Monday, 16 January 2017

Wrecking Ball, or - Mrs Angry's Basement Tapes: building enforcement in the age of 'Re' - the Barnet Tory-Crapita Joint Venture

Looking from a neighbouring house to the Vivian Avenue basement excavation, where the land has collapsed, after basement excavations - and the demolition of a property with planning approval only: but why was work continuing?

In December, I wrote a post about what is fast becoming a very serious issue, here in Broken Barnet: the lack of enforcement of breaches in planning approval. Focusing on two recent and apparently unauthorised demolitions in Hendon, a house in Vivian Avenue, and the former White Bear pub in the Burroughs, it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong in the scrutiny and management of such developments.

Work on the White Bear was ceased after a Stop Notice was issued by Barnet Council - after public outcry and protests by residents, but also when it was too late, and the whole building was already a pile bricks and mud. That this historic building, part of a conservation area, is lost forever is an absolute scandal, and we can only wonder what sort of eyesore might replace it. Why did officers allow plans that councillors on the planning committee had originally rejected to be modified, and move so close to full demolition that - oh dear, as the work commenced, the remaining part 'fell down'? 

Who will be held accountable? 

No one.

The other property demolished was a house in a nice residential road, being developed by the same family who have tried to demolish the Lodge in Victoria Park, and replace it with a block of flats. Only a concerted campaign by residents has prevented this from being approved - so far.

The house in Vivian Avenue was left with the remains of one wall, alleged by some to be used as argument that the property had not been demolished. But that wall has now gone too - so what is the council doing about it? 

Work continues on the site, and - oh, a new application was received last week, published on the council's planning website, for a demolition and a new build. Which is already happening.

Yes, after the developers had already knocked the property down, in defiance of the limited approval for extensions and a basement in regard to the house that had been there. Is there any action to hold them to account for what they are doing? 

We don't know, because there has been no contact from any officer with the neighbouring household since the 18th November. Extraordinary, isn't it?

*Update: just heard that someone from building control came today, 16th January -  at last - but the council and Chief Executive were informed on the 13th, so it is lucky no further subsidence or collapse has taken place over the weekend: and where have they been in the weeks previous since the demolition?

But there is worse.

On Friday morning the owners of a neighbouring property discovered that, to their great shock, there had been a collapse of land overnight on the boundary of their property, with the fence and fence posts disappearing onto the basement excavation, exposing the ground under the patio steps - and destroying the lawn they had laid only last summer. 

More worrying still now is the very real possibility that their house may now be at risk of structural damage, or - even worse - collapse. 

Looking towards the houses, with the depth of excavation and collected rain water clearly visible

This is not an unreasonable fear: not so long ago, due to reckless excavations by builders for a basement made under a house in Finchley,  cracks in the property suddenly appeared, and then it began to collapse, with very little warning - residents and neighbours managed to escape from the affected buildings without harm, but only by good fortune. The property had to be demolished. The collapse happened, as in the case of Vivian Avenue, after a sustained period of rain. 

(One of the neighbouring houses affected, incidentally, as you can just about make out in some photos still has the name painted above the door, from the 1930s, of Tants, the Finchley builders, once owned by my uncle Jack - who would no doubt have been aghast at the sight of such botched work).

As this article on the Finchley story ( a report written by a surveyor) makes clear, the consequences of excavating basement developments, should things go wrong, can be 'catastrophic' - even fatal - and as the writer observes - 'They can also be ruinously expensive'. The company involved in this case went into liquidation, and the residents affected have lost everything.

Collapsing house in Finchley      Pic credit: Times group

At the weekend local Labour councillors contacted the Chief Executive to demand answers as to what - if anything - the Capita run planning and enforcement team was doing about the Vivian Avenue site. Interesting that the White Bear, in a Tory ward, surrounded by a group of middle class residents united in fury, had a Stop Notice slapped on it, whereas the other demolition appears to have been overlooked, and work - potentially putting neighbouring property at risk - has been allowed to continue. Why?

Data regarding the number of cases of breaches dealt with by enforcement officers working for Capita-Barnet was recently released in response to an enquiry by a Tory councillor, revealing the astonishing fact that nearly 80% of cases end in 'no further action'. Yet a recent Freedom of Information request to Labour run Ealing council, which is a fair comparison to Barnet, suggests that their rate is closer to 50%. 

Mrs Angry is awaiting more data from other authorities, but if this is typical, one might begin to ask why 'Re', Barnet's joint venture with Capita, is performing so badly. Is it a failure to allocate adequate resources to planning and building control? Is it incompetence? Or is it a deliberate policy of laissez faire, in order to cut the 'red tape' - safeguards - that Barnet Tories - many of them landlords - feel restricts the poor developers, trying to screw enough profit out of their demolition of the build heritage of Broken Barnet?

Whatever the truth, it won't make any difference to the Tory councillors, (unless someone knocks down the house next door to them), just about to assess the Re contract, because nothing would make them admit that the contract they so eagerly approved was a waste of time and money: but one may live in hope that the Labour opposition might hold Capita to account for its poor performance.

