Tuesday 25 January 2022

Storming the Town Hall: Barnet Tories, the lie of 'Regeneration' - and the May Elections


Last week I was asked by a BBC journalist preparing for the May elections in London about the prospect of a Labour win in Barnet. Yes, this is a real thing. Hold on to your hats.

There has been much speculation in the last week or so about a number of Tory held London boroughs that may well be taken by Labour: my view is that - for the first time in the ten years or so since I've been writing about local politics - it seems more likely than not that such a result is a genuine possibility, here in Barnet, and increasingly begins to look like the most likely outcome. 

Tory canvassers are secretly panicking, and Labour canvassers reporting more and more former Tory voters who are no longer prepared to support the party in this borough.

The reasons for this are pretty obvious: although in the past local elections were about local issues, certainly this time round they will be strongly influenced by national concerns: Covid, Brexit - the universal sense of disgust at the corruption and incompetence of Boris Johnson's government. Another important factor is the impact of new ward boundary changes: in this borough, changes that favour Labour.

Most important of all, however, in Barnet, is the disaffection of what were traditional Tory voters as a result of the dire performance of council services managed and delivered by the authority's contractor, Capita - and because of the ever encroaching plague of manic over development in the borough, a phenomenon which now has even the leafiest areas entirely in its relentless grip. Over development which is not being supported by any adequate level of investment in desperately needed infrastructure and support in terms of schools, healthcare, parks, parking, transport - retail outlets. In many cases the developments are removing such community assets in the course of clearing the way for profit driven 'regeneration'. 

Far from meeting local housing need, this non stop process is being promoted purely for the benefit of developers, and for Capita, which amongst the fat portfolio of contracts it still retains, holds planning the most desirable. Most desirable, because it is the most lucrative: capable, as we have seen, of generating huge levels of profit for the company, in terms of fee based income streams, such as the deeply non-transparent pre-application 'advice' service for developers and their agents: some of the latter having been only recently senior planning officers with ... Barnet/Capita. Applications with fee based advice, data obtained by FOI suggests, are far more likely to be successful.

Remember that, despite the issue having been raised - by me and others - constantly over several years of the contract, it is only recently that the service that Capita Re offered to applicants and agents to 'name your own planning officer' has been quietly dropped, despite the clear risk of 'conflicts of interest' - especially in the case of the agents who are former colleagues of the planning officers with whom they deal.

Last year, raising the question of why details about pre-planning advice, and the name of the planning officer who was dealing with it, had vanished from Capita Re's application forms, I was told that this was due to changes by the government. Lo and behold, last week, on checking the application form for another awful development - six blocks plotted for the former Homebase site in North Finchley - there again was the question, on the form, but ignored. Yes, fee based advice had been paid for. Tick. What was it? 'As advised.' Who gave it? 'Mr.' Mr Who? They weren't saying. Why not?

Back to the old Barnet/Capita tradition of counter transparency then,  and a practice that obscures and obstructs our right to know how large developments are enabled and encouraged by the privatised planning service. On raising this again and complaining about the practice, I was offered no explanation but - a meeting with the Head of Planning, to discuss the matter. Nothing further has happened about that, funnily enough. 

Until very recently, as well as planning, Capita ran 'regeneration' in Barnet. This is an activity which purports to bring new life to failing communities, but does this by removing the people who live there - and any of those community assets that get in the way, like libraries - and inviting in developers to make whopping profits from luxury housing developments: the taller the better, although the tallest only in Labour wards, of course. 

Regeneration, for Capita, went by the name of 'development opportunities', and there is almost no town centre, suburb or open space in the borough which has not been targeted for these appalling schemes. 

In West Hendon, land worth millions was given to Barratt London in a secret deal, secret, that is, until revealed by the requirement for disclosure at the CPO Inquiry. 

Finchley Memorial Hospital: plans hatched in secret, again, and accidently exposed some years ago, were last year, during Covid, slipped out under the clever cover now of providing homes for NHS workers - to be built on the local community green space. There is nothing to stop these properties being sold on the open market, in fact, rather than to key workers, who are very unlikely to be queuing up for them (as other attempted developments of this type have shown) and it is highly likely this will happen, after the usual plea of non viability is put in, at a later stage. 

North Finchley is now being laid wide open to another assault in the name of 'regeneration': more unaffordable housing, and developers being given, by our Tory councillors, the local Arts Depot, and ... the lovely, historic library. Which brings us back to ... yes, the Hendon Hub. 

