Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Ultimate Cost, or - North Finchley: the life and death of a library

The former children's library at North Finchley

North Finchley is one of a number of interesting but dangerous locations that punctuate the landscape of Broken Barnet - portals to another world: one that underlies and undermines the colonial regime imposed on us by our Tory masters, and their Capita-list army of invasion. 

Under their rule, certain parts of the borough have become a regular focus of contention, and unrest. A place of occupation, resistance: marches. And nowhere is more suitable for the expression of such discontent than North Finchley, the home of Margaret Thatcher House, and the heart of Finchley Conservatism.

A place of nemesis, North Finchley, for certain former Tory councillors - and triumph for troublesome cafe owners. And a stalking ground for a posse of privatised parking wardens who prey on hapless residents trying to park their cars: a constant reminder that the streets of Broken Barnet are no longer the sovereign territory of those who live here, but a marketplace for those who come here to make money.

Perhaps, as we have often considered, it is an historical anomaly, or accident: an interface in time: a psychogeographic accumulation of layers of significance. 

Well, maybe. 

Certainly a geological one, as fossils dug up in the area at the time of railway expansion in the nineteenth century suggested: the place where an ice sheet ended, pinpointed with impressive exactitude by Mrs Robinson, Mrs Angry's formidable geography teacher at St Michael's, pointing in the direction of the High Road, a hundred yards or so away, a landmark which she identified, with great confidence, as the very edge itself. 

A borderline, of many sorts, it is true, the High Road: offering a last stopping place, at Tally Ho, on the much travelled passage, along that stretch of the great North Road, through Finchley Common, the last wilderness before the capital, where danger lurked in the form of ambush: robbers, thieves, and highwaymen. 

Marching up North Finchley High Road to the library, in protest at Tory cuts

Danger still abounds, in Broken Barnet, from robbers and highwaymen, but in the guise of governance. Dick Turpin's musket holed oak still stands decaying at the junction of the High Road, and the North Circular: but his natural heirs sit in the council chamber, and the corporate offices, their target not your money or your life - your money and your life: your council tax, and your local services. 

Local services, such as ... your library, for example.

North Finchley Library has an interesting history all of its own, in fact, the beginning of which can be traced in the archives of the local press: a history well worth revisiting, as the past always is, if we want to understand how we arrived at the point we are now.

In the Hendon and Finchley Times, in October 1934, we read of a decision that the council's surveyor should draw up plans and estimates for a new library, in Ravensdale Avenue. 

This was opened in 1936, after permission was given, rather curiously, by the Ministry of Health: the design itself was cited by RIBA as a model of its kind. 

According to this very interesting post on the architecture of Barnet libraries, in the 'Modernism in Metroland' blog, the building, like the one at East Finchley, was designed by the borough architect, a Mr P T Harrison, in Neo Georgian style.

North Finchley was an attractive building, with two internal oak framed, bow windowed rooms just inside the entrance - one side allocated for 'junior' readers, and a lecture room upstairs used for - well, lectures - and by local residents for meetings and other events.

Early reports indicate the enthusiasm of councillors to get on with opening the library: and show the existence of a library committee, and even a Borough Librarian - a post that survived until the era we live in now, when libraries are under attack by Conservative administrations. No longer is access to a public library system seen - as even Margaret Thatcher believed - as an essential resource for ordinary families, and a route to self improvement: but the founders of the service in Barnet were proud of their achievement, and rightly so. 

By 1938 the new library was proving to be a great success, and was even the subject of filming for a documentary:

Limits on renewals were necessary, because the success was such that often the shelves at North Finchley were almost empty - the council was obliged to allocate further capital sums for book stock.

But what is this here? 

By July 1939, there were signs of a new phenomenon in local council affairs, demonstrated, as it always has been, by subversive activity in the borough's libraries: sshh .... yes: unionisation ...

Personal gossip, and a sea story: what more could you ask for? 

Of course in those days, and indeed until Mrs Angry's days as library convenor, NALGO in Barnet was quite genteel, and members awfully well behaved. That all came to an end, after two successful strikes, and years of organisation ... Less sugar, and more starch, in other words. 

But oh, Mr Long: what would you write now, about your 'noble service'? And you, Mr Smith: does your spirit stand in the shadows of the library at night, looking on, in silent fury, aghast at what they have done to it? 

I think it might.

NALGO was renamed UNISON, and Unison in Barnet has played a major role in leading the fight against the Tory war on public services, especially the campaign in defence of our libraries. 

In 2015, residents and campaigners marched in protest at what was happening to our much loved service -  to North Finchley Library, with supporters and banners from the Durham Miners Association, including the late Davey Hopper, and from LGSM - Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, who feature in the film 'Pride'. 

It was a fabulous, uplifting day: Mrs Angry interviewed Nicola Field, from LGSM, who emphasised the importance of libraries as a first point of information to young people in the process of recognising their sexual identity. A long way from the world of Mr Kenneth Smith, and the aldermen of Finchley: but a good example of why libraries continue to matter, so much, to so many.

Barnet Unison secretary John Burgess, centre, and below, Nicola Field, of LGSM, and the film 'Pride', at North Finchley Library

Hard to stop peering at the stories about North Finchley library, in the archived local press: in May 1938, for example, we learn that the librarian is to arrange 'an experimental programme of stories and epidiascope lectures (slide shows) fortnightly, from October to March, in the upstairs lecture room. This was 'to introduce to juniors the masterpieces of literature'. As time passes, the Borough librarian, Mr Seymour Smith, makes annual reports, and refers to the plans for more new libraries, when the war is over.