Yes: Mrs Angry, eternal optimist.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Dan Hope: the Barnet Bugle - a tribute

I can't remember, now, when I first met the Barnet Bugle: probably at a council meeting, maybe six years or so ago. 

I found him, at first, an infuriating figure - a Tory blogger, determined to wind up the new wave of lefty, trouble making rivals - an irascible, pugnacious, deliberately provocative character, who argued even more than I do. Impossible man. I could not understand why anyone would want to have anything to do with him. 

Within a short while, of course, we were the best of friends, and co-conspirators, in secret, while maintaining the usual hostilities, in public, for the sake of appearances. And in order for him to hide the fact that underneath his bluff exterior, he was in fact a sensitive, and even shy man: something of a maverick, always on the edge, looking in.

And when I had heard he had died this week, I was devastated, and wept like a child. 

Who would have thought it, Dan Hope?

I couldn't attend his funeral yesterday, unfortunately, having spent the past few weeks immobilised by a serious back problem. Instead I watched the snow falling, in my garden, and thought guiltily about his mourners, standing in the bleak weather in the cemetery to pay their last respects. 

So now here, instead, is my tribute to him.

The Barnet Bugle and the Barnet Eye

When I started writing about Broken Barnet, the Bugle was already a fixture of that new phenomenon: the emerging blogosphere - a collection of disaffected residents, citizen journalists, and armchair auditors, created by the self perpetuating forces of inertia that protect the vacuum of political life in this borough. The new bloggers, in other words, represented a movement forged in despair at the policies of a rabid Conservative administration, stuffed full of empty headed neo-Thatcherites, the lack of effectual opposition by the Labour group, and an absence of any real scrutiny by the local press.

Dan Hope was, unlike most of the Barnet bloggers, a Tory: of sorts, and not the sort running Barnet Council. 

He had been a councillor: a Conservative member, edged out by internal politics in the Chipping constituency, and the wider group - then ruthlessly removed; treated shabbily by his former colleagues, an experience that left him with little sympathy for the administration then dominated by current MP Mike Freer and his chum Brian Coleman. 

Before the 'Barnet Bugle' had been invented, Dan was a partner in the first Barnet blog, 'Statler and Waldorf', as explained here by his friend and fellow pioneer blogger 'Don't Call Me Dave', David Miller, son of the late Tory peer Doreen Miller - and formerly Chair of Chipping Barnet Conservatives. 

The reason that both these Conservative bloggers were driven to write about the actions of their former colleagues is better understood after reading DCMD's tribute to the Bugle, written this week:

Daniel was a passionate believer in open and transparent government, local and national: a principled stand that made him many enemies within the higher echelons of Barnet Council, where the culture of secrecy and obfuscation is ingrained into every fibre of its being. Indeed, the way that he was treated by some of his so called Council colleagues was nothing short of a disgrace, effectively forcing him out of the Council and the Conservative Party; not that this ever stopped him campaigning for a Conservative government and the pursuit of proper Conservative policies.

When DCMD started his own Blog, Daniel provided much needed technical support with the preparation of pictures and videos. In recent years, Daniel tirelessly attended council meetings to record them for the Barnet Bugle. He asked the questions which Councillors were often too lazy or scared to ask for themselves.

Daniel’s legacy will be that he stood up for what he believed in, and would not be bullied into silence or submission, as were so many councillors seeking to climb the greasy pole of higher allowances. 

They say that vengeance is a dish best served cold: and Dan Hope delivered his own revenge, over the years, by coolly, calmly and methodically holding up the mirror to the antics of his former colleagues, and showing it to the wider world.

He dedicated the next few years to holding to account the successive Tory administrations who have had their sweaty grip on this borough. Or did, until their fingers were prised from the controls, by Crapita.

And he did so by pioneering a new form of scrutiny: by filming council meetings, and posting the footage on his blog: something that seems routine now, but was a courageous activity at the time, met with ill tempered reaction from the Tory councillors and their officers. In Wales one local blogger was arrested merely for daring to film part of a council meeting on her phone, and no doubt some of the Tory members in Barnet would happily have seen the same consequences fall on the head of Mr Hope, and all the rest of the bloggers sitting in the public gallery. 

Unfortunately for the Barnet Tory junta, and all similar councils throughout the UK, in fear of the new emphasis on transparency, the new role of citizen journalism was one approved of and encouraged by then Secretary of State for local government, Eric Pickles,  a politician much admired by Dan Hope.  Pickles compelled local authorities to become more accountable to their residents and tax payers and sanctioned - no, actively encouraged - the use of filming, tweeting, and allied activities. 

Tory Barnet, the self styled 'easycouncil' model of outsourcing, and flagship of hardline Tory policies suddenly found itself at the centre of a perfect storm of media attention: social media, and then national, mainstream press, fascinated by the reports by bloggers of an emerging resistance by local residents and campaigners to the devastating double whammy impact of swingeing cuts, and mass privatisation.

Dan Hope filming at the occupation of Friern Barnet library

The beginning of this new era kicked off with the 'MetPro' scandal: it turned out that the jackbooted thugs used by the Tory councillors to provide security at the Town Hall, and elsewhere, including, according to the company's claims, work with vulnerable children, were an illegally operating, unlicensed operation, hired in circumstances that were never fully explained - and paid in the absence of any contract or monitoring of their activities. They had tried - physically, and in defiance of police instructions on the night - to bar bloggers and residents from the council's budget meeting, stop them filming, and indeed were later proved to have been covertly filming bloggers, including me. 