Barnet Tories think this is an appropriate development for the middle of a Conservation area

The story of the Hendon Hub development is hugely significant, because it perfectly demonstrates almost every rotten element of what has gone wrong not only in this Tory run authority, but on a national scale, encouraged by the current government.

Conflicts of interest in abundance, at every level of the council; hidden agendas, mass development given a free hand, regardless of the impact on the built environment, our built heritage, and our communities, all promoted by commercial interests, and here in Barnet, too many Tory councillors with little or no interest in representing the people who elected them, nearly four years ago. 

Unfortunately for the Tories in Barnet, their failure to restrain the extent to which their privatised regeneration and planning services operate has now fatally compromised their own electoral chances in May. 

The council's contractors will hardly be bothered what happens then. They have had a good run in Barnet: most of their fees came from the process of organising 'Regeneration' and planning, rather than the end result itself.

Recently the inevitable moment came when more failing services were taken back from Capita, as well as Regeneration. This is no major loss to them at this stage: there is pretty much nothing left that they can develop - but it has happened too late to prevent the detrimental impact on many residential areas and town centres. And in Hendon, the Hub land grab, memorably described by one resident last week, as a 'brutal acquisition', cooked up years ago, but kept under cover until late on in the process, has infuriated local residents who live in the heart of the oldest and most historic part of Hendon, which has dozens of listed buildings, and comprises not one but two Conservation Areas. And of course these residents are the sort of people the Tories desperately need to support them, in order to hold on to their seats.

Only one Hendon Tory councillor, Nizza Fluss, has had the courage and integrity necessary to oppose these plans, and truly represent her constituents, who, as the ludicrous 'nonsultation' process demonstrated, are outraged by the attempt to force a development of crashingly ugly, modern multi storey blocks - supposedly intended as student accommodation and other campus space for the ever expanding Middlesex University. Ever expanding in the past, that is: post Covid, post Brexit, these plans are clearly no longer viable, you would think. It makes no difference. Development must be pushed wherever there is an opportunity for profit.

Tory Cllr Nizza Fluss, who has bravely opposed the Hub plan - to her cost

Cllr Fluss was deselected by certain fellow party members in the Hendon Tory association, following her opposition of the Hub development.

Barnet Tories don't like women who answer back, or do the right thing, instead of doing as they are told, by the men, of course. 

On the 10th January, at a meeting of the Strategic Planning Committee, at Hendon Town Hall, in the centre of one of the two Conservation areas at risk from the Hub plans,Tory members ignored the unanimous, detailed and clearly articulated opposition to the plans from residents, and approved the plans in a remarkable show of unity on a planning decision which of course is supposed not be whipped.

One thing that emerged from the (strictly limited by the Chair) farce of pretending to consider the arguments for and against the plans, at this meeting, was that the much vaunted replacement library, which is allegedly going to be squeezed into the ground floor and basement of the planned Rotunda building opposite the Town Hall, is still shrinking in size, almost as if it will completely disappear, in the end. (Which is quite likely, in fact, like the Invisible New Library not built as promised in North Finchley).

When such fierce local opposition to the Hub plans had become apparent, half way through the Nonsultation, the developers tried to persuade residents of the benefits of having their listed library taken away - given away, and gutted - they attempted then to make the scheme seem more 'community focused' by declaring the library would now accommodate a Safer Neighbourhood police unit. 

Whether or not they checked if the Met can actually afford to staff such a unit is not known - but clearly this eats into the space meant for the substitute library. 835 square metres reduced to 675. Which must accommodate every other library function: adult & children's borrowing, PCs, stacks, storage, staff space, study areas, printers, a community area & all the other lovely new functions they dangled in front of residents, like 'Makerspaces'. Ah: but hang on - we've forgotten Local Studies and Archives, which currently require 160 square metres - and specialised storage for documents. Which leaves ...  515 square metres - not even a third of Hendon Library's original space. To put it in terms that are easier to visualise, this is less than the space of two tennis courts - for all the normal library functions, of what was once the central borough library, plus the extra wonderful things they claimed would be there. It just doesn't make sense, does it?

You can listen to a recording of this meeting here - and marvel at the way the Tory members pushed through the hugely unpopular plans, ignoring all reasoned objections. Some light relief is afforded by the Chair who steamrollered the meeting to its conclusion failing to remember her mic was picking up her whispered remarks, throughout the meeting, to senior officers ...

There was a pronounced sense of somewhat desperate, blind determination from those pushing through this proposal at the meeting, that night. I suppose they were keen to get the plans underway before May - if indeed they go ahead. 