In 1940, an obituary appeared in the paper after the death of North Finchley library's oldest member, aged 101, Mrs Eliza Phillips, born in the first year of Queen Victoria's reign, and who, on the occasion of her hundredth birthday, had recounted to reporters her memories of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the Crimean War.

Still in 1940, the redoubtable librarian and union man Mr Kenneth Smith has now edited a Christmas annual edition of 'Query', the NALGO journal. The Town Clerk and the Borough Treasurer both make contributions, welcoming the support of council officers in helping to prepare the borough for the new realities of war. 

On the lighter side, however,  we read, there is an hilarious mock news bulletin at the expense of local dignitaries, and others, for which Mr A V Williams is responsible

Naughty Mr A V Williams. Was he the first Barnet blogger? Presumably in those days the borough council didn't have to have a million pound plus budget to spend on spin doctors to try to counter such impertinence, and negative press ...

Barnet Tories, of course, have always been very careful to listen to the grievances of the more influential residents - so it is no surprise to read that, according to stern questioning from those at a pre-war meeting of East Finchley rate payers (a process clearly pointing the way for the favoured Suburbanistas, lavished in attention at every step), there were concerns raised about the 'undesirable sort of books' which might have crept on to the shelves. 

It also transpires that local councillors had to be pushed into creating libraries in 1929 by the County Council, which threatened to do it instead, if the local aldermen continued to ignore the needs of local people. By the thirties, it seems, they had recognised that libraries were a Good Thing in our borough: Councillor Wilmot declared that: 'libraries were as necessary to the public as open spaces, baths and health services ...' 

Prior to the new public libraries, it appears, there were, at least as early as the 1890's, one or two local lending libraries, and reading rooms - by subscription only, of course. The idea of a national public library service, free of charge, accessible to ordinary residents, and even disadvantaged residents, was clearly not altogether popular with our early elected representatives - just as it is no longer popular with their present day successors.

Councillor Wilmot pointed out to the grumbling rate payers of East Finchley that expenditure on libraries was 3s per head of population: but that this was value for money -

The ultimate cost: incalculable

How times have changed: but the same arguments are as true now as they were then. 

The change is in the councillors themselves, from those who saw their role as a voluntary civic duty, to those who are happy to take an allowance for very little contribution other than the devolvement of responsibility to others.

After more than eighty years of serving the community, North Finchley Library has been targeted, along with the rest of the borough's service for a fate of death by a thousand cuts. The cowards now sitting in the council chamber, in the seats once occupied by Councillor Wilmot and his colleagues, don't dare to shut libraries, as they would wish - at least not now, so close to local elections, and at a time when three newly marginal Tory held constituencies are at risk. 

So they sanctioned the next best thing: a virtual destruction, by default, in the shape of a programme of savage cuts that they have tried to present as 'modification'; a 'reshaping'; a 'reconfiguration' - then a 'refurbishment' ... and now, most offensive of all, as an 'investment'. 

On election day, the council allowed a politically misleading claim of 'refurbishment' to be displayed prominently at the library entrance - and erected only two weeks previously - when the rooms that had been the children's library were used as a polling station.

They boast of having closed no libraries: what they have done is worse - an assault on the fundamental principles of the service itself, sacking half the workforce, attacking the buildings, returning only a fraction of the footprint of those properties to any semblance of a library function. 

Once their plans for this massive assault had been formulated, meetings were held in North Finchley Library as part of a carefully managed  'nonsultation' with local residents, in which their objections were received with absolute indifference.

Hands off, hands behind the back: the business of 'nonsultation'.

At one of these meetings, Mrs Angry asked the then senior officer with responsibility for the cuts programme about the rationale for removing so much space from the library buildings, in order, supposedly, to create office accommodation. 

It emerged there was no real business plan or market testing for the success of such a scheme. What will happen if, as seemed likely in a borough where there is already a surplus of office space to let, there were no takers? The £500,000 a year in predicted income would not materialise: a huge hole in your revenue calculations, surely? 

Meh. Didn't matter, apparently. The library budget was not dependent on it. Really?

The reason it didn't matter was explained by one source, who claimed that the space created by shutting children's libraries, & shrinking the size of the adult areas, was not intended for commercial letting - but so that the council - Capita - could accommodate its own staff. 

As explained in the previous post, a local charity being thrown out of another council property was told last month that there was 'no available space' in any library. Yet on a visit this week to North Finchley, it was clear that the former children's library, now mercilessly ransacked and cleared, is like most of the other spaces in other branches, still unused. 

What a forlorn sight it is. 

The deserted, ransacked children's library: what was it all for?

Thankfully they did not dare, as they had wished, remove the bow windows, but they are now screened off, and the rooms emptied: purposeless vandalism, all in the name of making savings which will never appear, with a £14 million capital sum wasted on the 'reconfiguration' of the service, and ever increasing costs to cover the gap created by the dismissal of half the workforce, and a dawning realisation of the perils of their new automated, unstaffed system. Savings that were meant to amount to only a couple of million per annum, but now clearly will not do so.

And now: where once there was a 'Junior Library', dedicated for the use of the children of Finchley, a ghost sign marks the only indication of its former presence.

