Thursday 27 March 2014

Friern Barnet Library - A Joint Bloggers Statement

Claiming credit for something you haven't done is an unappealing trait. When politicians do it weeks before an election, it needs to be brought to the attention of prospective voters. Set out below is a joint blog from the Barnet Bloggers regarding Friern Barnet Library.

Barnet Conservative candidates in Coppetts Ward have been distributing a leaflet claiming the credit for saving Friern Barnet library.

This indefensible attempt to rewrite history is something that cannot go unchallenged.

The Barnet bloggers have followed the story of Friern Barnet in detail, from the moment in 2010 when Councillor Robert Rams launched the strategic library review, making ludicrous suggestions about the possibilities of ‘pop-up’ libraries in Tescos, and Starbucks.

We supported the raising of a petition, gaining over 7,000 signatures, and the lobbying of council meetings, and councillor surgeries. This gave the Tories pause for thought and they relented from their initial plans.

When the review was announced, only two libraries were marked for closure: Hampstead Garden Suburb and Friern Barnet. As Hampstead Garden Suburb was in a staunchly Tory ward, it took little pressure from influential local resident groups for the council to grant a reprieve, and happily agree to subsidise the small branch library in this most affluent area of the borough. This left Friern Barnet library, in a largely Labour voting ward, as the sole victim of Councillor Rams’ axe. 

Community campaigners were invited to draw up plans to keep the library open. As later events were to demonstrate, this was a crafty ruse by councillors and senior officers, which meant the campaigners were working on plans in the period where they could have instigated a judicial review. Such time wasting slammed the door on legal remedy. It seemed clear to all involved that the council had acted in bad faith and the invitation to draw up proposals were never a serious proposition.

In April 2012, the council closed the library at short notice. A symbolic occupation of the building by residents took place, to register the sense of injustice felt by the local community. The same afternoon, valuers arrived to assess the building for future development. The library was boarded up, emptied of books, and left to stand until a plan of sale had been made.

The closure of Friern Barnet, as some have forgotten, was justified by Tory members on the basis of a new library to be created in the Arts Depot at North Finchley. This plan came to nothing.

Along with many other supporters and activists, Barnet bloggers were at the forefront of the campaign to reopen Friern Barnet library, helping to launch the People’s ‘pop-up’ library, not in Tesco, or Starbucks, but on the village green next to the building, beneath the cherry trees. It was an act of defiance from local residents and campaigners in response to the removal of a much loved local community centre, and it received an astonishing outpouring of support.

The pop-up library received donations of hundreds of books and kept the protest alive throughout the weeks that followed. The BBC One show came to film the event, the first of a wave of media interest in the issue.

Despite this clear evidence that there was enormous support for the library, Councillor Robert Rams and his colleagues continued to ignore the local community.

Through the summer of 2012, residents came down every Saturday, come rain or shine to swap books on the lawn. As we approached autumn, and weather conditions worsened, it looked as if the Peoples library may become unsustainable: but in September 2012, the Occupy movement took over the Library and the People’s Library moved back into its rightful home.

How did Robert Rams and the rest of the Tories react to this demonstration of "Big Society"? They refused to engage with the local residents, although ironically they were more at ease discussing terms of occupation with Phoenix and his collective of squatters who had re-opened the library on behalf of the community.

Within weeks, the library shelves were full and the library was back in business.

Council officers were despatched to meetings to see if a compromise could be reached, but the elected representatives of the Tory Party ignored residents, and refused to attend talks. The council then launched eviction proceedings against the people of Barnet, who were simply using a public asset in the way it was intended.

Despite spiralling costs, the Tories persisted in the war against their own citizens. When the case finally came to court - supported by legal assistance organised by Labour party councillors - it lasted 2 days. The council had originally claimed it was a simple possession case and asked for ten minutes. It was clear to all that despite the judge finding in favour of the council, there were strong grounds for an appeal. The judge herself brokered a deal whereby Occupy would hand over the keys to the community and the library would continue. The council had won the battle but lost the war. 

The sad truth is that there is no happy ending.

Does anyone trust the council after their previous tactics? It would appear to be a mistake to do so. The election leaflet implies that the library was saved by the ‘fervent campaign’ within the Conservative party fought by Councillor Kate Salinger. In fact any success was entirely due to the fervent campaigning of local residents, and the occupation of the premises: and the library has not been saved. It still faces an uncertain future.

Barnet Council simply offered the re-named Friern Barnet Community Library a two year lease, to park the problem until after the election.

The Council has refused to fund a full time librarian. The Council has refused to allow the Library to access the council book stock. There are even allegations of other Barnet Libraries refusing to allow posters promoting events at FBCL. Most worrying of all, there is no long term lease, and Councillor Daniel Thomas, the deputy leader, has merely guaranteed that the building will not be sold in the next four years. What happens then? And even if the building is not sold, for how long will the community library be allowed to remain?