We then revealed the wider story: that the authority had thousands of similar cosy arrangements with private contractors - without contracts in place.

Pickles was furious, and made a speech castigating the Tory run council - and praising the Barnet bloggers. 

From that moment the tables were turned: and filming and reporting the minutiae of every important meeting or event has become a matter of routine. 

It is difficult to explain the significance of this: the filming so lovingly and attentively maintained by Dan Hope not only preserved a record of the meetings themselves, and opened up the process of 'democracy' to the people of Barnet, it provided evidence for legal challenges, and has had a direct and lasting impact on the political landscape - no longer could members evade responsibility for the things they said, and did: it was all a matter of public record.

From an initial position of mutual mistrust, based on our political allegiances, the Bugle and Mrs Angry found common ground in many areas, and forged an unlikely alliance, behind the scenes - and we had a lot of fun, in secret, exchanging information, and plotting tactics to undermine the best laid plans of the knaves and fools in charge of our borough council.

It is true to say he was very good at winding people up, and even upsetting them, often just for the hell of it, very naughty - argumentative and provocative on twitter to the extent even I ended up blocking or muting him, most of the time, (although still reading his tweets in secret) as I couldn't bear the endless rows he created, out of sheer mischief. But he genuinely enjoyed debate, and his intelligence, and low threshold of boredom, demanded the stimulation that such interaction supplied, even if it ended in disagreement. Especially if it ended in disagreement: much more fun.

Dan Hope was a loyal friend to those few Tory councillors who stood by him: he was appalled by the treatment of Kate Salinger, in 2010, vilified and publicly humiliated by her so called friends in the Conservative group, simply for following her conscience and refusing to vote with the rest of the craven Tories for a whopping hike in their own allowances, at the same time the party was lecturing residents about austerity and the need for devastating cuts in local public services: a move that Dan had spotted, late one night, being sneaked onto the agenda at the last minute.

Dan was an absolute stickler for protocol, and the constitution: doing things the right way. If he spotted something was wrong - it was wrong. He knew. He would sit there, in the gallery, behind his camera, sighing loudly, and shaking his head, muttering.

As well as the news of his death being covered by the local Times and Press, and Evening Standard, many tributes on social media have been paid to him: tributes from those of a range of political allegiances and backgrounds: 

Here are just a few of those: 

Sarah Sackman, former Labour candidate, Finchley & Golders Green:

A Labour councillor in Camden:

From Jeremy Newmark, Chair of Jewish Labour:

From Marcus Dysch, political editor of the JC:

A mensch. He would have liked that: and he was.

Many of the comments made by friends in the Tory party stress his loyalty to Conservative values - and indeed he was a Tory, but his values, and his sort of Conservatism, were not those of the majority of members sitting on the benches of the Town Hall in Hendon. He had liberal views, clear sight, and a vision that was rather more progressive and intelligent than that of any of his former colleagues, and unlike them, was prepared to fight for what he believed in, rather than keep his heads down, go along with the blundering administration which they support, while keeping their allowances, and taking turns at dressing up as Mayor, which is all most of them really care about.

His choice of words for his twitter profile said it all, really:

Provoking thought. Challenging nonsense. Shaking things up. Stimulating debate. Right of centre hue.

Right of centre hue: but the word Conservative missing, you will note. He was too independently minded to find an easy definition of his political views, or perhaps a fixed place within any definition. 

The truth was Dan often preferred the company of the lefty leaning bloggers he loved to annoy, and local activists, to the members of his own party - and often accompanied us to the pub and other social events: and even to the Labour Conference, where he always had a wonderful time. After one leader's speech, readers, he even broke the habit of a lifetime, and bought Mrs Angry a drink. And possibly a bag of crisps. An official photograph was taken, to record the occasion: 

Hang on: just remembered at another hotel, at another conference, he bought me a glass of champagne, in tribute to what he alleged was my preferred form of socialism. 

Cheers, Dan

On one memorable night at a Manchester conference, he insisted on dragging me to a Hacked Off meeting (deeply tedious, but with a generous amount lot of free wine, which he made good use of) and then we met up again at the Labour Friends of Israel, where, after a catastrophic amount of even more alcohol, and no food, we ended up disgracefully drunk, and spending the early hours chatting to Jon Snow, sitting on the floor outside the gents in the Midland Hotel, engaged in an apparently fascinating conversation, the details of which neither of us could remember the next day. Or since.

Mrs Angry awoke, the next day, in fact, with a terrible headache, wincing at the early light of dawn, and tweeted: 

Someone please turn the sun off. 

The Bugle tweeted back: 

The sun: Someone please turn Mrs Angry off.

Bugle also went off to one of the Tory conferences, and bumped into his idol, Eric Pickles. He introduced himself, and took it upon himself to pass on Mrs Angry's good wishes, claiming Uncle Eric flushed becomingly, and beamed with delight. Naturally. But Dan really admired Pickles's attempt to work against the instincts of his own party in local government, and force them to be accountable to their communities. And the Bugle was part of that process, right from the beginning.