As this meeting and other related matters are now understood to be the subject of more than one very serious complaint, I am not going to comment in detail on what happened, or the further implications: but it is reported that there are some deeply alarming issues which have emerged from the meeting itself, and from the process of 'consultation', over the last year or so. 

Watch this space.

One characteristic of Barnet Tories is that, like lemmings, they will head towards danger with free abandon, thinking that they are immune from any consequences. Frankly, most of them are pretty dim, and don't care about much other than retaining their seats., which usually requires nothing more than unquestioning loyalty to the current leader - and a safe seat, of course. None of them are politically astute, and the current leader is particularly tone deaf when it comes to gauging the mood of voters. Still, it came as a real surprise to see their latest idiotic move. 

You may recall that a few years ago, the Tory group supported a truly awful Motion to Full Council, proposed by the golden boy himself, Cllr Longstaffe, claiming that the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is 'An Enemy of the People'. Bad enough, you might think. Here comes another one., this time proposed by the Tory 'Leader', Dan Thomas, and due to be 'debated at tonight's Full Council meeting. 

This puerile nonsense reads as if it was written by Thomas, in biro, on the back of a shopping list, to be honest: publishing it all here, however, so you can see the extent of sheer childishness and mendacity of this motion, and this Tory group, attacking the Opposition, with rather touching lack of awareness of the theory of Freudian projection (to say nothing about the curious accusation of 'impotence' ...)

Political Discourse Within Barnet

Council notes that:

1. The Barnet Labour Party and members of the Opposition have made misleading claims about this Administration’s policies and achievements.

2. Contrary to Barnet Labour’s misinformation:

a. Barnet has not only maintained weekly collections of refuse and recycling under this

Conservative administration, unlike any neighbouring borough – which are all run by

Labour– but we also have the lowest number of missed bin collections in London.

This is of course a feeble attempt to play, without permission, a round of 'Angry About Bins' (© Mrs Angry) but scoring an own goal, from the council which has stupidly stopped collecting food waste, and now charges householders an annual fee for the privilege of having their green waste collected - occasionally.

b. Council Tax in Barnet has been kept lower than that of any of our neighbouring boroughs for

the past decade, and will remain so. In real terms, Council Tax in Barnet has been reduced by

5.2% over the past decade — despite the Labour Mayor of London taking an ever-increasing

sum from Council Tax.

Barnet Tories kept council tax so low, they were unable properly to fund basic council services. In one particularly infamous incident, they cut desperately needed funding for respite care for the families of children with profound and complex disabilities, so they could boast about reducing the tax bill by the equivalent of  a few pence a week.  The families were reduced to having to go in person to the council to demand this funding restored - only to be told that their children were making too much noise in the committee room. Public outrage saw the cut grudgingly reversed, after this appalling move: but what a thing to do ...

c. Barnet has zero “non-decent” Council homes, while our neighbouring boroughs have

thousands. Labour Enfield alone have over 4,000.

'Zero non decent council homes'. Got that? Apart from the fact that thousands of homeless residents have been kicked out of the borough, the Dear Leader seems to have forgotten his own appearance on the Victoria Derbyshire show (after refusing to appear the week before) trying to defend the truly abominable condition of flats in West Hendon, in which council tenants' children were forced to live with cockroaches biting them, rats running around their homes, and their walls covered in mould.

d. Barnet’s outsourcing has saved millions – ensuring value for money for our residents.

Ah yes. The old story. Utterly untrue. The short list of guaranteed savings is restricted, and minimal, and pales in comparison to the many, many millions surplus paid to Capita, so far, that was never foreseen, although it should have been, by the Tory councillors who signed the contracts

e. Barnet has successfully stood up to developers and has been successful in having storeys

removed from proposed towers. The ineffectual Labour group is impotent to influence the

Labour Mayor of London’s desire for ever larger tower blocks in London. This is evidenced by

the Mayor’s support for the original B&Q proposal and those regarding tower blocks over

tube stations, such as a recent High Barnet application.

Frankly this is so risible, it is hard to know where to begin. Or end. It is reported that the Monitoring Officer removed the word 'wilful' in regard to the idiotic accusations against Labour - but why was this Motion allowed to stand at all?

'Barnet has successfully stood up to developers' ? What a f*cking joke.

Tory Barnet has actively welcomed and encouraged, with the help of Capita, a scale of over development that has ignored the real housing needs of ordinary families. The needs of developers are put before all other considerations.

Clearly the Labour group - and the Labour AM, Anne Clarke, are able to communicate effectively with the Mayor of London to moderate any multi-storey plans, or he would not have done so, in regard to the tube station developments. Perhaps if the Tory group were not set on smearing the Mayor as an "enemy of the People", he might be more inclined to include them in a grown up discussion about the borough's needs.