In truth the local community has preserved the building, and filled it full of books, which is a stunning achievement. It is a wonderful community enterprise, a victory of resistance against injustice, but it is not a public library.

Barnet’s Tory councillors have been outmanoeuvred by residents in their move to close the library and sell the beautiful, eighty year old building for redevelopment as a supermarket or flats. But it is only a temporary victory.

To ensure this library and every other publicly owned property controlled by this council remains in our hands and does not become the target of a ruthless agenda of sale and development, the only course of action is clear: use your vote wisely on May 22nd, and do not return this Tory administration to power – or we will all live to regret it.

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Another costly mistake in Barnet - the high price of outsourcing

The entire One Barnet programme has been delivered by a team of consultants and interims. I have repeatedly expressed concerns about the lack of continuity of such a team and the risks associated with leaving such important decisions in the hands of people who have no connection with the borough. The most recent manifestation of these risks is the award of approximately £650,000 to council staff due to the failure to provide information required by law when staff are made redundant or transferred to a new employers. You can read the specific details here.

Most importantly the council's advice was provided by a consultant who has now departed the council for pastures new. This mistake means that money is diverted away from essential services. Given that all reputable consultants carry a professional indemnity insurance policy to pay out when mistakes are made, I hope that Barnet will be seeking to recover the money it has had to pay out.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

West Hendon Estate - The destruction of a community

I have been to two meeting this week where the subject of the West Hendon Estate has come up. It is a tragic example of greed, incompetence and a lack of regard for the people who live there that is resulting in the destruction of a community.

On Monday night I attended the Contract monitoring scrutiny committee. I have to say the only scrutiny that took place was that carried out by the residents who had submitted 77 questions. Among the other things the residents questions revealed were that Barnet had agreed to Capita including £5.35 million of redundancy costs in their contract price. Yes that does mean that Barnet residents pay to make their own staff redundant so that Capita can make a profit by employing new staff in on much cheaper wages in Blackburn. we also learned that the council have agreed an additional payment of £453,000 to route call to libraries via a call centre. My experience was that having spoken to the call centre they had to put my call through to the library anyway. I say cut out the middleman and save £453,000.

But on to questions from the residents of West Hendon Estate. They revolved around the the council's duty to rehouse people who are homeless or about to be made homeless. Some of the council's responses were reminiscent of Joseph Heller's Catch 22.  Jasmine Parsons asked:

The successful implementation of the Council’s Placement Policy has resulted in the first discharges of Homeless duty into the private rented sector.
a. Can you please specify if they still remain on the council housing list?
b. If not why not?
c. If yes what are they categorised as? 

Barnet's response was as follows:
The Housing Allocations Scheme (September 2013) sets out in detail which customers are eligible to join Barnet Council’s banding system and which are not. To be placed onto the scheme a customer must have a reasonable preference. To have a reasonable preference, a customer must either be homeless or owed a duty to house under s.193 Housing Act 1996. Once a customer has accepted a suitable offer of private sector accommodation that can be used to end the housing duty, that customer is no longer homeless or threatened with homelessness or owed a duty to house. Therefore the customer has no reasonable preference and does not qualify to be placed onto the Housing Allocations Scheme (which in 2010 replaced the ‘council housing list’). 

So my understanding of what they are saying is that if you are homeless the council have a duty to house you so they shuffle you off to a private sector landlord where you may have only a short term tenancy and which you may find yourself evicted from in six months time when they crank up the rent. However, because you have been placed in private accommodation you are no longer classified as homeless therefore you no longer qualify to go on the council waiting list. In other words it is impossible for the homeless to get onto the council house waiting list.

The second question was asked by Tayieba Shah related to those people in emergency accommodation (EA) and why the council is missing its own target for the length of stay in EA. The council's response is frankly staggering.

Moving the longest staying households from EA would have a positive impact on this indicator as it would reduce the average length of stay of households in EA. But it may have the adverse consequence of increasing costs as those households who are the longest stayers in EA are generally accommodated in more affordable accommodation for the council which was procured at a time when market conditions were more favourable and rents lower.

So in other words, it is cheaper to keep people who have been in Emergency Accommodation for a long time in the same EA rather than move them to new accommodation because it will be more expensive. The council's target for the length of stay in EA is 26 weeks but currently the average stay is 41.1 weeks. For those stuck in emergency accommodation it must be devastating to be stuck there indefinitely because it is cheaper than moving people out.

On to the meeting last night, the BAPS Question Time, at Barnet Multicultural Centre in Hendon. It was clear from the outset that there was just one massive issue and that is the plight of the residents from the West Hendon Estate. The regeneration of this estate has been on the cards for many years and the initial planning permission was granted back in 2003. However following detail, planning permission being granted last year the scheme now seems to be ploughing ahead.

