Tuesday, 27 June 2017
Residents supported by members of Barnet Housing Action Group and Unison outside Hendon Town Hall
To have to attend one council meeting, on a beautiful summer's evening in June, might be thought to be unfortunate. To have to attend two, in the same evening, at the same time, thought Mrs Angry, as she arrived at the Town Hall, was a punishment beyond reason. And how could it be done? Well: of course, Mrs Angry has the power to be everywhere, and anywhere, at any given time, and so as in everything else, it was really down to a question of timing: when to arrive, and when to move on.
Waiting outside the Town Hall was a crowd of residents and staff members, union members, and of course the People's Mayor, Mr Shepherd, without whom no council meeting is quorate. Not only the most accomplished heckler in the history of local government; ageless, unchanging in his habits, he travels the borough, with his bags of clippings from the Morning Star, a fixture of Broken Barnet, vital to the mechanism of what passes for democracy, in this most rotten of Rotten Boroughs.
Inside the Town Hall, after two months, the lift was still broken, a tribute to the culture of inertia that permeates the corridors of corporate power. So what if people in wheelchairs, or with mobility problems, cannot exercise their right to attend council meetings? All the better, if they don't come. Access for disabled residents? Just one of those foolish rights that incur more and more of that stuff that we have so often heard dismissed as 'red tape', and 'health and safety gone mad' by the most senior Tory councillors in Barnet.
In fact, as they have forcibly been reminded in these last two weeks since the Grenfell fire, red tape and health & safety save lives. And the absence of these tedious restrictions means disasters like Grenfell are inevitable, rather than, as they should be, completely avoidable.
The first meeting was a Housing Committee, and first on the agenda was an emergency item for members to discuss a hastily produced report on the authority's response to the Grenfell fire.
This report was necessary for many reasons, not least because Barnet Homes manages 28 tower blocks, and ten of them have cladding. Three blocks, in Granville Road, Childs Hill, have been identified as having the same rain screen panels as Grenfell Tower. The council says the insulation material was different: but we know that tested samples of the cladding have proved to be flammable. The cladding will be removed: in response to a question by Labour members, however, an officer claimed that it had complied with building regulations.
This suggests that there is a fatal flaw, somewhere, in the standards used to assess such cladding, and that therefore, surely, all cladding on any building should be urgently re-assessed? It is used everywhere: not just in tower block housing, from schools to hospitals, to railway stations, and many other types of development.
In Barnet, the council has now committed to a review of fire safety in its own high rise buildings, and will allocate £10 million to implement any changes recommended by the London Fire Brigade. That is to say the fire authority which has been subject, over the years, to savage cuts, and even privatisation of resources.
The report's first recommendation, rather typically for Barnet, is to note that 'all Barnet Homes properties have up to date Fire Risk Assessments and comply with fire safety legislation'.
This is a bold assertion, and one which we would hope is correct - but here is the problem: Fire Risk Assessments may have been made, but have the recommendations made as a result been actioned?
Mrs Angry has been contacted, for example, by one tenant of Barnet Homes who alleges that this is not the case, in the building where he lives; that all but one recommendation remain unaddressed, over a period of years. This was one of the issues raised by Labour's Adam Langleben, who also, very worryingly, presented a petition of a tower block in Hendon whose residents are very concerned about the lack of any fire alarm, or sprinkler system.
The report refers to high rise buildings, and cladding: but cladding is not the only issue here. Fire safety in all buildings are a matter not just of construction, but so many other aspects, all of which require stringent standards of scrutiny and enforcement. The experience of both processes, in this borough, over recent years, has taught us that breaches in compliance with regulations can and do regularly occur in many different areas, usually with little or no sanction.
Which may explain the remarkable silence of Tory members at this meeting and an unusually mute acceptance of the need to do everything possible to review the safety of council owned high rise properties. But what about the rest? And what about properties in the private sector? They say they can only offer advice - but as Labour's Kath McGurk pointed out, due to the lack of social housing stock in Barnet, the authority is obliged to house many tenants in the private sector, and therefore has an added obligation to ensure robust standards of compliance with safety standards.
The Tory members at this meeting, chaired by the usually rather pugnacious Tom Davey, who was clearly on his best behaviour - and being filmed - were Shimon Ryde, Melvin Cohen, deputy leader Daniel Thomas, and Bridget Perry. Apart from the Chair, only Shimon Ryde made any contribution to the discussion of the report. Labour members asked all the questions, while the rest of the Tory councillors sat still, saying nothing.
One rather curious note was struck by a very senior officer present who, in response to questioning about Barnet's safety measures, added on the remark 'unlike Labour boroughs'. This was a pretty extraordinary comment, from an officer who is supposed to be politically neutral. It was not challenged by Labour members, who are always too reluctant to hold senior officer to account, wrongly believing they are not responsible for political policy making. But this was a telling remark.
Ryde is a councillor for Childs Hill, and he now stated that, despite assurances given after an inspection of the tower blocks by the London Fire Brigade, residents were still concerned about the absence of a satisfactory evacuation procedure, especially in regard to the need to identify and assist vulnerable residents, and also that there was a need for a process to inform all residents in a more effective way.
Mrs Angry has been informed that currently in the Granville tower blocks there are groups of three men, tasked by the council to walk around the buildings, on a 24 hour watch for fire.
It seems as if we are on a wartime footing, with the use of fire wardens taking the place of adequate fire prevention, alarm systems, sprinkler systems, evacuation plans. What an indictment this is, of the lack of care given to the housing and safety of the least advantaged members of our society.
As you can read here, residents of Granville have tried to raise concerns about the state of the cladding of their buildings, some of which fell off, in 2013, in windy weather. Tenants of social housing, and indeed leaseholders within the same developments, as we have seen in the case of West Hendon, carry little weight with the current administration. One of the better outcomes of the terrible tragedy of Grenfell, perhaps, might be that years of neglect of social housing stock, and the needs of tenants, here in Barnet, and elsewhere may be followed by a better regard for their safety, and well being. We must hope so.