What was the point of all this? 

What do they really think, those responsible for this outrage? 

Are they pleased with their work? 

Well, are you?

They took the letters down, but a ghost sign remains: the Junior Room

In the remaining library area, a teenage section has been emptied out too, to create a room with no apparent purpose. 

Worst of all, a nominal children's section has been shoved into the adult area. 

You cannot call it a children's library. I'm not sure what it is, other than an abomination, and an insult to the families in North Finchley who depended on this lovely library for their children's reading needs. 

Just look at it: an utter disgrace.

That table is the children's study table. Yes: THE children's study table. 

How is that adequate provision for the needs of local families? 

How does it meet the statutory requirements of the Library Act?

In the other bay, as here, there is a notice saying the area is for children only. Seated in the armchair, out of sight of the skeleton library staff, was an adult male, who, if he had seen the sign, had chosen to disregard it. 

Staff will no doubt try to make regular checks to see if anyone is sitting there, and ask them to leave, but what happens when they are busy, as they clearly are, with so few workers left to cover their duties? 

Libraries are visited regularly by adults with mental health issues and other difficulties, whose behaviour can sometimes be very challenging. This can and will represent a safeguarding risk to children.

And when the library is left unstaffed, as it is now, for much of the time, with a self entry system, who will tell adults to stay out of the children's area? Admittedly there will not be - in theory - many children there, as they are supposed to enter only with an adult in unstaffed hours. But - unless they continue to spend an unbudgeted massive monthly fee on extra security to guard the unstaffed libraries,  who will be there to check this is an appropriate adult, or supervise the safety of the children's area? 

No one. 

Except a CCTV camera, operated in Swansea.

The impact of these cuts on the children whose library has been stolen is immense: perhaps immeasurable. The consequences on standards of literacy will only become evident as future generations of less advantaged children are denied access to a range of reading material and study space. The wider effect in terms of social exclusion, and the isolation of homeless, jobless, elderly and disabled residents, is unthinkable.

Here are the people to thank for the 'refurbishment' of your local library service. Centre, Tory leader Richard Cornelius, to the right, library cutter councillor Reuben Thompstone - and left, Finchley and Golders Green MP Freer, whose last leaflet claimed his colleagues had 'invested' £14 million in libraries. 

Note they are standing outside not one of their newly cut libraries, but the small - and probably temporary - library for Church End, Finchley, a pop-up library in a block of flats which was offered by developers some years ago, as part of an application to develop Gateway House, and is nothing to do with the current Tory sponsored programme of destruction.

The story of North Finchley library is, as these tales from Broken Barnet always are, about so much more than it first seems. Not just about one library, or one library service, or the state of affairs in this rotten borough. You know what it means: you know what to do. 

Don't let them get away with it.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

St George's Lodge: a seasonal tale, and a New Year's message from Broken Barnet

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!" 

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol

Time for a seasonal tale - and one which illustrates, as perfectly as we could wish, the state of things, as they are, in this most rotten of all Rotten Boroughs.

A story without, alas, the redemptive ending of A Christmas Carol: a story, in fact, without an ending, and one that will continue, after the Christmas break, and New Year, in monthly instalments, for ever and ever - or at least ... until May, 2018.

Come now, with Mrs Angry, the ghost of Christmas Present, to the Burroughs, in Hendon. Stand and admire our Town Hall, once the heart of municipal Barnet - the seat of local authority. During the reign of Margaret Thatcher, it was the venue of election night broadcasts, as the country waited to see whether she could defeat Lord Buckethead (the real one, not the imposter), and Screaming Lord Sutch, and be returned to power as MP for Finchley, and tormentor of the undeserving poor of Breaking Britain, as PM.

Now the Town Hall retains but a shadow of its former self. The fact that it remains, in name only, as the Town Hall, and has not been sold as a hotel, or similar development, is due to an awkward heritage officer some years back (subsequently made redundant), who made sure the building was listed, and protected it from such an undignified fate. 

Listed, but not protected from misuse: the entrance lobby now carved up to make more office space, and the upper floor pimped out for weddings, other social events - or even filming. 

You may now marry in a building run by Capita, and go there to register a birth - or a death, before you or your loved one is taken off to the Easycrem Crapitorium, at Hendon Cemetery, run with ruthless profit-making efficiency by our private contractors. Live streamed funeral? DVD? Cup of tea in the Easycrem Cafe? All part of the service, and, as Miss Angry would say: I'm not even JOKING ...

The council chamber where Margaret once sat in glory, like Gloriana herself, surrounded by fawning Tory members, still survives, along with a few dismal committee rooms, used more for a backdrop to the vanity of Tory councillors, rather than any meaningful enactment of the processes of democracy. The meetings that take place there are as devoid of significance as the fading, hand tinted photographs of former Mayors and Mayoresses that still line the corridor: no one remembers who they are, now: and no one cares. 

On the right hand side of the Town Hall stands what used to be the borough's central library: the flagship library, when Barnet's service was one of the most respected in the UK: beacon status, value for money. Over the last year, it has been closed, gutted, almost entirely stripped of its function as a public library. What remains is not worthy of the name: the rest of the building has, grudgingly, after much persuasion, and a fair amount of begging by Barnet, been taken over by Middlesex University, as has most of the Town Hall. As well as the former Church Farmhouse Museum, a beautiful listed property, just around the corner. 