For Thomas even to dare to pretend to oppose multi storey blocks is absurd. These have gone up all over the Western side of the borough, carefully avoiding the Tory areas elsewhere - except in Hendon's Conservation areas, where clearly something has gone awfully wrong in their judgement, and someone's influence has convinced them to commit electoral suicide, rather than listen to the overwhelming objections of their local residents. 

f. This Conservative Council would not and will not build on our parks or green spaces. This has been made clear a number of times over the past year in various committees and at Full Council.

This statement is on a Johnsonian scale of 'fiction'. The Tories approved the development of the community green space at Finchley Memorial Hospital last June, despite fierce opposition from local residents incensed at the loss of their amenity. They were caught considering the use of 'low value' parks and green spaces for placing solar energy facilities and battery storage. And last year saw the construction of a block of flats in Victoria Park, after they sold off and allowed the demolition of the historic, Arts & Crafts style park keeper's Lodge. 

3. The above are responses to only some examples of the mistruths stated by the Labour group.

4. The Labour Party and Labour councillors made exaggerated claims during the East Barnet by election, which the people of East Barnet clearly saw through. However, such claims risk causing polarisation, unnecessary upset and worry amongst local residents.

Ah. Presumably a reference to the hugely inappropriate Gas Works development, which proposes more of those blocks Thomas claims to oppose, but is apparently happy to see in an area with too many Labour voters. The only affordable housing here will punish the undeserving poor by shoving them right next to the railway line, with windows that can't open, (because of the noise levels being too high for approval). Once they realised the flats will over heat, as a consequence, they have designed a cooling system that the already disadvantaged tenants will have to pay for. 

But just imagine: Barnet Tories accusing someone else of 'causing polarisation'!

And on we go:

Council believes that:

1. Misinformation about the state of the Council, and this administration’s policies and history, are little more than a sign of desperation from the Labour group.

Misinformation from the Council, and its contractors and consultants, (eg in the case of the Hendon Hub - Historic England, anyone?) are ok though. Ok.

2. Over the past term and beyond, this Conservative Council has consistently made decisions based on value for money for our residents, while ensuring that they receive the best possible services.

Quite clearly decisions are not made on the basis of value for money, nor do they deliver the best possible services. Again, this is Johnsonian inversion of the truth, up ending the story of their own dreadful performance. 

Tax payers' money has been extracted on an eye watering, industrial scale from the Capita contracts, via income opportunities hidden at the time of signing in the form of contractual variations, unnoticed and by Tory members, before approving for a ten year term of bondage to the conditions. As fellow blogger John Dix can tell you, you and I and all the other residents have already paid hundreds of millions more than the expected amount.

That services are not the best possible is evident to anyone who walks along a tarmac patched pavement, or driven along the thousands of pot hole scarred roads, or tried to phone a council department, or had to chase enforcement of flagrant breaches of planning permission conditions, or visited a relative in a care home like Apthorp Lodge. 

Rather than in invest in new social housing that would benefit the most needy residents, or borrow state money in order to do so, Tory members preferred to borrow £22 million from the Public Works Loan Board to lend to their 'partners' at Saracens to build a lovely new stand at their Stadium, which was our Stadium, and for which they only pay a peppercorn rent. Value for money? Meanwhile families in West Hendon were living in utter squalor, and the Housing committee did not meet for eight months, because - 'there were no urgent issues'.

That over the last few years Tory members have sought to stifle challenge, engagement and consultation with their own residents is undeniable: changing the Constitution to prevent questions at committees where hugely important and controversial plans are decided being the keystone of their shameless and deliberate strategy of gagging dissent. 

This gagging has not only coincided with a period of increasing decline in the standard of council services, but also with a period of hugely expanded proposals for so called 'regeneration' and development. What a stroke of luck! 

Except that the Tories' luck is now running out. 

Poor leadership and recklessly poor judgement has made them complacent, and to take risks  that can only damage their electoral prospects. Tory voters are now queueing up to fight developments in their areas: the snatching of the community green space at Finchley Memorial is facing Judicial Review, and the Hendon Hub is being legally challenged, in various ways, as well as now being the subject of very serious complaints over ... related matters.

Roll on May: it's time to clear out the Augean stables, and rid ourselves of the rotten stench hanging around this Tory council and their collaborators. 

Time to bring the council back under democratic control, return local services in house, where true value for money can be achieved - and give a voice back to the residents whose representatives have, for so long, so blatantly betrayed them and their well being.