Down the corridor to another meeting next: this time to a rare opportunity for members of the public - an invitation to present their views on the 'Re' Capita contract, currently under review by a councillors' working group. This review is being held in secret, behind closed doors, despite protests from Labour members, but our Tory representatives have graciously allowed one session in which their constituents may timidly voice their opinions, under strictly limited circumstances:
The Chairman has indicated that approximately one hour will be allocated to allow the public to make verbal representation at the meeting on the operation of the RE contract. The amount of time allocated to each resident, trader or business representative to speak will depend on the number of people who have requested to speak at the meeting. The Chairman will announce the detailed arrangements at the start of the meeting. Members of the Working Group will have the opportunity to ask questions of members of the public making verbal representations at the meeting.
Dangerous stuff, for Tory councillors. Fraught with risk of engagement, and ... criticism.
A taste of what was to come had been indicated by fellow blogger Mr Reasonable, who was already well entrenched, and tweeting about the meeting:
First speaker at Re Review is frightened about how planning is run in Barnet and their use of gobbledygook
Next speaker at Re Contract Review also speaking about failure in the planning department.
Re "pushing through revenue generating schemes". Culture of build first ask for permission later.
Re are pro development and ignore residents. Wow this Re Contract Review is not going well for Re and Capita.
Next speaker at Re Contract Review says Barnet not receiving value for money from Capita.
Next speaker at Re Contract Review meeting about highways officers lack of responsiveness.
Next speaker at Re Contract Review meeting back to planning lack of notification for local residents & inability to get through to officers
Next speaker at Re Contract Review meeting yet again complaints about planning conflicts and accountability
Next speaker at Re Contract Review meeting about planning enforcement. Officers just don't seem to be listening when residents complain
This meeting was being held, most unusually, in the council chamber - and much to Mrs Angry's amusement, the councillors were sitting in the places normally taken by senior officers, and members of the public were obliged to take their places in the seats belonging to Tory councillors.
Mrs Angry positioned herself in the Tory leader's place, noting with alarm its tendency to swing backwards, into a helplessly semi prone position, and observing a number of mysterious buttons on the desk. Like the naughty schoolgirl she was, once upon a time, and unable to resist the temptation, she pressed all the buttons, to see what would happen. But nothing did. Life is full of disappointment.
Sitting besieged by an array of very cross residents were a selection of Tory councillors: Comrade Councillor Peter Zinkin, his sidekick Antony 'Mickey' Finn, and the ineffable Sury Khatri, who said absolutely nothing, and probably just as well. There were two Labour councillors, who didn't say much, either, but didn't need to, as the Tories were sticking themselves further in it, with every minute that passed.
The strength of feeling, and level of dissatisfaction, amongst the residents, was intense - but it was also significant in that those present, largely, were not 'the usual suspects' that the Tories are used to hearing, at most council meetings, but a representation of the rapidly increasing number of disaffected people, their sort of people, their voters, who are at last understanding that the decline in local services is a political issue, and that the privatisation of those services, as a result of the massive Capita contracts, has had a hugely detrimental effect on things they see all around them: the street where they live, the park they use, the roads they drive on.
One of the most articulate speakers was a woman who was a former local authority architect, clearly appalled by the present state of affairs in planning, which is now run by Capita. But all of the residents present were well informed and keen to express their sense of dismay at the way in which planning and enforcement, in particular, are now run.
Time for Mr Reasonable to speak. Unfortunately, Cllr Zinkin, who like to present himself as Cllr Reasonable, but does not like to be contradicted, and then is rather less than reasonable, decided to keep interrupting, and help Mr Reasonable, as he had helped the residents, to express what he thought they ought to say. It is the classic trick used by anyone trying to control a meeting and retain authority over the proceedings: take possession of the dialogue - own it and control it. Didn't work, however, as Mrs Angry and then others pointed out to Cllr Zinkin that it was not his right to reframe the comments made: that he should listen to what they were saying.
Mr Reasonable continued. He made the point that the Tory members wanted only to address the symptoms of the problem, rather than the cause: perfectly true. They were continually focusing on details that could be changed, rather than the real issue - the deckchairs, rather than the navigation and course set towards the iceberg - the contractual partnership that is bleeding this borough dry, and turning our services to their profit, rather than for our benefit.
Mr R talked about the ineffectual KPIs, the key performance indicators that are supposed to monitor Capita's performance, but don't. Yes, the Tory members knew, wanted to change things - four years in to the contract.
Conflicts of interest next: this is hugely important. Mr R pointed out the terrible risks that accrue when you have the same company running planning and enforcement. Risk because of that dual role, magnified by the fact that the Re contract is not about savings, so much as about generating revenue. They love running planning, as they can charge developers big fat fees for advice, at the same time as making the decisions or recommendations about planning applications - clearly a conflict there. And enforcement, where planning approval has been breached, so poorly run in Barnet? Well: no money to be made there, only cost. In short, he said, it is a case now, with Capita running these services, of 'the tail wagging the dog': the services run by a profit hungry private company intent on furthering its own interests, and not those of the residents and tax payers who pay their fees.
The whole system now, said Mrs Angry, is geared towards favouring developers, rather than residents.
The system, said Mr Reasonable, is broke.
Zinkin and Finn were struggling to keep their heads above water now: the ship was sinking fast. Cllr Finn began manically clicking and unclicking his pen, clearly very flustered.
It is part of the job, said Zinkin, to look after the people we represent ...
No, said Mrs Angry: that is THE job you have.