Dan was always present, at every political event, here in Barnet: meetings, protests, conferences, late night election results - there he would be, with his camera, determinedly capturing the scene for posterity. 

And now posterity has captured the Barnet Bugle - and things will never be the same.

We will all miss you, Dan. 

Rest in Peace, friend.

Friday, 16 December 2016

No More Order and Decorum, at the White and Funny Bear - or: another demolition in Broken Barnet

There has been an inn called the White Bear on this site since 1736: here it is in 2016, courtesy of your Tory councillors, a local developer, and Crapita. 

Then a soldier fond of battle,
Who has fought and bled in Spain,
Finds in Hendon air his metal,
Well stirred up to fight again.
Then a justice of the Quorum
At Burroughs revels, Hendon Fair,
Finds such order and decorum

At the White and Funny Bear

Popular Song, circa 1810

The last post, about the demolition of a house in Vivian Avenue, Hendon, and the scandalous state of building enforcement in this borough, must be followed by another story that yet again demonstrates the new freedom of the borough, courtesy of your Tory councillors, and their contractors Capita, that has been granted to the developers of Broken Barnet. 

Despite the demolition of the Vivian Avenue house taking place a month ago now, we understand that neighbours have heard absolutely nothing from the council in regard to any action taken against those who knocked it down, rather than extend it - and indeed the builders have continued to work on the site, building what are reportedly the foundations for a new structure.

In the previous post, I referred to the case of the White Bear, also in Hendon, which was being demolished, apparently with new approval, despite earlier refusal by councillors. Three years ago it had seemed that the campaign to prevent the destruction and development of this much loved local landmark had been successful. Somehow, in the meanwhile, without any publicity, the would be developer,  acting through his company 'Platinum Riverside Ltd', had continued with his plans, and had eventually received permission to build flats on the site. 

Once work began, however, local residents became very upset, because it seemed the whole property was being destroyed, and they had believed that approval only for partial demolition had been granted. 

Some of them had tried to block the work, called the council's enforcement officers - but in vain. No effective intervention was made. The building was mercilessly demolished, regardless, or perhaps because of, any immediate questions raised about its approval status. What did Barnet Council do to stop them? What do you think?

This is an extract from the council's own report on the Burrough's conservation area: also an 'Area of Archaeological Significance' - a report published in 2012, which was of course the year before the Capita contracts were signed, and planning services were privatised:

It is believed that there has been an inn at the site of The White Bear Public House since Tudor times, with the name the “White Bear” in use since at least 1736. It is here that the Lord of the Manor held his court until at least 1916. Between 1690 and 1890 a fair was held during Pentecost near the site of the present pub, and the local hay farmers from around the area would come to hire mowers and haymakers for the summer harvest. The fair was also renowned for dancing and county sports, attracting many visitors. The existing pub was rebuilt in 1932. 

The rebuilding of the public house in 1932 was in a 'Tudorbethan' style in keeping with the majority of other housing in the Burroughs, which has - until now - retained its unique character, thanks to those who understood the importance of the preservation of conservation areas, and built heritage. Those people have gone - one heritage officer pushed out a few years ago, for daring to do his job by protecting sensitive historical properties from development - a job deleted in a 'restructure'. And now here we are in the grip of a Capita run council which sees buildings only as measured in terms of income generation for contractual fee purposes, given free reign by a Conservative administration which is culture averse, and has no interest in history, or heritage - or in providing any effectual scrutiny of the performance of its contractors. There goes the neighbourhood, then. 

On Wednesday I stopped off at the site to take a look at what was going on. What was going on was absolute devastation: the old building battered into a massive pile of rubble, with nothing of the old structure remaining. As the sun set over the Burroughs, the sight of such wilful destruction, right next to the row of eighteenth century houses which would have been built around the time of the old White Bear, was deeply upsetting. 

A foreman stood in the open entrance to the site, looking very pleased with himself. I took a photograph of the demolition and he came over. Why, I asked, have you knocked down this property, when there was apparently only permission for partial demolition? He shrugged. Was there? He didn't know - wasn't anything to do with them. Well, it might be, I suggested, if there is a court case, should the permission not have allowed for it. I walked off. 

From a safe distance he yelled: Court? I'll take you to court ... 

I turned on my heel, and returned in full Mrs Angry mode. Take me to court? What for? 

For ... your attitude, he said, stupidly. I looked at him. 

A lovely building has been destroyed, apparently without approval, in a conservation area, next to a fragile row of listed eighteenth century buildings, part of our local history - and you talk to me about MY attitude

He moved away very quickly.