(This property, of course, fitting nicely into our seasonal theme, was once the home of Dickens's friend Mark Lemon. Dickens had several associations with this part of Hendon, in fact: not as a source of inspiration for a Christmas Carol, but in ways that are far more interesting than one might expect ... More on this from Mrs Angry's alter ego, in the New Year ...).

Middlesex Uni didn't need to take on these tenancies: but Barnet needed tenants, to justify their cuts and closures. The agreements that were eventually reached in regard to the offloading of these properties, in order to save the face of the Tory council, are of course hidden behind the veil of 'commercial sensitivity'.

On Thursday last week, one of the days in which Hendon 'Library' is unstaffed and accessible only to residents with a pin number to let themselves through the automatic doors, one of Mrs Angry's extensive network of spies (oh, ok: Labour councillor Adam Langleben) observed a most bizarre phenomenon: (see his footage on twitter) ... all day long, all the lights were flashing on and off repeatedly, maniacally,  as if the place was possessed, and exhibiting a manifestation of poltergeist activity. 

It is comforting to think that might be the case: the building itself rejecting the violation of its integrity as a library - and the intrusion of strangers.

On the other side of the Town Hall, there is a curious little building: see the top of this post - a late Victorian property, St George's Lodge, which was built as part of St Joseph's Convent, home of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ order of Catholic nuns, who came to Hendon in the late nineteenth century, and still run a primary school and pastoral centre, just around the corner.

The Lodge no longer belongs to them, however, but to the council - can you guess where we might be going with this story? Yes. Stand by.

For the last few years, as it happens, this house was leased by the council to the GMB union, who in turn - ha ha - sublet it to Hendon Labour Party. 

This was, as you might imagine, a constant source of irritation, of course, to local Tories, who made sure the Labour party kept to a rule forbidding the display of party political material, right next to the Town Hall. 

The lease ran out this year, and Labour, the GMB, and a charity which used the upper floor were shown the door.

Oh: the charity which used the upper floor? This is ADDISS, the national Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service. 

This is something of personal significance to Mrs Angry, having been diagnosed, in middle age, with ADD/ADHD, as well as dyspraxia, after half a lifetime struggling to cope with difficulties of this nature. What does it mean, ADD? The best description, perhaps, seen so far, comes from comedian Rory Bremner, who was also diagnosed with this problem, rather late in life, and compares the condition to being tuned into several different radio stations, all at the same time. Welcome to the inside of Mrs Angry's head: this is how it is - eternally distracted, often unable to focus, or follow complex sequences, or instructions, or remember important things. It is a 'hidden' disability, but one that affects your life, your personality, your education, your relationships, and your self esteem, in ways that are profound, and insidious.

For adults and children alike, advice and support from charities like ADDISS is vital, and something to be encouraged by the local authority, you would think: and of course the London Borough of Barnet depends on ADDISS, as part of the voluntary sector, to deliver important support services to those affected by ADD, which is why they supply them with grant funding.

But then of course, we must remember that we are living in Broken Barnet, where, in the age of Capita, the needs of a local charity, or vulnerable local residents, come second to the pursuit of profit.

When the GMB lease ran out, ADDISS asked to take over St George's Lodge. At first, it seemed this might be possible. Barnet's privatised property services, run by Capita CSG, appeared to be sympathetic, and talked about the charity's 'social value', and ways in which the lease might be transferred to them - but then informed the charity that the council would expect a market rent. 

This seems rather unfair: but ADDISS were prepared to consider this, at least in principle, as well as pay for refurbishment. As it turned out, Capita wanted to more than double the rent being paid by the former tenants, to a whopping £36,000 per annum. 

They were then informed that 'members of the council' would visit the property to make an assessment: a 'client lead', and a 'Community Asset Mentor'. Sounds innocuous enough - but both officers were of course from Capita. 

Warm sounds were made, at this stage, however, about how much the council - via Capita - wanted to help charities in the borough flourish, and grow, with their support. 

The reality has proved to be something rather different, in this case.

Time went by, and it became apparent that although they were allowed to remain in situ while 'negotiations' were underway, obstructions were being put in the path of any more permanent and formal tenancy. 

In August, a Capita officer wrote to the charity and told them, in effect, to get out. 

St George's Lodge was being put on the open market, and while this process was under way, it now was claimed, "the Council has an urgent use for it to temporarily house other services ..." 

Urgent use? And temporarily? 

In truth, it seems they were trying to get their usual obliging tenant, Middlesex University, to take it on. Well, why not? Their accumulation of most of the rest of the Burroughs seems well nigh impossible to stop.

Strange that this sudden haste to rehouse other unnamed services was not in any way impeded by the later excuse for a need for immediate removal: that the building needed 'significant' repair work. Work that was significant, it seems, but not something that worried the council when the property was being used by the Labour party and a charity, that is.

Officers pointed out that the building did not have 'community status', so they would not, could not, help out by applying the CBAT* subsidy (*Community Benefit Assessment Tool). Even if the charity applied for grant funding to pay a commercial rent, that would take months, they said, and there was no guarantee that the council would continue such funding, and - dear me: 

"for a property that holds the financial and political value that St George's Lodge does, the insecurity of the income stream is not a risk that the council can take ..."

Financial value  is of course the only measurement of worth, in Broken Barnet - but ... political value? What does this mean, exactly? An extraordinary comment.