Antony Finn tried to convince us, and himself, that there was no conflict of interest, when Capita was dealing with the planning decisions in regard to the many developments underway in this borough, and at the same time accepting fees for advising the developers. He claimed that it was perfectly fine, because they used 'different officers'. That is not true: in at least one local case she was involved in, the same officer advised a developer and was the appointed officer for running the consultation process and associated oversight of the case - on a large scale, it is impossible to believe that watertight separation is made between the two roles. As Mr R reminded the councillors, conflict of interest is about perception, not just practice.
By now Cllr Finn's pen clicking had reached epic proportions. A discussion about the waste of money on using consultants rather than cheaper in house employees, as we were reminded by Unison representatives in the audience - and the foolish expense of massive corporation tax bills, pretty well finished him off.
Mrs Angry decided to help him on his way, offering her view, from the leader's seat, that the fatal mistake they were making was to fail to see the impact on their own electoral well being that all of these issues were having: the failure in planning and enforcement was now having a visible effect on the environment, on the street, and in the parks - affecting ordinary residents, and their own voters. Next year, she predicted, in a Cassandra like voice of doom, and a certain amount of ill concealed glee, they would lose control of the council, and it would be entirely their own fault.
But what could they do, suggested the hapless Tories, wringing their hands. The contract ... dump it, we suggested. Pull out, like they have in Birmingham, and elsewhere.
You were duped, and you know it now, said Mrs Angry, as the two senior officers present looked on in thinly disguised horror.
This is what happens, when you sign a contract, without reading it, isn't it?
The meeting finished then. The Tory councillors looked visibly shaken. They didn't deny it, when predictions of a lost council were aimed at them. The loss of votes in the three Barnet constituencies at the General Election has caused huge panic in the ranks, and they know that there is a range of policies that they have promoted, such as the savage library cuts, or allowed Capita to promote, such as the hijacking of development, that are hugely unpopular with local voters: added to the new popularity of Labour nationally ... well, things don't look good for them, at all. And they know it.
And if we have a new Labour administration in Barnet, next year, it won't be a moment too soon. It's time to wave goodbye to the years of complacency and self interest; the ideological obsession that sees public services as something to be disposed of, rather than supported; the neglect of those who don't live in the best areas of Barnet, whose children don't go to the best schools; whose housing needs are irrelevant, as they are, in the previous words of the Chair of the Housing Committee, not wanted in this borough:
Here is the true face of Tory indifference, in Barnet: affordable housing seen as a token gesture, and social housing as something detestable - but just part of a deeply rooted culture of suspicion of any public sector function, which is why they were so keen to divest themselves of responsibility, and hand over control of services to the private sector.
Public is bad, private is good. Pretend outsourcing saves money, as the pretext for privatisation, then sit back, and leave your contractors to run things, and screw as much money as possible from the residents, and hope they don't rumble what you're up to.
Bad news: they have rumbled what you're up to, Tory councillors - and they don't like it.
Roll on next May.
Monday, 19 June 2017
*Updated Monday & Tuesday- see below:
Watching the coverage this last week of the dreadful fire at Grenfell Tower has been a traumatic experience for everyone, and one that none of us will ever forget. To see such suffering, and be unable to help is frightening: and it has also raised fears in all of us for the safety of our own homes, and communities.
After details of the structural factors which appear to be central to the cause of the speed of acceleration of this fire became public knowledge, it was easy to find evidence that there are buildings in Barnet which may also be at risk.
The names of two of these are already in the public domain: Merit House, in the Hyde, Colindale - and Premier House, in Edgware. Both are alleged to have had cladding installed that is similar to that used at Grenfell. And now it is claimed that at least ten buildings in total in the borough may be at risk.
Labour councillors in Barnet are pressing for an immediate investigation of these concerns, although it seems to me that the issue of risk may be on a potentially almost unquantifiable scale, here and nationally.
Cladding of this type, if not this particular manufacture, has been used very widely throughout the UK: in schools, universities, railway stations and various other public and private buildings. How safe is it? If safe in theory, in terms of materials used, and testing, can we be sure the cladding has been properly installed, in such a way that does not compromise the fire safety standards of the product?
Tory antipathy towards 'red tape' - a view often expressed by Conservative members in Barnet - and fears of 'health & safety gone mad', or any similar process that might have stood in the way of an easier profit, have led to deregulation of measures intended to protect us from harm. Poor performance in planning, building control and enforcement, especially when those services are privatised, as in Barnet, should raise other matters for concern. Do we have sufficiently robust processes to ensure the most stringent standards in safety are being observed?
*Updated: an article in the Guardian has emphasised the dangers posed by the weakening of building control regulation, and the risks of privatisation: see here.
Rydon, the company which delivered the installation of the cladding to Grenfell, is contracted to Barnet Homes, the housing service for Barnet Council, for the provision of 'dementia friendly' housing for older and clearly very vulnerable residents.
Mrs Angry asked Derek Rust, the CEO of Barnet Homes about this via twitter:
No response. Mrs Angry also asked:
No response. No doubt councillors will now make sure all the relevant retrospective safety checks are made - but still, many other questions arise, as a result of what we now know about the Grenfell fire.
*Updated: Barnet Homes have issued the following statement about ten tower blocks they manage, three of which are in Granville Road, Nw2: see here.
The issues raised are both practical, and immediate, in terms of the immediate risk to any residents living in similar circumstances in this borough, but there is also a wider significance, in areas increasingly being identified in the statements and questions of those affected by the fire at Grenfell.
By the end of the week it was clear that the sense of fury amongst the community in this part of West London is one that has been gathering strength for many years. But they speak not just for themselves, but for all those communities in our capital city, and in the rest of the UK, whose needs have been overlooked for so long.
We are now hearing the voices of a generation growing up in a world where disadvantage is accepted as an inevitable part of the natural order of things: fundamental to that order, so that privilege may be retained by a minority, and maintained by a government indifferent to social justice, but committed to the protection of the best interests of themselves, and their class.
