillor Nizza Fluss was the only Tory who voted against approval of the Hub plans. She has been deselected since earlier taking this stand, which of course rather suggests that this was because of daring to oppose the leadership on this issue. Potentially evidence, as they now realise, rather late in the day, of 'pre-decision' in regard to this highly contentious proposal. 

Curiously, however, after this vote, Cllr Fluss was not deprived of the whip, or punished for her rebellion, unlike the only previous time I can remember, ten years ago, when a Tory member refused to support a motion in Full Council. Of course one vote would never had made any difference. Anyway, rumour has it that she will be offered a chance of standing in Childs Hill ward, instead. There may be a vacancy, as Councillor Shimon Ryde, most mysteriously, has temporarily 'stepped back' from the Conservative group, for reasons to do with a 'personal' matter  - temporarily since May, that is. 

If it is true, one might reasonably ask why she is now considered suitable for selection in this ward, but was dropped from the one in which she was elected. Is this an attempt at damage limitation?

Local Tory councillor Nizza Fluss, who has opposed the Hub plans - and who has now been deselected by Hendon Tories.

At Full Council, despite further visible (and audible) opposition from residents, the plans were approved, at the point they are now. So what next? The plans continue to be pushed through, of course.

But hello: here is an interesting revelation. 

You may not realise that once a year residents have the right to inspect the accounts of their local authority. Fellow blogger John Dix, aka Mr Reasonable, always makes sure to assert this right, and apply his own analysis of the information he is able to scrutinise. It is of course a statutory requirement that residents may have access to the accounts in this way. If it wasn't, you can be sure that Barnet Tories and their senior management team would do everything in their power to stop anyone seeing this material. 

The devil, in Broken Barnet, as always, is everywhere, but above all, in the age of Capita, he is to be found hidden in the detail - hidden in the books, in the fine print, in footnotes, or those naughty contractual variations that opened up endless possibilities for further income generation for our contractors. 

From Mr R's perusal of the last year's accounts, anyway, emerged two very remarkable pieces of information, in regard to the Hendon Hub. 

It seems Capita have already done very nicely out of the Hendon Hub proposals. 

Included in the accounts was:

"... a request for CSG to provide professional services for the development and submission of planning applications required to support the Hendon Regeneration Project; and the necessary professional services to complete the Final Business Case and progress both the funding and construction partner procurement strategies". 

Between November 2020 and March 2021 alone they were paid £2,280,587 for such work. Nice work if you can get it - and in Broken Barnet Capita can and will always get it. An 8,000 page contract, signed unread by Tory members, says so.

There are other fees, and more are expected to come to light, of course: just for writing the Hub business case they earned £31,928. Kerrching!

Oh, but ... what's this invoice, billed to some unknown company? 

'Hendon Hub Heritage Advice'? 

"This SPIR is for the Provision of Heritage advice on a Masterplan Proposal that includes a number of listed properties in the Townscape, from Pre-planning to full Planning approval and discharge of conditions ..." 

Two payments: one for £33,597 in October 2020 and a second one of £4,042 in January 2021. Paid to whom, I don't know. 

But how curious that apparently some sort of 'heritage advice' was paid for in October and in January, but no consultation took place with Historic England until residents told them about the Hub, and no meeting took place until June, less than a month before P&R! Perhaps the advice was along the lines of 'don't tell Historic England about these plans, & hope no one grasses you up in the meanwhile?'

Here is the most important thing to remember, however, and perhaps even some of our more dopey Tory members have not grasped this yet. Capita's best interests are not so much in seeing through so called regeneration and development plans to the moment of construction, but in the course of the very process of encouraging and managing development proposals, from which they extract fees. Look at the millions already chiselled out of the Brent Cross Cricklewood plans, plans which may never end in anything like the vision worked up so many years ago. 

Capita has come to Barnet with a list of development opportunities which it is pursuing with grim determination, regardless of the impact on our communities of what is now seemingly an unstoppable process of overdevelopment - on an epidemic scale. 

Barnet's Tory councillors are of course pro-development: several work in this area, or in services connected with it - and many are landlords. 

Although some effort is being made by the more politically astute development pushers in the council to hide behind a pretence of giving residents things they don't need, such as a new library in Finchley Central (which mysteriously still has no 'Library' sign attached to it, presumably so as to deter use) or apparently socially benevolent plans such as the Finchley Memorial 'Homes for Heroes', presented so as to justify the confiscation of community green space for a load of ugly blocks that will almost certainly end up on the open market, rather than for the 'key workers' they claim will live there.

The Hendon Hub they thought gave them an excuse to push development in a Conservation area under the guise of providing something Middlesex Uni didn't need, ie student accommodation for which there was no real call, pre Brexit and pre Covid, and certainly is not now. Interesting to see Cllr Gabriel Rozenberg ask a question which revealed there was effectively nothing to stop these blocks becoming residential properties, should the plans prove unviable. What a surprise!

In the meanwhile, in Hendon, residents are fighting back: a well organised and funded campaign group is already engaged in a legal challenge of the proposed development. Letters before action have been sent, earlier in the summer. The response, which appeared only at the very last moment, claimed, preposterously, that any challenge focused on the SPD plan for the area is premature, as the SPD 'has not been approved' ...

Yes, you may be perplexed by this. It was of course approved by a Tory majority on July 20th, at the Policy and Resources committee, and the following week's Full Council. If this is their best effort, well ... campaigners are on to a winner.