Where did the Barnet Capita officers suggest the charity move to? It had been hinted that - ha - they could move to one of the newly gutted libraries. 

Well, as we know: plenty of room there. 

At least three children's libraries have been emptied, and a huge amount of space removed from every library in the borough, supposedly on the pretext of making office accommodation, that would generate £500,000 a year in income. 

But how strange ... ADDISS were told as recently as the 20th December by a Barnet Capita officer that:

 "... unfortunately we do not currently have any available space within our libraries ..." 


They came up with an alternative idea: hot desking. Yes: for a charity.

No available space in libraries? ... Despite all the millions spent on reconstructing the buildings in order to create areas for renting out? As far as we can see so far, there are no new tenants in these newly assaulted buildings, other than Hendon. A very odd state of affairs. And what about the risk of 'insecurity of the income stream' in this respect? Half a million a year lost is hardly insignificant.

It seems highly likely, in fact, that, as we were informed by a whistleblower a couple of years ago, Barnet Capita staff will be placed in these spaces. 

This raises many questions. 

Was the pretext of making office space a deliberate attempt to persuade councillors to approve the library cuts, as addressing the apparent problem of budget restraints?

Does Capita gain in any way from placing staff in libraries? (Mrs Angry has already tried to ask this question at a committee meeting, to little avail).

What does it mean for the future of our already mortally wounded library service, to lose £500,000 of revenue?

Why should space that could be used by the community, or by charities offering support services to our community, be handed over to Capita to save money on accommodation costs - and possibly earn themselves a nice little bonus in the form of a gainshare payment in the process?

What does it say about Capita's stranglehold on our council, our borough, that locally based charities, providing such a vital service, are treated in this shabby way?

And it is shabby: particularly so in the way ADDISS have been told, at the end of December, to clear out of St George's Lodge, in a matter of days. Yes: days. 

The charity pointed out that they - and the council - have a duty of care to the vulnerable residents that they support; that they need time to make arrangements, not just practical ones in terms of removal, but to safeguard the best interests of their clients; they run a helpline that must be in place, for those who need it, for example. This was to no avail, until, after a certain amount of protest, eviction was delayed. But only to the end of January. 

And yes, appeals had been made to Tory councillors over the last few months, including the Tory leader, Richard Cornelius. A local Tory member who was written to is reported to have made no response, although a strange question then appeared at a full council meeting, asking not about the future of the charity, but rather how many properties the council owned in the Burroughs. 

Across the road from the Town Hall, and St George's Lodge, there is a building site: an empty lot, surrounded by wooden fencing, next to a listed row of mid eighteenth century houses. Because of these and other listed buildings, the Burroughs is a conservation area. This did not prevent the White Bear, an historic building which stood on this site, the last in a succession of important taverns of that name at this location since 1736, and which bore a blue plaque noting its significance as the meeting place of the local court leet, from being mercilessly demolished, without permission, a year ago, despite residents' pleas to local planning and enforcement officers, even as the bulldozers were in action.

St George's Lodge is locally listed: but that will not save it. Local listing does not protect properties from demolition, or development. And in the age of Capita, nowhere is safe. Local listing offers only the protection loosely defined by 'planning policy'. 

Planning and enforcement, two services run by Capita Re, sanctioned by Tory councillors, failed the White Bear. A prime site in this location, immediate to the Town Hall, is clearly just as much at risk. And if no new tenants are found for the property, the chances are it will be put up for sale. It is entirely possible that developers are already expressing interest in the site. 

If put up for sale: expect the worst. This is Broken Barnet, where the worst scenario is always the first and last option: the only option.

But what does this sorry tale tell you about the way this borough is run, and the sort of administration which is responsible? 

Right in the heart of what used to be the council's own seat of administration, this is the story of a Conservative council which has abandoned its civic responsibilities, and handed over control of all the services on which we depend to a profiteering company whose priority has never been, and never will be, the well being of those who live here, in their latest and most obliging client state. 

And it is the story of a political ideology, rooted in the age of Thatcherism, whose acolytes see nothing of merit in public service, or the public sector, or the idea of community. 

So Mrs Angry's New Year message to you, dear reader, is this: a suggestion. 

Take a walk along the Burroughs, over the next few days, and take a good look. 

Look at the Town Hall, which isn't a Town Hall. 

Look at the library, which is no longer a library. 

Then take a moment to reflect on the story in this post.

If you don't like the idea of charities being treated like this, or the property next door to you being knocked down for development with no warning, or your park being sold off to developers, or your roads going ungritted in a snowstorm, or your local museum being shut and ransacked and its contents being put for up sale, or your libraries being shut, cut, and torn to pieces, then please: think carefully in May, when your Tory councillors expect you to vote again for them, and ask for four more years of the same. 

They are so arrogant, they think you will vote for them again, simply due to their own sense of entitlement. 

They are so foolish, they think you won't notice what a hash they and their contractors have made of things, since your council services were privatised. 

They hope you won't have read the conclusions of their own external auditors, that they are running out of money - your money - and have yet to produce the scale of savings they pretend they can deliver. 

It is in your hands, however, friends, to disabuse them of their sense of complacency, and their assumption of a divine right to rule. 

The Labour group in Barnet also have their part to play, and changes to make, if they ask to be trusted with the management of the council's role : time to step up, and use their role as opposition to greater effect, following the direction of the newly energised party, represented by a more radical agenda of policies - and leader. Carrying on as before is not an option: there is an appetite for change, but one that needs to see locally, as it has nationally, a re-assertion of fundamental Labour principles, expressed in more robust language - and action.