And yes, we do have to speak about class.
The old definitions may have broken down, but our society is now polarised between two extremes; two classes - those with control over their lives, and those without.
As David Lammy suggested last week, it really is a 'tale of two cities', here in London now: a city struggling with a fatal division at its heart. A division between those with power, and a voice: and those with neither.
Lack of money, loss of access to law, healthcare and education - and housing - takes away the means to rebalance this polarity: which is exactly why those services are being stripped away. It is a deliberate strategy, born of an ideological obsession that is as fixed in Barnet as it is in Kensington and Chelsea.
Curious, and touching, to hear what one man shouted to the cameras last week, as an example of political indifference, in all the furore about social cleansing, and 'regeneration' and the lack of interest by the local authority in the plight of the poorer inhabitants of one of the richest residential areas in the world:
They shut our libraries, he yelled. Curious, you might think, that he would be so aggrieved by this, rather than anything else. Well: it wasn't this, and nothing else: for him, for all of us, it is symbolic of the whole problem; the wider problem - the ideological assault of the vital services which support the needs of the local community, and the indifference of Tory councillors to those needs, to that community.
It was hard not to be reminded of Barnet, in many ways.
One of these reminders was in the form of a letter, published in the Guardian, from a resident of Kensington & Chelsea, who had received a tax rebate of £100 from the council, a payment made to reward those who had paid in full, with a boast to residents that the Tory authority was successful in 'consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services' ... He returned the money, last week, to the victims of Grenfell Tower.
This was an eerie echo of a similar pre-election gesture by Barnet Tories, not so many years ago, when a tax cut of about 25 pence a week was made to residents, on similar grounds, with similar grandstanding swagger - just before they announced that they were slashing funds for desperately needed respite care for the families of severely disabled children at Mapledown School.
Tory leader Richard Cornelius had excused this appalling cut on the grounds that 'the average person in the street' would think it was 'fair'. Only after a storm of protest, from the vast majority of people who did not think it was 'fair' - and much distress caused to families and carers -was the funding restored.
A shameless preference for rewarding the well off by cutting services to the poor, and vulnerable, is only one similarity between the two Tory run authorities.
Barnet is another borough with, like Kensington and Chelsea, areas of incredible affluence, but also areas of deep social deprivation.
In our case, it is a borough where the libraries are closed on the pretence, pre election, of 'refurbishment' but actually in order to impose a devastating programme of cuts in service.
Where there are good schools and the best access to healthcare in the most affluent areas, and to hell with the rest.
Where more money is spent on the highways budgets of Tory held wards.
Where the western side of the borough has the greatest levels of need, and the highest number of Labour held wards, and a frontline of large scale housing developments which will not provide homes for residents, but force their displacement.
They call it regeneration: we call it social cleansing. Others say it is gerrymandering.
If it was intended as gerrymandering, the plantation of the western, Labour voting side of the borough - it has now been proved to be another ideological and strategic failure: conceived in the feverish fantasies of the neo-Thatcherite, intellectually stunted Tory members, but delivered of an unwanted baby: a new intake of disgruntled, renting young voters, saddled with student loans, unable to afford to get on to the property ladder, and - dear me - voting Labour, estimated at a level of 70%.
The development of West Hendon, Colindale, and Grahame Park, and other areas in the borough, is presented as 'regeneration'.
This word is not a euphemism: it is a lie. It is a lie because it is presented as a regeneration intended to benefit the residents and taxpayers of this borough, whose public assets, in many cases, are being used to subsidise the profits of developers. The benefit is theirs, not ours.
So, yes: we must return to the subject of West Hendon. Where it was revealed, during an Inquiry into the compulsory purchase of 'right to buy' leaseholder flats, that land was given to the developers for only £3 - land worth (some years ago) more than £12 million - a conservative estimate. This blog has featured the story of West Hendon extensively, over the years - and a BBC documentary was filmed on the estate and broadcast last year, see here.
In nearby areas, properties that were formerly a local hospital, a national newspaper archive, a police training centre - all are disappearing and replaced by massive housing developments. Much of the new properties are said to be being bought in cash, off plan, which arguably artificially forces the cost of housing even further beyond the reach of local residents. And explains why so many of these new properties are now being let, rather than providing homes for local families.
Homes for local families, and the need to retain and support local communities is a policy that does not fit with the materialist philosophy of our local politicians. Their own emotional detachment has no use for sentiment, and the idea of social housing is repugnant to them, as a matter of principle.
You may recall that the local Tory housing spokesperson famously stated that the borough did not want the less well off, or those 'dependent' on local services. He wanted the penthouses of West Hendon to be bought by 'Russian oligarchs'.
So much has been written about the faux regeneration of council estates and working class areas: so much about the examples in Broken Barnet. Social cleansing has become an over used phrase, looked on with contempt by Tory politicians, even as they sign off another development that will inevitably have the same consequence: social tenants moved on, and out, 'decanted' elsewhere, anywhere, the human collateral of profit. Those that are allowed to remain do so on the most grudging terms: short term tenancies, no security of tenure, unwelcome, and unwanted. So, an over used phrase, but an active strategy, and true, all the same.
Where do those who have been displaced go?
In many developments, protections for residents, and guarantees of rehousing are rewritten, over the course of planning and then construction. What started as a 'refurbishment' of West Hendon, for the benefit of social tenants and leaseholders, mutated into something else: something much more acceptable to the ideology of the Tory council: a private development.
Some residents had long term tenancies, and were grudgingly given accommodation in a grim looking block outside of the footprint of the luxury development, out of sight of the beautiful waterside, the families given instead a view of the back yards of respray garages on the Edgware Road.