More games are reportedly being played with local Hendon stakeholders, as noted on the Hendon campaigners' Facebook group: 

Mid-consultation, “in response to our feedback”, some of the student units in the giant new buildings on The Burroughs were reallocated for social housing. 
The general public were told it was for nurses and independent living for young adults. 

The African Cultural Centre was told it was for disadvantaged young “BAME” people.
Some Jewish residents have been told it’s for an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish charity who provide housing for people with special needs and large housing units for extended families.
Which are we to believe, if any?

None of it, is my guess.

Hendon campaigners been there, seen that - and produced some T shirts: now you can help by donating to the legal challenge fund here. Above, Gabbie Asher

Now here in Finchley there is a rather puzzling new nonsultation on the question of whether residents like me would like to see a new 'public square' in our high street. Doesn't that sound lovely? Let's have a look at the plans. You know, the details, the small print etc ... oh: is that a whiff of sulphur? 

Now where in Finchley, you might ask, could we have a public square, and what would we use it for? Protests against an oppressive authority, perhaps? Think Place de la Concorde, or Tiananmen Square, or even Trafalgar Square, poll tax riots, etc. 

No. 'To create an inclusive space'. Ah. 

Healthy and green. Ok ... quite a challenge, in that location ... 

And of course with 'a regular market offer'. Marvellous. An inclusive space. Market 'offer'. Sounds good.

Except that the place that Capita and chums are thinking of is outside Tesco, and maybe across the road from Tesco. Well yes, with the ceaseless, toxic traffic of Ballards Lane running through it: displacing the shelter 'offer' depended on by Finchley's desperate homeless citizens, and the pigeon feeding station, and the fag break area used by employees at the offices above Tesco and oh: hang on.

The offices above Tesco ... remember that presentation that Capita officers were obliged to make, a couple of summers ago, for Finchley residents, at which there were helpful lists of the 'development opportunities' they had identified in our area, swiftly whisked away and never seen again? To my astonishment, yes, hidden in the detail, had been a proposal to build on and around Tescos, more unaffordable housing. 

Bla bla bla: a photo taken of an uncharacteristically quiet Ballards Lane shows the location proposed for an alleged 'town square' ... with a busy road in the middle, surrounded by all the new development they forgot to mention ...

And hidden in the latest nonsultation is a clue as to how they will pay for the unasked for act of generosity in providing a supposed  'town square' that will be nothing of the sort. In fact it is so well hidden, I can't find it again. Suffice it to say that the 'infill' development of Finchley is the price you will be expected to pay for this nonsense. Who knew? 


Well: ok. Infill my neighbourhood, regardless of Conservation areas, or local history, or listed buildings, or the hard won character of our suburbs. Build on my community open space. Sell off part of my park and shove up a block of flats.  Ignore the real housing needs of residents, especially those who are disadvantaged, or social tenants: ship them off to Peterborough. Throw bucketloads of my council tax at Capita, while you do it. 

Problem is that you can allow a privatised planning service to push the destruction of our built heritage only just so far. 

There is a tipping point, which we have now reached, and passed, where the political impact of such policy begins to turn voters that Barnet Tories need to stay in power against them. 

The uprising over the Hendon Hub folly is the most obvious example of this: as we have seen, previously loyal Tory voters have had enough, and are not taking it any more. 

In Barnet the truly awful Gas Works proposals are having the same effect, even though they are in the less Tory loyalist part of the constituency. Fortunately fellow blogger Mr Reasonable has been helping the residents' campaign to fight the latest, awful plans, in which the few social tenants will be shoved next to the railway track with windows that won't open, and obliged to pay for air conditioning for their overheated rooms. 

More information here: there is still time to object to this awful development: it's not that people think there should be no housing built here, it is a question of the density of the units proposed, which will unload a huge extra burden on the local schools and health care services - and the low standard of design, tiny apartments to maximise profit.

In Edgware, another mass development is planned (and will surround the neglected, listed Railway Hotel, recently having suffered the third fire in six years). 

In North Finchley Capita are pushing yet another faux regeneration, backed by Barnet Tory leader, Dan Thomas, seen in a rare appearance here, in which they are plotting to flog off the 'refurbished' shrunken library, the Arts Depot, and two car parks to a developer, Regal London. 

Yes, getting rid of another library, after spending £14 million on cutting the service to shreds, under the guise of 'refurbishment'. It was always about this, biding time before they could point to carefully engineered declining use, directly the consequence of devaluing and undermining the library service, so they could flog off the sites. 

North Finchley Library, 'refurbished' at vast public expense in 2017 - in fact robbed of its children's library - now to be flogged off by Barnet Tories

Does it serve the best interests of residents and taxpayers, to sell off such community assets? Or is this all so as to increase the fees for Capita, and the profits of private developers? Yes. 

Does it meet local housing need? No. 

Recently a poll revealed that both Hendon and Chipping Barnet constituencies are at risk of being won by Labour. Finchley's fate hangs in the balance too, if and when the boundaries are redrawn. The sky is darkening: the inevitable storm moves ever closer.

Barnet Tories have a chance now: call a stop to the pillaging of our borough by Capita and developers, and return to the people whose interests they are meant to represent the power to decide how their communities will be managed ... or continue on the road to perdition, and the end of their feckless administration, brought about entirely by their own hands. They won't, unless the faction that is pro development, to the point of weakening their own hold on power, is overcome by the few senior Tories who have more sense. 

Relatively speaking, of course.

Watch this space.

Hendon campaigner Hayley Blitz