In the new year, in May, residents will have the chance to change the fortunes of this borough, and begin the task of reclaiming ownership of our local democratic process. 

That responsibility lies with all of us - and the work towards that change begins now.

Happy New Year to you all.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Frozen: A winter's tale, from Broken Barnet

                                                                                                                        Pic credit Angela Barrett

Updated 15th December: see below:

When Mrs Angry was in her infancy, and when there were libraries, still, in the London Borough of Broken Barnet, and when those libraries had children's libraries ... well then: Edgware's children's library had a whole wall of shelves stuffed full of books on mythology, classic tales, and folktales. 

Not just picture books, paper backs, or easy reading: heavy volumes, with long stories, and difficult words - and fabulous illustrations. This was the infant Mrs Angry's favourite section, and she would borrow these books over and over again. 

A particular favourite was one with stories by Hans Christian Andersen: although often grotesque, and frightening, in some cases, beguiling, and instructive: priming a child's imagination, and leading you through an unravelling sequence of useful narrative themes, and archetypal characters, that, in retrospect, gave as close an insight into human nature as anything else could. Perhaps better than anything else would.

The Snow Queen, for example: this tale exerted a huge fascination. Not just the horror of a landscape turned into boiled spinach, the evil protagonist of Mrs Angry's Sunday lunch nightmare, being made to sit at the table, by her mother, for hours, because she couldn't eat the vile stuff - or even the inadmissable similarity between the Snow Queen, and said spinach tormenting, emotionally distant mother ... but so much more. Disturbing, but compelling, this fable - especially the idea that people could lose their human feelings, and emotions: the sliver of glass, and the ice, in their hearts, and in their eyes.

As you grow up, you recognise these people. They cause you the most grief, in your life: cause the most trouble, and simply don't care. Their hearts are frozen, and nothing will change that. And as you get older, you recognise the same lack of humanity is increasingly apparent in the society that has formed around you, shaped by these people. 

Conservatism, as a set of political values, necessarily appeals to those who lack empathy, and compassion, for those less fortunate than themselves. We have seen it in the punitive policies and social injustice perpetrated by successive governments run by the 'Nasty Party', and we see it still in Broken Barnet, in the cradle of Thatcherism, the frozen landscape of the ultimate Snow Queen -  now with a Tory council administration that is rank with self interest, complacency, and utter indifference to those in need. 

In this rotten borough we see not so much a landscape of boiled spinach, so much as a yawning chasm - an ever increasing space between those who have, and those who have not,  worn away by years of relentless ideologically driven opposition to the very nature of public service, equality - or accountability.

Our cold hearted elected representatives, in Westminster, and in the local council chamber, have become so disconnected from the reality of our lives that they have inevitably, and fatally, miscalculated the extent of their own mortality. And now they are on the verge of losing their grip on power, directly as a result of their own hubris.

As well as pursuing an agenda of socially illiberal policies, and hollowing out the council's functions to a skeleton service, Barnet's Tory run administration has prioritised their commitment to encouraging mass development of areas of the borough, under the guise of 'regeneration'. In fact the development that is happening all around us does not address the housing needs of local residents, but is simply a proliferation of non affordable properties. 

There is no corner of Barnet which is safe from this speculative activity - and that includes land owned and used by the authority. Hence the hurried sale, some while ago ... of the council depot at Mill Hill.

So keen were our Tory councillors, and their senior officers, to see a fast buck from this sale, that they somehow forgot to consider where they would put the services that used the site as their base. 

It soon became clear that there was no alternative location within the borough: in panic, a purchase of the Abbots site in Oakleigh Road South was made for waste services - a curious story in which the authority paid a huge amount, despite the site having been bought for a fraction of the cost only a short time beforehand, by the authority's own landlords. Read this, for more on that mystifying tale.

There was no room in the borough, however, for the gritting lorries and supplies that had been based in Mill Hill - so they eventually ended up ... in another borough. In Harrow.

Yes. I know what you are thinking. Isn't that rather foolish? Did they consider the impact on the ability to respond to a major incident involving snow and icy conditions in Barnet? 

Well, no need to worry about that sort of thing: 'winter planning', of course, is now safely in the hands of Capita. 


This weekend's downfall of snow was clearly predicted, and of course Mrs Angry, like most sensible people, made sure suitable preparations were made on Saturday, before nightfall. 

Patching up the distintegrating lagging round the boiler pipes with old socks. Ordering more logs for the fire. Topping up the bird feeder. Stocktaking of essential emergency supplies: milk, bread, alcohol, chocolate. Noticed there seemed to be no gritting of the road, which was odd, especially as the council's twitter feed had been boasting about doing this the day before, when it wasn't necessary, and - come to think of it, there didn't seem to have been any other gritting this year, unlike in the past, when it seemed to take place every night in winter. 

Waking up about five in the morning, as is Mrs Angry's wont, lying there pointlessly worrying about everything from Donald Trump, Brexit, the heating, the crack in the ceiling, the spider in the bathroom, and the grim prospect of life in 2018, when she realised there was an eerie silence outside: a sure sign of ... yes, looking out of the window now - snow. Falling and now settling on parked cars, and roofs. Went back to bed: getting up a couple of hours later to find the snow was falling even heavier - and the road was already very dangerous - one car struggling painfully slowly to get up the slope and inch its way along Squires Lane. Quite clearly the road had not been gritted: for this section of the road, that was an absolute disaster.