The even less fortunate residents, some of whom had lived there for ten years or more, were kept on short term tenancies, so as to limit the legal obligations that the authority had to rehouse them. One offer of accommodation refused and you had made yourself homeless. Many faced the grim prospect of eviction, and a move, like this mother in the BBC documentary, into squalid alternative temporary accommodation, rat infested, out of borough, away from family, facing a very bleak future.
In the case of Grenfell, residents were stuffed into a 21 storey tower, with apparently no regard for adequate fire safety measures. The authority's prior concern, it is alleged, is that the ugly, brutalist structure should be tarted up, so as to make it less obviously what it was: a containment of the poor, in an area of privilege, where reminders of poverty and social injustice are an unwarranted distraction - and a threat to property values. A monolith of social injustice: now a monument to folly, and despair.
The sight of the smoking wreck of Grenfell Tower, and footage of firefighters silhouetted in the emergency lighting of that terrible night, desperately trying to deal with an apocalyptic conflagration, aiming hoses that could not reach the height of the flames, could not help but remind me of my father, who was a volunteer fire fighter throughout the worst of the Blitz, spending night after night, struggling to save buildings in the city of London from destruction. They were fighting an enemy, in a time of war. Who is the enemy, now? Who is responsible for the deaths at Grenfell Tower?
The casualties of the Blitz were so many, and the risk of staying put so high that many thousands of residents fled London, a phenomenon unreported at the time by a press working under regulations that put the preservation of morale before the acknowledgment of truth. Now we see accusations, whether accurate or not, but fed from a failure in communication, of a similar management of truth, in regard to the level of deaths at Grenfell. Whose truth are we managing, now?
The preservation of morale was also the pretext for silence over another wartime loss of life: - the bombing of West Hendon, in 1941.
Thousands of homes were destroyed, and around seventy five people died that night: comparable to the number known to have lost their lives at Grenfell - although the final figure will be be higher, and like in the case of West Hendon, an absolute total may never be known.
After the war time devastation, of course, families were rehoused, the community revived and a Labour government was elected which rebuilt the country, and created all those foundations now being tunnelled into and undermined by successive Tory governments: a welfare state, the NHS, social housing, like the estate at West Hendon now being destroyed.
Seventy five years after the war time bombing, while residents packed their bags, and waited to be evicted from their homes, a memorial service was held to commemorate the victims of that night in 1941, attended by some who remember the event, and some who suffered the loss of family members, all these years ago.
This service took place below the newly constructed 31 storey tower block that has been built on part of the former council estate. Work carried on as we stood there, regardless of the ceremony. Round the corner, beyond the private development, and out of sight of the waterfront, was Bullfinch House, where the few secure tenants had been grudgingly rehoused, while their less fortunate neighbours were evicted.
No cladding, on the new high rise, private tower block in West Hendon - as far as we know, at the moment - but still clearly a building at risk, in the event of a major fire.
The fire safety arrangements for the residents of the new building are unknown: is there a sprinkler system? What sort of emergency escape, and guidance? How would firefighters reach the upper storeys? We don't know.
Privilege cannot always buy you peace of mind, or protection from harm. Time to ask some questions of Barratt London, and Metropolitan Housing, and Barnet Council, and Capita, one would think.
The state of planning, and enforcement, in Barnet - a privatised service - has reached a point where nothing that we previously took for granted can still be assured. The priority is now tipped in favour of development: and not for housing for the benefit of our local communities, but in order to facilitate the profits of private enterprise.
Blocks of flats are being flung up all over the borough, with little consideration of the real needs of residents. And social housing is seen not as an answer to a problem, but as the problem itself, or at best, only as an opportunity for yet more development.
All of this is taking place against the groundswell of a movement, a change in the tide: the anger that has been suppressed for so long amongst the dispossessed people of this city, this nation, is finding its voice.
The election campaign, and the huge surge in popularity for Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, saw masses gathering in a way that is part of that change: people looking for hope for a better future, and justice. The danger, now, is that if that voice is silenced once more, and people feel that they have no hope, the frustration will cause unrest, and an ugly change in mood.
The extent of disengagement that was displayed by the Prime Minister, too fearful to meet survivors in the aftermath of the fire, perfectly articulated the culture of contemporary Conservatism: a set of values that is sustained by a lack of empathy for the experience of others. It is written into their manifestos, their policies, and is the mark of their administrations in government.
And the extent of welcome given to Corbyn wherever he goes now is the measure of need that people have for something different, something better, kinder, more human, from their politicians.
The emotions unleashed by recent events must be directed into political action now: the alternative is too frightening to contemplate.
Listening to the anger so vividly expressed by residents of West London on news channels this week made one thing very clear. Their fury was not just about the fire, or regeneration, or social cleansing, but about something more profound: the sense of displacement within society, and their intention, now, to tolerate no more. Now is the time for change, and the realignment of government with the best interests of ordinary citizens, and not the privileged few whose grasp on power is now so much more tenuous than it was a few months ago.
There are tumultuous times ahead, and life is never going to be the same again.
It's been a long time coming.
Tuesday, 13 June 2017
For some time now, the museum in Chipping Barnet, surviving against all the odds, in spite of the concerted efforts by the local council to close it, has tried to interest the same Tory council in supporting a project that would look for archaeological evidence for the Battle of Barnet.
This is of course an investigation of huge significance, nationally, and locally, regarding as it does an event of such pivotal importance in our history: and with the potential to identify the only battlefield site within the greater London area.
The only response to this proposal, initially, was for our culture averse Tory authority to try to prise the museum from its property - a lovely Georgian house - and flog it off to the highest bidder, as they had hoped to do with the museum in Hendon.
Ransack it, and sell it, as they had done in Hendon - the irreplaceable local history collection shoved in boxes, and sold at auction. Of no value, said the Tory leader, Richard Cornelius, with a shrug. Of no material value, which is the only scale of measurement Barnet Tories adopt (in fact it did raise a lot of money). Here in essence, is the history of Broken Barnet and the present combined: our borough seen as no more than territory fought over by the forces of Capita-lism, our heritage, like everything else the spoils of war, and of no consideration to our elected representatives.