Rare surviving row of early 18th century houses, next door to the site of the demolished White Bear, now potentially  at risk of structural damage

The next morning I tried, with a great deal of difficulty, to speak to someone in Barnet-Crapita planning, or enforcement, about the issue. Eventually a young woman on the duty desk confirmed there was only approval for partial demolition. You sure: nothing since 2014? No. (In fact she was wrong - there were variations allowed by planning officers which had chipped away at the amount of property that would be remaining). The case officer was not answering her phone. Another officer who knew about the case, however, claimed that a 'Stop Notice' had been issued the previous day on the site. Really? I was there late yesterday afternoon, early evening, and work was carrying on. Oh, perhaps it had been delivered during the night. Or early in the morning. Ok: I would be passing through Hendon later that morning, so would take a look. I'll let you know, shall I, if the notice is up? Yes. He gave me three numbers, two direct lines, one to him, another to the case officer. All a waste of effort, as it transpired.

When I arrived at the site there was no sign of work, although it was lunchtime. A transit van was parked in the grounds, and a fork lift truck amongst the debris. But no workers around - and more importantly, no 'Stop Notice'.

Walking around the back of the property, it was clear that something was presenting an immediate risk to safety: the huge mound of clay, soil, and heavy pieces of rubble were piled up towards the boundary, an England flag stuck defiantly on the top, the whole heap perilously near a rickety, splintering old fence, patched up in places with bits of hardboard. If there were rain, or any movement from the weight of debris, it is quite possible to imagine the whole lot sliding forwards, through the fence, onto the public footpath and road.

It was also sad to look at the churned up earth, and consider the amount of lost archaeology, and local history, destroyed in the demolition. And worrying for the future of the eighteenth century terrace next door, with the typically shallow foundations of that period: not to mention something locals are aware of, that is to say the risk from underground streams in the area.

Trying to contact enforcement to ask about the missing Stop Notice was impossible. Neither officer answered their phone, nor had any message service. Someone did promise to pass on information about the notice, and safety risk - but who knows what happened? He insisted a Stop Notice had been served and had been on display. He said the case officer would call back. She didn't. No one has.

It would seem that Capita have only about four enforcement officers currently working on all such cases - and  no doubt this is one of the factors that have created the abysmally high levels of non enforcement of breaches, as seen in the document referred to in the previous post, in which it would seem around 80% of cases are signed off with 'no further action'. But it is up to Capita, and the commissioning officers and councillors to ensure there are sufficient officers to do the job. 

Why was a notice to stop work only delivered a day or so ago, when it is too late, so long after residents informed council officers what was happening?

Because, I was told, since residents contacted them, the rest of the structure had 'fallen down'. 

Ah, I see. What a shame. No one could have seen that coming, could they?

Why did officers not act immediately, when there was a chance to preserve some of the building - or at least to confirm that the appropriate permission was in place?

If there is enough evidence to require a Stop Notice now, why had no one checked the documents as soon as it was reported, when any remaining structure could be protected?

Why is the work going ahead with apparent disregard for the impact on listed neighbouring buildings, and in regard to health and safety?

Why do officers not have any message facility, that residents can call in urgent circumstances?

What have the local Tory councillors - including planning Chair (& shed enthusiast) Maureen Braun - done to investigate residents's concerns about the demolition? Will it teach the Tory councillors on planning committees to be less naive - or indulgent with such applications in the future? One can only hope so.

So many questions, aren't there?

Developers know now that Barnet is an easy place to get away with breaches of planning and enforcement regulations. 

They know that they can apply for permission for one thing, build something else, and nothing will happen. 

Nothing will happen to them, but you may find yourself living next door to a house turned into multiple occupancy, or with unauthorised extensions ... or you may wake up one morning and find the house next door to you is being demolished. It will be destroyed before anyone does anything to stop it. And all of these things will affect the value of your property, and affect your enjoyment of your own home. Don't like the sound of all that? Tough. You keep voting for the nincompoops who have let it happen, so you only have yourselves to blame. Try to resist the temptation in future.

The failure by our privatised council effectively to enforce the law, and to protect this borough from rogue development, is having a hugely detrimental impact on not just the appearance of the borough, or the value of neighbouring properties, but on the quality of life of all residents. 

It is also destroying our common history, incrementally, brick by brick, property by property. Any historic building which is not nationally listed - and some that are - is at risk from predatory development, the laxity of council contractors, and the laziness and apathy of Tory councillors, who turn a blind eye to the destruction they sanction, either by foolish decision making at committee, or by failing properly to monitor the performance and processes of their privatised planning and enforcement services. 

So, no more 'order and decorum', at the White and Funny Bear - the pub which, ironically, was once known as 'Committee Room No 5', by council officers from the Town Hall, across the road, who used to be its most regular source of custom. 

No more order and decorum, no more history; only a stylistically anachronistic future building that will sit, in triumph, in the middle of a conservation area, in tribute to the era of profit, and the fatal assault of our local history, and built heritage.

There could be no finer representation of all the finest principles of Tory Broken Barnet, could there?

Thursday, 8 December 2016

All Fall Down: Planning and Enforcement in Broken Barnet

Updated 9th December

In fact it seems the scale of lack of enforcement in Barnet is far, far worse than could have been imagined: since publishing this yesterday, the post has not only received record numbers of visits, but I have been sent many examples of similar cases, and many comments, some of which I am not publishing - yet. The anecdotal evidence is one thing, but there is evidence from the council's own records of a very serious problem in enforcement.