Mrs Angry's son had to go to work in central London. No buses could get along the road - all day. Worse still, the Northern Line was not in service, on either the Barnet or Edgware side. He walked until he was able to see a bus still in service, going along the Finchley Road, and took the tube from West Hampstead. Ballards Lane, he noted, had not been gritted: but crossing over at Henley's Corner, it was evident TFL had been at work in the same conditions, as the North Circular was clear. On his return in the evening, when the Northern Line was back, not only had the treacherous slope to the station not been gritted, nor still had any of Ballards Lane. In short, the transport system in Barnet had completely broken down, and even heavily used public areas in Finchley had been left in a perilous state for any pedestrians.

From reports on twitter and facebook, it was evident that there were chaotic conditions all over the borough and virtually no sign of gritting, anywhere.

Mrs Angry tried tweeting at the few Tory councillors who are on twitter. The leader Richard Cornelius never replies, and his deputy Dan Thomas remained silent. Councillor Zinkin, who is always keen to deny and defend any failing by the authority, even in the face of blatant evidence to the contrary, had this to say, in response: 

Except ... as Mrs Angry pointed out, she was awake then, and saw only snow, not rain - and no grit, no residue of grit. And gritters were conspicuous by their absence here all day - Squires Lane, which is a bus route, left in a very dangerous state, and no buses able to run. Throughout the day some residents braved terrible conditions waiting at nearby stops for buses which would never come. By 11.30, the snow was worse, not turned to sleet. Silence then from Cllr Zinkin.

High ground? Again, from every hill in the borough came reports of stranded vehicles, one or two buses, but worst of all, an ambulance in Barnet. Where were the gritters?

The only sighting of a gritting lorry, readers, was, according to one eye witness ... in Meadway, in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Yes, an minor residential road in the most affluent part of Barnet, populated by billionaires, the safest (last remaining) Tory seat, and important only in the sense that this is where local Tories receive their most generous supply of funding.

In the aftermath of a day of absolute shambles, comparable only to the omnishambles of the Mayoral election day in 2016, which saw the departure of Barnet's former Chief Executive, we learned a little more about what had gone on, or rather not gone on, behind the scenes.

The Tory leader went on radio to broadcast a lot of bilge about battling from 2 am to deal with the snow crisis: contradicting his own senior officer, Jamie Blake, who around eight o'clock in the evening of Sunday had informed councillors, with an extraordinary degree of complacency, in the circumstances, that all was under control:

Dear Councillors,

I am writing to provide you with an update ‎of our activity in response to the snow conditions that we have experienced today.

A decision was made to deploy our gritters at 4am this morning. All ten of our priority one routes were then treated. At 9am a further decision was made to deploy again with a heavy treatment to counter the snow fall. This deployment was sustained throughout the day on a continuous basis with all ten priority one routes receiving three treatments. We have also responded to police requests for treatment in specific locations. In all we have placed circa 200 tonnes of grit salt on the borough’s network today.

We prioritise key routes within the Barnet network for our gritting activities into priority one and priority two routes. Our aim is to treat the ten priority one routes, which largely consist of our main roads, entrances to hospitals, schools and town centre locations, before moving onto priority two areas. While working within these priorities every effort is made to respond to individual requests for assistance from our residents and commuters.

Mr Blake is the Commissioning Director for Environment, and therefore responsible for ensuring the privatised services under his remit are satisfactorily delivered. Mr Blake, you may recall from previous appearances in this blog, such as the matter of the bus passes for disabled residents, which were apparently unlawfully terminated by Capita, sometimes with no warning, and in some cases leaving highly vulnerable users stranded and in distress with no means of travelling home. He accepted responsibility for the decision to pursue this new policy, but continued in his post. This is from his Linkedin profile:

Still seamlessly blending innovation from an inherent understanding of the environment landscape, but not when it has been turned into boiled spinach, and therefore possibly having problems relating intelligently to the related delivery units, what with all the snow and stuff.

Among the other people copied into this message was another senior officer, a man who rejoices in the name of Mr Dean Kronk, and who is the Service Director for Highways, at Re - the private company and (We Have Decided On A) Joint Venture run by Capita with Barnet, and responsible for a wide range of critical functions, including planning and enforcement - one area much criticised for failing to deliver a competent standard of performance. 

So according to Mr Blake, the decision to grit Barnet's roads was only made at 4 am, the time Cllr Zinkin claimed the lorries were already out and delivering the stuff, before it became magically 'washed away' by an alleged downfall of rain.

And Priority One routes were gritted, twice on Sunday, were they? No sign of that in my road, which is in that category. Barnet Hill? Ballards Lane? When?


*Updated 15th December:

Fellow blogger Mr Reasonable has pointed out that the failure to prepare for and address the scale of the snow on Sunday would seem to be a clear breach of contractual obligation by Capita Re, see here:

And here:

It is quite clear that the decision to grit should have been taken as soon as the weather alerts were issued, and not at 4 am on Sunday morning, when it was too late. It is also evident that further action taken on Sunday was simply inadequate. 

Now read a statement put out yesterday by Barnet Unison's  branch secretary, John Burgess. This also explains succinctly exactly where the blame lies: 

First things first, the Gritting service is provided directly by Barnet Council.