History, in Broken Barnet, is a dangerous thing, to be contained, and disposed of . The history of rebellion, of course, is even more of a risk, and must be suppressed.
Barnet council, and Capita, failed to find the deeds of the museum property, and were unsuccessful in getting their sweaty little hands on it.
The volunteers who run it clung on: managed to find funding for the archaeological survey, & applied to extend the museum: plans at first blocked by Tory councillors, now underway, reluctantly, only after it became clear the building was never going to revert to the authority. And because it is located in what was, once upon a time, the Tory stronghold of Chipping Barnet.
This Sunday saw a medieval festival held to welcome residents, and show them some of the fascinating artefacts uncovered by excavation of areas now believed to have seen the fighting in 1471: around Kitts End settlement, and in part of Wrotham Park.
In the grounds of the museum, people were watching a re-enactment of fighting between medieval combatants, clad in armour. Families sat on the grass, enjoying the spectacle. Oh, and there, in a VIP area, surrounded by a group of people pretending to be serfs, and safely behind a nominal border of string, stood the Tory mayor, Brian Salinger, adorned by his chain of office, and clearly relishing the role for which, in the view of all local Tory councillors, marks the utmost height of their brilliant careers.
Tory Mayor Brian Salinger, surrounded by serfs
Except that the Mayor wasn't quite his usual, ebullient self. Could barely raise a jibe at Mrs Angry's impertinence, in ignoring the barrier of string, and slipping in to take his photo. Stood talking in subdued manner to his companions, in very low spirits. And ... some one was missing: where was Theresa Villiers, the local Tory MP, who usually graces these events with her patronage?
Perhaps she had other things on her mind.
Such as the three hundred votes that had only just secured her re-election, on Thursday - and the dire warning given to her, and her two parliamentary colleagues, that she, and they, are now poised to lose their seats, as the serfs, here in Broken Barnet, are rising up against their overlords, and life, for our local Tory politicians, is never going to be the same again.
Putting on a brave face: Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers, with Mayor Brian Salinger Pic courtesy BBC
It was clear that something was in the air, on Thursday, when arriving at the polling station.
You could almost smell it, and see it - the scent of blue tinged fear.
The signs were there, too, even on the walk up the road: quite literally, the usual massive sign in the front garden of a Tory activist who lives next door to the church hall where we vote had been rather cheekily decorated with a Vote Labour sticker, and no one had bothered to remove it.
Good Morning, trilled the vicar, with a practised smile, standing at the door of the church hall, like a celestial bouncer: or perhaps, as if to annex the process of democracy and stamp it with parochial authority, and a nudge in the direction of the Conservative party, whose policies, he had assured Mrs Angry last time, when acting as a teller outside, were not, as suggested, utterly in conflict with the Christian values he represents.
Two ancient old women, Tory tellers, sat inside the entrance, against the rules, perched on deckchairs, oblivious to passing voters, and chatted away, as if on a day trip to the seaside.
Inside the hall, we were the only voters, even though it was lunchtime. This was good news: in this area of Finchley, such a low attendance suggested that Tory voters were staying at home, sulking over the dementia tax, or worried about Brexit.
As we left, the Tory teller ladies didn't even bother to take our numbers.
Outside the hall, Mrs Angry's Tory activist radar picked up an alert: yes, look - smug young man with slicked back hair, a permatan, and crisply ironed shirt, looking at his clipboard with a grim expression. He gave Mrs Angry a baleful look, and said Good Morning, with the air of someone who was eyeing her up suspiciously, in desperate search of a voter to canvass. Mrs Angry's spoilsport son, recognising the dangerous look on his mother's face, whisked her away before she launched any counter assault.
Later on that morning Mrs Angry made the trip up to North Finchley, to inspect the polling station at the the local library, still closed, along with most branches, while the Tory council rips it apart, removes the children's library, halves the staff, culls the stock, and study space, and installs DIY robot library technology.
A couple of weeks ago, towards the end of purdah, a banner appeared outside this library, and the library in East Finchley, proclaiming the good news that the library would re-open later this summer, and informing the public that the closure was due ... to 'refurbishment'.
Of course anyone who knows what is happening to our libraries knows that the closures are in fact due to the work that will impose a savage programme of cuts in service.
Anyone who knows what is happening therefore, might reasonably conclude that the claim of 'refurbishment' is simply not true, and intended to deceive those who ... do not know what is happening. And during an election period.
Worse still, one of these banners was displayed prominently, centrally, right outside the entrance to a polling station - and yes - here we are, on the day itself, still in place, right next to the main election sign.
Mrs Angry took a photograph. On approaching the entrance, in search of the Presiding Officer, two Tory matrons sitting outside asked, laughing, why she was taking a photograph. She explained that it was evidence of what she considered to be a breach of purdah, and the regulations regarding polling stations, and a deliberate attempt to deceive voters about the assault on our library service, as promoted by their party. They made faces, and muttered.
The Exit Poll team outside looked on, bemused: afterwards explaining this was one of 140 or so sites around the UK, chosen as key indicators of the outcome. Good choice, and one suggesting that the Yougov poll, that had predicted Finchley & Golders Green was likely to be taken by Labour, was not wide off the mark, after all.
Inside the library, the voting was being held in the two rooms which formerly comprised the children's library, now closed by Tory councillors, with the approval of all local Tory MPs.
The lovely oak framed bow windows have now been obscured, and the rooms emptied, supposedly for use as income generating office areas: except we know from FOI requests that there are no tenants for any of the library spaces. The libraries, like the council itself, have been hollowed out, and surrendered to the private sector on the pretext of saving money, with no prospect of achieving that outcome.