Where there are currently 680 homes, these will be replaced by 2,171 homes including a number in 29 storey blocks looking out over Welsh Harp reservoir. According to the planning statement of 15 February 2013, the current population of the estate is estimated at 1,475 and that will rise to 9,161 when the development is complete. That is a six fold increase in population.

In theory there should be enough new homes for existing tenants but in practice that is not the case because of the catch-all phase "affordable". What is affordable to a senior officer at Barnet Council on a six figure salary is completely unaffordable to key staff carrying out essential work such as hospital workers, teachers, police and social workers.

It appears that Barnet want to gentrify this area by squeezing out those on low and average wages to be replaced with people who can afford £350,000 or £400,000 for a 2 bed flat right up to £1 million for the penthouse apartments.

It is shameless how this community is being destroyed but in Barnet money always appears to take priority over people especially in a Labour ward. I cannot imagine such a massive and disruptive development would every be considered in Conservative enclave of Totteridge where the population density is just 18 people per hectare, just one tenth of the proposed density of the new estate. Draw your own conclusions as to why that is.

Please look up Our West Hendon community group on Twitter or on Facebook to find out more about their plight.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Buying Votes in Barnet

Tonight is the council meeting which will agree the budget for next year. The Conservative group have put forward a 1% cut in Council Tax at a cost of approximately £1.4 million. That may sound a great deal but it works out at around £10 per household per year or around 20p a week. This come at a price however. To give back 20p a week to each household the council is cutting services to the elderly, adults with learning difficulties and children's services. In addition, charges for most council services are rising.

The council seem to judge the appropriateness of their cuts to services by how many people agree with them. If we followed that through to its natural conclusion, the majority would vote for minimal or no council tax but does that make it right that the elderly or adults with learning disabilities get screwed at the same time? Of course not but this council is determined to win votes and therefore cuts to services in return for cuts to the council tax are what we will get.

At tonight's meeting we will also hear three alternative budgets, from Labour, Liberal Democrats and from Brian Coleman. Having read through the details, I have to say that I am disappointed that Labour have chosen to go along with the Council Tax cuts. It is not surprising, I suppose, given that any suggestion they would either freeze or increase Council Tax would be pounced on by the Conservatives, but that doesn't make it right. The Liberal Democrats have proposed a council tax freeze (as opposed to a cut), freeing up £1.4 million to spend on other services and reduce the impact of proposed cuts to children's services. I also like their proposal to delete the political assistants posts for the Labour and Conservative groups, saving £83,000 a year. I have always found it a contradiction that a council that has gone out of its way to eliminate paid union representatives seems quite content for us to pay for its political assistants. In some ways the Liberal Democrats can afford to be more radical in their proposals as they only hold one ward, Childs Hill, and with two of their three councillors retiring (the Palmers) the likelihood of their proposals coming to fruition are limited - but I admire Cllr Jack Cohen for at least making the suggestion.

Looking briefly at Brian Coleman's proposals, one has to wonder what planet he is on. He proposes a further 2% cut in council tax costing £2.86 million. To pay for this he wants those in receipt of benefit to pay 20% towards their council tax  (known as Council tax Support or CTS) instead of 8.5% which is currently required. That would raise £1.76 million although he also includes a provision of  £306k for bad debt against this increase which suggests he is setting up the poorest to fail and be exposed to court action and/or the bailiffs (owned by Capita). A note from officers says that he could not increase CTS this year because it has missed the deadline for setting CTS but it gives you an indication of his priorities. Brian  also proposes reversing the Council's policy to increase the hourly rate of  the lowest paid council employees to the London Living Wage of £8.80 per hour. Keeping people in poverty seems to be a theme here. He also wants to turn off street lights on minor road between midnight and 5 am. Given the council, of which he was a member, spent £27 million on the street lighting PFI to improve lighting levels it does seem somewhat ironic he now wants to turn them off at night. I'm afraid I do have to go along with one of Brian's proposals not mentioned by either of the opposition parties and that is the elimination of the CEO post saving approximately £260k per annum. Currently in Barnet we have both a Chief Executive and a Chief Operating Officer which, in my opinion, is one Chief too many.

Overall the budget proposals are disappointing and short-termist. They fail to address the demographic pressures which the borough is facing and which are set out in the budget report. This is all about the election in May and ensuring that the politicians keep their power and their allowances. Given that the council now have Capita providing most of the services, I would have taken the opportunity to slash the number of councillors to just one per ward saving around £650,000 in councillor allowances. I would have also focused much more on creating jobs in Barnet, stimulating business and benefiting from the proportion of Business Rates the council are now allowed to retain which in turn would allow more to be spent on those who most need the council's services. I would also make serious inroads into the consultancy and interims budget where the council are spending millions unnecessarily.

Let's see if this attempt to buy votes in May works but I hope for the sake of those most in need that it does not.