It seems that at November's Full Council meeting a Tory councillor, perhaps naively thinking the response would prove how well Barnet-Capita were doing in terms of enforcement, asked about the level of 'satisfactory outcomes' in regard to planning enforcement.

Councillor Brian Salinger:

Will the Leader please provide
members with a list of all planning
enforcement cases that officers
have handled in the last 2 years
advising which they consider to
have reached satisfactory outcomes
and which are still outstanding. Will
the leader ensure that the list shows
the dates on which the first
complaint about each of the

developments was logged?

Cllr Richard
Cornelius (Leader of

the Council)

The volume of cases means that this list will have to be supplied

separately to the councillor and published online.

Just look at the response, published separately.

It really is breathtaking, in terms of volume - and content. 

In the majority of cases the outcome is 'No further action'. 

And there are many cases still 'in investigation'.

The range of issues is extraordinary: from a house being built in a barn in Totteridge, to construction of an unauthorised building on Council Land without permission in my own road (one of several breaches), an unauthorised outbuilding in another property in Vivian Avenue - and a subdivided property across the road from our Tory MP. 

The figures need a closer analysis, when time allows, but even a cursory glance is enough to suggest that this is an absolute scandal: and catastrophic for the borough - the loss of control over development is having a massive detrimental impact on the quality of life of residents - and the value of their properties. 

8th December

Writing this blog inevitably means that Mrs Angry receives quite a lot of emails from residents about a range of local issues, but increasingly, since the Capita contracts began, the most common subject of all such correspondence is in regard to ... planning.

Complaints about the way in which our council handles not only planning applications, but also the enforcement of breaches of planning and building regulations, are becoming more and more frequent, and this is rather worrying. 

Many people now are claiming that enforcement is simply ineffective, and believe that the best interests of developers are put before those of residents, as a matter of policy, and in practice. I have to say that I think this is pretty much the case, now, in Broken Barnet.

We know that more and more large scale developments are being approved, seemingly without restraint: and there would appear to be little care to ensure such developments are being considered within any overall policy of what is best for the borough. 

Huge housing schemes are welcomed with little or no insistence that it is affordable, or supported by adequate investment in schools, health care, traffic management and leisure facilities. Vital local services like libraries that support the burgeoning new population are being ruthlessly cut: sports venues are disappearing - and even parks are now vulnerable to development - something that should be unthinkable.

Apart from these larger schemes, however, there is also a growing perception that less and less management, regulation and enforcement of small scale development is in place: that too many inappropriate conversions, extensions and even new build properties are being allowed, with any breaches of planning permission or building control left unsanctioned. This, it is feared, is giving developers the idea that they can simply do whatever they like, without fear of enforcement by the council.

Take the example of the house shown in the pictures above. Or rather what was a house - this is what it looked like, until three weeks ago:

This is in Vivian Avenue: a nice, suburban road in Hendon - in a Labour ward. The property which stood on this site until recently was a perfectly sound, pre war detached house, in keeping with the rest of the road. In need of some renovation, but otherwise a nice family home.

It had been bought by local developers, however, who put in a series of planning applications, from September 2014 onwards, four of which were eventually approved - after four planning committee hearings - and despite numerous objections from neighbouring residents. Oh and some rather curious supporting comments. 

Utilising a step-by-step Oliver Twist 'Please, Sir I want some more' approach, the developers asked for more and more to be built on the site, and conditions were placed on approved schemes that seemed to protect the neighbouring residents and the locality. 

The latest approval, given earlier this year, after the very interesting supporting comments, and despite all objections, was for side and rear extensions to the property, and a basement, in order to convert it into seven self-contained flats, even though the second to last approval conditioned the extensions allowed to be for a single family home.

Approval was finally given in October: passed by Tory councillors Hugh Rayner, Brian Gordon,Val Duschinsky (present as a substitute) and shed enthusiast Cllr Maureen Braun using her casting vote. Labour members voted against.

Hoardings were erected around the property, and work began. The house was gutted internally. 

Neighbouring residents, unsurprisingly, were upset, and very worried about the impact of living next door to a property that had been built as a home for one family, but would now accommodate seven households. They were wrong to worry about that, however. What happened next was far worse than anything they could have imagined.

On November 17th, it became clear that something was very wrong: the house was disappearing, level by level, in rapid sequence: one neighbouring property had a window broken by debris flying over a boundary fence - thankfully no one was hurt, but this was by good fortune, as no warning had been given of what was happening. 

And what was happening was not an extension, or conversion, as the approval allowed, but - demolition.

No warning, and as far as the neighbours could see, no safeguards to ensure that the demolition was undertaken in a safe and considerate way.  Dust everywhere: was there asbestos on the site? Was there any risk from gas leaks? Were the utility companies informed? Had any risk assessment been made of potential hazards before the work?

What would you do, in such a distressing situation? You would probably ring the council, wouldn't you, and expect them to immediately come out, inspect the site, and close it down until thorough safety checks had been made?

But then this is Barnet, where Capita runs planning, and enforcement, as well as offering support to developers: yes, you might think there is a clear conflict of interest inherent in this arrangement, but that doesn't bother your Tory council.

Neighbours rang the council. Nothing happened. No one was particularly interested in the apparent breach of permission, or the health and safety aspects of demolition, it appeared.