Is it allowed, to display political material, at a polling station, Mrs Angry asked the Presiding Officer?
No, it isn't, was the reply.
Why have you allowed that banner to remain next to the polling station sign, then? It is politically motivated, misleading, should not have appeared during purdah, and most certainly should not be allowed on election day. He did not know. He would pass on the complaint.
A complaint had already been made, to the council's Chief Executive. He claimed - eventually - that the banners were 'factually accurate', and had only been used in order to comply with the council's duty to inform the public. This is of course nonsense, as 'refurbishment' is not the reason for closure, and if there was a duty to inform the public, that duty did not suddenly emerge in purdah, a couple of weeks before the election, when Tory candidates were hearing protests about the cuts from residents at local hustings, but at the time of the library closures, months ago.
But still: it was only right and fitting that a library stolen by a Tory council from the children of Finchley should be used, first of all, as a venue for their parents' right to engage with the process of democracy, and to exercise their vote.
What could be more appropriate? Or rather, more ironic.
Here in Margaret Thatcher's home territory, her Conservative heirs have betrayed the pact she made with her electorate, to offer them what she saw as the means to a better life: not just through property ownership, now out of reach of any young resident in this constituency, but in terms of education, and access to public libraries, a service she robustly defended in her career, remembering and honouring the part it had played in her own early life.
The people of Finchley, voting in the former children's library, and elsewhere, used their opportunity, last Thursday, to express their views on the policies of another Tory government, policies endorsed with absolute loyalty - and much enthusiasm - by local Tory councillors, as well as the sitting MPs.
And what a result: or set of results - an absolute trouncing, short of a final win, but a moral victory: all three MPs only retaining their seats - for the time being - by the skin of their vulpine teeth. Theresa Villiers, in Chipping, clinging on with only around 300 votes, Freer in Finchley and Golders Green, by a margin of 1500 or so, and Offord in Hendon by roughly a thousand votes.
That they now face the loss of their seats, should there be another election anytime soon, is a very real possibility.
That too many people, on both sides of the political spectrum, failed to see this coming, is quite astonishing.
Yes: Mrs Angry has got so far in this post without resorting to I Told You So, but - she did. Tell you so. And you too, the Labour party in Barnet: please excuse me - Told you so.
The portents have pointed this way for some time.
At the last election, in 2015, as usual, Labour resources were thrown at Hendon, in the hope that this would achieve a win for Andrew Dismore, who had previously lost the constituency to Offord by a narrow margin. In fact, Offord won easily. As Mrs Angry pointed out, at the count, a view not universally welcomed at the time, not canvassing in Chipping had been a tactical error, judging by the fact that even without any support, the young & inexperienced, left leaning candidate Amy Trevethan, had won an incredible 18,000 votes against the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
A tactical error, because as Mrs Angry had also predicted, to disbelief, or rather, to deaf ears, in the previous local elections, wards in Chipping were taken by Labour, as the former Tory stronghold began to wake from its state of bondage, and prove that complacency by both parties was misconceived. Chipping is now one of the most marginal constituencies - as indeed are, slightly lower down the list, Hendon and Finchley.
Hendon: well. What can you say, about Matthew Offord, that has not already been said? Apart from the contribution to his own downfall that he managed in his distance from the so many sections of his own electorate, and the much publicised treatment of a now deceased constituent, and his widow, the changing demographics of the constituency played an important role in his loss of votes.
Matthew Offord pic courtesy Mirror
The Tory plan to develop their way to electoral success in Hendon was - rather to everyone's surprise - undone by the fact that most of the new housing is rented by a younger generation unable to buy: who came out to vote, returning around 70% support for Labour, rather than the Tory voters that our Tory friends thought would cooperate in the plantation of Grahame Park, Colindale and West Hendon.
The failure of Offord himself to consolidate his own position with his local party, (it is rumoured that deputy leader Daniel Thomas nearly won the nomination from Hendon Tories) or to endear himself to voters, by engaging with them in any effective way, sealed his fate. He won't survive another election, as things stand now.
Finchley and Golders Green? Sarah Sackman fought an impressive campaign in 2015, and had Freer's team very worried. This time round, complacency by Tory activists soon gave way to panic, with good reason. Again, changing demographics, with a more transient population, a young renting electorate, and the fear of older Tories over dementia tax, not to mention the Remain voters who felt betrayed by their MP's flipflopping approach to Brexit - all of this contributed to his relegation to marginal status. Goodbye, Mr Freer, next time round.
Waiting in the wings: Jeremy Newmark, poised to beat Freer at the next election - pic Barnet Press
Chipping also has had demographic changes, but also has always held untapped potential Labour votes that have been ignored. This constituency has also seen a rapid decrease in the strength of the local Conservative association - and the sad loss of some of its more active members, like the now disgraced former Totteridge and London Assembly member Brian Coleman.
But of course the other factors here are firstly the brilliant choice of candidates by Labour, with three outstanding representatives - Jeremy Newmark, Mike Katz, and Emma Whysall: all highly intelligent, articulate people, well chosen for their respective constituencies.
And they had the sense to pick up on local issues which really matter to voters - issues which Mrs Angry has, in vain, tried to persuade Labour councillors to get a real grip on, that is to say the state of local NHS services: the dire state of waiting lists in this area - and the scandalous waste of Finchley Memorial Hospital - and, oh yes: the library cuts, a programme that by unfortunate timing for the Tories, was at the most evident stage of development when the election was called, but will continue to lose them votes when the newly emasculated libraries re-open.
The fury felt by many Tory voters, at seeing the doors of their local library firmly closed, and having seen half the library staff in April lose their jobs, has and will continue to illustrate the most direct representation of Tory cuts in action, in a way that their own voters can understand.