It has not been outsourced.

However there have been changes to the Gritting service since Re (Capita) were given a contract that included the Highways Services.

If you go to Barnet Council Winter maintenance web page you will see the contact details for Re, view here https://www.barnet.gov.uk/citizen-home/parking-roads-and-pavements/Roads-and-Pavements/Winter-Maintenance.html

The implications of trying to run services with multiple partners, each of whom will have their own agendas, was probably not discussed thoroughly by those councillors who rubber stamped the outsourcing of key environmental services to Capita.

I know it wasn’t discussed because I attended every single council committee meeting for years, desperate to see some semblance of scrutiny. What I witnessed, was no scrutiny of claims in favour of outsourcing made by senior council officers, long since gone from the Council.

No accountability.

Back to the Gritting service.

The Gritting service prior to privatisation made their own decision as to when they went out to grit roads, now they have to be instructed by Re (Capita).

It is really important to note that fact.

What happened on Sunday 10 December 2017?

I am writing this post in defence of our members who carry out this service.

There has been a great deal of anger from Barnet residents about the lack of gritting that led to the chaos on the streets of Barnet.

I just want to make it clear if my members in the Gritting service had been asked to go out, they would have gone out.

The question that must be asked is why were they were not asked.

I have asked and I am still waiting…….

Harrow depot

Many residents are blissfully unaware that Barnet Council sold Mill Hill depot (in the exact centre of the borough) without securing a suitable location for a new depot. This has resulted in services being scatted over a number of sites. In the case of the Gritting service, it was moved to Harrow. This means they have to drive from Harrow and drive into Barnet to begin the routes, then drive back to Harrow to pick up more grit.

The workforce can’t believe councillors could make such a decision and neither can Barnet UNISON.

All the ingredients, then, of a perfect (snow) storm. 

Flogging off the family silver, as usual, and handing a council depot over to developers. Failing to find any location within the borough for the gritters. Deciding to move the gritters to Harrow. Outsourcing the decision making process that oversees the organisation of gritting to Capita Re.

(Mrs Angry's spies inform her that, most amusingly, the very expensive council depot in Oakleigh Road South, had to be gritted last week by ... FM Conway. Yes, a private contractor used, at our expense, to grit the council's own depots because the council's own gritters are too far away, in Harrow).

Apart from the failure to prepare for Sunday's weather, what is puzzling is why, once the level of challenge on the day itself was evident, there was such an inadequate response. 

Hats off now to fellow blogger Mr Mustard, who has written about the weekend's chaos here and here - and who spotted this interesting item in a council meeting in September:

You may ask, but is Barnet actually meeting its statutory requirements, then? It would appear that relying on Capita's handling of the 'winter plan' has meant it has not.

Consider the extent of accountability under the Railways and Transport Act 2003 - s41(1A) Highways Act 1980  ... "In particular, a highway authority are under a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice".

If you had a fall or accident, this week, or any other serious consequence, as a result of the council's failure to take what you consider to be 'reasonably practicably' means to provide you with a safe passage along a highway - which may or may not include pavements - then Mrs Angry suggests you quote this at them, when you make a claim.

There are many questions that must be answered: the definition of what is a Priority road. Is Essex Park, for example, where a certain disgraced former Tory councillor used to live, still worthy of that categorisation? Or Meadway, a relatively unimportant road in Hampstead Garden Suburb, which was apparently prioritised for gritting while so many major routes, like Barnet Hill, were reportedly left in such a dangerous condition, and if so, why?

Who decided which roads were gritted, and in what order, and when?

Why were so many major roads, bus routes, and areas of heavy pedestrian use or around transport hubs, left ungritted all day?

Why was there no emergency response, when not only had there been a heavy fall of snow, but a major failure in the local transport system?

Why did so many schools have to close the next day, and why were so many parents reporting dangerous conditions around the roads and pavements in these locations?

Did the Tory leader and Chief Executive not take an active part in overseeing the response on Sunday? 

If they did, why was it so ineffectual? 

Is it because they are unable to hold their contractors at Capita Re to account, or to direct their delivery of the service, now that they have delegated control to them? Or are they simply not interested?

And here we return to where we started, in our winter's tale. 

In truth, our Tory councillors, shot through, as they are, with the sliver of glass in their icy hearts, are hardened to the plight of those residents whose needs might depend on the provision of public services. They are on record as saying they do not want residents who are dependent on those services.

They fall over themselves to respond to the slightest whinge of those who live in the most affluent areas of the borough, in the Suburb, and Totteridge - and ignore the everyday needs of ordinary residents who might depend on public transport on a day like Sunday, to get to work, or a safe path to get to a supermarket, or to visit a sick relative. Well, if you have a 4x4,  four wheel drive, you're ok, aren't you? And those most affected aren't likely to be Tory voters, are they? 

Well, unfortunately, this is yet another gross miscalculation: like libraries, planning & enforcement, the failure to recognise the impact of such a level of incompetence by their outsourced contractors on their own, previously loyal voters is going to add to the weight of disaffection now placing their electoral future in jeopardy. 

Their inability to empathise, to engage with their own residents and their needs is their fatal flaw: and as with all such regimes, or individuals, in the end, the lack of emotional intelligence that marks their nature will be their downfall: the kiss of the Snow Queen, in the end, will destroy them.