Apart from some contact with an officer on November 18th - the neighbours have heard NOTHING since. The building work continues, with what looks like pile driving, which would imply the foundations of a new building are being prepared. 

The site was secured fully with hoarding for three days: then that was removed and business continued as usual. Was it all a show for enforcement officers? No one knows, because no one has been updated as promised by the council. What are they doing?

Local Labour councillor Adam Langleben visited the site and raised the matter with the planners and was sent a routine enforcement acknowledgement letter a week later. The workers on site, apparently, had not seemed to understand what a councillor was: which is what you might expect, of course.

Rumour has it that there very few enforcement officers working for Barnet-Capita now. That would seem to be something of a problem - for residents, if not for developers. Perhaps this is why there is a perception by some residents that clear breaches are simply not being addressed and enforcement not sufficiently stringent.

It is reported that the council is taking legal advice in the case of Vivian Avenue, perhaps because the developer might think he can claim as one token wall has not been destroyed, there has been no demolition. If so, this to any reasonable person would make a complete mockery of the planning process - and it means any house in this borough, in any road, could disappear in the same way: yes, you could look outside your bedroom window one morning, and find the house next door to you was being knocked down, and there would be next to no support from Barnet Council.

Apart from the worry and disturbance from living next door to a demolition site, the prospect of an unauthorised new building next to yours raises serious concerns about the effect on the value on your own property which is likely to accrue from the loss of continuity in style of housing in your road. 

Well, then. This is not the first time this particular developer has, without planning permission, demolished an older suburban property, in a nice residential road, and replaced it with an modern building. His own home, which eventually, after two appeals, was given retrospective approval. His builder, unfortunately, as previously reported, has a history of Health & Safety breaches, including work on gas appliances for which he was not qualified.

Oh, and - this particular developer ... is connected with another series of posts in this blog: the story of Victoria Park Lodge.

The Lodge is a lovely Edwardian house, arts and crafts style, contemporary with the founding of the Park trust, by local benefactors: lived in for decades by the resident Park Keeper. See here and other posts for further details.

Residents outside the threatened Lodge in Victoria Park

The house in Vivian Avenue which has been demolished is owned by CDEG, one of the companies owned by the family of Mr Adi Friedman and his wife Birgit Friedman. The developer who acquired the Lodge, after a cash purchase, earlier this year, a transaction which has been the subject of an investigation by the council's external auditors, as a result of objections made by local taxpayers, in regard to, amongst other considerations,  whether or not the authority had power in law to sell what campaigners claim are legal restrictions that protect the park from sale and development, due to covenants created at the time of the park's endowment.

You may recall that during the summer, after submitting a highly unpopular application to build a block of flats on the site in Victoria Park, the property's new owners then made an application, later withdrawn, to demolish the Lodge. Thanks to the outcry from local residents and campaigners, this was withdrawn, and eventually, after much protest - and criticism of the way in which the planning department handled the process, for example allowing 'supporters' to be anonymous, while publishing full details of objectors, refusing to compel the applicant to reveal the advice given by Capita planning officers - the application for the flats was rejected.

It is pretty clear, therefore, that it is only by good fortune, or rather thanks to determined lobbying by local residents, that the Lodge is still standing. But for how much longer?

An application has latterly been submitted to hack away at two protected trees in the garden of the Lodge - and then, more worryingly, plans to install a 'loft conversion': in a property which we know the developer wishes to replace with a block of highly profitable flats.

Since the last post written about this very interesting story, more information has come to light about the sale, and the way in which Tory councillors came to approve the principle of sale, several years ago.

First of all came the revelation that on March 30th, the day of the sale by Barnet Council, the property immediately transferred ownership: from a Mr Gruber, who paid the cash upfront, to the Lodge Victoria Park Ltd, which is of course a company run by Mr and Mrs Friedman. No money, it would appear, was exchanged in regard to the second sale. This transaction only came to light when land registry records were updated, six months later. This is all perfectly lawful, of course - if somewhat puzzling.

Then emerged more information from the council side, about the curious case of the missing report which was the basis of recommendations to councillors deciding whether or not to put the Lodge up for sale. This was, it should be noted, long before the current developer was on the scene -  the years that have passed since the sale was approved in principle, and the sale that has now taken place reflect the difficulties that then ensued for the council, when they subsequently realised that there were legal difficulties due to the covenants attached to the park.

When the sale of the Lodge was approved, councillors had been advised by officers that it would be too expensive to renovate, and continue to use as council housing. (The family who used to live there very happily were evicted a few years ago, despite the shortage of social housing in this borough, and the property left empty until sale). It was claimed, on the basis of a report that no one can produce, that the Lodge would cost £100,000 to bring up to suitable standards of accommodation. 

The council has repeatedly been asked, by residents, and by local Labour councillor Ross Houston, for copies of the report that is supposed to have made this assessment - to no avail. It has been 'lost': no one is sure how this occurred. Oh, but then ... when resident Mary O'Connor raised the subject again at the last local Forum, we learned that there was a report, after all, which would be made available. 