The Labour candidates understood the political implications of these things and very effectively held the Tory MPs to account for their failure to put the interests of constituents first, and worse still, to back government and local council policy always, rather than address the local impact on the people of Barnet, Hendon, and Finchley & Golders Green.
Oh. And then there is the other thing, of course. Which no one wanted to talk about, in Broken Barnet Labour circles. The love that dare not speak its name. Yes: Jeremy Corbyn.
As explained so many times before, voting for Corbyn as leader, for Mrs Angry, was absolutely the only choice, the only way of realigning the party: dragging it away from the dominance of a hopelessly detached, fatally centrist, London focused, election losing agenda, and bringing it back to the founding principles of the Labour movement.
At the last two party conferences, as reported here, and here, it was impossible not to feel increasingly isolated in this view, not so much within the wider representation of the party, and the new membership, as amongst the local Labour party, many of whom maintained Corbyn was unelectable, and that only a tedious manifesto of compromise and Tory-lite policies would win over the immoveable prejudices of the average voter. Well, there you go. Wrong. Corbyn's manifesto, manifestly, was a brilliant one, and at last offered a real alternative to the usual pap - and offered hope of something better, within grasp.
Despite the massive increase in membership since his election as leader, Labour locally has been slow to recognise the shift in political tone from the centre to the left, and local Tories had clearly expected that he would be the kiss of death, in the Barnet constituencies, for the hopes of all three Labour candidates. He wasn't. The choice of Jeremy Newmark, and Mike Katz, in Finchley & Golders Green, and Hendon, helped - their staunch advocacy within the Jewish community reassuring to many electors understandably with reservations after the inept handling of the antisemitism issue. But Corbyn's national popularity was also reflected within the three Barnet constituencies, and unquestionably was the factor that brought all three to the brink of a truly astonishing Labour victory.
Could there have been three Labour MPs returned? Of course. And some of the blame must be taken by the party organisers. Tactical mistakes have been made by Labour in Barnet, based on the usual failure to step outside their frame of thought, and the same magic circle of leadership, and to approach campaigning in a more dynamic, and more effective way.
In this campaign, Mrs Angry received messages from new members volunteering to help canvass in Barnet constituencies, cross to find they were being asked instead to campaign in other constituencies, such as Enfield, and Hampstead. Another issue is a more technical one: a decision was made not to use tellers at polling stations, or technology that assesses turnout, and directs last minute, targeted door knocking to get out the vote. Whether this was the result of the short notice for the election, or a lack of will within the party's organisation is unknown - but next time one would hope for a better use of resources.
Some crucial votes were lost - wasted - on other parties, as is always the way in Broken Barnet. Green votes were down from last time, partly due, one suspects, to the choice of new candidates, but local Libdems helped split the opposition vote, as usual. The much vaunted Libdem revival did not appear, but the distraction in key areas was enough to help return another Tory candidate.
Next time will be different. This election's results has proved that the people of all three Barnet constituencies are no longer satisfied with the performance of their Tory MPs.
Election night 2015
Offord, Villiers and Freer have taken their electorate for granted, and failed them.
Beyond a small circle of activists, there is no local, personal loyalty for them within their own communities - and the breakdown in relationship between them and their constituents is entirely their own doing.
If they had any sense, they would take the risk of putting local issues before the promotion of their own political careers, take on their own former colleagues in Barnet Council, and stop hiding in their constituency offices, or behind the parliamentary aides who do their constituency work, get out, enter into open debate, consider the issues affecting ordinary families, and those struggling to survive, and try to understand their needs. But they won't. They are incapable of it.
There are local elections here, next year. Whatever the chances of another general election, the impact of this June's results will continue to reverberate, and when the council vote comes along, will be remembered by a newly empowered electorate, freed from the restriction of thinking the Tory grip on power is unshakeable.
In all conflicts, of course, the ultimate threat is not just outside the walls with your enemies, but within the fortress itself. Factionalism plays as large a part in war as anything else: another significant part of the forgotten history of Broken Barnet, so lovingly chronicled in these archives.
So before we forget, let's look at the words of one Barnet Tory: Tory councillor Gabriel Rozenberg - son of Melanie Phillips - whose outburst on twitter, post election, is a most telling indictment of his own party's failings: a few examples -
Gabriel Rozenberg @rozgab Jun 11
After an election, time to speak up. Of the past 6 elections, my party has won 1.We cannot win from the hard right. It’s an illusion.
If we revert to agenda that ignores young ppl, offers little on housing, talks of ‘citizens of nowhere’… we’ll lose the next election, too.
Brexit, being an almighty disaster, is our country’s #1 challenge to get fixed. Yet it is not actually the VOTERS’ top priority at all.
Voters want rising wages, job security, affordable homes, safe borders… and predictable government. Brexit delivers none of that.
In Barnet, as elsewhere, the Tory party is in disarray: there is a fatal fault line over Brexit, and so many other issues. Lack of coherence in policy, and any awareness of the mood of the electorate, has led to the disintegration of the party, with voters and members confused as to what the party stands for, and failing to see how the Tory government, or the local council, is working to their benefit.
Theresa May was an inept minister, and is an incompetent Prime Minister. Her weakness is the same weakness that will ultimately be the downfall of so many Tory politicians: a lack of emotional intelligence, and failure to read or understand the feelings of others.
Rejection, whether in love, or politics, is for most of us, a painful experience, but one that teaches a lesson: for politicians like these, it is no more than a moment of confusion: something they cannot have predicted, and an outcome from which they will learn nothing.
Mrs Angry's predictions, on the other hand, have proved to be pretty reliable, and here is another: if there is another election soon, the same candidates will stand again, in Broken Barnet, despite the evidence of their rising unpopularity - and the Tory party will lose all three seats: the local council will also change hands, next year, from the Tories, to Labour.
Let battle commence.