All was not what it seemed, however. It was not the original report, that had mysteriously been lost. This was a NEW estimate, in which, by remarkable coincidence, it was found possible to arrive a total very close to the alleged £100,000 cost of renovation.

A great shame that before this new costing, no one had had a chat with the Lodge developer's representative who told residents in the summer that they had spent around £7,000 on the property, before renting it out. 

Last month Mrs Angry had extensive correspondence (copied to the auditor) with Ms Anisa Darr, currently 'Director of Resources' at LBBarnet, in regard to the mystery of the missing dossier. Ah - not missing, Mrs Angry. Just 'not available'. In the sense that say, Lord Lucan is not missing, but 'not available', do you see? 

Hmm. Ms Darr said:

As has been previously stated and confirmed, the original estimate by Barnet Homes is not available.

As per the response to Cllr Houston’s members item 


it was confirmed that a revised estimate was undertaken to determine the estimated value of works required to bring Victoria Lodge into decent homes standards for residual use.

This was a desktop estimate and in order to complete this exercise decent homes methodology, age of the building and a schedule of rates from our framework of service providers was used. The estimate was completed by an Estates lead within my team and did not involve getting quotes from contractors. Similarly on-site inspections from building services team would only be required, on any of our assets, once a decision to progress the works, on the initial estimate, had been made. 

I have included the link to the rather revealing responses to Cllr Houston's questions, but as you will see, for some strange reason, it no longer works, and the document is no longer in the public domain. Curiouser, and curiouser. Is there something in it they don't want us to see? Is it the other offers that were made for the property? Details that should not have been published? Not to worry, chaps: we kept copies anyway.

The new desktop estimate, belatedly produced at the end of this summer, when the campaign to save the Lodge was in full swing, was created without any assessment or quotation by builders, or tradesmen, fortunately manages, somehow, to stretch to the £100,000 figure given to councillors when the sale decision was made. 

There is, however, no evidence that the authority can offer to prove that there ever was a report based on any previous assessment of cost of renovation, in fact: there is no audit trail, nothing. One might reasonably suspect, therefore, that it is entirely possible that the £100,000 figure was total fantasy, and that councillors, not for the first time, and not for the last time, were ... misled.

Other misleading information would appear to be a failure to investigate the background to the covenants and restrictions that are meant to protect the park from development: and frankly it might well be that the developer who bought the Lodge did so under the impression that he would be able to get permission to build flats on the site. Was he also ... misled? Or does he have reason to think he can ignore the covenant?

Let us repeat this one more time: whatever the arguments over the legality of the sale of part of the park, there is no doubt about this covenant in regard to the Lodge site: no building may be erected there other than accommodation for a park keeper, a cricket pavilion, or a bandstand. In other words, as the council's own lawyer admitted, he may well have been sold 'a white elephant'. And to be quite clear - now the site is only of any value with the Lodge intact.

The Lodge is now let to tenants on some casual basis: yet a neighbour was informed by someone associated with the building that this was still council housing, which clearly it is not. Rubbish is regularly accumulating around the periphery of the site: one might ask why the landlord would want the site to be so untidy and unappealing. Hard to think of a reason, isn't it?

Over in Hendon, almost opposite the Town Hall, another part of our built heritage is being demolished, after standing neglected for some time: the White Bear, an historic and architecturally pleasing pub, standing on a site which has been the location for an inn for centuries, and is - was  - surrounded by eighteenth century houses. After public outcry a couple of years ago, when demolition and development was first planned, councillors rejected the application. Once campaigners thought they had won the argument and focus shifted, the plans were quietly approved.

This sort of example is happening all over the borough: developers, large and small in scale, unchallenged by regulation or enforcement, ripping up our built heritage, our green spaces,: essential features of what our Tory council likes to promote as a borough that is a 'successful city-suburb'. 

Even our most historic properties are not safe, like the former Church Farmhouse Museum, just around the corner from the White Bear, and at the back of the Town Hall, the heart of the oldest part of Hendon: put up for sale, like the Lodge, pointlessly, as offering nothing to developers because of the restrictions of its Grade 2* listing - so left to decay and stand as a crumbling symbol of everything wrong with the unprincipled, moribund state of Broken Barnet. And the Town Hall itself, as reported in the previous post, also listed, is being carved up inside, in order to accommodate valuable office space.

The limited protection offered by listing can only ever apply to a handful of properties. Throughout the borough now, we are increasingly seeing the loss of buildings, homes that should be retained as they are, integral to their local architectural context, part of our joint history, all through lack of a well directed and properly enforced system of planning, and simply because there is a fast buck to be made, somewhere, for someone. Such development does not address the serious housing crisis in this borough, providing low rent accommodation or affordable housing for those on modest incomes: they are targeted at overseas buyers - as in West Hendon, and even - preposterously, at the other end of the scale - in the case of the flats unsuccessfully proposed to replace the Lodge in Victoria Park.

As far as the Tory councillors and Capita are concerned, developers may do more or less what they want - and there is little you can do about it. Don't be surprised if you wake up one morning and find a pile of bricks where once there was a house next door to you. And if you don't like the idea of that prospect ... please remember not to keep voting for the people who allow such wanton destruction.